This year, Christmas Day arrived as a bittersweet respite following twelve days of tears and heartbreak and wrenching sorrow. Last week, when I wasn’t working or wrapping and labeling Christmas gifts, I watched television coverage of the funerals of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In newspapers, I studied pictures of the women and children whose lives ended so tragically, reading the stories of each one. It felt like something I could do—to put faces to names—to honor their beautiful lives—to not look away.
I also studied two pictures of Adam Lanza, the shooter. In one, he was 13, wearing a bright blue shirt and a smile. A more recent picture—most associated with the Newtown massacre—shows a pale, skull-thin, unsmiling Adam staring straight into the camera. News stories about Adam and his family are disturbing. Most attempt to solve the puzzle of why Adam committed such an incomprehensible act, and to place blame. Instead, they have only raised more questions—and dangerous speculations.
On Friday, the holiday season came to an abrupt halt with the incomprehensible massacre of innocent children and heroic women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Christmas carols have become the soundtrack to an endless media loop of unspeakable tragedy. Christmas lights have dimmed in the glow of candle-lit vigils. Christmases yet to come will forever be haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Present.
We are a country in mourning and our grief is inconsolable. Inconsolable grief is just that—inconsolable. It cannot be comforted, it cannot be soothed, it cannot be relieved, it cannot be rationalized away—in many cases it cannot ever heal. Innumerable lives have forever been altered in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine.
The Internet allows for instantaneous outpourings of condolences and comments—sincere and disingenuous, commendable and contemptible. Sympathy has been laced with rage, urgency to place blame, and calls for action—for we are a heartbroken and helpless nation. Never do we feel so helpless, as when in the face of that which is inconsolable.
While there is a clear and indisputable need for future action—there is immediate need for stillness. This is the time to go inward—with reflection. Offer up prayers and gratitude—send out light and love. And then reach outward—with warmth and comfort. Connect with those you love. Hug your children, friends, and family. Make eye-contact and smile at strangers.
This week I will hold anxious grieving mothers and terrified children. I will offer words of comfort and reassurances that will sound hollow to my ears even as they fall from my lips. Because I can promise that time will change the experience of grief, but I cannot promise that pain will heal. And I can promise that we will try to keep our children and loved ones safe, but I cannot promise that we will succeed.
Even so, our nation’s only hope for healing is to move forward with love and intention.
Below are some ways to be with those who grieve:
Sit with your discomfort in the presence of their grief.
Be willing to listen and ask questions.
Speak their loved one’s name.
Cry with them.
Offer physical comfort through hugs and holding their hands.
Regardless of what is stirred up for you, stay focused on them.
Don’t chatter to fill the silences.
Don’t offer platitude’s like “It’s God’s will,” and “I know how you feel.”
Let their needs be your guide:
Maybe they want to cry.
Maybe they want to talk.
Maybe they want to rage.
Maybe they want to argue.
Maybe they want to rock in silence.
Maybe they want to sleep.
Recognize that there is extra complexity for the living victims of murder.
They will question, they will wonder, they will imagine, they will beg for reassurance.
Give reassurance, whether you believe it or not.
And finally, if you are the caretaker—also take care of yourself.
The lake has been calling me—haunting the periphery of my mind like a fading dream or the words to a long-forgotten song. Just 8 blocks from my home, Lake Michigan is the second largest of the great lakes and the fifth largest lake in the world. Spring, summer, and fall, I go to the lake several times a week, walk barefoot along the water’s edge, and collect sea-glass. I have a stone I call sacred, where I sit and stare out at the horizon. I meditate—quiet my mind. My soul finds solace by the water. The lapping of waves on the shore can do that, whether gentle or stormy.
I’ve always loved to dance, but have never felt exceptionally graceful or adept at following complicated steps. My early aspirations to become a ballerina were quickly quashed when cast as a toy soldier in the Nutcracker when I was a gangly 11. In Saudi Arabia, I bartered with an Arab woman—clandestine therapy sessions for equally clandestine belly dancing lessons. I would have seen her for free, but she wanted to give me something, and it was all she had. I loved belly dancing, but didn’t continue once back in the States. Still, I dance whenever I can—and I am always among the sweaty crowd of shoeless women closing down the party at weddings and bat mitzvahs.
Three years ago, I discovered Zumba, a class using international music and Latin-inspired dance steps to give you a killer body while making fitness fun. Zumba instructors are energetic, enthusiastic, colorfully dressed, and non-judgmental—classes are loud, friendly, and totally addictive. Zumba’s motto is “Ditch the Workout, Join the Party.” Several times a week, I do just that!
In this season of Thanksgiving, I have more than most for which to be grateful—robust health, a profession that brings me profound joy and purpose, a beautiful home, money to meet my basic needs—and an abundance of love from my community, my clients, my husband, family, and friends.
