Serendipity, A South Dakotan Stranger, and me…

rick holm

I believe in serendipity, I do.  I believe that people join us in our walk for reasons designed by someone other than ourselves. Or so it has seemed in my life.

Nearly four years ago, I found myself impotently trying to punch my way out of the stubborn paper bag of depression.  The mounting losses had rendered me unrecognizable to myself.

Serendipity came then in the form of a powerful woman.  I met Maggie Callanan in my driveway. She was a new neighbor, but it was not until she told me she was a Hospice nurse that the familiarity of her name hit me over the head.  Maggie could not know then that seven years before someone had given me Maggie’s best-selling book “Final Gifts.” It was a gift given while my mother lay ravaged with stage four cancer.  Nor could Maggie know that three years later her second book, “Final journeys,” would join “Final Gifts” on my nightstand as my father lay dying. 

I leaned on Maggie when my elderly uncle moved to be near me for the final eighteen months of his life.  She patiently counseled me as Uncle Bobby’s health faded, all the while encouraging my writing. Maggie was the only soul who came to sit with me in the dark of-of a July night as I said my final goodbye to my beloved bachelor uncle.

Serendipity brought me an unforgettable friendship with a woman who helped me find myself again.

Today I want to introduce Dr. Rick Holm, a South Dakotan physician who has committed a significant part of his professional life to care of the aging.  He is also known as “Prairie Doc,” as host of a weekly, one hour, live medical questions program on South Dakota Public Radio and a 30-minute live radio call-in show.

You might wonder how a fledgling writer from Connecticut comes to know a Prairie-born, Doctor of Geriatrics of significant renown.  Serendipity, of course!

Rick and Maggie have known each other as distant colleagues in the business of death and dying. In the midst of writing a book about aging and end of life care, Rick was diagnosed with cancer. In an unexpected moment in time, his writing took on deeper personal meaning.  

Rick reached to Maggie for review of his manuscript.  Maggie suggested to Rick that she had a friend who might be valuable in tweaking portions of the book to inject some lyrical prose.  Two medical powerhouses and this neophyte writer? Humbled seems too mild a word.

These past six months I have come to know Rick Holm through his manuscript.  I wish it had been released in time to join Maggie’s books on my bedside table while I cared for the dying loved ones in my life.    I now consider Rick Holm a friend.

Please Welcome Dr. Rick Holm to my blog space.  If you are, or suspect you will someday be, given the gift of sharing the end of life journey with a loved one, I encourage you to purchase Rick’s book which can be found on Amazon: 

Image result for life's final season

Life’s More Rich as It Nears Its End    Dr. Richard P. Holm M.D.

I’ve lived a life formulated to live long: eating right, exercising daily and savoring friendships and family. Despite this, I still came down with cancer two years ago. I’ve been treated with chemo, radiation, major surgery and now, with spread to the liver, I’m back on chemo. I’m still here and truly feel blessed and thankful for every day, but you can understand why, lately, I’ve been thinking about death.

Loving my enemies has made this easier. As our kids were growing up, I would find myself saying to them ”I will always love you unconditionally, but sometimes I don’t like what you are doing.” We should say that to our enemies, too. Here is the lesson: hate is poisonous, especially to the one who harbors it. Remember what Jesus said (as did Mohammed and Buddha), “Love your enemy.” I believe hating others, even when justified, only destroys us. When angry, we should point the anger at what he or she is doing, not at the person. Use it as propulsion to fight to the tooth for the cause . . . but let go of hate. How is this related to death, you ask?

When people ask me how I contend with the prospect of my dying sooner than I’d like, I go right to the opposite of hate which is love. I know it sounds clichéd and unoriginal but the word love embraces the spiritual, inner-warmth I feel when I value the other person (even if he or she is my enemy). Truly valuing others gives more meaning to my time limited life and helps take away the fear of my own death . . . but there is something more.

Some say, “One day, you’ll be just a memory for some people.  Do your best to be a good one.” That’s not bad advice, but I think the measure of our worth after we die, has less to do with being remembered and more to do with the reflection of our actions in others. It’s that Pay it Forward or that Jimmy Stewart Wonderful Life sort of thing. I believe meaning and purpose comes with the good that we do and how that moves others forward (whether they’re aware of it or not).

Our lives are all like a book that becomes more precious as it nears the end, especially by savoring friendships and family, by letting go of hate and by paying good deeds forward. Why waste any time fearing death?

For the love of women…

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I posted this F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on Facebook about a month ago.  I then posted a not so wonderful picture of myself.  It was the sort of picture I would normally see and trash almost immediately on my iPhone. But, on that day, I shared it and others began to share, too.  

Middle-aged women and few of my not quite there former students shared unvarnished, imperfect pictures of their beautiful selves.  It was a wonderful day in the not always productive world of Facebook.

I have unruly hair, an overbite, and imperfect teeth.  My eyes are a touch wide-set and now require glasses. I have contacts, but they are mostly uncomfortable. 

