The Best Policy

Ann's photoWhen I was about six years old, I desperately wanted a pair of glasses.  And not just any glasses, I wanted  the “cat eye” framed glasses that were so popular at the time.  My older sister had a pair and so did Susan Breneke, who I thought was the coolest kid in the entire first grade.  I wanted those glasses so badly that I actually lied to my mother, telling her that far-away objects looked kind of fuzzy to me.  (My sister had described her vision problems to me in detail, so I knew just what to say.)  Unfortunately, my mom didn’t rush out and buy me a pair of glasses, which is what I thought would happen.  She took me for an eye exam, and I passed with flying colors.  I never did get those glasses.

I’m an adult now, and I no longer believe it telling lies to get what I want.   But there are still times when I think it would be easier to lie than tell the truth, and sometimes I struggle with being completely honest.

For example, I may want to tell a lie in order to spare a person’s feelings.  I know that people do that for me now and then.  When my husband and I are getting ready to go out, I’ll often ask his opinion of my outfit, sometimes even uttering the dreaded question, “Does this make me look fat?”  The closest he’s ever come to saying yes was the time I had just bought a new dress with lots of pleats at the waist and he asked me, “Have you seen the back view?”  Which was his subtle way of letting me know it made my butt look bigger than Cleveland.

Other times, I’ll hedge a little bit on my honest opinion when I’m talking to someone I know holds completely different views from me on a sensitive subject.  I’ve seen so many people become deeply offended, or even enraged, when someone dares to disagree with them that I’ve become a little too cautious in my responses.  There are times when telling the truth is harder than it sounds.

But I also know that I want to live my life as honestly and openly as I possibly can, and that means that I need to tell the truth about who I am and what I believe.  I need to accept the risk that there are going to be people who don’t like what I say or do, and that the loss of those relationships will probably sting, at least for awhile.  But the fear of rejection doesn’t outweigh the value of being true to my real self.

Like my husband, I need to always temper honesty with tact and sensitivity.  Honesty is never an excuse to run roughshod over someone’s feelings.  But handled correctly, telling the truth is actually easiest in the long run.  I don’t have to worry about keeping track of any little white lies I may have told if I always give an honest answer to a direct question.  If I admit to the many embarrassing things I have done in my life, there’s no need to worry about anyone “discovering” them.

And best of all, when I am honest with my friends and family, I know that those who stay in relationship with me like me for who I really am.  Any way you look at it, honesty really is the best policy.

Off The Hook

Ann and SandyWhen I was seven years old, my father decided to become a minister and enrolled in a local seminary.  My family moved into the campus housing which meant that we had to give up our beloved dog Sandy.  Luckily, we had good family friends who were willing to take her.  They lived nearby and we would be able to see Sandy often.  I know it sounds like an ideal solution, but the truth was that I hated giving Sandy away, even to family friends.  I not only mourned the loss of my dog, but I worried that she would miss us and that they wouldn’t treat her as well as we did.  How could I be sure that the boys weren’t teasing her, and that the family was giving her enough attention?  How could Sandy possibly be as happy with their family as she was with ours?

IMG_3178Luckily, my fears proved ungrounded as our friends provided Sandy with an incredibly loving home until she died at the ripe old age of sixteen.  The transition from one family to another may have confused her for a little while, but she was well and truly taken care of for her entire life.  We are still close to those friends, and recently one of the sons (one of the boys my seven-year old self didn’t quite trust with her dog) recently texted me a photo of him holding Sandy when she was in her twilight years.  “She would sit in my lap and let me pet her like this every night,” he said.  It is one of the sweetest photos I have ever seen.

I doubt that he has any idea how much I appreciated getting that picture.  First of all, it confirmed what I had already known:  they loved and cherished Sandy just as much as we did, and she was quite happy with them.  But even more importantly, it reminded me that as much as I loved Sandy, I wasn’t the only one who could care for her and give her a good home.  Her happiness didn’t depend entirely on me.

I have always been the sort of person who likes to get things done, and who tends to believe in the old saying, “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”  And while I know that the world needs those of us who are willing to take on responsibility and get things done, I also know that it is both arrogant and foolish of me to think that I am the only one who can do that.

I need to remember that when someone tells me about a problem, they are not necessarily expecting me to solve it for them.  Sometimes, all they are looking for is a sympathetic ear.  I need to understand that not only is it not my job to take care of everyone and everything, but that I can’t possibly do so.  In short, I need to recognize my own limitations.  And I especially need to learn to trust in the the fact that there are plenty of other people in this world who are fully capable of taking care of things, even without my help.

