The Worst Day Of My Life

The single thing that I’ve dreaded most since my mother’s stroke has come to pass.  We transferred her to a skilled nursing facility.

I thought I was prepared for having her in the nursing home, but I completely fell apart.  The feelings of guilt, shame, and defeat about not being able to care for her at home just overwhelmed me.  After nearly four months of struggling through, I was right back to the worst case scenario we were trying desperately to avoid right after she had the stroke.

After migrating between the rehab and the hospital several times and, finally, going to a hospice house, it seemed that death was not imminent for my mother.  It was also clear that she really was not going to get better. Truthfully, she has been declining since her first rehospitalization after the stroke.  She did pretty well in rehab the first month after the attack, but appeared to start on a downhill road when she went back into the hospital for some auxiliary issues.  That road included several moves between the hospital and rehab facility.  That road was pitted with many physical, emotional, and mental obstacles.  While the doctors were able to stabilize the physical obstacles, her ability to process thoughts and communicate seemed to be fading away.

It appears that she continues to suffer from stroke-related language and cognitive impairment.  This is fairly common in stroke patients and, given my mother’s particular set of circumstances, it is likely that it will get worse over time.  It is similar to Alzheimer’s Disease, except that the cause and progression of the condition are different.  The condition can cause death, but usually the patient passes from something else first.

By the time she went to the hospice house, the medical staff believed that the combination of the obstacles she was fighting would prove to be too massive for her to overcome.  They believed it was likely that she would pass within a few days or weeks.  However, something clicked in my mom’s brain, and she started to adjust to her condition.  The hospice staff changed the prognosis.  They still believe her condition is terminal and they are still going to provide supportive care, but they no longer believe she is in her last days.  Because the actual hospice house is only intended for patients in the last stages of death whose symptoms cannot be managed in a “regular” (home, nursing home, assisted living, etc.) setting, the staff reluctantly advised me that it was time to find a longer-term residence for her.

Before she went to the hospice house, I worked with staff from what I call an “assisted living plus” facility.  It is an assisted living facility with additional medical certifications that allow them to provide a higher level of care than most places.  For most of my mother’s illness, our goal had been to get her strong enough to be able to live there.  It seemed an ideal answer. It would be like she was living in a little apartment of her own, with privacy and as much independence as she wanted and could manage.  Unfortunately, by the time she was facing release from the hospital for the last time, the assisted living facility staff evaluated her status and found that her needs were just too far beyond what even they could handle.

Kicking and screaming, I started looking at skilled nursing facilities.  This is a tricky matter for many reasons, but one of the most difficult to manage is the fact that many nursing facilities operate at full capacity. They have lengthy waiting lists.  In evaluating the residences, I had to balance quality ratings from Medicare, online reviews, my own observations on visits, availability, and proximity to my home.  Of course, the facilities with the highest ratings were also the ones with the lowest availability.  I ultimately picked one that seemed okay, had reasonably good ratings and reviews, and had availability.  An added bonus was that the facility is very close to my home.

When I checked on my mother once she was at the new place, she seemed okay… calm and content.  I was far from okay.  The residence was not bright and shiny and new.  The neighborhood wasn’t affluent.  At times, I could hear other residents crying and yelling.  Some of the other patients were holding stuffed toys or baby dolls, clearly convinced that these objects were real.  I’ve always said that, wherever my mom ended up, I hoped she would have a quality of life approximating or at least reflecting what her life was about when she was living it fully.  I wanted her to be in a setting that would help her form a social network with people who could become friends.  I didn’t want her to be the most able person and be surrounded by people living shadow lives.  I thought that would depress her and lead her down the same shaky path.  Now, I was leaving her in a place where she was living with people in just the situation I dreaded.  Unfortunately, the gut-crusher is that she became one of those people before she ever got to the nursing facility. In fact, I’ve learned that it isn’t so much that people who live in nursing homes have a severely reduced quality of life.  It is more the reverse.  People who have a severely reduced quality of life move to nursing homes.

Paradoxically, part of the sadness and guilt over placing my mother in the nursing home comes from the fact that my mother’s cognitive and language skills seemed to improve somewhat over the past couple of days before the move. Originally, I didn’t feel quite so bad about the nursing home because my mother seemed to be withdrawing from the external world- not being very communicative or alert.  Everything I read about hospice talked about this withdrawal as being typical when people approach the end of life. The way she was withdrawing and sleeping so much, it didn’t seem to matter too much where she was.  As long as it was clean and safe and met her basic needs and I was there frequently, I didn’t think it was going to make much difference to her.  Then, just as the hospice people were getting ready to transfer her to a nursing home, she started consuming a bit more fluid and nourishment, staying awake much more of the time, and talking more clearly about more sophisticated ideas than she had since the stroke.  I was almost sorry because it made the move to the nursing home seem worse.

Still, as time goes on, I am encouraged.  My mother is truly only experiencing the tiniest sliver of the quality of life she enjoyed before the stroke.  However, she continues to seem content, comfortable, and reasonably happy at the nursing home. Her cognitive and language skills are spotty, but I appreciate that there have been times when I’ve been able to communicate with a person who really did seem like my mom again. Because the nursing home is the longer term living situation, a lot of things are easier… both for my mother and for me.  The health care professionals are very responsive and practical.  The administrative side of the operation has been helpful and understanding.  Between the nursing home staff and the hospice folks that work with them, they are finding ways to make my mom’s life more comfortable.  They spend time with her.  They talk with her.  They are truly caring.  On the other hand, they respect her wishes and don’t bother her by pushing her to do things she doesn’t want to do.

