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.

The Greatest Gift

Last weekend was a busy one.  We had a death in the extended family, which meant taking a quick out-of-state trip on Friday to attend the visitation.  On Saturday, we drove back home so we could help our daughter prepare for the family lunch that would follow the baptism of our grandson on Sunday morning.  One of the disadvantages of growing older is that I don’t bounce back from those kinds of weekends as quickly as I used to, so I am only just now actually processing those recent events.

In many ways, the death of a loved one and the baptism of a baby are completely opposite events.  One life is ending and another one is just beginning, and the emotions we feel are so very different.  It doesn’t matter if the death came at the end of a long and well-lived life, or if it was sudden and completely unexpected, we still grieve and wonder if we are ever going to feel quite whole again without that particular person in our life.  And you don’t have to be religious to feel the wonder and joy of an infant baptism, since it represents the beginning of a new life full of promise and hope.  Any way you look at it, funerals and baptisms are very, very, different.

But as I look back over the weekend, I realize that those two seemingly polar opposite events have one very important thing in common.  At both times, family and close friends gathered together to offer community and support.  In the one case, they came to offer comfort and share memories of the loved one who is no longer physically with us.  In the other, they came to show their support of, and love for, a rather new little person who is just beginning his life journey.  But in both cases, the important thing is simply that they came.

Sometimes, life gets in the way and we can’t actually be present when someone needs our support.  Last week, the mother of a dear friend of mine also passed away.  Unfortunately, her funeral was held on the same day as our family’s visitation, five hundred miles away.  As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t physically be there for my friend.  But I could still reach out to her, thanks to modern technology, and make sure she knew she had my love and support.

Life will always be full of ups and downs, of occasions that seem unbearably sad and of other occasions that fill us with joy.  And the people who gather with us at those times to share our grief or our happiness are a powerful reminder that we aren’t in this alone.  They are the community that supports us through the life’s biggest changes.

So my take away from this busy last week and weekend is simple:  be there for those who need us.  Physically when we possibly can; or by calling, sending flowers, a card, or even a quick text when we can’t.  The details don’t really matter.  What’s important is just that we be there for each other, each and every time we are needed.

This Is The Day

We went to brunch this morning to celebrate my son-in-law’s birthday, taking our baby grandson with us.  The little guy did great, spending most of the time either sleeping or snuggling quietly on my shoulder, staring in wonder at the activity around us.  It was one of the nicest brunches I’ve had in a long time.  The food and company were great, of course.  But what really made me happy was the chance to just sit there with my family, holding my infant grandson.  And I wanted to savor every minute of it, because I know that babies don’t stay babies for very long and that far too soon, he’s going to be too big to drape so perfectly over my shoulder.

I am not, and never have been, particularly good at “living in the moment.”  I tend to put off doing the things that I could be doing, and even the things that I really want to do, until later, when I’m not quite so busy.  Or tired.  Or stressed.  Or whatever other excuse I have come up with for not fully appreciating what, and who, I have in my life right now, at this very moment.  And by doing so, I am counting on a future that is in no way guaranteed.

Life can change in an instant, both for the better and for the worse.  And all we can really count on is the here and now.  So it is actually rather important that we make each and every day count, as much as we possibly can.

IMG_0780For me, that means holding my grandson while he’s still small enough to let me, even if the food on my plate gets a little cold while I do so.  Or putting him in his stroller and taking him for a walk on a warm spring day, even when I have dozens of unfinished chores on my to-do list.  It even means taking even a few minutes to actually play the piano I insisted on buying a few years ago, rather than just vowing to find the time play whenever I dust it.

Making my day count may mean calling that friend I haven’t talked to in ages, or reaching out to mend a rift that threatens a once close relationship.  It may mean making a healthy choice for my next meal, or going for a brisk walk even if the weather isn’t perfect.  It may mean trying something I’ve always wanted to do, even if I’m afraid I will fail miserably.  The important thing is that I do it today.  Not tomorrow, because tomorrow may not come, for me or for someone I love.

Ever since my father died, I have made it a point to call my elderly mother several times a week.  Somewhere along the line, we began ending our phone calls with the words, “love you.”  We were never the sort of family who said that very often, and it was a little awkward at first.  But now it’s a habit, and a good one at that.  Because there is no better time to tell someone you love them than today.

Look For It

IMG_1907One evening I was driving down the highway, my mind busy with its usual jumble of thoughts and concerns, when I came over the top of a hill and suddenly realized that I was driving straight into a spectacular sunset.  It was just gorgeous, complete with a fiery red sun that radiated streaks of color across the sky as it dipped slowly into the horizon.  I remember being surprised, because I have always associated beautiful sunsets with beach vacations, where the highlight of my day is often standing on a beach and watching the sun sink into the ocean.  I couldn’t quite remember the last time I’d noticed a sunset in my hometown of St. Louis, since my house sits too low to see either sunsets or sunrises.  And yet there it was:  a sunset just as spectacular as anything I’ve ever witnessed on a beach vacation, even without the ocean.

Simply put, the sunset surprised me because I wasn’t looking for it.  When I drive on the local highways, I’m watching for bad drivers, traffic jams and the upcoming exit I need.  I may even be keeping an eye out for an interesting billboard.  But I am most definitely not expecting to see a sunset….even though the sun does set in St. Louis every night, just as it does all over the world.

I believe that all too often, we tend to see just exactly what we are looking for, no more and no less.  Which means that if we are looking for signs that the world is a horrible place and becoming worse by the moment, we will see them.  If we are looking for rejection in our relationships, contempt from people who are different from us, and incompetence from coworkers, we will see it.  Because sometimes those things are there.  But if we look for acts of kindness and compassion, for creative solutions to long-term problems, for areas where the world around us is actually improving, we will see those things as well.  Because the good things are also there, but we have to be willing to see them.

