Certainty Cuts off Growth

The poet Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass  “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast; I contain multitudes.”
I always thought this line was an open ended invitation to growth, a path that recognizes new ways of thinking about and doing things to incorporate learning. Whitman’s line runs along in my mind with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s from his essay Self-Reliance “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
So I’m impressed when someone says “I used to think this way, but the more I learn, the more I reallize there are many ways to look at something…and I’ve changed my mind about my original position.”
Some people can’t do that. They are stuck with an original position, often formed to protect a life’s narrative in which others are to blame for their shortcomings or ills. Parents get caught in this trap, as do spouses, bosses, children or anyone who is snared in another’s web of certainty.
When we start with ” I know…” instead of ” I believe…”, we shut outself off from new input. Someone who knows needs no more information. I believe people who ‘know’ have a difficult time maintaining friendships, love relationships and an ability to deal with a universe where change is the only constant.
I believe knowing you’re right means you’re stuck.

Great Grandma Did it Her Way

When Loretta moved from assisted living to nursing care at age 92, she knew the space around her bed would be smaller. She had to choose which framed photos to take with her.  She selected a group photo of her three children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren taken a few years ago at her 90th birthday party.

On the wall in front of her bed, her family placed Loretta’s university diplomas, her law degrees and a certificate designating her qualification to argue cases at the Supreme Court. So much of Loretta’s identity related to those accomplishments. She had been in the vanguard of women who had a career and raised a family before the two generations that followed her considered it commonplace.

While Loretta lived in the assisted living area of the home, she could still move around, meet the other people , eat in the dining room and participate in social activities. Now, she had trouble swallowing and needed to be fed with a tube. She had never been a whiner. Her mind was sharp: she knew she had to do this if she wanted to stay alive. Her first great granddaughter was taking the bar exam; Loretta wanted to live to congratulate her. Loretta stared at the diplomas on the wall in front of her and savored her memories.

Loretta is leaving a legacy for her family which no amount of money could have provided. In life, and now moving towards death, she is doing it her way. Frank Sinatra would have loved her!


Death is Out of the Closet

It used to be a simple choice – burial or cremation. Pine box or steel fortress. Ashes saved for lockets and urns or scattered to the wind or ocean. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could hire a plane and pilot to scatter them over the city of your choice.

The good news is that death is no longer a four letter word. It’s out of the closet and getting a lot of attention. Dying has even become part of the cornucopia of consumer decisions. We now have lots of choices for where we want to spend eternity.

Like to scuba or snorkel and want to be part of the surf and turf forever? A company will create an artifical memorial reef combining your ashes with environmentally safe cement and place the reef in your favorite diving spot.

Concerned about metal contamination of the soil? You can have a biodegradable coffin. Interested in downsizing? Costco sells coffins that do double duty as storage or seating while you’re still here. There’s even a company planning to bring ashes to the moon as soon as space shuttling becomes cost effective.

All this talk and choice about going green as we go out is good. Talking about death has been a taboo subject for too long.A good way to desensitize a subject that we fear and try not to think about is by treating it as part of the ordinary.  Placing it squarely in the marketplace of choices demystifies the subject and helps to allay some of the anxiety.

After all, if we’re going to be somewhere for eternity, we might as well have it exactly the way we want it.






Christmas in Space

As I write this, two astronauts of the six man crew on the International Space Station are outside the safety of their spacecraft, replacing a malfunctioning pump that’s part of the station’s cooling system. This is the real thing, in real time, not a Hollywood movie. The space station is traveling 17,227 miles per hour, completing over 15 orbits around the earth daily.

While they work to repair their craft at 250 miles above the earth, down below, millions of shoppers are orbiting parking lots at malls, racing against the clock to have gifts ready by Christmas. The pressure and frenzy that surrounds the holiday is a marketing marvel, perpetuated generation after generation, by retailers whose annual profits depend on those minions believing that gift wrapped stuff, delivered on time, is an act of love.

No matter what their spiritual beliefs were before they launched into space, the astronauts experience a transformation upon seeing Earth from that vantage point. They use words like awe, wonder, vastness, spirit, humility, infinity to describe their recognition that we are a tiny, fragile blue dot in a vast sea of black.

I can’t imagine anyone who relates to their experience feeling pressure to beat the Christmas deadline.

What the astronauts saw: http://vimeo.com/55073825. Share their awe and share it with your children. What an awesome gift that would be.

Sharing the Passage into Dying

Whether you think tweeting from a hospital bed is an invasion of privacy or not, this journey of a son holding his mother’s hand during her final journey is heartfelt and moving.

NPR’s Scott Simon Tweets From His Mother’s Hospital Bedside

ByDavid Wessel

Will O’Leary
NPR’s Scott Simon

Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, is tweeting from the hospital bedside of his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman Gilband, as she approaches death — and has drawn 1.2 million followers to a moving, occasionally funny and very 21st century chronicle of one of life’s universal experiences, the death of a parent.

One Tweet posted on his feed reads “I am getting a life’s lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?”

I just realized: she once had to let me go into the big wide world. Now I have to let her go the same way.

— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 28, 2013

ICU seems to be staffed by good, smart young docs who think they know everything, and wise RN’s who really do.
— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 28, 2013

When my mother woke briefly I sang her My Best Girl. She replied w/ You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Broadway in the ICU.

— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 28, 2013

If we only truly realized how little time we have..,
— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 28, 2013

Mother asks, “Will this go on forever?” She means pain, dread. “No.” She says, “But we’ll go on forever. You & me.” Yes.

— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 28, 2013

Tried to buy coffee for family w/ a mother in ICU too. Barista overheard, refused my card. “Your money’s no good here.”
— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 27, 2013

What is the idea behind deep fried onion rings in a hospital cafeteria?

— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 26, 2013

I am getting a life’s lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?

— Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 25, 2013


Married to an Optimist

If you’re married to an optimistic man who is also a procrastinator, beware. He’ll postpone taking action about things he doesn’t like to think about, often until it’s too late. I think of my friend Carol and her husband Ted.

The storm wasn’t supposed to hit until evening. “I’ll only be gone a few hours,” her husband had said. “ I have to meet this client before the weekend. We’ll review the papers when I come back.”

The storm hit early. The bridge held; her husband’s heart didn’t. When she got to the hospital, he was hooked up to life support. His eyes were closed; he couldn’t talk. His sons consulted with the doctor. They ignored her.  Even after ten years, the boys still resented their father’s remarriage after their mother died.

Feeling invisible and helpless, his wife sobbed. If her husband survived, he would need heart surgery and extensive rehabilitation. His outdated estate plan, with provisions tailored for his first marriage, appointed his sons as holding durable powers of attorney.  She would have no say in the matter. She knew the sons would not include her in their decisions. If her husband died, his previous will, still in effect, would benefit the adult sons from his first marriage.

A few weeks before his heart attack, they had consulted an estate attorney to bring the plan up to date and reflect their ten years of marriage. She had been so relieved when her husband finally acknowledged how frightened she was not to have financial protection in case something happened to him.

He was the optimist in the family, always expecting the best, looking for the silver lining around every dark cloud. She loved that about him; it balanced her own tendency to brood and worry about things she couldn’t control.

You have a choice – Create an estate plan, make sure you’ve signed the durable powers of attorney and know that you’ve done what you need to do about things you can’t control.

The other choice? Hope for the best.





The Problem with Entitlement

The daughter of a friend of mine told her children that they could go to riding camp this summer. Because of unexpected financial setbacks, she can’t afford to send them.

Instead of explaining to her children about her true economic situation,  the daughter approached my friend and suggested she provide the money for her grandchildren to go to camp instead of taking her own long planned cruise. When my friend said she wouldn’t cancel her own plans, her daughter accused her of not caring about the welfare of her grandchildren.

This is an example of how entitlement obscures reality. It is a one-way mindset, a pattern of focusing on what we think we are owed in relationship without awareness of our own obligations. Children raised with entitlement, rather than learning a sense of personal responsibility, believe the world revolves around them.

Children and grandchildren need to learn the meaning of the words “We can’t afford it.” When you can’t afford, on your own, to do something, you explain to your children  that they can’t have something until you can afford it, or until they earn the money to do it. Children can handle disappointment if you’re straight with them.

How else can you prepare children for the real world? Why should a grandparent give up a planned trip to send her grandchildren to horseback riding camp? Why would a daughter expect her to do so and accuse her of not caring when she refuses to give up her own trip?

“Money” Conversation Not About Money

Psychiatrists have long equated the reluctance to write a will, prepare an advance directive or estate plan, with fear of dying.

Who wants to think about planning for death? We have to confront our mortality. No more illusions that it won’t happen to us. We have to face giving up our possessions and power. We have to deal with uncomfortable subjects like aging, illness, death, inheritance and a host of other things we’ve managed to avoid thinking about.

Having the ‘money conversation’ is rarely ‘just about money’. It’s also about family dynamics, mistakes, regrets, guilt, and a host of other issues. Children feel morbid, greedy and intrusive asking their parents questions about money and death. The parents don’t want to start conversations about ‘touchy’ subjects either. The result – people procrastinate, hoping for the best. Hope is not a strategy. It’s a procrastination tool and most often, it doesn’t work.

Click the buy the book button:


Check out the guide  for opening the conversations that matter between parents and children.Follow the check lists for what parents need to put in place so children aren’t burdened with a financial and legal mess after parents die.

It’s truly an act of love for parents to get their affairs in order.







The Gift of the Ordinary

The poetry of life often lives in the daily rituals, the ordinary activities we often do mindlessly without appreciating how lucky we are to be doing them. Not me, not ever again.

One of my favorite ordinary things is making coffee in the morning. Grinding and inhaling the aroma of the beans, filling the coffee maker with water, emptying the ground beans into the filter, and pushing the brew button. How much more ordinary can you get?

Ever since my husband died suddenly in an accident years ago, I’ve been aware that ordinary events can turn extraordinary in a second. The Boston bombings, 9/11, a plane or car crash, a fatal heart attack, a drive by shooting or the diagnosis of a terminal illness. These sudden events, woven into the tapestry of daily life, are reminders that the ordinary is a gift.

One of my favorite poets celebrates the ordinary. Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia at the  age of forty-seven, understood the importance of celebrating the dailiness of life.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.


Protecting Seniors from Financial Fraud

Be wary of any financial professional with letters after his or her name, especially those who designate themselves as a ‘senior advisor’.

According to a new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Older Americans, Americans over 60 make up 15 percent of the population, but are estimated to account for 30 percent of investment fraud victims. Older people may have money they have saved for retirement, and cognitive decline may make them more vulnerable. They are also more likely to rely on recommendations from someone with a “senior advisor” credential.

That’s the problem. There are currently more than 50 “senior certification” designations in use. Who can tell the difference between  A.R.A., an A.R.P.C., a C.S.A. or a C.R.F.A.?

The Bureau estimates that “tens of thousands” of professionals, including financial advisers, brokers and insurance agents, use some sort of senior credential. That means older adults will continue to be vulnerable to bad advice and even outright fraud.

Initials tell you nothing about a financial advisors training .  Some credentials require a specific level of coursework, but others don’t require any.You can find out about the background of thousands of registered investment advisors at  http://www.sec.gov/answers/iapd.htm.