Maybe the most important factor in my journey towards acceptance of this new reality is that my role as caretaker is changing now.  Since the medical staff is pretty much on the same page as my mother and me as to the type of care she wants, I have to fight fewer battles as her advocate.  Since she is now where she is going to be for whatever time God has left for her in this world, I don’t have to keep analyzing different residential options.  I’ve retained a law firm to help me with the financial burden and I’m working through the administrative issues more methodically, so I find I am spending less time and energy on those problems.  My caregiving is now much more about just being with my mom, showing her I love her, and letting her love me.

Since my mother has been in the skilled nursing facility, I get to be just a daughter again.  That has been the best unexpected positive result…. Of the worst day of my life.

My mother has been in the skilled nursing facility for about two months now.  All things considered, everything is going okay.  My mom seems reasonably chipper and content.  I am with her at least six days a week.  I can’t completely shake the sadness and guilt, but I’m holding it at bay most of the time.  My current challenge is finding new ways to communicate and engage her as her language disappears and her thinking becomes more muddled.  Anyone have any ideas for me?  I’d appreciate any suggestions!  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a loving day!

Terri 🙂

Happy Heart Day

When I was working, I learned about “skinny” words and “fat” words. Fat words have multiple meanings and are stuffed with connotations, making them subject to many different interpretations. Skinny words are direct, concrete, and specific.  A fundamental concept of leadership is that, when giving direction, it is better to use skinny words. They tend to reduce confusion and are more likely to result in the desired outcome.

Now that I am writing a blog and not managing people, I am less interested in reaching a specific desired outcome. I’m more interested in suggesting ideas and stimulating thought. I’m renewing my relationship with words of all body types. I find that, when used deliberately, fat words can be evocative and effective.

“Heart” is one of those delightfully pudgy words. It just about explodes with meaning, memory, and feeling for most of us. We can easily identify many meanings for “heart.” I’d like to explore just a few of them on this Valentine’s Day.

First, we have the most literal meaning of the word. Our hearts keep our bodies going. They pump our life’s blood to the farthest reaches of our physical beings so that all our necessary organs have the energy to do their vital jobs.  Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. We do cardio exercise to reduce our risk. We scan the grocery store shelves looking for foods high in antioxidants to strengthen our hearts. We try to embrace low fat diets to minimize those pesky plaque deposits that can creep into our hearts’ highways through the body. Does it strike anyone else that it is pretty ironic that rich, high fat chocolates come in heart-shaped boxes? Of course, heart-shaped…. isn’t. Actually, the heart is shaped more like a fist, which, when I really think about it, is a bit disconcerting.

The beleaguered baseball players in the play Damn Yankees tell us ya gotta have heart. Miles and miles of it.  I don’t know if we need miles and miles of it, but it is clearly true that a body needs a heart, in the most literal sense. Without that vital organ pumping away inside my chest, I have no life. On the other hand, without heart, I may have a life, but I may not be really living it. The heart about which our musical friends are belting is determination, persistence in the face of adversity, grace under pressure, and courage. Heart is what makes us root for the underdog. Heart is what enables us to do the things we believe we must do even when they seem impossible.

Which brings us to the “heart” metaphor most associated with Valentine’s Day- love. Heart means romance, but also love of all kinds.  At this time of year, pink, red, and white hearts scatter all over everything. Flower and jewelry sales skyrocket. There is a certain pressure to put love on a pedestal and admire it from afar. In reality, though heartfelt love is up close and personal. It is a participation, not a spectator, sport.

A loving heart often requires deliberate decision making about what actions we take in life. When we decide to live a life of heartfelt love, we are deciding to view everything that happens to us and everyone we encounter through a lens of love. Love is not rationed. Loving one person does not reduce our capacity to love others. In fact, it increases it. Exercising our love muscles strengthens our ability to love, just as cardio exercise strengthens our literal heart muscles. As we become more adept at loving, we won’t love everybody the same way but we will love everybody better. Love involves both giving and receiving. It isn’t always easy or comfortable to do either. Sometimes, it almost seems impossible. To live with a heart full of love is the most beautiful way to live.  That sort of life is as filled with meaning as that lusciously chubby “heart” word itself.”  Living a life with a heartful of love is not for the faint-hearted. It requires that other kind of heart… the Damn Yankees kind of heart.

Have a Happy Heart Day, both literally and figuratively.  At the heart of the matter, I wish you health, courage, and love. Oh, and have one or two of those rich, high fat chocolates that come in the heart-shaped box.  Maybe just stick to the dark chocolate ones, though.  All those antioxidants, you know!

I do realize that Valentine’s Day was actually yesterday…. but don’t you think today is still a great day to think about what is in our hearts?  Now it’s your turn!  What do you think of when you hear the word “heart?”  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can send me an email at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a heart-y day!

Terri 🙂

 

Food For Thought

When I was diagnosed with diabetes in 2001, I made drastic changes to my eating habits.  I vigilantly read labels and minimized the number of carbohydrate grams I allowed to pass my lips.  It was an exhausting process.  In the beginning, it felt like everything was off limits and I was always hungry.  I have memories of bursting into tears in the freezer aisle of the grocery store when I learned that sugar-free fudge pops did, in fact, contain a few grams of carbohydrates.  It seemed like the last straw, if I couldn’t even eat sugar-free food.  I soon learned how to balance what I ate and work within a reasonable diet.  It still wasn’t easy, but I found I could manage my disease to prevent long-term damage without starving to death.  Between diet, exercise, and oral medication, I stabilized my blood sugar levels and lost about 70 pounds over about a year and a half.

