Casting into the Waters: Symbolism, Spiritual Practice and Tashlich

Judaism has interested me for many years, probably due in large part to the fact that I was raised Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) and there’s a correlation between SDAs and Jews in how they observe the Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) and their dietary restrictions (SDAs encourage and promote vegetarianism, but those who do eat meat will typically shun pork and shellfish). When you grow up in a religious tradition that is a bit outside of the box, even among other evangelical Christian groups, it’s nice to feel understood in some small part by another religious group without having to go into long explanations. This is particularly handy when you talk to fellow Gen X’ers about why you are completely unfamiliar with Friday night TV shows and Saturday morning cartoons during the pre-VCR years.

The Chosen, Chaim Potok I also had an English teacher at my SDA high school who was part Jewish and he had us read The Chosen by Chaim Potok, explaining to us about Jewish traditions and holidays. Momcat and I ended up reading all of Potok’s novels and she, too, was very interested in Judaism. Pops had a colleague whose father had been a rabbi, so she would ask him a bunch of questions about what services were like, the reasons for certain traditions (she particularly liked the use of stones on graves as a remembrance).

I think it’s all these things combined that make me very aware when the Jewish high holidays start. Tonight marks the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year. I spent this morning reading about Rosh Hashanah traditions: the blowing of the shofar, eating round challah with honey, eating apples with honey, eating part of a fish or ram’s head. Not sure I would be up for that last one, but I do like the symbolism behind it.

It’s the symbolism behind many Jewish traditions that I find the most fascinating. I don’t recall feeling like it was okay to use or wear symbols of my faith or spirituality while growing up SDA. There were baby dedications in church, and full immersion baptism once you’d studied with your pastor, but iconography and talismans weren’t used or encouraged. I don’t remember any other symbolic gestures or rituals, and in hindsight I think I needed those to help me connect to a higher power.

During this morning’s research on Rosh Hashanah, I learned about Tashlich. The basic premise, as I understand it, is to cast your sins into a body of water. After the Tashlich prayer is recited, you shake your clothes as if to shake off the sins.

Tashlich, Tashlich prayer, Rosh Hashanah
Tashlich prayers (Image courtesy Chabad.org)

But here’s what really spoke to me about this tradition (taken from Chabad.org):

The goal of Tashlich is to cast both our sins and the Heavenly prosecutor (a.k.a. the Satan) into the Heavenly sea. And when we shake our clothes after the Tashlich prayer, this is a tangible act to achieve the spiritual goal of shaking sins from our soul.

Needless to say, the physical motions near the water and fish of Tashlich are not what grant us atonement. But if we pay attention to the symbolism and apply the sincere desire to heal our relationship with G‑d as portrayed in the physical demonstrations of Tashlich, then it serves as a crucial part in the process of repenting and returning to G‑d in purity.

When I lived in Southern California, I often went to the beach to look out at the ocean and have a talk with the universe about what was bothering me. Seeing dark, deep water stretched out in front of me, with no land in sight, was symbolic to me of how vast the soul is, how there is so much going on beneath the surface that I cannot even begin to fathom, but that as I dive down into the depths of my being I can find those parts of myself that need healing, bring them to the surface, then release them back into the water. Going to the beach to process was a huge part of my spiritual growth.

What’s clear to me in this moment is that what I was doing was a form of Tashlich: casting my troubles into the deep sea, letting a higher power help me release them from my soul. I found the symbols I needed and in so doing, I found the spiritual connection and inner peace I craved. And now, every time I go to the ocean, whether the Atlantic or Pacific, I know I can find it again.

Sunset Beach, CA – my favorite place to chat with the universe. (Image courtesy californiasbestbeaches.com)

Shanah Tovah to my Jewish friends, followers and readers.

On Ann Wilson’s Tribute and the Need for Slowness

It’s not even 9 am as I’m typing this, but the gears have been turning ever since I discovered I got trolled on Facebook – all for making a post about timing when, really, I was guilty of the same issue.

