Unintentional Minimalism

I recently became a minimalist where the holidays were concerned. It wasn’t intentional. Early in November, I had a total knee replacement. Recovery from the surgery was longer than I anticipated (and truthfully, much slower than that for which my doctor prepared me.) So, when Thanksgiving rolled around, I was pretty limited in mobility. Giving up the tradition of hosting dinner wasn’t an option. My kids have very busy lives. My daughter has a small house and my son is, well, a bachelor. Besides, it was a lot easier for me to stay home, since I had not yet been cleared to drive.

We love our family traditions and we’re not willing to sacrifice them. Still, I was forced to let a lot of things go. The usual planning, shopping, cleaning and decorating was out of the question. Luckily, I had some Autumn leaves and pumpkins out, which I had done in October. It would have to suffice. I pared down the menu to include our most favorite dishes, removing things like sweet potato casserole and homemade cranberry sauce – two things that I’m pretty sure are only popular with me. Then, I assigned the more difficult menu items to the guests. Now, I am not one to accept help easily, nor do I usually ask. But one thing this recovery has taught me is that, sometimes, you have to let other people do things for you. Was it uncomfortable for me? Hell, yes. But, I had no choice.

I reserved two side dishes to prepare myself that I thought would be easiest. I bought disposable dinnerware (Sorry, environmentalist friends, but I do not have a dishwasher). Then, I farmed out the rest, including the turkey. I gave up the usual games we play between courses. I ditched the appetizers. There were no lottery tickets under everyone’s plates. It would be the most boring Thanksgiving dinner ever.

I was wrong.

My daughter came over bright and early to stuff the turkey and put it in the oven. Like magic, dishes arrived, including mashed potatoes, wine, beer, homemade desserts. From my recliner, I listened as my kitchen came alive with the most wonderful chaos and laughter. Occasionally, I’d offer direction, such as which cupboard held the serving dish required. Mostly, I gave up the most difficult thing: Control. The family heirlooms that have always graced our table might not have been used. There were no coordinated placemats. There was no centerpiece…

What was present proved much more valuable. When it was time to eat, I took my place at the table and was served the most wonderful Thanksgiving dinner I have ever tasted. Normally, I am so exhausted from the preparation and the pressure I put on myself to make it perfect that I do not actually enjoy the meal. This year was different. I savored each bite. I could actually taste the love that went into it.

After dinner, I returned to my recliner and listened again, as my kitchen remained alive with laughter. Not only was my family getting it done – They were having the most wonderful time! Leftovers were divided and wrapped. The table was cleared. Pots and pans were washed. The trash taken out. My belly was full … and my heart was bursting.

By the time Christmas arrived, I was further along in the recovery process but still not 100%. Now, I was experienced in the magic art of letting go. A friend came over to help remove the Fall decorations and put out a few Christmas things: My Nana’s ceramic tree, the wreath for my door, our stockings and, of course, some Christmas music. Honestly, she was willing to do much more. However, I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of Christmas “stuff” I own. It was actually kind of repulsive and made me feel gluttonous. There were bins of things that have not been displayed for years. I silently asked myself, “What’s the point?”

The most amazing thing happened. The sparse decorations that I did put out became the subject of my undying adoration. They were not dwarfed by a million other “things” but stood on their own. There was beauty in the simplistic nature of having less.

Eventually, I accepted the offer of a friend to take me to get a real tree. In the past, tree selection has been quite a lengthy process during which I visit tree farms and walk the entire acreage in search of the perfect tree. Not this year. We pulled into a roadside stand that had some trees left (it was getting close to Christmas). I began to examine the selection when my friend said, “How about this one?” The owner was holding out the most amazing tree – it was the exact size and shape that I am always hunting for when hiking through rows of still-planted trees. Five minutes later, it was trimmed, baled and loaded into our vehicle.

My daughter and grandson came to help decorate the tree, placing several strands of white lights and the star on top. Once again, the “less is more” philosophy prevailed. I felt no desire to sort through the huge bin of ornaments – an emotional task that I simultaneously loathe and treasure. It was not necessary. The sparse, unadulterated tree was beautiful. We added some ribbon and stood back to admire it: The perfect Christmas tree.

