Something New

IMG_1130When I was a child, Valentine’s Day meant school parties and special family dinners that featured heart-shaped gelatin molds and my very own box of chocolates.  When I hit the awkward teen-age years, the holiday was mostly a painful reminder of the boyfriend I didn’t have.  Then I found true love, and for the past forty-something years, Valentine’s Day was celebrated with flowers, chocolates and dinner at a nice restaurant, all of which I enjoyed very much.

But tastes change as we age, and in recent years both my husband and I began to tire of the crowds at the restaurants on February 14.  While the roses he brought me were beautiful, we couldn’t help feeling a bit scammed by the fact that their prices doubled (or even tripled) around Valentine’s Day.  And I have definitely reached the age where eating a huge box of chocolates is not a good idea, either in terms of health or being able to fit into my pants.

So this year, my husband and I decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day by babysitting our grandson so our daughter and son-in-law could enjoy an evening out.  Like all parents with full-time jobs and young children, they could use  more “couple time” and we love nothing more than being with our grandson.  Which why I spent this year’s Valentine’s evening snuggling with a two-year old while reading him bedtime stories.  And loving every minute of it.

I’ve come to believe that one of the secrets to living a happy life is the ability to let go of traditions, expectations, and even relationships that no longer work.  When our traditions stop giving us joy, it’s time to find new ones.  When familiar thought-patterns keep us nursing old grudges and reinforce negative self-images, it’s time to look for new perspectives.  And when people we were once close to make it clear that they are no longer interested in spending time with us or including us in their gatherings, then it’s time to accept that and focus our time and energy on those who do value our company.

It’s not a matter of turning our back on the past and all of the happy memories we have.  It simply means that we understand that all of us change, and that the things that once worked for us may not be such a good fit anymore.  More importantly, it means that we’re recognizing that there are new possibilities just waiting to be explored that just might make us every bit as happy as what we are leaving behind.  We just have to be brave enough to try them.

There was a time when I thought the best possible Valentine’s Day celebrations involved lots of flowers, cards, chocolates, and dinner at a fancy restaurant.  I couldn’t have imagined wanting to spend the evening eating store-bought macaroni and cheese, salad from a bag and reheated chicken nuggets, followed by bathing a toddler and then reading him the exact same book six times in a row before he finally fell asleep.  Yet that is exactly how I celebrated this year.  And you know what?  It was one of the nicest Valentine’s Days I’ve had in years.

If The Shoe Fits….

I was at a party over the weekend, chatting with a couple of friends, when one of them told me how much she had enjoyed my most recent blog post.  She turned to the other friend and asked, “Didn’t you think it was funny?”  The other friend looked embarrassed, and then said, “Actually, I don’t read her blog.”  A few days later, that friend called me an apologized, worried that she had offended me.  She told me that her life was very busy right now, and that she didn’t really have time to read anything, not even a friend’s blog.

I quickly reassured her that there was no need for her to apologize. And there wasn’t.  We’ve been friends for a very long time, and I know perfectly well that she’s not a big reader.  I also know that she is a kind and generous soul who would never deliberately do anything to hurt anyone’s feelings, including mine.  And I have learned over the years not to be offended when I discover that a friend or family member doesn’t read my posts.

I admit that when I first started my blog, I (naively) believed that I could count on all my friends and family to read it, and also figured that they would probably be my only readers.  But I soon discovered that people who didn’t particularly enjoy reading weren’t suddenly going to change their ways just because I had started a blog.  And that not supporting my blog didn’t mean they didn’t care about me, and that I couldn’t count on them in other, equally important, ways.

Our friends and family members are unique individuals, with their own particular strengths and weaknesses.  And if we’re wise, we remember exactly what those strengths and weaknesses are when we’re looking for support or help.  A friend who is chronically late is not the person to ask for a ride to the airport, at least not if you want to make sure you don’t miss your plane.  And if you know someone has a hard time being discreet, that’s not the person you go to when you want to confide a deep, dark secret.

I think the trick is to remember that no one can be “all things to all people,” and to remember that everyone who is close to us enriches our lives in their own, unique way.  Maybe the friend with the loose lips is the perfect person to call when you need a ride to the airport, or maybe the friend who is never on time happens to be excellent at keeping a secret.  It’s a matter of knowing someone well enough to have a pretty good idea of what they can, and cannot, do for us.  Then we don’t set ourselves up for disappointment by expecting something that they aren’t capable of giving. Personally, I really appreciate my friends who take the time to read my blog.  But I also value the ones who don’t.

