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Music Bridging the Gap

“Love in any language, Straight from the heart, Pulls us all together, Never apart.”

And once we learn to speak it, “All the world will hear Love in any language Fluently spoken here”. Sandi Patty sung this song and it was authored by John Mays/Jon Mohr

Throughout my life, it has been music that has saved me from the insanity of life’s happenings.  Music has been a vital part of my day. It has calmed me, allowed me to express emotions that I could otherwise not readily connect with, and it has allowed me to create wonderful things.  There is one other wonderful thing about music: it is an equalizer.

My earliest memory of music is of my father playing the piano.  I grew up hearing Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Mendelsohn, and countless others.  Music was sometimes what I would drift off to sleep with. Music was also a chance for me to sing.  I couldn’t do many things as a toddler, but I could carry a tune. I was singing before I could talk or walk.  Because of my father’s music background, I was tested for absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, as it is more popularly known.  I don’t quite have that, but I’m not far off from it. Considering the fact that I also have hearing loss, this isn’t too shabby.  I’m proud of what I can do with music, and that I’m good enough to sing with a string quartet. It would be great to sing with an orchestra.  What a blast that would be!!!!

I’ve sung in Italian, German, Spanish and Latin.  Music is a way of universal communication. Music, when done well, can shine as an example in any language and the beauty that it contains.  I am discovering that there are beautiful recordings in the Dutch language. When I listen to them, the guttural Dutch sound becomes a thing of wonder.  When the singer sculpts the words well, there is an understanding that bridges the gap. Just like the “I love you” that is spoken in any language the meaning cannot be misconstrued.  So “love in any language” becomes “music in any language.”

Music is the one thing that anyone can do!!!  Think about it for a minute: You can teach someone to carry a tune and match the note.  But, you don’t have to teach a child to open their mouth and sing. Singing comes naturally.  Intelligence and physical ability are not factors here. Music is everyone’s gift of being heard.

Bridges to the heart.

Throughout my life there have been many bridges.  One of the most powerful of those bridges has been volunteerism.  During my life, I have been both a volunteer, and the person on the receiving end.  Both sides of the process are filled with positive feelings.

There are many ways of giving.  Some commit to careers of service to others.   Many people choose to give to an organization that represents something meaningful to them.

As I stop to think about the process that my “future guide dog” will have gone through, the first phase of that is the volunteer family who will take “my Eyelette” into their home and love and play with him, or her.  What a gift!!!! Taking the time and the love to raise up a playful puppy in a healthy manner so that it can become a healthy guide dog for someone else!!!!

There is someone here at the Loo Erf who came in as a volunteer and he has affected me greatly.  He loves what he does and it shows. The tricks and tips and encouragement that he has given me are gifts.  It is a treat to have a braille lesson or a Dutch session with him. Personally, I think he has given this place a piece of his heart over the last 10 years.

When I was in my 20’s I spent time doing an internship that involved those with mental illness.  I gave several hours per week to those who needed and in return I received a new view of life. They taught me to laugh in a new way.  They taught me understanding. I learned so much from each of them. I still think of them and wonder where they are now.

We used to watch one of the Animal rescue shows.  Many of the animals were depressed and beaten down, but with the love and help of volunteers, they became “cute animals” and we renamed the show “cute animals.”  Volunteers are great!!!! Volunteers change lives.

My Pitch.

Think about giving some of your time.  The rewards are phenomenal. The sacrifice is well worth what the recipient will return to you in love and appreciation.   Get out there on the web and Google up your loves, because somewhere out there someone needs you to give to them.

