Tiny Bubbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take A Chance

We added a patio to our back yard several years ago, which left an area between our house and the new patio that needed some landscaping.  I went to a garden supply store and bought several bushes, which we planted according to the directions on the labels, paying careful attention to how large they were supposed to grow.  But either the person who wrote those labels knows even less about plants than I do or the bushes had their own ideas regarding optimal growth, because every one of them grew to at least three times their predicted size.  What was supposed to be an artistic  arrangement of greenery and flowers looked more like an over-grown jungle with each passing week.

We dug up a few bushes and moved them to other parts of our yard, hoping they would survive the transplant.  Most of them did.  But then we were left with a scraggly-looking plant that was wedged in between a crepe myrtle and an evergreen.  I didn’t remember buying it and wasn’t even sure whether it was a bush or a particularly ambitious weed.  My husband and I debated whether we should transplant it or simply pull it out, but in the end we decided to move it to the side of the house to replace a rose bush that had died last year.

It was in the middle of summer and I had no idea what kind of sunlight this particular plant preferred, so I knew the odds of survival weren’t good.  I also knew it was entirely possible that we were going to all this effort to save a weed, possibly even a version of a ragweed that both my husband and I are allergic to.  But for some strange reason, replanting seemed the right thing to do.

IMG_2815The plant not only lived, it thrived.  And the last time I was at a garden center, I saw one that looked just like it and eagerly read the label.  Turns out, that scraggly bush wasn’t a weed at all…it’s actually a butterfly bush (which I still don’t remember buying).  And this whole past week it’s been busy attracting monarch butterflies.

I’m not, and never have been, what you’d call an optimistic person.  Right now I have a pain in a lower molar which I’m quite certain is going to require some kind of serious and expensive treatment, because a pain in my tooth can’t mean anything else, right?  Looking at the bright side is not my strong point and neither is expecting good things, despite the fact that I have had my share of good things in life.  It’s a negative thought pattern that I have always struggled with and truly hope to overcome some day.

Which is the point of the story of the butterfly bush.  I’m not good at gardening and most of the bushes and flowers that I plant die well before their time despite my best efforts.  But I overcame my natural pessimism and gave that weedy-looking plant a chance, and the reward was a thriving and beautiful butterfly bush that actually does attract butterflies.  And I hope that whenever I look at it, I’ll remember the lesson it taught me.  Because I really do want to become a person who is more willing to take a chance on something good.

True Colors

It’s been a week since I banged my eye socket into the corner of my nightstand, and the resulting black eye is still going strong.  I wake up every morning hoping that my “shiner” has finally begun to fade, but one look in the mirror tells me that it’s actually looking worse with each passing day.  (Or as my husband so eloquently put it when he checked out my eye this morning, “Oh, my God!”)  It’s not nearly as sore, and the area immediately underneath my eyebrow is fading to a sickly yellow, but the eyelid itself is still a stunning reddish-purple, with bruises at each corner.  And the dark purple color is steadily spreading underneath my eye, giving me the mother of all eye bags.

Right after the accident, I could hide the worst of the damage with carefully applied make up, but that’s not working anymore.  Unless I’m wearing oversized sunglasses, my black eye is on display for everyone to see.  Some people ask what happened, others maintain a tactful silence, but everyone who sees me can’t help but notice it.

At first, I was very self-conscious about my black eye, and hesitated to go out in public.  But I soon realized that I had only two options:  stay home and hide until the colors faded away, or just go on and live my life, even if I did have an ugly, swollen eye.  I choose to go about my normal life, and learned a few things in the process.

I have always tried hard to look my best.  I dye my hair, put on make up, and try to wear clothes that are at least somewhat flattering.   And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of that.  But having a black eye made me realize that no amount of effort was going to make me actually look good.  And I was surprised to realize that I didn’t really care about that nearly as much as I thought I would.  Once I got used to the idea, I really had no problem just heading out into the world, scary-looking eye and all.

It was actually rather liberating.  I stopped worrying about my outfits when I was getting ready to go out, and stopped getting annoyed when my hair insisted on choosing it’s own style, as it so often does.  I still applied make up, but if I messed it up a little, I didn’t take it off and start again.  For the first time in a long time, I felt very comfortable in my own skin, with no need to hide the flaws.  And I think that is a very good thing.

