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.

Right Now

Recently, I was in line at a drive-up ATM, behind a man who was obviously conducting several banking transactions.  He was definitely taking longer than usual and another car pulled up behind me as I waited.  When I glanced in my rear-view mirror, I could see the woman behind me shaking her head and getting more and more agitated.  Suddenly, she pulled out of line and roared across the parking lot to the walk-up ATM.  Ignoring several dozen empty parking spots, she parked in the driving lane right in front of the bank, jumped out and ran up the the ATM.  I guess she was in a hurry to do her banking.

When did we begin to believe that having to wait, even for a few minutes, was such a bad thing?  When did it become a huge imposition to have to actually stop for a red light, or wait in traffic for a few seconds while the car in front of us tries to make a left-turn?  When did we begin to think that we deserve everything we want right this very second, and heaven help anyone who happens to get in our way?

I know there are times when we all get impatient.  When I’m in line at the grocery store and the person in front of me hands the checkout clerk a thick wad of coupons, and then argues vehemently and at great length when the clerk scans them and declares that most of them are expired, I feel impatient.  I do believe that people who behave that way are being inconsiderate to the rest of us.  But waiting in line is still a part of the personal shopping experience, and it’s really not that bad.  (There’s a reason the grocery stores display the tabloids by the check out counters:  it gives us something to read while we wait.)

For me, it helps to put things into perspective, and remember that the world does not revolve around me and wasn’t designed to enable me to rush forward at top speed all day long.  Year ago, my family was driving to Chicago to visit my parents.  We’d been zipping right along for most of the trip, when suddenly the highway traffic came to a complete halt.  We sat for forty-five minutes without moving an inch, for no reason we could see.  Both my husband and I complained bitterly, especially after our young son told us that he was going to need a bathroom break very soon.  We were all feeling well and truly sorry for ourselves, and angry that the authorities hadn’t managed to get the traffic moving yet.

Then we noticed the Med-Vac helicopters flying overhead and realized that there must have been a really bad accident ahead.  Obviously several people were hurt so badly that needed to be flown to the nearest hospital.  And just like that, our anger and indignation about sitting on the highway for so long disappeared.  Getting to Chicago “on time” didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.

IMG_0136I believe we are quickly becoming a society of people who operate on the false assumption that immediate gratification is something we are entitled to.  We aren’t.  Sometimes we do have to wait in a slow line, and sometimes we are going to have our busy schedule interrupted by other people and things we can’t control.  When that happens, we can choose to fly into a self-centered rage, or we can take a few deep breaths and realize that sometimes, these things just happen.  And that learning to wait patiently now and then isn’t really such a bad thing.

Tiny Bubbles

A few years ago, I passed a young woman and her dog on the sidewalk and the dog jumped up on me to say hello.  The young woman apologized, saying she had just begun to foster the dog for a rescue group and hadn’t had a chance to teach it any manners yet.  I told her it was fine, that I was a “dog person” myself and didn’t mind an enthusiastic greeting from a friendly dog.  She laughed and answered, “All my friends are dog people.  I wouldn’t be friends with anyone who wasn’t.”  I smiled politely and went on my way, but her words stuck with me.

IMG_1432I love dogs and spend a lot of time in their company, one way or another.  I share my home with a dog and I walk shelter dogs in my spare time.  Many of my good friends are dog lovers, and several of them also volunteer at the local animal shelter.  But I have other friends who aren’t especially fond of dogs.  I may believe that a house isn’t truly a home until there’s a dog (or two) wandering around, but I have good friends who wouldn’t dream of sharing their home with a dog.  And you know what?  I am just as close to them as I am to my dog friends.

I believe it has become far too easy these days to associate only with people who we believe are, if not exactly like us, then at least close enough to be comfortable.  We can watch news channels that will always reflect our political views, interact on social media only with those who share our opinions, and live in neighborhoods where most people not only look like us, but are probably also in the same income-bracket.  I can’t speak for other religions, but some Christian churches have even begun to align themselves with either conservative or liberal stances based on the sincere belief that not only was Jesus political, but that his politics were exactly the same as theirs.  The division of “us” and “them” seems to be growing wider by the day.

Personally, I don’t think all this “sticking with our own kind” is a good thing at all.  When we surround ourselves with people who think, look or act mostly the way we do, we are rarely challenged with the idea that perhaps our way isn’t always the right way.  When we know that the responses to our opinions will usually be agreement, it’s all too easy to believe that our opinions are actually facts.  And if we do this long enough, then it’s easy to forget altogether that there are good people out there who just happen to look at things a tad differently than we do.

