Monday, November 1, 2010

What about Mom?

In the piece below, Billy Malanga writes about his experience of managing an adult child-aging mother relationship. He acknowledges how the complicated present is composed of layers of past experiences as well as present expectations and even disappointments.

It has been said that our inner consciousness is cognizant of its own will. [Schopenhauer]. But that will does not arise in a vacuum. It is born in our earliest communions. These relationships lay a foundation for the adults we will become. Yet, as good as our first relationships may be, separation is inevitable. And this is not without a high cost. Our own mothers walk ahead of us, walk too fast, and forget us from time to time. They have lives to lead, right? The only mystery is that we expect it to be different. [Marilynne Robinson].

Essentially, we begin our lives with a loss according to Judith Viorst, the loss of the warmth and comfort and protection of the womb. Once outside their bodies, our mothers still interposes themselves between us and the surrounding world. In this early vulnerable period, there will be no greater need than that of our mother.

Given this early connection, why do I feel a void, a dark ocean swirling with the waves in the present? Don't misunderstand me, I know my mother, feel her love and appreciate the imposition of her structural order [i.e., she excels as Suzy homemaker] however; there is a disconnect, a lack of understanding, and very little communion. Why? I have asked myself this question on numerous occasions.

In spite of questions, time continues to pass us by, moving, like a car passing on the highway, the orange glow of taillights slowly disappearing in the dark. When I was an infant, my mother would rub my sweaty forehead at night when I had a fever or bad cold. It was sweet, loving. Those times are long gone, those feelings are numb. George Santayana once said, "Waking life is a dream controlled." The dream is jumbled now, the memories dim and faltering.

Do we always grow out of this attachment and let go? We gain wisdom and experience that can help us understand and accept the different chapters of our life, each with their imperfections. Sigmund Freud wrote of the Oedipus complex as a universal and inborn struggle. I remember looking at my mother when I was a boy but any feelings of jealousy or internal drama have been long repressed. No one was in the way, so I did not have to compete for her attention in that way, but it was always at a distance. She was attentive to her motherly duties but never really accessible for deep emotional connection. This may explain to a certain extent the distance we experience to date. I suspect that the loss I experienced was not the normative loss Judith Viorst explained but a deeper chasm.

In his novel Pincher Martin, William Golding writes "Eternity, inseparable from pain was there to be examined and experienced.” The pain of this loss is there, it is part of my day, but I must keep moving, breathing, loving, and working. It is there, rearing its head when things are quiet. I see others close to their mothers, and I wonder what it would be like to experience that kind of connection, without the mask.

But in the reality of the present, I accept the nothingness that stares at me. I do not know the answer yet- perhaps I never will. As I peer inward now and then, pictures of my mother materialize as though shrouded in mist. This is part of life. Time continues to pass us by; that car has moved on down this highway … orange taillights strangely comforting.

Malanga struggles with a topic familiar to most adults, from those just making their way into adult independence to middle-aged boomers fully engaged in their parents’ transition to dependence. In a 2009 article in the journal Psychology of Aging, researchers Birditt, Miller, Fingerman, and Lefkowitz report that tensions between adult-children and their parents are common. They also replicate past work that has noted adult- children often report higher tensions with mothers compared to fathers. Other research has reported closer relationships between mothers and their adult children, leading to more contact and the possibility of more tension and conflict. Clearly, Malanga is not alone as he makes sense of the past and moves into the future.

The relationship between his mother and him may not be all that he wants, but Malanga’s acceptance of ambivalence is one that portends continued exploration and growth.

This entry submitted by guest blogger,Billy Malanga with commentary by Angela Wiley

Monday, October 25, 2010


I have been thinking about pain. Maybe I’ve been thinking about it because I have been experiencing it. For at least two months, I have had a deep persistent burning ache in my left shoulder. I can’t sleep on my left side. When walking my 8 pound dog, I now only use the right arm to hold the leash. (In my defense, she is quite a handful.)

A tear? I doubt it.

Tendinitis or bursitis? Maybe.

A tweaked nerve? Who knows.

Simple rotting of middle-aged tissues? This strikes me as a distinct possibility.

