Sunday, February 7, 2021

A Thank You to Holly

            Lately, I’ve been feeling a little sorry for myself. Mainly because Covid has kept me from seeing my sons, daughter-in-law and six-year old grandson for over a year. I was feeling a little bit blue, thinking of them, when I heard Ron, my partner, yelling, “Emergency, Linda! Get out here in the hall and bring a large robe or blanket!”Oh, no! I thought, as I ran for a robe or a blanket, Something bad has happened to Dorothy!  It didn’t occur to me that Dorothy is not much bigger than I am, why would Ron ask for a “large” robe?

Dorothy is our artist-friend whose condo is adjacent to ours and she’s also become our “Saturday Night at the Covid Movies” partner. (She comes over and Ron projects a film onto his big white portrait backdrop, almost the size of a movie screen.) Dorothy is around ten years older than I am, and she’s said she hasn’t been as steady on her feet lately. I got my bathrobe and ran into the hallway, only to see a young woman, her body very large, somewhere between her twenties and thirties, in her underpants and bra, standing in our condo’s hallway. I guess Ron was coming out to check our mail at the same time as Dorothy was. That was when he called me to get a blanket or large robe.

Dorothy, perfectly fine, was standing in the doorway of her condo and talking to this woman. And I began talking to her too. She looked unfamiliar and wasn’t a tenant here, so I asked her, “What’s your name?” 

She answered, “Holly.”

Then Dorothy asked, “What’s your last name?” 

Holly said, “I don’t remember.” She seemed confused, but not menacing or angry.

Ron ran inside, presumably to get help of some kind, as Holly continued to talk to Dorothy and me. 

            “Where do you live, Holly?” I asked her.

            “I don’t know,” she said.

            Then, she started to tell a long rambling tale about the Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” the gist of it being that she possibly had the power to foretell future events….Then she talked about how nothing is real and she was thinking this place (our hallway) was her bedroom….

            And Dorothy, who has difficulty standing for such a long time, got a folding chair from inside her place and pulled it to her doorway to sit as she listened, along with me. 

            I asked Holly if she was cold and where were her clothes? Dorothy explained that she opened her door to go out and check her mailbox and was surprised to see a naked Holly meditating in our hallway. Apparently, Dorothy supplied her or she found her  stretchy bra and underpants, because she wasn’t naked when I saw her. 

            While Holly was talking to Dorothy and me, I could hear Ron on the other side of our hallway, where a glass partition in the hall separated him from where Holly and Dorothy and I were. I imagine Ron contacted help and then came out to where he could see Holly to describe her or answer any questions for whomever he was talking to. I heard him, concerned about her comfort level, asking for a woman officer and specifying that this stranger was a large women, probably because the medics might need a larger than average stretcher to take her to the hospital.

            In a short time, two EMT’s and a policewoman, all wearing masks, as Dorothy and Ron and I were (I brought out extra masks when I brought the robe) came to check out the situation. 

Holly told the medics, “Could you come back in five minutes? I was talking to Dorothy and Linda.”

            Ten minutes later, the two EMT’s and the policewoman, came back in and Holly told them, “I don’t want to go with you.” 

            One of the EMT’s, a soft-spoken black man, said, “You are trespassing on privately-owned property and you have two choices. One is to be taken to headquarters by the police. The other is to come with us and be checked out at the hospital.”

            Holly said, “I’ll go to the hospital.”

            And with that, Dorothy and I cleared the way, so the paramedics could have room to take Holly.

            Holly’s appearance reminded me of how fortunate I am. I had already had Covid but never needed to go to the hospital. I have a warm, cozy place to live and enough to eat. I am still working, albeit on Zoom or FaceTime, seeing as many clients a week as I can handle. I’m working on getting my bookready for publication, and I live with a kind, loving partner.

After the EMT’s left, Ron looked at our security cameras and saw that Holly entered after a workman failed to properly shut the door—easy to do in winter, when the door latch doesn’t always catch.

Later that night, as we do most Saturday nights, Ron, Dorothy, our dog Sally and I watched “News of the World” together. The film itself, with Tom Hanks and his little girl companion trying to find “home,” was very much a gratitude reminder. 

After the film, Ron and Dorothy and I all wondered aloud about what became of Holly. In another time, we might have checked, but now, due to HIPAA rulings, any attempt to check to see if Holly was all right would be thwarted. 

