Friday, November 24, 2017

Living Your Bliss

She had a long-time dream: to dance, to paint, to perform on her own terms.

A native of New York City, Marta Beckett studied ballet and painting from an early age. She danced at Radio City Music Hall and in several Broadway musicals including the original production of "Wonderful Town." But her dream was to have her own show and to make her own art her way. In 1967, Marta and her husband set off on a tour with her one-woman show, but were sidelined momentarily in isolated Death Valley with a flat tire.

It was then that she made an amazing discovery: a dilapidated meeting hall in an abandoned building that she saw immediately as a theatre and potential hotel. Her New York friends were aghast. But she rented the place, initially, for $45 a month, named it the Amargosa Opera House and started renovations herself. She painted backdrops, scenery and, eventually, unique murals of a perpetual, silent audience on the walls of the theatre. By the next year, she was performing her own ballets in the small theatre. Sometimes she had an audience. Sometimes she didn't. But she always performed on schedule three nights a week. As the story of Marta's work at the Amargosa Opera House spread around the world, the little theatre was usually filled to capacity during the performing season. People came to see this dancer turned legend, to see someone truly following her bliss. In her later years, she remarked "It's a perfect life for someone creative. It's as if this place found me."

She performed there until 2012, giving her last sold-out performance when she was 85. Like all of her other evenings of dance and pantomime at this tiny desert theatre, her last performance was filled with joy.

Her legacy continues.

Some years back, Jenna McClintock, a six-year-old girl from Oakland had come with her vacationing family to see Marta dance and she was transfixed. She decided on the spot to study ballet and, one day, to follow in Marta's footsteps. She grew up, became a dancer and wrote to Marta that she would love to learn her repertoire and to keep her work alive. Marta was delighted, never missing one of Jennifer's performances. Marta died at her home in Death Valley in January 2017. Jennifer continues to keep Marta's dreams alive as she follows her own bliss.

We all have our own visions, our own dreams of what bliss might be.

What's yours? Are you living it today? Or is it still elusive? What would it take to make it happen? What would the first step be?

Sometimes the first step is getting past one's own threshold anxiety or procrastination or the inclination to forever put others first. Sometimes the whole concept can seem selfish. But following your bliss doesn't have to mean selfishness or ignoring the needs of those you love. It can mean simply carving out time and space in your life to do something you really want to do. It isn't something you need to do perfectly -- now or ever. Just do it!

Ask yourself, as you dream of that glorious someday when you can follow your bliss, "If not now, when?"

My bliss, after years of working multiple jobs, was to retire to my little casita to write full-time once again. This new, blissful phase of my writing career started in 2010 when I started this blog and then, not having written a new book in more than a decade, wrote several books -- including Purr Therapy in 2014 and We Don't Talk Anymore published this fall.

A number of my friends are also following their bliss.

My friend Georgia, retired after years as a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, enjoys painting and other artwork in her small studio. Her husband Mark is an expert woodworker, making lovely furniture, each piece an original. And together they have been advocates and guardians for a neighbor child who needs their warmth and expertise so much.

My friend Maria, after a demanding career as a financial journalist, enjoys giving back to her Ukrainian community in Chicago, sometimes by mentoring young people, sometimes by writing grant proposals for her church and community organizations.

My friend Tim, still working a demanding job, nevertheless enjoys spending weekends as a deacon at his church, helping to feed the homeless in the church's outreach programs and comforting members of the congregation by joining them in prayer for their special needs and concerns.

There are so many ways to live one's bliss without excuses or apologies. Living authentically and happily can be contagious: there are so many ways that living your bliss can extend beyond your own satisfaction and contentment to enrich the lives of others immeasurably.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reunion Reflections

We've all been to bad class reunions. Those are the ones where:

  • Only strangers from our class show up and we all stare into our glasses of wine or punch, making awkward conversation with each other
  • The class pariah gets rejected all over again by aging mean girls 30 years after graduation
  • Bragging about personal achievements or those of the kids is the center of our classmates' (and often our own) conversations
  • Grudges and jealousies still live all these years later
  • You find yourself struggling to make a five minute conversation with once-upon-a-time best high school friend with whom you once shared your deepest secrets.

But time goes by and as we grow and change, the nature of class reunions can change.

I first noticed this at my 50th high school reunion four years ago: there was a new ease with each other and greater joy in reuniting with the women who were once Catholic high school girls with me in what seems like another lifetime.

