Refreshment Time

Sometimes I think the best part of any vacation is simply the chance to take a break from our usual routines and obligations, and to leave behind the stress and worry that normally takes up far to much of our attention and energy.  Especially if we have the good sense to actually disconnect from our regular lives by not keeping up with our emails, texts and whatever other form of social media we are in the habit of using.

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I have a hard time even remembering all the stuff I’m supposed to be worried about, never mind trying to actually deal with all those problems.  Add in the usual busy schedule, caring for the family and friends who need it, and the constant onslaught of negative news, and it’s no wonder that my tiny mind really does struggle to keep up with it all.  And believe me, I know there are many, many others whose lives are far more complicated than mine.

Which is why taking a break from it all every now and then is so very important.  It’s amazing what a little time spent “off the grid” can do to restore our souls and remind us that life is so much more than a check list of duties and goals that needs to be completed.

IMG_5250Vacations allow us to leave all those worries, schedules and obligations behind, for a least a little while.  More importantly, they give us the time to reconnect with our true selves, and if we’re lucky, with the people in our lives who matter the most.  And it doesn’t matter if our vacation is long and expensive or short and cheap, as long as we disconnect from our usual routines and spend the time doing something that truly makes us happy.  Even taking a long walk in a park or sitting in the sun in our own back yard, happily reading a favorite book can count as a vacation if we need it to.  “Stop and smell the roses” is more than just a cliche.

I believe that all of us need a little time off now and then, so we can have the opportunity to listen to our hearts and be reminded of who we really are.  It’s far too easy to get so caught up in the frantic pace of our daily lives that we put our minds “in neutral” and spend our days doing little more than completing whatever task is in front of us and then quickly moving on to the next one.  But that’s not what life is supposed to be, at least not all the time.

One of my favorite literary characters is fond of saying, “Life is for the living.”  And I couldn’t agree more…..

The Time Is Now

Nine years ago, my husband and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary by going on a river cruise in France.  It was our first trip to Europe, and between the excitement and the overnight flight to London, we were dead tired by the time we boarded the plane for the short flight that would take us to Nice. My husband promptly fell asleep, but I stayed awake, fascinated by the view of France below me.  I could see the Eiffel Tower as we flew over Paris, then vineyards, rivers, rolling hills, tiny towns, and even snow-capped mountains to the East.  It was a struggle to keep my eyes open, but I knew this might be the only time I could get a “bird’s eye” view of France, and I wasn’t about to miss it.

IMG_5619We were spending the night in Nice before heading off to our river boat the following day.  We checked into our hotel late that afternoon and I wanted nothing more than to eat and go straight to bed.  But my husband had his heart set on the tour company’s optional dinner excursion to Monaco, and I reluctantly agreed to go.  The views on the ride over were fabulous, the dinner was great, and we even got to gamble a little in one of the very expensive and very exclusive casinos that kept a side room open for ordinary people like us.  (If you want to see one of the very formal employees of a ritzy Monaco casino almost smile, go up to the counter and proudly present him with your winnings ticket for a whopping four euros.)

I’m glad I went, even though I was so tired that I promptly fell asleep on the bus ride back to the hotel. My husband told me that I snored loudly the whole way no matter how many times he nudged me with his elbow.  And my fellow passengers were the very same people who were going to be on the river boat with us for the entire week.  Luckily, the bus was so dark there was a chance no one knew it was me.

We spent the next few days sailing up the Rhone river, and then rode a bus up to Paris, where our trip ended.  We spent two nights there, which meant we had one day to explore that famous city.  It wasn’t nearly enough time, but we made the best of it by taking a sight-seeing tour in the morning in order to see as much of Paris as possible.  Notre Dame wasn’t open for visitors on the day we were there, but the tour did take us close enough that we could get a good look at it.  And I will be forever grateful for that.  The first thing I thought when I was the news footage of the tragic fire was, “I’m glad I at least got to see the outside in person.”