The irony is that I have always been most attracted to people who are genuine, and who are just as willing to acknowledge their flaws as they are their strengths.  And I have worked hard at trying to live my own life as honestly as I possibly can, putting my real self out there, emotionally and intellectually.  But it took getting a black eye to make me realize that it’s perfectly okay to let people see my physical flaws as well.

So this past week has actually been good for me.  It reminded me that I don’t always have to put my best foot (or face) forward, and that my appearance is such a small part of who I really am.  I’m not saying I’m glad I got the black eye, but I really believe the lesson it taught me was worth it.

Moving Forward

I have what is referred to as a “pear-shaped” body, which is a kind way of saying that my upper thighs are a size bigger than the rest of me.  I complained about this for years before I finally lost the fifteen pounds that I was sure would give me the body shape I wanted.  It didn’t.  I still had the same body shape, just two sizes smaller.  Which meant that I still had an awful time finding pants that fit me, and I complained bitterly about that until a friend (who I’m sure was tired of listening to me whine about the same old thing) suggested I try having my pants altered to fit me.  So now I buy my pants on sale so that I can afford to take them to a tailor, who takes them in at the waist.  And just like that, my long-term wardrobe problem was solved.

I’m not going to lie:  I’m good at complaining.  Complaining comes as naturally to me as worrying, probably because they are closely related and tend to feed off each other.  It’s just who I am, and I’ve learned to accept that.  But what I have also learned is that the trick is to remember to move beyond complaining to actively trying to address the problem I happen to be complaining about.

It’s okay to recognize my worries and express my concerns as long as I realize that complaining isn’t going to solve a thing.  Complaining simply names the problem, but if I actually want to fix the problem, then that’s going to require some sort of action on my part.  Sometimes that’s as simple as finding a good tailor, while other times, of course, the problems are much more serious and complicated.

IMG_1157But even when the problems are huge and completely beyond my personal control, I can still do my part to try to make things better.  I can join groups that are working to change public policy, and I can volunteer with agencies that address the issues I care about.  For instance, I may not be able to single-handedly save all the homeless dogs, but I most certainly can spend my time at the local animal shelter, doing everything in my power to make the lives of the dogs there just a little bit easier.

It’s easy, I think, to fall into the pattern of simply pointing out the many problems we see around us and to believe that is as far as we need to go, or as far as we can go.  But I’ve discovered that when I do that, I end up feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and depressed.  Far better to see problems as something that need fixing, and to recognize that there is often something we can do to help solve them.  Not only does that make the world a better place, but it empowers us to discover that we really are capable of making a positive impact.

Moving from merely complaining to active problem solving is just as good for us as it is for the ones we are trying to help.  And in my case, it means that I finally have pants that fit.

Acting My Age

I may be getting old, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I am always mature.   Physically, I know I’m not young.  I am reminded of this every time I look in the mirror, or try to read anything without my reading glasses on, or worse, attempt to do something that requires the strength and flexibility I no longer have.  Believe me, my years of lifting anything over fifty pounds, turning cartwheels, or even mounting a tall horse without assistance are over.  But when it comes to maturity, there are times when I still fall short.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were sitting in a restaurant at a tall table near the bar, eating dinner and listening to some excellent music.  Some people came in and settled at the bar stools on our right, which was fine.  Unfortunately, they were quickly joined by even more people, mostly male and mostly drunk, who crowded into the space between the bar and our table.  They seemed to have no idea that they were regularly jostling our table, talking so loudly that we couldn’t carry on our own conversation, and that the man nearest to me was practically sitting on my lap.

The mature thing to do would have been to call the manager over and ask to be moved to a quieter table.  But I was annoyed.  We were there first, and they had invaded our space.  I had no wish for either my husband or I to confront people who were clearly under the influence, but that didn’t mean I was going to back down.  Instead, I leaned into the table and shifted my weight slightly to the right, moving the table just a few inches towards the crowd at the bar.  Then I would wait a few minutes and do it again.  It wasn’t long before the extra people standing between our table and the bar were, subtly but effectively, squeezed out.  And I admit that I felt a small thrill of victory as I watched them wander off, looking vaguely confused and annoyed.

