Do No Harm

The first lesson I learned from this pandemic was the importance of self-care.  Adding a bouquet of flowers to my cart when I’m grocery shopping, taking the time to re-read a favorite book, or just putting on make-up even when I know no one is going to see it underneath my face mask, can work wonders on my spirit.   Keeping as many of my normal routines as possible and indulging in the little things that bring me joy are great coping mechanisms that make this whole situation so much more bearable.

But while the benefits of self-care may have been the first lesson I learned, it isn’t the most important one.  Yes, taking care of myself as best I can, both emotionally and physically, is a very good thing.  But what’s even more important right now is remembering to also take care of other people–those who are close to me and even the people I don’t know at all.  Because the truth is we’re all feeling very stressed these days, so anything and everything we can do to help each other isn’t just appreciated, it’s also necessary.

Sadly, many people seem to be taking their anger and frustration out on each other, in either direct or indirect ways.  Memes on social media that ridicule or chastise people we disagree with are becoming more common and more vicious.  I see examples of selfish driving (blowing through red lights, cutting off other drivers, etc.) and sometimes even road rage almost every time I’m in my car.  Those of us who still read newspapers can’t help but notice that the letters to the editor almost all seem angry and full of accusations, but very short on actual solutions.

All this is doing is making a bad situation even worse.  Now is not the time to pour gasoline on the burning fires of our collective frazzled nerves.  Now is the time to offer the cooling waters of patience, wisdom, and most of all, compassion.  And no gesture is too small to make a difference.  We never know what’s going to turn the tide for someone else and make them feel a little less stressed or a little less alone.  It can be as simple as a smile from a stranger, or an offer to let someone with only a few items go ahead of you in the check out line.  These days, people need to see evidence of the positive side of human nature as often as they can.

DSC01258And the best part is, when we make the decision to try to help someone else cope with these crazy times, we discover that we’re also helping ourselves.  Doing even a small act of kindness makes us feel less powerless and more hopeful because it reminds us that we have the ability to make a positive impact on others.

Hard times have always brought out both the worst and the best in people.  But I believe that when we are intentional about being our best selves, we usually find that the times don’t seem quite so hard.

Here and Now

There’s an old saying I’ve always liked that says, “Always remember:  wherever you go, there you are!”  When I first heard it, I appreciated the humor of a saying that doesn’t seem to have much of a message at all.  But the more I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t quite true.  Because let’s face it,  there are times in our lives when we find ourselves in a situation that we didn’t plan for or in a place where we never intended to be.  And worst of all, we have no idea of just exactly how we’re supposed to respond to it.

When I first heard about this pandemic, I naively thought that it would be a rather short-term thing, which made it so much easier to cope with.  But as time wore on, I found myself truly grieving for the life that I had before the nasty little virus showed up turned everything upside down.  I missed the little things, like going out to dinner with my husband after a long day, or browsing through my favorite antique shop.  I wanted to be able to buy groceries without needing a face mask, disinfecting cloths, hand sanitizer, and a whole lot of patience.

One by one, trips and events that I had been looking forward to were cancelled:  three weddings, a family reunion, and a week on the beaches of our beloved Sanibel Island.  Birthdays, Mother’s Day, Easter, and Father’s Day all had to be celebrated without our traditional family gatherings.  I hated explaining to my mother that the big 90th birthday party she had been looking forward to so much was going to have to be put off indefinitely.  Worst of all was being afraid to hold my newborn granddaughter because it might not be safe for her.

This isn’t at all where I wanted to be, and yet here I am.  And the only choice I have is how I’m going to react to it.

I’d love to lie and say that I’ve handled it with real maturity and grace.  (This is a social media, where we all put our best, and often false, face on for everyone to see.)  But the truth is that the constant stream of bad news and challenges can wear me out.  Sometimes I find myself just wanting to retreat from it all, effectively putting my life on hold until things are better.

