The Inspection

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As I sit here, seven cars have now pulled up in front of my house. The inspectors, the HVAC specialists, the termite expert, the realtor, and the potential home owners (very young) are all here picking apart the place, inch by inch, pipe by pipe, nook and cranny by every thread. They are looking closely at all the warts, all the potential pitfalls and unseen expenses that exist within a home that is 30 years old. I mean, when I was 30, I really didn’t have all that many warts, but hey, a home built in the 1980’s in North Carolina – not so much stability there. I hadn’t aged or warmed or gained in grace by 30, as this home has.

 

I am extremely uncomfortable and yet, feel that I have squatter’s rights. It is raining hard, and where would the dog and I go to stay out of everyone’s way? I am sequestered in my office, which was formerly known as the dining room. It is terribly awkward as I listen to them discussing the lumps in the floor, the windows that aren’t smooth, the water heater that is cracked and all the things that one lives with and really doesn’t notice. The carpenter bees leave their mark each spring. There isn’t enough dirt over the pipes outside. The windows are tight. One of the toilets is sluggish. The glass-top stove has been scratched by my beloved cast iron pans.

 

The big debacle at the moment is over the heating, air conditioning, and roof. All of these are working fine at the moment. We are warm and cozy in winter, quite cool in summer and without leaks year round. The heating unit in attic that keeps things temperate on the second floor is as old as the house, so granted it may be on its last legs. But, most of us homeowners don’t buy new expensive units in anticipation of their demise. We let things work, until they don’t.

 

And now, I am down and they are up and I hear lots of laughter. I feel like I am in the home of a party, but I am the uninvited. And, I also feel judged, very, very judged. This is after all, my home and has been the home I have lived in for the very longest in my lifetime. It is as if someone came up to me with a magnifying class and examined each of my pores and short of my yearly dermatology exam, I think I would curl up in a ball of shame and embarrassment.

 

It has been 15 years since we moved in with six month old twins, a fourth grader, a middle schooler and a high school school senior. We quickly arranged to finish a room on the third floor so that the kid in high school could feel like he had his own place. That became the revolving door for whoever held rank in age. It was a good room with good intentions, however, over the years it became a focal point for some less desirable activity and finally, it became the cell for our second oldest as he laid writing in pain bedridden for four years. When he finally recovered, I cleared the whole place out. The mere scent of it up there, sent chills down my spine. It has been completely redecorated, painted, etc.

 

But, by and large, this has been a happy home for us and it may well still be for much time to come as these nit pickers here, are examining the old gal, way too closely and will never be satisfied until they can buy some brand new cookie cutter home. I think they should. A large, happy family who is more used to chips and knicks, imperfections and the love that grows here, might be a much better fit. The inspector pops his head into my office and says, “I love this house. I would give anything to own it. I love these old houses. But, I am going to be writing some really bad things about it.” Crap. I am so ready to be done either way that it is beginning to matter less and less where I live and more and more that I get to live somewhere in peace with my darling Shep and my cherished twins who are still at home and 15 years old. Gimme shelter!

 

 

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STEPS

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The ubiquitous 12 steps of Addiction programs have been around for over 60 years and what began as an evangelical type movement to help men whose lives were run by alcohol, has become one of the most helpful and effective forms of group therapy.

More and more, I have come to believe that the 12 steps are a guide to life and to living life in the most healthy and productive way possible.

 

Most of us come into a 12 step program in a state of suffering and ill health. We arrive both skeptical and critical, knowing that we “don’t really need this” and yet desperate for some way to either crawl out of the deadly hole of addiction or survive the agony of watching our loved do so. We come as atheists, as zealots, members of any number of religions or beliefs. Most fear a dogmatic, religious program and yet, in desperation, we come just the same.

 

Admitting that our lives have become unmanageable is not all that hard, because in fact, our lives have spun out of control and on some level, we know that. So, Step one is tolerable. Step two gets a little dicier. Here we have to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore our sanity. Whoa! There is an ego battle with this one. Raised in the “Me generation” and taught to believe that we alone were in control of our destiny, this one is hard to swallow. In the case of many young males I know, it is even more challenging, because in fact, they do believe that THEY are the highest power. This is a stumbling block because admitting you really have become powerless is key. In fact, without a doubt – THEE higher power in your life has become the substance you are addicted to, or the addict and his behavior that the family member is addicted to. So, indeed, finding an alternative higher power will likely be in your best interest. It could be as they say, “the tree outside” or the ocean or whatever, but likely it is in fact, the fellow travelers sitting around those tables or in the circle in the rooms. They are very much your higher power now and truly almighty in their wisdom, comfort, understanding, non-judgment, and support.

