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One of my aunts passed away recently at age 89. Up until her last week of life, Aunt Helen somehow found the energy to saddle-up one of her nine horses and ride her acreage. Her horse-related injuries included several broken bones and a few concussions over the years. According to family lore, this was because Helen wasn’t fussy about breed, conformation or habits:  mostly she just came across a horse that needed rescuing and adopted it. She had some beautiful animals. Some, as I learned, with seriously bad habits.

I only saw my Aunt Helen once a year as a child, when we made the drive across the U.S. from the west to the east. Whether or not I asked for it, “going riding” was always a ‘thing’. I dreaded it. My first experience was with a horse she called “Dancer” (apt, considering what this animal did when you tried to board him). After Dancer, I always tried to eyeball and ask for a slow, heavy mare for my mount.  But Helen chose according to which horse “needed” riding; a bit of a ‘giveaway’ about what was to come. So it was that I learned about, and had the full-on experience of, a Barn-Sour horse.

returntofreedome.org

“Barn Sour” has since become part of my personal lexicon. I may not use it in polite conversation, but I’m definitely thinking about its meaning in certain situations with friends and family, when I listen to them talk about their attitudes and experiences related to growing older.

So this particular day on Helen’s farm  (I must’ve been about 9 or 10), a beautiful, crisp autumn in late November, my aunt had saddled up a new horse she’d just gotten:  for free, I’m guessing. Not fully understanding horses, my experience with them being pretty limited, I was still able to sense the horse’s hesitation as I climbed into the saddle. He was a jet black gelding whose eyes told me “I’m so not into this.” Nevertheless, I and two other riders (more cousins) started out down the country road bordering Helen’s property. We’d ridden for maybe 30 minutes when suddenly my horse stopped so abruptly that I was pitched forward in the saddle. Satisfied that I was almost unseated, the horse then spun on his back legs (visualize a quarter horse’s lightning-quick moves when the rider’s roping a steer), a complete 180 degrees, and shot forward ( away from the other horses) at a full gallop. Totally stunned, I’d dropped the reins and instinctively grabbed the pommel of the saddle.

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The horse ran like its tail was on fire. Ripping high speed through the forest (the shortest route it had calculated, in its deranged mind), we seemed to reach the barn where its stall was in a matter of seconds. As soon as the horse was in eyesight of the barn, he came to a dead-stop. I leaped out of the saddle and looked at him. You know what I was thinking, even as a kid. But his eyes were calm; he wasn’t even breathing hard.

My Aunt Helen came out of her house when she saw me and the horse. I had twigs in my hair and scratches on my face, but she had a good, long laugh. “Barn Sour”:  A horse, for whatever his or her reasons, panics when it gets too far from the space that represents comfort, familiarity, food and safety. If given the smallest chance, it’ll bee-line it back to where it really wants to be.

Sometimes people can become Barn Sour as they get older. Travel may sound like a good idea. Plans are made, tickets are purchased, then excuses are made for why they “can’t really leave” after all. Those reasons might be legit:  an elderly parent suddenly needs care. But many people become so emotionally tied to personal ‘spaces’ and routines that it becomes impossible for them to venture beyond the orbit of familiarity.

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I catch myself, now and then, thinking about the Risk involved with any new situation or adventure. I’m aware that, as time passes, the World itself presents more Risk. And as I think about all of the places I could go, and the things I could try, I admit to myself that I’m absolutely vulnerable to becoming Barn Sour:  there are just too many enticing comforts, and diversions right here, in my comfy little space. And so many very accomodating industries want to keep me feeling that way:  unlimited streaming of anything, food delivered to my door; even Peloton Digital agrees I should stay home. But will I?

I gave up experimenting with Dating Sites a really long time ago. As in years ago. Turns out, the Interweb isn’t quite done with me in that regard. I used to take it somewhat seriously, scrolling through pages of pictures and profiles – especially after hearing about Real Life Success Stories within my own circle of single, divorced or widowed female friends.

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But my own experience brought me  a lot of really lonely, sad men (as in clinically depressed); really angry men; really young men who had clear mommy issues; and men who seemed to be shopping for a woman exactly like they would a piece of furniture. None of this truly important stuff gets revealed in a person’s Profile – intentionally. I get it. But, seriously? The Truth is going to come out during the first meeting, so…why go through coffee, or drinks and dinner and strained conversation that has to end with an awkward handshake? No thank you.

Even though I’m no longer on any of these sites, the Internet Jackals have found, and have been circling me, regardless. I’m thinking that there must be an algorithm for my gender and age, education and marital status, so that what little is actually there in cyberspace flags me as “prey”. If the men now reaching out to me (via Twitter, lately) weren’t so immediately obvious in their gushing compliments in limited English (I’m referring to two apparently Eastern European “Engineers”, living and working on “oil rigs out in the Baltic” that latched on to me about two weeks apart), I might be more amused, than irritated.  

