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Monday, April 27, 2015

Clearly, I do not know everything

No matter what my x-husband(s) may tell you, I do not think I know everything. In fact, I am darn sure I don’t! The older I get and the more knowledge I acquire, the more I realize how little I actually do know! Every week of my middle-aged life is an adventure of some sort! Actually, every day of my life has been an adventure but sometimes it takes reaching a more “advanced” age to recognize those gifts!
Every day is a chance to learn new things about myself or someone else. Some days I embrace that and some days my attitude coincides more with my favorite bumper sticker on the back of my car that says “Oh no, not another learning experience!”
Things I've learned, or relearned recently, big and small, good and bad:
  • Obviously, they are making print smaller and smaller on things, but if I give in and use the little old lady reading glasses I can actually see stuff without holding it two feet in front of me or trying to find “better light.”
  • Sometimes new friends come in very unexpected ways, even when you weren’t looking for one!
  • I’m still, some days, hanging on to the idea that I’m in control despite an entire lifetime worth of evidence that has proven otherwise.
  • Old dogs can learn new tricks, it just takes us a little longer.
  • The best way to solve a miscommunication is to communicate.
  • When apologizing, just say “I’m sorry” and not “I’m sorry but you did this, this or that.” I’m sorry, period, always gets better results.
  • Some people are just assholes and no amount of reasoning with them is ever going to change that so I need to stop expecting anything else from them.
  • Never pass up a chance to tell someone what they mean to you, or meant to you, or an opportunity to give a kind word to someone in pain, because sometimes it will be your last chance to do it, ever . . .
  •  My youngest daughter is completely capable of handling stressful situations, like someone running into her car and calling the police and filling out an accident report, without any help from me!
  • You cannot help someone who does not want help, or is not ready for your help. Just let them know you are there. Then stop beating yourself up over it and wait for them to come to you!
  • Eventually, you have to give in to who you are, and stop hanging on to who you used to be. Recently, this meant just giving in and buying pants in the next size up in order to actually be comfortable!
  • Learn to see the beauty in things that didn’t go according to plan. I planted a flower box, with perfectly spaced pansies. The color scheme was specific. There were bright yellow pansies and wine colored pansies with yellow centers. Yesterday a big purple pansy bloomed in the middle of them. It doesn’t match, it messed up my plan. It’s actually the prettiest one in the box!
  • Life doesn’t make sense. There is no logical explanation for that. Stop looking for one.
  • All work and no play makes Karen a complete bitch and a few hours of fun with friends can make up for a long, tiresome work week!
  • Karaoke is actually, ridiculously fun!
  • I AM capable of far more things than I usually give myself credit for!
  • Remember that thing our parents told us about not judging a book by its cover, that was an important one! Usually, the most amazing people come in the most unexpected packages!
This piece originally appeared on the Bangor Daily News website, Postcards from a Work in Progress, June 24, 2012.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

