She Did It

This is where people share their success. Stand out and be a She Did It. You are our everyday heroes. Inspire other women by sharing your story:

  • You have rappelled down a cliff for the first time
  • You are crossing the finish line of a half marathon
  • You just launched your new business
  • You have helped someone move forward in their life and you want to share it
  • Your youngest child gets into college
  • Your have your first grandchild
  • You and your sister just baked the most gorgeous cake ever
  • You have found a new passion
  • You changed your first tire
  • You learned how to do something new

 

Happiness Started Right Here

Doesn’t Paul Gauguin’s famous painting (from 1897) make for the best anniversary image? “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?“

gauguin

Anniversaries provide a great opportunity to stop to smell the roses, evaluate and look ahead. On November 11, 2011, BA50 went live and after 3 years it continues to be a great ride.

Our story is a typical BA50 story, one of discovery and growth at this next phase. The reality is, we’ve got a common motivation for challenging ourselves to live the fullest life possible … NOW! We’re all facing the same ticking clock.

Stylistically, if Betterafter50.com were to be defined as a period of art – it would be called “Super Realism”. On BA50 there is no curtain between the stage and the real world. On this site, we are watching our lives unfold through stories that touch our daily experiences, stories that live in our cells. We are the actors, the audience, the writers and the critics. And we are all sharing the stage. There’s comfort knowing we are aging right along side our favorite BA50 celebrities.

After 50, none of us are operating solo even if we often times feel alone. With shifts in our families, changing nests, and curve balls  – we’re often forced to turn off our cruise control, pivot, and plot a new course.

Not one of us can escape the big topics that life throws at us. And, we are often not prepared for the feelings that come with the monumental transitions of empty nesting, our changing bodies and compromising health issues. The loss of a loved one can give us a soul challenging gut punch and we need our friends to get us through it. We need to be held, hugged and sometimes we need a good kick in the butt to get us up and out the door.

BA50 is a hive of women buzzing. We can hear the hum of women talking, sharing, laughing and crying. We can hear the voices of women searching to define their purpose in this next phase. We are comforted by their words, softened by their experiences; motivated to try something new by seeing what others are doing and we often find ourselves just chilling and being entertained.

Super Realism reflects the entrepreneurial spirit that defines our BA50 team. As founders, we are entrepreneurs –we have dreams and big ideas and take risks and challenge ourselves every day to –just do it! Sometimes, if we we are lucky, our stories become viral and lots of time they become invisible and fall into the internet’s virtual vortex.

We approach each of our newsletters as a piece of art. We play with the images until they strike the magic chord – we curate the articles, and theme them 3 times each week so our visitors know where they are and can walk through our gallery of offerings and peer deeply into the one piece that calls to them most.

We wake up on Facebook with a Good Morning BA50 and stay all day long sharing news relevant to BA50s and more Buzz about what interests us and tickles us. We know who our niche is.

I can think of nothing more fun than sitting around the virtual campfire sharing stories. And this is what BA50 is – this is who we have become and it appears where we are going.

At this 3rd year anniversary, happily, we are doing what we’ve been doing from the get go – growing our site and having fun dong it. And, from time to time, we’re feeling a little “Bad Ass” about it all, living up to the BA50 acronym. We’re proud of our site and this week we are standing up just a little taller, defying gravity’s pull, knowing we are better after 50.

So, after 3 years, thank you BA50 readers for visiting our site over 2 million times every month. Thank you to our amazing writers, all 350 of you who have contributed over 2500 articles since we started. Thank you Facebook fans for liking us (almost 10,000 hugs from you) and Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram followers.

Our community is solid and expanding. Thank you for being with us for all this time and sharing our stories with your friends too.

We are grateful for our BA50 team, BA50 writers party-3-annivand readers for finding time in your busy lives to contribute, comment and connect through us. As we forge our path in this next phase of life, it feels better knowing you are there to share the laughs and deal with the not so fun parts.

Thank you for helping us build BA50.

From the Heart,

Felice

What You Gonna Do With Your Extra Hour?

ready set goOk BA50’s, I’m throwing down a challenge. This past Sunday we all woke up with a gift. We got an extra hour in our day. We set the clocks back and got more time – one hour to be specific. So, what did you do with it?

Ugh! Not sure! Mostly likely, like the rest of us, you were just glad to have an extra hour to do – whatever – sleep more, hang more, nothing particularly definable.

But what if you actually decided to consciously do something with that extra hour? Like for instance, something that you’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t had the time or discipline to do? .

Saturday night, out with friends – someone said – “hey you want to come back to our place and hang out…try this new great ‘sipping’ Tequila – after all, we have an extra hour.”

Really! It was 10 pm, we were in suburbia, we’d had a great dinner – and now we were going to an after-party? Surprisingly, we all took the dare with a resounding “YES!”

We discussed that we had a bonus hour, so what the hell – we could sleep a little longer tomorrow. Wow a gift – an extra hour – and we dedicated that hour to chilling in our friends’ living room sipping tequila….sweet!

I started thinking,  what would I do if I actually carved out an extra hour each day, knowing that I would not be sipping Tequila every day with my new found time?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he talks about 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. Gladwell is all about the concept that you don’t have to be great at something to become a master of it. It’s all about practice and dedication but the reality is, it takes that much time to become an expert or a Master at whatever – piano, tennis, your work…

But who is ready to set aside 10,000 hours for a new avocation, or passion? Finding this kind of time is some tall challenge at this mid-life mark. I think it may even be beyond the ability of our “Fit Bits” to calculate.

But still,  what if I took my new found hour from this past Sunday and harnessed it – set it aside and earmarked it for a special focus? What if I took that hour and did the same thing each day, just for one hour?  I did the math to see how long it would take me to put 10,000 extra hours into my “practice” (at one hour per day) to become a “master,” and it turns out it would take 27 Years! Ha! No Way!

Backing off this big gun challenge of 10,000 hours, or the hope of becoming a “master”,  the baby step route was my fall back.  I decided to carve out 30 hours for 30 days to focus on something I’ve been wanting to do for awhile and I am going to dedicate one hour each day to it. I’m starting today, Tuesday November 4th and finishing on December 4th.

The trouble is, trying to figure out what I should focus on wasn’t so easy, so I created a list.  I came up with 9 activities I could do with my extra hour – and each one was something I would do alone – because I couldn’t necessarily count on someone else to engage with consistently every day. I basically nixed most to these as I went along until I finally came up with something I could get psyched for:

  1. Abdominals –I could maybe have a 6 pack in 30 days– sounds awful and I knew I’d quit by Day 3!
  2. Read – I could read more because I love it but I do this anyway.
  3. Meditate and practice yoga for 30 days. Thirty minutes of each. Every day? Big commitment! I knew I wouldn’t do it.
  4. Paint: Buy a canvass and paints and just start. I think I need a teacher!
  5. Cook: A new recipe every day.  Feed my family or cook for a family in need. (No: everyday in the kitchen is not pleasurable).
  6. Write: Journal, or blog or finish the book I have been working on. (I need to do this anyway– kind of feels like cheating).
  7. Photo albums: finish the photo album projects and make books for the kids just in time for the holidays.(Torture!)
  8. Music: listen to music, learn to sing harmonies and/or practice an instrument. Learn a new song. (This sounds dreamy!)
  9. Give back: Take an extra hour each day to help someone else. Make time for a friend who is sick and visit regularly. Or volunteer time to help someone out.  (Very appealing and satisfying).

The obstacle that makes this challenge super tough is picking just one goal and sticking with it.  I decided that because an hour can feel very long  and 30 days seems like a lot to do the same thing each day over and over — I need to pick more than one. So,  I’m picking #8 and #9 and plan to  toggle between the two. Wish me luck. What about you?

I’m A Plus Size Marathon Runner

plus size marathon runnerYesterday I ran my fourth half marathon.  It was a long and challenging run of 13.1 miles, and although I consider myself an athlete, my body isn’t exactly built like most runners we tend to visualize.  I am ok with being the poster child of the “unconventional athlete;” in fact, it’s become my life’s work and something I proudly advocate.  I strongly believe that no matter what age or size we are, an athlete lives inside all of us – and it’s never too late to reach inside and find it.

I am 42 years old and a plus size athlete; I am a slow runner but I have tenacity and spirit to get out there and achieve my athletic dreams. My hope is that my actions inspire others to put aside their fears and differences and lace up despite of it all.  It’s my passion! Many years ago I made it my profession and now I have the great opportunity to work exclusively with plus size women of all ages to realize their fitness potential.  I live it, I love it and I preach it, daily.

Being a slower runner I am often slotted at the back of the races based on my finishing time, and with years of running experience, I’ve become totally okay with my pace and placement.  I’m not there to win.  I am there to fulfill my dreams of being a long distance runner; I do it for good health and to be an example for others and the high I get from the endorphins isn’t bad either!

