Maria’s Musings & Advice: Mama ain’t into tats

Dear Maria,

Ugh! My daughter just got a tattoo. Throughout her teens, she talked about wanting to get a tattoo, and I never gave her permission. Now that she’s of age, she’s gone and done it. I can’t say that I’m happy about it! Tattoos always meant criminal or low class people to me. Does that make my daughter one? I guess I can understand why she wants to have a tattoo now, but what if she changes her mind when she gets older? What if the tattoo keeps her from getting a job that she’d really like to have? I just think she was being impulsive and didn’t think through the consequences.

Signed,

Mama Ain’t into Tats

Dear Mama Ain’t into Tats,

You’re not alone in your opinion of tattoos and their wearers. But, we see them everywhere: professional athletes, performers, military, lots of people in the service industry. Dear Mama, it’s time we accept that a tattoo’s meaning today is more nuanced than our old school way of looking at it.

I did a little research on the subject to help us ponder this question. Psychcentral.com’s article Thinking of Inking? cites research that says 23% of Americans have tattoos, and about half the people in their 20’s have a tattoo or body piercing (other than ears). That’s a lot of tattoos! The article cites a generational divide in tattoo perceptions, one that’s playing out in your family now. The Daily Mail, on the other hand, says tattoos can improve the chances of getting hired if they are “seen as an asset” to convene the company’s personality.  Hopefully, your daughter’s tattoos can be covered up, if she wants to. If not, she may have limited her job prospects. But, she’d probably rather work for an organization that’s flexible/supportive of self-expression through tattoos, anyway.

Tattoos on young women, in particular, are a powerful means of self-expression, and a statement of autonomy. Young women deal with a barrage of scrutiny over their appearance in our culture. The tattoos are, in this way, a feminist statement: “This is my body. I’ll decide what I do with it.”

My husband and I raised two girls, one the age of your daughter, and another in high school. Both lobbied for tattoos during their teen years, and we never said, “Okay.” This decision is best made when they are of age, understand more fully the consequences, and can pay for it themselves. These multiple conversations influenced my perception of tattoos. I don’t think I’d ever want one, but now I understand more fully their meaning and function in a person’s life. Your daughter is of age, and made this decision on her own. Try to understand the meaning of the symbols she has placed on her body, and talk with her about what the whole experience means to her. You may delight in her autonomy, creativity, and reflection. Look at her tats from her perspective, rather as something that undermines or restricts her. In a misogynistic world, she is seeking, and finding, herself. The choices she makes that embolden her personal power are to be celebrated.

Many of my friends and readers have tattoos, and/or their daughters do. Please join this conversation, and share your experience in the comments, below. I hope this helps you smile:

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: I’m just trying to help

Dear Maria,

You are a strong woman who offers so much to others, but what do you do when you need support? It is often tough to ask for help or confide in people when you want to be seen as that strong person who always wants to help others.

Signed,

Sleepless in St. Louis

Dear Sleepless in St. Louis,

Thanks for your kind words. I embody the Duck Principle: calm and smooth on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath! We don’t like to show people the paddling part, do we?

I think the heart of your question is this: “you want to be seen as that strong person”. Who is that strong person you have in mind? They’re probably a blend of Atticus Finch, Mother Teresa, and Jackie Robinson. Best advice I’ve heard so far: Never compare your inside to someone else’s outside. The Inner Critic, or ego, deceives us in the strength department. American culture promotes the rugged individualist, the one who can succeed despite all odds, the one who is able to make it on their own.

The truth is, we need each other. Giving and receiving are essential to a healthy life. You say that you “always want to help others”, but reflect on that for a minute. Maybe we like to be the martyr? We say we’re “just trying to help”, but we find secret pleasure in others perceiving us as a selfless giver. Or, our “help” may disguise an attempt to control another’s choices. Then, we get resentful if we help too much. If we give from obligation, or to control someone, and we resent the giving and the recipient, is the gift freely given?

Taking on others’ problems doesn’t help them in the long run. People need to make healthy choices for themselves. In other words, while it’s good to help someone, a chronic situation is more like enabling. Worry doesn’t help, either. Pay attention to when you start to feel drained, or, as you signed your letter, you’re losing sleep over someone else’s decisions. It’s okay to pitch in, but don’t carry another’s burden for too long.

