Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day Memories

Typical of many tiny towns across America's heartland, Toronto, Kansas comes alive in a very real sense every Memorial Day when dozens of citizens and as many former residents converge on the town's cemetery to socialize and to remember not only those loved ones lost in war, but also all those they have loved and lost -- and to share the joy of reconnecting with each other.

Five years ago, I witnessed this phenomenon first hand when my cousin Jack and I arrived at Toronto Cemetery to place flowers on the grave site our grandparents, George and Gladys Curtis, share with their son George Walter, who was only 24 when he was shot down and killed over Germany. We also had flowers for Jack's parents, Evelyn (my mother's favorite sister) and Elmer Hill, and for our great grandparents' graves as well.

The surprise was that extended family -- our mothers' cousins Ed and Leslie Sherman with Leslie's daughter Candace (a favorite playmate of our youth) -- had been there first, making sure that no Curtis or Hill or Sherman grave went unhonored and undecorated. Their kindness and the joy of seeing each other once again made it a very special day.

                              Memorial Day Flag Ceremony - Toronto, KS Cemetery

                                            Honor Guard - Toronto, KS Memorial Day

                              Grave of Grandparents and Uncle George - KIA 1944

                               At grave of grandmother's parents in Toronto Cemetery

                                 Jack at his parents' grave in Toronto Cemetery

                            Jack and me with Candace Sherman and her Dad Leslie

After our joyous reunion with Candace and Leslie, whom I had not seen in many years, Jack and I decided to take a tour of the town of Toronto. We had spent many childhood summers romping in and out of our grandparents' old farmhouse where they didn't have electricity or indoor plumbing until 1951. We had memories of trips to town with its ice cream parlor, library staffed by our mothers' kindly Aunt Floss and we always marveled at the finest building in town -  Toronto High School.

Times have not been kind to Toronto: in the late 1950's, a federal dam project was built. My grandparents' original farm is now under the lake that resulted. Government officials paid them for their land and my grandparents moved to another small farming town -- Madison -- about 50 miles northeast. Their original house was saved, bought by distant cousins and moved to a hill overlooking the lake. Despite government assurances that the lake would make Toronto a recreational/vacation paradise, this never happened. Though some long-time residents linger, the town is dying. Main street is filled with shuttered store-fronts. Toronto High School, still magnificent, is empty, unused for years. Jack and I found that those warm childhood memories can't be revisited, except in our hearts.

           Our grandparents' original farmhouse, now moved to higher ground

                           Jack on Main Street in Toronto, Kansas 

                             Lovely but long vacant Toronto High School    

Feeling melancholy by all that was gone and declining, Jack came up with just the cure: a surprise visit to Hazel Parker.

Hazel, lively, opinionated and filled-with-memories, had been a high school classmate of my mother's and a dear friend of Jack's mother Evelyn, two years younger.

As we talked, Hazel dismissed my mother's adolescent flightiness with a wave of the hand and smiled warmly at her memories of the more down-to-earth and gently humorous Evelyn. We spent a wonderful afternoon with her talking non-stop and going through photo albums. Her living memories of an era long past were a joy.

                                          Jack and Hazel Parker share memories

And, on our return to her home in the Kansas City area, we rejoiced in sharing time together with his sister, my cousin, Caron. Caron, who was still recovering from injuries suffered in a fiercely competitive basketball game with one of her teenage grandsons, was unable to accompany us on the Toronto trek. We were joined at her home by our cousin George, always a delight, who was named in honor of young George Walter, lost so tragically and far too soon, in World War II.

Cousins together: Caron Hill Roudebush, George Taylor, me and Jack Hill         

It occurs to me, as I look back on that special Memorial Day five years ago, that the best memories are those that live in our heart. It's wonderful to be able to honor the dead with flowers on their graves. But
the best way of all is with warm memories, memories of the stories of their lives, memories of our times with them.

So today, I think of the little things that linger when I remember those we've loved and lost.

I remember Grandma waking me up on summer mornings by rubbing my hands and asking if I'd like some breakfast and, oh, those farm breakfasts! I remember her laughing a warm little laugh, delighted with something I had said or done -- and am thrilled when I hear my cousin Caron today laugh that same sweet laugh.

