A Happy Choice

488When my husband planned a weekend getaway for my recent birthday, I was a little embarrassed to tell my friends and family exactly where we were going.  Not because there was anything embarrassing about our destination (Sanibel Island), but because whenever we get a chance to go on a vacation, our choice is usually Sanibel.  We are definitely in a bit of rut, travel-wise.

I want to explore new places and experience new cultures just as much as the next person, and I actually have a long list of places I hope to visit someday, both in the US and abroad.   We’ve been to France and  Ireland, and have had some great vacations in Charleston, Denver, Boston, Chicago, and Napa Valley.  So it’s not that we don’t enjoy vacationing anywhere but Sanibel, because we most certainly do.  It’s just that we only have a certain amount of time and money that can be devoted to travel, and Sanibel Island just happens to be our favorite destination.

Sanibel is a small barrier island of the gulf side of the Florida coast.  There’s nothing especially spectacular about it.  It doesn’t boast world-class resorts or nationally-known golf courses; it doesn’t have the sugar-white sand of the Gulf Shores area, or the exciting night life of Miami.  Most of the restaurants close by ten at night (at the latest), and although the beaches offer excellent shelling, they are also kept in their natural state.  That means the dead fish you stepped around on your first morning at the beach is still there on your last morning, only riper.

But we like the slow pace and natural beauty of the of the island.  There are no traffic lights or high-rise buildings allowed, but there are wonderful bike paths, abundant wildlife (we once saw an alligator on the beach), beautiful foliage, and friendly people.  When we cross over the causeway and catch our first sight of the island, we both feel as if we are coming home, and to a well-loved home at that.

Maybe it’s the memories of the vacations we’ve spent there with our kids that makes us love the island so much.  Or it could be the attraction of visiting somewhere so familiar that we know exactly which restaurants and stores we prefer, and which stretch of beach offers the best chance to find the shells we love to collect.  It might even be the way we feel when we sit on our balcony, watching the waves roll in and thinking, “It really doesn’t get much better than this.”

All I know is that whenever we get a few days off from our hectic schedules at home and have managed to accumulate enough Southwest Airline points for a free flight, my husband and I just naturally think, “Let’s go to Sanibel.”  That may mean we don’t ever make it to all the other places we’d like to visit, but that’s a trade-off we’re willing to make.  I think everyone needs a “happy place” in their lives, and Sanibel Island is ours.

Raining Down

I had been hoping for rain.  We had planted some bushes and put down some sod in our backyard, and I knew that a couple of good rains would help them take root.  But even more, I wanted the rain to wash away the nasty green tree pollen that has been covering every outside surface for the past couple of weeks.  I’m allergic to that stuff, and I was tired of going through my days with a scratchy throat, headache, itchy eyes and non-stop sneezing fits.  So when I heard the forecast for this past weekend’s rain, I was actually happy.

IMG_2434I should have paid just a little more attention to the details.  The prediction wasn’t just for rain, it was for tons of rain, falling for three days and two nights, often quite heavily.  The empty flower pots I have lined up next to garage, waiting to be filled with spring flowers, are now completely full of water instead.  My house and neighborhood is on high ground, but hundreds of people in my area are faced with flash floods, rising rivers, and water in their basements.  All I wanted was enough rain to water my plants and wash away the pollen.  But what I got was enough to make me think it might be time to start work on an ark.

It turns out that rainfall, like many things in life, is good only when it comes in moderation. Because as of today, I am officially sick of rain and more than ready for it to leave.  I am tired of constantly checking our basement to make sure no water is leaking in, or backing up through the sewer drain.  (We had that happen once and it is not an experience I wish to repeat.)  I am sick of feeling like a jerk when I make our old dog to go outside to do her business in the heavy rain, but not at all willing to risk her having an accident in my house.  I am well aware that the “drowned rat” look is not flattering on me, and so I would rather not walk around all weekend looking like one.

I’m not sure if the lesson here is “be careful of what you wish for,” or simply that “moderation is the key.”  Both adages have truth in them.  But at the end of a long, wet weekend, I think the real lesson for me is to simply learn to be more flexible and willing to deal with whatever the day happens to bring.  I might not have appreciated the rain, but being forced to spend the weekend inside did mean I finally got around to some household chores that had been hanging over my head for a while.  And since we couldn’t work outside, my husband and I decided to go to a movie at the local mall, followed by a nice dinner afterward.  It may not have been the weekend we had in mind, but it turned out to be a pretty good one.

