Thoughts About Life Before Death

            This morning an author was sharing her work on the radio. She’d thought a lot about death and dying, but especially about the steps between independence and reliance on others.

            She said that the idea of moving on to an afterlife didn’t scare her: it was what came before.

            Her words hit home.

            I am a person of faith. I believe in a heaven in which God is waiting for me. He will welcome me with open arms, bring me into His fold where I will live with all kinds of angels. It will be a place of intense colors, smells, and sites. It will be warm day and night and while walking the paths I will encounter family, friends and others that have been waiting for my arrival.

            Heavenly, right?

            The author being interviewed had treated her body well over the years. She’d watched what she ate, consumed very little alcohol, and early on incorporated exercise into her daily routine. She’d run marathons and belonged to a gym for many years.

            She hoped, believed, that treating her body well gave her the opportunity to live long without being a burden to loved ones.

            Her comments made me think about my past. I did not exercise regularly until well into my forties. I learned the game of soccer by watching my own kids play. My daughter’s coach was so horrible that the parents “fired” her, then made me coach. I knew nothing about the game, but I loved research. I read book after book on rules, conditioning and game play.

            I did not sit on the sidelines and shout: I ran, dribbled, passed and thought up new and different “games” to keep my players interested.

            I signed up for coaching classes and learned to be a referee. Once I was licensed, I “reffed” an average of four games a weekend while still coaching a girls’ team and rushing to see my sons play as often as possible.

            To understand more, I joined two adult teams: one co-ed, the other women only. I practiced with both and played one game a weekend on each team.

            As time passed, I felt my overall conditioning improve. I had never been a runner and still wasn’t, but I never stopped moving whether on or off the field.

            My kids swam in a competitive summer league. I took them to morning practices and stayed for their lessons. Watching them taught me how to swim. From barely being able to swim freestyle, I learned backstroke and breaststroke. From not being to complete a lap without stopping, I became a lap swimmer.

            At one point we sold our membership to the pool. For years I had no place to swim while at the same time injuries had kept me off the soccer field. The lack of exercise, combined with a series of surgeries, prevented me from taking up new forms of exercise, and so the weight piled on.

            Well into my fifties I heard of a community indoor pool near my place of work. I could get up early, drive the thirty minutes to get there, get a little exercise, shower and arrive at work on time. At first I only walked, back and forth, back and forth, while in the other lanes swimmers swam in “circles”. I so wanted to join them, but it had been years since I’d done anything like lap swimming.

            Bored with walking, one morning I slipped under the lane lines and joined the moving crowd. I was not the fastest, but not the slowest either. My asthma kicked up, meaning that I’d have to pause after every two laps to rest. I’d go on, each week pushing myself to do more and more.

            Then something happened and the pool had to close for repairs. I had no place to go.

            During this same time I had joined a neighborhood gym. I dropped in almost every afternoon and most weekends. I fell in love with the elliptical and stationary bike. Many of the machines didn’t work for me, but I used those that did. Wanting more, I hired a physical trainer. Big mistake. I don’t believe he’d ever worked with an old lady with double knee replacements. No matter how many times I told him I couldn’t jump or run upstairs, he didn’t believe me. He browbeat me into doing things I didn’t think I could do. He brought me to tears. But I kept paying him for three months before I finally walked away.

            About three years ago a new gym was built not far from my home. It had an indoor three-lane pool and tons of machines. After touring a nearby affiliate of the same company, I signed up. Why? The clientele looked like me: old, out-of-shape women and men. None of the burly, sweaty jocks of my old gym. This looked like a place where I’d fit in.

            When the gym opened I began working with a new trainer. He was gentle and kind. He understood senior citizens and listened to me when I said I couldn’t do something. He gave me exercises and routines that I could do on my own.

            My confidence grew. I lost a little weight, just enough to get brave enough to swim. It felt great to be back in the water, but I was moving much more weight than before. I was slow, slow, slow. But persistent. Each few days I added two more laps. In time I was able to swim a full mile!

            I still go to the gym, still swim, still use the machines.

            About two years ago I ran into a friend from my soccer days. We began hiking two days a week. It was hard at first. Some hills nearly killed me. I’d have to give up and turn around, embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up with my friend.

            Now we are equal partners, routinely hiking 8-10 miles tow to three days a week.

            What all this is about is that right now, I am in the best shape of my life. Like the author mentioned earlier, I take care of my body. I eat healthy, exercise regularly and keep my mind sharp.

            I hope, I believe, that all this will pay off as I add on more years. In three months I will turn seventy-two, but I don’t feel that old.

            At that age my mom looked and acted old. She was the epitome of the wizened old lady. Her face was pitted with wrinkles and her back and legs were weak. She couldn’t walk through her flat neighborhood or meander through a store without frequent stops. Her mind was failing, a precursor to the dementia that eventually took her life.

