It is what it is

I can’t believe it’s autumn already.

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(I just decided to write autumn instead of fall. Does anyone say autumn anymore? Where has that word gone? … Anyway …)

It seems impossible that 2016 is nearly three-quarters of the way gone. The days come and go like a sneeze. This is a sure sign that a) I have WAY too much going on this year, and b) I’m getting old. I’m okay with that. Like always, I still say I’d never go back in time. And I’m much more aware than ever how important it is to make each day count.

The past year has shaken me up. I have had too many reminders of my own mortality. Add to that, too much seems to be falling apart as I sit here helplessly. There is a constant worry about a loved one’s child destroying his life with drugs. (You always think it can’t happen in your own circle, until it does. And it’s horrifying.) There’s the exhausting dysfunction that continues to plague the relationships among my extended family. (Why are some so comfortable being hateful to their own blood?) Sometimes, it’s simply the thought of this county’s next leader that leaves me fearful of tomorrow.

Some days it all weighs on my heart to the point that I wonder why we bother with any of it.

The upside of aging is that while it is still and probably always will be in my nature to worry first and give a heavy amount of attention to the negative stuff, I’m learning not to stop there. There’s just so much I can do nothing about. If I’ve learned anything from losing my 47-year young best friend almost two and half months ago now, it’s that life is simply too short to waste the days giving energy to battles that can’t be won.

There’s a lot of anger and hatred between my siblings, and I guess … I’ll admit … me. I don’t want to own any of this, but if I’m honest, I’m not completely without blame here anymore than the others. I’m just as capable of refusing to see past faults as anyone else. In years past, I found myself constantly trying to fix it. Now I realize that maybe we’ll never be able to understand where each other is coming from. I’m tired of harboring resentment though, and I’m tired of feeling that if it’s going to be fixed, it’s going to have to be me who takes the initiative. As many times as that’s happened, I’m just sick of coming back to the same place again. I’m tired of swallowing my pride and opening my heart and home to others who refuse to acknowledge that they have played and continue to play a role in the fraying of our family life. Maybe it’s enough to just concede that we can’t force togetherness and we should just love each other from a distance.

There’s a woman I work with. We’ll call her Dee. Dee is the most bitter and angry person I’ve ever met. She’s constantly using sarcastic humor to express how stupid she thinks other people are. I know there’s probably a lot of history behind it, but even as I try to understand what might be beneath the surface, there’s a limit to how much thinly veiled judgement I’m willing to take. I think everyone wants to have some friends at work. But Dee? She’s alienated all but me and one other person. We are the only ones willing to eat lunch with Dee anymore. All others have gone their separate ways. This week I told that one other person that she shouldn’t take it personally if I opt not to spend my precious lunch break with her and Dee some days. I see how easily in the past, I’ve been where Dee is right now. I don’t want to fall back to that place and I just don’t think it’s good for me to spend time with a person who doesn’t ever seem to want to let go her darkness. I’ve had enough darkness. I need light in my days.

This year has been good though too. It’s shown me I am strong in ways I never thought I was. The experiences of this year have created a bond so strong between my mom and me that I never thought possible. I will never regret this, I know. But sometimes I worry that I’m falling short in my friend relationships, with the in-law side of my family, and that I should be doing more to give of myself in a wider circle.

Then often comes a reminder from somewhere else. My mom needs me right now more than anyone else needs me. She is my calling at this time. It always comes back to this. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realize that there will be other days for those other things that pull on me. My friends who have been here? They understand this and I love them for it. (Shelly! Rose!)

This year has taught me that there really aren’t any solid lines in this life. As much as we try to tell ourselves as much, there just aren’t. There’s no real black and white. As angry and abandoned as I feel sometimes with some of my siblings, I’m willing to admit that we just haven’t found a way to “get” each other. I love them, but right now, I just need to keep my distance. I don’t have enough energy to do all that I must do every day, and understand things they can’t or aren’t willing to share with me. I frequently remind myself that as much as I’d like to think there’s a way things are supposed to be, things just are what they are. I’ve come to believe that what is supposed to be is mostly an illusion anyway. Someday, it might all be made clear to me, but for now, I have to accept that there’s a lot that isn’t going to make sense. We all choose what we choose in life. We can’t do so for others.