There are circles under my eyes and brown age spots that try to meld with my already too freckled face. My long neck is beginning to show signs of age; it’s  .skin not nearly as taut as it once was.

For a 55 -year-old women, my body is okay.  The broad shoulders, which in my youth made me feel masculine, now give me strength. I do have rather good posture, a nod to my grandmother who would put her pointer finger in the small of my back when I slouched as a girl, “Be proud of your height!”

I am thinner now than I was in my thirties.  But, at 5’8 inches, there are still days when I feel too gangly, too big, too much.   

Let’s not start with the wrinkles.

My breasts no longer stand at attention and there is a pouch where two babies made their arrivals by cesarean section and an appendectomy scar which followed shortly thereafter.  If I overindulge, I feel it at my waist first, then my buttocks.   I wish I had worn a bikini when I was a young.  I would have looked great, but I had no such confidence as a girl.

A man once loved me and thought I was beautiful.  And then, he didn’t.  I spent the next two years believing his words and felt haggish.  The power of a man’s opinion is quite something in the game of self-perception. For the record, he would not turn heads at the supermarket.  I thought he was attractive, flaws and all, until the end. I loved his soul.

My friend shared a marvelous anecdote many years ago.  She and her husband were in their master bathroom.  Each had a sink and shared the large mirror.  As she plucked the unwanted facial hair and applied cream to her eyelids, then stroked mascara and looked critically at her reflection, she took note of her sixty-year-old husband.  He was balding, paunchy, and sun damaged. 

He shaved, splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth and was done.  She told me, “Oh my God, I was taking stock of every flaw.  He may as well have snapped a towel at the mirror, pointed at himself and said ‘You, the man!’”

In my brief foray into online dating, I met a man for dinner; two strangers taking the measure of each other.  Fifteen minutes in, he interrupted me to say, “You animate really well.  In person, you are so much more attractive than your pictures.”  I think I said thanks but wanted to say, “Yeah, Pal, that would be my soul making its appearance. Camera’s don’t see the soul.”  

Ugh….

I pour this out, late on a Saturday evening, because of the news this week.  Donald being Donald, yet again.  

I am a liberal.  A Democrat.  It is existential. My cable news of choice is MSNBC.

I am smart and engaging and would not last a second on television.  Not with my flawed face.  Not a prayer.

Mika Brzezinski co-hosts “Morning Joe” and I have watched it for years. She is a stunningly beautiful Slav.  Her face is taut and perfect.  Her figure flawless, her legs the envy of a Rockette.

She shares the show each day with a posse of men. She is a smart, incisive, opinionated Democrat.

Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman, is a sort of goofy looking Southerner, with a rash of brown hair, an oversized nose, and thick-framed glasses.  I have a soft spot for the contributing Mike Barnicle, a past his middle years, rumpled, thickly accented Boston journalist with a gap-toothed smile and face that shows the march of years.  Willie Geist is the young, up and comer.  He is a paste-y, well-heeled New York boy next store.

I would guess it takes those men about 30 minutes to prepare to go on television. Mika Brzezinski?  I think we know the expectation.  Women, no matter how smart, don’t get to be goofy or rumpled or paste-y on television.  See Fox, see CNN, see MSNBC.

Mika Brzezinski had a facelift.  Of course, she did.  If her looks don’t match her intellect there is little chance she shares the spotlight with men.  

How dare this President call her out on that?  How dare he personalize the news media? How dare he, when he should be working to advance this country, be so thin-skinned as to bark back when he is criticized by a morning cable television host?  How dare he hit a woman where it hurts?

He is an outrageous misogynist. He is a child, a megalomaniac and at his base, just a terrible man. So terrible, in fact, that this Democrat actually misses George W. Bush. Now that’s real news! 

Donald J. Trump has no manners and no respect for his Pennsylvania Avenue address.  It seems most of the country is just fine with that. And that’s the real kick in the pants; people I know defend him.

Aaargh…

In the Trump Era, I worry for my 18-year-old daughter and what this President’s behavior means to women of her generation. What does lowering the bar for misogynists mean for those girls who graduated high school this year?  How far does he set them back by sending a message to every boy my daughter’s age, that a women’s appearance is fair game for the President?

My daughter is objectively beautiful.  By that I mean, physically, in a lineup of her peers, she is stunning.  Unlike my chaotic mess of hair, she enjoys a color and texture that the salons would love to bottle.  Her skin is gorgeous and she carries her 5’9” frame with confidence. She rolls out of bed, beautiful.

She better. Despite the fact that she is also smart and passionate, in 2016 this country elected a man who has no respect for women.  I noted this in my piece about Charlie Chaplin just after the election, and even I am surprised at Trump’s inability to disguise his abject hatred for women.

So yes, my daughter will need all the confidence she can muster.  This President has, in short order, made it abundantly clear that women do not matter.  Those who support him in their silence, only strengthen him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was one complicated fella, But, my God, he loved women. He loved Zelda, but, not for her beauty.  Fitzgerald loved her for her soul. It is the only part of any human that actually matters.

