Clean It Up

IMG_1203Spring has finally arrived, which means it’s time to do my annual Spring cleaning.  This week I’ll pack up the last of my winter clothes and replace them with outfits more appropriate for warmer weather.  I’ll touch up the paint on the walls and baseboards, wash the windows, vacuum the curtains and even toss my pillows in the washing machine.  I’ll also clean out the junk drawer and sort through the many boxes of stuff we have stored in our basement in an effort to get rid of anything we no longer use or love.  I am not what you would call a “saver,” but for some reason Spring is the time when I am especially motivated to get rid of excess stuff.

And this year I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s time I took my Spring cleaning one step further.  If I’m willing to get rid of the things in my house that are no longer useful to me, then maybe I should be willing to get rid of some of the things in my life that are no longer useful to me as well.  I am nothing if not a creature of habit, but that doesn’t mean that all of my habits are worthy of keeping.  In fact, I’m quite sure that some of them aren’t good for me at all.

Do I really need to start each day by turning on the morning news, knowing that all it usually does it make me me feel depressed, annoyed, or even angry?  Can’t all that negativity at least wait until after breakfast?  And do I really need to sit down at my computer several times a day, checking my emails and Facebook page?  Wouldn’t that time be better spent doing something that’s actually useful, or even relaxing?

Is the Diet Coke that I drink each time I’m walking dogs at the local animal shelter really the best way to quench my thirst, particularly on a hot and humid day?  Is it time to make the switch to water, as so many of the other volunteers do, even though I’ve always bought myself a Diet Coke as a treat when I’m walking dogs?  I could go on, but if I listed all of my habits that aren’t exactly enhancing my life, I’d end up with a blog post that was at least 5,000 words.  Which would be way too long, and way too embarrassing to share.  The point is that my house isn’t the only thing that could use a bit of “cleaning out” this Spring.

They say old habits die hard, and that’s quite true.   But I can still choose to leave some of my old habits behind, especially those that are no longer serving me and that may actually be getting in the way of the kind of life I actually want to lead.  And if I can manage to get rid of even a few of those habits this year, then that will be the best Spring cleaning I’ve ever done.

The Roads Not Traveled

IMG_1272We just got back from a fun weekend spent visiting family in Iowa.  On Saturday night, my nephew and his wife graciously hosted everyone for a big family dinner at their home.  They moved to a beautiful old farmhouse in the country a couple of years ago, and this was the first time my husband and I had visited them there.  Their one hundred year-old house (which is remarkably well preserved)  sits on several acres of land, with a beautiful view of rolling pasture right outside their front door.  They have fruit trees, a huge garden, several charming outbuildings and even a chicken coop, complete with six lively chickens.   And as they were showing us around, all I could think was, “I want to live here.”

There has always been a part of me that would like to live out in the country, in a big rambling farmhouse surrounded by enough land to keep a few horses, several dogs and whatever other animals I happened to acquire.  I enjoy the peaceful beauty of rural areas, and the thought of living closer to nature, with the chance to grow lots of vegetables and maybe even have fresh eggs from my very own chickens is appealing to me.  But that’s not the life I chose, and it’s not the life I am living.

I live in an inner suburb of a large city, on less than a quarter-acre lot, with neighbors close by on three sides.  I can’t step out my door and go for a nice walk in the country, but I can walk to several stores and restaurants, and my children could walk to their school when they were little.  My son, daughter, and mother each live within a twenty minute drive from my home, and my husband and I have many good friends who live close enough to see often.  All in all, I am happy with the way things have turned out, and have no plans of moving anytime soon.

I think we all have to make our choices in life, and there are always trade-offs in whatever choice we make.  As much as I would enjoy living in that big house in the country, I also enjoy living in a city with all that a big urban area has to offer. Country living is, for me, one of those choices that I think about from time to time and wonder just exactly what my life would be like if I had followed that particular dream.  Just like how each time my husband and I visit Sanibel Island, we think, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just live down here?”  But then we go home, look around us, and realize that we are content to stay just where we are.

There will always be a part of me that yearns for the country life, and for the island life as well.  But I know that not all dreams can be followed, and that we have to choose the ones that are the most important to us.  For my nephew and his wife, the dream of farm life was the one worth pursuing, and I’m so glad it worked out for them.  (And I hope they don’t mind us visiting rather often!)  But for me, both the rural life and the island life are simply the tempting roads that I didn’t travel on the journey of my life.

A Dog’s Life

IMG_1219One way or another, I spend a big chunk of my life these days in the company of dogs.  To begin with, I share my home with Lucy, a fourteen-year old dog who has always operated with a total disregard for household rules.  And while old age means she can no longer move as quickly or hear as well as she used to, I still walked into our dining room shortly after we had finished this year’s Easter brunch to find her standing calmly on our dining room table, polishing off the rest of the dessert tray.  Just for the record, she seemed to favor the little egg-shaped cakes over the lemon squares, although it was obvious that she had sampled both.  She may be old, but she still knows an opportunity when she sees it.

