LIFE’S LOVELY LABYRINTH

I stumbled upon this labyrinth last week and decided to walk it.  Oh, what temptation there was to head straight to the center!  But as I took the circuitous route, passing places I’d been but now from a different perspective, I realized how well it parallels life:  There is only one way in and one way out.  What matters is what you make of it along the way.  Lucky me, I’m still making it.   

In Australia, where I was born, I turn 70 today. Having spent years putting down roots, I now want to shake them loose.  I don’t want things to dust, just people I can trust; the freedom to change my mind on a dime; to travel so lightly that you can blow on me and I’m gone.  My body has begun its slow descent.  What doesn’t ache (and what doesn’t ache?) accepts its’ stiffness as if it were always this way.  I think of myself as much younger for surely this face can’t be mine? It’s not the one I remember.

What I remember, of course, makes stories to tell and I’ve yet to tire telling them.  (Just ask my friends).  I no longer tolerate idiots but have developed a soft spot for fools.  No one can guilt or goad me into doing anything.  Obligation, familial or otherwise, has long gone to the dogs.  Yet, I’ll do most anything for a friend.  Love itself means nothing that it did before.  It is high on laughter and low on anything less–for anything less is nothing at all.  Connection is everything.  Eye to eye, face to face, hand to hand, heart to heart.  Everything.    

I’ve grown less confident in the future—not because of the environment, politics or the economy but because I have so much less left of it.  Today, when I got my pneumonia shot, the pharmacist said, “The best part of this shot is that you won’t have to get another one for 10 more years.”  ‘Yikes,’ I thought, ‘By then I’ll be 80!’  

There are many things I still want to do.  I used to have 70 years ahead of me to do them. Not anymore.  Fortunately, my many failures and disappointments have made me tough enough to carry on.  And my tears, which happen often (and even writing this), remind me I’m not dead yet!  So, picture me going round and round life’s circle with a big smile on my wrinkly face.

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I WANT WHAT SHE’S HAVING

Recently, I asked one of my teenaged clients, “What do you think almost everyone I see has in common?”  

“They’re all crazy?” he replied. 

“No,” I said.  “They all compare themselves to someone else who has something they don’t.”  

“Even you?” he asked. 

“Yes, even me.  I would love to be young and strong again, like you.  But I have to remind myself that I already was young and strong once.  Now it’s your turn.”

I have clients in their 60’s who still envy their siblings; men and women who starve/surgically alter themselves to resemble Instagram photos; and others who want to be anywhere but ‘here’ because ‘over there’ looks infinitely better.  It turns out that envy is physiologically bad for your health.  Neuroscientists say that envying others stimulates the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with both physical and mental pain. In the 2018 journal of Social Science & Medicine, scholars studied 18,000 randomly selected individuals and found that their experience of envy was a powerful predictor of worse mental health and lower well-being in the future. 

Ordinarily, most of us become psychologically healthier as we age but envy can stunt this trend.  Although some studies have shown that a little envy might briefly spur our ambition, ultimately, it just makes us sad, anxious or depressed to be who, what and where we are.  Here’s the problem for my clients:  because they don’t want to be where they are, they expect me to teleport them somewhere else.  Unfortunately, no drug or amount of talk can do that.  

So, in this season of giving and getting, let me encourage you to be happy with whatever you get even if you don’t want it.  Try to find peace wherever you are even if you don’t want to be there. Experience has shown me that there is someone out there who wants exactly what you have.  Whatever you do, don’t emulate the 70 year-old client I had last year.  She rushed into my office highly distraught and said:

“I feel so guilty.  I’ve been dating this man for over a year.  He wants me to move in with him and I don’t know what to do.”

“Do you love him?”

“Oh, yes,” she sighed.  “He’s kind, warm, affectionate, super supportive and the sex is amazing.”

“I, see,” I replied.  “So, the problem is?”

“He’s 15 years younger than I am!”

“Go home,” I told her.  “Enjoy what you have while you have it and don’t come back.”

 So far, she hasn’t.

Merry Christmas to her wherever she is. . .and to all of you!

URGENT CARE?

A recent Harvard report says the U.S. spends more on health care than all the other wealthy democracies in the world. We pay almost four times as much for pharmaceutical drugs as citizens of other developed countries.  Hospitals, doctors, and nurses all charge more in the U.S. Interestingly, in spite of all that spending, life expectancy in the U. S. lags behind that of its peer countries.  Recently, I discovered firsthand just why that is. 

Last week, after finishing my laps, I couldn’t quite reach my towel on the pool deck.  So, leaning my full, body weight against the edge on my left side, I reached out and dragged the chair with my towel on it closer.  As I did, I heard three, distinctive, crunching sounds come from deep inside my rib cage.  I held my breath, thinking I might stave off the terrible pain that was about to descend.  It almost worked– but then– I breathed. 