None of us knows what it’s truly like inside the hearts of each other. Sometimes people can’t share what drives them, and rather than hang on to the hurt, we have to either accept it, or just walk away from each other. Sadly, because this world is so broken, sometimes it’s just not possible to have the relationships we imagine in a perfect world.

I’ve come to accept that with precious few hours in a day, and precious few days in this life, I have to put my energy where it’s welcomed, where it can make a positive impact. For now, that’s my immediate family, my mom, and anyone else who is willing for us to accept each other as we are. If someday it’s possible for healing with those who have drifted away, I’ll welcome it. In the meantime, I’m not going to force it.

With age and the experiences of late, my mind and heart seem to be breaking free of the limits I’ve spent a lifetime enforcing on them, in both profound and simple ways. I don’t have to hate. I don’t have to be sad. But I also don’t have to keep exposing myself to people and circumstances that make me hurt. There’s a degree of freedom in finally accepting that I can’t force life to be what I expect it to be. And when I finally begin to see it as it is, it might actually be easier to be happy.

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New Life

Springtime is in full force. The past week brought rain nearly every day, sometimes for endless hours. The grass in the backyard feels like a wet sponge. Lucy comes inside with muddy paws and is learning again that at this time of year, she needs to stop and sit on the rug by the patio door before continuing through the house. She’s not fond of it, but waits patiently enough as someone towels off all four of her soppy, grimy feet. It’s so good to see the sun again today.

The lilies and irises that I split and transplanted a couple of weeks ago are thriving, and the flowering crabapple tree in the front yard is bursting with buds. It won’t be long before it explodes into full pink bloom. It’ll be gorgeous for a few days before all of those tiny flower petals fall off and litter the black asphalt driveway.

Spring is having a positive effect on me too. It always does, but the impact feels more significant this year than ever before. The events of the past winter weighed so heavily on all of us. Lately, I feel as if a sludge is finally draining from my spirit. I’m beginning to find more balance and enthusiasm. Instead of every other day,  or even less as had become my habit during the darkest days of the past few months, I’ve been to the gym daily the last two weeks, and add mid-day walks whenever I can fit them in. It’s good for the body, but maybe more importantly right now, puts my head in a much brighter place.

It’s always amazing to me to realize that no matter how old I get, I can always change and improve, not just my habits, but  the way I view the world, my circumstances, and whether I’ll rise to meet them, or let them drag me down.

Although, I’m apparently a slow learner. I hate to think how many years I spent maintaining feelings of bitterness and unforgiveness in the face of difficulties. How often I was willing to believe that some things would never change. Too many. And honestly, those feelings are probably still my first reaction. Every time I hear my mom’s shortness of breath because she had to walk from another room to answer my phone call, or when I see her drooping with exhaustion after a walk from the handicap parking spot into her church, I think how unfair it is that a woman who never touched a cigarette in her life has been saddled with such a debilitating lung condition. She makes remarks now and then about how she probably won’t be around all that much longer. Just typing those words makes me want to cry. I think about all of the years we didn’t “get” each other, all of the time wasted not appreciating one another. And only now, since my dad is gone, have I realized just how very precious my parents are and should have always been to me. I’m not proud to say that I spent too much time feeling put-upon to take care of their needs when I didn’t feel I even had enough time to keep my own life together.

Still, this is usually the way it goes with parents and their children. We go through phases, the joy of the early years, the frustrations of the middle years, and finally reaching appreciation later on. We can only forgive ourselves for the past and move forward as best we can. I’m beginning to realize this more every day.

I think my dad would be proud today.

Back in the day, I was the kid who fought him on all things church-related. Church was boring. And I hated having to dress up for mass. Besides, my friends’ parents didn’t make them go to church every single weekend, every holy day, and every holiday. Why couldn’t I skip it now and then? Our family’s weekly attendance at mass made for the longest hours of my life.

When I began to have children of my own, we decided it was important to make religion a part of their lives. But our reasons were more about family tradition than anything. I was mostly just going through the motions, hoping for something bigger, but rarely finding it long enough to hold on to it. As our kids grew older and busier with activities, and as I became the bad guy, making everyone stop what they were doing to go to weekend mass, I wondered why I bothered. And I stopped. We all just stopped.

