Freedom

IMG_1463In just a few short days, those of us who live in the United States will be celebrating our Independence Day, also known as the Fourth of July.  Traditionally, the holiday is observed with parades, bar-b-ques and fireworks, and I’m sure this year will be no exception.  Despite the many serious issues that our country is facing, I think it’s a good thing for us to acknowledge and celebrate the “birth” of our nation and try to remember that, like it or not, we’re all in this together.  My personal opinion is that we would do well to start concentrating far more on what unites us and far less on what divides us, but I know that is wishful thinking.

Still, when I think of Independence Day, it reminds me to be thankful for the freedoms I do have, and I’m not just talking about those that are guaranteed in our Constitution.

I may live in a world where there is far too much hatred and intolerance being spewed from all sides, but I am free to choose just exactly how I respond to it.  I can join in the argument, trying to shout down those who disagree, or silence them with fear and intimidation.  But I can also choose to express my own views confidently and politely, and to do my best to truly listen to those who see things differently.  In other words, I have the freedom to decide if I want to add to the problem, or if I want to try to be one of the much-needed voices of tolerance and reconciliation.

I’ve never been particularly good at saying “no,” even when my schedule is already over-crowded with commitments.  I know I have been blessed with a relatively good life, and I believe that I have a moral obligation to help others whenever I can.  But I also need to remember that I have the freedom to create my own boundaries, and to protect myself from the overwhelming stress that comes from trying to take care of everyone else’s needs while ignoring my own.  Freedom comes with responsibility, not only to others, but also to myself.

I’m not exactly sure how I’ll be celebrating this Independence Day, although I do hope I get the chance to see some nice fireworks and eat some good food.  But I’m hoping that whatever I do, I’ll also remember to be thankful for my own personal freedoms to choose the way I want to live and the kind of person I want to be.  And I hope that I’ll have the strength and wisdom to choose wisely, and live a life that is as free and independent of hate, guilt, intolerance and ignorance as I possibly can.  Because I believe that’s the kind of independence that is truly worth celebrating.

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.

I Believe

When Cara Sue Achterberg over at  anothergooddog.wordpress.com  asked me to review her book Another Good Dog, I was a little hesitant.  The book is about how she became a temporary foster for a rescue group that pulls dogs out of overcrowded shelters (usually in the South) and places them in foster homes until they can be adopted.  I volunteer at a large, open-admission animal shelter, and I know that sometimes people involved in this sort of rescue have nothing good to say about animal shelters.  I didn’t want to write a review for a book that badmouthed the animal shelter workers and volunteers that I have come to respect and admire.

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about.  Another Good Dog is an interesting and well-written account of the joys and challenges of fostering rescue dogs, and Cara never once trash talked animal shelters or the people involved in them.  She simply told her story and at the same time made a compelling case for the need for more foster homes.

I wish more people followed Cara’s example, not just of fostering dogs, but also of sharing her beliefs without also putting down those who do things differently.   It seems to me that too many of us tend to believe that we can’t be for one thing without also being against another.  Sadly, we usually talk a whole lot more about what (and who) we are against than what we are for, and not just in the animal rescue world, either.  Think about it:  how often do you determine someone’s political leanings by listening who they trash-talk about, rather than listening to their actual beliefs and convictions?

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can support one group, or one way of doing things, without attacking another.  You can be an atheist without sneering at those who believe in God.  You can be a stay-at-home Mom (or Dad) without criticizing parents who have full-time jobs.  In short, you can believe that your way is right for you without feeling the need to criticize those who don’t share your views, values or lifestyle.

Life really isn’t just one big football game where we are required to cheer for one team and loudly boo the other.  Sometimes, it’s enough to simply cheer for what we believe in.  And when we manage to do that, the walls that separate us can begin to come down, allowing us to work together in ways that accomplish so much more than we ever could alone, or just in the company of those who are “on our side.”

I know from experience that people involved in saving homeless animals tend to be very passionate about their work, and rightly so.  That passion is what keeps them going when they get discouraged, overwhelmed, or just plain tired.  But it’s also a huge job that really does require multiple solutions.  Good quality physical shelters where people can drop off unwanted or stray animals are still very much needed, particularly when they have the ability to do large-scale rescues of animals in dire need.   Well-run small rescue groups also do an amazing job of saving animals by placing them in loving foster homes until they get adopted.  Still other groups spend their days advocating for increased spaying and neutering, or stronger laws on puppy mills and other sub-standard breeders.

IMG_2212None of these organizations or people can solve the problem of animal overpopulation by themselves.  But each of them holds a piece of the solution, and between them all, they just might get the job done.  It’s amazing what can happen when we remember to work together.

Right Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acting My Age

I may be getting old, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I am always mature.   Physically, I know I’m not young.  I am reminded of this every time I look in the mirror, or try to read anything without my reading glasses on, or worse, attempt to do something that requires the strength and flexibility I no longer have.  Believe me, my years of lifting anything over fifty pounds, turning cartwheels, or even mounting a tall horse without assistance are over.  But when it comes to maturity, there are times when I still fall short.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were sitting in a restaurant at a tall table near the bar, eating dinner and listening to some excellent music.  Some people came in and settled at the bar stools on our right, which was fine.  Unfortunately, they were quickly joined by even more people, mostly male and mostly drunk, who crowded into the space between the bar and our table.  They seemed to have no idea that they were regularly jostling our table, talking so loudly that we couldn’t carry on our own conversation, and that the man nearest to me was practically sitting on my lap.