The back story: singer Chris Cornell unexpectedly died this past week, and as happens as soon as someone famous dies, the tributes and lists of the artist’s best work are all over the media. The golden-throated Ann Wilson of Heart sang “Black Hole Sun” on Jimmy Kimmel as a tribute to her friend, and because she was reading the lyrics off of a music stand, she got blasted for it in Rolling Stone’s video post (and I’m sure there were other posts as well).

I’m one of the people who blasted her – but not specifically for that reason. While I don’t deserve being called an idiot or other nasty names for what I said about it, I did need the reminder to slow down and think before posting.

As much as I enjoy what technology has brought into my life – a freelance career, new friends, fun gadgets – I am also aware that it’s made me impatient. I demand answers and satisfaction and I want them NOW. The laptop slows down, the tablet freezes up, the wifi goes down and I lose my shit.

This isn’t healthy. For anyone.

With Ann Wilson’s cover of “Black Hole Sun,” I came in with certain expectations. The cover she and her sister Nancy did of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center is so good it gives me chills and makes me cry. It made Robert Plant and Jimmy Page get emotional. It set the bar so freakin’ high that I expected a heartwrenchingly beautiful version of Soundgarden’s song in a way that only Ann Wilson can do.

But Chris had just died. There was no time to rehearse and prepare a performance that would come even close to the shock and awesomeness of that Zeppelin cover. No time to craft something so masterful that music fans would be enraptured for years to come.

I’m inclined to think it’s because of the collective impatience we all have thanks to technology. It’s this impatience that the media plays into, time and again. It’s why stories and performances get rushed into existence. It’s why commenters like myself jump in with first-blush thoughts and feelings when we really need to slow down and process.

That said, I stand by part of my original comment: a well-rehearsed cover of “Black Hole Sun” by Ann Wilson would have been amazing. One using her own band, who know her and how to arrange a song for her voice.

But in order to do these things, we all need to be invested in slowing down. In not requiring immediate gratification. In being willing to wait for the good, the beautiful, the expertly crafted.

Until that happens, though, we’re going to need more moments like this to remind us of the value of slowness.

4070537a7d73df56ff68d1c62e78b0d7ce146575af552a8255

Post-Women’s March Thoughts

Women's march on washington

Yesterday I had the honor & privilege of participating in the Women’s March on Washington. It was an incredibly inspiring, uplifting and empowering experience. I got to march with an old friend from elementary school, her husband, and several other people. I talked to people from all over the USA, laughed at the clever, creative signs, got misty eyed at others.

One of the things I saw that really moved me might surprise some folks. Along the march route, we came across a group of counter protesters. They had a large cross that had Repent and Be Saved painted on it, as well as some other signs with a Christian focus. This group was in a protective circle made of march volunteers who held hands and Caution tape to encircle them. A police officer was with them as well. To me, this represented one of many things I was marching for: freedom of speech for all, not just the people I agree with.

A few thoughts went through my mind during the pre-march rally and the march itself:

  • How many march attendees voted in the 2016 presidential election, provided they were eligible to vote? I’d like to think all of them did, but it’s possible they abstained from voting because they didn’t like either option and didn’t feel passionate enough about independent candidates to vote for them.
  • I wasn’t a fan of the signs and chants that skewed more negative. Granted, many were very funny in their snark (the “we need a leader, not a creepy/freaky tweeter” chant was particularly amusing), but I’d rather focus on what can be done to support women, minorities, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, LGBTQ, and others who feel marginalized and disenfranchised than expend my energy throwing hate at Tr**p and his cabinet.
  • When a chant of “Black Lives Matter” started up around me, I overheard someone behind me say “well, all lives matter.” I am still a bit annoyed with myself that I didn’t turn around and tell that person (who I believe was a 20-something white girl) “not today and definitely not here.” I didn’t want to get into an argument on a day that for me was full of positivity, especially not with a stranger. But I sincerely hope she gets woke by her peers very, very soon.
  • I saw a sign that said “Hug a Journalist” and that made me very happy. I know many current and former journalists and you could say I’m one, too (though I tend to use the term “writer” to describe myself as I do so many different types of writing). A few times I yelled “God bless the journalists,” especially when I saw someone with a press pass. Someone in my group (I’d never met her before the march) said “except Fox News” and I bristled and said, “No, them too. They need the support, too.” We didn’t get into a discussion about it, but again, I believe in freedom of speech.

    hug a journalist, Women's March on Washington
    Seen at the Women’s March on Washington.

