Maria’s Musings & Advice: Happy Birthday, Baby

Dear Readers,

This week marks the first birthday of this little advice column. Thanks to my faithful readers and writers, we’ve made it this far! You’ve humored me, guided me, encouraged me, and danced with me. We’ve made our way through layoffs, loss, teens, and retirement. You’ve trusted me with things you’re not proud of, and people you can’t stand. We’ve sung from Broadway to the Monkees and Amy Grant and back to the Beatles. Launching an advice column takes some kinda hubris. One year later, I can tell you this: We’re in this together, and everyone is doing the best they can with the light they have. I hope my columns have brought some light and music to your life.

I have a simple favor to ask: if you enjoy a column of mine, or find it helpful, insightful (or full of it), please share it with friends. The columns are posted on my Facebook page, and on Twitter. And, you can receive the column via email when you sign up on my website. Please help me spread the word, and by all means, send a question! It doesn’t have to be yours…”for a friend” will work!

In honor of the occasion, let’s revisit a few questions from that very first column. I’m taking this week off! If you sent in one of these questions, or one from another column, please send me a note with an update.

Dear Maria,

I am a teacher by trade, but presently live in a state where I’m not rewarded for my experience and education. I am mother of a five and six year old, and have been writing for quite a while. I have been published online and have a blog. I need to contribute an income to my family, but when I get stressed, I can’t focus on writing. Advice? How to balance reality of paying bills while pursuing my real interest?

Signed,

Fit to Print

Dear Fit,

All writers share your dilemma!

The most important thing about writing is to keep writing. It’s easy to set it aside to focus on “more important” things, like taking care of a young family. We think we’ll write better if we’re not so stressed. The truth is, writing is part of the process of life. It needs to be a priority and to be attended to on a regular basis. Find a slot of time every day to write, and then fiercely protect that time. You may need to get up a little earlier or stay up later, but the personal gratification will more than compensate.

Next, keep submitting material anywhere you can get published. Being a writer in the internet era is very tough because so much content is free. We end up giving away way more stuff than we would have in the old days of publications with paid advertising. That model has been smashed by the internet…note the decline in newspapers. The good news is that you can communicate directly with your readers. You might try this site: http://www.freedomwithwriting.com/  for paid writing opportunities.

Building your writing gig takes time, and you need some income in the near term. Perhaps part-time opportunities, like substitute teaching, a librarian, or in the field of an avocation, like at a craft store or book store or restaurant could provide some income? Many a writer has worked other jobs while pursuing their craft. I know it’s hard with little children, so your goals don’t have to be too ambitious. The key is to keep at it. My best successes have come through steady attention to my work. When I get discouraged and hide from the world, I lose what momentum I had. Hang in there, and good luck!

Dear Maria,

In a couple of months my beloved youngest daughter will be graduating from college. Her major was fine arts so it may take her some time to get established and earn an income that will allow her to support herself.  She will most likely be moving back home with her father and I, at least for a while. As that day gets closer I find that I am feeling uneasy about integrating her back into the household.  The idea of nagging my now adult daughter to do the dishes and pick up after herself is not pleasant but I am afraid that we will quickly fall back into our old roles as parent and child. I don’t want to be a nag or a martyr.  What can I do to keep this homecoming a happy one?

Signed,

Mom, not a Maid

Dear Mom,

Ah, the joys of a clean, empty nest! It’s hard to see the offspring fly away, but the calm that follows is delightful. How wise you are to avoid slipping back into old family patterns when she comes home to roost. Congratulations on raising a bright and creative daughter, who has chosen a challenging and rewarding career. So treat her as such. After the homecoming festivities, have a conversation about your expectations for her stay. She is an adult, and will have to negotiate living with others throughout her life—roommates, spouses, travel companions—and will be expected to hold up her end of the deal. Be clear with her about the deal now. Your conversation will model a good way to approach these situations. Start by telling her you’re proud of her, and that you expect her to behave as the accomplished person she is. Holding the highest good for others generally brings out the best in them, and is far more effective than nagging. Let your actions and words communicate how you see her: as an accomplished, capable adult. And, resist the temptation to pick up after her. (As a mother, I tend to do too much for my kids—I think I’m loving them by relieving them of chores. But, as a wise parent once told me: We do our children no favors when we do for them what they can do for themselves.) If her mess gets in your way, call her on it. Refer back to what she agreed to during your talk. Remember: we want our chickadees out of the nest, and a too-comfortable one is hard to leave!

Dear Maria,

My challenge is that my husband of 50+ years is showing signs of confusion while driving.  He used to be the expert on directions, but now it seems we are making a lot of U-turns! On our last driving excursion he ran over a curb, changed lanes without a blinker (or left the blinker on for miles), and ran a stop sign.  How the other driver was able to stop in time was a true miracle.

How can I approach him about his driving being questionable? I am quite sure my observations will be a shock to him.  Thank you for your wisdom.