The point is, sometimes opportunities present themselves to us at very inconvenient times, and it’s all too easy to say “no.”  We’re too tired, we’re too busy, we just can’t possibly…..  Until we go ahead and try, and realize that we not only could, but that we are so very happy we did.

Numbers Game

fullsizeoutput_5119Many years ago, I was in charge of the summer reading program at my church.  The idea was to encourage children to read during their summer vacation, so I would create a display to keep track of how many books the kids read and give them a reward when they had completed the program.  The program usually had a lot of kids, but one year only five signed up.  I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to go to so much time and trouble for only five children, so I called the church secretary to let her know I was going to cancel the program this year.  There was a brief pause, and then she asked, “But don’t you think those five kids deserve a reading program?”  And, of course, she was right.

Sometimes I think we live in a world where we put far too much value on popularity.  Social media encourages that, since success there depends on attracting huge numbers of followers and likes, and  we all know that a post “going viral” is considered the ultimate goal.

When I tune into the local news in the morning, I’m encouraged to join the thousands of others who follow that particular station.  They actually put that request across the bottom of the screen, right between the international news and the daily traffic report.  Things aren’t any better for those who get their news from the internet.  There, the stories seem specifically designed to get a reaction from the readers, because the goal is to get as many “clicks” and comments as possible. (I’m assuming in the hopes of attracting more advertising money.)  And the more outrageous the story, the more popular it is.  But that doesn’t mean it’s the news we actually need to know.

I refuse to name names, but I’m sure we can all think of several celebrities whose chief talent seems to be being a celebrity.  How they achieved that status, I don’t know, but it might have something to do with their ability to create viral posts, or say really outrageous things.

I remember when I told a friend I had just started a blog, and she immediately asked me how many followers I had.  I answered, with equal parts honesty and shame, “twelve,” and she changed the subject rather quickly.  That was over four years ago, and now I would have a very different answer to that question, and one that might not cause her to worry that she had asked an embarrassing question.  But you know what?  I’m not putting any more effort into my blogs posts these days.  I did the best I could then, and I’m doing the best I can now .  My blog may be a little more popular now, but I honestly don’t believe it’s any better.

I’m proud to say that I paid attention to the lesson that church secretary taught me, all those years ago.  I did go ahead with the reading program for those five children, and I put just as much effort into making it a good one as I did when lots of kids signed up.  Because when it comes to true quality, the numbers don’t count.

Finn Speaks

fullsizeoutput_50fcMom’s been a little tired lately, so I thought I’d help out by writing this week’s blog post for her.  I’ve never written a blog post before (it’s kind of hard to type with paws), but I’m going give it my best shot.  Because that’s the sort of dog I am:  a helper.

I’ve been told that I’m really cute, and I suppose that’s true, since I have wiry black fur, long legs, perky ears and a big white patch on my chest.  People also say that I am very sweet, very energetic and really, really, persistent….I prefer to think of myself as focused and determined, but those aren’t the words that other people use.  Still, I know my main purpose in life is to help others.  And I’m really good at it, if I do say so myself.

I spend my days constantly looking for ways that I can help my family.  When Mom is preparing a meal, I’m always in the kitchen, laying right by her feet so I can keep an eye on what she’s doing and lend a helping paw if necessary.  Plus, I want to be able to immediately clean up any food that she happens to drop on the floor.  (Which she does almost every time she trips over me.) Mom likes to keep her house clean, and believe me, there will NEVER be any food on her floors when I’m around.

I also help Mom and Dad tie their shoes, especially if they’re in a hurry.  I shove my face right in, grabbing the laces to hold them in place since they seem to be having such a hard time performing this simple task.  Sometimes they get so flustered that they actually try to push me away!  Some dogs might get their feelings hurt by that sort of thing, but I know Mom and Dad are just embarrassed that it’s taking them so long to tie their shoes.  So I get right back in there and “help” until the job is done, no matter how long it takes.

