Category Archives: Dena's Lady Boomer Column and personal musings

The season of hope

Through a child’s eyes


I am not sure if you know anyone like this, but I know a few people who do not see this time of year as a personally joyous one.  I am privy to the fact that Christmas is not a time that everyone looks forward to or savors and to people like myself, this comes as a great sadness. For reasons not known to me, they see it as a time that is thrust on them each year, just trying to ‘ride it out’ until the garbage cans are full of crumpled wrapping paper and the tree is left on the curb to be picked up by a local Boy Scout troop.  Perhaps if they try to see the holiday in a simpler light, they might be able to get back in touch with the beauty and spirit of the day.

I see Christmas as a time of hope because it is the one time of year we can try to look through a child’s eyes..  As each Christmas approaches, I have come to realize that the music, the tree, the shopping, the food, and the family and friends gathering  gives us a brief collective sense of purpose.  But in reality, it’s more about the anticipation of the day than the day itself.  It’s remembering how as children we would count down to the day as we ‘grouped’ the gifts under the tree with our names on the tags, tried to see through the wrapping paper, and shook them to guess whether they were toys or (boring) clothes.

It was smelling our mom’s cooking and baking as she prepared her Christmas treats — food we ate only a few times a year or only at Christmas time.  It was taking down the boxes full of tree decorations and haphazardly placing ornaments on the sometimes delicate branches, hoping we didn’t hear our feet crunch tiny shards of colored glass on the floor by the time we finished. It was watching my mom lovingly write sentiments on each Christmas card, as if the person she was writing to was the only one receiving a card that year. And it was the impatience with which we begged our parents to get up earlier so that we could rip through the brightly wrapped presents. (My dad had to give his royal edict before a single gift could be violated).

As a child, each time I saw a Nativity scene, I thought of how the people and animals who visited the stable all seemed so well behaved, since they stood there so still and adoringly in each creche depiction I came across.  The Christ child represented the innocence of youth and the renewed hope of a weary world — one still revisited by the lyrics in Christmas music — still some of the most beautiful music ever written. I am always sad when we put that music away after the holiday and I no longer hear it as I shop.  But I know that as an adult it will arrive even more quickly each year.

For a child, however, the time between Christmases feels like centuries. Do you remember that feeling?  So I suppose how we view Christmas can become that upon which we individually choose to focus.  The ‘chores’ of the day are accomplished with the anticipation of smiles, glad hearts and memories still in the making.

I wish you and those you love the merriest of Christmases and I look forward to the new year with renewed hope. To be sure, one of my hopes is that I never lose that childlike wonder about what each new day, month and year will bring, as they are indeed the gifts given to us with no holiday name attached.

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Getting older — free at last

You can say what you’d like about middle age. But for me it has been an eye-opening, exciting time of life.  If I were to describe all that I have learned since age 40, the memory capacity on my computer would fail me.

It is true that I have had some dramatic life changes along the way, including the loss of both my parents, the end of a two decades-long marriage, the beginning of a wonderful new life with my soul mate, and the spectacle of my only child going alternative on me for a while and then returning to the real world with a vengeance and drive to succeed.

I can lament about the thickening of my middle, the graying of my hair, the ache in my right knee, and the wrinkles around my eyes, all of which can be masked cosmetically or medicinally.

But the greatest midlife gift of all is the ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn’ factor when it comes to how others see me.  Middle age for me brought with it a comfort and acceptance of self that is difficult to describe. It is knowing that I can focus on new dreams with greater depth while leaving behind all the shallower ones.    It’s a grasp on how much I DON’T know about my spiritual side, but will spend the rest of my days exploring.

But most of all, it is the reigniting of my passion for life.  Being able to write a real-life book for other women (in the past, all my books were real estate related) is an indescribably gratifying feeling.  Using words to evoke memory, emotion or action while in the service of others is becoming an addiction for me, whether in the form of giving seminars, writing my book or creating my Examiner columns.

You may surmise by now that my glass has always been half full, no matter what life has thrown at me.  That outlook, however, is not borne of DNA, self-help books or Tony Robbins seminars.  It is, rather, a kind of muscle memory that was formed over the years when I made a conscious decision to focus on the positive instead of the negative no matter how bleak things appeared on the surface.  It was helped along by a concerted effort to find meaning in some of the most trivial events and conversations and permit them to push me forward to new realities.

There is no such thing as a ‘status quo.’  There is each new day, unique in its ability to inspire, progress and teach.  And it is that one-day-at-a-time approach that is so very liberating.