Santa left a few less gifts under the tree this year. Shopping had to be done online. There was less wrapping too, and more gift bags, including some reusable ones (perhaps making up for the disposable dinnerware). Instead of giving “things” and “stuff,” I tried to give the gift of experiences: Gift cards for activities to expand or challenge personal growth as well as things to do together throughout the year. Everyone was genuinely pleased with their presents. Clean up was much easier. There was no excess. I felt lighter.

When you remove overindulgence, it makes room for that which really matters. Less clutter means more room for joy. Abundance is not kept in a Rubbermaid bin. Things that are packed away in the basement bring no happiness. Instead, they weigh us down by their silent demands. Next year, there will be less in storage. That which remains will be relished. Things, like unused ornaments, will be replaced by experiences, such as stringing up the lights together. Perfection is no longer my goal. Instead, I will strive for shared efforts and adventures. Memories take up no room in the house. Instead, they fill our hearts and enhance our lives by enriching our relationships.

And That, my friends, is what really matters.

Christmas Magic

As a child, I remember going to bed very early on Christmas Eve. I was so afraid that Santa would pass by because I was still awake. I have even heard his sleigh bells as he passed over the house on a cold, clear winter’s night. On one occasion, I was awakened in the night by the sound of something (a box?) being dropped somewhere in the recesses of our house. Rather than allow curiosity to pull me from my warm bed, I shut my eyes tightly and willed myself back to sleep.

Santa was pure magic and I was in awe. In third grade, I recall a conversation with a classmate during which we boo-hooded our peers who no longer believed. We just knew Santa was real. During a Christmas party that same year, my mother visited the class, dressed as the jolly old elf himself. Still, my belief did not waiver.

I don’t recall the exact moment when I knew the truth. Maybe it was when I discovered the gifts hidden in my parents’ closet.

One Christmas Eve, my grandmother whispered to my mother, “Does she still…?” My mother said no and my chest swelled with pride in my newfound maturity, as if I had been admitted to a secret club.

Since my only sibling was four years younger, I was expected to continue the deception, for his benefit. It was simply understood. There was no opportunity to engage in adult conversations with my parents about the matter, since he was always around. It kept the magic alive, at least for a few more years.

There were about ten years during which Santa did not exist for our family, after my brother became aware and before my first child was born. But I don’t really remember them. I still went to church on Christmas Eve and sang in the choir at the candlelight service. There was a traditional neighborhood party with lots of laughs.

But Christmas without the magic of Santa left only vague memories.

Once my children came along, he returned and the holiday season was again filled with excitement and anticipation. Like me, my daughter eventually had to play along for the sake of her younger brother. Today, she is 40 years old and she still has never told me that she doesn’t believe. I think she knew it would break my heart. When my son was at the age of questioning, I worked diligently to persuade him otherwise. I’ll never forget his comment that Christmas morning, when he first looked upon the gifts piled under the tree. “Now I know there’s a Santa. Mom could never afford all this!” Score one for Santa.

Again, there was a decade between my son believing and my grandson’s arrival. I don’t remember much about them. Fortunately, my daughter embraced the traditions we’d established when her own son arrived. I added to the fun with magical, photoshopped pictures of Santa placing gifts under their tree and annual visits to the old man himself.

This year, my grandson is twelve. Like his mother, he is hesitant to admit that he knows the truth. Last year, he politely resisted when I suggested he visit Santa, while we were shopping at Yankee Candle. But he went along, at Nana’s insistence, probably to humor me but possibly to avoid the stark inevitable acknowledgement that Christmas was, somehow, less magical. I knew he was on the fence, so I did everything in my power to counter whatever he heard at school or whatever logical reasoning was going on inside his head.

I fear that this year might be the beginning of another Santa drought in our family. There are no more young children. I’m not ready to accept another ten years without Santa. To make matters worse, I’m recovering from major surgery that has robbed me of my mobility for the past six weeks. As a result, my Christmas celebration is going to be low key this time around. There has been a lot less shopping, decorating, baking and general merry making. I’ve been thinking about some new traditions that are more aligned with our all-adult version of Christmas. I have a few ideas about how we can all be like Santa and deliver some magic to each other. But I’ll wait until next year to implement them.

