One More Time

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  Lots of people told me how wonderful it was to become a grandparent, and how much I was going to enjoy this new addition to our family.  They told me exactly how I would fall in love, instantly and completely, the first time I saw the baby, and what a huge change he would make in my life.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t quite believe them, because so often in my life, the reality doesn’t live up to the hype.  I tend to set the bar really high when I hear such glowing reports, and I’m almost always disappointed by what I actually experience.  So I took all those predictions about how awesome it was to be a grandparent with a grain of salt.

IMG_3509 2Luckily, I’ve reached the stage in life when I no longer have trouble admitting that I am, every now and then, absolutely wrong.  Because I was wrong about this grandparent stuff:  it’s just as wonderful as I was told.  If anything, it’s even better.

The best part of being a grandparent isn’t having a cute little baby to hold, cuddle and rock to sleep.  It’s not the wonder of seeing my daughter and son-in-law in a whole new role as loving parents.  It’s not even feeling my heart melt every time my grandson smiles at me.  Of course I love all of that, but the absolute best part of becoming a grandparent is the chance to do things over, and better, than I did with my own children.

I had my children when I was still young, struggling to find some sort of writing career, and far too worried about what other people thought of me.  (And believe me, when you’re a mother, everyone has an opinion of just exactly how you’re supposed to be raising your children. Which they will share with you.)  At some level, I actually believed that when my children misbehaved or weren’t entirely happy at all times, that had to mean that I was doing something wrong as a mother.  One way or another, I spent way too much time “sweating the small stuff.”

But my children aren’t the only people who have been growing up in the past three decades.  I’ve matured as well, and now have more patience with myself and more tolerance for others.  I no longer care very much about what others think of me, and I have a much better understanding of what is, and isn’t,  worth worrying about.  All of which means that when I look at my grandson, I just see a little person to love and accept for exactly who he is, without all the worry and angst about “doing things right.”

Obviously, it’s not my responsibility to raise my grandson, and I know that his own parents will do a fine job with that.  But even so, whenever I interact with him, I can’t help but notice how much calmer and confident I am compared to how I felt when my own children were small, and how much easier I find it to settle down and simply enjoy holding a baby that I love so deeply.

Life is a journey that can teach us many things if we’re willing to learn.  And if we’re lucky, every once in a while something (or someone) comes along to let us know that we’re moving in the right direction.

Walking the Walk

When I started this blog three years ago, I had two simple goals.  First, I wanted it to be  a creative writing outlet where I could write honestly and openly about the topics that interested me.  Secondly, I wanted to make sure my blog was a positive place where everyone (including my readers) could share their opinions and beliefs without being attacked by others.  I wanted my blog to be a “hate-free” zone where disagreement was welcomed as long as it was respectful and civilized.  And luckily, that’s exactly the way it turned out.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I was actually starting to feel a little bit smug about how little negativity my blog attracted, congratulating myself on keeping the nastiness away.  But have you ever had one of those “aha” moments, when you finally realize something so obvious that you can’t believe you didn’t see it before?  Because that’s exactly what happened to me yesterday.

I was driving down the street, actually thinking of how happy I was that I had managed to keep my blog so positive and hate free for three years when a driver suddenly pulled out in front of me.  I slammed on my brakes and missed him, but I was still incredibly angry.  And I didn’t hesitate to express that anger through a series of words that were both ugly and hateful.  The fact that I was alone in the car with the windows rolled up didn’t really matter.  Whether or not anyone could hear what I said wasn’t the point.  The point was that I finally realized that even though I had managed to create a hate-free blog, I most certainly wasn’t living a hate-free life.

I couldn’t help but wonder just exactly how different my life would be if I became just a bit more intentional about trying to keep hatred and anger out of my own heart.  I’m not naive enough to think that I will never get angry again, or that I won’t resent people I believe have done me wrong, or even that I can simply decide that I’ll never feel hateful again.  I’m sure I’ll do all those things, despite my best efforts.

But still, I know I can do better.  More importantly, I know that I want to do better.  I want to think twice before I open my mouth in anger.  When I feel slighted by someone, I want to try to look at things from their point of view rather than immediately feeling sorry for myself.  And when I feel hate stirring in my heart, I want to ask myself if I really want hateful feelings to be a permanent part of who I am.  Because hatred hurts the one who harbors it just as much as it hurts its target.

For the past three years, I’ve managed to keep hatred, pettiness, resentment, etc. out of my blog, and I’ve been very happy with the result.  So I think it’s time that I at least start trying to do the same thing with the rest of my life.

