Take The Chance

Martha & DanielWhen my son started first grade, I decided to look for a part-time job to help supplement our household income.  I had worked as a free-lance writer for several years, but both the assignments and the pay were sporadic at best.  I heard that the local school district often used substitutes for their various offices, and so I applied for the job.  Shortly afterwards, I was called for an interview to be a substitute teacher.  I knew there must have been a mistake, but since it had been a long time since I’d had a job interview, I decided to go anyway, just for the experience.  Surprisingly, I was hired on as an elementary-level substitute teacher (my bachelor’s degree qualified me for short-term assignments), and added to the list of potential office subs as well.

Early one morning a few weeks later, I got a call from a woman in the Human Resources Department, wanting to know if I could come in right away.  I should have been thrilled, but I was standing there in my underwear, with my hair still dripping wet from the shower, and I had no way to get there because my car was in the shop. “No problem,” the woman said when I told her I had no transportation, “I can come get you.  I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”  So I scrambled around and got ready, and spent my first day working as the only person in the Human Resources office, answering phone calls, fielding questions, and even securing a substitute for a teacher who had to go home sick.

Still later, I was called in to actually be a substitute teacher for a third grade class at my children’s school.  The administrators and other teachers were very supportive, the teacher I was subbing for had left an easy-to-follow lesson plan, and the kids were mostly well-behaved.  I was exhausted by the end of the day (don’t let anyone ever tell you teaching is easy), but I must not have screwed up too badly because I got more assignments, and even had teachers request me for planned absences.

Eventually, I gave up subbing in the classrooms, but I stayed on as an office sub for the next twelve  years.  The work was sometimes mind-numblingly routine, but I really liked the people I worked with, greatly improved my computer skills,  and the job provided the flexibility I needed to pursue my writing career and be available to my kids.  In short, the job was a good fit for me and my family at the time, and I was fortunate to get it.

It would have been so easy for me not to go on that initial interview, since it was for a job I didn’t apply for and didn’t think I qualified for.  And it would have been so easy to tell the woman who called from Human Resources that I just wasn’t available to come in that morning.  Looking back on it, I’m surprised I said yes, because taking risks is not my strong point.  I tend to play it cautious in life, choosing the easy option over the difficult one, and am a little too quick to think, “I can’t do that.”  But if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone all those years ago, I would have missed out on a great part-time job.

I try to remember that these days, when I’m faced with an opportunity that feels a bit too challenging and my first instinct is to say, “no thanks.”  I try to remember that every good thing that has happened in my life:  my marriage, my children, my writing, my volunteering, etc., came only when I was willing to try something new and take on a challenge I wasn’t entirely sure I could handle. Mostly, I try to remember that, when given the choice, it is almost always better to take the risk.


The Roads Not Traveled

IMG_1272We just got back from a fun weekend spent visiting family in Iowa.  On Saturday night, my nephew and his wife graciously hosted everyone for a big family dinner at their home.  They moved to a beautiful old farmhouse in the country a couple of years ago, and this was the first time my husband and I had visited them there.  Their one hundred year-old house (which is remarkably well preserved)  sits on several acres of land, with a beautiful view of rolling pasture right outside their front door.  They have fruit trees, a huge garden, several charming outbuildings and even a chicken coop, complete with six lively chickens.   And as they were showing us around, all I could think was, “I want to live here.”

There has always been a part of me that would like to live out in the country, in a big rambling farmhouse surrounded by enough land to keep a few horses, several dogs and whatever other animals I happened to acquire.  I enjoy the peaceful beauty of rural areas, and the thought of living closer to nature, with the chance to grow lots of vegetables and maybe even have fresh eggs from my very own chickens is appealing to me.  But that’s not the life I chose, and it’s not the life I am living.

I live in an inner suburb of a large city, on less than a quarter-acre lot, with neighbors close by on three sides.  I can’t step out my door and go for a nice walk in the country, but I can walk to several stores and restaurants, and my children could walk to their school when they were little.  My son, daughter, and mother each live within a twenty minute drive from my home, and my husband and I have many good friends who live close enough to see often.  All in all, I am happy with the way things have turned out, and have no plans of moving anytime soon.

