Saturday, December 31, 2011

Musing on New Year's Eve

As other people party on New Year's Eve, I reflect and remember.

And right now, for some reason, my thoughts keep returning to a New Year's Eve 55 years ago.

New Year's Eve 1956 was like so many other New Years Eves of my childhood: my father, usually a night owl, would retire to his bed at 7 p.m., growling about the sad state of the world, the dreadful fate of mankind and the inherent foolishness of anyone who even thought about celebrating the passage from one year to the next. His grumblings were interrupted only by his occasional calls for snacks or for another rum and Coke, sipped as he lay abed bemoaning the year past and the year to come.

And we knew the scenario for New Year's Day as well: he would rise in time to watch the Rose Parade on television, still clad in his favorite thermal ski pajamas, and make caustic comments about every marching band, every float, and, especially, every equestrian unit in the lineup with the ornate, bejeweled costumes of the riders and silver trimmed saddles further weighing down the horses.

And there was a certain comfort in such predictability.

We sat quietly with Aunt Molly that evening. My mother occasionally joined us in between ferrying food and drink to my father's lair.

Suddenly, Aunt Molly announced that she felt some poems coming on. I ran for pen and paper to transcribe her latest inspirations.

And, as I wrote her words down, memorizing them as I went along, I realized something suddenly: that facing each day and each year with a family member who saw the world in a dark and completely different way offered Aunt Molly -- and us -- a unique opportunity. We could make his dark moods our own. Or we could offer him love and understanding despite our differences and bring laughter to a usually difficult night in our house.

I was struck by the affection and gentle humor in Aunt Molly's simple, spontaneous poems to and about her brother, my father. For all their differences, differences that ran deep and angry and as long as they both lived, there was much love between them. I felt it as I transcribed her words.

                                                           New Year's Eve - 1956

Oh Father on thy bed of pain
The New Year now rolls round again.
What words of joy you bring us all
Every time we hear you call.

Oh Father keep our spirits light
With tales of plague and death and blight.
Blithe spirit let us not forget
The present's black. Our doom is set.

But if thou wilt not rise, sweet pere,
Ring out wild bells! Let every hair
Stand upright as in earth and heaven
Fools of the world greet '57.

                                The Day Father Rode in the Rose Parade

The Rose Parade was at its height
The horses pranced, the floats rolled by
When suddenly an awesome sight
Appeared against the drizzly sky.

The crowd let out a mighty roar
And rose to cheer, each man and boy,
For larroping by on an old screen door
Was the one, the only James McCoy.

His ski pajamas blazed with jewels,
His legs were beautiful to see
He rode among the cheering fools
A king of eccentricity.

He passed the stand and there unfurled
A banner scrolled in plastic foam
That read for all the waiting world:
"Okay, you've had it! Fools go home!"

We laughed heartily and together over her efforts. Even Father, languishing in bed, laughed as he read the two poems. And then Aunt Molly, my mother, Mike and I celebrated the coming of midnight and the New Year 1957 by grabbing pots and pans and wooden spoons, running around the front yard banging on the pots and yelling "Happy New Year!" to our neighbors who were also running around their yards, setting off firecrackers and yelling with joy. But the four of us had even more to celebrate that night: we were united in our loving acceptance of what was and hopeful for what might be in the New Year.

What is to be in 2012?

I hope for love despite differences, shared laugher and much joy and gratitude as we greet yet another New Year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Life According to Christmas Cards

As I take one last look at this year's Christmas cards from friends far away -- relatives, high school and college friends, friends from my careers in publishing, in acting and in psychotherapy -- I'm suddenly struck with the thought that these have changed with the passage of time -- as have we.

From the heady reports of careers on the rise when we were in our twenties and thirties to the sweet letters of the parenting years: cute sayings and even cuter pictures of children. I've kept these holiday pictures of the children of dear friends in a special album, watching many grow up from across the miles in these annual Christmas photos. Now, in some instances, I am pasting the pictures of their children in my album.

As time went on, the cards and letters began to reflect the first losses -- the deaths of parents and the slowing of careers.

And now, as we ease into older age, the character of the holiday messages is changing yet again.

There are fewer cards now. Every year I cross the name of a deceased friend off my Christmas card list. Half of my most cherished female friends from college have passed away -- including two of my three college roommates. It's hard to realize how many years have gone by until I get a note from my deceased former roommate Lorri's daughter Sharon, now, at 43, older than her mother ever lived to be -- and starting to talk about her retirement planning strategies. How is that possible?

And the addresses are changing -- from long-time homes in the Midwest and Northeast to sunnier locations in Florida or Nevada or even here in Arizona. There are messages of happiness, of adjustment struggles, of life regrets, of new passions as the friends of my generation begin to retire.

And, along with the passage of time and the challenges of our changing world, there are messages of distress -- of illness, heightened sense of mortality and fear and of aspects of life and each other previously unknown.

A friend in his fifties, struggling to establish his own business after losing his job a few years ago, is now facing an expensive divorce. He is stressed, worried and heartbroken.

A recently retired college classmate wonders if her thirtysomething children will be able to keep their jobs, support their families and, essentially, stay launched in this troubling economy.

And some struggle a bit to reconcile what they once knew with what they're hearing now. My first lover, a very kind and gentle man whom I have not seen in nearly 40 years, sent a Christmas card as he always does, adding a note to let me know that he reads my blog enthusiastically, though finding himself puzzled and a bit distressed at times to learn of the abuse of my childhood. This is an aspect of my life that, in my youth, I was unable to share with most people, especially men I was trying to impress with a facade of cool sophistication. This man, now 70, remembers my father as a amiable, funny and charming person who used to tease him about the rivalries of their college football teams. My father once played varsity football for UCLA while this boyfriend was a proud graduate of USC. Their good-natured sports talk, when my father was in his reasonably healthy mid-fifties, led to the only positive relationship my father ever had with any of the men in my life. And his memories remind me of the complexity of my father's nature and the truth of all perceptions. And  somehow it pleases me that, through the years, he has held good memories of my father.

Another college friend wonders if he will ever be able to retire as his talented, hard-working and ambitious children struggle, with varying degrees of success, to get a foothold in their chosen professions.

And a dear friend from my acting days calls to talk instead of sending a Christmas card this year. He needs a listening ear. I smile when I hear his voice on the phone.

My most vivid memories of him are as a dashing thirty and fortysomething actor fluent in nine languages, with an ethnic look that made him a shoo-in for a great variety of foreign character roles -- featured in movies here and in Europe and in many popular television shows. He also sang and danced in major stage musicals in Los Angeles. I greatly admired his talent and abundant energy as well as his warm friendship through the years.  He is still a busy working actor doing regular film and television roles. In his early eighties, he has just had a banner year due to a frequently shown national television commercial that has earned him an outrageous sum of money so far -- more money than he has ever made for a single day's work -- and he doesn't speak a word in it, simply reacts with lovely authenticity.

But now, over the phone, I can hear both sadness and fear in his voice. His mother, whom he cared for during the many years since his father's death, recently died at 104. He misses her more than he ever imagined he would. Despite relationships with a number of wonderful women -- the best relationship of all spanning 18 years --he has never married or had children. And now his health is a worry: he recently had a recurrence of the colon cancer he thought he had conquered twenty years ago. He had a quadruple coronary bypass three years ago. He is diabetic. And recently, he has been having episodes of "brain fog" along with loss of balance that is causing him to turn down roles lest people in the industry begin to suspect that he can't handle his work anymore. Most of all, he is feeling very mortal, very sad and very alone.

I linger on the phone with him, promise to call and encourage him to call more often. And, having known him in his prime, I ache for the heartbreak and physical toll that the passage of time, life choices and chance have exacted. And I ache for the losses that we all share, to varying degrees, as we age.

And as I look over all the cards, I envision their senders in a series of snapshots in my mind -- as college kids, as young adults establishing their careers, as parents proudly holding babies, as a sweet first lover, as a busy actor filled with energy and big dreams. Wasn't that just last Christmas or a few holiday seasons ago? How could so many years fly by so fast?

There is a different rhythm to all our lives these days. And to this day, I love these long-time friends and savor their cards and their messages.

My favorite part of this season, indeed, any season -- is to share feelings with dear friends whether these feelings are joy in new passions and discoveries, in the delights of grandchildren and in the adventure of retirement or feelings of pain and fear and uncertainty as our bodies and our lives change with aging.

Whether the messages of this year's Christmas cards are hopeful or sad or somewhere in between, I feel blessed by the lives that have intersected with mine and the chance we have, yet again this year, to offer each other words of comfort and hope and love across the miles.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Memories

As Christmas Eve dawns, I'm surrounded and warmed by Christmas memories.

And not just the memories of childhood Christmases with the eager anticipation of Santa, the warm presence of Aunt Molly with her gifts always chosen with such loving care or the beauty of the Latin Mass on Christmas morning and singing carols along with the liturgy.

But also tangible memories that are with us still.

Our Christmas tree is festive with the ornaments Bob's parents made with such care during the first decade of our marriage.

                                                    Our Christmas Tree - 2011

Each of the ornaments, handmade by Bob's parents, now gone many years, come in many varieties.


