Monday, December 30, 2013

Mom Was Right

"When you have children of your own, you'll understand." That was a common refrain from my mother when my sister or I would express disagreement or frustration with her actions. In fact, that phrase had come out of her mouth so often before I was half-way through high school that it lost any real meaning to me. Its frequency, along with my teen-age self-absorption, turned those 9 words into nothing more than a cliche.

Becoming a parent 27 1/2 years ago changed that, and I marvel at the number of times since my son (and a few years later, my daughter) was born that those words -- in my mother's voice, no less -- have flitted through my mind. In the past 8 1/2 years, that phrase has taken on a much deeper poignancy. Standing by our car in the parking lot of my son's Ole Miss dorm, minutes from leaving him to start a new life as a college freshman, my role in his life and my perspective as a mother forever changed.

It has been over 8 years since my son has lived "at home" full-time and over 4 years since he has come home for 3 months every summer and for Christmas breaks. After his last visit, this past May, he left to begin his first "real job". This year, for the very first time, he wasn't home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. But I'm lucky. Many parents didn't get to spend any time with their children at either holiday; my son came for a 2-day visit just after Christmas, so the 3 of us (my son, daughter, and I) celebrated Christmas together then.

He left early Sunday morning. My daughter left this morning; after work today, she will head "back home" to where we lived until my husband passed away to spend New Year's Eve with friends there. My house is empty and quiet.

As the silence of my home echoes around me, I remember back to when, in the first 8 years of our marriage when we lived in Texas and New Mexico, we came home for holidays or on vacation. I enjoyed our visits, but when I got back in the car with my husband and children, I looked forward. To being back in our home, back in our own routines, back to our life together. And to be honest, I don't remember looking back. Not really. I called my parents when we arrived home to let them know we'd made it safely, and then I turned back to our lives. Oh, I'm pretty sure I briefly considered how my parents felt -- I heard the catch in my mom's voice when we talked on the phone, and I knew they missed us. But I didn't really know. I couldn't.

But I do now.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Importance of Gut Responses

When I fell asleep Friday night, the streets outside my home had a very light dusting of snow after an afternoon and evening of rain. The forecast for my area had been for 4-5" of snow, and I was so relieved that it hadn't materialized. I had a mandatory meeting scheduled for Saturday afternoon, and I knew that snow would make my getting there extremely difficult. But the snowfall hadn't come, and I went to bed feeling optimistic about the next day's (yesterday's) plans.

I awoke Saturday (yesterday) morning to about 5" of snow on the ground, with heavy snow still falling. So much for the snow not materializing, right? I emailed the meeting coordinator and asked him to text me if the meeting was cancelled and then ventured out to shovel the already-accumulated snow off the front porch and walk. That done, I knitted and pondered the logistics of the 25-minute drive I would be making. Historically, the streets in my planned community are not plowed until day 2 (maybe even later) after a snowfall. Making things even more difficult is that our garages are behind our homes, and they open onto alleys that separate back-door neighbors and parallel the streets in front of the houses. The alleys have been plowed only once in the three years I've lived here and become very difficult to travel. On top of that, I drive a Prius. It sits low to the ground (difficult to get through deep snow) and is light and slides on everything.

The snow kept falling . . . and falling . . . and falling, eventually stopping at about an 8" accumulation. Fifty minutes before the scheduled meeting, I reluctantly pulled on my snow boots and headed out to the garage. The snow was by then about 7 or 8" deep. Long story short, I maneuvered out of my driveway, plowed through the snow in the alley, and turned onto my street. People had been out and about in my community, so I drove through the packed--down ruts they had created until I got to more major roads. They had obviously been plowed, but freshly-fallen snow had partially filled in where the plows had cleared, so the roads were still snowy, and I drove slowly and cautiously. The 25-minute drive took 40, and just before I arrived at the meeting site, I received a phone call telling me it had been postponed. Yes, postponed. Only 20 minutes or so before the meeting was to start, it was postponed.

I've heard more than a few times that a person's gut response to something unexpected provides enormous insight into their personality. With that in mind, take what you will from my gut reaction to the news -- provided just 20 minutes before a scheduled event that, in order to get to, I had, with a death-grip on the steering wheel, driven for 40 minutes over slippery streets among sliding drivers in a car that is notorious for sliding on almost anything.

"What?! I fixed my hair and put on make-up!"

Yes, that was my gut response, and it was a strong one. One version or another ran through my head throughout my entire 40-minute trip back home. Did I fret or fuss about the difficulty of plowing through the deep snow in the alley? Or about navigating the slippery roads for almost 90 minutes? No. Not at all. Those issues didn't even cross my mind, to tell you the truth.Dec2013snow


Sunday, December 8, 2013

It's the Most Emotional Time of the Year

It goes without saying that the 6 or so weeks from mid-November through the first week of January are rife with experiences that evoke strong emotion. Everywhere we go, we are greeted by bright holiday decorations, and television and radio stations bombard us with music and scenes that shout HAPPY, but the truth of the matter is that for many people, this is not, as the song actually goes, "the most wonderful time of the year".

For those who have lost a loved one or who have lost their job or are facing some other sort of tragic loss, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's Eve are stark reminders of what used to be and of what is no more. While the notion that the suicide rate increases dramatically around these holidays has been disproven over and again, there's no doubt that for many people, the holiday season is a difficult one.

For those of us who have suffered a significant loss, there are various methods for coping with this emotional time of the year. An acquaintance who lost her husband to cancer shared with me that for the first 2 years after his death she spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas in bed,  getting up only to use the restroom. Her children and grandchildren gathered in the family room without her; she wore earplugs and burrowed under the covers.

The first winter after my husband passed away, my children and I decided that we could not face the holidays in our own home. My daughter and I travelled to Kansas City to spend that first Thanksgiving with my son, and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant. Christmas found us on a 6-day Caribbean cruise. Our strategy was a common one; many people who have lost a loved one spend the holidays away from home, at least for a few years. In our case, after that first year we returned to spending Thanksgiving and Christmas at home; it has at times been uncomfortable, but we survived, and each year gets a little easier.

Many people scale back on decorating, baking, and other traditional activities or they replace them with new ones. My mother, like many empty-nesters, stopped putting up the "big" Christmas tree the year after my father died; instead, she bought a smaller artificial tree and significantly reduced her holiday decorating and baking as well. I find myself doing the same thing, but I'm not sure if it's because my husband is no longer here or because my children no longer live at home, or both. A dear friend told me that after her son died, she and her husband discontinued their tradition of an evening spent driving throughout their mid-sized town with mugs of hot chocolate, checking out the various outdoor decorations. Instead, they spend an afternoon decorating their son's gravesite and then spend a quiet evening at home.

A woman who contacted me after reading this blog shared with me that a few weeks after her family's home was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, one of her school-age children mentioned that while she missed some of the things that had been in their home, there were lots of things she didn't miss at all and didn't care about replacing. That comment led to several interesting conversations between this woman, her husband, and their three children; ultimately, they decided to put a stop to the massive spending and gift-giving they had always engaged in at Christmas. Instead, they opted to only give each other one gift apiece and to limit it to either something handmade (either by the giver or by a craftsperson/artist) or an "act" of some kind. For example, her youngest son gave his older brother the gift of taking out the trash (his older brother's least-favorite chore) for 6 months. She told me that in the 8 Christmases since their home was lost, her family has enthusiastically decided every year to continue this new tradition; the positive effects, she explained, have been too many to list.

These are, of course, just a few ways that people who are dealing with a significant loss have chosen to cope with the holiday season. What works for one person, for one family, may not appeal in any way to another. It is important, I believe, to determine what works for you. Of course, the more people who are involved in this decision -- spouse and/or children, for example -- the more difficult it may be to come to a consensus. Patience, active listening, and an open mind while discussing these issues will go a long way in helping a group arrive at a plan that is agreeable to each member.

I will share a bit more on this topic later this week, but until then, please feel free to share your own experiences of how you've dealt with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year's Eve. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Adventures in Tinking!

Along with about 20 other women, I'm participating in a 2-month long knit-a-long at Knit and Caboodle, my favorite fiber/yarn/knitting/crocheting/spinning shop; the project for November/December is a sweater. For the past three Thursday evenings, I've enjoyed seeing what everyone is making, the beautiful yarns they're working with, and the various techniques they are using. This past week, a lady at "my" table mentioned that she needed to do a bit of tinking.

I'm fairly new to knitting (only recently returned to it and moving beyond basic square and rectangular items) and the only things I know how to do are knit, purl, increase, and decrease, so I figured I needed to pay attention. I looked over to see what she was doing and saw that she was taking out some of what she had already knitted; I realized that "tink" is merely "knit" backwards!

The following evening, I dropped a stitch. Because I don't know how to fix a dropped stitch, I had to stop for the evening and planned to take my sweater to the shop to get some help. I realized this would be a good time to slip my stitches on to waste yarn (extra yarn not being used) so I could try it on. Ten minutes later, my slipped stitch was the least of my worries -- my sweater was too snug!

Saturday morning, I took my sweater into Knit and Caboodle and tried it on for Connie, the shop owner and one of the most patient, gentle people I have ever met. She agreed with me that it was a bit too snug (somehow, my gauge swatch assessment was incorrect), and we discussed various options. She pointed out that I had purchased good quality yarn and was creating a garment that would last for many, many years. I knew that even though it would be painful to unravel 3 weeks of work (about 1/4 of the body was complete), I wouldn't really be happy with the sweater unless it fit correctly.

