Friends for All Sorts of Weather

The voicemail was brief and to the point. She’d called to let me know her phone had been inoperable or she sure would have called me sooner to see how things were. I’d left her a voice mail a few days earlier about my spouse’s new worrisome medical issue. Just hearing her voice brought a sense of relief. I knew we would talk more and soon. B. is always there for me and vice versa, even if we must miss each other a couple times.

I had met her 25 years ago when working with addicted, gang-affiliated, abused and generally high-risk teens in a long-term residential facility. B. was about as different from me at first glance as one might imagine: big and tough, boisterous and prone to swearing, full of jokes and quick to aggressively make her views known. I often found her obnoxious while I gained respect for her insights, her firm boundaries yet good rapport with the clients. We often clashed over the simplest things. Then we began to share a smoke during our breaks, talked more, and became cautious friends, then good friends. It turned out she had a tender side, was often considerate and could be very good natured. We made each other laugh a lot. I was still new to Portland, and having her friendship helped usher me into a more welcoming, hospitable adjustment. In time she calmed down a little, got a bit softer though her boldness and strength are never in dispute. She has shown herself to be generous with time and resources. We are very close friends and I cannot begin to say how much I yet admire and appreciate her.

Developing friendships has never been easy as it was when I was a child. I moved a lot in my twenties and thirties. Life circumstances have often created barriers– living in the isolating country, lack of free time (five kids), work demands, health problems, a spouse who prefers to be more of a loner. I have had to more often carefully root out potential friends, and sometimes have even advertised for them (more on this later). I have also had to be ready to let go of them as work and life have demanded yet another move. Luckily, I have been in Portland the longest I have lived anywhere–and some good friends have remained here, as well.

Making friends used to be clear and simple: bumping into someone at the playground while playing catch, being asked to join a group or team, perhaps finding one’s self sitting next to the new kid and wondering who she or he was–so offering a smile, asking her or his name and maybe from which street, town or state the person had moved. One was connected in a neighborhood just by being present or from engagement in school activities, church events or attending a good weather picnic and special parties that grown-ups organized. In my childhood city of Midland, population about 28,000 when I grew up, it would be hard to get too lost in a crowd for long. We knew who lived on our blocks but even beyond, who delivered mail and newspaper (as well as their families), who participated and how in school or town events. I might make a new friend because an old one invited that girl to a pajama party. And we might even know of one another already. We inhabitants of smallish hometown were familiars more often than not, knew people via family name or accomplishments, as well as other basic information like who had a big family or had lost a parent or grandparent to illness or accident (with perhaps details of same). It was a fairly friendly town, (though it could be a closed place, as well–other cities found us a bit exclusive) and finding new connections was just a part of ordinary living and doing.

My first significant best friend (beyond my several neighborhood “besties”) attended the same United Methodist Church. We met in the fifth grade in Sunday school. We noticed we shared the same first name (somehow I was dubbed “Cindy” by my teens; I didn’t like it, though, and reclaimed my birth name at 18). We sat huddled in the airy balcony during services, passing notes back and forth as we scribbled away on church bulletins. We developed a Sunday afternoon tradition of meeting at nearby Nugent Drugs’ lunch counter to enjoy a cherry or lime Coke and split an order of steamy hot French fries and gab for an hour. I’d sometimes spend the night at her place and she, at mine. We hung out in junior high school, walking arm in arm down the hallway, both of us turning when our names were called out since we answered to both. She had dark wavy hair; mine was a light auburn and she was a few inches taller. I felt part of a set of unmatched twins.

It seemed we could talk about anything–from hunky but annoying boys to hairdo fiascoes to the meaning of religion to private hurts and dreams. We lived in different areas of the city–hers was a far wealthier neighborhood. Her father worked for Dow Chemical Company in a higher up position and my father was in music and educational administration. It created a disparity in economic levels though not otherwise; it didn’t seem to matter. We were introspective with extroverted tendencies, loved academics and reading, enjoyed competition, and had four siblings who drove us nuts. Admiration played a part: I thought she was pretty and smart; she thought I had plenty of talent. But mostly we liked each other’s company. Perhaps as important or more so we entrusted each other with our secrets, our real life issues.

We began to drift apart as we got engaged in more serious high school life a few years later. It appeared we’d slowly and radically changed–or I had–and prioritized different goals. She was a debater and class president; I was edging toward hippie/folk singer/poet who explored more liberal politics. I had, instead, become best friends with another girl, someone who seemed to better understand me as I faced various challenges and trials. This new friend, Monica, was an intense personality, a rebel. I found her caring and loyal, while very zany and spontaneous. We supported each other through ups and downs that no one else comprehended as fully.

