Color the Sky

Many years ago, I entered a coloring contest.  I carefully outlined each space before meticulously filling in the area with the selected color. I stayed within the lines.  I colored the whole page.  Not an inch of uncolored page remained.  I was as proud of the result as any 8-year-old could be.  It was my masterpiece.

I lost the contest.

This was no ordinary coloring contest –  one of my older cousins had organized it to keep the younger cousins busy during meal preparation for some celebration.   As I recall there was a panel of older-cousin judges, but I might be wrong on that aspect.  It was, after all, more than 40 years ago…

I lost the contest.  The winner colored outside the lines.  I remember asking the “head judge” why I didn’t win.  My picture was better.  My coloring was spot on.

His response?

“You colored the sky.  You’re not supposed to color the sky.”

For years and years, I left the skies in my coloring books a boring white.  The skies in Never Never Land and Cinderella’s Kingdom were always an overcast, unhealthy beige without a hint of blue. Occasionally I would get brave and draw a sliver of sun in the uppermost corner, but never again did I dare to color the sky.

I looked out my bathroom window this morning and saw the brightest blue sky.  My iPhone camera simply didn’t do it justice.   The sight brought the memories of my blank white coloring page skies back to me.

Life is short.  Less than 3 months before Mom died, she told me that she planned to live to see age 90.  Before she died, she wanted to go to the beach.  She wanted to sit on my back deck and look at the flowers.  I looked forward to days together where we might look up and watch the clouds together.  The skies in my daydreams about what might have been are always blue, with a puffy cloud or two and a sliver of golden sunshine.

There are rules in place to keep us safe, like “you must stop at stop signs.”  Other rules  were just someone’s idea that caught on.  We follow those rules because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”  Don’t eat dessert before dinner.  Follow the pattern as it is written.  Don’t wear white after Labor Day.  Cover the gray in your hair if you don’t want to look old.  Don’t put the good china in the dishwasher.  You get the idea.

I’ve spent more than 40 years believing you shouldn’t color the sky.  What a dumb rule.  Always color the sky.

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Ask Me Anything

I always thought I knew a lot about my mom’s life.  She told scores of stories.  I can tell you about the day that her old dog, Shep, died.  I can tell you about the day my dad proposed to her – and that she didn’t answer him right away.  I can tell you about the day that she received the phone call that there was a baby girl waiting to be adopted, and she could pick her (me) up that same day.  I thought I knew a lot.

One day, my still-sharp 88-year-old mother’s brain changed.  She couldn’t tell me the familiar stories anymore.  During her final illness, on days she couldn’t quite place who iI was in her life, she asked me questions that led me to pose my own questions about what shaped her early life  – questions that she could no longer answer.

I don’t know if my mother ever had a boyfriend before she married my dad at the age of 37.  I don’t know what she dreamed of when she was a teenager.  I don’t know a lot of things. Looking back, I don’t think that I know a single story about Mom’s life between ages 10 and 25 or so.  There are still family members alive who might be able to tell me their own stories about her during those years, but nobody can tell “her” story.

As we cleaned out her apartment last weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder why she kept certain things.  although I never saw her journaling, a part of me hoped that I would find a box of notebooks – diaries – hints at who my mom had been before she was my mom – and who she was when nobody was watching.

I wonder sometimes how much my children really know.  Once in a while Matt, my youngest, appears shocked when he learns some bit of my history – some part of my life prior to the year 2000.

I wish that my mother had written her story.  I do keep a journal most days, so my life from age 50+ is theirs for the reading if they should choose to to do some day.  The years before, however, the years who made me who I am – flaws and all – are locked away in my head except for the little glimpses I tell in my stories.

Maybe some day I will tell my children to “ask me anything,” and record those answers in writing or on video.  How I wish Mom had said to me, “ask me anything” in those months leading up to the end of her life.  There are so many things I would love to know now – not that they would change a thing – but things that would help me to understand why things were the way they were.

There were things that were hinted at but never spoken.  There were times when I asked Mom about first-hand memories that were vivid to me that, according to her, “never happened.”