 I remember Grandpa asking me out to pick strawberries with him so we could spend some quiet time together and taking me out to the island garden -- an island in the middle of a wide river that ran through the Madison farm -- where he grew watermelons and cantaloupes safe from the melon-bashing antics of local youth. I remember his lifelong quiet grief over the loss of his son and his strength in living on to love and nurture a new generation of grandchildren.

I remember my grandparents' ever-expanding table at Sunday lunches when friends and relatives would drop in unannounced. I marvel to this day at the abundance of good will and good food. There was always enough fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and home-made apple pie for all -- and a wealth of shared stories and laughter.

I remember Caron and Jack's parents -- Evelyn and Elmer -- with love and appreciation. Uncle Elmer's sly humor and sense of fun, Aunt Evelyn's warmth and humor and loving arms. I remember how we would shake our heads when we thought of Uncle Elmer's lifetime pass on TWA -- he had worked for the airline for most of his career -- and how he and Evelyn could travel anywhere in the world, but always chose to visit us in Los Angeles or Elmer's sister Edith and her family in Phoenix, because that was where the love was. And love was a far greater allure for them than travels to exotic lands.

I remember George's mother Ruth, my mother's youngest sister. My mother and Ruth -- ten years apart in age and quite different in temperament -- were never especially close. But I remember being delighted every time I saw her in my adulthood. She was bright and fun and had interesting insights. I remember spending the night at George and Debbie's home after Uncle Elmer's funeral in 1986 and sharing the guest room with Aunt Ruth. We told stories and secrets well into the night. And I treasure the memory.

I remember my own parents, Ethel/Caron and Jim, now dead nearly 32 years. While the painful dynamics of our family linger, there are memories, burnished by time and loss, that linger warmly: my mother's perpetual optimism, joy in living and warm embrace, my father's stories so eloquently told, the love he felt but struggled to express, the vulnerability that made me yearn to reach across time and embrace the fragile, battered little boy he once had been and always was in spirit.

And I remember Aunt Molly, my father's younger sister, in so many ways, at so many times. I remember our fun times and the tough lessons she taught. I remember sitting on the beach with her so many times, eating grapes and making notes as she spun wonderful poems seemingly out of the ocean air. I remember dashing into the sea with her and my brother Mike, pulling each other down into the swirling surf and laughing. I think of her when I see the ocean or walk on the beach. Or when I smell lavender. Her sheets always smelled of lavender and that remains a lovely sense memory that makes me think of all the fun times I spent with her at her beach apartment when I was a teenager.

I remember so many teachers who taught me vital lessons and are now gone -- Sister Ann Ronin, Sister Mary de Fatima, and the amazing, life changing Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita, my toughest and most wonderful college professor.

I remember the heartbreaking number of friends who have died: the lovely Marie Traina, a journalism classmate in college, who sang and played the guitar so beautifully and who sat through three showings of "The Graduate" with me -- killed in an act of domestic violence when she was only 28. And my roommates Cheryl Martindill Rennix who shared so much laughter and so many tears and who did the best ever imitation of Farfel, the dog puppet in the old Nestle's commercials; Lorraine Plomondon Scace who was so wise for her years and so wonderfully kind and who died at only 42 and Lorene Condon Caldwell, so generous and sweet and whom I never fully appreciated until many years later. Then there was Vern Haase, with whom I had my very first date (as a college freshman) and who walked along the Lake Michigan beach with me one blustery November day as we waited to hear if President Kennedy would survive his assassin's bullet. And Janet Zieschang, my high school friend, who suffered her entire life from extreme obesity and the isolation that imposed and who taught me so many lessons in friendship and seeing beyond the superficial to the spirit within.

Our loved ones live on in our memories of the lessons they taught us, the good times and tough times shared.

These memories are precious -- not just on Memorial Day -- but every day of our lives.                                      

Friday, May 11, 2012

Motherhood: The Road Not Taken

This time of year assumptions abound.

