Worth a Try

When I first started this blog, I used to write a new post every four days. As time went by, posting that often became difficult, so I gradually extended the time between posts to a full week. And that’s where I’ve stayed for the past few years, more or less.

Even though it’s much easier to keep up with weekly posts, I have run into a problem. I tend to get what I think is a GREAT idea for my next blog post a few days before I’m actually due to write it. I’ll plan the basic outline and even think of a title. But by the time I actually sit down to write my weekly post, I can’t remember a single thing about the post I intended to write other than I thought it was a really terrific idea.

One of my favorite authors, Andrew Taylor, believes that writers should never write down their story ideas. He believes that if an idea is strong enough, you’ll remember it, whether you want to or not. Maybe he is right, and that great idea I had last Thursday wasn’t really so great after all, since it managed to completely slip my mind by today. Or maybe I just have a truly terrible memory, and therefore am capable of forgetting absolutely everything, regardless of its importance. (Most people who know me would vote for the second theory.) But whatever the reason, I’ve realized that if I’m going to come up with a new post every week, I have to figure out a way to remember the things I actually want to write about.

I tend to resist change, but there comes a time when we have to be willing to set aside the things that don’t work for us, and trying to remember the ideas I get for posts days before I actually want to write them doesn’t work for me. So it’s time for me to admit that, and move on to something that does work. Like, say, writing down my ideas as soon as they come and putting them in a file marked “ideas for blog posts.”

And this is a lesson that goes far beyond blogging. It’s hard to let go of our old ways, even when common sense tells us it’s past time to do so. Sometimes the only way to move forward in life is to shed the habits and beliefs that no longer work for us and be willing to at least try something new. Because often there is a better way, if we can just find the courage to look for it.

I don’t know if my new system of blogging will work or not, because I haven’t tried it yet. (Face it, I could easily forget where I put my idea file.) But I do know that my old way was definitely not working, and that it’s time to try something new. And I also know that if I can keep an open mind and persevere, I’ll find something better eventually.

Taking Control

I’m not the sort of person who courts controversy.  In fact, it’s usually something that I avoid at all costs.  No one can run away from an argument quicker than I can, and I  usually read people well enough to know what they do and do not want to hear me say.  Yes, there are times when I slip up and blurt out something that gives great offense.  But that’s usually when I’m talking to my husband or my kids, and can’t resist the urge to offer a bit of motherly or wifely advice that is most certainly not wanted.  In general, I’ve always had great confidence in my ability to avoid offending people or starting an unwanted argument.

Until recently, that is.

I first noticed the change when the Covid-19 virus showed up, followed by the shelter at home orders.  I quickly realized that sharing my opinion on the subject was a risky thing to do, even when I intended my words to be comforting or reassuring.  I also realized that there were times when my own nerves were so raw that I wasn’t willing or even able to silence my true opinion and offer up the words that someone else wanted to hear.  The time had come, it seemed, when sometimes silence was the best response I could give.

And when parts of our country began a gradual lifting of the quarantine restrictions, the situation only became worse.  People had very strong opinions on the subject, and understandably so.  What was harder to understand was the absolute intolerance that many people had for anyone who didn’t absolutely share their opinion.  Once again, silence seemed to be the safe response.

Then came the murder of George Floyd, which triggered the nation-wide protests that have been going on for the past couple of weeks.  The news and social media is full of images of peaceful protests, both large and small, as well as images of mob violence.  And of course everyone has an opinion about it all, which is normal.  Sadly, many people are also convinced that their own opinion and is the only proper one and that anyone who thinks differently deserves to be treated like garbage.

I’m not sure how we have come to this, but I am sure I don’t like it.  Our country is dealing with some very real and very hard issues right now, at a time when most everyone’s nerves are basically shot from being quarantined for weeks.  I get that it’s much easier to lash out at someone that to try, even for a second, to see things from someone else’s point of view.  But I also know that there’s only so much hate and nastiness that the world can take.

I don’t want to live in a world where I have to be afraid of people who are different from me.  I don’t want to hesitate before I push the “like” button on a Facebook post because I’m afraid someone who disagrees with that post might be upset.  I want to be considerate of other people’s feelings, but I don’t want to remain silent solely out of fear of the response I’ll get if I dare to say what I really think.