After losing this weight, I was not able to roust my still-overweight body off that plateau. It was discouraging.  Also, life happened.  I got a new job.  The time I spent working and commuting every day increased significantly.  Since time is a finite quantity, I had to find the extra time I needed for the job somewhere.  I basically supplemented my job-related time by decreasing my sleeping time.  Somehow, sleep seemed discretionary to my addled brain.  The stress in my life increased.  I found myself eating too much of the wrong foods and exercising less and less.  I still did a pretty good job of controlling my blood sugar levels, but regained about half the weight I lost.

When I was working, meals were catch-as-catch-can affairs.  I rarely had time to stop and breathe and think, much less eat properly.  Typically, I would just push and push over the course of a day, going from one task to another conference call to someone waiting to talk to me until I was about to drop.  When people with diabetes don’t eat or eat foods that contain lots of carbohydrates and minimal protein, blood sugar levels make their displeasure known.  My blood sugar often protested my neglect by plummeting.  There is a physical sensation when this happens.  It feels a lot like panic. One feels a compulsion to eat everything and anything in sight to keep from losing consciousness.  I am not sure if I actually would have fainted in those moments, but my body certainly felt as if I would.  When this happened, I would stuff any food available into my mouth until I could feel the sugar coursing through my veins, which dissipated the panic.

When I retired, I did want to improve my health-related habits.  I did begin exercising more and more.  I ate better, partly because I just had more time and access to better food.  When I am home, it is easier to go to the refrigerator and fix myself a healthy, appealing meal.  Also, I found I wasn’t craving garbage food as much. Maybe the correlation between the need for comfort and for food decreased.  When you are working like a madwoman and can feel the unpleasant sensation of adrenaline forcing itself through your body on its way to exploding out of your brain on a regular basis, it kind of makes sense to grab the quickest, easiest, most immediate distraction you can.  Donuts and French fries might be bad long-term choices, but they are pretty effective immediate distractions.  Once I slowed the pace of my life, I needed that distraction less.  I also had more intervention time to remind myself that whatever food I was tempted to eat rarely tasted as good as I thought it would.  At any rate, between the increased exercise and the better food choices, I lost almost all the weight I regained.

It is nice that I’ve lost this weight.  I feel great.  On the other hand, I’m back to the point where I originally started going off track.  I’ve plateaued and am getting discouraged.  I do believe that most of my progress since I retired has been due to the increased exercise.   I have the sneaky feeling that, to lose any more weight and continue to keep my blood sugar levels under control, I’m going to have to take more drastic dietary measures than just slightly decreasing my consumption of high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods.

It is a struggle because I don’t want to feel deprived.  I remember the feeling of deprivation I used to have when I first diagnosed. The feeling resembled despair.  I felt hollow and foggy most of the time.  I could put up with it, as long as I was seeing tangible results.  As long as I lost weight, I could keep plugging along.  Once I hit the point where the sacrifice resulted in nothing more than the status quo, I couldn’t seem to continue. It is also difficult because I eat like a four-year-old.  I’ve always been an incredibly picky eater.  Chances are, if a four-year-old won’t eat it, neither will I.  That kind of limits my options as to what I will eat.  Chicken fingers, french fries, spaghetti and meatballs, and ice cream typically don’t constitute a healthy diet.

I suspect that part of my problem is that I have some pretty odd beliefs about food.  I know that I have to challenge these beliefs in order to feel satisfied with a healthier diet.    Here are some of the weird beliefs that lurk in my brain:

  • I believe that when I have an opportunity to eat something yummy, I should eat it because I may never get the chance again. Never mind that there is a McDonald’s on every street corner and french fries practically grow on trees.
  • I believe the term “ambrosia salad” is an oxymoron. Ambrosia was the food of the gods.  I just can’t conceive that the gods were eating any kind of salad. Ice cream sundaes, maybe, but not salads.   I mean, salads are fine, but they don’t have the panache necessary to nourish the gods.  Or me, for that matter.
  • I believe that anything I eat at Disney World doesn’t count. Two words.  Pixie dust.  Need I say more?
  • I believe bread is a health food. A mental health food.  I firmly believe that, if I go long enough without bread, I will suffer a psychotic break.
  • I believe peanut butter is an entrée. Oddly enough, my endocrinologist is fine with me consuming peanut butter for dinner. Apparently, organic peanut butter is an excellent source of protein. The problem is that, because it has fairly high fat content, it isn’t a good idea to eat three ounces of it, the way one would eat three ounces of chicken or fish or beef.
  • I believe I must eat gingerbread on at least four separate occasions in November and December or Christmas will not come.

I know that these notions may seem comical. Some part of my brain actually does believe them, however.  More importantly, I think that portion of my brain likes believing them and doesn’t want to give them up.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m not sure I want food that is completely devoid of whimsy, fun, and sensuality.

People tell me that it is possible to retain some element of joyfulness in one’s diet while still eating sensibly and losing weight.  I’m not sure if I believe that or not.  Yes, at times in my journey, I have managed to find some semblance of balance.  On the other hand, I always seem to end up back where I am now- overweight and plateaued.  It probably isn’t realistic to think that I am ever going to be the poster child for healthy eating.  And maybe that is okay.  Maybe the goal should just be incremental improvement or even just maintaining the status quo, which is actually not too bad.

Maybe the problem isn’t all those comical food-related notions I have.  Maybe the problem is the other belief I hide in the dingiest corner of my brain.  I believe that my eating habits and weight are shameful.  I know that positive messages (like “bread is a health food”) are more likely to motivate action than negative ones (like “you should be ashamed of yourself for eating that”).  Perhaps, if I could just find a way to be kind to myself about myself all the time, I could banish that negative message that I work so hard to shove into a corner.  If I could just create more positive messages that reinforce the changes I want to make instead of reinforcing the not-so-healthy habits I already have, I might have better luck.

What do you think?  Why do so many of us have such complicated relationships with food?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com. 

