Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Boundary issues

"Compassionate listening is crucial. We listen with the willingness to relieve the suffering of the other person, not to judge or argue with her. We listen with all our attention. Even if we hear something that is not true, we continue to listen deeply so the other person can express her pain and relieve tensions within herself. If we reply to her or correct her, the practice will not bear fruit. "--Thich Nhat Hanh, from Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

I got off the train and steeled myself. I should not enter the building cranky or resentful. I should not bring negativity to someone who has already had a lifetime of suffering. On the one hand I felt guilty and ashamed for being so petty. But I was also thinking, "What will she ask me for next?"

I was visiting my older friend Linda for our weekly talk. I've been volunteering with her for almost three years now and I have pretty good attendance. I know that she counts on my visits as a break in her routine, so I try not to skip a week unless I'm sick or on vacation. The thought of her alone in her apartment day after day is more than a little heartbreaking.

But lately my compassion for her has been tested. Really, I should have seen this coming.

Linda and I talk a lot about boundaries. She has encountered certain people in her life who have boundary issues. Because she lives in Section 8 housing, she has been placed in residences with a mixed population of mentally ill, disabled, and the elderly. Linda has had at least two friends who have been mentally challenged in some form or another.

I was starting to notice that she herself refused to set boundaries with others. She often complains about a neighbor who is kind of a pseudo "friend." Really the woman is a bully, but Linda prefers to keep her enemies close.

According to Linda's side of the story, which may or may not be slightly exaggerated, this woman calls and visits Linda at all hours of the night, barges into her apartment without knocking, and asks her for favors and money. Linda is on a fixed income and is not very good at handling her money. I get angry when I hear that her "friend" has asked her for everything from a glass of juice, to the repeated use of her vacuum cleaner, to a gift of a pricey talking scale (!!), even cash. She wakes Linda up early in the morning and demands a cup of coffee. Linda has trouble with her mobility and whenever the neighbor knocks on the door, Linda has to launch herself up and walk across the room, even if she's not in her braces.

This is not the first time I have heard stories of Linda's being taken advantage of. She says the people who do it don't know any better. That may be true--there seems to be a lack of social intelligence going around. I tell her repeatedly, "Stand up for yourself! Don't let yourself get pushed around." That's when I begin sounding like an article on assertiveness in a woman's glossy. "It's OK to say no to people!"

Although I still fill out a time sheet for the volunteer organization that first set me up with Linda, I consider her a friend and assume she feels the same. But there are times when she seems to turn the tables on me and starts testing MY boundaries.

Every week I bring a snack for us to share, usually hummus and celery or guacamole and chips. She used to put out a bowl of pretzels when I came over but later told me that she couldn't afford to keep doing it, so I willingly took on snack duty. She provides seltzer water. Everytime we start eating, I can sense that she's waiting for me to finish. I'll have a bite in my mouth and she'll immediately exclaim, "Dig in!" or "Have some more." But when I shake my head because I don't want to answer with my mouth full, she always looks pleased with my response and consequently moves the snack closer to her.

Before our visits she often calls me at home and on my cell--repeatedly if I don't answer right away--requesting small items. I don't mind picking things up for her. After all, she doesn't get out much and the person who used to help her isn't in the picture anymore. Usually because the items are small--aspirin, lotion, dental floss--I refuse to let her pay me back for them. I figure as long as it's a once-in-a-while type of thing it's OK.

But when she comes to expect these things and more from me week after week, I start to get resentful. Two months before her birthday she started naming things she wanted me to buy her: Pajama jeans (I talked her out of those), an Episcopal silver cross necklace that you can only find in select religious stores in the outer suburbs, a tacky pleather case for her Bible that she found in one of those Fingerhut-type catalogs, the ones that you see and wonder, "Who buys this shit?" Now you know. We settle on slacks from Land's End. Now I am forever on their plus-size catalog mailing list.

Recently Linda asked me, "Can you cash a check for me?" I asked her what she meant since she has her own bank account. She replied, "I'll give you a check for $32 and you give me cash, and then hold the check until I get my social security next month." A loan. She had just finished telling me how angry she was at a relative who refused to lend her $65 for a pair of sneakers. "He's got a fancy house with an indoor pool and he can't spare $65!" Now who was the cheapskate-miser? Me.

I still said no. Boundary erected.

