Saturday, March 11, 2017

Simplifying Life

I was leaving the lap pool just as she was arriving. She smiled at me.

"Have a good workout?"

"Yes! Made it to an hour of non-stop laps today!"

She gave me a thumbs up. "Isn't it wonderful to be able to make the time to do good things for ourselves, after all those years of putting others first?" she said.  "We're simplifying our lives to focus on our own health and well-being...and it feels wonderful!" With that, she slipped into the pool, breast-stroking down the lane with energy and gusto.

I thought about her words, about how life changes for so many of us as we age. It isn't a matter of becoming self-obsessed oldsters, but of paring life down to the essentials and letting what no longer fits, what no longer matters, fall away.

I've noticed interesting, small changes in the routines of our lives. After giving me a handmade knitted trivet, our next door neighbor Judith, so talented with hand crafts, asked "Remember what this is for?  I no longer make assumptions. So many people here don't cook anymore."

She's right. I recall Bob's moment of disappointment when I brought home a single-serving bag of frozen brussels sprouts (Bob's favorite) and he noticed that the bag wasn't steamable, that the vegetables would have to be taken out of the bag and placed in a microwave-safe dish for cooking. I remember, too, recently being at the local supermarket and tempted by a ready-to-eat package of hard-boiled eggs. I was brought back to frugal reality by the scorn of our neighbor Marsha, standing there watching me examine the package. "Oh, for heaven's sake!" she said. "Just buy a dozen goddam eggs. I'll boil them for you if you want. Paying for pre-cooked eggs is just plain crazy." I agreed reluctantly...thinking to myself that the concept of pre-cooked, pre-peeled eggs in a convenient zip-lock package didn't seem quite as crazy to me as it did to Marsha, who happens to be considerably younger than I am.

I've noticed meal-time routines changing. Many of us no longer have big formal meals, but smaller meals (or bigger snacks) throughout the day. Many eat in their lounge chairs or off t.v. trays or the coffee table instead of convening in the the dining room. In my friend Mary's house, she and her husband still say grace, still talk and laugh with love as they sit together in the living room with their meals.

In some cases, our homes have changed. Some friends have decluttered -- giving away family heirlooms now rather than later and throwing out or donating the items that no one wants. Some are downsizing. My friend Tim has moved from a spacious suburban house to an urban studio apartment -- and loves the change. He no longer owns a car and walks to his nearby office, to church, to shopping and to visit friends and family. He has lost weight in the process and is enjoying improved health and energy.

Some of us are simplifying by eliminating habits and routines that used to feel essential. For some of us, makeup, panty hose and fancy dresses have given way to pantsuits, shorts and capris. Even for those who wouldn't dream of leaving the house without makeup, hairstyles have shortened and simplified for easier care.

Some of us have tamed the alarm clock habit by listening to our body rhythms and getting up when we feel like it or, if alarms are still necessary in our lives, opting for the gentle vibrations of a Fitbit silent alarm or a musical wake-up.

We don't care as much what others think of us -- casting off the burden of being trendy in favor of embracing what we like and prefer.

We're less likely these days to get unnecessarily immeshed in the lives of others with hurtful gossip or with unsolicited advice. This doesn't mean that we've stopped caring about others. We've simply learned that there are two sides to every story, that gossip accomplishes nothing constructive and that adult children, more often than not, prefer to handle their own problems and life decisions on their own. We're scaling down our need to be directive and becoming more supportive of others in our lives.

There are fewer names on our Christmas card lists and, perhaps, fewer birthdays to remember as the generation before us passes on and even a number of same-age friends are deceased. This less happy simplification of life does have a quiet upside: we're treasuring the family and friends we have left even more.

When we were younger, it seemed that we -- and those we loved -- would live forever. Now we know that we all have limited time to enjoy each other. With the family and friends we still have, we have new motivation to say those loving thoughts too often left unspoken and to give of ourselves in ways we always meant to but were just too busy, too distracted or too embarrassed before.

As times marches on, we're learning when to be quiet and when to speak up -- not complicating our lives with hurt feelings over pointless arguments. We've learned what is worth a fight and what can be let go.

There are so many advantages to simplifying in our own individual ways.

Cutting down on the needless tasks, clutter and routines in our lives gives us more time and energy to concentrate on what matters to us. What matters is a very personal decision and insight. You may find that certain people in your life matter more than ever. You may find, on the other hand, that impressing others matters much less. You may have found peace in letting go of dreams of extensive travel and now savor chances to grow and learn where you are -- perhaps by enjoying online courses from around the world or by simply listening to the experiences and insights of those around you.

Caring less what others think of us gives us the emotional space to think of others more, to listen instead of planning a response. It frees us to be ourselves in new ways, to grow in self-acceptance and self-awareness.

Simplifying today enables us to tidy up our lives before the next generation has to. This may mean looking ahead and making our own decisions while we still can: signing advance health directives, updating wills or trusts, making our final wishes known (preferably in writing) to close family members or friends. It may mean cleaning out those closets and attics, giving away heirlooms now, pruning our belongings to the ones that matter most to us. Doing all of this can lead to our own peace of mind and free us to not have to think of all of these matters again. It can also be a gesture of love and generosity to those who follow us.