It wasn’t my finest hour.  The people may have been rude, but they weren’t deliberately trying to ruin our dinner.  The simple fact was that I felt wronged, and felt the need to strike back, and did so.  If just one of them had noticed that I was deliberately moving my table in their direction, there could have been an ugly confrontation.  That’s what happens when I forget to be a grown up and let my inner child out, who still lives by the rules of the elementary school playground.

The sad truth is there is a difference between growing older and becoming mature.  The first one happens naturally, with no effort on our part, whether we like it or not.  But becoming mature requires an intentional effort to grow in understanding, patience, wisdom, and tolerance.  It means considering the consequences of our words before we speak and the consequences of our actions before we do something, and knowing when a cause is important enough to stand our ground and when it makes more sense to simply walk away.

I like to think that I’ve matured as I’ve grown older, and I know that in many ways I have.  Yet there is obviously still plenty of room for improvement and growth, even at this stage of my life.  I may wish I was just a little less old, but what I’d really like is to be a lot more mature.

Spring Forward

I have always thought of myself as a bit of a cynic.  Believing that good things are coming my way doesn’t come naturally to me at all.  And even when good things really do happen, my first thought is usually, “This won’t last.”  So maybe that’s why I have a hard time recognizing what I’m feeling right now, and what I feel every year right about this time.  Because according to my calendar, Spring has finally arrived.  And there’s something about Spring that always makes me feel hopeful.

IMG_1203I don’t know if it’s longer days, or the budding trees and flowers, or waking up to the sounds of the birds chirping in my yard, or just the increasing warmth of the sun on my face.  But somewhere in all of nature’s reawakening, I feel my heart opening up to new possibilities and growth.  I am more willing to try new things, to tackle those “to do” projects that I’ve been avoiding all winter, and even to take a few risks that I would normally avoid.  Somehow the things that used to seem comfortingly familiar now feel unbearably routine, and I find myself longing for all things new.

And so I begin my usual routine of Spring cleaning. I begin with my house, cleaning and de-cluttering like a mad woman, and even redecorating a bit until every room feels fresh and new.  I go through my closet, pulling out the clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years, even if they are still in good condition and were purchased at a bargain price.  And then I go shopping in search a few new items, making a point to at least try on styles I don’t usually wear.  I read books by new authors, strike up conversations with people I don’t know well, and when I go out to eat, I insist on trying a new restaurant.  Accepting new challenges, big or small, actually seems attractive.

For at least a few weeks, I find it easy to maintain my optimism and my passion for new things.  But as Spring turns to Summer my “spring fever” gradually wears off, and I find myself once again attracted to what is familiar and comforting in my life.  And in many ways, that’s a good thing, because I don’t want to live a life of constant change, and I certainly can’t afford a life of constantly buying new things.

But each year, a little bit of that “spring fever” experience sticks with me, and my horizons are broadened that much more.  Some new styles find their way into my closet; I discover a new favorite author, and sometimes I find myself with a new friend or two.  Some of the new doors I opened reveal new paths that carry me forward in unexpected ways.  And the best part is, I know that next year I’ll get to do it all over again.  Because, as we all know, hope springs eternal.

Quitting Time

I’ve always been a stubborn person, in a negative sort of way.  I may have the annoying habit of trying to please other people and make sure they both like me and approve of me, but the very second someone tells me that I  can’t do something is also the very second that I become determined to do it, come hell or high water.

Last night, my husband and I decided to go out to dinner, and I suggested our favorite Italian restaurant.  My husband said he thought it would be too crowded, since when we were there last year on the Saturday before Valentine’s Day, it was packed.  (I even wrote a post about it: Valentine Love)  True to form, I then suggested calling and asking if they had room for two more.  We did, and the manager assured us that although they were busy, he would be able to “work us in.” So off we went.

When we arrived, every table was taken and lots of people were waiting to be seated.  Undeterred, we snagged two empty seats at the bar, ordered a glass of wine and settled in to wait.  As we waited, more and more people poured in, and all of them had a reservation.  Even worse, very few people were actually leaving.  We both knew the sensible thing to do would be give up and hit the nearest pizza parlor, but we didn’t.  “We’ll give it ten more minutes,” we kept telling each other, grimly clutching our empty wine glasses as the crowd of people waiting pressed even closer.  We had both been fighting colds all week, were tired and very hungry, but by golly we were going to get a table.  And over an hour later, we finally did.