I was also very close to a boy or two, and one in particular with whom I remained friends until his death four years ago. A year before El passed away he decided to visit all his oldest friends. He flew out from the Midwest and on his itinerary Portland was a stop. We spent the entire day. I drove him to the most beautiful places, and we shared food and drink at a lovely street cafe. His conversation overflowed with happy memories and a generosity of love. It pained me to see him so ill with congestive heart failure, saw how death lurked about him and yet he was vibrant in a profoundly intrinsic way, as ever. We hugged a long moment before he turned and walked away. I watched him go and then gazed at the space where he had been. I knew he was soon to leave us all. Through the decades we’d been first and last kind to one another, shared triumphs and sorrows. Reached out to each other with phone calls, long letters, spur of the moment emails that were about creativity, the great beating heart in music–he was a sound engineer–and life’s madness as well as its ineffable beauty. I so valued and still miss El. I always felt blessed to have a male friend who had remained just that–close to my heart, as my buddy.

Although my first friend C. and I stayed in touch with occasional phone calls and with later random newsy letters, the last time we met a few years ago the conversation felt stilted. At best based loosely on reminiscences, at worst without interesting focus, losing momentum as awkward pauses derailed us. We lived in the same city so I’d hoped we’d reconnect well. Well, she’d become a political professional, had been single and childless. I’d become a mother and wife, a counselor, was deep into writing and the arts. It felt like a second loss of the same friendship though it was a matter of life taking us in far different directions. And time passing–we had quite outgrown each other, I think.

My second best friend left our hometown and found substance troubles and drifted about the Southwest– while I kept up my own drug using lifestyle, then switched track to enter college, write and paint. Then got married, had children just like that, and remained longer in Michigan. We lost track of each other fast, only years later caught up with each other again via email. But that had its limits. Too much had happened to span the gaps sufficiently, despite our deep if brief friendship of yore. I was happy to find out she taught biology and math at a Southwest high school, had two sons she adored. It was good to hear she was well, that she liked her life.

I figured out by age 20 that friendship might not, and need not, last for a whole lifetime–though I wished it would, at times. People (and friends) came and went throughout college and when moving to and living in different cities, even states. When I look back, I realize I’ve had dozens of friendships that have enriched and opened up my life. But they have not all been intimate or long-term or even valued beyond a certain circumstance. They have not always come to a gentle end, either. One or two were wrenching. Thankfully, most have been bittersweet at worst, marked by sweetest farewells at best. I’ve also twice made sincere attempts over months to become part of certain apparently pleasant groups that center around my interests–but finally gave up. Cliques are cliques, no matter one’s stage of life; I have no patience with them. (One gym membership was ended after over a year of trying to make an inroad within a group of older adults. It became apparent most had been members for even decades; their friends were picked and that was that. I found it very odd–it was just an ordinary gym.)

Work is one place to connect with others, though I feel that such friendships function best within work; otherwise, things can get complicated. But such friendships are vital to ensuring a more genial, supportive environment. I could flop down in an office chair and process a half a dozen weighty concerns about work and some of my life with several co-workers, and they would do the same. but never had dinner at each other’s homes, and seldom if ever met partners beyond the family photos on our desks, the tales we impulsively shared. Still, I can name many people I came to respect and feel fondness for, whom I would call friends even now, despite changes in work environments and passage of years. I yet have lunch very few months with a couple of co-workers from the last agency I worked at four years ago. We catch up as easily as we did before, greet each other and say farewell with firm hugs. And that is valuable to me.

Some of my good friends were found using want ads: “Looking for an experienced writer, women preferred, who would like to share/critique our writing projects. Can meet in library, coffer shop, homes. ” Others were pleas for larger writers’ critique groups. I have been in three main groups and have had one-on-one interactions with three writers in the  past few years, I also have attended weekly writing groups for various periods of time as well as attended workshops. Those provide a lot of opportunity to get to know people who love to write. The individual meetings have provided good exchanges not only of writing, but also greater discourses and disclosures that led to closeness while always centered around writing/critiquing.

After a year or more, when our projects were each addressed and reviewed with one another, those particular friendships became less important to us both. Inevitably, we met less and less and finally no longer. One friend moved to Arizona and embarked on a whole different life. Another got too busy with her family and her teaching responsibilities. A third friend and I had a significant disagreement regarding the ending of my novel, leading me to think she had missed the point of what I was writing. I think she felt the same way about her poetry and my critiques. That’s how it can go…we never mended that rift enough to be as friendly as before. You never know what will happen when you advertise for writers who may or may not become friends. Most of the time I’ve had great fun and learned more about craft, about communication of ideas and story making than when revising all alone. Writers’ groups can be equally variable while also worth one’s time and engagement.

My closest adult friends have tended to be found in recovery groups. I became involved in Alcoholic Anonymous way back in 1980. I was not glad to attend, didn’t trust it all, and found the people to be sad, touchy-feely, and overly simplistic in their thinking. Eventually I figured out there were more than a few people who knew a lot more than I did about staying sober and reconstructing a rewarding life. And out of those more contacts arose, opportunities to make friends. I could call anyone I thought a good bet for supporting a recovery lifestyle; they would listen on the phone, meet me for coffee. We had lots of satisfying conversations; I well recall the contentment they brought when I was in need of more peace.

