Archive | July, 2013

Lord, Won’t You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz?

26 Jul

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During my mom’s final incarceration I took over ownership of her car. Initially, I was just going to watch over it, as I didn’t want to pay insurance and registration fees for two cars. But I realized that if I didn’t move her car from her apartment to my house, it was going to be towed and even in my neighborhood, I was probably going to have to occasionally move it. So, we arranged for her to sign the title of her car over to me, I bought it for the blue book price so she would have some cash, and I suddenly wound up having two cars on my hands.

My mom drove a little white Hyundai. Although she typically took relatively good care of her cars over the years, when I came into possession of this one, it was at that point in mileage where significant maintenance needs to be done. So I also ended up sinking a fair amount of money into her car that she was never going to be able to drive again due to her license being revoked and later, her death.

It was one of the many hassles I incurred when she was in prison. Prior to acquiring her car, I’d been happy with my Ford Taurus. That car had been a gift to me from my previous step-father, Chuck. He’d purchased it used with 113,000 miles on it. Everyone balked at the high mileage saying that Taurus’ were lemons. Not this one. It was still going strong at 250,000 miles when I decided to put it on Craig’s list and simply own one car – my mom’s.

Selling the Taurus was hard for me. It had been a good car and I was reluctant to give it up. I also worried that my mom’s car might be haunted, as that had been the vehicle in which she’d driven behind the wheel intoxicated on one too many occasion. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I thought about smudging it with Indian sage to get rid of any residual toxic energy it might contain and imagined it with a golden bubble of light around it protecting me. I also put a religious icon in the glove box.

The Hyundai drove like a little tin can. Small in stature, the vehicle was not very solid on the road. During storms it would jostle a bit on the freeways but thankfully, San Diego doesn’t get bad weather that often. And if anyone ever hit me on the highway, I would be surely demolished. It got great gas mileage though and I came to like the car. It was little and compact like me. When my mom died, it was all I had left of her other than a few of her possessions.

When I learned to surf I bought soft racks for the car. Soft racks are not permanent fixtures on the roof of the car. Instead they strap around the vehicle and can be taken on and off each time you surf. The man at the surf shop described to me how to use them and I figured I understood well enough. Yet the first time I tried to assemble the racks myself, I was in a quandary. Nothing about the way I’d tied them looked right and I worried the board would go flying off the roof of the car, crashing into someone else’s windshield. On top of that, as I drove down the street, I heard this horrific wailing sound that apparently was the wind pulsating through the straps. Then to my horror the surfboard nose and tail kind of bobbed up and down. I saw the nose dancing a bit through my windshield and began sweating profusely praying the whole way to the beach.

The board never fell off the top of the car. I eventually came to trust that the soft racks worked just fine despite the way the board bobbed around when I accelerated on the freeway. And I learned that if I twisted the straps as I wound them around the car roof, the terrible whining sound of the wind abated.

I knew my mom’s car was eventually going to need to be replaced with a newer vehicle but I also thought, “Why fix what ain’t broke?” The majority of my work took me teaching out of town and I didn’t have to do much driving when at home. My office where I maintained a small psychotherapy practice was only ten minutes from my house and I basically only had to drive to get there and to the grocery store. The only substantial driving I did was to Orange County for my seminary courses at the Fuller satellite campus but even that didn’t demand daily commuting. It was my plan then to hang on to my mom’s car as long as possible and not accrue the expense of a new or used car.

Yet out of the blue, Chuck and and his wife, Cindy mentioned that Chuck’s business partner was selling his Mercedes. If I were going to buy a used car from anyone, he’d be the person to, as he’d kept meticulous care of the vehicle and had all the maintenance records. I felt like I couldn’t be bothered but I knew that it was always wise to sell a car when it still had value and to buy a vehicle when you had the luxury of time versus having to buy one on demand. I agreed to look at the Mercedes, as Chuck and Cindy were also worried about my safety in the Hyundai and wanted me in a bigger, more solid car.

For me, a vehicle was something you drove to get from point A to point B. I was never one caught up on status and from graduate school on had lived on a frugal budget. But I’d learn to drive on a stick shift 733i BMW so I knew a thing or two about German cars. Like wine, I know the difference between what is good and what is cheap. I knew it would be silly not to invest in the new car, which came at a steal of a price. It was also time for me to have a big girl car.

