Monday, March 30, 2020

An Emotional Survival Guide to Covid-19: Caring and Calm Amidst the Chaos

As the toll of Corvid-19 climbs alarmingly around the world, there are sights that can't be unseen and words that can't be unheard such as:

  • Crowds of shoppers battling in the aisles of big box stores for dwindling supplies of toilet paper and bottled water, oblivious to store managers calling for peace and civility 
  • Bare shelves stripped of sanitizers, cleaning supplies, paper products and bottled water.
  • Crowds of young people, feeling invulnerable to the virus or simply not caring, packing bars, pubs and restaurants in cities across the nation, offering an unparalleled opportunity for the virus to spread among these healthy young people to be carried on to the elderly and otherwise vulnerable.
  • Political and generational divisions spawning verbal ugliness -- from contentions that the virus is simply a media hoax to the belief that the virus' penchant for killing more older people is just punishment for those loathsome Boomers 
  • Wealthy people retreating to their doomsday shelters in old missile silos or to remote vacation homes
  • People buying guns in record protect themselves from each other.

It's time to calm down and accept one central fact: we're all in this together.

People of all ages, ethnicities, professions and social standings have become ill from Covid-19. While the elderly and those with underlying health issues are most at risk for serious illness and death in this pandemic, Covid-19 affects us all in terms of health and loss, disruption of work, income and lifestyle. These are scary, trying, uncertain times.

It all makes me think of an earlier time when panic reigned: the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war and those of us in our teens feared we would never live to see young adulthood. People were hunkering down in backyard bomb shelters, hoarding canned goods and threatening to shoot anyone who intruded. It was my introduction to a very real sense of mortality and to the worst of humanity.

My Aunt Molly, a professional writer and award winning poet, wrote a poem back then about that "I've got mine, screw you!" bunker mentality that crisis inspired over half a century ago. Her poem was originally published in The Antioch Review.

You Can't Take It with You But You Can Always Bury It Alive


Elizabeth C. McCoy

Native rock and chemical toilet,
Air intake wary as a crone counting change
In an alien currency.

Dehydrated food and canned water
Sufficient for one for seven days.
$6.98 on special.

And you needn't expect...
Well...see! You've smudged
That page I like to read over and over
All about Walden.

How can it be just a gopher?
Nothing can get through to you now
Except the faintest taste and smell of fear
If you hadn't forgotten the Air Wick.

If he comes,
If anyone comes,

All these years later, we can do better.

These are different times to be sure. The menace is a viral pandemic, unsparing and unstoppable. How can we begin to get a grip and to realize that, while life must change at least for now, we can find ways to be okay, to be happy, to be kind to each other despite our concerns?

1. Don't let your panic get in the way of compassion and reason. Those feral shoppers stripping shelves of necessities we all need have let panic and selfishness cloud their judgment. For all of our well-being, hand sanitizer should be available to all, not just a few who are hoarding a 20 year supply or have enough toilet paper to bequeath to great grandchildren. When Bob and I were making a regular supermarket trip the other day, finding that food supplies were still quite abundant though paper goods and bottled water shelves were bare, we saw a woman at the checkout counter with SIX shopping carts overflowing with everything imaginable --from cleaning supplies to cookies. She looked like she was headed for a 10-year hibernation. Cultivate a spirit of enough. What you have will be enough. Make supplies last. Stretch meals. Improvise. You'll be fine. Faced with the coronavirus, running low on toilet paper will be the least of your problems.

2. See lifestyle changes through a positive lens -- as an opportunity to learn and to grow. Most of us live hectic lives built around routines that keep us away from loved ones, hobbies and relaxation. Working from home and losing the commute, having more time with family and with pets can be a welcome change in your daily routine. If you're off work as a result of business shut downs, this time off can be worrisome indeed. However, this pause in your work life can also be an opportunity. One friend, who worked as a bartender, says that losing her job has been a blessing of sorts. "I hated my job so much!" she told me. "But I wouldn't have left anytime soon. The money was too good and I wasn't sure what I would do next. Now I have more time and incentive to consider what I really want to do with  my life and plan a way forward." 

3. Limit your anxiety time.  Switching off the constant drone of dire news, taking a break, is good for your mental health. Yes, the crisis is very real. But, as long as you have good and accurate information and are doing the best you can to protect yourself and your family, obsessing about the pandemic and binge watching 24 hour news isn't useful or healthy. Lose yourself in a novel or in some of your favorite music. Short meditations, deep breathing, exercise, thought stopping can all help to keep a balanced view of the situation and to review your alternatives with a clear mind. 

4. Embrace gratitude. Consider what you have rather than what you've lost. Be grateful for a home in which to cocoon and for the people you love -- those who are with you at home and those who keep in touch from a distance. Be grateful for the embrace of a partner when you're in the grip of fear and uncertainty. Be grateful for the warmth of your animal friends. My three-legged black cat Ollie has started lying on my chest, his front paws around my neck, purring loudly. It's an incredible comfort. Be grateful for your interests and passion that you now may have more time to pursue. And be grateful for your good health so far. Being healthy overall may help to protect you against the worst ravages of this pandemic. 

5. Strengthen community and familial ties. Offer to help, keep in touch, check up on others, tap your inner kindness and compassion. You may realize how much nearby others mean. I've come to appreciate that in advance of the pandemic through my disability in the wake of my January accident when neighbors like Marsha, Vicki and Kelly brought meals over, when my neighbor Sherry dropped by with warm encouragement and just now, when Kelly appeared at our front door, keeping a safe distance, and handing us a bag of chocolate chip cookies warm from the oven. And I recently got a call from the wife of a young client of mine asking if she could do grocery shopping, pick up prescriptions for us or do anything else that would help to keep us safe. My brother Mike sends funny, insightful and loving messages from afar. My friend Georgie in Tennessee sent me a painting she imagined (correctly!) would cheer me up and keeps in touch with frequent messages. My friend Tim keeps me smiling with sweet emails, pictures, jokes and warm reassurance. His daughter Mary Kate calls with words of encouragement and love. My friend Mary, sidelined with her own disabling injuries and in a care facility for at least another month, sends me messages that are often as simple as "I love you!" Think about your own circles of family and friends. Whose day could you brighten with a call or text? What would you like to say to those you love most right now? Reach out now. Say what you would like to say...maybe something you've never said before.

6. Rediscover old pleasures.  Bring out the board games and jigsaw puzzles. Try song fests in the living room, the shower or out the window(see Italy!). Write letters to those you love. Take time to journal. Rediscover the joy of gardening or the simple pleasure of tidying up. Get creative and make some meals from scratch, enjoying the deliciousness of old recipes.

