Strong Enough

IMG_0448This morning I was down at the animal shelter where I volunteer, getting ready to take a dog on its walk, when another volunteer turned to me and said, “That dog is kind of hard to get leashed up.  Do you want me to help you?”  I didn’t say it out loud, but my first reaction was, “Seriously?  You want to help me?

I’ve been walking dogs at this shelter for over fifteen years, and the volunteer who was offering to help me was still fairly new.  Plus, I am one of the volunteers who is authorized to handle even the most difficult-to-walk dogs, and I have always sort of pictured myself as someone other volunteers can turn to for help.  Having someone else offer to help me with a dog almost seemed like an insult to my dog-walking skills, and I even opened my mouth to tell her, “No thanks, I’ve got this.”  But then, thankfully, my ego checked out and my common sense checked in.

The volunteer who was offering to help me was probably thirty years younger than I am, and judging by her muscle tone, also much stronger.  And she wasn’t offering to help me because she thought I was incompetent, she was offering because the dog in question was very big, and often so excited to go for his walks that he almost pulls the person trying to walk him down.  And, as long as I’m being so honest, I’ll admit that she was probably offering because she could plainly see that I am no longer young or particularly strong.  Accepting her help just made sense, and so I did.

I have come to believe that the most difficult aspect of aging is the steadily widening gap between who I think I am, and who I actually am, physically speaking.   Accepting the wrinkles, grey hair and sagging skin that come with aging is only part of the struggle.  For me, the more difficult thing to accept is that I no longer have anywhere near the strength and stamina that I did when I was young, which means I’m still a bit shocked every time I try to do something I used to do so easily and find that it’s just a bit too much for me now.  The woman who once regularly carried fifty-pound bags of grain for her horse is now asking for help carrying in some of the heavy bags from the grocery store. And sometimes that smarts a bit.

IMG_4349Still, there is nothing I can do but accept the changes that are happening in, and to, my body.  I may still be young in spirit….and hope that I always will be….but I am no longer quite so young in body, and that means that I have to remember to cut myself some slack.  I need to pay attention to my physical limits these days, and be willing to ask for help when I need it.  I also need to be strong enough to graciously accept help when it’s offered, even those times when I didn’t ask for it.  Because the time is coming, slowly but inevitably, when the only shelter dogs I’ll be walking are the chihuahuas.

Closet Depression

Shopping for clothes has never been an easy thing for me.  Even when I was a teenager and thought that a trip to the mall with my friends was great fun, I still struggled when it came to actually buying the clothes.  Back then, I was frustrated by styles that didn’t match my figure and/or prices that didn’t match my budget.  The fifty cents an hour I earned from babysitting didn’t stretch very far, even in the Seventies. These days, my budget isn’t quite so tight, but I still rarely find something that’s comfortable, looks good, fits properly, and reasonably priced.  Which is why I still hate to shop.

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Unfortunately, my closet is small, so with each changing season, I find myself sorting through the clothes I keep stored in big plastic bins in the basement, and bringing them up to replace the clothes from the previous season. This process forces me to evaluate my wardrobe four times a year, and means I can’t ignore the stains on my summer blouses, the fact that half my sweaters have snags or pills,  and that another couple of pairs of pants have mysteriously shrunk.  So I fill a bag or two to take to the local donation center, make a list of what needs to be bought, and head off to the nearest mall.

Sometimes I’m silly enough to think my trip will be successful, at least until I enter the first store and am met with clothes that must have been designed by people who were either drunk, high, or have serious anger issues with women.  There are blouses with “peek-a-boo” shoulders, for what purpose I can’t begin to imagine.  Normal, button-down cardigans are conspicuous by their absence, and have been replaced with sweaters sporting tassels, ruffles and armholes halfway down the sleeves.  Pants are either wide enough to share with a baby elephant or so skinny that I would have had trouble fitting into them when I was ten.  And do you know what happens to a pair of chubby legs stuffed into tight jeans?  The fat puffs out, in places that you’d least expect and can’t possibly hide.