Signed,

SOS from Shotgun

Dear Shotgun,

Hide the keys! Hide your eyes! I understand your reluctance to talk with your husband. He values his independence, and any threat to it will be greeted with resistance and maybe even denial. Find a time to talk frankly with your husband about your concerns, and soon. Your letter is a great place to start the conversation, as you’ve listed several examples of his erratic driving. Is there anyone else in your family, or among your trusted friends, who has witnessed his driving? Perhaps they would be willing to talk with him, too. No matter how he responds, remain calm. Assure him that this conversation needs to take place before the police get involved, or anyone gets hurt. I also recommend sharing your concerns with his doctor. If there are changes in his driving ability, he’s likely affected in other ways, so some testing may be in order. When my own mother faced this situation, part of the process of giving up her keys was consulting her doctor. The doctor wisely replied: “If you’re asking me this question, then it probably is time.”  Your husband might hear the advice of a third, professional party better than from family or friends. In the meantime, try taking the wheel, or riding with friends.

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Singin’ the Nonprofit Blues

Dear Maria,

I’ve worked for a nonprofit organization for a number of years. The former organization president now volunteers with our organization. Unfortunately, he is meddling in current organization work, while also serving on the board of a competing organization. He acts like he is still the president, and that others should do what he says. No one has the guts to tell him to go away. He doesn’t always win, but his interference slows us down and makes our work harder. The current president doesn’t want to confront his behavior. So all of us in the middle — staff, other board members, volunteers — have to deal with the dysfunction. Any suggestions?

Signed,

We All Mean Well

Dear We All Mean Well,

Nonprofits are a strange animal. (Not that for-profits are any more functional.) There’s an interesting dynamic with nonprofits: everyone is dedicated to the organization’s mission, but egos or power struggles get in the way. I’ve worked in the both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. In some ways, the for-profit sector was more honest: personal goals of money, power, or popularity were obvious. In nonprofits, those drives are hidden behind dedication to the mission, religiosity, or portraying oneself as the suffering servant. I’d venture to say that your former organization’s president likes to believe that he is helping, to be honored as a wisdom figure, and to take credit for successes. He just can’t help himself from dabbling in his former organization while he’s serving the new one. It’s astounding that he can’t see it’s a conflict of interest. Lots of behaviors are excused when we’re “serving” the “good of the organization.”

It takes a special mix of dedication to the mission, and managerial savvy, to be successful in nonprofit leadership. Most people possess one or the other—not both. I don’t think your former president fits the bill, either. Your letter says you’d like to see some change, but don’t know how to bring it about. I don’t know what your position is within the organization, so you may have minimal influence on the outcome. Sometimes, survival is as simple as waiting for the issue to go away.

For starters, keep a discreet file of circumstances where this former president has overstepped his bounds. Though many people within your organization are aware of this behavior, it still needs to be documented. Depending on your position within the organization, present these findings to the current president. The documentation might support your current president in this difficult conversation. If the current president does not act on this evidence, you, at the very least, have the peace of mind of knowing that you presented your case. I spent most of my career in a nonprofit setting, and it’s often difficult for these organizations to grab the reins and make healthy choices. You didn’t mention if this former president is a major donor to the organization? This too would influence the current president’s reluctance to confront the issue.

If you are in a position of influence within the organization — Executive Director, executive committee of the board, etc. — you might propose that the board engage in a board development process. This is where an outside consultant facilitates an evaluation process, and gives feedback on how the board is functioning, including recommendations on improved operations within the board, and in the board’s interaction with the staff. This process shines a light on areas that need improvement, and gives the board members an objective standard by which to initiate systemic changes and articulate measurable results. If you’re not able to influence this process, then you may want to dust off your resume. Take the edge off with a visit to http://nonprofitwithballs.com/

In the meantime, return to your signature line whenever you feel frustrated. No matter the intentions of the individual, they are involved with the organization because they share a desire to see its mission fulfilled. There’s the vision, and the on-the=ground reality of working toward it. We bring our human limitations to every aspect of our work. And that complicates things! When you witness and struggle with the dysfunction in your organization’s system, remind yourself that everybody means well. They’re doing the best they can.

I’m afraid I don’t have much more to offer than that. Readers: What say you about our letter writer’s predicament?

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: A Pep Talk for a Bored Worker

Dear Maria,

I need a pep talk about work.

I am a writer at a university. The work flow is feast or famine. I’ve hit the famine phase of the cycle. I don’t do well with boredom. What little work I do have I can’t find the motivation to do because once it’s done, then what?

I need this job and am determined to achieve the tuition benefit for my daughter, so leaving the job isn’t an option I’m willing to consider.

