Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Politics of Joy: God's Equation

It’s Thursday night Chi Kung, and we are cultivating energy between our palms and then our own palms and a partner’s. Our teacher instructs us to remember a time when we felt pure joy, to recall it vividly, completely in every cell, to embody joy in this moment. Then he says: Bring this joy into your hands. Offer it as a gift to the world.

Joy springs, wells, swells between our palms. I see joy spilling over the world, spreading over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, touching all the lives, feathered, finned and human, that have been and are being so devastated by the ongoing disaster. The joy stays with me after I leave class and into the next day. I realize it has been a long time since I have allowed myself to open to joy—not since April 20th at least. Since then, whether or not I am consciously thinking of the oil disaster, I feel it in my body, I carry it with me. Not as a noble, if futile, gesture, but simply because, like all of us, I am seventy percent ocean. How can all be well with me if all is not well with the sea?

A long time ago, I had a dream in which a religious authority reproached me for feeling joy in a world where there was hunger, poverty, oppression, war (this was before environmental depredation had made the list). In the dream I dared to answer the authority: “Joy is part of God’s equation.” Since I flunked algebra and am mathematically inept, equation was and is an unusual metaphor for me. Perhaps that is why the dream phrase stayed with me all these years, even as the internalized voice of the reproachful authority continues to rebuke me.

As to whether my vision of joy spilling from my hands over the earth had any effect on the oil disaster, I remain at best agnostic. When we pray for something or someone, we ourselves are changed and may be moved to act more effectively and compassionately. The effect of the vision on me was to illuminate how much dread and depression I have been carrying. I am not alone. As a counselor, I have noticed that people are not only coping with personal crises but are also chronically anxious about the world itself: economic uncertainty, the wars we are waging, political upheavals, and ecological disaster. The revised and extended list from my dream. Most people do their best to help in some way; some activists have clear callings. But many people also feel overwhelmed, helpless, or chronically guilty: “If I did more, if I consumed less…”

Joy is not a betrayal of sorrow for a suffering world; it is companion and counterpart. Joy can be an offering, an act of courage and encouragement. A healthy cell supporting a body that is struggling to heal. A strong hand extended to someone who is hanging off a cliff edge. Maybe what we do can never be enough, maybe no change we can make is radical enough. Maybe we won’t make it. Yet we can dare to know joy if only for a moment here and there, to embody it, to offer it to each other and to the world, to figure it into God’s mysterious, insoluble equation.

Note to readers: Instead of once a week, this summer I will be posting more like twice a month. Thanks for all the support!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

When the Circus Folds: Couples Counseling Part Two

Last week I posted a piece called Three Ring Circus: The Thrill of Couples Counseling. Using the circus as a metaphor, I described my work as a couples’ counselor. In response, a number of people commented that couples counseling had not worked for them and/or that it was not affordable. I felt that a second post on couples counseling was in order.

Affordability: Some counselors (like me) offer a sliding scale, one end of which is quite modest. In my county, mental health services also offer a sliding scale based on income. They do not list couples counseling among the available services, but when an individual seeks counseling, the partner or the whole family can be brought into the process. Couples’ counseling often progresses more quickly than individual counseling. Even a few sessions can bring clarity. It can be a wise investment that may save a lot of money and heartache in the long run.

Purpose: Last week I described a particular outcome: (metaphorically flying happily ever after on the trapeze). I later regretted that conclusion, because in couples counseling it is only one possibility. The purpose of counseling isn’t to preserve a partnership no matter what but to explore how it is working, where it is stuck or breaking down, if it can be healed, and whether or not both people want to remain in the relationship—or should. Counseling can include reaching a decision to separate and how to go about separating in a way that respects and protects each person.

When I told my 97-year-old mother-in-law today’s blog topic, she said. “Not every relationship should be a marriage. People should have affairs! It is a perfectly acceptable.” (She had both a thirty-five year marriage and many affairs, starting in her teens when she was engaged to three men at once.) I said I would quote her.

A few topics to consider when deciding whether or not to fold the tent:

Children: My own parents were married unhappily till death parted them. Divorce is undeniably a trauma for children, but so is a miserable marriage. Waiting until the kids are eighteen does not make it easier for them. There is no ideal time for a divorce, but sometimes it is has to happen. Neither marriage nor divorce insures the quality of a parent’s relationship to a child. Parents can be present or absent, responsive or abusive in either scenario. Some divorced couples parent well together and some married couples parent disastrously.

Abuse: When a relationship is abusive emotionally, verbally, psychologically, financially or physically get help right away, even if your partner will not go to counseling with you. At the heart of abuse is the overriding need of one person to control the other, to disable, belittle and isolate the partner. Abuse is often not physical. If you feel you are being abused, get help. If you do not have time to look for counseling, call a domestic abuse hotline.

Addiction: If you are addicted to any substance or activity, get help. 12-step programs are listed in the phone book and they are free. If that model doesn’t work for you, find another form of treatment. If you are living with someone who is addicted, get help. Start with Al-Anon and go from there.

