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An Epidemic of Shame in the U.S.

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An Epidemic of Shame in the U.S.

There are aren’t enough words to describe our collective cycling emotions since the Tuesday of Darkness.

After church on Sunday, we gathered for prayer and began by sharing how we were feeling. Strong words cascaded around our circle: betrayed, heartbroken, outraged, terrified, grieving, overwhelmed, hurt. Many were afraid on behalf of at-risk people that they care for: teachers of Hispanic kids, nurses of low-income people, caregivers of handicapped people, parents of little girls and children of color.

These are good people, people who follow the biblical mandate to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.” They are reacting the way I would imagine Jesus would react to the ascendency of a man who preaches hate, violence, and racism. They are deeply grieved.

I’ve had all of those feelings and then some, but the one that surprises me most is shame. I am ashamed of my fellow Americans, ashamed of my fellow Christians who voted for the president-elect, ashamed of my country. I find myself whispering over and over: “I thought we were better than that, I thought we were better than that.”

I don’t usually take on corporate or institutional shame. I have enough of my own personal shame to keep me busy for a lifetime. This isn’t guilt, which I’ve heard many folks express. I wasn’t complacent. I donated. I volunteered. No, this is pure shame. It’s hard to avoid the fact that my country has put the whole world in deep jeopardy. And I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

I need to pray and meditate and journal. And it’s good to know I’m not alone in this.

My most popular blog post of all time remains a post from four years ago entitled What Color is Shame? It fascinates me that so many people search that question on Google. Just weird. I get a few hits on the story each day from all around the world, mostly England.

But since last Tuesday? I am getting 10-15 hits every single day, all from the United States of America.

Take care of yourselves, friends.

sympathy card

The Work of Rest

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My neighbor stood at my back door in his usual state: bare torso sweaty, blue jeans dirty, and straw hat terminally tattered. Despite his appearance, a sweet, fresh aroma entered with him when I opened the screen door, as if he had just been rolling around in his herb garden.

Van held out a carton of eggs and a paper bag spilling over with yellow squash, cucumbers, parsley, and basil. Before I could thank him, he proudly announced what he knew would be an even more welcome gift. “I just bought a brush hog!” he said with a grin.

“Oh my gosh!” I squealed. I knew he was looking for an effusive response, but I was also sincerely  thrilled because my hay fields are going to be forest very soon if I can’t find someone to mow them.

“I’m going to start on my fields tomorrow, and then we can see about yours,” he said. “And you gotta come down and see the solar shower I just rigged up from the rain barrels. Don’t worry, it has a curtain.”

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The Industrious Nature

Like a lot of folks up here in New Hampshire, my neighbor Van rarely sits still. He’s up before his rooster crows, feeding chickens, weeding the garden, or transplanting bee balm and lilies around his Rest Easy Pet Cemetery down the lane from my place. He hammers a lot, building fences and sheds and such. I think this industrious nature may be in the blood — many generations of chopping mountains of wood to fend off the severe winters and farming dawn to dusk during the short growing season.

It’s not that citizens of the Granite State are frenetic like the people in D.C. where I live most of the year. They know how to relax. People in rural New Hampshire work hard five or six days a week, but they don’t work much past five o’clock. On the weekends they go to ice cream socials and sidewalk sales, and they actually stroll in the park (without phones glued to their heads). The bars and businesses in town close early, and then everyone goes to bed at nine or nine-thirty so they can be up at dawn.

So it was with a tone of confession that I answered Van’s query of what I’d been up to: “I’ve really done nothing since I’ve been here.” I smiled apologetically.

“Well, isn’t nothing what you’re supposed to be doing?” I love Van.

“Well, I better get a move on; got to get the chickens in,” he said as he headed for the door.

Re-Imagining Work

What exactly am I supposed to be doing? Is this it? Then why do I feel guilty and ashamed? This was my plan for the summer: a month of cleaning out my family’s house in D.C., then a month resting and writing up here — back and forth each month and catching the fall colors both places.

Yet somehow I feel I should be “working.” I haven’t even been writing much, except for some bad poetry I wrote while sitting by the beaver pond.

Perhaps what I’m doing can be re-imagined as work?

Inspiration for some bad poetry

Inspiration for some bad poetry

The Writer at Work

I feel slovenly when I spend an afternoon reading fiction, but they say that writers should read incessantly — it is part of our work. I’ve finished almost three books in the short time I’ve been here — Keri Hulme’s The Bone People; Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (awesome); and an Agatha Christie mystery, Cards on the Table.

I say I’ve hardly written, but I’ve actually filled more than twenty-five pages in my journal and covered ten pages of a spiral notebook with random bits of blogs, essays, and poems.

