Lessons in Survival


Lily was almost 100 years old when she left this world, very peacefully. I hadn’t yet reached my 20’s, so she was like, (channeling my former self), this other-worldly relic of times that I struggled to imagine. Small, under five feet tall; pure white hair that looked like spun sugar, always worn in a topknot on her head (people said she stopped cutting it when her husband died 20 years earlier); a pink-cheeked Apple Doll face that spoke, “I’ve just seen stuff, alright? You don’t even want to know”. Except that, like many really old people, Lily loved to talk about her younger life and had an amazing – almost unbelievable– recollection of her teenage years. Her story began right after she was married at age 16. Traveling West, to California, in a Conestoga Wagon. Shot in the leg by friendly-fire, as the wagon train defended itself from prairie pirates (Lily claimed a hostile tribe of indigenous people, but lots of predators were out and about, during the American Westward Movement). There was a doctor in the wagon train, but he declined to operate on Lily. The bullet traveled down her leg and lodged in her foot, where it was eventually removed, in California. That she survived the wound, and potential blood poisoning, was incredible, so the operating doctor said.

Annie Oakley, the Female
Spirit of the American West

Lily’s travails put my teenaged view of my family-issues into perspective. Like a lot of people, my biological tribe was a mixed bag of “Stable”, and, “Not so much”.  After my mother’s (self-inflicted) death when I was 11 years old, my college-professor father married one of his students (that’s an entire story unto itself). Lily was my new step-mother’s grandmother. So, my step-great-grandmother? Although she wasn’t in my life all that long, Lily had an impact. Even as an impatient, erratic and impulsive teenager, I instantly grasped the meaning and importance of Elder:  a sometimes tedious blend of stories, neverending advice, a few lectures (rare, with Lily), and comfort. This woman had been married at 16 (not uncommon back then) and “rifle-shot”, at the age of 17, for God’s sake. How bad could my life be, so far? It felt pretty ‘cushy’, back then.

One of the major adjustments, moving on down the road in Life, is the way in which your Elders begin falling away. (I know, important people can leave at any time, but the ones with a little extra life-experience to share seem to leave the biggest holes in our lives). And as they fall away, you suddenly realize that – for a growing number of people in your life – you are now The Elder. If you’ve had a ‘Lily’ in your life, you wonder about the quality of your own wisdom. Do your stories carry the same value (not to mention, ‘shock and awe’)?

Thankfully, with age also comes perspective, which just might be the greatest gift of living. While I may not have survived the Westward Movement experience and lived to tell the tale of Homesteading as a 16 year old bride, I do know a thing or two about ‘grit’. Most importantly, that it’s pretty much ‘relative’. Life is Good, from all appearances, until it’s not. Rare is the person who hasn’t experienced some degree of tragedy. And if it hasn’t happened yet, it just might. Even those in the Spotlight, those we worship and envy for their ‘perfect’ lives, have things going on that are messy and painful.

‘Grit’ is also called resilience, which is so much more than just ‘persevering’. I’ll confess that I’ve become a little bored with hearing about it :  the result of the hundreds of TedTalks, books, articles and Agony Aunt columns on the topic. Nonetheless, I know that it’s essential to living bravely and just can’t be praised enough. If we’re lucky, we have an Elder or two in our lives that have flourished, despite tough odds. But hearing a gritty story’s not the same as living-through and triumphing over whatever bad times or mental demons threaten us. That courage, bravery and resilience come from the heart. Even deeper. It’s the sheer, tough, Will to Survive.  It can’t be taught; it has to be lived.

I’m feeling a little lost, without a compass, now that so many of my Wise Elders have transitioned to wherever spirit energy goes. On the other hand, I continue to measure my own responses to Life against things like the perilous Westward Movement, the Great Depression and World War II. I try not to minimize my own progress, by comparing it to these ordeals. After all, each beating heart faces unique trials. They may be external, and historic; but very often they’re very personal, and of our own making. With, or without voices and memories to guide us and reassure us, we struggle and manage to find our way through dark times. If we’re lucky, we live to tell some precocious young person about our survival. They won’t really listen, or hear, of course. But, they will somehow remember.

