Friday, September 23, 2011


The summer season of making jam is pretty much over - although I'm still knee-deep in pickles and tomatoes. The more batches of jam I made in the past few months, the more times the word "jamming" (oh, let's be properly ΓΌber-cool and call it "jammin'") popped into my consciousness. So when a word or idea won't go away, it's telling me to write about it. FINE. I'LL DO IT. NEVER MIND THAT I NEED TO MAKE MORE PICKLES.

You know what jammin' means in music: A bunch of people who don't necessarily play together on a regular basis bring their chosen instruments and their knowledge of/experience with music to an improv session. They use the tools of their trade to turn the unknown and unexpected into something beautiful that brings joy and wonder to their listeners and to themselves. Sometimes the results are transcendent, and nobody quite knows what happened - they're just glad it did.

Not so very different jammin' in the kitchen. You need some essential equipment and basic knowledge, along with the commitment to practice your skills and the willingness to make mistakes. Then you take off on a riff that builds on what's already been done. Not enough blueberries for this batch? What about adding the white peaches you bought this morning? Wait, you harvested the last of the early summer strawberries - those go great with blueberries. Would a touch of cinnamon make the combination sparkle? What the heck; try something new and add a little lavender instead!

Sometimes everything comes together like magic; other times, not so much. The more you do it, the better your instinct gets for what works, what you need to do by the book, what you can go wild with.

So here's the thing my brain was trying to tell me: Jammin' is living. Jammin' is relationships. Be a student of life. Study the theory and put it into practice. Gather your tools, skills, experience, passion for living, and take off on a riff that builds on what your companions have done. Take chances but don't make the mistake of thinking you can do this all alone. You make beauty by listening and responding to the music of the other players. Don't fear the new, and don't throw away the old. It all has value. Stop trying to predict and plan exactly what will happen next. Let the music tell you where you need to go. And - play, play, PLAY.

Time to get back to those pickles.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Triangulation works better in trigonometry class

People love to gossip (heck, it's possible that all primates or even all mammals like to gossip). It's fun to feel that you're in on a secret. Gossip can be socially advantageous. You can elevate your status in your circle of friends, family and rivals by passing on scuttlebutt that others don't know. If you're cautious, gossip can help you find out who your allies and your enemies are. You can use that information to get a promotion at work, or drop a toxic "friend," or find a significant other. But you can also seriously trash your close relationships, and end up feeling as if you're caught in a very large and sticky spiderweb.

In the social sphere, triangulation is a cousin of gossip, but is usually less casually engaged in, because (other than in the workplace) we almost always triangulate amongst good friends or family members - people we care about. Say you have an issue with your partner ("Person A"). If you're prone to triangulating, instead of sitting down with Person A and dealing with the issue face to face, you tell your troubles to Person B, who knows both you and Person A.  Person B now has the choice of validating you by siding with you in your conflict with Person A, trying to stay neutral (good luck with that, Person B!), or risking her or his relationship with you by telling you that s/he doesn't want to get pulled into what is essentially none of her/his business (this third scenario almost NEVER happens, in case you hadn't guessed).  

Modern technology - Facebook and texting and tweeting and the mobile electronic devices we keep flesh-welded to our hands - make triangulation and its fallout much worse. Who can resist immediately gratifying the temptation to vent frustration without a moment's forethought by posting something snarky on FB for all the world to see? Or calling your BFF to bitch about how Person A didn't do such-and-such, or how Person A's friend, Person X, dissed you by defending Person A's actions, and so forth. It can be emotionally satisfying to tell others how misused and misunderstood you feel, especially when those whom you tell, though they can't do anything whatsoever to repair the situation, will sympathize with you and help cast you in the role of the poor little wronged victim.

1) You are not a poor little wronged victim; you are an adult. Unless you are  being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, running to a third party who knows you and the other party so you can get your side of the story told first and get a big hug is a childish response, not suited to adult relationships.

2) If Person A, with whom you have the issue, finds out from someone else that you have gone to Person B with this private matter, you have now damaged your trust with Person A, which makes it even more challenging to resolve the original issue between you.

3) Once you experience the ease of dumping your issues on someone who likely will be sympathetic to you without raising any uncomfortable questions, rather than directly facing the person with whom you have a conflict, it becomes that much more tempting to avoid doing the more difficult thing, which is to confront the issue with the person who could actually help resolve it. Triangulation can become an ingrained habit. That's good fodder for sitcom scripts, but not for engaging in thriving relationships.

