All posts by Sheila

Retirement or ReFIREment?

Manta_1_800x600Her full-bodied smile gave her secret away to anyone astute enough to notice. As the calendar and clock ticked away the last hours of the job that had consumed the last 17 years of her work life, her step seemed lighter, her eyes brighter. Things had happened so suddenly, there hadn’t been time to fret over the details. One phone call, “yes, we’d love to have you give more time to our organization.” A visit to HR to confirm she could take her benefits with her, and her new life in “retirement” began, at least in her mind’s eye.

As an elder, born slightly ahead of the baby boomer generation, I’ve faced the need to navigate more than one transition from a familiar work life of many years to…something else. Whether an employer no longer needed my services, or I left a position and moved to another city as a trailing spouse, or I resigned to help my daughter take care of her children as she went through treatment for breast cancer – after each incident it seemed a “second” or “third act,” in my career life or, a label I prefer – another refirement.

Retirement hasn’t been around that long, just since the middle of the last century when longer life expectancy met the increased benefits corporations and social security provided to a white male industrial work force physically worn out by the age of 65.

For most people, then and now, retirement has never been a practical reality. Low salaries and lack of benefits during their most productive work years disallowed the accumulation of the nest egg necessary to leave paid employment completely. Since the decline of the single job career life, and the recession that began in 2008, many middle class workers now can only think of a “semi- retirement” that leaves plenty of time for paid work for necessities like housing, food, and health care. Hopefully, this model can still includes more time for personal relaxation and enjoyment of family and friends.

Refirement, an even newer concept, involves thinking of a “second or third act” for the energy that has been consumed in one’s work life. According to James V. Gambone, a major proponent refirement means being guiding by one’s values and passions, to create a life-style of work, play and renewal. Refirement can include, in addition to paid work, reinvesting in a hobby, learning new skills, connecting purposefully to the younger generation, and contributing to projects for the common good.

In the mid 70s my engineer father accepted his company’s offer, after 40 some years, to retire a year earlier than he’d expected. When his company was merging with another, they offered more money to stay home than to come to work. Fortunately he’d had the good example of his uncle whose model of a long retirement might be an example of what we now call refirement.

Uncle Lloyd retired from Bell Labs at age 50 and lived a vibrant life until his death at 90. His retirement, which turned out to be longer than his working life, didn’t involve golf or boating, or traveling to distant exotic places. And no bridge or shuffleboard in a 50s+ retirement community either. He and Aunt Bertha spent summers in their New Jersey home and winters in a small farmhouse in Florida. His busy active 40-year retirement consisted of doing each day whatever his passionate interests inspired. Travel was to reconnect with and visit family. His creativity was exercised in his extensively outfitted basement workshop, his curiosity satisfied at neighborhood swap meets and his legacy insured by mentoring his nephews like my father.

IMG_3601Last night our improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players performed a Retirement/Refirement Ritual to help our friend Lynn with her career transition. We shared stories of her strengths and appreciations for her gifts, many achieved during her past career life. We helped her identify what she wanted to leave behind as people who had been through it told of what they haven’t missed from their previous careers. To represent what she didn’t want to bring along to her new life, the community helped her place her old business cards into a fire. We shared our hopes and dreams for her joyous new life by dancing and blowing bubbles on her behalf. Perhaps it was a good omen that the bubbles remained intact on the wet ground for a considerably long time. I heard rumors that her breakfast this morning was left over rum cake and blueberries. Sounds like the fun has already begun.

The Art of Grieving: When Parting Becomes Sweet Sorrow

Candle-burning-in-hands-in-the-darkEarly morning on the Summer Solstice, twenty years ago, my 31-year old son, Kenneth died of AIDS. This fact has insured that I would never forget the anniversary of his crossing and always be reminded of the gift of his life.

There was heartbreaking loss and blessed relief in those final hours. When the path to recovery and a longer life is no longer possible, death becomes the desired goal – the end to pain and suffering for our loved ones and for ourselves. And then begins the long journey of grief and bereavement as we continue on without them. I didn’t know then that my loss would eventually become a resource for my life, a spark of sweet sorrow where remembering would be a way to continue my love for Ken and to give his life meaning in the larger world.

  • Do you have stories of lessons learned from someone no longer with you?
  • Have you found special ways to honor a loved one now deceased?
  • What reminds you of your deceased loved one and how do you respond when that occurs?
  • Are you aware of ways you can extend your loved one’s legacy beyond their lifetime?

Ken’s 3½-year journey living with the disease had meant managing the fear and pain of a death-defying challenge and the social stigma and resulting isolation necessary at that time to live life as fully as possible. “Do not tell anyone,” he was told by the AIDS Outreach Center, “even your best friend, if you want to keep your job.”

