Yes to Turkey; No to Shopping

I am a shopper. I love to shop. Shopping is easy for me. Too easy. I admit that sometimes “retail therapy” really does make me feel better, and that shopping is one of my favorite pastimes. I can literally shop ‘til I drop. I can shop all day, with just a brief break for lunch or a snack. I can shop all day and fill up my car with merchandise, and I can, honestly, shop all day and hardly buy anything.  Shopping, for me, is the act of walking through stores looking at all of the beautiful things that I may or may not choose to purchase. I guess, in that regard, much of my shopping is “window shopping.”

But I will never shop on Thanksgiving Day.

Never might be a long time. So let me clarify what that really means to me. It means NEVER.

My daughter and husband, carving the turkey last year.

My daughter and husband, carving the turkey last year.

Thanksgiving is a family day. In our household my husband usually works for a few hours on Thanksgiving morning. By the time he gets home, both daughters are sitting around in their pajamas watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV. (Brief pause here to cover a pet peeve: it is NOT the “Macy’s Day” Parade. There is no “Macy’s Day” holiday.)  By this time I generally have the turkey in the oven and am working on some side dishes, and may be getting ready to do the last minute tidying up or setting the table.

Just a short time later the family arrives. Some years it’s a smallish group and other years large. This year it will be very small, but some years we have had up to 20 for dinner.  Then it’s all about the food for a bit. We eat, we talk, we eat some more. We have a little wine, and maybe a little more. Then we clear the table and have coffee and pie.  After that we sit around and talk some more, or sometimes play a game. One year we had what can only be described as an epic game of Apples to Apples that involved about a dozen of us ranging in age from 8 to 80. Sometimes the kids take a walk. Once in a while someone moves to the piano to play, or to their guitar. But it is a FAMILY time.

Eventually we clean up the kitchen, load the dishwasher, hand wash the good silverware and a few other things, and then we’re exhausted. Once the extended family goes home we turn on Miracle on 34th Street, pour another glass of wine, and relax.

There is no time for shopping. Even if there was time, we simply would not. If we didn’t spend all that time sitting around and talking as a family, how would my kids ever hear stories about their parents, aunts and uncles growing up? How would we know what’s going on in our kids’ lives? How would our kids connect with their grandmother? It’s a FAMILY day. That’s what I’m most thankful for on Thanksgiving.

I’m never thankful for shopping. I enjoy it, definitely. But I am not thankful for it. I will NEVER shop on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh…and I don’t do Black Friday, either. To me Black Friday is a perfect day for sleeping in after all the turkey, pie, and wine the day before. There is no price low enough to get me out of bed at 4am to fight with ridiculous crowds of people for a gadget that I’m pretty sure we’ll be just fine without.

So maybe my ideas don’t fit today’s norm, but I’m okay with that.  Maybe if most of us stay home on Thanksgiving Day with our families, the stores will get the idea, too.  Maybe.

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Long Way Home

I have made two road trips in the last five days. Both were for family events, one happy, and one very sad.

My nephew (my mother’s youngest grandchild) had his First Communion on Sunday. It was a lovely occasion and a good reason to take my aging mother on a road trip. It means so much to her to spend time with her grandchildren, and some are farther away than others so we work to make that happen. Mom still drives at age 84 and does pretty well with it. She drives around her own town, and easily makes the half hour trip to my home. But anything more than an hour behind the wheel has started to make her a little nervous. So she looks for a designated driver and often that’s me.

I have no problem driving my mother places. It’s the least I can do for her. She raised five children and we ought to be good for something, right? So we help her out with a few things here and there, and I seem to be the one behind the wheel most often.

My nephew’s First Communion was about 175 miles away: about 2½ hours all on Interstate highways and pretty easy driving for me. Then, just a day before we were prepared to make that trip, my aunt passed away. She lived 250 miles away, almost five hours in the car through forest land and over a lot of mountains. So I said to my mother, “We can make both trips, but are you sure that you’re up to it?” Again, she is 84. But she was certain that she wanted to make both trips. So we did.

