Friday, March 16, 2018

The Ghosts That Linger

It doesn't take much to conjure up those long-ago desperate days after my father lost his job -- never to get another one. He was let go from his engineering management position on my thirteenth birthday. With a modest, fully paid for home in an upscale community, we slid into a kind of genteel poverty. On the outside, at least for a time, everything looked as it always had. Inside, there was quiet panic.

"Baby," my father would say, handing me the Sunday L.A. Times classified ads. "Please look and see if there are any jobs. We all have to get jobs. I don't know where our next meal is coming from."

My stomach would tighten as I looked through the ads. There were no jobs listed for females -- the ads were segregated by gender then-- who were younger than 18. I wondered how far babysitting earnings could be stretched to feed a family of five. I loathed babysitting, but longed to make a difference. And I wondered if it could be true that we were in danger of quietly starving to death in a community of abundance.

My brother Mike, then nine years old, seemed to worry less because he saw more options. He quickly got a paper route -- available only to boys in those days -- and that kept expanding. He switched to a larger newspaper with an even bigger route. He earned enough to help out and to start his own savings account -- savings that have only grown over time -- through his years as a paperboy, an Air Force pilot and then as a physician and administrator at major medical centers in the U.S. and abroad. He paid his own way through medical school at Stanford. He owns several homes. He has been prudent and productive, amassing healthy savings. And yet....

"I've always worried about being destitute," Mike told me recently. "From our childhood on. Did it come from Father telling us at a tender age that we all needed to get jobs? My whole life I've never felt safe -- there's always the fear. Actually, it's worse than a fear. It feels more like a knowledge that it's all going to end up badly some day. That's what keeps me working all the time even now."

I nodded. The same ghosts of the past have haunted me. The old destitution terrors have heightened anew as our sister struggles through a dire financial situation, a crisis that seems to embody all of the fears we three have carried through the years.

And it leads me to a truth that is hard to face at times: we may rise above troubled pasts, but pieces of who we've been and what we experienced in times long past do linger into adulthood, into future relationships and on into older age.

It may mean:

Feeling like a perpetual outsider: I had several reasons to feel like an outsider while growing up.

I was in and out of my parochial school in the early grades, battling polio and a subsequent life-threatening respiratory problem. Groups and alliances formed in my absence. I struggled to fit in, particularly when I returned to school full time already in the throes of puberty when I was nine years old. My family's fall into quiet poverty when I was in middle school only added to my feelings of being different.

But all outsiders have their reasons for not fitting in -- maybe shyness, maybe a vulnerability that causes bullies to zero in, being a newcomer to a small town where families have known each other for generations. There are so many reasons triggering feelings of being an outsider in childhood and sometimes for life.

Playing a family role for life. Who were you in your family? The beauty? The clown? The good child? The scapegoat child? The responsible one? A parental confidante and caretaker when you were far too young to take care of yourself, let alone an adult? Who you were then can have a big impact on who you are now.

It may mean that you neglect your own needs while serving others. It may mean that you have unrealistic expectations of others that too often leads to chronic disappointment. It may mean that you try to defuse difficult discussions with jokes or silence, blocking communication with those closest to you. It may mean echoing a long-dead parent's voice with your own children, cringing as soon as the words leave your mouth.

It may also mean conflict as you reflexively fall into a role long outgrown or rendered obsolete by the growth of others. For example, you may still be falling into the role of take-charge (or bossy) older sister or brother with your resentful or dismissive middle-aged siblings.

Carrying a legacy of abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual. The legacy of abuse is complicated with shame, buried or overt anger, emotional withdrawal, lingering trauma, isolation and defensiveness. At worst, this can immobilize you with depression and fear or cause you to lash out at your loved ones with the violent words or actions that have scarred your life. Or it can lead to a lifetime of dodging commitments because being close to another simply feels too dangerous. Or shame and an inability to forgive yourself for being a victim can impair your ability to reach out to others or to recognize and accept love from another.

Feeling limited by parental expectations or long ago social mores. The voices of our parents can linger and haunt us into our later years -- voices that tell us that we're not measuring up, not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough.

