A Day of Rest

Last week was a busy one, for a number of reasons I won’t bore you with.  Suffice it to say that it was one of those weeks when I had trouble remembering all the the things I was supposed to be doing, let alone actually getting them done.  I like to think I handled it well, but I suspect if you asked those who had to deal with me, they would tell you I was just a little bit cranky from time to time.  (Or very cranky all week long, depending on their level of honesty verses tact.) But still, I finished off the week with most of the items checked off of my to-do list.  Which means that today I finally have a few free hours to spend any way my little heart desires.

And do you know what I’m actually doing today?  Nothing much.  Nothing much at all.

Not so long ago, I would have felt really guilty about wasting so much time when I could be doing something “worthwhile.”  I don’t know about you, but I always have a few big projects hanging over my head that need my attention.  Right now I have an old dresser that needs to be sanded and stained (there was a reason the antique store was selling it so cheaply and displaying it in such a dark corner), and there’s several bins in the basement filled with stuff I’m quite sure I don’t need any more.  Also, I promised my mother I’d wash her windows several weeks ago.  But I didn’t do any of things.

Instead, I mostly just puttered around my house, doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  I didn’t actually just sit on the couch and stare into space for several hours, but only because I don’t find just sitting and staring into space particularly relaxing.  What I do find relaxing is doing small chores that catch my attention, in my own way and in my own time.  I only sat down to write this post because I actually felt like writing it, and not because it’s Sunday and I almost always write a post on Sunday afternoon.

It may not seem as if I did anything particularly important today, but the fact of the matter is that I did accomplish one very important thing.  I rested.  I rested my mind by only doing tasks that required little or no thought, and I rested my body by slowing down and taking it easy for a change.  And you know what?  For the first time in several days I don’t feel tired, stressed and cranky.  Instead, I feel pretty darned good.

Life is far too busy for most of us, and we usually have little choice but to forge ahead with our hectic schedules.  But I believe that every once in a while, it’s important to “step off that treadmill” and allow ourselves a little breathing time.  We need to pay attention when our body tells us it needs a break, or when our thoughts become so jumbled that we can’t seem to think straight.  And those are the times when we need to find a way to slow down, tune out as much of the outside world as possible, and allow ourselves to simply be.  Because those are the times when resting is actually the most important thing we could possibly be doing.

An Unexpected Gift

IMG_0448When I became a volunteer dog walker at a local humane society, all I wanted to do was help shelter dogs.  My daily schedule was rather busy at the time, so I only signed up for a two-hour walking shift, one day a week.  That was over fifteen years ago, and I’m still walking dogs there, although now I do it three days a week.  And my “shift” rarely ends before all the adoptable dogs get out, no matter how long that happens to take.

Honestly, walking shelter dogs turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.  Dogs that spend their days alone in a cage are very excited when you leash them up for a walk, and many of them are also rather large.  And strong.  Sadly, I am no longer young and I’ve never been particularly athletic.  But no matter how many times I point out to the dogs that they have an old lady on the other end of the leash, they rarely modify their behavior to accommodate my aging (and often aching) body.

Humane societies do good work and save countless numbers of homeless animals.  But they are also stressful places, both for the animals that live there and for the people who work and volunteer there.  Some of the animals living at the shelter have been rescued from awful situations, and seeing the results of so much neglect and abuse is hard on people who love animals.  Personally, I know I could not have lasted fifteen years at the shelter if it wasn’t for the friendships I have formed with some of the other volunteers and staff at the shelter.

It’s really hard to explain just how close I feel to my humane society friends.  True, we have a common bond in our love for shelter dogs, but there’s more to it than that.  As one friend recently said, “We’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst, so there’s no point in pretending to be anyone other than who we really are.”  And she’s right.

I have been blessed with many friends in my life, but the friends who see me at my most vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, are my humane society friends.  They are the ones who have seen me ugly cry and will hug me if I need it, even when I’m sweaty and beyond gross.  (When I’m at the shelter and find brown stuff smeared on my clothes, I just pray that it’s mud.  It usually isn’t.)  When you volunteer at an animal shelter, you shower after your shift, not before.