            I’ve read, just as the author has, that mental and physical exercise keeps us vibrant longer. I hope that she’s right. I want to be alert and independent as long as possible. I don’t want to be a burden to my family. I want to die with grace and dignity intact.

            There are things I don’t know the answer to. For example, will my years of inactivity impact how long I can function independently? I’ve heard that smokers lose years of life, but can gain some time back by quitting.

            Does this work for exercise? Because I’ve been working out seven days a week for years now make up for thirty years of no exercise?

            I certainly hope so.

            While I am not afraid of death, I am doing everything I can to stave off the effects of mental and physical decline. I pray, attend church, read, write, meet with various groups of friends, follow a weight-loss path, watch television, go out for meals and attend movies and plays. I talk to my adult children and my grandchildren. I do things. All kinds of things. And love my life, live my life, to the fullest.

            Perhaps this will make the difference. I certainly hope so.

Misconceptions

            It’s all too easy to formulate theories based on first impressions. I know that I was judged many times over my life, and in most cases, the opinion-formers were probably right.

            My parents dressed me in old-fashioned, homemade clothes. The fabrics and styles weren’t right for the times. They made me where black and white saddle shoes when others had moved on to loafers. With a penny in the slot, no less.

            So here I am, wearing skirts down to my shins, long sleeved blouses with vests on top, and those godawful shoes. Picture me walking the halls of my high school. Add to that, my hair was never in style and I wore wing-tipped blue tinted glasses.

            First impressions? That I was a nerd or poor or both. And they would have been right on all counts. No misconceptions there.

            When I was a teacher, I became aware of what happened when a new student entered the room. One: all heads turned. Two: some students averted their eyes while others gaped. Three: students sitting near an empty desk either looked welcoming or recoiled. Four: once the student was seated, almost everyone stared, trying to determine whether or not those first impressions were correct.

            New students arrived all throughout the school year. I decided to turn first impressions into what I hoped was a valuable lesson. I talked about what goes through a person’s mind when someone new appears. I asked my students to generated ideas. They were extremely adept at doing so, as long as I was the one recording words on the board.

            Once we had covered the board with ideas, I had them write. Something. It could be an original story or something they had witnessed.

            Students are incredibly perceptive. They can also be open to suggestions. Because of our idea-generating discussion, what they wrote touched on how first impressions can not only be wrong, but can also be damaging. Many of my students, who all had learning differences that made reading and writing challenging, had been subjected to negative impressions that colored their school experience.

            In my own life, I have tried not to allow myself to fall into the misconception trap, but it’s hard. A tall, gangly man stumbling down the street? Not a danger to me, right? But why is he stumbling? Could he be drunk or ill? Disabled in need of a cane? I could give him an entire story based on first impressions.

            How many of us, seeing a young man of an ethnicity not our own, formulates impressions that cause us to cross the street or grab our purse tight to our bodies? We tell ourselves that we are not racist, that that’s not the reason we were fearful, but if not fear-based racism, what is it then?

            Recently I was hiking in a local park with a friend. We are used to bicyclists and other hikers. We know that people with dogs also hike the same trails. But when we heard motors approaching, we were taken aback. What could be causing the noise? What could they be doing?

            When we made out riders coming up the hill, we both said, that can’t be legal. We froze in place, wondering what to do. We have never seen a ranger hiking the trails, neither of us had a phone, and the reception is poor anyway.

            We had both decided that whoever these riders were, they were doing so illegally. Our first impressions matched. We just didn’t know what to do from that point forward.

            Then the riders popped out from around a turn and it became obvious that our impressions were completely wrong. Every rider was from some form of police unit. There were officers in police uniform, in sheriff’s uniform and in park greens. They saluted us in greeting as they passed.

            Imagine if we had allowed our misconceptions to report unauthorized riders? We would have been humiliated when some form of law officer arrived, only to change our story that only law officers had been riding through the park! We concurred that it was most likely some type of training exercise, then went on our way.

            Misconceptions happen all too often. Many times, they cause tragic events, such as shootings or chases down busy streets. Sometimes store owners perceive individuals as potential threat and call for backup, only to find that all the people wanted was cold drinks and snacks. Imagine if the police had stormed in with guns drawn! Someone might be dead, all because of misconceptions.

             There is a lesson to be learned here. We do need to check people out for potential threats to ourselves and others, but we also need to allow ourselves to change those impressions as soon as we realize that there is no threat.

            This also applies when someone new enters our space. Instead of ruling out the person as a possible friend, lets give the person a chance. She might be lonely and frightened. He might be a gentle giant. She could love books and movies and he might enjoy the same video games.

            First impressions often lead to misconceptions that deprive us of new friends and new experiences.

            Don’t let that happen.

My Shadow Self

Peter Pan taught us that our shadow is a critical part of who we are. When visiting Wendy and the boys, the dog Nana barked, scaring Peter’s shadow so badly that it became unattached. Peter understands that he needs the shadow in order to live his life in a childlike trance and so he begs Wendy to help him reattach it.

