Just Enough

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday, which meant that I spent the days before it in a futile search for a gift for him.  We stopped getting each other big presents for our birthdays years ago, but we still have a family dinner to celebrate and I like to have something from me that he can open with the rest of his gifts.  The problem is that my husband already has most of the material possessions that he wants and I can’t afford to buy him the ones he wants but doesn’t actually own.  And every year it gets harder to come up with a creative idea for something I actually can get him.

I’ve already made him several photo books,  and had his broken college “Outstanding Athlete of the Year” and MVP Baseball trophies remounted.  I spent hours carefully removing the photos and articles from the disintegrating scrapbook his mother had made him and remounted them all in a brand-new scrapbook.  I bought him tickets to see his favorite comedian when he was in town.  My kids have given him photo collages of his grandson, had a painting made of the house he grew up in, gave him a key-chain engraved with his parent’s signatures and even made him a pen and pencil holder with a photo of his grand-dog that reads “I love Grandpa.”  As far as sentimental gifts go, I think we’ve covered the bases.

By late last week, I was almost in a panic mode.  What in the world was I going to give him this year?  When I asked for suggestions, he went to his closet and handed me a new sweater he’d already bought himself and suggested I simply wrap that up.  When I said that I wanted to get him something he didn’t already know about, he answered, “But I don’t really need anything.”

I was getting ready to argue with him when it hit me that he was actually telling the truth.  We celebrated his birthday last night with a dinner at his favorite restaurant, surrounded by his family.  He is in good health, has a family that loves him dearly and close friends he knows he can always count on.  In all the ways that really count, he has enough.

I don’t know why it’s sometimes so hard to realize that we don’t really need more stuff, bigger houses, fancier cars and all the latest gadgets.  Maybe it’s because we live in a society that constantly urges us to get more, and to equate having more with success and happiness.  But the truth is that when we have a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear and most of all, people we love and cherish in our lives, then we really do have….enough.  All the rest is just icing on the cake.

And when I looked at my husband last night, sitting at the table with his grandson in his lap and the rest of us nearby, I realized that I really was looking at a man who not only had enough, but a man who was very blessed indeed.

But that didn’t stop me from giving him one more thing, because I still think of birthdays as a time when it’s fun to open an actual gift.  I found this by a happy accident just a couple of days ago, and I think it will go perfectly on his desk at work, right next to the pencil holder with the photo of his grand-dog.  Some habits are just too hard to break….

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Quietly Doing Good

Years ago, I was cooking dinner in our kitchen when I heard the ominous sound of something very heavy landing on our roof.  The wind had been getting steadily stronger all day, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I looked out our back door and saw that the massive elm tree in our yard had been completely uprooted.  Most of it was now resting on the corner of our house, directly above our daughter’s bedroom.  We called our insurance company right away, only to find out that there was wide-spread damage in our area and that help would not be coming anytime soon.  We were finally able to find a tree company to actually get the tree off our house, but we were put on a waiting list to get the hole in our roof fixed.  It was a frustrating situation, and my stress level was off the charts.

A  couple of days afterwards, a friend stopped me as I was leaving church and offered me materials to temporarily patch the roof until the professionals could get to it.  As he was loading the stuff into my trunk, he also offered to come over and help my husband do the patching if needed.  It was such a simple gesture, but I can’t begin to tell you how much it meant to my husband and I.  Having someone reach out in a time of need can make all the difference when we are feeling discouraged and overwhelmed.

Looking back on it, I’m not surprised at my friend’s actions.  He and his wife were very active in our church in their own quiet way.  They didn’t draw attention to themselves, just saw what needed to be done and got to work:  teaching the children, working on the building, lending a hand at special events.  Whenever and wherever help was needed, they helped.  So when they heard that a tree had fallen on our house and we couldn’t find anyone to repair the roof, naturally they stepped in.  And they gave me the supplies in the parking lot, after most people had gone home.  They didn’t need anyone to witness their generosity.

I’ve been a part of many different groups and organizations over the years, and the one thing they have in common is that they all have a few people in them just like my friends.  People who are happy to help with whatever is needed, working in the background and feeling no need to call attention to themselves and their good works.  Their work is rarely acknowledged, but they aren’t doing it for the thanks.  They are doing it for the simple reason that the work needs to be done.  These people see the same problems the rest of us do, but rather than just complaining, they work toward solutions.  And while they don’t solicit praise or recognition for themselves, they are quick to offer an encouraging word to others.  They are, without exception, the backbone of whatever organization they happen to serve.

