Sunday, November 30, 2014

Her Beautiful Aging

An early Christmas card arrived in the mail from my dear friend, Karin. She and I worked together at a small hotel years ago, where she was the landscaper and I, the front desk clerk. We became fast friends. Two people, opposite in their backgrounds and personalities, found friendship hidden somewhere in our differences. She is blunt with me when needed, and I listen to her advice as if it were delivered by a wise aunt. She is just that -- wise. Now 25 years after our first meeting in the lobby of a small town motel, with me in my navy uniform and she with dirt on her hands, we carry on our friendship mostly through letters, accented by the occasional cup of coffee when we travel through each other's respective towns. 

She has no internet access, a choice she has made to maintain the peaceful life she desires. So, we communicate through letters -- old-fashioned, handwritten letters. Nothing brings a smile to my face faster than the sight of her handwriting peeking through a stack of bills pulled from my mailbox. 

Today, her Christmas card arrived. Hers is always one of the first, if not the first, to arrive, as she is always ahead of the game when it comes to holidays. Her choice of card this year (her choices always unique) was that of a large polar bear sleeping next to a Scandinavian child in full native dress. It is perfectly Karin. Inside the card waited a poetic observation of the aging process by my wise friend. She offers this description:

Not too hot a summer
with occasional rain,
But this aging thing
is affecting my brain.
Dried porridge shows up
on my pajama top
A touch of Alzheimer's --
surely not.
Who is that old woman
in the mirror I see
And where in the world
did I put that key?
Oh - the joy of nipples
now down to my knee.
Everywhere you go,
must stop and pee.
The memory -- it comes
and it goes.
Nice high heels
now hurt my toes.
Offers to help with funeral expenses,
companies send in the mail.
Must try to outwith them,
maybe eat more kale.
But now, am still breathing,
laughing and glad.
So will just carry on,
no need to be sad.

-- Karin Bluemlein, 2014

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Darting, Directionless Walk Through My Week

Several people have asked where I find the topics for my weekly posts. The answer is simple really, in that I do not generally find them, they find me. If an occurrence during the week has a particular element that gnaws at me for a few days, then it likely will be my topic of discussion here. I keep a list, you know, should any one week become overwhelmed with so many thoughts that I simply cannot address them all in one post. That is when the trusty notebook becomes a handy place to house those random thoughts to be used in the future. That notebook also comes in handy when a particularly dry week passes without one useful thought. 

Then there are weeks like this one.

This week was laden with dozens of random thoughts, though not one long enough for an essay. Normally, I start reflecting on Thursday, trying to hammer out what point I will try to make in my weekend post. This week, the only subject (and I use that loosely) is pure randomness. 

In the last couple weeks, American scientists and engineers saw the culmination of a 10-year effort to land a space probe on a comet. The probe, called Rosetta, was hurled through space on a calculated mission to land itself on a small moving target for the purpose of sending information back to its scientist-parents back home. The mission not only will result in never-before-known information but also gives us that collective adventurous sense again of exploring the unknown. At one time in our history, we gathered around our televisions to see a moon landing, watch a man walk on the moon's surface, or see the Space Shuttle return to Earth from a mission into space. We gathered to watch, and in our hearts, we smiled, expanded our chests, and stood a bit taller as we appreciated the hard work and intelligence to accomplish such a remarkable feat. We explored things, we discovered things, we learned things that would change the human existence forever. 

Yet, with Rosetta, we heard only a snippet on the evening news, a few moments of "by the way, this happened," delivered as though one were reading a shopping list or remarking on a funny internet video. The bigger story, the one that had more people talking, was the Twitter antics of a famous-for-being-famous attention seeker who rubbed oil on her south end and shared the picture with the world. [You will find no link to the ridiculousness here.] Her mission? To "break" the internet. 

I weep for our society.