Sincerely,

Uninspired on the Job

Dear Uninspired on the Job,

You’re not alone. Here’s a quote from a wise job-hunting, career-finding guru:

“There is a vast world of work out there in this country, where at least 111 million people are employed in this country alone–many of whom are bored out of their minds. All day long. Not for nothing is their motto TGIF — ‘Thank God It’s Friday.’ They live for the weekends, when they can go do what they really want to do.” ― Richard Nelson Bolles

His “What Color is Your Parachute?” series is my go-to reference for career advice. He updates it annually; check it out for great inspiration, especially his section on “Finding Your Mission in Life”. In your current position, you say your work is boring, versus describing it as soul-sucking or demeaning. Sadly, it only take a few drinks to hear these complaints from some folks. It also sounds like you are feeling pretty engaged in your work when there’s plenty to do, but the boredom comes during the slow times. So, in the meantime…

Here’s your pep talk:

You are beautiful. You are talented. You bring great gifts to this organization which will help it succeed. You are bright and inquisitive. You strive to improve your lot in life. Good for you! Your work environment shows your success. Our ancestors labored to provide higher education for us. With that education, you’ve crafted a career and lifestyle that allows you to identify yourself as a writer, as well as extend the gifts of past generations on to the next. Keep it up! Your work is so important in today’s world. The world needs strong, thoughtful, sensitive wordsmiths to communicate ideas and create connection with others. Don’t approach any project as “Just-a Project”: just a press release, just a thank you note, just a cover letter, just an article, just a report, just an email. In every instance, putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard initiates an opportunity for two or more people to connect. Your work is, at its deepest level, a sacred trust. (If you believe in prayer and angels, you might invite Archangel Gabriel, the patron saint of communicators, to be with you in your projects.) Do you write for pleasure? If not, get started. Put on your novelist glasses and observe the quirks in your coworkers, and the inherit ridiculousness of the institution. Consider your office work as a writer’s strength-training and maintenance program. It keeps your skills sharp. Work-writing and home-writing can feed each other. Find something to be grateful for in every moment: the feel of your favorite pen in your hand, the music in your headset, a warm cup of coffee, the coworker who makes you laugh. Your work world is a great resource for the “other” work, which happens on the weekends, as Bolles says, when we get to do what we really want to do. Hang in there. The feast will return. Savor the famine and its hidden gifts.

Some other strategies:

  • Get away from your desk at least once a day. Don’t eat your lunch there, either! Eat healthy foods to avoid that sleepy, sluggish feeling.
  • In every office, there are projects that are important, but not urgent, so they drift to the back burner or the bottom of the To-Do List. Keep track of new ideas and projects like these to tackle during downtime. Make a brief proposal to your boss to complete these projects, including a plan for implementation. This shows initiative and creativity, and may evolve into opportunities for more engaging work. Also, higher education is changing in dramatic ways. In the coming years, the organization, and your work, may change significantly. Make yourself indispensable by making the most of your downtime.
  • Keep an eye out for positions of interest in other departments. You may be able to change jobs within the institution.

Tuition for your child is a great benefit. Welcome to adult-ing. There is a sweet satisfaction that comes when one’s purpose in life shifts from providing for oneself to creating opportunities for our children. But, it doesn’t mean you must sacrifice your own fulfillment along the way. A parent with a meaningful career is a great role model for a child. Show them how it’s done!

Unwritten is one song on a playlist I compiled as inspiration for writers. Maybe you’d like to add some of these songs to your workday selections! (Click the link, or visit YouTube and search “Haven Playlist” with my name.)

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Done with the griping

Dear Maria,

How do you graciously and lovingly leave a longtime group of friends when the current situations no longer interest you? We meet once a month, and it’s the same-old, same-old stuff! Gallbladders and sick husbands and politics and weight issues. Blah, blah, blah. What makes it hard is the long history. Much love and dedication and goodness there, but no one wants to grow and talk about new ideas. Yikes! And when I get with them, I notice I fall right into the trap as well. So, I’m part of the decline, too. I just don’t want to go anymore, at least not every month. What can I do?

By the way, I love your column so much. It’s always good advice and creative ideas.

Signed,

Love My Friends, Just Not the “Old” Part

Dear Love My Friends,

It’s amazing how relationships evolve, or not. There’s no way around outgrowing friendships that once fit at another time in our lives. It’s bittersweet. There’s grieving the loss of comfort and connection, coupled with excitement for the new life, insights, and perspectives we’ve discovered. We’d love to share these with our friends, but maybe they’re not at the same place? Everyone grows at their own rate, and makes their own choices in their own circumstances. Sometimes we are in sync, sometimes not.

This is a tough situation. The tone of your letter suggests that this has been building in you for a while? Do you all share a common interest, like a hobby or game? Or maybe you are alums of the same school or workplace? Whatever your connection, the conversation habit is hard to break.

Bravo to exploring new things and getting out from under the sad stuff! My husband and I know a couple who, when they go out to dinner with their friends, allow 10 minutes for everyone to talk about their health issues. They sometimes even set a timer! When time’s up, they change the subject. Facilitating one’s social life is awkward, but they’d commiserate with you. They got creative about spending time with people that they love, without rehashing sad news and griping.

Do you pick up on any signals from others who might be frustrated, too? If you think you have some allies on this issue, you might try introducing something new. Maybe change the meeting place? Or the time of day when you meet? Set a timer for venting? Reach out to those who might be feeling restless and brainstorm ideas to switch things up.

