Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Birthday Musings

This past Saturday, July 21, marked 9 years since my husband was told he had stage 4, inoperable cancer. He was only 47; he had exhibited absolutely no symptoms; there was no family history at all; he had just carried, along with my son, a couch up 12 flights of stairs, lifting it over the railing at the 90-degree angle in the stairs mid-way through each flight, for goodness' sake! He couldn't have cancer, and he certainly couldn't be dying!

Because of that horrible news, his birthday "celebration" 4 days later was awkward. His parents invited us over for
bar-b-q, cake, and home-made ice-cream; his brothers and
his sister-in-law joined us. What laughter there was, was forced. There was none of the typical "remember when Steve was 4 and we . . . ".

The proverbial elephant in the room was the ultimate party pooper.

That was the last birthday Steve celebrated.

Today would have been his 57th.

It's hard for me to wrap my head around that. When I picture my husband, I see the supposedly-healthy 47-year-old from prior to his 6-week cancer battle. When I'm feeling particularly strong, I try to picture what he would look like now. What our life would look like now.

But I can only let my mind touch on that for a millisecond. Like a tongue testing the wound left from a just-removed tooth, my mind jerks away almost as soon as I entertain any thoughts of what-was and what-could-have-been.

Oh, I think about the past (probably too often) and talk about it with others when it comes up in conversation, but those thoughts are always very general. When the conversations turn to specific incidents involving Steve, we keep the conversation light.

And when I'm alone every evening, my mind only allows itself to admit that I am, in general, alone and lonely. My subconscious stops me from thinking about the specifics of why. Of who and what I'm missing.

Every year, though, my body somehow remembers. Around July 4th, I notice I'm getting a bit more emotional, a bit more restless. The first year it happened -- the 2nd year after Steve passed away -- I was a bit confused as to what was going on. I mentioned it to a friend, and she said her mother did the same thing each year as certain anniversaries -- of her father's birthday and, later in the year, of his death -- neared. I did a little research and found that medical experts agree that our bodies often recognize the "anniversary" of painful events even if our mind doesn't allow us to openly or directly recognize it. As a result, we react emotionally without recognizing the cause right away.

As July moves on and the temperatures rise outside, the sadness inside me grows as well. I become even more restless. I long for activities and the company of people, particularly my children. During the day, I take walks to get out of the empty house; at night I drive around town or go watch a baseball game in one of the city parks. When I finally go home, I turn on the television and pick up a book. The background noise allows me to pretend I'm in a busy household filled with loved ones; the book allows me to escape that flimsy illusion.

Every year -- and this one is no exception -- I plan to post a really great tribute to Steve on his birthday. Each year I fail. He deserves it, and I feel horrible that I can't yet write it.

I comfort myself with the knowledge that, given the modest, "don't-shine-the-spotlight-on-me" type of man he was, he'd be touched but uncomfortable by such a tribute anyway.

Those who knew him know what a fantastic man, father, husband, son, brother, and friend he was. They don't need to be reminded.

Those who didn't know him . . . well, you can see the man he was in his children, our son and daughter.

Someday I will write that really great tribute to him. Someday my mind will let me move beyond the general and really focus on the specifics.

Today, though, will be a day of long walks and a short drive or two, reading a book, and sorting the spare bedroom in preparation for my move next month. There will be a longer drive to the cemetery and a call to my father-in-law to check on him, and we'll talk a little bit about his son, my husband, the father of our children.

The marking of Steve's birth will not be a cake and ice-cream and presents celebration.

It will be the quiet remembrance of the life of a wonderful man who was with us for far too short a time.














Thursday, June 21, 2018

Thank You for Asking, Facebook!

"What's on your mind?"

When I first joined the biggest time-sucker of all time Facebook and saw that question, I wasn't quite sure how to respond.

I'm a very literal person, and I am (contrary to a few, albeit infamous spectacular incidents) an instruction follower. If, for example, my boss sends me a memo that instructs me to fill out and return a form within 10 days, I have it filled out, an electronic copy saved, and the original sent to him within the hour.

So when I joined the land of imaginary friends Facebook and was asked what was on my mind, I sat and thought about it for a bit. What should I say? How much should I share? Was it a rhetorical question? Did anybody really want to know? Or was it just a clever ploy to gather information about me that could be used later for nefarious purposes? Nah, nobody is that diabolical, are they?