Over the last twenty years of committed physical activity, a number of minor inconveniences have peppered my day-to-day. Sesamoiditis in my foot. Some floaties in my knee, apparently leftover from my exploits in the womb, which required a little scoping. The garden variety of pulls and strains. Most have cleared up on their own.

As I recently considered making an appointment with my doctor, I came upon Ron Siegel’s chapter (in The Mindfulness Solution) entitled “Beyond Managing Symptoms: Transforming Pain and Stress-Related Medical Problems.” His major point is that pain has at least two components: the physical and the mental/emotional. The two are tightly entwined. I KNEW this… but reading it in the midst of my personal experience made it more real.

Sometimes, Siegel says, pain begins as a physical insult to the body. In many cases, a second insult is to the mind as the injured begins to overlay the physical experience with some gymnastics inside the mind (such as interpretation and fear and dread). This, then, feeds back into the body, contributing to tension and tightening and protecting. A cycle begins that can extend the reach of the original injury.

This resonated with me. I walked by a large glass window the other day and secretly surveyed myself. (You know you do it, too). I was struck by how my left should appeared hunched up, almost to my ear. I tried to relax it but when this failed, I realized that I needed to use my right hand to push my shoulder down. This, of course, hurt. Immediately, I felt fear sidle up, like an old rival (I thought "how long will this continue?" "will it last forever?" "am I doomed?"). As I wallowed in the fear, my shoulder began creeping its way back toward my ear lobe.

Siegel notes that many people begin to favor their painful part, using it less and less until it begins to atrophy. The physical pain and the psychological pain meld together into one conglomeration that is no longer subject to rationality. He argues that healing often involves pushing through pain (once given the doctor’s all clear) to regain physical mobility and circulation. Healing requires some discomfort.

I can’t help but draw a parallel to other areas of my life. Soft, painful parts, not in my body but in my psyche. Parts that I hide and built thick walls to protect from discomfort. I am not sure how my shoulder nor my tender emotional parts are going to react to some tough love. But something has to change.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Intentional Mindfulness

Intentional mindfulness.

Repetitive? Maybe, but given my tendency to veer off any path into the distraction offered by underbrush, the notion bears repeating. I have found myself so far in the thicket at times that I have met Goldilocks, coming and going. I am studying mindfulness as a way to ground myself more in the present moment and address the anxiety that has plagued me in all of my memory.

In his book “The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems," Dr. Ronald Siegel explores a definition of "mindfulness." Drawing on ancient Buddhist teachings as well as more contemporary thought, he lays out the pillars of mindfulness. Each of these has personal meaning for me.

Awareness: Much of what happens around me is out of my sphere of consciousness. The wind moving the leaves outside my window does not exist for me until I bring it into awareness.

Attention: Once I am aware of the wind, I may attend to it, drawing it into my senses… watching it with my eyes, smelling it as I open the window, feeling it brush across my skin. I must focus my attention on the “now.”

Remembering: As part of mindfulness, “remembering” involves gently bringing the awareness and attention back to the present moment. As I watch the leaves dance in the wind, my mind is likely to wander as I notice the itch on my knee, then realize that I need to shave my legs, then find myself distracted by my need to clean the bathroom… wind and tree long forgotten.

Acceptance/non-judgment: Siegel reminds me that an attitude of acceptance toward my experiences contributes to wellness and harmony. He believes that acceptance is the heart of mindfulness. In my example, when I am experiencing the wind in the present moment and my knee begins to itch, I can scratch it gently then return to the moment. I can acknowledge the thought that I need to shave my legs then let it go. Without criticizing myself for my inexcusable lapse of hygiene.

My example is trivial, of course. That said, I have a budding awareness of my unawareness, and it is vast. (I attempt to type that in the least judgmental way possible.) I spend the majority of my time skating from one experience to another with very little attention to anything in the present moment for more than a millisecond. And I am the Queen of Criticism. Self-acceptance is a foreign language to me, probably one of those with tonal nuances or mysterious clicks.