I’m hoping anyone and everyone who marched – and those who weren’t able to, for whatever reason – will channel the energy from the march into activism. This includes calling and writing their elected officials, donating time and/or money to humanitarian causes, even being kinder and more compassionate to all, which is as simple as holding open a door for someone or letting the person with only 2-3 items ahead of you in line at the store. The Indivisible Guide has some excellent tips on how to advocate for political change.

Most of all, this little girl is etched in my brain. She was probably 3 or 4 years old and she didn’t say a word as she stood holding her sign, letting people take pictures of her. May she grow up in a world where she knows her immeasurable worth and value, where she can protect and support those who live in fear of persecution, where she can love who she wants, call herself by any name she chooses, be treated the same as her male peers, and speak her truth without being shut down.

girls power, little girl with girls power sign, Women's March on Washington

 

The Great White Dope

Note: I’ve chosen not to spell out the name of the Republican presidential candidate for several reasons, not the least of which is my illogical belief that to spell it out is akin to summoning Beetlejuice.
I don’t enjoy discussing politics very much. I’d much rather talk about pop culture, which I think most of you have figured out by now. That said, over the last 9 months I’ve been watching and listening to Tr**p spout off on everything and anything, and I’ve gotten progressively annoyed and disgusted by him. His behavior at Monday’s debate was the moldy cherry on top, to be sure.
But I’ve also noticed something. I have known several white men in their late 60s/early 70s who behave a lot like Tr**p does:
  • They interrupt others when they are speaking – especially women.
  • They oversexualize everything.
  • They say inappropriate things about women or minorities.
  • They are masters of microaggression.
  • They may claim to not be racist based on their behavior towards particular individuals of a certain ethnic group, but by and large, their behavior and expressed beliefs suggest otherwise.
  • They can’t see their privilege or don’t care to see it.
  • They believe they are smarter and wiser than damn near everyone else.
  • They don’t understand what boundaries are.
  • They get defensive when called out on their offensive behavior.
  • They rarely, if ever, apologize, and if they do, it’s often couched in terms such as “if I offended you.”
This isn’t to say I hate white men of a certain age. Not at all. But I really do think Tr**p represents a segment of his generation, race and gender that many of us have seen before, in our teachers, colleagues, supervisors, family members.
And so, like those other white men of a certain age, I choose to ignore him. Trying to change these men is futile, like nailing Jello to a tree. It can take years to get them to shift their thinking or beliefs, much less respect boundaries. (Do not ask me how I know this.)
Instead I choose to support those who embrace diversity of opinion and cultures. I amplify voices that speak with love and respect. I point out the fallacies in the logic of the great white dopes of the world. I laugh at their absurdity. And when all else fails, I walk away and focus my attention on being kind to others. Because then I feel I’ve done something productive and beneficial for all of humanity.
Statler and Waldorf, Muppets, Muppet show, Jim Henson, old white dudes, white men, grumpy white men
Two harmless old white dudes.

Of Fire and Hammers*

As I mentioned in the first post of my Gilmore Girls series, I was raised Seventh Day Adventist. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this Christian sect, you can get the basics on what they believe here.

I attended Adventist schools from first grade through 12th grade. Most SDA parents were given the hard sell on making the financial investment in sending their kids to Adventist schools. They could get a great education with the added bonus of a Christian environment and instruction in the Adventist faith. They would be surrounded by supportive teachers who were highly skilled and committed to shaping young minds.

