2020 – Taking Some, Leaving Some

Never in my life have I been so willing to say goodbye to a year. And while I know that tomorrow won’t magically turn the page on events that have worn us all weary, I am confident that better days are in our sights.

Sayonara 2020! And good riddance!

Truth be told, I actually feel a bit sorry for 2020, it being a year that will live on in infamy. After all, it isn’t 2020’s fault that a pandemic fell into its lap, exacerbated by racial and political tensions boiling over. To be fair, on this last day of 2020, I should at least acknowledge that its events, if we’re wise, might serve to open our eyes to very necessary change. I should even admit that the past 365 days brought some goodness into my world, including a necessary slowing of life’s pace, a deepening of my trust in God, and a greater appreciation for all that I already have. In fact, in spite of all of the year’s darkness, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that my family has experienced some true blessings.

As I replace the old calendar with a brand new one tomorrow, I’m reluctant to be too bold in making resolutions. I think I should instead face whatever comes a bit more deliberately. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that my own reality isn’t necessarily truth. And the older I get, the more I realize that don’t always know what I think I know. So I hope that 2021, for me will be about taking a step back and taking a few deep breaths. Which plays into the one true goal I’m setting for the new year… to stop worrying!

Okay, that’s pretty bold. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I think it’s time I tackle this bad habit. I am a champion worrier. Always have been, from the time I was very young. I’ve always worried what people think of me. Too much. I’ve always worried about what-ifs. Give me a worst-case-scenario and I’m going to dwell on it. I worry about things that have happened, and things that might happen. I get anxious about my loved ones and friends, their safety, their health, their emotional well-being. And I only breathe a sigh of relief when the bad thing I’ve imagined doesn’t come to pass. This is no way to live.

I think that I’ve convinced myself that I’m not loving well if I don’t worry about others. But recently, I’ve realized just how much sleep I’ve lost over the years with this habit. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times, that nothing good can be gained by worrying. It can’t change the outcome of any circumstance and only serves to take away my own peace of mind. Also, I know I’ve often placed a weight on others when voicing my own worry.

It seems odd that I might think I can just choose to stop worrying, but I think I have, and it’s working. I’ll give some credit to habits I’ve made more consistent in the past year, specifically, prayer and meditation. In fact, it was serendipitous timing that my HeadSpace app sent me this reminder today:

“A day thinking about what could happen, should happen, or what might have been, is a day missed.”

Quite honestly, several times lately, I have simply chosen to stop worrying and I truly surprised myself when I succeeded. When a snowstorm hit our area the other day, for instance, normally I would wring myself out with worry about my kids’ safety while driving to and from work. This time, I just chose to stop. For some reason I can now accept that it doesn’t make me a bad mom if I don’t get into a panic about my kids’ safe arrival at work. If something were to happen, then would be the time to focus my thoughts on it. If not, and if I haven’t worried about it, I haven’t wasted precious time being anxious for no reason.

This. This is what I need more of. This is my resolution for 2021.

I do have one other goal that I’m confident I can accomplish next year. Stand-up paddle boarding. I tried it a few years ago and loved it. I’m good at it too. Not that it requires much in the line of physical greatness. You stand up on the board. You balance. You paddle. This I can do. I’ve seen others who can’t manage the standing and balancing and therefore, I’ll personally claim this ability as a skill. I’ve pondered buying a good board for years now. They aren’t cheap and I’ve never allowed myself the extravagance. But I received a holiday bonus from my employer this month and I’ve decided what to do with it. If there was ever a time to spend money on something fun, something that’s also good for the body, mind and soul, it’s now.

So I’ll say goodbye to 2020, and thank it for the lessons learned. I look forward optimistically, yet cautiously to a brighter year ahead.

A Winter Night’s Walk

Today was my last day of work for the year and it ended with me feeling like I could crawl out of my own skin. It was probably an inevitable occurrence after ten months of (and now permanently) working at home, when leaving work merely means shutting down the computer and walking upstairs to the kitchen to make dinner. Also, Christmas is over and it’s all of a sudden too quiet. The evening routine has become painfully, well … routine. I shouldn’t complain, I know. I don’t need to be reminded how fortunate I really am. I think tonight’s mood is just courtesy of 2020. I’m actually surprised it took this long.

