Have you ever observed relationships of people and initially perceived them one way but then had your eyes opened and realized you were totally off base? I have. It’s been quite an interesting experience too and one that has reinforced the concept of not judging books by their covers.
It usually happens when I come across what I would describe as a solar/lunar (or almost stereotypical male-dominated relationship). You know the type I mean – the male/yang/alpha partner appears to be the dominant one while the female/yin/beta partner seems to cater, kowtow and reflect the alpha partner’s glory. Now, I also have to admit that my life experiences have primed me to recognize these types of relationships because they’re the ones with which I’m most familiar. They were the type most common in the blue collar neighborhood in which I grew up. Unfortunately, they were also the ones I saw become abusive (although let me be clear, I’m not saying all of these types of relationships become abusive). It is the kind of relationship I was determined to avoid,
Of course, one’s perceptions as a child and those as an adult are quite different. Watching these types of relationships now I have come to realize that the power dynamic is not as imbalanced as I once believed. I have learned that a more yin/beta partner can be just as controlling and domineering as a yang/alpha partner. They just use different techniques to ensure their goals are met. For example, I’ve watched the “passive” partner use subtle and sometimes not so subtle behaviors to influence their partners. The most frequent one I’ve noticed is almost a temper tantrum. The more passive partner will become upset because something is not to their liking (for example their food is not prepared correctly). Instead of addressing it with the wait staff, the beta partner will complain to the alpha partner. This will cause the more assertive partner to take up the banner and charge into the fray to ensure things are corrected to the beta partner’s liking. Or the passive/beta partner will push buttons that will result in the outcomes they desire but allow them to look blameless. Things turned out this way because of the alpha/assertive partner’s insistence. It can be fascinating to watch.
It’s an interesting dynamic and requires a subtly of which I’m not capable. I can admire it and acknowledge its effectiveness while accepting that it’s beyond my capabilities. The major realization I’ve taken away from these observations is that I’ve misread these relationships. Due to my own blinders and prejudices, I didn’t realize that just because the passive/beta partner is assertively challenging situations or fighting whenever their partner did something insulting, domineering or just not to their liking, that doesn’t mean they’re not handling it. They simply use a less confrontational (and possibly more effective) approach.
While pursuing my MA in forensic psychology, I read a textbook entitled The Shattered Self. It was offered case studies of people suffering from PTSD, which the authors argued should be considered a dissociative disorder, not an anxiety disorder (I may be oversimplifying this, it’s been a long time since I read the book). As I read the book I had very mixed feelings; very personal feelings. I could to be objective about the material covered in the book. In fact it made me a little angry. As I read the cast studies many of them resonated with me on a deep level; their experiences often mirrored my own. What made me angry was the concept that these people were somehow damaged because they had found a way to pick up the pieces of their lives and move forward. Why did the fact that they had shattered make them defective? To me, they were strong, brave, resilient people who managed to endure what many could not. Yeah, okay, there might have been some projecting going on there.
In retrospect I realize that the reason these folks had become case studies in this book is because eventually their coping mechanism felt apart and they re-shattered. They were suffering and trying to hold it together as best they could but failing. So, in theory, counseling or therapy would be beneficial. Of course because I am a stubborn bitch, I resisted even the idea that being shattered was harming me. I felt like a piece of safety glass – sure I was shattered but I was still holding it together. I hadn’t lost any pieces.
As I gain more experience and wisdom, I realize that I have also made myself into a mosaic. I replaced some of the shattered pieces with new ones that are brilliantly colored and uniquely shaped. I wear these new tiles with pride because they’re proof that I have the strength to endure and the will to keep moving forward. I don’t think I’m so special (or at least no more or less special than anyone else) because clearly the case studies in The Shattered Self prove that others have the same resilience that I do. At the same time, I am proud of the fact that I am resilient and even if I’m shattered I don’t fall to pieces on the floor.
I have a tendency of finding some people irritating for no apparent reason. They’ve never done anything to hurt me in any way. In fact, in many cases they are more than pleasant to me and some I would even describe as close acquaintances, maybe even friends. Yet there remains something that makes me grit my teeth when I’m in their general vicinity.
This bothers me. Disliking people is fine. That’s how the world works. There are people we will dislike and people who will dislike us in return. I’m the first to admit I’m an acquired taste and I’m sure I irritate some people like a speck of sand inside a clam. I understand that. What I’m referring to is when I can’t find any reason for this dislike. Why does this person set my back teeth on edge without even trying?
