Posts Tagged ‘Alternatives to Violence Project’

Winding Down

April 28, 2015

I seem, finally and despite much inner resistance, to be entering a phase of acceptance that my accumulated years have worn down my endurance to the point that I have to ration my energies.

In the near term this means giving up several of my enjoyable “sideline”’ activities like facilitating Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in the New Mexico prison system. My “day job” is so demanding of time, energy and attention that it exhausts my reserves by week’s end, and I need at least a full day of minimal responsibility to recuperate and regenerate the ability to work another week. Fortunately, I don’t have to remain totally idle for that day of rest; I do have to limit myself to relaxing activities – reading, walking, contemplation, lighthearted conversations – and occasionally also the composition of a blog essay. It’s heartening to realize that writing has become a relaxation exercise for me. I may no longer be able to teach an eight hour workshop after my week of work, but I can probably write for nearly that long if I choose to begin work on another book.

In a recent discussion, I tried to express how different it is, letting go of an activity – or reducing the intensity of one’s participation in it – when one is forty years of age versus when one is in one’s seventies. Somehow, at the younger point, at least for me, there remained a sense of vast opportunity and choice not unduly limited by a reduction in energy or ability. If I could no longer work all day plastering or laying a flagstone floor, without paying a stiff physical penalty – so be it. I would switch to painting or setting tile and carry on earning income in home construction, between professional positions that used my brain more than my back.

Now, however, accepting that I can’t both work full time and also lead workshops or teach, I don’t feel the same ease of adjustment to alternatives. I am being required to give up something, not just switch focus from one type of activity to another. This forced giving up might have come to my attention sooner, if I’d continued to be reliant on my physical strength for my livelihood. It is, after all, an ebbing of strength that is now curtailing my work weeks and reminding me that I can’t go thirteen days at a stretch without a break (two six- day work weeks and the Sunday in between).

Might I be able to continue the workshops and teaching if my work weeks were s more normal forty hours, instead of the fifty plus that they now run? Perhaps… I know for certain that I don’t have the energy to go looking for a different, less intense, job. And I acknowledge that I’m reluctant to give up a position that allows me to work from home several days a week, even though it also involves many miles of weekly travel to see clients, and many evening and weekend hours invested to meet deadlines.

When I consider the adjustments I’m facing, they are minor compared to those some of my clients – and friends – have had to face, due not so much to the wear and tear of life as to illness or accident. One friend who’s pride has been that, the only woman on the county crew, she is as strong and tough as the men, injured her back and is now unable to work, unable to stand for more than a short while, and equally unable to sit for long without severe pain. She has had to give up not only her job but all the housework, animal care and other activities that structured her days. Fortunately she likes to cook and bake, and can manage time in the kitchen by alternately sitting and standing, with breaks to lie down and ease her pain. She has no choice but to develop a new way of defining herself.

Is it easier to accept change if one is confronted with a sudden and total decline of functional level, rather than to feel oneself slowly slipping into loss of abilities? I’m not sure. The question is rather like that discussed in training sessions with nursing staff – whether it’s easier on families to care for a loved one over an extended decline in health, or to lose the family member suddenly from an accident or rapid health crisis, like a fatal stroke or heart attack.

When loss or change comes suddenly and irreversibly, one has no choice but to deal with the consequences. When the loss or change is slow or incremental, it is easier to deny that any adaptation is needed, or at least to insist that it’s “not needed yet”. But it may ultimately become harder to adapt if the needed changes are postponed too long.

I have a good many goals yet to accomplish. If I’m to live long enough, and have the necessary energy to achieve them, I must begin making adjustments now. Fortunately, I now have a partner to help, encourage, nudge, remind and sometimes insist that I give myself down time. It’s easier for me to accede to the change, and not feel guilty about the activities I’m no longer supporting, when I can say I’m doing it a the behest of someone else. Which I recognize is an admission that I still haven’t gotten over the feeling that I must justify myself by my actions. But that’s another topic, for another reflection, on another day. For now, I need only begin the process of finding myself comfortable doing less. Or as a dear friend has said, when we talked about doing versus being, turn the challenge now facing me into the refrain of a song – do be do be do be do.

Forward, or Back?

