Category Archives: Divorce Healing

I Still Choose Happiness

1090786_52658058Here is my very first blog post, written in 2012.  Today it is more true than ever.

If you ask my three young adult children to summarize my motherly advice they would give you three words: “make good choices.” I could have easily dispensed other advice.“Don’t do drugs,” “Study hard,” “Eat your vegetables.” Instead, I concluded “make good choices” covered everything, and I made it my constant theme throughout their lives.

As they grew up, there were many opportunities to discuss choices with my two daughters and my son. There were also many opportunities to admit my own choices, good and bad, as I lived out the consequences of those choices right in front of their eyes.

The most important advice I can give to those involved with divorce is similar but more succinct: choose happiness.

I was divorced from my children’s father after 18 years of marriage. I entered into a second marriage but due to a series of devastating events, after only two years that second marriage also ended in divorce. I was so grief stricken that I could barely function. There were days I just chose to stay in bed. During that time, a friend called. “When your divorce is over, you’re going to SOAR,” she said to me.

SOAR? I was barely upright. But something in her words resonated. I WANTED to soar. I wanted to heal. Most importantly I wanted to be happy.

Through my own healing journey, and watching the thousands of people I have worked with in court and mediation, I have concluded that instead of being a victim, focusing on the sadness, and anger, You must CHOOSE happiness.

Even though I was laden with grief, I started to look up. I focused on the birds flying, flapping their wings over the lake near my home. Often there was only one bird in the sky all by itself, and I jokingly called it my spirit guide. I set my sights on soaring in happiness and used the birds as my guides.

My counselor told me “fake it till you make it.” I began to smile, laugh, speak positively about life. I took up salsa dancing. I was still in deep grief, shock even, that I was divorced. Yet I approached others with a positive, happy attitude. Consistently, I decided to choose happiness, to watch the birds, and to open my heart to life.

In his book The Untethered Soul, author Michael A. Singer says the key to staying happy is to understand your inner energies. “If you look inside, you will see that when you’re happy, your heart feels open and the energy rushes up inside you. When you aren’t happy your heart feels closed and no energy comes up inside. So to stay happy, just don’t close your heart. No matter what happens, even if your wife leaves you or your husband dies, you don’t close.”

I once mediated a case where a father fled the United States after he divorced his children’s mother, leaving her unemployed, with four children to raise and $17 in the bank. He was gone 14 years. The mother told me that she had literally lain crying on the floor for days while her young children watched her. Suddenly it dawned on her that she had a choice. She could choose to be a victim, or she could choose happiness. She picked herself up off the floor, went out and got a job, took classes to refresh her teaching credential and ultimately became a teacher during the day and a sales clerk after hours. It was painstaking and slow, but she rebuilt her life.

The mediation was for the father’s failure to pay child support while he was out of the country. At one point in the mediation the two parties and I met together without lawyers in the room and the husband asked the wife “How did you manage after I left?” The wife told him, “I chose to be happy.” The wife looked at peace, very attractive and calm. She also said that as a result of choosing happiness, she was able to find forgiveness for her husband. Conversely, the husband who ran from his life circumstances was suffering with various physical maladies, looked older than his biological age and spoke from a place of regret and sadness.

Her success because of her choice is not isolated. Recently I received a call from another former client. When we spoke, she was teary and confided that since I’d seen her, her second marriage had collapsed after her second husband admitted an affair with a coworker. She was devastated.

“I know you are hurting, but I promise you, if you choose happiness, you will SOAR,” I told her.

Some months after our conversation, I received a letter from the woman. It read, in part:

Dear Kim,

Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. As crazy as it sounds, our phone conversation changed my life in an instant. I was in a pretty dark hole and trying to deal with pain, unanswered questions and figuring out how to raise my kids when I wasn’t in a good frame of mind. You said some key things to me. The first was that I would experience great happiness and great joy like I had never felt. I made a decision that if I was going to feel those things, why wouldn’t I open my heart now instead of waiting until I healed, which might not happen if I didn’t move it forward. It was an instant mind shift on my part. I have such inner peace and calm. I see my kids and my friends in a whole new light. I take it all in. I am not living to please my husband. The more I gave, the more he took. It wasn’t pretty for anyone. I am living purposely. And I’m laughing….a lot!

The formula is not as difficult as it seems. According to Singer, “You have to stay conscious, centered and committed at all times. You will have to stay one- pointed on your commitment to remain open and receptive to life. But nobody said that you can’t do this.”

And, as my counselor said, “fake it till you make it.”

What does Singer describe as proof the process is working? “ If you remain open enough, waves of uplifting energy will fill your heart.”

Eight years post divorce, my children tease me about my affinity for watching birds, particularly when there is one that seems to be the only one in the sky for miles. “There’s mom’s spirit guide,” they laugh. To this day a lone bird in the sky symbolizes a choice I made at my lowest point: I chose to soar.

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Story Catching

 

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The butterfly net on my fourth floor windowsill .

At Stamatelos & Tollakson, we love the way our law and mediation office is decorated, and one item in particular carries a special meaning. A butterfly net is perched on my fourth floor windowsill. It represents the fact that as compassionate peacemaking attorneys we are story catchers.

Each family has a story, an emotionally laden narrative, unleashed once we’ve invited a client into the sacred, safe space of our inner office. Catching the story is our most important job whether the story is rich with detail or spewing with venom; whether spilling out unfettered once the storyteller opens their lips or coaxed out in slow, staccato pieces through the guidance of our gentle questions.

As we listen, we are figuratively sitting in the dark using our mental butterfly net to sweep in grief, shame, fear, guilt and the details that created them, ultimately dumping out the contents of the net on the conference table for deep examination. Side by side with the client we dissect the narrative, looking for nuggets of understanding and clues for what we might do to move them through divorce using creative problem solving to begin healing their lives and families.

After listening to thousands of stories and navigating the legal system to keep families out of court, here’s what we know about the stories we hear.

1.Divorcing people must choose a compassionate listener. Lawyers are busy people and they are constantly carrying lots of information in their heads. Unless they are intentional and focused, they may not be mindfully present during the story delivery. Compassionate lawyers are easily recognizable. They are the ones that make eye contact, listen with only limited and thoughtful interruption, and empathize with a client’s story. They aren’t the ones that listen sporadically, write down lots of notes and then respond to a story by quoting fees.

