Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Mahjong


Since I started educating myself about menopause and trying to spread some positivity about this next chapter, I've been gifted with countless links from friends and family relating to menopause: the latest medical research, tropical retreats and programs for women in their fifties, ways to replenish estrogen, and humorous anecdotes about hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.

One of the things I've learned is that it is important to establish practices in our forties and fifties that will minimize the cognitive decline that comes in our sixties and seventies. There is a recent correlation between Alzheimers and the decrease in estrogen so obviously women my age are concerned! What can we do to stay sharp and maintain our current mental, physical and emotional health?

We know that intellectual stimulation and human interaction are two important factors in staving off cognitive decline. If we start now, in our forties and fifties, the practices will be set and we won't have to start from scratch when we are sixty or seventy. If we wait, it's harder to introduce the brain to new habits. Once the decline starts, it's very difficult to introduce these preventive practices.

I'm in a rare and very fortunate position in my life right now. Having just sold my business, I have time to follow different curiosities and learn new things. I've had time to read and contemplate some of this menopause research more thoroughly. And, unlike before when I read something and tabled it until I had more time, now, like a mouse following cheese, I have time to follow one thought to another. I have time to create some practices that will help me as I get older.

One of my friends in New Orleans recently told me that her seventy-eight-year-old mother plays Mahjong three times a week and is fit as a fiddle mentally. My daughter Lucia is reading the Joy Luck Club and told me that Mahjong is a big part of the story, and so, as I tend to do, I took these two Mahjong references as a sign that learning Mahjong was an important part of my path.

I searched online and found that they teach both Chinese and American (also referred to as Jewish) Mahjong at the senior center near my house. I called and found out that even though I'm only fifty-one, I would be welcome there. I imagined a big room with multiple tables, like a poker salon, but when I got there it was just me and two other women, not even enough to make a full table of four. Suzanna and Louise gave me an extensive private lesson including the Chinese words for all the suits and numbers. Eventually a few more women joined in so we had a rotating table of four with the experienced players helping the newcomers.

Mahjong was hard. Learning the different parts--- The Winds, Dragons, and other symbols as well as learning the Chinese characters and sounds felt a little like taking piano at age forty-five-- like I was trying to dig new neural pathways with a shovel, but what I really needed was a back hoe.

I had moments of self-consciousness for myself as I sat with these five senior citizens. Was it weird that I was going to the senior center way before I was a senior? At one point all of the women were talking about how to use their Medicare benefits to pay for Silver Sneakers and I felt like a total imposter. I was the youngest by twenty-years in our little party of six. And I was the dumbest. All of the seventy-somethings used Chinese for the numbers and suits while I stuck to awkward English descriptions for each tile.

The feeling I had during my two hours of Mahjong with these lovely elders was one of presence and ease. These women modeled for me the true sense of just being. I (even though I don't actually have a job to go to!) am still heavily burdened by the idea that I am supposed to be doing something important, that I am supposed to be working towards becoming something. But what? I'm sure all of the women around the table have duties and responsibilities-- family, homes, maybe even jobs.

I had to wonder, was it the twenty years of life these women had on me? Had they experienced life -- kids growing up and moving away, deaths, illnesses and other experiences of grief, loss and aging-- that, in some amazing way, opened up a clear path to their pure expression of  joy and presence?

I don't know. I'm still learning about menopause and aging. New research is always happening and the jury is out as to whether injecting estrogen directly into the brain is going to be the cure for cognitive decline for us women. I'm thankful for that little two-hour window of Mahjong where I got to learn a new game that might curb my own loss of mental acuity, but more importantly, I'm grateful for the chance to witness the bigger picture-- the potential for joy and presence in the years to come.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Little Otters in the Lake


This morning when the whole house was fast asleep and there was just enough light to feel like it was actually morning, I dragged Freckles out of his soft, warm dog bed into the drizzle and walked down to the lake. When I got to the boat launch at the end of our street there was one car parking and a young woman got out to walk down to the shore. I noticed her because there were no other cars or people. I wondered if she'd had a long, hard night, if she was sad because someone had died, if she had a big decision to make and needed to look at the clarity of the lake to find some answers.

I let Freckles off his leash so he could wander and, just as I did, I noticed a huge splash in the lake. I looked towards the young woman to see if she'd noticed but she was in her own world, quietly staring towards the boats in the marina. I started my walk south and soon saw a pair of otters. I've been seeing a lot of otters these days and I wondered if maybe that splash had been an otter or two splashing their tails at the same time.