There’s an old saying that states, “Into every life, some rain must fall.”  And I count myself lucky that all I had to deal with this weekend was actual rain, and that I was even spared the worst effects of that.  And when I think about it that way, I realize I really don’t have anything to complain about at all.

Silver Linings

A week ago last Friday, our dog Lucy came down with Vestibular Syndrome, which has symptoms that closely resemble a stroke.  Her eyes flicked back and forth, her head drooped to one side, and when she tried to walk she either staggered in a tight little circle or fell over completely.   She emptied her stomach, seemed to have little control of her bladder, and a steady stream of drool dripped from her mouth.  But the vet at the Emergency Clinic assured us she would recover, and so we brought her home and did our best to keep her safe and comfortable.  It was hard to see her struggling, and I admit I had some real doubts about her quality of life.

IMG_2431But it turned out that the vets were right.  Her head still tips to the right and she is still not as steady on her feet (paws) as we would like, but all the other symptoms have disappeared.  She’s not only eating again, but she seems to have total recall of all the meals she missed when she was too sick to eat.  Furthermore, she’s made it very clear that we still owe her those meals and she’d like them served immediately.  She is back to giving me the “stink eye” when I don’t give her what she wants, and yesterday I caught her trying to dig a hole in the back yard.  Believe me, if Lucy is trying to be bad, then Lucy is very close to being back to normal.

I truly wish my dog hadn’t gotten sick.  I would have rather not thrown out two perfectly good dog beds because she peed on them before we figured out the trick of placing a puppy training pad between the mattress and the cover.  I didn’t want to spend so much time worrying about if she would recover, and the decisions we would have to make if she didn’t.  Most of all, I didn’t want her to suffer, physically or mentally.  Which makes it all the more surprising that, when I look back on the past ten days, what I mostly feel is gratitude.

I’m grateful to have access to an Emergency Vet Clinic, and even more grateful to Lucy’s regular vet, who took the time on a busy Saturday morning to answer all my questions and reassure me that we were doing the right thing to give Lucy a chance.  I’m especially grateful for the kindness and support we received from so many people, whether it was in person, on the phone, or on-line.  It helped to hear from people whose own dogs had suffered from Vestibular Syndrome and fully recovered, and it was incredibly comforting to know that so many people cared.

I hadn’t realized just how much I had taken for granted in my life until Lucy got sick.  I didn’t fully appreciate how many good, kind, and helpful people I know and what a true gift those relationships are.  It’s so easy to get caught up with life’s troubles, both big and small, that we overlook the good things that are right in front of us, day in and day out.  Which is why I’m glad that the events of the past week forced me to recognize that I have so much in my life to be grateful for.  And I’m hoping that I have sense enough to remember it.

No Contest

IMG_2401I’m worried about my dog.  Last Friday, she had what appeared to be a stroke and we rushed her to the emergency vet clinic, thinking that the end had come.  It turned out to be Vestibular Syndrome, which looks like a stroke, but the vet said her chances of recovery are actually quite good.  The problem is that Lucy is 15-years old and so far, her recovery has been very slow.

Her eyes are no longer twitching, she’s no longer drooling non-stop and she has regained control of her bladder.  But she’s still lurching around with her head twisted sharply to the right, can’t manage stairs, wipes out completely now and then, and is eating only sporadically.  Lucy is usually fiercely independent, and although she has mellowed somewhat with age, she has always been a sassy little hell-raiser.  So it is hard to see her so tired and bewildered, so unsure of her movements, and so completely dependent on our help.  I cling to the hope that the vets are right and she will continue to improve.  But meanwhile, I worry.

At first, I was reluctant to tell anyone what I was feeling, because I was afraid of the responses I would get.  Yes, I know she’s “just a dog,” and there are people who are suffering from much worse,  and there are even more people out there who are watching loved ones suffer from painful and potentially fatal diseases.  I also know that among my fellow dog-lovers there are many who have watched their own dog suffer, and sometimes even die, of much worse things .  But eventually, I came to the conclusion that even though I feel genuinely sorry for what other people are going through, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to worry about my dog’s bout with Vestibular Syndrome.

Worry, like grief, is personal.  There’s no competition for who is dealing with the worst hardship or the greatest tragedy.  Whatever it is that I’m coping with, there will always be someone out there coping with something much worse.  But that doesn’t diminish my feelings.

