Friday, August 15, 2014

A Love Triangle

My childhood best friend did not like that my parents hadn't given me a middle name at birth. By the age of seven (or some time close to that), she rectified the situation and bequeathed me "Rachel Priscilla". I disliked it so much. But once again, in my 30’s, a boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) did the same thing. Who even thinks of the name Priscilla these days? Weird.

Within the last couple of years I have learned that my 10th great grandmother, Priscilla Mullins Alden, came over on the Mayflower. Perhaps because random people have been trying to give me her name for decades now; I feel a natural attraction to her story. And also, she came over on the Mayflower. How cool is that?

As I dug through old family records and searched the Alden family website, I found her story reveals something I think has been passed down through the women in my family. She is famously known for what she said to the man who would become her husband, my (10th) great grandfather, “John--why dost thou not ask for thyself?”
When Priscilla was 17 years old, she and her family boarded the Mayflower. They arrived at Plymouth in December 1620. Priscilla was the second daughter and fourth child of William Mullins and Alice Atwood Mullins.  Her parents and her brother, Joseph, died during the first winter in Plymouth, leaving her the only remaining member of her family in the New World.

Priscilla chose her husband; being one of the few single young women, she had choices and she clearly was not a damsel in distress -- even though she had lost part of her family that had made the journey with her.  

As I drove across the state for work this past week, I found myself reflecting on her story and why she would choose John Alden and not Captain Miles Standish. At that pinnacle moment, as the story goes, John had been sent by the Captain to propose to Priscilla for him.  Their love triangle was one that fascinated another great-grandchild of Priscilla and John’s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, so much he wrote their love story in his poem The Courtship of Miles Standish.  Her decision, John over Miles, made her  (and John) the great grandparent(s) to two U.S. Presidents; if that puts any perspective as to the consequences of choices.

John Alden was hired for the Mayflower to serve as the Cooper. He was not a pilgrim. He shows exceptional people skills in somehow maintaining his friendship with Miles Standish, despite what had to be an uncomfortable situation, even if briefly. The two of them settled what is now Duxbury, not to far from the landing site.  

Though life is funny sometimes. If I understand correctly, John and Priscilla’s 4th child married Miles 2nd child (Miles did go on to marry someone else) eventually making them all family anyway.

I admire my (10th) great-grandmother for not settling for someone who didn't have the time to propose himself. She was able to see that as it was, and have foresight enough to know that wasn't what she wanted. She spoke up, and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind at that moment. Now, I don't mind if anyone jokingly calls me Rachel Priscilla. 

About John Alden

For my family that is curious about the lineage, I think it is (John+Priscilla>Joseph Alden + Mary Simmons>John Alden+Hannah White>Thomas Wood + Hannah Alden>Lemuel Wood + Rebecca Tupper, etc) but if you have the Mayflower Society paper work that supersedes this in accuracy. 

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Art of Breaking Up

 Disclaimer: I started writing this in 2012 and have written parts of it slowly since.... Good things take time? :-)

I find it ironic I’m writing this now, but perhaps it is not that ironic.  I’m recently divorced -  but the actual break up really happened years ago, well before the paperwork was filed.  If I am truly honest with you, and myself, I should acknowledge the whole thing was probably doomed from the get-go. And heaven only knows why I decided to overlook the doom and gloom and took that jump (probably some crazy notion I had about love).

(As of the writing of this) I’m currently dating a man who puts a smile on my face, 80% of the time, okay maybe 89%.  Sometimes he causes me to think twice AND sometimes I am really unsure if I want to venture into a relationship again (because this will probably hurt at some point), not necessarily because of a break up;  I honestly don’t have a feeling about that one way or the other on that.  But people, in all kinds of relationships, at one point or another “hurt” each other in some form; its gonna happen -- but then I spend time with him and think to myself, “I think he’s worth taking the risk”.  And just in case you run into us being all cute and coupley (because we do that) I want to get this out of the way: Do I think he’s “the one”?  Let me answer that for ya, HELLO??!?! I’ve been married twice, in my share of long term relationships and I have to be honest I don’t have the foggiest as to what anyone means by “the one”. -- Time will only tell. -- And this time, I’m going to need lots of time. --I do like him, enough to throw aside my original plan to be single right now. And THAT is the only thing I am certain of. As much as I may sometimes pretend to be certain of other things (I am rarely ever certain of much these days).

