The Best-Laid Plans

When I was a teenager, I learned to drive by practicing on my family’s Volkswagen Beetle, which had a stick shift.  As anyone who has driven a car with a stick shift knows, when you don’t shift properly, the car only moves forward in a jerky series of starts and stops, and sometimes just stalls out.  It was hard to get the knack of releasing the clutch and stepping on the gas in just the right way so that the car shifted smoothly into the next gear.  I figured it out eventually, but are times in my life when I feel as if I’m still in that little car, struggling to shift gears in a way that doesn’t jerk me all over the road.  This is one of those times.

A few weeks ago, we put my mother on a waiting list for a retirement community.   It was time for her to have a smaller living space to manage and more opportunities for socialization and activities, while still remaining independent.  The community she chose will provide all that, and once the decision had been made, we were eager to move ahead.  Unfortunately, we were told it could be a year before an apartment actually became available, so I reluctantly “shifted gears” and resigned myself to a long wait.  I even decided that the waiting was a good thing, since it would give Mom plenty of time to figure out what she wanted to take with her and to distribute the stuff she no longer needed.

Last week, I was organizing my paperwork when I noticed that I hadn’t put my cell phone number on the retirement community’s contact sheet.  I called the housing director to let her know, and after listening to me ramble a while, she said, “So I’m guessing you didn’t get my message yesterday?  The one that said the apartment you looked at is available now?”

C1bn%xHURyKz0aRtXD8CmQI was stunned.  The apartment we looked at was bright and airy, had an extra closet, and a balcony that overlooked the garden.  We all loved it, but were told that balcony apartments could take as much as two years to get, so Mom knew that the apartment she was going to get most likely wouldn’t have the balcony or extra closet.   And yet that exact apartment was now available immediately.  Mom was thrilled, and so were we, but it meant “changing gears” again as we prepare for a move in the very near future.

The last post I wrote about my mom’s upcoming move to a retirement home was all about patience, which is an area where I come up just a tad short.  And patience truly is a virtue that I’m working hard to acquire.  But sometimes life calls for other strengths, such as the ability to “go with the flow,” to move quickly when needed, and to seize an opportunity when it comes our way.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever learn to “shift gears” to adapt to the changes in my life nearly as well as I learned to shift gears in an actual car, but that’s okay.  I may be moving forward in a series of starts and stops, but I still get where I need to be.  And that’s all that really matters anyway…..

I Meant to Say

I may talk a lot (some would say I talk too much), but clear and effective communication isn’t my strong point.  There are many reasons for this, including the fact that when I get nervous I tend to babble on and on about nothing in particular, and completely skip whatever point I actually wanted to make.  Also, I don’t like conflict, so when I need to say something that might give offense, I tend to circle around the topic so widely that the person I’m talking to has no idea what I really mean.

But perhaps the biggest problem is simply that there is often a big difference between what I think I’m saying and what the person I’m talking to actually hears.  Because all of us have “personal filters” that can unintentionally distort the meaning of what is being said to us, and sometimes words can have different meanings to different people.  And as it turns out, the communication issues aren’t just limited to my dealings with other human beings.

One of the many advantages to having a dog live in the house is that dogs usually serve as an excellent alarm system.  If someone comes to your door, walks across your property, or even just innocently jogs down the street in front of your house, most dogs will let you know about it.  Loudly.  And that can be a good thing, especially if you happen to be home alone.

So when we brought our new dog, Finn, home a few months ago, I told him that one of his duties (aside from keeping the floor free of food and ridding the yard of vermin) was to serve as a watch dog.  And he took me at my word, quite literally.  One night I heard strange sounds coming from outside our front door and went downstairs to investigate.  Finn was already there, sitting nearby and watching intently as a stranger repeatedly tried to unlock the door and open it.  Luckily, it turned out to be a harmless young woman who was simply at the wrong house, but I still would have appreciated a woof or two out of Finn.  Clearly, I should have asked him to be an “alarm dog” rather than a “watch dog.”  (Although he is very good at watching.  Trust me on this.)

I suppose the lesson in all of this is that I need to remember that effective communication isn’t something I can ever take for granted.  Finn’s interpretation of being a watch dog is a great example of how easily our words and meanings can be misunderstood by others, and how we really do need to be a bit more forgiving when others don’t respond the way we would wish.  Actions and words that we are so quick to take offense at are often the result of nothing more than a simple miscommunication, I think.

fullsizeoutput_53ddSo I will try harder to make myself as clear as I possibly can, whether I’m talking to someone who walks on two legs or four.  Which means I might just have a shot at getting Finn to finally understand that the wading pool in the back yard is actually for my grandson….

