31 March 2005

"A New World Came Into View..."

"Either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn't. What was our choice to be?" Page 53, The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

"But without Faith, it is impossible to please Him: for he cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him." Hebrews 11:6

Have you ever noticed how important we suddenly find the notion of growing closer to God when we're scared, confused, uncertain and basically more clueless than usual? I know I have. When I think of how many "God thoughts" I've had in the past two weeks, how often and urgently my mind has chased after my Higher Power, (even though I've always been the one doing the running away), I can't help but compare it to sidling up next to someone that's always been around, but has kind of gone unnoticed, until it is determined that the formerly overlooked person can do me a huge favor. I think it's one of my less endearing human traits. You know, the kind of person who says, "You are my new best friend!". Mostly because they want something.

I can't make the claim that everyone I know operates like me, because I know many people who keep the connection to God open and, unlike my Road Runner Internet Connection, these folks seem to stay "online" with God, regardless of what's going on in their lives. I want to be more like those people.

I wonder if God looks at me like that? Does He notice how much more attentive I am to His Will, His direction, when things get a little too rough for me to handle? And if He does notice this and, why wouldn't He, He is God, after all, it only stands to reason that God surely must notice how I slink away when the events of my life start going my way and I don't find myself in dire straits or uncomfortably tight spots. If that doesn't escape my attention, I'm quite sure it doesn't fly over God's head. From what I can tell, He has a reputation for being pretty sharp.

These past two weeks have been among the most challenging of my entire life. Challenging must not be confused with horrible or unbearable. There have been moments when I have felt both of those things, but there have been just as many, if not more, moments when I have felt myself stronger than I previously believed myself capable. I am walking through something that is testing me, and if I turn the control of the outcome where it belongs, which is in God's Hands, I will most certainly emerge on the other side intact. The funniest thing is that all of the previous times when I have worked so hard to "control" things, to be so "hands on", it was all such wasted energy because I have never had the power to honestly control anything or anyone, other than my own behavior. God truly knows I have my hands full simply keeping me in check.

These past two weeks have found me working very hard at "letting go" and giving the outcome up to "a power much greater than myself". I have felt pain and there's a reason for that. Pain is such a dependable motivator and it's a very effective way of eliciting my attention. I do feel as if I am growing and growth, by it's very definition, involves change and stretching; stretching sometimes hurts, but it is necessary because this human being/Single Mom/daughter/recovering alcoholic is very obstinate (kinder, gentler way of saying stubborn).

One of the most amazing things to me is that, even in the midst of personal turmoil and chaos, life does go on and when the self-centered part of me thinks that unexpected and unwelcome events in my life should trigger a sudden halt in the rotation of the earth, thankfully, it does not. The world keeps right on spinning and I have to spin right along with it. I must remember that I can't fight gravity or potent centrifugal forces, and I certainly can't stop the passage of time. If I remember my limits, there is a comfort to be found in the fact that I have those limits and constraints and that my power is nil. As I have witnessed both personally and through observation in AA, the admission of powerlessness invites protection.

Children need the protection of limits and boundaries set forth by their parents. As a child of God, I know for a fact that I need the same protection and boundaries. When I give thanks for the gifts God gives me, I need to remember to say extra thanks for not granting many of the requests that I "think" I need. If I had been given everything I asked for or wanted, I would be in terrible shape.

This past Easter Sunday, I had the immense honor of chairing my very first AA meeting which was held at the Wilmington Hilton as part of the week-end long conference of EACYPAA (Eastern Area Conference of Young People in AA). I had made a commitment to chair the final meeting of the conference and the final meeting was to be held at 7:00 AM, Sunday Morning. I woke up at 6:24 AM. YIKES! I tossed on some clothes, ran my hands through my hair, managed to brush my teeth and off we ran, arriving at about 4 minutes past 7:00.

