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.

A Blog’s Purpose

I’ve been struggling with my blog for the past few weeks.  I’ve been putting off writing posts, and when I finally did sit down to write something, I was struggling to clarify just exactly what it was that I wanted to say and then struggling some more to come up with just exactly the right words to say it.

At first, I put it down to the hectic schedule of Christmas, knowing that I was existing on too much rich food and drink, too little sleep, and a “to do” list that was growing longer by the day.  I figured that my tiny little brain just couldn’t keep up with it all, and that probably had something to do with it, but also I thought there was more going on that just holiday stress.  Then I began to worry that after two years of writing this blog, I was getting tired of it and ready to quit, but that didn’t feel quite right either.  I love writing, and at the moment, this blog is my only creative writing outlet.  And I knew I wasn’t really ready to quit writing.

And then I read the post  Finding My Purpose: Why I Blog  on my friend Jodi’s blog and  had what I believe is called an “ah ha!” moment.  I felt that Jodi had not only read my mind, but had also thoughtfully written a post that spelled things out for me, since I was having so much trouble figuring it out for myself.  (Friends, blogging or otherwise, can be very helpful that way, especially for those of us who can be a bit slow on the uptake.)

Like Jodi, I started my blog as a form of personal expression, and honestly, I only settled on the subject of middle age because I thought that was something about me that other people could easily relate to.  But once I got over the initial thrill that there were people out there who were actually willing to read my posts,  I found that it became very important to me to write posts that actually offered something to my readers.  More importantly, I wanted my blog to be positive.

I knew there is a lot in this world, and in each of our lives, that is scary and depressing, but I also knew that I didn’t want to dwell on that in my blog.  If people want bad news, they can simply turn on their TV or log onto the internet.  And we all have stuff in our past that isn’t pretty, and that can leave us angry and bitter.  But I can’t change the world, I can’t change the past, and I can’t truly fix anyone else’s life.  What I can do is exactly what Jodi describes: offer encouragement, remind people of the beauty that is still around us, share hopeful insights, and maybe give others a chance to laugh at, rather than rage against, the mundane challenges of our lives.  And I can do all that, in my own small way, through this blog.

I think in the back of my mind, I always wanted my blog to be a source of encouragement, entertainment and/or inspiration, but I just hadn’t found the courage to admit it until I read my friend’s post.  All I know is that now I see what the purpose of my blog has been all along, and I have a hunch that my struggles with writing it are over.

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.

The Joys of Blogging

IMG_4757It’s been over eighteen months since I started this blog, which still surprises me.  I’d be lying if I said everything has gone according to plan, mostly because I didn’t exactly have a firm plan in mind when I started this blog, but also because writing my own blog turned out to be a very different experience from anything I could have imagined.

My initial idea was to write about adjusting to this new phase of my life that is called “middle age,” and to share some of the challenges and joys that come with it.  I thought that my close friends, and possibly some of their friends (and of course my mother), would read it and leave a comment now and then.  Of course I had moments when I fantasized that my blog would be wildly successful so that I could earn big bucks from it and, more importantly, rub it in the faces of all the editors who ever rejected my manuscripts (“See what you missed out on!”), but that was never an actual plan.

But like so many things in life, the realities of blogging turned out to be quite different from my expectations.  My mother does read my blog (thanks, Mom!) and so do many of my friends, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many of my older and friends and acquaintances, some of whom I haven’t seen in decades, were also not only reading my blog, but taking the time to let me know that it spoke to them.  I had no idea my blog would reconnect me so powerfully to my past, but it did.

Although my original intention was to simply write about being middle aged, I found that even after adjusting my posting schedule to only twice a week, I soon ran out of things to say on that particular subject.  There are only so many posts I can write about fading eyesight  and memory, sprouting hair where hair does not belong, developing new wrinkles and sags on a daily basis, and adjusting to being part of the sandwich generation, etc., without repeating myself and boring my readers.  So I branched out, and began writing about other things that were going on in my life and the world around me, and nobody seemed to mind too much.  Or if they did, they were nice enough not to complain.

