Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Can I Develop a Life that Feels Worthy as a Single Person?

My friend is recently single.  She has a school-age child.  She asked me this:

“How can I develop a life that feels worthy, that doesn’t need to be validated by being shared with a romantic partner, that is a “stand-alone experience,” so if I am romantically abandoned, I can get up and be resilient?”

She said she wanted to feel anchored internally to her own life.  She did not want to need an external anchor.  I answered her question by email.  It went something like this:


My first thought to her is regarding roles we play.  She no longer experiences the role of girlfriend, wife, committed partner, or lover.  She is now playing the role of “single person” which she said she was enjoying.

Single person is a good role, especially now that so many of her other roles are being embodied. These roles include graduate with advanced degrees, interesting jobs, and mother.  I imagine there are many other roles – so that is my first question to her was this, "What other roles are you playing now?  What new roles do you have room for now that you are no longer a committed partner?"

Committed partner is one of many roles – but it is a special and important one.  I’ll get back to this shortly.


Indeed, we can “hear our being dance from ear to ear” if we pay attention.  So there is also a part of us to be celebrated that is part of creation, part of the oneness of all existence.

In the absence of a committed romantic relationship, we discover and more fully experience many roles.  We get to know ourselves better.  We have a chance to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of previous committed romantic relationships.  We can ask ourselves what we wanted those relationships to become, what we consciously ignored, what surprised us as things evolved.  We can ask ourselves what we want and need now in order to be on a firmer footing. 

We might discover that we don’t need to be validated by sharing our lives with a romantic partner, but we simply prefer to share our lives with a romantic partner.  We are validated by our own freely made choices of how to live in the world, how to relate in our jobs, how to treat our family, friends, and others we encounter through work and play.  We are validated by how we share our knowledge and give of ourselves and how we hold ourselves back so we can be present the next day.


And then we might find ourselves in the company of another single person who is also interested in enhancing his life or her life by fully engaging in a life together.

If we are romantically abandoned, we grieve.  It’s sad, but we are not defeated.  The role of lover of that person might be over, but the role of lover of life is not.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Who Would You Like to Talk to and What About?

I found this question and answer pasted into my journal from March 21, 1991.  I was playing "Postcard Challenge." The game involved asking each other questions.  The answer would be a postcard with an image, words, and a new questions.

Image result for with love from hell Matt GroeningI had photocopied the non-picture side of the postcard and taped it into my journal. I don't know what the picture was, but it was from this postcard book.

Who did I want to talk to in 1991?  Here's my answer:
1.  Moses:  I'd ask him what that burning bush was like.
2.  Jesus:  I'd ask him what he meant actually - what he really wanted.
3.  Buddha:  Perhaps he'd explain his experience to me
4, 5,  & 6.:  Jefferson, Danton, Marat, and Cromwell.  I'd like to talk about their revolutions.
7 & 8:  Confucius and Lao Tzu:  I'd like to know what they think it's all about.
9.  Shakespeare:  I'd like to know his feelings about love and marriage, writing, inspiration, magic, The Tempest, King Lear, and so on.  Ideally, we would talk for a long, long while.
10.  Ghandi, Thoreau, Golda Meir
11.  Abby Hoffman, John Lennon, Mozart.
12.  Akhenaten, Pericles, Socrates, Plato.

Actually, if I could talk to one person, I'd talk to my father who died January 1, 1969.
That was my answer 25 years ago. It might be different now.

Who would you like to talk to and what about?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Are Self-Help Books Self-Helpful?

Thinking of reading a self-help book?

Will it ease your back pain?
Will it make you thinner?
Will it help you find true love?
Will it endanger your life?
My first self-help book was Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit, the Bible of food back in the 1970s.  I recall making Adelle Davis's nutritional booster of brewer's yeast, wheat germ, raw eggs, and fruit juice.  Check it out!

I've had some transformational insights due to self-help books, particularly Co-Dependent No More which showed me that my situation was typical of many people and not unique to me.  The book described my then (way-back then) partner's behaviours and my responses as if there had been a camera in our home for the previous five years.

