Saturday, November 23, 2013

Growing in Gratitude

Reviewing our imperfect, complicated lives as yet another Thanksgiving rolls around, there is still so much cause for gratitude.  But there are times when the negative crowds out the positive, either due to an immediate crisis or to lingering pain over a long ago wound.

Now is the time to let the positives come to the forefront, to count the blessings of your life. Cultivating gratitude in the present means growing past the negatives.

If you came from dysfunctional family, there is a time for letting go of the past in whatever form that takes -- and that time is now.  It may mean forgiving (if not forgetting) and going on with your life. It may mean creating a safe distance between yourself and the ongoing dysfunction. It may mean concentrating on what and who was good and loving in your family of origin. And you can feel blessed today that you're no longer a powerless child, but an adult with the power to make positive choices. Letting go of past pain, not allowing it to define your life, makes room for joy.

If you're not as fortunate in life as you had hoped, it's time to look at what has gone right in your life instead of focusing on how things have never measured up to those long-ago dreams. As time passes, our dreams change -- or often need to change. Maybe what we dreamed in our youth just wasn't realistic. Perhaps the dreams were reasonable, but life as it unfolded didn't oblige. Sometimes we can make a dream happen with hard work and determination. But sometimes, because of random luck and circumstances beyond our control, a dream eludes us. But even dreams that don't happen can take us to unexpected places and even positive surprises in our lives. It's a time to feel gratitude for those random happy surprises and for the dreams that did come true, perhaps in ways we couldn't have anticipated.

If you're in pain, it's time to treat yourself gently, to listen to your body's needs and limitations, and, at the same time, to challenge yourself to stay as healthy and active as possible. It's a blessing to have a life to live despite physical or emotional pain and your own personal challenge  to live as full and loving a life as possible.

If your current family situation isn't perfect, it may be very much on your mind these days: there may be that son-in-law you find trying sitting there being relentlessly himself during the holiday meal or those empty chairs at the table signaling family members who have died or become estranged or who for a variety of reasons can't be with you to celebrate this year. It's a time to celebrate what is instead of grieving what could or should be. Open your mind to try to discover why a dreaded in-law might be so loved by an adult child.  Send loving thoughts to those who aren't with you -- those who have passed away and those who are at a geographic or emotional distance. Celebrate those who are sharing the holiday with you and the wonderful variety of love we have in our lives.

If you're alone this holiday, make this Thanksgiving your own creation, your own singular celebration. Perhaps, just for today, you will choose to feel warmed (rather than sad) by the memories of holidays past when your holiday table and your heart were filled with family and friends. Maybe, just for today, seize the opportunity to celebrate exactly as you wish -- no pressure, no obligations, no long hours of cooking (unless that pleases you). Maybe your celebration will be curling up with a good book and reading it cover to cover. Or it could be listening to your favorite music and calling distant loved ones to wish them a happy holiday.

It could also be a time to warm your heart by reaching out to others: many churches and charities sponsor Thanksgiving meals for the homeless and disadvantaged. Some bring holiday cheer to those who are hospitalized or in nursing homes for the holidays. You might find your own happiness this holiday by joining in and serving others.

It can help, too, whatever the circumstances of your imperfect, complicated life today, to count your blessings in the ordinary aspects of your life: a warm home sheltering you from a winter storm; a sweet dog or cat warming your lap and your heart; good, healthy food; a family that may be scattered geographically but that can bring you joy by simply thriving wherever they are; the strength to do what you need to do and, often, what you want to do.  Maybe you're not able to be as active as you once were. Maybe health concerns have begun to multiply. But you're still breathing, still aware, still able to welcome yet another holiday season.

When we grow to see and savor the blessings in the ordinary, our lives can become truly extraordinary.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Life-Changing History - Live

Fifty years ago today -- how is that possible? 

Every moment is so clear in my memory.  It was a deliciously sunny, crisp November day in Chicago. I was an 18-year-old freshman at Northwestern University, just returning to the dorm for lunch when the news came over my roommate Cheryl's radio: "President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. The president has been shot and wounded."

Cheryl and I sat down, staring at each other in complete shock. How could this happen? Especially to such a young, vibrant President? How could it be? We struggled to process what we were hearing. 