What they didn’t tell my parents was that some of those teachers were misogynistic, narcissistic assholes. I still bear the scars of what my fifth grade teacher, a bitter woman who did not like that my school had moved to co-ed instruction for 5th and 6th graders, said and did during the hell year I spent in her classroom. She told us graphic stories about health and nutrition that I later discovered were wild speculation. She yelled at the girls for asking what she considered to be stupid questions about math assignments. It took therapy sessions and private tutors to help me get over my math anxiety – and, truth is, I still have it. Even after getting high grades in college statistics courses. I also don’t like participating in team sports or many physical activities because our P.E. teacher was a bully. He ended up becoming a cop, which fit his personality, got divorced and, rumor has it, was later kicked off the police force.

They also didn’t tell my parents about the birthday paddle that the principal would use on a “lucky” student at the monthly birthday parties. I never got the paddle, fortunately, but I still picture him wielding that thing and how terrified I was.

In high school – or academy, as the SDAs call it – things weren’t necessarily any better. I was fortunate that my school had some stellar teachers in the English and history departments, and my chemistry teacher was excellent, too. What my French teacher lacked in disciplinary skills and classroom management, she made up for in sweetness and compassion. But our religion teachers ranged from anti-choice zealots to Bible-thumping sexist buffoons. I remember how one teacher told us, laughing, “The Bible says when we go to heaven, we will be like the angels, and since angels are sexless, you better get some now while you can.” Those words, among others shared by him and other teachers, still resonate. Whenever week of prayer came around, which involved long presentations in the school’s chapel, I would dread it, as many of the speakers were extremely conservative, preaching of hellfire and devil music, calling us “sheep” if we went along with the crowd. One popular Adventist singer came and told us how he had been approached by Quincy Jones to sing on “We Are the World,” but when he was given the lyrics, which he found blasphemous, he said no. I still have a hard time appreciating the bigger message of that song. The call always came at the end of the week: will you go up and give your life to Jesus? I would watch my classmates walk to the front, noticing how often it was one of the more popular kids who didn’t strike me as being all that god-fearing, and I’d wonder if I should walk up, too. I never did.

Church wasn’t much different. My parents chose a home church that was more liberal than most, with some well educated, thoughtful ministers who preached insightful sermons about Adventist doctrine without heavily relying on Ellen G. White, the prophet responsible for most Adventist teachings and beliefs. Sabbath school, which was the SDA equivalent of Sunday school for the kids, was usually disjointed and full of dogma, run by adults in the church who ranged in age from 30s to 80s. Every year at Easter, one Sabbath school leader would tell her group in graphic detail about the crucifixion, crying as she demonstrated where the nails went into Jesus’s hands and feet. When I reached high school, I often stood in the hallway outside the youth room during services, talking with the other kids who hung back. None of us wanted to be there, but it was uncool to talk about why. Occasionally someone who had their license would sneak off to get snacks at 7-11 down the street.

There were many Saturday mornings I faked sleep so that Pops wouldn’t try to make me go to Sabbath school. Sometimes I convinced him to drive us to another church for the main service. He told me that once I finished academy, he wouldn’t make me go to church anymore. So when that time came, I stopped.

What’s funny, though, is that for as much as I fought the religious dogma, I tried to belong. One Christmas I asked for a small Bible and hymnal set, and I still have it, all zipped into its matching black leather case, the Bible full of paper slips marking verses used in Sabbath school. I was dutiful in my Bible classes at school, and there was a time when my two closest non-SDA friends were fighting and I went and got my Bible.  I wanted to find answers within the church, because I’d been taught from infancy that we were the true religion, that we followed the teachings of the Bible. I believed all SDAs were infallible, and that if someone did commit a sin, they would be washed clean in the blood of Christ.

But as I grew older, the truth could no longer be hidden. I heard stories of molestation, rape, infidelity, betrayal and manipulation, all at the hands of Adventist church members. I watched my father cry when a family member was hospitalized and held him as he sobbed. I learned the truth of my mother’s barely concealed resentment of certain family members for their acts of selfishness and cruelty. It became clear to me that being a member of the church didn’t make you a better person, nor did it make you immune to suffering or hardship.