Simplifying life can also give us time to reflect on what our lives have meant. When no longer dashing around trying to do it all and be it all on a daily basis -- a gourmet cook, a globe trotter, an all-around impressive person -- we can eliminate a lot of the noise and distraction to notice the themes, the challenges and the triumphs, both large and small, that have made our lives uniquely meaningful.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Parents of Adult Children: Can You Hear Yourself?

Have you ever heard yourself saying something to your adult child that sounded alarmingly like your mother? Or a cringe-worthy comment that seemed to come out of nowhere? Or something that sprang from hurt feelings to your lips without thought or filter?

Many of us have those moments when we say something we instantly regret. But some parents seem unable to hear themselves and then wonder why their adult children are keeping a distance.

Not long ago, I saw a reality t.v. performance by a mother that defied even the sometimes outrageous reality t.v. norm.

It was on an HDTV house hunting show.  A young couple had made the decision to use their relatively modest lottery windfall to buy a house for the young man's mother and stepfather (who were renting a tiny apartment). This young couple, by the way,  was living in very modest circumstances and expecting a baby within the next month.

The mother/mother-in-law's behavior during house-hunting made for provocative reality television, but was Exhibit A of the kind of older parent who tends to drive adult children away.  There appeared to be little gratitude for the sacrifice the young people were making. The mother simply accepted their generosity as her due and challenged their request to keep the price of the selected home under $300,000 with "Don't you care about your mother that I shouldn't get what I want?" What she wanted was a house that cost more than $500,000.

When her son politely reminded her of their financial limits, she urged him to "be a man" and to stand up to his wife, the person she was convinced was standing between her and her dream home. She threw in a number of divisive comments about her daughter-in-law, questioning her authority to have any kind of a say in this matter ("Because, after all, I'm your MOTHER!"), diminishing her spirit of family and generosity by waving away reminders that this young couple was choosing to do without so that she could own her first home.

It was obvious that this woman viewed herself and her son as family, her daughter-in-law as an interloper and her second husband as someone somewhat in between. She felt her son owed her big time and scoffed at the notion of gratitude. It was only after her husband finally intervened and reminded her that she was, indeed, blessed with a son and daughter-in-law who would give her such a gift that she decided on a perfectly acceptable $264,000 house that she had rejected previously and, somewhat subdued, thanked the young couple.

It made me wonder what she would have to say when something went wrong, when the first house repair came up? Would this be "the house that selfish wife of yours forced me to take!" or will she remain grateful, counting her considerable blessings?

Who knows?

But this show reminded me of the many times I have heard parents speak to their adult children with words unfiltered by present realities.

So many times parents -- often unwittingly -- speak before they edit themselves, revealing troubling feelings of ownership, of primacy, of betrayal in their relationships with adult children.

What about the words of a mother to her just-married daughter ready to leave for a Hawaiian honeymoon: "You always said you'd take ME to Hawaii! Seems you've forgotten..."

Another mother to her son while making Christmas plans meant to leave his wife of two years completely out of the family celebration: "Let's have a holiday with just us...just family... doesn't SHE have a family to go visit?"

Yet another mother to an adult son, disappointed that he and his live-in fiancee are busy decorating their new condo to their taste: "But I expected you'd have ME decorate your place. After all, I'm your mother!"

And, finally, a father speaking to a young adult child: "You're making so many stupid mistakes and here's why and here's what you should do."

Some parents feel that their role entitles them to a lifetime of telling it like it is and sharing unfiltered thoughts with their adult children. While it can be a comfort and a blessing to be authentic with each other over the years, there are limits when it comes to adult children. Speaking without thinking, without being sensitive to the realities of their lives, can build barriers instead of continuing warm ties between you and your adult children. What may make perfect sense to you may sound and feel outrageous and insensitive to your adult child.

So how can you be yourself without offending?

1. Think before you speak: What will the words you're planning to say accomplish? What are your intentions?  Do you want to be helpful -- or are you looking to hold onto the power in your relationship?

My friend Jan has difficulty stopping herself from giving her 28-year-old daughter Amelia, whose tastes are much more casual than her mother's,  fashion and grooming advice. "It's just that she would be so pretty with just a little effort," she protests while bemoaning her daughter's emotional distancing tactics. We discussed the fact that Amelia has different priorities, that continuing to focus on her physical appearance simply perpetuates a years-long conflict between mother and daughter. Jan sighed. "I know," she said. "It's a conflict between what I want for her and what she wants for herself. She wants to be seen as intelligent and accomplished. Whenever I forget what she wants and think about what I'd like to see, my words come between us. I mean, in some ways, just fixing her hair seems like such a small thing. But coming from me...the way she hears it is no small thing. Most of the time, I catch myself. But sometimes I slip and I always regret it."

I nodded with understanding. It's so easy to forget and, with all the best of intentions, to say something that feels offensive or intrusive to a young adult.