For now, we’ll focus on the important things that are also magical, in their own way. We’ll enjoy the simple things, like being together and sharing laughter, a good meal and our most cherished memories. The stockings will still be filled mysteriously on Christmas Eve and the tags on the presents under the tree will still say “from Santa.”

Until someone dares to admit to me that they don’t believe, Santa is alive and well at my house.

I think I just heard sleigh bells….

Nothing to Say…. oh, wait..

I have a lot less to say these days. It seems that writing comes easy when I need to vent or work something out. I’ve arrived at a pretty good place. One thing, though – I know better than to take it for granted. Life is unpredictable and can change in a nanosecond. So, while I’m not worrying unnecessarily, I am keeping an eye on the road ahead. But I’m also enjoying the scenery and allowing myself to breathe easy, for a change.

Two years ago, I was in the midst of recreating my life. Looking back, I don’t know how I survived January – March of 2017 without requiring hospitalization – or, at the very least – medication. At some point, I shifted modes, from survive to thrive. The rest is history. I have living space that has become home, a dream job and a really nice relationship. My writing and my music remain important parts of my life. My kids are nearby and doing well. My grandson, despite being a middle schooler, still wants to hang out with Nana. And, of course, I have amazing friends.

While I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, there are some goals I’ve recently set for myself. I’m learning to be less ‘all or nothing’ in my thinking, so the approach is less intense than in the past. I want to improve my health. The cataract surgery that I’ve been putting off and making excuses about for the past two years is happening this month. I’m eating better food (and less of it). I’m drinking less wine. I’m moving more. Over the past weekend, I went bowling and for a short walk. Nothing drastic – I am setting myself up to succeed. 

I’m keeping an eye on the future, but I’ve been shown that things have a way of working out – even if it’s nothing like you planned. I’ve also learned that it’s not guaranteed, so time and energy spent should never distract you from the present. And, right now, my present is pretty damned good.

Moments

I feel a little crazy as joy and sadness intermingle, often in the same moment. Christmas is such an emotional time. Putting the decorations on my tree, for example: Ornaments that remind me of happy occasions bring a smile. Others, like ones made by my mother, cause me to miss her terribly. I have a set of handmade ornaments – stars, a reindeer, two trees and a snowman – that she made with my son, when he was four years old. He’s 31 now. As painful as it is to open that box every year, hanging them on my tree brings her close to me. It takes me back to a time when my kids were little and Christmas filled with magic. Despite the tears, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

So much has changed in the last four years. My mom is gone, but she lives on in the lessons and traditions she taught me, as I pass them on to my children and to my grandson. This is the second holiday season in my new place, so it feels more like home. My favorite decorations have assigned places, once more. Each one connects me to the past. For better or worse, they are part of the decades which have molded me and made Christmas an amazingly special time in my life.

Happily, there are always new ornaments that represent the more recent memories we’ve made – reminders of vacations or special days spent together. There are two additional stockings hung this year as our family expands. We are blessed beyond words.

To deny the painful moments would be to deny parts of my life – some of the very best parts. I choose to let them wash over me. I feel them deeply. The sorrow passes but the love remains. It is, very truly, the best time of the year.

Merry Christmas!

Empty Spaces

One of the most joyful things about the holidays is that it brings us together with those we love. Family traditions and celebrations are shared, old memories remembered and new ones created. We send cards, attend parties, prepare special meals.

There’s another side of the season that brings intense sadness to many of us. There are those with whom we cannot celebrate, either because they’ve died or because they’re no longer a part of our lives.

There’s an old saying about finding out who your true friends are when you’ve been down and out. I’ve been surprised at who has been there thru my toughest transitions. It wasn’t always the people who I would have guessed.

While it’s nice to realize that someone supports you, it can be equally hurtful to discover that someone who you thought cared about you actually does not have your back.