For now, how about taking a break from the group for a month or so? Make alternative plans when they intend to get together, and encourage them to meet without you. See how this break feels. If you’re relieved, or sad, or feel like you’re missing out, pay attention to your feelings. Also, there’s nothing wrong with dialing back on your commitment. A monthly meeting is a significant gift of time. Might you be comfortable suggesting that the group get together less often? Or just telling them you aren’t available to meet so often anymore? Tell them you love the group and want to stay in touch, but a monthly gathering has become too difficult to schedule. See how they respond. Your question may help others who’d like a breather, too. Maybe it is time to renegotiate the ground rules. Exploring option takes courage, but it doesn’t have to be too painful. You don’t necessarily need to tell them about your growing dissatisfaction with the group’s conversations.

If you do decide to go there, however, you might say something like: “I’m finding it more and more unpleasant at our get-togethers. It seems like all we talk about are health issues and politics. After a while, those weigh heavily on me. I’d like to talk about other things that are more uplifting. How do you all feel about that?” (Phrase your comments in “I statements”, that is, in terms of how you feel. Beginning a statement with “you” can put others on the defensive.) If there are allies in the group, this conversation will be easier than you anticipate. I have a hunch you’re not the only one in the group who feels this way. On the other hand, people don’t like getting called out on their stuff. Holding a mirror up to the group is a brave and risky thing.

The restlessness and dissatisfaction you feel is evidence of growth and new life in you! (Some thoughts on a related question are in an earlier column, which you might like to read here.) If you do indeed decide to leave this group or cut back on your time with them, I have full confidence that new opportunities will come your way. It is difficult for new things to enter our lives when it’s cluttered with what we’ve outgrown. The brave part in stepping out is that we don’t know what that new thing will be, yet. It doesn’t reveal itself to us until we take action. “Leap, and the net will appear” – John Burroughs. Good luck! And, thanks for your kind words about my column. Please share it with your friends…wouldn’t that be a conversation starter?!

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Sometimes the Question is the Answer, and St. Paddy’s Day

Dear Maria,

I read The Shack a few years ago, and in a recent discussion in a group I am in on Facebook, I said I liked the book and hoped I would like the movie, too. 3 or 4 readers posted that the book is heretical, and some offered links to reviews of the book from evangelical websites or pastors blogs. I am still on the search for what God wants me to do, and I don’t have a faith that I call my own. The book was helpful to me in that I got to imagine how Jesus could talk to me if I let Him in my life more.

I am wondering what your thoughts are on the novel, The Shack? I was raised Catholic, but am kind of in limbo (so to speak) on where I fit in the Christian worldview. I used to think in a black and white way: “Thou shall do all these things, or be damned to hell.” But, I don’t see how a merciful God would be as concerned about a book I read, more so than my response to what I got out of it. Do you think I should get rid of the book? Do you think I should avoid the movie?

Signed,

To Shack or Not to Shack

Dear To Shack or Not to Shack,

Do I think you should get rid of the book? No.

Do I think you should avoid the movie? Read some reviews before you decide.

Your experience in that online forum makes me sigh. There’s a lot of that going around these days—quick judgments from strangers. The good news is that your encounter is prompting deep questions about the materials you’re reading, and if they are of benefit to you and your spiritual life. Here are my thoughts:

I had the opportunity to work with William Paul Young, the author of The Shack in 2011. He spoke at The Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and I led a brief retreat in conjunction with his talk. I asked him about the criticism he’d received since The Shack was published, about 4 years earlier. Based on the critiques I read online at the time, I understood one concern to be that the theology behind the story in The Shack suggests that heaven is open to anyone. Including those who do not follow the Christian faith. Some do not prescribe to this open-door policy of eternal life.

Young has offered us a fictional story in The Shack. Using his imagination, he’s offered us his reflections on big issues concerning life, death, and the afterlife. While his story has sparked heated discussion, he does not offer it as a doctrinal statement on salvation. He explained that his story presents a new image and understanding of God, through the relationship of the Trinity (the Christian doctrine of three persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). He portrays these three in unconventional ways. Young’s purpose here is to make God more accessible to seekers. Young also places healing and forgiveness in the context of relationship. By depicting God as a relationship of persons, he has offered his musings on where we might find God’s grace in our own lives, as well. To me, the story reflects a profound understanding of spiritual healing in the face of great loss. Once we get past the book’s heartbreaking premise, we accompanied protagonist Mac on a marvelous journey. His entire belief system is shaken by tragedy. This is the case when trying to survive such a devastating loss. As the layers of pain and regret peel back, Mac experiences profound healing and forgiveness. The story gives me hope that, as Anne Lamott says, “Grace bats last.”

A major part of my spiritual formation has been through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order of Catholic priests and brothers. I posed a question like yours to my dear Jesuit spiritual director one day. His response came from the heart of the central teaching of Ignatian Spirituality, the Foundation and Principle. In it, we recognize that all in life is a gift from God. These gifts have the potential to either draw us into deeper relationship with God, or to move us away from God. The invitation in life is, as these gifts are presented to us, (such as The Shack book or movie), to evaluate them in light of their impact on our relationship with God. So, I ask you what my director asked me: Has your experience of this book drawn you into deeper relationship and understanding of God? Listen to your heart. Attend to your feelings. These will help to discern your answer. I would not trust an online forum to give you the understanding you seek.

