Sunday, January 29, 2012

Out of the Corners

One year ago I was in a bad place. The past month from December to January had brought its share of heartbreaking challenges and one in particular had me facing death, the death of my beloved elderly dog, Charlie. She’d hung in there for nearly 17 years, had protected our family from harm, had been my loyal friend, my faithful furry companion. But she was failing. Beset with doggy dementia, she began getting herself trapped in corners. She lost a lot of weight. I feared for her when I went off to work. In January, I knew she wouldn’t be with us much longer, and on February 9th, I let her go. I still cry for her at times but her death strangely made me face some other difficult decisions that needed my attention. It took a little time for me to see that, however.

Today, during a quiet moment at Mass, I recalled where I’d been one year ago. There had been other hardships that had not centered around Charlie’s declining health, and the year 2010 had ended and 2011 had begun in a way that had me feeling insecure and very sad. Ironically, at the time, I was being referred to as “Superwoman” by a few people in my life. But in truth, I was treading water, just trying to keep my head above water. I didn’t have the strength to do much more than that. For no matter how hard I kept trying to avoid them, I, too, kept finding myself in corners.

One year later, I am thinking of how the past month has been. I am grateful that 2011 ended and 2012 began in a better place. I learned a few valuable lessons from the hardships of last year, and I am doing better now, not perfect, but better. My household has greater peace, my outlook on a particular matter has grown with understanding, and a new puppy has earned her place in my heart. There are other changes too, some that come with the wisdom of having loved and lost, some with understanding how important it is to admit defeat and to let go.

But there are still times when I cry for Charlie and for the other I have lost. I’m in a better place now than I was last year but my heart sometimes wants what it can’t have. Rather than push those feelings aside, I take a little time to let the tears fall on a Sunday night when the house is quiet and everyone, including that dear new puppy, has gone to bed. I’d never want to be “Superwoman”; what a tough gig that would be, but at least this past year I’ve learned how to get myself out of those corners.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Family, My Decision

I was born in 1968. Plenty of women were in the workforce by then but my Mom was a stay-at-home Mom like many of my friends’ mothers in the community in which I lived. My Dad was the family breadwinner, working in the town mill full time as he’d done since graduating from college almost 20 years earlier.

Our own experiences greatly influence the ideas and perceptions we have on the world and its various issues. The woman who raised me had five children. She herself was a product of the Great Depression and she surely knew how to stretch a dollar. The time she spent on her home, on preparing meals, and sewing or swapping articles for our clothing needs for example could have been spent on a profession outside of the home, but no, she never did work beyond her homemaking at a job that earned her money. Instead, when she did make time to go outside the home away from our family’s needs, she did volunteer work and served her community which, in many ways, pays much more than a weekly paycheck. I have grown up hearing continuous stories that praise my mother’s generosity, creativity, and intelligence. I have witnessed her actions myself. This is a woman whose efforts and lifetime career as a parent and community member I have long admired. I was always proud of her as a child and am even more proud of her today. She, a stay-at-home Mom, has greatly influenced the woman I am today. Although I am quite sure I would have been happy to follow in her footsteps, my own choice to work outside the home earning a paycheck as a full time high school English teacher has been a choice strongly supported and fiercely defended by my mother. (If you ever knew my mother, it would not surprise you to hear that).

Despite my own mother’s support however, I have been affected by other opinions on the working parent debate of whether one way of raising children is better than another. There are many considerations in this. I don’t wish to get into those discussions at this time, and let me be clear in saying that the decision my husband and I made is not being held up as superior to any other couple’s decision on how to live their lives or how to raise their children. That is perhaps the most crucial point I wish to make; that no one’s thoughtful decision on whether or not to be a working parent should be criticized or judged by another. But in my own life, I have given the challenges and rewards of both sides of the debate a lot of thought. The decision for me to be a working parent is not one I ever took lightly. I have never been able to shake desirous feelings in want of living as my Mom did, for I was so very happy and content on my maternity leaves for example and would have opted to stay home with my kids if I could have seen a true means to afford that choice, but then again, there have been rich benefits to my decision to be a working parent. And I am not talking about the money I help bring to our own family’s budget. Instead, there have been great benefits earned for the sake of my family, and those three individual children my husband and I have raised. The most beautiful reward is that, as in my own admiration of my Mom for what she did and how she lived as a stay-at-home mom, I now see that same admiration coming from the children I have raised and am continuing to raise. My children, ages 20, 16, and 12, like my Mom, are strong supporters and fierce defenders of the decision I made to be a working parent.

I don’t need to parade my children around as examples of how I am being successful in this decision to work outside the home. But I dare anyone to tell me that my children would have been better off if I had made a different choice. Likewise, I dare anyone to tell my Mom that I would have been better off if she had worked outside the home during my own upbringing. Life is full of choices. We do the best we can with the decisions we make that influence our paths. What I wish would happen in this world is an acknowledgment that there is no “best way” to live a life, to raise a child, to support and provide for a family’s needs. Respecting the decisions, the choices, or the best efforts of individuals who believe their choices are limited at best, is how I wish to live.