We had a nice time with my sister’s family, helping to celebrate her son’s big step in his religious upbringing. Then we drove home where we spent one night, before I picked her up the next morning for the longer trip to see my uncle and cousins and pay our final respects to my aunt. That trip was definitely more emotional, as it is always hard to say goodbye. My aunt was a vibrant woman with a huge heart, a sly smile, and a lilting laugh. She was my father’s only sister, and my mother’s only sister-in-law, so we were all there: my mother, my sisters, and my brother and sister-in-law. It was important to us to be there to say goodbye to our much-adored aunt, and to remind her remaining family that we will always feel connected to them even without her physical presence.

The trip home was not as easy. We took a much longer route in order to avoid torrential rains and extreme flooding in parts of central Pennsylvania. Taking this longer route left me thinking about a lot of things; mainly about how our life journeys are all different but generally lead to the same end.

The family, at Christmas 1963.  My aunt is at the front left.

The family, at Christmas 1963. My aunt is at the front left.

Most of us take the long road in life. We grow up and grow older before we even know it has happened, yet the look back sometimes feels like a long one. We sat around with my cousins after the funeral, reflecting on our times together as children and our shared experiences. My mom and my uncle chimed in here and there, recalling some details from time to time and reminding us of events we hadn’t considered.

My aunt had suffered from cancer for over a dozen years. She fought that wretched illness very hard, unwilling to leave her family any earlier than she had to. She lived to see her eldest granddaughter marry, and to see the arrival of two great grandchildren. She lived her life to the fullest, traveling and spending time with family as much as she could. She took the long way home.

My mom is doing the same thing. She wants to be with her family during this leg of her journey. For now, I am her sometimes chauffeur. And while her backseat driving really pushes my buttons, I bite my tongue and try to ignore it, because she is an octogenarian and getting closer to finding her way home. We hope it will be a long way off, but we never really know for sure.

These back to back trips were important for our family, and the events themselves are analogous to our life journeys: from beginning to end we follow our own path. And if we’re lucky, we take the long way home.

Motherhood

It is Mother’s Day weekend and I am missing my girls.

I miss the eldest playing the piano in the living room. I miss the constant swirl of activity when she is here and the slam of the door when she leaves the house. I miss the musician, photographer, and cribbage player extraordinaire. I miss how she is slightly awkward in the kitchen and how she tries on every dress in the store during a shopping trip. I miss her social insights and gentle nature.

I miss the youngest hanging out in her pajamas all day. I miss my best ever movie and popcorn date. I miss the cuddle buddy and the deep thinker. I miss her sharp elbows, sharp wit, and sharp tongue. I miss her constant reaching to learn new things, whether it’s a clarinet piece, a dance move, or a foreign language. I miss her amazing chocolate chip cookies. I miss how she is both fiercely competitive and spiritually contemplative.

Both daughters are smart and savvy. They go after what they want, and no one, not even their parents, gets in their way.

This is Mother’s Day without my girls at home. While I love the freedom to set my own schedule, I still miss the concerts, piano recitals, dance recitals, tennis matches, and soccer games. I miss the giggle girls together and the occasionally (but thankfully not often) bickering sisters. I miss their witty repartee across the table over dinner, and the way they annoy each other by putting their feet up on each other’s chairs.

Spring 1994

Spring 1994

In my 23 years as a mother, my daughters have taught me far more than any wisdom I was able to impart to them. I have never been a patient person, but am more so because of them. I am more tolerant, more introspective, and at the same time more outgoing. Because of them I care more about sunscreen and less about whether my house is perfectly clean. Their mere presence led me to be a more careful driver, and a better daughter to my own mother.

Because of them I work to keep myself healthier, so that I can be around to see how more of their adult lives unfold. I want to be here to watch as they form deep, lasting, and meaningful relationships with significant others. I want to be present for more graduations, birthdays, and weddings to come. I want to see how their careers unfold and where in the world they choose to live. If they want to someday, I would love to see them tackle this most important job of motherhood.

I would not trade one brief moment of being their mom for any other role. I would not take back the sleepless nights, perpetually crying baby, precocious preschoolers, homework beyond my ability to help, stress of teaching parallel parking and clutch use, or joy of listening to their beautiful voices raised in song and conversation. I love the way “Mommy” has morphed into “Mams” or “Maaj.”

Because I am so proud of the young women they have become, Mother’s Day is a very sweet celebration. They aren’t home for this observance because they are pursuing their own wonderful lives. And I’m good with that even though I miss them. When you embark on the journey of parenthood you know that you want something better for your kids than what you had, and that is just what they are doing – creating their something better. Happy Mother’s Day!

