Speak For Yourself

One of my many bad habits is spending too much time scrolling through the comment sections on controversial Facebook posts and internet news articles.  I know what I’m going to see will often disgust and anger me, but sometimes I do it anyway, in the vain hope that this time I will finally see some sensible remarks and reasonable arguments.  (I would love to say that this means I’m an optimist, but I think it really just means I’m the sort who tends to repeat her mistakes.)  Still, even bad experiences can be educational and I have learned a thing or two while wading through the muck and mire of on-line commentary.

First and foremost, lots of people simply can’t stand the idea that there are those who disagree with them, on anything, and the very idea of it sends them into a frenzy of self-righteous rage.  Which they then need to express, as often as possible, in case someone missed it the first few dozen times they vented in cyberspace.  The second thing I learned is more subtle, so it took me a while to spot it.  But eventually I noticed that people put way more time and energy discussing what they believe their “enemies” think and feel than they do in expressing their own opinions.

Phrases containing the word “they” dominate the threads, and are inevitably followed by all kinds of nasty statements.  “They” don’t care about the poor; “they” hate America; “they” have no sense of personal responsibility;  and so on and so on.  It doesn’t matter if the people commenting are conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, black or white, urban or rural, they all seem quite sure they know exactly what those “other” people are thinking, and they despise them for it.  Which isn’t exactly a recipe for world peace.

I know that we are living in scary times and that there is much going on around us that can make us feel angry and afraid, and that we all want our voices to be heard.  And we all do have the right to make our voices heard.  But I think that the trick is to stick to expressing our own beliefs rather than trying to put words in other people’s mouths and thoughts in other people’s heads.  Because unless we have asked someone who is different from us what he or she thinks, and then actually listened, really listened, to their answer, the fact is that we don’t have any idea.  I don’t know what your experience is, but whenever someone else tells exactly me what I believe, they are usually wrong.

I think the best thing we can do is voice our own concerns and express our own ideas in the hope that they will make a difference.  And I believe that instead of saying “They believe such and such,” it’s so much more effective to say “I believe in such and such,” because those words communicate rather than alienate.  Mostly, I believe that if we truly want to be a part of fixing this broken world, we need to learn to simply speak for ourselves.

Quitting Time

I’ve always been a stubborn person, in a negative sort of way.  I may have the annoying habit of trying to please other people and make sure they both like me and approve of me, but the very second someone tells me that I  can’t do something is also the very second that I become determined to do it, come hell or high water.

Last night, my husband and I decided to go out to dinner, and I suggested our favorite Italian restaurant.  My husband said he thought it would be too crowded, since when we were there last year on the Saturday before Valentine’s Day, it was packed.  (I even wrote a post about it: Valentine Love)  True to form, I then suggested calling and asking if they had room for two more.  We did, and the manager assured us that although they were busy, he would be able to “work us in.” So off we went.

When we arrived, every table was taken and lots of people were waiting to be seated.  Undeterred, we snagged two empty seats at the bar, ordered a glass of wine and settled in to wait.  As we waited, more and more people poured in, and all of them had a reservation.  Even worse, very few people were actually leaving.  We both knew the sensible thing to do would be give up and hit the nearest pizza parlor, but we didn’t.  “We’ll give it ten more minutes,” we kept telling each other, grimly clutching our empty wine glasses as the crowd of people waiting pressed even closer.  We had both been fighting colds all week, were tired and very hungry, but by golly we were going to get a table.  And over an hour later, we finally did.

DSC00181Sadly, my knack for stubbornly hanging on isn’t limited to dining out.  I spent years trying to get my children’s books published, which is actually the sort of persistence that most writers need.  But the problem was I spent those years submitting my work the exact same way:  sending off the full manuscript to one large publishing house at a time, then waiting weeks or even months before they sent it back and I mailed it off to another one.  My system obviously wasn’t working, but that didn’t mean I was willing to give it up.  Yet the only book I eventually published was sold through an entirely different method:  I heard a book packager was looking for fantasy novels for teens, so I sent them the required book proposal, and they asked me to write the manuscript.

