Talk To Me

IMG_0237When I was a freshman in college, I became good friends with a young woman who was a Christian Scientist.  We would spend hours talking to each other about anything and everything, including religion.  She once told me that she had never felt so free to discuss her religious beliefs with anyone before, and I felt exactly the same way.  Which may seem a bit odd, because I’m not a Christian Scientist.

I think what made our discussions, and even our friendship, work was the way we talked to each other.  We expressed our own feelings and beliefs, honestly and openly, and then really listened to what the other person had to say.  She didn’t try to change my mind and I didn’t try to change hers.  But I learned a lot from those long talks with my friend, because they forced me to think about just why I agreed with her on some points and disagreed on others.  In other words, she challenged me to really examine just exactly what I believed, and why.

My friend transferred to another college after her freshman year, and we gradually lost touch with each other.  But the lesson I learned from her has stuck with me.  I think of it every time I watch a political debate, read about a religious war, or even just scroll through the news feed on my Facebook page and see all the petty sniping and bickering.  Because here’s the thing:  if you really want someone to listen to your point of view, you need to talk to them.  Not lecture them, or ridicule them, or attack them….just talk to them.  The way you would want someone to talk to you.

Somewhere along the way, it seems that many of us have forgotten how to do that.  We seem to think it’s our duty to point out other people’s faults, usually in a way that degrades them and allows us to feel superior.  While we can do that if we want, it’s not at all an effective way to get our point across.  And as a method for changing someone’s heart and mind, it’s a complete failure.

I know I’m lucky, because I still have a few friends I can talk to, openly and honestly, about anything at all…..even those “hot button” subjects like religion or politics.  We manage it the same way my old college friend and I did, by speaking from our hearts and  listening respectfully to what the other person has to say.  We always say “I disagree” rather than “you’re wrong.”

Sometimes I change my mind after one of our discussions, and sometimes I don’t, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they give me some insight into a different perspective, and they leave me feeling that my voice has also been heard.  And that always reminds that good things can happen when people simply talk to each other.

Beyond Words

One of the first things I learned when I began volunteering at a local animal shelter was the importance of communicating without words.  Because dogs can’t talk, and a rescue dog who has lived its whole life without much human contact can’t understand what my words mean.  The dog can only “read” my body language and respond to the tone of my voice, which means I have to be intentional about the wordless messages I’m sending.  And really, that applies with my human interactions as well.

I was in a deli one day and the man who took my order made a little small talk while he was preparing my sandwich.  When he handed it over to me he paused, and then said, “I’m sorry if I offended you, ma’am.”  Surprised, I assured him that he hadn’t.  It wasn’t till much later that I realized that I was probably scowling at him the whole time he was talking, not because of what he was saying, but because I had a horrible sinus headache at the time.   If anything, I was the one who was being offensive.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been had my feelings hurt when I’m feeling down because it seemed as if my friends and family were avoiding me like the plague just when I needed them most.  It took me years to realize that was likely because when I’m feeling that way, I’m usually sending off a distinct “leave me alone” vibe.  I may have been thinking, “Please come cheer me up,” but the message people were getting was “Stay away from me!”

It’s not easy for me to pay attention to, much less control, all the non-verbal ways I communicate with others.  It’s hard not to scowl when my head is pounding, or to be friendly and engaging when I’m feeling worried or depressed.  Sadly, I have a face that others can “read like a book,” which means that if I’m thinking about something that is upsetting me, I’m going to look angry.  Even when I’m not the slightest bit angry at the person who happens to be standing right in front of me.

But if I can manage to control the “vibes” I’m sending off when I deal with the shelter dogs, surely I can figure out a way to do that with people, too.  Especially since most of the people I interact with do understand my words, and I don’t need to rely on body language and tone of voice to get my message across.  I need to remember to speak up and actually tell people what I’m feeling, which is so much better than, say, trying to smile when I’m feeling badly, either physically or emotionally.

IMG_0448It’s so easy to misunderstand each other, especially when we’re preoccupied or upset, and to be disappointed when others aren’t responding to us the way we want them to respond.  And those are the times when I’m grateful for the lessons that the shelter dogs have taught me, which is that I need to be very intentional about what kind of message I’m sending out, either with or without my words.  Because I’ve found that once others understand what I really mean, their response is often just exactly what I need.

Worth a Try

When I first started this blog, I used to write a new post every four days. As time went by, posting that often became difficult, so I gradually extended the time between posts to a full week. And that’s where I’ve stayed for the past few years, more or less.