November 9, 2014

A younger friend is in the planning stages of a surprise event for her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. She asked me, since I am of an age with those parents, to mention some of the significant events of “the sixties.” Her intention is to link her parents’ years of marriage to marker events they would have lived through.

I’ve met her parents, and know them to be of a different world view than mine, more conservative and less traveled, but teachers and caring, engaged individuals. I tried to name events that might have personal meaning to them, not just the by-now-made-trite-by-media images of hippies, Woodstock, anti-war protests, long hair and drugs. Together, my friend and I came up with a list of singers, TV shows, commercial logos and slogans, hair and clothing trends, popular movie stars, and also specific political events of the sixties that have shaped the succeeding years.

One of the personal experiences I shared was of being made to turn in my credit cards, acquired as a single woman, when I married a man who did not have a credit record. I was not considered, legally, enough of a person in my own right to have a credit rating separate from that of my husband of the time. To this day, I have never again shopped in the stores that so denigrated me, nor held a credit card from the company that made me turn mine in. Looking back to that event, I would say society has progressed somewhat as regards the status of women.

Looking forward, since the election, to probable legislation and legal decisions affecting woman, I regretfully believe that we are a very short step away from a return to the non-person-hood of women reflected in my credit experience.

Eric Francis, of PlanetWaves, has just posted an amusing and pointed essay about laws requiring men to have permission from two doctors, attesting to the man’s intent to create life because he has access to a fertile egg, before that man may ejaculate (see his essay through Facebook or at

I did not begin this essay with the intent to rant on how close we have come to full circle, from the constraints on women in the early sixties, to those being imposed again now. I intended to write about the differences between people who tend to look forward to what comes next in their lives, and those who tend to look back at what used to exist in those lives. The forward lookers generally seem happier, more open, more accepting people. The backward lookers strike me most often as sad, missing what has passed, finding little or no pleasure in their daily experience – and urgently trying to drag everyone else down into their own depression and regret.

I work with people who are in pain, who are sick, who have lost much of their independence and freedom to choose to walk down the driveway to the mailbox, or to dress themselves without help, or to cook a meal. One woman has been on dialysis for ten years, and recently spent nine months in a nursing home after she fell and broke a hip. She is a forward looker: an artist, a grandmother teaching her granddaughter to carry on the family tradition of pottery-making, while she herself explores new forms in clay.

A few days ago, I met with a couple who are split – the husband is totally focused backward on all that, due to severe pain, he can no longer do. He won’t have someone come to build an entrance ramp to his house because “people will see that he, who worked construction all his life, is no longer capable of this project.” His wife also speaks mostly of how she raised six children and ran a household while holding down a job, of how limited she is now, and dependent on her youngest son to cook meals and clean the house.

Until her husband leaves the room.

Then she shares how much she enjoyed a five day visit to a grown daughter’s home, even though she had the same mobility limitations on vacation as she does at home. She would be a forward looker, were she not being dragged inexorably down into negativity and backward-looking regret by her husband.

It would be easy, just now, for me to lament the direction our government seems to be taking, and to look backward to even ten years ago, when we were celebrating new accomplishments by women and expecting ever more equity in the workplace. But looking backward means, to me, having little hope, few aspirations, no sense of adventure and no courage. It may not be pleasant looking toward what I expect to emerge from Congress and the Supreme Court over the next few years. It is nonetheless necessary to do so, and to do so with determination not to be overwhelmed.

I recommend the use of inner resources, inner resolve, and a conviction that there is merit to the saying that “it is always darkest before the dawn.” Given how unexpectedly a new love relationship, a new purpose and a new energy arrived in my own life, I must attest to a certainty that “anything is possible” if one remains focused on looking forward, open to possibilities, and expecting the best.

Expecting the best is one of the attitudes listed on the Alternatives to Violence Project mandala – a circle with Transforming Power at its center; caring for self and others, respect for self and others, seeking a peaceful solution and expecting the best in a surrounding ring; and an assortment of techniques to be used in an outer ring – techniques like humor, patience, courtesy, surprise and caring. That ring of techniques keeps expanding, as workshops held in prisons across the country, and in tension-filled countries around the world, teach people how to find non-violent solutions to conflicts. The techniques are equally effective for maintaining a positive focus in one’s own life, and for bringing one back into awareness of the strength of spirit we all possess.