2. Failing to get out the entire story short circuits healing, and courtrooms are unhealthy places to tell one’s divorce story. Judges are scrutinizing the stories determining whom and what to believe. Lawyers are listening with an objection in mind, pouncing on pieces of the story that shed a bad light on their client. A judge’s ruling can keep one or more parties stuck in the old story, with more wounding added to an already devastating circumstance.

In mediation or at a collaborative divorce table, alongside their compassionate peacemaking lawyer, clients comfortably share their stories while having empathy, intensive listening and empowerment applied as first aid. This provides our clients relief from their suffering, allowing them to see the possibility of opening to a new post-divorce story.

3. Divorcing parties must let go of pieces of the story that no longer serve them. Divorce client’s stories have common underlying themes: betrayal, struggle, disconnection, abandonment, loss, and grief. Each party is often actively choosing to be the victim or victor in their stories, often identifying the other party as the sole perpetrator. When clients stay “stuck” in their victim story it becomes a tape on automatic replay in their head fueling their heart sickness and sadness. Victim stories and attacking the other spouse can play well in court, where the stories are memorialized in a legal transcript that marks the victim indelibly in perpetuity.

Good lawyers know that clients who stay stuck in their grievance story block pillars of healing like forgiveness and letting go of blame. We are not the heroes of the story, riding in to “fix” our clients’ problems. Instead we are the wise and caring guides who walk alongside them pointing out the path to the future with one hand, our other arm around their shoulders supporting and empowering them when they become weak on the journey. Along the way we are offering them peaceful methods of resolving the divorce and healing their lives.

4. Children of divorce have their stories written by hurting parents. Is it really fair to ask a child to choose one parent over another? As a parent, is “winning” custody of a child making a better story for that child? Most children love and crave time with both parents. Compassionate lawyers unearth the source of fear and worry about a child’s time in the other parent’s care. Through calm and non-accusatory dialogue, expectations can be clarified and communication skills can be strengthened.

5. Clients’ stories are interwoven into other divorce stories. Plot twists happen to our clients when new paramours come on the scene, co-mingling pieces of their own divorce stories. Each adult and each child brings their own wounds or healing from the divorce to the new family dynamic. If brought in early, problem solving lawyers can coach clients before blended family conflict escalates to the point of courtroom intervention. These lawyers can also be resources for therapists, coaches and other professionals to assist families with the complicated transitions.

6. The client is the hero of the story. Peacemaking processes for divorce such as mediation and collaborative law allow the client to write a healthier closing chapter of their marriage. In these processes parties don’t ever see a courtroom, typically spend less money and use specially trained lawyers who are committed to peace for families. Instead of telling the story, the client can live the story, not letting the divorce be the crescendo of their existence. Living intentionally, the client can choose a life of significance and wholeness post divorce, making the most of who they are and what they have, and making a difference in their lives and those of their children, day by day.

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The Four Types of Love in Family Law

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In May of 2014, I had the honor of being invited to a symposium sponsored by the Fetzer Institute, a private operating foundation established in 1962 by John Fetzer. The Institute’s mission is to “foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community.” The conference was called “Divorce: What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

 For three days I worked with collaborative law colleagues from all over the world, exploring love, forgiveness and compassion in our work. Are these concepts appropriate for lawyers to even mention? Do they have a place in our discussions with clients? These issues and others were discussed throughout the conference.

 This blog contains my realizations about love in family law, as a result of the issues we discussed at the conference. 

The word “love” is attached to emotions, experiences, memories and misunderstandings that often cause disputes leading parties to seek out a family law professional. Because of this complexity, the definition of “love” may polarize those seeking to determine the role it plays in family law.

Grateful for my heritage, I find clarity in the Greek language, which offers four different words translated as “love,” each with distinct nuances in their definitions. In my thirty plus years as a family lawyer and mediator, I have seen all four dimensions of love play out in my work.

Eros” is the source of the word “erotic,” and it describes love that is passionate, highly emotional and often electric. Eros is based on self-satisfaction and pleasure and has an intensity that is fueled by one’s attraction to another. It is usually accompanied by sexual connection and scientists describe complex body chemistry affixed to erotic love.

Most relationships have eros at the outset, but in time it usually diminishes or becomes intermittent, leaving parties craving its return. “Why can’t we get that feeling back?” couples may ask bemoaning the fleeting nature of eros and reporting they are no longer “in love,” or have “fallen out of love,” with their partner as a result of its departure. When eros doesn’t return or it shifts to a different type of love, parties may want to sever relationships through family law interventions.

Sometimes a party has entered into a relationship with someone new, thus rediscovering eros, and they come to the family law conference rooms to move out of one relationship into another. Their current partner may be grieving, feeling betrayed and shattered, and the family law practitioner helps both parties make clear headed decisions while navigating their respective intense emotions.

“Storge” is a love based on the natural affection one has for husband, wife, child, or even a pet. Storge is built as family members are “doing life together.” It feels secure and comfortable and stems from receiving unconditional acceptance by family members, despite one’s defects and flaws.

In family law, storge has to be shuffled and realigned, as legal actions divide households. Most parents aren’t able to see their children as often as they’d like, sometimes causing them to fear loneliness and rejection. Finances are redistributed, often resulting in a shortage of money after considering all factors.

“Will the children reject me if I can’t provide for them as elaborately as the other parent, after this divorce?”

This fear of the shifting of storge can cause anxiety and a resultant recalcitrance in positions at the family law negotiation table. Skilled family law practitioners craft creative parenting arrangements and design financial realignment that sustains family security. Once the plans are in place, family members may be reassured and confident to move forward.

“Phileo” is a love grounded in affection or fondness and is the type of love one has in friendships. It is a “brotherly love” that often grows over time, and involves giving as well as receiving.

“We have become more like roommates,” is a common phrase from parties seeking to end their legal relationships, reporting that phileo is now prevalent. Couples who have lived in friendly phileo relationships report long stretches without physical connection, and they are rarely high conflict when they enter the family law environment. These clients often work productively through a mediator, or together in the same room in a collaborative divorce, moving smoothly out of marriages seeking “something more.”