The Gift of Being Heard

I’ve spent many hours “listening to and being listened to.” I’ve communicated, at least on some superficial level, what I meant to say. I pause to listen, to tune in, but in my haste, I fail to hear the real sound that I am in need of hearing. I listen, but fail to hear.
You can learn “listening skills” which will, if you practice them, enable you to not “spring” too soon. You can learn to clarify what is being said and the person on the other end of the conversation may come away feeling as if they communicated successfully.
We listen inquisitively, we listen out of curiosity, we listen in hopes that if we do so it will somehow all be over and we can say that “I listened to you. What more do you want from me?” We listen with resentment and fear. We don’t really want to know. We listen passively. We practice “active listening.” We justify all of this as doing a good bit of what we perceive listening and hearing to be.
At the end of the person’s sharing “they” may be frustrated by the lack of listening we displayed. Maybe they are right. Maybe we blew it all off, tuned ourselves out. Maybe we did a “good enough” job of listening, but it wasn’t good enough. Maybe we got lucky. Maybe they leave feeling a bit better for having spent the time in conversation. They might feel any of the above listed items or they might feel something else and we might not be given the chance to find out just how we did during that conversation. There are times when we only get one shot at listening and turning it into truly hearing what the other person is telling us.
Each conversation is a one shot deal. It is my observation that for most of us, that we spend time listening, but not hearing. Hearing is an art and most of the time we fail to do it very well. Hearing is acknowledging what is left unsaid as well as the spoken portion. Hearing is seeing and feeling the richness of the soul. Hearing can be like unwrapping a gift box.
There are no courses for hearing. There are only times in our lives when we are the person who hears in fullness and the person that is fully heard. These are the times that we remember most. To fully hear and be heard: “to grock it.” (“Stranger in a Strange Land” Robert A. Heinlein) This knowing is what hearing and being heard is all about: to have a fullness of understanding and to view the “gestalt” or the picture in its entirety.
Recalling the conversation that sparked this blog title isn’t essential. The last comment however was the true gift: the gift that told me that for a brief moment in time I mattered to this person. “You needed to be heard.” Those words became significant. That one sentence caused my soul to change. I had been given the gift of being heard and I knew it.
Hearing it physically.
Music is a major part of my life. I listen, I sing, and yet I don’t hear all of its richness due to a hearing loss. I can hear harmonies, but not the richness that is present. I miss what the composer intended me to hear. If I use headphones I can hear more, but not all of the richness that is present. Headphones can be a pain. I have an, I need to use them/wish I didn’t need to use them, relationship with my “Plantronics.” To hear the rich and fuller sounds of the music I must wear them. I must use them when I Skype. I must be tuned into the other person.
Recently I decided that I needed to revisit the hearing instrument market. I had worn one such gadget during the mid 80’s to the late 90’s. The gadget was big and not very effective. When I moved to Germany I stopped wearing it. I would live without hearing because it felt better to not have that gargantuan thing in my right ear. I would also be rid of the background noises that were not wanted. Hearing was not pleasant.
Life changed and I needed to see if I could introduce a better quality of hearing pleasure into my daily experience. I found a center that does thorough screening for hearing loss and took that information to the techie who would do the actual work of finding the proper gadget for my sorry state of being. I didn’t feel very hopeful. My past experience was foremost in my mind.
The next week something wonderful happened: I heard a conversation and didn’t have to ask the person to repeat what was said. This was novel!!!! There were no raised voices. The experience was beautiful. Listening was effortless. I could once again hear the world around me.
I began to explore and found that I could have background music on and still hear!!!! I could listen as our three cats munched down their meals. Cats are noisy when they munch. I could listen to the sound of the water which had always seemed so quiet. Once the initial adjustment to hearing old sounds in new ways passed, I was happy. I was excited about having something else switched on. That switch was triggered a week later.
That next Monday my music listening program went live. I heard music in a new way. I was ecstatic. I could hear notes that had gone missing!!! The guy told me about some technology that would enhance my hearing experience to even greater heights. I had him order the “Mini Tek” NOW I WAS EXCITED. Oh, to hear the world in ways it was meant to be heard!
This gadget, Mini Tek, enables the user to have the sound transmitted directly to the hearing instrument. I would have a clear stream of beautiful noise!!!! I would be tuned in precisely!!!! I would hear my phone conversations while out and about and not have to ask the speaker to repeat themselves. Life was getting to be a bit of heaven on earth…UNTIL I found out that the insurance, which was paying for thousands of Euros of hearing pleasure, would not cover this 300 Euros of enhancement technology and I was faced with having to return the box that I had only hours before opened so excitedly.
Returning that box to the Beter Horen (We’re now in Holland) was one of the most depressing days of my life. I asked my husband, Jon, to do it because I was too depressed, too sick in my heart of hearts, to take it back. So, for now the gift of really hearing music and out of the house phone conversations is not happening. For now it is hard but not AS hard to hear. But, this is just about physical hearing and not about the needful hearing.
The gift box.
Fortunately for the true hearing of the soul I don’t need a hearing instrument. I don’t need a “Mini Tek”; I need an open heart that is tuned to the correct frequency of another’s heart. The transmission will be clear. I will be shown what I am meant to see and hear. That is what the gift of being heard is all about.
The gift of being heard is about feeling the soul. We must not only hear the words of the heart, but we must see the landscape of the soul. Only with both true hearing and clear vision can we understand and grant the gift. Only then can we hope to understand the rich soul-scape that awaits us. Only then will we rejoice and be thankful that we unwrapped and shared the gift of being heard.

The Kitty Story

For the past 21 years there have been cats in my life. The first cat was Phred. Phred came with my current husband, so I got to know both of them before we married. Phred was wise, good, and a mighty hunter. Phred was an amazing boy who could sit in porcelain kitty pose on the window box and just be the most precious welcoming cat in the universe. This doesn’t describe him perfectly, but it is a start. For me, Phred was my son. Yes, a child. The one outstanding thing I must mention is his addiction to fishy flavored flakes. IF we let him have some of those things he would go on a hunger fast and demand MORE. Never feed a cat something they can become addicted to!

Next came the princess and her name was ‘Roo, as in Kangaroo, due to her early kitty behavior. ‘Roo, like Phred, lived on two continents, but had the distinction of living in three countries. The Princess was an international kitty. ‘Roo had the most amazing quality of not only being beautiful on the outside but glowing from within. Quite frankly, I’ve never met another cat that I could say that about. ‘Roo had so many good qualities and like Phred, had a nice furry life.

When Phred departed in April of 1999, we decided to wait to see what happened before we became kitty parents yet again.

Barney came to us as a farm cat. He just wandered into our tiny house on the mountain and made friends with ‘Roo and by the end of the fall of 1999 we asked our landlord if we could take him in permanently. I’m glad we did. 

Barney moved with us from Southern Germany to Eastern Netherlands. We lived in an upstairs flat. There was a landing that had a narrow banister. Barney could hold his ground in that space…even when the fierce wind was present. He scared us when he did it. We could imagine him blowing away. Barney was stronger than any kitty we’ve known. Hubby and I would have to restrain him if medication was needed and we lost more than one battle with him. Barney was also very territorial: squirting up a storm in my new blue kitchen. He almost lost his life several times…cuteness saved him.

Barney loved yogurt and had a “yogurt voice” I think he had a sixth sense for when the stuff was to be served. His little furry life was cut short due to heat stroke during the heat wave of 2003. We were devastated. It was then that I said “I don’t think I can do this again. My heart is being pulled and my feelings for our kitty children are so strong.” I was learning something powerful about what our cats could be in our lives.