Ready to Forget

Lately I’ve noticed what powerful emotional triggers certain sensory experiences – especially my sense of smell – can be. My dentist  tells me (I know, a dentist?) it’s all about the aging process, but I’m not so sure. I think I’ve always been what people who know about such things call a Super Receptor:  the hearing of a bat; taste buds that seem a little too responsive to extremes of sweet and sour; and a reaction to certain smells/aromas/fragrances that can send me floating up into fluffy pink clouds, or hurling into a vortex of panic.

Yesterday, for example, I was heading into a Sephora as a person was coming out.  I looked up, as I always do, to smile a ‘thank you’ (it’s official:  younger people of all genders are now holding doors for me), while catching a subtle whiff of her instantly-recognizable perfume. A very sweet floral:  the same scent that my beloved maternal grandmother (so influential in my life, until she passed at age 91) always wore. My breath caught in my chest, and for a minute I spaced-out as to what I’d come there for. The fresh flowery fragrance instantly took me back in time; so comfortable in the presence of someone I loved dearly. My grandmother’s smile came back; the house in the country came back; parts of me, came back to myself, as I stood before the store’s maze of goodies.

My dentist is involved in this mix because I’d recently shared with her how the odors of certain chemicals and diabolical medications they use (hospitals and doctor’s offices as well) freak me out. Which is why, I suppose, she felt she had to offer that, now that I was “older”, I should consider sedation for dental procedures, so that I wouldn’t “feel stressed”. That actually scared me more than medicinal odors do. Thankfully, most of the memories that come back to me via certain scents are really happy; even blissful.  

I look forward to hauling-out the sweet and savory spices that I use in dishes when the weather turns colder. Their aromas bring recollections of cooking lessons, in my early years, from now-passed family members that I still sorely miss.

The smell of spring blossoms on my lemon tree can put me into a trance of re-visiting Sicily; sweet cherry blossoms, and I’m longing to return to Japan. But some sensations trigger memories that I’d really rather forget. I get mixed-messages from lilacs:  the sprays were everywhere, at my mother’s funeral. The smell of a hospital (as well as the sounds) brings back the visceral fear I felt, as my son struggled with a life-threatening illness. A view of the setting sun, from a mountainside perch I’m still drawn to, brings longing for the happier times in my marriage.

Our sense of smell, so I read from experts, is one of humankind’s most primitive and potent vestiges from our ancient origins. I sometimes wonder if it’s part of Nature’s Wisdom, the fact that so many people in their 80’s and 90’s seem to experience a diminished sense of smell and taste. Being able to avoid reminders of Life’s darker moments might not be so bad.

Decades ago I had a friend, a medical doctor, whose specialty was Companion-Medicine. He traveled to many different countries, learning unconventional ways, alternative methods, of treating physical and psychological dis-ease. David’s interest and focus eventually became releasing and completely erasing deep sadness, even trauma, through Breathwork. Healing through certain types of breathing, combined with visualization, is even more widely-used today. I’m here to say, if done correctly and consistently, it does work.

Having lived a bit of Life, however, and so being acquainted with the spectrum of mild unhappiness all the way up to debilitating grief, I also have to say that Step One (for me) is being Ready to Forget. Despite what I knew would happen in my heart when it bloomed, I planted a lilac bush in my yard a few years ago. And, I’m still not ready to stop going to that special mountain spot, to watch the sunset and recall Love’s bitter-sweetness. In fact, I think I’ve decided that I actually like being a Super Receptor of the sights, sounds, and smells that sometimes, literally, take my breath away and rock my emotions. They make me feel alive, sparking appreciation and gratitude for every moment, and its eventual memory, that I might hold on to.

“Your Request Could Not Be Processed”

If you follow astrology – even in a discreet way, so as not to appear foolish to yourself or others – you know that each and every planet in our solar system (including our Sun) has meaning, purpose and influence in our daily lives. While I’m actually more interested in the science of things, I have to admit that this month (November), what astrologers have to say about the ‘retrograde’ planet of communication (and technology), tiny, fast-moving Mercury, feels mighty convincing. A retrograde planet, according to astrology, weakens or dilutes whatever the planet ‘rules’.

