Five life lessons turning 60!

 

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I turn 60 tomorrow. How did that happen? My mother’s probably asking herself the same question up in Connecticut. I’d say just putting one foot in front of the other every day. But the occasion does give me pause to think about what I’ve learned so far.

(By the way, this picture was two years ago me shooting up before my meal. My friend P. to my right looks a little startled, but then I’m a teacher and this was a teachable moment.) 

It hasn’t all been easy. I was a shy and quiet kid. People would tease me by saying I was talking too much. Today I speak to all kinds of groups, small and large and love it. No one who knew me then would imagine me now. But my deepest desire always was to help others believe in themselves. Today I do it around diabetes which I could have never predicted.

I couldn’t ask to be in a better place on the eve of my sixtieth birthday. I am married to my true partner in life, in love and in work. My parents are still here. I have a treasure trove of dear friends, and acquaintances who bless me with their fellowship through diabetes. I love where I live, which was a lifelong riddle to solve. And I travel voraciously. To towns large and small across the States, as an A1C Champion, which I love and across the ocean. That’s what you get for marrying a European. How lucky he, and his frequent flier miles, fit right in with my wish list. And growing up a listener serves me well in the work I do today, as a health coach, writing on The Huffington Post, writing books and speaking at conferences and as a peer-mentor.

Turning fifty was a hard one. It was the first time I realized there was more time behind me than in front of me. But even though that’s even more the case now, I’m kinda tickled to be turning sixty. I think of all I’ve accomplished and where I’m so contentedly sitting in my life right now.

So tonight, looking back on six decades – true, I don’t remember the first several years, alright let’s be honest, the first decade – I realize maybe I’ve learned a few things worth passing on to my younger friends and colleagues.

5 Lessons I’ve Learned Along the Way

1. Don’t measure your success against anyone else’sIn my twenties I was jealous of how many people around me were clear about what they wanted to do, were on their path achieving so much. I felt I was floundering. Searching for what work I was meant to do, where, how. What cured me of that was when a friend I envied, got a tumor. Surprisingly, I nursed her through it. But I realized, you don’t know what’s on anyone’s road ahead, including your own, good and bad. Just be on your road.

2. Look for the silver lining. I got type 1 diabetes at 18. I’ve had it 41 and a half years. I was misdiagnosed initially as a type 2; after all only kids get type 1. The first decade I had it there were no meters to test my blood and we knew so little about food, etc. But having been there, I’m so grateful I’m here. And I see what I’ve gained from having diabetes – a commitment to my health. I’m convinced I wouldn’t eat as healthfully as I do, walk as I do or keep myself trim and fit if not for diabetes. And maybe I wouldn’t have fulfilled my need to find purposeful work. Most days I truly look at what I have, not what I don’t.

3. Be kind. If I do one thing passing this way in life I hope it’s that I’m kind. It’s selfish; I like making people feel seen, whether it’s my waiter or the girl who checks out my groceries at the supermarket. At my first job in public broadcasting a colleague taught me this lesson unknowingly. I would watch her make the guy who parked her car feel equally important to the President of the company. She talked to them both with the same regard. 

4. Savor the simple stuff. I think this is something that comes with age. When I’m cooking in the kitchen listening to Sade or Patti Austen, sipping a glass of wine, and my husband is working feet away in the living room (a tiny one bedroom city apartment) I am happy. These are the moments they tell you you will recall in the end. I believe they’re right.

5. Pat yourself on the back more. I think women especially are enormously critical of themselves. We’re not enough, we don’t measure up, if we fail, why did we even think we could do it in the first place? If we succeed, we got lucky. Fuggedaboutit! You are a gem, maybe a diamond in the rough, but a gem. Cherish daily accomplishments, and your efforts. Whoever made us think we were supposed to be perfect at everything?   

When I was 18 and diagnosed with diabetes, it was unreal. One pill a day and “don’t eat candy” kept it unreal for years. As it sunk in, I mourned the complications I would inevitably get and the 15 year shorter lifespan I was told I’d have. 

Hmmm, I haven’t got any complications, and I no longer expect my life to be any shorter than anyone else’s.  

When I was 54 years old my good friend, Deborah O’Hara, died from cancer. She was only 59, and my first good friend to die. Funny, she came from a small town in upstate New York but we met in Asia. She lived in Hong Kong and I lived in Tokyo and our work made our paths cross.  

We don’t know what’s on our path. But when my mother calls me tomorrow and says, “How can I have a 60 year old daughter?” we both know it all goes too fast. You’ll know this as you see more grey hairs. 

You may have to wait before these five lessons mean anything to you, I did. But, I just wanted to share. With that, I’m off to roast some cauliflower and broil the salmon. While listening to Josh Groban and sipping a nice bright white from Spain. 

What I learned from Alice Sommer Herz

 

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Last April at just about this time I was the dinner speaker at Diabetes Sisters’“Weekend for Women.” One hundred women with diabetes gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina for a weekend of bonding and learning. The weekend’s theme was ‘Celebrating Our Strengths’ and that was the theme of my talk.

I began with the life story of Alice Sommer Herz, the oldest living survivor, now 108 years old, of the Holocaust. You are probably wondering, as were the women gathered in front of me, why I would talk about a Holocaust survivor? This is why: Alice is a perfect example of using our strengths to get through troubling – for her harrowing – times, and thrive. 

Alice, her husband, Leopold, and their six year old son, Stephan were rounded up and sent to the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstaadt. Alice’s mother had been sent there three months earlier. Her mother would die in the camp. Her husband would die in an extermination camp and Alice and her son would two years later be freed. 

When Alice entered the camp she was already a budding concert pianist and she was ordered to play in Theresienstaadt’s orchestra. She knew she had a choice: refuse or resent the request or let music be her salvation and release her from the day to day suffering. Forty-four thousand people lived in the camp barracks that were built for three thousand. A piece of bread and bowl of broth was all they got to eat for the day. But Alice let go of anger, which could have destroyed her strength and spirit, and chose to play music with an open heart.

Alice survived, one might say thrived, under such austere, horrid conditions because she did not succumb to anger, resistance and hatred. Do you see a connection now with diabetes? She spent as much time as she could doing what she loved, playing music. She found a personal reason to stay as healthy as she could, which was to protect her son. And she remained hopeful for a better future. Throughout, Alice did not hate but maintained her optimism.

Reading Alice’s autobiography, A Garden of Eden in Hell, I found so many lessons for us living with diabetes:

1) Find a reason why it’s important to you to stay healthy

2) Grieve and move on, always looking forward

3) Rely on your strengths to get you through

4) Do more of what you love

5) Have a network of support

6) Be hopeful and expect things to get better

As Alice wrote in her book, “I have never learned to give up hope.” And neither should we.