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

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.”

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.

Quitting Time

Sometimes I just don’t know when to quit.  Maybe I read “The Little Engine That Could”  too many times as a child, or maybe it’s that I can be a teeny bit obsessive when it comes to completing what I’ve started, or maybe I’m just too darned stubborn for my own good.  But for whatever reason, every once in a while I find myself plugging away at a particular goal long after it has become obvious that my chances of success are less than zero, and the only sensible thing to do is give up.  That little train engine may have chanted, “I think I can! I think I can!” but sometimes it’s much more honest to say, “I thought I could, but I was wrong.  I thought I could, but I was wrong.”

Recently, fellow blogger Kate (who writes a wonderful blog called Aroused) invited me to do an interview for another blog she writes called “Meet the Bloggers Blog.”  I was flattered to be invited to do that, and quickly agreed.  She emailed me the questions, with the request that I send my answers back to her, including links to two of my blog posts.  It sounded easy enough, and I had no trouble answering the questions.  So far, so good.  But then I tried to include the links and that’s when everything came to a grinding halt.

My computer uses Word, so I wrote my answers in that, including what I thought were the working links she requested, and emailed it to her.  Now a smart person would have checked those links before she sent the email, but I didn’t.  Draw your own conclusions about that.  Once I realized my mistake, I emailed her again and let her know the links didn’t work, but I would try to fix it.  Two hours later, I had chatted on-line with a Word Press Help assistant, looked up several sites on how to attach a link to a Word document, filled Kate’s inbox with several more increasingly apologetic emails notifying her of each failure, and still haven’t figured out anything about how to add a link except that maybe my word-processing system and Word Press don’t play well together.

DSC03342 2My tendency to keep trying in the face of obvious failure isn’t just limited to technology, either.  I love homegrown tomatoes, and for the past several years have been trying to grow my own.  One year I even succeeded and harvested a few dozen.  But that’s just one year.  Mostly, I grew tomato plants that were massive in size, but were also infested with white flies that kept the tomatoes from ripening properly.  The looked bad and tasted worse.  This year, I have a beautiful, white-fly free, normal-sized tomato plant in my back yard that has at least twenty tomatoes on it.  All of them green, as they have been since early July, and will probably remain that way until the first frost kills them.

Sometimes the only thing to to is throw in the towel and admit defeat.  At best, we can try to salvage something from our efforts that we can put to practical use in another area.  The one good thing that came from my efforts to add a link to my favorite blog post was that I realized the post I liked best was written just a few months after I started this blog, meaning that very few people, other than my mother and my husband, have actually read it.  I’m thinking it could be a good idea to re-post it on my blog, as soon as I figure out how to do that.  Which most likely means that you can expect to see it on this blog sometime in 2020, if I’m not smart enough to give up before then.

Look for the Good

img_3836My husband and I always put up the artificial Christmas tree in our living room on the weekend after Thanksgiving and we usually leave it up through the first week in January.  That means that each year, the tree is in our living room for at least six weeks.  It’s a beautiful tree, lit with old-fashioned bulb lights (I finally found a few sets that work) and loaded with antique ornaments.  Still, almost every day I find it necessary to make some small adjustment:  an ornament moved to a “better” spot, a green light swapped for a red, a branch tweaked an inch or so to the left.  Because no matter how pretty my Christmas tree may be, whenever I look at it, I somehow manage to see some small imperfection that needs to be “fixed.”

Sadly, my habit of focusing on the negative extends far beyond Christmas decorating.  Sometimes the animal shelter where I volunteer is very full of dogs, and occasionally there are days when we don’t have enough people to get them all out for their daily walk.  And when that happens, I don’t head home from my volunteer shift feeling good about all the dogs that I did help that day.  Instead, I fret about the dogs that I wasn’t able to walk, and often end up feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

The same thing even happens with my blog.  If a particular post gets 200 views and 43 likes, I am usually quite happy with that, at least for a little while.  But then (and I’m almost ashamed to admit this) I often start to wonder just exactly why those other 157 people who viewed my post didn’t like it.  Which is just ridiculous, especially when I remember that when I started my blog I didn’t think I’d ever reach 200 followers, much less write a post that had that many views.

Of course I am very aware of all that is positive, beautiful and good in my life, and I do appreciate it.  I really do.  It’s just that I have this annoying habit of paying far too much attention to the things that aren’t going right, to the goals that I’m not able to accomplish, and to all those minor imperfections that are a normal part of everyone’s life.  And I really, really, want to stop doing that.