Two weeks ago while in conversation with a colleague, we discussed an issue and how to ensure it did not occur in the future. In two sentences, I explained how at the age and expanse of our current business life, it was likely time to dedicate a person or persons to overseeing the task, which had really grown from a task to a project. As the words left my mouth, a thought in the back of my mind said, "I'd really like to be a part of that." It was a casual conversation, of which this was a minor topic, and we moved to other subjects.

Two days later an announcement was made which laid the groundwork for focusing on this project, and -- boom -- I was asked to be part of it. Who says you cannot send your wishes to the universe and the universe will not respond? Not this girl. 

Hello Universe, I have a few other things I'd like to discuss.

Currently, I am reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir of her trek along the 1,000-mile Pacific Coast Trail. I read this not only because it 1.) is a memoir of finding ones path; and 2.) is a road-trip story (which I love), but I also read it in preparation for the upcoming movie by the same title, starring Reese Witherspoon. I love a good soul-searching story, especially coupled with a road trip story, and one look at my book shelf would clearly illustrate that. 

At the same time, I am closely following the story of Greg Hindy, who has been walking across the United States for over a year. I have written of Greg's journey before (in May 2014) because I am quite taken with anyone who pushes themselves beyond the edge of comfort in order to grow, experience, and pursue that which is beyond current understanding. Greg began his cross-country journey in the summer of 2013, walking from New Hampshire to California over the course of a year. If that were not challenge enough, he did this portion of his trip in silence. Silence. Not one word spoken for a year. Upon arrival in California, he resumed speaking and began the walk back east. He is currently about two-thirds of the way across the country and should be home by Christmas.

I am simultaneously reading Cheryl Strayed's 1995 trek and following Greg Hindy's 2013-2014 trek, both making me feel guilty for any complaints I have when I don't find a parking place close enough to the store.

Where are my hiking boots?

Winter arrives when the sweaters appear.
Last weekend, it snowed here. November 16, snow. That is quite early in the season for my area of the south central U.S.A. which normally sees its first measurable snowfall in January (though, flurries are often seen in December). This is the earliest snowfall I have seen in this area in my life. [I have witnessed snow as early as October 26, but that was when I visited 1,000 miles north, where such things are normal.] A short ruler could have been used to measure last week's snowfall here, which was more than a dusting but less than a half-inch. It formed a hardened shell across the grass quickly, so perhaps it could be called a crusting. Far be it from me to complain about our crusting when many in the northern reaches of my country are buried under six feet of snow. Six. Feet. Of. Snow. That is higher than most people's heads. 

I'll take my crusting.

This week in the U.S. brings Thanksgiving, a time where we are to reflect for what or whom we are thankful. My list is long, and I will spare you, I encourage readers to list in the comments their thoughts of thankfulness. Anything goes, from heartfelt to comical, just let those thankful thoughts flow.

I'll start: 1. I'm thankful you have read this far. 2. I am also thankful that the catch phrase "far out" from the 1970s never made a comeback.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

I Really Should Pay Better Attention

Right now, I am happily immersed in an e-course called Brave Journaling, offered by Jennifer Belthoff. When the course was announced, I jumped at it quickly because I gained so very much from a course she offered last year. A daily discussion and writing prompt arrives by email each morning, and the well-thought lesson makes me think of topics I rarely encounter, and frankly, a few I avoid. It is refreshing.

In the midst of this year's course, I returned to the pages I wrote in last year's offering, and stumbled upon a quirky memory I had already forgotten which reminded me to pay better attention to all parts of my life, even the ones that seem to be working well. In fact, especially to the parts that seem to be working well. Those will be the ones to sneak up and bite.

Many years ago I stretched myself to sheer exhaustion when I decided to go back to college. The first two years, I attended the local college to complete the foundation courses, knowing all the while I would have to transfer to the University to complete the last two years of my chosen degree. The University was 75 miles away and after a few other life changes occurred, the plan I settled into was to stay in my full-time job, take a full-load of courses, and commute between the two. I managed to schedule my courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays, thus limiting commuting days, while I worked Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and part of Saturday. Looking back, I don't know where I found the energy.

