Funny You Should Ask: “How do you stay so positive?”

I think I recognize the eyes and the hair. Is that my friend Beth behind the N95 mask? (One of the all-too-familiar new brain tasks in our Covid-19 world.)

Yes, it is Beth, and we carefully hug each other hello (faces pointed away to avoid germs, sheesh) in the supermarket aisle. It has been way too long. 

I really miss seeing people’s faces and hugging without fear. Sigh.

Anyway. After the health and family check-ins, Beth says:

“I’ve been meaning to call you for ages. I really want to talk some time about how you stay so positive through all this, and everything else that has happened in your life.”

(Seriously. I have not made this up.)

“Funny you should ask,” I say. “I’ve just written a book about that very thing.”

guess I should have worn this button sent by Book coach Cathy Fyock!

Beth’s question represents the reason I wrote Happier Made Simple. 

It has been a decade since I wrote the memoir about our family experience with serious mental illness, and the grief and hope that seesaws with that challenge. I’ve spoken to a lot of groups about our journey, and that very same question almost always comes up in the Q&A after a talk.

I answered the question “How do you stay so positive?” so often that dozens of people followed it with, “you should write a book about that.”

I procrastinated for ten years, but now the book is written, and on its way to readers soon.

Thanks for asking!  Your questions have been the inspiration to do my best to answer them. We non-fiction authors hold the same hope: that our words can be of help.

 

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Happier, Not Happiness. Why? Setting the Record Straight

“Randye, I really hesitated bringing up the topic of happiness tonight, because of your book. I don’t want to negate your message.”

Those words, from the leader of our Mussar study group (I’ll explain later) last night.

I so appreciate her concern, but immediately move to set the record straight. 

Constant happiness has never been the goal of my book – or, indeed, of life. I state that right away in the first chapter, and in the subtitle: Shortcuts to More Serenity in a Complicated World. (Italics added here for emphasis)

Why more serenity? 

So we can be less distracted by needless anxiety, creating more emotional space for things like appreciation, love, and service to the world.

Happier is not the same as Happiness. 

When we are Happier, we can meet life’s challenges with a clearer mind, 

What is Mussar? It’s “a traditional Jewish path of spiritual development that leads to awareness, wisdom, and transformation.”

I think of it a Jewish Zen of a sort. Mussar’s roots are in Judaism, but the applications seem universal.

Ethics, philosophy, spiritual belief… the group meets every week or so on Zoom to explore teachings that cultivate “personal growth and spiritual realization.” 

That description comes from the back cover of our optional textbook, Everyday HolinessFrom its chapter on Trust:

“t makes sense that God created this world replete with all its difficulties. It’s because it’s not our job description to be happy and fulfilled….It is only when you are running after the elusive goal of being happy that this world seems so terrible.”

From my book:

We’re not supposed to be happy all the time. We’ve got a beautiful range of emotional states that co-exist so we can tell the difference between them – and put all that energy to good use.

There is no conflict here.

Not “constant happiness.” That is not the goal. Just happier – so we can love more, work better, have the space to find and fulfill our life purposes.

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Parenting: The Love Whose Goal is Separation

Children Must Learn to Ride Without Us, Step by Step

I waited at the school bus stop for E, my oldest (Kindergarten) grandchild, and looked forward to the huge smile and hug she always gives when she sees it’s me meeting the bus today.

This time, though, I got a consolation hug and a small smile. No running into my arms. No “Hi, Grandma!!!!!” . Instead, E handed me her backpack and walked four steps ahead of me to be with the two older girls who live across the street.

For the first time as a grandparent, I got the lukewarm shoulder. Oh, E was sweet and respectful, but I didn’t feel like the bestest person in the whole wide world in that moment.

Ouch.

For the first time as a grandparent, I got the lukewarm shoulder.

As a parent, I’d gone through this twice already. I know all too well the ego hit when your son or daughter grows away from depending completely on you to stepping further and further into the world.

Then I read this passage from The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm.

In erotic love, two people who were separate become one. In motherly love, two people who were one become separate. The mother must not only tolerate, she must wish and support the child’s separation.

This is not meant as a total embrace of Fromm’s writings: I find a lot of it sexist and otherwise flawed, but this quote, standing alone, helped me view parenting through a different lens, and I’ll need it again as the grandkids grow up and step away.

The goal is separation.

The best gift we can give a child is the love, support and confidence to eventually take over their own lives, wisely and well, with confidence.

For that, we take little steps away, as appropriate, and our own egos must relearn to find other sources of esteem when our children begin to notice that we aren’t perfect, and that we are not the center of their universe all the time.

Painful, yes, but necessary – for our growing children and grandchildren, and for us.

Someday we will be an embarrassment to our children. That’s the hard truth. No matter how cool we think we are, they will find us, um, let’s just say less than cool.

I guess I just didn’t expect a moment of that from a kindergartner. Sigh.

The best gift we can give a child is the love, support and confidence to eventually take over their own lives, wisely and well, with confidence.

The goal is separation….with love. Doesn’t mean we can’t be the safety net, the foundation, the guideposts…but when children show signs of being okay without us, that is a good thing.

