Refreshment Time

Sometimes I think the best part of any vacation is simply the chance to take a break from our usual routines and obligations, and to leave behind the stress and worry that normally takes up far to much of our attention and energy.  Especially if we have the good sense to actually disconnect from our regular lives by not keeping up with our emails, texts and whatever other form of social media we are in the habit of using.

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I have a hard time even remembering all the stuff I’m supposed to be worried about, never mind trying to actually deal with all those problems.  Add in the usual busy schedule, caring for the family and friends who need it, and the constant onslaught of negative news, and it’s no wonder that my tiny mind really does struggle to keep up with it all.  And believe me, I know there are many, many others whose lives are far more complicated than mine.

Which is why taking a break from it all every now and then is so very important.  It’s amazing what a little time spent “off the grid” can do to restore our souls and remind us that life is so much more than a check list of duties and goals that needs to be completed.

IMG_5250Vacations allow us to leave all those worries, schedules and obligations behind, for a least a little while.  More importantly, they give us the time to reconnect with our true selves, and if we’re lucky, with the people in our lives who matter the most.  And it doesn’t matter if our vacation is long and expensive or short and cheap, as long as we disconnect from our usual routines and spend the time doing something that truly makes us happy.  Even taking a long walk in a park or sitting in the sun in our own back yard, happily reading a favorite book can count as a vacation if we need it to.  “Stop and smell the roses” is more than just a cliche.

I believe that all of us need a little time off now and then, so we can have the opportunity to listen to our hearts and be reminded of who we really are.  It’s far too easy to get so caught up in the frantic pace of our daily lives that we put our minds “in neutral” and spend our days doing little more than completing whatever task is in front of us and then quickly moving on to the next one.  But that’s not what life is supposed to be, at least not all the time.

One of my favorite literary characters is fond of saying, “Life is for the living.”  And I couldn’t agree more…..

Yes I Can

Back when I was writing children’s books, I had a pretty simple formula I used to create my stories.  I would create a main character and place him or her in a situation that they desperately wanted to change, which would give me the main plot of my story.  If I were writing a longer book for older children, I would then plan out a chapter-by-chapter timeline to help me keep track of everything as I wrote.  (Details have never been my strong point.)  Finally, I would begin writing the actual manuscript….and that was usually the point where my creative confidence began to drain away and the paralyzing self-doubt crept in.

The problem was that no matter how passionately I believed in the story I was trying to write, a part of me was always thinking, “Will an editor like this?  Is my main character interesting enough?  Is my plot believable?” and so on and so on.  And those are valid concerns.  As all writers who hope to get their work accepted by a publisher know, finding an editor who wants to buy our manuscript is an absolute necessity.  But the constant presence of the critical editor in my mind basically squashed my creativity and made it impossible to write from my heart.  And the result was often a competent, but flat, manuscript that lacked a unique and creative spark.

Sadly, that internal critic isn’t limited to my writing.  I can look back on my life and see many times when I allowed that little voice that says “you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’re not good enough,” to dictate my choices and my behavior.  There were too many times when I turned my back on an opportunity, didn’t want to take a risk, or stayed silent when I should have spoken up. There were too many times that I held back when I should have stepped boldly forward.

The simple truth is, when our internal dialogue turns too negative, we aren’t really able to live our lives to their fullest potential.  And that’s a tragedy that none of us should allow.

I believe most of us get better at self-acceptance as we get older, and I’m no exception.  As the years go by, I find myself learning to tune out that negative “internal committee” and to replace it with one that is so much more compassionate and encouraging.  I find myself being willing to risk simply being myself by following my dreams, voicing my true opinions and in general, doing what feels right to me.  It’s a journey, but I am moving slowly and steadily forward.

If I had the chance to go back in time and speak to my younger self, I would have so much advice I would want to share.  But if I was limited to just one thing, it would be, “Believe in yourself and follow your heart.”  Because if we can learn to do that, everything else will surely work out.

The Bright Side

I have often wished I was just a tad more optimistic.  I wish I had a natural inclination to look at the bright side of life, to see the “glass as half full,”and to assume that things will almost always work out just fine in the end.  That sounds like a wonderful perspective to have, and I really wish it was mine.  But it’s not.

I’m not exactly “Little Miss Doom and Gloom,” but I have always been the kind of person who isn’t surprised when problems show up, even the big ones.  When something bad happens in my life, the thought “but I never thought this would happen to me” doesn’t cross my mind.  I’m much more likely to think, “of course this happened to me!  Why wouldn’t it?”  It’s not something I’m proud of, believe me…..it’s just who I am.