Mental Illness: A relationship with someone who is suffering from bi-polar disorder, depression or other clinical conditions can be extremely challenging but it can work if both people get appropriate treatment and/or support.

Infidelity: This is a tough and messy situation. I have seen relationships instantly exploded, and I have seen them healed and transformed. It’s make it or break it time. Get help!

A few general questions to ask yourself: Do I love and respect this person? Does s/he love and respect me? Am I able to be fully myself in this relationship? Are both my feet in this relationship or is one out the door? Are the stresses on the relationship primarily external (small or adolescent children, finances, job issues) or internal (the way we relate to each other)?

I’ll close with an observation about my own marriage. It went through adolescence. When we grow up, adolescence is the beginning of our separation from our parents. It seemed natural (in an odd way) to want to leave home again after about the same length of time. We got couples counseling instead. My children grew up and left home. I stayed. It’s strange to live with someone so much longer than I lived with parents or children but also rich.

If your relationship is adolescent or going through some other awkward phase, get help!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Three Ring Circus: The Thrill of Couples Counseling

When I work with couples, I feel like I am under the Big Top. There may not be elephants, clowns, or trapeze artists (not literally, anyway) but there are definitely three rings. The work is exciting and keeps me on my toes. As counselor/ringmaster I have to be aware of what is happening in all three rings at all times.

The ring on my right features one person and the ring on the left, the other. The ring in the middle is where the mystery unfolds, for it belongs to both people. In the beginning the center ring is often either utterly deserted or bloody with the carnage of past gladiatorial battles that may erupt again any moment.

As ringmaster, I have (figuratively only!) a whistle, a spotlight, and a bullhorn. I use the whistle to halt attacks. Attacks are not the same as discussion (even heated discussion) which can lead to negotiation and resolution. My first task is to ensure safety, so that the couple can find the courage to risk revelation and connection. The spotlight brings focus to one person or the other or to a particular issue or dynamic. The metaphorical bullhorn is not to make my voice heard but to help adjust volume. Often one person is speaking more softly, literally and figuratively, and needs to be amplified. Another person may be having difficulty hearing the other, because his or her own volume needs to be lowered a bit.

In the first session or two, I am often turning the spotlight back and forth to the two outer rings so that I can hear each person’s story fully, without interruption. Although it seems like not much is happening in the center ring, slowly, in the half light, another as yet unspoken story is gestating. Even when the spotlight is on one person, I have to be intensely aware of the other. If all goes well, the one who is out of the spotlight joins me as a listener, begins to become a witness, not just someone waiting his or her turn. One man recently remarked, “I have heard her say most of these things before, but when a third person is present, I hear differently.”

At first, each person tends to direct what they’re saying to me. By the second or third session, my most oft repeated phrase is, “Talk to each other now.” And yes it is thrilling to watch initial reluctance (each one keeping one eye on me) shift to full engagement. Then the spotlights converge on the center ring, and I sit in back in the shadows, watching and listening until I am needed. Sometimes something will come up from one or another person’s past, and the spotlight is theirs again, often with help and encouragement from the other person.

By the third or fourth session, the couple is spending considerable time in the center ring, albeit sometimes circling each other warily. But now curiosity is beginning to come into play, curiosity about this other person who is surprising you at every turn, because the truth s/he is daring to tell does not match the assumptions you’ve always made; curiosity about yourself, questioning why you react the way you do, instead of blindly defending your reaction. Curiosity about how things work or don’t work, how life could be less painful and more delightful. Now the clowns can come in to lighten things up, now the laughter begins as the couple looks at their own and each other’s absurdities with amusement and amazement instead of shame and rage.

When a couple heals their relationship, each person’s own old wounds begin to heal, too. Then anything can happen in that center ring with enough practice. The couple can become trapeze artists and fly through the air with the greatest of ease trusting that their partner, and/or the strong net they woven together, will catch them.

Then the ringmaster applauds, tips her hat, and leaves the tent.

Elizabeth Cunningham has been in private practice as a counselor for twelve years. She has been married for thirty years.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Love your Enemy: A Novelist's Dilemma

If I had known what it would be like to pore over and over historical accounts of military strategy and weaponry and then attempt, imaginatively, to place myself in the midst the horror and chaos of battle, I might not have planted a certain hint in Volume One of The Maeve Chronicles. Now I am reaping what I sowed: the child Maeve bore (and had taken from her by force) grew up to be Queen Boudica who led several Celtic tribes in an uprising against the Roman occupation in 61CE. In Volume Four, Maeve is in the thick of it.

Apart from my determination to complete Maeve’s epic adventures, what keeps me going is the knowledge that this almost two thousand year old story is also contemporary—a fatal clash of interests and cultures, betrayals and humiliations, violent retaliation that spins out of control, slaughter of the innocent and not so innocent, and the costly victory of an invading, colonizing force over a native population. Sound familiar? It may not be a timeless story. (ie, there may have been times on earth when warfare was intertribal and did not involve significant imbalances of power, wealth, and technical prowess.) But it is timely. The news tells us this story in one form or another every day.