The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises have been in the news recently, via the movie Silence and one of its stars, Andrew Garfield. Garfield did the exercises, and Fr. James Martin, SJ, was his director through the process. Check out this video of him discussing the film and his experience with Stephen Colbert:

As troubling as this time is, The Shack has served you by raising these questions. My humble observation: This is your call. Keep going. The answers will come.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. ― Rainer Maria Rilke

 

The Big Picture: The Contributions of Irish Americans, and the Haze of St. Paddy’s Day Revelry

By Maria Rodgers O’Rourke This column was originally published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat online, March 18, 2010

Top of the mornin’ to ya!

As the fog clears from our heads following the St. Patrick’s Day revelry, it’s fitting to take a moment and remember why we do what we do every March 17th.

Irish Americans have had a visible presence in the St. Louis area for nearly a century and a half, in urban settings and Catholic parishes.  Today, as in many major cities, most Irish Americans have migrated to the suburbs and have blended into the mainstream of American life.  The transformation from “oppressed people” to “mover and shaker” has been quite remarkable.

Lawrence McCaffrey writes: “The fact that 20th century descendants of 19th-century tenant farmers and cultural laborers have become university professors; elementary and secondary school teachers; distinguished novelist, playwrights, and poets; important figures on stage and screen; physicians; political leaders; and corporate executive officers classifies the Irish American Catholic experience as a tremendous success story.”

The rise of Irish nationalism in the U. S. has been a complicated mix of a search for identity, a cry for vengeance against the British, and a quest for respectability.  Many linked their “American destiny to the sovereignty of the homeland,” McCaffrey says.  Thus, Irish Americans have many overt expressions of Irish identity and pride.

These expressions have become key symbols of the Irish American culture, namely: the Irish Flag; St. Patrick; the shamrock; the claddaugh ring; and the “most sacred” of all rituals, the St. Patrick’s Day parade.  The Irish flag, of course, is a symbol of Irish nationalism, and is proudly displayed on many homes, tee shirts, and parade flag polls.  St. Patrick, though not a native son of Ireland, is hailed as the missionary who brought Christianity to the Druid land.  Legend holds how Patrick utilized the native-grown shamrock leaf to explain the Trinity to King Laoghaire (circa 432), converted him to Christianity, and obtained permission to preach the gospel throughout the land.

The claddaugh ring, named for the oldest fishing village of Ireland, is also a popular Irish American symbol.  Medieval in origin, the ring shows a heart and two hands clasped in friendship.  Many Irish Americans wear the ring as a symbol of their heritage, and others use it as a wedding band.

Perhaps Irish Americans are best known for their grand display of pride on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.  “No other ethnic group [in the U.S.] advertises its ethnic character” in the way the Irish do, especially with the St. Patrick’s Day parade, writes Thomas Day.  The parade has its genesis as an outward sign of the advancing status of Irish Americans in the early 20th century, and as another means to give the immigrants a heightened sense of their ethnic identity.  Organizations, such as the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), local Catholic parishes, and family groups marched in the annual parade.  Today in St. Louis the celebration continues, with two St. Patrick’s Day parades celebrated downtown last weekend and the AOH-organized parade held on the 17th.  These events are chock-full of Irish symbols, festivity and music.

Oh, the music!  The Irish’s quest for identity and the experience of loss are perhaps no more dramatically portrayed than in their music.  Irish Musician Van Morrison said: “All of Irish writing, whether it be literature or songs, is based on going away and coming back.”  He made these remarks in a PBS documentary entitled, “Danny Boy: in Sunshine or in Shadows.”  Presenting an historical and musical analysis of the famous Irish ballad, the documentary hailed “Danny Boy” as perhaps the greatest gift Ireland has given to the world.  The enduring lyrics and haunting melody capture the profound loss the Irish have experienced.  The singer shares with his /her beloved Danny Boy the great sadness of their separation, a loss so many Irish shared.  Danny, along with his fellow immigrants, must have felt complicated contradictory emotions –hope for the future in America, and sorrow for the land and family left behind.

This past week Danny’s descendants and gangs of honorary Irish joined the festivities—a remarkable mix of pride, passion, and a great excuse for a drink. In the haze of green beer, tacky beads and slurred sing-alongs, let’s hope we haven’t lost sight of the faith, resilience and accomplishments that were cause for celebration in the first place.

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Get Me Outta Here

Dear Maria,

I just quit a job that didn’t work out. I got along great with my customers, but not my coworkers. I didn’t feel supported by them, and when I tried to work things out with my boss, he didn’t back me up. I hung in as long as I could, but eventually realized that the situation was not going to change. I was way too stressed, and it was affecting my health.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have another job lined up. I’m single, and have some savings, so it’s not super urgent that I have another paycheck right away. What do I tell people who ask me what I’m doing next? I’m angry at my coworkers. If they ask, I imagine telling them off. Plus, I hate leaving my customers with this crew. So, it’s hard to say good things about the company. I mean, if it’s a good company, they why am I leaving? Can you help me?