Growing up an Army Brat, I learned early-on the importance of friends—and the piercing loneliness that comes with being the perpetual new girl in school—and having none. In addition to being a gypsy-child, I was painfully shy. My friendship-making skills consisted solely of standing on the sidelines desperately hoping to be asked to play. Since I brought nothing but gawky novelty to the game, my brief friendships were always with those as socially awkward as I. But I clung tenaciously to those friends—until forcibly ripped away.
By the time my parents promised we were finally settling down for keeps, I was 13 and had attended 21 schools from kindergarten through 8th grade. I had no grasp of permanence and was wary of committing to one more relationship in which my heart could be broken. Because adolescence is fraught with drama that I never learned to navigate, I was out of high school and 17 when I first started collecting forever friends.
I learned to reach out and to hold on—to be there when needed and to accept the love of others when I’m in need. I learned to trust others with my deepest truths and to feel safe sharing my authentic (sometimes crazy) self. I learned to put my heart at risk.
And, although I’m a good friend, I’m not always easy. I’m still introverted, with a deep inherent need for restorative solitude. When facing personal challenges, my instinct is to hole-up like a wounded animal until regaining my strength. When I write, I go missing. (With the journey of East of Mecca, I’ve been missing more on than off over the last 22 years!) And creating this website and writing blog posts has been a joyous, but time-consuming project—requiring vast amounts of alone time.
So, my closest forever friends are not only entrusted with my deepest truths—they accept me for all that I am and support my dreams by tolerating my absences and accepting long overdue phone calls without judgment or recrimination.
Coming up for air this past week, after a wonderfully festive and crazy-busy few months, I started reaching out to my friends—feeling grateful as always when they reached back. Over time I will be posting essays about these people, starting now with Soul Foodie, about my very first forever friend. Right now, I’m sending out a collective thank you to those I love. My blog posts won’t always conclude with music, but Carole King says it so perfectly—I can’t resist.
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When the deep purple falls
over sleepy garden walls
and the stars begin to twinkle in the sky
in the mist of a memory, you wander on back to me
breathing my name with a sigh.
I’ve been lost in reverie for the past week—thinking about the sacred, spiritual, healing color purple. As election returns were coming in last Tuesday night, commentators were talking about reds and blues combining into different shades of purple. Maps ranged from lavender—where 80% or more of the population is white—to deep purple where whites equal 50% or less. When all was said and done, the win resulted from the deep purple vote. The white male in America has clearly met his match.
When I wrote Am I Blue? following President Obama’s election in 2008, I was jubilant at what appeared to be an enormous step for Civil Rights in this country. With the 2012 election just days away, I am again personally invested in the outcome. In this election, there is even more at stake for all minorities—especially women.
Too many times in my psychology practice, my young female patients say, “I’m not a feminist.” They say it like “feminist” is a four letter word. In the late 20th century, the feminist movement became associated with rage and radicalism. I’m fully supportive of the “third wave” focus on overall acceptance of a woman’s choice to be whatever she wants to be and fighting against oppression based on gender identity. But feminism has always been about EQUAL RIGHTSand CHOICE. Too many of us have become complacent, taking for granted the rights women fought for starting in the late 1800’s.
Tuesday night, November 4, 2008, I watched as Barack Obama was elected President. While returns came in from various states, there was television coverage of the crowds gathered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. There was an interview with Andrew Young and shots of the parishioners singing and praying. I was praying, too. I prayed that Georgia would go from White-Undecided, to Blue-Obama. I felt it would be redemption— of some sort.
Although I’ve lived in Chicago for 29 years, I’ve never been able to get past the shame of being a white daughter of the South, a granddaughter to the Klan— a daughter of the Confederacy. I am the great-great-niece of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was a General in the Confederate Army, famous for his brilliant military strategies— infamous for founding the Ku Klux Klan.
Unlike my brother who lives in Texas, I’m not proud of my great-uncle’s military expertise. Instead, I carry my mother’s shame and sorrow at the connection to a man who was such a powerful and outspoken proponent of hate. I, too, carry her vague memory of sheets found bundled in the attic when she was a little girl in Georgia.
In the South there is a tradition of giving daughters their mother’s, or some other female ancestor’s, maiden name as a middle name. My mother was named Sheila Davenport Forrest, Davenport being her paternal grandmother’s maiden name. My parents went all out and named me Sheila Forrest, a double honor, or double whammy— depending on how you look at it. Being a female “junior” was always awkward. I was Baby Sheila or Little Sheila for most of my life. So in addition to carrying my mother’s first name, I am burdened with the name Forrest. For me, it has always been a heavy load.
As a child I was irrationally afraid of parties. I’d stand on a front porch wearing my party dress and carrying a brightly wrapped gift, terrified that the door would open and I’d be told that the party was “next week” or already over. Often I refused to budge from the car until I saw other kids arriving. Whenever I gave a party, I was always afraid no one would come. Neither thing ever happened—until recently.
I didn’t realize what a daunting task it would be when I decided to write my very first blog in October on the topic of breast cancer. The original idea came from a celebratory place—on Friday, September 28, I had my yearly diagnostic mammogram and was declared cancer free. I am now a 10 year survivor—which puts me in the 82nd percentile of women who make it this long.
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