Even if I miss my kids, Holly’s presence made me grateful for all I am blessed with. And for that, I owe her a debt of gratitude. 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Love in the Time of Covid-19

           How can there be love without physical closeness?  For myself, I find the saying,   “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone” to be very true for this time of Covid-19, when we are very much appreciating our friends and families; our work and paychecks (whether or not we’re still working or getting paychecks); our homes and the availability of food and water, entertainment and ways to connect with one another. 
Most Americans of boomer-or-below ages haven’t lived through a crisis as frightening as the one we are dealing with now. Boomers’ parents lived through WWII, the Great Depression, some of them lived through the Holocaust in Europe.
We Westerners were never prepared for the unpredictable Covid-19, where are sheltering in place, we aren’t sure about what protects us, who might be immune or when it will be safe to go out again. We are frightened about money and restless to resume normal life. Normal Life? We may never shake hands or kiss people on both cheeks (as the French do) again. 
And, yes, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson (also a breast cancer survivor) got better after contracting the virus, and they’ve even come home from Australia, where they caught Covid-19 and got sick from it, but survived.
But we can’t know at this time who will get this virus and whether if we get it, we will be able to live through it.  I have some cousins who are pediatricians, where my cousin Jen tested positive and her husband, Sam, tested negative. Jen’s fine now and both of them are still working in the hospital.
My sweet daughter-in-law Flore in France got it and she was very sick for a while, but my son and grandson only got mild cases of it. (Do they need to disinfect everything? Are they now immune? Nobody knows.) Note that since she contracted the virus, we’ve learned that stomach symptoms, which were the first symptoms she had, may be the first signs of Covid-19, with other signs coming later.
My son at the Veteran’s Administration is still seeing patients, since he tells me the VA’s telecommunications don’t work reliably. (How sad that we have enough money for more and more weapons, but not enough to adequately protect the men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe or to protect those who keep our heroes well.) He bought his own mask online.
For myself and my partner, we are over seventy, so we’ve been at home since the Pandemic started. Though, occasionally, Ron goes out with gloves and mask to grocery shop or do other errands. (This youTube video suggests that there are other important protections besides a mask and gloves. If you care to watch it, here is the link: 
I think another challenge, aside from the main one of staying well through this crazy time, is to stay mentally healthy. Some of the suggestions I’ve heard from my clients and colleagues are: Try to establish a routine (and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t seem to adhere to it in some perfect way); Try to learn something new. (I find the Babbleapp helpful, if you’ve always wanted to learn a language.) ; Use the Internet to connect with friends and loved ones on Zoom, Skype, or Facetime. I’ve been going to two to three OA 12-step meetings per week and family meetings on Zoom every Saturday night. I’ve had several playdates with my grandson on Skype, and, as a psychotherapist, I have continued to see my clients and colleagues on Facetime and Zoom.
Mental health columnist and practitioner Phillip Chard, suggests that for some personalities routine may actually increase anxiety. So, the same tips may not work for all.
I find entertainment is helpful. I watch interesting films, documentaries, and any form 
of online entertainment that can relieve the barrage of news about the virus all day. Yes, stay informed. Heed the warnings. We need to stay informed and heed the warnings about self-quarantining and disinfecting, but don’t OD on the news.
    I try to remember the brave Holocaust survivors, one in particular, Aaron Elster, who, when the Nazis lined up his family, with him as the youngest, his father told him, “Run!”  From the age of seven to nine, thanks to some neighbors Holocaust survivors call “Righteous Gentiles”, Aaron crouched in an attic. (See “Sixty Minutes Overtime” for his story). And he was the only one in his family who made it through the Holocaust alive.
