A Sibling Story

Last week was National Siblings Day.  Facebook made me aware of this special day, in addition to the many other special days I never knew existed. I enjoyed the photos posted by friends of themselves with siblings, but I was suspicious that National Siblings Day was merely an invention of social media. I learned from Wikipedia, however, that National Siblings Day was created in 1997 (before Facebook), that there is a nonprofit organization to promote it, and “the holiday is intended to be a celebration of the relationship of brothers and sisters.” Unfortunately, no further guidance is given on appropriate means of celebration.

Since National Siblings Day seems to be legit, and proper observance and customs are rather vague, I thought I would celebrate (a week late) by recounting one of my favorite sibling stories. This is a story I have told for years, but just recently learned (from my sibling) a heretofore-unknown and shocking plot twist.

To set the stage, I have two older brothers, Tom (the oldest) and Jim. This particular story involves Tom, who is seven years older than me. During much of my childhood, Tom served two main roles in my life. One was as my protector. If anyone in the neighborhood was bullying me or giving me any problems, all it took was a word to Tom and he’d be off to “talk” to the perpetrator and I was usually never bothered again. However, his other, more problematic role, was that of my tormentor. Tom loved to scare me, for sport, usually through the telling of terrifying tall tales.

This photo says it all. Here I am as a baby with my brother Tom, already terrified. Even while kindly helping with my bath, he's already plotting his scare tactics.

This photo says it all. Here I am as a baby with my brother Tom. I look nervous. He’s thinking of a good horror story.

One evening, when I was around five, Tom was helping me get ready for bed, and the story he chose to tell me was The Lip Story. Now, Tom had a mole right over his lip, and there was some discussion in our household at the time as to whether he should have the mole removed now that he was getting close to shaving age. So, Tom asked me if I’d like to hear the completely true story of how he got the mole. Intrigued, I of course said yes.

Tom began by saying that, on a day before I was born, he was outside during the winter in Michigan (where my family was from originally). It was very cold, and Tom, in defiance of specific instructions from our mother, decided to see what would happen if he put his lips on a car door. What happened, he recounted, was that his lips froze to the door. Our mother then frantically called for an ambulance. The men in the ambulance, he said, were forced to cut Tom’s lips off his face. Thankfully, they took Tom and his lips to the hospital and sewed them back on. The mole, Tom explained, was connected by a thread to his lips and served as an anchor, holding them in place.

Finishing his story, Tom paused for dramatic effect, looked at me and declared, with all sincerity, “So, its very important that they don’t cut off my mole. [Another dramatic pause] Because, if they do, [pause] my lips will fall off.”

At this point, I ran screaming to my mother. When I found her, I was a bawling mess. She calmed me down and asked what was wrong. When I finally recovered, I spit out “Please, [sob] don’t cut off Tom’s mole!!!!!” [More sobbing] After calming me down again, she asked why. “Because, [sob] [sob] his [sob] LIPS WILL FALL OFF!” [Loud wailing]

At which point, as I recalled, my mother dismissed me and yelled “THOMAS ROBERT, COME HERE!” After which, as I also recalled, he received a very long, very stern lecture behind closed doors. And after which, Tom reappeared and sheepishly told me he was sorry he told me this untrue story and that his lips would not fall off if his mole was removed.

This is how I told this story for years, and the telling got more and more dramatic. It even became one of my son’s favorite stories. So, at a family reunion in July 2014, with both of my brothers and their children present, my son asked if I would tell The Lip Story. I of course obliged, and even acted out the more dramatic parts. It was perhaps one of my greatest performances ever. The entire family, young and old, was laughing hysterically.

And then, when I was finished, my brother Tom, who was very amused and still proud of The Lip Story after all these years, asked if he could add further details on the very long, very stern lecture our mother gave him. This being new information to me, I urged him to continue. I couldn’t wait to hear the details of how, exactly, my mother lowered the boom on him.

Tom picked up the story where he was called into a room with our mother for his very stern lecture. He said that Mom looked at him, tried for a moment to keep her composure, then burst out laughing. She laughed and laughed, silently, until tears were streaming down her face. Then Tom began laughing, silently, and the two of them rocked back and forth, giggling and weeping until they laughed themselves out. Then Tom left my mom, found me and apologized and then went to his room and laughed some more with my other brother.

I was stunned. Then I was indignant. This new slant put my sacred story in a completely different light. How could she?! All these years I thought my brother had paid dearly for his cruel joke. Instead, my mother and brother were in the next room yucking it up.

With my brother Tom, who still spins a great yarn.

With my brother Tom, who still spins a great yarn.

But, I’ve come to love The Lip Story even more, because my brother’s postscript sheds light on another, cherished, part of our childhood. Our new joint story reveals a mother who delighted in us all, who had a great sense of humor, and who was able to make each of us feel understood in the midst of this skirmish.

A wonderful gift from siblings is the insight they can provide about our parents. So, Happy Siblings Day to my two cherished brothers, and thank you for making my stories even better.

Ryan’s Bar Mitzvah

Our grandnephew Ryan at his bar mitzvah Maria McCarthy Photography

Our grandnephew Ryan at his bar mitzvah
Maria McCarthy Photography

I recently attended my first bar mitzvah, for our grandnephew Ryan. I knew generally that the bar mitzvah is the ceremonial marking of a Jewish boy’s religious coming of age (at 13). I did more research beforehand and learned about the meaning behind parts of the ceremony. And as I bragged to my niece Tamra (Ryan’s mom), when I was in fourth grade, we lived in a predominately Jewish community in Silver Spring, MD, and at one point in my elementary school career, I could recite the entire Hebrew alphabet and spin a dreidel like no tomorrow. So, I felt as prepared as any gentile could be. However, I wasn’t expecting such an emotional, spiritual ceremony, or such a great party!

Ryan is a sensitive, precious, often under-appreciated old soul. At our family party for my son’s USNA graduation last May, at the conclusion of the predictable toasts from the expected adults, out of nowhere dear Ryan’s voice piped up, and he spoke the most beautiful, heart-felt tribute to my son. (Until then, I had managed to keep my composure, but that’s when I completely lost it.)