Of course, there are a few aspects of blogging that did go just as I expected. I have always struggled with technology, and continue to do so.  Writing my posts is the easy part, figuring out how to add links, size photos correctly, and change the format is much harder for me.  There are times when I can’t answer comments without exiting my page and then coming back to it, and sometimes I can see how many Facebook shares a post has, and sometimes I can’t.  Don’t ask me why.  When I contact the WordPress help, the answer is usually that there must be something wrong with my computer.  Of course.

Still, the nicest and most unexpected perk of blogging has been how many wonderful other bloggers I have met.  These are people who are busy writing their own blogs, and yet still take the time to leave words of encouragement and wisdom on my posts, or comments so funny that I laugh out loud when I read them.  Their blogs have become “must reads” for me, even on my busiest of days, because they are that good.  I’d like to especially acknowledge Kim over at www.kimgorman.com, who writes a wonderful blog about meeting the challenges of life with determination and grace, and whose writing never fails to inspire me.  She is a recent recipient of the Sunshine Blogger Award, and deservedly so.

I always knew that I enjoyed writing, but blogging is more than simply writing.  It’s building a community, sharing ideas, and best of all….making new and wonderful friends. Thank you all for that.

Just Be There

When I was a child, my best friend’s pet rabbit got sick, and my friend was very worried about her.  So when I stopped by my friend’s house on my way to school one bright sunny morning, the first thing I asked was, “How’s Jessica doing?”

“She’s dead,” my friend answered, looking away. “But at least it’s a nice day for a funeral.”  Then she reached out and took my hand, and together we ran the whole way to school.  I made sure I sat next to her at lunch, and afterward, stood with her in the corner of the playground while the other children ran around, playing games and shouting.  Neither of us said a word about her rabbit.

Sometimes I wonder exactly when it was that I forgot how to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with a major personal catastrophe.  I wonder when I decided that my job in those instances is to offer the perfect words of comfort, to try to smooth away the rough edges, or to explain the tragedy.  In other words, I wonder when I got the idea that I had both the duty and the ability to make things right for people who are going through major emotional loss.

As a child, I seemed to know intuitively that what people need most when they are suffering is for someone to simply be there with them.  There are no perfect words that are going to take away the pain, but there are a lot of imperfect words that can make things so much worse, such as: “Remember, everything happens for a reason.”  And someone coping with an overwhelming problem, like a loved one’s terminal illness or a life-changing tragedy, doesn’t need my advice or instructions on exactly how they ought to deal with it all.  They just need my caring support as they make their own choices.

Years ago, when my son was just about two years old, the father of a good friend died rather suddenly.  The funeral was on a weekday afternoon, smack in the middle of my son’s normal nap time, and my son didn’t handle missing naps well.  But I couldn’t find a sitter, and I wanted to support my friend.  So I went anyway, armed with a bag of quiet toys, and sat in the back of the church in case my son became too loud and we needed to make a hasty exit, hoping I was doing the right thing.  When the family was walking out at the end of the service, my friend looked over and saw us sitting there.  We locked eyes for a few seconds, and she smiled, ever so faintly and briefly.  And in that moment I was very glad I had come, even with a toddler in tow.

IMG_4471Being me, I’m sure I said a lot of things to my friend about her father’s death, but I don’t remember them and I doubt that they provided her with any comfort.  What gave her comfort was seeing my son and me in that church, supporting her in her loss.  Because what people who are overwhelmed or grieving really need is simply the assurance that you are there with them in their time of trouble, right beside them as they walk that difficult path.  Just like my childhood friend and I, running hand-in-hand to school all those years ago.

 

The Sound of Silence

IMG_0886.jpgLike most people, I have lots of opinions on just about everything, and I’m only too happy to share them, usually in much more detail than anyone cares to hear.  I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when we were encouraged to “let it all hang out” in “rap sessions” (remember when “rap” didn’t refer to a musical genre?) and I guess I took that lesson to heart a little bit too much.  So believe me,  I really do understand why so many people feel the need to constantly express themselves in almost any situation they happen to be in.  It’s just that I’ve come to realize that there are times when it’s much, much better not to communicate just exactly what we are thinking and feeling.