7. Express love fully -- and often. Tell others how you feel in writing, online, over the phone, with warm hugs. I've had the joy in the past few days to hear from a variety of people in my life -- from my brother Mike who speculates that the Tooth Fairy let his daughter down the other night -- possibly due to self-isolating or due to needing a federal bailout. And he added "I love you" to his text; from my lifelong friend Sister Rita McCormack, who befriended my brother and me when we were young, scared and abused, and who called to say she loved us still and always; fun and loving emails from my friends Tim and Mary; and a call from Tim's wonderful daughter Mary Kate, full of warm encouragement, affirmation of life's wonders and loving admonitions to be careful.

Think about the people who matter to you. This crisis is an opportunity to say what you've always wanted to say to those you love, to remember the important people from your life whom you may not see or hear from regularly, to reach out over the chasm of social distancing to touch another's heart.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Wild Saturday Night in Sun City (And What Came After)

With Ryan (red shirt) and Michael the morning after

At the dawn of 2020, my husband Bob and I marveled at the fact that, despite being in our mid-seventies, we were healthy, strong and active.

Bob recently discovered bicycling and was doing miles a day in addition to reading voraciously, studying ASL and discovering the intricacies of Wagner's operas. He is slim, fit and strong for his age -- or any age. 

I was swimming laps for an hour a day, nudging my diet in the Mediterranean direction, determined to get my weight to a healthier level and was delighted with the rapid growth of my new psychotherapy private practice.

We agreed that we were grateful for this extended healthy, happy time in our lives.

"This won't last, of course," Bob said quietly, thinking of the recent deaths of several friends and the downward spiral in health for another.

"But every day that we're healthy is a blessing," I said. "I'm grateful for every day of our healthy, active lives."

We smiled as we talked about the upcoming visit of Ryan Grady and his husband Michael Collum, flying in from Los Angeles for the extended Martin Luther King weekend.

We call Ryan "the son of our hearts." He came into our lives as Bob's Little Brother in the Big Brothers Program in Los Angeles. He was a quirky, bright, funny 9 year old then, who regaled Bob with a full throated rendition of "The Glory of Love" in the car, only minutes after they first met. Ryan quickly became dear to us, the son we would have been proud to have. (And we marveled at how his parents had produced not one, but two marvelous kids, as Ryan's older sister Kelly captured our hearts as well.)

As a young teenager, Ryan helped me to study for my oral licensing exam as a therapist and said "I want to do this, too!" And he did, becoming a licensed clinical social worker, seeing therapy clients and working as an administrator in an agency serving veterans. He's 36 now and when he married Michael in 2017, Bob was his Best Man. We've come to love Michael, too. Michael is an attorney by day and pianist by night. We could talk with them for hours -- and do.

This time, we were looking forward to showing Ryan and Michael just how vital and fit we were despite our advancing ages.

Pride before the fall.

The first sign of trouble was subtle. A patient came to see me, curling up on the couch in abject misery, coughing and sniffling through her session. I felt bad for her as well as a fleeting fear I quickly dismissed. After all, I hadn't been ill in years. And, as usual, I got a high intensity flu shot. I would be fine, but still....why hadn't she stayed home? I asked her if she really felt well enough to continue the session. She did and left at the end of the hour with my admonitions to go home, stay home, drink lots of liquids and rest.

My throat started feeling scratchy two days later, the day that Ryan and Michael arrived, We went out for dinner. I started feeling worse. Saturday morning, I woke up with a wracking cough, a fever and a painful earache, something I hadn't had since childhood. I went to the local ER where a doctor said the ear infection was bad and gave me a prescription for antibiotics.

I opted out of the festivities that day....and out of lunch and dinner, too. My fever climbed, my infected ear -- my good ear -- was completely blocked. I could barely hear. I crawled into bed early and fell into a feverish sleep.

"Help me! Help me!"

In the dark of 2 a.m., I startled from a deep sleep to the sound of screaming from the bathroom. I jumped out of bed and raced to the master bathroom where Bob lay in the aftermath of a grand mal seizure. Bob's epilepsy is well controlled by medication. Seizures are few and far between, but when they happen, they're serious. Rushing to his side, I felt suddenly faint, passing out beside him. It was pain that brought me back to consciousness. My left foot had twisted and I had fallen on it. The pain was intense, the swelling immediate. Neither of us could move. My cell phone was charging on the bathroom counter. I pulled it down and texted Ryan who, with Michael, was asleep in the casita guest house in front of our home.

Michael and Ryan rushed in to help: Michael took charge of Bob, who simply needed to rest, and Ryan rushed me back to the local ER. The receptionist smiled with recognition as we came in. "Oh," she said. "Today you have company! Your sweet grandson brought you in!"

Ryan and I looked at each other and smiled. "Actually," he said. "Kathy and I are special friends, though I'd say we do have something of a mother-son vibe going on...." And we chuckled.

After studying my x-rays, the ER physician shrugged. "It's suspicious for a fracture, maybe a little bone chip"  he said, giving me an orthopedic boot and telling me to follow up with my primary physician.

My primary sent me to a podiatrist who gasped when he saw the foot and took more x-rays and ordered a CAT scan. "This is very serious," he said. "This is a lisfranc fracture involving a number of bones in your foot and all three tendons that hold the bones together have torn. You need surgery as soon as possible! We have a narrow window of opportunity to fix the foot. The recovery time for this injury is at least a year."

He sent me to a surgeon who confirmed the diagnosis and the urgency, telling me that the surgery would involve rebuilding the foot with metal plates, pins and screws, that I would be in a cast for three months, a rigid boot for three more months and a modified boot for some months thereafter -- and in a wheelchair unable to put any weight at all on the foot during all that time.

There was only one impediment to surgery: my respiratory infection and cough.The surgery has been scheduled and canceled several times now. The window of opportunity for an optimal healing result has come and gone. I may always limp. Or need a cane. But anything would be an improvement.

Life with limited mobility is a humbling thing. I'm in a wheelchair. I need help going to the bathroom and bathing and dressing. Always fiercely independent, I've had to learn to depend on Bob, to ask for help, to rely on him for everything.

And now another development: I've lost my voice in the wake of weeks of violent coughing. And I'm watching another surgery date approach, hoping this one won't pass me by.

In the meantime, life keeps happening. During a routine echocardiogram two weeks ago, a mass was discovered on Bob's thyroid. He had a CAT scan and the result was "highly suspicious for malignancy." He is awaiting a biopsy. And someone very close to me, who prefers anonymity, was just diagnosed with kidney cancer. And a college friend of mine passed away last week.

It's all so fragile -- our health, our lives. In only an instant, everything can change.