Gotta remember that when the two younger ones get off that bus in a year or two.

 

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“I Appreciate You”: Does Enduring Love Require Gratitude?

“Without gratitude, love cannot endure.”

This quote stood out to me in the required reading for an adult learning class on Mussar ” a traditional Jewish path of spiritual development that leads to awareness, wisdom, and transformation.” That week’s topic? Gratitude, which happens to be a vital element in Core Phrase #4 in Happier Made Simple‘s chapter about Appreciation.

Three things come to mind:

1- Resist the temptation to take things for granted. Whoever gets up first in my house makes the coffee. These days it’s often my husband, even though he switched to tea months ago. I always, always thank him for the coffee. It’s such a joy to come downstairs and smell the caffeine. A relationship gets stronger with every sincere thank you.

2 – Express the gratitude whenever possible – don’t keep it inside, don’t make someone guess. I first heard my daughter say “I appreciate you” to the man who later became her husband, and I love how that sounds and what it means. When you are grateful to the person and not just for the task done, it adds another layer of positivity.

3 – Appreciation is the opposite of contempt – One study on marriage ( Drs. John and Julie Gottman) found that the strongest indicator that divorce might be near was the attitude of contempt, as expressed in gestures like eye-rolling. Imagine what might change, if we could catch ourselves before expressing contempt, and substitute appreciation instead.

Judaism changes with the times, but one practice in its roots is the concept of everyday blessings for simple situations.  An early form of the “gratitude list” – but expressed many times in a day, in the moment. I don’t spout Hebrew prayers all day (don’t even know those prayers), but I love the concept. My days are richer when I look for appreciation moments instead of trying to remember it all and make a list before bed (which seldom seems to happen).

In my book, I also talk about thinking how we are grateful to other people (as well as a higher power if you wish), and not merely grateful for.

This simple change can add the element of Engagement and Connection to Appreciation.

No one is an island.

Say thank you. Or I appreciate you. Your relationship will be stronger for it, your life richer.

Thank YOU for reading this, and for any stories you care to share.

 

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Aging Proudly: 5 Ways to Fight Back Against “Age-Defying”

68. And a half. That’s my age number, and I’m proud of it.

Or at least I’m working on it. Constantly.

My little grandkids will announce my age number loud and proud to anyone in line at Stop and Shop –  so why does part of me cringe when they do?

We’re Here to Love and Pass On Wisdom

In my best self, I, too, announce the number loud and proud. But…that little inner voice…the one fueled by years of “don’t admit you’re a grandma”, and “but you don’t look your age” , Zoom image enhancers, Insta photos of Christie Brinkley in a swimsuit (rockin’ it, as she always has, now at age 67), and countless ads for products that invite us to DEFY age, to DENY age, and to FIGHT age…that inner voice sometimes struggles.

And then, there’s plastic surgery for vanity’s sake. Don’t even get me started — and yes, of course it’s sometimes tempting – not the slicing of my face, just the supposed results.

I once voiced a documentary that mentioned a myth where a young man was advised to “seek out someone with grey hair, for they will be wise.” When did that wisdom become something to be feared, hidden – something shameful?

I’m frickin; wise, dammit!

My biggest teachers here are my granddaughters, ages 5 and 3 1/2 – and (of course) their mom, my daughter. If I were to act all coy about my age, blush with embarrassment when someone says the number (gasp!) out loud, or stare into the mirror obsessing about my wrinkles – what does that say to them about getting older?

Happy Proud Birthday, whatever the number!

Getting older. Is it something to desire (seems to be, until about age 21…), or to bemoan? In this world, where Gen Z is poking fun at Millennials on TikTok (yes  -insert eyeroll here – I know what TikTok is. Also Clubhouse.), when do we express respect – and admiration – for the wisdom that comes with age?

Women (especially) are trained to pick apart their appearance, to focus on specific parts that they’d like to “fix.”. Other people – especially those who love us – see the whole, not the parts. My grandkids look at me and only see pure, mutual love.

 

Five ways to rethink Age-Defying:

1 – Notice what you are telling yourself about your age.  Catch yourself judging yourself – or others – when a number is mentioned. Is it the number, or what you are telling yourself it represents?

2 – Question where any negative “stories” come from. Is it that magazine ad you just saw for Botox? Is it the sitcom where the older person (parent, grandparent, senior manager) is portrayed as an idiot? Is it something that was modeled for you by your own family or friends? (“oh, my god, I look so old in that picture! Rip it up!!”)

3 – Replace the words with another message. Not so easy. Models are hard to find. Compile a list of go-to phrases that work for you. I often remind myself that women (especially) are trained to pick apart their appearance, to focus on specific parts that they’d like to “fix.”. Other people – especially those who love us – see the whole, not the parts. My grandkids look at me and only see pure, mutual love.

4 – Seek out role models for age-proudness – and be one. Look for celebrities who haven’t had plastic surgery.  Which ones own their age without apology? Who has a sense of humor about it? Think Bette Midler, Sigourney Weaver, Sally Field, Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Justine Bateman. Jeez, we all get older! We are LUCKY to get older. Hollywood, and advertising creators, just don’t often agree.