I was born in 1968. Plenty of women were in the workforce by then but my Mom was a stay-at-home Mom. Sydney, Emma, and Paul were born in the 1990s. Their Mom is a full time English teacher. Their Dad is a full time teacher of Mathematics. Together they created a family that was strong and loving and which did its best to serve its community, and one another. And they all lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Days of Solitude

The Maoris of New Zealand had their young boys prove their worthiness to enter manhood by spending a year alone in the wilderness, surviving all natural dangers and the challenge of solitude. The rite of passage determined whether the boy was “fit” to live with the tribe. I wonder what those Maoris boys were thinking before they set out to begin their year separated from all others. Were they scared? Exhilarated? Did they return in tears of gratitude or did some resent having to return at all after a year alone? How did they change over that year? How did they adjust when they joined their friends and family after so long a stretch? Would I have been able to do that?

I have long had this dream of living alone at camp on the lake through each of the four seasons. Of course, my parents’ camp isn’t heated and with the unpaved and unplowed roads, getting to town to pick up groceries in the winter months would be tough. Still, I love the idea of being there until the last days of summer, long after all the tourists have left the area, feeling the first of autumn’s crisp air and seeing the trees painted in bright colors. I long to watch the first snowstorm move across the lake, see the mountain bold and beautiful on a cold sunny winter day, and hear only the crackling of wood in the Franklin stove. I want to see the green first return to the trees, smell the scent of spring, hear the birds return singing their songs.

In my dream I am alone. I am sure my husband and children would take offense to this and I do not mean to suggest I want to live without them, it’s just that in my dream I am experiencing complete solitude. I imagine the strangeness of the first few days by myself, the letting go of one set of responsibilities for another, the celebration of having complete freedom. I then imagine working to overcome loneliness and fear in the absence of company, of discovering my inner voice that focuses upon the hunger I feel for things once deemed important and now denied. I imagine the shift to acceptance and an embrace of self-discovery, a rigorous lesson in self-discipline as I set myself a schedule or at least a pattern of activities to keep myself purposeful and sustained. I hear myself turning to God with an intense fervor that I always knew I had inside. I feel a great calm wash over me and then there is peace.

There would be an order to my days. Doris Grumbach in her book Fifty Days of Solitude writes that “order, sequence, is a secret of being alone. Rising at the same time every day, making and eating breakfast while reading Morning Prayer, showering and dressing, making the bed and straightening the’s all essential”. I imagine myself doing just that--getting up, making my bed, straightening the rooms, making breakfast and eating at Gram’s table overlooking the mountain as I decided whether to do the outdoor chores before or after I sit down to write, to read, or to paint. At home I try and carve out time for these things but I cannot settle my brain unless I’ve had several days off, several days away from work and time away from the responsibilities and needs of my children and spouse. But in my dream I have nothing but time.

This dream might make for an interesting psychoanalysis of myself if someone wanted to do that. “She’s overworked. She’s tired. She’s stressed”, one might think after reading the above. And that is all definitely true. But my dream would not be complete without two additional scenes. In the first, I have met a man on the camp road while out on my daily walk. He’s an old man, and after chatting with him very briefly each day for a few weeks, I invite him back to camp for some tea. He takes me up on my offer and we spend time talking about his life. He tells me of his younger years and of raising a family with his wife. He tells me of the struggles he faced after retirement as he became elderly and he sheds a tear as he describes the final year of his wife’s life. He explains that his children come by once a month to visit with him and that they bring the grandchildren, but that he wishes they lived next door. That’s when I know my time alone at the lake is almost over.

The last scene I have in my dream is of packing my things. I zip up my suitcase and I grab my bag of books. I lock up the windows to the camp and after taking one last look around, I head to the door. I stop and take one final look at the sanctuary where I have rediscovered myself. It’s been a good experience these days of solitude. But I’m ready to return...

I like to be alone and craving some quiet tonight, I said goodnight to everyone and headed off to bed an hour earlier than usual. The puppy followed me, ensuring she got the best spot near my pillow. I took time to write, to dream, and to imagine. And then, each in turn, my children came upstairs. They each came into my bedroom and kissed me goodnight. It appears I am not going to need this dream after all. My own year of solitude can come at some point in my life, but it need not come now. I don’t want to miss a day of my kids’ lives and this marriage of mine is worth savoring too. Someday I just might be that old one who spends days of contentment alone at the lake, but for now, an hour alone upstairs before bedtime is all I need for that inner peace and tranquility I must have in my life. Of this I am sure.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Seeds of Doubt

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”. --Sylvia Plath

After blogging nearly every day for an entire year, I began slowing down the pace of my writing after the New Year. Maybe I was sabotaging myself, making sure that I would not push to blog for another 365 days, making sure I did not commit to a goal I wasn’t even sure was my own. But then it happened. I stopped writing for nearly 10 days straight. I did not abandon my blog intentionally, but it wasn’t quite accidental either. I let the end of one semester and its correcting load overpower me at first and then, those despicable seeds of doubt and insecurity began to grow again.

