The Heat Is On

I am nothing if not predictable.  Every winter I complain bitterly about the cold temperatures, icy sidewalks and super-dry air.  I resent having to wear extra layers of clothing to keep warm, and then add a heavy coat, gloves and hat when I’m going outside.  Especially if I’m going somewhere nice and all those extra layers actually have to coordinate.  I hate constantly having to apply lotion and lip balm to keep my skin from drying out and my lips from chapping.  I don’t like the bare trees and the colorless winter landscape.  Each and every year, I am officially sick of Winter the very second I pack away the last of my Christmas decorations.  All I want is for warmer temperatures to arrive.

And then Summer hits, with it’s oppressive heat, stifling humidity and zillions of blood-thirsty insects.  And I wonder just exactly why I was in such a hurry for this particular season to arrive.

Sure, Summer has a lot of good qualities.  The trees are green again, the flowers are blooming, home-grown fruits and vegetables are in abundance and few things are nicer than jumping into a sparkling pool on a hot afternoon.  But like all seasons, summer has its challenges.

fullsizeoutput_495fThe lawn that looked so wonderful during our annual two weeks of Spring is now riddled with weeds and sporting a ton of brown spots from where our dog uses it as her bathroom.  I’d rather not use harsh chemicals, so every year I spend hours pulling up the “creeping charlie” that spreads so fast it really ought to be named “sprinting charlie.”  But no matter how many mounds of weeds I pull, I can never get rid of it.  And no matter how many times my husband puts down new sod to replace the dead spots, it’s just a matter of time before my dog and her killer urine turn the grass brown again.

While I do like the simplicity of Summer clothes, my vision of walking out of my house without a care in the world isn’t particularly accurate.  Depending on where I’m going, I still have some additions to make.  If I’m heading out to my volunteer job walking shelter dogs, I have to make sure that I’m wearing plenty of sunscreen.  And extra deodorant, since I’ll be sweating buckets before my shift is half over.  If I’m going to do yard work, I need to add insect repellent as well, because apparently our yard is a popular destination in the mosquito world.  Thousands come every year, bringing their friends and families with them.

And if I’m going to a restaurant, a medical office, church, or any kind of indoor store, I need to make sure I take a long a jacket or sweater.  Because the people who control the thermostats in those places firmly believe that the hotter it is outside, the colder it must be inside.  Which means that if the heat index is nearing 100 degrees, the optimum temperature inside must be somewhere around 48 degrees.  I can only assume they have unlimited budgets when it comes to paying their utility bills.

DSC00116Still, all things come to an end, and this Summer will be no exception.  Autumn will eventually arrive, followed by Winter and all that it has to offer.  Beautiful snowfalls, cozy sweaters, tasty mugs of hot chocolate, and absolutely no mosquitoes.  I can hardly wait…..

A Day of Rest

Last week was a busy one, for a number of reasons I won’t bore you with.  Suffice it to say that it was one of those weeks when I had trouble remembering all the the things I was supposed to be doing, let alone actually getting them done.  I like to think I handled it well, but I suspect if you asked those who had to deal with me, they would tell you I was just a little bit cranky from time to time.  (Or very cranky all week long, depending on their level of honesty verses tact.) But still, I finished off the week with most of the items checked off of my to-do list.  Which means that today I finally have a few free hours to spend any way my little heart desires.

And do you know what I’m actually doing today?  Nothing much.  Nothing much at all.

Not so long ago, I would have felt really guilty about wasting so much time when I could be doing something “worthwhile.”  I don’t know about you, but I always have a few big projects hanging over my head that need my attention.  Right now I have an old dresser that needs to be sanded and stained (there was a reason the antique store was selling it so cheaply and displaying it in such a dark corner), and there’s several bins in the basement filled with stuff I’m quite sure I don’t need any more.  Also, I promised my mother I’d wash her windows several weeks ago.  But I didn’t do any of things.

Instead, I mostly just puttered around my house, doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  I didn’t actually just sit on the couch and stare into space for several hours, but only because I don’t find just sitting and staring into space particularly relaxing.  What I do find relaxing is doing small chores that catch my attention, in my own way and in my own time.  I only sat down to write this post because I actually felt like writing it, and not because it’s Sunday and I almost always write a post on Sunday afternoon.

