Mind the Gap

I have a long list of things I would like to change about myself, and I’m not just talking about my physical appearance.  I would love to have a good singing voice, and not to be quite so afraid of heights, and I wish that I had a better memory, especially for names.  But if I could change just one thing about myself, I would choose to stop worrying so much.  Because the fact is that I worry pretty much all the time, about almost everything.  And it doesn’t do me one bit of good, because the stuff I worry about rarely happens, and the bad things that happen in my life are usually things I didn’t see coming at all.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I spent the weekend with our family at my brother-in-law’s lake house, and on our first night there, we all piled into his boat for a “sunset cruise” which we enjoyed very much.  It was dark when we returned to the dock, and my brother-in-law warned us all to be careful stepping out of the boat because the dock could rock a bit.


Being me, I immediately worried that I would drop my cell phone in the lake, and so I clutched it tightly as I carefully put my right foot on the deck.  Thankful that I had been able to maintain my balance, I quickly swung my left foot out and placed it, inadvertently, in a gap between the two parts of the dock.  My foot and lower leg plunged into the water, but my fall was stopped abruptly and painfully by my upper thigh, which was too big to fit through the gap.  It was the first time in my life that I was actually thankful for my chubby thighs.

I had worried that I would drop my cell phone (which I had brought along so I could take pictures of the lake) in the water, and that didn’t happen.  Even as I was suspended with one foot on the dock and the other foot in the lake, I still managed to hang on to my phone. It never crossed my mind that I might actually put my foot through a gap in the dock, even though that’s exactly what did happen.   Once again, I had wasted a lot of emotional energy worrying about all the wrong things.

That’s why I am making a very dedicated effort to stop worrying so much.  It’s not that I’m going to pretend that everything is always going to be fine and that nothing bad will ever happen, because I know better than that.  All of us have hard times in life, and all of us will experience our share of accidents and tragedies.  But constantly worrying about what could go wrong does nothing to prevent bad things from happening, and only serves to put too much focus on the negative aspects of life.

So I think what I need to do is learn to take sensible precautions, (such as the “mind the gap” signs I saw on the Irish Railway, warning passengers to beware of the gap between the train cars and the platform), but stop obsessing about every single thing that could possibly go wrong in any given situation.  Because life is too short and precious to waste it worrying about what might go wrong, when I could be enjoying all that is going so very right.

Coming Home

I just returned from a wonderful family trip to Napa Valley to celebrate my daughter’s 30th birthday.  It was one of those rare trips where everything goes right:  the flights were hassle-free, our hotel rooms were clean and comfortable, and each winery we visited was nicer than the last.  More importantly, we had a terrific time hanging out with our son and daughter, as well as our son-in-law and our future daughter-in-law.  It was so nice to take a break from the hectic routine of our daily lives and to spend some quality time together.  It was even better to realize that, even though our “kids” are now adults, we are still close, and that the people they have chosen to spend their lives with not only fit in beautifully with our family unit, but they actually enrich it.


On a scale of one to ten, I would have to give this family vacation a solid 9.5, and that’s only because the location of this particular trip meant that we had to spend a certain amount of time driving on elevated highways and bridges, which my  husband doesn’t handle well.  I’m proud to report that he rose to the occasion and soldiered on,  just getting buggy-eyed, gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles turned white, and doing the kind of breathing I remembered all too well from when I was enduring the contractions of childbirth.  Usually, he swears fluently, closes his eyes, and threatens to kill any of us who don’t maintain absolute silence until we are safely off the bridge.

Still, even after such a lovely trip in the company of the people I love most in the world, I have to admit that I was very happy to come back home.  When I was younger, I only felt that happiness at returning to my own house when I had been on a particularly difficult or challenging trip, such as one of our ill-fated attempts at camping (don’t let anyone tell you that tents are waterproof, because they’re not) or a business trip that was especially boring.  But lately, I have noticed that I feel a quiet joy at walking in my own front door no matter what trip I have gone on, or how much fun I have had on my travels.