                                           Some are tiny stuffed animals and dolls


                                    Some are tiny and beautiful needlepoint creations.

                                      Some were made to add sparkle to the tree

                                 And one, made by Bob's mother the last Christmas of
                                 her life, says a poignant "Goodbye"

And out in the casita, my writing office, that sits in front of our house, Aunt Molly's little fiber-optic Christmas tree that decorated her living room during the last decade of her life is ready to sparkle for all to see once again.

                                                    Molly's Little Christmas Tree

Our lives are filled with traditions and memories from our Christmas photo album:

                                    Gus always inspects the tree, this picture from 1998

                                   There is fun and laughter - in this picture, from 1999,
                                  Aunt Molly, Timmy and I enjoy the holiday together

                                    Friends come to carol - Christmas Eve 2010

                                 Warmth. love and togetherness fill our happy home
                                 Gus (l) with his late brother Timmy, Christmas 1998

May your holiday season be filled with warm memories, joy, friends, family and beloved pets and may your hearts be filled with love and peace!     

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sex, Politics and Religion: Navigating Holiday Table Minefields

Some of the most vivid holiday memories of my childhood revolve around fights about politics and social issues that Aunt Molly and her brother/my father used to have in the kitchen before and after holiday meals.

He was an Eisenhower Republican (though his loathing for Nixon would cause him to cast votes for Democratic presidential candidates for the next two decades). She was a liberal Democrat. He made scathing remarks about every ethnic group on earth --even the Irish ("incredibly stupid, shiftless, drunken, Church-hobbled people") -- but excluded the Chinese and Native Americans from his rancorous comments because his beloved late father, a lawyer, had worked with and befriended them. Aunt Molly called him on his unrepentant racism at every opportunity.

One of their most memorable battles began with a half-hearted skirmish about Adlai Stevenson and then began to heat up when Aunt Molly urged Father to stop drinking in the kitchen and come relax and watch televison with the family. We were mid-way through an episode of "Have Gun, Will Travel." Father sat down grumbling, just as a fight scene started onscreen.  He snorted in disgust. "Goddam Hollywood judo!" he muttered.

In an instant, Aunt Molly was on her feet. "Can't you leave the Jews out of anything?" she yelled. "Do you always have to make horrible comments about such fine people?" And she stormed out of the living room, out the back door and to the workshop/guest room in the back yard, tossing her lit cigarette aside and slamming and locking the door of the workshop behind her.

"Judo! I said 'Judo!'" my father yelled after her, leaning out the back door.

Suddenly, he realized that a small dry bush under the kitchen window had been ignited by Aunt Molly's discarded cigarette. Frantic, he ran to the workshop to get his fire extinguisher and found the door locked. "Molly,' he screamed. "Let me in! The house is on fire! I need the fire extinguisher!"

"Go away!" she yelled back.

And, as they continued to yell at each other through the locked door,  my mother extinguished the small blaze with the garden hose.

Most of their fights weren't quite so dramatic. Some seemed positively recreational. Still, they tended have their most impressive ones on major holidays. It was as predictable as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

And after Father died in 1980, Molly seemed wistful but resigned on all holidays thereafter to forgo the fighting drama. It was impossible: we all agreed with her and each other on all the sensitive issues. Harmony was nice, but there were times, I think, when she longed for a good, screaming holiday fight.

There are many families for whom lively holiday table debates and family skirmishes are an integral and enjoyable part of the holiday. For many, nothing can beat a good recreational family battle. If the conflicts were taken away, the holidays would pale.

But not everyone thrives on holiday controversy.

For some families, less inclined to high drama, the comments can be quiet, but cutting: differences in religious beliefs or politics or sexual proclivities or lifestyles can take tense center stage.

And for some, family fights and hurtful comments can drive emotional wedges between family members that can last years, causing painful and unnecessary estrangements.

How can you dodge such minefields at your holiday table?

Make a decision to avoid touchy subjects. Just because you disagree on certain key topics, you don't have to air these differences when you're together. There are so many other things to talk about, laugh about and and share. Bob and I recently had a delightful two-hour dinner out with our neighbors Carl and Judith. We differ with each other, to varying degrees, on politics and religion. But that doesn't mean we can't be friends or have a wonderful evening together. Our evening was filled with lively conversation and much laughter. We had a terrific time.

Don't take the bait. If you've made a decision to avoid touchy subjects, but another family member or friend zeros in, don't bite. Deflect the conversation to something else. Say you're trying to be on good behavior and love everybody today. Joke in a cautionary way: "Let's not go there. You know how I get." And then change the subject. If you know that you and your mother-in-law will never agree on religious matters, don't get into the usual exchange. It isn't worth it. You won't change her mind. You'll get your blood pressure up. And your arguing could end up annoying everyone. Just for today, you can take a deep breath and stop the conflict before it starts.

Know the difference between recreational and serious fighting.  Fighting is recreational only if both parties agree that it is. If one person starts a conflict just for the fun and excitement that ends up seriously upsetting another, that's a fight not worth starting or continuing. Play bickering, if part of a family/sibling tradition is one thing. But a fight that ends up with tears or with someone stomping away from the holiday table, this quite something else. You know from past experience how much teasing or play fighting another can take or whether it's appropriate at all. Take a cue from holidays past -- and aim to make this one happier for all.

If your skirmishes upset other family members, establish a conflict turf away from the holiday table. There are times when even a recreational fight can ruin a family holiday meal if others are bothered by bickering, barbs and conflict. If the holidays would be lame without a good recreational fight with a long-time opponent, indulge yourselves in a more private setting. Go to the den, to the patio in warmer climes, for a drive if you're so inclined -- anywhere you can argue to your hearts' content without upsetting anyone else.

Avoid or call out deliberate cruelty.  Whatever the family dynamics, there is no excuse -- ever -- for deliberate cruelty. My husband Bob's younger brother Miles had grown up determined to make his way in the world by marrying a rich woman. And he hit the jackpot with Cyndi. Not only was she rich, coming from gracious Old Money, but also she was beautiful and kind. Both Bob and I liked her immensely. Miles became a stockbroker and increased their wealth. When they were 24, they were living in a gorgeous house overlooking the ocean in Corona del Mar/Newport Beach in Southern California. At the same time, Bob and I were in our early married lean years, slowly building toward the affluent life we were later to enjoy, living in an apartment and counting our pennies. We never begrudged them their lifestyle. However, Miles never missed an opportunity to humiliate us, especially during holiday gift-giving. He made fun of us the Christmas we had requested a low-key gift exchange and actually rejected our home made gifts while giving me a dime-store pair of outrageously over-sized panties at a time I was just starting to put on some weight, roaring with laughter as I opened the package. But he exceeded himself one Christmas not long after I had lost both my parents. Not only was I grieving my parents but I was also in my mid-thirties grieving Bob's and my involuntary childlessness even as Miles and Cyndi were having and nurturing their two sons. At the holiday table, Miles suddenly started making fun of me as the only "non-mother" at the table, saying that it was a joy I would never experience. I was stunned and stung by his cruelty -- and cried with anger, outrage and grief all the way home. Obviously, even today -- nearly 30 years after the fact -- I still feel a surge of anger thinking about it -- and it has been many years since Bob and I have shared a holiday meal -- or any time at all -- with his brother's family. The seeds of this estrangement were sown, at least in part, in the hurt of those long-ago holidays.

Give a holiday gift of flexibility and understanding. This can mean calling a truce, changing a stance, volunteering to be the one who makes peace. For example, it may mean going to church services without grumbling or complaining if it would mean a lot to someone you love, even if you no longer believe (or never did). Or make it easier for loved ones to attend services by offering to babysit or to prepare a post-services meal. Or give a family member or friend the gift of a listening ear without negative feedback. Or suggest doing something that you know would be meaningful for them even if it's something you wouldn't dream of doing on your own.

More than 50 years after the fact, I still smile when I think of Aunt Molly's suggestion one day during Christmas vacation that she drive me all the way into Hollywood (a 60 mile roundtrip with horrible traffic even then) to see "The Nun's Story." I was in the midst of the sanctimonious-religious phase of my adolescence, which she found more than a little trying. Yet she knew that I wanted more than anything to see that movie. And she volunteered to take me and sit through it without any caustic comments (of which she was quite capable) about the Catholic Church. I've never forgotten the love behind this holiday gift to me.

Perhaps the best way to navigate holiday conversational minefields is to remember the love that brings us together for the holidays.  As a holiday gift to those you love, hold your tongue. Suspend judgement. Deflect inflammatory comments. Do something that may be inconvenient or hard or boring to you -- but is a joy to someone else.

If you do any or all of these things, you may make a major difference for someone you love this holiday season: a memory of kindness to be treasured for years to come.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beating the Holiday Blues

The melancholy may overwhelm you when you hear a certain Christmas song over the sound system at the gym, an elevator or a crowded store.

Your mood may change from joy to the doldrums of resentment and depression when you struggle to cover your growing holiday gift list on a shrinking budget.

Or sadness may make you want to close your eyes and ears to the holiday cheer as you cope with the loss of a loved one -- a first holiday without him or her.