My husband and I just spent an unhappy couple of hours stringing some mini lights on the real Christmas tree that we put up in our basement family room.  We decided to try mini lights this year because they stay cool and are light-weight enough for this tree’s delicate branches, but I found them hard to work with because they don’t have clips to hold them in place.  We also had to replace an insanely tiny fuse and run back to the store for another strand.  Soon, we will hang the ornaments, and if I win the argument with my husband this year, we might even add some tinsel.

I am quite sure that the finished result won’t be perfect.  But I am equally sure that when we are done decorating this tree, it will be beautiful.  And I have made a solemn promise to myself that when I look at that tree, all I am going to notice is the beauty.  It may seem like a small thing, but I’ve got to start somewhere.

Square Peg, Round Hole

I don’t know about other bloggers, but I tend to think about my blog posts for a while before I actually write them.  I select a topic that happens to interest me, and then I think of what, exactly, I’d like to say about that topic, and even compose a few sentences in my head before I ever sit down in front of the computer.  If I’m lucky, the writing process is smooth and quick, and I hammer out my usual 500 to 700 word post without too much effort or angst.

But there are the times when I just can’t get it right, and when I rewrite the opening paragraphs several times, only to find that I have written myself right into a corner each time.  Sometimes I actually have to get up and walk away from my computer for a little while, and then come back and look at my draft with fresh eyes.  And when I do that, I almost always realize that the problem is that one of the sentences or ideas I came up with I came up with when I was thinking about the post just didn’t fit when I was actually writing the post, even though I kept putting it into each and every draft.  Unfortunately, I had liked that particular string of words so much (it was clever, darn it!) that I was blind to the fact that it needed to be cut.  I can be stubborn that way.

Sadly, that stubbornness isn’t limited to my writing.  I like to meet new people, try new things, and despite being a fiercely independent person, join new groups.  And that’s usually a good thing, as it has exposed me to lots of new ideas, some dear friends and some worthy causes. But there are times when as I get to know a person better, I realize that we  have very little in common and have some totally incompatible values.  Or that I didn’t like a particular activity nearly as much as I thought I would, or that despite my best efforts, I simply don’t fit into a particular group or organization.  And that’s when most people would immediately back off, but all too often, I hang in there, just sure that if I try a little bit harder, everything will work out.  I guess I’m afraid of being a quitter, or admitting that I can’t really be all things to all people.

When I was in college, most of my friends pledged a sorority, so despite my considerable misgivings, I decided to join one too.  I lasted only three months.  Not because I had joined the wrong sorority…it was a perfectly good one, with lots of nice women….but because I’m far too much of an individualist to be the right person for any sorority.  Luckily, that was one time when I recognized my mistake early on and addressed it quickly. Everyone was quite nice about it, and even though I quit the sorority, I remained friends with several of its members.   If I had tried to stick with it, skipping meetings, complaining,  and ignoring rules I didn’t like, I probably would have managed to alienate all the members.

And that’s something I need to remember all these years later when I find myself being stubborn about trying to stick with something that just isn’t right for me.  No matter how hard I try, not everyone is going to like me.  And despite my best efforts, I’m not going to be an effective and helpful member of every new group I try.  And that’s okay.  Because no one fits in everywhere, but everyone fits in somewhere.

I’m A Writer

Yesterday, I was at a birthday party when a woman I had just met asked the inevitable question, “And what do you do?”  Without giving the matter a second’s thought, I simply answered, “I’m a writer.”  Now I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count, but that was the first time I ever answered it with those particular words.

Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life, or at least from the age that I could first pick up a pencil and carefully write down the words to a story.  But we live in a society that defines us by what we do for a living, and I have never earned a living through my writing.  Writing has always been something I did on the side, either while working at the rather tedious jobs I held when I worked full-time, or when I was a stay-at-home mom with my two children.  Sure, I sold some articles and even had a very short book published by an educational publisher, but a writing career was always a dream I pursued and never the reality I actually lived.

Which is why I was very surprised by the way I answered the question at the party.  The four children’s book manuscripts I have written are still sitting, unpublished, in my files.  My name is not, sadly, on the New York Times best-sellers list.  If you went to any library in the country and tried to find a book by Ann Coleman, you would fail to do so. (Unless there is another person by the same name out there who has had more publishing success than I have.  If there is, please don’t tell me, because I might be tempted to claim credit for her work when I’m having a bad day.)  Yes, I am now writing this blog, but it’s been going for eighteen months and I have only recently the 400-followers mark.  Advertisers are not exactly pounding on my door, wanting a piece of the action.