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Going with the flow

Worry isn’t a huge part of my persona, but it remains as a little buzz at the back of my head.  When it begins to surface and dominate my thoughts, I realize it can zap my energy, making me less productive as well as bad company to those around me.

We are a worrying lot.  The economy, our jobs, our kids, our health, global warming, Iran, Korea –  to recite a list would inflict anguish for days.  We can try to take steps to influence outcomes as some sort of therapy and as a way to look back and say that we did all we could, but in the end we can’t truly control what will happen next.

One evening last week my car was broken into in the parking lot of a popular restaurant near home.  I felt helpless, angry, and dumb all at the same time. Although the car was locked, my briefcase was the target, having been left on the front seat in plain view. The thief simply smashed in the passenger side window and quickly absconded with my goods, which included my precious iPhone, a wallet chock full of credit cards and, of course, my pride.

We made every phone call we could think of within the first few hours of the police report, trying to leave no stone unturned.  In the meantime, I felt utterly violated, vulnerable and fraught with – worry.  The ‘what-ifs’ began popping up at every turn and before I realized it, an entire night went by with no sleep.

The next day we left for a long weekend, planned from months ago. The purpose of the trip was a conference of church choir singers to gather at one parish, as we do each year. The Byzantine-style church hosting this event, perched at the edge of a nature preserve in stunningly beautiful north coastal San Diego, was to echo our mystical liturgical hymns. As I entered through the sanctuary’s tall wooden doors, I took in the splendor of mosaic icons, crowned by a dome overhead that filtered the day’s sunshine through its small porticoes.  I breathed in the slight aroma of incense left over from a recent service.  My worries began to melt away as I raised my voice over and over again in an attempt to perfect sounds that reverberated off the images of saints and stucco.

After two days of rehearsal and fellowship, Sunday morning arrived, when we would be called upon as a 180-member choir to respond to the priest’s supplications in song. The sound was magnificent as our voices rose and fell, hushed and trumpeted the ancient liturgical music.  When it came time for the sermon, the priest spoke of the lilies of the field, which do not reap nor sow, yet are endowed more beautifully than any of Joseph’s magnificent coats of yore.  His words comforted me, making me realize that worrying about the aftermath of my material dilemma would make not one iota of difference in the long run.

As we made our way home, traveling through mountains, vineyards and arid summer fields, my eye caught the glimpse of a stalled vehicle by the side of the freeway. The car hood was raised, as if a signal to a friend or road service who might be on the way. Off to the side, in a shallow ravine, I saw the car’s owner, sitting on a lounge chair under an umbrella, beverage in hand.  The man was literally in the middle of nowhere, yet the image could double as one in a vacation brochure.  He could have been pacing nervously or crouching over his car engine, but he no doubt knew that all that was left to him was to wait for help.  And help would come.

The lessons learned here may not ward off worry from future disasters that befall me in years to come, but life, as they say, is what you make of it. I could have taken no meaning from the events of the past few days, or I could, as I did, take them as comforting signs that indeed, all is not lost.  Credit cards will reappear in my wallet, but they will not offer the solace given to me by these simple experiences.

And as some ancient sage once said,  “This, too, shall pass.”

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Bruises under cover: spousal abuse knows no social class

We are the ones you rarely hear about when you study the reasons behind divorce statistics: Educated women like myself, who stayed in abusive marital environments for decades, thinking it would change.
The general public tends to reason that women who are victims of or eventually escape domestic violence usually fall into the lower-income ranges – those who have not had the advantages of higher education or a functional upbringing.
But the reasons many women stay under the radar with this issue are as diverse and far ranging as any other predicament in which people find themselves.

Abuse knows no bounds . . .

The truth is that marital physical abuse permeates every socio-economic level.  Middle and upper class women who survive marriages in which they suffered physical abuse at the hands of their ex-husbands simply tend not to speak of it. Why?  Probably because after we finally decided to leave that environment, we were embarrassed to admit that we stayed for as long as we did. Before that we were no doubt in denial that it was really happening to us. I, for one, never pictured myself among those who could be chosen for daytime TV on panel shows like The Jerry Springer Show, where women from obviously violent environments would complain publicly about their spouses or boyfriends.
You don’t have to be poor to experience domestic violence. Plenty of middle-class women, and some men, are beaten and humiliated by their partners. The current economic downturn doesn’t cause violence in itself, but it is creating the conditions that make these times ripe for it –environments where a sudden change in circumstances, acute financial problems, or loss of self-esteem come into play.

Realizing where we are . . .