One of the greatest pleasures of that reunion was spending time talking with my former classmate Claire Griffith who had seemed so cool and sophisticated when we were young that I was too scared to talk to her all through high school. Fifty years later, she was the first person I saw -- and embraced -- at the reunion. And as we talked -- so easily -- she told me that underneath that cool veneer had been a young girl who was lonely, who couldn't understand why her parents sent her to boarding school, who felt out-of-place as a non-Catholic at this Catholic school. My heart went out to that young girl and to the marvelous woman she had become. I was thankful that we had a second chance in life to connect.

I recently attended my 50th college reunion at Northwestern University near Chicago. This was wonderful in whole new ways.



 My years at Northwestern were a critical turning point in my life. Attending college nearly 2,000 miles away from home set me on the path to a new, independent life. I was away from the chaos and isolation of living with an alcoholic, mentally ill parent. Despite my shyness and initial fear, Northwestern was heaven. I made some of the best friends of my life. I grew both emotionally and academically in a newly challenging environment. My years there prepared me for everything that was to come and made my career as a writer possible. I've always been thankful for the professors who cared and some very special friends with whom I shared so many goals and dreams.

And returning to this place, this pivotal point in my life, for a 50th reunion brought some revelations about the advantages of age and new insights into how we grow with the years, the wisdom of letting go of what no longer matters, the value of warm reconnections and the blessing of love that has thrived and matured through time.

I was surprised and pleased to discover that:

1. We were genuinely glad to see each other just because.... While there was tremendous joy in seeing the classmates who have been lifelong friends, there was also special delight in reconnecting with people I hadn't seen in 50 years. That was especially true of the women with whom I had shared a freshman dorm when I was so young, more than a little scared, but excited to be living among so many new friends.

For example, there was Mimi Keane, who lived down the hall from me during our freshman year. She, too, had graduated from a Catholic girls' high school. But that's where our similarities ended. Mimi's father was a prominent politician and she was a stunning beauty queen (in a very different time and place when that meant much more than it does today). I was in awe of her. I had told Mimi and my other dorm mates that I was thinking of becoming a nun (more as a hedge against total embarrassment just in case no boy ever asked me out on a date during my college years than as a firm life plan). When a nice classmate named Vern asked me out for Homecoming, there was great excitement in the dorm. And Mimi volunteered to do my hair and makeup for my very first ever date. As she transformed my look, helping me to feel pretty for perhaps the first time in my life, she begged me not to become a nun.

And at the reunion, as we embraced, I thanked her for the role she played in persuading me away from the cloister and into a life filled with love.

It was wonderful to see dorm mates -- like Mimi, Brynna, Lynn, Sue and Nancy -- some of whom I had known well and some of whom I had never really known, and to hear about their lives and challenges as we talked with a candor that might have been unthinkable in earlier years.

While we joked in congratulating each other on still being vertical, there was an edge of sadness to this. All of the professors who nurtured and encouraged our young dreams and ambitions have passed away. Fourteen of my good friends from my class --including the beloved three roommates/suitemates who were fellow '67 grads and my warmly remembered first date Vern -- are deceased.

So it was a special joy to see age mates who were vibrant, in reasonably good health and happy with their lives, either in retirement or in still active careers.

2. There was no posturing or bragging, just sharing. There were earlier reunions, either in high school or college, when we seemed quite full of ourselves -- carrying on about career triumphs or kids -- either their intrinsic wonderfulness or their achievements in school and beyond. Now, however, we all seemed to live more in the moment, sharing challenges and disappointments as readily as the highlights of our lives.

3. Old grudges and jealousies were finally irrelevant and fell away forever.  Those post adolescent skirmishes one may have had with a classmate or two back in the day became, at last, of no consequence.

When I was young and insecure, I resented Maria Kulczycky, a journalism classmate who was not only bright and talented, but also wonderfully at ease with the world. Maria could speak her mind. She was confident. She was comfortable with men. I had little confidence, was afraid to speak up and was terribly shy with men. I seethed with jealousy as I sat in class watching Maria flirt with and sometimes even affectionately touch our classmate Tim Schellhardt, whom I considered not only a dear friend but also my secret love -- a love so secret that even he never suspected! So I watched Maria and sulked, wishing that I had the confidence to act similarly. It seems so silly now. All three of us were too sharply focused on academics and future careers to think seriously about pairing up with anyone at that point in our lives. Yet I envied the grace with which Maria moved through her young days as well as the assertiveness and grit that made her such a promising journalist.

Fifty years would pass before I saw Maria again. And what a revelation! As a member of the reunion planning committee, I had sent my journalism classmates emails this past summer, urging them to attend the festivities. Maria responded immediately and warmly, eventually changing travel plans in order to attend. We shared snippets of our lives and memories in emails over the summer. She told me at one point that she had been so excited to see an email from me that she had halted dinner preparations to sit down and read it immediately. And when I saw her at the reunion, I felt only joy as we embraced. It was an emotional moment. I rejoiced, once again, at having a second chance to know and enjoy a truly amazing woman.