Of course, like I always say, when you decide you cannot go another day without something, you will find a way to make it happen.

The Tuesday-Thursday college scheduled worked up until my last semester. At that point, I needed to take whatever remaining courses I needed to complete the degree, and I was at the mercy of the college's schedule for those classes. That last semester had me commuting five days a week. I would work Monday morning, drive over an hour to the University, then attend classes Monday afternoon before driving back home. Tuesday morning saw me drive in the wee hours of the morning to the University, attend classes, drive over an hour back to work where I would spend the afternoon. That repeated for the next days, punctuated by work on Saturday morning before collapsing Saturday afternoon. Sunday always held studying and laundry. I was exhausted, but the light I could clearly see at the end of the tunnel kept me going.

Somewhere in the midst of this, I began a relationship. Yeah, like I had time for that. Hank* was supportive of my schedule and offered a mental break from the hectic schedule that dominated my life the previous few years.

I was the first woman Hank dated after his divorce, something I would not recommend (but that would fill an entire essay on its own), and we shared a few laughs. As my graduation approached, I planned a 10-day vacation to the beach in Florida as a reward for the achievement, and I invited Hank along, of course.

As the relaxation of the trip set in with classes, tests, and commutes in my rear view mirror, I had a chance for the first time to really see my relationship with Hank. I quickly realized that Hank is the relationship you get when you are too busy to pay attention to what is happening. He wasn't what I needed. Not even close.

The moment came when I rounded the corner to the kitchen in our vacation condominium to find him crying. Now, I do not have a problem with men crying. Grandma dies, dog is terminally ill, just witnessed the birth of a child -- knock yourself out with the tears. I do have a problem with men crying over iced tea. I don't mean crying into their tea, as one would cry into their beer at the local watering hole, but full-on sobbing over the fact that when he tried to make a pitcher of iced tea (and I quote), "It [sob] just [sob] didn't [sniff] turn out [whimper] like yours." Sob, sob, sob . . .

Now, being an emotional being, I realize that quite often tears are triggered by something on the surface when the real reason is something deeper. I asked these questions of Hank. There was nothing deeper. Nothing deeper than the iced tea to warrant this display of watery emotion.

It was in this moment when I realized he was not for me. A week later, it was over. It was easy for me to see that while I was burning the candle at both ends trying to work and go to college, I was too busy to see that this guy was not a good fit. A few days in Florida without distractions let me see the truth of the relationship. Let's face it, I wasn't a good fit for him either. After all, if I really wanted to share my life with him, I would have let him know the secret of adding a bit of baking soda to the  tea** which gave my tea that little somethin'-somethin' he was unable to duplicate.

I doubt the baking soda would have saved the relationship.

*Name changed, like you didn't already guess that if you have read some of my previous posts.
**Two Southern tips to good iced tea: real sugar (nothing artificial) and a teaspoon of baking soda, if making a gallon.

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Observations from the Imperfect

