Archive for November, 2011


November 29, 2011

Someone in an email group I belong to included the following, which may be commonly known, but I had never heard it before: “‘A woman has to be in the mood; a man has to be in the room.'”  There has been much discussion, much in a jocular vein, about this ever since, among other members of the group.

But I actually found it helpful in a more pedantic way, because it said to me that maybe some men don’t trust themselves and that’s why they avoid certain kinds of relationships with women.  Which in turn got me thinking about “What Temptation Means to Me.”

For me, temptation is usually about signing on to someone else’s view not just of the world and how to be in it but of me and how I should be in it.  The (mis)step I take is something like, “Oh, they must know something I don’t” and I jump right into their idea of what I should be doing.  A good example was when my son was struggling in high school and I called all the right people for advice and they told me to convene a meeting and it turned out to bring things to a head in a way we were not prepared for (and not what was supposed to happen — many rules were broken, but as I learned, unless the student and family have the resources, including time, to go through a hearing process, there’s not much that can be done when the rules are not followed — more than one lawyer told me, “Yes, you’re right, there really is no accountability there, they are used to that, and that’s a large part of the problem.  Muddle on.”  We muddled until he graduated.).

So, one of my temptations is to take other people’s advice, and when it means adopting a worldview that actually doesn’t work in my context, if indeed it actually works for anybody — sometimes I think it just becomes more obvious in my life because the issues tend to get played out in heightened ways — I end up sitting on the ground inspecting my bruises and trying to accept that what may be appropriate for other people may actually not be what I should be doing, and that it’s part of my contribution to the situation that I asked for and took their advice.

Bruises are one thing.  I can get back up on the horse (elephant?) and keep going.  It’s when the advice tells me something akin to, “You shouldn’t be riding that horse,” or any horse, that I risk trouble.  My sense of what horse I should be riding I think has to come through me, I don’t think I can take most people’s word for it.  When I sense I’m on the wrong one, I do have some success asking someone like Gita, who does see other people’s stuff pretty neutrally, about why I feel confused.  It usually even then takes my actually seeing it for myself to accept it, although the suggestion about where to look is invaluable.

The temptation with which I am currently struggling involves the perennial favorite question, especially in middle age, “What should I be doing with my Life?”  I don’t feel like a failure, the way a relative recently reported to me she feels, but I do feel tired and that I still haven’t found a modus vivendi since Willy died that feels like it works for me.  I have opted for the “function and be responsible” part of the program, and hoped that eventually I would find the opportunity to regroup in a way that would feel more comfortable, especially since in the long term I need a way of living that is less exhausting.  I don’t know.  Maybe I am too loathe to abandon my responsibilities in favor of something else, or maybe the lesson is to find a way to meet those responsibilities without becoming so exhausted and with discovering a way to find contentment in my life as presently constituted.  I do somewhat better with answering the smaller question of, “What should I be doing right now in my life?  What is next?”



November 29, 2011

I am trying to figuring out what lies behind the apparent fact that sometimes when we’ve experienced an emotional transaction with someone else we try our best to avoid doing it to others, and why sometimes, whether intentionally or not, we wind up repeating the transaction but with ourselves in the other role.

So, for example, I’ve received very unhelpful condolence notes myself and I make an extra effort not to do the same myself when it’s my turn to write.  On the other hand, I resented that my father refused to teach me how to drive (someone who was like a second mother to me taught me instead, including how to talk to other drivers), and I’ve taught neither of my children to drive (my dad did teach my older sister), although for very different reasons.

I suspect this has to do with how the life lesson needs to be taught, perhaps like the difference between reading about something in a textbook and doing a hands-on project.

So, I titled this “Oppression” because I am wondering how people who grow up feeling oppressed deal with that as adults, whether they try their best not to force others to conform, for example, or whether they visit oppression on others in some other form or guise.


A Gaelic song

November 28, 2011

I started learning Gaelic while I was in college because a friend wanted to take lessons and she needed someone to walk with her in a dangerous neighborhood.  There was a song that Philomena taught us that I really liked, and I suddenly discovered it today on a Corrs album.  What a happy surprise.  The interesting thing is that while I had bought the album (“Home”) about a month ago, I hadn’t realized it included that song until I came across it in another way, on the internet, and took another look, because I hadn’t played the album through yet.  So, I had the song I loved again but didn’t know it, through my own lack of follow through.  Kind of like the teaching that we do have within us what we need, we just don’t access it.