I’m not certain that I have the courage to tell my children to “Ask me anything” and give them the answers while I am still living.  Perhaps, though, the revelation of that information might help them to understand me and the experiences that made me who I am.  Perhaps the joys and sorrows and traumas don’t matter to anyone else.  Perhaps, though, my daughter, or my great-granddaughter some day far in the future would hear my memories and realize that I, too, questioned my worth at times, and that I spent 50 years or so worrying too much about what others thought.

Perhaps some day I will write my own story.  Parts are interesting – other parts heartbreaking or downright boring.  What might be boring to me might explain to my daughter why I am quirky about certain things.  If she ever wishes she had asked me a certain question, perhaps she could find the answer.

So, kids, when I am gone, look for the name of the document and the password hint.  In the meantime, ask me anything, and I’ll do my best to answer now – or in the future.

 

 

Time to Give Thanks

November 2017 has marked some difficult changes for me.  When you’re adapting to big changes, it’s easy to lose track of time.  Weeks seem to have flown by without me having noticed.  Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day.

I have a lot to be thankful for.  Some days those things are easier to see than on other days.  On those days – the days when the world seems to be against you and things seem like they may never be “right” again – on those days it helps to have a practice in place to focus on the good.  I recently began being “thankful” on purpose – every day.

For me, it starts with “clean water to drink.”  I get up in the morning and fill a clean glass with crystal clear water straight from the tap.  I don’t have to walk a mile (or more) to a well or a filter site to collect water and carry it home.  I can wash my morning pills down with a whole glass without even thinking about it.  I take the time to look at that crystal clear water in the clean glass before I consume it.  I take a moment to give thanks for clean water, and that prayer of thanksgiving is followed by gratefulness for a furnace to take the chill off the air, a soft rug under my feet, and a giant fluffy dog who greets me as if he hasn’t seen me in a year.

After I trot downstairs, I have the luxury of letting the tap run until the water is hot before filling my kettle to put it on to boil.  I can take a long, hot shower and not worry about whether that luxury will leave me without clean water to cook dinner with later in the day.

When I was in the Vermilion Rotary Club, the clean water problem came to my attention for the first time.   I was in my late 40s before I realized that something as basic as clean water is a barrier to basic hygiene, education, and economic growth in much of the world.

A Rotary colleague, John Hill, put together a clean water initiative through Clean Water for Haiti.  Clean Water for Haiti puts filters for safe water in schools.  The children can collect their household’s clean water while they receive an education.  The filters are assembled in Haiti, creating jobs.

Start your day off with an attitude of gratitude. If you can’t find something to be grateful for, pour yourself a glass of clean water and drink it.   If you are blessed, as I am, with money to pay the bills with some left at the end of the month, consider giving to Clean Water for Haiti or another charity providing clean water solutions in areas of need.

For the price of a $1.00 bottle of drinking water per day for just over 3 months, you can sponsor a clean water bio filter for an entire family.  I will be giving to Clean Water for Haiti on Giving Tuesday -help me to help them “Make Waves,” so that someone, somewhere, can start their day by giving thanks for a glass of clean water.

http://cleanwaterforhaiti.org/donate/make-waves/

Day 9 – Out with the Old, In with the New

My mom wasn’t much of a housekeeper. Truth be told, I struggle with keeping a clean house myself. My brother and I didn’t have many chores growing up. I had to load and unload the dishwasher, and I vacuumed and dusted for a few pennies, but I always liked dusting. I still love the actual act of dusting and polishing wooden furniture (not that you would know it from the current condition of my home).

I was in my 20s the first time I ever saw someone wipe down the inside of their sink after washing the dishes. Sure, we cleaned the sinks in our house, but it was part of a weekly “heavy duty” cleaning – not something we did every time we used the sink!

My mom and dad were both pack rats. There were parts of the house that could have been featured on an episode of Hoarders. Both grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and neither threw away something that they might need or that “might be worth some money someday.”