Friends of couples transitioning out of relationships under any of these scenarios can have a great influence as a result of their phileo love. Research shows that the most common person approached for advice when a marriage is in trouble is a female friend, followed by a family member, then a male friend, then a coworker. [1] Accompany their friend to a legal consultation or mediation session these friends offering phileo can impact the outcome of a family law case through their “loving” advice and must be managed by the family law practitioner.

While navigating all of these complex dimensions of love, compassionate family law professionals are able to demonstrate the most noble type of love. “Agape” flows from our passion for the well being of others, which is often the reason we have given our lives to the practice of family law. Agape is fueled by our strong desire to recognize those who are suffering and to do what we can to alleviate that suffering through our skills and gifts in family law processes such as mediation and collaborative divorce.

Agape is not based on merit, circumstances, fault, or actions. It is dispensed to innocent victims in the stories we hear with the same intensity it is given to the unlovable, unkind, unresponsive, or seemingly unworthy. Through the healing balm of agape love, we unconditionally invite all who are involved in family law matters to find their highest selves at a time when they are wounded, confused, scared and broken.

Agape love guides practitioners to see the parties, the families, the friends, the lawyers, the therapists and all who are involved in the legal intervention as fellow human beings connected together on the journey of life, despite their stories or circumstances. Deep listening, empathy, compassion, minimizing blame, encouraging collaboration and introducing forgiveness, are the ways family law practitioners exude agape. Some of us may even mindfully present ourselves as vessels through which God’s own agape love can flow.

What does love have to do with family law? Love has everything to do with family law. By operating through love and recognizing it’s complexity, family law professionals delight in the joy and satisfaction of our work. We are able to connect with our fellow human beings in a way that leaves an indelible mark on their lives, and our own.

[1] 2014, The Doherty Relationship Institute, LLC

Lawyers: A Secret Weapon in Marriage Preservation

cakes-i-made-078As the court expands the definition of marriage, lawyers in the trenches guide couples through the painful process of divorce. Some cases involve blended families, some are high conflict, and some have children caught in the crossfire of parents divorcing for a second or third time.

Traditionally, family lawyers have been surgeons dismantling marriages with a scalpel of skilled advocacy in a courtroom, mediation or collaborative four way meeting. Until now family lawyers, and lawyers in general, have overlooked our role as a resource for another option: marriage preservation.

A group of collaborative lawyers in Minnesota noticed some clients who came for consultations had mixed feelings about whether to divorce. In response, they teamed with University of Minnesota professor Dr. Bill Doherty and his marriage therapist colleagues, to explore the issue. Guided by studies that show one year after divorce 31% of men and 13% of women said, “I wish I had worked harder to save my marriage,” and research that showed 50% of divorces were from low-conflict marriages, the lawyers and therapists named this phenomenon “divorce ambivalence.”

According to Dr. Doherty, people considering divorce will reach out to friends, family, coworkers and divorce lawyers hoping to gain insight in the decision making process. As leaders in our social circles, lawyers are often these “marital first responders” among our friends and family, in addition to those clients who seek our services. Doherty’s research concludes that marital first responders have a great influence over whether these people actually divorce.

Although Iowa is a “no fault” state, people usually describe the reasons they are considering divorce. In Doherty’s studies the “hard issues” (abuse, addiction, adultery) are less frequently cited. Instead it’s mostly “soft issues” such as lack of attention from one’s spouse, money problems, inability to talk together or a spouse’s personal habits.

Doherty finds all marital first responders can influence the following depending on the advice they offer:

  1. Whether a couple ultimately divorces;
  2. Whether a couple talks through ambivalence so they gain clarity on whether that divorce is the best option for them;
  3. Whether a couple “airs out” the emotion and reasons for the choice to divorce, or carries unresolved emotion into a divorce proceeding.

Iowa Code Section 598.16, provides for “conciliation,” upon the motion of one party. In my experience, court orders forcing marriage counseling only guarantee a body sitting in a chair at a counselor’s office. Marriage counseling of unknown duration sounds unappealing to a spouse who may have one foot out the door. Many lawyers tell a client NOT to talk to their spouse, resulting in suppressed emotions while the lawyers begin to plan for battle.

Responding to this gap in resources, Dr. Doherty developed “discernment counseling” a counseling protocol of 1-5 sessions directed at the specific question “Should we get divorced?” not “How can we save our marriage?” After completing training for lawyers on this discernment protocol, members of my collaborative law practice group have begun to suggest discernment counseling to clients. We have also recruited some local marriage counselors to travel to Minnesota to train with Dr. Doherty.

Discernment counseling creates a “pause” before jumping into divorce. At the first session, the couple begins a conversation about whether they should continue in the marriage in it’s present state, commit to a fixed term of six months of intensive marriage counseling, or divorce. They identify as “leaning in” or “leaning out” of the marriage.

I notice a number of positive byproducts in my clients who have chosen discernment counseling.

  1. Spouses resisting divorce who may otherwise create barriers are less combative, indecisive, and feeing “pushed” by the divorce process and court deadlines;
  2. Strong emotions move out of the way faster, so I can offer higher quality legal work due to less triage of emotional outbursts;
  3. Couples easily plan healthy scripts to tell the children about the divorce together, so that one spouse doesn’t hijack the conversation to try to vindicate blame.
  4. The couple feels like they truly exhausted all options before divorcing.
  5. Couples work better as a team, often opting into collaborative divorce and creating a “softer landing”.

Although I am unaware of studies indicating how many marriages are preserved in this process, I am sure there are some. In each of my consultations I carefully guide clients through a discussion about whether the marriage can be saved before rushing into filing for divorce. I mention it often when I serve as a mediator, especially as I detect ambivalence in the stories I hear. I can’t remember ever having any potential client be put off by this and instead I have had incredibly good responses to this approach, including from the clients who have opted for discernment counseling then come back to go through with divorce.

Each of us is likely to be a marital first responder at some time, either professionally or personally. Do we say, “I’m so glad you are finally leaving him/her!” even when we are approached by friends or family? Or will we encourage those in crisis to reflect carefully about their decision to divorce? In our legal practice, should lawyers take down initial data and run to the scanner to e-file a divorce at the first visit? Or are we better gatekeepers for families in every walk of life to realize the influence we have on those contemplating divorce, and to encourage the possibility of a “pause?”