‘Roo and Barney had been true friends. They would adventure together; causing us to wake in the middle of the night as they ran from one end of the house to the other. Barney became the defender of the territory and ‘Roo, while older, let him do so. She kept dominance in a laughable manner and when she disciplined The Boy for crossing her, it was more comical relief than anything else. Barney got the message and fell into line as a good Submissive should. I remember the first night ‘Roo had without Barney. A cat entered our yard as if to take up the place, all holy hell broke out. We looked out to see our princess running the little twerp off of HER land. She still had it out there. ‘Roo held the dominant place her entire life but you would have never guessed it at first glance. Her sweet and gentle personality was misleading.

Cats are just like children. When you get to know them you discover a treasure chest of delightful happiness. Taking time to share in their little lives is the real gift. And now back to the narrative..

Hubby and I let ‘Roo do her thing for several months. I wasn’t ready for a new cat. Barney’s death was so unexpected and my heart was being pulled into new forms of growth.

At the end of 2003 I began to talk about getting a Russian Blue. I had always wanted a Blue. We started to research them in more detail. I also knew a couple with a Blue and knew her to be skittish. This would not do in a cat. It was then that we stumbled on to the Britt. This was it!!!! During the holiday season we connected with breeders. The wait was shorter than I had planned for and I wasn’t certain if I was ready to “mommie another kitty”, yet. 

We met Penelope and her sister, Tweety, on a cold January day in 2004 and we both fell in love instantly. What was not to love? Penelope was perfect: designed just for me.

‘Roo had had periods in her little furry life where she had been alone, but had matured and gained a sense of self. She was confident and ready to share her life. This was a healthy choice for ‘Roo.

When we carried Penelope home with us for her first night away from her sister, we were concerned about how she and ‘Roo would accept each other. We isolated Penelope and she cried. By midnight ‘Roo was upset and wanting to help, so we decided that we’d try it another way. We let ‘Roo into Penelopes’ space. They bonded instantly. ‘Roo mothered the child and Penelope grew into a sweet, beautiful, kitty daughter. All was well! My days were filled with loving our two kitty-daughters and life was happy with them. Both were adorable and wonderful to have.

Just as bringing a child into the world should take two agreed upon votes, so should bringing a kitty-child into the home. We had talked about a third kitty and finally being in agreement, it was time for action.

Hubby was smitten by Tweety, Penelopes’ sister, I called the breeder to let her know that when Tweety got pregnant, if there was a blue and white male, we wanted him. “Funny you should call…” was the reply “because she is giving birth tonight.” And in the morning the call came: JRA Bob had arrived. And it was a good thing I had called because several others were also interested in Bob. We felt blessed that he would come to our home.

That year for Christmas I gifted JRA Bob to my husband.

Now, we do know that Bob had already eaten

through some hot computer cable. He tore up some curtains. He was a general trouble-maker as a wee kitty. He was the ring leader who looked as innocent as could be, but there was always something brewing inside. And, this was while he was still with his mother!!!!! To this day, we are certain there was some brain damage: He never quite managed to grow up.

When we carried Bob home, we decided to let the boy out and allow the introductions to come naturally. There would be no isolating Bob. This time all holy hell broke out!!!! We thought Penelope would kill him. This was not good at all. Long story short, we put Penelope on Prozac. ‘Roo, while irritated at times, was for the most part, fine with the newbie.

Bob was the craziest, most curious and all around cat-like kitty to be had. There was never a dull moment with Bob. My kitty mommie hands were full!

When they were passing out kitty personalities we figure Bob kept returning for yet another and another and the conversation had to have sounded something like this:

Bob: I want more personality.

Giver: We already gave you a personality and that is all you get. Now go away!!!

Bob: But this isn’t enough. I can’t be as happy, bouncy, lively, and beaming as I’m meant to be. I need more personality and I just know I’ll burst out if I don’t have enough. I need so much MORE!!!! Please?

Giver: Ok JRA Bob.

Bob was right. Bob was loaded with love and affection beyond belief, and Bob was Gorgeous. “Beautiful”, in my mind, just doesn’t do him justice. Bob was the most beautiful of all of our cats and therefore he must have a different adjective. (I know males aren’t supposed to be gorgeous) But, he was and will always be our most gorgeous of kitties.

We were forced to say our goodbyes to Bob in the last week of April of 2013. It was a sunny day and a day that was meant for Bob to be outside in the world. And we took him out, as we had done as part of our saying goodbye ritual for Phred. Keeping him any longer would have been cruel. We miss him so much. There is a huge emptiness here that will never be replaced by another kitty. Bob was unique in the Cosmos. I like to imagine a grand meadow where he can play and be with our other kitties. It’s a nice thought.

As I write this, Penelope has gone through many phases of progression after Bob. First, Penelope was alone and bored. She too missed the pest. (Her thoughts, not ours) She faced being alone for the first time in her little furry life.

We hoped that she would discover a new self and become a new Cat. Penelope is a Cats’ cat. She is independent and does it all on her terms. She too is beautiful and sweet, and learned to become secure in her new environment.

She has shown us that she really needed to be an only kitty for a while. We have enjoyed her and hope to have many more years with her.

Our kitty tapestry has been filled with the rich warmth of individual cats who we will always cherish and from whom we have learned so many lessons about life. Twenty-one years ago I did not understand the power that an animal could have to shape a human life and color it in beautiful ways. Each loss is real.

So goes the cycle of life and death. It enters snatching souls of all types: human and animal. Those we love pass on and we are faced with the loneliness of not having them on a daily basis. Time and soul-searching can heal many things, but you can never go back.