In reading Siegel’s book, along with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” I am struck by their discussion of mindfulness practice. I am a little relieved, too, since practice might mean that perfection is not expected. I am coming to believe that I must intentionally cultivate mindfulness.

I am still learning. I am exploring meditation, journaling, and relevant reading. I have integrated yoga into my typically more self-punishing forms of exercise. While still evolving, I have a feeling that I am on to something here. The next time I find myself in one of my briar patches (metaphorically or on my legs), I hope to be a little more mindful.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reflections from an Adopted Adult

While it’s likely that as long as man, woman and child have walked this earth there has been some form of adoption taking place. Children separated from their parents usually found themselves with adults who wanted them for love, labor, or property. Adoption, as we know it today, frequently a means to deal with infertility, is a fairly modern phenomena. When we look at today’s adoption triad – birth parents, child and adoptive parents, we find they all have in common “a sense of loss.” The birth parents’ and child’s loss of each other is obvious, but often overlooked, or at least less talked about, is the loss adoptive parents experience through their infertility. Resolution is not quick, nor easy.

Adoption is not merely an “event” that takes place in the life of a person, or family, but rather a “process” that evolves throughout the life span. Being adopted means something very different to a four-year-old child, adopted at birth and never having resided with her birth parents, than it does to the same child, twelve years later when she’s trying to figure out, as all adolescents do, “Who am I? Where did those ‘ears’ come from? Who do I look like? Why didn’t they keep me?” Into adulthood – dating, marrying, parenting, other questions may arise. Society, in the form of friends, spouses, in-laws, Oprah, Reader’s Digest and a plethora of other sources tell us we should be curious, we should look for answers. Well meaning friends have dramatic stories to share about their cousin’s wife’s neighbor who . . .

Like most important decisions in life, timing and readiness are crucial. For some, they can’t recall a day they haven’t thought about seeking out their past, others may be startled by a revelation that comes from out of the blue, “I’m going to do it,” and yet many feel no desire to dig in their past.

Following is an essay written by Don Conklin who shares his thoughts on the topic of having grown up in foster care and then being adopted.

My reflections as an adopted adult . . .

A recent post concerning my adoption prompted Angela to ask me if I would elaborate on my experience with foster care and adoption. This is a relatively easy task since this has been an internal monologue of mine for some years. I often receive questions regarding adoption and people inevitably ask, “Did you ever think you wanted to look up your biological parents?” Or the question is asked in a more awkward and inaccurate way by using the words, “real parents.” Angela did not ask this question at all, which I found very refreshing, and so I agreed.

I would like to begin by making a clear distinction between biological parents and adopted parents. Often the most significant distinction between the two is that of a conscious choice. Adoption is the ultimate expression of Planned Parenthood. You don’t need a license to be a biological parent but you do need to go through several visitations, background screening and several interviews if you want to be an adopted parent. This of course is not to speak poorly of biological parents. After all I am now a biological parent, and although I have made my share of mistakes, I feel more than prepared for the tasks at hand.

I should also mention that I was one of four siblings put up for adoption at the same time. This indicates to me that something happened that was unexpected. Could have been spouse abandonment, poverty or any other form of domestic crisis that initiated the decision to make us wards of the state. I have never faulted my biological mother’s decision to put us up for adoption. I believe she acted in our best interest and it was a tremendously unselfish thing to do. I am not sure I could make such a tremendously heroic decision, if placed in the same position.

I should also point out that there are different types of foster parents. There are those who feel lead to be foster parents out of gratitude for what they have and they want to share their

family with someone who needs one. Then there are those who do it as a source of income with little consideration, effort or accountability. My sister and I had the second type. They were not deliberately cruel, from what I can remember, and have been told. If anything, they were just neglectful and inconsiderate. We stayed with this family for four years which as I am told is a long time for foster care. Perhaps we were low maintenance and a good source of income. Neither my sister nor I thrived from the care provided by our foster parents. My sister had to repeat kindergarten due to absences. Our foster mother would keep my sister home to clean up around the house. A notable curiosity was that I was thought to have a speech impediment and was sent to a speech therapist after we were adopted. It was discovered that my language skills were learned from listening to my foster father who did have a speech impediment. This was quickly outgrown after my adoption.