And I think that’s probably a good thing.  Being glad to be home means that I have, somehow, managed to create a living space that gives me a sense of security and belonging, which is what a home should be.  I like sleeping in my own bed, with a mattress that has just the right degree of softness and the knowledge that some stranger has slept in it the night before.  I like being surrounded by a decor that I have chosen, with the help of my husband, to reflect our personal taste and that comfortably holds our most prized possessions.  I like knowing my neighbors, having my dog roaming freely about, and puttering around my yard, tending to the few hardy flowers that manage to survive my gardening skills.

Being glad to come home doesn’t mean that I have lost my taste for travel or for experiencing new things.  I hope I never lose the desire to go somewhere I have never been before and to experience different cultures, different climates and different environments.  It just means that after a certain amount of time, I begin to long for my own house, in my own neighborhood, in my own town.  Because no matter where I go and no matter how much I enjoy my trips, one of the best parts of traveling is always coming home when it’s over.

What Will They Say?

IMG_4471Yesterday, I attended a beautiful and moving memorial service for the husband of a long-time family friend.  Afterwards, we all gathered at her brother’s house for some food and drinks, as is often the custom after such services, so that family and friends can comfort each other and share stories and memories about the one they have lost.  I’m sure most of us have been to several of these gatherings, but there was something especially touching about this one.  The toasts and tributes were so heartfelt, the memories were so special and the sense of loss so deep, that there was no doubt that my friend’s husband was not only a very special person, but was also dearly loved but all who knew him well.  Clearly, he had left a powerful legacy of goodness, tolerance, and love.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but wonder how different our lives might be if we thought just a little bit more often about how people we will remember us after we are gone.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve attended a funeral or memorial service, people don’t really talk about the sort of things that seem so very important to us as we live our daily lives.  No one mentions what car the deceased drove, how much money he made, how she always looked ten years younger than her actual age, what advanced degrees he earned or what a prestigious job she held.  Sure, some of that information might make it into an obituary or be a part of the life story shared during the service, but when the time comes for people to share their own memories of their loved one, that’s not what they talk about at all.

In the personal tributes and toasts, people talk about the real gifts that their loved one gave them.  They talk about how he was always ready to listen to their problems, without judgement, and without jumping in to offer quick and easy advice.  They talk about how she always made time for them, no matter how hectic and stressful her life happened to be.  They talk about the good examples he set by the way he lived his life, or how she had the courage to follow her own dreams and encouraged others to do the same.  In short, they talk about the important things, and not the inconsequential stuff that occupies far too much of our attention.

I have always been taught not to worry about what people say about me (easier said than done), and I understand that is meant to be good advice about not letting other people’s opinions dictate how I live my life.  But I’m beginning to think that it’s a good idea to consider what people are going to say when I’m gone, and how they are going to remember me.  Am I a positive and encouraging influence on other people?  Am I helping others when they need it, and not just when it’s convenient for me?  Will anyone be able to say, honestly, that I left this world just a little bit better than I found it?

The beautiful tributes and heartfelt toasts I heard yesterday are the kind that can only be earned by living our lives as fully and compassionately as we possibly can.  And I can think of no better way to be remembered, and no better legacy to leave behind.

Lessons From Dogs

Next month marks my fourteenth anniversary as a volunteer at my local humane society.   I could write an entire book about all the wonderful dogs and people I have encountered while volunteering there, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m just going to  highlight a few of the important lessons I’ve learned in the past fourteen years.

IMG_0445First of all, despite what I have always been taught, sharing is not necessarily a good thing. Yes, it is wonderful when dogs share their love, their affection, and their joy at being taken out for a walk after being cooped up in their kennels for many hours.  But the problem is, they don’t stop there.  Dogs share everything, (except food) and they share it abundantly and extravagantly.  That includes, but is not limited to:  their fur, their drool, their unique doggie smell, their poop, and on the rare occasion, their fleas.  If they have it, they will share it.  But that doesn’t mean you want it.

