Category Archives: Happiness

On A Big Birthday & Goal Setting

Faye @85th birthday dinner

Every birthday is a marker in time, an opportunity to look backward and forward. Perhaps, because I was born at the apex of spring in the midst of the vibrant arrival of cherry blossoms, daffodils, and azalea, my senses are heightened. This past 85th birthday, I learned that aging is like breathing, rhythmical and effortless, until you pay too much attention.

There was no warning that this mid-decade birthday would feel like a big event; but the night before, after a fun tour of Fenway with a group of elders where we walked (slowly) up five flights to the top of the monster ball park and Shabbos dinner where close to my age friends dug into topics of aging at home, maintaining health, and presidencies over eight decades, I was off balance, feeling the weight of accrued years.

As I write this, the shock of recognition has faded and I am focused on the best way to maintain balance by paying less attention to what has passed and more attention to what is possible in my creative life.

Two weeks before my birthday, I began to revise a short essay for my annual submission to the Solstice MFA Anthology. While reading the piece aloud, I was taken by the rhythmic structure of several sentences and as I labored to shape it, the piece morphed into a poem. It took two full weeks and daily devotion to detail to reshape the piece into stanzas. An individual poem, because it is more compressed and every word is significant, can demand what seems like an inordinate amount of time. Yet the process, in and of itself, was compelling and joyful.

For many years, during my psychotherapy practice, I maintained balance by writing and revising poems daily; but once I retired, I left poetry behind in the wake of essays and memoir. The return of my poetry muse, especially in this post Trump world, convinced me to re-examine my writing schedule. Thus, for the near future, I have decided to shift my blog writing to every other week so as to attend to poem making as well as the longer works of nonfiction.

On the subject of setting goals in this post Trump world, I came upon an April 13th New York Times Opinion piece by Nicholas Kristoff in which he cites how he quizzed a scholar, Gene Sharp, 89years old, THE expert on challenging authoritarians. Sharp and a colleague, Jamila Raqib offered the main message that effectiveness does not come from pouring out into the street in symbolic protests. It requires meticulous research, networking and preparation.

“Think!” Sharp said. “Think before you do anything. You need a lot of knowledge first.”

Kristoff points to how Sharp gives emphasis to grass-roots organizing, searching out weak spots in an administration and patience before turning to 198 nonviolent methods he has put into a list, from strikes to consumer boycotts, to mock awards.

I’m grateful for Kristoff’s column; it is well worth the read to those of you seeking to weigh in and make a difference.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/13/opinion/how-to-stand-up-to-trump-and-win.html

 

 

Passover 2017: We Continue On

Beth conducting Seder

When a word sticks in my head, appears and re-appears in my consciousness, I know something is brewing. On this, the 6th day of Passover, the day I will prepare charoses for our family Seder, hosted for the first time by my daughter, Beth, the words pass over cry out for attention.

The event of Beth’s stepping up to host the Seder marks the passing over of the beloved and sacrosanct family Seder to the next generation. Last year at this time, my first cousin Sid, then 99 years old and living in an assisted care community, carried on the tradition to host my mother’s extended family of cousins and friends, a group of 40 plus.

Sid’s death this past fall marked the ultimate passing over, the end of a five generation Passover gathering of my mother’s family.

Sid’s older brother, Lew and his wife, Selma welcomed Marv and myself as a newly arrived couple in the Boston area. Spring, 1958, the sight of an elongated “T” table set with Selma’s personally constructed Haggadah set the scene. Lew, as eldest son of Kunah, my mother’s half sister, an articulate and wise lawyer, held the reins, insisting that each and every participant read aloud in English or Hebrew, that we all take part. The mood was irresistible: we were grateful to come together, to re-tell the story of our ancestral exodus from tyranny, to raise our cups in thanks, to sing with verve and spirit.

As a child, I had little sense of the meaning of Passover. My father read the entire service in Hebrew from a black bound book lacking pictures, transliteration and songs. In contrast, Selma’s 8×10 bound Haggadah was printed in English and Hebrew, and included songs and pictures drawn by all the children.

When Selma and Lew passed, Sid and his wife relocated the Seder to their home in New Jersey. For two decades, I took over hosting our own small version of the family Seder. Using Selma’s Haggadah, I followed the tradition of my mother’s extensive menu of hard boiled eggs and salt, gefilte fish with horseradish, chicken soup with matzos balls, brisket, tsimmes, fresh green asparagus, my own baked macaroons and fresh fruit.