DSC00181Sadly, my knack for stubbornly hanging on isn’t limited to dining out.  I spent years trying to get my children’s books published, which is actually the sort of persistence that most writers need.  But the problem was I spent those years submitting my work the exact same way:  sending off the full manuscript to one large publishing house at a time, then waiting weeks or even months before they sent it back and I mailed it off to another one.  My system obviously wasn’t working, but that didn’t mean I was willing to give it up.  Yet the only book I eventually published was sold through an entirely different method:  I heard a book packager was looking for fantasy novels for teens, so I sent them the required book proposal, and they asked me to write the manuscript.

We are so often taught that quitting is a bad thing, that it means giving up on our hopes and dreams, that it almost brands us as some kind of loser.  But I’m beginning to believe that there are times when quitting is actually the best option.  There are times when a relationship is no longer working out, when a job is no longer the right fit, or when we’re just plain going about something the wrong way and we need to stop.

And those are the times when quitting is actually a good thing, because it opens the door to new opportunities. When we walk away from friendships that are no longer healthy, we have time to make new friends who can actually enrich our lives.  Sometimes quitting means we can take new jobs that challenge us, try new ways to achieve our goals, and find new projects to support. And hopefully, even someone as stubborn as me can start figuring out when it’s time to quit.

It’s In The Blood

I have a long history of fainting at the sight of blood, which I ignore at my peril.  Once when I was in high school, the principal asked me and a couple of friends if we would be willing to spend part of the afternoon helping out at the local blood drive by typing up the registrations of potential donors.  I was so taken by the thought of skipping a few classes (legitimately!) that I agreed.  At first everything was fine, since they had us sitting by the door with our backs to where people were lying on cots, having blood drained out of them, and I could just ignore the whole thing and concentrate on getting the cards filled out properly.  But then an attendant walked by carrying a tray stacked with clear bags full of blood.  I took one look and immediately passed out face down on my typewriter.

My fear of blood, and if I’m honest, anything remotely resembling a medical procedure means that I’ve never been what you would call a model patient.  No medical professional has ever looked into his or her waiting room and said, “Oh good, Ann Coleman is here!”  Instead, it’s “Oh crap, Ann Coleman is here!  Maybe if we ignore her long enough, she’ll go away.”

So when I first found out that the bulging veins in my lower leg were a somewhat serious problem that had to be treated by shooting a laser up a vein in my upper thigh to sear it shut, I was, to put it mildly, not a happy camper.  I’m pretty sure I turned pale, because the nurse had me sit down and brought me a glass of water.  But I knew things were only going to get worse if I didn’t go ahead with the procedure, so I put on my big-girl panties and scheduled the appointment.  When the day finally came, I was nervous and tired (I didn’t sleep well the night before, obviously), but also looking forward to just getting it over with.

And amazingly, I did pretty well.  Even when it took them four tries to get the catheter (I think that’s what they called it) into my vein in order to pump in the numbing solution.  The doctor told me that my veins kept “spazzing out” when they got close, which doesn’t surprise me.  Clearly, my veins don’t like anyone messing with them any more than I do.  Then came the laser, which they told me was 300-degrees hot.  Do you know that expression, “I was so mad, my blood was boiling?”  Apparently, mine actually was, at least for a little while.

Now I know that there are tons of people in the world who have had major surgeries, major medical procedures, and numerous treatments that were both horribly invasive and severely painful, and what I went through last Friday is nothing compared to those.  Believe me, I know that.  But I also know what a total wimp I have always been about medical procedures and anything involving blood, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m feeling just a little bit proud of myself for having my vein fixed without the need for general anesthesia or copious amounts of alcohol and sedatives.

For me, this was a bit of a turning point.  It was proof that I can be strong enough to face down my fears when I need to do so.  It showed me that I am still growing and evolving, and that I’m not the same person who once fainted just from looking at a bag of blood.  It proved that I don’t have to be defined by all my old fears and all my old doubts, and that’s rather liberating.  I know I haven’t conquered all my fears, but believe me, this was a very good start.

A Better Choice

I don’t know about you, but this past week has had an almost surreal feel to it.  Our nation’s long and contentious election is finally over, with a result that surprised many of us.  I had hoped that the end of the election would also bring an end to the ugliness, but sadly, that didn’t happen.  The internet is filled with the same intolerance, anger, attacks, and counter attacks that we saw during the campaign months and it seems as if there is no end in sight to any of it.  Sweeping generalizations seem to be the norm, along with finger-pointing, blame, and a complete refusal to listen to anyone who has a different point of view.