Fall and winter are the worst, because not only do I have to find pieces of clothing that I like and can afford, but I also have to match the layers.  This is not my strong point.  My closet tends to be full of jackets that don’t match any of my blouses, jeans in colors that clash with all my sweaters, and tops that are either too long are too bulky to wear underneath anything.  Traditionally, I tend to solve this problem by buying a lot of black or white items, which means that I have a lot of black pants and black and white tops, often striped.  Once I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and realized that if I added a pair of tennis shoes and a whistle to my ensemble, I’d look exactly like a matronly referee who got lost on her way to the big game.  So now I try to branch out a little, color-wise.

Still, I do have the occasional success.  Yesterday I went to the mall in search of a pair of shoes to wear to my son’s wedding, and while I didn’t find those, I did manage to find a nice green sweater and a matching top to wear underneath.  On sale.  And they didn’t even come from the same store.  Walking out of the mall, I was so excited that it was all I could do not to stop random strangers and proudly show off my purchases.  When it comes to fashion, I’ve learned to take my victories where I can.

Setting Boundaries

A few weeks ago, I had an accident on a boat dock that resulted in a large and deep bruise on my outer thigh.  Even though I didn’t do any major damage…nothing was broken or torn…my leg was swollen and sore.  I walked with a bit of a limp, and I couldn’t stand to have anything touch the wounded area.  And while I thought that I would be back to normal within just a few days, it turned out that my recovery actually took a few weeks. I still have a small and somewhat painful lump, although I’m glad to report that my outer thigh no longer looks like a colorful abstract painting.

The point is, for a few weeks, I wasn’t able to do many of my usual activities.  I still went to the animal shelter three times a week, but I didn’t walk any of the big dogs, and I even avoided the smaller ones that were especially jumpy.   I skipped my yoga class, didn’t ride my exercise bike, didn’t take long walks around the neighborhood no matter how nice the weather was, and in general, made sure that I didn’t put any more strain on my leg than was absolutely necessary.  I was often frustrated by my limitations, and sometimes those frustrations were aggravated by the thought that I was letting other people down.

I worried that my friend who teaches my yoga class was going to be annoyed with me for missing so many sessions.  I worried that my fellow shelter volunteers were going to be unhappy that I wasn’t helping them get the big and rowdy dogs out for their daily walks.  And I worried that the huge decrease in my level of exercise meant that it was going to be even harder to stuff myself into my already tight jeans.

I wanted my old life back.  I wanted to be able to do all the things I was used to doing, and to be able to meet all the expectations that other people usually had of me.  I found myself fretting a lot, becoming anxious and short-tempered, and feeling that I had to constantly remind everyone that I did, indeed, have a sore leg that was taking far too long to heal.

Thankfully, I finally came to my senses.  I realized that while I might not be able to do the things that I wanted to do, and that other people expected me to do, I truly was doing all that I could do at that particular point in my life.  And I realized that by looking for other people to “give me permission” to step back from my normal activities, I was setting myself up for nothing but guilt and disappointment.  Because no one else knew exactly how my leg felt on any given day, or what I could and couldn’t do without causing unnecessary pain or fatigue.  I realized that it was up to me to set my own limits and live within them, and not to pay too much attention to whether or not other people understood or approved of them.

The thing is, we are each responsible for setting our own boundaries, whether they be physical, mental or emotional.  We know what is going on in our own lives better than anyone else does, and we not only have the ability but also the responsibility to decide exactly what we can or can’t do.  That doesn’t mean we ignore challenges or become self-absorbed and selfish, but it does mean that we recognize our own limits and stop apologizing for living within them.  And once we do, we stop being worrying so much about living up to other people’s expectations.

There’s an old saying that “good fences make good neighbors.”  Honestly, I think the same thing holds true for personal boundaries.  Because knowing our own boundaries, and respecting other people’s boundaries, makes for good relationships.  And that makes life better for all of us.

I’m A Writer

Yesterday, I was at a birthday party when a woman I had just met asked the inevitable question, “And what do you do?”  Without giving the matter a second’s thought, I simply answered, “I’m a writer.”  Now I’ve been asked that question more times than I can count, but that was the first time I ever answered it with those particular words.

Yes, I’ve been writing my whole life, or at least from the age that I could first pick up a pencil and carefully write down the words to a story.  But we live in a society that defines us by what we do for a living, and I have never earned a living through my writing.  Writing has always been something I did on the side, either while working at the rather tedious jobs I held when I worked full-time, or when I was a stay-at-home mom with my two children.  Sure, I sold some articles and even had a very short book published by an educational publisher, but a writing career was always a dream I pursued and never the reality I actually lived.