I move forward and can only resolve to make the best kitty life possible for Penelope. 

In thinking about all of this, I must admit I believe that there is a time and a season for all to end as we know it. I believe that each of us creates a future based on possibility.

Because we knew that Bob was destined to live an un-naturally short life I created a mosaic of him that hangs where we can see him and be reminded of just how beamie he was.

I began this piece in 2013. I thought it had a different focus. I kept it in my draft section not knowing what to do with it. I can now publish it because I know the ending. It has to do with mental health issues.

More and more we as human beings are discovering the power of unconditional love with our pots. We are finding that they are sensitive to many powerful emotions we, as humans, display. I’ve seen this with Penelope. If I’m really feeling sick she will come and be my protector. 

I’ve seen this phenomenon with someone else in my life: Because of her dog, she is more engaged in daily life. While her depression is still present, she has a sweet loving dog to help her calm herself.

Remember George? He has been affected by animals as well. I believe that it really does help his depression.

So, telling you about my kitties and who they are, is a plug to remind you that cats and dogs can reach into souls that might not be reached with words.

Therapy for those who struggle with whatever-it-is-they-struggle-with can be made easier with an animal by your side.

Tonight Penelope will grace us with her presence and I hope that she will desire to snuggle up with me. I love her and the joy she brings to all who know her.

Jon’s Hideaway

In memory of Jon Shurtleff who tried to communicate to all who would listen the trials and daily challenges of living with depression as someone with bipolar.

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No more “I”m Sorrys”

My first real experience with loss was when my grandfather had to be hospitalized and then died, after having a heart attack.  It was the first funeral I attended. I wasn’t more than 10 or 11. I understood that he was really gone. We had family around and as a child, I took it well.  

Death touched our family several times and in several posts I’ve talked about how I was affected by the different deaths that took place in my young life up until my early 20’s.  Forty years later I realize how sheltered I have been from grief and its realities. You don’t see the real stuff when you are young: I didn’t. 

Several years ago, after observing how many people would respond to someone’s loss with, “I’m so sorry”, I decided to use my Facebook page to conduct some non-scientific research.  I asked people “why do you say I’m so sorry” and the response I got was “I don’t know what else to say.” This response saddened me.  

As I’ve journeyed through the loss of my husband I have noticed some things in ways that I’d let slide before. One hundred and eighty three words into this post I’m going to talk about what I’ve noticed and what it can do to those who suffer from grief and loss. 

Death is out of the home. 

I now live in The Netherlands.  One of the huge differences here vs. the U.S. A. is that it is still common, after death, for the body to be viewed in one’s home.  This isn’t possible in all situations, but it still happens in many situations. Having attended such a viewing, my first thought was…in the home!?  My next thought was being in one’s home and being with the loved ones, one could relax in their own surroundings as friends came by to show their love.  By the end of my time there it felt like a great way to mourn the death of a guy who kept us on our toes. It was peaceful and joyous. There were no, “I’m so sorrys,” said.  We spoke of him and shared quietly. The Dutch are able to do this well.  

My husband’s viewing was not in our home and it wasn’t even suggested that I hold it here.  However, it was a wonderful experience. People who knew him came and by the end of the evening, I was “high on really good chocolate”. Once again the talk was honest and we laughed and I felt supported. 

For some time (until I said, “stop”) people I knew brought me meals and it was wonderful.  Then I told them that I needed to cook for myself and everything stopped. As long as they were cooking for me, they knew what to do and say, but after that….

Death moved out of the home to someplace else.  Because of the trauma surrounding his death I really didn’t pick up on what had happened in the way I might have.  Slowly people who didn’t know what to say, or do, moved or distanced themselves from me. They didn’t want to talk about Jon or hear me talk about Jon.  The first year was hard, and over that year people drifted further away until by the end of the first year, I was more alone than I would have liked to have been.  

Death reorganizes your address book.  

This is a fact, and it is something I’m coming to terms with as I live through year four of life without Jon. I think this is a complex issue.  This is not just about knowing what to say, but also understanding how to kindle a solid relationship. I think we’re failing in this area.  

One of the things I learned from one of my aunts was the value of real friends.  She had one real friend. She and Dot had been friends for….forever and even though they were separated geographically, they were very much in each others lives.  They went through the good, the bad, and the ugly. Dot’s children were a real part of things as well, and when my aunt and uncle celebrated 5o years of marriage, Dot’s kids came!  Like a really good marriage, Dot and my aunt Lois really worked at friendship. “I’m so sorry”was not uttered in that relationship. When Dot was diagnosed with a serious illness, words of comfort were exchanged.  

I’ve often thought that maybe it was just a slower time.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that you became friends with those in your immediate surroundings and when they moved you wrote, or called them.  Was there more social necessity to make relationships work so that they would last?  

Maybe it is none of the above, or all of the above, and I’m not wanting to say that since the world has “shrunk”, and distances are smaller, that we aren’t valuing things in the same way as we once did.  I don’t want to blame social media for the demise of friendship. But, I have to admit that social media has affected the way we, as a world, interact with one another.  

Yes, grief reorganizes your address book and it does so because there are many people who don’t understand how to support such loss as death, divorce, illness, or other life events.  

