Life After "The School Calendar"

I think I have a love/hate relationship with routine. 

For years, my life was dictated by the school day and The School Calendar.  I knew what time I had to be awake, what time everyone else had to be awake, what time breakfast needed to be ready, what time I needed to be home or at the school for pick up, what time dinner needed to be cooked, what time practices/rehearsals/lessons/meetings/performances/games would begin and end. Although my days still held many unknowns, there was comfort in knowing the predictable rhythm of the day.

My annual ritual was to get a new calendar and immediately fill in the dates from the school calendar so I would know when the half days, days off, and vacations would be.  My framework for the year was pretty much laid out and determined by what I neatly wrote on those pages.  As I carefully printed (and color-coded) the times and dates of all the individual activities, I started to get a sense of what my life would be like for the coming year.  As a busy mother to two active daughters, I knew that the schedule would present challenges but I appreciated the clarity of knowing what I was in for.  It helped us function as an active family.  In fact, we would have not been able to manage life without it. 

Over time, I also started to resent the power of "the schedule".  Just once I wanted to be able to commit to an appointment or event without checking and double checking the master calendar.  I longed to plan a vacation that didn't fit into the neat little confines of the same days off that everyone else had. But alas, the cost of a misplaced dentist appointment or a carelessly agreed to social outing was too great- one little misstep could cause the wheels to come off the family bus and the chaos that ensued was not worth it.  So, for 15 years or so I lived by that darn schedule.  My kids would harass me about it. 

"Why are you always so obsessed with the calendar? Why is it so important? Why do you always have to check your schedule?"
"Because," I'd tell them with an eye roll, "without that super detailed and annoying calendar, nobody would get where they need to be on time, or at all." 

But the calendar continued to be my lifeline to structure, order, and control; and as much as I hated it the imposed rigidness, I also loved the certainty of it. 

As my girls graduated from high school and I inched closer to empty nesting, I started to get excited about the idea of schedule freedom. I began fantasizing about what I would do with all of my time and how wonderful it would be to sleep past 6 am for the first time in years, or travel in the offseason, or schedule appointments without performing the mental gymnastics of how that would impact "the schedule".  What would that be like?!?

The reality is that after years of a deeply structured life, a life free of the rigidity of a school or work calendar is wonderful... and terrifying.  There is nothing better than the morning when I can wake up at a time of my choosing without having to immediately jump into the chaos of the day!  But, without that structure, the days and weeks can look a bit intimidating at times.  There is a tremendous freedom in filling days how you choose, but also a tremendous amount of pressure.  What am I doing with this gift of time? Am I choosing to spend it well?  Or am I being careless with my days? 

 Another unanticipated consequence of this new phase is that without the commonality of a school schedule, I now zig where others zag.  The schedule that once served to bind many of us is now fractured.  I no longer travel in the same orbit as my friends with school-aged children.  Where we once knew without a doubt where we would be on a Tuesday afternoon or a Friday night, now we can no longer rely on the automatically scheduled opportunities to get together. My fellow empty nesters are also zigging. Visits to college-age students, family obligations, work, and travel pull everyone in new and different orbits. Scheduling is hard.  Friendships can be tested without the consistency of the school schedule to bring us together.  Some survive, some fall away.  

As with all of the experiences in this new stage of life, I am learning from it.  I have discovered that a little schedule and routine isn't so bad after all.  I have observed that I need some structure to my days. What I once relied on the school calendar for, I now have to do myself- plan times for vacation, organize get-togethers with friends, delineate between work and family time, and schedule outings.  "The calendar" was serving a purpose that extended beyond telling me what was happening, it was also serving to give structure to my days, my social life, my edification, and my activity level. The goal now is to develop a routine that not only has enough freedom in it to accommodate a more relaxed and spontaneous life, but also enough structure so that I don't feel like I am drifting through my days without purpose. 

The bottom line- I have learned that I need to BE INTENTIONAL! Whatever I choose to do with my hours and days, it is essential that I create a new routine with purpose and intent. And by creating my own new routine, by filling my days with activities and events that I enjoy,  I hope to turn the love/hate relationship with routine into just a love relationship!

Can You Hear Me Now???

Listening has been on my mind lately- specifically I've been wondering if we have lost the ability to truly listen to others.  Do we remember how to listen to someone carefully for understanding and without predetermination?  We all want to be, but also need to be listened to.  It is a basic human desire to be heard and understood. And when we do not feel like we are being heard, what happens? We tend to make our point louder and more forcefully, or we shut down completely.  Neither action is helpful if we are to communicate with each other effectively. This pattern seems to happen more each day and it concerns me.

A few weeks ago I witnessed something that very clearly illustrated this problem. While getting gas, I noticed a woman drive up to the air compressor to put air in her tires.  As I watched her put her money in the air pump, I thought to myself how frustrating it was that gas stations charge for air.  A few moments later, she walked up to the employee who was pumping my gas (NJ perk :-)) and told him that she was having problems with the air.  She said she put money into the machine, but could not get air to come out.  She was concerned that they may be a problem.  The employee immediately responded that she should put more money in and try again. She was confused by his response and told him again that she was concerned that there was a problem with the pump.  He continued to insist that there was not a problem with the pump and that she should put more money in. After a few back and forths, it became clear that he thought she was trying to scam him and had not paid for the air.  At that point, I jumped in to let him know that I saw her pay and had watched her put the money in.  It did not matter, he continued to stick to his point and she continued to get more and more frustrated. Tempers flared and voices raised.