Tim and Maria at Northwestern once again!
Happily reunited with Maria           

It was a wonderful day as Maria, Tim and I hung out together, attending events as we pleased and enjoying a three hour lunch together in my old freshman dorm dining room. It was then that I heard, for the first time, Maria's back story: born in the Ukraine only weeks before V-E Day, spending her early childhood in a refugee camp in post-war Germany as her family waited to emigrate to the U.S., coming to the U.S. at 7, not speaking a word of English and making a whole new life for herself. No wonder she was so strong, direct and unconcerned with the trivial in our college days.

As we lingered over lunch, the three of us realized, with wonder, that we were united in so many ways: by our shared history as journalism students in a different, more optimistic and idealistic time; by our early fierce ambition and diverse career trajectories as writers -- Maria as a highly successful financial journalist, Tim as a political reporter who spent some years covering the White House for the Wall Street Journal; by our growth into generatively:  Maria as a devoted mother and grandmother and tireless volunteer  --  doing everything from mentoring to writing grant proposals-- for the Ukrainian community of Chicago; Tim as a loving father and grandfather and also as a deacon at his church, doing charity outreach with the homeless and offering companionship in prayer to parishioners in need of comfort. We also discovered a strange unity in our birth dates. The three of us were all born in April 1945 within 13 days of each other. We decided that we three were simply destined to be friends forever. This leisurely lunch with my two long-ago classmates was the best, the very best, part of our reunion celebration. And the next day, Maria sent both Tim and me a loving email ending with "Let's never stop talking..."

That's a promise: we'll never stop talking... or caring.

4. Feeling grateful to remember and be remembered. It's interesting what settles into our gray matter, leaving an indelible memory. I always smile when I think of my classmate Gregg Ramshaw, whose campus job was working as headwaiter in the dining room of the small dorm where I lived during my junior and senior years. Gregg, who always had a lively sense of humor and special gift for parody, prepared a real treat for all of us the night before graduation: he wrote and performed -- with a chorus of his co-workers -- a naughty version of a hallowed university song with a somewhat scatological ending. We were delighted -- and I've never forgotten that moment or that song.

Gregg went on to a wonderful career as a television news producer and later taught his craft at several colleges. But when I saw him at the reunion -- and we both smiled with recognition of each other -- all I could think of was his long-ago serenade. I went up to him and quietly sang the song in his ear. He laughed with delight and sang the last two lines with me, happy to have had a piece of his past carried into our shared present by my memory of him as he was 50 years ago.

And at certain times, a bit of familiar behavior triggered fond memories. As we enjoyed a reception for journalism alums, Tim grinned suddenly and I reached for my camera as Gregg and Maria were engaged in an intense discussion -- so reminiscent of those days when we were young and Maria would debate fearlessly with anyone. They saw our smiles -- and both smiled, too.

Gregg and Maria in an intense discussion as Tim looks on

Kathy, Gregg and Maria -- all smiles now!

It occurred to me that we all love to be thought of, to be remembered, to matter to each other whether or not we're in constant touch through the years. And perhaps the specific memory is less important than the fact that we remember pieces of each other's youth, little details, perhaps long forgotten, that spouses and children may never have known.

5. Knowing that our lives have evolved in ways that, at last, make sense. Our life puzzles are complete -- or nearly so. We may have moments of looking back with longing at what might have been, but it seems more common these days to look at the past with today's perspective and to realize that, despite rough spots and disappointments and setbacks and challenges, things have worked out in so many ways.

Talking with classmates that day, this theme came up over and over: how a career setback led to a whole new direction that now makes perfect sense; how an unhappy marriage nevertheless produced some wonderful children who -- to the delight of their parents and many in the world at large -- were simply meant to be; how an unhappy first marriage led to deep introspection and growth and, eventually, happiness and true love the second time around. And how a career choice that seemed so unpromising at first turned out to be just the right move...

I shared the tale of my embarrassment and anguish after graduation as I watched my Northwestern journalism school classmates being hired at prestigious magazines and newspapers in New York, Washington and Chicago, while I returned reluctantly to Los Angeles (due to a family crisis and pressing student loans) and worked for the only female-oriented national consumer magazine then based in L.A. : 'TEEN Magazine. My Northwestern professors were baffled, my friends tactful and polite in their congratulations. I was totally mortified.