Ryan’s mother Tamra came from a Christian background and his father Mike (her husband) from a Jewish.   Ryan was not raised in either faith, although he was exposed to elements of both. Neither Mike, nor Mike’s two siblings, had a bar or bat mitzvah. Imagine the surprise when Ryan, as a very young boy, announced he wanted a bar mitzvah. (Even more shocking, he wasn’t aware that gifts and parties were involved) Because of the huge effort involved, Mike and Tamra tried to talk him out of it, but finally relented after months (even years) of Ryan’s begging.

Ryan’s Hebrew teacher, whose more typical experience was tutoring young people pressured to have bar mitzvahs by their families, relished the experience of working with this diminutive boy with a big passion for his studies. By the time Ryan was midway through his lessons (about an 18-month process to prepare for the bar mitzvah), his younger sister Erin decided she would have a bat mitzvah and embarked on her own training.

Having just completed a study of Exodus with my church, I was eager to see how the Old Testament rituals and traditions might be expressed in the bar mitzvah.   It was moving to observe the customs, passed on for generations and thousands of years. Ryan wore a Talit (prayer shawl) for the first time, presented as a gift from his Jewish grandparents. As part of the ceremony, Ryan received the Hebrew name that he chose for himself, David Solomon, in honor of his cousin (and my stepson) David. (Here’s where I first lost it).

The ceremony continued with Hebrew blessings, prayers, and songs, the opening of the Holy Ark and the passing of the Torah from generation to generation (starting with Ryan’s grandfather and then from family member to family member, ending with Ryan). Ryan then read from the Torah, that week’s passage from Leviticus. I learned later that he was reading from the original Hebrew, containing no vowels, which meant he had to memorize the entire passage and follow along with a pointer, right to left.

Tamra, Mike and Erin each rose in turn and, while standing next to him, shared reflections on Ryan and his accomplishment. I couldn’t help but be struck by Ryan’s face, as he was able to graciously and openly (and without any apparent embarrassment or discomfort) receive public words of loving tribute from the most important people in his life.   (That’s when I really needed that package of tissues).

Ryan and his parents with the Torah  Maria McCarthy Photography

Ryan and his parents with the Torah
Maria McCarthy Photography

Finally, Ryan gave his speech, his word of thanks. Maybe I’m biased, but I would submit that it is highly unlikely such wise, heart-felt words have left the lips of any other 13-year-old boy. Ryan spoke of his initial dismay at apparently drawing the short straw for the Leviticus reading (which covered in great detail various unsavory health conditions and their treatments). But after further reflection, he said, he found the relevance of the passage for him and, in fact, decided it was “perfect.” He shared that his paternal grandfather and aunt are both physicians, and his mother (our niece) is battling advanced thyroid cancer, and then beautifully connected the scripture to his life. (Dang, why didn’t I bring a BOX of tissues!)

Following the ceremony was a party for the ages, complete with dancing, dinosaurs (Ryan aspires to be a paleontologist and that’s a whole ‘nother story), food and games. Ryan entered the hall to the heroic Jurassic Park theme and thunderous applause. We lifted Mike, Tamra, Erin and Ryan on chairs, we danced the hora, and we celebrated faith, family, and Ryan.   I danced until midnight, came home with my hair and make-up in shambles, with sore feet and a tender right hip (primarily from overexertion doing the Thriller dance number and the Electric Slide, both of which, in my opinion, I slayed) and hadn’t had that much fun in ages.

The more I reflect on Ryan’s accomplishment, the more I am impressed. As a pre-teen boy, Ryan chose a very difficult path, not for rewards or recognition, but for the journey and its significance. In his social world, his choice could have easily caused him to be ostracized rather than admired. He clearly heard a deep spiritual calling, and not only did he answer the call, but he followed it through. The grueling preparation and study required for his bar mitzvah was on top of an already heavy scholastic and extra-curricular schedule, and in the midst of significant family struggles. It is inspiring to see such spiritual depth and maturity in one so young, and I am proud to be part of his mishpacha (which according to Google, means ‘family’ in Hebrew). Mazel tov, Ryan!

 

Forty days (and forty nights) without Facebook

Forty days without Facebook...one day at a time

Forty days without Facebook…one day at a time

I have toyed with taking an extended breather from Facebook in the past, and decided this Lenten season would be the perfect opportunity for a 40-day break. Not that I am addicted to, have any particular problem with, or objection to, social media, but I sensed it would be a good discipline in making space for other things.

In my last post, Lent: Making Space for Loneliness, I wrote extensively about my extraordinary spiritual journey launched by giving up Facebook (and other social media). I don’t think it was solely the absence of social media, but rather the symbolic act of choosing to very intentionally create space, that paved the way for my rich spiritual experience. Aside from the spiritual, my break from Facebook was also an interesting anthropological self-study. Some of my lessons learned about Facebook (and other social media):

It is addictive. Although I don’t consider myself an abuser, during my first few days of cold turkey, I clearly exhibited minor symptoms of withdrawal. On Ash Wednesday, I posted a status update proclaiming I would be giving up Facebook for Lent and immediately got out of Facebook. I then fought several urges to go back and edit my status update (I of course had ideas about how I could’ve said it better) and to see if I got any likes or comments. I didn’t actually get the shakes, but I finally had to hide my iPhone in a drawer to avoid temptation.

The next day, I awoke and noticed how I reflexively checked my phone. I saw  that I had 4 notifications on the Facebook icon. It was really hard not to open the app. What if I was missing something important? What if someone posted something about me? What did people think about me not being on Facebook? Did they miss me?! I could feel the anxiety level rise. As I saw the number of notifications escalate, it felt like mild torture. I got an email telling me a new friend had sent a Facebook friend request and I spent far too long internally debating whether I should call her and explain. (What would she think of me if I ignored her for 40 days?!)  I thought about deleting the app from my phone, but when I tried, I got a warning about losing data, so I hunkered down for the long haul.

But you know what? By the end of the first week, I was perfectly fine without Facebook. I began to feel less anxious being completely off social media. It was one less thing to keep up with. It was like a high-maintenance person had left the room and I could relax.

