I’m Still Here

Sometimes it seems as if middle age is all about coping with change.  There are the physical changes:  fading eyesight, graying hair, spreading mid-section and facial hair where it absolutely doesn’t belong.  Then there are the changes in our families:  children growing up to become independent adults, aging parents (if we are lucky enough to still have them) who become increasingly dependent on us, and relatives we knew as babies having babies of their own.  And finally, there are the changes in the world around us:  new and confusing technologies, strange new fads in food and decorating (with all due respect to HGTV, who really needs a barn door in their house?) and global politics that are shifting so quickly we can hardly keep track of it all.

Still, I have finally realized that there really is one constant in my life, and that’s…..me.  Obviously,  I’m not talking about my body, as that’s much more saggy and wrinkly that it ever was, and of course I know that I have grown in maturity and knowledge as I’ve lived my life.  But I do believe that, underneath it all, I am still basically the same person I have always been.

Ann and SandyI can’t remember a time when I didn’t love animals, particularly dogs and horses.  One of my earliest memories is watching Westerns on our family’s old black and white television set, and how frustrated I’d get when the cowboys would get off their horses and the cameras would follow the cowboys, not the horses.  Because I didn’t care about the cowboys; I wanted to watch the horses!  So it’s no surprise that one of the nicest gifts I ever got in my life was my very own horse, and I still love horses, even though Prince died a long time ago.   And one of the saddest times in my young life was when we had to give our family dog away because we were moving to an apartment where she wasn’t allowed.  We gave her to family friends who I knew would take good care of her and let us see her often, but I still cried about it for days.  And if I had to give up my dog today, I’m pretty sure I’d react the exact same way.

I loved to write stories when I was a child, so it was natural that I became an English major in college and worked hard at a free-lance writing career as an adult.  My favorite color is still blue; I’m still an introvert who spends way too much time day-dreaming; and I still hate loud noises and seeing anyone’s feelings hurt, even the feelings of people I don’t particularly like.  I know the reason why I can go years without seeing a close friend and yet feel instantly connected and comfortable when we do meet up again.  It’s because both of us still have the same basic personality traits that first formed the friendship all those years ago.

It may sound odd, but at a time in my life when I seem to be dealing with so many changes, I take the time now and then to remind myself that essentially, I am the same person I have always been, and probably always will be.   Because I think everybody needs something to stay the same.

One More Try?

My husband and I have been official empty-nesters for almost three years now, and it’s been nine years since we’ve had both of our kids living at home full time, so I’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea that both my son and daughter are grown up and out on their own.  But planning my daughter’s wedding really drives home the fact that my kids are now bonafide, independent adults, so I suppose it’s only natural that lately I’ve found myself spending a lot of time reminiscing about the years I spent raising them.  I know I was the best parent I knew how to be, and I’m more than happy with the way my son and daughter turned out, but that doesn’t mean I don’t look back and find a lot of places where I wish I had done things differently.

I wish I was more patient when they were young, both my myself as I was learning what it meant to be a parent, as well as with my children.  I wish I had spent less time and energy trying to make sure everything was “just right,” and more time being spontaneous and accepting of the hectic, messy and joyous reality that small children bring.  I would like to be more certain that I didn’t let my frustrations with other areas of my life (too many rejection slips from the editors I sent my manuscripts to with such hope; too much turmoil and too many pay cuts with my husband’s job at the time) effect the way I treated my children, making me more demanding and impatient that I should have been.

Martha & DanielI would have liked to have spent less time worrying about the small stuff:  why my daughter barely talked she was a toddler (she’s been making up for that one ever since); whether my son would ever gain enough weight that his pants would quit slipping down over his hips (that was before “sagging” became a fashion statement); whether they were keeping up with the other kids in terms of their skills and abilities.   And when they were older, I wish I hadn’t taken it quite so personally when the world wasn’t always kind to them, and they didn’t make a sports team, or a former best friend suddenly dropped them, or they didn’t get a good grade on a project they worked so hard on.  It’s never easy for kids to learn that life isn’t always good or fair, but I’m afraid that I made it much worse when they had to deal with my disappointment as well as their own.