I went home, fixed a cup of tea, and began tinking. Before I knew it, I could hear Kenny Rogers in my head:

       You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
       Know when to walk away and know when to run.
       You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.
       There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

I'm not sure about those last two lines, but I do know the old gambler was right when he said a person needs to know when to "fold 'em", when to simply scrap something and maybe, as in my case, start over from scratch.

I know there have been times I stayed with a project or situation too long. The friendship gone toxic, a work situation that became unbearable, a craft project that was beyond my skill level, just to name a few. Until a few months ago, I suffered until the very last page of more than a few books that either didn't turn out to be what I was expecting or that were poorly written.

But in the past year or so, my perspective has changed. Oh, I haven't been quitting things right and left. I am, however, abandoning books with one-dimensional cliched characters and horrible plots. I've also thrown away 2 half-finished projects -- things I started before I had to box up everything when we put everything in storage to build a new house and that don't fit with the colors in my new home or my current style. It felt wonderful to cross them off my "projects to complete" list; I didn't realize until I threw them away how guilty I had been feeling about those unfinished projects sitting in my craft room!

I've also walked away from a few relationships. I gave up on a friendship with a person who rarely returned calls, who was happy to get together if I was driving a couple of hours to see her but who cancelled any plans that involved her doing the same. I simply stopped calling and leaving messages; when she never contacted me, I accepted the fact that the friendship meant more to me than it did to her.

Instead of finishing a horribly-written book, I've spent more time on my own writing. Rather than finish projects because I feel guilty, I'm spending my time creating things that bring joy to people I care about and to me. Giving up activities that I was doing out of habit -- turning on the television as soon as I walk in the house every day, for example -- has freed up time for new, enriching activities such as a daily walk, journalling, Bible study, and blogging.

Tinking my sweater wasn't much fun, but I didn't feel all that bad as my sweater was replaced by 2 rewound skeins of yarn. I've knitted a new gauge swatch (I'm going to have Connie check my count), and I'm ready to start again. I'm also ready to do some more tinking. I'll keep you posted!


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Taking Stock Financially

Finances can be a difficult topic to address; not only are money-related matters very personal, they are also amazingly complex. And although money is, of course, quite neutral (after all, it's just metal and paper), a discussion of how much we have and what we spend it on can quickly become an emotional minefield. No wonder many of us were taught as children that it's not nice to "talk about money".

Before I go any further, I want to stress a couple of things:

1) I'm no financial expert and will never claim to be. I've made my share of mistakes -- some small, some not-so-small. Fortunately, I've learned quite a bit from those mistakes.

2) I certainly do not claim that the decisions I've made are the right ones for anyone other than myself.

Of course, there's a huge backstory to my current financial situation, but I don't want to get bogged down in that, and I believe what I'm going to share will make sense without it. If not, feel free to ask any questions via a comment or email, and I will respond as best I can.

I am ashamed to admit that for most of my adult life -- single and then married -- my idea of budgeting involved getting paid, paying the bills, and spending whatever was left. A single's lifestyle and then married with two kids in school and active in Scouting and sports or other activities, meant spending what was left wasn't a problem. To my credit (no pun intended), after I started my current job 3 years ago, I began contributing to a Roth retirement fund and put aside money every month in a savings account to cover non-monthly expenses such as personal property tax and gifts (Christmas, birthday, etc). Still, though, no budget.

While re-reading a favorite nonfiction book last week, something I had obviously skimmed right over on my previous reading caught my eye. The author challenged readers to pull out their checkbook and any credit card statements; tally how much money was spent on various "categories" such as housing, entertainment, charitable giving, etc; and then honestly assess whether or not their spending reflected the priorities they claim to have. 

Ouch. I didn't have to pull out the checkbook to know the answer, but I decided I was going to meet his challenge and see how far off I was and make some changes. I logged on to my  online bank account and got to work. Using the electric bill pay part of my account, I quickly determined my average monthly payment for every bill I have (house payment, utilities, etc) for the past 12 months; using my online bank statement, I tallied and categorized all remaining spending for the past 6 months (because I had to do this manually, I could only force myself through 6 months worth of statements).

Using an online budgeting tool (at, I input my monthly income and each of my own average monthly payment by categories (housing, transportation, food, charitable giving, etc), broken down even further by bill, if applicable. For example, under food, I had "grocery store" and "eating out". What made this such a valuable activity, to me at least, is that the online budgeting tool shows not only the dollar amount spent for each category but also translates that dollar amount into the percentage of total spending.

I quickly saw that my initial hunch was right -- I wasn't spending my money in a way that reflected the values and priorities I claim to hold. In some respects, I was on-target, but I was actually farthest from the mark in the very areas that are most important to me.

As time allowed for the next several evenings, I went back to the budget printout. I pencilled in changes, ran the numbers, erased and wrote in new numbers. Finally, I came up with a budget that reflected what's important to me. In a perfect world, I'd be done. I'd begin implementing my new (aka "first") budget beginning with my November paycheck.

Unfortunately, I can't. Because of my current housing situation, the percentage of my income that *must* be allocated for housing and related expenses is too high and, as a result, throws the lower-end items out of whack.

As a result, I went from having no budget to having 2 budgets. The first is that budget I just described, which I now call my "Target Budget". I also have a 2nd budget, which I call my "For Now Budget", which is as close as I can get to my target budget at the current time. I also have action steps that will take me to a point where I can implement my target budget. The largest action step involves selling my current home; I had already put it on the market, and this budget-making process confirmed to me that I had done the right thing in doing so.

I have to admit that I am absolutely amazed at how great I feel after performing an activity that I have avoided like the proverbial plague and that involves my least-favorite (to put it mildly) subject -- math. The financial experts are right -- a budget is a wonderful thing!! I'm actually looking forward to payday and to implementing my new spending plan. I'll keep you posted!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thankfulness -- Really?

I don't remember the first time I read or heard that the key to being happy is being thankful. I do know that by the time my husband was diagnosed with cancer, I knew that one form or another of this principle could be found in the teachings of almost every belief system and philosophy.

In the first few days after my husband was diagnosed, I didn't think about thankfulness. Needless to say, my thoughts and energies were spent on "being there" for my husband and children, dealing with paperwork and phone calls, and trying to make sense of the new world my family had entered. But as the days passed and fear and sorrow threatened to consume my heart and mind, I remembered that I was supposed to be thankful "in everything".

I tried. Sporadically. When my mind wasn't occupied with medicine schedules and doctors appointments and "what nows" and a thousand other details that only those who have dealt with a debilitating disease up close and personal would recognize. When I look back at my journals from those weeks, I see evidence that I tried to be thankful but that I was struggling -- the same two or three things are listed every time -- that we found Dr. T, that my husband was eligible for a promising clinical trial, that many, many friends were praying for him and being so supportive. That's it; the same three things repeated like a mantra. I just couldn't come up with anything else.

After Steve passed away, thankfulness was far from my thoughts for months. The mental fog parted only when I was interacting with my son or daughter, dealing with some important piece of paperwork I couldn't ignore, or performing duties associated with my job.

Finally, though, I knew I had to make more of an effort to (oh, how I hate this phrase) "move on". I couldn't spend the rest of my life going through the motions and escaping through hours of television or sleep. One Friday after work, I stopped by the local Barnes and Noble, bought a chai tea latte, and headed over to the journal and blank books section. I knew myself well enough to know that unless I was very intentional about being grateful, unless I committed myself in some very tangible way to the act of being thankful, I would never be successful in focusing on gratitude. I found a beautiful red leather lined  journal, gulped at the price, bought it, and immediately sat down at a table in the cafe area to write my first entry.

That red journal filled up quite quickly. Not with a list of things I was grateful for; some days I wasn't really thankful for anything, and I wasn't going to be a hypocrite about it. Instead, I simply journaled on the topic of gratitude and how hard it was sometimes to practice an attitude of thankfulness. In the back of the book, starting on the very last page and working backward, I began a list of things I was thankful for. Eventually, I committed to writing down one thing per day. I quickly learned I needed another guideline -- no repeats. Before that rule was implemented (day 17), I had written "my children" 10 times!

I got into the rhythm of my list-keeping, but it had become fairly routine and uninspired when, one day while wandering around Barnes and Noble, I saw on a small table display a book titled One Thousand Gifts: Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp. I did something I don't remember ever doing before -- I bought it without even reading the back cover!

That night I began reading, and I discovered that while Voskamp and I have very little in common (she is a home-schooling mother of several young children -- I am the mom of two adult children; she is married -- I am widowed; and so on), we do share the practice of keeping a list of things for which we are grateful. Reading One Thousand Gifts changed my perspective on my practice on gratitude, and I moved from simply listing an item to slowing down (either then or, if absolutely impossible, later in the day) to contemplate that item and express my gratitude in some way. Many days, I simply thank my Creator; other days, I do that and more. For example, if I wrote down that I was thankful for "Lori", the helpful young lady behind the counter at Starbucks, I sent an email to the corporate office sharing with them my experience and what a great job "Lori" had done.

So is it true? Is thankfulness really the key to happiness?

I'm not



Sunday, October 27, 2013

Time . . . Trying to Find Some?

"I don't have time." I wonder how many times I've said that -- to myself and to others -- to explain why my "projects" list remained unchanged for months (okay, years) or why my dreams remained dreams.

