“Turning Off the Boxes”

In the coming year, I’m resolving to turn off my “boxes” – computer, TV, cell phone – a little more often.  Instead, I’m going to use that time to focus on connecting with a real, live person, whether that person is myself or someone else.  IMAG0393[2]

I confess that I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with computers.  Back in college, I remember taking a computer-based math course, and after only a few weeks of the course, I remember wishing for a tutor to save me from being completely overwhelmed.  I protested the existence of computers altogether because I thought they would destroy our creativity and social skills.  A few decades later, having seen how computers have been instrumental in enabling me to become a writer and to be successful in business, I have to admit that I owe a lot to the “boxes” I’ve worked with over the years.  But I can’t say that my initial reaction was entirely off the mark, either.

Computers do help us become more creative – and to tap that creativity in new and different and magnificent ways – but sometimes we forget that ideas start with a human being.  After all, what good is an Excel spreadsheet filled with numbers if you don’t know what those numbers mean?  And if we’re being honest, surely all of us must admit that we’ve taken to talking less since the advent of the cell phone.  Yes, we text, we email, we speak over the phone, but how often do we seek each other out for face-to-face connection like we did before these “boxes” became such a big part of our lives?

The problem with all of this digital “talk” is that there’s no real depth. I’ve noticed that on all these online dating sites, when I talk to people and they ask how my day was, if I go beyond, “Good,” they lose interest.  I worry that technology has made us lazy, and this laziness has carried over into the realm of our social communication.  We’re all become accustomed to instant gratification and speed and anything that will make our lives easier.  As a result, we’re not willing to put in the time to really listen and connect. Is a “smiley” emoticon really an acceptable substitute for a smile?

For me, it’s an essential truth that nothing takes away from the real.  Touching, feeling, being a part of three dimensions – there’s nothing like it.  Our boxes certainly make us more productive, but they’re also isolating us from each other. When you’re sad and having a bad day, it’s hard to curl up in bed with some great e-mails from your friends. Sometimes you just need real intimacy, and for that you need a person.

For that reason, a little while ago, I started turning off my boxes.  On one occasion I turned off the television for a day.  Then I turned off my computer for a day. It’s interesting what happens when you turn these things off and you have to amuse yourself instead.  You get creative.  You read a book or cook a new meal or simply spend some time outside.  You seek out other people, whether that’s calling your mom or meeting up with an old friend for lunch.  I found that when I turned off my boxes, that time became a gift.

I want to encourage everyone to give themselves this same little gift.  Every day, even if just for an hour, turn off your boxes. Just like a diet, it may be hard to stick to at first, but if you make it “a must,” I promise that eventually you’ll start really enjoying it.  You’ll become more selective about how you spend your time, and as a result you’ll use it more productively and focus more on the things that truly make you happy.  It’s very empowering to realize that you know what to do with yourself if and when the boxes go away.

We all need to devote a little time to ourselves, to doing something different and growing and discovering.  And when we do this, we find that we’re more open to other people as well.  We realize that we’ve been missing out on a lot of information, and all of a sudden we remember how to communicate, and how to let others in.

This year, let’s all stop hiding behind our little square boxes, whether it’s the computer or the television or something else.  Instead, let’s rebuild the foundations of our lives by seeking out more human contact, by getting emotionally involved and being open to deeper communication. There’s no substitute for a real experience, and no connection that can’t be enhanced by taking out the electronic middleman.  Let’s turn off the boxes and make better use of our time, together.

“Celebrating the Holidays in Your Heart”

My first Christmas, I came home with a 14-foot live tree hitched to the top of my Chevy Blazer. Having grown up Jewish, I wasn’t quite sure how to properly string the lights on the tree, so I left that for my Presbyterian husband to do.  Instead, I concentrated on very meticulously hanging an ornament from each bough, and it wasn’t until my husband came home that I learned you’re supposed to put the lights on first.  Whoops.  So to all of you Jews out there celebrating your first Christmas, listen up: lights before ornaments.  That’s Christmas 101.

