Embracing Diversity

wedding pic 2I have never been known for following current trends, mostly because I am usually so hopelessly out of touch that I have no idea what the current trends even are.  But I have noticed that the term “diversity” is a popular one right now, as in “celebrate diversity,” “embrace diversity,” and similar slogans.  The gist of it is that diversity is a good thing, and that we need to let go of our natural tendency to want to associate mostly with those people who are just like us and start sharing our lives with people who are often very different from us.  And I have to say that this is one trend that I am right on top of, because I have been “living with diversity” for over thirty five years now….ever since the day that I married my husband.

Obviously, there many core values that my husband and I share:  we have the same morals, the same commitment to family, the same sense of humor and the same work ethic.  We also both like a clean house and are masters at the art of worrying.  But I am a minimalist who feels very uncomfortable around clutter, and have a strong compulsion to organize all my possessions.  My husband has many gifts, but the ability to organize his many possessions is not one of them.  My books are shelved according to their author; the money in my wallet is arranged in ascending value with all the bills facing the same way; my clothes are hung in my closet according to color and category.  My husband’s closet is hodgepodge of clothes, shoes, tools, store receipts and random knick knacks.  Once I even found a hammer in his underwear drawer.

I am a writer and avid reader, while my husband prefers to watch movies for entertainment.  He’s an athlete and a sports enthusiast who regularly follows all his favorite teams, and I can tell when a game is not going well because I can hear him yelling at the TV, even when I’m on a whole different floor of the house.  I enjoy going to a Cardinals game now and then, but otherwise, I find professional sports to be rather boring and have a hard time caring much which team wins.  (If any of the professional athletes were sharing their salaries with me, then I would care very much about whether or not they were having a successful season.)

We came from different states, different types of families, different religions, and we have very different strengths.  He’s a natural at numbers and all things financial, while I struggle with anything beyond the most basic math.  I am most comfortable expressing myself through the written word, whereas he sometimes asks for my help when he’s composing a simple business letter.  And yet we make it work.

IMG_0545I think the key to successfully “living with diversity” is understanding that we aren’t going to change each other.  I am no more going to convince my husband that he needs to keep his tools organized according to my standards than he is going to convince me that my spices don’t have to be arranged alphabetically on the spice rack.  (Because, of course, they do.)

I admit that deep down, I think I would prefer it if my husband would change a little so that he could be more like me.  But it doesn’t work that way.  If I want to stay in a close and loving relationship with him, I have to accept him just the way he is, and count on him doing the same thing for me.  And I think that’s what “embracing diversity” is really all about:  learning to let people be who they really are without trying to change them into becoming more like us.  It’s not always easy, but after thirty-five years of marriage, I can honestly say it is worth the effort.

A Delicate Balance

I was talking to a friend the other night, and she told me that there is an actual personality type called an “obliger.”  I’d never heard the term before, and my spell check doesn’t recognize it as a legitimate word, but she said it refers to people who try to please others and are generally willing to do whatever it takes to make other people happy.  She went on to say that every once in a while, people who are “obligers” get fed up with trying to please other people and can become, at least temporarily, very uncooperative, stubborn, and angry.   And boy, can I relate to that!

Like so many women (and some men), I have always had a hard time saying “no,” even to things that I really don’t want to do.  I don’t want to let anyone down; I don’t want anyone’s feelings to be hurt, and I feel a strong obligation to help anyone who asks for my help.  And of course caring about other people and wanting to help them however we can is a good thing…our world would be a much worse place if we all just took care of ourselves and ignored the needs of those around us.  The problem, I think, is knowing where to draw the line between taking care of ourselves and taking care of other people.

IMG_0448And personally, that’s where I struggle.  One of my duties at the local Humane Society is to train new volunteers, and I’ve probably mentored about two hundred people over the years.  I really don’t like doing it anymore, but we always need more volunteers and the only way to get them is to train the new people, so I keep at it.  I try my best to be patient and cheerful as I teach them the ins and outs of handling shelter dogs, but sometimes I worry that the person I’m mentoring can sense my resentment at having to spend so much time training them rather than just walking the dogs, which is what I really want to do.  And if they can, and their introduction to the Humane Society is dealing with my crabby and impatient self, am I really doing any good?

I think that’s the problem with being too quick to do what others want me to do, even when I’d much rather not.  I tend to over-commit in almost all areas of my life, and that sometimes leads to me being so stressed and resentful that I’m not really helping other people at all, and I’m certainly not helping myself.  As the old saying goes, “If you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.”