I have come to realize that sometimes there is no clear, rational explanation. It’s instinctual. I’ve heard theories that sometimes another person’s scent or pheromones trigger something in us that reacts with hostility. I suppose that’s possible – I honestly try not to go around sniffing other people. However, I realize that the majority of the time I’m reacting this way to a specific trait the person possesses and it invariably is one that I possess as well. Surprise!
Sometimes I am reacting to a trait that I share with the other person. Seeing my irritating traits in others is apparently just as irritating to me. I believe this is a common reaction. What surprised me more was when I realized that what I was reacting to was/is a trait that I enjoy about myself and feel the other person is “stealing”. For example, let’s say I’m the type of person who presents a boisterous, outgoing, sometimes outrageous persona to others (just an example clearly). I have moments where I will observe something doing something similar to my “schtick” and garnering positive responses and I feel a flash of jealousy followed by a flash of dislike. If this person takes my niche then where will that leave me? Wait a minute, what did I just write?
Yup, it turns out that in about half the instances I “dislike” someone, it’s really simply that I’m jealous of them on some level. I’m afraid if they can act the same way I do then I will become redundant. I want to be the center of attention; the Sun in my universe. I will fiercely defend my position (see my previous post about my 7 of Wands approach to relationships); guard my niche. Of course, now that I realize this is my proclivity, I try to catch myself before I say or do anything embarrassing or rude. Overall I’ve gotten pretty effective at it. Sometimes I feel like an observer watching my behavior and then catching myself before I make any major faux pas. It’s not easy and I still fail spectacularly on occasion but I’m trying. At the end of the day, I guess that’s the best any of us can do – make a genuine effort to change.
2016 proved to be quite a year. Quite a few major life-changing events occurred and I’m still processing many of them. Today, in honor of my brother Tom’s birthday, I’m going to highlight just a few; broad-stroking it. I’ll fill in the details as I go along.
So, let’s see – 2016 was my 30th wedding anniversary, the 30th anniversary of my brother Tom’s murder, my 50th birthday and the year my mother-in-law passed away. I’d say that was quite enough dramatic life changes for one year.
I think the one that surprised me the most with its impact was turning 50. I honestly believed it would be just another birthday but sometime after the 2016 Readers Studio and the lessons gained there I began to realize that I had entered an incubatory period and the me that emerged was quite different than the me who entered.
So, in honor of my brother Tom, I’ve decided to start back into blogging by remembering him. I’m also including articles from New York Magazine written about him. One when he was around 10 and the other after he was killed.
I still remember the day my mother went into labor with Tom. It was 1971 and we lived in Woodside, Queens. We had been staying with my maternal grandmother on the West side of Manhattan in anticipation of Tom’s immanent arrival but apparently the doctors told Mom that she still had a few days to go so we returned home. I can still smell the aroma of fresh baked bread that used to permeate the air going over the Queensboro Bridge emanating from the Silver Cup bread factory (now a movie studio). I remember the weird noises the cab’s tires made as they drove over the grating on the bridge. We finally arrived at our apartment and settled into our beds (my younger sister and I were in our pajamas). It seemed only minutes later when Mom came to wake us up – it seemed Tom had decided to join the party after all. So we put our coats back on and trudged downstairs to get a cab back to Manhattan so Mom could go to the hospital and give birth. We should have known Tom would create his own unique path in life.
In many ways, Tom was the best of us. He had a fierce temper which he eventually learned to control and channel into healthier outlets. He was a redhead like our sister and maternal grandfather. He was also quite the clown – he could make us laugh no matter how angry or tense things were. Tom loved animals. His menagerie of pets ranged from cats and dogs to parakeets and snakes. We all watched as he’d bring home new inhabitants – a nasty small turtle that was quite a snapper, goldfish, etc. He was a prankster – once setting up sofa cushions, clothes and a fedora to make it look like someone (possibly the ghost of our recently deceased great-uncle) was sitting there. His chuckle as he heard my shriek that morning was one we still remember fondly. I still miss him every day and wish I had the opportunity to see what kind of man he would become. Tom was quite the character and I like to think that despite his only 16 years on this earth he had a positive impact on a lot of lives.
A Death in Hell’s Kitchen
A few weeks ago while chatting with someone about the low self-esteem of a family member I was struck by a thought – the way we dress, carry ourselves and interact with others shows the Universe how to treat us. If we slump, wear ill-fitting or worn clothing and try to act invisible we are telling others we are not worthy of their time. This can often result in others ignoring us or treating us with thoughtless cruelty. As shallow as it may sound, we judge books by their covers all the time and a book that has a torn and frayed cover and yellowed pages sends a very different impression than one with crisp, clean pages and a new cover.
