One More Christmas

IMG_2153We were sure that last year would be our dog Lucy’s very last Christmas.  She was fifteen years old, and had survived a couple of serious health issues.  Signs of her aging were obvious: stiffness in her joints, hearing loss, and worst of all, a digestive system that obviously could no longer handle the variety of “food” she still found and insisted on eating.  Lucy had been part of our family for over fourteen years, so our Christmas morning was a little bittersweet as all photographed and video-taped what we thought would be the last time she would ever help us open presents.

Clearly, Lucy had other ideas.  Because Christmas is a week away, and she is still with us.

I’m not sure if it’s her competitive nature (her doggie sister lived to be sixteen and a half, and I think she has every intention of exceeding that goal), or just that she is still enjoys life.  She turned sixteen last October.  Lucy’s hearing is basically gone, her eyes are somewhat cloudy and she can no longer balance on three legs while I trim her nails.  But she still has a healthy appetite, still trots briskly after the occasional squirrel, and still plays with her dog toys now and then.  She can even still chase her tail a little bit when she gets really excited about something,  such as her dinner being served.

I know that eventually my family will be facing a Christmas, and a life, without Lucy.  She won’t be with us forever despite her best efforts.  Time moves on and those we love, both human and otherwise, grow old and die…often before we are ready to let them go. And since Christmas is a time when the influence of the past seems to be stronger than usual, acknowledging that loss can be hard.

My father has been gone for eight years now, and both my mother-in-law and father-in-law have been gone for six years.  And while my husband and I miss them all the time, we miss them especially during the Christmas season, when the memories of the holidays we celebrated together are especially strong.  We didn’t live in the same state so we had to be flexible about when we got together, but they were always a part of our Christmas celebrations.  And Christmas isn’t quite the same without them.

Yet Christmas is still a beautiful season.  It’s a time to treasure the family and friends we still have and to appreciate the new people who join our family and enrich our lives. My mother may be in her late eighties, but she is still with us, and so is her elderly Chihuahua.  My children and their spouses live close by and we are very much looking forward to the arrival of our first grandson in just a few weeks.  Some change is good indeed.

And the fact that Lucy will get at least one more chance to find the special present that Santa Dog left under the tree will just make this Christmas that much sweeter.

The Best-Laid Plans

My schedule has been very hectic lately, which is why I was really looking forward to Saturday.  Saturday was the first day in over a week when I actually had a big chunk of free time, and I was planning to use it to get caught up on some of the things I still needed to do for Christmas.  I thought I’d get up early, hit a few stores before the crowds came out, and then go home to make a few batches of Christmas cookies and stash them in the freezer.  Afterwards, I planned to go out somewhere casual with my husband for a pizza dinner.   I planned to make Saturday both relaxing and productive, since I could move along at my own pace without having to keep a set schedule.  But things don’t always go according to plan.

My day started early when my mother called to say she was feeling very sick:  extremely dizzy and weak.  I hurried over to her house and ended up taking her to an Urgent Care Center, where they discovered that her heart rate was alarmingly low.  The doctor recommended we go to the Emergency Room of a nearby hospital for further tests and evaluation, and said she would probably be admitted to the hospital.  It’s scary when your elderly mother needs to go to the hospital, but she was putting on a brave face and so I did the same.  I drove her to the ER, where they did a few quick tests before putting her in a wheelchair to wait for the next available doctor.

Luckily, her condition seemed to improve with each passing hour.  When she told me to wheel her over to the receptionist’s desk so she could ask why it was taking so long for her to see a doctor, I knew she was feeling much better.  When she finally did see a doctor and she passed all her tests with flying colors, I became very hopeful, especially when he said she could go home.  And when she started singing along to the radio on the drive home, I knew she was going to be just fine.

