Come Together

First of all, I have to admit that I’m not really a hockey fan.  I may live in a city that has it’s very own NHL hockey team, but I’ve been to exactly one hockey game in my life and that was only because somebody gave my husband a couple of free tickets.   So it took me a while to realize that the St. Louis Blues were doing well enough to make it to the playoffs.  And that they did well enough in the playoffs to get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.  That’s when I began to pay attention, and I’m really glad I did.

Banners proclaiming “Let’s Go Blues” sprang up all over the city, draped across buildings, hanging from highway overpasses, and proudly displayed on front lawns.  One radio station pledged to keep playing “Gloria” (this season’s theme song) non-stop until the Blues won the Stanley cup.  Statues of historic figures sported Blues jerseys and huge “watch parties” were organized so that Blues fans could gather to watch not only the games that were played in Boston, but the sold-out St. Louis games as well.

It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement, so my husband and put on blue shirts and headed out to watch the final games in the series.  We watched game five in a German restaurant that was televising the game on a huge screen in it’s bar, and helped the crowd cheer the Blues as they won.  We went to a sports bar for game six with high hopes, but they lost that game.  Being slightly superstitious, we went back to the German restaurant to watch game seven, figuring we were doing our small part to ensure a victory.  (We even sat at the same table and ordered the same food.)

It was a really fun night.  The bar area wasn’t too crowded when we first arrived, but by the time the game started, it was packed.  The crowd was a mixture of old and young, men and women, some in Blues attire and some not.  Late-comers were brought up to date on the action by those already seated at tables.  We all clapped and cheered for the good plays, and when the Blues scored a goal, everyone was up, hugging, cheering, and high-fiving people they hadn’t even met before.

IMG_5296When the Blues were ahead by three points with just over a minute left in the game, a young man sitting near the TV stood up and shouted, “Everyone on their feet for the final minute!”  And we all stood up, even the elderly woman with the walker.  The joy when the final buzzer went off was off-the-chart.

I’m incredibly happy that the Blues won that night.  Not just because this is their first Stanley Cup, although that’s an impressive achievement.  What I liked best was seeing my city drawing together to support their hockey team, and how we could see, at least for a little while, what it feels like to unite as a community toward a common goal.   In the days leading up to the final game, it was so easy to ignore all the things that usually divide us and to simply be fans of the St. Louis Blues, rooting for a historic victory for our city’s team.

I know it was just a game, and that soon enough, we’ll go back to the usual fussing and bickering about all the issues that we allow to divide us.  But I hope we’ll remember just how good it feels when we manage to stand together…..

A Happy Anniversary

It wasn’t until  sat down to write this week’s post that I realized this month is my blog’s four-year anniversary.  (I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually thought it was my blog’s fifth anniversary until I did the math one more time.  Some of us just weren’t cut out for working with numbers….)  Anyway, I’m happy to say that the blog I started with much hope and trepidation four years ago is still going strong and that the experience has turned out to be a very good one.

It’s impossible to do something for four years straight and not learn a few things along the way.  Prior to starting my blog, I had harbored a deep distrust of the internet, and couldn’t even buy something on line without panicking at the thought of actually putting my credit card number out there in cyberspace.  The thought of putting my writing on the internet for all the world to see (and comment on) was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome before I could summon up the nerve to publish my first post.  One of the first things my blog taught me is that the using the internet isn’t quite as dangerous as I had believed.

Yes, there are hackers galore, and there are also lots of folks out there who spend their days making nasty online comments to perfect strangers just because they can.  But there are far more good people who are willing to offer encouragement, advice and kindness to the people they meet online.  One of the best things about writing a blog post is getting comments on it that expand and improve on the point I was trying to make, and that happens a lot.  I feel very lucky to have readers who are both smart and generous with their knowledge.

I’ve also learned that we humans have much more in common than I ever realized.  My intended audience was middle-aged women, mostly because that’s who I was (yes, I know at sixty I’m stretching the definition of middle age a bit) and I figured those were the people who would relate to what I had to say.  But I have regular readers who are male, and regular readers who are either younger or older than I am.  It turns out, most of the issues I struggle with aren’t restricted to middle-aged woman at all.  They’re human issues that most of us can relate to just fine, no matter what our age, sex, belief system, or nationality happens to be.  The blogging community can represent diversity at its best.