Double Nickel

Here I am turning 55. Just how on God’s green earth did I get this old?

I have a close friend of over four decades who calls this birthday “55 Alive.” You see, her father never made it to that age, so for her family, turning 55 is a reason to both celebrate and reflect. I am borrowing that philosophy today.

There may come a point in each of our lives when we look critically at who we are and what we have accomplished, and realize that we have more years behind us than we have ahead. In these moments I pause to wonder, what remains to be done? It is then that I start looking for good examples.

Finding and being a good example is something my mother used to dwell on. When we were children she wanted us older kids to set good examples for the younger ones. We hated that at the time. Now as I look for good examples, I also look AT my mother. At 84 years young, she has raised five children, outlived her husband of more than 40 years, and lives life very much on her own terms. In her senior years she has been active in numerous community groups and clubs, built her own at-home sewing business, learned to play the piano, and keeps busy attending cultural events and spending time with friends.

My 9th birthday, with the Schwinn I got from my great aunt.  Note the white knee socks worn by me and all of my sisters.

My 9th birthday, with the Schwinn I got from my great aunt.

When I was a teenager, I condemned so much of what I felt my mother stood for. There she was, tied to a home and family, giving up her “self” for the sake of others. That, I swore, would never be me. In the 1970’s women were burning bras and rallying against a male-dominated society, and those were the women I admired. But life has ways of redirecting us and now I, too, have raised my family and am shuffling my cards again.

In many ways I will never be my mother. Her faith is strong. She is incredibly organized. She is more calm and collected than I will ever be. Despite our differences, I have grown to deeply respect her and she is a great example.

So as I move on in my own journey, I have reviewed my own priorities and found that I have already been somewhat successful. My daughters are pursuing their own lives, my husband and I are finding our way back to our own relationship without children, and my career paths and volunteer work have, I think, made a positive contribution to my community and fulfilled my own sense of self.

What’s left? For starters, I am working to be healthier, so that I can enjoy this next stretch of my life with some degree of physical comfort. I will always have this stupid disease/condition called Achalasia to deal with, but I refuse to be either defined or debilitated by it. Creative pursuits are more of a priority than ever: writing especially. And the time I spend with family and friends is precious.

If you make it to this point in your life without scars then you have taken no risks. The scars: physical, emotional, or psychological, make us stronger. These battle wounds are the result of loss, illness, fear, and unrealized ambitions. Life is scary and messy and almost never goes our way, so I will wear my scars with pride at having navigated the chaos so far.

I have also been blessed to be surrounded by interesting people. I have family and friends who are caring, thinking, and committed. They are engaged in the world around them, in other people, in nature, and in projects that improve not only their lives but the lives of others.

When I was young, I wanted to change the world. Guess what? The world has changed during the course of my life; some of it for the better, some for the worse, and hardly any of it because of anything that I did or didn’t do.

I am rarely content to simply be content. Now, as I move past this double nickel birthday, I hope to use whatever time I have left to find just a small sliver of contentment as I still work to fill my time with purposeful pursuits. There are many, many working years remaining before retirement is even an option. Despite that, I am going to make time to enjoy this beautiful earth around me and the fabulous range of people who inhabit it.

Maybe it is no coincidence that the “double nickel” is standard highway driving speed – 55mph. Care to join me for a birthday cruise?

Irish Stock

Some of my ancestors were from Ireland.  Since my maiden name is McCarthy, I have always felt that it’s perfectly acceptable to observe St. Patrick’s Day in some form.  But there is a bit of a back story, and sadly, I don’t know much of it.

lovely shamrock leaves

lovely shamrock leaves

Here’s what I know about my Irish background.  My great grandfather came to the United States from Ireland and settled in Pittsburgh.  I’m pretty certain that I still have relatives in or around Pittsburgh, but I don’t know them.  My dad took some of us there many years ago to meet his Aunt Lucille, but she has long since passed and so has my dad.  My great grandfather worked for the railroad, and my great grandmother died fairly young, leaving the oldest daughter, Margaret, to raise the rest of the children.

My grandfather was William Hugh McCarthy, who settled in Warren, PA.  It was there that he married my grandmother, who was of Danish descent.  They adopted my father when he was an infant, and seven years later had a daughter, my aunt.