The “relaxing and productive” Saturday I had planned turned out to be neither relaxing or productive.  And that meant the already busy schedule I had on Sunday became even busier.  But you know what?  It doesn’t really matter.  Both my mother and I got through a difficult day just fine, and we learned a few lessons along the way.  The most practical lesson was that she needs to remember to keep her Medicare card in her purse, because she needs it to be treated at an Urgent Care or Emergency Room.  But there were other, more important, lessons to be learned as well.

IMG_4369I learned that planning is a good thing, as long as I bear in mind the possibility that things can happen that blow my plans right out of the water.  I learned that my mother can exhibit a great deal of grace under pressure, and that she knows how to be brave when confronted with the possibility of a serious health issue.  I hope that she learned she can count on her family to help her in those times, because that is exactly what family is supposed to do.

Finally, I learned that there is no need to worry about the unexpected problems that pop up in our life, because we can’t predict when the bad stuff will happen or what form it will take.  It’s enough to know that when the hard times come, we will find the strength to cope and to do what we need to do.  Because life doesn’t always go according to plan…

Walking the Walk

When I started this blog three years ago, I had two simple goals.  First, I wanted it to be  a creative writing outlet where I could write honestly and openly about the topics that interested me.  Secondly, I wanted to make sure my blog was a positive place where everyone (including my readers) could share their opinions and beliefs without being attacked by others.  I wanted my blog to be a “hate-free” zone where disagreement was welcomed as long as it was respectful and civilized.  And luckily, that’s exactly the way it turned out.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was actually starting to feel a little bit smug about how little negativity my blog attracted, congratulating myself on keeping the nastiness away.  But have you ever had one of those “aha” moments, when you finally realize something so obvious that you can’t believe you didn’t see it before?  Because that’s exactly what happened to me yesterday.

I was driving down the street, actually thinking of how happy I was that I had managed to keep my blog so positive and hate free for three years when a driver suddenly pulled out in front of me.  I slammed on my brakes and missed him, but I was still incredibly angry.  And I didn’t hesitate to express that anger through a series of words that were both ugly and hateful.  The fact that I was alone in the car with the windows rolled up didn’t really matter.  Whether or not anyone could hear what I said wasn’t the point.  The point was that I finally realized that even though I had managed to create a hate-free blog, I most certainly wasn’t living a hate-free life.

I couldn’t help but wonder just exactly how different my life would be if I became just a bit more intentional about trying to keep hatred and anger out of my own heart.  I’m not naive enough to think that I will never get angry again, or that I won’t resent people I believe have done me wrong, or even that I can simply decide that I’ll never feel hateful again.  I’m sure I’ll do all those things, despite my best efforts.

But still, I know I can do better.  More importantly, I know that I want to do better.  I want to think twice before I open my mouth in anger.  When I feel slighted by someone, I want to try to look at things from their point of view rather than immediately feeling sorry for myself.  And when I feel hate stirring in my heart, I want to ask myself if I really want hateful feelings to be a permanent part of who I am.  Because hatred hurts the one who harbors it just as much as it hurts its target.

For the past three years, I’ve managed to keep hatred, pettiness, resentment, etc. out of my blog, and I’ve been very happy with the result.  So I think it’s time that I at least start trying to do the same thing with the rest of my life.

Year After Year

I’m a big fan of Christmas traditions.  This is the one time of the year when “doing things the way we’ve always done them” feels not only right, but almost mandatory.  I love trimming my tree with ornaments I’ve had for decades, and I do it while listening to Nat King Cole’s Christmas music, just the way my family did when I was a child.  I find it both meaningful and comforting to carry on old family Christmas traditions….most of the time.  But there are a few traditions that I would love to abandon, if only I could.

I could do without the nasty Christmas cold I manage to come down with every year, and just once I’d like the breakfast casserole I make for Christmas morning to turn out the way the recipe promised.  But it never does.  It’s either under-cooked and soggy, or over-cooked and dry, and it always sticks to the baking dish.  Still, my family chokes it down each year and assures me that it tastes just fine, because (of course) that casserole is a Christmas tradition.

