Real Time

Sometimes it’s hard to really stay in touch with the people we love, even if we see them on a regular basis.  I know my husband and I are very fortunate to have our adult son and daughter (along with their spouses and our grandson) living in the same town as we do, close enough that we can easily visit each other’s homes.  But we all lead very busy lives, and so it can still be difficult to find the time to gather everyone together for a family meal, or even to have the kind of real conversations that allow us to keep up with each other’s true thoughts and feelings.

Like so many people, we often rely on the the convenience of text messaging to communicate with each other.  And while texts certainly have the advantage of being quick and easy, they aren’t at all the same thing as a face-to-face conversation.  Texts don’t allow us to hear someone’s tone of voice, or to read their expression and body language.  The truth is that we all need the chance to spend “quality time” now and then with the people who are most important to us.

Which is why I was so very grateful for the chance to spend a week in Florida recently, sharing a house with all seven members of my immediate family.  Living together for a week without the usual distractions and demands on our time gave us the opportunity to relax and enjoy each other’s company in exactly the way I had hoped.

u4gYQgJ8TEei69SASvgWe shared meals together, played games, swam in the pool, worked a puzzle, watched some beautiful sunsets, laughed, and just talked about whatever happened to be on our minds.  Living with my grandson for a week reminded me of just how much work, and just how much fun, caring for a toddler can be.  It was great to witness my daughter and son-in-law’s impressive parenting skills, and to watch my grandson grow even closer to my son and daughter-in-law.

There’s no such thing as a perfect vacation, and this one was no exception.  The temperatures and humidity were both too high to really enjoy being outside early in the week, and the house wasn’t as close to the beach as we had hoped.  I’ll also spare you the details of where we found the giant dead roach. (You’re welcome.)

fullsizeoutput_5564But those were just minor glitches that didn’t matter at all.  We still had a wonderful week together.  Our recent vacation gave us the perfect chance to grow just a little bit closer as a family, and to truly strengthen the bonds that hold us all together.  And in that sense, it was all I possibly could have asked for, and more.

Try a Little Kindness

Late last Friday afternoon, almost all of St. Louis was under a severe thunderstorm warning, with a chance for tornadoes to develop.  I was worried that my daughter and son-in-law wouldn’t make it to the daycare center in time to get my grandson, so I offered to pick him up.  We all met at my house just before the storm broke.  Thankfully, we didn’t get any tornadoes, but we got a lot of rain in a very short amount of time.

fullsizeoutput_54c2At first it was sort of fun to stand on our front porch and watch the rain come down, once we were sure it was safe to do so.  But then we noticed that the water was steadily rising, and that some of the neighbor’s recycling bins were floating down the street.  Soon the water was up to the hubcap’s of my daughter’s car, which was parked in front of our house.  Our drive-way looked like a river, and we watched, fascinated, as several plastic drainage pipes floated down our driveway, followed by small branches and what looked like an Amazon Prime package.  As my one-year old grandson so eloquently put it, “Oh, no!”

We’ve lived in our house for over twenty-five years and this is only the second time I’ve seen this type of flooding.  When the rain finally let up and the water began to recede,  my husband went around back to see if our garage had been flooded.

The good news was that the inside of our garage was dry.  The bad news was that the mother of our new neighbor behind us was out in her daughter’s yard, inspecting the damage.  And she was, to put it mildly, a little out of sorts.  She didn’t understand how so much water ended up in her daughter’s back yard.  She shared her opinion that the three skinny bushes we had planted between our yards must have caused all that water to back up onto her daughter’s property, and wanted to know what kind of idiot would plant bushes there.  The situation was, she kept repeating, “unacceptable.”

My husband is normally a patient man.  He listened to her complaints, then pointed out that our houses sit at the bottom of our street and that the water from the top of our street flows downhill towards us.  And that the three scraggly bushes did nothing to prevent the thousands of gallons of water from pouring down our driveway, so they’d hardly cause a flood in her daughter’s yard.  But eventually he’d had enough, and came back inside, shaking his head at her behavior.  My guess is that this woman has never been nominated for neighbor of the year.

The thing is, I understood why she was upset.  Her daughter had recently moved into the house, and I’m sure it was very concerning for her to see the kind of flooding we experienced last Friday.  But what I can’t excuse is how determined she was to find someone to blame, and how she took her anger out on my husband.  That, in my opinion, is what’s truly “unacceptable.” We don’t always get to control our emotions, but we most certainly can control how we express them.  And from a purely practical standpoint, it’s never a good idea to alienate the people who live next to you.