So I wrote poems and journal entries about faith and providence, about prayer and suffering. I started asking questions. I investigated other faiths. I attended Catholic masses and Episcopalian services. Once I moved to California, I began reading more New Age and metaphysical books by Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, Louise Hay, Caroline Myss. I read about astrology, Tarot, numerology, crystals. I found peace and comfort in reading Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and visiting the gardens at his Self-Realization Fellowship shrine in L.A. Through developing a spiritual practice that was very different from the religious one I was raised in, I finally got myself to a place where I could give and receive love and compassion to all regardless of their faith. I saw the difference that being spiritual made in my life and, occasionally, I would tell people about it.

But I found that the sense of not belonging never leaves you if it’s in the very core of your being. If you never deal with those feelings of low self-worth, they will rise up in forms you don’t expect, in words that wound deeply. Accusations of being spiritually dangerous or “of the devil” will come out of the mouths of people you love and care about. It happened to my father when he decided to pursue law school instead of the seminary, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was still hurt. It didn’t matter how kind or compassionate I was. I would still be judged and found lacking.

I make my living as a writer. I understand the power of words. I have learned, both professionally and personally, the importance of choosing my words well and that there are times when it is best to remain silent. I can think of many times when I should have been silent instead of spewing words that were a hammer, pounding my beliefs and opinions into others. But I can also think of times when my words, carefully chosen, could have been the fire that needed to burn in someone’s heart and help them find peace.

I write all of this now because it is time I spoke my full truth. It is time I admit to being deeply wounded whenever someone tells me my spiritual practice is not in alignment with God’s plan, or that something I have said or done is the devil’s work. As much as I want to speak words of angry fire or pounding hammers whenever I hear these things, I am going to choose love: a pure burning love that strikes softly but leaves a lasting mark. Because choosing hate hurts me just as much, if not more, than having it given to me.

*”Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Jeremiah 23:29 (NIV)

Flying the Grumpy Skies: An Open Letter to a Fellow Southwest Passenger

Dear grumpy, testy passenger on yesterday’s Southwest flights:

Yes, it sucks for a flight to be delayed for 2 hours. The storms that caused the delay are not the airline’s fault. The leaky windshield was probably only found as a result of the heavy storms. To get home 2-3 hours later than you originally intended is definitely suckage of the highest order.

All of these things, however, do not give you a free pass to be a bitch to the flight attendant, who is just trying to keep a mother and her 2 young sons together on a full flight. Yes, you wanted to sit with your traveling companions. Yes, you thought putting stuff in your seat would hold the seat for you. But you weren’t being singled out, because everyone else who tried the saves-ies thing also got shafted. Your bitchiness came dangerously close to delaying our flight, because I think you were two steps from being escorted off the plane. Thank goodness for your traveling companion, who moved just to get you to shut up. (I suspect she does many things to accommodate your tendency to go into raving bitch mode. But that’s for her and her therapist to address.)

Have you ever worked in customer service? I have, and it is not easy. I can’t begin to imagine how it must be to provide excellent service while being essentially trapped for up to 5 hours in a closed metal box with customers who are by turns rude, demanding, or downright foul. That level of customer service requires A-level skills in diplomacy and tact. Maybe you don’t realize this, but the attendant who pissed you off was the same attendant who made sure a special needs child in the row ahead of me got some water, because his mother was more interested in getting a cocktail in the 30 minutes available for drink service than ensuring her child was comfortable. Looking out for kids in that way is damn admirable to me.

If you don’t like how Southwest is doing things with seating (and believe me, the open seating policy tries my patience, too), then you have other choices. Pay for the upgrades to A level. Or fly with an airline that provides assigned seating. But trying to get a flight attendant in trouble for doing her job in a compassionate manner is not cool.

How do I know you wanted to make a formal complaint about the flight attendant? Well, I was behind you as we left the plane, and I overheard you attempting to get the attendant’s name and ID number from another attendant. When you walked away, I mouthed “troublemaker” so she knew it was not the other attendant’s fault.

Yes, TSA screenings and restrictions make it a touch more annoying to fly these days. Cramped seating and delays make it tough, too. But it’s angry passengers like you, and all the other angry passengers who create chaos, who really make it challenging to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.