One of the stories my adopted mother tells is that of when we first came to live with them we would eat continuously at breakfast. We would each finish four and five bowls of oats cereal. Our new Mother explained, “You can eat more at lunch time,” to which my sister replied, “You mean we will eat again today?” Both of us had the distended bellies of malnutrition seen in third world countries. It wasn’t due to lack of food but rather from poor nutrition, so we were told.

There was a caveat about our adoption that caused me some concern for a number of years. I discovered that my adopted parents had originally wanted only a daughter but changed there their mind after a call from Catholic Charities adoption agency. Sister Margaret (I can’t believe I still remember the name) informed them that they would have to take us both or neither. Apparently in the absence of my sister (who was on overnight visitations with our prospective parents) I had some terrible tantrums, nightmares and bed wetting. My foster parents contacted the agency and reported the behavior and said it was either both or neither. Was this an act of compassion on behalf of our foster parents or was it a desire to have peace and quiet again? I tend to think it was a bit of both.

We did not discover that we had another brother and sister until several years later. My father knew we had a brother and sister somewhere in Ohio and he even knew their last name. This he apparently learned from the lawyer during our adoption process. Dad received a promotion and a consequent transfer to this same town in Ohio, when I was around the age of six, I believe. He stopped at a phone booth and looked up the last name that he had learned from the lawyer. As fate would have it there were only two names listed in the phone book that matched. He called and after a few awkward moments requested that we get together some time. It was agreed and we met our brother and sister soon after.

Our correspondence over the years has been off and on again which I can only assume is true for most brothers and sisters. Each one of us has had to deal with our own demons over the years. Some of my issues provide substantial questions regarding the debate of environment vs. heredity. Are personality traits learned behavior (environment) or are they due to heredity? This is like wondering how the pig got stuck in the mud. It doesn’t matter how it got stuck in the mud you just got to get the darn thing out.

I use to be fond of saying that I came from a dysfunctional family but one day I realized that I was the dysfunction in my family. I learned new phrases such as, “fear of abandonment,” “emotionally unavailable,” “blocking,” and many other words and phrases trying to understand my adult relationship challenges. All of this information I learned about me I documented and shared with a trusted friend. The solution to these issues could be represented with the analogy of the man standing in water up to his shoulders holding a rock as he watches in panic as the water rises. He says, “I am drowning.” The obvious solution is, “Let go of the rock!” Sounds easy enough but when you have held onto something for a long time, even though it is harmful to you, it can be difficult to let go of it. It has become a part of you for better, or for worse.

Just realizing that the issues exist was a huge benefit to me. These challenges have not all disappeared but are instead things that I am aware of about myself and when I see them surface I know what they are and how to respond. Some negative responses have disappeared completely, because they were defense mechanisms. They are no longer needed since I no longer put myself in positions where I feel I need to defend myself.

The hope in all of this is that sometimes great things come from bad situations. If not for these experiences I would have never have been placed with my, "real parents." Best wishes as we all trudge the road of happy destiny.

This entry submitted by guest blogger, Don Conklin.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wellness Stimulus Package

We all have co-workers who show up regularly but who demonstrate less than predictable productivity. Have you ever felt like knocking on their head, peering into their ear, and asking "Is there anyone home in there?" Maybe they need a "Wellness Stimulus Package." When things are stressful outside of work, attention and energy can be compromised at work and at home. Let's face it, in these uncertain economic times, who isn't stressed?If you are working: Be sure to take time to take care of yourself. Worry can take a toll on your physical and emotional health. Invest some time in doing things that renew you and don't drain your bank account. How about a walk? A visit to the library to borrow a book, a DVD, or some music? If you've lost your job: There are many others in your shoes. Reach out for support. Stay in touch with people who inspire you and bring you up. And remember to stay healthy in body and mind as you look for new work. If you are an employer or supervise others: It is crucial to pay attention to the wellness of your employees at times like these. Anxiety about job or financial stability or problems at home can seriously compromise your work force and your bottom line. Make sure those who make your business work know that you are invested in their well being, at work and beyond. Intentional Harmony and its partners are committed to the well-being of working people. We provide support in the workplace or self-study options. Contact us for tailored, affordable, and proven solutions to work-life management challenges. Our "Wellness Stimulus Package" really works!

