The Greatest Gift

Last weekend was a busy one.  We had a death in the extended family, which meant taking a quick out-of-state trip on Friday to attend the visitation.  On Saturday, we drove back home so we could help our daughter prepare for the family lunch that would follow the baptism of our grandson on Sunday morning.  One of the disadvantages of growing older is that I don’t bounce back from those kinds of weekends as quickly as I used to, so I am only just now actually processing those recent events.

In many ways, the death of a loved one and the baptism of a baby are completely opposite events.  One life is ending and another one is just beginning, and the emotions we feel are so very different.  It doesn’t matter if the death came at the end of a long and well-lived life, or if it was sudden and completely unexpected, we still grieve and wonder if we are ever going to feel quite whole again without that particular person in our life.  And you don’t have to be religious to feel the wonder and joy of an infant baptism, since it represents the beginning of a new life full of promise and hope.  Any way you look at it, funerals and baptisms are very, very, different.

But as I look back over the weekend, I realize that those two seemingly polar opposite events have one very important thing in common.  At both times, family and close friends gathered together to offer community and support.  In the one case, they came to offer comfort and share memories of the loved one who is no longer physically with us.  In the other, they came to show their support of, and love for, a rather new little person who is just beginning his life journey.  But in both cases, the important thing is simply that they came.

Sometimes, life gets in the way and we can’t actually be present when someone needs our support.  Last week, the mother of a dear friend of mine also passed away.  Unfortunately, her funeral was held on the same day as our family’s visitation, five hundred miles away.  As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t physically be there for my friend.  But I could still reach out to her, thanks to modern technology, and make sure she knew she had my love and support.

Life will always be full of ups and downs, of occasions that seem unbearably sad and of other occasions that fill us with joy.  And the people who gather with us at those times to share our grief or our happiness are a powerful reminder that we aren’t in this alone.  They are the community that supports us through the life’s biggest changes.

So my take away from this busy last week and weekend is simple:  be there for those who need us.  Physically when we possibly can; or by calling, sending flowers, a card, or even a quick text when we can’t.  The details don’t really matter.  What’s important is just that we be there for each other, each and every time we are needed.

No Waiting

IMG_3233I’m not sure why I look forward to Spring so much every year, but I do.  I may love the beauty of a new snowfall, but by the time March winds down, I really don’t want to actually see a new snowfall anymore.  This time of year, all I want to see are lots of flowers, buds on trees, and the sun filtering through the bedroom blinds when I wake up in the morning.  I want the temperatures to warm up enough that I can pack away my heavy coats and bulky sweaters, and allow me to wear shoes that don’t necessarily require socks.  I want to be outside without the cold making my nose run and turning my finger tips white.

This year is no exception:  I am ready for Spring.  The problem is, I’m still waiting.  Because even though the calendar says Spring has arrived a while ago, the Winter weather is still hanging on.  Easter Sunday was yesterday, and even though the sun did shine briefly in the morning, the day ended with sleet and snow.  Which is still on the ground.  It’s beginning to feel as if the warm temperatures and pretty flowers I’m waiting for are never going to arrive.

I don’t know about you, but when something isn’t going my way, I tend to get impatient and anxious, and maybe just a teeny bit obsessive.  I begin to focus on whatever it is that’s bothering me, and worse, I begin to believe that as soon as that particular problem is solved, everything will be just fine.  At the moment, I’m blaming my cranky mood on the fact that it’s April 2 and there’s snow and ice on the ground, and that I still have to wear my ugly knee socks in order to keep warm.  I have almost convinced myself that if the weather would just warm up, I’d be a happy camper.

Which is, of course, just plain silly.  The weather will eventually warm up and that will be a very good thing.  But I know that even when it does, I’ll have something else I’ll be fretting about, because my life (just like everyone’s) will always have its share of stress and worry.  So what exactly is the point in my waiting for these cold and gloomy days to go away before I find a way to cheer up?