Spiritual Work

Much of my writing has also been spiritual work. I came up here with a specific goal for myself: to examine and pray about some of the character flaws I’d like to have God remove — anxiety, contempt, a need for recognition, and envy. (The latter is an insidious little bugger — I’ve only recently realized I have it!) If you’re interested in my navel gazing about some of these flaws, scroll down to my last post.

I am making an effort to get back to my favorite form of meditation, Centering Prayer, which is seriously hard work because it entails trying to surrender everything in your brain to God, becoming nothing but a vessel for love.

My walks in the woods can be considered spiritual work since most of my wandering is spent in reflection, and they are also a workout for my body. So is my occasional thrashing around on the floor in front of a Rodney Yee yoga video.

A Working Chef

Cooking! Surely that counts as work, although it’s fun and something I usually take significant time for only when I’m on vacation. Summer is abundant here, and I never miss the farmer’s market.

Summer Abundance

Summer Abundance

I’ve made gazpacho, fresh corn salad, potato and lentil stew, cabbage and pasta with garlic, tomatoes stuffed with eggplant curry (dreadful), and nearly daily caprese salads with perfect local tomatoes and basil from my backyard.

Does building up the compost pile count as work?

Shucking corn is hard work!

Shucking corn is hard work!

Working Dreams

While we’re pushing the boundaries here, how about dreaming? I’ve heard of “dream work.” I decided to stop setting the alarm because I’ve been waking up anxious, something that happened after my mother passed away and which returned after my brother’s death. I don’t think I understood the psychic cost of keeping the phone by my bed every night for seven years in case my mother or my brother had a crisis or was dying. No wonder I wake up anxious!

After I nixed the alarm, I slept eleven hours several nights straight and had intense and involved dreams of my mother and my brother. The subconscious at work . . .

What I’m Supposed to Be Doing

The work of rest. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

Partners in my work - Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Partners in my work — Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Rest is essential to health and creativity.

After my mother died, I went on a retreat about calling and vocation — I thought I had to get busy since my caregiving role had ended. (Little did I know I would become my brother’s caregiver for the next six years.) On that retreat, I learned that restful healing is a calling in itself. I just forget sometimes.

I will not talk about the work of grieving, that goes without saying. It is what I do these days. Except to say that part of grief work is learning to have fun again. Saturday I went to a party and met a bunch of interesting folks and laughed a lot. On the way home, I stopped at the fairgrounds and watched the town’s end-of-summer fireworks.

I am where I’m supposed to be.

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Warning: You May Find This Disturbing

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This week I’m sharing a (very) personal essay I’ve just had published on the blog of So to Speak, a feminist journal of language and art. I’m giving you fair warning that it’s not a very pleasant story.

Secrets in the Dark

The woman has been roughed up. There’s a bruise on her cheek, and her blouse is ripped. Her long brown hair has been hacked off with a pair of scissors, and several of her teeth have just been brutally yanked out. A crowd of filthy men and women taunt her, shoving her along a darkened street. Her voice breaks into a raw, bitter wail. “There was a time when men were kind, when their voices were soft and their words inviting.”

If you’ve ever seen Les Misérables, you probably recognize this gut-wrenching scene. Fantine, a factory worker who has just lost her job, has sold her hair and teeth to pay for her young daughter’s room and board.

Anne Hathaway plays the role in the latest film version of Victor Hugo’s story of love and hate in the French Revolution. She’s painfully beautiful in this scene, bruises dark on her pale skin, eyes sunken and hopeless as she’s pressured into prostitution to save her daughter.

A French army officer has just finished doing his business on top of her. She’s belting out this song, and I can hear people all around me sniffling in the dark of the movie theater.

“I had a dream my life would be

So different from this hell I’m living.

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

Even the guy behind me with the annoying belching issue seems to be crying. He starts breathing badly, and I wonder if he’s having a heart attack or something. I’m considering turning around to ask if he’s OK, but I don’t want to embarrass him if he’s crying.

His labored breathing suddenly evens out, and I hear the sound of a zipper being closed. Apparently he’s successfully put himself in the French officer’s place and has had his way with Anne Hathaway in the dark.

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♦ ♦ ♦

“Why didn’t you move?” My therapist’s face had that inscrutable look she gets, and her question seemed as impenetrable as her expression.

“Move?” I echoed. “Why didn’t I move?” An irrational shame nudged a blush up my neck as I tried to remember: Did I even think of moving?

Doctor Z nodded and leaned forward in her chair, elbows perched on her knees and fingers pressed together in a teepee under her chin as if trying to keep her mouth from dropping open.

“Well, I thought about it for a minute, but — I know it sounds stupid — at first I couldn’t believe it was happening. Like, I must be wrong. Then I thought that he was obviously a mess, sick, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” I paused, and my therapist raised her eyebrows. “Wow,” I said.

