Sunday, November 25, 2018

When You're Thankful for Thanksgiving

Mara here:

It's been a while since we did a post about things we're grateful for. Thanksgiving weekend seemed like the perfect time to reflect on this.

For me, one of the things I've been happy about recently is that things that I've always said wouldn't bother me—have actually not bothered me. My family was always pretty lenient about holidays and didn't make big demands on us about how we celebrated days like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And I always said I felt the same way. I always said, I wouldn't mind if Malia wanted to spend holidays apart from us.

But up to now, I had never had to walk my talk. She was young and spent all her holidays with us. But this year she has a boyfriend. And her boyfriend has invited her to Thanksgiving dinner with his family. And when she asked if she could spend the evening away from us, we didn't hestitate to tell her she was free to do what she wanted.

And I'm even able to be happy for her. I am not upset that she wants to be with him. And I'm happy for Brad and me because we truly don't mind if she goes. We are still going to make a turkey dinner and celebrate the day. And the fact that it's just going to be Brad and me doesn't make the day seem less enjoyable. We would love for her to be with us, but we're happy she's going to be happy.

We don't need her to be with us on Thanksgiving to know she loves us.

I'm thankful that it's a day we're all looking forward to, that nobody feels conflicted about.

Another thing I'm thankful for right now is that there are people who have more courage than I have. The fires that have devastated both Northern and Southern California have been so scary. When we first moved to Southern California, it seemed like every three or four years there'd be a bad fire. But more recently, it feels as if it's been every year. This year has been the worst.

We live by one of the major freeways in the San Fernando Valley. The Woolsey Fire was about 15 miles west from us on the 101. And for two weeks, every day, almost every hour, we heard the sirens of police caravans and fire trucks speeding down the freeway.

They were heading toward the fire.

In this time right now, when there seem to be crazy things happening almost every week—mass shootings, fires, violent protests—the people who keep us safe have been truly heroic. I witness most of the shocking events in my home through my television. It's easy to forget that the people we are watching on the screens are real people. It easy to forget the familiar flashing lights of the sirens are accompanied by people who are choosing to risk their lives every day.

I am so thankful for them.

Lastly, in my own little universe, in the midst of all the craziness happening for us right now, I also feel thankful for Thanksgiving. Even though we don't have a lot of family traditions, I'm happy there's a day where we focus on being thankful. Yes, we focus on eating as well. But unlike many other holidays we celebrate in the U.S., it's not a day that involves giving or getting things. It's just a day for people to spend together. And for my daughter and my husband, it's a week they don't have school or work, so they just get to recharge their batteries.

I'm thankful for my family. I'm thankful for the people who keep us safe. And I am thankful for Thanksgiving because it reminds me to take some time to give thanks.

And we are always very thankful for our readers. We hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

When Being Far Apart Brings You Closer Together

Mara here:

"Distance makes the heart grow fonder."

Long distance relationships are not for the faint of heart. From what I've experienced, they either tear couples apart or they bring them together. And I don't think there's any way to know how you'll react until you're confronted with it.

My daughter has found herself in her first serious relationship as a young adult, and she's across the country from her boyfriend. They hadn't planned to continue on as a couple once he left for college. They were both convinced it could never last once they had a few thousand miles between them.

But when the day came, they simply didn't want to end the relationship. They spent hours on the phone, texting constantly and using all the powers modern technology has to offer to stay in contact.

And about three weeks into the separation, they decided to remain a couple. They decided to dive into the scary world of long distance relationship.

The thing is, it's really not that scary if you are in the right relationship. 

I suppose there are some people who just aren't suited to being physically separated from their partner. I do know people who simply engage with whomever is in front of them and the rest of the world drops from their radar.

However, I think most people, if they are willing to be active participants in a relationship, can keep the connection—even when they aren't physically together.

But it does take work. You really have to put effort into making sure you stay involved in the other person's life. 

Brad and I started as a couple living about a hundred miles apart. He had graduated from college and moved back to his home town in the eastern edge of the bay area of California. I was living and going to school in Davis. And, unlike Malia and her boyfriend, we did not have cell phones. We did have email, but it was clunky and not easy to access.

So we spoke some on the phone. And we wrote letters.

But the connection was something that had to be actively nurtured. It would have been easy to push the relationship to the side. But it was something we both decided was the priority, so we made sure to put the time and effort into making it work. And because of that, it wasn't something we ever took for granted. The time we got to spend together was cherished and appreciated. And it taught us that being a couple didn't mean you couldn't also be independent.

I spent my week on my own, going to classes and doing my activities. The weekends were time I could spend with Brad.

A year later, when we were finally able to live together, the bond between us was strong. We were used to putting time into making sure we communicated. And I think it's one of the reasons our relationship has been so strong all these years. 

Twenty years later, when we had to be apart for the majority of three years while I traveled with Malia for her acting career, the relationship between Brad and me never wavered. I never even questioned whether or not it would be an issue. 