Signed,

Get Me Outta Here

Dear Get Me Outta Here,

I’m sorry your job is ending on a sour note.

This in-between time is tricky in job transitions. I totally get the temptation to tell your coworkers what you really think. Wouldn’t it be great to make a dramatic exit with no repercussions? Our big screen alter egos get to:

Though satisfying in the moment, you’ll regret it eventually. Practically speaking, you might cross paths with one of these folks again, or worse yet, need their recommendation/approval/referral in the future.

I recommend taking a light, noncommittal approach. Is there an aspect of your industry that you’d like to pursue further? Tell them you’re interested in that. When they ask, your reply can go something like this: “I’m looking forward to seeing how an offer in the (blank) field will play out.” Period. Sometimes, we over-explain ourselves because we don’t want to look like we don’t know what we’re doing. Are you concerned they’ll judge you for not having another job lined up? Cut that loose and be grateful you don’t have to rush into the next one. (A lot of folks don’t have that option.) Be upbeat, but mysterious. You owe them nothing except politeness. Same for your customers. The way you represent your company, even one that let you down like this, is an extension of how you present yourself. Smile through your disappointment, and avoid the temptation to get snarky.

Readers: How have you handled leaving a job that didn’t work out? Share your suggestions for our LW in a comment.

Some unsolicited advice: Don’t take too long to start networking again. Your pride may be wounded from this episode. The truth is, you have experience that’s of value to prospective employers. Rest, recuperate, and get back in the game. Identify the aspects of your work that you enjoy, and focus on opportunities that will allow you to do them. Talk to people who are doing what you’d like to do. Move forward with confidence, and the right opportunity will open up for you. Good luck!

In the meantime, think of a little reward you can give yourself for making it through each of your last days. Meet a friend for happy hour? Catch a movie? Get a massage? Make a playlist of your favorite goodbye songs and crank ’em on the way home. Get your head in a good place, and the busybodies won’t bug you so much.

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: No trivial regret

question marksDear Maria,

I LOVE to attend trivia nights and go to many of them throughout the year with the same team. We are fairly good: we have won some, were middle-of-the-road for others, and most importantly, we have a BLAST! Last week we attended a trivia night at a Catholic Church. One of our regular team members could not attend and one of our table regulars invited her niece to join in. (The niece was about 15 years younger than all the rest of us at the table.) All was well until my friend sitting next to me noticed the “new gal” cheating by looking up the answers on her phone. My friend did not bring it to my attention until midway through the game, at about the same point when I noticed the cheating, too.

I know I should have said something to her, but didn’t want to cause a scene. Obviously, my other friend didn’t want to cause a scene either, so it was never mentioned. I feel terrible now for not doing anything about it. I feel like I did the cheating as well by not confronting her on the spot. I know I need to confront her, but I don’t have her contact info so would need to go through someone else to get it. It is eating at me. I can go to confession and get this off of my heart, but how should I handle this? Part of me wants to let it go so as not to hurt the family members at the table.

Signed,

My Cheating Heart

Dear My Cheating Heart,

Oh, there’s plenty of guilt to go around. Don’t carry more than your share.

That was quite a stunt the niece pulled. Cheating takes the fun out of the competition. Unless winning is everything. Then, I guess she was enjoying herself. Whatever. If alcohol was permitted, she had to have been 21 to play. She should have known better.

Smart_phone_clip_artWhat’s up with the aunt? Giving the niece the benefit of the doubt, we might suppose that she didn’t know onsite research via cell phone was not allowed. Or, maybe, as the youngest at the table, she felt intimidated and the phone boosted her confidence. Pshaw. It was up to her aunt, a team regular, to tell her to put the phone away. The silence was tacit approval.

The folks hosting the trivia night also dropped the ball. They’re all volunteers, but there still should have been enough eyes on the tables to guard against anyone tapping into a lifeline. Granted, it’d be tough to see: the tables are crammed with snacks and 8-10 people, elbow-to-elbow, with hardly space between tables to squeeze by. An honest contest, however, is crucial. Any hint of foul play or unfair advantage spoils the game and sullies the host. If this church hopes for a good turnout at a future trivia night, they better clean up their act.

Last, but not least, your team allowed the cheating to go on for the entire game. At least two of you saw it and did nothing. This is an example of groupthink. According to Psychology Today, “Groupthink occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation.” In the interest of not making a scene, no one spoke up. One of you could have taken the aunt aside during a break. Or, those sitting closest to the “new gal” might have asked her to stop. In short, the collective silence ruined the night.

I was unconscious, half-asleep
The water is warm till you discover how deep
I wasn’t jumping, for me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all – Stuck in a Moment, U2

Reading your letter on a computer screen in my quiet office, it’s easy to judge. But, I know the stress you must have felt that night. (FULL DISCLOSURE: My husband and I love trivia nights, too. They can be disorganized, loud, messy events. I often serve as team scribe. Oy, the pressure!) For you, several factors were in play: the usual team was disrupted; the familial bond of aunt and niece and not knowing if/when to interfere; the fast pace and high energy of the event; and, perhaps, fatigue and alcohol. These all conspired to keep you from doing the right thing. Groupthink comes on in a flash. Objective observers might shake their heads in disbelief, but participants know: “You had to be there.” We’ve all been on all sides. Let the one who hasn’t be the first to cast a stone.

