Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Echoes of the Past

My mother used to tell a story about being a senior in high school in a tiny Kansas farming community at the height of the Great Depression. Just before school started, her mother gave her a choice: she could have one store-bought dress for school or several made-over frocks handed down from her mother.  Of course, my fashion-conscious mother chose the store-bought option and happily washed the dress out after school every day and hung it to dry in the kitchen.

One day, a classmate named Myoan Swilley (the name lived on forever in infamy with my mother) came up to her at lunch and loudly inquired in front of everyone there -- essentially the entire teenage population of Toronto, Kansas: "Don't you have any other dresses? Why do you wear the same dress every day?" Her words stung so deeply, that my mother flushed with anger more than 40 years later as she recounted her embarrassment and her mother's gentle consolation and quick alterations on a few hand-me-downs for her school wardrobe.

I'm sure that's one reason my mother was so determined to dress me up like an oversized doll when I was in kindergarten and to send me an endless variety of dresses when she worked as an industrial nurse for Robinson's department store in L.A. when I was in college. (The years in between kindergarten and college, I wore Catholic school uniforms -- which didn't discourage her from trying to get me to fix myself up on weekends and during the summer.) Looking back, I realize that she wasn't just putting a premium on good looks. She was also trying to spare me the pain she had experienced when a classmate ridiculed her for having only one dress to wear.

It's interesting what power that one remark had on her life --and, by extension, on mine.

What are the remarks that have stayed with you throughout life -- for better or for worse?

I remember, when I was in the 5th grade, I suddenly went from skinny child to curvy young woman way ahead of schedule. I was 5'5" and 112 pounds at the age of 10. I looked like I was in my late teens and was sometimes mistaken -- to my considerable chagrin -- for my baby sister Tai's mother. Although I was at an optimal weight for my height,  I looked very different from my classmates. I felt awkward, clumsy and very self-conscious.

One morning at the beginning of a school day, after we had lined up on the playground in precise class rows and were marching, to military music, to our classrooms (this was a very strict parochial grade school), one of the 8th grade boys acting as a monitor snapped at me when I dawdled self-consciously under his even gaze. "Hey," he said roughly, giving me a shove. "Move it, fats!"

Fats! Tears trickled from the corners of my eyes and I wiped them furiously with the backs of my hands. Later, in the safety of home, I wept on my mother's shoulder as she reassured me over and over that I wasn't fat. But from that time on, I always felt that other people considered me fat and agonized about my weight and shape.  I never starved or purged. But my body image was distorted as I hid my lithe young body under lose clothing whenever possible.

And in my forties, I did get fat -- very fat. But the strange thing was...until I got well into the territory of morbid obesity, I never felt any fatter than I did that day in 5th grade when some young adolescent boy in a thoughtless moment called me "Fats."  He probably forgot all about it five minutes later, as my mother's old nemesis Myoan Swilley did.  (Myoan, who stayed in their small town all her life, used to wonder aloud to my grandmother and aunts why my mother seemed distant with her at occasional class reunions.)

Many of my mother's echoes were negative. She could never please or impress her father. When, during her years as a highly publicized pioneer American Airlines flight attendant and representative for the airline, she sent him a picture of herself giving an award to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, his only comment to her was: "Well, they managed to get the two homeliest women in America together for a photo!" Other family members fretted that she had no social graces and could not carry on a good conversation. This was outrageously untrue but she believed it. I used to feel such sadness for this warm, gregarious woman who had so little confidence in her own beauty and ability to connect with others.

Despite the emotional, physical and economic hardships that Mike, Tai and I suffered in our family, I felt fortunate then and now that most of the comments and moments that lodged in my memory were positive and loving.

I remember my father giving me notebooks to write stories as soon as I learned to read -- and actively encouraging my early writing efforts. I remember him weeping and holding me tight, telling me how much he loved me the night I was diagnosed with polio at the age of six.

I remember my mother's loving arms and hopes for my future and her joyous encouragement at every new challenge.

I remember wonderful times with Aunt Molly, when I glimpsed my own future in her and felt so much hope for me and such love for her and pride in her many accomplishments.

I remember Sister Rita's remarks that I was very special and Sister Ramona saying she loved and valued me immensely.