Which means I have, basically, two choices.  I can live in fear of offending people who are all too ready to be offended,  or I can find the courage to be my genuine self and risk being attacked for it.  And I’ve decided to go with the second choice.  Because if I want to live in a world where people really are allowed to be true to themselves, then I have to be willing to be true to myself first.

Gratitude

There are times in life when it’s hard not to feel sorry for ourselves, and this is definitely one of them.  We’re grieving for our old way of life, when we could come and go as we pleased,  hang out with friends and family, and being in a large crowd wasn’t dangerous and illegal.  We’re worried that we might get seriously ill, or that someone we love might get sick and or die, and our hearts break for all of those who are grieving a loved one right now or battling this virus themselves.  It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed, and of course, that is often exactly what we are feeling these days.

But we’re in this for the long haul, and personally, I can’t live in a constant state of worry and fear.  So I try very hard to focus on the things in my life that are still good, right here and now, even in the midst of the chaos.  And I’ve found that once I stop worrying quite so much about what might happen and yearning quite so much for what I once had, I realize that there are still many things in my life that inspire nothing but gratitude.

I’m grateful that I still have my health, and that no one in my family has yet caught this virus.  I know that can change at any time, which is why I’m also incredibly grateful for all the brave souls in the health care field who are risking their own health every time they go to work.   Their dedication and courage will not be forgotten anytime soon.

I’m glad that I’m able to provide childcare for my grandson while his daycare is closed, because few things are better than spending time with a grandchild.  And as anyone who cares for toddlers knows, they are a wonderful distraction from the worries in life, both big and small.

I’m grateful that I have a back yard I can enjoy when I feel the need to get out of my house, especially now that there are signs of Spring everywhere I look.  In the midst of so much loss, it’s reassuring to see the signs of new life in the budding trees and the blooming flowers.  Spring is all about new birth and renewal, and that’s a message we can use right now.

I’m grateful that so far, I’ve been able to get everything I truly need in terms of food and basic supplies.  The empty shelves in the supermarkets do fill back up, and the temporary shortages remind me not to take any of it for granted.  Even in the face of this contagious virus, people are still producing food and medicine, delivering it to the stores, and working at those stores so that the rest of us can have what we need to live.  And immense gratitude is the only possible response.

I’m grateful for the small things that make these days so much easier to bear:  getting lost in a good book, spending the evening playing Yahtzee with my husband, and talking to my mom on the phone every day, especially when she tells me she’s doing just fine.  I’m cooking more than I have in years, so I’m especially grateful that my husband always tells me that what comes out of my kitchen “tastes great,” even those times when I know it doesn’t.

But most of all, I’m grateful for all the wonderful people in my life who take the time to stay in touch because there is no way in the world I would get through the upcoming weeks without their support.  Sharing our worries, offering each other encouragement, helping each other find some way to laugh and be happy, even for a little while, makes all the difference.  So to everyone who is reaching out right now, through phone calls, texts, emails, blogs, or social media….thank you.  Because you are a reminder that together, we really will get through this.  And I couldn’t possibly be more grateful for that.

Let Your Light Shine

Many years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I remember buying a teen magazine that had an article in it about how to be more popular.  Like most kids that age, I definitely wanted to be more popular, and so I eagerly read the article.  I remember one paragraph in particular that went something like, “Forget all that advice about just ‘being yourself!’  What’s so special about being yourself?  If you want more people to like you, you need to figure out how to fit in with the crowd!”

I may have been a typical early teenager, struggling with raging hormones, self-doubt and all the other issues that go with that difficult phase of life, I was still horrified by what I read.  Even then, I knew that there was something very wrong with the advice to bury my true identity and simply copy the behavior I saw all around me in order to have more friends.  I’d like to say that from that moment on, I stopped worrying about what others thought about me and always spoke and acted according to my own conscience, but that would be a lie.  In my defense, I was very young and still unsure of so many things, including who I really was and what I really believed.

