Turn Off the Gas (Or, Be a Nora!)

 

My recent posts have explored the role boundaries play in creating healthy relationships, first for and with myself, and then with the rest of my world.  These essays have looked at the ways respect lives at the root of every healthy boundary we set, to define how we are treated, what we stand for and how we treat others.  Trouble can occur when someone we work or live closely with, does not respect these clear relationship parameters.

Even after seeing the 1938 classic movie  ‘Gaslight’ starring Ingrid Bergman, I would have described ‘gaslighting’ to be a horror movie concept, not understanding it as a real, day by day, insidious psychological form of emotional and mental abuse . Over the past decade, numerous publications about gaslighting, have surfaced on wellness and health improvement websites but honestly, I still didn’t fully understand what it meant to fall prey to ‘gaslighting’. Until one afternoon over a long cup of coffee, a close friend revealed how her boyfriend had initiated months of psychological abuse.  ‘Nora’ has allowed me to share bits of her story throughout this boundary exploration. It turns out, Nora’s experience is a classic example of gaslighting.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline , “gaslighting is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts and sanity”.  It is strategic, intentional, and often impossible to identify when it starts, until you are well engaged in an otherwise happy relationship – which by then it’s often too late, as self-doubt has set in.

When Nora first started dating her boyfriend ‘James’,  he was attentive, fun, kind, and romantic. As is typical when relationships last longer than that first heady stage of new love, there was an explainable and seemingly healthy shift to a less intense stage. It was around eight months that in retrospect, Nora experienced the start of sporadic challenging mental and emotional incidents. James would be warm and affectionate, then suddenly cold and withdrawn. He rarely if ever complimented her anymore on her appearance or her achievements, which on its own she didn’t feel was really a big deal, but he often complimented other women when Nora was present. And if it wasn’t in words it would be very approving looks, gazes that held too long, with little winks or a charming smile. I asked her if she said anything to James. And she admitted she hadn’t. Because it made her feel petty. And overly sensitive. But it was hurtful. What Nora couldn’t fathom until much later, was that it was also intentional.

The odd behavior started to ramp up. One evening after work, they were happily on their way to meet his co-workers and their spouses for drinks.  Upon arrival at the bar, she quickly realized that she was the only significant other in attendance. Her boyfriend said jokingly, ‘Nora doesn’t let me out without her.” A funny remark until she had the feeling, that James enjoyed seeing her squirm as his co-workers laughed. When she questioned him later, he brushed it off saying it wasn’t a big deal. And it wasn’t. Until the next time when they showed up to meet a co-worker and his wife for dinner. Or so Nora was told. It was again, just James’ co-worker. When his friend said outright, ‘if I had known you were coming Nora, I would have invited Sarah’, Nora says she looked in confusion at James who again feigned ignorance remarking ‘Nora never misses a chance to eat at a restaurant.’ Nora says in the moment, trying to keep things light, she laughed too. But then responded by saying ‘Obviously, there was a misunderstanding about tonight. I have no problem with James going out.’ Which again, made her feel incredibly awkward to respond and react to a purposefully challenging situation that was not of her making. And which her boyfriend took noticeable pleasure in watching. (Plus, did he just ‘food shame’ her??!!) Now it was becoming a ‘thing’.  I asked her why she kept going? She candidly responded, “I have no idea! We weren’t going out a lot so it’s not as if this happened two or three days in a row. Between these moments, our relationship was pretty much, well, normal”.

This is the success of gaslighting. It is a long game.

The weirdness however continued to escalate. Besides mis-representing her to his co-workers, he started doing the same when they were out with their mutual friends and family. At every opportunity, he would volley between being overly critical of pretty much everything  she said or completely ignore her when she spoke. The same fun-loving man the group enjoyed being with would treat her with a kind of contempt that would be masked by mean-spirited teasing. It was around this same time that she began catching him in little lies. Usually about really inconsequential things. Nora began to realize there was a bigger issue at play.

Okay, so I agree the guy sounds like a jerk. But does that make him a ‘gaslighter’? Passive aggressive for sure. Maybe even a tad narcissistic. But capable of long term psychological warfare? Every couple bickers in public sometimes and don’t always treat each other with proper respect. We can’t always be on our best behavior. I have to confess, I still didn’t really believe this was gaslighting. Besides, what is the point of gaslighting anyway?