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.

Take A Chance

We added a patio to our back yard several years ago, which left an area between our house and the new patio that needed some landscaping.  I went to a garden supply store and bought several bushes, which we planted according to the directions on the labels, paying careful attention to how large they were supposed to grow.  But either the person who wrote those labels knows even less about plants than I do or the bushes had their own ideas regarding optimal growth, because every one of them grew to at least three times their predicted size.  What was supposed to be an artistic  arrangement of greenery and flowers looked more like an over-grown jungle with each passing week.

We dug up a few bushes and moved them to other parts of our yard, hoping they would survive the transplant.  Most of them did.  But then we were left with a scraggly-looking plant that was wedged in between a crepe myrtle and an evergreen.  I didn’t remember buying it and wasn’t even sure whether it was a bush or a particularly ambitious weed.  My husband and I debated whether we should transplant it or simply pull it out, but in the end we decided to move it to the side of the house to replace a rose bush that had died last year.

It was in the middle of summer and I had no idea what kind of sunlight this particular plant preferred, so I knew the odds of survival weren’t good.  I also knew it was entirely possible that we were going to all this effort to save a weed, possibly even a version of a ragweed that both my husband and I are allergic to.  But for some strange reason, replanting seemed the right thing to do.

IMG_2815The plant not only lived, it thrived.  And the last time I was at a garden center, I saw one that looked just like it and eagerly read the label.  Turns out, that scraggly bush wasn’t a weed at all…it’s actually a butterfly bush (which I still don’t remember buying).  And this whole past week it’s been busy attracting monarch butterflies.

I’m not, and never have been, what you’d call an optimistic person.  Right now I have a pain in a lower molar which I’m quite certain is going to require some kind of serious and expensive treatment, because a pain in my tooth can’t mean anything else, right?  Looking at the bright side is not my strong point and neither is expecting good things, despite the fact that I have had my share of good things in life.  It’s a negative thought pattern that I have always struggled with and truly hope to overcome some day.

Which is the point of the story of the butterfly bush.  I’m not good at gardening and most of the bushes and flowers that I plant die well before their time despite my best efforts.  But I overcame my natural pessimism and gave that weedy-looking plant a chance, and the reward was a thriving and beautiful butterfly bush that actually does attract butterflies.  And I hope that whenever I look at it, I’ll remember the lesson it taught me.  Because I really do want to become a person who is more willing to take a chance on something good.

From The Heart

Have you ever read something that just seems to speak directly to your heart?  That happened to me recently when I was reading Fredrik Backman’s excellent novel “Beartown” and came across this passage:

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion.  The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil.  The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard.  It makes demands.  Hate is simple.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m often troubled by the amount of hatred I see in the world, and frightened by how quickly and easily it bubbles to the surface.  Organized demonstrations of hateful dogma are scary enough, but when I see the endless parade of on-line rants, name-calling and attacks on-line, I’m even more disturbed, because I see just how easily we unleash our hateful side once we’re convinced we’ve found someone who deserves it.   And as tempting as it is, I honestly don’t believe in fighting hatred with even more hatred.

For example, I am an animal-lover who spends her days working with shelter dogs, and I am sickened when I see any kind of animal abuse.  But I am also sickened when I read an article about an abused animal and see all the on-line comments calling for the abuser to be tortured and killed.  I may love animals, but I am not a sadist.  I don’t believe that the proper response to one act of evil is another act of evil.  What I really want is an end to the abuse. And there are plenty of ways to do that without becoming an abuser myself.

Believe me, I get upset when I see injustice, hatred, abuse and evil, and often my gut-level reaction is to lash out in self-righteous fury and indignation.  And sometimes I have given in to that impulse and said things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said.  Yet when I calm down, I realize that all I did was make the situation even worse by copying the very behavior that horrified me in the first place.  I allowed someone else’s hatred to take root in me, if only temporarily.  And that’s not the person I want to be.

I think it is possible to stand up to hate without being hateful, just as it is possible to stop abuse without becoming an abuser.  We don’t have to leave our best selves behind when we oppose evil, and we certainly don’t have to follow the example of the very people whose actions horrify us in the first place.

As Fredrik Backman so eloquently pointed out, hatred is easy and love is hard. But when it comes right down to it, I want to choose love.