“Yeah, wow,” she said.

“But I felt trapped. Moving didn’t really seem like an option.”

“Why don’t you journal about this? Writing always helps you. I’ve heard you use those words before, feeling trapped, not trusting your own experience, not being able to take care of yourself because you were worried how it might make someone else feel.”

Doctor Z pulled some papers out of her black bag, the signal that our time was up. I wrote her a check and drove home with only half my mind on the road. “Why didn’t I move?” I kept hearing the question.

♦ ♦ ♦

Journal entry:

Tough therapy session. Why didn’t I move away from that guy in the theater? Why did I feel so powerless? The other thing I can’t figure out is why I was afraid to tell anyone, even my friends. Like I had done something wrong, or the whole thing was so disgusting and ugly that I had to hold it in, protect the world from it. Not pollute other people’s lives with my pain. Just like when I was a kid. Don’t tell anyone what’s going on in the house; don’t tell the neighbors about Daddy passing out. Put the vodka bottles at the bottom of the trash bag. It’s all a secret I have to keep. What a burden for a little girl!

My mom. The queen of denial. She’s the one who taught me how to keep a secret. When she caught me on the couch with my ninth-grade boyfriend’s hand down my pants, she said, “I know I didn’t see what I just saw,” and she never said another word about it. Mom didn’t even want to tell the doctor that Daddy was an alcoholic when he was lying on life support in the hospital! As if they couldn’t tell. I broke the secrecy code and told the nurse our shameful secret. Daddy died anyway.

Now that I think of it, Mom’s was the voice in my head at the movie theater saying, “That couldn’t have happened. I must be wrong.”

♦ ♦ ♦

“Good work,” said Doctor Z when I finished reading my journal entry. “What else?”

“Well, I guess my family was so focused on our shame and secrecy that what I needed didn’t matter much. It’s like I learned that I’m not worth taking care of — I don’t believe I have any rights. Mom never took care of her own needs either — trying not to upset my father always came first. That’s why I was more worried about how that guy might feel if I moved than I was about my own feelings.”

I picked up the cushion on the sofa and began messing with the stitching. “Have I ever told you about when I lost my virginity?” I asked, though I knew I hadn’t. It all came out in a rush. “I was sixteen and I was at a party in an upstairs room with an older guy, kind of a friend. We were messing around and he got really aggressive. I said no to him, told him to stop. I said I didn’t want to, but he went ahead and I thought, ‘Oh well.’ I wanted him to like me, and I guess I figured it wouldn’t be worth the fight. I’ve always felt ashamed of that.”

There was a silence while we sat with my shame and I continued to unravel her cushion.

“You were sixteen, Melanie. Just sixteen.”

“Yes.” More silence. I couldn’t look at her.

“You’re an adult now. You can take care of yourself. You don’t have to be a victim . . . you have choices.”

“Yes, I have choices.” I did not sound like an adult. I sounded like a little girl parroting her mother’s directions. I waited for further instruction.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Doctor Z reminded me, as she often must.

I exhaled a laugh, set the cushion down, and looked her in the face. “Yes, I do have choices.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Journal Entry:

I am going back to the theater tonight. It’s been nearly two months since Les Mis, and I was telling Dr. Z how mad I was at that asshole cause I felt like he had stolen my theater from me. I usually go every week, but the thought’s been making me nauseated.  “I can’t imagine sitting in that seat again,” I told her.

“Well,” she said, “you could sit in a different seat.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, laughing at this obvious solution. “I have choices.”

So I’ve been planning on choosing a new seat. But that’s still making me mad. He stole my spot and I feel l like a victim. So I think I’ll march right down that aisle and sit in my regular seat, twelve rows back on the left. If somebody sits behind me, I can always move.

………

You can visit the So to Speak journal here.

 

Safety First: A First Date Gone Terribly Wrong

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How did I get here, on the floor?

Who is this man

With the red face and the red eyes?

He smiles like he’s nice,

But he’s not.

He laughs like it’s fun,

But it’s not.

He pulls my clothes

And rips the buttons off my new dress,

The one with the little pink and red roses.

I felt so pretty.

Now I feel dirty

Stuck here on the floor

By the stairs.

Little Roses

Little Roses

This is my inner five-year-old’s remembrance of a first date gone very wrong, circa 1987. You tell me why I dated this guy for several months. I refer you back to my previous post on becoming a woman of dignity — this takes time.

This poem is in response to today’s WordPress Daily Prompt, “Share the story of a time you felt unsafe.”

Six Tips on How to Rise from the Dead

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Today is the day that Christians celebrate what seems the silliest premise of their religion (the virgin birth being a close second). Resurrection from the dead.