I am slowly learning to try to find a balance between taking care of the needs of other people and taking care of myself.  I do like helping other people, and I think it is very important to do that whenever I can, but that doesn’t mean I have to automatically say “yes” to every request that comes my way.  If I really want to make a positive impact on the world around me, then I need to make sure that I have some time to recharge my batteries, and to do the things that feed my soul.  Because I can’t do a good job of taking care of anyone else if I don’t make sure I take care of myself as well.

Be Nice

IMG_0048My husband and I tried a new restaurant the other night, and at first, we liked it very much.  Our waitress was friendly and knowledgable, the food was very good, and the atmosphere was great, as long as you ignored the young man in the chef’s jacket who occasionally wandered around the dining room, scowling at everything and everyone he saw.   After we had paid our bill, we stopped in the bar area to watch the last inning of the Cardinal game on the TV, and my husband chatted briefly with a few people who were also watching the game.  It all seemed friendly enough until the guy in the chef’s jacket walked by, rolled his eyes at us and muttered something under his breath.  I couldn’t catch exactly what he said, but I certainly caught that it wasn’t anything nice.

I thought it was odd that a restaurant would employ someone who was so surly to its customers until I checked its website and discovered that the man was actually a co-owner.   And that’s too bad, because even though we really liked the food and atmosphere at his restaurant, the co-owner’s rude behavior made such a bad impression that I doubt seriously if we will ever go back.  Maybe he was having a bad day, or maybe he was annoyed because his restaurant was only half full, or maybe he was offended that we were simply standing in the bar, watching the game, rather than ordering more drinks.  I honestly don’t know.  But I do know that, if he had just made the effort to be even a little bit nice, we would definitely have been repeat customers.

Because being nice matters.  If we want people to shop at our stores, eat at our restaurants, join in our groups,  help our causes, and or simply be our friends, we have to be nice to them.  If we want to draw people to us, we have to show them the same common decency and courtesy that we want others to show us.   Rudeness, anger and hostility, even when we believe it’s justified, does nothing more than drive people away.  Always has and always will.

I believe that something as simple as being nice can help build the bridges that are so desperately needed to help people with different values and beliefs connect and communicate.  I know I am always willing to listen to someone else’s point of view, even a point of view that I believe is absolutely wrong, as long as the speaker isn’t resorting to ridicule or verbal attacks to make his or her point.  Being nice doesn’t mean not being passionate about our beliefs; it just means not using our beliefs as an excuse to be cruel to people who don’t happen to share them.

Being nice is about connecting with other people.  It’s about living peacefully with those who are different from us.  It’s about creating a life for ourselves full of interesting and diverse people who can support us, our families, our businesses, our causes, etc., if we can just remember to treat them the same way we want to be treated.  We all lose our tempers sometimes, and we all have our bad days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t always, always try to do better.  So please, let’s just be nice……

Sometimes It’s Right To Be Wrong

DSC03338I still remember how upset I was when my son, who was then in his Junior year of college, called me to tell me he had acquired a dog.  At the time he was living  200 miles from home in an apartment building that did not allow dogs, was a full-time student, and also played racquetball for the university, which required some travel on weekends.  I didn’t see how he could possibly provide a good home for a dog, and as a volunteer at the local Humane Society, I knew how often dogs that are bought or adopted on impulse are turned in at animal shelters.  My son got quite an earful as I rattled off all the reasons why adding Frankie to his life was not a good idea for either of them.

When I calmed down enough to listen to him, my son told me that Frankie had desperately needed a new home, as the person who was listing him for free on Craig’s List (always a horrible idea for any animal) said that he had been returned to the breeder after being attacked by another dog, and had spent the previous, very cold, winter living in an outdoor run.  When my son picked him up, he was scarred, filthy and terrified. That made me agree that my son had done the right thing to rescue Frankie out of that situation, but I still didn’t believe that he should keep the dog.  I told him not to expect any help from us, unless he wanted to find Frankie another home, in which case I’d pull in every favor I had coming to make sure he found a good and loving home this time.

IMG_0028But my son was determined to keep his new dog.  He moved to another apartment building that allowed dogs, took Frankie to the vet to have him neutered, wormed and vaccinated, and bought all the necessary supplies.  We met Frankie for the first time when my son brought him home for Christmas break, and I had to admit that he was awfully cute and very sweet.  I was determined not to get attached to the little guy, but I failed miserably.  Even Lucy, who as a rule hated having any dog other than Sandy in her house, eventually made friends with Frankie.  As long as he lets her be the boss, (and he does) they get along quite well.