We don’t do anyone, least of all ourselves, any favors when we don’t see our friends and family for who they really are, and that includes their strengths, their weaknesses, and even just their personal tastes.  And if we really care about them, we’re more than willing to love and accept them just exactly as they are.

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….

Let It Go

IMG_1848I think all of us have times when we feel as if we’re on a treadmill, and someone keeps turning the speed up higher and higher.  Those times when there just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to get through even half of our “to do” list, and we fall into bed each night exhausted and already fretting about all the things we have to accomplish tomorrow.  For some reason, Fall always seems to be one of those times for me, and this year is no exception.

I’m sure part of the problem is that the days are growing steadily shorter and that there is so much to do in order to get our yard ready for Winter and our house ready for the upcoming holidays.  My husband and I are also spending a lot of time getting my mother’s old house ready for its new owners and dealing with all the little glitches that always arise at times like these.  (It took us two months to realize that some of the utility bills for her house have gone AWOL.)   Add these extras to our usual day-to-day responsibilities, and I suppose it’s no wonder we’re feeling a bit overwhelmed.

But I know all those things are just part of the problem.  And the rest of the problem rests squarely on my shoulders.  Because I have a long-standing and very unhealthy habit of taking on too much and hanging on to too much.  My intentions are good….I want to be a supportive friend, a good neighbor, a dependable family member, and basically just the sort of person that others know they can count on for help, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Within reason, of course.  But the problem is, sometimes I forget to be reasonable.

I tend to forget that there are limits to how much responsibility I can take on and still retain a sense of well-being.  I seem to need constant reminders that when I try to “be there” for everyone, I usually end up satisfying no one, least of all myself.  I need to learn that there’s no such thing as a perfect friend or relative, and that as long as I am doing my best, those who truly care about me will be okay with that.

I suspect that self-care and setting healthy boundaries will always be a process for me, and that’s okay.  I’d rather be too generous with my time and resources than too selfish.  But I also want to respect my limits, and learn to say “no” to obligations and needs that I truly can’t meet without stretching myself too thin.  I need to let go of my natural inclination to rush in and try to fix things, all the time.  Because let’s face it, it’s both arrogant and short-sighted of me to believe that I’m the only one who can step up when help is required.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll get to the point where next Fall is just a little bit more relaxed, and therefore more enjoyable for me and also for the people who would rather not have to deal with me when I’m stressed and crabby.  That certainly strikes me as a worthy goal….

Moving Forward

I think my husband and I were just a teeny bit optimistic when it came to my mom’s move to her new retirement home.  Yes, she was moving from a spacious house to a one-bedroom apartment, but we thought we had the perfect system to handle it.  “Just pick the things that you want to take with you, and we’ll handle the rest,” we told Mom.  “It shouldn’t us take very long to clear out the house.”   Seriously, I don’t know what in the world we were thinking.

The problem wasn’t so much the sheer quantity of stuff that was left in her house even after Mom took everything she wanted to her new apartment, and even after all the members of the family had taken all the stuff they wanted.  The problem was trying to decide just exactly what to do with everything else, because her old house has to be cleared out before anyone can move in.  (The last time I checked, there’s not much demand for a house that is full of someone else’s stuff.)

We donated as much as we possibly could, and contacted antique dealers to see if there is any interest in buying some of the older items.  We filled several recycle bins with anything that could be recycled, and finally ordered a dumpster for the rest.  All of this took much more time and hard work than we had anticipated, but even that wasn’t the hardest part.  The hardest part was watching my mother visit her old house and seeing how sad it made her to watch a lifetime’s worth of accumulation being donated, recycled, and sometimes even trashed.

I understand her pain, and I do wish there was a way that we could keep everything she wants us to keep.  But we can’t.  We don’t live in a huge house, and our house is already pretty darned full of our own stuff.  Ditto for all the other members of the immediate family.  After stewing about it for a while (my way of dealing with conflict), I finally decided that we all needed to face a simple truth:  it’s time to move on.