Luckily, the young woman who actually lives in the house is very nice, and doesn’t seem to be angry at all.  Which means that I think she will be a nice neighbor, and who knows?  We might even be able to work together to figure out a way to redirect at least some of the water from heavy rains.

But meanwhile, I have to say that I’m hoping that her mother doesn’t visit very often……

I Meant to Say

I may talk a lot (some would say I talk too much), but clear and effective communication isn’t my strong point.  There are many reasons for this, including the fact that when I get nervous I tend to babble on and on about nothing in particular, and completely skip whatever point I actually wanted to make.  Also, I don’t like conflict, so when I need to say something that might give offense, I tend to circle around the topic so widely that the person I’m talking to has no idea what I really mean.

But perhaps the biggest problem is simply that there is often a big difference between what I think I’m saying and what the person I’m talking to actually hears.  Because all of us have “personal filters” that can unintentionally distort the meaning of what is being said to us, and sometimes words can have different meanings to different people.  And as it turns out, the communication issues aren’t just limited to my dealings with other human beings.

One of the many advantages to having a dog live in the house is that dogs usually serve as an excellent alarm system.  If someone comes to your door, walks across your property, or even just innocently jogs down the street in front of your house, most dogs will let you know about it.  Loudly.  And that can be a good thing, especially if you happen to be home alone.

So when we brought our new dog, Finn, home a few months ago, I told him that one of his duties (aside from keeping the floor free of food and ridding the yard of vermin) was to serve as a watch dog.  And he took me at my word, quite literally.  One night I heard strange sounds coming from outside our front door and went downstairs to investigate.  Finn was already there, sitting nearby and watching intently as a stranger repeatedly tried to unlock the door and open it.  Luckily, it turned out to be a harmless young woman who was simply at the wrong house, but I still would have appreciated a woof or two out of Finn.  Clearly, I should have asked him to be an “alarm dog” rather than a “watch dog.”  (Although he is very good at watching.  Trust me on this.)

I suppose the lesson in all of this is that I need to remember that effective communication isn’t something I can ever take for granted.  Finn’s interpretation of being a watch dog is a great example of how easily our words and meanings can be misunderstood by others, and how we really do need to be a bit more forgiving when others don’t respond the way we would wish.  Actions and words that we are so quick to take offense at are often the result of nothing more than a simple miscommunication, I think.

fullsizeoutput_53ddSo I will try harder to make myself as clear as I possibly can, whether I’m talking to someone who walks on two legs or four.  Which means I might just have a shot at getting Finn to finally understand that the wading pool in the back yard is actually for my grandson….

Getting To Know You

All relationships have to go through a period of adjustment.  Sort of like the first year of my marriage, when I discovered that my husband not only snored in his sleep, but also had a habit of sleepwalking around the apartment in the middle of the night.  (I woke up to find him fast asleep under the dining room table more than once.)  Or when he realized that the number of meals I actually knew how to cook was rather limited, and had to tell me that even though he loved my beef stroganoff, he’d rather not have it for dinner three nights a week.  Learning to live with someone new always brings a few surprises.

fullsizeoutput_4ff5So it’s probably only natural that I’m still learning a few things about our new dog, Finn.  He’s a Patterdale Terrier mix, and like most terriers, he’s very loving, energetic and determined.  But I’m still waiting to see some sign of the usual terrier intelligence.  He’s not stupid, but if he was human, he’d be a solid “C” student, even with his very best effort.

I have a mental image of my little dog sitting at a school desk,  muttering to himself while working on his math assignment:  “Two plus two?  Okay, that must be four.  Yeah, four.  Now for two plus three.  That’s got to be six.  But what about two plus four?  What could that be?  This is so hard!  Is it time for recess yet?”

Luckily, Finn is a sweet guy who seems to want nothing more than to be with us.  We can usually hear him barking madly when we leave the house, but by the time we return, he’s always curled up in his crate, fast asleep.  He loves to chase the squirrels and rabbits in our back yard, and plays endlessly with his squeaky toys when he’s inside.  He’s slowly (very slowly) learning the ways of our household, and seems quite pleased with himself whenever he earns our praise.

fullsizeoutput_4ff3Finn adores our grandson and is very patient with him, even though our grandson is a toddler who is still learning how to be gentle with dogs.  It probably helps that our grandson is still learning to feed himself and about half of his food ends up on the floor around his high chair.  Finn has figured out that toddlers are an excellent source of extra food, and makes it a point to be nearby whenever the little guy is eating at our house.