 "I don't understand, you aren't listening to me!  Why would I put more money in a pump that just took my money? What kind of customer service is this? I just need to get some air!"

She was right, he was not listening to her. He was not hearing what she was saying.  He was not trying to solve the problem.  He had already decided that she was trying to scam him and nothing she could say would change his mind. How frustrating! Although I had to drive away before I could hear the conclusion, I would bet that she left without resolution.  

This experience has stayed with me.  I could feel her frustration. My heart rate increased, my face felt hot.  I also saw it as indicative of a bigger problem.  It seems like we aren't doing a very good job of listening to each other anymore. Have you been in a situation like this where you felt like someone was not listening to you? Sure, they may have heard the words, but they were not acknowledging the meaning behind them.  

Why is this such a problem? A few thoughts:

We are in a hurry, so we don't take the time to really listen.  
We quickly determine what we think the person is saying. 
We just as quickly decide if we think they are right or wrong. 
We don't take time to truly consider new information or opinions.
We focus so much on our comeback that we miss the subtleties of what the person is saying. 
We want to figure out who to blame or how to fix it, but not acknowledge the feelings. 
We have a hard time being empathetic if it is not something we have personally experienced.  
We just don't want to listen :-(.

I think about how differently the exchange at the gas station would have gone if the attendant had really listened.  What if he had said, "It sounds like there is a problem. Let me take a look. Maybe I can help." She would have felt heard and respected and understood, and most importantly, helped! If he had responded with empathy, she would not have raised her voice.  She wouldn't have needed to.  

There are lessons to be learned from this exchange.
We aren't listening to each other.  
We just keep getting louder and more over the top trying to make our point and trying to be heard.
We need to do better both in person and online. 

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that listening is always easier when interacting with someone who is speaking responsibly (although that may not always be the case).  We must speak with honesty and respect.  We have to remember that words have significant power and their echoes continue long after the words leave our mouths. We must speak with gentleness, free of insults and judgment that can stop us from hearing differing thoughts or opinions.  Each of us can continue to learn and grow from each other's perspectives.  We won't always agree, but listening with understanding can bring us closer.  We can't help each other if we don't understand each other. 

More listening, less talking.  
More listening, less arguing.  
More listening, less responding.  
More listening, more understanding. 

Join me in trying to be a better listener.  Here are a few tips to get started:

The Great Exhale

Seven weeks ago we drove our youngest daughter back to Ohio State for her sophomore year.  Seven weeks have passed since we combined all that she brought back with her at the end of freshman year, plus all that she accumulated over the summer, plus all the new things she thought she'd need and tried to develop a plan for finding a place for it in her new room. Seven weeks have gone by since we aggressively packed the van with ALL OF THE THINGS hoping, but not quite believing, that everything would fit.  Seven weeks since we unloaded all of her stuff in the rain, helped to get her settled, and then said a quick and slightly awkward goodbye on the street outside of her sorority. It is not the same sadness as last year, but it still doesn't feel natural.

 Once we returned home, I felt the house let out a great exhale. It seemed to be relieved to be free of the boxes, bags, and bins that had been increasingly cluttering the house and weighing it down. As I went to work cleaning up the remains of the packing and doing the kind of room cleaning that is only possible when said daughter is not around, I sighed. The house was finally clean and quiet, order restored. But in that great exhalation of the house, it breathed out more than the clutter- it also breathed out some of the life and light and laughter.  It is emptier in ways big and small.

In each week that passes, I feel the house exhale a little more.  In a quiet but steady hiss of breath, I can feel the passing of time, the release of more life.  I bag up the clothes my daughter left behind to donate.  In the pile, I see the Hershey's sweatshirt that was her favorite souvenir from our trip to NYC right before we moved to NJ.  I tenderly fold up the outgrown t-shirts from our many family trips to Disney World.  I flinch when I see her high school cheer clothing in the pile.  Wasn't that one of the biggest things in her life not that long ago? I know she has moved on. Hiss...

I clean out the bathroom and am struck by the number of lotions and potions left behind.  I plan to throw out many of them thinking I will encounter the usual pile of dried out sparkly nail polish, Bath and Body Works lotions and gels, and various tubes of lip gloss; but instead, I am struck by the mature nature of what's left behind.  Shampoos specific to her hair type, face creams, a small fortune in "good" makeup.  I end up organizing more than I throw away.  These are adult things.  Hiss...

My husband and I spend a hard weekend cleaning out the garage and all of the many toys and games that once occupied the time and attention of our girls.  Scooters, basketballs, yard games, old signs for lemonade stands, bats, balls, riding gear, lacrosse sticks, sleds, snowboards. Much is given away, but I hold onto the bare essentials. I put them in a bin on the top shelf unsure that they will ever be used again but not quite ready to let them go.  Our garage transformed from the messy garage of people with children to the garage of adults- clean, organized, and somewhat less full of life. Hiss...

I go through my own closet with a new eye for what I will and won't be wearing.  I say goodbye to many clothes that represent a life that I am no longer living.  I say goodbye to the spirt t-shirts that I dutifully bought each year.  I sort through the pile of green and gold t-shirts and fondly remember the fun cheer trips to Disney. I part with much of the more structured clothing that went along with my more structured life. I see the dresses that I wore to the high school graduations of my girls and wonder if I will ever wear them again.  I suspect the answer is no, but I hold onto them for now.   My priority is moving to comfortable clothes that make me feel good and fit this new life I am creating.

