Walking the Walk

When I started this blog three years ago, I had two simple goals.  First, I wanted it to be  a creative writing outlet where I could write honestly and openly about the topics that interested me.  Secondly, I wanted to make sure my blog was a positive place where everyone (including my readers) could share their opinions and beliefs without being attacked by others.  I wanted my blog to be a “hate-free” zone where disagreement was welcomed as long as it was respectful and civilized.  And luckily, that’s exactly the way it turned out.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was actually starting to feel a little bit smug about how little negativity my blog attracted, congratulating myself on keeping the nastiness away.  But have you ever had one of those “aha” moments, when you finally realize something so obvious that you can’t believe you didn’t see it before?  Because that’s exactly what happened to me yesterday.

I was driving down the street, actually thinking of how happy I was that I had managed to keep my blog so positive and hate free for three years when a driver suddenly pulled out in front of me.  I slammed on my brakes and missed him, but I was still incredibly angry.  And I didn’t hesitate to express that anger through a series of words that were both ugly and hateful.  The fact that I was alone in the car with the windows rolled up didn’t really matter.  Whether or not anyone could hear what I said wasn’t the point.  The point was that I finally realized that even though I had managed to create a hate-free blog, I most certainly wasn’t living a hate-free life.

I couldn’t help but wonder just exactly how different my life would be if I became just a bit more intentional about trying to keep hatred and anger out of my own heart.  I’m not naive enough to think that I will never get angry again, or that I won’t resent people I believe have done me wrong, or even that I can simply decide that I’ll never feel hateful again.  I’m sure I’ll do all those things, despite my best efforts.

But still, I know I can do better.  More importantly, I know that I want to do better.  I want to think twice before I open my mouth in anger.  When I feel slighted by someone, I want to try to look at things from their point of view rather than immediately feeling sorry for myself.  And when I feel hate stirring in my heart, I want to ask myself if I really want hateful feelings to be a permanent part of who I am.  Because hatred hurts the one who harbors it just as much as it hurts its target.

For the past three years, I’ve managed to keep hatred, pettiness, resentment, etc. out of my blog, and I’ve been very happy with the result.  So I think it’s time that I at least start trying to do the same thing with the rest of my life.

New Year’s Hope

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago, mostly due the the embarrassing speed with which I broke them.  I never lost the ten pounds I resolved to shed, probably because my resolution to hit the gym regularly and eat only healthy food never lasted more than two weeks.  I usually managed to be lose my temper or be overly critical of something by January 4th (at the latest), so there went my resolution to always keep a positive attitude.  And as for tackling my long list of things I was supposed to do but really, really, didn’t want to do, all I can say is, that didn’t happen either.  My New Year’s resolutions always ended up making me feel like a chubby, crabby failure with a serious procrastination problem.  So I stopped making them.

Still, there is always something about a new year that feels a bit hopeful and optimistic.  Maybe it’s the simple act of putting a brand new calendar up on my refrigerator, with all those blank squares not yet filled in with appointments and obligations.  Maybe it’s the fact that the days are finally beginning to get longer rather than shorter, even if we are in the early stages of winter.  It might even be knowing that the crazy holiday schedule of all those extra commitments, parties and family gatherings is drawing to a close.  Because as much as I enjoy them, I really don’t have the stamina too keep up that pace for very long. One way or another, a new year seems offer the possibility of a new start, and an opportunity for a slightly better way of life.

I guess that is why, despite my long tradition of breaking my New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of January always finds me thinking seriously about making some changes in my life.  I know that some things are never going to change, and that no matter how much I’d like to have a more cheerful disposition, I’m never going to be one of those people who lights up a room simply by walking into it.  And as for the extra ten pounds, they have taken up permanent residence on my hips and have no plans to move, ever.  Still, there are plenty of areas in my life where I would like to improve, and this time of year somehow gives me hope that those changes can actually happen.

I may be well into the second half of my life, but I still have certain hopes and dreams for my future, and I still believe that with a bit of effort on my part, at least some of those hopes and dreams can be realized.  And I’m beginning to realize that maybe the key to making New Year’s resolutions is to look at the big picture, and to recognize exactly what it is that I want to accomplish in the time I have left, and what steps I need to take to make that happen.  And then begin moving toward those goals, one resolution at a time.  Even baby steps move us forward, and eventually get us where we want to be.

January 1st may be just another date on the calendar, but I believe the promise of the New Year is real.  It’s the promise and hope of new possibilities, if only we are willing and brave enough to try for them.  And one way or another, I intend to honor that promise.

A Disturbing Pattern?