For most people, a shadow is simply a dark spot connected to our feet, but to Peter it was a tangible sprite that could dance, play and roust about. It’s not unusual for children like Peter to believe that  their shadows are playthings simply because their shadow follows them about at times twisting into strange inhuman shapes. Growing up means giving up that belief, something Peter did not want to do.

As adults we understand that the angle of the sun on a clear day influences the outline and presence of our shadows. Our morning shadow is different from our noon shadow which is also different from our late afternoon shadow. It we are walking north it takes on one shape, but when we reverse and go south, it changes.

Normally our shadows are representative of our body’s natural shape. The shadow consists of head, shoulders, trunk, arms and legs. Rarely does our shadow approximate our actual size, instead taking on the outline of comic-book monsters with truncated upper bodies and elongated lower. Or the reverse.

There was a time not too long ago when I didn’t like my shadow. It wasn’t its fault, for it only showed bits and pieces of my true shape. That was the problem. My head was always round like a melon, my arms thick as tree trunks, my body wide as a truck. No one likes to look that way in real life, let alone as a shadow on a sidewalk.

But that was who I was: a short, fat woman.

Today when walking with my husband I noticed my shadow for the first time in years. It had changed! The fat woman had been replaced by a trim person. Everything looked in proportion. My head, shoulders, stomach and legs belonged to an average-build human being.

When it followed me, I wasn’t embarrassed. Instead I smiled. It made me proud that my determination to lose weight was reflected in my black shadow companion.

In a way, at that moment I became like Peter Pan. My shadow had been reattached, this time taking the form of the person I wanted to be, not the one I was. Peter might have wanted to stay a boy and live the carefree life of an adventurer, but he also knew the importance of being whole. When Wendy sewed Peter’s shadow onto his shoe, Peter was complete.

When I saw my new shadow, I also became complete. My shadow and I are now friends who can spend the rest of our lives together.

What a marvelously happy ending.

 

Research Junkie

When I finally learned to read I discovered that libraries are an endless source of information. I trolled the nonfiction section looking for anything that caught my interest. The first that I explored was my Native American heritage. Because my mom didn’t know what tribe we claimed, I read every book on the shelves.

I became an “expert” on all things related to the first people. I knew what foods they ate, the clothes they wore, how they traveled, what their homes looked like, all depending upon where they lived. Little did I know that those old books contained limited knowledge recorded as fact.

What was important, however, was the development of an interest in research that would last a lifetime.

I reveled in projects assigned by teachers. Write a paper on a famous person? It might take several trips to the library before I could settle on one.

Trace Hannibal’s journeys? No problem. Research Greek architecture? The same.

When I was at college I discovered the wealth of information in the stacks. I might have a broad idea for a paper which exploded once I got to reading journal after journal. I would sit on the cold floor and pull down one compilation, then another. I’d move to another row and resume researching.

The problem was that I loved the process of discovery so much that I couldn’t stop. It became a compulsion that I still fight to this very day.

For example, I needed to find out the names of countries during medieval times. That was easy. One click and a detailed map popped up. But then I needed an island in Europe, maybe off the coast of Spain. There are islands but I didn’t recognize the names.

I typed in an old name and research appeared! How wondrous! How clever! How enchanting.

But that wasn’t getting me any further than where I currently am.

I moved on to sample names of cities. That was an endless source of information.

What about names of rivers? Mountains?

What was the weather like? How did that influence clothes worn? What kinds of shoes did people wear back then? What did they ate and drink? How did they entertain themselves?

I got stuck in this cycle of discovery that lead me from one topic to another.

When my eyes got tired, I forced myself to stop research.

But then I moved on to another project: fining a recent photo of my daughter. That meant opening folder after folder hoping to find something good enough to print. I didn’t find one, but I did discover images that were ten years old that I would never use for any purpose. They are now gone.

I sometimes wonder why I love research so much. I’ve analyze whether or not it’s a form of procrastination. Do I delve into these projects in order to avoid that which I should be doing? Or am I really engaging in productive work? It’s usually a little of both.

On the other hand I am a curious person. I love meeting new people so that I can learn what their life is like. Part of this is to weigh how my life measures up, the other is to expand my knowledge base. The more information you have stored away, the more conversant you can be.

When I catch myself researching I now force myself to pause and reflect. Do I really need that information in order to write the story I am working on? If yes, then I give myself permission to continue. If the answer is no, then I quit even though it’s painful to do so.

It’s also an addiction. It’s not harmful the way drugs and alcohol can be, but it does prevent me from engaging in those activities that are most meaningful, that bring the most joy.

As with any addiction you need a rope to hang on: something to grab ahold of while an outside force moves you away. For me it can be a phone call or going for a walk with my husband. It could be a news program or a book that I can’t put down.