Yesterday I was placed in corral number 21 of 22, so I was literally at the back of thousands and thousands of runners. The tail end corrals are by far the most colorful and the ones with the most heart and soul.  If you’ve seen the movie Titanic, it’s like being below decks with the fun people.

What I love about the back corrals is that they are full of all ages, shapes and sizes and it feels right at home for me.  No one is anxiously pacing back and forth checking their Garmin for accurate timing and pace / heart rate ratios or sprinting up and down the curb doing their crazy high knee warm up.  No, those people tend to be lined up in corrals 1 through 10.  But back in 21 and 22 you’ll find people smiling; there’s laughter and sportsmanship camaraderie.  This group seems to be more chilled out, and just like me, they are there for the accomplishment, fun and finish – not necessarily for the record breaking finishing time.

Along the course you will see people ranging from 18 years old into their 70’s and it’s truly a testament that life doesn’t have to wind down with age or size.  Some people walk and some people run and the only competition lies with ourselves.

I always love finishing off the race and then waiting at the finish line to watch and support the others coming through.  There seems to be a mutual respect for runners alike because we all know what it takes to be out there running the distance.  I find the diversity in people extremely inspiring.

Last year after finishing half marathon I stuck around for the awards ceremony where certain runners are honored for the best finishing times.  I wanted to get a glimpse of the Kenyan’s who are undoubtedly the fastest runners in the world.  They finish in the lead at most runs and Olympic running events, and defy what most people believe is possible.

After arriving, I realized that I missed the Kenyan winner, but that day I was exposed to a different runner who profoundly inspired me more than any other. He too defies what people believe is possible; he was the winner of the over 80 category at 84 years old.  He ran a 13.1-mile distance and I’ll say humbly that he beat my race time that day with a 2:21 finish.  I took some time to visit with him and talk with his daughter.  She said, “It’s his running that keeps him alive,” and by ‘alive’ she meant it gave him purpose and joy.

That day I was so deeply moved and inspired by him, it’s something I won’t forget.  I love this picture I took with him because it represents size and age diversity in athletics, and it’s something we very rarely see in the public view.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 10.59.59 AM

Often media and advertisers overlook these demographics to advertise products and sadly, as a result, we don’t see this imagery in front of us that tells us that these athletes actually exist.  My experience shows me that size and age diversity is something that most definitely exists at the races.

My inspiration lives in the diversity of the human “race.”

Seeing what I see at races and meeting this amazing man only continues to fuel my belief that size and age are fairly arbitrary numbers, and the good life is driven by a mindset.

The human body is an amazing machine that will do anything you train it to do. If your mind comes along for the ride virtually anything is possible.  So whether you’re an athlete or what society perceives to be an “unconventional” athlete, my mindset tells me that life is limitless when the will and tenacity to get it done are present.

 

 

 

11 Malala Yousafzai Quotes Every Girl In Your Life Should Read

malalaShe is the voice of our generation.

Even though we’re living in the 21st century, it’s sad to think that the differences between the way men and women are treated stretches on for miles.

From getting equal opportunities in the workforce to having the right to an education, it’s scary to think how far behind we actually are when it comes to things that should pretty much be a given. Honestly, the fact that we are still fighting for women’s rights, something that shouldn’t have to be EARNED in the first place, says a lot about the world we live in today.

But on October 11th, that gap got a little smaller when Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai made history by becoming the youngest women to be awarded with a Nobel Peace Prize award. Hearing her acceptance speech, littered with motivational quotes on why we should fight to even the fields when it comes to education for women, was compleletely awe-inspiring.

What makes this moment even more well deserved and rewarding is the fact that her journey to helping girls gain the right to attend school in Pakistan hasn’t been smooth sailing. When she was just 15, Yousafzai was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban for advocating for girls’ education. Now 17, the fact that this did nothing to stop her from fighting for women everywhere, and instead motivated her to keep going, makes her an inspiration to us all. You don’t have to be a woman to understand just how brave Malala Yousafzai is for putting her life on the line so that all girls can go out and truly experience theirs.

These quotes are proof of that.

 

How I Made A Life For Myself After Divorce

how I made a life for myselfTen years ago, when I was 41, I was a well-to-do housewife in a nice suburb. My husband worked outside the home, I worked inside it, and there was plenty of money for everything we needed. When I wanted something—be it a skirt, a serving platter, or a bottle of wine—I bought it.

Soon, though, that began to change. It became apparent that our marriage wasn’t working for either of us, and I knew that I would need to start earning an income so I could eventually live on my own. Talk about motivation!  I had dabbled at writing novels for years, but there was no compelling reason to knock myself out trying to publish them. Then, as now, I wasn’t very motivated by the idea of fame. Sure, I wanted people to read my stories—just not bad enough to make it happen.

But with a divorce looming, I got serious, writing every spare moment of the day. The novels I’d been writing at a glacial pace suddenly started popping out at startling speed. I sold the ninth one, right around my forty-fifth birthday. A few years and a dozen published novels later, I was finally living on my own.

A complicated mediation agreement granted me spousal support as long as I didn’t hit an earning target that was wildly unlikely for a midlist author like myself. Money was tight, due to a series of recession-era reversals and the fact that there were now two households to support. After some bracing end-of-month empty wallet scenarios, I learned to budget, sold all my good jewelry, and cut out all the old luxuries.  Goodbye, Whole Foods; hello, Grocery Outlet! Also, who knew you could wear seventeen dollar shoes from the Ross clearance rack to an editorial meeting?

Then a funny thing happened. Last year, quite unexpectedly, I made enough money that I didn’t need support. The dollar figure was the same as if I had received payments from my ex, but I had earned the money, all by myself. I was still on a tight budget, but all of a sudden buying things felt different.

My stove died and I bought a new one, and every time I turned it on it was a revelation: I did this! These BTUs were paid for by me! I bought more things, ever giddier: a light fixture, bathroom caulk, dental insurance, tickets to a music festival. I invited five friends to my own birthday dinner and picked up the check.  Every time I slid my credit card across the counter, I had to resist saying to the clerk, “Ahem, just so you know, this isn’t my husband’s money I’m spending, but mine.”

Of course, more women in this country bring home paychecks than not. When I was married, I lived in a time warp, a latter-day homemaker with liberal politics and a Volvo, smug in my conviction that our smooth-running household was its own reward.

Now, I’ve learned something many other women already know—the satisfaction that comes from making your own way. When I’m standing in the Target line with my cart full of toilet paper and double-fiber bread and generic makeup remover, I smile meaningfully at all the other harried, middle-aged women shoppers. We ought to have our own secret handshake, or maybe one of those choreographed fist-bump routines, to congratulate each other on bringing home the bacon.  Especially if it’s on sale.

Sophie Littlefield is the award-winning author of 17 novels, most recently, THE MISSING PLACE. Visit www.SophieLittlefield.com for more information.

 

Coming To Terms With My Life Long Weight Problem

coming to terms with my life long weight problemI was at the gym recently doing my best to keep up with the other ladies in my zumba class when something caught my eye. I turned and saw a trainer kneeling down next to a woman, quietly speaking words of encouragement. The client was overweight and struggling through a set of pushups.  I was riveted by what I saw in the woman’s eyes—determination and hope. My own eyes clouded with tears; her struggles mirrored so many of my own.

My childhood was a mixed bag of insecurities. I ran home from school often, cutting through neighborhood yards to escape the children who taunted me. I was a shy, pudgy little girl who struggled in school and dealt with an eye condition known as MIxed Dominance, requiring me to wear a patch over one eye. This made me an easy target for the bullies who thrived on breaking me down in order to build themselves up. The insecurities created from this situation festered deep inside me, causing years of fear and shame. Little did I know how damaging it would be to the quality of my life in the future.

The lack of confidence in my physical appearance prevented me from doing many of the normal things girls my age were doing—attending swim parties or clothes shopping at the local mall. I was incapable of confronting the body issues that plagued me—I had been cursed with a large frame and a chubby stomach that I despised and hid behind blousy clothing. I was also taller than all the girls at my school and yearned to be petite like them. My reflection in the mirror was a constant reminder of my shortcomings, and some days I couldn’t bear to look at myself because I knew how bitter the self-recrimination would be.

Outward appearances were important in the prominent family I grew up in. My father’s convoluted view on weight loss in correlation to beauty was damaging not only to me but to my two, older sisters, who also endured his sharp criticism. Rather than growing up with a healthy attitude toward food, we grew up fearing what it would do to our waistlines.

Ironically, my mother was a stellar cook, but food was the enemy that led to diet failure, and both my sisters and I feared we could never measure up to our father’s expectations.

