No More Sleepwalking

One of my greatest fears is that I will sleepwalk through my life, only to figure out at the end of my days that I did it wrong. I wasted an opportunity. Maybe I’ll realize I played by the wrong rules, worked hard to get to pointless places, or simply failed to fully appreciate the gifts that were showered on me: the people who love me, the quiet of my patio, the chance to have a picnic in the nearby mountains, time out for music. A slow read of a good book. A movie, designed to inspire. A gallery, just an hour away, that I’ve been telling people about for ten years, and have probably not visited in the same amount of time. A walk through the oasis that is The Indian Canyons.

I’ve been remiss. The new year brings a desire for change, a resolve to do better. I’m not sure how, but I’m taking the first step: my eyes are open now.

I’m reminded of a passage from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson:

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it,” says the character John Ames. “I know this is all apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it…I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely…”

Happy New Year, my friends.

Quick Question for You

Sometimes I have a hard time reading all the blog posts arriving in my inbox every day. Some bloggers post several times a week or even several times a day. It’s a challenge to keep up, and I worry that I’m missing something.

Some bloggers are even doing newsletters now! Thus instead of one post in my inbox, they’re sending me a collection of six or seven articles at a time. Holy cow.

On the other hand, a few of the longer-winded bloggers are cutting back, worried they’re overloading their readers. That’s why I’m thinking of switching to every other Friday to make your life a little less cluttered. I’d like to do what works for you. So spill it, good buddy, and we’ll go with the majority. Let me know what you’d prefer, and thanks.

How Ashton and Jay Z Made Me Happy

I used to look at Ashton Kutcher and think pretty boy tech geek who got lucky when he caught the eye of Demi Moore. And that’s true, but it’s not the whole story.

When I saw this video of Kutcher, I fell in like with the guy. (Skip the first minute.) He tells his teenaged audience three important things, all of which I agree with:

  1. Opportunity looks a lot like hard work. He’s been a roofer, a custodian, a sandwich maker, and a sweeper. “I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than. I’ve always just been lucky to have a job. Every job was a stepping stone to the next job, and I never quit my job until I had the next job.”
  2. Being sexy: “The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart. And being thoughtful. And being generous. Everything else is crap, I promise you. It’s just crap that people try to sell to you, to make you feel like less. So don’t buy it.”
  3. Living life: “Build a life. Don’t live one. Build one.”

I think it’s reassuring to feel a sense of commonality with younger people. it’s nice to think we’re in it together, because otherwise, we divide up into tribes, which is a bummer, and a waste of potential synergy. Life is hard for everybody. We’ve got our old problems, and they’ve got their young problems.

Jay Z made me happy, too, with the way he related so generously to people who are talents in their own right. In this video, he gets out of the stadium and does an interactive gig with about 50 people.

Jay Z and Marina Abromovic eye to eye

Jay Z and Marina Abromovic eye to eye

In the video, “Picasso, Baby,” Jay Z performs for artists, dancers, and other creative types, who in turn perform for him, and I dare you not to dance. I especially liked when a stylish woman in her late 70s, early 80s? sits down in front of him and he forgets his lines, like he’s blown away by her fabulousness. She throws back her head and laughs.

One of the ways we create tribes is through our music. I wonder if there’s not something about the way our brains form when we’re young that causes us to imprint a certain kind of rhythm and sound. For example, I love the music of my era, the 60s and 70s (Led Zepp, Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Turtles, Beach Boys; you get the idea). I don’t cotton to hip hop or rap. But then along come Jay Z and his friends, and suddenly I’m dancing to hip hop. That made me happy.

In earlier times, tribalism kept us safe. But now the challenge is to break out and see if you can share a feeling with someone not of your tribe – in this case, the tribe of age. I loved what Ashton Kutcher had to say, and I danced my @$$ off to Jay Z’s video. I felt happy and safe, thinking I’m not alone, that I’m part of their tribe and they of mine. Life is sweet.

On another subject, when I was in Rushville, Indiana last month, I went for a walk every morning in the neighborhood around my hotel. It was pretty enough, in an old-home American flag way, that it choked me up. I was listening to a particular song one day on my iPod, and I thought, dang, I have to make a video of what I’m seeing, and set it to just that music, so you can experience my heart land. So here it is, my love letter to Rushville, accompanied by Gregory Alan Isakov’s The Stable Song.

phone July 22 2013 453

Click on picture to see video

I Don’t Want to Live Forever

So now there’s a chance we can extend longevity to 120. Yay, right? Not necessarily. Many midlife people, myself included, don’t want to see that happen. I think it would make an elder person go nuts. It would me, anyway.