IMG_2768But if I could abandon just one of my Christmas traditions, it would be the annual battle to put the lights on my Christmas tree.  I prefer the large, old-fashioned lights that throw out a warm, cozy glow on a dark night, just like the ones my family has always used.  You’d think that putting a few strands of them on the tree would be easy.  But each and every year year, something goes dreadfully wrong when we try to light up our tree.

Last year the Christmas lights I had been using finally wore out and refused to work, so I embarked on a frantic search for replacement lights.  Which every single store I went to seemed to be sold out of.  I even gave the LED lights a try, but after carefully putting them on the tree I realized that while they are indeed bright to look at, they don’t actually light up a room.  Eventually, after much time and effort, I did find some satisfactory lights and was able to spend my December evenings basking in their glow.

This year I had the lights and figured it would take twenty minutes, tops, to string them and then we could hang the ornaments.  I was wrong.  I put the lights on the tree, but then realized there weren’t nearly enough.  So I took them back off, found another strand in our basement and put them all back on again.  Then the strand in the middle of the tree stopped working, so I took those off while my husband went to the store to get some more.  By the time we finally got the tree lit and looking good, the entire afternoon was shot and we decided to go have pizza and hang the stupid ornaments the next day.

But at least the lights are on the tree, and soon I can add the ornaments.  My Nat King Cole CD is still working (I checked), so I think I’m all set.  By this time tomorrow my tree will be fully decorated and I can just relax and enjoy the rest of the season.  Until, of course, I catch my annual Christmas cold….

A Fond Farewell

IMG_0358I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye, especially to someone I really like.  So when I heard that one of my very favorite staff members at the animal shelter where I volunteer was planning to retire this month, I didn’t react well.

First I tried to convince her to stay.  When that didn’t work, I tried to convince management that she wasn’t really old enough to retire yet.  Sadly, I never did figure out how to forge a fake birth certificate that would back up my claim, so that didn’t work either.  All I had to fall back on was denial, but as the day of her actual retirement crept closer, that stopped working as well.  You can’t help plan someone’s retirement celebration without also recognizing that they actually are going to retire.

I know my friend deserves to retire and that she is ready for this new phase of her life, and I also know I need to support her in this decision.  That’s what friends do.  But the problem is that knowing she won’t be at the animal shelter anymore just makes me incredibly sad, and even a little bit lost.

She taught the volunteer orientation class I took when I first started at the shelter over fifteen years ago, and I still remember what a great job she did of preparing us for the realities of volunteering in an open-admission animal shelter.  It wasn’t long before I, along with most of the other volunteers, learned that she was an excellent source of advice, guidance and support when we needed it.  I saw how protective she was of the animals in her care, and how compassionate she was towards the people she worked with, and how helpful and patient she was with people who came in to adopt a new pet.

Lots of people are good at their jobs, but my friend was one of those who always went the extra mile, both for the animals and for the people around her.  She sent regular texts and emails, letting volunteers know that a favorite dog had finally been adopted so we could celebrate the good news even when we weren’t at the shelter.  She listened to us when we needed a sympathetic ear, and cheered us up when we were down, and was rather well known for her habit of breaking into an impressive “happy dance” when she thought the situation called for it.

My friend was a fixture at the animal shelter and her departure is going to be felt deeply by all those who worked with her.  I suppose our grief over her retirement is the proof of what a terrific job she did during her time there and what a wonderful friend she was to all, of both the two-footed and the four-footed variety.   We only miss what, and who, we truly value.  And we will miss her very much.

I still can’t quite imagine what the shelter will be like without my friend, and I know that the next few weeks are going to be a major adjustment for many of us.  But we will continue our volunteer work, doing our best to help the animals, celebrating the successes, and offering support to each other when we need it.  And I can’t think of any better way to honor my friend’s legacy than that.