5 – Limit Social Media Overuse. Come on, seriously? Filters, photo editing, selfies that were the best out of 15. Instead: Learn something new. Take a class. Read a book. Draw a picture. Toss a ball. Take a walk somewhere where the trees are way oldewr than you are.  Expand horizons, that kinda thing. It’s what we’re here to do.

so….what next?

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Hello Again, Stranger!: Tiptoeing Back Into Small Encounters

How I’ve missed you, person I meet by accident. We’ve been in our caves, zooming away, and hiding behind our masks for too long.

Cheers!

Yesterday my daughter Ali and I went took her three little munchkins out for ice cream at a local shop located on a family farm. Afterwards we went out to see the donkeys (gotta get fertilizer for the corn crop from somewhere!), and in the blink of an eye our 5yo made instant friends with another little girl named Emily, and (blink again) suddenly our kid troupe of three was a horde of five kids – Emily had a little brother – running around as if they’d known each other forever.

Being able to go out somewhere and accidentally meet and talk with someone random is something I hadn’t even been aware I missed so much.

Ah, people.

And, as moms of any age do, Ali and I started to chat with Emily’s mother. They don’t live in our town, so it’s unlikely we’d run into them again. Still, what a nice ten-minute conversation – we covered sleep training, school in a pandemic, sibling rivalry, and ice cream flavors.  And then we each went home to our separate lives.

But – oh, how lovely. For the past year, most “meetings” with people outside our pods have been carefully orchestrated, sanitized, and/or with a computer screen between us. Being able to go out somewhere and accidentally meet and talk with someone random is something I hadn’t even been aware I missed so much.

Ah, people.

  • Ah, little child sitting next to me on an airplane who gives me a sticker from her collection to put on my iPad case.
  • Oh, couple we chat with at the bar, talking about our families, our work, even (sometimes) politics.
  • Oh, woman behind me in the produce section who shares exactly how she can tell a melon is ripe. (thank you!)
  • And -for me – oh my audience members how I miss you. The exchange of energy, the shared laughter during the show or presentation, , the small chats afterwards.

How I’ve missed you. How I treasure you. These small encounters are little gifts from the universe that we didn’t know we needed, experiences to remind us that we don’t have all the answers, and that some of our plans need to be flexible.

Because: life.

Let’s inch out of this pandemic together, probably on tiptoe, but let’s never forget how much we can meant to each other – even in ways we took for granted, or didn’t remember to treasure, before we were isolated from them.

Stranger: welcome back. I appreciate you as never before.

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Legacy: The too-short life of Amy Oestreicher

Ten years ago, I auditioned to play a role I’d performed twice before: Nancy in Oliver. I didn’t get cast (it had been a long shot, age-wise, but hey). The role went to my friend Amy – who was, to be fair, much more suited to it. Not only was Amy 30 years younger than I am, but she actually looked the part of the underfed, abused waif that Dickens’ Nancy probably was. 

Why did Amy look so thin?  

She hadn’t eaten anything for over three years. She was kept alive thanks to a daily IV solution, administered because she no longer had a stomach. Said stomach had literally exploded a few years prior, due to a major blood clot, right before Amy was supposed to graduate high school and go on to the prestigious college musical theatre program she’d been accepted to.

Instead of prom, Amy had spent months in a coma, at death’s door. She survived, after over 10 surgeries in the first week alone(!).  And she went on to a long “detour” of a life changed by medical crisis.   

Last week, though, death’s “door” finally opened to Amy. She passed awy, a few days shy of her 34th birthday and just days after her second book was published, with her loving family by her side. I think her body, after countless surgeries and challenges, had finally given up.  

In the 16 years between Amy’s near-death and her actual passing last week,  she left a legacy that will give gifts to the world forever. We all leave a legacy of some sort, really– the love we give, the work we do – it all adds to the world, and stays behind when our bodies go.  

Amy’s One-Woman show – highlights are on youtube

Amy Oestreicher, though, went far beyond the usual legacy – she left us with concrete examples of  courage, resilience, humor, art and inspiration that will touch people forever. What she did – what she chose to do – with those 16 years is a gift and inspiration to us all. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving.  

Bank to Oliver. I saw that show, and Amy absolutely rocked that part. Even though, during intermissions, she had to hook up to the IV to get nutrients.  After many surgeries, she also was – finally – able to drink something. Well, sort of drink.  

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Five Good Things When You Take a Facebook Break

For the past couple of years, I have begun the fall season by quitting Facebook – cold turkey – for ten days. This year, I liked the results so much that I haven’t gone back yet, except to check notifications for only a minute or so.  I swear. So far, I have hardly clicked “like”, and (gasp!) haven’t even read my birthday messages that came in during the dry spell.

But it scares me to go back into the FB world for even a moment – because the addiction might take hold again. And, truth be told, I am so much happier without it.

I find, to my surprise, that the “sacrifice” I chose to mark the start of the Jewish New Year has turned into an enormous blessing.

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