Bob and I both are struggling to imagine what would happen if both of us end up needing surgery and recovery time in the weeks to come. The most routine tasks might become major challenges.

In the meantime, our home decor has taken a small but definite shift toward geriatric -- with wheelchair, walker, extended shower bench.

The cats were initially puzzled by my sudden disability but Sweet Pea and Hamish already have settled into quiet indifference. Maggie gives me extra affection. And my three-legged cat Ollie, convinced somehow that I'm being held prisoner in this chair, springs to attention every time I move, running circles around the chair, pouncing the wheels and lying down in front of it, blocking the way. Every journey is a perilous one as I learn to take evasive action to avoid running over my beloved feline companion.

Family and friends at a distance worry, wondering how they can help and express their love and concern. And friends here make heartfelt offers to help.

I'm immensely grateful.

I'm grateful to Bob for his patience and resourcefulness as a caregiver.

I'm grateful to my brother Mike and special friends - Tim, Mary, Pat, Georgia, Mary Kate, and Marsha -- for helping to lift my spirits in so many ways.

I'm grateful that when my accident happened, Ryan and Michael were here to lend physical and emotional help. It was not exactly the way we thought the weekend would go, but both Bob and I felt blessed by their presence nonetheless.

 I'm grateful for my private practice and the wonderful clients who have hung in there through the uncertainties of the past few weeks. I look forward to getting past surgery and back to being fully present for them.

I'm grateful that my injury is somewhat fixable, that my time in a wheelchair may be long, but far from permanent. I feel hopeful for Bob's health and for my anonymous loved one's prognosis.

And I feel grateful for every day -- whether healthy or not.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Looking Back At Long-Ago Love

He came to me in a dream recently, looking young and vibrant and loving. He smiled and told me he loved me -- as he had many times before. The kindness in his bright blue eyes was striking, the way it was more than 50 years ago when I started dating Michael Polich, my first real boyfriend.

What prompted the dream about Mike or my recent reflections on the four men I loved and, in three cases, dated before my marriage to Bob?

Perhaps it's that time of year when we review the past and build hopes and resolutions for the future.

Perhaps it's a side effect of aging, revisiting youth as time takes a physical toll and seems ever more limited. I remember my mother recounting her premarital adventures in love with great delight as my brother, sister and I rolled our eyes and sighed deeply. Oh, no! Is it possible? Have I become her?

Or perhaps my current reverie was inspired by listening to the bitter ruminations of a neighbor about the "narcissistic, selfish, stupid jerks I always seem to end up with!" And I thought about patterns that define our youthful love lives. Some women I know went through a phase of favoring "bad boys" and others mistook jealousy and possessiveness for love instead of the control and abuse it really was. Some talk with disdain about worthless ex-lovers, loser ex-lovers and others not meriting any backward glance. And it makes me sad that their past love experiences were so negative.

When you look back on those you've loved and lost or left, what do you feel? What did you learn from relationships that didn't work out, at least the way you had hoped or imagined? Even when your heart was broken, were there some important lessons that ended up enriching your life or increasing your wisdom?

Looking back to my increasingly far away youth, I remember times of longing and heartbreak and insecurity and times of fun and caring and lasting love. I've learned so much, grown so much as a result of loving four very different men in my single years before I met and married Bob Stover, my husband of nearly 43 years.

When I think about it, I was fortunate not ever to have been date-bait. I was never beautiful. I never learned how to flirt. Guys liked me as a friend, but nothing more.  In college, I had a wonderful classmate and friend, Tim Schellhardt. We were never a couple but we had fun and memorable times together -- going dancing, to movies, talking about past challenges and future dreams of careers in journalism. He helped me to lose both my fear of men and my terror of interviewing, the latter a major step toward my becoming a journalist. We supported each other emotionally through our years in the demanding journalism program at Northwestern (and throughout the decades since.) We laughed a lot. I felt so at ease with him and that I could talk with him about anything. Except for one thing: l was quietly, hopelessly, and very secretly in love with him. Totally unaware of my ardor, he unknowingly broke my heart by falling in love with and marrying someone else. But our friendship was built to last forever, thriving through the years. Tim is one of my dearest lifelong friends. We have never been lovers, but we will love each other forever. He is one of the greatest blessings of my life.

And I learned from this early heartbreak that there are many varieties of love -- all to be treasured.

When I look back on my three pre-marital lovers, I realize that the relationships were all built on the firm foundation of friendship. I feel only joy and gratitude that the pattern of my twenty something love life was a trio of men who were all, despite their considerable differences from each other, wonderfully kind. And I learned and grew so much from being with them.

Michael Polich was my first real boyfriend and, not so incidentally, my first lover. We were in our twenties when we met and in early stages of our careers -- mine in writing and, briefly, in acting, his in aerospace engineering. I felt comfortable with him immediately, though I sometimes dabbled in cynicism and snark at that point in my early twenties. I wasn't always gracious. Fresh from my dashed romantic fantasies in college, I sometimes unfairly displaced my negative feelings onto him. Fearful of finding my life limited by the power and control of a man, as my mother's life had been, I was unspeakably bossy and too often critical of Michael. I remember myself as a markedly imperfect girlfriend, a genuine pain in the ass. But, inexplicably, he loved me anyway.

Michael asked me to marry him several months into our relationship. I said "No". I felt I was too young to make such a commitment. I wanted more time to grow personally and professionally and I suspected that our dreams for the future were not a good match. Michael, whose father had abandoned him when he was a toddler to marry his mistress and start a new family, dreamed of having a warm and loving marriage and children he would never abandon. He yearned to have a daughter and, in his fantasies, had already selected a name for her: Gwen. He would support Gwen in whatever she chose to do with her life, love her unconditionally as she grew into the person she was meant to be.

But like many dreams from our youth, Gwen never happened. We dated for several years and my dreams for my own future continued to diverge from his -- away from home and family and towards a challenging career or series of careers. I finally left Michael for someone with different dreams. For a time, the hurt was deep. But somehow a trace of our love endured.

Even though we never saw each other again after our breakup, we kept in touch and updated each other as life happened. We both ended up getting married in 1977.  My husband Bob encouraged my career ambitions and didn't want children. Michael's wife Shahin was older, already had teenaged children and it was biologically too late for her to start a new family. But Michael enthusiastically embraced the family he had married into -- and found his Gwen-substitute in the daughter of his step-daughter. Her name was Jasmine and he wrote long enthusiastic letters about her -- her many talents and the fun he had driving her to swimming and ice skating events and encouraging her to both excel and to enjoy her life, up to and including her young adulthood.