Have a healthy day!

Terri 🙂

Choices

As my mother bounced from hospital to rehab to hospital to rehab to hospital to rehab and back to hospital again, she became more and more frustrated.  As she fought one infection after another, she became weaker and weaker.  As medical professionals persisted in employing all manner of tests, procedures, and surgeries to try to extend her life, despite only a tiny possibility of success, she became more frail and more sad. She knew there was very little anyone could do to increase the time she has left.  She could also feel the quality of that remaining life spiraling downward each day.  

Most people will tell you they wouldn’t want to undergo any extraordinary or invasive measures if they were in my mother’s condition.  It isn’t as simple as that sounds.  The trick is in defining “extraordinary and invasive measures.”  By the time my mom was in the hospital for the last time, nearly everything qualified as invasive from her perspective.  And her perspective is really the only one that matters.  She didn’t want any more hospitalizations, surgeries, medical tests, or IV lines.  She didn’t want to move out of bed or do therapy.  She certainly didn’t want a feeding tube or, even, to be badgered to eat when she didn’t feel like it.  Sometimes, people feel like this because of depression and that depression can be managed with medication.  In my mother’s case, it felt more like she just wanted to be comfortable.  For whatever time she had left, she wanted to be able to decide not to put herself through anything that she found painful, uncomfortable, or annoying. 

It wasn’t easy getting to this point.  Because of the stroke, it is sometimes difficult to understand what my mom is thinking and feeling.  Her language is definitely limited and she is very hard to understand.  At times, it seems certain that she is thinking clearly, even if she cannot express herself very well.  At other times, it seems like her cognitive ability is impaired as well.  In addition, it was difficult for me to find the place in my mind and heart where I could let go of what I wanted and concentrate on figuring out what my mother wanted.  I considered what I know of my mother’s views from before she had the stroke.  We had numerous sad, cobbled conversations about life and death after the stroke. I am pretty sure I understand what she wants.  She chooses to let go of trying to get “cured” and live whatever time she has left with comfort and some modicum of control. 

As difficult as it was for me to face this crossroad and as difficult as it was for my mother to come to this choice, it is even more difficult to convince the medical system to let go of “cures.”  Fighting this battle requires clarity of mind, courage of conviction, and persistence.  Take it from someone who could barely articulate the choice without crying.  You will probably have to cry often and painfully if you are trying to help a loved one free herself of unwanted, invasive medical procedures.  This is especially true when the loved one has a disease that isn’t causing unbearable physical pain and doesn’t have a clear, common progression towards death in the immediate future.   

I don’t really blame the medical establishment.  Hospitals, rehab facilities, and most doctors are charged with curing and preventing the risk of further damage. They have legal liability if they don’t do everything possible to try to “cure.”  Their collective mindset is to look at the patient as a problem to be solved.  They will usually keep trying to think of something else to do, some other medication to try, some different procedure with which to tinker… just in case something will help.  If one thing doesn’t work, they try something else.  If you have decided to forgo the small chance of a “cure” in order to have peace in whatever time you have left, you will likely have to repeat and argue your position over and over again with the mainstream medical professionals. Working with most medical professionals in that situation is rather like employing a dance instructor when all you really want to do is buy tickets to a ballet… and the dance instructor finds it morally repugnant that you don’t want to don a tutu.   

You may think that the answer is simply to stop engaging with doctors and other medical professionals.  That might be an effective strategy but for one reality.  By the time most people are ready to stop fighting for life at any cost, they also need medical professionals to help with symptom management and assistance with activities of daily living.  

Just when I thought I could not articulate my mother’s wish to refuse any more medical intervention one more time, one of the doctors at the hospital mentioned “hospice.”  He was pretty judge-y about her choice and made me feel horrible discussing it. At least, though, he led me to the proper vehicle for implementing it.   Apparently, identifying an individual as a “hospice patient” helps to indemnify the doctors, hospitals, etc. against litigation.  It is the formal way a patient and her family to go “on record” as not expecting the medical folks to try to extend life. It gives permission to change the focus of the care from “cure” to “comfort.”   

When someone mentions “hospice,” it often feels sad and defeated and scary.  People tend to think it means the end of a life.  It certainly can.  Hearing the word “hospice” did feel like someone was prying a chunk of my heart out with a hot knife. Still, when I was able to wrap my mind around the idea, the hospice counselors were a huge help in explaining the program, giving me an idea of what to expect, and validating that the choice we were making was a morally valid option. 

Hospice care is usually available for people expected to pass within the next six months, but no one ever really knows for sure how much time anyone has left. In my mother’s case, the choice to embrace the hospice path means something quite different than a choice to let go of life.  It means a choice to stop struggling.  It means a choice to live the rest of her life on her own terms.  It means a choice to spend her time engaging with her loved ones.  It means a choice for freedom to spend the rest of her life in comfort and dignity.  It is a choice for peace.

Does anyone else have a similar experience that they would like to share?  It might help someone else who has to go through a difficult time.  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Terri

A Crisis of Church

I think I may be gearing up to make another major life change. 

I don’t think I am having a crisis of faith.  I think I believe what I’ve always believed.  I believe the Bible is truth, although it may or may not be always factual.  After all, wasn’t Jesus often inclined to use stories to teach His truths? I believe in one God, in three forms- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I believe that I am a child of God and that I live within the grace of His embrace.  I believe that Jesus is my Savior.  I am committed, with the strength of the Holy Spirit, to living in a way that glorifies God and demonstrates the love of Christ.  I believe I am called to live an ordinary life with extraordinary love, in the name of Jesus. I believe that, in addition to my Christian obligation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the secret to being my happiest, most authentic self is to model faith, hope, and love in all I do.  I believe I have often failed to live in such a way and that I will continue to fail.  I also believe that God always forgives me, because He loves me just that much.  I believe He will use all things, including my failures, to teach and strengthen me so that I may be ever better. 

