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Churchill, British Petroleum, and Primary Life Experience

In one of the multitude of homes which my family inhabited as a peripatetic Navy family, we lived next door to a man who’d been in the army during WW2 and liberated one of the camps. I was 9 going on 10 and always sidling up to him to ask him what it was like. Sometimes he would talk. Mostly he would cry.

My mother would look at me with that jaundiced look which I have since co-opted for my own children: “Why are you bothering the neighbors?” I understand her now, having asked that very question of my mischievous brood, when they’ve followed their individual daimons into high naughtiness. At that time–and even now–I had to appease my hunger to hear people’s stories. History has always fascinated me, but not from an intellectual standpoint. There has to be a personal hook. I want to hear how an individual loved and suffered and laughed and threw tantrums during important passages of the human race’s travels through time. I want to feel what they felt as if I were feeling it.
So the other day at the Provincetown library, when I ruffled through a young adult biography of Winston Churchill, the hook which grabbed me was the link to my own experience: my travails with my 15 year old daughter, who is equal parts troublemaker, creative artist, incisive psychologist, entertainer, and sensitive soul. I love her deeply and worry about her all the time. Churchill’s misspent youth full of backchat, overspending, and bad grades, followed by an adulthood as one of the greatest statesmen of all time, gives me hope. Having dealt with any number of teachers and administrators with their supercilious moral rectitude and low opinion of my daughter, which she certainly earned, and their anger with me because I can’t ‘fix her’ to their immediate liking, I am gratified to see that troubled adolescents can turn out to be outstanding adults.
I know this anyway, from my own husband. He’s told me some hair-raising stories about feeling alienated, getting drunk, and climbing the columns on the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was about the same age as my irascible middle child. He’s become the most devoted and finest figurative sculptor living today, and one of the cleanest living people I know. But his parents must have wrung their hands.
It’s even more solace to read about Churchill and to think about what he accomplished across the great span of time, from the Boer wars to WW1 to WW2. There’s a lot to be said for an independent-minded person, and those kind often struggle with authority. Churchill, and my wild child, are two such.
Being intrigued with Churchill, I’ve become intrigued with that tapestry of time. I’m just beginning research into the period and I have a lot of questions. Why was North Africa such an important area during WW2? After the despair and tragedies of WW1–France lost 1.25 million men, and they were a country of only about 40 million people–how did Europe fall into WW2 a mere 20 years later?
Was it because the reparations demanded of Germany after the first world war were too great? One friend of mine claims that we would have avoided WW2 if Germany had won WW1 and centralized Europe under its aegis. Or was Germany at that time just warlike enough, and prejudiced enough, that Hitler would have gained a foothold even under conditions of an alternate universe?
And what about Churchill sinking French ships to avoid the French Navy being turned over to the Germans? Didn’t the French self-scuttle a bunch of their own ships a year later, for the same purpose? Did Churchill need to infuriate De Gaulle and the French? Was he a brilliant man but also an a**hole, as another friend claims?
From this vantage, the beginning of my research, I see that Churchill had some serious flaws. He could not avoid the British Imperialism that has led to severe injustices across the world. It’s a kind of arrogance, an unquestioning assumption of superiority, and it is mirrored in the US imposition of Pax Americana.
Note to Obama: we should not be in Afghanistan. Why are you listening to your generals tell you we can win, when the crackerjack Russian army couldn’t? What will history say of you for that error in judgement? And why the hell has the response to British Petroleum’s dreadful spill, which will damage the world for centuries, been so slow and backward? What kind of arrogance is at work here?
I am voting 3rd party with next election. I can’t bring myself to vote Republican. I can’t stand the bigotry that’s become entrenched in the Far Right. Also, despite what the simple-minded think, people can be both pro-life and pro-choice at the same time. I am one of those people.
But Obama is a big disappointment. He talks good but he’s not accomplishing what we’d hoped.
History is happening now, repeating itself, waiting to be learned from. And my daughter is still evolving.
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Recently a wonderful opportunity came my way: I was able to tell a well-respected, practicing psychologist my objections to psychotherapy as it is currently practiced, and he listened carefully, and he responded with both clarity and respect. I have a chance to rethink my position with new insight.
Fine critical analysis is not always a gift. For those who follow Vedic astrology, I have Mars in Virgo rising. Astrology is descriptive, not causative. In my case it rather beautifully describes my forward movement (Mars) with critical discernment (Virgo) and how it pisses off people (energetic, non-diplomatic Mars, in the first house).
And to those who scoff at astrology: “I use astrology for the same reason I use the multiplication table, because it works.” This is a quote from Grant Lewi (1902-1951), an English professor at Dartmouth.
Astrology is a multi-faceted art and my chart yields a further description. Jupiter the great benefic sits in the 7th house, facing my rising sign. In Vedic astrology, Jupiter is in Pisces, its own sign, which creates a Hamsa Yoga, the swan yoga, for good luck and evolutionary progress. Jupiter aspects that rasty Mars of mine. It is surprising how often something good comes out of my forward movement.
In this case, the gift was twofold: one, the psychologist received and validated my careful observations (ever notice how few therapists can listen to anyone, or hear criticism?) and two, this thoughtful man responded with ideas that hadn’t occurred to me. His willingness to engage me intellectually gave me a new insights, new awareness. I enjoy that. I am grateful.
My beautiful step-daughter at Johns Hopkins is aware of my on-going debate about psychotherapy, and told me about a class she took at Hopkins called “Positive Psychology.” She sent her professor’s book to her dad for his birthday. Naturally, I pounced on the book.
And the book is fascinating. Dr. Martin Seligman makes the point that most current psychology is negative psychology: the study of despair, depression, organic illness, failure, self-sabotage, e.g., “discovering deficits and repairing damage.” What about the study of positive mental and emotional traits, like peace, joy, hope, faith, and optimism? Don’t we all want more of those in our lives? But those don’t get funded by grants so they tend not to be studied.
In my opinion, ‘positive psychology’ has largely been left in the hands of New Age self-help gurus and “The Secret” purveyors, which is mixed. Some of those people are selling snake oil, some of them are on to something. (No, there is no irony in a follower of astrology stating this truth.)
Seligman points out, rightly, I think, that people stand to benefit from studying “positive institutions that promote strengths and virtues,” that lead to “lasting fulfillment: meaning and purpose.”
Seligman admits to being agnostic and I am always surprised at the lengths to which ethical humanists go to avoid acknowledging a divine presence. What is the big deal about accepting the infinite field of all-consciousness in which we live and have our beings? Still, his well-written book builds toward an explanation of how to achieve meaning and purpose, and true happiness, in life. I recommend the book. It’s good reading. It’s a rich feast for thought.
Shivaratri & Lincoln’s Birthday: February 12
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Shivaratri & Lincoln’s Birthday: February 12