Finally, I’ve learned how important it is not to let my fears, both the reasonable and the not-so-reasonable ones, stop me from doing the things I really want to do.  I love writing and I love writing this blog, yet if I hadn’t managed to overcome my fears of “putting myself out there” on the internet, I would not have spent the past four years writing this particular blog.  And that would have been a real shame, because I would missed out on all the gifts this blog has given me:  the chance to grow as a writer, to connect with terrific people from all over the world, and the hope that (with a little luck and a lot of work) I may make it to my actual five year blogging anniversary.

It’s Complicated

I hate clutter, which means that getting rid of things is rarely a problem for me.  I routinely go through my possessions, ruthlessly culling the items that are no longer useful or desirable.  No matter how many times a charity calls for donations, I can always produce at least one big bag of used clothes, household items or other items.  And that’s not counting the carload of stuff we donate each year to the rummage sale at my mother’s church, or the stuff we give to my daughter to take to the local resale shop.

Even my most precious possessions–my books, my Christmas ornaments and my photographs–aren’t immune to my tendency to downsize and minimize.  I rid my bookshelves of books that no longer interest me, and I gave each of my kids a couple dozen of my Christmas ornaments when they moved out and started decorating their own trees.  And when my photo boxes get too full, I go through them and toss out the occasional photo or two.  (Especially when I have no idea who is in the picture.)  I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “saver.”

fullsizeoutput_3ebeWhich makes it all the harder to explain why I have several poinsettia plants on the window seat in my family room that are well past their prime.  The newest addition is two years old, and none of them sport the pretty red leaves anymore.  They are now green and spindly, require frequent watering and drop dead leaves all over the place.  But I can’t make myself throw them out.  I’ve tried, but I can never get past the idea that they are still alive, and I would be killing them for no reason other than I find them inconvenient.  And so they stay, taking up space and cluttering up my window seat.

I don’t have a rational explanation about my inability to get rid of unwanted plants when I can so easily give away just about anything else that’s in my house.  It’s completely out of character, and I doubt that anyone who knows me would believe that I have a window seat full of straggly poinsettias left over from Christmases of several years ago.  And yet I do.

And I don’t think I’m all that unusual.  Yes, hanging onto old poinsettias may be unusual, but doing things that seem out of character is actually rather common.  I believe most people have odd quirks and have done things that would surprise their friends and family.   I also believe that most people hold certain beliefs which seem at odds with their usual viewpoints.  Because the truth is that most people are much more complicated than they seem.

Of course we like to slot other people into categories that make they easy to identify, but those categories are rarely completely accurate.  It’s not uncommon for a liberal to hold a conservative view on a particular subject, or for a city dweller to have a passion for country music.  Animal shelter volunteers can own purebred dogs, and the grown son of a dedicated gardener may prefer his vegetables canned.  It’s all okay.  Because real people are complicated, and they are allowed to harbor all sorts of contradictions.  It’s just part of what makes us human.

And the reason I’m hoping no one gives me another poinsettia for Christmas this year.

What I Know

I have never claimed to be the brightest bulb on the string.  I have a horrible memory for details, am distracted easily, and have always found it difficult to concentrate on more than one thing at a time.  So it is very rare for me to form a hard and firm opinion about  current events, because I always have to take into consideration the very likely possibility that I am, if not exactly wrong, then at least a bit fuzzy in my facts.

That being said, there are several things that I believe I do know about the recent mass murders in Orlando.  I know that there was a tragic and senseless loss of many lives that night, and that the friends and family of the victims are suffering greatly.  I know that losing a loved one to violence is something that leaves a permanent scar on the soul and forever alters the way a person looks at the world.  I know that even thinking about what happened for too long leaves most of us feeling sad, helpless and frustrated, no matter where we live.

I know that there are many theories about exactly why this happened, and that most people will choose to believe the theory that best suits their own world view.  I know that there will be a slew of posts and comments about what caused this incident and what can prevent it  from happening again, with the authors of them hoping that this will, at last, bring others around to their point of view.  And I know that very few people will change their minds about much of anything, no matter how well-written, extensively documented, or passionate the arguments happen to be.  People like their own opinions best.

I don’t know exactly why the shooter chose his targets, although at this point it seems most likely that it was their sexual orientation.  I do know that in order for him to so callously end their lives, he could no longer recognize his victims as fellow human beings, worthy of respect, consideration, and most of all, life.  He had to pretend that because he saw them as different from himself, that somehow meant they were also less human than him.  I believe that if he didn’t think that way, he couldn’t have done what he did.