When the lifeline arises, I have to tear myself away. That’s why I consider myself a research junkie. When I fall into the allure, I need help to get out of the mire otherwise I will spiral out of control.

Choosing the Sunny Path

On any given day we are bombarded with stories of fear and intimidation, of cruelty and loss. When we read them, sadness fills our soul. That’s the expected reaction because if we didn’t experience the horror, one might question our inner light.

It’s not easy to push those thoughts aside especially when they are replayed over and over on social media. We can choose to learn from what evil others do and behave in some way to counteract the actions that offend us or we swallow it down, sending it deep inside us.

Being an activist is not easy. It takes courage to stand up for one’s beliefs knowing that out there are people who will spit on you, call you offensive names and even threaten your life. We should applaud those we choose to disregard the safety of their lives in order to bring injustices to the forefront, thereby forcing the public to rethink attitudes and beliefs.

The sunny path is not always smooth. There are pitfalls that can suck you in and hold you there, consumed by despair. You can sit there and wallow or pull yourself up and continue down the path.

Soon another obstacle will arise, making you choose, once again, how you will react. Too many roadblocks might cause you to give up. But if you jump over each, if you move one person to act with you, if you change one mind, think of the rewards.

No one will give you a medal, but many will follow in your shoes.

That’s why we choose to walk in the sunshine: to feel goodness and light, joy and power.

 

Reality Check

My friends know that I have always struggled with my weight. It defines me as a fat person. Many people see it as a symbol of slovenliness, laziness, and carelessness. Fat people are thought to be so stupid that they don’t understand the connection between what they ingest and how it manifests in the body.

Although weight isn’t supposed to be a factor when applying for a job, it is. I have sat on interview panels looking for teachers to fill particular positions. Despite being the most articulate, the most qualified in terms of experience and having the most confidence of all those interviewed, often they won’t get hired. Why? Because of a perception that weight will interfere with job performance.

What feels like a gazillion years ago I took a weight management class that my health care provider offered. I learned a lot about nutrition, self-talk and tricks to use to distract myself from eating. I did lose weight during the four-week class so I took it again. And again. As long as I was attending, I lost. It wasn’t huge amounts, but it made a difference. I felt in control.

A long dry spell without outside reinforcement passed before I broke down and joined Weight Watchers, now known as WW. I had stayed away because I feared being weighed in public. It’s one thing for me to look at myself in the mirror and be appalled: it’s another for a stranger to see the numbers. I’m not sure what I expected would happen, but in my mind, I imagined people gathered around the scale watching as each person was weighed. Everyone would see. Everyone would know.

That’s not the way it happens. From the first meeting I was hooked. I have been attending meetings for years. I would lose a little, and then put some back on. Lose a little, gain more. Up and down, week after week.

When my knees needed replacing I took it more seriously and lost more. Due to inactivity, it returned.

It seemed that I lacked discipline and focus. I wanted to lose because it would change my life in powerful ways. A skinnier me would be a respected colleague at work. When I spoke, peers would listen to the words, not gawk at my fat.

I would bring home the proper foods and stay on track. Except for the cookie that would turn into four and the M & Ms that fell into my palm in a cluster. There would be cake and pie at parties that I had to eat. Hamburgers and candy bars that I needed at the end of every shopping trip. Over and over I overindulged in things that I knew put on fat.

Thanks to WW I began to understand that I was not alone: millions of people are just like me. It’s like being in a club of like-minded individuals. Meetings brought us together to share our stories. We listened, knowing that the words spoken represented us.

Every week I was welcomed for who I was, not for who they thought I should be. Such acceptance from strangers was new to me.  Sometimes I was the fattest person in the room, but most of the time I wasn’t. Sometimes when I was frustrated I was silent and moody, but then someone would share an insight that opened my eyes.

Even so, my pattern of deprivation followed by indulgence continued. I’d lose a fair amount of weight, buy new clothes, then something would happen and the weight would return. I saw it as a natural process: something that occurred because of an injury or illness. That image allowed me to put the blame somewhere other than in my mind, in the things that went into my mouth.

Two years ago I needed an operation that was important enough to be done quickly. However the surgeon wouldn’t operate until I had lost at least thirty pounds. Do you know how embarrassing that is? The youngish, virile man looking at me as a slab of fat, like a roast to be trimmed. If I hadn’t been in tremendous pain, like other times when doctors told me I was overweight, I would have walked away and my pattern would have continued.

Instead I accepted his words for truth. For the first time I realized that I could no longer close my eyes and pretend that even though my clothes were huge, that it wasn’t all that bad. That was my first reality check.

I cried each time I wanted something unhealthy to eat. I walked past the package of cookies, the canister filled with candy with a sense of gloom. I couldn’t eat those things. I shouldn’t eat those things. I wouldn’t eat those things.