More than likely, you know what I mean. Surely I can't be the only person who has a list of major projects -- get the kids' scrapbooks caught up, organize the basement, download pictures from various memory cards onto the computer and organize them into folders, etc -- that has for far too long seen far too little action. Nothing checked off. Nada. Surely I'm not the only person who is planning to start on the #1 item as soon as I get through the Thanksiving and Christmas holidays . . . or over the summer when I'm out of school for a few months . . . or by diligently working on one project at a time for 2 hours every Saturday starting, well, next Saturday!

And surely I'm not the only person who has, along with a project to-d0 list, some general life changes in mind. Make a budget and stick to it, declutter/pare down/simplify, exercise on a daily basis, consume a more healthy diet, write that best-selling novel that's percolating in my brain. Come on, you know you're right there with me. Thinking about it, planning to do it . . . tomorrow or next week or after Christmas.

The problem is not having enough time, right? Maybe. When my children were tiny and my husband deployed (was out somewhere in the world doing his top-secret Air Force job) several times a month, most of "my" time was consumed with parenting and taking care of basic household tasks.  When both of my children were old enough to play sports and be in Scouts and church youth group but not old enough to drive themselves to practice and meetings and my husband was working shifts, I was truly busy as the sole driver/confidant/cook/tutor/home-keeper and teacher-with-papers-to-be-graded. When . . . well, it's clear that at various points in my life, I've been really, really busy.

But I always found time to chat on the phone or visit my favorite scrapbooking chat room or play a few (okay, maybe more than a few) games of online solitaire or watch a television show I now can't even remember the name of. Yes, I needed to relax. I needed "down time", and I found it. I put aside my project list and my dreams of being the next Margaret Mitchell and simply vegetated. What's done is done, and I'm not going to spend any time 2nd-guessing my choices. Instead, I want to focus on what I can do now. I want to focus on getting those projects completed and implementing those life changes I've been pondering.

I've got time now. In some ways, more than I've ever had. My small home can be cleaned in almost no time at all, fixing a bowl of soup and a sandwich takes far less time than creating a meal for four, and my teaching schedule and office hours allow me to get quite a bit of work done at the office. On the other hand, at this point in my life, I'm facing the hard truth that I also have less time. The proverbial bloom is off the rose; unless I live to reach 100 (or so), the term "middle-aged" doesn't technically apply to me any longer. I have a new appreciation and respect for time, and I'm determined to honor the time I have left by using it well.

In the past couple of years, I've spent considerable time pondering time (in print, that sounds ridiculous; in reality, it's quite logical, as anyone who has faced the loss of a loved one knows all too well), and I've come to a few conclusions:

1. I can't "find" or "make" time. Period. Instead, I can only choose what pursuits I "give" my time to. Thank you, Holley Gerth, author of Opening the Door to Your God-Sized Dream, for some great insights and gentle guidance.

2. I have more time to "give" than I ever imagined. Thanks to Robert Pagliarini, author of The Other 8 Hours, I have a new perspective of how much time I truly have and techniques for using it in a way that allows me to be productive without sacrificing relaxing and refueling.

3. I can often implement life changes -- even try them on for size -- right where I am, without a major investment of time and energy. I figured that one out on my own! :)

With that in mind, I've made some changes. For example, in an effort to "try on" living in a smaller home with fewer things, I've closed off the master bedroom and bath. I simply do not use those rooms at all -- not even to store seasonal clothing in the large walk-in closet. I use the smaller guest bedroom, and what didn't  fit nicely (without being scrunched together) in the closet was either sold or donated. I've also been selling and donating household items on a weekly basis. It amazes me, how much stuff a non-shopper like myself had accumulated and how not a single thing I've toted around for years and finally gotten rid of has been missed.

In January, I'll begin an exciting 4-month experiment that will allow me to try out another idea that has gained great appeal the past 3 years. Within a few months of moving to the city and dealing with a rush-hour commute two times a day (the community I live in does not connect via mass transit to the part of the city in which I teach, and 17 miles is too far to walk, of course), I began thinking of where I could live and work that would allow me to park my car for all but occasional outings. Because I will be teaching in England for the Spring 2014 semester, I won't be driving during those 4 months. Instead, I'll rely on my own 2 feet and public transportation of various kinds the entire time I'm there. What a perfect opportunity to test-drive (sorry, I couldn't resist) a minimal-driving lifestyle!

If you have a dream or a list of projects you'd like to accomplish -- or both -- I hope you'll join me in using some time every day, even if it's only 15 minutes, toward realizing that dream or completing one of the projects. Play some energizing music (I love the soundtrack to Mama Mia, for example), turn off your phone and computer, and set a timer for 15 minutes. Go for it! And, please, come back and share with me how you used "your" time and how it made you feel.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Mementos and Memories

Last week I met with a realtor and put my house on the market. To say the least, my timing could be better. First of all, winter will be here sooner than I like (if I had my way, it would never arrive), and popular opinion is that homes don't sell well at this time of the year. I already have quite a bit on my plate, and I haven't finished downsizing by any means, so that was an issue to consider. Finally, I was a bit hesitant to list it 2 1/2 months before I leave the country for 4 months.

I knew, though, that there's never going to be a perfect time, so I signed the contract to list my house. I also knew that by putting the house on the market, I'd be forced to finish some tasks I've been chipping away at for months and months. One of those tasks is sorting through 27 years of photos and memorabilia, organizing everything "once and for all" so I can get serious about completing my children's scrapbooks.

Yesterday morning, I collected from all over the house (the basement, my closet, the office, and even under my bed) all the bins and boxes containing photos and memorabilia from January 1986 (when I found out I was expecting our first child) to now. Feeling optimistic, I also pulled out 3 large bins that contained mementos and photos from the first two years of our marriage (before we had our son) and from my husband's and my lives before we met.

I assembled the 27 boxes -- sized 12" x 12" x 4" -- I purchased months ago, wrote a year on the outside in magic marker, and arranged them along the outer walls of my living/dining room area. And then I dug in.

For two days, I've been immersed in memories. Memories of babies and toddlers, first baths and first teeth and first steps, romps on the playground and on the living room floor, and beloved friends we left behind with each move.  Memories of beloved pets  that ranged from our much-loved West Highland White Terrier to two kittens a sweet older lady from church gave my preschoolers to two bunnies that we quickly decided were not a good fit for our family to a red milk snake that, surprisingly was. Memories of Sunday School Christmas programs and Vacation Bible School. And then came the school years. Classroom parties, Boy and Girl Scouts, and birthday parties galore. Followed by high school. No more birthday party pictures, but oh the band concert photos and pictures of sporting events and . . . the list goes on and on.

Finally, at about 5:45 this evening, I was done. 31 numbered boxes (a couple of particularly eventful years needed 2 boxes to contain all the photos and memorabilia -- who knew one week at Walt Disney World could produce so many pictures, brochures, tickets, character autographs, and other bits and pieces of paper!) are filled and stored in my closet. One large bin holding photos of my ancestors as well as photos and other items from my husband's and my childhoods and pre-marriage lives -- all sorted and grouped by year -- sits in the office.

I'm tired -- physically and emotionally. Strolling through so many years, briefly reliving the best experiences of my life and some not-so-great moments (children's injuries and surgeries, for example, and my father's battle with cancer) was just as hard as I thought it would be. But I'd put this off as long as I could; it was time to get it done.

It's not easy to go back and look at what "was", when what "was" ended far before I ever dreamed it would. But I did it, and it felt really good to check that item off my to-do list. I know I will be reliving everything yet again when I actually create the scrapbook pages. Next time through, I'll slow down, look at the pictures more carefully in order to choose just the right ones, and journal about the events that accompany the photos and the memorabilia.

I'm not looking forward to the monumental task of scrapbooking 27 years of life (24 for my daughter), but I'll get it done . . . one memory at a time.



Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Long & Winding Road

About 6 1/2 years ago, I made a wise decision. Had I kept acting wisely, the story would have ended very differently. In a nutshell, I made a wise decision, followed by a couple of stupid, really bad decisions based on fear. The end result was that I resigned from a job that many people (myself included) considered a plum position. The job loss affected me professionally; more importantly, it negatively impacted my family, as they were directly affected by the loss of my income and the public embarrassment my actions brought about.

I began searching for a new job, hampered by both a tough job market in my career field in general and by the lack of positions within my specific driving distance of about 100 miles each way (a very long drive but "desperate times . . .  desperate measures"). At the same time, I sought part-time employment with a former employer and was immediately hired. I was told I would be working a very limited number of hours, but each semester something unforeseen happened just before the semester began that caused a welcome increase in my course load. Each term, my income was at least equal to what it had been in my previous position; one term, I made twice as much. Not only was I earning enough to make up what I had been making, I was doing so while working about 1/2 the number of hours, and I had no out-of-class duties for which I received no pay.

Over the course of the next 3 years, I added another part-time position with my then-current employer; additionally, a coworker told me about another part-time position. I applied and was hired. Between these 3 positions, I was still working less and making significantly more than I had earned at the position I lost. And while I didn't realize it at the time, I was also receiving another very important benefit. Almost every semester, I taught at least one course at the developmental education level (a course for students whose test scores indicated they were not ready for college-level courses in my subject area).