It can be an escape. I began to notice that I often turn to Facebook and Instagram, or sometimes Twitter (which I don’t use that often), when I am bored or lonely. It can also be an incredible time suck. I can spend hours going down rabbit holes (Oh, look!  A video on Michael Jackson first doing the Moon Walk! Oh, wow! An interesting article on the train system in Italy!) when I intended only to quickly check my notifications. Not having social media as an option forced me to be creative when I needed something to do. I found myself reading more books and magazines, and paying more attention to what was happening in the real world surrounding me (rather than focusing on the virtual world). I began to wonder where I ever found time to spend on Facebook.

It is its own superficial and distorted world. I found, during my break from social media, that I was taking far less photos. I realized that when I went somewhere that might qualify as “fun” or “interesting,” I was too often thinking about getting a photo, only so I could share what I was doing or where I was on Facebook.  There is a huge temptation to “brag” about how wonderful our lives are. The first weekend of my Facebook ban, we went wine-tasting in Paso Robles, and I was dying to post pictures.   By the time we went to Spring Training baseball in Scottsdale, AZ a few weeks later, I didn’t even think about posting. Without the pressure to be constantly reporting on my activities, I found I was more present in my real world experiences and able to more fully enjoy the moments. Likewise, I discovered that constantly looking at others’ “perfect” Facebook lives can be unhealthy;  particularly when it encourages unfavorable comparisons or jealousy. It is hard to get a realistic picture of people’s lives solely through their Facebook posts.

It can be divisive.  Particularly in an election year, especially this election year, I often find the political discussion upsetting. I am all for freedom of speech, but the tone of discourse can, and does, get nasty. I grew up with my mother’s admonition that sex, religion, and politics are not topics for polite company and that is my own self-policing rule on social media. Mostly, I find the lack of respect (and common sense) in the virtual world distressing, and from that standpoint alone, the break was welcome.

There are positive aspects. I came to the conclusion that about 75% (maybe more) of the time I spend on social media is fairly useless and unrewarding – for example, scrolling through updates on people or things that are not that important or relevant to me. However, the other 25% is what I love about it. During my absence, I missed my core group of Facebook friends (scattered near and far geographically) with whom I treasure contact. I wondered how they were doing, and I missed seeing their updates and comments. I also found that, in some of my social groups (like my Book Club), we use Facebook very effectively as a form of communication and organization. At times, I felt out of the loop and had to more proactively reach out via other avenues to get information (which is not a completely terrible thing).

My new outlook. As the end of Lent approached, my husband joked that I would need to reserve the entire afternoon of Easter to catch up on Facebook. However, I felt surprisingly ambivalent about getting back to social media. Sure, I missed aspects of it, but I’d also become accustomed to the extra space without it.

On Easter Sunday, we came home from brunch, and I opened Facebook.   After an extended absence of 40 days, it took me about 20 minutes to catch up. Whereas before my break I might have gone through each of the 100+ notifications more carefully, now I simply skimmed for the things that looked important. I’ve since found that Facebook re-entry has been a tad overwhelming. After becoming accustomed to the relative calm of no social media,  I now pretty quickly reach sensory overload.  It feels like that high maintenance person has re-entered the room.

In the future, I intend to enjoy the positive aspects of social media that bring me joy, but I will strive to avoid or minimize the unhealthy parts. I also see the benefits of periodically taking breaks. I thought of Noah, who spent 40 days and 40 nights on the ark when God wanted to cleanse the world, and then waited another 40 days to open a window after it rained. The last 40 days have been a good cleansing for me; an opportunity to reassess the role social media has in my life. And now, its time to carefully re-open the window and enjoy the photos of my dear Facebook friends’ vacations and grandchildren!

 

 

Lent: Making Space for Loneliness

At a church service for Ash Wednesday (almost 40 days ago), responding to a spoken invitation to forego something that would “open space in my life,” I rather impulsively (and inexplicably) decided to give up Facebook for Lent. I then extended the ban to all social media, other than my blog, since I felt otherwise would be cheating. That decision inadvertently kicked off a rather miraculous process, during which over the course of the Lenten season, through contemplative practices, complete with a few wrestling matches with God, I gained some powerful insight.

Prior to Lent, and starting after the holidays, I found myself in an extended funk. I just couldn’t seem to shake the bad mood. In hindsight, I see that I was adjusting to yet another new stage of life, with our son now post-college and truly independent, and mourning the end of our family’s active USNA experience.   I was also facing the prospect of several months at home before our next trip. My husband and I really enjoy traveling together, but I find being home for long stretches challenging.

But even more, I was feeling an unmistakable and aching loneliness. I found myself irritated, feeling stuck in a boring house with a taciturn husband (my take, at the time, on the situation). The downside of Empty Nest and Early Retirement seemed to suddenly loom large. I began to look for external targets to blame, the most convenient being my husband.  It was his fault, after all, that I was feeling lonely, since he wasn’t being a better companion.

My solution was, as it has always been, to stay busy, and to schedule more time out of the house. None of this activity was necessarily bad; however, the problem was that it was coming from a place of resentfulness and blame.

During the early days of the Lenten season, however, I felt God grab hold of me, smack me upside the head and speak to me, in truly unexpected ways. Mainly because I had made space to hear. Through daily readings from my yoga teacher, to random conversations and emails with friends, to the sermon series at church and my weekly women’s Bible study (we have been studying Exodus), I was hearing a consistent encouragement to walk into the desert, to move toward, and actually embrace, that which I was afraid of. I felt a small but discernible shift beginning inside me.

One Saturday night, early in Lent, my husband and I were home alone together, but engaged in separate activities in different rooms. I suddenly felt an almost overpowering loneliness wash over me. Without access to Facebook or other social media as my go-to tonic, my initial, almost automatic, reaction was to become angry, to look for someone or something to blame for my loneliness, and my poor husband (being the closest in proximity) seemed the most logical choice. I actually became quite uncomfortable. But, rather than continuing to look for ways to avoid my emotions, or pass them off in the form of blame, I thought about the inspiration I’d received, and halted the hot potato blame game and allowed myself to feel whatever I felt.

For the first time, I connected to a wound deep within me. Although frightening, rather than avoid it, I sat with it and simply prayed for healing. This might all sound far-fetched, but I truly felt a definite, and intense, sense of restoration begin inside me.

