Monday, May 7, 2012

Step 1 - Admitted I Was Powerless ...

Photo by author

Let me tell you a story. I was divorced from my ex-husband but I still loved him. We lived only a few miles apart and we had a daughter together. Even after the divorce was final, we kept spending time together. It seemed to me that things were better than ever between us because I had become a wiser and even a happier person after the initial grieving and misery of the separation. I had joined a support group mainly to complain, but instead I had learned some new ways of looking at things. I made friends and went to work and took care of my daughter, but all the while I believed that he would come back to me.

One day we were on a fishing trip. As a little girl who was starved for male attention and a happy family life, I had yearned for outings like the ones I had with my ex-husband. He grew up on a Florida riverbank in his back yard, teaching himself to fish and camp and water ski. He had a natural joy in living that I lacked. It seemed to me that he held the key to all the things I had missed out on as a child.

So this one day we were fishing in a little boat under the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Tampa Bay. We were anchored near one of the pillars of the bridge. There was only one other boat nearby. Occasionally a fish jumped out of the water or a bird skimmed near the surface or some insect buzzed near my face. The sun was warm but there was a cool breeze. The water sparkled and the waves gently rocked our boat. I settled back in my seat with a cold drink.

First, my ex-husband threw out a cast net to catch "white bait", small little fish that he put in the live well of the boat where the water was circulating. He then put a little live fish on a hook and cast toward some rocks where he said a big fish might be hiding. I said a little prayer that he might catch a fish. It would put him in such a good mood.

I was very surprised to hear him complain and cast again. He explained to me that the little fish on the hook was swimming away from the rocks. I had assumed that little fish was dead as soon as he was hooked, but he was still alive and still trying to avoid his fate. He was doomed, but he didn't know it.

All afternoon, various bait fish took their turns trying to avoid the big fish hiding in the rocks. Other fish jumped trying to catch the insects flying near the water. The man in the boat tried to catch the big fish and the woman in the boat dreamed of getting the man to come back home to her. High above, cars headed one direction or another over the huge bridge on their own errands and big planes flew overhead to exotic destinations.

The man didn't catch any fish that day. Sometime later, the same month our daughter graduated High School, he started dating someone else and in less than a year he was remarried.

What happened to me? I kept seeing my friends, going to work and taking care of my daughter. Fortunately, I had learned a new way of looking at things that helped me through. I am happily remarried myself today and our daughter is grown with children of her own. We are all friends.

The lesson? Every creature that walks or crawls or swims or flies has an agenda of its own. No one can make anyone do anything they don't want to do, even if they say they will. So spend your energy on your own life. Learn and work and have fun. Live and let live. Love everyone you can -- even the ones who don't love you back. Someone even wrote a poem about it.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Feeling Our Feelings

Drawing by Jill

I'm not a child psychologist, but I have learned a few lessons about handling emotions. Like many people in my generation, my family was dysfunctional and the lesson I learned from my mother was to put up a good front for the neighbors. My mother was a wonderful woman who worked hard as a professional when many women did not have jobs outside the home. She was also a very loving and caring mother doing the best that she could. That meant getting up every morning with a smile on her face and getting to work on time and taking care of business.

As her daughter, I had a little trouble with the concept. I had trouble smiling and acting like everything was fine when it wasn't at all. I developed a lifelong resentment for what seemed to be arbitrary rules. What difference did it make if you were a few minutes late for school after a traumatic night at home? I was a good student. The attitudes I developed were subtle. I was a good girl. I smiled and was friendly and respectful to the teachers. But I had a problem with punctuality my entire life. I also grew up with emotions that seemed like freight trains to me. They had already roared by before I even knew they were coming.

After learning many things about myself much later in life, I instinctively try to help my grandchildren learn to deal with their emotions. I didn't help my own children that much, but now I can try to make a difference with a new generation of little hearts.

One granddaughter especially touches my heart on this subject. She is seven going on thirty. She is very smart and has always seemed much wiser than her years. She was starting to read when she just turned three and was especially good at recognizing logos. We were attending my daughter's baby shower where my granddaughter was "helping" to open the presents. "Oh," she exclaimed as the paper was torn away from the box, "It's from Walmart!" Everyone was impressed, but that changed to shock when she sang a popular song from the radio a little later, complete with dance moves and lyrics that were more suitable for bar than a baby shower.