Not surprisingly, our friendship extends beyond the shelter.  We get together for social occasions, and often know each other’s families.  But mostly, when tragedy strikes in our personal lives, we know we can turn to each other for the same kind of support that we show each other at the shelter.  We cry for each other’s pain, and celebrate each other’s joy.  We are not perfect people by any means,  but we know that we can count on each other to be there in both the good times and the bad.

I signed up to walk shelter dogs all those years ago because I felt sorry for dogs that lived at animal shelters.  I wasn’t expecting to make new friends, close or otherwise.  Which just goes to show that some of the biggest gifts we get in this life are the ones we weren’t even looking for……

A Fond Farewell

IMG_0358I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye, especially to someone I really like.  So when I heard that one of my very favorite staff members at the animal shelter where I volunteer was planning to retire this month, I didn’t react well.

First I tried to convince her to stay.  When that didn’t work, I tried to convince management that she wasn’t really old enough to retire yet.  Sadly, I never did figure out how to forge a fake birth certificate that would back up my claim, so that didn’t work either.  All I had to fall back on was denial, but as the day of her actual retirement crept closer, that stopped working as well.  You can’t help plan someone’s retirement celebration without also recognizing that they actually are going to retire.

I know my friend deserves to retire and that she is ready for this new phase of her life, and I also know I need to support her in this decision.  That’s what friends do.  But the problem is that knowing she won’t be at the animal shelter anymore just makes me incredibly sad, and even a little bit lost.

She taught the volunteer orientation class I took when I first started at the shelter over fifteen years ago, and I still remember what a great job she did of preparing us for the realities of volunteering in an open-admission animal shelter.  It wasn’t long before I, along with most of the other volunteers, learned that she was an excellent source of advice, guidance and support when we needed it.  I saw how protective she was of the animals in her care, and how compassionate she was towards the people she worked with, and how helpful and patient she was with people who came in to adopt a new pet.

Lots of people are good at their jobs, but my friend was one of those who always went the extra mile, both for the animals and for the people around her.  She sent regular texts and emails, letting volunteers know that a favorite dog had finally been adopted so we could celebrate the good news even when we weren’t at the shelter.  She listened to us when we needed a sympathetic ear, and cheered us up when we were down, and was rather well known for her habit of breaking into an impressive “happy dance” when she thought the situation called for it.

My friend was a fixture at the animal shelter and her departure is going to be felt deeply by all those who worked with her.  I suppose our grief over her retirement is the proof of what a terrific job she did during her time there and what a wonderful friend she was to all, of both the two-footed and the four-footed variety.   We only miss what, and who, we truly value.  And we will miss her very much.

I still can’t quite imagine what the shelter will be like without my friend, and I know that the next few weeks are going to be a major adjustment for many of us.  But we will continue our volunteer work, doing our best to help the animals, celebrating the successes, and offering support to each other when we need it.  And I can’t think of any better way to honor my friend’s legacy than that.

A Change of Season

I don’t think I would ever want to live in a climate that didn’t have four distinct seasons.  As much as I complain about the heat and humidity of July and the icy-cold days of January, I know that each season brings some good things that I’m not willing to give up.  Few things beat the beauty of a brand-new snow fall, and there’s nothing as refreshing as jumping into a swimming pool on a hot summer day.  I love the colorful beauty of the leaves in Autumn, and the way the first spring flowers bring hope for longer and warmer days ahead.

IMG_2677Fall has come a bit late to my corner of the world this year, but it has finally arrived.  And that means I’m spending time trimming back some bushes, storing away the pots that I use for my annual flowers, and washing my windows one last time before the temperatures plummet.  Inside, I’m doing some hard-core house cleaning in preparation for the Christmas decorations I know I’ll be putting up next month.

For me, there’s something soothing about the rhythm of the seasons and the special traditions that each one brings.  The changing seasons provide a sense of order to my year, because I am definitely one of those people who likes to know what is going to happen next and I know what to expect from each new season.