He was unfailingly kind and gracious to me, calling me at major life transitions -- when my parents died, when his wonderful mother died, when I faced major surgery in 2003. When I had written to him about the latter, he called me at work, his voice filled with concern. "What can I do for you?" he asked quietly. "What do you need? I'm here for you." And he was forgiving and/or graciously forgetful of my youthful snarkiness.

 Some years ago, I asked Mike if he would mind if I wrote a blog post about our relationship. He replied with gentle humor: "How else am I going to be famous?"

When he read the blog post, his reaction was to tell me that I was being way too hard on myself, that he remembered the love, the mutual kindness and the fun we shared. He said that my cynicism and snarkiness must have been largely within and that he had always known the fear that fueled my bossiness and was never annoyed. And even all those years later, I felt immense relief and gratitude.

We had a celebratory ritual: writing to each other on our birthdays and at Christmas. So when I didn't hear from Michael last Christmas, I felt a pang of fear and loss. I Googled him and discovered that he had passed away suddenly six weeks before. And I felt a wave of grief that surprised me with its intensity -- and that recurred on his birthday in February and mine in April and once again as another holiday season has come and gone.  I'll always miss that handsome young man with the bright blue eyes and the sparkling smile -- and the very special person he became, at a distance but forever warmly in my life.

The life lessons I took away from Michael were ones of the importance of being in the moment with another instead of dragging past resentments into a new relationship, the value of kindness and patience and forgiveness as well as the value of shared love and experiences, whether or not one's dreams ever match.

My next love Maurice couldn't have been more unlike Michael -- except for his essential goodness and his immense kindness.

My relationship with Maurice Sherbanee threw my parents into a panic. He was from a foreign country. He was 15 years older than I. And, worst of all, he was an actor, albeit a steadily working actor.

"What are you thinking??" my parents shouted in unison. I reflected on their distress and my surprise at finding myself in this relationship. Maurice had been a casual friend for some years, ever since my days in the new talent program at Desilu. He was an established actor then, often playing foreign heavies or heros-- Arabs, Italians, Armenians, Turks -- in television and films, including foreign language films. He was a gifted musical theatre actor who appeared in a number of professional musical shows in L.A.

One night, I went with an actress friend of mine, who had a crush on him, to see Maurice play Panise, the second lead, in a major L.A. revival of the musical "Fanny". I mortified my friend with my tears and barely stifled sobs over his death scene near the end of the show. When we went backstage to congratulate him, my eyes and nose were still streaming. I was a tearful mess. Somehow, he found me irresistible and asked me out immediately.

Startled, I said "No." I knew that my actress friend was hoping to date him. He began to call me on a regular basis and I continued to say "No" until my friend said "Look, next time he calls, please go out with him. He's never going to ask me out. The least you can do is to validate my taste. He's talented and brilliant and handsome and kind. What's your problem?" So I went out with him...for nearly four years.

And in our time together, I grew up a lot. He encouraged me to open my mind and my heart and to embrace others' points of view, even when I didn't agree, even when it was hard to understand. He nurtured me in a way I had never felt growing up and helped me tame my snarkiness with humor. He also dreamed someday of having a daughter and, in the meantime, entertained me with stories and funny impressions of his much-adored grand niece Tiffany. We sometimes argued about his mother -- who lived with him and who had varying degrees of hostility toward any girlfriend he might have, though she cut me considerable slack because I was such an obviously unsuitable match -- not Jewish and too young. When I asked why he didn't settle his mother in a little apartment or in assisted living, he would look at me sadly and say "In my culture, we don't discard our older people. We cherish them. You will never understand what we have been through together."

It took me years to understand. I never did totally until I started reading some of the blog posts of his niece Rachel Wahba (mother of Tiffany), a psychotherapist and writer in the Bay Area who has shared stories of their dramatic and traumatic family history both online and in print. I knew that Maurice was cosmopolitan and spoke a number of languages, that he had been born in Iraq, moved to India when he was 11 and then to Japan after World War II. I discovered through Rachel the stories behind these travels: how Maurice, his parents and his sisters were Holocaust survivors, having lived through the infamous Nazi-inspired Farhud in Baghdad where hundreds of Jews were killed in their homes and on the streets during one terrible weekend in June 1941. Maurice, several months away from his eleventh birthday, hid from the attackers, first on their roof under blankets, then with a Muslim family his mother had befriended, trying not to hear the shots and screams on the streets below. Then they fled to India for the rest of the wartime years. They fled for their lives once again when India erupted in civil war and lived stateless for some years in Japan before being allowed into the U.S. These are details of his life that Maurice still can't bear to discuss.

We parted as lovers largely due to our age and cultural differences, but have continued to enjoy a loving friendship through the years. He never married. (His mom lived to be 104!) But he has lived a full and loving life. And he has taught me so much about kindness and courage and tenacity and gracious acceptance of what is. As his health has faltered and he has grown too frail to continue to work as an actor on a regular basis, Maurice has concentrated instead on his love of music, composing beautiful classical guitar pieces that, performed by others, have a major presence on You Tube. He has taught me to embrace change, including finding ways to grow past the limitations of age and to find new possibilities.

I got a note not long ago from his niece Rachel, who has become a friend of mine and with whom he spends an increasing amount of time in her San Francisco area home. "My uncle and I were talking about you the other day," she said. "And he had only the sweetest things to say about you. I think it's so wonderful and inspiring that you have shared such love and such kindness for each other for so many years."

Yes. Maurice is an inspiration and a blessing indeed.

My mother was over the moon at my next love: Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman. He was the tall, handsome, Catholic doctor she had always dreamed I'd meet.

Chuck and I met when a health educator I knew suggested him as a source for an article I was writing about male development and sexuality. I was stunned when I saw that he was young and handsome and sexy. The subtext of our interview was steamy as we mentally undressed each other behind our careful professional demeanors. But we didn't date until several months later, after Chuck came to my office for an interview for another article. Shortly before his arrival, I got the news that one of my closest college friends had been murdered. As soon as he arrived, Chuck noticed the distress I was trying so hard to hide. He shut my office door and embraced me as I cried on his shoulder. He asked me out to dinner. And what followed became a memorable part of my romantic history.

Chuck was lively, fun and caring in all areas of his life. We talked about marriage and children and books we might write together. It all seemed not only possible, but also inevitable.

Our hopes for the first two were dashed when, a year into our relationship, he realized with new clarity and considerable pain that he was gay. "I thought those feelings would go away if I could just meet the right woman," he told me tearfully. "But you are the right woman and still...." My mother was crushed by this turn of events and she blamed me for not being attractive enough or submissive enough to hold his interest. But he and I knew that wasn't so, that as much as we had loved and enjoyed each other, his long suppressed sexual orientation needed to be honored and expressed.