I have doubted my writing, but I have also doubted other parts of what I have done, what I do, who I have been, and who I am. I let negativity seep into my core.

Years ago in my Drama class, and nowadays in my Creative Writing class I warn against the Inner Critic, that voice inside each individual that holds one back from trusting and believing one’s abilities. I know the importance of silencing that voice, but recently I have let the voice of my Inner Critic roar. I easily justify the choices I have made but today I have to put an end to my writing hiatus. I’ve already abandoned some of my passions, having made several excuses. But my time off from writing has made me lose a part of myself that I need on a daily grip on my reality.

If that sounds a bit dramatic, so be it. Of course my life is REAL, whether or not I am blogging from day to day, but given the quick pace of life lately, my blog posts have helped me record my appreciation, my perceptions, my adoration of daily life. Stopping has blurred my appreciation of the good. I’ve let the negatives--situations and people--shake me to the core, shake my confidence, my determination to continue learning. I’ve wanted to give up, to give in, to stop trying, to stop growing.

But here I am tonight. I’m tired and I’m doubting myself. I am doubting my writing. Yet, I am writing and having given myself clear instructions to post something before bed, I am going to post for the first time in a week and a half. And then, I am going to do it again tomorrow.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Their First Few Hours as One

My Mom and Dad celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary yesterday. It was a quiet day for them. My Dad said they visited with my brother John, enjoyed dinner, and played a game of Scrabble. Eleven years ago my siblings and I planned a surprise party for their 50th anniversary. It was quite an undertaking but it had been a sweet way to gather our parents’ loved ones together and to witness the love and respect so many people have for them. Wanting to mark yesterday in a special way, I dug out some old wedding pictures I had recently received from my cousin Cathy. She had acquired them while cleaning out the house of her late father, my Uncle Don, Mom’s brother. I scanned them and sent them along to my siblings and to my parents.

The photographs are precious. They show my Mom and Dad together outside where snow is on the ground, my Mom wrapped in a pretty white mink coat. In one shot they are laughing together. Oh how I have always loved watching them laugh.

When I was married in 1988, I knew I wanted to wear my Mom's dress. I never considered any other. I never went shopping for a different option. I was so grateful that her dress fit. We had someone fix the veil on her hat but that was it. Everything else was perfect and nothing else needed restoration! It hadn't even been professionally preserved!! The color aged consistently and beautifully. It was a gorgeous ecru color. It had tiny little buttons all the way down the front from the Peter Pan collar to the start of the skirt. The gown is a luxurious one made of satin and lace. I've always known there is NO WAY I could have ever found a more perfect dress.

In another picture, Mom has changed out of her wedding gown and she and Dad are about to take off on their honeymoon after the wedding reception. I knew they had driven to their first home, a good six hours away, but I did not know any other particulars. Those aren’t the type of details a daughter asks her parents after all!

However, after seeing the pictures, Dad wrote and told me, “Anne, The photos sure took Mom and I back some 61 years-----snow and all -----same white stuff that I see outside our house to day. The photos sure bring back memories ----after the wedding it was a long six plus hour drive to our apartment here in town. We had a JJ Newberry's store sitting on a stool at the counter. Your father was a real high roller with the few bucks that he had in his pocket. We also stopped to take a picture of the Maine State House in Augusta. When we was dark and the wind was blowing a gale across the road and the temperature was down close to zero or lower----I also remember the temperature on Monday morning the day I went to the mill ----it was 25 below zero. No earth warming that winter.”

Today I returned to the pile of pictures from Cathy. Sure enough, there were two pictures taken at the State House. They had each taken a picture of their new spouse. These photographs made me smile even more than the previous ones. For these marked the first few hours of my parents as they made their solo journey into married life together. Two individuals now joined as one. What an adventure for a young couple. And how blessed my four siblings and I have been to share our lives with them.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Game Player

Anger is a normal part of life, no matter how hard we try to avoid that emotion. I foolishly try to control my own anger when it flares especially when the pot is stirred by a situation or a person I cannot control, namely, the game player. I work hard to control my own reactions. I try to remember the words of a former colleague of mine, a man who reminded me of the importance of having a sense of humor when a situation is bad. It helps me downplay the drama or at the very least, to restrain me from adding more fuel to the flames.

