A Day to Remember

I turned 62 yesterday, which in normal times is not a birthday that would be particularly memorable.  But these are not normal times.

I woke up early on my birthday,  and for the first time in weeks, I didn’t immediately remember that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that has my area in an indefinite lock down.  I even forgot my current personal worries.  For just a moment, life seemed normal and good.  Which made it all the harder when reality hit, and my mood took a definite nosedive.

j8F7xtuZS+OVv0b2HB7YNABut it was still a fine Spring day, and my phone began beeping with texts and calls from friends and family wishing me a happy birthday.  My son and his wife had a gorgeous basket of flowers delivered, and my daughter and grandson dropped by with gifts.   My husband gave me lovely roses, a cake and several cards. (Including one from our dog, Finn, with a note from Finn explaining that between the shelter-at-home order and his heart worm treatment, he wasn’t able to shop for my gift this year…..but hoped that he would be allowed to have a slice of my birthday cake anyway.)

Friends left gifts of wine and flowers on our doorstep, then lingered in the front yard for a chat while I stood on the porch.  It was so good to see their faces for the first time in weeks, and I can’t begin to say how much I appreciated their thoughtfulness.  Later, my husband got take-out food from one of our favorite restaurants and then let me beat him at three straight card games.  I know he let me win, because he has the ability to remember every single card that has been played and to calculate the odds accordingly, while I’m doing good to remember what game we’re playing.  When I get tired of losing so much, I play solitaire…and cheat, just so I can experience the “thrill of victory” for a change.

In more ways that I have time to list, my birthday was a good day.  But I would be lying to say that it was a completely good day, because no matter how hard I tried not to think about them, my worries and frustrations never totally went away.   I also felt a bit guilty for not feeling 100% happy in the face of so much love and support.

Sometimes it’s so hard to allow ourselves to be human, and to feel anxious, afraid or frustrated, or any of the emotions that come when our world has been turned upside down and no one knows what the future will bring.  But if this year’s birthday celebration has taught me anything, it’s that it’s not only possible to feel conflicting emotions during these times, but that it’s perfectly okay.

We’re allowed to feel grateful for the support of our friends and family and still be worried about the millions of people who have suddenly found themselves unemployed.  It’s okay to be afraid of catching this virus and still long to gather with our loved ones.  Life these days is nothing but a mixture of contradicting emotions, and I think that’s actually a normal response to these abnormal days in which we live.

So when I think back on my 62nd birthday, I think I’ll remember a lot of things.  I’ll remember feeling frustrated as the weeks of sheltering at homes stretches into months.  I’ll remember the love of friends and family who went out of their way to make my birthday a special day.  I’ll remember feeling so very sorry for those who are suffering from this virus, in any form.  But mostly, I’ll remember that even in these difficult times, lots of good things still happen and lots of good people are trying very hard to help others cope.  Which means that in all the important ways, this was a memorable birthday after all…..

Let Your Light Shine

Many years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I remember buying a teen magazine that had an article in it about how to be more popular.  Like most kids that age, I definitely wanted to be more popular, and so I eagerly read the article.  I remember one paragraph in particular that went something like, “Forget all that advice about just ‘being yourself!’  What’s so special about being yourself?  If you want more people to like you, you need to figure out how to fit in with the crowd!”

I may have been a typical early teenager, struggling with raging hormones, self-doubt and all the other issues that go with that difficult phase of life, I was still horrified by what I read.  Even then, I knew that there was something very wrong with the advice to bury my true identity and simply copy the behavior I saw all around me in order to have more friends.  I’d like to say that from that moment on, I stopped worrying about what others thought about me and always spoke and acted according to my own conscience, but that would be a lie.  In my defense, I was very young and still unsure of so many things, including who I really was and what I really believed.

But now that I’m all grown up (and then some), I no longer have that excuse.  One of the benefits of aging is that we begin to understand exactly who we are and we tend to know exactly what we do and do not believe.  Yet there are still times when I struggle to live according to my own principles, and still hesitate to show my true self or share my true opinions, mostly out of fear of how others are going to react if I do.

Sadly, the times we live in encourages this sort of fear because we’re conditioned to only accept those people who are “just like us.”  And so we keep quiet about any aspect of our personality or any of our beliefs that we think might cause someone else to reject us. I don’t like to tell people I’m a political Independent, because I’ve found that as soon as someone discovers you don’t support their party, they automatically believe you really (if secretly) support the opposing party.  I often hesitate to tell people I’m a Christian, because there is such a variety of beliefs in Christianity that I’m afraid they’ll misunderstand what I actually believe.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

Still, I think the time has come for me to stop being so afraid of rejection (or conflict) that I hide some of who I really am and what I really think.  I guess I’ve reached the age where I’d like to have the courage to live according to my own values, and just accept the reaction that gets.  Plus, I try very hard to accept other people for who they really are, and pride myself on having close friends and family whose beliefs are very different from mine.  If I’m willing to accept other people’s true selves, then shouldn’t I give other people the chance to do the same for me?

I’ve always liked that saying, “just be yourself–everyone else is already taken!”  Words to live by……

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.