Mom and Dad also spend a lot of time complaining about how out of shape they are, so I try to help by getting them to play tag with me.  When we are outside together, I’ll race around the yard, inviting them chase me.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked so far.  They just watch me run, and say things like, “I wish I had half his energy!”  But they just stand there, or sometimes even sit at the patio table, snacking and sipping wine.  I love my parents, but they can be a little slow on the uptake.  Still, I’ll keep on running and hope that some day they’ll figure it out and join me for a few laps around the yard.

There are lots of other ways that I help out, but I know that Mom tries to keep her blog posts kind of short, so I’ll do the same.  Besides, I’ll probably get the chance to write another guest post some day, when Mom’s too tired or too busy to do it herself and needs my assistance.  Because I’m a helper, and I’m REALLY good at it!

Love, Finn

Yes I Can

Back when I was writing children’s books, I had a pretty simple formula I used to create my stories.  I would create a main character and place him or her in a situation that they desperately wanted to change, which would give me the main plot of my story.  If I were writing a longer book for older children, I would then plan out a chapter-by-chapter timeline to help me keep track of everything as I wrote.  (Details have never been my strong point.)  Finally, I would begin writing the actual manuscript….and that was usually the point where my creative confidence began to drain away and the paralyzing self-doubt crept in.

The problem was that no matter how passionately I believed in the story I was trying to write, a part of me was always thinking, “Will an editor like this?  Is my main character interesting enough?  Is my plot believable?” and so on and so on.  And those are valid concerns.  As all writers who hope to get their work accepted by a publisher know, finding an editor who wants to buy our manuscript is an absolute necessity.  But the constant presence of the critical editor in my mind basically squashed my creativity and made it impossible to write from my heart.  And the result was often a competent, but flat, manuscript that lacked a unique and creative spark.

Sadly, that internal critic isn’t limited to my writing.  I can look back on my life and see many times when I allowed that little voice that says “you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’re not good enough,” to dictate my choices and my behavior.  There were too many times when I turned my back on an opportunity, didn’t want to take a risk, or stayed silent when I should have spoken up. There were too many times that I held back when I should have stepped boldly forward.

The simple truth is, when our internal dialogue turns too negative, we aren’t really able to live our lives to their fullest potential.  And that’s a tragedy that none of us should allow.

I believe most of us get better at self-acceptance as we get older, and I’m no exception.  As the years go by, I find myself learning to tune out that negative “internal committee” and to replace it with one that is so much more compassionate and encouraging.  I find myself being willing to risk simply being myself by following my dreams, voicing my true opinions and in general, doing what feels right to me.  It’s a journey, but I am moving slowly and steadily forward.

If I had the chance to go back in time and speak to my younger self, I would have so much advice I would want to share.  But if I was limited to just one thing, it would be, “Believe in yourself and follow your heart.”  Because if we can learn to do that, everything else will surely work out.

All Good Things

It seemed to me that this past Winter was especially hard.  My home town was spared the horrible blizzards that devastated other parts of the Midwest, but our Winter was still made up of months of very cold temperatures and too much snow and ice.  I don’t know if it’s my age or that my volunteer job of walking dogs at the local animal shelter means I’m outside for long periods of time, but whatever the reason, I don’t tolerate the cold very well.  The blood drains out of my fingers, leaving them bleached white and painful, my nose runs continuously, and my eyes tear so much that everyone thinks I’m crying.

So you can see why I was really, really, ready for Winter to be over, even as the frigid temperatures hung on and the promise of Spring seemed so very far away.  I often found myself wondering just how big of a beach-front Florida condo we could buy if we sold our house and drained our savings accounts.  Sometimes I thought about just staying in my nice warm bed all day, reading books and eating hot soup.  I even toyed with the idea of having all the supplies I needed delivered to me so that I didn’t have to venture out into the cold.