And then, July and August and September 2009 brought horrendous tragedy in the form of my husband's diagnosis and passing. Of course, his death impacted my life and the lives of our children in many, many ways, some of which were financial.  He earned about 70% of our family income, and the children and I had excellent, very affordable health insurance through his employer. When he passed away, I had 12 months to find a full-time job with benefits for my children and for myself. Within a few months of my husband's passing, I heard of 2 openings in a city about 110 miles from where we lived. I applied for both, interviewed at both, and accepted the first one offered to me. I began my new job in August 1010, 12 days before our insurance coverage through my husband's employer was terminated.

At this point, you may be wondering what in the world I am rambling on and on about. Stay with me a bit longer -- I'll explain. But first, I need to go back to the first part of this story. It's important that I not gloss over the fact that I made some errors, did wrong, screwed up. That's important. But what is even more important is how my mistakes weren't the end of the story.

Had I not made a couple of significant, bad choices, I would have had no reason to return to a previous place of employment which led to:

1. experience in an area within my field that I had no previous experience in, which was 2. the main requirement for the full-time position I so badly needed and was hired for after my husband passed away, which 3. has wonderful benefits and 4. pays almost 3 times what I was getting paid (which was about 1/3 of our total family income) and 5. opened professional opportunities that I would not otherwise have had and which open other doors, and which eventually led to 6my being chosen to serve my employer in a 1-semester position abroad beginning in January.

I spent some time this past week reflecting on the past 6 1/2 years, re-reading journal entries and contemplating the various events, and it is amazingly clear that the horrible experience of  losing my job, stressing every semester about whether or not I would have enough hours to earn enough to do my part to make ends meet, etc. was actually a blessing in disguise. You may not be a Christian, and you may even be offended by what I'm going to say, but I know it to be true. God took the mess I created -- a mess I could not fix (believe me, I tried) -- and led me down a long, winding road to where I am today.

Hopefully, I'll continue on the road of my life for many, many years. I have no idea where it will lead me, but the past 6 1/2 years have taught me to travel that road unburdened by worry, and I'm making every effort to do just that. It's been an interesting trip so far -- many highs and some devastating lows, along with twists and turns that kept me from seeing where the road was headed -- and I'm looking forward to the next part of the journey.

I imagine that as you look back over your life, you can see times where mistakes you despaired of, that caused you great stress and heartache, actually led to wonderful things you would never have experienced had you not misstepped in the first place. I'd love to hear about your experience; if you feel comfortable sharing, I hope you will -- either through a comment or by emailing me. Have a wonderful weekend!




Sunday, September 29, 2013

Dealing with Stressors

For the past two weeks, I've been dealing with a couple of specific stressors; one is a recurring cause of stress (more on that later), and the other was (I hope) a one-time event.

The first event that caused me considerable stress was one I thought I was prepared for. A person (non-relative, non-friend) entered my life for just two weeks. To be fair to that person, I won't share details other than to say that their brief "stay" threw all of my personal routines off kilter and made my home less "mine".

The second stress-inducer was different in a couple of ways. First, it was work-related; second, it occurs at least once every semester. As part of the course I teach, students submit a finished piece of writing approximately 6 times throughout the semester. As part of preparing those 6 texts, they prewrite and submit outlines; I provide feedback on those outlines so students can then write a rough draft of their paper. Responding to the outlines is fairly simple; responding to their rough drafts (so they can make the necessary revisions i.e. create further drafts and, eventually, a final draft) and conferencing with students on those rough drafts can be immensely stressful.

Each semester, each class, each paper is different, but the first go-round or two is typically the most difficult for a myriad of reasons. I know that, I mentally prepare for that, and yet each semester I'm thrown for the proverbial loop when I arrive at this point in the semester.

This semester when it was time to respond and return their first rough drafts and conference with students, I did what I have done almost every semester since I began teaching at this level. I hunkered down.

That -- "hunker down" -- is my term for how I tend to handle stress. It's a half-way point between the two extremes of "fight" and "flight". I don't run away, although I often wish I could. In fact, last week during a conference with a student who stated quite casually that Los Angeles and Washington, DC are states, I briefly considered excusing myself, grabbing my purse, walking out of the office, and driving to North Carolina to sit on the beach. But I kept my face blank, explained gently that the two places are cities, and continued the conference.

I also don't fight, but I do irritate and sometimes even anger students when I persist in doing what is best for them -- help them find errors, ask them to consider what we've covered in class so they can understand  why they are errors, and draw out from them how they can/should correct those errors.

The hunkering down process is quite simple. I focus the bulk of my attention, time, and energies to doing whatever I need to do to survive the stressful task (in this case, working through the rough draft stage of the assignment). When I get home in the evening, I have no remaining mental or emotional energy for much of anything, so I perform mindless, soothing tasks such as knitting, re-reading a favorite book, or watching sports on television, and I consume easily-prepared foods I find comforting. I would share what they are, but the nutrition-police would surely arrest me.

Each semester, once that stressful week (whether the process has to be repeated a second, or even a third, time depends on the class) has passed, I get back into my routine. And each semester, I promise myself that I won't do that again, that I won't allow my job to derail me to that extent.

I realize that my method for dealing with a stressful period in my life may not be the healthiest, but it's what I've got, and it's worked fairly well up to now. But I've decided "fairly well" isn't good enough. This time through, I kept a log of what was happening, how it made me feel, how I responded, and the effect of my response. I think Dr. Sheldon Cooper ("The Big Bang Theory") has rubbed off on me! Once a few weeks have passed and I have some perspective, I plan to look over these notes and see if I can come up with some strategies for heading off the entire situation to begin with.

Hopefully, I will have a few new strategies to employ next semester. I'll give them a try and let you know how things worked out.

On a more light-hearted, fun note, I'm excited that "my" beloved St. Louis Cardinals clinched the National League Central Division title Friday night with a win over our arch-rival Chicago Cubs. It was a great game, and I was there!! If you're a baseball fan -- I hope you, too, are enjoying this part of the season and that "your" team is heading to the play-offs as well.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Cultivating Joy

Warning, personal disclosure ahead! Although I've always found great happiness in specific events -- almost any time spent with my family, watching a favorite television show, reading a good book, etc -- I have never been what you might call a "joyful" person. Throughout my life, I've known some people who exude joy, and I've been in awe of how, even in the most trying circumstances (ones that would make me extremely grouchy, at best), their joy didn't waver. Oh, it may be toned down a bit and appear more like a "calm peace", but the joy was still there.

I could go back and talk about my upbringing -- it wasn't horrible by any means, but ours was not what I would call a "joy-filled" household -- but that would be just an excuse. The time came when I was old enough to see that others were filled with joy and I wasn't, and from that point on, my perspective on life was my responsibility.

Looking back, I can recognize a couple of reasons I did nothing about my more serious outlook. One, for many years I didn't even consider that it was possible to make that type of change. Perhaps I watched too many Popeye cartoons as a child, but if asked, I would probably have simply said, "I am what I am" and left it at that. By the time I realized that a more positive outlook could be learned, I had quite a few years of habit to change. Between that and a busy life of family, kids' activities, work, etc., I simply kept going as I was. Also, I was comfortable as I was. I read once that in order to make a change, a person's current situation must be more troubling/difficult than the process required to change it. I wasn't miserable, by any means, and I found great joy much of the time, so I was content as I was.

Recently, though, I've decided enough is enough! After my husband's death, I struggled for a few years, and when I began emerging from that fog of sadness, I decided I didn't want to just go back to where I had been before. Melodramatic perhaps, but like Scarlett O'Hara, I vowed I was not going to settle for less-than-joyful-living the remainder of my life!

As always when I don't know how to do something, I went to my go-to strategy -- books. I visited a local large bookseller and wandered through the aisles of Christian and self-help books, reading the backs and inside flaps of dust jackets to get a feel for the volumes in those two sections. Because of my personal belief system, I put aside anything that was New Age in philosophy; still yet, I was amazed at the sheer number of books on the topic of joy-filled living. I eventually whittled my list down to a manageable number and then headed to my local library, where I checked out 10 of the 22 books on my list. I also used a Bible concordance to find all the Scriptures that have anything to do with joy or happiness.

I eventually read 17 of the 22 books (my local library is requesting the remaining 5 through inter-library loan), and I read 5 or 6 others that were referenced more than a few times in those 17. I also read every Scripture on the list I had made. I found that while various writers used different terminology and exampes, the basic principles outlined are consistent.

First, having a joyful outlook is learnable. That was both good and bad news. The good news is that there's hope for me and others like me who have over the years developed a more "melancholic" personality (there are 4 basic personality types: sanguine, melancholic, phlegmatic, and choleric). The bad news is it isn't easy. The other bad news is that because change is possible, I have no excuse for not becoming the person I want to be. In other words, I knew it was time for me to buckle down, stop journalling about this, and get to work.

Second, there are many strategies. Again, this was both good and bad news. On one hand, that gave me lots of options in case one or a few (or more) strategies didn't appeal to me or didn't work well when applied. On the other hand, I don't do well with options! lol  I like "neat and tidy" and "just tell me what to do and I'll do it" type of directions. Becoming more joy-filled, I learned, was not going to be quite so sequential and cut-and-dried as I had hoped.

I created a master list of strategies that most appealed to me, and I began implementing them about 2 months ago. I have a long way to go, of course (it's not easy to change 50+ years of habit), but I have seen progress already. I'm taking this a day at a time, even an hour at a time. Here are a few of the strategies I've implemented.