I had a work shift ahead of me that I didn’t want to miss, so I went.  A few hours in, I had to hold my side just to get a full breath.  ‘Maybe I punctured a lung?’  A few hours later, the pain propelled me straight to the nurse where I work.  She palpated my ribs and said, “You need to get to Urgent Care ASAP!  They’re open until midnight.”  At 7:45 PM, I arrived at Urgent Care.  “I’m sorry,” the receptionist said as I clutched my chest and gasped for air.  “Our X-ray tech leaves in 15 minutes and can’t see you now. But you can come tomorrow at 8 AM.”  So much for either ‘urgent’ or ‘care.’ 

The next morning, I arrived at 8 but was not seen until 9.  After taking x-rays, it took another hour until they were read.  Finally, I was told, “Well, you could have fractured your ribs or you may have torn the muscles or tendons.  Either way, it’ll take 4-6 weeks to heal.”  “So, you don’t know exactly?” I asked.  “No, we can’t see fractures in x-rays.” “Then why did you take them if they have no bearing on the diagnosis?”  “Protocol.”  In what world does it make sense for ‘protocol’ to take four x-rays that riddle me with radiation, cost a fortune and have NO effect on the outcome?  No wonder our medical costs are soaring.  Note to self:  I’m no longer made of Teflon.

GO FLY A KITE!

The story of the vegan mom who was recently convicted of murder for starving her toddler was sad but not as shocking as one might think.  She likely thought she was doing what was best for her child.  She’s no different than those parents who refuse to vaccinate their children against diseases like polio.  They all fall into the same, ignorant category.  Psychologists call it, ‘The Totalitarian Ego.’ That is, we are victims of our own confirmation bias.  In layman’s terms, we are victims of our own thinking and sometimes that ‘thinking’ kills.

Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine said that he thinks the huge increase in our mental health crisis is due to, “the legalization of marijuana.”  I wanted to laugh but he was dead serious.  ‘Thinking’ is often questionable, but rarely to the thinker.  It is true that due to our two years of isolation and alienation, people are starved for connection.  However, I think something else is at work; something more insidious and endemic.  I believe we have all become grossly, self-absorbed.

Consider the recent study that showed that more video meetings equal less brainstorming. That’s because (surprise) people spend much of their attention staring at their on-screen selves rather than letting their eyes and minds wander.  In addition, all that scrutiny has made people fixate on their perceived flaws and wrinkles.  Result?  Our society is more image-conscious than ever before!  Botox injections took a huge spike upwards over the last two years.  Plastic surgery is at an all-time high and luckily for those who get it, masks cover up the ugly, gruesome, healing process. 

As a therapist, I see about 30 new clients each week. They run the gamut from simply lonely to outright psychotic. But the one thing they all have in common is that they think they are thinking clearly.  (Yes, even the one who told me her smoke alarms secretly communicate with aliens).  Sometimes, when listening to a client in my plush, air-conditioned office, I wish I could transport them to a homeless shelter, a migrant camp or even a war-torn town in the Ukraine.  There is something about thinking about others that takes you out of your own, small-minded head.  Of course, If that doesn’t work for you, as my grandmother used to say, ‘Go fly a kite!”     

ADD UP THE ‘EXTRAS’

I love to travel.  Let me rephrase that.  I love being in new places—not necessarily getting to them.  We’ve found new ways to add costs to things that shouldn’t be charged for in the first place.  Take airline seats.  Once they were wide and cushy and fully reclined.  Now you have to squeeze into them like a gymnast.  Every airline provided three-course meals, including lemon- scented, warmed, hand towels afterwards. No more.  

Recently, I purchased a ‘great deal’ on a roundtrip, 12-hour flight to Sydney.  Then the add-ons trickled in.  Checking one bag would be an extra $50.  My original seat choice showed the majority were taken, so I was forced to take a middle seat towards the back.  However, a few days before my flight, I was ‘magically’ offered 50, new seat choices up front, for only $150 extra. They had both aisles and windows and extra, leg room.  What luck!!   

Visiting family recently, I chose an Air B&B near my favorite hotel, because it was half the price.  Well, it started that way.  The tiny room was cute, though part of the house, so I could hear everything.  The couple that rented the room next to mine clearly had no clue that their bed was mere inches from my head.  There was also no window or view.  On the final bill, there was an extra $100 charge for cleaning, $49 for taxes and a $75 service fee.  Guess what?  It was MORE expensive than my favorite hotel, minus the ocean view, space and privacy!