Yet, I also realize that anger cannot be fully suppressed at times and to try to squelch it completely is probably not healthy. I may bite my lip but my teeth will still grind at night. I may laugh it off, but the tears of frustration will still fall in a different hour. Muscles will cramp and an innocent stray obstacle in my path will be cursed and kicked. So, what am I to do to alleviate the stress that stems from anger? Usually the answer is to confront the situation head on, as difficult as that may be. But in some situations, that is the least wise option. And when that’s the case and stepping out of the path of the fire isn’t a choice either? Well, that’s when I rally the troops and I strengthen my resolve. I wish I could write the specifics of what has me so angry tonight, but I cannot. Still, it's time I work through this so I can beat the game player at his own game. I just wish I didn't have to do this as often as I do. It's exhausting and my anger is justified for the energy it takes to keep playing this game takes me away from more important people.

Although I wish I could hold onto the belief that people can change, no matter how many transgressions are in their past, I know better. The idiom, “A leopard can't change its spots” applies here. I am not talking about someone I’ve had limited experience with or someone whose perspective I simply do not know or agree with, no, I’m talking about someone whose practices and whose behaviors consistently show them to be vindictive, vain, and emotionally abusive. There will be no great revelation or redemption for this individual any time soon because they see no reason to change. But oh, despite their past pledges to learn and grow, words spoken when their back was against the wall, I was never fooled, not for a minute. The seediness is at their core. Once a game player, always a game player. And thus, the games play on.

Those who never learned how to act in appropriate manners continue to turn to manipulative and unsavory ways. I wish I could sidestep the games but unfortunately I cannot without abandoning what is at the very center of who I am and what I believe in. My compass, however, becomes governed by the lessons I want my children to learn. When I or others have been wronged by the game player, I think on what advice or guidance I would give my kids. And so, in hopes of giving myself direction on how to continue on from here with the game player, here are ten things I’d tell my children.

1. Don’t let the bad guys win. Do what is right, not what is easy. Always.
2. Be honest but know there is no shame in holding your cards close to your chest when you’re playing cards. The cards will be revealed but you won’t win if you don’t play them at the right time.
3. If you lose one time, it doesn’t mean you cannot return to battle again. Retreat if necessary, go figure out what went wrong, and find your way back to the game so you can put to play a better strategy. Just don’t get caught up in the game itself.
4. Look your opponent straight in the eyes. Really look. You’ll see something and they will know they’ve been exposed.
5. Don’t let a game player’s words shake you or make you doubt yourself. That’s their best move, to play upon your goodness, your tendency to find fault in yourself which is your natural habit in order to better yourself. Don’t give them ammunition to use against you.
6. When you fail to find your next words to say to them, smile. Don’t laugh, just smile. It will disarm them, at least momentarily.
7. Wash your hands when you walk away. Let the water soak into your skin and remind yourself that your time with the game player’s dirt will not rub off on you.
8. Remind yourself of specific people who will be helped by your brave actions today, tomorrow, or in the future. It’s not always about saving yourself but of saving something or someone who will come after you.
9. Believe that despite the bleakest forecast, you have a power that cannot be completely ineffective. Trust that something you did or said will plant a seed that someday, in the worst of situations, might take root and grow. You may not see proof of that, but trust it has a chance. Maybe this won’t happen but imagine if it did.
10. Ask God to be by your side as you do battle today, tomorrow, and in the future. He knows your heart and your soul and you have no better ally than Him.

So, let’s play, game player. Bring it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

It's Okay You Know

It’s okay you know, to not know what you are,
to keep the door ajar, but to travel near and far
to that destination you think you ought to see,
to that image of the person you think you ought to be.

It’s far more acceptable to feel that bit of shame,
than to wonder how you came, to fear that ounce of fame.
For the spotlight fades and you’re left there in the dark,
with the memories fading of the place you think you left your mark.

Take just one moment and drop down on your knees.
Wanting so to please, you must know you have the keys
to trust that person I know you are inside-
the girl who doesn’t lie, the one who wonders why.

Take the reins my dear, and direct the path you’ll take.
Ignore the pain and ache. Steel yourself and you won’t break.
You won’t crumble swiftly, nor will you be wronged.
If you'll vow to remain strong, you will carry on.

Take the chance before you and give it all you can.
Take the future by the hand, you don’t need to have a plan.
It’s okay you know, to trust the heart that cries.
You’ll be comforted and helped along. He is forever by your side.

Feeling Amiss

It’d been a weird weekend. It hadn’t been a bad weekend by any definition of the word, for I had the chance to get some extra rest and I enjoyed time with both children at home and my husband too. I even had time to cuddle up with both pets. I knew how lucky I’d been. I’d gotten some work done and I took opportunities to watch a couple of movies too. I had gone out to breakfast and had watched my youngest play basketball, scoring 10 points in a close game. But something had felt unsettled within me over the past several days. “Maybe I am coming down with something?”, I thought. It was an odd feeling with an unknown cause. Something had simply felt amiss.

It’s true I had been stressed, but I wasn’t sure that my level of stress had been any higher than usual. Life gets busy and I’m used to juggling many things. Sure, there’d been a few headaches too, but a few motrin and an extra dose of caffeine seemed to have taken care of those.