A lovely young couple moved into the house in front of me and as we were introducing ourselves, they happened to casually mention that they were looking to buy a second car, as they only had one. I happened to casually mention that I was selling mine. They bought it on the spot. It took no convincing. Thankfully, I had taken meticulous care of the vehicle plus sent them to my mechanic to ask any questions they might have about its condition. I could in good faith sell the car to them for if anything happened to it, I’d be seeing them almost daily. But when I handed them the keys and title I felt such a hesitant feeling within me. I knew I was giving over something much more significant than a transfer of ownership. I was surrendering a piece of my history with my mom. She and I had ridden in that car together many times and I’d had the car while she was still alive. After she died, it was my connection to her.

The sleek sophisticated Mercedes sat on the street looking good but my eyes would turn longingly towards the little white Hyundai parked in my neighbor’s driveway. It took me weeks to figure out the gadgets in the new car, as everything was electric whereas my mom’s car operated manually. I then went to therapy and cried and couldn’t believe I was crying over an object. But with the relinquishing of the car, I was letting go of more pieces of my mom and of a specific time in my life. The chapter of her incarceration and suicide was closing. I knew that the new car would become the marker of the next phase in my life but I wasn’t certain what would unfold in the upcoming years.

On top of that, I hadn’t given a second thought to surfing when I bought the Mercedes and suddenly I had no way of transporting a board. The Mercedes had a sunroof so it wasn’t a good idea to put the soft racks and board directly on it. The last thing I needed was to damage the sunroof and then get leaks when it next rained. I was going to need to invest in hard racks, an item I didn’t have a clue about and that could be relatively pricey. Plus, my new car key was electric so it wasn’t going to be safe in my wet suit. I sat with these realizations as I watched my neighbor, who also surfs, drive away to the beach daily in my mom’s car.

It took me seven months to move forward. Finally, I googled “Thule racks – San Diego” and a shop came up that specializes in roof contraptions. I called the store and gave them the model of my car. The next day I went in and talked with the clerk. After discussing options, I purchased state of the art racks from a warehouse in Connecticut of all places. I picked racks that suited the car aesthetically and that had good aerodynamic design so there would be no noise. I also picked bungee cord straps for the surfboard that the man convinced me were his best sellers due to how easy they were to use. We then set up a day for the install once the materials all arrived.

Next I spoke with my Mercedes mechanic and he showed me how the metal part of the key slips out of its electronic capsule. It could safely be put in my wet suit while surfing and used to lock the car although without the alarm. After surfing, the metal part of the key could be put back in the electronic capsule and the engine turned on.

It took me a number of times to figure all this out. But I did. Then I went to pick up the car. Instead of looking ridiculous, the roof racks made the Mercedes look kind of hip and sexy. And then I headed to the beach once I figured out how to strap on the board.

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I no longer look sadly at my mom’s car. I have moved on and am driving into the next chapter of my life. I don’t have a map but I’m back on the road. With the sunroof open, the air feels good and the car handles well.

That Insidious Little Animal

18 Jul

Shame is an insidious little animal sneaking into dwelling places and infesting them with unsanitary conditions.

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I am quite intimate with shame. At times it is like an old familiar coat that I can’t seem to relinquish. It causes me to contract, to take back words I’ve expressed and to feel like putting the covers over my head.

By itself, shame is simply an emotion meant to alter our behavior in some way. For instance, think of a young child experimenting with her vocal chords. There is nothing wrong or sinful about a toddler loving to make noise. Yet to the adults in the room, the racket she is making can be irritating and disruptive. Thus, as she gets older and develops language to express her needs, adults start to censor the spontaneous noises she makes that are a pain to listen to. Chances are, she is shushed or scolded at times and as a result, might feel shame.

There is no way around this process because shame serves as a regulatory device and helps ensure our survival. Without shame, we would never check our impulses and might run the risk of being kicked out of our family, village or tribe due to unrestrained behavior. However, because we first experience shame when we’re little, we lack the cognitive development to understand why we are being scolded, laughed at, or told to stop doing something. Thus, we often internalize shame and equate it with being bad ourselves. If nothing eventually challenges this perception, we may over identify with shame and internalize it in unhealthy ways.