4) Triangulation tends to self-propagate and go viral. Person B, to whom you first complained about Person A, goes to her friend, Person C, to complain about your inability to solve your own problems, or her inability to figure out how to help you. You all know each other, and it's all too easy to start constructing a drama and NOT talk face to face with the people involved. Then you've got a colossal entanglement, and after a while it's a wonder your heads don't explode from guessing what everyone else is thinking/feeling. You really could use your energy for more productive (and more pleasant) activities.

You're in a fine mess now, aren't you? What to do?

First, start reframing your relationship struggles as private matters. It's hard to realize, in this tell-all culture, that you really don't have to share everything with everybody, all the time. If you need a hug from a friend, just ask for a hug. You don't owe her a play-by-play in order to get some friendly comfort. 

Conversely, avoiding triangulation doesn't mean you can't talk to ANYBODY about your problems - even a friend or your mom. But before you start blabbing things that can't be taken back, go through two processes: first, make sure you know what your own motivation is for revealing your troubles - do you want comfort for your pain, advice about where to go from here, compassion because you acted like an idiot and can't face saying you're sorry yet, or validation that it's all the other person's fault and no one understands you? If you're looking for an excuse to blame someone else, or an excuse not to examine your own behavior, then it's best not to take that very wiggly can of worms to a close friend or relative. That's why God made therapists and unbiased third parties. 

The second thing you need to do, IF you decide to take your problems to Person B, with whom you are close, is to be honest with Person B about your motivations. You have to be able to express what you need from them, and you have to be able to ask if they can be "on your side" without siding against Person A. You also need be able to trust in their honest response about whether they can do that, since not six people in a thousand are capable of that level of impartiality. Make sure you've asked the right person to listen to you.

And when you ARE ready to address your conflict with Person A - and sooner is better than later - for heaven's sake, don't try to do it with texts and emails, or even with phone calls (though phone calls will do if you have no choice because of geographical distance). About ninety-seven per cent of human communication is non-verbal, through body language, facial expression, vocal inflection and other cues. Don't cheat yourself of the opportunity to understand what's going on BENEATH the words, because that's where you'll find a place to heal the hurts, mend fences and understand one another a little better. Underneath the words is where you find love.

Leave triangulation to trigonometry, where it's actually a useful tool.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The hardest question of all

Few couples who are in a good, committed relationship, who are seriously contemplating marriage or who are in the midst of planning a wedding ever consider the possibility of facing a problem in their relationship that they can't resolve. Even fewer couples ever TALK about that possibility. When it's good, it's good. Commitments, and especially weddings, are in service to romance, to promises of spending the rest of your lives together, to feeling as if together you can tackle anything. And I happen to believe you can...I just don't believe it happens magically or naturally. 

Building a marital partnership (whether or not you are legally married) which is, to use one couple's description, sustainable - one which will endure all the tests and all the changes that life brings - takes hard work and endless practice. The love that makes us want to marry, as wonderful as it feels, is not in itself sufficient. A sustainable partnership requires a level of authenticity, honesty, persistence, self-reflection and vulnerability which most of us have little experience with and have absolutely no desire to cultivate. It's too hard and too risky, because (and don't you know this already, on some level?) you can't wait for your partner to be the first to start. It's up to YOU to be "transparent" in your marital relationship, and to continually work towards creating an environment in which your partner can do the same.

It's natural always to want to bring the best of yourself to your partner, and a strong relationship will make your "best" even better. BUT - paradoxically, the only way to be that "best" is to allow yourself to share your self-judgments about your "worst" with your mate. So here's the hardest question of all about your marital relationship: Are you willing and able to share the "worst" and "weakest" of yourself with your partner?  Can you bring your shame, doubts and fears and lay them before your spouse, without expecting her or him to fix them, but trusting that she or he will see you compassionately and support you lovingly? Before you answer that tough question, take a look at some specific examples of the kind of thing you might someday have to be willing to say to your mate. Could you say, for instance:
  • "I think I'm addicted to gambling (or pornography, or alcohol), and I need help. I don't know what to do."
  • "I've been having suicidal thoughts, and I think I may be clinically depressed. I'm scared."
  • "I've done something I'm deeply ashamed of and I'm afraid that if I tell you about it, you won't love me any more."
  • "This job I've taken to support the lifestyle I thought we wanted is killing me. I feel like I have to make changes but I don't want to disappoint your expectations."
If your answer is, "Yes, I could say that," congratulations on building a powerful foundation for a lasting marriage. But if you can't imagine ever revealing any of these things to the person you believe you want to spend the rest of your days with, I urge you to reexamine the reasons you think you want to commit a lifetime to this relationship. If you aren't yet married, don't get married until you are ready to confront this issue. If you are already married, it's never too late to begin this exploration. 