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But the typical inference that I must be vulnerable to, and desperate for over-the-top seduction ( really bad poetry, in some cases) makes me want to respond back with expletives. I want to take some kind of action to defend and protect myself from these Internet Lotharios (bottom line, wanting cash, I’m sure). Whatever that might be. I’m still spit-balling ideas at the moment, since I’m expanding (not shrinking) my Interweb Presence.

One of the last “social-networking” sites I visited really had me feeling hopeful. Its purpose was to connect people actively engaged in what used to be called New Age pursuits:  what we might refer to today as Conscious , or Mindful Living.  Unfortunately, this was and still is one of those sites – Readers might know of others – that, even though you delete your account, actually keeps your information in a vault somewhere in cyberspace. Every now and then unsuspecting former members might receive the message:  “Hello! Look Who Likes You!”

OG Romantic Icon, Olivier as Heathcliff

And so it was, (yesterday) that a completely fabricated ‘person’ was delivered to my Inbox. This time, the “Engineer” (how is this career a ‘thing’ now??) lived less than 20 miles from me (supposedly), instead of on a rig in the Baltic. I decided to read his ‘message’…which was an Ode to my picture (still visible, apparently) and profile (how the hell was he still seeing something I’d deleted ?). He ended his Ode by asking me to text him (a New York number, 2,500 miles away from where I live) so that we’d have a “private and intimate way of getting to know each other”.  Of course:  ‘private’ and ‘intimate’ – the stuff of romance novels.

Curiosity got the better of me. I’ll admit:   I wanted to know if this guy was a “Dimitri’ or an ‘Alek’, so I asked him to share his real name. As though my question had cast a magic spell, complete with fairy dust, the man, the profile, and the internet presence was gone in mere seconds. Feeling satisfied that I’d outed yet another scam, I decided that “Ma” (a pretty bizarre nickname, right?) was actually an AI bot. His photo was too ‘Perfect Man’:  like the enemy-android (in his chiseled-face human form) from the Terminator I film.

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The point of all of this thinking about fake Internet Lotharios and their motives is not to alarm myself or any Reader. It’s just a reminder of how complex the Interweb experience can be. Some people enjoy a good game of ‘cat and mouse’:  they expect such weirdness and deception  and resolve to have fun with it.(I’m thinking about all of the people on YouTube who’ve taken the time to record and then call back ‘fake’ debt-collectors in the hope of ‘besting’ them.) It’s one thing when you go seeking It – whatever that edgy Cyber Thrill is. But it’s another feeling entirely when It comes prowling for you, disguised as a human being.

Time for me to Level Up, once again:  revisit my Privacy settings and bolster my sense of humor. Aside from all of the really good things it can be, cyberspace is also an amusement park “ride” that’s not for the faint at heart. As the signs always say, Ride at Your Own Risk.

As I pass the standard “mid-life” markers, I find myself laughing more often, more ironically, and with more gusto. Laughing at myself, mostly. No, I don’t think it’s generic old-age loonies; instead I think it’s an accumulation of wisdom overheard in my younger days finally getting through to me. There’s a group of women that visit me, as memories, from time to time. I can still see their faces and hear their conversations on topics that were totally disconnected from my reality at the time. Not anymore. I’m remembering, and I’m listening more closely than ever.

While in college in my early twenties, I taught an aerobics class on weekends at a gym exclusively for women. The proprietress (“Ginny”) was a statuesque former beauty (you could still see it in her bones) somewhere in her seventies. She walked like a model, wore a silver bouffant wig, tons of bangles on her wrists, and kept a bottle of vodka in her personal locker. I liked her, a lot. Most of Ginny’s clients were well past middle age. Some of them were in their eighties. They were a different breed of gym-rat back in the day: always dressed in fashionable gym-wear and always in full makeup, perfumed and wearing jewelry. Perspiration was to be avoided.

These ladies eased-into their “workouts” by having coffee with Ginny when the gym opened, around 7 a.m. on Saturday. When I got there a little before 10, ready to teach my class, Ginny was in high spirits (Coffee Lace, as they say in the south, I always thought.) and usually welcomed me with a bangle-jangling hug and cloud of fragrance. During stretches, the women continued to talk amongst themselves non-stop. After about 20 minutes of low-impact Step, I’d guide them through a mild bit of circuit training. Through which they all talked. I don’t think anyone there (besides myself) ever broke a sweat. That wasn’t what this gym was about.

Menopause. Cheating husbands. Feeling ‘invisible’. Slowing metabolism and weight gain. Sagging body parts and wrinkled skin. It was pretty much the same loop every weekend, and fairly easy for me to tune-out. Not only did I tune them out, but I actually thought “What bizarre conversations they have, and what boring lives these women lead.” I had the total impertinence and smugness to think that their concerns could never in a million years be my own one day.