I don't remember my first Facebook post verbatim, but it took me longer to write than my Masters thesis project. I wrote, deleted, wrote, changed a word here and another there, and deleted it all. I strove for witty, intelligent, nonchalant, and in-the-know . . . and lots of other traits that most often elude me.

Silly me, I asked my husband to read my final draft. He told me it was "fine". Well, I knew full well what that meant. I started over. Finally, my first post was ready for publication; it went something like this:

     What's on my mind is that my kids are going to have a fit when they see I'm on Facebook. 

Yes, I have an undergraduate degree in English and a Masters in Composition, and that's what I came up with!

Nine years later, I rarely even notice the "What's on your mind?" in the little box where I type a post. Today, though, it once again caused me to pause.

What is on my mind?

Why, thank you for asking, Facebook!

I'd like to say that my brain is filled with lofty ideas, plans for philanthropy, and nuggets of wisdom to share with the masses 15 people who faithfully read "like" my posts without fail (thank you!).  In truth, my thoughts usually run more like this:

Am I out of popcorn? Drat, the shrub beds need to be weeded. I bet Vienna is beautiful this time of year. I need to do laundry today. Oh my, look at that beautiful bird at the feeder! I really need to get off this couch and walk -- 10,000 steps today, no matter what. Chocolate ice-cream sounds so good right now. Maybe I'll walk to the store and buy more underwear undergarments lingerie clothes so I don't have to do laundry. Lots of steps + no laundry = win, win. I'm so clever! Do the Cardinals play tonight? 

Of course, I could never post all that. I collect my thoughts and ask myself, what really is "on my mind". And truth be told, the answer is "not much".

After a lifetime of being sure everything depended on me and, as a result, stressing, plotting, planning, overthinking, reliving, predicting, and overanalyzing ad nauseum, I have very little on my mind.

Through trial and lots of error valuable life experience, I've finally learned what far-wiser people have always known. It's not all up to me. Almost nothing is up to me. In fact, all that's up to me is how I react to all the stuff that's happening around me.

So . . . what's on my mind?

I think I'll have a bowl of chocolate ice cream. 

************

I appreciate Facebook and how it connects me to so many people I would otherwise not be able to communicate with or get to know. Sometimes, though, it is simply too much. Too much strife, too much fake news, too much of too much.  What do you think? And how do you utilize social media without becoming overwhelmed by it all?


(meme courtesy of Pinterest)


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Decisions, Decisions

I think I hold the record for the longest time taken to choose a new couch.

If you don't believe me, take my picture to any furniture store in the southeast quarter of the great state of Missouri. Sales associates in every one will no doubt remember me.

On the other hand, I almost purchased a new car without even test-driving it, and I would have if it hadn't been for a salesman who was horrified by the notion!

In the past eight-plus years, I've made snap decisions, appropriately-considered decisions, and ridiculously-overthought decisions. I've made some great decisions, some that have proven to be just fine, and more than a few that I shudder now to think of.

Making decisions is a routine part of life; experts say we make hundreds of them daily without a conscious thought. But making decisions when the fabric of your life has unraveled becomes for many people a seemingly insurmountable task.

Used to discussing options with a spouse or parent, for example, or against the backdrop of a job or based on long-established physical capabilities, making even the smallest decisions after a significant loss can be difficult, even daunting.

Trust me, I know.

I'm the lady who bought a coat, returned it, went back and bought it again, tried to talk a friend into returning it for me, did talk my daughter into returning it, and bought it again. In one week. Yes, it was the same coat.

Through many "opportunities" and lots of trial and error, I've learned that there are eight things that should be done when making a decision.

1. Prayerfully consider the decision facing you and all the options. You're not a religious person? You don't  believe in God? I respect your personal beliefs. But whatever your faith system, employ its practices when making a decision.

2. Know your priorities and make decisions based on those priorities. For example, my #2 priority is my family, more specifically my adult son and daughter and my relationship with them. As a result, as much as I have always wanted to live near the ocean, I've chosen not to relocate and to instead stay here, smack-dab in the middle of this great country, within a four-hour drive of both of them.

3. Ignore the so-called experts. Or at least take their advice with a grain of salt. You may have been told by well-meaning friends or read in highly-recommended texts that you should refrain from making major decisions for at least six months, preferably one year, after a significant loss.  You may not have that option. Even if you do, it may very well not be a wise one. If you are now rattling around in a house far bigger than you need and can afford or physically manage, it may be wise to sell now rather than later, for example.