For me it started towards the very end of October (I can feel the group nod of those who ‘get’ what I’m talking about), about 3 days before the retrograde. I wasn’t even thinking about it – after all, I was with someone I’d known for decades. We’d gone to see a really good film and were de-briefing on the walk back to our hotel. Suddenly, a comment I’d made about the lead character in the story was interpreted as a declaration of verbal warfare. My companion reacted swiftly and negatively, having inferred that my intention was to insult him. I was shocked by his reaction and back-pedaled quickly, apologizing (for what? I was clueless) for any harm. But I could see by the set of his jaw and the stare straight ahead that my explanations were not making things better.

A quote that’s been attributed to Oscar Wilde, but I’m not at all sure it was he who said it, says this about a perceived insult:  “Go ahead and take it personally – it saves time”. Wilde was well-known for his wit and scathing verbal swordsmanship. I’m much more of a peace-maker and harmony-seeker in all of my relationships; even with total strangers who feel abrasive from the get-go. I want to see and feel their ‘side’ of things; understand their viewpoints; untangle any misunderstandings I may have caused.

Since this month, so far, has been rife with misunderstandings and miscommunications, my patience and tolerance are really being put to the test. I mean, I know I have an appointment with your office next Tuesday; I responded to your text confirming it. So why do I continue to get text-reminders at least once a day? Check your messaging system, for God’s sake; am I the only one reporting this? ( I did actually speak with a human about the issue, in much kinder terms. She was unaware of the glitch. Apparently we’re all so used to annoying texts, that they just merge in our minds with all of the other goofy things our phones do). And speaking of texts:  the same day I received one from an out-of-state phone number that I didn’t recognize. The message was simply “NO”. I tried not to take it personally.

Communication, for people like me who pride themselves on being tolerant of human and  technology mishaps, is a Big Deal. When it’s muddled and confused, I immediately ‘check’ my own words, verbal or written. I try to re-state what’s obviously been unclear, and maybe landed badly. But sometimes, especially lately, my struggle to make sure I’m being clear makes me realize that I might actually need to “just shut-up already!” In the personal relationship arena, clarifying talk definitely has a sell-by date. I need to recognize when the other person has stopped listening – for whatever reason – and just let it go. Accept that there’s a communication breakdown but the moment will pass, the relationship will survive (or not).

With work, it’s a different matter:  I actually  need you to understand and to comply with instructions, so that your product will turn out the way you want it to. Sometimes, however, it seems that the client just hears blah-blah-blah and continues on their path, oblivious. What to do?

Whether a retrograde Mercury is in fact involved is debatable. But what I know for sure is that, when I experience a steady stream of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and resulting frustration, it’s time to stop talking, stop writing, stop trying so hard to bring clarity out of what feels like a super-dense fog or mist that’s settled-in. Communication is more than talking, verbally or non-  (of course); there’s active listening involved, and engagement. I can’t make that happen. Some days it really does feel like something to do with the stars…a reminder that my own timelines and expectations are just that – my own.

Taking, Not Taking the Blame

A million years ago I was an English Lit major and still have a passion for it. Yesterday morning I listened to a scholar discussing the origins of the facts/myths about The Whipping Boy, connecting this historical reference to present-day politicians. The backstory — acted out in The Prince and the Pauper, by the way– of the W.B. is that a princeling who’d misbehaved and deserved the punishment du jour – a whipping – was spared. Another young man in the court was forced to take the beating for him. The belief was, royal blood could not be spilt; royal tears could not be shed. “Noblesse Oblige”.

Later on in this same day, I heard from another woman – a healing practitioner this time –about the same theme (this is how The Universe’s ‘downloads’ come to me:  taps on the head on the same topic):  whipping boys, scapegoats, “being thrown under the bus” by a co-worker. Taking a ‘whipping’ of some kind, because someone else needs to avoid blame for a bad situation or outcome. Not only ‘taking’ it, but allowing it.

About this point in my day, I had an uneasy epiphany. When we start digging-around, searching for reasons why things ‘happen’ to us, we’re faced with an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes we’re betrayed, totally blindsided by a friend, a spouse, a colleague or family member who’s pointing the finger of blame in our direction, without real cause (other than avoidance and denial).