In his article Understanding the Victims of Spousal Abuse, Dr. Frank M. Ochberg points out that there are those who are victims, those who were victims, and those who want to help but are not victims themselves.

He admits that the word ‘victim’ carries with it connotations and associations that many find degrading. Especially educated, upper middle class women feel they deserve some kind of dignity and freedom from fear while seeking compassionate acceptance by their families, friends and communities.  Those of us who have lived to tell of our former circumstances now realize we were indeed victims, however. The conclusion I have recently reached now that I have lived nearly a decade as a non-victim is that I have a unique capacity to become a small-scale catalyst for change in spousal relations in general by merely bringing illumination to it both with my writing and in my conversations with other women.

Those paralyzed with fear at one point know well how gut-wrenching making the decision to leave that environment can be. For me, it was much more than an escape from the physical threat, reasoning my ex lashed out physically against me only an occasionally, accompanying his tirades with verbal degradation. As wives and mothers, It can involve our concern with breaking up a family nest (no matter how dysfunctional). It can be the thought of admitting to close friends and family what has gone on within the walls of our seemingly lovely homes, out of earshot and shielded from sight. And it can be cloaked in the idea that staying made us stronger wives and mothers, not weaker ones. While we may have tried to convince our spouses to get help if they intended to learn how to stop hurting those they supposedly loved. paradoxically enough, advice like that to batterers from the victims of the abuse can be received with explosive denial. And in the end, many men see no need to be ‘fixed’ by their wives.

How we were conditioned (or condition ourselves) to accept our fates . . .

Some of us brought up in church-going households were no doubt taught to pray for those we love every chance we got. “God will change his heart,” my sainted little mother used to reassure me when instructing me in my wifely duties.  Even if religion were not at play, however, many Boomers like myself were raised by a generation of women who saw their roles in life as supreme caretakers whose job it was to endure not only the rigors and joys of motherhood but also to cater to our husbands’ needs no matter what the cost. My generation may indeed be the first to break free of the hard and fast roles modeled for us, as domestic violence incidents are being reported in greater numbers than ever before after having been an undercurrent in many households for generations.

Another reason many women stay is that there is simply no exit. “The door is open but she cannot leave,” says Ochberg. “She has no resources of her own. Her children need her. She is terrified of the police. Social workers are people who can declare you an unfit mother. The perpetrator has threatened to kill her if she leaves or if she tells and she knows no safe haven from him. There is no federal witness protection program for domestic assault victims. Her fear is real, the threat is real, and the pathway to freedom cannot be found.”

“For some the shame is crushing,” he goes on. “To heal in private, behind dark glasses, behind closed blinds is far better than to be seen by others. Physical pain is more bearable than shame. The shame is deeper than embarrassment. It is mortification, humiliation, dehumanization. Shame depends on the eyes of others. Avoid the eyes, avoid the shame. Stay home. Endure.”

Standing on the outside . . .

If you’ve never been a victim of spousal abuse, Ochberg poignantly illustrates a way to imagine it.  Try to recall a time of intimidation by a larger person, perhaps in childhood . . . “when you dared not fight, when you felt small and hurt and humiliated,” he suggests.  To offer help to victims of abuse, he asks, “Join hands with the victims and the survivors. Feel the partnership, the parity, the universality of being human and being hurt — because in this field, to deny one’s vulnerability to victimization is to pass from person to authority, to appear and to become separate. We are all colleagues when the issue is coping with human cruelty.”

Ochberg explains the many reasons a battered wife might love her spouse and stay the course, but most of the issues therapists deal with in couples’ counseling have to do with childhood  ‘attachment’ issues. Ochberg, a therapist himself, warns against generalizations when professional counseling plays a role, especially when women who are currently being battered are more in need of physical protection, advocacy, financial resources, and a reliable support system. For this purpose there are shelters, 24-hour hotlines and family law attorneys who work day in and day out to help people who are caught in the cycles of abuse.

While therapy can help heal wounds and enable women to learn how they landed in their abusive circumstances,  “We must do more than treat the wounded,” urges Ochberg. “Spouse abuse is a long-standing, entrenched problem. Fortunately, there are experienced, effective survivors committed to changing this cruel aspect of human history. We who treat and teach can do no better than to join hands with them.”

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Confidence bred by practice, practice, practice

If you want to become a good writer, I have been told repeatedly, you must write every day whether the spirit moves you or not.  Once you have begun to make as much a habit of writing as you do brushing your teeth each day, a type of ‘muscle memory’ kicks in, breeding confidence, as if you are playing a song on the piano you memorized as a child and can still remember as an adult.