For a while I felt guilty, then eventually, relieved. It was pretty easy to give up religion. When we were regulars at church, I always felt like I was falling short on all the rules about attendance, tithing, attitude, and forgiveness, to name just a few. There was a kind of peace that came with not having anyone breathing down my neck about all the ways I was falling short.

Still, I’m grateful for a nagging feeling that remained in the back of my mind all of the years I was drifting. It’s the thing that eventually taught me that I’d missed the memo at some point, that I’d never really understood who God was and what He could be and do in my life.

These days, it is that very faith that keeps me going. It feels all new to me. Like I’m finally starting to get it, and every day my eyes are opened more and more. I have found healing in a relationship I didn’t think could ever be salvaged. I have experienced calm when I might otherwise have gone off the deep end. I have understood joy amidst the deepest feelings of grief. I have found acceptance at times when I might have railed at the world in anger and frustration. Not always, but often enough to know I can face with confidence whatever life throws at me, instead of living in fear. I guess you could say I’ve learned to believe in miracles.

I still experience bouts of anxiety over any number of things. My kids’ happiness, safety and well-being. My mom’s health and how long she’ll be here with us. The cancer that plagues my best friend. A host of other worries about the people I know and love. The difference now is knowing that no difficulty has to leave a permanent black mark on my soul. I’m learning to say thank you for challenges – not because I believe there’s some magic trick that turns every act of thankfulness into a happy ending, but because I choose to believe these experiences can take me in positive directions. And choosing to believe anything is half the battle toward making it reality.

I’ve broken outside of that shell that would have me believe you must participate and believe in only one specific segment of Christianity. Or even Christianity. It is my choice, but if someone else finds peace in a different way, more power to ’em.

While I’m back in regular attendance at the Catholic church, and while that would please Dad, it’s mostly because that’s where my mom wants to be. And since I am usually the one who takes her to church, that’s where we’ll go. Realistically, I find the teachings of other denominations to be mind-blowing at times. And thank God for the internet because I can hear from other churches at home while doing other things. And some of these people are so COOL! And “cool” is not something I ever thought I’d believe church could be. Listening to the word in unfamiliar settings, outside of the years of routine and repetition have helped me to really hear. I have to laugh at myself sometimes because I’m just hungry to know so much more. And it wasn’t that long ago that I could easily have just throw it all away.

I’m finally getting comfortable with prayer. It’s no longer just the reciting of age-old verses known by heart, but conversations in my head and heart, picturing God on the receiving end, acknowledging all of my fears, asking favor for my specific needs and those of others, and most importantly, expressing thankfulness for all things that make my life as good as it is. It all helps me recognize that my life is remarkably more blessed than I’ve often acknowledged.

I’m reading the Bible, willingly, for the first time ever. (Hey, Dad! Did you catch that? I’m reading the Bible!) My dad wanted all of this for me while he was here. I didn’t even begin to grasp it until he was on the downhill slide of his life. And the big boom of it came with and after his passing. Better late than never, I guess.

I understand now why so many people need and have faith in God, or any other belief system or practice that helps them get through each day. Life is hard sometimes. So many of us go through the days all knotted up, worried, fearful, or angry. I’m guilty. Every happy thought used to be dampened by another worrisome thought. I think we’re all just looking for peace. And now that I’ve discovered how I might find it, it gets easier each day. And when you find something that works, you just want to share it. I’m really grateful to have so many people in my life who never gave up on sharing their stories. I guess it’s my job now to share mine whenever the opportunity arises.

 

Dirt, sweat, and blisters

Well. Here I am again, wondering how so much time has passed without me writing a word. Life sure has changed in the past year.

I spend so much more time with my mom now, since Dad passed away, than I ever did before. I worry about her constantly. I’m not sure if her health is truly worsening, or if I’m just so much more aware of her fragility now that we spend so much time together. She’s lonely, and I’m all too aware that she often feels helpless. I know this is all pretty normal stuff for a person who is mourning the death of her longtime spouse, but I wish there was something I could do to make it better for her.

We have grown so much closer than we’ve ever been. She relies on me a lot and I want to do everything I can to make her life easier. My life feels like a constant juggling act and there’s so much that goes undone around my own house. But I’m not actually complaining. And I’m not actually unhappy about it. Because I have this overwhelming feeling that this whole situation may not last long. I hate that thought. So as long as Mom needs me, I’m going to be there for her.