Though I have no children of my own, I love some of the children of close friends unconditionally and intensely. One of my most beloved, the daughter of my best friend from college, is in her late thirties and giving a lot of thought to the directions she would like her life to take both personally and professionally. Several years ago, I remember her asking me how I felt about being childless. It's not an easy question to answer since being childless was not a life goal for me but something that simply evolved over time due to a number of choices I made in my thirties. I told her that, from my current perspective, I regretted being childless very much and that I sometimes felt that I had made a critical mistake in putting my career first and foremost when I was young. Several years later, as we were talking about her sisters who have started families and the joys of being an involved auntie, I heard myself asking her if being an auntie would be enough or if she might be thinking of starting a family of her own. There was a fleeting look of shock and pain in her eyes and I realized that my question was unintentionally intrusive. It's one thing to ask about past decisions as she had and quite another to ask about future plans. I apologized and explained that I asked only because she had seemed curious about the experience of not having children. She smiled. We were back on track. She said "I'd like to have a child. Or to adopt. Or both. And I love being an aunt. That's enough for now. If anything changes, I'll let you know right away!" Our eyes met. We smiled warmly, fondly at each other. And I knew that, while I would be happy to hear any news or insights she has in the future about having children or not, I would never again initiate a discussion of this topic with her.

2. Let go of being central: When your child was little and dependent, you were the center of his or her universe. But your child grew up -- just as he or she was meant to -- and now things have shifted. And so many conflicts can come from forgetting this reality and assuming that nothing has changed.

Feeling the need to be central, you might hear yourself giving unasked for advice or making critical comments about an adult child's significant other in a conspiratorial tone. You might make assumptions that are no longer valid: planning trips for just the two of you when your adult child's life has expanded to include a spouse; demanding time and attention that your adult child, who has grown into new roles and commitments, can no longer give.

While some parents bemoan no longer being central as being relegated to the sidelines, it's more constructive to look at this another way: as having a front row seat to cheer your son or daughter on.

3. Edit your comments and soften your approach. You feel you really need to say something before your adult child makes a terrible mistake -- whether he or she is planning a romantic commitment or preparing for an important job interview. You may be tempted to scream "Nooooo! Don't do it!!!" or to say "You're going to say what if your interviewer asks you about your previous job experience?" Think about how such expressions of maternal or paternal concern will be heard. You may make more of an impression -- or find a way to reassure yourself -- with a quieter approach. Ask a question like "I'd really like to get a feeling for Jake from your point of view. What do you enjoy most about him? What do you imagine he'll be like in ten years or twenty? When you dream of a future together, what is it like?" Or if you feel compelled to give advice, ask first. Ask "Would you like some advice for your interview or do you feel pretty confident that you're well prepared?" And if you do give advice, make it a quiet suggestion, building on your adult child's ideas, rather a than mandate for action from your point of view.

4. Keep quiet.  Sometimes the wisest of parents keep quiet, while crossing their fingers that all will go well with a beloved adult child.

"My advice to other mothers of adult children?" smiles Kim, a friend with two grown daughters. "Shut up and pray! You can't help but worry and want to intervene in all that concerns them. But nine times out of ten, it's best to step back and simply hope and pray for the best. They have to make their own mistakes and find their own way -- just as you did!"

My friend Tim looked surprised when asked if he had offered any career management advice to one of his daughters. "Oh, no," he said. "I have confidence that she will make wise decisions and that if she makes a mistake, she'll learn from it. I would only give advice if she specifically asked for it. There is great value in working her career issues out in her own way and in her own timeframe." This father, by the way, enjoys excellent relationships with his adult children.

5. Apologize for verbal transgressions.  Love of any kind means saying you're sorry - over and over. So when you upset an adult child with an off-the-cuff comment or unasked for advice, apologize. Making excuses like "A mother should be able to say anything to her child!" or "I'm your mother. Who else is going to tell you the truth?" can only escalate the conflict. Sometimes you need to go beyond a simple "I'm sorry!"

A few years ago, my husband Bob and our beloved "surrogate son" Ryan, who came into our lives as Bob's Little Brother in the Big Brother's program when he was nine years old and who has become like a son to us in the years since, was visiting us from California when he and Bob got into a heated conflict. It began with Ryan telling a story about a parking ticket. Bob jumped on him about his need to take more responsibility and continued to nag him about some work decisions and lifestyle choices. Too stung to engage in further conversation,Ryan went to bed early. The next morning, as he was getting ready to fly home, he joked about their conflict and the fact that they had only clashed once in the three day visit. But I could see sadness and pain in his eyes. So could Bob. He told him that he was sorry. But that didn't seem to be enough. After Ryan left, Bob sat down and wrote him a heartfelt email, apologizing further, expressing his love and his confidence in Ryan as a young adult excelling in a difficult field and facing several significant life challenges at the time. Ryan called him as soon as he read it, telling him how much his opinions mattered, how deep his hurt had been and his joy in seeing Bob's love and vote of confidence for him in the email. Don't ever assume that your child just knows you love him or admire her achievements. Let him or her know. And when there is conflict, be the first to apologize, even if you're convinced that what you said was right.

It's important for your adult child to know that your words come from love...and that conflicts are resolved with love. There are so many ways to show this love. Sometimes, a well-thought out comment is the loving thing. Other times, you can show your love most by keeping quiet, by ceding the spotlight, and by recognizing your adult child's growing competence and power over his or her own life.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

New Year's Promises

We're getting well into the New Year. So how are you doing with your New Year's resolutions? Are they fading from your memory and resolve? Do you feel a sense of guilt and dread when you think of them? Are you giving up on them -- or did you decide not to make resolutions at all this year?