Regarding our perceptions of strength, there’s much to reflect on in a recent interview with David Freese. A former Cardinal player, he’s now the Pittsburgh Pirates’ third baseman. Freese is a hometown hero in St. Louis, and was the MVP of the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series victory.  He thrilled Cardinals fans with a double in the 9th to tie the 6th game of the ’11 series, then a walk-off homer in extra innings to win it. That game is one of the most exciting in World Series history. No one was more beloved in St. Louis in those days than David Freese. St. Louis is still his home.

In his interview, he revealed his story of coping with severe depression during that time, and most of his life. Amazing! We imagine success as the great buffer, shielding us from darkness. We look at a David Freese and think, “If I could just get there [be that successful, have that much talent or wealth], I’d be okay.” Yet, at the pinnacle of his career, he was fighting demons of his own.

“You win the World Series in your hometown, and you become this guy in a city that loves Cardinal baseball,’’ Freese says, “and sometimes it’s the last guy you want to be. So, you start building this façade, trying to be something I was not.”

His success brought St. Louis fans great joy. I am even more grateful to know the whole story, though. Telling it took more courage than staring down a major-league fastball. His hidden truth was a suffocating burden. Now, it is transformed into strength and healing, for himself and others.

How ironic: When we are weak, then we are strong. I am reminded of a favorite scripture passage: “The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

You’ve asked what I do when I need support? I let a few trusted friends see below the surface. This has taken time to cultivate. Along the way, there have been confidences betrayed, and others who couldn’t bear to see me in a vulnerable place. My closest friends love me in my weakness. But, rather than trying to fix things for me, they trust me to find my way. They gently remind me of my better self, like pushing a reset button. Their clarity and direction strengthen me.

I’m a great believer in daily prayer, meditation—whatever quiet time one needs to reconnect with the inner self. Lately, I realized that I took quiet time only on bad days! Now, I’m better about my daily practice, no matter my mood. Strength lies in that connection with God’s grace in my soul. When I’m sad or things don’t go my way, I have that anchor. I’ve lived long enough to know I can get through whatever life throws me. I may need to ugly cry along the way, but that’s okay. There’s someone there to pass the Kleenex!

As you try to get a good night’s sleep, leave those you’re trying to help outside the bedroom door. “No” is a complete sentence, to paraphrase a favorite author, Anne Lamott. I heard recently that empathy and kindness are signs of emotional intelligence. Both call forth actions that appear weak, but will strengthen and heal others. For all that he suffered, David Freese has emotional intelligence. Cultivate yours. Begin with empathy and kindness for yourself. Listen to your intuition: when seeking confidants, when carving out quiet time, and when discerning whom to help and to what extent. Let your soul be your pilot.

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: Tension with my MIL

Dear Maria,

My husband and I are moving away from our home town, so that he can take a job in another city. In fact, he has already moved there, and I have been staying with his parents since we sold our house. I hope to join him soon, but my job is demanding and they haven’t found a replacement yet.

I get along with my in-laws for the most part. Because of my job, I’m not able to do much housework and cooking. I had a rare day off the other day, and spent it reading and napping. When my mother-in-law got home, she went on a vacuuming rampage. Usually, when she gets home from work, she relaxes a bit. I couldn’t help but feel like she was mad at me for not helping more. Once, when my husband was back visiting for a weekend, she got upset about our shoes being left by the front door. We talked about it, and made more of an effort to pick up our shoes. But, I felt like she scolded me.

How can I turn down the tension in this house? I don’t want to leave town on bad terms with my mother-in-law.

Signed,

Not a Child

Dear Not a Child,

Congratulations on your new life in a new city! This is a stressful time for you and your husband, even though it is an exciting opportunity.

I suspect your mother-in-law has mixed feelings about the situation. Assuming she had an empty nest before your stay, she probably enjoyed having control over the household. When guests enter the equation, the atmosphere changes. She’s (probably) happy she can help her son and daughter-in-law during this time of transition. But, she’s also probably sad that her son, his wife, and future grandchildren are moving to another city. Situations like these are bittersweet for everyone.