The memories, the flashbacks, the turns your life has taken can all exacerbate feelings of loss, the yearning for warm connections and the loneliness of being emotionally stranded during a season devoted to the realities and fantasies of family togetherness.

It may seem that the best you can do is to simply endure the holiday season. But there are alternatives to grim endurance.

If music is flashback to the past -- and brings on the blues: Instead of dwelling on the sadness of holidays that will never be the same, let yourself return to that moment and feel the joy and excitement.

Religious Christmas music reminds me of the holidays of childhood and adolescence when I sang in our parish choir, so enjoying the religious traditions and rituals that have ceased, over time, to be part of my life. I feel the peace that was part of the faith that once came so easily, that was such a comfort in my bittersweet youth.  And when I hear Gene Autry singing "Here Comes Santa Claus", I'm suddenly five years old again, excited about Santa and the promise of a surprise under the Christmas tree.

If a certain Christmas song brings back memories of a lost love, let yourself experience the joy of that love. Focus on the love you've experienced in your life, skipping for at least a moment any sad comparisons between then and now.

Each phase of life, each holiday season of our lives, can be joyous in different ways. Let yourself feel the gratitude for the blessings of Christmases past. And then look to the present. Sharing Christmas with an excited child or adding to a child's hope and happiness this year can help you to experience the holidays in a new and wonderful way. Reconnecting with your faith or with special people can bring peace and joy to this season. Celebrating with new friends can bring special pleasure to these days as wel.

If your family isn't co-operating with your holiday scenario. Maybe you want a big family celebration but your siblings are opting for smaller scale holidays with their own nuclear families or with in-laws. Or maybe you want the peace of your own holiday plans -- a getaway for two or simply cocooning with your significant other in the comfort of your own home, eating take-out and celebrating quietly -- and the rest of your extended family wants a blow-out traditional family Christmas and is guilting you into a full-fledged depression. What to do? Look for a timely compromise. Participate in a celebration with all or part of your family before or after your travel (or cocooning) plans or around their official holiday plans. The point is reaffirming love and enjoying time together -- whether you do this on December 24 or 25 or after.

I'll have to admit, I had a fantasy of hosting my brother and his family (and maybe my sister, too, though she prefers to work major holidays for the extra pay) here in Arizona for Christmas. So when my brother announced that he, Amp and Maggie were going to spend the holidays in Thailand with Amp's family instead, I felt a wave of disappointment. Even though I know my brother isn't into holidays the way I am, even though I know that Amp -- who is in her difficult first trimester of her second pregnancy -- was longing for time with her mother, even though I know that Maggie blossoms with happiness the minute she sets foot in Thailand, I pouted for few hours. Then I decided to reframe this new development as an opportunity. We will have a quiet Christmas with friends. I will revel in a lesser level of responsibility for the holiday meal: I'm bringing the dressing while my neighbor Louise cooks the turkey and another neighbor Padma brings her special gingered vegetables. Bob and I will come home to peace and an uncluttered house. And I'm happily anticipating a visit with my brother and his family in early February. Hearing the excitement in his voice about our February visit helped raise my spirits, too. We're spreading the holiday cheer of togetherness into an otherwise dull winter month.

Anytime there is love and family -- there is a special holiday whatever the date on the calendar!

If depression is a holiday habit. Change your behavior and your feelings may change as well. If you've spent years hating the holidays, saying "No" to every invitation and spending the time in dark brooding, now is the time to change. Start saying "Yes" to some invitations to celebrate with friends. If no one invites you anymore because you've always declined, throw a holiday open house. That may be less daunting than a sit-down meal. Schedule it for a before or just after the major holidays. Order sandwiches on trays, salads, shrimp cocktail and small desserts from your local deli and invite friends over for a couple of hours. Once they recover from their shock, they'll be happy to help you celebrate the season anew.

If you hate holiday music, find pleasure in music you do like. See people you enjoy. Spend time reflecting, meditating and giving thanks fot all the blessings of your life. Focus on what's going right for you instead of dwelling on what's going wrong. As the world around you pauses to enjoy the holidays, give yourself a break from the concerns and anxieties you feel and let yourself enjoy today. Just today. And then take it day by day, rejoicing in the blessings of your life each day, throughout the holiday season.

Obviously, you can't go from a Scrooge to a holiday Pollyanna in a day. But you can begin to make changes that bring you pleasure, lightening your mood and brightening your holiday season little by little.

If you are marking your first Christmas without a loved one -- that empty chair, that void left in your heart -- can be overwhelming. Let yourself feel the sadness and loss. Take time for yourself -- to cry, to grieve anew, to think with longing about past holidays enjoyed with this loved one. Then plan ways to reinvent the holiday rituals -- with some familiar traditions for comfort and new rituals as well.

The holidays will always accentuate that loss. You'll never not miss that special person during these times. But shared grief and celebration of this person can help make this first holiday season bearable.

One of the best Thanksgiving celebrations I've ever had was in the immediate wake of a terrible family loss: my cousin Jack lost his 35-year-old wife Tanzy to breast cancer just before Thanksgiving 1982. Her family and Jack's parents -- my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer -- were in town for the funeral. I invited them for Thanksgiving -- and, after a little hesitation, they decided to come. It was one of the sweetest, most loving holidays in my memory. We talked and cried about Tanzy, remembering her with humor, warmth and love. We cherished each other's company. I loved meeting Tanzy's mother and sister and kept in touch with her mom for the rest of her life. The pleasure of spending a holiday with my beloved Aunt Evelyn and watching her make some of her holiday favorites added very special joy to our quiet celebration. I enjoyed Uncle Elmer's unique humor and treasured the time with Jack. We missed Tanzy very much -- but we missed her together, with loving shared memories and the comfort of carrying on with the holiday as a family.

While your pain may not be quite as raw in subsequent years, you will always feel that pang of loss. It's important to acknowledge it, be with your feelings for a time and then look for ways to keep the joy in your holiday season.

We've spent 8 Christmas seasons now without Aunt Molly. It's hard to imagine. From my earliest childhood, she absolutely made our holidays merry. From hunting for the perfect Christmas tree, to giving us presents that we still cherish years later, from leading Christmas carols to savoring the holiday feast, she was the most joyous one of us. Since she passed away a few days into the New Year of 2004, Christmas has never been the same. But we have our memories, our stories, our rituals and some new traditions as well. We consider keeping the holidays joyous as a way to honor this wonderful woman who brought immeasurable joy to our lives, whatever the season.

If you're feeling resentful of commercialism and the expense of so many presents. Scale down. Draw names. Or agree with loved ones that there will be few or no presents -- just the joy you feel in being together, in special times shared. Bob and I haven't given each other Christmas gifts for more than 30 years. We have everything we need and consider each day we have together as a special gift. At holiday time, we rejoice in contributing to our favorite charities and buy gift cards for a few needy families we know. But most of all, we enjoy the gift of another year, another holiday season, together.

If you find yourself alone -- after a move, a divorce, the death of a spouse, a romantic breakup, or a family dispute, you can still have a happy holiday. Make your own Merry Christmas: sign up with a local church or charity group to serve a holiday meal for the homeless. Take gifts and holiday treats to a person or family you know who are worse off than you. Pamper yourself in the best way you know: with a day devoted to exactly what you want to do, listening to your favorite music, getting caught up on reading, taking a hot bath or shower and spending the day in a soft robe or fresh pajamas. Attend a family celebration virtually: via Skype or iChat or Facetime.  Or gather a family of friends together for a special holiday feast. There are so many ways to be happy.

One of the most challenging holidays of my life was the one I spent in Chicago while in graduate school at Northwestern. I was living in a run-down, fourth floor walkup apartment with a bullet hole in the living room window and the only roommate I had ever had with whom I did not get along. I had just been dumped by the love of my life, was working my way through school and couldn't afford to go home for Christmas. After some time spent weeping whenever I heard the song "I'll Be Home for Christmas", I decided to take Aunt Molly's directive to "Get down off your cross and get your sense of humor back."

After my roommate left to spend the holidays with her family, I invited my dear friend Jeanne Nishida, who was a senior still living in the dorm, working her way through school and couldn't afford to go home to Hawaii for Christmas, to spend the holidays with me. We found the perfect tree at a lot in downtown Evanston and, since neither of us had a car, we carried and dragged our prize through the snow the mile-and-a-half home, laughing and planning our decoration theme. We transformed the dumpy apartment to a holiday wonderland, thanks to Jeanne's creativity with cut-out paper snowflakes and the sparkling lights of our festive tree. We baked cookies, talked story Hawaiian style and sang Christmas carols. We visited our friends Lorri and Bruce on Christmas Eve for much laughter and egg nog, then made a sumptuous Christmas day feast for us and our friends. My former roommate Ruth, who was in law school, and her friend Richard drove from Cleveland to spend the New Year's holiday with us.  We sat on the living room floor -- Ruth, Richard, Jeanne and I -- eating take-out Chinese food, talking, laughing and watching the celebration in Times Square on television. And 44 years later, I still smile when I remember holiday season 1967 and the dear friends who shared it with me.

A major way to beat holiday blues is to stop expecting perfection and celebrate what is.