Luckily, I know that’s not really the choice I want to make.  And I know that because whenever I push myself to “get back out there” and live my life just as fully as I safely can, I immediately feel better.  Grocery shopping these days can feel surreal, but when I discover they’ve finally restocked my favorite frozen pizza, the trip to the store seems so worth it.  While I can’t gather with my friends and family in large groups anymore, when we invite another couple over for drinks on our patio, I still have a good time.  And when I watch my son feed his new daughter, I feel nothing but happiness.

I’ve always had a nasty habit of waiting for my problems to go away so that I can begin to enjoy myself.  But the problems this pandemic has brought aren’t going away any time soon, nor are some very real personal issues my family is facing right now.  So I have to keep reminding myself that this is my life now, and that in spite of the challenges, there is still so very much to be treasured and enjoyed.  Because life is always for living, right here and right now.

Taking Control

I’m not the sort of person who courts controversy.  In fact, it’s usually something that I avoid at all costs.  No one can run away from an argument quicker than I can, and I  usually read people well enough to know what they do and do not want to hear me say.  Yes, there are times when I slip up and blurt out something that gives great offense.  But that’s usually when I’m talking to my husband or my kids, and can’t resist the urge to offer a bit of motherly or wifely advice that is most certainly not wanted.  In general, I’ve always had great confidence in my ability to avoid offending people or starting an unwanted argument.

Until recently, that is.

I first noticed the change when the Covid-19 virus showed up, followed by the shelter at home orders.  I quickly realized that sharing my opinion on the subject was a risky thing to do, even when I intended my words to be comforting or reassuring.  I also realized that there were times when my own nerves were so raw that I wasn’t willing or even able to silence my true opinion and offer up the words that someone else wanted to hear.  The time had come, it seemed, when sometimes silence was the best response I could give.

And when parts of our country began a gradual lifting of the quarantine restrictions, the situation only became worse.  People had very strong opinions on the subject, and understandably so.  What was harder to understand was the absolute intolerance that many people had for anyone who didn’t absolutely share their opinion.  Once again, silence seemed to be the safe response.

Then came the murder of George Floyd, which triggered the nation-wide protests that have been going on for the past couple of weeks.  The news and social media is full of images of peaceful protests, both large and small, as well as images of mob violence.  And of course everyone has an opinion about it all, which is normal.  Sadly, many people are also convinced that their own opinion and is the only proper one and that anyone who thinks differently deserves to be treated like garbage.

I’m not sure how we have come to this, but I am sure I don’t like it.  Our country is dealing with some very real and very hard issues right now, at a time when most everyone’s nerves are basically shot from being quarantined for weeks.  I get that it’s much easier to lash out at someone that to try, even for a second, to see things from someone else’s point of view.  But I also know that there’s only so much hate and nastiness that the world can take.

I don’t want to live in a world where I have to be afraid of people who are different from me.  I don’t want to hesitate before I push the “like” button on a Facebook post because I’m afraid someone who disagrees with that post might be upset.  I want to be considerate of other people’s feelings, but I don’t want to remain silent solely out of fear of the response I’ll get if I dare to say what I really think.

Which means I have, basically, two choices.  I can live in fear of offending people who are all too ready to be offended,  or I can find the courage to be my genuine self and risk being attacked for it.  And I’ve decided to go with the second choice.  Because if I want to live in a world where people really are allowed to be true to themselves, then I have to be willing to be true to myself first.

Soldier On

When I had a molar pulled a few months ago, I understood that I’d be on a soft-food diet until I got my stitches out ten days after the extraction.  Ten days seemed like an awfully long time to go without any food that crunched, especially since so many of my favorite foods fall into that category.  Still, I got through it, and was really looking forward to a return to normal eating the day the stitches were removed.