I immediately bumped into the very kind man who had enlisted me to take on this duty, and then I did what I do best - well, that is to say that I tried to do what I used to do best; I told him my friend would be taking over for me because I just didn't think I was ready. This gentleman, for whom I was already nursing a resentment because he had just returned from skiing (and a business trip) to Italy, would have none of my protestations. He just squeezed my hand and said, "Susie, we'll be here for you - we're your support group!". I know that his intention was to make me feel more confident, but I felt hopelessly inept. What I wanted to do was shake some sense into him by telling him that I make a GREAT audience, but I'm a really lousy leader.

Can you feel how overwhelmed and underprepared I was? What was with this guy? He looked intelligent and was pretty wide awake for such an obscene hour of the morning, but he didn't quite get it. So what if I changed my mind about chairing a meeting? No worries, I was offering up a very seasoned pinch hitter. It's not like this was any skin off his nose.

I forgot the one thing I noticed back in January 2004 when I joined this elite organization; AA people are an extremely hard-headed lot. This must be why I immediately felt at home when I walked into my first AA meeting. These were MY people, and I love them, except when they don't take "No, I changed my mind" for an answer. Totally exasperating.

As I was making what I personally thought was a fairly strong case for post-poning my first chairpersonship, I was being lead by the hand to the front table by the nice man who had just returned from Italy under the thinly-veiled guise of "business trip", and basically told to sit down and start the Serenity Prayer already. I realized that, either way, I was screwed. I could stay up there and clumsily lead an Open Discussion meeting, in front of people from several different states, or I could just stand up and walk out which wasn't really a good choice at all because, though I might never see most of the folks in that meeting again, I would still have to face the people I see at practically every meeting I attend and the thing of it is, I really respect and care a lot about them' Then, of course, the whole "you should never decline a request made for the good of AA" thing kept playing in my subconscious and, well, I reluctantly made the only viable choice I could. I invited everyone to join me in saying The Serenity Prayer.

I don't know why I thought I might not be able to handle this because I can practically recite every component of an AA meeting in my sleep by rote. Every meeting begins the same way and ends the same way, the only difference being what happens in between those two points, and what usually occurs in the "body" of any given AA meeting can only be labeled magic. Even when I am distracted and only passively listening, I usually manage to come away feeling much stronger than I felt when I went in. It never fails.

Being the last-minute, fly by the seat of my pants, messy haired blond that I am, I hadn't given the first thought to a topic because I was sure I wouldn't need one, given that I was supposed to back out of fulfilling this obligation in the first place. Now I was front and center and I needed a TOPIC! I hadn't even had a sip of coffee, which meant I was running on fumes. My friend, the one I planned to cajole into taking my turn at chairing, had taken off down the hall to fetch us a cup and he certainly was taking his time to return.

I looked around the room at these young men and one young lady and couldn't believe they were attending a meeting at 7 in the morning, and looked quite happy to be there, completely unaware that they were part of my extremely shaky AA chairing debut, so I figured someone in this rather Zen looking group might have something in mind in terms of a topic. At least I was hoping.

Of course, I got an immediate offering and it was so dead-on perfect, delivered in a sweet Boston accent belonging to a young man I had chatted with briefly before things got started and I was still fighting to get out of chairing. He had heard this was my first "at bat" and he must have felt my pain, so he posed a topic and asked us to share what our Higher Power had done for us in the past year? OK, so my first thought was - My Higher Power sure didn't help me get out of this situation so I won't be sharing about that little miracle that didn't take place, but to be honest, the question hit intimately close to home.

I've been to a few meetings where the clock is the only sound to be heard as we have waited for someone to share something. I hate those long, awkward silences and while it's never been my business to fill them, I dearly hoped we wouldn't spend the next 50 minutes looking at each other and shifting nervously in our seats, minds racing for something to offer that might touch the topic. As it turned out, I had nothing to fear at all.

I wasn't the only one who loved the topic and just like a prairie fire spreading across the beautiful High Plains of West Texas, folks began speaking of their own "experience, strength and hope...". I don't think more than five seconds passed between voices and then I made the most astonishing realization; It wasn't about me at all. It never was. Once again, those well-oiled AA gears started turning and something wonderful and inexplicable was being presented to me. Another offering of unmerited grace.