The holiday season is a very special time of year for me, albeit a busy time.  I ease myself into it each year with Thanksgiving, and then I prepare for the onslaught: my son’s birthday on December 14th, followed by Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years, then finally capping it off with my daughter’s birthday in early January.  Each year I find myself talking about the holidays with all of my friends pretty much incessantly until it’s over – what are you doing, where are you going, who are you spending it with, what are you eating, what gifts are you buying, and so on and so forth.  And all the while I have a smile plastered on my face, since I love this time of year.

It wasn’t always that way, though.  In reality, the holiday season can be a stressful period, and it’s not made any less stressful by the fact that we each feel like a failure if the holidays in our family don’t look a Norman Rockwell painting.  I spent many Christmases being very sad – when my family was going through a dysfunctional period, when I was divorced and alone for the first time, when a loved one had passed away.  That’s hard.  When you’re alone – or when you feel alone, even if you’re surrounded by people – the holidays are difficult.  I remember the year after my husband left me, all of a sudden I’m on my own and trying to make Christmas special for my kids, which is hard enough to do being Jewish and even harder considering that I had no money.  I was on the edge of despair, trudging through the snow one day, and I dropped my glove.  I looked down and was astounded to discover three crisp $100 bills lying right there in the snow. Knowing how much I would miss that money if I had been the one who dropped it, I tried to find the owner but there was no one around.  Eventually I just looked up and said, “Thank you.”  That money changed my entire world that holiday.

Despite my Christmas miracle, that was actually the last year I bought a tree.  At the end of that Christmas, my kids told me that they didn’t need such an extravagant holiday anymore.  They wanted me to be who I was, even if that meant no Christmas.  And their acceptance and love was one of the best gifts I have ever received.

When things get stressful this holiday, it’s important to remember that you create your own holiday spirit.  Leave the anxiety and the baggage outside the door and let go of your expectations of what a holiday is “supposed” to be.  Understand that the best gifts cost absolutely no money.  Instead, it’s the little things we do for one another that are the greatest gifts.  The emotional side of the holidays is truly priceless, so concentrate on being festive by being generous with your time and attention and love, instead of with your wallet.

When the clock strikes 2012, it will mark a new beginning for all of us.  We should be proud of who we are and should celebrate by remembering the people we love and the people we work with and the people that make our day-to-day lives better.  Let’s support the people who are there for us in our communities and show our appreciation for the little things they do for us.  Let’s all smile and believe that the happiness we see on all those Christmas shows is achievable and that we are deserving of it. And most importantly, let’s all remember that the holiday season is not about the gifts; it’s about the heart that gives them.

“Becoming a Parent, Again”

I knew my kids had grown up the day I realized that they didn’t need me anymore, at least not in the same way they always had.  They were successful, vibrant, and happy, all on their own, and I was satisfied with the job I had done as a parent.  Then something funny happened. Not long after my kids stopped needing me, I was suddenly needed by my dad.

I recently returned home from a trip visiting my father in Florida.  We went to a bunch of stores to help him settle in at home and as we strolled the aisles gathering all the little things that piece together a life, I had the strongest feeling of déjà vu.  And then I realized that I had taken the same trip – to the same stores, buying the same things – when I dropped my kids off at college. It was a reversal.  In the span of just a few years, I’d gone from parenting my kids to parenting my parents. Suddenly, I had become the provider again, only this time to the people who had provided for me.

Learning to take care of a parent is an interesting balance.  There’s so much history there, and that history changes you.  It makes you who you are.  All of a sudden you have to put that history aside – all of the expectations, the misunderstandings, the hurt – to be a good child and do the right thing. And for some of us, that can really be a challenge and a surprise.

If you had told me when I was 21 that one day I would be in this role — taking care of my father — I would have said, “Never in a million years.”  When I was really young, my father was there for me.  He put the makeup on my birthmark as a child and was that larger-than-life figure that I could depend on.  And then when I was 14, he disappeared.  He was gone from my life until he stumbled back into it purely by accident when I was 33.  I was going through a divorce, and once again my father was there for me, a strong shoulder to lean on.