This realization enabled this enabler to pry herself loose from the cycle of fleeing and returning.  After reading the book, I was able to see the cycle as a typical pattern.  The book sucked all the unique drama out of my experience.  I was a cliché.  I had the book, though, for many months before being able to read it.  The book was screaming its blue cover at me - and finally, at the right time, I was able to listen.

Difficult Conversations helped me see my own responsibility in all the difficult conversations I found myself in. This had the powerful impact of reducing anger.  How can I be mad at you and disappointed in you if I knew how disappointing you would be from the beginning?

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team has been a very useful book for anyone working in groups. The key message of that book is that trust is essential for teams to be effective.

The other four dysfunctions follow from absence of trust.

A friend of mine said this, "Life is too interesting and too complex for self-help to be worthwhile."
I would say the opposite:  Life is too interesting and complex for self-help and any other kind of help not to be worthwhile.  There is no one answer.  There are many answers, and the right book at the right time can sometimes be just what we need. 

At least it was for me.  

Friday, December 25, 2015

How Do You Feel About Those Christmas Letters?

I have never sent a seasonal summary of family life.  I received my first one when I was 23.  Receiving an impersonal letter, rather than a personal one, ended that friendship.  But that was long ago in a province far away.  I was less accepting then.  I now see the benefits of efficiently giving an update of our many human struggles and joys to a large number of people whom we care about and whom we hope care about us in return.

Two years ago, I did write this and posted it only on Hubski.  I'll post it here today.  It's for all of you:  

or the joy and frustration of caring for and being cared for by so many people over time.

Dear . . .
I think of you more than you know.  I especially think of you this time of year and almost reach out.  I don't write annual update letters or send seasonal cards.  I don't even have a mailing list of friends and loved ones.  I do have a photo album of you in my head; and as I write this, I am thinking of you.
I'm not even sure where you are or where I am.  If I was on Facebook, then at least I could -- what's the expression? tickle you? -- oh yeah, poke, I could poke you.  You could poke me back -- but I participate very lightly in that club.
Since I am thinking of you now, I want to wish you as much satisfaction and happiness in your life as you can carry.  I heard that your mom or grandfather or sister died last year, and I thought of you then as well.  I remembered the times we hung out and all the times I visited your family.
It's been a hard year for you, but you know and I know that things are hard, and then they get better.  Then they get bad again, then they get better, sometimes much better, then bad again.  Maybe we can plateau for a few years - that's nice.  We can raise a family or be creative.  Those are wonderful times. Then they're over.  New times begin.  Along the way, we hope we can do something useful, help others, and generally move in the direction of goodness.
We lose touch with one another, but I still think of you.  More than you know.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Can You Make a Difference, Part 2

When I was teaching in a jail school, people were always asking, "Can you make a difference?"  Most teachers know change does happen, and it happens often enough right in the classroom to keep us flinging our hearts up on the blackboard.  In fact, we live for those moments when we see a light flicker on in a dark place.

Teachers are also full of dark places. Interactions with our students change us irrevocably ‑‑ and change is painful.

Pete had taken my communication course at night school.  He was hoping to get into college full‑time.  He had been a young offender in his teens, and now wanted to be a youth worker.  After the course was over, we continued to talk, usually about his romantic and cash flow problems.

To help his cash flow, I asked Pete to come over to reshingle my leaking roof.  He brought a recent acquaintance.

At one point, I let the acquaintance into the house to "make a phone call."  It turned out he was actually looking for theft‑worthy goods.

A few months later, I had a break‑in.  The thief found spare car keys and used my car to take my computer and other items for his clients.

Image result for early ibm clone
My IBM clone
He smashed up my car in a four‑car collision and was seen fleeing the accident, carrying my guitar.  I was devastated, especially for the loss of poetry, stories, and teaching materials that were saved on my computer ‑‑ and nowhere else.

The police asked me to think of everyone who had been in my house in the past six months.  Witnesses at the accident said the driver was in his 20s, blond, and bearded.

