Lucky and Grateful To Turn Sixty

"Look around, look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now..."

from 'Hamilton', by Lin-Manuel Miranda

After two months of listening non-stop to the 'Hamilton' soundtrack, we celebrated my 60th birthday by going to the show in Chicago.

Some experiences do live up to the hype. 'Hamilton' is one of them.

The following week, the wife of a dear colleague passed away after a long illness. When I read her obituary I saw something that stopped me in my tracks.

She and I were born exactly one day apart.

I spent my 60th birthday at 'Hamilton', followed by a weekend of family fun. She spent hers- if she was even aware of it- preparing to leave this world.

Suddenly, one of my favorite lines from 'Hamilton' would not stop playing in my head. 'Look around, look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now.'

Every year delivers more reminders of the role that luck plays in life. I bristle when I hear the self-congratulatory cliche, 'The harder I work, the luckier I get'. If nothing else, getting older should knock that smugness out of us. While it's true that hard work will take a person far, we cannot brush aside a thousand categories of luck at play.

Luck in the time and country we are born in. Luck in the family we are born into and the abilities we are born with. Luck in the people that cross our path, in who opens a door for us at the right moment. Luck in friendship and in love, in childbearing, in raising a family. Luck in resilience to withstand life's relentless punches. And the enormous luck of mental and physical health that enables birthdays to stack up, one after another.

Then there's the luck of the ordinary day. So much misfortune is due to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The psalmist could not have anticipated the plague of distracted drivers, but these words from Psalm 121 are as relevent as the day he wrote them:

יְהֹוָה יִשְׁמָר צֵאתְךָ וּבוֹאֶךָ מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם

The Lord will guard your going out and coming in for eternity.

So yes, I'm thinking about the tremendous luck of making it from one birthday to the next. Of how grateful I am to be living this life.

The second standout lesson from 'Hamilton' is an idea meant to bookend the first--gratitude for our good fortune is more than a feeling, it's a behavior. Yes, we are lucky to be alive right now, but what do we do with that time?

"When my time is up, have I done enough?"

Morbid? No way. I love this life-affirming question! I love it's implication: Let's use what we've got. Use every last bit. Use our talents. Work our hands. Give of our time. Lighten the load for someone else. A lifetime of kind acts will leave their mark.

So sixty? I'll take it, all of it, even the crow's feet and laugh lines. Especially the laugh lines. How lucky, lucky, lucky I am to be alive right now.

Don't Wish Away Time

"Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."  Abraham Joshua Heschel

In a few days, 2016 will be over.

On social media, in casual conversation, people are cheering for this year to end. They liken 2016 to a houseguest who wore out his welcome months ago. When the hashtag #whenwill2016end  is for real, it's easy to join the chorus.

Photo by Ales Krivec https://unsplash.com/@aleskrivec

I'm sure that Syrians- the ones who are still alive- think 2016 was a a nightmare without end. If your loved one was murdered at Pulse Nightclub or at another mass casualty attack, 2016 was a horror for you too. If you or a loved one ended up in the path of a drunk driver or a texting imbecile, you won't be sorry to turn the page on 2016. 

People I know and love are fighting life-shattering illnesses, both physical and mental. They and their families have every reason to want to close the book on an excruciating year. To pin a tender hope on 2017 to bring something better.

However, if your life is basically intact, meaning that it was not shattered by bad health or terrible misfortune in 2016, and you are still wishing away the year, I have this to say.

Step back and get some perspective.

The first order of business for restoring perspective is to zero in on health. My parents always used to say, "If you have your health, you have everything." As I teenager, I rolled my eyes at their 'unsophisticated' thinking. When they both died young, I found out the hard way how right they had been. Being reasonably healthy and able-bodied is a gift we often take for granted. Until something goes wrong. Suddenly, the life you lived just last week seems downright enchanted now.

A dear friend, undergoing cancer treatment, drove this point home. After a recent treatment, she and her husband stopped at a coffee shop on their way home. My friend was weak as a kitten, barely able to navigate to the table. She looked around at the people bustling in and out.  "They can all just come and go" she marveled. "They can just go about their day." 

So I will say a silent thank you that for all 2016, every single day, I was able to come and go as I wished.

The other part of restoring perspective is to remember how finite and precious our time on this earth is.  Each day that passes, each year that ends, is time that we will never get back.

Don't wish it away. 

I am well aware of the frightening state of our world. The relentless bad news is depressing. We are exhausted from an ugly election year and unsure of what is ahead. The steady demise of one iconic celebrity after another adds to our sorrow and gloom. 