I Don’t Get It

I had always been told that age brings wisdom, and in some ways I suppose that’s true.  I like to think that I’ve gotten a bit smarter over the years, or at least just a little less clueless than when I was young.  But I’m almost sixty years old now and there are still far too many things  in this world that I simply do not understand.  And I’m beginning to think that I never will.

Much of what I fail to understand is fairly new, so my age might actually be working against me there.  For instance, I keep seeing ads where restaurants and grocery stores boast about providing “clean food.”  And I think, as opposed to what?  Dirty food?  Are they seriously bragging that they aren’t serving food that’s been dropped on the ground or retrieved from the garbage can?  Of course their food is clean.  If it wasn’t, the health department would shut them down.  That’s their job.  If a restaurant or store wants to impress me with the quality of their food, they need to focus more on words like “healthy” “fresh” and “tasty.”  Especially “tasty.”

I’m also bewildered by the growing popularity of  the “open concept” choice of home design.  As far as I can see, open concept is achieved by tearing down almost all of the existing walls in a home to create one giant living space.  Apparently, this is necessary so that there are sight-lines all over the house, meaning that those living in it can see everything all the time.  For some reason, that’s considered important and the days of enjoying a bit of privacy or some peace and quiet in your home are over.  I can’t help but wonder if even bathroom walls will eventually be removed just so people could be sure of  seeing everything, even when seated on the toilet.

But the things I don’t understand aren’t just limited to new trends.  I know that I’m a bit of a clean-freak and that means my house is probably cleaner than most.  But I’m still surprised by how many people feel free to comment on how “unnaturally clean” my house is.  I know they don’t mean anything negative by it.  But personally, I’d never dream of walking into someone’s messy house and saying, “Wow!  What a pig sty!”  I think people should be allowed to keep their houses as clean or messy as they want, within reason.  (If your house is so clean that you’re following your guests around with a dust cloth and vacuum cleaner, then it is too clean.  If your guests can’t find anywhere to sit down that isn’t sticky and are afraid to eat what comes out of your kitchen, then it’s too dirty.)  Everything in between is perfectly okay.

These are just a few of the things that I puzzle over, and believe me, there are many more.  I’m hoping I’ll get to live a good long life and that will give me the chance to solve more of life’s little mysteries.  But I think it’s far more likely that there will always be many things I won’t begin to understand, even if I life to be one hundred.  And I guess that’s just part of what makes life so interesting…

A Change of Season

I don’t think I would ever want to live in a climate that didn’t have four distinct seasons.  As much as I complain about the heat and humidity of July and the icy-cold days of January, I know that each season brings some good things that I’m not willing to give up.  Few things beat the beauty of a brand-new snow fall, and there’s nothing as refreshing as jumping into a swimming pool on a hot summer day.  I love the colorful beauty of the leaves in Autumn, and the way the first spring flowers bring hope for longer and warmer days ahead.

IMG_2677Fall has come a bit late to my corner of the world this year, but it has finally arrived.  And that means I’m spending time trimming back some bushes, storing away the pots that I use for my annual flowers, and washing my windows one last time before the temperatures plummet.  Inside, I’m doing some hard-core house cleaning in preparation for the Christmas decorations I know I’ll be putting up next month.

For me, there’s something soothing about the rhythm of the seasons and the special traditions that each one brings.  The changing seasons provide a sense of order to my year, because I am definitely one of those people who likes to know what is going to happen next and I know what to expect from each new season.

This year, the change of season has been especially significant because I seem to be at a point in my life when so many things are changing in ways that I can’t control.  Friends who move away, co-workers who retire, minor health issues, shifting family dynamics, even our bizarre political climate….all make we wonder just exactly what the future is going to bring.  Luckily, many of the changes around me are positive, but all will impact my life in ways that I can’t begin to predict.

IMG_2612My daughter is expecting our first grandchild in early January, and with each passing week, what was once only an abstract joy has become that much more real.  Seeing her opening gifts at her baby showers, surrounded by family and friends who have turned out to offer their love and support is both comforting and humbling.  I still have no idea just exactly what being a grandparent will mean, but I’m anxious to find out.

