The Elders and the Youngsters

I just saw an animation that brought tears to my eyes. It was the song Father and Son by Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Yusuf sings the father’s part and the younger version of himself, Cat Stevens, sings the son version, taken from a recording of himself from decades ago, obviously.

In the song, the father is trying to urge the son not to go off and do something impulsive that will potentially alter his entire life. (At the time he wrote it, he was imagining a boy who wanted to run off and join the Russian Revolution, but really any scenario will do.) The father says, basically, stop and think. Take it slow. You still have a lot to learn. Be calm. Think of the consequences. “For you will still be here tomorrow but your dreams may not.”

The son, on the other hand, says that he’s been ordered to listen his whole life, but he doesn’t feel like he’s been listened to. He says he knows himself, and that it’s time to make a change. His part is all about the frustration of not being heard and not being taken seriously, and the desire to make his own way.

The reason this animation struck me to the core is that I think, for the first time, it really hit me that I’m not young anymore. That’s a really hard pill to swallow. It took me long enough. I’m 55. (And I know the older readers will say that 55 isn’t that old. I get that. Everything is relative.)

I think everything is getting more poignant with me over time, because we are all on the cusp of radical, terrifying changes, and no one can predict what’s going to happen next. It feels as if the sand is shifting beneath our collective feet, and that’s unsettling at the best of times. It feels like things that used to be just slightly risky are now becoming a matter of life and death. I’m profoundly scared.

It’s really stressful, in particular, to watch the younger people in my life right now. (And by younger, in this case, I mean 40 and below.) So many of them are making crazy, impulsive decisions and not thinking about the long term impact. They are speculating based on a world that no longer exists. They’re risking their lives. They’re settling for relationships that aren’t the best for them. They’re tying themselves down to parts of the country that aren’t politically and/or economically and/or environmentally and/or socially feasible for the people that they are or will become.

I’m frustrated because I see so much potential in these people, and I know they are capable of so much more. I have to resign myself to the fact that their choices aren’t my business, really. I just see them making many mistakes that I have made, and I want to save them the agony that I know they’ll be going through. But in life, there are no shortcuts.

Add another layer onto the anxiety cake by realizing that I’ve had someone die quite expectedly on me in recent years. Poof! Gone. Just like that.

That changes you. It forever colors the way you look at the world. And it makes you realize that no one can fully understand your point of view until they’ve had that sort of experience themselves. People think they can imagine what it’s like. They haven’t a clue.

Life is so precious. It’s so fragile. It’s like a soap bubble. It can all be gone in a pop. Everyone knows this, but those of us who’ve seen that moment of pop are not allowed the luxury of forgetting it. And it truly is a luxury.

Yes, everyone has to make their own mistakes, and also have their own triumphs. But there are so many people that I’d like to shake (and hug) right now. And I can’t.

At the same time, to add complexity to the situation, I am really proud of some of the things the younger people are doing, attempting to make lemonade out of the lemons they’ve been handed. I’m impressed with their innovation and their ability to think outside the box and come up with something different. Even though they’re making a lot of mistakes, they’re also making progress. I just have to remember that the world will keep revolving and evolving, with or without me.

But I can’t say this enough: Life is a gift. It should never be squandered. It shouldn’t be risked. It shouldn’t be taken for granted. Especially now, in the midst of a pandemic with a heaping helping of political unrest.

Good God, am I becoming conservative? Please, no. Anything but that.

I think I’m just valuing things much more than I once did. It’s all so fleeting and final. It’s all so slippery and hard to grasp. Odds are extremely good that I won’t live until I’m 110, and I really don’t want to, if I’m honest. But that means I’m on the downhill slope. And as hard as I’d like to fight it, the slide is inevitable.

But, having climbed up the other side, I would very much like to show those who come behind me that there are easier trails. I want that with my whole heart. At the same time, I understand that blazing your own trail is the whole point. But until you get to the other side, you don’t quite realize that the hill is made up entirely of the consequences that are occurring because of your own actions and choices.

I carry with me a wealth of life experience, as does everyone on my side of the hill. And that experience includes both success and failure. But when you’re young you don’t see that as valuable. You’re too busy making the climb for yourself. It’s a waste and a shame to not learn from others, but everyone has their own hill to climb, and it’s time for me to accept that it’s high time to let go and focus on my next phase in life.

“Hey! You there! Watch out! That’s the exact spot where I tripped and broke my leg! Can’t you see that if you fall, it hurts me, too?”

Oh, never mind. You’ll figure it out.

