Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Street Wisdom

I remember his advice as if it were yesterday.

I had just completed my junior year of college and, accompanied by my roommate Ruth Woodling, I was in a cab headed for the train station in downtown Chicago and my trip back to Los Angeles for the summer.

As we pulled up to the station, the cab driver -- an older African American man with a ready smile and kind eyes -- turned around and looked at us.

"You're such nice young girls," he said. "Promise me that you'll see the world and experience all the good things that life has to offer you before some man come along and mess you all up."

Ruth and I smiled and promised him we would make good use of our youth. Then we got out of the cab and, tugging my trunk between us, giggled nervously at the prospect of some men messing us up.

We had no idea.

Between us, we did see a lot of the world and make good use of our youth. Both of us took some years to marry.

Ruth's mess came when she was pushing 40. She was a successful labor lawyer, had what she considered a happy marriage and a much cherished toddler daughter Catherine.

Then one day she came home from an out of town trial to find the Atlanta condo she had shared with her husband was cleaned out and the utilities off. The divorce that followed was a gut-wrenching, life-changing experience.

Ruth has found peace in her life by continuing to excel in her career, by treasuring friends and, most of all, by enjoying her wonderful daughter who has grown from a cute toddler to an accomplished young woman of thirty in what seems the blink of an eye.

Ruth also rejoices in the fact that her ex-husband (who is now deceased) had the good judgement to marry an exceedingly kind and loving second wife who adores Catherine, too. Together, mother and stepmother traveled cross country to attend Catherine's college graduation and have since shared the joy of her many professional and personal triumphs.

While divorce hasn't been one of my life experiences, the pain of loss in love has been defining. My messes came some years apart: my first love, who was a college classmate, was unable to love me back -- despite our deep friendship and attraction for each other -- because, at that stage of life, he was threatened by my professional competence. The pain of this rejection was lingering and far-reaching, well into my twenties. And then, when I took the risk of loving again, there was more heartbreak. Chuck was my mother's dream for me: a tall, handsome Catholic doctor. But, alas, a year into our romantic relationship, he came out of the closet. My mother blamed me for not being pretty enough or sweetly submissive enough to sustain his interest. The shock and despair brought me to a new low point in my young life.

Although I met Bob, my beloved husband of nearly 35 years, not long after my second major romantic mess, the early years together were clouded by the pain and baggage we both brought into it from our previous failed relationships. It took very strong love and commitment on both our parts to make our relationship work in those early days -- and to get to the point where we knew, without a doubt, that we were each other's best, most enduring loves.

From time to time through all the ups and downs of our lives, Ruth and I have remembered that Chicago cab driver with rueful smiles -- and have agreed that he was so right.

And we have agreed that sometimes you get the best advice when you least expect it.

Sometimes you encounter words of wisdom literally as you walk down the street.

One Sunday afternoon in 1997, in New York for publishing meetings, I was walking down Broadway with Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman, my gay former boyfriend with whom I had later written four books, including "The Teenage Body Book" whose success changed both our professional lives.

Although Chuck had affectionately reached for my hand as we walked, we were talking business -- the requests we planned to make of the publisher of the new edition of "Body Book."  Suddenly, a slight, older Jewish man in a yarmulke stepped between us and put an arm around each of us.

"You're such a nice couple," he said. "Why are you talking business on such a beautiful day together? Talk about what makes today wonderful. Talk about the life you've built together. Talk about your children. Talk about your grandchildren. Talk about the joy of growing older together."

And, then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone.

Chuck and I laughed. "If only he knew our story!" Chuck said, smiling.  Yet, his words put us both in a pensive mood. He was right, we agreed.  The business details could wait for tomorrow. Today was to celebrate the wonder of being in New York and to enjoy the day together as two old friends.

And sometimes the wisdom comes from someone you're supposed to be helping -- who turns around and gives you a valuable insight.

This happened a lot with my patients. But one stands out particularly in my memory. Dahn was a former career officer in the South Vietnamese army. After the fall of Saigon, he and many of his fellow officers were sent to a North Vietnamese prison "re-education" camp for 10 years. After he was released, Dahn fled with his re-united family to the U.S. where he got a job in a plating plant and suffered a life-changing work-related injury.