4. Avail yourself of reputable experts who have nothing to gain from your decision.  No, #4 does not contradict #3. Consult with professionals -- financial advisors, tax professionals, counselors, etc. -- who you respect, who share (or at least understand) your values, and with whom you feel comfortable. Share your circumstances with them and ask for their recommendation(s) regarding the decision you are facing. Then consider, but do not allow yourself to be ruled by, their professional recommendation.

5. Surround yourself with trusted and supportive family and friends who respect you and your values & priorities. People who love you and aren't afraid to speak truth when you need to hear it. Talk over decisions and options with them to the extent that you are comfortable. You don't need to tell them all of your business; share with them as much as you are comfortable. Just as with the experts, consider their input as part of the decision-making process.

6. Use a process that works for you. You might be a pro/con list-maker. Perhaps you, like me, prefer to talk and journal about the decision.

One dear friend blocks out time, turns off her electronic devices, lays down on her bed, and mentally walks through each option, considering her own thoughts and the recommendations of trusted professionals and friends. She imagines the possible outcomes, picturing each one in as vivid detail as possible, considering worst- and best-case scenarios and everything in between. She shared with me that she finds herself almost physically drawing away from some options and eventually drawn to one more than the others.

Another friend walks. As he laces up his sneakers, he very deliberately focuses on something other than the decision facing him. He puts in his earbuds but doesn't turn on any music; rather, he uses them to deter other people talking to him. As he walks he focuses on nothing but what is around him and what he is experiencing and feeling in that moment. He told me that walking helps me clear his mind of clutter, allowing the best answer to become apparent.

7. Once the decision is made, you may want to take baby steps and consider the outcome of each step before proceeding. Don't be afraid to change course slightly or completely as an outcome unfolds (go ahead, return the coat!). On the other hand, you may be a jump-in-the-pool-cannonball-style type of person who prefers to make a decision and then live with it. Whatever your style, do something.

You'll make mistakes. Oh, I can almost guarantee you that you will make lots of them. That brings me to my last lesson learned.

8. Learn from your mistakes without beating yourself up over them or becoming consumed by regret. Mistakes were part of your old life; they will be part of your redesigned life. Face it -- mistakes are inevitable. Make them, deal with them, and get past them as best you can.


Lest you walk away from this post thinking I have the decision-making process down pat and that I never feel like I'm facing Mount Everest when a decision needs to be made, let me assure you that isn't the case. I'm a work in progress. Sometimes I follow these eight steps smoothly and without a misstep. Other times . . . well, let's just say I lose my way a bit before finding my footing.

Oh, about the couch. I eventually found one that I loved (and recently passed on to my daughter when it didn't fit well in my current home). I ended up not buying the car; I wonder if that salesman ever regretted talking me into that test-drive. As for the coat, I kept it and disliked it more every time I wore it. After a few weeks I had it cleaned and then donated it to a gently-used coat drive at work.

What strategies do you find helpful in making decisions? I'd love to hear about them or about your own decision-making experience(s). Join in the community by sharing a comment!

















Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Sharing the Hair-Brush Microphone

I've always loved road trips. As a child, I looked forward to our family's annual vacation as much for the long car ride that would take us to our destination as I did the destination itself.

In the weeks and months leading up to the trip, I would envision the journey. It went something like this (cue Beach Boys medley):

Dad and mom in the front seat, heads nodding along to the music. Mom frequently looking back at my sister and I, a gentle smile on her face; my eyes meeting Dad's gentle, smiling eyes in the rearview mirror; Dad and Mom looking at each other lovingly. In the back seat, my sister and I alternating between playing some sort of road game -- license-plate search or road-trip BINGO, perhaps -- and sharing our hairbrush-microphone to sing harmony on "Beach Baby". 

The much-anticipated day would arrive, and off our family would go. It went something like this:

My sister and I stumbling, half-asleep and clutching our pillows, to the car at least an hour later than my dad wanted to leave, my mother grumbling under her breath about Dad's desire to hit the road early and "beat the traffic". Mom requiring 3 trips back into the house to check everything -- lights off, stove and oven off, and so on. Before we even backed out of the driveway, my sister drawing an imaginary line that was not an even division of the back seat (she is four years older than I, so I'm sure you can imagine who got the shorter space) and reminding me that if I crossed it, I would pay. Me crossing the line and getting pinched. More than a few times. Mom puffing away on her cigarette while trying to find a good radio station (cue lots of static) and periodically looking back over the front seat to glare at my sister and I or to try to cajole us into taking a nap. Me trying to get my sister to play some sort of game; she, being too "cool" for me, rebuffing my efforts and burying her nose in a book. 