We are so often taught that quitting is a bad thing, that it means giving up on our hopes and dreams, that it almost brands us as some kind of loser.  But I’m beginning to believe that there are times when quitting is actually the best option.  There are times when a relationship is no longer working out, when a job is no longer the right fit, or when we’re just plain going about something the wrong way and we need to stop.

And those are the times when quitting is actually a good thing, because it opens the door to new opportunities. When we walk away from friendships that are no longer healthy, we have time to make new friends who can actually enrich our lives.  Sometimes quitting means we can take new jobs that challenge us, try new ways to achieve our goals, and find new projects to support. And hopefully, even someone as stubborn as me can start figuring out when it’s time to quit.

It’s In The Blood

I have a long history of fainting at the sight of blood, which I ignore at my peril.  Once when I was in high school, the principal asked me and a couple of friends if we would be willing to spend part of the afternoon helping out at the local blood drive by typing up the registrations of potential donors.  I was so taken by the thought of skipping a few classes (legitimately!) that I agreed.  At first everything was fine, since they had us sitting by the door with our backs to where people were lying on cots, having blood drained out of them, and I could just ignore the whole thing and concentrate on getting the cards filled out properly.  But then an attendant walked by carrying a tray stacked with clear bags full of blood.  I took one look and immediately passed out face down on my typewriter.

My fear of blood, and if I’m honest, anything remotely resembling a medical procedure means that I’ve never been what you would call a model patient.  No medical professional has ever looked into his or her waiting room and said, “Oh good, Ann Coleman is here!”  Instead, it’s “Oh crap, Ann Coleman is here!  Maybe if we ignore her long enough, she’ll go away.”

So when I first found out that the bulging veins in my lower leg were a somewhat serious problem that had to be treated by shooting a laser up a vein in my upper thigh to sear it shut, I was, to put it mildly, not a happy camper.  I’m pretty sure I turned pale, because the nurse had me sit down and brought me a glass of water.  But I knew things were only going to get worse if I didn’t go ahead with the procedure, so I put on my big-girl panties and scheduled the appointment.  When the day finally came, I was nervous and tired (I didn’t sleep well the night before, obviously), but also looking forward to just getting it over with.

And amazingly, I did pretty well.  Even when it took them four tries to get the catheter (I think that’s what they called it) into my vein in order to pump in the numbing solution.  The doctor told me that my veins kept “spazzing out” when they got close, which doesn’t surprise me.  Clearly, my veins don’t like anyone messing with them any more than I do.  Then came the laser, which they told me was 300-degrees hot.  Do you know that expression, “I was so mad, my blood was boiling?”  Apparently, mine actually was, at least for a little while.

Now I know that there are tons of people in the world who have had major surgeries, major medical procedures, and numerous treatments that were both horribly invasive and severely painful, and what I went through last Friday is nothing compared to those.  Believe me, I know that.  But I also know what a total wimp I have always been about medical procedures and anything involving blood, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m feeling just a little bit proud of myself for having my vein fixed without the need for general anesthesia or copious amounts of alcohol and sedatives.

For me, this was a bit of a turning point.  It was proof that I can be strong enough to face down my fears when I need to do so.  It showed me that I am still growing and evolving, and that I’m not the same person who once fainted just from looking at a bag of blood.  It proved that I don’t have to be defined by all my old fears and all my old doubts, and that’s rather liberating.  I know I haven’t conquered all my fears, but believe me, this was a very good start.

Do Unto Others

As a general rule, I’m very suspicious of over-simplification.  I rarely see anything in stark black and white, preferring instead to examine the various shades of grey that exist in between two opposing sides.  I think that most people and most situations are not only rather complicated, but also usually evolving in new and different ways that defy simple classification.  That being said, the older I get, the more I realize that in an increasingly complicated and angry world, there is one very simple rule that almost always applies:  treat other people the way that you want them to treat you.  (Also known as “The Golden Rule.”)