This makes me consider how I present myself to others. My style of dress is decidedly casual. I find that when I try for more dramatic or flowy pieces I feel as though I’m wearing a costume. I gave up wearing certain colors (black, grey, navy and classic red) a long time ago for a variety of reasons. One of the primary ones is that I realized that these colors have become de rigeur for those who try to proclaim themselves as chic Manhattanites, as a native New Yorker I decided that I don’t need to wear certain colors to prove my bona fides. If my personality doesn’t prove my birthplace then nothing will.
I also have a bit of a swagger when I walk. I have patterned my walk on my father’s. I didn’t realize this until my husband pointed it out to me. When I thought about it I realized that I was trying to project an image of a tough customer – someone not worth treating as prey. When I was younger I was raped and afterwards I tried to make myself invisible, unnoticeable. That just seemed to make things worse. It was as if I had put a sign on my back saying “easy mark”. I drew all sorts of inappropriate and even frightening attention. Once I decided to carry myself as though I was a 6’2″ bruiser (my father was a large, imposing man) I found that this behavior dramatically decreased. Despite working in some rather sketchy areas as part of my job, I was never threatened or harmed. I unconsciously seem to have tapped into creating a glamour – I sent out energy that gave predators the message that I was a risky target.
All of this is my rather long way of explaining what I mean about showing the Universe how I will be treated. When I acted as though I was a frightened mouse too afraid of my own shadow I became prey. Once I showed the predators that I might be dangerous, they stayed away. I walked with a brisk pace, appeared alert to my surroundings and make sure I held my purse in a way that would make it difficult to snatch. I also carried pepper spray or something I could use as a defensive measure in case the glamour failed. Perhaps when we are bullied or treated badly it is because we are sending out subtle signals that the bullies of the world pick up. I remember a Simpsons episode in which Lisa discovers that “nerds” send out pheromones that attracts the attention of bullies. Who knows, perhaps this is what happens. Maybe when we lack self-esteem and consider ourselves different and worthless freaks we send out some kind of signal to the bullies of the world. If we start to change our perceptions of ourselves and show it in our dress, behavior and attitude, we will find that the Universe begins to treat us differently too. Channel your inner Queen of Wands! Show the world that you are confident, strong and worth honoring. It certainly can’t hurt to try.
The other day while listening to a favorite song from the 70s, Love is the Answer by England Dan & John Ford Coley, I was struck by what a simple concept that is and what if it’s true? What if love is the answer? What if love is the key to a more peaceful and satisfying life? Can love give us the strength to live with conviction and stick to our morals and ethics? Can love be the secret we have long sought? The simple, powerful and amazing truth that makes the world and our lives better? I don’t know, I truly don’t but it certainly is something to consider.
I realize this isn’t a new idea – major religions have been built upon this core belief, but it’s something I’ve only recently begun to think about in some depth. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy resisting, disliking and even hating situations, things and even people. Sometimes I’ve convinced myself that I had good reasons but the reality is that it’s a waste of time and effort and poisons me much more than it causes any damage to those at which my hate is aimed. Even if it could somehow impact their lives, is that the legacy I want to leave? Do I want to be a venomous stream of negativity and hatred? I’d rather do more positive and beneficial things with my time and energy. Of course sometimes that’s easier said than done.
I don’t see myself becoming a pacifist or calm and gentle spirit any time soon but I do believe I can be more peaceful, calm and gentler than I am right now. I have seen examples of people who are strong but gentle. They don’t need to be cruel or aggressive to show their strength. I admire that trait but it’s one that has always seemed out of my grasp. I often claimed it just wasn’t in my nature but I realize that’s only because I’ve never tried to make it so. It’s never been a priority because I rather enjoyed being an outrageous curmudgeon. I’m beginning to understand that I can still be both those things I just don’t need to be loud, abrasive and pushy in order to do so.
If I truly want to embody Strength (and I’ve felt a connection to this card as my sun sign is Leo) then I need to remember it’s symbolizes a gentle, spiritual strength not physical force. Can I gently tame the beast that is my temperament and persona, my big mouth and often thoughtless approach to communication. I’m not expecting dramatic changes overnight but if I take baby steps I hope to see some slow but steady progress. I suppose time will tell but if I do manage this transformation it will certainly prove that love is the answer. Loving myself, loving others and loving the amazing, diverse and chaotic tapestry that is life and humanity.