The pounds slowly disappeared because I embraced WW’s philosophy for the first time. I tracked what I ate. I stayed within my points for the day. I had been exercising for years, but I took things up a notch. Because I wanted that surgery, I took responsibility for myself being overweight and I lost the required amount of weight.

When I looked in the mirror in an honest fashion, I was proud of myself because of what I had accomplished. I still had more to lose in order to reach my goal weight.

Before I ignored the distance between where I was and where I should be, telling myself that I would never, ever get there. Now I told myself that I was on the way. All I had to do was keep following WW, keep attending reinforcing meetings, keep walking by temptations.

When I reached goal weight I was shocked and pleased. I also understood that because unhealthy food calls my name, that it would incredibly easy for me to put all those pounds back on. It might have taken me years, if we go back to when I took the classes, to lose eighty pounds, but if I fell back, those pounds would race back.

Two weeks ago my WW leader shared the message for the week. When tempted, we should pause and then do a reality check.

Imagine standing before a package of oatmeal cookies, your favorite. You pick up the  package salivating over the tender raisins, the oat texture. Then you pause with the package frozen in place. Conduct a reality check. Ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if you’re just looking for something to put in your mouth.  If you’re hungry, ask yourself if there’s a better choice you could make. If not hungry, then question why you need food.

Recently I put this method to a test. I was in a grocery store and saw a package of prettily decorated miniature chocolate cakes. It called my name. I picked up the package and it was heading for my cart when it dawned on me that I should pause. I held the package, looking at the cakes. How many would I eat, I asked myself. I really only wanted one. I wanted to taste it, to see if it was as good as it looked. But then there would be eleven left. Who would eat them?

Anyone passing by probably wondered what I was doing. Imagine how peculiar I looked, standing there with a package of cakes hovering over my cart. Pretty comical, right?

The next step is the reality check. If I bought them, despite only wanting one, I would eat more. I would have at least one a day until they were gone even if they didn’t taste as wonderful as I hoped.

Did I really need them? Was it important for me to buy them? If I didn’t would I have other things to eat?

The answer to all questions was a resounding no. The package returned to the display and I walked away, telling myself if, after getting the healthy choices on my list, I still yearned for them, I could go back.

Guess what? The reality check really worked. Those cakes never entered my cart.

I have used this method several times a day since then. Every time I pass through the kitchen with the intent of grabbing something, I pause. Do the reality check. Reach for fruit or walk away.

Reality check keeps me focused on my health, my well-being, my desire to present myself in a positive image. I never again want to be the obese person that I was before. I could lose more weight, but I am pleased with who I have become. I am determined to utilize the reality check method whenever temptation arises.

Imagine if everyone utilized this method! There would be no fights, no drive-by shootings, no theft, no injuries to self or others. No hurting words would be said. No haughty smirks or cutting glances. No hurtful posts on social media. No angry emails or phone calls. The world would be a safer and happier place.

I am grateful to WW for sharing this with us. Reality check is a powerful tool that I intend to rely on as long as I have the cognitive power to do so.

How about you?

Learning to be Optimistic

Before I met my husband no one would have ever considered me to be an optimist. My heart was stuck in my miserable past, and although I tried to let it go, memories drug me down.

My dreams were minuscule and short term. Turn in that paper, make my bed, don’t say anything that would get me in trouble. Every morning began with a litany of pitfalls to avoid. You would have thought I’d learn, but no, I’d fall into the same trap over and over.

Before my family moved to California, my brother and I discovered that the community colleges were affordable That was when my dreams of getting a degree began to formulate. I had no idea what I would study. I saw it as a way out. An opportunity to break free of the bonds that tied me to people seldom showed love or compassion.

Every class I took for the next three years was chosen to get me into college. I had no idea how I’d pay tuition as I had never worked. When an opportunity arose to make some money, I seized it with both hands. Night after night I sat at the scorekeeper’s table at the local bowling alley and kept score for league competitions. The bowlers paid well, but when they saw that I was studying while keeping score, they paid me more. Then when asked if I was intending to go to college, they gave me more. Over the course f two years I save up enough for a year’s tuition and books.

I needed my counselor’s recommendation to be sent to colleges. She told me that I lacked the skills to succeed. That I would fail out after one semester. Considering that I already had low self-esteem, she sent me deeper into the basement. I cried for days.

One morning I woke up with a new feeling: determinination. I would enroll in college. I would take courses that would count when I transferred to a four-year-university. I would prove that she was wrong.

It was hard to maintain that optimism as my family situation had not changed and I still had no friends. I was a geeky kid, one of those weirdos who don’t fit in any group. I wasn’t pretty as my father had repeated told me. I was smart, but not as smart as my brother as my mother reminded me. I wore hand-me-down clothes, shoes that were too big and had a hairdo that was ancient.

The State of California gifted me a full-ride scholarship to any in-state college. I was happy, but not buoyant. In my mind the fear still lurked that the counselor was right, that I didn’t have the academic skills to succeed.