The tradition of New Year's resolutions taps into our desire for fresh starts, new beginnings, finally tackling a long-time challenge like weight or general health and fitness or other necessary or desirable life changes. The problem for many of us is that the resolutions seem like judgements, like setups to fail once more.

Maybe this is the year to try something new.

Instead of resolving to lose weight or get fit or change jobs or get together with friends more, make some promises to yourself for 2017.

Why promises?

Promises may feel more positive and less punitive than resolutions. Promises bring hope.

The best New Year's  promises focus on healthy processes rather than results. Think about it. When you've resolved to lose ten pounds --or sixty -- you may experience frustration, a feeling of being overwhelmed and perhaps be plagued with perfectionistic thinking and behavior that leads you to believe that if you have one minor cheat, the whole day or week is lost. With weight loss and other long-term goals, it can be all too easy to lose heart and quit trying.

A promise that focuses on a process, on the other hand, can bring you pleasure along the way.

What kind of promises could you make to yourself this year?

I promise myself the freshest, most nutritious food and drink possible. This promise isn't about restrictive dieting but about excellent self-care. Losing the fast food, the doughnuts and the soft drinks doesn't have to mean deprivation but liberation to enjoy top quality nutrition. Think about how good it feels to eat a delicious piece of fruit. The doughnut may call out to you, especially if you're at an emotional low point, but how do you feel afterwards? Noticing the difference in how you feel after eating a refreshing salad vs. a double Whopper can be instructive. That doesn't mean you won't occasionally indulge in a doughnut or a Whopper. But focusing on the feelings of lightness and energy you feel after a nutritious meal can help to keep those guilty pleasures as once-every-now-and-then treats rather than daily fare. And there may come a time when you find that you're more tempted by healthier treats. The thought behind this promise is not weight loss but good self care.

What self-care promises could you make to yourself this year?

I promise myself more engagement with life. That can mean getting off the couch and moving more: taking a walk and noticing the beauty around you, greeting others, enjoying active time with your pet, seeing your neighborhood in a new way. It can also mean getting more involved with your community through your church, a local school, a charitable cause. An editor with whom I once worked has never married and has no children. But after he retired and moved to Kauai, he spearheaded efforts in his community to improve resources at local schools, making a huge difference to teachers and students and becoming a loved and respected member of the local community. Being engaged with life means more connection with others -- being kind, being there for friends, being a blessing in the life of another.

How can you imagine being more engaged with life -- physically and emotionally -- in 2017?

I promise myself little surprises and rebellions. This may be the surprise of trying something entirely new and finding that you enjoy it. It may mean taking the risk of learning a new skill and tolerating being being not so good at it -- and feeling glad simply to be learning something new.

I've always regretted never learning to play a musical instrument in my youth. Frankly, that regret hasn't translated into a yearning to learn at this stage of my life, but it's good for our brains to learn entirely new skills as we age. Encouraged by my husband Bob, who is an accomplished musician on multiple instruments, I have decided to start learning to play an electric guitar. Right now, we're keeping the volume low as I struggle to learn cords. What my husband --and so many others -- do so easily, I do awkwardly and have yet to play any recognizable tune. But there is hope for a more tuneful future and a certain pleasure in meeting an entirely new challenge.

Hoping for a more tuneful future....

Little surprises and rebellions may mean challenging the notion that, now that you're no longer young, it's silly to do something you've always wanted to do. For years, Bob has talked of getting a tattoo always with a background of my howls of protest. Last month while I was out of town, he decided to go for it. I came home to see a band tattooed around his upper left arm. And, once I recovered from the shock, I realized, first, that it really did suit him and, second, that it was never about me anyway but something that he had always wanted. And I was happy for him.

Bob and his new tattoo

I surprised myself last week by doing something I had often thought about when younger and had totally dismissed in the past few decades: getting my ears pierced.

I've always loved the look of earrings but found it easy to distract myself from any action with thoughts that I fear needles more than I like jewelry. More recently, I've contended that doing something like that at my age is just plain silly. But this Christmas, my dear friend Tim gave me some earrings -- for pierced ears -- that I really love. Tim and I have been close friends for more than 50 years and are in touch almost daily. But, since he lives in Chicago and I live in rural Arizona, we rarely see each other. So he ordered those earrings from England, thinking that I had pierced ears. I took one look his carefully chosen gift and decided that this was an excellent time to revisit and act on my adolescent yearning.

Tim's inspiring gift

Newly pierced ears!

So, at nearly 72, with my new piercings and learning to play an electric guitar, I'm keeping this particular promise to myself in ways that surprise and delight me.

What ways could you surprise yourself this New Year?

I promise myself peace. This can mean many things. To some it may mean withdrawing from television news, political podcasts, Facebook rants and other sources of stress. For others, it may mean taking action instead of stewing inwardly. It may mean making different choices: not engaging in pointless conflict or being with people who bring you down. To still others, it may mean learning to meditate and practicing mindfulness.

It can also mean finding new ways to be at peace with what is.