The older I get, the more I realize that my happiness has much more to do with my attitude than with my environment.   I think it’s time that I become more intentional about choosing to be happy, and looking for the things that can make me happy, right here and right now.  I know that a positive attitude can work wonders for people dealing with serious problems, so why can’t it work for someone who is just plain sick of Winter?

I think it’s time I put on my prettiest sweater and my warmest coat and went for a walk on this too-cold Spring day, just because I can.  And if I look for them, I bet I’ll even see some of those hardy Spring flowers blooming in the snow.

An Unexpected Gift

IMG_0448When I became a volunteer dog walker at a local humane society, all I wanted to do was help shelter dogs.  My daily schedule was rather busy at the time, so I only signed up for a two-hour walking shift, one day a week.  That was over fifteen years ago, and I’m still walking dogs there, although now I do it three days a week.  And my “shift” rarely ends before all the adoptable dogs get out, no matter how long that happens to take.

Honestly, walking shelter dogs turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.  Dogs that spend their days alone in a cage are very excited when you leash them up for a walk, and many of them are also rather large.  And strong.  Sadly, I am no longer young and I’ve never been particularly athletic.  But no matter how many times I point out to the dogs that they have an old lady on the other end of the leash, they rarely modify their behavior to accommodate my aging (and often aching) body.

Humane societies do good work and save countless numbers of homeless animals.  But they are also stressful places, both for the animals that live there and for the people who work and volunteer there.  Some of the animals living at the shelter have been rescued from awful situations, and seeing the results of so much neglect and abuse is hard on people who love animals.  Personally, I know I could not have lasted fifteen years at the shelter if it wasn’t for the friendships I have formed with some of the other volunteers and staff at the shelter.

It’s really hard to explain just how close I feel to my humane society friends.  True, we have a common bond in our love for shelter dogs, but there’s more to it than that.  As one friend recently said, “We’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst, so there’s no point in pretending to be anyone other than who we really are.”  And she’s right.

I have been blessed with many friends in my life, but the friends who see me at my most vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, are my humane society friends.  They are the ones who have seen me ugly cry and will hug me if I need it, even when I’m sweaty and beyond gross.  (When I’m at the shelter and find brown stuff smeared on my clothes, I just pray that it’s mud.  It usually isn’t.)  When you volunteer at an animal shelter, you shower after your shift, not before.

Not surprisingly, our friendship extends beyond the shelter.  We get together for social occasions, and often know each other’s families.  But mostly, when tragedy strikes in our personal lives, we know we can turn to each other for the same kind of support that we show each other at the shelter.  We cry for each other’s pain, and celebrate each other’s joy.  We are not perfect people by any means,  but we know that we can count on each other to be there in both the good times and the bad.

I signed up to walk shelter dogs all those years ago because I felt sorry for dogs that lived at animal shelters.  I wasn’t expecting to make new friends, close or otherwise.  Which just goes to show that some of the biggest gifts we get in this life are the ones we weren’t even looking for……

This Is The Day

We went to brunch this morning to celebrate my son-in-law’s birthday, taking our baby grandson with us.  The little guy did great, spending most of the time either sleeping or snuggling quietly on my shoulder, staring in wonder at the activity around us.  It was one of the nicest brunches I’ve had in a long time.  The food and company were great, of course.  But what really made me happy was the chance to just sit there with my family, holding my infant grandson.  And I wanted to savor every minute of it, because I know that babies don’t stay babies for very long and that far too soon, he’s going to be too big to drape so perfectly over my shoulder.

I am not, and never have been, particularly good at “living in the moment.”  I tend to put off doing the things that I could be doing, and even the things that I really want to do, until later, when I’m not quite so busy.  Or tired.  Or stressed.  Or whatever other excuse I have come up with for not fully appreciating what, and who, I have in my life right now, at this very moment.  And by doing so, I am counting on a future that is in no way guaranteed.

Life can change in an instant, both for the better and for the worse.  And all we can really count on is the here and now.  So it is actually rather important that we make each and every day count, as much as we possibly can.

