Category Archives: Life Purpose

Happy New Year? That’s up to you and me

Nothing is more over than Christmas when it is done. I feel that as I begin this New Year’s greeting the morning of December 26. We spent too much money. We ate too much food. All of it was an investment in people we love: our grown children, our siblings, and the friends and colleagues we are blessed to have.

But now the wind is blowing strong. A Christmas Day storm has left the streets rutted with ice. We are back to daily life, still facing the real-world problems that we briefly escaped over the holidays.

My neighbor’s empty house was nearly vandalized on Christmas Eve, because some desperate soul — perhaps addicted or unemployed — lacks the empathy to recognize how his criminal, intrusive actions will haunt this family for years to come.

A man chastised me on a neighborhood Facebook group the other day because I complained about the slippery sidewalks at the soon-to-open CVS drugstore near my house. “Caught in a war zone in Syria. Living in such poverty [that] starving is the norm vs. sidewalks aren’t shoveled where I like to jog. #FirstWorldProblems.”

Sanctimonious, to be sure (or, as my son said, “what a dick”), but I see the man’s point. Looking beyond my relatively privileged life to the real burdens some people face seems especially important at the end of 2016, seven weeks after an election that dashed my hopes for a more inclusive, benevolent society.

Counting blessings is the surest antidote to the inevitable post-holiday letdown. It also is a positive start to 2017, a year when my primary intention is to figure out how to contribute my time and talents to the causes I care about.

Blessing No. 1: A middle-class safety net protects my family.

present

My husband lost his job barely three weeks before Christmas, and I earn significantly less than I was making in a previous management position. Paying our mortgage and monthly bills on my salary alone will be a stretch.

And yet: We own property that brings us income. We have savings we can tap. My husband is able-bodied and employable.

Born and raised in what is now the declining middle class, my husband and I were taught not only how to save money but to invest it. Modest inheritances from deceased relatives have helped put our sons through college. My job provides health insurance and a generous retirement plan. Because we have maximized those privileges, we will make it. The uncertainty is scary, but we will be all right.

Blessing No. 2: Having less money is helping me discover who I really am.

We hosted three different Christmas celebrations this December, and the one where I recognized what I truly value was at a potluck gathering of working-class people whom I had never met. The mother and grandparents of my older son’s girlfriend, our guests talked about their jobs as a means to an end, not as some noble calling or an integral part of their identity.

That notion that the professional is personal — that title and salary confer self-worth and justify self-importance — has gnawed at me for the past two and a half years, since I sidetracked my career and stepped into a job that affords me less income but more time for résumé-enhancing activities such as blogging and going to graduate school.

present_2Having less money this Christmas forced me to give presents of homemade food or inexpensive items that required thought and creativity. Similarly, spending an evening laughing and talking with people for whom work is not their lives helped me, finally, to quit apologizing for my unconventional career choice and to reacquaint myself with the reasons why I made it.

Blessing No. 3: I have learned the practice and necessity of gratitude.

Back in 2011, a spiritual adviser asked me to exchange a gratitude list with her by email every night. The practice helped me notice and recognize blessings such as good health and strong friendships, the ability to support myself, and the dogs who bring me companionship and joy.

The discipline of that gratitude exercise carries on in my ability to seek perspective when I’m upset, to respond rather than react to disagreements or unpleasantness, and to remind myself daily of all that is good about my life.happy-new-year

“You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings,” writes essayist and novelist Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a modern take on an ancient Biblical passage: To whom much is given, much will be required. 2017 can be a Happy New Year but only if each of us, individually, thinks and acts communally — and has the grace to share what we’ve been given.

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Leading with my left: an exercise in humility

Wisdom can come from unlikely places. The older I get, the more I recognize that as a piece of wisdom in and of itself.

Lately my learnings have come from a recurring shoulder injury that has me working to correct a weakness throughout the left side of my body. When I neglect my physical therapy exercises or allow ego to overtake common sense in my workouts, then the injury reasserts itself.

The discomfort has inspired me to break the habit of physically leading with — or favoring — my right side.

Quickly, without thinking, clasp your hands. If you are right handed, as I am, your right hand will fold over your left, with the right thumb on top. If you’re left handed, most likely the opposite will be true.