My mother found me disappointing in two ways: I wasn't pretty and I wasn't popular with boys in my teen years. She would study my face appraisingly. "You have a nicely shaped face," she would say. "But you need to get a nose job. You need to fix yourself up. Maybe someday you'll grow into a kind of attractiveness." But I could see the doubt in her eyes. She attributed my lack of social life to the fact that "you're socially awkward and you always say the wrong thing." The latter would make me wince, even then. I thought I was quite good at conversations and connecting. I had deep and lasting friendships. It was true that guys weren't asking me out. But they were confiding in me ("How do I get Patty to like me??"). They saw me as a buddy,  just not as a potential date. Over time, I began to see that my fierce ambition -- which matched or exceeded theirs -- might have been a factor in my dearth of youthful romance. But the legacy of my mother's voice lingered for a long time in my angst and insecurity with romantic relationships.

The social mores of the time we came of age can also linger.

In some cultures and some families, daughters weren't valued as much as sons and/or sons were expected to measure up to often unattainable achievement or macho ideals.

A dear male friend of mine talks about the pain of growing up sensitive and artistic in a family of men who loved hunting and sports.

An older female cousin talks with a twinge of regret about measuring her worth by her attractiveness to men when she was young, never realizing or valuing the keen intelligence that became evident in later life when she excelled at college courses she took for fun after her children were grown.

A long-time gay male friend looks at younger gays and lesbians with wonder at the fact that so many come to terms with their sexuality at a very young age and are reaching adulthood at a time when marriage is an option. My friend didn't come out to himself until he was thirty, after a failed heterosexual marriage and numerous relationships with women, all with unhappy outcomes. He didn't come out in a larger sense until many years later. And while he found love and his life's companion while in his mid-thirties, they were together for 35 years before being able to marry. And he still struggles with discomfort at casual public affection, like holding hands, after so many years of secrecy and social disapproval.

How do we overcome or learn to live with these ghosts from the past?

  • Take responsibility for your life -- past and present. It can sound like a tall order when so much happened back then. It may be true that others caused you pain when you were too young or too powerless to defend yourself. It may be that criticism or neglect or abuse defined your relationship with a parent. But now that you're neither young nor powerless, you do have a choice. You can choose to simmer in that pain from the past, caught up in resentment, convinced that your life has been permanently damaged, even ruined, by what happened long ago. Or you can refuse to be a victim any longer and choose to live life on your own terms. 
  • Be aware of your feelings -- from long ago and today. When you allow your feelings to happen, rather than avoiding or repressing them, there can be pain and there can be growth. Long ago, you may have felt powerless and fearful. You may have despaired about life ever being different. It's important to cry those unshed tears, to comfort that child within you and to reassure the adult you are that you're no longer powerless or without options.
  • Forgive what you can't forget. Forgiveness does not mean saying what happened then was okay or denying that a significant person hurt you. Forgiveness means letting go, freeing yourself from the bonds of resentment and a desire for vengeance, freeing yourself from a pattern of anger and blame. Forgiving another can mean letting go of the need to look back and revisit the anguish. It's also important to forgive yourself. Many people find themselves caught in a pattern of self-blame and recrimination for being a victim, for not being stronger or able to make a difference then. Forgive yourself for what you weren't able to do. Forgive yourself for poor choices or decisions that make you cringe as you look back. Tell yourself that you did the best you could at the time -- even if it was far from optimal. What really matters is what you choose to do now.
  • Focus on what was positive then and now. Very few of us grew up in total misery. Life may have been challenging to be sure, but think of those times in between. You may have had one friend who understood. Or a teacher who cared. Or an activity or interest shared with an otherwise difficult parent or sibling. Or a family tradition that brought a smile to your face -- maybe once or maybe many times. Maybe the ghost that lingers is not from your childhood but from a relationship or marriage that went sour and that lingers painfully into your present as you find yourself reluctant to risk loving again. Thinking back to the good times instead of dwelling on what was painful and awful can help to balance your view of what was. It can also empower you to recognize and emphasize the positives in your life now, appreciating the present -- however imperfect or complicated. Embracing the positive in your life right now can free you from those ties to pain and powerlessness, free you to take the risk of making your life even better. 
  • Seek help in sorting through the past. This may mean seeking professional help with a psychotherapist to explore what happened then, how it all affected you and how to begin to make a difference in your own life. Or it may mean talking with a sibling or trusted long-time friend or other family member to sort out your memories and feelings, to find positives from the past, to share tears or laughter over old times and to express hope for the future. 