Let’s consider the challenge of keeping up with your profession. How much information can you learn, discard, learn, discard, learn, discard in middle-age and beyond? And even if you can learn it, after fifteen or twenty new campaigns, do you even care to? You’ve seen change after change in your corporate setting, much of it brought about by new people refusing to learn from history. If your brain absorbs sixty, seventy years of information, might there be a point where, like an old draft horse, you simply refuse to haul that load one more step?

What about technology? Born in a time of party lines and carbon paper, you’ve mastered the tech revolution, with all your new passwords and tech support and wireless and ether and RAM. Do you really want to be around when they start doing microchip implants under the skin? I don’t want to be sitting out on the patio of an evening, wondering if that bug I just swatted was a mosquito or a miniaturized drone.

Now consider the emotional challenges we face during a long lifetime.

Migrant mother

What if you started out here? photo by Dorothea Lange

When I was researching Dakota Blues, I drove around rural North Dakota and saw many crumbling homesteads from a time when there were no roads, stores, or neighbors within miles. The parents would produce a dozen kids, because half of them would die before adulthood. Drought killed crops. Locusts ate the paint off farm tools. Cattle starved. I imagined the woman of the house looking up from her labors and thinking of her family still in Germany, whom she would probably never see again. Then I pictured her, years later, as a very old woman standing by a grave in ND, and I wondered how she handled being the only one who remembered sailing from a dock in Hamburg. Assuming this woman was born in 1900, do you really see her thriving through 2020?

When you look at it organically, death might be as much a relief at the end of a life as sleep is at the end of a day.

My Mom sometimes laments being “so old” (she’s 88), and I try to cheer her up with some positives: after many years of seeing your kids slaving away at careers, they’re enjoying retirement – and you’re getting more visits than ever. Your grandkids are having adorable babies which you can cuddle and hug. A great-grandson just graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. Life is long. That’s a privilege.

But there’s a price. You may be the oldest person around. Nobody remembers what it was like back then. You’ve been widowed for how many years? You miss your parents, who’ve been gone half your life.

For all the good, longevity comes with an accumulation of sorrow. You might manage it for thirty, forty years. Then what? You can rejuvenate your face and maybe even, eventually, your blood cells, but what of your heart and soul?

Finding Order in Chaos: How to Handle Your Role as Caregiver

Today’s post is written by Cameron Von St. James. He’s a husband and daddy, and he’s got some helpful information for you about dealing with the burden of caring for a very ill loved one. Here’s his story:

Cameron Von St. James

Cameron Von St. James

Less than four months after my daughter Lily was born, my wife Heather and I were handed the worst news imaginable: Heather had been diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. A rare cancer directly linked with exposure to asbestos, her illness offered slim chance for survival. During what should have been a happy time celebrating the joys of new parenthood, our lives were thrown into chaos. I became an instant caregiver. Our lives would never be the same.

Caring for someone suffering from a devastating illness requires every ounce of strength you can muster. Whether your loved one suffers from Alzheimer’s, cancer or any other serious illness, your life changes forever in the blink of an eye. I had to learn using a “trial by fire” method, and while there are countless resources to help support cancer patients and their caregivers, none of the material can really prepare you for the fight ahead. Fortunately, Heather overcame the odds and beat her cancer. Seven years later, I’m here to share her story and offer guidance for those facing the challenging role of caregiver.

Over the years, my work with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance has afforded me the chance to meet many families facing similar situations. I’m often asked how I handled our struggle and what advice I could give. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about taking care of my family from fellow caregivers and my own trial-and-error experiences. I now offer you the same advice so that you don’t have to face this challenge alone. Here are five of my most useful tips for providing care to someone suffering from a serious illness. I hope they prove useful to you and your family.

Tip #1: Accept help when it’s offered.