It may not seem as if I did anything particularly important today, but the fact of the matter is that I did accomplish one very important thing.  I rested.  I rested my mind by only doing tasks that required little or no thought, and I rested my body by slowing down and taking it easy for a change.  And you know what?  For the first time in several days I don’t feel tired, stressed and cranky.  Instead, I feel pretty darned good.

Life is far too busy for most of us, and we usually have little choice but to forge ahead with our hectic schedules.  But I believe that every once in a while, it’s important to “step off that treadmill” and allow ourselves a little breathing time.  We need to pay attention when our body tells us it needs a break, or when our thoughts become so jumbled that we can’t seem to think straight.  And those are the times when we need to find a way to slow down, tune out as much of the outside world as possible, and allow ourselves to simply be.  Because those are the times when resting is actually the most important thing we could possibly be doing.

No Thanks

If there’s one thing I ought to be used to by now, it’s rejection.  For years I worked as a free-lance writer, placing some articles in magazines and newspapers, and even selling a children’s book.  But for every acceptance, I received at least twenty rejections. Eventually I acquired a whole file drawer just bursting with rejection letters.  A few of them were personal (which I counted as a small victory), but the majority were simply the form letters that publishers sent out to every writer who sent them a manuscript or proposal that they didn’t want.

And the rejections weren’t limited to my writing career.  When I was fresh out of college with an English degree, I applied to any job that was even remotely related to writing.  In return, I got a few interviews, a ton of rejection letters and zero job offers.  Eventually, I was so desperate that I ended up working as a secretary for a small seminary.  There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary….it’s an important job….but it wasn’t at all what I wanted to be doing.

One way or another, rejection and I are very well acquainted.  So it surprises me how much rejection can still hurt, all these years later.  You’d think I would have developed an immunity to it somewhere along the line, but I haven’t.  It still stings, especially when it feels personal.  Which tells me that I am still putting far too much value on what other people think of me, and not nearly enough on what I think of myself.

I know it’s only natural to feel hurt by rejection.  It’s hard when an old friend gradually becomes too busy to get together, or when someone I’ve just met at a party immediately looks over my shoulder for someone more interesting.  I once went to a church dinner by myself, and I put my plate of food down at a table where four other people were sitting and then went to get a drink.  When I returned with my glass of water, all four of them had moved to a different table.  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t sting.

The trick, I think, is to remember that I have no control over how other people are going to react to me, and to remember that often their reaction has nothing to do with me at all.  Maybe my old friend really was much busier than usual.  And maybe the person looking over my shoulder at a party is searching for someone she’s supposed to be meeting.  And as rude as their behavior was, maybe the people I sat down with at the church dinner were trying to save seats for the rest of their family and just didn’t know how to tell me that when I approached their table.

But even when someone is actually rejecting me, I need to remember that their opinion of me is just that:  their opinion.  And that while it feels good to have others appreciate and validate us, what ultimately matters is that we recognize our own self-worth and not wait for others to acknowledge it for us.

As a writer, I survived all those rejection letters by reminding myself of the simple truth that just because a publisher didn’t want my manuscript didn’t actually mean that my manuscript had no value.  It just meant that particular publisher didn’t think it could make a profit selling my book.  So I kept writing, and I kept sending out my manuscripts and queries, and I did make some sales.  I was very intentional about believing in the value of what I had written.  And sometimes I need to work just as hard at believing in the value of me.

Lessons From A Small Town

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

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

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

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

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

Reverse Progress

When I was young, I grew just a little bit more knowledgeable with each passing year.  Partly because I was going to school where it was someone’s job to teach me new things, but part of it was just that as I grew older, I also acquired more understanding of the world around me and how it worked.  Yet somewhere along the line, that process has reversed. Now with each passing year, I seem to be a little more out-of-touch with the modern world and a little less knowledgeable about almost everything.