This is a time so many have shown their love, especially those on the front line. the health care workers, and police and firefighters and first responders who put their own lives on the line. But also the grocery store workers and letter-carriers, truckers and those with the skills to make protective masks. Even those of us at home can show one another great love by calling old friends and new, or people we know who might be alone or depressed and being supportive to one another. I know my 12-step OA Zoom meetings are lifesavers. And talking to my friends who live in Milwaukee and Florida, California, Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina and gathering with family members gather at our Zoom Saturday Nights to check in, exchange recipes and ideas can really pick up my spirits.
I’ve changed my work availability to six days per week. I find, as the old saying goes, “Our clients come to heal us.” That is, perhaps, why I find our sessions just about as healing as, hopefully, they do. And I do phone sessions with my own therapist (yes, therapists need their own therapists!) every week, as well.
            And I find when I’m not working or writing, my partner and I watch films, television or cable series, or I read or listen to books on my phone app.
            Making a gratitude list daily, learning things I always wanted to learn, but never had time for, and writing (using my creative side) when I am not working with clients (also using my creative side) to be crucial. So often, I think, We, in our generation, mostly didn’t worry about running out of food, water or medication. 
Here are some of my favorite movies, cable and television shows, 
and books, should you have access to a computer, television,  or cell phone.
A Man Called Ove
Antonia’s Line
The African Queen
Baby Boom
Baghdad Café
The Big Sick
The Book Club
Bread and Tulips
The Driving Lesson
Downton Abbey(the movie)
Enchanted April
The English Teacher
Finding Your Feet
Five Flights Up
The Fundamentals of Caring
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Hidden Figures 
How Stella Got Her Groove Back
How to Get Over a Breakup
If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent
The Intouchables
It’s Complicated
Jenny’s Wedding
Maggie’s Plan
Mama Mia
Mama Mia, Here We Go Again
Most Exotic Marigold Hotel I
Most Exotic Marigold Hotel II 
Out of Africa
Passion Fish
Ricky and the Flash
Shirley Valentine
The Silver Linings Playbook
Stanley & Iris
The Tango Lesson
Tea with Mussolini
Turtle Diary
Unconditional Love
 An Unmarried Woman
Waiting to Exhale
BBC Series/Often on PBS
Agatha Raisin
The Bletchley Circle
Call the Midwife
Doc Martin
Downton Abbey
Netflix Series/Specials
The Crown
Grace and Frankie
Kim’s Convenience 
The Kominsky Method
Amazon Prime Movies and Series
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
New in Town
NOTE: movies can be rented or bought on Amazon Prime by going to Amazon.comand finding the movie you like and then clicking on the part that says “Watch on Amazon”. (Of course, you have to be an Amazon Prime subscriber). Usually, these rentals are $4.95 apiece or so—and you don’t have to worry about your library being closed.
The Handmaid’s Tale
 This is Us
Cable TV
Big Little Lies-HBO
Game of Thrones-HBO (not for the faint of heart)
Gentleman Jack”-HBO
The Morning Show–HBO/Apple TV
The Newsroom -HBO
Broadcast Television on Demand
Madam Secretary
Books /for Reading or Listening
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativityby Julia Cameron
The Bette Davis Club by Jane Lotter
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Cactus by Sarah Haywood
Daisy Jones and the Six: A Novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
Heartburnby Nora Ephron
Homework: A Memoir  by Julie Andrews
The Help   by Kathryn Stockett
How to Walk Away  by Katherine Center
I Almost Forgot About You  by Terry McMillan
It’s Not All Downhill From Here by Terry McMillan
 In Grace’s Time  by Kathie Giorgio
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone  by Lori Gottlieb
Mrs. Saint and the Defectivesby Julie Lawson Timm
My Life So Far: A Memoir  by Jane Fonda
The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah
One Day in December by Josie Silver
The Rosie Effectby  Graema Simsion
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: A New Interpretation  by William Martin
She Wants It  by Jill Soloway
Something in the Water  by Catherine Steadman
Still Life with Breadcrumbs  by Anna Quindlen
Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  by Maria Semple
When Life Gives You Lululemons  by Lauren Weisberger
The Wife  by Meg Wolitzer
Where the Crawdads Singby Delia Owens
Whisper Networkby Chandler Baker
      And anything by spiritual author Eckhart Tolle on YouTube, or in his books, “The Power of Now” 
and/or “A New Earth”
       So, how am I writing about Lovein the Time of Covid-19? I guess it’s because we are all in the same 
boat and we’re managing to connect and support one another. We are reaching out to help one another. After all, we are living in a corporeal society during much less corporeal times. But, for ourselves and one another, we are making do and helping each other. In 
my book, that’s love! 