I searched Mom’s apartment for some important documents while she was in the nursing home. I never found what I was looking for, but I found drawer after drawer stuffed with the gifts that I had purchased or made for her in the past decade, many with tags still attached. She was “saving them for a special occasion,” I am sure.

I haven’t cleaned out Mom’s apartment yet. I’m dreading the task. I think the long Thanksgiving weekend is probably the time to dive in and get it done. First, I’ve had to learn to let go. Mom and Dad had an auction sale when they sold the family home more than a decade ago. They moved from a 3-4 bedroom house (depending on how you counted) with a full basement, garage and two sheds to a 2-bedroom apartment. Every nook and cranny was filled. I ended up with at least a truckload of furnishings during that move.

They moved into an even smaller place a few years later and I again was elected (by default) to take possession of the “family heirlooms” – mostly broken furniture and wedding presents that Mom had never used because she was “saving them for something special.” I never used them either, for the most part.

I’m enrolled in a program with a life coach, and serendipitously, October was all about organizing. I learned to winnow the mounds of stuff that I have accumulated over 30+ years of adulthood by asking 1) does it serve me, 2) do I love it, and 3) is it outdated or broken? I was shocked by the realization of how much “stuff” I was holding onto because it was important to someone else. The local Goodwill store was the recipient of multiple loads of bric-a-brac, furniture and books.

My mom crocheted hundreds of doilies. I have them all over my house and I still had boxes and boxes of them left when she died. At her funeral we laid them out in stacks on a table and invited guests to take them to remember her. I felt a catch in my throat “What if it makes me sad that I don’t have these anymore?” Then, I remembered that these doilies had been occupying a corner of my closet for several years in boxes – just like the things that Mom never, ever used.  It gave me joy to watch friends and relatives sorting through the piles, smiling and admiring Mom’s handiwork.

My coach reminded us that the blanket that Grandma made isn’t Grandma. If it’s worn out and stained and you’re ashamed to have it on display, perhaps it’s time to take a photo and let it go. There are a few things that I will keep from Mom’s house. There are things that I have always found beautiful. They would bring me joy to have, and I would USE them. Those will come home with me. The rest will find new homes. Those things that hold special memories but would never be used will be photographed. I don’t need to fill my home with physical objects to fill it with beautiful memories.

Along with the old “stuff,” I am letting go of old ideas, old resentments and old grudges. Out with the old. Bring in the new. New life, new ideas. I’m never going to love cleaning. Perhaps one of those “new ideas” is that hiring a cleaning service would be a good investment – it will give me more time to blog.

Day 8 – Sometimes You Just Have to Feel It

Sometimes the lesson is simply indescribable. You just have to feel it. Any attempt to find the words to describe those profound, deeply-felt changes will pale in contrast to the realization.

This is as close as I can come: The depth of the feeling of being very sad about a change – like death – is in direct proportion to how hard we resist the change. As long as I dwell in the past, wishing things could have gone differently or that I had said something or did something else, I will continue to feel sadness.

When I accept that Mom is gone, and that it happened just the way that it was always going to happen, the sadness eases. It’s out of my control. It always was.

The words make it sound much simpler than the feelings do. You’ll have to trust me on that one.

Day 7 – The Keeper of Secrets

The word “secret” has so many nuanced meanings. Some secrets are precious – the “secret recipe,” for example. Then there is “The Secret,” the power of intention that some believe can make a strawberry ice cream cone appear without them lifting a finger to help themselves. Other secrets are neutral. I hold a lot of confidential information for my clients. The “secrets” aren’t necessarily dark or ominous – they simply aren’t anyone else’s business.

When Mom died a week and a half ago, her secrets died with her. At 50 years of age, I realize how little I know about my mother’s years before me. I know a few select stories, of course – the ones that she told regularly. Those are committed to memory, some word for word. There are other stories that died with her – good and bad. I now have to make peace with the things that I will never know. There are curious, half-formed memories from childhood that will now never be explained.