Also, always keep your mouth closed when you are close to a dog’s face.  I learned this the hard way when I was leashing up a German Shepherd that was still getting used to being handled by people, which meant that I always spoke to her in a calm, reassuring voice when I was getting her ready for a walk.  Unfortunately, I made the mistake of doing that while I was leaning in to clip my leash to her collar, and to show her gratitude, she suddenly lifted her head and gave my face a quick lick.  While my mouth was open.  Which meant that for a brief second, I had a dog’s tongue in my mouth.

Trying to be tough, I just shuddered a little and went ahead and took her for a walk.  But as I was putting the dog back, I spotted a note on her kennel that said she was being treated for worms.  Suddenly worried, and more than a little bit nauseous, I found the nearest vet tech and inquired as to whether if I had just been “french kissed” (as we used to call it back in the day) by a dog with worms, did that mean I could actually get worms?  When she stopped laughing (which took quite some time), she said, “probably not.”  I have to tell you, that was not the definitive answer I was looking for.  And from that moment on, I kept my mouth firmly closed when I was anywhere near a dog’s face.

On a more serious note, I learned that no matter how hard it is to go down to the shelter, day after day and week after week, to walk shelter dogs in all kinds of weather, for however long it takes to get each and every one of them out for a walk, it is ALWAYS worth the effort.  No matter how tired I am, no matter how sweaty hot or frozen I am, no matter how much I am smeared with smelly stuff, nothing beats seeing a dog who came to our shelter neglected, abused, or just plain terrified of the shelter environment begin to blossom into the happy, healthy and confident dog they were born to be.  And when they are adopted into a loving home, all of us volunteers have the satisfaction of knowing that we were a part of that transformation, which is nothing short of a minor miracle.

Most shelters are in desperate need of more volunteers to help them care for their animals.  And while volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter is not for everyone, and certainly not for the faint of heart, I really believe that if you have some time to spare and love animals, you should give it a try.  Yes, you will be tested in ways you haven’t dreamed of.  But trust me, if you stick around, the rewards will be more than you ever dreamed of as well.

I’m A Writer

Yesterday, I was at a birthday party when a woman I had just met asked the inevitable question, “And what do you do?”  Without giving the matter a second’s thought, I simply answered, “I’m a writer.”  Now I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count, but that was the first time I ever answered it with those particular words.

Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life, or at least from the age that I could first pick up a pencil and carefully write down the words to a story.  But we live in a society that defines us by what we do for a living, and I have never earned a living through my writing.  Writing has always been something I did on the side, either while working at the rather tedious jobs I held when I worked full-time, or when I was a stay-at-home mom with my two children.  Sure, I sold some articles and even had a very short book published by an educational publisher, but a writing career was always a dream I pursued and never the reality I actually lived.

Which is why I was very surprised by the way I answered the question at the party.  The four children’s book manuscripts I have written are still sitting, unpublished, in my files.  My name is not, sadly, on the New York Times best-sellers list.  If you went to any library in the country and tried to find a book by Ann Coleman, you would fail to do so. (Unless there is another person by the same name out there who has had more publishing success than I have.  If there is, please don’t tell me, because I might be tempted to claim credit for her work when I’m having a bad day.)  Yes, I am now writing this blog, but it’s been going for eighteen months and I have only recently the 400-followers mark.  Advertisers are not exactly pounding on my door, wanting a piece of the action.

I think all that has changed is the way I have learned to think about myself.  When I was younger, I secretly defined myself as a writer, but believed that I had no right to publicly claim that title until I had appropriate validation from the publishing world.  I desperately wanted to sell books to a major publisher, not so much to see my work in print, but to feel as if I had finally earned permission to call myself a writer.  “Of course I’m an author,” I would be able to say, pointing casually at the shelf full of my published books as proof.