In reading articles for this essay, the examples given were extreme cases where the abusive partners were highly manipulative with a targeted viciousness which left the victim an emotional wreck, a mere shell of their former selves. But that is not always the dynamic. Because just as every work, family, love relationship is unique, so are the ways that this psychological undermining, manifests. What is the same in all cases, is that it is about power. One person wants control over another. This power can be to enact more abuse, or it can be to hide something – such as financial problems, legal issues or affairs.

Nora completely understood my hesitation, revealing that it took an unexpected conversation with her brother, to fully see what was happening. They were at a family event when her brother pulled her aside, questioning Nora about James’ erratic behavior. He described watching Nora defend herself against the nasty jabs by laughing it off to avoid a confrontation. Then abruptly, James shifted  his attention to everyone in the room but Nora. He noticeably withdrew, was cold and dismissive. Nora opened up to her brother about the increasingly confusing and often mean behavior, including the newly realized lying.  For the first time, Nora could discuss her concerns because her brother had witnessed it. ‘For the longest time, I thought I was over-reacting, or it was in my head. James would say I was too sensitive or he would shake his head in disgust like I was reading into things.’  Her brother simply said, ‘Nora, this isn’t how we treat people we love, and it isn’t how you deserve to be treated.’ Nora knew this was the truth.

My friend Nora is a really strong person with a history of healthy relationships. She was ready for this conversation with her brother because she realized the relationship was unhealthy.  Once Nora had made the decision to no longer accept this treatment, she became less emotionally dependent on her boyfriend. This distancing gave Nora a clearer perspective as she saw through his behavior, stood up for herself and finally left.  It was not until she was out of the relationship, that she discovered James had kept up this disturbing behavior in part, to hide a series of inappropriate relationships with other women. A charming manipulator, he formed emotional bonds with other women, many times turning physical and always leaving the woman feeling that ‘he really understood’ them. The little lies Nora had called him on in their relationship, had foreshadowed something much bigger. Classic.

And this is why I have subtitled this essay ‘Be a Nora’. Anyone of us can fall victim to gaslighting. At work and in relationships. Age, gender, race, it does not discriminate. Gaslighting is only successful, if you doubt yourself, lose your identity and become completely undermined by the perpetrator. Nora never allowed this to happen. Even when giving him the benefit of the doubt or a third and fourth chance, she never stopped listening to her own intuition. In retrospect, Nora would say she stayed in the relationship too long. But I think she is a bit hard on herself. She did not accept his bad treatment. She did not accept his insults. And eventually, she did leave.

After hearing Nora’s story and reading a lot of articles about gaslighting, I do believe this is what Nora experienced. The textbook cases are extreme examples, but this behavior can manifest in any type of relationship – work, family, love. It doesn’t have to be extreme to be damaging. Besides, love relationships, especially, should be fulfilling not undermining.  If any of this story rings true for a relationship you are in then do some reading, talk to friends, and ultimately if you aren’t treated well, then Be A Nora, and leave.

And one last important note: This essay is for my own personal discoveries about boundaries. I am not a mental health expert, nor is this article intended to offer advice or mental health related treatment suggestions. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provided excellent information for this piece. This 24/7 support network can be reached at http://www.thehotline.org/

 

 

Opportunity vs Crisis – the New Age of Mid-Life  

The greatest potential for growth and self-realization exists in the second half of life”. Carl Jung’s words are more than just comfort for an aging society. They are about opportunity!

When my two kids were launched into college and beyond, seeking their bigger lives beyond our front door, I was also launched. The structure that provided the bedrock of family life for the past decades wasn’t needed. With anticipation, I looked at this new phase as a page yet to be written.

It turns out that I am not alone. What used to be described as a Mid-Life Crisis could now be more aptly described as Mid-Life Opportunity. The tired traditional stereotypes of mid-life crisis involve a man with a receding hairline, new sports car and younger girlfriend – a desperate attempt to hold onto or recapture a past. Not only is this picture outdated, it rarely reflected a woman’s journey. In fact, it wasn’t until the movie Thelma and Louise, that women found a collective voice when turning against their circumstance. As Thelma says, “I don’t recall ever feeling this awake. You know. Everything looks different now.” With this model rather than having a younger boyfriend or new sportscar, the result of an acknowledged woman’s Mid-Life Crisis was to grab your best friend by the hand and drive off a cliff!