Dare I tell you about my hotel room in Honolulu last night?  It was located smack between the ice machine and the elevator.  When I opened the door, I discovered the mattress wasn’t flat but actually listed to one side.  It also faced a major construction site. When I asked to move to another room, the woman at the front desk said with a completely, straight face, “You paid for a STANDARD room.  If you want a DELUXE room, that is another $100 a night.”  “Let me get this straight, I said, “your STANDARD room comes with a lopsided mattress, is noisy and has no view?”  She had no comeback.  

I walked outside and there were homeless people everywhere.  I can’t help but wonder if all these ‘extras’ our economy is charging are keeping so many from having the bare essentials.  What’s next, a surtax on sand?   

‘REAL’ LOVE

I saw this key next to a brochure promising, “Real Love,” sitting on a bench this morning when I took my walk. It seemed as if they were ‘planted.’ A little contrived, I thought. And yet? There was no one around but me. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could find ‘real’ love on a park bench? Walk up, read the tract and then. . . just turn the key?

Once, while counseling a couple of almost 40 years, the husband suddenly turned to me and said, “You know?  I just don’t ever want to argue with her.  I love her too much.”  Thousands of songs have been written about love and the platitudes are endless:  love is holding hands and not caring if the other person is holding too tight or not tightly enough.  It is not having to prove you’re right or prove anything at all because there is nothing to prove.  Love is not making the other person happy but sharing in their joy.  Love lifts you up.  It doesn’t break you down into your lowest common denominator as if you were a mathematical equation or squeeze you into a box.  It always has your back—because you matter more than any scale of justice. 

And while there is truth in all of those, there is one sign that always resonates with me. I saw it in that couple.  ‘Real’ love is being with someone who smiles just because they’re looking at you.  

I’D RATHER ROW THAN WADE

Pierre-Auguste Renoir The Skiff (La Yole) 1875 Oil on canvas, 71 x 92 cm Bought, 1982 NG6478 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG647

Had lunch with a friend this afternoon at a local restaurant and we were seated in a booth.  When the food arrived, I suddenly realized just how low my seat was.  My chin was almost even with the plate.  I asked the waiter for a booster seat.  He just looked at me.

“A booster seat?” I asked again.  “Do you not have one?”

“Um.  Yes.  We do,” he replied still staring at me.

“Would you bring me one, please?” I asked again.  “Or maybe you have some pillows?”

“Well, I see the issue.  This booth has the lowest seat of all the others in the restaurant but we don’t have any pillows.”

“Then just bring me a booster,” I repeated for the third time.

“Um.  I’m not sure you’d be very comfortable in one,” the waiter said.

Finally, I understood his reticence.

“Are you trying to tell me politely that you don’t think my butt will fit in one?”

He went violet.  

“Um, yes.  I guess.  I mean they are for kids.”

“Just bring me one and let me decide,” I said firmly.

Reluctantly, he returned with a booster.  I put it under me and maneuvered myself in.  I’ll admit the fit was snug but I finished my entire lunch sitting in it.

When the Supreme Court rendered their reversal on Roe vs Wade today, I was dumbstruck.  This is not a matter of whether abortion is right or wrong.  This is simply a matter of giving women the CHOICE of what to do with their OWN bodies.  If men gave birth this would have never even been an issue.  Never.  Not once.  Not in 1973. Not now in 2022. Not ever. Never.  

Just bring me the damn booster and let me decide if I want to sit in it.  

LIGHT IT!

As a mental health counselor, I’ve had my share of suicides, psychotics, schizophrenics, and a host of other tortured, lost souls:  Men emasculated by women.  Women abused by men.  Siblings that can’t stop fighting.  Couples that can’t stop quarreling.  Addicts that can’t stop addicting and an aging populace that has lost its’ purpose.  Recently, a teenager told me that she was ‘too old’ to start re-inventing herself.  ‘Too old?’ She has a lifetime ahead of her. If she’s lucky, she’ll reinvent herself many times over.

I know what I’m talking about.  In the last 5 years, I’ve changed cities and my entire friend group, taken up a new sport, learned how to play ukulele, had two knees replaced, two cataract surgeries and started working again.  Between podcasts, reading books and observing others, I’m not done learning by a long shot.   

Our brains start to solidify by age 25, when our neural pathways become well-worn into grooves.  Change is still possible but it takes work.  The key is to continuously create new pathways to break apart those stuck patterns in the brain.  The older you get, the harder it is to break free of them.  If you really want to change, you need three conditions:

  1. Focus on what you want to change. 
  2. Create the right environment (meaning eat healthy, sleep deep and move often).
  3. Repeat/ practice (meaning do the ‘new’ thing, like learning ukulele, over and over).