I blame technology for a big part of this, since it is evolving much faster than I can possibly handle, and it is also invading nearly every aspect of my life.  Take, for example, the telephone.  I vividly remember when I first learned to use a telephone, and how I promptly called my grandmother to brag about it.  I think I was about four, and I know that the phone had a rotary dial.  My mastery of the telephone lasted for many years, through the advent of push-button phones, wireless phones and even the multi-line phone I had to answer at my first job.  Then along came the “smart phone.”  I know how to use less than a third of the apps on it, and it took me over a week to figure out how to disable the annoying chime it decided to emit each time I got a new email. Which means that when it comes to my telephone skills, I’ve actually lost ground.

moms-bunSadly, my understanding of the cultural and fashion trends around me is also slipping.  I came of age in the Seventies, which means that I have many cringe-worthy photos of me during my teenage years, and am reluctant to pass judgement on the fashion choices of today’s young people. Even so, I admit that I don’t get the reason for the popular “man bun.”  Maybe I spent too much time waiting for my mom to get her bun exactly right before our family could go anywhere (she wore her hair in a bun for years), but I don’t see why any young man would voluntarily go to the time and trouble to put his hair in a bun when a simple ponytail would do.  And I really don’t get why he would want to cover it up in a cute little knitted cap.

As an English major, I spent years learning the proper use of the English language and the complicated rules of grammar, and felt confident in my ability to fashion a sentence that was not only clear but grammatically correct.  And then along came the word-processing programs with built-in spell check (which I do like) and grammar check.  I can’t tell you how many times I’m happily writing when the dreaded green underline shows up, alerting me to a grammar mistake.  I move the words around, consult my grammar books, change the punctuation, grind my teeth, and swear profusely, but the green underline doesn’t go away.  After a while, I just ignore it and keep writing, but my confidence in my grammar skills is shaken, and I’m faced with yet another area where I’m back-sliding.

I have heard people say that the secret to successfully aging is to keep learning new things, and I believe that is true.  I just didn’t realize that the reason I needed to keep learning new things is that if I don’t, the time may well come when I don’t understand anything at all.

Now That’s Impressive!

img_4884The older I get, the less easily I am impressed.  Gone are the days when I got really excited by a grand-slam home run in a baseball game, or envy a friend’s beautiful new piece of jewelry, or even believe that winning the lottery would be the nicest thing that could ever happen to me.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy those things anymore, because I do.  (Note to my readers: if one of you ever does win the lottery and are looking for someone to share all that loot, I’ll gladly step up.)  It’s just that I have gotten to the point where I no longer find those things particularly impressive.

More and more, I find myself paying attention to, and often admiring, not so much what people have or what they do, but how they treat others.  It’s wonderful when a professional athlete is able to help his team win an important game, but it’s impressive when he uses his fame to help out a worthy cause.  It’s great when the new company that someone has poured their heart and soul into finally takes off and makes a lot of money, but it’s impressive when the owner of that company uses their money to give back to the community and create opportunities for others to succeed as well.

I especially admire people who are thoughtful and generous towards others when no one is looking and when they have nothing to gain from their kindness.  I will always be grateful to the surgeon who operated on my husband’s knee, because after the operation was over, he took the time to come into the waiting room and not only tell me everything went well, but also to sit down beside me and ask if I had any questions.  I’m sure he had a very busy schedule that day, but he acted as if he had all the time in the world to reassure an anxious spouse.  It was a small kindness, but at the time, it made all the difference.

It’s not always easy to be kind, especially when we are bombarded with things on the news, social media, etc. that make us frustrated, angry and afraid.  And it’s hard to be kind when we’re rushing through our days, trying to keep up with our hectic schedules.  But often in life, what is hard is also exactly what needs to be done.  We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, or even fix all the issues in our own lives, but what we can do is remember that kindness truly does help make things better.  And to do our best to practice it as often as we possibly can.

And when we are able to be kind, and when we are able to treat others with the same degree of compassion and tolerance that we want shown to us, then that is truly impressive.  Each and every time we do it.

Necessary Filters

Whenever I hear the term “personal filter,” I immediately think of the filter that needs to exist between our brain and our mouth.  You know, the filter that keeps us from saying out loud every single thought that crosses our brain, especially if our words can hurt someone else.  It’s what helps us simply think, but not say, “Wow, those pants make your butt look even bigger than it actually is!” whenever one of our friends makes an unfortunate fashion choice.  If we want to maintain healthy and positive relationships with other people, having a personal filter is not only a good thing, it’s also a necessary thing.