But the good news is that attitudes can be changed, and I’m working hard to change mine.

Which is why, after living with our new dog Finn for over a week, I’m finally accepting him at face value and realizing that he is indeed a very nice little dog.  I liked him from the start, but I also found myself “waiting for the other shoe to fall,” meaning that he would exhibit some awful behavior that would make me regret bringing him home.  (In my defense, I’ve had a little experience along those lines.)   But happily, we haven’t seen a single serious behavior issue at all.

IMG_4558He’s actually sort of a lovable goof.  I don’t think he was first in line when brains were given out, but he seems to have made up for that with an extra helping of nice, and that’s a trade that will serve him well.  He has an adorable habit of leaping into the air for joy every third or fourth step when he’s running across the yard.  He’s shown nothing but friendly interest in our toddler grandson and is very housebroken.  In short, all my fears and worries about adopting him were for nothing.

Adopting Finn has helped me realize that there really is nothing to be gained by focusing quite so much on all the things that can go wrong in my life, and by focusing a whole lot more on all the things that can go right.  “Count your blessings” may sound hopelessly cheesy, but it’s actually a very helpful way to remind ourselves of all the good things we already have.  When I truly recognize the many, many, good things that have happened to me already, I can’t help but feel appreciative.  And more importantly, I have to acknowledge that it just stands to reason that other good things will come my way as well.  Of course bad stuff happens to us all, but it’s high time I stopped actively expecting it to show up on a regular basis.

I’ve come to believe that dogs can teach us many things if we’re willing to learn, and Finn is busy teaching me that sometimes, things work out exactly as we had hoped…and all we can do is be grateful.

Soon Enough

fullsizeoutput_aaWe’ve had lovely weather for the past few days, comfortably warm in the daytime and cool at night.  It’s the kind of weather that makes it a joy to be outside. You’d think I’d be enjoying this break from Summer’s usual heat and humidity, and I am.  Sort of.  But the problem is, all the forecasts say this beautiful weather is going to be over far too soon.  By the end of the week, we’re supposed to have temperatures in the high nineties, heat indexes over one-hundred degrees, and very high humidity levels.  Which means that while I’m trying to enjoy the cool temperatures we’re experiencing now, I’m mostly dreading the horrible weather that’s coming.

I know that sounds silly, but it’s not just me.  Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about the weather and they’re all saying the same thing.  “Isn’t this great?  But it’s not going to last.  It’s supposed to be one hundred degrees by Thursday!”  The logical thing to do when we have a lovely, Spring-like day in late June would be to simply enjoy it.  But for some of us, that’s a hard thing to do.

These days, there seems to be many things that can cause us to worry and fret.  In my more cynical moments, I almost believe that the real goal of the news media is to keep us in a constant state of outrage and fear.  And that’s just what’s going on in the world around me.  I always have a few personal worries as well, such as the mild but persistent pain in the right side of my face.  I want to believe it’s nothing more than my usual jaw and sinus problems, but I also worry that I’ve got another bad tooth that’s going to need treatment.

I don’t know why it’s so hard to simply enjoy ourselves when something good comes along, and why it is so easy to worry about the bad things that we think might be coming our way.  Being prepared is one thing, but endlessly worrying about something that may or may not even happen is nothing more than a waste of time and energy.  And I don’t know of a single situation where worrying about something has made it easier to deal with when it actually happens.  (Often, it’s the reverse.  When I worry too much about upcoming dental work, I end up walking into the dentist’s office so tense and fearful that it’s all I can do not to run for the nearest exit.)

But this is not how I want to live my life.  If I’m eating dinner with my family on a Sunday evening, I want to simply enjoy the experience rather than worrying about whether or not we’re going to have enough volunteers the next morning to get all the shelter dogs walked.  When I feel pain somewhere, I want to just make an appointment to get it checked out, rather than fret about all the possible causes and what it will take to get it fixed.  Even better, I’d like to remember to be thankful that I have access to medical and dental care at all.

I know the only thing I can truly predict about the future is that it will always bring me a few things that I’d much rather avoid.  But that doesn’t mean I have to dwell on those things, worrying about what could happen or even what I know will happen.  I want to learn to deal with tomorrow’s problems…..tomorrow.   That way, I can actually enjoy and appreciate whatever good stuff is happening today.