Ugly duckling

November 28, 2011

There have been a lot of swans on the res (reservoir) this fall, something like eight or ten at a time.  Today there was even a juvenile, with fuzzy neck and brownish feathers.  I was holding the leash of someone’s dog so he could photograph his wife feeding a bunch of swans, geese, and ducks (maybe seagulls, too), and on her way up from the shore, the wife asked me in a worried sort of voice about the swan with the darker feathers.  I explained I thought it was a juvenile and would have whiter feathers when it got older.  Seemed to make her feel better that it would come to look like the other ones.  Made me feel better that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand the tale of The Ugly Duckling at first.  It also reminded me of my post about spiritual emergency and mental illness, mistaking an “ugly” stage for something different.

Church Latin translations

November 28, 2011

I am wondering whether the current contretemps over the new Vatican translation of the Catholic mass needs a wider context to be understood better.

My last paying job was to edit somebody’s translation, from the Latin, of medieval church court records in marriage cases for a book on medieval marriage.  And one of my frequent reactions was, “Yes, but is this English?  colloquial English? English that is not too distracting in its usage?”  And some of the time Charlie changed the wording and sometimes he decided to keep it the way he had translated it originally (which he attributed to his “stubbornness”).  I didn’t much care which way he decided, it was his book, I only felt obliged to bring up this stuff that I found jarring (we agreed pretty easily on the other stuff, the stuff that was less stylistic and more objectively in need of a little editing), and I think he enjoyed both using what I thought were anachronisms and uncommon phrasings, and my reaction to his usage.  But he also said since I was one of the twenty-five or so people who would possibly be interested in the book, he wanted to know what I thought, and he knew I came to it through classical Latin, not a Church context (much to his disappointment).  It seemed to be a friendly enough exchange, and his acknowledgments I think reflect that, even if they don’t accurately reflect the structure of my assistance to him (an issue which is unfortunately in keeping with my previous experience of our relationship, although I can thank Charlie for by his behavior leaving me open to other callings).

Anyway, this Latin mass translation situation indicates to me that Charlie’s translation style may not have been idiosyncratic to him, that there may be a proud tradition within certain circles of the Church of using what sound to outsiders like peculiar translation fashions (there’s a wonderful essay somewhere on fashion and idiosyncrasy in scholarship).  Maybe indeed a taste for these fashions is an important currency for belonging, within the Church, a kind factor for separating out groups of members within the larger group.  I don’t know.  But my experience is too close a parallel not to be relevant, I think, to understanding the current, wider issue of controversy regarding the mass translation.

What to tweak

November 28, 2011

I read the recent article in The New York Times about how some people with diagnosed mental illness deal with both it and living in the world.  It left me wondering whether there are other points of intervention at which to tweak our understanding of what people experience in that region that is not consensual reality.

Like those spoiler alerts or graphic images alerts, here’s my “I may be about to say something others will find offensive” alert.  So saying I know doesn’t make what I will say less offensive, but it’s a flag for me to be as careful as I can and a flag for others to learn some context for my remarks.  Because what I’m trying to do is to figure out places in our societal understandings where we might think about revision in order to achieve more helpful outcomes down the road of consequences — I have no need to evaluate other people’s belief systems in order to pass judgment on them, I just wonder whether some of our current beliefs lead to trouble further down the road, for example, to people stuck in distress.  And I don’t think what I’m about to write explains everything, all delusion or mental illness or spiritual regression — I mean it as a possible piece of the puzzle.

So, apparently a common delusion is that one is Jesus or God, or has met Jesus or God.  Suppose we redefine Jesus and God.  Suppose both can be thought of as stages the self goes through, that they are more general, in a sense, than one being or a defined divinity.  If we possess them within us as aspects of our selves, then encountering them is less of a thing that must be explained away (with psychology, for example).  Even thinking that someone else we meet is “Jesus” or “God” can merely indicate that we are ready to recognize in ourselves and in others a level of spiritual maturity and identification with a more expansive state of being than we usually spend time with.  It’s not, then, that we have met a particular other being who is unlikely to be met in this way, but rather that some boundary within us has become permeable enough that we have access to aspects of our own souls that are usually walled off from us in this world.  But in western culture, I think we may have lost our vocabulary for this phenomenon — both the nomenclature and the concept, too.  We renamed and re-characterized these issues as discrete entities who cannot be part of us easily within our accepted system, so when we try to pass through this spiritual stage, we get stuck.  We say something like, “This can’t be right.  I can’t be Jesus.  That person I met can’t be Jesus.”  And so the whole experience gets pathologized as mental illness for want of a known better alternative.  Once we let go of thinking of “Jesus” as a particular being and God as a character, however extensive, and once we let go of the uniqueness part of our experience (suppose we assume that everyone may go through such a stage), then we can ride out the belief and move on to a new understanding, into a new phase.  I suspect that people end up in this somewhat tricky stage when they lose their boundaries without being able to quiet their ego and its fears and desires, or even being aware that their ego is their ego and their soul is their soul, before their boundaries become so permeable.