"Any plans for Mother's Day?" the supermarket cashier asks cheerily.

My reflexive answer is well-practiced: "Well, who knows?" I reply, smiling mysteriously. "I'm going to lie low and just see what happens."

She smiles. "Me, too," she says. "Though I'm hoping for a surprise from my kids."

"I hope you get a good one!" I say, turning to leave.

I know surprises are quite unlikely for me this Mother's Day or any other.  I am a childless 67-year-old woman and my own mother has been dead for more than three decades.


It was a radical thought back in the Fifties when just about everyone was married with children -- with a few notable exceptions -- including my beloved Aunt Molly. But I always considered her our third and best parent. And, for many years, especially after our parents died, Mike, Tai and I honored Aunt Molly with a special outpouring of love, affection and an excellent brunch at her favorite restaurant on Mother's Day.

There was one childless couple living in our neighborhood as I was growing up. Shel and Sybil Frye, a middle-aged, long-married couple lived two doors down from us. Their baby was a wonderful Golden Retriever named Honey.

Some people whispered that, as childless folk, they must be very selfish or else, perhaps, there was something terribly physically wrong with them.

But they seemed normal to me. Shel had a great sense of humor and loved to go fishing with my father. Sybil was always very sweet to neighborhood kids. She was quick with cookies, agreeable to my brother running away from home and hiding in her hedge all day as long as he was home by sundown. And Honey was a neighborhood favorite. I invited her to my birthday parties and she was the most popular guest there.

Still, I pitied them at times. Their life was so quiet, their house so orderly, their life together so...predictable.  I never aspired to be them.

All these years later, Bob and I are them -- but with cats instead of a big golden dog.

How did this happen? 

I never smugly chose to be "child-free." Instead, it seemed somehow predestined -- much to my distress growing up.

 I remember seeing "Three Coins in the Fountain" as a child and being greatly affected by a scene where one of the female characters weeps because she'll never have a child. I cried myself to sleep that night -- knowing somehow without knowing that this would be my own fate.

In college, as my suitemates dreamed out loud about husbands and children, I sat by feeling, once again, that what they dreamed so easily would not happen quite that way for me. I heard myself saying something snotty and bitter to soothe my overwhelming sense of anticipatory loss.  Lorraine sat beside me and put her arms around me. "You're scared that it won't happen for you, aren't you?" she asked, so wise for her years. "Don't worry. I just know somehow your life is going to be wonderful, that things will work out just right for you."

What was just right? I had decided that I didn't want to have children unless I could find a man who wanted truly wanted children. I didn't want to relive the eternal tension between my parents -- my mother who had longed for children, my father who largely loathed parenthood.

But things just didn't seem to work out with parenthood.

Michael Lynn, my first post-college boyfriend longed for marriage and children but I wasn't ready to settle down in my early twenties -- and he went on to be a loving stepfather to the children of the woman he eventually married and the absolutely devoted grandfather to their children.

I had an unplanned pregnancy with Dr. Chuck ---- thanks to a malfunctioning IUD. Though it was unplanned, it was far from unwelcome. Chuck, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, loved and wanted children. But the pregnancy ended in a miscarriage shortly before our relationship began a seismic shift. At age 30, Chuck came to terms with the fact that he was gay and we veered away from romance, marriage and children and continued on as friends and professional partners instead, producing several classic books instead of babies.

I was in my thirties when I met Bob, who was divorced and who had had a vasectomy during his first marriage. He had helped his first wife to raise a daughter by her previous marriage and he had no desire to repeat the experience.  Nevertheless, our relationship was so loving, so nurturing, so much what I had always wanted. I chose to spend my life with Bob. And this choice meant I would be childless.

But being childless hasn't meant that our lives are closed off to children.

As the years went by, Bob became a dedicated Big Brother to three generations of Little Brothers during his 22 years in the program. His three Little Brothers -- Paco, David and Ryan -- all became a part of our life together.

