Friday, June 26, 2015

A Broadway Tribute and Celebration of Life

It began as a sweet whisp of memory for Jody Proetta, who grew up as a true Broadway baby in New York City, hanging around backstage at some legendary musicals with her beloved aunt and uncle who were Broadway dancers, teachers and choreographers. Her sweetest memory of those days was when they worked with the show "Oliver!".  She was eleven years old and had the chance to build a warm and lasting friendship with a talented British teenager named David Jones, who garnered a Tony nomination and nightly standing ovations for his performance as the Artful Dodger.


He was like a kind and protective older brother who listened to her hopes and dreams and who let her tag along when he went to Central Park some afternoons to relax in the shade of a beautiful tree and read poetry. Often, they would take turns reading favorite poems to each other.

Although Broadway and New York were always dear to his heart, David became Davy and left that part of his life behind for stardom as one of television's Monkees. But he always treasured the memory of his New York days.

So did Jody. Her memories of that sweet time with her special friend became especially poignant after his death in 2012. He was widely eulogized as a top teen idol and as a Monkee. But the prodigiously talented Broadway star and the gentle soul who helped at least one little girl feel so special seemed lost forever.

And so she began to plan an event that would celebrate Davy Jones as family, friends and co-workers remembered him. She imagined a celebration of his life on Broadway at one of his favorite restaurants -- Sardi's -- and the dedication of a tree -- that special tree that had shaded them more than half a century ago -- in his honor.


Davy's tree in Central Park

And that's how the idea began for A Tree Grows in Central Park, a Broadway Memorial for Davy Jones. It became reality last Sunday at Sardi's and then under that special tree at Central Park as a large, eclectic group gathered to pay tribute.

Speakers and performers included his friend and neighbor Cathy Whitehead, who spoke of Davy's dream to convert an abandoned church in their town of Beaverton, Pa, to a community center and museum and how she and other friends are working to make that dream happen; Buffy Ford Stewart, the "Sleepy Jean" of "Daydream Believer" whose husband John Stewart wrote that signature song for him; singer-songwriter Chris Pick, who wrote and performed a beautiful song in his memory; Fred Velez, a writer who became a friend as he helped Davy with one of his books and who has written a book of his own "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You: The Monkees From a Fan's Perspective"; actress Valerie Kairys Venet, a frequent guest star on the Monkees; singer David Alexander who performed with Davy from time to time as his own busy career allowed and who remembered him as a singularly dear soul. The Monkees tribute band the Monkeephiles added to the festivities.

Valerie Kairys Venet and David Alexander
Photo by David Levin

David Alexander's musical tribute

Friend and neighbor Cathy Whitehead shares her memories and plans

Buffy Ford Stewart and Monkeephiles sing "Daydream Believer"

And I was included as a speaker because my first encounter with Davy Jones was during his time with "Oliver!" exactly 50 years ago, a time when he dried my tears and helped me through my very first interview as a college class assignment, an encounter I described in a blog post Dr. Kathy McCoy: Living Fully in Midlife and Beyond: Remembering Davy Jones.

When Jody and other friends spotted that blog post tribute to him as a kind young man who had helped me begin to lose my fear of interviewing, she was moved by the fact that I had seen his sweet essence during our brief time together. She called me and asked if I would come to New York to share that story with those who loved him at this special Broadway celebration.

I told celebrants how his kindness healed my fear
Photo by Amy Yost Pauling

Most moving moment: Chris Pick sings his memorial song
Video by Teri Holamon

The people crowding into the private dining room at Sardi's last Sunday were not just friends but also many fans from around the world. They had come from Europe and, in surprising numbers, from Japan. It was a day of sharing, singing and celebrating at Sardi's and under his favorite tree in Central Park.

Fans from Tokyo added special joy to the day

Jody Proetta and Kyoko Hosokawa
Photo by David Levin

Jody and other friends at the tree dedication ceremony

The recurring theme of the various tributes, musical and otherwise, was a celebration of Davy Jones for his kindness, genuine caring, and joy in living authentically.

I ended my talk with the thought that the measure of a person's character is not how they act when the spotlight is on them or when they're rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, but how they are when no one is looking, with someone who isn't rich or powerful, but young and scared. And by that measure, Davy Jones was a very special person.

Fred Velez, who had spent many hours working with Davy and got to know his family, offered the insight that another -- perhaps the ultimate -- measure of a person's character is how their children turn out -- and that Davy Jones' four beautiful, kind and caring daughters Talia, Sarah, Jessica and Annabel are his greatest legacy.

Fred Velez with Sarah, Talia and Jessica Jones

Fred Velez with Annabel Jones

It made perfect sense. When you think about it, the professional triumphs and standing ovations and world-wide fame matter less and less as time goes by.

