Ageless

No doubt about it, there are certain advantages to aging.  And I’m not talking about just the wisdom and self-acceptance that most of us achieve as we grow older.  I’m talking about the fact that old people can get away with stuff that younger people can’t.  For example, when I take 88-year old mother out to eat, she has no problem letting the waiter know the very second she’s ready to order, even if that means calling across the room to attract his attention.  I have yet to see a waiter take offense.  Instead, all she gets is a tolerant smile and sometimes even a friendly pat on the shoulder.  Somehow, I don’t think that would be the response if my mother wasn’t a textbook example of a “cute little old lady.”

Even at age 60, I have found that my age can be an advantage.  I have heard of people who have a “resting bitch face,” but personally, I have always had what can only be called a “resting stupid face.”  Meaning that when I don’t have a specific expression on my face, I tend to look as if I’m just a few bricks short of a load.  And that has served me well, particularly when I pair it with the words, “But I don’t understand.”  I can’t tell you how many people have done what I’ve wanted just because they couldn’t be bothered to explain the rules to someone they believed wasn’t bright enough to understand them.

But now that I have reached a certain age, I’ve found that the only thing better than having a “resting stupid face” is having an old resting stupid face.  If I’m having a disagreement with someone, (particularly someone younger) I have found that my most effective response is to simply stand there and look at them in a perplexed sort of way.  Sooner or later, they tend to give in, even if they do sigh loudly and roll their eyes at the same time.

Still, I’m only human, and there are times when I don’t really want to feel quite so old.  I miss the vitality of my younger days, would give anything to have the perfect eyesight, firm skin and boundless energy I once took for granted.  Luckily, I’ve discovered a fool-proof way to make me feel young again, and it doesn’t require any expensive or painful surgical procedures.  When I want to feel young, all I have to do is spend time with some of my treasured, life-long friends.  Seriously.

Maybe it’s because they knew me “way back when,” or maybe it’s because when I look at them I still see the young person they once were.  But for whatever reason, when I’m with my old friends, the years just melt away and I truly feel young again.  And it isn’t long before I’m also acting as if I was young:  laughing hysterically at our silly jokes, staying up late because no one wants the evening to end, and most of all, feeling that as long as I have my friends by my side, there’s nothing I can’t handle.

Aging does have it’s advantages, but every once in a while, I need my “old” friends to remind me of what it was like to be young…..

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Forever Friends

I have always tried very hard not to hurt people’s feelings.  There are certain things I never write about in my blog, even when I’m struggling to find a topic for this week’s post, simply because I know that the post would cause someone pain.  And even though I usually have a lot to say about any given situation, there are times when I stay silent, because I know that my words would just make things worse.  I have even been known to tell a “little while lie” on those rare occasions when telling the truth would be a very hurtful thing.

Yet despite all my efforts to the contrary, I know for an absolute fact that I have, at one time or another, hurt the feelings of every single one of my close friends and relatives.  And as long as I’m being honest, I’ll admit that every single one of them has also hurt my feelings somewhere along the line.

I believe it’s impossible to be close to someone for any length of time and not say or do something that causes them at least a little bit of pain.  Sometimes it’s because we speak or act without thinking first.  Other times, we put a lot of thought into what we said or did and honestly believed that we were being helpful.  (And yet we weren’t.)  The bottom line is that it’s impossible to always know how our words and actions are going to be received and interpreted by others.  So every once in a while, we’re going to say and do exactly the wrong thing, often without having a clue that we’ve done so.

When I think of how easily misunderstandings occur in our relationships, I’m always just a little surprised that people manage to have long-term friends and close family relationships at all.  The key, I think, is the desire to keep those people in our lives and the willingness to forgive and forget all the little ways that we sometimes bump up against each other’s feelings.  I think it takes valuing someone enough to accept them for exactly who they are, which is precisely the same way we want them to accept us.  But however we manage it, long-term and close relationships are a gift to be treasured.