However, our third wish did come true: we wrote a very successful book together -- "The Teenage Body Book" -- which was first published in 1979 and which has had seven U.S. editions as well as a number of foreign language versions through the years. The latest U.S. edition was published in 2016. The book led to us appearing together on "Oprah" and a number of other national and local television shows. It helped to propel our respective careers -- his as an adolescent medicine specialist and mine as a writer -- onto a new level. We collaborated on three other books together over time and have built a loving friendship from the ashes of our long-ago dreams.

In my relationship with Chuck, I learned a lot about letting go and having fun, about the importance of honoring the truth about ourselves, even when it changes our lives and our dreams, about the joy of an enduring friendship built on the foundation of love, of loss and mutual forgiveness.

All these lessons I learned from my early loves served me well when I met and married Bob and as I've grown through the years. It strikes me that we expect to grow through a long and loving marriage.

But, too often, we don't realize what we might have learned and how we've grown from the loves that came before. I feel blessed to have known these very special men whose kindness illuminated my youthful life path. The memories make me smile all these years later and fill my heart with love and gratitude.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Surviving the Unthinkable: Finding Your Way As Life Goes On

Thirty-nine years ago today -- November 2, 1980 -- what started as an ordinary Sunday was suddenly and forever a life-changing day.

It began with our usual happy Sunday routine. My husband Bob and I went to the Hollywood Newsstand to buy the Sunday New York Times and assorted magazines, laughing and joking with the proprietor Bernie Weisman and enjoying his usual outrageousness. Then we went to our favorite restaurant, the Shaker Mountain Inn, for a brunch of omelets and muffins. Our favorite server Flo smiled and entered our usual order as we sat down. It was just another sweet Sunday morning in our young lives. Then, suddenly, it wasn't.

Bob was paged over the sound system to take a phone call at the reception desk. Our eyes met, startled. He hurried away. Rooted in place by sudden fear and dread, I watched him from the back as he took the call. He bent over suddenly as if struck in the stomach and then straightened, one hand shielding his eyes. My breath caught. I couldn't move. On his way back to our table, he stopped Flo and talked with her for a moment. She embraced him, then hurried away, reappearing with our brunch order packed neatly in to-go boxes.

Bob came over and put his arms around me, saying softly: "Sweetie, we need to leave. Your mother has been found dead."

He told me later that the phone call had been from my brother Michael, then a fourth year medical student at Stanford. Our mother's longtime next door neighbor Wayne, noticing newspapers accumulating in her driveway, had discovered our mother's body, sitting in a chair just inside the unlocked front door of her home. She had died so quickly from a cardiac arrest that she hadn't even had time to drop the newspaper she had been reading. Wayne didn't remember that I hadn't changed my name after marriage, that I was listed in the phone book and lived only a few minutes away. So he called Stanford Medical School and officials tracked down my brother in his off-campus rented room. Michael had called me at home and got no answer. Then he called our sister Tai, who reminded him that Bob and I were probably having our usual Sunday brunch at the Shaker Mountain Inn. And so he called, tearfully asking Bob to take good care of me.

I was in shock as we drove to my childhood home. My father had died of a heart attack four months to the day before. And now my mother was gone. How could that be? It was too soon. Far too soon. Tai, the youngest of us, was only 25. Michael had turned 32 the day before and I was 35 and feeling suddenly catapulted to a new phase of life. I wasn't ready to lose her. I shook my head in disbelief. I felt suddenly and terribly alone in the world, despite Bob's firm and loving grip on my hand and the warmth of Tai's arms greeting me on my arrival minutes after our mother's body had been removed.

I wondered, as grief engulfed me, how the sunshine could be so bright, how the day could be so beautiful, how people could be going on with their ordinary Sunday lives when my life was suddenly and forever changed.

We all have those moments that turn ordinary days into extraordinarily painful turning points in our lives.

It may have been the loss of a parent or a treasured sibling or friend. It may have been a miscarriage of a much-wanted baby or a beloved child or, perhaps even worse, an adult child. It may have been the death of a beloved spouse or the demise of a marriage through divorce. It may have been the unexpected loss of a job or a career or a cherished goal.

Whatever the shocking loss, a line from a long ago Peggy Lee hit may have come to mind: "I thought I would die....but I didn't."

Life does go on. We do what we need to do: we make plans and persevere and smile politely and sob in the shower and in unguarded moments. We struggle to imagine life without the lost person or job or goal. We may make some bad choices along the way: mine was to adopt my mother's compulsive overeating as a coping strategy and double my weight in 18 months. And we make healthier choices -- to work through our grief, knowing that this loss will always, to some extent, be with us; to reach out to others, sometimes reconnecting with new warmth, sometimes reaffirming love that has always been and will always be with us. We turn to faith or music or sweet memories to soothe our pain. And we go on.

Others may watch us with empathy, with sadness and with wonder. "How do you stand it?" one friend asked a few months later, after my last grandparent, my maternal grandmother, died of a stroke only two months after my mother's death and as a beloved cousin was nearing an untimely death from cancer.

I didn't have an answer. Except that you do somehow stand it. Day by day. You get up in the morning and put on your shoes and do whatever you need to do. Sometimes you don't do it well. Sometimes the tears surprise you once again on a day when everything seemed a little better. And sometimes a moment of lightness and joy comes as a welcome surprise when you've been feeling that your sadness will engulf you forever. Maybe the joy comes from a visit from a dear one who understands. Maybe it comes from a sudden memory to savor. Maybe it comes as you bury your face in the soft fur of a treasured companion animal.

All the tiny steps forward bring some hope and peace. The sadness, the missing, the regrets will always be there, but tempered by new realities. Life goes on with its challenges and its joys.

Thirty-nine years later, a new generation has transformed our family: my sister's child Lex, ten years later, and my brother's children Maggie and Henry, born nearly three decades after we lost our parents. My brother and I are now considerably older than our parents ever got to be. Our lives and careers have had moments our parents couldn't have imagined. We have lived most of our lives without them.

All these years later, so much is gone: Bernie and Flo, the newsstand and Shaker Mountain Inn. Our Sunday routine. Our youthful anticipation and optimism. A decade ago, Bob and I left California for new life in Arizona. We're looking back on a long past and ahead to a shorter future.

We've come to terms with the past. We've all had moments of facing our own mortality. We've imagined the loss of ourselves and all that defines us as we've watched an increasing number of peers pass away. My first lover died nearly a year ago. He was a sweet and gentle man, forever a friend and, in my mind's eye, perpetually youthful. I couldn't imagine him growing old and passing away -- until he did.

Yet somehow, impossibly, life goes on. We dry our tears, cherish our memories and take one step at a time back into living lives filled with moments of joy and sadness, searing losses and enduring love.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Why Would Anyone Get Therapy?