Which is why I was very surprised by the way I answered the question at the party.  The four children’s book manuscripts I have written are still sitting, unpublished, in my files.  My name is not, sadly, on the New York Times best-sellers list.  If you went to any library in the country and tried to find a book by Ann Coleman, you would fail to do so. (Unless there is another person by the same name out there who has had more publishing success than I have.  If there is, please don’t tell me, because I might be tempted to claim credit for her work when I’m having a bad day.)  Yes, I am now writing this blog, but it’s been going for eighteen months and I have only recently the 400-followers mark.  Advertisers are not exactly pounding on my door, wanting a piece of the action.

I think all that has changed is the way I have learned to think about myself.  When I was younger, I secretly defined myself as a writer, but believed that I had no right to publicly claim that title until I had appropriate validation from the publishing world.  I desperately wanted to sell books to a major publisher, not so much to see my work in print, but to feel as if I had finally earned permission to call myself a writer.  “Of course I’m an author,” I would be able to say, pointing casually at the shelf full of my published books as proof.

But now I realize that whether or not I can earn a living through my stories and essays isn’t what makes me a writer.  I have come to believe that if someone writes regularly (I do) and puts his or her writing out for others to read (I do), and works hard at  improving his or her writing skills (I do), then that person is, indeed, a writer.

Some of us are blessed to be able to earn a living doing what we love most, and that’s truly a wonderful thing.  But the rest of us don’t have to let ourselves be defined by how we pay our bills.  If we are doing what we love to do, whether it’s writing, gardening, painting, woodworking, or whatever, then I believe we have the right to define ourselves by our passion.  And we shouldn’t hesitate to share that definition with others when we are asked, as we always will be, “And what do you do?”

Wear the White Jeans

IMG_0290Like many women, whenever I get invited to an event, one of my first thoughts is, “What in the world am I going to wear?”  So when I received an invitation to my future daughter-in-law’s bachelorette party, my first reaction was to be very touched and happy that I was included.  My second reaction was to start fretting about exactly what I was going to wear for this occasion.

We were going to a nearby historical town to spend the afternoon visiting wineries, and since we would to be outside some of the time, I decided to wait and see what the weather was going to be before I decided on my outfit.  I have reached the age where the more clothes I have on, the better I look.  But I also knew that August can be very hot and humid, and had to take that into consideration.  Luckily, the day of the party turned out to be only pleasantly warm, which gave me more choice in my attire.  I decided that I was going to aim for a casual, yet festive look, with an eye toward maximum coverage.

Pairing white jeans with a light-weight, dressy top seemed to be the obvious solution, but I found myself hesitating, as I always do when I consider wearing my white jeans.  I usually wear dark pants, which help hide the fact that the lower half of my body is bigger than the top half, and was afraid that the white jeans might highlight the fact that my body shape is, in essence, that of a pyramid with legs.  Also, I was afraid that the white jeans might be ruined.  Even though I always drink white wine (the wine of choice for clumsy people), I knew there would be plenty of red wine around, as well as other things that could stain white jeans, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk it.

I think if I hadn’t been rushed for time when I was getting ready, I probably would have made a different clothing choice.  But I didn’t want to be late, so I just threw on the white jeans, found a top with a “busy” enough design to counter-balance the vast whiteness below, and headed off for the party.  And had a wonderful, wonderful, time with my future daughter-in-law, her mother, and her close friends, including my daughter.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this post.  My white jeans have sat in my drawer for most of this past summer, as well as the summer before that.  I have been too afraid to wear them, because I didn’t have the figure for them and/or that they would get dirty or stained.  So each time I tried them on before going out, I almost always took them back off and put on a different, “safer,” pair of pants or jeans, believing that I would wear the white ones later.

What exactly I was waiting for, I don’t know.  It’s not as though, at age 58, I’m going to suddenly lose a ton of weight or develop “buns of steel.”   If anything, I’m going in the opposite direction, with the needle on my scale moving steadily upward, and the best I can boast at this point in my life is “buns of Jello.”  And yes, white does show the dirt and get stained, but so what?  That’s what bleach and washing machines are for.