My parents wouldn’t let me go away to college the first year, so I enrolled at a community college. I had never been a good student of English. I loved to read, but it seemed that I was unable to perceive what others did from the literature. In fact, it was as if I had read completely different books. I could write papers that got good grades, but didn’t understand how to analyze written word.

After getting two miserable grades in my first college English class, I began to believe that the counselor was right. I dropped the class. However, my Spanish professor told me I was too advanced for any classes at the college! My spirits lifted a tiny bit.

I got a job at a clothing store. Big mistake. What shopper would listen to a lower-class employee clearing wearing used clothes? No one. I was fired after a week. Spirits fell.

Then the local KFC hired me even though I knew nothing about cooking. Working the counter was intimidating. I was so shy that speaking to strangers was challenging. I felt inferior every day. The customers dressed better, spoke clearer and knew what they wanted. I lacked all of those skills.

As time passed, however, I learned the job. I was excellent at making coleslaw and excellent at strawberry pie. I kept things clean and was polite and respectful. My confidence took a step up the ladder.

I transferred to USC in the fall. My parents moved to southern California in order to keep me close. Another KFC hired me at the first interview. Another step up the ladder.

When I arrived in my dorm I was filled with excitement as this was my first time away from home. When my roommate arrived with her personal maid and boxes and boxes of brand-new clothing, I realized I was out of my element. I was the white-trash girl trying to blend in with the ultra-rich. Down to the bottom I slid.

My life was one big board game: up two steps, down ten, slide two to the right, down, then up. Meanwhile emotionally I was frozen in time. I passed all my classes, earning excellent grades, but never totally lost the fear of failure. I was a loner. Sitting by myself in the cafeteria. Spending night after night alone.

Imagine watching groups of laughing friends on campus wishing you could join in. Picture yourself in class when discussion or group projects are assigned and no one wants you in the group. That was me.

After college I was forced to move back home as I had nowhere else to go. I was back to being inferior to my siblings. Back to being ridiculed by my parents. Back to being treated like an imbecile. What good feelings I had had disappeared.

It took months to find a job, but when I did, the first thing I did was buy a car. I needed my dad’s signature. The car I wanted he wouldn’t let me have because I was stupid. Instead I ended up with a Ford Pinto, an awkwardly shaped car. But I got to choose the color so I went with the one my dad hated: bumble bee colors. Hah. An act of rebellion.

Over time things opened up for me, but I still lacked confidence. One positive was that I made a friend at work. Another was that I did have a few dates.

I switched to a government job making enough money to get my own apartment. For the first time I was in charge of my life. I ate what I wanted. Drove around wherever I wanted. Watched what I wanted on television. Listened to my music and sang as loudly as I wanted without fear of being teased. Life was good and so my self-esteem soared.

I became a positive person because I was over being negative. It took work to make the change. I had to constantly remind myself, reset goals, reward myself when I felt good.

It was during this period that I me the man who would become my husband. He exuded confidence. Not in an over-the-top way, but in an I-know-who-I-am way. The attraction was immediate. I wanted to be like him and thought if I hung out with him at work his buoyant spirit would rub off.

It took time, but he taught me to love myself, reminded me that I was lovable, and kept me away from negative, overpowering people. He beloved in himself and then believed in me. Through him I learned that I could do many things.

Recently I was reading about a different kind of therapy for depressed individuals. Instead of dwelling on the past, which cannot be changed, look to the future and try to see yourself there. What would you want to be doing? Thinking? Feeling?

Patients were encouraged to write about future selves. Guess what happened? Over time attitudes changed and they began to see brighter days ahead.

If only I could have worked with someone like this. It would not have taken twenty-five years for me to be able to see the good in myself.

I try not to see the negative in people and want to believe that there is good in everyone. However, when I do encounter someone who drags me down, instead of blaming myself, I move away. Rapidly.

This is what positivity gives you: an ability to walk in your own shoes away from negative people. Let them be miserable in their own world: keep them out of mine.

Life is easier, too, when those you have chosen to be with echo the feelings you want to cherish in yourself. Life is too precious not to be positive. I will hold that thought dear to my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Faith

My parents were Catholics when convenient. They baptized us as infants because it was expected and demanded by family. Going to church, however, didn’t begin until it was time to enroll my older brother in Catholic elementary school. The parish checked tithing records and saw that my parents didn’t donate regularly. Once they established a pattern, then my brother could attend.

I enrolled a year later, no questions asked.

School began with daily mass. Prayer occurred at regular intervals. Massive school-wide processions took place with regularity, rain, snow or shine. Students were disciplined with ruler, clicker, social isolation and words. We studied the saints and wrote countless reports about our favorites. All art was related to church and church teachings. No frivolous country scenes. Only crucifixions or stained-glass windows.

