alfreddepew

Posts Tagged ‘friends’

Since feeling is first

In couples, Realtionship, Relationship with Self, World Work on October 23, 2010 at 12:53 am

Painting, acrylic on paper: Untitled, 2007, Alfred DePew

(Reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

Canadians often put me in mind of Dorothy Parker’s quip about Katharine Hepburn, who, she once said, “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

Some weeks ago, at dinner with my friend Hal, he said he had been feeling emotional.

“Which one?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“You know—happy? Sad? Pissed off?

“I don’t know—emotional,” he said.

Then we changed the subject.

As North American white guys, we tend to avoid direct expression of feeling in day-to-day conversation.

Unless, of course, the subject is hockey.

And yet, my stiff upper lip has been known to quiver. I have the kind of face that registers everything—worry, delight, perplexity, and suspicion.

I am terrible at poker.

I’ve had to learn about feelings—the hard way, by being tyrannized by them. Had I been born in southern Italy, I’d have had no problem. Or so I imagine. But I was raised in St. Louis, whose dominant culture was Anglo and Teutonic, despite the French name.

At sixteen, I began to suspect that feeling was not just the root of the problem but the problem itself. My first therapist was a psychiatrist, a bona fide Freudian analyst of the Viennese School. When he’d ask how I was, I’d say “anxious.” I didn’t have a very wide emotional vocabulary in those days, and I don’t recall Herr Doktor as being much help.

Twenty years and four therapists later, I heard myself say that I’d know when I was ready to stop therapy when I no longer had any feelings.

Then I laughed. So did my therapist. It was our next to last session.

What had brought me to that fourth and final therapist was grief. When my father died, I was overwhelmed, nearly paralyzed. My father and I were not close. It didn’t make any sense. It was wholly irrational. And yet, as I came to see, grief had its own kind of logic. My friend, the poet Anne Rubicam Witten, pointed me to Gilgamesh, Innana, Persephone, and Orpheus—stories about the decent to the Underworld. Stories that acted as a map in this new territory of grieving.

Therapists could only take me so far. For the rest, I needed the poets.

Robert Bly used to talk about the grief at the core of the male psyche. He spoke about it as an initiation, the “time of ashes,” essential to the evolution of a man’s mind and heart and soul.

Not that grief is particular to men. My friend Monica insists that at the heart of every silence lies some form of grief.

What Hal chose not to talk about that evening at dinner was his mother’s death and the fact that he’d recently declared bankruptcy.

Emotional indeed.

What then is the language of feeling? Not just one, surely. Proclamations of love. Lamentation. Sidelong comments. Innuendo. Carping. Sarcasm. Body language. A glance. Those looks.

I often work with couples who want more intimacy, better communication, and less fighting. Much of my work involves training them to become exquisitely aware of what  lives in the space between them. Feelings. As they become aware of the impact of what they say and do, they have more choice about how they speak and act in order to keep the relationship space clear.

When I began with one couple, the atmosphere between them was so charged that even an intended compliment could start a fight. Gradually, as they became more aware of how they were interacting and what feelings they were generating, they began trying new ways of communicating—at different times, with clearer intentions, using more neutral language. Then they noticed the impact on their children and how they were treating each other. All this took slowing down and paying attention. Giving themselves time to feel.

Another couple, men who’ve been partners for eight years, wanted to stop avoiding topics they simply couldn’t discuss. So we began with what they could discuss, always pointing to the space between them and what was there. That they loved each other was clear. That the relationship was skilled at any number of tasks was also clear. And so we built on that. Some weeks later during a session, one acknowledged the other, and he began to tear up. A hard place for men, even gay men. He made a joke and looked away. I asked them to pause and invited them to sit with what was happening. In the ensuing silence, they held each other’s gaze, tears in their eyes. This was the intimacy they were seeking to reclaim. A sweet, tender, dangerous vulnerability. And they’d learned to create the safety to experience it.

And what of our relationship to ourselves, the time we give to our own feelings?

All week, I have been busy coaching couples, setting up individual calls with my certification students in Europe, interviewing and assessing new clients. Relationship work. Then all of a sudden I am exhausted. I have stepped over my own feelings of admiration, frustration, impatience, love, envy, and longing.

They clamour for my attention.

So I close the computer, lie down and let everything surface.

After a while, I take my notebook and pen and give myself a half hour to listen and write down what I need to let myself know.

The poem from which I borrow my title is, after all, a love poem by e.e. cummings.

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

–the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

It’s the thing that flutters up behind the eyes, a movement in the heart before language.

And then … the words to say it.

Next of Kin

In Family, Realtionship on October 22, 2010 at 5:35 pm

The Mississippi River

(Reprinted from the Vancouver Observer)

When I get to the Intensive Care Unit in Des Peres, Missouri, I find Pat wired to several machines that beep softly. Her eyes are open. She recognizes me, but has difficulty speaking. The beginnings of sentences come out all right, but the ends are chewed and garbled. Her jaw moves up and down involuntarily. I have to listen hard and ask her to repeat. Her breathing is laboured. I don’t want to make her talk more than she has to.

She doesn’t know what happened to her. All her friend in the retirement community said when I called was something about her kidneys. Something about being incoherent.

“Well,” Pat says, “Here—we—are. Nothing—to—do—but—wait—I—guess.”