But lately, I have come to believe that the filter between our brain and our mouth is not the only necessary filter we need.  We live in an age of information overload, thanks to twenty-four hour news channels, social media, our cell phones and any other screen device that keeps us constantly in touch with the outside world.  And sadly, a lot of the information we receive is not just negative, it’s so negative that it leaves us frightened, angry and depressed.

I was talking to a friend the other day who works for the animal shelter where I volunteer, and she told me that she has begun limiting her exposure to the news, because she already sees the result of too much animal abuse and neglect in the course of her job.  It’s not that she doesn’t want to know what is going on in the world, because she does.  It’s just that she has learned that there are limits to the amount of negative information she can safely process at one time, so she has become intentional about filtering the amount and type of information that she is receiving.  I suspect that is a common trait among those who works in fields where they routinely deal with suffering, human or animal.

I’m not saying that I think we should all “bury our heads in the sand” and ignore the very real problems that exist in the world.  Of course we need to know about problems in order to simply protect ourselves, much less actually try to help with the tragedies and solve the problems.  But I am saying that I believe it is okay to decide how much negative news I can handle at any given time without being completely overwhelmed, and to filter what I watch, hear and read accordingly.

Personally, I have decided to discern between the news that I need to know because it either effects me and the people I know or because I have the ability to do something about the problem or crisis, and the news that is horrible but I know I can’t do a single thing about it.  Even then, I believe it’s is okay for me to screen what I actually see and read about each issue.  I want to know about something as horrific as the Yulin Dog Meat Festival so that I can join in the voices of protest against it, but that doesn’t mean I have  to actually watch a video of a dog being tortured.  Similarly, I can read about the latest terrorist atrocity without actually seeing a photo of a person being burned alive.  I don’t need to see all the details to know that there are horrible things going on that need to be stopped.

Having a filter in place between me and all the troubles of the world doesn’t mean I don’t care.  It just means that I am recognizing the limitations of my own coping skills, and that I respect everyone else’s right to do the same thing.

Easter Reality

IMG_1209I’m not sure why, but I was really looking forward to Easter this year.  I bought a bunch of Easter cards and sent them out to various friends and family, filled several candy dishes with chocolate eggs and other colorful candies, and even broke out my “Easter ornament tree” much earlier than I usually do.  I told my extended family that I wanted to have the after-church Easter brunch at my house this year, and looked up a few new recipes to serve. Maybe it’s the early spring we are enjoying, since it means we have flowers and beautiful budding trees everywhere I look, but in the past few weeks, I have been more than ready for a fun and festive Easter celebration.

But life doesn’t always go according to plan.  Two days ago, we got the very sad news that my son-in-law’s father passed away after a long and valiant battle against cancer.  He was a hardworking, smart and extremely kind man who was devoted to his wife and family, and his passing has left a huge hole in the lives of the many people who loved him. And somehow, celebrating anything, including Easter, didn’t seem so appropriate anymore.

Of course I knew that dispensing with my usual Easter traditions wasn’t going to lessen anyone’s grief, so I stuck with my normal routine.  I still invited my mother over to dye eggs on Easter Saturday; I still put together the usual Easter baskets for my immediate family, and I am still hosting Easter brunch, with the understanding that it is perfectly okay for my daughter and son-in-law to skip it this year.  But in many ways, it feels like nothing more than just going through the motions.

So this Easter, I am honoring the holiday mostly by remembering what a fragile gift life is, how important it is to spend time with our loved ones while we still can, and how necessary it is to reach out and support one another in our times of suffering and great personal loss.  This year, I am just concentrating on what, for me, is Easter’s true message of hope in in the midst of despair, and the enduring and ultimate power of love.

Planning Ahead?

IMG_0291As anyone who has ever met me knows, I am really, really, good at worrying. For me, worrying is almost as natural as breathing, and for the most part, if I’m breathing, I’m also worrying about something.  So I knew that when my daughter got engaged, I was going to have to make an honest effort to just go along with her decisions, to simply dig in and do the work that is required to pull off a wedding these days and try my very best to trust that things would all work out.

