Earth Day 2019: What is the “State of the Air” Where You Breathe?

Although we may rarely think about the “state of the air” where we live, what we breathe in and out everyday does have a gigantic impact on our long-term health. And as the annual “State of the Air Report” comes out from the American Lung Association this Wednesday, let’s focus on your oxygen for just a few minutes.

Unfortunately, this is when most of us tune out. We say to ourselves, “I don’t smoke so I’ll be fine.” WRONG. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. COPD makes breathing difficult for the 16 million Americans who have this disease. Millions more people suffer from COPD, but have not been diagnosed and are not being treated. Go check your state for deaths from COPD:

There are times when I’m certain those around me hear my severe coughing and think, “Geez, why doesn’t she quit smoking?” I have never smoked cigarettes and yet now, at age 64, COPD dominates my life. And incidentally, 20% of Americans with COPD never smoked. Sometimes when others ask me if I smoked, I am tempted to respond with, “No, but I did breathe…”

I have had reoccurring bouts of bronchitis for decades, don’t know why except that I have lived in some very polluted cities like Seattle, Salt Lake City and Boulder, not to mention Bangkok, Taipei and various places in China. I can no longer tolerate much air pollution at all. I just cough, permanently .

Go check out your county for air pollution levels!

When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters!


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A trip up north to the land of cities

For my birthday this year, I decided to go up to Fort Collins and Denver to spend time with family and friends. I had a wonderful time feeling special! But I am always shocked by the culture shock of returning to city life. The first thing I always notice is how bad the air begins to smell just north of Pueblo, because the air does not “smell” down here. That is also where the highway driving suddenly switches from a casual, comfortable feel to what I call “Get the hell out of my way!” driving. Luckily we missed any major traffic jams up north, but the only way I can explain it, from the perspective of one who never sits at stop lights or feels truly threatened by two-way traffic, is the roads are INTENSE up there! The cars are so close together on the roads and it feels scary.

The other culture shock for me is that up there we see so many young people! We don’t have a lot of them down here. The average age in our county, down by the New Mexico border, is around 54. Everything feels a lot more rushed and modern up there. There are of course hundreds of restaurants and shopping options compared to our county, where you can count the total restaurants on ten fingers.

Yes, we moved from one of the riches counties in Colorado to one of the poorest five years ago. My Dad (age 90) asked me how I was feeling now about that choice while we were up there and I had to think. As he pointed out, I had never lived in a place like this before. I have been cursed my whole life with the ability to see both sides of everything, and that can be truly exhausting. However, after a few days up north, I have to say I love not smelling the air or hearing traffic all the time. Our solar foothills home was the perfect temperature when we got here with no heat running the whole time we were gone. It felt wonderful to just walk in the door!

Sitting in my bed this morning and gazing out at the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, that’s a tough act to follow. The silence down here is perfection for me now.

A Review of “Where the Crawdads Sing” from a Naturalist and Psychotherapist’s Perspective

I just finished reading this novel yesterday, and I would name it the best nature-focused novel I have ever read, this from a reviewer who idealized Jane Goodall as a teenager and wanted to grow up to study animal behavior just like her, in nature’s most beautiful and wild places. The author, Delia Owens, shows such sensitivity and intelligence in describing the natural setting as well as her main character, Kya.

where the crawdads sing

Kya was left to raise herself in the swamp country of South Carolina, to fill her days with survival skills as well as precise observations of the natural world around her. She loves her animal friends like the gulls. They are her only companions. We slowly see how Kya is uniquely qualified for this vocation as a natural loner who lives to be encapsulated in pure nature. As she grows and spends time with only a few other people, she learns to read and then she learns more and more about animal behavior.

Chimpanzee 2012 filmOne aspect of Kya’s life I found easy to relate to, was how she observed or read about animal behavior to inform her about human behavior. This comes through clearly as she describes the behavior of the lawyers during her trial. Ever since I saw the short nature documentary film Chimpanzee in 2012, released by Disneynature, I see most human behavior through that lens. Most human behavior can be understood by observing chimps in the wild, where they can truly be who they are. Males are naturally more aggressive, females protective of their young. Try watching a football game sometime through this lens and you will see that we are not so different as we think!