I think we all have to make our choices in life, and there are always trade-offs in whatever choice we make.  As much as I would enjoy living in that big house in the country, I also enjoy living in a city with all that a big urban area has to offer. Country living is, for me, one of those choices that I think about from time to time and wonder just exactly what my life would be like if I had followed that particular dream.  Just like how each time my husband and I visit Sanibel Island, we think, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just live down here?”  But then we go home, look around us, and realize that we are content to stay just where we are.

There will always be a part of me that yearns for the country life, and for the island life as well.  But I know that not all dreams can be followed, and that we have to choose the ones that are the most important to us.  For my nephew and his wife, the dream of farm life was the one worth pursuing, and I’m so glad it worked out for them.  (And I hope they don’t mind us visiting rather often!)  But for me, both the rural life and the island life are simply the tempting roads that I didn’t travel on the journey of my life.

Are You Sure?

IMG_1271I have probably read all of the “Peanuts” cartoon strips that were created by Charles Schulz, but one of his stories in particular stands out in my mind.  The character of Linus discovers that the summer camp he is attending is being run by a group with very strong religious beliefs that are very different from his own.  One night, he’s sitting around the campfire with all the other campers, listening to that night’s lecture from the group’s leader.  At one point, he raises his hand and politely asks, “May I ask a question, sir?  Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?”

I don’t know about you, but I find it very easy to identify with Linus.  I don’t care what the subject is–something as important as religion or politics, or something as trivial as which local restaurant makes the best guacamole— I am always a bit uncomfortable around people who are so very, very sure that they are absolutely right.  Of course I understand that strong beliefs are not only okay, but necessary, as we navigate our way through this messy and confusing world.  But I think that we should always leave room for that tiny bit of doubt that keeps us from being so sure about our beliefs that we end up being caught in a cocoon of our own arrogance and assumed superiority.

When we are too sure that we are right, we become the people who know very well how to talk, but forget how to listen.  We become the people who want to silence those who disagree with us, because we are so very certain they are wrong and that their opinions are dangerous.  We tend to close our minds to new ideas, other perspectives and even out-and-out facts that challenge our views.

Personally, I have been wrong so many times in my life that I find it easy to believe that I will be wrong many, many times again. I do know what my life experience, my education, and my observations have taught me so far, and that has shaped my beliefs. But I also know that the longer I live, the more I learn, and sometimes new information presents itself that causes me to rethink, re-evaluate and sometimes even change some of my most firmly-held convictions.  And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Remember when the latest scientific evidence taught us that the world was flat?  Neither do I, because I’m not quite that old.  But the point is that we are making new discoveries all the time that are going to challenge some of the beliefs that we hold dear.  And if we’re lucky, we are also going to keep meeting new people, hearing new perspectives and gaining new understandings that are going to shape how we view ourselves and the world around us.  Life constantly moves forward.

I think strong beliefs and firm convictions are good, but they are even better when combined with an open mind and a loving, accepting heart.  Because none of us can be right all the time.

Garage Sale Survivor

When I was a young woman, I used to love a good garage sale.  As a newly-married twenty something, garage sales were a cheap and easy way to fill our new home with necessary furniture and household items without doing too much damage to our household budget.  And when my children were young, spending the morning at neighborhood garage sales was a fun family outing.  I’d give each of them a dollar bill to spend on an item of their choice, which kept them happy and busy while I sorted through the goods, looking for gently-used clothes and toys.  At that point, my children were growing so fast that I didn’t really want to spend a lot of money on their play clothes or on toys that I knew would be ignored once their novelty wore off.

Later, when our house began to feel a bit too full and we had our own piles of outgrown children’s clothes, I even held a few of my own sales.  It was work to gather the stuff I wanted to sell, price it, make the signs and then get up early on the morning of the sale to set up the display tables in our driveway, but it felt good to get rid of all those unwanted items and make a little bit of money at the same time.  I don’t remember being particularly overwhelmed when I was preparing for a garage sale, or being particularly exhausted after the sale was finished.