If you cannot share with your spouse or life partner what you consider to be the least of yourself, you'll be condemned to a life of wearing masks, in the one relationship above all where you should feel free to be ALL of who you really are. Unmask yourself with your partner. Get help doing it if you feel it's too difficult to tackle on your own. You will never be sorry you did, and your relationship can be forever stronger, fuller, more joyful and more interesting because of your efforts.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


In the wee hours of this morning there was a total lunar eclipse, the moon smudged by the earth's shadow to a faint charcoal blot in the sky. This afternoon the winter solstice occurred, heralding the longest night of the year. The day was a double whammy of darkness. Though the eclipse was a lovely distraction from a sunset at 4-something p.m., many of us quickly returned to waiting, with varying degrees of patience and strength of mood swings, for precious daylight to show up earlier and linger longer once again.

We humans are diurnal creatures, evolved to go about our business in the daylight. Our circadian rhythms respond to an increase in the duration and intensity of natural light by making us more energetic and happier. Darkness makes us inclined to eat more (back AWAY from the bathroom scale and no one will get hurt!), sleep more, be less active, and generally get a bit unbalanced, sometimes just plain weird. The return of daylight hours is an important milestone for every human in the circular pattern of every year. And that's why virtually every culture and tradition has some kind of celebration marking the return of the light. Often those celebrations of a primal relationship with our world are embellished with an overlay of religious myth -  for instance, Jesus, in the Christian tradition, is called the "Light of the World" and is said to have been born in the dark of the year, even though there is no historical evidence whatsoever that his birth took place in December - coincidentally close to the solstice, too. Even Groundhog Day on February 2nd is a secular holiday celebrating the coming sun and the imminent end of winter. The fun superstition of Groundhog Day was overlaid on the Catholic holy day of Candlemas, which in its turn was overlaid on an ancient celebration of the goddess figure Brigid, bringer of fire, knowledge, medicine and writing to the Celtic people (note that all those gifts are forms of light or "enlightenment").

Whatever your belief system, take the time to acknowledge that we are creatures of light, our shadow side notwithstanding, and revel in the few minutes of additional daylight we begin receiving each day after today. Greet the day as you would greet a good friend - notice its new clothes and tell it how nice it looks. It will hang around you for the pure pleasure of the relationship between light and that which it illuminates...and you will be the better for it.

Happy Return of the Light!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Happy Holidays: Rituals of an Overcompensator

A Facebook friend recently posted a comment that she didn't understand people who get stressed out about holiday rituals like sending cards, putting up decorations, baking cookies and so forth. Her assessment was that, since nobody is making you do these things, why do them if you don't enjoy them? Simple, yes?

Lucky you, if you are as clearly well-adjusted as she and do not comprehend the workings of the mind of an obsessive neurotic. But if you have nothing else to do for the next few minutes, sit at my feet, Grasshopper, and I will attempt to enlighten you. Perhaps this mini-education will allow you to generate some compassion for us poor, screwed-up perfectionists who get twisted into knots during the holidays and never seem to figure out how to untie ourselves.

This holiday season, I'm trying to talk myself out of sending the usual holiday letter and cards, and it's no mean feat. It's wrenching: it actually HURTS to think of skipping this ritual. It almost hurts more than trying to figure out how I could possibly carve out time to do it. Part of the problem is that I do love doing all the things which, to me, symbolize the essence of the holidays, and set this time apart from all the rest of the year. Writing a pensive holiday letter, sending cards, baking, putting up sparkling lights or decorations - all that feels meaningful, like a gift to myself and an expression of love to others. Unfortunately, constraints on time and energy often turn my feelings about beloved holiday traditions into something more like a love-hate relationship. And then there's the endless downward spiral of feeling bad about feeling bad, at the time of year when you're supposed to be filled with happiness and good cheer. Oh, I can take the dance of holiday dysfunction as far as your imagination reaches, and farther!