The message in our house was clear: the inability to lose weight signified a lack of self control. If we were unable to control our bodies, we were weak. As a result, I spent my youth yo-yo dieting and binging. but was never able to escape my addiction to fattening foods. I obsessed about every calorie I put into my mouth. It was a vicious, destructive cycle that involved starving, binging and purging, and it would form the basis of a pattern throughout my adult life.

Despite my husband’s best efforts to compliment me and assure me that he found me to be beautiful inside and out, it wasn’t enough. I didn’t believe him because I didn’t believe in myself.

I was suffering not only from a binge-eating disorder but also from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, and was ill equipped to deal with either one of them. My life was dictated by the numbers on the scale, which left me with a closet full of clothes ranging from the smallest to the largest sizes—a testament of all the years I’d spent dieting and failing. I tried every fad, gimmick and diet pill out there to lose weight and warily ignored researchers claims that overeating is caused by a need to fill an emotional hole.

There were times when my weight spiraled out of control, impacting my social life by causing me to isolate myself from people. I was playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette by engaging in episodes of mindless binge eating. For a brief period I thought I had found my salvation in the form of a little miracle drug known as Phen Phen. I jumped on the diet pill bandwagon and dropped weight effortlessly, which fed into my obsession to be thin. People told me stop losing weight—I was getting too thin—but their words only fueled my desire to keep losing. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of power over my body and freedom from my food obsession. But as is true with any diet, I set myself up for failure, looking for a quick fix rather than doing all the hard work on the inside first. In a few years, I gained back all the weight and more, further engulfing myself in feelings of self-loathing and disgust.

My biggest mistake was allowing my children to see that darker side of my psyche. While I was focused on building up their confidence and self-esteem, I busy tearing my own down. I failed to see how my depression and self-recrimination was affecting them—-especially my daughters. They grew up with a compulsive mother who calculated calories, categorized food as “good” or bad” and berated her appearance daily.

Whenever my children slipped into bathing suits for a swim at my parent’s house, I insisted they wear t-shirts over their suits because I wanted to protect them from my father’s critical comments. In reality, I was passing down the same lessons that I had grown up with—shame and a fear of how others perceived them.

My older sister died from the devastating effects of her eating disorder. She literally ate her way into an early grave. My sister had a binge-eating disorder, which researchers have now found is closely linked to anxiety and depression. The disease damaged her heart and her gastrointestinal system when she became morbidly obese. I was helpless to stop the self-destructive path she was on because I was busy fighting my own eating disorder demons.  I handled her death the only way I knew how—I ate through the guilt and grief to punish myself. Stuffing down my emotions with food was an easy solution to filling the void that was left in my heart after she died. It numbed me, allowing me to ignore the pain.

One day my husband handed me a picture he had taken without my knowledge and said, “You look so pretty in this blue dress.” My eyes blurred as I stared at the overweight, middle-aged woman in the photograph; a woman I no longer recognized but one my husband still saw as beautiful. How could I have done this to myself? How could I have allowed my unhealthy attitude towards food and body image infect the lives of my children? They are beautiful adults now but are haunted by low self-esteem issues and are self conscious about their appearance. I am responsible for their attitude because I didn’t set the right example when they were young. They learned incorrectly from me that thinness equated beauty.

Since the day I saw that unrecognizable woman in the photograph, I joined a gym and am learning to eat healthier. I no longer punish myself with grueling diets or berate myself every time I look in the mirror. Instead, I focus on my positive attributes and take pride in my workouts at the gym. Once I stopped counting calories and obsessing about the numbers on the scale, the weight started falling off.

I have tuned into what my body has been trying to tell me all along; life is a gift and that every human being is a work of art regardless of size, shape or color. The path to confidence and self respect will not be an easy one for me, but this is a start. I am determined to be the person I know I can be—for my sister, who gave up too soon. for my children, who need to discover their own, inner beauty….but mostly I am doing this for me.

Life is meant to be lived; it’s time I start enjoying the ride.

Accepting Our Child’s Autism

accepting child with autismMy husband and I had grown increasingly uneasy about our second child Mickey. Though a warm, engaging baby, he showed no interest in playing Peekaboo, How Big is the Baby or waving bye-bye. At monthly visits, the pediatrician assured us all was well. But by 18 months, Mickey had only three words, which is why, 20 years ago, we finally found ourselves sitting in a cubicle at a major teaching hospital.

A team of unsmiling experts spent two hours poking, prodding and measuring our son, asking him to draw a straight line, stack cubes, put pegs in boards. I perched forward to catch the doctor’s words more fully, hoping to hear how adorable, how promising my child was. Instead, she said:

“Don’t expect higher education for your son.”

It felt as if we were looking down an endless, dark tunnel. Our radiant little boy had just been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. How could she make such a prediction about a child not yet 2? we asked. There was no doubt, she said, that he was “special.” A puzzling word. For if he was special, did that make our other, older son Jonathan ordinary?

Just as you go through predictable stages of grief and recovery when someone you love dies, so too, do you experience pain as you learn to scale back your expectations and dreams for your child. We began the endless rounds of therapy: speech, occupational therapy, sensory integration, physical therapy, vision therapy, auditory integration therapy, behavioral therapy, play therapy, dietary and biomedical interventions. At first, my mood was only as good as the last therapy session had gone. It was a lonely time, as I stumbled around in an unlit room of my dark imagination. I felt isolated by my anguish, as friends and relatives rushed to dismiss my fears. “Einstein didn’t talk till he was 4. Give him time and he’ll snap out of it. Boys talk later. Don’t compare your children.”

In the next year and a half, Mickey learned to recognize letters and numbers and showed a keen interest in reading signs and license plates. I was waiting for a “Miracle Worker” moment, a breakthrough where he would suddenly begin speaking in paragraphs. Naively, I still assumed that with enough intervention he’d be fine by the time he reached kindergarten. One night at bedtime, he offered a first full sentence: “Mommy, snuggle me,” and my eyes filled.

Disability seeps into all the cracks, the corners, of your life. It becomes the emotional center of the family. Sometimes I felt as if other, typical families were feasting in a great restaurant, while the four of us were standing outside, noses pressed to the glass. Birthday parties for other children were sometimes unbearable, as my child, so clearly different, was unable to bowl, do gymnastics or participate in any other activity. People often stared at him. Equally painful were Mickey’s birthday celebrations; I couldn’t help remembering just how much his older brother Jonathan had been able to do at a comparable age.

I was adrift in a foreign country without a guidebook, and I didn’t know anyone else who lived there. Those first few years with Mickey were like living with someone from another culture, and it was our job to teach each other. Slowly, we learned the language, as I dogged my son’s therapists with questions and requests for more information and articles, reading voraciously, going to workshops and conferences, acquiring a new vocabulary.

Mickey was impulsive, and would often dart away in public or dash out of the house; we put a special lock on the front door. He frequently dumped every book and toy from his shelves; we stripped his room to a minimum of play materials. Loud noises — even the whir of elevators — disturbed him so much he would cover his ears and hum; we avoided crowds and learned to take the stairs.

And yet, for all that he could not yet do, there was so much about him that was intact. He was unfailingly sweet, carrying his collection of Puzzle Place dolls everywhere, hugging and kissing them, feeding them pretend food. He would line them up under the bed covers, whispering “Ssh, take a nap.” Given the depth of his issues, his affect, his warmth and his sheer vibrancy seemed extraordinary.

The summer before kindergarten, Mickey lost his first tooth. We hadn’t even known it was loose, because he still lacked the words to tell us. It was a bittersweet milestone. I remembered vividly the flush of excitement when his brother Jonathan lost his first tooth. Though Mickey seemed pleased to show off the gap in his teeth and we cheered for him, there was no elaborate celebration this time. The tooth fairy was too abstract for him.

The age of 5 was also the magic cut-off point I’d always imagined when all would be well. But the first day of kindergarten, I stood in a huddle with the other mothers and watched through the window of the special education classroom as Mickey lay on the floor and said repeatedly, “I go home.” In the next year, he learned to follow classroom rules and began to read. That year, when he told us his first knock-knock joke, we celebrated.

As the years have passed, I have learned to wear emotional blinders. I stay tightly focused on Mickey, celebrating every change I see. I try to tune out what other, neurotypical kids his age are doing, because the gap is still too painful. Mostly, I try not to compare him with his brother Jonathan. Their trajectories are different. It was hardest when Mickey was a toddler; if I did not remember every one of Jonathan’s developmental milestones, there they all were, lovingly chronicled — by me — in his baby book. Today I hold separate, realistic expectations for each.

Support comes, not surprisingly, from other parents of children with special needs. When I finally connected with them after those first hard years, it felt as if I could take a deep breath after holding it too long. Today we talk with bottled eagerness, like war veterans sharing their fox hole experiences. Though each of our tours of duty is different, we all long for our discharge orders.