But 'TEEN turned out to be truly life-changing. In my nine years there, I developed a specialty in psychology and health reporting, learned so much from the most responsive readership I would ever encounter, wrote my first and most successful book (The Teenage Body Book) and enjoyed the best group of co-workers ever, some of whom are still close friends to this day.

6. Realizing that love, however shared, is life's greatest blessing. I felt love all around me at this reunion: the love of old friends rediscovered, the love of a very special new/old friend in Maria, loving thoughts of classmates who have been dear friends through the years and who were unable to come to the reunion, sweet memories of those who have passed away, and the expansive love one feels for a time and place and people who have made such a difference.

One particular college memory, one pivotal moment, is still vivid so many years later: the moment in November 1964 when I realized that my classmate Tim was a friend I would love for life.

Have you had such moments -- when you realize, with stunning clarity, that someone is a true kindred spirit who will always be special to you? And so many years later, have you been amazed to look back and realize the accuracy of your youthful perceptions?

That long ago November night, Tim and I had been classmates for a year, feeling a bit competitive but otherwise mostly ignoring each other, when a very wise professor forced us to combine our journalistic skills in a shared assignment that required an hour long train trip each way. We were both a little put out, as I remember, until we started to talk on the train and realize just how much we had in common and how much we enjoyed each other. We haven't stopped talking since-- through all the decades of our lives -- even though we've never lived close to each other.

From a distance and through visits over the years, we've celebrated each other's professional successes and personal highlights and soothed each other through disappointments and setbacks. We've wept over the phone together during times of loss -- including the death of the professor who made us do that joint project together so many years ago. Tim has helped me with the research for my two latest books and encouraged me on a daily basis as deadlines loomed.  I have delighted in his continuing success as a writer and a public relations executive and, not so incidentally, in the accomplishments of his four amazing adult children -- two of whom are now on the faculty at Northwestern. This reunion weekend was a wonderful chance for the two of us to celebrate our long friendship, to explore Chicago, to laugh and share secrets -- some fun, some dark -- and to talk for hours, savoring the joy of being together and very much ourselves.

With Tim at our 50th reunion
And after our wonderful weekend talking marathon!

Our loving friendship has thrived through our long metamorphosis from teenagers to septuagenarians, through a myriad of life changes, triumphs and losses. Loving my dear friend Tim -- from that secret adolescent crush to a mature love that has grown deeper and stronger over a lifetime -- has taught me an ongoing lesson: that there are many kinds of love in this life, all rich and resilient, and all to be treasured.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Tears and Life Passages

What is it about weddings that can bring on the tears?

Sometimes tears come in the fullness of feeling.

At the recent wedding of Ryan, a beloved young friend, I found myself dabbing sudden tears as he and Michael exchanged vows. I wondered how the years had flown by so quickly, how the funny, quirky and very dear nine-year-old matched with my husband Bob in the Big Brothers program grew so quickly into a handsome 34-year-old man who is now a skilled, compassionate psychotherapist and agency administrator. I thought about the countless conversations, feelings and experiences shared over the years and smiled as I watched Bob standing by him as Best Man. I tried to keep my voice steady as I read from Corinthians 13 ("Love is patient and kind...") during the service, quietly wishing Ryan and Michael the best kind of love all their days together. I shed a tear of gratitude that such a beautiful wedding was even possible for two splendid men who love each other.

Sometimes tears come from a painful or poignant memory.

At the wedding dinner, Bob and I sat next to Ryan's Aunt Donna and her husband Hermann. Hearing that Hermann had come to the U.S. as a child after World War II, Bob asked him about his memories of wartime and post-war Germany. Hermann's eyes welled with tears as he recalled his terror, huddled with his mother and four siblings during Allied bombing in the last days of the war. He expressed sudden grief, long buried, about the death of his soldier father who was killed in East Prussia during the last month of combat. He looked down at his plate of tenderloin and fresh vegetables as he remembered his widowed mother's post-war anguish with no money, no food and five children. And then there was the wrenching decision to send her son Hermann to live with an aunt and uncle in the U.S. He smiled apologetically as he wiped his eyes. "It has been more than 70 years since all that," he said softly. "You'd think there would be no tears left after all that time and when I've really had such a good life..."

Sometimes tears come from knowing that life is forever changed.

The next morning, at the post-wedding brunch, Ryan sat down beside us. "I've cried twice already before breakfast!" he said with wonder. "I feel that I've started a whole new passage in my life -- and it feels huge: a new beginning, a different way of being in the world. I find myself grieving what is past as well as celebrating what is happening in the present. Life feels so full of promise and joy and new challenges. Just thinking about it, I feel so emotional..." And his eyes filled with tears once again.