This little girl, through no fault of her own, has been exposed to many heart rending situations. Once, when she was about four, she called my phone number and said, "Grandma, do you know where I am?" She was supposed to be spending time with her mother at a nearby motel. My son and I found the room and there she was. The situation was not good, but she still cried when we took her away. We took her home to a safe place, but we couldn't protect her from heartache.

She spent the night with me as she had numerous times before, but this time she couldn't sleep. She was too worried. Finally, we both got up in the early dawn and I got us two pieces of cake. We sat down at the kitchen table and she wiped her tears away.

"Sometimes little girls just miss their mothers," I told her. She nodded her head and finished her cake and we went back to bed. Somehow, just acknowledging her feelings made her feel better. It is perfectly normal to be upset when bad things happen, but things will get better.

Today, she is a happy, smart little girl who has many friends, is doing great in school, and still has to deal with more difficult situations than most children. She is brutally honest and sometimes her stepmother and I have to coach her to refrain from commenting on uncomfortable social situations. I think the catch word "Awkward!" describes many of her remarks.

Last Mother's Day she told me in her typical way, "Happy Mother's Day, Grandma, even though you are not my mother and I am not your daughter."

I smiled and said, "You are the daughter of my heart!"

She thought about that and said, "True."

Attitudes about Money

Photo by author

I have been thinking about money. I grew up in the 60's and believed that the pursuit of material wealth was crass and selfish. You know, love, peace and brotherhood. At the same time, I was spoiled and enjoyed buying things but not working at a job. I was proud of my mother who had a career, but I wanted only a creative, flexible, artistic job. I even told my mother one time that her job wasn't "real." All she did was punch a time clock (which I despised) and shuffle papers (medical records). A real job was writing a novel, creating art, building a house or growing food and feeding animals. Creating something or taking care of something seemed to be the only important things to me, but I didn't spend much time doing any of those things either.

I have always had a sense of guilt for the things I had (all those starving children in the third world), but I have also allowed myself to be impressed by those who had more money than I and therefore better clothes, cars, and haircuts, nicer homes, more security, travel, and education. I have worked hard not to be envious of other people's success, but I do allow myself to feel that I have failed sometimes. So, I can't win. I feel guilty for what I have and a bit like a failure for not figuring out how to have more.

Bad choices didn't help. I remember the exact moment I woke in the middle of the night and realized I was responsible for myself and my two-year-old son. My husband was gone and I had an interesting, but low paying job and an old car my mother bought me. "How did I get here?" I wondered. Even though I was a good student, I had dropped out of college when my boyfriend broke up with me. Then I married someone who was even more unprepared and immature than I was.

Over the years that followed, I made endless budgets and worked at a series of jobs but I was always broke. For a long time, my average stay at a job was about 1 year. I was lucky to find a trade since I had never finished college. I became a typesetter, training on the job and riding the crest of emerging computer technology.

Along the way, I found myself in a few great jobs:
  • The small town newspaper where I worked on the "dump" replacing lead correction lines in galleys of type and proofreading, and where I was chosen to learn the new computer system when they switched to "cold type".
  • The big city business magazine where I worked on the top floor of a beautiful old historic building with writers and editors and artists and managed a one-person typesetting department for two publications.
  • The international typesetting development and manufacturing company where I started as a software tester with no clue about either software or testing and where I eventually became involved with almost every aspect of software development, marketing and customer support for that company. I traveled for the first time in my life and made some wonderful friends and experienced what I like to think of as my own personal 15 minutes of fame.
  • The huge telecommunications firm where I managed software releases on mainframe computers and made a pretty decent salary and met my current husband.
I am proud of those accomplishments and yet a big part of me wonders if I ever really accomplished anything of lasting value.

I married my husband late in life and together we made a series of new financial mistakes. I have two words for young working people - ROTH IRA. Well, I guess that is one word and an acronym. Pay your taxes while you are working so you can withdraw your own money tax free after you retire. Just saying. BTW, I am not a tax accountant so get some professional advice about that stuff.