So the problem isn’t really faith.  I would say it is more that I am having a crisis of church.   

I grew up Catholic.  For most of my life, I believed I would always be Catholic. The Catholic Church felt like home for my faith.  Over the past several years, my certainty that I would always be Catholic has faded.  There have been several times when my connection with Catholicism has cracked and worn very thin.  

During the priest sex abuse scandals, my loyalty wavered, almost to the point of disintegration.  In my own life, I had a connection with three different priests accused of molesting children. By their own admission many years after the fact, these men were guilty of sexual behavior that harmed children.   It was difficult to continue to believe in the goodness of my chosen church at that time.  Still, I reasoned that it might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater to leave the church over the actions of some priests and church administrators.  It also felt somehow disloyal to consider leaving my church home in its darkest days.  I knew many good, brave priests who worked hard, despite public vilification, to shepherd their people through hard times.  I reasoned that, regardless of what some individuals had done, my faith still felt fed by the liturgies and sacraments and fellowship in my parish.   

Then, a daughter of one of my best friends was getting married.  The family was Catholic. The daughter and her fiancé went to the required pre-marital counseling with a priest at their home parish. The pre-marital counseling basically consisted of the priest advising them not to marry…. solely because the parents of the fiancé were divorced.  Instead of just advising them of the possible pitfalls, helping them develop tools to create a strong marriage, and celebrating their love, the Church- in the person of this priest- discouraged the couple… from Catholicism.  The couple married outside the church.  They have now been happily married for almost ten years and have two beautiful children.  This experience bothered me, but, again, I thought of it as the actions of a particular priest and not necessarily a reflection on the policy of the larger Catholic Church. 

I began to feel even more disconnected from the Catholic Church when I found that, more and more often, preaching about social justice issues became preaching about political issues. I understand that how we behave and what we do to help others are vital issues for Christians.  I also understand, after spending a lot of time in thought, study, and prayer, that social justice and moral issues are rarely as definitive as we would like them to be.  When we act, the consequences of our actions are often wide-reaching and unexpected, in both positive and negative ways.  Moral dilemmas are called moral dilemmas because they are complicated.  I began to feel that the Church was ignoring the complications and preaching societal mandates with no consideration of the various layers of implication and how to address them.  First of all, men must change before kings must change so I’m not sure that preaching for political agendas is what Christ had in mind.  Secondly, it felt like preachers were implying that the Christianity of anyone who felt differently must be suspect.  I think a good preacher can and should challenge a Christian to ask herself if she is living as Christ would have her live, but not presume to know exactly what that life should look like.   

When we were getting ready to move, I thought it might be a good time to consider other Christian denominations instead of registering at the Catholic parish in my new town.  I did some research on the internet, but my gut objected rather strenuously.  When we moved, I did start going to the Catholic church and felt happy with that decision.  I felt fed there. The Catholic church provided me a sense of stability and home that comforted me as I navigated all the changes in my new life. 

Last Sunday, something else happened… probably the “something” that is going to send me looking for another church.  The priest started his homily by telling the congregation that he recently received an invitation to a family member’s wedding, but was adamant that he would not be going because the couple in question were both women.  I don’t think my reaction was spurred so much by the fact that the priest believed that homosexual behavior is outside God’s law.  I think a reasonable, prayerful Christian could legitimately deduce that gay marriage is morally wrong.   Personally, I see the scriptural concern with it but also think we might need to explore the issue from a wider perspective.  I think we might need to consider other scholarly interpretations.  I also think that just proclaiming homosexuality wrong does not fulfill our duty.  Even if we believe that the Church cannot legitimately bless a gay marriage, does that mean that we must deny compassion to approximately 10% of God’s family?  Are there other options, outside of proclaiming gay marriage to be scripturally acceptable, that would allow civil and legal rights for partners who are not sacramentally married?   My biggest problem with the homilist was that he was so certain that his position was correct and, however limited, sufficient. Certain to the point of smugness, it seemed to me.  Not only was he telling the congregation what his position was, he was telling us that his position represented the only truly acceptable position for a good Christian.   

You could argue that all of these incidents represented the behavior of some human beings within the Church and do not necessarily reflect the totality of the faith.  You would be right.  Also, none of these incidents except the clergy sex abuse scandals are really big deals in and of themselves.  The thing is, I always believe people should attend Christian worship services to help lift up their souls.  Even when I was working in the church initiation program for people thinking about becoming Catholic, I told them, “You should go where your soul feels fed.”  All I know is, in that moment when the homilist started rolling his eyes about the invitation he received to his family member’s wedding, I felt fed up instead of fed.  

Now the journey begins.  I don’t know if I will find the spiritual nourishment that I crave in another Christian denomination, if I will eventually find my way back to the familiar Church that has been home all my life, or if I will go my own way for a time.  I only know that God will lead me and that I will be listening for His call.  

Have any of you moved on from the church of your childhood?  What drove that decision for you and how has the change worked for you?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can send me an email at terriretirement@gmail.com.

Have a  blessed day!

Terri 🙂

Force of Habit

We tend to think of habits as bad things, like smoking or saying “you know” incessantly.  Our new year’s resolutions often focus on these bad habits and strategies we can employ to break them.

At their most elemental level, however, habits can actually be handy tools to help us manage all the tasks and information we must navigate to live in our complex modern day world.  They act much like shortcuts on a computer desktop.  With one mental click, habits get us where we need to be.  Habits complete tasks efficiently that, without those habits, would take several more mental clicks to accomplish.  For instance, how many of us, when we come to a red light, go through the following mental process?