In therapy due to depression over his new disability, Dahn told me that this time -- dealing with a painful, permanent injury and negotiating the complicated Workers' Comp system -- was the hardest of his life. In comparison, his decade in a Communist prison camp was a breeze.

"Life was hard in the camp," he explained, blinking back tears. "We were tortured and they tried to brain wash us. But it was US, not just me. I wasn't alone. Not like now.  Do you understand? As long as you have your friends, you can endure anything.  Friends make it possible to get through the hard times of life because they share these times and feelings with us. With friends, you keep going and never despair. With friends, your life is very rich and full."

Words of wisdom are everywhere if we choose to listen. And sometimes those unexpected lessons -- to savor youth and all the days of our lives, to live fully in the present and to savor all the forms that love takes, including close friendships  --  stay with us, enlightening and enriching our lives for many years to come.


  1. What golden wisdom. I'm thankful everyday for the blessing and richness of the friends in my life, and for unexpected lessons. We just have to know when to see them.

  2. I listen to documentaries a lot and learning how some people think makes me really shudder.
    Like one guy said I love my wife more than myself.
    But he goes to professionals for sex.
    I guess he doesn't love himself that much if he can do this to a woman who loves and more so trusts him to do right by her.
    Young people also listen to these documentaries and if I were a young woman today.. I would really think twice before getting involved with any man.
    I think when it comes to sex and marriage its the same as owning a gun and shooting it to kill someone as soldiers and policemen do for example.
    The first time it is very hard but after you do it once the second time is easier and the third time easier by the forth it doesn't matter any more.You are desensitized.
    With sex it's the same. If you are not used to going with many people, its hard to betray a loved one but if you are used to it, one will never be enough. This kind of person makes for a bad partner in life.

  3. This post is just perfect in the way you share wisdom that others have shared with you. Thanks, Kathy. This is one to remember and revisit.

  4. ... a heartfelt thank you!

  5. I so enjoy your posts!This is another good one that I will mull over for days.

  6. Once again a wonderful and heartfelt post.



  7. Reading your blogs is a great pleasure ---the personal touch you bring to your posts makes it very special.

  8. Each vignette had such a wonderful lesson. You illustrate a point better than anyone I know. Wonderful post.

  9. Some of the best advice ever for two young girls. What a lovely guy! Another golden post, Kathy!

  10. Dear Kathy, . . . once again, your wisdom and expertise in relationships reaches across the ethernet to me and makes me realize that the decision I've made to return to Minnesota is an enduring commitment to life. The words said by Dahn ring so true for my reason to return to the state where I lived for thirty-eight years. The state where I made lifelong friends. These words especially: "As long as you have your friends, you can endure anything. Friends make it possible to get through the hard times of life because they share these times and feelings with us. With friends, you keep going and never despair. With friends, your life is very rich and full."

    You know I would so like to meet you--in person--some day and just talk about your life and career and your books. Being published is such a joy and an achievement and I'd like to learn how it was all accomplished. Would you ever think about blogging about writing and getting published????


  11. What a wonderful heartfelt post. There is so much wisdom in your words and I wish I would have been more aware of the pieces of advice I've received in my lifetime. This makes me realize I need to live life more fully.

  12. Wise words from your cab driver... and the best part is that you still remember them, even with life's ups and down.

  13. Hi Dr Kathy, I so enjoy reading your blog because it is a learning in seeing how what you have written can relate to my life. It has been full of ups and downs, but somehow we manage. When I think about moving to a bigger city and walking to several blocks to work and back to where I stayed, it is something I wouldn't do in todays society. I sometimes wonder what makes some people tick. Thanks for giving me something else to think about. Your Missouri Friend.

  14. Oh how I have missed your voice of wisdom. I loved reading your writing today but I always always enjoy my visits here.
    So sorry I am so behind with visiting but hopefully soon I can spend more time with visiting you.
    Love the advice the older gentlemen gave you two. Worth sharing for sure and so glad you did
    Hope all is well and your having a wonderful weekend

  15. This is a great post! I especially like the encouragement to listen to advice wherever it comes from.

  16. Just read your comment honey on my post today and thought Oh no your the treasure but thanks for thinking such wonderful thoughtful things about little ole grandmayellowhair.
    Hope your have a relaxing day and be safe over this holiday weekend.
    I am here just trying to catch up on a few things.
    Love ya