It’s not a simple trade off. People who are important to us cannot be replaced. They leave a painful space in our lives – and in our hearts. We might try to re-engage them, each unsuccessful attempt rubbing the edges of that empty space until it’s raw. Eventually, we might stop including them in order to avoid the disappointment we feel with each rejection.

But what about that space that is created by their absence? How do we reconcile that? It’s no good to walk around pretending to be complete when there is a gaping hole in your heart where someone used to be.

If someone we love has died, we are left alone to deal with the loss and to acclimate ourselves. Grief is a very personal journey. I try to live the fullest life possible, as though I am living it for my mother and for my friend, Carol. I do it for them because they are not here. In my mother’s honor, I carry out the traditions she taught me, passing them on to my children and my grandson. I still miss her, of course. But the hollow place she left is somewhat filled with things I know would please her.

When one of Carol’s children or grandchildren celebrate a milestone, such as a marriage, I am there to witness it and to celebrate. I experience it for her, because she cannot. I know that my presence shines a spotlight on her absence that must, at times, be a painful reminder. I am grateful that they include me and I feel close to her by remaining a part of her family.

But what of the space left by those who abandon us? Their intentional non-presence in our lives can be difficult because it is complicated. We might be left without a true understanding of why things turned out this way. We might be  hurt that they weren’t there when we needed them or feel guilt at our own assumed misdeeds. It’s a harder loss to mourn because it is less final.

Suppose we use that empty, inner space to grow? Fill it with energy that creates something that expands us and fulfills us. Learn or create something new. Cultivate our awareness of  the love of those who have stuck with us thru the bad times. There will always be those who stayed near when we were messy and unlovable. Later, there are people who will love us despite the scars left by our suffering. These are the people who value and respect us.

Give the gift of your presence to the ones who stayed, those who appreciate you in all your imperfect chaos.  Give the gift of your absence to those who do not see you as valuable and worthwhile. Create your best life in the space they’ve left. Honor those who have lost their lives by living yours. Be there and do the things they cannot. Honor death by defying it.

Maybe we cannot fill the space, but we can replenish it. In the smaller space that remains, we can harbor hope that our loved ones will grant us grace. Fill that space with acceptance and peace. Fill that space with love.

The Gift

A relationship is like a piece of fine English China. Imagine a delicate tea cup. You might accidentally drop it to the floor one day. Although it bears no visible signs of damage, it’s structure might be weakened. Later, you might set it down too roughly, banging it against it’s saucer: A tiny crack, not visible to the naked eye, now forms. But, it still works well and it still brings you joy.

Time passes and you forget about the fragility of it because the tea cup has become such a part of your daily life. When you allow it to slip from your hand and it falls against the sink, you pay little mind. Then, one day, you pour hot water into your cup and it leaks. The tiny crack that you ignored has deepened with every knock. The handle has loosened. It is beyond repair. Even if you carefully mend it with super glue, it will never be as strong or lovely as it once was.

The Universe has given me the gift of a new tea cup. Every day, I will be aware of my own clumsiness, my unintended harshness. I will be vigilant and not let small chips and cracks go unnoticed or unrepaired. I will cherish it, protect it and not take it for granted. I will love it as best I can, savoring each moment of warmth that it brings me. If I’m lucky, it will last and, going forward, will be the only tea cup I ever need.

I did it my way

I have always done things the hard way. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps, at an early age, it was conveyed to me that I wasn’t worthy of ease. Maybe a more difficult path was somehow placed before me and I came to understand that that was the only way. Somehow, it became second nature – familiar and comfortable.

As a young student, I chose challenging classes beyond what was required. In college, I pursued leadership roles that took up so much time and energy that I often completed independent study courses – that normally needed an entire semester of preparation – in a single night. I wasn’t happy being a reporter, but became the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper. Planning committees were not enough, so I became president of the dorm and secretary of my class.

When it came time to deliver my babies, I set my unwavering sights on natural childbirth, accepting no pain medication. Sleepless nights and colic did not derail my intentions to successfully breastfeed babies who would not receive formula or cereal before six months. When I divorced, there was no thought of alimony and little child support. I willingly gave up my stay-at-home mom status and, later, my retirement, to return to the workforce – and a career that was demanding, both physically and emotionally, and didn’t pay well.