  • A red light means I must stop the car.
  • I must take my right foot off the accelerator pedal.
  • I must move my right foot to the brake pedal.
  • I must push the brake pedal with my right foot.
  • I must keep pressure on the brake pedal until the light turns green.

No.  I’d venture to bet that, for most of us, the concept of braking when we see a red light is so habitual, we are able to stop the car almost unconsciously when we see a red light.  This braking habit saves us mental energy and, arguably, even makes us safer drivers.

You may argue that our brains can complete the above braking analysis so quickly that not much is gained in the habit process. The fact is, though, that our habits take us on so many of these shortcuts, the cumulative benefit can certainly be significant.

Recently, something happened at my water aerobics class that reminded me of this.  Several months ago, the turbo-charged octogenarian who teaches the class broke her ankle.  She was not able to teach the class.  The usual substitute teacher also had some serious medical issues keeping her away from the pool.  Another lady, Mary, had been attending the class, doing the same routine of exercises, for more than a decade.  She generously agreed to take over the leadership responsibilities.

Everything went well until the day Mary didn’t show up for class.  All of a sudden, there were a dozen people calling out bits and pieces of direction.  Everyone seemed to be communicating a different order of the exercises.  No one was in charge and everyone was in charge.  We were all spinning about, listing around in the water, doing some version of the exercises most of us have been doing between one and three times a week for years.  We looked like an aquatic version of the keystone cops.  While I contend that it really doesn’t make a lot of difference what particular actions we do during water aerobics class as long as we are moving, the chaotic spectacle we presented that day was still a bit alarming.  To say nothing of the danger of drowning.

When I arrived at the pool for the next scheduled class, I was the only one present.  I checked the clock and saw that it was only about ten minutes before start time.  Normally, there are several people paddling about in the water by that time.  I wondered if I had somehow missed the memo that class was cancelled for some reason.  I figured, as long as I had roused myself from bed and was already there, I might as well try to go through the routine on my own.  After all, I could hardly do worse than in our previous class led by the Committee of Confusion.

Before long, a few more people wandered onto the pool deck, but it was obvious that the last session’s debacle had motivated the majority of water babies to stay home and wait it out until they heard through the grapevine that Mary was back.  Mary still had not appeared just a few minutes before the class was scheduled to begin.  One of our few regular gentleman participants, Bob, stepped gingerly out of the locker room.  Our male attendees are, for the most part, an extremely quiet bunch.  They are faithful and disciplined in their approach to the class.  They tend to huddle together and plow ahead with each exercise, trying to ignore the din of female chattering invading towards them from the other end of the pool.  You would think, given the attention that these guys actually pay to what they are doing, one of them would be a fine candidate to take the rest of us dilettantes in hand.    Bob, however, is a pretty reserved, introverted kind of guy.  I am convinced that he has lived in fear of being pressured to lead the class ever since our go-to gal broke her ankle.  I get it because I feel the same way.   I watched Bob scan the attendance in the pool, desperately looking for Mary.  Not seeing her, he took an instinctive step back, obviously getting ready to make a break for it back into the men’s locker room where he would be safe from pursuit.

Just as I saw Bob flinch towards the locker room, Mary appeared.  We were safe from disorderly water aerobic conduct!  Bob visibly relaxed and got into the pool.  Mary started the class in the familiar way and we were off to the races.  The entire atmosphere of tension disappeared and we began to move about the pool with more dignity and grace than the previous session.  We were all doing pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time.  Maybe we didn’t look like the Russian synchronized swimming team, but we were at least managing to do water jumping jacks without causing a five-person pile-up in the shallow end of the pool.  I smiled to myself and thought, “I’m so glad Mary is back and we have a leader to make sure we keep on track.”  After all, I am that kind of person.  I don’t exactly belong in the men’s silent, disciplined huddle of water exercisers, but I get a little anxious when the chatter and disorganization of my side of the pool teeters from “fun” to “frenetic.”

I was so sure the improvement in the general flow and organization of the class was because Mary was there to give directions.  As the class continued, however, I realized something.  Mary was saying almost nothing.   She started us off and kept pushing rhythmically through the routine, but she was, in reality, giving no directions.  Even so, we were all happily hopping and bopping our way through the exercises in reasonable unison.

How was this happening?!  How could a bunch of people who could barely dodder through twenty minutes of forty-five minutes worth of exercises without a leader a couple of days earlier now whoosh through the entire class together, supplemented only by an almost silent leader? Then I realized Mary’s true leadership quality.  By eliminating the tension we experienced because of being leaderless, she allowed us to stop thinking and analyzing about what we were supposed to do.  Her calm presence gave us permission to just relax and replace the slower, less accurate thought processes with the power of the force of habit.

It is amazing how much more capable we can be WITHOUT thinking.

Do you have any activities that you are able to accomplish on “auto-pilot?”  Do you think you are more effective when you do them from “force of habit” or when you think more deliberately about what you are doing?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com. 

Have a great day!

Terri 🙂

Distance Lends Enchantment To The View. Or Not.

I struggled with writing this piece. The ideas seem to swirl around in my head without actually forming.  They tantalize, but, when it comes to pinning them down on paper, they morph and flit away.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it feels a bit disloyal or ungrateful to question whether or not what you did for a living for over 33 years really made a whit of difference in the general scheme of things.   

Recently, I was speaking with a friend of mine who is still working.  She was feeling a bit down in the dumps because of the way things were going on the job.  She despaired because she was working as hard as she could, but there didn’t really seem to be any progress or, for that matter, any goal.  She put out fires every day.  She knew, on some level, that she was doing something important.  What she didn’t know was whether anyone in her organization knew or cared what it was that she did.  One of the points she cited as evidence was the fact that she was still called by a title that had been obsolete for over a year. 