But this is supposed to be about the Art of Breaking Up. Here is a disclaimer: I see the world different than lots of people. You could be one of those people who just doesn’t get me; you may live on Mars and eat lots of -- well I don’t know what people from Mars would eat if they really exist  –- But YOU MIGHT be one of those people who just will not get me, or this propensity I have for keeping my ex’s as friends.  And that’s okay – just get that I live in Rachel-land and in that land some people stay friends after they break up, they forgive each other and keep what is good in sight. (And, here in this land, the ruler eats lots of veggies and chocolate, but she will cook a decent brisket for her meat eating family and friends).

My first break up. I was in 7th grade and my parents had just moved me (and my brothers and sisters) to a more rural town than the suburban town I had just spent majority of my 13 years on this planet. I met him the way my parents met, in Sunday School. At church, a Mormon church, where there is lots of focus on relationships.   He was a little older than me, but Brian and I clicked pretty quickly.  Back in those days (over 25 years ago) we called it “going with”, my parents called it going steady and probably because he went to the same church they tried to be cool with it, at first. 

Brian was my first kiss, the first boy to hold my hand, the first to say, “I love you” to me outside of my family.  Our relationship lasted roughly about 7-8 months – a long time in our puppy-years’ time frame.  Our relationship still held on to the innocence of our youth, we didn’t forge into any territory that makes adults saddened at the loss of innocence so young.

I honestly can’t remember how or why we broke up. I can’t even remember now who did the breaking up because -- over 20 years later -- it seems so trivial in the light of the friendship Brian and I now share. All through high school he dated most of my friends (I’m typing this with a smile).  He was also my first lesson in letting go of feelings that seemed outdated, and moving into a territory of friendship, and honestly wanting the best for the other person. This did not happen over night – or even within a month – but by my sophomore year in high school we were back to being close friends. It also taught me that sometimes when I say, “I love you” to someone I really do mean it.  I was overcoming the disease of bitterness that plagues the women in my mother’s family, but I didn’t realize that then, it is only now as I look back it seems apparent.   When him and his stepmom starting butting heads, he moved in with my family. My brother and him shared my parents basement, which was probably my parents way of keeping 2 floors between us as we shared a house for a few months while the adults got things sorted.  

Brian went on to join the Army. He met and married his first wife. He fell off the face of the earth for 10 years. And then he came back into my life when I was 7 months pregnant with my last child, just months before my oldest was diagnosed with cancer.  And we picked up right where we left off. The same friendship was still there. He has been just a phone call away through the cancer, the disaster that happened in my marriage, and all of the craziness life has brought me. He is the resounding testament that I am so glad I didn’t listen to the craziness that once you date (or in our case “go with”) someone you can never be friends.  Yes, our friendship evolves. We are more like brother and sister in some ways, yet not. He reminds me who I have been, who I am capable of becoming and when I have a question about my car at 6am he answers, slightly annoyed, but there for me.  He is the voice that encourages me to date the man I am dating now, to take a risk.  And I listen to him, and encourage him. He has recently met someone he is so excited about. She lights his world up. I am so happy for him. And I feel somehow richer because I know this is how it is meant to be and I listened to that and so did he. And both of us stuck by that feeling, we are just supposed to be friends nothing more or less.

“Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” 
 Brené BrownThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

The most amazing gift you can give yourself is to see past hurt feelings, to be open to something different than what you thought might be and let life take you where you are supposed to be.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Raising Men and Compassion

I entered my friends house for the party, the sky was now dark and another successful Race for the Cure was behind me.   As the evening progressed I found a seat sitting at her kitchen table discussing what had trandspired earlier. A white and grey-streaked haired yet youthful faced man, sitting down the table from me, asked something to the affect, “we (society) have no problem coming together for women’s causes or children’s causes, but you would hardly hear of such a thing for men and prostate cancer.” The conversation turned into teaching our boys compassion for themselves and each other, while still encouraging sympathy for female and children issues -- typically known in politics as compassion issues, or social issues.  

I find  myself reflecting on this question in my quiet moments, even now, months later.  I am raising 3 boys who will someday be men.  I only get one chance to instill and reinforce these important human values in them.

That spring turned into summer quickly, and we were on vacation with the ocean waves coming in quick and hard; the August sky foretold of the hurricane still a good distance south of where I played with my three sons along the Atlantic. For a moment, my attention was diverted to a dad with two boys, one about the same age as my oldest (near 11) and the other probably around 5. The dad was encouraging the oldest to push and shove the younger one into the strong waves that were a result of the down coast hurricane. The younger child was clearly frightened. And  I, too,  was concerned.  I gave him an “are you serious?!?” glare for a moment, he then said something about how he was making him stronger.  I just shook my head and went back to playing with my children.  Stronger?!? Perhaps fearful, less compassionate and less trusting is what came to my mind, but I kept my mouth shut.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.  We all have experienced emotional pain, or some form of suffering at some point. In Dr. James Doty, MD article in the Washington post this past March speaks about how, “It has been stated many times that survival is of the fittest, but when one reads Darwin closely this is not the case. Rather, the more accurate statement, coined by Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. and other leading social scientists, is “the survival of the kindest.”

It is thought that compassion is the means of the genes protecting themselves and making sure they made it into the next generation. Compassion is an important part  of allowing our species to be so great in number. Compassion is what allows us, as a species, to survive in times of struggle

Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at U of C, Berkleley explains the biological basis for compassion, “…Take the loose association of glands, organs, and cardiovascular and respiratory systems known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS plays a primary role in regulating our blood flow and breathing patterns for different kinds of actions. For example, when we feel threatened, our heart and breathing rates usually increase, preparing us either to confront or flee from the threat—the so-called “fight or flight” response. What is the ANS profile of compassion? As it turns out, when young children and adults feel compassion for others, this emotion is reflected in very real physiological changes: Their heart rate goes down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee, but to approach and sooth.  Then there’s oxytocin, a hormone that floats through the bloodstream. Research performed on the small, stocky rodents known as prairie voles indicates that oxytocin promotes long-term bonds and commitments, as well as the kind of nurturing behavior—like care for offspring—that lies at the heart of compassion. It may account for that overwhelming feeling of warmth and connection we feel toward our offspring or loved ones. Indeed, breastfeeding and massages elevate oxytocin levels in the blood (as does eating chocolate). In some recent studies I’ve conducted, we have found that when people perform behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—their bodies produce more oxytocin. This suggests compassion may be self-perpetuating: Being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate.” (see reference below for article site)

Gail Underwood Parker, author of the blog 'Upbeats and Downbeats'  explains, "Sympathy is more than recognition. To me, empathy does not require more than dispassionately recognizing and understanding someone else's pain.  Compassion is far more. Compassion means feeling, regretting that pain, and wishing to ease that pain.  Empathy does not seem to require action, but compassion calls for, cries out for action."

When we experience compassion, our vagus nerve is activated. A well reacting vagus nerve is a good ticket our health. It calms us, it slows the heart rate  and it strengthen's our immune system. Research is suggesting  that compassion might be able to slow the aging process by lowering inflammation in the body. Inflammation is thought to be the precursor to many of our chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc. 