After childbearing, my friends were taking aerobics classes. I did, too, and I became an instructor. But, I also studied Tae Kwon Do at the same time.

Even my choice in a car isn’t easy. I drive a manual transmission (always have) and have no automatic locks – I still crank my windows up and down.

When I turn my attention to leisure, I am consistent. While everyone else was taking up the ukulele, the musical instrument I decided to learn in my short-lived retirement was the violin. When I grew tired of reading books, I wrote one of my own. When the offering of local Meet-up groups didn’t suit me, I organized one myself. I truly believe that I was given the confidence to do these things by the experiences I had previously. When you’re not afraid of trying, nothing is out of reach.

Sometimes, I reflect and think about how things might have been different. When my marriages ended, I could have fought harder to stay in my home. But I needed to find my independence and buying – and later selling – my own house was cathartic. I have no regrets. Taking the difficult road has resulted in my being more fully engaged in my life. It has given me skills with which to deal with tough times and loss. I have a strong sense of self reliance. I do not fracture easily under the weight of everyday trials and tribulations. Or, if I do, the comeback is stronger than the setback. I am practical, realistic and honest (some would say, to a fault).

It helps that I have been incredibly blessed: Good health, hard working parents, loving children, supportive friends and a functioning mind.

Now that I am growing older, I have made some concessions that were initially uncomfortable, but have turned out to be good decisions. I no longer have the pressures, nor the responsibilities, of owning property. I have weekly ‘lawn cowboys’ to keep things looking nice in the yard and central air conditioning to make me comfy inside.

I’m learning that taking the easy road has its advantages, like more time for learning new things or seeking new adventures. Instead of household chores, I am more available for new creative pursuits. Just last week, for example, Amazon delivered a brand new pair of adult-sized tap shoes!

I’ll never be the next Fred Astaire. But, who knows? Maybe my next car will have power windows!

“I planned each charted course

Each careful step along the byway

And more, much more than this

I did it my way”

Will the circle be unbroken?

If you’re at least as old as me, you might remember wearing a POW/MIA bracelet back in the early 1970s.I remember sending $3 and receiving mine thru the mail a couple of weeks later. His name was Fredric Mellor and he was from Rhode Island. I lived in Massachusetts at the time and was pleased that I had been assigned the task of holding hope for a fellow New Englander.

The years passed and the bracelet was lost, probably somewhere between moving to college, back again, then moving out when I got married. The Vietnam War ended. I was busy raising a family. The bracelet was gone. But, I always remembered his name and occasionally wondered if he had ever returned home.

Fast forward twenty years: In 1996, I met a man who was also a veteran of that awful war. His job was driving the traveling Moving Wall monument around the country. When he brought the Wall to Massachusetts, we spent time together. He educated me and reignited my passion for those who had been lost – especially those who had never been accounted for. Seeing Mellor’s name on that Wall touched me deeply. Ordering a replacement bracelet was easy and, with the click of my mouse, I soon had a brand new one bearing Mellor’s name. Modern convenience also led me to explore further. I learned that he remained MIA, among those men who never returned home to their families.

This time, I made sure the bracelet followed me during two subsequent moves, giving it a safe spot in my jewelry box. I didn’t wear it after my visits to the Moving Wall, but I’d see it whenever I went into the small, oak drawer and I’d say a little prayer for Mellor. He had started to feel like family and the fact that I had never known him mattered little. We were both Rhode Islanders now, which made me feel even more connected.

Now, another twenty years have passed. Thursday, I was waiting for my turn at the hairdresser’s. I picked up the latest edition of the local weekly paper that had been left on the empty seat next to me. Thumbing thru to pass the time, my eyes were drawn to an obituary that bore a familiar name. The headline read “Colonel Fredric M. Mellor.”

I was stunned. There was a photograph, finally putting a face to a name I had held close for nearly five decades. He was young, serious and handsome in his US Air Force uniform. His eyes were filled with pride, ambition and determination. Mellor was the first Rhode Island casualty of the war in Vietnam. He was a pilot. He was killed in action in 1965, about six years before I first wore his bracelet.