I know I have felt an increase in my effectiveness and satisfaction as an advocate for families, by providing a deeper exploration of divorce ambivalence with those who seek my guidance.

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What if?

help-life-preserver-belt-sky-rescue-17173335Dear God, Please heal my romantic wounds, that I might give and receive true love.  Teach me how to let love in, and how to let it stay. –Amen

From “The Age of Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson.

 Recently I was contacted by a group of people working to promote the preservation of marriage.  It seems humorous to think a divorce lawyer,  herself twice divorced, would have something to offer the group.  But I’ve come to marvel at how God uses our mistakes and wounds, once healed, for His most important work.

I always ask clients who come into my office seeking divorce whether the marriage can be saved. Sometimes mediation first round discussions involve the question of whether the the divorce should continue. Clients will say they have tried to save the marriage, but that one or the other wouldn’t commit, or refused to give up a third party or a debilitating habit.  Many have tried marriage counseling.

The statistics the preservationists showed me indicate that in 75% of divorces at least one spouse is having second thoughts one year later.   In one survey 31% of men and 13% of women said they “wished I had worked harder to save my marriage.”

As we brainstormed ways lawyers could help in a marriage preservation initiative, I couldn’t help but think of my own divorce from FP. Even five years post divorce I ask myself that question every now and again.  “What if I had stayed?”

After years of hearing divorce stories and creating two of my own, I am convinced that the most important part of staying married is a commitment for the partners to “do their personal work.”  We are all wounded, some more than others, but until we have the courage to heal ourselves we can never reach the fullness of life that God created for us. If we are not whole, we can’t sustain an intimate relationship.

In her book “The Age of Miracles” author Marianne Williamson writes that in relationships, couples are ” drawn to each other in a way that our neuroses form a perfect fit. The ego’s intention is that they trigger each other’s wounds, but God’s intention is that they heal each other’s wounds. Which it will be is up to them. Whoever is willing to do the work in a relationship, seeing it as an opportunity for self-healing, will receive the blessing whether the other person makes the same choices or not. ”

“This is soon going to be a runaway train, ” I told FP shortly after filing for divorce, knowing how the legal process worked. “I think we both need to fix ourselves.  I am willing to do the hard work. If you will do it too, I will walk alongside you and hold your hand.   This is a defining moment that I will remember fighting for our marriage. Will you commit to doing the work?”

He stayed silent and continued eating a bowl of cereal.

I had a choice. I could stay, or cut loose for my journey of self to heal wounds that I had carried in to two marriages. I knew lessons we don’t learn will come back around until we have embraced them.

A couple we were friendly with came the next day and moved FP in with them. The marriage preservation folks say that friends who enter our story at this time have a great deal of influence over whether the marriage ends. They say that friends should be empathetic and listen, but should not encourage divorce. Instead they should refer us to resources that support entering upon a healing journey.

I often wonder what FP told those friends. They never had a conversation with me. I wonder what might have happened if, instead of whisking him away, they had sat us both down and counseled us to do the hard work. Interestingly, those friends have since divorced.

What makes some of us have the courage to heal our lives while others stay stuck?  Is it fear of the pain of looking in the mirror? Unwillingness to put forth the effort?  Lack of commitment to our partner, or to our marriage?  A combination of the above?  With FP, I will never know. One of the most painful things a partner in a marriage can do is to disconnect from someone they still love in order to embark on a journey of self.

“Healing can hurt,” writes Williamson. “Whether it’s the healing of having to face the shame of our own humiliation, or the pain of having to turn our backs on someone whose patterns are unhealthy for us to be around though we love them still.  Either way, the pain of the healing is far preferable to the pain of remaining at the effect of a neurotic pattern.”

I am a totally different person having made the difficult choice to leave.  I found life.  I don’t know exactly how to articulate this to my marriage preservation friends, most of whom describe long term healthy marriages where they have both committed to do the hard personal work.  What would they have done if their mate had been unwilling to join them on the journey?

I mourn for the marriages where only one chooses to heal. I wonder where I would be if FP had joined me. Where we would be. Even if we had done the work together would we have ended up a stronger couple?  Or would our mutual healing have led us to separate places?  I will never know.

According to Williamson, “Each must choose. The one who learns and grows will mature and ripen with age.  The one who doesn’t will just grow old….”

Divorce was a necessary step for me.  When I meet with clients, in addition to asking whether the marriage can be saved, I now ask them if they have explored deeply the idea of “doing their personal work together.” Some I send off to discernment counseling, a unique way of counseling around the question of “will we commit to try to save our marriage?” Others, I refer to individual counseling so that the pain of divorce breaks them open to finding themselves. I feel that by softly asking these questions and encouraging people to transform their lives, I am not just a machine filing divorces for the people who bring me a retainer.

The most important part of my healing journey was of course, strengthening my connection with God. “The problem with not yet leaning on God is that we tend to lean inordinately on other people. Failing to embrace a love that will always be there for us, we become vulnerable to ones that won’t be,” writes Williamson.

Whenever I ask myself the “what if” question, mine is worded a little differently.

“What if I had stayed,

And missed my life?”

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GUEST BLOG-“Plus One” by Robin Bourjaily

_DSC0190_1Thank you to my beautiful friend Robin for the following post.

“What are you doing September 7?”

Did he hear me catch my breath in July when he invited me to be his plus one for a wedding two months later? The relationship still today feels new; back then it was in its infancy and I couldn’t be sure we’d be interested in each other a week hence let alone in two months. But the day came and with it new shoes, a new-to-me skirt, and a handbag borrowed from my daughter. I like weddings, I told myself; it’s marriage that’s a problem.

So I wasn’t prepared for the emotional wallop I felt when we were sitting on the patio of the park lodge, looking at the tulle, lights, and bows and waiting for the wedding party and I realized—I hadn’t been to a wedding since I’d been divorced.

The very first wedding I attended was my cousin’s in her parents’ backyard garden where the patent leather shoes and little gloves my mother sent me in made me the most formally dressed guest. I was five. The bride wore flowers in her tumble of long dark hair, a loose, flowing dress and in my memory her feet were bare. The groom, all angles and limbs, was causal and comfortable. One of the most loving and supportive couples I know, they have been married more than forty years.