Even though it’s much easier to keep up with weekly posts, I have run into a problem. I tend to get what I think is a GREAT idea for my next blog post a few days before I’m actually due to write it. I’ll plan the basic outline and even think of a title. But by the time I actually sit down to write my weekly post, I can’t remember a single thing about the post I intended to write other than I thought it was a really terrific idea.

One of my favorite authors, Andrew Taylor, believes that writers should never write down their story ideas. He believes that if an idea is strong enough, you’ll remember it, whether you want to or not. Maybe he is right, and that great idea I had last Thursday wasn’t really so great after all, since it managed to completely slip my mind by today. Or maybe I just have a truly terrible memory, and therefore am capable of forgetting absolutely everything, regardless of its importance. (Most people who know me would vote for the second theory.) But whatever the reason, I’ve realized that if I’m going to come up with a new post every week, I have to figure out a way to remember the things I actually want to write about.

I tend to resist change, but there comes a time when we have to be willing to set aside the things that don’t work for us, and trying to remember the ideas I get for posts days before I actually want to write them doesn’t work for me. So it’s time for me to admit that, and move on to something that does work. Like, say, writing down my ideas as soon as they come and putting them in a file marked “ideas for blog posts.”

And this is a lesson that goes far beyond blogging. It’s hard to let go of our old ways, even when common sense tells us it’s past time to do so. Sometimes the only way to move forward in life is to shed the habits and beliefs that no longer work for us and be willing to at least try something new. Because often there is a better way, if we can just find the courage to look for it.

I don’t know if my new system of blogging will work or not, because I haven’t tried it yet. (Face it, I could easily forget where I put my idea file.) But I do know that my old way was definitely not working, and that it’s time to try something new. And I also know that if I can keep an open mind and persevere, I’ll find something better eventually.

A Sure Thing

Predicting the future has never been an easy thing to do, but these days, it’s become completely impossible.  If 2020 has taught us nothing else, it’s that life is uncertain and plans are often nothing more than optimistic hopes.  And I have to say that I really, really, don’t like living this way.

One of my coping mechanisms for dealing with difficulties has always been to have something…anything…to look forward to.  Dreaming of our annual January vacation on the beach is what gets me through the cold and dark Winter days, and even something as small as knowing I have dinner reservations at my favorite restaurant can lift my spirits on a particularly stressful day. 

I’m never happy to see Summer end, but knowing that the holidays are coming has always made it easier to accept.  Yet who knows if I’ll be able to host a family Thanksgiving dinner this year, or if we’ll see extended family at Christmas?  These days, it sometimes seems that looking forward to something is a sure-fire way to make sure it doesn’t actually happen.

Which is why I very deliberately didn’t think much about the family weekend getaway we had planned for the end of September.  My husband and I had booked a house at a nearby lake community for three nights and invited our children and grandchildren to join us.  I knew it would be great fun if we managed to pull it off, but I waited until the very last minute to begin buying our supplies and packing our things, just in case.

fullsizeoutput_5ceeAnd miracle of miracles, it all worked out.  The house had a gorgeous view of the lake and plenty of room for everyone, and the weather was great. We found time to relax and unwind, while some of us golfed, fished, visited a nearby winery, made crafts, went horseback riding, played games, or went for walks in the woods.  The lake was warm enough to try the paddle boards and I even managed to go kayaking without falling into the water (another miracle).

All in all, we had a wonderful time and it’s a weekend I won’t soon forget.  Finally being able to “get away” for a while was great, and spending quality time with the people I love was even better.  But perhaps the greatest gift of all was realizing that, even in these crazy and uncertain times, sometimes the things we look forward to really do happen.  And knowing that gives me all the hope I need.

Wishful Thinking

Ann's bday 2I’ve never wasted much time on making wishes.  Even at my childhood birthday parties, when it was time to make a wish before blowing out the candles on my cake, I usually couldn’t think of anything to wish for.  (Especially after the year I wished for my very own pony and discovered that what you wish for and what you get are often two very different things.)  But maybe it’s because I’ve gotten older, or maybe it’s the strange and often unpleasant times we’re living in, but these days, I actually do have things I wish for.  A whole list of them, as a matter of fact.

Every time I see a political ad on TV or a political meme on social media, I wish that politicians and their followers would remember that simple rule, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  I want to hear what good a candidate hopes to accomplish rather than what a horrible person his or her opponent is.  The constant attacks and counter-attacks that pass for campaigning these days just make me want to go live somewhere more peaceful…..like a deserted island or distant planet.

