Time Out

I’ve been out of sorts lately, both physically and emotionally.  I’ve been tired and cranky, lacking the energy to perform even the most basic daily chores and not particularly interested in engaging in the social activities I usually enjoy so much.  I thought I might be coming down with some sort of virus, but days passed and I never actually got sick.  It took me a while to figure it out, but I finally realized what was wrong with me was that I was feeling totally and completely overwhelmed and that trying to keep up with everything I usually do was only making things worse.

Feeling overwhelmed now and then is normal for me, as it is for most people.  Most of us lead busy lives with responsibilities that we can’t drop every time they feel a little too heavy.  I volunteer regularly at an open-admission animal shelter, and I can promise you that every single person who either works for or volunteers at an open-admission animal shelter is all too familiar with feeling overwhelmed.  It’s just part of the package.  And I know the same is true for parents with little children, people with super-stressful jobs, those who are primary care-takers for aging parents, just to name a few.  There are times when know that we’re trying our best, but we also know that our best is not quite good enough.

Dealing with our own issues is hard enough, but we are also constantly aware of the onslaught of tragedies that are playing out in the world.  The Las Vegas massacre, Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the earthquake in Mexico–the bad news just keeps coming, and it becomes almost impossible to even process it after a while.  Honestly, it’s not  surprising that most of us feel overwhelmed at times.  And when we do, sometimes the best response is to take a little break from it all.

Taking a break doesn’t come naturally to me, probably because it feels too much like wimping out.  I have a tendency to think that I should be able to handle whatever life happens to throw at me, and that admitting there are times when I can’t is the same as admitting that I am weak.  But I’m not.  I’m just like everyone else:  I have my limits.  And when I hit them, I need to step back and allow myself to catch my breath.

So this past week, I didn’t write my usual blog post for no other reason that it felt like too much work.  I gave myself a couple of days to perform only the essential chores and let the other stuff slide.  I didn’t accept any invitations for social gatherings.  I watched only enough news to learn the basic facts, then either turned the TV off or switched to a different channel.  I let my phone ring out more than once, knowing that any important messages would be left on my voice mail.

And you know what?  It worked.  Taking a break from it all didn’t make the world any better or make any of my problems go away, as nice as that would be.  But it did change my attitude and it did restore my confidence in my ability to cope with the the things I need to handle.  My head doesn’t hurt anymore, and I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends this weekend.

I am a strong person, but that doesn’t mean I can be strong enough all the time.  And for those times when I’m not strong enough, a little “time out” is exactly what’s needed.

After The Storm

For the past several years, my husband and I have chosen to celebrate our birthdays by taking a short trip together, and this year my husband chose to go to Sanibel Island. We had booked our trip for the third weekend in September long before anyone started talking about Hurricane Irma.  But when the category-five hurricane hit southwest Florida in early September, we figured our chances of celebrating my husband’s birthday on Sanibel Island ranged from small to none.  Honestly, we knew our disappointment over a cancelled trip was absolutely nothing compared to the hardship endured by those in the hurricane’s path.  The televised images of Irma’s landfall were devastating and the suffering it caused was beyond heart-breaking.

After the hurricane, we followed the news to see the extent of the damage, partly to know when we would be able to contact the resort in order to cancel our reservations.  Since Sanibel is a barrier island just fifty–some miles from Naples, which took a direct hit, we weren’t even sure if the resort would still be standing.  Both my husband and I love Sanibel Island and have visited it many times since we discovered it over thirty years ago.  It was painful to realize there was a very real possibility that the hurricane had destroyed the island, or damaged it beyond recognition.

Amazingly, Sanibel sustained very little damage from the hurricane that wreaked so much havoc on other parts of Florida and the Caribbean.  We checked the city’s official web page obsessively,  so we knew when electricity and water service was restored, when the streets and been cleared of the tangle of branches and trees, and when businesses began to reopen.  Then the resort actually called us to say they were up and running and ready for visitors.

Part of me felt guilty for even thinking of going on vacation in a state where so many people were still struggling with tremendous loss.  But we went ahead with our trip for two reasons.  One, we knew that Sanibel (like much of Florida) has an economy that is directly tied to tourism and losing that income would make it even harder to recover from the hurricane.  Secondly, both of us felt a strong need to see for ourselves that our beloved Sanibel Island really was okay.