How do you do it? I am often asked. I give the same answer each time. I wasn’t given a choice. I just do it, one foot after the other. I have to be his advocate, because as wonderful as his therapists and teachers are, they go home every night. We are his ultimate teachers, the ones who are in it for the long haul. There’s nothing particularly noble about it. We do it because it has to be done.

Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up, and it isn’t a constant state. Grief and anger rear up unexpectedly. Sometimes I still get tired of the relentless effort, the endless round of therapies and team meetings and fights with the insurance companies. This process of healing is a destination without an arrival. Joy and grief are joined in lock-step.

Ultimately, what buoys our family is hope. When I look at him, I do not see “autism.” I see my child: an animated, endearing, handsome young man with a mischievous sense of humor. Parenting this trusting, gentle boy has deepened me immeasurably. But would I trade in my hard earned equanimity and expertise if someone could magically make his challenges go away tomorrow?

In a heartbeat.

Years ago, I heard a story that changed the way I framed my feelings about having a child with a disability. Itzak Perlman was giving a concert. He made his way on crutches to the stage, seated himself and took up his violin. He began to play, when suddenly, a string snapped. Perlman looked around, seeming to measure the length of the stage, how far he would have to go on crutches to fetch a new string, and then seemed to decide that he would do without it. He lifted his violin and began to play, and even without that string, he not only played; he played beautifully.

This is what it is like to have a disabled child. It feels as if you’ve lost a crucial string. And then, painstakingly, you must learn to play the instrument you’ve been given. Softly, differently, not playing the music you’d intended, but making music nonetheless.

Forgiving Siblings Even When You Feel Wronged

forgiving siblingsThis is a post about the journey from hurt to compassion, and its ultimate destination: forgiveness. It’s not an easy path, I can tell you that.  If you’ve taken a similar journey, I’d love for you to share it in the comments.  Thank you.

Once in a while, you run into potentially dangerous people. Like rattlesnakes, they hide under rocks and strike when you least expect it.

You’d think by adulthood, most of us would lose that need to strike out. But, no, there are always some people who haven’t learned the lesson yet. Why is that?

Well, like rattlers, they’re important members of the natural community. They serve a purpose, in that they teach us how NOT to be. And they also teach us compassion, because compassion is the right emotion to aim straight at someone who feels so threatened that the only thing they can do is strike out.

This is the way my family acts and it goes back a very long way.  The other day I found an essay I started in 2006 after a visit to my hometown that included a hysterical fit my sister threw aimed squarely at me. Hysteria is not an overstatement.  After that trip, the man I was dating told his mother, “Carol’s family is not a good place for her. ” He was right.

My other sibling isn’t exactly hysterical, but definitely starts rattling big-time and striking out at anything he deems threatening. Psychological, physical, financial–they’re all treated the same. Striking out is a knee-jerk reaction to threat.

I can see some of the root when I look back at my upbringing, but who knows how deeply the rootball is buried. Maybe it’s so deep it’s been hardwired into them.

For some reason, I didn’t get that trait.  I always felt apart and different, and my life evolved quite differently, too.

No one wants “family” to strike out at them, and I’m no different.  Don’t we all want the perfect TV family? Some lucky few have the mythical family unit, but I’m not one of them. While it was upsetting for many years, I’ve come to see the purpose this situation serves in my life — and I’ve come to terms with it. In some ways, it was a gift. Oh, I know, your eyebrows are raised. But if, as I do, you view life as having a purpose, it’s not a stretch to see this situation as part of my learning process.

Of course, the first thing to do when there’s a family breach is to examine one’s own behavior. I did that, at length and in depth. I’m clean there. Not perfect, but clean. By nature, I’m open-hearted and supportive; I’ve done nothing that would elicit retaliation. I’m just not a warrior.

After that, forgiveness.  It’s a big word and it was a hard climb for me.  That’s because I want life to be fair and people to work out any differences.  But of course, life is not fair, and people are people, all at different stages of personal evolution. I examined the situation every which way and always reached the same conclusion: there was no way for me to breach the gap. No discussion would be fruitful. I could direct all the love in the world at my siblings and they’d still react the same way. And I understood why, at least to the degree anyone could.

In my own time, I came to compassion and forgiveness. Going back over posts in this blog, it was clear just how long and how hard I worked at forgiveness. How badly I wanted to get there.  And then, one day, I realized that I could see their fears clearly– and I could also see that they had nothing to do with me. It took years.

And in the end, I could lay it to rest in a bed of compassion and forgiveness.  It was hard work because it was work on myself, which is always harder than wishing and hoping others will change. When there’s so much hurt involved, it’s only human nature to want to say “it’s all their fault.”  Well, hey, it’s their problem, but “fault” and its twin, “blame” are  concepts I’ve grown uncomfortable with.  People may take responsibility for their actions, or they may not. Sometimes, they just don’t see what they’re doing and where it’s coming from.  Reflection and self-examination are not for the faint of heart. But whether they do or don’t, it has nothing to do with what we do.

Which brings me to forgiveness.

I had a beautiful text after my Father’s Day post from someone close to me who knows my family almost as intimately as I do. It said this:

I read your blog today & had tears in my eyes because your heart is so big~ always willing to forgive & forget because you really understand how very short life really is.

I treasure this message even more because the writer knows only too well that this wasn’t the case for me 30 years ago, 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. My world view is very different now, after decades of reflection and willingness to work on myself.

There are others in this situation, I know, who feel wronged in some way. To them I say this: Give it time. Lower your expectations. Examine your own behavior. And ask the Divine to help you reach forgiveness.

It worked for me and I’ll bet it’ll work for you, too.

Blessings on my siblings. May they, too, find peace.

My Brush with Fame and “The Boomer List”

 

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The last of the Baby Boomers turns fifty this year, and in celebration of that auspicious era when we first graced the world with our presence, PBS will be airing “The Boomer List” tonight to highlight just how unique we really are. I am not profiled in the film, nor have I seen it, but I was lucky enough to be photographed by an amazing photographer who made me look as though I was one of the celebs.

It all took place a few months ago while my friend and fellow blogger, Lisa Carpenter and I attended the AARP Life @50+ Conference in Boston. After a long day of meeting some terrific people and hearing about all the great benefits AARP members can get with their AARP card (shameless plug there), we headed out, only to be sidetracked by a colorful booth close to the Expo’s exit. 

Mary Ann Gatty, and her son Mike were taking photos in the booth that was promoting the upcoming film. I make no grand pronouncements that the only reason we stopped at the booth was because I was interested in the film…the beautiful photos of Billy Joel, author Amy Tan, actress Kim Kattrall, and others did pique our interest, but equally so, we were lured in by a huge jar filled with Boomer candy, and the Turkish Taffy was calling our names.

Never a big fan of having my picture taken…or invariably of the finished product, I acquiesced to standing in line. At best, I would have a souvenir of the conference, and in the least, I could add another photo to the batch at the bottom of my desk drawer. 

Mary Ann thrust a bouquet of flowers in my hand, positioned my chin just right and told me to “think of myself.” When the photo came rolling out of the developer I was astounded–in the few minutes it took for her to look at me, have me pose, and snap my picture, Mary Ann created an exercise in self awareness and captured ME!

Who was this insightful woman? (I’m sure Mary Ann won’t be insulted if I describe her as “well-seasoned.”) I wanted to know her, so I came back the next day to hear more about her life and career.

Originally from Pittsburgh, and now living in Virginia, Mary Ann was a true BA50 when she divorced at 58 and then found herself at a crossroads at a time when women didn’t really have many choices.  After taking a year off to recoup and reassess, she realized she liked being alone and “eating pie in bed,” and then hit the ground running. Having already had a little photog experience under her belt (her ex-husband, also a photographer, spearheaded her career by asking her to go the Hill and take a picture of then Senator Ted Kennedy–how’s that for a Baptism by fire?!?), Mary Ann began doing more work in D.C. while she raised her son. Once he graduated from college, the two of them combined their expertise, and a business that has been thriving ever since was born. 

Mary Ann and Mike Gatty

Mary Ann and Mike Gatty

While other women Mary Ann’s age are thinking about retiring (or have already done so), she’s too busy to even give it a thought. The week before I met her she had just finished photographing Magic Johnson, and she was getting ready to board a plane for yet another photo shoot once the conference was over.

To say that Mary Ann is a true inspiration for today’s BA50s, would be an understatement. And to use words such as “spry” and “feisty” to describe her would be insulting. She is a professional in the highest definition of the word–a businesswoman from a world and a time when women were not readily making their mark in the profession of their choice. “The Boomer List” chronicles a group of extraordinary men and women who were icons of a certain generation, but it is people like Mary Ann who were our role models. I am hoping some of the celebrities will give a nod to those women–their unsung heroines.