Help comes in a variety of forms. It could be a week of casserole dishes or a help getting all the laundry done. Small acts of kindness build into large sources of relief. You’re going to face a lot of challenges while providing care for your loved ones, so it’s important to reach out to people and accept the help they offer. You’ll feel better knowing that things have been taken care of, and you’ll have a little less on your plate to deal with. (Lynne: If I ever have to do intensive caregiving again, I will ask my family or friends to take over long enough for me to go to a movie, get a massage, or just take a nap. I didn’t do that when Bill had hip replacement surgery and I paid the price, because I’m a worrier. I ended up with my own cardiologist, for a time. The heart doc said a husband’s health is a very common cause of heart problems in women. Common! Word of warning, ladies.)

Tip #2: Maintain your own health.

Because you’ll be so focused on caring for your loved one, you might neglect your own well-being. Don’t fall into this trap. You need to maintain your own health in order to stay sharp and focused. I found that replacing sleep with food sometimes worked to maintain my energy levels, but I couldn’t do it for more than a few days. At some point, your body will succumb to exhaustion if you don’t give it the right nutrients and rest. Take a walk or go for a quick jog around the neighborhood. Keeping your body well-nourished and fit will increase your energy and reduce your stress. Both will help you become a more effective caregiver. (Lynne: Nawp, didn’t do this either. But next time, I swear! If there is a next time, and I hope there isn’t.)

Tip #3: Learn everything and stay informed.

Knowledge is definitely power in a situation like this. Learn everything you can about your loved one’s illness, its side effects and possible treatments. Seek second, third and sometimes fourth opinions. If you have questions, ask your doctor for full explanations. I found it useful to take a notepad with me to Heather’s appointments so that I could jot down notes and additional questions to research later. Joining local support groups will help you establish connections with fellow caregivers, and you can exchange stories and ideas. You may also want to spend some time online using sites like this one and others dedicated to caregiving resources. (Lynne: but Cameron, I fear a person can get overloaded and anxious after gathering so much information. Any tips for that?)

Tip #4: Get organized.

Over the course of your loved one’s treatment, you may receive dozens of prescriptions, appointment cards and other documents. You’ll also have to keep up with appointment times and everyday life. Staying organized will help you manage the burden of keeping up with everything. Use a good calendar or your smartphone, tablet or computer to keep track of everything. You’ll handle everyday tasks and unexpected occurrences much better if you stay organized.

Tip #5: Make a list of priorities.

Everyday life continues despite the devastating blow of a serious illness. You still need to pay your bills and take the dog for a walk. While you might be tempted to shove everyday tasks to the back of your mind, you’ll need to maintain a sense of normalcy during this time. Make a list of priorities, and enlist the help of friends and family when necessary. You can eliminate extra challenges by focusing on the most important tasks first and taking everything one step at a time.

Heather, Lily, and Cameron

Heather, Lily, and Cameron

Cameron Von St. James is the husband of mesothelioma survivor advocate Heather Von St. James, who was diagnosed in 2005 at the age of 36.  A seven year survivor of this rare cancer, Heather and Cameron now work with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to bring awareness to this often neglected disease.  They hope that by sharing their story, they can bring hope and inspiration to people facing any sort of illness or disability, and the caregivers who support them. Heather and Cameron live in Roseville, MN with their daughter Lily, who is now 7.

The Clock is Merciful

Barn with flowers

That’s a saying I invented recently. It means no matter what you’re going through, the minutes keep passing, and eventually you’ll be done and things will get better. I know I said I couldn’t post, and really, I’m racing. I have to run. Won’t be able to answer your comments, if any – sorry! – but just this: our first week in Indiana was wonderful. Lots of beautiful countryside (see above) and loving family. Our second week, in Missouri (misery?) is the opposite. See you next Friday.

Quick Question from Lynne – Answered, Thanks!

UPDATE: Hi all, I think I have my answer, so please ignore this post. Thanks!

Here was the original question if you’re interested:

My traffic monitoring service tells me my blog is waaayyyyy sloooooowwwwwww. (They mean the loading speed, smarty pants.) If true, I’ll convert it to, which is not how I want to spend my summer. But I’ll do it if it keeps you, my reader, from getting frustrated. So that’s my question: when you click on the link in your email inbox, does my blog load slowly? Either leave a comment, or send me an email or, if it’s loading just fine for you, click the LIKE button. Thanks so much. Happy Sunday.

Stay-At-Home Grandma

Me with my granddaughter.