And he was finally coming home.

The article documented an impressive career. Mellor served his country well, enlisting as a radio operator but quickly applying for pilot training because he had always loved airplanes. He had earned a Bachelor’s degree in Military Science. On August 13, 1965, he was flying the lead aircraft on a mission to conduct photo reconnaissance of a suspected missile site in the Republic of Vietnam. He crashed due to hostile ground fire and he survived ejection from the plane, establishing radio contact as he tried to escape the enemy. But, contact was lost. Despite a two-day search, neither Mellor nor his aircraft were found.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Valor and the Purple Heart medal, among others. But the fact that struck me hardest was that he had married and had a daughter before being deployed for active duty in Vietnam. She would probably have been a toddler when her father disappeared. She’d be in her fifties today. I wondered if she could even remember him. His parents and a brother were no longer living. Somehow, he felt even more like family now.

Mellor’s remains were recovered and identified on July 13, 2018, exactly one month shy of the 53rd anniversary of his death. He is expected to be received in Rhode Island September 26th with military honors. I’m planning to be there to welcome him home.

————

*As of June 20, 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel, US Military and Civilian personnel still unaccounted for totalled 1,597.

Blessed

I sat looking around the table, gazing at these ten women who are my friends. Conversation ebbed and flowed, mostly including the entire group but occasionally breaking off into more intimate exchanges between two or three. I thought to myself, “How did I get so lucky?” I was surrounded by fierce, amazing women who are loving and caring and genuine. They have known me since we were 18 years old – another lifetime, really – Before cable television, VCRs, cell phones or the Internet. More importantly, before marriages, divorces, children, grandchildren. Before our parents became old and died, before our spouses got sick or died suddenly or left us to fight wars. Before careers that fulfilled, disappointed, ended. The ties that bind us have survived all of that, in addition to our own personal growing pains and an often unforgiving aging process.

Life moves forward and people change. Yet, we are as close as we have ever been. We meet a few times during the year but only once as a full group, without significant others or the pressure of time. For three days, we talk and share and laugh and, sometimes, cry. I learn so much from them. This pool of information, experience and wisdom is better than Google, encyclopedia Britannica and PBS combined.

I sat in awe.

Then, it was Saturday night. We put aside the heavy stuff and the board games. After a full day of feeding each other breakfast, packing a picnic lunch, hanging at the beach and making dinner, we set up a makeshift stage on the back deck. These smart, hard working, caring (and often exhausted) women entertained one another. With a three-day notice, each had put together a routine that included an original character, costume, dialog and song. We had props, music, giveaways and singalong lyrics. I laughed until I cried and I might have peed myself a little. It was a no-holes barred uproarious time, thanks to our prior agreement of no cameras. We returned to a pre-Facebook time when we could let ourselves be inappropriately raunchy, politically incorrect and, well, downright sacreligious.

It was amazing.

On Sunday, we said our goodbyes, commenting how quickly the time went and making promises to do it again, perhaps before another year escapes us. We returned to caring for our grandchildren, our aging parents, our homes and our jobs. We are teachers, nurses, social workers, fundraisers, coaches, caregivers. We are wives, mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters. And, in the midst of all of that, we are friends. It’s a role that often falls by the wayside as our lives go in different directions and we juggle to balance all of those things. Despite ourselves, our bond grows stronger with time. They have been part of my life for 44 years. We are unique. We are incredible. We are phenomenal.

And, I am blessed.

Summertime

Pink skin, freckled noses

Ponytails and blooming roses

Wet towels on the porch rail

Seashells in a sandy pail

Bare feet, shady trees

Bee stings and skinned knees

Scent of woodsmoke and charcoal

Lazy days, good for my soul

Sparklers and ice cream

Fireflies and moonbeams

Picnic blanket in the grass

Cottony clouds that slowly pass

Bike rides and baseball caps

Lemonade and mid-day naps

Stay out late because we can

Then sleep beneath a ceiling fan

Popsicles and swimming pools

Sprinklers for keeping cool

Thunderstorms, another reason

Summer is my favorite season