My cousin Caron spent several summers with my family when we were young, before my father lost his job. She remembers only the charming side of my father, his humor and generosity. She recalls lively conversations, fun family walks in the evening and my father's enthusiastic encouragement of my early writing efforts. Her memories help to balance my own.

Talking with my brother Mike has helped me to see how beliefs carried from past to present can be irrational and yet enduring. We remember that our father predicted his downfall and our slide into poverty long before it became a reality. It was part of a life script that fit his self-image as a victim of circumstance rather than the master of his own life. His alcoholism and his fears of not measuring up -- fears fueled by his own irrational and critical mother who put him to work as family breadwinner when he was only nine years old --  led, at least in part, to his midlife unemployment and descent into madness. He always felt like a victim and his failures, in his eyes, were always someone else's fault. Mike and I grieve and laugh and comfort each other as we remember it all -- the creative and intellectual stimulation, the fun, the terrible fear that permeated our home from our earliest days, the abuse, the craziness and chaos. And we forgive our parents and ourselves, vowing to take total responsibility for our own lives -- for our failures as well as our successes.

Mike quietly vows that life will be quite different for his two young children. He wants to give them love, gentle guidance, and the inspiration to find joy in living. He wants them to grow up feeling both loved and empowered.

For me, a uniquely healing look back came from a conversation with Sister Ramona, my high school journalism teacher and a lifelong friend. Not long before her death two years ago, Ramona and I were having dinner together and discussing a troubled mutual friend who had been a high school classmate of mine. "Your home situation when you were growing up was so much worse than hers -- or so it always seemed to me," Ramona said. "But lately I've been thinking about it. Your parents had their issues -- okay, they were seriously dysfunctional at times -- but they cared. They were very engaged in your life. They showed up for every school play, for every parent-teacher conference. They were so proud of you. And they loved you so very much. What a difference that makes...."

Indeed. One may wish away those ghosts that linger, but that might take away too much else that made a wonderful difference in my life.

Not long ago, Mike asked if, were it in my power, would I choose to go back and grow up in a different family? I answered instantly and definitively "No!"

He smiled. "Neither would I," he said quietly.

Our ghosts are manageable, instructive, and an intrinsic part of the joyous, imperfect and loving individuals we've grown up to be.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Joy and Inspiration in the Obits

I'm not sure just when I stopped skipping the obituary pages in our local newspaper and started perusing them with growing interest.

At first, I think I just skimmed over them to check out the ages, watching with a bit of alarm as the average ages of the deceased began to get uncomfortably close to my own. In time, cause of death became of greater interest, too.

But recently, I've been reading the obituary pages more thoroughly, trying to get a sense of the people and the lives recounted, each in a few short paragraphs. There have been homemakers who lived rich and fulfilling lives and died surrounded by their loved ones. There have been people with careers of service and dedication. There have been lives limited by a disability but lived with great love and lives cut short heartbreakingly soon.

And, every now and then, there is a life that makes me smile, that lifts my spirits and makes me wish I could have known this person in life.

I came across one like this the other day.

It was for a 95-year-old woman named Velma Elizabeth Coffin Kwart, M.D. (aka Dr. Beth).  And I was hooked from the beginning: "For all who knew her, leaving [this life] on Super Bowl Sunday was apropos. In fact, it is rumored that the thought of Tom Brady and the Patriots playing in yet another championship game was the last straw."

I went on to read about Dr. Beth as a little girl on a farm in Iowa, shucking corn with the rest of the family but showing little interest in the domestic arts. Instead, she had a passion for science and medicine and "performed what was perhaps Iowa;s first stone heart transplant into a porcelain doll at the tender age of 8."