So many worries, so little time

I am a worrier. I am not just any old amateur worrier either. If worrying were an Olympic event, I would be a gold medalist.  My mother likes to say I come from a long line of worriers. She is a worrier and her mother was a worrier before her. When I was young, I never wanted to believe I'd grow up to be like my mother. Turns out, like so many other things I had planned for in my adult life, I was wrong.
I don't know for sure what makes a worrier. Is it genes or learned behavior or life experience? My grandmother lived through the historic hurricane of 1938. She used to tell me stories about going to the fire station in town to help identify the rows and rows of bodies lined up along the floor. When my grandfather first moved his family to their home on the beach she would sit up all night. While her husband and children slept she sat, smoking one cigarette after another, watching the ocean so she would be ready if it started to come towards the house. Eventually she did get over that, but I remember she still spent a lot of time staring at the ocean.
I’m sure this was one of the things that caused her to become a worrier. It sounds like a pretty good reason in my book. Often an unexpected life event, some type of loss or trauma, leaves us seeing the word as an unsafe place. Or it could be a betrayal or a broken heart that shatters our faith in our fellow humans and leaves us wounded and feeling vulnerable. Sometimes, excessive worrying comes from living in a home where one or more family members struggles with alcohol or substance abuse. When home life is chaotic, when emotions are unpredictable and volatile, or when we’ve experienced a traumatic event we have not yet healed from, we become hyper-vigilant. We never truly relax. We learn to read the emotions of others so that we know how to behave and when to make ourselves scarce. We look over our shoulders and peer around every corner waiting for that next thing.
Some of these worrying skills turn out to be pretty useful. Being aware of the needs and emotions of others is a handy Mom Skill. Balancing unpredictable emotional outbursts with daily life certainly comes in handy for anyone raising a toddler. In my case, when I had four kids age eight and under, balancing the physical and emotional needs of multiple small children turned out to be something I was really good at. Worriers are often caretakers as well. We sometimes take care of others at the expense of being able to take care of ourselves. We don't vocalize our own needs. Often, we are so involved with others that we don't even know what our own needs are.
There has to be a happy medium between taking care of the things we can control and wasting time worrying about the things that are out of our hands. Feeding the kids a healthy meal for dinner, making sure they get all of their shots and get their teeth cleaned every six months, all of that is in our control. Holding back the ocean is not.
What I've come to realize is that bad things are going to happen sometimes, that’s just life, but there are going to be lots of good things too!  The funny thing is that most of the bad things I worried about never actually happened and some things I didn't think to worry about did. Go figure!
I know there’s a cure out there somewhere. I’ve tried everything people say will help. I've tried prayer, yoga, long walks, meditation and red wine to name a few! Maybe I’m just not trying them in the right combinations? In the meantime, I found a poem that was written for us worriers in the latest edition of the New England Review. The last stanza is my favorite.
“Don’t worry that you’ve left
your doors unlocked, the oven or coffeepot on.
Don’t worry that running out of concrete fears—
a flat tire, bad test results, suspicious charge
to your account—will leave you open to the vague
and nameless dread you’d do anything to avoid.
Don’t try to explain, even to those you love,
the dilemmas you’ve faced by 9 a.m., the deathbeds
you’ve visited, disasters you’ve seen or averted.
Don’t worry that worry might be all you have.”
Click here to view the entire “Anti-Anxiety Poem” by Carrie Shipers. Thanks Carrie!
This piece originally appeared on the Bangor Daily News, Postcards from a Work in Progress, May 25, 2012. 

What’s missing in my empty nest life?

Awkwardly this afternoon, my neighbor’s eyes met mine on her way out of the elevator, and then darted down as she softly said “hello.” Her little girl, unaware of the uncomfortable history the two of us grown-ups share, came to a full stop directly in front of me and presented her biggest, brightest smile, one little tooth slightly askew, clearly either on its way in or on its way out. Brightened by the genuine enthusiastic smile of the little girl, I made eye contact again with her mother and sincerely asked “how are you?” and she strengthened by my attempt at being friendly, responded in kind. Her face transformed for moment into a smile as well. It was clear that at one point, before life had made her more guarded, that she had the same full of life smile as the little girl she led out the front door of our shared apartment building.
Isn’t it odd how sometimes the briefest encounter with someone will stay with you the rest of the day? It was strange, to suddenly realize how rare it is for me these days to see the sweet sincere smile of a little girl. It made me happy and sad all at the same time. For so many years, my world was chock full of small children. Years stretched on endlessly into the future as I went from diapers to kindergarten to summer camp to senior prom over and over with each child in turn. When you are in those years they are so all-consuming it is hard to picture a time when your life will be any different.
As happy as I am most days with my new-found freedom, I never realized that it would be the little things about being a mom that I would miss the most. A picture my nephew posts online of his son in full-blown baby belly laughter brings up old memories of my own son, laughing heartily at the same age, memories that pull unexpectedly at my heart! A little blond girl, all dressed up right down to her shiny black shoes, holds her Daddy’s hand on their way out of a Sunday morning service and my mind flashes back to my own little girls and their days of fancy dresses, hair ribbons and holding hands to cross the street. These are treasured memories. Today, however, for me the word “children” conjures up images of twenty-somethings, grown up children with lives of their own. These lives often contain challenges and heart aches I can no longer fix like I used to with a good tickle or a bowl of ice cream with chocolate sprinkles!
One of my favorite quotes is “No matter what happens, always keep your childhood innocence. It's the most important thing.” (Federico Fellini). It is not, unfortunately, that childhood is without heartache. Yet children, not yet crushed by life’s disappointments and still unburdened by adult expectations, are able to hang onto the hope and enthusiasm that we so often lose as we grow up. Children forgive easier, forget easier, move on from disappointment so much more easily than those of us who are supposedly older and wiser. Children don’t hide who they really are. If they say they love you, you can believe it! Children do not feel awkward when they run into someone who used to like the same stupid boy they did. They just laugh about it and run off to play together on the swings! Children live in the moment. They don’t worry about things they can do nothing about. Ten minutes ago there might have been a bike mishap and a badly skinned knee, but now all washed up and bandaged, there is ice cream with sprinkles and life is good again.
I understand now, why older people always brighten when small children come into a room. They have so much in common both the very old and the very young, unburdened by rushing through each minute of life to some elusive dream of “success.” They each know how to experience joy in little things, with no strings attached. Both, free of the need to adhere to social expectations that often bind the rest of us, know that taking just a moment to stop and smile at a neighbor might brighten both of their days in a way that neither expected. I need to pay more attention when I spend time with friends and family who still have small children. There are clearly lessons I still need to learn from them.
When you are a kid, yesterday and tomorrow are far away, but right now, something good is going on and you just know if you aren't careful you'll miss it. I know what I need more of in my grown up empty nest life. I need to walk to the park and spend some time on the swings with nothing else to think about except how high I can go before I jump off. I need to smile more at my neighbors; genuine, unguarded smiles. I need to find more reasons for a good full-blown belly laugh! And when all else fails, there’s always ice cream, with sprinkles!
This piece was first published on the Bangor Daily News, Postcards from a Work in Progress, April 29, 2012. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Marriage is hard, divorce is harder but marriage equality should be simple!