Just Say It

478While I was on vacation a few weeks ago, I wandered into a clothing store and had just begun to look through the racks when my cell phone rang.  Not wanting to be rude, I stepped just outside to take the call, standing with my back to the store.  As I was talking, I heard a loud click behind me, but I didn’t realize what it meant until I finished the call and tried to go back inside.  The door was now locked.  I could see the clerk through the glass door, doing her best to look busy over by the register and deliberately not looking in my direction.  I was only on the phone for a minute, but apparently that was all the time she needed to and lock me out.

Fuming, I checked the hours posted next to the door, and realized that the store was scheduled to close in ten minutes.  I’m guessing the clerk was afraid I was going to take an armful of clothes into the dressing room and force her to stay open while I tried them on, which is why she grabbed the chance to lock me out.  But it would have been so much better if she had just told me the store would be closing soon when I first walked in.  That, I would have understood.  And I wouldn’t have been standing on the sidewalk in front of her store, thinking distinctly unkind thoughts about sneaky little sales clerks, and vowing never to shop there again.

Believe me, I struggle with speaking up just as much as everyone else, particularly when I’m not sure how what I have to say is going to be received.  I have wimped out and kept my mouth shut more times than I can count.  But in almost every case where I’ve done that, I’ve ended up being sorry in the end.  Either my silence has led to an awkward misunderstanding, or I have ended up feeling rather bitter and angry because someone else doesn’t understand what I haven’t bothered to tell them.  But when I find the nerve to say the stuff that’s hard to say, I’m at least opening the door for a chance at real communication and understanding.

It helps to remember how much I appreciate it when someone is brave enough to speak up to me.  The other night, my husband and I were driving home from dinner at our favorite restaurant when the manager called.  He wanted to know if everything was alright with our meal, or if our waiter (who was new) had done anything to offend us.  My husband assured him that everything was great, and asked why he wanted to know.  It turns out, we had accidentally left the waiter a one-dollar tip.  We were so glad that the manager knew us well enough to know we would never do that on purpose, and was willing to call and let us know.  We drove right back to the restaurant and gave the waiter his proper tip, even though the manager said we could just take care of it next time we were in.

I know that these examples are small and personal, but I believe that the practice of speaking honestly and tactfully as much as possible is best in most situations.  I think we owe it to ourselves and to others to find the courage to say what needs to be said.  I’ve heard the old saying, “Silence is Golden,” and there are times when it is.  Hateful, petty and spiteful words are much better left unsaid.  But for everything else, real communication is priceless.

Moving Forward

I have what is referred to as a “pear-shaped” body, which is a kind way of saying that my upper thighs are a size bigger than the rest of me.  I complained about this for years before I finally lost the fifteen pounds that I was sure would give me the body shape I wanted.  It didn’t.  I still had the same body shape, just two sizes smaller.  Which meant that I still had an awful time finding pants that fit me, and I complained bitterly about that until a friend (who I’m sure was tired of listening to me whine about the same old thing) suggested I try having my pants altered to fit me.  So now I buy my pants on sale so that I can afford to take them to a tailor, who takes them in at the waist.  And just like that, my long-term wardrobe problem was solved.

I’m not going to lie:  I’m good at complaining.  Complaining comes as naturally to me as worrying, probably because they are closely related and tend to feed off each other.  It’s just who I am, and I’ve learned to accept that.  But what I have also learned is that the trick is to remember to move beyond complaining to actively trying to address the problem I happen to be complaining about.

It’s okay to recognize my worries and express my concerns as long as I realize that complaining isn’t going to solve a thing.  Complaining simply names the problem, but if I actually want to fix the problem, then that’s going to require some sort of action on my part.  Sometimes that’s as simple as finding a good tailor, while other times, of course, the problems are much more serious and complicated.

IMG_1157But even when the problems are huge and completely beyond my personal control, I can still do my part to try to make things better.  I can join groups that are working to change public policy, and I can volunteer with agencies that address the issues I care about.  For instance, I may not be able to single-handedly save all the homeless dogs, but I most certainly can spend my time at the local animal shelter, doing everything in my power to make the lives of the dogs there just a little bit easier.

It’s easy, I think, to fall into the pattern of simply pointing out the many problems we see around us and to believe that is as far as we need to go, or as far as we can go.  But I’ve discovered that when I do that, I end up feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and depressed.  Far better to see problems as something that need fixing, and to recognize that there is often something we can do to help solve them.  Not only does that make the world a better place, but it empowers us to discover that we really are capable of making a positive impact.

Moving from merely complaining to active problem solving is just as good for us as it is for the ones we are trying to help.  And in my case, it means that I finally have pants that fit.