 In particular, we both love Ryan immensely and forever. He became Bob's third and last Little Brother as a small child more than 20 years ago and is the closest we'll ever have to a son. He calls us on Mother's Day, Father's Day, and many other times during the year to say "I love you!" and to share the adventures of his young adult life. And we'll be headed back to Los Angeles soon to share his joy as he receives his Master's degree in social work -- a major step toward his goal of becoming a psychotherapist. 

In some ways, my life, too, has been devoted to young people. For many years, I wrote almost exclusively for or about teenagers. For 20 years, I was a part-time admissions officer representing Northwestern University in California, Arizona and Nevada, interviewing several generations of promising young students. Some of these young people, whether or not they eventually attended Northwestern, became part of my life. 

But there were times, particularly after my parents died, when I felt existentially alone and wished that my lifestyle could be more traditional. There were times when I yearned for that closest of connections, for that love both fierce and all-encompassing.

Then I would host a parent fleeing from the stress of adolescent parenting for a week, or watch a toddler meltdown in public and think that being childless had its advantages.

But still, I've never identified with the militant "child-free" folk.

When I read books about being the wonders of child-free living, I always came away feeling unsatisfied and ashamed. The mind-set invariably seems to be that there was something the matter with children: they are savages, cost too much money to raise, and, in more promising times, interfered with a jet-setting yuppie lifestyle. These all seemed to be such superficial reasons to bypass a major aspect of adult life. And these weren't the reasons I was not a parent.

When I thought about why I had made the choices I made, it came down to me. Perhaps it was the memory of my father's bitter words "Marriage with children is the complete life catastrophe!" or my mother's wistful sighing about the career she had loved and left behind for motherhood. Deep down, perhaps, I didn't feel I had the courage and willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to be a mother. In my darkest moments, I've feared that something of my father might lurk malevolently in my emotional DNA.

But perhaps it was simply my destiny to fall in love with Ryan and with my nieces and nephew-to-be, to give warm support and guidance to children and teens with my books, and with my college admissions work instead of being a hands-on parent.

There are times of wistfulness, of wondering about what that road not taken might have been like, as well as times of feeling comfortable with my choice.

I see how children of friends have become wonderful adults, a source of joy and comfort to their parents, my peers. I see my friends and neighbors enjoying their grandchildren. I see multi-generational families and smile --and sometimes feel wistful. 

I've rejoiced as my siblings both became late-in-life parents. Tai gave birth to Nick when she was 35 and Mike was 60 when he and Amp had Maggie. He will be pushing 63 when their son Henry arrives this summer.

Despite her traumatic childhood, Tai is a loving, supportive mother to Nick, delighting in her strengths, talents and eccentricities alike.

And I marvel at Mike's -- and Amp's -- patience with their little Maggie. She's two-and-a-half, a bright and beautiful child and I look forward to seeing and knowing the growing person she will be. But I struggle to imagine how one copes with the demands, with the energy it takes, to be a 24/7 parent of a toddler -- especially in one's sixties. My brother, who had a much more difficult childhood than I, handles these demands beautifully. The love he and Amp have for Maggie is an all-encompassing love I will never know.

And yet I rejoice in being an aunt, a mentor, a writer young people can trust.

I love reading stories to Maggie and encouraging her to talk. I love sharing the insights and adventures of young adults I first met in the college admissions process as they venture out into the post-college world. I love hearing from long ago readers. I still sometimes get emails of thanks via my website from middle-aged adults who recall my 'TEEN articles or growing up with one of the seven editions of "The Teenage Body Book." It warms my heart to know that what I've written over the past 44 years has been helpful.

Sometimes warm feedback can take me by surprise.

I got an email on my birthday a few weeks ago from a high school friend Suse Harper-Yates, whom I haven't seen in nearly 50 years. She reminded me that we had played mother and daughter in a school production of "I Remember Mama" late in our senior year.

Her email read, in part: "For 'I Remember Mama' on her birthday! Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with another person, having to neither weigh thoughts nor measure words...I love you! Suse."

What a gift Suse's words were to me: both bringing back wonderful memories and letting me know as yet another Mother's Day approaches, that I had been a temporary mother, a source of comfort to her, all those years ago.