Back in my days as a fitness instructor, I would talk with my students about our tendency to lead with our dominant side whenever we are walking, weight lifting or simply crossing our arms or legs. That practice builds strength in one side of our bodies — and perpetuates weakness in the other.

Like any unconscious or unhealthy habit, favoring my right side has caught up with me in middle age. And so, as I work to reverse the practice, I’ve been pondering which habits of thinking — assumptions, judgments and beliefs — are similarly automatic.

Leading with my left

Regrets are all too common at this stage of middle age — the point at which we have “more yesterdays than tomorrows,” as Bill Clinton said at the Democratic National Convention earlier this week.No Regrets

  • One friend ruminates about why he has married two different women who have never measured up to a passionate love interest of his youth.
  • Many women regret the choices inherent in combining children and a career.
  • I’ve had to reconcile that I am too old to become a lawyer or a political reporter, knowing that I would have done well at either profession.

Leading with my left — developing new patterns of thinking — means I don’t allow myself to get stuck in the rut of regrets.

Leading with my left means I suppress my irritation when a friend who has depression doesn’t return my voicemail or text messages. Instead I talk to a man who has his depressive tendencies under control, and he suggests some kindhearted questions I might pose to her.

Leading with my left means trusting my gut — and my outrage — when a financial adviser with whom I had intended to invest my retirement savings tells me that my 26-year-old son lacks a “real job.” My son, a college graduate, works full time. He has health insurance and a 401(k) plan. He recently got promoted. He works hard at his craft.

But his job is at a brewery, and that apparently lacks cachet and aspiration for a woman who makes her living among society’s fortunate few. Her comment gnaws at me. “Is it important that your financial adviser shares your values?” I finally ask two friends.

Leading with my left means recognizing that I already know the answer. “All work is honorable,” I told my boys when they were young. I am proud of my son, and that’s the only message he will hear from me.

The underside of strength

An industrial psychologist introduced me to the notion of a “shadow side” of our perceived strengths. In yoga, we call it the marriage of opposites: yin and yang. If one part of us dominates — whether it’s a character trait or one side of our body — we will eventually fall out of balance.

I’m an ENTJ in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a decisive personality type that gets a lot done, but sometimes at the expense of others. In the two years since I stepped away from management, I have learned to exert influence rather than exercise authority and to value collaboration more than control.

Leading with my left at work is not always easy, but the softening seems particularly suited to middle age. “As my energy started to change, the energy that I got back from other people started to change,” said former police officer and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice Cheri Maples in a recent episode of On Being.

In the case of my 91-year-old father, leading with my left has meant becoming a more present daughter in the time that he has left. For years my dad and I have kept a respectful distance, despite our similar strengths and countervailing weaknesses:

  • A strong moral code that constructs rigid definitions of right and wrong.
  • A love of fitness and exercise that judges weight gain as lack of discipline.
  • A sense of duty and responsibility that leads us to rely on work for self-esteem and recognition.

I spent the first afternoon of my summer vacation helping Dad sort through a lifetime of his beloved books. As he and my stepmother prepared to leave their house for the security and convenience of a seniors’ apartment, I stepped forward for the one way I could help.

An English major in college, I love libraries and bookstores. I don’t own an e-reader, and it has never occurred to me to buy one. Sorting through and boxing up my father’s books allowed me insight into his thinking and character in a way that his stoic, taciturn nature would not allow.

Leading with my left, in the twilight of Dad’s life, means letting go: of the blame for circumstances that were not his fault, of the insecurity that said he never really loved me. Leading with my left means being, today, the daughter I wish I had been for decades — forgiving him, forgiving myself, for being human.

Elder-care duties call us to seek the best inside ourselves

I’d heard the news about women and memory loss by the time my sister sent her foreboding e-mail — “a little scary, sisters” — with a link to a story headlined: “Women Descend into Alzheimer’s at Twice the Speed of Men.”

One in six women has a chance of getting Alzheimer’s by age 65, compared with one in 11 men. I recognize that truth every time I count the female heads at our mother’s memory care building.