There will always be those that seek the limelight and that excel in high-profile, leadership positions.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, as every organization has to have someone in that role.  But I believe that the true heroes are the ones who prefer to work quietly and efficiently behind the scenes, making sure that whatever needs to happen actually does happen.  They are the ones doing the most good, and they are the ones who understand that doing good is its own reward.  They are also the people I admire the most.

From The Heart

Have you ever read something that just seems to speak directly to your heart?  That happened to me recently when I was reading Fredrik Backman’s excellent novel “Beartown” and came across this passage:

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion.  The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil.  The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard.  It makes demands.  Hate is simple.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m often troubled by the amount of hatred I see in the world, and frightened by how quickly and easily it bubbles to the surface.  Organized demonstrations of hateful dogma are scary enough, but when I see the endless parade of on-line rants, name-calling and attacks on-line, I’m even more disturbed, because I see just how easily we unleash our hateful side once we’re convinced we’ve found someone who deserves it.   And as tempting as it is, I honestly don’t believe in fighting hatred with even more hatred.

For example, I am an animal-lover who spends her days working with shelter dogs, and I am sickened when I see any kind of animal abuse.  But I am also sickened when I read an article about an abused animal and see all the on-line comments calling for the abuser to be tortured and killed.  I may love animals, but I am not a sadist.  I don’t believe that the proper response to one act of evil is another act of evil.  What I really want is an end to the abuse. And there are plenty of ways to do that without becoming an abuser myself.

Believe me, I get upset when I see injustice, hatred, abuse and evil, and often my gut-level reaction is to lash out in self-righteous fury and indignation.  And sometimes I have given in to that impulse and said things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said.  Yet when I calm down, I realize that all I did was make the situation even worse by copying the very behavior that horrified me in the first place.  I allowed someone else’s hatred to take root in me, if only temporarily.  And that’s not the person I want to be.

I think it is possible to stand up to hate without being hateful, just as it is possible to stop abuse without becoming an abuser.  We don’t have to leave our best selves behind when we oppose evil, and we certainly don’t have to follow the example of the very people whose actions horrify us in the first place.

As Fredrik Backman so eloquently pointed out, hatred is easy and love is hard. But when it comes right down to it, I want to choose love.

Birthday Wishes

IMG_1116Recently, my son sent me a text asking what I would like for my birthday this year.  I wasted no time in sending the answer:  a beachfront condo on Sanibel Island, a wrinkle-free neck, skinny thighs and good eyesight.  Even though I graciously told him he could select which of the gifts he would prefer to give me, I didn’t get a reply.  Perhaps he was too busy comparing the costs and labor involved in each of my selections before settling on his final choice.

I remember very well how easily I used to come up with a list of things I wanted for my birthday.  Like most children raised on lots of television, I always had a ready list of new toys and games I had seen advertised and that I was dying to have.  Later, as a teenager and young adult, I yearned for a wardrobe full of expensive and beautiful clothes that would allow me to have whatever look was trendy at the time.  Still later, as a not-so-young adult, there were always books, jewelry, a few clothes and other various household items that I would be pleased to receive, so even then the question of “what do you want for your birthday?” wasn’t hard to answer.

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere in my journey through middle age, I just stopped wanting quite so many things.  Maybe I don’t long for beautiful clothes any more because I know that those clothes probably aren’t going to look all that great on my middle-aged body.  (And I’m actually okay with that:  one of the benefits of aging is that I no longer feel the pressure to strive for the “perfect” appearance.)  I don’t mind wearing the same few necklaces and bracelets each time I go out, and as for household items, my house is already as full as I want it to be.

I still love books, but years of diligently collecting the works of my favorite authors means that my bookshelves are basically full.  I don’t want to end up like my father, who had more than sixty boxes of books that he insisted on bringing with him on each of our family’s many moves.  (A family friend once commented, “By the time your dad finally gets all his books unpacked and on his shelves, it’s basically time to start packing them up again for the next move.”)  I go through my books every so often, getting rid of the ones that I no longer read so that I have room for any new books I add to my collection.  So far, my system is working, because I haven’t bought a new bookshelf in years.

So now, at the age of almost fifty-eight, I have a hard time coming up with a birthday wish list of things that anyone who isn’t fabulously wealthy (beachfront condos don’t come cheap) could actually buy for me.  And that’s a good thing, because it means I have reached the point where I have figured out that the things that I want the most, and the things that are the most important to me, have absolutely nothing to do with money.