New Year’s Hope

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Gifts

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

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

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

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

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

Patiently Waiting

I’m sure you’ve seen those commercials for mattress stores, claiming that since we spend at least one quarter of our lives sleeping, we should make sure we are doing it on a proper mattress. There are lots of different mattresses to choose from, everything from foam memory, pillow top, and even a mattress that raises and lowers at the touch of a remote, just to make sure we get a good night’s sleep.  I’m not arguing the need for a decent mattress, but I am wondering why the same reasoning doesn’t apply to other areas of our lives.  And maybe it’s because I’ve just returned from a doctor’s appointment, but what I’d really like to know is, why can’t someone put a little bit of time and effort into designing a decent waiting room?

I have no idea exactly what percentage of our lives are spent in waiting rooms, but at the age of 58, I’m quite sure I’ve spent several hundred hours in them.  And I can honestly say I didn’t enjoy a single minute.

Waiting rooms are depressingly similar.  They’re usually painted some bland color, packed with uncomfortable chairs and finished off with a dark carpet in a pattern that was obviously selected to hide stains.  There may be a television attached to the wall, but if there is, it’s inevitably tuned to a 24-hour news channel and the sound is either muted or so loud you can’t hear when your name is finally called.   Stacks of magazines are often available, but they are usually either trade magazines or at least six months old, or both.  And if you’re in a doctor’s office, you definitely don’t want to know how many sick people have already touched that year-old issue of People you’re skimming through with their germ-ridden hands.  If you aren’t sick already, you soon will be.

Luckily, we live in an age where most people can pass the time in the waiting room by reading from their personal electronic device, or a cell phone.  But that has it’s downside too, because having a cell phone so handy means that the people who share your waiting room can, and will, talk on them.  Loudly and about nothing even remotely interesting.  I’ve always believed that if you’re going to force other people to listen to your personal phone conversations, at least make it worth their while.  Say, perhaps, by reciting your credit card number, including the expiration date and security code.

Whether you’re waiting for routine medical exam, to have your teeth filled at the dentist or even just the oil changed in your car, no one really wants to be in that waiting room.  Sitting elbow to elbow with complete strangers, some of whom have better personal hygiene habits that others, is no picnic, no matter how you look at it.  But I believe it doesn’t really have to be that way.

Just think what a difference it would make if waiting rooms were designed to be places that people actually enjoyed.  Why not have cheerful decor and big, comfy chairs, with plenty of space between them.   Maybe they’d even recline, for those who needed a nap. And each chair would have it’s own screen, and everyone would get their own set of earplugs, so they could watch what they wanted without disturbing others. Cell phones would be collected upon arrival, and returned when the appointment was over. In the corner, there would be a concession stand with drinks and light snacks.

I don’t know about you, but I’d happily trot off to my next appointment if I knew I’d have such a nice room to wait in.  I might even show up an hour early, and I certainly wouldn’t complain if the doctor was running a bit behind.  I know this sounds a bit far-fetched, but hey, look how far we have come with mattresses.  If a mattress can evolve from a husk-filled pallet to the individually adjustable, super-comfortable beds we have now, surely we can design a waiting room worth spending time in.  I’m just saying….

Christmas Present

There’s something about Christmas that can put me in a very nostalgic mood.  It might be the family Christmas traditions, or how I decorate my house with so many old ornaments and nick-knacks from my childhood.  It could even be that most of my favorite Christmas songs are the old ones and that I listen to them a lot as I’m driving around town.  All I know is that this is the time of year when my memories of past Christmases are strongest, and I sometimes feel a real sense of loss.  It’s as if an important and precious part of the holiday is gone, and I know I’ll never get it back again.

Thankfully, I don’t feel that way all of the time.  In between my bouts of Christmas nostalgia, I have moments when I’m downright thankful for the changes that the passing years have wrought.

Last Sunday afternoon, I headed to the mall to get in a little Christmas shopping.  When I got there, I saw a line of families waiting to have their children’s photos taken with Santa that stretched almost from one end of the mall to the other.  And as far as I could tell, it wasn’t moving.  I can’t tell you how good it felt to breeze right by all those people, duck into the little boutique jewelry store, buy a gift for my daughter-in-law and waltz back out again.  At that moment in time, it felt great to know that my kids are too old to want to see Santa.


