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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Hindsight Resolutions: What Got Done in 2021?

What Got Done is Also Who You Are!

Happy New Year! If you feel like you’ve already let yourself down by not yet making any Resolutions for 2022, you can opt to give yourself a break.

How? Just decide not to make any resolutions this year. Instead, take a look back and see how 2021 played out for you. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much you accomplished – or at least survived – in the last 12 months.

Yay, you! Pat yourself on the back.

For inspiration, take a look at your calendar, and some photos, of the past year. Then answer these two questions:

  1. What got done in 2021? This is the place for things you accomplished, even (maybe especially) if you just went with the flow and took a spontaneous shot. It could be anything, from finally replacing the toaster to earning a PhD. If you feel proud (or relieved) it counts! This list is more proactive – life didn’t force it upon you. You created the change.
  2. What challenges did you meet/survive/learn from in 2021? Here is where you give yourself credit for getting through the stuff life threw at you this past year. We all get a free square for living through another year of Covid.
  3. If you rewrote (or wrote) your 2021 resolutions now, with the hindsight of what actually happened, how cool would you look?

If, at least, sometimes, life is what happens while we are making other plans, then what does your personal history have to teach you?

Share your top three items in the comments! (just click the bubble next to this article’s title)

Be proud! You are a rock star.

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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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Can Words Help Us Mid-Panic Attack?

Last week I experienced my first panic attack. Ever.

At least, that’s what the internet says it was.

All I know is: my body took over my brain. My heartbeat was too fast, too loud, too strong. My limbs were trembling. My mind and my heart were both racing; nausea took over my digestive system. I was one step away from asking my husband to take me to the Emergency Room – but I had no idea what they could have done for me. I would have voted for temporary oblivion.

Instead, I talked myself off the cliff- well, I talked myself away from the edge of the cliff – using the advice from my own book.

Talk about a test of the material.

The Core Phrases are not designed to fix any serious mental illness or condition – but it was worth a try. It turned out to be enough to allow me to get some hours of sleep, and to function at work the next day.

What happened?

Background: I’ve had three surgeries on my left hip, and the last two contained some “surprises” – in one case, a damaged nerve that resulted in paralysis of the left knee for months; in another, a defect in the replacement causing it suddenly to slip out of place, leaving me to squeak like a rusty hinge with each step until emergency surgery could be scheduled.

That was two years ago, and though I don’t have full function in the leg, I can walk. I’ll take it, gratefully.

But suddenly, last week, out of nowhere: shooting pain in that hip. Like – owwww!

I can deal with pain fairly well – I gave birth to two children – but what caused the panic?

Fear. And the unknown. My body remembers sudden trauma all too well, and my inner (primal) brain just took over my logical brain.

I did not decide to have a panic attack. My fear just stepped in and took over.  It worked overtime.

To make it even more stressful, I had to be up all week at 3 AM to do a work shift (radio), and there was no understudy.

Worry layered over worry – and pain, and nausea.

So I did the only thing I could do -I took my own advice. I lay there, trembling, and focused on my breath. I tried to take air all the way in. With each inhale, I started repeating the two phrases that seemed helpful through the fear:

All Will Be Well. (Core Phrase #4, Trust)

and

Whatever Happens, I’ll Handle It Somehow. (Core Phrase #7, Esteem)

Did I miraculously get all better? No. But the ship turned around enough so that I stopped spiraling, and didn’t make myself worse.

I repeated those phrases over and over until, mercifully, I fell asleep. I repeated them again at midnight when my fear woke me up again, and got three more hours of sleep. I was able to get up, walk (with a walker) to work, and get the job done. And research my symptoms to understand what my body had decided to do.

I’ll confirm at my orthopedic surgeon appointment tomorrow, but I think the hip pain is muscular (a muscle that rests on the sciatic nerve), and the rest of the episode was, indeed, my body in panic mode.

With any luck, this is treatable. With more luck, non-surgically.

But in the meantime, I know how to talk myself away from the cliff’s edge. Words work.

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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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Processing Time: Why Happier Does Not Mean Constantly Happy

I had a day on Sunday. You know, where I just couldn’t shake my sadness the way I usually can.

Ever have one of those? (If you say no, then you may want to check your pulse.)

As a “happier” writer, and the person people seem to seek out when they want a more optimistic perspective, it isn’t easy to fall into the occasional hole of a less-than-stellar mood.

But, boy, is is necessary. We just might want to be careful what we do while we’re down there, wallowing or figuring it out or whatever.

Moody thoughts are normal. All feelings are not only acceptable, but often necessary. Nothing wrong with that. But, as I teach my kids and grandkids, it’s what you do or say to others during those moods that can have a lasting, negative effect.

So – much as I wanted to “reason” myself out of the funk, I knew what I really had to do:

I just let myself be sad.

As a singing teacher once said to me, “Honey, your mind just has some work to do. Let it do its job, and let go.”  (I may be paraphrasing here, but you get the gist)

Sometimes, we just need processing time. Marinating, for you Food Network fans.

Think. Feel. Dwell. But don’t – please, don’t – say mean words, make rash decisions, do hurtful things to another human being until you feel in balance again.

Also, don’t judge yourself for your fall from “happier.” Human, human, human.

 

To be fair, the day had started out great.