Wellness must be protected especially when the economic environment is uncertain.

This entry submitted by Angela Wiley.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Mental Diet

I like to listen to the radio while working. My favorite station is “streamed” from out of state because it’s in the same city where our two sons live. It’s a great way of staying connected with them and their environs. I hear about their weather, their traffic tie ups, and listen to what they’re listening to. I just heard the morning host make the following comment, “We not only are, what we eat, but also what we think.” What a simple statement, but certainly one to make us pause. Living in our “diet conscious culture,” a day doesn’t go by that we’re not reminded of what and how to eat, but seldom do I hear about our mind’s diet.

What we eat enters our body through our mouth, but think of all the other influences, the external stimulants in our world that we see, hear, feel and touch. How do they affect, inspire, influence us, and who we are?

So what are some of these influences? Well, lots. How about what we read, what we listen to -- be it music, news, TV, talk radio, our colleagues, friends, family, neighbors. And how about ourselves? How often do we truly listen to our own thoughts, our own body?

Years ago, in my early 20’s, along with a few friends I signed up for a yoga class. Following the stretches and postures we would close each class with meditation. Self-consciously my friends and I sat in the circle and silently went through the actions but not truly getting into the spirit of meditation. Older and wiser, I’m now ready to consider giving it another try.

Based on the following article,
evidence from an impressive group of researchers from some of the leading institutions in the world have found that a serious effort at meditation can physically change the brain, leading to reduced stress, better mental focus, and possibly fewer effects from aging.

"One of the most important domains meditation acts upon is emotional intelligence — a set of skills far more consequential for life success than cognitive intelligence," says Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin.Davidson.

If I’m looking for proof, there it is. So, what am I waiting for?

This entry submitted by guest blogger, Cathy Colbert Inman

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Nurturing Nature

Recently, I have been pained to see Illinois’ natural resources on the chopping block of politics.

Ever since I was a child, I have loved being outdoors. There is something soothing to me in the smell of the earth and the multiple shades of green in the canopy of leaves as I lay back. I seem to think better in nature, and I am not alone. I took my daughter and her girl scout troop on a camping trip to an Illinois park a couple of years ago, and I watched in amazement as my girls bloomed and became almost inseparable from the natural world around them.

Across a number of disciplines, researchers have conclusively demonstrated that “conservation can now be viewed as a public health strategy” (Frumkin & Louv, 2007). Contact with nature is related to lower depression, better immune system functioning, lower levels of ADHD behaviors in children, and a host of other benefits. Colleagues and I did some work in the 1990s demonstrating that contact with even small patches of nature is related to more positive functioning for residents of inner city housing complexes. We learned that nature has important benefits for people in their everyday lives across the lifespan, from young children to their grandparents. These studies and many others show that nature isn’t simply part of the background of human existence but is an important thread in the foreground.

What can you do to tap into the benefits of nature for you and those you love?

Spend time outdoors as often as possible. Find enjoyable activities that you can do outside. Some may be solitary activities (reading on a bench, walking, meditating, fishing) while others might integrate others (hiking with a loved one in a state park, sharing a picnic beneath a beautiful tree, playing a game of croquet on your lawn). Protect your skin from the elements, but soak up your daily dose of nature.

Find a place close to your home where you can enjoy nature. Having nature near your home will allow easy access when you have time. You can drop by on the spur of the moment sometimes, maybe when you need a boost.

Plan inexpensive trips to state parks and public natural areas. These make great vacation destinations that can turn our focus away from materialism and toward enjoyment of the environment.

Given the large body of evidence, it is clear that access to nature is the birthright of each of us. We do not have to have a second home on an exclusive wooded lake. The parks that are maintained by our federal government, states, and municipalities are a relatively low-cost investment in our present and future wellbeing. Let’s make use of these resources!
This entry was submitted by Angela Wiley.