The bottom line is that if going to a party that celebrates the fact that a lovely, sweet and intelligent young woman is going to marry my son isn’t worth finally wearing my white jeans, I don’t know what is.  I may be getting old, but I can still learn something new.  And what I learned yesterday is: appreciate all the good things that are going on in your life right now.  And wear the white jeans!

A Disturbing Pattern?

I have never been a particularly ambitious person.  I had no plans to run for public office, become a celebrity of any sort, or make enough money to live in a huge mansion.  Although I did hope to make a modest living writing children’s books, I never aspired to being on the New York Times Bestseller’s list.   My main goal in life has always been a very modest one:  to simply try to leave the world a slightly better place than I found it.  Seriously, that’s it.  But even so, I’m starting to think that maybe I set the bar just a little bit too high.

DSC01258If I were really the sort of person who brought in a ray of sunshine each time she entered the room, how do I explain all the times when my mere presence has had what can only be called a distinctly negative effect?  There’s the little things, like how whatever line I join at the checkout counter immediately becomes the slowest moving line, each and every time.  Sometimes the person in front of me hands the cashier a huge wad of coupons and argues endlessly when told that half of them are expired, while other times we all wait for a stock boy to do a price check on an item shelved on the other side of the store.  But one way or another, when I get in a line, it stops moving.

And yes, I know lots of people claim they have the same experience with check-out lines, but I have so many more examples.  I had to have my senior pictures retaken because the photographer discovered that his camera broke during my photo session.  Other people joke about having their face break a camera, but mine actually did it.

This past year alone, five of my favorite restaurants have gone out of business.  And even if a restaurant that I love does manage to stay open, they always discontinue whatever dish I like the best.  Remember Panera’s potato-cream cheese soup?  It was so delicious that it was worth every calorie, and it was my absolute favorite.  So of course they took it off the menu.

The last three times I joined a church, the minister resigned shortly afterwards.  When my husband and I decided to invest a little money with a broker, the stock market immediately dropped like a rock.  We have lived in the same house for the past twenty years, and like to think that we are good neighbors.  But then how do I explain that the house on our left has turned over six times since we moved in, and we have actually lost count of how many different families have lived in the house behind us?

But the biggest example is my writing career.  The only children’s book I ever published was sold through a book packager who expressed interest in seeing more of my work.  And then promptly went out of business.  A small public relations firm closed right after I completed my first assignment for them.  Several editors have lost their positions shortly after asking me for revisions with the goal of eventual publication, and three separate publishing houses that liked my work also went out of business before I could close a sale.  I’m sort of the “Typhoid Mary” of the publishing world.

I tell you, it’s enough to give a person a complex!  Sometimes I feel the exact opposite of the king in the story, “The Midas Touch.”  Remember that story?  Where everything the king touched turned to gold?  Only in my case, it often turns to–well, let’s just say not gold.  So, if you are one of the small group of people who reads my posts, I suggest you enjoy them while you can.  Because past experience suggests that it’s only a matter of time before WordPress pulls the plug.

Reunion Time

Ann's HS Grad Pic 2Most of the time, I’m able to forget just exactly how old I am.  I’ve mastered the art of not looking at my entire face in my make-up mirror, and simply focusing on whatever part of my face I’m actually putting the make up on.  I keep my car radio tuned to an “oldies” station so I can keep right on listening to the music of my youth,  and I choose clothes that are loose-fitting enough to cover all the unsightly bulges and “soft spots” I’ve acquired in recent years.  One way or another, I’ve been able to maintain the self delusion that I’m not really that old, just somewhere in my mid life years and still a comfortable distance from senior citizen.  And then along comes the invitation to my 40th (seriously, 40th?) high school reunion, and just like that, all my illusions about my age are cruelly shattered.

My first instinct was to simply ignore it. I know that technically, ignoring something doesn’t make it go away, but it does keep me from having to face it. (I used to fret endlessly about the spider veins on my legs until the day I decided to simply pretend they weren’t there.  Although with my luck, they’ll probably decide to grow into varicose veins just to get my attention.)  I also realized that if I skipped this one, my next reunion will probably be my fiftieth high school reunion, and that will be beyond scary.