Compassion and empathy are innate within the human chemical makeup --  but some conditioned beliefs of communities and/or family culture drive many to mistrust and even at times have disdain for emotions like compassion, empathy and optimism.
Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in research on self-compassion, says, “I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line.  Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

At the beginning of her paper on  The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion   the summary  explains, "Self-compassion entails being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them. Evidence for the validity and reliability of the scale is presented in a series of studies. Results indicate that self-compassion is significantly correlated with positive mental health outcomes such as less depression and anxiety and greater life satisfaction. Evidence is also provided for the discriminant validity of the scale, including with regard to self-esteem measures." (available through Psychology Press)

Compassion is sometimes thought of as a women’s emotion.  The health benefits that a compassionate person reaps from the act of simply being can become apart of our society  if we acknowledge its importance within us and we encourage our youth toward it.

I still question how to show and teach my young boys -- who will be men before I know it -- how to be compassionate toward themselves and other males.  I try to be aware of opportunities (daily) to encourage them to be understanding of each other and themselves.  I try to be an example. Perhaps, in someway, it is selfish of me. I know this will improve their health, improve the communities they choose to settle in and protect the generations far beyond them. 

I am grateful for my dad who shows compassion by his constant drive to want to help,  and for other men like Jeff a active volunteer from our local Camp Quality (a group that helps kids with cancer remember to be kids) and Mark who started Habitate for Hope with his wife and made it their life mission to help families facing a pediatric health crisis. These are just a few I can think of off the top of my head that stand out (in my social circles) as reminders that strong men do know how to be compassionate and I'm not raising weirdos, but heroes,  if I encourage my sons to look to them, and other men like them, as examples. 

I hope to impart on my children that their health and wellness also lie within how well they treat others and themselves.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Learning to Have Faith

“I want to run a marathon… someday.” I found myself telling my new neighbor (who had run a marathon) that it was on my bucket list. I spoke those words to him before my son spent almost a year in the hospital fighting cancer; it was 4 years before I knew I could run a mile, then 2, then 5, and after a lot of work -- 20 miles. It was years before I was aware that I might have a capacity far beyond what I had ever recognized.  I had no clue how, or when, I was going to run a marathon; I knew nothing about training, or if I was even capable.  At that moment, I was far from that goal. But I knew I wanted to.

Faith was something spoken about (a lot) in church while I was growing up, and even now in the new church I go to. But the concept of ‘faith’ is something I am just starting to get. I am not completely sure if it was faith that brought me to the finish line that October morning. But I’m growing more certain it was my introduction into what ‘faith’ means.

After a year battling my son’s cancer, I was helping to set up for a Moms to Moms sale with some of my friends who had been my pillars of strength. As we talked about my desire to play soccer again, one of them encouraged me and said she would help me start a woman’s over 30 team. She had never played, but she said she would try. Shortly after, we both started telling almost every woman we knew that we were starting a team and looking for players. A friend of a friend told this girl, Jen.  Jen joined our team, and a few months into it Jen and I started meeting at the gym to work out. One early morning, we started talking about running a marathon. I still did not run at this point anything more than a 3 minute warm up before doing weights or short sprints on the soccer field. We decided that morning to run a marathon together. We started training for the training that week.  It was February and we had to June to get into running shape to start the rigorous training running a marathon takes.  She encouraged me, kept me going when I wanted to quit. She motivated me to get up early when I really didn’t want to. She forgave me when I couldn’t make it for one reason or another. We kept going.  We crossed the finish line, holding hands.  Looking back now, I have faith a higher power – along with Jen’s love and help, and a little of my own determination – got me to and across that finish line.

It takes faith to believe in the good in people, especially when I find disappointment and have to look past it.  It takes faith to be patient and wait for what I have been longing for.  It takes faith to love people who aren’t that certain about love, including myself. It takes faith that if I try to do something good in this world, it will actually make a difference.
Sometimes my ability to keep faith fails me, and I don’t have faith in people who I should. And I fail them.  And those times, I so appreciate my good friends and family who forgive me. But, I have also have tried to have faith in people who I shouldn't, and those were huge lessons that it still is taking time to heal from.