It wasn't all bad, of course. My sister and I did occasionally share a hair-brush mic, and we played some energetic and laughter-filled games of road-trip BINGO. But the long and short if it is that those vacation car rides only sporadically resembled the idyllic, made-for-Hallmark movie scenes I anticipated.

Sometimes it was my fault the ride didn't go as envisioned. My sister lives about 3 hours away and stopped pinching me over 40 years ago, so I'll admit that sometimes I crossed her imaginary line on purpose. Just to get her attention. I grumbled and complained. To get my mom's attention. And when I got it, and she told me to stop grumbling and complaining, I sighed as only a preteen girl can sigh.

Other times it wasn't my fault. The flat tire just as we pulled onto a long, congested bridge somewhere on the other side of Branson, arriving on the outskirts of Atlanta at the start of rush hour, the air conditioner deciding in the middle of Nevada in the middle of July that it was tired of working and was going to take a break. A long break.

I bet my next month's paycheck that you already know where I'm going with this.

Last week held my birthday, and for the first time in my life, I struggled with it. I turned a number that ends in "0". Other than a few texts, 2 phone calls, and lots of Facebook birthday greetings (and I truly appreciate those texts, calls, and posts!), there was no cake or dinner or anything else to take my mind off that dratted number that ends in "0". Added to the mix is that my birthday fell on the last day of the school year, which was also the last day of my full-time teaching career (long story best saved for another time).

In short, it was an emotional day. I didn't celebrate it; I survived it.

As I sat at home that evening, I had plenty of time to reflect on the journey to come (now you really know where I'm going, right?).

I can clearly see that my journey is not going to be what I envisioned 10 years ago, when I first began to imagine my retirement years.

In some ways, it's my fault. Hasty, fear-driven decisions that can't be undone. Words spoken that can't be retracted.

Other things, though, have been out of my control. Medical diagnoses, the agendas of people leading my place of employment, decisions made by others in my life.

And when the rubber meets the road, the why's really don't matter.

What does matter is my response.

I can act out, grumble and complain, and sigh dramatically.

Or I can look out the window, enjoy the scenery, and simply be thankful for the journey.

I'm working on it. I really am. I'm trying not to grumble or sigh. I'm trying to simply enjoy the ride, hair-brush microphone in hand.

What about you? Is your current journey what you imagined it would be?

I hope you'll join me as I live this redesigned life. More importantly, I hope you'll join in the discussion by sharing your own thoughts via a comment. Let's travel this road together. Sharing the hair-brush microphone, no dividing line on the seat. 

(Photos courtesy of Pinterest)


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Tale of Two Guys

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .   Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

My local big box pet supply store cannot by any stretch of the imagination be compared to France. But the French Revolution, or at least the famous opening lines to Dickens' tale about it, came to mind after my weekend trip there (to the pet supply store, not {sigh} to France) to pick up dog food. 

I blithely strolled by the shopping carts queued up in the store's foyer; after all, I was only planning to buy a 30 lb bag, and I can lift and carry one of those fairly easily. 

Long story short, when I got to the far back of the store, where the dog food is located, I found that Dazey's food is now available in a 50 lb bag. Even better, the price is much lower per pound in the larger bag. Just as I started to pick one up, a man who looked to be in his late 20's with two boys about 6 and 8 walked up.

When the man saw what I was about to do, he quickly offered to go get a cart for me; I assured him I could carry the bag. We chatted briefly about our dogs, and I noticed his sons waited patiently until I spoke to them. I asked about their dog, and they eagerly and politely responded. 

I was hoping the man would grab the food he wanted and leave. I didn't want him to see me if I struggled with the bag, but I also didn't want to put him to any trouble. 

He made no move to pick up a bag of food for his own dog. Instead, he hoisted the bag I had been about to pick up from the bottom shelf, turned to his boys, and said, "Come on, guys, we're going to carry this up to the checkout for this nice lady." We walked to the checkout together, he told his sons to get a cart, and he put the bag in the cart for me. I thanked the three of them; he said it was no trouble at all, and he and his boys headed back to the dog food.

I paid for the food and rolled the cart out to my car.

That's when I realized that getting the bag out of the cart was going to be more difficult than just lifting it off the bottom shelf. Because I had to bend over into the cart to get the bag, I couldn't bend with my knees to lift it.

I opened my car door and studied the situation. I tried to lift the bag and had very little luck.