Ken and Samantha300Experimenting with medication trials and ways to manage their side effects, Ken bravely continued to life the life he wanted for himself. He called on skills learned in his theater career to help him put aide the discomforts and difficulties and step into his life’s stage in the role of a healthy person. His doctor called his strategy “healthy denial.” It was not a denial of the fact of having a serious disease, but of its inevitable outcome. Ken repeated often to himself, “My main focus is to take really good care of myself so I’ll be here when the cure arrives.”

The cure is still not here. In spite of the great strides made for AIDS to become a chronic disease people can live with – people must know they have the disease and must have access to the newer medications. More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV today, and 1 in 7 of them don’t know it. An estimated 37,600 Americans became newly infected in 2014.

Some years I celebrate Ken’s anniversary by finding ways to call attention to and educate young people about the facts of HIV/AIDS. One year, my improv troupe Wing & a Prayer Pittsburgh Players used the singing, dancing, storytelling improv art-based system of InterPlay to introduce teens to Ken’s story in the program Educating Teens About HIV/AIDS.

http://www.educatingteens.org/mission.html

I knew what Ken would say to them if he had the opportunity and using his voice I got their attention. I figure, preventing even one person a year from getting AIDS is a great way to remember Ken. It feels good to know that something I’ve done on behalf of Ken’s memory may have contributed to the fact that, in the U.S, there are fewer new cases. From 2005 to 2014, the estimated number of annual HIV infections in the U.S. declined 18%.

Taking To The Streets

Last Friday when I was visiting New York City to celebrate a cousin’s wedding I googled “Things to do this weekend.” Two large-scale street events with themes relevant to my life popped up. The 11th Annual Dance Parade was being held Saturday from 1 – 3 pm. Approximately 10,000 dancers would be dancing down Broadway from 21st Street to Tompkins Square Park in the Village. IMG_3365One hundred and sixty seven groups demonstrating Salsa, Hip-hop, Tap, Ballroom, African, Bolivian, Indian, Chinese, Jazz, and Flamingo – in short, every kind of dance imaginable, organized the event.

Sunday morning AIDS Walk New York was happening through the streets of Central Park – the largest event to protect public health and support people living with HIV/AIDS. Versions of both of these events are held in other cities across the country but the NY versions are likely the biggest and the best.

As a life-long dancer, few things are more rewarding for me than to dance, witness dance and celebrate dance. I welcome any occasion to dance, and I love being inspired and challenged by different types of dance. I know through my own experience and through my studies the gifts that dance brings to our physical health and well being, to our brains and memories, our emotions and our spirits. Though scientific research is currently documenting these benefits, they are not widely known and appreciated in western culture as yet. So a parade and festival are a great way to go. I loved dancing along the sidelines as I snapped pictures of the beautifully costumed people of various sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities, as they demonstrated their cultures and the dances that enliven and invigorate them.

IMG_3420The AIDS Walk opportunity was especially meaningful to me because I had just told one of my friends that the 20th anniversary of my son Ken’s death from AIDS is coming up next month. ”I’d love to find some special way to honor him,” I told her. So here it was, a chance to support a cause that mattered a great deal to Ken and our family. I found my way to the park and the sign-in table after a challenging ride on a under construction NY subway, to seize the opportunity to stand and walk with others who care about this important issue. I felt I had found my tribe; people who have lost friends and family members to the disease, who are living with or know people living with the disease, and whose fondest wish is to insure that no one else need suffer from it.

As I joined into the stream of hundreds of other tee-shirted walkers, clustered in occupational and church affiliated groups, I thought about the power of taking our concerns to the streets. How rewarding it is to enter a group body that is walking on behalf of what we care about and how we want our world to be. I was reminded of a ritual practice and chant I learned from some first nation people, “Every step a prayer.”

Given the strong connection I have to each of these themes, I was amazed that they were both being held the particular weekend of my short visit. When I told one of my husband’s relatives about this she smiled and mentioned a Yiddish word. It’s meaning – “it was meant to be.”

Thank You Sheryl

Sandberg2016-05-16t12-09-26-766z--1280x720.nbcnews-ux-1080-600Stalled at the Pittsburgh airport while the airline tried to locate a part for our plane last week, I had time to peruse the magazine racks. And there it was, on the cover of Time magazine, Sheryl Sandberg’s image and the message, “Let’s talk about grief.”

