It’s Complicated

I hate clutter, which means that getting rid of things is rarely a problem for me.  I routinely go through my possessions, ruthlessly culling the items that are no longer useful or desirable.  No matter how many times a charity calls for donations, I can always produce at least one big bag of used clothes, household items or other items.  And that’s not counting the carload of stuff we donate each year to the rummage sale at my mother’s church, or the stuff we give to my daughter to take to the local resale shop.

Even my most precious possessions–my books, my Christmas ornaments and my photographs–aren’t immune to my tendency to downsize and minimize.  I rid my bookshelves of books that no longer interest me, and I gave each of my kids a couple dozen of my Christmas ornaments when they moved out and started decorating their own trees.  And when my photo boxes get too full, I go through them and toss out the occasional photo or two.  (Especially when I have no idea who is in the picture.)  I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “saver.”

fullsizeoutput_3ebeWhich makes it all the harder to explain why I have several poinsettia plants on the window seat in my family room that are well past their prime.  The newest addition is two years old, and none of them sport the pretty red leaves anymore.  They are now green and spindly, require frequent watering and drop dead leaves all over the place.  But I can’t make myself throw them out.  I’ve tried, but I can never get past the idea that they are still alive, and I would be killing them for no reason other than I find them inconvenient.  And so they stay, taking up space and cluttering up my window seat.

I don’t have a rational explanation about my inability to get rid of unwanted plants when I can so easily give away just about anything else that’s in my house.  It’s completely out of character, and I doubt that anyone who knows me would believe that I have a window seat full of straggly poinsettias left over from Christmases of several years ago.  And yet I do.

And I don’t think I’m all that unusual.  Yes, hanging onto old poinsettias may be unusual, but doing things that seem out of character is actually rather common.  I believe most people have odd quirks and have done things that would surprise their friends and family.   I also believe that most people hold certain beliefs which seem at odds with their usual viewpoints.  Because the truth is that most people are much more complicated than they seem.

Of course we like to slot other people into categories that make they easy to identify, but those categories are rarely completely accurate.  It’s not uncommon for a liberal to hold a conservative view on a particular subject, or for a city dweller to have a passion for country music.  Animal shelter volunteers can own purebred dogs, and the grown son of a dedicated gardener may prefer his vegetables canned.  It’s all okay.  Because real people are complicated, and they are allowed to harbor all sorts of contradictions.  It’s just part of what makes us human.

And the reason I’m hoping no one gives me another poinsettia for Christmas this year.

Just Listen

I am fully aware that I talk too much.  I tend to over-explain things, repeating myself as if I don’t trust people to understand what I meant the first time I said it.  When I’m nervous, my go-to response is usually to babble on and on about nothing at all, until the person I’m talking to decides that I’m a complete idiot.  Even worse, when someone tells me about a problem, I barely wait until they stop talking before I start telling them exactly what they should do, completely ignoring the fact that they didn’t actually ask for my advice.  So believe me, I understand how much easier it is to talk than it is to listen.

It’s not that talking itself is such a bad thing.  We all have important information to share, and we all want our stories and opinions to be heard.  Sharing our thoughts and feelings allows other people to get to know who we really are, and it’s an essential part of forming the relationships that all people need.  But all that talking doesn’t do a bit of good if there isn’t anyone who is actually listening.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when I realize that someone isn’t listening to what I’m trying to say to them.  It makes me feel dismissed when someone interrupts a story I’m telling to launch into one of their own.  And it makes me feel diminished when I share something that I think is important and the other person just says, “Uh-huh,” and then brings up a completely different subject.  Nothing says “I don’t care what you have to say,” or even “I don’t care about you,” more effectively than not bothering to listen to someone.  Those kind of conversations don’t exactly build healthy relationships.

Which is what I need to remember the next time someone is talking to me.  Am I giving that person my full attention, and really trying to understand what he or she is saying to me?  Am I bothering to ask a question if I need to in order to make sure I get what they are talking about?  When our conversation is over, will that person feel as if he or she was truly heard?  Or will they feel the way so many of us do these days:  that it would have been just as effective to talk to a brick wall?