Mystery

Mystery

Somewhere in the Bible, one of Jesus’ followers says something like, “Well, of course it sounds crazy – if it sounded sane, it wouldn’t take any faith to believe in it!” Good point.

I’m just crazy enough to believe in this stuff, and I thank God (oh – there I go again) that I do. At times I read the Bible and think, “What??” But at other times, the words go down like a draught of pure truth and transcendental joy.

Still, it is not just “crazy” Bible stories that make me believe; it is also my personal experience — the miracles I have experienced in my own “resurrection.” I know for a fact that I would not have had the strength to overcome drug addiction, or Marlboro Lights for that matter, without the power of prayer.

More miraculous are the “smaller” things I’ve experienced through the grace of God, which aren’t really smaller at all. They are all addictions in their own right. I am NOT here to tell you I’ve recovered from any of these. But I have definitely made progress in the twenty years I’ve been a committed Christian, and as they say, “progress, not perfection.” I have been raised from the dead zone of many a curse.

So here are six tips on how you can rise from the dead . . . whether or not you think Jesus did.

1. Get over yourself.

You are not the center of the universe. Other people are just as important as you are. The best way to do this is to have a kid – then they become the center of your universe.

The Center of the Universe

The Center of the Universe

But I didn’t have one of those, so I have had to work harder at this one. Humiliating and embarrassing myself works well, so I do this regularly.

2. Embrace it: nobody is any better than you are.

This is a careful balance with #1. I find that most people are a bizarre mix of grandiosity and massive low self-esteem. It’s weird. Anyway, you are a beautiful gift to the universe –please accept and love yourself, unconditionally and just the way you are. There has never been and never will be another you. I am glad you are alive.

3. You have unique contributions to make with your life. You should not waste the chance.

It’s important to get #1 and #2 above balanced, or you might miss your chance to help bend the arc of history towards love and justice. Because as Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault writes, even if you are doing “good things,” if you  have unhealthy motivations (getting noticed, being loved, even getting to heaven) then you could actually be putting negative energy into the universe.

4. You can’t help much in the world – you probably won’t even want to – unless you stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Victimhood. Oh my God, don’t get me started. When I see this in myself, and I often do, I immediately do some serious spiritual intervention in the form of prayer and journaling and sometimes even fasting, if it’s a doozy. I think the fastest way to change your life — to rise up from under – is to drop your expectations of the world and other people. You will be so much happier, and so will your family and friends. Expectations are just pre-meditated resentments.

5. Forgive yourself and other people.

We are all broken, messed up people, and we will all hurt each other (and ourselves) horribly. Release yourself from the burdens of resentment, anger, guilt, and bitterness. Obsess instead about how lovely the spring flowers are.

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Which leads me to this most important resurrection tip:

6. Practice gratitude.

If you release the victimhood curse, gratitude will naturally follow. It is the best gift you can give yourself and the world. There’s no earthly reason you should have woken up breathing this morning, but you did. Be grateful for that. And for a roof over your head, people you love, pets to feed, coffee or tea to drink, gifts that you have that you can share with the world. Perhaps you might want to make a gratitude list in celebration of this new day, this new life that you can choose if you want. Rise up from the things that hold you down! Even if you don’t believe in Jesus and you’re not celebrating Easter, a gratitude list might be a nice present to yourself on this particular Sunday. Maybe a few chocolate eggs, too.

And if you are a Christian, I wish you a meaningful and joyful Easter day! May you be constantly mindful of swimming in an ocean of love and rising on a cloud of hope. Amen.

Lenten Rose

Lenten Rose

What are you grateful for this Easter??

Are You a Grown Up?

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Being a grown-up is an evolving state of mind, a spectrum of attitudes. No matter how old you are, you get to choose how you respond to the things of life.

I think that immaturity can be quite charming, unless I’m dating it. I myself am pretty cute when I’m being immature. Or not.

I’ve always been drawn to the rebellious song from Peter Pan, “I won’t grow up; I’ll never grow up.” I still occasionally jut out my jaw and clench my fists and run a few stanzas of it through my mind before I acquiesce to maturity.

You Can’t Make Me Grow Up!

Today I’m responding to a WordPress challenge  that’s much easier than the one prompting my 1,000 word tome without a Y in it. I won’t say I’m annoyed that most responders wrote less than 200 words, because grown ups don’t get annoyed about things like that. So here is today’s Daily Prompt:

When was the first time you really felt like a grown up (if ever)?

The Mockingbird’s Song

I remember the moment quite clearly. It happened to be my birthday.

I was 24 years old. I’m sure I was tired; working full-time for rent and college tuition, my days starting before 6 a.m. with late classes ending at 9:30 p.m.