But now that I’m all grown up (and then some), I no longer have that excuse.  One of the benefits of aging is that we begin to understand exactly who we are and we tend to know exactly what we do and do not believe.  Yet there are still times when I struggle to live according to my own principles, and still hesitate to show my true self or share my true opinions, mostly out of fear of how others are going to react if I do.

Sadly, the times we live in encourages this sort of fear because we’re conditioned to only accept those people who are “just like us.”  And so we keep quiet about any aspect of our personality or any of our beliefs that we think might cause someone else to reject us. I don’t like to tell people I’m a political Independent, because I’ve found that as soon as someone discovers you don’t support their party, they automatically believe you really (if secretly) support the opposing party.  I often hesitate to tell people I’m a Christian, because there is such a variety of beliefs in Christianity that I’m afraid they’ll misunderstand what I actually believe.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

Still, I think the time has come for me to stop being so afraid of rejection (or conflict) that I hide some of who I really am and what I really think.  I guess I’ve reached the age where I’d like to have the courage to live according to my own values, and just accept the reaction that gets.  Plus, I try very hard to accept other people for who they really are, and pride myself on having close friends and family whose beliefs are very different from mine.  If I’m willing to accept other people’s true selves, then shouldn’t I give other people the chance to do the same for me?

I’ve always liked that saying, “just be yourself–everyone else is already taken!”  Words to live by……

The Wall

If I made a list of 1,000 ways I’d like to spend my day, having a root canal wouldn’t make the cut.  I’m nervous during even routine visits to the dentist, where the only thing they remove from my teeth is a little bit of unwanted tartar.  Major procedures where they actually drill into my teeth to remove nerves or advanced decay usually terrify me, and make me wish I had a nice big bottle of Valium handy.  Or morphine.  Or enough anesthetic to knock out a hippo.

So I’d been feeling pretty darned proud of myself lately, what with getting through two root canals in less than a week and managing to handle myself with a certain amount of grace and dignity during both of them.  I did not curse at the dentist, try to exit the chair before the procedure was over, or threaten anyone with grievous bodily harm if they hurt me at all.  I was polite and cooperative, if a bit tense, and even thanked both the dentist and her assistant for their good work before I left the office.

All of which is to say that I had convinced myself that I was finally okay with major dental procedures, and no longer the sort of person who had a hard time sleeping the night before even a minor filling was scheduled.  I won’t go as far as saying that I was looking forward to the three crowns I have to get next week, but I wasn’t overly nervous about them either.  So it came as a complete shock to me just how strongly I reacted last night when I discovered that there was a chance I might actually need a third root canal  before the week was up.

If you’ve ever seen a two-year old throw a temper tantrum, you can probably picture the hissy fit I threw last night.  I stomped around the house, said all the curse words that I had held back during the previous root canals, snapped at my husband when he tried to reason with me, and even cried just a little bit. Eventually, not unlike a two-year old, I took to my bed and slept it off. Apparently, I wasn’t handling things quite as well as I had thought.

What I had assumed was a major change in my feelings about dental procedures was actually just a case of my sucking it up and doing what needed to be done.  Two of my teeth needed a root canal, and so I had two root canals, and behaved like an adult during the process.  But underneath that calm demeanor was a person who is very anxious whenever she sits down in the dental chair, and that person was counting on the fact that there were no more root canals in her near future.  The possibility that I might have to endure another one was more than I could handle last night, and so I had just a bit of a melt-down.

Of course, once I woke up this morning, I had calmed down and realized that I could, in fact, handle whatever procedures, dental or otherwise, I am still facing.  And even though I was just a little embarrassed by my behavior last night, I also realized that it really isn’t anything to be embarrassed about.  No matter how much we try to be strong and cope with whatever life throws at us, there are times when it is just going to feel like too much.  And those are the times when we “hit the wall,” emotionally speaking.  We vent, we cry, we withdraw a bit, and stop pretending to be stronger than we really are.  It’s just part of being human.

And eventually, we find the courage to pick ourselves up and keep right on going, which is all that really matters anyway.

