Judge Not

IMG_0371I was talking to a friend the other day about her decision to retire from teaching at the end of this school year.  This is a big change for her, and naturally she is a little apprehensive about exactly how retiring from a full-time job will impact her life and her family.  I was listening to her concerns with genuine sympathy right up to the moment when she looked at me and suddenly said, “You haven’t worked full time in years, and I’ve always wanted to ask you….what exactly do you DO all day?”

Now I can be just a wee bit of a snarky bitch at times, so the immediate answer that sprang to my mind was, “Nothing much.  I spend my days sitting in the recliner, watching TV and drinking Diet Coke.  Every few hours I get up to go the bathroom, but that’s about it.”  Of course, I didn’t actually say that, but I was definitely taken back by her question.  I honestly didn’t know how to answer.  I could recite a list of the things I am doing with my days or remind her that it is quite possible to work very hard without actually being paid, but I was afraid  that would sound defensive, and I know she didn’t mean to offend me.  But if I didn’t explain exactly how I spent my time,  then I risked confirming the implication that I was simply wasting my days away.  I felt judged, and not in a good way.

I remember a young woman who lived in my college dorm, who was very pretty in that Farrah Fawcett style that was all the rage back then.  She always hurried past me when I met her in the hallway, barely acknowledging my presence, even though most of the other women were usually willing to stop for a chat.  Frankly, I thought she was stuck-up.  But then one day I met an obviously confused, middle-aged woman in the lobby who was asking for her, and later heard the young woman on the phone, patiently repeating the same information over and over again.  I found out that the confused middle-aged woman was her mother, who had suffered brain damage in a bad car accident years before.  And the young woman I thought was a snob was really just too busy to stop and talk, what with constantly dealing with her mother’s issues while she was trying to earn a college degree.  I had judged her very harshly, and I was completely wrong.

And I think that’s the problem with judgement:  it is so often completely wrong.  We don’t know what other people are going through; we don’t know what their hopes and dreams are; we don’t know why they make the choices they make.  And as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, we don’t need to know.

I’m sure the fact that I don’t have a real job anymore does strike some people as odd, but I know that I am living a life that is both productive and worthwhile, and the arrangement works for my husband and me.  I also know that as a former stay-at-home mom who spent a lot of time and effort on books that were never published, I am a bit sensitive to questions about how I spend my days.  But that’s beside the point:  I really shouldn’t have to explain my life choices to anyone.  And I don’t have the right to judge other people’s choices, even when what they are doing makes no sense to me whatsoever.  As long as there is no neglect or abuse involved, I really do think that the old “live and let live” advice is right on target.

Portrait Of A Father

Dad 2It’s a little hard to write a post about my father, because I know some of my readers also knew him and have their own thoughts about who he was.  Some knew him as their father, too, and others as a family friend, or as the father of their friend (me.)  Some thought of him as an outstanding minister, which he was.  But all I can do is write about him from my own perspective, and trust that people understand that my perspective is both unique and personal.

Like most men of his generation, my dad thought of himself as the absolute head of the family, and he expected to be treated as such.  He did have a temper, which meant I always tried my best not to make him angry.  Now I realize that his angry outbursts were probably a result of his struggle with depression, but that’s a perspective I didn’t have as a child.

I know I inherited his creativity, his sense of humor, his love of reading and writing, and his love of all animals, but particularly for dogs and horses.  Sadly, I also inherited his love for sweets and his tendency to carry extra weight around the midsection.

My father showed me by example how to live according to your principles.  Growing up, I knew of very few other fathers who had given up a successful and well-paying business career to enroll in seminary and become a chronically over-worked and under-paid minister.  And I noticed how he always donated generously to anyone who asked, even when he couldn’t really afford to do so.  I remember that he always did and said what he thought was right, even when his opinions weren’t particularly popular.

Like all of us, my dad was a complicated person, and far from perfect.  I know I never completely understood him, partly because we can’t ever see our parents (or children) truly objectively, and partly because I think it’s impossible to ever fully understand anyone else.

But I choose to remember the father who was always there, who bought me the horse I so desperately wanted when I was twelve, who stood patiently outside in the freezing rain while I decided exactly which Christmas tree we should buy, who always listened when I needed to talk, and who I knew I could trust.  I remember the father who regularly cooked for us back in the days when most men stayed out of the kitchen, dyed the mashed potatoes pink when we asked him to, and who made me hot tea with lemon and honey when I was sick with a bad cold.