I have never been a particularly ambitious person.  I had no plans to run for public office, become a celebrity of any sort, or make enough money to live in a huge mansion.  Although I did hope to make a modest living writing children’s books, I never aspired to being on the New York Times Bestseller’s list.   My main goal in life has always been a very modest one:  to simply try to leave the world a slightly better place than I found it.  Seriously, that’s it.  But even so, I’m starting to think that maybe I set the bar just a little bit too high.

DSC01258If I were really the sort of person who brought in a ray of sunshine each time she entered the room, how do I explain all the times when my mere presence has had what can only be called a distinctly negative effect?  There’s the little things, like how whatever line I join at the checkout counter immediately becomes the slowest moving line, each and every time.  Sometimes the person in front of me hands the cashier a huge wad of coupons and argues endlessly when told that half of them are expired, while other times we all wait for a stock boy to do a price check on an item shelved on the other side of the store.  But one way or another, when I get in a line, it stops moving.

And yes, I know lots of people claim they have the same experience with check-out lines, but I have so many more examples.  I had to have my senior pictures retaken because the photographer discovered that his camera broke during my photo session.  Other people joke about having their face break a camera, but mine actually did it.

This past year alone, five of my favorite restaurants have gone out of business.  And even if a restaurant that I love does manage to stay open, they always discontinue whatever dish I like the best.  Remember Panera’s potato-cream cheese soup?  It was so delicious that it was worth every calorie, and it was my absolute favorite.  So of course they took it off the menu.

The last three times I joined a church, the minister resigned shortly afterwards.  When my husband and I decided to invest a little money with a broker, the stock market immediately dropped like a rock.  We have lived in the same house for the past twenty years, and like to think that we are good neighbors.  But then how do I explain that the house on our left has turned over six times since we moved in, and we have actually lost count of how many different families have lived in the house behind us?

But the biggest example is my writing career.  The only children’s book I ever published was sold through a book packager who expressed interest in seeing more of my work.  And then promptly went out of business.  A small public relations firm closed right after I completed my first assignment for them.  Several editors have lost their positions shortly after asking me for revisions with the goal of eventual publication, and three separate publishing houses that liked my work also went out of business before I could close a sale.  I’m sort of the “Typhoid Mary” of the publishing world.

I tell you, it’s enough to give a person a complex!  Sometimes I feel the exact opposite of the king in the story, “The Midas Touch.”  Remember that story?  Where everything the king touched turned to gold?  Only in my case, it often turns to–well, let’s just say not gold.  So, if you are one of the small group of people who reads my posts, I suggest you enjoy them while you can.  Because past experience suggests that it’s only a matter of time before WordPress pulls the plug.

Spring Cleaning

I’m what you might call a “neat freak.”  I admit, I prefer my house when it’s sparkling clean and everything is exactly where it should be.  I like my wooden floors to shine; I like my kitchen counters free of clutter; I keep the spices on my spice rack alphabetized, and when I walk into my bathroom, all I want to smell is the air freshener.  Clutter annoys me, and I have basically declared unending war on household dirt and grime.  I have a dog in my house, which means that I use my vacuum cleaner about as often as I use my hair dryer.  So it is only natural that I spend a good deal of time each March doing my annual spring cleaning.

IMG_1203Spring cleaning means that windows must be washed, wooden furniture must be polished, and dust bunnies must be hunted down and destroyed.  My winter clothes are packed up in plastic bins, and my spring clothes are unpacked and stored neatly (sorted according to style, color and sleeve length) in my dresser or closet.  Daffodils are cut from my garden and arranged carefully in a vase on the mantel.  I fill several bags with donations for Good Will, and hit the local malls in hope of finding a couple of new spring outfits that both fit and flatter.  I’m rarely successful, but I still try.

For me, spring cleaning isn’t just about cleaning my house (I pretty much do that all year round), it’s also about getting rid of the stuff I don’t need anymore, and trying to replace it with things that I actually do need but don’t have.  It’s about streamlining my life, and trying to surround myself only with things that matter, meaning only things that are either necessary or that I love.  And it’s not just limited to my house.

There’s something about spring that makes me want to examine my life, and identify the areas that are going well and the areas that could stand a little (or a lot) of improvement.  Am I treating the people I love as well as they deserve to be treated?  Or am I nursing grudges, or using the busyness  of my life as an excuse not to spend time with them?  Am I seeing them clearly, for who they now are, or am I clinging to the image of the person I once knew, because that’s so much easier for me?

Am I taking risks and trying new things, or just staying in my familiar ruts and doing things “the way I’ve always done them?”  Do I have the will power to get rid of life-long habits that no longer serve any useful purpose, and too often get in the way of my health and happiness?  Do I have the courage to reach out to people who annoy me, anger me, or even frighten me and try to find some common ground?  Or am I content to just keep dividing the world into “them” and “us?”

