Tuesday, January 17, 2017

New Year's Promises

We're getting well into the New Year. So how are you doing with your New Year's resolutions? Are they fading from your memory and resolve? Do you feel a sense of guilt and dread when you think of them? Are you giving up on them -- or did you decide not to make resolutions at all this year?

The tradition of New Year's resolutions taps into our desire for fresh starts, new beginnings, finally tackling a long-time challenge like weight or general health and fitness or other necessary or desirable life changes. The problem for many of us is that the resolutions seem like judgements, like setups to fail once more.

Maybe this is the year to try something new.

Instead of resolving to lose weight or get fit or change jobs or get together with friends more, make some promises to yourself for 2017.

Why promises?

Promises may feel more positive and less punitive than resolutions. Promises bring hope.

The best New Year's  promises focus on healthy processes rather than results. Think about it. When you've resolved to lose ten pounds --or sixty -- you may experience frustration, a feeling of being overwhelmed and perhaps be plagued with perfectionistic thinking and behavior that leads you to believe that if you have one minor cheat, the whole day or week is lost. With weight loss and other long-term goals, it can be all too easy to lose heart and quit trying.

A promise that focuses on a process, on the other hand, can bring you pleasure along the way.

What kind of promises could you make to yourself this year?

I promise myself the freshest, most nutritious food and drink possible. This promise isn't about restrictive dieting but about excellent self-care. Losing the fast food, the doughnuts and the soft drinks doesn't have to mean deprivation but liberation to enjoy top quality nutrition. Think about how good it feels to eat a delicious piece of fruit. The doughnut may call out to you, especially if you're at an emotional low point, but how do you feel afterwards? Noticing the difference in how you feel after eating a refreshing salad vs. a double Whopper can be instructive. That doesn't mean you won't occasionally indulge in a doughnut or a Whopper. But focusing on the feelings of lightness and energy you feel after a nutritious meal can help to keep those guilty pleasures as once-every-now-and-then treats rather than daily fare. And there may come a time when you find that you're more tempted by healthier treats. The thought behind this promise is not weight loss but good self care.

What self-care promises could you make to yourself this year?

I promise myself more engagement with life. That can mean getting off the couch and moving more: taking a walk and noticing the beauty around you, greeting others, enjoying active time with your pet, seeing your neighborhood in a new way. It can also mean getting more involved with your community through your church, a local school, a charitable cause. An editor with whom I once worked has never married and has no children. But after he retired and moved to Kauai, he spearheaded efforts in his community to improve resources at local schools, making a huge difference to teachers and students and becoming a loved and respected member of the local community. Being engaged with life means more connection with others -- being kind, being there for friends, being a blessing in the life of another.

How can you imagine being more engaged with life -- physically and emotionally -- in 2017?

I promise myself little surprises and rebellions. This may be the surprise of trying something entirely new and finding that you enjoy it. It may mean taking the risk of learning a new skill and tolerating being being not so good at it -- and feeling glad simply to be learning something new.

I've always regretted never learning to play a musical instrument in my youth. Frankly, that regret hasn't translated into a yearning to learn at this stage of my life, but it's good for our brains to learn entirely new skills as we age. Encouraged by my husband Bob, who is an accomplished musician on multiple instruments, I have decided to start learning to play an electric guitar. Right now, we're keeping the volume low as I struggle to learn cords. What my husband --and so many others -- do so easily, I do awkwardly and have yet to play any recognizable tune. But there is hope for a more tuneful future and a certain pleasure in meeting an entirely new challenge.

Hoping for a more tuneful future....

Little surprises and rebellions may mean challenging the notion that, now that you're no longer young, it's silly to do something you've always wanted to do. For years, Bob has talked of getting a tattoo always with a background of my howls of protest. Last month while I was out of town, he decided to go for it. I came home to see a band tattooed around his upper left arm. And, once I recovered from the shock, I realized, first, that it really did suit him and, second, that it was never about me anyway but something that he had always wanted. And I was happy for him.

Bob and his new tattoo

I surprised myself last week by doing something I had often thought about when younger and had totally dismissed in the past few decades: getting my ears pierced.

I've always loved the look of earrings but found it easy to distract myself from any action with thoughts that I fear needles more than I like jewelry. More recently, I've contended that doing something like that at my age is just plain silly. But this Christmas, my dear friend Tim gave me some earrings -- for pierced ears -- that I really love. Tim and I have been close friends for more than 50 years and are in touch almost daily. But, since he lives in Chicago and I live in rural Arizona, we rarely see each other. So he ordered those earrings from England, thinking that I had pierced ears. I took one look his carefully chosen gift and decided that this was an excellent time to revisit and act on my adolescent yearning.

Tim's inspiring gift

Newly pierced ears!

So, at nearly 72, with my new piercings and learning to play an electric guitar, I'm keeping this particular promise to myself in ways that surprise and delight me.

What ways could you surprise yourself this New Year?