I actually considered taking a break from it all by refusing to watch any television news, staying off social media sites, and avoiding the internet all together.  It’s just too depressing, and sometimes makes me feel as if there is no hope for our country, or even our world, when so many people seemed so intent on sharing every single angry thought that crosses their minds, with no concern for whom they happen to hurt in the process.

But then I realized that by doing so, I would also be cutting myself off from many friends and family members who live far away from me and stay in touch via Facebook.  And I would also be withdrawing from the world of blogging, and I didn’t particularly want to take a break from the blogs I enjoy reading and from my blogging friends whose writing and comments usually brighten my day.  There is certainly a lot on the internet and news that’s upsetting, but there is also a lot that is comforting and affirming, and I can’t avoid the bad stuff without also cutting myself off from the good.

So, I decided that it’s time for me to simply get on with the business of living my life.  I’ll complete the necessary chores before me, continue with my writing and volunteer work, speak up (in a civil and respectful way) when I see injustice, and take care of my family and those who need me.  An when I do find myself feeling angry and threatened, I’ll try very hard to remember that it’s not okay to take those feelings out on other people.  I’ll also try very hard to focus on all that is good and positive in my life.

In just two days, my son is getting married to a wonderful young woman who is going to be a terrific daughter-in-law.  Friends and family are going to gather around them as they take this important step together, affirming their love and their commitment to each other.  We will eat, drink, laugh and dance (or in my case, try to dance) together as we celebrate this union.  Because often, in spite of everything that is going on around us, life can still be very, very, good.

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Square Peg, Round Hole

I don’t know about other bloggers, but I tend to think about my blog posts for a while before I actually write them.  I select a topic that happens to interest me, and then I think of what, exactly, I’d like to say about that topic, and even compose a few sentences in my head before I ever sit down in front of the computer.  If I’m lucky, the writing process is smooth and quick, and I hammer out my usual 500 to 700 word post without too much effort or angst.

But there are the times when I just can’t get it right, and when I rewrite the opening paragraphs several times, only to find that I have written myself right into a corner each time.  Sometimes I actually have to get up and walk away from my computer for a little while, and then come back and look at my draft with fresh eyes.  And when I do that, I almost always realize that the problem is that one of the sentences or ideas I came up with I came up with when I was thinking about the post just didn’t fit when I was actually writing the post, even though I kept putting it into each and every draft.  Unfortunately, I had liked that particular string of words so much (it was clever, darn it!) that I was blind to the fact that it needed to be cut.  I can be stubborn that way.

Sadly, that stubbornness isn’t limited to my writing.  I like to meet new people, try new things, and despite being a fiercely independent person, join new groups.  And that’s usually a good thing, as it has exposed me to lots of new ideas, some dear friends and some worthy causes. But there are times when as I get to know a person better, I realize that we  have very little in common and have some totally incompatible values.  Or that I didn’t like a particular activity nearly as much as I thought I would, or that despite my best efforts, I simply don’t fit into a particular group or organization.  And that’s when most people would immediately back off, but all too often, I hang in there, just sure that if I try a little bit harder, everything will work out.  I guess I’m afraid of being a quitter, or admitting that I can’t really be all things to all people.

When I was in college, most of my friends pledged a sorority, so despite my considerable misgivings, I decided to join one too.  I lasted only three months.  Not because I had joined the wrong sorority…it was a perfectly good one, with lots of nice women….but because I’m far too much of an individualist to be the right person for any sorority.  Luckily, that was one time when I recognized my mistake early on and addressed it quickly. Everyone was quite nice about it, and even though I quit the sorority, I remained friends with several of its members.   If I had tried to stick with it, skipping meetings, complaining,  and ignoring rules I didn’t like, I probably would have managed to alienate all the members.

And that’s something I need to remember all these years later when I find myself being stubborn about trying to stick with something that just isn’t right for me.  No matter how hard I try, not everyone is going to like me.  And despite my best efforts, I’m not going to be an effective and helpful member of every new group I try.  And that’s okay.  Because no one fits in everywhere, but everyone fits in somewhere.