One thing the twelve steps promise and make good on is that whenever anyone needs help they will be there, even though we didn’t know one another very well. I found that remarkable and generous. A few women and I just clicked as we learned of each other’s needs/hopes/challenges. We became trusted confidantes as well as cheerleaders for our ongoing sobriety. I knew that just by saying I had a rough day, they would immediately know what I meant and care enough to listen as well as share insights and hope with me–and soon I was able to be there for them.

No matter where I have moved–to Tennessee, to different cities and towns in Michigan, to the Pacific Northwest–I have had a ready group of friends if I so choose. I can go to a meeting even while travelling. All I have to do is walk into one, shake hands if I want to and offer my first name–not even why I am there or w hat I want out of it. I just can sit there in the midst of others who are redeveloping their broken lives or just refreshing their peace of mind. It’s a remarkable function of A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson’s original idea that one person who has a little more sobriety can and should if possible help out another. And so we do, and in the process, we form bonds that are strong. My three best friends are women who’ve been in recovery for at least as long as I have been if not more. Hard to believe that all these years have passed and that we still love each other, will take care of each other. We have seen each other at our worst and at our shining best.

Sometimes as I sit here pondering or writing, or I run errands and see other younger women linking arms, I muse over the years when friendship making could be a built in-perk of raising a family or going to work day after day. My children are grown and for the most part have moved away–or are swamped with their own work and family matters. In fact, even my grandchildren are nearly grown up or already gone. I think about how I might make more friends; I don’t have a surplus. I do find solitude refreshing, fulfilling, full of creative options I can finally enjoy. But I also miss at times the company of more than the usual crew, the exchange of a vast mix of ideas and belly laughs. I wonder if I might return to working outside home, or dive into volunteer work. I guess as we age opportunities to meet others have to be created more deliberately. But I have such gratitude for the friends I have–even if they still go to work and we have to set a date, time and place to have lunch. They are fine people to know and it sure isn’t the number but the quality of friendships we have, in the end.

Come to think of it, I am going to a meeting to see one of my three best friends tonight; I need to pick a good movie to see on Sunday with another. And I need to get back to B., who left me that voice message. I know she has her own issues and would enjoy a chat over a muffin and herbal tea or just the phone. Thank God for the beautiful saving graces of tried and true friendship. It’s like a seaworthy boat in life’s restless waters that always has room for one more.

(P.S. B. called me just as I was finishing this post–she was in need of a listening ear. I am so glad to still be here to give it.)

 

 

Living Life Amid Passing Shadows

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 9/16
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 9/16

There are occasional days I awaken as if slogging through a heavy mist of haunting dreams, feet unsteady on the floor, body trying to find a barest sense of consciousness amid a three-dimensional space. I perform preparations for further entry into daytime accompanied by a low groan or two. Dressed, wet hair dripping, I finally turn on the tea kettle. I manage to feel less weary as its soft sizzle of sounds hum through the kitchen. Curtains and windows are throw open in living and dining room; balcony door is cracked wide. Let come the light, come the fresh air, there we go.

The Irish Breakfast teabag greets boiling water and I stare into deepening amber. I must get more awake, greet my life with eyes fully open. I will meditate and pray longer, for this may be a day that will take more work to mine the beauty and hope that enliven my life. My love for the world–mine and our greater one– is straddled with grief. I am often surprised by this. Ask my spouse and he will tell you I am a person who is primarily even-keeled, rolling with the weather of life, even optimistic by nature. It wasn’t always that way. I learned a few things.

But am I feeling a little depressed those certain mornings (day, evening)? My training indicates it can happen that way, sudden brief lows, even mild yet disheartening. Close-up experience being myself may indicate otherwise; there is usually to be a reason. A lifetime of valuing the intelligence of emotion also chimes in. I know the voice or silence as well as the faces of depression, the energy and mass of it from repeated encounters with mental health clients. And I have known it in my personal journey when facing serious crises. It carried my burdens with bleak misery. But the older I become, the more I feel “the blues” is but one more variation of the expansive spectrum of emotions–if generally an indicator of other, less visible feelings. And it is not the enemy but another ally, nudging me to take notice. To see what else is going on. It’s a little like the relentless shriek of the tea kettle telling me it is liable to go dry, so time to take action.

That loaded word, “depression”, floats by our collective eyes and ears more times than I can count these days. It certainly was a major focal point all day long when I was a counselor. Also prior to that, while working with geriatric and disabled populations. It has become a dominant topic in literary, scientific and spiritual journals, even popular magazines. It often takes center stage during commercial breaks on television, courtesy of the octopus reach of Big Pharma. It can be a source of discussion among friends, acquaintances, family members. I have lost people to suicide; I don’t underestimate its debilitating, even lethal effect.

Clearly depression is entrenched in our socio-psychological lexicon following centuries of being a word not uttered if it could be helped. Or quietly, behind closed doors. And even then, it was called something else. The varieties of depression have been re-categorized or redefined to keep up with the evolution of diagnostic techniques and manuals. (Or the other way around; it depends on your viewpoint.)

