Tag Archives: power of words

Thank You Sheryl

Sandberg2016-05-16t12-09-26-766z--1280x720.nbcnews-ux-1080-600Stalled at the Pittsburgh airport while the airline tried to locate a part for our plane last week, I had time to peruse the magazine racks. And there it was, on the cover of Time magazine, Sheryl Sandberg’s image and the message, “Let’s talk about grief.”

YES, I said enthusiastically to myself, inhibiting the desire to make a fist in the air and bring it down in a firm gesture of agreement, like the ringing of a chime. It’s about time we spoke out loud the name of the elephant that is in the middle of our social gathering places – our offices, churches, ladies luncheons, schools, and corporate conferences. Anywhere we gather, at least half of us are most likely in the middle of experiencing a major loss and yet a conspiracy of silence keeps us isolated from getting and giving the support we need.

I learned about this when I lost my 31 year old son to AIDS and later, my 42 year old daughter to breast cancer. Being a therapist I decided to write a book about our family’s experiences and the role that support from our community played in our handling these challenges. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y12Wj06_nAI

My hope was that writing and talking about what we experienced would help me and reading our stories would help others deal with their losses. I developed a format to “Perform The Book,” getting help from my improv troupe, as we used the expressive arts to join the particulars of their stories to mine. This experience was most satisfying and rewarding for me, those who chose to participate, and audience members. But it was noteworthy how many people declined our invitations.

The taboo about hiding the pain of loss seems to stay firmly in place not only in relation to death and the loss of a loved one, but operates when a family member loses a job or goes to jail, gets a cancer diagnosis, or when we ourselves deal with pain or infirmity. In short – whenever we suspect that our current life situation might be considered a “downer” for someone else.

On the other side of the equation, when we know someone is going through grief we often fear saying something that might make their pain worse. Once when my son was seriously ill in the hospital my sister-in-law asked about him and I began to tear up as I talked about the situation. “Oh dear. Now I’ve made you cry,” she said. I had to explain that she didn’t make me cry. ” By asking about my son, and listening to my answer, she allowed me to have a few moments when I was not pretended that everything was “fine. She let me know that she cared and gave me the opportunity to share my concerns and sorrow with her.

Hopefully through Sheryl’s courage in writing her book, https://www.recode.net/2016/7/29/12320222/sheryl-sandberg-leans-into-next-book-option-b-about-grieving-and-healing about the sudden loss of her husband, and the well-funded promotion of her platform, more of us can be there for one another through the tough and tender times, becoming stronger from dealing with our adversities.

Let Me Read It To You

My then 20s something daughter said it best. “The main problem for my mother is that she has always been ahead of her time.” She supported this assertion with the statement that her mother had used what was then called “natural childbirth” when she was born. She added that her friends, who were just beginning to learn that taking drugs during labor might not be advisable, couldn’t believe her mother had acted on that so many years before.

Perhaps creative people have always had this problem but in the present era’s ubiquitous focus on branding, the timing and seeming appropriateness of an idea or project seems to have become even more critical. Being seen as a trendsetter is of value, but it’s not advisable to get too far ahead of where most of the herd are grazing. So recently I’ve been paying special attention not only to what’s emerging in my creative consciousness, but also to what’s happening in the larger culture, hoping for some possible connections during my lifetime.

Here’s the way my creative process works. Like most people, I get a lot of ideas, but every now and then, one idea won’t leave me alone. It continues to emerge and reemerge in spite of my efforts to question the advisability of acting upon it. Take for example the idea of writing a book. I wrote a book that I started with a co-author in 1985 and my version was finally published with me as the sole author in 1992. The process was so grueling that I told myself I would never write another book.

The idea to write another book came to me sometime in 2006, but it had to keep competing with the part of me that had taken that vow of “never writing another book.” I’m happy to say that the process of writing the second book was much more grace-filled and enjoyable than the first, but it did take, just as the first book had taken, seven years to become a reality. So perhaps our reticence to act on our inspirations exists to protect us from all the years of work that will be required to go from idea to reality.

Closet StudioSo here I am again, about to act on one of my ideas, to “ground my vision in reality, “as Anna Halrpin would say. Almost from the beginning of working on my second book I thought about the idea of creating an audio book version where I would read to my “readers”, making the book available for people to listen in their cars, or on their mp3 players while they worked out in their gym or garden. In the ensuing years, this idea has grown into a passionate desire.