 

Step three is where most can really hit a wall. Here it is, turning your will and your life OVER to the care of God, as we understood him. I hear you, really I do. It is an awkward reference and by using the word, “God” there is much buckling of the knees for many. Bear in mind that this was written in 1939 and that in actuality, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Because, the important thing here is that this is a program of the HEART, not of the head and if you try to analyze and synthesize and criticize too much, it just won’t work for you. And that would be a pity and would be your loss. So, try and get over that and get past it and realize that very simply, when you are down in the trenches and the light is just not shining in at all, then, it is in your very best interest to let go and trust the universe. If you will, most things turn out quite well in the end. There has to be some “Come to whomever” moment, on your knees, knowing you have nowhere else to turn, in order to begin to find the light. And when the light, is finally what you are after, then, sometimes, giving up is the only path available.

 

The steps go on to ask that you face your shortcomings, make amends to others you have hurt, take a personal inventory, etc. But, the first four to me, seem to be the ones that trip up many. For me, I have never really worked the steps, one by one, in detail. I intended to many times, and yet, it just didn’t happen. I read the daily books and found them helpful. Some of the slogans like, “One day at a time” and my favorite (created by another member in a group I was in), “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” have stuck with me and come in handy. The Serenity Prayer is a long standing wall of strength.

 

About 30 years ago when I was a young mother starting our family, I was still beleaguered by the incessant badgering of my Borderline Personality mother. I realized that it would not matter how old I got, but that this would never end and that if I didn’t strengthen my own core, the sickness in my family of origin would quickly seep into my new, young family. I found my way to Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings in Southampton, New York and I believe my life was forever changed. I attended religiously, every Thursday night and rarely missed a meeting. This was my introduction to the 12 steps and the insight and wisdom I gained from others experience, strength and hope, was immeasurable. I felt a bit self-conscious when I thought about the fact that addiction was not really the problem in my family and wondered if I was really in the right place. Each week, one of us took a turn as main speaker and I dreaded my turn, fearing being “found out.” I will never forget what another member said to me when I finished my wrenching story of mental abuse and dysfunction. Carl came up to me and said, “Well, that was the most horrific story I have ever heard at any meeting and while addiction may not have had the starring role, the chaos and trauma that lived in your home were a match for any addiction.” Though I never vied for “the worst story” prize, I did feel validated by that comment and so grateful to have found the ACOA group.

 

So, it was at those 12 step meetings that I began to learn how to live, how to let go, how to trust, how to protect myself, how to own my feelings, and more. My faith was deepened and I began to unravel and unscramble the first third of my life that had gone by in knots. When my father came to live with us a few years later, I also realized that perhaps, he had been an alcoholic for all his years. It had been hidden under the guise of “normal behavior for a working class Irishman,” but in fact, it was not normal. So, I took my dad to a few AA meetings in Southampton, but his Parkinson’s and Dementia were taking hold by then and it seemed pointless.

 

Over the years I have been drawn back into the programs for various stages of family members and my living through each of them. Each time I felt a new kind of helplessness and hopelessness, when I found my way back to the rooms of Alanon or Naranon, the wisdom waited for me and received me with open arms. Certain things stick with me, like the night a woman who was desperate for her brother’s survival prayed, “Dear God, please let him live long enough to realize that he needs help.” Or, the time when we ran into the parents of one of my son’s friends. We had seen them at Compassionate Friends meetings (a 12 step program in a way as well) following the death of their 16 year old son. But, when we listened to their story of heroin addiction and of finding their son dead with a needle in his arm amidst his super heroes bedroom, I struggled to breathe. The learning to let go of “our” dreams for our kids and let them live out their own nightmares, was a new idea that brought me great relief. I got it. Yep, they were OUR dreams, and not THEIRS. Hearing parents speak of what a relief it was to have their kid in jail was always shocking to me, until I realized that for the nights in jail, they at least knew their kid would survive. This became far more important than having a record. They stopped posting bail and they stopped going to get them and instead, learned to leave them there in the cell awaiting trial. The black circled eyes of parents living through the terrifying days, that started to lighten when they reported that they had dropped their kid off at rehab and finally got a night’s sleep, revealed the relief that was found in treatment not only for their addict, but for them.