A winter storm has been playing out since early afternoon. I paced around the house after reheating some leftovers for dinner. I stopped at a window several times to stare out into the darkness and watch the snow showering down from above. Jack asked what was wrong, twice. I told him I was bored, twice. I hated that I sounded like a spoiled child. It’s not as if I couldn’t find something to read, or tackle some project. I just was at odds with myself. He asked if I wanted to go shopping and offered to drive me.

“I don’t want to spend money just to cure my boredom,” I moped. “Bad idea.”

“Go outside and shovel,” he suggested.

You go outside and shovel,” I mimicked under my breath. Of course he would suggest that. I was mildly irritated because much as I hate to admit we’re still this old-school, the outdoor jobs are, by default, his responsibility. Since he doesn’t contribute much inside the house, those kinds of jobs fall on me. Also, it seemed kind of pointless to go out and shovel the driveway when there’s a perfectly good, new-just-last-year snow blower sitting in the garage that I know he’ll be just dying to fire up tomorrow.

I had to admit Jack was onto something though, since I soon found myself shoving feet into boots and digging in the closet for a hat and scarf. I’d gone out for my lunchtime walk earlier today, as usual, but I still needed to burn off some steam.

So I layered up in all my outdoor clothing and went out to shovel the driveway and front walk. By the time I was done, there was already a new layer of snow covering it all up again, so I ran my shovel back and forth again, which was clearly proving to be a futile effort and which hadn’t produced the desired effect on my psyche anyway. I poked my head inside the door and called out to Jack that I was going for a walk.

His face appeared in the stairway from the lower level. “Are you okay?”

“Yes… No… I just need to get out for a while.”

“Okay,” he said a bit warily as I closed the door behind me. And I trudged off.

I love the path that runs behind our house. On nicer days, I can follow its entire loop (about five miles) and arrive right back at home. Tonight, in the dark, with the snow falling steadily and my feet kicking up a poof of fresh powder with each stride, it was enough to walk up the hill, across the bridge and then turn around to come back again.

It felt so good to be out of the house, away from the same old walls and the constant sound of a television. I took long, purposeful strides and filled my lungs with the wintry air, hoping to replace the stale feeling inside of me with something cleaner and lighter. The blanket of white on the ground muffled the sounds of cars as they drove by, but magnified the steady note of a train whistle. At the house next to the farm, someone was driving a four-wheeler around the yard and pulling a chain of strung-together sleds filled with kids. The kid in the caboose waved at me as I walked by. That made me smile. I waved back and felt a little better.

Christmas lights still adorned trees and twinkled outside many of the neighborhood houses. Chunky snowflakes pelted my cheeks as I kept moving ahead. I crossed paths with a guy sporting a full, black beard turned white with snow, but otherwise had the path to myself. The tops of my boots filled with snow and the lower half of my jeans got wet, but I didn’t care. Whatever it was that had been churning around inside me was finally gone by the time I came back home.

Jack looked relieved when I came back through the door.

“Better?” He asked.

“Better.” I said. Much better.

Quietest Christmas Ever

Christmas 2020, as so many speculated it would be, was quiet, different, and a bit strange.

How many years, fueled by stress, lack of sleep, or family drama, have I sulkily threatened to skip Christmas next time around? Even minus a set of holiday-frazzled nerves, I’ve often contemplated if anyone would really miss us if we we chose instead to spend a quiet Christmas at home, just our immediate family. Well guess what? Maybe when you wish for something often enough it actually comes true. And maybe it doesn’t end up being all it was cracked up to be.

Don’t get me wrong. My Christmas was good. I’d even go so far as to say it was wonderful. My kids are all doing well, each of their lives on the precipice of the next leg of a journey. When they’re happy, I’m happy. And I’m reminded daily how fortunate we’ve been in a year that has been cruel to so many. Perhaps I needed this change from our holiday standard to fully realize how blessed I am – to have siblings and in-laws, nieces and nephews (plus an ever-growing number of their significant others,) and even great-nieces and great nephews. This Christmas showed me that extended family, with all of its joys, differences and yes, its inevitable drama, is one of life’s greatest gifts.

Instead of being with my side of the family on Christmas Eve as usual, we gathered with only our children and their significant others. Other than the fact that I made way, way too much food, it felt much like any other family dinner. We opened our gifts afterwards and it was all done much too soon.