Good Things Come

Patience may be a virtue, but it’s not one of mine.  I’m the sort who skips dessert and then steps on the scale to see how many pounds I’ve lost.  I wanted my new dog, Finn, to drop all of his annoying habits right away, even though he’s only one-year old.  (You’d think the fact that I’m sixty-one years old and still have almost all of my annoying habits would mean I’d be a little more patient with him.  But you’d be wrong.)  And when I planted this year’s tomato seedling, I immediately started planning the recipes I was going to make with this year’s bumper crop of tomatoes.

So now that my mom has made the decision to move into a retirement home, I’m ready to pack her up and move her in there as soon as possible….next week at the very latest.  And of course that’s not going to happen.

Never mind the fact that she’s going to be moving from a three-bedroom house (with a full basement and a garage) to a one-bedroom condo, which is going to require major down-sizing.  It’s going to be a huge task simply to decide which of her possessions she wants to take with her, never mind what to do with all the stuff she doesn’t want to take.  And then there’s all the chores that go with any move:  the change of address cards, shutting off utilities in the old house, hiring a mover, etc.  All of it takes time.

But the biggest problem is that the retirement community she’s selected has a waiting list, and we’ve been warned that it could be as long as a year before a unit opens up for her.  Which means that I’ve got too much time to spend worrying and fretting as I wait for this move to actually happen.

What if she has a major health issue in the next few months and no longer meets the “independent living” requirements?  What if we get rid of all her extra stuff and then she changes her mind about moving?  What if everyone who currently lives in the retirement home actually stays there for the next ten years, and a condo never becomes available?  There are so many things that could go wrong that my mind just reels…

But this, like so much in life, is something that I really can’t control.  Yes, I want to see my mother safe and happy in her new home, and I do think she’s made the right decision to move.  But the process isn’t going to go any faster if I fret and worry than it will if I manage to step back, take a deep breath, and let things work out however they happen to work out.

IMG_5532 2Because sometimes, I think, we just have to trust that once we’ve done everything we can to make something happen that it often does….if we can just wait a little while.  Finn may still annoy us now and then, but his behavior has improved enormously since he first moved in.  We kept my son’s dogs last week, and the three of them got along just great with no issues at all.  That’s progress.  And I may not have a bumper crop of tomatoes just yet, but I do have enough to make a tasty addition to the salad I’m serving with dinner tonight.

So maybe, just maybe, it’s time for me to admit that there’s some truth to that old saying, “good things come to those who wait.”  And then learn to do it with patience and trust….

Refreshment Time

Sometimes I think the best part of any vacation is simply the chance to take a break from our usual routines and obligations, and to leave behind the stress and worry that normally takes up far to much of our attention and energy.  Especially if we have the good sense to actually disconnect from our regular lives by not keeping up with our emails, texts and whatever other form of social media we are in the habit of using.

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I have a hard time even remembering all the stuff I’m supposed to be worried about, never mind trying to actually deal with all those problems.  Add in the usual busy schedule, caring for the family and friends who need it, and the constant onslaught of negative news, and it’s no wonder that my tiny mind really does struggle to keep up with it all.  And believe me, I know there are many, many others whose lives are far more complicated than mine.

Which is why taking a break from it all every now and then is so very important.  It’s amazing what a little time spent “off the grid” can do to restore our souls and remind us that life is so much more than a check list of duties and goals that needs to be completed.

IMG_5250Vacations allow us to leave all those worries, schedules and obligations behind, for a least a little while.  More importantly, they give us the time to reconnect with our true selves, and if we’re lucky, with the people in our lives who matter the most.  And it doesn’t matter if our vacation is long and expensive or short and cheap, as long as we disconnect from our usual routines and spend the time doing something that truly makes us happy.  Even taking a long walk in a park or sitting in the sun in our own back yard, happily reading a favorite book can count as a vacation if we need it to.  “Stop and smell the roses” is more than just a cliche.

I believe that all of us need a little time off now and then, so we can have the opportunity to listen to our hearts and be reminded of who we really are.  It’s far too easy to get so caught up in the frantic pace of our daily lives that we put our minds “in neutral” and spend our days doing little more than completing whatever task is in front of us and then quickly moving on to the next one.  But that’s not what life is supposed to be, at least not all the time.

One of my favorite literary characters is fond of saying, “Life is for the living.”  And I couldn’t agree more…..