Her decision was a quiet one. But the family fallout when my mother, suffering from stress and a mild depression, announced to those close to her that she had decided to go to therapy was far from quiet. There was a cacophony of unsolicited opinions.

"You're kidding, right?" said her old friend Jackie, peering over her rhinestone-trimmed sunglasses with a mixture of incredulity and ill-disguised disgust. "Look, we all have our problems. I have my three divorces and my grown kids driving me crazy with their antics and demands for money. But at least I've never felt the need to see a shrink."

My father, the major source of my mother's stress, weighed in with "That's just crazy... You got a problem? Talk to me. It's a lot cheaper than going to some stranger."

But Mother went to see a therapist anyway and found considerable comfort in what turned out to be the last year of her life.

Even though it has been nearly 40 years since her fatal heart attack, I still remember her quiet determination to get counseling and the peace she said it brought her to share her feelings with someone who would listen and care.

The bond she built with her young therapist -- Dr. Jim Alsdurf -- was warm and enduring. She was still seeing him for therapy when she died. When her heart stopped, she had just finished wrapping a gift for Hannah, the baby girl Jim and his wife Phyllis had recently welcomed. And, not really understanding the boundaries of the therapeutic alliance back then, we asked Dr. Alsdurf to give the eulogy at Mother's funeral. How very California of us to have her therapist give the eulogy! And how gracious he was to go along with our request, speaking eloquently about the emotional legacy she was leaving us.

Through the years, my own perceptions of therapy have changed from skeptical to embracing the process, first as a patient suffering from grief after the sudden heart attack and stroke deaths of both parents and my grandmother within a devastating five month period when I was 35. And then, in my forties, after years of writing articles and books in the areas of health and psychology, I decided to go back to school to become a psychotherapist myself.

In my work as a therapist, especially at a clinic for those with medical problems who saw me for depression and anxiety secondary to their injuries or illnesses, I initially saw a lot of the suspicions and attitudes that had attended my mother's announcement.

One patient in particular stands out in my memory for her resistance. Marianna was a Romanian immigrant and was so angry when her cardiologist referred her to me that she refused to speak English during our initial session. Her young adult daughter had come along to act as an interpreter and mom-wrangler. Every time I would ask one of our standard intake questions, Marianna would stand up and shout in English: "Stupid question! You're stupid!!" Her daughter would tug at her sleeve and say "Mama! Sit down! Listen to the doctor!" This process was repeated many times in our interminable 50 minutes together.

"Well," one of my fellow therapists who had overheard our exchange through our thin office walls, said, leaning into my office after the mother and daughter departed. "You probably won't see HER again...."

But they surprised us all by coming back the next week. And, free of the intake protocol, I asked Marianna what meant the most to her in life besides her wonderful daughter. She stopped scowling at me. Her face brightened. "My doggie," she said.

I smiled. "Tell me about your dog."

And that was the beginning of a lovely and memorable therapeutic experience. We bonded initially over our shared love of animals and I was able to help her in the months and years ahead to deal with the fear and anger she was feeling over the precarious medical condition that eventually led to her death. Her daughter still keeps in touch more than a decade later.

Times have changed considerably since my mother decided to go into therapy or since I faced initially resistant clients like Mariana. But the stigma still exists in some societies. That was what Princes William and Harry addressed not long ago in a video made to promote mental health in the UK. They talked about the ways that grief over the loss of their mother, Princess Diana, had lingered through the years, prompting Harry's wild risk-taking behavior in young adulthood. Prince Harry said that he finally sought therapy after some urging from his brother and sister-in-law and that it had made a real difference in his life.

Many who have never had therapy think that seeking professional help is a sign of weakness. But it isn't. As Fred Rogers once remarked: "It takes strength to talk about our feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it."

Yes. I know that on a personal level and as a mental health professional.

But many are still skeptical and ask a perfectly reasonable question: Why would someone choose to seek therapy rather than simply talking with family and friends?

Why indeed:

A therapist will be listening to you with a different perspective. While a family member or a close friend may have a great understanding of your situation, it's possible that he or she may share your frustration in not knowing what to do or may be suffering from battle fatigue, having been through this crisis with you before. There are many times when someone dear to you is the best person to help you resolve a crisis. But sometimes he or she wants to help but doesn't know how. That's when a therapist comes in. The therapist, who is new to your situation, who is not being affected personally by your situation and who, as an outsider, may be able to see certain things with greater clarity, can be a great help in this instance.

A therapist is legally bound to keep what you say confidential -- with a few exceptions. In general, by law, what is said in the therapy room stays in the therapy room. What you tell a therapist will never hit the gossip circuit. A therapist won't rat you out to your loved ones -- with two major exceptions. If you are feeling suicidal and demonstrate a likeliness to act on these feelings, the therapist is bound by law to report this to your loved ones and to make sure you have a way to be safe, perhaps by hospitalization for a time. The other instance where a therapist has to break confidentiality: if you pose an imminent threat to someone else. You might express a lot of angry feelings about an ex-lover or ex-spouse without triggering any alarms, but if you appear to have a violent plan of action, the therapist has a duty to warn that person. Otherwise, anything you say in the room with a therapist will be between the two of you.

A therapist has skills to see you through a crisis. A therapist can provide you with the safety you need to vent painful feelings and to hear your thoughts without judging or criticizing you. He or she can sit with you in your pain, help calm you through a panic attack or period of anxiety and give you the support you need as you work through overwhelming grief.

Ideally. Some therapists are more skilled and empathetic than others. Some have their limitations and preferences. For example, some therapists work best with children and adolescents while others feel more comfortable working with adults. Some do well with depressed patients, but not with agitated, angry patients.

There is a matter of fit when you're choosing a therapist. It's okay to hold out for just the right therapist for you.

Therapists have different personalities and strengths. My brother Mike, a medical doctor, and I were comparing notes not long ago on the early days of our professional lives, when, as interns, we were assigned patients. Reflecting back, we found that our respective supervisors, at widely separated facilities, had matched us both with a lot of really angry patients. We looked at each other and laughed. We grew up with an angry, volatile father and, as a result, we both developed a certain comfort around angry people. We learned not to fear anger. We could stay calm and help patients to sort out the myriad of feelings behind their surface volatility.

There are times, though, when a therapist proves to be the wrong fit for a client before a word is spoken.

When I was working at the medical clinic, a young woman came into my office, stopped and stared at  me and then sat down at the edge of her seat, decidedly uneasy. I asked her what was making her so uncomfortable.

She looked down at her hands and her voice was a near whisper. "You," she said. "You look remind me of someone...I'm sorry...I can't work with you."