A series of classic, Iowa country weddings followed, those of our neighbors’ many daughters—the country church decked out in flowers, the groom and his men looking rather like beetles in their rented tuxes, the pouf of a wedding dress and the giggling girls full of youthful energy. The menu at the Lion’s Hall or the Elk’s Lodge would be sandwiches, relish trays, cheese squares and cake. There would be pink lemonade punch and a cash bar. The bride would dance a dollar dance—a dance where the best man would stand and wait to take money from any gentleman who wanted to dance with the bride. If the wedding party was particularly sassy, the groom might also be pressed into a dollar dance of his own, the best man and maid of honor competing to see whose dancer could raise more cash. The money would be stuffed into the groom’s pocket for extra spending on the honeymoon.

My first year of college, my brother’s wedding was an elegant diversion—twenty-six guests including bride, groom and celebrant, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. In spite of a last minute lost wedding band that sent the two of us around the corner to Tiffany’s to buy a new one, the evening was a celebration that launched another marriage I admire—two talented children and two vibrant, nurtured careers to be marked by their thirty year anniversary in January.

The first chocolate cake I ever saw at a wedding was a second marriage for both bride and groom when I was in graduate school. The bride, a friend of my mother’s, had selected a cake that was wrapped in chocolate fondant with a white-chocolate bow. The inside of the cake was as delicious as the outside was beautiful.

And then in 1990 my friends started to get married—my college roommate was the first—and what followed was a spate of weddings, sometimes six or eight in a year, at the same time as a lasting relationship came into my life. Sitting in wait for the bride and groom to arrive at a garden wedding outside of Philadelphia, I counted on my fingers the number of weddings we had attended in the years we’d been together. When I got to twelve I turned to my boyfriend and asked, “you know we’ve been to a dozen weddings?” He looked at me and grinned, “Maybe ours should be the next one we attend.”

It was an exciting summer, talking marriage. A trip to my hometown netted an ideal location. We made no formal announcement nor did I consider us to be engaged, but the idea was definitely in the pipeline and it felt right.

It felt right.

The proposal came—that all-important question asked and answered—in November. We set a date for the following April.

My wedding is my favorite wedding of all time, and I’ve been to some great ones. The groom and I attended to every detail, paid for the lion’s share ourselves, made sure it was elegant and joyful, wrote a ceremony and vows that were meaningful, chose music and performers accordingly, found the perfect (chocolate) cake recipe, had dark chocolate bunnies made as favors (our wedding was the day before Easter), chose our own flowers and prepared them, figured out where everyone would stay, wrote and printed the invitations, and on and on and on. It was not perfect, but there were no unbearable hitches, nothing that would end up on a funny video show, and my only true surprise was that I was both bride and hostess. Another time, I made a note to myself in the far reaches of my brain, I’d ask someone else to maintain the flow from ceremony to meal to cake.

Another time … I never in my life thought there would be another time. I still don’t. But there must be a part of a woman’s brain that’s wired for weddings. Leading up to my wedding I found a whole storehouse of information about weddings, what I liked, what I didn’t, what was traditional, what we could do without. And even now, even when the very idea of any wedding makes me shake my head vigorously, no, no never again, there’s a part of my brain that starts to imagine: second wedding, huh? What would I wear? What would be fun and joyful? What would be meaningful? That’s one answer I know: What creates a meaningful wedding is the connection between bride and groom, and when the ceremony and celebration emerge from that place, it’s a good wedding. When it doesn’t it’s because the wedding follows a cookie cutter template or the mother of the bride or some other relative prevails over choices that spring from the love that sparked the wedding in the first place.

And that’s where my wedding, ceremony and celebration came from, pure love. When I was still married, my wedding day was one of my stories, something I told about as a significant life moment like the birth of my two children, my graduations, the purchase of my first car. When people spoke, as people do, about such events in their own lives, I had my story. I could chime in.

But not that September Saturday, when I was my boyfriend’s plus one for the wedding of people I did not know. I could not. The woman sitting next to me at the reception more than once evoked her own wedding. When it was my turn, I told her about my brother’s wedding, my friend’s wedding, how many times I’d been a bridesmaid. I talked weddings, how many I’d been to, the extremes, but I never once referenced my own. It felt like something I couldn’t talk about any more, not with a stranger, not on a date, not at a moment when we were supposed to be celebrating all of the possibilities and joys of a brand new union.

I’ve been thinking about it since—have I lost my story? The marriage shifted dramatically, ending in divorce, but does that change the wedding story, revoke it somehow? I walk my brain back through and remember one of the wisest things my former husband ever said: You don’t know what you don’t know. When we got married, we did so thoughtfully, with joy and pure intention and love. That moment—that story—hasn’t changed. The marriage that followed netted many amazing twists and turns and two of the finest people I know. And with that understanding I have come to realize that the only thing that has changed is that my wedding was a chapter in my story, but it is still very much a part of my narrative, one that I can celebrate, cherish, and in time, should the occasion arise, share.

Robin’s regular blog is “Overneath It All” found at overneathitall.com

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MY HEART’S DESIRE

 

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“Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart”-Psalm 37:4

I got my first diary for Christmas when I was in elementary school. Its cover was pink  with “My Diary” in cursive and of course, it had a delicate lock and key. I would sit and write my heart’s desire into the pages, then lock it up, returning it to its secret hiding place.

In college, my diary turned into entries scribbled in spiral notebooks.  Ultimately I switched to hard backed journals. Some were leather and others had Audrey Hepburn or a pithy inspirational saying on the front if they came from the sale table.

Pens for this writing have always been meticulously selected. Mostly gel blue medium points, smooth to the touch.  To this day I can’t resist the allure of the pen aisle at any store;  looking them over, selecting some then changing my mind, and always leaving with a new writing instrument.

For years I’ve attended the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival, even flying in from Arizona when the children were young. I spend the weekend among kindred spirits on campus, unleashing my writer self. My friend Pam, the holder of a coveted creative writing degree, started to make the Iowa City trek with me a few years ago. We take the classes, write for hours and read our works to each other all weekend.

