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…..

Yes I Can

Back when I was writing children’s books, I had a pretty simple formula I used to create my stories.  I would create a main character and place him or her in a situation that they desperately wanted to change, which would give me the main plot of my story.  If I were writing a longer book for older children, I would then plan out a chapter-by-chapter timeline to help me keep track of everything as I wrote.  (Details have never been my strong point.)  Finally, I would begin writing the actual manuscript….and that was usually the point where my creative confidence began to drain away and the paralyzing self-doubt crept in.

The problem was that no matter how passionately I believed in the story I was trying to write, a part of me was always thinking, “Will an editor like this?  Is my main character interesting enough?  Is my plot believable?” and so on and so on.  And those are valid concerns.  As all writers who hope to get their work accepted by a publisher know, finding an editor who wants to buy our manuscript is an absolute necessity.  But the constant presence of the critical editor in my mind basically squashed my creativity and made it impossible to write from my heart.  And the result was often a competent, but flat, manuscript that lacked a unique and creative spark.

Sadly, that internal critic isn’t limited to my writing.  I can look back on my life and see many times when I allowed that little voice that says “you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’re not good enough,” to dictate my choices and my behavior.  There were too many times when I turned my back on an opportunity, didn’t want to take a risk, or stayed silent when I should have spoken up. There were too many times that I held back when I should have stepped boldly forward.

The simple truth is, when our internal dialogue turns too negative, we aren’t really able to live our lives to their fullest potential.  And that’s a tragedy that none of us should allow.

I believe most of us get better at self-acceptance as we get older, and I’m no exception.  As the years go by, I find myself learning to tune out that negative “internal committee” and to replace it with one that is so much more compassionate and encouraging.  I find myself being willing to risk simply being myself by following my dreams, voicing my true opinions and in general, doing what feels right to me.  It’s a journey, but I am moving slowly and steadily forward.

If I had the chance to go back in time and speak to my younger self, I would have so much advice I would want to share.  But if I was limited to just one thing, it would be, “Believe in yourself and follow your heart.”  Because if we can learn to do that, everything else will surely work out.

The Bright Side

I have often wished I was just a tad more optimistic.  I wish I had a natural inclination to look at the bright side of life, to see the “glass as half full,”and to assume that things will almost always work out just fine in the end.  That sounds like a wonderful perspective to have, and I really wish it was mine.  But it’s not.

I’m not exactly “Little Miss Doom and Gloom,” but I have always been the kind of person who isn’t surprised when problems show up, even the big ones.  When something bad happens in my life, the thought “but I never thought this would happen to me” doesn’t cross my mind.  I’m much more likely to think, “of course this happened to me!  Why wouldn’t it?”  It’s not something I’m proud of, believe me…..it’s just who I am.

But the good news is that attitudes can be changed, and I’m working hard to change mine.

Which is why, after living with our new dog Finn for over a week, I’m finally accepting him at face value and realizing that he is indeed a very nice little dog.  I liked him from the start, but I also found myself “waiting for the other shoe to fall,” meaning that he would exhibit some awful behavior that would make me regret bringing him home.  (In my defense, I’ve had a little experience along those lines.)   But happily, we haven’t seen a single serious behavior issue at all.

IMG_4558He’s actually sort of a lovable goof.  I don’t think he was first in line when brains were given out, but he seems to have made up for that with an extra helping of nice, and that’s a trade that will serve him well.  He has an adorable habit of leaping into the air for joy every third or fourth step when he’s running across the yard.  He’s shown nothing but friendly interest in our toddler grandson and is very housebroken.  In short, all my fears and worries about adopting him were for nothing.

Adopting Finn has helped me realize that there really is nothing to be gained by focusing quite so much on all the things that can go wrong in my life, and by focusing a whole lot more on all the things that can go right.  “Count your blessings” may sound hopelessly cheesy, but it’s actually a very helpful way to remind ourselves of all the good things we already have.  When I truly recognize the many, many, good things that have happened to me already, I can’t help but feel appreciative.  And more importantly, I have to acknowledge that it just stands to reason that other good things will come my way as well.  Of course bad stuff happens to us all, but it’s high time I stopped actively expecting it to show up on a regular basis.