I’ve posted about what to say and do in the category “What Do I Say”.  Yet this issue still gnaws at me.  Why? My first thoughts are that people react to grief and loss in the way they want to be treated when it happens to them.  It is as if all logic and reality blow out the window and instead of saying anything, people say and do, nothing. I got particularly angry about this in RAW. (The Suicide)   Has our social IQ dropped that much?  Have we, as a society, drifted from understanding empathy that much?  Brenè Brown says it well in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

I think we’ve lost some of our ability to empathize.  Maybe it has to do with the growing need to state our individual pain while forgetting about the pain of others. Therapists are in the business of pain.  What I hear when I listen, is the deep pain of others not being completely heard by those they feel should be hearing them. This thought causes me to recall a conversation with my husband’s psychiatrist and his ending remark to me “you needed to be heard”  and I did need to be heard!  His comment to me reminded me that with all the hearing and care-taking I was doing, I needed listening to as well.  

As I look at hearing, and being heard, from the perspective of having or getting needs met, I can’t blame people for the lack of empathy.  Here’s why: There are so many forms of grief and loss that to show proper empathy for all of them might not be possible.  

I don’t know what it is like to come out as LGBTQ.  I don’t know what it is like to have a miscarriage. I don’t know what it is like to have a child show hate for a parent.  What I do know is that deep pain hurts, and that I can show empathy for others by tapping into places that are not so pleasant within my own life experiences that contain things I can use to empathize with.  I might not understand perfectly but I can understand.  Sometimes that means doing a great deal of listening and then asking questions that will deepen my understanding of someone’s experience.  I’m not expected to know it all: I’m expected to know that I can ask and learn.  

When life was less expansive than it is now, we didn’t have the “experts” to tell people what was, and wasn’t, normal. The truth is that those thought of as “experts” now may, or may not, have known what to say.   My aunt and her friend Dot had to rely heavily on empathy and questioning to really understand each other. They were present in ways that mattered because it meant something to both of them. So, maybe trauma as a whole, rearranges address books because people think they have to know before they open their mouths and friendships are lost. Personally, I’d rather have someone say to me “I don’t know what to say and I’d like to say the right thing.”  While this puts it back on me, it also opens up a pathway for me to say “thank you”, and, “this is what I need”.  

In saying all of the above, I must admit that writing this post has been a thoughtful challenge.  Here is why: In conversing with several people, I’ve discovered that we really have lost the skill of empathy.  The “I’m sorry for your loss” remark really is the best they can do.  People are overwhelmed with all of their own stuff and the balancing act of trying to support another person when you don’t have the skills to do it well, causes you to shut down.  It may also have to do with loneliness in our Western society.  

Don’t hate me for saying the following because it is not something I wanted to say in this piece, but I’m finding that I have to say it:  Social media has moved many people into a state of social detachment. What I mean by this, is that people know how to react to a photo, or meme, but they can’t, and don’t really have the skills to thoughtfully react to substance in long form. Knowing this may mean that right now, as you read this, you may want to engage a wee bit more than the average.  You aren’t looking just to “get in and get out” and want to say you have really connected with a thought or an idea. Think about your own social media pages; what gets the response from you? 

Facebook marketers tell you to use photos and limit words.  Why? They’ve dumbed-down for a faster pace. They’ve dumbed it down because people aren’t reading thoroughly.  

Gaining Empathy skills

In most healthy family situations, it begins at a very young age.  “It’s mine” is followed by a parent saying “you must share”. Slowly the young child learns the social graces that allow for becoming friends.  By four years of age, a child has enough insight to answer the question, “Do you like it when….?” By the time a child enters school, the building blocks are laid for social connection and those kids who have learned rudimentary skills in the first years of their tiny lives, are ready to test their new-found skills on the larger stage.  As the child grows into adolescence, the skills of childhood are put to the test as relationships deepen, friendships broaden, and exploration expands. By the time the 18-year-old enters the adult world, the lesson is done but the learning is just beginning.  

Some of my most valuable learning came about from moving out of my parents’ home  at 18 and going away to school in another city. On my own, I screwed up some relationships, but also had successful ones.  I came to understand things as an adult that being under my parents’ roof could never have taught me. It was hard! When I returned to my hometown in late 1990, I’d had some disastrous and some  good experiences. I’d built up some life experiences that would allow me to understand deeper feelings and understand in a credible fashion; things that I could use to empathize with others.  

I share all of this to tell you: You get the skills by experiencing life.  You gain empathy by blowing it, learning from it and using the learning you acquire to reach out to others.  

You discover empathy by finding a similar feeling or experience within yourself. You don’t share the experience, but rather, you recognize the power of this experience and quietly listen in order to understand.  You might have “been there, done that and have the tee-shirt”, but in this case you only mentally put that tee-shirt on and remember how hard it was to get through the experience so you can empathize. It is then that the questions come and the understanding and connection follow.  Now two people understand, by more than words, the experience that one is having. Empathy is a marvelous thing. No more empty “I’m so sorrys”.

My Five Anns

Note: My goal here is to put a more human face on several psychiatric disorders. I hope you will read and learn. All names have been changed and identities concealed.

As part of my undergraduate experience I wanted to do some volunteer work in the community. The university where I attended had a program running that enabled me to do just that. I was privileged to work in three different settings. One was a care facility that dealt with geriatric patients. The other, larger, facility I worked in, was a halfway house for women who had been discharged from the state psychiatric hospital. I also worked with someone in a private home. I will be talking about the latter two experiences in this post.

When the LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) interviewed me for the job and match me up with patients, I had not given working with schizophrenics much of a thought. I was excited to learn and my fear factor was low. I must have said something that made them think of matching me with Ann.

My first assignment was to work with a woman who had been out of the hospital for four years. (Remember that I’m a young, enthusiastic, university student who still thought of herself as indestructible. I didn’t give a second thought to being in a private home with a schizophrenic. I didn’t even think that something terrible could happen to me. Ann was just someone who needed some help. I was someone who wanted to not only offer what help I could, I wanted to learn. More later.)