But it turned out that I was wrong about that ten-day thing.  Because the morning I had my stitches removed, the dentist casually informed me that my soft food diet needed to continue for another ten days, until he removed the membrane that was protecting the new bone graft he put in my jaw.  Even worse, I’d be out of town the week I was supposed to come in for the procedure, so I’d actually be on soft foods for at least another two weeks.  So much for the celebratory dinner of all things crunchy, especially nachos, I’d planned for that night.

I can’t say that I enjoyed my three-plus weeks on a soft-food diet, but I did get used to it.  What had seemed like a horrible inconvenience soon became a minor annoyance, and I learned to get creative with my food.  (I found that I actually could eat nachos, as long as I stuck to the really soggy chips at the bottom of the pile.)  My most recent dental procedure has me on another ten days of soft foods, and this time it honestly feels like no big deal at all.  It’s amazing what we can get used to when we have no choice.

Last week our dog, Finn, tested positive for heart worms at his annual check up, and he’s already begun his four-month treatment program.  He’ll be on antibiotics for four weeks, and then four weeks after that he’ll get the first of three injections that will actually kill the worms that have taken up residence in his heart.  It will take almost four months to complete his treatment, and during that time we’re supposed to keep him calm and quiet.  Because if he gets too excited a chunk of worms could break off and cause a nasty, and most likely fatal, reaction.

fullsizeoutput_5988It’s going to be a real challenge to try to keep a two-year old terrier calm and quiet for four months, especially when he’s feeling just fine, which he will be except for the days immediately following the injections.  We’re talking about a dog we call “Bubbles” because of his bubbly personality, and who loves to spend his days running full speed around the yard and who goes berserk every time he sees his leash or he thinks it’s dinner-time.

The prospect seems daunting now, but all we can do is take it one day at a time.  We’re already realizing that some of the trips we had planned for this Spring and Summer might not happen, and we’ll make whatever other adjustments are needed to make sure we take the best possible care of our dog.  This wasn’t what any of us wanted, but it’s what we got.  Yet we’ll get used to it, and we’ll get through it.  Because as everyone who has ever dealt with a long-term issue, no matter how big or how small it may be, knows….sometimes we just have to “soldier on.”

A Good Man

l7PvQ+dETJOMWesRIhyYzQAs my regular readers know, I hate being sick.  So I was deeply unhappy when I realized that the sore throat and stuffy nose I came down with last Monday wasn’t, as I had hoped, an allergic reaction to spending Sunday afternoon taking down our Christmas tree.  It was a real cold.  The good news was that I felt a little bit better with each passing day…until last night, when I began to lose my voice.  I couldn’t talk at all by this morning, so I went to the local urgent care clinic for help.

It turned out to be inflamed vocal cords which should go away soon, and I’m already feeling much better.  Partly because they gave me a steroid shot for the inflammation, but mostly because the staff that I dealt with at the clinic were so professional and kind.  They listened to what I had to say, answered my questions, and explained exactly what my treatment would be.  In short, they were ordinary people who took the time to do their job well, and that helped enormously.

I’ve reached the age where I’ve known too many good people who have died, and even more people who are mourning the loss of their own loved ones.  So it shouldn’t have been a shock when my husband received a text from the wife of our handyman telling us that he had died of a sudden heart attack.  But it was.

We’ve known Mike for many years, and liked him very much.  He did high-quality work, and was friendly, dependable, and the sort of person who could fix or build just about anything.  Mike did a lot of projects for us, and also worked on our son’s house, our daughter’s house and my mother’s house.  You don’t spend that much time with someone and not get to know him fairly well, especially someone who likes to talk, as Mike did.  He told us about his wife, whom he loved dearly, and about his beloved granddaughter, whom he adored.  We knew he loved his dogs, and was an avid hunter and fisherman.

One way or another, my husband spent a lot of time talking to Mike, asking for his advice on various projects and often just “shooting the breeze.”  I think it’s safe to say that the relationship between the two of them moved beyond employer/employee to real friendship.  At least I know that’s the way my husband felt.

