It’s Complicated

I hate clutter, which means that getting rid of things is rarely a problem for me.  I routinely go through my possessions, ruthlessly culling the items that are no longer useful or desirable.  No matter how many times a charity calls for donations, I can always produce at least one big bag of used clothes, household items or other items.  And that’s not counting the carload of stuff we donate each year to the rummage sale at my mother’s church, or the stuff we give to my daughter to take to the local resale shop.

Even my most precious possessions–my books, my Christmas ornaments and my photographs–aren’t immune to my tendency to downsize and minimize.  I rid my bookshelves of books that no longer interest me, and I gave each of my kids a couple dozen of my Christmas ornaments when they moved out and started decorating their own trees.  And when my photo boxes get too full, I go through them and toss out the occasional photo or two.  (Especially when I have no idea who is in the picture.)  I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “saver.”

fullsizeoutput_3ebeWhich makes it all the harder to explain why I have several poinsettia plants on the window seat in my family room that are well past their prime.  The newest addition is two years old, and none of them sport the pretty red leaves anymore.  They are now green and spindly, require frequent watering and drop dead leaves all over the place.  But I can’t make myself throw them out.  I’ve tried, but I can never get past the idea that they are still alive, and I would be killing them for no reason other than I find them inconvenient.  And so they stay, taking up space and cluttering up my window seat.

I don’t have a rational explanation about my inability to get rid of unwanted plants when I can so easily give away just about anything else that’s in my house.  It’s completely out of character, and I doubt that anyone who knows me would believe that I have a window seat full of straggly poinsettias left over from Christmases of several years ago.  And yet I do.

And I don’t think I’m all that unusual.  Yes, hanging onto old poinsettias may be unusual, but doing things that seem out of character is actually rather common.  I believe most people have odd quirks and have done things that would surprise their friends and family.   I also believe that most people hold certain beliefs which seem at odds with their usual viewpoints.  Because the truth is that most people are much more complicated than they seem.

Of course we like to slot other people into categories that make they easy to identify, but those categories are rarely completely accurate.  It’s not uncommon for a liberal to hold a conservative view on a particular subject, or for a city dweller to have a passion for country music.  Animal shelter volunteers can own purebred dogs, and the grown son of a dedicated gardener may prefer his vegetables canned.  It’s all okay.  Because real people are complicated, and they are allowed to harbor all sorts of contradictions.  It’s just part of what makes us human.

And the reason I’m hoping no one gives me another poinsettia for Christmas this year.

Get Closer

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was heading to lunch with a work friend when I tripped at the top of a set of very tall and very steep concrete steps.  I tried to grab the railing to catch myself, but it was too far away.  Luckily, my friend was strong and had good reflexes, because he shot out his arm to block my fall, and then steadied me with his other hand.  If it hadn’t been for him, I would have fallen all the way down those stairs and ended up in a broken heap on the asphalt parking lot many feet below.  I was still shaken when we reached the restaurant, and apparently, so was my friend, because the first thing he did was order a stiff drink.  I noticed his hand was trembling slightly when he lifted the glass.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he saved my baby’s life.

Aside from our work life, my friend and I had very little in common.  He was single and still living with his parents while I was married and living in my own house.  He had never left the St. Louis area, whereas I had only recently returned to it.  He was gay; I was straight.  I was an avid animal lover, yet when I asked him to sign my anti-vivisection petition, he politely declined, saying he saw nothing wrong with experimenting on animals if it had the potential to help humans.  I could go on, but you get the idea. We were two very different people, and yet we worked together quite well and found it easy to be friends.

And this story is just one example of the many times my life has been enriched by people who are very different from me.  I am white, but the woman whose encouragement gave me the most confidence to write for children is black.  I think deer are among the most beautiful creatures on this earth, but I have friends and relatives who hunt.  I love to read, am terrible at sports and have unbelievably bad math skills, yet the man I married rarely reads, went to college on a sports scholarship and makes his living as an accountant.  And I couldn’t imagine life without him.

I know the current trend is increasingly to “stick with our own kind,” and have nothing to do with those who have different values, different cultures and different beliefs, but I honestly think it is a horrible one.  Sure, we can watch only news shows that reflect our opinions, and we can rage against those who think (and, worst of all vote) differently than we do, and we can “unfriend” all the people on Facebook whose posts we disagree with.  But if we do, the loss is our own.

So many people are worth knowing, if we are brave enough to give them a chance.  When we get close to people who seem different, we often find they have some wonderful qualities mixed in there with the stuff that puts us off.   l don’t know about you, but I have good friends  who voted for Clinton, and I have good friends who voted for Trump.  I didn’t vote for either of those candidates, but you know what?  I still value my friends who did more than words can say.