I bet even Shakespeare had some bad teenage poetry in his past. Eventually, he learned a few things. We all do. Eventually.
Creek through a pasture, added here just because I like it. It's
serene. (Photo by Georgia Gramlich, 2012)
  1. When someone says, "I'm not _______," believe them the first time. Examples of this are: I'm not the marrying kind. I'm not the kind of person who stays in relationships long. I'm not ready to set a date yet. 
  2. When someone has been on the receiving end of a comment fashioned as those in #1 but still tries to convince the speaker to change, they are either trying to control the person or the situation. Run. They either have control issues and/or are woefully blind to conversational queues, or both. If you have to force it, it's not supposed to happen.
  3. One sincere "thank you" comment is enough. Continuing with a continuing series of "thank you," "oh, thank you so much," and "I just can't thank you enough" for ten minutes is overkill and frankly, becomes rather awkward.
  4. If he doesn't call, it means he doesn't want to talk. Stop creating scenarios of "maybe he's busy," or "perhaps his phone battery died," or "he may have lost my number." This is the 21st century when we have 10,000 ways of communication in any given day. If he wants to talk, he'll find way to contact you. If the phone doesn't ring, it means he's not dialing. ("He" is used generally and not gender-specifically.)
  5. It is never too late to become who you want to be. Everyone of us has taken a wrong turn on the highway of life and felt that we missed a chance at something greater. Stop saying you missed it! If it is the right thing for you, you can get there again. You may have to take a long way around to get back on that road, but it can be done if you want it bad enough. 
  6. Most people have some degree of shyness, so remember you are not alone. A simple "Hi, how are you?" is often all it takes to step out of your shy corner (and help someone else step out of theirs).
  7. Listen to understand, not to reply. Our brains are glorious machines that can formulate answers quickly. This means, you can both listen fully to what is being said and still have the split seconds it takes to form your reply after the speaker has completed his/her thought. I thoroughly believe society is suffering from a lack of listening. 
  8. Learn to take a compliment graciously. Yes, sometimes it is a bit strange to have someone comment positively about you, but responding with "oh, that's not true" can turn the conversation into and back and forth of "oh-yes-you-are-oh-no-i'm-not" which gets old fast. A gentle smile and simple "thank you" will suffice and shows that you respect the person's right to their opinion. It also will keep the compliments coming in the future, which may include a time when you really need to hear one.
  9. Keep your troubles to your close circle. With the onset of social media, many have adopted the delusion that all the world is their close circle of friends, leading them to share much too much of their troubles with the general population. If you have trouble identifying who is in your close circle of friends, it's those folks you could call at 2 a.m. to get you when you have a flat tire or those folks who will check on you directly when you are sick. Sharing your troubles outside this circle just makes you look needy.
  10. Yes, there are exceptions to #9. If your troubles -- your story -- can either be highly entertaining or highly informative to the general public, then share your story. Just be sure your intention does not include a need for sympathy or reaction.
  11. When you want something strongly enough that you cannot go another day without it, you will make it happen. Stop beating yourself up for not pursuing ideas. It may just mean that the idea just did not have a strong enough pull for you to pursue it. 
  12. Learn (or re-learn) the art of the written letter. Email, texts, Facebook messages -- all have their place in modern communication. Yet, the good old fashioned handwritten letter arriving your mailbox still gives the heart a little skip along with an instant smile to the receiver. If writing a full letter is intimidating, postcards work great, too.
  13. Be honest with yourself about life choices and don't just do what society expects you to do. If you don't want to be married, don't get married. If you want to be an artist, then don't force yourself to go to law school. If you are not drawn to be a parent, then don't procreate. If you want to live in the woods in a small cabin, then don't buy the huge house in the suburbs. Believe me, you'll be happier.
  14. Perfection does not exist. Stop trying to achieve it because you never will. Nobody cares if you don't look 16 when you are 45. Be awesomely imperfect and imperfectly awesome.
  15. Learn to enjoy the little things. A warm cup of coffee, a sunrise, reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show," a nap under a quilt your Momma made, watching clouds, or listening to music -- Notice the little things that make you happy because on your bad days, you can turn to them to keep you afloat.
  16. You cannot spend your way to happiness. While shopping, travelling, and going to events have their place, immersing yourself in these activities because you are covering up (or more likely, ignoring) something troubling in your life is a sure way to not only make yourself unhappy but also to become laden with debt. Stop trying to fill that void in yourself with stuff. 
  17. Most of what you need to know about a person can be obtained by observing and listening. Notice that speaking is not listed. That's because when you are speaking, you are not learning.
  18. Make room for something creative in your life because it truly is important. Remember how lost you got in coloring as a child? Building forts? Making paper dolls? Who told us we had to stop that? Find a creative outlet that makes you happy. Maybe you like to bake, or you enjoy working in the yard. Perhaps you like to sing with the radio or write in a journal. Wood carving? Community theater? Do something just for you. We don't expect you to be the next Picasso or Beyonce (but you could be). Just do something that is for pure enjoyment and creativity.
  19. Take a nap. It's okay. Don't be ashamed to relax and rejuvenate on a Saturday afternoon with a good old nap. You don't have to be set on "go" all the time. No one is keeping score. Of course, if you find yourself needing naps all the time, you might consider seeing a doctor, but the occasional one is yours for the taking. Enjoy.
  20. Be mindful that not everyone is like you, not everyone will like you, and you don't have to like everyone. There is no need to rant about any of it. Just remember that if everyone on this planet were exactly the same, it would be a really dull place. We're talking so m-i-n-d-n-u-m-b-i-n-g-l-y boring that dry toast would look like birthday cake.
  21. If you choose to disassociate yourself with an entire segment of the population because they share one common characteristic, you are going to miss out on some great people. People are individuals not demographics.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Life Enchanted