Ann had an adolescent onset with her schizophrenia. Her intelligence had been affected and I found that I was working with a woman who had the equivalent intelligence of a fourth grade education. The social worker explained this to me before I had met Ann,

but seeing it in action changes the hearing of the information. My job with Ann was to get her out of the house so that she could eventually learn to take the bus to the day treatment center in a larger town. They had also hoped that I could find a way to teach Ann about taking better care of her diet. This was to be in preparation for a weight loss program they hoped to enroll her in.

It began with tiny things. First, I spent time with Ann. I had to let Ann feel safe with me if I ever hoped to get her away from her home. When she finally made her first attempts to leave the house, they were small. First we walked outside for five minutes. Eventually we went to the nearby park. Then little mini health-lessons sandwiched between talking about being away from her house. If she began to panic we returned to the house. She learned safety and I encouraged her in her confidence.

I learned a great deal in working with Ann. I never asked her about what being schizophrenic was like. I did ask her why she was willing to take medication that caused her to have terrible side effects. I admit to being curious and when we had built up a good relationship I queried her as to why she was willing to swallow pills that others would take for a brief period of time, go off and then wind up back in the hospital because of not taking the drugs. Why would you do that? “I don’t want to go back to the hospital. EVER. I’d rather take these pills because that is a terrible place to be and it is scary in there” Scary? The reality of being in the hospital was worse than what she’d go through to be there? That is a powerful reason to take your medication.

Several years later I found myself waiting for a bus to get to school and I heard Ann yell hello as she passed by in a car. I did a double-take…that is a thinner Ann!!! I found out that the work I had done with her paid off in big ways. She was able to get to the cooking classes and into the weight loss program. She was still taking the medication. Her success impacted me in ways that helped me in my future work as a mental health professional.

I’ve thought about the statement Ann made about taking medication. I’ve thought of it from understanding the terrors of what a person with schizophrenia can endure. My understanding is not complete because I can’t feel or see as they do. I’ve come to respect that statement made so many years ago and I take that with me in my work. Ann impacted me in powerful ways that I continue to discover.

Ann is part of the one percent in the U.S. that suffers from schizophrenia. Most of this one percent desire some form of treatment so that they can live as best they can. Some don’t understand the need to swallow the pills. Some can’t see beyond the side effects of the medication, and others think that having a symptom-free life for a short time means that they don’t need the pills any longer. Because of those thoughts, the cycle of hospitalization and illness continues. This is the talked-about “revolving door” that leads to nowhere.

After working with Ann, I was asked to go to a half-way house and run a fun music group for the residents there. “Get them to sing, talk, and create something.” I could do that because I like to sing and create things.

The group I ran had eight members. Four of the women were named Ann. (I wondered to myself if there was some kind of strange coincidence that so many of the women I was working with were named Ann.) The women were wonderful to get to know.

The group was a short-term project that managed to get the women to interact more on a light-hearted level. During my time running the group, one of the Anns— and my favorite group member—went off of her medication and was re-hospitalized. 

When Ann went back to the hospital, it affected the other seven women deeply. They cared about each other and were working to integrate back into the community. That following group session was a somber one in which we just sat and sang some sad songs. Each woman had her fears and knew that the same thing could happen to her. They had lost a friend to a relapse.

Seeing the impact of what had happened to this Ann sobered me to the realities of the population I was working with. I was told what had happened: A hallucination had caused her to think that she could fly. She tried, failed, and cracked three of her ribs.

While schizophrenia can wreak havoc with the mind, it does not mean that the person with schizophrenia will ever become violent with others. It would be better to state that this population need support and love because they are at greater risk for self-harm and suicide. 

I think of my five Anns every once in a blue moon. I wonder what has happened to them. I wonder how they have been treated,or mistreated; understood, or misunderstood. I hope that they have found a supportive place. The fact is that my hopes for them are just hopes. The truth is that I know dealing with schizophrenia is never easy.

This population may not affect you personally. But they are someone’s mother, father, brother, or sister. Would you come to comfort someone you knew who was in need of help? Those who are Schizophrenic are in need of so much love and help! They might not be able to return that love and caring, but they need it all the same.

These are people who are alone, living under bridges, because there aren’t funds for treatment. These are men, women, and children who deserve our help. Those with mental illness have no voice. We, who are not burdened with schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, are the voice. Where is your voice?

Now, I should also mention the successful and more well-known schizophrenics, John Nash, Peter Green, Syd Barrett, and others. People who are schizophrenic do work, live peaceful lives, and contribute to society in productive ways that have enriched our lives. I chose these members of society because I know of their work. There are others. Will you raise your voice to help these other people? They are part of the group society judges.

If my words have caused you to think; that is good. If my words on this cyber page are causing you to want to know more; I’ve done my humble job. I’ll leave you with a teaser: What did John Nash do that won him a Nobel Prize? What did John and the King of Sweden talk about when he won the prize?

The Meaning of Enough

How many of us think about what we could do with more money? How many of us understand it’s true value? Whether we squander, or spend lavishly, everyone gives thought to having more stuff that makes it possible to live.

The fact is that having a sufficient amount of funds for meeting life’s needs can provide each of us with the feeling of being safe and secure. Having a surplus of funds can provide us with more options. The more wise options each of us has, the more choices we can makeup free us up to pursue better solutions for the challenges we face in life.

I’ve come to re-think how I feel about the paper we call money. I now think in terms of options, rather than wealth. What options do I need to provide a good life? What are the consequences of having any of these particular options? What is the meaning of having enough? It wasn’t always this way. My thoughts and feelings about money has been an on-going journey.