There are so many ways in which silence can be the best response.  There’s the little things, like when a friend makes what I think is an unfortunate fashion choice, and I’m thinking, “Gee, that outfit emphasizes all the wrong things.”  If we’re not in a dressing room where my friend is still choosing whether or not to buy that particular item of clothing, that’s a thought that is best left unexpressed.  Being a good friend means not letting every petty thought that flits across my brain actually come out of my mouth.

And then there’s Facebook, where I check in daily to make sure I don’t miss out on something important, like a photo of someone’s meal or the latest cute puppy video.  Each time I scroll down my newsfeed, I’m sure to see a post about some hot-button topic that I think is completely and totally wrong.  Even though Facebook thoughtfully provides a comment section inviting me to say just that, I refrain.  Because while I’ve seen far too many heated arguments on Facebook, I have never yet seen anyone change his or her mind just because someone took the time to tell them they were wrong…on-line, no less, where everybody can see it.  Go figure.

The higher the stakes, the harder it is to remain silent, at least for me.  When a friend or relative is telling me about an important problem, my natural reaction is to speak up right away, telling them exactly what they need to do to make things right.  Usually, that’s not at all helpful to the person with the problem.  They need me to listen and provide a safe sounding board while they figure out exactly what it is they want to do about their problem, not jump in and tell them what to do.  Sometimes unsolicited advice just makes things harder, like if I say, “dump the cheating jerk,” when what my friend really wants to do is figure out a way to salvage her relationship.  In that cases, my advice just makes her feel judged, not supported, and I’ve only added to her problems.

I am, by nature, both a talker and a fixer, and in many situations, that’s actually a good thing.  But slowly, I’m learning that there are also many times when I need to stay silent, to keep my advice and my opinions to myself.  There are times when I need to simply allow people to believe things I disagree with, to make choices that I think aren’t wise and to live their lives exactly the way they want to, without the “benefit” of my wisdom.  In short, I need to do my best to keep my lips zipped unless I actually hear those magic words, “and what do you think?”

 

Good Enough

IMG_4713I remember clearly how excited and nervous I was when I finally started this blog.  I was excited because I was finally trying out a new writing venue, but at the same time nervous about putting my writing on the internet.  I didn’t know whether to worry more about no one reading it, or lots of people reading it but not liking it, and then saying so.  I had seen links to blogs on Facebook with lots and lots of cruel comments, and I didn’t want to deal with that.

Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about either of those things.  Enough people read my posts to make me feel that it was worth writing them, and the worst thing that appeared in my comment section was some random spam.  Aside from struggling to figure out all the technological issues and getting over my distrust of all things cyberspace, I managed to launch my blog with no problems.  There was really only one issue that I struggled with a bit, and that was how to deal with friends who made it a point to tell me that they had no intention of reading my new blog.

I’m not going to lie, at first it hurt my feelings.  I thought starting a blog was a very big deal, and I had naively assumed that all of my good friends and close relatives would support me in this venture.  And most of them did, for which I will be forever grateful.  Still, several good friends congratulated me on my new blog, but followed that up by saying they didn’t have time to actually read it.  I smiled and told them that was fine, but that wasn’t true.  I was thinking, “Really?  I write a short post that takes at the most five minutes to read, twice a week, and you don’t have time?  You can’t spare ten minutes a week for something that is clearly so important to me?”

But eventually, I began to understand.  Sure, my blog is important to me, because I’m a writer and therefore, I take writing very seriously.  But the friends who were telling me this weren’t writers, and for the most part, they weren’t people who enjoyed reading a lot either.  To them, my blog was just something I did on the side, like gardening, and while they were pleased I had found a new hobby, they honestly had no idea that I was actually hoping they would read it.  They weren’t trying to hurt my feelings or dismiss my creativity, they were just looking at things from their own, unique point of view.  Which is, of course, what we all do.

