Category Archives: Happiness

On Real-Life Storytelling in Film

Grace Lee, Film Director                Ann Hornaday, Film Critic

We’ve just returned from a week of learning about voice and ownership in film, Marv’s and my fifth season at The Chautauqua Institute with Road Scholar. As a writer, I am drawn to topics that edify and explicate literary aspects of the creative process. What better way to understand process than to listen to an astute interviewer dig into the background, motivation and story of the birth of a film.

Day five, Ann Hornaday, film critic for the Washington Post interviewed Grace Lee on what prompted her to begin her film career with “The Grace Lee Project,” in which she interviewed women named “Grace Lee” from all over the country. As an Asian American who grew up in Missouri, she was the only person she knew with her first name, but upon moving to New York and California, she realized there were many women with her full name. Likening the name “Grace Lee” to the “Jane Smith of Asian-American names,” the germ of her project was born and she set out to interview Grace Lees all over the country.

When I started asking other people about the Grace Lees they once knew, they were always stereotypically perfect, over-achieving Asian Americans. They went to Harvard at age 15, were excellent violin players…devout Christians, and I was none of those things. (Chautauqua Daily)

During the making of this 2005 film, she met Grace Lee Boggs, an Octogenerian Chinese-American woman who lived and worked as an activist-writer in a predominantly African American community in Detroit. A decade later, Lee returned to Boggs at age ninety to make a film titled “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.”

As a writer of memoir, as a clinician who savors story, the film clips and discussion of how Grace Lee and her camera crew followed Boggs about on her daily encounters mesmerized me. Earlier in the week, listening to Ken Burns and his two writer colleagues, I learned the value and importance of weaving “stills” and back footage into the story line.

I attended Wayne University in Detroit in 1953, just at the time whites were fleeing to the suburbs as African Americans were moving into  neighborhoods. As a sociology major, I went from door to door, interviewing whites and African Americans about their neighborhood concerns. Wariness of the “other” was everywhere. I was on the fringe, unaware of Bogg’s world, encased in an academic bubble.

Lee, who had taken on the Grace Lee film as a way to research the stereotypical Asian-American as “passive,” commented how she had studied social history and the civil rights movement in college but also had never heard of Boggs. She zoomed into Boggs life, thereby transporting me to a time before the women’s movement, before Betty Friedan’s book, to Boggs’ 70 years of living in and advocating for the African American community.

After a week of film clips and discussions from film directors and writers, I am appreciative and grateful for the special visual and auditory qualities of documentary film story telling. I wish I had known about Grace Lee Boggs when I was a student at Wayne; she was such an inspirational woman. Thanks, to Grace Lee.

 

 

 

On Vacation

Chautauqua
Amphitheater

Marv and I are off to a week at The Chautauqua Institute, Week Nine, Film Festival. Grateful to take the week to soak up lectures, films, pithy discussion, walks along Lake Chautauqua and lots of new visual and artistic experiences. Stay tuned. I’ll post again after Labor Day.

Why Gratitude?

Marv pondering in the garden

People are skeptical about gratitude; I can’t blame them. It’s not easy to tune into or away from events in this uneasy, the sky is falling,-wait-is-it-real-or-fake-news-time, in our country’s life.

I’m often asked, What is there to be grateful for? I understand. We are all anxious these days. Anxiety can cloud vision, focus, and point of view. I need not remind you who is president, who fawned over Putin, as we learn day by day how much of our way of life is being threatened.

Nonetheless, I believe, with focus, we can train ourselves to pause, take a breath and consider that which is in reach and palliative within our own small orbit. If you have read my blog on the benefits of time in nature, you know that by a daily practice in which I attend to a houseplant or walk out into my garden and pause, I am able to move into a state of appreciation for the color or shape or smell of what is before me.

The key is embracing possibility—that in the course of one’s daily activities, there are limitless options to notice and feel appreciation and gratitude. For me, the benefit of pausing and slowing my pace are immediate. I can feel my mood shift and for no other reason then to experience calm, I am grateful.