I remember a boy in my class in 7th grade -- Roddy Boerger -- who slipped over to me one day as the boys were filing out of their side of the classroom for recess, just after our teacher had read one of my essays aloud to the class. Her reading was met with a series of sighs and rolled eyes from many of my classmates as I slid down in my desk, totally humiliated at being singled out.  "I loved it!" Roddy whispered. "I love everything you write! You're going to be somebody, Kathy! Really!"  He didn't live to see any of my successes as a writer -- dying in his early twenties of a genetic kidney disorder. But his kindness in the emotional wasteland that was 7th grade warms my heart to this day.

Knowing the power of words to wound or to warm -- especially in those tender childhood, adolescent and young adult years -- I wonder about my own remarks to classmates, friends and family.

And I hope that my own words over the years -- in the growing up years and beyond -- were kind more often than not. I hope that in some thoughtless moment or adolescent hormone-fueled snit, I didn't snap and say something hurtful to another. I hope I didn't inflict any wounding echoes that linger in another's heart  all these years later. And if I did, I would love to make amends. But of course one can't.

The only thing we can do is to live mindfully, treating each other with care: speaking kindly and striving to make each encounter with another a comforting or joyous or loving one.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

First Anniversary

A year ago, I started this blog with an invitation to come together to celebrate midlife and beyond.

I had no idea what blogging would be like.

Oh, I had certain goals. My literary agent wanted me to blog to increase my online presence.

I wanted to find my own voice again as a writer after more than forty years of writing to assignment and to varying formulas.

In preparation for writing a memoir, I wanted to practice (and increase my comfort level) with writing in the first person after many years of keeping my own stories inside -- first as a journalist, then as a psychotherapist.

In preparation for writing a book about my therapy cats, I wanted to try writing occasionally about cats -- my own and others -- in a way that was heartfelt but not cloying.

To varying degrees, I've realized those objectives.

But there has been so much more.

I had no idea that my readership would be world-wide.

I had no idea how many wonderful writers, thinkers, humorists and new friends were in the blogosphere.

I had no idea how much I would come to treasure each one and the warmth of the blogging community.

I had no idea how much fun it would be!

I had no idea that blogging would come to be a pleasant and worthwhile experience on its own instead of merely a stepping stone to another goal.

I had no idea how much I would look forward to another year of blogging.

Thank you all for making this past year such a pleasure! I look forward to many more shared thoughts, stories and adventures in the next year!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Living with Differences

We were standing around talking casually and laughing during a break in a class at our community center the other day when my next door neighbor Larry announced with a smile to the others that "Kathy and I are at opposite poles politically but I think we share a lot in our essence and that's what matters."

I stopped short -- and realized he was right.

Since moving from California to Arizona, I find myself surrounded by next door neighbors who differ dramatically from me in political and religious beliefs -- and yet that doesn't prevent warm friendships.

I admire Larry's openness to new ideas and his courage in running for and serving in political office in an area where he is a relative newcomer.  I admire his wife Louise's artistic talents and ease with a great variety of people. Our differences aren't an issue in our enduring friendship.

There are instances, in fact, when differences prompt admiration and respect. I'm very impressed, for example, by both the religious and political commitments of my other next door neighbors Carl and Judith. They are conservative Christians and Republicans who don't just vote but who actively campaign for their candidates. One of their sons is a minister. Their beliefs have shaped their lives -- and those of others -- in a positive way. When they were younger, in addition to raising their own two sons, they nurtured a number of foster children who so needed the love and stability they offered. They live their faith.  Even though I don't share their specific political or religious commitments, I admire their integrity and fervor.

And my immediate neighbors -- Carl and Judith on one side, Larry and Louise on the other -- are very gentle with our differences and respectful of my point of view. Although I know it takes considerable effort at times, they rarely dis Obama in my presence and I, in turn, make an effort to stifle my loathing for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, among others. These days, who knows who is right? Who knows who would be best equipped to lead this nation out of its current socioeconomic morass?

Even my husband Bob and I disagree over such things at times. He is much more moderate politically and has crossed party lines to vote a number of times. His views on religion differ somewhat from mine. But so what? Our differences don't diminish our love and respect for each other.

How much do such differences of opinion really matter?

When I look around at my neighbors, I see good, honest people who are caring and kind.

 I see couples who have been married for decades, raised children together and are nurturing each other through retirement.