Both marriage and divorce are often made even more complicated by the very institutions that claim to have the best interests of the family at heart.
I am a notary public. In Maine, a notary can perform wedding ceremonies. I have performed several marriages since I’ve been a notary. I have also notarized divorce forms. I have, however, occasionally questioned the wisdom of the State of Maine in allowing me to do so. Seriously, what business do I have being involved in any way with other people’s marriages, I who have had such a disastrous track record in my own personal experience with marriage?
The short answer is that as a public servant, my personal experiences, choices, opinions or beliefs have no place in my role as a notary. Additionally, the choices, personal histories or belief systems of the people I am serving are absolutely none of my business. It is my job to perform the task required of me in the office I hold. This is why it seems so illogical to me that the same government, who tasks me in this way with heterosexual marriages, feels the need to define marriage for same sex couples and why when marriage equality becomes a reality in this state I will be gladly offering my services!
That being said, it is no secret that the overall institution of marriage itself is in trouble. More and more marriages fail every day. The reasons for this are probably too complex and varied to cover in this format but I can assure you it has nothing to do with same sex couples asking for basic rights. It is unlikely we will ever all agree on the reasons marriages succeed or fail. Many have proposed that, to stop the flood of couples ending their marriages, we should make divorce harder to get.
I could not disagree more. Forcing couples to stay in a union that has disintegrated to this level is not good for anyone. It is certainly not good for their children. In fact, very often, in cases of abuse, it could be down-right deadly. The sad truth is that by the time a couple has reached this point it is usually beyond hope of reconciliation. The time to repair the damage would have been in the months and years preceding.
Another problem is that divorce is often very profitable for the professionals involved. Many don’t always have the best interests of the family at heart. Lawyers often take a couple who thought they were going to have a relatively simple divorce, and turn it into a nightmare of arguing over assets and children. Each hour racking up profits for the lawyers involved and certainly not motivating them to seek a quick and less painful solution. While many states have enacted “no fault” divorces and many now require mediation before they will even hear most cases, there is still much change that needs to happen. It does no one in a family any good to spend hours in court arguing over who did what.
There are few things more painful than a divorce. One of the reasons it is so gut wrenchingly painful is because it involves people who, at one point, loved each other very much. Maybe churches, instead of focusing only on ways to prevent divorce (or sadly on ways to prevent some marriages) could instead find ways to help families through these life adjustments. Maybe they could help find ways that are less hurtful and less damaging. Divorce does not end a family, it simply renegotiates it.  Whether a couple has children together that they now must co-parent in a new way, or whether they have years of history and shared experiences, they are forever connected, there is no way around that.
One of my grown daughters recently recommended a television show I had not yet seen. "Happily Divorced," is a very funny look at life after divorce based on the real life story of a Hollywood couple who had to renegotiate their relationship when he realized he was gay. Of course, it took them a lot of heartache, tears and therapy to eventually reach the stage where their failed marriage was ready to be a sitcom! That doesn’t mean it can’t be done however. Personally, I have been relatively successful at maintaining a working relationship with my first husband, my children’s father, but it took many years before we got there. I have not been as successful doing so with their step-father, but that could be because our divorce is still new and somewhat raw. Being uncomfortable with the connection, however, does not diminish it. Again, divorce does not end a family, it renegotiates it.
On a happier note, a fellow blogger celebrated 24 years of marriage this week in his post "How to be Happily Married." Blogger Jim LaPierre shares what worked and what didn’t work for him and his wife. Of course, every marriage is different but the bottom line is they kept at it and overcame the obstacles. And Jim seems to be very willing to admit when he was wrong, which is a great quality in a husband if you can find it!
The point is that marriage, whether it lasts or not, is hard and complicated and very messy. It can be the most beautiful thing you have ever done, as well as the most painful thing you have ever done. Often it can be both of those things in the very same day! It should be entered into with great forethought and reverence. To me, the time for counseling and lots of prayer should be before the marriage, not only when it has reached the point of failure. Before the ceremony is the time to pause, think hard, and seek the sage advice of those who have gone before you. But all of this contemplation and prayer should take place between you and your potential partner, in your own family, and if you choose, with your own church.
Whether a couple is starting a marriage, negotiating the challenges of a marriage, or ending a marriage, it is a decision that the government has absolutely no business in. I don’t think the rest of us should have to discuss it, or debate it, or vote on it because it is nobody’s business but that of the two people getting married. It affects no one else’s marriage; it undermines no one else’s belief system.
It is that simple. Or at least it should be!
For more information on marriage equality in Maine please visit Equality Maine's website.
This piece originally appeared in the Bangor Daily News, Postcards from a Work in Progress, April 22, 2012. The following November, the people of Maine decided that marriage equality DID matter and on December 29, 2012, the author was lucky enough to perform one of the first legal same sex marriages in the City of Bangor! See - Three same sex couples tie the knot at Bangor City Hall!