I had just survived a grueling two-hour meeting with the deans from all the departments at the University of Maryland. I had designed my own major, and God knows they did not want me to have that kind of flexibility and autonomy without making me suffer for it.

I had argued with the Dean of Biology about whether or not the world had a “population problem” (I said yes) and with the Dean of the Math Department about whether or not I needed calculus. (Truth be told, one of the reasons I designed my own major was to escape those dreaded math courses!)

Understanding Mathematics: From Counting to Calculus   -             By: Keith Kressin

Nooooo!!!!

But I had persevered. My program — the first of its kind at the school — had been approved. It’s hard to believe now that “Environmental Studies” was a unique major in 1979, but there you have it.Very few students bothered to pursue the option of designing a separate major, but I had done it. All by myself.

I sat under a blooming dogwood tree on the mall at Maryland and wept tears of joy. On the branch above me, a mockingbird sang as if his breast would burst. I knew the feeling.

I was a competent grown up, I had choices, and nothing could stop me now. I had arrived.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottis

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Maturity

Of course, I wasn’t all grown up, and I have displayed some of my most immature behavior in the years since that day under the dogwood. I’ve done some damage to my psyche and to the psyche of others.

Perhaps you have, too. I’ve noticed that a lot of people come to my website by way of Google searches about shame or guilt.

For what it’s worth, I recently came across this checklist of the attributes of maturity. See what you think:

  • Knowing myself.
  • Asking for help when I need it and acting on my own when I don’t.
  • Admitting when I’m wrong and making amends.
  • Accepting love from others, even if I’m having a tough time loving myself.
  • Recognizing that I always have choices and taking responsibility for the ones I make.
  • Seeing that life is a blessing.
  • Having an opinion without insisting that others share it.
  • Forgiving myself and others.
  • Recognizing my shortcomings and my strengths.
  • Having the courage to live one day at a time.
  • Acknowledging that my needs are my responsibility.
  • Caring for people without having to take care of them.
  • Accepting that I’ll never be finished – I’ll always be a work-in-progress.

Agree? Disagree? How do you measure up?

Mockingbird and Dogwood photos courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Changing Your Mind?

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This week is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. And I think it’s downright sinful that non-Christians should be excluded from one of my favorite seasons. It’s like Christmas – I celebrate the birth of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy a season of giving and celebration.

OK, so forty days of self-denial, sacrifice, and penitence might not be as much fun as a season of presents and parties and spiked eggnog. But bear with me.

The Burden of Shame

Judging from the stats and comments on my blog, people are very interested in the issues of shame, guilt, and making amends. I got more comments from friends about my post Imagine Apologizing than anything else I’ve written, and you would be surprised how often people Google the phrase “What Color is Shame?” and end up at my post by that name. I get several every week.

Weird, right? What’s that about?

I’m glad you asked.

I think that even the non-God-inclined sense that the burdens of shame and guilt call for something beyond our brains. They seek relief in something deeper — maybe in something sensory, like color?

By their very nature, shame and guilt are things that people don’t talk about easily. That’s why they weigh so much. We try to carry them all by ourselves. We trip about on the internet, looking for answers in stranger’s blogs.

Sacks of Shame

Turning Around

It makes sense that with this kind of human longing for relief or redemption – whatever you want to call it – most major religions include a season of self-examination and repentance.

(By the way, the concept of repentance isn’t as burdensome as it sounds, all sackcloth and ashy. It basically means to turn around or to change your mind.)

We need to deal with our mistakes and regrets before we can be at peace and move on, but that’s not too easy if we intend to commit the same offense again. That’s where a change of mind comes in – repentance.

My point here is that whether you are religious or not, you could probably benefit from an intentional season of repentance. Set aside some time, perhaps getting away by yourself for a day or two, to reflect on the ways you fall short of who you would like to be. Take along a journal so you don’t conveniently forget any commitments you make to yourself.

You might consider doing without something for a period of time – fasting from food, television, social media, caffeine, gossip, or alcohol. Stripping away some of the things you think are oh-so-important can remind you of what actually *is* important.

What’s Lent, Anyway?

I won’t go into the details of Lent as a Christian practice. There is plenty written on that – here is one interesting history. The forty-day season of self-sacrifice and fasting leading up to Easter Sunday has been around longer than any denomination, since near the beginning of the faith. The concept of a season of repentance, teshuva, is deeply rooted in the Hebrew faith, from which Christianity sprang.

Personally, I never observed Lent until about ten years ago. I wasn’t raised in a religious tradition, and my only childhood experience of Lent was feeling left out when certain kids would come to school with smudges on their foreheads.

I became a Christian in my late thirties when I discovered that, unlike the nasty, judgmental TV preachers, the historical Jesus was a rabble rouser who confronted systems of economic injustice and religious oppression and liked to hang out and drink good wine with imperfect people like me.