I follow the Hindu festivals, much as I observe the Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas. Any excuse to pray and meditate! Any pretext for bringing myself into the Presence of this moment! The cycle of holidays through the year elevates human life, takes us out of the pedestrian and provokes reflection.

So today, Feb 12, is a collision of Shiva’s Great Night (Shivaratri) and his wedding to Parvati with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Shiva is the god of dissolution, the one in whom the Universe sleeps after destruction and before the next cycle of creation. Abraham Lincoln is the president who dissolved the bonds of slavery. Lincoln was forced to use the destruction of war to do it, which weighed heavily on his heart. What he wanted was for all individuals to have equal dignity of prerogative.
So this, for me, is a day to reflect on emptiness and compassion, freedom and justice, union and choice.
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The Mechanism for Human Forgiveness

Recent events in my life have led me to think deeply on the matter of forgiveness.

I’m not, in a broad sense, a fan of contemporary psychotherapy. It seems to me that the people who are in therapy the most are the ones who are most self-righteously entrenched in their own narcissism. Everything is about them and their process, and if you try to let some light into a closed and airless system by suggesting that not everything in the world is, in fact, about their process–well, it gets ugly. That’s one problem. There’s also, among some child therapists (many of whom, oddly enough, do not even have children of their own) a feeling that children are the unfettered kings of a home, no boundaries required. I think this is folly, and that it undercuts the very structure that serves to give kids a sense of safety and security, and a foundation in life-long values. Kids need structure. They also need a few lectures from mom and dad on topics like, “Don’t get drunk when you’re 14,” “shoplifting is bad,” and “just because all your friends are jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t mean you should.”