So I told Mom that it’s perfectly normal to feel sad about letting go of some of her possessions.  But I also reminded her of how happy she is in her new home.  She loves her new apartment, and she raves about her new retirement community.  She says everyone she has met is so nice, and she enjoys all the social activities that are offered daily. They even have a room devoted to jigsaw puzzles, her favorite hobby.

Sure, Mom could have kept everything if she had chosen to stay alone in her house, surrounded by all her stuff.  But she chose to move to a retirement community where she would have an apartment small enough for her to easily manage and far more of a social life than she has enjoyed in years.  And the price she has to pay for that choice is giving up some of her possessions, even knowing that some of them won’t be “staying in the family.”

I believe the lesson for my Mom is really a lesson for us all.  Life is meant to be lived to the fullest, and we can’t do that when we cling to the past.  Letting go of the things that hold us back, whether they are material objects, old grudges we continue to nurse, or even belief systems that have become outdated, can be painful for sure.  But it’s the only way we’ll ever move forward and discover the promise of our future.

fullsizeoutput_54efIt helps to remember that the life we’re living today is the one that will be creating the memories of tomorrow.  Like, say, sharing a meal in your new apartment with your favorite (if only) great-grandson….

Dangerous Thoughts

I’m the sort of person who likes to be prepared.  It’s second nature for me to plan ahead and try to consider every possible outcome of almost every situation, especially the negative ones.  I buy travel insurance for our big trips, have an emergency kit both in my house and in the trunk of my car, keep a stash of any medications I may need in my purse, etc.  I always have a “plan B” in mind when I’m making any kind of decision, no matter how big or small, because I’m well aware that things might not work out as I had hoped.

So I really don’t need anyone or anything constantly warning me of possible danger, or pointing out all the things that should be causing me worry and angst.  Believe me, I’ve got that covered.  Which is why I get so annoyed with all the warnings and alerts that I’m bombarded with every day of my life.

The news media is bad enough, with it’s constant stream of negativity and dire warnings about, well….everything.  Yes, we are facing some very serious issues in our country and in the world, but I don’t think that daily newscasts with the essential message of  “be afraid, be very afraid!” are going to help us solve them.  Nor do I appreciate it when my cell phones sends me emergency news alerts about things that are definitely not emergencies.  If my phone is going to interrupt my day with an alert, it had better be about something serious, like an approaching tornado or an invasion of Martians.

But the worst offender is my car.  It has several built-in warning systems which I’m sure were intended for safety, and that’s a good thing.  Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that my car was programed by someone who’s rather paranoid, because it warns me about everything, all the time.  If I pull into the garage and get within two feet of the trash cans, my car not only beeps at me, but warning lights flash and sometimes it even hits the automatic brakes.  Yes, getting within two feet of another car on the highway would be a problem.  But I’m parking my car.  In my garage.  And it’s not a huge garage, so I have to get “dangerously” close to the trash cans to do so.

Last week my car got really upset because I had parked in the street, and someone else pulled up behind me a bit closer than my car deemed appropriate.  They had actually left plenty of room for me to pull away from the curb, but the minute I started my car, it flashed and beeped and generally had a panic attack as I manuvered out of the spot.  I swear, if my car was a person, it would say nothing but “Danger!  Watch out!  Oh my gosh, oh my gosh…OH MY GOSH!!!!”

As I said, I don’t need this in my life.  I’m well aware of the dangers that surround me, and I take them seriously.  If I’m going to be bombarded with unsolicited messages, I’d much rather hear something encouraging, such as, “You can do it!”  Building confidence is almost always more effective than instilling fear, even when facing the big problems, in my opinion.  Now all I have to do is figure out a way to get others, especially my car, on board with that….

For What It’s Worth

For my last birthday, my son and daughter-in-law gave me a gift certificate good for a “behind the scenes encounter” our local zoo.  There were lots of different options to choose from (some easily ruled out, as I have no desire to get up close and personal with large reptiles.)   I chose the Penguin Encounter, and last Tuesday, my husband and I joined a small group of people who toured of the zoo’s penguin facilities.  We learned how the penguins are cared for at the zoo as well as how they live in the wild.  We also learned about the zoo’s efforts to preserve the natural habitat of penguins, and finally, we were actually able to “meet” a couple penguins.