IMG_0780For me, that means holding my grandson while he’s still small enough to let me, even if the food on my plate gets a little cold while I do so.  Or putting him in his stroller and taking him for a walk on a warm spring day, even when I have dozens of unfinished chores on my to-do list.  It even means taking even a few minutes to actually play the piano I insisted on buying a few years ago, rather than just vowing to find the time play whenever I dust it.

Making my day count may mean calling that friend I haven’t talked to in ages, or reaching out to mend a rift that threatens a once close relationship.  It may mean making a healthy choice for my next meal, or going for a brisk walk even if the weather isn’t perfect.  It may mean trying something I’ve always wanted to do, even if I’m afraid I will fail miserably.  The important thing is that I do it today.  Not tomorrow, because tomorrow may not come, for me or for someone I love.

Ever since my father died, I have made it a point to call my elderly mother several times a week.  Somewhere along the line, we began ending our phone calls with the words, “love you.”  We were never the sort of family who said that very often, and it was a little awkward at first.  But now it’s a habit, and a good one at that.  Because there is no better time to tell someone you love them than today.

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.

The Only Constant

I started this blog because I wanted to write about the phase of my life that I called “middle age,” even if I was a bit old for that title. At the time, I was feeling a little bit lost and unsure of myself in the face of changes that sometimes seemed overwhelming.  I was a stay-at-home mom whose kids had grown up and moved out, and a free-lance writer who hadn’t sold anything in years.  My mother had reached the age where our roles were beginning to reverse.  Trying to keep up with the latest in technology left me feeling both confused and inadequate.  Worst of all were the changes that aging had wrought on my body, which essentially meant that everything that could possibly go south had done so, and I couldn’t read a thing without my reading glasses.

One way or another, I felt that my old identity had been stripped away and I hadn’t yet found my new one.  I thought that blogging about it might help, because writing has always helped me sort out just exactly what I am thinking and feeling.  And I was right…..it did help.  Just not quite in the way I had thought.

It’s been over three years since I launched Muddling Through My Middle Age, and I still haven’t found that new identity.  But after spending so much time writing about the struggle to figure out just who I have become,  I finally realized that it is that it’s perfectly okay not to know exactly who I am, or to claim a particular role and self-image and try to make it last for the rest of my life.  Because life is constantly changing, and the only way I can ever hope to cope with that is by being willing to change right along with it.

Of course some things about me will always stay the same.  My basic personality, my morals and my values, my deepest loves and my most annoying quirks are with me for life.  But so many other things have changed.  Just in recent years, I’ve become a blogger, a mother-in-law and a grandmother.  I am, slowly but surely, gaining confidence in my ability to master technology.  I have embraced new ideas and conquered some old fears.  I have become more “comfortable in my own skin” than I have ever been, even if that skin is awfully wrinkled and saggy these days.

The truth is, there is no such thing as just one new identity for me to discover and embrace for the rest of my life.  There’s just me….continually changing, growing and adapting to whatever life happens to bring.  And that’s a good thing.

Small Changes

When I was young, I liked few things better than going out on a Saturday night with my husband.  It didn’t matter if it was a quiet dinner for just the two of us or we were joining our friends at a party. As long as I was out and about on a Saturday night, I was a happy camper.  The only exceptions were if we invited friends or family over to our house, or if something we couldn’t control (like the flu or icy roads) prevented us from leaving home.  As far as I was concerned, Saturday nights were for celebrating and being with the people I loved best.

Then we had a couple of children and learned that the joys of going out on a Saturday night weren’t always worth the hassle.  We didn’t have much family nearby and reliable babysitters were both expensive and hard to find.  Going out on Saturday night became a rare treat, usually enjoyed only once a month or so.  Not that we minded…we found other ways to enjoy Saturday nights that included the children.  But I’d be lying if I said we didn’t look forward to the nights we managed to slip away for a quiet dinner at a nice restaurant or to catch a good movie.

All too soon, our children grew up and we were once again able to “go out” on a Saturday night without any advance planning involved.  And we did, probably more often that our budget actually allowed.  I guess all those years of having to plan a night out made us feel that we were doing something special when we headed out on a Saturday night, even if we had reached the age when our “big night out” almost always ended before ten.