I’ve learned a lot from living and working. The process of returning to work as a self-employed therapist has caused me to ask myself about money, what do I need to provide for my family, and what would I like to do with the money I earn? So, what are my needs, the needs of my family, and the needs of my business?

One of the most important values I have is that of being able to assist others less fortunate than myself. This can only happen when the needs of my family are sufficiently met. It means having enough for not only our family’s needs, but having enough to fulfill a dream, or two. Having enough is about being realistic and feeling good about the things you have. So for me, it means being able to give back.

So in practical terms what is enough? Being able to buy what I want at the grocery store. Providing new clothing for my family when they need new things to wear is also important to me. Saving for retirement and taking a vacation to relax and return to work refreshed. After that, it means being able to save and give assistance by offering to buy groceries or replace someone’s worn shoes. It means doing good things for others. It means giving someone who is starting out in business my support. It means that I want to do nice things for my husband without him knowing about them.

Having enough also means that you don’t waste what you have. There is something about meeting your needs and not over-consuming, that is just good for the world we live in. When you live within your means and use only what you need, you have less trash, less stuff to store, and less cleaning to do. I’m not professing to be a minimalist because I’m not such a person. But, since our family has cut back on consumables, our trash isn’t as full and our house is less burdened with excess.

I will confess to wanting more kitchen space so that I can buy some cool kitchen gadgets. We like cool gadgets and we like to cook. So, it also follows that we like to eat good food. It is all about determining what “enough is” and living that way in a realistic and calm manner.

One of the things I’ve learned from living here in Europe is that Europeans like nice stuff. They have less stuff but what they own, is nice. Most people here don’t go into debt: They pay cash for what they own. Most will have enough to retire on and are satisfied. Being here in The Netherlands has taught me to rethink my thinking. It has been a lesson worth experiencing and learning.

As I think about who I am now, versus who I was when I came to Europe to live, I can see how being here has affected me in a positive manner. It has changed me for the better and it has taught me valuable lessons that I could not have learned by remaining in the U.S.

Insight is a great gift that each of us can provide to ourselves.  Insight comes when you look in the mirror and notice that the face staring back at you has taught you a valuable lesson, and one that you would not trade because you are better off for knowing. Insight can heal the pain that comes from making lousy decisions. Insight is like a plate of your favorite comfort food. When you have it you want to enjoy it and you want more of it.

As I move on with life, having enough for our family’s needs, is good enough. Evaluating what enough is was a challenge that has brought me inner peace. Understanding what enough is, frees me to do what I need to do in my life. Having enough means that you can live your life and not chase a false dream.

No Regrets: Just Lessons Learned

No Regrets: Just Lessons Learned

This is another post from the vault and was writen when my husband was still living.  Enjoy!  

I found this in a mass mail that a friend sent out. It made me giggle. I giggled and thought RIGHT. This kid gets it. Do I?

“A little boy was overheard praying: ‘Lord, if you can’t make me a better boy, don’t worry about it. I’m having a real good time like I am.”

My thought… this kid is comfortable in himself. He is having a good time with life. The good and the bad are all a part of it.

I hope that the fictional boy will keep this attitude in life. I hope he will love himself and others and bring joy to everyone he meets. I hope he’ll pull pranks, tease and get teased. I hope he’ll love his pet tortoise. As he learns to be kind and compassionate to others he’ll earn friends. He will grow into a healthy adult who will pass these same traits on to others.

Being able to know that you are fine, just the way you are, is a gift. It is a gift provided by loving parents who care enough about a child to foster a proper self-image from the beginning. This child is not indulged, but rather, encouraged to do his, or her best in everything. They are praised for accomplishing things and supported to get back up and try again when they fail at something. Like our fictional boy, they know that “I am having a real good time like I am”

A healthy child learns to earn the privileges he, or she deserves. They learn to wait for the toy that they want, and earn the prize honestly. And along the way, they come to understand that they are unique, but not “special” within their world. They learn that success is won and failure is a lesson to be learned from.

Recently, a friend sent me one of those captioned pictures. You know, the kind that float around the Internet. This one had an interesting caption and I took the time to respond to it.

The subject matter of the photo was having regrets. Throughout my life I have made mistakes and felt sorrow over decisions that could have carried me down a different path. I am “me” because I’ve made the choices I’ve made. I’ve learned the good, and the bad lessons from those choices. I own my choices. Ownership of the outcome means that I try to live by not asking “WHAT IF?” or “IF ONLY”. Once it’s done you can’t take it back.

My first lesson from life in these matters came when I was 18 and headed off to school in another state. My mother and I were present when my younger sister died of a heart attack. There was a part of me that wanted to cancel my life and stay home. That wasn’t to be and I moved on into the next phase of my life: learning on a larger scale.

Because of the choice I made to move forward, I made friends that I would have never made. I grew up and discovered that my heart could get broken, heal, and, yes, I could even fall in love again. I learned not only to love, but to give, in new ways. Had I stayed home and attended school locally, the lessons would have been different. Leaving home caused me to want different things from life. That is what should happen because growth requires change.

As I write this from the vantage point of age, and hopefully, more wisdom, I am thankful for the roads I have walked. Sometimes I speculate about the roads that weren’t traveled. And I think back to that little fictional boy…you know, the one that is just fine the way he is…and I think that I’m fine having walked down the paths I’ve taken. I’m glad I’ve learned, hurt, healed, and grown. No real regrets; just lots of lessons to learn from.