Take yesterday, at the grocery store. The temperature was 90. The air, humid. Late in the day, I was not in the mood to shop. But first thing, in the produce department, I was greeted by a gracious man I have endlessly seen unloading greens and propping them up for display. “Hello,” he greeted, with his wide smile. My smile in response was instant.

Before I knew it, I was caught by a loud conversation between a young boy sitting in a grocery carriage with his mom. He was talking vegetable talk— “yellow tomatoes, yum,” as his mother leaned over the display of tiny fresh fruits, filling a box to the brim and handing her boy one after another as a snack. The scene was intimate and sweet; it filled my heart. I was grateful to bear witness.

Near the finish, as I came up the aisle, an elderly man in a wheel chair turned the corner. Had I continued, we would have collided. He paused. I moved back and tucked myself into a cheese corner to let him pass. We made eye contact; he nodded with appreciation. “You have the right of way,” I quipped with a grin. I noted another special moment.

Can we be “in the moment” all the time? Maybe not, but we can take note of a moment some of the time. If we pay attention, scan and focus upon what intrigues, engages, inspires, delights, stimulates, stirs—you name it—one can gather gratitude and appreciation in small ways throughout the day.

Every minute, we have choices in how we approach our lives. Each experience is ours, to take in. The minutes, the immediate connections to others and the environment, add up. I hope you will seek gratitude in some way every day.

 

 

 

Mental Health and Mother Nature’s Nurture

Monarch Butterfly
on Asclepias tuberosa

The past three mornings, I’ve flown into my garden after checking the news in the aftermath of Trump’s worrisome press conference with Putin. Sharp pruners in hand, I tackled the wild, over-grown forsythia shrub at the driveway entrance. Branches, thin and flexible, stretching to the sun, had bent and curled between and betwixt one another in pursuit of the sun.

The first day, I followed each branch to its rooted undergrowth. Bending and reaching, I cut each one at its source. After an hour and a half, my back signaling “enough,” I turned to the lilies, always in need of tidying. Uplifted by the sight of yellow, vivid red, crème, and fuscia flowering, I plucked yesterday’s wet and drooping blossoms, filling half a bucket. Creating order is good for one’s mental outlook.

On day two, I began to shape the shrub. I targeted meandering, spiking branches and snipped at the nods between two leaves to encourage a soft, wavy pattern. As I moved up and down, over and around, I shaped and re-shaped the dancing tendrils. The focus on the task at hand, somewhat challenging, lifted my spirit.

On the third day, I was contented with the tamed, undulating shape and tended to the few dry, dead clusters at the base. At the last, I stepped back and scanned each side. Pruning is art. My vision complete, I sighed in gratitude.

When the world is wild with anxiety and worry, when I cannot stop checking the news, the garden calls. It is enough to set a goal, even a mindful walk and to proceed. The esthetics of the space— the variety of species, the coloration of purple and red astilbe, white, rose and yellow zahara zinnias, the dogwood, and the mooga pine and peach azalea shrubs—offer variety and delight. Our minds and bodies entrain (tune with) the shift in pace and rhythm.

Now that the frogs have returned, their heads peer out above the water’s edge along the rocks of the little pond. I missed them terribly in late spring; for over the years, I had come to rely on their presence as the garden awakened. But nature can be unpredictable. Last year, across the driveway from the forsythia, an Asclepius (butterfly weed) carried by a bird, no doubt, appeared. I wanted to pluck it from the bed of lilies and zinnias but Crystal, my gardening helper, cautioned me. It could attract butterflies.

Late yesterday, in my car, stopped for traffic at the driveway’s entry, I glanced to my left and there, perched on the edge of the Asciepius, was a monarch butterfly. It hovered, flew and set down again. I grabbed my iPhone and stepped out of the car.  In seconds, a shimmering green hummingbird darted below the butterfly and in a flash, sped away. The butterfly lingered on, flitting to and fro, setting down once more as if she knew how much I wanted to capture her spread winged. I’m grateful to share my picture; I’m grateful to Mother Nature for nurture.