In short, what I’d really like is a “do over” for the times that I wasn’t as good of a mother as I wanted to be.  And of course I know I can’t have one, and that regretting the past is mostly a waste of time that benefits no one.  The most I can do at this point is to stop longing for a non-existent “do over” and simply resolve to try to “do better” from here on.  I may not be able to erase my past mistakes, parenting or otherwise, but I can learn from them and use them to help me become the kind of mother, and person, that I really want to be.   I may not get to have a “do over,” but I do have, and will always have, the chance to do better.

And Now For Something Completely Different

wpid-wp-1437107400676When I checked my email this morning and saw that Steven Curtis had nominated me for the Creative Blogger Award, I have to admit that I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.  There are lots of blogging awards floating around in the sphere, and most of them work a little bit like a chain letter:  you get nominated, you have to follow a certain set of rules (which in this case are listing five random facts about yourself), and then you have to nominate someone else’s blog.  They aren’t like most awards, where all you have to do is accept them and be grateful, and possibly buy a fancy new dress for the occasion if you happen to be receiving the award in public.   But when I followed the link back to Steven Curtis’ blog (stevenjcurtis, and it’s well worth reading), I was struck by his thoughtful answers to the “five random facts” requirement and by his kind words about my blog.  And I decided to give it a try.

So, here are my random facts:

1) I hate talking about myself.  I am a naturally a rather private person, and talking about myself never comes easily to me.  I’m always afraid that if I rattle off a list of my VERY modest accomplishments, it sounds as if I am trying to brag.  And that if I tell people what I really think, they will just think I’m strange.

2)  I am a master at worrying.  Give me any possible scenario, and I can quickly and easily imagine ten things that could go wrong.  Give me a little while to think about it, and I can come up with at least ten more. Some people tell me that means I’m a cynic.  I prefer to think of it as being prepared.  Because once I’ve identified all the things that can go wrong, then I feel more prepared to deal with the problems if they actually arise.  (Now do you understand why I’m worried people will think I’m strange when I tell them what I really think?)

3)  I really wish I had some musical talent….a good singing voice, the ability to play an instrument really well, anything would do.  As it is, I can plunk out most of the songs in “Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course, Level 1.”  And that’s it.

4) Although I absolutely love dogs and can’t imagine living without at least one in my house, I am terrified of Great Danes.  Whenever there’s a Great Dane at the Humane Society where I volunteer, I always make sure someone else walks it.  I’ll gladly walk a Mastiff, a St. Bernard, whatever; but I avoid the Great Danes.  Even though I’m sure they are fine dogs.

5)  I really don’t mind being middle aged.  Of course I’m not fond of my spreading midsection, failing eyesight, graying hair, etc. But I do like how much more comfortable I feel about being my true self now, how much deeper my friendships have become and how more willing I am to try new things, such as participating in this blog award.

I follow lots of great blogs, so it’s hard to pick, but I’ll nominate Nancy at 4wallsnaroof.wordpress.com.  She writes very well on a variety of subjects, and I think you’ll enjoy it!  I know I do.

Precious Memories

Martha at EasterThe church I grew up in and attended when my children were young is closing at the end of this month, and today they had a special “heritage” lunch as a final gathering for everyone.   It was enjoyable, if somewhat bittersweet, to spend time with so many old friends, and see people I knew as little children all grown up with kids of their own.  They had five tables filled with old photographs that people could take if they wanted, and I spent a lot of time sorting through the photos, searching for pictures of my family.  I was thrilled to find lots of photos of my kids, but I was shocked by how many people either didn’t look at the photos at all, or picked up a photo of a member of their family, looked at it with mild interest, then put it back down again, knowing that all the unclaimed pictures were going to be thrown away.  How could they not want those pictures of their grandparents, their parents, their sons and daughters?