The backward-lookers may have won some recent political elections – they will NOT run my life. Please don’t let them run yours!

Ba Gua Lessons

October 12, 2013

As I count down the days until the start of the intense training period for my new job, I find myself in yet another dichotomy. Do I laze about as much as possible, wallowing in the freedom-to-do-nothing that is about to vanish from my life? Or do I begin a disciplined adaptation to going to bed earlier, getting up early, and organizing my days to accomplish tasks that it will be hard to fit into my upcoming schedule? Or, more practically, do I aim to achieve a balance of both tendencies?

My acupuncturist/friend/wise-teacher commented that it is often the case that moving to the extreme of yin (doing nothing) pushes one into yang (activity) so that resting instead of participating in activities can be an excellent preparation for the burst of energy that will be required of me. I liken this approach to the one I’m learning from the same friend and teacher when we practice Ba Gua, wherein movements are designed to “coil” muscles like tightened springs, until the point of release. The force of the release may serve as the attack (the martial part of the art) or may be contained and redirected into intensifying the next coiling movement.

It’s difficult to consider what Western culture calls laziness and idleness as appropriate preparation for a required, new and busy schedule. In that mentality, I definitely should already be adhering to the new (yang) schedule of waking, and filling my days with tasks, accustoming my body to delivering energy and clarity of mind across the ten or so hours of an upcoming busy day. But what happens if I rename the preparation period (the yin) in an Eastern fashion, and say that I am practicing stillness and emptiness? Then I am setting up a powerful contrast, with the potential for sustained energy emerging from the containment being practiced this week.

What a difference a few words make! Try them out. Spend a chunk of time playing solitaire, or just sitting and watching the wind blow the drying grasses of autumn.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Call yourself idle and lazy for failing to do something constructive with your time. Then, rename that time as allowing yourself to be still and mindless, outside your usual sense of yourself. Which set of terms weakens you? Which seems to relax and yet energize you?

To a large extent, even when I’m not engaged in writing, I live my life through words. My grandfather taught me the importance of choosing the right ones, when he talked to me about his poetry. His choices were in Hebrew, and constrained not only by the meter and rhyme of his verse, but by his dedication to purity of the language. (Words created for items that did not exist in ancient culture should, in his opinion, follow the traditional structural frame as to number of consonant sounds).

My experience of parents whose behaviors were often in contradiction with their words led to my dedication to accurate and clear communication. A lonely and isolated childhood built my desire for connection with others, and to the understanding that communication is a two-way street. I do not communicate when I talk (or write); I only communicate when what I say is heard and understood by another.

For others to hear and understand me, I need to understand them – hence my choice of psychology as a major in college, and my continuing interest in neurology now. Also my engagement with the several programs I lead or teach (including Alternatives to Violence Project and Chronic Disease Self- Management), both having to do with learning concepts that help one direct and control behavior.

Which brings me back to Ba Gua, teaching my body new ways of moving, and simultaneously reinforcing flexibility of mind. And back to the importance of just the right words – stillness and emptiness creating a vacuum which attracts energy, to be stored and contained until it explodes into action. So much more sustaining than to label my down time as idle laziness that should be filled with doing.

The first time I attended a feast day dance at one of New Mexico’s Pueblos, I observed a dancer carrying an old-fashioned alarm clock, the sort that is wound with a key, ticks loudly and has a clanging alarm. The dancer teased non-Native observers with the clock, shaking it in our faces, setting off the alarm suddenly and startling visitors with its discordant noise. Eventually, he tossed the clock away and joined the line performing traditional steps in a mesmerizing, repetitive pattern. Time did then disappear, as spectators and participants focused totally on what was happening in the moment.

I suggest that much that we like, whether a good book, a particular hobby, an activity, or a piece of art or music is liked precisely because it has the capacity to capture our attention strongly, and thus to eliminate our sense of time and ego. Being present in the moment with the object of our attention creates a satisfying energetic stillness, and an expanded sense of connection, of capacity, of self.

Those fortunate individuals who are able to combine such likes with their means of employment do not describe what they do as work. They are more apt to describe a career as pursuing a passion. Those less fortunate in the choice or conditions of employment go to work, and then try to find free time for pleasures to balance what they have sacrificed for the earning of income.