Crying from joy, sadness, stress, fear or a variety of emotions endemic to being human is not only natural but healthy.

Like reflex tears -- like the tears that cleanse our eyes when they are assaulted by smoke or onion fumes clear these physical toxins and like the naturally occuring continuous tears that keep our eyes lubricated, the tears that come from emotions bring some specific health benefits.

Dr. William Frey, a biochemist and "tear" expert at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, notes that while reflex tears are 98% water, emotional tears also contain stress hormones that get excreted from the body by crying. Crying can reduce stress, blood pressure and improve mood. Dr. Frey says that crying is a natural way to reduce emotional stress and that it stimulates the production of endorphins, our natural pain-killing, "feel-good" hormones.

Recognizing the health benefits of tears, some Japanese cities have "crying clubs" called ruiktsu where people go to indulge in crying over tearjerker movies. This is seen as an essential stress release and a way to maintain good mental health.

But our society has not always been sympathetic to those who cry. Even when very young, too many boys are told that crying is for sissies, that big boys don't cry, that stoicism equals strength.

I can't begin to tell you how many times a patient in session has apologized for his or her tears. And, following the mores of the profession that the therapist sit with the client's tears while holding back her own, there have been many times when I have willed myself not to shed tears of empathy when with a distressed client. I can think of only two times when my struggle was undeniably visible.

In the first instance, my client Mariana, struggling with life threatening health issues and devoted to her precious little dog Nanuck, brought the dog into a session with her after he had been savaged by an off-the-leash Rottweiler. Lying in her arms, barely breathing and heavily bandaged, Nanuck looked up at her as she wept, blaming herself for not being able to protect him. I thought about how many challenges Mariana was facing already and how unbearable the loss of Nanuck would be. And I took a deep breath and bit the inside of my cheeks as I struggled not to cry for and with her. As soon as Mariana left, I sought comfort with a fellow therapist in the next room and, having overheard a bit of my session with Mariana, she greeted me with open arms and tears in her eyes.  (P.S. Mariana and Nanuck lived happily together for several more years.)

In another instance, a young mother of four, who had lost a three-year-old son in a terrible accident and whose marriage had disintegrated in the wake of this tragedy, suffered a debilitating stroke after I had been seeing her for almost a year. For our first session after she got out of the hospital, her father -- who had flown cross country to help her -- carried her into my office. My emotions caught me by surprise: I was happy to see her but so sad to see the physical ravages of her stroke added to all her other life challenges. My eyes filled with tears. My client saw this and smiled. "See, Daddy, I told you," she said, looking up at her father. "I told you she would cry." And we all -- my client, her Dad and me -- embraced and shared a box of tissues.

Holding tears in can be toxic -- delaying healing, prolonging pain. How many of our fathers declined to share or weep over their wartime experiences and became the unreachable, closed off people we remember? How many tears unshed over an early loss or trauma can haunt one through life?

There is growing disagreement with the long held sentiments that real men don't cry or that tears are a sign of weakness. Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at UCLA and author of numerous books, insists that "A powerful man or woman is someone who has the strength and self-awareness to cry."

This sentiment, though it sounds very 21st century, has been expressed in many ways over the centuries.

"To weep is to make less the depth of grief," William Shakespeare once wrote.

And Washington Irving contended that "There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love."

Yes, there are healing tears through all the painful, touching and loving moments of our lives, tears that speak more eloquently than any words.

Monday, September 11, 2017

From Parents and Adult Children Comments to This!

There have been three major surprises since I started this blog in October 2010:

1. How dear some fellow bloggers would become to me as we shared our thoughts and our stories in our blogs and comments on each other's blogs.

2. The fact that my posts on parents and adult children would be, by far, the most read and commented upon of all my blog offerings.

3. How the poignant and unforgettable comments on these posts inspired me to write a new book: WE DON'T TALK ANYMORE: HEALING AFTER PARENTS AND THEIR ADULT CHILDREN BECOME ESTRANGED. The book, written for BOTH parents and adult children, will be published by Sourcebooks on October 3 and would never have happened but for your comments on "When Parents and Adult Children Become Strangers", a post I wrote in 2012 that is still, on a daily basis, my most-read post ever.
Now the book's publisher is making a special offer to readers who pre-order the book BEFORE October 3 from, and several other online retailers: a free PDF workbook to personalize the book for you. With the workbook, you can identify the major issues between you and your adult children or, if you're an adult child estranged from your parent or parents. There are exercises to discover your major issues, find the best ways for you to reconnect or to build a new life for yourself.

