Thursday, November 19, 2015

Living With Gratitude

Lying in bed last night, listening to a steady rain pounding on our tile roof, I felt a wave of gratitude for shelter and warmth, something I never take for granted.

This is the time of year when we give thanks -- for family and friends and a wonderful holiday meal.

But, whatever our circumstances, there is so much else that can inspire gratitude.

What makes you grateful? What makes you feel blessed?

I am grateful for advancing age, even as I complain about everyday creaks and pains, even though my gait is slower and a bit unsteady, I am grateful for having lived longer already than my parents, who both died in their mid-sixties. I am glad to be old rather than young in an era that seems less kind, less socially mobile, than when I was growing up.

While the 1950's and 1960's were far from perfect, especially for people of color and women, there seemed to be more hope. We were convinced that if we worked hard, got an education and skills, we could get a good job with benefits and maybe a pension. Companies tended to keep their promises back then. We didn't hear much if anything about extended unpaid internships and legions of contract employees with no benefits and no job security. We could put ourselves through college, even a private college, with a good financial aid package and a willingness to work campus and summer jobs.

That is impossible for young people today who are emerging from college with crippling student loans and, in too many cases, lean prospects for steady work. My heart goes out to them as I think with gratitude of my own college and work experiences. Getting through school with parents unable to help me financially wasn't easy, but it was possible.

I am grateful for friends of all types and descriptions -- for those of many years like Mary Breiner, Tim Schellhardt, Jeanne Yagi and Pat Hill who feel like family to me and newer ones I'm just getting to know, for friends nearby and those at a distance, including some wonderful blogging friends I've never met face-to-face but treasure nonetheless. I feel blessed by all the friends in my life, rejoicing in the warm connection.

I am grateful for family: for my loving husband Bob Stover, by my side for 40 years now, in good times and bad, in closeness and in distance, in challenge and in growth; for my two beloved, inimitable siblings Mike and Tai and their families, my wonderful cousins. How blessed we are to have shared memories, quiet understanding and enduring love.

I am grateful for the pain and challenges of the past. I've learned so much from the love relationships that didn't work out, from some jobs that were so trying, I fought tears to and from work, from the disappointments that were inevitable -- the articles or books that didn't sell, the friendships that didn't last, the dreams that never came true. I'm convinced that I learned more, grew more, from these disappointments and setbacks than I ever did from success. I tended to accept successes -- especially early in my life -- as simply my due. The times of pain and disappointment caused me to look within, to rally resources I didn't realize I had, to find new paths and new ways of being.

I am grateful for daily companionship of pets -- from Hughey, a big white, gentle duck and my most dearly loved childhood pet, to little Ollie, my three-legged black kitten. I feel blessed by the memories of animal companions no longer with me -- cats who made such a difference in my life with Bob: our first cat Freddie, the miraculous duo Gus and Timmy, the latter of whom, with a later cat Marina, became a therapy cat and the subject of my book "Purr Therapy: What Timmy and Marina Taught Me About Life, Love and Loss." Those cats are all gone now -- Gus left us just a year ago. Each loss is unique, each cat irreplaceable. And our current four -- Maggie, Sweet Pea, Hamish and Ollie -- brighten our days with purring, cuddling, kisses and eccentricities that make us smile.

I am grateful for the blessings of my life -- a great education, having several professions I love, and a reasonable level of success. I'm not exactly famous and definitely not rich. But I feel very fortunate to have worked and still work doing what I truly enjoy. I don't take that for granted for one minute. I've had enough day jobs to know the difference between a job and a calling.

I am grateful for the culture in which I came of age: middle class, then with our family struggling financially after my father lost his job and could never get another, in an affluent community and learning to live with being different; Catholic schools in elementary and high school, complete with stodgy uniforms and strict nuns. In elementary school, our class size hovered around 60, always presided over by a nun just off the boat from Ireland, with a stout ruler and a talent for sarcasm that made any physical punishment pale in comparison. No one seemed to worry about tarnishing our self-esteem. But there were some nuns -- like Sister Rita and Sister Ramona -- who cared deeply and who made a tremendous difference in my life -- and the lives of many others. They were strict. They expected a lot. They let us know that the world didn't revolve around us. But they gave so much love and encouragement as well. They taught us to work hard, to show up, to honor our promises. And I have been grateful at many points in my life for such early expectations.

I am grateful to have lived long enough to see the technological revolution and to enjoy everything from personal computers to virtual reality, tablets and smart phones, blogging and podcasting. I think sadly how much fun and how much opportunity my parents missed by dying in 1980 or even that Aunt Molly, who died in 2004, never lived to see and experience.

