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.

What Will People Think?

Ann and GennyWhen I was young and wore a new dress to school, my mother would almost always ask me when I came home, “And what  did the other kids think of your outfit?”  Money was a bit tight in our household, so new clothes were a special treat.  And sometimes my mother had sewn my new dress herself, so her question made sense in many ways.  Even so, I always had the distinct impression that what I thought of my new outfit wasn’t all that counted, and that it was important that other people liked it as well.  And I understood that, because like most children, I wanted the approval of my peers, my family, my teachers, and almost everyone else I came into contact with.   The problem is, there’s a part of me that still does.

There’s a part of me that still wants to make sure other people approve of me and what I’m doing with my life.  Did my latest blog post get enough “likes” on the site itself or on my Facebook page?  Will my atheist friends think I’m weird if I admit that I go to church nearly every Sunday?  Do people with successful careers look down on me because I’m just a volunteer now?    Do the staff at the animal shelter where I volunteer really think I’m helpful, or am I just a giant pain in the butt,  too often pointing out problems that need to be fixed?  And I’m embarrassed to say, there are still times when I wonder what others think of “my outfit.”

I know I’ve spent far too much time and energy trying to please and win the approval of other people. Sometimes its was necessary, such as when I was working in an office and needed my boss to think highly of me and my work skills.  And an essential part of my free-lance writing career was finding out exactly what my editor wanted and making sure that was precisely what I delivered.  Back when I was an English major in college, you can bet I paid attention to whatever biases my professors happened to hold and was careful not to challenge them when I wrote my papers.  Sometimes, the approval of others is a necessary thing.

But one of the advantages of growing older is that it gradually becomes easier to tune out the values and opinions of other people and to listen to our own inner voices instead.  It’s a slow process, and requires almost constant vigilance.  There will always be those moments when I find myself caring too much about what others think of me, and have to remind myself that its what I think of me that matters the most.

I want to get to the point where I care very much about other people, but very little about what they happen to think about me.  I want to have the courage to do and say what I think is right, even when the people around me disagree.  I want to be a able to stand firmly in my own truth and to follow my own moral compass.  At 57, I am still very much a work in progress, and I’m sure there will always be a certain distance between the person I want to be and the person I really am.  But I’m working hard to close the gap.

Right Here, Right Now

Last Friday, I was having a truly rotten day.  I didn’t feel very well when I woke up that morning, and heading down to the Humane Society to walk dogs in the heat and humidity didn’t make things any better.  Neither did discovering that we didn’t have nearly enough people to get all the dogs walked that morning.  It was just one of those days that starts out badly and goes downhill from there, as one problem after another kept popping up.  It wasn’t long before I was sincerely wishing that I had just stayed home.  Too many dogs, too many issues, and too few resources to deal with them all.

IMG_0460 2Then I decided to take a particularly rowdy dog out to the exercise pen, thinking that the time off-leash would do her some good, and the time spent sitting on a picnic table in the shade while she ran around the pen would do me even better.  But the thing with dogs is, they don’t always act the way we think they’re going to act.  I had envisioned her romping around the exercise pen, which she did, for exactly one lap.   Then she hopped up on the table, gave me a quick doggie kiss, shimmied down below the table for a second, then poked her head and shoulders back up between the bench seat and the table top.  She continued to work that picnic table as if it was a jungle gym, popping out from one unexpected place after another before disappearing down below again. I’ve never seen such a flexible dog.  If she’d be an actual gymnast, I’m pretty sure she would have scored at least a seven on agility alone.  Finally, she just lay down next to me, with her head on my leg, sighing happily.  And just like that, my crabby, despairing mood was gone.

As amazing as her antics with the picnic table were, the best thing that dog did was allow me to tune out all the problems that had been overwhelming me and to just focus on the here and now.  Sitting in the shade, watching a shelter dog have a wonderful time during her break from her solitary run was a beautiful thing, and made me realize that if I hadn’t come in this morning, this moment wouldn’t have happened.  And that allowed me to calm down, breathe deeply, and to be glad that I was in this particular place, at this particular time, and especially with this particular dog.

IMG_0471Of course, this is a life lesson that goes beyond my time at the animal shelter:  when the world’s problems seem too overwhelming to even think about, it’s okay to turn my back on the big picture and focus on the smaller, more personal  picture, at least for a little while.  Sometimes I just need to live in the moment, and to focus on what is right in front of me.  I know the old saying goes “can’t see the forest for the trees,” and I get that.  Usually, in order to get things done, we need to stop obsessing over the little details and look at the big picture.  But I believe there are also times when it’s necessary to ignore the forest and just focus on the trees.  Maybe even just the one tree that is particularly beautiful and affirming.   Because I believe there are times when happiness is best found in the details.