Plus I'm overcompensating for all the things my family didn't do at Christmas when I was growing up. We never had a "regular" Christmas tree; we decorated a huge philodendron that my paternal grandfather had planted and which presided over an entire corner of our living room. Kinda cool for an adult, maybe, but in a child's eyes it wasn't the way Christmas was "supposed" to be. Now we have a regular, real, u-cut Christmas tree every year. When I was a kid, we didn't always get cards out, and after my early childhood, my mother never seemed to get around to baking. So I have a real sense of urgency about doing those things. It seems therapeutic - when it's not killing me because I don't have the energy for all this stuff AND the Normal Obligations of Everyday Life.

This season, in an attempt to make sure I reach a reasonably healthy old age, I've adopted a new "yoga," a practice of letting go of just a couple of problematic to-do list items at a time. I may still struggle to find opportunities to bake and still get stressed about putting up all my Christmas tchotchkes, but I'm resolutely passing up the boxes of Christmas cards, taking a deep breath as we receive cards from friends and family, and will perhaps capitulate to sending an e-card at the last minute. I'm skipping most of the shopping, which I truly DO hate, and either contributing to charities on behalf of my loved ones, or scheduling some fun thing to do with friends and family who are local, rather than giving them unneeded stuff.

My Holiday Yoga practice includes gently returning to my basic worldview: that humans are uniquely suited to making meaning, and that that is our number one job in the world. If we are well-suited to making meaning, then we are equally well-suited to re-making meaning as necessary. If I understand the reasons why certain rituals feel significant, I can re-tool those rituals or adopt new ones that will still satisfy the drive to create meaning out of apparent randomness. AND I can live a longer, more contented life.

Finally, in the interests of gaining perspective on the priorities of others which we may not understand, let me point out a common, non-holiday-related obsession, mostly but not exclusively engaged in by women. Personally, I never have trouble suppressing a desire to run the vacuum cleaner, but I know people who will get up and vacuum the house at six in the morning. Repeatedly. Often. Happily. Since the task of vacuuming involves sweat and noise, and excludes sparkly decorations, twinkly lights or cookies, THAT particular fixation is totally beyond my comprehension. It all depends on your sense of what matters, doesn't it?

I wish you a holiday season filled with warmth, peace, joy, love and sparkles. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

"Bone Country" and rituals of place

As we celebrate a season of thanksgiving and abundance, many of us engage in rituals that center on relationship with family, friends and, of course, food. This season of celebration, plus a recent trip to my native state of California, got me thinking about another kind of relationship to be thankful for: relationship with place. Places that are important to us can be anchors to our past, as old friends often are, or act as stepping stones to our unknown future. When a place is in one's heart and one's DNA, we recognize each other in some inexplicable way.

I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the East Bay hills of Richmond. The picture window in the living room of our house looked out west across the Bay to the blue-shadowed shoulders of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. On fog-free days I could often see the Golden Gate, to the south of Mount Tam. The well-kept houses in my neighborhood were mostly stucco, modest but comfortable faux Mediterranean-style bungalows - though our home was constructed of redwood, daringly contemporary for its time. Farther up the hill, surrounding the elementary school I attended, eucalyptus trees stood sentinel and wafted their pungent fragrance across the schoolyard and down the steep streets.
My family moved 80 miles away when I was 6 1/2 years old, but my attachment to and memories of that early childhood environment have never lost their power over me. Something subtle and mystical, something that seems to penetrate to a cellular level, keeps me tied to those hills which have been kneaded like bread dough by earthquakes, to the always-choppy waters of the Bay, and to the aromatic eucalyptus trees that aren't even indigenous to the area but seem such a fixture of the landscape. Though I deeply love the place I live in now and don't plan to leave it until I leave this life, whenever I return to the Bay Area I feel welcomed home, as if I belong in some fundamental way to the soil, the water and the sky.

