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!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Finding Your Voice

It was folded and stashed in a small storage box with other relics from my years in parochial school.

It was a sixth grade essay I had written, completing the sentence "When I Grow Up..."


When I grow up, I'm going to cry.

This won't be because my life is sad but because I will be free to express myself and all my emotions in a way I can't today.

My father won't let us cry or express opinions at home. He spanked us for crying when we were babies. We soon learned to keep still. My father is not an evil or unloving man. He simply doesn't seem to be able to admit that emotions are part of all our lives, no matter how young or old we are, and that it's harmful to suppress them. He wants wind-up dolls, little robots, not children. I think he knows he is making a mistake in raising us this way, but is too proud to admit that he is wrong. I feel he loves me as much as he is able, but I still must live up to a standard of perfection I can never meet. I feel sad for my father and for me.

When I grow up, everything will be different. I will not be too proud to admit when I am wrong. I will love my children enough to let them be themselves.

Most of all, I will experience the whole range of my feelings. I will dance for joy on a sun-kissed beach. I will tell people I love just how much I care, not because they meet any expectations of mine, but because they are themselves. I will weep with sadness or simply from the fullness of living my own life completely and honestly as a loving, deeply feeling person. 

Glancing at the unmarked paper, I remembered: my teacher, Sister Mary Clara, didn't give me a grade or credit for this essay because "You didn't follow the assignment." She handed it back to me scornfully with the admonishment "Next time do it right. Say what you're supposed to say."

What I was supposed to say was that I would grow up to be a good Catholic wife and mother or, better still, a nun.

All our lives, there are so many obstacles to finding our authentic voices. There are teachers who want only the expected, canned reply. There are adults who think children should be seen and not heard. Or who correct children who have expressed a strong emotion with the admonition: "You don't really feel that way, do you?" Well, yes. At that moment the child does. I'll never forget the letter I got from a mother when I was working at 'TEEN Magazine and had written an article about communicating with parents. She told me that she had suffered a lot as a child when she was told that her angry feelings were wrong. She said that she had raised her children to speak their minds without punishment, even if it meant saying "I hate you, Mommy!" in a moment of anger. She told me that she had found that hearing all her children's feelings calmly led to resolution, closeness and understanding.

But, all too often, we were not allowed to express our feelings while growing up. It was not okay to speak one's mind, to express an original thought, to diverge too severely from what was considered acceptable.

Sometimes restrictions ease with age. Frankness that might have been shocking earlier on is amusing now. I find that younger people smile indulgently when I use a swear word, express a frank political opinion or make an off-color comment. Of course, this may be because I'm childless. A friend from my college days, visiting California with her teenage grandkids in tow some years ago, suddenly reverted to her own teenage self when she saw me, squealing and rushing toward me with open arms. Her grandchildren cringed in the background, glancing around at other restaurant patrons, and groaning "Oh, Grandma...please...."

So in many phases of our lives, we adapt and quiet our voices.

We learn to speak or write to a specific audience. This adaptation is useful and necessary at times. But, personally, there can be something lost in the process: an opportunity to share our authentic selves.

My parents decided to keep all of my letters from college. There is a big binder for my Northwestern undergraduate years and a smaller one for my fraught time in graduate school there. The other day, I came across that smaller binder and read the letters for the first time in nearly 50 years.

 I was aghast at what I found -- or, rather, what I didn't find.

My mother had said that she was keeping the letters so that I could look back and have these memories close at hand if, sometime in the future I wanted to write a book about these years. What I read in those letters were not my authentic memories. Those are still fresh in my mind, or at least fresh enough to know that what I wrote my parents was not the full story about my life and my experiences.

I left out the most important discoveries and feelings of that tumultuous time --  like what it meant to me to have a friendship with Judge Edith Sampson, an African American woman who rose from an impoverished childhood to become the first black female judge in Illinois and the first black U.S. delegate to the U.N. I met her on my fall quarter assignment to the Chicago courts beat in my graduate reporting class. Somehow a friendship bloomed between this brilliant, accomplished, larger than life woman and one shy, uncertain student journalist. Judge Sampson was so wise, so funny, so compassionate, so outspoken. Whether in her chambers, in the courtroom or at home, she was very much herself. She became a wonderful mentor and friend who coached me through cooking my first Thanksgiving dinner that year and taught me the joy of living with vitality and authenticity.