And speaking of Santa Claus, I like being at the stage where his only role in Christmas at my house is as (an occasionally tacky) decoration.  I remember the Christmas when my son was four all too well.  I had finished my shopping early that year, or so I thought until the afternoon of December 23, when my son casually mentioned that what he wanted most from Santa this year was a toy Bat-mobile.  This was news to me, so I asked why he hadn’t mentioned this before.  Apparently, he saw a commercial for it just that morning. (Yet another reason children shouldn’t be allowed to watch TV.)  I told him it was awfully late to be changing his mind, and he said he understood.  But he was still “really, really, hoping that Santa brings me a Bat-mobile.”  So guess who got to go fight the crowds for the last remaining Bat-mobile at Target?

As long as I’m being honest, and a bit Grinch-like, I’ll admit that I’m also glad I no longer have to be responsible for games and craft projects my kids’ holiday class parties.  Or spend two hours sitting on a cold metal folding chair during the school’s winter concert.  The concerts were only about an hour long, but if you didn’t come an hour early, you didn’t even get the privilege of an uncomfortable chair.  Instead, you ended up standing in a crowd around the perimeter of the gym, trying to peek over the shoulder of the tall guy in front of you, hoping to catch a glimpse of your kid on stage.  Good times, indeed.

I think nostalgia is remembering only the good times, and of course there were plenty of those.  I’ll always miss the excitement of the Christmas mornings of my own childhood, and the fun we had at Christmas when my own children were young.  But these days I’m getting better at recognizing that those long-ago Christmases were far from perfect, and that the present Christmas has a lot going for it, too.

Look for the Good

img_3836My husband and I always put up the artificial Christmas tree in our living room on the weekend after Thanksgiving and we usually leave it up through the first week in January.  That means that each year, the tree is in our living room for at least six weeks.  It’s a beautiful tree, lit with old-fashioned bulb lights (I finally found a few sets that work) and loaded with antique ornaments.  Still, almost every day I find it necessary to make some small adjustment:  an ornament moved to a “better” spot, a green light swapped for a red, a branch tweaked an inch or so to the left.  Because no matter how pretty my Christmas tree may be, whenever I look at it, I somehow manage to see some small imperfection that needs to be “fixed.”

Sadly, my habit of focusing on the negative extends far beyond Christmas decorating.  Sometimes the animal shelter where I volunteer is very full of dogs, and occasionally there are days when we don’t have enough people to get them all out for their daily walk.  And when that happens, I don’t head home from my volunteer shift feeling good about all the dogs that I did help that day.  Instead, I fret about the dogs that I wasn’t able to walk, and often end up feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

The same thing even happens with my blog.  If a particular post gets 200 views and 43 likes, I am usually quite happy with that, at least for a little while.  But then (and I’m almost ashamed to admit this) I often start to wonder just exactly why those other 157 people who viewed my post didn’t like it.  Which is just ridiculous, especially when I remember that when I started my blog I didn’t think I’d ever reach 200 followers, much less write a post that had that many views.

Of course I am very aware of all that is positive, beautiful and good in my life, and I do appreciate it.  I really do.  It’s just that I have this annoying habit of paying far too much attention to the things that aren’t going right, to the goals that I’m not able to accomplish, and to all those minor imperfections that are a normal part of everyone’s life.  And I really, really, want to stop doing that.

My husband and I just spent an unhappy couple of hours stringing some mini lights on the real Christmas tree that we put up in our basement family room.  We decided to try mini lights this year because they stay cool and are light-weight enough for this tree’s delicate branches, but I found them hard to work with because they don’t have clips to hold them in place.  We also had to replace an insanely tiny fuse and run back to the store for another strand.  Soon, we will hang the ornaments, and if I win the argument with my husband this year, we might even add some tinsel.

I am quite sure that the finished result won’t be perfect.  But I am equally sure that when we are done decorating this tree, it will be beautiful.  And I have made a solemn promise to myself that when I look at that tree, all I am going to notice is the beauty.  It may seem like a small thing, but I’ve got to start somewhere.

A Good Journey

It doesn’t seem possible, but according to my calendar, it has been exactly two years since I started this blog.  I can still remember how nervous I was about putting my writing on the internet where anyone and everyone could not only read it, but also comment on it.  I spent weeks writing and rewriting several short essays about being middle aged, just so I would have something to publish even when writer’s block struck.  I worried that no one would want to read my blog, and then I worried that lots of people would read it, but hate it.  And tell me exactly why in my comment section.  But eventually, with the constant encouragement (and occasional nagging) of a good friend, I sat down at the computer and wrote my first post.