Back when I was working in mental health agencies, powerful grief and loss usually underlay depression symptoms–it might have been an event that kept cropping up (say, ancient family dysfunction fueled by ongoing abuses or abandonments) or a very fresh experience. Anything from unemployment or medical issues to relationship trouble or moving to a new city, even loss of dreams and goals. Addictions of all sorts are also both symptoms and triggers. But right there I’m going to stop. I’m leaving the finer details to diagnosticians who are working away in the field.

I’m going back to my opening theme, those times when walking and thinking are reminiscent of trudging through noxious mud. Because I have worked at gaining self-knowledge a long time now, I also know the acrobatics my mind can perform and the poisons my spirit can let in. So I am ready when my response is needed. I know when and how I must take myself in hand.

If we are in large part what and who we tell ourselves, then I’m a curious human being with intellectual capability, decent physical equipment, rich emotional responses and a seeking soul. All these work together from what I can tell, for if one aspect goes a little awry, others tend to malfunction some. I am made of homeostatic systems that make a whole, one that runs well and without much fretting when systems do their work appropriately. All I have to do is see to insure my human beingness remains tuned up–attend to whatever is askew and appreciate its design and function. It is not so much to ask for; every creature has its work to stay alive and do what it can do.

If we stop to consider the intricate checks and balances that go on in our bodies, alone, that awareness can startle us with awe. We know the brain does countless jobs each moment and exerts tremendous influence– we haven’t anywhere near figured out the full scope of its powers. But we do know, for instance, that sleep is critically needed to provide to good health, and for the brain to efficiently process and park information. Otherwise, we cannot operate without paying the price. (I remind myself that those nights when I awaken at 2 a.m., then return to sleep somewhere around 3:30 am.–this would contribute to anyone’s moody ineptness the next day.)

Every part of who I am wants to work at maximum levels. It is far more interesting; I gain and also give more. This requires intellectual, emotional and spiritual support and care. I know, for example, if I neglect reading meditation books and studying guiding scripture, if I don’t allow enough time to seek the Creator’s wisdom for more clarity of mind and a compassionate heart, shadows of sadness and distress may find greater opportunity to cling more than a moment. I tend to manage, anyway; there is the will, a mighty thing, to help determine quality of life. (Or better yet, there is synergism, a theological assertion that renewal is a combination of will and divine grace.) But how much better to remain rooted in my strengths as well as curtail or transform my deficits? To create more possibilities for a fuller, truer life?

I manage my health needs and revel in the body’s capabilities. I’m not ready to leave this earth. I watch over my emotional wellness because I savor happiness and peace. But I am no longer afraid of sorrow, frustration, disappointment or even failure. I’ve been there; still standing.

So I locate and nurture wellsprings of wholeness. It isn’t too hard. I admit it’s less challenging since retirement, but even as a working woman I kept those operational needs met the best I could. This is my way since I am a person who has been intimate with the vagaries of life fortunes, the loss of health, money, housing, safety, love, hope and twice, nearly my life. Yes, then, I have been to some deep pits. I didn’t expect to step into or get tossed in them. Who ever does? The climbing or tunneling out was exhausting, lonely, left a few marks from hoisting mental, spiritual and physical burdens, from the clawing and gnashing of teeth as I searched for relief. That rejuvenating sip of air, illuminating pinprick of light–it can turn the tides of mind.

Yes, far easier to maintain the well-being I have developed– and take rapid action to repair breakage or malfunctioning than let things head sideways.

We likely agree it’s sometimes a strange and arduous thing to inhabit this human flesh. Optimism can be fickle, faith can get slippery and resources run out more than we’d like. How much we admire the creatures who carry on their business without, we suspect, any thought to the future, without consternation over much while driven by instinct. But we are not they. Let us live the parts we have been given, then seek to make them finer.

When a disenchanted melancholy swirls about then settles on my shoulders like a ill-fitting cape, I  don’t panic. I wear it awhile. Acknowledge it. Let it visit me, talk to it, carry it about. Listen to any stories it has to tell, let clues surface. It has come to keep me company. But I don’t give it undue attention, either. The feeling will depart, either when it is ready or when I determine it is time. If a feeling hangs on to my detriment, I know what to do: reap spiritual sustenance; walk, hike, dance; eat smartly; rest even small pockets of time; visit and help others; make or bring life-affirming music and art and literature more deeply into my days and nights. And do not stay glued to electronic mediums, especially when it emphasizes negativity, subjects me to ever more violence. I–we–clearly need edification, more potent solutions born of thoughtful consideration.

But when there is a long and opaque shadow cast, it pays to well investigate the source. A shadow is only light blocked. Is it a circumstance that will pass? Is it a person whose presence is overwhelming the positive in my life? Is it something I have no direct control over, anyway–the complex state of this world, weather, my aging siblings’ health, other peoples’ beliefs? Or is it me? More often than not I am getting in the way, complicating things, being slow to mend a torn or sore spot. Maybe I just feel lazy; it requires strategy and effort to change.