I’m not sharing this because I’m looking for sympathy for our loss, because that should be reserved for Mike’s family and close friends, who are in deep mourning.  I’m sharing this because I think it’s important for us all to remember just how much good ordinary people doing their jobs well can do, and how much of a positive impact they can make on the people around them.

The people who get most of the attention aren’t really the important ones, in my opinion.  It’s people like Mike and the staff I encountered at the urgent care clinic who really count.  It’s the ones who are kind and honest, and who do their jobs to the best of their ability,  and who are always ready to lend a hand when needed who are the people who truly make the world a better place.  And I believe that they are the ones whose example the rest of us would do well to follow….

All Good Things

It seemed to me that this past Winter was especially hard.  My home town was spared the horrible blizzards that devastated other parts of the Midwest, but our Winter was still made up of months of very cold temperatures and too much snow and ice.  I don’t know if it’s my age or that my volunteer job of walking dogs at the local animal shelter means I’m outside for long periods of time, but whatever the reason, I don’t tolerate the cold very well.  The blood drains out of my fingers, leaving them bleached white and painful, my nose runs continuously, and my eyes tear so much that everyone thinks I’m crying.

So you can see why I was really, really, ready for Winter to be over, even as the frigid temperatures hung on and the promise of Spring seemed so very far away.  I often found myself wondering just how big of a beach-front Florida condo we could buy if we sold our house and drained our savings accounts.  Sometimes I thought about just staying in my nice warm bed all day, reading books and eating hot soup.  I even toyed with the idea of having all the supplies I needed delivered to me so that I didn’t have to venture out into the cold.

But I didn’t act on any of those crazy impulses.  Instead, I just kept to my regular routine, knowing that sooner or later, Winter would give up and leave, making room for the Spring that I was longing for.  And sure enough, Spring finally showed up.

fullsizeoutput_5070The past couple of weeks have been (mostly) wonderfully warm, with just enough rain to wash away the nasty tree pollen that triggers my allergies.  The flowers are blooming, the trees are budding, and the birds are singing outside my window every morning.  The days are getting longer, and it now stays light well into the dinner hour, which means we can both cook and eat outside on our patio.

I believe Winter comes to all of us in many ways.  Some times it’s the literal Winter of cold, nasty weather and long, dark nights.  Other times, it’s the hardships and losses that that we suffer through and that can make life feel so very difficult, both physically and emotionally.  There are times when it seems as if our personal Winter will never end.

fullsizeoutput_507dThat’s when it helps me to remember that at the end of every seasonal Winter, no matter how hard and how long it has been, comes Spring.  The sun gets a little stronger, the temperatures a little warmer and the days last a little longer with each passing week.  And that reminds me that the dark days in our personal lives don’t last forever either.  It may take a long time, but eventually our burdens will feel just a little bit lighter, our hearts will feel just a little bit warmer, and our spirits will celebrate the arrival of our very own Spring.

This Fleeting Moment

I don’t pretend to know why bad things happen to good people.  I only know that they do, far more often than they should.  And that sadly, there really isn’t anything we can do to prevent it.

What we can do is accept it, and let that knowledge guide the way that we live our lives.  I’m not suggesting that we stay in a constant state of fear of something really bad happening to us or someone we love, because that would be a truly awful way to live.  I tend to be a bit of a pessimist already, so the last thing I need is any encouragement in that department.  But what I am suggesting is that we recognize that every good thing we have:  our health, our money,  and especially our relationships with the people we love, is something that we need to truly value and appreciate, because none of it is guaranteed to last.

Each day that we wake up in our own beds, healthy enough to face that day’s demands and chores is a gift.  Having enough money to provide for our basic needs is a gift, even if that money is the result of hard work and past sacrifices.  Every single minute spent with the people we love is not only a gift, but the most precious gift of them all.   But all too often, I find myself taking those gifts for granted.  Or worse, making the mistake of thinking that I am far too busy to actually enjoy them.

