Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What To Resolve

Everyone does them: New Year's resolutions. I'm not sure why it's deemed necessary, on the last day of each year to make some declaration to better ourselves in the year to come. It just seems to be expected. Tonight, in my journal, I will make such a resolution. The question I'm asking myself now is what to resolve.

Most of the more popular resolutions such as losing weight, saving money, being a better housekeeper, or friend, or spouse are all ones I have declared in previous years to mild success. They are all noble ones and goals I continue to strive for.

The problem with New Year's resolutions is that focusing on just one or two aspects of my life for any length of time is unrealistic. My existence is complicated - even more so now with all the electronic gadgets vying for my attention - and committing my focus to specifics only adds to the stress. Maybe I should resolve to get rid of all the electronic gadgets? No, I could never stick to that one. My livelihood is now linked to computers and cell phones, and my leisure time to DVR, DVD, Facebook and video games. I have so far resisted the texting thing and the blackberry thing; frankly, I don't get why anyone feels compelled to do either. And my leisure time is dreadfully minimal. So, I guess I'm already ahead in that department.

The economy is already forcing me to be more prolific with my work. Writers have to work twice as hard as other people anyway, because we're never sure if what we're slaving over is going to be accepted by an editor as "good enough" to get paid for. The economic situation also makes it necessary to be more frugal with money, electricity, heat and credit cards, so any determination to change any of those daily habits is already dictated by necessity.

I certainly don't think of myself as a perfect person. Age brings wisdom, it is said, and if that's true, I'm still a teenager. I strive to be a good person, caring and helpful to family and friends, but that is a lifelong process that can't be delegated to a once-a-year promise. Likewise, I make a consistent effort, I think, at taking care of myself physically.

So, how about this? I'll resolve to stay positive. There's a tall order, but in a way, a redeeming one right now if I can stick to it. Stay positive during the worst economic plight since the Great Depression, with coffers bare and outlook for work bleak. Stay positive inside the stress of everyday existence, with a myriad of distractions and never enough time to deal with them all. Stay positive when bombarded daily by headlines and advertisements that give innumerable new ways to worry about ailments I might have, grave issues I wasn't aware of previously, or standards I'm expected to strive for that I wasn't aware were important to my daily life. I would certainly enjoy a much happier 2009 if I can keep this resolution. And it fits every aspect of my day-to-day existence, so I can't help but be reminded of my promise at every turn.

"Stay positive" it is. I look forward to the rewards of success with this one. It conjures up images of a better year, no matter what - if I'm steadfast in my determination. I'll keep you informed of how well it's going.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Morning Motivation

Looking out my window (my desk faces it so I can always be in tune with the world outside), I'm watching the sky turning various shades of pale blue, pink, and purplish-gray as the sun pushes above the horizon to light the morning. It is my best time to write - no phone calls, no dog interruptions (Molly is still sleeping), no television blaring (my husband is still asleep, too), and, with an outside world just coming to life, I find it easy to concentrate and be productive. But this morning, I'm doing more sky watching than writing.

It's difficult to switch gears after a holiday and get back into work mode. The motivation is there -I always have ideas in my head about writing projects - and certainly, in today's economy, one cannot help but think about ways to increase the family coffers. Still, I find myself wishing for another day of no schedules, sleeping in, enjoying forbidden calories, and visiting with friends and family.

Writers suffer this problem on a regular basis. I'm always reading essays and blogs from other scribes about the pressure to produce, the loneliness, the moral strength found lacking to summon up the muse. Their words give me comfort; I am not alone. The problem with commiserating is that it only serves to make me comfortable in my nonproductive state. So, here I sit, staring at the dawn.

The easiest way to explain to a non-writer why getting started is so hard is to simply explain that writing is work. No matter what one does for a living, there have to be times when one doesn't want to go to work - especially after a particularly lovely holiday when work is the farthest thing from one's mind. But non-writers usually have outside motivation: an alarm clock, a nagging spouse, a daily routine, a boss standing over the desk. Writers have none of that. I am my only motivation.

Having my desk facing the window serves to give me that motivation today. For now the sky is a beautiful blue, the sun is lighting the white clouds, and it sends me the message that it's time to get on with it. But staring at the dawn wasn't wasted. As Flannery O'Connor once said: "The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention." So, there you are. Staring finished, now to creating - hopefully.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Thoughts

Christmas morning. There's nearly a foot of snow on the ground, so we're blessed with a White Christmas. My whole family will be with us today, including my daughter's parents from Florida, so that is a blessing as well. We have been able to put some gifts under the tree for everyone, and the Christmas repast will be ample.