I quickly assured her that that was okay, that the most important thing was that she feel comfortable enough with a therapist for a session to be helpful. I praised her for her honesty and courage in speaking up and asked if she would like me to refer her to another therapist. She nodded. She worked wonderfully with my colleague Linda for some months after that.

You owe it to yourself to speak up if something doesn't feel right with a therapist. Psychotherapists are a varied lot. Some are warmer than others, some more cerebral. Some spend a lot of time in listening mode, interjecting occasional questions or comments. Others, who utilize more behavioral based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) may be more directive, focusing on skill-building interventions. Others may tailor their therapy very specifically to your needs whether you need guidance in one session or a listening ear in the next.
There are times in therapy when it's uncomfortable to talk about certain things or when you may leave feeling a little worse than when you did coming in. But if you always feel worse or feel that you can't be honest with your therapist, it may be time to move on.

How do you know that you might benefit from therapy?

  • When you have been feeling depressed for awhile and even loving reassurance from your friends and family doesn't seem to be helping.
  • When your anxiety is interfering with your life
  • When you feel overwhelmed with grief, even some time after a major loss. Friends may have sympathized but now say you just need to get over it. Family members may be locked in their own grief experiences and unable to help you. Or you may be grieving a beloved companion animal who was very much a family member to you -- but no one else seems to understand the magnitude of your loss.
  • When you're trying to deal with an issue or make a decision that you're reluctant or embarrassed to share with anyone you know and want to talk it over with someone who will not pass judgement or spread the news to the universe.
  • When you and your husband are at odds and need someone to be there for your relationship and not take sides.
In such instances, therapy can be a blessing --whether you choose to go for a few sessions or for months or even years.

How do you find a therapist? A good place to start might be to ask your primary doctor for a referral or a friend you know who has been in therapy. Another good place to look: Psychology Today Therapist Finder. This online tool lists therapists in your area and gives full page reports not only on their education and licensure, but also information about how they approach therapy, what kinds of therapy they offer, the insurance companies they work with and contact information.  Reading through that, you can get a fairly good idea what to expect going in.

The decision to get therapy or not is a very personal, sometimes painful one. But if you make the quiet decision to try it, perhaps despite some disapproval from those around you, you will find that it can make a wonderful difference in your life.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Power of "No"

I recently had a defining moment in an unlikely place: at a local establishment called The Riverbottom -- across the mostly dry Gila River from Florence, Arizona's huge state prison complex. It's a popular watering hole with amazingly good food. Most Friday nights, the Riverbottom is filled with a strange but congenial mix of real cowboys, heavily tattooed bikers and elderly locals in baseball caps and polo shirts, all enjoying the live entertainment.

I was there with my friend Marsha on a blisteringly hot July night to hear a former neighbor give one of his memorable concerts, Hank Gooday, a Superior Court judge, moonlights as a country/rock singer with an avid local following. His music inspires people to get up and dance, even in extreme heat.


Marsha and I noticed a local cowboy who was dancing with his wife and smiled at their obvious ease with each other. Minutes later, after his wife sat down to rest, he came over and asked Marsha to dance with him. I could hear her sigh, but she got up and took a turn around the dance area with him. Then he asked me. And I said "No." There was a shocked silence all around.

Taken aback by the looks I was getting from the other women at the table and his leaning in to me, I tried to be polite. "I appreciate your asking me," I said, smiling. "But no. I don't want to dance."

He didn't move.

I made quick excuses: "My knees hurt. I'm too old for this..."

He smiled. "My knees hurt, too, and you don't look a day over 53."

I laughed. "You silver tongued devil! But I still don't want to dance. Dance again with your lovely wife. I really enjoyed watching you two."

"We've been married for 37 years," he said with a shrug. "I can dance with her any time. Aw, come on, just one dance..."

"No," I said, folding my arms. "Thanks for asking, but no."

When he walked away, the other women at our table looked at me, shocked.

"I think you were very rude not to dance with him," one said.

"You hurt his feelings," another scolded.

Marsha was laughing. "You really did call him a silver-tongued devil!" she snickered. "But I don't understand. It wasn't a big deal just to dance one dance with him."

Yes it was... for me. Because it was expected that I'd say "Yes" despite my discomfort. Because women are supposed to be nice and comply, to politely go along with another's agenda.

Hell with that.

My disinclination to go with the flow appears to be trendy. There have been a number of recent articles in the New York Times and professional journals about our society's expectations that women will invariably agree to requests.

In her New York Times opinion piece, Jessica Bennet talked about starting a "No Club" which she described as "like a book club but for learning to say 'No'."

"There's a lot wrapped up in the word 'No' for women, beginning with the fact that women are expected to say 'Yes' and feel guilty when they don't," she wrote.

Vanessa Patrick, a professor in the business school at the University of Houston, noted in a recent study that "the ability to communicate 'No' really reflects that you are in the driver's seat of your own life. It gives you a sense of empowerment."

She found in her study that saying 'I don't' rather than 'I can't' establishes more conviction in one's decision.

Still, it's far from easy. Even when declining with courtesy and conviction, the blowback can be harsh.

I recently said "No" to a speaking engagement after the organizer made a major change in the approach to the subject. I had agreed to a serious discussion of some emotional issues we face as we age. But she was envisioning a light-hearted party of sorts with sweet treats. I told her that I wasn't comfortable with that and suggested that we find a compromise. Otherwise, I told her, I would be compelled to say "No". Her reply was vitriolic and she cancelled my appearance on the spot.

My overall reaction was relief. I'm just starting a new psychotherapy private practice in this area. While this talk wasn't meant to be a promotional gig, I still didn't want to do anything that might detract from my image as a mental health professional. There have been times in my professional past -- many years ago -- when I agreed to give a speech or endorse a product or a concept that I found embarrassing or that made me uneasy because I needed the money or the publicity or because I was afraid that my agent or others would be mad at me if I said "No."

No more.

It feels good when actions are more congruent with one's convictions and desires. Most of us have been raised to please, to give higher priority to another's wants or needs. There are, of course, times when that needs to happen. But there are many other times in our lives when saying "No" is necessary and empowering.

So what do we need to remember about saying "No"?

Saying "No" is living intentionally.  There is a freedom in giving yourself permission to say "No" to requests or options when you want or need to. Letting yourself be ruled by "should's" is incredibly stressful. There are times, of course, when we all have to do things we don't want to do or spend time with people we'd rather not be with for professional or personal reasons. But whenever possible, saying "No" can free us to live authentically and with considerably less stress.