I think one of the hardest parts of aging is that we know too many people who are struggling and suffering, and that the longer we live, the more we have struggled and suffered ourselves.  I know that could be an excuse to harden our hearts and turn inward in an effort to protect ourselves from further pain.  But it can also be a reason to be much more intentional about how we spend our time and establish our priorities.

I believe that when we really recognize how fleeting life is, and how few things in life can be guaranteed, it makes it so much easier to make good choices about how we do spend our time and energy.  When I stop taking my health for granted, I’m so much more likely to eat foods that are good for me and to make sure I’m getting at least a little bit of exercise each day.  When I don’t assume that I will always be able to pay my bills, I find it so much easier to say “no” to purchases I don’t really need.  But most of all, when I don’t take my most precious relationships for granted, I find that I am always able to find a way to spend time with the people I love.  Because I know that I may not have that choice tomorrow.

Nothing is forever, no matter how much we wish otherwise.  So treasure your gifts now, whatever and whoever they are, while you still can.  Because in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Silver Linings

Sometimes life throws us a curve ball, and sometimes life throws us several curve balls all at once.  When that happens, all we can do is try our best to cope with the situation and trust that things will eventually get better.

Last Thursday, I went to the animal shelter where I volunteer and signed the papers to foster Stanley, a Beagle-mix that was sick with kennel cough.  He’s a sweet dog, and I knew he would get better much faster at our house.  I was also hoping that if everything went well, I’d be able to adopt him once he was healthy.  So I loaded Stanley in my car and headed for home.  Halfway there, I realized he was peeing all over the car seat (thank goodness I’d thought to cover it with pee-pads).  I told him to stop, which he did.  Unfortunately, he promptly threw up instead.  And not just on the pee-pads.

These things happen, so I was annoyed, but not too upset.  I put him in the back yard, pulled on some rubber gloves and cleaned up the mess.  It took awhile since the vomit managed to seep into almost every nook and cranny in the car (I had to use a toothpick to scrape it away from the gear shift), but by the time I was finished, no one would ever know a dog had used the front seat of my car as his personal toilet.

My grandson had been sick with RSV since Wednesday, and I was planning to babysit for him on Friday.  But his symptoms worsened dramatically, so we ended up taking him the emergency room on Friday morning where they promptly admitted him to the hospital.  The next two days were a blur of very little sleep, trying to help my daughter and son-in-law without being intrusive, and a whole lot of worry.  There is just something so wrong about a baby in a hospital gown.

And just to make things even more interesting, our furnace decided to quit working Friday night, on the eve of what promised to be the coldest day of the year.  The good news was a service man was able to come to our house first thing Saturday morning.  The bad news was that we needed a part that cost $1,300 and wasn’t going to be available until Monday, or possibly Tuesday.  All I can say is that I’m very grateful for space heaters.

So, one way or another, it’s been a rough weekend and a very long week.  But life is nothing but a series of ups and downs, and things are finally on the upswing.  Our grandson got to come home last Sunday afternoon, and a few days later was back to his normal happy, healthy self.  Our furnace is working again.  The foster dog has settled in nicely and appears to be housebroken.  Even the nasty cold that I managed to catch mid-week is starting to fade, making me hope that I might actually get to enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

If I’d had my way, most of the events of the past week would never have happened.  But they did, and the good thing is, we got through them.  In the process, we were reminded that we’re stronger and more resilient than we thought, and that we have many people we can count on for support when we need them.  And that gives me hope for the next time life throws a curve ball our way…..

Positively Right

IMG_0709Have you ever had one of those dreams that seems so real you had a hard time convincing yourself it wasn’t, and the emotions you felt in the dream stay with you long after you wake up?  I once dreamed that my husband was cheating on me by dating the entire University of Iowa cheerleading squad, and also had the gall to tell me that it was “no big deal.”  I was so angry when I woke up that it was all I could do not to slap him.  And even though I knew it was just a dream, it still took me a few days before I quit glaring at him.