Turns out, as I laugh at myself these days, I do so in the company of these women — now long-gone, most of them. I remember the 85 year old who always washed her face in ice water and never used any other moisturizer than Crisco (I kid you not). Nowadays, almond, olive, apricot and other oils are “de-rigueur” for skin. Then there was the woman who told me that my metabolism would some day slow to a sluggish crawl; that I wouldn’t be able to snack on nachos at midnight without packing on the pounds. My, my — do tell. Finally, there was the woman who complained that becoming Invisible was the worst part of aging for any woman (she eventually became one of the Red Hat Ladies, which I didn’t “get” at the time, but now I do.)

No question that in Western culture we value youth above all things (next to celebrity and celebrity-athletes). But there’s a time period of ‘limbo’ for women — before our kids start joking about pushing us out in a canoe or leaving us on an ice floe — in which Invisibility is a definite problem. Doctors try to convince us that 20 pounds is ‘normal’ weight gain, post-menopause. The fashion industry follows suit by creating Mom Jeans with Tummy Panels to console us. Eye doctors tell us, “Get ready for cataracts — they’re inevitable!” With the aging process, apparently, comes a whole complement of things we’re to assume we must accept. To my thinking, this is the very definition of the Invisibility that my gym-lady was describing so long ago. “You’re a woman, you’re growing older, your body is going to hell but it’s really ok because no one cares, unless you can compete, which you obviously can’t.” Reinforcing this invisibility is the husband who trades his wife in for a model “with fewer miles on it”. Not just a cliché, but a common reality.

What’s a woman to do, when facing Invisibility? Start wearing a red hat, a crimson lip and leopard stilettos? Commit to a strict Paleo and prep for a 10k? Give up cocktails and chocolate? Resolve to find summer and winter-weights of sweatpants? All women will face versions of these questions, and more, as they age. Speaking as one well-into this phase, I can offer two pieces of advice: the first is that Invisibility has distinct advantages, and becoming older brings a certain wisdom and cunning that comes in really handy, when used correctly.

My second piece of advice is to know — or learn — what feels right to you (body weight, fitness level, diet, makeup — clothing- accessories) and jump on that, with all you’ve got. Challenge doctors, dentists, stylists, nutrition and fitness “experts” if or when their suggestions clash with your own inner knowing. Learn to flow with aging according to your own rhythm and sense of well-being. I don’t have a red hat, but I do have a very dramatic, femme fatale black cloche with an iridescent peacock feather perched jauntily on one side. I don’t wear it that often because, when I do, the ‘drama’ of the hat attracts a lot of attention and questions about where I bought it. Sometimes I enjoy that, but sometimes I enjoy being invisible.

In 2017, when the city managers of Paris – the official “City of Love” —  went on a rampage against the 45 tons of Love Locks fastened to its historical Pont Des Arts, they were forced to do so. The sheer weight of the million-plus locks had finally caused a section of the bridge to collapse. Such was the mythic power, on a global scale, of this famous bridge:  Love, fulfilled; Love, unrequited; Love, lost; Love, yearned for. Desires and promises captured for eternity in the hearts of padlocks whose keys were then tossed into the river Seine.  

courtesy of michellegable.com

In 2019, popular travel sites now offer suggestions for the most romantic locations (lakes, rivers, oceans – with the necessary bridges, fencing or gates or…) for the Love Lock-obsessed. As annoying and as silly as these notions might seem, they represent a very human desire to believe in wishes.  It’s more than wishing, really; the belief is in the power of unseen forces that feel magical, and that fulfill our need for a deeper, more ancient-feeling connection with those forces.

courtesy, wicca-life.com

Recent studies (one was published in early 2019, in the New York Times) show an uptick in public interest worldwide, in spiritual avenues that the majority of people probably wouldn’t refer to as ‘mainstream’. Wicca membership has increased, as have visits to astrology websites, and the use of psychics. Books and magazine articles that focus on Wellness topics have steadily grown in popularity since the 1990’s. Yoga, in all its forms, has experienced a surge in popularity. But Wellness is not the quite the same as believing in the power of spirit animals and planetary influences. Its not the same as believing in the power of a Love Lock, with the lovers’ initials etched into it, to be able to capture love forever. To slip into this realm means letting go of our need for reasons and rationales. It means re-connecting with our sense of Wonder.

A sense of Wonder is most often attributed to children, as in, To perceive something with child-like wonder. But what is that, exactly? We have memory of what it feels like, from childhood. We’re envious of those that still have it; we know that Life and living tend to extinguish it. But we also know that a sense of Wonder is real;  and, it’s one of the few things in our lives that feels authentic and un-fakeable (I think I just coined a new word, here – apologies, if necessary). I’ll define Wonder – here and now, anyway — as an acceptance of, and appreciation for what can’t be fully known or experienced with the mind. Wonder is felt. Wonder takes what we think we know can, or cannot be, and turns it on its head by presenting us with something awe-some.We don’t doubt it; we don’t need to prove it or convince anyone else that our sense of  Wonder’s valid.