There is nothing pleasant about this feeling. Whether we feel shame because we’ve done something wrong, or something others find wrong, or because we feel embarrassed by some aspect of our identity or lives, it is not a fun emotion to experience. Psychiatrist Don Nathanson differentiates shame from guilt saying, “Whereas shame is about the quality of our person or self, guilt is the painful emotion triggered when we are aware that we have acted in a way to bring harm to another person or to violate some important code. Guilt is about action and laws.”

Used constructively, shame can serve us. For instance, studies in neuroplasticity reveal that our brains use sensory input from errors and mistakes to help us learn. The information is short circuited, most likely from fear and shame to alarm us. What we then do with that information is left to our free will, but regardless, we are wired to respond to shame. It operates as an evolutionary function.

Where we can get into trouble is when we don’t interpret the incoming data and use it constructively. Then one of two things typically happens. First, we can become mired in the feeling of shame yet not use it to motivate us. This is like a car getting stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels. Shame can literarily consume us where we let it become part of our identity, yet take no corrective action.

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Likewise, there is an aspect of shame that occurs when things happen beyond our control. For instance, on a simple level, think about the childhood tale of the Ugly Duckling. In the story, a swan egg rolls into a nest of duck eggs. Upon hatching, the swan looks nothing like the ducks and as a result is terribly ridiculed. What I find striking about the story is that the Ugly Duckling didn’t do anything to deserve being ostracized. Yet because of being scapegoated, he was filled with deep shame, as if he had done something wrong. What happened to him was totally beyond his control. Therefore, one of the key factors related to shame is that the feeling often manifests with an awareness of our essential vulnerability. We get by, from moment to moment, by creating an illusion of safety. Then when something happens to prove our perceptions of the world to be wrong, we experience a deep disappointment that we often attribute to our own failure or the result of a deep personal flaw.

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I imagine the Ugly Duckling initially assumed his family would love him because according to his perception, families are supposed to love and nurture their members. When the whole earth trembles, we can experience a similar disillusionment regardless of the situation. Whether our lover betrays us, a family member dies, or our retirement savings gets wiped out in a day, it feels like having the rug pulled out from underneath us. When our ideas about love or life don’t measure up, we can feel ashamed that our perceptions of security proved false. We might also feel that those who failed us should be ashamed of their contribution to our misfortune. All of a sudden, we realize the perceptions we once had cannot guarantee control and this can feel utterly terrifying. In this way, shame represents an essential wound that we all wrestle with throughout our lives.

A friend of mine recently said, “Shame is an addiction. Not only that, it rears its head when we don’t want to sit in the ambiguity of life and the unknown.” And whether you call it Satan or the ego, when shame is lurking, one of the former have the upper hand. To fight its presence, I have to call on something far bigger than myself and to remember that when I’m feeling like I’m an Ugly Duckling, perhaps I’m actually a swan.

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I Dwell In Possibility…

16 Jul

The other day a dear friend was showing me the upstairs rooms in her new home. As we discussed her plans for decorating the guest room we both noticed the stuffed animals on the closet floor. The room had initially been intended as a nursery. It took only a thirty second glance at those furry friends for me to feel the pain of her infertility. We moved on to view her husband’s music room.

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How many of us have put away the toys of our beloved dreams or not even begun collecting them? I know I have never set aside baby paraphernalia, nor have I purchased a house in which there could be a guest room. Do we have a right to our dreams or is it too painful to petition the Lord and the Universe with our prayers? What role do we play in manifesting our destiny and what baggage gets in the way from our creating it? Is the world our oyster or does shit just happen?

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I think of all the women in the bible who so desperately wanted a child – Sarah, Rachel, Hannah… And how they waited on the Lord. But what if that process turns into a production of “Waiting for Godot?” What happens when there is no resolution? There is no silver lining?

God is not Santa Claus. If even Jesus petitions the Lord, asking for his cup to be removed, we must conclude that life isn’t about our will and what we want. But how are we to know what is His will for us and does not the Lord want our lives also to be filled with blessings?

The other day a woman asked me, “Do you want to have a baby?” I looked at her and felt the rationalizations spinning in my head. “I’m forty-four, I’m single, I’m celibate, I don’t want to raise a child alone if I were to adopt, the cost of living in San Diego is very high, children irrevocably change one’s life, how would I do it with no one to help me? I think children need a mom and a dad….”

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“Do you want to have a child?” She asked me again. “That’s the question. Not how you would do it or if you will do it. Simply, do you want to have a baby?”