How do you get this special offer? Click on this link:


My heartfelt thanks to all my fellow bloggers for your friendship and encouragement and to all my readers and followers, especially those leaving comments on my parents and adult children posts. 

This book happened because of you!

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Kindness Habit

My day didn't start out especially well. The heat and humidity were headed to record highs. I had driven along a highway choked with traffic and construction projects to a doctor's appointment that was frustrating: the wait was long, the appointment brief and the doctor's manner brusque. I felt distinctly unheard and, as I left, I ruminated about being seen as just another older person on the medical assembly line. Disappointed, angry and a little depressed, I decided to stop for lunch at nearby diner before braving the torn-up-highway traffic to head home.

The place was moderately crowded and noisy. Feeling pissed off and more than a little sorry for myself, I hunkered down in a booth, picking at my senior special omelet. Though the waitress was quick to refill my coffee cup, she was uncommonly slow to bring me my check. I finally waved her to my table.

She smiled. "Oh, your check has been paid already," she said. "A couple who left a few minutes ago told me that they wanted to make your day better than it appeared to be going..."

It was a magic moment. This gracious and generous couple, whoever they were, made my day. I felt an instant lightening of my mood and flood of gratitude for their kindness. It had nothing to do with the amount of the check or my actually getting a free lunch (after years of insisting there was no such thing). It had more to do with strangers noticing that I seemed unhappy and taking steps to brighten my day.

And it occurred to me that if such kindness could make such a difference to me in my minor funk, what a blessing it could be to someone who was really struggling -- and how often we tend to pass others by without looking or noticing or caring.

What if we smiled at others more?

What if we started more friendly conversations?

What if we paid it forward with a random act of kindness?

Particularly at this time, when we've divided ourselves into warring factions, Trump fans and Trump haters, red states, blue states, conservatives and liberals, religious and non-religious, we too often forget that whatever our personal beliefs, convictions and preferences, we all usually feel soothed and surprised by another's kindness.

The most obvious opportunities to be kind come with those closest to us: a surprise phone call to a lonely, elderly parent or other relative; a show of interest in a child's project or passion along with honest praise and encouragement; a gesture of kindness toward a spouse-- like quietly deciding to vacuum the living room because you know your spouse hates vacuuming, surprising him or her with a Netflix movie he or she has been wanting to see or with tickets to a sports event or concert; telling him how much you appreciate all he does or giving her the most credit when someone compliments you on how well your children have turned out.

There are, to be sure, so many times when we take those we love most for granted or when, tired and desperate for a few minutes of peace and quiet, we wave off a talkative, inquisitive child.

There are many opportunities to be kind with co-workers, colleagues, friends and neighbors: being gentle with their feelings, protective with their confidences, listening without planning a response, teaching an insight or skill without minimizing their current efforts, finding something positive about them and letting them know you notice, especially when life is not being especially kind to them.

And then there are strangers whose lives we can impact in ways we may never know: with a smile or a happy surprise (like my free lunch) or a gesture that feels quite ordinary and unexceptional, but may be meaningful to them. Yesterday, I reached a jumble of supermarket shopping carts a step ahead of another woman who was looking troubled and tired. I wrested one of the shopping carts free and gave it to her. She looked startled, then smiled. "Oh, thank you!" she said. "I always have trouble getting a cart out of all that mess. How did you know? I really appreciate it!" And she smiled again. It was such a small thing really. But it brightened both our days. Yes, I was smiling, too. When I am kind to another, I feel better myself.

And you never know when making a small gesture of consideration and kindness can bring comfort to those who may need it most.

Randy Walters, 63, the owner of Wimpy's Paradise, a burger place in Chandler, Arizona, practices daily kindness on such a scale that he was recently the subject of an article in The Arizona Republic. He has launched kindness campaigns. He rallied community support for a single mom and her daughter who were living out of their van. He uses his restaurant to raise money for a pay it forward fund to help feed the homeless and to benefit veterans and police officers. And there are daily kindnesses promised on a sidewalk sandwich sign in front of his restaurant, offering customers (and those simply passing by) unconditional acceptance and free hugs, with the admonition: "Let's become a world of hugs and help, not hate and hurt."

Community reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and results of this man's many kindnesses immeasurable. Walters told the reporter that one day a Muslim man came into his restaurant and asked Randy for a hug. After hugging him, Walters noticed that the man's eyes had filled with tears. He said he was thankful for the hug because his and his family had been the target of so much hate in recent months. In another instance, a depressed young woman walked in one day asking about free hugs. When Walters hugged her, she clung to him, weeping. She told him she had planned to kill herself that day but that this hug, this warm connection with another, had given her new hope. For Walters, his restaurant isn't just about food "but feeding hearts and souls."

