Can Change This


The Journey of Transformation

Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Appreciate and rely on your spiritual resources

Saturday, April 13th, 2019

I wrote the following essay after living with my parents as a caregiver to my Mom, who had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). I was also going through treatment for breast cancer at the time and my hometown church was an essential part of my support system.


My childhood was ordered by four bells. They outlined the parameters of life in our small Minnesota town. The first and most ordinary was the small bell hung on the balcony of my parents’ house. It was conveniently placed right outside the door, steps from the kitchen. When Mom rang that bell we could hear it anywhere in the neighborhood and headed for home, as we and all the neighbor kids knew it was time for supper, or bedtime. I believe the other parents appreciated my parents’ inventiveness because when it rang their kids all  headed home, too.

The second bell was not a bell at all, but was a siren. At the volunteer fire hall uptown, in our central Minnesota village of 350, there was a siren, and, in addition to notifying all the volunteers when they were needed to fight a fire, it was blown twice a day all year round, at 12 noon and 6 in the evening (for a few years it blew at 9 pm, too). It created a time-frame for the day, and was neatly aligned with mealtimes. When I moved back to care for Mom it was blown only at noon. This was a familiar, comforting call for everyone to take a timeout, eat, and then continue with the rest of the day’s activities.

The third bell was the bell that called campers to activities at Camp Lebanon, on our beloved Cedar Lake, four miles from town. This lake feels like it belongs to us, because my Grandparents (and now my brother) lived there and their home was the gathering place for cousins coming from far away. In addition, a handful of second cousins were neighbors there, since our grandfathers had all bought land on the lake in the 40’s. Camp Lebanon is a Bible camp and they had a fabulous diving board raft that was like honey to our young bee selves. We knew we were not to trespass on that raft but at times the temptation was too much and we indulged ourselves. Their bell would ring out regularly throughout the day, indicating various activities/times and it rang clearly over the lake. A favorite annual escapade was for the older kids (my brothers and cousins) to plan a raid on the camp, with the purpose of ringing the bell at night, throwing firecrackers, and generally raising Hell in this heavenly camp. The raid would be coordinated, using various watercraft, timing, roles or each of the older kids, and the escape plan.

The fourth bell was the church bell at Gethsemane Lutheran, where I was baptized, confirmed, and still claim membership. My mother was raised in the church, and Dad joined it (and was baptized, since that got missed when he was an infant–his father was recovering from tetanus or “lockjaw” as it was called then and his mother had her hands full with five children) when they were married. Every Sunday morning it would ring out, and we could clearly hear it at the house, since the town covered less than a square mile of area. The man who was the church custodian and bell-ringer was an expert—he rang it with measured, even and lovely regularity, setting the standard so that fill-in ringers did the same beautiful rhythm.

When St. Mary’s, the Catholic church in town, rang their bell it was a bit jerky, inconsistent, and clearly NOT Gethsemane’s bell. We all grew up hearing our bell, and if we heard it as we were heading to church, it insistently urged us to hurry up and get there. We could hear it in the church, too, and knew that the service would start before it was done ringing. As a confirmation student, a friend and I sneaked to the belfry and rang it. It was so big and powerful that on the swing back it pulled me off my feet. Very exhilarating for a 12-year-old. That bell was part of our lives and part of the framework of my family’s life in Upsala, along with the other three “bells.”

This bell was the most meaningful, because of its solemnity and sacredness. How it represented Gethsemane, the teachings we learned there, and the connection we had, as I was part of the fourth generation to be a member there, all added to its significance and our love for it. The sound it made, so melodic, resonant and perfect, just made it more special.