Note that Proverbs 13:24 claims that “he who loves his children is careful to discipline them.” I know, sure, it’s hokey to quote the Bible in the face of the great amorality of contemporary psychotherapy–but when psychotherapy has endured as human truth for the many thousands of years that Proverbs has, then I’ll quote Melanie Klein and all that rot.

Recently a friend, after I ranted on in this vein, told me to read James Hillman. And I am drawn to Jung, so I’ll make a go of Hillman, when I finish at least two of the four books I’m currently reading. (Which are: The Diamond Cutter by Geshe Michael Roach, The Atlantis Code by Charles Brokaw, The 5 Rules of Thought by Mary T. Browne, and The Search for the Girl with the Blue Eyes by Jess Stearn.)

One of the biggest problems I have with contemporary psychotherapy is that it practices separating the doer from the action. Dr. Phil has espoused this on Oprah, and, with all due respect, this schism goes to the heart of why I view contemporary psychotherapy with prejudice. In fact, we define ourselves by our actions. If we tell lies, we’re a liar. If we cheat, we’re cheaters.

At the same time, in this view of the world that holds people accountable for their actions, there has to be a mechanism for redemption. For returning to self-worth, in our eyes and the eyes of the community, after an error, a wrong, a crime has been committed.

And for absolute sure: we all screw up. Each and every single one of us. Perhaps there are a few saintly monks meditating in caves who have never erred, and isn’t it easy to be a good person when you’re alone on a mountain in deep contemplation? But, for all the rest of us, we are going to hurt people, we are going to make mistakes, we are going to lie and cheat and steal and rage and be lazy and be gluttonous and be jealous and take advantage and persecute and oppress. On purpose and by accident. In the collective sense, and in the personal sense.

I’m reminded of the Passover Seder and how we are supposed to say, “It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of slavery,” and I am reminded of the group confessions during the prayers of Yom Kippur: “for the sin we have sinned before you forcibly or willingly….” I am reminded of Jesus saying, “Let he who is perfect cast the first stone” and “why do you behold the mote in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own?”

So we all make egregious mistakes. Some of those mistakes are cruel and hurt other people profoundly. How is redemption found in those cases? Well, best I’ve been able to figure out, with the help of finer minds than mine, is that we take personal responsibility for our own actions. This looks like: 1, acknowledging the guilt, 2, expressing remorse, and 3, offering to make restitution. Concrete action toward remorse and restitution are key. Someone who has committed a grievous wrong who acts in this way, following these three steps with persistence and humility, ought to get a second chance.

At least, that’s what I am thinking now. This current thinking is subject to evolution, as I journey through my life. It’s a complicated, troublesome subject. I want to be someone who chooses forgiveness and who receives forgiveness. This is so despite my knowing that there are some things I don’t know if I could ever, or will ever, forgive. I also know there are mistakes I’ve made for which I am not able to make restitution, for one reason or another, though I wish I could.

Which brings me back to the essential conundrums of human life: this vale of tears. And the Buddha’s observation that “Hatred does not cease through hatred but through love alone they cease.”

So, here is my prayer: May all conscious beings be released from their suffering. And may I be an instrument of the Lord’s peace, giving and receiving forgiveness.

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The Art of Asking Questions

The Art of Asking Questions

There’s a scene in the first HOME ALONE, a truly classic movie, where a child of about 5 years climbs into a van waiting to whisk a large family to the airport. The enterprising child besieges the driver with questions. He leans close into the driver and queries him relentlessly about all sorts of matters, a stunning barrage of interrogatory, verbal machine gun fire. The driver’s brain comes undone. He’s left rattled and nettled and hopelessly askew. It’s the first domino that falls in a trail of them, winding up with… a child left home alone to fend for himself during the holidays.

