Today Can Be the Day You Turn Things Around

A Way in the Woods

“In chaos, there is fertility.” ~Anais Nin

How did I get to this point?This question pulsed through my brain repeatedly as I drove to my parents’ house in a state of complete exhaustion. My young daughter was strapped in the back seat, my pregnant belly pushing against the steering wheel, hot tears streaming down my face.I was done. I had nothing left to give. How did I get here?Gradually, then suddenly.

With eternal gratitude to Hemingway, three simple words so elegantly summarize how I ended up in a situation I didn’t want or expect.

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Gradually, then suddenly.”

~Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises)

It happened so gradually, almost imperceptibly. And then suddenly, unequivocally, shockingly, I had suffered an emotional breakdown.Looking back, I can see that I had willingly immersed myself in anxiety, perfectionism, comparisons, sleep-deprivation, a lack of mindfulness, poor health, and the idea that I deserved…

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Single Senior Men: waiting for casserole?

When Jane Austin, a retired schoolteacher from Rockford, Ill., suddenly became a widow at age 69, her older brother called from Florida to warn her about “all those old guys who are looking for a nurse . . . or an insurance settlement.”

The warning wasn’t necessary. One husband had been enough, thank you very much. After nearly 47 years of marriage, Ms. Austin knew she would miss her husband’s company, but like many widows today, she had plans for the future — travel and a new part-time career as a school curriculum consultant — none of which involved managing another man’s domestic life.

That women like Ms. Austin aren’t interested in remarrying is likely to be unwelcome news for widowers who assume that the storied “casserole brigade” will always line up on their doorsteps. The notion of love-starved widows has become so entrenched in American culture that it has been a sitcom staple and the subject of an endless succession of jokes.

Q. Rabbi, when do I take my casserole to the widower — before Shiva [the period of mourning] or after Shiva?

A. Before Shiva is too soon. After Shiva is too late; he’ll already be taken.

The jokes may continue, but loved-starved widows, if they ever really existed outside men’s imaginations, have gone the way of June Cleaver. Women like Ms. Austin see themselves as part of a new generation of widows who openly, and sometimes gleefully, admit they like being liberated from their roles as wives and homemakers. While they may grieve over the deaths of beloved spouses and while some will never recover from their losses, the vast majority of older widows, studies show, accept and even revel in their roles as single women. They keep in close contact with their children and other family members, but they also go out to dinner, organize poetry soirées and plan travel adventures with other women, often making use of social networks developed during years of childrearing and community volunteering.

The same cannot be said of men who lose their wives. In a strange twist of fortune — some might call it poetic justice — age can bring with it something of a reversal in gender roles. The rise of an old girls’ network, friends and family who see women through a lifetime of transitions, often contrasts sharply with the decline of the old boys’ network, the professional associations that secure young men’s places in the world but offer little support or solace in later life.

“For many white men, old age is the first time that they are minorities,” Henry Alford, author of “How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People,” wrote in an e-mail. “It can be a double whammy for them: not only are they prey to declining physical health, but they now also are experiencing a loss of status, which can beget depression and sometimes suicide.”

Older men may be reluctant to talk about these feelings, but their children often sense what’s happening. Georgia Dunn’s father and father-in-law have both lost their wives. “My dad has rekindled a friendship with his high school sweetheart, and I think he would remarry her in an instant, but she doesn’t seem all that interested,” said Ms. Dunn, 57, a retired school teacher in Mount Lebanon, Ohio. “My husband’s father is trying to establish a good old boys’ network and has some success . . . but he is really lost and lonely.”

Statistics paint a grim picture of the male population over the age of 65. While men seem to start out with all the advantages — greater financial security, fewer chronic health illness and less frequent complaints of depression — elderly men, especially those who are divorced or widowed, end up with fewer friends, reduced involvement in their communities and less contact with their families.

Left to their own devices, older men don’t eat as well as older women, are less likely to seek medical care when they are sick, and more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Older women have more chronic diseases, in part because they live longer, but older men are more likely to die suddenly from heart attacks and other catastrophic, stress-related diseases. Men over 65 are five times as likely as women to commit suicide. Divorced and widowed men have suicide rates three times higher than that of older men living with a spouse.

Detecting emotional problems in elderly men before it is too late can be a serious challenge for family caregivers and even physicians. Men of Ward Cleaver’s generation don’t usually think of themselves as having emotional problems and are less likely to seek treatment for them. What makes matters harder for caregivers is that unspoken symptoms of depression are not always the same in men and women. Women who are depressed tend to feel sad, worthless and guilty, whereas men often become irritable and hostile, or complain of fatigue, sleeplessness or physical symptoms often assumed to be ordinary signs of aging.

Men and women also appear to have different mechanisms for coping with bereavement, so that what is normal grief for one may be a sign of emotional instability in the other. In one study, women who said they were comfortable being alone were significantly more likely to be coping with their grief than men who made similar remarks.

Looking back on her 83-year-old brother’s warning about predatory men, Ms. Austin now sees it less a cautionary tale for lonely widows and more an “indictment from an old man regarding other old men.”

