Try a Little Kindness

Late last Friday afternoon, almost all of St. Louis was under a severe thunderstorm warning, with a chance for tornadoes to develop.  I was worried that my daughter and son-in-law wouldn’t make it to the daycare center in time to get my grandson, so I offered to pick him up.  We all met at my house just before the storm broke.  Thankfully, we didn’t get any tornadoes, but we got a lot of rain in a very short amount of time.

fullsizeoutput_54c2At first it was sort of fun to stand on our front porch and watch the rain come down, once we were sure it was safe to do so.  But then we noticed that the water was steadily rising, and that some of the neighbor’s recycling bins were floating down the street.  Soon the water was up to the hubcap’s of my daughter’s car, which was parked in front of our house.  Our drive-way looked like a river, and we watched, fascinated, as several plastic drainage pipes floated down our driveway, followed by small branches and what looked like an Amazon Prime package.  As my one-year old grandson so eloquently put it, “Oh, no!”

We’ve lived in our house for over twenty-five years and this is only the second time I’ve seen this type of flooding.  When the rain finally let up and the water began to recede,  my husband went around back to see if our garage had been flooded.

The good news was that the inside of our garage was dry.  The bad news was that the mother of our new neighbor behind us was out in her daughter’s yard, inspecting the damage.  And she was, to put it mildly, a little out of sorts.  She didn’t understand how so much water ended up in her daughter’s back yard.  She shared her opinion that the three skinny bushes we had planted between our yards must have caused all that water to back up onto her daughter’s property, and wanted to know what kind of idiot would plant bushes there.  The situation was, she kept repeating, “unacceptable.”

My husband is normally a patient man.  He listened to her complaints, then pointed out that our houses sit at the bottom of our street and that the water from the top of our street flows downhill towards us.  And that the three scraggly bushes did nothing to prevent the thousands of gallons of water from pouring down our driveway, so they’d hardly cause a flood in her daughter’s yard.  But eventually he’d had enough, and came back inside, shaking his head at her behavior.  My guess is that this woman has never been nominated for neighbor of the year.

The thing is, I understood why she was upset.  Her daughter had recently moved into the house, and I’m sure it was very concerning for her to see the kind of flooding we experienced last Friday.  But what I can’t excuse is how determined she was to find someone to blame, and how she took her anger out on my husband.  That, in my opinion, is what’s truly “unacceptable.” We don’t always get to control our emotions, but we most certainly can control how we express them.  And from a purely practical standpoint, it’s never a good idea to alienate the people who live next to you.

Luckily, the young woman who actually lives in the house is very nice, and doesn’t seem to be angry at all.  Which means that I think she will be a nice neighbor, and who knows?  We might even be able to work together to figure out a way to redirect at least some of the water from heavy rains.

But meanwhile, I have to say that I’m hoping that her mother doesn’t visit very often……

No Waiting

IMG_3233I’m not sure why I look forward to Spring so much every year, but I do.  I may love the beauty of a new snowfall, but by the time March winds down, I really don’t want to actually see a new snowfall anymore.  This time of year, all I want to see are lots of flowers, buds on trees, and the sun filtering through the bedroom blinds when I wake up in the morning.  I want the temperatures to warm up enough that I can pack away my heavy coats and bulky sweaters, and allow me to wear shoes that don’t necessarily require socks.  I want to be outside without the cold making my nose run and turning my finger tips white.

This year is no exception:  I am ready for Spring.  The problem is, I’m still waiting.  Because even though the calendar says Spring has arrived a while ago, the Winter weather is still hanging on.  Easter Sunday was yesterday, and even though the sun did shine briefly in the morning, the day ended with sleet and snow.  Which is still on the ground.  It’s beginning to feel as if the warm temperatures and pretty flowers I’m waiting for are never going to arrive.

I don’t know about you, but when something isn’t going my way, I tend to get impatient and anxious, and maybe just a teeny bit obsessive.  I begin to focus on whatever it is that’s bothering me, and worse, I begin to believe that as soon as that particular problem is solved, everything will be just fine.  At the moment, I’m blaming my cranky mood on the fact that it’s April 2 and there’s snow and ice on the ground, and that I still have to wear my ugly knee socks in order to keep warm.  I have almost convinced myself that if the weather would just warm up, I’d be a happy camper.

