The Company You Keep

No doubt about it, 2020 hasn’t exactly turned out to be a banner year.  Aside from the birth of our new granddaughter (which was a wonderful gift), it has mostly been a series of hardships that had to be both accepted and endured.  From learning that our dog tested positive for heart worm in February, to the arrival of the Covid virus in Spring and the subsequent lock-downs which resulted in the cancellation of every single event and gathering we had been looking forward to, to the worry of our granddaughter’s premature birth, followed closely by my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I feel as if I’ve hardly had a chance to draw a breath, much less process it all.

But like everyone else whose world has been turn upside down in the past few months, I don’t really have a choice other than to do my best to cope with this new reality.  And so I do what I can to adapt and learn new coping strategies.  It helps to do the small things that cheer me up, like buying fresh flowers for our house or making sure I always have a stack of new books to read when I can find the time.  I’ve learned the importance of self-care, and am getting much better at saying “no” to obligations that  threaten to overwhelm me.  If nothing else, I’ve  come to accept my limitations, and that’s a good thing.

I’ve also discovered the importance of discernment.  There are days when I take a break from the news, knowing that all the craziness and conflict will still be there when I actually feel strong enough to hear it.  I hit the “unfollow” button on Facebook in order to keep my newsfeed free from the petty bickering and tribal chest-thumping that many feel obligated to post on a daily basis.  Sometimes I let my phone go directly to voice mail, particularly when it rings just as I am sitting down to a hot meal or settling into a comfortable chair with a good book.   It took a while, but I’ve finally learned not to feel guilty about that.

More importantly, I’ve learned to be a bit more particular about the people I talk to on a regular basis.  I’ve always believed in accepting others for exactly who they are, and that is still the case.  But now that I find myself living almost constantly on the fine line between coping and feeling completely overwhelmed, I realize that I need to spend most of my time only with those who have the ability to cheer me up and keep me hopeful. One good thing about hard times is that you discover some of the people you know are really, really, good at being supportive.  They’re the ones who listen to you without judgement, who assure you that things really will get better, and who know how to make you laugh when all you thought you could do was cry.

IMG_6698I still love all my friends and family, and value my relationship with each and every one of them.  But right now, in this particular situation, I’m gravitating toward those who are helping me cope.  And that’s okay, I think.  If nothing else, they’re showing me exactly what I need to do when it’s my turn to “pay it forward” and help someone else who is in need.  Because the one thing I know about dealing with hardships is that it’s so much easier when you don’t have to face them alone.

A Good Man

l7PvQ+dETJOMWesRIhyYzQAs my regular readers know, I hate being sick.  So I was deeply unhappy when I realized that the sore throat and stuffy nose I came down with last Monday wasn’t, as I had hoped, an allergic reaction to spending Sunday afternoon taking down our Christmas tree.  It was a real cold.  The good news was that I felt a little bit better with each passing day…until last night, when I began to lose my voice.  I couldn’t talk at all by this morning, so I went to the local urgent care clinic for help.

It turned out to be inflamed vocal cords which should go away soon, and I’m already feeling much better.  Partly because they gave me a steroid shot for the inflammation, but mostly because the staff that I dealt with at the clinic were so professional and kind.  They listened to what I had to say, answered my questions, and explained exactly what my treatment would be.  In short, they were ordinary people who took the time to do their job well, and that helped enormously.

I’ve reached the age where I’ve known too many good people who have died, and even more people who are mourning the loss of their own loved ones.  So it shouldn’t have been a shock when my husband received a text from the wife of our handyman telling us that he had died of a sudden heart attack.  But it was.

We’ve known Mike for many years, and liked him very much.  He did high-quality work, and was friendly, dependable, and the sort of person who could fix or build just about anything.  Mike did a lot of projects for us, and also worked on our son’s house, our daughter’s house and my mother’s house.  You don’t spend that much time with someone and not get to know him fairly well, especially someone who likes to talk, as Mike did.  He told us about his wife, whom he loved dearly, and about his beloved granddaughter, whom he adored.  We knew he loved his dogs, and was an avid hunter and fisherman.

One way or another, my husband spent a lot of time talking to Mike, asking for his advice on various projects and often just “shooting the breeze.”  I think it’s safe to say that the relationship between the two of them moved beyond employer/employee to real friendship.  At least I know that’s the way my husband felt.

I’m not sharing this because I’m looking for sympathy for our loss, because that should be reserved for Mike’s family and close friends, who are in deep mourning.  I’m sharing this because I think it’s important for us all to remember just how much good ordinary people doing their jobs well can do, and how much of a positive impact they can make on the people around them.

The people who get most of the attention aren’t really the important ones, in my opinion.  It’s people like Mike and the staff I encountered at the urgent care clinic who really count.  It’s the ones who are kind and honest, and who do their jobs to the best of their ability,  and who are always ready to lend a hand when needed who are the people who truly make the world a better place.  And I believe that they are the ones whose example the rest of us would do well to follow….

Time Flies

If that old saying “time flies when you’re having fun” is true, then all I can say is, I must be having the time of my life.  Because time is flying by so quickly these days that I can barely keep up.  According to the calendar, Summer is drawing to a close.  But I swear it was just yesterday that I was busy replacing all the Winter clothes in my closet with light-weight Summer tops and capris.  How can it possibly be time to start thinking about Fall?

And it’s not just the seasons that are flying by.  The nieces and nephews that I watched grow up now have kids of their own, and some of those kids have already graduated from high school.  Logically, I know that means a whole lot of years have passed since my nieces and nephews were born.  But emotionally, I tend to believe that they all must have found some sort of time machine that turned them into mature adults in the blink of an eye.  And I can only assume that my own kids must have used the same machine, because how else could my youngest one be thirty?

I’ve always known that time is a relative thing, because I remember the days of my own childhood when I would sit in classroom, sneaking peeks at the wall clock while I waited impatiently for recess.  The minutes simply dragged by until that long-awaited recess bell finally rang and we all rushed outside to play.  And yet those fifteen minutes of recess just flew by, because it seemed as if I had barely started to have fun before the bell rang again and we all had to line up and go back in the school building.

But what I didn’t realize was the fact that the older I became, the faster time would speed by.  I didn’t know that I was going to reach a stage in my life when I really, really wanted time to slow down, and not just when I was having fun.  I had no idea that with age comes the understanding that our time in this world is limited, and meant to be savored and enjoyed as much as we possibly can.

It almost seems unfair that this is a lesson that we don’t seem to learn until we have lived long enough that we’ve become far too familiar with grief and loss, and stopped assuming that the people we care for the most will always be with us.  At age sixty-one, I’m also accepting that I no longer have a long lifetime ahead of me to pursue unfulfilled dreams or repair broken relationships.  So I suppose it’s only natural that I feel that time is passing by far too quickly now, and why I really wish there was a way to slow things down a bit.

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no control of the great cosmic clock, which will tick on at the same speed it always has, whether I like it or not.  The only thing I can do, and the only thing any of us can do, is to spend the time we have left wisely.  For me, that means letting go of petty jealousy and anger, and actually doing the things that I love rather than thinking that I’ll get around to it someday.  And most importantly, making sure I spend as much time with the people I love right now, while I still can.

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.