‘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.  

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.

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.  

AN IMPATIENT PATIENT

I’d love to meet the brilliant idiot who first called a doctor’s client a ‘patient,’ because that’s the last thing I am.  Can you remember the last time your doctor was actually ON TIME?  I can’t.  This has nothing to do with the pandemic and everything to do with the endemic, habitual tardiness among those in the medical profession. Once, I sat in the stirrups waiting for my gynecologist for almost an hour.  Finally, I walked out into the hall, half naked with a paper around my waist, only to be told, “Why, we plum forgot about you!”  
 
Now my grandmother brought me up to “Never keep anyone waiting, dear.  Their time is just as important as yours.”  So, unless a sinkhole opens under me, I’m on time.  Yesterday I arrived at 1:50 for my 2 PM with the dermatologist and asked the receptionist: 
“Is Bozo running on time?”   
“Oh, yes, I believe so.”
“You ‘believe?’ Or is he actually running on time?”
“Well, you’re up next!” she replies cheerily.  (Not a lie—but not exactly the truth either).
 
I poll the patients in the waiting room just to be sure.  Three of us have the same doctor, and we’re scheduled 10 minutes apart.  What I don’t account for are the ones already inside waiting rooms.  At 2:20, I’m finally called back, and the nurse hands me a paper gown.
 
“Take everything off except your underwear and put this on,” she commands.
“I think I’ll wait,” I reply.
“What?” 
“Well, last time I sat here almost an hour wearing that flimsy thing and froze.  So, this time, I’m waiting until the doctor is actually coming in.”
 
She wasn’t pleased and left in a huff.  A full 25 minutes later, she returned.
“You can put the gown on now.  The doctor will be right in.”
 
I put it on, then waited.  I got up and paced until I found a warm corner in the room and stood there–fuming.  At 3 PM, he finally made his entrance.
“What are you doing over there?” he asked nonchalantly.
“Waiting for you,” I replied, “Our appointment was an hour ago and it’s warmer over here.”

No apology–nothing. Why would he? This is how he rolls. 
 
 I wanted to say so many things: “Do you think I have nothing better to do than sit in a cold, claustrophobic room waiting over an hour for you?”  “Given your superior education, why can’t you schedule your patients so you actually see them on time?”  “Do you realize that in the last five years you have NEVER been on time for our appointments, not even once?”  Instead, I smile politely.  After all, he holds the hypodermic and scalpel.  I’m just a PATIENT who plans to send him this blog.

Now ask yourself this when it comes to the remuneration we provide to those in other professions. What would happen if a cop showed up an hour late to a 911 call? Or if a kindergarten teacher left a roomful of 5 year-olds on their own for an hour? Those are the professions that deserve our greatest support.

LAST CHANCE

What does this look like to you?  Me having fun with some longtime friends?  If that’s your guess, you would be very wrong.  I had just met the six people pictured here less than 15 minutes before this was taken.  I wandered up to their pickleball court and before I could even ask to join them, they asked me in. Do your acquaintances bring you that kind of joy?  Your friends?  Family?      
 
A woman who recently turned 100 was asked her secret to long life. “Keep Going,” she replied.  While on the surface that seems apt advice it’s also a bit cavalier.  Imagine the millions whose lives were cut short by disease, murder or accidents.  Surely, they would have loved to ‘keep going.’  Truth is we can only ‘keep going’ for so long then we won’t be going anywhere, period.
 
Today, I read that Tom Petty has been given an honorary degree from the University of Florida, posthumously.  What’s the point of that?  A little ‘buzz’ for the school?  He didn’t even attend there but was merely their groundskeeper once.  It certainly won’t mean anything to Tom.  
 
And there’s the rub.  All this stuff that comes ‘after’ we’re here is meaningless.  I watched part of Bob Dole’s funeral today; a lot of stiff, pomp and circumstance—nothing like the man himself.  Did the folks who spoke at his ceremony tell Bob these things while he was alive?  No wonder that woman in India staged her death.  She wanted to know what others really thought of her.  Few tell us while we’re here.
 
Don’t let that be you.  Make your life sparkle now.  Start that bucket list today.  Draw someone new into your circle.  Laugh with abandon.  And while you’re at it, tell someone who may not even know, just how much they mean to you. Don’t let your first chance become your last one.  The folks in this picture didn’t.  They know what real joy is and how to share it.
 