Four years after my divorce from FP while moving boxes to and fro in the basement, one box wouldn’t fit into my orderly rearrangement. Opening it to see if its contents could be tossed, I found it contained my journals from the years with FP.  I concluded I  was supposed to read them, so that night I propped myself in bed with several pillows and layers of warm covers even though it wasn’t cold outside.  For the next several nights I slowly turned  over each page, reading carefully.

“God wants you to have your heart’s desire,” FP had said over and over when I had questioned whether we should get married, and the pages reflected much on this topic.  Over time I’d assumed he was right and I acquiesced to marriage in spite of whispers of my inner voice.  The pages chronicled the details as the whispers became louder and ultimately the marriage ended in a painful divorce.

A few weeks after I’d read the journals, a new client came into my law office.  R and her husband had sought a collaborative divorce.  During our meetings she had commented, “We have to be sure to include the rights to my book in the property list.”

“Wow, a book! “ I’d replied in awe of her as a real writer. “I am so envious! I’ve always fancied myself a writer and it’s my dream to write a book.”

“Well,” she said, “when this is all over we will have to make that dream a reality.”

I had been realizing God was bringing just the right people into my life, and lo and behold here was a writer.  Because He always delivers “immeasurably more than we ask or imagine,” (Ephesians 3:20) she then said, “I am also a yoga teacher. One of my classes is Poses and Prose which incorporates yoga with writing.”

My two passions: writing and yoga.  I chuckled. Definitely God.

When her divorce was final, I signed up for a yoga/writing workshop with R.  It was amazing. Afterwards I asked R if she would coach me in writing and she agreed.

We began regular meetings at Caribou Coffee. I started with professional writing and quickly three  articles I wrote were published in The Iowa Lawyer magazine. R edited my early writing and gave me confidence through her encouragement.  I kept printed copies of the published articles in my law office  saying  “You might find this article I wrote helpful,” in my consultations with prospective clients.

I was a writer!

I also began to write my blog.  R helped me think of ideas and I read her blog for guidance.   I pressed the button to publish my first post amidst heart palpitations and fears of unworthiness.  “Your heat’s desire!” outshouted my inner critic.

“I think this blog could help people,” commented Father A when I emailed him the first few installments. With my earthly spiritual father’s blessing I was more empowered and I posted regularly.

For my birthday a few months ago Pam gave me a special gift.  My first dozen blogposts were published in a hardback book.  I opened it in shock.  “I am a writer.”

R and I still have a warm friendship.  I practice at her yoga studio, and we meet at Caribou for writing dates where we chat briefly then sit side by side writing.  When I talk to her about my writing life, she nods with understanding.

This past winter I took on a new project and  last month I completed a draft of my first book. It is a book for attorneys, and it is currently being edited.  I anticipate self- publishing it early next year.

I often think back to FP’s definition of my heart’s desire.  He limited it to romance.  Romance is beautiful but I’ve discovered the real definition is so much deeper.  It includes the love God has for me, and His intimate knowledge of my heart. He created that little girl who wrote in that first diary all those years ago, and He knew that writing made her heart flutter with joy.

I understand the Psalm now.  If you take delight in the Lord He will give you the desires of your heart.

And my heart’s desire is Him.

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photo-6There are times in life when nothing meaningful seems to be happening. You’re content but you wonder what is next, and when it’s coming.

I’ve heard it called “the in between.” My friend Alicia calls it “when God has you in the marinade.”

I’d been in the marinade for months, when my friend, Dr. J invited me to visit her in her hometown in rural Iowa. A new man, her perfect match, had recently entered her life. “Good Dave,” I’d called him for distinction because we both knew another Dave who hadn’t warranted the “Good” moniker. He and Dr. J were regulars with their friends for Tuesday night summer motorcycle rides to eat chicken wings at an outdoor beer garden. My invitation was to join them for chicken wing night.

I hesitated, resisting a long trip to the country on a “school night.” The idea of a motorcycle ride also made me uneasy. Dr. J’s gentle persuasion made me agree to step out of the marinade.

Tuesday came and it was rainy and cool and part of me hoped we’d cancel. Close to the hour of departure the clouds suddenly cleared and the bright sun popped up without derailing the cool afternoon.

When I got to Good Dave’s farm he greeted me warmly. His good friend Stormer would be my driver. Dr. J gave me a sturdy helmet and made me feel confident of Stormer’s capabilities at handling a timid passenger on a Harley. I followed in my car as Good Dave and Dr. J led the way to Stormer’s house riding Good Dave’s Harley “Puff.”

We got to Stormer’s and the group of friends welcomed me. Most of them had grown up together in rural Iowa and their rich history of connectedness was palpable. They even shared their own nicknames for each other and each nickname came with a story.

The friends all had on motorcycle regalia, most of which said “Harley Davidson.” I had grabbed a Lulu Lemon yoga jacket on my way out the door, and at my daughter’s insistence I’d changed out of my Tori Burch ballet flats and into a pair of suede shoes with a heel. My motorcycle outfit looked wimpy and out of place and gave away the fact I was a novice, and a city girl.

Stormer tenderly gave me instructions on how to be a dutiful passenger, reassuring me that he would drive safely. I told him he had come highly recommended, and gingerly climbed aboard his motorcycle, finding my place in the comfortable seat behind him. The motorcycles and one jeep without a top or doors began our caravan to the beer garden, which was 30 miles away, and deeper into the Iowa countryside.

Stormer cranked music that played from the belly of the motorcycle while leather handle bar streamers flapped in the wind. It made me remember the sparkly streamers I’d had on my bicycle as a little girl. I began to feel the same freedom I’d had when I’d ridden my bike only this time I got to look at the lush green Iowa countryside as Stormer took confident control of the navigation.

Our bike was number two in the lineup and I peeked in the rearview mirror and smiled as I saw the crew lined up behind us. As we passed farm houses and tractors plowing the fields, I wondered what it might have been like to grow up in a rural community. I began to relax in the country air and I leaned into Stormer’s strong body like my armor of protection.

The radio kicked into a familiar classic oldie, and I went back in time mentally retracing my steps since that era. I felt like God was showing me I’d had a good life, and that the simple parts of life like I was experiencing on the motorcycle had been the most important part of it. Being in the marinade had a purpose.