I recognized that my loneliness is coming from within me, that it is nobody’s fault, that it is part of whom I am, and it will be a process to embrace. I became aware that, although I am not a generally lonesome person, I have struggled at times with loneliness for years, even as a child. But, in claiming this lonesomeness as my own, in engaging it, I felt a sense of freedom – it suddenly didn’t loom so big or scary.

In a sense, in this stage of life, I have found myself in a foreign land, living with more space. I no longer have the hectic job and business travel, parenting responsibilities, care of aging parents, and other activities crowding my world and absorbing my energy. The absence of those distractions creates more opportunity to confront parts of myself that I have feared and avoided for years.

While on a Silent Retreat recently, I reflected and read extensively on the topics of solitude and loneliness, and their role in our life – the American poet Mary Oliver, the Irish author John O’Donahue, and this from April Yamaskaki in her book “Sacred Pauses”:

“Loneliness is such a common human experience that most people…will have felt lonely at one time or another. It’s such a personal experience that you can feel lonely even when you’re with other people. Even while apparently surrounded by others, the psalmist still felt alone: “Look on my right hand and see – there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.” Psalm 142:4.

Even if we do all the “right” things – use the right toothpaste, develop a hobby, join a club or church, form good friendships, marry, and have children and grandchildren – we’ll still be lonely at times.

But in spiritual terms,…we might also say blessed are the lonely – not because it’s good, but loneliness functions as a spur toward God. Blessed are the lonely who are able to look beyond their loneliness. Blessed are the lonely who realize their own need and turn to God. Blessed are the lonely who develop a capacity for solitude.”

During the course of this Lenten season, I have felt a profound change within me. I now understand that the road to engagement and befriending of my loneliness requires acceptance and self-love. This means a gracious tolerance of myself, of my friends, of my circumstances, of my husband and of our differences. Finding companionship both with and without my husband is healthy if coming from a place of respect and genuine loving acceptance. I feel new freedom and delight in my life and marriage emerging from this authenticity. My current balance of activities, which now stems from healthier motivations, feels more joyful and genuine.

With the absence of career, and the addition of more quiet and space, retirement can trigger loneliness

With the absence of career, and the addition of more quiet and space, retirement can trigger loneliness

Befriending my loneliness means being comfortable with solitude. It means welcoming this space for God and my own spirituality. It means accepting loneliness as a natural part of life, not to be feared. On this Maundy Thursday, I think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the loneliness he felt as his disciples slept. It also means recognizing that loneliness may be signaling a legitimate need – that it may be necessary to take care of myself in that moment. I believe that self-love, and connecting that to God’s love, is also key to healing my internal wound. As my yoga teacher Lucy said recently, learning to be open to our difficult qualities and accept them as a part of us is the process of loving and accepting ourselves.

Much has been written lately about the high incidence of “gray divorce” and difficulties adjusting emotionally after retirement, and I see how post-retirement can be a vulnerable period.  John O’Donahue writes, “As you age, you will have more space to become acquainted with yourself. This solitude can take the form of loneliness, and as you age you can become very lonely.”  It can also be frightening to confront those wounds and those parts of ourselves that we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. It is often easier to blame others, especially our spouses, for our discomfort. But, with some intention and contemplation, it can also be a time to make peace with ourselves. For me, this process has spurred a spiritual reawakening that is both exciting and deeply reassuring.

I left the Silent Retreat with a beautiful blessing by John O’Donohue, from his book “To Bless the Space Between Us”:

When the old ghosts come back

To feed on everywhere you felt sure,

Do not strengthen their hunger

By choosing to fear;

Rather, decide to call on your heart

That it may grow clear and free

To welcome home your emptiness

That it may cleanse you

Like the clearest air

You could ever breathe.

Allow your loneliness time

To dissolve the shell of dross

That had closed around you;

Choose in this severe silence

To hear the one true voice

Your rushed life fears;

Cradle yourself like a child

Learning to trust what emerges,

So that gradually

You may come to know

That deep in that black hole

You will find the blue flower

That holds the mystical light

Which will illuminate in you

The glimmer of springtime.

I am grateful I accepted the invitation to make space during Lent. Through my amazing, contemplative journey through the space and darkness, I am blessed to be now seeing the glorious glimmer of springtime.

My Second Silent Retreat

Two years ago I posted about my My Weekend with the Monks at my first Silent Retreat. Still recovering from pneumonia, I missed last year’s retreat, and looked forward to returning this year. (Especially after being in Sin City earlier in the week.) I again enlisted my quiet buddy Louise as roommate, and last Friday we were off.

Although the retreat is always brief, there is no agenda, I expect very little and very little is expected of me, I find it astounding how much I am affected. I took my laptop, my Kindle, and several magazines, just in case, but barely touched any of them. Instead, God met me in unexpected, and completely surprising, ways.

My first shock was to find among my fellow participants at the retreat six young military veterans, three men and three women. Our church supports the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College, and these six were given scholarships to attend the retreat. I found their presence puzzling, as they were about the same age as my son, and I could not imagine him attending a silent retreat.  (I didn’t get the courage or feel the need until I was well over 50.) One of the young men told me that one of the other vets attended the silent retreat last year and enjoyed it so much that he talked the rest of them into attending with him this year.

The first night, before we went into our silence, we each offered a word to express our hope for the retreat. My word was “space,” in that my personal work during the Lenten season has been to embrace the new space in my life, including loneliness and solitude.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t considered this when I signed up for the retreat, but Friday was the 14th anniversary of my stepson’s death, and I arrived with a heavy heart. In feeling pangs of sadness for my stepson, I also found myself missing my younger son who is currently out of state busy with his military training.

The beauty and solitude of the High Desert. Looking down on the Monastery from the Cemetery

The beauty and solitude of the High Desert. Looking down on the Monastery from the Cemetery

On Saturday morning, I decided to take a hike up to the cemetery and spend some time in quiet reflection. After making it up the hill, I arrived to find the young vets huddled together on a bench, solemnly looking out over the rows of cross markers. As I found a spot, nearby but a respectful distance away, to sit and contemplate, I increasingly felt a sense of comfort in being with these young people. I wondered about the buddies they no doubt lost during their deployments. Despite their youth, who else would understand what it felt like to suddenly and traumatically lose someone close to them, someone too young? In that respect, I felt I was with kindred spirits, even though not a word was exchanged between us.