By Linda Benjamin, LCSW
Psychotherapist & author of Girls’ Guide to Ageing With Grit and Gusto: A Memoir and Six Interviews. Website: 


Psychotherapist & author of Girls’ Guide to Ageing With Grit and Gusto: A Memoir and Six Interviews. Website: 

Sunday, February 9, 2020

I'm Back With Grit and Gusto!

It's been five years since I last posted a blog. This is not because I haven't been thinking of my possible readers, but because I have in an even more intensive way. I've been writing a book, which is part memoir and part interview and all about the journey of aging for women. (Yes, men have a journey, too. But I'm not an expert on that.)

I noticed long, long ago--in my thirties, really, that my older women role models, my aunts and my mom, were feeling less valued. And as many people do, I blamed the victim/s. Later, as I approached my sixties and grew into my seventies, I realized that our society is particularly cruel to older women. Often, these days, I find I am spoken to as if I am hearing impaired or slightly demented. Sometimes, younger wait staff will call me "sweetheart" or "dear." I don't see them doing that with men or younger women. I believe it's meant to be nice, but I find it pejorative.

I was thrilled to see the BBC series and film "Downton Abby" with its take on older women. Played by veteran actresses, Dame Maggie Smith, 85, and Dame Penelope Wilton, 73, the older women in the Crawley family are important in their communities, advisors to their children and grandchildren, and, even, the objects of love relationships. In the same way, I was excited to see Jane Fonda, 82, and Lily Tomlin, 81, in  Netflix's "Grace and Frankie," where socialite Grace and hippie Lily are catapulted into living together after their husbands (former law partners) come out as gay and in love with one another. Both of the female characters have love interests, ideas and businesses, caring families and good friendships. (Though most of us don't have California beach homes, children who live nearby and are very involved in our lives, and opportunities to bring forth new inventions, like the Menage a Moi, a vibrator for arthritic older women.)

I do think, ever so slowly, I am seeing the occasional ad with Mae Musk, the glamorous silver haired seventy-something year old Covergirl model and Dame Helen Mirren, the still-sexy 74 year old L'Oreal model. And I love that CBS Sunday Morning stars Jane Pauley, 70 years old, and features Rita Braver, 71, as one of its reporters. Who's the toughest broad in the Senate? Eighty-year old Nancy Pelosi. And other working women artists of age are singer Tina Turner, 80 years old, and actor Loretta Devine, 71, Meryl Streep,  71, Diane Keaton, 74, and Betty White, 98.  A good sign, as well, was first time novelist, Delia Owens, 71, for her topper of the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019, Where the Crawdads Sing.

In the past, the 39-year old Jane Pauley was replaced on the Today Show with the younger Deborah Norville. The ageist premise of the time was that nobody wanted to see an "aging" woman. My theory is that ad guys and television power guys had to want to bed or at least desire their female anchors. And in commercials, except for dental adhesives or chair lifts, they cast only women they considered sexually viable (i.e. young and "hot"). And in films, the real life directors and actors most often traded in their older wives (often much younger than they were to begin with) for younger ones to help them avoid feeling their age. Exceptions were Carl Reiner, married to Estelle Reiner, ten years his senior, for sixty-five years and Samuel L. Jackson and LaTonya Richardson, married 40 years, along with a handful of others.

So, if all these public images are in our faces; of youth equals attractiveness or worthiness for women, how are the rest of us ordinary women supposed to feel? In my case, I had a couple of family role models who did not buy into the if-you're-old-you're-over media message and I have several friends who are who I want to be when I grow up--and I'm seventy-three. 

With this blog, my book, and with womens' groups I am facilitating, I hope to empower older women, as well as with becoming most comfortable with my own age--in the manner of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dames Helen, Maggie, Penelope and Judy, I hope to be (as Gandhi said, and I'm paraphrasing here), at least a small part of, the change I want to see in the world.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Me and My Big Mouth Keeping One Another Company on Christmas Eve

All of us can get comfortable doing the-same-thing-we-always-do-that-never-works-for uswhenwe're"triggered." Some of us drink, some of us eat, some of us yell dumb stuff or send off an impulsive e-mail we may come to regret to release the tension of that I-Can't-Stand-It-Another-Moment moment. Instead, I often suggest to my clients that they practice what Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has called "The Three Difficult Practices." They sound so simple, but in real-life they're not.

Here they are: 1. Notice when you are "triggered," that is, when your reactivity is up. (like you feel almost uncontrollably upset or angry or you must do something right this very minute.) 2. "Go another way" or do something different; something else. In other words, if you want to storm into your boss's office and tell him to put that pay-freeze where the sun don't shine: DON'T! Or if you want to lecture your friend on his drinking until his eyes glaze over: DON'T! And 3. Keep doing this (the not-doing-what-you-always-do).