Even among those more likely to share my political leanings, there are some real differences in lifestyle and, for that matter, life stages.

 I see Hank and Mary, Carl and Judith's other next door neighbors, still balancing demanding professional careers, watching their youngest child adjust to college life and settling in as empty nesters for the first time in their marriage.

 I see Pat and Joe, high school sweethearts, who have known heartbreak, illness, adventure and joy in their many years together. They have loved each other dearly through all the seasons of their lives together.

 I see Phyllis and Wally, the  seventy-something newlyweds on the block, who met at a time of life when their religious differences -- she is Jewish, he was raised Catholic -- didn't matter anymore and they married 11 years ago. They focus on what they share -- a love of travel, of family, of good friends and conversations worth beginning, and they support each other through the stresses of serious health challenges, facing each day with courage, love and laughter.

It's an interesting place, this new neighborhood. We hail from a variety of far-flung hometowns. We have diverse opinions, life histories and personal interests. But, in our hearts, we're family.

And, as Larry said, that is what matters.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Communication Styles

I got an email last night from Andrea, a high school friend with whom I recently reconnected on Facebook. "Could we communicate by email instead?" she was asking. "I rarely go on Facebook. It makes me uncomfortable. Even short emails would be better..."

I wrote back that I whole-heartedly agreed. While Facebook is quite amazing in terms of reconnecting us with people from our past, I question its utility day to day. I am delighted to be reconnected with high school friends -- many of whom were from outside the U.S. (our high school was primarily a boarding school and about one-third of my class were foreign students). In fact, our class has its own Facebook page in anticipation of our 50th reunion in 2013.

But I find that I rarely visit Facebook. I hate the games. I'm mortified that just because I click a "Like" button on a web page (such as the web page for the condo in Maui where Bob and I recently stayed), this information is instantly emblazoned on my Facebook page, flaunting my tastes to the (undoubtedly indifferent) world. I feel frustrated by the generic messages that close and dear friends leave there in lieu of more personal emails or letters or phone calls.

I'm truly repulsed by the latest Zuckerberg idea: the classification of Friends into "Close Friends" or "Acquaintances."

 I came upon this abomination when trying  to "Friend" a long-lost co-worker. I was asked to choose: which was she? Close Friend? Relative? Acquaintance? In frustration, I exited without making the Friend request. How could I even dare to think of classifying the people I know and love? Maybe I haven't seen my classmates Dora Emilia or Maria Teresa, who live in El Salvador, or Andrea, who lives in Washington state, for nearly 50 years, but there is a warmth when I read their greetings that would make me hesitate to relegate them to the ranks of Acquaintances. There is no one on my Facebook Friends list who doesn't conjure up happy memories and warm feelings, some more immediate than others, but all treasured nonetheless. They will never be classified.

But my communication peeves go beyond Facebook. I'm truly mystified by texting. I find it unwieldy. I find it scary -- especially when I see people texting when driving. I find it sad -- when I see a couple having dinner together and, instead of talking with each other, they're busy texting. Maybe they're writing private love notes. But more likely, they're texting others while they could be communicating with each other.

But commmunication styles and preferences have changed in recent years.

In a recent poll of young adults, the vast majority said that they preferred to communicate with their friends via texting rather than by talking on the phone. I can see that texting would be much more convenient than talking audibly in class. But not to hear a dear friend's voice? Maybe I'm hopelessly out of step. A former patient of mine, who now lives in Texas, vows to bring me kicking and screaming into the 21st century by texting me occasionally to say "hello."  While I answer his texts with a minimum of grumbling since I really do like hearing from him, I do sigh with exasperation when I hear that "ping" on my cell phone.

In a story on NBC Nightly News recently, it was reported that the average American only gets a hand-addressed piece of personal mail once every seven weeks. Except for birthday and Christmas cards, I think I only received a hand-written piece of mail -- a note from my dear friend Mary Breiner -- once this year.

For all the satisfying immediacy of email, I miss the permanence of hand-written (or even typed) letters. I have a box of letters sent from people I love -- both living and long-dead.

From time to time, I go into the box and re-read some of them, feeling the love and connection all over again.

I hold letters from my mother when I was in college -- and remember how excited I was to get them and how she was able to express some feelings in writing that eluded her when we were together.