I sensed I needed something. I turned to work, to music, to family, to television, to friends, and to writing, but I hadn’t found what I needed. Thinking I was suffering from sleep deprivation, I turned in early each night and in the afternoons, I napped. I picked up a magazine and a book, I played with the puppy, but something was eluding me. I browsed the web, even ordered a few things on sale hoping retail therapy might be the answer. I went to Mass, balanced my checkbook, and straightened out the house, but again, it hadn’t presented itself. I laughed and I cried but I’d failed to possess whatever it was that I needed.

So, instead of belaboring the issue on the last evening of the weekend, I decided to stop looking for whatever it was that was needed and to stop worrying over what seemed strange. I told myself I would simply take the next several hours before I turned in for the night and I’d be grateful to have them. Seeing the puppy at the door, I then headed outside into the cold night air.

The puppy ran out in front of me, happy to have company outside. I didn’t plan on staying long but not wanting to bother with a coat, I’d grabbed a shawl to wrap around my shoulders. Stepping out of the garage to the open air, I suddenly spotted the bright moon shining through the trees and as I often do in the summer’s sun, I impulsively took a seat on a dry patch of our driveway and looked up.

The moon was dazzling. The puppy ran into the woods and I stretched out on the driveway, avoiding the tracks of snow, and gazed up into the contrast of the illuminated orb against this dark winter night. The stillness of the world invited me to take a deep breath, to hold the beauty of the scene inside my lungs. I heard the puppy thrashing in the brush in the woods at the side of the house and I smiled. As cozy warm as it was inside our home, there was a feeling of exhilaration outside under the moonlit sky. I knew I couldn’t stay out all evening. I would eventually stand up and walk back inside and put myself to bed, but I didn’t rush...for in those moments, nothing felt amiss.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Epiphany

When I was little, my Mom told me her little trick in remembering the importance of today’s date, January 6th. Not only was it her mother’s birthday but it is the traditional date of the Epiphany, the 12th Day of Christmas when the Three Wise Men came to visit the baby Jesus. “My Mom’s name is Stephanie. And Epiphany sounds like Stephanie so that helps me remember!”, she told me. It was an effective trick. I’ve never forgotten to observe this day since.

The word epiphany means "to show" or "to make known" or "to reveal." In churches, the Epiphany marks the Magi bringing gifts to Christ and in doing so, they reveal Jesus to all as Lord and King. When my children were younger, I would set the three king figures of our Nativity Scene, our Creche, away from the manger, having them approach closer and closer each day. When today arrived, they were “welcomed” into the manger where the figures of Mary and Joseph were with the baby Jesus. When I taught freshmen, I loved to utilize the O. Henry story, The Gift of the Magi, each holiday season. My teens loved the story but often many of them needed me to explain the reference to the three wise men in the tale’s title. I was always happy to give them that introduction.

But all lessons aside, the word epiphany is one of my favorite words. Beyond the Christian significance of the term, it is defined as “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience”. I’ve experienced many such perceptions or insights over the years, and although it’s not my intention to speak to any in great detail today, I am thinking of a particular epiphany I had at Christmastime a few weeks back. Let me simply say today that my Christmastime epiphany was indeed a sudden and intuitive perception that was initiated by the simple selection of a word I chose to use in place of another. I called my annual Christmas Eve Buffet a “feast”, and I was miraculously transported to an emotional place I’d longed to be at for quite some time. Oh, this would make much more sense if I got into greater detail here, but I’m not prepared to do that right now. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

This January 6th date will always be special to me. I will forever think of my Mom and my Nana on this day. Perhaps together we are three women of wisdom who in our own time come to humbly bow before our precious Lord?

Sick Day Allowance

I haven’t felt well for the past couple of days. Headaches have plagued me and I’m not sure if they are due to stress or perhaps caffeine withdrawal since I began drinking less diet coke after the new year. Fatigued also however at the end of the day, I’ve gone to bed earlier each night and have tried to take time out of my busy day to rest. But today I needed to take a “sick day” off from work. Not an easy decision, I had to talk myself into the plan yesterday as I made sub plans and thought through how my classes could be planned to minimize the impact of my being gone so close to the end of the semester before midterms.

As the day ended yesterday, my coworker and good friend Jeanna came to my classroom for one of our regular visits. The two of us have been at the school for almost the same number of years and awhile back we discovered we have many things in common; even our typologies are identical! Yet Jeanna is a single woman who does not have children. She lives alone and although she has her own array of non-work responsibilities, she recognizes how very different our days are when we leave for home at the end of our workday.