I may be blocking the very light I need to thrive. If that is the case, I may find the deeper shadows suitable for encouraging self-pity, the last thing that’s needed. I can get out of my own way. Then I can influence the issues I can address. But I do not have to make it a big production, either. When a touch or full-on case of melancholy is experienced, quiet work usually gets the job done better than a dramatic response. Either way, its up to me.

Try this next time awakening with your own shadowy companion: give it your respect. What would we be without the mystery of shadow; it helps delineate our lives, as well, and gives us more depth and mystery. So make a fresh cup of coffee or tea to savor, open your window and let your lungs fill right up. Find that spot of beauty and absorb it. Praise the numinous Light of all. Spread it about. We can and should embrace even the homeliness of our lives, their misaligned aspects. We ought to love the weak moments and mad bits, and exercise mercy during baffling trials. It all works well when we accept the vast variations of our living, and help it along.

Cancel the Emergency! (Sit Down, Move On or Reach Out)

"Reach" by Naomi J Falk, 2003
“Reach” by Naomi J Falk, 2003

I was about to take ibuprofen for pain arising from egregiously misaligned discs in my neck. But I hesitated and did not. I reminded myself there were other interventions that might help as well or better. A little temple massage, neck and shoulder stretches, a restful fifteen minutes with good music, a walk in refreshing evening air, a warm shower with aromatherapy. Or I could just put up with it again, go on as I usually do. It wasn’t critical to erase pain just because it was nagging in the background of my day. I could deal with it.

I don’t have to cave into a perceived misery; I can manage things, accept unpleasantness. Acknowledge it, adapt via my life skills toolkit, and move on.

Then one night around two in the morning I awakened worried about a couple of family members. It was clear there had been a failure to release them to heavenly forces for their best care and my better state. It took a bit of regrouping–a hearty prayer, creative visualization that included each of them moving along starlit pathways within the vast lucent darkness. With many guardians keeping watch. Bound for their own safe, purposeful journeys and destinations…and I soon slept.

Emotional distress may seem harder to address–perhaps because it is intangible and not always easy to identify. It can dig into our consciousness, stimulate physical distress signals. We have a lot going on inside us, and emotional activity churns and hums along without our permission, for the most part. And follows us into sleep as witnessed by dreams–and nocturnal wakefulness–that attempt to tie up loose ends.

One thing I’ve learned working with human beings for decades: even moderate discomfort is anathema to the vast majority. It is considered at the least an irksome pest and at worst, a potential scourge to banish. It is avoided as if it has super power to upend and dislocate, even harm, one’s life. And if it can manifest that kind of impact, it clearly must be stopped, right? Eradicated, if at all possible. Immediately. And off goes the alarm.

Our variety of discomforts is broad and can be complex. From childhood tantrums to youthful testiness to an older person’s litany of woes, discomfort appears and behaves in many ways. It turns out that one person’s misery is a passing blip to another–but the other person can then readily list unique issues that do create havoc. A few significant discomforts I heard over and over as a counselor include anxiety, grief and loss, depression, loneliness, anger, pain (spiritual, emotional or physical). A few of the lesser ones are annoyance, impatience, frustration, boredom.

The solution most often chosen by an afflicted person (if the thing cannot be flat-out denied) is to engage in any activity that will shake off the offensive feeling. This is because feelings trigger a chain of subtle, even mysterious internal responses. If a feeling is even perceived as undesirable, a warning starts to blare. And it may seem not unreasonable if your mind (or body) is, in fact, being aggravated by something that may be hazardous. So that discomfort now feels like a burden or even a threat–a thing that must disappear.

The question is: what if it is unnecessary to trigger the nervous system alarms? Maybe it’s bears a closer look first. Perhaps it can be alleviated by a pleasant saunter, a hard run or a good talk with a friend. Or it can be tolerated–just felt– until it fades of its own accord. Because an interesting fact about emotions is that with limited to no attention, they tend to mount, peak and then simply back off. Eventually they can dissipate entirely. The more you feed them, the bigger and flashier they can get, like a fire or a mammoth wave. And then people understandably feel overwhelmed or at least well saturated. (We can do the last to ourselves with a favorite song, for instance–especially if we feel heartache that seeks sympathetic engagement.)

I think it’s a good idea to be present with–pause with—our personal experience of emotions. They are gifts to us, a vital part of human hard wiring. They provide information about the environment, others, and ourselves. About what we need and want. As our five senses provide us with a physical telegraphing of data, our feelings addtionally provide us with emotional survival. As difficult as they may seem at times, they are not out to get us but to assist us.

Grief, for example, cannot be denied for long without having a boomerang effect. It will come back at you one day in some unexpected, more distressful way if you stomp it down, box it up. It can hound you and initiate depression or anger or a sense of being lost, even abandoned. Loneliness may need to manifest in melancholy longings that bring tears awhile; a common experience is the hard awareness of, our naked confrontation with our singularity in the world. Boredom, another harsh state of being for some, might rather be embraced; it can lead to brainstorming that inspires positive innovation.