When I was a young girl, my questions were met with “we’ll talk about that when you are older.” As I grew into adulthood, the deflection became, “I’d rather talk about you,” or “I need to go to the store.” I didn’t press for answers because I didn’t want to upset Mom. Making Mom cry was something I tried to avoid at all costs. I love(d) my Mom.

Ready or not, I have a new position in life. I am the oldest female. I have become the reluctant matriarch, for want of a better word. Like my mom, there are things I don’t talk about – things that are a part of me and that have shaped me and thus have shaped the lives of my children.

Without living parents to think about, I have the freedom to bring “secrets” into the daylight where they can fade without worrying about hurting feelings. No, I won’t be writing a salacious “tell all.” My life hasn’t been “that” interesting.

I do believe, however, that it is time to write my own “book of secrets.” My secret recipes. My secret thoughts. My private past. Someday when I am gone, one of my children may wonder what experiences shaped me. I can only tell them my side of the story, or at least my memory of it.  My story would never be a bestseller.  Indeed, it would probably be boring to even my own children.  Still, one day they may have questions about what experiences made me into who I am.

I haven’t cleaned out Mom’s apartment yet, but I’ve been through enough of her things to know that there probably isn’t a “book of secrets” waiting to be discovered. It’s a shame, but at the same time, it is also a relief. I can live my life authentically. I can choose not to wear the title of the “keeper of secrets.” I control the narrative. I can tell my story without being a victim of anything or anyone in my past. I can choose not to die with my words still in me.

Day 5 – Be Authentic

I learned many lessons during Day 4, but I didn’t write about them. I was in a dark mood. I didn’t feel like doing anything except knitting and wasting time on social media, so I didn’t.

I spent a few minutes reviewing some of the comments that readers have left on my previous blog posts. One of the comments that I received recently made note of the observation that although there have been very difficult times in the past year or so, my posts have been (mostly) positive. That is by design, but I realize that perhaps that isn’t the for the greatest good.

I write as a way to cope with my emotions. Being sad, depressed or lonely feels bad. Being angry and anxious feels bad. For me, and I believe for many others, emotions each have a physical sensation that feels “good,” “bad,” or “neutral.”

These past months have been extraordinarily difficult. There have been many days during which I have lashed out at people who care the most about me. There have been days that I have cried and days that I have shirked responsibilities. I have made nasty comments under my breath and though unkind thoughts.

I will be the first to admit that I am extraordinarily imperfect. I strive to be positive and to show kindness. Some days I fail. Some days I am a miserable person to be around.

There would be something wrong with me if I only felt happiness while my mother was dying. I experienced sadness, rage, confusion and frustration on a daily basis. I had some really bad days.

I wrote in a journal daily. I let the feelings out. I didn’t keep them inside, and by letting them out in the light, I was able to deal with them. Writing about the negative emotions felt like opening the curtains on a dark room and throwing open the windows to allow the clean air to come in.

Many problems don’t look so big or so scary when you put them on a piece of paper.

I started writing in a new journal 3 days before Mom was hospitalized in August. I chose a book with black paper because I felt like even a grocery list could look elegant written in white ink on black paper. I filled every page of that book. Today I filled the last page. I’ve never been so relieved to finish filling a journal and being able to move on. Instead of a black book with black pages and a black cover, I’m next writing in a beautiful book wit a purple cover embellished with beautiful colors. The pages are ivory and they have lines so that my writing doesn’t end up all crooked.

I hope that the sadness and anger that sometimes filled those black pages becomes a thing of the past as I move out of this dark chapter in my life.

Death visits us all. My experience is not special or unique. Losing a parent is the “natural order” of things. Although I won’t allow myself to wallow in grief, the words of a dear friend remind me to be kind to myself. “You are never truly prepared to say goodbye to your mother, no matter hard you try.” He was right.

I’m not feeling very happy or positive today. I’m also not feeling very negative today. I’m pretty close to “neutral” on the emotional spectrum, and I think that’s a pretty good place to be at this stage in the grieving game.

Spread kindness, sprinkle joy. Be authentic.