 I was reading a newspaper story recently about family holiday minefields. One family has converted an annual argument between husband and wife over the consistency of the gravy for the turkey into a recreational event: the whole family gathers in the kitchen to witness and enjoy the annual "Gravy Fight" and now, laughing, the parents oblige them in a token battle.

Some of the holiday memories that make me smile are ones where something wasn't perfect -- like Christmas 1981 when Bob and I had just bought our first house and agreed to host three -- count them, three! - holiday meals at our house. On the 23rd, we hosted Aunt Molly and my brother Mike, who -- as a medical intern -- had to work on Christmas. On the 24th, we hosted Bob's family -- his parents, grandmother, brother and sister-in-law. On Christmas Day, we hosted my sister Tai and her then husband Larry and my cousins Jack and George and their families. By that third day, I was totally frazzled. And I forgot to put a cookie sheet under the turkey baking pan. Midway through roasting, the pan split, sending turkey drippings all over the oven. As a thick cloud of smoke roiled out of the oven, I went into a frenzy -- insisting everyone go out on the patio with a tray of cookies while I cleaned the oven and Bob rushed to turn off all the screeching smoke alarms in the house. We ended up having a lovely dinner, some time later, and many laughs about my self-imposed holiday ordeal and my wild-eyed admonition to my guests to "Take these cookies and go! Go out to the patio -- now!"

The holidays, after all, aren't about expensive presents or exotic trips or non-stop revelry. They're about us -- with our imperfections, quirks and good will. They're about those we love. They're about happy memories, counting our blessings, allowing pleasure into our lives and cherishing sweet moments and warm connections with family and friends. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Life Changes in An Instant

It happened in an instant: carrying bags of groceries in both hands, John had started up the stairs to the townhouse when his left knee buckled and he fell backward so quickly he had no time to drop the groceries and grab the railing to stop his fall. The back of his head smacked the pavement and he lost consciousness.

What followed was a frantic attempt to save his life: the screaming siren of the ambulance, immediate brain surgery, a prayer vigil as his wife Mary and their three children Matt, Liz and Katie waited. He survived the night and the subsequent weeks, finally regaining consciousness and, little by little, the ability to recognize loved ones, to speak and to read.

But some aspects of the life of this smart and sophisticated man who once headed the international division of a major food corporation and traveled the world are gone forever. He can no longer drive. He walks with great difficulty. He has major cognitive deficits: he can no longer multi-task nor does he always process what is said to him. He has no reflexes that prompt him to notice or catch something falling from his lap nor does he realize that anything is the matter with him. He can't understand why Mary won't let him drive or buy a bicycle. He scoffs at his physical therapist's alternative suggestion of a three-wheeler. He alternately tells Mary, a gifted psychotherapist who retired from her practice to care for him full-time, how much he loves her and how angry he is with her, saying that he doesn't understand why she won't let him drive.

And their days together flow on, determined by the rhythm of his life: getting up mid-day, fixing his favorite meals, caring for their two devoted little dogs, sitting together in the sun on their ocean-view balcony, performing tasks of daily living once easy, now hard. Neither complains. They're united in love and in faith.

                                                    John and Mary Breiner

Having just spent several days visiting with Mary, one of my closest friends over the past 40 years, and John, her husband of 26 years, I have come away with a sense of awe of the difficulty and devotion of their shared lives.

And being with them has reminded me both of the blessings of long friendships and of how life can change so profoundly in a minute. A stumble, a missed step, an unstable knee. That's all it takes to change life forever.

And sometimes that life-changing moment can even be an exuberant moment gone wrong or an impulsive, if disastrous, gesture of love.

I just got a call tonight from my cousin Caron Roudebush, who lives in suburban Kansas City. She told me that a grandchild's loving and exuberant leap into her arms has led to a life-limiting back injury and then, additionally, life-changing respiratory distress, requiring oxygen, became part of Caron's daily life. She has suffered greatly and her life has changed from that of an eternally young, gently aging woman who loved to care for her family to a woman who now needs the constant daily care of her husband and family. Her husband Bud, her sweetheart since they were 14 years old and her spouse for nearly 53 years, retired to take care of her and even learned to cook all their favorite foods. "He has saved my life. Everything has changed with this injury," she said without a trace of bitterness. "But I am surrounded with so much love. How can I complain? Besides, I still feel incredibly young inside."

                                  Bud and Caron Roudebush       

And I wonder: would I be so loving, so accepting, so optimistic, so embracing of life were I the one injured or if I were a full-time caregiver? Watching the love and devotion of Mary and John and Caron and Bud, I'm both incredibly sad that bad things have happened to such good people and deeply moved by their mutual devotion.

It also reminds me that we have no guarantees in life. Each healthy moment, each opportunity to do for others, each day of independence is a blessing. Every day that we can walk or run or breathe easily is to be treasured. And every moment with a loved one is very special.

So let's embrace these moments and these loved ones today, this minute.

In just a moment, so much can change.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Couples Claustrophobia

It's a common side effect of retirement: the emotional claustrophobia that happens when couples are thrown together for far more time than they have ever had together, sometimes in a smaller home than before.

A neighbor I'll call Leslie told me recently that she feels crowded now that her husband is home all the time. A former corporate project manager, he is restless, not sure what to do with himself. And he is driving her crazy  He has been busy utilizing his project management skills in a new way: telling her how to load the dishwasher, how to organize the laundry room, more efficient ways to tackle housecleaning -- all things that were of no interest to him whatsoever in the 40 years of their marriage before retirement.

"We need to get away from each other," she told me. "I have this fantasy of us living in two small houses, side by side. Mine would be filled with books and cats. His would be spare and immaculate with a big screen t.v. tuned perpetually to sports. And we'd visit each other regularly, amorously and otherwise, but we would also enjoy solitary splendor in homes perfect for us."

Then there was my friend Beth and her husband: he had been corporate CEO, she had built life of volunteer and community leadership -- serving on the local school board and heading the board of directors of the local symphony. Life was full for both. However, when her husband was forced into retirement in a corporate merger, he sat around all day clutching the t.v. remote, calling from the couch "When's lunch?" or "What's for dinner?" or "Bring me a beer."

All that passive t.v. watching after such an active career made me think that he might be depressed.

"Depressed???" Beth was nearly screaming. "No, he's fine. He's happy as a clam. I'm the one who's depressed! I can't stand him being around all the time and expecting me to drop everything to wait on him!"

Not surprisingly, the 43-year marriage disintegrated two years into retirement.

While other marriages remain strong and frustration is less pronounced, I've heard other wives worry about husbands feeling lost and at loose ends after retirement. Many had no hobbies or interests outside of work. Some have become more dependent on their wives for entertainment, social planning and general activity management. And some of the wives report feeling tied down or crowded.

Sometimes old issues surface for the first time after retirement. Martha, a lifelong homemaker who says that her career prospects as a journalist were destroyed by her husband's highly mobile corporate career, has little patience with his grumbling about the inconveniences of their recent relocation to a retirement community. "I've had to adjust all these years, not being able to pursue my own interests and career ambitions," she says with more than a little bitterness. "Now it's your turn to adjust."

What can a couple do before and after retirement to minimize the possibility of relationship claustrophobia once full-time togetherness becomes a reality?

Taking steps to prepare for this major lifestyle change -- preferably well before retirement -- can help to prevent feeling overwhelmed and crowded when marital togetherness becomes full-time.

If you don't have any hobbies or interests outside of work, find some well before retirement. Don't expect your spouse to take full responsibility for keeping life interesting. Think about things you enjoyed as a child or young adult. Would any of these activities please you once more? What have you always thought you'd like to try if you only had the time? Try it now -- preferably before retirement. If you go into retirement with interests, hobbies and a plan for your leisure time, the transition is likely to be much smoother. Sleeping and television watching don't count. Look for activities that engage your interest and skills in a new way.

Discuss making positive lifestyle changes with your spouse. Maybe you can divide the household work to create more leisure for both. If you're both retired, is it fair that one person still gets stuck with the housework? Or all the cooking? Unless one of you prefers to take on or retain the total responsibility for these tasks, it might make sense to renegotiate.

Create little retreats for each of you. One couple told me that once they realized they were fighting to create space and alone time, they decided on a more peaceful solution: they made little retreats for themselves at opposite ends of the house. Even if you're planning to move and scale down, look for a new home with the possibilities of room for both of you to enjoy solitary pursuits as well as shared interests.

Give yourself some structure as well as freedom.  Transitioning from the structure of work life to the freedom of retirement can be a shock. Ease the passage with some structure: a morning work-out, a walk, a time to read the newspaper. Bob and I make work-outs our first morning priority (before we change our minds or come up with excuses not to go to the gym) and after that is free time. We've retained our Wednesday major housecleaning time from our working years. Bob goes to the movies on Tuesdays. We take the golf cart out for a trip to the local McDonald's for a Sunday morning Egg McMuffin.The clear priorities and little scheduled treats ensure that we get daily exercise, have a clean house and always something to look forward to. In between is a lot of free time for shared interests, socializing and individual pursuits.

Give each other a break. You don't have to share all your interests. But it can help to be supportive of each other's choices. "My husband Joe loves golf and plays nearly every day," my friend Pat said the other day. "When he's playing golf, I love to sit down, read and just enjoy the quiet. The t.v. is never on when he's gone. As soon as he comes home, he turns on the t.v. That's okay. That's what he likes. What makes it work for us is that each of us gets to enjoy time alone and time together."