You may have noticed in previous posts that I have not called my new job “work”. For the past eighteen months, I’ve been able to live mostly in the present moment, doing what is in front of me to do each day. I really like this way of being. My intention is to continue in this manner, acknowledging that there will be more things in front of me to do, in many of the upcoming days, than there have been in the past ones. I have determined not to change my approach to the doing of them. I will find energy for the doing by assuring that I remain centered in being.

As my body improves its stability and strength through Ba Gua practice, so too my mind – and its use of words – expands its capacity to “hold the tension of opposites” and to achieve balance. For important external reasons, I am starting a new job. For vital internal ones, it will not be work. Activities required of me by the new job will be integrated into the pattern of observing, of writing, of being that has nourished me of late.

Please, if you notice that I’m falling away from center, alert me! If my words seem poorly chosen, my posts less reflective, give me a nudge. I need to know that I’m continuing to communicate with you, not slipping into a stress-driven rant.

Thank you for reading, and for feedback.

Creativity in a Second Language

September 15, 2013

I’ve started a new class through Coursera – a MOOC – that apparently has close to 125,000 people signed up for it worldwide. Mind boggling to think of that many students going to class together. The topic is Creativity – and in keeping with the course’s intent to promote more creative lives among the students, I’ve joined a subgroup of French speakers enrolled in the class. A challenging way to resurrect my skills with a language which I once spoke and wrote fluently, but which I’ve had little occasion to use in the last thirty years. Since the class is on-line, that means I’m writing French – the most difficult way to use a language skill. Should be an interesting eight weeks!

The first assignment included an option to make a sort of life map – identifying a core value at the center of everything one does, and then listing 3-5 priorities in each area of life, such as family, career, community, etc. I found the exercise relatively easy to do, given that my spiritual path (MasterPath) calls for a consistent effort to examine and process one’s life experiences. But I also attribute some of the ease to age – one doesn’t get to 70 and still engaged with employment, learning and community service, without having examined one’s priorities, and kept tabs on how they evolve over time.

What didn’t get addressed by the Life Ring activity was what I’d call a question of style – how do you, I, we approach daily life? I’m scheduled to facilitate an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop with a competent co-leader who is very organized, detail oriented, and most comfortable when every aspect of the workshop is clearly spelled out in advance, including how each activity links to a small number of specific topics. I on the other hand, like to ‘wing it’ for at least part of the weekend. I’ve put together an agenda that includes exercises which can be related to a number of different topics. Part of the challenge – and the learning – that I value in AVP is how it reveals interrelationships that participants have not previously considered. I trust my own skill at helping tie those relationships together, and therefore like to leave room for the unexpected to emerge as the activities are processed.

There’s a lot to be learned co-facilitating with someone whose style differs from mine. Birds of a feather may indeed flock together – but do they learn how to get along with those of a different plumage? We draw reassurance from associating with others like ourselves. We learn and grow when challenged by those with whom we have differences. Which makes the concept of thousands of students from a hundred or more different cultures all joining together to explore creativity a highly innovative concept.

The Francophone subgroup is on LinkedIn, enabling me to check the careers and interests of other members, as they can review mine. Most of those I’ve looked up so far are younger, in business, engineering, industry, very few list teaching, none that I’ve found so far work in social service or health-related careers as I have done. The instructors for the course want the students to find ways to apply the concepts we study to our fields of endeavor, and to work together in teams to develop those projects. I seem to have set myself up to stretch my creativity to the max, finding ways to apply my skills, in a second language, to areas of life with which I have little if any experience! Should be fun…Meanwhile, the course does stress that we all have the capacity to be creative – and that our styles do indeed differ. We have all been asked to take a survey that classifies us along a continuum from adaptively creative to innovatively creative. I come up moderately innovative. I suspect my AVP co-facilitator would land somewhere on the adaptive end of the dimension. I’m realizing, as I write, that by putting on the workshop with her later this month, I will have completed the major assignment of the course – which is to apply the principles of creativity, in conjunction with others, to an aspect of my professional life. Thankfully I don’t have to put on the workshop in French!