With my finger, I trace over the writing of a thank-you note from Aunt Molly, feeling comforted to hold something connected with her.

 I re-discover, with delight, a letter from my beloved Sister Ramona, written on my high school graduation day, telling me everything she valued in me as a person and her support for my dreams for the future.

I treasure a letter from Elizabeth Swayne, my most demanding and most beloved college professor who became a close friend after I graduated. One letter, written during a time when I was experiencing a bout of depression and career doldrums, came from the soft heart of a woman who had expected and demanded so much of me. "Oh, I wish we could be together in person," she wrote. "I would love to hug you and reassure you and tell you just how special you are." And I hold it in my hands and bless the day I met her.

I find the first Valentine I ever received from a boy -- from my dearest college classmate Tim Schellhardt -- and all these years later, it still makes me smile and feel overwhelmed with gratitude at the gift of his loving friendship.

I find a wonderful letter from Barbe Schellhardt, Tim's wife of many years, who gave me the gift of some invaluable advice on the eve of my marriage to Bob and I quietly thank her once again.

I come across some letters from my friend Marie Traina, murdered when we were only 28, and am comforted by their ordinariness -- the gossip, the joking, the warmth so typical of our relationship -- and I enjoy a mini-visit with her again.

There are cards and letters from Bob, following the course of our 36-year-old relationship through the early days, courtship, marriage and the real work and pleasure of being soul mates -- and I feel incredible gratitude in our mutual love and commitment through the years.

And I come across a more recent addition to my memory box -- a printed out email from my brother, reassuring me after I had written to him expressing feelings of failure and frustration. He told me, in part, that I was truly gifted, though not always lucky, that he admired my talents and wished he were so blessed, and that he was truly proud to have me as a sister. My eyes filled with tears as I held the note from my brilliant, successful brother, knowing that his words were truly from the heart.

I keep these missives to read from time to time to replenish my spirit and reconnect with those I've lost and those still living whose love and friendship I treasure to this day.

What text could have such staying power?

Wait! The ping! Oh, no! Not a text!'s a text from Mary Breiner. What??? She's texting??? No way. Mary is an even greater techno-phobe than I am! Wait...

She says a friend has driven her and her husband John from L.A. to Washington state to their daughter Katie's for a visit and now they're headed back home. She was thinking of me and would love to talk soon!

Wow. This is cool. I guess it's a pleasure to hear from anyone dear -- however they choose to communicate!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Compassion vs. Competitiveness

We're a generation well-schooled in competition, those of us who are Baby Boomers or the cohort born just before the Boom. We learned our ABC's in incredibly crowded classrooms, competed fiercely for places in colleges and for jobs as we entered the work force in the mid-to-late 60's and early 70's.  We've had to draw attention to ourselves, speak out and develop a sixth sense regarding how we measure up.

But this innate competitiveness sometimes seeps into areas and times of our lives where it does more harm than good.

I'm as guilty as anyone.  I remember attending exercise and behavior modification classes several years ago at a hospital-based program for people whose obesity was putting them at high risk for serious illness and early death. We were all in the same situation and trying hard to get ourselves out of the health danger zone. And yet, I remember going into class and sizing everyone up immediately -- breathing a sigh of relief that I was only the sixth fattest person in the room.  And I caught similar appraising glances coming my way.

Once, in a class at the clinic, I glanced briefly at a woman whose appearance initially horrified me: her bottom was so huge, she was too large for even two chairs. Fat and loose skin flopped over her knees and ankles. I felt bad for her. But I also felt a sort of guilty cheer that I might be obese but I wasn't like that! Still, when it came time to speak, I talked about my frustration at hitting a plateau after three months of spectacular weight loss.  As the meeting ended, the woman came over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. "Don't be discouraged," she said. "You hit plateaus and then you go on. I started last August and have lost 130 pounds and just look at me. People might think I was just starting. But I'm seeing every single pound lost as a victory. And by stringing together all these little victories, we'll reach our healthy goals. Hang in there!" And she smiled warmly, giving my shoulder a squeeze. I felt both ashamed and encouraged.

I thought I had been cured. But I caught myself recently in the gym watching a woman come in, exquisitely dressed in street clothes, made up and coiffed as if for a party. She got on one of the lighter exercise machines and, with mincing little movements, expended the least amount of energy possible for maybe ten minutes. Then she strutted out, not a hair out of place nor a drop of sweat on her brow, smiling with satisfaction with her workout.