We say goodbye to a car- our much-loved Mini Cooper convertible. I remember the promise we made of one day getting a convertible and the excitement when that day arrived.  I think about the sunny days when we would climb in and go for a drive to nowhere, anywhere, but usually, somewhere that ended in ice cream.  I remember driving away from the city lights on a warm summer night and seeing the stars so vividly that we pulled over to appreciate them and were rewarded with our very own shooting star.  I remember the cool air and bright sun of fall days when we would drive to enjoy the changing leaves then fight to keep the top down as the temperatures dropped and our bodies shivered.  I remember girls who used to fit comfortably in the small backseat asking to drive the car one last time. Hiss...

We try to plan a family trip for next summer and then realize it is impossible.  Our older daughter will be graduating from college in May and moving on to unknown horizons. I silently note that my husband and I were planning our wedding at that age and feel momentarily grateful for the uncertainty in her plans! Our younger one will be looking for an internship. Neither one of them knows for sure when or if they will be home next summer.  Hiss...

More life seems to flow out of the house than back in at this point. But, it doesn't feel sad exactly, it just feels like it is what it is meant to be.  Where last year there was sadness and even a little fear, now there is acceptance.  A reckoning is taking place- after years of moving fast, my inner life needs to catch up to the ever-changing outer life.   Now is time to reconcile the life I once had with the life I currently have.  It has changed dramatically and will continue to shift and move in ways both expected and not. Adapting is not optional.

Where our children once provided the life force in our home through their various activities, their lively friends, and their mere presence; now we will be responsible for creating a new life force. What we choose to bring into our home and what we choose to let go of will be up to us.  How I fill my days will ultimately become how I live the rest of my life. The opportunity to reinvent a life is both daunting and exciting.  While I will always be a mom first, now the time has come for me to also think about my own shelved dreams and desires for the future. Who knew I'd be trying to find myself again at 51!

These days I find myself sighing a lot.  It is not a sigh of frustration or sadness, but more a sigh of acceptance.  My deep exhalation is a way of releasing the old and making room for the new.   My daughter will be home soon for October break.  I will enjoy every minute with her and then I will put her on a plane back to her new life. I will wipe away a few tears and then I will return to my new life. The comings and goings.  The packing and unpacking.  The sweet hellos and the sad goodbyes. This is the new normal.

 The house will take a deep breath and exhale again and again. And so will I.

It's Life Changing!

We were sitting at our table in Colorado pondering the many choices on the menu when the young lady sitting next to us declared that we MUST try the Chicken Tinga Tacos. 
 "Are they good?" we asked. 
 "Life changing!" was her response.  

Life changing? Wow! That's a pretty high bar.  But her recommendation was intriguing enough to make us try the tacos! Now it's quite possible that the young lady who offered the suggestion was more than a little bit "altered", and this may have colored her enthusiasm but still, we heeded her advice.  Who can turn down life changing tacos? I'm not sure the tacos quite lived up to the bar of life-changing, but it did start an interesting line of thought.  If the Chicken Tinga Taco was not life-changing, what was? And what does life changing really mean?

There are a few major life events that are indisputably life-changing: getting married, having children, getting divorced,  moving, being diagnosed with a major illness, experiencing a change of job, or losing a family member or friend. There is no way to get through those events without experiencing major change. But is it possible that other smaller things can also change your life? 

I think so! We live most of our days in some form of a routine.  Many people are comforted by regular habits and they feel good knowing that there is some repetition to their days.  I am sure this is why many of us have the same morning routine, or eat the same breakfast, or go to the same restaurants, or even wear some version of the same thing each day.  It brings order to a chaotic world.  It limits decisions in an environment where the options are endless.  But sometimes these routines move beyond comforting. We can become unwitting slaves to the routine.  Our lives can become stunted. We realize we need to do something different even if we don't quite know what that is. This can be the moment to change something. One little change can definitely start to change your life.  Change can be a big event, but it can also be a series of small changes.

Traveling to new places can change your life.  You don't have to fly across the country to see new places.  Exploring your area with fresh eyes can do that.  Seeing images and scenery that you've never seen before expands your world.  Trying new foods expands your palate.  Going on new adventures takes you out of your comfort zone.  Talking to people you may not otherwise interact with broadens your outlook.  Reading a book can inspire new action. We don't always realize or believe that we need to change our lives, but the truth is we should always be looking for ways to do so.  Changing is growing, learning, improving, and becoming more knowledgeable of the world around us. We should not let the comfort of our daily lives and routines prevent us from opening new doors and exploring different viewpoints.  On a daily basis I may retain many of my personal routines but over the course of my life, I hope I find ways to keep changing. I want to continue to increase my knowledge, understanding, and experience of the world around me. 

So yes, in a way the Chicken Tinga Taco did change our lives.  Maybe not in the way we thought, but it did change us.  It caused us to try something new and expand our horizons, and take a chance on something unexpected. Anytime we choose to zig when we would ordinarily zag, we are changing our lives a little bit.  These little changes add up over time.  They make us more adventurous, open-minded, flexible, tolerant, patient, and understanding. We may not always have the ability or desire to make BIG changes, but there is great power in the small ones.  Let your life be changed one Chicken Tinga Taco at a time!

*As a footnote: If I had to pick one food item from this trip that really may have been life changing, I'd have to go with the beignets from "The Lost Cajun".  Warm, fresh, light as air, and dusted with powdered sugar that melted into every bite.  I've had them before, but never as good as these. They were worth every powdered sugar spot on my face and clothing.  From now on, I will seek out beignets wherever we go and compare them back to these delicious examples- that is indeed life-changing :-).