After we spent some time talking about curriculum, students, and the latest staff meeting, I told Jeanna about my headaches and how I was thinking of taking the next day off. I told her of my mixed feelings of doing that and began justifying my decision and assuring her (and myself) that I would work from home and get some correcting done. She then jumped in and told me how just that morning she’d been thinking of me as she arrived at school early to organize her day. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow. Anne is at home making lunches for her family right now’. I go home and I do this and that. You go home and start another full time job tending to the activities of your children”.

I began to respond. I got a few words out before my eyes filled with tears and I stopped myself. Without my having to say another thing, Jeanna had given me the words of permission, of allowance, that I needed. I was touched by her recognition and acknowledgement of my juggling act.

So this morning, after calling for a substitute teacher, I went back to bed. I slept in and awoke to see snow falling outside my bedroom window. It seemed almost symbolic, as if the world was telling me today was my day to take comfort, to rest my weary soul, and to give myself a clean slate. Tomorrow is another day. I’ll get back to school work and I’ll make my family their lunches, and I’ll do it with a smile. But today I am letting myself take it easy, to recover from these headaches, and to unwind. For I am no good to anyone if I am not first fair to myself.

Befriending a Hermit

How does one define a friend? There are many definitions and people differ in how they classify people they know. What is the difference between an acquaintance, a neighbor, a coworker, a classmate? Does the amount of time you spend with another in a particular setting and in a particular way make them a friend? There has been a lot of chatter about this in the age of Facebook and I have taken note. In the book, The Art of Friendship, the authors write,

Friendship is not always easily defined. There is a range of meaningful relationships, and not all of them need to be of the close, call-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the night variety to be worthwhile. Work friendships, situational friendships, cordial acquaintanceships--the varieties are as plentiful as the people you meet. Each type of friend should be treated with respect and the appropriate level of affection. If you stay open to the possibilities for friendships that do not necessarily conform to the most common expectations, you are likely to engage in some rewarding interactions that you would otherwise miss out on (Roger & Sally Horchow).

I am a pretty independent woman (I often call myself a hermit actually), and I always put family first, however I highly value my friendships with both men and women. I am a loyal friend and a fierce friend. Very protective and never afraid to speak up when necessary, I come to the defense of any whom I learn have been wronged.

I am very open to people, the differences between us, and the respect I offer up in knowing that we as human beings are all unique and free to live our lives however we do, and yet sometimes I probably appear to be quite picky or selective in my friendships. I am not sure about that. I tend to welcome different people with a smile or a conversation, but then again, my time and energy is precious and if I am bothered by one’s actions, words, or attitude, I don’t invest much in continuing a relationship with that person. It’s not that I need people to be like me, but some folks give off a vibe that is sneaky or dishonest and that’s a huge turn-off. I don’t need to be friends with everyone and I will not be someone I am not, simply to gain another friend.

I warmly treasure several friends I have had since I was a little girl, and I am proud of the people I have befriended only recently. They are all good people and I feel good to have relationships with them. Although quite shy at times, once I find common ground or develop similar goals with someone, I rarely hesitate to open up and trust. Some of my friendships are very easy. I know this will sound selfish (and I suppose it is), but there are the friends who require very little of my time or attention, those who I fall easily into conversations with no matter how long it’s been since we last talked. My dearest and oldest friends aren’t in constant need of me nor am I with them. We are all quite the same when it comes to our priorities with our families and we’re simply on the same page when it comes to our relationships. Cheryl and Ann Marie are two such friends. I befriended Cheryl when we were just 8 years old and our bond to this day is strong. Built on 36 years of fun and fights, cheering and chiding, mayhem and maturity, we’ve remained committed to one another and I love her as a sister. I will never let her go. Ann Marie and I became friends when we were 12. We endured middle school and high school together and visited one another frequently in college. We have similar stubborn personalities, are both passionate about our families, and as with Cheryl, we’ve grown up together and have similar values. My times with Cheryl and Ann Marie are always filled with both serious talks and great fun.

As I became an adult other friendships became important to me. There were those I met in college and in graduate school. And there were those I met on the job over the twenty years of my career, and those I befriended in the community where I settled twenty years ago. Community theater, church, and meeting the parents of my children’s friends secured other important friendships for me. Relationships challenge me; they help me practice patience, perspective, and compassion. I have much to learn from people. Becoming friends with people of various ages is an amazing experience also, let me add.

I have both female and male friends. Friendships with men have always helped me along in life. It’s no secret. Although women are quick to understand one another, I need good guys in my life. Men offer me those brotherly relationships that are so important. I’ve long easily been comfortable hanging out with guys, no doubt that’s because of the amount of time I spent with my own Dad and my three brothers. I demand respect however from the men I am friends with, and if I don’t receive it, we’re done.