And whenever I do feel the temptation to “stick with my own kind,” all I have to do is remember my friend and coworker from all those years ago.  Because if I hadn’t gotten to know him, he wouldn’t have been with me on those steps.  And I might not have a daughter at all.martha-at-xmas

Embracing Diversity

wedding pic 2I have never been known for following current trends, mostly because I am usually so hopelessly out of touch that I have no idea what the current trends even are.  But I have noticed that the term “diversity” is a popular one right now, as in “celebrate diversity,” “embrace diversity,” and similar slogans.  The gist of it is that diversity is a good thing, and that we need to let go of our natural tendency to want to associate mostly with those people who are just like us and start sharing our lives with people who are often very different from us.  And I have to say that this is one trend that I am right on top of, because I have been “living with diversity” for over thirty five years now….ever since the day that I married my husband.

Obviously, there many core values that my husband and I share:  we have the same morals, the same commitment to family, the same sense of humor and the same work ethic.  We also both like a clean house and are masters at the art of worrying.  But I am a minimalist who feels very uncomfortable around clutter, and have a strong compulsion to organize all my possessions.  My husband has many gifts, but the ability to organize his many possessions is not one of them.  My books are shelved according to their author; the money in my wallet is arranged in ascending value with all the bills facing the same way; my clothes are hung in my closet according to color and category.  My husband’s closet is hodgepodge of clothes, shoes, tools, store receipts and random knick knacks.  Once I even found a hammer in his underwear drawer.

I am a writer and avid reader, while my husband prefers to watch movies for entertainment.  He’s an athlete and a sports enthusiast who regularly follows all his favorite teams, and I can tell when a game is not going well because I can hear him yelling at the TV, even when I’m on a whole different floor of the house.  I enjoy going to a Cardinals game now and then, but otherwise, I find professional sports to be rather boring and have a hard time caring much which team wins.  (If any of the professional athletes were sharing their salaries with me, then I would care very much about whether or not they were having a successful season.)

We came from different states, different types of families, different religions, and we have very different strengths.  He’s a natural at numbers and all things financial, while I struggle with anything beyond the most basic math.  I am most comfortable expressing myself through the written word, whereas he sometimes asks for my help when he’s composing a simple business letter.  And yet we make it work.

IMG_0545I think the key to successfully “living with diversity” is understanding that we aren’t going to change each other.  I am no more going to convince my husband that he needs to keep his tools organized according to my standards than he is going to convince me that my spices don’t have to be arranged alphabetically on the spice rack.  (Because, of course, they do.)

I admit that deep down, I think I would prefer it if my husband would change a little so that he could be more like me.  But it doesn’t work that way.  If I want to stay in a close and loving relationship with him, I have to accept him just the way he is, and count on him doing the same thing for me.  And I think that’s what “embracing diversity” is really all about:  learning to let people be who they really are without trying to change them into becoming more like us.  It’s not always easy, but after thirty-five years of marriage, I can honestly say it is worth the effort.

Sometimes It’s Okay To Be Different

I was wasting time on Facebook the other day, aimlessly scrolling down my newsfeed, when I saw a post about working mothers.  The point was basically that working mothers need help and understanding, rather than judgement, from the stay-at-home moms, and was followed by the usual long stream of comments.  I should have known better than to read them, but when I’m trying to avoid my “to do” list, I never ignore a perfectly good distraction.  So I found myself reading the predictable comments where working moms accused the stay-at-home moms of being cliquish, over-priviledged and unambitious, while the stay-at-home moms accused the working moms of putting their career before the well-being of their children, not being involved in their children’s schools  and being condescending to those who stayed at home.

Sadly, none of this was new.  The same arguments and accusations were being tossed around when my own children were small, which was a long time ago.  I found it depressing that so many young women still hadn’t learned to simply respect that mothers tend to chose what is best (or necessary) for them and their families when they make their career and child-rearing decisions, and that it’s not helpful to trash talk those who make different choices.  Depressing, but not surprising.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect mothers of young children to be respectful and considerate of those who make different choices and have different beliefs when so few other people show respect and consideration for those who are different.  We live in a society where attacking beliefs that are different from ours has become the norm.  If someone’s political or religious views are different from ours, they are fair game for any ridicule or criticism we can heap upon them….or so it would seem from watching cable news shows, reading the letters to the editor in the newspaper, or reading the comment sections on Facebook or internet news posts.  The message seems clear:  only those who think, look and act just like us are acceptable.

Personally, I find that message unacceptable.  Of course I like my own opinions best; who doesn’t?  But I’ve lived long enough to realize that I don’t want to limit my relationships to people who always agree with me.  I have friends and family from almost every religious point of view, and definitely from every political point of view, and I value all of them.  My only requirement is that they don’t attack my views, and that I don’t attack theirs.  We may discuss our different beliefs respectfully, or we may just tactically “agree to disagree,” depending on the issue and our personalities, but we can, and do, stay in relationship with each other.  At our best, we even learn from each other and grow a little bit wiser and a little more tolerant.  Sometimes, I’ve even managed to admit that I might be (gasp) wrong…just once in a while, of course.

Not all the comments following the post about working mothers were negative.  Several suggested that the best thing to do was simply realize that all the mothers were doing their best to be good moms, and to stop judging each other and start trying to be be nice to each other.  They pointed out that a little understanding and kindness can go a long way.  Call me naive, but I couldn’t agree more.