The year 2012 ended with a white Christmas, which is fairly unusual here in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. But then, Mother Nature hasn’t been very predictable, or even very kind, over the past twelve months. Her random and sometimes disruptive behavior was fitting for a year when too many people experienced upheaval and loss. But just like Mother Nature, 2012 also brought bright and sunny moments along with the storms. All serve as reminders of the lessons we need to learn and/or remember.
Lesson 1: We Should Experience Happiness Like a Dog with A Snowball My German Shepherd, Rodney, adores the snow. He loves bounding through it. He loves smelling it. He loves eating it. And most of all, he loves playing in it. As a true fanatic for all things that can be thrown and caught, when the white stuff is on the ground, he begs for someone to pack and throw a snowball.
This Christmas, I noted how thrilled he was with every snowball he caught, even though each fell apart or dissolved in his mouth. Instead of being disappointed when a snowball was gone, he was just as eager for another, which he enjoyed with no concern that it too would disappear.
We should all appreciate our happy moments just like my dog appreciates snowballs. They may be fleeting, but instead of worrying that they may not last, we should enjoy each moment and remain steadfast in our belief that there will always be more.
Lesson 2: We Can’t Always Control Our Circumstances or Protect Those We Love, but Any Attempts To Do So Are Always Good for a Laugh At the end of June, the Eastern Panhandle, like the rest of West Virginia, was hit unexpectedly by a derecho, or a land hurricane. Most of us had never heard of such a storm prior to the event, and since there were no warnings, we didn’t initially realize the severity of what had happened. We discovered the extent of damage the next day when we saw the downed trees and power lines and when many people experienced a loss of electricity for weeks.
The event left its mark, so in October, when meteorologists called for the Eastern Panhandle to be in the path of Hurricane Sandy, most of us wanted to be prepared. Some of us over-prepared. And some of us even freaked out… a bit.
For my part, I decided my family should ride out Sandy in our basement to avoid the hazards of trees crashing through our roof. We were all safely downstairs when I realized that Skitty, our cat, wasn’t with us. Since Skitty has a tendency to hide in unusual and hard-to-find places, I immediately assigned all family members to search for her. As the wind howled and the trees creaked, we took turns calling her name and shaking a bag of cat food, which is usually the best way to get our over-weight feline out of hiding. This time it didn’t work, and I began to worry that my cat, who is generally too lazy to go outside, was battling the elements.
Just as my anxiety got the worst of me, my son, in his usual dry and sarcastic way, told me that the cat was safe. As it turns out, the only thing she was battling was her disdain for a family who didn’t realize that she’d taken shelter in the basement long before the rest of us. My cat had the sense to do what she needed to do and not be bothered by the drama that surrounded her. I should have done the same.
I hadn’t had enough warning to worry about the derecho, and we managed through the storm and the aftermath just fine. I had way too much warning about Sandy, and even though we also managed through that storm and aftermath just fine, my stress level had gotten so high that even my cat chose to ignore me.
Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in either avoiding a situation or in worrying about what might happen, we simply forget that we can only do so much, we must accept that some things are beyond our control and we should believe in the sound judgment and appropriate actions of others. The results won’t always be what we hope for, but too much worry is only good for providing memories that allow us to laugh at ourselves later.
Lesson 3: Life Rarely Goes According to Plan, but When Bad Things Happen, We All Have a Great Capacity for Resiliency and Recovery No one in my family expected the snow that arrived on Christmas Eve, and, even after it began to fall, none of us expected it to last long. But last it did. And in the midst of final preparations for our Christmas celebration, the snow covered the grass and then it covered the roads.
When we realized we were going to have a white Christmas, we celebrated by taking a family walk with Rodney. Unfortunately, Rodney was more excited than all of us, and the jumping, the barking and the lunging, drove my husband crazy to the point he just wanted to go home. Instead of enjoying the beauty of the untouched snow, we were trying to control an overly enthusiastic dog. I worried that our Christmas Eve would become a battle over the dog.
As Rodney began to calm down, we began the climb up the hill on the far side of our neighborhood. When a truck came speeding down the snow-covered hill, we immediately jumped off the road and into a neighbor’s lawn. And then we heard loud thumps and bangs. We turned to see that the truck had gone off the road and taken out two mailboxes and multiple newspaper boxes. Packages littered the ground, and I was relieved that Rodney’s behavior was all but forgotten.
We empathized with the driver and the home owners that such an incident happened on Christmas Eve. But when put in perspective with the loss some families faced this Christmas, the event was far from tragic. For many, Christmas isn’t always just a reminder of family traditions and family warmth. It can also be a reminder of could-have-beens, might-have-beens and regrets. And yet, most of us still believe in the magic of the holidays.