I listened intently, most of the time with genuine wide-eyed interest and awe, as each person spoke of how the "God of their understanding" had done for him/her what s/he couldn't do for him/herself. I heard so much wisdom, openness and most of all gratitude, as each and every single participant reconfirmed for me what I inherently knew to be true, but so easily forget, about God truly being the only One with anything resembling control. Though each story was different, the same thread was present and so easily discernible. I love thinking of it as "uniquely universal experiences" which may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't really at all.

Story after story, I quietly realized that each of us had traveled a different path to arrive at a 7:00 AM AA meeting, in downtown Wilmington, on a very rainy, gray Easter Morning drinking really rancid coffee. I'd be willing to say that most of us felt profoundly blessed to have had some defining moment that changed our course and gave us the opportunity to head in a much better direction and last Sunday Morning, for me, that direction lead me to a conference room with a group of young strangers that I had more in common with than many of the friends I have who I have known for years.

Not only did these conference attendees give me the gift of their experiences, but they reminded me of something I desperately needed to understand; Not one person in that room just woke-up one day and decided to become spiritually-centered and live a different, more positive life; We had to walk (sometimes crawl) through some pretty scary situations, literally get brought to our knees and pretty much out of options, in order to focus on the ONE that would offer us a course correction toward a much better destination. Maybe we just needed to find the path to our own personal "Ithaka". Fortunately, Bill W. discovered the map and blazed that trail back in 1935, shared it with Dr. Bob in Akron, who refined it and helped keep it real, and 69 years later, over 2 million of us are all the better for it.

After recovering from the terror of chairing a meeting to being a small part of a wonderful experience among some very special people, I felt a lot of peace and so much optimism. I wondered how many of those kids' parents knew where their offspring were that morning. I hope they did and I hope they were somehow able to let them know how very proud they were of the way these people from all over the East Coast, had turned things around and who they were growing into being. I know I felt quite honored to be in their company.

I even managed to clear up that resentment toward my AA buddy who talked me into chairing that meeting in the first place, but I'm still working on the Italy resentment. Time takes time...

One time I heard my sponsor share at a meeting, that when she sees people, particularly young adults, drinking way too much, she tries to find comfort in thet fact that it took every drink she tossed back to get to the point that she asked for divine assistance (and the phone number for Intergroup). When I worry about my own kids, I try and remember that thought. I hear people share that if they had been introduced to AA and sobriety one week before coming in, they wouldn't have been ready, and if they had waited one more week, they would probably have been dead. It's all about timing. You can't talk anyone into accepting this gift if they aren't at a place where they have made the realization that they not only need it, but are ready to admit the powerlessness I wrote of earlier which, by no coincidence, happens to be the first of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

25 March 2005

My Latest Column - Published March 23, 2005

Single With Children: Whittle down problems a day at a time

Susie Parker
Publication Date: 03/23/05

I thought I understood the notion that parenting isn't for wimps, but until this past week, I had no real clue.

I've learned a few mothering techniques over the past 21 years. I know to apply kisses to skinned knees and elbows, lie in bed with a feverish youngster and watch the same video at least 17 times. I learned other things too.

I respect my kids, but I am one of those parents who launches the occasional search of my kids' rooms. I am the Mom, and that affords me a lot of latitude. If my instincts tell me something isn't right, I have learned to heed those feelings.

Last Friday, my instincts told me something was amiss. My son was out with his friends, so I took the opportunity to look around his room. It didn't take a lot of detective work to find some things that made my heart sink. It was one of those experiences where your eyes are delivering a report to your brain, but your heart is screaming, "REJECT!"

I realize teenage years are the most tumultuous period of life any of us ever have to navigate, and I don't know too many people who would care to revisit that period. Hardly any of us breeze through those years without making a few mistakes, and sometimes mistakes can cross an invisible line and become life-threatening.