Memory Lane

September 8, 2013

Told that you will be spending two days with a former partner – lover, ex, intimate friend – from whom you parted on amicable terms but have not seen in 45 years, what would you expect to experience? Assuming, of course, that you are old enough to have so much time elapse between encounters. If you’re younger, compress the time appropriately, and include an awareness that you and the former partner knew you had different goals and would be traveling different paths. You parted amicably.

So here you are at the other end of a long separation, having pursued your divergent aims. You are going to meet not just your ex-partner, but that person’s current mate about whom you know absolutely nothing. Would you, like me, wonder if you’d find anything familiar in your former partner? Would you ask yourself questions about “the road not taken” and be curious to learn if you’d been correct to leave it? Would you – unlike me – obsess about your looks and how you’d aged and whether you’d still be found attractive?

Turns out, I had the interesting and enlightening experience of both appreciating the qualities that originally drew me to this particular former partner (FP), and recognizing how our differences had deepened into a rift which would inevitably have pulled us asunder. We were indeed lucky – or perceptive – enough to have realized that we should separate “before any harm was done.”

What I didn’t anticipate was the extent to which the visit brought back other memories from my earlier life – memories not necessarily connected to the relationship, including memories of events from my early childhood. It was as though, once broached, the closet where I’d shoved recollection of much of my early life behaved as any physical closet stuffed to overflowing – it spewed out random items when the door cracked open.

Going for a Walk

Going for a Walk

Visits to the zoo with my grandfather, during which he talked about life, and values, and the challenge of finding just the right word for his latest poem. He queried my week and my interests and what I was reading. I was vividly reminded of those Sunday conversations when FP gently probed how I live and who I am now, in much the same way as my grandfather had sought to know me.

Memories of intensely difficult times with my mother, who had serious psychiatric problems. It took me quite a few years to overcome the effects of her paranoia, explosive anger, and abuse. FP perceptively commented on his recollection that my mother also had an abusive mother, in the context of mentioning that he and his present wife were lucky to have grown up amid very positive family lives. I know now what it’s like to feel supported and encouraged by a set of caring supporters. And I also appreciate to what extent my adventurousness and my inability to fit neatly into the socially defined role FP offered, arise from the instability and emotionally volatile nature of my childhood. I’ve not had an easy life, but I’ve certainly had a varied, challenging and infinitely rewarding one.

Also tumbling out of the closet were memories of other relationships, rather a lot of them, mostly all pleasant. Such a range of different types of people I’ve come to know and value as friends! People who are very far removed from the European immigrant, advanced-degree-educated, middle class traditionalist pattern of my parents and of FP. Motor cycle riders, cowboys, ex-cons, and prisoners still serving time who participate in the Alternatives to Violence Program workshops I facilitate in the New Mexico prison system. Sixth generation descendants of Spanish families who migrated into the New Mexico territories from Mexico, and who still speak English only as a second language. Some of them are conversos (crypto-Jews) rediscovering their family origins. FP and his wife, conservative Jews, were deeply interested to learn about this link to an area they now plan to revisit.

I’ve known mechanics whose crossword puzzle skills rival my own. Believers and practitioners of a host of religions, and of no religion at all. Providing home health care throughout a large rural section of the state, I’ve been welcomed into ancient adobe homes with sod roofs, ranch headquarters in the midst of thousands of acres of range land, luxury second homes for people who spend half their year in Texas, and the truly mobile homes of a couple living permanently in their Winnebago.

Amidst the tumble of memories spilling forth, I find and grab onto a gem of an idea. I ended the relationship with FP because I knew I did not fit within what felt to me like a confining, prescribed role. I was not at home within a “family” structure. It turns out I’m not at home within any other established structure I’ve encountered in my life journey. I’ve fit myself into them (work, a variety of different cultural norms) to get along, but none have felt like ‘home’. I belong nowhere. Ergo, I belong everywhere!

Perhaps that’s why I’m planning to start a new career within weeks of turning seventy, and then, four or five years from now, I’d like to take off to live once more in a different country. Somewhere with a comfortable climate for older bones, where I can teach, and learn, and continue my life adventure. I’ve been dipping into memories from the past. I’ve defined a possible future to hold in intent. Meanwhile, it’s time to resume the most important aspect of Being – living in, and appreciating, each moment of the present.