The Time Is Now

Nine years ago, my husband and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary by going on a river cruise in France.  It was our first trip to Europe, and between the excitement and the overnight flight to London, we were dead tired by the time we boarded the plane for the short flight that would take us to Nice. My husband promptly fell asleep, but I stayed awake, fascinated by the view of France below me.  I could see the Eiffel Tower as we flew over Paris, then vineyards, rivers, rolling hills, tiny towns, and even snow-capped mountains to the East.  It was a struggle to keep my eyes open, but I knew this might be the only time I could get a “bird’s eye” view of France, and I wasn’t about to miss it.

IMG_5619We were spending the night in Nice before heading off to our river boat the following day.  We checked into our hotel late that afternoon and I wanted nothing more than to eat and go straight to bed.  But my husband had his heart set on the tour company’s optional dinner excursion to Monaco, and I reluctantly agreed to go.  The views on the ride over were fabulous, the dinner was great, and we even got to gamble a little in one of the very expensive and very exclusive casinos that kept a side room open for ordinary people like us.  (If you want to see one of the very formal employees of a ritzy Monaco casino almost smile, go up to the counter and proudly present him with your winnings ticket for a whopping four euros.)

I’m glad I went, even though I was so tired that I promptly fell asleep on the bus ride back to the hotel. My husband told me that I snored loudly the whole way no matter how many times he nudged me with his elbow.  And my fellow passengers were the very same people who were going to be on the river boat with us for the entire week.  Luckily, the bus was so dark there was a chance no one knew it was me.

We spent the next few days sailing up the Rhone river, and then rode a bus up to Paris, where our trip ended.  We spent two nights there, which meant we had one day to explore that famous city.  It wasn’t nearly enough time, but we made the best of it by taking a sight-seeing tour in the morning in order to see as much of Paris as possible.  Notre Dame wasn’t open for visitors on the day we were there, but the tour did take us close enough that we could get a good look at it.  And I will be forever grateful for that.  The first thing I thought when I was the news footage of the tragic fire was, “I’m glad I at least got to see the outside in person.”

The point is, sometimes opportunities present themselves to us at very inconvenient times, and it’s all too easy to say “no.”  We’re too tired, we’re too busy, we just can’t possibly…..  Until we go ahead and try, and realize that we not only could, but that we are so very happy we did.

All Good Things

It seemed to me that this past Winter was especially hard.  My home town was spared the horrible blizzards that devastated other parts of the Midwest, but our Winter was still made up of months of very cold temperatures and too much snow and ice.  I don’t know if it’s my age or that my volunteer job of walking dogs at the local animal shelter means I’m outside for long periods of time, but whatever the reason, I don’t tolerate the cold very well.  The blood drains out of my fingers, leaving them bleached white and painful, my nose runs continuously, and my eyes tear so much that everyone thinks I’m crying.

So you can see why I was really, really, ready for Winter to be over, even as the frigid temperatures hung on and the promise of Spring seemed so very far away.  I often found myself wondering just how big of a beach-front Florida condo we could buy if we sold our house and drained our savings accounts.  Sometimes I thought about just staying in my nice warm bed all day, reading books and eating hot soup.  I even toyed with the idea of having all the supplies I needed delivered to me so that I didn’t have to venture out into the cold.

But I didn’t act on any of those crazy impulses.  Instead, I just kept to my regular routine, knowing that sooner or later, Winter would give up and leave, making room for the Spring that I was longing for.  And sure enough, Spring finally showed up.

fullsizeoutput_5070The past couple of weeks have been (mostly) wonderfully warm, with just enough rain to wash away the nasty tree pollen that triggers my allergies.  The flowers are blooming, the trees are budding, and the birds are singing outside my window every morning.  The days are getting longer, and it now stays light well into the dinner hour, which means we can both cook and eat outside on our patio.

I believe Winter comes to all of us in many ways.  Some times it’s the literal Winter of cold, nasty weather and long, dark nights.  Other times, it’s the hardships and losses that that we suffer through and that can make life feel so very difficult, both physically and emotionally.  There are times when it seems as if our personal Winter will never end.

fullsizeoutput_507dThat’s when it helps me to remember that at the end of every seasonal Winter, no matter how hard and how long it has been, comes Spring.  The sun gets a little stronger, the temperatures a little warmer and the days last a little longer with each passing week.  And that reminds me that the dark days in our personal lives don’t last forever either.  It may take a long time, but eventually our burdens will feel just a little bit lighter, our hearts will feel just a little bit warmer, and our spirits will celebrate the arrival of our very own Spring.

Ageless

No doubt about it, there are certain advantages to aging.  And I’m not talking about just the wisdom and self-acceptance that most of us achieve as we grow older.  I’m talking about the fact that old people can get away with stuff that younger people can’t.  For example, when I take 88-year old mother out to eat, she has no problem letting the waiter know the very second she’s ready to order, even if that means calling across the room to attract his attention.  I have yet to see a waiter take offense.  Instead, all she gets is a tolerant smile and sometimes even a friendly pat on the shoulder.  Somehow, I don’t think that would be the response if my mother wasn’t a textbook example of a “cute little old lady.”