And honestly, I really would like the chance to see some of my old classmates again, and to visit the small town in Kansas where I lived when I was a teenager.  I feel a strong emotional connection to that town and the people I knew then, even though I only spent a small portion of my life there and wasn’t particularly good at the whole high school thing. I was a bit shy and awkward in those days, dated very little, struggled in my math classes and as for athletics, all I can say is:  I tried.  My main memory of participating in any kind of sport was constantly praying to God that I didn’t screw up too badly.  I may not have been a particularly talented athlete, but I sure was a religious one.

I suppose the connection is simply that my classmates were people who knew me during the years when I was changing from a child to an adult, struggling to figure out who I was and what my place would be in the world, just like everyone else in my class.  I think that despite all the pretensions and rigid social codes of high school, there is also something very real about the relationships we formed during what was, whether we knew it or not, a fast-changing and rather difficult time in our lives.  We saw each other at our best, and also at our worst, and that’s the kind of thing which tends to form enduring bonds.

So, in a few days I’ll be heading off to my class reunion, and I’m not going to dwell too much on exactly which class reunion it is.  I won’t bother to dress up or hit a medical spa for a quick Botox treatment, because  what’s the point of trying to impress people who knew me when I was an awkward teenager?  (Also, I hate shots.)  I’m guessing that we will just talk and laugh, and have fun “remembering when.”  And count ourselves lucky that we are still here, so many years after high school graduation, able and willing to gather as the Class of ’76 one more time.

My New Normal

I think I’m finally getting the hang of being middle aged.  True, I’m 57, so that means I’ve been middle aged for quite some time now (some would say I’m too old to be called middle aged, and I treat that suggestion with the contempt it deserves), but I can be both stubborn and resistant to change.  So it has taken me a long time to come to grips with the fact that I now have what it often referred to as a “new normal.”

Gone are the days when a late night meant staying out with my friends until three in the morning.  Now a late night is eleven o’clock, midnight at the very most, and even staying up that late means I spend most of the next day puffy-eyed, sluggish, and complaining bitterly about how tired I am.  Genuine late nights, and especially the late-night snacks (often from Taco Bell or White Castle) I used to indulge in are a thing of the past. And considering the delicate state of my digestive system these days, that’s probably a good thing.  For everyone.

The slim waist I enjoyed for most of my life has been replaced with a rather soft “muffin top” that refuses to leave, despite my attempts to exercise it away.  You would think that doing ten crunches or a thirty-second plank once every week or two would do the trick, but sadly, it has not.  So I have given away all my long, slim tops that used to look so good when tucked in, and replaced them with tops that are meant to be worn over my pants and are wide enough to hide back fat.  In short, I have come to embrace middle-aged fashion.

Previously, packing for a trip meant simply making sure I had enough clothes and toiletries for however long I was going to be away.  Now I have a large list of additional “must have” items which I absolutely can’t do without: two pairs of reading glasses (I always have a back-up pair), a make up mirror so that I can make sure I’m getting my eye shadow on my actual eyelids, a custom-made mouthpiece that I have to wear every night to stop me from grinding my teeth (as a friend once commented when she saw me pop it in, “your husband is a lucky man”), my allergy medications, and most important of all, my tweezers.  Because being middle aged means having hair where hair does not belong.

I have always been a little bit compulsive, but I no longer worry about having an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Yes, I never walk out my back door without backtracking through the house to my front door to double check that I’ve locked it, but I don’t do that because I’m compulsive.  I do that because by the time I’ve reached the back door, I can no longer remember whether or not I actually locked the front door.  And after I pull out of our driveway, I circle back around the block to make sure that I’ve closed the garage door for the same reason.  My memory has never been great, but these days it’s almost non-existent.

Grandma GreenPlease don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m not.  For one thing, I understand that complaining isn’t gong to make me young again, and I also recognize that there are many advantages to being middle aged.  Honestly, I not only accept my “new normal,” I have come to appreciate it.  Because I know that it won’t be so very long before I’ll hit the age when I have yet another “new normal” to deal with, and something tells me it’s not going to be as nice as this one.