Personal spring cleaning is so much harder than simply cleaning my house, but it’s also so much more necessary.  If I want to start living more fully, and if I want to realize my full potential (modest though it may be), I have to be willing to let go of the resentments, complacency, prejudice, and all those other bad habits that are cluttering up my life.  I have to make room for new relationships, healthy habits and all the beautiful things that can enrich my life if finally make them a priority.

I know that personal spring cleaning, just like conventional spring cleaning, is a process that takes both time and commitment.  But it seems to me that if I can manage to keep a clean house, I ought to at least be willing to try to live a clean life as well.

Do It Anyway

IMG_4471I’m not exactly what you would call an motivated person.  I don’t spring out of bed in the morning, ready and eager to face the challenges of the day ahead.   My New Year’s resolutions are usually more along the line of “I will try to be more patient and tolerant with people who annoy me,” rather than “I will publish a book, run a marathon, and become chairman of the board of a worthy charity.”  Left to my own devices, I’m perfectly capable of wasting an entire day just puttering about the house, happily organizing my photo albums, re-reading a favorite book, or cleaning out the junk drawer.

I would prefer to think that I appreciate the simple things in life, but the truth is, I’m just not a “Type A” personality, and never will be.  And that means that I spend an awful lot of my time doing things that I really don’t want to do.

As much as I love helping shelter dogs, there are many days when I just don’t feel like walking them.  Some days I’m too tired or too sore, on other days I don’t want to be out for so long in the bitter cold or scorching heat, and there are also days when I’d just rather do something easier than walking ten or more shelter dogs in a row.   But if I’m on the schedule that day, I go down there and walk the dogs anyway, because I know that the dogs and the other volunteers are depending on me.

I enjoy writing my blog and being part of the blogging community, but there are days when I just can’t think of a single thing I want to write about.  It would be so easy to skip a turn on my self-imposed schedule of two blog posts a week, but I don’t.  If I’m supposed to publish a post on a particular day, I sit down in front of the computer and type until I come up with a post that’s at least somewhat worth reading.  That’s the only way I’ll keep this blog going.

This is nothing new.  When I worked full-time, there were many  mornings when I would have given anything for an extra day off, or at least the ability to delegate the parts of my job that I found boring or difficult to some other poor soul.  But I needed the paycheck, so I did the work anyway, without complaining.  Later, staying home with small children came with an endless stream of jobs that I would have preferred to avoid:  the dirty diapers, dealing with toddler tantrums, scrubbing vomit off the new couch, etc.  Raising small children can be hard, but they need and deserve loving care, so I did my best to see that they got it.

I think for most of us, life is sometimes a series of doing things that we’d rather not do, at times when we’d rather not do them.  And for people like me, who are not terribly driven or motivated, it probably always takes a little extra effort to tackle all the necessary challenges and chores that life throws our way.  But I don’t believe that’s ever an excuse for not being dependable, caring or hard-working.  I learned long ago that whether or not I feel like doing something is usually not what matters.  What matters is whether or not the job in front of me needs doing.

My Middle-Age Bucket List

DSC00171I’ve never been a fan of the idea of having a “bucket list,” mostly because I don’t like the idea of having a set list of goals that I need to reach before I “kick the bucket.”  How am I supposed to know now, in my middle age, everything that I still want to do with my life?  And what am I supposed to do when I finally cross the last item off my list?  Just check myself into the nearest nursing home and wait for death?  I think not.

But I am a natural procrastinator, so I do see the advantages of having some actual goals for the second half of my life, as long as they are appropriately fluid and on-going.  After giving the matter some thought, I finally came up with a bucket list I can live with:

1) Travel somewhere new as often as possible.  It doesn’t have to be far, as there are lots of interesting places I’ve never visited within a two-hour drive from my home, but it does have to be somewhere I’ve never visited before.  Discovering someplace new and wonderful is a joy I’ll never outgrow, and few things match it for making me feel young again.

2) Once a month, do something I haven’t ever done before.  It doesn’t really matter what it it is….just be brave and get out there and try something new.  Not everything will end as badly as my attempt at water-skiing.  (Note to self in case I ever try that again:  keep your feet together when the boat pulls you up out of the water.  Doing the “splits” on a lake is just as painful as it sounds.)

3) Try to make a new friend at least once a year.  I’ve heard people say they don’t want any new friends because they can barely keep up with the ones they have now.  And while I understand that from a time-management aspect, I am not willing to limit myself to the friends I already know, no matter how much I value them.  (And that’s a LOT!)  But some of my favorite people are those I’ve only gotten to know in the past few years, and trust me, they’re worth the time.  When it comes to adding good people to my life, I believe there’s always room for one more.  Always.

4) Never, ever stop thinking of new goals and new ways to make sure the second half of my life is as interesting, fun and meaningful as I can possibly make it.  Because when I’m not willing to do that, then perhaps it really will be time to find that nursing home….