The issues that we face in our lives, both on a personal and public level, can be unbelievably complex, and often seem overwhelming.  And I don’t believe the day is ever coming when good people will always agree on everything, no matter how sincere and well-intentioned they happen to be.  But I do believe that when we are deciding how to speak to or treat another person, we can just take a minute to ask ourselves, “if this situation were reversed, how would it make me feel?  Would I like it if someone spoke that way to me?  Would I like it if someone treated me that way?”

Would we be so quick to post that snarky political meme on social media if we took a second to consider how we feel when someone makes fun our our political views?  Or worse, makes it clear that they consider everyone who voted the way we did to be either evil, an idiot, or both?  Do we like it when someone makes sweeping generalizations about our religion (or lack thereof),  especially when the generalizations don’t match what we actually think or believe?

On a more personal level, do we like it when someone vents their anger on us?  Do we appreciate it when someone (oh, so helpfully) points out our every single mistake?  Do we learn anything when someone else constantly preaches their point of view, and never once asks what we think?  Or worse, assumes that they know exactly what we think, and why, and proceeds to tell us how wrong we are?  Is it helpful when someone trivializes our fears?

People are complex beings and the opportunities for misunderstanding, hurt, and anger are staggeringly abundant.  Our lives are complicated and sometimes our problems are overwhelming.  So it seems to me that the simplicity of “The Golden Rule” is a gift to us, and a guide that can help us navigate the storm.  We just need to try, as often as possible, to treat other people the way we would like to be treated ourselves.  It won’t solve all our problems, but I honestly believe it would go a long way toward calming the waters for everyone.

Wait and See

Why my daughter was one, my husband and I wanted to move to a house that would accommodate the second child we hoped to have.  Our first house was a small two-bedroom home, and the second bedroom was a little smaller than the average walk-in closest.  Our choices were limited due to our rather tiny budget, and after searching for several weeks, we were getting very discouraged.  So we were thrilled when our agent showed us a four-bedroom, two-bathroom home in a suburb that had good schools and was an easy commute to my husband’s job. And best of all:  it was in our budget, because it needed work and had sat on the market for a long time with no interest, so they had just reduced the price.  We immediately put in a very strong offer and confidently waited to hear the good news that we could begin packing.

glenway-houseI was so sure that the house would be ours that when our agent called to say the sellers had already accepted another offer, I actually cried, just a little.  I had been so happy that we had finally found the perfect house for our family, with plenty of room to grow into and loads of potential for a couple (like us) who were willing to do some rehab work. Losing that house was devastating, but all we could do was keep looking, and we eventually found another fixer-upper in the same neighborhood.  It was smaller (three-bedroom, one bath), but it was in our budget and although we weren’t particularly excited about it, we decided it would do.

The first few times I drove by the house we lost, I felt a little tinge of jealousy for the people who had been lucky enough to buy it.  I wanted that extra bedroom for my home office, and that extra bathroom sure would come in handy when we had house guests.  But eventually, I became a little more knowledgeable about real estate and realized that not buying getting that house I had wanted so desperately was actually the best thing that could have happened to our family.

Being young and naive, my husband and I had been so busy counting bedrooms and bathrooms that we didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the house sat on a busy street with no sidewalks, two blocks from active train tracks on the north and two blocks from a major highway on the south.  It also had a steep asphalt driveway which would have been impossible to navigate in icy weather, and was probably slippery even in rain.  The house we ended up with may have been smaller, but it sat on a quiet street where kids could safely ride bikes, had a flat driveway, and was within walking distance to a grade school.  Yes, we had to put time and money into it, but when the time came to sell that house, we were able to make a small profit from our efforts.  That wouldn’t have happened with the house we lost.

The point of this story is that I have learned, over these many years, that sometimes what we think is a bad thing actually turns out to be a good thing.  And conversely, what we think is a good thing can turn out to be bad.  So I try very hard these days not to get too excited when I believe something good has happened, at least not right away, until I see how things play out.  Even more importantly, I try not to be too despairing when things aren’t going quite the way I wanted.  Because I can’t predict the future any better than anyone else, and sometimes the best thing to do is simply wait and see.