So, on this most important of all holidays, is there really a place for depression and sadness? Without too much thought, we can certainly lament about our financial problems, our lack of jobs, the presents we wanted to buy but couldn't afford - even the bitterly cold weather. There is reason to be worried, even frightened, about our economic situations, and it is never easy to accept a change in holiday traditions because of lack of funds. But, I have made a resolution (a week early for that, I know, but it's fitting) to put aside for today all the weighing issues.

I choose instead to focus on the good in my life - and there is much. I have healthy children, who have healthy children. We all have comfortable homes, cars that run, pantries that aren't totally empty, pets that add to our lives, and friends whose Christmas cards decorate our living rooms. We have talent, brains and wherewithal to move forward and make new paths. I have to believe that this Christmas morning brings the promise of a better future. I'm reminded of Barack Obama's statement about solving all the nation's problems: "Yes, we can." I'm confident that, with the loving family I have, we'll all get through this together. This isn't a permanent state of affairs. Today is a "Merry Christmas" for me - and I say, "God Bless Us Everyone".

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Creative

As I've written in earlier blogs, being creative has many upsides. Currently, however, there's been a downside. Our family is one of millions facing an extreme budget crunch which doesn't leave much for buying Christmas gifts.

We've talked about our inabilities to purchase wish list items for everyone, and we're certainly in agreement about it. Still, the memories of Christmas have always included the time spent around the tree on Christmas morning enjoying the delight of opening presents. I decided that I still wanted that experience, so I had to get creative in a new way.

My husband and I have both been busy with projects to exchange that I feel will be more appreciated than expensive gifts we could purchase. It requires more thought and a little more time but I'm finding that the experience is stretching my imagination and brightening my mood. Even our grandsons have gotten into the act making their own gifts. I can't relate the details of these personal gifts that will soon be wrapped and placed under our tree because that would give away the surprises to the family members who read my blog. The details will be a topic for later. For now, suffice it to say that instead of being depressed about what I can't put under the tree for each person, I'm elated about how much a little effort on my part results in a deeper appreciation for what I am able to give.

I am thankful that we'll all be together this holiday, that we all have a warm roof to sleep under each night, and we're all well. I'm even more thankful for the values that were taught to me long ago. It really isn't about how much a gift costs; it's about what you give of yourself to someone you love and who loves you in return. I really believe that our gift exchange this year will be one we'll all remember more than any other.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Magic Of My Christmas

My mother loved Christmas.

She had secret hiding places for storing gifts, surprises for the whole family that she began buying months in advance. The hours she spent wrapping them produced works of art with surprises inside. I remember tiny ribbon rockets, ornate handmade bows, themed designs woven from paper, string, ribbon, and fabric that were a gift unto themselves. The pile of creativity she created under the tree rivalled the decorations on the boughs above.

She spent an equal number of hours in the kitchen baking cookies. As a child, she made me feel an important part of this process as she cheerfully directed my efforts at adding sugar and candy decorations to each one. As an adult, I looked forward each Christmas to invading Mom's kitchen to see what sinful delights she had stored in the multiple tins on the counter. I was never disappointed. Cutout sugar cookies, date bars and rum balls were special favorites. Her recipes are used in my kitchen now, eliciting the same joy from my children.

Christmas carols echoed throughout the house for weeks, either from the record player or my mother's own vocal chords. She had a lovely voice. "Silver Bells" and "White Christmas" were her favorites. I had an illustrated book of carols from which she would encourage me to sing to her each night as she prepared dinner.

Teaching me about the true meaning of Christmas was just as important. She explained the stories behind the words of Christmas carols, placed our ceramic manger scene in a place of honor in the living room as she talked about that blessed night with me, and we always attended Christmas Eve candlelight services at church. My mother's religious beliefs were an important, yet private part of who she was. I respect that still.

Her one frustration at Christmas was my father. His day job involved decorating commercial stores and windows, and, at Christmas, he was exceptionally busy, making the task of decorating his own home a chore he avoided as long as possible. My mother's pleading would fall on deaf ears until Christmas was drawing very near, then he would begrudgingly put up the tree, the lights and the decorations in the yard. Dad had a knack for creating Christmas magic as he labored, even though he grumbled about it the entire time. He didn't dampen Mom's spirits, though, and her grateful kisses and hugs always produced a smile and laughter from him.