In the mid-1990’s Gethsemane built a new church. Once it was up, slightly behind and to the side of the other building, the old Gethsemane of red brick was torn down bit by bit and recycled. Since we built a fellowship hall first, with the plan to build a sanctuary later, the bell was secured in a church-member’s barn. There was no way to know when the sanctuary would get built, so the bell was there indefinitely. In 2001, my mother’s ALS was diagnosed. Sometime in that year she noted to my dad, “I’ll never hear Gethsemane’s bell again.” Well, that did not sit well with him. Mover and shaker that he was, he decided something needed to be done about that. He approached some other church members and said that he thought we ought to get the bell re-installed, somehow. A committee was formed and after a few meetings, some donations and brainstorming, a plan was completed for a small bell tower to be built. It was located next to the church, and to satisfy those concerned with it being placed in a future steeple, it was agreed that when the time came, it could easily be moved. For now, though, the bell’s sweet tones would be heard again.

I happened to be visiting in Upsala when it was completed, and John, one of the church members working on it, called us to say they were going to “test it” and maybe I should come up. Mom listened interestedly from home, and I went up for the premiere ring. After a dozen or so good solid peals, we knew it was a success, and we all laughed, celebrated with hugs and tears, and knew a very good thing had been done. This type of kindness from Dad to Mom was typical of him, and when he saw something needing to be done, he got it done. Mom got to hear that bell every Sunday until she died, even though she rarely returned to church.

The Joy (and not-joy) of Relationship

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

We had a family gathering at my house on Friday evening, since my sister and brother-in-law were visiting from Florida. The thing that stands out in my mind about it is that everyone was so GLAD to see each other. There was tangible joy, just to be together.

It is one of the greatest blessings I know to feel that love and see the connections between people I love. It makes the hassles of planning, communicating, cleaning and cooking all worth it, in spades.

Hearing laughter and chatter, seeing the men holding babies that are not their own, and LOVING them, seeing nieces and brothers helping themselves in the kitchen and a sister-in-law stirring pots is pure contentment to me.

I missed those that weren’t here, also. Nieces and nephews busy elsewhere with their own lives, great-nieces and nephews involved with other parts of their family, a brother on a book tour, parents who are no longer with us, aunts and cousins who are far away, all are missed.

Not everyone is blessed with joyful relationships. There isn’t always joy in these relationships, either. There can be irritation, hurt feelings, disappointment and confusion, as well. In some families there is outright hostility and estrangement. It pains me when I see it in families I know and love. I see and hear about painful relationships daily in my work as a therapist. It is a primary source of anguish and bewilderment for my clients.

The Dalai Lama encourages compassion for others, and reminds us to see that we are the SAME as others, and not so different. Understanding that the other is experiencing the same feelings, challenges, desires and frustrations can equalize things and help us to find empathy for him/her.

Terence Real, who wrote The New Rules of Marriage (Ballantine Books, 2008) and other books explains that many of us get caught up on an “escalator of contempt” which shuttles us back and forth between grandiosity (better than) and shame (worse than).

Terry Real, escalator, contempt, grandiosity, shame, same as

Escalator of Contempt
Grandiosity —— Shame

When we think we have all the answers we look down on others with contempt and disdain. We pump ourselves up as more important than, smarter than, more talented than, etc. and grandiosity reigns. When we put ourselves down as stupid, unworthy, inadequate and unlovable we are in shame and are treating ourselves with contempt.

What gets missed is the experience of same as. We are fundamentally the same as everyone else, with inadequacies and amazing traits; quirks and gifts; bad behaviors and generosity; wisdom and foolishness; strengths and weaknesses. We are all human.

In recent years I have experienced some painful conflict in personal relationships. Some of it related to miscommunication and misunderstandings, some to unrestrained words of anger and judgment, some to differences that got translated into weaknesses and shortcomings. I was forced to see attitudes and behaviors in myself that were extremely hard to admit. The primary thing I must acknowledge is that I can be critical, shaming and grandiose. I also can feel rejected, ashamed, misunderstood, mistreated and unworthy.

Terry Real recommends stepping off the contempt escalator and remembering the other person is much like I am; not less than me and not better than me. It helps me manage my reactions and feelings when I remind myself, “same as.” The other person is struggling just like I am, feels similar feelings, and has many great qualities as well as shortcomings, just like me. The other is trying to be understood and get needs met just as I am; and is NOT out to get ME.

