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.

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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.

Hillary was too perfect in an imperfect race

I cast my vote on Tuesday, November 8, with tears in my eyes, a bounce in my step and a broad smile cracking my aging face.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, for me, was no compromise candidate. She was “amply qualified” to be president, as the Washington Post and many other old-media outlets declared. I supported her over Barack Obama in 2008. I supported her over Bernie Sanders in 2016. Turns out, she was the right woman at the wrong time.hillary_mic

Weeks later, her stunning loss is doubly difficult. Our country fell back into the dark reaches of protectionism and fear with the ascension of “the Donald” as our president. But I also can’t shake the reality, the awakening, that Hillary brought this loss upon herself.

Consider this less a political analysis than a primer for women well into middle age who need to step up, speak up and shake up a system that continues to marginalize and overlook us, both in politics and at work.

Lesson 1: Be real.

Bernie Sanders was wrong when he told Clinton, in October 2015, that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Instead of smiling and nodding and declaring, “Me, too,” Hillary needed to explain.

Why did she set up a private email server as secretary of state? Why did she delete 30,000 messages that she deemed to be private? Nothing is private in the digital hemisphere, and this bright woman is smart enough to know that.

Why did she not explain the logic behind the “zone of privacy” that she first made public back in 1994? The suspicions about her then never entirely were erased and may have obliterated her once-promising campaign.

A communications professional and the daughter of a onetime politician, I badly wanted to get inside the Clinton war room and advise her to drop the façade. To be real! (It’s advice that a female vice president once gave me, in commenting about my outsize work ethic: “You need to let your direct reports see that you are human, Amy.”)

“I made a mistake” with the emails wasn’t good enough, not even (or especially) for this diehard supporter. I wanted to know why. I wanted to understand her better. “That would require Hillary to look inside herself,” a friend and Clinton supporter told me days before the election.

Lesson 2: Be bold.

Perfectionism is the self-defeating disease of too many girls and women — evidenced by our obsession with looks and weight, our cautious tendency to play by the rules, our earnest efforts to be the hardest working participants in any venue, from the classroom to the boardroom.

Damned if the astonishingly accomplished Hillary Rodham Clinton — the woman who came closest to breaking the nation’s highest, hardest glass ceiling — isn’t hobbled by perfectionism, too. It may have cost the race for this candidate who can’t seem to be herself in public.

Straight talk, plainly and imperfectly delivered, played well in this election cycle. Hillary — ever the student — instead favored nuance and the latest talking points from her data-driven campaign. “She’s a policy wonk, and I like that because I’m a scientist,” a neighbor said the day after the election. “But she isn’t a politician.” She didn’t have to be.

  • When Trump paraded Bill’s former female conquests before a national audience at the second debate (two days after his own lewd behavior was revealed), Hillary could have squared her shoulders and declared that she was no more responsible for Bill’s behavior than Melania was for Donald’s.
  • When Sanders hammered on the Goldman Sachs speeches, which later revealed her reasoned preference for free trade, she could have explained global markets in terms that the average worker would understand.
  • If coal jobs and auto manufacturing are never coming back, she could have won over millennial voters (and scientists, like my neighbor) by talking about the environmental and economic benefits of wind energy, solar power and mass transit.

She could have helped us as Americans see beyond ourselves and come together as a nation for our common good.

Lesson 3: Be yourself.

Reportedly a charming and plain-spoken woman in private, Hillary could have risked speaking the bold, brazen truth in this “wild west” race. If it cost her the election, at least her supporters would have felt more pride in her defeat. At least then, I could have squared my own shoulders and declared: She lost, but she did not fail.

Too often, I felt Clinton was running for president rather than telling me how she would serve. “Make America Great Again” proved to be an irresistible tagline, and she didn’t articulate what she stood for in the face of it.

I supported Hillary, who is 10 years older than I am, for her lifetime of consistent service to women’s rights. I wanted her to play the woman card in 2008 — when instead she got caught explaining her 2002 Senate vote to approve the Iraq war.

Then and now, I wanted her to run as who and what she was: a path-breaking woman who naturally has been a target since her days at Wellesley College. I wanted her to talk about her evolution in the 1960s from a so-called Goldwater girl to a liberal activist. I wanted her, as an attorney, to talk about this president’s potential to appoint two to three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court and about the reality of what life will become — for poor women, for rural women — if women’s reproductive rights get reversed.

Instead, in long discussions with my Bernie Sanders–supporting sons, I came to wonder if Hillary would say anything to get elected.

And so, the final lesson: Be of service. Action and involvement are the only options left for those of us who believed in a future that did not come to pass. Hillary will go down in history as a courageous woman whose caution overrode her conviction, who — in the face of bigotry and misogyny — consulted her poll numbers and played it way too safe.

‘Motherhood: All love begins and ends there’

I just saw a friend at the dog park whose mother died about two weeks ago. I had seen the news on Facebook. Instinctively I greeted her with a warm, wordless hug, the one that says, “I’ve been there. I understand.” The greeting that has become all too common among women in later middle age.