I called Pete and, before I said anything, he sighed, "Oh no, not you, too."  It turns out his "friend" had broken into Pete's house and the homes of everyone he had met during the weeks the two of them were socializing.

Pete gave me his friend's name.  At the police station, I discovered the friend had a record and I identified his picture.

Pete came over to talk.  He felt responsible.  He was profoundly apologetic and crying and wished he'd never brought the guy over.  He also let it slip that he knew the receiver of the stolen goods - the fence - but would not name him.  Pete had served his time and been rehabilitated, but he still knew everyone in his criminal community.

Pete also told me that he might know where my computer was.

Apparently, an escort service had put out an "order" for a computer.  Which escort service?  He would not tell me that ‑‑ but he imagined the new "owners" had got rid of the computer by now since they heard the police were looking for their  supplier. 

He knew the fence and probably the recipient as well.

I believe he was sorry.  He pleaded with me to understand.  But he was afraid, so he chose to protect his criminal acquaintances rather than help out someone who had helped him.

I felt disgusted. Our friendship was over.

Eight months pass.  The phone rings late one night.  It's Pete calling from a village on the west coast.

He just wanted to say hi.  He'd moved on.  He was working for some cousin, reading a lot, and living alone.

Two years pass.  I get another call ‑‑ this time from Kingston.  Pete, again "just checking in," saying he's working and staying out of trouble.

I said, "I'm glad to hear it."  What else could I say?

But now, I realize that he was apologizing the only way he knew how:  By getting a job ‑‑ and staying out of trouble.

Sometimes a change in our students comes only from our profound disappointment in them. 

As for me, I gradually learned to be less naive, more cautious ‑‑ less trusting.

This story was originally published in 1999 in The Hamilton Spectator when I was on their  community editorial board.

For more on teaching in the jail school, please see Can You Make a Difference (Part 1)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

King Lear, Part 3: Our Present Business is General Woe

I sat on the edge of my seat, leaning towards the stage, eyes wet, and watched the final scene of King Lear.  Here are some thoughts arising from the lines in Act V, Scene iii:


Edmond is a villain - and we need villains to advance the plot, but Edmond is an interesting and almost sympathetic villain.

At the beginning of King Lear, Edmond's father, Gloucester, admits that Edmond is his out-of-wedlock son that he has always "blushed" to acknowledge.  Gloucester blames the boy's mother for having a son "ere she had a husband for her bed."  Like Lear, Gloucester is another character who takes no responsibility for his actions and pays the price.

After Lear splits the country between Goneril and Regan, the state is weakened and the sisters compete with each other for Edmond. When there is division in a state or a relationship, a malefactor, like Edmond, can wedge himself in creating a wider division.  I am reminded of modern-day Syria which, due to the civil war, became a breeding ground for ISIS.

Edmond has sent orders to have Lear and Cordelia killed while in prison.  When he is captured, he tries to undo his order - his only redemptive act: 
Some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send
(Be brief in't) to the castle; for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.

Edmond is very full of his own importance and influence, but when his death is announced, the response is "That's but a trifle here."  Nobody cares.

General Woe:  

The soldiers running to rescue Lear and Cordelia are too late.

Lear enters carrying Cordelia.
Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives.
She's dead as earth.

Soon Lear dies as well.  The Duke of Albany is still standing. By Act IV, Albany could see that Goneril, his wife, was a piece of work.  She calls him "a milk-liver'd man" and he calls her "a fiend" shielded by a woman's shape" and a lot worse.  The play ends with his instructions:
Our present business is general woe.

These are sad times and must be so recognized.  Our very business is grieving.  Let's do nothing else.  There is a formalness and authority in this declaration that I find helpful and comforting.
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

We are told to speak what we feel.  Our feelings are so often mediated, censored, or blocked by our roles and beliefs in what "we ought to say."  The direct line from our heart to our voice is interrupted by beliefs in how we should present ourselves.  To speak what we feel would be too raw, too vulnerable.  Yet here, Albany calls all present to only speak their feelings.