I should probably add that it is my impression that these stages of integrating the “Jesus” or “God” in oneself into one’s sense of self are recognized parts of spiritual development in other religions.

Friday night services

November 26, 2011

Jonas called last night while I was out at Friday night services, and when he called back today and I tried to explain to him where it was, he says, “Oh, I think that’s near where the mosque Salman and Nayef used to go to was, we used to go pick them up there sometimes.”  I remembered he used to be friends with these two Saudi princes, a pair of twins (their dad was getting medical treatment at Mass. General Hospital, I think), but I didn’t know where they worshiped or that Jonas even knew.  But I thought it was a great point of reference for locating a synagogue.  What I noticed as I walked to it from the MBTA stop were the Korean churches, but Jonas was unaware of those.  Could have been different neighborhoods we were talking about, too, and there have been about ten years inbetween.

Anyway, the last time I had been to Friday night services was years ago (and elsewhere), and I was less in a frame of mind then to notice how much of the experience was a group prayer experience and how much of it was something else (intellectual, social, musical, poetic).  These were very warm and authentic and friendly.  I probably need to learn the prayers and tunes better so as not to be distracted by trying to follow and remember the words and melodies.  But I was disappointed that the only time I really felt “the flow” was during the individual and silent recitation of the Amidah.  I am looking for that minyan, group prayer experience, not a group human interactive experience.  I am looking for the flow that can be gotten by a group, that kind of amplification of our voices, and the good stuff that comes in as a result.  I am willing to believe it might be had with this group, and I’m not going to give up after a first try, but I am harboring doubts.  It actually reminds me of the realization I had that when I take a walk with someone, doing so has more in common for me with having someone over for tea than it does with taking a walk by myself.  There, walking by myself has been, so far, the resolution to that issue, but a group prayer experience can’t be accomplished by oneself, I would think.

Not requiring things to be better than they are

November 26, 2011

I enjoyed Joe Nocera’s column today, I thought the story it told was attractive and provided a nice view of other people’s lives.  My reaction to it was perhaps cranky and uncharitable, but I think my frustration with the genre of uplift goes beyond my own perhaps petty issues: there are ways of living many kinds of difficult lives without needing to conform to commonly accepted standards of happiness and success.  While I’m not addressing here the issue of lives wracked by experiences like war and rape, and I do want to acknowledge that some people are living such lives, I am addressing at least some of the lives that are not going to have fairy tale endings or even enough of what most people consider positive things to be comfortable.

Life can be full of external events that have negative impacts on us, and that isn’t going to stop, the way I see it.  In my own, I’ve heard that things are going to get better for so many years, and it hasn’t helped.  What has helped is that I have learned that things don’t have to get better externally for me to feel better internally (maybe other people know that before their lives become difficult, but I didn’t).  And it’s not that I make a break with reality and live my life in a fantasy world, either.  A lot of it has to do with shifting my perspective, with not taking adversity too personally (either by blaming myself or by blaming somebody else), with being clearer about what’s my responsibility and what isn’t, with finding emotional support through the less tangible forces of the universe when my fellow human beings can’t meet my needs (this is one reason I prickle when I read that the key to something or other I should have is human relationships — it’s a piece, to my way of thinking, but only a piece, and it’s a piece that seems to work differently in different lives), with framing things as challenges and trying to learn a different way of doing things from them instead of regarding them as intrusions that shouldn’t occur and trying to “fix” them in a manner analogous to breaking a piece to one of those complicated 3-D wooden puzzles in order to try to make it fit so the object can be put back together.

There are other tools or techniques, but these are the ones that come to mind right now, and my point was just to indicate what an alternative to a relentless insistence on uplift and happy endings might entail.

I also think this point is important, at least to me, to make, because other systems for dealing with adversity and looking at life seem to by definition leave some people in the dust, to reward some subset of people, however large, at the expense of the rest, due to their norms for what a life should look like, and while perhaps helping some people, make others feel worse.