We read the bible, not contemporary literature except for the occasional Dick and Jane and see Spot run. We were conditioned to believe that church was our life now and in the future. Every year priests and nuns and missionaries spoke to our entire school about a life of service.

Throughout all these years I often attended Sunday Mass, but only if there wasn’t an excuse to skip it. It crops had to be planted or harvested, no Mass. If it was too snowy, icy or rainy, no Mass. Too hot? No Mass. Memorial Day? No Mass only endless visits from one cemetery to another. Relatives to visit? Well, you get the picture.

My parents made sure we received our first Communion. We processed in with our classes, hands neatly folded with a white prayer book nestled between and a white plastic rosary draped over the tips of our fingers. My brother got by with a white school shirt but I was stuffed into a stiff Communion dress and a tight-fitting veil pinching my puffy cheeks.

Once that milestone was accomplished we once again attended Mass when my dad saw fit. Interestingly enough, ten cents out of the quarter weekly allowance was handed back to my dad as our donation to the church we never attended.

My brother and I stayed at the Catholic school through Confirmation. My teacher, a strict nun, made sure I understood that this sacrament sealed my commitment to a life of service to God and church. I took it quite seriously. When the annual recruitment took place, I was ready to sign up for a monastic life of solitude and prayer. I envisioned myself in a place of peace, a place of reflection, a place devoid of the tension which was my home life. My parents wouldn’t let me go.

When we moved to California in 1964 my dad began his search for the fastest mass in town. He took us over the hills to Half Moon Bay and Pacifica where the priests spoke of fire and brimstone, damnation of everlasting hell. They terrified me.

We tried churches in San Mateo and Burlingame. We didn’t fit in those well-to-do parishes due to our extreme poverty. He found one in San Bruno that he liked until the priest asked for regular donations. There were two in South San Francisco:  one which was supposed to be our assigned parish and the other, a tiny one, with a thirty-minute mass. That’s the one my dad chose. In and out, over and done.

When away at college I discovered the Neumann Center, a tiny chapel on campus with a welcoming atmosphere. The music was contemporary with drums, guitars, keyboard and cymbals. Dancing in the aisles. Hallelujahs and lots of praise be to God. I fit in.

My husband grew up in a family that attended mass faithfully regardless of whether even when they had to sludge to church through downpours.  Going to church was part of who he was. It influenced his thinking, his behavior, his attitude toward others.

His beliefs built our family into who we are today. If we were camping, he found a church. Skiing? Church. Traveling? Right, church. Sometimes we drove for miles to find a church, but we got there nevertheless.

For almost 46 years Sunday Mass has been an integral part of our relationship. In fact, when I travel on my own, I seek out church and attend.

Not being able to attend due to the coronavirus takes me back to my childhood days of any excuse to miss going to Mass. Except for one caveat: this isn’t voluntary, but enforced.

We found a Mass on television, which is a nice substitute, but there’s a huge difference between sitting in your family room and being in the church building. There are stained glass windows in the TV church and statues and the readings and the service, but the lack of physical presence takes you away from the reverence, the spirituality.

Today things changed for me. I was asked to be the lector for today’s Sunday Mass. I put on a dress and necklace. Studied my readings. Made sure my hair was neatly combed. Put on my mask when I entered the church. Three others were there: the parish secretary, the parish office manager and the choir director. The church felt hollow. Voices echoed.

But the pews were there. Candles, flowers, statues, stained glass windows, all the things that identify that church as mine. When the priest entered and the service began I was filled with awe. Several times my eyes filled with tears. Singing with the director took me back to a few weeks ago when I’d be standing with five other choir members, lifting our voices in praise. Now there was just two of us.

The priest shared a time when he had strayed from God and how, when the call came, how powerful it was. His words carried me back to  my childhood when it wasn’t me that chose to stray, but circumstances beyond my control, and how powerful it was when I found God in my late teens. He spoke for all of us, reminding us to talk to Jesus.

Next Sunday we’ll watch the television Mass once again. It won’t be the same, but I’ll share the experience with my husband, the man who taught me that attending church was a powerful connection to our faith in God.

In these times we need reminders that there is someone up there, someone ready to listen when we’re ready to pray.

 

More Than Just Surviving

These are trying times. Because of a coronavirus are lives have drastically changed. Workers aren’t working unless they are deemed “essential”. Roads which normally would be congested morning and evening are practically empty. Restaurants aren’t serving unless they can provide to-go meals.

Libraries aren’t open. We can’t go to the gym, theater or conferences. Families can’t see each other and teachers can’t provide one-to-one assistance to their students. Baseball and basketball aren’t happening.

Many parks are closed and those that are open have closed parking lots and imposed restrictions limiting how many people can gather in a given place at the same time.

How do you survive in these changed circumstances?

Technology has become the lifeline for most of us. Virtual meetings, family visits, classrooms, even yoga studios allow us to interact with others. Of course there’s the phone, but it can’t take the place of seeing a loved one’s face or interacting with cherished friends.