 

 

 

Marv’s 90th Birthday Celebration

                                                        Marv @ 90
                                                     Photo by Craig J.

I’m now married to a 90 old. It’s much the same as being married to an 89 year old or an 85 year old. I can testify to the belief that aging is as much a state of mind as it is a reflection of the body’s progression over time.

I’m grateful to have chosen a life partner who “thinks young.” By “young,” I mean curious. An intellectual at heart, Marv spends large swarths of time delving into political matters, both current and historical. He’s a life long learner, having attended Harvard’s Learning in Retirement Program for 12 years where he facilitated several classes on several subjects. He now is a valued member of LLIAC, an independent life learning in retirement community where he is well known for his in depth classes on Hamilton, Lincoln, Washington, Truman and upcoming Eleanor and Franklin.

“Young is as young does,” they say. Marv has a daily exercise regime begun when our son, Craig, and his wife, Melinda, exercise buffs, informed him on the importance of frequent exercise on the effects of aging. The elliptical machine and recumbent bicycle are his go-to contraptions as he watches the latest recording of Stephen Colbert or events of interest.

Marv is still a practicing psychologist. Unlike all of his colleagues, he has resisted “retirement.” He enjoys the challenge of addressing complex situations.  Clients still call arrive for appointments in the private office we constructed when we bought our home 15 years ago. At times, he rues on the fact that his referral base has dried up. But he resists thinking “old” and is grateful for his client’s trust. Before each session, he checks his notes and prepares. Discipline carries him far.

At our family and friends celebration two Saturdays ago, where we roasted and toasted this special birthday, I presented these Little Known Facts about Marv:

  • Once upon a time, Marv had a huge mop of curly hair that almost covered his upper forehead.
  • Dressed in a white suit and white shoes, Marv gave his Bar Mitzvah speech in Hebrew and English
  • As a pre-teen, he made an appointment to talk with the mayor of Detroit about his concern that high school students were not being taught to think. His appointment was canceled due to the outbreak of race riots.
  • As a psychologist, he was one of the very first to embrace family therapy. Courtesy of McLain Hospital, he toured the US to visit with the forerunners—eventually to open a private clinic where challenging families were treated in a residential program.
  • Marv has had a life long hobby of photography. He has collected, scanned and categorized 18,000 pictures chronicling the family clan for decades as well as photos of nature and oddities that appeal to Marv’s aesthetic.
  • He has five published books to his credit.
  • Early on, I adopted the nickname, “Marvelous Marvin” because he was such a “smarty pants” in our younger days. I’m grateful to report that he has mellowed into tender wisdom, which is a wonderful trait in a lifelong partner.

It was not easy to roast this reasoned, reasonable, calm (most of the time except when he loses his cool at yapping dogs (poor little Moxie) and Trump, on air, yapping his latest greatest.

I’m grateful to post this milestone blog in honor of Marv Snider. Onward!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Leadership & Compassion for Others

Ervin Staub, PhD

Sometimes, the universe offers a remedy in unexpected ways. I’ve been upset and troubled by the Trump administration’s policy to allow border agents to forcibly separate children from their parents. All my mental health training in the need for a secure, safe and trustworthy environment in raising children opposes this unconscionable policy. But what to do; how to make a difference?

As luck would have it, I’ve been on a mission to collect ceu credits. The timing was perfect to listen to Ervin Staub, Ph.D, Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, and Founding Director of its PhD concentration in the Psychology of Peace and Violence. His topic: The Leader & The Led: How the Nature of the Leader Affects Organizations and Societies.

Citing years of extensive hands on research about German Nazism, Rwanda, prison life and bullying, he contrasted destructive and constructive leadership, followed by his insights on what people like myself can do to make a difference.

Neither the vast audience nor I were surprised to learn that Trump’s path fits many elements of destructive leadership.  “Leaders are only leaders if they can attract followers,” Staub began. Underscoring the word “vision,” which, to my mind is the difference that makes a difference, he framed how destructive visions are born in response to difficult situations in society. They arise  in the ferment of decline, political chaos, societal change and ongoing conflict.