These days, however, we have a whole new idea of a fun way to spend Saturday night.  These days our ideal Saturday night would be spent in the company of a very little person who just happens to be our grandson.  When we tell our daughter and son-in-law that we would be happy to babysit so they can enjoy a date night, we are only telling a partial truth.  We are happy to babysit for the little guy, period.  That fact that his parents are getting in some couple time is just icing on the cake.

ANW_1718

Last Saturday night, we put on our jeans and sweatshirts and headed over to our daughter’s house.  While she and her husband attended a fund-raising event with his family, we took turns changing diapers, feeding bottles, and walking the floor with a baby snuggled on our shoulders.  Whoever didn’t have the baby took their turn petting the family dog, who seems unfazed by the tiny addition to her family.

I suppose my idea of the ideal Saturday night out hasn’t really changed all that much.  Our evening may not have been romantic or particularly exciting, but that didn’t matter at all.  I still spent Saturday night with the people I love the most, and that is celebration enough for me.

 

Trust Issues

Last week I was in the check-out lane at the grocery store, paying for my items in cash. The young man who was the cashier told me I owed $21.78, so I handed him a twenty and a five-dollar bill.  Normally the amount of change I would get back would come up on the computer screen for both of us to see, but he must have entered the wrong amount because according to the screen, I still owed him money.  Quite a lot of money, as a matter of fact.

“No problem.  I’ll figure out your change on this,” he said, whipping out his cell phone and pulling up his calculator app.  He tapped his phone’s screen a few times and then reached into his cash drawer and handed me $4.76.  I’m notoriously bad at math, but even I knew that $25.00 minus $21.78 doesn’t come to $4.76.

“I don’t think that’s right,” I told him.

“Sure it is,” he said.  And held out his phone to me as proof.  “See?”

And sure enough, it did say $4.76 on his screen.  But all that meant was that he had keyed in the wrong amount (again).  I was beginning to think that perhaps being a grocery store cashier was not the ideal job for this particular person.

But the more I thought about it, the more I believed that the real problem wasn’t his habit of hitting the wrong keys when typing in numbers.  The problem was that it never occurred to him to question the accuracy of the information provided by one of his devices. And that got me wondering about how often the rest of us accept whatever facts we get from our devices, instantly and without questions.

Like most people, if I want to find the answer to something quickly and easily, I just “Google it.”  And whatever answer Google comes up with, I believe.  Others, who are more up to date in their devices may also ask “Siri” or “Alexa.”  But honestly, how in the world do we know that Siri and Alexa know what they are talking about?

When home computers first became popular, we were often reminded that they are only as accurate as the information that is programmed into them.  And sometimes technology malfunctions, as anyone who has gotten hopelessly lost following incorrect GPS directions knows all too well.  I admit that I have no idea how Siri or Alexa actually work, or even how Google sifts through thousands of websites to decide which ones show up first on my screen.  But I think it’s a good idea to remember that no technology is infallible, “exhibit A” being Auto-correct and the way it can mangle the simplest of text messages.

Last month I was in Florida with a friend who wanted to hit the beach at low tide because that’s the prime time to find the best shells.  She Googled it, and found that low tide was going to be at 1:30 that afternoon.  At exactly 1:30 we arrived at the beach with our high hopes and empty shelling bags.  And found ourselves staring at a beach that was experiencing what is commonly known as a high tide.  We managed to find some decent shells, but I’m still thinking that someone needs to teach Google a thing or two about the Florida tide cycles.  Or next time, maybe I’ll play it safe and just ask one of the locals.

Look For It

IMG_1907One evening I was driving down the highway, my mind busy with its usual jumble of thoughts and concerns, when I came over the top of a hill and suddenly realized that I was driving straight into a spectacular sunset.  It was just gorgeous, complete with a fiery red sun that radiated streaks of color across the sky as it dipped slowly into the horizon.  I remember being surprised, because I have always associated beautiful sunsets with beach vacations, where the highlight of my day is often standing on a beach and watching the sun sink into the ocean.  I couldn’t quite remember the last time I’d noticed a sunset in my hometown of St. Louis, since my house sits too low to see either sunsets or sunrises.  And yet there it was:  a sunset just as spectacular as anything I’ve ever witnessed on a beach vacation, even without the ocean.

