Be Still

I’m an introvert, but that doesn’t mean I’m actually a quiet person.  The fact that I’m an introvert simply means that I need a certain amount of time by myself each day, and that I can get a little cranky when I don’t get that alone time.  But stick me in a group of people, and my mouth tends to go into overdrive.  It doesn’t even matter if I don’t have something that I especially want to say, I’ll still chatter away until the people around me are beginning to think that they might like a little alone time themselves.

Part of the problem is that when I get nervous, I tend to start rambling on about anything that pops into my head.  But the biggest reason I sometimes talk too much is my long-standing, but misguided, belief that I am somehow responsible for making sure that everyone around me is okay, and that it’s my job to fix their problems if they aren’t.  That’s the reason that I sometimes jump into conversations that aren’t really any of my business, and offer solutions that no one asked for.  It’s annoying, I know, and I’m working hard to stop it.

Breaking old habits isn’t easy, but I am making progress.  Slowly but surely, I’m learning that there are many, many times when the best thing I can do is keep my big mouth shut and just listen.  Listen as someone else talks about their life, their problems, their grief, or whatever they happen to be dealing with at the moment, because that’s their time to talk and not mine.  They aren’t expecting me to fix their problems or take away their grief, they just need a sympathetic ear as they work through their own thoughts and emotions.

Don’t get me wrong, wanting to help other people is a good thing.  And when I’m busy telling people what they ought to do or how they should deal with a particular problem, my heart really is in the right place.  The problem is, I’m not actually helping.  Unless someone has specifically asked for my advice, I need to assume that they don’t really want or need it.  Sometimes the help we want to give and the help that other people need to receive are two different things.

There are words that we can offer that will always be welcomed, and when in doubt, it’s best to stick with those.  Words of compassion and encouragement, such as “I’m so sorry this happened” or “I’ll be here for you” are good.  Once when I was fretting about an upcoming oral surgery, I had a friend look me in the eye and simply say, “You’ve got this.”  Just knowing she had confidence in my ability to cope helped enormously.

IMG_4496So I will continue to work on reining in my tendency to talk when it would be far better to remain silent, and to choose my words carefully when I do speak up.  Because sometimes the best thing to be is simply…..quiet.

The Bright Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New One Just Begun

img_2834Taking down the decorations is my least favorite part of Christmas.  When I was a child, we always took down our tree on New Year’s Day mostly because it was always a real tree and beginning to dry out by then.  When I grew up and began decorating my own Christmas trees, I left them up a little bit longer, especially once we made the shift to putting an artificial Christmas tree in our living room.  These days I don’t take my decorations down until after Epiphany (January 6), and sometimes not even then.  The truth is, I’m never really ready to “undecorate” the house.

But eventually even I have to admit that it’s time to take everything down, and so I drag my boxes and cartons out of the basement and begin the long and tedious process of packing all my ornaments and decorations away for another year.  Somewhere along the line, I quit feeling sorry for myself and focus much more on making sure everything is properly wrapped, in the correct box, and clearly labeled.  (My obsessive need for neatness comes in handy sometimes.)

Even though our house always looks just a little bit naked those first few days without holiday decorations scattered so liberally about, there is always a part of me that likes what I see.  The undecorated house reminds me of a blank canvas, and I start to think about different colored throw pillows, or perhaps a new set of shelves to store my ever-growing collection of photo albums.  New things seem possible now that the clutter of Christmas has been cleared away, and I find it much easier to envision some positive changes for my home.

And once my Christmas decorations are put away, I know that the holiday season is officially over and that it is time to look forward into the new year.  I’m not a person who easily embraces change, but I never want to be a person who fears it.  The new year helps remind me that sometimes change is both necessary and good.  The new year can be a symbol of a “clean slate” that allows me to leave behind the clutter in my life that isn’t doing me or anyone else any good, and gives me a chance to make some of the changes that will move me toward a life that is happier and more full of purpose.

And of course, it helps to remember that in only eleven short months I’ll be able to decorate my house for Christmas all over again….

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.