Anxiety, that live wire of nerves set on high is a frequent complaint. But that twitchy adrenalin can be harnessed to provide extra mental energy and forward motion to push through triggering situations–like stage fright can provide the oomph for better performance. Fear, however, is so primal an instinct that to not heed it is unadvisable. It asks for respect faster than some feelings when the amygdala detects, then responds to some sense of danger. A number of processes contribute to the feeling of being threatened–i.e., fear– and what we do with it matters a great deal. Ignoring it is not the best so we complete a lightning fast threat assessment. And find a solution if required. It is possible the triggers are actually benign and something else is impacting your perception.

It is well advised to be mindful of what we feel; striking a happy balance is our challenge. At some point you may need to probe further, find out why there is a continuing problem with whatever the issue is. Our feelings originate and culminate in subtle and complicated dances. They are choreographed by the brain’s chemical responses–norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin–as well as body’s–adrenalin, cortisol. But they also include a lot of direction from highly individual experience: our perception of things, memories of similar events, the focus we give the current experience and each person’s response. And ultimate reactivity. We’re at the top of the food chain for good reason. We have choices regarding what we think and do.

At the beginning, I mentioned people often want to run from discomfort. Everyone knows this is a temporary fix. We know it but still try it. Our culture supports and adheres to this attitude and action. More distraction is generally considered better; we are inundated, a daily bombardment of sensory and mental stimulation. People can and do spend maximum waking hours on their PC, watching television, using their phones and tablets. Any time there is something we wish to ignore, there are a thousand and one ways in which we can do it. Tune out, seek a different channel. Revert to another mind numbing option. Emphasis on lack of feeling as that means “no bother, no fuss.”

And we have such pills. Give us one, please, or if prescribed, give us lots of refills. Sedate us, above all, it seems.

I was looking for face lotion with SPF15 in an unfamiliar well-stocked store when I found myself stalled in the analgesic and cold medicine aisle. I really looked it over out of surprise. It was a shock how much was available. Cheap and expensive. Brand name and generic. The packaging was complicated. The box colors were vivid. There were so many shelves that my eyes grew weary of it all. Obviously pain medications especially are sought. They make money. And prescription pain medication–for physical and mind– does even better because if we do not have to, we will not be uncomfortable much less suffer a bit more.

I sometimes wonder if we aren’t as a species gradually losing our coping skills. Our human capacities for stamina and persistence. Endurance. If we haven’t already forgotten much of how to deal with life’s common little dramas, the frequent but moderate tests as well as demanding, character building trials. Or has character, in the old fashioned sense, fallen out of vogue? Have we fully bought the tagline that it should be “fast, easy, efficient” as if the first two are needed for the last to happen? What about the time it takes for a small human being to become a big one, all the skills that ought to be mastered? The engagement and effort it takes for a youth to become gradually more informed and less gullible? The critical thinking and decision making  that nonetheless go hand in hand with failures and faux pas that accompany accomplishment and victory? All of this may even lead to–surely does more often than not–wisdom.

The stalwart, resilient human being doesn’t have to keep a stiff upper lip, I suppose. But we might be better off realizing life’s variety and learning to adapt, to strengthen our selves. Not escaping. Denying. Those who thrive–no matter the discomfort or deeper suffering– do. The choice made to accept the tender soreness tells us we are alive as much as delight and contentment do. Not feeling is a mark of being rendered unconsciousness by substances, being severely traumatized or being a psychopath. Not such a rosy array.

I say we could learn a thing of two just being with our feelings. We don’t need to borrow others’ emotions from gossipy media or raging headlines. Empathy is one thing–a compassionate understanding of what another feels is crucial to kind, effective cohabitation. But we don’t need more vicarious emotion. We have our own to help us navigate our way, to enrich our personal lives and others’. That disappointment you feel when you don’t get the promotion? Feel it to own it as yours; let it then spur you toward other goals, jobs. The anxiety you feel before giving a performance? Acknowledge it, see it is energy to provide excitement and power behind your words or actions–and perhaps to aid a supportive response to another who feels fear. That deep sadness you still feel when seeing a reminder of the parent or friend you recently lost? Hold it close, for it is a measure of your love and their impact on your soul. Their absence lingers to allow you to fully grieve, accept the reality of loss and release sorrow so you can continue living. And anger? Yes, own this, too, identify it, learn its origins. For behind anger is most often hurt or a sense of disrespect and when you see it for what it is, anger weakens as the truth come forward. You can experience anger and not lose but gain a greater perspective, thus inviting change as needed.

So why decide first and foremost that it is better to escape our discomforts? They tell us part of our story, offer clues to who we are and what is going on in the intricate operations of our personalities. What is the use of sleeping though life, of numbing our senses, mind and heart? We were given the right equipment. We are charged with keeping it in good order. We were gifted with an opportunity to be one hundred percent alive, not half-present, partly attuned. And if we find it very hard and need helping hand, locate then use that support. There are other people out there who get this human living pretty well, and who have ideas to offer. Then you can better care for your feelings. And make this a well-used life.