Oh sure, 'sounds like a piece of cake, doesn't it? Especially, # 3. But actually, it's a lifetime struggle, a minute at a time. I can be very wise for others. In fact, that is actually my job description. But, sometimes, I myself, can do the very thing I tell my clients not to do. I am "outing" myself here because I want to confess that I am human. And that with almost twenty-five years of being a therapist, while I can apply my wisdom to others, I sometimes can fail miserably at doing this myself. 

Just yesterday, I said something to my son which translated into, "Please do a thorough search around the house for your balls." My bad for sure. Once the words were out of my mouth, I realized that this was not what I meant. What I meant was that I was concerned about him and family: Was everything all right? My sister had once had post-partum depression and I was really wondering if any of the late onset stuff was going on in his family. And that's what I should have said. It's what I meant to say. But instead I said something that infuriated my son and was not at all what I meant. As my dear friend Nabeela might describe it: I snapped!

My punishment began immediately. I was beating myself up without mercy. I had hurt my son, meaning to help him. Impulsive words had flown out of my mouth! I also knew that, since my son fights back in his own way, I would soon be receiving a series of angry e-mails. And that there was a distinct possibility that I might never see my son, my very much loved daughter-in-law or my grandson ever again.

And, sure enough, the e-mails came, telling me I needed to stop blah-blah-blahing and no wonder I was divorced, not once but twice. (Hey, one marriage lasted 18 years; the other lasted 12!) Whew! He can get ugly when he's hurt. Obviously, he gets that from his father's side.

Then, being a woman of a certain age, I figured that he probably thinks I am losing my mind. 
And sometimes, I wonder about that myself.

I started that conversation in a milder manner, but somewhere in-between my talking, my street mouth took over my brain and I said something I didn't even mean! Is my brain connected to my mouth at all?  

What can you do after your words leave your mouth and hit someone's ears, and you realize that this isn't what you meant at all, but once they've been said, you can't take them back. You can apologize, but you may or may not be forgiven.

All I could do now was tell him that I was sorry and wait for him to forgive me. It was a case of  instead of going to my sad-place or my worried-place, because that hurts too much, I got ambushed by my angry place, which is a much easier place to hide. Even if it was my bad. It was my bad.What can I say? 

And on Christmas Eve, I spent most of the night doing my penance for my error in judgement: pretty much kicking myself for snapping.

Postscript: After diffusing a day or so, I came to the conclusion that I have and just about everyone I know who-is-honest has, at one time or another, said something they didn't mean to say, or used a tone that was not respectful. Maybe it wasn't personal, but more a reflection of where the speaker her or himself was at the moment. Even, my favorite Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron, has admitted to doing such things in her life. And that, in retrospect, she wishes she had "Gone another way." Since we can't roll back time and do things another way after they're done, all we can do is apologize and try to do better next time. And, though this part is not within our control:  hope that the people we care about will forgive us.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Loneliness: The Optical Delusion of Separateness

Magnetic Side of My Refrigerator
Family Memorabilia Around An Antique Chinese Checkers Board
After several days of blue-ishness, I woke up, expecting more of the same. And, as I do every morning, I first check my iPhone. I had two important, but seemingly disconnected, ideas that I was drawn to on my e-mail. One was "The optical delusion of separateness" (Einstein said this)--and the other was "On their deathbeds people wished that they had 'been more loving,' rather than 'been more loved.'" (This came from a workshop being offered on retraining the brain to be more loving.)

    My noticing these ideas was what Arnold Mindell, author and psychoanalyst, might call "Flirts."

    "Flirts" are the ideas, things, and people that catch our attention. Almost like dreams, "flirts" can give us symbolic messages from--I don't know--The Subconscious? Spirit-guides? Alternate Realities? Perhaps our Inner-Knowing? If we allow them in, they can be life-changing. In my case they were mood-altering.

    So, I traced back my blue-ishness to a thought: "I am lonely"--So, next,  I asked the Byron Katie question: "Is that true? Is that really true?" And I had my addendum to the Byron Katie question: "Does that always feel true?"