We may never know the full story of the stranger we briefly encounter or the co-worker who always sets our teeth on edge. We may never agree with the loved one whose world views differ so from ours. Human relationships are, by nature, imperfect. But whatever the challenges, whatever our own troubles may be, we can make the choice to be kind and, perhaps, to make a wonderful difference in the life of another.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Life Coincidences and Blessings

The news of her death wasn't necessarily a shock. She was, after all, only a few months away from her 95th birthday. But learning recently that my dear friend Elizabeth Canfield had died has put me in a reflective frame of mind.

I am filled with gratitude for having known her for nearly fifty years. She was a role model for courage in speaking out against injustices of all kinds and a champion for health issues and reproductive rights. She was the woman I hoped, in my youth, to become more like: outspoken and unafraid.

It wasn't until recent years that I realized that much of her strength and courage came from the challenges of her early years -- watching Nazi troops march into Vienna when she was sixteen years old and then, late that year, fleeing Austria with her family -- first to Holland and then to the U.S. -- though her grandparents and other extended family perished in Auschwitz.

I had never guessed that she was a Holocaust survivor  -- mostly because her parents had converted to Christianity before her birth and I knew her as an avid member of a socially activist Episcopalian church in Los Angeles when we first met.  She told me that she hadn't spoken of her past for many years because it was so painful and she didn't want to spread the pain to her children or her friends. But she finally began to share her wartime past while participating in Stephen Spielberg's Shoah project and began to speak about the Holocaust in schools during her later years. During the last two years of her life, she shared her Holocaust stories with me in a series of letters -- which I will always treasure. 

As I think about our friendship, I'm struck at the impact she had on my life -- not simply as an inspiration for strong, outspoken womanhood but in professional and personal matters as well -- like introducing me, 44 years ago, to a young doctor named Chuck Wibbelsman with whom I would write "The Teenage Body Book" (along with several other books) and enjoy a friendship of many decades.

And I'm struck with wonder, too, that Liz and I ever had a chance to become friends. There are so many variables: what if her family hadn't been able to escape from Austria in late 1938? What if, like many Jewish families who had fled to Holland, they had been unable to get visas for the U.S.? (Her family was fortunate that her father was a noted Austrian composer and conductor who was offered a position at a major U.S. university and was able to get his immediate family out of Nazi-occupied Europe just in time.) What if she hadn't married the person she did and ended up in Los Angeles? What if my boss at 'TEEN Magazine hadn't insisted on my doing a story about abortion in those days just before the Roe vs. Wade decision that led me to the medical clinic where Liz worked as a health educator and counselor? What if I hadn't seen the kindness and caring behind her initially unsettling frankness? What if...?

We all have a lot of "what if's" in our lives, revealing just how much of life is coincidence or random luck. All of this brings so much color, texture and so many blessings to our lives.

What are your most treasured life coincidences?

Maybe but for chance you would never have met a beloved spouse of many years. Maybe a lifelong friendship happened to you because of chance -- an accidental meeting, a chance pairing for a work or school assignment, a stranger who passed your way one day and became a treasured friend. We all have so many unexpected blessings -- as life so often surprises us. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

5 Ways to Tame Anxiety

Anxiety may be as straightforward as sweaty palms and an accelerated heart rate as you prepare to give a presentation.

Or it may be a visitor in the night as you lie in bed awake, worrying about your fraught relationship with your adult son or daughter or a unexpected bill or some troublesome symptoms you're afraid may signal a major health problem.

Or anxiety may hit you randomly, for reasons you don't understand. For some people, out-of-the blue panic attacks may be be life-changing.

Although anxiety happens to all of us, for a small number of people it can be life-changing, interfering with everyday life and requiring medication and psychotherapy.

For most people, however, anxiety is less limiting but still periodically distressing. What can you do when it happens to you?

1. Admit that you're anxious.  That may mean paying attention to your physical symptoms and to the sudden fear you may be feeling. People who deny their anxiety may act and sound angry and irritable. Or they may become avoidant -- not driving on highways, expressways or freeways, for example -- on the premise that "I just don't like that. I prefer to drive locally." When you admit that you're anxious or that a specific situation creates anxiety for you, you're on the way to facing your fears and changing your situation.

2. Stop the spiral with a specific word or action. Many people find themselves in a spiral of anxious thoughts and feelings that can accelerate to paralyzing fear. It's important to stop this process well before you reach the point of inertia. There are several things you might try. Some people find it useful to wear a rubber band around their wrists and snap it at the first sign of anxiety -- a reminder to stop ruminating and take action. You might say "Stop!" and then try imagining a alternate scenario -- like your giving the presentation with pleasure and confidence. You might start deep breathing, releasing a little more of your tension with each breath out. It can also help to listen to music you enjoy, to spend time petting and cuddling your dog or cat or to take a brisk walk or try some other exercise you enjoy.