YES, I said enthusiastically to myself, inhibiting the desire to make a fist in the air and bring it down in a firm gesture of agreement, like the ringing of a chime. It’s about time we spoke out loud the name of the elephant that is in the middle of our social gathering places – our offices, churches, ladies luncheons, schools, and corporate conferences. Anywhere we gather, at least half of us are most likely in the middle of experiencing a major loss and yet a conspiracy of silence keeps us isolated from getting and giving the support we need.

I learned about this when I lost my 31 year old son to AIDS and later, my 42 year old daughter to breast cancer. Being a therapist I decided to write a book about our family’s experiences and the role that support from our community played in our handling these challenges. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y12Wj06_nAI

My hope was that writing and talking about what we experienced would help me and reading our stories would help others deal with their losses. I developed a format to “Perform The Book,” getting help from my improv troupe, as we used the expressive arts to join the particulars of their stories to mine. This experience was most satisfying and rewarding for me, those who chose to participate, and audience members. But it was noteworthy how many people declined our invitations.

The taboo about hiding the pain of loss seems to stay firmly in place not only in relation to death and the loss of a loved one, but operates when a family member loses a job or goes to jail, gets a cancer diagnosis, or when we ourselves deal with pain or infirmity. In short – whenever we suspect that our current life situation might be considered a “downer” for someone else.

On the other side of the equation, when we know someone is going through grief we often fear saying something that might make their pain worse. Once when my son was seriously ill in the hospital my sister-in-law asked about him and I began to tear up as I talked about the situation. “Oh dear. Now I’ve made you cry,” she said. I had to explain that she didn’t make me cry. ” By asking about my son, and listening to my answer, she allowed me to have a few moments when I was not pretended that everything was “fine. She let me know that she cared and gave me the opportunity to share my concerns and sorrow with her.

Hopefully through Sheryl’s courage in writing her book, https://www.recode.net/2016/7/29/12320222/sheryl-sandberg-leans-into-next-book-option-b-about-grieving-and-healing about the sudden loss of her husband, and the well-funded promotion of her platform, more of us can be there for one another through the tough and tender times, becoming stronger from dealing with our adversities.

Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Pain Free

IMG_3098Sitting by the fire looking out over the snowy March landscape outside my window, I think of Emily Dickinson, a writer who perfected her craft as she dealt with health challenges throughout most all of her short life. My destiny has been the opposite. In uncompromising good health until a few weeks ago, I have avoided having to perform creative activities, or the simple tasks of daily living while being sick or in ill health.

A bout of the flu here, an allergic reaction there, mostly I’ve been blessed with opportunities to put my whole self into whatever projects and goals attracted my fancy. Like most people, I’ve been unrealistic at times, creating stress and strain by demanding more of myself than is possible for a single human being. Perhaps we identify our limits by pushing past them on occasion. Perhaps we stretch our capabilities by using the second wind that appears after the first one dissipates.

In my 30s I got good at pushing myself beyond my limits and then with the help of artistic practices, learning how to heal into a place of ease and balance. Later on, there was the juggling act of family roles and professional goals, self-care practices to stay healthy while supporting family members going through their own health challenges.

My initiation into the world of ill health began with sixteen days of excruciating headache pain. I became engrossed in symptom relief; hot showers and cold compresses, Advil, essential oils and naps while we hunted for medical professionals who could get to the bottom of it all and return me to the world of the well. Occasionally, there were short opportunities for normalcy, to teach a class or attend a dance concert, but life as I had known it seemed long ago and far away.

Finally, dramatically, I got to the right professionals, got the correct diagnosis and most importantly, the potential disaster of losing my eyesight was averted. Gratitude for that as I live into my new role as a patient in recovery.IMG_3099

My father always said, there’s a bit of poison in every medicine, and the miracle drugs western medicine has developed are no exception. The challenge now is managing both the short term and long-term side effects of the medication that is keeping me pain free.

My view of what’s realistic and doable under my present circumstances demands constant discernment. I must be cautious and careful, mindful of what energy is from the medicine and what energy is truly my own. Slowly, carefully, I’m returning to the physical practices that have kept me healthy in the past; a half a yoga class here, 45 minutes of Zumba there. Health challenges are always a reminder of our fragility but also of the gifts of a good night’s sleep, the love and support of friends, and gratitude for the opportunity to move pain free throughout our world, for however long that is possible.

 

It Matters HOW We Talk About The Issues

tweetybirdFeels worse to me than fingernails on a chalkboard, the way the current public discourse is being conducted. As a parent and family therapist I’ve long known the power of healthy communication and how central it is to the health of a family. Now I’m learning how healthy communication is central to the health of a nation as well.