And I began to use a phrase in my head when I was feeling frustrated with someone and thinking, “they should have…” or “why don’t they…” The phrase I said to help me let go of judgment, anger and hurt feelings was “JUST LOVE ‘EM.”

It serves to remind me that the most important thing is that I DO love them, and that calms me down and allows me to accept them just as they are, which is, after all, what I want them to do with me. It takes me off the “contempt escalator” and allows me to change my thinking, which changes my feelings and actions.

I try to say this to myself, as well, when I get a case of the “I should have…”

The pain of alcoholism–Part 2

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Beer, alcohol, drinking

It is difficult for me to see how accepted alcohol abuse is in our culture. Drinking is pervasive and over-drinking is tolerated.

I hear of young women and men who are close to losing their children due to neglect or outright abuse. Their drug of choice may be marijuana or methamphetamines, but what leads them back to these drugs is the drug alcohol, because they and the world see it as harmless. Friends and family say, “It is just a few drinks, that isn’t so bad.” They risk losing their kids so they do not have to give up the “pleasure” of alcohol and drug use.

I had a friend, a charming Southern woman, raised in grace and wealth. She was hospitalized in her fourth relapse, for drinking perfume. She had used alcohol all through her life to manage loneliness, insecurity and fear, and was encouraged to drink to “calm your nerves.” She continued to do just that, in whatever form she could find, in spite of losing everything to her drinking.

I see a man who has had treatments since age 20, has destroyed his liver with alcohol and now, in his late 50’s he relapses every few months. He has warrants out for his arrest in three states, got his wife put in jail one night, is getting evicted for frequent police calls and blames everyone else for his problems. His doctors tell him he will die if he drinks again, and yet he does drink again and again. Answering a question of what prompted him to start again this time, he said, “I just wanted a beer while I watched the ballgame.” Just like a hundred thousand other guys on a Sunday afternoon. How many of them will face liver disease, divorce, DWI’s, job loss or worse? One in ten.

One in ten people who drink becomes alcoholic. It is the rare person who never tries alcohol, because our society values drinking, so almost everyone is at risk for alcoholism. Our culture tends to see alcohol as a necessary and welcome part of life; without which, life would not be as rewarding. Some people hold this belief, even when their families have been devastated by alcoholism. Because they don’t seem to have “alcoholic” struggles they take alcohol use lightly. This framework tends to set up those persons who will have alcoholic struggles.

Over-use of alcohol is tolerated, even accepted. By the time it is clear that a person cannot handle it like others, much damage is already done. Then, often that person is judged when the problems mount and they can’t seem to drink like others do.

But maybe some of those people who take alcohol use lightly are having more struggles than they are willing to admit. There is a wide range of symptoms and results of alcoholism—from the obvious late stage symptoms (chronic, frequent overuse, multiple problems and consequences, numerous losses, concern of others) to the less obvious early to middle stages, where alcohol use is regular, occasional problems occur, relationally, medically, legally or vocationally. There may be efforts at cutting back or quitting, but alcohol use always returns; sometimes worse than before. These persons (or someone that loves them) may have concerns they are drinking too much, but they quickly justify it and explain away the concerns, so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable about their drinking.

 I often say to people that one simple way to judge your relationship with alcohol is to ask: “Is my drinking the way I would like it to be, and if not, do my efforts to make it that way work?” In other words, if you wish and intend to not get drunk, does that work or do you still get drunk? Do you make promises to drink less but fail at it? Do you have remorse and fear about your drinking but continue to drink anyway? Do you find yourself explaining to yourself or others why your drinking isn’t a problem? Important questions to ask, given 10% of drinkers become alcoholic.

It is widely believed that the only viable route for an alcoholic to take to get better is to abstain from alcohol. I have seen this proven to be true over and over again.

Making a choice not to drink is not easy. It means giving up the quickest way to feel better. It means feeling acutely, life’s pain. It often means exclusion. It means the culture is not supportive of what you are trying to do and sees it as abnormal. It frequently means a major life style overhaul.