3. Try the "Just Do It!" three step approach.  This can be particularly helpful if you find yourself anxious about something specific that you need to do, but fear tackling like that work presentation, that talk that you agreed to do for your church group or that drive into downtown to see a concert or play. When you find yourself dreading a task, fearing that it will be impossible for you, try the three step approach.

First, examine the evidence that this is beyond your capabilities. You might say to yourself "I've done this before. It wasn't easy. But I did it. I can do it again."

Second, examine your expectations. Are you making yourself anxious with impossibly high expectations? You don't have to make a spectacular presentation. You don't have to be the life of the party. You don't have to love driving in city traffic. You need to give yourself permission to be competent, to be present, to be able.

Third, just do it. Quite often, the more you do something, the less challenging it feels. Repeated exposure to something you fear can decrease your anxiety over time. It can help to enlist a therapist, a friend or family member in walking through your fears with you.

When I was younger, I had several valuable lessons in the value of just doing something I feared -- first, from a college professor who later became a dear friend and later, from a gruff co-worker who urged me onward.

When I was a college journalism student, I was terribly anxious about doing an interview. I cried during my first major interview assignment (with a very sweet and compassionate young Broadway star named David Jones, before he became Davy Jones of the Monkees). My professor looked over my tear-stained interview notes with a faint smile. "If you're willing to fight your fear, I'll be right there with you," she said. "You're going to do twice as many interviews as the other students. Maybe next time, you won't cry as much. Maybe the time after, you won't cry at all. And maybe eventually you'll even enjoy interviewing people." And, with her help, all of that came to pass.

A few years later, back in Los Angeles, my anxiety about driving kept me off the busy L.A. freeways, which added considerable time to my commute to work. One day, a co-worker who lived nearby asked me for a ride when her car was in the repair shop. She looked aghast when I told her I needed to avoid the freeway. "What???" this transplanted New Yorker barked. "Don't be ridiculous. Just get on the freeway. I'll talk you through it." And so she did, urging me to breathe deeply and keep my eyes on the road. She rode with me for a week. I haven't feared freeways since. And I think of her with quiet thanks whenever I head off on my periodic 500 mile solo drives on a busy, big-rig filled freeway from Phoenix to Los Angeles.

4. Ask yourself "What is this anxiety telling me?" Before you dismiss this with "Just that I'm afraid!" think about it.

Your anxiety may be a call to action. It may be telling you to call for a doctor's appointment if you have worrisome physical symptoms or to find new ways to reach out to an adult child with whom you have a difficult relationship. It may be telling you that procrastination in these instances is not helpful.

Your anxiety could be telling you that you are feeling overwhelmed, perhaps by your own perfectionism. It could be a sign that you need to take a deep breath and then that first step. Or it could be a sign that you're letting a voice from the past predict your performance today.

My friend Jane, for example, has a great deal of social anxiety, dreading parties and meetings. On reflection, she remembered her mother's voice, years ago, observing that "You're just like me. You're so socially awkward. You always say the wrong thing!" Then, examining the evidence from her own life experience, Jane decided that her mother was wrong.

"I'll never be a social butterfly or the life of any party," she told me. "But I'm good enough in social situations. I'm a nice person. I'm a good listener. And that's just fine. When I stop hearing those words of my Mom from long ago and start listening to myself, I'm much less anxious about walking into a room filled with people."

5. Embrace your challenge.  You may need to take it gradually, step by step. My former client Allie had tremendous anxiety about being in airport waiting areas. She didn't fear flying itself. But she felt closed in and near panic in a crowded airport boarding gate area. We worked out a plan -- modified in the wake of 9/11 regulations that precluded her spending time in actual boarding areas. Instead, she went to the nearest airport and sat in crowded areas before the security check-in point. She felt her anxiety rise as crowds swirled around her and practiced deep breathing and affirmations that she was safe. In time, she found that her anxiety decreased considerably and she celebrated with a trip to Hawaii with her husband. She reported that, finally, she was able to fly not simply minus an emotional meltdown, but that she actually enjoyed the experience with her travel-loving husband.

Whether you tackle anxiety-producing situations step by step as Allie did or with a voluntary (or semi-voluntary) leap of faith as I did on the L.A. freeways, you may find that facing your anxiety and overcoming it to meet your own challenges can bring an incomparable feeling of accomplishment and joy!