IMG_0182Frankie lived with us for about a year after my son graduated from college, until my son bought his own house and moved into it, taking Frankie with him. By then, I liked Frankie so much that I was secretly hoping he would leave Frankie with us, and I did mention how lonely I thought Frankie would be since my son and his girlfriend would be at work all day.  Sadly for me, but happily for Frankie, they solved that problem by adopting another dog to keep him company. Frankie bonded with his new sister, Roxy, very quickly, and they are now best friends.

I still see Frankie often, as my son lives close by and I am often the designated dog-sitter, so I get to enjoy Frankie’s lively, playful personality.  He’s not the smartest dog around, but he’s happy, loving, and always ready for a snuggle.  And I just love the joyous, proud way that he prances along on his walks as if he is quite sure he’s on his way to somewhere wonderful. I have told my son that if for any reason he can no longer keep Frankie, he is coming back to live with us.  It’s painful for me to admit it, but my son was right and I was wrong:  Frankie definitely belongs in our family.DSC01614

When The Truth Hurts

Of course I have known for a long time that I’m no longer young.  I look in the mirror, I feel the aches and pains, and I have noticed that pretty much everything on my body that could possibly sag, does.  But like most people who are middle aged and older, I still carry around an image in my head of my much younger self and I tend to think that I have the same youthful spirit that I’ve always had.  I like to believe that my aging is limited to physical changes, and in many ways, it is.  But every once in a while, something happens to make me realize that the gap between the way I look at things and the way actual young people look at things is also widening.

I watch a lot of HGTV, and I’ve noticed that most of the young couples who are either shopping for new houses or trying to renovate a house all want one thing: an “open concept” layout with “sight lines” between the living room, kitchen, and dining rooms.  They want to be able to talk to their guests seated in the living room while they are cooking their dinner.  Not me.  I like old-fashioned houses with lots of walls and the privacy they provide, and I definitely don’t want to try to entertain my guests and cook at the same time.  I burn enough food as it is without that added distraction.  It’s not a true dinner party at my house unless the smoke alarm goes off at least once.

IMG_0524These days, I can rarely find dressy shoes I like at a regular shoe store, since they all have at least a three-inch heel.  I’ve always been a bit too klutzy to walk well in high heels, but now they really hurt my feet and I just can’t tolerate them.  I was shopping for for a pair of shoes to wear to my daughter’s wedding next month and came across a nice pair with heels that weren’t too high.  Still, I asked the salesman if they came in an slightly smaller heel.  “Yes, they do,” he answered.  “They’re called flats.”

When I was young, I never minded buying makeup, and sometimes even enjoyed trying new products in the hopes that they would make me look attractive and sophisticated.  Not any more.  It’s embarrassing when I try to buy the foundation powder I prefer and the perky young clerk tells me that I should get a liquid foundation instead, “because the powder can settle into wrinkles and make them more obvious.”  And I really hate it when they recommend products, such as pore minimizers and age-spot faders, that I didn’t even ask for.

IMG_0488A couple of weeks ago, I was flattered to be included in my daughter’s bachelorette party, and enjoyed spending an afternoon at the wineries with her friends.  They had rented a bus for everyone to ride down on, but unfortunately it came equipped with a stereo system so that we could enjoy music during the trip.  Really loud music with a driving bass beat.  The young women were having a wonderful time, often singing along, but the music was giving me a headache and making it hard to hear what anyone was saying to me.  On the trip back, I discovered I was sitting next to the volume button, and discreetly adjusted the decibel level.  And then I remembered how when I was young, my friends and I made fun of our “old” parents for complaining that our music was too loud.  And now I was the old person who was complaining….

I suppose a certain number of attitude adjustments are just a natural part of aging, but it is still a bit depressing at times.  But I guess I just have to look at it as training for what’s to come, because I can only imagine how much fun it’s going to be when I have to start shopping for Depends.

A Life Well Lived

It’s been many years since my grandfather died, but today is his birthday, so I suppose it’s only natural that I should find myself thinking about him.  He was a small man with a gentle, unassuming manner, and unlike the rest of my family, he wasn’t much of a talker.  He lived, worked, and raised his family in the same neighborhood he was born in, practicing dentistry for forty-eight years in an office that was across the street from the house he lived in as a child.

image23-1_0077At family gatherings he could usually be found in the kitchen, seated at the table with the grandkids, drawing, playing games, or showing us how to make rows of little soldiers with his manual typewriter.  He was infinitely patient with us, and always encouraging.  If I couldn’t think of something to draw, he would simply look at my blank, white piece of paper and tell me that I had made a fine picture of a polar bear in a snow storm.  He was a natural with children, and always ready to accept an invitation to a make-believe tea party.

