the joke, or life as a circus


Today I found a gray eyelash. Ah…whah?

God (and very few others) knows I have gray hair pretty much everywhere hair grows (even spots where it shouldn’t). But my eyelashes? They were the last bastion of youthful hair in my body, and their reign as such was over before I even knew they were a bastion.

I found this offending lower lash (it gets worse) while looking into my magnifying mirror which (and even worse) I now need to avoid looking like something out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Or is that just Baby Jane? Uh, did I mention my memory is going, too?

Oi. When did all this happen?  When did I get so old, so middle-aged, so like…my mother?  No offense, Mom, but you know how it is. While you’re growing up, your parents are the previous model, living dinosaurs who talk about dead people, listen to tragically old music and wear laughable clothes from another era.  Even in their early thirties, I believed my parents were seriously O-L-D.

I used to calculate what year it would be when I turned 30. I would roll “1997” around in my pre-adolescent brain and wonder at how far away it was, as well as the impossibly aged sound of “30” as if I were trying to conjure up a visual image of what one-billion looks like.  Unfathomable when you are 10.

I don’t want to fall into some cliché-ed rant about how unfair growing old is, how youth is wasted on the young, how our bodies betray us, how short life is, how existentially meaningless it all is, etc., etc.

But I have to say, it sometimes does feel like someone is playing a practical joke on us humans.  At least on me.

In my 20s, I had it all – a high metabolism; relatively good looks; a fit, impervious-to-injury- body; a sharp(er) mind (and memory, if I remember correctly); FREEDOM; and a sense that the world was full of possibility.

Did I know I had it all? Does an ostrich know it has wings? I only saw what I didn’t have, the imperfections and flaws in my body and mind. I lacked any direction or motivation that could have put all that lovely, young sap into something amazing.  I was too busy luxuriating in narcissistic, existential angst (my favorite writer was Milan Kundera – hence the title of this piece stolen from his book, The Joke) and bewilderment.  To top it off, I was hyper-focused on men, allowing dating and relationships to occupy whatever creative cerebrum space I had.  Needless to say, I was miserable.

In my 30s, I had even more…and somehow less.  Husband, babies, house, business – it was a lot and served to occupy every ounce of me.  I had no space to think, let alone make some big statement in the world or pursue creative, fulfilling or fun avocations.

So now we get to my 40s and the reason I’m writing this.  I finally have space to breathe and think; and the patience, calmness and lack of self-doubt to cultivate it.  In the last four years, I have developed a mien for artistic photography (even sold some shots!), tried my hand at being a partner in an art gallery, taken up (okay, developed an obsession for) tennis, traveled more than ever, launched this blog and an app for teens and their parents late last year (www.teensphere.com).

But the universal joke is on me, you see. Just as I have the confidence and maturity to start really living, my physical being is withering away with mounting speed. More than gray or stray hairs, or even wrinkles, it is the body-pains and aches, the injuries, the weird health issues, the failing eyes — all of which seem like a practical joke, banana peels thrown my way by Bozo the Universal Clown.

But I promised not to go all negative, “poor old me” on you, so I’m reframing my thinking around this irony-of-aging thing into something a little more positive.

Here’s what I’m thinking: rather than a joke, it must be a universal balancing act. Not the clown show at the circus, but the high-wire act. Forgive the big top metaphor, but I’d like to go with it for a minute.

Imagine this.You’re going along the high-wire, a leotard and tutu covering your fit, fabulous body, but your brain – well let’s just say you aren’t very mature even though your synapses are firing on all six cylinders – is not making the best decisions. Your powerful, youthful body can handle it, though. It either catches you when you take a wrong step, or it isn’t hurt too badly when you fall into the net below.

Do I sound like a dorky self-help book yet? I’m sure you know where this is headed: Your body ages, and gets hurt more easily, you aren’t as strong physically, but your mind and experience keep you from making as many mistakes as you go along that high wire.  You might not even need the little umbrella-thingy, which is really a crutch anyway, to keep your balance.

My premise is simple: we trade youth and its wonderful beauty and resiliency fraught with emotional pain and bewilderment, for wisdom fraught with physical pain and degeneration.