I’m really glad my dad came back into my life, but it wasn’t easy.  It took years and years of complicated steps, negotiating a role for him after he’d been gone so long.  It helped that we had a solid foundation, and that I had always believed in my heart that he was that great person I remembered from the very beginning of my life.  After he left, I had always taken my dad’s side, despite my resentment at his absence.  I wanted to look at things fairly and – maybe because I am more like him than I’d like to admit – I tried to understand why he left.  But that didn’t mean I wasn’t still angry at him inside, and that I didn’t still have questions all these years later.  It was hard bringing him back into my life, once again living up to his expectations.  But my experience with my father taught me a huge lesson about being a parent: what you put in is what you get out.

Kids are who they are. As much as you may work at trying to help them grow and improve, by the time they’re four, they just are who they are.  With your love and encouragement, they keep getting better and better.  The best thing that ever happened to my family was when we pulled together and started accepting each other for who we are. When you can accept who you are and feel good about yourself, your kids do too.  As a parent, you get to watch your children’s growth and development, and you grow with your children.  You grow together and beside each other, on parallel roads.  Sometimes you’re behind them pushing them forward, giving them the courage and the ability to go in a different direction, and sometimes you’re in front, leading by example.  When it comes to taking care of my father, it feels like I’m leading by example.

I’ve found that it’s mostly instinctive.  It’s all based on how you would want someone to treat you when that time comes.  You have to set an example.  Just like when my husband died, I had to set the example of how to handle tragedy, and how to overcome devastation.  I wanted my children to have the tools to be able to survive.  And nurturing loved ones – no matter what happened in the past – is a survival tool like any other.  It’s how you make peace.

Each time I visit my dad is different because we’ve never spent much time as just us.  Spending time one-on-one has allowed me to actually get to know my father in a different way than I ever had before.  It’s been difficult, but it’s also been fun.  It can be really hard dealing with someone who’s sick.  They say incredibly rotten things, things that you don’t really want to know about a person.  Problems – physical, mental, and emotional – crop up at every corner, so you really need to roll with the punches. When issues from the past come up, sometimes you have to let them go and focus on the present.  At this point, the “you did this, I did this, we did this,” probably isn’t productive.  We all know what happened.  Instead of experiencing the humiliation and the hurt all over again, sometimes it’s better to let it go, and release the negativity.  Sometimes it’s more powerful to say nothing at all.

When I visited my father recently, I did something different.  I left some clothes at my father’s place. I didn’t leave a lot of things there, but enough to let him know that I’ll be back.  It’s really frightening for him to be by himself, so I want him to know that he’s not alone.  He took care of me once, and now I will take care of him.  So am I going to go back?  Yes – for him and for me.

West Boca Radiation Oncology

 

My Dad and me

 

 

 

 

 

“The Moment”

me sitting on stairsI was standing in my bathroom.  I splashed water on my face and was washing away the heavy makeup I’d been wearing.  I had just come home from hanging out with some of the popular kids at school, who I had worked so hard to become one of.  And when I looked up and saw myself in the mirror, I realized: I don’t like this person.  This girl in the mirror… I don’t like the things she does and I don’t think the people she surrounds herself with are the people I want to be around. In that moment, for the first time I saw myself – and my life – clearly.  In that one instant, I could see what was right and what was wrong, and I knew with a certainty I had never known before that I didn’t feel good inside.

It happened again.  I woke up in bed beside my husband, my white knight who had whisked me away to a new country and given me children and a comfortable life in the suburbs.  Only I wasn’t comfortable, and he didn’t love me, and he didn’t love our children.  Instead, he rolled over, and in three sentences he tore my life to shreds.  Talk about an epiphany.  In that moment, I stepped outside my body and took a good, long look around and I thought, “You’ve been here before. This is just a horrible nightmare.”  But, unfortunately for me, this nightmare was real.

Life changes all the time. It’s when you change that you have The Moment. The Moment is where you realize you’ve got to stop this, that you can’t behave this way anymore, that this is just not where you want to be.  When you look in the mirror and you don’t like the person you see, it’s an awakening.

It’s when you finally understand that you’re responsible for your life and that you can’t keep looking to other people for approval or validation rather than looking inside. For the first time, it’s all about you, in a positive, constructive way.