  

MEET THEM WHERE THEY ARE

ON THE STREETS OF WAIKIKI

Homeless people have been around since I was a young girl in the 60’s wandering the streets of New York City.  Back then, they were few and far between, sitting quietly beside a sign that read, “Spare change?”  Now, they are up front and very center across America. On any given night, half a million people are laying their heads on the ground, exposed to the elements, disease, filth and predators. Statistics say it’s due to unemployment, unaffordable housing, drug use and mental health issues.  And while those things do affect the numbers, there is something deeper at work:  they have lost connection with others.  Sometimes that connection is lost by accident.  Other times it is a purposeful break due to violence, trauma, or family alienation which now affects 27% of us.  

13 years ago, a Stanford graduate fell off the grid.  His concerned classmates, after a long, circuitous hunt, found him alive and sort of well living on the streets of New Orleans.  That story had a happy ending.  Most don’t but often it’s not for lack of trying.  My own mother spent her later years walking the streets of Long Island pushing a shopping cart.  At night, she slept in a baseball dugout.  Despite getting her into housing, she always bolted claiming that she needed, “fresh air and freedom,” both of which came at a price.

Homelessness is a broken connection.  It cannot be simply fixed by relocation, housing or even treatment.  There is no one size fits all when you are talking about people.  If you want to repair a broken circuit, you first have to turn off the power to it, troubleshoot which breaker has malfunctioned, replace and rewire it.  On a plastic panel, it’s a simple process.  In a human being, the breakers are endless and finding the right one to re-wire is often a crapshoot.  This crisis across America will take a multiplicity of interventions connecting together at the same time.   

I’ve spent the last few weeks in Hawaii.  It is not the paradise I remember from 25 years ago.  Now, I cannot go a single block without encountering a homeless person.  I often take the bus but have yet to be able to sit at the stop, since there is usually someone sleeping on the bench.  Once, I was chased into the street by a man who threw his socks at me because I didn’t have a light for his cigarette.  But I’ve noticed something:  The police are tolerant and the locals leave food and coffee by their camp sites.  Yesterday, a blanket and a cooler filled with water and bananas were left on a park bench.  This morning, I added my own pair of worn shoes.  As Iyanla Vanzant so poignantly said, “You have to meet people where they are and sometimes you have to leave them there.”      

SHAME ON ME

Just when I think I’m at a stage of life where things are straightforward and clear, I get a curve ball.  I’m doing a quick shop at Trader Joe’s.  As I enter the produce section, there is a man fondling the bananas.  Yes, fondling.  He eventually pulls off only one.  I’m intrigued.  His clothes are ill fitting and shabby and the seat of his trousers seems oil soaked.  When he turns towards me, his long, stringy, unkempt hair frames a gaunt face that is missing several teeth.  I peg him as homeless.

Two aisles later, we pass in the frozen food section.  His walk is jerky and odd.  Definitely not Parkinson’s, so I wonder if he might have Tardive Dyskinesia.  I vaguely remember it has something to do with taking too much anti- psychotic medication.  I smile at him as we pass and he smiles back.  

Later, as I stand in the checkout line with my small bag of five items, he comes up behind me, still carrying one banana and a small bottle of water.  I offer to let him go first.

“You only have two items,” I say.  “I have five.”

He insists I go first.  I thank him and checkout, silently wondering if it’s perhaps he is getting his food free from the cashier.  

As I maneuver out of the parking lot, he crosses in front of my car with that stumbly gait.  I wait for him, assuming that he might be going to the homeless encampment half a block away.  However, as he gets towards my side, he gestures at me to roll down my window.  I do.

“I was wondering if you’d like to come over to my house for dinner tonight and watch a movie,” he asks sweetly.  I’m stunned to almost wordlessness.

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” I reply, “but that is sweet of you to ask.”

“Ok,” he says and goes on his way.

I wrestle with myself all the way home.  Does he really have a house?  Is he delusional?  Am I?  Then I realize that it doesn’t matter.  For the whole time I was judging him, he was looking at me with hopeful kindness.  I saw only a burned out car and missed the fact that it was really a BMW.

LIGHTEN UP

Apparently, this is NOT a ballet barre.

There is perhaps no more mournful place in American than the local gym.  Where else can you see a sea of grimacing, grunting faces in various heave-ho positions?  It could be all the mirrors.  I’d be depressed if I stared at nothing but myself, too.  When folks aren’t staring at their anatomy they are deeply involved with their cell phones.  Deeply.  From my observations, the average gym goer spends more time looking at their phone than actually working out.