After joining Facebook, a strange but beautiful phenomenon occurred. People from all the various areas in my life came back into my daily life, and not solely in a virtual way. Some friends and I have reconnected beyond our laptop greetings. I’ve had a chance to reconnect with people I knew only superficially in the past and I’ve become closer to people I see regularly. It’s as though we’re all meeting over the picket fence, sharing stories over coffee in the kitchen, having slumber parties, or passing notes. I’m tickled by it in all honesty because it doesn’t take me away from my loved ones. We’re connecting when there is time to, when our days allow a few moments to check in with one another. And when we do make plans to see each other in person, there is less of that awkward feeling of trying to come up with conversation; we easily dive into an easy dialogue with one another. I sometimes feel I wish I could live twice as long so I could make more friends with those I never had the opportunity to get to know. Wow. This hermit is evolving.

The lyrics to one of my favorite songs, For Good from the Broadway musical Wicked, capture my thoughts perfectly tonight: "I’ve heard it said, that people come into our lives for a reason bringing something we must learn, and we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them, and we help them in return". In my near 44 years, people have come into my life and our friendships have continued to teach me greatly. There are numerous people I hope to write about in this coming year. I wish to offer up my sincere acknowledgement of how they have touched my life. My talks and time with different individuals have helped me grow and mature, and others have allowed me to remain childlike and impulsive. We never truly know how our being affects others however. So I only hope I have helped my friends in return. What I know for sure is that I truly love people and I am so very grateful for my friendships. Will there be more? I don’t think I need more but I am excited to see what the future holds.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Paying It Forward

I am one of those people who adores craft fairs but who rarely buys a thing because I “could easily make one of those” myself. I am one of those people who paws through magazine articles showing clever projects and who vows I’ll “make one of those” next season. Of course, I never do get around to making those items, but I know I fully intend to do so in the future.

My grandmother, Dad’s Mom, began painting in her golden years, so there’s still hope for me. My Mom nicknamed her “Grandma Moses” after the American folk artist who also began her painting career at an advanced age. Grammy’s paintings hang in my parents’ home and in a few of my siblings’ houses also. Grammy was working her way through her list of grandchildren, giving each one a painting, but of course, being one of the youngest, I did not receive one before she died. Still, I’ve long adored her artwork and it makes me so happy to know that she picked up the hobby later in life. My Nana, my Mom’s Mom, had an incredible talent for needlework. She knitted, did crochet, embroidery, and tatting. My prized gift from her was a box of knitted doll clothes along with a set of twin dolls, half the size of a Barbie. The clothes included pants, jackets, dresses, shoes, and various styles of hats. I remember playing with them constantly as a child and later I preserved them and gave them to my two daughters. When my daughters grew too old to play with dolls, I put Nana’s knitted clothes and the dolls back into my hope chest. Someday I hope to take them out for my future grand-daughters when they visit me.

My Mom knitted, did needlepoint, and she also took time to learn how to make baskets. Additionally she took a ceramics class and later painted porcelain. Again, I was too young to receive any gifts that she made (a nativity set and Christmas tree for my sister who was married and had her own home at the time for example), but I loved seeing the various crafts she’d made around the house. Other family members and friends displayed their share of talents too. Some made fabric dolls, photo albums, curtains, and jewelry. Others made their own greeting cards or sewed their children’s clothes.

I’ve tried my hand at some crafts too, but none seem to stick with me. Regretfully I never did learn how to knit. However, I’ve vowed to return to my love of painting with acrylics (a few still life paintings I did long ago still hang in my parents’ house), although truth be told, a starter set my husband sweetly bought me for Christmas a few years ago remains untouched. I made a lovely needlepoint wall hanging for my Mom that took me most of my first pregnancy to finish twenty years ago, but I never did finish making a single item of needlepoint to place in my own home. I sewed a few aprons as a teen but then never continued to sew as my children with their duct taped Halloween costumes can attest to. In the last twenty years I have baked gifts of cookies, candies, and breads though, and I’ve used my love of photography, videography, digital storytelling, and old-fashioned writing to build meaningful presents for loved ones.

So, last year a “Pay It Forward” challenge popped up on Facebook. We were invited to place ourselves on a short list of lucky recipients who would receive a hand-made present from a friend if quick enough to respond. Then we were to post our own invite to have others place their names, requesting a hand-made present from us in one year’s time. At the time it seemed to be a lovely opportunity fostering love and friendship through items made by our own hands. I remember thinking of a few things I might make, for again, I am always big on ideas if weak or short on time in my follow through. I all but forgot about the challenge, however, as the months passed.

Then today I opened a box I received in the mail. Inside I found a note from my kindergarten teacher, a wonderful woman who worked for 38 years as a public school teacher before retiring this past spring. Miss Thames had knitted me a beautiful prayer shawl to wrap around myself as I sat on my couch with my puppy. I was immediately touched by the sweetness of her note and the warmth of the gesture. Forever appreciative of the dedicated time and talent displayed by the handiwork of my former teacher, I will treasure that shawl always.