I liked the idea of spiritual practices to help me focus on God during the forty days leading up to Easter. Over the years, I’ve given up eating after sundown, drinking alcohol (during which time I found my friends to be a lot less entertaining), saturated fat (I nearly starved — did you know a BANANA contains saturated fat?), and driving above the speed limit.

The speed limit endeavor was the worst. The word Lent comes from lang, meaning long, because the days grow longer in the spring. And believe me, when you’re toodling along at 55 mph on the frenzied Washington Beltway, the days seem very long indeed.

So – I’m not sure what I’m doing for Lent yet this year. No doubt some fasting and more dedicated meditation, but probably something else as well. There’s a good chance I’ll write about it, because I find there is a phase during which I obsess about my “sacrifice” before I settle in and focus on deeper pursuits. But perhaps you won’t be reading those posts, as you may have given up messing about online for Lent.

Lenten blessings to you, no matter your faith or beliefs.

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine Apologizing

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I have this fantasy about my old boyfriend – the guy I dated just before I got sucked into the cocaine-infused, alcohol-drenched political whirlwind of Washington, D.C. We are in the dairy aisle at the grocery store, surrounded by toxic-tinted green and orange Jell-o and stacks of bright yellow butter boxes.

Don’t worry. It’s not one of those butter and Jell-o fantasies. I wouldn’t share it, if it were.

No. We’re just standing there, leaning our elbows on our shopping carts.

I say, “Do you have a minute?”

He says somewhat dubiously, “Yes.”

Then I apologize for being such a bitch back in the day. I’ve had this fantasy for twenty-five years. A quarter of a century.

This meeting happens in reality every year or so – not the apology part, just the part where we run into each other at the community grocery coop – we live in the same town. We’ve met amidst the Jell-0, but more often by the cat food. We exchange pleasantries, and he tells me about his kids.

I always feel like there’s this huge chasm of unspokenness between us, but I never place any meaningful words into it. He asks how many cats I have now. I say “two.”

Every time I see him I think say it, just say it, but I never do.

The Question

This fellow and I were an item for two or three years back in college. I was very fond of him – nicest guy you would ever want to meet. I was a bit older and more experienced than he was and spent considerable time trying to untie his mother’s apron strings.

After a while the challenge wore off, and I was bored. No drama, no tears, no excitement. Just a quiet, stable relationship. We read a lot, played Scrabble.

I graduated and made my way into the big world while he continued his studies to become a librarian archivist (a perfect job for him). I went to work on Capitol Hill and met congressmen and senators and hung out with heavy-drinking lobbyists and attended oh-so-important press conferences and oh-so-sophisticated political fundraisers.

Then he became even more boring.

About this time, he asked me to marry him. I panicked and pretended he was joking. I laughed uproariously, and then he laughed. And then I had a decision to make because the question still hung in our mirthless laughter.

Hanging

The Decision

“Think I should marry him, Mom?”

“He’s a very nice boy, Melanie, always sacrificing himself for other people. He is the kind of person who would bring his aging parents to live with him. I’m not sure you would be happy with that,” Mom said.

She knew her daughter, and she knew what she was talking about. Mom had sacrificed much of her freedom when my grandmother moved in with her.

I asked my roommate, an old high school friend. He put it more bluntly. “You would be bored, Mel.”

They were right. I dumped my boyfriend unceremoniously. The guy was just too “good” for me, in the truest sense of the word. I had a lot of partying to do and a lot of ego to feed, and he did not fit into my plans.

Regrets

I don’t have many big regrets in my life. But the way I treated him is at the top of my list.

By regret, I don’t mean I feel I should have married him.

God, no; I would have made him miserable. I had so much screwing up to do before I opted for sanity.

God has been gracious in the intervening years, allowing me all the rope I needed to hang myself. Dangling there at the end of my rope, I learned something about humility. All the screwing up, every bad choice, has helped me to grow up and see myself more clearly.

Problem is, when you begin to see more clearly, you can’t help but notice the wreckage you’ve left in your wake. That college relationship — which had I been kind, might have been a pleasant memory — is a mangled mass of shame, guilt, and regret.

Freedom in the Ho-Hos

Still, I could never bring myself to say those simple words.

Until last night.

We met in the Obesity Aisle next to the Hostess products, and the cloying smell of yellow plastic icing with hard white swirls was almost overpowering. We smiled as we rattled our carts towards each other.

I didn’t think about it. My heart wasn’t racing, and there weren’t words crashing into each other in my head. I just said:

“Do you have a minute?”

He nodded, looking curious but also as if he wanted to bolt.