I’ve come to believe that dogs can teach us many things if we’re willing to learn, and Finn is busy teaching me that sometimes, things work out exactly as we had hoped…and all we can do is be grateful.

No More

I spent my vacation last week strolling the warm Florida beaches, enjoying the sun on my face and the sound of the waves crashing against the shores.  As an avid sheller, I also spend a great deal of time scanning the shoreline for new and interesting shells to add to my collection.  I was particularly interested in finding a “King’s Crown,” since it’s a beautiful shell and one that I rarely manage to find.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I spotted a big one rolling in the waves and how quickly I plunged into the water to snatch it out.

fullsizeoutput_4ed7It was beautiful.  It was the largest I have ever found, with vibrant colors and tips that hadn’t been worn down by the sand.  I couldn’t have been happier…..until I turned it over and saw that it was still very much alive.  I wouldn’t want to take a live shell even if it was legal (it’s against the law in Florida), which meant that I wouldn’t be adding this prize to my collection.  I had to content myself with taking a quick photo of it and then gently returning the shell to the water.

At first I was very disappointed that the only good King’s Crown I found the entire week was one I couldn’t take home.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that finding a live shell was actually a good thing.  It meant that I was able to experience the fun of finding one of my favorite shells without having to figure out what exactly I was going to do with it once I got it home.  Because the truth is, I have already collected far more sea shells that I could ever display.

I collect very few things, but I have a weakness for sea shells, old glass Christmas ornaments and books.  The shells fill several vases, three lamps and four glass jars in in my house.  I’m constantly shuffling my books around to make room for new purchases, and have more books than my shelves will hold even though I routinely give some away.  As for my Christmas ornaments, I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was packing away this year’s Christmas decorations, I found an entire bin of ornaments that I had forgotten to put on my tree.  I didn’t even miss them because our two Christmas trees were loaded with ornaments anyway.

I think the time comes when even an avid collector has to admit that she has enough, no matter how much she happens to love what she is collecting.  I think that most people are naturally acquisitive, possibly programmed into our genes from the days when humans had to spend their days hunting and gathering just to survive.  But now the trick is to know when to stop acquiring more stuff and to simply appreciate the stuff that we already have.  And perhaps to even reach the point where just finding something we value is thrill enough without actually having to make it our own.

So yes, I did find the King’s Crown shell that I was so hoping to find on this vacation, even though it’s not on display in my home.  It’s still in the ocean where it belongs and that’s just fine by me.

Just Enough

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday, which meant that I spent the days before it in a futile search for a gift for him.  We stopped getting each other big presents for our birthdays years ago, but we still have a family dinner to celebrate and I like to have something from me that he can open with the rest of his gifts.  The problem is that my husband already has most of the material possessions that he wants and I can’t afford to buy him the ones he wants but doesn’t actually own.  And every year it gets harder to come up with a creative idea for something I actually can get him.

I’ve already made him several photo books,  and had his broken college “Outstanding Athlete of the Year” and MVP Baseball trophies remounted.  I spent hours carefully removing the photos and articles from the disintegrating scrapbook his mother had made him and remounted them all in a brand-new scrapbook.  I bought him tickets to see his favorite comedian when he was in town.  My kids have given him photo collages of his grandson, had a painting made of the house he grew up in, gave him a key-chain engraved with his parent’s signatures and even made him a pen and pencil holder with a photo of his grand-dog that reads “I love Grandpa.”  As far as sentimental gifts go, I think we’ve covered the bases.

By late last week, I was almost in a panic mode.  What in the world was I going to give him this year?  When I asked for suggestions, he went to his closet and handed me a new sweater he’d already bought himself and suggested I simply wrap that up.  When I said that I wanted to get him something he didn’t already know about, he answered, “But I don’t really need anything.”

I was getting ready to argue with him when it hit me that he was actually telling the truth.  We celebrated his birthday last night with a dinner at his favorite restaurant, surrounded by his family.  He is in good health, has a family that loves him dearly and close friends he knows he can always count on.  In all the ways that really count, he has enough.