Mostly, I know that I never want to think the way this murderer thought.  I never want to think that because someone comes from another country or culture, belongs to a different religion, follows a different political ideology, or has a different sexual orientation, that person is somehow less of a person than me.  Because horrible things happen when we forget that no matter how different we may seem to be, we’re really all just people, fellow humans struggling to find our way in a confusing world.

That much I know.

What Am I?

IMG_1080I have gotten to the point where I just hate labels.  Not the kind of labels we find on our groceries, of course…they keep me from eating too much sodium or trans fat, and that’s a good thing.   I mean the labels that we give ourselves, and worse, the labels we assign to other people.  Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a joiner, and no matter what group of people I’m with, I almost always feel like the “odd one out.”  Or maybe it’s because most of the people I know well are complicated, complex individuals who don’t fit the labels that we toss about so casually.  All I know is that the minute people start assigning labels, to themselves or to others, I get very uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why people like labels so much.  We want to know something about each other, and being able to identify someone as a “Southerner” or a “Liberal” or a “Protestant” seems as if it would help.  We think it gives us a point of reference, of knowing just how much someone is like us, or even whether or not we think the person is worth bothering to get to know.  Sorting everyone neatly into categories seems like an efficient way to deal with all the people who cross our path, and we know right away who’s “in” and who’s “out.”  What could be simpler?

The trouble is, simple isn’t always good, or accurate.  There are tons of different interpretations of just about every label out there, and it’s a mistake to just assume that our interpretation is the same as someone else’s.  (Personally, I am still completely confused on just what exactly is the difference between a “right-wing dictator” and a “left-wing dictator,” yet we hear those terms all the time as if everyone knows.)  It’s sort of like when we talk to someone from another country and they ask, “What do Americans think about that?”  And the only honest answer I can give is, “That depends on which American you ask.”  We may all live in the same country, but we definitely do not all think alike.

And that, I think, is what I find the most offensive about labels:  the assumption that everyone within that label thinks exactly alike and shares exactly the same values. I don’t want to be “assigned” a to a group that I don’t truly fit in with, and I haven’t yet found a group that I always agree with, on everything.  Or even a group I usually agree with, if I’m totally honest.  And I doubt very seriously that I ever will.

I want the freedom to think for myself, and to draw my own conclusions.  I want to be allowed to have a “conservative” opinion on one issue, and a “liberal” opinion on another.  I want to associate with lots of different kinds of people so that I never stop learning, never stop expanding my personal horizons, and, most importantly, never become complacent in the supposed superiority my own beliefs.  I also want the option of changing my mind, either because I’ve learned new facts or because I’ve simply finally figured out that the way I’ve always thought about something is just plain wrong.

But I know that there are always going to be people who prefer labels, and that there are always going to be people who are eager to stick a label on me.  And when that’s the case, the label I’d prefer is simply “human.”  That one fits me like a glove.

Be Beautiful

I really have to get over my habit of reading the comment sections of internet news stories.  It’s sort of like driving by the scene of a car accident:  I know I’m going to be upset by what I see, but I look anyway.  Maybe I’m hoping that for once I will see mostly reasonable comments by people who are expressing their opinion in a civil way, or maybe I’m just morbidly interested in how quickly people turn on anyone who expresses a different point of view.  (I like to think it’s the former.)

Usually, there are three distinct groups of people on any comment feed.  The first, and smallest, group consists of a few twisted souls who seem to be posting the most offensive comments they can think of, just to pick a fight.  They’re easy to ignore, because it’s so obvious that their only goal is to upset other people, and the less attention they get, the better.  The other group is only slightly larger, and those are the people who are the voice of reason, always expressing their views in a civil and respectful way, often trying to find common ground to reconcile the opposing sides.  Their comments are few and far between, but always a welcome reprieve from the vitriol surrounding them.

Sadly, the largest group of comments are from the angry, self-righteous people who are absolutely incensed that anyone, anywhere, does not see the world exactly the same way they do.  They know, without a doubt, that they are absolutely right, on any subject that is being discussed.  This group includes both liberals and conservatives, religious people and atheists, etc.  They aren’t trying to be mean, but in their zeal to prove their point, they are still rather brutal.  Many tend to use a lot of CAPS when typing their comments, just to be sure to drive their point home.

