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!

‘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.

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.