As I walked, I saw no fewer than nine otters, a record for me. "This is a sign," I thought to myself, and I made a mental note to look up the symbolism of river otters. Further down the path I ran into my neighbor and his standard poodle. I mentioned how many otters I'd seen that morning and he said, "Did you see the beaver?" He told me that the beavers had a dam over in Seward Park and often swam north around this time in the morning. That explained the splash. Beavers are much bigger than otters. I was so excited to learn about this presence in my favorite lake. I'd have something new to watch for on my morning walks.

When I got home from my walk I dried Freckles' paws and immediately went to research otters. Otters represents the inner child, celebrating joy in the simple things, the freedom to do what our instincts tell us to do. I love the concept of spirit animals, or totems, because they help explain the magic of the universe. Why I'd been drawn to go out into the dark, drizzly morning today made sense. It was to see all those amazing otters and the lone splashing beaver. And seeing all the otters today made me contemplate "why now?" when normally I catch a glimpse of one or two once every fourth or fifth walk.

Since selling my business, I have been trying to live in the land of simply "being." I've tried to listen to my heart's desire. When I read about otters representing the inner child, I reviewed where I've been and what I've done with my time in the last month. I've painted pictures, sewn a Christmas stocking for my dog, made a pine cone wreath, baked multiple loaves of bread and several cakes, repotted plants, and done my writing practice almost every day. I have been listening to my instincts, doing things that bring me joy. Seeing the otters this morning affirmed this path I am on and gave me a great sense of connection to the wonders of the universe.

I couldn't help but look up the symbolism for the beaver. The beaver totem represents persistence in work, an invitation to vigilantly work on a task or project until it is done. This makes sense, that I only saw the "tail end" of the beaver; only glimpsed the aftermath of it's big tail splashing. I'm not in the productivity mode to get things done and make things happen. Right now, I'm in otter-mode, connecting with my inner child and finding joy.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

What am I worth?


For the first time in my adult life I am in the position of not having a "real job." I am on a chosen hiatus from being fully defined by my job. I am incredibly lucky. I have savings and an infinitely supportive partner who will help financially shepherd me through this time of not generating much income.

What I find though, is that instead of luxuriating in this newfound spare time, I am, at times, filled with a sense of unworthiness. I was raised to believe that my value came from working hard, and a lot. In my family making a lot of money was never the big thing, but being busy, having something to do, gave us value and stature. Growing up in the United States I've learned that having money gives me power, authority and respect. So here I am with lots of free time and no cash flow. My default, patterned brain goes to the idea that I am a loser, but the part of my brain that I've been working over the last decade to strengthen, the here and now brain, says that feeling unworthy is a just a construct.

This feeling has inspired me to explore what worth means to me. I've read about it, written about it, meditated on it. What does worth mean to me? It means having a sense of place and purpose in the world. Does it relate to busy-ness? Not really. I'm beginning to understand that, for me, it relates more to a sense of connection with people and the universe around me. Does it relate to income? A little. I want to be able to carry my weight in my household. But more than income, it relates to a different kind of fullness- a fullness in my heart and mind. Are the things I do everyday bringing me joy? Are they bringing me, and maybe others, closer to a feeling of connection with the universe?

I don't have the answers to these questions. These unknowns are where my curiosity lies right now. I'm going to keep exploring and imagining. I do know that being in this place of "perceived emptiness" (e.g. no job) is hard. I am swimming upstream against a flood of beliefs that are deeply grooved into our society and my brain. Everyday is a new challenge and another step towards understanding what brings me joy, heals my heart, and deepens my sense of connection to the world around me.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Risk-taking


My daughter Lucia started high school this year. I think I understood in theory that things would change, but I don't think I fully understood the reality of how having a high schooler would look. It's all good for her, the risks she's taking. I commend her for trying new things. She got her nose pierced (with full permission). She's taking bus and light rail all over the city. She's going to parties and football games and staying after school to eat Ezell's Chicken with friends.

She's keeping up her grades and doing her extracurriculars as well, so what am I afraid of? Sometimes I find myself going down a rabbit hole of all the bad things that could happen to her-- at a party, a football game, on the bus--- but then she comes home and tells me about her day (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot), and I see that she's still there. She's still the same person, growing and changing within all of these new experiences she's living. She is living her life and the risks she's taking will help her learn the things she needs to learn as she travels her life path.