IMG_9716Yesterday, I spent the morning helping my daughter, my mother, and my sister host a multi-family garage sale.  Most of the items for sale were my daughter’s, the combined result of her love for shopping and the need to find space in her house for the many lovely wedding gifts she received last year.  It took us hours to sort and price everything because we had so much stuff we couldn’t even fit it all in my mother’s two-car garage.  And since we had all contributed items for the sale, we also had to have a system for keeping track of who was selling what, so we could divide the cash fairly afterwards.  Five of us spent an entire evening just setting up the sale.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was pretty tired before the sale even started.

The sale was an undisputed success, with so few leftovers that we were able to fit it all in only two cars to transport it to the local GoodWill.  We had the usual “early birds” who showed up well before the start time, wanting to buy while we were still lugging around the heavy furniture and trying to remember where we put the cash box.  People tended to come in groups, and usually all wanted to check out at the exact same time.  I started the morning running the checkout table, but decided that wasn’t the best use of my talents after I found myself adding $4.00, $.25 and $2.00 and coming up with $5.43.  After that, I stuck to bagging up the purchases and helping my son-in-law carry the heavy stuff to people’s cars.

I’m very glad that I got to spend time with my family, working together, as family bonding time is always important.  I’m glad that my daughter was able to declutter her house and make a small profit at the same time.  I’m even glad that the people who came to the sale were able to get items they needed at a very good price, because I remember how much I used to appreciate that.  But today, I’m exhausted and sore, and feel every single year of my (late) middle age.  I’m sure that my daughter will have another sale someday, but I’m thinking that the next time she does, my contribution is going to be my best wishes, and maybe a couple of cheap glass vases.

The Blank Page

IMG_1230For me, the hardest part about writing has always been coming up with an actual idea that I wanted to write about.  I really envy the writers who say they have dozens of ideas rattling around in their heads, and their only problem is finding enough time to do the actual writing, which they often regard as a chore.  I’m the exact opposite:  I love the process of writing, of experimenting with different words and phrases until I get it just right.  I even like editing my work, because I find that after taking a short break from the creative process, I can see so much more clearly where there is room for improvement.  For me, the problem is simply:  what in the world am I going to write about?

English was always my strongest subject in school, but once I got to the age where the teachers no longer assigned topics, I usually struggled with finding an idea for all those assigned essays.  It got to the point where I was searching for my topic while I was still reading the books, which definitely took the enjoyment out of reading.  Later, when I decided to try my hand at fiction, I had the same problem.  It took me forever to think of my plots, settings and characters.  Once I had those figured out, actually writing the books and short stories was easy.

Sadly, the same problem continues with my blog.  I have a self-imposed schedule of two blog postings a week, which means that I have to actually come up with two new ideas each and every week.  I spent about a month before I started this blog thinking of ideas for posts and even writing a few of them out, just to be prepared.  But I used those up a long time ago, now it is not uncommon for me to feel a bit of panic on the morning when I’m supposed to publish a blog post and I realize that I have absolutely no clue what I’m going to write about. (I am in awe of the people who post every day.  And I know I’ll never be one of them.)

I think the problem is mostly self-confidence.  Of course I have ideas, especially for this blog.  I have lots of things going on in my life, and lots of opinions about the world around me.  But I also have a nagging inner voice that counters most of my ideas with the discouraging words, “Who cares?  Who would want to read about that?”  I think that ultimately, my struggle isn’t with finding ideas or topics,  it’s with having the confidence to put my thoughts, ideas, and feelings out there with the assumption that anyone else is going to find them worth reading.  Because the bottom line is I write, just like most writers do, with the intention that someone else is actually going to read it.

In my fiction writing, things finally clicked when I learned to stop worrying about what an editor was going to think of my story and simply started writing the stories I truly wanted to write.  When that happened, the characters, the plots, and the settings came much more easily.  When writing for my blog, I am slowly learning to stop thinking about what my followers and readers want me to write, and to simply write about whatever topic is foremost in my mind at the moment.  I keep reminding myself that this isn’t an English class and I’m no longer trying to earn that perfect grade.