I’ve started babysitting again. My book and my grandson are infants, and I’m nurturing them both in the same crazy year. So while I plan for a book signing at my home on Saturday, I have to lean on my sweet, hard-working hubby to handle the logistics. And while I have my hands full babysitting my grandson and, once a week, his sister too, at least I get to go home. My son and daughter-in-law are in the heat of it. I tell them they’re young. These are the years they’re like a nuclear reactor; they’re vibrant and powerful and everything feeds off them!

Bill with our grandson

I know I’m a big help, but I couldn’t do it without Bill. He’s my support team. Not only does he fix our dinners every night, run errands for Mom, and do all the home stuff, but he was prepared to come over every day for a couple of hours, as he did in spring of 2011 with our granddaughter. This time around, I suggested he take Tuesday and Thursday off. I don’t want to burn him out, but also, I feel less guilty because on those days he ends up with a pretty big honey-do list!

I told him to hang in there – next year will be the year I start to age gracefully! My kids know this is the toughest year, at least until the babies turn into teenagers. My kids both work fulltime as teachers, and with two children under two years old, they’re grateful for the help.

I’m typing this right now as my grandson watches my fingers. We’re sitting on the carpet together. He has a bunch of mobiles dangling overhead, his feet can kick me, and I reach over every few seconds to pat his belly and coo at him.

Our daughter-in-law with the newborn

I also feel a bit guilty falling in love with him, because my first love was his sister. However, she’s moved on. She loves being at her daycare with other kids to play with. When she first started going there she wasn’t yet walking and was frustrated that the other kids could run away from her, but now she plays on the swings and the sandbox and runs everywhere rather than walking.

Wow. He’s waking up from his nap – thirty minutes, just like the first one. What happened to the two-hour one he was supposed to take this morning? Or even the hour? Stay-at-home-moms, I feel ya!

My mother with her great-grandson

But it’s a dream for me. I never got to be a SAHM. I went back to work when my son was one month old! Horrific, but thank God my Mom was able to babysit those first six months. I had no choice. I was the primary breadwinner. So staying home now is like revisiting those days, one generation removed. I don’t have to dress up or be ready for a boss – my little boss doesn’t care what I look like. My favorite time is in the middle of the day, sitting in the rocker in his room while he naps, listening to him breathe. The neighborhood is quiet, and I’m all alone in this daytime world of mothers and babies, snoozing within the walls of our houses.

Our son with our granddaughter

Sometimes it floors me, that my son is a grown man and I’m a grandma. Beautiful and weird at the same time.

Today I’ve got a Skype conference in the afternoon. I’ll probably have the baby on my shoulder. That’s where he’s quietest. Such a snugglebug. It’s not with a client, it’s with people who I’m helping develop a curriculum for a writers’ organization I belong to. I told them next year I’d be there physically to teach or whatever they need, but this year, it’ll have to be Skype or Saturdays.

My dad used to say family is everything. While I don’t believe family is defined by blood, I surely do agree with him. We need each other. Life is hard. We’re in it together.

Happy Birthday, Mom

My mother turns 87 next week, and in her honor I want to share a story I wrote fifteen years ago.

Mom still can’t eat raisins.

Raisins, and whatever else the local Catholic church could spare, kept Mom and her seven siblings from starvation on a windswept North Dakota farm. When Mom’s father died at forty, her mother moved the family to a two-bedroom rental in town. The kids slept two or three to a bed. They got their clothes from the donation bin at the church, but this was during the Depression. Mom will tell you poverty isn’t as bad when everybody around you is just as poor.

Meanwhile, Dad was struggling. His mother had divorced his father, and she was prone to nervous breakdowns and hospitalization, so as an elementary-school kid, Dad was passed around among distant relatives. These people resented him, since this was a time when nobody had enough food for their own families. He lived in an orphanage for a while, and in the Civilian Conservation Corps as a teen. He grew up with no family.

In spite of their harsh beginnings, Mom and Dad carved out a life that included almost sixty years of marriage. They relied on themselves, and had a hard time accepting anything from others. They taught me to be tenacious, so on that long-ago spring day on their patio, I held out tickets for a Caribbean cruise, refusing to back down. Dad’s mouth set in a straight line. Mom looked pained, her face wrenched in my direction. My jaw clenched, knowing the likely outcome. Bill and I were determined, but so were they. Seconds passed.

Suddenly, Dad jumped up and pumped Bill’s hand. “By damn, son-in-law, I accept!