Sincerely,
Moxie

Wearing My Moxie on My Sleeve

For the past few months, I’ve been battling depression and anxiety. While I typically struggle with pre-birthday depression, this year also started off with an abrupt end to a new romantic relationship. I had big hopes, as we’d been flirting with each other for several years, and had much in common, but ultimately the big hopes couldn’t overcome the big hurdles.

As part of my self-prescribed therapy to help me move through the worst of my heartache, I wore my moxie bracelet (seen in the site header) on a daily basis. I’ve long been a fan of jewelry with a message, whether it’s symbolic or text. Wearing the bracelet was a daily reminder to be courageous and fearless in all things. Last autumn I had taken a big chance in telling this man I wanted to see if there was something more to our flirtation, and just because it didn’t work out was no reason to let fear take over again. But vulnerability is still something I struggle with – whether I’m being vulnerable or giving someone else the space to be vulnerable with me – as it bumps up against my profound insecurity, the voice in my head that tells me I will never be good enough. I let insecurity run the show all too often, and the result is I don’t take many risks.

Last week I watched researcher/storyteller Brené Brown’s 2010 TED talk on vulnerability. I don’t think I’d seen it before, or if I had, it didn’t resonate with me in that moment. What she said about her findings made so much sense to me in light of everything I’d been thinking about related to insecurity, vulnerability – and moxie.

Courage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language — it’s from the Latin word cor, meaning heart — and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and — this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.

The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating…They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees…They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.

In my professional life, I’m getting much better at risk taking. I’ve learned that the worst thing that can happen when you ask for a favor, a contract, an opportunity, is that you’re told no. You just go ask someone else. What I have found is that the more I ask, the more chances I get to hear a yes. It’s quite basic math.

In my personal life, though, I flounder. I don’t set my boundaries and fortify them. I don’t always ask for the love I want and need from friends or partners. I hear no and I hang around, waiting for the yes that I’m sure will come if they only see how compassionate or patient or kind I am. And it’s all because I am scared to say – to myself – that I am enough. That my boundaries are solid and firm, and anyone who attempts to diminish or vaporize them – even me – will be stopped. That I will let go and move forward without fear. That even if that annoying voice inside my head wants to keep me small, I will take the risk of being vulnerable, over and over again.

Brown talks about this self-acceptance as well.

This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee…instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”

…when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough,” then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.

In late February, I found a new piece of jewelry, a silver bangle inscribed with the phrase “Live Your Life.” These days, as my heart is still healing, I’m wearing that bangle a lot, sometimes with the Moxie bracelet. That’s because I am finally accepting that part of living my life is being unafraid to tell the stories of my heart, believing that I am enough, taking the risks to get to the yes, and remembering that I contain an infinite amount of inner moxie that’s there when I need it most.

moxie, live your life, bracelets, inspirational jewelry

Friends, Acquaintances and Everyone We Know

Recently T-Wizzle and I were talking about the word “friend” and how it’s changed so much in the age of social media. On Facebook, once you connect with someone on their personal profile, they become your friend. In reality they may be a former coworker, your stepdad, your third cousin twice removed. You can put all your Facebook friends into lists based on your true relationship to them. You can signify who is a family member, who is a colleague, who you sat with in the cafeteria at your high school. You can even separate out Acquaintances. Regardless of how you choose to categorize them, everyone you are connected to on Facebook is still your friend.

This bothers me a bit.

I understand why Facebook uses this term – it’s simply a convenient label or shorthand to signify that two people are connected. Twitter has followers, Google+ has circles. But I feel the use of “friend” on Facebook is symptomatic of a larger issue, a shift in how society views interpersonal relationships.

I remember when “best friend” was the phrase du jour, the one that would indicate a level of intimacy reserved for the people we spent the most time with. Hearing that the person you thought of as your best friend considered you one of several best friends, or didn’t think of you as being part of their inner circle, was grounds for tear-stained journal entries and sleepless nights. Now it’s as if we want to call everyone our friend so that no one gets their feelings hurt, when really they are just an acquaintance.