I don’t know why it’s sometimes so hard to realize that we don’t really need more stuff, bigger houses, fancier cars and all the latest gadgets.  Maybe it’s because we live in a society that constantly urges us to get more, and to equate having more with success and happiness.  But the truth is that when we have a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear and most of all, people we love and cherish in our lives, then we really do have….enough.  All the rest is just icing on the cake.

And when I looked at my husband last night, sitting at the table with his grandson in his lap and the rest of us nearby, I realized that I really was looking at a man who not only had enough, but a man who was very blessed indeed.

But that didn’t stop me from giving him one more thing, because I still think of birthdays as a time when it’s fun to open an actual gift.  I found this by a happy accident just a couple of days ago, and I think it will go perfectly on his desk at work, right next to the pencil holder with the photo of his grand-dog.  Some habits are just too hard to break….

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The New Age

When I first started this blog, I planned to write about the challenges facing women “of a certain age.”  Specifically, I wanted to write about how to handle the time in our lives when we can no longer call ourselves young without everyone thinking we are either drunk or completely delusional, and yet are also not ready to embrace the title of senior citizen.  (Although we will happily accept the discounts, especially if no one is around to see it.)

You would think that after four years of writing this blog I would have run out of things to say on the subject, but so far that hasn’t happened.  And I think I know why.  I may not always write specifically about aging, but the fact that I am a sixty-year old woman really does impact how I see the world around me and how I interact with it.

If I were writing this blog when I was eighteen, you can bet that not a single post would mention wrinkles, menopause or nostalgia for a time when I woke up and some part of my body didn’t hurt.  Instead, I’d probably be writing about struggling with trying to pick a major in college that would lead to a rewarding career, wondering if I was ever going to find true love, and did I have enough money to buy myself a couple of beers on Friday night?

So one way or another, my age does determine my perspective, in both good and bad ways.  For example, I would have considered my recent oral surgery a bad thing, no matter what age I had to endure it.  But as a sixty-year old woman, I couldn’t help but notice that the slight swelling in my cheeks did a great (if temporary) job of eliminating the fine wrinkles around my mouth.   And when I was a young woman, a shopping trip meant searching for clothes that were both stylish and flattering.  Now I couldn’t possibly care less about what’s in style (I refuse to wear “peek-a-boo shoulder” blouses and my chubby little legs will never be stuffed into a pair of skinny jeans) and seek mainly comfort when I’m making my wardrobe selections.  If the outfit is also flattering, that’s a plus, but it’s not mandatory.  Thank goodness, because so few of them are.

IMG_3935The bottom line is that being sixty is a part of who I am now, just as being seventy will be a part of who I am in ten years.  Age affects all our lives.   I was reminded of this last week when I was watching my grandson, who is now eight-months old.  It wasn’t that long ago when he was still at the age where he stayed where I put him.  Now he not only crawls over to his toy box when I put him on the floor,  he reaches into it and personally selects the toys he’d like to play with.  Sometimes age has a very big impact indeed.

I suppose I will never reach the point where I have written all I can about coping with a particular phase of my life, because each phase simply flows into the next.  And each phase brings its own unique challenges and rewards.  All I can hope is that this adventure continues for many more years to come….

Young Enough

Most days, I manage to forget just exactly how old I really am.  Never mind the fact that I’m always a little bit shocked when I look in the mirror, especially first thing in the morning when I’m not wearing any make up and my face is still puffy and my hair looks like what we used to call a “rat’s nest.”  Or that my trips to the mall tend to focus only on stores that cater to women of a certain age, which means that the clothes they sell are designed for maximum coverage and almost always feature a “control panel” somewhere in the mid section.  Or that I can no longer read anything without a pair of really strong reading glasses.  Or that I am now routinely offered senior citizen’s discounts by clerks who don’t look old enough to hold a job.  Denial is a wonderful thing, and over the years, I’ve gotten really, really, good at it.

But every once in a while something comes a long to remind me that my youthful days are now ancient history, and today was one of those days.