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April’s Word: Complete. How Did it Go?

Well…is anything ever really complete? (*sighs* started with a disclaimer…no-judgment zone)

As you may be aware, this year I opted out of New Year’s Resolutions (okay, opted out again) and chose instead a try-and-see approach simply by choosing a word for each month, no pressure, and seeing what might happen.

April’s Word

April’s word: complete. Well, it was going to be finish, but that sounded too much like a command and I hate being told what to do (even by me). Complete, on the other hand, is a gentler verb (as in “you complete me.” Corniness aside, it’s still kinda sweet). Complete can also be an adjective, with all sorts of warm fuzzies attached. (as in, my life is complete, a self-talk phrase I used a lot during my 16 single-parenting years.. Better than, um,  my life is finished. You get the point. Word choice matters.)

Bottom line results for April: I did complete a few things (yay), but more often I just made some progress. And, as one of the Covid-era  online webinars I took reminded me: Progress is a form of success. (Shout-out to Brandon Eastman’s Be Better Industries).

Everything I did complete felt SO. DAMN. GOOD. Completion leaves open space.

Done: (work projects with deadlines don’t really count, as we’re usually motivated for those)

  • Completed (or skimmed and donated, truth be told) some books still left piled in

    Love my Sis – Color Adds to Doodles

    my reading spot from January’s word: Open.

  • Completed three of the masterclasses I’d started (Steve Martin on Comedy, Ron Finley on Gardening; Nancy Cartwright on Voice Acting)
  • Fixed the stuff in the mending pile
  • 2nd vaccine shot received!

Progress: (projects that had been getting pushed aside more each day):

  • Voice education started in January (warm-ups and reading)
  • 2 doodling classes (March’s word: Visual Art)
  • The happiness class I’d started (online) – hey, made it to end of week 2 (am I the only one here who starts a class and lets it slide?…show of hands, please)

So – if I were to grade the power of this word for me I’d give it a B+ – allowing for just being human.  Might try that word again. Everything I did complete felt SO. DAMN. GOOD. Completion leaves open space.

Note: I noticed that I never completed blogging about my words for February or March. So there’s that.

Briefly:

February’s word was: Write.

Results:

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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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Unmoored: What To Do if Life Goes Adrift

I’m not a huge interpreter of dreams, but last night’s was a doozy. My home was about to fall into a sinkhole. ( What ?!?!  )

So I had to climb onto the roof, leaving behind all I had worked so hard to create.  Carefully chosen wallpaper, brownies baking in the oven – all abandoned; I climbed up, nearer to the sky (with a friend, identity unknown) as the house drifted into the water (I guess I had scored a waterfront property in this dream, wahoo) – destination entirely unknown. No map. Just safety from disaster, and no choice but to trust that we would land somewhere. Somehow.  And eventually we did land – on an island where my family was among others waiting to share this new experience.

I know where this dream came from. Life is like that now for me – unmoored. Maybe for you too. My business has changed. More people getting into voice-overs and narration – suddenly everyone and their grandmas have created in-home audio and video studios, (and so my cool set-up isn’t the novelty it used to be).and they are lowering price points.

Live speaker gigs with actual people have disappeared for now – or morphed into virtual presentations. Even audiobook narration (my constant staple in 2020) slowed down for awhile – so I ‘ve had more unscheduled time than I had before Covid, and have been feeling (like in the dream) adrift and unmoored. Not sure what to leave behind, not sure what the Universe is trying to tell me.

One year (and counting) into this pandemic, and I can barely remember what it felt like to have a jam-packed day and then gratefully collapse back home, grateful to slow down at last. Can you?

So – we adjust. I’ve jumped (or been forced to jump) many times before, and have always landed on my feet. I bet you have as well.

But in-between the old and the new, there is that time we spend adrift. Boats unmoored, not quite knowing how to navigate.

Still – there is a lesson in everything. I firmly believe that. I have to. I’ve been unmoored before – and, looking back, it always led me to greater things.

So – we adjust. I’ve jumped (or been forced to jump) many times before, and have always landed on my feet. I bet you have as well.

My husband deserted our family when my kids were 3 and 6, leaving me to fully support and raise my son and daughter. This led to a new career as a radio broadcaster, and also a drama teacher. It also inspired me to greater heights as an actor and voice talent.

After 17 years, the radio station decided suddenly to “make a change”. I felt lost (unmoored). This feeling led to time to write my book (Ben Behind His Voices) – and to my speaking career, national and international.

Two years ago, I discovered that my biological father was actually a sperm donor – and my whole concept of “family” had to change. This led to discoveries: a new genetic half-sister; a reinforced concept of the value of “shared experience” and that family is what you embrace.

Every job loss, every relationship gone pffft!, every empty space left when you lose something is also an opportunity. Sometimes you know where to steer the boat – sometimes you don’t. In that case, some faith is required.

  • Stop flailing and complaining
  • Let Go of the past
  • Listen to what the world seemed to be telling me
  • Trust that you don’t know – or control – everything. But you do have choices.
  • Take a New Step off the boat onto that new land.

How about you? When have you been set adrift in the past, and what happened (oh, hindsight, you fantastic teacher). What did you learn? What new things did the open sea lead you do?

Unmoored. For now. Where will you travel to?

 

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