My grandfather had a brother who left Pittsburgh and never returned.  He apparently was never heard from again, so there may very likely be McCarthys I am related to that I don’t know.

My grandfather used to spend St. Patrick’s Day downing quite a few beers, and then singing Danny Boy – I’m pretty sure in memory of his long, lost brother.  This is actually one of only a few memories I have of my grandfather, who died when I was just nine years old.  He was not a warm and affectionate person, but we later realized that he probably had been suffering from cancer for quite a few years and just didn’t know it.  My grandmother was a dear, sweet, loving woman who died just a few years after her husband.  They were both smokers, which I am certain led to their early deaths.

Although my father was adopted, he always considered the McCarthys his real family and had no need to seek his birth mother.  His allegiance was with the family that took him in, gave him a home, and raised him.  They doted on him as a child.  There are numerous photos and stories to prove just how well he was loved; adored, in fact.

My father always observed St. Patrick’s Day and really milked the Irish ancestry bit.  It suited his personality quite well.  Born Irish or not, he had the gift of gab and loved to socialize.  He was a true extrovert by nature.  He was also a drinker for many years, so the whole concept of St. Patrick’s Day was right up his alley.

All five of us McCarthy children were given Irish names.  I consider myself lucky to have escaped Siobhan, only because most people can neither speak it, nor spell it, correctly.  My father really wanted to name me Siobhan, but my mother was far more practical and put her foot down.  (Thanks, Mom!)

In my youth, we always had corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day.  We did not subscribe to the policy that all foods consumed on that day had to be green, and I still don’t really understand the “green beer” phenomenon, although my dad found that any type of beer went well with corned beef.  Later on, when my siblings and I grew older, we enjoyed our share of Guinness, Irish whiskey, and Bailys Irish Cream to observe the day.

Since my father’s passing sixteen years ago our family has done little to celebrate St. Patrick, who may or may not have driven the snakes out of Ireland.  We still wear green, and may have a Guinness, and may enjoy some corned beef with or without the cabbage.  But we don’t wait for a single day in the year to honor our Irish heritage and the McCarthy family that so lovingly raised our dad.  I almost always wear a claddagh ring, and have some other much-loved Celtic knot jewelry as well.  It is beautiful, and it is a reminder that my ancestors had a hard life, came to America to have a better life, and still worked very hard to improve the lot of each generation that came after them.

There are hundreds of thousands of immigrant stories in the United States.  My family tree, on both sides, blossoms with interesting leaves and fruits, some of which are green.  Today, even while I wish I knew more about them, I celebrate my Irish ancestors.  Sláinte!

Love Letter on Four Legs

Puppy love is real, and I am not talking about the kind between twelve year olds.

We had a dog before we had children.  Kelly was our first baby.  She was a beautiful mutt with a long coat and people used to ask all the time, “What kind of a dog is that?”  She was the cutest puppy ever and turned into a gorgeous dog that perpetually looked like an Old English sheepdog puppy.  She was our practice before we decided that we were ready to have children.  We felt that if we could handle the responsibilities of a dog, then maybe, just maybe, we could handle the responsibilities of children.  I guess we could, because we went on to have two children and they grew up okay.

Kelly never really warmed up to our daughters.  I’m pretty sure she always felt a little displaced by them.  She wanted all attention on her and no one else but her.  But when she died at the ripe old dog age of fifteen we were in serious mourning.

My husband and I were not ready for another dog.  We felt no creature could replace our beloved Kelly, and we were in the midst of a major home remodeling job.  But our kids desperately wanted the puppy experience, since our old dog had been well past puppy-hood by the time the girls were born.  Then suddenly our remodeling was done, we had moved into our new space, and the pieces fell into place.  A teacher at school had a dog that just had puppies.  So, with actual written promises from our kids that they would walk, feed, clean up after, and help take care of a puppy, we succumbed to a beautiful husky mix and our girls named her Lexi.

We were a little smarter this time around.  We determined right away that we would not have another dog on the furniture, and that we would get a crate to keep her in when we were not home.   As it turns out, both were excellent decisions.

Did you know that huskies shed for about six months every year?  Six long months.  Keeping her off the furniture was exactly the right decision because it is hard enough to get the dog hair off the carpet during this very long shedding season.  But she has never been on the couch, a chair, or a bed (except for her own.)