So, I wound up having more than a great souvenir of the day. And the photo that I assumed would be stuffed into the bottom of my drawer…it’s my  Facebook profile.

Mindy Trotta

 

Take Advantage Of Cooler Weather: Open Yourself Up To Change

time for changeEven though summer has just about wrapped up, a lot of us are still riding the summer wave, soaking up the sun’s rays, even imagining there is blue sky behind the clouds creeping in.

What frame of mind are you in? In summer, we are naturally in a better mood, and the farthest thing from our mind is . . . school!

Okay, so let’s make school part of our geography of the moment. The weather is clear, the horizons sharp. How would it feel to be in a clear, sharp frame of mind? Imagine you could look far ahead, every day, with clarity and feel the sun shining on your life. With the right tools, you can create success in your life for the fall and embrace a new and proactive frame of mind.

What can you learn from going back to school?

“Going back to school” means embracing a more structured environment and preparing for routine. It’s a kind of renewal, symbolizing the change of season and the start of new learning. It’s a time to revisit priorities and values and to surrender to a more designed life—because, as the days get shorter, our need to fit into the organization of our lives grows.

Whether you are actually going back to school or your children are, it’s important to take some time from the free flow of summer to plan. What about books and supplies? What about your or your children’s wardrobe? Time to clear out those overstuffed closets and update?

When I went back to university as a mature student, I organized my outfits so that, in the morning, I could be out the door in a flash, drop my son off at school and be on my way without thinking about how I would look to my less mature classmates.

Some of us like to get a new haircut for the fall, a new look for the season to come. Some start new hobbies and others let go of unwanted things. What steps would signify renewal and reframing for you?

Fall Time-Off

Though the word “staycation” has fallen off the radar, what hasn’t entirely disappeared is the recession. So traveling may not have been on your calendar this summer.

Why not take a break this fall? Maybe a trip out of town to recharge and stretch the summer out just a little longer? With the cooler weather and lower prices, now is a great time to take advantage of off-peak travel opportunities.

Try Virtual Travel

Is your budget still tight? Embrace the going-back-to-school frame of mind and travel the world through books.

I’ve just finished reading a story set in the Glénan Islands, a group of islands in the Atlantic off windy Brittany. With endless white beaches, appearing and disappearing with the tides, these islands and their stormy, unpredictable weather were side-protagonists in this thriller, which told the story of snobbish Detective Dupin, who had been sent off to this remote community to solve a violent crime—and was suffering from sea sickness.

The book, called Lunedì nero per il commissario Dupin, by Jean-Luc Bannalec, transported me to a European country I had never visited, immersed me in rich French wines and entertained me at intimate family restaurants. The meals at the Quattro Venti Restaurant were so succulent, I felt I was dining with all the murder suspects.

This fall, choose a book set in another country or in a city you have always wanted to visit, and travel in your imagination. Enjoy the thrill of discovery—and the freedom from airport security and delayed flights.

Or go to a movie or two. Only Lovers Left Alive took me to Tangiers, as well as the grunge music scene of Detroit. It’s a beautiful love story of a profound, century-long relationship, with a cultural message of how we humans are damaging our surroundings. Trip to Italy allowed me to travel to Italy without having to visit my parents, making it the most enjoyable and relaxed trip I’ve had to Italy in decades. Amazing scenery, amazing food, no extra calories or dangerous cholesterol. Win-win all the way!

Who doesn’t need a few hours of laughter and world travel? Get into the going-back-to-school frame of mind and upgrade, read, travel! It’s time to open yourself up to new possibilities.

We Moved Our Life Onto A Boat

downsizing to 54 feetWhat is it that makes people leave their homes and all the trappings of comfort that they worked their entire lives to obtain? I can’t answer that question for others, but I know that for me, I was ready for adventure.

My husband and I have been living on a 54 foot sailboat for a year now, and I don’t see us ever going home to our old life.

I was connecting with a friend from home last week and updating her on our travels. This life aboard a sailboat is foreign and hard to comprehend for many people, especially those with limited exposure to boating. My dear friend explained to me that she could not be confined to a boat and that she needs the comforts that only a house can provide.

I used to feel that way as well. I couldn’t imagine a life without fresh flowers on the dining room table, throw pillows on the couch that reflected the seasons, a set of china for special occasions, and an attic full of Christmas decorations.

But things changed, my priorities especially.  Fresh flowers growing on shore have replaced the flowers in a vase. The throw pillows are limited to two now, their covers reflecting the décor of the boat. China has been replaced with everyday melamine, with curved edges so that food doesn’t fly onto the floor when the boat pitches.  But we have the stars above us, the ocean before us, and shores of unique islands to explore.

Our lives are no longer about things, and more about experiences.

I’m often confused by some reactions we have received.  The most often asked question is, “What about your house?”  Well, it’s a house and I suspect that it will still be standing when we come back in a few years.  The basement is still waiting there to be cleaned and the Christmas decorations are still in the attic. We’ll find homes for the china and special silverware. After living a scaled down version of living, we really don’t need those things.

People ask about our kids and grandkids, and it tugs at my heartstrings.  Of course we miss them. But airplanes fly in and out of many of the places we visit and stay, and I have visited them and my son has stayed with us, and of course there is Skype. We aren’t falling off the face of the earth, just exploring it, and we love to share those explorations with our kids.

My feeling is, I could sit at home and knit sweaters for my grandkids that they will never wear, or I can be the mom and grandma that is living her dream.  I would think that my kids and grandkids are proud to say that their parents/grandparents are confident sailors and are out on an adventure.  Our decision to cruise is a choice, and the implication that it’s a selfish choice is far from our intention. There comes a time in everyone’s life when they must make a choice as to what makes them happy and feel relevant and alive. This is our choice.

Others ask if I am scared. This has made me laugh, made me re-think my pat answer of, “No”, and do a lot of honest soul searching. I’ve fielded questions about weather and hurricanes and pirates and broken masts and drowning and going overboard, sharks, bad people with guns, and poisonous fish (the list is endless)….and yes, I was scared before we left. But after experiencing some hair raising conditions and frightful passages, I’m a little less scared now.

Fear is just vulnerability.  We’ve all felt vulnerable at one time or another. The emotion can cause some of us to crawl into a shell like a turtle and retreat into what we know that will keep us safe and free of criticism or harm.  Or we can embrace our vulnerability and trust our skills, learn along the way, and take the risk or not.

Before we left a year ago I answered these questions for myself:

Will there be bad weather and heavy seas?  You can count on it.

Will there be bad experiences with fish or people?  Most likely.

Will there come a time when we doubt our skills and heat of the moment decisions? Absolutely.

But there is no certainly without risk.  There is no joy without first facing fear.

Will there be sunny days and cocktails, meeting pleasant people and learning new languages and cultures?  Yep.

Will there be days when the wind is right and miles to go and not a glitch is even considered?  Absolutely.

So, my answer to the question of, “Aren’t you scared?” is Yes.  Yes I’m scared. I’d be stupid not to be.  We are vulnerable to the weather, our skills, other people.

But I’m not scared enough to stay home. I can’t imagine not experiencing what lies before us due to a case of vulnerability.

Fear Not: Teaching In Cambodia

sue guiney volunteeringCambodia. A country I knew nothing about. It was never on my bucket list of places to visit. If anything, growing up in America during The Vietnam War made it a country full of frightening associations. I am a timid person, but despite my fears I now not only spend two months a year in Cambodia, but I have written two novels about its people, and have created a nationwide Writing Workshop for its most at-risk children.

It happened by surprise.  In 2006, a group of families from my son’s High School were going on a volunteer trip and we decided to join them. We crisscrossed Cambodia’s dirt roads, building houses in poor villages and working with impoverished children. It was supposed to be a learning experience for our teenage son, but I was the one whose life  changed.

At the time, I was writing my first novel. This in itself was a crazy and frightening thing to do. I had always dreamed of being a writer, and at age 51 I decided it was now or never. Maybe that’s why I was in a somewhat “other-worldly” state during that trip, and so had a special perspective to all I was experiencing. But when my novel was published (sometimes by not realizing you can’t do something, you end up doing it after all), I knew that I wanted to write about what I had seen on that trip. The result was the novel, A Clash of Innocents, and a deepened connection to that country halfway around the world.

Maybe that should have been enough, but once my first Cambodian novel was published, I knew I wanted to bring the fruit of my inspiration back to the people who had inspired me. At the time, I led a series of creative writing workshops for students with learning disabilities, and I believed that same program could work in Cambodia. I understood that English was the language needed to land jobs there, but more than that, I had learned how desperately Khmer children needed to learn to think conceptually. Greater English fluency, an ability to ask and answer the question ‘why’, and a belief that what you have to say is valuable and worth expressing, is a combination which is, I believe, an antidote to poverty.