I never expected my kids to whiz through post adolescence without making a few bad choices. Obviously, my son had done a little experimenting and made a questionable choice.

What I found wasn't earth-shattering, nor atypical for someone his age. But it rocked my world. I gathered up the evidence and took the time to carry out six bags of trash, put fresh sheets on the bed and dust. When I get stressed or upset, I can't be still.

What to do? It was apparent to my son by the condition of his room that I had made more than a passing inspection, and this was not welcome news. After his initial expression of outrage came a flood of excuses. I listened. When it was my turn to talk, I told him I appreciated the fact that this didn't disqualify him to run for president, but it was a very serious matter.

"Please don't tell Dad," he said.

Of course I had to tell Dad. I dreaded making the call, but I did. I didn't know how the news would be received. Would it be the perfect time to list the ways I have failed as a parent? Maybe charge me with not paying enough attention? Would he blame me for years of overindulging the kids?

Fortunately, he did none of that. He expressed concern, offered no blame and within 48 hours, he flew 2,000 miles to check out the situation. I invited my kids for dinner at a specific restaurant and when we walked in, I spotted our out-of-town visitor. After the kids recovered from the shock, my former husband's impromptu visit let my son know that this was serious business.

The four of us talked for an hour before ordering. We laughed and we cried. Though initially reticent, my son looked relieved. The jig was up and a lot of walls were instantly dismantled, along with the bravado. It was a productive, honest and warm dinner. Serious decisions were made because serious situations require them.

Nothing was easy. A couple of people said we over-reacted to what is nothing more than a youthful rite of passage. If we did, that's just fine. Though it was a long, uncomfortable evening from where my son sat, he had to know he is loved. Everything said, every action taken, came from a deep, shared love for our son's safety and well-being. Divorce and distance didn't change our focus and devotion as parents.

He wasn't pleased with the changes and reduction of privileges. He feels as if he's under a microscope. That's because he is, and will continue to be, for quite some time. Trust and credibility can be lost in a second, and it takes a long time to earn those things back, but everything is possible on the "one day at a time" plan and knowing that you are loved, even when you make those inevitable wrong turns.

Readers can e-mail Susie Parker at SusieWrites@ec.rr.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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10 March 2005

Single...With Children - Publication Date: 9 March 2005

Single With Children: Growing up can be fearful business for 'Twixters'

Susie Parker
Publication Date: 03/09/05

There are five new babies in my home.

I have a new aviary, and just days after introducing two pair of zebra finches, they went forth, laid eggs and multiplied.

And within the abbreviated span of 21 days, Mom and Dad Finch are pushing all of those juniors out of the nest!

Amazing, finches accomplish in about 21 days what takes parents increasingly longer to achieve: Independent offspring who actually go out and do what they're supposed to do on a rather predictable schedule.

Watching the progression from hatchling to full fledging is fascinating, and perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this avian circle of life is that around day 21, the parents begin to introduce the concept of flying and nudge those babies to try out their wings. Mom and Dad still keep an eye on things and deliver the occasional meal, but by sheer instinct, these new finches catch on to the idea that independence is not a choice, but a matter of course.

Apparently they didn't catch the recent cover story in Time magazine, "They Just Won't Grow Up!" The article discusses the puzzling phenomenon of "Twixters," the term coined to describe young adults who seem to be mired in permanent adolescence and confused as to how to move forward and become full-blown adults. Perhaps these "Twixters" aren't as confused as they are reluctant to embrace all that being an adult entails. The prospect of growing up, which looks so deliciously enticing at 12 or 14 years of age, evolves into something more ominous when one reaches 21.

New studies reveal that the process of leaving the human nest can take a few years and is a rubbery sort of affair with the "Twixters" bouncing back and forth between short bursts of independence and retreating to the comfort and lesser responsibilities of living at home. This transitional stage between age 18 and the late 20s isn't so transitional.

Researchers cite such factors as prematurely incurred debt, courtesy of credit cards and student loans, a stiffer job market, fear of divorce, having lived through one as a child, and "so many options, so little time."