My cousin Caron, whose life has been shaken to the core by some significant losses of family and friends and whose worsening COPD has limited her activities in ways she could never have imagined only a few years ago, says that her daily mantra has become "It is what it is." And cultivating peace and acceptance with what is in her life has freed her to appreciate its blessings -- particularly the love of her husband Bud, her sweetheart since they were 14-year-old high school freshmen, as he cares for her with great tenderness. Together, they have discovered humor in the vicissitudes of life and gratitude for the blessing of each other.

Lately their equanimity has been tested by concerns about Bud's health as he undergoes medical testing due to some recent worrisome symptoms. "Sometimes my imagination gets carried away and I think I'm losing my mind," Caron told me yesterday. "Then I have to bring myself back to the present and just appreciate what we have now, this minute. Life is so interesting. None of these bad things were in my plans. But you never know. We just have to keep doing the best we can and reminding ourselves that it is what it is -- and treasure every minute we have with each other."

How might you bring peace into your life this year?

Caron and Bud Roudebush: Married almost 58 years!

I promise to surround myself with love. Keeping this promise to yourself can mean so many things.

It might mean visiting long-time friends and family more often. It might mean adopting a pet from a local shelter or working for a cause on behalf of animals, children or the underserved. It might mean taking time to write a letter letting someone special know you love him or her. Or it could mean taking time to say the "Thank you!" you had always meant to say to someone in your life. It could mean cheering another on, mentoring someone younger, congratulating someone on a job well done or a life beautifully lived.

There are so many ways we can surround ourselves with love.

I thought about this the other day when I got an email from our class representative busy planning details of the 50th reunion of Northwestern University's Class of 1967. The person was asking for love stories -- specifically, the stories of couples who had met while students and married and are still together, with photos requested of then and now. And I thought about how very many different love stories I have from my college years that were not about marriage and couplehood but, nevertheless, are about enduring love: my wonderful roommates, three of whom have passed away, and one, Ruth, who is still very much with me though we live a great distance from each other; friends like Jeanne and Georgie, Bruce, Robert and Mary whose memories intersect with my own and whose lives and love have continued to bless mine. Then there is Tim, my favorite classmate from NU '67, whose constant and loving presence in my life has not only been an incredible blessing, but also has become multi-generational, bringing the joy of friendship with several of his adult children.

With Tim during our 45th Northwestern University class reunion

With Tim's daughter Mary Kate - December 2016

The people whose lives intersect with ours at all stages of life -- school, work, child-raising, retirement -- are all part of the delicious love that surrounds us. Some are easier to embrace, to share loving feelings with than others. But surrounding ourselves with love means reaching out in many ways. In my own life, I reach out to my dear friend Mary with frequent visits to her and to her ailing husband John and, in between, sharing and enjoying insights into life present and future; to my husband Bob, to our "surrogate son" Ryan, my lifelong friend Pat and to my family in ways that celebrate the people they have grown to be; to the special people with whom we can share our authenticity, including silliness; to those we rarely see but are often in our thoughts.

Mary and me - December 2016

In mid-December, I traveled back to Los Angeles for a week, celebrating and immersing myself in the love of some special people. I spent several days with Mary and John Breiner, sharing concern, hope and laughter; a lovely day with Mary Kate Schellhardt, Tim's ebullient, warm and insightful actress daughter, and another with Sister Rita McCormack, my brother's first grade teacher and my dear friend since I was 8 and she was a 23-year-old nun just arrived from Ireland. She's now 86 and frail and I was able to thank her for being there for me when I was an 8-year-old struggling to recover from polio and find a way to belong in my parochial school class of 60. For the first time, she told me a story that explained our early affinity for each other: she had been stricken with TB at the age of 9 and was out of school for two years. When she had seen me, she remembered well how difficult and lonely her own re-introduction to school had been and reached out immediately. And, all these years later, we embraced, thankful for so many years of love and friendship.

Sister Rita, my friend for 64 years!

And I visited my brother Mike and his family -- wife Jinjuta, children Maggie, 7, and Henry, 4 and felt totally immersed in their whirlwind life of traveling between their homes in Bangkok and Los Angeles, challenging work, Maggie's imaginative princess games, recreational political rants, Henry's dinosaur tales, child-inspired chaos and sweet, loving moments.

Authenic family silliness: Jinjuta, Henry and Maggie

My brother Mike and me

Authentic family sentiment: a love note from Maggie

And then I returned home for the holidays with Bob and our four sweet, cuddly cats. It doesn't get any better than that.

    A very Ollie Christmas with our two year old cat Ollie                                 

Surrounding ourselves with love can mean reaching out, appreciating love however we find it and
living with gratitude for the love that has blessed our lives.

What would it mean for you to promise to surround yourself with love?

This promise and the ones that came before it are all about nurturing, not torturing, ourselves. They are all promises well worth keeping.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Reclaiming Your Holiday Spirit

Holiday spirits seem to be sagging this year.

For some, it's the lingering bitterness of the prolonged election process 2016 -- not solely (or at all) because of the results but because of the the toxicity and divisiveness of the campaigns.

For others, life changes keep spirits at low ebb as one longs for days gone by. Holidays are a time of togetherness, for better or for worse, for some. For others, the holidays are a time of missing special people. Those empty chairs at holiday celebrations may have been vacated by death, through estrangement or simply from children growing up, moving away and establishing their own families. These days, their busy lives may not always include getting together with parents for the holidays.