Which is, of course, just plain silly.  The weather will eventually warm up and that will be a very good thing.  But I know that even when it does, I’ll have something else I’ll be fretting about, because my life (just like everyone’s) will always have its share of stress and worry.  So what exactly is the point in my waiting for these cold and gloomy days to go away before I find a way to cheer up?

The older I get, the more I realize that my happiness has much more to do with my attitude than with my environment.   I think it’s time that I become more intentional about choosing to be happy, and looking for the things that can make me happy, right here and right now.  I know that a positive attitude can work wonders for people dealing with serious problems, so why can’t it work for someone who is just plain sick of Winter?

I think it’s time I put on my prettiest sweater and my warmest coat and went for a walk on this too-cold Spring day, just because I can.  And if I look for them, I bet I’ll even see some of those hardy Spring flowers blooming in the snow.

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.

Another Chance

Yesterday morning I received the news that a dear friend had been rushed to the hospital, prognosis unknown.  I was hit with all the usual feelings that accompany really bad news: shock, worry, grief and uncertainty.  But as the day went on, two thoughts kept pushing their way to the front of my jumbled emotions.  The first was that I was in no way ready to lose my friend and couldn’t even bear to think about a life without her.  The second one was that I wasn’t completely sure she knew how much I valued our friendship or was aware of exactly how much I not only liked her, but respected and admired her as well.   Which, of course, made the thought of losing her that much worse.

I wondered if I had ever told her how much I appreciate having her in my life, or how much I enjoy her company.  Did I let her know that I love the way she always answers my questions honestly, instead of just telling me what she knows I want to hear?  Or how much I count on her for advice when I can’t find my own way forward?  Or how much I appreciate the many times she’s literally stood by my side when I needed moral support to deal with delicate and difficult situations?  I had to admit that I didn’t know.

And as much as I wished I had made absolutely sure she knows how much I value her friendship, I also wondered if I had ever let her know exactly why I wanted to be her friend in the first place.  Sure, she’s always nice to me, and that’s an important part of any friendship.  But my close friends aren’t just nice, they are also people I admire and and believe to be genuinely good and decent.  Not perfect, of course, because no one is perfect.  But they are people who are good, deep down in their heart.

So I worried I hadn’t let her know how much I admire the way she lives her life on her own terms, doing what she thinks is right even when others disagree, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.  I am in awe of her generous spirit, her can-do attitude and her willingness to accept others for who they are, without judging or trying to change them.  But I’m not at all sure I ever told her any of that, even though I know how much we all need to hear those kinds of validating words from the people who know us best.

This morning, I got the wonderful news that my friend is going to be just fine.  Words can’t express how happy that made me (and all the other people who love her), and I am beyond relieved.  More importantly, I hope that I have learned a lesson from the past twenty-four hours about how necessary it is to let the people we love know how much we care about them, and why.  Because life doesn’t always give us second chances.

But That’s Not What I Meant

When our children were young, my husband and I often struggled to make ends meet on just one income.  As much as I wanted to stay at home with our children, I felt guilty about not working and so I tried to help out by working as a free-lance writer.  I sold a lot of articles to local newspapers and magazines, but I never made much money from any of those sales.  So I was very excited when I signed a contract with a book packager to write a short fantasy novel for an educational publisher for a one-time fee of $2,100.

DSC00181The book was going to be used in high school English classes, even though it was supposed to be written at the fifth-grade reading level.   I had both a word list and a mathematical formula that determined how often the words on the list had to be used in the book, and they wanted the finished manuscript in their offices in a little over three weeks.  It wasn’t easy, but I met the deadline, mailed in my manuscript, and eagerly waited for the first check I had earned from my writing that would actually be in the four digits.

A few weeks after I had thought I would be paid, I was still waiting for my check.  I called the book packager’s office a couple of times to enquire about exactly when I would be receiving my payment, and the answer was always “soon.”  To say I was unhappy would be an understatement.  I was very worked up about the whole situation,  brooding and  fuming,  and often complaining bitterly to my husband.  Finally, he told me to just quit worrying about it.  He was sure that I would be paid eventually, and even if I wasn’t, “It’s not as if that amount of money is actually going to make a big difference.”