It’s a possibility too scary to even consider. People who are married make plans for this. People who fall accidentally pregnant jump on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and figure it out. But does a single person have a right to this lifestyle? Or do you say, “Sing yea barren woman…” and tell yourself that you bear fruit in other ways.

What does it mean to look to the future and think about buying a house on one’s own and possibly adopting a child? This sure isn’t how the childhood fairy tale played out but does that mean there is no happy ending?

Emily Dickinson once wrote:

I dwell in Possibility,
A fairer house than Prose,
More numerous of windows,
Superior for doors.

With chambers, as the cedars,
Impregnable of eye,
And for an everlasting roof,
The gables of the sky.

Of visitors – the fairest –
For occupation – this:
The spreading wide my eager hands
To gather Paradise.

Do we dwell in possibility and can we gather Paradise? Is it safe to reach up one’s hand towards the sky?

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In the Arms of the Beloved

12 Jul

In the perversion that has been my life experience, I have always associated the discharge we experience in grief as similar to that in orgasm. The distinction is that orgasm is a pleasurable experience and one that people seek out; grief on the other hand brings a sense of distress that people try to avoid.

I learned long ago though that after an open expression of weeping, peace would settle throughout my body not unlike after an orgasm. There is a reason a child crashes after a crying fit. But I am no different than anyone else. I don’t actively pursue emotional pain.

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Yet sometimes it seeks us out, ever the ardent suitor until we pay attention and eventually surrender to its hold on us. For its presence is benevolent. In its own way, it is God wooing us.

There are few people I can truly cry with and few places where it’s okay to wail. We are a culture of repression for all our sexual forwardness and lack of inhibition. When it comes to expressions of the heart, we are a frigid society. And yet the one place I can always cry is church. In the sanctuary of the sacred, I can let go.

As the week of the anniversary of my mom’s suicide crawls near, the grief begins to pulse through my body. I try to ignore it. Focus on work and tasks but have learned. It’s best to make space for what will surface. Because really, it’s my mom tapping me on the shoulder, saying hello to me in the form of a butterfly.

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Every year I journey to my mother’s church, a place where my memories of her are most strong because it was somewhere we went week after week. Year after year. It is also the only church I know of in town that never locks its doors. You can always go to the side entrance and find it open. And there, alone I weep.

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Knock and the door will be opened to you. Ask and you shall receive.

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When we’ve been deprived love, we often can’t take it in. We struggle to receive which in its very essence is a feminine act. But in the arms of the Beloved, we can risk letting go. Whether we’re male or female. We all need to be held in the arms of God.

Mother, Father, Beloved.

Blessed Are They Who Mourn…

11 Jul

As I was reading 1 Samuel 1 this morning, I was struck by the sheer idiocy of the people around Hannah who didn’t know how to support her in her grief over not having a child. The bible is actually full of such examples… Yet despite this, I wonder if we’ve learned anything at all when it comes to witnessing other people’s grief.

In the text, we discover that Hannah is one of Elkanah’s two wives. His wife, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children” (1:2). We learn that Elkanah loves Hannah dearly, despite her not being able to conceive. “On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb” (1:5).

Elkanah knows enough to treat his wife tenderly and with compassion. Yet he doesn’t fully understand her plight. He asks, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” His statement is a beautiful reminder that she is not completely barren, having his love indeed. Yet for a woman living in that particularly time period, having children was the primary function of her gender. Failure in this area was devastating to one’s identity and Peninnah, knowing this, drives the knife in, instead of offering solace to Hannah. “Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb” (1:6). Let’s hear it for girl power! Way to kick a woman when she’s down.

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Hannah is clearly in pain. “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly” (1:10). But she also makes a vow to the Lord that if he will give her a child, she will present him as a servant of the temple when he is but a babe.

Now here is the real kicker. When Hannah goes to the temple to make her request before the Lord she is witnessed by the priest Eli who accuses her of being drunk because he sees her lips moving in prayer yet hears no words. He says, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine” (1:14). Now even if Hannah had been drunk, I’m not certain that is the ideal way for a priest to respond but she answers, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time” (1:15-16).

Thankfully, Eli comes around and blesses her but how typical this scenario is. How often do we cite someone who is labile as hysterical, crazy or self-indulgent? And in the church world, how common is it for folks to say that someone who is anxious or depressed doesn’t have enough faith in God? How many times have we heard something like, “Don’t worry. It will all be okay.” Sometimes it’s not okay.