Ann's photoI turned sixty last month, and a few weeks afterwards I went out with some good friends to celebrate.   I “met” one of those friends when I was just one-year old and our mothers plunked us down in the same playpen.  I would have enjoyed the trip to the art museum, the happy hour by the lake, and the dinner at my favorite restaurant no matter what.  But I have to tell you, doing those things with dear friends I have known for forty years, and one I have known for almost my entire life, made the evening so much more special.

There really is nothing quite like sharing a milestone birthday with old friends who have shared so much of my life’s journey.  Perhaps, if I am very lucky, I will be celebrating my 80th birthday with those same friends.  And maybe I’ll even write about it in a blog called “Muddling Through My Golden Years.”

An Unexpected Gift

IMG_0448When I became a volunteer dog walker at a local humane society, all I wanted to do was help shelter dogs.  My daily schedule was rather busy at the time, so I only signed up for a two-hour walking shift, one day a week.  That was over fifteen years ago, and I’m still walking dogs there, although now I do it three days a week.  And my “shift” rarely ends before all the adoptable dogs get out, no matter how long that happens to take.

Honestly, walking shelter dogs turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.  Dogs that spend their days alone in a cage are very excited when you leash them up for a walk, and many of them are also rather large.  And strong.  Sadly, I am no longer young and I’ve never been particularly athletic.  But no matter how many times I point out to the dogs that they have an old lady on the other end of the leash, they rarely modify their behavior to accommodate my aging (and often aching) body.

Humane societies do good work and save countless numbers of homeless animals.  But they are also stressful places, both for the animals that live there and for the people who work and volunteer there.  Some of the animals living at the shelter have been rescued from awful situations, and seeing the results of so much neglect and abuse is hard on people who love animals.  Personally, I know I could not have lasted fifteen years at the shelter if it wasn’t for the friendships I have formed with some of the other volunteers and staff at the shelter.

It’s really hard to explain just how close I feel to my humane society friends.  True, we have a common bond in our love for shelter dogs, but there’s more to it than that.  As one friend recently said, “We’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst, so there’s no point in pretending to be anyone other than who we really are.”  And she’s right.

I have been blessed with many friends in my life, but the friends who see me at my most vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, are my humane society friends.  They are the ones who have seen me ugly cry and will hug me if I need it, even when I’m sweaty and beyond gross.  (When I’m at the shelter and find brown stuff smeared on my clothes, I just pray that it’s mud.  It usually isn’t.)  When you volunteer at an animal shelter, you shower after your shift, not before.

Not surprisingly, our friendship extends beyond the shelter.  We get together for social occasions, and often know each other’s families.  But mostly, when tragedy strikes in our personal lives, we know we can turn to each other for the same kind of support that we show each other at the shelter.  We cry for each other’s pain, and celebrate each other’s joy.  We are not perfect people by any means,  but we know that we can count on each other to be there in both the good times and the bad.

I signed up to walk shelter dogs all those years ago because I felt sorry for dogs that lived at animal shelters.  I wasn’t expecting to make new friends, close or otherwise.  Which just goes to show that some of the biggest gifts we get in this life are the ones we weren’t even looking for……

Too Much Information

Sometimes I think I’m a terrible friend.  Don’t get me wrong, I care about each and every friend I have, deeply and sincerely.  I know I’m lucky to have them in my life and what a gift those relationships are.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m nowhere near the kind of friend I want to be, and that bothers me.

Last weekend my husband and I went to dinner with a couple of very good friends we have known for more years that I care to count.  We had a great time, eating good food and catching up on what was going on in each other’s lives.  It was a fun evening and one I thought had gone very well, until after I was home and it hit me that I had not once asked my friend about how her sister was doing.  The sister who had been fighting a very serious cancer and who, the last time I actually remembered to ask, was still struggling to fully recover.

All too often, that’s exactly the kind of friend I am:  the one who doesn’t remember to ask the important questions.  The one who doesn’t always manage to keep track of what is going on in her friends’ lives, which means I’m also the one who sometimes doesn’t give the kind of support that her friends need and that I really, really want to give them.

I know what the problem is, and it’s not a lack of compassion.  The problem is that I  don’t seem to have the ability to keep track of large quantities of information, no matter how important that information happens to be.  Like almost everyone else these days, I’m constantly bombarded with information that needs to be acknowledged, processed and categorized so that it can be retrieved when needed.  But in my case, the information is usually misfiled somewhere in the depths of my tiny little brain.