But too often we allow others to use us as their personal scapegoats, for whatever’s gone wrong. We let ourselves be victimized; we suffer in silence and in guilt; our sense of self-sacrifice is hyper-inflated. To explain-away what, deep down we know is ‘off’, we think of this sacrifice as ‘love’, ‘commitment’, ‘duty’. Our adult children can really do a ‘number’ on us; so can our spouses and other family members. For many years, my ex-husband blamed me for his ‘anger issues’. True to my nature of being compliant (at that time, anyway), I not only allowed it, but internalized the gaslighting. My ‘ex’ eventually ‘owned’ his problems, but I’d already taken-on a boatload of bad feelings about myself.


Any well-lived life has periods of heartache and trouble. I understand and accept that it’s a natural human instinct to want to avoid – at all costs -appearing responsible for any wrong-doing, or short-comings. But as I grow older and wiser, I’m becoming more discerning and proactive, when certain people in my life actively seek a scapegoat and are looking in my direction. I’m shedding my tendency toward too much self-sacrifice in my roles — especially easy to do with people I love — and definitely watching for big, fast-moving buses.

Cute, But Psycho

There used to be a popular product line when my son was in grade school – kids’ backpacks, school binders and  t-shirts featured the (registered trademarks featured in this Post) brand image:   a simple cartoon-bunny meme. An adorable little rabbit that made the most obnoxious and sarcastic comments. My 4th grader loved, because he so identified with, the bunny who had license to do and say ‘whatever’, because of his (or her, it was gender neutral) extreme cuteness. Over the years, the meme’s become a lot darker (as has our collective sense of humor, I guess). Kind of like the state I’ve spent life so far in:  California.


Today I read an article that US presidential candidates for our 2020 election are pretty much avoiding campaigning in California, even as our March primary nears. It’s not that they don’t recognize the importance of our huge electorate – more that they just can’t figure California out. The attraction (cuteness) is strong; but the edginess and diversity (the ‘psycho’ part) creates wariness. Tell me about it. If Californians themselves recognize what a unique state we are, I can understand completely why the rest of the nation (and World?) is both intrigued and repelled.

Living in The Golden State offers huge potential for getting your mental, emotional and spiritual wires crossed, as you go about your daily life. What represents The Good Life can feel skewed, compared to the rest of the U.S. You feel it more, as you head south, where Hollywood Culture is so deeply ingrained. Tanned skin, fit bodies, perfect teeth:  Is the entire county waiting for that breakthrough audition and (Tesla’s or Virgin Atlantic’s) rocket to fame? To the north, where Big Tech (Google, Apple and Facebook, among thousands of other companies) has anchored itself, there’s an intensity (frenzy) that’s all about ‘retiring’ at the age of 35 (with billions in the bank and shares generating more cash every day). The center of our state is a bit of a neutral zone.


I recently heard someone call it, The Green Vortex. ‘Green’, because of the tremendous amount of agriculture (we literally feed the world, I’m proud to say); but also the ‘green’ of operating suites. (Yes, there’s a reason why a certain shade of green sets the tone in so many hospitals everywhere). Calm. Sedate. The Central Valley of California’s vibe is “Relax:  what’s your hurry? Try this BOMB street taco!” Friendly, non-competitive, easy-going, more affordable housing. But the CV gets ‘ripped’ for exactly what it offers:  a kind of ‘rehab’ for frazzled nerves.

Which brings me back to the “Cute, But Psycho” bunny meme. As I travel the country and the world, it’s clear that many people ‘get’ that about California. Celebrities and their mesmerizing lifestyles (cute); vast chasms between the plight of our Homeless and our Tech “nobility” (psycho – “Why can’t California manage these things?” Well, how long have you got?)

People I engage (from other parts of the world) day-dream of moving to The Golden State. But to live happily in California, you need to have your head on straight, no matter where you choose to live. See, accept and appreciate the ‘cute’, but never turn your back on the ‘psycho’. Ground yourself in what you know is real, and just enjoy the fantasy-like quality of our entertainments. California is way more than Hollywood and Tech:  we’re also Yosemite and Big Sur, Napa and Death Valley. And yes, there’s a whole bunch of us that don’t obsess over wealth, popularity, social status, or the latest fashion trends.

Good luck, Political Candidates:  Californians are “all over the map”, which is just how we like it.

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