The mature thing to do would have been to call the manager over and ask to be moved to a quieter table.  But I was annoyed.  We were there first, and they had invaded our space.  I had no wish for either my husband or I to confront people who were clearly under the influence, but that didn’t mean I was going to back down.  Instead, I leaned into the table and shifted my weight slightly to the right, moving the table just a few inches towards the crowd at the bar.  Then I would wait a few minutes and do it again.  It wasn’t long before the extra people standing between our table and the bar were, subtly but effectively, squeezed out.  And I admit that I felt a small thrill of victory as I watched them wander off, looking vaguely confused and annoyed.

It wasn’t my finest hour.  The people may have been rude, but they weren’t deliberately trying to ruin our dinner.  The simple fact was that I felt wronged, and felt the need to strike back, and did so.  If just one of them had noticed that I was deliberately moving my table in their direction, there could have been an ugly confrontation.  That’s what happens when I forget to be a grown up and let my inner child out, who still lives by the rules of the elementary school playground.

The sad truth is there is a difference between growing older and becoming mature.  The first one happens naturally, with no effort on our part, whether we like it or not.  But becoming mature requires an intentional effort to grow in understanding, patience, wisdom, and tolerance.  It means considering the consequences of our words before we speak and the consequences of our actions before we do something, and knowing when a cause is important enough to stand our ground and when it makes more sense to simply walk away.

I like to think that I’ve matured as I’ve grown older, and I know that in many ways I have.  Yet there is obviously still plenty of room for improvement and growth, even at this stage of my life.  I may wish I was just a little less old, but what I’d really like is to be a lot more mature.

Lessons From A Small Town

When I was eleven years old, my family moved from St. Louis to a small town in central Kansas.  Adjusting to small town life was hard at first, because it was very different from what I was used to, and I wasn’t particularly happy about moving so far away from my friends and family.  But being eleven, I had only two choices:  be miserable for the next few years or adapt to my new life.  And so I got used to it, and soon came to appreciate the gifts that come from living in a small town.

Scan 7One of the first things I noticed about life in a small town was that everyone knew almost everyone else, if not by name, then at least by sight.  Which meant that when you passed someone on the sidewalk, you acknowledged them in some way.  A simple nod or “hello” would do if you didn’t have time to stop and chat, but hurrying on by as if you didn’t notice the person was considered rude.  The same thing was true if you were driving a car.  People waved at each other as they drove past, even if it was nothing more than simply lifting the index finger off the steering wheel.  No one was anonymous, and everyone deserved recognition.

Living in a small town also taught me a thing or two about trust.  I was amazed to discover that I could walk into almost any store along Main Street and make a purchase simply by signing my name.  It was common practice for stores to accept credit on an honor system, which meant that the clerk would make note of the amount owed, and the next time one of my parents came in, they paid up.  I used credit for an after-school snack, or to pick up something my Mom needed to make dinner, but I knew some of the poorer families in town depended on that credit for the times they truly couldn’t afford to pay.  Small towns tend to take care of their own.

My small town didn’t have different neighborhoods for the rich, middle class and poor, and so we all intermingled at the stores, schools and churches.  I learned to get along with all different kinds of people, because you think twice about making an enemy of someone when you know you are going to be seeing that person on a regular basis as you go about your daily life.  Of course not everyone was good friends with everyone else, but when disaster struck, the community came together very quickly.  I still remember the funeral of a high school friend being held in the school’s gymnasium because none of the seven churches in town had a sanctuary big enough to hold everybody.

I am fifty-eight years old, and I only spent seven of those years living in a small town.  I’m not sure exactly what percent of my life that works out to be, but I am sure it’s a small one.  Yet those years had a profound effect on my life, and I credit them with many of the things I have learned along the way about trust, diversity, tolerance and most of all, community.  I guess that old saying is right, and that it really does take a whole village to raise a child.

Choose Wisely

As those of us who live in the United States have no doubt noticed, there’s an election on the horizon.  And it’s an ugly one.

Negative television ads show relentlessly on TV, Facebook is filled with political “attack” posts, and those of us who still have landlines are flooded with calls from people wanting to know how we plan to vote, and/or telling us how we should be voting.  Living through a Presidential election year is never fun, but this time around the tone is even more hateful and shrill than ever before.  We are constantly being told that if we don’t choose the right candidate, the consequences will be more dire than we can possibly imagine.  I honestly don’t remember a time when the two leading candidates elicited such powerfully negative feelings, or a time when quite so many people felt they didn’t want to choose either one.

Still, I think we have more choices than we realize.  Yes, we have to choose who we are going to vote for, or even if we are going to abstain from voting this year.  That’s a personal choice that each of us gets to make according to our own conscience, and I’m not going to use my blog to try to influence anyone in that choice.  But this election offers us many more choices than simply how we are going to vote, and I believe that most of those choices are actually more important than the choice we make when we enter the voting booth.