Photo from State Rhode Island
Division of Parks and Recreation,
She captured a photo of the entrance to Lincoln Woods Park in Rhode Island, similar to the one seen here. A light morning mist enveloped the covered bridge, wrapping it in both a welcoming invitation and a cautious mystery. She described how she and her dogs were nearing one of their favorite places to explore, which was a daily ritual in their world. Daily morning walks were often punctuated by ethereal photographs posted for her friends, making one wonder where on earth this enchanted world existed, this world where she lived. Whether the day’s exploration was along a beach or a wooded path, her dogs walked and played on the trails that spilled out before them, while she followed along in rapt step. Each day was remembered with photographs that seemed to record a dreamlike state and not one of consciousness. It simply could not be real.

But it was. It is.

After my friend Elizabeth posted her misty photo of the covered bridge leading to Lincoln Woods Park, I teased her about living in some enchanted wonderland, only accessible by magical shoes or an ancient incantation. An outside observer might, at first glance, be hard pressed to believe that places like these existed, much less a person who seemed to find these places every day of her life. Every single day. The over-stressed, over-scheduled, rush-rush person in our society, of which there are oh-so many (myself included), would likely brush off the idea of such a world as this even existing, as they dash off to the next meeting or event or errand in their frayed-at-the-edge lives. Meanwhile, Elizabeth seems to float through her mornings with a sense of balance and comfort, as indicated by her morning photographs shared with friends.

What is her secret?

Though I have not spoken with her on this specific topic, over time I believe have discovered her secret. Likely, had she simply given me the answer, I would have poo-pooed the idea like so many others, saying something like, “Who has time for that?!?” But over a year of observing, the answer wrapped around me like a warm blanket, unassuming and comforting in its quiet presence.

Ready for it?

She does not wait for beauty to appear in her life. She sees beauty in everything.

Whether it is the way the autumn leaves land on the water or the song of a bird sitting in a tree, she finds something of beauty in each day. Even on the worst days, something of beauty can be noticed. I am reminded of the massive thunderstorms we get in my part of the country, and how the morning after a storm, the sky is as blue and as clear as one could imagine. Even as we clean up the downed limbs and other destruction from a night of wind and rain, the sky is at its most beautiful in those moments.

For many of us, our lives are a push and pull of schedules and responsibilities, a situation that can easily lead us down the rabbit hole of negativity. Yet, I challenge you to take one minute each day – or start with 30 seconds – and notice something beautiful in your life. Put down the phone, step back from the computer screen, and notice something positive.

I’ll start with something simple:  (1) I like the dove gray color of the walls in my study where I write this. The color is soothing. (2) My two dogs are asleep on their quilt on the couch and are curled up tight against each other. George is snoring slightly. (3) I get to write to you every week – and sometimes you read it – and sometimes you reply. (4) The weather is good today so I’ll be able to winterize the yard, spending the day in the sun and fresh air. (5) The woven illuminated heart hanging over my desk still amazes me – I made that!

See? One minute and I got five. They are simple, but they prove to me the existence of beauty in my life, which can serve to buoy up the bad days when needed.

Go find the beauty in your day.