Most of us are not programmed to look at things this way.  We’re taught to look at ourselves the way other people look at us, to think about what others want of us and try to match that.  The problem with this is that what other people want of us is not necessarily the right thing for us.  When you’re finally able to turn things around, to know what’s right and what’s wrong for you, that’s when you have The Moment.

Everyone can have these experiences if only we would just be a little more open and believe in ourselves.  When you’re happy– truly happy – it’s because you’re loving yourself and loving others.  It’s when you’re genuinely excited to get a B because you worked hard for it, and when your friend got a C+ instead of a C because you helped her.  That makes you a cool person, a good person.  And that’s what will enable you to listen to what’s inside your heart. We all have bad experiences and go through times when negative energy just pervades our lives.  But it is within our power to get past this.

In the long run, the bad parts don’t matter.  They just don’t.  What matters is that you stayed and enjoyed the moment despite the bad.  What matters is that you cherished every second of your time, and you realized that no mistake is a mistake if you can learn from it. When you let the negative go, you have The Moment, and from that point forward, you can totally reinvent yourself and be anybody you want to be.

Life is too short to be sad. We need to enjoy it. Nobody ever told me that if you just stop and take a breather and look around you, you’d be better off.  Because in that moment – The Moment – you can dream.  And dreams are what make our future bright.  Just listen to yourself, and you can have everything that this amazing world has to offer.

“Overcoming Loss One Step at a Time”

I’ve experienced my fair share of challenges and tragedies, but nothing quite prepared me for losing my husband to heart disease.  With my kids grown and moved out by the time my husband passed, I suddenly woke up one day and was alone, responsible for everything and yet feeling incapable of doing even the most basic tasks.  I could not plan a thing. I could not figure out how to eat.  Just breathing was a task.  I couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t figure out how to move forward.  It was a crushing loneliness – unadulterated despair – and I simply couldn’t face the challenge of crawling out of the hole I was in.  I was emotionally dead.

My children gave me the strength to face each day.  I realized that seeing me in that state was not healthy for them; they needed to learn how to move forward after a tragedy.  So I knew inside that I needed to be a good example, to gain my strength and move forward.  I decided to treat my grief like an illness.  Yes, I needed to take some time off to recover, but I would rebound from this.

IMG_2690I reached out to my friends because I needed to talk, and they were there for me.  But eventually I realized that they couldn’t be my only lifeline.  Everybody who goes through a tragedy needs people to talk to, but I realized that if I kept talking about the same thing over and over, eventually they wouldn’t want to hear it anymore.  It was just too depressing to bear.  So I realized that I didn’t want to wake up seven years later and still be talking about the same thing, still be trying to find a reason to justify why my husband – the love of my life – was taken from me so soon.  I realized that I would never find a reason, and so I instituted a self-imposed statute of limitations.  I gave myself a year to wallow in my sadness, to figure out how I wanted to live the rest of my life, and then I needed to move forward, become my own lifeline.

I started by taking stock in myself.  How was I taking care of myself?  Did I need therapy to deal with what had happened?  I began by putting one foot in front of the other, baby steps.  The hardest thing was learning how to live by myself, so I went back to the basics.  Instead of eating at restaurants every day, I went grocery shopping and cooked my own dinner.  Instead of staying in the house, I forced myself to go for a walk every day.  Instead of spending each night in a daze of insomnia, I forced myself to sleep.  I realized I needed something to keep me busy, so I started taking tennis lessons, something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a child.  And tennis made me smile.  Walking made me smile.  Just getting out of the house made me smile – encountering a happy dog on a street, seeing children laugh – these things helped me get back on track.  It was hard, at first, but I realized that if I stayed inside, I just felt sorry for myself.  I got more and more depressed, I gained weight, I just felt miserable.  And that’s no way to spend a life.

Recovering from loss is a working process – you have to experiment and you have to try things and you have to be brave.  You need to work through your stress and anxiety.  For me, walking was the key that allowed me to assess my pain and think it through.  It’s amazing what you can overcome by just being in the sunshine with positive music playing on your iPod.  I found that twenty minutes of this was all it took to put me in a better mood, so no matter that I didn’t feel terrific most days and didn’t want to leave my house, I forced myself to do it every day and I was surprised how much it helped.  Suddenly not only was I feeling better, but I was looking better too. I shed that waxy indoor complexion, and then one day I looked in the mirror and I was myself again.