Ann's photoMy daughter had a birthday today.  I knew it was coming, since it lands on the same day every year.  I also knew how old she was, since it’s not that hard to count to thirty-two.  (Although I admit that up until a few days ago, I was under the impression that she was going to turn thirty-one, so I probably shouldn’t be bragging on my counting skills.)  Yet there’s something about knowing that my daughter, whose birth I can remember as if it happened just yesterday,  is turning thirty-two that just makes me feel old.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I’m really concerned about isn’t the actual number of years I’ve been on this earth.  I’m just trying to avoid behaving the way I have always thought old people did:  longing for the “good old days,” afraid to try new things, becoming obsessed with my health, and in general, letting the “young” people do all the important stuff and have all the fun.  Which, if you think about it, is just plain silly.

People of all ages are still actively engaged in the world around them, working hard to help others and contributing to their communities.  People of all ages are still having fun, still pursuing their interests, and still making new friends.  I think that the time has come for me to stop being afraid that turning a certain age means I have to somehow let go of the essence of who I really am and how I want to live my life.

Yes, my body isn’t as strong as it was and I have far more sags, bags and wrinkles than I would like.  But I can live with that.  It’s just the price I pay for the privilege of having lived for over sixty years, and all that I have experienced and learned in that time.  Underneath it all, I’m still me and always will be, no matter what my age.  Which means that getting older might not be so bad after all….

Raise Them Up

When I was pregnant with my son, I was absolutely convinced I was going to have a girl. I was going to name her Sarah Marie, and I believed that she would have red hair (like my husband before he went gray) and green eyes.  I was so sure of all this that I was actually shocked when the doctor put my son in my arms for the first time and said, “Congratulations, it’s a boy!”  Not disappointed, mind you…I loved my son completely and absolutely from the moment he was born….but definitely surprised.  And as I rocked my newborn son, a little part of me said good-by to Sarah Marie.

Honestly, that incident should have prepared me for what parenting is really all about.

As parents, we try so hard to make the right decisions for our children; to steer them onto the paths we think they should take and to instill our values and our knowledge in them.  And that’s as it should be.  But sometimes when we do that, I think we also make the mistake of thinking that our children will turn out to be exactly who we shaped them to be, and that they will always share our interests and always do things just the way we taught them.   But they rarely, if ever, follow exactly in our footsteps and sometimes set off on paths we never even imagined.  And that’s as it should be, too.

As a writer, I was thrilled when my son began writing stories for fun when he was about ten years old.  He was very good at it.  On some level, I suppose I even hoped he might grow up to have the commercially successful writing career that had eluded me.  But eventually he stopped writing those stories, preferring to spend his time playing sports and video games.  I remember being disappointed at the amount of time he would spend in front a computer when he could, in my opinion, be doing much more productive things.

And you know what?  That same son is now working happily and successfully in the field of technology.  He may not have taken the path I had envisioned for him, but he followed his own heart and found the path that was right for him.

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Neither my son or daughter turned out exactly the way I had pictured, and neither share every single one of my values and interests.  Instead, they did exactly what they were supposed to do and used the love, experience and knowledge they were raised with as a foundation upon which to build their own lives.  They are changing and evolving into exactly the persons they were meant to be.

My son surprised me, all those years ago in the delivery room, by turning out to be a bit different from what I had expected.  Honestly, both he and his sister still surprise me now and then.  And as their mother, I wouldn’t have it any other way…..

Soon Enough

fullsizeoutput_aaWe’ve had lovely weather for the past few days, comfortably warm in the daytime and cool at night.  It’s the kind of weather that makes it a joy to be outside. You’d think I’d be enjoying this break from Summer’s usual heat and humidity, and I am.  Sort of.  But the problem is, all the forecasts say this beautiful weather is going to be over far too soon.  By the end of the week, we’re supposed to have temperatures in the high nineties, heat indexes over one-hundred degrees, and very high humidity levels.  Which means that while I’m trying to enjoy the cool temperatures we’re experiencing now, I’m mostly dreading the horrible weather that’s coming.

I know that sounds silly, but it’s not just me.  Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about the weather and they’re all saying the same thing.  “Isn’t this great?  But it’s not going to last.  It’s supposed to be one hundred degrees by Thursday!”  The logical thing to do when we have a lovely, Spring-like day in late June would be to simply enjoy it.  But for some of us, that’s a hard thing to do.