A poignant scene at the monk's cemetery - one of the young military veterans resting on the "altar" contemplating the landscape in solitude

A poignant scene at the monk’s cemetery – one of the young military veterans resting on the “altar” contemplating the landscape in solitude

One of the activities for the weekend was the opportunity to paint a wooden birdhouse (they were tied to a theme for the retreat). On Friday, I picked out the one I wanted, and after lunch on Saturday, I headed over to the main room to work on it. When I arrived, I found the three young male vets sitting around the table painting their birdhouses! I briefly thought about setting up at a smaller table so as not to disturb them, but decided to join them. They graciously made a space for me, and I spent the next 90 minutes wordlessly but blissfully painting birdhouses with three strapping young men. I realized that God had lent me three “sons” for the day to soothe my yearning.

Because of the gracious provision of balm for my grief and aching, I was free to more fully explore my interior space during the weekend. I walked and napped and read, and found myself curiously drawn to books I found on Celtic wisdom and Irish poetry. The silence this time around felt like an old friend, welcome and comfortable.

My final love “wink” from God came on Sunday morning, when I headed back up to cemetery. I had previously noticed a grave marker for a monk whose birthday (month and day) was the same as my son’s. When I looked again, I noticed that the date of death (month and day) was the same as my stepson’s.

It was incredible how quickly time sped by over the course of the weekend. I didn’t experience any dramatic burning bush or road to Damascus encounters, but felt powerfully and deeply cared for and restored as I headed home. Once we could talk again, I tried to express my gratitude to the young veterans. I hugged them all and awkwardly explained to one (a former Army tank driver) how he and his friends had been such a comfort, to which he replied, “Thank you, Ma’am. Glad we could help.”

 

Only in Vegas, Baby

My husband and I just returned from a whirlwind two-night trip to Las Vegas. In my corporate days, I traveled there frequently,  but this had to be my most Vegas-y experience ever.

I know they say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but, since I’m basically an open book I’ll reveal what happened. I got a “free” Vegas trip. The “free” trip required attendance at a Mandatory Presentation. We dined at two fabulous restaurants, scored front-row seats at Cirque du Soleil and tickets to Celine Dion at Caesars Palace.  We bought a time-share for a day.  And we were barely two days in Vegas.

And now the full story.   My good friend Lakita called a couple months ago to offer me a “free” Las Vegas vacation that she couldn’t use. I had just been thinking about a Vegas trip, so I saw this as an omen. When I called “Ryan” (as directed by Lakita) to schedule my “free” trip, he demanded a refundable $200 credit card deposit and said we’d be required to attend a 90-minute sales presentation to receive our free gifts and our $200 back. I  almost hung up on Ryan at least four times, but he kept adding more freebies, including meals and shows. When I finally agreed to the deal and then broke the news to my husband (who hates sales pitches), a pained look came over his face, and he unconvincingly said he thought it would all be fine and we wouldn’t get swindled. Our agreed strategy was to say no to whatever they tried to sell us, and hope they didn’t separate and lock us in windowless rooms or clean out our bank account.

There's no place like Vegas!

There’s no place like Vegas!

Fast forward to Monday, when we arrived in Las Vegas. Our “free” hotel was adequate but certainly not posh and miles from the Strip. We walked to the discount ticket booth and picked up two half-price tickets to Mystere.  Prior to the show, we enjoyed a magical sunset dinner at Bouchon, a Thomas Keller restaurant (chef of French Laundry in Napa Valley) on a rooftop patio at the Venetian by a fountain. At the show, we were upgraded to middle orchestra seats.  Acrobats were flying overhead, and we could almost touch the performers. What a wonderful, fun night. Boy, was our trip off to an excellent start!

On Tuesday morning, we arrived promptly for our Mandatory Presentation in Just Say No mode and quickly discovered the sale items were time-shares. My husband won the fun group credit card bingo game and received ANOTHER dinner gift card. Then Jeff, the head sales guy, showed slides of all the fantastic properties we would own and spoke movingly of how our lives would be enriched by the program. Then we moved to a table with our assigned sales guy, Norm, who started the conversation by telling us about his late wife who died from cancer and the son he had to raise singly, and how he recently moved to Vegas to care for his aged mother. After which he hit us with time-share numbers and dollars and figures. Jeff came back and earnestly answered our questions. I could now hear the Sirens’ Song – time-share ownership WOULD be perfect AND a good deal with all the money we’d save on hotels – but I knew I had to stay strong and disciplined. Then they left my husband and me alone to talk it over.

My husband, one of the most skeptical people I know, looked at me very sincerely, and said that he thought a time-share would be great for us. That it would give us exciting new travel opportunities and a structure through which we could make great time-share memories together. I found this somewhat preposterous but I have never loved my husband more than I did at that moment. So the two of us, three graduate degrees between us, impulsively agreed to buy a time-share. After we signed all the papers (finishing at about the three hours mark) they took our picture, had us spin a roulette wheel and gave us another $100 VISA gift certificate prize, while everybody cheered.

How did this happen? We never had the slightest interest in buying a time-share; we always research the heck out of everything we buy, and we never make spur-of-the-moment major financial decisions. It can only be that we drank the Vegas Kool-Aid. A party atmosphere with balloons and music from our youth (designed to evoke warm feelings of family vacations?) combined with the lure of a great deal and a total play on emotions. I’m pretty sure Jeff made up most of his stories about how time-shares saved marriages and families and I’m doubtful that Norm even has a mother in Las Vegas.

When I later pulled out the freebies we received for attending the Mandatory Presentation, I discovered that the “free” $200 dinner was instead a couple of restaurant.com cards that are redeemable only at limited cheapo places, and the “free” show tickets were random two-for-one coupons for completely unappealing shows. So we headed back to the discount ticket booth and found low-priced tickets to a Celine concert (hoping to get upgraded again) and used most of our $200 refund to cover the cost.

Before the show, we used the rest of our $200 refund and our $100 VISA gift certificate on Delmonico’s, another great restaurant in the Venetian, and I was rolling on a gift card high. Another great evening!

Celine Dion, from our nosebleed seats in the Coliseum at Caesar's Palace. It was still fantastic!