I think all that has changed is the way I have learned to think about myself.  When I was younger, I secretly defined myself as a writer, but believed that I had no right to publicly claim that title until I had appropriate validation from the publishing world.  I desperately wanted to sell books to a major publisher, not so much to see my work in print, but to feel as if I had finally earned permission to call myself a writer.  “Of course I’m an author,” I would be able to say, pointing casually at the shelf full of my published books as proof.

But now I realize that whether or not I can earn a living through my stories and essays isn’t what makes me a writer.  I have come to believe that if someone writes regularly (I do) and puts his or her writing out for others to read (I do), and works hard at  improving his or her writing skills (I do), then that person is, indeed, a writer.

Some of us are blessed to be able to earn a living doing what we love most, and that’s truly a wonderful thing.  But the rest of us don’t have to let ourselves be defined by how we pay our bills.  If we are doing what we love to do, whether it’s writing, gardening, painting, woodworking, or whatever, then I believe we have the right to define ourselves by our passion.  And we shouldn’t hesitate to share that definition with others when we are asked, as we always will be, “And what do you do?”

Broken Connections

DSC01566I have never thought of myself as a huge fan of technology.  I get annoyed at people who spend too much time staring at their tablets or cell phones; I prefer to shop at real stores rather than buy things off the internet, and according to my son, I have absolutely no understanding of what Wi-Fi is.  So I was a little surprised by just how much my life was disrupted recently when a storm that blew through town knocked out my cable and internet connection for over two days.

At first, I didn’t mind when I realized that the cable was out, meaning I couldn’t watch television or log on to the internet on my computer or phone.   For one thing, I was just grateful that our house had power, since so many of the homes and businesses in our area didn’t.  (Some lost their power for days, ours was out only for two hours.) And I kind of liked the unexpected break from technology, especially since it meant I had more time to do things like read a good book and tackle some of the chores that have been on my to-do list for a long time.  I never quite realized just how much time I wasted “surfing the net” until I suddenly couldn’t do it anymore.  And I may have lost my instant access to the news, but that meant that I was also less stressed and worried than I usually am when I actually know what’s going on in the world.

For a while, I was feeling a little smug about how well I was coping without my cable TV and my internet access.  But I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t very long before I was also feeling a bit anxious.  We had no service on Thursday, which is one of my usual days to publish a blog post.  I actually began to fret about not doing that, as though thousands of readers around the world were going to be logging onto my blog, only to be disappointed to find no new post.  Worse, I had no way of reading or commenting on the many blogs I follow, and worried that I might be offending my fellow bloggers by my absence.  (Because no one can possibly feel they have a successful blog unless they know I’m reading it, right?)  I’ve gone “off the grid” before, but I was always able to let people know ahead of time.

I was supposed to go out to eat with some friends, and  wanted to call the restaurant beforehand to make sure they had power. My first thought was to check their website to get the phone number.  Only I couldn’t do that with no internet, and I also couldn’t remember what I did with all my old phone books.  I needed to buy airline tickets for an upcoming trip, but I knew I didn’t have the patience to try to do that over the phone, since it seems that most airlines have exactly three customer service representatives answering their phones these days and calling them usually means waiting on hold for a day or two.  In short, I kept thinking of things I needed to do, and wanted to do, but no longer actually knew how to do without the help of the internet.

Which brought me to a rather startling realization.  I may not have any idea how my computer or cell phone actually works, and may believe that WiFi is something that exists solely to allow me to play solitaire on the internet, but I have become just as dependent upon technology as everyone else.  I like to think of myself as an old-fashioned sort who has a “take it or leave it” attitude towards technology, but that’s just a sham.  I never thought it could happen, but I’ve become addicted to the internet.  And as far as I know, there’s no twelve-step program to help me cope.

 

The Blank Page

IMG_1230For me, the hardest part about writing has always been coming up with an actual idea that I wanted to write about.  I really envy the writers who say they have dozens of ideas rattling around in their heads, and their only problem is finding enough time to do the actual writing, which they often regard as a chore.  I’m the exact opposite:  I love the process of writing, of experimenting with different words and phrases until I get it just right.  I even like editing my work, because I find that after taking a short break from the creative process, I can see so much more clearly where there is room for improvement.  For me, the problem is simply:  what in the world am I going to write about?