I think that talking will always come more naturally to me that listening, but listening has far better results.  Actually, it’s kind of amazing how much I can learn when I shut up and listen for a change.  I get genuine insights into how someone else thinks and feels, and a chance to develop deeper relationships with my friends and family.  I hear new facts and different ideas, and they broaden my horizons considerably.  (Also, the odds of me saying something stupid go way down when I’m not actually talking.)  The perks of listening are bountiful indeed.

I have come to believe that there’s a lot of truth in that old saying, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.”  Because one way or another, it is almost always better to listen than to talk.

Spring Forward

I have always thought of myself as a bit of a cynic.  Believing that good things are coming my way doesn’t come naturally to me at all.  And even when good things really do happen, my first thought is usually, “This won’t last.”  So maybe that’s why I have a hard time recognizing what I’m feeling right now, and what I feel every year right about this time.  Because according to my calendar, Spring has finally arrived.  And there’s something about Spring that always makes me feel hopeful.

IMG_1203I don’t know if it’s longer days, or the budding trees and flowers, or waking up to the sounds of the birds chirping in my yard, or just the increasing warmth of the sun on my face.  But somewhere in all of nature’s reawakening, I feel my heart opening up to new possibilities and growth.  I am more willing to try new things, to tackle those “to do” projects that I’ve been avoiding all winter, and even to take a few risks that I would normally avoid.  Somehow the things that used to seem comfortingly familiar now feel unbearably routine, and I find myself longing for all things new.

And so I begin my usual routine of Spring cleaning. I begin with my house, cleaning and de-cluttering like a mad woman, and even redecorating a bit until every room feels fresh and new.  I go through my closet, pulling out the clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years, even if they are still in good condition and were purchased at a bargain price.  And then I go shopping in search a few new items, making a point to at least try on styles I don’t usually wear.  I read books by new authors, strike up conversations with people I don’t know well, and when I go out to eat, I insist on trying a new restaurant.  Accepting new challenges, big or small, actually seems attractive.

For at least a few weeks, I find it easy to maintain my optimism and my passion for new things.  But as Spring turns to Summer my “spring fever” gradually wears off, and I find myself once again attracted to what is familiar and comforting in my life.  And in many ways, that’s a good thing, because I don’t want to live a life of constant change, and I certainly can’t afford a life of constantly buying new things.

But each year, a little bit of that “spring fever” experience sticks with me, and my horizons are broadened that much more.  Some new styles find their way into my closet; I discover a new favorite author, and sometimes I find myself with a new friend or two.  Some of the new doors I opened reveal new paths that carry me forward in unexpected ways.  And the best part is, I know that next year I’ll get to do it all over again.  Because, as we all know, hope springs eternal.

Always and Forever

I’ve never believed that living in the past is a good thing.  It’s too easy to either wallow in nostalgia for “the good old days” or to get trapped into believing that we can never move on from a difficult or troubled history.  And if I’m honest, I also have to admit that most of the time it takes all my energy just to cope with the present and whatever happens to be going on in my life at this particular moment.  Which means that I don’t give all that much thought to my past as I muddle along in my day-to-day life.  Until, that is, something happens to make me stop and remember.

Last week, I learned that an old friend had entered into Hospice care after a prolonged illness.  Although we didn’t see much of each other in the past several years, she was someone I was quite close to when my children were young and the two of us were very active at our church.  I often relied on her advice, not only on how to be a good mother, but also on how to deal effectively and patiently with difficult personalities.  (I once heard someone refer to the two of us as, “the nice one and the bitchy one.”  And I wasn’t the one he was referring to as nice.)  Eventually, our lives took different paths and we became the kind of friends who didn’t make much effort to stay in touch, but who always found it easy to connect on the rare times we did get together.