This morning when I walked out my front door I checked, as I always do, the level of nectar in the hummingbird feeder to the left of the door. Surprised and delighted, I was in perfect time to catch a tiny, jet-black hummer sipping from the feeder. As if that wasn’t enough of a treat, the little thing then zoomed directly in front of my face at eye level, about 18 inches from my nose, and hovered there looking directly at me for a few seconds. Funny that I was just longing for something Wonder-ful, when it greeted me by almost touching my face.

Unlike the individual who interpreted the study (I mention above) as a sign that we’re all going completely Off The Rails  with our crystals and faeries, psychic readings and personalized Birth Charts, I think it’s completely ‘ok ‘to seek Wonder wherever we think we might find it. In the eyes of our faithful hound or mystical cat; in a flower; in the tarot cards; in a circle of wiccans giving thanks to the Great Forest and its sprites; in the power of a Love Lock to bind us forever.  Who cares? We embrace our Wonder wherever we find it and rejoice in not having to ask Why or How.

I’ve always been one to pay attention to subtle signs in my daily life. Lately I’ve been seeing pregnant women everywhere. If I wasn’t so far past the nesting-stage of life, I might be concerned:  I can still recall how seeing puppies everyday at one point triggered the menagerie I have now !

I think what I’m seeing and feeling – perhaps how I’m choosing to interpret my senses —  in these (mostly young) women is Optimism. Having taken the leap myself once, I’m inclined to ask (silently, of course), “Are you sure you know what this means?” A tad bit late for that question, but still. Little Thing 1, 2 or 3 will be a lifetime experience, starting with the crapshoot of whose genetic code they’ll have and whether they’ll be pliant, sweet little darlings, or, what feels like a life-long Labor of Love.  Life is never the same after welcoming children into the world. It’s one of the Big Adjustments.

But Nature, in its wisdom, has a plan. In addition to those wonderful hormones that soon blur the memory of labor pains, everything and everyone around Baby takes a backseat, so that Life – for a while, anyway —  is rainbow-hued and harmonious in its rhythm. Without Optimism, we’d never make half of the momentous life decisions that we do. Which is why nurturing it is so helpful, at any age, in any circumstance.

The Irish essayist George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950) has always been best-known for his keen observations and acerbic wit. Shaw was the first to write the statement (later modified by Oscar Wilde), “Youth is wasted on the young”. Shaw mused that so very many actions we take in our youthful experience are done blindly, haphazardly, and with a kind of idiotic hope. (Shaw had very existential leanings, along with similar thinkers of his time). Shaw’s fantasy, if I can for a brief minute give my own interpretation, was a wise and experienced mind inside a young, strong body. Yeah:  not going to happen until we all become bionic. Still, I take his point: it would’ve been really nice to know then – in my 20’s, say – what I know now, about Life.

 “Youth may (in more than a few ways, from a curmudgeonly perspective) be wasted on the young”, as Shaw wrote; but Optimism is not the sole property of any age group. Regardless of how many days might be left on the calendar (no one has a lock on that piece of information), feeling like each day is a clean slate, a new opportunity, a fresh “take” is always within reach.

When still an undergraduate, one of my favorite classes was a philosophy course I took as part of my General Ed. The textbook for the class, a ‘gem’ still in my library and well-thumbed, features an essay from Ralph Waldo Emerson (another vintage thinker and writer that many others have since gently plagiarized).

R.W. Emerson

Emerson tells us how we can, every day, jump-start our Hope and Optimism. For me, attempting to nurture optimism in my heart gets a boost when I silence my Inner Critic. Here’s a snippet of Emerson’s “meditation” that I  keep by my bedside and usually close my day with:

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

So gentle. So patient and understanding. So nurturing. So full of hope and optimism. Now — more than ever — words we need to breathe in, as we exhale our worries.

So, I thought I’d just let this go, but my mind kept circling back to it. With me, that means, Time to add my two cents’ worth of commentary.  I’m referring to a recent Instagram ‘flap’ (creating a collective gasp and flurry of chat in our cyber world) over 53-year old model Cindy Crawford’s decision to Post “racy” (her word) photographs online. Nicely done, Cindy. I mean that. The pictures are tasteful, yet undeniably sexy. Crawford’s still a beautiful woman, regardless of how much air-brushing or photo-shopping was done:  The Bones are there.

I’ve had more than a few friends who’ve taken what used to be called “Boudoir Photos”, feeling the urge to capture for all time a fantasy-like beauty and sexuality. Most haven’t posted them online, however. Crawford’s reasoning for doing so – she was vocal and righteously snippy about it – is that she wanted to speak to the fact that women should not feel they have “Sell-By” dates, when it comes to their sexuality. I couldn’t agree more. Especially if they look like Cindy Crawford. In her statement, Crawford implied that the photographs were also sort of a ‘gift’ for her husband. Not going to argue with that either; but there’s a bit of a weird mashup here:  a political statement and a little eye candy for her spouse? On Instagram? You claim to be speaking for me here, Cindy, so I just want to make sure I’m understanding you.