I did agree to be on Linda's Lifeline list, to be her local ICE (in case of emergency) contact listed on a form magnetized to her refrigerator, and her emergency cat sitter. I am proud to be able to do be these things for her. The difference is these responsibilities come with being a good friend. They don't cost anything except time.

I try to play my role of listener, of confidant. I try to be present for her even during the times she frustrates me. I don't know if her stories of unfriendly encounters with the cable guy or the crazy woman on the sixth floor are exaggerated--she does have a tendency toward paranoia. I don't know if she is really having bad cell phone service or she just wanted to have an excuse to switch carriers again because she's a maximizer. I try not to tell her what to do, but like a mother to a wayward teenager, I find it impossible not to give her advice, even while I know she probably won't take it.

The last time I visited she gave me a piece of banana bread her neighbor made and a frozen Challah loaf (she's recently reverted back to Judaism, which she converted to years ago) saying "I'm afraid of the oven. I didn't know you had to bake it." I take these gifts with the thought that maybe my friendship means more to her than the opportunity to shave a few dollars off her grocery list.

I'm happy just being a lifeline.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Why I fear death

"When you are standing at death's door and you have a chance to say something to someone, I absolutely think that that proximity to death is going to influence the words that come out of your mouth."--Harvey Chochinov

I was listening to NPR this morning. The segment Your Health came on, and the topic was dignity therapy. The phrase caught my attention because of how much I value the concept of dignity, being dignified, giving others their dignity. Dignity therapy is practiced on the dying--the "lucky" ones who know when they're going to die and can mentally prepare for it while they are still living.

What bothers people most about dying? Psychologists who work with the dying, hospice workers, philosophers, and religious thinkers have all tried to address this question. For some it's the fear of being forgotten, disappearing into nothingness, all of our thoughts and experiences and stories just vaporizing.

Dignity therapy is designed to allay this fear and allow the dying to tell their story the way they want it to be told. The therapy was created by a psychiatrist named Harvey Chochinov. Chochinov was treating a patient with a brain tumor. He noticed that this pale and weak patient had prominently placed a picture of himself on his bedside table, showing him when he was young and healthy, a muscular bodybuilder. Why that picture?

The man was sending a message: This was how he needed to be seen.

As Chochinov continued his work with the dying, he confronted this again and again — this need people have to assert themselves in the face of death. And he started to wonder about it.

"Why is it that how people perceive themselves to be seen should have such a profound influence? How does that make sense? What does that mean?" Chochinov says.

I worry about how I'll be perceived when I'm dead. Heck, I worry about that NOW. It's like an old person trying to convince a child that they were once as young and cute and energetic as they are. The kid can't see it. Or how strangers perceive the elderly, not identifying that they will be them one day. We post our most flattering pictures on Facebook, we tell ourselves stories about who we are--but what will happen when we die? Will that carefully-constructed version of ourselves also be annihilated?

Dignity therapy involves writing down a person's story while they are still here to tell it. The therapist asks the patient questions and records details that are important to him or her. The document is then transcribed and edited by the patient to their satisfaction. When the patient dies, the document is given to their loved ones. This document often becomes as precious to the survivors as the deceased was in life. Sometimes it even surprises family members, revealing missing details and truthful feelings that they never knew about before.

Does it matter if these patients describe events differently then how they really happened? No. Our perceptions shape our reality; what may have been a disastrous relationship with a sibling becomes a meaningful and unbreakable bond. A difficult day is remembered as also having some beauty, some value in it after all. In the end, we often see things differently than we did when we were actually in the thick of it, and that's normal. Maybe that's even a good thing.

Of course dignity therapy can't help those who die suddenly, unexpectedly, mysteriously. I have many questions about my maternal grandmother who died before I was born. I will probably never get those questions answered--or not completely--because she left behind so few details of herself. What if she had taken the time to write about her life--even a few pages about key moments would have been a wonderful gift to my mother and me. This was probably what my mother was thinking of when a few Christmases ago, she gave me a journal in which she had written her memories of her life before I was born. A more thoughtful gift is hard to imagine.