Still, I was surprised at how much the news of her death hurt, and how many wonderful memories of our time together came flooding back. And then I realized that the strong relationships we form in our past can have a powerful effect on our lives for years afterwards.  Her friendship was not only a precious gift to me, it was also a part of my personal history, so the loss of my friend is still profound and the grief is still real.  I now know that true friendships are a life-long gift and need to be valued as such, no matter what the circumstances.

In this past year, I reconnected with an old college friend who I was dumb enough to lose touch with when she moved to another state.  She and her husband visited us twice, and we were instantly comfortable with each other, laughing and talking as freely as we did twenty years ago.  Words can’t express how grateful I am to be able to spend time with them again, and my husband and I are already planning a trip to visit them in the very near future.

I still don’t believe in living in the past.  But I have figured out that our personal histories, and the relationships we formed along our journey through life, have an enduring impact on who we are today.  Some of the relationships we had weren’t good for us, and we need to leave those behind.  But when we are lucky enough to find true friendship, we need to recognize it for exactly what it is:  a gift that is with us for life.

Just Say No

When I was young, I was taught that obedience was a good thing.  If a teacher or one of my parents asked me to do something, I knew without a doubt that I was supposed to actually do it.  Life was better when I did what was expected of me, and failure to comply often brought unpleasant repercussions. So I learned early on to complete those classroom assignments, to do my chores at home, and in general, and to help out when I was asked to do so.  And to one degree or another, that lesson has stuck with me throughout my life.

In most ways, it’s been a good thing.  I had no problem accepting assignments from my bosses or my editors, and never felt any resentment at being “told what to do,” especially in situations where I was being paid to do it.  I believe it also instilled a sense of responsibility to others, which meant donating my time and money to worthy causes and helping people (and animals) as much as I possibly could.  It gave me a sense of duty, and I’m thankful for that.

But there’s a downside to being so quick to accept tasks and shoulder responsibility, and it’s called burn-out.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m feeling particularly stressed and overburdened, it’s usually because I have said “yes” when I really should have said “no,” or at the very least, “maybe later.” And that usually happens when I forget that the only person who truly knows exactly how much I can and cannot do is me.

All too often, I find myself taking on far more than I can reasonably handle.  And when it finally does sink in that I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew, I actually find myself getting angry with the people who have asked me to do the items on my to-do list that are stressing me out.  I act as if it was someone else’s fault that I didn’t have the good sense to recognize and respect my own limits, which is just plain silly.

The fact is that it’s up to me to set my own personal boundaries and to make good decisions about how I spend my time.  I’m the one who knows what my daily obligations are, and I’m the one who knows how much free time I have to devote to other causes.  Which means I’m the one whose job it is to make sure I’m not freaking out because I’ve over-committed my time, or forgotten that there are only twenty-four hours in a day.

Knowing where to draw the line between taking care of ourselves and meeting other people’s expectations and needs is a difficult thing.  It can take us a long time to learn how to establish our own personal boundaries.  But I think it’s important to remember that a big part of being a responsible adult is realizing that we can’t take care of anyone else if we don’t take care of ourselves while we’re at it.

Timing is Everything

IMG_1185Usually, I can’t wait for the arrival of Spring.  By the time March rolls around, I want nothing more than to be finished with Winter.  I hate Winter’s short, cold days and its long, even colder nights.  I hate the dry air in my house that creates chapped skin and generates shocks from static electricity despite the best efforts of my humidifier.  And although I love walking shelter dogs three times a week, I hate doing it in freezing temperatures.  My eyes water from the cold wind, my fingers turn white, and my nose hair freezes.  So ordinarily, the first sign of Spring fills me with joy and a hope for better things.

But this year, Spring came too early, even for me.  Although we had some truly cold days in December and a few frosty days in January, February brought an early warmth that fooled the local foliage into thinking that it was time to bloom.  Before the month was over, daffodils and crocuses were out, and the magnolias, pear trees, forsythia and many other bushes and trees I can’t name were in full flower.  And through it all, I just kept thinking, “But it’s too early for this!  It’s not even March yet!”