I can remember what I want to ask someone about until that person is actually standing in front of me, or I’m talking to them on the phone.  That’s the exact moment that I can remember only that I need to schedule a vet appointment for my dog, get a flu shot, take our passports back to the safety deposit box, and drop some food off at my mother’s house.  Later, when I’m standing in my basement trying to remember what I went down there for, I’ll remember that I want to ask about a good friend how her recent job interview went.  (Not that I’ll actually ask her, since she’s not standing in my basement at that exact moment.)

I worry that my over-stretched memory means that my friends and family must think I am self-centered, and worse, that I don’t really care about what is going on in their lives and that they can’t count on me for support when they need it.  The truth is, I couldn’t possibly care more, and I am always ready to give any kind of help that they need.  But it’s also true that they might need to remind me that they need that support.

I suppose the fact that I actually have friends means that there are people in this world who, if they don’t always understand me, or at least willing to put up with me.  And for that I am deeply grateful.  I suppose the true test of any friendship is the ability to accept people for who they truly are, flaws and all.  And maybe it’s time I began to do that for myself as well.

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.

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.

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.

Poker Night

IMG_0905I have to admit that when my neighbor asked me to join the new poker group she was starting, I had my doubts.  The group was going to meet one Friday night a month, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to add another standing commitment to our already too-full calendar.  Even more concerning, I was going to be the only member of the group who actually knew how to play poker, which meant it would be my job to teach everyone else how to play.

My first inclination was to say no.  My second inclination was to say yes, and then explain that poker always has to be played for money, and that it was a good idea for everyone to bring their valuable jewelry and car titles so that they would have something to bet if their money ran out.  (Did I mention I was the only one who knew how to play?)  Luckily, I went with the third option, which was to agree to join the group and teach everyone how to play, and to play only for the little plastic chips that are handed out before each session.  I do have a few finer instincts left.

My father taught me to play poker when I was five years old, and my in-laws play poker at almost every family gathering, so I am very comfortable with the game.  But I quickly found out that teaching other people how to play is not always so easy.  A typical exchange goes something like this:

Me:  “Okay, now that I’ve dealt the cards, you can either bet, fold (quit that hand) or check the bet (wait to see what the bet is without quitting the hand).  We start with the person to the left of the dealer and go around the table.”

Debby:  “I check the bet.”

Sandra:  “I bet one.”

Paula:  “I check the bet.”

Me: “You can’t check the bet, because Sandra bet one.  So now you have to either bet one, raise, or fold.”

Paula:  “But you let Debby check the bet.”

Me:  “That’s because nobody had bet yet.”

Paula:  “But I want to check the bet.”

Me:  “You can’t check the bet.”

Paula:  “Why do you hate me?”

And so it goes….  But we muddle along, with me slowly learning to be a better teacher and the others slowly mastering the game.  I suppose we might give up if the whole point of the evening was just to play poker, but of course, it isn’t. Between arguments about who is and isn’t allowed to “check the bet” we spend a lot of time talking and laughing, catching up on each other’s lives and just plain enjoying each other’s company.

With every gathering, we are getting to know each other a little better.  We feel comfortable telling the truth about our families, both the proud moments and the painful ones, knowing that we will get nothing but support in return.  We talk about the things we’re happy we’ve accomplished, and the dreams that we are still hoping will come true some day.   And in between the friendly banter, the serious talk, the eating and the drinking, and the occasional hand of poker, the evenings just fly by.

I’m so glad that my neighbor started this group and invited me to be a part of it.  I’m even happier that I didn’t decide I was too busy to join.  Sometimes being middle aged means feeling that we are already doing all that we can do, and don’t have room to add more friends, more commitments, more new anything, and that’s a shame.  Because there is always something new that is worth the time, if we are just willing to give it a chance.  I took the risk on poker night, and that’s a bet that paid off, big time.