My sister tag-teams with me in Mom’s care, but for various reasons, was less available last week than usual. I spent a couple of extra evenings with Mom. And as those times go, by the time I pick Mom up after my work day, make dinner, clean up, spend some time with her, and take her home again, the day is done.

This weekend, my sister was able to make up for her absence last week. She ran some errands for Mom and entertained her for dinner both nights. I got a bit of extra free time, and it was perfect timing as Jaeger was home for the weekend.

We enjoyed picture-perfect weather, and Jaeger and Jack took advantage of Saturday to work on Jaeger’s new (to him) boat.

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While they spent time wiring up the fish-finders, and cleaning and waxing the boat, I went to the back yard to tame a particular Dogwood shrub which had gotten out of control. I meant to just give it a trim, but …

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After pruning and cleaning out the dead stuff, and receiving more than a few nasty scratches up my arms, I just decided to chop the whole thing down. (Jack might be sorry now that he taught me how to use the Sawzall!) The shrub is gone now and I am not sorry! Really, it was for the best. It’s time for something new in that spot anyway.

Taking down the shrub felt so good, I decided to split the Irises, a chore that’s a least a couple of years overdue, as well as tackle some other gardening chores. I found a spade and spent hours digging, chopping, hoisting clumps of Irises and lilies to other parts of the yard, and heaving some of them over the fence for the neighbors who wanted to plant some in their yard. I continued cleaning up and replanting, using muscles I’d forgotten I had. I developed a couple of blisters, got a mild sunburn, and was dirty and sweaty from head to toe.

It felt amazing! It was like some kind of therapy, piercing the dirt with a shovel and tearing things out of the ground, knowing they’d be so much better off with some fresh space and a bit of breathing room.

Kind of like me.

It felt good to take all of that old, wild growth and tame it; to organize and rearrange and have hope that as spring continues to unfold, something pretty and peaceful will come of all that effort.

Still Cool to Some

There’s been much anticipation the past few days of unseasonably warm temperatures here in Minnesota. Around the office, it was a frequent topic of conversation. “Got any plans for Saturday? Are you going to get outside and enjoy the warm weather?”

The news first reported predictions of fifty, and then they hinted at fifty-three. In February! In Minnesota! I heard that if we saw fifty-five degrees, we’d be breaking some weather record set years ago. When all was said and done, the day saw nearly sixty degrees!

I was puttering around the house on Saturday morning. Jack, having worked the night shift, was sleeping in our bedroom in the lower level. I was trying to keep things relatively quiet for him as I cleaned the kitchen and listened to some music playing on low volume.  It didn’t matter how hard I tried to keep things quiet inside, because Lucy was spending a lot of time barking; this whether she was inside the house or out in the yard. On such a warm day, people were out enjoying it. And that meant the walking path that runs behind our yard was busy with walkers and their dogs. Lucy just had to greet them all. She was in her glory, chasing up and down the yard along the fence, calling out her greetings to all who passed by.

Periodically, I’d poke my head out the door and shush her, and she’d look at me with momentary remorse before resuming her bark-fest once again. I thought it might help if I went outside with her. Besides, there was some clean-up I could do in the back yard. Being a dog owner, a winter’s worth of melting snow tends to reveal certain gifts.

Last weekend was warm too, although not nearly as beautiful as it was this weekend. I’d done a good deal of clean-up in the yard then. But there was still quite a bit of snow which was now quickly disappearing. I slipped on a jacket and the mud boots I bought at Fleet Farm a few years ago for just this purpose. Besides not wanting to step in anything unpleasant with good shoes, the grade of our yard means that when the snow melts, portions of it become very swampy. I wanted to keep my feet dry too.

Once outside, I quickly realized that the jacket was too much, and I hung it on the railing at the bottom of the deck stairs. Runners passed by in shorts and t-shirts. It was beautiful outside and the sun felt amazing! I proceeded to make my way around the yard with a shovel, a bucket, and a supply of plastic bags. It wasn’t long before Little Guy from next door appeared at the gate, holding his mom’s hand and pressing his forehead shyly into her leg. I greeted them and as I expected, learned that Little Guy wanted to come spend time at our place. I told him I had to finish the job I was doingbut if he wanted to hang around while I did that, he was welcome. His shy demeanor disappeared and he ran back to his driveway to get his battery-powered John Deere tractor.