It’s just all so damned bittersweet…

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Sleeping Nostalgia

My niece recently posted a picture of her son, sound asleep in the car, after a hard day in 1st grade. Ah, the memories. I miss being able to sleep anytime, anywhere, regardless of the circumstances.

I miss being completely indifferent to sound or light or motion or surroundings. I miss sleeping so deeply that I’d wake up in my room without any memory of having been picked up and carried there. I really miss being tucked in.

I miss drooling on someone’s shoulder. No. I take that back. I don’t miss that. What I miss is being so easily forgiven for doing something that disgusting. Try pulling that off at age 54 sometime.

I miss the concept that naps are mandatory, rather than a guilty pleasure. I miss taking sleep so for granted that I could pitch a fit rather than do it, secure in the knowledge that I’d get there eventually. I miss not being kept awake by my own thoughts and concerns.

Most of all, I miss that level of deep, unwavering trust. I have fond memories of being so certain that if I took a train to dream land, someone would be there to watch over my corporeal being until I returned.

Enjoy it while you can, kiddo.

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Write Your Own Life Story

It’s not as though young people are beating a path to my door, asking me for advice. In fact, I don’t really know any young people. We move in entirely different circles. But given my rich inner landscape, I have a tendency to carry on conversations in my mind that I’ve never really had. This is one of them.

I have this fantasy that 30 years hence, some university asks me to speak at their graduation. Who knows why. But graduation speeches are the perfect forum to share what you’ve learned about life. So here’s what I’d say in this speech of a lifetime.

I stand here near the end of my life, looking at all of you, who are at the beginning of yours, and I am very excited for you. I suspect you are feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities for your future. There are so many paths you can take. How do you choose? Terrifying abundance. What a gift!

Embrace that feeling. Lean into it. And allow yourself the first-world luxury of feeling this abundance for the rest of your life. One of the worst mistakes you can make is letting yourself feel trapped. You always have choices. You may not choose them out of a sense of obligation, a fear of failure, or the comfort of the well-worn path you find yourself on, but those choices are still there, waiting for you. Therein lies your freedom.

Never forget that it is entirely up to you to write your own life story. No one else can do it for you. Every single person on this planet will take a different journey. That’s more than 7 billion unique journeys going on right this second. Isn’t that amazing? So make your journey your very own.

At least once a day, stop what you’re doing and look around you. Really, really look. You’ll be amazed at what you see.

Don’t let your family dictate your career, don’t stay married only for the sake of the children, don’t remain in a job that you hate because people are counting on your paycheck. If you do, you will have regrets. Regrets are your brain’s way of telling you that you just didn’t listen to it.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Just make sure that the mistakes you make are all yours. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life, and so will you. Most of mine have been because I didn’t follow my gut, I worried about what others thought, and I allowed myself to be talked into things that didn’t feel right. But in the end, my mistakes were just another part of the journey, and they often taught me much and sent me down paths I’d have never discovered otherwise. It’s all good. It’s life.

So live your life. Yours. Make it unique. Make it a work of art. And give others the space to create their own masterpieces.

The only other piece of advice I have, and this is very important: take a picture of your butt now. Someday you’re going to miss it.

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On Peaking Early

I always kind of feel sorry for super successful young athletes and actors. It’s wonderful when someone prospers in life, but when it happens at an early age, before one has the social and emotional skills to deal with all the complications that come with it, that high achievement can and does often lead to disaster.

When you become a millionaire at 16, it’s a safe bet that the sharks will be circling. And if you don’t have competent and morally apt advisors, at that age you are probably not thinking about wise investments for your future. When you are young you think you’ll always have what you have at that moment. (If only.)

Also, think of the pressure this puts on the future you. How do you top the amazing victories of your youth? What must it be like to know, deep down, that it’s all downhill from here? Granted, you can peak more than once in life, but the odds were long even the first time.

Nah, I’ll take my youthful mediocrity any day. At least that allowed me to have hope for the future.

Oksana Baiul, 1994, age 16.  Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT
Oksana Baiul, 1994, age 16. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When you are young, people ask you that question all the time. Unfortunately that gives you the impression that someday you will actually know the answer. Poppycock. Most of us never do. That’s the great secret that no one tells you.

Maybe that’s best, because how can you face the world if you realize that you’ll never reach your goal because you haven’t a clue what that goal is? I envy those who find a calling and successfully pursue it. But they are the exceptions.

As a child, my stock response to that question was always, “I want to be a teacher, because then I can yell at all the kids.” That always got a laugh. I like making people laugh. I never really wanted to be a teacher. I don’t even like children. Good thing I had the sense to never have any.