When my children married and started their own families, each one continued the tradition— Craig, returning home those first years and ultimately taking Selma’s Haggadah to the Midwest and Beth, still in the Boston area, joining with me, cooking the chicken soup. To continue on, we adapted. To include family members from afar, we shifted the Seder to a weekend date. In time, to accommodate restless children,we shortened the story telling and experimented with new and modern Haggadahs.

I recall my gratitude a decade ago when Sid relocated and re-instated the family Seder. With his passing, I am grateful that Beth has stepped up to host this first year with her family and close friends. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon scraping and cutting carrots and sweet potatoes, mixing the dried fruit, orange juice and spices to blend the flavors. My mother, Goldie’s hand written recipe card, alongside my favorite New York Times recipe, guided me. I am grateful to continue on.

Plants: My Trump Winter Balm

Gaillardia & Gerbera
on the Windowsill

Two weeks ago in the Northeast, in the midst of the Russian /Flynn /election connection and the endless Trump twitter maelstrom, spring temperatures warmed the ground. Clumps of daffodils began their stretch to maturity. Lily leaves peeped out. Buds appeared on shrubs. I embraced the warm air.

Spring in February, a seductive distraction, seemed too soon. Within days, a  snowstorm blanketed every bud and plant with soft snow, a coating that is protective. After the spring thaw, some leaves will look fragile and need to be cut. Thankfully, the blossoms will emerge intact and open.

The seduction of spring stuck. Just as the plants began to stretch upward in the warming earth, I culled my garden catalogs and began to fantasize about rich colors and new plantings for my garden.

There is nothing more appealing to a winter-shut-in-gardener then the  sight of red, yellow, peach and pink primrose plants at the entry to the super market. My first choice was a red plant, my second choice, yellow. Primroses are easy plants. They like “wet feet,” meaning that every few days they require watering from the base up. It’s easy. I simply pop the plant into a bowl of water and let the plant infuse what it needs. I then place it in the sink to drain out the excess moisture.

The next week, I was tempted but hesitant to buy a bright orange gerbera. My prior efforts at growing gerbera in summer have resulted in wilt. But this was a winter experiment. I had the intuition to water my orange beauty the same way I watered the primrose. Gratefully, the plant has thrived and produced multiple blooms.  My hope is to set it in the garden along with the yellow and red gaillardia with its effervescent blossoms.

My gaillardia and gerbera plants on the sunny windowsill draw me into a practice of mindfulness. Every day I check each leaf, each bud for wilt, aphids, any sign of distress. When a blossom fades, I cut it off to engender more nourishment to new buds. A drooping blossom signals the need for water. Rotation helps the plant stay tall, otherwise it bends too far  into the sun. It’s about reading the signs.

As a child, I enjoyed  the freedom to indulge in flights of imagination and play in the backyard. Often, my dad joined me as he trimmed shrubs or cut the lawn. During World War II, I watched as he chose a half moon shaped tool to cut the edges of a bed and turn the soil for planting tomatoes, green beans and peppers. Every summer day, he tended his garden. It was part of the war effort. My father was a careful man; he understood the signs. At the right moment, he invited me to pick a lush tomato to bring to the table for supper.

I am thankful for the lessons of my father: gardens and plants engender beauty, food and connection to the earth; nature is nurture. Especially during this extended Trump winter, I am thankful.

 

Grateful My Mom Was an Immigrant

Goldie, My Mom

If my mom were alive today, she would be shaking her head in disbelief and concern about the stories of immigrants being rounded up and deported with little warning. At the age of ten, she journeyed from Lithuania to Boston Harbor with her mother and brother to join her father and half sister in Portland, Maine. Strangely, there were no stories or pictures of that time and all during my childhood and teen years, I never thought of my mother as an immigrant.

Unlike my great aunts and uncles, she spoke English without trace of an accent. A business school graduate, she identified as an American. She attended the Fanny Farmer Cooking School where she embraced modern cooking and hospitality. An adventurous and creative cook, she was known for her excellent baked goods and desserts.

In retrospect, it’s remarkable how little I knew of her first ten years in Lithuania. She enjoyed the “American Way” and relished the role of wife, mother and homemaker. I was about ten when I first realized Mom had a different life before arriving in America. We were visiting a family at a lake when the host invited us for a rowboat ride. In an instant, my confident and relaxed mother shook her head and said, not for me, and encouraged my brother and me to get in the boat and drift onto the water.