Staub stated that because addressing the real problems are difficult and/or leaders choose not to address such issues (the poor track record of Congress re: healthcare, dreamers, immigration), a destructive leader elevates himself over others by claiming that one’s own group is not responsible for the problems. Trump blames others—Democrats, Obama, Jeff Sessions, NAFTA, you name it—and with it, succeeds in cohering his group.

The self-serving elite join in while bystanders, at the risk of complicity, do nothing,he said.

He warned about the harmful practice particulars of destructive leadership—the call for loyalty, the thrust towards patriotism, the use of rejection or punishing behaviors—to encourage compliance rather than concern for all.

Destructive leadership is where we are today in the matter of refugees and border security. I, for one, cannot be a quiet bystander when, as a mental health professional, I know that without careful assessment and placement, monitoring and follow up, wrenching children from the security of family can only result in damaging effects over their lifetime.

Staub left us with the following question: How can I be an active, effective bystander who contributes to constructive change? In what domain will I act, what will I do to influence leaders, followers, the social world around me?

For myself, I write to engage with the intent of distilling and offering constructive information. I reach out to my representatives re: critical issues, support multiple causes, and for the future, I plan to explore Staub’s interview titled Bystandership—One Can Make a Difference—published in his book, The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Self-Compassion

Zoe & Max
Thanks to Craig

I wore my therapist’s hat all day yesterday. My brain is still percolating with the ramifications of the seminar’s subject, Self-Compassion: An Antidote to Shame, and its relevance. How do we manage the day-to-day shaming behaviors of our president and our elected officials? I see and feel shame every day.

According to the psychological research on mindfulness and well-being, the best antidote to shame is self-compassion. But how does one attend to self-compassion if we are feeling angry, disgusted, anxious, overwhelmed, worried, scared, and incredulous? How often have I responded to a news alert or a banner on my i-phone with an out loud shout: “Unbelievable!”

As a therapist, during the decade of the eighties, my most challenging work involved clients with repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Shame infused every session. Empathy and compassion for the client’s struggle, developing trust and a sense of safety, were key. The goal: to enable clients to face their story and to cultivate empathy and self-compassion.

Several of my most challenging clients uncovered events, came to an intellectual understanding, but continued to struggle with esteem and lifestyle choices that might ease their suffering. Shame and self-blame, often in the remembered voice of a stern and blaming parent, held a strong grip.

I don’t think it’s too big a stretch to say that our democracy is in the grip of a blaming, self-absorbed leader who puts family and friends first. Many pundits have likened his bullying to mob style leadership with all the innuendoes of secrecy, switch and bait, “what I can get away with” behaviors. For 483 days, we have been in the throes of a man decimating President Obama’s legacy and attempting to deconstruct our institutions. Abuse, in word and deed, are rampant.

Considering how Trumpian leadership triggers fear and undermines our sense of safety, I share the essence of yesterday’s 6-hour seminar on how self-compassion can be a significant resource in managing the stress of daily events. According to the seminar instructor, Chris Germer, PhD, a member of the Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, self-compassion consists of three main components—

  1. Self kindness: entails being warm and caring towards ourselves when things go wrong in our lives.

  2.   Common humanity: recognizes the shared nature of suffering when difficult situations occur.    

  3.    Mindfulness: involves turning inward toward our painful thoughts and emotions and seeing them as they are without suppression or avoidance.

Ask yourself, What do I need now? Is it a cup of soothing, hot tea, a walk in nature, a good book, talking with a friend, listening to music or working in the garden before the rain comes as I did earlier today? After planting the Zahara flame zinnias and deep purple stock plants, I felt relaxed and ready to tackle this post.