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand people not wanting to bring home more “stuff.”  By the time we’ve reached middle age, most of us already have more material possessions than we need or want, and our main problem is how to get rid of it, not how to add to our collections.  But in my opinion, there is simply no such thing as too many photos of family and friends, and the older they are, the better.   I may fill a donation bag with clothing every time my closet gets full, but if I run out of shelf space for my photo albums, I just know it’s time to add another shelf.  Because photographs are a recording of my life up to this point, and that’s not something I’m willing to let go of.

Martha Mollenauer (2)The way I look at it, that’s my history in those photo albums.  Those old family photos remind me of where I came from, and just who I came from.  The pictures of me growing up remind me of all the different stages of my life.  The photos of friends remind me of how many good people I’ve been lucky enough to share my life with, from the time I was a small child right up to today.  And the photos of the pets I’ve had, the houses I’ve lived in, and the places I’ve visited are all reminders of my own life’s journey .

I don’t keep the photos because I’m trying to live in the past.  I’m perfectly happy living in the present, even with my middle-aged face and body.  It’s just that I sometimes enjoy looking at pictures of family members who are gone, or pictures of my children when they were babies.  It brings back memories of a different time in my life, and those memories are special to me. And I believe that they’re certainly precious enough to keep.

It’s All Relative

My husband and I were getting ready to go out to eat last weekend, and he asked what I thought of the shirt he had just put on.  I told him that it looked nice, but it might be just a little too casual for the restaurant we were going to.  We were celebrating our anniversary, so we were going to a new restaurant that had a reputation for being a bit formal.  When we were driving home after our dinner, he mentioned that he thought he could have worn the original shirt after all, since not everyone else eating there had been dressed up, and that “it was mostly the older people who were wearing suits and dresses.”  I answered, perhaps a bit too honestly, “Yes, but to all those young diners, we are the older people!”

I remember talking to a friend at her 50th birthday party, and she described how she had thrown a 50th birthday party for her father years ago, when she was still in her twenties.  She invited all of her parents’ friends to her house, and she remembered thinking how weird it was to see “all those old people partying.”  Now that she was celebrating her own 50th birthday, did that mean her kids thought she was an “old” person, partying with her “old” friends?  Sadly, I had to admit that they probably did.  I’m sure that would have been my son’s reaction, given how often he rolls his eyes and mutters “old people” whenever I ask him a particularly naive question about my computer.  (If he keeps that up, I’m going to have remind him that I may be up there in age, but I’m certainly not too old to change my will.  And unless he loses the attitude, it won’t be in his favor.)

IMG_0450The simple fact is that age is a very relative term.  I remember when I thought thirty was impossibly old, until I actually turned thirty, at which point I decided that you had to be at least forty to be well and truly old.  And now that I’m in my late fifties, I’m finding that I keep pushing back the upper age limit of what I consider to be my middle years, because the only thing that follows middle age is old age.  And I’m just not ready for old age yet, no matter what I see when I look in the mirror.

Maybe the answer is to stop letting people younger than me decide whether or not I am old.  Recently, I was at a ballgame and went to the concession stand to get an ice cream cone.  An elderly man took my order and had begun filling the cone from the soft-serve ice cream machine when he looked back at me over his shoulder, winked, and added four extra inches of ice cream to the cone before handing it to me with a flourish.  I would probably have been much more flattered if he had been under the age of eighty (he wasn’t) and still had at least half of his teeth (he didn’t.)  But realizing that it was just possible that he  saw me as young and pretty, I smiled and thanked him gratefully before heading back to my seat with my enormous ice cream cone.

Yes, age is definitely a relative term.  And I’m sure the day is coming, if I’m lucky enough to live that long, when I will define “old” as someone who is at least 95, and not a day younger.

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late

I sometimes think the hardest part of being middle aged is coping with too much loss.  I’m not talking about the long and depressing list of the things we have learned to do without at this point of our lives:  good eyesight, a slim waistline, a dependable memory, the ability to eat rich foods right before bedtime and still sleep like a baby, etc.  I’m talking about the almost devastating sense of loss that comes from knowing far too many people who are no longer with us.