Tonight I am again thinking of that “Pay it Forward” challenge. I’ll have to do some digging to remember who I promised presents to, and I’ll now wrack my brain to think of how I might similarly touch a few dear friends of mine with a hand-made treasure. Maybe I should return to my love of acrylics. Maybe I should return to needlepoint. But first I thought it best to use my hands to type a sincere thank you to my teacher. Not only do I wrap that shawl around my shoulders on this chilly winter evening, but I do so resolving to push ahead the generosity and goodwill displayed to me by helping others. It is my hope that the time and talent within my own hands can spread exponentially.

The future must be seen in terms of what a person can do to contribute something, to make something better, to make it go where he believes with all his being it ought to go. - Frederick R. Kappel

Monday, January 2, 2012

Under the Tree of Tinsel

A good snapshot stops a moment from running away. ~Eudora Welty

It was their first Christmas together as a married couple. They’d married in mid-January at 8:00am in the morning, a time which would allow her boss a chance to attend before returning to open his shop. "I was like a daughter to him", Mom explained. After the wedding, they took off and drove several hours until they reached their home, their first home. One year and ten days later, they became a family of three. This picture was taken just a month or so before their first child, Linda, arrived. It must be her teddy bear Mom is holding in the picture.

This picture was one inside a stack of photographs given to me a few days ago, a belated Christmas present from my cousin Cathy. Cathy’s Dad, my Mom’s brother, passed away a few months ago, and Cathy saved a few of his photographs to give to me. They included several pictures of my Mom and Dad’s wedding day, shots of my parents with their own parents, and a few of their early years as parents themselves. As I opened the package containing these photographs, I felt my eyes water in gratitude. All in black and white, the images are striking, expressions on my loved ones’ faces captured forever.

I have always loved taking pictures and ever since I got my first camera when I was barely in first grade, I’ve been fascinated by how a photograph can preserve an emotion that otherwise would fade in one’s memory. There is beauty in our attempt to capture time in this way and in the way photographs become more precious as time passes.

The photograph of my Mom and Dad sitting together under their Christmas tree is one of my favorites. I love the way my young Mom is holding the teddy bear, the way my youthful Dad has his arm wrapped around his bride of nearly a year, Dad’s slippers and socks, Mom’s white blouse, the furniture, and even the way I see strands of tinsel on the tree, the same type of tinsel my Mom had us don our tree with for years. She explained to us how the Christmas lights would be reflected in it and that if placed one piece at a time (rather than thrown in clumps), the tree would look truly beautiful.

It makes me smile to see how very happy and content my parents look in this photograph. How blessed I was to have been born to these two wonderful people another 16 years, 16 Christmas trees with strands of tinsel, later.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


It was Sydney’s day to return to college after a two and a half week vacation here at home. She’d spent part of her New Year’s Eve packing her things. As though delaying the inevitable, I slept later than I had all vacation. Even the puppy cooperated and did not come to wake me until after 9:00am. After deciding that her father would take her back, I hopped in the shower and got dressed. I figured if they wanted me to come along, I’d be ready. But no, within the hour, she and her Dad would be on their way by themselves. She loaded the car and gathered some groceries that she could take back with her. And I began cleaning the countertops.

I cleaned the counter then moved the kitchen-aide mixer to the island. I scrubbed the appliance, cleaning every inch that had been neglected during the baking of Christmas cookies over the past two weeks. I suddenly needed to carry out the task more meticulously and persistently than usual. As I worked, Sydney continued to lug items to the car. I continued to clean. I took time out to hug her goodbye and to pose for a picture or two, told her to “be good”, and then she was gone. I returned to my mixer and finished cleaning it. Then I tackled the two drawers in the kitchen island. Emptying each and organizing the spatulas and measuring cups, I focused on the job at hand.

When the drawers were done I prepared a late lunch for Emma and Paul. Then I picked over the roasted chicken and began making soup. I ran to the store briefly to get milk, but returned to fold two baskets of clothes and washed some dishes. Once my husband arrived home and I knew all was well, I sank into my recliner. I read several magazines and watched some tv. I began to breathe more deeply and was able to relax.

There is something that kicks in with me when I know my daughter is in transition. I grow restless and I try to mask my anxiety with chores and cooking. It’s similar to the pregnancy instinct of "nesting", described as “an uncontrollable urge to clean one's house brought on by a desire to prepare a nest for the new baby, to tie up loose ends of old projects and to organize your world” ( According to research, it is a primal instinct. Birds make their nests, mothers-to-be begin cleaning their houses, fueled by unusual bursts of energy. I suppose the act of nesting allows for some semblance of control as she prepares for the upcoming arrival.

I am not quite sure why a mother of a young woman on her way back to college, the mother of a girl three weeks shy of her 20th birthday, should partake in this routine. She’d been here for two and a half weeks already. We’d had a beautiful time together as a family but she was now on her way back to school. Why clean now? Perhaps it’s only natural. Perhaps I simply want to ensure that the nest will be comfortable enough for my baby bird to fly home to the next time the wind blows her this way.