Not That Old

DSC01337At age fifty-seven, I have finally figured out that I am no longer young.  I have accepted the sags and wrinkles; I own (and use) at least six pairs of reading glasses, and I am no longer surprised when I wake up in the morning and there’s always something, somewhere on my body, that hurts.  I am fully aware that tucking in my shirts is no longer a good look for me, and the only thing I’m looking for when I buy a new swimming suit is maximum coverage and strong elastic.  On the upside, I’ve got a much stronger sense of self than I ever had before, and I care less about what others think of me with each passing day.  In short, I have embraced the fact that I have moved from “young” into “middle aged” and have actually learned to appreciate this phase of my life.  I’m just not ready to be “old.”

Which is why I get alarmed when I find myself sometimes thinking, talking and acting like an old person.  I hate it when I walk into a store at the mall and my first thought is, “Can someone please turn that darn music down?”  I hate it when I’m on vacation, deciding where to go for dinner, and I find myself checking out the “Early Bird Specials” because the prices are so much better if I can talk my husband into eating dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon.  And I especially hate it when a young clerk at the checkout counter takes one look at me and automatically gives me the Senior Citizen Discount.

I feel so very old when I’m reading posts on Facebook that contain random abbreviations that everyone but me seems to understand.  I had to google “smh” to figure out that it means “shaking my head.”  And then, of course, I wondered why in the world would so many people feel the need to tell others they are shaking their heads?  And if it really is so very necessary, why don’t they just come out and say so in plain English, rather than use those annoying little asterisks and obscure initials?  (And if that last sentence doesn’t make me sound old, I don’t know what does.)

It’s a bit jarring to realize that I have lived long enough to see the clothing styles from my youth making a comeback.  Yesterday, I saw a newscaster wearing a dress that would have been completely in style when I was in high school…back in the mid 1970s.  And terms from my youth, like “hipster” and “kiddos” are back with a vengeance.  Isn’t that only supposed to happen to old people?

Still, I am only fifty-seven, which means I’m not actually an old person yet.  I just need to accept that from now on, there are always going to random incidents or moments that make me feel older than I  want to be.  Things such as getting invited to my 40th high school reunion, seeing toys from my childhood in an antique mall, or worse, looking at myself in the bathroom mirror first thing in the morning before I have washed my face or run a comb through my hair.  I’ve got to remember to stop doing that…

How Old Am I?

No matter how much I’d like to believe (or pretend) that I’m still young, I really do consider myself to be a middle aged woman.  I’ve thought of myself as middle aged for at least the past fifteen years or so.  And when I finally decided to start my blog, I made it all about being middle aged and coping with all the changes that middle age brings.  One way or another, being middle aged is a big part of my identity right now.

But then I started reading other people’s blogs about middle age, and realized that there are many different ways to define middle age.  I had always considered middle age to be the huge chunk of life between younger adulthood and senior citizen, and I sort of resented people who suggested that it starts and ends much earlier than that. (I even wrote a post about it called Don’t Take Away My Middle Age.)  Others believe middle age literally means the exact middle of our life, so that even if we live to be one hundred, our middle age ends when we are fifty.  Middle age is, at best, a rather fluid concept.

IMG_0393I think the problem for those of us on the upper end of middle age is that we don’t have any real term for what comes next other than “senior citizen.”  And while I have the utmost respect for senior citizens (my 85 year-old mother truly rocks the whole “cute little old lady” thing), I know that it will be many more years before I am ready to be one.  So that creates the whole question of, if I’m too old to be middle aged, but still too young to be a senior citizen, then what exactly am I?

At 57, I’m fast reaching the age when, even with the most generous definition, I can’t all myself middle aged anymore.  This will be the first time in my life when I don’t really know what age group I fall into.  So far, I’ve been a baby, child, tween, teenager, young adult, just a regular adult, and middle ager.  All that’s left, as far as I know, is senior citizen.  But it seems a bit odd to me to lump people who are in their early sixties with people who are in their late nineties.  I think that span is too long, and that the people on the opposite ends of it don’t really have that much in common.

Maybe I need to just go back to just considering myself simply as an adult, the way I did in my thirties, at least until somebody comes up with a good term for this particular time in our lives.  Or maybe it’s time I just stopped thinking in terms of age categories all together, because my age is really nobody’s business but mine.  Whatever I decide, I’m going to keep the name of my blog the same. I’d like to think that by doing so I’m making some sort of bold stand against aging and age classifications, but the truth is that figuring out how to change the name is just too much work.