You Want Me to Do What?!?

Shoulder taps, nudging, prompting--all are different ways of trying to explain the feeling of being told to do something by a voice within other than your own.  Some would view this as the prompting of God or the Holy Spirit, some would call it an inner voice, or some form of intuition.  This week, I watched a short video of a man describing a beautiful encounter he had when he listened to that "shoulder tap".  I encourage you to watch it here.  I will summarize below if you are unable to watch.

This man was out to dinner when he felt an internal nudge to tell the elderly woman sitting near him that she looked beautiful.  He felt rather strange going up to a stranger, but decided to listen to the inner voice. On the way out he stopped at her table and told her, "In case no one else tells you today,  I just wanted you to know that you look lovely." In the emotional exchange that followed, the woman revealed to him that it had been one year since her husband had died and that was the exact thing he would have said to her.   Tears fell.  Hugs were shared.  He followed the prompting even though it would have been easy to dismiss it. As a result, both were blessed by the exchange. Thankfully, he chose to respond to the shoulder tap. Sweet, but powerful story.

Have you ever had this happen to you? Have you been on the receiving end of a perfectly timed phone call or conversation that was out of the blue but EXACTLY what you needed to hear? Have you felt the unexplained nudge and acted on it? Have you made the call or responded to the internal request even though it seemed strange, or inconvenient, or even a little embarrassing? It really is like lightning in the bottle when it happens. There is no way to explain the randomness of the thought or the specificity of the act.  While I can think of several times that I have experienced it either on the giving or receiving end, there is one time that will stick with me forever.

Back in the summer of 2005, my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.  It was bad, but he was fighting a good fight and doing pretty well all things considered.  By January 2006, he made the difficult decision to stop treatment.  The prognosis was not good, but no one could put an expiration date on my dad.  In February, he decided to make a solo trip from Florida to Pennslyvania to see his extended family for several days. I was living in St. Louis at the time and considered meeting him in PA, but it was logistically difficult to make the trip and we had already made plans to see him in Florida in just a few weeks.  My sister decided to go, so I once again considered joining them but still didn't feel like the timing was right.  Uncharacteristically, my dad called me a few times during the trip to let me know how much fun he was having.  Tempting, but still I was comfortable with my decision to wait until March to visit.  In a moment that I recall with great clarity, I woke up on Saturday morning with a very clear voice in my head saying "go".  I briefly tried to dismiss it with all of the difficulties that this trip would cause, but the voice was so strong- "GO"- that I decided there was no option but to go.  Obstacles fell away as we packed up the family and drove to Pennsylvania to surprise my dad. We had a great visit--lots of stories and laughter, much love from the extended family around him, and all of his favorite foods. It was truly a blessing to have that time together.

What I couldn't have known then was that he would take a sudden turn for the worse right after returning home and pass away days later. Despite all of the physical evidence to the contrary, he did not live until our scheduled visit just a few weeks later.  Had I not listened to that nudge, had I not listened to the voice that said "go", I would have never seen my dad again.  

That was a pretty significant shoulder tap.

I am so thankful that I listened.

I would agree with the man in the video- my dad and I were both blessed by my obedience.  I wonder how many times I have ignored the shoulder tap, or tried to explain it away using logic and excuses.  How many people have missed out on a special moment because I didn't pay attention to the prompting? And how many moments have I missed out on because others did the same?

Regardless of what you call it or where you think it comes from; it is important to listen for those moments.  Know that by making the choice to respond you may share the perfect words that someone needs to hear at the exact moment they need to hear them, or you may compliment a person in a specific way that will make his/her day (or year), or you may hug someone who hasn't had a hug in a very long time, or you may even hear direction that could change your own life.

We are all busy and distracted, but listening to that inner voice may be the one thing that we should always make time to do.  It may feel awkward and uncomfortable. The direction may even be confusing.  But, the shoulder tap really has the power to change someone's day or even their life.

And the really beautiful part is that you will both be changed in the process.

Listen. Respond. Be a blessing.

The Magical Summer Nights of Walking and Waiting

This quote has been rolling around in my mind since I first saw it.  How could one sentence so specifically capture the essence of my youth! There is something in those words that speak to a very specific time in my life- a time when I was no longer a child, but not yet old enough to have the freedoms of a teen.  A time when the possibilities seemed endless, but the reality was much smaller and less glamorous.

I grew up in a traditional suburb in Indiana on the southern tip of Lake Michigan.  It was too big to have the charm and accessibility of a small town, but not quite big enough to offer the excitement we thought we needed as precocious teens. My home from 4th grade on was in a neighborhood of two streets- two cul de sacs to be exact.  I can't say exactly how many homes there were in my subdivision- I'd guess 20-30, but I can tell you that I knew everyone's names.

 One of the great things about my neighborhood was that there were a lot of kids, many around my age.  I was lucky to have a girl one year older who moved in across the street from me. We were fast friends and found ourselves hanging out a lot.  Carol (forever to be known as "Carol, who lived across the street from me") and I were always looking for something to do during the summer.  Because this was the 80's, we did our fair share of "laying out", watching "All My Children" and "General Hospital", and thinking about important hair questions like to perm or not to perm, Sun-In or lemon juice. (For the record, I unwisely said yes to both.)  We made cookies (chocolate oatmeal no bake and chocolate chip with twice the dough, half the chips), we made popcorn (with cheese on top). But in the evening, our favorite thing to do was walk the streets of the neighborhood.