When it comes to the day-to-day details of life, she’s used to doing things her way. We have no way of knowing what she was feeling while she was vacuuming. Perhaps her intensity triggered an insecurity in you? Maybe you felt a little guilty about lounging around for the day? That’s the nice thing about having our own space. We can decide how and when we want to clean, or not! Here’s a great article from Psychology Today on The Trouble with Houseguests.

Did you and your husband discuss with your in-laws any ground rules of living in their home? Families often don’t discuss details like these. It feels unwelcoming, or persnickety to treat relatives this way. But, when house rules are assumed, well, you know what happens when you assume. Difficulties arise when we don’t live up to our host’s expectations. You did talk to her about the shoes, and tried to abide by her wishes. Good for you! But with the unspoken rules, you’re on eggshells wondering which ones you’re breaking.

Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.
— Benjamin Franklin

The best way to dial down the tension in the house is to abide by her wishes and desires as best you can. If you need clarification on something, ask! Or, take the initiative by saying something like: “Show me how you load the dishwasher, so I can do it the way you like.” There may be an awkward pause as she responds. Hopefully, she’ll see your question as a way to clear the air, and get some help, too! You are busy with your work, but it is part of being a grown-up to contribute to your living situation by paying rent, or buying groceries, sharing in the cooking and cleaning, whatever it takes to maintain the household. You are benefiting from this arrangement, so graciously and generously show your appreciation. Given time, after you’ve made your move, your in-laws will recall your kindnesses, and the inconveniences will slip from their minds. Remember: You’ll return the favor when they come to visit. It will benefit everyone to establish good ways of communicating now.

Above all, clarify when you will wrap things up with your current employer, and join your husband in the new city. An end date will lift the tension better than 1,000 vacuumed living rooms or the best stacked dishwasher. Good luck!

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: Hoping for the best

Dear Maria,

I’ve had some less than clear checkups lately that have led to additional tests. When this first started, I didn’t tell many people. I didn’t want to worry anyone. Now, a new round of testing has been ordered. I decided to tell a few more folks, and their reactions are what I expected: worry, too much concern, and jumping to conclusions before the tests are even done. I feel like I want to shut these people out who have made this situation more stressful for me than it needs to be.

What do you think about sharing medical information? I get confused about how much I should tell the people I love, who mean well, but are making a bigger thing out of this than it needs to be at this point.

Signed,

Hoping for the Best

Dear Hoping for the Best,

It’s your body. You decide.

Every step of this process brings with it great unknowns: What will the test results say? What will my doctor recommend? What kind of treatment will this entail? Will my life continue as I’ve known it, or will there be some new normal? A million things swirl through the mind. And, though you don’t mention anything about fear, I suspect there’s some of that in you, too.

You are wise to be very selective about people with whom you choose to share your health information. This sounds harsh, because you may feel you owe an explanation to some people: relatives, coworkers, neighbors. See my first sentences, above. You get to decide who knows, and you get to decide who the cheerleaders are that you want in your corner. That’s it.

If your situation becomes such that it affects your work, then of course you need to inform your employer at the appropriate time. At this point, that situation is well down the road, if it exists at all. Take these tests and doctors’ visits one step at a time. Hold the best intention for the outcome. Sure, you’ll feel a range of emotions in the process. Give yourself permission to feel them all, and in the clearing, you’ll find your way to peace. Trust that you are in the hands of good care providers. If you have any intuition that this is not the case, know you have the option of different opinions from other care providers. You must be your own advocate. Take each step, holding in your mind and heart the highest good. In other words, no matter what comes, move with the deep confidence that you can handle it, and that it will be okay.

Stay tuned into your body. Eat healthy foods, and get the rest and exercise you need. These will contribute to a better state of mind, and position you to be in the best possible place mentally and physically for any procedures to come.

For me, prayer helps a lot. I pray, though, not for a certain outcome, but for the grace to handle whatever comes. Begin or rekindle a daily practice of prayer and/or meditation. Returning to the center, getting grounded, connecting with God, however you describe it, will be an anchor for you while questions and information swirl in your head. Do this daily, or several times throughout your day, and you’ll find your way back to peace. Plus, that’s where healing happens— when we’re in a calm receptive mode, rather than tense with worry and anxiety.