Welcome or less welcome emotions: remember they’re like road signs alerting us to what’s ahead. A tricky serpentine curve, an area that may bring rock slides, a road that offers stops and starts and turn-offs and full exits. Pay attention to the whole experience. Be open to discovering curious sights yet to be seen.

I have my own moments. I just today crossed paths with a person one of my adult children loved and now is no longer with, has not been for a few years. As we waved across the room, then talked with one another, there arose within me a quiet warmth that also awakened fond memories. And then a dulled yet palpable hurt around that loss. A wisp of sorrow that the relationship had not lasted. I still feel it. I recall many meals happily shared, grandchildren being born, enthusiastic hikes, interesting talks. But I still hope the future unfolds well for the person. For all involved. I accept the beauty of what was, that even remains, but also the truth of changes. It isn’t easy loving a child’s partner and then having to let go–no one asked me, no one warned me enough and no one said it would hurt so much. But that is a part of things. And this moment is what exists today so I exchanged a warm hug and well wishes.

The rest of that scenario was this: we were all there for a granddaughter’s eight grade graduation. Our precious grandchild, their child. The wonder of it is what I still get to keep: the respect and care we somehow still share as it is woven with the lives of grandchildren I adore. And so the bittersweet may retain a tinge of bitter but it is far, far more sweet. And home I went, thoughtful and glad.

Feelings are not fair or unfair. They just are, they come, they go and sometimes make a home in our lives. Don’t let unwanted guests set up camp; show them the door after they are seen and given basic respect. As for me, they all may also become a poem or story, a prayer or song, a reaching, giving and receiving. Such richness in it so I’m claiming it all. Like any other, I have suffered, celebrated, failed, been afraid and been brave, ached and mended, shared joy and shared grief, wished for more than I might have and found this life good. This panoply of feeling–magnificent array of experience that guides me–informs me I am here, breathing. Let me remain fully awake until wakefulness here is no longer needed.

(The featured picture used is a print by my daughter, Naomi J Falk. Her website is: http://www.naomijfalk.com.)

NOTE: If you are experiencing a persistent or high level of emotional and mental distress, such as ongoing depression and hopelessness, please contact a professional for help.

SOS: Dreams to the Rescue

 

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I know these who arrive in the night. They are as familiar to me as my own reflection, and yet I cannot identify their features as easily as their intentions and meaning. The are speaking to me in fluid tones, as if we are underwater or flying. This different communication requires heightened interpretation. I sense things, feel things richly, not like fleeting emotions but a deeper knowing. I think vaguely as I watch us all that it is like a telegraph system of glances, pulses of energy, knowledge sent and received in a transparent, efficient manner. Swift passages of understanding flow, heard by dreaming ears.

It is neither day or night here, and we have basic bodies that mean far less than thoughts. But they provide me with a tangible sense of happiness, a buoyancy in this hazy, opalescent place. It is clear I deeply love them and they, me. There is excitement, as though I am being cheered on, as if something wonderful is happening. I realize I am part of this forever even as I awaken from the sweetness of the dream.

There has been a crisis in my family involving a grandchild. I am filled with consternation and sadness as we problem solve. My dream reminds me not only of the strength of love in my daily life but also the love that is given us by our angels, passed relatives and allies, even God Almighty, those who tend our hearts and souls even as we slumber.

I have been in that Otherland we enter when crossing from the country of physical wakefulness into territories of dream life. We exist there for seven or so hours every twenty-four hours if we are fortunate. We sink into REM sleep state and dream. We recall it vividly or partially, or not at all. But life continues to be experienced despite our slumber. We gather information, bring it back and break the surface to wakefulness. Then we let go of dream gleanings or bring them closer for examination. We remember, we forget, but there is a difference made.

I remember. Not everything–how could I even capture all that is left behind once my body reclaims my attention? A dream might nag me yet remain ephemeral, unable to reconfigure fully in this consciousness. An identifiable sensation lingers for hours, days. Yet every night there arrive interesting scenarios, bits of ideas. Dreaming is a potent resource. Questions and answers arise from the journeying there.

It is an ancient idea. Dreaming has been valued throughout our human history and remains more important to some cultures than others. Dreams have been revered as oracular, providing wisdom. They are fables for greater living. They are sorters or filters of the ceaseless input we receive and discharge during all our human endeavors. Scientists study brain waves in an attempt to demystify the how, why and when of the subtle complexity of dreaming. Psychologists analyze, develop a guide of dream symbols; psychics advertise skill in personalized interpretation. We know that without sound sleep that supports dreaming the human mind becomes disordered, even disturbed.

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I have always believed in the value of dreams. It was my mother who taught me about them when I was a youth. Each morning she would ask how I slept. Then we would share our respective dreams over breakfast. I found her dreams intense, vivid, full of portents, sometimes fears, beautiful visions and tales of life. Even prayerful answers. Her dreams could foretell alarming events; she never discounted them and was often correct. I saw how dreams swirled about her otherwise well-organized, accomplished living. They moved her and impacted me as the receiver.  Early on I acquired the habit of observing and keeping track of my own, sometimes in dream journals.