I remember when I was planning my father’s memorial service, and in the midst of trying to make so many decisions, I blurted out the to minister, “This is just so hard!”  He  reminded me that my father was old and sick when he died, so I didn’t have it nearly so bad as people who were planning a funeral for someone who had died young and suddenly.  And you know what?  That response didn’t help at all.   My father may have been old and sick, but my grief was still real, and so was my frustration at trying to figure out the right way to honor his memory.

I know the minister didn’t mean to dismiss my feelings (aside from that remark, he was quite helpful and supportive), but he made the common mistake of trying to rate the bad stuff that happens in our lives on some sort of world-wide scale.  And that’s not helpful.  If I’m upset about something, I don’t benefit from being told it’s a “First-world problem.”  A mother grieving for her dead baby doesn’t need to have someone point out to her that, unlike some other grieving mothers, she has still has another child to love.  A man standing next to the concrete slab where his house used to be doesn’t want to be told, “you’re one of the lucky ones, because the tornado missed your barn.”  Those may be true statements, but they only serve to tell someone that they shouldn’t be feeling what they actually are feeling.

I believe that each of us is allowed to be upset, to worry, and to grieve exactly the way we want to and need to, without being judged or corrected.  There is no prize for the one suffering from the biggest tragedy, and no one deserves to have their feelings dismissed for being too trivial.  Our emotions are real and need to be dealt with as such, even if they don’t make much sense to others.  Because when it comes to feelings, there really is no contest at all.

My China Horses

When I was a child, I wanted a horse more than anything in the world.  Unfortunately, I spent the first eleven years of my life living in a city with no horse stables in sight, so I knew that the chances of getting a horse of my own were slim.   I learned to make do with the china horses I purchased from the local variety store each time I saved enough of my weekly allowance.  Eventually, I collected a whole herd of little horses that were proudly displayed on a bookshelf in my bedroom.  Sometimes I made the mistake of trying to play with them, but they were so fragile that the play sessions usually resulted in a “thinning of the herd.”

We moved to rural Kansas when I turned eleven, and I was thrilled to finally get my first real horse.  Gypsy was beautiful, but she wasn’t particularly nice, and it wasn’t long before she had me thoroughly intimidated.  Luckily, we were able to sell Gypsy and buy Tony, a sturdy Welsh pony whose goodwill and common sense allowed me to learn what owning and riding my own horse was really all about.  Eventually, I outgrew Tony and got Prince, the world’s most wonderful horse, whom I loved and enjoyed until his death seventeen years later.

I kept my collection of china horses, displaying them for years after I had acquired a real horse.  I even took a few of them to college with me, where they stood on a shelf above my desk.  If my friends thought it was odd for a college woman to decorate her dorm room with horse figures, they were kind enough not to say so.  The horses (not made of china, I finally realized, but probably ceramic or porcelain) still broke easily, so I lost one or two each time I moved them.  Later, when my husband and I set up our first home together, I finally packed away the last of the herd in a box marked “keepsakes.”

I think it was about five years ago that I first saw a tiny horse figure in an antique shop, just like the ones I used to collect as a child, and I bought it.  Then I unpacked the four horses I had left in my keepsake box and placed them, discreetly, on the bottom shelf of the TV stand in our bedroom.  I have since found a few more horses for sale in shops where antiques and collectibles are sold and brought them home to join the herd.  Last year, I boldly moved them to the top of the bookshelf in my bedroom, where my husband has learned to tolerate them.

IMG_2422They may look like a group of cheap horse figurines, but to me, they are so much more.  They remind me of my childhood dream of owning a horse, and of how that dream actually came true.  They remind me that dreams don’t always match reality, but that if I can find the courage to persevere, sometimes reality is just as good, if not better, than the dream.

I have come full circle now, once again living in a large city where owning a horse isn’t practical.  So once again, I am making do with my little collection of “china” horses.  Only this time, they are more than enough.

(Many thanks to Greg over at Almost Iowa  for the writing prompt, “My Stuff.”)

Like Me

I am a woman of very few talents, but I have always been good at getting along with other people.  Not because I’m particularly charismatic–I’m not–but because I am good at figuring out what others want from me and then working hard to deliver just that.  When your goal is to have other people like you, you learn rather quickly that conforming to their beliefs and expectations is important, even if that means hiding the parts of yourself that you know won’t meet with approval.