Celine Dion, from our nosebleed seats in the Coliseum at Caesar’s Palace. It was still fantastic!

However, while waiting for Celine to come on, I Googled time-shares and the company we now co-owned, and I wasn’t happy with some of what I found. I paused to enjoy a beautiful, passionate and poignant show (its was Celine’s first week back after her husband passed away). Later, I continued my due diligence back at the hotel, and found we had only five days to cancel under the contract. Based on some potential red flags we uncovered, our lack of adequate research, and our newfound Buyer’s Remorse, we decided to pull out, and I drafted a written cancellation notice to deliver the next day.

After a fairly sleepless night, we showed up at the time-share sales office, and they seemed to know exactly why we were there. We were quickly ushered into an office with Jeff, who irritably and rather half-heartedly tried to talk us out of cancelling. He soon realized our minds were set and he was not nearly as nice as he’d been the previous day. He even asked us to return the $100 VISA GIFT card. Really?!

After a thankfully brief 10 minutes with Jeff, we were time-share divested and on our way home. We celebrated with a grand slam breakfast at Denny’s (since we were out of cash). But you know what? We had a blast in Vegas. The only real deal we got was a $15-dollar-a-night mediocre hotel, but it was all so, you know, Vegas. We sampled world-class food and wine, we saw two unforgettable shows, I used my legal training, we came home with a pocketful of discount cards. I learned a lot about time-shares, and we even owned one for a day.

Fifty-Seven and a Half

This week I turned fifty-seven and a half. When I was growing up, our family celebrated half-birthdays. The half-birthday honoree was allowed to pick his or her dinner of choice, and I always chose hot dogs and chocolate milk.

My half-birthday dinner of choice. A plain hot dog.

My half-birthday dinner of choice.
A plain hot dog.

The half-birthday celebration was particularly important to me, since my birthday is in early August, a terrible time for a kid in a Navy family.   We were almost always either in the process of moving to, or had just arrived, someplace new. In either case, my hopes for a fancy birthday party with friends, which is all I ever wanted (that, and a new Barbie), were constantly thwarted.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure my mother concocted the half-birthday tradition just for me, mainly to mitigate her guilt over my lack of fancy birthday parties with friends, knowing how gypped I felt. My brothers didn’t seem quite as taken with the half-birthday idea as I was. And the whole family made, in hindsight, a suspiciously over-enthusiastic celebration out of my half-birthday. I suspect they were all in cahoots with my mother, forced to be cheery under severe threat of retribution.

In any event, I enjoyed my half-birthday hot dogs, and to this day, I still keep half-birthdays on my calendar – my husband’s, my son’s, and mine. Not that we do anything special, but I still smile when I see a half-birthday on the calendar.

My half-birthday drink of choice. Milk with Bosco chocolate syrup.

My half-birthday drink of choice.
Milk with Bosco chocolate syrup.

Until this year. I looked at my calendar this week, and saw that I am now fifty-seven and a half. Holy you-know-what!   I am not only halfway between fifty-seven and fifty-eight, but I am halfway between fifty-five and SIXTY!

In my mind, fifty-five was cool. It meant I was eligible for early retirement, and still sounded relatively young. And what could be more hip than a financially independent, relatively young woman? I couldn’t wait to turn fifty-five! But now the years are flying by and I am swiftly approaching SIXTY. Try as I might, I doubt I’ll feel as snug about SIXTY as I did about fifty-five.

Coincidently, this week I read a post entitled The Old Woman I Want to Be on NotQuiteOld, a blog I enjoy following. Nancy Roman, the blogger, recently celebrated her sixty-fifth birthday, and reflects on the significance of this milestone and how she wants to live her remaining years. A sentiment in her post that particularly resonates with me is her fear of wasting time. She writes, “I want to make the most of whatever time I have left – and to enjoy that time. Maybe that still means television and shopping. But maybe not.”

I’ve increasingly noticed in myself that urgency to use my time wisely. This week, during an Ash Wednesday service, I unexpectedly decided to give up Facebook for Lent (and I’m not even Catholic), partly because I often find myself wasting time on it almost reflexively, and I want to make space for more intentional pursuits. (I’ll see if I can link this post to Facebook automatically so I don’t blow my vow on Day Two and enter the forbidden land!)

When I was young, time seemed to be an infinite commodity. I had endless new adventures and new stages of life to look forward to. Not so the older I get.   Today I have the health, resources and time to do almost anything I want. I worked hard all my life to get to this point and I want to squeeze as much as I can out of every day. I am acutely aware that this stage is finite and I want to take full advantage of it while it lasts. This outlook may partly stem from my fairly recent experience as the child in charge of care for both of my parents at the end of their lives. I saw how quickly their lives changed when their health declined.

The flip side of this urgency to live as if I were on leave from death row is that, taken to its extreme, it can be crazy making. Not every day or moment can, or should be, filled with ultra-significant moments or experiences. Left to my own devices, I can easily fill our calendar with terrific events every day of the week, in the process wearing myself out and driving my husband mad. As Nancy quotes John Lennon in her post, sometimes “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”   It all comes down to finding that right balance.

With that, I think that I will go waste some time and make myself a hot dog and some chocolate milk. Happy half-birthday to me!

Some Things Never Change!

Often, the saying is uttered in exasperation to describe a never-ending irritant. But, I recently discovered I am grateful that some things don’t change.

Two dear friends from college visited me this past weekend. Lynne was my first roommate in the dorm, and Devie lived down the hall. I met both of these women when I was eighteen, my adult self still very much a work in progress.

The first day I met Lynne, she came bounding into our dorm room carrying a field hockey stick in one hand and a tennis racket in the other. Before her dramatic, high-energy entrance, I warily scrutinized the photos already hung on her side of the room, which were mostly of pigs. She later clarified that she was a P.E. major (which explained the multiplicity of sporting equipment) and had been in 4-H (which explained the pigs, whom she proudly declared were named Aristotle and Socrates).   Over the course of our college years, I found Lynne to be uproariously funny, whip smart (she later changed her major to biology), with an almost insatiable curiosity, and a great problem solver. She was our unofficial dorm den mother, a natural caretaker with her calm wisdom and ingenuity.