Little Guy drove circles around the big White Pine. I told him to stick close to the tree where it was clear of any dog poop. He did a pretty good job of staying where he was supposed to. It didn’t take me long to finish the clean-up, (and I thought how lucky we are to have this warm-up in February. After really snowy winters, when it might be closer to April before tackling it, this can be quite a disgusting job!)

When I was done, Little Guy wanted to come inside and play Wii bowling, so we shed our boots at the back door. Lucy followed us inside. She seems to think Little Guy is some kind of giant plaything for her entertainment, and loves to chase him around as he runs circles through the kitchen.

Little Guy hung out at our house for quite a while. Jack woke up. The barking and sound of running feet in the upstairs was probably to blame, but he gets a kick out of Little Guy, so he didn’t seem to mind too much. Jack and Little Guy played Wii baseball for a while. Then Little Guy and I played Wii tennis. Soon he was asking me to play something else, but I was having trouble deciphering his four year-old words.

The light bulb finally went on. He was asking for Jenga blocks! When we’d babysat him in December, I went on a search for something we might play with him, but soon remembered that any preschool toys that might still be around are probably up in the rafters of the garage. Searching through the game cupboard back then, I’d caught sight of the Jenga game. I figured they might work as a substitute. Clearly, Little Guy remembered and wanted to play again. We built houses and towers for a while, all of which ended up in  a pile because apparently the fun of building with blocks is to knock them down.

Next we watched a cartoon called Masha and the Bear on Netflix. I’d never heard of it. My kids being in their twenties, I’m out of the loop of popular preschool television entertainment. Again, it took me some time to figure out what Little Guy was asking for before we were able to locate the show. (He finally took the Wii remote from me and scrolled through the kids’ menu until he found it himself.) Each episode of this cartoon is a series of three shorts, and they all begin with a lively song during which the characters dance on screen. Each and every time the intro song came on, Little Guy stood up from our game of blocks and danced along. His arms waved and flapped, his head flopped side to side while his feet jumped and his entire body bounced around the living room. Each time, he ended by throwing himself to the floor and giggling uncontrollably.

As we passed the time with blocks and Masha, Little Guy was constantly on the move. Whenever he’s here, he always wants to jump on the furniture, and as much as I want his time here to be fun, that’s where I draw the line. “Don’t do that,” I gently scolded as he stood up and began to jump on the loveseat.

“Why?” He asked, stopping reluctantly, although I’m sure he knows full well why.

“It’s a rule at our house,” I said. “Jumping on the cushions makes the furniture break. I’ll bet that’s a rule at your house too.”

A sly smile crept across his face and he slithered his way off the loveseat.

Periodically, Little Guy would come plop himself down in my lap and sit for a minute. Once when he put too much “oomph” behind an attempted somersault, he landed on his forehead. He fell into my lap looking for sympathy and I rubbed his head along his hairline where I imagined it hurt. I asked if he was okay.

“YEAH!” he shouted and he was off and running again. Sometimes, without warning, he’d throw himself into my arms, nearly knocking me over. Geeze, that kid has a lot of energy! “You’ve gotta warn me before you do that,” I laughed. He just giggled.

Eventually, I warned Little Guy that I would have to send him back home soon.

“Why?” he asked.

“I’m going to church with my mom,” I said.

“I don’t want you to,” he whined.

“I have to, Buddy. I promised. But you can come over again another day.”

“When you get back?” He asked.

“No, not today,” I said. “I won’t be back for a long while.”

“Ten minutes?” he asked.

“No, Buddy. Longer than that,” I laughed.

“Eleven?”

“No, I’ll be gone a few hours,” I said. “I’m going to have dinner with my mom after church.”

His four year-old attention span put an end to that conversation as he lifted his body to attention and asked, “Where’s Jack?” He was clearly done being sad about my impending departure, and Jack was his new hero.

Jack had wandered out the front door a while earlier, and I explained that he was out front, talking to Little Guy’s daddy. That’s all it took to end his sadness over the end of our play-date, and soon he was slipping his boots and hooded sweatshirt on, and then running across the front yards to join the guys.

My housework wasn’t done, but that’s okay. Little Guy isn’t always going to think I’m so cool and I want to enjoy being looked up to while I still can!