I promise myself peace. This can mean many things. To some it may mean withdrawing from television news, political podcasts, Facebook rants and other sources of stress. For others, it may mean taking action instead of stewing inwardly. It may mean making different choices: not engaging in pointless conflict or being with people who bring you down. To still others, it may mean learning to meditate and practicing mindfulness.

It can also mean finding new ways to be at peace with what is.

My cousin Caron, whose life has been shaken to the core by some significant losses of family and friends and whose worsening COPD has limited her activities in ways she could never have imagined only a few years ago, says that her daily mantra has become "It is what it is." And cultivating peace and acceptance with what is in her life has freed her to appreciate its blessings -- particularly the love of her husband Bud, her sweetheart since they were 14-year-old high school freshmen, as he cares for her with great tenderness. Together, they have discovered humor in the vicissitudes of life and gratitude for the blessing of each other.

Lately their equanimity has been tested by concerns about Bud's health as he undergoes medical testing due to some recent worrisome symptoms. "Sometimes my imagination gets carried away and I think I'm losing my mind," Caron told me yesterday. "Then I have to bring myself back to the present and just appreciate what we have now, this minute. Life is so interesting. None of these bad things were in my plans. But you never know. We just have to keep doing the best we can and reminding ourselves that it is what it is -- and treasure every minute we have with each other."

How might you bring peace into your life this year?

Caron and Bud Roudebush: Married almost 58 years!

I promise to surround myself with love. Keeping this promise to yourself can mean so many things.

It might mean visiting long-time friends and family more often. It might mean adopting a pet from a local shelter or working for a cause on behalf of animals, children or the underserved. It might mean taking time to write a letter letting someone special know you love him or her. Or it could mean taking time to say the "Thank you!" you had always meant to say to someone in your life. It could mean cheering another on, mentoring someone younger, congratulating someone on a job well done or a life beautifully lived.

There are so many ways we can surround ourselves with love.

I thought about this the other day when I got an email from our class representative busy planning details of the 50th reunion of Northwestern University's Class of 1967. The person was asking for love stories -- specifically, the stories of couples who had met while students and married and are still together, with photos requested of then and now. And I thought about how very many different love stories I have from my college years that were not about marriage and couplehood but, nevertheless, are about enduring love: my wonderful roommates, three of whom have passed away, and one, Ruth, who is still very much with me though we live a great distance from each other; friends like Jeanne and Georgie, Bruce, Robert and Mary whose memories intersect with my own and whose lives and love have continued to bless mine. Then there is Tim, my favorite classmate from NU '67, whose constant and loving presence in my life has not only been an incredible blessing, but also has become multi-generational, bringing the joy of friendship with several of his adult children.

With Tim during our 45th Northwestern University class reunion

With Tim's daughter Mary Kate - December 2016

The people whose lives intersect with ours at all stages of life -- school, work, child-raising, retirement -- are all part of the delicious love that surrounds us. Some are easier to embrace, to share loving feelings with than others. But surrounding ourselves with love means reaching out in many ways. In my own life, I reach out to my dear friend Mary with frequent visits to her and to her ailing husband John and, in between, sharing and enjoying insights into life present and future; to my husband Bob, to our "surrogate son" Ryan, my lifelong friend Pat and to my family in ways that celebrate the people they have grown to be; to the special people with whom we can share our authenticity, including silliness; to those we rarely see but are often in our thoughts.

Mary and me - December 2016

In mid-December, I traveled back to Los Angeles for a week, celebrating and immersing myself in the love of some special people. I spent several days with Mary and John Breiner, sharing concern, hope and laughter; a lovely day with Mary Kate Schellhardt, Tim's ebullient, warm and insightful actress daughter, and another with Sister Rita McCormack, my brother's first grade teacher and my dear friend since I was 8 and she was a 23-year-old nun just arrived from Ireland. She's now 86 and frail and I was able to thank her for being there for me when I was an 8-year-old struggling to recover from polio and find a way to belong in my parochial school class of 60. For the first time, she told me a story that explained our early affinity for each other: she had been stricken with TB at the age of 9 and was out of school for two years. When she had seen me, she remembered well how difficult and lonely her own re-introduction to school had been and reached out immediately. And, all these years later, we embraced, thankful for so many years of love and friendship.

Sister Rita, my friend for 64 years!

And I visited my brother Mike and his family -- wife Jinjuta, children Maggie, 7, and Henry, 4 and felt totally immersed in their whirlwind life of traveling between their homes in Bangkok and Los Angeles, challenging work, Maggie's imaginative princess games, recreational political rants, Henry's dinosaur tales, child-inspired chaos and sweet, loving moments.

Authenic family silliness: Jinjuta, Henry and Maggie

My brother Mike and me

Authentic family sentiment: a love note from Maggie

And then I returned home for the holidays with Bob and our four sweet, cuddly cats. It doesn't get any better than that.

    A very Ollie Christmas with our two year old cat Ollie                                 

Surrounding ourselves with love can mean reaching out, appreciating love however we find it and
living with gratitude for the love that has blessed our lives.

What would it mean for you to promise to surround yourself with love?

This promise and the ones that came before it are all about nurturing, not torturing, ourselves. They are all promises well worth keeping.