How could I not have told my parents about Edith Sampson?

But there was so much I left out of my letters.

I left out the true extent of my heartbreak over the man I loved. He cared for me as a friend, but someone else had won his heart and they were getting married soon. Unrequited love notwithstanding, I felt even greater sorrow over the possible loss of his treasured friendship.

 I told them that I had gone to see "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" with my Asian-American friend Jeanne and our mutual friend Marie. I told my parents that Tracy and Hepburn were excellent. What I didn't say was that Jeanne got angry and walked out of the movie twenty minutes in, cooling her heels in the lobby and eating popcorn while Marie and I stayed to the end. She told us afterwards that she was angry that a minority person -- in this case, a black man played by Sidney Poitier -- had to be a world-famous surgeon to be even marginally acceptable to his young white fiancee's parents. Marie and I listened as she talked with anger and sorrow about the racism that she observed and experienced on a daily basis. I'll never forget that day or the lesson my beloved, now lifelong, friend taught me.

I recently shared my feelings of disappointment over my grad school letters home with Tim, whose friendship I had so feared losing all those years ago, but who has remained a loving, lifelong friend. "My parents saved all my letters from college, too," he said. "And I knew there was a reason I've never looked at them all these years. I know, without reading them, that they are all on the surface."

Of course, there are times when we can't be totally authentic. There are times when we tailor our remarks to a specific audience of one or many. There are things you don't say to avoid hurting or worrying others.

But for those times when you want or need to speak your mind and all the times in between when you want to be more in touch with your true feelings and true self, how can you hone your authentic voice?

1. Keep a journal:  Keeping a journal is great practice in saying exactly what you think. It may be forever private or simply a warm-up for voicing your feelings and opinions more openly.

2. Let your voice shine through in social media: This could be via Facebook or Twitter or through your own blog.

Some people find tremendous freedom and a spirit of community by sharing feelings -- whether love of animals or political views, personal development or delight over children and grandchildren -- on Facebook or Twitter. And blogging can be a creative outlet where you determine the subject, the tone and the direction of your narrative without interference.

As a professional writer, I never take this for granted. This blog has been an incredible help in giving me the confidence to be myself in a way that was never really possible when I was writing for national magazines and had to please an editor whose point of view might have been quite different from my own. (I still shudder when I think of the editor who exhorted me to "write a funny article about verbal abuse.")

3. Treasure friendships that allow authenticity.  We have all kinds of friendships -- childhood, professional, shared interest focused, warm but distant -- but our best friends encourage and celebrate authenticity. You know who they are. You can put your feet up and dish. You can feel comfortable in their presence even if you don't look or feel your best. You can say things you wouldn't dare say to most others -- feeling free to air your less optimistic as well as hopeful feelings. You can whine and bitch and brag and dream, knowing that your friend loves you as you are -- just as you love him or her.

4. Notice how you feel:  How do you feel when you bite your tongue and keep silent when you really want so much to speak up? How do you feel when you speak your mind in a way others can hear -- not with malice, but from your heart? When you can express yourself in this way, you may have feelings of growing confidence... and comfort within.

I have seen benefits of channeling my authentic voice even when I write on assignment these days. I recently finished writing a book about parent and adult child conflict and estrangement.  WE DON'T TALK ANYMORE will be published by Sourcebooks in October. When she finished reading the manuscript, my editor, Anna Michels, remarked that she loved my "supportive, reasonable, optimistic voice throughout that makes the book both tender and practical."

Yes. She found it: the voice I have always known and valued within. My essence, my authentic voice, is, indeed, both tender and practical.

Finding one's voice can be one of the rewards of age, finding confidence in life experience. It can be empowering and reassuring, an emotional salve for all those times in years past when you needed to be quiet, to stifle yourself, to withstand the criticisms of those who didn't understand or care to know the real you.