In this Trump era, we need to approach information mindfully and adopt a self-compassionate attitude. In so doing, we can sustain our empathy and compassion for others like the #Never Again and #Me Too Movements, the Dreamers, the refugees at the border, the women in danger of losing their healthcare under Title 10, and the many more who are vulnerable to every day threats to their safety and well-being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Positive Aging

 

Faye’s 86th birthday
photo by Marv

A week ago, I posted a picture of myself facing a large bowl of fresh fruits holding an “86” candle. At that moment in time, looking into the flame of light, the abundance of color and sweetness arranged by my daughter, surrounded by my husband, daughter, her significant other and two granddaughters, my heart soared with gratitude.

Several Facebook friends commented on how happy I looked. A runner/writer friend said, “Yay, interesting, the cake you Bostonians eat.” I replied, “Yes,” and delicious, too.”

Do I feel 86? No. According to recent scientific studies, accenting the positive, such as embracing gratitude, has a positive effect on aging. The May 3rdBoston Globe highlighted a Washington Post article about how our attitudes about aging can effect our aging process. .https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/cliches-about-only-being-as-old-as-you-feel-are-starting-to-have-scientific-backing/2018/04/13/4ccd9c4a-3125-11e8-8abc-22a366b72f2d_story.html?utm_term=.d130e75d145e

Paola Sebastiani, a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health, reports, Aging well is not only delaying disease…feeling good about your life is an important aspect of healthyaging.

It turns out that I am not alone in feeling younger. One study found that as people age, they consistently say they feel younger—“much younger”—than their actual age. In truth, when I ask myself how old I feel, I’m a little flummoxed. As I look in the mirror, walk the stairs in my house, practice Tai Chi, change the linens on the bed, garden, write, discuss, plan ahead, eighty-six is hard to believe. It’s not that I’m slowing down. Of course I am, but not much. Engagement, learning, following my curiosity, sharing with others, continues on.

I was a sheltered child. Yet, on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps seven or eight years old, I accompanied my parents to a visit to an Uncle’s home where, upon retrospect, I participated in a death vigil for Great Aunt Becky. She was truly old (though I have no idea how old), lying in a double bed—tiny, emaciated, smiling wanly, waiting to die. The image never left me. The article cites William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

Negative views about aging are communicated to us early in life, through media, books, and movies and what our friends and family tell us…These attitudes are present and pervasive already in childhood, so naturally it’s hard to enact meaningful change to these attitudes—but that’s what we are trying to do at the moment.

After many health events, I have learned about the importance of mindful listening to my body. This birthday, I decided to break a family tradition.  Because I have a history of candida and am lactose intolerant, I asked my daughter to bring dessert but to forego the family tradition of a Lizzy’s coffee-oreo yogurt cake laced with chocolate sauce. Savvy in her own choices, I was grateful for the ease in which she honored my request for a bowl of my favorite fruits including pesticide-free, organic strawberries filled with sweetness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Balm of Lullaby Road

Reading Lullaby Road
photo by Marv

Can a quiet novel written about a self-effacing, reflective character named Ben draw you in and transport you from the miasma of current events? I am grateful to my Solstice MFA colleague, James Anderson, for creating Lullaby Road, his second book about Ben Jones, a twenty-eight-foot tractor-trailer driver in the high desert of Utah who embraces the expanse of isolation and space while surrounded by characters with challenging circumstances.

I follow the poetic rhythm of Anderson’s words. There is no need to hurry, to find out what’s next. I linger, pause over Ben’s description of his route— tall grasses and twisted junipers, mountains of tires, filled with hissing rattlesnakes—as he delivers drums of water, propane, essential items to his varied customers

I rarely had sharp discussions with my customers. I rarely had discussions at all. Silence joined with indifference to keep conversation to nods and shrugs. Sometimes it almost compensated for how long it took some of them to pay me.  

Every aspect of Ben’s life—the landscape, troublesome and endearing customers, friends and loves still on this earth and those who have passed—are woven into the fabric of this novel. Yes, Ben is fictional, contained on the pages of a book, born from Anderson’s imagination. Yet, he is real and lingers long after I leave the page.