Divorce, like marriage, should involve a fancy new dress and cake!

Human beings are creatures of ritual. Rituals gave our human ancestors a sense of control over all the uncontrollable and unpredictable events; weather, illness, famine, death. Rituals couldn’t prevent the death of your child but they gave you something to do; a candle to light, incense to burn, a blessing to repeat, so that you felt like you did something, anything, while you were slowly coming to terms with the inevitable. Modern life is a little more predictable. We know when it’s going to rain or snow. We are able to prevent or cure at least some of the diseases and illnesses that our ancestors succumbed to. Yet, no amount of modern science will ever make us completely in control, able to predict or prevent all of what life brings us. So, we still cling to rituals, whether religious or secular. They still bring us comfort and a sense of security.
All of our major life events still have a ritual involved, to prepare us for them, to help us through them. Birthday parties, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, bachelor parties, baby showers, weddings and funerals are all examples of modern-day rituals. Each of these events, whether or not they involve an actual ceremony, contains a certain amount of predictable elements. If you have ever been to a baby shower you know things are done a certain way, certain games are played and certain decorations are always used, just because that’s the way it’s always done! While all of these events usually contain some type of party or celebration (even funerals have a gathering afterwards with food and drinks), there is a point to the gathering that goes beyond just the party. The point is about family and community helping you transition into the next stage of life. It is about people who have been there and done that, showing support, giving advice and holding you up. It is about those who care for you validating your experience and the pain or the joy that goes along with it. “We understand”, these people are saying, “and we are here for you.”
There is, however, one major life event that does not have any rituals or celebrations. It is the one event that we still shy away from, avoid coming into contact with people who are going through it, as if it is somehow contagious. As if it will somehow call all of our own life choices into question. This event is divorce. Now let me be clear, when I say divorce I mean those marriages where people have committed to a life together and have been with each other through all those other major life events. No Kim Kardashian’s divorce does not count. What does count however, are all those relationships of two committed loving partners who had planned a life together whether or not some government or religious entity confirmed their commitment. I’m talking about those of us who really believed that forever meant forever, not the forever you said when you “loved” some in junior high school, but as I used to say to someone “real forever.”
I’m proposing divorce have a ceremony. I say it also needs cake. A mother and daughter team in New York may be onto something when they held the first ever Divorce Expo, an event that they say will help to empower those going through this life altering experience. The two-day event brought professionals together to offer the newly divorced advice on everything from finance to dating again. While I think they are certainly onto something, and I would have certainly attended something similar when I was going through my divorce, some of it may have just been a little too much. The advice from the Mary Kay expert might have come in handy but the plastic surgeon in attendance is just over the top. I certainly didn’t need anyone making me feel any worse about myself than I already did. Telling me they could fix all my problems with a little surgery may have elicited a tirade of unpleasant language on my part. The idea, however, was to offer things for a wide variety of people and I truly hope their event was successful and will catch on in other places around the country.
What would be even better though is to have an event held by those who know and love you. My own friends and family would have known I wouldn’t want to hear from a plastic surgeon. However, a new outfit, a fancy meal and bottle of champagne really would have hit the spot. A ceremony of some sort would have also provided some type of closure. I can verify that dropping a ring from a very high bridge into a very deep river on its way to the ocean feels much better than just keeping this old reminder in the bottom of your jewelry box. Maybe the newly divorced could also get “god parents!” You know, just some close friends who promise to help take care of you when you can’t take care of yourself, someone who promises to answer the phone at 2 a.m. when you can’t sleep and are up alone trying to answer unanswerable questions.