I wondered why this woman even bothered. I looked over at Babbette, our gym's 44-year-old model of fitness, running full-speed at the highest uphill setting on a nearby treadmill. She smiled. And it occurred to me that, as wonderfully athletic as she is, Babbette has never looked down on me as I push my still overweight, elderly self through a workout. Instead, she offers only smiles and words of encouragement. And I felt, once again, ashamed at my own silent snarkiness. Maybe this other woman deserves kudos for just showing up, for wanting to work out. Maybe it's a small, but important, beginning for her. We are all, once again, striving for the same goal: a healthier aging process.

So I'm giving myself a personal challenge: it's time for more compassion and less competitiveness.

It's time to stop the appraisals and comparisons and to start encouraging others at every level.  After all, the important thing is taking that first step: showing up, doing what's possible, a little more every day.

It's time to give one another credit for trying, for persisting, for enduring. Whether it's in the gym or dealing with life changes or the indignities of older age, a friendly smile, a word of encouragement, support for a goal shared can mean so much.

At this stage of life, it's time to celebrate our own victories -- both large and small -- and to encourage and celebrate those of others.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Depression: Stopping the Downward Spiral

Steve was in the gym by himself the other day when Bob and I arrived for our workout. "Alone today?" Bob asked. Steve nodded sadly.

Steve's wife Amelia suffers from a depression that has been chronic since her adolescent years. Nearly every morning, it's a struggle to get out of bed. Most days, Steve is able to coax her to get up, eat some breakfast and then head down to the community center to work out, play ping pong and swim. Getting out of the house usually brightens her mood considerably and, in fact, there are people at the community center who encounter Amelia having no idea that she struggles so with depression.

Amelia is far from alone. Amid the beauty and many opportunities to be active in our small community, some people find themselves, at certain times or chronically, immobilized by depression.

For some, depression has a biological base. For example, my husband Bob has temporal lobe epilepsy and one of the components of that is severe mood swings including nearly immobilizing depression from time to time..

For others, depression is due to external factors such a major loss, increasingly common at this age. And many of the people living here full time have left behind so many familiar people and a long-time home in the act of relocation -- which can bring up feelings of loss as well.

Although there are many kinds and causes of depression, the type with which people tend to be most familiar is dysthymia.  The symptoms of dysthymia are similar but less intense than those of major depression but tend to last longer. People with dysthymia have a sad or depressed mood most of the time for a minimum of two years. They also have two or more of the following symptoms:
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sleep disturbances: sleeping too much or too little
  • Lack of appetite or overeating
  • Difficulty concentrating
Dysthymia, along with other varieties of mood disorders, can take over your life -- if you let it.

Many people find help with anti-depressant medications and also with psychotherapy. Therapy and medication can be truly life-saving.

First, however, check with your family doctor to see if there may be some physical reason for your depressed mood and if anti-depressant medication would be a good option. He or she may also be able to refer you to a competent therapist.

It's also important to know what you can do for yourself between therapy sessions or if that isn't an option for you right now.

Depression can become a downward spiral of negative thoughts and ruminations. The following are some things I've always recommended for my patients.