I heard about an educational shelter in Siem Reap called Anjali House, and I approached the Director with my idea. He said yes, but with one caveat. I couldn’t just go once, connect with these kids and then leave them forever. If I went, then this had to be a commitment. With the support of my now grown children and an incredibly understanding husband, I bought my ticket and flew, all by myself, to the other side of the planet. Was I frightened? You bet. But even more, I was excited.

OOTR front cover-1That first trip led to the next and the next. Now fast forward to today. I have published a second novel about life in today’s Cambodia, Out of the Ruins, and my Writing Workshop has spread to schools and shelters throughout the country. The demand has grown so much that I am creating an organization, Writing Through. I train others to deliver the workshop and, if that isn’t enough, I am looking to expand the program beyond Cambodia, helping the most at-risk children around the world to find their own voices. With them, I am finding my own voice, too, and in the most unlikely of places.

You can read more about Sue Guiney, her novels and poetry, at www.sueguiney.com.  Learn more about the Writing Workshop she founded at www.writingthroughcambodia.com

10 Ways I’m Stronger One Year After My Husband Died

after my husband diedIt was the worst of times….losing my husband just about a year ago. My perfectly happy comfortable life melted away in a matter of minutes. I look back now and believe it was the worst time in my life….but not the worst year. Grieving and growing for 12 months has brought challenges, surprises, discoveries and highlights that have created a new comfort zone; a new kind of happiness and a whole new me.
This is what I found:
  1. Weight loss is a good thing. My recent check up showed I’ve lost 12 pounds since last summer. My clothes are too big; but my aches and pains are gone, my lab results were excellent, I have more energy and my eating habits are green, clean and lean. If I use the hot cycle on the washer and dryer, I can shrink an outfit a bit and wear it once.  I took a few favorites to the alteration lady and discovered pants in the junior department fit best right now. Thanks to my sister, my nutritionist and online fitness blogs, I’ve leaned how to buy fresh farm-to-table-food and prepare healthy meals with little cooking!
  2. Strength is not just for men. I needed to do the heavy lifting, hauling, pushing and pulling now….so weight training took on a different meaning. I am so.much.stronger! I actually see a little definition in my arms…..but that underarm jiggle is there to stay at my age. Planks and bridges are great for your core….and fun to do with little ones. Having my weights on the living room floor and music always playing means I can do a few sets here and there all day long.
  3. I look at overall fitness differently too….no more Zumba and Pilates just for the fun of it.  I work my butt off to stay alive and well. Walking, swimming, spinning, yard work and floor play are all part of active aging.
  4. Patience.  Be it spiritual, common sense, everyday hassles….I’m growing less anxious and more accepting. My husband constantly reminded me not to fret; not to sweat the small stuff. Even in girlfriend gatherings, someone would remind me not to fuss, worry or try to take care of all the details. When I accidentally switched my iPod to shuffle I had an “aha” moment…..it’s okay to not know what’s coming. Acceptance and patience are peaceful.
  5. Living in the now…living in the moments around you. What better place to learn this than on water with boats and geese and paddle boarders floating by and you’re lost in serenity and aloneness. I listen to my breathing, laugh at the cat more and delight in walking to the end of parking lots to my car because I find coins. This week I found 47 cents! I find happy moments everywhere just looking and listening. I had to give it a go on purpose at first; now it happens naturally when I’m out and about.
  6. Friendships new and old. I am lucky to have so many villages full of friends. It did take all of them to give me strength and support in the beginning…..but now I treasure each and every one who has stuck by me. The ones that knew I could do it….and who cheer me on as I evolve. Family, forever friends, neighbors, colleagues and my online pals……thank you.
  7. I’m still working on financial awareness, but it’s getting better. I’ve become more frugal, stopped more services and taken advantage of lower rates by refinancing the house again. Remember I was spoiled and careless….now I’m cautious and annoying; “don’t waste a french fry” I say to the grandkids. “Grandma can’t afford it” I remind them when they want to hit the mall or a local restaurant. But they understand and hopefully learn from it. Someday I will take each one on that vacation of their choice we promised years ago.
  8. Writing opportunities are out there and I have great mentors. But I don’t have the same discipline or the drive to strive for compensation. There was another writer in the house in my old comfort zone; perhaps I’m leaning toward a new avenue or passion. But you know I will always write. I’m still a work in progress here….zone, where are you?
  9. Ask and you shall receive. I have become more comfortable asking for help and advice when I need it. Whether phone calls, store personnel, neighbors or needing a place to stay….I know I’ll learn through others’ thoughts and suggestions. Kindnesses that I’ll pay forward; this too grows a better me.
  10. Self image and confidence. I never thought I’d manage without my cheerleader. I didn’t think I’d move forward let alone on my own. But my soul inside is resilient and less vulnerable. Or maybe it’s more vulnerable but in a good way. I know I’m looking and feeling good. I’m making good decisions and showing my children and grandchildren how to live life as it comes.  This makes me comfortable and happy with myself again.

Back To School In Midlife

going back to schoolMidlife women are challenged, even driven, to make improvements to their lives in many ways. We are often in the process of implementing self-improvement projects. Changing careers, revising our relationships with spouses, parents, children or friends; adjusting diets; initiating or accelerating exercise plans; monitoring health issues; reducing stress; trying to do more self-care.

But in this back-to-school season, I would like to encourage ALL midlife women to think about improving their brains – about the importance of learning, studying, and being a student once again. There are so many different options for engaging in lifelong learning these days: degree programs, continuing education courses, certificate programs, workshops. Online courses are certainly an option. But there is a unique alchemy that takes place in a physical classroom. And in programs designed for midlife learners, fellow students often contribute as much to what is being taught as the instructor does.

I know the value of being a midlife student from personal experience. When I turned 40, I felt the urge to take stock of where I was. I looked around, assessed, and then gave myself a State of My Life Address. I declared that the current state of my life was pretty good. I was a married mother of two wonderful children, and a full-time associate art director at a national magazine.

But then I admitted to the less than good news: having been laid off twice before, I had acquired a pretty good sense of impending employment doom and I sensed the publishing company I worked for was on shaky economic ground. I was worried.

The other less than good news I had to confront was that after two decades working as a graphic designer, I was no longer satisfied with my career path. I longed to do more than just make things look nice. I yearned to learn and to expand my intellectual capabilities.

So my State of My Life speech ended with realization and hope: I realized I wanted to go to back to school, and I hoped it could also help me rearrange my professional life.

As soon as I was aware of and committed to this dream, a whole string of “coincidences” occurred. A colleague told me that the local public research university offered a full scholarship to full-time employees who took that university’s classes. After a few months of searching, I landed a full time job in the communications department at the business school at that university.

Finding a graduate program to enroll in was more challenging. Most programs demanded that students attend full time. Not only would it be impossible for me to work full time and attend classes full time, the university’s scholarship program only paid tuition for one course per semester and only for employees who worked full time. So the phone calls I made to inquire about degree programs I already knew about and was interested in ended quickly, to my frustration.

But I was stymied for only a short time. During one of our meetings, only a couple weeks after I started my new job, my boss – a woman about my age – mentioned she was leaving her job, having taken a better position in a different department. She said it was a direct result of having just received her master’s degree in a part time program at the university. She said enrolling in that degree program was the best thing she had ever done. I eagerly asked her about it, confessing my desire to go back to school and describing the obstacles I had encountered.

She told me all about it, and it was obvious that it fit my needs perfectly. Her enthusiasm was so energizing, I made an appointment with the program’s administrator for the following day and began the application process that week. I was accepted and enrolled in my first class within three months.

Next to having my children, it was, indeed, the best thing I ever did.

So, if this story resonates with you, then add one more category to your midlife improvement list, right next to the kettle ball and burpee exercise program. Think about what you want to do about your intellect, your talents, your curiosity. Think about finding a place in your schedule for robust discussion in a classroom full of other inquisitive people.

I’ll be exploring the many kinds of learning opportunities that fit the lives and needs of midlife women in upcoming BA50 articles. The next one will be about that masters degree program my former boss and I loved so much. Join me… and start dreaming.

 

Why I Gave Up Biking

why I gave up bikingThe bike path leading from Nantucket center to Sconset is dotted with wild raspberry and blackberry bushes.  Never being one to pass up free food, I dragged my mountain bike to the side of the road, braved a few thorns, and feasted on sweet berries until my husband started getting annoyed. Mike tolerates stopping for short periods, but he is wary about eating things that grow by the side of the road. I know what he is thinking: “you think you know what you’re eating, but you may end up dead.” But I am pretty sure a blackberry is just a blackberry.

A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been on that bike path- I found all bike paths annoying and for wimps- too flat, too crowded with families, runners, rollerbladers, crazy teenagers and old ladies on three speeds with wicker baskets. If you are a serious biker, you generally stay away from bike paths.