Where I Belong

It’s taken me a long time to realize this, but I don’t do groups well.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m in a small group or a large one, sooner or later I know I’m going to get that familiar feeling of not quite fitting in, of hovering around the fringes of the group rather than being firmly planted in the center of it.  For a long time it sort of bothered me that I was always just slightly out of step with the people around me, but as the years have gone by, I can honestly say I’ve gotten used to it.

I remember when I young and thought that fitting into a group was about the most important thing in the world.  It was a popular custom at my grade school to “lock the gates” after choosing sides for a particular playground game, which involved standing in a circle, holdings hands and chanting “Lock the gates, lock the gates, nobody else can play!  If they do, we’ll take their shoes, and then we’ll run away!”  I know it sounds awful, but being a part of that circle actually gave me a feeling of security, even if I did feel sorry for the kids who tried to join in later and were turned away.

IMG_0402But somewhere along the line, I began to value my individuality over my need to belong.  I think it happened in stages, from not wanting to be limited to a particular clique in high school, to registering to vote as an Independent, to not joining a “play group” when my own kids were young.  (Don’t ask me why, but the concept of a play group just seemed too limiting.)  I love being around other people, and I care deeply for my friends and family, but I can’t tell you the last time I have sat among a group of people, any group, and really felt, “This is it.  This is where I belong, completely and absolutely.”  And that’s okay.

The connections I have learned to value aren’t the kind that come from being a long-term member of a particular group.  Instead, they are those moments when someone seems to speak directly to my heart, calming a fear or validating something I have long believed but been afraid to articulate.  They are the insights I get when someone shares one of their dreams or fears with me, alone or in a group, trusting that they will get nothing but help and understanding in return.  They are the moments when I feel such a strong connection to someone else that I can almost see it.  Those moments are brief, but they are real and profound.

There’s security in fully belonging to a group, no matter what our age, and there will always be people who want and need that sense of belonging.  I respect that, and sometimes even envy it, but deep down, I know it’s not for me.  I am, for whatever reason, just one of those people who feels the overwhelming need to “march to the beat of my own drummer,” even if that means I sometimes walk alone.  But that doesn’t mean I’m lonely, because believe me, I’m connected to others in all the ways that truly count.

A Blog’s Purpose

I’ve been struggling with my blog for the past few weeks.  I’ve been putting off writing posts, and when I finally did sit down to write something, I was struggling to clarify just exactly what it was that I wanted to say and then struggling some more to come up with just exactly the right words to say it.

At first, I put it down to the hectic schedule of Christmas, knowing that I was existing on too much rich food and drink, too little sleep, and a “to do” list that was growing longer by the day.  I figured that my tiny little brain just couldn’t keep up with it all, and that probably had something to do with it, but also I thought there was more going on that just holiday stress.  Then I began to worry that after two years of writing this blog, I was getting tired of it and ready to quit, but that didn’t feel quite right either.  I love writing, and at the moment, this blog is my only creative writing outlet.  And I knew I wasn’t really ready to quit writing.

And then I read the post  Finding My Purpose: Why I Blog  on my friend Jodi’s blog and  had what I believe is called an “ah ha!” moment.  I felt that Jodi had not only read my mind, but had also thoughtfully written a post that spelled things out for me, since I was having so much trouble figuring it out for myself.  (Friends, blogging or otherwise, can be very helpful that way, especially for those of us who can be a bit slow on the uptake.)

Like Jodi, I started my blog as a form of personal expression, and honestly, I only settled on the subject of middle age because I thought that was something about me that other people could easily relate to.  But once I got over the initial thrill that there were people out there who were actually willing to read my posts,  I found that it became very important to me to write posts that actually offered something to my readers.  More importantly, I wanted my blog to be positive.