After decades of city living, I moved to a home in rural Colorado five years ago, where I find myself quite close to nature. Here I so enjoy the experience of observing changes in myself and how I see and feel the world around me. The best part is the complete silence here and with less reason for fear and daily vigilance, the natural world has unfolded before me, showing that we were made to live close to nature, not close together in cities. I have learned that city life can literally drive us mad. The perceived threats are everywhere in cities so we naturally keep our guard up at all times, not a healthy or natural way to exist.

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Now that I live out in the country, I feel like I have finally begun to live in harmony with each sunrise and sunset. Now I notice the birds’ songs as spring arrives, free from tension and anxiety, a feeling I have never felt before. That often unconscious and yet ever present stress felt in cities is simply gone.

Inspiration for uncertain older writers (like me!)

Where Crawdads Sing

Have you heard yet the story of Delia Owens? I happened across her story on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday and felt new encouragement. She’s 70 and a loner from way back. Her new and first novel is Where the Crawdads Sing, although she has published non-fiction before (like me). This novel is tough to categorize; it’s a love story, a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and an ode to the outdoors – all in one. It took her the better part of a decade to write, inspiration coming whenever it came.

I love the way she waits for wisdom even in her sleep:

 “I sleep at night with a little pad of paper in my bed with a flashlight and a pen, and I wake up in the middle of the night and write something down,” she said. “Something that I think is brilliant! And then when I wake up in the morning I’ll look at it and half the time I can’t read what I wrote.” A thousand such moments became little scraps of gold, like this one:

“Sand keeps secrets much better than mud.” That one made it into her book.

I found her whole story so inspirational. I also constantly find ideas or quotes popping into my head, especially in the shower, the source of my greatest inspiration. I must have a million snippets of paper like that, and never use these in my books, and the freedom of writing fiction also excites me.

We’ll see if any of these ideas go anywhere, but in the meantime, I love the fantasy!

Do you have four really good friends?

Laura standing at build site before slab 2014

The topic of the lead story on today’s CBS Sunday Morning, “Going It Alone”, is one of my favorite life-long lines of research: loneliness. There we meet a man who, at age 27, chose to not speak to a single human being for 17 years! He eventually concluded, at age 72, that if you have four really good friends, who understand and appreciate your authentic self, you are truly lucky.

According to a recent Cigna study, loneliness is at epidemic levels in our country.

Their 2018 survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults revealed some alarming findings:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
  • One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
  • Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
  • One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
  • Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2) – even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.
  • Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.

How much do YOU need quality connections?

This all brings back my own gradual transition in my 30s and 40s from a true loner, who didn’t trust anyone completely, to a happily married woman in my 60s. After a traumatic betrayal in my 20s I also gave up on people. I did allow a few acquaintances in after counseling in my early 30s, but trust was not my best quality.

My first marriage was a lonely tangle of struggle, criticism and disempowerment. I gradually realized that I would probably be spending the rest of my life alone unless something changed. What changed was a divorce in 2001 and then job/career loss in 2004. Living on severance with only two good friends I saw maybe once a month plus my dogs, I faced loneliness most of the time, providing ample opportunity to consider my options for my future.

At age 49 I decided loneliness was my worst problem and I did not want to live the rest of my life if it was going to be this lonely indefinitely.

Mike snuggling with Rasta 2013

My solution? Since I could not find another job in libraries, I started my own offline dating service where I interviewed local midlifers who were also looking for love after widowhood or divorce. In that way I studied our group problem and decided it wasn’t just me. Then when I found many more cool single women looking for partners, I joined Match.com to attract more cool men for my women. Yep, the first man I met this way was my future husband and partner in crime, Mike. We have been joyfully married fourteen years now.

How to Believe in Love Again! blog sizeMike supported me in a way I have never experienced before, with unconditional loyalty, affection and appreciation. He offered full support to my dream of becoming a professional writer at age 50, back in 2005. This I did with enthusiasm, first as a freelance writer, then as a blogger and finally as an author. In fact, his support led to my second book: How To Believe In Love Again: Opening to Forgiveness, Trust, and Your Own Inner Wisdom, the story of how I transitioned from a sad, miserable loner to a trusting, loving person who admits to a need for support from others. 