I’m sure if I asked every single one of my friends to name a time when I didn’t offer support to them on an issue that they considered important, each of them could offer at least one example, and probably several.  The time I forgot to ask about the new grandson they were so proud of; the time I didn’t recognize a career crisis they were going through, or the time they found the courage to follow a dream and I simply told them, “that’s nice,” and then changed the subject.   Too often, we are so busy dealing with the chaos of our own lives that we don’t always keep up with, or even recognize, what is important to others, no matter how much we care.  It doesn’t mean we don’t want to “be there” for each other, it just means that we don’t always manage to do it.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that good friends aren’t the people who understand everything about us, or who always do what we want them to do, when we want them to do it.  They are just the people who love us, and who really are giving us their best, in their own unique way.  And that’s more than enough for me.

 

 

Risk It

I have always been a very cautious person.  When deciding whether or not to try something new, I tend to carefully analyze the situation, weigh all the potential risks, envision every single thing that could possibly go wrong, and then, more often than not, I chicken out.  I usually decide that the risk just isn’t worth it, and decide to stick with the safety of my familiar routine. Luckily for me, I have found the courage to step outside of my comfort zone a few times in my life, and I am so glad that I did.

DSC03708While I was still in college, I volunteered at a nearby humane society, and although I learned a lot, I also found the experience so stressful that I developed the beginnings of an ulcer.  It took me years to decide to try it again, but I finally did shortly after we adopted our beloved dog Sandy from the local humane society.  That was thirteen years ago, and although volunteering at a large, open-admission animal shelter can sometimes be very hard, (both physically and emotionally) I’ve stuck with it.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about dogs, how good it feels to see a dog I’ve worked with get adopted, or how much I’ve grown as a person just from my volunteer experience down there.  Although I signed up only because I wanted to help the shelter dogs, I’ve also had the added benefit of becoming close friends with many of the other volunteers.  I’m talking about real friends, the kind who stick by you no matter what, who know what you’re thinking before you even say it, and the kind who will let you cry or curse when you need to, and then do their best to cheer you up afterwards. There’s a lot to be said for people who have seen you at your worst but still like you anyway.

I thought about starting this blog for at least two years before I actually did it.  I wasn’t afraid of the actual writing, but I was very afraid of sending my writing out into cyberspace where anyone could read it, and even worse, comment on it.  As far as I was concerned, no possible good could come from talking to strangers on the internet.  I had watched enough true crime shows to know that was an absolute fact.

But a little over a year ago, I did finally start my blog.  And thanks to WordPress, I know that it has been read by people in 52 different countries, had almost 5,000 visitors and over 10,000 views.  Yes, there is spam, but my spam filter catches most of it and I delete the rest.  But I have formed online “friendships” with so many interesting, kind, smart and talented bloggers that now I really regret how long it took me to find the courage to start this blog.  I had no idea how much support and encouragement I would encounter from people who only knew me through reading my blog.  I don’t care what anyone says, I now believe that there are many, many nice people in this world.

I know I will always be a bit cautious.  It’s just part of my personality, and I don’t think I can do anything about that.  But I also know that with each step I take out of my comfort zone, taking a risk becomes just a little bit easier.  With each risk I take, I expand my horizons a bit more, grow a bit more, and live life just a little bit more fully.  And that makes the risk so very worth it.

 

Second Chances

Last night, my husband and I went back to a restaurant we had visited a few months ago, where we had a great meal and a nice waitress, but where we also had what seemed to be a rude encounter with the chef/owner as we were leaving. I wrote about it in my blog post, Be Nice, and some readers suggested that I needed to give the restaurant another try.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to, because I thought the owner had insulted my husband and I, and I wasn’t quite ready to forgive that.  But some close friends were anxious to try the restaurant (its fairly new and getting great reviews), so we agreed to meet them there last night.  And I’m so glad we did.

The restaurant was definitely more crowded than it was on our previous visit, but we had a reservation and were seated immediately.  Once again, our waitress was friendly and helpful, the food was delicious, and I did spot the chef/owner walking through the dining room a few times, scowling a bit. But as we were leaving after our meal, he approached my husband, asked how his meal was and thanked us for coming.  My husband assured him the meal was fabulous and told him we would be back, and we will.