Coleman Application_page 3 1Ultimately, there were two things that I always knew, and still know, about my father:  that I loved him, and that he loved me. And that is more than enough.

You Mean It’s Not All About Me?

IMG_0323One of my many faults is that I can be a little too sensitive at times, a little too quick to take offense, and a little too quick to feel snubbed or excluded.  I try to fight this by taking the time to step back whenever I feel hurt and analyze the situation objectively.  I ask myself, “Did he really mean to say something hurtful?”  Or “Did she really mean to exclude me?”  The rational answer is usually no, so I just move on.  And I sincerely hope that’s how my friends and family are handling it when I say and do something that hurts their feelings.

Although I never try to hurt other people, I know for a fact that I have.  The other day I was hurrying out of a store in a strip mall when I ran into my old hair stylist standing on the sidewalk, chatting to a client.  Although I really liked the man and had gone to him for years, I had grown tired of the way he cut my hair and couldn’t seem to convince him to cut it differently.  I liked the way another friend’s hair looked, so I switched to her stylist a couple of years ago.  That day I had been caught in heavy rain without an umbrella twice, so I new for a fact that my hair looked horrible, and that my old stylist would be sure to notice. Which is why I responded to his enthusiastic greeting with just a quick wave and veered away from him, crossing the parking lot at an awkward angle, in a painfully obvious attempt to avoid him.  As I got in my car, I glanced back and saw him staring at me with a look of surprised hurt on his face.  I had snubbed him horribly, and it had nothing to do with him at all.  It was me not wanting to let my old stylist get a good look at me when I was having a very bad hair day.

That’s what I try to remember when I’m on the receiving end of someone else’s bad behavior.  Chances are, the other person’s behavior has nothing to do with me and everything to do with whatever is going on in their life at that particular point in time.  I like to think that if I had been having a better day when I ran into my old stylist, I would have approached him and said hello, nasty hair and all.  But I’d been having a truly horrible day, and at the time I just didn’t have the strength to be gracious (or even polite), as much as I’m ashamed to admit it.

So when I’m the one who feels hurt or snubbed, I try to remember that the negativity probably has nothing more to do with me than my bad behavior had to do with my old stylist.  That day, I was acting out of my own weakness, not out of any desire to hurt his feelings.  And that’s usually the case when I’m the one whose feelings are hurt, too.  Because, as hard as it can be for me to accept this truth, it really isn’t all about me.

Moving Forward

IMG_0040Sometimes I have a tendency to wallow in nostalgia, especially during the holidays.  I decorate my Christmas tree with antique ornaments, and my house with Santa Clauses, nativity scenes and other knick-knacks mostly from the 1950s.  I have lots of old family photographs and have used them to create memory albums, carefully noting the name of each person in the pictures.  So I definitely get the attraction of living, at least now and then, in the past.

I also know that the past has shaped me, for better or for worse, and that who I am today is mostly the result of everything that I have experienced so far in my life.  When something provokes a particularly strong memory, it can seem as if the past has reached out and touched me, like when I hear Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” and am instantly transported back to a fun night out with my college friends.  The same thing happens when a perceived slight can make me feel like a solitary child on the playground, watching her best friend linking arms and walking away with someone else.  Whether good or bad, it can feel very real, even though it’s just an illusion.

By the time we’ve reached our middle age, I think most of us have learned that life really is a journey that moves relentlessly forward.  Returning to the past isn’t a choice, whether we want to or not.  We can’t return to the days when our bodies were young and the world seemed full of endless opportunities.  We can’t change what we’ve done or not done; we can’t take back our mistakes; and we can’t erase any damage that was done to us.  The past is over and done with, and the only we we can ever revisit it is through our memories.

All we have, and all we ever will have, is the reality of our present and the hope of our future.  The past may have shaped who we are now, but the present is what we can control.  And I think that’s a good thing, because the present…our actions, our words, our choices…is what will determine our future.  Which means that, even at this point of our lives, we still have quite a bit of control over what our life will become.

We may be middle aged, but if we are lucky, we still have many miles to go on our life’s journey.  I have come to believe that the best plan is to look ahead and search for that spot on the horizon where we want to be, and point ourselves firmly toward it.  Because we are always moving forward on this one-way journey, and the direction we take is ultimately up to us.