And it was.  True, the signs of the hurricane were everywhere, from the piles of uprooted trees and torn limbs by the side of the road waiting to be picked up, to the hand-lettered “We’re Open!” signs outside many stores and restaurants.  We saw utility trucks from all over the country as workers continued to restore power to nearby communities.  And everywhere we went, people would ask each other  “How are you doing?”  “Is your power back on yet?”  “Did your house sustain much damage?”  Perfect strangers were constantly offering each other encouragement and support as they traded stories of surviving the hurricane.

IMG_3566I have always believed Sanibel Island is a beautiful place.  And this visit didn’t change my view, despite the signs of damage and the piles of debris from the storm.  Because this time, the beauty I saw wasn’t limited to the palm trees and the sandy white beaches.  This time, I saw a community coming together through hope and hard work, repairing the damage and moving forward with determination and optimistic pride.  And that was the most beautiful thing of all.

Take A Chance

We added a patio to our back yard several years ago, which left an area between our house and the new patio that needed some landscaping.  I went to a garden supply store and bought several bushes, which we planted according to the directions on the labels, paying careful attention to how large they were supposed to grow.  But either the person who wrote those labels knows even less about plants than I do or the bushes had their own ideas regarding optimal growth, because every one of them grew to at least three times their predicted size.  What was supposed to be an artistic  arrangement of greenery and flowers looked more like an over-grown jungle with each passing week.

We dug up a few bushes and moved them to other parts of our yard, hoping they would survive the transplant.  Most of them did.  But then we were left with a scraggly-looking plant that was wedged in between a crepe myrtle and an evergreen.  I didn’t remember buying it and wasn’t even sure whether it was a bush or a particularly ambitious weed.  My husband and I debated whether we should transplant it or simply pull it out, but in the end we decided to move it to the side of the house to replace a rose bush that had died last year.

It was in the middle of summer and I had no idea what kind of sunlight this particular plant preferred, so I knew the odds of survival weren’t good.  I also knew it was entirely possible that we were going to all this effort to save a weed, possibly even a version of a ragweed that both my husband and I are allergic to.  But for some strange reason, replanting seemed the right thing to do.

IMG_2815The plant not only lived, it thrived.  And the last time I was at a garden center, I saw one that looked just like it and eagerly read the label.  Turns out, that scraggly bush wasn’t a weed at all…it’s actually a butterfly bush (which I still don’t remember buying).  And this whole past week it’s been busy attracting monarch butterflies.

I’m not, and never have been, what you’d call an optimistic person.  Right now I have a pain in a lower molar which I’m quite certain is going to require some kind of serious and expensive treatment, because a pain in my tooth can’t mean anything else, right?  Looking at the bright side is not my strong point and neither is expecting good things, despite the fact that I have had my share of good things in life.  It’s a negative thought pattern that I have always struggled with and truly hope to overcome some day.

Which is the point of the story of the butterfly bush.  I’m not good at gardening and most of the bushes and flowers that I plant die well before their time despite my best efforts.  But I overcame my natural pessimism and gave that weedy-looking plant a chance, and the reward was a thriving and beautiful butterfly bush that actually does attract butterflies.  And I hope that whenever I look at it, I’ll remember the lesson it taught me.  Because I really do want to become a person who is more willing to take a chance on something good.

Open My Eyes

Last Monday, my post “A Blogger’s Voice” was featured on Word Press Discover page, which meant that my blog was suddenly getting a much bigger audience than usual.  For the most part, I was thrilled.  I think every writer wants their words to reach as many people as possible (if we didn’t, we would just write in a personal journal) and the thought of all those new readers was exciting.  I was also flattered that a Word Press editor thought my blog was worthy of being included in their Discover program.  I really didn’t think this would ever happen to my blog.

But a small part of me was also worried.  I knew that along with all that extra exposure came the very real risk of a whole lot of spam, criticism, and downright nasty comments.  When they let me know I was going to be included in Discover, Word Press even included advice on how to the handle negative comments that might be coming my way. Honestly, in the days between being notified that I was going to be “discovered” and before it actually happened, I even toyed with the idea of backing out of the whole thing.

But then I realized that none of this would have happened if my good blogging friend Barb Knowles hadn’t recommended me to a Word Press editor.  Barb writes a funny, poignant and insightful blog called Sane Teachers , and has been a wonderful source of inspiration and support.  I didn’t want to let her down or have her think I wasn’t grateful for her recommendation so I decided to just go for it.  I figured between my spam filter and my ability to moderate comments, I could handle whatever negativity came my way.