The thing was, he deserved a second chance.  Because now I realize that maybe what I took for a scowl on our first visit could just be his natural expression.  (I know when I get a sinus headache, as I frequently do during allergy season, I tend to walk around looking rather crabby.)  And maybe when he walked by us on that first visit, rolled his eyes and muttered something unpleasant, he wasn’t directing it at us.  I tend to take the actions of people around me personally, but maybe he had just burned someone’s dinner or spotted something near us that upset him.  Because, although I have a hard time believing this, it’s not always about me.  Go figure.

One of the good things about reaching middle age is the opportunity to look back on our lives and see some definite patterns.  And one pattern I have noticed is that when I forgive someone who I think has insulted me or hurt my feelings, I am almost always glad I did.  Honestly, I can’t think of a single person in my life who hasn’t said or done something that has caused me emotional pain at some point, and I’m quite sure every one of them could say the same thing about me.  I  think that’s just the nature of human relationships.  We sometimes say or do the wrong thing and hurt the feelings of the people we know, even those we care about the most, and usually without even realizing we’ve done it.

0516 2Which means that we have a choice:  we can either hang on to the hurt, nurse the grudge, and distance ourselves from the people who have hurt us, or we can choose to forgive them, and let our relationship with them grow and mature.  Sometimes there are just too many emotionally painful instances to forgive, and then it probably is best to move on.  But most often, when we are strong enough to forgive and give someone a second chance, we’re rewarded with the kind of deep, honest relationships that are real gifts in our lives.  Or in the case of this particular restaurant and its owner, the chance to enjoy another great dinner……

It’s All About Attitude

IMG_0055Last Friday night, my husband and I took some very good friends to the local “Balloon Glow,” which is an event held the night before the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. Everyone gathers in the park to watch the giant hot-air balloons being blown up, and after it gets dark, the balloons light up randomly, a few seconds at a time.  Every so often, a loud whistle blows as a signal that all the balloons are going to be lit up at the same time.  It’s an incredibly beautiful sight.

My husband and I have been to this event several times, but this was the first year that this couple joined us, and they were very excited to see the balloons all lit up.  They brought their camera, and we came early to beat the crowds and make sure we didn’t miss anything.  We even paid extra to attend a special fund-raising event at the Balloon Glow that meant we would have a place to sit and enjoy drinks and dinner while we enjoyed the sights.  Unfortunately, it was so windy that night that they were unable to even blow up the balloons, much less light them.  So we had come all that way, and paid all that money, just to see a bunch of deflated balloons lying on the ground.

IMG_0057Now it could have been a horrible evening, with our disappointment leading to non-stop grumbling and complaining, and even anger at the decision not to proceed with the Balloon Glow, since frankly, it didn’t seem all that windy to us. We kept hoping that they would blow the balloons up and light them for just a few minutes, or maybe even just a few of the balloons, and were definitely disappointed for our friends when that didn’t happen. But our friends were very gracious about it and pointed out that they were spending a nice Fall evening out in a beautiful city park, enjoying dinner and drinks with good friends.  And we followed their lead, making the conscious decision to simply relax and enjoy ourselves rather than fret over what “should have been.”

Later, it occurred to me that the whole evening was a great example of how little control we often have in what happens to us, but how much control we have in how we choose to react to what happens to us.  I couldn’t make the wind die down, and (although I had the good sense not to try), I’m quite sure I couldn’t have convinced any of the event’s leaders to proceed with the Balloon Glow despite the wind.  But what I could do was acknowledge our disappointment, and then let go of it, and simply get on with having a nice night out with dear friends.  And I can honestly say that we had a wonderful time together, even without the hot-air balloons.

There will always be bad stuff in our lives, from the minor disappointments of deflated balloons, to the major stuff of serious illnesses, natural disasters, financial hardships and the like, and there will be times when we just have to let ourselves feel the anger, fear and hurt that comes with them.  But even in the worst of times, we can choose to look for and embrace the good that is always there if we just allow ourselves to see it and respond to it.  Good stuff and bad stuff are always with us, but we get to choose which one we dwell on, and I believe that life is so much better we when try our very best to focus on the good.  It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.