Sunday, July 28, 2013

Life's Odd Twists and Turns

On our recent 36th anniversary, I looked through a wedding album my dear friend Jeanne Nishida Yagi made for Bob and me. A talented photographer, Jeanne took a portrait of everyone attending the wedding -- including the last picture ever taken of my mother -- as a special gift for us. There have been so many times over the years when I have blessed her for her thoughtfulness.

As I perused the pages of Jeanne's album with gratitude yet another time, I suddenly remembered a familiar face who was missing from those attending the wedding: my lifelong friend Pat Hill.

Pat had come over to visit a few days before the wedding, flustered and upset, explaining to me that she wouldn't be able to attend because there was this guy. On a boat trip to Catalina Island the week before, she had met a guy and had impulsively made a date to meet him back at the dock the next Saturday, momentarily forgetting that it was my wedding day. Now she was faced with a dilemma: to attend my wedding and lose the chance to get to know this guy (for whom she had no phone number) or to meet him at the dock as planned. I was disappointed, but I understood.

So they met at the dock and got to know each other. In time, she married him and raised his three children from his first marriage for the next fifteen years. She stayed with him through countless challenges until his abuse became too much and she fled for her life.

During the pain of that time of transition, restraining orders and secret addresses, I remember saying to Pat "If only you had chosen to come to my wedding instead."

"I should have," she said ruefully.

But no.

What happened was meant to happen. Despite the sad and terrifying way the relationship ended, Pat had experienced a lot of love and good times, personal growth and the discovery of a life mission -- to help emotionally and physically challenged children as a special ed teacher -- during the years of her marriage. And his children became her own. To this day, being a mother is a vital part of the person Pat has grown to be and she keeps in warm touch with her now-grown daughters.

There are so many what if's in our lives.

What if I had turned left instead of right? What if I had chosen to do this and not that? What if I had reacted in a different way? What if I had spoken up? Or remained silent?

What if?

What a difference seemingly small decisions can make in our lives.

All of our lives have such twists and turns: an email sent or answered or not, a chance encounter that led to years of love and friendship, a moment of kindness that meant more than one could ever have imagined, a decision that seemed minor at the time but huge over the course of a life. These encounters and decisions leave us years later with a myriad of emotions: perhaps marveling at the coincidence of meeting another....or wondering, wistfully or with anguish, what might have been.

In my own life, I think back to a moment in a class registration line in the fall of my sophomore year of college. I glanced over the list of available sections for a writing class and finally chose a section because it had a female instructor --unusual for that time. And that snap decision brought three incredible blessings to my life: the instructor Elizabeth Swayne, who would become a mentor and, later on, a dear friend; Elizabeth's tough but absolutely correct instruction that transformed my writing and made my subsequent career possible; and a fellow student whom I got to know in that class, Tim Schellhardt, one of my dearest friends for all the years to come.

And then there was that choice -- late in the fall of 1975 -- to attend or not attend a conference.

Actually, the choice to attend the conference "The Challenge of Being Single" seemed a simple one to me: I didn't want to go.

"Write a check now for the conference and give it to me," my therapist Pam insisted. I glared at her, but wrote the forty dollar check to cover the conference fee.

"This is stupid," I said. "I don't want to go. I don't want to meet anybody. I've had it. No more pain."

In therapy for the first time in my life, I was struggling to recover from my shock and sadness over my former lover's coming out of the closet a few months before.

"This isn't to meet someone," Pam said gently. "It's to get out and re-discover all the positive things about being single."

I sat there fuming.

And when the weekend of the conference dawned, I woke up in a total funk. I cursed Pam and the fact that I had forked over $40 -- a major sum in 1975, given my salary -- for an event I didn't want to attend. I got up, promising myself I would only go for that morning.

My resolve to attend even the morning session wavered, however, as I approached the hotel conference site. I drove around the block four times debating whether I would go in at all. I finally pulled into the parking lot, muttering angrily to myself.