 

So, as I do on most Monday nights, I went to my Continuing Care meeting in Raleigh, NC. It is a unique meeting in that, the addicts and the loved ones of such, are all in the same room. This does not exist in any other meeting I know of and in addition, “cross talk” is accepted and encouraged, which also does not exist elsewhere. It has been immensely valuable for me to learn from other addicts what their journey is really like. I would never have really known, nor felt the compassion and respect that I have gleaned. It is of great comfort to be with other parents in all phases and stages and to feel the palpable gratitude that we all feel when all is well and all are healthy. But, mostly, I learn to live. And though my kids might ridicule and say, “Oh, she’s going to her drug meeting” I don’t see it that way at all. I am going for 75 minutes of intense learning of life skills. This week we talked about “guilt” which is of course, a loaded topic. I live and breathe guilt and though I am much improved, it still has a grip on me. I learned a lot last night and I bore witness to some events in lives that evoke a level of guilt that may in fact, never be erased. It is just not possible and so one must simply weave it into one’s life and keep on walking across the hot coals. I learned that we have no control over each other, our children, our lives, etc, so guilt really should have no home at all. And, I was again reminded of the impossible and impenetrable guilt that one of my sons has had since the death of his little brother, and how much work still needs to be done to absolve him. I wished he had been amongst the whole circle of people baring their souls and the guilt that runs their lives. It might have been very healing for him as well. But, again, this is for me and for my heart and mind. I am a very grateful member of 12 step programs whether or not I agree with some of the semantics or not. That is miniscule compared to the mountain of positive direction I have received.

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Wednesdays at Noon

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Every Lenten season, I do this to myself, or for myself, or with myself. I am not sure which. I do not give up chocolate or coffee or sugar or even as the extremely humorous and soulful Rev Lauren Winner chooses, “anxiety.” Winner shared how she gave up anxiety for the 40 days of Lent and then had “one heck of a full blown anxiety attack on Easter Sunday!” Nope. I hold onto all that, although I have mostly quit eating chocolate because for me, it proves to be a classic addiction and my abstinence has nothing to do with Lent. Giving up a food or a habit never seemed to have a soulful connection.

 

Listening to Rev. Winner yesterday as a guest preacher was inspiring and thought provoking. She shared many funny references like how as a child growing up Jewish, she thought “Lent” was related to “Lentils,” which is what she assumed Christians ate. But, she also spoke of “going into the wilderness” and that really spoke to me.

 

Each spring, I have a sense of entering into the wilderness myself. It is a bit scary because I know not what I will find, and there are many landmines for me, that I want to carefully avoid. But, I am a brave girl and head into it just the same. It is a mostly lonesome place, this wilderness, but it is also a place of deep reflection. I feel quite grateful that I have able to attend the series of six Wednesday guest preacher services and the book study group, once again this year. I always come through, just a bit wiser.

 

It’s a challenge getting downtown each week and it is nearly as hard to find a parking space as it was in my days in NYC. But, I forge on and discipline myself to keep on going. It is comforting to sit in the quiet, yet full church for those few minutes before the short service. But, it is intimidating to sit amongst the group around the massive and impressive shiny mahogany table in “the library” following the service, for the book group. The chairs are heavy, carved wood and I feel so “less than” amongst those who refer to themselves as “Cradle Episcopalians” with double first names and proper Southern manners. I feel “other” and for the 20 years I have lived in the south, I can still shrink into insignificance, when those so much more gentile than I am surround me. I was raised Roman Catholic by a guilt ridden Catholic father and confronted daily by my raving, Atheist mother. I didn’t even have a middle name, let alone two first names, until I got to add the name “Elizabeth” when confirmed in the sixties! But, I sit and listen and absorb. I make notes and speak up every now and then, so self conscious of my NY accent that lingers forever. But, my feelings and my passion, along with the pain that brought me some insight and makes me who I am today, insists upon being shared with others, so I speak.