This year, the change of season has been especially significant because I seem to be at a point in my life when so many things are changing in ways that I can’t control.  Friends who move away, co-workers who retire, minor health issues, shifting family dynamics, even our bizarre political climate….all make we wonder just exactly what the future is going to bring.  Luckily, many of the changes around me are positive, but all will impact my life in ways that I can’t begin to predict.

IMG_2612My daughter is expecting our first grandchild in early January, and with each passing week, what was once only an abstract joy has become that much more real.  Seeing her opening gifts at her baby showers, surrounded by family and friends who have turned out to offer their love and support is both comforting and humbling.  I still have no idea just exactly what being a grandparent will mean, but I’m anxious to find out.

I think I will always be just a little bit intimated by change, even when it’s a change I’m looking forward to very much.  And that’s okay, because it’s just who I am. But one thing I know is that each new season in my life, just like each new season of the year, will bring not only change, but also the possibility of some amazingly good gifts…..

No Thanks

If there’s one thing I ought to be used to by now, it’s rejection.  For years I worked as a free-lance writer, placing some articles in magazines and newspapers, and even selling a children’s book.  But for every acceptance, I received at least twenty rejections. Eventually I acquired a whole file drawer just bursting with rejection letters.  A few of them were personal (which I counted as a small victory), but the majority were simply the form letters that publishers sent out to every writer who sent them a manuscript or proposal that they didn’t want.

And the rejections weren’t limited to my writing career.  When I was fresh out of college with an English degree, I applied to any job that was even remotely related to writing.  In return, I got a few interviews, a ton of rejection letters and zero job offers.  Eventually, I was so desperate that I ended up working as a secretary for a small seminary.  There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary….it’s an important job….but it wasn’t at all what I wanted to be doing.

One way or another, rejection and I are very well acquainted.  So it surprises me how much rejection can still hurt, all these years later.  You’d think I would have developed an immunity to it somewhere along the line, but I haven’t.  It still stings, especially when it feels personal.  Which tells me that I am still putting far too much value on what other people think of me, and not nearly enough on what I think of myself.

I know it’s only natural to feel hurt by rejection.  It’s hard when an old friend gradually becomes too busy to get together, or when someone I’ve just met at a party immediately looks over my shoulder for someone more interesting.  I once went to a church dinner by myself, and I put my plate of food down at a table where four other people were sitting and then went to get a drink.  When I returned with my glass of water, all four of them had moved to a different table.  I’d be lying if I said that didn’t sting.

The trick, I think, is to remember that I have no control over how other people are going to react to me, and to remember that often their reaction has nothing to do with me at all.  Maybe my old friend really was much busier than usual.  And maybe the person looking over my shoulder at a party is searching for someone she’s supposed to be meeting.  And as rude as their behavior was, maybe the people I sat down with at the church dinner were trying to save seats for the rest of their family and just didn’t know how to tell me that when I approached their table.

But even when someone is actually rejecting me, I need to remember that their opinion of me is just that:  their opinion.  And that while it feels good to have others appreciate and validate us, what ultimately matters is that we recognize our own self-worth and not wait for others to acknowledge it for us.

As a writer, I survived all those rejection letters by reminding myself of the simple truth that just because a publisher didn’t want my manuscript didn’t actually mean that my manuscript had no value.  It just meant that particular publisher didn’t think it could make a profit selling my book.  So I kept writing, and I kept sending out my manuscripts and queries, and I did make some sales.  I was very intentional about believing in the value of what I had written.  And sometimes I need to work just as hard at believing in the value of me.

A Blogger’s Voice

DSC00181When I was young and naive enough to believe I had a good shot at making a living as a free-lance writer, I attended lots of writer’s workshops.  They were always interesting, and some of the tips helped me place articles with local magazines and neighborhood newspapers.  I never did make a lot of money as a writer…my largest claim to fame was a short article in Bride’s magazine and the publication of one (count it, one) children’s book.  Still, I learned a lot in those workshops about writing, and especially about the delicate balance between giving an editor whatever he or she wants and developing my own unique “voice.”