I think there should also be gifts! Let’s face it, when you get divorced you lose not only half of all your possessions but sometimes half of your income as well. Next time one of my friends gets divorced I’m going to try to remember all this. It’s time we started helping each other through this life transition and stopped treating it like some contagious social disease. Maybe I’ll get a gift certificate to a fancy restaurant so he/she doesn’t have to wait for someone else to invite them, or maybe a membership to AAA for those mornings their car won’t start and they are home alone. Maybe I’ll pick up some new towels for his/her new place. Even better, maybe I’ll make one of those little coupon books that says things like “one free rant and rave session” or “one weekend of designated driving so you can have all the wine you need.” Either way there’s going to be cake!
This piece originally appeared in the Bangor Daily News, Postcards from a Work in Progress, April 1, 2012. 

Of all the men I’ve lost, I miss the dog the most!

Like many of you, I've had a lot of loss in my life. There are times, when the loss seems overwhelming. If I get caught up in the “what ifs” and the “if only-s” I can find myself spiraling down into a place that sometimes takes days to get out of.
Now my losses are not nearly as bad as some that other people have survived. I know this. I try to keep that in mind. But sometimes, when you are in the middle of a really good pity-party you just don’t want to be reminded to count your blessings. You just need to wallow for a little while. Not too long, but sometimes the best way to get over pain, once and for all, is to feel it, acknowledge it and then let it go.
As Spring comes and plants start to bud and kids and dogs appear outside, I sometimes start thinking about the things I really, really miss. When you get divorced people ask all kinds of questions that are supposed to help. Do you miss him? Do you miss your old life? Do you miss the house your kids grew up in? Do you wish you’d stayed longer, waited to sell the house, gotten custody of the dog?
The truth is the only thing I’d go back and do over is who got the dog. I thought there’d be shared custody and lots of visits. There haven’t been, not nearly enough. I made the mistake of moving to an apartment that won’t let me have pets and he made it clear that, once the check cleared and the deed was filed, I was no longer welcome in the house we raised our family in.
But a house is only a home when it's filled with the people you love.
I really miss him . . .  the dog that is. I miss coming home to his tail wagging, always happy to see me no matter what type of day we both had. I miss him sleeping on the end of the bed. I miss his warm, fuzzy little head. I miss his devotion and his unconditional love. I miss watching him throw himself against the windows in a frenzy every time another dog dared to walk down his street. I miss his optimism, believing that just maybe this will be the time he catches that squirrel even if every other attempt has failed. I miss sitting in the sun on the back porch with him on a lazy summer afternoon.
I also really miss my gardens. I miss the hope that comes with planting a Tulip or a Daffodil bulb in the fall and believing that it will survive, way deep down under the dirt and the snow, and bloom again the next Spring. I miss the perennials I planted; the Iris, Lilies, Clematis and Peony, a few more each year, with the faith that they would survive a long Maine winter and bloom again. I miss the old Lilac bush that came with the house and the Forsythia that I planted and watched grow from tiny saplings to a giant hedge that bloomed bright yellow every spring.
I miss these things that I could always count on; my spring gardens and my warm beagle. No matter what happened, no matter who else had let me down, no matter how hard life got, the garden kept blooming and the dog met me at the door when I got home.
What I have come to realize, as I pull myself up and out of this difficult time, is that my roots have nothing to do with the house I lived in or the gardens I tended.  As beautiful as they all were, the real roots I planted are still mine. They are the children I raised there, and the adults they have become. They have each drifted off like seeds on a light wind, to settle in gardens of their own, to make lives of their own, and they are healthy and safe and growing just fine.
The parts of my own life, the things that I love to nurture, aren’t gone. They are just below the surface, waiting safely until the time is right, to bloom again.
and maybe I can find a way to spend more time with the Beagle.