I entered the hotel ballroom in a dark mood, spotting many circles of chairs, eight chairs in each circle, filling the room. Some circles were nearly filled. Some had a few people sitting in them. Some were totally empty.

I rolled my eyes and thought "I ought to leave right now! This is going to be horrible! I'm not in the mood to deal with people."

I finally plopped down in an empty circle and sat, arms crossed, sulking and silently daring anyone to sit in my circle. Finally people did. And the last one to sit down, filling the circle, was Bob.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Looking back, the famous Robert Frost poem about roads taken and not taken resonates so clearly. Like that lonely road in the woods.... so many of our little decisions make all the difference.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Friendships Lost and Remembered

When she heard the news of her friend John's death, Dee's eyes filled with tears at both the news and the memories, memories of a friendship that was so treasured for 25 years and then was lost 21 years ago for reasons that are hard to remember.

When my blogging friend Dee Ready told me about the most recent loss of her friend John, she was remembering how John, his wife Lois and their three lovely children had given her mentoring, warmth and a sense of safety and familial love when she needed that so much, only a few months after she had left the convent.

Dee is remembering John as a man of great generosity and integrity, mourning his loss in death and, years earlier, at a time when it seemed that the friendship had become complicated, even toxic, and she had ended it.

And yet, the recent death of another friend had prompted Dee to write John and Lois a letter a short time before John's death, thanking them for the gift of their love and friendship all those years ago and letting them know how much they had meant to her.

Her feelings are shared by many of us: at a time of life when all our days are dwindling, what matters most is love shared. And so Dee is grieving the loss of a dear friend, both grieving and celebrating the good times and the blessing of what she remembers as a loving if complicated friendship.

We all have complicated friendships in our lives. There are friends who are difficult, moody, critical. There are friends once close who have grown apart from us -- and these differences can be a source of conflict. There are friends who were once close who have disappointed us by failing to keep in touch after a major life change. There are friends who can be toxic but whose shared experiences with us may keep us from letting go.

While there are some complicated friendships we keep, there are ones we let go along the way. Quite often, we finally let go because a friendship has become toxic, more sadness than joy, impeding our own growth. Sometimes it's a natural progression -- growing apart, going our separate ways. And sometimes it's a clear and mutual decision.

When I was in my twenties, I had a treasured best friend who was an actress. She started hitting the big time -- as a regular in a popular, long-running t.v. series -- about the time I decided to quit acting and concentrate on my writing career.

As I saw it initially, her career success was win-win: well-deserved after all her hard work and dedication and a joy for me to see. I loved seeing her so happy, loved hearing everything about her exciting new life. Though we were very different people, I had always enjoyed our differences. The mix worked: I was a calm Californian, she a frenetic New Yorker. She could be a drama queen and I enjoyed her occasional outrageousness. She encouraged me to express myself more directly and forcefully. We laughed a lot and shared both insecurities and dreams.

It began to change after several years -- when she was a true celebrity and I was closing in on 30 and on the brink of my own career milestone moment: the publication of my first book. I was growing in confidence, relishing my own successes. And I began to notice then how my friend diminished these new landmarks in my life.

When I bought my first piece of furniture -- what I considered a wonderful desk that converted from cabinet to desk with many drawers, cubicles and file areas -- she grimaced. "Why didn't you buy yourself a nice little antique desk?" she sniffed. "It would have been a better investment and much more attractive."

Oblivious to my needs and to my growth, she scoffed at the modest money I was making as a staff writer for a national magazine. "You could do much better working as a secretary to my co-star," she said. "Better yet, I'll hire you as my personal assistant for $100 more a month than you're making now. And you can come live in my maid's room instead of that dumpy little apartment of yours." When I turned down her offer during our last tense evening together, she looked at me as if I had lost my mind. She couldn't understand that my career goal was not just about making more money, but in making a difference, in following my passion -- as she had followed hers. At one point, she had understood what that meant. Now she merely looked exasperated.