In my view, a woman’s beauty and her sexuality are inextricably intertwined. In using the word ‘sexuality’ I’m not referring to sex, or the ability to conjure sexual feelings in anyone else. Feeling beautiful is something every woman on the planet is entitled to, and she should get to define what that means to her, and for her. But there’s a particular aspect of beauty that all women share, and that is our sexuality. Our sexuality is based, first and foremost, on the simple fact that we were born female. If we choose to embrace this (feel comfortable in our birth gender), our sexuality as females blossoms as we age. Our sexuality originates as a sense of self, a knowledge of self, a celebration of self and the ancient power inherent in being a woman. A woman’s sexuality does not , nor should it, require a male’s attention or validation in order to flourish.

Despite the “Swinging 60’s”, the brief illusion that women could truly celebrate being female in ways that suited their own bodies, minds and spirits, all women have faced a narrowing of the definitions of ‘beauty’ and ‘sexuality’ over time. Yes, faces on glossy magazine covers have become more diverse (a good thing), but many of the images we see – within the pages of the top fashion sellers —  still project a version of femaleness that is unrelatable to most women. There are also plenty of examples (movies, music, social media) guiding us in how we should feel about our sexuality; defining what it means  for us. No wonder that, as women age, many begin to feel what Crawford called out as the “Sell-By” date fears.

I’m cheering for Cindy Crawford and her nude photos, regardless of the reasons they ended up on Instagram. (I’ll be curious to see if the next decade brings a new photo shoot). I’m just longing for the time when an Influencer like Crawford’s proclamation includes a shout-out empowering  all women, of all ages, shapes and sizes. She has a right to do her thing, for as long as she chooses to. I’m just not convinced that the 53 year-old women she’s talking to are the same ones I know.

I’ve been confronted by personal and professional jealousy my entire adult life (who knows why — I’ve always been pretty low-key about whatever assets I have). Not confronted directly, as in verbally, but informed by an organizational ‘rumor mill’; even when I was a relative newcomer (aka, ‘peon’) in the org. pecking order. Have I been jealous of other people? You bet. Jealous people are ones to keep an eye out for. Not all of them are like me, feeling quietly insecure, in my private moments, acting out these emotions through insomnia and obsessive worry. Some jealous people are assertively so – feeling the need to “take someone down” a notch or two. I’ve seen this in action more than a few times, in different organizational settings. I’ve felt this when I’ve been on the receiving end at work, and even within my own family.

Recently I was conducting a group interaction in a way that was less formal, more transformational for the participants. I was lucky to have a very experienced colleague observing how I handled myself with this group (I’ll always ask to be observed, if I have the option, when trying-out something new with teams). I also had onlookers who were taking notes, so as to be able to make informed comments in our de-brief. When the time came to do so (de-brief), I was amazed by the ‘mix’ in the feedback.  I use the word ‘amazed’ because I continue to marvel at how people in the psychological professions (a supposedly enlightened and more humanistic group, right?) can seem like experts at walking the tightrope between professional detachment and personal criticism; careful not to engage in what looks like score-keeping or one-upmanship; skilled with “left-handed compliments”. Turns out, I’d done well with my group that afternoon (per my experienced colleague) – too well, in the estimation of some, based on their ‘snark’ wrapped in‘recommendations’ for my improvement.

What causes people to act jealously? I believe, at its root, jealousy’s prompted by fear:  feeling  a need to competefor attention or resources, typically. If I don’t feel good enough (in whatever capacity you choose), I’m going also feel threatened in ways that are very primal:  hard to understand, hard to talk about, and hard to overcome.

What’s difficult for me to comprehend, is how common jealousy can be among my older, wiser female colleagues. It’s impossible to not feel the need, when someone is being so obvious about it, to reassure a jealous person through repeated acts of deference or humility:  “I don’t need to take the lead on ( project); go for it!” Or, “I’ve had lots of chances to speak at (event); I’ll be the note-taker and you can run the show!” No. With a jealous person, such “largesse” only increases the ire. Once, when I felt caught in a vortex of no-win exchanges with a deeply jealous woman (I think it was both personal and professional for her), I pulled a last-resort move. I was new to the organization (a negative); was hired from “outside” (another negative); younger, single (considered “on the prowl”); more educated, and more “worldly” in my experience. This was the Intel I gathered before I asked for a private conversation with this person who’d been trash-talking me behind the scenes since my hire.