And that’s what I was…well, perhaps “semi-serious” is a better descriptor, but serious enough. You could tell by my outfit: padded bike shorts (and like a real biker, I wore them “commando”), click-in bike shoes, biker’s shirt with the pockets in the back, cool biker sunglasses.  A good ride was 30-50 miles with friends, chatting as we rode from crowded suburb to somewhat less crowded suburb, hearts pumping up the hills, focused attention going down. I loved it.

But last year, as if from everywhere, lots of people I knew personally started getting hurt in biking accidents.  The horror stories started piling up like a multi car crash—I don’t need to describe them all, I am sure you have heard plenty of your own.  A friend went head-over-heels over a pothole, concussed and broke bones. Another got hit by a car and ended up on life support. These were not just “some” people—these were people I knew. And they were not reckless people. They were people like me.

And just like that, I became a nervous rider. I started to feel it was just a matter of time for me.  My heart skipped a few beats when cars and trucks “wooshed” past a little too close.  Sand, potholes, acorns and twigs in the road made me sweat. Being locked into my bike felt imprisoning. When my BA50 partner’s husband was hit by a truck on his bike last July, I stopped riding completely…though he did not.

So why was he able to get back in the saddle, and I was not?  Why are my friends still able to ride on without me? Why does my husband refuse to give up his motorcycle, no matter how many motorcycle accidents we hear about? (Yet he is scared to eat a berry picked by the side of the road… Go figure…) How do we increase our tolerance for risk taking… and should we?

To quit before I have even scraped a knee seems strange to me. But there is a little voice in my head saying, “quit while you’re ahead,”  and that’s the voice that’s the loudest right now.  It has drowned out the voice that says, “Don’t you DARE let fear win!” And the longer I get away from that second voice, the fainter it is.  Perhaps I simply did not love biking enough to pay heed to that voice. In any case, ignoring it now feels absolutely right.

So this summer, my bike attire is stuffed in a drawer somewhere, and my racing bike is with my niece.  I pedaled along the Nantucket path wearing a pair of Sperry’s, a tank top, and shorts with panties underneath (and didn’t I look skinnier from behind, Mike?*) I smiled at the old ladies with their wicker baskets, and waved at the crazy teenagers.  As I rode, I didn’t think about going fast, or getting enough miles in. I thought about how grateful I was that I had two strong legs, and that I could stop to pick a few berries to sweeten my day.

But if you hear about someone dying from a raspberry they picked on the side of the road that wasn’t really a raspberry… do me a favor, don’t tell me.

 

*Don’t answer that…

 

The PMC: A Community That Makes A Difference

riding the pmcRarely have I met anyone who doesn’t love to show up at their annual traditions.

Looking forward to celebrating with friends and family anchored by a good meal or an adventure pushes me to buy that plane ticket to Thanksgiving, spend all day cooking to host a holiday, or train my butt off to show up at my annual biking fundraiser.

But what if showing up at the “event” puts you at risk of a job, your health, or your relationship or even your life? No question, you’d have to ask yourself – how much does this mean to me? Maybe I could just send a check?

This year I had to ask myself, how much risk and misery I was willing to accept to be part of a tradition that I have participated in for 28 years — the Pan Mass Challenge. This one weekend bike event raises money for cancer research at Dana Farber – and this year is committed to a $40 million dollar goal.

The event is a 2-day 194-mile bike ride across Massachusetts from Sturbridge, Mass to Provincetown. For 25 years I have ridden the entire 194-mile event. These past 3 years I have opted for the 1-day ride of 84 miles from Wellesley to Bourne.

No matter the distance, the weather or life event that has tempted me to opt-out – I’ve never regretted showing up.

Unfortunately, for the first time this summer weather.com was accurate in their forecast.  Saturday morning as we rode out of Wellesley in 90% humidity and 69-degree temps, as predicted, within one-hour we were pelted by rain, which did not let up for the entire ride. The temperature dropped to a cold chill of who knows – maybe 62 degrees about 30 miles from our finish. It was brutal and the most challenging ride I have done in my 28 years.  It was the “coldest sustained rain in the 35 history of the PMC.” That said – I showed up for the ride knowing these were going to be the riding conditions as I was fully committed to the cause.

On the road survival ruled. I left my group, unable to wait at water stops as the chill of the day threatened to settle into my bones. With fogged glasses, clammy cold and ineffective rain gear layered with the dirt spitting off the tires of the riders in front of me – every pedal stroke required full on focus.

Chilled to the bone I zeroed in on pictures pinned to the shirts of the riders around me.  Pictures of moms, dads, kids, and friends lost to cancer. I thought about the 3,700 volunteers and the 5,700 riders who came out this past weekend. We are proud that none of the money donated is wasted on top heavy administration. 100 percent of the Pan Mass Challenge donations go directly to cancer research at Dana Farber.

Every rider has a story at this event and Cancer is our common thread. This disease impacts us all. Personally, cancer has attached itself into my closest circle of friends and family and shifted the very fibers of our lives. And frankly, like so many, I feel helpless.

This 2-day bike ride gives all participants an opportunity to communicate their losses, feel the community of those who understand, while at the same time physically participle by riding and raising money for this cause.

The PMC event creates the glue that binds all of us together in our search to help one another as we struggle with this deadly disease.

So as I pedaled forward to the Day 1 finish in Bourne – those thoughts fueled me forward.

I am so grateful for the community that the PMC has created which includes all the riders, the volunteers and the donors who collectively are joined in one singular mission – to find a cure.

However, I admit that next year I wouldn’t mind a little sun, a sweet tail wind and moderate temps. But no matter, as long as I am able, I will ride this event again and again.

P.S. Thanks to my husband Bill Cress for co-writing this piece with me

 

 

Why I’m Glad I Had A Boob Job

I had a boob jobRecently model Kate Upton did a zero gravity photo shoot and my only thought looking at the pictures was how happy I was to no longer be her boob size.

My boobs came in early and huge.  I was the girl who needed a bra at 13, mortified when I measured a DD at 16.   My friends called me ‘Dolly Parton’ once, causing me to burst into tears. After I had my first baby, a friend found my bra hanging in my bathroom and exclaimed, “one of these cups could literally fit over my head”. I never attempted breastfeeding since I knew I had to go back to work at eight weeks and I couldn’t imagine getting any bigger than I already was (EE) once my milk came in.  Never did I revel in the fact that I had huge, grapefruit size breasts with cookie size nipples.

In my mid-30s I decided it was time to take action.  My gynecologist recommended an excellent plastic surgeon.  During the initial visit he took pictures of my breasts (the only pictures that have ever been taken of them nude, I can assure you) and we decided to be proportionate to the rest of my body, I would become a full C cup.  He discussed the possibility of complete nipple sensation loss.  As I had very little sensation anyway, that was not an issue.

The surgery went well.  He removed over three pounds from my breasts.  I had to wear a tight binding over my chest for several weeks, which made me look unusually flat.  I worried perhaps he had taken too much out and made me a B cup.  Not to worry, once the binding came off, I was a beautiful C with quarter size nipples.  I had no idea that my own breasts could be so beautiful!  The surgeon also gave me a ‘lift’ so now that I’m 50, my boobs are where a 30 year olds would be and I couldn’t be happier.

The irony is that my beautiful breasts have absolutely no sensation at all—none.  My sister would love to have this surgery as well but won’t because her breasts are such an erogenous zone for her.  My 22 year old daughter talks of having a reduction (she’s a DD also) as well.  My best friend, who is an A on a good day, offered to take my left overs so we both could be Cs.

The most pleasant surprise came when people who had no idea what I’d done saw me for the first time.  “Have you lost weight?” was their first question.  Why yes, yes I have—from my boobs!  I just smiled and replied yes.   “You have a waist!” exclaimed my Mother-in-law.  Well, I’d had one all along but I had to wear such big tops you’d never been able to see it.  My breasts are now proportionate to my body, which is a beautiful thing.

My recommendation to anyone thinking of having a ‘boob job’:  do your research.  Pick a highly recommended or well-known plastic surgeon. Know what you’re getting into because it’s not just the physical appearance that gets altered.  There’s a huge psychological component as well.   Understand the risks and possible outcomes—are you OK losing all nipple sensation?  If you have a partner, how does he/she feel about you having a reduction?  My husband was nothing but supportive because he knew how I felt physically and emotionally about my breasts.

For me, having breast reduction surgery was life changing.  It made me get in better shape and hey, it’s a lot easier to swing a golf club these days!  Plastic surgery is definitely not for everyone but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

I Never Thought My Life Would Turn Out Like This

out of controlAt almost 60, I woke up and realized my survival depended on an ability to make a big change…..

I had a great life, my husband had a career with a nice salary.  I raised the children, washed clothes, ironed, cooked, gardened, gossiped and pursued some enjoyable hobbies (plants and words).  I loved the security and safety.  Then my husband decided to go into business for himself, and although we had savings and a robust IRA I felt as though my safety was gone.