“I treated you like shit many moons ago, and I just wanted you to know I’m sorry. It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life, the way I treated you in all my dysfunction. I was a mess, and I’m sorry.”

“Well,” he stammered, “I don’t even remember it like that. But we were all a mess.”

“Yes, and I wanted you to be more of a mess than you were. Thank you for being kind to me.”

Then he started talking about his kids, and how one of them was “having issues.”

And it was over. I had done it.

In my fantasies, I never even considered the “after” part.

I don’t know how he felt. But I felt immediately – immediately – lighter, as if I had dumped several shopping carts full of shame back by the Ho-Hos and cupcakes.

I can’t believe it took me so long.

So there you have it. A simple story; no big deal.

But if you’re carrying any of that shame crap around, you know that it is a big deal. I hope you’ll learn from my experience and make amends.

Read more about shame crap here

What Color is Shame?

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At first rosy blush, shame most certainly seems to be red. The Scarlet Letter, the embarrassment of being caught in a lie, or the menstrual red spread on a white skirt.

File:ScarletLetterBlack.svg

Shame can also be green. The irrational, over-reacting, sickish shade of green that makes you say, “I didn’t know she was going to be at the party,” and then later pretend you weren’t jealous.

A Sickish Shade of Green

Red and green shames are personal, coming from inner taunts like,

You’re just not good enough

What’s wrong with you?

If people really knew you, they wouldn’t like you

With personal shame, it’s important to examine the source. We need to make sure it’s our own conscience wriggling, and not someone else wagging their finger in our business.

Community Shame

Then there’s community shame. That might be a combination of colors. Say the red, white, and blue shame that’s born of a million dead “redskin” Native Americans, or more than four million black and brown humans “owned” by white humans, or more than 120,000 “yellow” Japanese-Americans imprisoned during World War II. Communities may try to cover shame with semantics and rationalization, but everyone can see the red blood of children through the phrase, “collateral damage.”

When we get into “group think,” our multi-colored shame explodes.

Many of us experience this multi-colored community shame when the words of our sacred texts are used to judge and exclude, oppress or cause violence. My Muslim friends expressed this after September 11th, and as a Christian occasionally subjected to TV evangelists, I am quite familiar with the feeling.

Still, even as we decry warped interpretations of our beloved Torah, Koran, Bible, and Vedas, if we’re honest, we know that our own wounded and prideful hearts are quite capable of dropping some not-so-smart bombs.

Yes, there’s enough shame for every color of the rainbow.

                                  Dark Shadows

Shame is not made up of pretty rainbow colors.

I asked my Facebook friends about shame colors:  Lots of support for red, some football jokes, and a few votes for black “because you can hide in it,” and, “it’s the middle of the night and I can’t stop replaying the conversation in my head.” Another wrote, “a grey fog that swirls around you.”

My friend Bill said, “Shame is the color of oak leaves in January – crumpled and dead.”

I think that’s it. Shame is brown. Muddy brown.

It gets all muddled up with fear – fear of being disliked or abandoned for your behavior. Sometimes there is anger mixed in – anger at another person for seeing your less-than-perfect self, or anger at yourself for not being perfect, or for even caring what someone else thinks.

If you don’t deal with shame, it turns to toxic guilt, which is more diffuse, like a smoggy day. Guilt can pollute your whole life, “making it hard to move around and enjoy life,” said another friend.

There is a way out of the mud and smog and fog.

Apologies are Hard

It’s hard to apologize, even for our most egregious behavior. Shame is all tangled up with needing to be right, needing to seem perfect, needing to be esteemed. It’s simple pride. Some suffer – literally – under the illusion that apologizing makes one look weak, when the opposite is true – apologizing shows strength of character.

During this American political season, one of the red herrings being tossed around is whether or not America should ever apologize. In fact, Mitt Romney even wrote a book called No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.

Excuse me, but how silly.

Every school kid knows that a sincere apology is the best way to dig out of your muddy brown shame. Red, white, and blue shame is no different. An apology, coupled with a change in the behavior, is the most effective way to move forward in a relationship.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/248207.php

I have to hand it to VP candidate Paul Ryan. Even though Mr. Romney may not agree, at least when Ryan was asked if the U.S. should apologize for its soldiers burning Korans and urinating on corpses, his big blue eyes got even bigger, and he said, “Oh gosh, yes.” School-kid wisdom.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/10/the-vp-debate-cinches-it-paul-ryan-is-unqualified-to-step-in-as-potus/263531/#

Personal Freedom

The worldwide Twelve Step recovery programs are well-recognized for putting millions of lives back together. If you do a little research, you’ll find that one of the primary ways these communities help people to emotional freedom is through humility and the release of shame:

Step eight says: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

In step nine, you do just that.