Perhaps this example of how dreaming seemed to save me will further clarify the heart of this essay.

During early adulthood I ended up in situations defined by economic instability, victimization and spiritual crisis. I utilized resources but still saw there was not enough headway made. I needed definitive answers, tending to discover external solutions as I examined internal issues. I clung to hope but self-esteem became fragile. I prayed yet it seemed both pleadings and praises were often placed on hold. I wasn’t sure what to feel grateful of: that I had housing but lived in uncertainty and fear? That although my children were cherished they inconsistently had bare necessities? I had barely begun college only to have to quit, had few wage earning skills. I daily ruminated over all that had brought me to that point. If God loved me well–I still believed it so–then why did I feel I was barely hanging on to the sides of a small boat rolling in treacherous waters?

My dreaming reflected the turmoil. For years, they included an emergency–a fire, dangerous intruder, the house on the verge of collapse, a tornado or other catastrophic natural event–and I would immediately seek help. In these situations a partner turned away, family and friends were otherwise engaged, were not to be found or did not know who I was. I dialed 911 repeatedly only to find the number was wrong, the phone was damaged or disconnected, had vanished at the last minute. I was hanging on to my children as I tried to find an escape route. Yet I could not get out or in any door or window I located. It doesn’t take a scholar to see these dreams mirrored my feelings. I awakened fighting off defeat, tired out by a relentless sense of futility that even permeated sleep.

But I kept praying to be heard and delivered. Gradually, I began to dream differently: during an emergency, I would secure the children with watchful, benign people and go in search of help, or strike out alone and stop passersby to ask for aid. There was friendliness and pleasing events at some junctures, danger at others. I had adventures that became frightening, tests of my resilience and wits but I managed to stay alive, to keep going. Ultimately, though, I found no lasting help. So I would return to the starting point. It seemed I could depend on no one. Yet I awakened thinking: This is different–I leave and go looking for help, take more risks. But there is still no constructive solution. 

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In time, I fell asleep and found myself wandering a college campus, exploring classrooms, navigating throngs, stumbling over books, finding rest under fairy-tale giant trees. Trying to find my way back home, feeling disoriented but unafraid. I discovered different houses, often oddly familiar, some marred by disarray but safer. I then travelled to places with commonalities such as sparkling expanses of water, in mountains, situated on verdant land, town centers astir with activity. In the mornings I thought: I must save myself, my family; I must take much greater chances. God will always be with me but I must take full responsibility. Take action soon. No one else will. This is my life. 

The thoughts crystallized. One night I dreamed of trudging up a mountainous path, children in my arms, all of us sweating. So weary. The difficult path led to a huge, exquisite structure at the peak. I stood before heavy golden double doors and then turned the doorknobs. The doors sprung open. Before us was a gleaming white and black tiled floor which was part of an expansive reception area that seemed to not end. To my right and left were infinite numbers of doors. I stood before several. I did not want to open any of them, thinking then I would be ensnared in another room that was not my place of peace or freedom.

I stepped forward and kept walking when before me the wall melted away. There were white columns on either side of a vast veranda. Beyond shining steps was a paradisal garden, a scene of multiple wonders and beauties, sustenance awaiting us. A grand fountain burbled into a large pool. Sunlight warmed and energized. There were people moving among plants and walkways, engaged in discourse. At ease. I was overcome with relief. Happiness, even. We had made it. Strength and resolve welled up inside as I awakened.

I shared this with a Methodist minister who counseled me. He was so affected his hand flew to his mouth a moment, then said, “I believe God has shown you something powerful. You will make it out of your difficulties and be alright.” (Later I learned he shared my experience in a counseling workshop as an example of spiritual and emotional healing.)

So I left home. I gathered my children up, found a new spot to live, returned to college. For years I had delayed this–leaving that marriage felt cataclysmic after being in love and losing so much. The act felt defined by defeat. Yet it changed my course in many good ways. I am not telling you it was easy, that new problems didn’t arrive and need to be overcome. But opportunities also appeared. I began to trust that a better way of life was within my grasp. That I had what it took to succeed. Eventually a surprising career changed everything futher. And it had all started with a vision that came from dreaming, a choice that was spurred by night-time seeking.

Dreaming has assisted me in fine-tuning life, taught me how to resolve conflicts, become more creative, reach out to others. Even to forgive. Not every dream matters as much as others. But they each do their job of keeping mind, body and soul in running order.

Do you willingly enter the innermost place where dreams tell you a truth, even a difficult one? Have they helped save your life, too? Tonight, rest well; sleep an ancient slumber. Recharge your soul and mind. Expect to learn good things. You will find your way there and back again with more pieces of the puzzle put in place.

"Reach" by Naomi J Falk, 2003
“Reach” by Naomi J Falk, 2003