There is an old adage: write what you know. I do not know about battle first hand. I have never lived in occupied territory. But then I have never lived in a whorehouse or witnessed a crucifixion either, and I have already written about both as though I have. A better adage might be: write what you want to know. In the case of writing about battle (at least for me): write what you are afraid to know.

Yet in order to brave this undertaking, I must also call on what I do know: I do know what it’s like to see both sides of a conflict, to love people on both sides of a conflict. I know what it’s like to want desperately to fix something, to change something, and to feel that it’s my fault if I can’t. I know rage and blame. I know grief and anguish. Maeve’s position in this deadly conflict between the Romans and the Celts involves all these emotions and conundrums.

Seven years ago, I began to study Tai Chi Chuan with a traditional teacher who insists we at least understand martial applications, if not employ them. A sometime pacifist, I have found it challenging and fascinating to try to understand a warrior’s point of view. My teacher has told me that I lack killer instinct. I am afraid Maeve does, too. She was the lover and beloved of Jesus. When she shifts shape, she takes the form of a dove. On the eve of a battle she could not prevent and cannot escape, she must ask herself: what does it mean to love your enemy?

For Maeve it means she cannot fight someone unless she knows and loves him. (There is someone who qualifies, but no plot revelations.) Her particular solution can’t be generalized. But her question continues to haunt me as I write her story. And because I am writing this story, the question haunts me when I think about what happened on the Flotilla bound for Gaza. How unknown and threatening the soldiers who boarded the vessel must have appeared. The soldiers also believed, rightly or wrongly, that they were confronting the unknown and threatening. In that moment, no one knew anyone. No one had a name or a story. Neither side was even in the same story. And yet each side had a story of which they were convinced, for which they were willing to die—or to kill.

If there needs to be a reason, maybe that is why I have to write this story, because it has come to me, and I can’t escape it. Because it demands that I do more than have opinions or pass judgment about who is right and wrong. It demands that I place myself imaginatively in the midst of current battles and see myself surrounded by friends and enemies, challenged each time to find a way to love both.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Food for Thought, Thoughtful Food

I am in the vegetable garden pulling weeds (it is always a good year for weeds.) I am glad to be away from the computer with my hands and feet in dirt. I am thinking: there is no such thing as a virtual vegetable garden. I uproot some mustard greens that are crowding out the peas. In an hour or so we will eat them for dinner. I am wishing everyone in the world could have a chance to eat something he or she has grown.

On this edible planet where we all eat (and/or are eaten), food connects all life. How we grow it, how we transport it, how we prepare it and how we share it matters. As a woman, I sometimes feel responsible (read guilty) for the invention of agriculture. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, being able to stay in one place with the babies, being able to store surplus food for winter or other difficult conditions, being able to feed more people.

As agriculture took hold, we needed more people to produce the food, and so we produced more people to feed, and needed more food. Though most of us no longer work in agriculture and many have been forced to sell family farms, global human population is still growing, projected to reach nine billion between 2040 and 2050. Modern commercial agribusiness has given us the ability to feed a burgeoning population—although many still go hungry, not because of local famines but because of a system that keeps them in poverty, including the very people that labor to grow commercial monocrops. Refrigeration and global food distribution must once have seemed like a good idea, too. (Who among us has never eaten vegetables and fruits out of season, grown in a faraway place?) Now most of us are dependent on this system—and the oil that fuels it.

Oil-driven food industry is a relatively new, post WWII phenomenon. My mother’s generation, the ones who spawned the baby boom, was the first to turn en masse to processed foods, instead of pickling or canning at home. (Again, an idea that looked good at the time, marketed as freedom from drudgery.) I married a vegetarian and learned to grow, cook and eat food I never dreamed existed in my hamburger-centered youth. My daughter, granddaughter of the woman who made everything from a mix, is an accomplished cook and baker who makes everything from scratch.

Things can change quickly. In my life time, family farms disappeared from the Hudson Valley, driven out by lower cost factory farms further west. Now farming is returning to the region in the form of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)which sell vegetables, eggs and grass-fed meat directly to the local population. Many towns in the area host farmer’s markets. People are getting to know the provenance of their food, as well as the people who grow it. This change in our relationship to food has the potential to spur other changes—in the way we use land, develop housing, and connect with our neighbors, the way we structure our local and global economies.

It’s only a beginning. Local, organic food is not readily available or affordable to everyone, especially in economically depressed urban areas. We have a huge population to feed. We need visionaries; we need private and public investment in new ways to grow and equitably distribute food. Oil-dependent agribusiness is neither healthy nor sustainable, nor at all careful of preserving soil and ground water. Neither is car-centered suburban sprawl that has already consumed vast acres of arable land.

Food, a need and pleasure we all share, offers hope. Maybe the way forward is back to the garden, literally: in our back yards, on community-supported farms, on common lands around cluster housing, in lots on every city block. Let’s meet in the garden across generations and cultures. Let’s share vegetables, swap recipes. Let’s all come to the table. Let’s eat.

For books on this subject:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered
by Woody Tasch