These days, there seems to be many things that can cause us to worry and fret.  In my more cynical moments, I almost believe that the real goal of the news media is to keep us in a constant state of outrage and fear.  And that’s just what’s going on in the world around me.  I always have a few personal worries as well, such as the mild but persistent pain in the right side of my face.  I want to believe it’s nothing more than my usual jaw and sinus problems, but I also worry that I’ve got another bad tooth that’s going to need treatment.

I don’t know why it’s so hard to simply enjoy ourselves when something good comes along, and why it is so easy to worry about the bad things that we think might be coming our way.  Being prepared is one thing, but endlessly worrying about something that may or may not even happen is nothing more than a waste of time and energy.  And I don’t know of a single situation where worrying about something has made it easier to deal with when it actually happens.  (Often, it’s the reverse.  When I worry too much about upcoming dental work, I end up walking into the dentist’s office so tense and fearful that it’s all I can do not to run for the nearest exit.)

But this is not how I want to live my life.  If I’m eating dinner with my family on a Sunday evening, I want to simply enjoy the experience rather than worrying about whether or not we’re going to have enough volunteers the next morning to get all the shelter dogs walked.  When I feel pain somewhere, I want to just make an appointment to get it checked out, rather than fret about all the possible causes and what it will take to get it fixed.  Even better, I’d like to remember to be thankful that I have access to medical and dental care at all.

I know the only thing I can truly predict about the future is that it will always bring me a few things that I’d much rather avoid.  But that doesn’t mean I have to dwell on those things, worrying about what could happen or even what I know will happen.  I want to learn to deal with tomorrow’s problems…..tomorrow.   That way, I can actually enjoy and appreciate whatever good stuff is happening today.

Forever Friends

I have always tried very hard not to hurt people’s feelings.  There are certain things I never write about in my blog, even when I’m struggling to find a topic for this week’s post, simply because I know that the post would cause someone pain.  And even though I usually have a lot to say about any given situation, there are times when I stay silent, because I know that my words would just make things worse.  I have even been known to tell a “little while lie” on those rare occasions when telling the truth would be a very hurtful thing.

Yet despite all my efforts to the contrary, I know for an absolute fact that I have, at one time or another, hurt the feelings of every single one of my close friends and relatives.  And as long as I’m being honest, I’ll admit that every single one of them has also hurt my feelings somewhere along the line.

I believe it’s impossible to be close to someone for any length of time and not say or do something that causes them at least a little bit of pain.  Sometimes it’s because we speak or act without thinking first.  Other times, we put a lot of thought into what we said or did and honestly believed that we were being helpful.  (And yet we weren’t.)  The bottom line is that it’s impossible to always know how our words and actions are going to be received and interpreted by others.  So every once in a while, we’re going to say and do exactly the wrong thing, often without having a clue that we’ve done so.

When I think of how easily misunderstandings occur in our relationships, I’m always just a little surprised that people manage to have long-term friends and close family relationships at all.  The key, I think, is the desire to keep those people in our lives and the willingness to forgive and forget all the little ways that we sometimes bump up against each other’s feelings.  I think it takes valuing someone enough to accept them for exactly who they are, which is precisely the same way we want them to accept us.  But however we manage it, long-term and close relationships are a gift to be treasured.

Ann's photoI turned sixty last month, and a few weeks afterwards I went out with some good friends to celebrate.   I “met” one of those friends when I was just one-year old and our mothers plunked us down in the same playpen.  I would have enjoyed the trip to the art museum, the happy hour by the lake, and the dinner at my favorite restaurant no matter what.  But I have to tell you, doing those things with dear friends I have known for forty years, and one I have known for almost my entire life, made the evening so much more special.

There really is nothing quite like sharing a milestone birthday with old friends who have shared so much of my life’s journey.  Perhaps, if I am very lucky, I will be celebrating my 80th birthday with those same friends.  And maybe I’ll even write about it in a blog called “Muddling Through My Golden Years.”