Characters, such as John The Preacher, Ginny, a teen, the Doctor, serve to speak the author’s truth. Combination philosopher, poet, human being with a high moral code, and exceptional story–teller, Anderson commits to bringing us a character of moral integrity. Ben Jones is the antithesis of Washington insiders, the subjects of our everyday news, the stories in which we are drowning.

…too damn often a gun might seem like a preserver….I considered them a tool…carrying one around all day was like putting a wrench in your pocket in case  one of your nuts came loose. In my experience it seemed that once you started carrying the wrench you started suspecting everyone’s nuts were loose except your own.

I met Ben three years ago in the pages of Anderson’s first book, The Never-Open Desert Diner.It was a page-turner, part mystery, love story and desert journey. I have been to the Southwest desert twice. Both times, I welcomed the change from the frenetic pace of the East coast as I entered the ease of meditative wanderings evoked by the landscape.

I walked out to the front of the truck and paused to watch the sun come up over the desert. …. the white expanse of snow-covered ground began to stretch out before me farther and farther until the sheer cliff face of the red, mica-flaked mesa a hundred miles distant was revealed, its flat top still obscured by clouds and behind them the first piercing rays of sunlight. And forbidding as the desert might be in summer, it was nothing compared to the silent and cold emptiness of winter…. Utah 117 ran straight through its bloodless heart. Driving it was my job…I felt safer in a natural world no matter how treacherous and unforgiving…

At the end of the day, tucked into the quiet night, I am drawn to the next phase of Ben’s journey. Satisfied and grateful for each well-crafted chapter, I sleep well, often dreaming of red adobe mountains, desert, and endless, high-country highway.

At The Piano: Trusting My Instincts

Faye at piano, photo by Marv

There is no doubt that the practice of jazz and blues grounds me every day. The rhythms, the pivot of note sequences, their unexpected sounds, delight, challenge, and frustrate me.

Old habits, dormant all the years of absence, awaken as I tackle a new piece. One cannot approach syncopated rhythms or swing with the same mindset as the repetitive rhythms of a simple Bach sonata. Yet, my mind leaps in search of predictability.

What is predictable is the need for focus and effort. To become acquainted with a new piece, I sight read. I try on the piece, test my ability to follow the upper clef melody or lay down the rhythms in the lower clef. The decision to dig in and learn the piece is mine. As an adult learner, I make the choices based on appeal and intuition. Unlike the strict tutelage I endured as a child, I am as responsible for strategy and questions as my teacher.

The work is demanding, requiring inordinate patience with myself. I have been here before— at the crossroads of embracing a challenge, wondering if I have bitten off more than I can chew. The irony of learning jazz and blues is that the simplest, most basic pieces are boring.

Parts of my first book by Martha Meir, found at a local music store, were challenging enough to lead me through the frustration of fingering and counting new rhythms into a sense of possible mastery.

With increased confidence, I purchased Meir’s books 2, 3 and 4. Book 2 called out to me immediately. The piece, Misty Night Blues, infused delight like the first taste of hot fudge over vanilla ice cream. Since beginning lessons, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. Without knowing how, I make choices that work well for me.

During yesterday’s lesson, after playing a piece, Kim, my teacher, asked, “Did you notice any funky rhythms?” I had, acknowledging that I had “faked” or improvised one measure. Rendering the mix of an eighth rest, sixteenth and eighth notes all in 4 beats had frustrated and eluded me during practice sessions.

Kim reached for the music, took out her pencil and drew a straight line between every note and signature in the top and bottom measures. As I followed Kim’s mapping, my hands eased over the keys. I came away with a new keenness to tackle the “funky” parts of two other pieces. Jazz and blues demand precision. I must, in effect, contain my impulse to improvise until I master what the composer intended.

Some days, the Trump era news is so rattling, I fear I will not be able to concentrate. But once at the keyboard, beginning with a piece I know well, allowing my mind and body to merge and become entrained into the sound of coordinated rhythms, I am grateful to engage in possibility.