Step ten: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Those in the programs will tell you: these steps are not so much for the aggrieved as for the transgressor.

Shame only lives in the gooey, brown anaerobic slime of silence. Let in a little fresh air and bright yellow sunshine, and maybe you’ll see a rainbow.

http://www.livescience.com/18665-art-apology-psychology.html

This post was written in response to another weekly writing challenge from WordPress: A Splash of Color:

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/weekly-writing-challenge-a-splash-of-color/#more-10602

I had fun with this one!

Rubber Ducky Exposes CIA Sexual Harassment

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“Yes, but what do yellow rubber duckies have to do with sexual harassment?” my brother asks a second time. I’m trying to explain the concept of emotional de-cluttering, and he’s just not getting it. Who can blame him? The connection exists only in my brain, and I didn’t even know it was there until I started trying to decide what to do with the collection of rubber duckies in my bathroom.

In keeping with my promise to you, Dear Reader, I have been (sometimes literally) plowing forward — albeit erratically — with my housecleaning attempts, and being mindful of my emotional reactions to the stuff I find it hard to part with.   https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/emotional-house-cleaning/

Why did these five yellow duckies ruffle my emotional feathers? I began wading through charged memories. The first time I remember hearing my parents fight was over whether I should be allowed to keep Dilly, Daffy, and Dally, the ducklings my uncle had given me (no, was the upshot). The pivotal moment when I decided to pursue an environmental career came as I was sitting at the duck pond at Montgomery Community College, contemplating the effects of industrial pollution on innocent ducklings.

Then I noticed the small printing on the ducky chests – Chancellor Hotel, San Francisco, California.

Fade to San Francisco Bar Scene

Suddenly a memory came back to me of sitting at a bar in San Francisco, which wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, back in the day. I used to spend a lot of time at the Sierra Club headquarters in that fabulous city, and in the evenings, visiting field reps would gather at classy joints (not so much) like Lefty O’Doul’s on Union Square. 

That particular night, I was sitting with a distraught young woman who had just been the victim of an elevator pass made by a male Sierra Club staffer notorious for womanizing. She asked for my advice.

I am ashamed to continue this story, so I will instead take you to an underground vault at the Central Intelligence Agency in McLean, Virginia. (How I went from a job at the CIA to the Sierra Club is another story. You’ll have to wait for my book.)

Jump to an Underground Vault at the CIA

Seal of the C.I.A. - Central Intelligence Agen...

Seal of the C.I.A. – Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am newly 19 and have just come back from lunch with my 30 year-old supervisor. He had lunged across the seat of his car, kissed me, and stuck his married hand up my skirt. I am asking an older woman in the secretarial pool what I should do. She gives me two pieces of advice – first, I shouldn’t have gotten in the car with him, and second, I shouldn’t wear such short skirts. I’m inviting that behavior.

I get a new supervisor. This one shoves his married tongue down my throat at the office holiday party. I don’t even bother to tell him when another fine, upstanding CIA employee comes up behind me and shoves his (married) hands down my blouse. After all, this is nothing new — the manager at the hardware store where I worked when I was 18 had done the same thing, after I turned down his kind invitation to swing with him and his wife. My fault, probably. I should have been wearing a turtleneck.

Done with Duckies, Guilt, and Shame

So what did I tell this younger woman at the bar in San Francisco, twenty years post-CIA trauma? Thank God I didn’t tell her to wear longer skirts. But I did advise her to weigh her actions in light of her career goals. She was junior, but on her way up, and he was an influential manager. She never reported the sexual harassment. None of us works there anymore.

I haven’t thought about any of this in many moons. It was well-stuffed. The shocked confusion of an 18 year-old kid being asked to bed down with her 35 year-old manager and his wife, the shame of a 19-year-old who has essentially been told she’s a tart and is getting what she asks for, and the stabbing guilt of not supporting a younger woman struggling with similar emotions.

It’s been fifteen years since I’ve seen the woman, but I recently contacted her, and we plan to get together. I’m going to apologize. I should have marched with her up to Human Resources and busted that guy.

Anyway, I’m thinking I’ll get rid of the yellow rubber duckies. Maybe I’ll keep the one with the Santa hat…nah, he reminds me of office holiday parties.

###

(If you’re interested in following the history of sexual harassment at the CIA, class action suits, etc, there’s plenty of stuff online. I”m not here to grind an axe; I’m long gone from there and into healing. Plus, I don’t want to get “disappeared.” But you can investigate on your own. Here are recent articles:      CIA steps up harassment enforcement – UPI.com.)

http://www.newser.com/story/149502/cia-investigating-sexual-harassment-among-agents.html  “It’s an old-boys’ network, and that kind of comes with the territory,” says one victim. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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