Which just goes to show how easy it is to get worked up about things that didn’t even happen and aren’t even real.  And sadly, I’m not just talking about exceptionally vivid dreams.  Or even all those annoying social media memes that are designed to generate outrage and anger, as dangerous as they can be to our emotional health.  What I’m talking about is much simpler:  how strongly our outlook (or our internal dialogue) can influence our mood and how we perceive the world around us.

When I’m feeling crabby, I have no problem finding things to fuel and sustain that mood.  A friend who is too busy to go to lunch with me is obviously tiring of my friendship;  the receptionist at the doctor’s office who doesn’t return a call right away must be incompetent; the driver who hesitates a bit too long when the light turns green absolutely has to be talking on a cell phone.  None of those things may be true, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling rejected, annoyed or self-righteously outraged.

It’s actually kind of scary how easy it is to react with very real anger and hurt to something that doesn’t exist anywhere except in my tiny little mind.  But the good news is that I can do something about it.

I can pay attention to that little voice in my head, and I can also rein it back in when it becomes too negative.  I can remember that most of the time, I honestly have no idea why people do the things they do and that nothing good can come from automatically attributing the worst possible motivation to other people’s actions.  And more importantly, I can remember that it’s almost always best to give other people the benefit of the doubt, at least until they have given me a good reason not to.

I used to think that people who believe in the power of a positive attitude were the sort of people who never really stopped believing in Santa Claus and who tended to buy into pyramid schemes with their spare money.  But the older I get, the more I realize that my attitude is not only one of the few things in my life I can actually control, but that the harder I try to keep it positive, the happier I’ll be.  And when I am happy rather than crabby, it’s just so much easier to also be patient, tolerant and most important of all…kind.  It really is as simple as that.

Freedom

IMG_1463In just a few short days, those of us who live in the United States will be celebrating our Independence Day, also known as the Fourth of July.  Traditionally, the holiday is observed with parades, bar-b-ques and fireworks, and I’m sure this year will be no exception.  Despite the many serious issues that our country is facing, I think it’s a good thing for us to acknowledge and celebrate the “birth” of our nation and try to remember that, like it or not, we’re all in this together.  My personal opinion is that we would do well to start concentrating far more on what unites us and far less on what divides us, but I know that is wishful thinking.

Still, when I think of Independence Day, it reminds me to be thankful for the freedoms I do have, and I’m not just talking about those that are guaranteed in our Constitution.

I may live in a world where there is far too much hatred and intolerance being spewed from all sides, but I am free to choose just exactly how I respond to it.  I can join in the argument, trying to shout down those who disagree, or silence them with fear and intimidation.  But I can also choose to express my own views confidently and politely, and to do my best to truly listen to those who see things differently.  In other words, I have the freedom to decide if I want to add to the problem, or if I want to try to be one of the much-needed voices of tolerance and reconciliation.

I’ve never been particularly good at saying “no,” even when my schedule is already over-crowded with commitments.  I know I have been blessed with a relatively good life, and I believe that I have a moral obligation to help others whenever I can.  But I also need to remember that I have the freedom to create my own boundaries, and to protect myself from the overwhelming stress that comes from trying to take care of everyone else’s needs while ignoring my own.  Freedom comes with responsibility, not only to others, but also to myself.

I’m not exactly sure how I’ll be celebrating this Independence Day, although I do hope I get the chance to see some nice fireworks and eat some good food.  But I’m hoping that whatever I do, I’ll also remember to be thankful for my own personal freedoms to choose the way I want to live and the kind of person I want to be.  And I hope that I’ll have the strength and wisdom to choose wisely, and live a life that is as free and independent of hate, guilt, intolerance and ignorance as I possibly can.  Because I believe that’s the kind of independence that is truly worth celebrating.