Somewhere along that high-wire, we cross a line. We are more wise than unwise.  The balance tips. The pendulum swings. But we have to pay the piper – there’s no such thing as a free lunch – you can’t have both youth and wisdom at the same time unless you’re the Dalai Lama, and, as we know, there can be only one Dalai Lama at any given point in history.

So you pay with emotional and/or physical pain. But getting hurt — physically or emotionally — then taking the time to heal, is part of the path of greater and greater wisdom.

When I hurt my shoulder in tennis a couple years ago (it still tweaks out once in a while), I railed against the gods, my tennis pro and my surgeon when he told me I was out for at least four months.  The injustice of it! I find a sport I actually like doing, one that I am improving in every day and it is snatched away in one stupid attempt at a topspin forehand.  Bloody banana peel, I would have thought … if I had thought of the whole joke concept yet.

But looking at it now, I realize that being forced to sit out meant I had to the energy and mental space to start this blog. Tennis had frankly started to eat up most of my free time and head space, and my creative self wasn’t being fed. Ka-Pow.

Lighting bolt.

Light bulb.

Duh.

The universe and I were out of balance, and I had to pay the price. But it gave me the gift of this blog, which has been a mind-blowing, cathartic and, believe it or not, healing powerhouse in my life. It is probably one of the more transformational things I have ever done and far better than any therapy I’ve ever experienced.

If hurting my shoulder was the price of catharsis, well, I guess it was worth it.

My final, final thought on the subject?  Wisdom comes to you over time, with every step you take, dangerous or careful. But beware — it takes a body part or your sense of peace before you reach the platform.

So who cares if I have tendonitis in both knees and I limp up and down stairs. Who even notices I have gray eyelashes under my mascara?  I am much, much more than the outside shell, the “plastique” as the French call it.

And, heck, at this rate of injury and aging as the trade-off for wisdom, I’m bound reach a state of nirvana really soon.

Or have I taken this line of thinking just a tad too far…?

Nah. It’s way better than Bozo and banana peels, so I’m going with it. Plus I’m wise now, so roll with me, okay?!

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innocence found


Why did I fall for it…again?

Maybe it was the end of summer and my brain was fried from sun and children.  Maybe I ate too many carbs the night before, or had too little coffee that morning.

Or maybe it’s because I get so tired of being cynical and hard-bitten that I let go briefly.

Whatever it was, as the founders of Las Vegas used to say, there’s a sucker born every minute. And this sucker was born again that day, the most recent of several sucker- incarnations. If there’s sucker nirvana, I’m sure to get there any day now.

The first time, I was a junior in college, traveling in Spain with a friend, both of us age-appropriately naive but old enough to know better.

In the train station on our way back to school in Paris, we were approached by a dapper, but frayed-at-the-edges older man, a Swede, who told us this tale of woe: his Mercedes had broken down in front of the station, his wife was home ill and he had no way of getting cash (he’d left his wallet at home, you see). He needed as much as we could spare to get his car fixed so he could get home to his poor darling.

With a mixture of feeling-like-such-good-people and trepidation, we gave him the equivalent of $70 in French francs — a fortune for us at the time — and our addresses in the US to which he was to send repayment.

As we got on the train back to Paris, the holes in his story began to worm their way into our silly, sweet brains…why didn’t he just take a cab home to get his wallet? Why wouldn’t the garage where he was getting his car fixed take him home? Couldn’t he call a friend to help? And his shoes…did you see his shoes? They were pretty crappy for a rich guy.

Ugh. We (finally) realized we’d been duped. Taken. Hustled. Grifted. Fooled, in the most awful way one can be – not through our greed or vanity, but by playing on our best impulses, our desire to help, our empathy, our basic humanity.

All that sweet goodness we’d filled up on turned into roiling sourness and acid, like too many bags of cotton candy, mini-donuts and cheese curds after you’ve left the State Fair.  We both felt nauseous, upset and burned.

I guess that’s what loss of innocence with a side of humiliation tastes like.

We vowed to never, ever be taken in by anyone again. We also vowed to never speak of it because we were so embarrassed.  Yes, I am “speaking of it” now because I’m no longer embarrassed (who was that dumb, foolish kid?), and I figure the statute of limitations is up after 20-plus years.