Because we are curious about when life can return to normal we feast on the news. We find ourselves spending too much time online, reading reports and studying statistics hoping to see the light at the end.

There are days when circumstances seem to be changing. We smile more, laugh more, feel lighter and brighter and happier overall. Then we hear of a new outbreak and we sink back into that dark hole.

We forget that there are things we can still do. If we have yards, we can go outside. Live in an apartment building? Go up on the roof. We can don masks and walk around the block, making sure to maintain social distancing when we encounter others.

We can still barbeque and sit on balconies or decks if we have them. We can listen to music and read good books. We can watch documentaries on television and play board games with those in our homes.

If we’re crafty, we can make something. Paint, knit, crochet, sew, build. Cut, fold, stamp.

If we have the physical ability we can tackle home-cleaning tasks that we’ve put off for years. The stuff in the garage might not be needed anymore. The garden that we’ve neglected now needs plants that can provide food as well as beauty. Clean windows, showers and tubs. Polish the wood floor and wipe down blinds.

When we’re feeling sad we can do something uplifting. Bake cookies to nourish, sew masks to give away, connect via email, phone or internet.

We have to change our mindset. Instead of dwelling on what we can’t do, think of all the blessings we’ve been given. Instead of moping about, rejoice in another day of life. Instead of carrying sorrow on our shoulders, find reasons to rejoice.

Things may not be wonderful right now, but an end will come. When it does, let’s not look back on these times with regret for what we didn’t do, but instead on all the things we did.

That’s the attitude needed to survive. We can do this. We can choose to walk alone or we can use what tools we have to pull others into our circle. We are children of survivors. We are survivors.

 

The Times are Changing

Every year the flu sweeps across the country and sickens thousands. Kills many more. Yet we seldom panic when the word “flu” is used. Why? Because it is commonplace. It’s expected. It’s understood.

We know that it brings runny noses, coughs, chills, fevers. We expect to suffer for a week or more. It will leave us weak, but we recover. We don’t want to eat, but that’s for a relatively short period of time.

Our neighbors and coworkers and relatives get it, suffer, then most of them get well. Only rarely does someone we know die from the flu, and those that do tend to have compromised immune systems.

So what’s new about this coronavirus? For one thing, it’s taken researches a while to try to isolate what caused it. We don’t like mystery. We like scientific explanations. We like logic.

Mystery illnesses remind us of science fiction movies where plagues sweep across the world killing millions. That makes us uncomfortable because there’s a touch of reality in there, a touch of possibility that causes us to squirm.

Americans are accustomed to catching the flu then returning to normal life. While we are home suffering, everyone else is working, traveling, shopping. We wrap up in heavy blankets and sip broth while the rest of the family gobbles down pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti.

While we’re home unable to work, work goes on, leaving us behind. We worry that the boss will discover that we are not needed. That hurts our egos as we like to believe that we are indispensable.

Across the United States, as the virus sickens more and more of us, governors and mayors are enacting rules that restrict our movement. We don’t like that. We believe in our freedoms and those are being eroded on a daily basis.

We are in love with our cars. Yes, we can still drive about, but where can we go? Not to the movies or the theater as they are closed. We can’t dine in a nice restaurant where we chitchat with friends, for they are closed as well. We can drive up to a fast food window and order take out, but we aren’t permitted to share the meal with outsiders.

Our churches are closed, so we cannot worship in the usual way. Some churches have created streamed services, but that’s not the same environment. The pomp is gone. The music is gone. The partaking of communion is also gone. Our community is broken into tiny parts.

We cannot stroll through a mall or go for a hike with friends. Even our doctors don’t want to see us, opting for phone calls instead of in-person visits.

All the things that we are used to doing, that we accept as our rights, are shuttered.

The scary part is that we don’t know for how long. Two weeks? Three? Maybe even four? No one knows for sure. This uncertainty is new.

The flu might close a school for a deep cleaning that lasts a day, but all schools are closed for at least three weeks. Education, a right that we highly value, has ground to a halt.

No public transportation is operating, so we cannot go into the city or ride across the bay. We are truly stuck.

This curtailing of our freedoms is frightening. People are hoarding food and medicine. They are even filling bottle after bottle with water, thinking that our supply is going to be cut off? Who knows.

We are told to use sanitizer but you can’t find it anywhere. We are told to stay out of stores, but what if you need food? Because of the hoarders it’s hard to find fresh food, and when you do, the prices have risen to unacceptable rates.

We are told to keep six feet of separation between us, but at the grocery store, people stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

I hope and pray that this passes quickly and that not too many sicken and die.

Let’s muscle through this together. Let’s comply, as much as possible, for the betterment of all. Perhaps if we stay home, the end will come soon.

Meanwhile, we can sing the old song about how the times are changing.