I met Devie in my Art History class. She was physically striking, talented, creative, slightly neurotic, and I found her endlessly entertaining. She was an art major and a gifted pianist. I spent weekends at her Jewish parents’ house, and she was highly skilled at discussing and dissecting (often inventing) problems (hers and mine) until we were both near exhaustion.

Last weekend was the first time in 37 years that the three of us had all been together. Although Lynne and Devie became two of my closest friends during college, after I graduated and continued to law school and then moved to the east coast for a period, I largely lost touch with them until recently. I was curious to see how much we’d changed, both individually and as a trio.

We quickly discovered that the essence of who we each were at eighteen had not changed, and that we eased almost immediately back into our comfortable, safe friendship. Thirty-seven years later, Lynne is a retired science and special education teacher, married to a deaf Native American man, who lives on a chicken farm in Tennessee and is currently building a fence. Devie is an art therapist who is even more beautiful now than in college, works with children and teens in the Bay Area and is still highly conflicted about many things. They both found their callings, perfectly predictable based on their eighteen-year-old selves. They both claimed that my successful legal career was completely foreseeable (even though I began college as an interior design major).

My weekend also wonderfully illustrated teachings from a recent Alive and Well Women workshop entitled “Deepening Connections” in which my friend Cissy spoke about self-compassion. We talked about how we, as women, are often more compassionate with others than with ourselves. We explored the power of female community, and the healing that takes place when we find those friends to whom we can safely confess our self-loathing, our fear, our shame, our needs, and from whom we can receive loving empathy and compassion.

With Devie (far right) and Lynne (middle), back in my world

With Devie (far right) and Lynne (middle), back in my world

After three solid days of each other, in which we laughed (much) and talked (a lot) and even cried (some), Lynne, Devie and I shared how affected we each were by our weekend together, both emotionally and physically. The best that I can describe it, for me, is that I was not changed by this deep re-connection with my old friends, but anchored. An important part of me, deep inside, never lost but perhaps unnoticed, was re-aligned, reinforced. Through speaking our fears, our shame, our needs to each other, and finding the solid core of our friendship still trustworthy and strong, it became a deeply comforting, healing, and spiritual experience of compassion.

It was also great fun for my friends (and for me) to get a glimpse into my current life.   I took them to my yoga class and my favorite brunch restaurant and we walked around my neighborhood. We’ve now decided to make this an annual event. Next year, whether chasing chickens in Nashville or doodling with crayons in Palo Alto, I will be joyfully discovering new friends in my old.

 

Alive and Well in Retirement!

I was recently reminded of a blog post I wrote back in January of 2014, entitled Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Phases of Retirement. It was written about five months after I retired. A fellow blogger who explores retirement issues found my post and used me, in a YouTube presentation, as his comic example of someone bumbling through the early adjustment phases of retirement. As I watched the YouTube presentation (slightly discomfited, listening to a complete stranger talk about the antics of “Betsy and her husband” like we were Lucy and Ricky), I was stuck by how much we’ve evolved since then.

I am quite content with my life now. Looking back, I see it really took me about two years to fully adjust to retirement. Five months after my retirement date, when I wrote that post, I was clearly in the Disenchantment Phase (Stage 4). The Honeymoon Phase (Stage 3) had worn off and I was starting to feel some loneliness, boredom, uselessness and disillusionment.

Stage 5, following Disenchantment, is described as the “Reorientation Stage,” where the retiree moves on to build a new identity in retirement. It is described as the “most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and will take both time and conscious effort to accomplish. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of this stage to manage are the inevitable self-examination questions that must be answered once again, such as ‘Who am I, now?’ ‘What is my purpose at this point?’ and ‘Am I still useful in some capacity?’ New – and satisfying – answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days. But many retires cannot achieve this and never truly escape this stage – make sure you do!” (Mark P. Cussen, “Journey Through the 6 Stages of Retirement”)

I wasn’t always mindful at the time, but in hindsight it’s clear I did go through this reorientation process, often in fits and starts. It forced me to take a hard look at myself and make some deliberate decisions about how I was going to spend the rest of my life. After all, the rest of my life could be another 30+ years! If I were to summarize my acquired bits of wisdom (and I emphasize that these are MY conclusions) they would be:

Throw out the expectations (especially of your partner) – Retirement is a wonderful and terrifying marriage laboratory, where you get one last chance to finally work out those thorny relationship issues so often ignored during the busy dual-career and childrearing years. Especially for my husband and I, polar opposites in many ways. Plus, I realized that I went into retirement with some unrealistic expectations. In my imaginary retirement la-la world, my husband (already retired) and I would be happily spending 24/7 together, having lunch dates and play dates and going to art museums. We would have an abundance of extra time, and we’d joyfully split the housework and tackle all those long-delayed projects around the house, like cleaning out the garage. We’d do all this together, with any relationship issues magically solved by the absence of work pressures.

That rose-colored bubble pretty much burst the first few weeks of retirement. We never spent that much time together, even when we were dating, so it was bone-headed to think we would start now. And my husband doesn’t even like art museums. After about a week of being together in the house, we had nothing interesting to report to each other. Plus, my homebody husband has vastly different ideas on how to spend his time, and was unwilling to give up his established and cherished routines and household chores. As I noticed my frustration and resentment start to build, I had a choice to make. I could either try to change my husband to fit my expectations, or I could respect his differences, let him be him, and focus on what I could do to structure my own life. I ultimately chose the latter, and also found it works far better to ask clearly for what I need than to expect it.

There are of course some things I still wish were different. For example, I really wish my husband would clean out the garage. I wish we entertained more, and we watched less TV (especially sports). But I finally realized there is an excellent chance our garage will never be tidy, that entertaining can be pretty stressful for us, and that watching a good football game together is a great shared activity. I had to look clear-eyed at those areas where reality and expectations collide and make some choices. If there were deal-breakers for me, I had to address them. If they were not, I had to come to peace with them. Just because Mr. and Mrs. McGillicudy down the street, also retired, work puzzles and drink Moscow Mules together every afternoon doesn’t mean we should. This process of letting go of unhelpful expectations and accepting, even embracing, the goodness in my own reality, with a spirit of gratitude, has been very liberating and my path to contentment.