 

“Maybe it is a requirement to have faith cost you something. The other requirement is to love people standing on the other side of the line. What I don’t ever want is to be separated from others just because we feel differently on a particular issue.”

 

Quoting the book we have studied, “Hither and Yon” by Becca Stevens. I loved this book. Stevens granted me the grace of reading in bits and pieces when I am short on time, with chapters no longer than a page or two. This book reminded me of how powerful it is to simply sit with another’s pain. There are often no right words to offer and none that would provide any balm to the raging agony of one’s heart. You simply sit there and bear witness and stay. Sometimes you share tears if they come. I still have clear memories of who sat with me through the summer from hell after my young son died. And, I have memories of those who either never came or did, and felt that they should chatter on or try hard to distract me. Distract me? Really? “…when there is nothing there, God fills the space.”

We also read, “Love Set Free” by Martin L. Smith and this was a denser, deeper read.  Much discussion arose around the concept of the idea that it is not just that God lives within us, which I personally see evidence of almost every day, but that in fact, we live in God. My favorite quote from this book is, “We cannot any longer pretend that God is located out there or up there or back there. In believing we realize that our bellies, our guts, have been opened up, and there God is at home in us, in Jesus, through the Spirit.” Wow.

 

This time has also made me think of how hard it is to face our fears. I suppose mine, like so many others is the fear of ever losing any of my beloveds again. It is a terrifying fear, more frightening to me than my own death, I believe. And yet, it is good to think about, because the more we think about fearful things, the more they should be begin to shrink in their power over us. “Prayer can lead to healing, but I have never used it as magic.” Oh yes! This is my mantra! I do not believe that God is a magician by any means and thus, my prayers are simply for strength, for thy will to be done, for wisdom, for patience, and most importantly for my deeply felt gratitude. I do belong to the Church of Anne Lamott in every way! She is my greatest philosopher and though, she doesn’t know me, I believe she is my best friend. Together we chant, “Help, Thanks, Wow.”

 

I have always had an extreme distaste for Rev Al Sharpton. He was the epitome of so much that I disliked. He appeared as a depraved, wildly angry, self-serving, overly dramatic rabble-rouser. He shouted and pushed and bullied and turned bad situations into much worse ones. He defended those who had a cause but in many cases, were determined to be fortune and fame seekers instead. Although, he really didn’t know that at the time, he took on their causes as social justice issues, but he bullied and ranted to get across his raging points. As I got older and left New York, a lot of those New Yorkish type figures faded from my radar and Al was one of those. So imagine my surprise, when I decided to watch an Oprah interview with him and was mesmerized first by his now, diminutive size and second by his humble, pensive, conciliatory, reflective self. But, that was nothing compared to how I felt seeing him tear up when he described the life long pain he had felt from the cruel actions of his father. This father, he described, (who he sought for the rest of his life, despite impregnating Al’s own sister and taking her and Al’s siblings away from the family, leaving only Al with a mother laying on the floor in grief and despair) left him as a raging bull. I literally jumped off the treadmill that day to watch more closely and have since viewed this interview two more times. I get Al Sharpton now. I get him totally. His devastation had turned into complete and bottomless anger along with as many pounds as he could gain from a diet of non-stop fried chicken! My mother crawled on the floor in desperation many, many times. I did not blow myself up with poor eating and hopefully did not bully my way through life. But, the loss and the hole that will never be filled rallies on for me as well. I like Al Sharpton now. I respect him and I understand from whence he cometh.

 

There is always so much learning to do that sometimes it is exhausting. But, it is my way and it is my path to understanding. I am convinced that someday, if I learn enough, it will all suddenly make sense and I will shout, “Eureka, I get it, I get it!” Or maybe, I already have.

 

 

Mary’s Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

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Though there are various conflicting numbers in historical documents, it seems that Mary may have given birth to Jesus around the age of 14 or so. This was probably not the least bit unusual for the time. And then, if Jesus was 33 when he died, his blessed mother was 47, likely a ripe old age for her time of utter devastation.