We got to the beer garden where I grabbed Stormer’s shoulder and hoisted myself off the bike, making my way to the outdoor picnic table. Once there we met up with other friends, more nicknames being gleefully exchanged, and a big group of motorcycles were all parked in perfect alignment out front. Soon we were eating greasy chicken wings and drinking cold beer from the iced bucket of long necks. “You are under medical supervision to eat this food,” joked Dr. J, my clean eating guru.

The lighthearted fun continued as the sun went down. I watched newcomers come and go from the patio, recognizing the same small town easiness in all of them I had admired in our group. I felt myself surrender my walls, letting go of my city attitude and giving freedom to my authentic self.

Soon it was dark, and time to leave.

The night had turned cooler so Stormer opened a compartment on the motorcycle and took out a heavier jacket that displayed “Harley Davidson” on the front. It was big enough to have room for three of me, but I put it on over my yoga jacket and zipped it up. I hopped easily into my place behind Stormer like a pro, and the caravan was off.

I was warm on the bike, contentedly full of wings and at ease with myself. Stormer skillfully maneuvered the bike on our ride home. We stopped at a stop sign and moved alongside Good Dave’s bike. He and Stormer exchanged nods, and the order of the lineup changed. On the last leg home, we were in the lead.

Our route took us deeply down Twister Hill. We were surrounded by a canopy of ancient intertwined tree branches shrouding us in mysterious darkness except for a glimpse of moonlight that barely peeked through. The music played and the bike engine roared as we began to climb back up the hill on the other side of where we’d come.

Suddenly we were in the unfettered spotlight of the most magnificent full moon I have ever seen. Bright, strong, and magnetic, it released a wave of joyful night energy that pulsed within me as it guided us home. Stormer was mesmerized by it too, and we commented with awe at it’s amazing beauty.

I took a mental snapshot, wanting to remember the moment forever because it was perfect. The moon, the night, the company, the ride, the serenity, and most of all the reminder from God through the beauty of His creation, that as life moves forward, everything is as it should be.

Moonlight and Motorcycles

Peace, Love, Yoga

photo-3OM
Namah Shivaya Gurave
I offer myself to the Light, the Auspicious One,
Who is the True Teacher within and without,
Saccidananda Murtaye
Who assumes the forms of Reality, Consciousness and Bliss,
Nisprapancaya Shantaya
Who is never absent and is full of peace,
Niralambaya Tejase
Independent in existence, the vital essence of illumination
OM- The Anusara invocation done at the beginning of a yoga class

It was 1976 and I thought I would be an English teacher, a social worker or a professional dancer so I sought out classes in each as an undergraduate at Arizona State University. The dance classes were filled but my eye caught a listing for something unusual: yoga. I signed up and went to my first yoga class at the ASU gym.

That choice has led to a life long passion.  Yoga has been, and continues to be, one of the constants in my life. It’s a touchstone throughout my ups and downs; a connection to my life in a way second only to my faith.

I have taken hundreds of classes in every kind of yoga in cities all around the country.  When I traveled to France a few years ago I was unable to find time to fulfill one of my life’s dreams: to take a yoga class in France, in French.  That is still one of the top three of my bucket list.

In the old days I could only find “gym yoga,”which is sort of like drinking wine out of the box when you know there is  a bottle of the good stuff out there somewhere.  Later, as yoga studios popped up, I’d catch some great classes when I was out of town on pleasure or business trips. Often I’d take my yoga clothes to mediations with me and grab a taxi across town to a yoga class I’d found with the help of the hotel concierge. When I was working for several months in California, I had my favorite studios between LA and San Diego, many close to the ocean.

I loved learning the names of the poses in Sanskrit and some classes had music. The music of Deva Premal or Krishna Das touched me deeply. Some instructors played a harmonium, which is a small pump organ. In some classes we would also chant.

When my dad was a hospice patient in my Arizona home for 7 months as he fought his last illness, the yoga was the medicine I took as I administered his.  Slipping out of the house with the hospice volunteer holding down the fort, I’d go to my favorite yoga studio.  Each day brought a different type of yoga.  There was Anusara the body alignment yoga; Ashtanga the physically demanding yoga; Vinyasa or flowing yoga; and Yin where we held poses for what seemed like hours while our bodies melted more deeply into the posture with each breath.

Back then, Anjie was my favorite teacher. She was beautiful, kind and gentle.  When she would offer a chance to move deeper by gently touching my back while I was in a seated forward fold, I could feel her energy and warmth being infused into my spine by telekenisis through her hands.

Debra, a classmate at this regular gathering of yogis and yoginis, went off to yoga training and rose from our ranks to lead us.  Her classes and music were sensual, and when she spoke in Sanskrit her voice was slow and luscious and as your body flowed to her instructions you felt beautiful, sexy and alive.

Over time Debra changed her name to D-heart (symbol), a move reminiscent of “the artist formerly known as Prince.” She paid extra attention to a young studley yogi who was one of the more bendy and supple men I have ever seen in a yoga class. Watching them side by side, moving through a vinyasa in perfect synchronicity, is indelibly etched in my mind in the same manner as a painting I once saw at the Louvre.

I was entranced with all of it: Anjie, D-heart, supple yoga man, the yin yogini who could lay in a twist over a yoga brick  and put her head on the floor and stay there until monsoon season. Yoga served as the escape from my life, my problems, the bedside care of my father and the loneliness of raising my three children while their father traveled 5 days a week with his work.

At the conclusion of every yoga class we lay on our backs in savasana, the corpse pose where the yoga you have done sinks into the marrow. Later, when FP came on the scene, I’d lay in savasana sending invisible gratitude balloons up to God.  I’d thank Him for that post asana life pulsing through every crevice of my body and for the love for my man that was shooting straight out of my heart 24/7.

After the divorce from FP, I switched to hot yoga and enjoyed being in the dark, hoping all of my sadness could be left in the puddle of sweat at my feet at the end of the practice. Tears are easily disguised amidst perspiration and tears flowed as my  body released memories and hurts stored inside it. Sadly the hot yoga teacher turned things into a yoga/exercise boot camp as the 20somethings in class joked about sweating out weekend booze.  I cringed, realizing the essence of yoga was lost on all of them.