I was excited, but a little worried. Could I spend a week with this bull-headed old man who had ruled the roost as I was growing up? He was a good dad in so many ways, but all through my childhood, he was sometimes violent, and subscribed to a scorched earth policy in winning any argument. As an adult, I felt I had moved on, told myself he’d been under a lot of strain as a young father with a big family, blah blah blah. So it was no longer an issue.

(Now that I read this, I sound codependent. Yeah. Okay.)

The first showdown came early. Dad gave Bill half the fare for a cabbie that had brought us to the ship from the airport in Puerto Rico. When Bill tried to wave him off, Dad got mad and paid the entire fare for all four of us. Later in our stateroom, Bill asked me for advice. I decided to appeal secretly to Mom.

The next day, on Barbados, Bill picked up four tickets for the Flower Forest, an exotic botanical garden. For one tense moment, Dad stared at us, his bushy silver eyebrows knit together. Then he grinned. “I got the message.” Grabbing Mom’s hand, they headed down the path into the forest.

The rest of the cruise was relaxed. We visited St. Lucia, Martinique, St. Vincent and St. Martin. We shopped, toured and feasted on exquisite meals, both on the islands and on the ship. I wanted to give Mom and Dad a nice vacation, something they couldn’t afford on their own. I guess I also wanted to show them something else: their urbane, sophisticated daughter. Well, that was pointless.

Mom and Dad enjoying lunch in a beach-side cafe on St. Lucia at Pigeon Point.

I began to see things differently during the cruise. Such as, without the baggage of my childhood, my Dad was just, in Bill’s words, “a sweet old guy.” From observing my parents, I realized where I got my gift for Olympic-grade worrying. And I realized that mutual disarmament is maybe the best gift family members can give each other as we age.

I had wondered if I could manage a week of togetherness with these people who raised me, against whom I had rebelled in my young adult years, and from whom I had been striving ever since to become independent.

I’d do it all again in a split second, just to see them strolling on powdery white sands under the swaying palms on a beach in Martinique, still holding hands after a half- century of hardship and happiness.

Epilogue: as you know, we lost Dad in July of 2008. I’m grateful he never had to see the Great Recession, after the kind of childhood he had. He apologized to me, in his own gruff way, a few years before he passed. “I’m sorry you had to carry that around all those years,” he said to my then-fifty-year-old self. I knew it was all he was capable of, and I was immensely grateful.

Mom now lives four blocks from me and in spite of health challenges is going strong. She’s a living lesson for how to live a good life in old age. We’re blessed, and I’m grateful.

Mom and Dad in Martinique

Boomer Men Share Housework

For women of a certain age, this is a seismic shift. As girls, it was our job to clean the toilets while our brothers mowed the lawns. We ironed shirts while they – well, we ironed shirts. Then those Boomer men grew up. Now they’re at or near retirement age, and there’s a change afoot. Have you noticed?

Boomer men are turning domestic.

They cook! Many have their own specialties, and you don’t want to get in the way when they’re in the kitchen. Bill makes spaghetti just like his mom used to. Or salmon with honey-mustard marinade. Or pulled pork, simmered in beer all day in the crock pot. This new breed of husband goes to the grocery store. My friend who is still working says she hasn’t been for a year, ever since her husband retired.

They clean! My sister-in-law is learning to relax and let my brother, who just retired, clean the house. He feels that it’s his job now. He also shops, cooks and runs errands. Both of them are loving it. (Maybe they’ve discovered what some of my friends tell me: a houseworking hubby stirs our libido. Even without an apron.)

They negotiate chores! In my retirement community, the division of labor between couples seems logical for the generation that came of age with Women’s Lib, Gloria Steinem, and the Equal Rights Amendment. My friends say they tend to divvy up chores based on who’s good at what, and who hates a job less.

We joke about it, us girls. The men have their own way of doing things. Like in my case, when Bill mops the kitchen floor, the corners remain kind of cruddy, but do you think I’m complaining? Helllll no. I tell him over and over again how much I appreciate him. That comes with being an old broad. You don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Besides, I can always sneak over with a wet rag and fix things. He’ll never know. His eyesight isn’t that good.

Kids these days, those impressive young men of Gen X and Y, share more of the housework and child-rearing than did their fathers, but I want to give the old dudes credit. I think our generation, the Baby Boomers, broke ground on this. We turned our backs on tradition.  So now when I see Bill mopping the floor, I feel love and gratitude but also a sense of history being made. We have come a long way, baby.