Have I mentioned I learn things the hard way? Because after that horrible, scarring experience, lo and behold, it happened again. That same year in fact, while I was in Italy with a different friend. Another older Swedish gentleman, this time claiming to be deposed royalty (beware, young travelers — Europe abounds with ancient Swedish grifters posing as earls seeking to separate you from your riches!). He somehow bamboozled us into believing such astonishing stories, and feeling so sorry for him and moved by his infinite, ex-pat loneliness, that we ended up at his very seedy apartment high above Rome. At night. With no way back down to the train station.

Did I mention that no one who cared about us knew we were even in Rome?

I won’t go into great detail, because the statute of limitations will never run out on this stupid move, but suffice it to say that we got him to take us back into the city, relatively unscathed, but shaken by our own stupidity, gullibility and the fact that we obviously weren’t as ready for the world as we thought.

Through the years, living and traveling in big cities, I have come to believe no one, trust no one asking for money is on the up-and-up. But I have occasional, inexplicable lapses. Like the time I gave money to the guy standing at the Dupont Circle Metro stop in DC. You know the story: I just need a few dollars to get the bus back to Baltimore where I have this great job waiting for me, which I really need so I can pay the medical expenses for my poor, sick elderly mother.

I knew it was bull-crap, but something about the way he told the story, his bravado or gall at using such a tired line, something, made me stop. “Look, I know you’re bs-ing me. Tell me the truth and I might actually give you some money.”  A sheepish, but somehow winning grin spread across his face. It was nice to stop playing the game for a minute. “Alright, lady, but don’t tell no one else. I’m gonna use the money to get a drink.” Normally, I am beyond opposed to contributing to someone’s addiction, but he’d told me the truth, so I gave him a buck.

My cynicism is truly and fully intact. My belief system hardened and formulaic: anyone asking for your sympathy, or money for food, bus fare, medical expenses, broken-down cars, wants it for something else, is using your best impulses to pay for or get something awful and dirty, some horrible vice like drugs, alcohol, sex or gambling.  I ignore people at freeway entrances and street corners. I am an immovable object…except for that pregnant woman that one time…and, oh yeah, the mutilated child in the Paris metro. Other than that, though, I am stone cold.

Fast forward to a couple months ago. My doorbell rang. Outside stood a woman with a desperate look on her face.

“Do you have any work I could do (ahh, we have a work ethic — good one!)? I need $28.97 (brilliant use of a specific number!) to buy antibiotics for my sister who had back surgery at Hennepin and they messed it up — it’s their fault (poor, poor victim of the system!).”

After some back and forth, even the offer that I could keep her phone until her boyfriend dropped off money to me later that day (of course I wasn’t going to take her phone, dumb rich lady like me!), I gave her $14, all the cash I had on hand, spoke to her sister (who called just at the right moment to seal the deal!) who God-blessed me a few times (the sainted, unselfish invalid!) and lauded her self-sacrificing sister for walking all over the city for her.

It was…sublime. I fell for it on purpose. With calculated innocence, an abandonment of everything I’d learned about the worst of human nature. Because I really, really wanted to believe it, and deep down where I was honest about knowing that it was a ruse, I decided that it really didn’t matter why she needed the money. She actually needed it —  her desperation was real, palpable, cloying.   And, I think, underneath the lie, and (perhaps?) a faint feeling of self-loathing, she was truly grateful to me for being willing to fall for it.

So call me a sucker, a naive, an innocent idiot. My humanity got the better of me again.

Sure, those women “fooled” me, but deep down I hope I never lose the occasional willingness to see beyond a lie to the core of emptiness and despair that drives people to such depths. It could have been me in their place, having to lie for a few dollars. I guess I figured it wasn’t much to pay for the luxury and good fortune of always being on the other side of that very sad equation.

juicing up


It’s happening as it does in unpredictable cycles, this dip in productivity, a heightened fear of failure, of putting myself out there — all resulting in…nothing. No creative juices, no brilliant bits of prose, or beautiful photographs or even a particularly inspired bit of home organization.