Years later, after another similar incident, she was willing to tell me the story of her nauseating and frightening 2 week voyage in steerage; she ate stale bread with water and lay on a hard bench for the entire trip. It would be many more years before I fleshed out the story of how my great grandfather, worried about the conscription of Jewish young men, made three trips from Lithuania to New York to assure safe passage for the entire family. Sadly, in the end, he was turned away because of a cough.

Last night, on television, I watched a segment about refugees, fearful of Trump’s ban and ICE roundups, finding their way to cold and icy Canada. At the border, an American and Canadian custom agent approached a lone pregnant woman. It was heart breaking when the American agent asked if she had a visa. Her body shrank in defeat as he placed her in a patrol car.

I’m grateful Great Zadie had the courage to forge the way for the entire family to undertake such a long and arduous journey. It was a time when health was a key requirement for admission. I believe Mom’s silence about what she endured was as much about her sadness for her beloved grandfather left behind as the upset from the listing boat traversing those miles of ocean swells.

I am grateful for the ACLU, the lawyers and many citizens who embrace and defend the safe harbor of America, the America who welcomed my mother, the America who sheltered and educated me, the America whose values we need to honor and protect.

Why I Stick With Gratitude

a grateful moment

In this fast paced, twitter-tweet-news-in-the-moment world, gratitude slows me down. When I consciously focus on the question—for what am I grateful today— the question in and of itself slows my monkey mind. After two and a half years of daily practice, I have trained my mind to slow and seek out the answer.

Lately, and to my delight, my friend Carol gave me feedback about her own experience of experiencing gratitude. She described it as a “process,” an apt description. In these weekly essays, I try to show how the process of gratitude engages one’s sense of self to include other human beings, the natural world and beyond.

The more I engage with the question—what encounter, what experience of noticing makes me grateful— the more I slow and go deeper within myself. In practice, the seeking is a spiritual quest, to go beyond the immediate and tap into what appeals and resonates with one’s being.

Yesterday, I attended a class with eight other mental health professionals. The topic, A Hot Button Intervention Model, was taught by Stanley Gross, Ed.D. Close to ninety, this was Stanley’s last teaching engagement on a subject he has studied and taught for much of his long career. We all have “hot buttons”—events out of the blue which set off reactivity and behavior that is familiar and often, uncomfortable.

I needed CEU’s for my professional license, and signed up in the hope that I would come to understand my quick, impulsive reactions in the face of a threating situation. Each of the participants shared a recent hot button experience. Mine was with a recent unexpected bout with vertigo. Stanley is all about process, and the need to take time to assess and evaluate the unconscious origins of a hot button reaction.

After six hours, I came away calmer, more aware of the how I over-reacted to this particular incident and its source in resurrecting a similar childhood experience. Stanley’s knowledge and teaching skills, a man in a similar life stage to my own, offered an experiential training. You can see how such a gift of new information and behaviors could bring immeasurable gratitude.

Additionally, I reconnected to a social worker/writer friend and renewed memories of a colleague we have in common. It made my gratitude experience all the sweeter.

In these Trumpster times, we need ways to move out and beyond the immediate, to give pause, to engage and refresh our senses. Each of the participants, all therapists who spend much of their workday dealing with others shared their relaxation practices. They included: swimming daily, dance, hiking, walking, working out, especially with weights. I practice David Dorian Ross’s Tai Chi Flow, a breathing/meditative/movement practice.

I am grateful to share my recent experience and the benefit that comes from a deeper engagement with unconscious aspects of myself. I am grateful to those of you who are reading this and would enjoy your comments about a recent gratitude experience.

 

The Robin’s Feast

Robins on the Back Hill,
February, 2017

I witnessed a flock of Robins foraging in the leaf litter on my back hill today. I’d been wondering about robins since yesterday, how it was the brown/orange female robin flitting around in my front garden looked so well fed.

Peter Guren, the creator of the comic strip, Ask Shagg, answered my question, in part. In response to a reader’s inquiry about why robins don’t eat from a bird feeder during winter, he replied, “ Robins that don’t migrate will hang around and eat fruit in the winter.” That made sense; a few red berries, blue berries, still tethered to my holly and juniper shrubs, though a little spongy, lay in wait.

I write this post at my kitchen table with a sweeping view of the back hill. The out door thermometer reads 58 degrees, a February thaw. I cannot say what drew my attention up the back hill, beyond the erosion/planter inserts filled with green pachysandra, to the bank of exposed leaves. The leaves were moving—flitting, fleeting, fluttering, leaping, turning. It was as if I were witnessing a live video on camera. But what was propelling all that action?