I knew there is a lot in this world, and in each of our lives, that is scary and depressing, but I also knew that I didn’t want to dwell on that in my blog.  If people want bad news, they can simply turn on their TV or log onto the internet.  And we all have stuff in our past that isn’t pretty, and that can leave us angry and bitter.  But I can’t change the world, I can’t change the past, and I can’t truly fix anyone else’s life.  What I can do is exactly what Jodi describes: offer encouragement, remind people of the beauty that is still around us, share hopeful insights, and maybe give others a chance to laugh at, rather than rage against, the mundane challenges of our lives.  And I can do all that, in my own small way, through this blog.

I think in the back of my mind, I always wanted my blog to be a source of encouragement, entertainment and/or inspiration, but I just hadn’t found the courage to admit it until I read my friend’s post.  All I know is that now I see what the purpose of my blog has been all along, and I have a hunch that my struggles with writing it are over.

Reverse Progress

When I was young, I grew just a little bit more knowledgeable with each passing year.  Partly because I was going to school where it was someone’s job to teach me new things, but part of it was just that as I grew older, I also acquired more understanding of the world around me and how it worked.  Yet somewhere along the line, that process has reversed. Now with each passing year, I seem to be a little more out-of-touch with the modern world and a little less knowledgeable about almost everything.

I blame technology for a big part of this, since it is evolving much faster than I can possibly handle, and it is also invading nearly every aspect of my life.  Take, for example, the telephone.  I vividly remember when I first learned to use a telephone, and how I promptly called my grandmother to brag about it.  I think I was about four, and I know that the phone had a rotary dial.  My mastery of the telephone lasted for many years, through the advent of push-button phones, wireless phones and even the multi-line phone I had to answer at my first job.  Then along came the “smart phone.”  I know how to use less than a third of the apps on it, and it took me over a week to figure out how to disable the annoying chime it decided to emit each time I got a new email. Which means that when it comes to my telephone skills, I’ve actually lost ground.

moms-bunSadly, my understanding of the cultural and fashion trends around me is also slipping.  I came of age in the Seventies, which means that I have many cringe-worthy photos of me during my teenage years, and am reluctant to pass judgement on the fashion choices of today’s young people. Even so, I admit that I don’t get the reason for the popular “man bun.”  Maybe I spent too much time waiting for my mom to get her bun exactly right before our family could go anywhere (she wore her hair in a bun for years), but I don’t see why any young man would voluntarily go to the time and trouble to put his hair in a bun when a simple ponytail would do.  And I really don’t get why he would want to cover it up in a cute little knitted cap.

As an English major, I spent years learning the proper use of the English language and the complicated rules of grammar, and felt confident in my ability to fashion a sentence that was not only clear but grammatically correct.  And then along came the word-processing programs with built-in spell check (which I do like) and grammar check.  I can’t tell you how many times I’m happily writing when the dreaded green underline shows up, alerting me to a grammar mistake.  I move the words around, consult my grammar books, change the punctuation, grind my teeth, and swear profusely, but the green underline doesn’t go away.  After a while, I just ignore it and keep writing, but my confidence in my grammar skills is shaken, and I’m faced with yet another area where I’m back-sliding.

I have heard people say that the secret to successfully aging is to keep learning new things, and I believe that is true.  I just didn’t realize that the reason I needed to keep learning new things is that if I don’t, the time may well come when I don’t understand anything at all.

New Year’s Hope

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago, mostly due the the embarrassing speed with which I broke them.  I never lost the ten pounds I resolved to shed, probably because my resolution to hit the gym regularly and eat only healthy food never lasted more than two weeks.  I usually managed to be lose my temper or be overly critical of something by January 4th (at the latest), so there went my resolution to always keep a positive attitude.  And as for tackling my long list of things I was supposed to do but really, really, didn’t want to do, all I can say is, that didn’t happen either.  My New Year’s resolutions always ended up making me feel like a chubby, crabby failure with a serious procrastination problem.  So I stopped making them.