And you know what?  The nastiness, the criticism, and the spam never materialized.  In the past week, I’ve added about 500 new followers and the last time I looked, that post had about 1,700 views. My spam filter caught no more than the usual amount of spam, and I moved about eight comments into the trash only because they included what I thought might not be a legitimate Word Press link in them.  Even then, I may have been overly quick to hit the “trash” button, but I didn’t want to run the risk of any of my readers getting a virus from a link on my blog.

My point is not that all those people loved my blog.  I’m sure that most of them didn’t even read it, and simply hit the “follow” and “like” buttons in the hopes that I would do the same for their blog.  My point is that the onslaught of negativity that I had anticipated didn’t happen.  Instead, I received lots of positive and courteous comments from other bloggers.  Being “discovered” connected me to many people who also struggle with finding the courage to put their true thoughts and feelings into their posts and then send them out into cyberspace.  It let me communicate with people from all over the world, both getting and giving encouragement and good wishes.  It was an awesome experience.

I am very, very, grateful to Barb and to Word Press for the chance to be “discovered.”  I am grateful for the new views, follows and the comments on my post.  But what I most grateful for is the way that this whole experience reminded me that there is still so much good in the world, and so many good people in the world, if only I’m willing to open my eyes and see.

A Change of Season

According to the calendar, Summer isn’t officially over until September 21.  But for me, the Labor Day weekend has always signaled the end of summer.  Public swimming pools close, all the kids are back in school, and although the days remain warm (or even hot), they are shorter and followed by cooler nights.  And the flowers that bloomed all summer long begin to look faded and worn, as if they know that the first frost isn’t all that far away.

Some years I’m more than ready for Fall, but not this year.  This year the summer went by way too fast, and we had so many unseasonably cool days that I barely got to wear most of my summer clothes.  If I had my way, we’d be celebrating the 4th of July this weekend, not Labor Day.  But I don’t get my way on such things, and Fall is coming whether I like it or not.  So all I can really do is think back on the last three months and be grateful for all the good memories they brought.

I’m grateful for the short trips we took to visit old friends who we don’t see nearly often enough.  I’m glad that I have finally figured out that good friends are worth the time and effort it takes to stay in touch, no matter how far away they live.  I may not be getting any smarter as I age, but I am doing much better when it comes to getting my priorities straight.

I’ll remember the cool nights my husband and I ate dinner out on our patio, which is rare in St. Louis’ usually hot and humid summers.  I’ll remember that this was the summer we finally painted the ugly-colored brick on our house an attractive shade of grey.  For the first time in over twenty years, I drive up to my house and think, “Wow! That looks nice!”

IMG_2688I’m grateful that I got the chance to host my mom’s 87th birthday party so that she could celebrate with some of her family and friends.  So many of my friends have lost their moms in recent years, and I know that they would give anything to be able to have them around for just one more family gathering.  When I was young, I tended to take my parents for granted (as young people do) thinking that they would always be around when I finally decided to make time for them.  Now I know better.

fullsizeoutput_417bBut mostly, I will always remember that this is the summer that I learned that we will be welcoming a grandson into our family in a few months.  Becoming a grandmother will be a huge and wonderful change in my life, and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the reality that my daughter is going to have a baby of her own.  To say I’m excited for the arrival of my first grandchild would be an understatement.

So this Labor Day, there is a part of me that is not quite ready to let go of summer and that wishes Fall would hold off just a little while longer.  But I also know that the changing seasons mirror the changing phases of my life, and that they mostly bring good things.  A mere three years ago, my immediate family consisted of only four people.  Two weddings later, it has grown to six, and soon there will a seventh member of our family.  And that’s a change I wouldn’t trade for the world.

A Blogger’s Voice

DSC00181When I was young and naive enough to believe I had a good shot at making a living as a free-lance writer, I attended lots of writer’s workshops.  They were always interesting, and some of the tips helped me place articles with local magazines and neighborhood newspapers.  I never did make a lot of money as a writer…my largest claim to fame was a short article in Bride’s magazine and the publication of one (count it, one) children’s book.  Still, I learned a lot in those workshops about writing, and especially about the delicate balance between giving an editor whatever he or she wants and developing my own unique “voice.”

The voice of an author is what distinguishes one writer’s work from everyone else’s.  It is what comes out when a writer taps into his or her deepest beliefs, inner-most fears, cherished dreams, etc.  It communicates the unique perspective of the world that each of us have and that writers share through their written words.  And for me, finding that voice was always a struggle.  I could figure out what my editor wanted and deliver exactly that, no problem.  But writing from my heart was a whole other matter and I never really managed to do it.