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.

Just Own It

My husband and I decided to go out for dinner last night at a restaurant that has a great outdoor patio.  When we were seated, I noticed that most of the other tables were still waiting for their food, which probably meant that we weren’t going to get our meals very quickly.  But it was a nice night and we weren’t in any real hurry, so we placed our orders and settled in to enjoy the evening.  Forty-five minutes later, we were still waiting for our entrees, and our waiter was no where to be found.

IMG_3564A full sixty minutes after we had ordered, our waiter finally brought our food.  When he asked if we needed anything else, my husband replied, “Yes, since we’ve waited an hour for our meal,  I’d like a complimentary glass of wine.”   (I wish I’d thought to say that.)  The waiter didn’t bat an eye, but simply nodded and hurried off in the direction of the bar, returning a few minutes later with the wine.  And even though we had to ask for it, that complimentary glass of wine was the only reason our waiter got a tip from us.

My husband and I like to eat out, and we are very aware of how hard it is to run a restaurant and how hard the staff works to make sure things go right.  We never expect perfection and are more than willing to overlook mistakes, with one simple requirement.  We want the mistake acknowledged, and if at all possible, corrected.  But the most important thing is for someone to admit that a mistake has been made.

I have no idea why we waited so long for our meals last night.  There might have been an accident in the kitchen, or maybe one of the  cooks didn’t show up.  Or our waiter might have simply forgotten to turn in our order, who knows?  The point is that he never came to our table in all the time we were waiting and acknowledged that we were waiting far to long for our food.  All he had to do was tell us, “I’m so sorry for the wait,” and let us know what was going on.  All he had to do was admit that a mistake had been made.

Personally, I make mistakes each and every day of my life.  It’s an area where I tend to be a bit of an over-achiever.   So I’m the last person who is going to judge someone else for making mistakes, or get all bent out of shape just because something has gone wrong.  Yet I learned a long time ago that when I make a mistake, it’s essential that I admit to it, apologize for it, fix the problem if I possibly can, and then move on.  Because doing otherwise means that I’m pretending that I’m the kind of person who never makes mistakes.

Acknowledging our mistakes actually opens so many doors.  It gives others the chance to forgive us (not to mention the chance to forgive ourselves), and it means that we can begin to work on solving whatever problem the mistake created.  When we admit to our own mistakes, I believe we find it easier to relate to and sympathize with others who make mistakes.  It’s a way of acknowledging that none of us are perfect and that few problems can’t be solved once we’re actively looking for solutions.

By giving my husband his complimentary glass of wine, our waiter indirectly acknowledged that a mistake had been made, and we did appreciate that.  But a direct acknowledgement would have been so much better.  We all make mistakes; the trick is to be brave enough to own them.

Too Much Information

Sometimes I think I’m a terrible friend.  Don’t get me wrong, I care about each and every friend I have, deeply and sincerely.  I know I’m lucky to have them in my life and what a gift those relationships are.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m nowhere near the kind of friend I want to be, and that bothers me.

Last weekend my husband and I went to dinner with a couple of very good friends we have known for more years that I care to count.  We had a great time, eating good food and catching up on what was going on in each other’s lives.  It was a fun evening and one I thought had gone very well, until after I was home and it hit me that I had not once asked my friend about how her sister was doing.  The sister who had been fighting a very serious cancer and who, the last time I actually remembered to ask, was still struggling to fully recover.

All too often, that’s exactly the kind of friend I am:  the one who doesn’t remember to ask the important questions.  The one who doesn’t always manage to keep track of what is going on in her friends’ lives, which means I’m also the one who sometimes doesn’t give the kind of support that her friends need and that I really, really want to give them.

I know what the problem is, and it’s not a lack of compassion.  The problem is that I  don’t seem to have the ability to keep track of large quantities of information, no matter how important that information happens to be.  Like almost everyone else these days, I’m constantly bombarded with information that needs to be acknowledged, processed and categorized so that it can be retrieved when needed.  But in my case, the information is usually misfiled somewhere in the depths of my tiny little brain.

I can remember what I want to ask someone about until that person is actually standing in front of me, or I’m talking to them on the phone.  That’s the exact moment that I can remember only that I need to schedule a vet appointment for my dog, get a flu shot, take our passports back to the safety deposit box, and drop some food off at my mother’s house.  Later, when I’m standing in my basement trying to remember what I went down there for, I’ll remember that I want to ask about a good friend how her recent job interview went.  (Not that I’ll actually ask her, since she’s not standing in my basement at that exact moment.)

I worry that my over-stretched memory means that my friends and family must think I am self-centered, and worse, that I don’t really care about what is going on in their lives and that they can’t count on me for support when they need it.  The truth is, I couldn’t possibly care more, and I am always ready to give any kind of help that they need.  But it’s also true that they might need to remind me that they need that support.

I suppose the fact that I actually have friends means that there are people in this world who, if they don’t always understand me, or at least willing to put up with me.  And for that I am deeply grateful.  I suppose the true test of any friendship is the ability to accept people for who they truly are, flaws and all.  And maybe it’s time I began to do that for myself as well.