Yesterday, as I was walking up that same hill with Rodney during yet another unexpected snow storm, I noticed the mailboxes were already back up. As is true with human nature, the owners were trying to get everything back to normal. Seeing the mailboxes standing so quickly after witnessing their near demise less than 36 hours earlier was a reminder that no holiday is ever perfect. But planning for perfection only leaves room for disappointment, and planning for disappointment only leaves room for anxiety. But planning to enjoy life’s imperfections only leaves room for joy.
I plan to carry that lesson with me forever and to look forward to whatever the weather, and life, have in store for 2013.
With the current year fading fast and all of the potential of a new year on the horizon, I’d like to suggest a resolution for everyone: don’t write on someone else’s blank sheet of paper.
Whether or not you let someone write on YOUR paper is up to you, but please don’t write on someone else’s.
Personally, I’m resolving to avoid both. For such an outwardly head strong, opinionated person, you might think the first will be more difficult. But, for the unsure, worried and perpetually questioning me inside, the second will be just as challenging.
For years, I’ve let way too many people write on my paper. . . altering my story with their advice, opinions and standards. And the difference between someone who writes on your paper and someone who cheers as you write is long-lasting.
I learned this from two teachers and the blank sheets of paper they expected their students to fill.
I absolutely loved those blank sheets of paper. I loved the smell. I loved the look. And I loved the endless possibilities.
During my grade school years, the paper wasn’t white. It was an indescribable shade of grey and tan with space for a picture above and a combination of dotted and solid lines below. The purpose of the lines was to ensure appropriate hand-writing form.
I never worried about my handwriting (and was generally graded down accordingly). I was much more worried about content. I was fascinated by how I could string words together to say something that nobody else had ever said. I adored the feeling of putting pencil to paper and creating something. And I loved being able to express myself.
What I didn’t love was having parameters placed on me.
And those parameters were set forth quite firmly by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Gladwill. Unfortunately, I can’t really say anything nice about the woman. I could write pages about the horrors of that school year –about the times I was stuck in the corner so other students wouldn’t cheat off me; about how needing to go to the bathroom was a nightmare because it was prohibited during class time (Mrs. Gladwill’s theory was that if you didn’t have the sense to go during recess or lunch, then you should wait); about how Mrs. Gladwill liberally used harsh words and a ruler on knuckles; and, most of all, about how Mrs. Gladwill required conformity.
For a “spirited” child, there’s no wonder that I didn’t thrive in first grade. I simply survived. And was beholden to a series of lessons that led me to believe that sometimes it’s easier to just let others control what goes on your blank sheet of paper.
That became evident when Mrs. Gladwill gave all of her students the assignment of writing (and drawing) an answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
At first, I was very excited about the assignment. With Mrs. Gladwill as a teacher, I should have known better.
I wanted to write about becoming a trapeze artist. My father had built and hung a trapeze from a juniper tree in our backyard, and I was already practicing my act.
The problem was, I didn’t know how to spell trapeze.
When I asked Mrs. Gladwill, her only advice was to look it up in the “book of careers” she had provided us.
Needless to say, trapeze artist wasn’t listed.
So I had to ask Mrs. Gladwill again.
Instead of helping me spell out my dream, she advised me to write about something “normal”, like becoming a nurse.
I had no desire to be nurse, but I recognized the authority she had. So, I reluctantly looked up nurse in the career book and wrote about how I wanted to be one. I even remember drawing the picture with particularly harsh strokes: I was angry that Mrs. Gladwill had taken control of MY piece of paper. At the same time, I did not want to be in trouble. So my blank sheet of paper became a full sheet of paper that was a lie.
Turning in that paper marked the end of my dreams of becoming a trapeze artist. Mrs. Gladwill had made it clear: if it wasn’t in the book about careers, there was no sense in pursuing it.
By second grade, my dreams had evolved anyway. My new ambition was to become a writer.
Much to my surprise, my teacher, Mrs. Roth, never told me to look up writer in the “career book.” In fact, she didn’t even have a career book. She simply encouraged me to write stories whenever I had extra time. She even taped my stories on the outside of her classroom door where others could read them. And they did.
I remember swelling with pride when fourth graders stopped by our classroom to read my stories.
Since then, that dream of being a writer has never died. I can’t say I’ve fully achieved that goal, but I never gave it up. It’s hard to give up something when others, particular teachers, believe in you.
So as 2012 approaches, I’m raising a glass to toast the blank sheets of paper everyone will receive in the new year. And I’m toasting the opportunity we all have to continue writing our own unique story without being told what the plot should be. I’m also raising a glass to how we can all cheer each other on. And most of all, I’m raising a glass to the great teachers who lead the way. Not only do they encourage so many of us, but they also serve as examples for other teachers by acknowledging that sometimes the most meaningful lessons aren’t the ones that are taught but are the ones that are observed.
Here’s to that! Cheers!