My ‘last-resort’ is a personal conversation in these instances. Why is talking one-on-one a last resort? Because jealousy lives in a very tender place in a person’s being. It’s not an easy emotion to discuss; you can’t just call-out a person’s glaring insecurities. (Well, you can, but working with them afterwards will be hell for the entire team). The topic has to be approached sideways, with tact, diplomacy, discretion and gentleness. The end of this story is a happy one:  we became friends and the gossiping and back-stabbing stopped. Still, the more I engage with a larger circle of people over time, the Green Eyed Monster (origins, Shakespeare’s play “Othello”) continues to play a part. Attending to the jealousies of other people can be a bore and anxiety-producing. Each time I do it, however, I recognize in myself the fears we all cope with, at one time or another. On a purely pragmatic level,  I’ve worked too hard to get to where I am, to let jealous people highjack my progress.

I’m always – in my head, anyway- planning my next travel adventure. The first question is whether I’ll travel solo, or try to work with the busy schedules of others. Sometimes travel alone is the best ‘medicine’ for the soul. Sometimes it’s just a lot easier on the nerves.

Travelers know that one of the tried-and-true tests of how real and how deep a friendship or relationship is, is to take a trip together. It doesn’t have to be long, but it does need to include a few stressors typical of travel:  adhering to timetables (flights and trains, for example); being able to pack well; generic discomforts such as missed connections; struggling with a new currency or language; jet lag; digestive upsets; environmental factors (heat, bugs, rain, traffic) and the potential for physical exhaustion and frayed nerves.

No matter how much enthusiasm for the trip there is from the get-go, no matter how beautiful or exciting the itinerary, fundamental personality differences will emerge on a small, or grand scale. How people cope with stress in day-to-day life is magnified tenfold during travel. I can usually spot those that are headed for trouble, even in the airport. They’re the couple who’s already bickering about grabbing food before getting on the plane. One suggests a quick snack from the Au Bon Pain kiosk; the other wants a sit-down, full-dining experience at Texas Barbecue. ‘Boarding’ is in 35 minutes. Guaranteed: the barbecue will end up being To Go, with more angst ahead when the Styrofoam pops open on the crowded plane.

I’ve traveled a lot, domestically and internationally, and I still learn things about myself in the midst of new places and situations. Some of my less than “stellar” moments have been during travel – I’ve overlooked some important detail or chosen a really bad hotel (bad, as in Bug-bad). Solo travelers can suck it up and learn, no one to complain to, or to blame for not packing the correct adapter. But traveling in the company of someone else requires patience, compassion, diplomacy and sometimes earplugs and a mini-pharmacy.

Nowadays, I’m much more circumspect and even outspoken, when need be, when someone suggests taking a trip together. If the travel is proposed for Spring, for example, and we’re talking about it a year in advance, I’m going to make sure I pay more attention to how my friend deals with change, uncertainty, and pressure overall. It’s my own little ‘gauntlet’ of trial-beforehand: maybe a three day or weeklong adventure somewhere. This may seem petty and strange, but a poor-fit with a traveling companion can can ruin the entire experience, and friendships too.

My Kyoto Fountain memory is seared into my brain, never to be forgotten, as a lesson-learned about traveling with others. Japan is, for me, a culture-shock experience of epic proportions. Tokyo and Osaka vibrate with intensity, novelty and situations pushing me far out of my comfort zone (in a good way). Kyoto, on the other hand, is beautiful and ethereal; wonderfully quiet in its lush, green antiquity. I was traveling with two other people who were clearly in awe, as I was, of Kyoto. On the day of our visit, a large bus of Japanese tourists converged on the same shrine as we were making our way to. They moved en masse, a blur of tennis shoes, matching white shirts, and cameras, talking animatedly, moving quickly toward a specific area of the shrine. Luckily, there happened to be an English-speaking guide with another, smaller group that explained what the excitement was about.

As we inched closer (my curiosity was now in control, so that I had to push my way through a wall of people jostling one another) to the shrine, I saw what the guide explained was an ancient, sacred and magical fountain. The water was trickling down a fairly large outcropping of rock covered with dark green moss. There were three separate fountains, each stream of water separated by about 18 inches of rock. At the bottom of each stream was a little recessed area, a small oblong pool, created – I guessed – my the 1,000+ years this fountain had worked its magic on the stone. The Japanese tourists had brought little expandable cups and they were slurping up the water from each small stream:  1 – 2 – 3, in order. I asked the guide “What gives?” and she told me that each small spring had a name: Wisdom, Beauty and Longevity. Apparently, the Japanese were in full-acceptance of the powers inherent in this water, but I was done being pushed and stepped-on and so started to turn away. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of my friends dash through the huddle in front of the pool and dip her hand in the fountain. She then stopped the flow of each little spring with her hand, drinking the water from all three with absolute glee. It was one of those slow-motion moments when you wish you had super-powers. If I had, I would have extended my rubber super-arm and grabbed my friend full-body, away from the fountain. But it was too late. The Japanese tourists stopped talking. They looked at my friend as though she were a being from another planet; then, they looked down or away. The Japanese are extremely discreet. Without saying anything, they’d made their feelings known about my friend’s behavior.