The Crisis in Mid-Life Crisis, comes when the subscribed rules of our past push against the blank slate of our future. Fearfully, we cling with white knuckles to a familiar life structure while acting out in sometimes ridiculous ways, trying to quell that persistent itch of curiosity. Affairs, gambling, over-spending, immediate gratification rather than deep reflection. Mid-Life Crisis, even in its name, is inherently about destruction. An implosion of monumental proportion.  How do we manage the transition that comes with entering the middle state of life while minimizing collateral damage?

Carl Jung’s words provide the first guidepost on the journey through mid-life. I believe it is only a crisis if we mistake the excitement of the future as a restlessness with the present. When we experience a big life change that typically aging brings – empty nest, health issues, death of elderly parents –  it can trigger Mid-Life Opportunity. Self-awareness and honest personal conversations combined with knowledge and experience that only living can give, set a new course. It is the time to take stock. It is the time to pay attention. It is the time to fulfill potential.

Recently I was at a family gathering where it was revealed that most of the couples and the single people of my generation, were either embarking on or contemplating big life changes. Selling homes and moving miles away; planning months of travel; taking on new career paths; rediscovering dormant creative lives.  Exciting opportunities were being sought out that would put them on entirely new life paths. There was no crisis here! Instead, I was hearing about a renewed sense of adventure. A rediscovery of what it was like to live unencumbered by an obligation to something other than themselves – almost like being a teenager again! But this time, with experience. Couples were facing this together, rather than one acting out destructively. Single friends were blessed with realizations there were new choices ahead that could take them where ever they desired.   Mid-life was asking the question ‘what comes next’?

I like Jung’s optimistic view. This is the time to fulfill your potential with a renewed energy while armed with a lifetime of experiences. Maybe that’s all it takes. A re-branding. Rather than dreading aging, we can look forward to this next phase.  When curiosity and anticipation replace fear and angst, Mid-Life Crisis is no match for Mid-Life Opportunity.

Being the Author-ity of Your Life

When Nora Ephron, the famed director/writer of notable works such as ‘When Harry met Sally’ and one of my favorite of her books ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck; and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman’, died from complications from cancer in 2012, it was a complete shock to most of her friends and colleagues that she had even been sick! Ephron had decided to die the way she lived – on her own terms. She controlled the narrative. By doing so, she wrote her own story, maintaining the authority of her life.

In being the author of our own lives, we choose to pen our narrative. Our ‘story’ is the life we live. The plot is our day to day actions and interactions, the setting is where we are rooted and where we journey, the cast of characters are those we choose to have around us. Our narrative told in our own unique voice!

Being our own authority takes on richer meaning. Now that we recognize we are the authors of our own lives, are we holding tight to its authority? We should be! For me, being the authority of my life means that I am the best one to tell my story. I try not to give this power away. In defining my voice I have realized that when I give someone else authority over my story, it is seldom to my advantage. There is no benefit to giving energy or time, to those who belittle, insult or undermine. Instead, I put my energy to action – taking on projects that ring true to me and my story; having people in my life who honor; and building strong intentions to continue to create a narrative of which I can be proud. This is when I am in full authority of my story.

As the author and the author-ity, we are fully accountable. This place of ownership is where fruitful partnerships can blossom. It is learning to keep your own power by creating respectful boundaries for yourself. From here, you can be mindful of others boundaries too.

Nora Ephron created some of the most seminal works for women at a time when we were just finding our collective voice. It’s good to be reminded that when we take author-ity of our lives, we define how the world perceives us and also, a clearer picture of our story is created. Nora’s personal mantra remains true for me – ‘above all, be the heroine of your own life.’

Letting Go, with Oprah, Dr. Michael Bernard Beckwith & Tomato Soup

On my early morning walk today I listened to the SuperSoul Conversation Podcast in which Oprah and Agape International Spiritual Center Dr. Michael Bernard Beckwith explore manisfesting the life of your dreams. This is such a popular topic now as new age and spiritual awakening guides determine that if we can just get out of our own way, we can then be open to the possibilities and potentials of our souls.

Is it really that simple? According to Dr. Beckwith, it is about having intentions that align with our personal purpose.  In requesting a tangible explanation  about his assumptions, Oprah, fittingly, brings it back to soup. Tomato soup actually. She was working in her garden and thinking about how she would love a bowl of fresh tomato soup. She let that thought go, and shortly after, her neighbor appeared with a pot of tomato soup! How many times have we thought about someone and they called or we ran into them unexpectedly? While these are fun examples of intuition and serendipity, Dr. Beckwith explains that stating intentions isn’t about asking for things, but about being open to the discovery and acceptance of our personal purpose.