But now I realize that whether or not I can earn a living through my stories and essays isn’t what makes me a writer.  I have come to believe that if someone writes regularly (I do) and puts his or her writing out for others to read (I do), and works hard at  improving his or her writing skills (I do), then that person is, indeed, a writer.

Some of us are blessed to be able to earn a living doing what we love most, and that’s truly a wonderful thing.  But the rest of us don’t have to let ourselves be defined by how we pay our bills.  If we are doing what we love to do, whether it’s writing, gardening, painting, woodworking, or whatever, then I believe we have the right to define ourselves by our passion.  And we shouldn’t hesitate to share that definition with others when we are asked, as we always will be, “And what do you do?”

Stay In Touch

There’s no denying it, life is busy these days.  Most of us spend our time rushing madly from one commitment to another, trying to meet the demands of our jobs, our families, or whatever it happens to be that requires our time and attention. So it’s only natural that we look for areas in our lives where we can cut back, and chores are ignored, obligations are dodged, and relationships are neglected.   And sadly, one of the things we are often too quick to let go of is our friendships.

I remember being shocked once when a friend told me, “I’m not interested in making any new friends, because I have all the friends I want already.”  But now I understand what she meant.  Friendships, like all relationships, take time, and there are just so many hours in the day.  So in an effort to maintain her current friendships, she had simply declared a moratorium on making any new ones.  I think the same theory is at work when people make room for a new friend in their life by dropping an old one.

But for me, my friends, both old and new, are too precious to let go.   So I have been vigilant about trying to stay in touch with my old friends, even during the phases in my life when I have very little time to spare, and for the most part, I’ve been successful. Sometimes connecting is as simple as a quick text, other times it’s a phone call just to touch base, while still other times it involves a drive across the state for a girls’ weekend with my high school friends.  However it happens, it’s time well spent, because it means we are keeping the friendship alive.

0553Recently, I enjoyed a high school reunion where I reconnected with many old friends, was visited by one of my best friends from college, and had lunch with a dear childhood friend who now lives on another continent.   I was thrilled when several of my life-long friends, even those who live far away, attended my daughter’s wedding.  There’s just something so satisfying about sharing my life’s major moments with people I have known for decades, and in meeting a friend I haven’t seen in years and still feeling that instant, close connection.  With every single encounter, I find myself being so very glad that I made the effort to stay in touch with my “old” friends.

Yes, making friends and keeping old friendships alive does requires a certain amount of time and effort.  But I’ll gladly put it in, because they’re worth it.

Wear the White Jeans

IMG_0290Like many women, whenever I get invited to an event, one of my first thoughts is, “What in the world am I going to wear?”  So when I received an invitation to my future daughter-in-law’s bachelorette party, my first reaction was to be very touched and happy that I was included.  My second reaction was to start fretting about exactly what I was going to wear for this occasion.

We were going to a nearby historical town to spend the afternoon visiting wineries, and since we would to be outside some of the time, I decided to wait and see what the weather was going to be before I decided on my outfit.  I have reached the age where the more clothes I have on, the better I look.  But I also knew that August can be very hot and humid, and had to take that into consideration.  Luckily, the day of the party turned out to be only pleasantly warm, which gave me more choice in my attire.  I decided that I was going to aim for a casual, yet festive look, with an eye toward maximum coverage.

Pairing white jeans with a light-weight, dressy top seemed to be the obvious solution, but I found myself hesitating, as I always do when I consider wearing my white jeans.  I usually wear dark pants, which help hide the fact that the lower half of my body is bigger than the top half, and was afraid that the white jeans might highlight the fact that my body shape is, in essence, that of a pyramid with legs.  Also, I was afraid that the white jeans might be ruined.  Even though I always drink white wine (the wine of choice for clumsy people), I knew there would be plenty of red wine around, as well as other things that could stain white jeans, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk it.