I wish that I hadn’t tried to save money, all those years ago, by getting a landline without caller ID because the constant calls I get from telemarketers, etc., have made me forget some of my basic phone manners.  I not only hang up on the telemarketers who call constantly, but I’ve grown deeply suspicious of anyone who doesn’t immediately identify themselves when they call.  Which is how I’ve also hung up on my doctor, my husband’s old college roommate, and a dozen or so assorted relatives and friends.  I know I’m going to have to simply get rid of the landline one of these days, but it’s on so many of our records and accounts that I dread the difficulties that’s going to cause.  I can’t even work up the nerve to call the phone company and try to get caller ID installed, because my previous dealings with them have not been of a positive nature.

I wish I had the ability to remember people’s names as well as I do their faces.  It’s embarrassing when someone I recognize calls me by name, and I have to try to hide the fact that I have no idea what their name is.  And I still haven’t lived down the time I kept referring to a fellow volunteer as “Eldon” and no one could figure out who I was talking about.  It turned out that was because his real name was “Dalton.”

There is so much else I wish for, but I do like to keep my posts at around 500 words.  Sadly, these days I’m guessing what 500 words is, because my blogging format no longer tells me.  (So if anyone actually counts and discovers I failed my word count goal, I apologize in advance.)  I know wishing isn’t the same as doing, but I’ve also lived long enough to know that sometimes, life surprises us in a good way.  So who knows?  Maybe some of my wishes really will come true.  And if I’m really lucky, I might even finally get that pony……

A Helping Hand

I always hoped I’d be the sort of person who could greet any sort of hardship with a cheerful smile and a “can do” attitude, rolling up my sleeves to get to work on solving whatever problem I happen to be facing. I wanted to automatically count my blessings each morning when I woke up, no matter what the day had in store. I wanted to be the person who feels, deep down in her heart, that no matter how long a difficult situation lasts, I’m absolutely certain I last even longer.

And some days, I am exactly that sort of person. I’m genuinely thankful for what I have, and I absolutely feel strong enough to deal with whatever trouble comes my way. But the problem is that I also have other days, when I’m impatient, annoyed, discouraged, and above all, just plain crabby.

Living with the fear of Covid isn’t easy when you have seasonal allergies, especially since the list of possible Covid symptoms has expanded to include almost every symptom that my allergies cause. I used to get a sore throat and think, “Darn, the pollen counts are high again.” Now I think, “OMG, do I have Covid????” I worry that my husband’s cancer treatments will be derailed by either a positive Covid test or that hospitals will once again halt most surgeries and procedures that aren’t Covid-related. And sometimes, I just plain get tired of the difficulties in doing every day things, like grocery shopping, going to the dentist, or getting a leaking basement pipe repaired.

I miss going to church on Sunday mornings, and eating out with friends. I used to worry if I left the house without my cell phone, but now I panic if I reach in my purse and can’t find my trusty little bottle of hand sanitizer. I miss being able to drop in at my mother’s apartment to check that she’s really okay.

I know these are all minor complaints and that many people are in MUCH worse situations. Believe me, I get that. But as the weeks stretch into months and the months threaten to stretch into years, there are times when reminding myself that I’m better off than many others just doesn’t help much.

But the one thing that never fails to help is when another person reaches out in kindness and concern. Never have I appreciated what a gift that is more than I do now.

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On the day before my husband’s first chemo treatment, my daughter dropped off a “care basket” full of supplies to help him cope. Friends and family have called, sent cards, and just plain listened without judgement when I needed to vent. Neighbors have invited us over to sit on their patio for an evening of wine and good conversation. A family friend has reached out regularly to my mother, knowing that she needs extra contact to combat the loneliness the Covid restrictions have caused her and most other senior citizens.

The truth is, life is rather challenging for all of us these days, to various degrees and for a variety of reasons. But if we can all remember to reach out to someone else with an encouraging word, a sympathetic ear, or even just the gift of our (socially distanced) presence, life will be a bit easier for everyone. And if that isn’t worth the effort, then I don’t know what is.

Accentuate the Positive

When my husband and I were first dating, we often went to the movies.  Our tastes were very different, but we both enjoyed a good comedy and there was almost always one worth seeing.  One evening he told me he’d really like to see the new movie, “Grease.”  I was a little surprised but went along with his choice.  After a quick stop at the snack bar, we settled into our seats and the movie began.

Less than five minutes into it, my husband turned to me with a look of horror on his face.  “I think this is a muscial!” he hissed.  I agreed that it was.  Scowling, he took another bite of popcorn and turned his attention back to the screen.   He watched in suspicious silence for a while longer before he began to look even more alarmed.  “And it’s a love story!”  Given half a chance, I’m sure he would have left the theater there and then.  But as far as I was concerned, we’d paid for the movie and hadn’t even made a dent in our soda and popcorn supplies, so we were going to ride it out.