Girls’ Weekend

Several years ago, a couple of “old” friends and I decided to meet for the weekend in Kansas City, since it’s approximately halfway between our homes and an easy drive for all of us.  We wanted to get the chance to spend some time together without anyone having to be the hostess, and without any distractions from our families, jobs and everyday responsibilities.  I don’t think we knew we were beginning an annual tradition, as up until that point, we often went a few years without seeing each other and probably just assumed that wouldn’t change.

girls weekendWe stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of the city, and spent the weekend just hanging out, shopping, talking, drinking a little wine and beer, and eating huge amounts of food with very little nutritional value.  In short, we had a wonderful time and couldn’t wait to do it again.  So our girls’ weekend became an annual event, and I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that it did.

It is such a gift to be able to step out of my everyday life and spend a couple of days with two good friends I have known since sixth grade.  We may not all live near each other, but we have managed to remain connected for almost five decades, even during the crazy hectic years when our children were small and we had to rely on letters (remember them?) and expensive, long-distance phone calls to stay in touch.  And that means that there is very little we don’t know about each other, very little we can’t talk about, and that we can be completely and absolutely ourselves in each other’s company.

We can discuss something as trivial as my need to “do something” with my eyebrows (or so they assure me), and as serious as what our wishes are when we are old and unable to care for ourselves.  We talk about family issues without any sugar-coating because we know there will be no judgement, only support.  We laugh at our silly mistakes, confess things that we wouldn’t dare tell many others and ask questions that are completely inappropriate, knowing that we will get nothing more than a simple and honest answer in response.

I know a weekend spent in a Drury Inn in a suburb of Kansas City, eating at chain restaurants and shopping at the same type of mall that can be found all across the country doesn’t sound like such a big deal.  Most people think of a trip to Kansas City and immediately think of the Crown Center, Country Club Plaza, the terrific clubs and unique restaurants, the first-rate museums, etc.  And I’m sure I’ll get around to visiting all those someday.  But for now, I’d much rather have a weekend with two of my closest friends, the laughter at inside jokes, the support and understanding we give each other, and the realization that I am so very lucky to have this kind of friendship in my life.

“With A Little Help From My Friends…”

First of all, I need to say that I’ve been lucky enough to have found some very good friends in recent years.  I’m not talking about casual friends, I’m talking about true friends:  people I can count on when I need help, people who let me express exactly what I am thinking and feeling without judging, and people who encourage me to be the best person I can be.  Their friendship is an incredible gift, and I never doubt how lucky I am to have them in my life.

But one of the advantages of aging is the gift of life-long friends, those “old” friends I have known for most, if not all, of my life.  The awkward teenage years,  the nervous new-mom years, all the way to the “how will I ever survive menopause?” years, these are the friends who have seen it all, or at least most of it.  There’s nothing quite like spending time with people you have known for decades.  They’ve been a constant in my life, and when I say, “remember when?” they always do. Often they add memories that I have forgotten until they bring it up, and then I have a new memory to savor.  There’s something deeply comforting and affirming in those kinds of friendships.

“Old” friends don’t feel the need to impress each other, which means you can talk openly and honestly about almost everything.  They know your strengths, and encourage you to use them.  This blog would not have been started without the almost constant encouragement (okay, nagging, but in a good way) of a friend I met in sixth grade, and I am beyond grateful to her for that.  Old friends also know your weaknesses, which just means they know exactly when to step in and offer a helping hand.

In a world where we are so used to having to “put our best foot forward” and hide our faults, it’s no small gift to spend time with people who accept us just they way we are.  I often joke that I would never use any of my life-long friends as a job reference, simply because they know way too much about me!  But that is fine, as I have plenty of people who know only the public, “surface” me (several have told me how calm I am, which couldn’t be further from the truth) who I can list as a reference if I ever need one.  But those aren’t the people I turn to in times of need, or when something wonderful has happened and I want to share it.

True, life-long friends are the ones who keep us grounded, keep us going when times get rough and are a constant reminder that we are never really alone.  They make the problems of middle age seem so much easier to bear.  And the nicest thing about making new friends is that, twenty years from now, I’ll have even more old, long-term friends.  It almost makes me look forward to my senior years…..