This piece originally appeared in the Bangor Daily News, Postcards from a Work in Progress, March 25, 2012. 

I no longer recognize myself in photos!

At work last week, our in-house photographer came around to take a new picture of me for our website. I warned him ahead of time that I am a notorious blinker and then I went on to prove this. He was very patient and kept firing away. When he finally came up with the finished product he leaned his digital camera screen in my direction so I could take a look at the picture he had decided was “the good one.” I glanced at the screen and was once again shocked to see a middle-aged woman looking back at me.
You may have had this experience at a certain point in your life. You start looking at pictures of yourself, or you see yourself in the mirror as you are passing, and are completely shocked to see someone you don’t recognize, an “old” person. Oh, I know 46 isn’t old, but it’s older than I feel on the inside most days.  I wasn’t expecting that. I wasn't expecting to still feel young on the inside but to have my body start doing things that I never consented to. I never expected for people to look at me and see someone who looks more like my mother.
And here’s some other things I never expected from middle-age:
1.  My chin. I always took my chin for granted. I never planned on it going anywhere. Suddenly, when I look at pictures of myself taken from the side, I realize my chin is slowly migrating towards my chest.
2.  Children who don’t call me every day. Why wouldn’t they? I assumed they would still need my motherly wisdom daily, apparently not!
3.  To have a “boyfriend” . . . seriously!
4.  To be the oldest person in a college class. (It has both its blessings and its drawbacks).
5.  To have co-workers younger than my children.
6.  To have friends with grandchildren!
7.  To have my back refuse to cooperate with things the rest of my body thinks it would be great fun to do!
8.  Disposable income - I really thought I'd have some by now! (The X got all the disposable income in the divorce).
9.  Not getting carded anymore when buying wine. You think it’s annoying until they stop doing it. I watched the screen on the cashier’s computer last week as she rang out my wine. It asked “is customer over forty” and the little witch hit “yes!”
While there are so many things happening to us in middle age that we don't have control over, I will admit there are also lots of great things going on that we can control. I do enjoy the luxury of not having to answer to anyone else. I enjoy having adult children who can take care of themselves (most of the time anyway). I like the idea that my future is now my own!
One thing I have managed to still get away with in my “old” age is the weight on my driver’s license. It still says what I weighed when I was 16 years old. Oh it’s not that far off . . . or maybe it is by 20 or 30 lbs, I'm not confirming nor denying. My daughters keep telling me I need to correct it. Let me just warn you. Don't be the person at the DMV who looks at my license and looks at me and tells me I need to correct that weight. Don’t even try it! I’m hanging onto to that one as long as I can! I mean, isn't it bad enough you gave me this license with some old lady's picture on it!
This piece originally appeared in the Bangor Daily News, Postcards from a Work in Progress, March 18, 2012.