The blank page, or computer screen, will always be a little bit of a problem for me.  But with each blog post, with each story idea that I develop and write about, the process gets that much easier.  I’m learning to trust my own opinions and ideas, and I’m discovering just a little bit more about who I really am and finding the courage to share that person with others.  And that’s more than enough reason to keep writing.

Family Legacy

Bernard and Martha_0015I was sorting through some old family photos the other day when I came across my favorite picture of my grandmother.  She’s standing in the backyard of of her modest brick bungalow, dressed in her Sunday best, complete with hat, white gloves and one of those fox stoles that were so popular back in the fifties.  She’s looking off into the distance, unsmiling, formal, and quietly dignified.   Even though I remember her smiling easily and more often than not wearing a casual cotton “house dress” as she went about her daily chores, there’s something about this photo that really captures the true spirit of the woman I remember from my childhood.

I know only the most basic details of my grandmother’s history.  I know that she was born in 1893 to German immigrants, and grew up speaking German at home and English at school.  I know she married my grandfather when she was almost thirty years old, and that shortly afterwards she had two children, a girl first and then a boy (my father).  To my knowledge, she never worked outside of her home after she was married, and like many women of her generation, she never learned to drive a car.  I know that she lived through the Great Depression and counted herself lucky to have “enough” at a time when so many people were hungry and homeless, and how she regularly handed out sandwiches to those who came to her door, asking for food.  She raised her family and lived her entire married life in the small brick house she and my grandfather purchased shorty after they were married.

I was lucky enough to live near my grandparents for the first eleven years of my life, so I spent a lot of time with them both, but especially with my grandmother.  She came to our house often for family gatherings, or to watch my sisters and I while my mother ran errands, and she almost always brought cupcakes, cookies, or brownies with her.  Even better were the times when we went to her house, where she kept the candy jar full and stocked our favorite brand of root beer in the refrigerator.  She rarely took the time to actually play with us, but simply welcomed us into her home and then got on with whatever job needed doing.  Sometimes we helped her work around the house, other times we headed upstairs to the back bedroom where she kept a toy chest filled just for us.

I wish I had taken the time to get to know my grandmother more, but she died just before I turned eighteen, which was well before I was mature enough to be interested in family history.  I know she stayed close to her brother and sister, getting together with her siblings and their families every week, that she was very active in her church, and enjoyed playing bridge and canasta with her friends.  I know that she lived to see her only daughter die a violent death, and can only imagine her heartache and grief.

Bernard and Martha_0015 (2)But I would like to have known if she was happy spending her life at home, raising children and keeping house, or if she had other hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled?  I wonder if she waited until she was almost thirty to marry (unusually old, in that time) because she was still needed to help her parents and siblings at home, or if she simply didn’t meet the right man until my grandfather came along.  I even wonder about the silly, insignificant things, like why she prided herself on never drinking water with her meals, or where she got the idea that drinking white soda pop gave a person kidney stones.  (She let us drink root beer, but not 7-Up.)

Sadly, there are many things I’ll never know about my grandmother.  But I have my photographs, and my memories of a strong, caring woman who had an ingrained sense of duty, who enjoyed her friends and who loved her family dearly.  And I know, without a doubt, that I’m proud to be her granddaughter.

A Dog’s Life

IMG_1219One way or another, I spend a big chunk of my life these days in the company of dogs.  To begin with, I share my home with Lucy, a fourteen-year old dog who has always operated with a total disregard for household rules.  And while old age means she can no longer move as quickly or hear as well as she used to, I still walked into our dining room shortly after we had finished this year’s Easter brunch to find her standing calmly on our dining room table, polishing off the rest of the dessert tray.  Just for the record, she seemed to favor the little egg-shaped cakes over the lemon squares, although it was obvious that she had sampled both.  She may be old, but she still knows an opportunity when she sees it.