I don’t recommend contacting the niece directly. Something needs to be said, but it shouldn’t come from you. Speak with her aunt. You might say, “Ever since our last trivia night, something has been nagging at me. I couldn’t help but see your niece checking her phone for answers to the questions. I feel badly that I didn’t do anything to stop what I saw.” Her response will tell you lots. Consider inviting the person who sat next to you to join the conversation. Your teammates owe it to each other to clear the air before your next gathering. Your trust has been shaken. Even with the old gang reunited, the groupthink regret will linger. Gather your courage now, and speak up. Think of it as a sort of do-over. As for going to confession, may the sacrament’s grace lift your burden and heal your heart. You’ve carried this long enough.

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter along the stony path
It’s just a moment, this time [too] shall pass
Stuck in a Moment, U2

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Boundaries

Defend Your BoundariesDear Maria,

I wonder why it’s so hard for most of us to have firm boundaries? In last week’s column, the letter writer was having a hard time with that. Why is it so hard to do?

Signed,

Muddled

 

Dear Muddled,

Remember when the toughest boundary to find was the one between the couch and the “hot lava” floor? Or keeping the ball in play, or the safe space between cracks on the sidewalk? Our parents and teachers were charged with making boundaries clear for us — play/eat/sleep here, don’t touch this, don’t get too close to that. Through their guidance, and plain old experience, we learned where the boundaries are that keep us safe.

That learning curve extended to relationships, too. As children, we had a keen intuition about who was safe to be around, or not. Yet, we were encouraged to “play nice.” We had to mind adults and others in authority, whose dictates could be arbitrary or unfair. We were encouraged to show affection to people we didn’t particularly like. As we grew, we lost touch with that inner guidance. Pleasing others and getting along were praised, encouraged, and rewarded. Speaking up and stepping away set us apart, and being accepted is critical to social beings like us. Our boundaries got trampled on like a muddy path in the spring thaw.

and-the-day-came-when-the-risk-it-took-to-remain-tight-in-the-bud-was-more-painful-than-thAs grown-ups now, we find ourselves in situations like last week’s letter writer. Perhaps she wonders how it got this far, when all along she was working hard to keep everything pleasant. Maybe that’s the core of the issue. Boundaries are tough, because we’ve learned to place other’s needs — or our own need to be perceived as kind — ahead of our own. Women, especially, are expected to do this. We’re so used to it, that we can’t even see that we’ve made keeping everyone else happy more important than our own health and well-being.

That’s backwards. Just as the flight attendant will tell you to secure your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else, so too we need to tend to ourselves before we have anything to give to others. LifeEsteem.org writes:

One feature of a healthy sense of self is the way we understand and work with boundaries. Personal boundaries are the limits we set in relationships that allow us to protect our selves. Boundaries come from having a good sense of our own self-worth. They make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do. Boundaries allow us to rejoice in our own uniqueness. Intact boundaries are flexible – they allow us to get close to others when it is appropriate and to maintain our distance when we might be harmed by getting too close. Good boundaries protect us from abuse and pave the way to achieving true intimacy. They help us take care of ourselves.

Setting and maintaining these boundaries is a daily challenge. It takes time away from our busy lives to reconnect with that inner sense of self. Then, once that discovery is nurtured, we venture into our relationships protecting that sense of self as we would our own child. It takes courage to ask for what we need in relationships. The people we encounter will be at varying abilities to honor these requests. Some will go. Others will understand, and stay. We run the risk of losing the people who don’t get it. But, ah, the freedom on the other side. It’s like launching ourselves over the family room floor, clearing the hot lava below, and landing on the couch, safe and sound.

Readers: Tell us about what works for you in setting boundaries. Let’s support each other in these efforts!

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Not His Valentine

Dear Maria,

I became friends with someone I go to church with. I appreciated his company in the months I was adjusting to being single again and to spending time alone when my daughter was with her dad. But over time he developed feelings for me that are not mutual. Our interactions have become awkward because: 1) he’s socially awkward on a good day, and 2) I don’t want to hurt his feelings.

He’s resorted to avoiding me and then sending me long emails telling me he’s sorry and listing all of the things he wished he’d said in person.

I responded to his email with a firmer response than I have mustered in the past. I reiterated that I was not going to change my feelings about being more than friends, and that I wanted him to stop avoiding me and sending long emails later. I also expressed concern that he was navigating a lot of things alone and suggested he seek the help of a professional.  I feel good about my stance and the kind way I conveyed it.

My question is: What do I do now? I want to remain kind and sensitive to his feelings. His strange behavior has strained our friendship. I want both of us to feel comfortable in our congregation, but it’s still awkward.

Sincerely,

Not His Valentine

Dear Not His Valentine,

Mutual attraction is like a sharing a sense of humor. You either get it or you don’t.  This could be a meet-cute, he hopes, with every email:

Instead, he just doesn’t get it:

He came along at a vulnerable time for you (thanks!), but you both came at it from two different directions (awkward!). What do you do now?