It is a huge walk in faith that I will be able to do more than just provide for my children and myself while I pick up the pieces of my life after the last 5 years. I didn’t have this faith in myself, nor God, when I was younger.    This time I have faith it will somehow get done.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Importance of Love -- for our Health

I have this powerful memory of my (then) 7 year old son, in a hospital gown, with blood still stuck in his baby-fine sandy blond hair left from brain surgery earlier that week.  It was dark outside and our family was gathered around him, trying to keep his spirits up as he fought the pain.  Along with the monitors, creamy white walls and pastel privacy curtains, we were also surrounded by a ton of little stuffed animals and gifts from family, friends, church and even strangers.  There, in the middle of his 5th floor hospital room, in a uncomfortably hard -- but sturdy -- chair I watched as my son struggle to sit upright for the first time since his surgery. He sat and started to read the cards his classmates made for him that someone had dropped off while he was sleeping.  I will forever remember the happiness, love and the warmth I saw fill his tired soul as he read those simple handmade cards from his second grade classmates. One of the little girls even signed her name with 'Love, so-and-so'. In that moment the struggle to sit upright got a little less as he went on to read  (and giggled at) the jokes  the boys wrote and the kind words from the rest of the girls. 

The cards and all other little mementos of positive thoughts, letting him know he was surround by love, were just as important to his healing as anything else we were doing. They gave him power I couldn't alone; the doctor's couldn't, nor could his dad alone. It was almost a years' worth of months that accumulated a collective effort to not just heal Kevin through modern medicine, but also through love. I believe it worked. 

Since then, I have believed strongly that love can heal physical ailments and mental anguish. And science is proving it (love it when really smart people prove me right). An article in Scientific American this past July talks about how healthy relationships increase survival up to 50%. It mentions that, "Social support has been linked to lower blood pressure, and a diverse collection of contacts is associated with better immune system functioning. The list continues to grow, she says, now encompassing other bodily processes such as wound healing and inflammation."   

In a 2005 Newsweek article, Dr. Dean Ornish, author of The Spectrum also the founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute said, "… love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well. If a new medication had the same impact, failure to prescribe it would be malpractice. Connections with other people affect not only the quality of our lives but also our survival. Study after study find that people who feel lonely are many times more likely to get cardiovascular disease than those who have a strong sense of connection and community."   

There is little control to how your social structure holds up in times of crisis. But what we do have control of is who we decide to be when someone we know is facing a crisis. The outreach and kindness of the community that we live in was also a huge lesson in how to react when I see others facing their times of trial. It is my tendency to want to keep to myself, mostly out of fear of saying something wrong or offending and a bit of fear of having to endure another painful loss. Coupled with it is also so hard for me not to be the shy girl. It takes every ounce of confidence I have to overcome the decades of being initially shy. Now more than ever I see the importance of overcoming this. 

Love is complicated. 

In a newspaper a while back, within the Sexetera advice column, a person wrote in asking if they should end a relationship that had just begun because in the fall the guy returns to school. Mia's response I thought was adroit, "Let the relationship play itself out. If you two are meant to be together, it'll last and if you're not, well, at least you saw it coming. If you're smart, you'll enjoy getting to know this guy but not invest too many emotions until you see where things are heading. One way to do this is by investing in your own future as well as a potential love affair. Why not? He's looking out for himself by furthering his education. I hope you're doing the same." Steve, the other writer for the column asked, "What is wrong with getting hurt?" 

The point is that healthy, good, complex friendships and relationships are collectively a part of the happiness formula and a healthy life. There is a challenge and an art to balancing and blending a life with other adults. Throw in some kids and we are knitting a complicated design. It seems to me, if it all is handled with enough compassion and understanding, sprinkled with just the right amount of independence and dependence that our relationships with others have the capability to extend our lives, to keep us, and our loved ones, living healthy…. maybe even greater than anything else we do to improve our health. 

