Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Saying...

The voice on the other end of the phone was familiar and cheerful.

It was Stan, my husband's best friend from high school. Although we have never met in person, I had heard about Stan for years: how Stan, a star athlete and leading member of the school's popular crowd, befriended Bob when he came to the school as a shy and uncertain new junior; how Stan helped him to get a memorable summer job at a camp for blind children where they both worked during college; how Stan offered him shelter and support when Bob's father threw him out of the house because he was working at the camp instead of at a higher paying summer job.

Wellington Stanislaus (Stan), star athlete

In the busy times of young adulthood after college, they lost touch with each other for many years, happily reuniting via Facebook when both were over 65. Now they call each other several times a week -- Stan from his home in Central California or Bob from our home in Arizona.

Bob has offered support during Stan's recent orthopedic surgeries and Stan has offered his unfailing optimism to Bob who battles cyclical depressions.

"Just a minute!" I told Stan. "Bob is right here."

"Wait!" Stan cried. "I was calling you. I heard a saying the other day that really meant a lot to me and I think you'd like it, too."

"Oh," I said, a little surprised. "What is it?"

"Those who expect happiness only from sunshine have never danced in the rain."

I smiled at the saying. Stan was right. I was intrigued.

It seemed to me to be about the possibility of finding joy in all seasons -- all seasons of the year, all the seasons of one's life.

It seemed to be about the joy and the pain that are part of all our lives and how our bittersweet experiences give us greater hope in the dark times and greater appreciation for the sunshine in our lives.

It seemed to be about finding joy amidst sorrow, those moments of levity that make us stronger for the next wave of pain.

It seemed to be about re-discovering hope and happiness after a painful life transition.

It seemed to be about experiencing life fully and joyfully every day of our lives.

I thought about the ebb and flow of happiness in my own life -- of times when happiness was an elusive major expectation and of times when it caught me by surprise.

I thought about what I knew of Stan's life experiences -- the career challenges, the devastating losses, the disappointments, the dreams that didn't come true -- and I suddenly understood much better this spirit suffused with joy, even when days are dark and the forecast is unrelentingly stormy.

This is a man who knows all about dancing in the rain.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Many Shades of Beautiful

It's a memory that has stayed with me: my Hawaiian friend Jeanne Nishida, whose parents' ancestries were Chinese and Japanese, was sitting up late with me in our college dorm talking about her self-image growing up. One of a small minority of Asian students at Northwestern at that time, Jeanne was used to feeling different, even when growing up in Hilo, Hawaii. There were no beauty role models who looked like her in mainstream American culture.  As a child, she used to amuse both family and tourists by saying that she wanted to be Betty Grable when she grew up.

We laughed when she told the story, but inside I felt a twinge of sadness that my dear friend had grown up wishing to be fair and blonde. "Either that or that I would wake up and be a lovely Chinese Hawaiian," she said recently. "But by the time I was eight, I realized that wasn't going to happen."

In college, where I met her, life wasn't always easy for Jeanne because she didn't fit the old stereotype that many had at that time of a tiny, sweet, shy, submissive Asian woman. She was -- and is -- smart and strong and not afraid to voice her opinions. She loves sports -- and ended up with a marriage made in heaven, to Jimmy Yagi, the (now retired) basketball coach of the University of Hawaii, Hilo Vulcans. She is a "what you see is what you get" sort of person, without pretense. She is loyal and funny and loving, the very best kind of friend to have.

I always thought she was beautiful, both inside and out. It took some time for Jeanne to realize her very special beauty.

I saw this scenario often when I was a psychotherapist for several psychiatric clinics dedicated to those with life-changing or life-threatening illnesses or injuries. I had patients of all colors and ethnicities  and was often surprised and saddened by the stories of discrimination, even within families, against those who were more dark-skinned than others. One client, Diana, was from Guyana and her lighter-skinned family was ashamed of her darker skin and hadn't included her in many family activities when she was growing up. The pain lingered in her heart, even as she won college scholarships, work accolades and traveled the world. She was one of the most fascinating, warm and beautiful women I have ever met, but what she wanted most in life was to be embraced and accepted and loved and to have a sense of fitting in. She longed to belong and struggled to see the beauty -- both inside and out -- that was so evident to those who knew and loved her.

And I've seen this in my own family when my sister-in-law Jinjuta remembers the pain of growing up feeling distinctly unbeautiful because of her darker skin, typical of her Northern Thailand origins. It's painful to think of this lovely, smart, and wonderfully kind woman having a moment's doubt about her singular beauty and intrinsic worth.

Jeanne sent me a video the other day of the lovely and talented Lupita Nyong'o,  giving a speech several days before her Academy Award triumph, and talking about growing up in Kenya as a dark-skinned woman. It took her some years to realize what real beauty is and to feel this within.

What an amazing story to hear from a young woman who has become not only a celebrated actress but also a beauty icon in the past few months. And how her message that real beauty is goodness and compassion and love resonates.

It's a message that so many young girls need to hear -- both girls of color and girls who are simply plagued by adolescent self-criticism or by the pain of not fitting neatly into society's standards of beautiful.

It's a message that we also need to hear and remember as we age and as traditional, youthful beauty fades into memory. We need to remember that there are many shades and many seasons of beauty and that the greatest measure of beauty is not light skin or youth or a lithe, slim body, but a loving heart and generous, compassionate spirit.