She was just eight weeks old when we got her and she missed her puppy siblings very much.  So the first few nights that we made her sleep in the crate she cried.  She cried a lot.  I am a soft touch and couldn’t take the whimpering.  So I slept on the floor right next to her crate for almost a week.  But she grew to love the crate, and leaving her in it when we weren’t home meant that she had very few accidents in the house as a puppy.  They could pretty much be counted on one hand.  Now her crate is where she goes when she is afraid of the thunder, or when there are fireworks in the distance, or when she thinks we are about to give her a bath.  That’s her comfort zone.

Lexi was a very rambunctious puppy.  When she started to chew on the oak baseboard molding that I had stained by hand, I yelled so loud that she never went near it again.  She nearly failed puppy kindergarten.  Actually, I’m pretty sure she was too young for obedience training when our youngest daughter and I took her, and I’m certain that if we had done more at home to train her it would have been more successful.  But we were suckers for her lovely puppy eyes and adorable face and then training was not so important anymore.

Don't let the regal look fool you.  She is puppy-problematic.

Don’t let the regal look fool you. She is puppy-problematic.

She also wanted to run.  A lot.  I’m pretty sure that’s the husky in her as well.  She used to run laps around our house, especially in the snow, and she loved to play ball in the backyard.  Now, at almost age eleven, her arthritis stops us from playing ball with her and we keep her leashed so she can’t run and injure herself.  But she still loves to walk and needs at least two walks each day.  That is usually my husband’s job.  He seems to be the preferred walking partner and the puppy playmate.  I am the preferred person to pet her, and she likes to sit close by when I am reading or sewing.

Now that our children (who promised in writing to take care of this dog) are grown and almost never at home anymore, this dog is completely ours.  Even on our worst days in the workplace or when everything else is going wrong, she will greet us at the door with tail wagging and usually with a toy in her mouth.  She is always happy to see us.  She is happy to see everyone.

It is absolutely true that if you want unconditional love you should get a dog.  We have taken that plunge a couple of times and wouldn’t change it for the world.  Our dogs have loved us every day of their all too short lives.  We hope to have this one around for a while yet.  If she wasn’t here we are pretty sure our kids would find more excuses to not come home.  Even when they are on Skype with us, the one they really want to see is the dog.  Admittedly, that does not give them the full dog experience, since it lacks the fuzzy dog feel and the distinct dog smell.

This beautiful, warm, loving dog has become our third child and our problem child.  She is an integral part of our family and I believe we love each other more because we also love this steadfast, four legged, furry, more-than-friend.

Honestly, I don’t know if we will ever get another dog.  With our kids headed to far flung places, my husband and I would like a little more flexibility in our lives to be able to pick up and go somewhere for a day or two without having to worry about who will take care of the dog.

But for now, she is the only baby we have left at home.  So she gets treated very, very well.  We have an understanding.  We will love her, rub her belly, feed her, and take care of her all the time.  In return, she will love us just as we are, with all of our flawed humanity and our challenging personality traits and our good days and bad days.  Unconditionally.

Make It Better

What do you do when your just barely 20 year old calls from college and says she is injured?  We try not to overreact, so here’s what we did.  We counseled her as best we could on the phone.  She texted and called periodically while negotiating through her university’s health care system.  She managed just fine.  Great, in fact!

She had injured her kneecap in a minor incident, but then exacerbated the injury during a workout.  This daughter is a bit of a gym rat, which makes me wonder if she actually is my daughter.  Then I recall the six months when she was a colicky infant and did nothing but cry, and the image of her at about age 4 that actually looks just like me at that age…so much so that her cousin/my nephew actually once mistook a picture of me for her.

We offered to drive there and help her out, but she declined.  She had it all under control.  It makes a parent very proud.  Proud, and dejected.  Because on some level we still want them to need us – just a little bit.  We still want to feel like maybe just a hug from a parent can help.  We still want the “kiss it and make it better” feeling.  That’s what WE want, not what SHE needs.

So when she called the next morning and asked if we could come and help her with her laundry, of course we did.

My brain heard her say something like, “I need to do laundry, and can’t haul all my stuff to the laundry room while I’m on crutches.  Would you mind coming to help?”