When the movie was over, I asked him how how he liked it.  “It wasn’t too bad,” he admitted.  “Considering.”  I told him that’s exactly what I thought, too.  It certainly wasn’t one of my favorite movies, but it was good enough that I’m glad we didn’t walk out.

Fast forward more than forty years to a recent Saturday night when my husband and I decided to go out for dinner.  There was a slight chance of rain in the forecast so we considered ourselves lucky that the restaurant had a sidewalk table under a big awning, just in case.  We placed our orders and settled back to enjoy the live music coming from a restaurant across the street.  All was going well until it started to rain….very, very, hard.

ORyzU85tSfq3qtjHCpQWe quickly moved our table as far back from the street as it would go, thinking that would protect us.  And it did, for a while.  But soon the street in front of the restaurant was covered in water that was also lapping up against the curb.  Our waitress asked if we’d like to move inside, but we told her we were fine.  (We’re not eating inside restaurants right now.)   By the time she came back with our food, the water was beginning to cover the sidewalk as well.  Every once in a while a car would venture down the flooded street, creating waves that did reach our table, so we learned to lift our feet whenever we saw one coming.

I know this sounds like a miserable experience, but it really wasn’t.  A few other diners had also chosen to stay outside, the servers were all carrying umbrellas to stay dry, and the temperatures were quite comfortable.  The atmosphere was almost festive.  As I told my husband, “it’s like beach-side dining, without the sand.”

Sometimes in this life, things just don’t turn out the way we had expected.  What sounded like a good movie turns out to be a musical love story.  What we thought would be a good night for dining outside turns into a night of heavy rains.  But if we can just let go of our original plans and simply go with the flow, sometimes things turn out to be just fine.  As a wise person once said, “it’s all about attitude.”

Simple Pleasures

When I was a child, one of my favorite outings was a trip to the local zoo.  Sometimes we went as a family, but most often we went with neighborhood friends, all piled into my mother’s car.  The adults would sit in the front seat,  with the other moms holding their babies on their laps, and the rest of us kids would squeeze into the back seat.  If we couldn’t all fit, we’d make the smaller ones sit on the floor.  (This was in the days before seat belts and car seats.)   Once we arrived at the zoo, we’d have a marvelous time running around and seeing all the exotic animals, riding the zoo train, and when our moms weren’t looking, fishing coins out of the fountains to be used at the nearby concession stands.

Later, when I had my own kids, I loved taking them to the zoo as well.  It was fun to watch them enjoy the same things I had loved so much as a child, and to take them for a ride on the very same zoo train.  The zoo has changed and improved in many ways over the years, and thankfully provides a much more natural habitat for its animals these days, but a visit there is still a little trip down memory lane.

Now that my children are grown, I was looking forward to taking my two-year old grandson to the zoo this summer.    Sadly, the zoo had to close temporarily when the pandemic struck and when it did open back up, there were many new restrictions in place.  Reservations were required, masks must be worn, and many attractions remained closed.  I wasn’t sure it was worth the bother, and decided my plans to take my grandson to the zoo were yet another casualty of the Covid virus.

But when my daughter told me she’d made reservations for us to take my grandson to the zoo, I agreed to go.  We came prepared with our masks, a wagon to pull my grandson around in when he was tired of walking, and plenty of cold drinks to keep us hydrated.  While we didn’t have a typical zoo experience,  I can honestly say it was still an enjoyable one.

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We saw plenty of animals, (my grandson liked the elephants the best) and, of course, rode the zoo train just as I had all those years ago.  It was fun to see a two-year old get so excited when he saw his favorite animals and enjoy the train ride so much.  When it was over, I thanked my daughter for taking the initiative to plan the outing, knowing that if she hadn’t, I would have missed out on a very special experience.

And the next time I think that trying to do something I normally enjoy is just too much trouble these days, I’m going to remember that trip to the zoo.  Just because I can’t do many things as I normally would, doesn’t mean I can’t do them at all.  I can still invite friends over, we just sit outside and keep our distance.  I can still enjoy food from my favorite restaurants, I just eat it on their patio or get carry-out.  I may not be able to browse the library, but I can order the books I want and pick them up curbside.

Life is certainly different now, and sometimes it’s hard not to be discouraged.  But I think if we’re willing to be flexible and a little determined, we’ll find that there are still plenty of simple pleasures just waiting to be enjoyed.