IMG_1060Besides living with Lucy, I often help take care of my children’s dogs, which I’m more than happy to do.  My daughter and her husband have Harley, a chihuahua mix who adores her immediate circle of friends and family and has absolutely no use for anyone else. In her own home, she’s happy to simply ignore people she doesn’t like, but walking her is a challenge.  She may love her walks, but she also loves barking at anyone and anything she sees, and flies into an absolute rage when she spots an approaching car.  It doesn’t seem to occur to her that five pounds of furious dog is no match for a thousand pounds of moving steel, and I’m not about to let her learn that lesson the hard way.

IMG_0210My son and his fiancé have Frank, a pug mix, and Roxy, an English Bulldog.  I know Frank well since he lived with us for a while right after my son graduated from college, and have come to love Roxy, too.  Roxy and Frank have become good friends in the past couple of years, although there have been a few necessary adjustments.  Unlike most dogs, Frank loves to wear sweaters (probably because he doesn’t tolerate the cold very well), but Roxy has a problem with that.  One cold December morning, my son sent the dogs outside with Frank proudly sporting a brand-new Christmas sweater.  Ten minutes later, the dogs came back in.  Frank was wearing only his fur, while Roxy had Frank’s Christmas sweater dangling from her teeth.  Clearly, Roxy is a dog who knows how to take matters into her own paws, and Frank has learned to live without sweaters.

IMG_4353My mother has Penny, a sweet and elderly chihuahua who was rescued from a hoarding situation about nine years ago, which means that altogether, my immediate family has five dogs.  I spend time with all of them, trimming nails and filling in as needed for potty breaks, walks and meals.  For the past fourteen years, I have also been volunteering regularly at the Humane Society where I have logged in hundreds of miles walking shelter dogs.  I’ve spent hours patiently coaxing a shy dog out of its run, or working to teach a rowdy dog basic manners, or trying to calm a dog who is clearly stressed out.

Although I’ve always loved dogs, I honestly don’t think I ever planned to have quite so much of my life revolve around them.  There was a time when I toyed with the idea of being a  veterinarian or a vet tech, but my habit of fainting at the sight of blood sort of ruled that out.  Still, I can’t say I’m unhappy with the way things have turned out.  It’s true that in some ways, my life has certainly “gone to the dogs,” but as far as I’m concerned, they’re worth it.

Look At Me!

I was taking a walk in my neighborhood a couple of weeks ago when I saw a group of boys ahead of me, playing in the street on their skateboards.  They were gathered at the top of a rather steep hill, daring each other to be the first to go down.  As I got closer, I debated whether or not I should warn them that I thought the incline was too steep for skateboarding.  I was a stranger to these boys, and I had no idea whether they would listen to me or not, or how they would react to my interference.  Before I could make up my mind, the smallest of them pushed off down the hill, gathering speed as he went.  Predictably, he wiped out about half-way down, although he did manage to veer to the left so that he fell onto the grass rather than the asphalt.  The other boys ran to him, and after making sure he was unharmed, one of them exclaimed, “Wow, I wish I had taped that!  I bet it would get about a million hits on YouTube!”

I supposed I shouldn’t have been shocked by that remark.  After all, these boys have been raised in the era of social media, where people think nothing of posting almost every aspect of their personal lives on the internet, and then sit back to see how many “views” and “likes” each post generates.  So it’s probably only natural that their main reaction to their friend’s accident should be to post it for the entertainment of others.  But I still found it a bit unsettling.

Maybe it’s because I’m mostly an introvert who doesn’t really like to be the center of attention, but I don’t think it’s healthy when people begin to live their lives as if they are constantly on stage.  I don’t think that when something happens to us, our first thought should be that it would make a popular post.  I think that most of the time, we should be content to simply live our life without the need to show it to other people.  (Personally, I don’t want to see a posting of a picture of anyone’s meal, unless it is accompanied by the sincere words, “This tastes great, and if you want me to, I’ll bring you some immediately!”)

Social media can be a great tool for staying in touch with faraway friends and relatives, for getting important information out quickly to those who need to know it, and even for posting those special moments that are truly meant to be shared.  But if we share too much, too often, we run the risk of living our lives as if we are constantly seeking the approval of others for almost everything thing we do, say and believe.  And call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t think that’s a good thing.