In healthy families there are ground rules and people get called out when they don’t follow them. Speaking for oneself is critical, along with listening carefully to others to be sure you understand what they’re trying to say. It’s off limits to repeat something that someone else said in confidence (that’s gossip), and name-calling and telling a lie are definite fouls. They destroy the trust that all healthy relationships are based on. 

Since these errors and others have been running rampant in our country, we all seem to be learning the power of unhealthy communication, especially when it’s repeated via the megaphone of blogs and media outlets. This is why I was delighted to linger in my driveway the other day to hear Brooke Gladstone interview

cognitive linguist, George Layoff during the NPR show “On The Media.” He analyzed Trump’s use of language in his Tweets, labeling 5 types of miscommunication or what I would call “fouls” or “distortions.” http://will.illinois.edu/news/story/a-taxonomy-of-trump-tweets

  • Pre-emptive Framing – Putting the idea out there first so that people will more likely accept your take on a subject. His example – “the Democratic National Committee were embarrassed because they lost big.” Fact checking, the truth is – the election was the closest in modern times.
  • Diversion – Get people talking about something else rather than the issue. This happened the day the lawsuit involving Trump University was settled.
  • Trial Balloon – Put an idea out there and see how people react. This has been around a long time but usually someone on the team does it so it’s easier to walk back if the reaction to the idea is not a good one.
  • Deflection – Attack the messenger instead of responding to the message. “Meryl Streep is overrated.”
  • Bad news – Even in 140 characters it’s possible to have all four errors in the same tweet.

My three children introduced me to some of these “slight of mind games,” Mostly good kids, there were occasions when they attempted to manipulate the truth, and their parents, for their own gains. We of course would call them on it, and the maturation process helped them develop healthier ways of getting what they wanted.

Dr. Lakoff recommended that the media call out the errors and not just repeat them, thus aiding and abetting the misinformation Trump is hoping to spread. He advised members of the media to do what good parents do in families, tell the truth, report the errors in the tweets, and call out what kind of errors they are.

ImprovJam2My recommendation – Trust the structure of Improv’s “Yes And.”    Last Sunday afternoon, my improv troupe Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players and guests artists played with the tough stuff inherent in these tough times. In the presence of respectful witnesses we used the tools and techniques of InterPlay to express our reactions and concerns though movement, voice, and story. The outcome – fun, and a strengthened resolve to move forward through community collaboration and connection.  

Happy Merry Us

happy-holidaysWhen I googled “Holiday Stress” this morning, I got 7 million, 500 thousand items. Top picks were articles and blogs attempting to help people manage their holiday stress. As an expert on dealing with tough stuff, I feel obliged to jump into the fray of suggestions for surviving and thriving this holiday season.

Let’s first look at the stress we create for ourselves.

  • What about the big deal hassles over the proper way to wish a friend a happy winter holiday? In an effort to be inclusive of all citizens, the White House has sent Happy Holiday cards for the past 8 years. Some Christians take that as an insult, as a “war on Christmas.” Some Jewish people have their own issues on greetings at the holidays. Coming out of my health club yesterday I overheard a couple of Jewish women ridiculing a non-Jewish woman’s mispronunciation of Hanukkah, or Chanukan. (For those who don’t know, to pronounce either word correctly, a soft guttural clearing of the throat needs to precede the H or C.) And this matters why?
  • How come we expect our holiday season to always and continuously, be happy? This unrealistic obligation pumps pressure into all our activities; In searching for just the right gifts, planning decorations and menu items we’ve seen in magazines, addressing holiday cards to business contacts that reflect our brands, and writing an annual letter to friends and family recounting all the happy successes of the past year.

Meanwhile in the real word – life continues as usual – people get sick, family members disagree, loved ones die, accidents happen, and bad weather delays travel plans. Instead of blaming ourselves, one another, or the gods, for this unexpected bad timing –

How about…

1) Lowering our expectations, it’s just a fleeting season of the year

2) Calling on helpers, both seen and unseen, while reaching out to help others

3) Saying yes to whatever cannot be avoided and asking ourselves “what good can come from this?

4) Continuing the radical self care practices that have kept us sane and healthy throughout the rest of the year  

5) Honoring those no longer with us by sharing stories of when they were here, or giving a gift in their name to a charity or cause they believed in

6) Connecting with previous experiences of peace, joy and love and bringing them into the present moments of this particular holiday season.

Allow me to wish you a blessed holiday season and a peaceful,  joy-filled New Year.

 

Love Sweet Love

What the world needs now is love,” lyrics Hal David, music Burt Bacharach

1-jyoti-black-hatI’m in the shower, preparing to attend a celebration of the life of one of my dearest long time friends, Jyoti King. The first lines of this song come to me….”love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s still too little of.” I guess it would be natural to think that the world has less love now that Jyoti’s left it, but the event organized by her husband Randall last Sunday, involving 60 or so friends and family members, taught me otherwise.