It's true not just for Davy Jones but for all of us as everything fades but the love we leave behind.

What matters in the end is not how much money we made or didn't or how famous we were -- or not.

What matters is how kind we were, how considerate of others, how we followed our dreams and encouraged others to do the same, how we made others feel special and cherished. What matters is what we did when no one was looking and how we taught our children to be giving and kind and make the world a better place.

And that's what got Davy Jones his last standing ovation on Sunday.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Clearing Out Emotional Clutter

My friend Susan, who has been attending a cardiac support group after her heart valve surgery a few years ago, called recently to catch up. She began to tell me about her support group and then stopped, suddenly exasperated. "There is a woman in the group who is 84 years old and still complaining about how her parents limited her life and caused her so much pain," she said. "Can you imagine? Have you ever heard anything like that?"

Yes, actually, as a psychotherapist, I've heard stories like this many times. While we are all affected by a variety of life circumstances and events, there are some who find themselves haunted by past pain, by present toxic relationships and by negative thought patterns that prevent them from living life fully and joyfully.

It occurred to me that, even as we complete annual spring cleaning rituals, read best-selling books about the virtues of de-cluttering and think more seriously, as our birthdays fly by, about parting with cherished belongings, heirlooms and just plain junk, that we might also think about some emotional de-cluttering.

What is emotional clutter? It's the stuff you hold onto that makes living in the present less enjoyable.

Emotional clutter can be grudges and old hurts that weigh you down with remembered pain that stretches to the present and that separates you from those once loved. 

Think about it: as time goes by, does it really matter who offended whom? Does the apology you felt was due feel so urgent now? Would it feel worse to be the first to say "I'm sorry!" or to continue an emotional estrangement?

When you think of the energy it takes to hold onto righteous anger and, over time, the toll this takes on you, do you really want to continue to carry a grudge or nurse old wounds?

Or would it feel better to open your mind and your heart, to reach out with love -- whether or not the other person responds in kind -- and begin to release those old ghosts from the past?

Emotional clutter can be echoes from a distant, painful childhood where the remembered voices of those who caused you to suffer still resonate.

There are those, like the woman in my friend Susan's therapy group, who cling to pain from the past and preclude any possibilities of growth and change and joyous living. There are those whose lives become about victimhood, those whose lives become a string of excuses for not reaching their true potential because of what happened in the past.

 Clearing the hurt may mean looking at the situation a new way: your parents weren't experts on the person you were or the person you've grown to be. So their hurtful predictions or observations aren't valid anymore. It can help lighten a lifelong load of pain to tell yourself that your parents did the best they could, that they loved you as much as they were able and that any hurt that they inflicted, whether intentional or not, came from their own dark place of remembered pain.

Emotional clutter can be toxic relationships and the feelings of resentment and inadequacy these inspire. This may be a friendship that has always been problematic or one that has changed over time. 

While healing estrangements can be life-affirming, there are times when distance from someone who causes us pain makes perfect sense.

When I was in my twenties, I had a friend I admired and enjoyed, someone who was quite different from me but, for a time, we celebrated our differences. Then I began to notice that who I was and what I needed were beyond her consideration and, that as much as I wanted to talk this over, she would never listen. She would call me at 3 a.m. to cry over a broken relationship or simply to read me a poem she had just written, unmindful of my need to sleep because I had to get up and go to work in a few hours. As the financial gulf widened between us when her more highly compensated career took off, she made fun of my modest circumstances and asked if I'd like to live in her maid's room and jettison my career in journalism to become her secretary/maid. She was astounded when I turned her offer down and called me ungrateful. We drifted apart, both of us finding life perfectly fine without the other.

In all the years since, I have found freedom, not only in our distance, but also in getting to the point emotionally where I could wish her well and quietly cheer her continuing success without lingering anger or resentments.

Emotional clutter can be agitation over people and events over which you have little, if any, control.

Is it really worth your emotional energy to get upset over something that is unlikely to affect your life -- like who wins or doesn't win the Superbowl or "Dancing With the Stars" or, more recently, the transition of Bruce into Caitlin?

The fact that 10,000 people actually signed an online petition the other day to urge the IOC to rescind Bruce/Caitlin Jenner's Olympic medal is astounding. Most of these people may disapprove of this sports icon embarking on a gender change in the latter years of his life or find the concept and reality of transgender individuals bewildering. But the fact remains that he won his Olympic gold medal fairly, with incredible hard work, and as a man, back in 1976. Nothing will ever change that. And the gender switch, after all the publicity dies down, is her and her family's business, not ours. We can hope that Caitlin and the Kardashian clan will go live happily ever after off the media radar. But there isn't anything we can do about it. So why get upset? If you find yourself riled by the denizens of reality television or sports or, for that matter, by the evening news, stop watching.