"Maybe he's not that badly wounded," Cheryl said at last. "Maybe he'll be all right." But the tears glistening in her eyes betrayed her doubt.

Because I didn't know what else to do, I went to my 1 p.m. class which the professor canceled with a shake of his head and a gesture for us all to go. A classmate, Vern Haase, and I went for a walk along the lake, praying and hoping and wondering who could hate so much. As we approached my dorm, a young woman sat on the steps, doubled over with grief, holding a small radio to her ear and sobbing loudly. "Oh, no," Vern whispered, squeezing my arm. "Oh, please, God, no!"

We all spent the weekend in the dorm's television room, watching in stunned silence as the events unfolded: the President's casket and blood-stained, traumatized widow arriving back in Washington; Lee Harvey Oswald being shot to death on national television; a tiny John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father as the casket rolled by him.  And, to this day, everything is so vivid: what we saw on television and what we experienced ourselves.

It rained heavily in Chicago the day after President Kennedy's death, as we cried and grieved, each in our own way. Lorraine, who lived across the hall, sat quietly staring out her window, tears rolling silently down her cheeks, smoke curling up from the lengthening ash of a forgotten cigarette. Cheryl was on the phone to her parents, weeping and making arrangements to go home to Michigan early for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was in a fog of grief and disbelief. For many of us, it was the first time in our young lives that we had experienced the death of someone we knew.

 Yes, President Kennedy did seem like someone we knew. He connected with us on television in a way no other president had before with a singular optimism and vitality. In those years before cynicism and disillusionment, before political divisions running impossibly deep, before tell-all tabloids and outing of personal failings by press and opponents alike, Kennedy was our President -- the man who urged us to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

We all knew, the moment we heard the news of his death, that we would always remember this moment, seared into our collective consciousness. Even today, after all these years, with Cheryl, Lorraine and Vern all dead for some time, I look back and remember every moment of that afternoon shared with them -- and see once again the shock and sorrow etched on their young faces.

Of course, that first report of JFK's assassination wasn't the end of the shocking news for our generation.

We didn't have to wait for John Lennon's violent death or the terrifying news on 9-11 to have life interrupted and forever changed once again. 

Not quite five years after we mourned our fallen President, just as I was finishing graduate school at Northwestern, we were rocked with the news of Martin Luther King's and Robert Kennedy's assassinations.  What many of us felt by then was not so much shock as deep sadness.  Violence against leaders wasn't quite the shocking event it had been just a few years before. 

It was no longer "How could someone do this? How could this happen?" but rather "Oh, no! Not again!"

And, somehow, in a process started on that crisp, clear November day and culminating with this realization during the turbulent spring of 1968, we were never really young again.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Unexpectedly Great Thanksgivings

Have you ever had a Thanksgiving (or other holiday) that you dreaded or were sure would be less than wonderful -- and it turned out to be one of the greatest?

What plans do you have to make this Thanksgiving special?

Thinking back over the years, two special Thanksgivings stand out for me -- and, in both instances, the joy of the day was a surprise.

Just before Thanksgiving in 1982, my cousin Jack, who was then living near us in the Los Angeles area, lost his wonderful wife Tanzy to breast cancer. She was only 35 and had fought the disease for nine agonizing years. Despite the fact that her death wasn't totally unexpected, we were devastated. She was such a vital and beloved member of the family who was so loving, so generous with help and praise, so wonderfully alive even through her years of painful illness.

Jack's parents -- my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer -- as well as Tanzy's widowed mother and her surviving daughter traveled to Los Angeles for Tanzy's funeral. As we were visiting afterwards, I invited them to my place for Thanksgiving two days later. Initially, they declined, too overwhelmed with grief to imagine a holiday meal.

But the next day, Jack called. "We've been thinking about your offer and would like to take you up on it," he said. "It would be so comforting to just be together, all of us."

And so it was -- and was one of the most intimate, joyous and loving Thanksgivings ever. We talked and cried and laughed together. We shared favorite Thanksgiving foods and many hugs and kisses. We talked about our favorite, funny memories of Tanzy and our sadness over her loss. We teased each other gently and laughed over favorite family stories, aided by Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer's shared, sly sense of humor. Tanzy's mother became a friend of mine that day -- and we kept in touch until her death many years later.