As a child, I was lucky enough not to lose any member of my family I was truly close to, and I was almost eighteen when my grandmother, whom I loved dearly, died. I can still remember how long it took before I could accept that I would never see her again, and how for a while after her death, it was almost physically painful to be in her house.  But that was just the beginning.  By my early thirties, all my relatives of my grandmother’s generation were gone, or at least the ones I actually knew.  And the year I turned fifty was the same year that my father died.

Easter at Jones'

I have reached the age where I have known too many people who are gone, whether they were family, friends, coworkers or even just casual acquaintances.  I know people my age who have lost both parents, who have lost their spouses, who have lost siblings, and worst of all, sometimes even their children.  I suppose I was naive about death, thinking that the pain of losing too many people who are important to you was something that didn’t happen until you were well and truly old, unless you lived in a war-torn country.  I didn’t realize that the process of loss begins much earlier for most people, even for those of us who have been fortunate to live relatively peaceful lives.

Sadly, losing people we love is just a natural part of life and we really have no choice in the matter.  But what I can choose is how I react to the loss.  I can choose to be sad and angry, and honestly, in the days, weeks or even months after someone I care about dies, sad and angry is exactly what I am, and it doesn’t particularly feel like a choice.  But after the initial grief passes, I can choose to be thankful for the time I had with the people I loved, and I can use my grief as a reminder of just how fragile and fleeting life really is.

I think the best response to the long and growing list we middle-agers have of loved ones who have died is to remember to treasure the time we have with the people who are still with us.  These days, I rarely have a phone call with my mother (who just turned 85) that doesn’t end with “love you.”  Several good friends and I routinely say the same thing, sometimes in person, sometimes in emails or texts, and they aren’t empty words.  We have been around long enough to know that we need to tell people how much we care about them.  We have figured out that we need to make time for each other, even when it’s not convenient, and to put aside the petty differences that seemed so important when we were young and thought we had all the time in the world.

I know I can’t change the fact that too many people I want in my life are now gone. But what I can do is make sure I appreciate all the people I care about who are still here, and to never forget just how fragile and precious life really is.

Happily Ever After

wedding pic 3It’s impossible to reach middle age without also reaching some rather significant milestones in life, and I’ve had my share of big ones (graduations, becoming a mother, publishing a book) and small ones (shedding the extra fifteen pounds I’d carried around for decades, starting this blog, etc.)  This weekend, I’ll be reaching another large milestone, because Sunday is my 35th wedding anniversary, and I don’t think that managing to stay happily married for over three decades is any small feat.

When I think back to my wedding day, which was memorable mostly for the record-breaking heat of 110 degrees with a heat index of 120 degrees, I honestly can’t believe that it was thirty-five years ago.  The time has just flown by, much faster than I ever could have imagined.  We had planned to celebrate with a trip to Ireland and England, but then my daughter and her boyfriend decided that this would be a good year to get married, and the thought of financing both a wedding and an overseas vacation didn’t seem like such a good idea.  (We hope to go next year, instead.  Who says you can’t make a big deal out of a 36th wedding anniversary?)

I’ve learned a lot of things in the past thirty five years, and most of it has to do with the delicate art of compromise.  I am a minimalist who gets nervous when I look around a room and see too much stuff, while my husband is what can best be described as a “keeper.”  We learned early on in our marriage that separate closets were a must.  Our child-raising styles were similar, thank goodness, but our decorating tastes were not, and that became one of the many areas where we learned to compromise.  I said “yes” to the plaid sofa and love seat combo in our first apartment, but “no” to the velvet tapestry of the dogs playing poker.  It took awhile, be we figured out how to be a part of two very different families, how to manage our finances in a way that made us both happy, and how to play to each other’s strengths in deciding who does what job.