I recently had a nightmare about one of my children drowning. I woke up still feeling the loss even though that child is the one who woke me up from that dream. (I can't say he isn't wearing a life jacket even when he takes a bath.... Just sort of kidding.)   Loving anyone, even our own children, can make even the strongest of people feel vulnerable. 

There is an inherit risk when we give something  (or fear the loss). But most especially when what is given is something as precious as the influential emotion, love. I think it is interesting studies show when we don't (wisely) take that risk and say, "What's wrong with getting hurt?" we actually hurt ourselves more in the long run. How ironic.      


Articles referenced in this post:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Imperfect, Fallible and Human

Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair but manifestations of strength and resolution. -- K. Gibran

April Epner: I know what I did to you, to you in particular. Kinda worst nightmare kind of thing, right? I knew that. Even at the time I knew that. 
Frank: What else? 
April Epner: I'll do it again, I will, I'll hurt you again and again. Not like that, you'd have to leave me if I hurt you like that. If we were together you would leave me if I hurt you like that again, wouldn't you? 
Frank: Yes. Yes, I would. 
April Epner: Good. But I'll hurt you in other ways, little ways, I won't mean to but I will. And sometimes I will mean to. 
Frank: This is quite an offer you've worked out. 
April Epner: You'll hurt me too, you know. You'll hurt me and change on me, you might even leave me after you promise you won't, how about that? 
Frank: I wouldn't. 
April Epner: But you might. 
Frank: But I wouldn't. 
April Epner: But... you might. 
Frank: Yeah, I guess I might. 

We are in the midst of the holiday season. It is a time for gatherings with family and friends -- holiday dinners and parties, shopping -- all of which typically requires lots social interaction. I chose the quote (above) from the movie “Then She Found Me” because in the (somewhat awkward) scene between Helen Hunt and Colin Firth,  April's words depict what happens naturally in the course of all close personal relationships; be it friendships, family or romantic.  Sometimes letting go is the right decision when we find a person who is not positive and supportive majority of the time.  But, sometimes, an understanding of  natural human tendency to be fallible softens the blow when others behavior, actions (or mistakes) isn’t the most comfortable feeling in the moment and can cause our autonomic nervous system (ANS) light up the fight or flight feeling. It is those moments where not being primitive animals that automatically respond to our biological impulses is important and let reasoning set in.

According to Dr. Daniel Amen “the people you spend time with determine your longevity”.  I attribute my father’s stroke to the social stress he dealt with for decades, coupled with genetics.  He did not have a spouse who was supportive and loving for majority of his life, nor close friends or family to help ease the problems him and my mother faced.  I am happy that seems to have now changed.  Science has proven social isolation is as dangerous as smoking.

Positive social interaction requires understanding and an ability to be benevolent to one another, and show it through our actions and words. It is thought that our “feeling side” of our brain is the primitive part of our brain and the rational part is the apart of the newly (relative to millions of years) part of our brain.    I find using science to help me understand what maybe lying behind my loved ones behavior helps me step away from taking it personal and empowers me to try react better.  Oddly (or maybe not) science  is helping me learn how to maintain relationships through the sticky stuff; to stick it out as I -- and my loved ones -- each evolve, grow and change, as long as the relationships have a predominately positive foundation. Having a scientific understanding (via psychology tests and functional MRI’s) of my son’s brain helps me and his teachers cater his education to what we know his strengths and weaknesses are. We know that he is near genius in vocabulary, but that his processing speed is on the low end of average. This could cause him to come off as being lazy, when it is really his brain catching up and it needs a little more time.  He has an amazing way of communicating, but when he is learning something new we know he needs more time than his average peers to work on mastering it. I find this understanding helps me to be patient when it might be more of a challenge to choose to do so.

 As we are moving through the holidays festivities it seems fitting to end this with a popular verse from the bible:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. --1 Corinthians 13 (NIV)