I have come to realize that I resist any form of discipline – even when it’s one I believe I want. When I try to keep a journal, I find I’ll stick with it for a few days and then I grow resentful and stubborn and decide that no one is going to tell me what to do (not even me) and I stop. It’s ridiculous, immature and self-defeating. I know this. Hell, I’m calling myself on it and yet I can’t stop it.
This has recently forced me to ask myself why? I tend to avoid being overly introspective because . . . well read the preceding paragraph. This time I forced myself to really think about why I’m so resistant to this stuff. After a few uncomfortable fits and starts it finally clicked for me. I avoid journaling, introspection and other exercises which might force me to take a deep look at myself because I’m afraid of what I might find. I may joke about being as “deep as a shallow stream” but the reality is that I like to believe I have some depth; that there is an introspective side to me. I have a feeling that I avoid exercises that might help prove this theory because I’m equally terrified that it will disprove it. What if I am truly shallow? What if the things I consider signs of depth and introspection are simply going through the motions? There are times when I am convinced that I lack the capacity for human compassion and empathy; when I don’t understand the emotional undercurrents that drive people’s behaviors. There are times when I actually believe I have sociopathic tendencies. I wonder if my preference for well-defined boundaries and strict adherence to rules (well most rules anyway) are an effort to enforce an ethical code because I’m afraid relying on my conscience won’t cut it.
Of course I also realize that a large amount of this fear is due to my father. I loved my father but learned early on that there was a huge screw missing. He often did things he knew were “wrong” or unethical and he did them anyway. His lack of understanding and compassion were frightening to child, especially one who was so often told how much she was like him. As I grew older as realized I didn’t quite fit in with others in the sense that I just didn’t understand their reasoning and motivations for things, I panicked a bit. I thought I was defective somehow. So I learned to compensate and hide this – or at least I tried to, I can’t say I did a very good job. Even now I just don’t understand what drives people in certain areas. I will never understand what pushes women to submit to increasingly invasive procedures in order to have a child. It’s not in my psyche because I’ve never, ever wanted children. Now at least I realize there’s nothing wrong with me or them – we just differ in this area.
Now as this post draws to a close I’ll reveal my big discovery (which readers may have figured out already), I’m not shallow. As I was reviewing this post I realized that if I was shallow I wouldn’t worry about it. If I truly had no depth or talent for introspection then this blog wouldn’t exist. Whew! I really had myself worried for a minute there.
Today as part of my personal rune studies I was considering the rune Gebo/Gyfu. This rune represents gifts given and obligations incurred. Among other things, it can symbolize the reciprocal nature of gifts. It seems the Norse believed that a gift calls for a gift. So if one is given a gift or done a favor then you are expected to gift something of similar value or return the favor in some way (similar to the Northwest Native peoples tradition of potlatch). Thinking about the nature of reciprocity and gifts made me wonder about past gifts and how they obligate me as an adult.
I’m not referring exclusively to presents given for special occasions such as birthdays. I’m talking about other, sometimes more intangible, gifts. For example I had a teacher for third and fourth grade, Sister Esther, who made a huge impact on me. She forced to try harder as a student. I was (and still am) a lazy student. I do what I need to in order to pass the course. I regularly wait until the last minute to complete assignments (unless I’m working with partners). Luckily for me this behavior had little impact on my grades. Even when I half-assed it I received good grades. However Sister Esther refused to accept any half-assing from me. She would push me and prod me to dig deeper for answers. It’s as if she knew the I had a lazy streak and would be satisfied with doing just enough work to get by. As a result of Sister Esther’s prodding, I developed skills that allowed me to half-half-ass it. I developed note taking techniques and study techniques that allowed me to remember facts and information so that I didn’t have to study very hard in order to pass tests. I learned how to read reference papers with an eye towards ignoring extraneous and non-essential (to me anyway) data. As a results I am still able to wait until the last minute to complete assignments but they’re still well done.
Another teacher who influenced me was a religion teacher I had in high school. His name was Mr. McCommiskey and I truly believe I made his life miserable. I had his religion in my freshman year and it was right after lunch. I was often sleepy and would nod off. To avoid nodding off I took to reading during class. This frustrated the poor man and he would regularly confiscate my books. He finally asked me why I continued to read during his class and I explained that reading kept me awake. If I wasn’t reading then I would fall asleep. As long as I wasn’t disrupting and participated in class discussions, he never bothered me about this again. I mention Mr. McCommiskey because despite our rocky moments, he taught me so much about spirituality and not accepting the “official” version of events. He was a liberation theologist (this was the early 1980s and as I look back I am truly amazed at how blessed I was by my Catholic high school education). He often pointed out facts left out of the official version of events such as that women used to officiate at early Christian masses. He once led us in replicating what an early Christian mass might have included, along with making unleavened honey oat cakes for us to try. He tried to enlighten our remarkably uninterested teenage minds to the hypocrisy and inequality in the world (he had spend a few years in El Salvador). I truly believe this man is one of the reasons my spiritual path has explored so many areas. When I met him again at a recent high school reunion I made a point to seek him out and than him. I think he might have been touched by my appreciation (even though I admitted I was no long Catholic).