And, after that evening, we both decided to go our own ways. There was no rancor. There was no huge blow-up. Just a sad letting go and moving on.

When a friend no longer truly knows us, when he or she no longer supports our growth or begins to see us as a lesser being, it is time to move on.

Moving on is painful, though. When we let go of a complicated friendship, the aftermath is complicated, too: there may be a feeling of release and relief mixed with sadness and wistfulness as one misses what was once so good. There is an end to the pain, but there may also be an aching, empty space for a time -- or forever -- that was once filled with the warmth of that lost friendship.

When a lost friend dies, there is new grief: grief over the loss of a person once treasured, a person who made such a difference at one time of life. And there is also the loss of the chance to re-ignite the friendship, to begin anew -- as remote a possibility as that might have been.

At this stage of life, with the death of friends both close and lost, it is best to remember the love. It is best to remember both our pure and complicated, enduring and lost friendships with gratitude for the good times, the precious moments shared, letting go of the rest.

In the wonderful classic How To Survive the Loss of a Love, written by Dr. Melba Colgrove, Dr. Harold Bloomfield and the late poet Peter McWilliams many years ago, there is a poem McWilliams wrote that addresses this.

Beginning with:

Sifting through the
ashes of our relationship,

I find many things
to be grateful for.....

And he proceeds to thank his lost love for a variety of things both large and small, material and emotional, ending with:

But how, in my grasp of
the English language,
faltering as it is, 
can I ever

thank you

Sifting back through our own memories of friendships we still enjoy and those that are just a memory mixed with joy and pain, it's important to remember what was good and how our friends, both current and past, have enriched our lives.

So when I remember my long lost, though still very much alive, actress friend, I choose to remember the laughter, the tears and triumphs shared, the excitement and vitality and insights from someone who was very different from me and yet touched my spirit in a singular way. I choose to remember all this instead of the friendship that dwindled and died and made us strangers to each other.

Similarly, Dee, in her grief and loss, remembers how pivotal her friend John was to her at a challenging time in her life and what a difference John, Lois and their family made. She is warmed anew by his generosity of spirit at a time when she needed that so much.

May such memories bring Dee -- and, in time, all of us -- comfort and peace now and forever.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mean Girls Forever

A friend I'll call Holly rushed up to me at the supermarket the other day. I was surprised at her downcast expression. Holly, in her forties and married to a man over 55 (as our community rules require) is usually so bright and cheerful, happily balancing her busy work life with parenting a college student son, socializing with a wide variety of people and using the community recreation center enthusiastically. Swimming is her favorite way to exercise and to relax.

"When I was at the pool yesterday, it felt so terrible because QB was really rude to me and her friends snubbed me, too," she told me. "I didn't have anyone to talk to. Would you please let me know the next time you go to the recreational pool so I can go with you?"

I suddenly realized that my own uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm for hanging out at our recreational pool this summer has been due, at least in part, to my wish to avoid a clique of aging mean girls -- who undoubtedly honed their considerable skills in junior high and who now hold court on the steps of the pool, throwing appraising glances and occasional comments to those daring to enter their domain.

I happen to know that QB -- Queen Bea -- has particular antipathy for this attractive young woman. She has often treated her rudely -- on land and in the water. "She's the same age as my oldest daughter," Bea told me some time ago. "She doesn't belong. Or, at least, I don't want to know her."

 I told Bea that I found Holly well worth knowing, a wonderful friend. So what if someone is twenty years younger? So what if someone is the same age as one's child? Bea had no answer. She simply sighed at my obtuseness and walked away.

I've long suspected that this younger woman's attractiveness, professional success and marriage to another highly successful, still-working professional stirs up a storm of jealousy in some of these mean girls, making her an easy target.

It still surprises me, though, when I see such cliquishness, exclusion and mean behavior among people our age.