The memories flooded back. I had played Mama and Suzy had played Christine, the middle daughter. I remembered being delighted by the warm chemistry I had with her: it felt natural onstage to snuggle with her, to admonish her firmly but with affection, to meet her smile with my own.

I had no way of knowing then the secrets she was holding: the painful truth of her life at home. I had no way of knowing then -- nor did she -- the challenges she was to face in the years to follow. But for that very brief time, in a very different place in both our lives, I had been a good mother to her. I had helped her to feel warm and loved and safe.

What a blessing this was to hear and to know that these feelings had stayed with her all through the years.

Maybe my dear, long-deceased college friend Lorraine was right all those years ago: my life  has been wonderful, indeed, turning out the way it was always meant to be....just right.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Nonsense About Nuns

It was several weeks ago that the Vatican issued a reprimand to American nuns and directed U.S. prelates to monitor the doings of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group representing 80 percent of Catholic nuns in this country.

Their transgression? His Holiness feels, on the basis of a Vatican report, that American nuns are spending way too much time tending to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised and fighting social injustice -- and too little time opposing abortion and gay marriage.

The news has had me grinding what's left of my teeth ever since.

I've experienced a multitude of emotions -- some irrational, some heartfelt and reasonably sane.

First, the insanity: my knee jerk inclination to vilify the Pope as a Nazi, a tone deaf policy wonk and a protector of pedophile priests.

But I realized that wasn't all right or fair. After all, he was young and powerless in Nazi Germany and perhaps had little, if any, choice about joining Hitler Youth.  He has devoted his life to the vigorous defense and reinforcement of doctrines and dogma. That has been his passion, his life mission. It shouldn't be a surprise that when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he would continue to focus on dogma rather than living faith through loving, generous and often brave work with the least among us.

I still haven't stopped being angry, though, about the Pope's (and his Church's) invasion of women's health rights and the options of loving and committed gay couples to marry in this country when, world-wide, pedophile priests were sheltered and given carte blanche to molest and rape generations of children and teenagers.

But, after letting this latest outrage sink in, my predominant feeling is sadness and anger that, once again, the efforts of the dedicated women clergy in the Catholic Church are denigrated in a storm of undeserved criticism.

For while prelates have lived in splendor in their gilded palaces, nuns have been doing the hard work in good faith. For hundreds of years, they have nursed the sick and taught the young.  And since Vatican II, they have heeded the call to make a difference in the world by taking leadership in fighting social injustice and serving the poor and the powerless.

During the past 50 years, nuns have expanded their roles in the world -- becoming hospital CEOs and social activists -- protesting wars, facing down dictators and corporate honchos, caring for society's rejects.

To many, they have always been -- and continue to be -- the true heart of the Catholic Church.

I was born and raised Catholic, attending parochial schools from grade school through high school. And everything meaningful in the faith that sustained me in my difficult youth came from nuns -- as often by example and by sharing goodness and love as by classroom instruction.

Sister Rita was a shining beacon of hope for me in elementary school. There was loving safety in her arms. She encouraged me in my writing efforts, pushed me relentlessly in algebra, insisting I could do it. She taught me to speak clearly again as I struggled to recover from polio. She never focused on the awkward, precociously adolescent, terribly self-conscious child that I was, but delighted in my inner spirit and my possibilities. "Aren't you wonderful?" she would say warmly and often until I began to believe that I could grow past the abuse at home, my awkwardness, my shyness and become someone special, someone she could glimpse already. My confidence grew -- through her eyes.

And in high school, there was Sister Ann Ronin, who thrilled me with her keen intelligence and edgy humor and who never let me off the hook when I felt too shy to give an answer in class. There was lovely Sister deFatima, who encouraged me to keep writing and to seek spiritual meaning well beyond church doctrines to the essence of my soul. There was Sister Mary Joseph whose gentle humor and warmth sustained me through adolescent ups and downs. And, most of all, there was Sister Ramona who modeled for me what it meant to truly live one's faith and who was there for me at every juncture -- to listen, to encourage, to wipe my tears, to urge me on as I stumbled along my path of personal growth.  I remember how she sometimes ignored the bell to afternoon prayers when it seemed most important to hold my hand and listen to a dark secret. And she accepted my life choices as the years went on with love, even when she might have disagreed.