I don’t know if it’s a seasonal thing — summer certainly wore me out psychically.  I lacked  a spiritual room of my own, no schedule per se with fragmented, hectic mothering and coordinating to do. As for recharging — ha! Summer is a frantic race to pack it all in, “enjoy” the outdoors, wring the most of every sweltering, shortlived minute.

So to reiterate, I am not recharged, revivied, renewed. I am creatively drained. I’ve started writing at least five posts in the last few months of my hiatus and either finshed one and hated it, or didn’t finish it because I lacked any feeling around it. They all felt wrong and overworked. I was afraid of not being “perfect,” a word that sits like a bitter berry in my throat with one hell of an aftertaste.

Thus I am freewriting today, an exercise I haven’t done since college, but one that has been used by writers through the ages to end a “block.”  There is a simple joy in not worrying too much about how something will turn out, what the tie-in will be and whether what I write will appeal to my readers. If this isn’t the most profound or topical of blog entries I apologize, but it’s probably my most personal blog  in a way, a crying out for nourishment from my poor, starving little muse. It is what I needed today. And it is enough.

Osama Bin Laden is dead


“Ding Dong, Bin Laden is dead, the wicked bastard’s dead!”

That stupid refrain was ringing through my head when I awoke this morning.  But what I actually feel about it, I couldn’t tell you.

I’m completely numb.

I know what I want to feel: relief, elation, a sense of righteousness, justice — but none of that has come.

I watch the commentators, the crowds, the current and former presidential advisors, the president, and I know I should feel like them. But I don’t. Not yet.

Just a pervading numbness and a sense of guilt that I can’t get there. It’s a little different than the numbness I felt on 9/11, which was more like being in some sort of protective fog, as if my brain was enveloping itself in a cushion before the hard fall of real comprehension. But it could only protect me for a little while. After that, of course, grief set in, manifesting in a lump in my throat and ready tears that wouldn’t go away for several months.

Part of me wonders if Bin Laden’s death isn’t more symbolic than actually meaningful in “the fight against terror” — can we really kill hatred with the death of one man, odious and powerful as he was? A blogger I follow (Amy Parmenter) pointed out that his death occurred on Holocaust Memorial Day – a great and appropriate metaphor.

But the fact remains that even since WWII, hatred of Jews didn’t disappear with the death of Hitler. It just went a little further underground.

The other thing that keeps niggling at me is how he died. We took the law into our own hands and just gunned him down – no tribunal, no court of law. Very Old Testament, sort of “hand of God,” or “eye for an eye.”  I can’t help it – it feels barbaric to me. We know for certain that he orchestrated the horrors of 9/11, but I don’t understand how we get away with this. Is it because what he did was an act of war and therefore we have the right to kill him on sight?

You may think I’m anti-American, but I’m not.  I’m just laying it out on the line here, a gut reaction I can’t put away — I feel the tiniest bit that we’ve sunk to some primitive level as I watch the joy-drunken faces of the revelers in front of the White House or at Ground Zero.

Ugh. Did I just write that?

Please don’t get me wrong.  I know this is a great thing, a REALLY great thing – intellectually. I know he is evil incarnate…I guess I travelled down Nihilism Road carrying a little too much mind-numbing baggage today.

Perhaps I’ll feel elated tomorrow.

my first guest post


I’m very honored to have been asked to guest-post by my dear friend and blogging mentor, Annabel Candy. Her latest blog, aptly named Successful Blogging,  is an offshoot of her original blog, which has garnered her thousands of loyal readers worldwide, thanks to her dogged pursuit of social media prowess.

It’s a business piece, but I think you might find it interesting anyway, so please check it out.

Here’s a little taste:

Why a Personal Blog Can Boost Your Business

My little personal blog, called seriously, scares me to death.

Okay, not literally, but every time I post my gut clenches a little, my heart pounds and I bite my nails down to stubs in anticipation of the comments I will get. That’s because everything I write about is mine — my experiences, my thoughts, my observations – anything I feel like really, and it is bare-all honest and real no matter what. If I’m not a little afraid to post it, then I know it isn’t quite right.

While my blog is personal and honest sometimes to the point of pain (which I try to defray with a dash of humor), my one rule is to never, ever blame others or write negatively about the ones I love. In that way it has become cathartic and better than cognitive therapy – it forces me to reframe my thinking and air out my dirty laundry publicly at the same time. It’s absolutely frightening and the most freeing, transformational thing I have ever done in my life.