We walked the streets each night in a cloud of bug spray filled with anticipation that maybe, possibly something exciting would happen in our little suburban enclave.  It rarely did, but that didn't stop us from hoping! On a good night, if we were lucky, some of the neighborhood boys would also be outside and we would entertain ourselves by watching them play frisbee or throw shoes at the bats flying around the street light.  Sometimes we would join forces and hang out together. We would spend our summers falling in and out of crushes with the boys and their friends. These crushes were usually not reciprocated, but we were optimistic that this would be the night they finally saw us in a new light.  We walked and talked about life, we mused about our typical teenage problems that always seemed bigger than they were, and we poured over other things that were actually pretty darn big even by adult standards.  We tried to solve world problems when we failed at solving our own. We took in the beauty of the summer nights- ample stars, full moons, meteor showers, lunar eclipses.  We ate snacks outside, we sat on the curb under the maple trees and talked to our neighborhood friends life and our thoughts on the future.  And still, we waited for that magical something that was going to transport us from our boring lives in the cul de sac to a new world of excitement.

What we didn't know then and I suppose we couldn't possibly have known with our limited perspective, was that THIS -all of those boring nights walking the streets- would be what we would remember many years later.  The great excitement that we were waiting for never really came around. Eventually, there were boyfriends and cars, jobs and school, colleges and moves.  And while I certainly remember those bigger moments, it is the nights of walking and "waiting for something better" that stand out most in my memories.  Those were the nights that we wished away but also thought would last forever, with friends we knew we would always have. In that magical time, before real life kicked in, we were making memories that were leaving deep imprints on our lives. Those are the moments I wish I could relive.

One night our group watched the great movie "The Big Chill". When it was over, in a rare show of sentimentality we all agreed that would be us in 20 years getting together (minus the dead friend) and hanging out like old times.  If only... We scattered as we went off to different colleges, still getting together here and there but not in the same way.  Then, my family moved to another state- severing the physical connection to my old neighborhood, but not the emotional one.  Our post-college lives led us to different life choices- marriage, grad school, jobs- and various geographical locations. With our physical separation came the inevitable emotional separation.

I miss the old neighborhood.  I miss knowing the names and stories of all who lived there. I long to hang out and walk the streets with my old friends.  I imagine that Carol's dad would still offer to spray us with bug spray before we hit the streets. I think we could still find a frisbee to toss around and a curb to sit on. I know that we would still find big things to discuss and world problems that needed our attention. Under the soft glow of the street light, we would still see our carefree teenage selves and not the middle-aged people we are now burdened with the reality of careers and marriage, children and aging parents, money and disease.  As Carol's parents- one of the last to remain in the neighborhood- prepare to move, even the idea of this reunion becomes more distant.  Our final connection to that time and place will be lost and that makes me feel a little sad.  But, I am also thankful that my special memories allow me to take those little field trips in my mind. In my daydreams, I am happy to be 14 again and this time I know to stop waiting for something more exciting to happen, to pay more attention, this is it- savor it!

Happy Summer, But Why Am I Still Thinking About Winter?

"My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds.  That in itself is an accomplishment.  And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient.  What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present."
- Steve Goodier

Happy first day of summer! Sunny skies, warm temps, lush green grass, and a multitude of blooming flowers. Can it be only a few months ago that we were wondering if spring would ever arrive? Thankfully it did and it now appears that the summer-like weather is here to stay (hopefully)!

Earlier in the week, I decided to take advantage of the perfect weather and walk on a trail that I hadn't been on for awhile.  Much had changed since I had last walked there in April.  Trees had fully leafed out, greenery covered most everything, and plants that were nonexistent then were now starting to encroach on the pathway.  As I looked around, all I could see and hear were the beautiful signs of summer.

But yet...

I still remember the harshness of winter.  I can easily recall the long cold days when darkness came too early.  The streak of grayness when it seemed the sun had forgotten to shine. I remember the unrelenting nor'easters of March.  The great delay in warmer temperatures and blooming plants.  I don't think about it often, but I do remember.  Is that wrong?

Should we look back and think about winter when we are in the middle of a glorious summer? Is it self-defeating to take ourselves back to an unpleasant time when we have the current pleasure of good times? I'm not sure.  I certainly don't want to dwell on the cold winter, but is it good to remember that it happened? Does it make us enjoy this summer more knowing what we had to go through to get here?  Is it helpful to know that not too long ago we had a horribly long, cold winter but we survived it? 

If we are to develop resilience, then we need to look back and reflect (not ruminate) on what we have overcome. When winter comes around again and I am feeling like it will never end, I can reflect on the fact that I felt this same way last year and winter did end, and I did survive.

Nature can offer guidance on this.  As I walked through the woods in early April, I could see all of the signs of spring- budding trees, early flowers blooming, birds chirping.  But I could also see the signs of a destructive winter.  Large trees pulled out of the ground, branches broken and dangling over the path, piles of debris from storms.  

 Nature does not try to hide the difficult season it has been through.  The forest bears its scars forever. Trees that are down will stay in that spot until nature reclaims them as part of the earth.  Branch piles remain until they break down into rich soil.  Damaged and misshapen trees continue to stand or lean until they grow tired.

But as time moves on, nature eventually does its work.  Greenery grows, groundcover thrives, and the forest begins the process of reclaiming itself.  The damage becomes less obvious.  The new growth conceals the sharp edges and jagged branches of the damaged trees.  But if you look closely, the scars of winter remain. Nature manages to quietly acknowledge the past while continuing to move forward steadily into the future.