“Most of the men I know who are widowed are not comfortable in their own homes alone,” Ms. Austin said. Either they seek replacement wives as housekeepers and social directors, or they end up “in a chair watching CNN and the cooking channels . . . waiting for the end.”

via With Friends Aplenty, Many Widows Choose Singlehood – NYTimes.com.

The Key to Dying Happy

There are a million jokes that could be made with the above headline, half of them dirty. But this post isn’t one of them — it’s about what’s important in life, how you want to live, and how you want to die. It’s about living a life of purpose, and being remembered well after you move on from this life.

To die happy, you must live life with that end in mind. Live a life of purpose.

That’s easier said than done, of course. In this post, I’ll look at a great way to find that purpose in your life, and to live every day with that purpose in mind, and to align your daily actions with that purpose.

First ask why

But first, let’s ask the obvious question: “Why does this matter?”

Let’s consider for a moment the life that most of us lead: we get up in the morning, we do what we have to do for the day, if we’re lucky we get some time to relax or do something fun, if we’re even luckier we get some time to spend with loved ones. And this repeats itself in endless variations until we get old.

What happens then? We look back on our lives, and perhaps we wish we’d done stuff differently, or wish we’d accomplished something. But after a certain point, it’s a bit too late.

This post is about doing something about it now, about choosing to live differently before it’s too late.

Perspective

Now let’s think about what’s important. At any given moment, whatever is in front of us is important. That assignment has to be done right away! That’s because we’re looking closely, at the details.

But if we pulled back, took a step away from our lives, those details become less important. Soon we can start to see the forest. Unless we pull back some more — and now we can see a continent. Pull back further, and we see the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy — and now nothing in our lives are important.

Obviously, you need to get the right amount of perspective.

The best tool for that, I’ve found, is a famous principle of Stephen Covey’s: begin with the end in mind. And here’s how he tells us to do that: by imagining what we’d like people to say about us at our funeral. Do we want them to say that we were kind-hearted, or charitable, or loving, or successful, or that we accomplished great things, or found a cure for cancer? However we want to be remembered, that’s how we should live our lives, every moment of every day, starting right now.

Live With Purpose — A How-to Guide

If you want to live a life of purpose, here’s a method for doing so (you were wondering when the list would come!):

Your purpose. Start by taking 10 minutes out of your life to find some quiet space, and to close your eyes, and to think. Ask yourself: How do I want to be remembered? What do I want people to say about me at my funeral? Think about that for 10 minutes, then write down your answers. There may be a few different things, or 10, or just one.

Write it down. Put your purpose — how you want to be remembered — on a sheet of paper. Type it out, or write it lovingly with a Magic Marker — it doesn’t matter. Put it in nice, big letters. This is your life mission. Post it up somewhere visible, or make it your desktop background. Be reminded of it every day.

Morning ritual. Every morning, rise with the sun (or at the crack of noon, it doesn’t matter), and look at your purpose. Read it out loud, and give it some thought. Ask yourself: what can I do today to help fulfill my purpose? Now write that down on your to-do list — even if it’s something simple, like “Smile at my co-workers” or “Give my kids a hug”.

Align your actions. As much as possible, make your actions move your toward your purpose. Keep that purpose in mind throughout the day. If it helps, send yourself email reminders. After awhile, it’ll become a part of your nature.

Evening ritual. Take a few minutes before you go to bed to look back on your day, on your actions, on what you accomplished. Perhaps write about it in a journal (this is best, but it’s up to you). Look at your purpose again, and think about how you could have lived today differently. Then figure out how you can live your purpose better tomorrow.

These simple actions aren’t that hard to do. They might take some energy and focus in the beginning to make it a habit, but with focus, you can make it happen. And your life will be filled with purpose, and you will live your life with happiness, and eventually, with a little luck, die happy. May your life be blessed.

For those who are curious, I just came up with my life mission now (subject to change):

Leo’s Mission

He was an amazing dad.

He made his wife happy.

He was a good, compassionate person.

He made the lives others better (especially those in need).

He was a great writer.

He was happy.

via The Key to Dying Happy : zenhabits.

Getting Along

OVER THE YEARS I’ve come to a conclusion: Human beings are basically incompatible. Think about it. We live in different bodies, we’ve had different childhoods, and at any given moment our thoughts and feelings are likely to differ from anybody else’s, even those of our nearest and dearest. Given the disparities in our genetic makeup, conditioning, and life circumstances, it’s a miracle we get along at all.

Yet we yearn to feel connected to others. At the deepest level, connectedness is our natural state—what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” We are inextricably related, yet somehow our day-to-day experience tells us otherwise. We suffer bumps and bruises in relationships. This poses an existential dilemma: “How can I have an authentic voice and still feel close to my friends and loved ones? How can I satisfy my personal needs within the constraints of my family and my culture?”