A Good Journey

It doesn’t seem possible, but according to my calendar, it has been exactly two years since I started this blog.  I can still remember how nervous I was about putting my writing on the internet where anyone and everyone could not only read it, but also comment on it.  I spent weeks writing and rewriting several short essays about being middle aged, just so I would have something to publish even when writer’s block struck.  I worried that no one would want to read my blog, and then I worried that lots of people would read it, but hate it.  And tell me exactly why in my comment section.  But eventually, with the constant encouragement (and occasional nagging) of a good friend, I sat down at the computer and wrote my first post.

Although I’ve been writing almost my entire life, I didn’t really understand what writing a blog entailed.  I knew that blogging meant I would have to find the motivation to write regular posts, to read and respond to any comments that were made, and that I’d probably have to deal with a fair amount of spam.  I knew I had to learn blogging terminology, such as widgets, tags, themes, etc.  It all sounded very confusing, but I believed I would figure it out eventually, and I was mostly right about that.  Above all, I knew that I was venturing into new territory and trying something that I had never done before.  There was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work out at all, and then I would just have to hope that no one ever asked me, “Whatever happened to that blog you started?”  I already had more than my share of failure in my writing career, and didn’t want to add to it.

But my blog didn’t fail.  I wrote my posts on a regular schedule; a small (but very much appreciated) group of people read them and often left encouraging comments, and with each passing month, my confidence grew.  I began adding photos to my posts and venturing out into other topics besides coping with middle age.  Slowly but surely, I found the courage to share my real opinions, thoughts and experiences, and discovered how liberating it is to be true to myself rather than writing only what I thought others wanted to read.  In many ways, that confidence has spilled over to other areas of my life as well.

Beyond that, the connections I’ve made through my blog have been a wonderful, if unexpected, gift.  My regular readers include friends from my past and family who live far away, and I love being in closer contact with them.  I’ve met terrific new people from all over the world, whose opinions I have come to value.  I may not have met any of them in person, but many feel like friends.

Of course there have been the tough times, when something technical isn’t working with my blog, or when I stare at my computer screen and think, “Well that’s it, you’ve finally run out of ideas!  Time to quit!”   But I don’t quit, because my blog has become too important to me to abandon.  I’m writing regularly and more confidently than I ever have before, and I’m interacting with many terrific people.  Honestly, I like where my blog has led me so far, and I plan to stick around to see where the journey leads next.

Get Closer

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was heading to lunch with a work friend when I tripped at the top of a set of very tall and very steep concrete steps.  I tried to grab the railing to catch myself, but it was too far away.  Luckily, my friend was strong and had good reflexes, because he shot out his arm to block my fall, and then steadied me with his other hand.  If it hadn’t been for him, I would have fallen all the way down those stairs and ended up in a broken heap on the asphalt parking lot many feet below.  I was still shaken when we reached the restaurant, and apparently, so was my friend, because the first thing he did was order a stiff drink.  I noticed his hand was trembling slightly when he lifted the glass.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he saved my baby’s life.

Aside from our work life, my friend and I had very little in common.  He was single and still living with his parents while I was married and living in my own house.  He had never left the St. Louis area, whereas I had only recently returned to it.  He was gay; I was straight.  I was an avid animal lover, yet when I asked him to sign my anti-vivisection petition, he politely declined, saying he saw nothing wrong with experimenting on animals if it had the potential to help humans.  I could go on, but you get the idea. We were two very different people, and yet we worked together quite well and found it easy to be friends.

And this story is just one example of the many times my life has been enriched by people who are very different from me.  I am white, but the woman whose encouragement gave me the most confidence to write for children is black.  I think deer are among the most beautiful creatures on this earth, but I have friends and relatives who hunt.  I love to read, am terrible at sports and have unbelievably bad math skills, yet the man I married rarely reads, went to college on a sports scholarship and makes his living as an accountant.  And I couldn’t imagine life without him.

I know the current trend is increasingly to “stick with our own kind,” and have nothing to do with those who have different values, different cultures and different beliefs, but I honestly think it is a horrible one.  Sure, we can watch only news shows that reflect our opinions, and we can rage against those who think (and, worst of all vote) differently than we do, and we can “unfriend” all the people on Facebook whose posts we disagree with.  But if we do, the loss is our own.