    And then, I remembered that just last night my sister texted me many times with inspirational ideas and an invitation to join her. Next, I received belated birthday earrings as a gift from my Arizona friend Ruth. And, although she had bronchitis and could barely speak at all, my New Jersey friend Lee attempted to talk on the telephone.

   Blessings continued to arrive: my dear cousins had chosen my home--which really meant a lot to me--to host a shiva for their mother. My friends, Marina and Misha, who feel like family, wanted me to live nearby and found me an apartment in their building. My almost-new-friend Paul---brought dinner over and came to hang out.

   And, almost best of all, I went to Roanoke to visit my younger son Dan and his puppies, which gave me great pleasure because we were able to spend the Passover holiday together and attend a Seder.

   And speaking of the warmth of family, Dan and I Skyped with my older son Josh and his wife Flore. This summer, I'll be going to France, where they live, to meet my first grandchild, expected to arrive in July.

    As I corrected my faulty thinking, I became flooded with the other ways my life is rich: I am making progress in learning French, my sister dropped me off--and Marlene, the world's sweetest French teacher, picked me up at the airport last week. And this week, I see my editor/computer-teacher/author-friend, Elaine, who always inspires me. Then, I had this epiphany: There have been times when I have been happy on-my-own and other times when I've been unhappy as one half of a couple or, even, being right in the center of my family or friends.

     What is this mood-state I wonder? Is it a sensitive nervous system--somewhat like a painful back or the bleeding ulcers or migraine headaches that some people suffer when anxious or stressed? Faulty thinking? Brain chemistry? Food choices? A Spiritual Misunderstanding? Maybe it's a combination of all of these and more. All I know, is that I got up today, found these important messages ("Flirts"), had an epiphany, and felt inspired to write about them here. And that the epiphany and all that inspired it, lifted me right out of my dark mood-state.

    The Optical Delusion of Separateness. Yes, when I can see my way out of it, separateness does feel like a delusion. Most of the time I am aware that there are people who I care about and who care about me; that my life is filled with interesting experiences and people I enjoy being around. As a therapist, I do work that is very rewarding to me and connecting for me. This does not make me immune to depression, sadness, grief, anger, guilt, shame or any of the other more difficult feelings one has in being human. And why should I have to pretend to be immune. I think that kind of pretending, especially from therapists, tends to make people who are in touch with their blue-ishness feel worse.

    Now, if only I can remember these concepts--the delusion of separateness and being more loving, rather than more loved....really feel it--while stuck in the delusion of separateness. I may have to re-read this blog and remember that I wrote it. Huh!

(Photo-credit: My i-phone--Who would've thunk a pocket gizmo could be so connecting & important in so many ways?)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Homage to My Cousin the Bodhisattva*: Judy Samuelson

Oh, yes....there is just one thing I neglected to mention about aging: There is loss and death in it. (Wait, Wait! Come back!)

Here in my musings on my life as a woman in my sixties, these years that are considered by some to be "the youth of old age", I have somehow left something important out: I have completely ignored the losses that we experience as we age---in particular, I have neglected to mention Death.

A little over a month ago, my younger-by-ten-years cousin Judy died. Until this time, I think I was in denial that death would really touch my doorstep. Yes, she had been sick; but we in the family believed that she would get better.

She had what people in-the-old-days used to call "The 'C' Word." The world I grew up in, then, treated Cancer as if it were a curse (rather like diseases of the brain and nervous system are treated by the sadly uninformed, these days).

There was shame connected with being struck with 'C'. Perhaps it was thought that 'C' was contagious; or that news of it in the family would make the rest of us unmarriageable. Or it may have been superstition that silenced any talk of cancer---the belief that if you didn't talk about something, it didn't really exist and thus it could never happen to you.

The amazing thing about my cousin was the truthful and open way she coped with her "C," her cancer. It was as if she had been dealt what has been often considered to be an ugly fate, but that with her magical calligraphy pen she transformed it into a lesson--a meditation on the preciousness of living and dying--without leaving out the painful emotions and experiences she suffered.

So that even through her losses---perhaps especially because of these losses, she mindfully embraced the "little things" that aren't so little, the beauty in life that many times I have overlooked or taken for granted.

 As my cousin Judy Sue ("The Other Cousin Judy," as she calls herself) has said to me, "Judy must not have had the anxiety and depression gene that you and I share!"