Like my mother — who died on September 24, 2015 — this woman’s mom had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. We commiserated over the reality that our mothers had not been themselves for years. “I have to go back to 2011 or even 2010 to remember when Mom was really Mom,” I told her.

And for a moment it was back, the wistful sadness I have held at bay for 13 months. As I looked at Jill’s tight smile and moist eyes, as I listened to her describe crawling into bed with her dying mother — allowing her mother one last chance to be a mom — I felt my stomach drop and my throat catch. I wanted to see my mother one last time.

Is this grief? I can’t tell you. I don’t know how to grieve. All I have done since she died is to keep busy, keep moving forward.

“Grief can be exhausting or a relief,” says a handout from the hospice whose nurses cared for my mother in her final days. A bereavement coordinator sent a large refrigerator magnet that I stuck in a pile of papers. It reminds me, now 13 months later, to:

  • Take some walks: Check. I walk to work.
  • Stick to a routine: Check. I’m a creature of habit.
  • Create soothing bedtime rituals: Check. I go to sleep at night listening to music or a podcast.
  • Do some activities you enjoy: Check. I’ve been practicing yoga more often since Mom died, and my husband and I rescued a wildly affectionate puppy at the Animal Humane Society 10 days after her funeral.
  • Expect a wide range of emotions. OK, but what if I can’t find them?

I have dreamed once about my mother in the year-plus since she died; she was old and gaunt, and she had cancer. Maybe my guilt was speaking to me. I was relieved — and shocked, and sad, and scared — when she was diagnosed with blood cancer a mere four weeks before she died. For her, it was a release from the indignity of her decline. For me, it was the end of having to watch it.

My younger son, Nate, recently asked for the code to my iPhone. I told him it was the date of Mom’s death. He paused and turned to look at me. Nate is a truth teller, and I cherish our feisty and fearless conversations. “Do you think you would cope with this better if the code was her birthday instead?” he asked.

Good question, though I never did respond. First, I have to think about what mourning means.

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One year after our mother died on a windy autumn night, my brother posted a photo on Facebook of himself and Mom. They look young, happy and vigorously alive. “We need happy memories today,” I responded. But in truth, I cannot access them.

My memories of Mom are either grim or morbidly amusing, like this anecdote I jotted down in August 2012, six months after we learned she had Alzheimer’s: My brother consulted a colleague whose mother-in-law has advanced Alzheimer’s. The woman told my brother that obsessions are common at this early stage. We should be grateful that our mother is obsessing about her checkbook, she said — even though it drives us crazy. Her relative became obsessed with constipation, and talked people into giving her laxatives and prunes daily. “I laughed, too,” my brother said as I tried to choke back my guffaws. “But my colleague’s father-in-law had to clean up the bathroom every day.”

My friend Janey, who was like a daughter to my mom, recounted the details of caring for a frail, 91-year-old parent only weeks before her own mother died. I was reminded of the daily schedule, the frequent phone calls, the sense of helplessness, the constant worry.

Now, all I have left of my mother is photos and the purposeful distribution of her possessions. “It’s so unreal,” I wrote a former colleague whose mother died recently. “The person who has loved you unconditionally, who’s known you literally all your life, who was your greatest cheerleader and supporter — suddenly she’s gone!”

I sift through notes, the abstract musings that I can’t seem to stitch into a cohesive whole. None of them are dated, which accurately reflects the confusion and unreality of the three and a half years when Mom gradually slipped away and then suddenly, traumatically left us, gasping for air, bone thin and incoherent in a morphine haze.

Here is where I can start to pinpoint my version of the stages of grief:

  • Reflection: “As my mother goes blank behind the eyes — as the light of her intellect dims — I am thinking about my role as a caregiver and about how it didn’t end when my children were grown. I never dreamed that I would have to care for her.”
  • Resentment: “My aunt died in her sleep in June, with no apparent warning. Hard as I know that was for my three cousins, I envy the simplicity, the lack of ambiguity. When will this be over?”
  • Resignation: “In all the years of dealing with my mother’s weaknesses and neediness, I’ve never thought about how much I needed her.”
  • Regret: “I’d like to do it all over again, without the whirlwind and the fear. I’d like to be more present for her dying.”

I didn’t want to lose my mother, but it was time for her to die. I still wrestle with that potent mixture of regret and sheer relief.

“It’s a complicated grief,” says the minister who performed Mom’s funeral service last October, “because dementia is an incremental death. She was both here and gone. You experienced her physical presence but her psychological absence. There’s no possibility of closure or resolution.”

My companion and my confidante, my caregiver and then my charge, my mother was present for every significant moment in my life. I have to live with the reality that I was often at my worst with her.

Maybe, in the end, that is where grief leads us, toward perspective and acceptance, seeing our loved ones and ourselves as perfectly human, imperfect people. “Yes, Mother,” wrote Alice Walker. “I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.”