It bothers me to see so many comments from people who truly seem to have lost the ability to listen to, or even tolerate, people who disagree with them.  Every day, it seems to be more socially acceptable to choose to interact only with those who think and act just like us.  The internet may have given us access to people all over the world, but most of us seem to prefer to stay in our tight little circles, populated by our “own kind.”  We  are careful to watch only the news shows that reflect our opinions back at us, join groups consisting only of people who think just like us, and in general make sure we don’t ever have to be challenged to acknowledge the basic worth and dignity of anyone whose views we find offensive.

I get that for most of us, our natural reaction to someone who challenges our basic values is to lash out in self-defense.  I’m guilty of that more than I’d care to admit.  But the reality is that the world is getting smaller, the internet does bring us into regular contact with people who are very different from us, and if we are not all going to drown in a sea of anger, hate and fear, we have got to get our act together.

We need to remember that when we are lashing out or putting someone down, we are only making ourselves ugly.  If you don’t believe that, say something mean and hurtful while looking in a mirror.  No matter how good-looking you usually are, all you will see looking back at you is ugliness.  Then, still looking in that mirror, say something kind and compassionate, and I guarantee you will see nothing but beauty.  I know none of us are, or will ever be, perfect or even nearly as good as we want to be.   But I also know that the time has come when we all need to try our best to be more beautiful, as often as humanly possible.IMG_0716

Tis The Season

IMG_0346The Christmas season has begun, and that’s just fine with me.  I’m one of those people who loves listening to Christmas music (yes, even in the grocery store), who puts up two Christmas trees and covers her house with Christmas decorations that are more tacky than tasteful, who enjoys baking Christmas cookies and even wrapping the presents.  If I could figure out a way to get out of actually having to shop (and pay for) those presents, I would be a completely happy camper this time of the year.

Sadly, the end of this Christmas season will coincide with the beginning of  a new season that I will definitely NOT enjoy:  the 2016 election season.  I hate all election years, but the Presidential elections are the worst as they seem to take the political ugliness to the highest possible level.  We’re not even done with the year 2015 yet, and I’m already seeing the hateful editorials in newspapers, the snarky Facebook posts, and the mean-spirited bumper stickers and yard signs.

I have no problem at all with people who have strong political convictions, and I actually admire the commitment of people who donate to and/or work on the election campaigns of a candidate they believe in. If you believe in a cause, you should be willing to support it with your time and money, in my opinion.   But I do have a problem, a huge problem, with people using their political beliefs as an excuse to to ridicule and attack those who don’t happen to share them.

Personally, I have never met a single person who has changed their politics just because someone else has made fun of them.  People don’t read a scathing blog post or hateful Facebook post and suddenly have an epiphany, see the error of their ways and resolve to vote for the other political party from now on.  It’s true that people whose views are attacked often enough can be silenced, choosing to just keep quiet rather than engage in ugly arguments, but I very much doubt that they have changed their beliefs (or the way they vote) at all.

I admit that when I read or hear something political that I find really offensive, there is always a small part of me that wants to lash out and let them know in no uncertain terms just how very wrong they are.  But I try hard not to do that, because lashing out through ridicule, snide put-downs, name-calling, etc. doesn’t help a thing, and actually does a lot of harm.  It makes the other person feel attacked, which means there is absolutely no hope they are going to listen to anything I have to say.  It’s completely possible for people with different points of views, even on something as important as politics, to have a polite and informative discussion about it, but only if we remember to always speak to the other person exactly as we want them to speak to us.

I know it’s naive of me to hope that this political season will be any nicer or more civilized than the ones before it, or that the candidates and their supporters will really treat each other with the respect and dignity that every human being deserves.  So all I can do is enjoy the rest of my Christmas season, and focus on its true message of hope, love and peace.  And then do my best to keep that focus through the upcoming election year…..

Embracing Diversity

wedding pic 2I have never been known for following current trends, mostly because I am usually so hopelessly out of touch that I have no idea what the current trends even are.  But I have noticed that the term “diversity” is a popular one right now, as in “celebrate diversity,” “embrace diversity,” and similar slogans.  The gist of it is that diversity is a good thing, and that we need to let go of our natural tendency to want to associate mostly with those people who are just like us and start sharing our lives with people who are often very different from us.  And I have to say that this is one trend that I am right on top of, because I have been “living with diversity” for over thirty five years now….ever since the day that I married my husband.