Nowhere has this exercise become more evident to me, however, than with singing.  I have been singing in choirs since my teens, opting for more and more challenging venues in adulthood in order to stretch my knowledge of music and improve the quality of choral tenor God gave me.

It wasn’t until recently, when joining a local chamber group, that I realized how much value I now place on practice.

We began our journey together in early February, with our choral director explaining to us how meticulously she searched for music that would be appropriate for such a small, intimate group of singers.  We listened with curiosity as she played her selections for us on the piano, displaying broad smiles at some of the music we heard while reacting with politeness at others.

And then the practices began. Six women (none of us professional musicians) from their 20s to their 60s gathered weekly, sometimes twice weekly and on a few occasions, three times in one week in order to learn only nine musical scores.  The practices lasted anywhere from three to fours hours each time, oftentimes leaving us frustrated, exhausted, and with a solid skepticism that we could ever be able to perform this music for the public.

I clearly remember a particular afternoon of practice after which it seemed everyone went home feeling defeated, thinking that our ability to find our notes, blend, enunciate, use the proper open vocal tones, commit the music to memory, sing some of the music a cappella (with no accompaniment) and finally FEEL the meaning of music we were preparing to perform would simply never happen all at once.

We are only a week away from our two performances as this newsletter goes to cyber-print.  And not only are we ready to perform, but we are also confident, excited and even playful with ‘our’ music.  As we perfect our presentation over the next week, we will be able to look back at the grunts and groans, the evenings we spent singing to the four walls of our offices or bedrooms as we practiced privately, out of sight and sound from family members, and how intensely we might have disliked the music we were tasked to sing.

Until, with practice, we learned to love it.

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Singing to each other

No matter how hard I try, I can’t blot out the childhood memory of sitting in a row of other girls against the gymnasium wall, being among the last chosen for a kickball team. Perhaps my discomfort with the words ‘team player’ began way back then.

Corporate jobs found me dissatisfied with whatever tasks I was assigned. The result?  I constantly looked for ways to break out of my confines by doing something different – something distinguishable – so that no matter what ‘team’ I was supposed to have been a part of, I made myself different from the others.

As notable as these tendencies may sound, however, people like me can end up berating themselves for years, wondering why their thresholds for the prescribed, supposedly ‘normal’ activities in life fail to satisfy us.

I have come to discover that I can play on one team, however. It’s the kind of team that raises its voices in song.   My fascination with choral singing began in elementary school, when singing was a daily activity in class.  Most of the songs we sang from our songbooks were in unison, but a few were ‘rounds’ like ‘Hey Ho, Nobody Home’ or ‘Row,Row,Row Your Boat’ in which the same melody begun on different beats came into harmony as it repeatedly tried to catch up with itself.  I was fascinated and loved to hear the other ‘parts’ of the class singing different notes that complimented my own.

Soon I found myself searching out the harmony parts in popular songs, always opting for the alto voice.  Choral singing became a godsend to me, at last making me feel like a player on an important team. Throughout the years, I have belonged to small and large choirs, some trained and others merely made up of people who had little or no training but loved to sing.

If you have ever been a part of a rigorously-trained choral group, however, you would agree that choirs are more than just a collection of voices that can read music, sing on tune or warble out their vibratos—more than a variety of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass voices.  Good ones are truly teams, looking not only to the conductor to lead them but also to one another to make the music work.

Of all the choral groups of which I have become a part, none has taught me the beauty of the team concept than the little six-voice women’s chamber group I which I am now participating.

Only six voices, you may ask?  Believe it or not, being one of only six singers is the biggest vocal challenge I have ever faced, apart from an occasional solo, when I’ve tried hard to picture the audience in its underwear.

Catherine, our choral director, is a stickler for proper musicality, pronunciation, tone, posture, and even attitude. After our vocal warm-ups, she dives with gusto into each piece of music we are to perform like an orchestra conductor, making us repeat each musical phrase. Then she follows up with explanations that paint mental pictures of what she wants from us.

For vocal quality, she pretends to pull a string from the top of her head in order to make us emit sound not from our throats or our noses, but tones reverberating to the tops of our heads.  For pronunciation, she exaggerates operatic lilts, so that our American hard vowel sounds and lazy consonants are moderated, made sweeter and easier on the ear.

But her most remarkable feat of all in a tiny group like this is teaching us to blend our voices – to actually create single chords out of six unique voices at once. To do this, she has us face one another, three in each line from across the room.  “Sing to the people across from you,” she says.  “Realize that when you sing your notes, they aren’t meant to eclipse the others. They are meant to compliment them. So listen to one another other as you sing.”