I think I will always be just a little bit intimated by change, even when it’s a change I’m looking forward to very much.  And that’s okay, because it’s just who I am. But one thing I know is that each new season in my life, just like each new season of the year, will bring not only change, but also the possibility of some amazingly good gifts…..

The Age of Technology

My days are filled with reminders that I am no longer young.  I wake up each morning with stiff and aching joints.  I can’t apply make-up without the help of a magnifying mirror, which is annoying because the magnifying mirror also does a terrific job of revealing every single wrinkle on my face.  (When I use a regular mirror I only notice my sagging chin and eye bags, but I found out the hard way that it’s not a good idea to apply mascara when you can’t actually see your eyelashes.)  I am reminded daily that I have nowhere near the strength or stamina I had even ten years ago.  One way or another, it is impossible for me to forget that I am getting old. And while I may not especially like it, I do accept it.

But accepting the fact that I am, shall we say, “a woman of a certain age” doesn’t mean that I enjoy being treated as if the fact that I am old also means I am incompetent and stupid.  Which is why I tend to get just a bit crabby when either my computer or my smart phone decides to act up and I am stuck with the daunting task of trying to get it fixed.

I’m not the sort of person who panics the minute something goes wrong.  I always try to identify the problem and look up ways to fix it before I finally (and reluctantly) ask for help.  And I put off asking for help because I know that as soon as I do, I will be told by someone half my age that the problem must be that I am doing something wrong.  Because if someone who looks like me (see above reference to sags, bags and wrinkles) is having a problem with her technology, the problem has to be that she isn’t bright enough to work it properly.  It can’t possibly be the fault of the computer, the smart phone, or the I-Pad, etc.

I once spent an hour with an employee at a cell-phone store who kept telling me that the problem I was explaining simply couldn’t exist.  Politely but persistently, I assured him it did.  (We old people can be stubborn.)  And even when, after exhausting all other possible explanations, he finally realized that I was telling the truth, he didn’t actually acknowledge I was right.  He just fiddled with my phone some more and handed it back to me, assuring me that it was now working just fine.  And then then went to “help” the next customer.

I know I’m not a whiz at technology, and that I was born back in the days when phones were rotary, televisions were black and white, and there was no such thing as a personal computer.  None of this comes naturally to me.  But I have learned how to operate a smart phone, publish a blog on the internet, and even send a decent text message as long as I remember to put on my reading glasses before I begin typing.  So I think I have earned the right to at least be given the benefit of the doubt when I say that something on my computer or phone isn’t working properly.

DSC01665There’s so much more I could say on this subject, but I don’t have the time.  My 87-year old mother is having problems opening her emails, and I have to go over to her house and figure out just what she is doing wrong…..

 

No Thanks

If there’s one thing I ought to be used to by now, it’s rejection.  For years I worked as a free-lance writer, placing some articles in magazines and newspapers, and even selling a children’s book.  But for every acceptance, I received at least twenty rejections. Eventually I acquired a whole file drawer just bursting with rejection letters.  A few of them were personal (which I counted as a small victory), but the majority were simply the form letters that publishers sent out to every writer who sent them a manuscript or proposal that they didn’t want.

And the rejections weren’t limited to my writing career.  When I was fresh out of college with an English degree, I applied to any job that was even remotely related to writing.  In return, I got a few interviews, a ton of rejection letters and zero job offers.  Eventually, I was so desperate that I ended up working as a secretary for a small seminary.  There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary….it’s an important job….but it wasn’t at all what I wanted to be doing.

One way or another, rejection and I are very well acquainted.  So it surprises me how much rejection can still hurt, all these years later.  You’d think I would have developed an immunity to it somewhere along the line, but I haven’t.  It still stings, especially when it feels personal.  Which tells me that I am still putting far too much value on what other people think of me, and not nearly enough on what I think of myself.