No Thanks

If there’s one thing I ought to be used to by now, it’s rejection.  For years I worked as a free-lance writer, placing some articles in magazines and newspapers, and even selling a children’s book.  But for every acceptance, I received at least twenty rejections. Eventually I acquired a whole file drawer just bursting with rejection letters.  A few of them were personal (which I counted as a small victory), but the majority were simply the form letters that publishers sent out to every writer who sent them a manuscript or proposal that they didn’t want.

And the rejections weren’t limited to my writing career.  When I was fresh out of college with an English degree, I applied to any job that was even remotely related to writing.  In return, I got a few interviews, a ton of rejection letters and zero job offers.  Eventually, I was so desperate that I ended up working as a secretary for a small seminary.  There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary….it’s an important job….but it wasn’t at all what I wanted to be doing.

One way or another, rejection and I are very well acquainted.  So it surprises me how much rejection can still hurt, all these years later.  You’d think I would have developed an immunity to it somewhere along the line, but I haven’t.  It still stings, especially when it feels personal.  Which tells me that I am still putting far too much value on what other people think of me, and not nearly enough on what I think of myself.

I know it’s only natural to feel hurt by rejection.  It’s hard when an old friend gradually becomes too busy to get together, or when someone I’ve just met at a party immediately looks over my shoulder for someone more interesting.  I once went to a church dinner by myself, and I put my plate of food down at a table where four other people were sitting and then went to get a drink.  When I returned with my glass of water, all four of them had moved to a different table.  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t sting.

The trick, I think, is to remember that I have no control over how other people are going to react to me, and to remember that often their reaction has nothing to do with me at all.  Maybe my old friend really was much busier than usual.  And maybe the person looking over my shoulder at a party is searching for someone she’s supposed to be meeting.  And as rude as their behavior was, maybe the people I sat down with at the church dinner were trying to save seats for the rest of their family and just didn’t know how to tell me that when I approached their table.

But even when someone is actually rejecting me, I need to remember that their opinion of me is just that:  their opinion.  And that while it feels good to have others appreciate and validate us, what ultimately matters is that we recognize our own self-worth and not wait for others to acknowledge it for us.

As a writer, I survived all those rejection letters by reminding myself of the simple truth that just because a publisher didn’t want my manuscript didn’t actually mean that my manuscript had no value.  It just meant that particular publisher didn’t think it could make a profit selling my book.  So I kept writing, and I kept sending out my manuscripts and queries, and I did make some sales.  I was very intentional about believing in the value of what I had written.  And sometimes I need to work just as hard at believing in the value of me.

Raining Down

I had been hoping for rain.  We had planted some bushes and put down some sod in our backyard, and I knew that a couple of good rains would help them take root.  But even more, I wanted the rain to wash away the nasty green tree pollen that has been covering every outside surface for the past couple of weeks.  I’m allergic to that stuff, and I was tired of going through my days with a scratchy throat, headache, itchy eyes and non-stop sneezing fits.  So when I heard the forecast for this past weekend’s rain, I was actually happy.

IMG_2434I should have paid just a little more attention to the details.  The prediction wasn’t just for rain, it was for tons of rain, falling for three days and two nights, often quite heavily.  The empty flower pots I have lined up next to garage, waiting to be filled with spring flowers, are now completely full of water instead.  My house and neighborhood is on high ground, but hundreds of people in my area are faced with flash floods, rising rivers, and water in their basements.  All I wanted was enough rain to water my plants and wash away the pollen.  But what I got was enough to make me think it might be time to start work on an ark.

It turns out that rainfall, like many things in life, is good only when it comes in moderation. Because as of today, I am officially sick of rain and more than ready for it to leave.  I am tired of constantly checking our basement to make sure no water is leaking in, or backing up through the sewer drain.  (We had that happen once and it is not an experience I wish to repeat.)  I am sick of feeling like a jerk when I make our old dog to go outside to do her business in the heavy rain, but not at all willing to risk her having an accident in my house.  I am well aware that the “drowned rat” look is not flattering on me, and so I would rather not walk around all weekend looking like one.

I’m not sure if the lesson here is “be careful of what you wish for,” or simply that “moderation is the key.”  Both adages have truth in them.  But at the end of a long, wet weekend, I think the real lesson for me is to simply learn to be more flexible and willing to deal with whatever the day happens to bring.  I might not have appreciated the rain, but being forced to spend the weekend inside did mean I finally got around to some household chores that had been hanging over my head for a while.  And since we couldn’t work outside, my husband and I decided to go to a movie at the local mall, followed by a nice dinner afterward.  It may not have been the weekend we had in mind, but it turned out to be a pretty good one.