1. I'm watching less television. Before I embarked on this journey, I turned the television on as soon as I got home from work or, on weekends, after I finished eating breakfast. I didn't necessarily sit down and watch hours of programs; rather, television kept my company. I realized, though, that it's ever-present voice was a kind of audio clutter. I'm also making a deliberate effort to search for programs that will be uplfting, enlightening, or informative or that will make me laugh.

2. I've begun listening to podcasts on topics that add value to my life. Through a few google searches, I found podcasts on topics I'm interested in such Dave Ramsey's on personal finance and several NPR podcasts. While I'm cleaning house or cooking supper, I now listen to programs that educate me, cause me to think more deeply about issues important to me, or  simply make me laugh.

3. I've begun listening to types of music that I haven't listened to in the past. Through another google search, I happened upon a list of pieces that make up a primer on classical music, and I've made a point of listening to a piece or two when I'm journaling or grading papers. I'm hoping to find a list of must-hear jazz selections and explore other types of music as well.

4. I visit facebook less frequently and, when there, I engage less frequently. Not only has this freed up time for other, more productive activities, but eliminating the various political posts and social justice (for want of better word) posts has eliminated quite a bit of agitation on my part.

I also just finished reading a fantastic book, and I'll share more about that at a later time. I'm enjoying these changes in routine and the gradual changes I'm seeing in myself.

What about you? Would you characterize yourself as "joyful"? What do you do to cultivate joy in your life? 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Personal Safety (part 2)

Personal safety options are varied; opinions on personal safety options are even more wide-ranging. My opinions are purely that -- my personal opinions based on my own experience, knowledge, and situation. I realize many will disagree with what I write today and the decisions I made, and I certainly respect other people's opinions and hope those who disagree (and agree!) with me will share their thoughts via a comment. 

As I shared in my previous post, I became more aware (concerned is probably too strong a word) of my own personal safety considerations more than a year ago and finally gave it more serious thought earlier this year, after yet another cross-country trip by car. I knew my "surface knowledge" wasn't enough and began doing more serious investigation into my options. While there are certainly more than I will address here, for the sake of space and time, I'll touch on the more basic options.

The first option I considered was a personal safety dog. Dazey, my Norwich Terrier, barks when someone knocks on the door (or, if she's awake and hears them, as soon as they step onto my porch). While that's great, I wasn't sure whether or not she'd hear an intruder at night, so nighttime security wasn't ensured. Also, she's a fairly timid, sweet dog, so she would not provide protection if an undeterred burglar entered the home. She also does not like to travel, so I would still be on my own in the very situations I was most concerned about. I checked into purchasing a 2nd dog, one trained for personal safety (the "lowest" tier of guard dog security) that would travel with me. After doing some research and choosing several well-respected canine protection companies, I visited their websites, where I discovered that the type of dog I was seeking would cost between $20,000-$50,000. That option was quickly discarded without any further consideration.

I checked into a home security system. The price for the configuration I would be most interested in was within my budget. However, as with the guard dog, the home security system would address only the issue of home security (obviously), which I wasn't as concerned about. It would provide me with no personal security when I'm away from my home, and that was my biggest concern.

I considered the next two options -- a stun gun and mace -- simultaneously, and to be quite honest, I was predisposed against them to begin with.  I know several people who carry mace, and my husband and I actually bought a container of mace for my daughter when she moved to the city to attend college. When I spoke to several personal security consultants, they agreed that mace is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that the person using the mace is often just as negatively affected a the person the mace is intended for. Even a slight stirring of air will blow the mace back on the person using it, and it could seriously affect their ability to escape the threat. Of course, mace must be used in fairly close proximity to the person it's being used on. In short, it would only be effective if my attacker was much, much closer than I wanted them to get. Additionally, most mace containers are small and easily lost in a purse, even when attached to a key chain, so being able to grab it when needed was a concern. Mace was out. Those same considerations -- the taser's size and being lost in a purse as well as the need for proximity to the person being tasered -- applied to a stun gun. I realized I could attach the mace or the stun gun to a snap or o-ring on my purse so that it was more readily accessible, but then it would be "attached", creating another issue of usability. As a result of the various problems, I eliminated both the stun gun and taser from consideration.

Martial arts were quickly considered and also quickly discarded, at least as a singular safety method. My initial concern was not of my size and ability. On the contrary, I knew enough about various martial arts to know that my small stature (just under 5'2") would not keep me from being effective against a larger opponent. What concerned me initially and even after speaking to several instructors and reading various articles on the topic, was the fact that the martial arts all rely on personal proximity. I would only be able to use my as-yet-unattained skills on an attacker or would-be abductor if they got close enough for me to touch them. I didn't want them to get that close! However, I did decide that martial arts would be a great additional strategy, one to be used in a situation in which someone snuck up on me from behind or grabbed me while walking past.

I had finally worked through my list to the one option that most appealed to me and, at the same time, caused me greatest pause -- a handgun. It met my list of "wants" -- portable, easy to use, and fairly inexpensive (even with the rising cost of ammunition). Even more importantly, to me at least, was that it was the one portable option that didn't require that an attacker be within arms length for it to be anything more than a threat -- it could be used before the attacker was close enough to disarm me or do me any initial harm. Furthermore, it could be used effectively and easily when dealing with more than one attacker.

I did not take the issue of gun ownership lightly. I was raised in a home where there were no guns; when I married into a family of avid hunters and to a man who owned multiple long guns, I was initially uneasy. My initial objections -- animal cruelty -- were quickly dispelled with first-hand research I conducted. My other main concern -- safety -- were less quickly resolved. It was only after I saw first-hand how seriously my husband, his family members, and all of his friends took firearm safety and witnessed how they conducted themselves when hunting (no alcohol on the premises -- several hundred acres co-owned by family members, all laws scrupulously obeyed, etc.,) that I relaxed. My husband taught me how to handle a gun safely, how to ensure that the locks were on and the guns were not loaded, and how to lock the gun safe, etc. But all of that was a far cry from owning and carrying a handgun.

I spent months researching this issue. Proverbial long story short, I purchased a handgun that I could operate easily even with my small hands and short, chubby fingers; I took a gun safety class and spent time at the range (and I intend to go to the range on no less than a monthly bases as long as I own the gun); I purchased several safety devices, including a small safe for the gun itself and a separate lockable ammunition box; and I completed my state's concealed carry permit class and range qualifications.

Do I feel "safer"? Not yet. But I didn't feel unsafe in my home or in my community. The true test will come the next time I travel. I will move my billfold and other items from my purse and place them in the "special" purse I purchased that has a hidden compartment specially designed to conceal the handgun while still keeping it accessible, and I will carry it with me -- obeying the laws of every state and community I enter -- the next time I travel. That will be the true test as to whether or not I feel "safer". I'll keep you posted.

As I said in my opening comment, I welcome your comments on this topic. Only because I know spammers, etc. monitor blogs and comment to create a stir, I mention that disrespectful comments will be deleted. Thank you!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Personal Safety (part 1)

Even though my husband worked shifts and was gone overnight many nights throughout our almost-25-year marriage, I was never actually worried or fearful of my or the children's safety. We lived in average, middle-class neighborhoods where, I know, crime can and does occur. Perhaps it was because I wasn't totally alone even when he was at work; both children were right down the hall (or upstairs, in a more recent home), and even though they wouldn't have been any more able to disarm or fight off an intruder, I simply felt at peace and secure when other people were in the house. It might be because the neighborhoods we lived in throughout our marriage had little to no crime. Whatever the reason, I always felt safe in my home and, in fact, in the communities we lived in.

I continued to feel quite safe even after my husband passed away and both of my children returned to college/med school the week after his funeral. I didn't feel at all vulnerable, even though I was living alone on 65 acres in the middle of a very rural county and even though it was common knowledge that I was a middle-aged woman living alone. Perhaps I was still too numb to feel any fear, or even any unrest.

That changed the first time I travelled on my own. On the first night of a work-related trip to Minneapolis, I relaxed in my room with television and a book. Within about 30 minutes, I decided a soft drink and some junk food sounded heavenly, so I picked up my room key card and some dollar bills and headed out to find some vending machines. It wasn't until I got about 15' down the padded hallway that I realized how vulnerable I was. Anyone -- well, anyone looking for a middle-aged woman in fuzzy slippers, sweat pants, and an over-sized t-shirt -- could grab me, whisk me into a room, and do goodness-knows-what to me. As that fact sank in, I walked faster, keeping to the middle of the hall. I realized I had nothing with which to defend myself other than my lungs and not-very-muscled arms and legs. I'd learned years ago in some workshop or another that when walking to my car at the mall, for example, I should grip my keys in a way that would allow me to gouge out the eyes of an attacker; that wouldn't work with the door lock swipe card I clutched in my hand. I'd watched enough Law & Order and Criminal Minds (big mistake) to know I could disappear and never be seen again.

The rest of the week, I actually checked in at the desk (either in person or by phone) any time I left or returned to my room. I don't know what the front desk clerks thought of that, but they were very pleasant about my calls and visits to the desk. I also carried my cell phone with me everywhere, my finger poised to push 911 if necessary; I made sure that when I met people in the quiet hallways that I gestured "hello" with the hand holding my cell; I wanted them to see that I could summon help (or snap their picture) quickly if need be. I knew, though, that I needed to come up with a better plan.