Although many of these wonderful women have passed away, Sister Rita, now 81, and Sister Ramona, now 76, are still dear to me -- and making a difference in the world with social activism and, in Sister Ramona's case, by counseling students of all faiths at Stanford University.

These women of faith represent -- to me -- the very best of the Catholic Church. And women religious world wide are making a major difference in their efforts to end suffering and help the world become a better, kinder place.  I have yet to meet a nun who champions the cause of abortion. Yet some, who work with real people in real life crises, can see shades of gray when it comes to church doctrines and human ethics.

Here in Arizona several years ago, a nun who was a hospital administrator also served on the hospital's ethics committee when it had to make a wrenching decision.  There was a young woman, 12 weeks pregnant, who had developed a potentially fatal medical condition that would certainly kill her if the pregnancy continued. She was a young wife and, not so incidentally, the mother of four small children. The committee decided to permit an abortion. And because the nun on the committee had not actively opposed the decision, she was not only publicly reprimanded by Church officials but also actually excommunicated from the Church.

The incident above has continued to be highly controversial, with strong feelings on both sides. Other developments have been lower profile.  There was the community of nuns in Santa Barbara, dedicated to working with the poor and the sick, who had their convent sold out from under them by the diocese in order to pay restitution to some of the victims of pedophile priests. There are the brilliant and dedicated nuns who have hit the ultimate glass ceiling in their vocation -- unlikely to ever become priests or prelates because of their gender. This institutionalized gender inequity -- in a Church that so worships Mary the Mother of God -- is an outrage to many.

This is one of the things that drove me, some years ago, to join the congregation at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Valencia, CA. The move was a wonderful spiritual renewal.  The pastor -- Rev. Lynn Jay -- was and is a smart, feisty, deeply spiritual and loving religious woman -- like many of the Catholic nuns I've known. She preaches compassion and understanding, reaching out to those in need and standing up to hatred and bigotry.  I was attracted to her church when I saw a newspaper photo of her standing in the middle of the major road that runs by her church, hands on hips, facing down a rowdy crowd of Evangelical protestors who had been bused in from Los Angeles to picket her church because she allowed an organization called Parents and Friends of Gays (PFLAG) to hold meetings in one of the church's classrooms one night a week.

Perhaps it's just me, but I fail to see how denying gay couples the right to love and to marry whom they choose brings any of us closer to the principles that Jesus taught.

And while I realize the issues around abortion are complex and while I respect both sides of the argument for and against, I fail to see how denying women insurance coverage for birth control makes us holy.

Some members of the Catholic Church are committed to offering newly besieged American nuns praise and support instead of criticism and censure. A Jesuit priest Rev. James Martin has started a Twitter hashtag called #whatsistersmeantome that features the following video:


Everything that is positive and real and lasting about my Catholic upbringing has to do with the wonderful nuns who guided, who listened, who have taught me and continue to teach me what it means to live one's faith with courage, authenticity and joy.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Power of Fleeting Negativity

As Bob and I were on our way to the gym in our golf cart the other day, we encountered our friends Joe and Marsha walking their dog Nora.

We stopped to say "Hello" and soon found ourselves involved in a passionate discussion of the elusiveness of happiness as a life goal. With a sigh, Nora - the world's most intuitive and well-behaved dog -- settled down for a snooze on the sidewalk.

We agreed that, life-enhancing as positive thinking can be, it isn't invariably helpful.

Sometimes allowing ourselves to feel anxious or sad or simply down for a while can be life-enhacing, too.

In our feel-good society, negative feelings are, all too often, ignored, dismissed or seen as a failure or an aberration.

But feelings regarded as negative are built into our brain's essential wiring.

We evolved, after all, in dangerous world where sitting around feeling mellow might get you eaten by a tiger. Listening for the crack of a twig, for footfalls behind us, feeling a little ill at ease and not complacent have been part of our survival skills for eons.