As I’ve said, singing in harmony is fun.  But even more challenging, especially for a tiny choral group, is to blend when singing notes in unison.  Why?  Because God granted us all different voices, each with a different vocal color attached to them.

For more blending instruction, Catherine orders us to put our music down and hold hands,. We look at one another in bewilderment.  “If you are holding hands, you can’t help but want to match one another’s tones,” she explains.

We obey. And like children on the playground ready to walk in a circle, we grab hands.  She plays the lead-in music to the piece, the first page of which is unison singing, with no harmony required from us whatsoever.  And as we begin singing, we feel the voices magically strive to match one another in tone, in pronunciation and in volume.

As the piece ends, we look at one another in awe and surprise at our small musical feat. And our director smiles and says, “Can you hear and feel the difference?”

Ah, if only life were like singing!  If people could just listen to one another, the way we learned to in this tiny choir, think of how many of the world’s ills would be lessened or even eliminated . . .

And so, after more than five decades of life, I have suddenly discovered the beauty of becoming a team player.  No need to stand out. No need to be different — just the sublime feeling of blending with five other voices to make one coherent and mellifluous sound.

The lessons, of course, are endless.

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At last — an owner’s manual to midlife love and romance

Of all the topics I cover in my columns, few evoke more positive reactions from readers than those about midlife love and romance.  It could be because  unattached Boomers in their 40s and 50s are at an exciting crossroads.

Why a crossroads?  Unless people in midlife are settled into long-term marriages, they generally fall into three categories:  (1) those who married and divorced and their kids are grown or nearly grown, (2) those who never took the plunge, either because they never wanted to or because they would rather go to their graves unmarried than be with the wrong person, and (3) those who have lost their significant others or spouses.

The U.S. Census Bureau cites that the rate of people in the second group (never-marrieds) are now finding love at unprecendented levels, probably due to the pool of available people surfacing in the other two groups and the advent of online dating.

So how do people in our age group stack the odds in their favor where love and romance is concerned?  Some of the stories I’ve heard about online dating experiences are enough to make my eyelashes curl without the aid of a torture device.  Sure, it’s a jungle out there.  But as women, there are ways of meeting people and setting yourself up for success that might produce better results than posting profiles that start out with, “I like long walks in the sunset and adore my cat.”

I am finding that there is a need for a book to help catapult the single, middle-aged gal into realizing that just because she is no proberbial Jennifer Aniston doesn’t mean she can’t be a real catch in middle age.  It’s all in the attitude and not far behind it, the presentation. Thus, the reason for writing my upcoming book, The Smart Women’s Guide to Romance in Midlife.

With the text still in its rough draft stages, I am looking for stories to use as illustrations in the book. If you or someone you know has experienced finding the love of your life, and the subjects of the story are between the ages of 45 and 65 (or close),  I would love to hear from you. You don’t have to be a writer to tell your story — telephone interviews can be set up. First names only will be used, but the stories must be true. You can help others by telling these inspiring stories!! In exchange for your help, I will give you three copies of the book, along with my profuse and eternal appreciation.

In my classically irreverent style, I will deal with a host of topics women want to hear about, from first impressions (bad hair days to how not to dress for a first date), how talking incessantly about your last boyfriend or husband is boh-ring (and what it says about you), what important questions to ask a man phrased so that he doesn’t feel as if you are the grand inquisitor, and some telltale signs that the guy just could be a keeper. I will also go into being the best you can be before setting your sites on finding the best person, the mindset you bring with you, dressing for the body you have instead of the one you want, how to write an online profile that is honest, engaging and interesting, the obstacles you throw in your way that may keep you from going forward, what NOT to talk about on the first few dates, and how to spot guys that may SAY they want to hook up for the long-term, but give out warning signs that indicate otherwise.

Stories that are used will illustrate points in each section, hopefully giving gals the boost they need to go for the gusto and perhaps learn a little bit about themselves along the way.

This is an exciting adventure for me and hopefully for the ladies who read my upcoming book. Locally, I am holding seminars using my book as the theme. Included in these seminars are makeup, fitness and wardrobe experts giving advice tailored to women in our age group, so there is never a dull moment.

So, Lady Boomers unite!  There is so much wisdom among us out there for the single gals to learn from, and from what I know, women are the finest networkers ever, offering support and sisterhood at every turn.

Send your questions and stories to me at dena@communic8or.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

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