So much living and feeling has gone on in my life since Sister Mary Clara refused to accept my essay on growing up all those years ago. I have danced on sun-kissed beaches and have told family and friends how much I cherish them for the unique individuals they are. I have cried in sorrow and in the fullness of being.  And I have loved that I've grown up.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Strange Thing About Memory

Memory is a strange thing.

I can't remember what I had for dinner last night or the name of a casual friend I often see at the community center, but....

I can give you the name of every kid who ever threw up in my grade school class, along with the circumstances, the color and consistency of the vomit and who cleaned it up. For example, one day in second grade, Phyllis MacElvoy threw up a prodigious amount of curdled milk through her fingers as she sat in class. My desk was across the aisle from hers, so my view was up close and personal. I was both horrified and mesmerized. When Sister Claudine asked who would like to clean up Phyllis and her desk, hands shot up all around me. I did not volunteer. I was too busy willing myself not to retch along with my classmate.

Those early memories can, indeed, be lasting ones. What do you remember from your early years? How many senses are involved in these memories? Sometimes a memory is simply a sound or a smell.

My widowed paternal grandmother moved her two children from Tucson to Los Angeles when the youngest, Molly, was not quite five years old. In later years, Molly's recollections of Arizona were vague except for her memory of the way the desert smelled after a rain, the air rich with creosote.

What lives on in your memories -- the happy times or the challenging ones?

Some studies have found that negative events and information are more likely to be stored -- and sometimes distorted -- in one's memory than positive events. One study has proposed that this focus on the negative may be a way of enhancing a person's ability to deal with such events should they recur.

But the positive memories from our earlier lives can be lasting and life-enhancing, too.

Sometimes memories are warm -- like those I have of myself at the age of eight, just returning to full-time school after a two-year recovery from polio. I recall walking around the school playground holding onto the sash of Sister Mary Virginia's habit, feeling safe and reassured by her loving presence. Only a few months ago, still a nun but now using her birth name of Rita McCormack, this beloved lifelong friend told me that seeing me so small and vulnerable, standing by myself on the playground, brought back memories of her own childhood: being out of school for two years as she battled TB and the pain of going back to school to classmates who had all but forgotten her. And she had reached out to me from her own painful memories as I struggled to fit in.

Sometimes the memories start out painful but become positive. One moment from my college years has lingered for decades in my memory. It was a windy, bone-chilling day in January and, as I stomped through the snow to class, I was thinking how tired I was of the pressures of putting myself through school, struggling to keep my grades up so that I didn't lose my scholarship, dealing with the rigor of a challenging program and the angst of being perpetually lovelorn. "I'll never forget how hard this was. Ever!" I muttered to myself as I stomped along the icy sidewalk. "I'll never become one of those nostalgic alums!"

I was certain at the time that I would always remember my college years as a time of hardship and existential loneliness. But my recollections of those years have expanded over time. Now my memories of Northwestern are largely about life-changing lessons learned both in and out of the classroom and of special friends from that era -- some of them close, lifelong friends -- who are evidence that I was never really alone in facing the challenges of my young life. I haven't forgotten the financial pressures of that time nor the pain of unrequited love. But I've grown in gratitude for what I did have and the blessings I continue to enjoy because I chose to go to Northwestern. And I'm happily looking forward to attending my 50th college reunion in the fall.

The fact is, our memories are changeable, influenced by a variety of factors, including naturally occurring distortions. Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, a noted research psychologist, has noted that "Memory is inherently a reconstructive process whereby we piece together the past to form a coherent narrative that becomes our autobiography. In the process of reconstructing the past, we color and shape our life's experiences based on what we know of the world."

In his research, Dr. Schacter has identified several types of common distortions. There is "imagination inflation" that can range from someone remembering a real event with some embellishments that they are certain did occur to having a false recollection of an experience that did not occur. Sometimes imagination inflation will shape a memory to match a person's current self-image. Other distortions: remembering the gist of an experience but forgetting specific details and recalling post-event misinformation which can lodge stubbornly in memory along with the real event.