We gathered in an upper room of a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth Texas, and read Jyoti’s poems and other writings out loud for nearly three hours. Taking turns we added our own stories of Jyoti, whose life has meant so much to each of us these past 30 years. I spoke of my vast personal indebtedness by quoting one of my favorite African sayings, “I am because she is.”

Jyoti and Randall were midwives for Rich and I, for the behavioral health clinic we co-founded and directed, “Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. Jyoti was clinic manager for most of its ten years. She helped edit my first book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work. She left the clinic briefly to pursue her writing, but when my youngest son was diagnosed with AIDS, she returned to support me. When a year to the day later, her son was diagnosed with AIDS, we wept together, fearing we’d taken this sister bond too far.

When my friend Rose asked me to come and be with her as she was dying, Jyoti, a former childbirth midwife, encouraged me. “It’s in the coming in and the going out that there is the most light, when the veil between the worlds is lifted. It’s an honor and a privilege to be present at both occasions.”

Jyoti’s exit was one of the long, long, goodbyes that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their family members endure. She and her husband and friends lived this journey for 12 years, before her death last month. There were many stories of lessons Jyoti taught before she got sick. Her son, whose ‘s been sober for 25 years now, told how no matter his mistakes, his mother always forgave him. When he had to go to prison Jyoti washed his feet to protect him. “She told me, keep remembering, you are just a visitor there.”

I shared some of the gifts Jyoti gave me during the course of her disease. Shortly after she was diagnosed I moved to Pittsburgh but I traveled back to Texas often. I always visited her, first in her home and then in the memory care center. Each trip on the plane I would caution myself, “She may not know you this time. Get ready for that.” But, though she eventually lost most verbal language, she always knew who I was. Perhaps better than I did.

Once we walked together in the garden of her home when she was still living there. I noted that she felt unsteady on her feet. Her once good coordination would flounder and she’s grab my hand going down stairs or on the uneven path. Having been a nurse, when she entered the memory care center, she saw herself as a nursing assistant, always looking out for the other residents. A film aficionada, she advised a staff member on movies the community would enjoy. On one visit she brought out a musical instrument, and played and chanting for me.

sheila-and-jyoti-2When my second book was in manuscript form, I brought it with me on a visit. I told her I knew she wouldn’t be able to help me with this book as she had the first one. “But I’d like you to bless it,” I said as I placed the binder in her lap. There were no words, but she took the binder and gently hugged it to her heart. She smiled and we both knew we were doing a ceremony.

On what turned out to be our last visit, I found her in the parlor of the memory care center alongside other residents. They were all seated before a television displaying a blank screen. She was rocking in a rocking chair and coming closer, I heard her singing to herself. I couldn’t identify the song but it was clearly a Texas boot-scooting two- step.

A Visit to Who We Used To Be

img_2724While visiting relatives in Boston this past weekend we toured the Presidential Library of John R. Kennedy, our 35th president. This experience confirmed an important truth I learned from two of my African American girl friends, from their culture – Sankofa. It means sometimes it’s necessary to go back in order to go forward. For my sister and I, reliving the inspiring political conversations that took place before we were old enough to vote, proved to be a balm to our troubled souls.

The goal of the library with its 5 million pages of personal, congressional, and presidential papers, 500,000 photographs and 12,000 reels of sound recording, is to promote greater understanding of American politics, the process of governing, and the importance of public service.

In the 60s politics wasn’t a dirty word as it has become in present time. It’s been difficult to watch lately, as people believe a candidate when he declares what he alone will accomplish. This widespread gullibility demonstrates profound ignorance of the process of governing in a democracy. Let’s hear it for amping up high school civics classes. But It’s that last goal – “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” that ignited our hearts. It took us back to a day when serving one’s country and the greater good were what we young people aspired to.

The sections on the initiations of space travel to the moon, the establishment of the Peace Corps, the nuclear test ban treaty, the civil rights legislation – left us in awe of all that was accomplished in three short years. Of what’s possible when our country is united behind an articulate, inspiring servant leader.

President Kennedy had his own version of Sankofa when he said, “We celebrate the past to awaken the future.” As this past election process has been teaching us, when we do not stay true to the wisdom of our better angels, our collective demons take over our public and private lives.

What’s a patriotic citizen to do? I was especially inspired by Kennedy’s response when asked by the press if he was enjoying serving as president. He said that he agreed with the ancient Greek definition of happiness, which was “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.” My sister and I decided we needed to revisit more historical  that inspire us to do that.