So many people are worth knowing, if we are brave enough to give them a chance.  When we get close to people who seem different, we often find they have some wonderful qualities mixed in there with the stuff that puts us off.   l don’t know about you, but I have good friends  who voted for Clinton, and I have good friends who voted for Trump.  I didn’t vote for either of those candidates, but you know what?  I still value my friends who did more than words can say.

And whenever I do feel the temptation to “stick with my own kind,” all I have to do is remember my friend and coworker from all those years ago.  Because if I hadn’t gotten to know him, he wouldn’t have been with me on those steps.  And I might not have a daughter at all.martha-at-xmas

Sing Your Own Song

IMG_0354During our recent trip to Ireland, my husband and I went into an Irish pub in hopes of hearing some authentic Irish music.  And while the pub did have a young man singing that night, he didn’t play the traditional Irish music we had hoped to hear.  Instead, he played a wide variety of familiar songs, and at one point he even launched into a medley of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits.  At first, I was annoyed that he wasn’t singing the songs I wanted to hear, but after a while I just relaxed and enjoyed the music.  He played a mean guitar and had a beautiful voice, and eventually I realized that what he was doing was singing exactly the songs he wanted to sing, and singing them very well.

Maybe it was the two glasses of wine, but I began to think that there might be a lesson for all of us in that pub.  The young man could have played it safe and served up exactly the sort of music that most tourists want to hear when they enter an Irish pub, but he choose not to do that.  Maybe he wasn’t good at performing traditional Irish music, or maybe he simply didn’t care for it very much.  Maybe he knew that the city of Galway is full of pubs that cater to its many tourists, and felt that he would stand out from the crowd more if he performed a different kind of music.  I didn’t ask him, so I’ll never know.  But I got the sense that he was pouring his heart into the music he chose to sing, and because of that his performance was so good that my husband and I stayed and listened to him much longer than we had intended.

Not all of us can sing or play an instrument, but I believe that each and every one of us has something unique to offer.  We each have our own individual perspective on things, our own unique gifts and our own special way of viewing the world around us.  I have gone to several of those popular painting classes where the teacher shows everyone (no painting talent needed, thank goodness) how to paint a particular picture.  And even though we are led through the process step-by-step, I am always amazed at how different our finished pictures look.  Even with the same subject, the same paint colors and the same teacher, we all come up with something just a little bit different, and that is uniquely ours.

There will never be any shortage of people in our lives who want to tell us exactly how to act, what to believe, and how we should use our creative gifts.  And sometimes its very tempting to listen to them in order to feel the acceptance and validation that we all tend to crave.  But when we do that, when we ignore our own truths and mimic someone else’s, or when we paint the picture, write the story, or sing the song that someone else wants us to, we are turning our backs on the essence of what makes each of us a unique and worthwhile individual.

I think it’s important to trust our own perceptions, to believe in our own visions and to stand in our own truths, and to share those with others, even when we’re not so sure how they will be received.  One way or another, we all need to “sing our own song” with courage and conviction.  Even if that means belting out a Johnny Cash medley in a traditional Irish pub.

Not Too Easy

I have always been the sort of person who prefers the easy route.  I remember when my high school English class was studying the works of the Romantic poets, and our teacher asked us each to write a poem that incorporated nature, human suffering, and religion as our homework assignment.  While others in the class complained about having to write a poem, I whipped out my pen and paper and immediately wrote mine:

  Looking out my window,

I see the rain has gone;

In the sky, there’s a rainbow,

And it’s time to mow the lawn!

I often wonder as I mow,

straining over the sod,

“why don’t we just let it grow?”

It was put there, you know, by God!

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I don’t remember the rest of it, but it went on along those lines for at least another two stanzas.  I thought it was funny, and even read it out loud to the rest of the class.  So I was shocked when one of my friends in the class after mine told me that the teacher had said that if I turned that poem in, I would receive a “D.”  Not about to let the teacher get the best of me, I went home and spent a couple of hours writing a poem about a drug addict dying of an overdose in a weed-strewn alley.  I got an “A” on that poem, and that same friend reported that the teacher actually read it to their class, even crying a little at the end. (Served her right, I thought.)