 

I began thinking about this a few weeks ago when I was seeing young, teenage girls in the pediatric office where I was contracted as a lactation consultant for the past year. These girls were not there for their own healthcare as one might have thought. No, they were in the office because they had new babies of their own. In many ways, they seemed stereotypical in that they were African American, under 18 years old and of course, single. They had no source of income, lived at home with parents or grandparents and found themselves pregnant by surprise. Needless to say, the parents and grandparents offered mostly severe criticism, disapproval, and disgust at the whole situation.

 

There are two points I need to make here. The first one is why I kept thinking of Mary. These young women clearly had no problem getting pregnant. There was no infertility, no planning, no checking ovulation, nothing. Of course there also was no “virgin birth,” but let’s just not go there. It likely may have been their first sexual encounter. With little prenatal care, no real health precautions taken, they had perfectly normal pregnancies. Their births (though not given the respect they so deserved by hospital staff,) went quite perfectly as well. When I say that they deserved more respect, I am referring to the rushing of the labor and the efforts to make these young, unknowing women feel that they were not “progressing quickly enough” and thus administered drugs and epidurals that they likely did not need. Most infuriating to me is when I have encountered a young and beautiful woman who was given a Cesarean section because of “failure to progress.” What an absolute pity and insult, if indeed, it was unnecessary.

 

I don’t meet these women before they deliver. I consider it an absolute privilege though to encounter them post partum, when they come to the pediatric office to have their baby checked, and I get to spend an hour with them helping to get breastfeeding off to the best start. It is important to understand that IF, we can get breastfeeding to take hold, we will have cut down dramatically the incidents of child abuse, with the gift of tolerance and patience known as the mothering hormone, Prolactin. We will also accomplish bonding this sweet baby to his very young mother, for eternity. We will have safeguarded the child’s health and very survival and have saved the mom or the government close to $3000 and more a year! This is no small feat, so you can imagine my supreme pleasure in being a part of this effort, even when met with a very disapproving family member. The mother of the baby is thrilled when she sees her baby gulping and looking into his young mother’s eyes with complete adoration.   I imagine that Jesus did that as well!

 

But, here’s the thing. I am an expert in my field. I have been a board certified lactation consultant for almost 20 years now and I know what is typically required to achieve maximum milk production in a mom. Most importantly is that milk be removed on a regular basis, some 10-12 times per 24 hours in the first two weeks of life. When I meet these young mamas, they have typically broken every rule in the breastfeeding book! “Oh, I breastfed him once yesterday morning,” or –“I feed him a bottle and sometimes give him breast.” I am stunned when I hear this, but more so, when I weigh the baby and then hand him to mom to nurse and wham – there is a huge, dripping, robust milk supply! We talk about this, because this bonanza won’t last forever, but for now, it is indeed, phenomenal. I encourage her to maintain this marvelous gift to her and her baby as much as possible.

 

My conclusion to this led me to think, that perhaps we were biologically designed to bear children as young as Mary was. In my private practice I encounter women every day, devastated by their repeated miscarriages, infertility and chronic low milk supply. We throw pumps and herbs and bigger pumps and prescriptions and everything we can come up with to increase their milk supply, which often remains a frustrating mystery. They are mostly thirty-somethings. Perhaps, the biologically perfect time for conceiving and breastfeeding is at a very early age. I know, I know, I know that this is not the most mentally developed or the least bit mentally mature time and is poor fitting in our culture. But, I am talking strictly biological here.

 

My second point is this. The underserved get underserved once again. I was as I mentioned, honored to work with a population that I never got to work with before. I am in private practice in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina and see mostly middle to upper class, mostly white women, who have recently had babies and can afford to pay for help with lactation. They present with a myriad of challenges, because of course, I am not working with those for whom all is going along swimmingly. So, when I was contracted by this pediatric practice that caters to a predominantly Medicaid population, I was quite happy. It meant so much to me to serve this population with my expertise and afford them the same research and support that I offer to those who can afford to pay for it. I had so much to learn from these patients and learn, I did! This is how it should be.

 

It is no more. I was asked to no longer come into the office because they have been so poorly managed for years, resulting in financial challenges. The small amount they were paying me seems so insignificant compared to the huge amounts of money they are missing, but nevertheless, I seemed to be an easy cut for them. There have been significant staff departures and some have been replaced by family members. While I was not the least bit surprised at my cut, I am deeply sad. It is once again, the poor being poorly served and not having access to the best attention and expertise that is given to those who can better afford. Heartbreaking.