This means that we pay attention to our feelings when someone makes us feel uneasy. Such alertness to danger may spare us further distress -- and may even be lifesaving.

During a recent visit, my friend-since-kindergarten Pat Hill told a story that sent chills down my spine. It happened when she was in college at UC Santa Barbara and attending a frat party with three of her roommates. When they were about to leave -- at 2 a.m. -- she started talking with a guy who was a non-student and a casual acquaintance of one of the fraternity members. He told Pat that he lived in a landmark house on the ocean, one Pat had noticed and had always wanted to see up close. He offered Pat and her friends a tour of the place on the spot.  Her friends declined. Pat, despite gnawing misgivings about going to this stranger's home in the middle of the night, agreed to go with him.

What ensued was horrific: he held her captive in the vacant home (turned out he had a key because his mother was a realtor trying to sell the place) for seven hours, repeatedly trying to rape her and terrorizing her with violent outbursts. While she was finally able to talk him out of rape and mayhem and into taking her back to her general neighborhood all those hours later, she has often thought what might have happened -- and says that the experience was a hard lesson in paying attention to her own feelings of uneasiness as an essential early warning system.

Supposedly negative feelings can even be used on the way to a positive outcome.

In one of many exercises in cognitive behavioral therapy, a patient will, in his or her imagination, unleash a flood of negative expectations to help overcome anxiety over an issue or event. For example, if someone has sought therapy to deal with anxiety over public speaking, we might explore everything that could go wrong -- he opens his mouth to speak and says something incredibly stupid and the audience erupts with derisive laughter, some rushing out of the meeting room to tell friends and families about this epic gaffe. The next day, the New York Times has a banner headline: "Worst Speech Ever Given: The Unbelievable Babblings of X" Soon reporters from world-wide media are calling to ask "Did you really say that???" And so on....until the patient laughs at this overblown, exaggerated scenario and comes to the conclusion that even his or her worst fears would fall far short of this epic tale. The person may also decide that his more modest fears are, nonetheless, equally irrational.

And, perhaps, most of all, having negative thoughts and feelings from time to time is a sign that we're all normal.

No matter how good our lives might be, we all have down moments. The expectation that we should be continuously happy can lead to great unhappiness. On the other hand, letting our less-than-joyous feelings happen, without trying to edit them out or judge them, can smooth the ups and downs of life as we experience fully what it means to be human.

That's important to remember when we've reached a point in life when we look at our collective blessings, feel gratitude -- and then guilt when those down times creep up on us.

I remember visiting this community for the first time in 2008 -- while still working multiple jobs and enduring commutes from hell in L.A. -- and thinking "Oh, wow! If only I could live here in this beautiful place, if only I could be retired and have my time be my own, I would be so happy! Life would be wonderful!"

And, largely speaking, I have been delighted with my new life --  retired from everything but writing and living in my dream community. But, like anyone else, I have my fleeting down times: perhaps when I remember how life was before -- so many years ago -- when I was a successful full-time writer before all those other jobs became necessary and thinking now about how hard it is --now that I have the time and financial security to write exactly what I want -- to re-establish myself in a much-changed publishing world. Or I may have minutes of sadness when I think of the huge age gap between me and my niece Maggie and wonder if I'll be around to see her blossom into a young adult. Or sometimes the dark moments have no reason, but simply waft over me like a troubling breeze and then are gone.

These dark moments are part of all our lives. Happiness as a goal or as a constant emotional state is simply not sustainable. Living fully means embracing all that life brings -- the joyful feelings and the darker ones -- and valuing both as part of our personal growth. These feelings are much like nature's seasons -- cold, dark days of winter followed by the sweetness of spring and the warmth of summer and the beauty of fall.  Seasons and the full range of our feelings are all part of the predictable and normal rhythm of life in this world.

Allowing ourselves to feel depressed or anxious or lonely or sad, to fully experience a moment of despair keeps us in touch with reality. Accepting the darker times, embracing the full range of our feelings, can end up making joy, when it comes, that much sweeter.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Street Wisdom

I remember his advice as if it were yesterday.

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

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

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

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

We had no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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