In my experience as a couples therapist, I’ve found that most of the suffering in relationships comes from disconnections. A disconnection is a break in the feeling of mutuality; as the psychologist Janet Surrey describes it, “we” becomes “I” and “you.” Some disconnections are obvious, such as the sense of betrayal we feel upon discovering a partner’s infidelity. Others may be harder to identify. A subtle disconnection may occur, for example, if a conversation is interrupted by one person answering a cell phone, or a new haircut goes unnoticed, or when one partner falls asleep in bed first, leaving the other alone in the darkness. It’s almost certain that there’s been a disconnection when two people find themselves talking endlessly about “the relationship” and how it’s going.

The Buddha prescribed equanimity in the face of suffering. In relationships, this means accepting the inevitability of painful disconnections and using them as an opportunity to work through difficult emotions. We instinctively avoid unpleasantness, often without our awareness. When we touch something unlovely in ourselves—fear, anger, jealousy, shame, disgust—we tend to withdraw emotionally and direct our attention elsewhere. But denying how we feel, or projecting our fears and faults onto others, only drives a wedge between us and the people we yearn to be close to.

Mindfulness practice—a profound method for engaging life’s unpleasant moments—is a powerful tool for removing obstacles and rediscovering happiness in relationships. Mindfulness involves both awareness and acceptance of present experience. Some psychologists, among them Tara Brach and Marsha Linehan, talk about radical acceptance—radical meaning “root”—to emphasize our deep, innate capacity to embrace both negative and positive emotions. Acceptance in this context does not mean tolerating or condoning abusive behavior. Rather, acceptance often means fully acknowledging just how much pain we may be feeling at a given moment, which inevitably leads to greater empowerment and creative change.

One of the trickiest challenges for a psychotherapist, and for a mindfulness-oriented therapist in particular, is to impress on clients the need to turn toward their emotional discomfort and address it directly instead of looking for ways to avoid it. If we move into pain mindfully and compassionately, the pain will shift naturally. Consider what happened to one couple I worked with in couple therapy:

continued at: Getting Along | Tricycle.

How Does It Feel to Be 82?

Any Shiny Thing

I asked my friend Sallie Bailey that question because I think the more we know about aging, the less chance we’ll waste a lot of time being freaked out when we get there. Sallie is an award-winning artist and writer (here’s a link to her website). She’s practical and smart, and she said I could quote her, so here goes.

Frankly, it’s a pain. Literally. Arthritis has taken its toll. Joint replacements help but there’s a lot that brings me up short, limiting my mobility. I’m very fortunate that I’ve dodged all the major bullets – no serious health problems. The brain still functions. I firmly believe that creativity is the answer – I think we writers/artists have an enormous advantage. It’s my opinion that our ceaseless brain activity keeps that organ healthy – keeps it young. I have more ideas than I can carry to fruition. Time…

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Can a friend be a lover, as a lover can be a friend?

 
It pains me at times
that I have deliberated
over whether a friend can be a lover
I’ve had lovers who were friends
but we were lovers
first….
then a moment arises
the need for a lover
becomes a thirst
 
Is it fair?
that you demand more your friend
from the picture you drew?
sadness and loneliness
so they offer
more to you of themselves
if you accept their offer
can you turn back the clock
mistakes may slip
 
for after a friend becomes a lover
your knowledge of each other
is more intimate
flicking an emotional switch
so you no longer react as of late
your friend has gone
your lover is here
things now become more intricate
when a relationship ends
it invariably sours
communication is broken
you have lost your friend
 
However…..
to further the debate
if your friend
is your soul mate
then as your lover
is it not deliberated
that your soul mate
can be your lover
they know the inner you
not the intimate first
they can read you
know your thoughts
understand you at best
 
So how do we distinguish
between who is a friend
a lover and
a soul mate
can they be defined?
or do we combine and manipulate
how do we know if a friend
can be a lover
as a lover can be a friend?
Or do we confuse the two…..

via “Can a friend be a lover, as a lover can be a friend? (edited)” by wigs | Redbubble.

[I enjoyed this poem; it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed poems about love.]

Peas and hominy

Most of my life I’ve been a go-go-getter, racing along what I calculated to be the most efficient path to [fill in the blank with a venerable goal].  I think it might have started at about the age of 19 when Billy Graham convinced me that the End of the World was at hand.  That idea instilled in me a sense of urgency that sent me crashing headlong into a desperate crusade to find truth, happiness, and eventually to perfect the American Way and to enjoy as much apple pie as I could.

Lately I’ve concluded that some kinds of excitement a person can do without.  I’m also in a situation where I have time to reflect on past efforts and can afford to take my time in deciding where to point the bow of my boat next.  And I realized that the End of the World has been upon us for thousands of years, and with any luck it will be for thousands of years to come.

I also realize that for many things I’ve been-there-done-that; raised families, achieved financial success, found many versions of truth, visited many places and people in the world.  I’ve refined my perception of what is important to human life and what is not.

My dad often used the phrase “peas and hominy” as a sort of humorous and disarming way to refer to “peace and harmony”.  I’ve seen something similar on a bumper sticker:  “Imagine swirled peas”…

So lately I’ve been inclined to throw out the anchor, so to speak, and to see what it is to metaphorically go nowhere and do nothing.  Zen masters refer to that approach as hauling water and chopping wood.  To nurture peas and hominy in my garden space; to imagine swirled peas.