Cold but not complaining

The real Minnesota winter reportedly arrives tonight. We’ve been spoiled so far. There’s a small amount of snow on the ground, but for the most part, temperatures have been pretty bearable ever since summer ended. That all ends today and it’s all they’ve talked about on the news these past few days. Especially as this weather relates to a pretty important football game which takes place here tomorrow. In an outdoor stadium. Where the high might reach 4. I’m glad I’m not a football fan but there are plenty of die-hards who are braving the weather to support the Vikings this weekend!

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The first post-holiday week of 2016 has gone by already. Can you believe that? I was worried it would seem interminable, considering I probably haven’t worked a full week since the beginning of December and having long weekend at home felt so nice the last two weeks. But it was a really great week. There is forward movement in my job and in my department, and it’s all very positive, team-oriented and exciting. More important than the inner workings and perks of my job though, I was reminded several times why I love not just what I do, but where I do it. And it has so much to do with the people who surround me.

I’ve been employed in this job long enough to have made some deep connections, and I thank God everyday for this. One of these connections is with C. On a professional level, she alternately either drives me crazy with the way her mind and priorities race from one thing to another, or feels like my closest ally. But no matter how annoyed I might sometimes feel, I admire her passion, drive and perseverance, and I often aspire to be more like her. In the past year, our common life circumstances drew us closer on a more personal level. C’s mom suffered and survived a massive stroke early last year and will never make a full recovery. You can imagine the repercussions.

Yesterday, I stopped in to C’s office to get some background on a particular project. After confirming the necessary details, I asked, “How’s your mom?”

C told me her mom was holding steady and that their holidays were enjoyable. She then shared that she came into the new year with a new perspective. Gratefulness. She said that all last year, she faced each day with an attitude of getting past certain circumstances  so that she could get back to a more comfortable and normal life. She told me that before the stroke, her mom was her best friend. C called her every day to talk about what was good, what was challenging, and what was ahead. After the stroke, those deep conversations with her mom were no longer possible. This was such a huge loss, and so devastating for C. But since then, she has developed a stronger relationship with her dad. It’s Dad with whom she talks every day. And they never hang up the phone without saying “I love you.”

I knew exactly what she meant. This stuff changes you. Now that my dad is gone, I can’t leave my mom without hugging her and telling her “I love you.” In recent years, that’s not been uncommon, but these days, our I love yous aren’t trite like they may have been in the past. Both the hugs and the words these days are deep and sincere. I often feel a tug on my heart at having to leave Mom’s side, even though I know I’ll probably see her again the next day.

C said that starting this year, she will try to embrace each day, not just try to get through it and on to something that feels easier. She said she has realized that such devastating circumstances have provided unexpected grace and blessings. She was crying by this time and telling me what a blessing I have been to her in the time we’ve shared such similar circumstances. What was meant to be a quick, professional visit to her office ended with tears and hugging. I said to her, “Don’t cry,” and she replied, “No, it’s okay. This is a good cry.”

She showed me a little journal that has become a part of her new goals. It’s a gratitude journal, and every day, she writes down three things for which she is grateful. She said she would be writing about me in her journal that evening.

I am inspired by C’s attitude of gratitude. For the past few years, I myself have worked towards recognizing and being more appreciative of all that is good in my life. But I have been inconsistent in actually documenting it. I like the idea and am going to try to do so on a more frequent … dare I say daily? …basis.

Well … I’ve got to start somewhere, sometime. Therefore …

  1. C – This one’s a little obvious, but I am grateful to have C in my world. Instead of feeling as if I’d hit the doldrums and dreariness typical of this time of year, she inspired me to rise above them and look forward to each day. She reminded me that even work doesn’t need to make us feel as if we’re going through the motions. There might be a gift inside each and every moment. But we have to look.
  2. Jack’s work schedule – While I’m often annoyed at how my husband’s job often keeps him away on nights and weekends, it allows me guilt-free time to be with my mom. This week, on a night I might otherwise have been eating frozen pizza alone at home, I instead cooked a walleye dinner and shared it with my mom. It was a nice change of pace.
  3. Heated seats – A genius invention. They make me feel spoiled, but I love the fact that even on the coldest day, I can get into my car and feel instant warmth!