IMG_1060Besides living with Lucy, I often help take care of my children’s dogs, which I’m more than happy to do.  My daughter and her husband have Harley, a chihuahua mix who adores her immediate circle of friends and family and has absolutely no use for anyone else. In her own home, she’s happy to simply ignore people she doesn’t like, but walking her is a challenge.  She may love her walks, but she also loves barking at anyone and anything she sees, and flies into an absolute rage when she spots an approaching car.  It doesn’t seem to occur to her that five pounds of furious dog is no match for a thousand pounds of moving steel, and I’m not about to let her learn that lesson the hard way.

IMG_0210My son and his fiancé have Frank, a pug mix, and Roxy, an English Bulldog.  I know Frank well since he lived with us for a while right after my son graduated from college, and have come to love Roxy, too.  Roxy and Frank have become good friends in the past couple of years, although there have been a few necessary adjustments.  Unlike most dogs, Frank loves to wear sweaters (probably because he doesn’t tolerate the cold very well), but Roxy has a problem with that.  One cold December morning, my son sent the dogs outside with Frank proudly sporting a brand-new Christmas sweater.  Ten minutes later, the dogs came back in.  Frank was wearing only his fur, while Roxy had Frank’s Christmas sweater dangling from her teeth.  Clearly, Roxy is a dog who knows how to take matters into her own paws, and Frank has learned to live without sweaters.

IMG_4353My mother has Penny, a sweet and elderly chihuahua who was rescued from a hoarding situation about nine years ago, which means that altogether, my immediate family has five dogs.  I spend time with all of them, trimming nails and filling in as needed for potty breaks, walks and meals.  For the past fourteen years, I have also been volunteering regularly at the Humane Society where I have logged in hundreds of miles walking shelter dogs.  I’ve spent hours patiently coaxing a shy dog out of its run, or working to teach a rowdy dog basic manners, or trying to calm a dog who is clearly stressed out.

Although I’ve always loved dogs, I honestly don’t think I ever planned to have quite so much of my life revolve around them.  There was a time when I toyed with the idea of being a  veterinarian or a vet tech, but my habit of fainting at the sight of blood sort of ruled that out.  Still, I can’t say I’m unhappy with the way things have turned out.  It’s true that in some ways, my life has certainly “gone to the dogs,” but as far as I’m concerned, they’re worth it.

A Life Well Lived

It’s been many years since my grandfather died, but today is his birthday, so I suppose it’s only natural that I should find myself thinking about him.  He was a small man with a gentle, unassuming manner, and unlike the rest of my family, he wasn’t much of a talker.  He lived, worked, and raised his family in the same neighborhood he was born in, practicing dentistry for forty-eight years in an office that was across the street from the house he lived in as a child.

image23-1_0077At family gatherings he could usually be found in the kitchen, seated at the table with the grandkids, drawing, playing games, or showing us how to make rows of little soldiers with his manual typewriter.  He was infinitely patient with us, and always encouraging.  If I couldn’t think of something to draw, he would simply look at my blank, white piece of paper and tell me that I had made a fine picture of a polar bear in a snow storm.  He was a natural with children, and always ready to accept an invitation to a make-believe tea party.

Shortly after marrying my grandmother, he moved into a two-bedroom brick bungalow on an unpaved street on what was then the outer edge of the city, where he lived for over fifty years.  Those who knew him then swore they had seen him sitting quietly in the back yard, holding out breadcrumbs for the wild birds, which would actually eat them out of his hand.  By the time I came along, the neighborhood around my grandfather’s house had become very urban, but he still put out bread crumbs each morning for the sparrows who gathered on his back porch, chirping in anticipation.

My grandfather had a very strong, if somewhat old-fashioned, sense of what was proper, and he stuck to it religiously.  He wore a suit every day, even after he retired from his dental practice.  His idea of casual attire was to remove his jacket and roll up his shirt sleeves.  Once, I saw him putting on his hat and suit jacket as he was heading out the back door, and asked him where he was going. He answered,  “I’m going to take out the trash.”  He didn’t understand, or care to understand, the more casual culture that surrounded him in his senior years, and continued to refer to almost everyone as a lady or a gentleman long after those terms had gone out of style.

Dentist officeHis dental practice was very busy, but not exactly profitable, as my grandfather rarely raised his rates.  He knew that most of his patients could not afford to pay very much for their dental care, and he charged them accordingly.  “Doc Jones” was well known and liked in his neighborhood, and for good reason.  I don’t think he ever felt that he was making a personal sacrifice by keeping his rates low, as he lived very modestly by choice.  His life consisted of his dental practice, his family, his friends, and his church, and he seemed quite content.