English was always my strongest subject in school, but once I got to the age where the teachers no longer assigned topics, I usually struggled with finding an idea for all those assigned essays.  It got to the point where I was searching for my topic while I was still reading the books, which definitely took the enjoyment out of reading.  Later, when I decided to try my hand at fiction, I had the same problem.  It took me forever to think of my plots, settings and characters.  Once I had those figured out, actually writing the books and short stories was easy.

Sadly, the same problem continues with my blog.  I have a self-imposed schedule of two blog postings a week, which means that I have to actually come up with two new ideas each and every week.  I spent about a month before I started this blog thinking of ideas for posts and even writing a few of them out, just to be prepared.  But I used those up a long time ago, now it is not uncommon for me to feel a bit of panic on the morning when I’m supposed to publish a blog post and I realize that I have absolutely no clue what I’m going to write about. (I am in awe of the people who post every day.  And I know I’ll never be one of them.)

I think the problem is mostly self-confidence.  Of course I have ideas, especially for this blog.  I have lots of things going on in my life, and lots of opinions about the world around me.  But I also have a nagging inner voice that counters most of my ideas with the discouraging words, “Who cares?  Who would want to read about that?”  I think that ultimately, my struggle isn’t with finding ideas or topics,  it’s with having the confidence to put my thoughts, ideas, and feelings out there with the assumption that anyone else is going to find them worth reading.  Because the bottom line is I write, just like most writers do, with the intention that someone else is actually going to read it.

In my fiction writing, things finally clicked when I learned to stop worrying about what an editor was going to think of my story and simply started writing the stories I truly wanted to write.  When that happened, the characters, the plots, and the settings came much more easily.  When writing for my blog, I am slowly learning to stop thinking about what my followers and readers want me to write, and to simply write about whatever topic is foremost in my mind at the moment.  I keep reminding myself that this isn’t an English class and I’m no longer trying to earn that perfect grade.

The blank page, or computer screen, will always be a little bit of a problem for me.  But with each blog post, with each story idea that I develop and write about, the process gets that much easier.  I’m learning to trust my own opinions and ideas, and I’m discovering just a little bit more about who I really am and finding the courage to share that person with others.  And that’s more than enough reason to keep writing.

Do It Anyway

IMG_4471I’m not exactly what you would call an motivated person.  I don’t spring out of bed in the morning, ready and eager to face the challenges of the day ahead.   My New Year’s resolutions are usually more along the line of “I will try to be more patient and tolerant with people who annoy me,” rather than “I will publish a book, run a marathon, and become chairman of the board of a worthy charity.”  Left to my own devices, I’m perfectly capable of wasting an entire day just puttering about the house, happily organizing my photo albums, re-reading a favorite book, or cleaning out the junk drawer.

I would prefer to think that I appreciate the simple things in life, but the truth is, I’m just not a “Type A” personality, and never will be.  And that means that I spend an awful lot of my time doing things that I really don’t want to do.

As much as I love helping shelter dogs, there are many days when I just don’t feel like walking them.  Some days I’m too tired or too sore, on other days I don’t want to be out for so long in the bitter cold or scorching heat, and there are also days when I’d just rather do something easier than walking ten or more shelter dogs in a row.   But if I’m on the schedule that day, I go down there and walk the dogs anyway, because I know that the dogs and the other volunteers are depending on me.

I enjoy writing my blog and being part of the blogging community, but there are days when I just can’t think of a single thing I want to write about.  It would be so easy to skip a turn on my self-imposed schedule of two blog posts a week, but I don’t.  If I’m supposed to publish a post on a particular day, I sit down in front of the computer and type until I come up with a post that’s at least somewhat worth reading.  That’s the only way I’ll keep this blog going.

This is nothing new.  When I worked full-time, there were many  mornings when I would have given anything for an extra day off, or at least the ability to delegate the parts of my job that I found boring or difficult to some other poor soul.  But I needed the paycheck, so I did the work anyway, without complaining.  Later, staying home with small children came with an endless stream of jobs that I would have preferred to avoid:  the dirty diapers, dealing with toddler tantrums, scrubbing vomit off the new couch, etc.  Raising small children can be hard, but they need and deserve loving care, so I did my best to see that they got it.

I think for most of us, life is sometimes a series of doing things that we’d rather not do, at times when we’d rather not do them.  And for people like me, who are not terribly driven or motivated, it probably always takes a little extra effort to tackle all the necessary challenges and chores that life throws our way.  But I don’t believe that’s ever an excuse for not being dependable, caring or hard-working.  I learned long ago that whether or not I feel like doing something is usually not what matters.  What matters is whether or not the job in front of me needs doing.