I got a rash on my face for Christmas this year.
It was a gift, or, at least it was the byproduct of a gift that was given with the best of intentions.
And because of that, I almost didn’t write about it.
I didn’t write about a lot of things in 2017.
That’s partly because I had so much on my plate that I couldn’t find the energy at the end of a day or week to collect my thoughts in a coherent manner.
My lack of writing was partly because there was just too much going on to address anything in a timely manner. The man currently occupying the Oval Office said and did so many mind-numbing, jaw-dropping, embarrassing things, that something I wrote on Saturday morning would already be obsolete by that afternoon because of his latest tweet, or handshake, or speech or attempt to drink water with two hands.
And I didn’t write much this year because I live with my greatest critics. And sometimes not writing is easier than dealing with the aftermath of someone feeling misquoted or offended or embarrassed by my interpretation of events.
Which brings us right back to the rash on my face, which is the direct result of a thoughtful Christmas gift that my husband gave me. And, at risk hurting his feelings by sharing with the world that the itchy bumps on my face are his fault, I’m doing it anyway.
That’s because as 2017 ends, the rash symbolizes so much more than my husband’s misguided attempt to help me relax by giving me scented spray for pillows and linens (a spray to which I am apparently allergic).
It’s about having survived almost an entire year (starting on Friday January 20, to be exact) in which our country has been subjected to a rash leader whose impulsive tendencies are causing much bigger problems than just an irritating itch.
Unfortunately, I can’t change the leadership problem in this country as easily as I changed the sheets and pillowcases doused with the rash-causing spray. But that doesn’t mean I have to tolerate it nor should I be silenced.
A rash isn’t just irritating, it can be dangerous when untreated. The same goes for rash people. And there is no shame in trying to address the root of the problem or finding an antidote.
Here’s to making that a breakthrough discovery in 2018.
About ten years ago (before social media reconnected me with people who I never thought I’d hear from again), I received an unexpected email at work.
It was from a guy I’d known more than a decade earlier and who had faded into my memory like the vague shadows of a rear view mirror. He and I had once run in similar circles, but I’m fairly certain we never had a conversation that endured more than five-sentences. He’d certainly never occupied much, if any space, in my conscious or subconscious mind.
Which is why, when I’d received a chatty and rather lengthy email from him, I was more than just a little surprised.
He’d contacted me after reading a newspaper article in which I was quoted. He hadn’t known that I lived in the same town where his daughter and ex-wife resided, and seemed genuinely excited to re-connect.
I responded, and we exchanged a few more emails.
And then he died.
I learned about his death in the same way he’d found me – by reading about it in a newspaper article in the local paper. He had been in a head-on collision after apparently falling asleep at the wheel.
At a glance, there’s nothing particularly meaningful about this guy who was a small part of life, then wasn’t, then was again, then exited it completely.
We hadn’t been close nor do I imagine we ever would have been.
And yet, his random appearance after so many years then his abrupt disappearance after only a few days have stayed with me. Perhaps that’s partly because they serve as a reminder of how random and fragile life is. But they also suggest something more essential about how we live our lives.
We never know what the implications of our simplest interactions with others may lead. Acknowledging the presence of the quiet person in a group or sharing a smile don’t seem like grandiose gestures in a world overwhelmed by people who scream for, and often get, attention.
But then again, maybe they are actually bigger and more relevant than any action on a stage, or screen, or political platform can ever be.
Mark’s email all those years ago was a surprise because I never thought there was much worth remembering about me in those early days of my adult life. I certainly didn’t think someone I barely knew would reach out to me more than a decade later.
Yet he did. And even though our interactions were brief, he gave me something in return: a new-found understanding of my relevance in the past, in the present, and in the future.
As the Year 2016 ends and the Year 2017 arrives, the majority of my friends and acquaintances are glad to say goodbye to a year in which so many people died and the future of our democracy began to crack. Because of that, they are fearful of what 2017 may bring.
And yet, in truth, we can’t really live if we spend our energy in a soup of regrets, resentment and concerns about the behavior and actions of others.
All we can do is follow the Golden Rule and treat others in a manner that no one can criticize. And sometimes, when we do that, our actions may stay with others long after our own memories of them have faded.
A guy I once barely knew taught me that.
Rest in peace, Mark.
And rest in peace 2016.