Look no farther than thyself – I don’t mean this in a self-centered or narcissistic way, but I am learning that I am the one responsible for my own happiness.   It is too easy, but not helpful, to look to others or go into blame mode when I am unhappy. As it is difficult, if not possible to do on my own, there is a spiritual component integral to remaining centered and open, in removing blame and extending grace.

Eliminating unhealthy expectations freed me to look pragmatically, even creatively, at myself, my husband (and our life together), and to craft a fulfilling life. If I need more social interaction, I have a wonderful network of friends to call on. When I need more physical exercise, I hang out at the YMCA right down the street. I have a women’s study group and a book club that provide plenty of regular female companionship.

I also gradually came to the conclusion that contributing to my disenchantment was a growing and nagging feeling of uselessness. Although I initially thought I would enjoy doing more around the house, I found I was honestly just as happy letting my husband keep his chores! (And I am, BTW, the envy of my girlfriends.) I found I need more time out of the house. I was someone who worked my entire life and was used to being the breadwinner in our family and a leader in the workplace. I missed the energy and camaraderie of the office, the business travel, and being a part of teams where we solved problems for our clients. I enjoyed all the fun I was having in retirement, but I began to feel that something was missing.

For me, a providential solution was my involvement with a charitable organization. A few months after I retired, I re-connected with a friend who was long interested in starting a non-profit. She enlisted my help and together we launched Alive and Well Women. Today I am the Chair of the Board and last year volunteered to take the lead on grant writing (something I’ve never done before).

My work with Alive and Well Women has proven to be a godsend. It gives me an outlet for using my professional talents, a sense of value and accomplishment, while allowing me to give back to the community. I love the women I work with and I’m learning new skills. We are in the midst of our first capital campaign and I’m finding it a joy to raise funds for a cause I feel passionate about. And since I am a volunteer, I work when I am home but still have the flexibility to travel with my husband.

Find some things to enjoy with your partner – when we are home, my husband and I find the ideal mix of together/independent time typically skews more toward separate schedules. We have breakfast and dinner together, and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, but the rest of the day is typically individual time (often we are both home, but separately engaged.)

The danger with our natural parallel play tendency is that we can easily become disengaged. So, we deliberately look for activities that we can enjoy together. For us, our favorite joint activity is travel. Something special happens when we are on the road. We find we love being together 24/7, we work as a team, and we create amazing shared memories. These are the moments when I am overcome with gratitude. And as soon as we’re back from one trip, we start thinking about our next, which gives us something to dream about together.

We also try to do a few things each week while we are home. We rarely miss church and brunch on Sunday. We have at least one lunch or dinner out during the week, and we recently started ballroom dancing classes. We’re still more Lucy and Ricky than Fred and Ginger, but we’re having fun with our salsa!

"Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose"

“Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose”

The Routine Stage (Phase 6) of retirement is when “finally, a new daily schedule is created, new marital ground rules for time together versus time alone are established, and a new identity has been at least partially created. Eventually, the new landscape becomes familiar territory, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose.” (Mark P. Cussen)

You know, I think we might be there!

Christmas Peace

The older I get, the more melancholy I feel around Christmas. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the holiday season. I love the traditions and Christmas trees and cookie baking and lights and carols. But the innocent, pure joy and excitement I felt as a child have given way to a more nuanced experience of the holidays.

This year, as I decorated our Christmas tree, I was reminded of my blog post from two years ago entitled Christmas Memories. Just as I related in that post, the powerful remembrances elicited by unpacking our boxes of family Christmas decorations are enough to plunge me into sudden gloom.   Even though I am generally excited about the upcoming holidays (especially for our son’s homecoming tomorrow), I found myself taking frequent breaks (cookies, coffee and chocolate seemed to help) as memories of people and places and times past came flooding back. I grieved over the loss of my beloved parents and stepson, and a broken relationship with another family member. I missed the days when our son was a young boy and I was a young mom. The mere recognition of the passage of so much time causes its own despair.

I find myself grieving over our broken world. The seemingly everyday news of bombings and shootings and ISIS and terror feels overwhelming to me.   I’m often disappointed by a lack of clear moral leadership coming from political (highlighted in this current presidential election circus) and religious leaders.

While preparing for our family Christmas, I heard from two friends experiencing tragic circumstances amidst this holiday season. One friend’s son was seriously injured in a sports-related accident, her father died, and she broke her hip – all within a couple weeks. Another friend, as a result of a series of setbacks, was on the brink of losing her home. I felt heavy and helpless. What am I to do with all this suffering? And how can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me? I did what little I could for my friends – I visited the first friend, brought her lunch, Christmas cookies and a wreath (since she couldn’t drive to get one). I sent the other friend some money and prayed for her. But I struggle with a sometimes overpowering sense of futility and pain when people around me are hurting.

How can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me?

How can I feel the joy of the season with so much brokenness around me?

And then last Sunday, as if on cue, God met me and blessed me.   The church sermon that morning was entitled “Waiting for God to Send Peace.” Our Pastor Megan spoke to our challenge as Christians in finding the peace of Christ in a broken world. It was the sermon for which I had been longing and I needed to hear. It reminded me that, although I can’t turn a blind eye to violence around me, my peace comes through my relationship with God. My worldly responsibility is to show compassion in the midst of pain and strife. Pastor Megan reminded us of Jesus’ parting words to his disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)

That same afternoon, our church sponsored a concert entitled “What Shall We Give Him?” highlighting Courtney B. Vance reading the Christmas Scripture from Luke 2. I found myself weeping while listening to the music and the words of the sacred Christmas music. When the Christmas Scripture from Luke was read, what initially caught my attention were these words:

In those days a decree went out from emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Ouirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Holy cow! Was the family of Jesus Christ an early example of Syrian refugees? As I sat contemplating current events in light of this text, I abruptly felt the convergence of the past, presence and future. I was unexpectedly comforted by the words of carols, many I’ve heard since I was a child, but which in that moment took on new and powerful meaning.

Hark! the herald angels sing,

“Glory to the new born King,

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled!”

God blessed me with the reassurance that my care of my friends and family, that my voice for good in the world, will make a difference, and that He will give me peace. As I left the church, like Mary, “pondering all these things in my heart,” the words of Scottish poet Alexander Smith finally made perfect sense: “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.”