I’ve been making a very conscious effort not to think about all the things that could possibly go wrong, which is my usual approach to just about everything.  I know that sounds awfully negative, but it’s really not.  My theory is that if I have anticipated a possible problem and already figured out a solution, or at least an acceptable reaction to the problem, then I don’t have to think about it anymore.  Because if the problem happens, I already know what I’m going to do about it.  Still, I knew my habit of obsessing over potential problems was going to drive my daughter, her fiancé and my husband all crazy so I tried very hard not to do it, and mostly succeeded.

IMG_0297So that might explain why I wasn’t as prepared for this, the week before the big wedding, as I would normally have been.  When a representative from the church called yesterday to say that our minister had been called out of town for a family emergency and wouldn’t be able to do the wedding, I didn’t have another minister already in mind who could do the service.  (Luckily, they did.)  And when my husband called early this morning to say that when he called the limo service to verify where they are taking the bridal party for their after-wedding photos and got a recording saying that the phone number was no longer in service, I had no back up plan handy.  And when my daughter texted me a little later to let me know that the dentist just told her she needs to have a root canal tomorrow and asked what I thought she should do, I had to fight the urge to tell her to call her father and do whatever he advised.

Now I know that the odds are very high that everything will all work out just fine.  The problem with the limo service was simply with the phone system, and they didn’t really go out of business three days before the wedding and two days after we made the final payment.  My daughter is going to a very good dental specialist and I’m sure the procedure will actually make her feel much better, as who wants to get married with a sore tooth?   And the church’s Wedding Coordinator has been in close touch, assuring me that he will make sure everything goes well during the ceremony.

I still think that I would have handled the problems that have arisen in the last forty-eight hours a little bit better if I had followed my usual routine of thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong with the wedding and had already identified some solutions.  My system of planning for potential problems (also known as worrying) may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  But I have reached the point in my life where I realize that it’s what works for me.

Right Here, Right Now

Last Friday, I was having a truly rotten day.  I didn’t feel very well when I woke up that morning, and heading down to the Humane Society to walk dogs in the heat and humidity didn’t make things any better.  Neither did discovering that we didn’t have nearly enough people to get all the dogs walked that morning.  It was just one of those days that starts out badly and goes downhill from there, as one problem after another kept popping up.  It wasn’t long before I was sincerely wishing that I had just stayed home.  Too many dogs, too many issues, and too few resources to deal with them all.

IMG_0460 2Then I decided to take a particularly rowdy dog out to the exercise pen, thinking that the time off-leash would do her some good, and the time spent sitting on a picnic table in the shade while she ran around the pen would do me even better.  But the thing with dogs is, they don’t always act the way we think they’re going to act.  I had envisioned her romping around the exercise pen, which she did, for exactly one lap.   Then she hopped up on the table, gave me a quick doggie kiss, shimmied down below the table for a second, then poked her head and shoulders back up between the bench seat and the table top.  She continued to work that picnic table as if it was a jungle gym, popping out from one unexpected place after another before disappearing down below again. I’ve never seen such a flexible dog.  If she’d be an actual gymnast, I’m pretty sure she would have scored at least a seven on agility alone.  Finally, she just lay down next to me, with her head on my leg, sighing happily.  And just like that, my crabby, despairing mood was gone.

As amazing as her antics with the picnic table were, the best thing that dog did was allow me to tune out all the problems that had been overwhelming me and to just focus on the here and now.  Sitting in the shade, watching a shelter dog have a wonderful time during her break from her solitary run was a beautiful thing, and made me realize that if I hadn’t come in this morning, this moment wouldn’t have happened.  And that allowed me to calm down, breathe deeply, and to be glad that I was in this particular place, at this particular time, and especially with this particular dog.

IMG_0471Of course, this is a life lesson that goes beyond my time at the animal shelter:  when the world’s problems seem too overwhelming to even think about, it’s okay to turn my back on the big picture and focus on the smaller, more personal  picture, at least for a little while.  Sometimes I just need to live in the moment, and to focus on what is right in front of me.  I know the old saying goes “can’t see the forest for the trees,” and I get that.  Usually, in order to get things done, we need to stop obsessing over the little details and look at the big picture.  But I believe there are also times when it’s necessary to ignore the forest and just focus on the trees.  Maybe even just the one tree that is particularly beautiful and affirming.   Because I believe there are times when happiness is best found in the details.