I know it’s only natural to feel hurt by rejection.  It’s hard when an old friend gradually becomes too busy to get together, or when someone I’ve just met at a party immediately looks over my shoulder for someone more interesting.  I once went to a church dinner by myself, and I put my plate of food down at a table where four other people were sitting and then went to get a drink.  When I returned with my glass of water, all four of them had moved to a different table.  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t sting.

The trick, I think, is to remember that I have no control over how other people are going to react to me, and to remember that often their reaction has nothing to do with me at all.  Maybe my old friend really was much busier than usual.  And maybe the person looking over my shoulder at a party is searching for someone she’s supposed to be meeting.  And as rude as their behavior was, maybe the people I sat down with at the church dinner were trying to save seats for the rest of their family and just didn’t know how to tell me that when I approached their table.

But even when someone is actually rejecting me, I need to remember that their opinion of me is just that:  their opinion.  And that while it feels good to have others appreciate and validate us, what ultimately matters is that we recognize our own self-worth and not wait for others to acknowledge it for us.

As a writer, I survived all those rejection letters by reminding myself of the simple truth that just because a publisher didn’t want my manuscript didn’t actually mean that my manuscript had no value.  It just meant that particular publisher didn’t think it could make a profit selling my book.  So I kept writing, and I kept sending out my manuscripts and queries, and I did make some sales.  I was very intentional about believing in the value of what I had written.  And sometimes I need to work just as hard at believing in the value of me.

Tiny Bubbles

A few years ago, I passed a young woman and her dog on the sidewalk and the dog jumped up on me to say hello.  The young woman apologized, saying she had just begun to foster the dog for a rescue group and hadn’t had a chance to teach it any manners yet.  I told her it was fine, that I was a “dog person” myself and didn’t mind an enthusiastic greeting from a friendly dog.  She laughed and answered, “All my friends are dog people.  I wouldn’t be friends with anyone who wasn’t.”  I smiled politely and went on my way, but her words stuck with me.

IMG_1432I love dogs and spend a lot of time in their company, one way or another.  I share my home with a dog and I walk shelter dogs in my spare time.  Many of my good friends are dog lovers, and several of them also volunteer at the local animal shelter.  But I have other friends who aren’t especially fond of dogs.  I may believe that a house isn’t truly a home until there’s a dog (or two) wandering around, but I have good friends who wouldn’t dream of sharing their home with a dog.  And you know what?  I am just as close to them as I am to my dog friends.

I believe it has become far too easy these days to associate only with people who we believe are, if not exactly like us, then at least close enough to be comfortable.  We can watch news channels that will always reflect our political views, interact on social media only with those who share our opinions, and live in neighborhoods where most people not only look like us, but are probably also in the same income-bracket.  I can’t speak for other religions, but some Christian churches have even begun to align themselves with either conservative or liberal stances based on the sincere belief that not only was Jesus political, but that his politics were exactly the same as theirs.  The division of “us” and “them” seems to be growing wider by the day.

Personally, I don’t think all this “sticking with our own kind” is a good thing at all.  When we surround ourselves with people who think, look or act mostly the way we do, we are rarely challenged with the idea that perhaps our way isn’t always the right way.  When we know that the responses to our opinions will usually be agreement, it’s all too easy to believe that our opinions are actually facts.  And if we do this long enough, then it’s easy to forget altogether that there are good people out there who just happen to look at things a tad differently than we do.

It’s easy to live in our own little bubbles, secure in the knowledge that we are right and morally superior to those whose views don’t match ours, and there are times when I’m really tempted to do that.  But ultimately, it’s not the way I want to live.

I want to live in the real world, which is populated by people who see things in their own unique way.  I want to be in relationship with people who don’t always share my political and religious views because they challenge me to examine just exactly why I believe what I do.  I want to have friends who don’t share all my interests, but are willing to tell me about theirs.  Mostly, I want to continue to learn and grow as a person.  And I don’t think that can happen when I can’t find the courage to burst out of my own little bubble.