You’ve done all you can. You’ve been honest about your feelings, in a kind way. Your earlier fuzziness, however, unintentionally encouraged him. He focused on the little non-verbals that fueled hope that his feelings might be reciprocated. As you healed from your separation and divorce, your new-found clarity and emotional strength helped you be brave. Your reply to his email, and his reading of it, were painful moments on both sides of the screen. Yours in summoning the courage to press “send”; his in facing the truth of the written word. It was the right thing to do. There was no way around hurting his feelings. That’s a casualty of unrequited love. As you move ahead, continue to keep your words and actions in alignment with your truth. Integrity, m’dear. To thine own self be true. And all that adult-ing stuff.

You may have some grief going on, too. You may not like him that way, but his support and companionship were there for you at a critical time. This may be your work for now: to grieve this loss, and to maintain healthy boundaries with him. By doing these, you’ll come into greater alignment with yourself, and you’ll release him so that he can move on.

I caution you in your efforts to help him through this break. You mentioned that you advised him to see a professional. That could be very helpful for him; he needs to lean on other people now. Any further counsel from you runs the risk of being misinterpreted. At church, keep a kind but polite distance, and keep other people around when you interact. Hopefully the awkwardness will diminish in time. In the long run, though, it may be too much to ask that you resume your friendship. He will probably not be able to go there. If he continues to contact you via email, or you feel threatened in any way, take the necessary steps to be safe. Here are great guidelines and resources from the Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

I couldn’t find a decent break-up song that is sung from your perspective. This one was about as honest and grown up as it gets:

Congratulations on emerging from a difficult life passage as a stronger and wiser woman. That’s a happy ending!

Dear Readers: what music helps you through difficult, but necessary, losses? Let us know in the comments!

 

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Is This My Big Break?

Terrifying and amazingDear Maria,

I have an opportunity to make a career change. I have been in administration and marketing for most of my career. I am not too far from retirement, but still want and need to work for several more years. I have an opportunity to get involved with an artist’s studio, leading classes, conducting workshops, and also doing art I love. I’m kinda scared. This would be a big change for me, and even though I love the work I would be doing, I feel intimidated by all I need to learn. I feel like I should be a real expert before I become a teacher. What would you do if you were in my place?

Signed,

Is This My Big Break?

Dear Is This My Big Break,

Do it.

This is something you’ve wanted to do for a long time. You’ve put in your time in a structured, reasonable, safe work environment. You have pursued your art in your spare time. If you can swing this from a financial standpoint, do it! Whoever is offering you this opportunity has seen your work, and is confident you are up to the job. Trust them.

Creating art is tricky. We put so much of ourselves into our efforts, we wonder if anybody else could ever love and appreciate our work as much as we do. Then, the funny thing is, when they do, we push away the compliment and can’t believe it could be true. But it is. This person recognizes something in you, and wants to help bring it into the world.

Here’s one way this happened for me. My husband and I saw U2 in concert in 2001, just a few months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We’d never seen them live. I can now tell you: Bono is one of the most charismatic performers I have ever seen. My husband said: “This isn’t a rock concert; this is a spiritual experience.” (Read Steve Braden’s take on the concert. He got it.) During the show, my heart full, I asked myself (and it’s always wise to pay attention to what you ask yourself), “What can I do with this?” The still voice within answered: “Write.” From that moment on, nurturing and developing my writing became a priority. Later, I confessed to a wise friend, “I’m drawn to Bono, but not in a romantic sense.” He replied, “What is awakened in him, is awakening in you.”

On a creative, spiritual, emotional, intuitive, however-you-want-to-describe-it level, my experience at the concert summoned my inner writer/artist. Perhaps you’ve had a similar encounter. There is a creative connection between you and this person who has affirmed your art and talent. They showed up at the perfect time to midwife your work.

And we need it! Our culture is rife with mistrust and misinformation. This darkness breeds fear. There is, however, a counterbalance of artistic expression and creativity on the rise. I’m surrounded by people who feel called to create. This movement is blessed. Our nation needs to be reminded of the “better angels of our nature” as Abraham Lincoln said. Beauty lifts us. Your creative efforts are not selfish, but a public service!

no time to think smallElizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is all about “creative living beyond fear.” Creativity invites us into the unknown, so fear is a natural response. Fear protects us from harm, but it can also immobilize us. Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that we view fear as a companion on the creative journey. Fear gets to come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive, read the map, fiddle with the radio, etc. “Above all else,” she tells her “dear old familiar friend [fear], you are absolutely forbidden to drive. Then we head off together—me and creativity and fear side by side by side forever—advancing once more into the terrifying but marvelous terrain of unknown outcome.” Dig into her book for directive permission to make this change.

If you expect to be fearless in this creative endeavor, cut it out. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. That might be where you are. Say your prayers, and walk into your new life. We’ll thank you for it.

courage-is-fear-that-has-said-its-prayers-dorothy-bernard-53-20-85

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.