Basically, it reminds me of the time I was 12 years old and wanted more than anything in the world to jump off the diving board into the scary deep end of the pool. My dad nearly sank from treading water for more than an hour, coaxing, encouraging, cajoling and promising me, if I just made that leap, I would pop up and remember how to swim, even though the water was very deep. I wanted to dive so bad that I could taste it. I could also taste the fear, and it took a lot of patience, understanding and support before I finally trusted my dad.

Just like he said, I bobbed right back up and swam effortlessly to the side. He had to drag me out of the water well after dark.

The thing I remember most about that small milestone is Dad never gave up on me. No matter how many times I needed to hear it, he promised me I would be just fine.

Thirty-three years later, I never forget who believed in me and loved me through that scary first time.

I've seen some symptoms of this "Twixter" phenomenon in my own kids. My 21-year-old daughter sometimes moves back in for a few weeks at a time and hasn't the first clue about what she wants to be "when she grows up." My 18-year-old son doesn't seem any too eager to graduate from high school and make the serious decisions that will affect a future that is getting closer by the minute. There are days when I have to remember the patience my own father demonstrated that hot, summer day back in 1972. I find this period of life my kids are navigating to be just a little confusing.

Every now and then I study those finches, trying to glean some kind of feathery wisdom, wondering why my kids are so reluctant to choose a direction and try out their wings. Whether it's 21 days or 21 years, growing up is a flighty, often fearful, frustrating business, but in the end, love, encouragement and patience will carry the day.

Readers can e-mail Susie Parker at SusieWrites@ec.rr.com, write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166 or visit her diary at www.susiewrites.blogspot.com.

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08 March 2005

"The Child Is In Me Still...And Sometimes Not So Still." - Fred Rogers

"All my life I've been harassed by questions: Why is something that way and not another? How do you account for that? This rage to understand, to fill in the flanks, only makes life more banal. If we could only find the courage to leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence." Luis Bunuel, (1900 - 1983)

Can I ever relate to the above quote! Questions, questions and more questions! I seem to be brimming with them and even when I don't want them, wish they would just go away, leave my head alone and let me find some peace, they obstinately remain and niggle at my psyche. I have questions about everything. What I don't seem to have in abundance are answers. Those are so much more difficult to come by than queries. Curiosity may not have killed the cat, but I bet it drove him a little crazy.

I'll probably never unearth the answer to all of the questions that fight for space in this organ I affectionately refer to, on more lofty days, as my brain.
Are all of my questions the sign of a healthy, active, fertile mind or are they symptomatic of a fetid, lonely and slightly troubled soul? I choose to think that it's just part of being human. Sometimes, it seems I question everything and flatly refuse to accept "I don't know" or the very Clinton-esque, "I can't recall". You know, former President Clinton seemed to be troubled by a question himself which, on the surface, seems pretty obvious to a few of us; "What is the definition of is?". At least I can take solace that I am in pretty heady company!

Of course, these never-ending questions tie into the concept of "trust", and I can be very anemic in the trust department, both of a bank and between human beings. I look at people who have trusted and have suffered emotionally disfiguring burns, more than a few times, and yet they find some way to walk through it and somehow manage to trust again. I'm not sure if I pity or envy those people. Maybe I feel a little of both?

I know that the amazing poet, Ranier Marie Rilke, advised us to "Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart, and learn to love the questions themselves." When I read words like that, wisdom wrapped in such beautiful, simple eloquence, I just can't help but wonder if the esteemed Rilke ever grew tired of a dearth of questions and did he ever find it difficult to muster the ability to trust? What mechanism, or magic, did he use to discern who merited his trust? Did he have a set of parameters or perhaps a super secret formula? Did Rilke have a finely-tuned "BS/Snow job" detector and, if he did, what brand was it and is this something I can find on eBay or Radio Shack? I really do have a Pay Pal Account, but it's pretty useless because I'm a little on the broke side.