I’m still not sure that my first poem deserved a “D”  (hadn’t the teacher ever heard of satire?), or that my second poem deserved an “A” (it was deliberately melodramatic).  But I do know that I put a lot more effort into the second one, and that I wouldn’t have bothered to write it if my friend hadn’t told me the teacher hated my first one.  Which is a pattern that I have repeated throughout my life.

I may prefer it when my life is easy, when things are going along just fine with minimal effort on my part,  but those are rarely the times when I accomplish anything worth doing.     It’s almost always during the hard times in my life when I discover just exactly what I am capable of doing, and that’s often a lot more than I thought.

I spent most of my life fainting at the sight of blood, and thought that meant I would always be useless in any kind of medical emergency.  But the first time my daughter  fell off her bike and came running to me, dripping blood, I managed to wipe away her tears and clean and bandage her wounds without getting the slightest bit dizzy.  I tend to be impatient and a little claustrophobic, but the time our plane sat on the runway for six hours waiting for permission to take off taught me that I really do have the ability to sit patiently in tight quarters for as long as I need to.  And the succession of “fixer-uppers” that my husband and I have bought and lived in has taught me that I can work harder and longer than I had ever thought possible.  If we had been able to afford a “move-in ready” house, I would probably still believe I could never acquire any rehabbing skills.

So while I will probably always prefer the easy life, I think it is also a good thing that the easy life is not always the life I lead.  Life’s hardships, both big and small, push me to test my limits and discover strengths that I never knew I had.  And in the end, that makes the hard times worth it.

Take The Chance

Martha & DanielWhen my son started first grade, I decided to look for a part-time job to help supplement our household income.  I had worked as a free-lance writer for several years, but both the assignments and the pay were sporadic at best.  I heard that the local school district often used substitutes for their various offices, and so I applied for the job.  Shortly afterwards, I was called for an interview to be a substitute teacher.  I knew there must have been a mistake, but since it had been a long time since I’d had a job interview, I decided to go anyway, just for the experience.  Surprisingly, I was hired on as an elementary-level substitute teacher (my bachelor’s degree qualified me for short-term assignments), and added to the list of potential office subs as well.

Early one morning a few weeks later, I got a call from a woman in the Human Resources Department, wanting to know if I could come in right away.  I should have been thrilled, but I was standing there in my underwear, with my hair still dripping wet from the shower, and I had no way to get there because my car was in the shop. “No problem,” the woman said when I told her I had no transportation, “I can come get you.  I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”  So I scrambled around and got ready, and spent my first day working as the only person in the Human Resources office, answering phone calls, fielding questions, and even securing a substitute for a teacher who had to go home sick.

Still later, I was called in to actually be a substitute teacher for a third grade class at my children’s school.  The administrators and other teachers were very supportive, the teacher I was subbing for had left an easy-to-follow lesson plan, and the kids were mostly well-behaved.  I was exhausted by the end of the day (don’t let anyone ever tell you teaching is easy), but I must not have screwed up too badly because I got more assignments, and even had teachers request me for planned absences.

Eventually, I gave up subbing in the classrooms, but I stayed on as an office sub for the next twelve  years.  The work was sometimes mind-numblingly routine, but I really liked the people I worked with, greatly improved my computer skills,  and the job provided the flexibility I needed to pursue my writing career and be available to my kids.  In short, the job was a good fit for me and my family at the time, and I was fortunate to get it.

It would have been so easy for me not to go on that initial interview, since it was for a job I didn’t apply for and didn’t think I qualified for.  And it would have been so easy to tell the woman who called from Human Resources that I just wasn’t available to come in that morning.  Looking back on it, I’m surprised I said yes, because taking risks is not my strong point.  I tend to play it cautious in life, choosing the easy option over the difficult one, and am a little too quick to think, “I can’t do that.”  But if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone all those years ago, I would have missed out on a great part-time job.

I try to remember that these days, when I’m faced with an opportunity that feels a bit too challenging and my first instinct is to say, “no thanks.”  I try to remember that every good thing that has happened in my life:  my marriage, my children, my writing, my volunteering, etc., came only when I was willing to try something new and take on a challenge I wasn’t entirely sure I could handle. Mostly, I try to remember that, when given the choice, it is almost always better to take the risk.