Radical Compassion

In 1958 there was a pandemic and my mother happened to be pregnant with me. It was only a slight case…she didn’t even know she’d had Rubella until after the fact. It was during an era when medical abortions were done “if” the parents and the doctors were willing to do so. My mother told me that they didn’t ask, so the docs didn’t offer. Nature took over and produced a child who had been conceived to become healthy, but who became injured while still in the womb. That is what nature does.

In talking with my mother about this issue, she once told me that she could understand both sides of the argument and why a woman would choose one or the other. From her I learned that the issue around the health of an unborn child, or the termination of that pregnancy is not an easy cut-and-dried process. The choice to raise a disabled child came with a great deal of pain and learning, as well as tears and sorrows on all sides. Society blames and doesn’t help. My mother learned radical acceptance and radical compassion. I watched, I listened, and I learned from her.

In the past month, I have sat and watched as so many have blamed gun owners, children, the shooter, the NRA lobby, and Congress for the travesty of yet more dead kids. I hurt for the families and friends who have lost children. I am angry that people are using an act of violence to force a political solution, as well as a mental health solution, to this situation. There is enough greed and corruption to go around! There is more than enough blame that is being spread to the innocent. I want to scream, NO! STOP IT!

I do support change. I’d like to see assault rifles, code red drills, bullying, blaming and greed to be taken off the streets. I’d like to see respect and support become common. I’d like to see corporations become responsible for what they are putting on the streets. I‘d like to see violence in video games and films done away with. I’d like to see everyone have access to good mental health care and not just a set number of visits per year. I’d like to see education and understanding for all.

I’d like to see scientists search for effective medication that could reach into the abyss of such a shooter’s mind and allow that person to be healed with both medication and talk therapy. It is dark in that mind. It is lonely in that mind. To be able to befriend such a person would be rare. Why? Because what such a person thinks is so black, so far from the norm, so chaotic, that most professionals can’t, or won’t even go there. I’ll venture to speculate that the person owning the thoughts is just as terrified of going there. What I’m talking about is a radical compassion for others.

Few have been able to show such compassion because few are The Buddha, Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ, and others. To be part of that universalizing place takes a lifetime of journeying. However, each of us is capable of listening with love and compassion. You do it as a child when you show sorrow for your friend’s pet that passed on. You do it when you spend time listening to a friend sharing grief. You do it in a darkened theatre when you let out the buried pain that you can’t show for yourself or someone else, but can show for the character in a film. You do it when your best friend tells you that they are coming out and your love for them takes you to new places of joy and acceptance for who they are. You do it when you ask “why” and come away with only more questions, but a determination to find one solution and you join a cause. In joining, you move to radical compassion. When you sit down in a room and listen to the others who believe differently than you do. You do it when you realize that “they” care just as much as you do. You do it when you take a hand and find a way to work together for peaceful solutions.

I saw it in my mother as she was faced with how society treated her two disabled daughters. I saw it in her heart when she wept and yet didn’t lash out at others for the treatment that came to her children because other parents didn’t teach the same values of love and acceptance.

I want to see more kids step up and take responsibility for the things they can do. I want to see those of us who are older, applaud the courage that we are witnessing and show love and compassion for the process they are initiating. I’d like to see each of us stop and think about the words we speak and the actions we take in our daily lives and how they might affect others. I want to be on the path of radical compassion with my fellow human beings. Right now it feels sparsely traveled. I think back to my mother and if I can do what she was able to do, I’ll be doing well. Join me on the journey. It isn’t an easy journey, but my mom thought it was worth doing and so do I.

Sneakiness is Happiness

Today has been very hot. I like the heat because it means that the sun is out and the sky is blue. The only bad thing about the heat is that sticky, humid feeling. Today I had to be out in the heat and it was wonderful!!!!

Why? Well, it was because of all the nice things that happened while I was out and about and doing the many things that I had to get done. I was out alone with Myrtle Mae. Myrtle Mae is a good side-kick. “She” keeps me safe from others. I’ve also noticed that people are really nice to me when I’m buzzing around with my stick. (Myrtle Mae is featured in Stick Magic.)

There are so many things that are different about being a person with low vision. Some things are just more complicated and time-consuming than they are for a fully-sighted soul. People being nice to me made me feel OK about walking around in the heat. So to balance my happiness, I find myself listening to one of the most pessimistic guys of rock: Don Henley. I like Don.

There were things to do like the veggie run and the bank. I like getting this stuff done…but there was also laundry to do before I could do the veggie run.

I tell you all of this because the man did something wonderful for me. He can be sneaky in phases because my sight just isn’t good enough to see what is going on in my tiny room that I use as an office. I didn’t see the first phase at all.

My office is filled with very “Gail” type things, two of which are parasols that are mounted into the corners of the ceiling. Once they were up I thought “wouldn’t it be cool to backlight them.” I haven’t thought about it for some time. He has.

While I was out and about he got to work and gave me a very beautiful surprise to come home to. Yup, he backlit my parasols!!! So, even though it is hot out there and in here I’ve got the tiny lights on…I couldn’t resist as it is so pretty to have the soft light around me.

Being nice pays off not because it has to: it just does. There is something about generosity that is contagious. So, when I’m out and about, I smile and others say hello to me. Why?

I think that is because we, as humans, crave positivity in ways that will never be fully understood. I, for one, have no desire to study this as it takes some of the magic out of the process. I will studiously avoid the research on the topic. Some things are better enjoyed and left alone.

I think I’ll go find someplace cool to enjoy the evening. I also must switch to something other than Don Henley. Before I do…remember to smile and see what you get in return.