If you find you're not quite ready to retire -- after retiring -- look for new outlets of satisfaction.  This might mean more community involvement, more volunteer work or part-time employment.

Don't expect your spouse to meet all your needs.  Though your husband or wife may be your best friend, closest companion and true love throughout your marriage, it's quite likely that from youth to older age, friends and family members have enriched your days as well.  Maybe there's a special ease sitting down to talk with a sister or close cousin. If your wife can't stand fishing or your husband hates shopping -- friends can come to the rescue. Think of how this has worked for you all your life. Why should things be different now? Even if you've moved to a new location, it's important to make an effort to make friends, reach out and connect with others.

Having more time together is a dream for those of us who had far too little time to enjoy each other when we were working. But it takes careful planning, personal reflection and talking together about daily tasks, activities and priorities to make sure that your time together reflects this dream of togetherness  -- not a claustrophobic nightmare.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Living with Gratitude

On the eve of another Thanksgiving, as I reflect on all the blessings of my life, past and present, I'm filled with the joy of living with gratitude.

Living with gratitude means happiness with what is, not what you wish life would be.

Living with gratitude means being thankful for the series of miracles greeting you every day: the dawn of a new day, the blessing of autonomy, the chance to spend yet another day doing whatever you can to improve your life and those of others.

Living with gratitude means noticing -- another's triumph, an unexpected kindness you accept as a blessing, not as your due, the bright blue of a morning sky, the soft yearning in your pet's eyes as he sits at your feet wanting attention, the sweet smell of a just bathed baby or the music of a young child's laughter.

Living with gratitude means being thankful for those who have brought happiness and growth and joy to your life. It also means giving thanks for those who brought challenges and obstacles and forced you to grow in resilience and determination.

Living with gratitude means savoring the moment -- a summer morning, an evening walk in the fall, a cold winter night by the fire, the first blossoms of spring, a smile from a stranger, a lingering look of love from someone dear.

Living with gratitude means loving what you have now-- your relationships, your home, your life -- instead of focusing solely on what you want for the future.

Living with gratitude means appreciating all the people, the times and all the experiences that have shaped and colored your life in all its uniqueness.

This Thanksgiving, my fondest wish for you is that you will spend the day -- and all the days that follow -- filled with the joy of loving gratitude!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Little Cruelties And Marital Unhappiness

Many years ago, my friend Mary McVea was driving me to Chicago's O'Hare Airport after I had visited with her and her husband Robert, a close college friend.  "A lot of our friends are getting divorced," she said. "And when I ask them why, they tell me something that sounds pretty minor to me. And I feel like saying 'That's it??? Maybe it's just the last straw or something. But I find it puzzling."

I did, too, until I went back to school to become a marriage and family therapist. In my internship and after I was licensed, I encountered many couples in distress. Some of them were in crisis because of an infidelity or a gambling habit that had emptied family coffers or, in a few cases, overt abuse. But many ended up in counseling -- or divorce court -- because of a string of little cruelties that added up to marital estrangement.

What are the little cruelties that add up to marital distress? They're as unique as the couples involved.

There was the couple I met when I arrived at their spacious home to interview the man, a prominent doctor, for a magazine article. His wife welcomed me warmly, brought coffee and was returning with a plate of pastries when her husband said brusquely "Just set that plate down and get out! We have work to do." Her face burned with humiliation and anger as she silently withdrew from the room. The doctor didn't miss a beat, turning on the charm for the interview as I sat there stunned.

Then there were the couples who came for therapy:

The wife who never let her husband forget that she had "married down" and who corrected every statement he made -- incorrect or not -- with a running commentary on what he was saying, questioning both his accuracy and intelligence.

The husband who belittled every interest and pursuit of his wife as "stupid and insignificant" and fondly called her an "airhead." When challenged by others, he would smile and say "Aw, she knows that I love her!"

The wife who escalated ordinary disagreements to major crises by giving her husband the silent treatment for days at a time.

The jazz musician husband who had married an exceptionally talented jazz singer and then never seemed to miss an opportunity to make negative comments about her talent, actually hiring another female singer for his band.

The wife who had a habit of blaming her husband every time anything went amiss -- from a balky computer to a rained out picnic -- with one phrase: "Can't you do anything right?"

And there was the husband who snapped at his wife whenever he had a bad day at work and then wondered why she tended to keep her distance.

Of course many of these "little cruelties" are not little at all and some indicate larger problems within the marital relationship. But the fact is that casual cruelty, careless words and thoughtless actions all add up to marital tensions and estrangements.

Working with couples, I used to stress the importance of being kind to each other, even when depressed, mad, exasperated, disappointed or otherwise challenged. So much more is possible if disagreements are resolved amicably, if spouses are as courteous to each other as they are to good friends.  Some people talk to their spouses in a way they wouldn't dare with friends.

"Yeah," one husband in therapy told me. "If I talked to my friends the way I talk to my wife...well, I wouldn't because it would hurt their feelings."

And he thought his wife's feelings weren't hurt?  He squirmed a bit. "Well, she's my wife. She should understand that I need to blow off steam. That's just the way I am."

Just the way I am. I can't count how many times I've heard that in couples counseling as a way to justify casual cruelty. It's a way to say "I don't intend to change" or "Pleasing you isn't worth any discomfort on my part." It's a relationship dead-end.

So what can change a relationship headed downhill?

  • Think before you speak.  Is that "just kidding!" comment or barbed humor likely to hurt your spouse? Is that casual aside or that verbal victory worth the cost to your relationship? Consider that it's more important to be kind than to be relentlessly right. 
  • Remember that your spouse is -- or could be -- your dearest friend -- and treat him or her that way. If you wouldn't say or do what you're about to do to a dear friend -- why in the world would you say or do that to your spouse? 
  • Change established patterns. This is as necessary for the victim as well as the perpetrator. As long as you don't speak up, your spouse has little incentive to change. And for spouses who are casually cruel, this is a habit that needs to be broken if the marriage is to survive or thrive.
  • Work to eradicate hierarchical thinking in your relationship.  Those married to people they consider beneath them in social status, intelligence, education or simply overall worthiness may not only inflict considerable pain and hurt on their spouses, but also miss the joy of realizing their spouse's unique strengths and talents.  Growing up poor or middle class instead of rich doesn't mean a person lacks class. The absence of a college or professional degree is not an indication that a person lacks insight or intelligence (and the acquisition of such a degree is no guarantee that a person is smart, insightful or wise). Besides, there are many kinds of intelligence. In real life, emotional intelligence may far exceed intellectual ability in becoming a successful human being. Your spouse is your partner, not your personal joke punch line, not your verbal punching bag.
  • Don't minimize those little things.  Maybe they're not so little to your spouse. Maybe the accumulated weight of small hurts, flashes of anger, and small betrayals is adding up to a big problem.
After all, it's the small things, the casual, passing, small cruelties that can erode love and good will. 

And it's the small moments of connection and caring, of thoughtfulness and of kindness, one after another after another, that help love grow and flourish.

In marriage and in life, the small things can make a huge difference.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Family Secrets

My father used to have a theory -- explained to me one night as he held a large ring of keys in the palm of his hand.

"No one will ever completely unravel the mystery of another person's key ring or his life," he said, turning the keys over in his hand. "It will be part of the eternal mystery one carries to his grave."

And so it was. For, among the items on my father's keychain were the keys to ten safe deposit boxes at ten different banks, scattered throughout the greater Los Angeles area.  Accompanied by my parents' estate lawyer -- with his pricey meter running -- I had to visit every one of those banks and have the safe deposit boxes opened.  Each and every one of them was empty.

I got another startling reminder of family lies/secrets/mysteries while going through some old family photos and brittle, near century old news clippings the other day.  I picked up an obituary for my paternal grandfather, who died in 1921, and read that, among his list of survivors were his wife Elizabeth B. Lyons McCoy and his two children Molly, 4, and Mary, 8.

Mary?? My father James McCoy was eight years old when his father died and his sister Molly was 4. I looked for another obituary. Same thing.  And I wondered why his mother would falsify the name and gender of her eldest child.  I knew that she did everything she could to prevent her children from knowing about their father's death -- from telling them that he was on a business trip to moving from Tucson to Los Angeles as soon as possible. Perhaps disguising his name and gender, she hoped to prevent his classmates' parents from reading of the death and mentioning it to their children and their children passing the news on to James. But they did anyway, teasing him on the playground "Your Daddy's dead! Your Daddy's dead!"

When James insisted that his father was on a prolonged business trip, some of his classmates took him to the Catholic graveyard and showed him his father's grave. James fell on the grave screaming, the intensity of his grief driving his classmates away and causing him to break out in sobs, tears running down his cheeks, when he told me the story nearly 60 years later.

Or maybe the Mary designation was something a bit darker -- an inspiration for the times, years later, when our father would dress my brother Mike up in girl's clothing when he was a small child and call him "Michelle", usually as a punishment for not being as macho as he expected. Perhaps it was a form, as it was for Mike, of baffling, horrifying abuse.