The challenge for us is to take Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's words to heart: 

"Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."

We must care about what's happening in the world without letting it overtake us. To always remember what a miracle it is that we are here at all.

When you start wishing away the year, it's time to hit the mental reset button. 

Let's use our precious gift of time to help where we can, to lighten the load for someone else. Then let's gratefully enjoy the blessing that is our life, the time that passes so quickly. 

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For me, the perfect means of restoring perspective was, literally, delivered this week. As I write this, I am holding my three-day old grandson. Earthly time has just begun for him. His story is on page one as 2016 comes to a close.

So far, it has been his best year ever.

What Happened to Me on the Back of a Galloping Horse?

Well, first of all, I didn’t fall off. I managed to stay mounted while my horse galloped up and down the mountains near Zion Canyon National Park. In the pitch dark.

Over the hours of the ride, which were both exhilarating and terrifying, a lesson I badly needed to learn was driven home.

I am an energetic control freak with a vivid imagination. Those qualities are assets when planning a holiday dinner for thirty, a multi-city vacation, writing a blog post, speaking before a large audience, or caring for multiple infant and toddler grandchildren together. The results will be creative, organized, smooth, and stress-free.

But a control freak with a vivid imagination suffers madly when there is airplane turbulence, when awaiting a loved one’s medical test results, when a child’s cell phone goes to voice mail one time too many.

In other words, when the control freak must cede control. And the vivid imagination takes over, making a beeline for the most frightening, far-fetched possibility.

My husband, Mike, and I love to go horseback riding when on vacation. We’ve ridden in Mexico, in the hills of the Galilee, on volcanic trails in Hawaii, and on mountain paths in the Canadian Rockies.

Although we have ridden many times in many places, I would still consider us nothing more than advanced beginners. Most of our rides have been of the “nose to tail” variety, a low-skills hour or three on a walking horse.

This ride, this eight-hour experience at Jacob’s Ranch near Zion Canyon, was going to be different. It would include trotting, loping, and galloping. Jumping over downed trees. A ride beginning in daylight and ending in moonlight. A ride up into the mountains in the dark.

My husband was so gung-ho to do this that I could not bear to disappoint him. I tried to quiet my overactive imagination as I signed off on the consent forms outlining all the risks. As if I hadn’t thought of them all already.

"Just trust the horse" the wranglers told me.

"Just trust the horse" the wranglers told me.

We spent the first hour or two selecting our horses and getting them to bond with us. My choice of horse was easy. I asked the young cowboys (‘wranglers’) which horse they’d use for an eight-year old kid. I ended up with Ranger, a sturdy, sweet, even-tempered horse. I felt sheer delight when Ranger followed me around the training ring.

“The horse knows how to read you,” the wranglers reassured me. “Just trust the horse.”

With that, our riding party headed out: me, Mike, two young wranglers, the sixty-something ranch owner, and four millennials, two men and two women, co-workers at a recreational marijuana farm. You could say this was a diverse group. 

The first couple of hours of riding were thrilling. We moved along as a loosely organized group, the horses trotting amid the spectacular scenery. I quickly adjusted to the faster pace, remembering how to ‘post’ to avoid bouncing in the saddle.

I gasped the first time my horse leaped over a downed tree. By the second time it felt fine. The anxiety was still there, but it was mixed with a bit of confidence that I was rising to the challenge.

A break for dinner and to await the rising moon.

A break for dinner and to await the rising moon.

We stopped for dinner over a campfire and to await the rising moon.

“Next comes the fun part!”, the ranch owner crowed. “We’re gonna ride up into those hills and it’s gonna be like nothing you ever did before.”

He pointed toward the silhouetted mountains, growing black in the fading light.

I knew this part was coming. I also knew that there was no way out of this experience except through it. It reminded me of how I felt the first time I gave birth. No way out. Gotta see it through to the end.

The moon rose, giving off an astonishing amount of light. We mounted our horses and rode toward the hills.

Do you know how a horse climbs up a steep hill? It runs as fast as it can. The first time Ranger took a hill, I held on with everything I had. Both of us were panting when he reached the top. Then he climbed another hill, another, and yet another, until we were high above the desert floor.

Now the mountain blocked the moonlight. We galloped along in pitch darkness.

I could not see anything. Not how high we were, or how narrow the ledge was that we ran on. Nothing. It took everything I had to stay mounted on the horse, every bit of my physical strength and mental effort.

In that moment there was no room for my vivid imaginings.

In that moment, terrified as I was, I did the thing that I had to do, the thing that is so hard for me to do:

I ceded control and trusted that everything would be ok.