What Are The Odds

May 30, 2013

Recently, I received two phone calls within 5 minutes of one another, both from women with whom I had interacted (one closely over several years, the other only briefly) more than 30 years ago – and with whom I had not had contact since! Further, my connection to each of them involves the criminal (in)justice system with which we have all three been involved in some fashion. I taught college level psychology courses in the New Mexico Penitentiary beginning in 1978. One friend was active with me in a major prison reform project arising from the 1980 riot there. The other – acquaintance rather than friend – went on to do research in criminal justice after we had interacted, and wanted now to talk to me about that continuing interest of hers.
What are the odds?

What are the odds that I would date, in college, a guy whose high school girlfriend was the first cousin of one of my schoolmates from junior high? And what are those odds given that the high school was located in White Plains NY, the junior high in Saigon, Vietnam and the college at Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania. Out on a date in New York City, we walked into the Russian Tea Room and encountered my friend’s parents and his girlfriend’s parents having dinner together.
What are the odds?

For that matter, what are the odds that I would receive a call, more than forty years later, from that junior high friend, as a result of her reading an essay I published in the Swarthmore College Alumni Bulletin? Her son had briefly attended Swarthmore before his death. Clearing out his papers, she found the magazine, and my article, and tracked me down through the College alumni office.

Skeptics may try to answer the question of odds with numbers, while reciting the logical statement that co-occurrence says nothing about causality. In other words, the fact that two or more events occur simultaneously, or in close proximity to one another, means nothing whatsoever about their causal relationship. The events may in fact have a common cause, but they may equally well have no connection of any sort to one another. These skeptics (they may think of themselves, rather, as logical or pragmatic) can be heard to pronounce that it is a fallacy of humanity, to ‘need’ to find meaning in random events.

What are the odds, and do they matter? Perhaps only to those fascinated by coincidences, who have not yet taken a position with regard to the importance and role of causality – or serendipity – in our lives. A good friend of mine reminded me, when I mentioned my ‘what are the odds’ question, that I was expressing a cultural bias. Many cultures – the Navajo for example – do not believe in serendipity, or coincidence, but rather believe all events are linked. The purpose of life is to understand those links and find one’s place within them, and thus to be in balance and harmony – to walk in beauty.

Other traditions also teach that the goal of life is to learn to exist in a space of harmonious balance, often expressed as learning to “Be”. Buddhists practice stilling the mind in order to achieve a state of immediate, present, awareness. Quakers seek ‘the Light Within’ to guide them in manifesting the divine in daily life. The Catholic priest Richard Rohr (founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation) encourages us to live from the center instead of from the edges (the edges being where we define ourselves by ego, by the groups we belong to, or the codes we think everyone should adhere to). The ancient Light and Sound teachings (the poet Rumi was an interpreter of this age-old wisdom, MasterPath is a current expression of them) – these teachings guide followers toward direct awareness of Soul, and the ability to Know, Be and See as a manifestation of the Divine.

To resolve apparent either-or tensions, my teacher in MasterPath speaks of the value of finding “what the opposites have in common.” Thus, a middle road between the skeptics and those who see a connection among all events might be found by asking another question on the order of, “Is this seeming coincidence calling my attention to something I should attend to?”

What the two callers reaching out to me had in common, other than a 30 year gap in our interactions, was a connection to the field of corrections. I have taught college courses in prison, been an activist for prison reform, and I currently offer Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in the New Mexico prison system. Should I be looking at that aspect of myself?

Or does the benefit to me of noticing the conjunction of these two calls lie in a consideration of who I was 30 years ago, in contrast to who I have become since? A third possibility is that the value of reflecting on the calls lies outside myself, in my consideration of the science and logic of coincidence versus the range of belief systems which see systematic connection and order between events.

What are the odds that I’ll discover the ‘real reason’ for this apparent coincidence? Is there such a reason? Does it matter? Probably only if I choose to make it matter. And therein lies the kernel, the import of all the questions – the fact that I can choose how I interpret the events in my life. We each can make such choices, though sometimes it feels like the choice is made for us. Coincidence or meaningful plan, noticed or ignored, how our lives unfold and what we make of our experiences is ultimately a matter of choice. Knowing I am responsible for my circumstances, I can more easily “be”, in harmony with them. I like those odds!

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