Where does this fear come from? As I've contemplated why I revert into that fear place with Lucia, I recognize that the human brain has a negativity bias so there is a tendency to go to the worst case scenario, but I also look at my own comfort with risk-taking. Right now I am in a place in my life, a transition not unlike Lucia's. I've sold my business and am taking time to explore my own future path. Lots of ideas come up-- different classes I want to teach, publications I wish to write for, retreats I'd like to both attend and lead. In trying new things, branching out and taking risks to do things that I haven't done before, I am deeply in touch with the fear.  In trying these new things, I am often ragingly uncomfortable, sometimes out of body.

Risk-taking is scary. And hard. It involves tapping into a part of the brain that, for me and many people, would rather stay hidden, behind the scenes. There is intense vulnerability in stepping out and trying something new, whether it is a new outfit, a new friend, a new social activity or a new job. It means walking through a sea of internal tumult and diving head-long into the unknown. Everyday I do this a little bit. I sit in the discomfort and work on new ideas or write something I hope will be publishable. This experience has given me a new perspective about the fortitude and perseverance risk-taking involves. And it's given me new respect and admiration for my brave, strong teenage daughter who is navigating this risk-taking in a different way. This one's for you Lucia. I'm so proud of you.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Is Menopause Really the Final Frontier?


Last night I was having wine with a friend who was launched into menopause very suddenly because she went through radiation. She didn't have the slow (oftentimes years-long slow) decrease in the frequency of her period. It was one month there, and then gone. She was surprised by her experience of not menstruating any more. "I thought when I stopped getting my period it would be so amazing" she said, "I thought I would be so happy to be done with thinking about it." But the reality, she shared, was that having no period has been no big deal, that she can barely remember what it was like to have her period and the inconvenience of it. Our other friend shared that it's been 220 days since her last period. We spent a LOT of time talking about our periods. The topic comes up every time I hang out with women my age.

I've always believed that getting my period is a powerful and magical thing. I've conveyed this belief to my daughter and tried to make her proud and vocal about her period and all of the inconveniences that come with it. I never wanted her to feel any shame or secrecy about this natural body function. The existence of the physiological function of menstruation enables us to become pregnant which is both a good thing, and sometimes not such a good thing. But nevertheless, there is power in the period.

We're taught as women that once we reach menopause (aka no longer menstruating) that we're moving into the final frontier. I always envisioned this final frontier as a kind of death, in part because the menstruating super power ceases to exist. But now that I'm there, it doesn't feel like the final frontier at all. I'm considering a third career. I'm fully engaged in becoming a better, more present, loving, involved partner and parent, and my creative juices are flowing like never before (even though my period is flowing very irregularly).

It's got me thinking-- what are we missing by putting so much focus on the period. Yes, we need to claim it-- to advocate for health insurance to pay for the tampons and pads that we have to pay for every month, to appeal to the FDA to support medications that really help with PMS, to educate our young girls about this superpower-- but when it's gone, we get new superpowers right?

I want to focus on that. What are the new superpowers that come with the final frontier? The end of the period? This is an invitation to all of you women out there who are in the final frontier. Please write me back and share with me what your new superpowers are. I'll compile them and share. Let's all walk boldly into this final frontier........


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Mrs. Putnam

My mom, still of the newspaper age, just sent me a clipping from the Hyde Park Herald, the weekly from the neighborhood where I grew up in Chicago. The clipping was an obituary for Maryann Putnam, my high school geometry teacher.  Mrs. Putnam had a thick New York accent. She wore denim every day--- denim vest and skirt set, denim jumper, denim slacks and jacket. Mrs. Putnam had dyed black hair, wore large framed classes and was always covered in chalk. Even though my friends and I teased her, she thought we were funny and I knew she loved us.

During our senior year when my girlfriends and I needed to create a service project to graduate, we formed a group called the Pink Ladies. It was 1986 and we were playing off the girl gang from the movie Grease. Mrs. Putnam readily agreed to be our club sponsor and we'd meet with her regularly to talk about what we were up to. In reality, we didn't do anything except talk about what we might do if we actually could get our act together-- tutoring, food bank collection, school clean up. Our biggest accomplishment that year was singing back up for a Rockabilly band that played in the school cafeteria during dances.

Mrs. Putnam's obituary said that she was 95 when she died. That means that she was in her early sixties when she was my teacher, just ten years older than I am now. It's been so long since I've thought about Mrs. Putnam but as I read her obituary, the image of her in her denim skirt and vest, standing outside her classroom door came into my mind as clearly as if it was yesterday. I can see her face--- pale next to her dyed black hair, partially hidden behind her big glasses--- smiling out at me with a hint of irritation as I walk by her, gabbing with my friends to get to our desks in class.