What is less in the news — but ever-present in the lives of thousands of Baby Boomers, the majority also women — is the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

I’ve been my mother’s primary caretaker since February 2012, when she was diagnosed with the disease. I get the 6 a.m. phone call when she refuses to take her shower. I press the doctor about why he prescribed an anti-depressant without consulting me. I clean the toilet and the sink every time I visit.

These chapters of my life are writing themselves as I rush through them. Unlike my journal, I rarely linger long enough to reflect on how I really feel. All I can hope is that my sons observe the constancy and discipline, and that, one day, they will do the same for me.

Chapter 1: The Professional Caregiver

I joined 40 other scared, sad middle-aged people at a talk in late April by Charles Schoenfeld, a Wisconsin-based author who retired from truck driving and studied to become a certified nurse assistant in dementia wards.

“Human kindness can often reach where medicine and textbooks cannot,” said Schoenfeld, the only man in his CNA classes. “It takes a special person to work in these facilities.”

We daughters and sons or spouses and partners were invited that evening by a physicians’ group that services upscale memory-care facilities. But 800,000 people in the United States who have dementia live alone, without benefit of the long-term-care insurance that allows my mother to reside in a well-appointed place with daily activities, on-site nursing care and an aide-to-patient ratio of 8:1.

The cost of $5,500 a month will drain her financial resources and exhaust her insurance within five years. At that point, if she’s still living, county assistance will kick in.

“So, what do low-income people do who have Alzheimer’s or dementia?” I asked Schoenfeld, adding that every resident but one at my mother’s home is white and all of the aides are people of color, many of them first-generation immigrants.

“That’s a head-scratcher,” he said, clearly not expecting this twist at a white-table-cloth dinner hosted at a country club. Next question?

Chapter 2: Caregiving and Work

It would be dramatic, and inaccurate, to say I downsized my career a year ago solely to care for my mother. It is absolutely true, however, that a non-management job — and the 15 hours a week it nets me — makes my time with her more possible and more pleasant.Audrie Gage_06.15

Now that Mom can no longer shop or talk politics or converse on the phone, I focus on what we can do. I wash and style her hair when I visit. I attend and sometimes lead the seated exercise class — and tear up when the residents close by singing multiple verses, from memory, of “You Are My Sunshine.”

Mom has lost 12 pounds in six months as the disease has claimed her appetite and sense of taste. I sit with her at mealtime and urge her to eat. I bring her candy bars and sugared coffees from the Caribou nearby.

I’m grateful for those moments when my maternal instincts take over, when I sit beside her on the bed and rub her shoulders or stroke her cheek. When I am thinking less about my loss than her own. And I do it all unquestioningly and mostly without complaint. I take the responsibility as seriously as I did my duties to my children.

“Working at home,” “on vacation” and “sick child” are among the dozen or so descriptive magnets on the check-out board at work. Not one of them says “elder care” or “Alzheimer’s” or “gone to see my mother while some shell of her is left.”

Work-life balance is still defined as moms with kids.

Chapter 3: Caregiver Support Group

The first time I heard about the caregivers’ support group at The Alton Memory Care, where my mother lives, I pictured the group therapy sessions on The Bob Newhart Show of the 1970s. Kooks and cranks sitting awkwardly in a circle while a droll, befuddled expert tried to lead them back to mental health.

The image amused me till I recognized the kook and crank inside myself — and felt my resistance and resentment at having to sit around that table.

Two weeks ago a woman named Julie dominated the conversation. Her mom was just diagnosed at age 86, and Julie wanted to know every fact and facet about Alzheimer’s:Alzheimers word cloud

  • How many stages are there? (“Most experts say seven.”)
  • What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia? (“The former is a subset of the latter.”)
  • How is Lewy bodies dementia different from Alzheimer’s? (She had me there.)

“What does it matter?” I finally asked her, as kindly as I could. “You won’t be able to predict the course of this disease. Your mother will have good days and bad days. Every time you see her will be different.”

Our group leader steered us back to the strengths of people who have dementia. They live in the moment, observe non-verbal cues, always appreciate music and experience a range of emotions.

I note the absence of emotion every time I leave Mom’s building. I turn off the car radio and drive home stony-faced, in silence, seeking the distance between myself and the inevitable.