I think of this scene often (and isn’t that what makes a movie classic, the way particular scenes haunt you forever?). This scene comes to mind because I have a four-and-a-half-year old daughter who regularly enacts it. Daughter? Shall I call her the demon imp of questions, the patron saint of why, how, what, and how come?

As I write this, she sits next to me at the dining room table with a pad of paper. “What do we need from the store? Do we need sugar? How do I draw a ‘K’?” she asks. I surmise that she’s making a grocery list, something she’s watched me do a thousand times. “Can you show me how to draw a ‘K’?”

This is only the beginning. As long as she’s around me, and I don’t turn on the TV babysitter, she’s going to come up with questions. “Then what do we need, mama, after milk?”

“Eggs,” I tell her.

“How do you spell that? Do you like my ‘E’? Does ‘G’ have a kickstand like this? Do we need balloons? How do you spell ‘balloons’?”

It’s partly about observing and making sense of the world. The other day she launched herself like a missile into the bathtub and splashed around happily for a few minutes, making an aquarium of our bathroom. Then she turned serious. “Why does the water get higher when I get in? Why can’t I hear my hands when they clap underwater?”

So my hapless husband and I wracked our brains to explain the volumetrics of water to her.

Sometimes it’s about avoiding an unpleasant activity, like bedtime or picking up her crayons. Nothing will elicit a stream of questions like closing the cover of the last bedtime book. “How come the bear in that story has brown fur? Do all bears have brown fur? What about polar bears? Can you really fly all the way to the moon? How far away is the moon? Is the moon next door to the sun?” How long can she prolong the delicious moments of cuddling and conversation, before we flip off the light and close the door to her room?

And, naturally, the questions are about drawing my attention, or her father’s, or that of one of her three big sisters. This little sprite likes to engage with people. She enjoys the limelight. If she can draw us in with a question–she’s got us. She figured that out a long time ago. Not that it’s entirely self-serving. She can maximize the utility of what she’s doing, and suck in our attention while also… making sense of the world.

Most of the time I enjoy my little one’s questions. Sometimes they fry the gray matter rattling around in my cranium, sure. I get tired, I get exasperated, hey, I’m not the Buddha, and I don’t want to put together an explanation of why the sky is blue while I’m trying to make a dinner salad and, simultaneously, explain to my 14-year-old middle daughter why she can’t attend a football party where there will be 18-year-old men.

But often, in response to these questions, I experience the same piquant thrill that I do when I’m traveling. That is, I’m jolted out of my habitual way of seeing the world, and I look with new eyes, and fresh wonder, at the world around me. Isn’t the blue sky a kind of miracle, anyway?

My sweetie doesn’t do what adults sometimes do: disguise judgments as questions. This is the crucial difference, this matter of innocence. Her questions are really questions, not statements, even if they have an ulterior motive of getting me to pay attention to her or of getting her out of eating broccoli. She wants to know, and to understand. So her questions arise out of the innate art of our human core, the art of genuine curiosity.

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On Transparency

Of late I’ve been thinking about karmic entanglement. Maybe it’s because 2008 is drawing to a close; maybe it’s because Ketu, the moon’s south node & the keeper of the book of the past, is transiting the ruler of my chart. The past, and my past actions, are much in my consciousness.

I think it comes down to mutual forgiveness. Meaning, forgive the other person, and forgive yourself. Send forgiveness to neutralize the acid of interaction that’s fraught with hurt, longing, anger, pain, or even with the alkalinity of love and kindness. Peaceful forgiveness, so that the interaction returns to a clear state without the varnish of meaning, without the binding of a bond, any bond. Transparency. Liberation.

As a believer in reincarnation, I have a sense of the occlusive stickiness of the wheel of birth and rebirth, and how action and reaction, cause and effect, desire and fulfillment play out, over and over again. I wish to stop riding this wheel like a caged rodent. I think a lot about how to get off the ride. It’s also scary. What will happen to my precious individuality when I merge with all that is?

But the first step is to release. May all conscious beings be released from their suffering.