Hidden Gifts

Personally, I have always found it hard to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” and that our lives are pre-ordained.  There’s a randomness to the universe that I just can’t ignore, and more loss, violence and cruelty than I could ever attribute to a loving God.  But what I do believe is that even the darkest of times can bring gifts if we just allow ourselves to look for them.

I was sick last week, which meant I had to miss a fun social event and was also not able to do my usual shifts down at the Humane Society.  I was very disappointed to miss the special luncheon, and also worried that, without my help, not all the shelter dogs would get walked.  But several of the other volunteers went out of their way to tell me that I should stay home until I was well, and assured me that they would stay at the shelter until all the dogs were taken care of, no matter what.  I was surprised and touched by this show of support, and my illness was the reason I got to see just how wonderful these friends really are.

My mother-in-law suffered a series of strokes and spent the last couple years of her life wheelchair-bound in a nursing home, which I thought was a horrible thing for a woman who had always been so vibrant and active.  But every day that she was there, my father-in-law made the fifteen mile trip over country roads to visit her, missing only if he was sick or the roads were not safe.  He spent hours by her side, talking to her (even though she couldn’t always answer him), chatting to the staff, and generally making sure she was well cared for.  My father-in-law had not been a man who showed his emotions easily, so seeing his obvious devotion to his wife was a gift that I will always treasure.  And I wouldn’t have seen it so clearly if she hadn’t spent her last years in a care home.

Coleman Application_page 3 8Our dog Sandy’s fatal heart episodes started the night before my husband and I were scheduled to go on a long weekend trip to Charleston.  We were all packed, airline tickets bought, hotel reservations paid for in advance, and we scrambled to cancel it all last minute. At first it seemed like bad timing, but we soon realized how much worse it would have been if Sandy’s heart had started failing after we were already in Charleston.  There’s no way we would have made it home in time, and I am so glad that we were there to take her on that sad, final trip to the vet.  She needed us, not our dog sitter, to be with her at the end.

In the same way, any disappointment and pain I’ve endured in life have made me much more compassionate towards other people when they are suffering.  Because I know what it’s like to worry about paying the bills, I’m more generous to others who are struggling financially.  I know what it’s like to lose a loved one, to feel rejected by a good friend, to have career hopes dashed.  And while I wouldn’t have chosen to experience any of that, the fact that I have makes me a more sympathetic person than I would otherwise be, and that’s a good thing.

I may not like it when bad stuff happens to me, or anyone else for that matter, but I have learned to realize that that I can use the bad times to learn and grow.  I have come to believe there is always some good in almost every situation; I just have to remember to look for it.

Waiting for things to be “right”

I have far too many bad habits to list in this blog (I would have to change the blog’s name to “Stupid Things I Do On A Regular Basis” and who would want to read that?), but I think my worst habit is my tendency to wait to enjoy myself until whatever current crisis I am dealing with is over, and my life is flowing smoothly.  I’ve been on this earth for over 56 years, and my life has never been without some problem or another.  Yet for some silly reason, sometimes I think that I have to wait for everything to be perfect before I can be happy.

When my children were very young, I remember thinking that life was going to be just fine once they were potty trained, able to sleep through the night, and weaned off the bottle.  They accomplished all that, and yet our family life was still very chaotic as they grew older and we juggled school schedules, sports activities, church activities, etc.  And through it all, I waited for that magic moment when things would “calm down” and life would be the way I thought it was supposed to be.

As an aspiring author, I thought that I would finally feel successful just as soon as I published something.  Then I sold my first article to a neighborhood newspaper (called, I kid you not, “The Zip-0-Nine News”) and I realized that didn’t quite cut it.  So I slogged away, selling articles to other, more professional, regional newspapers and magazines, and finally to a national magazine, followed by the sale of a short book to an educational publisher.  It wasn’t much, but I still wish I had been wise enough to take more joy in those accomplishments rather than always focusing on the next sale, which I was quite sure would finally launch my real writing career.

Between my family, my husband’s job, my writing, my friends, and just plain old life in general, there is always going to be some problem that needs to be solved, some crisis that needs to be dealt with and some event that needs to be planned.  And finally, in my middle age, I am starting to figure out that this is how my life is always going to be.  I’m never going to cross that final item off my “to-do list,” or feel as if I have finally “succeeded.”

It may sound corny, but life really is a journey, and learning to enjoy it through all the mess and imperfections is absolutely essential.  I’m not sure why I had the horrible habit of waiting for things to be perfect, or why I still find myself slipping into that mindset every once in a while.  But I do know that it is a habit I need to break if I want to really appreciate the gifts I have in my life.  The road on my particular journey may not always be smooth, but I’m finally realizing that doesn’t mean it can’t be good, right now, even with all the bumps and potholes.  I just have to be smart enough to know it.