It may seem somewhat trivial to angst over a title.  However, the title issue begged a bigger question.  To my friend, the fact that the agency did not recognize that the title was incorrect made her wonder about her duties, responsibilities, and accomplishments.  Was the time and energy she was expending being invested in the right things? What was she really supposed to be accomplishing? Did the organization recognize and value what she had simply adopted as her new role, without benefit of direction, once the job originally associated with her obsolete title was done?  How was she to get support and championship for what she believed needed to be done on an organizational level, based on what she saw from her perspective?  And the biggest question…. could her considerable efforts result in any “big picture” change for the greater good?

I tried to be supportive and the conversation made me realize that I have undergone a huge metamorphosis since leaving the world of employment.   Yes, I have navigated probably hundreds of everyday changes in my life as I’ve transitioned into the retirement world.  However, as I explained to my friend, there is actually one change that dwarfs all of the rest of them.  My perspective of my job has undergone a massive overhaul.  I think, when some people retire, they tend to see the job they left behind through rosier lenses than what reality would suggest.  In my case, it was exactly the opposite.  In my rearview mirror, the job was considerably less important than I believed it was when I was occupying it. 

It isn’t that I think what I did was unimportant.  I do believe that I helped a lot of customers and employees.  I think, because of my understanding, technical expertise, and leadership, most of the people in my limited sphere of influence had a better experience in life than they would have had if I had not been there, at least for a little while.  I can recall some of my efforts that had relatively big, tangible, positive impact on a few specific people. That is enough to make me feel great about what I accomplished in my career.

On the other hand, I think much of what I did was largely symbolic.  I am as big a believer in symbolic victory as the next person, but I do like to think that symbolic victories open the door and pave the way for more substantive triumphs.  I don’t completely dismiss the possibility that there are one or two people out there who may have truly benefited, in a very real way, from my employment.  However, I think most of my value was in listening, talking to people in a respectful way, and framing ideas so that they made sense to the other person based on his or her mindset.  I do believe all that is important in that it keeps the world turning a little smoother, but, let’s face it…. It doesn’t really change the price of tea in China.  From a big picture standpoint, I was basically irrelevant.

When I think of the tears I shed, the nights I didn’t sleep, and the harshness with which I chastised myself as I went through my career, I am now amazed.  What I have learned since retiring is…. It isn’t that big a deal.  Shocking, I know.

When I was working at my job, my brain knew that there were many more important things in life than whether I was a career star. There were more important things than having terrific office metrics.  There were more important things than getting a refund to a customer a few days faster than it would happen without my intervention.  There were more important things than supporting the career and personal growth of my employees.  It wasn’t difficult for me to name some of those more important things… faith, ethics, family, relationships.   Still, at some gut-wrenching, adrenaline-producing, crazy-making level, there was an undeniable force that drove my every action, emotion, and response during my work life.  It was that force that propelled me close to despair when I was not successful, even momentarily, in any of the “not so important” things.

Yes, being good at my job was very important.  It was critical that I be good enough at it to keep it and make a living.  It was also essential, from an ethical and self-respect standpoint, that I did my best.  It was important that I justify the trust my leaders put in me and the salary that the people of the United States were paying me.   However, meeting or exceeding every person’s every expectation of me truly was not that important.  First of all, it isn’t even possible to go through life without disappointing someone once in a while.  Second, sometimes people asked me for things that were not legal or ethical or reasonable.  Third, and it has taken me some time to realize this, some of those people didn’t even expect me to meet those stated expectations.  People were sometimes communicating what they wanted in an ideal world, but knew that what they were requesting was not realistic in any world in which we all live.  Somehow, I internalized all those requests as a sacred mandate.  I felt actual shame when I had to tell someone I had not achieved what they wanted.

I tried to explain this revelation to my friend, hoping that it would help her deal with her current work crisis.  She, of course, agreed with everything I was saying.  Intellectually, we all know these basic truths.  Hearing me say them didn’t make any difference to my friend.  It wouldn’t have made any difference to me when I was working, either.

Why is it that it is so hard to put things in proper perspective when we are still working?  When we are in the midst of the fray, it is as if there is some biological imperative to do what we are being asked to do that somehow overwhelms the good sense with which we were born.  We surrender our brains to the mercy of an overheated sympathetic nervous system.  Some people are able to wrangle those adrenaline responses.  They are able to balance those biological “fight or flight” reactions with the power of their innate reasoning ability.  Passion versus dispassion.  I wish I could have mastered that skill.   I might still be working today, if I had.

People often think that I am a fairly cool customer.  I come across as a logical, reasonable individual.  I think things through, probably to a fault.  I plan and strategize. I tackle things one step at a time.  I used to say “hope is not a strategy” and relied on an abundance of hard work rather than talent to succeed.  I believed I would meet my goals if I, like Dory, “just keep on swimmin’.”   I was always more of a plow horse than a race horse.  I don’t think I ever really saw myself as passionate in my career life.

As I write this, it dawns on me that maybe I was more passionate about my job than I realized.  Maybe the reason I have had trouble making this blog piece sit still is because I miss my job a little more than I thought I did.  Or maybe not.  Passion does exact a price.

What do you think?  For those of you who are retired, what do you miss about your work?  If you are considering retirement, what do you think you will miss the most?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.  Have a wonderful day!

Terri 🙂

Stepping Up To The Plate

I am step-obsessed.

It all started when I got a new cell phone a few months after moving to Florida.  My cell phone was almost five years old, which is apparently unheard of in the modern world.  I never replaced the phone for two main reasons:

a)    I understood my phone and didn’t want to learn how to operate a new one.

b)    It was pink and I love pink.