We'll never know for sure.

Although I long had the impression that there were no secrets kept in my family of origin -- it surely seemed that every aspect of my life was open for examination and critique -- Mike and I learned in our early twenties of a major secret our father had kept from us.

It started as simply as a  trip to the grocery store. Mike, who was visiting during a college spring break, and our father went to the grocery store because Father insisted that he could accomplish in minutes what took our mother an hour because she always met and talked with friends in the store. But once in the store, our father stopped short and stared at an attractive woman, about his age, pushing a basket in the same section.  "Mary," he said. She looked at him startled, then smiled. And they talked there together for over an hour. Father introduced Mike as his son, but never indicated to Mike who this woman might be. As they left the store, Mike asked him. "Oh," my father said casually. "That was Mary, my first wife."

His first wife??? Mike couldn't wait to get home and call me with the news. And he had an extra scoop that he had extracted from our mother: our father and Mary had been married in the Catholic church, separated after less than a year of marriage and finally divorced two years later, after father had met our mother and wanted to get re-married. That was why our parents hadn't been -- couldn't have been -- married in the Catholic church.

Some years later, the day Father died, my mother gave me a transcript of his divorce proceedings that showed his abuse and general insanity -- which he had always linked with the stresses and drudgery of parenthood -- had been an issue long before he had any children. It lifted an enormous burden from my shoulders and my heart as I had, unwittingly, taken as fact his comments that having children totally destroyed his life.

Some family secrets are a matter of pride. Despite the fact that divorce was rampant among Bob's grandparents on both sides, his parents kept the fact of his mother's brief first marriage, which produced his older brother Don, a tightly guarded family secret.  Even Don, who was only two years old when Bob's parents were married, had no real idea, though he sometimes wondered aloud where he fit in the family dynamic. After all, Bob -- Robert Miles Stover, Jr -- was the Junior and the youngest brother Miles was a sort of reverse junior -- Miles Ronald Stover.  It wasn't until Don was 18 and enlisting in the Marines that he finally saw his birth certificate and found out that Bob, Sr. was not his father. He never forgave his parents for keeping the secret of his identity from him.

And Bob's parents never did come clean about the past. Bob learned of the family secrets above from his plain-spoken maternal grandmother who had little use for what she saw as the foolishness of family secrets.

Are family secrets always foolish? Always hurtful?

Most seem to start out with the intention of protecting oneself and/or others from shame or embarrassment. Many are rooted in conventions of the past: when divorce was a rare scandal, when cancer was a word never spoken, when "what will other people think?" had more power than it has for many of us now.

Some are meant to protect children from feeling excluded or different.  It's quite possible that my in-laws didn't tell the eldest son Don that Bob Sr was not his father because they wanted him to feel comfortable and included as a member of the Stover family. I'm sure they had no idea what an emotional impact suddenly finding out the truth would have on Don when he was 18.

Some family secrets exist out of kindness and a desire to build positive relationships in the present.

Siblings who spent their growing years at each other's throats may choose to relegate those painful memories to the past in their adult years, never speaking of the rancor that once existed and choosing to focus on mutual forgiveness and warmer family ties.

Some parents prefer to let memories of their own youthful indiscretions stay within, never to be shared with their children. Whether this is simply a matter of shame or protection or a desire for personal privacy, this choice underscores the fact that we don't always owe our children or grandchildren or other kin a full account of our lives.

There may be parts of our parents' lives that will be forever unknown to us. There are secrets our children may keep from us for the same reason we chose to remain silent on certain aspects of the past. While we always hope that those close to us feel free to confide, the fact is, there are some things not meant to be shared.

We may wonder at the family secrets that, once revealed, seem inconsequential from our point of view. But, going back to a different time or a dramatically different place, we may begin to understand.

My maternal grandmother, for example, had a secret she jealously guarded from other residents of her small Kansas farming town: she liked to have a glass of red wine after dinner each evening.  She would travel to Olpe, another small town about 20 miles from her home, to purchase a bottle of wine once a month.  She would hide it in the trunk of her car, bringing it into the house only quickly, furtively and under cover of darkness.  She would hide the bottle in the back of a kitchen cabinet. And when enjoying her glass of wine, she would draw the curtains, put her wine glass on a spinning spice carousel in the cupboard -- in case someone dropped by -- and would come into the kitchen for a sip every few minutes as the evening went on.  During my visits over college spring breaks, I would join my brother -- who lived with her -- in laughing about this furtive behavior.  But Grandma was convinced that a town scandal would erupt if her imbibing came to light and swore us to secrecy.  And, having lived her entire life in small Kansas towns, she knew much more about the unique culture of these towns. She may well have been right in her concerns. For the rest of her life, her secret was safe with us.

We may feel hurt if a family secret is about us or about something we feel we should have known before it was revealed, intentionally or unintentionally.  But the intention of keeping the secret was probably not meant to be hurtful. A parent was being protective. Or he or she was too ashamed to come clean. Or perhaps we were too young -- or considered to be too young -- to understand the complexity of what was kept secret and the importance of keeping the information within the family.

Or perhaps an adult child prefers not to discuss certain details of his or her life out of a desire to maintain a sense of boundaries and privacy. It isn't an indictment of you as a parent, but a sign that you have done your job well -- raising an adult with good emotional boundaries.

Family secrets can be hurtful, but looking at the often good intentions, the often time or culture-bound rationale or the personal foolishness behind these secrets can help explain the past and, perhaps, mitigate the pain these old secrets bring to the present.

We all have our secrets. We all have keychains or items or actions that may be forever mysterious to those who come after us.

We may forever puzzle at long-ago secrets that will never be unraveled, never be revealed. What's life without a little mystery?

My father's keychain and his 10 empty safe deposit boxes may have been a posthumous joke -- or a sign that whatever may have been in them will never be found -- or a sign, quite likely, that he meant to hide away bits and pieces of his life in all of them and simply never got around to it.

We'll never really know -- and that's just the way he wanted it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Overcoming Painful Echoes of the Past

They can linger in our memories as painfully close as yesterday, coloring our actions, our self-image and our view of the world.  My mother's anguish when a classmate ridiculed her because she had only one school dress. My own distress and tarnished self-image when a boy in elementary school called me "Fats". The lasting power of such early pain can be measured in decades.

In commenting on this recent blog post, a number of readers had their own stories of painful echoes from the past and asked for a follow-up: what do you do when painful echoes still resonate?

While those old words may always be a part of your life experience, you can defuse their power by considering them in light of present day reality.

Question the authority of the speaker.  A classmate from decades ago cannot judge you for life. You took in the pain of his or her words because you were young and vulnerable or in a situation that caused you to doubt yourself.  Look back over time. The 11-year-old boy who called me "Fats" was being an 11-year-old showing off to his friends. He was also observing, in his clumsy way, that my body was different. Indeed, it was. While I wasn't fat, I was developing curves at a time when every other girl in my class still looked like a child. My self-consciousness about that made me especially vulnerable to his careless cruelty.

Consider the mental health of the person speaking hurtfully: a critical parent may have been criticized relentlessly himself or herself in the past or may have been in the self-hating mode of addiction and was displacing this pain onto you.

Or a person may have a mental illness. Sister Claudine, my second grade teacher, who made fun of my partial paralysis as I struggled to recover from polio and rejoin my classmates in school, was very young, very far from her home in Ireland, and so depressed that, even as a 7-year-old, I knew that her words were coming from a dark place within that had nothing to do with me. In fact, she soon had what was then called "a nervous breakdown" and, before the school year was finished, was sent back to Ireland.

The realization that the speaker may have been mentally ill or emotionally damaged or simply immature doesn't make what they said not hurt. It doesn't make his or her words okay.  But it does diminish the authority of that hurtful voice. The person was speaking from his or her own pain or ignorance or immaturity -- not from fact.

And if what you were teased about was fact -- you were a chubby child or wore geeky clothing or stuttered -- the mind-set that made you an outcast then was an immature one. Chances are, those who teased you would not do the same today -- and if they did, there's some impairment there, some arrested development going on.

 Consider your strengths now. You're bigger. You're stronger. You have more resources now. You aren't limited to one dress. You look, more or less, slim or zaftig, like most people now. You don't have to take in someone else's garbage. You can walk away. You can dismiss the verbal abuse. You can question motives, telling yourself that this person is damaged, unhinged or simply an asshole. You can tell yourself or, internally, speak to that long-ago tormentor through time: "Yes, I do look different. But it's terribly unkind of you to point that out in such a hurtful way." If the person who caused your painful echoes is still in your life, still ready with critical remarks, you can stop the pattern with the realization that you are no longer a powerless child, that you can break the pattern and speak up for yourself, even if your tormentor is a parent or sibling. You may gain more respect --self-respect and respect from the other person -- in the process. And if it causes greater distance -- maybe that distance needs to happen for the relationship pattern to adjust to your new strengths.

If you've thirsted for revenge, remember that living well is the best revenge.  Living life as a loving, giving member of society is the best possible outcome from childhood pain.