I would love to hear from my readers about the current state of affairs.  I’m done tuckered out!

 

 

 

 

On Writing…

socrates1

“No blogs?”, “Did you stop writing?”, “Too busy for your blog?”

I have been absent from my blog space for the last 100 days. And no, I did not stop writing. In fact, I have been writing at a breakneck pace for over three months. My audience shifted from the blogosphere to writers from all over the world.

When I entered a 100-day writing challenge, I expected to whip off a few blogs while churning out chapters of a book. There is an idiom for that sort of optimism: wearing rose colored glasses.

Here was the mantel set before me: 3,000 words per week, due by midnight each Friday. Because nothing has changed at my core in the last 35 plus years, come Wednesday the scramble began. I continue to be a last-minute crammer.

Some perspective:

3,000 words are double the count of a standard personal essay or opinion piece in a magazine.

The college essay limit is a paltry 650 words. As a College Counselor, I revel in prompting my students through the college essay. They approach it as though it were Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The average word count for the President’s State of the Union Address is 4,000 words. It takes a team of speechwriter’s months to prepare.

Five weeks: 45,000 words, and thoughtful critique of 750 pages of other people’s work. That’s about fifty pages per week and it was time-consuming. I am a better writer because of it.

I am often asked, “Why do you write?”

It’s a question I’ve heard since I started to blog and because I am writing a memoir. I suppose the subtext goes something like, “Why would you share personal details of your life?”

Aha…. good question!

I write to rumble with my life; to grapple with grief and loss. To find balance through examination of my soul. I write because it gets the swirling stuff inside of me to the outside of me. Once released it loses its power over me.

Before I reached middle-age I had no intrinsic sense of grief. My grandparents passed in the natural order of time, at ripe old ages. Those were sad moments, but they did not paralyze me.

My mother died when I was 43. On that day, the scaffolding of my life began to dissemble, piece by piece. Soul sucking, enormous grief became my constant companion. The losses mounted and eleven years later, as I prepared for the death of my dear Uncle Bobby, I began to write.

It helped.

Some people run, bike, do yoga, or seek therapy to manage life. Others paint, knit, sculpt, or get lost in their music. Some souls bury their hurt with a “move on” sort of bravado. They hold tight to the foolish notion that an unexamined ache will heal itself.

Wizard of Oz analogies are never far from my grasp. At 50, I found myself skipping along the Yellow Brick Road. In the wake of relentless grief, I found love and it was glorious. I smiled and sighed in the palm of it. It felt like home. The soul yearns for serendipity and for a year of my life I felt as though I had found it.

In my happiness, I forgot an important fact about the Yellow Brick Road; there is a Haunted Forest at its end and it is harrowing. One moment, I was skipping and laughing and, as I turned a corner, it took me by surprise. Before I knew it trees started heaving apples at me, and a witch appeared and tried to set my straw aflame. All the while, menacing monkeys ruled the darkened skies.

I ignored the caution signs posted along the way and that tormented me. It was my hardest grappling. Writing helped me find the answers.

When I look back at my early writing, written when I had lost all semblance of myself, it makes me ache for the me of then. When I reread early chapters of my book, I am astounded by my narrow perspective. I weep for the woman who allowed pebbles to cripple her.

I am rewriting from a new place where there are no heroes or villains. A place where I no longer try to forgive myself for what I did not know. Rather, I forgive myself for dismissing instinct; losing faith in my ability to navigate.  I forgive myself for accepting less than I deserved and allowing another to judge my worth. As a friend implored me then, “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.” Indeed.

In remarkable fashion, at the nadir of my sadness, another man inserted himself in my life. I scrambled to rise to the arrival of my 88-year-old Uncle Bobby. I had no idea that in his weakening I would find my strength. The eighteen months I spent by his side exhausted and restored me. He became my muse, and the writing of it made the hard work of elder-care bearable.

My articulation of the universal experience of love and loss resonated and that moved me. It was a great joy to write about my Uncle, to give voice to his history. I felt like his personal curator and it was an honor to capture his remarkable spirit in words. My journey with Uncle Bobby helped me find my writer’s voice.

More than therapy, friends, or even Uncle Bobby, writing escorted me out of The Haunted Forest.

I write to rumble, to figure, to navigate.

During the 100-day challenge, other rumbling writers encouraged my story through constructive critique. They inspired me with their own dedication to the craft.

One wrote to me, “We have little in common. I am a 35-year-old bachelor on the other side of the country.  Yet, when I read your chapters, I find myself contemplating my own life.  I want to read your writing with a glass wine and my feet set on an ottoman.”

There is a writer who does the same for me. A dog-eared copy of her collection of essays, This Is A Happy Marriage, sits on my bedside table. Ann Patchett’s soul is present in her writing.  She is achingly honest and when I read her work, she feels like a friend.

I write because I hope that one day, on the night of a full moon when sleep is but a dream, a struggling soul will reach for a dog-eared copy of my book on her bedside table… and not feel so alone.