AA, recovery, sobriety

1 Year AA Sobriety Chip

I learned early in AA: “Recovery isn’t complicated; you just have to do one thing—CHANGE YOUR WHOLE LIFE.” Wouldn’t it be great if friends, family and neighbors were willing to change just a little bit of their lives to support alcoholics change theirs by having some alcohol-free events?

The pain of alcoholism – Part 1

Monday, March 26th, 2012

In my work as a counselor, sometimes I see and hear “themes” for the week; common threads woven through the tapestry of stories I’m hearing. Although I am a generalist and work with many types of mental health issues, this week the theme is alcoholism and its effects. It is synchronistic, in that I celebrated 34 years sobriety on Monday, so my awareness of how different my life would have been had I continued to drink (if I were still here at all) is heightened.

I happened to see four clients who are sober, and work a “program,” and are back in counseling working on other issues. They all feel the same gratitude and humility I feel, to be part of the lucky group that are surviving alcoholism and drug addiction, and have a shot at living a full, rich life.

Others are struggling still, and facing many of the consequences which accompany the poor choices made as a result of chemical use. This includes loss of driving privileges, conflict with family, legal problems, health troubles. One is dealing with chronic relapse coupled with long-standing mental disorders and going to treatment yet again. One is beginning to look at the role alcohol plays in his life. Another is starting treatment at an early age, rather reluctantly, in the hope of avoiding worse consequences and losses.

treatment, recovery, group therapy

Group Therapy

I saw a number of people whose lives are or have been deeply and frustratingly affected by someone else’s chemical abuse. The lies, inconsistencies, and cycles of problems they experience and the abandonment and confusion they feel is tangible. Those that grew up with alcoholic parents are trying to figure out exactly what happened and understand the lasting effects they experience, with difficulty trusting, believing in themselves, and coping with their emotions effectively. They are angry, confused, feeling guilty and grieving.

It is unspeakably painful to watch lives disintegrate due to chemical use.

It is incredibly rewarding to see lives saved, knit back together, and hope renewed, when a person grabs hold of the lifeline and does the work to get sober. It is inspiring to see a person work through ACOA (adult child of an alcoholic) issues and live a meaningful and balanced life.

It is terribly frustrating to see how casually our world treats chemical use, and encourages it.

Soul Retrieval

Saturday, November 5th, 2011
Story-telling, group, fire, unity

Story-telling around a fire

Shamanic societies, building on age-old wisdom, believe that the world and its challenges can drain our energy. The experiences of discouragement, pain, loss, disappointment, loss of meaning and feeling stuck all drain us. The shamans taught that if we “stop singing, stop dancing, are no longer enchanted by stories, or become uncomfortable with silence, we experience soul loss, which opens the door to discomfort and disease (Arrien).”


In  The Four-Fold Way, Angeles Arrien describes the shamans’ remedy for soul loss:

The Four Universal Healing Salves:

storytelling, singing, dancing and silence

Becoming open, again, to the Healing Salves can bring about “soul retrieval” and we can reconnect to joy, optimism, hope, acceptance, motivation and love. Arrien also says the goal of managing a difficult time is acceptance, not resignation; detachment, not holding on; to be “open to outcome, not attached to outcome.”


Whenever there is CHANGE there is LOSS; whenever there is loss we GRIEVE. Therefore, whenever there is change, we grieve. Ritual is a human tradition that helps deal with loss, grief and change. The losses may be related to losing a person we love, losing a life style, health, financial security, safety, faith or meaning.


Arrien says,

“Ritual is the conscious act of recognizing a life change, and doing something to honor and support the change through the presence of such elements as witnesses, gift giving, ceremony, and sacred intention. In this way human beings support the changes they are experiencing and create a way ‘to fit things together again.’”


 Singing, storytelling, silence and dancing help us cope with grief and are part of the ritual of soul retrieval.


Silence, meditation

Meditation and silence