When I was taunted or excluded by some classmates in elementary school, I used to tell myself angrily that "I'm going to be very famous and successful one day and they'll all be sorry!" I'm sure if any of those kids even knew of my later success, they didn't care much one way or another. I doubt that any of them felt a strong enough connection to me to be either sorry or glad. They may not remember being unkind. But I remember -- and being kind, being thoughtful, making an effort not to speak words that could wound another is my way of putting the past behind me.

Reconsider the words in the context of now. You can reframe your present. You are not chained to past victimhood. You call the shots now. If you spent a sad childhood feeling abused, left out, ridiculed, this doesn't have to follow you all the days of your life. Now you're in a different phase of life. If you weren't pretty or popular in school, this no longer has to limit you now as it did then.  None of us is likely to be as conventionally cute or pretty as we once were -- or yearned to be. But we've grown into our own beauty, our own power, fashioning lives uniquely our own.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Sweet But Cautious Victory

The crowd was anxious, ready for a fight, mostly red-shirted in opposition to the copper mine. On November 7, several hundred citizens filled the bleachers at the Florence High School gymnasium, a last-minute substitute for the smaller Town Hall, for the critical Town Council vote on whether or not to allow an overlay of the community master plan to enable copper mining on residential land adjacent to the existing master planned community of Anthem Merrill Ranch.

                          Citizens gather for Town Council vote on November 7                       

It is a controversy that has riveted the town in the past year. A large Canadian multinational corporation set up a subsidiary company called Curis after acquiring a parcel of residential property within the town limits of Florence. They knew it was zoned for homes and commercial use. But they were confident that they could arrange an overlay of the voter-approved master plan to change the zoning to allow an in-situ copper mine, drilling dangerously close to the main water supply of Anthem and other communities downstream. The prospect of having sulfuric acid and other chemicals pumped through the water table and possibly having their water supply polluted and the ambiance of the community compromised by the presence of a copper mine so close to homes spurred many citizens to action -- picketing Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in August when she came to Florence to speak in support of the mine at a Curis-sponsored dinner; attending a meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission in October, speaking passionately against the mine in a meeting that lasted until 2 a.m. and ended with a vote against the overlay.

But the long awaited critical vote was that of the Florence Town Council.

In the months leading up to the vote, Curis has worked incessantly to win the support of citizens and has had some success, cynically playing on the hopes of those living in the depressed, older areas of downtown Florence, who desperately need jobs and dream of tax revenues for schools and parks. Curis has fed those hopes and dreams -- despite the fact that no in-situ mine has ever been so close to a residential community nor has the land or water affected by in-situ mining ever been restored to pre-mining levels. There were also relatively few jobs actually slated for the project and many of these would be highly technical  and not likely to be filled by locals. And, due to special tax breaks being sought by Curis, the tax revenue most likely would also fall short of community expectations.

Nevertheless, the promises by Curis have divided the town -- with a visible majority against the mine, but a vocal minority pleading for opportunity and, at the same time, expressing some bitterness toward the newer, generally more affluent citizens of the Anthem area of Florence. The divisiveness has been an additional stress on a town which -- like many across the U.S. -- is challenged by the recession.

In the weeks leading up to the Town Council vote, Curis, anticipating defeat, withdrew its application to use the land for mining. The game plan appeared to be that they were looking to start the mining operation on a parcel of state-owned land adjacent to the disputed parcel and planning to bring their application back to the Town Council next year, after elections had changed the composition of the Council, and a new roster of Council members might rule in their favor.

Anticipating a lawsuit if they didn't accept the withdrawal of Curis' application, the Town Council voted to allow it. However, they decided to go ahead with a vote on the overlay issue anyway. The overlay to permit the zoning change of the disputed land would be preliminary to what Curis wanted -- approval of the use of the land for mining.  The Town Council vote was 7-0 to reject an overlay that would permit mining on residentially-zoned land.

           The Town Council, here in session, voted 7-0 against mining in town                

So, for now, the victory is sweet. Passionate and well-organized citizens have prevented what could have been an environmental catastrophe for the town. And it's heartening to see that people can still have a voice against large, multinational corporations seeking billions in profits while leaving a community possibly devastated both environmentally and in terms of future growth.

But the fight isn't over. The day after the hearing, its stock plunging, Curis issued a press release to reassure nervous stockholders, stating that they were going ahead with plans to hire a Tucson-based engineering firm to start the mining project on the adjacent state land as soon as they obtain approval from ADEQ and EPA. Hearings on the later approvals will be held in Florence early next year and town officials are determined to fight to prevent such approvals -- with a lawsuit if necessary.

In the meantime, victory is somewhat bittersweet as well. Citizens who hoped the mine would bring new employment opportunities and revenues to Florence are disappointed and angry. Many of them walked out of last week's meeting en mass after their speeches in support of the mine and as citizens against the mine began to speak.

So, while enjoying the victory of the moment, those of us who have opposed the mine are also becoming increasingly aware of the need to heal some of the wounds this passionate fight has produced, to find ways to reach out to fellow citizens and to discover new possibilities for job opportunities for people who are so in need of hope. Although the copper mine has seemed to many of us a greater risk than a potential benefit to the town, our greatest challenge now may be to work together to find ways to help Florence and its citizens to grow and prosper.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Celebrating Nuns

Sister Ramona Bascom
They're a dying breed, the New York Times noted recently.  Describing their declining numbers as "near extinction", the story said that the number of nuns in the U.S. has been declining since Vatican II reforms that gave more church leadership opportunities to lay people and since the sexual revolution and women's movement of the Sixties and Seventies. The estimated number of nuns has dropped from 180,000 in 1965 to 56,000 today according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.  When these statistics were last published in 2009, 91 percent of all nuns were at least 60 years old.

They're not only dwindling, but they are, at times, not treated well by the Church they serve. For example, a community of nuns doing charitable work with the poor and disabled in Santa Barbara lost their convent not long ago when it was sold by Church officials to pay for settlements to the victims of priests' sexual abuse.

And I found myself fuming at the last Mass I attended -- during a reunion at my elementary school -- where the Church's tendency to take good care of priests, but not of nuns was glaringly apparent. A special collection was taken for the priests' retirement fund. At the same Mass, the officiating priest praised the elderly nuns who had gathered for the reunion, noting that they were all still working and highlighting one 95-year-old who was still teaching high school English. It underscored the inequality between priests -- who get comfortable retirements -- and nuns, who don't get to retire until they are too ill and/or disabled to continue working. Now, with shrinking memberships, there is even more pressure on aging nuns to keep working because the religious community simply can't afford to have the majority of its members retired.  And yet most nuns carry on with devotion and with joy.

They may be a dying breed, but the elderly nuns I've seen lately are amazing women: bright, active, involved in their communities and working in a greater variety of settings than ever. One nun from my childhood is a dedicated peace activist. Another recently joined the counseling staff at Stanford University. Their numbers may be dwindling, but they're still making a wonderful difference.

And they leave a wealth of memories, especially for those of us who attended Catholic schools in the Fifties and Sixties.

I parted ways with the Catholic Church long ago. But I don't regret, for a minute, my education in Catholic schools. Most of my memories are loving and joyous.

Looking back at nuns of my youth, not all was sweetness and joy, of course.  Some nuns were scary, had bad tempers and were too quick with the ruler. A few -- like the nun who made fun of my partial paralysis when I was still recovering from polio or the mother superior who announced to my class that my parents were not really married because they hadn't had a Catholic wedding -- were startlingly unkind. But most of the nuns I encountered were absolutely wonderful.

When I was in elementary school, they were young Sisters of St. Louis nuns fresh from Ireland who managed classrooms of 60 kids with energy and imagination. Their instruction had a certain hands on quality: nuns would swat you, hug you, stop you short with sarcasm (an Irish specialty) and make your day with well-earned praise.

In the Irish tradition, older siblings were held responsible for younger ones at all times.  If, for example, a younger sibling threw up or became incontinent in class, the older sibling was called in to clean up.  The day he started first grade at St. Bede's, I put my brother Mike on notice that if he puked or peed in class, his ass was grass. I was never called for bodily fluid detail, bless him, but I did get summoned to his classroom to retrieve a note for our mother when my brother was clowning around again and, another time, to explain the possible causes of his erratic behavior after one particularly horrific night of abuse from our father.

As soon as she was aware of what we were dealing with at home,  Mike's teacher Sister Rita gave us an extra measure of love and affection, checked Mike daily for signs of physical violence and attempted to protect us by threatening to call the police if she saw any further signs of abuse.

                                        Sister Rita aka Virginia in full habit - 1959            

Sister Rita McCormack, who before Vatican II was known by her religious name of Sister Mary Virginia, didn't stop at protection. She took an active role in helping me to regain clear speech as my facial paralysis gradually diminished. In sessions after school, she would coach me, having me read and recite poems and we would act out plays together. This sparked my interest in acting, a passion that brought me much pleasure in high school, college and, in young adulthood, professionally.

She encouraged me to write -- and praised my efforts generously, advocating for me with other teachers, making them aware that this quiet, awkward kid had something special going for her.

And sometimes she taught me lessons I was reluctant, at least initially, to learn.

 Substituting part-time for our cancer-stricken eighth grade teacher, Sister Rita pushed me relentlessly in algebra, urging me not to give up so easily, not to assume I couldn't do math, and taught me not only to enjoy algebra but also a great deal about persistence.