I have kept a copy of that photo, partly because it makes me smile whenever I look at it.  But it is also an important reminder that I don’t, actually, carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.  It’s enough that I do the best I can, as often as I can.  And then I have to trust that there are always others around who can handle the rest.

Moving On

Scan 1When I was seven, my father decided to enroll in seminary to become a minister,  which meant that our family moved from a four-plus bedroom house to a five-room campus apartment.  The apartment was tiny, and had an odd layout because it had been pieced together from single-student dorm rooms.  Our bathroom was dormitory style, complete with a toilet stall, and our kitchen had no sink.  We lived there four years, and for that whole time, my deepest desire was to move back to my old house.  Even now,  I still have fond memories of living in that house, and feel a twinge of longing whenever I’m in my old neighborhood and drive by it.

So when I heard that my old house was going for sale, my first thought was that I could actually buy it now (if I could talk my husband into it) and move right back in.  For a while, it was exciting to realize that I was finally in a position to make one of my strongest childhood dreams come true.  But it wasn’t long before I realized that I didn’t really want to move back there anymore.

It’s still a wonderful house, with bright and spacious rooms, hardwood floors and lots of original woodwork, and it’s going to make somebody a fabulous new home.  But I’m no longer the kid living in a cramped apartment and longing to return to her former home.  I’m all grown up now (and then some), and am quite happy in the house I’ve been living in for the past twenty years.  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that moving out of that house wasn’t quite the tragedy I remembered.

It was tough to downsize as drastically as we did, to have to give our beloved dog to family friends, and leave my familiar neighborhood behind. But moving to seminary housing meant I had a huge campus to roam, and a constant stream of new friends (sometimes from other countries) as the families of new students moved in.  And after my dad graduated, we moved to rural Kansas were I learned first-hand what small-town life is like.  That was a hard adjustment at first, but it was also where I finally got the horse I’d always been wanting and where I made strong friendships that have continued to this day.

I have moved many times in my life, sometimes through choice and sometimes from necessity.  And there was a time when I thought my life would have been so much better if I had just stayed in one place, and been spared the pain of leaving friends, family, and familiar surroundings behind.  But I have come to realize that there was something good that came from each move, and that each and every place I have lived has helped shape me into who I am today.

Life is often referred to as a journey, and I believe that is a good description.  Sometimes my path has been smooth, and sometimes it’s been rocky, but either way, it has led me to exactly where I am now.  From the hard times, I learned that I was much stronger and more resilient than I had ever realized.  From the good times, I gained beautiful memories that will always be with me as I forge ahead.  All of it had a hand in shaping the person I have become, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

ScanThrough a series of happy circumstances, I was invited to visit my old house the other day, and got to walk through all the rooms I remembered so well.  It was a wonderful, if slightly surreal, experience.  I still love that house, and I think I always will.  But I won’t try to go back to it.  It’s someone else’s turn to live there now…..

Sometimes I Do Miss It

Our book club recently read Laura Moriarty’s book, “The Chaperone,” which follows the life of middle-aged Cora, a fictional character who accompanies the teenaged Louise Brooks (a real person who was a silent film star back in the 1920s) on a summer trip to New York City so Louise can try out for the Denishawn School of Dance.  I won’t bore you with the all the details, but it seemed to me that the theme of the book was Cora gradually learning to shed many of the prejudices, social restrictions and strict morals of the early 1900s to grow into an more open-minded and accepting person.  In other words, Cora begins to embrace many of the more modern attitudes we have today, which is of course, a good thing.

I would never want to go back to the days of racial segregation, when it was illegal to be anything other than heterosexual, before women had the right to vote, or when polio, tuberculosis, and a host of other diseases  were far too common.  I don’t miss cooking before the invention of the microwave oven, and as much as it annoys me, I can no longer imagine living without my cell phone.  But I have to admit that there are still a few aspects of “the good old days” that I actually do miss.

I miss the days when it was safe for children to roam the neighborhood, riding bikes and playing with friends, and when games were the products of their imaginations rather than structured leagues, organized and run by adults.   I miss the days when television sets had only a few channels, because then I wasn’t tempted to waste quite so much time watching it.  (Which is why no house of mine will ever boast a “home theater.”) I miss the days when people often sat on their front porches in the evening, chatting together and watching the world go by.

Ann and Ruth on bikes

While I certainly appreciate air conditioning, I also miss falling asleep at night while listening to the sounds of crickets and cicadas, and the sweet smell of the occasional cooling breeze that came in through our opened windows.   I miss the excitement of getting an actual letter from a far away friend or relative, and how eagerly I would open it, read the contents, and then carefully tuck it away for safekeeping.  I know emails are more convenient and much quicker, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I was actually excited to get one.