There is a purpose to that. Nature's clean up crew is slow and subtle.  It wants us to see the process, to see the work.  Nature wants us to know that there was once destruction, but "I am doing a new thing!  I am restoring the forest, bit by bit, day by day!"  If we only focus on the beauty and don't look back at the difficulty, we miss the sacred process of renewal, and we miss the gift of restoration.  

Winter may have left its mark, but we have triumphed.  Spring did its thing! Renewal is underway! 

Winter is the example I use here and thankfully we know each year that it will end (eventually), but your personal winter can be any difficulty you've experienced and the end isn't always as guaranteed. When we look back on hard times, we have a choice in how we view the story.  There is power in revisiting the negative event with fresh eyes.  By looking back with purpose we can see:

1-  What we have overcome
2-  What we learned from the experience 
3-  How we have been restored (or how we are still being restored)

This is how we build resilience. When we experience negative events but can look back and see our personal growth, it helps us to view difficulties differently in the future.  Resilience reminds us that we have been through tough times before and we have survived.  It reminds us that we have reserves of strength that we are not yet aware of,  that we are capable of dealing with far more than we think we can, and that we can bounce back from situations that seem insurmountable at times.   

The scars of winter may remain, but the flowers of spring are already starting to grow.  Wait and watch for the restoration and take time to congratulate yourself on surviving another winter!

*Speaking of summer--if you still need to buy a swimsuit, read my post before you go. Consider it a public service announcement ;-).

Sleep, Wherefore Art Thou Sleep??

I seem to be awake a lot at night.  Is anyone with me on this? From what I hear, this is part and parcel of being a "woman of a certain age".  Grrr...haven't women suffered enough? Do we really need sleeplessness too?

Up until about a year ago, I would have told you that I slept well.  In fact, I might have bragged a little about how well I slept.  After years of sleep interrupted by pregnancy and small children, I had finally hit my groove of being able to sleep through the night.  We had purchased a new memory foam mattress several years back that had changed my life, I had found the perfect pillow, my children were now (finally) sleeping through the night, and I had been put on daily allergy medicine (may cause drowsiness zzzz....).  My bedtime ritual involved putting on my comfiest warm pajamas and socks, climbing into my cozy flannel sheet lined bed, saying goodnight to my husband, rolling over once, and then sleeping until my alarm went off in the morning.  Granted, this was never a long night's sleep- six hours seemed to be the max and I'm sure exhaustion had a lot to do with it-- but it was a pure, deep, peaceful sleep.  The glory days I like to call them.

My how things have changed!

Awhile back, I started having occasional nights where I would wake up in a sweat.  Besides the obvious fact that I was covered in many layers, I started to suspect that there were some hormonal issues at work.  Thankfully those nights didn't come around often, but when they did they were very disruptive.  How could someone who had been cold her whole life suddenly wake up in a sweat? It was rather disorienting.  Kind of like waking up with a different face.  Who am I if not the cold one?? Then, there was this slow but steady increase in my daily base temperature. It wasn't hot flashes exactly (although I have had some of those too), but rather like I was growing warmer by the day.  Was this a new thing?

My nights started to become very unpredictable.  Sometimes hot, sometimes cold.  Sometimes perfectly comfortable, but still frustratingly awake.  I no longer rolled over once and went to sleep, I started tossing and turning a lot each night.  I decided it was time to make some changes.

First, it was the flannel sheets.  As much as I loved the softness and the feeling of getting into a warm bed, I could no longer handle the warmth at night.

Then, it was the comforter.  We had a down comforter for several years and decided maybe it was time to trade it in for a lighter version.

All of the tossing and turning was really bothering my back, so my doctor recommended sleeping with a pillow between my knees (which by the way is NOT what you want when you are hot and tossing and turning).  This restlessness and back discomfort also led my husband and me to suspect that it was time for a new mattress.  Goodbye to my favorite life-changing mattress!

The new mattress did not seem to fix the problem, in fact, I was having even more difficulty sleeping. Perhaps it was time for a new pillow.  Farewell special pillow of my past! Welcome to the long line of new pillows on my bed (or tryouts as I liked to call them).

As I finally settled into my new mattress, pillow, and bedding; I realized that the morning light was really starting to bother me and waking me up well before I was ready (especially after not sleeping well at night), so a sleep mask was added to my nightly routine.

Maybe because I always slept well and didn't notice, but I now also realized my husband snored.  Not all the time, not loudly; but enough to be irritating.  A gentle nudge was usually enough to stop him, but I can tell you when I was tossing and turning the snoring didn't seem all that mild and my nudge wasn't always so gentle.  Ear plugs?  Separate beds?  Different rooms? What's next?

As all of these changes piled up, it became a bit ridiculous.  My bedside had become cluttered with the detritus of my sleep issues- sleep mask, socks (sometimes need them, sometimes can't stand them), water (all that sweating is dehydrating), Kindle for middle of night reading, phone for when the Kindle doesn't work, extra blanket (you never know), various types of sleepwear (depending on what my personal thermostat was), extra pillows, ice packs, hot packs, fan, and the inevitable tangle of sheets and blankets. I finally had to accept--

It's not you, my sweet bed, it's me.  And a nasty case of declining estrogen.  Yikes, it appears I am in the PERIMENOPAUSAL ZONE!!

"Perimenopause is the time period when the ovaries begin to decline in function and continues until menopause has been reached."