I am grateful just to be...grateful for each dawning day. I've always greeted a new day with gratitude -- probably since being terrorized by the childhood prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep" with its provision for "if I should die before I wake.." But this gratitude has a keener edge, a greater depth of knowing these days.

Only a few weeks ago, my husband Bob and I were talking with our friends Joe Shea and Marsha Morello in the supermarket parking lot, laughing, teasing, making plans to get together. Now sadly, so suddenly, Joe is gone and Marsha overwhelmed, devastated, by his unexpected death. It all started with a fall in his home, a broken hip, then a stroke as he lay in the hospital. And we are left longing to help her to heal and missing him so much.

I recently spoke on the phone with Ruth Woodling, my only surviving college roommate who is an attorney in Atlanta and just had a festive birthday. The other three -- Cheryl Rennix, Lorraine Scace and Lorie Caldwell -- died many years ago in youthful midlife. Speaking with Ruth and sharing our experiences reminded me how just much the other three, all wonderful, amazing women, have missed.

And there are other friends whose health is failing, who are nearing the end of life...and, even as we watch and hope for better days and more time for them, we're increasingly aware of the fragility of all our lives.

So each day that I wake up healthy, with energy and with hope, or, someday, a day when I simply wake up, is a day to give thanks.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Two Wonderful Books For The Gift-Giving Season

It's fascinating to see how much wisdom, humor and growth can come from adversity.

We've all experienced this to varying degrees: living through something we thought was catastrophic and completely overwhelming. Now, looking back, what resonates most is the way this event, while perhaps still painful in memory, has led us onto a new life path.

As the gift-giving season approaches, I'd like to recommend a pair of books by two remarkable people -- Tom Sightings and Andrea Cleghorn. Both are wonderful writers who weathered crises in midlife and survived, even thrived, to write about their respective journeys. The results are two inspiring books both available at

You Only Retire Once by Tom Sightings is a lively, informative, truly helpful book that is also immensely entertaining. It is a collection of his best blog posts from his popular "Sightings Over Sixty" blog (Sightings Over Sixty: Think About It) Written for would-be or new retirees, it covers information you've always wanted to know -- from whether retirement is possible when you're definitely not a millionaire to making a decision about whether or not to buy long-term care insurance to some insightful pieces on emotional preparation for and adjustment to retirement. 

The inspiration for Tom's blog and this book began with a triple life challenge: his long-time marriage was ending in divorce, his kids were grown up and leaving the nest and he got laid-off from his job. He found comfort in writing -- both blogging and freelance assignments. He is now in a loving relationship and enjoys visits from his children and hers. Life, after all the initial shock and sadness, is good -- and in his inspiring book, Tom shares some valuable insights about retirement, aging and good self-care, both physically and emotionally. A businessman and a professional writer, Tom bases his material not only on his own thoughts and experiences, but also on solid research for a comprehensive guide on making the most of life beyond sixty.

You Only Retire Once  is a must-have for those on your gift list who are dreaming of or actively planning for retirement or those newly retired. And even those of us who have been retired for awhile and think we know everything there is to know about thriving in retirement can learn a lot from Tom's terrific book. It is also a great gift for those who, like me, are great fans of Tom's blog!

The Whipple Brunch by Andrea Cleghorn is fascinating mix: it is, at once, the horrifying, funny, devastating and, ultimately, uplifting story of triumph over truly challenging life events -- thanks to Andrea's amazing resilience and some help from her friends.

Andrea, a journalist and writing/life coach, spent many years as a columnist, book reviewer and travel writer for The Boston Herald. Her articles also have appeared in many national magazines. Not so incidentally, she is also a dear friend of mine, with a shared professional beginning: we both started our careers at 'TEEN Magazine in Los Angeles and, in midlife, both of us decided to take career jogs into helping professions. I went back to graduate school in clinical psychology to become a psychotherapist. Andrea returned to graduate school, getting her Master's degree in social work, and was planning a parallel new career in serving the underserved.

But then life handed her some major surprises: a painful mid-life divorce, the challenge and joys of being a single parent, a devastating fire that destroyed her beautiful 100-year-old house. She, her children and her aging mother barely escaped with their lives while their beloved labrador retriever was lost in the blaze.