I think if I hadn’t been rushed for time when I was getting ready, I probably would have made a different clothing choice.  But I didn’t want to be late, so I just threw on the white jeans, found a top with a “busy” enough design to counter-balance the vast whiteness below, and headed off for the party.  And had a wonderful, wonderful, time with my future daughter-in-law, her mother, and her close friends, including my daughter.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this post.  My white jeans have sat in my drawer for most of this past summer, as well as the summer before that.  I have been too afraid to wear them, because I didn’t have the figure for them and/or that they would get dirty or stained.  So each time I tried them on before going out, I almost always took them back off and put on a different, “safer,” pair of pants or jeans, believing that I would wear the white ones later.

What exactly I was waiting for, I don’t know.  It’s not as though, at age 58, I’m going to suddenly lose a ton of weight or develop “buns of steel.”   If anything, I’m going in the opposite direction, with the needle on my scale moving steadily upward, and the best I can boast at this point in my life is “buns of Jello.”  And yes, white does show the dirt and get stained, but so what?  That’s what bleach and washing machines are for.

The bottom line is that if going to a party that celebrates the fact that a lovely, sweet and intelligent young woman is going to marry my son isn’t worth finally wearing my white jeans, I don’t know what is.  I may be getting old, but I can still learn something new.  And what I learned yesterday is: appreciate all the good things that are going on in your life right now.  And wear the white jeans!

A Good Comparison

As a general rule, I don’t compare myself with other people.  Comparisons are mostly depressing, since too often I don’t think I quite measure up to the other person’s talent, intelligence, appearance, etc., and immediately begin wondering what I should be doing to catch up.  And even if I do find someone who makes me look good by comparison, what’s the point?  Does that mean I can just coast along with a sense of superiority, smug in the knowledge that “I’m so much better than that person?”  I don’t think so.

Aunt MickeyBut there are exceptions to every rule, and one of them is my Aunt Mickey.  Technically, Mickey was my Great Aunt, because she was the wife of my Great Uncle Bud.  She was, without a doubt, one of the most cheerful and upbeat people and I have ever known, and was always one of my most favorite members of the family.  I loved visiting her house when I was a child, because I could always count on a warm welcome and a good time, not to mention delicious cookies.  Aunt Mickey just genuinely seemed to enjoy life and to like people, which of course, drew them to her.

She was also very honest, and as I grew older and our talk became more serious, I learned some surprising things about Aunt Mickey’s background.  From what I remember, she told me she and her two sisters were orphaned at an early aged and raised in a convent.  One of her sisters died there, a result, she said, of a “broken heart.” She explained that although the nuns provided for the children’s physical needs, they didn’t know how to love them the way a mother would, and that her sister was a sickly child.  Another time, she told me that being an orphan had often made her feel as if she didn’t really belong anywhere when she was young, and I wonder if that was why she was always so welcoming.  She knew what it felt like to be an outsider, and did her best to make sure no one else felt that way.  It was no surprise that when her surviving sister was widowed, Aunt Mickey and Uncle Bud converted their second story to an apartment for her to live in.

Aunt Mickey was my uncle’s third wife, but he was her first husband.  They did not have any children of their own, although both of them dearly loved kids.  My uncle was a unique soul, given to telling stories that may or may not have been true, but I never once heard Aunt Mickey correct him.  Nor did she complain when his health meant giving up their big old house with the grape arbor in the backyard and moving to a high-rise retirement building in a rather sketchy neighborhood.  After my uncle’s death, she lived there alone for several more years.  It wasn’t an ideal situation, but whenever I visited her, she was her usual cheerful self, and spent far more time asking what was going on in my life than she did talking about what was going on in hers.

So, when I do feel the need to compare myself with someone else, I like to choose Aunt Mickey.  Not because I feel as if I “measure up” to her, because I most certainly don’t.  But comparing myself to Aunt Mickey reminds me that I can do so much better when it comes to being grateful for what I do have, for remembering to enjoy life even when things are hard, and that happiness has a whole lot more to do with my personal attitude than anything else.  And that’s not a depressing comparison at all.