We can choose how we express our support for a particular candidate, or how we speak up against the actions and ideas of the candidate we don’t support.   We can choose not to engage in on-line political arguments.  We can choose not to post snarky Facebook posts about the other political party, day after tedious day.  We can choose not to verbally attack people who dare to voice an opinion that we don’t agree with, even if that means they are saying they plan to vote for a candidate we find contemptible.

That doesn’t mean we have to keep our opinions to ourselves.  We can choose to tell people how we plan to vote, and why.  We can put signs in our yards, campaign for the candidates of our choice and participate in political discussions. But we can also choose to do so without abandoning good manners and civility, and in general acting like a self-righteous prig or a school-yard bully.  In short, we can have political opinions without imitating the political mud-slinging and ugliness that surrounds us.

I do believe that our choices in this election matter, a lot.  Because we can choose to be a part of the hate and negativity that defines this election cycle, or we can choose to live according to a higher standard, remembering that we are all going to have to find some way to get along when it’s over, no matter who wins.   The choice is ours, and I hope we can choose wisely.

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.

Now That’s Impressive!

img_4884The older I get, the less easily I am impressed.  Gone are the days when I got really excited by a grand-slam home run in a baseball game, or envy a friend’s beautiful new piece of jewelry, or even believe that winning the lottery would be the nicest thing that could ever happen to me.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy those things anymore, because I do.  (Note to my readers: if one of you ever does win the lottery and are looking for someone to share all that loot, I’ll gladly step up.)  It’s just that I have gotten to the point where I no longer find those things particularly impressive.

More and more, I find myself paying attention to, and often admiring, not so much what people have or what they do, but how they treat others.  It’s wonderful when a professional athlete is able to help his team win an important game, but it’s impressive when he uses his fame to help out a worthy cause.  It’s great when the new company that someone has poured their heart and soul into finally takes off and makes a lot of money, but it’s impressive when the owner of that company uses their money to give back to the community and create opportunities for others to succeed as well.

I especially admire people who are thoughtful and generous towards others when no one is looking and when they have nothing to gain from their kindness.  I will always be grateful to the surgeon who operated on my husband’s knee, because after the operation was over, he took the time to come into the waiting room and not only tell me everything went well, but also to sit down beside me and ask if I had any questions.  I’m sure he had a very busy schedule that day, but he acted as if he had all the time in the world to reassure an anxious spouse.  It was a small kindness, but at the time, it made all the difference.

It’s not always easy to be kind, especially when we are bombarded with things on the news, social media, etc. that make us frustrated, angry and afraid.  And it’s hard to be kind when we’re rushing through our days, trying to keep up with our hectic schedules.  But often in life, what is hard is also exactly what needs to be done.  We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, or even fix all the issues in our own lives, but what we can do is remember that kindness truly does help make things better.  And to do our best to practice it as often as we possibly can.

And when we are able to be kind, and when we are able to treat others with the same degree of compassion and tolerance that we want shown to us, then that is truly impressive.  Each and every time we do it.

It’s Simple

Back in the days when I regularly read newspapers, I always made a point of checking out the editorial pages.  I didn’t bother to read the op-ed pieces written by the editors, because  once I knew the editorial slant of the newspaper, I also knew exactly what its editors were going to write about any particular issue.  No, what I liked to read were the letters to the editor, because those were often written by ordinary people who felt strongly enough about a particular issue to write to the newspaper in the hopes of having their views shared with the community at large.  Some of the letters were insightful, some were angry, and few were funny (sometimes unintentionally).  But the ones that stood out the most were the ones that, in all sincerity, outlined a few simple steps that the writer was just sure would fix all of our society’s problems.

It never seemed to occur to the people who wrote those letters that if the solution to the complex and long-standing problems we face were really that simple, chances are that someone else would have thought of them by now.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why someone would want to believe that if we just took a few simple steps, we really could end all wars, stamp out poverty, erase income inequity, cure cancer, banish racism, etc., and in general instantly transform the world into the kind of happy, healthy and peaceful place we all want it to be.  I understand it, but I just don’t happen to share that belief.  We may not want to admit it, but most of the problems we are facing today have been around for a long time, and I just don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.

Of course there are many things we can and should do to address the many challenging issues we face, both in our nation and in the world at large.  Throwing our hands up in despair doesn’t help anything, and actually makes things much, much worse.  But I do believe that we need to be honest, both with ourselves and with each other, and acknowledge that complex problems usually require complex and sometimes difficult solutions.  And we humans are rarely inclined to show the kind of patience, hard-work, tolerance and maturity that are needed to do the job.

I think it is natural for us to seek simple solutions, especially in a world that often seems so confusing and sometimes downright dangerous.  Maybe the answer is to quit trying to impose our simple solutions on other people.  Maybe, rather than insisting on telling other people what they should be believing and what they should be doing, we need to focus on implementing our simple solutions in our own lives.  Wasn’t it Mahatma Gandhi who said, “be the change you wish to see in the world?”  And really, it doesn’t get much more simple than that.