Often, my older clients are reluctant to leave the house at all. Some only go as far as the mailbox. It’s not just COVID. Sometimes it’s due to physical issues but more often than not, they’ve simply forgotten all their options. Even if they think of things to do, they’re hesitant to do them alone. They feel stuck. I get it. But you know the irony? I meet far more people when I’m out alone than I do when I’m out with others. 

Here’s the thing.  Unless you believe in reincarnation, you have ONE life.  There are no do-overs.  From my perspective, many people not only live lives of quiet desperation, they feel STUCK.  And the irony?  They are not stuck at all.  They just THINK they are.  Look, you don’t need to burn the candle at both ends—you just need to light it.

SUNYASHNIKIIS

Ukraine’s National Flower

In 1880, when my great grandmother was born, life expectancy was 40.  A Chicago ordinance banned people who were, “diseased, maimed, mutilated, deformed, unsightly or disgusting.” If you were deemed too ugly to be in public, you had to pay a fine of $1 to $50 or go to the poorhouse.  Women didn’t have the right to vote.  There were no child labor laws and 2 million kids, aged 10 to 15 were working full time jobs.  People with mental issues were either shocked into submission or lobotomized.  65,000 mentally ill Americans were sterilized.

When my grandmother was born in 1900, one in three children died before adulthood.  No one survived a burst appendix.  People died from milk because pasteurization didn’t exist.  Breathing radon was considered a cure for tuberculosis.  Doctors said cigarettes helped asthma.  Parents were encouraged to give their kids heroin-laced cough syrup made by Bayer.  Cocaine was marketed in the Sears Roebuck catalog as a treatment for toothaches and depression.  Syphilis was treated with mercury.  

When my mother was born, life expectancy was 53.  There were no antibiotics and penicillin hadn’t been invented.  There were no governmental agencies like the FDA to certify a product’s safety.  There were no vaccines like polio nor refrigeration to keep it viable.  Water wasn’t chlorinated but came straight out of rusty, lead pipes.  Few had indoor plumbing.  Dead animals and feces were everywhere on the streets. The KKK was such an open, accepted part of American society that they publicly sponsored festivals and beautiful baby contests.  Executions were public and in 1936, the last one in this country was attended by 20,000 people.  

By the time I was born, there had been two world wars and Vietnam had just started. Life expectancy was 66.  When my children were born, life expectancy was 76.  However, there is a widening gap between our Life Span & our Health Span.  Many are shuffling into old age decrepitly.  Geneticists envision a future where we’ll be able to self-scan our bodies for impending disease and Immunotherapy and Artificial Intelligence will further help close that gap.  

A brave, new world is coming!  Or so I thought.  I was feeling pretty lucky to be in this present one until Putin single-handedly drew us back into the Dark Ages:  bombed cities, burned landscapes, babies among the dead bodies and unprovoked destruction in every direction. Now, I must sadly ponder the life expectancy of Ukrainians and long for the return of their golden sunflowers.

CAST THE FIRST STONE





The closer I get to death, the more I want to live.  It’s as if I know there are a certain number of miles left on my feet so I MUST keep moving them in hopes of squeezing in even more.  I dance down the aisles of the supermarket.  Sing at full volume with the radio.  Breathe in every flower in my path and lean out the window to smell honeysuckle at the drive thru Starbucks.  Nothing must get past me—not even a stranger.  I meet someone new EVERY day.  Everything makes me cry, even the death of someone else’s puppy.  Everything makes me laugh because I don’t know when I will experience it again.  I can barely sleep at night because what might I miss in the dark?  

But as punch drunk as I am about Life, Putin’s death march has been sobering. It’s not easy to find and hold joy as you watch a sick, psychopath wield his tiny saber and conduct a killing spree.  His cold, tight-lipped stare says it all.  There is no child he won’t slaughter, no city he can’t rubble and for what?  More land?  He’s already poisoned what he has with treachery and bodies. In his wake, there is only twisted metal, burning buildings and blood.  It was one thing for Hitler to get away with his butchery in a world safe from the glare of a TV camera or iPhone.  But now?  We are all witnesses.  How much destruction and how many will be buried before he is stopped?           

A friend gave me this stone last week and it’s not just any rock.  It is a Shiva Lingam stone found in only one place at only one time of year:  at the Narmada River in India.  Centuries of erosion have made it smooth and cylindrical.  It is said that it came from the debris field of a meteorite which crashed into Earth some 14 million years ago. I crashed into Earth the exact, same year that Putin did.  While I want to wring every second out of every breath, he wants to wring every breath out of every second. You can’t squeeze water from a stone, any more than you can negotiate with a serial killer.  If I were David, I’d put my stone in a slingshot, take Goliath down and be glad of it.