And then there are those who experience a living "death." I'm reading a book called Head Cases. It's a fascinating book with stories of people affected by TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury.) There has been a lot of talk of TBI in the news lately--high school football stars sustaining head injuries that they'll likely carry through the rest of their life, military men and women whose head injuries cause a variety of changes in their physical body but also in their personality. The brain is such an amazing machine, but it's also a mysterious and fragile organ that, when damaged, can cause people to forget they have a wife or a child, to think they're dead, to suffer violent rages, or to become highly gifted artists. You think that you will always be the same person, but you won't--whether it's by means of an accident or an awakening, you will change, and then you will adapt as best as you can to your new reality. But we may not want to leave our old selves in the dustbin like some discarded clothing that doesn't fit us. Those old clothes are still infused with our memories, our meaning.

Which makes me think that we all better get writing the story of our lives right now.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Let the music play

Photo Credit:

"Why am I doing such a thing as performing an improvisation on a piano? I have a quick answer. I need to know who I am, and this is my most complete way of knowing. And as for why you are listening? You need something as well, some connective beauty we all seem to be longing for.

Now the piece is over. In the moment before applause, the sense of community is palpable We've been connected, but not necessarily in the same ways to the same places. If there is anything we can hold onto in music it is perhaps this quiet, infinite instant when we inhabit our collective body."--W. A. Mathieu, from Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World

My favorite record store when I was a teenager was a place called Vintage Vinyl. It was a stand-alone store on Rt. 35 in Oakhurst, NJ. Before I had a driver's license, I would walk from our sprawling condominium complex on sidewalks few ever used because the car is king in the suburbs, past the 7-Eleven and a shopping complex that can only exist in a overdeveloped New Jersey town--Cobblestone Village. I'd make a mad dash across the median of the highway and climb the hill over to the record store. I was maybe 15 years-old, babysitting money in my pocket, and the anticipation of buying a new album or cassette tape made me giddy.

When I had a car I'd drive to Red Bank, to Jack's Music Shoppe, where I'd spend an hour or more flipping through the CDs. Music--like books--were my solace and refuge from hurt and disappointment, but also a celebration of being young, knowing all the tidbits about a band's likes and dislikes, or at least what they claimed in Spin magazine. Music was an essential backdrop in my life in college--whether I was writing a paper (flamenco guitar or anything soft and lilting like 10,000 Maniacs), getting ready to go out on a Thursday night (updated disco from Deee-Lite or the jazz/hip-hop hybrid band Digable Planets), or letting fantasy and wistful song lyrics fill in the blanks of an otherwise unpromising crush (any young female at a piano.)

In my twenties it was live music in New York City, and my best friend's band Bionic Finger--a four-girl pop band who played in delightfully seedy venues in the East Village and Brooklyn. Live shows at these dark clubs not only made you feel young and in-the-know, but united you with all the other familiar music lovers inevitably in the crowd.

In my thirties I could sense the change in my musical proclivities. No longer was I searching out new bands or buying obscure foreign releases of a favorite artist. I still listened to music, but it was usually a rotating collection of discs released 2-5 years ago. I don't want to blame married life for dampening my musical enthusiasm, but so much of what I liked to listen to I associated with being young and single and free. Now the radio dial was locked on NPR News and stations that played that ultimately unhip musical category--Adult Contemporary.

Mike had also been a huge music fan--though his favorite bands were about a decade older than mine--but now he described music as unmoving. I thought that was incredibly sad, and wondered if I would feel the same in ten years. Already I was only seeing bands like REM and Prince live, and even those shows were less-than-thrilling because of the huge arena crowds and the grating, off-tune warbling of the guy next to me screaming out the lyrics, thereby wiping out the voices of the actual musicians I had come to hear.

So it was sweet relief when I saw Raul Malo (former lead singer of The Mavericks, a rockabilly-country band popular in the '90s) this past Friday night. It's true that the venue was a far cry from the dank, sticky clubs of my youth. This place had tables with linen tablecloths and served delicious food made with produce from local farms. The median age in the room was around 45.

But the acoustics were far superior to any I had experienced on Ludlow Street. The audience, clearly enjoying the show, refrained from screaming out the lyrics to every song just to prove THEY were the ultimate fans. The band was phenomenal and Raul's voice might as well have been Elvis's back in the day because every woman in the room was swooning. I was reminded why I still listen to music and how even if the bands I listened to have changed (or are the same as 20 years ago) they still have the ability to make me feel alive, in the moment, and connected to something bigger than me.

I remember a (partial) quote by John Keats that I once copied in my journal: "Give me books, fruit, French wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors." Art and music and books will always be essential. They are an integral part of my spiritual life.