The voice of an author is what distinguishes one writer’s work from everyone else’s.  It is what comes out when a writer taps into his or her deepest beliefs, inner-most fears, cherished dreams, etc.  It communicates the unique perspective of the world that each of us have and that writers share through their written words.  And for me, finding that voice was always a struggle.  I could figure out what my editor wanted and deliver exactly that, no problem.  But writing from my heart was a whole other matter and I never really managed to do it.

Fast forward to almost three years ago, when I started writing this blog.  At first I was terrified of putting my writing on a public forum where everyone and anyone could both read and comment on it.  My inner critic went into overdrive, and I poured over my posts before actually publishing them, searching for flaws and carefully deleting anything that I thought could be offensive or misinterpreted.  Luckily, my readers were a small but polite group who mostly offered encouragement and the expected criticism and rejection never materialized.

I gained more confidence with each post, slowly but surely learning to ignore my inner critic and to put my true thoughts and feelings on my blog without quite so much worry and angst.  I began to write about whatever subject was near to my heart, and I learned that honesty (as long as it is not also hateful or hurtful) is perfectly okay.  It took me a while to recognize it, but I had finally found my writing “voice.”  My blog has brought me many gifts, but that is by far the one I appreciate the most.

Even better, I have discovered that finding my writing voice has actually given me more confidence to speak my mind in person.  I am no longer nearly so inclined to tell others only what I know they want to hear.  When asked for my opinion, it has become almost natural for me to share my true thoughts and feelings, even when I know that others around me will probably disagree with what I have to say.  My old fear of rejection is fading fast, and that’s a very good thing.

I know that not everyone is a writer, but I do believe that everyone has a voice and that  their voice, like mine, deserves to be heard.  And I hope that one way or another, we each find a way to make that happen.

Follow the Sun

As you’ve probably heard, there’s going to be an total eclipse of the sun tomorrow.  It’s scheduled for roughly 1:00 in my neighborhood, which also happens to be just on the northern-most boundary of the path that is supposed to provide optimal viewing.  Living  in an area where I get to see the eclipse seemed like good news to me, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that there was a darker side to this event (and I’m not just talking about what happens when the sun is blocked by the moon.)  Apparently, thousands upon thousands of people are expected to head to my neck of the woods to view this rare phenomenon, and for the past couple of weeks the local news has been filled with dire predictions about all the havoc they are going to wreak.

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Not a single hotel room will be available.  Traffic will be a nightmare and all highway exit ramps will be blocked as people pull over, get out of their cars and  stare into the sky.  Gas stations may run out of gas and grocery stores may run out of food.  If you are in need of an ambulance or other emergency vehicle, chances are high that they will not be able to get to you in time.  And so on and so on.  You’d think we were anticipating a natural disaster that would make Hurricane Katrina look like a mild inconvenience.

It’s not that I take official warnings lightly.  I learned to pay attention the hard way back in 1982, when we had a blizzard that dropped about eighteen inches of snow on St. Louis.  Bizarrely, it was accompanied by lightening, and my husband and I sat in our living room during the whole thing, playing cards and occasionally peering out the window at the snow storm.  The next morning we woke up to a city that was completely shut down, and I realized that we were just about out of groceries.  I pulled on my snow boots and trudged up the street to the neighborhood grocery.  I have never seen so many empty shelves in my life.  I think there was maybe two cans of beans and a jar of pickles left in the entire store.

These days, when even the tiniest bit of snow is forecast, I do exactly the same thing everybody else in St. Louis does:  I rush to the grocery store and stock up on enough groceries to last me through Spring if necessary.  Especially bread and milk.  And I don’t even like milk.

But when the big day arrives tomorrow, I’m not going to stay at home, guarding my well-stocked pantry and full tank of gas.  I’m going to go to the animal shelter to walk dogs the way I always do on Monday morning, and afterwards I’m going to my mother’s house because she has invited some friends and neighbors over for lunch and eclipse-viewing.  I’ll avoid the highways, but just in case I do get stuck in traffic and don’t make it to Mom’s house, I’m keeping my approved viewing glasses in the car with me.  One way or another, the odds are good that I’ll get to see the eclipse.