That's when I noticed a man who looked to be 30 or so sitting in the driver's seat of a car about 15' away. He was watching me with amused interest. I turned back to my task.

I considered tipping the cart so that the front rested on the ground, allowing me to pull the 50-pound bag straight out and up. I gave that a try, but when I tipped the cart, it began to roll away from me.

I heard the man laughing.

I ignored him.

I pulled the cart upright again. I considered going back in the store to see if an employee could help me. Just then, I saw out of the corner of my eye that the amused guy was getting out of his car.

"Finally," I thought, "this guy is going to help me."

He didn't. He walked right by, looking straight at me and chuckling. 

That gave me just enough impetus to haul the bag out of the cart and onto the back seat of my car.  

I closed my car and locked it before returning the cart to the store. As I was turning back toward the parking lot, a coworker came out of the shoe store next door. We stood for a few minutes talking, and as we did, the man who had watched me struggle with the bag, who had found my predicament amusing, walked out carrying a very large (at least 30 lb) bag of dog food.

Obviously, he hadn't failed to help me because of he was unable to do so.

My coworker and I finished our conversation, we went to our cars, and I drove home.

As I did, I couldn't help but laugh. Not just about what had happened, but about how I would definitely try to incorporate the story into my novel.

Have you ever had a real-life experience you'd love to see included in a novel? Feel free to share it via a comment!





Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Plantsing Along

Novel-writers tend to fall into one of two camps.

Some writers have a germ of an idea and simply sit down and start writing. They allow the characters to reveal themselves and the story to unfold. Because they write by the seat of their pants, so to speak, they are referred to as “pantsters”.

“Plotters”, on the other hand, take the germ of an idea and then proceed more methodically, crafting various items such as character biographies so detailed that even the protagonist’s childhood stuffed animal and its name might be listed. Ultimately, they craft an outline that is the framework of their novel; these outlines range from skeletal to extremely detailed.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to get serious about writing my novel, I was stymied.

Am I a plotter or a pantser?

I didn’t feel comfortable just jumping in to my story; I felt I needed some sort of framework. However, I didn’t want to get so bogged down in the planning that I never got to any writing. And yes, I know myself well enough to realize that the avid planner in me is in danger of doing just that.

And so, for the past few weeks, between the work day, work tasks I have to bring home, household responsibilities, and Olympic-watching, I’ve been plantsing.

I began by creating very basic bullet-point biographies of my main characters and a couple of minor ones. Oh, what fun it was to pick out names and even a few life details for these people I’m going to be spending so much time with.

Then I moved on to an outline that is so skeletal as to be almost nonexistent. I incorporated the traditional story arc, but even it is quite bare-bones.

And everything — well, everything except my basic premise and main character — is up for discussion as I move along.

Perhaps there won’t be a visit to see the world’s largest ball of string, and maybe my female protagonist won’t meet George Strait in a men’s room in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Hmmm . . .

It’s time for you to join in the discussion. What kind of protagonist would you like to see in a novel? What would you like to see him or her do? 





Tuesday, February 13, 2018

One for the Books

Despite the fact that I'm not and never have been Catholic, I've been giving up something for Lent for most of my life.

When I was in grade school, I gave up things like candy, bothering my older sister, and biting my nails. One year during high school I gave up television, and at least one year in college I gave up alcoholic beverages. As an adult, I've given up things like meat, Facebook, and sugar.

This year, as I contemplated what I might give up for Lent, one thing came to my mind right away.

It's something I've never even considered sacrificing, and when it did pop into my head last week, I at first immediately dismissed it as impossible, even ludicrous.

Because to give up books (except for spiritual or work-related purposes) is as unthinkable to me as being asked to give up the use of my right arm!

I've loved books since learning to read at age 4.

For a variety of reasons, they have been, outside of time spent with my children and late-husband, my #1 source of entertainment.

More importantly, books have been my primary way of relaxing, my primary escape from the world.

And in the last 7 or so years, I've turned to them more and more, to the point that I've let other, very important, even crucial things fall by the wayside.

I just realized, as I was typing that last sentence, that this will be my 60th Lent.

I think that calls for a true sacrifice as I replicate in my own small way Christ' 40 days of fasting in the desert and as I prepare for the greatest of all sacrifices that we recognize on Good Friday.

No doubt this will be my most challenging Lent ever.

Hopefully, it will be the most life-changing.

What about you? Are you giving up something for Lent? Please join in the conversation by sharing your thoughts via a comment.