My cousin wrote her poetic and profound blog, "Word of Mouth," right up until her last days.
In it she documented her experience of hope and loss, never seeming to linger on feeling sorry for herself. In this way, Judy gifted those of us left behind with a legacy of courage and of gratitude.

These blog entries became her voice when she could no longer speak. They became our (her family and dear-friends) way to connect with her when we couldn't see or support her---though we longed to.

She wrote of the bud vases she created out of miniature apricot juice bottles and of the lovelieness of her garden and of the antics of Audrey, her cat. And she shared the joy in carefully preparing a  meal for guests, even after she herself could no longer eat solid food.

She told, in her blog, how she would put a little of her much-admired chicken soup or banana bread
into the juicer so that she could take in some of what she had prepared along with her guests.

She spoke of her daily walks around the neighborhood and admitted (you can just see her impish 
smile, here) she guiltily plucked a lemon off of a neighbor's many-lemoned tree. She reported that just as she did the lemontree owner drove up in her car and yelled at her.

Now, if you saw a woman with a pad and pen around her neck, my guess is you would
take a moment, understanding that perhaps this woman had a difficulty that was challenging and that you could, perhaps, spare a lemon for such a person.

Judy blogged that she could not resist the urge to laugh, though she wrote an apology on her pad, explaining that she was a neighbor and then writing: "If I had a lemon tree with this many lemons, I would want to share them." But Lemonwoman was merciless, shooting back: "I do share them, I share them with my friends !"

Judy told her experience to Allen her husband. (And how much she adored and was adored by her husband and her children, her beloved brothers and sisters-in-law. Oldest brother Mike and sister-in-law Marlene and their grown son Johnny were closest, living only blocks away! But she was close, too, to her brothers Chuck and Stu and her nieces and nephews and cousins and dear friends--But, I know, here I digress...)--Perhaps The Lemon Tree Incident, as some of us--her blog-followers have come to call it, made her aware that, despite her swollen cheeks, her inability to speak, and having a very short time to live---there were people in the world who were far less fortunate than she was.

Upon leaving the synagogue where Judy's memorial service was held, I said to my sister Susan, "You can bet that if I were given the diagnosis of a debilitating and disfiguring cancer that would eventually take my life, I'd be a royal pain-in-the-ass! I'd be cvetching and obsessing and taking every numbing med I could get my hands on!"

"In fact," I continued, "I might take them all at once, just to get it over with!"

She replied, "And that's why you and I are still here; we haven't learned our lessons on earth yet."

Hmmpf! I really hate it when my sister is right!"

What I have most feared about growing older, personally, and thus avoided here in my stories of life in my sixties, was the very thing my cousin seemed to embrace. Her way of living out her life, even in the challenges she faced made illness and death seem not quite as frightening.

Judy went through that first operation which altered her voice. Instead of bemoaning her loss, she shared being almost-tickled by her "practically English accent" (as her sister-in-law Marlene dubbed it.) And she dressed the long scar left on her throat with a variety of multi-colored scarves.

The next operation took her capacity to speak at all and her ability to eat---and it left her facing imminent death anyway.

Given the person Judy was, I can't imagine the pain of the doctors who had tried so hard and yet had to give her the news that they could not save her life. They must have gone home and wept.

Still, Judy was not to be silenced. She used her voice in her writing, appreciating the beauty in life and keeping concerned family and friends posted on her treatment status. Read her on a day you're feeling sorry for yourself and I dare you not to feel at least a little bit embarrassed.

In this way, she was able to rise above a self-involvement that would have been understandable, if not expected. And, doing so, she continued to comfort the many who cared for her.

Here, I am reminded of the story about the man who died and was taken by an angel to a room with a huge pot of delicious-smelling soup. Around the table were hungry people with spoons. However, their arms would not bend, so they could not get the soup into their mouths.

The man says incredulously to the angel: "Is this Heaven?"

"No," says the angel, "This is Hell. Now, I will take you to Heaven."

Then, the angel brings the man to another room with an identical table and on it an identical pot of delicious-smelling soup. The people around the table, too, had spoons in their hands, but arms that would not bend.

The man says to the angel, "Call this heaven? This room is exactly like the other one!"

"Look more closely," whispers the angel.....

And, as he does, the man sees that in this room, these people are feeding one another.