My dear friend Tim once lived in a large house filled with children and pets and laughter. Now the children are grown and living in different parts of the country. Tim lives alone in a lovely, but small city apartment. He wonders if he has room even for a tiny Christmas tree that no one but he may see.

My dear friend Mary, who has always loved Christmas, has a special challenge this year: her beloved husband Terry is in hospice care and the holidays have a bittersweet quality -- gratitude for each day they have together and anticipatory grief for future holidays that will be so different.

Both friends are naturally joyous and love the holidays, but, like a number of people this year, they have good reasons to feel a touch of melancholy.

If you share some melancholy feelings this season, it's important to honor those emotions, to feel your grief and sadness and longing, but then to let memories of the past and hopes for the future happily season the melancholy.

Holiday joy isn't just fueled by our present holiday circumstances but also by our warmly remembered holidays past. All of those memories of Christmas (and other holidays) past are part of us. They're not to be mourned but celebrated.

Reclaiming your holiday spirit can mean going back to those times for a joyous visit in your mind, celebrating the fact that these happened instead of making sad comparisons with the past and today.

So, just for a moment, go back through the years to the excitement and wonder of Christmas as a child. What was this like? What sensations and experiences do you remember?

Christmas 1947

I remember the fun of Advent calendars and being surprised by hidden gum drops under my pillow, left by elves, my parents told me. I remember singing in the church choir for Christmas services, loving the music and the spectacle and the feeling of a deeper meaning to the holiday beyond gifts and feasts. I remember the smell of baking cookies and special pies, the arrival of my Kansas grandmother's fudge in the mail and the creamy goodness of each piece, savored through the holiday season.

Gifts weren't a huge part of Christmas in my childhood home. But I remember some special gifts that are still with me today or that live on in vivid memory.

When I was about ten or eleven, Aunt Molly gave me a boxed set of records featuring my idol Cyril Ritchard reading "Alice in Wonderland" -- a gift I treasure to this day. That pretty much encapsulated my passions at the time: I loved Cyril Richard and I was on a major Lewis Carroll kick. The gift couldn't have been better chosen or more appreciated! I still listen to this magical recording from time to time and think of my beloved aunt with love and gratitude whenever I do.

And then there was the Christmas when I was six and still recovering from polio. I was just beginning the long process of physical therapy and learning to walk again after months of hospitalization. My passion at the time was a local television show called "Frosty Frolics", an ice-skating extravaganza staged anew every week. I asked my parents for a pair of ice skates. They knew I would outgrow them before I could ever possibly use them. But they gave me the skates -- and a boost of hope. So as I watched "Frosty Frolics", I used to lie in bed with the skates on, dreaming of a time when I, too, could glide across the ice. That time never came. But the hope and optimism that gift brought me have lived on forever to become a part of my love for the holidays.

What brought you joy and hope in your early holiday experiences? And how do these linger on?
Now travel back in time to those busy days of raising your own children, delighting in their excitement over the first snow of the season, of trimming the tree together and of enjoying family holiday rituals.

I remember those times so vividly. I wasn't blessed with children, but I so enjoyed getting Christmas cards with pictures of my friends' children and news of their activities and accomplishments. I started a Christmas album many years ago so I could watch these special children grow up in Christmas pictures.. My friend Tim's four wonderful children appear on many pages of this album, growing from babies and toddlers to accomplished and kind, giving adults in what seemed like a heartbeat. Now I'm seeing and enjoying the next generation in pictures that are going into this same special Christmas album.

Tim's Christmas Picture about 1985
From left: Laura, Stephen, Eliza, Mary Kate

I remember cooking and hosting family holiday dinners from the time I was in my mid-twenties until Aunt Molly died in 2004 and my siblings moved far away. I loved the preparations and the celebrations -- in my tiny studio apartment, in a townhouse and finally a lovely house shared with my husband Bob and the scene of many family festivities.

One of the most precious holiday memories from that time: the Thanksgiving that we welcomed my beloved cousin Jack, his wonderful parents Evelyn and Elmer, and his in-laws -- all from Kansas City. The reason for their being in California was tragic: Jack's wife Tanzy, whom we all loved so much, had just died of cancer at the age of 35 three days before. But in the grieving, there was a wonderful intimacy and in our despair, there came to be hope, sparked by the love we all felt for her and each other. It was a very special day. We laughed together. We cried together. And we built some lasting and loving memories together.

What are your favorite memories from this busy time of your life? Which ones linger to warm your heart to this day?

Perhaps, like me, you're now having quieter holidays, with fewer pressures and obligations. Maybe you've become the guest rather than the host. Maybe you still prepare your holiday favorites -- at a grown child's house. Maybe you've begun to make your own holiday rituals.

A friend of mine, whose adult daughter prefers to enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with only her husband and two children, has a new holiday routine she has come to enjoy (after recovering from the initial shock and disappointment of not being included in her daughter's family holidays). She and her husband visit her daughter to celebrate the holiday and exchange gifts on December 23. They spend Christmas Eve at home, listening to Christmas music, enjoying the sparkling tree and eating take-out Chinese food. On Christmas, they sleep late, lounge in pajamas all day and read, play board games and share feelings about what delights them -- from Christmases past or present.