IMG_0697We were instructed to sit quietly on the floor in a large circle.  Then the keeper led in two penguins, explaining that these two were well socialized and accustomed to walking around in the building.  We were allowed to gently touch their back or chest with one hand if they came close enough that we could touch them without leaning forward or extending our arm.  Sure enough, one of them waddled right up to me, and now I can honestly say that I have “petted a penguin.”

I really appreciated this gift, and not just because it was so fun to interact with a real penguin.  It also served as a timely reminder that what I value most in life has nothing to do with material objects and everything to do with how I get to spend my time.  Hanging out with my grandson, going on a trip to somewhere I’ve never been before, having dinner with good friends, even helping someone in need: these are the experiences that make life so interesting and that create memories that stay with us forever.

Like most people, I have a tendency to acquire far more things than I actually need, and even a bit more than I truly want.  I think it’s partly a result of human nature, and partly a result of the consumer-driven society I happen to live in.  It’s so easy for us to believe we want or need something, especially if we happen to notice that lots of other people really want it too.  (Remember Beanie Babies?)   Sometimes it seems as if unreasonable greed lives just below the surface in most of us, just waiting for something to trigger it.

But the truth of the matter is I have almost everything I need or want, and there really is very little reason to bring even more stuff into my modestly-sized house.  Which is something I’ll need to remember as I help my mom sort through all the things she’s accumulated but has no room for as she downsizes into her new apartment next month.  There’s going to be a whole lot of stuff that needs a new home, and I want to make sure that very little of it finds its way over to my house.

Because when you come right down to it, stuff is just that:  stuff.  And accumulating too much of it just makes our houses too crowded and our lives too complicated.  Far better to spend our time and energies doing the things that make us happy.  And who knows?  Sometimes that might even mean petting a penguin…..

Numbers Game

fullsizeoutput_5119Many years ago, I was in charge of the summer reading program at my church.  The idea was to encourage children to read during their summer vacation, so I would create a display to keep track of how many books the kids read and give them a reward when they had completed the program.  The program usually had a lot of kids, but one year only five signed up.  I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to go to so much time and trouble for only five children, so I called the church secretary to let her know I was going to cancel the program this year.  There was a brief pause, and then she asked, “But don’t you think those five kids deserve a reading program?”  And, of course, she was right.

Sometimes I think we live in a world where we put far too much value on popularity.  Social media encourages that, since success there depends on attracting huge numbers of followers and likes, and  we all know that a post “going viral” is considered the ultimate goal.

When I tune into the local news in the morning, I’m encouraged to join the thousands of others who follow that particular station.  They actually put that request across the bottom of the screen, right between the international news and the daily traffic report.  Things aren’t any better for those who get their news from the internet.  There, the stories seem specifically designed to get a reaction from the readers, because the goal is to get as many “clicks” and comments as possible. (I’m assuming in the hopes of attracting more advertising money.)  And the more outrageous the story, the more popular it is.  But that doesn’t mean it’s the news we actually need to know.

I refuse to name names, but I’m sure we can all think of several celebrities whose chief talent seems to be being a celebrity.  How they achieved that status, I don’t know, but it might have something to do with their ability to create viral posts, or say really outrageous things.

I remember when I told a friend I had just started a blog, and she immediately asked me how many followers I had.  I answered, with equal parts honesty and shame, “twelve,” and she changed the subject rather quickly.  That was over four years ago, and now I would have a very different answer to that question, and one that might not cause her to worry that she had asked an embarrassing question.  But you know what?  I’m not putting any more effort into my blogs posts these days.  I did the best I could then, and I’m doing the best I can now .  My blog may be a little more popular now, but I honestly don’t believe it’s any better.

I’m proud to say that I paid attention to the lesson that church secretary taught me, all those years ago.  I did go ahead with the reading program for those five children, and I put just as much effort into making it a good one as I did when lots of kids signed up.  Because when it comes to true quality, the numbers don’t count.

Plan B

Things don’t always work out the way we had planned.  Sometimes in simple ways, such as when I recently brought home a lovely wooden bookshelf that I had carefully selected to store my ever-growing collection of photo albums.  The shelf seemed perfect:  it was the right color to go with my living-room furniture, and the shelves were tall enough for my photo albums.  Or at least that’s what I thought when I measured them in the store.  But when I got the bookshelf home, I discovered the shelves were actually a half-inch too short for my photo albums.