Of course I am aware that our world has changed for the better in many, many ways, and I appreciate that.  But as an introvert who has never quite mastered the art of multi-tasking, and as someone who really values having a bit of peace and quiet each day, I also believe that some of the changes I have lived through have made the world a bit faster-paced, a bit more intrusive, and a bit more impersonal than I would like it to be.  I don’t want to abandon the modern world, but I admit that there are times when I wish I could just take a break from it, at least for a little while.

A Fair Trade

DSC00174I really believe that looking into a mirror and thinking, “who is that old person?” is something that every middle aged person has done at one time or another.  Some of us do it on a regular basis, if not daily.  But the reality is that the older we get, the harder it is to identify with the image we see reflected back at us, especially in a well-lit bathroom mirror that emphasizes all the wrinkles and sags.  Middle age means no longer looking nearly as young as we feel, and knowing that it’s only going to get worse, not better, from here on out.  Talk about depressing!

Luckily, middle age brings other, more positive, changes than just the physical ones.  My body may be aging in all kinds of negative ways, but my sense of self is actually improving.  I have a very good memory of my childhood (which is kind of amazing, since I can barely remember what I had for lunch yesterday), and one thing I know very clearly about my early years is how hard I always worked at “fitting in.”  I paid attention to what the other kids wore, what games they played, and what they thought, and did my best to imitate that so that I wouldn’t be excluded.  Later, as a teenager and young adult, I did pretty much the same thing, doing my best to make sure that I looked and acted as much as possible like everyone else.  It wasn’t always easy, and I certainly didn’t always succeed, but I can honestly say that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to be the person I thought others wanted me to be.

I can’t say exactly when “fitting in” stopped mattering so much to me, because it has been a gradual process, and one that I am still working on.  I’m sure reaching middle age had a lot to do with it, because the issues women deal with in middle age (menopause, empty-nest syndrome, aging parents, etc.) are a constant challenge to our self image.  Somewhere along the line, I have stopped caring so much about what others thought of me, and started caring a lot more who I really am, and who I really want to be.

It’s possible that this change is just a natural part of the aging process, now that I am at a point where I have to make intentional decisions about what I want to do with the years I have left.  Or maybe I’m just a slow learner and it’s taken me this long to learn what is really important in life has nothing to do with conformity, and that the people I actually care about have no problems accepting me just the way I am.  But whatever happened, I’m grateful.  I may not always recognize the old-looking woman who looks back at me from the mirror these days, but I am getting to know the “real me” a little better every day.  And that’s a trade-off I can live with.

A View from the Edge

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I finally got around to transferring old home videos from VCR to DVD the other day, following a lengthy battle with a VCR/DVD converter that lasted for the better part of the afternoon and included lots of swearing and threats on my part and a steadfast refusal to “record” on the part of the converter.  But once I got things working correctly, I was able to sit back and watch lots of old footage of birthday parties, holidays and family gatherings.

The first thing I noticed was how different my kids looked back then.  Where they ever really that small?  Did my son really speak in that high-pitched voice?  His voice is so deep now that he’s actually hard to hear in a crowded, noisy restaurant.  Then I notice my husband.  Did he really have that much hair back then?  But finally, I notice….me.

I’m rarely standing directly in front of, or even looking at, the camera.  I’m hovering around the edge of the frame, handing out sippy cups to toddlers, lighting the candles on the birthday cakes, and tidying up the wrapping paper as the kids tear into their gifts.  You can sometimes hear my voice off-camera, shooing the dog out of the way, prompting the kids to say “thank you” or offering someone a tray of Christmas cookies.  Was that really me, always on the edge, directing the others, cleaning up after them, but never really in the thick of things?  And is it still me?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  Even in my middle age, there’s always something, or someone, who needs my care.  And like so many women, I tend to put the needs of others first, without even giving the matter much thought.  It is, after all, part of what being in a relationship means….sometimes caring for others more than we care for ourselves.  Selfishness can very quickly equal loneliness.  But at what point does putting others first mean I’m not meeting my own needs at all, not using what little creative talent I have, and not being true to myself?

If someone were filming my life now, would I still be that shadowy figure, almost hiding around the edges?  It’s hard to know, but it’s something I need to think about.  I think it’s something all of us need to think about, if we want to live fully and genuinely.  I think each of us needs to find our own balance between what we do for others and what we do for ourselves, because no one was meant to “hide their light under a bushel.” Not a single one of us.