About three days later, we were now in Egypt. We had an early morning visit to a temple planned, but the friend who’d done the fountain dive hadn’t come down to breakfast. My other friend went up to her room to find our companion righteously (not using that word as in ‘just punishment’ for her fountain faux-pas) ill. She’d been in intestinal distress ( been there, done that horrible gig) all night and had a high fever. Of course, the hotel called a doctor immediately, samples were taken, and amoebic dysentery was the diagnosis. Her illness last through another country, then into Malaysia, and then turned into a kind of emotional paralysis:  she wanted to go home, immediately, and she wanted complete agreement on aborting the rest of the trip.

Needless to say, things became a bit strained at that point. Sitting in the historic Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore…the 20-foot palms surrounding us in the green and white décor, the slow ‘swoosh’ of the ceiling fans moving the damp air only slightly…my ‘healthy’ companion and I discussed what to do. She confided, being able to speak and understand more than a little Japanese (which she hadn’t really shared until now), that our friend had invited some kind of bad ju-ju from the fountain, according to the Japanese onlookers. Best-case scenario, this meant, “No Beauty, Wisdom or Longevity for you!” (Thank you, Seinfeld.) It would be a stretch to assume that her parasitic invasion was The Fountain’s Revenge. We’ll never know. But the cautionary tale is still told among my friends and fellow travelers.

Raffles, Singapore. A bygone era still thrives!

Sending Love…

My interest in what I call My Tribal DNA has increased over time. Not the popular “Twenty-three-and-Me” kind of sleuthing we can do to determine our cultural lineage. No, I’m referring here to how my sense of Self was formed, based on the experiences sent to me, via the DNA of my ancestors. This is a huge area of scientific study: how things like wars, famine, migration, and exposure to violence and other traumas create changes in our gene pool. In many instances, this is done through words.

It definitely helps, when you’re trying to figure yourself out (focusing on reasons behind the negative stuff, usually) to have a basic idea of who your grandparents and great-grandparents were; where and how they lived; and the events they may have lived through. In a previous Post of mine, “Wait for Me…”, I shared a story about my maternal grandmother (born in 1898) who’d lost 7 siblings to the dominant illness of her time, tuberculosis. There are parallels, nowadays, for this kind of loss. But, other than my granny, I know of no one else in my biological tribe who’s lost seven immediate family members during the formative years of growing up. I can only imagine the deep pain, seeping into the remaining family members, quietly and gradually changing their internal biology. Words of hopelessness, and grief, uttered in hushed tones. Words of frustration and anger shouted to the heavens. “Why?!

The experiments of Dr. Masaru Emoto have offered proof, for years now, that thoughts and feelings affect physical reality. Emoto’s research has helped me understand how and why I’ve been so incredibly hard on myself for most of my life. I can’t summarize here (do justice to) these amazing studies of how spoken words affect water-crystal formation; hopefully, my Readers are already familiar with Emoto’s research. (If not, it’s really a worthwhile detour). The takeaway for me is that Words Have Extraordinary Power. More than I was ever taught through The Golden Rule; more so than I ever learned in psychology and leadership classes.

Growing up with negative words or too much critical analysis in the family can change a child’s physical chemistry (just as Emoto’s water crystals were affected by words like Love, and Hate). I don’t feel that my family, two or three generations back, were a bunch of mean and dysfunctional nut-jobs. But I can piece together how their conversations– their words and vocal tones – could well have been fearful, angry, sad, stressed and utterly confused. My ancestral family, based on my research, were emotionally-tough people; they had to be, just to be able to survive in times fraught with challenges and unwanted sacrifices. If I’d lost so many children, I’d be a complete “basket-case”. I can only imagine how they were able to get through that.

My strong ambition to achieve; my perfectionism; my self-criticism; my worry and fears; my sense of life being a ‘struggle’ – usually over-exaggerated – is clearly a part of my tribal DNA. I don’t offer this as an excuse, but an explanation for, and a way of understand, a lot of my “issues”. I also think of this imprinting (and its results in my life ) as a reason to try to change this emotional DNA in raising my own child, and through my contacts with other people (and their conversations).

Words don’t just nurture, encourage, diminish or debase on-the-spot (as in the instant-impact of social media). Harsh, or loving, words are also creating generational patterns of attitudes and behaviors across the globe. Bringing about change begins with my own understanding of the power I have to resist those words (The Critic) that cause me to be less than I know I can be. With others in my life (even my pets!), making sure that my words soothe, even when I’m tempted to “go off”, sends a ripple — I believe — of Hope into the world.

When I worked with extremely at-risk adolescents, the vast majority were growing up in emotionally and physically toxic environments. In a formal study I did, it was remarkable (and disheartening) how much yelling and verbal abuse occured daily in their lives. But, I also felt a resilience emanating from many of these kids; a determination to someday live in a way that was vastly different. Despite the verbal messages of, “You’re not smart enough to…” “You’ll never be more than you are right now (pregnant, under-educated and unemployed)”, these young people were already in the process of canceling-out the ability of such words to shape their futures.