And on my eighth grade graduation day, she caught me acting like an ungrateful brat -- avoiding Aunt Molly, who had flown in from Ohio for the event, because I was mortified by the hat she was wearing: a large black broad-brimmed hat festooned with an array of red roses. Sister Rita wanted to know why I hadn't yet introduced her to the person she knew meant so much to me. "It's that hat, so embarrassing," I muttered, cringing.  Sister Rita's eyes narrowed: "You're embarrassed by her hat?" she asked sharply. "After she flew all this way to see you graduate?? Just think about that while I go and introduce myself."
She rushed over to Aunt Molly with a lilting "Hello, Aunt Molly! It's so wonderful to meet you!" When I saw my two most beloved adults embracing, my ungrateful bratty little heart melted and I rushed over, smiling, to join them.

She was like Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music": she sang beautifully and lead our school choir, ran and jumped and wrestled playfully with kids on the school grounds. She was tall, nearly six feet and the pockets of her habit were so long that sometimes one or two of her first grade students would try to crawl into them for the ultimate E ticket ride on the playground. She ran a tight ship in the classroom -- one does with 60 rambunctious kids -- but all she had to do was give you a look, say your full name with a certain lilt and you instantly fell into line.

Sometimes, outside of class, she would look at me and smile. "Ah, Kathleen," she would say in her soft Irish brogue. "Aren't you just wonderful?" And suddenly I would feel transformed from awkward adolescent to a young woman on top of the world. I loved her so much.

And I knew I would always love her, that we would be friends for life. And I was right.  Sister Rita is still incredibly dear to me.

                                Sister Rita (l) and me during a visit in 2008                         

She is now 81 and retired only because she has been battling an often fatal cancer for the last few years. You would never know it to see her: she is youthful, vital, full of energy and purpose. She has picketed for peace and protested the war in Iraq. She has fought her cancer with quiet courage and persistence. She delights in each day. Her blue eyes still sparkle when she talks of my brother -- as a child and as the accomplished adult he has become. 

We don't see each other often, but when we do, our visits become marathons -- talking, laughing, hugging and swapping stories.

I love hearing her stories about her family in Northern Ireland and the culture shock she experiences when she visits there after over half a century in the U.S. And I thoroughly enjoy her efforts to play matchmaker for a younger, still single friend -- never losing hope that somewhere out there is the perfect man for Barbara.

Sister Rita's gentle humor, her emotional honesty, strength of spirit and caring nature remain unchanged, undiminished by time and infirmity. She still radiates joy and love. Just thinking of her makes me smile and feel incredibly blessed.

I also smile and feel blessed when I think of Sister Ramona, whom I encountered in my senior year of high school. Like my other high school teachers, Ramona was an American-born Dominican sister.  She was 27 at the time and new to high school teaching. One of the classes she taught was journalism -- and she joked that I taught her everything she knew. Not true at all, of course, but I was her most enthusiastic student.

                             Sister Ramona in full habit - 1962                          

I remember feeling, early in that wonderful school year, that Sister Ramona was very special, that she was someone I could trust, that she could hear and keep the painful secrets of my life. And I was right. I remember her staying away from her afternoon prayers one day to listen to me as I revealed some details of abuse that I was almost ashamed to speak aloud. I watched her face for shock and disgust. There was none. Only loving concern as she took my hand. "What you're describing is painful, but not all that unusual really," she said. "A lot of families have these issues. You are not alone. Not at all." I felt my shoulders sag with relief as the burden of sadness and shame lifted almost instantly. And I knew I would love Sister Ramona forever, too.

She has had an unerring instinct for making me feel special and for being there when I need her most.

Near the end of my senior year of high school, I arrived at school one morning feeling crushed because it was my 18th birthday and my parents had completely forgotten. I couldn't believe it. They forgot my 18th birthday!!! But Sister Ramona didn't. I opened my locker and found a bunch of cards and funny, hand-drawn cartoons had been squeezed inside. One of the notes directed me to the beginning of a treasure hunt throughout the school for little items and more cards celebrating my special birthday. She absolutely transformed the day for me.

She also made my graduation day extra special with a lovely letter -- which I still have -- telling me all she valued about me and her support for my dreams for the future. And seeing my disappointment when my parents told me that they were too busy to attend the graduation ceremony, Sister Ramona rallied some of the other nuns and they told me that they were going to be my "aunts for a day" and form a cheering squad for me. And they kept their word -- even after Aunt Molly appeared, dragging my penitent parents with her.

And she came for a fun dinner shortly after Bob and I started living together -- a year before we were married -- and calmed his nervousness (he had never met a nun before) with a couple of mildly ribald comments. And she was an especially welcome guest at our wedding, talking my depressed mother - my father boycotted the ceremony altogether -- into a celebratory mood.  And, as if by magic, she appeared at my mother's funeral, her arm around me at the graveside, understanding in a way few others could the complicated love and loss I was feeling.

                         Sister Ramona visiting when Bob and I were first living together

                                       Sister Ramona with my mother at my wedding                

Having known my parents and our family situation well, Sister Ramona has a unique perspective on my life. Over dinner not long ago, she was talking about a mutual friend of ours who also came from a seriously dysfunctional family and who has suffered greatly all her life -- unable, for the past two decades to leave her home because of agoraphobia, having a host of mental and physical illnesses, and feeling estranged from those she loves and from life itself. We both noted sadly our unsuccessful moves to help.

"I've often wondered about the difference I see between the two of you," she said. "You're the same age, went to the same schools, grew up in the same community. And your family -- in terms of abuse and outrageous dysfunction -- was far worse as far as I could see. But then I realized a critical difference: you grew up feeling you were loved. As crazy as they were, your parents genuinely loved you. I could see it every time we spoke of you, every time they came to see you in a school play, even at graduation. They thought the world of you. And what a difference that makes."

I realized that it was true: my parents, for all their eccentricities, really did love me. And I truly felt their love. And that, indeed, has made a huge difference.

I have felt Sister Ramona's love not only for me, but also for countless others. She has spent years listening, reassuring, encouraging, pushing and, when necessary, challenging several generations of young girls through radically changing times. She has dried tears, mediated disputes, been there in countless crises. She has made hundreds, maybe thousands, of young women feel special.

Sister Ramona has more friends than anyone I know. So many people, including me, love her immensely and forever. When she was leaving her last stint as principal of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy a few years back to move to Northern California and new adventures in curriculum development and, later, working  as a counselor for students at Stanford, the community decided to hold a roast in her honor.  It was a memorable combination of a celebratory Mass and a Sister Ramona Roast, held in the school's gymnasium. Ramona had a front row seat beside her mother, who was dying of brain cancer, but who was aglow with love and laughter that special day. The young priest -- a graduate of St. Francis High School, the boy's school just down the hill -- recounted in the middle of celebrating the Mass how he first met Sister Ramona. "It was at a school dance, when I was 16" he said smiling. "And I was out in back of the school auditorium kissing a girl. Suddenly, I felt a firm grip on my jacket and was yanked up to face a nun whose expression was stern, but her eyes were laughing. I think that's when I got my religious vocation to become a priest!" The crowd roared with laughter, no one laughing more heartily than Sister Ramona and her lovely mother.

I have tried to be there for her when she has felt challenged over the years. Sister Ramona had a talent for pulling troubled schools out of the red, including Flintridge Sacred Heart about 40 years ago. She revamped curriculum, inspired creative fund-raising (the picture at the top of this post was from a fund-raising event invitation), got parents more involved and made the school more solid academically and financially. And when she would accomplish that with one school, she'd be handed another. Once, she was assigned to an impoverished, inner-city girls high school with a primarily Spanish speaking population. After a short period of feeling overwhelmed, she threw herself into the challenge, spending the summer in Mexico for a total immersion in Spanish and then turning around that school's fortunes as well, falling in love with students and parents -- and they with her -- in the process.

I have listened when, at times, she has talked about her frustration at a stubbornly paternalistic hierarchy, one pope in particular. But she has never used that as an excuse -- as I did -- to leave her Church or her calling, but as a rallying point for greater commitment to change what she can and to live each day with faith and joy.

Once, when Bob and I were discussing the meaning of success and challenged each other to come up with the name of the most successful person we knew, Bob beat me to the punch. "That's easy," he said. "Sister Ramona is the most successful person, the most successful human being, I have ever met." And I was quick to second his choice, though maybe going for a tie between Sister Ramona and Sister Rita.

Nuns may, indeed, be a dying breed, but they're not gone yet. They're still very much with us, still contributing, still living with joy and with love.

Early this year,  I was asked to come back to Flintridge Sacred Heart to address the Parents Guild on adolescent depression. None of the nuns of my youth were still at the school. In fact, I had never met the nuns who hurried up to Bob and me when we arrived. That didn't matter.  Sisters Carolyn McCormack (no relation to sister Rita) and Sister Celeste Botello, the president and principal of the school respectively, enveloped us both in cozy, warm embraces.

  "Welcome home," said Sister Carolyn softly and she embraced me again. And, even though we had just met, I felt very much at home in the warmth of her embrace.

                                         Sisters Carolyn, Celeste and Me - 2011