A wonderful part of reclaiming holiday spirit is seeing, once more, the fun of Christmas through the eyes of a new generation -- grandchildren or, in my case, my niece Maggie, 7, and nephew Henry, 4, the children of my brother Mike and his wife Amp. They usually live in Bangkok, Thailand but travel to the U.S. for Christmas every year. And together with my brother, I prepare a Christmas feast while Maggie watches closely "so I can make the same food when I'm grown up..." There is a wonderful feeling of continuity in that promise.

                                                     Family Christmas 2014
                                      Mike, Maggie, Me, Vivo and Nora
And there is pleasure in continuing holiday rituals.

My friend Mary and her husband are keeping an Advent calendar and a special Advent ritual. Every evening, they light candles, say special prayers and meditate on a particular Biblical passage. A feeling of peace and warm connection prevails. Mary is also busy picking just the right gifts for family and friends and is stirring up batches of her famous fudge -- nearly as tasty and creamy as my grandmother's.

Mary and Terry 2016
Sharing joy in every day

My friend Tim has decided that he can and will make room in his small apartment for a little Christmas tree this year. He is delighted as he chooses just the right gifts for his children and three small grandchildren Arthur, Lucy and baby Leah. And, while not all of his adult children will be able to make it back to Chicago for the holidays, he looks forward to lots of FaceTime visits and to helping to prepare a Christmas brunch at his daughter Laura's home.

There is so much to celebrate as life comes full circle in a delicious blend of past and present: a first snow, the smells of holiday baking, Christmas carols and the special joy of seeing a new generation thrill in the holiday season.

   Leah Yarbrough  
                                           Daughter of Eliza and Chris                                                                                   

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Surviving Holiday Season 2016

The prevailing mood going into the Holiday Season 2016 is, perhaps, best summed up by a current ad for Stove Top stuffing that warns: "If you run out of stuffing, they'll start talking politics..."

Never has this warning carried more weight than in the wake of a long, bitter presidential race that divided many families in the process of polarizing the nation.

I see it all around me.

A brother and sister are so at odds over the campaigns and the election -- he was for Hillary, she for Trump -- that, as much as they love each other otherwise, they can't imagine getting together over the Thanksgiving feast.

Another friend, horrified that her elderly parents voted for Trump, is torn over holiday plans. "Every holiday, I'm afraid it will be their last. Even though I'm really mad at them, I want to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with them. I'm just trying to figure out how to make it a nice day for everyone when there is still so much anger between us."

A close friend of mine has been angry with his three siblings, all Trump supporters, and is estranged from one brother who is still not speaking to him even after the election. Is an extended family holiday celebration on his calendar? Not likely.

Other families are planning for Thanksgiving dinner with all the kin -- and, while hoping for the best, are bracing themselves for more than the usual family fireworks.

If you're part of a family divided by the contentious election of 2016, how can you deal with the quickly upcoming holidays in a way that doesn't create more anger and resentment?

First you need to make a decision. Do you want to celebrate the holidays together, despite your differences and fears of a politically-inspired family donnybrook? Do you want to have a calm, quiet
Thanksgiving while leaving Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza and/or New Year's open? Do you want to spend the whole Holiday Season 2016 with quiet, scaled down celebrations?

If you're planning to host or attend a traditional, all-family-inclusive Thanksgiving celebration:

  • Consider requesting a moratorium on political discussion. In extending or accepting invitations, request that conversation steer clear of political grumbling or gloating, concentrating on fun family memories, feelings of gratitude and acts of kindness. Or, as a diversionary tactic, bring back games. Haul Trivial Pursuits out of storage. Play cards or charades. Try a family songfest. Head to the back yard for some touch football or catch. Watch football or parades on television together. Do anything but continue to argue about Trump vs. Clinton.
  • Think about taking your family celebration to a restaurant this year. This may lead to more polite, civilized behavior among family members. In suggesting this alternative, you might say that this has been a hard year for everyone and that giving all a break from cooking and cleanup might be just the thing for a more harmonious holiday. 
  • Be kind. Being kind may mean listening without arguing or putting differences aside by expressing love and pleasure in being together. If your candidate won, save your exaltation for like-minded friends. If your candidate lost, save your horror and fears of impending disaster for a more receptive audience of friends. Tread gently with family. 
  • Put love first. As much as you may disagree with certain family members, give them a break. In so many ways in the past, we've made allowances for family members for differences, for  eccentricities or  signs of sheer madness, for quirks that may or may not be endearing. So why not now? Let your love for each other prompt all of your words and actions this holiday.

If you're planning to postpone family get-togethers until later in the holiday season:

  • Be specific about future plans.  If you can't bear the idea of Thanksgiving, but think you might be up for a Christmas Eve or earlier tree-trimming family party, share your plans so that family members will know that you're not removing yourself from family celebrations long-term.
  • If you're having a Thanksgiving dinner, plan carefully.  It isn't in the interests of family harmony to invite only people with whom you agree politically. Either announce and follow through with plans for a simple immediate, nuclear family celebration or with a dinner with or even a holiday getaway with friends. Don't set the tone for further family polarization by inviting some extended family but not others. 
  • Let extended family know you're thinking of them. A card or note wishing them a happy Thanksgiving and talking of your desire to see them at a specific later date can help to smooth ruffled feelings and keep you in touch with each other.
  • Put love first. Though you may be opting out of a full-family Thanksgiving, choosing to stay away for the time being, express your love for family members --those who agree with you and those who disagree -- with a note, a phone call or text, letting each person know that you love and value them.