Shortly after marrying my grandmother, he moved into a two-bedroom brick bungalow on an unpaved street on what was then the outer edge of the city, where he lived for over fifty years.  Those who knew him then swore they had seen him sitting quietly in the back yard, holding out breadcrumbs for the wild birds, which would actually eat them out of his hand.  By the time I came along, the neighborhood around my grandfather’s house had become very urban, but he still put out bread crumbs each morning for the sparrows who gathered on his back porch, chirping in anticipation.

My grandfather had a very strong, if somewhat old-fashioned, sense of what was proper, and he stuck to it religiously.  He wore a suit every day, even after he retired from his dental practice.  His idea of casual attire was to remove his jacket and roll up his shirt sleeves.  Once, I saw him putting on his hat and suit jacket as he was heading out the back door, and asked him where he was going. He answered,  “I’m going to take out the trash.”  He didn’t understand, or care to understand, the more casual culture that surrounded him in his senior years, and continued to refer to almost everyone as a lady or a gentleman long after those terms had gone out of style.

Dentist officeHis dental practice was very busy, but not exactly profitable, as my grandfather rarely raised his rates.  He knew that most of his patients could not afford to pay very much for their dental care, and he charged them accordingly.  “Doc Jones” was well known and liked in his neighborhood, and for good reason.  I don’t think he ever felt that he was making a personal sacrifice by keeping his rates low, as he lived very modestly by choice.  His life consisted of his dental practice, his family, his friends, and his church, and he seemed quite content.

Sometimes, when my life seems to be a bit too complicated or I am unhappy because I think I need to have more of this or that, I try to think of my grandfather and the simple way that he lived his life, and to use it as an example for my own.  Because I can’t really think of a better role model…..

All In Good Time

Recently, I was having lunch with a young friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and we were having a nice time catching up on each other’s lives.  She told me what her plans were for the immediate future, and then added wistfully, “But I’ll be thirty soon, and I’m not exactly where I thought I would be by now.”  Now this was coming from a young woman who has already lived in several foreign countries, is bilingual, and preparing for a career in international service, so at first that remark seemed a bit odd for someone who has already accomplished so much.  But then I remembered how I felt when I was in my twenties, and I understood exactly what she meant.

I remembered when I had also thought that there were certain milestones I needed to reach by a certain age if I wanted to be successful and happy. At the time, my idea of success hinged on publishing several books of middle-grade fiction, or at the very least, working as an editor or writer for some local publication, and I wanted to accomplish this before the age of thirty.  And I remember how very disappointed and ashamed I was when that didn’t happen.

The thing is, life rarely works out according to plan.  It’s true that sometimes we just don’t work hard enough to reach our goals, but other times, circumstances we can’t control get in the way.  Industries change, economies crash, our health can fail:  all sorts of unforeseen barriers can pop up between us and what we think we want to do.  So it just doesn’t make sense to pin all our hopes and dreams, and even our very sense of self-worth, on the idea of achieving specific goals according to a specific time line.  Real life doesn’t work that way, but I think that’s a lesson that takes a while to learn.

Now I believe that life isn’t anything like a check list of accomplishments that need to be crossed off as we go along.  I believe it’s more important to follow our dreams and passions, always give our best effort, and still be ready to adapt as circumstances require.  That doesn’t mean giving up, it just means realizing that there are many, many, ways to be happy and successful, and to stop limiting ourselves to a preconceived notion of exactly what we need to accomplish and when we need to accomplish it.

I never did publish a book of middle grade fiction, but I am a published author, and I have found different ways to work as a writer.  Some of my goals may never be realized, but I have also been so lucky to experience so many wonderful things and do so many things I never thought I could.  (I still remember the total awe I felt when I first stood on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, because that was something I had never imagined I would do.) Life always holds something unexpected for us, sometimes bad, but sometimes surprisingly good.

IMG_5640I don’t remember exactly what I told my friend that day, but the gist of it was that I advised her to stop thinking in terms of timelines, and to just keep pursuing both her personal and professional dreams as best she could.  I told her she should be proud of all that she has already accomplished, and not waste time regretting the things she hasn’t been able to do.  Because life is for living, not for measuring or judging.