I suppose after living, more or less peacefully, with my husband for thirty five years that’s it only natural for me to want to give my daughter a bit of marriage advice.  So far, I’ve resisted the temptation, but if I did, my advice would be simple:  be true to yourself, be loving toward your spouse, and always make your marriage your priority.  Know there will be good days and bad days.  Sometimes he will annoy you by doing nothing more than walking in the room and breathing your air, because that’s what happens when you live with someone day in and day out.  But if you have chosen your spouse well, there will be far more good days than bad, because you are sharing your life with your best friend, your strongest supporter and the person you would rather be with more than anyone else.  And trust me, the years will just fly by……

Searching For Summertime

If you know me at all, you know that I am no fan of winter.  I hate being cold, I’m afraid to drive on icy roads, and as a volunteer dog walker at the local Humane Society, I spend a lot of time outside, even on the coldest of days.  That means I spend most of the winter waiting impatiently for the weather to warm up so I can ditch my scarves, coats, gloves, and most importantly, my long underwear.  So I am getting more than a little cranky about the fact that it is now July 7th, and yet I still don’t feel as if summer has even begun.

DSC03343July in St. Louis is supposed to be hot and humid.  This is the time of year when I am supposed to be wearing capris (they hide more spider veins and cellulite than shorts, which is important at my age), cooling off at a swimming pool, eating dinner on my backyard patio and enjoying the flowering blooms I worked so hard to plant in the spring.  I should be excited about the tomatoes beginning to ripen on my gigantic tomato plants (I have no idea why they get so big) and I should be spending my evenings at outdoor concerts in the park, complaining about the humidity and swatting at mosquitoes, but still happy to be outside.

But instead of a normal St. Louis summer, this year we have gotten mostly cool weather and a whole lot of rain.  We’ve had a couple of days of true summer heat, but the minute I begin to adjust to it, another cold front comes along, bringing a drop in temperatures and more rain.  The flowers I so carefully planted a couple of months ago are in danger of drowning, we’ve had exactly two meals on our patio since Memorial Day and I haven’t gotten to go swimming once.  Admittedly, given what I look like in a swim suit these days, that last one isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But still, I should at least have the option to go swimming if I want to.  And when I go out for dinner, I usually have to bring along a sweater or light jacket, just in case in stops raining long enough that we might get to sit outside.  A sweater, mind you……in July!

156I know that there are many areas of the country right now suffering from terrible drought, and I truly wish I could send some of our cold and rain their way.  Because I am well and truly tired of it, and I want the summer I spent those cold winter months dreaming of.  I want to go outside in my bare feet; I want to eat produce I have grown myself, I want to enjoy stepping into a cool shower after coming home from the Humane Society hot and sweaty from walking dogs.   Most importantly, I want the chance to grow so tired of the heat and humidity that I am actually glad when fall comes around, even though I know it will be followed by the dreaded winter.  Because face it, I need my summers….they’re what help me get through my winters!

When The Words Won’t Come

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there are times when I just hate blogging.  Now don’t get me wrong, I usually love working on my blog.  I get to write down my thoughts and ideas, figure out a way to post a relevant photo or two, edit the post, edit it again, and finally, hit that magic “publish” button.  After that, I can count on a few kind souls to hit the “like” button and maybe also leave an encouraging comment on either my Facebook page or the blog page.  It’s great feeling to know that someone has actually read and appreciated what I’ve written, and trust me, that kind of validation doesn’t come often from traditional publishing venues.

The problem is my self-imposed schedule of publishing a new post every fourth day.  I know this doesn’t matter to anyone else, but when I started blogging I knew I had to have some sort of schedule to keep me on track  (I learned this from years of free-lance writing from home.  A writer who doesn’t have a strict writing schedule is often a writer who isn’t writing much.)  Usually my schedule works just fine, and I only miss when I’m sick or the fourth day falls on a holiday, as it did yesterday.  But sometimes the fourth day dawns and I realize I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to write about this time.  It’s not long before I begin to panic, thinking that I have, finally, completely run out of ideas and that I will never, ever write anything that anyone else could possibly want to read again.  I begin to believe that I simply don’t have what it takes to keep a blog going for the long term.