Even at age 60, I have found that my age can be an advantage.  I have heard of people who have a “resting bitch face,” but personally, I have always had what can only be called a “resting stupid face.”  Meaning that when I don’t have a specific expression on my face, I tend to look as if I’m just a few bricks short of a load.  And that has served me well, particularly when I pair it with the words, “But I don’t understand.”  I can’t tell you how many people have done what I’ve wanted just because they couldn’t be bothered to explain the rules to someone they believed wasn’t bright enough to understand them.

But now that I have reached a certain age, I’ve found that the only thing better than having a “resting stupid face” is having an old resting stupid face.  If I’m having a disagreement with someone, (particularly someone younger) I have found that my most effective response is to simply stand there and look at them in a perplexed sort of way.  Sooner or later, they tend to give in, even if they do sigh loudly and roll their eyes at the same time.

Still, I’m only human, and there are times when I don’t really want to feel quite so old.  I miss the vitality of my younger days, would give anything to have the perfect eyesight, firm skin and boundless energy I once took for granted.  Luckily, I’ve discovered a fool-proof way to make me feel young again, and it doesn’t require any expensive or painful surgical procedures.  When I want to feel young, all I have to do is spend time with some of my treasured, life-long friends.  Seriously.

Maybe it’s because they knew me “way back when,” or maybe it’s because when I look at them I still see the young person they once were.  But for whatever reason, when I’m with my old friends, the years just melt away and I truly feel young again.  And it isn’t long before I’m also acting as if I was young:  laughing hysterically at our silly jokes, staying up late because no one wants the evening to end, and most of all, feeling that as long as I have my friends by my side, there’s nothing I can’t handle.

Aging does have it’s advantages, but every once in a while, I need my “old” friends to remind me of what it was like to be young…..

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Getting To Know You

All relationships have to go through a period of adjustment.  Sort of like the first year of my marriage, when I discovered that my husband not only snored in his sleep, but also had a habit of sleepwalking around the apartment in the middle of the night.  (I woke up to find him fast asleep under the dining room table more than once.)  Or when he realized that the number of meals I actually knew how to cook was rather limited, and had to tell me that even though he loved my beef stroganoff, he’d rather not have it for dinner three nights a week.  Learning to live with someone new always brings a few surprises.

fullsizeoutput_4ff5So it’s probably only natural that I’m still learning a few things about our new dog, Finn.  He’s a Patterdale Terrier mix, and like most terriers, he’s very loving, energetic and determined.  But I’m still waiting to see some sign of the usual terrier intelligence.  He’s not stupid, but if he was human, he’d be a solid “C” student, even with his very best effort.

I have a mental image of my little dog sitting at a school desk,  muttering to himself while working on his math assignment:  “Two plus two?  Okay, that must be four.  Yeah, four.  Now for two plus three.  That’s got to be six.  But what about two plus four?  What could that be?  This is so hard!  Is it time for recess yet?”

Luckily, Finn is a sweet guy who seems to want nothing more than to be with us.  We can usually hear him barking madly when we leave the house, but by the time we return, he’s always curled up in his crate, fast asleep.  He loves to chase the squirrels and rabbits in our back yard, and plays endlessly with his squeaky toys when he’s inside.  He’s slowly (very slowly) learning the ways of our household, and seems quite pleased with himself whenever he earns our praise.

fullsizeoutput_4ff3Finn adores our grandson and is very patient with him, even though our grandson is a toddler who is still learning how to be gentle with dogs.  It probably helps that our grandson is still learning to feed himself and about half of his food ends up on the floor around his high chair.  Finn has figured out that toddlers are an excellent source of extra food, and makes it a point to be nearby whenever the little guy is eating at our house.

I’m still in the process of discovering exactly who Finn is, and what he needs from me.  Sometimes I have to remind myself to be patient when he makes mistakes, such as the other morning when I came downstairs to find him sitting on the kitchen table, calmly looking out the window.  I have to remind myself of how long it took our other dogs to settle into our household routines and learn our household rules, and remember to cut Finn a little slack.

And I’m still keeping an open mind when it comes to Finn’s intelligence.  He does know “sit” and how to come when called, and he never potties inside.  He’s learned that good things come to those who sit underneath high chairs.  But most important of all, he’s figured out how to make us love him and forgive his occasional misdeeds.  Which probably means that he’s just as smart as he needs to be.