And believe it or not, this uber-personal blog has been great for business…Read more


mother load


The topic of having children in relation to  sustained or occasional unhappiness, I have found, is as controversial and rife with potential trip-wires as any involving sex, politics or religion.  People don’t discuss the correlation freely, really, and those who do are lambasted as anti-child.  There is so much poppycock around having children that when you reveal the actual truth to the uninitiated, it feels as if you’ve broken some unspoken pact, a complicit glossing-over of how hard and often how awful childrearing really can be.  It’s like we live in a group-dream (perhaps as part of the preservation of the species?) that keeps us believing – much like issues in religion and politics — how fulfilling and wonderful it is to have and raise babies. To say otherwise is tantamount to treason. What I am about to write next will probably mean I’ll get a little flak, in other words, but please read to the end before you get too disgusted with me.

When a friend without kids told another friend with kids and me that she was sort of, kind of, maybe contemplating children and did we have any thoughts to share, my experienced friend and I took a deep breath and looked around, whispering sotto voce, ”Do you want us to tell you the whole truth?”  Well, of course — who wouldn’t want to know that?!

So we did. We told her the dirty little secrets about babies and small children.  We launched into unsanctioned territory, threw stones at that temple with a vengeance…and probably went too far.  We told her how alone you feel when you’re a new mom. How you may not even love the little mewling, demanding creature you birthed, though you feel passionately mama-bearish about its welfare. That breast-feeding is really difficult to master and might not actually work for you. We told her about unrecognized post-partum depression and unreasonable fears for baby’s safety making you a crazy woman. About sleepless nights, very strained marriages and even divorce, as in my friend’s case.  How you give, and you give, and you give so much more than you thought you had in you to the point of potential loss of yourself.

Early childrearing, we told her, is a mind-melding blur, the lines of your personhood so merged with that of your child or children that you literally cannot see straight.  And you may even believe you are the only woman in the world who feels unhappy with this little “bundle of joy” that feels as if it will be hanging around your neck 24-7…for the rest of your natural life.

Beware, we told her, of all the focus on pregnancy and birth, because the end-product of both is an actual baby, one you have absolutely NO idea how to care for (other than a random lesson or two on taco-wrappng and belly-button cleaning from a nurse as you lay dazed in the hospital post-partum) nor how it will really truly affect you and your primary relationship.

Our basic, uplifting message? Have a baby and go directly to jail, do not pass go and definitely do not collect $200. Call it verbal birth control. I mean it’s not like she was pregnant and we were unfairly freaking her out after the deed was done…forewarned is forearmed, I felt!

“So, do you regret having children, then?” she asked, saucer-eyed after what we’d just dumped on her.

We both were silent for a second. But only for a second. What may surprise you (although it is what society would expect) is that we both answered a quite emphatic “No!”

Because what we hadn’t told her yet was the good stuff (I guess we felt she could get that somewhere else…everywhere else, in fact). We didn’t tell her that there is a light at the end of that dark, babyhood tunnel. That what you reap you do sow (at least until they turn 12 or 13 — but that’s another story), sometimes a lot sooner than you think you will.  You begin to see something rise out of the fog and the mist of early parenthood: a little person, more and more separate from you, who you can’t imagine living without; someone who gives you far more joy than gritted teeth; someone you actually like hanging out with (okay, not all the time, but you do catch glimpses).  And as you look back on those early years, they may have been rough, but they really weren’t all bad, and you do miss those sweet baby kisses and hugs, the funny questions and cute drawings, little feet and hands, sweet-smelling heads and delicious, chewable arms and legs.

Then, too, there’s that  hot, fierce love that has grown so strong inside of you — on what used to feel like such thin soil — that it sometimes hurts.  It’s a breathtaking thing, when you look at them sleeping or playing peacefully, and know deep down that without them, life simply wouldn’t have had as much meaning, such richness. In fact, they have pretty much become the most meaningful thing in your life.

A couple weeks after that discussion, which I’m sure was a very confusing one for my child- contemplating friend, I read about new international studies showing that parents are significantly less happy than their peers who don’t have them.  Hello.