Christmas Day is usually spent with Jack’s enormous family, an all day affair at the home of his older brother, the only one with enough space in his house to accommodate what would have been forty-eight of us this year. Yesterday, Jack and I instead spent the day at home, alone. I cleaned up the kitchen a bit and gathered boxes and stray wrapping before making a day of watching Christmas movies, napping and shopping online for new flatware. (Several forks have noticeably gone missing. It’s time to replace the old set!) Jack watched football and balanced the checkbook. One of Jack’s sisters and her husband stopped by in the afternoon to drop off some home made fudge and a bottle of wine. They stood by the door wearing masks and we kept our distance doing the same. We exchanged a brief hello and Merry Christmas before they were gone again, and otherwise the day was uneventful. Doing nothing wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it would be either, but it’s given me a sense of ambition for today!

After this Christmas, I refuse to let bitterness be the thing I carry beyond 2020. Although I know my emotions may always have the potential to get the best of me, particularly during intense situations, I’ve promised myself to try never again to take for granted how blessed we are to have family and friends who are both like us and so different all at the same time. I vow to show others more appreciation and to give voice to the love I feel for them.

Take that, 2020. We win.

Lessons Learned in 2020

It’s December 23rd and I took the day off from work. I’m looking forward to a nice five-day weekend. In a year that has forced us to be chill, I find myself facing the holidays with an unusually relaxed state of mind. Our normal extended family gatherings aren’t happening this year and we’ll be celebrating in a much more low-key way. Our three kids and their significant others will be with us for Christmas Eve dinner and presents. At least that’s the plan. I just caught the weather forecast and it sounds like our so-far brown December is coming to an end today with anywhere from five to nine inches of snow expected to fall before morning. I just pray the roads are clear enough for the kids to get here safely tomorrow afternoon. If not? Well it won’t be the first holiday we spend apart this year. But I really, really want to be with my kids this Christmas and I’m not sure I’ll handle it so well if things don’t work out. I know I really have nothing to complain about though, and I’ll do my best to handle whatever may transpire without feeling too sorry for myself.

Still, while I wait to put this year in the rearview mirror, I’m reminded – not for the first time – that I have it pretty good. And I keep thinking that this time is meant to be teaching us something, leading us somewhere better. As I face a not-so-normal Christmas, I realize I’m not that upset about it. How many years have I caved to the pressure of pulling off the perfect holiday only to lose sleep and stress out to the point that I end up ruining it for myself? So often the beauty and meaning of the season is totally lost on me. I love our extended family in all of their wonderful, albeit sometimes quirky and maddening ways, and I look forward to when we can celebrate all kinds of occasions together again. But maybe taking a step back this year isn’t such a bad thing.

This year has pulled back the curtain for me on all the ways the people of this world still haven’t grown up (myself included). I realize how naïve I’ve been and recognize that injustice of all kinds is ages old. It’s not somewhere out there in the faraway places of the earth, but right here in my own back yard. I’ve become hyper-aware of how little progress we’ve made in taking better care of each other, or sharing our abundance with those who have less. As I continue to anticipate brighter days ahead, I hope for less selfishness and greed, and a much kinder, gentler, compassionate population of people. It may just be that I’m getting older and typically realizing I don’t actually need everything I’ve always thought I did. But the added benefit to this state of mind is it makes me want to give back more, and more often.

My family has been very fortunate throughout all that has transpired this year and that fact is spotlighted every single day with the constantly dire news of all that is going on in the world. We’re all still working and have stayed relatively healthy. Those we know who have contracted the Coronavirus have managed it and recuperated. We’re lucky, I know. And It makes me want to help in whatever way I can. I’m trying.

Jack and I “adopted” a couple of little girls, ages three and six, through a local childcare center. Their mom has had a hard time this year and their grandmother had charge of the girls for a while. Grandma provided the girls’ Christmas wish lists and nothing on those lists was in the least extravagant. We were able to get everything the girls wanted and needed plus a few extras. We also added gift cards for Mom and Grandma so they could purchase groceries and necessities. The director of the daycare center thanked us profusely when we dropped everything off. And she emailed later to thank us again, telling us how Mom cried when she picked up the girls’ gifts and received the gift cards for herself. One of the girls has Celiac Disease and apparently Mom had been forced lately to go to the food shelf in order to feed her family. She had found it nearly impossible to find gluten free items, but the gift cards would allow her to stock up on those foods for a while. Jack and I were both hit hard by this mom’s reality and we’ve talked about making monthly donations to the center so that maybe we can continue to help ease her burdens and those of other families like hers.