If you go to the gym, do NOT attempt to converse with anyone, particularly those with ear buds.  They do NOT want to be disturbed from their very, serious business.  Also, do NOT attempt to ‘work in’ with those who have laid sweaty bandanas across the equipment or placed a water bottle at the base.  They plan to occupy that territory for as long as it takes them to do 10 reps, then pause for 5 minutes to look at their phone, do 10 more reps, etc.  They are not in a hurry to work out.  They are, in fact, camping out.  This morning, a man sat on the same piece of equipment while I swam a half-mile.  After I showered and changed, he was still sitting there!

I dare you to go into a gym without your phone and ear buds.  You will get more done in half the time.  You’re also more likely to start up a conversation and burn social calories.  (Yeah, that’s a thing.)  I also dare you to ride a bike without staring at the TV.  Talk about feeling the road.  Distractions are just that.  They keep you from doing the work.  If you don’t do the work you won’t get results.  If you want results, stay out of the gym.  

If you do go, here are some ways to make it fun:

Ask the guy wielding two, heavy ropes if you can, “Double Dutch,” with him.
Ask the 6′ 4″ kid shooting hoops if he’ll take your picture. Explain you’re writing a ‘style’ piece for the NBA.
Pretend to get stuck and ask someone to extricate you from the machine.

But WHATEVER you do make it fun. Life is too short to take yourself that seriously.

A BIRD IN THE HAND

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Recently a juvenile cowbird sat squawking on my windowsill with its mouth wide open. Suddenly, a smaller bird of a different species altogether flew in and stuck food in its’ mouth! I was shocked to watch this happen several more times. Clearly, the bird doing the feeding was not its’ ‘real’ mother. It was a black-headed gnatcatcher!! Apparently, the cowbird likes to drop its eggs into the nests of other birds and skip parenting altogether. The beauty is that those ‘other’ birds do their best to raise someone else’s fledgling.

It’s a great lesson for me in this time of protecting my neighbor by wearing a mask. Never have I been more acutely aware of our collective breaths! And I am not just referring to the pandemic but to all of those who’s lives intersect with our own. We inhale and exhale each other with a connectedness that stretches around the world. Just like those surrogate birds, we are responsible for lives that we don’t know, may not understand and may never even meet!

As a kid who was raised by my grandmother, I appreciate the value of being parented by someone who really wants you. It is the same kind of devotion that hopefully all adoptees receive. Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela and Babe Ruth were all adopted and clearly thrived. So have storks, monkeys and seals, often nurtured by parents other than their own. Giving life is one thing but nurturing it takes a different kind of devotion altogether.

This morning, a young woodpecker with a broken leg showed up on my doorstep. For a moment I wondered if I should just let nature take its course but the thought of a hawk swooping down to devour it made me cringe. Carefully, I scooped her into my hands and settled her on a large, comfy towel inside a box. She was terrified and so was I. I didn’t know how to care for her. After calling wildlife rescue, I was eventually able to leave her in far more capable hands than my own. Now if only we could leave the world that way for those who come after us.

100 STEPS

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Since lockdown started, I’ve been walking a three-mile loop in my neighborhood. In the middle of the walk, there’s a very, steep hill. My iphone says it’s 5 stories high but it feels more like 10. The first time I tackled it, the temperature was 90 something, my heart was pounding and my legs felt weak. I thought I’d never get to the top and kept looking up to see how much further I had to go. The second time, I tried not to look up but curiosity got the better of me and every step became agony. The third time, I forced myself to look down and counted each step instead. It came to exactly 100 left-right steps! Not looking ahead and just focusing on my feet made the ascent much easier. Now that hill doesn’t seem so steep anymore.

I’m using this same strategy for our present pandemic. I say ‘present’ because this, too, will pass. Wjust don’t know when that will be or what life will look like when it does. Living in this masked and distanced universe is enough to send anyone over the edge. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered a more than 1,000 percent increase in April compared with the same time last year. Nearly half of Americans recently polled say they are experiencing mental health issues.

There is a bell curve to anxiety. At the top of it, we are motivated, focused and energized. We wash our hands, wear our masks and keep a proper distance from others. On the right-hand tail of the curve, however, we become overwhelmed and paranoid which actually weakens our immune system. We obsess over cleanliness, are terrified to go out in public and fill our heads with negative news and grim statistics. Look around. If someone is driving all alone wearing a mask, the protection they need is likely from themselves.

Eckhart Tolle encourages us to appreciate the, “power of now.” The Bible cautions, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” So, here is to realizing that the constraints we find ourselves in will eventually lead to something better. As Victor Hugo wrote over 100 years ago, “The pupil dilates in darkness and in the end finds light, just as the soul dilates in misfortune and in the end finds God.” It is only a few steps away. Count them with me.