It took me a long time before I figured out that being my real, whole, self was so much more important than pleasing others.  And it has taken me even longer to break the habit of caring so much about whether or not other people like me.  Honestly, I’m in my late middle age and it’s still something I struggle with.

It still hurts when I meet someone new, and after a few minutes of polite conversation they excuse themselves and hurry away in search of someone more interesting to talk to.  It still stings when I hear friends talking about a social gathering I didn’t know about because I wasn’t invited.  And I still feel a bit ashamed, like a child who has been scolded, when I voice an opinion and someone tells me in no uncertain terms that I’m dead wrong.

The downside of social media and blogging is how it can feed into those insecurities, what with those little “like” buttons that let me know immediately how many people approve of a particular post.  WordPress takes it a step further with its stats on how many views and visitors are generated each time I publish something.  It’s easy to believe that the value of a post is determined solely by the number of likes and views.

Last week, I published a post that had 1,225 views, followed closely by a post that had exactly 102 views.  I spent approximately the same amount of time and effort on each one, and felt that I had written both posts the best way I knew how.  It’s tempting for me to study the more popular post to see what made so many people like it, and there was a time in my life when I believe I would have done just that.  Thankfully, in many ways I’ve moved past that mindset and plan to move forward as I’ve always done, which is just writing about what interests me and working on each post until I’m satisfied with the result.

Blogging can be hard for someone who still struggles sometimes to find the courage to let her true voice be heard.  I have to remind myself now and then that all I really have to offer in this blog is my own perspective and my own thoughts.  Sometimes my words will strike a chord with lots of people and sometimes with just a few people, and it’s good either way.  The important thing is that my words are an expression of my true self, rather than something I filtered heavily in order to attract the maximum amount of approval.

In many ways, my blog has helped me finally find my own voice.  And if I am lucky enough that my words help someone else, that’s just icing on the cake.

The Human Touch

I saw a segment on the news this morning about how most cars and trucks will be able to drive themselves in the near future. I’m not a fan of this idea, because my cynical little mind immediately starts to wonder what’s going to happen when those vehicles malfunction, but I’m sure I’ll manage to adapt when the time comes.  Unfortunately, the news segment didn’t just focus on cars and trucks.  I don’t remember the exact facts and figures, but the essence of the story was that most jobs that are now done by humans are going to be performed by machines (mostly robots) in the near future.  And that scared the heck out of me.

I can see the advantage of having robots do jobs that are mindlessly repetitive and hard on the human body, and I understand that machinery and technology allows goods to be produced much more quickly and cheaply than would ever be possible by depending solely on humans.  I get that there is a positive side to all these coming advances, I really do.  But I still have a hard time seeing a world where most of the work is done by robots as a good thing.

The most obvious problem is going to be the loss of jobs for millions of people.  When cars and trucks can drive themselves, who needs truck drivers or taxi drivers?  We already saw what happened when machines took over much of the work on assembly lines, and factories had massive layoffs.  And according to the news story, the job losses aren’t going to be limited to blue-collar workers.  Apparently, computers will be able to predict the rise and fall of the stock market more efficiently than a broker, and diagnose a disease more accurately than a doctor.  They are already creating stores that allow us to “check out” automatically through a phone app, thus removing the need for actual cashiers.  The list went on and on, but you get the picture.

Some experts believe that enough new jobs will be created to replace the ones that are lost, and I hope that’s true. (Although the job mentioned most was designing robots, and how soon will it be before robots are designing new robots?)  Still, what bothers me most about this prediction isn’t the loss of jobs, it’s the loss of human contact that our increasing dependence on technology creates.

It seems to me that the more we rely on machines, the less we feel the need to actually interact with other people.  And that’s not a good thing, because dealing effectively with other people is an essential part of being a happy and whole person.  Interacting with others reminds us that we aren’t the center of the universe, that our needs aren’t the only ones that matter, and that our opinions aren’t the only ones that count.  Other people are the ones that reassure us when we are anxious, comfort us in our grief, share in our joy and in general provide the connections that make life worth living.

I honestly have no idea what the future will bring, other than the fact that we will see technological advances we can’t even dream of today.  But my hope is that this “brave new world” of ours will still value real people and real relationships, and allow us to lead lives that aren’t mostly isolated from each other.  Because I don’t want to live in a world without the “human touch.”