We rode until we reached a gathering point, bathed in moonlight, overlooking the desert floor far below. I was the last one to get there, but I made it.

Mike and the rest of the riding party were euphoric, stoked, filled with adrenalin. I looked at Mike, looked out at the vista, and promised myself to never forget this moment.

The ride down, as Ranger descended the steep hills, was about as challenging as the ride up. I could see very little and had to trust the horse to get me home. He did.

What has preoccupied my mind ever since is the feeling that a lesson was delivered to me in the most visceral way possible. I believe that life presents us with opportunities for critical learning. The lesson is presented again and again until we learn it. Or don’t.

Longstanding habits of mind are not easily altered. But if we want to change badly enough we can do it.

The next time I’m tempted to let my imagination run away with me, I will remember what it was like to be on a horse that was running away with me.

Focus and trust were what got me through.

Focus and trust got me safely home.

Beyond Coincidence:

Fifteen years after my father died suddenly, had he finally come to say goodbye?

This originally appeared on Modern Loss. Republished here with permission. 

The way this long-forgotten note appeared seemed like more than mere coincidence. 

The way this long-forgotten note appeared seemed like more than mere coincidence. 

On a bitterly cold January day, when I was 18, my dad had a heart attack. He was found lying on the ground, alongside the truck he drove for a living. By the time help arrived it was too late. He was 53.

There was no warning. My father simply vanished from this world. When the day began, when I left for school in the morning, he was here, in all his green-eyed, robust aliveness. When the day ended, he was gone. There would be no tender exchange of love and thanks, no last embrace.

Fast forward 15 years, and that 18-year old girl was now a 33-year-old married mother of four.

One summer morning, as I stood awaiting the bus that would take my kids to day camp, I chatted with another mom about a mutual friend of ours whose father had just passed away. The man had lived a long, full life, before he became ill and died. He was a wonderful man, I told the other mom, and would surely be missed. And then: “At least they had time to say goodbye.”

I went on to tell her about how my own father had died, how the suddenness of his death added immeasurably to the trauma of loss. Because ever since that cold January day I have fought the fear that someone else could be taken from me suddenly and too soon.....

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Pack Poker Chips for a Peaceful Family Road Trip

With summer road trip season in full swing, what parent doesn’t need a good idea for keeping the peace in the car?

We took many lengthy road trips with our four closely spaced children and this little gem was a lifesaver. I wish that I could take credit for the simple genius behind this idea, but credit goes to parenting expert John Rosemond, whose books I devoured during our child-rearing years. 

His approach is strict, clear, and puts the adults in charge.

In other words, it is totally counter-cultural and it really works.

I’m eager to share the goodies with a new generation of parents.

So, here is how a stack of poker chips enabled our kids to control their behavior over long hours in the car.

At the start of each road trip, before we pulled out of the driveway, we showed the kids an index card on which were written three simple rules for behavior in the car.

Our rules were:
-No fighting
-No loud noises
-No interrupting adults

We gave each child three poker chips.

In a few sentences I laid out the plan.
“If you break one of these rules, I will take away a chip. If two of you are fighting, both of you will lose a chip. In order to do whatever fun activity is planned for the end of the day, you must have at least one chip left. Otherwise you will stay behind with me or dad while everyone else has fun.”

And with that, we hit the road.

To no one’s surprise, each child managed to lose a chip before we reached the highway. The kids usually forfeited their second chips moments later, and then….peace reigned for the next many hours. 

Every now and then I would catch them checking their pockets to make sure the remaining precious chip was still there.

That chip was their ticket to swimming at the hotel pool, a walk to the nearest ice cream shop, or whatever recreation was available wherever we happened to be.

The next morning, everyone got their three chips back when we hit the road again.

The system worked like a charm because it was simple and we enforced it without discussion, threats, or debate.

You break a rule, you lose a chip.

The kids knew we meant business.

In all of our many road trips, I think that there was only one time that a child had to stay behind with a parent because he or she blew through all of their chips.

The beauty of having such a clear system was that it actually freed all of us up to enjoy our time together because the kids’ behavior was under control.

We were all spared the misery of tiresome haranguing, threats, and arguing.

Our kids are grown and are now young parents themselves.

Today there are many delightful high-tech gadgets that will keep kids occupied for hours in the car.

But being occupied is not the same thing as learning self-discipline. 

The simple poker chip teaches kids an essential life lesson.

I can’t wait for the day when our out-of-town kids pull into the driveway, and a grandchild jumps out of the car, poker chip in hand, saying, “Nanny! I’ve still got my chip! Here it is! Let’s have some fun!”