  • Don't beat yourself up for being depressed. That negativity can only increase the downward spiral of your depression. Depression isn't a character defect. It's a mood disorder that happens to everyone from time to time. And sometimes, especially in the wake of a major loss, it's an understandable reaction. 
  • Act as if you weren't depressed.  This doesn't mean denying your painful feelings, but it means acting as you would if not depressed. That may mean smiling at others and engaging them in conversation instead of doing what you feel like doing -- hiding from the world. When you get out and about, you're more likely to have positive experiences that can help lift your mood.  So get up. Get out of bed. Get on with your day. For many people, depression decreases as the day goes on. Acting "as if" can help you to re-engage with life and positive experiences.
  • Try thought-stopping.  The downward spiral of depression gathers strength if you feed it with negative thoughts.  Thought-stopping can be as basic as catching yourself in a negative thought and saying "Stop!" Some patients remind themselves non-verbally by wearing a rubber band around their wrist and snapping it when a negative thought occurs. One patient of mine laughed with disbelief when I suggested this technique. It was only several months later that he told me he had been trying it every day since I suggested it and was stunned to discover that it actually worked! Thought substitution can also help. This may mean substituting a positive observation about yourself, about the world, your job or a family member causing you pain for the negative ones. 
  • Challenge your negative self-talk: If you find yourself ruminating about your life, your family or your current living situation, realize that there are many ways you can look at a situation. Find an opposing positive view for a negative thought. Play inner attorney and challenge the evidence that you are worthless or life is hopeless. You may find the small beginnings of recovery in your inner debates.
  • Ask yourself what function depression plays in your life.  For some, it may be a way of being taken care of. Is there a better way to care for yourself or ask for care from your loved ones?
  • Seek out pleasurable hobbies and activities -- even if you don't feel up to them. Losing interest in things previously enjoyed is a major symptom of depression. If you can re-engage with things that bring you pleasure and satisfaction, even when you don't feel at all like pursuing these, you may find little moments of pleasure adding up to much more.
  • Use humor to lighten dark moods.  Whether it is watching an old comedy film or show or joking about something in your life that might otherwise cause dark ruminations, humor can give you a different perspective. Many times, I've watched patients respond positively to unexpected humor, taking a brief vacation from their pain and sometimes being able to see the painful situation in a different light.  Some have found value in "awfulizing": turning a troubling situation or negative expectation into such an extreme catastrophe that it becomes a dark joke and the patient is able to realize how impaired depressive habits like catastrophic thinking can be.
  • Be gentle and give yourself healing time.  This is especially important when your depression comes from grief and loss. There are no shortcuts to healing. You have to go through the pain and anger and longing and sadness.  But healing means moving through the stages of grieving, even though the process may be two steps forward and one step back for quite some time. Healing means feeling and acknowledging the pain and moving through it -- finding moments of love and joy amidst the pain that give you strength for the next step.
  • Reach out to others.  Isolation and hiding can only increase your depression. Reaching out to family and friends is critical.  So is seeking professional help, especially if your feelings of hopelessness are persistent and you're beginning to wonder whether you even want to live.
The most important things to remember about depression are that it is temporary, even if it seems like you've been depressed forever, and that as long as there is life, there is hope.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Protest Update

There has been a controversy raging for the past few months about whether to permit an in-situ copper mine within the boundaries of the master planned community where I live.

The subject of a previous blog post in August -- about our protest of Governor Jan Brewer's supportive visit in favor of the mine -- this has continued to be the focal point of unrest in the community. The company proposing to mine the copper -- Curis, a subsidiary of a major Canadian corporation -- has petitioned the Land and Zoning Commission and the Town Council of Florence, Az to be granted an overlay to the master plan which calls for residential use of the land in question. They are requesting "temporary" (15-30 years) use of the land for mining after which it could, in their estimation, become residential once again.

Many residents, including a large portion of the new planned community of Anthem Merrill Ranch which would be most impacted by the presence of the mine, are very much opposed to the project. There are no guarantees that our water supply will not be destroyed when the copper mining drills through and near the community's aquafer with acids to extract the copper. Home values, already hard hit by recession, are plunging further in anticipation of the mine. Those residents thinking of selling and fleeing to a place where the water supply is not compromised may have even more difficulty selling their homes. Many residents have retired to this place, sinking their life savings into comfortable homes they envisioned enjoying for the rest of their lives.

But the controversy goes far beyond simply a citizens vs. the corporation struggle.  For there are many good, fair-minded citizens in Florence who are in favor of the mine.  Many of them live in downtown Florence, a town dating back to 1866 with a rich history and families who have inhabited the town for generations. They are devastated to see the effects of economic recession on their already struggling town. In the past few months, two of the three most popular restaurants in town have been lost: one to fire, one to the economic realities that many citizens just can't afford to eat out anymore. Businesses have shuttered along Main Street. Citizens desperately need jobs. Young people are leaving Florence in search of a better future. The gorgeous new master planned community of Anthem Merrill Ranch, which was supposed to bring new prosperity to the town, has stalled in the face of the real estate crash. So far, only 1600 of the 9,000 projected homes have been built. Build-out of the community is years away. So what's the harm, many are asking, in prospering from a mining operation in the interim? Curis is promising that 147 jobs will come with the project. Of course, there are no guarantees that any or all of those will go to Florence residents.