There’s an old saying that states, “Into every life, some rain must fall.”  And I count myself lucky that all I had to deal with this weekend was actual rain, and that I was even spared the worst effects of that.  And when I think about it that way, I realize I really don’t have anything to complain about at all.

Do What You Can

There are few things I love more than walking on a beach.  I prefer to walk right on the edge of the water, where I can listen to the waves roll in, search for sea shells, and keep an eye out for passing dolphins.  Sometimes I have to step out of the way of flocks of birds or other people, but usually I just stroll along in peaceful oblivion.  For me, there is no better way to reduce stress and calm my soul than to take a long walk on a beach.   Most of the time, that is.

img_2276Because the problem with beaches is that they are controlled by nature, and not designed specifically for my peace and enjoyment.  Which explains why on my recent Florida vacation, I headed eagerly to the beach for an afternoon walk only to be greeted by the sight of hundreds of shells that had been washed ashore by the previous night’s storms. And most of them were still alive (sea shells are actually the exterior skeleton of soft-bodied animals called mollusks), stranded on the hot beach several yards away from the ocean water they needed to continue living.

Most of other people at the beach were ignoring the plight of the beached mollusks but I felt compelled to try to help. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I often rescue worms stranded on the sidewalk after heavy rains, too.)  I began by picking up as many live shells as I could hold and then wading knee-deep into the ocean before gently placing them on the ocean floor.  Several trips later, I realized  that I had barely made a dent in the number of shells  in the pile nearest me, and that there were many more shells stranded all up and down the shore as far as I could see.  I felt both helpless and frustrated, but I still wasn’t ready to give up.

So I began to walk slowly down the beach, scanning the shells as I went and picking up only those that were moving.  (I figured the ones that were actively trying to get back in the water had the best chances of living.)  I’m sure I returned at least one hundred “fighting conch” shells to the ocean, and maybe more.  I had no idea if putting them back in the water actually saved them, and I know I walked right past several hundred more shells that were still stranded on the beach, with the mollusks in them slowly dying.

img_2267I really wished I had been able to save them all, but I also knew there was no way that I possibly could, even if I stayed on the beach till dark and someone lent me a wheelbarrow to tote all the shells.  But somewhere during my walk I stopped feeling frustrated with my inability to save them all, and actually began to feel just a smidgen of satisfaction that I was, perhaps, at least saving some of them.  That day, my walk on the beach wasn’t peaceful or relaxing, but it did have a purpose.

That day helped me to remember that even though I can’t fix everything, I can always fix something.  And that all I have to do is try.

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.

Speak Gently

img_1716Remember that old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all?”  Personally, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it, because I thought that there were times when I just had to speak up, even if what I had to say wasn’t particularly nice.  So when someone made me mad, I vented about it to someone else.  When I saw something that I thought was unjust or illogical, I was quick to complain to anyone who listened, before I even took the time to make sure I had my facts straight.  Often, my words were not at all nice, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times they have come back to bite me in the butt.

Sometimes I found out that the person who made me angry had perfectly good reasons for their words or actions.  Other times I discovered that what I thought was unjust or illogical made perfect sense once I had all the facts of the situation.  People I thought were uncaring or incompetent have surprised me with their helpfulness and competence once they were given a chance to do so.  And in each of those cases, I was left wishing fervently that I had kept my big mouth shut.  Especially when I knew there was a very good chance that the person might discover exactly what it was I said about them.

Even those times when whatever I happened to be complaining about turned out to be true, once I calmed down, I usually wished that I hadn’t been quite so outspoken in my criticism.  Sometimes people are doing the best they can, even if they aren’t living up to my standards, or doing the things that they are supposed to be doing.  Harsh criticism rarely motivates anyone to do better, and treating someone like an enemy can often turn them into exactly that.  In a world where most good things are accomplished through understanding and cooperation, creating enemies is rarely a good idea.

I’m far from a perfect person, and I know there will always be times when my temper gets the best of me and I say things about other people that I shouldn’t.  But I also know that this is something that I really want to work on, because life is so much easier when I don’t have to worry about what I’ve said, because my words were not hurtful.  I can be honest about a problem that needs to be solved, and I can speak against an injustice without being hateful, snide, or smugly superior.  There are many ways to speak the truth, and some are better than others.

We live in a world where technology often spreads our words far and wide, and many of us live in a nation that is going through a particularly contentious time.  Which is why I think that it’s more important than ever that I do my very best to keep my words gentle.  I may not always succeed, but I promise I’m going to try.

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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