Born in 1922, Dr. Beth came of age at a time when women, in general, were not encouraged to go to college, let alone professional school. She excelled in her college studies with a double major in Music and English and taught high school English for several years as she saved money to pay her way through medical school. It was a fight -- to be admitted, to get a surgical residency. But she did it, becoming the first female surgeon in Iowa. Her first job, however, was far from the state of her birth.. She was a surgeon at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

This posting led to some pivotal life directions -- meeting and marrying her great love, Navy pilot Philip Kwart, with whom she traveled the world and had five children. Her Alaskan adventure was also the beginning of her lifelong commitment to treat underserved Native Americans. Later on in her life, she and her husband settled in Arizona where she took a surgical position with the Indian Health Service, treating diabetic amputees, those with knife and gunshot wounds and end-stage liver disease.

Even when she reached her sixties and experienced the loss of her beloved husband and her own health (after being diagnosed with Addison's disease) and made the difficult decision to retire from surgery, she remained fully engaged with life. She lived to learn, to love and to share her musical skills as a pianist and singer in area churches. She delighted in her friends and her family -- her children, grandchildren and growing numbers of great grandchildren.

Her family reported that "Up until her last few months, she kept up with her Hawkeye football team, read the Wall Street journal and New York Times daily, and played Scrabble in Spanish. Those she knew were often recipients of 'clippings' she felt relevant for their lives. Her valued input and twinkling blue eyes will be missed...."

As I read Dr. Beth's obituary, her emotional generosity, vitality and the love of the family members writing about her life reached beyond death, beyond the pages, and touched my heart. I felt joy in reading about a life so well lived -- not just her years as a surgeon when she used her skills to make such a difference in the lives of those often underserved, but also her later years, after so many losses. She didn't give up but remained active, engaged, loving and giving to the end.

Dr. Beth is an inspiration in aging with grace, embracing each phase of her life with courage and gusto and joy.

I think I needed to read her story at this point in my own life. Not only am I increasingly conscious of my own mortality, but, in the past few months, I've also faced some reminders of loved ones' fragility and mortality.

My dear friend Mary's husband John, who had, over time, become a treasured friend of mine as well, passed away during the holidays and was remembered warmly by family and friends in a moving celebration of his life last month. I watch from a a state away but emotionally close as Mary works with quiet courage to build a new life on her own.

Several other cherished lifelong friends have developed shocking, life-changing medical conditions in the last two months. And my husband Bob is suddenly losing his eyesight. We don't know yet whether this will be permanent. But, nevertheless, he is trying to adjust to living without some things we so often take for granted -- like driving. And my sister Tai, who is ten years younger than I am and whose life has been far from easy, is facing a terrifying new challenge: the recent diagnosis of breast cancer that, she told me recently, has spread to her bones and brain.

 I find myself, at times, overwhelmed with sadness for these loved ones, but needing to be present and strong and supportive of them in their transitions and struggles and, in my sister's case, her fight for her life against daunting odds. For Tai, for all my loved ones touched by sudden health challenges and for me, this is a decidedly difficult phase of life.

So I found myself inspired by Dr. Beth's graceful acceptance of the changes that these later years can bring. When we can no longer do the things we've always done -- whether it is pursuing a career or driving or traveling or cooking elaborate holiday meals -- do we sit with despair or, like Dr. Beth, forge ahead into our new reality, finding moments of joy, of discovery and deep satisfaction in new pursuits, in cheering others on and maintaining close and loving connections?

It seems that, however long we have on this earth, we always have a choice: to give up and use our remaining time to grumble, to complain, to demand, to criticize and/or to watch endless hours of television or to engage fully with life -- following our favorite teams (I've been an Olympics junkie since my teens and vow to continue until my last days!), paying attention to the latest news and trends, and seeking relevance in the world and at home. Most of all, we can choose to engage with love, enthusiasm and emotional generosity with those we cherish most.

Then, whatever our challenges, life can be so good -- with every moment, every day, incredibly precious.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Remembrance And Holiday Revelry

My mother never liked having a birthday just three days after Christmas. She felt the occasion got lost as Christmas and New Year's celebrations overshadowed her special day. It seemed like an afterthought with birthday presents too often doubling as Christmas presents -- a complaint when she was a child -- and too often being forgotten amid holiday revelries by those who should have remembered.

If she were still alive, my mother would be celebrating her 105th birthday today. However, the birthday celebrations -- such as they were -- stopped in her mid-sixties with her untimely death just before the holiday season began. And since she left us, I can't help but remember her birthday every year when the day comes around just after Christmas, just before New Year;s.