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Grief is messy and ugly and forces us to look at our pain. So if someone else is grieving, sometimes it’s easier to look the other way. In the powerful film, “The Bridge,” Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt jumping off of the Golden Gate bridge recounts that he spent an hour walking along the bridge crying. Not one person asked him if he was okay. In fact, some European tourists asked if he could take their photo. People, hello!!!!!!!! A dude is standing on a bridge notorious as a suicide site and you aren’t curious or alarmed as to why he is crying?

So, yes, blessed are those who mourn for we all mourn at various times in our lives. “We get to carry each other. Carry each other…”

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Structure Matters

10 Jul

For anyone who has ever studied sports or dance, structure matters. Our body posture and alignment has profound effects on whether we can hit a ball or balance ourselves upright on one leg. Athletes and dancers spend years mastering their body mechanics for optimum performance.

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There was a time in my life when I studied “Awareness Through Movement” from the somatic educational system designed by Moshé Feldenkrais (1904–1984). Feldenkrais aims to reduce pain or limitations in movement, to improve physical functions, and to promote general wellbeing. Often incorporated by athletes, musicians, dancers and actors to enhance performance, the classes are wonderful for anyone wishing to increase physical and emotional awareness.

Today, I was reminded that structure matters. Having suffered from TMJ for many years because my jaw shifted out of alignment after having braces, I have long been looking for relief. Today I saw a TMJ specialist. While hooked up to machines for 2.5 hours like Frankenstein so that the dentist could study my “bite registration” and GPS my jaw, I felt my jaw (and every other part of my nervous system) relaxing. Yet I assisted in the process when I was asked questions and expected to engage in focused, incremental mouth movements.

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In a few weeks, I will have a device to wear at night that will help put my jaw where it needs to be on a routine basis. When wearing the mock up of the device at the session’s end, my jaw still maintained its relaxed state even when exerting physical strength. Plus, my neck mobility and balance dramatically improved. All because my jaw was in the right position.

It’s surprising how much work goes into relaxing the jaw. I was so exhausted afterwards that I took a two hour nap…

May we remember that structure matters. How we align ourselves – physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually – has a vast impact on our quality of life and functionality.

Cruise Control

7 Jul

The man I bought my car from kindly showed me how to operate all of the vehicle’s features. When he started talking about the cruise control I found myself checking out. While I learned how to drive on a stick so know how to coordinate my feet with a clutch and my hand with a gear shift, I didn’t want to hear about this car’s fancy cruise control. It sounded hopelessly confusing to me. Hit this button, then click this if you want to get out of cruise control, blah, blah, blah. Whatever.

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But lately I’ve been thinking about cruise control. A car is still operating when it is in this function. It’s not like the vehicle is flying at half mast or anything. So why do I always insist that I have to go peddle to the meddle on high alert in every frick’n thing I do?

I was advised recently to put some of my life into cruise control. I was informed that this is not a cop out or being lazy. It’s simply a good way to preserve energy and take advantage of a system that works.

Hmmm. Okay. Maybe I’ll give it a try. I thought I had cured myself of my perfectionist tendencies but I clearly see that haven’t. Maybe it is time to let some things take care of themselves and to rely on the mechanics of this model.

Staking Out Real Estate

2 Jul

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For the record I have never purchased land but I am a firm believer in real estate. Yet I’m not necessarily talking about property. I’m talking more about how we stake out personal territories such as time, energy, work, and relationships. Just what are we investing in and what do we do with the precious commodities around us? Are we practicing conservation and are we protecting the eco-system?

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I ask these questions constantly. When I was younger, it seemed time, energy and opportunities were boundless. But like the precious acres that are being swallowed up by developments, if we’re not careful, we can lose the very rich lands we’ve been blessed with. How do we protect what it most valuable and ensure that others will benefit in future generations?

Two people I greatly admire are Teddy Roosevelt and Beatrix Potter, both of whom had the insight to champion land for conservation purposes. Thanks to Teddy, we haven’t completely “paved paradise to put up a parking lot” and thanks to Beatrix, the UK has national treasures preserved as well.

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Metaphorically speaking, how do we practice discernment, making wise choices so that we invest in our talents, relationships, vocations and commitments to humanity? How do we invest? For me, I’m constantly staking out real estate, surveying the market and talking to investors. I’m looking for property that will increase in value and to be a good steward of the land.

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