The timing of it all just struck me as off, and even a little bit creepy.  I felt out of sorts on many days, and even something as simple as getting dressed became complicated.    Should I go downstairs and root through my bins of warm-weather clothes to find something to wear, or put on one of the  winter sweaters I usually wear in February and hope that wherever I was going had air-conditioning?  As odd as it sounds, I yearned for at least one more snowfall, and temperatures that still required a coat.

And then March finally arrived, and I began to think that perhaps it wasn’t too early for the balmy weather and glorious colors of Spring after all.  Sure, it was still a few weeks ahead of schedule, but warm weather in March isn’t that unusual where I live.  So I finally decided that Spring had indeed sprung, and started in with my usual spring routines.  I packed away my heavy sweaters, began my Spring house-cleaning and even thought about putting out a few Easter decorations.  And whenever I was outside, I found myself not only noticing, but truly appreciating the cheerful colors on all the flowering trees and bushes.

Which meant, of course, that Winter has decided to make a comeback.  In a couple of days the temperatures are supposed to plummet, and we are expected to receive a “wintry mix” that will probably include accumulating snow.  The colorful blooms I’ve been admiring will wither and turn brown, while other plants that have just begun to bud out may not bloom at all.  I may even have to figure out where I stashed the snow shovel.

But I’m not worried.  I know that all I have to do to send Winter packing (at least until next year) is to pretend that I’m truly enjoying the cold weather this weekend.  I’m going to light a fire in the fireplace, put on my favorite winter sweater, make hot chocolate, and if there’s enough snow, I’m even going to build a snowman.  Because believe me, that’s all it will take to make Spring come roaring right back.

Reality Bytes

img_1906All I wanted to do was take a picture of a sunset.  I was at the beach with my family, watching the sun sink down into the ocean in a dazzling display of orange and yellow when I reached for my cell phone to snap a quick picture.  I clicked on the camera icon, focused the shot and pressed the button to take the picture.  But all I got was an obnoxious message saying that the phone couldn’t take the picture because I had used up all my storage available for photos.  Which meant that instead of enjoying nature’s glorious display, I became focused on trying to figure out what the heck was going on with my cell phone.

Taking the message at face value (a rookie mistake, I admit), I spent the next half hour or so deleting photos from my phone in order to free up space.  But when I was done and tried to take another photo, the same message came up.  Frustrated, I did what I usually do when I can’t figure out what is wrong with my phone:  I handed it to my son with the request that he identify, and fix, the problem immediately.  It took him less than a minute to realize that the problem wasn’t that I was storing too many pictures on my phone, the problem was that I was storing tons of music on it.  Which would have made so much more sense if I had actually ever downloaded music on my phone, but I haven’t.  At least not intentionally.

It turns out that whenever I plug my phone into my computer in order to transfer the photos to the computer, the computer is reciprocating by generously transferring all of the music it has stored on the I-tunes app onto my phone.  Who knew?  My son deleted the music, and my phone decided that it would, once again, allow me to take pictures.  And I was appropriately grateful until the next time I tried to load photos from my phone to my computer, and guess what?  That sneaky little computer tried to load it right back up with music.  I’m pretty sure I stopped it before too many songs crossed over, but I’m not certain.  Nor have I found the “delete” button that my son used to rid my phone of unwanted songs.

I know that I am far from the brightest bulb on the string, but the fact remains that the more technology advances, the dumber I feel.  It’s embarrassing to have to constantly ask my son what is wrong with my phone, or my computer, or my I-pad.  Especially when he tells me that he usually finds the answer to my question simply by Googling it, which is his way of implying that I ought to be able to figure these things out by myself.  And the sad truth is, I usually do try to figure things out by myself, and only turn to him when I find myself too frustrated and angry to think straight.

I know that technology has brought about wonderful advances in the fields of science, medicine and communication.  But I still wish that the formerly simple process of taking and storing photos hadn’t become so incredibly complicated.  Yes, it’s called a “smart phone.”  But does that really mean it needs to be so intent on making me feel stupid?