Death, grief and the holidays seem an uneasy mix, but this is reality for many. This is a time for togetherness and rejoicing but is also a time for remembering, for bittersweet days, as we miss those lost. Losing a loved one, missing a spouse or parent or child or special friend is painful any time of the year, but may be especially intense during the holiday season.

How do you deal with grief and painful losses and memories during the holidays and early into a new year, another year, without that special person?

1. Find new traditions that bring you comfort in this new reality.  Perhaps the first holiday season after a significant loss, you might choose to do something entirely different -- to celebrate with another family member or friend, to take a trip or engage in different activities. While some do find comfort in continuity, others find solace in breaking from old traditions altogether.

My friend Chuck suffered two horrific losses around Christmas some years ago. A few days before Christmas in 1987, his brother was killed in a helicopter crash and was laid to rest on Christmas Eve. Three years later, as he was driving his mother to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, she suffered a fatal heart attack. And Christmas has never been quite the same. He has chosen, since her death, to spend holidays away from home with his spouse, often at a tropical beach, basking in sunshine while also remembering lost loved ones in his prayers at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass he always attends.

2.  Embrace the love you do have as you grieve your loss.  Mixing gratitude with grieving, loving moments with treasured family and friends to balance the loneliness of loss, can help a great deal. I've noticed the value of this particularly this holiday season with my two dearest friends.

My friend Mary lost her beloved husband John in early December and my friend Tim lost his wonderful mother only a week before Christmas Eve. Both losses are devastating and life-changing. But both of these dear friends have experienced love all around them -- the love of family and long-time friends and people they might not have known as well but who have stepped in with surprising emotional generosity to say a word of comfort, to share memories of the lost loved one, to extend an unexpected kindness. It all adds up to feelings of inclusion as both simultaneously grieve a loved one and celebrate the holidays with others so dearly loved.

3. Find comfort not only in the company of others, but also in moments alone.  Those alone times are important as you go through the grief process. Don't be shy about expressing a need for some time to reflect, to remember, to cry, as much as you appreciate the support others are extending to you. During my week with Mary after her husband's death, she would occasionally express the need to be quiet, to "be with him for awhile". She would go in their room and close the door and simply be with her pain and allow herself to feel his changed presence and the major transition that his passing had triggered. Then she would emerge, warm, refreshed, ready to engage with loved ones present. Listening to your own needs at a time when you have such support from others is important. There will come a time when your loss is less raw and more daily reality, when your family and friends will return to their everyday lives and work -- caring still, but perhaps not as present -- and having learned to be alone with your grief will serve you well when that time comes.

4. Reach out to those who are also in pain. This can mean participating in a grief support group. It can mean bringing happiness to those in very different circumstances with volunteer work. It can mean sharing memories and comforting family members and friends who are also missing your lost loved one.

During the holiday season in 1980, my brother, sister and I were in shock: our father had died of a heart attack in July of that year and, four months later, our mother also had a fatal heart attack. We were orphaned in young adulthood -- my sister only 25, my brother and I in our early to mid-thirties. But we became aware that others were in shock and pain, too: our aunts, especially my father's sister Aunt Molly, who had never married. Our father was her only surviving relative and our mother her best friend.

And there were several close, long-time friends of our parents who grieved them as family.

Reaching out to them, comforting them, crying with them and remembering with them was a significant part of coming to terms with our own loss.

5. Be inclusive of lost loved ones in your holiday -- and everyday -- traditions. Make those you've lost a part of family celebrations -- with stories and memories shared with smiles as well as tears. Or with recipes and traditions that came from them. And by simply pausing to remember.

This is the 38th holiday season -- and birthday -- without our mother. And yet she is very much with us. My brother Mike, a doctor who works and lives with his wife and two children in Bangkok, Thailand most of the year, makes it a point to come back to the U.S. during the holiday season. And one of his traditions is to visit our parents' grave either on Christmas Eve or on our mother's birthday.