My immediate reaction was not my finest hour.  I stomped around the house, said a few ugly words, and felt very sorry for myself because I had wasted an entire Saturday morning scouring second-hand shops for this shelf, then hauling it home and cleaning it up before I discovered that it wasn’t going to work after all.  I thought about calling my kids to see if either of them wanted the shelf, but then I realized that would mean I still had no place to store my extra photo albums.  And I really did like the bookshelf.  So I decided there had to be a way to make it work.

IMG_4733I measured an another bookshelf I already had and discovered that if I adjusted the shelves a little bit, my photo albums would fit.  That meant moving the books that were already on it, but I did have that brand-new shelf that the books would fit on nicely.  I spent the next hour moving books and photo albums around, but in the end, I found I did indeed have room for all the albums and the books that I wanted to keep and that the new bookshelf looks just fine in my office.  (I even found several books I want to give away, which means I now have room for more books!)

Sometimes our plans that don’t work out are much bigger, and much more important.  I spent years trying to break into the world of children’s publishing, because I was convinced that being a writer of children’s books was the perfect career for me.  But after a tremendous amount of time and effort, I only managed to publish one single book.  Eventually,  I had to admit that this particular dream just wasn’t panning out, and for a brief while, I gave up writing altogether.  Then a friend convinced me to give blogging a try, and I became an active writer once again.  I may not be writing and publishing children’s books, but I honestly enjoy blogging and feel a true sense of accomplishment when I get a post “just right.”

I think it’s important that we all have plans, goals and dreams, and that we do our best to attain them.  But I also think it’s important to realize that just because something doesn’t work out exactly as we had planned or hoped doesn’t mean we’ve failed.  It just means that we need to be flexible enough to try a different option or to explore an area we hadn’t considered before.  Because success can be found in many different ways, particularly when we’re willing to try “plan B.”

Getting Over It

I’m done with Winter.  I’m ready for the cold, grey days followed by the frigid, dark nights to go away.  I don’t want to shovel any more snow or slide across any more icy sidewalks and parking lots.  I’m tired of dry skin, frozen nose hair, and chapped lips.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s time for Winter to be over.  Right this very minute.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’ve been feeling a little crabby lately.  And it’s not just Winter I’m tired of, either.  I’m so sick of all those robo-calls that constantly bombard both my cell phone and my land-line that I’m seriously thinking of living a phone-free life.  (No matter how hard they try, no one can call you if you don’t actually have a phone.)  I’m tired of the way my dog insists on trying to lick his stitches, because it means we have to keep that silly “cone of shame” on him for another few days.  That thing hurts when he slams it into my legs, which he does on a regular basis.  When you live with a dog wearing a cone, sometimes love hurts.

I’m tired of all the nasty, petty meanness that I see every time I log onto my Facebook account, and really wish that more people would live by that old adage, “If you can’t say (or post) anything nice, then don’t say (or post) anything at all.”  I’m even more disgusted with the hatred and violence I see all too often on the news, and wish it would all just stop, immediately.

But the problem is, I can’t make any of it go away.  Not even my cell phone, because I really need that little device to stay in touch with my family and friends.  And I don’t really want to live my life as a crabby person.  So that means I have to figure out another way to cope with it all.

Today I think I took a step in the right direction.  I woke up in a particularly foul mood, probably because I went to sleep last night to the sound of sleet hitting the bedroom window.  It didn’t help that the morning dawned cold, slushy and very foggy, and I was due down at the animal shelter to walk dogs for several hours.   I thought, seriously if briefly, of not going in, but then my sense of responsibility kicked in and I got dressed and drove to the shelter.

IMG_4539And you know what?  The longer I walked the dogs, the less crabby I felt.  The dogs were just so darned happy to be getting out for a walk that it was kind of hard to keep that nasty mood of mine going.  And afterwards, when I came home for lunch, my own dog was so ecstatic to see me that I was willing to overlook a few painful jabs to my shins.

The lesson here isn’t just to spend more time with dogs (although I do recommend it).  It’s that when we’re feeling overwhelmed and crabby, sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves isn’t going to help.  But what will help is making the effort to do something for someone else (two or four-footed).  I honestly don’t know if it’s just the realization that we really can make a difference in the world, or if it’s the happiness that we give others reflecting back on us that lifts our spirits.  I only know that it works, and that’s good enough for me.