Our lovely day together also taught us an enduring lesson that Jack remembered during a recent visit we both made to his sister Caron's home in Kansas City.

"Our family has remembered that lesson all these years," he told me. "And the lesson is: the times you feel least like celebrating are the times when you need family most."

Bob and I didn't exactly feel in a celebratory frame of mind as Thanksgiving 2009 neared. We were caught up in the details and logistics of winding down our working lives in Los Angeles with a targeted retirement date of April 2010. We had purchased a new home in Arizona and were making once a month trips over, moving gradually from L.A. to Arizona, while preparing our Los Angeles home to put up for sale. We were frazzled. That's when Ryan, Bob's former Little Brother in the Big Brothers program who grew up to be like a son to us, proposed that he and his partner Sean prepare and host Thanksgiving that year with me responsible only for the dressing, which he insisted he simply could not live without.

And that's how Bob and I ended up spending a wonderful Thanksgiving with Ryan, Sean, Ryan's college friend Shar and about a dozen of their closest gay male friends. It was, in a word, fabulous!

We felt so welcome, so loved, so joyous that all the worry about the details of our lives in transition simply slipped away. We told stories, joked, had serious discussions and savored a meal that reflected the diversity of this group of friends coming together. We were so relaxed, and so thankful to be part of this warm and delightful group of people, a group so inclusive and embracing.

As Thanksgiving 2013 approaches, life has continued to change. After spending last Thanksgiving with us, Ryan and Sean ended their five year relationship just before Christmas. Bob and I are well settled in Arizona. My proposed "Therapy Cats" book just sold to a major publisher and the publisher wants the finished manuscript early in the New Year. It all seemed to add up to a prescription for a quiet holiday season.

Then an invitation too good to refuse came from my dear friend Tim and his delightful daughter Mary Kate -- inviting Bob, Ryan and me to "Come Home for the Holiday" -- and celebrate with them in my childhood home, which Mary Kate and her boyfriend Matt are renting from my brother Mike, who is now living and working in Thailand.

Tim will be flying in from Chicago and another daughter Eliza and her husband Chris, expecting their first baby in April, will be coming from Colorado. Friends of Mary Kate's who have a one-year-old baby will also be joining the festivities.

Joy will not come as a surprise this year.

This Thanksgiving promises to be another of the memorable ones as we celebrate in a special place with people we love -- and a few loving people we have yet to meet -- for a day of good conversations, song, laughter and an incredibly evolving feast being planned by all concerned via email -- and, yes, I'm bringing the dressing!

I expect that it will be a wonderful celebration of the past, the present and the future -- with two happily-anticipated grandchildren for Tim (his eldest daughter Laura is also expecting) on the horizon!

Without a doubt, this is going to be one of the great ones!

What makes a holiday great? Spending it with loved ones, having an open mind and heart, sharing and celebrating the ways that our lives are evolving and changing as we give thanks together.

Now that I've told you my Thanksgiving stories -- I'd love to hear yours!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

When Inside and Outside Selves Don't Match

Whatever our ages at the moment, there's a young, able and frisky spirit within.

During a phone visit with my cousin Caron lately, she mentioned her current disability with more surprise than regret.

"I still feel so frisky," she said. "I've always been active. It's just recently that I've started to look old. When did this happen? And so sudden! It's frustrating that my spirit is so youthful and my body is so weak."

There is that struggle between inside and outside personas that exists within so many of us.

Sometimes reconciling this conflict means going with what is and letting go of life as you wish it could be.

Our neighbor Phyllis has loved travel all her life, even working as a travel agent for some years. But now her need for thrice weekly kidney dialysis keeps her tethered to home base.  It's something that she has come to accept most of the time, only occasionally thinking wistfully of places she has yet to see and often she is comforted by vivid memories of the wonderful adventures of her life.

There are times when outside reticence masks inner shyness or when outside arrogance masks a terrible fear and insecurity -- and make it sadly likely that the person will be misjudged by those who rush to accept face value as the ultimate truth.