Your mother may have referred to this time as "the change of life". This phase covers an undetermined amount of time that starts and ends at its choosing. It could last as long as ten years.  TEN YEARS!!  A few of its delightful symptoms include hot flashes, night sweats, disrupted sleep, weight gain, and mood changes. I won't even mention the other very specific things that happen to a woman's body :-0!! Doesn't that sound like fun?  I can tell you that my mood definitely changes when those things are happening to me!

While it is my desire to take all of this in stride, it is not always easy.  I can change the kind of clothing I wear to accommodate my ever-changing temperature, I can keep the thermostat at a refrigerator setting, I can happily switch to wearing pants with adjustable waistbands if I have to, but to give up a good night's sleep is almost too much to ask! I know women are strong and that's why we are given the gift of childbearing, but it would seem to me that the additional but related "gifts" of the starting and stopping of menstruation and ALL that goes along with it are just too much.  Insomnia too?  There must be a mistake! Surely God didn't intend for us to suffer all of these indignities in addition to normal aging issues?? Gravity and wrinkles would have been enough!  Clearly, some of these ailments should have been directed to the men, right? Why should us women have ALL of the fun?

The best way to get through all of this is with the support and humor of your girlfriends.  They understand (or they will soon understand) why you wear a tank top in the middle of winter and accept that your house is the temperature of an ice box.  They will pretend not to notice when your midsection swells and will be with you as you shop for looser, floaty styles. They will nod knowingly when you complain about not sleeping and will kindly offer you tips on undereye concealer.  Your girlfriends will tell you the things you hate to ask your doctor about, but really, really need to know.  They will be with you as you laugh and cry (and sometimes pee) with greater frequency, sometimes in the same minute. Your girlfriends will be the ones to share tips on what herb to try, or what medicine to avoid.  They will clue you in on what things helped them or what made it worse. We will all get through it together somehow- maybe just a little sweatier, crabbier, and sleepier than we once were.

 My advice to the men in our lives-- read up on what to expect, be understanding and supportive, try to do what we say,  don't dare change the thermostat, stay away from our chocolate, and whatever you do, don't cross us! All of that not sleeping makes us a little bit crazy :-).

See Wonder, Not Weeds

Spring seems to have officially arrived- hallelujah! The warmer temps, abundant sunshine, and ample amounts have rain have done their job.  The yard is growing and plants are blooming at long last! With all of that new growth comes a little bit of yard anxiety for me.  The list of spring yard work is long- there is grass that needs to be cut, weeds that need to be pulled, crabgrass that needs to be controlled, trees and shrubs that need to be trimmed, perennial beds that need to be cleaned out, and mulch that needs to be spread.  Although the end result is a labor of love for me, sometimes in the process when my back hurts and my allergies flare, and the to-do list seems way too long; I can forget the love and just see the labor.

Over Mother's Day weekend, I dodged the raindrops and purchased flowers for the pots on my backyard patio.  Completing the pots is always a big item on my list, so when I finally planted the last one and hung my hanging basket of flowers I felt a sense of accomplishment.  However, it was a short-lived victory.  As I looked around I could see about 10 more things that I needed to do that I wouldn't be able to do because of the weather.  I went inside feeling frustrated partly because I couldn't just enjoy what I HAD accomplished and partly because I really wanted to do more.

Later that day my husband was out with our dog and he saw a lady and her young daughter walking on the path behind our house.  At some point, the little girl stopped and looked at our yard and said "Wow, look at that. That yard is a wonder!"  The mom paused to take a closer look, made a positive comment, and then they continued on their way.  At dinner, my husband shared the story with me because he thought I would appreciate the sweet words of this little girl.  Now, there is no question that my yard is not a wonder.  Yes, it is landscaped and I like to plant flowers, but no reasonable adult would make that assessment. It is comical that this little girl chose that word, but for whatever reason, she saw something that caught her eye and captured her imagination.  It was clear that she wasn't seeing what I was seeing when I looked at the yard. She didn't see the long list of projects that still needed to be done, she was enjoying what was already there.

Her comment stuck with me.  Later on in the week, I walked on the path and looked at my house from her perspective.  Did I see anything magical? No, but I also didn't see the weeds that needed to be pulled or the moss growing on the patio, or the little patch of poison ivy growing in my perennial garden.  I did notice the pretty pink flowers that I had just planted and the colorful hanging basket above my garden.  I took in the incredible lushness of the grass and the trees that you see only in the springtime.  I saw how much my new garden area had filled in since last year with the promise of many new flowers. Nothing had changed in my yard since a few days earlier, only in my mind.  Once my perspective changed, so did my view.  

This is an ongoing lesson for me and many others. We want to have a positive perspective and enjoy what's happening in the moment, but somehow it seems to be easier to focus on the to-do list, what's missing, or what's next.  There is a continuing struggle to stay positive and not let the negative pull you in. Oftentimes it takes a tragedy to focus our attention on what matters. What do we do when we need a change of perspective? We need to put on a pair of perspectacles-magical glasses that give you the power of perspective! Wouldn't it be nice to slip on the glasses when we sense we need an attitude adjustment?

Ok, so we probably aren't going to find these magic glasses in our local CVS. It would be so much easier if we could! 