Christmas morning brought wishes granted and surprises galore. She never failed to remember everyone's Santa List, but she was a master at purchasing that special present that showed how much she cared. I still remember the smiles on her face as she would watch those packages being ripped open by the recipients. The hours she had spent creating a gift box on the outside only added to the happiness she felt seeing the discovery by them of what lay inside it.

Hot cocoa and cookies were part of Christmas breakfast, and then it was time to put on a beautiful new dress my mother had made so that I was ready to welcome the relatives for Christmas dinner. With the help of my grandmother and aunts, she happily prepared all the fixings for a delicious repast. As the meal was enjoyed, I would catch her watching the faces of the family, delighting in their delight at what was served.

I never heard a word from my mother about how draining all that preparation and work was for her. She just adored every moment of the Season and all it stood for. Most importantly, she didn't do any of it to impress; she did it because it gave her joy to see how much it meant to everyone else. I'll never stop missing her joyful laughter and caring ways at this time of year. She instilled in me the Magic Of Christmas in a way I cherish, and I've tried to pass it on to my children and grandchildren. I know our family will never forget the true meaning of Christmas because that gift of love was given to us by a very special woman.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Thanks, Alan"

"Be brave enough to live life creatively." That quote, from actor Alan Alda, is on a plaque in my study. And it strikes a strong chord these days.

With the serious economic struggle our nation is suffering, thoughts of abandoning my writing to seek any job that provides a regular paycheck is a nagging temptation. No matter how much I believe in my work, the pile of bills on my desk weigh heavily. As a writer, there is no such thing as a regular paycheck. Hard work is not always rewarded by an editor, no matter how good I think my efforts are.

The upside to spending life as a creative person is what keeps me going in the face of life's realities. Summed up by Alda again as he says, "you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition." An artistic journey is both frightening and exhilarating. Those emotions inspire me in a way that is difficult to explain to someone who pursues a more stable lifestyle. You get there, I quote Alda, "by not quite knowing what you're doing." Yes, the path is uncertain, but the rewards cannot be equalled. Yes, there is a freedom to it which 9-to-5ers don't enjoy, which I do appreciate but would sacrifice if absolutely necessary. But that's not the draw. I don't seek publication to become rich. Certainly, the security of wealth is preferred to financial strife but that's not what motivates me, either. The answer just can't be found down a road of security.

This quotation has been hanging on my wall for years. Alan Alda is an actor I admire, and this particular example of his wisdom never fails to impress, no matter how many times I read it. Whenever I have serious doubts about my situation, or my ability to succeed, it is his last two lines that never fail to put my mind back into frame - to take the risks and continue the work. "What you discover will be wonderful, what you'll discover will be yourself." No better reason than that. Thanks, Alan.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dog Therapy