"I knew I had finally grown up when I could say 'No' to others without being witchy," my late friend and former college roommate Cheryl Rennix once wrote me. "Those of us who grew up in a certain time, in the dysfunctional families of our early years, were obsessed with being nice, with pleasing others, with ignoring our own wants and needs. Being a real grown up means taking charge of your own life -- and that means feeling free to say 'No' sometimes."

Saying "No" doesn't have to be nasty. It can be kind but firm. Saying "No" with grace and kindness is an acquired skill that many of us -- including myself -- are still learning.

There is a learning curve, to be sure, in learning to be firm -- not leaving any room for negotiation -- while being gracious. You may find yourself sounding a bit like a pleasant broken record -- "I appreciate your offer, but that won't be possible for me." or "I won't be able to join you on that day, but thanks for thinking of me."

One of the most stressful -- and problematic -- ways to say "No" is the hedge ("Well, I might. I don't know. Let me think about it and get back to you..."). In this instance, you're stressed about possibly agreeing to something you really don't want to do and the other person feels caught in limbo.

Another habit those of us who struggle with "No" tend to have is the resentful agreement. People pleasers always say "Yes", but they often don't please themselves -- or others -- if their compliance is grudging. Or if they pull out of agreed upon plans at the last minute with a lame excuse. Saying "No" upfront can be kinder to yourself and to the other person as well.

Saying "No" doesn't mean negativity. It can mean being honest and true to your own convictions. It can mean leaving room in your life for positive events and people. It can mean building trust -- with your true intentions and actions closely aligned. Saying "No" when you must makes the times when you say "Yes" ever more meaningful.

I recently said "Yes" to another speaking engagement organized by the same person who disagreed so vehemently with my serious approach to what she had hoped would be a light-hearted event. She recently offered me another date and topic --a serious one. I said "Yes" immediately.

And if a man I know and love asked me to dance, I'd melt into his arms in a minute!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Comfortable Invisibility

I had no idea just how lucky I was to have been born with an ordinary face and body until a gorgeous friend pointed this out to me some years ago.

"You're so lucky that you've never depended on your looks for anything," she told me, tapping her beautifully manicured fingernails nervously on the table top as we sipped iced tea in a cafe near her movie studio workplace. "You don't have to worry about losing your looks. What do you have to lose? I'm not meaning this in a negative way. I think it's a real positive that no one notices you one way or the other even now. So getting older and looking your age won't be such a shock."

I was in my early forties then, she in her late thirties. I noticed she was drinking a bit, adding whiskey from a bottle in her purse to her iced tea. "I really fear getting old and losing my looks," she said.

I nodded, sensing her anguish over those first faint crows feet, and felt suddenly grateful that, indeed,  I wasn't and had never been a beauty.

My very ordinary looks had been an issue when I was growing up. My mother, for whom looks loomed large, was enormously disappointed in me.  She kept hoping that my appearance would improve as I grew up.

"Maybe you're just going through a homely phase now," she'd say, looking me over appraisingly. "When you're 16 or maybe 20, maybe you'll be beautiful." But that magical transformation never really happened.

My father was more focused on my getting good grades, a good education and gainful employment. But he kept a practiced eye on my weight, insisting that I step on the scale as he watched every Sunday when I was in my teens. He scolded me when my weight soared to 112, even though that was perfectly fine for my height and build. "Your mother weighed 108 when we met," he would say, ignoring the fact that even then I was two inches taller than my mother.

So I grew up fretting about my weight, feeling ashamed that I wasn't pretty and, at the same time,  was alarmed and unsettled when I got occasional unsolicited male attention. While I treasured occasional attention and compliments from men I knew and liked, I cringed going by construction sites and didn't have an inkling of what to do if a male stranger hit on me. Part of me always thought he must be joking.

But for all the early shame and sadness of not being a beauty in a family and society steeped in lookism, size-ism and chauvinism, I've been happy, overall, with my unremarkable face and body. I've found joy in developing my mind, my talents and social skills. I've found great pleasure in friendships with men that might not have been possible had I been a beauty like my friend. And I've come to accept and even celebrate my body as it is: decidedly imperfect, but blessedly healthy so far. The comfortable invisibility of mid-to-late life has been just the thing for me. I feel so much at ease out in a world where I go largely unnoticed.

There are many advantages to growing older, comfortable with the invisibility of age.

When we are noticed, it's for our kindness or wisdom or strength of character.

Instead of anguishing over slight (or imagined) physical imperfections, as we did in our teens or twenties, we can laugh at our larger, very real ones. Not long ago, I had a delightful time over dinner with Tim Schellhardt -- one of my dearest friends since we were teenage college students -- when we laughed heartily over the great varieties of wrinkles and sags our faces and bodies have achieved in the past few years. And there are times when my husband Bob Stover will look at himself in the mirror and ask "Who is that old man?" And then he'll start laughing. Reaching a point in life where we can laugh at ourselves with abandon is a great blessing.

Times are changing, too. The women of my parents' generation were very conscious of maintaining a certain look. My Aunt Molly and her friends wouldn't have dreamed of leaving the house without full make-up ("I have to put my face on.") And many colored their hair into advanced old age. That all seems less common now. Many of us feel free to forget about makeup most days and let our hair transform into varying shades of silver or white. My natural hair color when young was a very dark brown. I'm delighted with my head of white hair now. And, of course, the women of my generation and those younger are more likely these days to be valued for a variety of traits that have little to do with physical beauty.

As the years go by, I have come to love the freedom of public invisibility, eluding the evaluation on the attractiveness scale by others and giving myself more latitude as well. Who I am inside is emerging more visibly on my face and in my spirit. Many of us feel more at ease with our bodies and ourselves as we age. These days I focus on health, with wiser food choices and daily exercise. I watch my weight in an effort to stave off diabetes, cancer and dementia. I dress for comfort. I'm happy with the person I've become. And I live every day with gratitude for my health and good fortune in surviving to see old age.

And in such peace and acceptance, there is a kind of beauty.

I see it in my dear friend Sister Rita McCormack, a cherished role model since I was eight years old and she a 23-year-old teaching nun just arrived from Ireland. Though Rita has not been blessed with good health the past two decades, her luminous spirit, filled with kindness and generosity and love in living, nonetheless makes her appear decades younger than her 89 years. The beauty of her face and spirit transcend the physical, delighting and inspiring everyone who knows and loves her.

I'm growing to discover my own kind of beauty, something noted recently by a newer member of our family.

"You are beautiful," my Thai-born sister-in-law Jinjuta, 36 years my junior, insisted, as she touched my face and smiled. "I hope someday I can be as beautiful as you."

Who knew that beauty would come with age and quiet acceptance of the passage of time? The beauty we all discover with age is much more profound than physical attractiveness. It is the growth of our essence that can shine brightly, ever more luminous with time.