You remember those, right? Merriam-Webster defines an acquaintance as: “someone who is known but who is not a close friend.” I’ve got plenty of those, and I’m fine with that status. If there comes a time when I want to transition into a more intimate friendship, I can do that, provided the other person is interested and willing to do what it takes to become better friends. But if that doesn’t happen, being an acquaintance is fine.

There’s a third approach, though, and it’s one I find particularly interesting. In 2011 Marcia Ann Gillespie, editor of Essence Magazine, asked Maya Angelou in an interview about the difference between acquaintances and friends. Ms. Angelou did not disappoint in her response.

MARCIA ANN GILLESPIE: There are friends and then there are acquaintances. How do you know when someone is really a friend?

MAYA ANGELOU: There’s a marked difference between acquaintances and friends. Most people really don’t become friends. They become deep and serious acquaintances. But in a friendship you get to know the spirit of another person; and your values coincide. Friends may disagree, but not about serious matters. A friend will stand for you when you are no longer able. A woman can say to herself, If I die, I know that my friend, my sister friend will be here to hold up the banner. Now that’s very profound.

The concept of a “deep and serious acquaintance” appeals to me. It’s way too long for any social network to use, but it definitely captures the essence of a connection that is meaningful and relevant, but not overly intimate. Over on Quora, one respondent to the question “what’s the difference between acquaintances and friends” used the term “situational friends.”

Situational Friends

You do have the contact information and a more extensive knowledge of the lives and families of your situational friends.  There still is a context that brings you together, but your discussions have evolved past that context, and involve your life, your family and your other interests.  You may even go on trips that involve the context with them.  But when that context ceases to be a common bond, you will drift away from each other, maybe staying on the Christmas card list.

With these things in mind, is it time for a new term? One that bridges the gap between friend and acquaintance? Or should we just be satisfied with our connections that bring us joy and meaning and not bother with labels?

Five Years Later: What I Learned from Losing Momcat

Earlier this month I read this article on grief and loss, and it made me consider everything I’ve learned since Momcat died five years ago. Today would have been her 72nd birthday.

Here’s what I have learned in the five years since Momcat died:

  • There are a million analogies for grief. All of them apply at one point or another.
  • There comes a point where I feel people should just know that Momcat is gone. Even if I haven’t spoken to them in a long time, there should be something in my voice, in what I talk about that tells them she is gone. Magical thinking at its best.
  • She continues to appear in dreams when I am most in need of guidance, whether I know it or not.
  • There are days when I wake up not sure that she’s really dead. I didn’t see her body, so how do I really know? Having very vivid dreams in which I am with her compounds this feeling.
  • I am easily annoyed by people who bitch and complain about their mothers. I want to yell at them to resolve their issues and get to know their mother as a person, because one day she will be gone.
  • There is still so much I don’t know about Momcat, and every piece of paper I find with her writing on it becomes a clue. Old calendars, day planners, notebooks full of lists offer some insights, but not enough to satisfy my curious mind.
  • There are days when my grief is just beneath my skin, that one small bump or scratch will make me bleed. Other days it is buried deep, a wisp of a seed in my belly. This year I’m aware that my grief manifests itself in overreactions to mildly stressful situations. I resent this sneaky subversion.
  • In moments when things are going really well, I find myself annoyed that I can’t call to tell her my good news and hear her be excited for me, that all I can do is talk to her photo and imagine her response, dig into my memory and hear her voice say, “Hey, that’s great.”
  • I believe there’s an alternate universe in which the events leading up to her death play out every year, and if I could just cross over, I could ask the questions I never got to ask, and tell her once again that I love her.
Momcat holding me outside my grandparents' house.
Momcat holding me outside my grandparents’ house.

Finding Joy => Finding Love, Part 2: Marriage

Here’s another post that originally started in July 2011. It’s undergone some heavy editing, but the core idea of joy and love remains.