So, with that to mull over on this gorgeous Sunday morning, I am re-visiting one of my favorite ‘fresh from the garden’ soup recipes. Tomato, of course!

Here’s to another slurpy spoonful of SuperSoul Sunday Conversations! Link to the podcast is below the tomato soup recipe.

GO TEAM!

Tomato Soupfor you or your neighbor to make! – Non-Dairy, Vegan

 

Ingredients

Fresh Tomatoes – vine ripened, any variety will do! – cut in half. I usually use at least 6.

Garlic – 2 cloves chopped (or more if you love garlic)

Salt, Pepper

Sugar – white sugar, just a touch, but not absolutely necessary

White Onion – 1, sliced

Celery – 4 stalks or more, cut in chunks

Vegetable Broth – 1 carton, more or less

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) – as much as you need

There are two secrets to the success of this recipe – using fresh ingredients and then roasting the vegetables first!

Making the Soup

Step 1. Roast the tomatoes (sliced in half) the chopped celery, onion, and garlic, drizzled with EVOO, at a 425 degree oven, for 30 minutes.

Step 2. Let the vegetables cool slightly and, if you aren’t keen on the look/texture of tomato skins, remove some of them. They will separate easily from the tomato. I happen to like the char taste and in a later step, the skins are dealt with!

Step 3. Heat some EVOO in the bottom of a pot, over medium heat.

Step 4. Add the roasted vegetables with the juices from the roasting pan to the soup pot, along with just enough vegetable broth to cover. Salt and Pepper to taste, plus a light dusting of sugar if you choose.

Step 5. Heat until it boils. Let it simmer for 10 minutes. (The longer it simmers, the more delish it is!)

Step 6. Remove from heat, let cool slightly, then either put it in the blender or use your hand held blender/emusifier, and puree the soup. This will give it a lovely creamy texture, without adding dairy.

Step 7. Return to the pot, add more vegetable broth if it is too thick. At this point, you can also add dairy or almond milk/cream if you want a creamier, richer tasting version. Heat to delicious tasting temperature.

Step 8. Ladle a good portion of the soup into a container, and walk it over to your neighbor. You never know, you might be the answer to their prayers!

 

 

In The Room

Being in the room is standing in a space that desires your full presence. It’s that place of  understanding and respect we hold with each other. It is found in all aspects of our lives. When you aren’t metaphorically in the right room, there is little you can do to make that room fit.  The dynamics between people create that space and, if that place does not expect and want the best of you, then not only is it not your room, it can never be your room.

I used to joke that I could make an entrance, but for the life of me, I could never make an exit! It was a tongue in cheek analogy for my propensity to trip on doorsteps, but truthfully, for how I engage in my life. A loud enthusiastic ‘hello people’ meant that I could enter most rooms with confidence – boardrooms, interviews, auditions, parties, relationships… But knowing when it was the right time to leave, to make my exit, was typically fumbled. I stayed too long or, the worst, forgot something and had to return! How many times have we realized it was time to depart but stayed anyway –  a job, friendships, lovers? It’s very humbling to have made my final dramatic gesture, only to slink back to retrieve my handbag.

The key is of course to exit that room as soon as you realize it’s not your space. That truth is confirmed when you can’t thrive, your contributions aren’t valued or your voice is not respected. In the most toxic situations, your core values are compromised. If  that  knot rising from your belly stifles your breath at the thought of holding that space, it is not your room.   Recognizing you aren’t in the right place, means knowing for what you stand. Boundaries have been set defining your expectations of yourself and of others. In how you treat them, and how you are treated. Life experiences provide the best lessons, and I now try to recognize the signs sooner.  If someone you hold space with, makes you doubt your gut instinct, well, back away. Your inner voice is aligned with your core values, and it is to be believed.

The real power comes in the creation of our own rooms. Who is in your room? Do they treat you with honor and respect? Are they fully present in the gift of being a part of  your life? Do they allow you, to witness fully the living of their lives? Nate Berkus, in his book The Things That Matter, says  “Your home should tell the story of who you are, and be a collection of what you love brought together under one roof.’  It’s the ideal analogy for creating our life spaces, our rooms. Who you bring into your room should reflect the life you want to live, and they should want that for you too. An invitation to the room is built on trust and the understanding that what is in your deepest personal space will be honored. It is sacred and it is safe. It is reciprocal and it is earned.