I'd like to be able to say that I prudently addressed the matter of personal safety as soon as I returned from my trip. I didn't. In fact, I went on more than a few more trips -- work related and personal, flying to my destinations and driving alone across the country -- without doing a thing. Each time, the moment would come when I'd mentally kick myself for not addressing the issue of personal safety.

Early this past summer, after a cross-country drive to North Carolina and back again, with a late-night stop at a less-than upscale gas station on the outskirts of Nashville, I decided I needed to give serious thought to my personal safety both at home and when away from home. I already had a dog; Dazey may not be very big (she's a 16 lb Norwich Terrier), but her bark is pretty fierce and not at all yappy. A burglar hearing her bark would not know she's a small dog; on the other hand, they wouldn't mistake her bark for that of, say, a German Shepherd. However, I've read in numerous articles on the subject that just the sound of a barking dog inside the house will deter most intruders because they realize the element of surprise has been lost. However, I'm not sure if Dazey would hear an intruder in the middle of the night; other than having someone break in to see what she would do, I don't know how to find out.

I began researching various personal security options, not realizing how complicated this decision would be. I'll share more about what I learned and about the choice I finally made when I post again.

What about you? Have you shared my concerns for personal safety? If so, I hope you'll share your experience through the comments below. 


Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Best Laid Plans

The English teacher in me must first explain that the familiar phrase "the best laid plans" is actually a misquote of Burns' poem "To a Mouse"; the line actually reads "the best laid schemes". I probably shouldn't perpetuate the misquote, but "plans" works better for my title, so . . . (sorry, Mr. Burns)

I'll never forget when I saw one for the first time. I was a freshman in high school and was working as a library aide during 6th-hour study hall. One afternoon early in September, I saw the assistant librarian writing in a small calendar-like book and was intrigued;  my family didn't even have a calendar anywhere in the house, and I'd definitely never seen a book-like calendar with daily or weekly pages. Mrs. Zook saw my interest, showed me her personal planner, and told me where she had purchased it.

Already a list-maker who relished neatly checking off each item on my to-do list, I was hooked. I asked my dad to take me to the local office supply store, where I bought my first planner, and until this week, I've never looked back. In fact, I can't remember a single year in 40+ that have passed since then that I didn't have a personal organizer. Over the years, I found my planner invaluable in keeping track of first, my own work and social commitments, and eventually, the schedules and appointments for myself, my shift-working husband, and two children with a myriad of activities and appointments.

No matter what brand, size, or style I was using at the time, every summer I would purchase my new pages (and sometimes, new binder), and in late July I would spend an hour or so setting up my new planner (as a student and then a teacher, my "new year" always begins with August 1). I loved putting the new, blank pages in my binder and entering important dates and appointments in whatever writing utensil I was using. Before my son was born, I simply used a blue ink pen; after he was born, I switched to 4 colors -- one for each of the 3 of us and one for general, whole-family events. When my daughter was born, I added another color. And when the scrapbooking craze hit, I began creating my own divider pages out of card stock, and I loved the personalized look of my planners.

A few of years ago, I grew tired of the Franklin Covey style refills I was using and wanted something totally different, so I switched to a Filofax. The binders are beautiful, and although there were fewer refill styles, one in particular appealed to me. Unfortunately, the last two years I've run into problems getting refills, and this year, when I decided to change to a smaller size, I found that all of the binders I liked and could afford (alas, the $2300.00 alligator binder was out of the question, even though it's red) were out of stock and wouldn't be available until . . . well, nobody at filofaxusa had any idea when that would be.

By this past Wednesday, I was frustrated -- almost angry -- at being personal planner-less. And that's when the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. I had become far too dependent on my planner; I was actually writing down on my to-do list such mundane tasks as "take shower", as if I wouldn't remember to do that if I didn't write it down! Just as bad, I was writing the same very-regular daily lineup of tasks ("trash out" on Monday, for example) every single week during my Sunday "planner time".

Yesterday, I took what is a very bold step for me. I removed my custom-made page dividers, plastic rulers, and other "extras" out of my planner and listed both of my binders (I would switch between a red leather binder and a teal one for variety) on, and I cancelled my order for the still-on-backorder binder and refill for 2013-2014. Last night I jotted down some ideas of what I really needed in a new "planner", and I got another surprise. I didn't really need any of the sections I had in my planner! I was using them out of habit, not out of necessity.

Today I purchased a "2-year plus" (August 2013 through December 2015) pocket calendar. Unable to completely give up my "daily tasks" list, I used 6 mini-index cards (1 each of 6 colors; 1 for every day except Sunday) to create 6 "daily" task cards and slipped them in the pocket of the plastic cover. My plan is to slide the current day to the front of the stack every morning; if a non-regular task arises, I'll put it on a sticky (I put a small, thin pad of mini sticky notes inside the back cover.

No more thick planner, no more sections for "finances" and "goals" and other things I really don't need. No more Sunday "planning sessions" and nightly planner-check. No more need for a purse large enough to carry my planner; my cute little calendar will fit even in the small cross-body bag I bought this summer but rarely carry because . . . you guessed it, my organizer wouldn't fit.

This change feels right. It fits my pared-down, only-me life. It fits my desire to simplify as much as possible. My new calendar is already tucked into my cross-body purse, and I'm ready to spend less time planning and more time doing!

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Monday, September 2, 2013

An Anniversary after All


: a date that is remembered or celebrated because a special or notable event occurred on that date in a previous year

Even though the Merriam-Webste online dictionary doesn't specify that the "special or notable event" must be a positive one, when I hear the word "anniversary", I think of a happy event, one to be celebrated. Of course, the word can be used for sad or even tragic events, but in my experience those more somber events are more generally historic in nature. The bombing of Pearl Harbor comes to mind, for example.

So I'll simply say that four years ago today, my husband passed away. Such a short, simple statement that can in no way come even close to encapsulating the magnitude of that day on my life and the life of my two children.

Of course, the day didn't sneak up on me. Not at all. As soon as I turned the calendar to August, a vague but relentless countdown began. Every morning, when I glanced at the calendar on the side of my refrigerator, I would notice I was one more square closer to the last day of the month, the day my husband and I returned to the cancer treatment center where he was to get his 2nd round of chemo. And, of course, it went without saying -- or even thinking -- that 2 days later would be the day he passed away. The events of that week, from August 31 to September 5 (the day of his funeral), remain vivid in my memory; I believe they will remain that way as long as I'm alive or still have memories at all.

My daughter came to my house last night after she and some friends went out for awhile; she's always careful to spend at least part of the more difficult days -- today, our anniversary, her father's birthday, etc -- with me, and today was no different. We went out for breakfast and spent some time together before she had to leave. I spent the rest of the day here at the house, doing some chores, reading, and watching the Cardinals' game on television.

I waited cautiously, but nothing happened. No tears, no heavy grief, no heavy weight of the blues. Instead, after I got home from breakfast, I searched in my photos for a few pictures to post on facebook, and I found some wonderful shots of my husband. In one, he and our children are on the train at, I think, Silver Dollar City. He has a quiet 1/2 smile on his face and is flanked by the children. My 3 favorite people in the world.

The other two are of him alone. The four of us -- he, our son and daughter, and I -- were in our back yard playing wiffleball. I had grabbed the camera on my way out the door and was snapping pictures more than I was playing. My then-12-year-old son had come up to bat; a great baseball player, his dad (also a great baseball player) was no longer able to strike him out when playing wiffleball. They always did the guy-thing -- my husband always making "I'm going to strike you out" noises, and my son celebrating every hit.

That afternoon, though, the gods were smiling on my husband. I don't remember the count, but I do remember the tension mounting as my son let some pitches pass by between fouling off several. And then my husband threw a pitch, my son swung, and he missed. Strike 3! I snapped a shot as my husband punched his elbow down, fist clenched and again when his face lit up with one of his spontaneously joy-filled smiles. If I remember correctly, he grinned and strutted around all day long!

I'm glad I found those pictures this morning -- they set the tone of the day, I believe. This year, instead of my mind going back again and again to what is no longer, it was filled with thoughts of what wonderful memories there are

Yes, I realize that those two are actually one and the same, but the perspective is so very different. When I sat down tonight to write this entry, I originally titled it "What do I Call Today?", and I thought I would talk about how the term "anniversary" doesn't seem appropriate to me. But as I wrote the paragraph before this one, I realized that even this day -- the one marking the worst day of my life so far -- can be one of celebration. Celebration of the life of a wonderful husband, a fantastic father, and a man who was loved by many, many people. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ahhhh . . . Sweet Affirmations

Before I go any further, I'm going to break one of the rules of blogging as handed down by a couple of blogging gurus whose blogging material I've read. According to the experts, a blogger should never apologize for not posting for a few days or even longer; instead, they should just pick back up where they left off. I just can't do that. This is "social" media; it's all about building community and relationships, and if you and I communicated socially in "real life" and I didn't get back to you for 5 or 6 days, I would apologize. So . . . I apologize for not being around since last week. I've missed being here, but this first week back at work every semester is always hectic and extremely busy. And that leads me to the topic of affirmations.

"It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen."