I spend my days volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter which rescues unwanted, neglected and abused animals on a daily basis.  Sometimes I see and hear things that make me doubt in the basic goodness of the human race.  But if I choose to look for it, I also see things that warm my heart:  people who take the time to bring in the stray and lost dogs they see wandering the streets, people who donate supplies and give so freely of their time and money, or a once-neglected dog prancing happily out the door with his new adoptive family.  Usually, the mood I am in when I go home from the shelter depends entirely upon what I choose to focus on when I’m down there.

Just like my surprise urban sunset, there is beauty to be found in almost any situation, even during those times when it is least expected.  And I hope that I always remember to just look for it……

After The Storm

For the past several years, my husband and I have chosen to celebrate our birthdays by taking a short trip together, and this year my husband chose to go to Sanibel Island. We had booked our trip for the third weekend in September long before anyone started talking about Hurricane Irma.  But when the category-five hurricane hit southwest Florida in early September, we figured our chances of celebrating my husband’s birthday on Sanibel Island ranged from small to none.  Honestly, we knew our disappointment over a cancelled trip was absolutely nothing compared to the hardship endured by those in the hurricane’s path.  The televised images of Irma’s landfall were devastating and the suffering it caused was beyond heart-breaking.

After the hurricane, we followed the news to see the extent of the damage, partly to know when we would be able to contact the resort in order to cancel our reservations.  Since Sanibel is a barrier island just fifty–some miles from Naples, which took a direct hit, we weren’t even sure if the resort would still be standing.  Both my husband and I love Sanibel Island and have visited it many times since we discovered it over thirty years ago.  It was painful to realize there was a very real possibility that the hurricane had destroyed the island, or damaged it beyond recognition.

Amazingly, Sanibel sustained very little damage from the hurricane that wreaked so much havoc on other parts of Florida and the Caribbean.  We checked the city’s official web page obsessively,  so we knew when electricity and water service was restored, when the streets and been cleared of the tangle of branches and trees, and when businesses began to reopen.  Then the resort actually called us to say they were up and running and ready for visitors.

Part of me felt guilty for even thinking of going on vacation in a state where so many people were still struggling with tremendous loss.  But we went ahead with our trip for two reasons.  One, we knew that Sanibel (like much of Florida) has an economy that is directly tied to tourism and losing that income would make it even harder to recover from the hurricane.  Secondly, both of us felt a strong need to see for ourselves that our beloved Sanibel Island really was okay.

And it was.  True, the signs of the hurricane were everywhere, from the piles of uprooted trees and torn limbs by the side of the road waiting to be picked up, to the hand-lettered “We’re Open!” signs outside many stores and restaurants.  We saw utility trucks from all over the country as workers continued to restore power to nearby communities.  And everywhere we went, people would ask each other  “How are you doing?”  “Is your power back on yet?”  “Did your house sustain much damage?”  Perfect strangers were constantly offering each other encouragement and support as they traded stories of surviving the hurricane.

IMG_3566I have always believed Sanibel Island is a beautiful place.  And this visit didn’t change my view, despite the signs of damage and the piles of debris from the storm.  Because this time, the beauty I saw wasn’t limited to the palm trees and the sandy white beaches.  This time, I saw a community coming together through hope and hard work, repairing the damage and moving forward with determination and optimistic pride.  And that was the most beautiful thing of all.

Life is like…

IMG_2531With all due respect to Forrest Gump, I don’t believe that life is really like a box of chocolates.  Personally, I believe that everyday life is actually far more like doing laundry.  Because no matter how many loads I wash, I know there’s always going to be more that needs to be done.  I never get to the point where I can say, “That’s it!  I washed, dried, folded, and put away all those clothes, and now I’ll never have to do laundry again!”  Doing the laundry is an ongoing process, which makes it very much like so much of the rest of my life.

For instance, when it comes to home and yard maintenance, we no sooner complete one project than we are faced with another.  We repaired out driveway last week, which means it’s time to replace our garage door and dig up three dead bushes.  And at the Animal Shelter where I volunteer, no matter how many dogs I walk and am thrilled to see get adopted into their forever home, there are always more dogs coming in that need to be walked and cared for until it’s their turn to be adopted.  Just like the laundry, it’s a never-ending cycle.

Even when I think something is coming to an end, I often find out that it isn’t.  I went to the doctor yesterday for what I thought was the final check up on the varicose vein treatment on my right leg, so I was surprised when he strolled into the examining room bearing a tray of syringes.  Apparently, I needed another treatment for minor veins, so here I sit in my support hose for another week.  (They look so fashionable when worn with summer shorts and dresses.)  When I was leaving, he asked if I wanted to do the next treatment in six weeks or wait until Fall, when he’s going to laser the varicose vein in my left leg.  And so the fun continues….

Just like laundry, life presents us with both loads that are light and loads that are heavy, and we have no choice but to handle them all.  And just like when we do laundry, sometimes we are successful (“I got the stain out!”) and sometimes we fail (“That stain is permanent!”).  Occasionally, we do something stupid (such as running a new wool sweater through both the washing machine and the dryer), and all we can do is forgive ourselves and move on, hoping we manage to handle things better the next time.

I honestly believe that few things in life are a matter of “one and done,” and that a big part of success stems from our willingness to just keep plugging away to the best of our abilities.  And it helps to remember that it’s not just the bad stuff, or even the everyday mundane stuff, that keeps on coming, but the good stuff as well.  We will always have something to celebrate and be grateful for, if we are willing to look for it

I could say more, but I think I’ve made my point.  Also, I’ve got to go throw another load of laundry in.