We were so annoying in high school-- especially to Mrs. Putnam. We made fun of her chalk covered clothes and her white roots growing under her black hair, of her big glasses and sensible shoes. But we loved her too because we knew that she loved us. Despite the Pink Ladies' profound lack of organization and productivity, she believed in us. She accepted the fact that, as seniors, not kids but not yet adults, we were doing the best we could to get our shit together. When I look back at it now I think she felt like our envisioning was enough for that moment in our lives. The process of thinking about what we were going to do, of talking about it, dreaming about it, was important, even if we didn't bring our ideas to fruition.

Those times with Mrs. Putnam, sitting in her chalk covered classroom during lunch, were incubator moments. Mrs. Putnam listened to us. She humored us and gave us her time and attention. As the mother of a teenage girl myself, I know how scatterbrained that species can be. I know how disorganized and chaotic their lives are. Being a teenager is wholly about transitioning- from child to adult.  I was surprised how affected I was to hear of Mrs. Putnam's death and I was so glad to know that she lived many happy years beyond her tenure as my math teacher. She deserved it. What Mrs. Putnam gave us, gave me those thirty-three years ago, was a quiet place to land for a moment or two during the maelstrom of my senior year in high school. Thank you Mrs. Putnam. I hope you knew that, despite my attitude and the fact that I was too self-absorbed during those years to tell you, I was (and am) grateful for your presence in my life.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Black Tank Suit


About fifteen years ago I was at a hotel in Palm Springs at a yoga teacher training. There were dozens of tight little bodies, yoga bodies swarming around the vast patio which was home to several pools and hot tubs. I was sitting on a beach chair reading when a woman, somewhere between 50-60, walked by me. On her average, healthy body, she wore a very simple black tank suit. At the time, as a body-conscious, never good enough, 35-year-old yoga teacher, I thought to myself, “I want to look like that when I’m 50.”  But her body wasn’t amazing. She wasn’t that different from me now. It wasn’t that I wanted to look like her when I’m 50, it was that I wanted to be like her. The woman in the simple black tank suit exuded confidence and she was unapologetic about her age, her body, and her place at the pool.

Now I am fifty. It’s been many years since I’ve felt like I was young. I recognize that I will never again be viewed as young. I am getting older, grayer, more wrinkly. I am in a stage of life where I should be grateful and happy for my wellness. I have lost one parent and have friends who have also lost parents, spouses, even children.  But still some days I lament my changing body and skin. I waste precious time trying to stay young instead of leaning into the next phase of life.


A few months ago, right after I turned 50, my partner Nancy and I took a vacation to Mexico. We were on a beautiful, very remote island and I was up early. There were only a few people on the beach and it was the perfect moment for a walk. Normally when I walk on the beach I put on a blouse or some shorts but I hadn’t brought anything with me from the hotel room. I was wearing a really simple black tank suit, just like the woman in Palm Springs. I was a strong, able-bodied, fifty- year-old woman. I decided to walk the beach in just my simple black tank suit.


As I meandered, unencumbered by any extra clothes or hat or even sunglasses, I was reminded of my grandmother. Every year we’d go to Florida with my grandparents and my Nana would spend hours each morning trolling the beach for shells. She always wore a simple black tank suit. My Nana was a great companion to me and a fierce ally. I thought Nana was the most beautiful, glamorous woman in the world---whether she was fully dressed in a black turtleneck and white slacks in her fourteenth floor apartment on the Northside of Chicago or in a tank suit on the beach in Sarasota, Florida. As my sisters and I splashed in the ocean waves in front of the condo every morning, like clockwork, we’d see Nana walking towards us, her silhouette with the sun behind her, eyes down towards the sand, bending down periodically to pick up a shell. She’d stroll with her head down until she heard splashing and our voices yelling her name to look at us in the water. Only then would she look up from the beach with her beautiful sun-kissed skin and cat eye sunglasses and smile.


Nana owned that simple black tank suit. Her sixty-year-old body and leathered skin were so beautiful and perfect to me. Like the woman by the pool, it was her presence that embodied the beauty. As a fifty-year-old woman, I now understand that that presence, the ability to embody whatever body we inhabit, is the product of a life lived and the wisdom that comes from all of life’s lessons.


Wisdom comes with age. For me it has come from many struggles and the heartbreaks in my life, the unexpected changes in my body and the painstaking decisions I had to make in my forties that brought me to this new frontier. Somewhere along the way things shifted and I became wiser. I stepped into this wisdom  It happens to all of us. My simple black tank suit tells a story of the wise women before me who inspired me to recognize and embody this wisdom when my turn came. 


Mahjong

Since I started educating myself about menopause and trying to spread some positivity about this next chapter, I've been gifted with ...