Sometimes our inner selves learn to hide out of necessity.

Seeing a recent video that I recorded for Northwestern University, my dear friend Sister Rita McCormack, one of my two favorite nun teachers who has known me since I was 8 years old, exclaimed " That shy little girl I knew so many years ago is gone and it's a miracle!" It is a miracle that I have learned over the years to feel shy but still do what I need to do anyway. Somewhere inside, that shy little girl still lives, sometimes cringing with fear, but she steps aside when I need to look confident and outgoing.

At a block party yesterday, an attractive woman who appeared outgoing and confident sidled up to me and introduced herself, telling me how uncomfortable she was coming to the party alone. "Part of me has one foot in junior high and fears being a wallflower..." she said while I nodded with total understanding. A lot of us carry the insecurities and fears so rampant in junior high with us for decades. They stay dormant until a challenging social situation brings them insistently to the surface of our consciousness and we feel anxious once more. But our growing wisdom has taught us to triumph over these fears by going to a party or giving a speech anyway -- and not being embarrassed to admit that stage fright and social anxiety can, at least temporarily, nibble away at our outer confidence but will not keep us from doing what we want to do.

Sometimes the discrepancy between our inner selves and outer realities is rooted in wishful denial of the present.

During my most recent visit with my dear friend Mary and her husband John, who is increasingly disabled by dementia, heart disease and other medical conditions that make walking almost impossible for him, John turned to me and smiled brightly before retiring to bed the last night I was there.

"I'll ask Mary to set the alarm to get me up early tomorrow morning," he said. "I want to give you a proper send-off and carry your luggage to the car for you."

There is no disability in the soul.

Even as a body begins to shut down, the spirit can soar with the vigor and passions that defined our younger selves.

When she was 86, my beloved Aunt Molly struggled with a variety of physical ills that she tended to minimize in conversations with us but which started to overtake her as her steps slowed, her heart pain increased and her fears of dependence and disability far exceeded any fears she might have had about mortality, about not being.  And yet, she remained a powerful writer, her gift of observation and her facility with words unabated by her physical frailty.

After she died of a heart attack just after New Year's in 2004, we found her last poem on her desk and in her computer. It was written only a few days before she passed away, inspired by her last ever trip to her local beauty shop and the sight of a woman representing what she most feared becoming.



                                                           Elizabeth C. McCoy

Has dressed her as carefully
As a very favorite doll.
The white tennis and socks
Immaculately snowy.
The blue cotton pantsuit
On the frail twig of a body
Fresh as a good child's.
Hands quiet in her lap, she stares ahead
Oblivious of the bustle of other women
Being noisily translated to multiple dialects
Of beautiful.
Has brought her here to be collected
When the hair is washed and brushed
Into the proper soft, thin curls
With pink scalp showing through.
She sits self-contained as still water,
Patient as stone,
Withdrawn by time from sentience and
The irrelevancies of communication.
Before long
Someone who still loves what is left
Will come to get her
And then in some other place
She will wait.

We were comforted by the fact that, even as her body was shutting down, Aunt Molly's mind was still active, still creative, still facing her fears of death and decay in the poetry that she had written since childhood.

Even as we all face the challenges that aging inevitably brings, we can live life fully, mindfully and meaningfully by paying attention not just to our aches and pains, to ways that we are slowing down, but also to that ageless, feisty, life-affirming and vibrant spirit within.

Friday, November 8, 2013

What's Your Story?

It was a moment of insight for my friend Kim when she was talking with a neighbor she barely knew the other day: we all have life stories and scripts by which we live our lives.

"My story used to be one of a divorced mother, alone in the world, keeping her two kids safe," the woman had said. "And then came a day when I realized my story was out of date and needed to change."

Kim and I discussed the concept of living by a life story and how what one does with that story can cripple or facilitate change.

Some cling relentlessly to a story line, citing the old excuse "That's the way I am and it's too late to change."

But is it?

There is always time to change and grow if we wish to take the risk of change and to do the hard work involved in personal growth.

But, for some, clinging to an outdated life story is a habit, an excuse not to risk change.

Some have a story that is an endless loop of victimhood.