Sometimes we have to take a period of time and isolate ourselves to make ourselves stable.  I was not ready immediately after losing my husband to move forward, and there was no shame in that.  I needed that time to process, to plan, to get a grip on myself and my emotions.  I needed to talk it out, and I needed to create a new life for myself.

When you’ve experienced a tragedy, in order to move forward you need to rise above yourself.  You need to figure out what’s next so that you can start working toward it.  Start by looking at yourself from a stranger’s point of view.  Identify your areas of opportunity and put them in black and white on a piece of paper.  I looked at my life and realized that I had all of the freedom and opportunity of a 21-year-old, but I also had a lot more experience and wisdom under my belt.  I realized that I still had a list of things that I wanted to do with my life, things I wanted to enjoy.  I forgot about that list for a while, but it was never really gone – I just needed to look for it.

Just as you would take care of friend who was sick or working through their own loss, take care of yourself.  Encourage the woman you see in the mirror to keep on living.  Tell her you love her and that it will be okay.  Give her hope and hold her hand when she is doubting.  And when things just seem too much to bear, tell her to lace up her jogging shoes and get out to the park.  She’ll never know what she might find.

“Tween Esteem: Loving the Skin You’re In”

Something that no one ever told me when I was young is that different is actually good

Discovering who you are will take you down many different paths.  You may start out as a goody-two-shoes cheerleader and evolve into an edgy punk rocker.  Maybe today you’re a class clown but tomorrow you’re a champion math whiz.  More likely, you’re none of these, and you just won’t know where you fit in for a very long time.  And that is okay.  As you move through life, the choices you make and the activities you engage in and the places you live will change.  Every time you do something new or accomplish a new achievement, you will become something and someone different.  The challenge is to embrace the growing and changing you and to love that girl no matter who she may be at any moment.  IMG_3364

Everyone has talents: piano, basketball, cooking, making a friend feel appreciated and loved.  But sometimes we don’t always recognize those talents in ourselves.  In my case, I was too preoccupied with fitting in to spend much time thinking about what made me special.  I wanted to hang out with the right crowd, have the right clothes, go to the right places.  Gaining the acceptance of the “popular” crowd sometimes required me to do things that made me uncomfortable.  Stepping out of our comfort zone – to do public speaking or ask someone on a date – can be a valuable way to grow and learn something new, but if you’re never in your comfort zone and you’re engaging in self-destructive behaviors, after a while you start forgetting who you are.

In addition to all the usual teenage woes and insecurities, I also had a secret.  I literally wore a mask every day of my life: a mask of heavy makeup covering up a large birthmark which spanned much of the left side of my face.  I was so worried about my mask slipping – smudging the makeup on my turtleneck, letting anyone touch me – that it became hard to relate to people.  They couldn’t really see my face, and so how could they ever really know me?  I was different than everyone else, and though I hid my physical differences as best I could, I still felt different on the inside.  Maybe my classmates couldn’t see my birthmark, but they could see my wildly curly hair, the weird sandwiches my mother packed, my lack of athletic abilities.  And so that feeling – different – stuck with me for many years.

It didn’t help when my parents split up the year I turned 14.  Now not only did I feel different, but my life actually was different.  Everything I knew from before was no longer.  It’s difficult trying to feel good in a place where everyone around you is unhappy, when your family is shattered and your friends don’t really know you and you’re constantly trying to hide a secret.  I retreated into my makeup case and applied my mask ever more diligently.  I just knew that if anyone saw what was underneath, it would be the end for me, that I would finally be completely and utterly alone.

And then one day I had an epiphany.  I woke up and realized that my challenges have been remarkable, but I still came through them.  I’m a firm believer that you aren’t handed a challenge that you can’t overcome.  Challenges build character.  Challenges make you think.  Challenges teach you to solve problems and to trust in yourself.  And when you stop and really think about all of the challenges you’ve already overcome, you start to realize that you can conquer the challenges you’re dealing with today, too.