I remember saying many times when I contemplated retirement and knew that I had not saved much money that I would probably have to work the rest of my life. It never occurred to me that I might not be able to find a job even if I wanted to. Now I realize what an arrogant little twirp I was and how liberating and dignified it is to earn your own money at any old job so you can be able to take care of yourself and your responsibilities. My mother knew as an orphan growing up in a children's home that she would have to take care of herself and that is what she did. She managed to take good care of her children and grandchildren, too. I'm sorry, Mom, for not always appreciating you.

Now I spend my days doing creative things and taking care of people I love. My life is meaningful but I am still broke. I have recently found an interesting part-time job. Hopefully, this blog will be a record for my children and grandchildren to see. I pray that they learn from my experience and they find something they love to do and someone they love to be with. Or, as my mother once said when I complained, "Just use me as a terrible example."

Days of Green

 Photo by author

I started keeping a daytimer at work to keep track of meetings and appointments about 20 years ago. Gradually, I added family and school events and cute little things the children did or said. Finally I started making a note every day of something special that set the day apart. I started highlighting the different events in different colors to keep them straight. Appointments in yellow, for instance, and special events in green.

My favorite "green events" were spontaneous and happy moments. On special days the little block allowed for the day would overflow with green. My favored format is the Month-at-a-Glance Daytimer with a whole month of little squares on a double-page spread. I began to accumulate a pile of daytimers and it was fun to look back and see what I was doing exactly one year or two years ago. Sometimes I looked up the date we bought a new appliance or had the last dental checkup. Some days were sad and blank with a little black dot in the corner. Those were days that didn't need a notation to remember such as the day my mother died.

After my aunt died unexpectedly, I was able to look back in my books and remember all the fun things we had done together. Sometimes when I was waiting for a phone call or something, I would play a little game. I would choose the best green day of the month. Or the best green day of the year. Well, you get the idea.

A long running soap opera starts with the saying, "Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives." If we fail to note the little things that make our days unique, they run together in memory until much of our lives are lost.

I still keep my daytimer but I don't write in it every day any more. Now I have a blog. My blog is like a photo album, journal and pen pal club all rolled together. A couple of years ago I started creating a collage of photographs to show the highlights of the past year - sort of a visual Year-At-A-Glance. I publish it on my blog every New Year's day.

Maybe you think you don't have much to say but imagine how much a diary from an ancestor would mean to your family. Blogs can be downloaded to disks or printed out in a book to keep forever. Start recording the days of your live and you could create a family masterpiece some day.

Time Travel

Written in response to the above photo prompt from writing blog: Magpie Tales

The stars roll around the heavens, the earth turns as it circles the sun. The universe moves inevitably toward its destiny. Perhaps it will expand forever until it is cold and empty. Or it might crash back onto itself only to explode again in unimaginable violence. Perhaps there are an infinite number of parallel universes where each choice we make branches into a new reality. And still, time moves on. Einstein said that time and space are intertwined, that time slows down as you approach the speed of light. I have heard that our concept of time doesn't exist at all and is only the invention of man, that everything that will ever happen has already taken place. I am fascinated and awed by these ideas and by the idea of time travel.

I remember reading in a comic book about Superman flying around the earth so fast that time turned backwards. I also remember clearly when I first saw the movie "Back to the Future". It was 1991 because I was about to attend my 25 year high school reunion. I loved all the twists and turns that travelling back in time created. Near the end, the hero was leaving and the girl who was to be his mother said to herself, "Marty - that's a nice name." And so ... he was named after himself. I took a long walk after the movie thinking about time travel and my upcoming high school reunion. I wished I could know the future.

Well, I've done a little time traveling since then. Forward, which is the only way we know for sure that time can flow. It has been almost 20 years since I took that walk. I went through a painful divorce, I had to change my career, my children grew up, my mother died. I wonder what I might have done differently if I could have seen the future that day.

Well, I would have made some different career choices at that crucial turning point. I wish I hadn't chosen to refinance my house. The main thing I wish is that I was kinder, more patient, with my mother and my children, more accepting of other people and their choices - even if I didn't understand those choices. I would focus more on my own life and the options I had control over and less on trying to make other people change to meet my expectations. This sounds a lot like the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Guess what? I had no idea where this post was going when I started!