But, the kicker of these worldwide studies is this: it only holds true until retirement, when those with kids surpass their childless peers in the happiness quotient, by quite a bit.

I wasn’t surprised. Despite what we said to our friend in an effort at full-disclosure, and despite a recent spring break trip to New York so filled with juvenile whining, complaining and dragging feet I wanted to put myself out of my misery on the subway tracks, I can see it and even feel it because it grows in that direction every day.

Raising children is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It is and will be the longest commitment (other than my marriage) I’ve ever taken on. It has pretty much defined my adulthood – made me an adult, frankly – and has taught me more about myself, my parents and other people than I could have possibly have learned without doing it.  My working life/career pales in comparison as far as self-formation goes.

I hope my childless friend will read this for a little bit more perspective – both sides of a single story, if you will. For it is truly only one story, and may not be anything close to what she might experience or will experience. Could be early parenting for her is a piece of cake, full of butterflies, rainbows and light, airy days of utter delight.

But if it isn’t quite like that, if it’s a bit more difficult, I just wanted her to know she’s not alone.

My plea: If you like my posts, please become a subscriber — it’s easy! Just look right, where it says “subscribe” and plug in the info requested.  Thanks for reading! (that is my photo at the top, fyi)

things I’ve learned from my mother-in-law


“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

My mother-in-law and I are about as far apart in age, experience and culture as two women from this diverse nation can be.

Only 10 years younger than my youngest grandmother, she grew up in the thirties on a dirt farm in rural Minnesota, the oldest of eight children of Polish immigrants. The surrounding community was also mostly Polish Catholics, first generation Americans trying to hardscrabble a living off such unforgiving land in such a harsh time that I imagine some might have wished they’d never left the old country.

Education past eight grade was rare in that community, as it was in much of the rural United States in those days. Who needed more if you were just going to take over the farm or be a farmer’s wife? She was a shy girl, retiring even, but she was determined to get her high school diploma. She worked for a year to save enough to pay for the bus to get to school so she could do it.

She joined the army during WWII, a decision so far out of her normal comfort zone she still shakes her head, amazed by the audacity of her younger self. In basic training she met “girls” from all over the country, maintaining friendship with one until that friend passed away about 10 years ago.

She met and married a man from her home town she’d known from childhood. In 1954, they moved to a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and bought the small, two-bedroom house she still lives in today. She raised nine children and is now surrounded by them, 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. My husband is the youngest of her progeny.

Up until a few years ago, my mother-in-law went to Mass every morning – she’s now down to once a week – and she still makes quilt after quilt for the poor with her fellow “Mission Belles,” embroiders baptismal bibs for the church, and bakes goodies for fundraisers and funerals.

This was her life when I met her and, until recently, I’m ashamed to admit that I subconsciously felt a little superior to her. I saw her world as “small,” lacking in education and sophistication, an old-fashioned woman with pre-feminist views and Depression-era ethics.

And while it’s been a few years, we had our issues. Actually, I had my issues. If you’ve read my entry about moving to Minnesota 12 years ago, my pregnant-, new-mother-touchiness had a lot to do with my lack of patience with her indirect, yet somehow abrupt way of asking for something. Often something that to me seemed insanely trivial.

“Oh, hi Molly. Is P. there?” she’d ask over the phone.

“Hi there,” I’d respond. “Uh, no, he’s not. He’s at work until 6-ish.” (Seriously? It’s noon on a weekday, I’d be thinking, already be gritting my teeth) “Anything I can help with?”

“Oh no,” she’d say. “I was just thinking that a light bulb in the dining room is about to go out and I don’t know how I’m going to reach it to change it.”

And I’d be simmering by now, cursing what I perceived of as extraordinary passive aggression (ach, the horrible impatience of me!). “Well, do you want me to see if Paul can come over to change it soon?”

“Oh, no rush!” she’d exclaim, because I had breached the first rule of the Minnesota indirect exchange: you do not rush into the actual goal of the call too soon. You draw it out, just for the pleasure of it. And besides, the light bulb was not her real aim at all. Duh.