What my heart heard was, “I just want and need my mommy.”

Her first broken wrist - yes, it was the same wrist both times.

Her first broken wrist – yes, it was the same wrist both times.

We tossed off all of our other very minor plans for the day, boarded the dog, threw ourselves and a few things into the car, and took off on the 2 ½ hour drive.  We helped with the laundry, took her and a friend out for dinner, and then we drove home in the lousy visibility on the rainy highway arriving as the clock struck midnight and the rain started to turn to snow.  Tired, but feeling like we can still make some small contribution to her life aside from helping with exorbitant tuition bills.

When she broke her wrist in third grade, and then again in fourth grade (but that’s a different story), we were there to get her to the emergency room.  When she had a tennis injury, we took her to sports medicine.  When she had the flu and strep throat all at the same time, we took her to the pediatrician and made sure she got her prescriptions filled.  Now she is managing all of these things on her own.

It is more joyful than painful to watch our now young adult manage her own life – the good and the bad, the healthy and the broken.  It is a blessing to see her stand on her own two feet…once she’s off the crutches.

But it did feel good when both head and heart heard her say, “Sometimes, you just want your parents.  Thanks for coming.”

It turns out that once in a while just a hug from a parent can still help.  She is awesome!

Baggage Check

Maybe we all go through life a little bit scarred.  Maybe we all carry around some of the baggage from our formative years that we just can’t put down.  Some obviously have a harder time with this than others.  Some may have had little or no trauma in their lives, and some may truly be scarred for life.

Now, in my mid-50’s (yikes, just when did that happen?) I can report honestly that I try not to let my past get in my way.  Sometimes it happens anyway.  Maybe it’s inevitable.

Just this week I have realized, all too pointedly, that some people may never outgrow the evils perpetrated upon them by their parents.  Their darkest moments as children may resurface decades later in some of the most unexpected ways.  Individuals, couples, and families may be struggling with powerful issues they can’t shake off:  insecurity, loneliness, abandonment.

Because I can no longer stop myself from writing, I am now in the midst of capturing some of my own childhood in words.  To put it in counseling speak:  my family of origin certainly did a good job of hiding some of its dysfunctional aspects from the rest of the world.  And now, decades later, these words are literally pouring from my brain through my fingertips and onto the blank pages on my screen.  Pouring from a faucet that is impossible to turn off.

A happier moment in 1967.

A happier moment in 1967.

There are a few people in this world who already know the story – my siblings and a handful of close, long-time friends.  And I acknowledge that this memoir is something I may never show to anyone.  Yet I can’t stop writing.  I am watching the re-runs in my head and trying to capture every scene on paper; the fabulous and the terrible.  It’s a wonderful and horrible obsession.  Maybe in some ways this is therapy.

Growing up is not easy sometimes.  The main reason is that parents are people, too.  Mine were not perfect, but only in this long distance hindsight do I see clearly how many struggles they really had.  It has taken an adult assessment to look honestly and critically and find some perspective.

So I write.  I have not chosen to tackle this very personal look at alcoholism.  It has chosen me.

But here is my greatest wish:  that my husband and I have passed along as few of our own demons as possible to our children.  They deserve better.  I would like nothing better than for them to think back on their growing up years as mainly happy and healthy.  I hope even their worst childhood memories are not too traumatic.

Each of us comes with some flaws.  Having spent a considerable amount of time facing down my own over the years, I will not bore you with those details.  In addition, I refuse to lay any blame for my own troubles at the feet of my parents.  Instead, I very firmly believe that stuff happens; and after that, life is what we make of it.   Sure, our choices may be colored by our past.  But as adults we have to own those choices.

So if I choose less drama it’s because I’ve already had enough to last a lifetime.  Peace is very compelling.  I wonder if someday I can find it within my own head.

Doorway to a New Year

Here we are again on the threshold of a new year.  When the door opens we’ll enter a new, clean room, uncluttered by the past and holding nothing but hope.

This sculpture represents women from different cultures, coming together in unity for peace.  (Photo Feb. 2013, Chautauqua Institution)

This sculpture represents women from different cultures, coming together in unity for peace. (Photo Feb. 2013, Chautauqua Institution)

One of the bags I want to unpack first is the one carrying lessons learned from this past year:

1)  Creativity can be dormant for years and still resurface.
This is a biggie for me.  I tested some waters this year in writing and in photography.  In both cases, I have found those waters to be warm and welcoming.  The swims will still be long, but the motions of each stroke feel good and they are stretching some long forgotten muscles.  I look forward to navigating these previously uncharted waters each step of the way.