But I didn’t act on any of those crazy impulses.  Instead, I just kept to my regular routine, knowing that sooner or later, Winter would give up and leave, making room for the Spring that I was longing for.  And sure enough, Spring finally showed up.

fullsizeoutput_5070The past couple of weeks have been (mostly) wonderfully warm, with just enough rain to wash away the nasty tree pollen that triggers my allergies.  The flowers are blooming, the trees are budding, and the birds are singing outside my window every morning.  The days are getting longer, and it now stays light well into the dinner hour, which means we can both cook and eat outside on our patio.

I believe Winter comes to all of us in many ways.  Some times it’s the literal Winter of cold, nasty weather and long, dark nights.  Other times, it’s the hardships and losses that that we suffer through and that can make life feel so very difficult, both physically and emotionally.  There are times when it seems as if our personal Winter will never end.

fullsizeoutput_507dThat’s when it helps me to remember that at the end of every seasonal Winter, no matter how hard and how long it has been, comes Spring.  The sun gets a little stronger, the temperatures a little warmer and the days last a little longer with each passing week.  And that reminds me that the dark days in our personal lives don’t last forever either.  It may take a long time, but eventually our burdens will feel just a little bit lighter, our hearts will feel just a little bit warmer, and our spirits will celebrate the arrival of our very own Spring.

Plan B

Things don’t always work out the way we had planned.  Sometimes in simple ways, such as when I recently brought home a lovely wooden bookshelf that I had carefully selected to store my ever-growing collection of photo albums.  The shelf seemed perfect:  it was the right color to go with my living-room furniture, and the shelves were tall enough for my photo albums.  Or at least that’s what I thought when I measured them in the store.  But when I got the bookshelf home, I discovered the shelves were actually a half-inch too short for my photo albums.

My immediate reaction was not my finest hour.  I stomped around the house, said a few ugly words, and felt very sorry for myself because I had wasted an entire Saturday morning scouring second-hand shops for this shelf, then hauling it home and cleaning it up before I discovered that it wasn’t going to work after all.  I thought about calling my kids to see if either of them wanted the shelf, but then I realized that would mean I still had no place to store my extra photo albums.  And I really did like the bookshelf.  So I decided there had to be a way to make it work.

IMG_4733I measured an another bookshelf I already had and discovered that if I adjusted the shelves a little bit, my photo albums would fit.  That meant moving the books that were already on it, but I did have that brand-new shelf that the books would fit on nicely.  I spent the next hour moving books and photo albums around, but in the end, I found I did indeed have room for all the albums and the books that I wanted to keep and that the new bookshelf looks just fine in my office.  (I even found several books I want to give away, which means I now have room for more books!)

Sometimes our plans that don’t work out are much bigger, and much more important.  I spent years trying to break into the world of children’s publishing, because I was convinced that being a writer of children’s books was the perfect career for me.  But after a tremendous amount of time and effort, I only managed to publish one single book.  Eventually,  I had to admit that this particular dream just wasn’t panning out, and for a brief while, I gave up writing altogether.  Then a friend convinced me to give blogging a try, and I became an active writer once again.  I may not be writing and publishing children’s books, but I honestly enjoy blogging and feel a true sense of accomplishment when I get a post “just right.”

I think it’s important that we all have plans, goals and dreams, and that we do our best to attain them.  But I also think it’s important to realize that just because something doesn’t work out exactly as we had planned or hoped doesn’t mean we’ve failed.  It just means that we need to be flexible enough to try a different option or to explore an area we hadn’t considered before.  Because success can be found in many different ways, particularly when we’re willing to try “plan B.”

Ageless

No doubt about it, there are certain advantages to aging.  And I’m not talking about just the wisdom and self-acceptance that most of us achieve as we grow older.  I’m talking about the fact that old people can get away with stuff that younger people can’t.  For example, when I take 88-year old mother out to eat, she has no problem letting the waiter know the very second she’s ready to order, even if that means calling across the room to attract his attention.  I have yet to see a waiter take offense.  Instead, all she gets is a tolerant smile and sometimes even a friendly pat on the shoulder.  Somehow, I don’t think that would be the response if my mother wasn’t a textbook example of a “cute little old lady.”