A few years ago I had a couple single folks tell me that a divorcé(e) is someone who was once loved enough to have had someone marry them. My mind is still boggled by this logic, because it seems to discount the possibility that love wasn’t even a factor in getting married. Some marriages happen because “we’ve been together for [insert number] years, I guess I owe him/her,” “he/she asked and I didn’t want to hurt their feelings by saying I wasn’t ready,” family pressure/expectations, a pregnancy. In some cases, marriage is used by abusers as a way to gain control over a partner. Those things don’t constitute love. Obligation and fear, yes. Love, no.

Part of the issue here is that society and the media can really screw with our notions of what makes for a healthy relationship, what constitutes a good, loving marriage, and what love is. I know I’ve had some wacky ideas for a number of years about love and relationships. Personally, I blame “Love Boat.” I should have never been allowed to watch that show. The story lines basically went like this:

        • boy and girl meet, flirt, sit at the Captain’s table for dinner
        • boy and girl look at the stars and share a passionate kiss, then end up knockin’ boots in someone’s cabin (which are WAY bigger on the show than actual cruise ships, as I understand it)
        • boy and girl fight on the Lido deck the next morning over some crazy misunderstanding, with the girl stomping off, nearly flattening Jill in the process
        • boy gets sage advice from Isaac the bartender, while girl flirts with Doc and realizes she can do way better if she stays with whats-his-name from the night before
        • boy and girl reconcile and leave the ship arm in arm, telling Julie the cruise director and Gopher they’ll be back on their honeymoon

The truth is more like the Supremes’ hit song “You Can’t Hurry Love”, or Frank Sinatra’s “Nice and Easy.” Love needs time to grow roots and blossom. Rushing to get to the good parts rarely leads to a loving, supportive relationship, much less a lasting marriage. You want all of that? You have to work for it – and it starts with working on YOU.

I try to be compassionate to the men & women I know who want to be married, or in a long-term relationship. But so often the conversations descend into whining and bitching over the dating pool and a big honkin’ glass of self-loathing. Sometimes the self-loathing is couched in “I’m totally fine being single” or “I’m happy with my life,” as if that negates all the whining and bitching. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

Because here’s the thing: if you truly are happy, you’re not going to throw any energy at those moments when your phone isn’t blowing up with OKCupid messages or when the person you thought was Mr./Ms. Perfect (and potentially Mr./Ms. Right) turns out to be emotionally unstable, a philandering narcissistic asshole, or worse. If you have faith that, at some point in your life, you’re going to find the perfect partner, those instances of dealing with nitwits will be like a SnapChat image in the big Smartphone of Life: it will (ideally) disappear within seconds.

How do you get to that level of happiness? I recommend a three-step process.

  1. Shut the hell up. Drop the bitterness and the attitude problem. Stop telling the world how upset you are with online dating, with the guys/girls in the town where you live, with navigating relationships. Even if you feel that way, stop talking, tweeting or posting about it, because you’re putting all this negativity out in the world and it’s harshing any possible mellow you could achieve.
  2. Fight your demons from the inside out. Y’all know how I love analogies, so here’s a good one: some of us have nasty demons or dragons inside of us, put there by unfortunate circumstance or choices we’ve made over the years. These creatures demand food and attention, and can be so unruly that often we don’t know how to tame them. Work with a counselor or therapist if necessary to do one or both of the following: a) find your sword that will slay the beasts; b) find compassion to turn those monsters into docile pets.
  3. Open your heart, even if it’s just to the smallest things. Maybe it’s working with those in need, such as shelter animals, disabled veterans or the homeless. Maybe it’s being compassionate to friends and loved ones who are struggling with personal challenges. Whatever it is, opening your heart and filling it with light that comes from being kind to others is the best way I know to show the universe that you’re in a space where joy and love are welcome.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll end up married if you follow these steps, but at the very least you’ll feel better about yourself. That being said, I’ve seen enough friends find the relationships they were longing for, all because they stopped working against their own best interests and started loving.

Are you ready to try? Isaac thinks so.

Isaac Washington, Ted Lange, bartender, Love Boat, Isaac the bartender