The situation here in Florence mirrors the national economic crisis in so many ways: corporate greed, the desperate need for jobs, declining communities, environmental pollution, divisions within based on conflicting priorities -- those so desperate for jobs that possible pollution is less onerous than economic decline, those who sank life savings into new homes who have nowhere to go if the water supply is poisoned, short term vs. long term gains.

Lately, there have been some ugly sentiments expressed in letters to editor of the local newspaper with long-term town residents criticizing the newer, somewhat more affluent residents of the Anthem Merrill Ranch area of Florence for selfishness, saying that they contributed nothing to the Florence community and Merrill Ranch residents protesting in print that they contribute greatly to community outreach projects and charities, financially and through volunteer efforts, local businesses, and, not so incidentally, in high property taxes. The rancor has been sudden and heartfelt.

The controversial copper mine took protest to new levels of endurance challenges this week with the Land and Zoning Commission hearing on the matter at Florence Town Hall on Thursday night.

Citizens showed up en masse for the hearing: filling the council chambers, the town hall's lobby and the parking lot by 4 p.m., well before the 5:30 start of the procedures. People favoring the mine -- primarily for the prospect of jobs -- wore green tags. People against the mine wore red shirts, sweaters or jackets.

                             Anti-mine citizen with custom made red shirt waits in line

                     Red shirted Merrill Ranch citizens lining up for the hearing                    

From personal perspectives, there is a lot to be said for each side. For people who have spent a lifetime in Florence, the distress over the town's economic challenges is palpable. And for those who sank their life savings into homes in the new planned community (that, unlike downtown Florence, is downstream from the mining site and thus more in danger of water pollution) -- the fear of being stuck in an area with a poisoned water supply is equally strong.

Those of us in red tend to be less trusting of corporate promises -- to build soccer fields and tree lined streets for future development (when studies show that no in-situ mining site has ever been restored to a condition that would support residential use and no in-situ mining site has ever been built in such close proximity to an existing residential community.)

          Twins Gracie and Josiah,  7, sit with their mom outside hearing room                

There were sizable groups representing both sides. Earlier in the evening, we mostly avoided each other, gathering in different areas of the lobby and parking lot. There was mostly silence among those clustered outside the hearing room. About four hours into the hearing, there was one brief scuffle with police when pro-mine citizens became afraid they wouldn't all get their say, despite reassurances from organizers and officials that they would be allowed their three minutes each to speak.

Speeches -- from lawyers and advocates and ordinary citizens -- were so numerous that the event went on for an unprecedented 8.5 hours -- starting at 5:30 p.m. and winding up at 2:05 a.m.

Well into the night, there was an overflow crowd in hearing room, in lobby of Town Hall, and spilling out into the parking lot where speakers were set up. It wasn't until 2 a.m. that the hearing was completed with a 3-1 vote against the overlay and a 2-2 split vote on the mining land use. The recommendations of the committee, with an unfavorable decision in terms of overlaying the master plan and a puzzling tie vote on the mine itself, will be sent on to the Florence Town Council, which makes the final decision on November 7.

Many, including children, sat attentively through proceedings to the end. "I've never stayed up so late," said 7-year-old Josiah. "It isn't fun anymore. I'm homesick. But this is important. The copper project has to be stopped. Clean water and a safe environment are important to me and to everyone. So I need to be here."

                                    Jacob, 3 weeks, the youngest red shirt protestor      

Hour after hour, citizens spoke passionately, sometimes tearfully: about their love for the town of Florence and the surrounding communities, about their fear that contamination of the water supply would make this place uninhabitable, about their fears that unless some jobs came to Florence, the town they love would slip into further decline and young people would have to move elsewhere for employment.

                                         Josiah, with a new sign, near midnight

And, as the hours passed, the citizens of Florence, the green tags and red shirts alike, were gradually united in a spirit of shared adversity and sheer exhaustion.

As midnight neared, a green-tagged woman I had never met before approached me, a shawl extended: "Aren't you cold, honey?" she asked, indicating my shorts and T-shirt.  I told her that I was fine, that hot flashes were useful in situations like this. We both laughed and I thanked her. And we both smiled. And it occurred to me that, whatever the final decision, we're a community and will endure.