It’s easy to live in our own little bubbles, secure in the knowledge that we are right and morally superior to those whose views don’t match ours, and there are times when I’m really tempted to do that.  But ultimately, it’s not the way I want to live.

I want to live in the real world, which is populated by people who see things in their own unique way.  I want to be in relationship with people who don’t always share my political and religious views because they challenge me to examine just exactly why I believe what I do.  I want to have friends who don’t share all my interests, but are willing to tell me about theirs.  Mostly, I want to continue to learn and grow as a person.  And I don’t think that can happen when I can’t find the courage to burst out of my own little bubble.

Life is like…

IMG_2531With all due respect to Forrest Gump, I don’t believe that life is really like a box of chocolates.  Personally, I believe that everyday life is actually far more like doing laundry.  Because no matter how many loads I wash, I know there’s always going to be more that needs to be done.  I never get to the point where I can say, “That’s it!  I washed, dried, folded, and put away all those clothes, and now I’ll never have to do laundry again!”  Doing the laundry is an ongoing process, which makes it very much like so much of the rest of my life.

For instance, when it comes to home and yard maintenance, we no sooner complete one project than we are faced with another.  We repaired out driveway last week, which means it’s time to replace our garage door and dig up three dead bushes.  And at the Animal Shelter where I volunteer, no matter how many dogs I walk and am thrilled to see get adopted into their forever home, there are always more dogs coming in that need to be walked and cared for until it’s their turn to be adopted.  Just like the laundry, it’s a never-ending cycle.

Even when I think something is coming to an end, I often find out that it isn’t.  I went to the doctor yesterday for what I thought was the final check up on the varicose vein treatment on my right leg, so I was surprised when he strolled into the examining room bearing a tray of syringes.  Apparently, I needed another treatment for minor veins, so here I sit in my support hose for another week.  (They look so fashionable when worn with summer shorts and dresses.)  When I was leaving, he asked if I wanted to do the next treatment in six weeks or wait until Fall, when he’s going to laser the varicose vein in my left leg.  And so the fun continues….

Just like laundry, life presents us with both loads that are light and loads that are heavy, and we have no choice but to handle them all.  And just like when we do laundry, sometimes we are successful (“I got the stain out!”) and sometimes we fail (“That stain is permanent!”).  Occasionally, we do something stupid (such as running a new wool sweater through both the washing machine and the dryer), and all we can do is forgive ourselves and move on, hoping we manage to handle things better the next time.

I honestly believe that few things in life are a matter of “one and done,” and that a big part of success stems from our willingness to just keep plugging away to the best of our abilities.  And it helps to remember that it’s not just the bad stuff, or even the everyday mundane stuff, that keeps on coming, but the good stuff as well.  We will always have something to celebrate and be grateful for, if we are willing to look for it

I could say more, but I think I’ve made my point.  Also, I’ve got to go throw another load of laundry in.

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.

Quitting Time

I’ve always been a stubborn person, in a negative sort of way.  I may have the annoying habit of trying to please other people and make sure they both like me and approve of me, but the very second someone tells me that I  can’t do something is also the very second that I become determined to do it, come hell or high water.

Last night, my husband and I decided to go out to dinner, and I suggested our favorite Italian restaurant.  My husband said he thought it would be too crowded, since when we were there last year on the Saturday before Valentine’s Day, it was packed.  (I even wrote a post about it: Valentine Love)  True to form, I then suggested calling and asking if they had room for two more.  We did, and the manager assured us that although they were busy, he would be able to “work us in.” So off we went.

When we arrived, every table was taken and lots of people were waiting to be seated.  Undeterred, we snagged two empty seats at the bar, ordered a glass of wine and settled in to wait.  As we waited, more and more people poured in, and all of them had a reservation.  Even worse, very few people were actually leaving.  We both knew the sensible thing to do would be give up and hit the nearest pizza parlor, but we didn’t.  “We’ll give it ten more minutes,” we kept telling each other, grimly clutching our empty wine glasses as the crowd of people waiting pressed even closer.  We had both been fighting colds all week, were tired and very hungry, but by golly we were going to get a table.  And over an hour later, we finally did.

DSC00181Sadly, my knack for stubbornly hanging on isn’t limited to dining out.  I spent years trying to get my children’s books published, which is actually the sort of persistence that most writers need.  But the problem was I spent those years submitting my work the exact same way:  sending off the full manuscript to one large publishing house at a time, then waiting weeks or even months before they sent it back and I mailed it off to another one.  My system obviously wasn’t working, but that didn’t mean I was willing to give it up.  Yet the only book I eventually published was sold through an entirely different method:  I heard a book packager was looking for fantasy novels for teens, so I sent them the required book proposal, and they asked me to write the manuscript.