Once she lost her speech, Judy wore a pad and pen around her neck, later to be replaced by an erase-board, and when possible, it was supplemented with a computer with its own voice. Even this loss she greeted with humor, donning one board for her good days and one for her bad; teaching us that even in the most dire of circumstances, one can still laugh and play and not take ourselves quite so seriously.

I admit I have, too often, not lived mindfully in the moment--rather I was preoccupied with some
matter that seemed important at the time, feeling lonely or sorry-for-myself; worrying about this or that--some decision or relationship past, present or future--Not taking notice of the new buds in my garden or the changing of the leaves.

Judy Samuelson did not have as many years to live as we tend to expect these days. But, for those of us who loved her she left such an exquisite gift--even, and perhaps especially in her last four years, from when her cancer was first diagnosed, until when she took her last breath, she lived a life rich beyond most and taught lessons that can only be taught, as our cousin Stu* first noted, by Bodhisattvas; advanced souls who've come to teach us mortals great lessons.

In these last years, Judy used her sharp mind, her unscathed sense-of humor and her creativity to assuage our pain in even comprehending her loss among us.

In living and sharing her end-of-life experience the unique way she did, it was as if (as several of her friends had noted) she seemed to instinctively know that with the lemons she had picked--though certainly not the ones she would chosen, were she given the choice---with these particular lemons---still, and maybe especially---she could continue caring for others, leaving us with some truly unforgettable lemonade.

Note: My sincere apologies to those who shared some of these same thoughts on blog-comments or at Judy's memorial service--I am sure that I was not the first to have or speak the same or similar observations about my cousin. (In Other Words: None of this was purposely stolen! Rather our like thinking whoever said it first,  proves how all of us are really connected!)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

'Spec You'll Find it 'Bout the Same Round Here

     A young man and his wife bought a home in a little town in Vermont. As they passed the general store, kids in their car-seats in the back, the young man sees an old timer in his rocker, sitting on the front porch of the store. The young man drives up to the elderly gent and says: "What is this town like? I just bought a house here and me and the wife and kids are moving to your town from the suburbs of Ohio. Are we gonna like it here? How long have you lived here?"

     The old man rubs his whiskers and he says: "Lived here all my life....But, fore I kin tell how you'll like it; let me ask you, how'd you like the last place you lived; that town in Ohio?"
     The young man said, "Oh, we loved it! Our neighbors were friendly and kind; the children had so many nice friends and so did we. And we loved our cozy little house."
     The older man said, "Spec you'll find it 'bout the same 'round here."
     The young man drove off happily.

     Several hours later another car came by the general store, and this guy gets out of his car, leaving his wife inside and he inquires of the old-timer on the porch: "We're from Kansas and we want to know what's it like here in Vermont? My company's relocating here and I just bought a house. Are we 'gonna like it here?"
     The old gent asks the young fella, "Well, how'd you find your last place--that place you lived in Kansas?"
     The younger man said, "We hated it! The people were terrible and the schools were awful and our house was just one problem after another."
     The old timer said, "Spec you'll find it 'bout the same 'round here."

     The point is that, "Wherever you go," as they say, "there you are." You can change your surroundings, move to anyplace and you'll still be there when you get there. If you're cranky, you'll invite cranky. If you're warm and friendly, you'll very likely get the same.

     I mean, isn't life a lot about perception and about us, what we bring to the table? I remember in grad school one of my professors handed out the exact same photocopy to each member of his class. He had given us pictures that told a story. In one of the pictures a woman was taking a big step with a handbag on her shoulder. There was a man just behind her.

     The professor said to the class: "Now you've all gotten the exact same picture. Who can tell me what's going on in the story?" A man raised his hand, "They've had a fight. He's trying to reason with her, but she won't give him the time of day--'won't even talk to him."

    Another student, a woman, raised her hand to answer the question. The professor called on her and the woman answered: "That man is following that woman; he's trying to steal her handbag!"

    So, you see, we can't be entirely objective about even what our senses tell us. All of us have past experiences and preconceptions and moods that color the way we look at today's events. As with my grad school professor, people can have entirely different perspectives about the very same thing.

     As the old gent realizes: it isn't so much your surroundings that create your reality; it's what you bring to your surroundings: your past experience and you, how you are. It seems to me that the reason for the saying "When it rains, it pours" has to do with us--if we are in a positive place we seem to attract a lot of positives; when in a negative place, we can "'spec we'll find it 'bout the same 'round here"---wherever here is.