Even at age 60, I have found that my age can be an advantage.  I have heard of people who have a “resting bitch face,” but personally, I have always had what can only be called a “resting stupid face.”  Meaning that when I don’t have a specific expression on my face, I tend to look as if I’m just a few bricks short of a load.  And that has served me well, particularly when I pair it with the words, “But I don’t understand.”  I can’t tell you how many people have done what I’ve wanted just because they couldn’t be bothered to explain the rules to someone they believed wasn’t bright enough to understand them.

But now that I have reached a certain age, I’ve found that the only thing better than having a “resting stupid face” is having an old resting stupid face.  If I’m having a disagreement with someone, (particularly someone younger) I have found that my most effective response is to simply stand there and look at them in a perplexed sort of way.  Sooner or later, they tend to give in, even if they do sigh loudly and roll their eyes at the same time.

Still, I’m only human, and there are times when I don’t really want to feel quite so old.  I miss the vitality of my younger days, would give anything to have the perfect eyesight, firm skin and boundless energy I once took for granted.  Luckily, I’ve discovered a fool-proof way to make me feel young again, and it doesn’t require any expensive or painful surgical procedures.  When I want to feel young, all I have to do is spend time with some of my treasured, life-long friends.  Seriously.

Maybe it’s because they knew me “way back when,” or maybe it’s because when I look at them I still see the young person they once were.  But for whatever reason, when I’m with my old friends, the years just melt away and I truly feel young again.  And it isn’t long before I’m also acting as if I was young:  laughing hysterically at our silly jokes, staying up late because no one wants the evening to end, and most of all, feeling that as long as I have my friends by my side, there’s nothing I can’t handle.

Aging does have it’s advantages, but every once in a while, I need my “old” friends to remind me of what it was like to be young…..

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Priceless

I tend to be a little cranky when I’m sick, especially when I have a cold.  I know that the common cold is a very minor illness, especially when compared to some of the health issues that other people deal with, but I still hate having one.  I hate the sore throat, the sneezing and coughing, the constant nose-blowing and being so congested that I can barely breathe.  When I have a cold, I tend to walk around with a box of tissue in one hand and a jar of ointment in the other (to soothe my sore nose), feeling tremendously sorry for myself and scowling at the world in general.  As I said, I don’t do colds well.

So you can imagine how irritated I am that I am currently suffering from at least my fifth cold this year.  I seem to be on a schedule of being sick for a week, feeling better for about three days, and then getting sick again.  I’ve sought medical advice, which was basically “take some decongestants, drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest.”  I don’t think the doctor understood that what I was actually looking for was a miracle cure that would make all my symptoms disappear forever.  Sometimes even the smartest people can miss the obvious….

The sad thing is, I know where these colds are coming from.  Before I became a grandmother, I usually suffered from only one or two colds in an entire year.  But as soon as my little grandson started daycare, I’ve been catching colds with alarming regularity.  The cycle goes something like this:  my grandson goes to daycare, where he comes into contact with lots of other little kids, and at least one of them is always suffering from a cold.  He catches the cold, and then passes it on to me the next time I see him.  (He may be only one, but he’s already very good at sharing.)

Which means that the only way I can reasonably hope to stay healthy in the upcoming months is to avoid all contact with my grandson.  And that’s not going to happen.  Because as much as I hate having a cold (and trust me, I really hate it), I love my grandson more.

IMG_4458I only have one grandchild and I want to spend as much time with him as I possibly can.  I love watching him grow and learn new things, and my heart melts just a little each he gives me a hug.  I know those hugs usually come with a few cold germs attached (let’s face it, he’s basically a petri dish in a diaper), but I’ll still happily take each and every hug he offers.

Sometimes we have to pay a high price for the things we want, and I know that suffering from a never-ending series of colds is the price I have to pay for spending time with my grandson. But that’s okay, because I also know he’s worth it.