I’ve Got This

family photWhen I was a child, I hated it when I would ask my parents to do something for me, and they would insist on teaching me to do it myself.   I remember asking my father to make me some scrambled eggs, and his response was to whip out the cast iron skillet and proceed to teach me how to scramble an egg, so I could do it myself the next time.  If I dared to complain, he would just say, “You’ll never learn how to do it any younger!”  My mother was even worse, since she was a kindergarten teacher, and therefore tended to explain things very slowly, step by step, just to make sure I was following along.  My thought was that if I had wanted them to show me how to do something, I would have said so, rather than simply asking them to do it for me.  But I was smart enough not to say that out loud.

Now that I’m on the upper end of middle age, I find that I am much more willing to learn something new than I ever was before.  I have learned quite a few home improvement skills (despite what my husband thinks, but he’s never forgiven me for that crowbar incident…you can read about it in:  What Did You Say?), my gardening skills are much improved (most of what I plant lives, which is new for me) and I’m thinking about taking a wood working class.  Despite what my kids think, I really do try to learn how to use new technology and spend quite a bit of time and energy trying to figure things out.  My constant questions to them about my cell phone and my computer are simply because, despite my best efforts, there are some times I still have to throw in the towel and ask for help.

But I have had some success learning how to do things on my computer without my children’s help, and “exhibit A” is my blog.  I remember when I first heard of blogging, my initial thought was, “What kind of idiot would keep a personal journal on the internet?”  (Apparently, the same idiot who looks back at me from the mirror each day.)  But eventually, with the steady encouragement of a good friend, I did start my blog, despite my deep misgivings about sending my writing out into cyberspace where perfect strangers all over the world could not only read it, but comment about it as well.  Frankly, I still find that part a little bit intimidating.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in this blog (if you use WordPress, check out the entirely random pictures I was horrified to see added to some of my posts in the Reader section), but I’m also having a lot of fun and my list of followers is growing steadily.  And as much as I enjoy blogging, I do miss fiction writing, so I’m planning to learn all I can about e-publishing and see if I can figure out how to do that as well.  And who knows where that might lead?

It pains me to say this, but I have come to realize that my parents were right.  There is so much I want to know, so much I want to do, and learning to do it for myself is the best way.  And I’m not getting any younger…..

Right Here, Right Now

Last Friday, I was having a truly rotten day.  I didn’t feel very well when I woke up that morning, and heading down to the Humane Society to walk dogs in the heat and humidity didn’t make things any better.  Neither did discovering that we didn’t have nearly enough people to get all the dogs walked that morning.  It was just one of those days that starts out badly and goes downhill from there, as one problem after another kept popping up.  It wasn’t long before I was sincerely wishing that I had just stayed home.  Too many dogs, too many issues, and too few resources to deal with them all.

IMG_0460 2Then I decided to take a particularly rowdy dog out to the exercise pen, thinking that the time off-leash would do her some good, and the time spent sitting on a picnic table in the shade while she ran around the pen would do me even better.  But the thing with dogs is, they don’t always act the way we think they’re going to act.  I had envisioned her romping around the exercise pen, which she did, for exactly one lap.   Then she hopped up on the table, gave me a quick doggie kiss, shimmied down below the table for a second, then poked her head and shoulders back up between the bench seat and the table top.  She continued to work that picnic table as if it was a jungle gym, popping out from one unexpected place after another before disappearing down below again. I’ve never seen such a flexible dog.  If she’d be an actual gymnast, I’m pretty sure she would have scored at least a seven on agility alone.  Finally, she just lay down next to me, with her head on my leg, sighing happily.  And just like that, my crabby, despairing mood was gone.

As amazing as her antics with the picnic table were, the best thing that dog did was allow me to tune out all the problems that had been overwhelming me and to just focus on the here and now.  Sitting in the shade, watching a shelter dog have a wonderful time during her break from her solitary run was a beautiful thing, and made me realize that if I hadn’t come in this morning, this moment wouldn’t have happened.  And that allowed me to calm down, breathe deeply, and to be glad that I was in this particular place, at this particular time, and especially with this particular dog.

IMG_0471Of course, this is a life lesson that goes beyond my time at the animal shelter:  when the world’s problems seem too overwhelming to even think about, it’s okay to turn my back on the big picture and focus on the smaller, more personal  picture, at least for a little while.  Sometimes I just need to live in the moment, and to focus on what is right in front of me.  I know the old saying goes “can’t see the forest for the trees,” and I get that.  Usually, in order to get things done, we need to stop obsessing over the little details and look at the big picture.  But I believe there are also times when it’s necessary to ignore the forest and just focus on the trees.  Maybe even just the one tree that is particularly beautiful and affirming.   Because I believe there are times when happiness is best found in the details.