I'll be totally honest. I'm a bit skeptical of the "if you envision it and affirm it enough, it will become reality" concept that has been preached by quite a few self-improvement gurus the past several years. We all know people who have had a goal that they envisioned endlessly, that they worked toward tirelessly and relentlessly for years on end, and that never came to fruition. As a dear friend explains, her desparate desire to become a prima ballerina, over 10 years of lessons with fantastic teachers, dedicated & rigorous practice on her own part, and fervent support and encouragement on the part of her family could not cause her 5'0" (as she says it) body to grow or overcome the fact that she is one of the least coordinated people on the planet. She is only a prima ballerina in her dreams -- literally.

I do believe affirmations in that sense can be helpful, but they are not the end-all and be-all.

But there's another kind of affirmation that I have come to believe in in the past year or so. I wish I had grasped this concept before; it would have saved me so much trouble an heartache through my lifetime. The type of affirmation I'm referring to involves setting a goal or objective, taking a step or two in that direction, and then assessing the result of those steps. Is everything working out? Did taking those small steps lead to doors opening that in turn lead you closer to the original goal? If the answer is yes, keep on stepping. If not, adjust course and take another step. Lather, rinse, repeat.

For me, there's another component to the assessment part of the process. As a Christian, I've come to believe that if things are working out and doors are opening without me manipulating them to happen and forcing doors to open, they're happening because I'm in align with God's plan and am on the right track. With that in mind, over the past few months, as I've moved from dreaming and reading about my "new life" to translating those dreams into something more specific, more doable, I've also been praying that God would guide me. And, since I can be a little slow on the uptake in the spiritual department, I asked Him to make His affirmations (or His "no, not that") as clear as possible.

I returned to work this past Tuesday morning for 3 days of meetings before students return this coming Monday. The very first thing that occurred when I walked into the department office was that something very important that I had been told was a "done deal" was no longer going to happen. Not only was it not going to happen, but the person who should have told me back in May didn't do that. As a result, all of the lesson plans, activities, workshops, etc., I developed over the summer for the entire semester must be completely redone. I felt disrespected and frustrated. I went to my office, closed the door, and my very first thought when I was able to think anything other than "Oh, no!" was "Hmmm . . . maybe this is an affirmation of my desire to relocate." I reminded myself that this could also be a test of my determination, my commitment to being a joy-filled person despite my circumstances, etc., so I didn't jump to any conclusions.

This morning I learned, in a very public setting, that someone I had trusted, someone who greatly impacts what I do every day, has been repeatedly untruthful with me in a very significant way since last winter. Not only has this person been misleading me, the act they have been untruthful about is, to me at least, an act of betrayal. I kept a smile on my face, but inside I was again feeling very disrespected and, at first, quite hurt. And then I heard inside my head, "Well, you did ask for affirmation of your goal to relocate." I couldn't help but laugh.

Then it dawned on me. I really didn't feel sad, or even disappointed. In fact, I felt relieved. Not that I'm going to have to redo 16 weeks of classes -- no, that still frustrates me. I feel a sense of relief because I see these events as affirmation that I'm on the right track. That a change is in order. That my dreams and goals are ones I should pursue.

So I'm going to keep taking steps. Perhaps along the way a different opportunity will arise that keeps me where I am but working in a different capacity. Or perhaps things will work out in a way that shows me these two incidences were nothing more than tests of my character. But I'm not worried or concerned. I'm very content to simply take another step, and then another, knowing that in the end I will be where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

But no matter what, I understand what Ali was saying. I'm deeply convicted by the idea that I'm on the right track, and I feel as though, after months and years of dreaming and plotting & planning, things are on the verge of changing. I can't wait to see what happens next!


What are your dreams and goals? What do you imagine your redesigned life to look like? Are you taking steps to make what you imagine your reality? I'd love to hear how things are going for you and what you've experienced in the way of affirmations. I hope you'll share your thoughts by commenting or by emailing me at

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Guilt. Is there anyone alive who hasn't felt their stomach churn and their face burn with it? Of course, sometimes guilt is well-deserved. Bringing work issues home and then snarling at a loving spouse, yelling at the kids, and kicking the puppy should make a person feel guilty.

All too often, though, we feel guilty when we shouldn't. A former coworker told me that for years after his schizophrenic adult son committed suicide, his brain played a continuous loop of scenes from the last years of his son's life. He would, he told me, slow the scenes down and examine every scene, every bit of conversation, each piece of body language, as if he could somehow find out where he went wrong and what he should have done differently so that his son would still be alive. Even though the son was not living in the family home -- was in fact living in a medical facility under 24-hour watch at the time of his suicide -- my coworker still felt responsible. And racked with guilt.

A friend recently shared that when she and her husband both lost their jobs within a few months of each other five years ago, causing them to eventually file for bankruptcy and lose their home, she would lie awake at night cataloguing all of the "frivolous" spending she had done that had prevented them from having enough savings to weather the 18 months of unemployment followed by the years of jobs paying significantly less than they had earned before. She spent many sleepless nights tallying up how much she spent on monthly manicures and visits to the beauty shop ever 8 weeks, for example. One particularly difficult night, she mentally relived the family's week-long trip to Walt Disney World eight years before the bankruptcy, tabulating every single thing they purchased, right down to a $5 refillable drink mug for each of the 4 family members. "I know it sounds silly," she told me with a wry smile, "but I couldn't turn off the guilt machine."

I've been there myself. Not in regard to my husband's illness and passing; I honestly never felt guilty about that. No, for me, the guilty feelings have come more recently. I have a home I love and that I wouldn't be in if my husband was still alive. Because of my current job -- which I only needed and sought because my husband passed away -- I've gone on several trips that I thoroughly enjoyed. I've tried new things and had experiences I wouldn't have had otherwise, and I'm currently laying the groundwork to move to a part of the country where I've always wanted to live, something that would be impossible if my husband was still alive. Sometimes, smack in the middle of a great moment -- strolling along 5th Avenue in New York, for example -- I am struck by the thought that I shouldn't be having such a great time, that I'm only having this great time because my husband passed away.

That doesn't mean, though, that I have any reason to feel guilty. So how can a person deal with feelings of guilt in a healthy manner? I've read quite a bit on the subject, talked to others who have walked this path, and, of course, have personal experience to draw on, and here's what I've found.

1. It's important to remember that guilt is a feeling and that feelings involve choice. While we cannot change life's circumstances, we can change our view of them and our reaction to them. It is often helpful to spend some time contemplating the types of situations in which you are more prone to feeling guilty. If there is a pattern -- for example, guilt feelings burgeon on holidays -- prepare for those events ahead of time by using one or more of the strategies that follow.

2. Examine your thoughts in light of the truth. For example, it may be true that if you hadn't lost your job your children would still be attending private school and living in that nice big house on Martin Drive. But it's also true that *you* did not cause the economic downturn, *you* did not sell the company to a huge conglomerate, and *you* did not purchase and then move the company to a foreign country. It's also true that you took a vacation, *but* there was absolutely nothing wrong with taking a vacation that was well within your means; you had no way of predicting the future and knowing that years later you would lose your job. Do not allow lies such as "It's all my fault. If we hadn't spent $3000 on a trip to WDW we wouldn't have lost the house" to take root. That $3000 might have kept you in your home a few more months, nothing more.

3. Replace guilt-inducing mistruths with healthy truths. Instead of "If only I hadn't asked him to go to the grocery store and pick up some milk, he wouldn't have been in the accident and wouldn't be in a coma", remind yourself that your significant other was in a car that was struck by a drunk driver who ran a red light. That drunk driver is responsible. Period.

4. Call upon your faith system. For me, that involves prayer and memorizing Scriptures (or writing them in a section in my planner) that comfort me and bring peace.

5. Call upon a trusted friend or group of friends. Sharing that you feel guilty may be difficult for you, and that's understandable. However, it may be very helpful to have another person's perspective and to have a go-to person who can help you adjust your thought processes when necessary.

6. Experiment to find other techniques that work for you. For me, journalling is very cathartic. For you, it might be meditation or exercise or something entirely different.

7. Turn the situation around, putting a loved one in your shoes. For example, imagine your daughter sharing with you that she feels guilty that her husband cheated on her and then divorced her. What would you say to her? Now, say that to yourself.

8. Consult a professional. Of course, "professional" could mean different things -- grief counselor, pastor/priest/rabbi/other religious leader, therapist, etc.

Have I completely eradicated guilt from my own life? Not entirely. But I have found that by utilizing some of these techniques, I'm much better at identifying it, replacing guilt-producing thoughts with truth, and choosing healthier emotional responses.


Do you have any suggestions to add? If so, please share them either through a comment (below) or by emailing me at

Sunday, August 4, 2013

With Apologies to Tolstoy

What is it Tolstoy said about unhappy families? "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Perhaps Tolstoy is right -- I don't know. But the exact opposite is true about the books -- both fiction and nonfiction -- I've read in the past few years about loss and life afterward.

The wonderful books (and I am working on an annotated bibliography to share here) are all great for a variety of reasons. They vary in focus, tone, purpose, style, and content, but each of them were helpful in some way.

The bad ones (all fiction, by the way) share one common trait. They simply are not realistic, at least not according to life as I and every single man and woman I have ever known have experienced it. And because I love to read, and because I love to relax with a good novel, and because there are some great novels about men and women overcoming loss, and because I know these bad books could have been better, the fact that they aren't irritates me a bit. So here is my open letter to anyone who is planning to sit down at the keyboard tomorrow and write a novel about a man or woman whose life has been turned upside down and inside out.