I’m still in the process of discovering exactly who Finn is, and what he needs from me.  Sometimes I have to remind myself to be patient when he makes mistakes, such as the other morning when I came downstairs to find him sitting on the kitchen table, calmly looking out the window.  I have to remind myself of how long it took our other dogs to settle into our household routines and learn our household rules, and remember to cut Finn a little slack.

And I’m still keeping an open mind when it comes to Finn’s intelligence.  He does know “sit” and how to come when called, and he never potties inside.  He’s learned that good things come to those who sit underneath high chairs.  But most important of all, he’s figured out how to make us love him and forgive his occasional misdeeds.  Which probably means that he’s just as smart as he needs to be.

Missing Manners

Generally speaking, I try to mind my own business.  I don’t usually believe it’s my place to tell other people what to think or how to live their lives, and I’m not the sort of person who honestly believes that the world would be a better place if only everyone else behaved just like me.  (I’m way too acquainted with my many faults to believe that one.)  I don’t put bumper stickers on my car or signs in my yard, and I have never once written a letter to the editor.  “Live and let live” has always been my motto (within reason, of course.)

But either I’m becoming less tolerant in my old age or my inner-bitch is beginning to awaken, because lately I’ve found myself becoming more and more irritated by some of the actions of the people around me.  For instance, this morning I was waiting in the check-out line of a bookstore when the woman behind me decided to call someone on her cell phone.  I would rather not have heard the intimate details of her breakup with her boyfriend, but I did.  And she was speaking so loudly that everyone else in line heard it too.  The bottom line is that unless someone is giving out their credit card information (in which case I need them to speak slowly and enunciate clearly so I can write it down), I don’t want to hear their phone conversations when I’m in a public place.

I know I’m hopelessly old fashioned and not a big believer in multi-tasking, but I still believe that when a person is driving a car, that is all they should actually be doing:  driving the car.  They should not be texting, putting on eye-liner, eating their dinner, or stirring their coffee.  Yes, all of those things can be important, but they aren’t important enough to risk someone’s life in a car accident.  They just aren’t.

And at the risk of stating the obvious, I firmly believe that personal business should actually be kept personal.  I don’t believe that social media is the appropriate setting for family conflicts, neighborhood feuds, failing marriages, or imploding friendships.  We all tend to say (or write) things that we shouldn’t in those situations, so why make it worse by doing so in front of the whole world?  These days, privacy seems to be little more than a quaint idea, but I truly believe that not every single detail of our lives needs to be shared.

I honestly don’t know if good manners are becoming obsolete or if I am simply becoming old and cranky.  My guess is the truth is probably a little of both. But I was raised to believe that being polite and considerate of others made life easier and more enjoyable for everybody, and I think that’s just as true today as it was when I was young.  Some things never go out of style…..

Can I Help?

A few days ago, I had oral surgery to address an ongoing infection in one of my upper molars.  The procedure involved cutting through my gums and manually removing the infection and the tips of the molar’s roots before sealing them off.  I’m not going to lie and say it was fun, or even no big deal.  I don’t like even simple dental procedures, and this one was a doozie, any way you looked at it.  But I can say that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated, for one reason and one reason only:  the terrific attitude of the endodontist and her staff.

From the minute I walked into the office, I was treated with compassion, patience and encouragement.  Did I want a blanket to cover up in?  Did I have any questions before we began?  Would I like the chair set to massage during the procedure?  Of course I wanted all of it, especially the chance to ask some last-minute questions.  And by the time the procedure began, I was much calmer more relaxed than I would ever have thought possible in those circumstances.  By the time it was over, I was actually kind of proud of myself for how well I handled it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my pride was misplaced.  Yes, I had done a good job of managing my nerves in the days before the procedure, but by the time of the actual appointment, I was both nervous and scared.  If the staff had been hurried and abrupt, brushing off my questions, rolling their eyes at my request for a last-minute bathroom break, or acting as if there was no reason for me to be apprehensive, my entire experience would have been very, very, different.  If I had even stuck around long enough for them to do it.  (I may be old, but I can still run pretty fast when I have to.)

The reason I was so calm during the procedure was because the endodontist and her staff did everything in their power to settle my nerves and allow me to get through it with as much dignity as possible.  And that is a gift that I will not soon forget.

I’m sure I was just one of a series of scared and nervous people that the endodontist’s staff has dealt with, and that the way I was treated was their normal routine.  But their patience and encouragement made a world of difference to me.  Which just goes to show that how we treat other people really is a very big deal.