I believe in heeding warnings, and I definitely believe in being prepared.  But what I believe in most is using a little bit of good old-fashioned common sense.

Acting My Age

I may be getting old, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I am always mature.   Physically, I know I’m not young.  I am reminded of this every time I look in the mirror, or try to read anything without my reading glasses on, or worse, attempt to do something that requires the strength and flexibility I no longer have.  Believe me, my years of lifting anything over fifty pounds, turning cartwheels, or even mounting a tall horse without assistance are over.  But when it comes to maturity, there are times when I still fall short.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were sitting in a restaurant at a tall table near the bar, eating dinner and listening to some excellent music.  Some people came in and settled at the bar stools on our right, which was fine.  Unfortunately, they were quickly joined by even more people, mostly male and mostly drunk, who crowded into the space between the bar and our table.  They seemed to have no idea that they were regularly jostling our table, talking so loudly that we couldn’t carry on our own conversation, and that the man nearest to me was practically sitting on my lap.

The mature thing to do would have been to call the manager over and ask to be moved to a quieter table.  But I was annoyed.  We were there first, and they had invaded our space.  I had no wish for either my husband or I to confront people who were clearly under the influence, but that didn’t mean I was going to back down.  Instead, I leaned into the table and shifted my weight slightly to the right, moving the table just a few inches towards the crowd at the bar.  Then I would wait a few minutes and do it again.  It wasn’t long before the extra people standing between our table and the bar were, subtly but effectively, squeezed out.  And I admit that I felt a small thrill of victory as I watched them wander off, looking vaguely confused and annoyed.

It wasn’t my finest hour.  The people may have been rude, but they weren’t deliberately trying to ruin our dinner.  The simple fact was that I felt wronged, and felt the need to strike back, and did so.  If just one of them had noticed that I was deliberately moving my table in their direction, there could have been an ugly confrontation.  That’s what happens when I forget to be a grown up and let my inner child out, who still lives by the rules of the elementary school playground.

The sad truth is there is a difference between growing older and becoming mature.  The first one happens naturally, with no effort on our part, whether we like it or not.  But becoming mature requires an intentional effort to grow in understanding, patience, wisdom, and tolerance.  It means considering the consequences of our words before we speak and the consequences of our actions before we do something, and knowing when a cause is important enough to stand our ground and when it makes more sense to simply walk away.

I like to think that I’ve matured as I’ve grown older, and I know that in many ways I have.  Yet there is obviously still plenty of room for improvement and growth, even at this stage of my life.  I may wish I was just a little less old, but what I’d really like is to be a lot more mature.

Raining Down

I had been hoping for rain.  We had planted some bushes and put down some sod in our backyard, and I knew that a couple of good rains would help them take root.  But even more, I wanted the rain to wash away the nasty green tree pollen that has been covering every outside surface for the past couple of weeks.  I’m allergic to that stuff, and I was tired of going through my days with a scratchy throat, headache, itchy eyes and non-stop sneezing fits.  So when I heard the forecast for this past weekend’s rain, I was actually happy.

IMG_2434I should have paid just a little more attention to the details.  The prediction wasn’t just for rain, it was for tons of rain, falling for three days and two nights, often quite heavily.  The empty flower pots I have lined up next to garage, waiting to be filled with spring flowers, are now completely full of water instead.  My house and neighborhood is on high ground, but hundreds of people in my area are faced with flash floods, rising rivers, and water in their basements.  All I wanted was enough rain to water my plants and wash away the pollen.  But what I got was enough to make me think it might be time to start work on an ark.

It turns out that rainfall, like many things in life, is good only when it comes in moderation. Because as of today, I am officially sick of rain and more than ready for it to leave.  I am tired of constantly checking our basement to make sure no water is leaking in, or backing up through the sewer drain.  (We had that happen once and it is not an experience I wish to repeat.)  I am sick of feeling like a jerk when I make our old dog to go outside to do her business in the heavy rain, but not at all willing to risk her having an accident in my house.  I am well aware that the “drowned rat” look is not flattering on me, and so I would rather not walk around all weekend looking like one.