Obviously, there many core values that my husband and I share:  we have the same morals, the same commitment to family, the same sense of humor and the same work ethic.  We also both like a clean house and are masters at the art of worrying.  But I am a minimalist who feels very uncomfortable around clutter, and have a strong compulsion to organize all my possessions.  My husband has many gifts, but the ability to organize his many possessions is not one of them.  My books are shelved according to their author; the money in my wallet is arranged in ascending value with all the bills facing the same way; my clothes are hung in my closet according to color and category.  My husband’s closet is hodgepodge of clothes, shoes, tools, store receipts and random knick knacks.  Once I even found a hammer in his underwear drawer.

I am a writer and avid reader, while my husband prefers to watch movies for entertainment.  He’s an athlete and a sports enthusiast who regularly follows all his favorite teams, and I can tell when a game is not going well because I can hear him yelling at the TV, even when I’m on a whole different floor of the house.  I enjoy going to a Cardinals game now and then, but otherwise, I find professional sports to be rather boring and have a hard time caring much which team wins.  (If any of the professional athletes were sharing their salaries with me, then I would care very much about whether or not they were having a successful season.)

We came from different states, different types of families, different religions, and we have very different strengths.  He’s a natural at numbers and all things financial, while I struggle with anything beyond the most basic math.  I am most comfortable expressing myself through the written word, whereas he sometimes asks for my help when he’s composing a simple business letter.  And yet we make it work.

IMG_0545I think the key to successfully “living with diversity” is understanding that we aren’t going to change each other.  I am no more going to convince my husband that he needs to keep his tools organized according to my standards than he is going to convince me that my spices don’t have to be arranged alphabetically on the spice rack.  (Because, of course, they do.)

I admit that deep down, I think I would prefer it if my husband would change a little so that he could be more like me.  But it doesn’t work that way.  If I want to stay in a close and loving relationship with him, I have to accept him just the way he is, and count on him doing the same thing for me.  And I think that’s what “embracing diversity” is really all about:  learning to let people be who they really are without trying to change them into becoming more like us.  It’s not always easy, but after thirty-five years of marriage, I can honestly say it is worth the effort.

Be Nice

IMG_0048My husband and I tried a new restaurant the other night, and at first, we liked it very much.  Our waitress was friendly and knowledgable, the food was very good, and the atmosphere was great, as long as you ignored the young man in the chef’s jacket who occasionally wandered around the dining room, scowling at everything and everyone he saw.   After we had paid our bill, we stopped in the bar area to watch the last inning of the Cardinal game on the TV, and my husband chatted briefly with a few people who were also watching the game.  It all seemed friendly enough until the guy in the chef’s jacket walked by, rolled his eyes at us and muttered something under his breath.  I couldn’t catch exactly what he said, but I certainly caught that it wasn’t anything nice.

I thought it was odd that a restaurant would employ someone who was so surly to its customers until I checked its website and discovered that the man was actually a co-owner.   And that’s too bad, because even though we really liked the food and atmosphere at his restaurant, the co-owner’s rude behavior made such a bad impression that I doubt seriously if we will ever go back.  Maybe he was having a bad day, or maybe he was annoyed because his restaurant was only half full, or maybe he was offended that we were simply standing in the bar, watching the game, rather than ordering more drinks.  I honestly don’t know.  But I do know that, if he had just made the effort to be even a little bit nice, we would definitely have been repeat customers.

Because being nice matters.  If we want people to shop at our stores, eat at our restaurants, join in our groups,  help our causes, and or simply be our friends, we have to be nice to them.  If we want to draw people to us, we have to show them the same common decency and courtesy that we want others to show us.   Rudeness, anger and hostility, even when we believe it’s justified, does nothing more than drive people away.  Always has and always will.

I believe that something as simple as being nice can help build the bridges that are so desperately needed to help people with different values and beliefs connect and communicate.  I know I am always willing to listen to someone else’s point of view, even a point of view that I believe is absolutely wrong, as long as the speaker isn’t resorting to ridicule or verbal attacks to make his or her point.  Being nice doesn’t mean not being passionate about our beliefs; it just means not using our beliefs as an excuse to be cruel to people who don’t happen to share them.

Being nice is about connecting with other people.  It’s about living peacefully with those who are different from us.  It’s about creating a life for ourselves full of interesting and diverse people who can support us, our families, our businesses, our causes, etc., if we can just remember to treat them the same way we want to be treated.  We all lose our tempers sometimes, and we all have our bad days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t always, always try to do better.  So please, let’s just be nice……