Fast forward to almost three years ago, when I started writing this blog.  At first I was terrified of putting my writing on a public forum where everyone and anyone could both read and comment on it.  My inner critic went into overdrive, and I poured over my posts before actually publishing them, searching for flaws and carefully deleting anything that I thought could be offensive or misinterpreted.  Luckily, my readers were a small but polite group who mostly offered encouragement and the expected criticism and rejection never materialized.

I gained more confidence with each post, slowly but surely learning to ignore my inner critic and to put my true thoughts and feelings on my blog without quite so much worry and angst.  I began to write about whatever subject was near to my heart, and I learned that honesty (as long as it is not also hateful or hurtful) is perfectly okay.  It took me a while to recognize it, but I had finally found my writing “voice.”  My blog has brought me many gifts, but that is by far the one I appreciate the most.

Even better, I have discovered that finding my writing voice has actually given me more confidence to speak my mind in person.  I am no longer nearly so inclined to tell others only what I know they want to hear.  When asked for my opinion, it has become almost natural for me to share my true thoughts and feelings, even when I know that others around me will probably disagree with what I have to say.  My old fear of rejection is fading fast, and that’s a very good thing.

I know that not everyone is a writer, but I do believe that everyone has a voice and that  their voice, like mine, deserves to be heard.  And I hope that one way or another, we each find a way to make that happen.

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.

Follow the Sun

As you’ve probably heard, there’s going to be an total eclipse of the sun tomorrow.  It’s scheduled for roughly 1:00 in my neighborhood, which also happens to be just on the northern-most boundary of the path that is supposed to provide optimal viewing.  Living  in an area where I get to see the eclipse seemed like good news to me, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that there was a darker side to this event (and I’m not just talking about what happens when the sun is blocked by the moon.)  Apparently, thousands upon thousands of people are expected to head to my neck of the woods to view this rare phenomenon, and for the past couple of weeks the local news has been filled with dire predictions about all the havoc they are going to wreak.

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Not a single hotel room will be available.  Traffic will be a nightmare and all highway exit ramps will be blocked as people pull over, get out of their cars and  stare into the sky.  Gas stations may run out of gas and grocery stores may run out of food.  If you are in need of an ambulance or other emergency vehicle, chances are high that they will not be able to get to you in time.  And so on and so on.  You’d think we were anticipating a natural disaster that would make Hurricane Katrina look like a mild inconvenience.

It’s not that I take official warnings lightly.  I learned to pay attention the hard way back in 1982, when we had a blizzard that dropped about eighteen inches of snow on St. Louis.  Bizarrely, it was accompanied by lightening, and my husband and I sat in our living room during the whole thing, playing cards and occasionally peering out the window at the snow storm.  The next morning we woke up to a city that was completely shut down, and I realized that we were just about out of groceries.  I pulled on my snow boots and trudged up the street to the neighborhood grocery.  I have never seen so many empty shelves in my life.  I think there was maybe two cans of beans and a jar of pickles left in the entire store.

These days, when even the tiniest bit of snow is forecast, I do exactly the same thing everybody else in St. Louis does:  I rush to the grocery store and stock up on enough groceries to last me through Spring if necessary.  Especially bread and milk.  And I don’t even like milk.

But when the big day arrives tomorrow, I’m not going to stay at home, guarding my well-stocked pantry and full tank of gas.  I’m going to go to the animal shelter to walk dogs the way I always do on Monday morning, and afterwards I’m going to my mother’s house because she has invited some friends and neighbors over for lunch and eclipse-viewing.  I’ll avoid the highways, but just in case I do get stuck in traffic and don’t make it to Mom’s house, I’m keeping my approved viewing glasses in the car with me.  One way or another, the odds are good that I’ll get to see the eclipse.

I believe in heeding warnings, and I definitely believe in being prepared.  But what I believe in most is using a little bit of good old-fashioned common sense.

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.

Muddling Through My Middle Age by Ann

Source: Muddling Through My Middle Age by Ann

Here’s a reblog of a post that my blogger friend Kate posted on one of her blogs, “Meet the Bloggers Blog.”  I really appreciate her including me in her interviews of fellow bloggers, and her patience as I tried to figure out how include links to my favorite and most popular posts.  Thanks, Kate!