I imagine she’d shrug if she could.

“This is a fine how do you do,” she might say if speaking were easier.

The nurse, Dave, explains that Pat has been on a ventilator, but has improved, and is now breathing on her own. Improved compared to when they brought her in. My sense is that she is dying.

He asks if I am her closest living relative, and I have to think a moment. Pat is my mother’s cousin. I run it through my mind: an only child, no children of her own, no nieces or nephews. I suppose I am. Pat had been my grandfather’s favorite niece. For some reason, my mother never liked her.

I met Pat when she attended a reading I gave in St. Louis some years ago. She came up to me afterwards and introduced herself. Nearly every trip since then, we’ve managed to have lunch or meet at Schneidhorst’s for breakfast. I would always invite my mother to come along, but she’d grow evasive and decline.

Pat and I have had similar lives. We are both writers, both worked for a time in advertising, and neither of us married. Even today, St. Louisans view unmarried people with condescending sympathy, and a certain amount of suspicion. And envy, I think. Our independence, perhaps. As if we had cheated, somehow. Shirked some essential duty of adulthood.

When she finished college at the start of World War II, Pat decided to join the Navy. She went in to tell her mother first.

“If it had been me, I’d have joined up long ago,” her mother said, without even looking up from her knitting.

The she told her father, who threw a fit—“No daughter of mine!” … That sort of thing.

Pat earned the rank of lieutenant and trained officers in Washington, DC. She was often assigned to carry secret orders—on the train up and down the East Coast, and by plane to California.

When I saw her last March, she showed me an album and told me stories about the young men and women in the photos—where each was taken, what they had eaten at picnics, who was in love with whom.

She carried top-secret orders for the Potsdam Conference and for Okinawa.

“And Hiroshima?” I asked. “What about Nagasaki? Did you carry those orders?”

“I don’t remember,” she said. “We were trained to forget.”

On the second day that I visit her in Intensive Care, she is neither asleep, nor entirely conscious. Her eyes are slightly open, but she’s not seeing me. I’ve brought a photograph of her favorite uncle, my grandfather, after whom I am named. I’d found it among the things my brother and sister and I had been going through the day before.

I stand by Pat’s bed, praying. I hum the old hymn “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” It’s all I can think to do. I don’t want to wake her. She seems to be resting comfortably. Though her breathing is even more laboured than the day before, she is not struggling. She seems unafraid. Over the course of our friendship, I’ve learned that she’s a woman who goes to her Protestant church every Sunday, the most ordinary kind of religious observance. Conventional. There has never been a hint of rancor or resentment over my mother’s snubs or the complicated social strata of St. Louis. She never made a fuss over her independence. She showed a normal pride in her accomplishments as an advertising account executive and one of the founders of the St. Louis Women’s Advertising Club, which raised nearly twice the amount for charity one year as the Men’s Club.

She has lived by her own lights, followed her own mind and heart, always curious about the world. She doesn’t regret anything. At least not anything she’s willing to tell me about.

The doctor comes in to check on her and asks if I am her closest living relative. I reckon I am. There is no living will, nor anyone they know as Power of Attorney. That’s why they keep asking me. In cases like these, they put together an Ethics Committee to decide if treatment ought to be continued.

All I can say is what I see: my friend and second cousin, an independent woman of deep faith, unafraid, following her failing heart to peace and home.

What we talk about when we talk about relationship ….

In Realtionship on July 25, 2009 at 5:19 am

We all know that “Are you in a relationship?” means “Are you—dating? Living with someone?” For most of us the word brings to mind our nearest and dearest—spouses, friends, and family. For some, the word refers exclusively to the person with whom they share a bed and a mortgage. Relationship suggests intimacy. It can be a tender subject.

Relationship simply is. It infuses every conversation, is, in fact, the ground of the conversation itself if not the subject. It’s the context, the air we breathe, the water we swim in. We are never not in relationship. Which is why it’s so easy to overlook. We often take it for granted, and only become aware of relationship in its extreme states: its highs or lows. In fact, to suggest reflecting upon relationship seems to suggest that something is wrong. Our motto tends to be “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.” And so we tread softly, avoid conflict, settle for less, all the while building resentments—until the relationship itself demands attention.

Not a bad thing, just what tends to happen. At least in my life.

My purpose here is twofold. I want to open a wide-ranging conversation about relationship, using the word in its primary and broadest definition: “the state of being related or interrelated.” Couples, families, friends, business partners, corporate teams, organizations, communities. Relationship to work, play, the body, Spirit …. Relationship in all its various forms.

I also want to stay curious about relationship itself—that thing that is bigger than the sum of its parts. That “state of affairs,” as Webster puts it, “existing between those having relations or dealings [italics mine].” I have come to think of relationship as a living being, conscious in and of itself, and capable of learning. To many of you this is not a new concept, but to me it was baffling at first. And yet I had a sense in my own bones that this was true.

As my colleagues at the Center for Right Relationship are fond of saying: relationships are naturally generative. Get two or more people together in a room and something happens—small talk, laughter, shared interests, fights, babies, book deals … you name it.

Here are a couple of questions to consider. Think of a relationship you’re in and notice what is getting generated. What would you like that relationship to generate more of and how you might help it to do that?