Although I’ve been writing almost my entire life, I didn’t really understand what writing a blog entailed.  I knew that blogging meant I would have to find the motivation to write regular posts, to read and respond to any comments that were made, and that I’d probably have to deal with a fair amount of spam.  I knew I had to learn blogging terminology, such as widgets, tags, themes, etc.  It all sounded very confusing, but I believed I would figure it out eventually, and I was mostly right about that.  Above all, I knew that I was venturing into new territory and trying something that I had never done before.  There was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work out at all, and then I would just have to hope that no one ever asked me, “Whatever happened to that blog you started?”  I already had more than my share of failure in my writing career, and didn’t want to add to it.

But my blog didn’t fail.  I wrote my posts on a regular schedule; a small (but very much appreciated) group of people read them and often left encouraging comments, and with each passing month, my confidence grew.  I began adding photos to my posts and venturing out into other topics besides coping with middle age.  Slowly but surely, I found the courage to share my real opinions, thoughts and experiences, and discovered how liberating it is to be true to myself rather than writing only what I thought others wanted to read.  In many ways, that confidence has spilled over to other areas of my life as well.

Beyond that, the connections I’ve made through my blog have been a wonderful, if unexpected, gift.  My regular readers include friends from my past and family who live far away, and I love being in closer contact with them.  I’ve met terrific new people from all over the world, whose opinions I have come to value.  I may not have met any of them in person, but many feel like friends.

Of course there have been the tough times, when something technical isn’t working with my blog, or when I stare at my computer screen and think, “Well that’s it, you’ve finally run out of ideas!  Time to quit!”   But I don’t quit, because my blog has become too important to me to abandon.  I’m writing regularly and more confidently than I ever have before, and I’m interacting with many terrific people.  Honestly, I like where my blog has led me so far, and I plan to stick around to see where the journey leads next.

Get Closer

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was heading to lunch with a work friend when I tripped at the top of a set of very tall and very steep concrete steps.  I tried to grab the railing to catch myself, but it was too far away.  Luckily, my friend was strong and had good reflexes, because he shot out his arm to block my fall, and then steadied me with his other hand.  If it hadn’t been for him, I would have fallen all the way down those stairs and ended up in a broken heap on the asphalt parking lot many feet below.  I was still shaken when we reached the restaurant, and apparently, so was my friend, because the first thing he did was order a stiff drink.  I noticed his hand was trembling slightly when he lifted the glass.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he saved my baby’s life.

Aside from our work life, my friend and I had very little in common.  He was single and still living with his parents while I was married and living in my own house.  He had never left the St. Louis area, whereas I had only recently returned to it.  He was gay; I was straight.  I was an avid animal lover, yet when I asked him to sign my anti-vivisection petition, he politely declined, saying he saw nothing wrong with experimenting on animals if it had the potential to help humans.  I could go on, but you get the idea. We were two very different people, and yet we worked together quite well and found it easy to be friends.

And this story is just one example of the many times my life has been enriched by people who are very different from me.  I am white, but the woman whose encouragement gave me the most confidence to write for children is black.  I think deer are among the most beautiful creatures on this earth, but I have friends and relatives who hunt.  I love to read, am terrible at sports and have unbelievably bad math skills, yet the man I married rarely reads, went to college on a sports scholarship and makes his living as an accountant.  And I couldn’t imagine life without him.

I know the current trend is increasingly to “stick with our own kind,” and have nothing to do with those who have different values, different cultures and different beliefs, but I honestly think it is a horrible one.  Sure, we can watch only news shows that reflect our opinions, and we can rage against those who think (and, worst of all vote) differently than we do, and we can “unfriend” all the people on Facebook whose posts we disagree with.  But if we do, the loss is our own.

So many people are worth knowing, if we are brave enough to give them a chance.  When we get close to people who seem different, we often find they have some wonderful qualities mixed in there with the stuff that puts us off.   l don’t know about you, but I have good friends  who voted for Clinton, and I have good friends who voted for Trump.  I didn’t vote for either of those candidates, but you know what?  I still value my friends who did more than words can say.

And whenever I do feel the temptation to “stick with my own kind,” all I have to do is remember my friend and coworker from all those years ago.  Because if I hadn’t gotten to know him, he wouldn’t have been with me on those steps.  And I might not have a daughter at all.martha-at-xmas