Lessons From A Small Town

When I was eleven years old, my family moved from St. Louis to a small town in central Kansas.  Adjusting to small town life was hard at first, because it was very different from what I was used to, and I wasn’t particularly happy about moving so far away from my friends and family.  But being eleven, I had only two choices:  be miserable for the next few years or adapt to my new life.  And so I got used to it, and soon came to appreciate the gifts that come from living in a small town.

Scan 7One of the first things I noticed about life in a small town was that everyone knew almost everyone else, if not by name, then at least by sight.  Which meant that when you passed someone on the sidewalk, you acknowledged them in some way.  A simple nod or “hello” would do if you didn’t have time to stop and chat, but hurrying on by as if you didn’t notice the person was considered rude.  The same thing was true if you were driving a car.  People waved at each other as they drove past, even if it was nothing more than simply lifting the index finger off the steering wheel.  No one was anonymous, and everyone deserved recognition.

Living in a small town also taught me a thing or two about trust.  I was amazed to discover that I could walk into almost any store along Main Street and make a purchase simply by signing my name.  It was common practice for stores to accept credit on an honor system, which meant that the clerk would make note of the amount owed, and the next time one of my parents came in, they paid up.  I used credit for an after-school snack, or to pick up something my Mom needed to make dinner, but I knew some of the poorer families in town depended on that credit for the times they truly couldn’t afford to pay.  Small towns tend to take care of their own.

My small town didn’t have different neighborhoods for the rich, middle class and poor, and so we all intermingled at the stores, schools and churches.  I learned to get along with all different kinds of people, because you think twice about making an enemy of someone when you know you are going to be seeing that person on a regular basis as you go about your daily life.  Of course not everyone was good friends with everyone else, but when disaster struck, the community came together very quickly.  I still remember the funeral of a high school friend being held in the school’s gymnasium because none of the seven churches in town had a sanctuary big enough to hold everybody.

I am fifty-eight years old, and I only spent seven of those years living in a small town.  I’m not sure exactly what percent of my life that works out to be, but I am sure it’s a small one.  Yet those years had a profound effect on my life, and I credit them with many of the things I have learned along the way about trust, diversity, tolerance and most of all, community.  I guess that old saying is right, and that it really does take a whole village to raise a child.

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.

Just Listen

I am fully aware that I talk too much.  I tend to over-explain things, repeating myself as if I don’t trust people to understand what I meant the first time I said it.  When I’m nervous, my go-to response is usually to babble on and on about nothing at all, until the person I’m talking to decides that I’m a complete idiot.  Even worse, when someone tells me about a problem, I barely wait until they stop talking before I start telling them exactly what they should do, completely ignoring the fact that they didn’t actually ask for my advice.  So believe me, I understand how much easier it is to talk than it is to listen.

It’s not that talking itself is such a bad thing.  We all have important information to share, and we all want our stories and opinions to be heard.  Sharing our thoughts and feelings allows other people to get to know who we really are, and it’s an essential part of forming the relationships that all people need.  But all that talking doesn’t do a bit of good if there isn’t anyone who is actually listening.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when I realize that someone isn’t listening to what I’m trying to say to them.  It makes me feel dismissed when someone interrupts a story I’m telling to launch into one of their own.  And it makes me feel diminished when I share something that I think is important and the other person just says, “Uh-huh,” and then brings up a completely different subject.  Nothing says “I don’t care what you have to say,” or even “I don’t care about you,” more effectively than not bothering to listen to someone.  Those kind of conversations don’t exactly build healthy relationships.

Which is what I need to remember the next time someone is talking to me.  Am I giving that person my full attention, and really trying to understand what he or she is saying to me?  Am I bothering to ask a question if I need to in order to make sure I get what they are talking about?  When our conversation is over, will that person feel as if he or she was truly heard?  Or will they feel the way so many of us do these days:  that it would have been just as effective to talk to a brick wall?

I think that talking will always come more naturally to me that listening, but listening has far better results.  Actually, it’s kind of amazing how much I can learn when I shut up and listen for a change.  I get genuine insights into how someone else thinks and feels, and a chance to develop deeper relationships with my friends and family.  I hear new facts and different ideas, and they broaden my horizons considerably.  (Also, the odds of me saying something stupid go way down when I’m not actually talking.)  The perks of listening are bountiful indeed.

I have come to believe that there’s a lot of truth in that old saying, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.”  Because one way or another, it is almost always better to listen than to talk.