I stood at the patio door to focus up the thirty yards where the scene was playing out. It took a sustained and conscious effort to zoom onto what seemed surreal, my imagination at play, when I caught sight of the red/orange breast of one, two, three, ten, twenty or more robins in a feeding frenzy. The sight of so many in the common search for food, their coordinated dance, the sense of their innate radar— food for nourishment beneath the melting of new snow, the moist leaves abundant with earthworms, beetles, spiders, and more.

My anxious gut fluttered with gratitude, a release of pleasure, uncoiling with delight, this 30th day of Trump’s presidency,  The robins had not flown south; they had stayed close to home, this homestead surrounded by oaks and American Beeches, the branched lily tree in the front garden which nests 3 to 4 chicks each spring.

Since President Trump’s 77-minute press conference, his rant of free association, my mind craved grounding, a way to sort and sift what I had heard, a way to make sense of what made no sense. The birds offered a lesson.

I am grateful to be reminded of what lies beneath the surface, to refocus, to shift attention from the chaos of breaking news to the quiet rhythms of nature, music, reading, reflective writing, and once again, list making. My friend, Rosemary, offered an interesting response to my last post. “I think of lists as containment, ways to hold in place (if briefly) what can otherwise roam wild in our minds.”

The flurry on this hill—at first sight—seemed wild, out of control. Brown, matted down, leaves were being propelled by an invisible force. Orange/red rounded bursts, grey wing- shaped pulsations, caused me to pause and focus more intently until the full sweep of what was occurring came into view. I am grateful for the lesson.

Lists and Mental Health

Amaryllis in Window

I find list making calming. With a half-awake president wandering the darkened White House corridors at 3:00 a.m., asking his National Security Advisor about the benefits of a strong or weak dollar, tweeting edicts for the a.m. news, we are rapidly becoming a nation of insomniacs and worriers.

When I worry, I make lists—in my head, on legal or skinny sized notepads, where the eye can scan down, take note and experience a semblance of control.

First and foremost, my ever-present go-to is the grocery list. It’s comforting to use the last bit of blueberry jam and pen it on the top line. As if by magic, I have replaced it, a mental guarantor of a satisfying taste for the start of my day.

“To do” lists serve a similar purpose— phone calls to the plumber or a friend; e-mails, mostly personal, a prompt to send a birthday card or a note of sympathy.

As I writer, I list ideas, random thoughts, phrases, words which evoke, please, resonate. I list projects— essays in process, essays to submit, essays submitted— acceptances and rejections.

The most helpful and yes, the list requiring the most discipline and effort is the gratitude list. Since Trump’s election, my mental health depends on finding a balance between sources that nurture my inner world and those that direct my energies outward. I offer this week’s example.

Week of February 8, I’m grateful for:

  • My fluffy amaryllis, wide open with four striped petals and a lime green throat—a beautiful gem which opens my heart every time I stop to notice, to touch its creamy skin.
  • Breathing in the unexpected warmth of Wednesday’s spring-like day, temperature near 60, earthy smells, my clogged sinuses opening with lightness.
  • Relating to the Diane Rehms (2/10/17) blog post— “Inside The White House and Coping in an Age of Anxiety.” A well thought-out distillation on considering anxiety as a resource and the positive attributes of harnessing anxiety in the cause of resistance.http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2017-02-10/inside-the-white-house-and-coping-in-an-age-of-anxiety
  • The 3-0 unanimous decision of the 9th circuit’s court of appeal to maintain the stay on Trump’s order to restrict travel from seven ( predominantly Muslim) nations. Relief that the checks and balances are holding.
  • Elizabeth Warren, who though silenced on the Senate floor, appeared on the Daily Show, spoke out on The Rachel Maddow Show, and disseminated a video where she persisted in reading Coretta Scott King’s letter and talking about Jeff Session’s role when African-Americans were beaten away from the polls.
  • An unexpected part-time job offer from the Team Leader at the Whole Foods Whole Body aisle with whom I often swap nutrition and supplement info. Job requirement: knowledge of health issues and supplements, check; job experience with people, check; ability to stand on feet, check; climb ladders, lift 50 pound boxes, forget it! Nice fantasy, especially at my age.

If you have experience with list making and its mental health benefits, please share in the comments section. I’m grateful for  thoughts and ideas on this timely and important topic.