Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Strange Thing About Memory

Memory is a strange thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My memory is amazing, indeed.

But...has anyone seen my keys?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Simplifying Life

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

"Have a good workout?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Parents of Adult Children: Can You Hear Yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how can you be yourself without offending?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

New Year's Promises

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

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

Maybe this is the year to try something new.

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

Why promises?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoping for a more tuneful future....

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

Bob and his new tattoo

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

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

Tim's inspiring gift

Newly pierced ears!

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

What ways could you surprise yourself this New Year?

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

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

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

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

How might you bring peace into your life this year?

Caron and Bud Roudebush: Married almost 58 years!

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

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

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

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

With Tim during our 45th Northwestern University class reunion

With Tim's daughter Mary Kate - December 2016

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

Mary and me - December 2016

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

Sister Rita, my friend for 64 years!

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

Authenic family silliness: Jinjuta, Henry and Maggie

My brother Mike and me

Authentic family sentiment: a love note from Maggie

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

    A very Ollie Christmas with our two year old cat Ollie                                 

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

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

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