This mean behavior isn't exclusive to women, of course. There are mean guys around here, too. In fact, the meanest guy in town moved away shortly after being banned from our community center for 90 days after getting into a physical fight in the front lobby with a woman, a neighbor he disliked, mostly just because she was there. Many of us bid him a heartfelt "Good riddance!" when he packed up his belongings and headed for a Florida trailer park.

But there are gender differences. Mean guys seem to be more directly aggressive, a more obvious threat. Mean girls are more covert, more passive aggressive, more dangerous. As they probably did decades ago in junior high, the mean girls often manage to outdo male bullies by far in terms of long-term pain inflicted on others.

One would think that the challenges, disappointments, losses and insights that come with time would mellow these folks out and modify their mean-spiritedness.

But no.

Some people are simply mean girls forever, stunted by -- what? Insecurities? Defensiveness? Habit? Unwillingness to change? Rogue evil genes? Personality disorders? Just plain meanness that won't quit?

What does one do in the presence of an aging mean girl?

Confrontation is a possibility, but this is, too often, met with well-honed hostility or aggravating deflection. When a neighbor recently confronted Bea with a reasonable comment on her outrageous behavior, Mean Girl whirled on her with a puzzling barrage of accusations, including the command to "Stop dumping your problems on me! Whatever you're feeling is YOUR problem, not mine!" And she stormed off, leaving my neighbor momentarily stunned and speechless.

Doubling up for comfort and for safety, as Holly requested, is certainly a possibility. It does feel better to have a friend by one's side -- kind of like having someone to eat lunch with in the junior high cafeteria -- as a buffer between oneself and rejection that the mean girls dish out so well. But it saddens me to think that we have to pair up to stave off the sting of rude comments, obvious snubbing and messages that one doesn't belong at this stage of our lives.

My latest inclination -- knowing that some mean girls are forever and unchangeable and without insight or caring and that one can't always have a companion at one's side -- is to simply ignore them much of the time. My strategy is simple. I remove my hearing aids before I head for the pool, may smile in the direction of the crowd sunning themselves on the steps and then just immerse myself in the water and float away.  I muse about how I don't care what they think about me, while realizing that they're not thinking about me at all, but about themselves and holding the power they feel in judging and excluding others.

And I feel a little sad for them: that they have no idea how others see them, that they are behaving in a way that keeps others, perhaps has always kept others, at arm's length, that they seem so unable or unwilling to change. What must it be like to inflict pain on others on a daily basis? What is the payoff at this point -- when we're all aging and dealing with the losses and fears and challenges that we all face at this time of life?

I think back to the rare times in my life when I've been deliberately, stubbornly unkind -- and remember the awful feeling, the aching in my throat and in my heart when I knew I was being a brat, when I could see the consequences of my words reflected in the tears of another.

And I wonder if our resident mean girls ever feel such twinges of conscience or regret or if they feel an adrenaline surge when they see hurt in the eyes of another?

How awful.

How unnecessary.

How sad.

And I told Holly that I'd love to join her at the pool.

Friday, July 5, 2013


Before their trip to the hospital emergency room, there was an embrace.

When my cousin Caron recently became ill with bacterial pneumonia, shivering with chills, she turned to her loving husband Bud with one request: "Please hold me." And he did, warming her momentarily and forever with his embrace.

When life is gently ebbing, the most essential elements remain.

As my friend Mary watches her beloved husband John spend more of his days in deep sleep from which it's increasingly hard to wake him, she lies on top of the covers beside him and holds him, telling him that she loves him. And often, from the depths of slumber, he will say softly the phrase that has defined their relationship from the early playful days of their courtship: "Love you more..."

When bad times come, when life is becoming increasingly tenuous and fragile, we are sustained by a warm embrace and loving words....

Hold me...

I'm here, my love....

I love you...

Love you more....

Like a sweet, familiar song warming our hearts. soothing our souls.