Still, there is always something about a new year that feels a bit hopeful and optimistic.  Maybe it’s the simple act of putting a brand new calendar up on my refrigerator, with all those blank squares not yet filled in with appointments and obligations.  Maybe it’s the fact that the days are finally beginning to get longer rather than shorter, even if we are in the early stages of winter.  It might even be knowing that the crazy holiday schedule of all those extra commitments, parties and family gatherings is drawing to a close.  Because as much as I enjoy them, I really don’t have the stamina too keep up that pace for very long. One way or another, a new year seems offer the possibility of a new start, and an opportunity for a slightly better way of life.

I guess that is why, despite my long tradition of breaking my New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of January always finds me thinking seriously about making some changes in my life.  I know that some things are never going to change, and that no matter how much I’d like to have a more cheerful disposition, I’m never going to be one of those people who lights up a room simply by walking into it.  And as for the extra ten pounds, they have taken up permanent residence on my hips and have no plans to move, ever.  Still, there are plenty of areas in my life where I would like to improve, and this time of year somehow gives me hope that those changes can actually happen.

I may be well into the second half of my life, but I still have certain hopes and dreams for my future, and I still believe that with a bit of effort on my part, at least some of those hopes and dreams can be realized.  And I’m beginning to realize that maybe the key to making New Year’s resolutions is to look at the big picture, and to recognize exactly what it is that I want to accomplish in the time I have left, and what steps I need to take to make that happen.  And then begin moving toward those goals, one resolution at a time.  Even baby steps move us forward, and eventually get us where we want to be.

January 1st may be just another date on the calendar, but I believe the promise of the New Year is real.  It’s the promise and hope of new possibilities, if only we are willing and brave enough to try for them.  And one way or another, I intend to honor that promise.

Christmas Gifts

When my husband and I first got married, buying Christmas presents for each other was easy.  We were young and strapped for cash, so we both had a long list of things that we really wanted and would be happy to find wrapped up under the tree on Christmas morning.  I always tried for a variety when purchasing my husband’s gifts, usually settling on something like  new after-shave lotion, a wallet, a flannel shirt and maybe a money clip.  My husband was a firm believer in going with a sure thing, which is why one year I received four wool skirts, purchased from the Bargain Basement of a local department store.  They were the exact same skirt, only in different colors.  And he knew I would like them and they were the right size, because I already had one hanging in my closet.  I actually saw him checking the tag on it one day in early December.

But as the years have gone by, Christmas shopping for each other has become more of a challenge.  My husband now has plenty of clothes, a good supply of after-shave lotion, and there’s only so many years in a row that I can get away with giving a money clip or a wallet. But the problem is that there’s rarely anything new or original on his Christmas list.  He usually asks for a new golf glove, even though he only plays golf about once a year.  Apparently, each time he plays, he manages to lose his glove.

I know he doesn’t have it any easier trying to buy me a gift.  Most of my favorite authors aren’t especially popular and their books are out of print and hard to find.  Since I have reached the age where my body has, how shall I say, both settled and expanded, I usually need to try on any new clothes before buying.  And like my husband, I honestly have all the things I need and most of the things I want.  (Or at least the sort of things that can be wrapped and put under a tree.  The last I checked, world peace, end to animal and child abuse, etc. don’t fit in a gift box.)

img_2121But that’s okay, because with each year that goes by, I find myself even less focused the gift-giving aspect of Christmas.  We will, of course, exchange some gifts with each other and our kids on Christmas morning, and it will be a fun time.  But those aren’t the real Christmas gifts at all.  The real gift was having some friends over for a Christmas celebration, all crammed together in my living room, talking and laughing.  It was having the kids and their spouses for dinner and a rowdy game of bingo, and then meeting them a few nights later for a drink at a festive, if somewhat tacky, pop-up Christmas bar.  And tonight, it will be singing Silent Night in a beautiful sanctuary, lit only by the candles in our hands.  It’s a magical moment that, for me, defines the whole Christmas season.

Christmas shopping may be more difficult these days, but as far as I’m concerned, my Christmas gifts–those moments and memories that I truly treasure–just keep getting better.