If you're planning to have a quiet Holiday Season 2016 either alone or with only immediate family:

  • Let extended family know that this isn't forever.  It may be that you will choose to skip the more rambunctious family gatherings well into the future. But it's hard to know. This year has been such a contentious, divisive one. Feelings are still raw. What you know for sure is that you need a rest from the usual this year. Next year may be different. Or not. But focus on more immediate intentions: to get a rest from what has been an unusually difficult year for everyone.
  • Make the holiday special for yourself (and immediate family if applicable). Do something you've always wanted to do but never could when hosting or attending large family holidays. Spend the day at the movies or indulge in old or new favorites via Netflix. Volunteer to serve meals to the needy through your church or a local charity. Take a last minute trip. Visit and celebrate with friends who are at a distance from their families -- either geographically or emotionally. Spend a day of total indulgence: sleep in, then spend the day reading or watching the Macy's parade followed by football. Eat out or get take-out. Call a friend you haven't seen for awhile -- someone who is likely to be alone on the holiday as well. Go for a nice long walk. Cuddle a beloved pet. 
  • Keep in touch with family. Thanksgiving and Christmas cards are easy, fairly neutral, ways to stay in touch. Add a personal note expressing only love. Or send a brief text, sharing your love and best wishes for the holiday.
  • Use time alone to make peace with what is. Chances are, you will always disagree on politics and many other topics with certain family members. Putting aside your differences for a moment, think about what you value about the other person and how you can better keep him or her in your life without making yourself crazy. If you can't think of any reason this person isn't totally crazy-making, give it a rest for a time and come back to this question. If you repeatedly come up blank on redeeming features and reasons to get together, you may well need to maintain a healthy, manageable distance from the other --at least for a time. 
  • Put love first. Whenever possible, let love guide you in your words and actions. This may mean swallowing hard and saying "I'm sorry." It may mean enduring some tedious family gatherings in the future -- one hopes when everyone has calmed down a bit -- in the interest of being part of a diverse, unpredictable, sometimes messy and rambunctious extended family with a long history of love.

Whether you spend this Thanksgiving with the whole family or postpone festivities until later in the season or opt to spend this particular holiday season away from large family gatherings, keep in mind that the people you love -- even if you're at odds with them at the moment -- are much more important than who won -- or didn't win -- this election. Presidential terms end and fade into history. But family and love are forever. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Amazon Glitch

In the past few weeks, I've received a number of emails from readers who have been trying to buy a copy of The Teenage Body Book (2016 edition) and are having trouble finding it on Amazon.


I'm so sorry for the difficulty!

For reasons neither I nor the publisher can understand, an Amazon search for "The Teenage Body Book" brings up only the old 2008 edition. In an effort to solve the problem, the publisher is planning to take the old edition out of print, but in the meantime, you can find the 2016 edition either by typing my name -- Kathy McCoy, Ph.D. -- into the Amazon search. The book will come up third on the list.

Even better, you can click on the following link to access the Amazon page for the new Teenage Body Book:

If you missed my previous blog post introducing this new edition, here's the link to that:
Dr. Kathy McCoy: Living Fully in Midlife and Beyond: The Project of a Lifetime

And here is a new short trailer for the book:

Again, my apologies for the ordering difficulty. The publisher is working very hard with Amazon to correct this as soon as possible.

In the meantime, I really appreciate those of you who have not only wanted to buy a copy of The Teenage Body Book but who also have made me and my publisher aware of the Amazon glitch!
Thank you so much!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Small, Special Moments

It was wizened with age, scarred from historic battles and lying by the doorway of a popular take-out rib joint. The big orange cat barely glanced at us as we approached. But when Bob reached down to let it sniff his hand, the cat responded warmly, rubbing and purring.

Then it walked over to me, collapsing on my right foot and embracing my ankles with both soft paws. It looked up at me and purred as I reached down to pet it. And it made my day.

Just as when...

An old and very dear friend writes a email filled with warm encouragement...

A stranger reaches out a hand to help one climb a high curb...

A child on the beach looks up from digging in the sand with the gift of a radiant smile...

A friend's dog wants to cuddle...

A snail mail letter arrives from a someone special, standing out amid all the junk mail and bills....

A faint wisp of a memory makes one smile...

A lovely moment of connection happens with an acquaintance on the way to becoming a friend...

A spontaneous hug -- just when you need it the most...

Someone treasured and dear says "I love you!"

There are so many moments that bring such blessings to our lives.

And today my blessing was a sweet orange cat lounging on the stoop of the rib joint. Its sweetness and affection was such a joy.

It may have simply been hoping for a share of our upcoming take-out order.

But I prefer to think that this elderly orange cat was an angel of sorts,  blessing us with a moment of pure happiness and reminding us that love and beauty are abundant in so many small moments of our lives.