Dear Author or Author-to-be,

I'll cut to the chase (sorry for the cliche). If you're going to write a novel in which your main character has suffered or does suffer a significant loss such as the loss of a spouse, marriage, livelihood, etc, please do not resort to cheesy plots and cheap tricks. What do I mean? Here's just a few examples of plot twists to avoid:

1. Main character discovers that their recently-deceased/ex-spouse has been keeping a huge secret. An illegitimate child or maybe an entire 2nd family, a long-time, serious affair, massive debt that threatens to leave the main character without a home or means of living, a life of crime (usually white-collar), etc. 

2. Main character is initially left penniless but almost immediately inherits from their grandmother/favorite aunt a coastal cottage and enough money to maintain it and live without working. OR they inherit from their spouse or are awarded enough money in the divorce settlement to live comfortably (at the very least) for the rest of their life. Main character rarely holds down a full-time job; if he/she does, it is type of artistic career, most usually that of an artist. 

3. Main character has 3 (if female) friends OR 1 (if male) friend who they have for years been meeting every week for breakfast/lunch/dinner or to play squash/basketball. Said friend(s) rally round, of course, and come up with the perfect plan to help the main character bounce back from their loss. OR main character comes up with their own plan and friend(s) are merely the sounding board and support team. 

4. Main character follows said plan (see #3) and embarks on one of the following: a road trip, usually across country in a convertible; a quest to accomplish a list of tasks, often provided in a letter from their recently-deceased loved on or from a magazine article read by a friend or from a list they wrote many years ago when still a student; or a move (temporary or permanent) to a cottage in the woods/on the beach/in a coastal town in Maine.

5. Main character travels to Greece or Provence.

6. Main character meets someone of the opposite gender who has also experienced some tragic loss. This "someone" is either someone they were romantically involved with years ago and have never really forgotten or is some mysterious stranger. 

7. Main character is drawn to this person (see #6) and a romance hovers on the horizon; however, something threatens the burgeoning romance. Possibilities: guilt feelings on the part of the main character or new romantic interest or both; disapproval of family members (usually grown children either in college or in their early 20's); job change which requires new romantic interest to move away; fear of being hurt again on the part of the main character or new romantic interest or both; or return of ex/soon-to-be-ex, who has become disillusioned with new partner and wants to rekindle romance with the main character or new romantic interest.

8. Main character and new romantic interest eventually overcome all obstacles and are obviously destined to marry. 

These story lines have been used ad nauseum. For those of us who have dealt with a significant life change ourselves, these story lines can be insulting and irritating. And you don't need to resort to such cheap and cheesy stuff. Really! Talk to people who have dealt with a major loss, with people who are redesigning their life because they have no other choice. Trust me, there are some inspiring people out there whose stories could be the basis of a fantastic novel. I hope you'll give it a shot; if you do, I promise I'll buy your book!

There you have it. I hope someone who writes great fiction reads this list and writes a novel that resonates with those of us who have walked this path. Better yet, several writers and more than a few novels, all with different kinds of main characters -- a variety of ages, races, genders, and life circumstances. All dealing with their "new normal" as best they can. More wonderful books that are great for a variety of reasons!


If you know of any books that focus in some way on life after loss that you'd like to recommend I include, I hope you'll share the title, author, and a little bit about the book. You can either include that information in a comment or by email at  Thanks so much!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Finding My Voice

Last week, I received an email from a dear friend; in it, she responded to my earlier emailed request to please give me feedback as she reads my posts. With her permission, I'll share the 2 points she raised.

First, she noted that I may be limiting my scope and, therefore, not reaching others who might find this blog helpful. Her point is that my  focus has  primarily been on adjusting to a radically-changed life after the loss of a spouse, child, or marriage (as a result of a divorce). She noted that there are other very difficult losses that bring the end of life as a person knows it, demolishes their dreams and hopes and plans for the future, and causes them to significantly revise their lifestyle. For example, she noted a mutual friend whose life changed dramatically when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; the physical and emotional toil this disease has taken on our friend has caused her to give  up her beloved teaching career, interferes with her ability to play and do things with her children, etc. My friend also reminded me about one of her coworkers, a woman of 45  whose dreams of being a wife and mother go unfulfilled year after year. Both of these women are trying very hard to adapt to their situations, to build creative and fulfilling lives despite the obstacles they face.

She also explained that she was seeing only one side of me here -- my serious side, the "I want to help others" aspect of my personality. She felt there was nothing wrong with that, of course, but that she would also like to me to not be afraid to be humorous (which she assured me I often am "in real life") and to not worry so much about each and every post providing advice or steps or tips.

I respect my friend's opinion and believe she is right (she usually is!). As I told her, I feel I'm still finding my voice as a blogger. I appreciate your comments and feedback, your support, and your presence here, and I hope you will continue to hang out with me and to share your thoughts and your feedback.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Getting the Job Done -- Judy's Story

This evening I'm going to share part of someone else's story, with her permission. First, though, a bit of backstory. Judy was a friend/older sister to me from when I was about 11 years old until I started college. I admired her zest for life, her spunkiness, her great sense of humor, and her honesty. Judy was the type of woman who didn't wait for others to do something -- she rolled up her own sleeves and got the job done!

Unfortunately, over the years that my family lived in Texas, New Mexico, back in Texas, and finally back home in Missouri, I was so busy with my children and work that Judy and I drifted apart. Happily, a few years ago we reconnected and began chatting via private messages on Facebook. I discovered that Judy and I have more in common now than we probably did back when I was younger. She shared with me that as a retiree whose children are grown and live in other states, she longed to sell her house and move to a place she had visited and fallen in love with -- Wilmington, North Carolina.

I visited Judy one weekend a few months ago, and she shared her plan with me. She had already begun getting her house ready to put on the market; once it was sold, she would put her furniture and most of her possessions in storage, move to Wilmington, and rent an apartment to live in while she figured out where in the city she wanted to live on a more permanent basis. Then she would have her things shipped to her new home. She hoped to be in Wilmington by winter.

Things moved quickly after my visit. Judy sold her house much sooner than she expected, put her items in storage, and moved to Wilmington last month! She did what I want to do. Oh, I don't necessarily want to move to Wilmington, North Carolina, although everything I've heard and read paints a very appealing picture, but I want to follow in her footsteps in a more general sense. I want to know -- with absolute certainty -- where I want to move. And then, I want to make it happen -- find a job, sell my home, and make the move.

I said in the opening paragraph that I admired Judy when I was a young girl. Well, I admire her even more now. I'm sure she had some reservations about making this big change, and I'm sure it wasn't easy to leave the town she had lived in for over 35 years to move half-way across the country to a city where she knew not a single person. But she did it anyway. She had a dream, and she rolled up her sleeves and made that dream become reality. She has inspired me to do the same.

Do you have a dream, one that tugs at your heart and your soul? What is keeping you from making it a reality? I hope you will share both your dreams and any roadblocks (through either a comment below or an email to And if you've already overcome obstacles to make a much-desired major life change, I hope you'll share that as well. Later this week, I'll share what I've learned about the most common obstacles and share some ideas about how to get started making your dreams a reality. 






Friday, July 19, 2013

Stepping off the Board

My hometown in Southeast Missouri had a large community swimming pool when I was growing up, and each summer until my mom was convinced we could swim proficiently, my sister and I took swimming lessons. At the end of the short "leg" of the L-shaped pool there were 3 diving boards -- 1 very high board flanked by 2 much lower boards. Somewhere fairly early in the swimming lesson process, my class was given the opportunity to jump off the lower diving boards, with a couple of teachers in the water and lifeguards on duty. It took me at least 2 summers to work up to a leap from one of the lower boards. I had to force myself to walk out on the board; I chickened out and made the walk back to the safety of the concrete decking more times over those 2 summers than I can remember, but I did eventually jump. Eventually, I passed enough levels to earn the right to jump off the high dive. I wouldn't even climb the ladder!

That pool was demolished, the concrete removed, and dirt brought in to fill the huge hole left in its absence; it had become outdated and far too expensive to maintain, and now my hometown has just the pool (with a bubble in the winter months) that was built while I was in high school. It also has a high dive and flanked by 2 lower ones. I've never jumped from that high dive, either. Actually, I don't think I've even jumped from one of the lower boards.

Do I regret not jumping from those high diving boards? Not at all. I'm comfortable with the fact that I am not fond of heights (yes, that's a euphemism for "I'm afraid of them"), and jumping off a swimming pool's high diving board is not on my list of things to do in this lifetime.

But there are things on that list that I really want to do, and a few of those things are big, really big. So big that I stand here, just at the edge of the board, so very close to leaping into the air,  yet held back by all the unknowns, afraid of making a huge mistake.

Some books, some articles, some people bolster my courage, and I inch closer and closer to the edge. Then life's practicalities slap me in the face, and I back up quickly. But then I remember my dreams and how short life can be, and the inch forward begins again.

I want to make the jump -- I really do, and I look forward to the day when I can log on and share with you that I've done just that. Until then, I can only tell you that I took a fairly significant step toward the end of the board earlier this week. I'll keep you posted, of course.

What unfulfilled dreams do you have? Are there any major life changes you long to make? What holds you back? I hope you'll share. OR have you made a big leap of faith? I'd love to hear about your experience! And if you have any words of encouragement for those of us who are hovering there, right at the point of making a leap into a major change, I hope you'll share those as well!