I’m not sure if the lesson here is “be careful of what you wish for,” or simply that “moderation is the key.”  Both adages have truth in them.  But at the end of a long, wet weekend, I think the real lesson for me is to simply learn to be more flexible and willing to deal with whatever the day happens to bring.  I might not have appreciated the rain, but being forced to spend the weekend inside did mean I finally got around to some household chores that had been hanging over my head for a while.  And since we couldn’t work outside, my husband and I decided to go to a movie at the local mall, followed by a nice dinner afterward.  It may not have been the weekend we had in mind, but it turned out to be a pretty good one.

There’s an old saying that states, “Into every life, some rain must fall.”  And I count myself lucky that all I had to deal with this weekend was actual rain, and that I was even spared the worst effects of that.  And when I think about it that way, I realize I really don’t have anything to complain about at all.

No Contest

IMG_2401I’m worried about my dog.  Last Friday, she had what appeared to be a stroke and we rushed her to the emergency vet clinic, thinking that the end had come.  It turned out to be Vestibular Syndrome, which looks like a stroke, but the vet said her chances of recovery are actually quite good.  The problem is that Lucy is 15-years old and so far, her recovery has been very slow.

Her eyes are no longer twitching, she’s no longer drooling non-stop and she has regained control of her bladder.  But she’s still lurching around with her head twisted sharply to the right, can’t manage stairs, wipes out completely now and then, and is eating only sporadically.  Lucy is usually fiercely independent, and although she has mellowed somewhat with age, she has always been a sassy little hell-raiser.  So it is hard to see her so tired and bewildered, so unsure of her movements, and so completely dependent on our help.  I cling to the hope that the vets are right and she will continue to improve.  But meanwhile, I worry.

At first, I was reluctant to tell anyone what I was feeling, because I was afraid of the responses I would get.  Yes, I know she’s “just a dog,” and there are people who are suffering from much worse,  and there are even more people out there who are watching loved ones suffer from painful and potentially fatal diseases.  I also know that among my fellow dog-lovers there are many who have watched their own dog suffer, and sometimes even die, of much worse things .  But eventually, I came to the conclusion that even though I feel genuinely sorry for what other people are going through, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to worry about my dog’s bout with Vestibular Syndrome.

Worry, like grief, is personal.  There’s no competition for who is dealing with the worst hardship or the greatest tragedy.  Whatever it is that I’m coping with, there will always be someone out there coping with something much worse.  But that doesn’t diminish my feelings.

I remember when I was planning my father’s memorial service, and in the midst of trying to make so many decisions, I blurted out the to minister, “This is just so hard!”  He  reminded me that my father was old and sick when he died, so I didn’t have it nearly so bad as people who were planning a funeral for someone who had died young and suddenly.  And you know what?  That response didn’t help at all.   My father may have been old and sick, but my grief was still real, and so was my frustration at trying to figure out the right way to honor his memory.

I know the minister didn’t mean to dismiss my feelings (aside from that remark, he was quite helpful and supportive), but he made the common mistake of trying to rate the bad stuff that happens in our lives on some sort of world-wide scale.  And that’s not helpful.  If I’m upset about something, I don’t benefit from being told it’s a “First-world problem.”  A mother grieving for her dead baby doesn’t need to have someone point out to her that, unlike some other grieving mothers, she has still has another child to love.  A man standing next to the concrete slab where his house used to be doesn’t want to be told, “you’re one of the lucky ones, because the tornado missed your barn.”  Those may be true statements, but they only serve to tell someone that they shouldn’t be feeling what they actually are feeling.

I believe that each of us is allowed to be upset, to worry, and to grieve exactly the way we want to and need to, without being judged or corrected.  There is no prize for the one suffering from the biggest tragedy, and no one deserves to have their feelings dismissed for being too trivial.  Our emotions are real and need to be dealt with as such, even if they don’t make much sense to others.  Because when it comes to feelings, there really is no contest at all.