2)  I need to count my blessings more often.
It’s so easy to get bogged down in what we don’t have and what we want.  But I have my health, mostly.  I have a wonderful family and friends.  I have a job.  I have a pleasant home, food on the table, and decent clothes.  I have my mind and lots of ways to use it.  While some friends and family members have faced some pretty serious issues this past year including major illnesses and loss of jobs, I have been fortunate.

3)  Savor each moment of your child’s growth, even when they are young adults.
Our children don’t walk through developmental stages.  They actually run.  This year we celebrated the college graduation of our eldest.  It’s a huge rite of passage for her, and has been for us in some ways as well.  Savor each moment and take time to appropriately observe the milestones.  That graduation weekend is one of my fondest memories of 2013.

4)  When you raise your children to be strong and independent that is what they become.
This is what parents really want for their children, but then it happens and we need to step back for a moment and allow ourselves to look on in wonder.  We always felt that our job as parents was to lay some firm groundwork and set expectations, and then get out of their way.  We showed them how we conduct our lives, and now it’s up to them to conduct their own in places we don’t know with people we don’t know.  Make no mistake – ours haven’t QUITE made a full leap to independence yet – but they are well on their way.

5)  Keep your memories alive, but don’t live in the past.
This year forced us to say goodbye to some wonderful and influential people in our lives.  The loss of friends and family always stings, but we carry very good memories.  We are made stronger by our pain.  Each loss challenges us to move forward and to do good things.

So here we are about to step through the doorway.  I have tried very hard to pack away the “I can’ts” and will work hard to leave them where they are in the past.  I am carrying brand new “I cans” into the new year.  There is no illusion of perfection and I will make mistakes.  But even as we bring along the baggage of the past and some of the problems we just can’t shake, we can still make this new room what we want it to be.  We can rearrange the furniture to make it either comfortable or challenging – or a mixture of both.  We have choices about how we spend our fleeting time and we can work to make the best of what a fresh new year has to offer.

For me, I am longing to see where my creative pursuits will lead, and will redouble my efforts to focus on family, friends, and community.  Those are my main goals.

I wish you hope, joy, health, peace and happiness as you step into 2014.  Happy New Year!

Too Soon Gone

Life is often too short.  It’s too short to maintain all of the friendships you should have nurtured.  It’s too short to tell people how much you care about them.  It’s too short to spend meaningful time with people.  And the real irony is that we only recognize these things after someone is gone.  This past week has brought the issues of life and death to the forefront.

An old friend passed away today.  She was a classmate in school and one of the sweetest, kindest people ever.  We had not been in close touch in recent years, but had seen each other in passing frequently and talked about our families and lives.  Knowing that she was dying has made me think back to our school days many years ago.  We often sat together in the library during study hall, pouring over magazines and dreaming about our futures.  She went on to marry her high school sweetheart and raise a family.  We drifted apart.

A neighbor also passed away this past week.  We were not close friends, but living just a few houses away you get to know a little bit about each other.  He was just a few years older than me, was friendly and family-oriented, and suddenly he is gone.  We won’t wave to him in passing anymore, or pause to chat while taking a walk.

Death brings the brevity of life into sharp focus, and forces us to reconsider the things that really matter.  Family.  Loved ones.  Togetherness.

I have had these feelings before while mourning other losses:  my father, my aunt, my grandparents, and other friends.  Our lives are formed by the people who surround us.  When one of those people dies, we have a natural desire to gather with others.  Circle the wagons.  Rally the troops.  Bring people together.

It is true that death is a natural part of life.  It is also true that when it’s someone your own age you always feel as though they were too young, with too much of life left unlived.  But who’s to say how much is enough when it comes to life?  Only God can make that decision, and we are left to decide how to cope.

For me, I choose to live whatever life I have left with the people who matter most.  I choose to make time for loved ones and to spend time in purposeful pursuits – trying to make a difference for my family, friends, and community.  That’s all I can do to honor the memory of those who have gone.  I just pray there’s still enough time.