You can’t always choose to leave a room nor to make a graceful exit. The best choice is to be true to yourself. To remember that regardless of the actions of others, your response is your own.  For me, I turn to the one thing I know will always make things more bearable. In those instances when it is necessary to hold that space, my only option is to tie my shoes a bit tighter, turn up the music, and dance my way through.

Here’s a bit of dancing music to get you through your room. GO TEAM!

(Thanks Disney and JT)

Can’t Stop This Feeling

Bits & Scraps, Threads & Stitches

Remnants of fabric connected by intricate stitches, are a mirror for a woman’s story. With leftover bits and scraps, loving hands delicately construct warm, protective, beautiful coverings. Quilts are metaphors.

During  the era of my Great Grandmothers, quilts and blankets were created out of need. There was a form and a function. Just like the family structure. Women were the center of their homes. Their identities defined by being wives and mothers.  Yet like women throughout time, our foremothers found ways to amplify women’s experiences by telling and re-telling each other’s story. Many women found creative, personal and even political expression through Quilting.  Individual personalities showing in each finished piece. Form and function overlayed with decorative design. They created a legacy stitch by stitch. Quilts are stories.

In ‘How to Make an American Quilt’ directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, based on the novel by Whitney Otto, we witness the sharing of wisdom that occurs as a group of friends gather, as they often have before, to stitch a quilt. The quilting circle is the conduit for the revealing of deeply personal stories, confessions of their joys and heartbreaks, all the while imparting life instruction to an apprehensive bride. This young woman, played by Winona Ryder, in her search for her own answers, takes these stories being told, these scraps, and pieces them together as a sort of armor of comfort. One of my favorite images is a young Ryder lying under the quilting frame, listening, absorbing the voices and experiences of the women stitching the fabric above.

Quilts are maps. The fabric pieces reveal a life’s journey; threaded side by side. Random or precisely laid out, stitch after stitch weaves another pattern, like tributaries meandering from the river. Patterns chosen tell a broader story or give the reason for the quilt – wedding, new home, anniversary, birth of a child translated by patterns with names such as Double Wedding Ring, Log Cabin, Pinwheel, Applecore, Patchwork, made without machine, cut, pieced, assembled and stitched.

Quilts are art. To take remnant pieces and make something functional is a talent, but quilting goes farther. The finished quilts are moving works of art. The ‘herstory’ of generations of women whose hands lovingly threaded the bits and pieces, the remnants, and created the protective blankets that sheltered new born babies, wrapped young lovers, comforted the sick. When I run my fingers over the old threads, I am remembering the lives of the women who sewed the quilts, honoring the stories that were told over and through each careful placement of fabric and delicate stitch. Quilts are prisms.

 

 

Variations on a Theme

Musicians and Actors love improv. Exploring a theme’s potential, far beyond its typical path. Many of our favorite SNL and SCTV characters were discovered through improv. It is well documented that JS Bach, the master of classical music, used improvisation extensively in his contrapuntal inventions. Through experimentation we discover unexpected ways of sharing a message or discovering a truth.  It is through improvisation we find our unique voice.

All creative explorers are searching for the same thing – their own voice. It is the collective journey of all artists yet unique to each. How we convey our message is equal in importance to the message itself. The hand-painted porcelain dish is as important to the meal as the carefully chosen ingredients.

A choir can sing in harmony or in unison, but as soloists we are heard above the rest. A crowded room is a jumble of sound, challenging to distinguish one person from another – if you compete for attention, the din just increases! But whistle and you can get that full room’s attention.

A ‘flock’ adequately describes a group of birds. Thanks to the inventive English language, however, we can give bird species more apt wording – starlings ‘murmur’, crows ‘murder’ and Larks ‘exalt’! An ‘exaltation’ of larks is a gorgeous use of words to describe this beautiful singing bird’s collective path of flight. The need to individuate, even with birds, is about allowing their unique characteristics to be recognized. A ‘parliament of owls’ couldn’t be more perfect.

Whether we sing with the flock or strike out on our own, the explorations are as endless as the artists.  Variations on a theme indeed!

There is something to be said for lending your voice to the group! Check out this astounding murmuration of starlings as filmed by National Geographic:  https://youtu.be/V4f_1_r80RY