I was so stung by that remark that I couldn’t even reply.  I had been so proud of myself for taking on a difficult writing assignment (I had no experience using formulas for word lists or writing fantasy novels) and managing to actually write even a short book in three weeks time while watching two young children.  And although $2,100 is not much for the sale of a book, I had honestly thought it was enough to make a difference in our current household budget.  How dare he just dismiss my hard work?  But I didn’t want to have a big fight, so I just swallowed my pride and pretended that his remark hadn’t cut quite so deeply.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized how completely I had misunderstood my husband’s words.  Even though I what I had heard was that my measly little $2,100 check didn’t mean very much, what he had meant was, “Please stop stressing about getting paid.  It’s making you very unhappy, and it’s not worth it.  That check won’t make or break us financially.  We’re going to be okay.”  I had thought he was being dismissive and unfeeling, while he thought he was being supportive and helpful.

It’s sad how easy it is to misunderstand what people say to us, even when we know someone very well.  I think the problem is that no one, even those closest to us, can ever know exactly what we are thinking and feeling, unless we take the time to tell them.  My husband had no idea how much emotional baggage I had riding on that check (which did eventually arrive), and I had no idea how much my stressing about it was bothering him.

These days I try to take the time to find out what people really mean when they say something that hurts my feelings, because so often that’s all it takes for me to realize that the other person wasn’t trying to be hurtful at all.  And now I realize that I could have avoided a very painful misunderstanding if I had simply asked my husband just exactly what he’d meant when he told me that whether or not I got paid for my book wasn’t that big of a deal…..

But I’m So Angry!

Sometimes it feels good to be angry, especially when we let it show.  There’s something satisfying about letting our feelings out: having a good rant, shaking our fist at the driver who just cut us off in traffic, writing that snappy put-down in response to someone’s idiotic Facebook post, and even, when we feel the occasion warrants it, letting loose with a string of good old-fashioned curse words.  Giving voice to our bottled up frustrations and finally expressing our self-righteous indignation can feel liberating and even empowering.  And if we’re not careful, being angry can turn into a habit, and then turn from a habit into an actual lifestyle.

DSC01440 2We seem to be living in a time when there is a lot to be angry about, and we are reminded of it daily.  The news media is full of stories of all sorts of injustices, and even if we turn off the news, we see plenty of injustice in our day-to-day lives.  Too often good manners are replaced with rudeness and discourtesy, and who hasn’t spent far too much time on hold with what some company laughingly refers to as their customer service department?  The Presidential campaign is heating up, generating plenty of anger on both sides, and it seems as if just keeping our heads above water in a struggling economy is becoming more difficult by the day.  Any way you look at it, there is plenty to stoke our anger.

But the problem is, being angry doesn’t solve anything.  It may be a natural response to provocation, and it may even provide a sense of immediate gratification (“Boy, did I tell them!”) but in the long run, it accomplishes nothing.  When we yell at someone, all we do is alienate them, making them feel attacked and resentful.  Ditto for shaking fists, cursing, “take downs” in someone’s comment section, etc.  Ultimately, expressing our anger is more about pleasing ourselves than about solving a problem, and it usually makes things worse.

I think the key is to use our anger as the inspiration and motivation to deal with a problem.  Being angry because I was on hold for twenty minutes over an inaccurate phone bill can give me the stamina to stay on the line until I get an actual manager who can help.  My anger over neglected and abused animals gives me the strength to keep going back to the local humane society each week, which means I can be a (very small) part of the solution to animal abuse.  And my anger over our current, incredibly cruel and divisive political scene gives me the strength to do my best to treat people who believe differently than I do with respect and common courtesy.  Because I never want to believe that any group of people deserves to be beaten down.

IMG_0066Of course there will always be times when I lose my temper and say and do things that I shouldn’t.  But I don’t want to revel in those times, fooling myself into thinking that just because my anger is justified that it’s actually helpful.  I’ve seen far too many people get stuck in that unproductive and unhappy “angry at the world” mode to want to be a part of that.  Instead, I want to apologize to whomever I snapped at, and then take some deep breaths, go for a run around the block, call a neutral friend who is kind enough to let me vent, or do whatever it takes to calm myself down.  And then I want to look at the situation with fresh eyes and the question, “Is there something I can do to make this better?”