So, when I do return, I pay respects: I go to various locations around the East Bay which have some special hold over me, and perform rituals - sometimes without realizing I am doing so - that acknowledge and cement my relationship with the places that Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call my "bone country."  I go to Alameda Beach, which was my destination and my companion on daily walks when I lived in a student house during my master's program at the University of Creation Spirituality. I greet this place, sacred to me, by returning shells and rocks I have picked up on prior visits. This ritual reminds me that all healthy relationships, this one included, are reciprocal, and require giving as well as taking. 

I go to Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills, to ride again the splendid Herschell-Spillman merry-go-round that was the first carousel I rode, as a toddler - or simply to look upon it if it is not open for rides. The setting is incomparable and the merry-go-round is an exquisite example of the love that goes into true craftsmanship and which lasts beyond the lifetime of the craftsperson. Every time I visit I feel a quiver of the same excitement that accompanied each childhood trip to the carousel. These ritual visits restore my innocence in a jaded world, spark joy in me, and remind me of the importance of cultivating and welcoming a spirit of wonder and awe.

Indigenous peoples everywhere know about this kind of relationship to the land which brought them forth: that they belong to it, rather than the land belonging to them; that it sustains them psychologically (or spiritually) as well as physically. They know that the earth they were born on or upon which significant events in their lives took place is a part of who they are, a part of their story. And they do not fail to offer their bone country the respect and love it is due.

What places on this planet have a hold on your heart and your cells? How do you keep yourself whole, integral, by acknowledging that connection with your bone country? If you have never celebrated your connection to place, how might it make a difference in your mind, body and/or spirit if you started now? Could that be part of a season of thanksgiving?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cosmogenesis, Chapter 1

Here's a new creation story - an attempt to apply the little I know about quantum physics to the age-old human quest for a meaningful myth about where we came from and what our place is in the universe. It has always seemed to me that all that is, is holy - by virtue of its "isness." What does "holy" mean? You look at the light dancing on the water, and tell me.

     Before the Beginning,  Mother God dwelt in a vast sea of potential with Her angels; and they were one in undifferentiated love. And the angels were the wave functions, sweeping tides in a Sea of quantum foam, and in their oneness with the Mother was the great goodness of infinite love and the great solitude of unrealized possibility.
    And the Mother saw that She could not know Herself or Her angels further without allowing for a new kind of goodness, the goodness of particularity.  And since it was in Her nature to desire self-knowledge, She prepared her womb for a great birthing: love made manifest. And in the pains of Her labor She groaned the Word that echoed through the deeps of the quantum Sea and birthed the universe in fire. And the Word was CHOICE.
    And the wave-form angels heard the Word and trembled in awe, for they knew the echo of that Word resounded as a call to them alone.  The Mother gave them choice: to remain wave functions, one with Her being, or to particularize and receive the gift of acting in the universe She had birthed.  And the angels who chose to remain as waves in the quantum Sea would float in the unity of the Mother’s love but be powerless to experience or influence the life of duality, the life of Creation.  The angels who chose to become particles would become co-creators, shaping and guiding the life that sprang forth in endless profusion. But the gift was not without cost.  The particularized angels would have to sever their oneness with Mother God, and be subject to the universal laws of life and death the Mother had set in motion.  They would know the sorrow of separation, and yet have the ability to reflect the glory of the One whence they came and to act with Her creative power.
    And so those first angels, vibrating with the great wonder of all that was, and was to be, answered the call and came forth to make their choice, to participate in the great dance of existence. And these particularized angels were the bodhisattvas and were precious beyond measure to the Mother. For they sacrificed their oneness out of care of the world of life and death, flickering into and out of existence, that the One might look upon Her creation, the love that everywhere mirrors Herself, and know its goodness.
    And so these bodhisattvas, the angels embodied, danced the great dance and became photons and hydrogen atoms and galaxies.  And they entered into relationship with one another as living systems.  And so they became even the earth upon which we stand.  And they walked, crawled, swam and flew over the earth as the living web of being: teachers and guides sent to us by the Mother through their own willing choice to live in time and die for the sake of love.
    People, do you not know that these same angels speak through the rough call of the raven outside your window in the dawn hours?  Do you not see them dancing in the light on the waves of the bay as the sun rises high?  Have you felt them in the touch of your beloved?  Will they not silently reflect the glory of the One as you gaze in the mirror tonight, performing your ablutions before retiring?  I say amen, and amen.