When will I learn there are no guarantees?
What strengthens hope, my eyes have never seen
But, it won’t be long till the faith will be sight
And the heavens will say “It’s all right”

I’m 100% in your corner on keeping your circle small. But, I also caution you to not be too quick to judge whether a person can handle your news. You are not responsible for how they respond to your situation. You are only responsible for your own response. Don’t add concern for their reaction to what’s on your mind. There’s a certain irony there: You are the one who has the condition, but you end up comforting others in their reactions. When in doubt, refer to the first two sentences, above.

Think of this as a marathon, and not a sprint. Pace yourself, stay hydrated, take care of yourself before and after the event. This passage of your life will summon inner strength you didn’t know you had, and bring people into your life who are wise, compassionate, strong, and tender. Bless it, and them.

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: Love/Hate my Cell Phone

I have a question about cell phones: How do we use them politely in public? I’ve been on both sides of it lately. One day, I was having an important conversation with a colleague, sitting on a restaurant patio at lunch time. A friend, who I used to work with, came over and insisted on showing me photos of his vacation. I didn’t want to look at his pictures! I wanted to continue my conversation. I kind of ignored the guy with his phone, and eventually he walked away.

Another time, I was waiting for friends at a bar, when someone that I didn’t want to talk to walked in. I stared at my phone, and stopped looking around. Eventually, my friends showed up, so I had to look up. He was looking right at me, and walked over. I pretended to be surprised, and said “Hi!” He said, “I’ve been here a while, but you acted like you didn’t see me.” I felt ashamed to be called out for my bad behavior, but honestly would have done the same thing again.

What are your thoughts about cell phones in public? It seems like everyone has theirs attached to their hand.

Signed,

Love/Hate my Cell Phone

Dear Love/Hate,

I, too, wonder about cell phone etiquette, especially with teenagers. They pull them out in the middle of a conversation, or at the dinner table! I judge it as rude; they see it as normal behavior. At a local band’s concert, I saw several young fans sitting on the edge of the stage, just about a foot off the dance floor. Instead of watching the show, all their heads were turned down, looking at their phones! I guess they were texting, or on social media…which I guess the band would like, because it’s promoting their work. Right!? But, all I could think was, “Why aren’t they enjoying the show?”

My phone makes it easy to lose track of what’s going on. It distracts me. When I look up, several minutes have gone by and I’ve lost track of the conversation. We recently went out with some friends, and were guilty of checking in and posting photos on our phones. We chided each other about it. Maybe it’s a good thing? Am I getting younger, acting like a teenager?!

I’m old school on this one: Put the phone down as much as possible when you’re with other people. In your two examples, I laughed at the man approaching your table with a phone full of photos. Can you imagine, pre-digital media, having carried around a stack of prints to show to people you happen to run into? We never would have done that. Remember going to friends for drinks or dinner, and being held captive by your hosts until you view every last shot from the Alaskan cruise? You were trapped in a very similar way at lunch. No wonder you were rude to him.

Today, social media makes it easy to publish photos and stories about the best part of our lives. We’re more connected, but more isolated, too. This short, powerful video examines “The Innovation of Loneliness” calling it, “The most common ailment if the modern world.”

The Innovation of Loneliness from BOLD Studio on Vimeo.

In the second scenario, using the phone to keep someone away from you, is it helpful? It depends which side of the phone you’re standing on. How might you have handled that situation without your phone? Probably stammer through a few moments of awkward conversation until your friends arrived. How hard is that, really? These are tough questions about how we use our phones, as much as how we judge how others using theirs. Here’s a great article on the subject.

New communications media always bring new dilemmas in how to use them in effective, and humane, ways. When the telephone was first invented, critics complained that it would diminish the power of face-to-face conversations. They were right. But, it also brought connection with loved ones miles and miles away, and accelerated business and entertainment. There’s always a trade-off. My advice is what we’ve been taught all our lives: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, only show the vacation pictures when asked, put the phone away, and smile at your fellow human beings. That connection may be just what they need.

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: 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.