Since Warrior Mother was published by She Writes Press in 2013, I’ve been Performing the Book, around the country and internationally, reading passages from the book while improvisational InterPlay performers respond with stories from their own lives. This idea, conceived as a way to get the word out about my book, has been most satisfying for me, and I believe for the participants who have performed or witnessed it.

All this practice in reading sections of my book out loud has given me the confidence to hire a sound engineer to help me create a sound studio in my closet and read and record the entire book for an Audio version of Warrior Mother.

Those inner voices of reticence and dissent have been making quite a ruckus lately as I prepare to act on what is now a burning desire. But all that became silenced this morning when I read Wyatt Mason’s article, Audio Books Read By the Author in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-audiobooks-read-by-the-author.html?_r=0

Mason begins by extolling the virtues of poets reading their own work but then he says, “I would extend Rilke’s idea beyond poetry to prose. Because in prose, the author’s voice is even more essential to making the text not only intelligible but also meaningful.”

As I enter my sound chamber/closet to begin production of my audio book tomorrow, I take this as encouragement from the universe that this project will be both timely and relevant, and serve the purposes for which I intend it. Stay Tuned.

Las Vegas Happened To Me Twice

Last week Rich and I got up at 4 am to make a direct flight to Las Vegas, one of my least favorite destinations. If you don’t count stops at the Vegas airport on the way to somewhere else, I’d only been to Vegas twice before. In 1992, my in-laws took the family there to help celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I remember the kids sneaking onto the casino floor with Grandma Pearl hoping to learn how to be as lucky as she was at playing the slot machines. 

My initial time in Las Vegas was half a century ago in the glory days of the Rat Pack, when I wasn’t old enough to drink legally. I lived in Vegas for eight weeks while working as a dancer in the Tony Martin and Peggy Lee Shows, at the now defunct Desert Inn.  The pull of working in Vegas for New York dancers like me was the enormous salaries they paid. I don’t remember the amount, but if you watched expenses and brought a good portion of your salary back to New York you could live on it for six months. This meant you could avoid taking odd jobs that interfered with staying fit as a dancer and being available for frequent auditioning. In order to accomplish this end, refraining from gambling was critical as was economizing on living expenses.

It was winter, the rainy season, which meant sunbathing, swimming, golf and tennis were not frequent activities. For us, the highlight of most weeks was the other shows we were able to catch on our night off, and the dance classes we took from whatever choreographer’s’ assistant happened to be in town.

The glamour of the place, then as now, did not extend much beyond the footlights. Though we wore elaborate beaded costumes and glued on false eyelashes to perform, my roommate and I grocery shopped after we got off work at 2 am, cooked and ate all our meals in our motel-style apartment, and to further economize, we rented a sewing machine and made the evening clothes we were required to wear in order to come on to the property.

Weird Las VegasThe weirdness of the place is still intact. We encountered people clearly under the influence of something, forgetting how to walk or talk properly, but the dress code has changed dramatically. Locals and tourists alike dress in what I would describe as “grungy casual,’ jeans, sweats, and workout clothes. I noticed this especially because all the women, from waitresses to chambermaids, to teenagers on the street, proudly sported elaborate eye makeup and glued on eyelashes.

Students on the campus dress like students everywhere, though a hundred or so wore black tee shirts with the letters TEAM on their backs. I came to appreciate their dedication and effort as the purpose of my return trip to Vegas was to present a talk, “When Death Threatens, Life REALLY Matters.” at the TEDx UNLV event. It was fittingly titled, “Living in the Extreme.” Who says the universe doesn’t have an outlandish sense of humor?IMG_1888

On Receiving a Book Award

The email to inform me that I had won a book award last week went to my spam folder. A voice mail message on my home phone delivered the news that Warrior Mother had won a silver in the category of “Inspirational Memoir – female” for the 2014 Independent Publishers’ Living Now Book Awards.

LNsilverMy first reaction was a feeling of not being sure how I felt. I sent my husband and best friend a note saying, “I think this is a good thing.” In spite of the ambivalence I’ve always felt about contests in the world of art-making and performance, the powerful role that individual taste and opinion play in the final judgments, and that at some point, the differences in quality between offerings are often miniscule – I’ve decided to decide this is a good thing. 