So even though it is a cliché, I think there is truth to the idea that distance can make the heart grow fonder. It doesn't actually make you more fond of the person, but it structures the relationship in a way that you actively engage in the connection and appreciate the person more when you are able to be together. My experience from the long distant part of our relationship made communicating with Brad something I do proactively, not something I just assume will happen.

As for Malia and her boyfriend, they're young and the relationship is very new. But I can already see that they have put a lot of effort into making the relationship move forward. They have learned how to communicate and express themselves despite the time difference and distance.

So even though it's likely she won't end up long term with her current boyfriend, hopefully the experience has taught her some important lessons in maintaining a relationship. Distance isn't a barrier, it just makes it a little harder. It takes more effort. But in the end, being apart can bring you closer together.

Here are a few questions I asked my mom on this subject:

I don't think you and dad have ever been separated for long periods of time. Do you think your relationship would suffer from an extended physical separation?

We've been separated for a month here and there during our time together. One year, Dad was teaching in the University of Wisconsin in Madison during the summer. And then for several years, he went on a month-long retreat every February. Our relationship was already so strong that the concern that it would suffer was never a consideration in deciding whether he should go or not. I guess it's the same as you said about you and Brad when you were separated due to your traveling with Malia for her acting.

Yes, I think the distance has actually been good for our relationship. I'm not someone who is great at communicating in person, so having writing being our main form of communication is nice for me. What do you think?

I think this illustrates that everyone and every relationship is different. I realized as I read your piece how being apart from Brad strengthened your relationship because you communicate so well by writing. That was so fortunate for you! 

It's interesting to think about how different it would be if you'd met now. You'd probably FaceTime instead of writing. For you, writing might have been better. I'm not a great FaceTime person. It's harder for me than being with someone in person. With FaceTime, it feels as if someone always has to be talking, whereas, in person, pauses in conversation feel natural. 

But I know several long distant relationships that FaceTime has helped with. Our former housemate FaceTimed with her boyfriend in Sydney, Australia all the time, and it brought them closer. Sometimes she'd cook in the kitchen as they'd FaceTime and they'd chat as she cooked. In fact, she now lives in Sydney with him and now they FaceTime with your Dad and me once a month! 

Technology has made distance much less significant when it comes to relationships and friendships. Because your illness has made physical contact difficult, can you imagine trying to maintain friendships the same way 30 years ago?

I can't imagine it. In fact, the new technology is so important to housebound people that I write about it in my books, especially the new edition of How to Be Sick. When I think of people who were housebound not that many decades ago, my heart goes out to them because they were so isolated from others. It's still hard for me to be stuck with a computer for communication but, without it allowing me to email and text, I wouldn't be as close to you or as close to several friends, so I'm grateful for it.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Stranger Danger

Mara here:

Our daughter Malia has always been a cautious person.  She was never a kid who would wander off in a store. When we'd go out, I could watch her and see that she was always keeping tabs on us. She liked to know where we were and she'd always be within a certain distance of us. 

This was nice because we didn't actively have to worry about her getting kidnapped. She wasn't just going to walk off with a stranger. So when she came home from her first day of preschool, it's not a surprise that the first lesson she latched onto was "stranger danger." In fact, she came home from that first week with two phrases that have been repeated often and with zeal: "stranger danger" and "you're not allowed to touch my body." 

The second one was a fun one to deal with at the doctor's office.  

The first one was helpful. It's good for kids to understand that there are adults in the world who won't be nice to them. And Malia was ready and eager to believe that she was in danger.

One time when she was around 2 or 3, I took her shopping at Home Depot. I put her in the big cart and wheeled her around. If you've ever been in Home Depot, you know the carts are a little unwieldy and sometimes you can't get them down the aisles. So I parked her at the end of the aisle and walked about 5 feet away to look at something.

As soon as I glanced away from her (she was in my eyeline the whole time) she started screaming "I'm not safe! I'm not safe!" Apparently this was another helpful thing they taught her at preschool. 

Needless to say, people from all over the store started rushing toward us.

Not to spoil the end of the story, but she was fine. She was perfectly safe.

As she grew up, her wariness about the world didn't abate. She's regularly worried people might snatch her off the street. She would still run into the house if she was in the front yard and people drove by in their cars. It fortunately hasn't kept her from doing everyday things. But when she's somewhere by herself, she often calls me to tell me she's uncomfortable and nervous.

And while I have never really felt like she wasn't safe (she's usually places I'm familiar with), I have never told her she shouldn't call. I, of course, would rather she err on the side of caution.  

When she's upset because she feels like she's unsafe, I try to be a calming influence. When Malia was a toddler, and she was learning how to walk, I remember reading that when kids fall, they will look to you to see if you're worried about them. If you react in a way that scares them, they will immediately assume there's something wrong. 

However, if you act like it's normal, then they assume that they're ok, and if they're not injured they will pick themselves up and move on.

So stranger danger has always been a bit of tricky balance. I don't want Malia to walk around afraid of other people. But it is important to be cautious, especially as a young woman in a big city. So I always tell her it's important to be careful, but that even with all the scary stuff that happens, generally people are not bad.  