One woman here, well into her fifties, clings relentlessly to her feelings that her mother is the root of all her discontent. She has felt tormented since by her mother's faults and failings, erupting in fury recently over a minor disagreement. Her volcanic anger was frighteningly out of proportion to the precipitating event. But, of course, it was not really about the event, but about the pain of a lifetime. Until she is able to let go of the story of her mother as tormentor, this woman will never know peace.

Some people get an emotional payoff as they see others react with shock and sympathy to their difficult life stories.

A former patient would come to therapy each week, presenting some new horrendous affront from her ex-husband or one or both of her ungrateful adult children. She would present it and sit back, waiting for commiseration. After two weeks of this, I told her that she could get expressions of horror and sympathy from her friends for free, but she was paying me to help her to move on. "So," I would say. "Let's talk about how you're building a new life for yourself that isn't ruled by them and what they do to you, but by your own choices and preferences." What she needed to do was to change her story from victim to a woman with the freedom to make her own decisions and choices. It was a scary place to be at times. But it could be exciting, too.

Some obsolete stories complicate family relationships in a myriad of ways.

A woman I'll call Elaine has a 50-year-old son she still treats like a wayward adolescent, second guessing every personal and career decision he makes, offering to pay his cell phone bill and then feeling that gives her the right to weigh in on his other financial decisions. And she wonders, with more than a little exasperation, why he doesn't like to call or visit and bemoans the fact that she has such a immature, ungrateful son.

Changing one's perspective and one's life story can be difficult and painful, but can lead one toward growth and a more satisfying new life.

It may mean taking responsibility for your own choices.

If, for example, you chose to stay home with your children, this decision -- while it may be one you'd make again in a minute -- may have been costly for your career as you originally envisioned it. Faced with such realities, you have a choice: you can cling to bitterness and regrets that your career wasn't what you had hoped or you can acknowledge the reality of hard decisions all women make and make peace with a decision that seemed right for you and your family at the time. Period. It doesn't make sense cling to a life story of missed opportunities and to blame your spouse or children or to expect a lifetime of compensation from them for the career that didn't happen as you might have liked.

It may mean letting go of old pain to make room for new possibilities.

If you had a less than ideal experience growing up with a parent or parents whose flaws were all too apparent, you also have a choice: you can choose to cling to the past, blaming your parents for your continuing misery, often long after they are gone, or you can seize the power and control of your own life now and grow beyond the challenges of your early life.

Sometimes it means letting go of even positive life stories if they have become obsolete.

When I was a child, I loved holidays, which my parents dreaded and hated, but which were nevertheless merry if Aunt Molly joined us and made the holiday special for us.

I vowed back then that, when I grew up, I would make holidays wonderful for my family of origin. I started cooking Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners when I was in my twenties. As long as Aunt Molly was alive, there was at least someone who was as interested in celebrating as I was. The others? Not so much. Both of my siblings, for many years, were uneasy with the whole concept of Christmas, preferring to spend it on the ski slopes or working for triple time.

In time, I came to realize that I needed to acknowledge that my Hostess for Family Celebrations was largely a fantasy -- my fantasy -- and that I needed to let go of this and just let holidays happen for me, my brother and sister.

It has worked wonderfully over the years as spontaneous celebrations have replaced dreaded obligations.  Bob and I spent one Christmas and New Year's in Bangkok with my brother and his family and it was truly memorable. One of the most fun recent Thanksgivings we've had was via Skype when we savored simultaneous turkey dinners during a video visit between Los Angeles and Bangkok with my brother Mike and his wife Jinjuta. In recent years,  too, Bob and I have taken turns hosting holidays with neighbors who also live far from loved ones and want to celebrate together.

Giving up the story of myself as family uniter, party planner and perpetual hostess has been a relief, I'm sure, for all concerned.

Now my story is that I simply love to stay in touch with loved ones, whatever day it is, and remember good times with them whether or not we are together this particular holiday season.

Letting go of old family roles can be liberating and lead to better relationships with kin.

Letting go of bitter life stories of victimhood can open your life to new strengths and opportunities.

Letting go of old anger can create room for joy.

When you change your story, you can change your life.