“I have an idea,” I’d say, because the light bulb had finally gone off in my dim, East Coast brain. “Why don’t we bring dinner over on Friday night, visit for a while, and then Paul can change it?”

“Oh, great!” she’d say. “But you don’t have to do that – I’ll make dinner and you just come over with the girls.”

Now, why didn’t she just say that in the first place?

Thinking she was in serious decline recently (she has since recovered) made me reassess, well, everything about her, to really focus on why I love her so much (because I do). She is in actuality one of the most naturally wise, kind people I know, and reveals this through her actions – the way she lives her life — not just her words.

I could probably write a best-selling self-help book based on her innate, mid-western wisdom, but I thought I’d share, gratis, a few things she’s taught me. She’d want me to do it for free anyway:

  1. Forgive and forget. My mother-in-law never seems to hold onto anger or remember a grudge. Though she feels sad when her friends are less attentive to her than they could be, she gladly and happily accepts invites when they happen – without bitterness or irony.
  2. Patience really is a virtue. If the conversation above doesn’t illustrate well enough my severe deficiencies in the patience department, perhaps the fact that I created the phrase “Patience hurts you” when I was three, does. But my mother-in-law comes from a time when time was better spent on idle chit-chat with a real human being than hurried interactions via email, when drawn out niceties were not considered superficial, but necessities and a pleasurable way of being. Besides, you can’t be impatient when you’re making a quilt or bread from scratch.
  3. Do sweat the small stuff. Contrary to popular self-help literature, she knows that the small stuff, like making sure each grandchild got their Christmas chocolate Kiss from her, is the stuff that matters.
  4. Love unconditionally. This one is tough, but doable. My mother-in-law is one of those rare devout Christians who actually and naturally lives by the teachings of Christ. She actually cares about people she doesn’t know, about their welfare, and does something about it. And if she loves you, she always will, no matter what. Her friend from basic training days was a racist, bitter and uncharitable woman, but my mother-in-law appreciated her for her audacity, sense of humor and the history they’d shared. She loved her anyway.
  5. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Another tough one for most of us, but I’ve never heard her say a harsh word to, or about, anyone. If she can’t say something nice, in other words, she doesn’t say it.
  6. Do good things for others. Again, something self-help books decry…”Be selfish” seems to be the mantra of the modern age. But my mother-in-law gives and gives. Not until it hurts, though– until it feels right and good.  She actually derives a great deal of pleasure from selfless acts — regular donations of money, sewing a bedspread for a college-bound grand-child, the aforementioned church-related works, etc. — something one happiness expert calls “selfish altruism.
  7. Remember birthdays. A card, a phone call, a home-baked cake. Mark those moments. She made me a cake to celebrate the fact that I’d quit smoking for a month when my husband and I were merely dating – I was extremely touched.
  8. Cry when you need to cry. Tears well up freely in my empathetic mother-in-law’s eyes at the plight or unhappiness of those she loves, a sad bit of news or a minor catastrophe like spilled milk. But her willingness to live it and move through it is one of the healthiest things I’ve ever witnessed.
  9. All are welcome anytime, so pull up a chair and visit for a while. My mother-in-law isn’t hung up on the house being absolutely perfect before people are invited over. She comes from an era when dropping by unannounced for a “visit” was common practice, and if the house wasn’t perfect, so be it. People who care enough to drop by don’t care about dishes in the sink and a visit from a friend is a golden moment.
  10. Happiness is family and friends, not greater material wealth. The wife of an airline mechanic and mother of nine, my mother-in-law never aspired to wealth, a bigger house, more than one car. If she had, she would have been miserable. Instead, she focused all her energies on that big family, her friends, her church, and has achieved an inner calmness many of us would envy.
  11. Recycle and save everything you can (waste not, want not). When I first visited her tiny house in the early ’90s, I couldn’t believe how crammed full of junk it seemed to be — cans, leftover fabric, plastic Cool Whip containers, bits of string, old clothing, broken sewing machines. This was before recycling was common practice, and I have since learned that she had a purpose or use — or at least an intended purpose or use — for every bit and scrap. I’m not advocating we all become hoarders, but she and her Depression-era counterparts may well have something to teach us about not only saving money, but the planet as well.

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