Sometimes these distortions can lead to family conflicts over what happened -- or didn't happen -- in the past. In the best case scenario, we can listen to each other's differing memories with with love and an open mind, viewing divergent memories as a learning opportunity. Listening to the way a loved one views the past and how this colors his or her world view can be a chance to get to know him or her in a while new way. It can also be a chance to look back with greater understanding of family conflicts and how these might have started long ago.

And as we age, our memories become a new concern. Why is it that long-term memories seem so secure while short-term memories can be so fleeting? It has to do with our aging brains.

After peaking in the early twenties, brain volume gradually decreases. By the forties, people begin to notice that they're not quite as good at remembering new names. As we grow older, multi-tasking doesn't come as easily as before. Decreased blood flow to the brain, especially to the hippocampus, can make new memories harder to retain. And we become more forgetful.

While we may joke about "senior moments", there is always that fear that memory lapses mean the beginnings of dementia. Most of the time, our lapses are due to age-related forgetfulness: losing keys, forgetting the names of acquaintances, or walking into a room and wondering "Why did I come in here?" These lapses, in general,  don't interfere with our ability to function effectively in our daily lives -- from household and hygienic tasks to professional activities and social interactions.

Those with dementia, on the other hand, struggle with everyday tasks, suffer from disorientation, an inability to make rational choices or to recognize the reality of their situation or, eventually, even some of those close to them.

One of the clearest descriptions of senior moments vs. dementia that I have heard is this: "Forgetting where you put your keys happens to everyone but forgetting how keys are used and what they're for is a sign that you may well have dementia."

Another observation: those who worry about losing it are usually fine. Many of those with dementia have no sense that anything is wrong with them. They may blame others for the changes in their lives. A friend of mine who suffered from Alzheimer's, for example, was outraged that his wife wouldn't let him drive and he often talked about needing to look for a job.

Perhaps such lack of awareness is protective. Being aware that you have cognitive deficits and possible dementia is devastating. I once had a neighbor who was a well-known research psychologist and in the early stages of Alzheimers when he and his wife moved into our community. He spoke to me several times about his feelings -- ranging from joking ("Can you lend me some brain cells today?") to deep depression ("If I had the courage, I would kill myself.") And, more recently, a close friend's husband who is suffering from advanced Parkinson's and dementia told his wife during a painful, lucid moment that "I can accept not being able to walk and spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. What I really can't accept is the fact that I'm losing my mind."

His grief and fear resonates with many of us. The tragedy and terror of dementia has touched many of our lives, as we have watched beloved relatives or friends suffer, and can haunt our dreams with fears for our own future.

While research continues to look for causes and more effective treatments for dementia, we do know that, even as we age, there is so much we can do to help our brains stay younger.

We know, for example, that staying physically active -- even simply taking a daily walk -- can help that blood flow to the brain. One recent study found that the least sedentary of subjects over 65 had the lowest risk for dementia while the most physically inactive subjects had a dramatically higher risk for Alzheimer's disease, comparable to those with a gene mutation that carries a high risk for Alzheimer's.

Learning new things -- a new language, a musical instrument, brain-challenging activities like Scrabble and crossword puzzles -- can help. So can getting enough sleep, avoiding smoking, and having a supportive network of friends and family.

Living a healthy, active, social lifestyle can help our brains -- and our bodies -- to work better and longer. There are no guarantees, of course. But taking these steps can enhance our lives in so many ways as we grow older.

In the meantime, it's not at all unusual to find that while we have an endless variety of long-term memories, more immediate ones can be ephemeral.

Like so many my age, I have these vivid flashes from long ago: barfing grade school classmates, the look on my father's face when he discovered that, at age three and trying to be helpful, I had polished the kitchen floor with my mother's cold cream and all the words to the Bucky Beaver jingle for Ipana toothpaste back in the Fifties ("Brusha, brusha, brusha with the new Ipana, with the brand new flavor! It's dandy for your teeeef!")

My memory is amazing, indeed.

But...has anyone seen my keys?