Sometimes, when my life seems to be a bit too complicated or I am unhappy because I think I need to have more of this or that, I try to think of my grandfather and the simple way that he lived his life, and to use it as an example for my own.  Because I can’t really think of a better role model…..

Judge Not

IMG_0371I was talking to a friend the other day about her decision to retire from teaching at the end of this school year.  This is a big change for her, and naturally she is a little apprehensive about exactly how retiring from a full-time job will impact her life and her family.  I was listening to her concerns with genuine sympathy right up to the moment when she looked at me and suddenly said, “You haven’t worked full time in years, and I’ve always wanted to ask you….what exactly do you DO all day?”

Now I can be just a wee bit of a snarky bitch at times, so the immediate answer that sprang to my mind was, “Nothing much.  I spend my days sitting in the recliner, watching TV and drinking Diet Coke.  Every few hours I get up to go the bathroom, but that’s about it.”  Of course, I didn’t actually say that, but I was definitely taken back by her question.  I honestly didn’t know how to answer.  I could recite a list of the things I am doing with my days or remind her that it is quite possible to work very hard without actually being paid, but I was afraid  that would sound defensive, and I know she didn’t mean to offend me.  But if I didn’t explain exactly how I spent my time,  then I risked confirming the implication that I was simply wasting my days away.  I felt judged, and not in a good way.

I remember a young woman who lived in my college dorm, who was very pretty in that Farrah Fawcett style that was all the rage back then.  She always hurried past me when I met her in the hallway, barely acknowledging my presence, even though most of the other women were usually willing to stop for a chat.  Frankly, I thought she was stuck-up.  But then one day I met an obviously confused, middle-aged woman in the lobby who was asking for her, and later heard the young woman on the phone, patiently repeating the same information over and over again.  I found out that the confused middle-aged woman was her mother, who had suffered brain damage in a bad car accident years before.  And the young woman I thought was a snob was really just too busy to stop and talk, what with constantly dealing with her mother’s issues while she was trying to earn a college degree.  I had judged her very harshly, and I was completely wrong.

And I think that’s the problem with judgement:  it is so often completely wrong.  We don’t know what other people are going through; we don’t know what their hopes and dreams are; we don’t know why they make the choices they make.  And as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, we don’t need to know.

I’m sure the fact that I don’t have a real job anymore does strike some people as odd, but I know that I am living a life that is both productive and worthwhile, and the arrangement works for my husband and me.  I also know that as a former stay-at-home mom who spent a lot of time and effort on books that were never published, I am a bit sensitive to questions about how I spend my days.  But that’s beside the point:  I really shouldn’t have to explain my life choices to anyone.  And I don’t have the right to judge other people’s choices, even when what they are doing makes no sense to me whatsoever.  As long as there is no neglect or abuse involved, I really do think that the old “live and let live” advice is right on target.

Where The Heart Is

IMG_3566I admit that I spend way too much time watching HGTV’s “House Hunters International.”  I think there’s something so intriguing about the idea of moving to a whole new country and getting to change my life in such a dramatic and profound way.  Leaving the Midwest behind to live near a Caribbean beach, in a charming apartment in Paris, or in a house among the vineyards of Tuscany sounds like a wonderful way to jolt me out of my middle-age routine.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to wake up each morning to a view of the Mediterranean Sea or the Swiss Alps?

But no matter how attractive it sounds,  I’ll never actually make the move.  As much as I would like to live somewhere new and exotic, I know I am far too attached to the life I have created for myself in St. Louis to be able to pick up and leave it all behind.  My husband’s job is here, my kids have both settled in this area and most of my relatives (on both sides of our family) live within a five-hour’s drive.  Almost all of my friends are here, or at least close enough to visit easily without having to hop on a plane.  The simple truth is that I have put down roots here that are so deep that they can’t be pulled up without a profound sense of loss and more than a little pain.

And I’m not complaining, because I know that this is a situation that I’ve created by the choices I’ve made in my life up to this point.  When I was growing up, my family moved every few years, which meant that I was lucky enough to experience living in several different types of communities, from large cities to small towns.  But the downside was that I also didn’t have one place that ever truly felt like home.  I don’t think it was an accident that right after graduating from college, I moved back to St. Louis, the community in which I was born.  I think I wanted to have that sense of living in my “home town,” and the chance to feel that I really belonged somewhere.  My husband and I have lived here ever since, and honestly, we don’t have any regrets about it.

I think that we each have to choose what kind of life suits us best, and there is no right or wrong in either the choice to move to different places and get the chance to experience different cultures first-hand, or the choice to stay put in the community that feels the most like home.  For me, I like knowing that most of the people I love are close by, and living in a city that I know so well.  So I think I will just have to keep “living vicariously” through the people who do have the ability to pull up stakes and move to another continent, and a small part of me will always understand why they want to do that.

But if I ever win the lottery, you can bet that I’m buying a vacation home in the English countryside.  Or Provence. Or maybe even somewhere along the Spanish coast……IMG_5619