It really doesn’t take that much effort to offer someone an encouraging word, or to listen when someone needs to express their fears and concerns.  It isn’t that hard to smile at a newcomer, to talk to someone who is lonely, or to offer our sympathy to someone who is grieving.  Yet each and every time we do these things, we may well be giving someone else that little bit of help they need to get them through whatever difficulty they happen to be facing at the time.  And what could be more important than that?

Like Me

A couple of years ago, I was at a party when one of my friends introduced me to a woman she’d known for years.  At first the woman was quite friendly as we exchanged the kind of pleasantries that people do when they first meet.  But as our conversation continued,  she became cool, and then almost hostile, and I had no idea why.  Later, I went over our conversation several times in my head, but I still wasn’t sure just exactly what I said that turned her off so completely.  I’m not going to lie, the encounter kind of bothered me for several days afterwards.

More recently, I loaned a book by one of my favorite authors to a good friend, thinking she would enjoy it as much as I did.  But she gave it back a few weeks later, saying that she found the book so boring that she didn’t even manage to finish it.  I was surprised by her response, and I admit, a little bit hurt.

It’s so easy to say that we don’t care what other people think about us, but at times it is so very hard to really and truly not care.  Especially when we’re trying our best to be nice, or offering up something that we really value for someone else’s opinion.  A friend who taught art classes at a local college once told me the hardest part of her job was getting her students past the paralyzing fear of putting their best work “out there” for other people to see and judge.  My guess is almost all creative people can relate to that particular fear.

Personally, I have always struggled with my need for the approval of others.  Sadly, social media doesn’t help, with it’s little “like” button that lets us know just exactly how many others approve of whatever we’ve been brave enough to share.  And the only downside to blogging is the stat page, which makes it all too easy to judge how well we wrote a particular post by the number of views it received on any given day.  So I have to be intentional about trusting my own judgement and not falling into the trap of thinking that whatever (and whomever) happens to be the most popular is automatically the best.

We are all individuals with our own tastes, our own opinions and our own unique way of looking at the world.  That means we aren’t always going to get the encouragement and the positive affirmations from other people that we would like, even when we are offering the very best we have to give.   And in order to be truly happy, we have to learn to live with that.

I honestly think that the one of the most important lessons we can learn in this life is to trust ourselves to know what is, and isn’t, best for us.  Because the important thing isn’t how many people “like” us or our work.  The important thing is whether or not we like ourselves.

Forever Friends

I have always tried very hard not to hurt people’s feelings.  There are certain things I never write about in my blog, even when I’m struggling to find a topic for this week’s post, simply because I know that the post would cause someone pain.  And even though I usually have a lot to say about any given situation, there are times when I stay silent, because I know that my words would just make things worse.  I have even been known to tell a “little while lie” on those rare occasions when telling the truth would be a very hurtful thing.

Yet despite all my efforts to the contrary, I know for an absolute fact that I have, at one time or another, hurt the feelings of every single one of my close friends and relatives.  And as long as I’m being honest, I’ll admit that every single one of them has also hurt my feelings somewhere along the line.

I believe it’s impossible to be close to someone for any length of time and not say or do something that causes them at least a little bit of pain.  Sometimes it’s because we speak or act without thinking first.  Other times, we put a lot of thought into what we said or did and honestly believed that we were being helpful.  (And yet we weren’t.)  The bottom line is that it’s impossible to always know how our words and actions are going to be received and interpreted by others.  So every once in a while, we’re going to say and do exactly the wrong thing, often without having a clue that we’ve done so.

When I think of how easily misunderstandings occur in our relationships, I’m always just a little surprised that people manage to have long-term friends and close family relationships at all.  The key, I think, is the desire to keep those people in our lives and the willingness to forgive and forget all the little ways that we sometimes bump up against each other’s feelings.  I think it takes valuing someone enough to accept them for exactly who they are, which is precisely the same way we want them to accept us.  But however we manage it, long-term and close relationships are a gift to be treasured.

Ann's photoI turned sixty last month, and a few weeks afterwards I went out with some good friends to celebrate.   I “met” one of those friends when I was just one-year old and our mothers plunked us down in the same playpen.  I would have enjoyed the trip to the art museum, the happy hour by the lake, and the dinner at my favorite restaurant no matter what.  But I have to tell you, doing those things with dear friends I have known for forty years, and one I have known for almost my entire life, made the evening so much more special.

There really is nothing quite like sharing a milestone birthday with old friends who have shared so much of my life’s journey.  Perhaps, if I am very lucky, I will be celebrating my 80th birthday with those same friends.  And maybe I’ll even write about it in a blog called “Muddling Through My Golden Years.”