November 25, 2011

I woke up this morning wanting to write about a parable in which somebody borrows a neighbor’s lawnmower and returns it broken and suggests a web link to a site that explains how to repair it.  Maybe I’ll get back to that — my first interpretation was to identify with a reaction of feeling riled at someone not cleaning up the damage that they cause, but maybe it’s more a lesson in accepting the challenge to learn to deal with damage in one’s life regardless of apparent source.

But then I got another thought, probably not original, about shame, and it seemed to make more sense to write about that first, directly after the post about shame.

What I thought is that the story of Adam and Eve is conventionally told as one in which they lose their innocence and experience shame.  If shame is a by-product of being cut off from that greater part of the self, from the inner office, from the vacuum motor (see previous post, please), if it occurs when the mahout falls off the elephant, so to speak, when the ego loses communication with the soul, to put it another way, then returning to the garden is the reconnection of our “I” identity with our more eternal part, with our souls.  It’s about that journey from a child’s connectedness with the universe through development of a sense of individual self, and then to a reunion with the universe but still maintaining the ability to see the self as distinct now.

If the key is to reconnect with the soul, I would say that we discover that connection through the love we finally hear when we call out from the heart, that cry that I think the Jewish Shema prayer embodies (it’s on my mind because I have this plan to attend this evening Friday night services at a shul for the first time in years — the invitation, which I am taking as a general and not personal one, from someone who has very good hosting skills, came through a guy — I have to ask myself why I am listening to him when I have never attended services where Gita attends, despite her having invited me years ago, and my answer is to laugh gently at my ego).  That calling of our soul to us can be difficult to hear amid all the noise of our lives, and sometimes I think we unfortunately hear it best in the relative quiet of loneliness and despair.  It’s one of those gifts of desperation people talk about.  But it really is one that keeps on giving, and in a good way.


November 25, 2011

I decided to try to write here about shame because I don’t understand it, or at least I don’t call by that name the feelings it is used to label.  Or so it seems to me.

I do embarrassment and guilt all too easily, regret, too.  I am aware at times with feeling upset with myself for having done something, or not having done something, and those feelings tend to feel like a need to be better than I am, if not perfect.  Sometimes I have a really hard time letting go about feeling bad about something.   So it’s not that I don’t have negative reactions to things I’ve done.  But I think I’m missing something about the component of feeling humiliated or disgraced, of some internal feeling of having failed in some way that says something about me generally as a person, as opposed to feeling that I failed in a particular task or role.

I don’t think of myself as having particularly high self-esteem or self-confidence, so I don’t think it’s probably because somehow I think pretty well of myself despite whatever it is I’m upset that I did that I don’t feel shame.  Maybe it has more to do with how I think about myself in a structural way, that my self who did the thing isn’t all of me but sort of the front office.  So, that front office may need some house cleaning, some improvement, some retraining, and it may need to apologize and make amends or try to rectify or retry a transaction, but at the same time the inner office remains distinct.  It’s not that this inner office has no role or connection to what happened, but it is not directly responsible, it is more of an observer, like a teacher, who then helps in directing the clean-up phase.  My point here is that I don’t think I separate my actions from what I identify as self completely, but I also don’t see them as coincident.  They are not of the same sort.  Maybe instead of front office, I should use the analogy of vacuum  attachment or something for the part of me that acts; yes, the vacuum motor powers the thing, but it isn’t directly involved when the attachment eats the rug fringe.  In any case, the parts are linked and connected and integrated with each other, but they are distinct in some way that allows me to locate my identity with something different from the sum of my actions or with the part of me that engaged in them.  Maybe this allows me to have a vantage point from which to remonstrate with the part of me that acts without getting consumed by it.  This sort of set-up might be consonant with my sense of being able to witness what I do —  good, bad, and indifferent — in order to learn the lesson, neutralize the emotion, and move out of the situation and into what’s next.

I’m not sure about this explication, this is kind of extemporaneous, but I have wondered about “shame” before, and I thought maybe now was as good a time as any to try to figure out why I draw such a blank when people use it as a point of reference.  Especially because I get the sense that people who do sometimes find it crippling.  I guess I’m hoping my exploration of the subject might be helpful by suggesting there are other ways to conceptualize the self that don’t lead to moral anarchy and may be more helpful in not getting unproductively stuck in self-punishment.