Since then I am rarely lonely, but moving to this rural area in 2014 has been a challenge in that department. I so rarely meet someone here I can truly relate to, partially because of differences in upbringing and education levels. In the past I made friends at work and in my exercise classes. I still miss a few good friends I made at the Senior Center in Fort Collins.

I’m now retired so I have tried to make friends in my La Veta yoga class, which I attended for a few years, but to no avail. I have also tried a few other groups like writing groups, support groups, etc. No friendships have emerged. Quality connections are hard for me to find in this environment, but I will continue my efforts. Afterall, I just need one or two more friends to have “four really good friends!”

Asking for help. How do we learn to let in positive support and encouragement?

Sometimes finding support can be so simple, you wonder afterwards why you waited so long to seek it…

why so hard to ask for helpI started attending the Walsenburg Women’s Growing Circle a couple weeks ago. This is a warm and friendly sharing group with emotional support and some guided meditation. That then opened up a great new opportunity in Helen’s tough but wonderful yoga class at the Washington Underground. I find the women in this group and my new class so much more warm and welcoming than those I have spent the past few years with in a La Veta class. I find that I often made some of my best friends in exercise classes, and it looks like this class will be no exception. So I feel so much more optimistic about solving my two main problems here: a great environment for balance and strengthening exercises, and making new friends.

This brought up again a problem I have always had, asking for help from others. This issue is magnified five hundred percent in the new memoir: Educated. She also suffered from an extreme fear of asking for help, to the point of not even asking for medical assistance with a broken ankle. I would say I spent the first few years of counseling in my thirties working on my fear of asking for assistance from anyone.

So, you might ask, what’s the big deal about just asking. When we ask for help we make ourselves vulnerable. When I was a young woman, there was no feeling I hated more than feeling vulnerable. The times I had made myself vulnerable had been so painful and disappointing. I certainly wasn’t willing to trust enough to ask again. Just the act of going to a counselor for help took me until my early thirties, even though I liked the idea of it and desperately needed it. Note the paragraph or so in Educated: A Memoir, where Tara finally tells her story to a woman at the university counseling center:

“I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now, but there was something nourishing in setting aside that time each week, in the act of admitting that I needed something I could not provide for myself.”  — pg. 316

I see now how lucky I was in my early thirties to find the best therapist for me, one who I could finally trust and in that way learn how trust works in human relationships. Re-parenting therapy is powerful stuff if you find the right therapist and then take the necessary time and energy to experience it fully.

asking for helpAnd now I know I would have never been able to trust enough to fall in love again at age 49 if I hadn’t worked so hard at accepting my need for the healthy help of others, and allowing some vulnerability into my life back then. Going it alone is always an option. Just make certain you are doing it as an empowering choice, and not out of anger and future fear of betrayal.

My main complaint about rural living

I really do try to stay positive. I have even been occasionally accused of being pathologically optimistic. Yes, me! I know complaining isn’t particularly useful, but after four and half years of trying hard to find a few good friends here, I need to talk about this issue.

friends help friends pandasFirst of all, I am a master at spending time alone. I have a healthy appreciation of  solitude. I love to let my mind wander wherever it wishes without any outside distractions. I have kept a journal since junior high and lived alone most of my adult life. I am fundamentally a loner who has spent years learning how to welcome special relationships into my life. I now have an amazing partner. We connect very well, and I love talking to him about just about anything for hours. But I also need a few like-minded friends….

making friendsFriends who write and appreciate good writing and art. Friends to talk about films with or gardening or what birds they’ve been seeing at their feeders lately. Friends to share my hopes and fears with, to talk about philosophy or psychology or history with. Friends I respect and who respect me. Friends who understand the solemn bonds of friendship. Friends like I still have up north in Fort Collins.

I cannot find friends like that here, and I have really tried! So many here come and go with the seasons, others work all the time and don’t have time for friends. Many are older with serious health problems, and most apparently already have their friends and don’t want anymore. Yes, there seem to be as many excuses as people I have met.

Please don’t respond to this post with, “I haven’t had any problem making friends here.” If that is your experience good for you! I need friends who are there for more than small talk. I don’t just want to talk about my husband, or the weather or finding services here. I seek a higher level of discussion exemplified by this blog. I seek those who think about deeper issues like meaning, life, death, philosophy and psychology. Please let me know if you can relate to this plea. Perhaps we could be friends.