The Company You Keep

No doubt about it, 2020 hasn’t exactly turned out to be a banner year.  Aside from the birth of our new granddaughter (which was a wonderful gift), it has mostly been a series of hardships that had to be both accepted and endured.  From learning that our dog tested positive for heart worm in February, to the arrival of the Covid virus in Spring and the subsequent lock-downs which resulted in the cancellation of every single event and gathering we had been looking forward to, to the worry of our granddaughter’s premature birth, followed closely by my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I feel as if I’ve hardly had a chance to draw a breath, much less process it all.

But like everyone else whose world has been turn upside down in the past few months, I don’t really have a choice other than to do my best to cope with this new reality.  And so I do what I can to adapt and learn new coping strategies.  It helps to do the small things that cheer me up, like buying fresh flowers for our house or making sure I always have a stack of new books to read when I can find the time.  I’ve learned the importance of self-care, and am getting much better at saying “no” to obligations that  threaten to overwhelm me.  If nothing else, I’ve  come to accept my limitations, and that’s a good thing.

I’ve also discovered the importance of discernment.  There are days when I take a break from the news, knowing that all the craziness and conflict will still be there when I actually feel strong enough to hear it.  I hit the “unfollow” button on Facebook in order to keep my newsfeed free from the petty bickering and tribal chest-thumping that many feel obligated to post on a daily basis.  Sometimes I let my phone go directly to voice mail, particularly when it rings just as I am sitting down to a hot meal or settling into a comfortable chair with a good book.   It took a while, but I’ve finally learned not to feel guilty about that.

More importantly, I’ve learned to be a bit more particular about the people I talk to on a regular basis.  I’ve always believed in accepting others for exactly who they are, and that is still the case.  But now that I find myself living almost constantly on the fine line between coping and feeling completely overwhelmed, I realize that I need to spend most of my time only with those who have the ability to cheer me up and keep me hopeful. One good thing about hard times is that you discover some of the people you know are really, really, good at being supportive.  They’re the ones who listen to you without judgement, who assure you that things really will get better, and who know how to make you laugh when all you thought you could do was cry.

IMG_6698I still love all my friends and family, and value my relationship with each and every one of them.  But right now, in this particular situation, I’m gravitating toward those who are helping me cope.  And that’s okay, I think.  If nothing else, they’re showing me exactly what I need to do when it’s my turn to “pay it forward” and help someone else who is in need.  Because the one thing I know about dealing with hardships is that it’s so much easier when you don’t have to face them alone.

Worth Waiting For

When our grandson was born two years ago, my husband and I were at the hospital and were able to both see and hold him within hours of his birth.  In the weeks that followed, I often stopped by my daughter’s house to help out so she and her husband could run an errand or take a much-needed nap.  I quickly learned just how strong the bond between a grandparent and grandchild can be, and what a gift that relationship was.

So when I heard that happy news that my son and daughter-in-law were expecting a child in June, I believed that I knew exactly what to expect. I thought that I’d get to meet my new granddaughter at the hospital, and had already told her parents that I’d be more than happy to help out when they brought their new baby home.  Truth be told, I was really looking forward to it.

But then a sneaky little virus wormed it’s way into our lives, and I knew that I wouldn’t be meeting our new granddaughter at the hospital.   When we got the call that she was coming six weeks early, all we could do was pray for a safe delivery and a healthy baby.  She spent her first two weeks in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, and when she finally came home, we counted ourselves lucky to see her for the first time outside and from a distance.

The weeks went by and she grew bigger and stronger, and our son and daughter-in-law were very good about letting us visit whenever we asked, even allowing us to hold her.  But something still felt just a little bit “off.”  I loved my new granddaughter, but I didn’t feel as if I actually knew her.  The fact that she was a preemie, born during a pandemic, created some barriers, at least in my mind.  And while I knew it was for the best, it still made me sad.

y5kJkKr%RmG1zaP4cziDcgThat all changed last Saturday, when I had the privilege of babysitting for her for the day.  It was my first time alone with her, and the first time caring for her.  You learn something about a baby when you rock her to sleep, feed her, change her diaper, and sing a silly song to keep her entertained.  And when she (almost) smiles at you, and you feel the unmistakable bond between a grandparent and a grandchild, your heart just sings.  This was exactly what I had been longing for, I finally realized.  I wanted the chance to really know my granddaughter, and to connect with her.

Sometimes we just need to be patient in this life, especially when we’re living through such unsettled times.  I may have had to wait until it was safe, but the time did come when I was able to interact with my granddaughter in all the ways I had envisioned when I first heard my daughter-in-law was pregnant.  And you know what?  She was absolutely worth the wait.