Current reality may be very tough; we may be harrassing ourselves constantly with negative messages. If we choose to, however, we can begin to change outcomes by noticing and questioning where this stuff comes from. I remember a short blurb I began seeing in my college Psych classes, about the power of words and the temptation to use them recklessly: Is it True? Is it Kind? Is it Helpful? This little check-in can nip sabotaging self-talk right in the bud, before it takes root in our souls. It’s a slow process, but it feels so good when it becomes habit. And it will.

With Father’s Day approaching, I was thinking back to the many things I learned from my father while growing up. His childhood was marred by the Depression years. His perspective and message to his three kids was usually “Here’s the grim reality; deal with it!” Got to love those Greatest Generation men and women:  they don’t ‘play’. Not overly emotionally-intelligent, my father focused on practical lessons that, ironically, eventually became metaphors for coping with Life. Learning how to change the oil in my car turned into a lesson in Self Reliance. As did learning to keep a kitchen garden, fix a flat, splice a garden hose, find a stud in a wall, catch and clean a fish, and myriad other survival skills he believed a woman should have.

One of my earliest lessons , as a really young kid, was how to swim. In a river on the outskirts of our city, I learned how to float, dog-paddle, then actually swim (never with much grace, to this day). True to my nature, pretty soon I began pushing my own limits. One day we were swimming in a large lake in rural Virginia, near my father’s ancestral home. I was showing off, I think, by trying to swim out to a rock where my much older cousins were lounging and laughing together. I became exhausted about halfway to the rock. I had to admit to myself, I wasn’t going to make it. There was momentary panic, but then I turned on my back, puffed up my lungs, and floated on the surface of the water. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back in the sun’s glare and focused on the pink and orange swirls on my eyelids. I let the water in my ears muffle the voices on the rock, and soothe my pounding heartbeat. I stretched-out my arms and legs, letting the water and rippling waves from nearby ski boats slide under my body, as if I was a water bird and the lake was my home. No longer in panic-mode, I turned and swam back to shore and realized how really good it felt to be on terra firma.

Talking with someone very dear to me yesterday, I heard over-whelming exhaustion and frustration with his career, turning into the kind of panic we all feel from time to time: “I thought I could do this, but I can’t”; “I thought I wanted this, but I don’t”. Our realization is that we’re mid-way through a mistake – we’ve mis-calculated, mis-interpreted information, made the wrong choices – and we’re now feeling ‘stuck’. Sometimes the answer is simple:  rest for a minute, then turn around and swim back to the shore. But sometimes it’s not at all evident what the next step should be. We feel immobilized.

It saddens me to share that I have more than a few friends who are in jobs, careers, education programs, cities, relationships, marriages and other situations that feel stalled to epic proportions. The moment we realize that we’re in this ‘place’ is a moment that requires, first and foremost, stillness. The ‘rut’ we’re in is our heart speaking a Truth that our rational minds often ignore. Once that Truth is faced (as painful as it may be), we can transition from rut, to ‘holding pattern’.  Regardless of how dire a situation seems, with no solution readily apparent, as long as there is breath in our lungs, we have Choices we can make that will provide a measure of relief. Some choices involve truly horrible-feeling consequences. In a previous Post, “Who Do You Envy”, I shared with my Readers the story of a friend of mine who realized she had to leave her decades-long marriage. She’d known for many years who she really was (a woman who loved women), but had never felt able to be this person. Her decision to leave the ‘rut’ she felt she was in shot through her family like a white-hot arrow, piercing the hearts of the adults and children involved. My friend’s ‘holding pattern’ was finding a place of her own to live. This lasted almost two years while the personal and logistical details of her separation and divorce were worked out.

The last phase of moving ourselves out of a rut is recognizing the ‘opportunity’ before us. What that opportunity turns out to be is wholly dependent upon the person and the original ‘rut’. But one thing that’s universal in this process is the absolute necessity of seeing beyond the current scenario you’re in. You might detest the job you have, and mentally leave the ‘rut’ by realizing you want something more-aligned with your needs and desires. But you’re in a ‘holding pattern’ because that new job hasn’t materialized yet. The ‘opportunity’ lies in being able to turn on your back and float, so that your heart and mind together, have time to sift through your options.

As you listen to your heart and face any ‘ruts’ or ‘holding patterns’ you might be in, I hope that your options extend beyond having to swim back to shore. But, sometimes back-tracking a little, taking more time to rest and re-assess, is the best move. Back in the days of horse-drawn carts, when a wooden cartwheel got stuck in a rut, instead of whipping the horses to pull harder, the wise driver coaxed his horses gently:  step forward, step backwards, rocking the wheel in the rut just enough to lift it up and out. Easy does it.