Emotional clutter can be old prejudices and beliefs that color your attitudes in a rapidly changing world, weighing you down with anger and fear and resentment.

I've heard vitriol flying in our community clubhouse about gay marriage, all things Obama and racial resentments of all varieties. Tempers and blood pressures rise. But this is a very different world from the one in which we grew up. It is a world, albeit still imperfect and evolving, where one's sexual orientation or the color of one's skin doesn't automatically preclude the possibility of living a life with full rights as a citizen. And while one certainly can take issue with our current president over any number of policies, so much of what pulses through the Internet and impassioned community coffee klatches seems based on pure hatred with a sprinkling of fear because he is different.

This is a world where you can certainly hold religious, political and personal beliefs of value to you and that enhance your ability to live your life with love. There is room for constructive debate and a variety of opinions.

But standing firm with a stubborn "That's the way I was raised..." can be hazardous to your own health and well-being. Carrying so much fury as the world changes around you can hurt you most of all.

Perhaps a question about the free-floating anger and hostility online and otherwise is what purpose does it serve? Is there anything you can do to change a situation or actively embrace a cause? Does it increase your peace of mind? Your happiness? Presidents come and go. There are causes where we can make a difference - and ones that are truly futile and frustrating.

Knowing the difference between these and acting accordingly can be critical to one's emotional well-being.

Emotional clutter can also mean habits like negative thinking and self-talk that is hazardous to your emotional health. 

There is a lot of truth to the saying "Most of us are about as happy as we make up our minds to be." Whatever our external circumstances, we have a choice to greet each day or each challenge with hope and optimism or with grim self-pity.

My lifelong friend Sister Ramona, who will be 80 in October, was showing troubling signs of frailty when I visited her two weeks ago in Northern California for her 60th Jubilee -- the celebration of her 60th anniversary of taking her vows as a nun. I couldn't help but notice how thin she was, how her walk has slowed, how her voice -- as she renewed her vows at the altar -- was barely a whisper. And yet, her eyes lit up and she embraced me with joy when she spotted me in the crowd. And when I asked her how she was -- really -- she smiled and said "Oh, I'm okay. We'll talk. But I can do everything I was meant to do right now." She is still a healer of souls, counseling Stanford University students, and a formidable life force -- getting an award late last year from the Unitarian Universalist community in the Bay Area for her leadership in organizing women for peace. She has made the decision to live fully every day of her life.

That is in stark contrast with a woman in our community I'll call Luella. Luella has a loving husband, a beautiful home and a reasonable amount of financial security. She has raised three successful adult children. 

But, instead of counting her blessings, she ruminates on what isn't right in her life. Her arm hurts. She hates her son's latest girlfriend. Her cat died four years ago and the memory of that loss is too great to ever consider adopting another. And, most of all, she hates Arizona.

"It's ugly and hot and disgusting!" she complains to anyone who will listen. "I hate it here! It's so beige. It's so full of stupid people. We moved here to be closer to our kids and now, with their work and such, we're lucky to see them maybe once a week. And everyone here is so stuck-up. This just sucks big time!"

It's no accident that others in the community keep their contacts and conversations with Luella brief and only occasional. 

Stopping negative thinking and self-talk isn't necessarily easy. For many, it's a well-ingrained habit. But it can help to listen to yourself, to be aware, when it starts once again. Listen for patterns and old catch-phrases that speak of your disinclination to make positive changes. 

Using cognitive behavioral techniques with some of my patients, I used to recommend a rubber band around the wrist, to be snapped at the first sign of a negative thought to signal the need for a change of thoughts in order to stop the downward spiral. 

I remember one patient named Ron who laughed softly and looked at me in total disbelief when I suggested this method of thought-stopping. He didn't say he'd try it. But, over the next few weeks and months, his outlook began to shift. It was a slow change, but a steady one. He began to lose the fear, anxiety and lack of confidence that had stalled his life and career. As we talked one day, he unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt sleeve and showed me his wrist. He was wearing a rubber band.

"I thought this was a crazy idea when you first mentioned it," he said, smiling. "But I decided to try it and it has made me much more aware of my negative thoughts and increased my ability to stop getting into a spiral of pessimism, depression and despair. I can probably do all this without the rubber band now. But I still wear it to remind myself that I have power over my thoughts. I have a choice."

We all have choices. We can choose to keep our emotional lives cluttered with grudges, resentments, pain from the past and negative beliefs about ourselves and others.

Emotional de-cluttering isn't necessarily quick or easy. It can be a slow process. But choosing to do so can be critical to our life satisfaction.

Little by little, we can choose to let go of past hurts and to embrace growth. We can choose to limit our exposure to toxic people and ideas. We can choose to clear the air, let go of resentment and make peace. We can create more space in our emotional lives for loving experiences, for giving to others, for making a difference, for greeting each day with joy.