I got into this contest because last summer as my book was coming came out, my publicist suggested I do so. She warned it would take a year or so to get results, but if I won, that would be good timing to re-energize the sales of a book that would no longer be “hot off the press.”

This particular contest satisfies my social work heart in that it honors books that have the ability to change lives. “The Living Now Book Awards celebrate the innovation and creativity of newly published books that enhance the quality of our lives, from cooking and fitness to relationships and mature living.”http://www.independentpublisher.com/article.php?page=1861

And, I’m at the place in my life that I don’t want to pass up any opportunity to celebrate – my own achievements, and the accomplishments of people who contributed to Warrior Mother through the years; those that helped me live through the events I wrote about, the community of supporters such as my writers’ group who helped in the process of writing, the She Writes Press team that produced the book, and those of you who have been willing to read it, tell your friends about it, write reviews and help me perform it around the country. Please join me in this celebration. I’m sending each of you a high five and a gigantic thank you.

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

Children & the Stories Elders Tell

“That happened in the olden days,” my children would tell me. Their dismissive tone indicated they didn’t see any relevance to what I was relaying about the past and what they were experiencing in the present. I, on the other hand, have always been curious about “the olden days,” especially as far as family stories are concerned. My siblings and I would beg our Auntie to tell us stories of our mother when she was growing up. We questioned anything that seemed odd, like the fact our mother lived from ages 3 to 14, around the corner from her own parents and siblings, in her Irish grandmother’s house.

StoryMemoriesOne summer, getting the basement sorted out so I could teach dancing there, we discovered a box belonging to our father, filled with memorabilia from his college days. This provided a gold mine of information about parts of his past he never spoke about. From his photo albums we learned he had performed in a theater troupe, and since my brother and I were involved in theater and dance, we were shocked that our engineer father had never seen fit to mention this to us.

Recently I learned of a study that demonstrated strong benefits to children when they know about their family history. A team of researchers at Emery developed a “Do You Know? Scale, which was a series of 20 questions for children to answer about their families.  Questions such as; Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

http://shared.web.emory.edu/emory/news/releases/2010/03/children-benefit-if-they-know-about-their-relatives-study-finds.html#.UUdCq47xgTM

The results showed that the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. Even if the family narrative is not all goodness and light, the fact that family members overcame challenges in the past says to the next generation, you can do so too.

Knowing that my mother was sent to take care of her grandmother when she was a small child helps explain my mother’s and my own sense of the importance of care-giving roles in families and communities. Knowing that my father was a thespian helped me to see that people are not just their job or professional roles. We all have many dimensions and hidden talents to discover and explore.

I loved getting confirmation for the important role elders and their stories play in a family and for the next generations. Since one of the most important things for children to know is a family narrative that shows they are part of a larger big body, one that has survived to this point, and likely to do so moving forward and beyond.

A Rose by any other Name

Driving back from our InterPlay session at the women’s shelter, two friends told me something about myself that I hadn’t noticed. Apparently, I have a tendency to refer to women in a group as “gals.” So much for my belief that living in Texas for 20 years hasn’t affected my speech patterns. My African American friends warned me that, for some African American women the name “gal” could be an insult, like the term “boy” is for African American men. It has a remnant of slavery and the disrespect of not being recognized as a full-fledged adult.

Amazing. This would never have occurred to me if my friends hadn’t pointed it out. And it got me to thinking about other names or expressions, many of them regional. Just coming back from North Carolina, I remembered the Cartoon on pronounswaitresses referring to everyone, male or female of whatever age, as “ honey.” And since I’ve been sensitized to such expressions I noticed my dentist, who is nearly a generation younger than me referring to me as “young lady.” The first time I heard it I didn’t know if he was being sarcastic or playful.  Now that I know him better, I’ve decided he’s talking to the younger spirit inside me, reassuring her that no harm or pain will come from his hand.

My dancing teacher always referred to her students as “ladies” and when I started teaching I adopted that same practice.  I think we were both hoping this salutation might inspire civilized and respectful behavior. These days people juggle terms like “girl friend” or “boy friend” for people who have not been girls or boys for decades. Besides being careful not to culturally offend, perhaps we need to create some titles to fit our times.