As 2013 winds up, the media remind us of the year’s top news stories and of the celebrities and leaders we lost. But I have a personal New Year’s Eve tradition that dates back two decades – before I had children and was still unsure whether I wanted to be a parent.
I was working with the Vital Statistics office, which maintains records of annual births, deaths, marriages and divorces. Every year we published a document with pages of statistics and one page of trivia.
The trivia page included information such as the ages of the youngest bride and the youngest groom; the ages of the oldest bride and the oldest groom; the longest marriage ending in divorce, etc. The page also contained a list of the top 20 baby names of the year: 10 for boys and the 10 for girls.
The lists fascinated me because, if you followed them year after year, they really demonstrated shifts in culture.
Which is why, every New Year’s Eve, I always spend a little time looking over the lists of popular baby names.
And every year, those lists make me smile.
Day 178: The Year’s Top Baby Names Day 177: Reading on a Rainy Day Day 176: “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey Day 175: Watching the Torch Pass Day 174: Converse Tennis Shoes Day 173: Family Acceptance Day 172: Christmas Day 171: The Mr. Grinch Song Day 170: Positive People Day 169: Watching Movies From my Childhood With My Kids Day 168: Jealous Pets Day 167: Family Christmas Recipes Day 166: Church BellsDay 165: School Holiday 164: Unexpected Grace Day 163: Letting Go of Things We Can’t Control Day 162: Anticipating a good story Day 161: Hope Day 160: When Dogs Try to Avoid Embarrassment Day 159: Surprises in the Mail Day 158: Kids who aren’t superficial Day 157: A Garage on Winter Days Day 156: Real Christmas Trees Day 155: Being a Parent Day 154: Selfless People Day 153: Nelson Mandela Day 152: Memorable Road Trips Day 151: Great Neighbors Day 150: Oscar Wilde’s quote about being yourself Day 149: Love Letters Day 148: The first day of Advent Day 147: The Breakfast Club Day 146: Marriage and Shared Anniversaries 145: JFK’s quote about gratitude Day 144: Watching My Dog Play Day 143: Having my Family’s Basic Needs Met Day 142: When Our Children Become Role Models Day 141: Random Acts of Kindness Day 140; People Watching Day 139: Sharing Interests with My Children Day 138: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Best Advice Day 137: Weird Human Behavior about Garbage Day 136: Postcards from Heaven Day 135: Mickey Mouse Day 134: Generous Souls Day 133: I’m Moving On Day 132: A Family That is Really Family Day 131: A Personal Motto Day 130: Mork and Mindy Day 129: The Bears’ House Day 128: Veterans Day 127: Doppelgangers Day 126: Letting Life Unfold as It Should Day 125: The Constantly Changing Sky Day 124: When History Repeats Itself Day 123: The Love Scene in The Sound of Music Day 122: Helen Keller Day 121: The Welcome Back Kotter Theme Song Day 120: Sheldon Cooper Day 119: Having Permission to Make Mistakes Day 118: A Diverse Group of Friends Day 117: Family Traditions Day 116: The Haunting Season Day 115; Life Experience Day 114: Changes Day 113: The Wooly Bear Caterpillar Day 112: The National Anthem Day 111: Parents Who Care Day 110: Good Friends Day 109: My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss Day 108: A.A. Milne QuotesDay 107: Spending Time Wisely Day 106: Parades Day 105: The Peanuts Gang Dancing Day 104: Sharing a Secret Language Day 103: The Electric Company Day 102: Doing the Right Thing Day 101: When Siblings Agree Day 100: Being Optimistic Day 99: Trying Something New Day 98: The Sound of Children on a Playground Day97: Good Advice Day 96: Red and white peppermint candy Day 95: The Soundtrack from the Movie Shrek Day 94: Accepting Change Day 93: True Love Day 92: Camera Phones Day 91: Bicycle Brakes Day 90: HeroesDay 89: The Cricket in Times Square Day 88: The Grand Canyon Day 87: Unanswered Prayers Day 86: Apples Fresh from the Orchard Day 85: Being Human Day 84: Captain Underpants Day 83: The Diary of Anne Frank Day 82: In Cold Blood Day 81: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Day 80: The Outsiders Day 79: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Day 78: The First Amendment Day77: People Who Touch Our Lives Day 76: The Rewards of Parenting Day 75: Improvements Day 74: Family Traditions Day 73: Learning From Our Mistakes Day 72: Live Music Day 71: Sleeping In Day 70: Grover Day 69: A Good Hair Day Day 68: A Sense of Community Day 67: Kindness Day 66: Living in a Place You Love Day 65: Gifts from the Heart Day 64: The Arrival of Fall Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird Day 62: Green LightsDay 61: My Canine Friends Day 60: Differences Day 59: A New Box of Crayons Day 58: Bookworms Day 57: Being Oblivious Day 56: Three-day Weekends Day 55: A Cat Purring Day 54: Being a Unique Individual Day 53: Children’s Artwork Day 52: Lefties Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer Day 50: Campfires Day 49: Childhood Crushes Day 48: The Words “Miss You” Day 47: Birthday Stories Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us Day 45: Play-Doh Day 44: First Day of School Pictures Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes Day 42: Appreciative Readers Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote Day 40: Being Silly Day 39: Being Happy Exactly Where You Are Day 38: Proud Grandparents Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want Day 34: Accepting the Fog Day 33: I See the Moon Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap Day 31: Perspective Day 30: Unlikely Friendships Day 29: Good Samaritans Day 28: Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet? Day 27: Shadows Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads Day 25: When Harry Met Sally Day 24: Hibiscus Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck Day 22: The Wonderful World of Disney Day 21: Puppy love Day 20 Personal Theme Songs Day 19: Summer Clouds Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s VictoryDay 17: A Royal Birth Day 16: Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His MasculinityDay 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter Day 12: Round Bales of HayDay 11: Water Fountains for Dogs Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers Day 8: Great Teachers We Still RememberDay 7: Finding the missing sock Day 6: Children’s books that teach life-long lessonsDay 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment Day 4: Jumping in Puddles Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill Day 2: Old Photographs Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street
Those words were uttered by my mother, who is perhaps the least superstitious and most practical woman I know. But all of us have our uncharacteristic moments, and I completely understand why my mother had that one.
Several family members dealt with some difficult situations in 2013. But as I look back on the year that is almost over, I am more inclined to describe 2013 as a year when experiences, rather than simple words, served as reminders about life.
I also prefer to think those 13 reminders are gifts.
Reminder #1: Patience is a skill, and like any skill, it requires practice. Just like some people are born athletes or musicians, some people are born with more patience than others. But also like athletes and musicians, the skill must be practiced to be beneficial. Practice is even more important to those of us who weren’t born with a great deal of patience.
Reminder #2: No experience is completely bad. Something good, whether it is a humorous story, a new relationship or a change of direction, generally grows out of what we often consider a “bad” experience.
Reminder #3: Trying to influence the opinions of others is generally a waste of time. We can only act in a way that exemplifies our own beliefs and values. Life will teach us that being true to ourselves is much more important than ensuring other people understand.
Reminder #4: Life will always be a series of ups and downs. If we are constantly complaining about the struggles up, we often miss the joy of the ride down.
Reminder #5: The joyful ride down is usually consists of little moments, not grand accomplishments. We need to take time every day to appreciate those little moments.
Reminder #6: Living a life without goals is like playing a basketball game that has no final buzzer. The only thing we achieve is exhaustion.
Reminder #7: People who are mean-spirited generally don’t realize how mean they really are. They are so focused on meeting some unfulfilled need in their own lives that they unconsciously try to create holes in the lives of others. Giving kindness and compassion to such individuals is difficult, but it is still easier on our own souls than anger will ever be.
Reminder #8: Compassion and kindness for mean-spirited people doesn’t mean we must make an effort to keep such people in our lives.
Reminder #9: Miracles happen every day. To witness them in our lives, we just need to believe and look for them.
Reminder #10: The greatest gift we can give another person is to remember something important about him/her. No one likes sharing a piece of themselves only to be forgotten.
Reminder #11: The greatest gift God gives us are the challenges we overcome. They teach us so much: to believe in ourselves, to understand the struggles of others and to prioritize what is truly important.
Reminder #12: The only thing that complaining about your circumstances will change is the people who want to be around you. Very few people can tolerate much whining. Seeking sympathy never changes anything. Taking action does.
Reminder #13: Everything that happens in our lives is an experience that prepares us for what will happen next. The mystery about that next thing is what keeps life interesting.
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!