This year, he brought his five-year-old son Henry, named for the paternal grandfather we never knew, to Forest Lawn. Mike explained that this was the grave of Henry's grandparents whom he would never know. Henry was quiet. Looking down at the grave, he spoke softly to his deceased grandparents: "I love you and I miss you." And he gave a traditional Thai wai (a bow of respect with hands pressed together as if in prayer.)

It was a special, quiet moment, bringing past and present together, in a spirit of love that lives on for days and years and decades through sweet traditions and warm memories.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Soothing Holiday Stress with Civility

In these divisive times, it's  more important than ever to maintain civility during family holiday gatherings.

How can you keep your temper, hold your tongue and keep a festive holiday event from becoming a disaster?

It can help to cultivate a habit of civility and to take a page from the 12 step programs, saying  "Just for today, I will..."

1. Refuse take the bait. This is a huge help when your conservative Uncle George, a die-hard Trump supporter, or your equally fervent Aunt Judy, who vows to support Bernie 4-Ever, pounces on you with a confrontation about your own beliefs, affiliations or voting record. You might say "I just want to enjoy you today without our differing views getting in the way. So what about....." And bring up a favorite sports team or ask about their children's or grandchildren's latest achievements. Or inquire about their health or even ask about their travels or what you know is a favorite hobby. Anything to avoid the conversational flashpoint that can derail a family holiday celebration into a scream-fest.

2. Deflect conflict with humor: If your smug, know-it-all older brother descends on you with his 97 reasons why Trump is doing a great job (or 97 reasons why he's an absolute disaster), cut off the confrontation with a little self-deprecating humor: "Look, you know I’m a wild-eyed fanatic. Don’t get me started! Let's give everyone here a break. Mom and Aunt Sally have gone to a lot of trouble to make this wonderful dinner. I don’t want to spoil it. So let's discuss all this at another time and in another place!"

3. Stifle the urge to set someone straight: Don't tell a family member who is a total hypochondriac that he or she is healthy or venture the thought that a tortured youth really had a delightful upbringing. Just listen. Hear them out -- until you find an escape -- without feeling the urge to poke holes in their reality. The same is true of family stories: each person may have his or her own version of the same event. Don't jump in with "No! It wasn't that way!" Listen and then offer your own memories in a non-threatening way: "What I remember most about that day is....." and perhaps observe that what makes family stories so fun or interesting is that all members bring different perspectives and memories to the tales.

4. Take the high road: If met with hostility and continuing attempts to get to you, don't react in the expected way. Instead of meeting hostility automatically with anger, think for a moment, reflecting on the unhappiness of this person or other painful feelings behind the stinging words, and say "You may be right...." or "I'll have to think about that."  or "I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one..." This unexpected reaction can take the wind out of the confrontational relative's sails without a major blowup.

5. Keep confrontations gentle and, if possible, private. If someone says something so offensive, you can't let it pass, take the person aside to talk it over instead of escalating the conflict in front of everyone. And, as you consider countering these offensive comments, ask yourself if these are alcohol-fueled and if the offender could even hear and understand another point of view right now. If you can't avoid disagreeing in front of everyone --e.g. at the dinner table -- say "I see things differently..." but don't attack the other. Simply state your feelings as well as your desire to have the pleasure of all being together take center stage.

Another course of action is to avoid holiday celebrations where others are guaranteed to be (take your pick) boring, offensive, obnoxious, controlling or otherwise challenging to your peace of mind. However, in avoiding the problematic, you may also miss seeing some people you truly enjoy.

Remember that you don't need to win to have a good time. You don't have to match another's hostility to get him or her to back down. You don't have to agree with a person -- on one topic or most topics -- to love him or her a lot. 

Keep in mind that holiday gatherings are usually a mixed bag of fun, tedium, old memories both joyous and fraught, new memories of the bad and the beautiful moments. Some of these you simply, just for today, endure and move on. Other moments can bring pleasure and happiness for years to come.

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 Jenna's performances. Marta died at her home in Death Valley in January 2017. Jenna 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.

My husband Bob is living his perfectly blissful retirement --devoted to pleasure and to learning. This means watching a movie every day, doing challenging crossword puzzles, reading for hours on a great variety of topics, following a demanding fitness routine and learning something entirely new. Right now he is trying to master American Sign Language.

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.