So. Now, here we are; she's 17 years old. She's still a nervous person. She still calls me to tell me there are weird people on the street she's walking down. Or she'll call and ask me when we'll be home because she can hear people on the street outside our house.  One recent evening, we were sitting at dinner talking about the open house that had taken place that day because we are selling our house. 

And Malia said, "Oh, some guy came in after the realtors left. So I showed him around. I even gave him one of the papers."

My heart skipped a beat.

The feeling that I'd had from 16 years ago, when I watched her splat on the cement as she tried to walk on her chubby baby feet, rushed back to me.

I was hit with a wave of fear. I felt like we had a near miss with disaster.

Should I get upset because she let this stranger in the house? Or should I act like it was fine and she handled it in the adult manner that she felt she had.

I will admit what I wanted to do was get upset and tell her she should never let someone she doesn't know into the house. And of all the completely irrational times she has asked me to call 911, perhaps this was the time to have that desire.

But I didn't. I took a breath and said, "Oh thanks."

We talked a little more and I said hesitantly, "You know in the future you really shouldn't just let people into the house you don't know."

And she said, "It wasn't a big deal mom. It was fine."

And it was fine.

It wasn't as if someone had just knocked randomly. The open house was technically supposed to still be happening, but we had to end it early. And again, I reminded myself that it's very unusual for people to be malicious. Most people are good people. Most strangers have no danger.

And she's not a little kid anymore. Stranger danger is one of those things that's good to be aware of. But it's not a way to live. And I'm glad that she has managed to figure that out.

I asked my mom a couple of questions about this topic:

Growing up in a small town, I don't remember "stranger danger" being a big thing. Do you remember trying to explain to us about being cautious with strangers?

No, I don't think we talked to you about it, but I could be wrong.
But now, even though Davis is still a relatively small town, were you growing up here today, I'd definitely talk to you about it. I've been thinking about why that's the case and, to be honest, I think it's mostly because of fear spread by the media. It may also be true that Davis is less safe today, but I don't see evidence of it on our local paper.

I personally am not particularly wary of strangers. Are you naturally nervous around people you're not familiar with? Are there any Buddhist teachings that might help relieve people of the anxiety of being nervous around strangers?

No, I'm not naturally nervous around strangers. Perhaps it's because I was never taught to be by my parents. As for Buddhist teachings, it helps to practice equanimity, which is defined as a mind that is balanced and at ease no matter what the circumstances. The reason this helps is that it helps stop us from being irrational. We can stop and look at how our mind is reacting and ask if it's reasonable to be afraid in this situation.

I think that you reached that "balance" of equanimity in your response to what Malia did. On the one hand, your general rule is "don't let strangers in the house" (a good rule that I follow in my own house). On the other hand, the open house was originally scheduled to go later and so the likelihood was extremely high that that's why he came to the door. Malia no doubt took a "read" off his face and demeanor and decided, given the circumstances with the open house, it was fine to show him around. 

And then later, by not objecting to what Malia did, you didn't feed a fear that she already harbors strongly.

Well done, Mara!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Reflecting on the Updated and Revised Edition of "How to be Sick"

Mara here:

So my mom's book has been out for a few weeks now. After almost a year of witnessing her work on the new edition of her first book, How to Be Sick, I thought it would be interesting to hear how she's feeling now that it's been released.

From the feedback you've received, how are people liking the new version of How to Be Sick?

I've been so happy with the feedback I've had so far! One thing I particularly love is that a lot of people are getting the audiobook. That makes me happy because I love how Deon Vozov reads it. She reads it the way I would if I had the skill. I've never met Deon, but your Dad and she had dinner together the last time he was in L.A. She's now read my books four times ("How to Be Sick" twice!), and I feel close to her even though we've never met.

I know the book was a lot of work for you. Are you relieved that it's done?

Definitely. I'm always relieved when a book is done and this second edition really feels like a new book to me even though I didn't change everything in it. I still had to go through the process of back-and-forth editing with my editor at Wisdom, and then I did a final proofing (including "proof listening" to the audiobook), and also I also checked that the index was okay and asked for some changes to it. I realize that a lot of authors leave this proofing to their publishers, but you know me. I'm hands on. And a lot of authors never even look at the index, but I always find errors or a few entries that I'd like to change.

So I'm glad I did this second edition...but I'm also glad it's finished.

Are you surprised by people's reactions?

There's one thing in particular that's surprised me. Five people have written to me saying that they've been telling themselves for years that they need to re-read the original version of the book, but never got to it. Now, they tell me, they'll buy the new edition and finally read the book again. I love that! (And I know too well that feeling of wanting to re-read a favorite book but just not doing it.)

This had never occurred to me as a reason that people might get the new edition. 

Is there anything with hindsight that you wish you'd added to the revised version that you didn't add?

Not surprisingly, the way my mind works, the answer is "yes." I already I have several ideas. Thankfully, nothing major, but just a phrase here and there or an example I might have included as a way to use a new practice. My guess is that all authors feel that way as soon as their books are published!

Thanks for asking me these question, Mara.