There has never been a time in my life when a dog has not been part of my life. To my way of thinking, they are not pets, they are family members. As family, each one has given me a lesson about life in one way or another.
My first "brother" was Rusty. He was in the family before I arrived, and left us when teen angst was just rearing its ugly head. He was a spaniel, brown and white, and always by my side. As an only child, I turned to him as my confidante and playmate. He loved everyone in the family equally, but he slept by my bed at night. On the day he died, I saw my father cry for the first time.
Soon to follow was my "sister" Mimi; she was a miniature poodle who lent an air of class to the family. I learned to share doggie companionship because she gave most of her loyalty to my mother. Mimi gave birth a couple of years later, and BonBon joined us from that litter. He added mischief to our household, and taught me patience - the hard way - with "siblings".
When I got married, my husband and I inherited a puppy from his parents' dachshund, Heidi. We named her Tasha. She was a miniature bundle of energy and smarts. Her antics would have me in stitches regularly; her quiet strength taught me respect for canine intuition and caring.
Throughout our married life, an assortment of "brothers" and "sisters" have joined the clan; not all were successful adoptions. We had the Irish setter; she couldn't be made to understand that you don't eat everything you come in contact with - she taught me that tolerance isn't always attainable. We had the cocker spaniel; he thought any wood surface, including the antique dining table was his to scratch and rest on - from him I learned a lot about woodworking! For the most part, though, we found ways to accept quirks, tempers, and strange behavior in general from our "furry family". After all, perfect people don't exist, but you adjust and love them anyway.
One of my closest "brothers" was Riley. He was an English setter, with black fur, soulful eyes, and a quiet nature who could be spurred to life if you threw his favorite toy. He understood me. He was a constant companion; nurse to me when I was ill, my bosom buddy to relate to when times were tough, and a foot warmer on cold nights. When he got old and cranky, my love for him never lessened. I was inconsolable when he passed away.
The comedian in the family was Sprocket, a bearded collie - a mass of gray and white hair and little brain. He was forever the child, always eager to explore and play, never quite comprehending the lessons of life. As a puppy, he lost one of his front teeth and so had a crooked smile, with his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. He was constantly slamming into walls, breaking things and wreaking havoc in the house due to his overenthusiasm. Because of him, I understand pure joy - and forgiveness.
And then there was Rascal, the lastest "brother" to depart this world, and the one who lived with me the longest and has left the most indelible memory of all. His wisdom was apparent from that Christmas day he came to stay. He wasn't much to look at; he'd been abandoned, then rescued by a neighbor who gave him to us, and his fur was growing back in after a bout with mange. He grew into a handsome hulk of black and white. But those eyes! He melted your heart with them, captured your soul with their intensity, and talked to you without needing words. Those eyes would speak to me daily; the bond we had was indescribable. After seventeen years, he told me I had to let him go. He accepted that his life with our family was complete. I wasn't ready to say goodbye - no one ever is when it's someone you love unconditionally - but I respected his decision. You learn that lesson time and again if you take dogs into your life.
Some people say that they could never have a dog because it would be too hard when they die. Or they have one dog, and when they pass away, the owner vows never to have another because it is too difficult. I think they miss the point; dogs enrich your life on every level. They create therapy for you that can be had no other way. They force you to learn lessons from someone who never speaks the way a human does. And, when they must depart, their silent lessons will have embraced your heart and mind, leaving you stronger, happier, more loving and wise.
I still miss all my "siblings" who have gone before me, but I wouldn't trade the years of therapy I had with them for anything.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas Letters

I'm doing the final editing on my Christmas letter today. I've written one for the past ten years. It is my way of bringing friends and family up-to-date with us, including a family picture or two to let all see how we're aging, and it prevents me from suffering carpal tunnel by writing the same letter dozens of times as I used to do.
I enjoy this process. I have only one page on which to include the family photo we take each Thanksgiving Day (and any others I feel are of interest), to try and recall the special events of the past year that are worth relating, and to do this in a way that makes it fun and inviting to read.
I receive quite a few of such letters from other friends; I enjoy them all. Some are better written than others, some are monuments to computer program layouts with their artwork, pictures and varied fonts, but all are read with relish. I keep them and re-read each one several times, immersed in the happenings and important details of the lives of friends seldom seen.
They are even more important to me these days because they represent a social connection that seems to be waning, sad to say. Our culture appears to be in too much of a hurry, or too involved in their own existence to give any thought to others. Or maybe we've just evolved to a populace who believe that social courtesy is just not important any more. I've certainly had examples of that more often than I care to detail.
I would take issue with anyone who feels that showing regard and being polite is no longer expected, just as I take issue with those who make fun of people who write Christmas letters. In a world where human communication in written form is disappearing, I feel we should cherish any attempt to share treasured life moments with people we care about.
I long for the days when written letters, notes and cards from friends and family appeared in my mailbox on a regular basis. I settle now for this yearly exercise in which we catch up on each other's events in a way that says something about our need to keep that connection. So, I will open my mailbox each day with the hope that one of the envelopes I find there will contain news from someone whose embrace I cannot share, but who cares enough about me to still include me in their lives. And I hope my Christmas letter to them will convey that feeling, too.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Friendship Remembered