I've noticed something, well, a few things in fact. I guess you don't get to be 45 years old without catching onto a thing or two. It seems as if the hardest people for me to trust are the ones who exhibit the same qualities and as me. What I find suspect in one person is usually something that I wrestle with myself. Things I abhor in others are usually characteristics I possess. So what does THAT say for me? That I hate myself? Am I caught up in some mangled mess of self-loathing? I don't think so. I have vast room for huge quantities of self-improvement and I'd be the first person to admit it, followed by a chorus of folks who know me well, vigorously nodding their head in agreement. But I don't hate myself, even though I find it harder to forgive me than I do just about anyone else. I'm very gifted at building walls. It's learning how to tear them down that I find so daunting. Is it the same for everyone?

I'm not sure where these walls come from. I'm the love child of Ward and June Cleaver. I had the obnoxious great fortune to have never heard my parents have the slightest heated argument. Voices were rarely raised in my home and when they were, it usually invoked my full name and was wholly due to something I knew better than to do, but did anyway.

My divorce wasn't particularly nasty or uncivilized, as divorces go. I mean, the term "friendly divorce" strikes me as such an oxymoron, but if you're into oxymorons, I guess you could use that one in categorizing the break-up of my marriage. The phrase "friendly divorce" always reminds me of "friendly fire". "Ooopssss, we have some collateral damage here. Sorry about that! I'm sure you'll be just fine - years from now. If the planets are in a rare alignment, the cow jumps over the moon and pigs begin to take to the sky." Friendly fire always seems to come with just such an apology.

Maybe this interpersonal relationship stuff just has to be learned, but I wonder where the classes are offered? What are the pre-requisites? Probably, it's one of those irritatingly slow and arduous "experience" deals where you just have to learn as you go through it, and mistakes will be made. Don't you just hate those things? I think the Internet has made me an "instant gratification" junkie. I want it and I want it the second I become aware that I want it. As usual, it seems like the really important lessons don't offer rapid returns, unlike suspect voting machines and H & R Block.
In "The World According to Mister Rogers", he shares this story which seems to apply to just about any situation in life where trial and error are the order of the day;

"A young apprentice applied to a master carpenter for a job. The older man asked him, "Do you know your trade?" "Yes, sir!" the young man replied proudly. "Have you ever made a mistake?" the older man inquired. "No sir!" the young man answered, feeling certain eh would get the job. "There there's no way I'm going to hire you," said the master carpenter, "because when you make one, you won't know how to fix it."

There's just something about reading the above selection that gives me a lot of hope. For me and the rest of us. I'm a very "human" human being. I stumble and sometimes, I fall, but I have bootstraps and I do know what they are for and how to use them. Even on days I'd prefer not to. Here's to not making so many mistakes that things become inextricably tangled up, but making just enough mistakes to know how to make things right that invariably go wrong. Filling in all of those pesky blanks that punctuate the landscape of our lives is highly overrated. Luis Bunuel suggested that we "leave our destiny to chance, to accept the fundamental mystery of our lives, then we might be closer to the sort of happiness that comes with innocence."

Bunuel acknowledged that such a decision requires courage, and indeed I believe that it does, along with faith and a very durable trust. It does take courage to trust someone because you're essentially making yourself vulnerable. Its seems that when I am confronted with the invitation to trust, it never fails to reverberate back to me and I am forced to wonder if I merit the very trust I am requested to extend. Am I trustworthy? It takes courage, not simply to "entrust" someone else, but maybe even more courage to consider the question and examination of my own merit. Introspection can be a necessary and sometimes painful evil, a mirror reflecting an image I am intimately acquainted with and from which I cannot hide.

I wish I had known what a precious and valuable commodity innocence truly was and losing it is a lot like walking through the looking glass. It's hard to go back the other way and it's difficult to regain innocence once life has had it's way with you a few times but, even given those stiff odds, I still believe that striving for something close to lost innocence is a very worthy pursuit. I'm trusting that it is.