We are so often taught that quitting is a bad thing, that it means giving up on our hopes and dreams, that it almost brands us as some kind of loser.  But I’m beginning to believe that there are times when quitting is actually the best option.  There are times when a relationship is no longer working out, when a job is no longer the right fit, or when we’re just plain going about something the wrong way and we need to stop.

And those are the times when quitting is actually a good thing, because it opens the door to new opportunities. When we walk away from friendships that are no longer healthy, we have time to make new friends who can actually enrich our lives.  Sometimes quitting means we can take new jobs that challenge us, try new ways to achieve our goals, and find new projects to support. And hopefully, even someone as stubborn as me can start figuring out when it’s time to quit.

Wait Your Turn

For the past few days, I’ve spent far too much time shopping for a pair of shoes to wear to my son’s upcoming wedding, fruitlessly trudging from store to store in search of the one-inch heel, black, patent-leather pumps that I need to match the dress I plan to wear.  All that time in the local malls quickly revealed two equally depressing things.  The first is that no one is selling the shoes I want (at least not in my size and without a toe so painfully pointed that it could double as a drill bit), and the second is that all the major retailers think the Christmas season is upon us.  And I started my shoe shopping before Halloween.

img_0950Now don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas just as much as the next person, and probably a whole lot more.  It’s my favorite holiday.  I actually tend to go a bit overboard with decorating my house, putting up two Christmas trees, covering almost every horizontal space with Santas and nativity scenes, and stringing lights all over the front of my house.  This year, I may even light up the garage if I can talk my husband into it.  But none of those decorations are going up until after Thanksgiving.  I don’t want to begin my Christmas celebrations so early that by the time December 25th actually arrives I’m already tired of Christmas.

Personally, I hate seeing the stores decorated for Christmas in  October or early November.  I don’t want to see television commercials proclaiming “the holidays are here” two months before Christmas day.  This is still Fall, for goodness sake.  The leaves are still turning colors on the trees, people still have pumpkins and mums on their porches and I haven’t even started thinking about how my family is going to celebrate Thanksgiving yet.  This is not the time to worry about Christmas shopping or wonder exactly how many extra strands of outdoor lights I’m going to need this year.

We live in a time when it is already increasingly difficult to be mindful of our surroundings and to “live in the moment.”  We are constantly distracted by our cell phones, computers, etc., and bombarded with information from all over the world, most of which is both disturbing and overwhelming.  It’s a struggle to even recognize the “here and now,” much less appreciate it.  I just don’t think we need to add this constant pressure to rush through the present by looking ahead to a holiday season that is still several weeks away.

Yes, I love Christmas and I am truly looking forward to it’s arrival.  But meanwhile, I want to fully experience the season that I am actually living in.  I want to savor the cooler weather which has finally arrived,  and to really notice the trees that are suddenly sporting such beautiful colors.  I want to live in this moment and this day.  Yes, I know Christmas is coming, but it needs to wait for its turn.

Great Expectations

Several years ago, I read an article in which the wife of a long-married couple was asked what she thought was key to her happy marriage and she answered, “I learned early on to lower my expectations.”  Personally, I sort of wondered just how much longer her happy marriage was going to last after her husband read that article.  And I thought that she was being a bit harsh, or had perhaps married a man who was simply not right for her.   But lately, I’ve come to believe that if I put her words into the context of simple human relationships, she might have been much more perceptive than I realized.

The older I get, the more I think that most of the conflicts we have with other people stem from the simple fact that they don’t live up to our expectations.  They don’t act the way we think they should act, or they don’t treat us the way we expected them to treat us.  And because they don’t, we find ourselves feeling hurt and angry, sometimes even lashing out at the people we think have failed us so miserably.  If we’re not careful, the problem can escalate from there, causing permanent rifts in our relationships with family and friends.

Sadly, this seems to happen in all aspects of our lives, and not just in the close relationships we have with family and good friends.  I once angered a fellow blogger because I commented on the photo that accompanied his post rather than the poem that he had written.  This was a person I had never met, but the fact that my response wasn’t what he had expected obviously stung.  If it’s that easy to hurt feelings of someone I barely knew, just think how easily it happens with those we know best.

I think the key might be in remembering that while our expectations always seem reasonable to us, that doesn’t mean that they are reasonable to other people, and it most certainly doesn’t mean that other people will meet them.  The fact is, we all look at things just a little bit differently, and so what makes perfect sense to us often seems completely illogical, or even rude and insensitive to others.  Sometimes I think we just need to take a step back, remember that the slights we perceive are rarely intended, and that the best thing we can do might actually be to “lower our expectations.”