And then there was her cancer diagnosis. First, it was a large tumor in her left kidney. The cancerous tumor and the kidney were removed. A few years later, the cancer recurred in her left adrenal gland. Surgery seemed to solve the problem. But nine cancer-free years later, there was another, more dire, diagnosis: the cancer was now in her only remaining kidney and had spread to her pancreas. The only real chance for her survival was a drastic, highly risky surgical procedure called the Whipple, where most of her abdominal organs would be removed and either excised or cleansed and put back together in new fashion. If a patient survives the surgery, there is a very long and hard recovery period. She refers to the Whipple procedure as "The Abdominal Extravaganza."

Andrea faced this pivotal point in her life while dealing with everyday realities familiar to all of us: grown children at a distance, an aging mother who needed her help, the need to earn an income and the blessing of some very good local friends.

The Whipple Brunch takes us on the journey with her -- through the pain, love, tears and laughter that she and her friends and family shared during that time of frightening decisions, painful recovery and re-embracing life.

Before you turn away with the understandable reaction of "Oh, no! Not another cancer memoir! So depressing..." be assured that this is not your typical cancer memoir. It's a celebration of life and of friendship -- particularly the friends who stepped up and helped her when she was truly helpless. They went to appointments with her, were there for her as she struggled to decide whether to risk the surgery, took turns sitting with her in the hospital, visited her mother in assisted living and helped make Andrea's life festive at the most unexpected times -- like throwing a wedding celebration with tiaras and cake in Andrea's hospital room while watching the televised wedding of William and Kate. Celebrations are at the heart of this book. Just before her surgery, Andrea threw a lavish brunch for her friends and called it "The Whipple Brunch." Now, nearly five years later, her friends are throwing another brunch today to celebrate her new book!

It's well worth celebrating: she has an amazing ability to find humor in some of life's most painful moments and the spirit of this book -- so filled with wit and gratitude -- is immensely uplifting.

Both of these books would make terrific gifts for special people on your list this holiday season-- or you might consider giving yourself the gift of You Only Retire Once and The Whipple Brunch.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Start of the Holiday (and Memory) Season

I felt a sudden lifting of spirits when I saw the first twinkling lights that told me that Holiday Season 2015 is officially here: the lights were strung on my neighbors Joe and Pat Cosentino's golf cart at the staging area of the Sun City Anthem Candy Caravan 2015.

2015 Halloween Candy Caravan

We started the Caravan five years ago, having come from places where kids swarmed our front porches in search of treats on Halloween night. But no kids crossed from the all ages section of our community to Sun City on Halloween night 2010. Our doorbells didn't ring. Our spirits sagged...until we decided to hop in our golf carts, bowls of candy in hand, and drive over to the all-ages part of the community in search of kids. Since then, it has become a highlight of October, a great start to the holidays. Even after Bob and I sold our golf cart to get a small second car two years ago, I have continued to participate thanks to Joe and Pat, who invite me to ride along in their golf car jumpseat to distribute Halloween treats.

This year was as festive as ever. Kids and their parents (who suddenly looked impossibly young) were out in force. We loved seeing kids in their costumes, loved their excitement, enjoyed their sweetness. While the smallest celebrants, experiencing their first Halloween or their first walking trick or treat time were especially sweet as they alternately smiled at the treats and glanced around bewildered, struggling to make sense of all these people in the streets. And there are always some standouts in our memories.

Several years ago, a little blonde girl dressed as an angel lit up as I leaned over the front seat of my golf cart to offer her some treats. She carefully selected one and then sprang into the passenger seat of the cart, kneeling to face me and planting a chocolaty kiss on my cheek. "Oh, thank you!" she said. "Thank you so very, very much!" And then she slipped down and skipped away.

This heart-warming hit with all of us this year was a little boy who tried to give us all candy after we had given him treats. "I want you to have a Happy Halloween, too," he said earnestly, extending a Twix. "I want to share."

Our hearts melted at the innocence and joy we saw on his face and the faces of so many other kids dancing around the sidewalks and streets, wishing everyone a Happy Halloween.

We were so busy enjoying the kids and giving out treats that we forgot to take pictures this year. So for 2015, the holiday spirit poster kids are my dear friend Tim Schellhardt's two young granddaughters Lucy and Leah Yarbrough, the children of Eliza and Chris Yarbrough of Craig, Colorado. Lucy, who is 18 months old, was experiencing her first ambulatory trick or treating as a duckling while Leah, 3 months old, just enjoyed all the excitement around her, smiling in her pumpkin hat.