IMG_0383What I have learned to do when that panic hits is to sit my ample butt down at the computer, pull up a blank Word document and begin writing anyway.  It takes a while, with lots of false starts, plenty of deletions and lots of time spent staring at the computer screen, trying to hone in on a single idea that can be developed into a respectable blog post.  It’s hard, but I have found that if I keep trying, eventually I begin to understand what what I want to write and how I should write it, and I realize that maybe I can do this after all.  After a bit more work, I usually come up with a post I am satisfied with, and my former feelings of despair and failure are replaced with a small sense of accomplishment.

When I was young, I assumed that all successful writers had tons of great ideas whirling around in their heads, and all they had to do was sit down and write them out.  Now I suspect that success at writing isn’t so different from success in most other areas in life:  the willingness to work hard, day after day, even when you honestly believe you don’t have what it takes to get through the task in front of you.  It’s turning a deaf ear to that inner voice that tells you that you can’t do this.  It’s slowly learning to believe in yourself, even when it seems as if no one else does.

There are lots of reasons why I am glad I started this blog, from reconnecting with old friends, to finding the encouragement and support of the on-line blogging community, to simply rediscovering the joy of writing when everything finally comes together the  way I want it to.  But for me, (someone who has always been a bit too quick to quit when the going got tough)  the biggest reward has been seeing just how important it is not to give up, to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and to realize just how much I can accomplish as long as I am willing to keep on trying.

Judge Not

IMG_0371I was talking to a friend the other day about her decision to retire from teaching at the end of this school year.  This is a big change for her, and naturally she is a little apprehensive about exactly how retiring from a full-time job will impact her life and her family.  I was listening to her concerns with genuine sympathy right up to the moment when she looked at me and suddenly said, “You haven’t worked full time in years, and I’ve always wanted to ask you….what exactly do you DO all day?”

Now I can be just a wee bit of a snarky bitch at times, so the immediate answer that sprang to my mind was, “Nothing much.  I spend my days sitting in the recliner, watching TV and drinking Diet Coke.  Every few hours I get up to go the bathroom, but that’s about it.”  Of course, I didn’t actually say that, but I was definitely taken back by her question.  I honestly didn’t know how to answer.  I could recite a list of the things I am doing with my days or remind her that it is quite possible to work very hard without actually being paid, but I was afraid  that would sound defensive, and I know she didn’t mean to offend me.  But if I didn’t explain exactly how I spent my time,  then I risked confirming the implication that I was simply wasting my days away.  I felt judged, and not in a good way.

I remember a young woman who lived in my college dorm, who was very pretty in that Farrah Fawcett style that was all the rage back then.  She always hurried past me when I met her in the hallway, barely acknowledging my presence, even though most of the other women were usually willing to stop for a chat.  Frankly, I thought she was stuck-up.  But then one day I met an obviously confused, middle-aged woman in the lobby who was asking for her, and later heard the young woman on the phone, patiently repeating the same information over and over again.  I found out that the confused middle-aged woman was her mother, who had suffered brain damage in a bad car accident years before.  And the young woman I thought was a snob was really just too busy to stop and talk, what with constantly dealing with her mother’s issues while she was trying to earn a college degree.  I had judged her very harshly, and I was completely wrong.

And I think that’s the problem with judgement:  it is so often completely wrong.  We don’t know what other people are going through; we don’t know what their hopes and dreams are; we don’t know why they make the choices they make.  And as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, we don’t need to know.

I’m sure the fact that I don’t have a real job anymore does strike some people as odd, but I know that I am living a life that is both productive and worthwhile, and the arrangement works for my husband and me.  I also know that as a former stay-at-home mom who spent a lot of time and effort on books that were never published, I am a bit sensitive to questions about how I spend my days.  But that’s beside the point:  I really shouldn’t have to explain my life choices to anyone.  And I don’t have the right to judge other people’s choices, even when what they are doing makes no sense to me whatsoever.  As long as there is no neglect or abuse involved, I really do think that the old “live and let live” advice is right on target.