On a deeper and different level I thought about my parents and the gifts they gave me. Despite their dysfunction, my parents did give me the gift of life and as a result dramatically changed their own lives. They taught me to think for myself (which I’m sure they had many occasions to regret) and to fight for what I believed. They taught me that family is important (something I did not appreciate during my teen years) and should be defended. They taught me that no matter how difficult and challenging things become we shouldn’t give up. From my mother’s side of the family I learned that family doesn’t walk away when things get bad. I watched as my grandmother, her eldest brother and visiting siblings cared for their mother (my great-grandmother) who was senile and unable to care for herself. They all worked together to keep her home and cared for until she passed away. My maternal grandmother survived burying two husbands (the first when she was only about 18), her 6 month old son (also when she was 18) and raising her only daughter by herself. She refused to break. She might have bent under the weight of her responsibilities on occasion but she didn’t give up. She was stubborn and strong-willed and I adored her.
So how can I honor and reciprocate such intangible gifts? The best way I can see is paying it forward. I now tend my ailing mother-in-law because of the gift my grandmother and her family gave me about understanding family obligations and responsibilities. Did they struggle? Of course they did, but they didn’t give up. Even though I was able to thank both the teachers I mentioned that doesn’t mean I can’t pay those gifts forward too. I have nieces and nephews. By teaching them to question and seek answers I hope that I am gifting them with a lifelong curiosity that will pay back the teachers who gifted it to me. There are many more instances I could mention but I think the point has been made. In so many ways we are all blessed in our lives; we are given many tangible and intangible gifts. We should be sure not to take them for granted and to reciprocate in kind in whatever way possible, or at least that what I’m going to try.
I’ve been working with the runes lately to try to gain a deeper, more personal understanding of them (so don’t have to keep referring to the books). In the past week I’ve drawn Othala reversed three times. The first time it was paired with Perthro so I focused on how the lots cast at one’s birth, one’s orlog, worked with ancestral inheritance and home. The second two times Othala reversed was paired with Elhaz/Algiz. This puzzled me because clearly I wasn’t understanding how their energy worked together. Then as I was watching a movie it clicked – in this instance Othala reversed represents having an unsafe, dysfunctional home life and upbringing. Elhaz is often described as representing self-protection, shielding or sheltering oneself. That’s when it clicked! Elhaz and Othala reversed were telling me that when one’s childhood or home life felt unsafe then the need to feel protected and shielded grow even stronger.
In my own life I’ve seen this come into play quite clearly. My parents might have loved me but for a variety of reasons my childhood left me feeling unsafe and unprotected. This has resulted in the adult me creating very strict rules and boundaries for myself. I cannot abide hypocrisy or lying. If I find that a friend has lied about something (even if it wasn’t to me) it makes me question their integrity. For many years I viewed marital infidelity as the ultimate betrayal and tended to avoid anyone I knew who had cheated on a long-term partner (I’ve managed to become less judgmental about this but not much). I find it very difficult to separate unethical behavior from my feelings and judgments about someone. For example, if I learn that a Hollywood actor, director, etc. has engaged in a behavior that I find unethical (such as Elia Kazan betraying his friends and colleagues to the House Un-American Activities Committee), I cannot enjoy their work anymore. I will not knowingly watch an Elia Kazan movie because I find his behavior in that instance so reprehensible that I believe he deserves to be stripped of any accolades he has received. I cannot separate his work from his behavior. I have the same problem with Roman Polanski, although the woman he raped as a teen has forgiven him.
I believe I develop such an unyielding approach to these matters because ethics and morals were so malleable and porous in my childhood. I felt so unprotected and at-risk (Othala reversed) that I developed a personal security that would allow me to feel a measure of security and protection (Elhaz). Realizing how this trait developed can now enable me to relax it a bit. I’m no longer that at-risk child. I don’t need such strongly defended shield walls anymore. I’m much better able to defend myself. Seeing this pattern will hopefully help me change it where necessary moving forward and allow me to recognize similar patterns in others. I may not be able to change this behavior in others (in fact there are certainly going to be occasions where it would be dangerous to do so) but at least it helps me understand what type of situation I’m addressing.