*I once have something close- a pair of sunglasses that were tinted in such a way to make everything look more colorful, more rosy, and more beautiful than they really were.  I called them my rose colored glasses and I'm pretty sure the time I had those were some of my happiest years!*

But what can we do when we need a new perspective? In my case, a comment from a stranger helped change my view.  The little girl made me question what I was seeing and wonder how I could see what she saw. But, I also took the time to physically change my point of view.  It's like looking in the magnifying makeup mirror every day.  Sure, you get an up close look at all that needs to be "fixed", but you also have to take a step back and look at the long view to see how everything looks as a whole.  By taking the long view of my garden instead of the close-up view, I was able to look past the minor flaws and focus on the greater beauty.  I still have the same to do list that I had before, but it feels different.  Now I can see the wonder too, and not just the weeds. 

I hope to apply this lesson to other areas of my life.  It always seems to be easier to see the weeds, but it is so much better to look for the wonder.  We don't have control over many things in this life, but we can control what we choose to look at and more importantly what we choose to see.  Let's use our perspectacles to help us see the truth, beauty, love, peace, joy, kindness, and goodness that surround us every day.  They are always there, you just have to be willing to look in the right place.


Freshman Year Complete- A Journey Home and A Journey Back in Time

Last week my husband and I drove to Ohio, packed up my daughter and her dusty dorm room, and brought her home. It was quite an accomplishment for all of us!  Claire survived her freshman year and so did we :-).  As we were packing up her belongings, it felt like we had just unpacked them and set her up in her cozy (tiny) dorm room for the first time. Yet, time being the trickster that it is, it also felt like a lifetime ago that we had obsessed over sheets and comforters, storage bins and organizational tools. Here she was in her room looking like she had done this for years. Could it be only 9 months ago that we wondered if she was prepared? Could it be only 9 months ago that I wondered if I would ever feel complete again? Thankfully the answer to both was a resounding yes. 

After the packing and cleaning were complete, we did one last walk around campus.  There was time to use a few more meal swipes and purchase a few more pieces of college swag.  The campus felt more comfortable, familiar, smaller even that it had a year ago during orientation.  After we settled into the packed van for the long drive home, with the stress of packing behind us and the monotony of the drive still ahead of us; we got to hear her thoughts on her first year of college.  We heard her talk about the great relationship she had with her roommate and the new room they will share in their sorority next year. We heard the excitement in her voice as she talked about future plans to study abroad. My heart soared as she shared stories of new friends she had met and their tentative plans to get together this summer.  We listened quietly as she talked about the challenge of learning new topics at such a quick pace and the way she adjusted her study habits accordingly. We excitedly nodded as she told us about a new program she had joined and was looking forward to next year.  

There was no way we could reasonably express with words our pride, our relief, and our excitement that her freshman year had gone so well.  Of course, that had been our hope and expectation, but the first year doesn't always go that way.  There are plenty of kids who struggled through their freshman year and who went home early, decided to transfer, or stuck it out without such great memories. We were overwhelmingly thankful for the positive experience she had and exhaled with relief in a way that we hadn't in a long time.  Eventually, the long car ride took its toll and my daughter dropped off into a well deserved post-finals nap.  My thoughts drifted back many years to my own trip home from campus after freshman year. 

I have surprisingly few memories of packing up my belongings and cleaning up my dorm room, but I do remember that my dad was the one to drive me home for the summer.  I remember getting into the loaded car and settling in for the nearly 2 hour drive home.  In an uncharacteristic display of talkativeness, I shared with my dad how wonderful my year had been.  I talked about the friends I had made and all that I had learned.  I marveled at the variety of people I had met and how exciting it was to know people of so many different life circumstances.  I can still remember the pure joy as I shared my thoughts with him. Going away to college was the single most life-changing thing that had happened to me up to that point in time.  I was bursting with excitement as I shared my experience with him.  Unfortunately, I can't recall what he said.  My memory fills in the conversation with words of acknowledgment and a few "that's great baby's".  For some reason, I long to know what he was thinking at that moment.  Was he feeling proud? Was he happy for my experience? Did he think I was being overly dramatic in that way that only 19 year olds can be? Was he tired and wishing I would stop talking?!?  Did he worry that I was changing too much, too fast and fear that I was growing away from him? I wonder.

I wish I could ask him. My dad has been gone for 12 years now and the moments of instinctually reaching for the phone to call him have mostly passed.  But for whatever reason, this moment with my daughter brought up an intense desire to know.  Did he feel the same mix of emotions that I felt? I like to think that I know how he was feeling but the truth is that I don't. For now, how he felt will remain a question mark in my mind and his thoughts will remain his alone. Maybe the expression of our feelings is never as clear to others as we think that it was.

As we continued our drive, my thoughts returned to the present. I found myself sneaking glances at my daughter. How I had missed her sweet face! I wanted to soak it all in and refamiliarize myself with the details of her face- slightly different, more mature somehow, the angles a little less sharp, same beautiful dark eyes.  As we talked, I could see that my "little girl" still had her same lively personality and infectious sense of humor.  Much felt exactly the same. Yet, I could also see her growth and maturity. What I couldn't assess was how she felt on the inside.  Did she feel like she had grown? Did life look different to her after a year away from home? I'm sure over the coming weeks the differences will be more pronounced.  Her newfound independence will bump against my sense of parenting control.  Her newly formed thoughts on different subjects may not always agree with mine.  Our town will definitely feel smaller and less exciting than a college campus! But hopefully, she will feel and appreciate the comfort and joy of coming home that will remain with her long after college life is over.

What I hope for her this summer after freshman year is that she will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we love her, we are proud of her, we support what she is doing, we appreciate her efforts,  and we ENJOY her.  Although I can't go back in time and know what my dad was thinking on our drive home after freshman year, I can do my best to make sure that my daughter doesn't have the same questions. I hope she knows the answers and isn't left to wonder.

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