Like Me

I am a woman of very few talents, but I have always been good at getting along with other people.  Not because I’m particularly charismatic–I’m not–but because I am good at figuring out what others want from me and then working hard to deliver just that.  When your goal is to have other people like you, you learn rather quickly that conforming to their beliefs and expectations is important, even if that means hiding the parts of yourself that you know won’t meet with approval.

It took me a long time before I figured out that being my real, whole, self was so much more important than pleasing others.  And it has taken me even longer to break the habit of caring so much about whether or not other people like me.  Honestly, I’m in my late middle age and it’s still something I struggle with.

It still hurts when I meet someone new, and after a few minutes of polite conversation they excuse themselves and hurry away in search of someone more interesting to talk to.  It still stings when I hear friends talking about a social gathering I didn’t know about because I wasn’t invited.  And I still feel a bit ashamed, like a child who has been scolded, when I voice an opinion and someone tells me in no uncertain terms that I’m dead wrong.

The downside of social media and blogging is how it can feed into those insecurities, what with those little “like” buttons that let me know immediately how many people approve of a particular post.  WordPress takes it a step further with its stats on how many views and visitors are generated each time I publish something.  It’s easy to believe that the value of a post is determined solely by the number of likes and views.

Last week, I published a post that had 1,225 views, followed closely by a post that had exactly 102 views.  I spent approximately the same amount of time and effort on each one, and felt that I had written both posts the best way I knew how.  It’s tempting for me to study the more popular post to see what made so many people like it, and there was a time in my life when I believe I would have done just that.  Thankfully, in many ways I’ve moved past that mindset and plan to move forward as I’ve always done, which is just writing about what interests me and working on each post until I’m satisfied with the result.

Blogging can be hard for someone who still struggles sometimes to find the courage to let her true voice be heard.  I have to remind myself now and then that all I really have to offer in this blog is my own perspective and my own thoughts.  Sometimes my words will strike a chord with lots of people and sometimes with just a few people, and it’s good either way.  The important thing is that my words are an expression of my true self, rather than something I filtered heavily in order to attract the maximum amount of approval.

In many ways, my blog has helped me finally find my own voice.  And if I am lucky enough that my words help someone else, that’s just icing on the cake.

Just Listen

I am fully aware that I talk too much.  I tend to over-explain things, repeating myself as if I don’t trust people to understand what I meant the first time I said it.  When I’m nervous, my go-to response is usually to babble on and on about nothing at all, until the person I’m talking to decides that I’m a complete idiot.  Even worse, when someone tells me about a problem, I barely wait until they stop talking before I start telling them exactly what they should do, completely ignoring the fact that they didn’t actually ask for my advice.  So believe me, I understand how much easier it is to talk than it is to listen.

It’s not that talking itself is such a bad thing.  We all have important information to share, and we all want our stories and opinions to be heard.  Sharing our thoughts and feelings allows other people to get to know who we really are, and it’s an essential part of forming the relationships that all people need.  But all that talking doesn’t do a bit of good if there isn’t anyone who is actually listening.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when I realize that someone isn’t listening to what I’m trying to say to them.  It makes me feel dismissed when someone interrupts a story I’m telling to launch into one of their own.  And it makes me feel diminished when I share something that I think is important and the other person just says, “Uh-huh,” and then brings up a completely different subject.  Nothing says “I don’t care what you have to say,” or even “I don’t care about you,” more effectively than not bothering to listen to someone.  Those kind of conversations don’t exactly build healthy relationships.

Which is what I need to remember the next time someone is talking to me.  Am I giving that person my full attention, and really trying to understand what he or she is saying to me?  Am I bothering to ask a question if I need to in order to make sure I get what they are talking about?  When our conversation is over, will that person feel as if he or she was truly heard?  Or will they feel the way so many of us do these days:  that it would have been just as effective to talk to a brick wall?

I think that talking will always come more naturally to me that listening, but listening has far better results.  Actually, it’s kind of amazing how much I can learn when I shut up and listen for a change.  I get genuine insights into how someone else thinks and feels, and a chance to develop deeper relationships with my friends and family.  I hear new facts and different ideas, and they broaden my horizons considerably.  (Also, the odds of me saying something stupid go way down when I’m not actually talking.)  The perks of listening are bountiful indeed.

I have come to believe that there’s a lot of truth in that old saying, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.”  Because one way or another, it is almost always better to listen than to talk.

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.