Lucy Yarbrough

                                                      Leah Yarbrough

I couldn't help but smile, too, looking at these two beautiful little girls at the sweet beginnings of their lifetimes of holiday celebrations. It put me in memory mode -- something that happens off and on to a lot of us during the holidays. I was remembering back, through time, when my own life was new, with so much holiday excitement around me and so much to come.

I had a flood of memories about Halloweens past.

A few of them proved less than stellar -- usually times when my mother's sense of the perfect costume and mine didn't exactly coincide.

There was the Halloween when I was five, slinking disconsolately from door to door dressed as a pig and behind the horrendously hot pig mask, I was suffering my very first of many, many toothaches though I didn't dare tell my mother just yet -- because I didn't want to miss a minute of trick or treating.

Then there was the Halloween when I was nine and suddenly in the full grip of puberty, having shot up to my adult height of 5'4" that year. I self-consciously hid my face while holding out my treat bag at every door because the only costume my mother could find that would fit my new adult shape and was not a sexy French maid or Can-Can girl outfit was a giant, furry skunk ensemble. Although nobody made fun of my skunk outfit, there a few newer neighbors who didn't know me and who made comments like "Aren't you a little old to be doing this?" I realized anew the downside of looking so much older than I really was, mourning a childhood ending way ahead of schedule.

But most of my Halloweens past were great fun. Costume-wise, nothing topped my brother Mike's turn as a nun when he was ten. Several years before, my mother had made a nun's costume for me after I begged to have one like my friend Pat so that we could play "nuns in the convent" together -- rather  like other little girls played house. By the time Mike was ten and I was thirteen, the habit was long outgrown, both physically and emotionally. But I had kept it as a treasured relic of a childhood ended too soon.

Now my brother, without a Halloween costume he liked, decided to borrow my nun's attire. He made a splendid nun! The first place we hit was the local convent where the nuns -- who reviled him as an incorrigible rascal at school -- didn't recognize him and, assuming he was a girl, told him how lovely he looked as he smiled coyly and fingered his rosary beads. We barely suppressed our laughter until, ladden with homemade cookies from the delighted nuns, we were off the convent grounds.

Perhaps the greatest Halloweens of all were the earliest ones I remember  -- in the late 1940's and early 50's. Our new suburban Los Angeles neighborhood was filled with small homes built hastily for returning World War II veterans in 1946. Our neighbors were truly extended family, with sweet, loving, accepting and only occasionally contentious relationships, some of which survive to this day. On Halloween nights back then, we were happiest when our neighbor Jack took us trick or treating.

Jack was, in one sense, a typical suburban postwar husband and father. In another sense, he walked to a distinctly different drummer: he was a bartender at a nightclub with a shady reputation, was proud to be related to the famous stripper Lili St. Cyr and was a transvestite.

Halloween was his favorite day of the year. He would get all dolled up, as he used to say, and gather us together for a grand trick or treating adventure, marching proudly in his high heels down the center of the street, with us following like eager ducklings. At each home, he would greet whomever opened the door with an enthusiastic hug and kiss while we scrambled around at his feet collecting candy dropped by stunned homeowners. At the time, we thought it all was simply hilarious. Only now, looking over the pictures our father took of Jack in his Halloween finery, do we sense something different. "Jack looks very comfortable in his outfit," Mike remarked after reviewing the old pictures with me. "I suspect it was only on Halloween that he could safely take it outside. It must have been some respite from a life of quiet desperation in 1950's La Canada." And we remembered how quietly and quickly Jack and his family moved away when we were still very young.

Jack and Bill - Halloween 1949

Jack and Shel - Halloween 1949

How Halloween has changed from the days when we were young! Our favorite treats back then were homemade cookies, candy, fudge, popcorn balls and caramel apples. Some people would invite us into their homes for an impromptu fun house and buffet of goodies. Now one wouldn't dare do that and all treats are brand-named and hermitically sealed. And yet a spirit of revelry and joy prevails. One street in our all ages community had a Halloween block party with a Star Wars theme. Other homeowners sat in their driveways, around portable fire pits, watching the celebration. Costumes sparkled and glowed thanks to new technologies.

Even some new Halloween customs are an improvement on the old. My brother tells me that in Thailand, where he and his family live, Halloween is seen as a time when children can practice giving instead of getting. And so kids start out with sacks or buckets filled with candy, toys and homemade crafts to give away. He sent me pictures of his children Maggie, 6 and Henry, 3, gearing up for Halloween Thai-style -- an occasion for learning to give to others with joy.

                                                           Henry McCoy

Maggie McCoy


Learning to give with joy...

What a lovely way to start the holiday season!