Awhile ago, the founder of Anusara yoga was accused of ethical misconduct.  The yogi Bikram who originated a series of poses in a particular order tried to (unsuccessfully) copyright them and was accused of sexually harassing his students.  Suddenly in looking for yoga as my constant it seemed to be mimicking the rest of the world:  lost, moving away from the sacred and turning instead to exploitation and big business, drifting from what I had experienced for over 35 years as a practitioner.

Now, I continue to practice yoga regularly. I’m  content at my current studio where the beautiful owner leads many of the classes and the instructors that support her are loving and generous spirits.  On this past summer solstice I did the yoga tradition of 108 sun salutations and when I laid on my mat at the end, drenched in sweat and happy with the accomplishment, I found that the lesson that bubbled up was humility.  It’s just like yoga to surprise me with the lessons I least expect.

When I am asked to “go inside” I often close my eyes and flash through the list of those in my yoga story.  Anjie who I am told married a widower with young children and raised them as her own.  Debra/D-heart who vanished from class the same time the supple yogi did and to the best of my knowledge neither has been seen since.  Tattooed and pierced practitioners in Chicago, midlifers at a class near my daughter’s college campus, Orange County housewives in Laguna Beach and even the 20- somethings who are trying to lose weight and detox with yoga and are missing it altogether. I bless them all.

My life would not have been the same without yoga. Wanting to bring me this joy, I am certain God closed the dance class at ASU to open the door to my yoga path.

And I will someday get that yoga class done in France, in French.  And at the end, despite the language barrier, I will hear the sound that brings me home.

“Namaste.”

Dr. J

photo-1When the Dalai Lama was asked what surprised him most about humanity, he replied: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”-Dalai Lama XIV

One evening I was working late at my law office when the phone rang. A former client, a woman physician, was on the line. She explained that her friend and female colleague, Dr. J, was in the middle of a divorce and wanted to change lawyers. She hooked her into the call, we talked briefly and scheduled an appointment.

When I met with Dr. J we discussed her case and also her medical practice. I was impressed with her professional accomplishments, and her innovative approach to medicine and health. Dr. J and I discovered many commonalities. Even our divorce stories had common threads. She transitioned her case to my office.

About six weeks before trial on the case, I took a long trip to Northern California to vacation and spend time with my good friend Prof. I had taken Dr. J’s file with me to California.

One day during my visit Prof was extremely busy with work, so I had the day to myself. After taking a great yoga class in Napa, I chose to work on Dr. J’s case. Shortly after I started working, a horrible frightening heaviness come over me. I felt like I was suffocating in the dark hotel room so I went out into the fresh California air to breathe. When I went back inside it began to happen all over again. I brushed it off and didn’t mention it to Prof that evening when he picked me up for dinner. I forgot about it when I flew home.

As Dr. J’s trial date approached my paralegal and I began to put the large volumes of documents together, and agreed to work on a Saturday. That day at home in my favorite chair, needing to go to the office, I felt physically paralyzed. I was stuck to the chair like glue. I burst into tears and ultimately got up.

The trial went well. A few weeks later, I called Dr. J to share the judge’s ruling with her. After our discussion, I asked her for an appointment to come to see her professionally.

Dr. J’s intake physical with every patient is two hours long. She sat right across from me as we talked, taking brief notes. I loved her approach. I felt calm, like she had all the time in the world for me. She asked about things in addition to my physical history: nutrition, sleep, stress and spirituality.

I gave myself an A plus in the spirituality department. But I was hardly sleeping. I’d skipped meals and over-exercised my whole life to try to stay trim. I had also been immersed in stress, both personally and professionally, for years until I started my path to healing post-divorce.

In the intake interview, I confided to her the strange experiences I’d had while working on her case.  She sat back in her chair and had a worried look on her face.

“What you are describing is not surprising. Lawyers are some of the unhealthiest people I treat,” she said. “They have so much stress and bad health habits that their bodies are shot. I want to do some blood work, but based on what you have told me if you don’t change your life soon it is only a matter of time before you end up sick, or worse. What you described during the trial preparation was your body trying to get your attention while you were in stress.”

I’d never imagined my physical body was part of the healing equation. The blood work showed some minor reversible irregularities. I began to work with Dr. J in learning to care for myself physically.

“When a pilot charts a plane’s course, if they made only a 1% change in the instrument calibration, the plane would end up way off the mark. You have to start with a 1% change to your health habits. That alone could save your life by preventing disease and further damage to your immune system which is where you are currently headed.”

Dr. J had me take Epsom salts baths before bed to relax and also suggested magnesium tablets for sleep. I removed the television from my bedroom. I began to sleep soundly ultimately not being satisfied with less than eight hours because it made me feel so wonderfully rested to have such quality sleep.

She invited me to lunch at her farm to breathe country air. As we ate our healthy foods she reminded me to go outdoors connecting mindfully with nature more regularly.

We examined my diet and I was embarrassed to admit to skipping meals and having cereal or popcorn for dinner most nights. She took me shopping at a healthy grocery store going up and down each aisle while she showed me how to read labels, and educated me on nutrition, “clean eating,”  and organic cooking.

My refrigerator became a habitat for green leafy things that I had never previously met. I started packing my lunch every day and having a constant supply of nuts, protein powder and fruits at the office. Convincing me that soda pop was poison, I stopped even serving it to clients. I ate throughout the day every few hours and drank lots of water. I began to feel full of energy and clear headed.

Most importantly Dr. J reminded me that my body was God’s temple, and I needed to keep it strong in order to serve Him and to fulfill His mission for my life. She told me something that has fundamentally changed my life’s view. She reminded me that doctors and lawyers are the same: we are healers.

In the book Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul, author Gary Thomas reminds us “We are not angels, pursuing God without physical covering, and if we try to pretend that we are—living as though the state of our bodies has no effect on the condition of our souls—all the proper doctrine in the world can’t save us from eating away our sensitivity to God’s presence or throwing away years of potential ministry if we wreck our heart’s physical home.”

God had taken people out of my life and he’d moved this amazing doctor in. I had assisted her in her legal journey and she was my guide to honoring my physical body and health. She has since become one of my closest friends.

Isn’t it just like God to know we could help each other and to have us cross paths?

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