An Unexpected Gift

IMG_0448When I became a volunteer dog walker at a local humane society, all I wanted to do was help shelter dogs.  My daily schedule was rather busy at the time, so I only signed up for a two-hour walking shift, one day a week.  That was over fifteen years ago, and I’m still walking dogs there, although now I do it three days a week.  And my “shift” rarely ends before all the adoptable dogs get out, no matter how long that happens to take.

Honestly, walking shelter dogs turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.  Dogs that spend their days alone in a cage are very excited when you leash them up for a walk, and many of them are also rather large.  And strong.  Sadly, I am no longer young and I’ve never been particularly athletic.  But no matter how many times I point out to the dogs that they have an old lady on the other end of the leash, they rarely modify their behavior to accommodate my aging (and often aching) body.

Humane societies do good work and save countless numbers of homeless animals.  But they are also stressful places, both for the animals that live there and for the people who work and volunteer there.  Some of the animals living at the shelter have been rescued from awful situations, and seeing the results of so much neglect and abuse is hard on people who love animals.  Personally, I know I could not have lasted fifteen years at the shelter if it wasn’t for the friendships I have formed with some of the other volunteers and staff at the shelter.

It’s really hard to explain just how close I feel to my humane society friends.  True, we have a common bond in our love for shelter dogs, but there’s more to it than that.  As one friend recently said, “We’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst, so there’s no point in pretending to be anyone other than who we really are.”  And she’s right.

I have been blessed with many friends in my life, but the friends who see me at my most vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, are my humane society friends.  They are the ones who have seen me ugly cry and will hug me if I need it, even when I’m sweaty and beyond gross.  (When I’m at the shelter and find brown stuff smeared on my clothes, I just pray that it’s mud.  It usually isn’t.)  When you volunteer at an animal shelter, you shower after your shift, not before.

Not surprisingly, our friendship extends beyond the shelter.  We get together for social occasions, and often know each other’s families.  But mostly, when tragedy strikes in our personal lives, we know we can turn to each other for the same kind of support that we show each other at the shelter.  We cry for each other’s pain, and celebrate each other’s joy.  We are not perfect people by any means,  but we know that we can count on each other to be there in both the good times and the bad.

I signed up to walk shelter dogs all those years ago because I felt sorry for dogs that lived at animal shelters.  I wasn’t expecting to make new friends, close or otherwise.  Which just goes to show that some of the biggest gifts we get in this life are the ones we weren’t even looking for……

Another Chance

Yesterday morning I received the news that a dear friend had been rushed to the hospital, prognosis unknown.  I was hit with all the usual feelings that accompany really bad news: shock, worry, grief and uncertainty.  But as the day went on, two thoughts kept pushing their way to the front of my jumbled emotions.  The first was that I was in no way ready to lose my friend and couldn’t even bear to think about a life without her.  The second one was that I wasn’t completely sure she knew how much I valued our friendship or was aware of exactly how much I not only liked her, but respected and admired her as well.   Which, of course, made the thought of losing her that much worse.

I wondered if I had ever told her how much I appreciate having her in my life, or how much I enjoy her company.  Did I let her know that I love the way she always answers my questions honestly, instead of just telling me what she knows I want to hear?  Or how much I count on her for advice when I can’t find my own way forward?  Or how much I appreciate the many times she’s literally stood by my side when I needed moral support to deal with delicate and difficult situations?  I had to admit that I didn’t know.

And as much as I wished I had made absolutely sure she knows how much I value her friendship, I also wondered if I had ever let her know exactly why I wanted to be her friend in the first place.  Sure, she’s always nice to me, and that’s an important part of any friendship.  But my close friends aren’t just nice, they are also people I admire and and believe to be genuinely good and decent.  Not perfect, of course, because no one is perfect.  But they are people who are good, deep down in their heart.

So I worried I hadn’t let her know how much I admire the way she lives her life on her own terms, doing what she thinks is right even when others disagree, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.  I am in awe of her generous spirit, her can-do attitude and her willingness to accept others for who they are, without judging or trying to change them.  But I’m not at all sure I ever told her any of that, even though I know how much we all need to hear those kinds of validating words from the people who know us best.

This morning, I got the wonderful news that my friend is going to be just fine.  Words can’t express how happy that made me (and all the other people who love her), and I am beyond relieved.  More importantly, I hope that I have learned a lesson from the past twenty-four hours about how necessary it is to let the people we love know how much we care about them, and why.  Because life doesn’t always give us second chances.