I love my husband so I was surprised to discover that having him home disrupted everything for me.  He was supposed to go to work and the home was mine because there are roles and rules to life.   Once when he tried to help out with the laundry I lashed out as though I found him in bed with a hooker.  I didn’t want him doing the laundry; I wanted him working.  Clearly, I had no idea his career change would cause severe safety and security issues for me.  My husband’s new choices sparked a fear I couldn’t fix.  I didn’t realize how large a problem I had uncovered, and the problem was not my husband.

We invested in real estate right before everything crashed.  I watched as suddenly the entire country was 50% off!  Between that and the stock market crashing, our money disappeared.  We took a loan on our home to keep our investments going but only ended with a heavily mortgaged home, no investments, and few prospects at our age to make a living. I embodied the adage “we attract what we fear the most.”

My husband cooked for a hobby, so we started making pizza out of our home, which morphed into catering.  It is hard work and I didn’t want to do it.  I would think,  “Who will trust us enough to hire us?”  “We are too old to do this.”  My fears were epic, I would lie in bed at night wondering how long it would be before the roof caved in.  I imagined having to move out of my home into a third floor apartment. It was impossible to stop the destructive thoughts because in my convoluted mind I deserved the pain because I had let the financial mess occur.  Only foolish people would have let so much money slip away. I would beg the universe for a “do over”.  Please no more life lessons!  I just wanted to make the investments over with present knowledge and then have lunch with my friends.

These thoughts did not bring peace, just sadness and confusion.  We weren’t foolish; we used our money to make an investment that didn’t work out.

Our reality was starting a business with no money with all problems new businesses have.  When the cook top in our kitchen went out we borrowed a camp stove to cook on.  Ever try to make pasta on a camp stove in your kitchen?  Then one day RC Willie called and said someone had bought us a new cooktop.  I was amazed and thrilled at the generosity, but sad I was someone to be pitied.  When our air conditioner went out we lived with the cold for the winter, but when summer’s miserable heat arrived our Bishop helped us get it fixed.  We were on the receiving end of one blessing after another.  Sadly, I didn’t want help; I wanted to be able to take care of myself.  My bouts of destructive thinking simply produced misery.

Our catering business wasn’t going to be a success unless I was “all in”.   But what I needed to do for the business was well outside my comfort zone.  Bookkeeping, networking, advertising, regulations, fees and finding business were overwhelming.  How would I ever learn it all, much less do it?  I cried a lot, mostly out of frustration, partly out of hopelessness and usually for the life I wanted that just did not exist.

I could sometimes hear a faint voice reminding me I was just trying to make a living; I wasn’t driving anyone to chemo. I still couldn’t see the blessings in front of me, only what I had lost, or actually never really had, but certainly expected.

Now my eyes are opening and I see many women with the same patterns in their lives.  Self-awareness is replacing self-doubt and pity and I decided not to give up.

I know I can do hard things!

Women wake up every day with a life they don’t recognize or certainly didn’t want.  Divorce, elder care, childcare, death, you name it.  Life can turn on a dime.  But we can do hard things!!

So who says to themselves “I never thought life would turn out like this”?

Almost everyone.

 

Figuring Out What Makes You Happy

Finding what you loveFrank McCourt published his first book, “Angela’s Ashes”, when he was 66 years old.  The following year he received The Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Critics Circle Award.

A few years ago I found myself wondering what I wanted to do with my life. Yes, I was nearing 50 and, similar to a woman in her 20’s who’d recently graduated from college, I wondered what the future held in store for me.  I never thought I’d be at the same crossroads I visited thirty years ago.  But there I was, holding my yearning in one hand and my self-doubt in the other.

What was a girl to do?

Depending on how you look at it, this time in your life can either be an exciting or an unhappy one.  The power to feel the thrill and challenge awaiting you is within your control.

I was always envious of people who knew at an early age exactly what they wanted to do.   I had floundered between jobs from publishing to real estate to healthcare, always trying to “find” myself.  I managed my work life the way I thought I was supposed to, working nine-to-five jobs that, in the end, ended up being unfulfilling but earned a steady paycheck.

Was this all there was?

Julia Child launched her first cooking show at the age of 51.  F. Murray Abraham received his first good role and won an Academy Award for his work in “Amadeus” at age 47.

Someone recently asked me, “What would your 20 year old self say to you about making yourself happy?”  Surprisingly I didn’t miss a beat.  The answer was already on the tip of my tongue. “Writing!”

There it was.  I said it out loud.  I suddenly felt a release of emotions I’d kept hidden for years.  Why is it that we ignore that little voice that says exactly what we need to hear?

So I decided to rely on my ability to write, and chose to focus on issues that mattered to me most.  Then I jumped full steam ahead and voraciously read everything I could get my hands on about how to create a blog, the use of social media in blogging, and how to reach a targeted audience.

A month or two later I was hired by a reputable health website to write articles and answer questions for my Multiple Sclerosis peers. Then I was hired by another website, and then another.

At age 65, Colonel Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken) took his money from his Social Security check and began to open franchises.  Less than 10 years later he sold the franchise to a corporation for 2 million dollars.

I am sticking with my dream of writing – shaping it, molding it and making it my own.  I am committed to doing it as my life’s work.  It demands a deep respect for the written word, and a dedication and commitment to an audience.

I love every minute of it.

Writing has also been rewarding because it’s allowed me to meet others who are like-minded, generous of heart and ready to offer constructive criticism and high praise.

Rodney Dangerfield was a last-minute replacement on the The Ed Sullivan Show, and became the surprise hit of the show.  He was 46 years old

I am a big fan of Don Miguel Ruiz who wrote in his book “The Four Agreements” about being “impeccable with your word”:

“Your word is the power that you have to create…

Through your word you express your creative power.  It is through your word that you manifest everything…

What you dream, what you feel, and what you really are, will all be manifested through the word.” 

What is your inner voice trying to tell you?  Listen closely; it’s waiting to guide you.  Open your heart and soul and listen to the truths of that voice.  Follow your passions. You never know.  Someday I may be writing about you!

 

Cleaning The Pool After A Bilateral Mastectomy

cleaning the poolTonight I back-washed and vacuumed our built-in pool all by myself.

I know, it may not sound like that big of a deal to all of you, but let me tell you, vacuuming a pool after a bilateral mastectomy is no small feat.  To vacuum a pool you need to use your chest muscles to push the vacuum all the way down into the bottom of the pool against the pressure of the water, and it’s way harder than you’d think under normal circumstances, let alone after a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.

Let me just say: Ouch.

So, I feel like I’ve accomplished a huge task today.  In case you haven’t read my previous two posts about it, when I was going through my chemotherapy, which started in April of 2010, I just suddenly decided one day that I wanted to put in a built-in swimming pool in our backyard.

Yeah.  Weird, I’d never really wanted one before, but all of a sudden I was surer than anything I’ve ever been before that I wanted and needed to get a built-in pool that summer.

I had some theories about why we should do it.  I figured it would be a lot of fun for the kids and would keep them interested in hanging around at our house with their friends as they got older.  I had some theoretical ideas about having a lot of pool parties out there and inviting people over to barbecue and swim and sun by the pool.

I also attribute some of it to the chemo and what it was doing to my brain. I’ve never really been one to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a whim like that, but something about going through all that chemo seemed to inspire me to throw caution to the wind.

So, we spent the entire next year putting in a pool (if you read the posts you’ll see why it took a whole year, it was quite a crazy saga) and finally in 2011 we had a lovely built-in pool in the backyard after many months of back and forth phone calls, letters, arguments and discussions with the pool installation company (who had forgotten to get a permit during one of the most critical stages of the installation process!).

And for the first couple of summers the kids spent a lot of time in it, and it was wonderful.  But then by the 3rd year, as they got a little older, they spent less and less time in it and for a while the pool was just sitting out there in its cool, pristine beauty with no one actually going in it.  And I felt kind of bad about it.

And then last summer I decided to start having bi-weekly “Friday is BFF’s Hangin’ by the Pool Days” with my girlfriends and let me tell you, I have so much fun with that pool, now! I’ve been blocking out my Friday afternoons and refuse to book any client meetings after 12:00 noon on Friday’s, for (most of) the rest of the summer.

It is so relaxing to sit by the side of a pool with your closest friends who could care less how you look these days in a bathing suit; drinking wine, eating cheese and crackers and talking trash.  Hello, Summer!

Tomorrow is my first “Friday is BFF’s Hangin’ by the Pool Day” of the year.  I’m all stocked up with snacks and a couple of bottles of Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. If you’re in the area, come on over!

Hope you all have something fun planned for your weekend!

Claudia blogs at www.myleftbreast.net