While it’s good to make plans and work toward something, the fact is that most of us kind of stumble into our lives by accident. The question I like to ask adults is, “Did you ever think that this is what you would be when you grew up?” I’ve never had anyone answer that in the affirmative. Not even once.

So perhaps the road to happiness isn’t pursuing your dreams but rather learning to find joy in the present moment. Don’t focus on the destination, but rather revel in the journey. That way your dreams will come true every second of every day.

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[Image credit: iwantcovers.com]

This is Who I Am

My back is turned to you as I sit on the beach, the mountain cove curling to the north and south of me, as if to sweep me up in an embrace. I’m gazing down at my tanned feet and my painted toe nails encrusted with wet sand. My red dress is buffeted by the warm breeze and my thick black braid is a reassuring weight against my spine. I’m happy, young, thin, self-confident, content. I’m even vegetarian.

Unfortunately, this is not the person who gazes back at me when I look in the mirror. In fact, not one aspect of that description fits me, from the braid to the tan and painted toes. Looking back at me is someone who always comes as a bit of a shock. I don’t look like me. I  never have.

It’s hard to reconcile this dichotomy, this contradiction, this, let’s face it, crashing disappointment. And I’ve felt this way my entire life. My corporeal being cannot compete with me. I never age. I wear red. I feel right.

I feel awkward about this dichotomy, but I really don’t know why. It’s not as if people are aware of it. It’s a rare person who takes the time to see who you really are. People generally make snap judgments based on outward appearances. The older I get, the more invisible I seem to become to those around me. Actually that’s a comfort, because it makes it easier for me to be who I really am.

As long as I don’t look in the mirror.

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[Image Credit: elizabethhubbellstudio.com]

On Coming Out in Public

On Valentine’s Day, actress Ellen Page came out in front of a large group of people at the Time to Thrive conference in Las Vegas. You can hear her moving and heartfelt speech by going here if you get my blog by e-mail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hlCEIUATzg  but I’ll also attach the video below.

Since her speech, there has, of course, been a lot of critical backlash on the web. People are chiming in that being gay is a sin, and that horrible things should happen to Ellen and LGBT people in general. People are claiming that her speech was just a cheap way for her to get publicity. They are saying that there was no need to stir things up in this fashion.

What a steaming load of crap.

If you take the time to watch it, you can tell that coming out like this was a big deal to her. Her voice was shaking throughout the speech. But she did it for many reasons. Not only was she tired of lying by omission, but she knows she’s a role model, and she knows there are many LGBT youth out there who desperately need her to be one.

Suicide and depression rates among LGBT youth are a great deal higher than in the rest of the population. They are also much more likely to be bullied, harassed, discriminated against, and basically made to feel “less than.”

While I long for a time when someone saying “I’m gay” will cause as little an impression as saying “I have green eyes”, unfortunately now is not that time.

As long as we live in a world where people can be tied to barbed wire fences and beaten to death, we need people like Ellen Page to make speeches.

As long as there are countries where you can actually be imprisoned for being who you are, we need people like Ellen Page to make speeches.

As long as people can be attacked in the street for holding hands, and as long as there’s even one person out there who thinks that if you’re gay you must therefore be a pedophile, we need people like Ellen Page to make speeches.

As long as there are people out there who have to hide in closets of isolation, depression and pain because society will reject them otherwise, we need people like Ellen Page to make speeches.

There are dozens of public figures whom we are all pretty sure are gay, but they haven’t come out. This frustrates me, because they could be doing so much good in this world. Yes, they have a right to their privacy, but they are needed, and I call upon them to do the right thing.

A lesbian friend told me that when she came out to her fundamentalist Christian parents, her mother held her arms behind her back while her father beat her bloody, and then they locked her in a room for two weeks so she could “come to her senses.” She most certainly did. She hasn’t seen her parents since. But she went through years of depression afterwards on her way to becoming the proud lesbian she is today. She sure could have used this speech back then. And hopefully kids who are experiencing this same sort of alienation now will benefit from it as much as she would have.

So on behalf of dozens of friends as well as my favorite nephew, thank you, Ellen Page, for speaking out.

Youth Protest

Throughout the world, regardless of race, creed, or culture, it always seems to be the youth, the students, who come out and protest when change needs to occur. They are the ones who march on Selma, who stand in front of tanks in Tiananmen Square, who rise up in Tahrir Square.