I began these meditations on King Lear by asking, "What's love got to do with it?" There's not a lot of love in King Lear.  There is a great deal of anger, shouting, cursing, and howling.  

One person who did not shout was Cordelia whose voice was ever "soft, gentle and low."  That is not only "an excellent thing in a woman," it is a thing possible for anyone who is self-reflective, honest both to self and others, and responsible for their contribution, great or slight, to their own fate.

King Lear Part 2

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

King Lear, Part 2: Does Anyone Here Know Me?

Last summer, in a binge of live theatre, I saw Man of La Mancha and then King Lear immediately after.  I began a piece called "King Lear of La Mancha" noting the similarities between the two works. 

Man of La Mancha is based on a novel by Cervantes, first published in 1605.  The first performance of King Lear was in 1606.  Both stories deal with family issues and difficulties seeing women (life, the universe, everything) clearly.  Lear saw his lying, selfish daughters as loving and devoted.  He saw his honest, true daughter as uncaring. Don Quixote saw the bitter, angry Aldonza as the saintly Dulcinea.

One doesn't have to be a foolish, old man to have a distorted view.  We all do it.  We tend to see what we choose to see and interpret behaviours in ways that fit our needs and self-perception.  Art experiences can sometimes help us see more clearly.

The Lear that I saw recently struggles with his identity and his threatened sense of self. After he rashly banishes Cordelia, even the evil sister Regan notes, "He has ever but slenderly known himself."

Upon giving his two dissembling daughters each half his kingdom, he still sees himself as a functioning unit.  He will lead 100 knights and, together, they will reside with his daughters:  one month with Regan, one month with Goneril.

The daughters see him as worthless.  Rather than recognize that he made a mistake, he rages at his daughters.  The more he denies his error, the more he loses his identity.  He asks, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (I, iv).  The Fool replies, "Lear's shadow."  His fall into madness continues until he begins to take responsibility for his own contribution to his problems.

That might be the take-home message of the play.

At the end of Act IV, Cordelia, her soldiers, and her doctor rescue Lear.  He wakes up and gradually recognizes Cordelia -- and recalls the wrong he did her:
Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.

And with these words and the recognition that he has wronged Cordelia, he knows who he is. Lear and Cordelia are then taken prisoner by Goneril and Regan's men:
                Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.

Lear says that they will take on "the mystery of things."  Instead of arrogance and pomposity, Lear is vulnerable and humble.  He asks forgiveness.  He's aware that he knows nothing.
And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon. 

- by being weak and open, they will wear out the great ones.  Greatness, he says, ebbs and flows.  He now knows this well.

He is no longer struggling with his identity.  Clinging to an identity of greatness only made him crazy.

Note:  Please read the King Lear Part 1 and King Lear Part 3

There will be one further blog on the ending of King Lear.  Coming soon.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Whither Shakespeare? Part XI: King Lear or What's Love Got to Do with It?

King Lear is about a self-absorbed senior citizen who wants to retire.  He wants others, particularly his daughters, to love him as much as he loves himself.  He is willing to pay an army of men to carouse with him and this props up his belief in his own importance.  He no longer wants the responsibility of running a kingdom.

Perhaps he devoted his whole life to his kingdom.  Perhaps he was a good king, as he has some loyal followers, Kent for one.  But King Lear is somewhat addled and mistaking his older daughters' fawning praise for love, he divides the kingdom between them.

His youngest daughter, Cordelia, really does love him, but will not buy into the division of the kingdom based on the one-off expression of love that he demands.  She is banished, but has a husband who will love her for herself, not for her share of the kingdom.

In the opening scenes of King Lear, the noise of love is mistaken for the deeds and behaviours over time that prove love to be real.  Intensity is mistaken for intimacy.

Lear, who is not aware of his failings and believes 100% in his impulses, banishes Kent and Cordelia and the play is off and running.

I am about to see a live performance of King Lear in a park in Vancouver.  I will report back soon with an update - looking particularly at how love, both false and real, recognized and unrecognized, lead to the tragic outcomes of this play.

King Lear, Part 2 here.      King Lear, Part 3 here.