Simply put, the sunset surprised me because I wasn’t looking for it.  When I drive on the local highways, I’m watching for bad drivers, traffic jams and the upcoming exit I need.  I may even be keeping an eye out for an interesting billboard.  But I am most definitely not expecting to see a sunset….even though the sun does set in St. Louis every night, just as it does all over the world.

I believe that all too often, we tend to see just exactly what we are looking for, no more and no less.  Which means that if we are looking for signs that the world is a horrible place and becoming worse by the moment, we will see them.  If we are looking for rejection in our relationships, contempt from people who are different from us, and incompetence from coworkers, we will see it.  Because sometimes those things are there.  But if we look for acts of kindness and compassion, for creative solutions to long-term problems, for areas where the world around us is actually improving, we will see those things as well.  Because the good things are also there, but we have to be willing to see them.

I spend my days volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter which rescues unwanted, neglected and abused animals on a daily basis.  Sometimes I see and hear things that make me doubt in the basic goodness of the human race.  But if I choose to look for it, I also see things that warm my heart:  people who take the time to bring in the stray and lost dogs they see wandering the streets, people who donate supplies and give so freely of their time and money, or a once-neglected dog prancing happily out the door with his new adoptive family.  Usually, the mood I am in when I go home from the shelter depends entirely upon what I choose to focus on when I’m down there.

Just like my surprise urban sunset, there is beauty to be found in almost any situation, even during those times when it is least expected.  And I hope that I always remember to just look for it……

Too Much Information

Sometimes I think I’m a terrible friend.  Don’t get me wrong, I care about each and every friend I have, deeply and sincerely.  I know I’m lucky to have them in my life and what a gift those relationships are.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m nowhere near the kind of friend I want to be, and that bothers me.

Last weekend my husband and I went to dinner with a couple of very good friends we have known for more years that I care to count.  We had a great time, eating good food and catching up on what was going on in each other’s lives.  It was a fun evening and one I thought had gone very well, until after I was home and it hit me that I had not once asked my friend about how her sister was doing.  The sister who had been fighting a very serious cancer and who, the last time I actually remembered to ask, was still struggling to fully recover.

All too often, that’s exactly the kind of friend I am:  the one who doesn’t remember to ask the important questions.  The one who doesn’t always manage to keep track of what is going on in her friends’ lives, which means I’m also the one who sometimes doesn’t give the kind of support that her friends need and that I really, really want to give them.

I know what the problem is, and it’s not a lack of compassion.  The problem is that I  don’t seem to have the ability to keep track of large quantities of information, no matter how important that information happens to be.  Like almost everyone else these days, I’m constantly bombarded with information that needs to be acknowledged, processed and categorized so that it can be retrieved when needed.  But in my case, the information is usually misfiled somewhere in the depths of my tiny little brain.

I can remember what I want to ask someone about until that person is actually standing in front of me, or I’m talking to them on the phone.  That’s the exact moment that I can remember only that I need to schedule a vet appointment for my dog, get a flu shot, take our passports back to the safety deposit box, and drop some food off at my mother’s house.  Later, when I’m standing in my basement trying to remember what I went down there for, I’ll remember that I want to ask about a good friend how her recent job interview went.  (Not that I’ll actually ask her, since she’s not standing in my basement at that exact moment.)

I worry that my over-stretched memory means that my friends and family must think I am self-centered, and worse, that I don’t really care about what is going on in their lives and that they can’t count on me for support when they need it.  The truth is, I couldn’t possibly care more, and I am always ready to give any kind of help that they need.  But it’s also true that they might need to remind me that they need that support.

I suppose the fact that I actually have friends means that there are people in this world who, if they don’t always understand me, or at least willing to put up with me.  And for that I am deeply grateful.  I suppose the true test of any friendship is the ability to accept people for who they truly are, flaws and all.  And maybe it’s time I began to do that for myself as well.