Oh yes, we adults are there, too, but for sheer numbers, strength, energy and presence, you can’t beat the youth of the world. And it’s ironic, because every generation seems to belittle that same group. We often say they have no purpose, no ambition, no drive. They’re lazy and unproductive, have no opinions and make nothing of themselves.

I say just give them a good cause and see what happens to that laziness.

Is it because they are younger, stronger and healthier that they are willing to sleep in the open to prove their points? Is it because they have the time? Do they have less to lose? It is certainly much easier to walk away from a job to join a picket line when you don’t have a mortgage, a car payment, and children to feed.

Or is it what I fear deep down: that the older you get, the more apt you are to be covered in an ever-thickening blanket of cynicism? I can only speak for myself, but I know that when I was younger, I was much more idealistic. I was much more apt to believe that change could actually occur. I really did think that my voice, when added to others, could be heard and acted upon.

Oh, I still speak out. I still sign petitions, write blogs and letters and newspaper articles, express my opinion, and I will march, even if only for a day. But the fact is, I’m tired. I’m tired, I’m disillusioned, and on my darkest days I’m bitter. I guess I’m just not as young as I used to be.

So I want to thank the youth of the world. Keep up the good work. It’s important.

Raise Hell

(Unfortunately, more and more, I find myself carrying on.)

Calling on the Youth of the World

I look at the state of the world these days and I think that there’s quite a bit out there for people, especially young people, to be angry about. The economy is horrible. The environment is even worse. Politicians are increasingly corrupt and I think there’s a lot of reason to lose hope. The future looks pretty bleak. Is there any wonder why violence is increasing and people are becoming more radicalized?

But there’s good news. You don’t have to sit back and let the disaster that my generation has visited upon you simply wash over you like a tidal wave. You can make a difference. Rather than resort to violence, despair or radicalization, you can make another choice.

If you are in a group, whether it be a church youth group or a club or organization of any kind, suggest that you do the two things that fly in the face of all this negativity: educate yourself, and then educate others.

How can you do this? That’s the beauty of it. Your movement can take many forms. Perhaps you should start by reaching out to another youth group that is so completely different from yours (or so you may think at first) that you can’t imagine socializing with them under normal circumstances. If yours is a Christian group, reach out to an Islamic group or a Jewish group. If you’re a dance troupe, reach out to the disabled. You get the idea. Offer to do things with the other group to get to know them. Socialize with them. Attend events together. Do team building exercises. As you get to know each other, you’ll soon discover that life isn’t a matter of “us” versus “them”. We’re all in this together.

Once you’ve become a cohesive team, take what you’ve learned and direct it outward. Speak at schools. Perform at festivals. Talk to the media. Tell them what you used to believe and then what you’ve come to realize. No group of people is uniformly evil or bad. We can work together for positive change. It’s going to be your planet long after we fools who are messing everything up are dead and buried. Create this world in your image, not in ours.

For a better world, explode stereotypes rather than pressure cookers. The future is your marathon.

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(Photo credit: http://www.wilderdom.com)

Remembering the Youth Conservation Corps

When I was 16 years old, I was lucky enough to participate in a program that not only allowed me to earn much needed money for the summer, but also taught me skills that I’ve used throughout my life. It was called the Youth Conservation Corps, and it was one of those rare moments when the government really got something right. YCC provided young people with opportunity, hope, gainful employment, and both work and life experience. It also provided work for college students who acted as crew leaders, and it provided much needed improvements to the nation’s infrastructure, much like the Civilian Conservation Corps did. Talk about a win/win/win situation!

I did my YCC tour at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. I paved roads, I chopped trees, I built a picnic shelter, I roofed a barn, I reinforced a swimming hole with sandbags. I became tan and lean and capable. I had my first experience with dorm life. I learned how to face adversity and challenge and come out on top when all seemed against me. Most of all, I had experiences I would never have had otherwise.

My crew leader taught me much, and is still a dear friend. And I still have my steel toed boots from that summer, even though they no longer fit (Actually, they didn’t even fit then, which would probably be my biggest complaint). I look at them as a point of pride. I also look at them with a bit of sadness, because Reagan pulled the plug on this program, and therefore many generations of youth in this nation have been deprived of this valuable life experience. Fortunately, several states have chosen to continue the program, as has the National Park Service. It’s just not on as grand a scale as it once was.

For all the kids out there who are like I was and don’t yet realize their potential, and are between 15 and 18 years of age, I strongly encourage you to check out this program with the National Park Service, or find out if your state has one. It changed my life. I promise it will do wonders for yours.

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