This Fleeting Moment

I don’t pretend to know why bad things happen to good people.  I only know that they do, far more often than they should.  And that sadly, there really isn’t anything we can do to prevent it.

What we can do is accept it, and let that knowledge guide the way that we live our lives.  I’m not suggesting that we stay in a constant state of fear of something really bad happening to us or someone we love, because that would be a truly awful way to live.  I tend to be a bit of a pessimist already, so the last thing I need is any encouragement in that department.  But what I am suggesting is that we recognize that every good thing we have:  our health, our money,  and especially our relationships with the people we love, is something that we need to truly value and appreciate, because none of it is guaranteed to last.

Each day that we wake up in our own beds, healthy enough to face that day’s demands and chores is a gift.  Having enough money to provide for our basic needs is a gift, even if that money is the result of hard work and past sacrifices.  Every single minute spent with the people we love is not only a gift, but the most precious gift of them all.   But all too often, I find myself taking those gifts for granted.  Or worse, making the mistake of thinking that I am far too busy to actually enjoy them.

I think one of the hardest parts of aging is that we know too many people who are struggling and suffering, and that the longer we live, the more we have struggled and suffered ourselves.  I know that could be an excuse to harden our hearts and turn inward in an effort to protect ourselves from further pain.  But it can also be a reason to be much more intentional about how we spend our time and establish our priorities.

I believe that when we really recognize how fleeting life is, and how few things in life can be guaranteed, it makes it so much easier to make good choices about how we do spend our time and energy.  When I stop taking my health for granted, I’m so much more likely to eat foods that are good for me and to make sure I’m getting at least a little bit of exercise each day.  When I don’t assume that I will always be able to pay my bills, I find it so much easier to say “no” to purchases I don’t really need.  But most of all, when I don’t take my most precious relationships for granted, I find that I am always able to find a way to spend time with the people I love.  Because I know that I may not have that choice tomorrow.

Nothing is forever, no matter how much we wish otherwise.  So treasure your gifts now, whatever and whoever they are, while you still can.  Because in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Many Hands

As you may know, St. Louis was hit with a doozie of a snowstorm this weekend.  We had sleet and a little freezing rain, followed by about a foot of snow, topped off with more sleet and freezing drizzle.  The result was super-slippery roads, resulting in many accidents, highway and street closures, and general misery for all those who were simply trying to get home at the end of a long week.

img_4454On Saturday morning, we awakened to what looked like a winter wonderland.  Snow was everywhere, at least a foot deep.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the dry, powdery snow that skiers love.  It was the heavy, soggy snow that can damage roofs and bushes, and even cause trees to drop branches on power lines.  When we saw that the tall bushes that line our property were bowing low under the weight of the snow, we quickly bundled up and headed outside to do some heavy-duty snow removal.

If you ever want proof that you aren’t young anymore, I can recommend trying to shovel two porches, two sidewalks and a driveway that holds seven cars….after you’ve already spent twenty minutes knocking snow off a few dozen bushes.  I started at the end of the driveway, where the snowplow had helpfully piled up the huge mountain of snow it had removed from the street.  My husband and I worked hard, but we both needed a break before we had shoveled even a fourth of the driveway.  I cooked breakfast, and while I was cleaning up, my husband headed back outside to tackle the driveway again.

I’ll go ahead and admit that I didn’t exactly hurry my way through the breakfast dishes.  I was still tired and sore (that snow pile at the end of the driveway was partially ice, and that stuff was heavy) and I figured it didn’t hurt to take a little longer break before I went back out.  I knew it was going to take hours to get everything shoveled, so there was no reason to hurry.

So you can imagine my surprise when I finally finished the dishes and looked outside to see that our driveway was almost completely cleared.  Especially since the man I saw shoveling the last bit of snow was not my husband.  In fact, there were actually three people out there helping my husband finish the driveway and I didn’t know recognize any of them.  I wondered, briefly, if they were some sort of service group who were out shoveling for the elderly.  But surely we’re not that old….

Turns out, they were neighbors who lived down the block and they told my husband that they had come to help simply because we had “the longest driveway in the neighborhood.” My husband thanked them profusely, but even so, I doubt they had any idea how much we appreciated their help.  It would have taken us hours to get everything shoveled and we would have been sore for days afterwards.

Lots of people are willing to help others as long as they are noticed and admired for their good work.  But far fewer people are willing to pitch in and help with no expectation of recognition or thanks, especially when the work required is truly hard.  Yet those people are a gift and a reminder to the rest of us that, wherever and whenever possible, we need to step forward and lend a helping hand.

One of my mother-in-law’s favorite sayings was, “Many hands make light work.”  And she was absolutely right.  Because when we work together, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.