True friendship is to be cherished, and I have been lucky enough to experience that by knowing a special person. She and I have shared the gamut of emotions over many years. In the past few days, I've thought about our good times and conversations, our shared worries in the bad times, and the love that has colored our lives.
Her name is Pam and we've known each other since kindergarten. Our paths have taken turns that kept us apart in our younger lives, but we always kept in touch at Christmas. Then, when our children were small, we reunited. Circumstances separated us again until about ten years ago. Our reunion then introduced me to the most important person in her life; his name was Ray.
Ray gave Pam the true love and devotion she had always craved. I rejoiced for her that she had him. They both loved doing things together, whether it was buying a house and a business, attending football and baseball games, travelling, or shopping.
He was an easy man to know. From our first meeting with him, my husband and I felt we had known him for years. His endearing sense of humor, his keen interest in so many things, his caring attention to the people he cared about invoked instant respect. We were proud that he considered us friends. We were happy that he loved Pam.
Marriage for them came after several years together. It was a dream come true for them both. For me, it meant that my friend was - finally - experiencing happy-ever-after time. But fairy tale endings don't always happen to those who deserve them.
Today there are only tears for that loving couple. Today we say goodbye to the man who gave my friend the greatest joy of her life. Today we agonize about why those who have already endured sorrow and strife must endure more. Today my friend is alone and I am left helpless to comfort her.
Ray's sickness never had a name. His army of doctors could never nail it down although every avenue was tried. We all felt it just wasn't fair for someone as good as he to be subjected to such pain and stress. He fought bravely; I think he fought for Pam as much as for himself. And she battled with him, never giving up, even when her physical stamina was tested. She shared with me her fear that she would be robbed of the person she had waited so long for. He had his times of rallying, and that gave everyone hope. I believed, through it all, that a solution and a cure would be found. We all did. It just had to work out that way for them. A couple of weeks ago, his condition was improving. In a phone conversation, Ray laughed about it all. Optimism was the emotion we all coveted.
An evening phone call brought life to a halt. I recognized the caller ID and my heart sank. I just knew that the news on the other end of the line wasn't going to be good. But I wasn't prepared for the words, "Ray passed away." It wasn't possible. This charming man who had fought so hard, who was edging toward health, whose friendship was so prized. Most of all, I could not imagine the grief that Pam must be feeling. She has been robbed of the one possession upon which no value can be assessed.
True friendship is to be cherished. I now weep for two such special people. One who has left us with too many years diminished because he won't be here to share them. And I weep for Pam because she is left to endure a sadness beyond measure, left to face a world without her best friend, lover and companion for life.
I hope she knows that it is unendurable for me, too, because I care for her so much. I pray that someday soon she will welcome me back to her life, and let me help her cope with a life without her precious Ray. For now, I know she isn't ready. My words of sorrow will have to suffice. The tears I shed, I hope, will speak to him as he goes to sleep with the angels. For me, today is a day for friendship remembered.

Monday, December 1, 2008

First Snowfall

The pine and ash trees outside my study window are laden with snow; the landscape is cloaked in white. I sit here watching the light flakes that are still falling, and feel reverance for the beauty of it all.
This scene is a gift. To me, it is God's way of halting our unending busyness to reflect on the majesty of nature. Every season has moments like this, but this is the dearest to me.
I find it difficult to understand those who hate snow. Yes, I understand about shovelling, and driving on salt-laden roads, but, to me, those are the parts of winter that can test your patience or your stamina, but are endurable because of the beauty that surrounds you while you're laboring.
There are those who hate cold. I subscribe to the edict that you can always put on enough clothes to get warm. Too often, I notice the biggest complainers about the temperature are those in summer pants and a sweater when it's below zero outside! For them, I have no sympathy. And, if you really like warmth, we live in a large country that can accommodate you; try moving.
I lived in Florida for years and longed for the change of seasons I knew as a child. My parents always loved it there, I met my husband there, had my children there, and worked at a great job there. But, my heart was always in the Midwest, so I am delighted to be in Chicago, where the byword is, "If you hate the weather, wait 15 minutes."
Chicagoans, as a whole, love the cold. Why else would they be here? We watch the Bears play in a snowstorm, endure the winter winds off Lake Michigan, and slosh through unending piles of snow wherever we go. It's just a natural part of life for us. But we still hear weathercasters warning us of snowstorms as if we were all going to be worse off for that white stuff falling from above. We endure complainers who have nothing better to do than moan about the trials of living in snow. Yes, they are here, too. And why? As I said, Florida awaits if you're so inclined. You can have 80 degrees on Christmas Day.
For me, I'll put on my long underwear, warm clothes, muffler, coat, gloves and boots and venture out to delight in this wondrous addition to my life's experience. I'll have a snowball fight with my grandsons, go sledding, and build a snowman - after I shovel the driveway. Oh, yes, and I'll be wishing for a White Christmas while I'm at it.