The elderly are always on my heart as well, especially this year. Like my own mother-in-law, so many are confined in senior living facilities with limited or no ability to be with loved ones. My mother-in-law is a trooper and always seems to have a positive attitude. She loves to sit and watch the Game Show Network so she easily passes the hours. The staff at her place takes good care of her and she enjoys their daily stops to administer medications or bring meals. She’s got six kids and many grandchildren and receives multiple phone calls a day. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s something. As much as I miss my own parents, I often feel grateful they aren’t here to suffer through this with the health issues they had. It would have been devastating for them. How many people are alone now with little to no outside contact? It weighs on me, and so I found an opportunity to do a small thing about it. A local senior residence offers remote volunteer opportunities. I signed up, spending the past couple of weeks writing letters in Christmas cards to residents who could use a little holiday cheer. I wrote a bit about my family in each card and inserted photos of Lucy Pie. (I hope my cards find their way to some dog-lovers!) In addition, I went to the dollar store and bought all of the large-print crossword, word search, and sodoku books I could find, as well as some games of checkers that might help my “friends” pass the time. Finally, I topped it all off with bags of Christmas candy for the staff and any residents who are allowed. Like our gift-giving efforts for the little girls, the endeavor for the seniors made me realize that I could be doing something all year long and not just during the holidays.

This year will soon come to a close, and while I know 2021 isn’t going to magically erase all the darkness that has hovered during 2020, I hope the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter every day. I will strive to rise above the weight this year’s events while remembering just enough to maintain a softer heart and a spirit of generosity to others. May we all!

The Notebook

No, not that one…

I keep a notebook at my desk in my home office. It’s hard-covered, journal-sized, and I bought it on a whim six months ago because I was drawn to the soft cover art with its biblical quote. At the time, I had the grand idea that I would use it daily to jot down reasons to be grateful. Ironically, I’ve had this same enthusiastic urge several times before in my life, even once using a blog for the same endeavor. And unfortunately, I just never seem to stick with it. Typically, a few pages are completed followed by a long absence of any activity before the notebook is relegated to a junk drawer, ultimately used merely for jotting down lists of mundane things I’m sure I’ll forget to do or buy if I don’t put those thoughts to paper. (Yes, I know that I could use my cell phone for the same reason and manage my to-dos in a much greener way. Paper just seems to be my medium of choice.)

I keep the notebook at my desk because I figured it’s the most likely place I’ll notice it and remember to use it. And that has worked pretty well, though like its predecessors, my current notebook quickly failed to be used only for its original and very specific purpose. Regardless, it has fared much better. A couple of months after starting (and just a few pages in,) I had marked the date in the top right corner as always. But this time, I added some prayers on the lower half of the page. And now half a year after buying the notebook, I can honestly say I’m succeeding in frequenting its pages more than I ever did before with the others. This is the first time I’ve stuck with the habit of using my notebook for the very reason I intended and have even gone beyond. I don’t always manage to write something daily, and I don’t always manage to identify three “gratefuls” each time I write. Sometimes a week goes by with nothing said. But I always seem to come back to it these days. My entries have expanded significantly since those first few pages. My gratefulness goes far beyond the obvious, one time writing that I was grateful for Oprah Winfrey. (Her Super Soul podcast is pretty cool!) And I’ll often make up for missed entries with more than three “gratefuls” and a longer list of prayers.

The reason for writing prayers? I guess I’ve never felt like an accomplished pray-er, but I’ve been inspired by a line I’ve always remembered from the movie The Help. There’s a character in the movie, Aibilene, who talks about writing her prayers down instead of saying them. There’s definitely something to Aibilene’s method. The more prayers I write, the more prayers I have. And the more prayers I have, the more “gratefuls” I realize.

For all that 2020 has held, and in spite of the fact that I have at times experienced levels of anxiety like never before, my notebook keeps me grounded. It gives me an outlet. It helps me find my center again when I feel like I’m spinning out of control. And if I have anything for which to thank 2020, this is definitely something.