We all have challenges.  Maybe you just moved to a new school, where you have no friends and no allies.  Maybe there’s someone who’s putting you down, trying to make you feel bad about yourself.  Maybe you just feel different, you know you don’t belong but you don’t know what to do about it.  The key is to look your challenge in the eye and never let it bat you down.  You can deal with this, and you will be better for it.  This is part of finding out who you are and learning to love the skin you’re in.

When you like yourself, you will shine.  Self-esteem is kind of like a beacon – it comes out in the sparkle in your eyes and the smile on your face, and when other people see that you are happy, they will be drawn to you, because they want to be happy too.  You will find friends who will love and accept you just the way you are, because you’ve accepted you just the way you are.

Focus on feeling good about yourself.  Point out all your wonderful qualities to yourself and do the things that you do well, because that will make you happy.  You can be anything you want to be; the future is up to you.  The only person who can ever really stop you is you, so you need to be your own best friend.  Make good choices for you and don’t ever give up on your dreams.  If anyone would have told me that I would end up in New York City working as a successful businesswoman and a writer, I would have laughed at them.  But I did it, and if I can do it, anybody can.

As a young teenager, I would have given anything to have been ordinary.  But over the years, I’ve learned that the best part about who I am – what I like the most about me – is the fact that I am different.  Different is good.  Love what makes you different and let yourself shine.

“Lessons from an Ugly Duckling”

I was not a “pretty girl.”  With a six-inch port-wine stain birthmark covering nearly the entire left side of my face, I spent much of my teenage years struggling to avoid teasing and humiliation.  From the age of four to 30, I applied a mask of thick makeup to my face every single day in an effort to hide my disfigurement from the world.   Baby001

Like a normal teenager, I yearned to be liked and I did what was necessary to run with the popular crowd.  My life revolved around an endless parade of boys, parties, and, regrettably, sometimes drinking and drugs as well.  I was overwhelmed by my own desire to fit in and never-ending pressure from my parents, so I lashed out with outrageous behavior as a release.  This was a common feeling for many of my friends at the time, but inside, I was carrying a heavier weight than most.  I knew that if I let my mask slip – let people see who I really was, birthmark and all –  the result would be too painful to even imagine.

I saw escape as my only means as survival.  I knew I was different.  I wanted to be something else and I didn’t know what, but I knew from the very beginning that I needed to go somewhere else.  When I enrolled in college, I set out for the big city to chase my dreams, but I soon made a mistake that would knock me off my true path for many years.  Instead of fulfilling my aspirations, I got married.  My ill-fated marriage quickly fell apart, but with two small children and only myself to lean on for support, I had no choice but to move forward.

Happily, medical science had made progress in treating port-wine stains like my own and I began undergoing treatments to remove my birthmark, over 50 surgeries in all over a 20-year period.  By the time I was complete, my birthmark was all but invisible.  For the first time in my life, I felt began to feel beautiful.

Looking back over my years of hardship as a teenager, I realized that the people who were mean to me treated me badly not because I somehow deserved it, but because they felt bad about themselves.  If I could go back, I would hold that truth in my heart and let those people keep talking, because if you know you’re living your life right and being who you are, then no one can put you down.  Instead of chasing the approval of the popular crowd, I wish I had sought out people who made me feel good about being myself.

If there’s one thing I wish I could tell every girl in America, it’s that it’s all about how you approach a challenge.  Everyone faces challenges in their lives, but a challenge is really a gift, an opportunity to become a better person.  No matter how bleak it seems at the time, when you look back at today’s challenge it will never seem so bad as it does right now.  That’s because with every hardship you overcome, you change and grow and learn, and you become better prepared for whatever life throws at you next.  It’s important to step aside, take stock in what’s going on, and review who and where you are and what this challenge is about.  And always seek professional help if you need it.

Though I’m glad to be rid of my port-wine stain today, I’m grateful for the strong character that my childhood flaws and early mistakes helped build.  Life is totally different because I don’t feel the pain and uncertainty in myself that I used to feel.  I have done so many things that I’m proud of.  My hope is that every girl will hold tight to her uniqueness and trust in her own value, no matter how difficult life may be.  My hardships gave me an opportunity to do something more special than I’ve ever dreamed and I wouldn’t trade my “ugly duck” experience for anything.