I have come to the belief that lowering expectations is actually both a good and necessary part of how we handle our personal relationships.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t expect good behavior from others, it simply means that we stop projecting our ideas and values onto people who usually have their very own ideas about what is and is not appropriate.  It means that we put our own egos aside and learn to love and accept people as they really are, and not as who we may want them to be.

Which actually means that our expectations haven’t been lowered at all.  They’ve simply been expanded, and that’s a good thing.

Are You Sure?

IMG_1271I have probably read all of the “Peanuts” cartoon strips that were created by Charles Schulz, but one of his stories in particular stands out in my mind.  The character of Linus discovers that the summer camp he is attending is being run by a group with very strong religious beliefs that are very different from his own.  One night, he’s sitting around the campfire with all the other campers, listening to that night’s lecture from the group’s leader.  At one point, he raises his hand and politely asks, “May I ask a question, sir?  Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?”

I don’t know about you, but I find it very easy to identify with Linus.  I don’t care what the subject is–something as important as religion or politics, or something as trivial as which local restaurant makes the best guacamole— I am always a bit uncomfortable around people who are so very, very sure that they are absolutely right.  Of course I understand that strong beliefs are not only okay, but necessary, as we navigate our way through this messy and confusing world.  But I think that we should always leave room for that tiny bit of doubt that keeps us from being so sure about our beliefs that we end up being caught in a cocoon of our own arrogance and assumed superiority.

When we are too sure that we are right, we become the people who know very well how to talk, but forget how to listen.  We become the people who want to silence those who disagree with us, because we are so very certain they are wrong and that their opinions are dangerous.  We tend to close our minds to new ideas, other perspectives and even out-and-out facts that challenge our views.

Personally, I have been wrong so many times in my life that I find it easy to believe that I will be wrong many, many times again. I do know what my life experience, my education, and my observations have taught me so far, and that has shaped my beliefs. But I also know that the longer I live, the more I learn, and sometimes new information presents itself that causes me to rethink, re-evaluate and sometimes even change some of my most firmly-held convictions.  And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Remember when the latest scientific evidence taught us that the world was flat?  Neither do I, because I’m not quite that old.  But the point is that we are making new discoveries all the time that are going to challenge some of the beliefs that we hold dear.  And if we’re lucky, we are also going to keep meeting new people, hearing new perspectives and gaining new understandings that are going to shape how we view ourselves and the world around us.  Life constantly moves forward.

I think strong beliefs and firm convictions are good, but they are even better when combined with an open mind and a loving, accepting heart.  Because none of us can be right all the time.

Too Much Information

Ann by TVI was born in 1958, which means I was raised during a time when information wasn’t as accessible as it is today.  Our household had one television with four channels, one radio, and one telephone which we all shared.  There was no internet, no personal computers, and no one had a cell phone with the ability to call, text, email, and both take and share photos.  We got our news from daily newspapers and nightly newscasts, and we stayed in touch with faraway friends and family mostly through letters, because long-distance phone calls were expensive.  By today’s standards, we lived very isolated lives.

These days, we are constantly besieged with information.  Thanks to the internet, cable  TV and smart phones, we know instantly about every world conflict, the most recent public health scare, the current political scandal, the latest terrorist threat, the newest environmental crisis, and a whole list of other problems guaranteed to cause us nonstop worry and stress.  We are besieged with images of starving children, violent battles, flooding or droughts, abused animals and angry politicians, just to name a few.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I respond by trying to tune all of it out and just focusing on my own personal business, almost as if all these issues didn’t exist.  It’s not that I believe that they’ll go away if I ignore them, it’s just that I often feel overwhelmed by all the problems and the knowledge that I can’t even begin to understand, much less solve, them all.  It’s depressing, and I don’t particularly like being depressed.

But I know that’s not the answer.  I want to live my life to the fullest, and I know I can’t do that if I allow myself to withdraw from the world.  I don’t want to be uninformed about important issues, because I know that ignorance is not always bliss, and sometimes it’s downright dangerous.  Pretending that the problems of the world don’t exist also means that I don’t do my part, however small, to help make things better.

The answer, I think, is making an intentional decision to filter the information I receive, and to make choices about how I react to it.  I don’t have to let anyone else determine what I need to know or how I need to think and feel.  Technology guarantees that I will always be exposed to more information than I can possibly process, let alone respond to, and that’s okay.  But it’s up to me to decide what I want to dwell on, which issues I want to act on, and which issues I don’t.

I know there will still be times when I long for the days of my youth, when information about all the world’s problems tended to be served up in small and manageable packages.  But those times are gone, for better or for worse, and I remind myself that I really can handle the information age I now live in.  It just a matter of knowing where to draw the line.