Right after we moved, the old cell phone revolted.  I could hear the other person, but they often could not hear me.  I would have to traverse the outer limits of the front yard to try to find a small cell phone sweet spot.  Then, I would have to stand very still and scream into the phone to be heard.   It was incredibly annoying and drove me to tears of frustration more than once, especially before we had the land line installed.  You try calling the electric company to figure out why the power was not on in the house (despite said electric company’s insistence that it was) when they can only hear about every fourth word you say.  I’m sure I’m not the only one reduced to tears by the experience.

Because the problem occurred right after we moved, I blamed Florida for the reception of my cell company in our new area.  Since Max was getting decent reception and could be heard just fine with his cheapy prepaid cell phone, I realized I was paying a premium for not being heard on my considerably more expensive smart phone.  I decided I had to either go visit the cell phone company or become a hermit and cease contacting the outside world.

When I went to the phone company office, they explained to me that a five-year-old cell phone is basically a paperweight with a keypad.  Apparently, after some random period of time, the battery actually fails to charge.  The battery icon on the phone will look charged, but it doesn’t ever actually hold a charge.  The result is that you are always trying to make calls with a battery that is the rough equivalent of a phone you have after being lost in the woods for a few days.  Who knew?  Those of you who knew that cell phone batteries basically stop working after a couple of years, despite all appearances to the contrary, raise your hands.  So it is just me that didn’t know?  Okay, I can live with that, but why do they even have a little battery icon that looks charged if it is going to lie like a rug?

At any rate, I ended up buying a new cell phone and the kind man at the store made it work all nice and easy.  I immediately noticed how much better the new phone was.  Besides the fact that people could, you know, HEAR me when I called them, I now actually had great internet access.  I could easily and quickly connect to websites (don’t even get me started on the day I tried to buy Sea World tickets on the old phone as we stood outside the park- I ended up paying $50 more for the tickets than I had to because the stupid phone would not stay connected long enough for me to put in a credit card).  Email was fast and I could forward pictures by text or email without having to take a nap while I waited for them to send. I could check IMBD whenever I was at a movie or watching a tv show to figure out just where I had seen that familiar-looking guy before.  Any time anyone asked a random question, I pulled out my phone and googled.  I’ve always laughed at friends who seem addicted to their phones, but I was beginning to understand the appeal.

Then, I discovered apps.  To be honest, I had access to apps on my old phone.  I just never really figured out what my password was or how to add apps.  Now, with the nice man in the phone company office to help me, I was off to the races.  That is where the step obsession started.  It all started with a pedometer app. 

I’ve tried pedometers before without much success.  I’ve either forgotten to wear them or they looked ugly or they didn’t seem to monitor the steps correctly.  I’d seen commercials for the new breed of electronic pedometers, but they were fairly pricey and I wasn’t convinced that either the pedometer or I would work consistently enough to merit the cost.  I thought that perhaps the pedometer app, which was free, was worth a try. 

I’ve read that a good goal for walking is 10,000 steps per day.  When I first started using the pedometer app, I was somewhat demoralized to discover that a good day for me was about 2,000 steps.  Fortunately, before quitting in despair, I saw an article on the internet that said most people think they walk far more than they actually do.  It turns out that 2,000 steps are pretty typical for someone who isn’t necessarily trying to hit a particular goal.  I started working purposefully each day to increase my steps.  I began hitting the 10,000 fairly regularly quite soon.  After a few weeks of that, I read that the 10,000 step goal wasn’t exactly the gold standard of walking.  Because different people have different strides, 10,000 steps isn’t really any actual measure of anything.  I found that many articles recommended 5 miles a day as the goal, as opposed to 10,000 steps. 

Now, for many people, the 10,000 steps and the 5 miles are pretty much the same thing.  I, however, have very short legs and walk mostly inside the house in front of the television set (which necessitates shorter steps than walking over a long, uninterrupted stretch of road unless I wish to bump into walls and furniture).  For me 5 miles is usually around 11,000 steps.  What a rip-off.  Here I had been walking 10,000 steps a day in good faith for weeks, but was still a fitness failure!  I did not lose heart, though.  I increased my goal to 5 miles a day and found myself successful with little extra effort.  In fact, there were days when I was walking much more.  When we were on vacation, it was not unusual for me to walk 7-10 miles a day. 

Another really interesting thing about the pedometer app is that it measures the number of flights of stairs I climb in addition to the steps.  I don’t climb a lot of stairs.  After all, I live in a one-story house and Florida is the flattest state in the union.  I wasn’t even aware of the stair climber feature until one day, after walking around a mall for a little while, I noticed that the pedometer was showing that I had climbed a staircase.  I was shocked and suspicious.  HOW DID IT KNOW?!!!  I didn’t even remember any stairs until I carefully reviewed my actions during the day.  Although I had not ascended any significant flight of stairs, I had been up and down a few steps numerous times on my walk.  That was just freaky.

I began carrying my phone with me everywhere.  I didn’t get out of the car at the mailbox without clutching it to me, so that the few steps I had to travel to get the mail would be captured.  When I go from the front of the house to the back to go to the bathroom, the phone comes along.  I get really annoyed when I realized I have been doing housework without the phone in my pocket or stuffed in my bra.  At one meeting of the book club, I couldn’t find my phone and got panicky because I must have walked at least 50 steps without it.  I was distracted through the whole meeting.  The other day, I almost cooked my phone when it came loose from its hiding place next to my bosom while I was taking a turkey out of the oven.

People laugh at my obsession with counting the steps.  However, it is working.  After a month or so of compulsive stepping, I began to notice that my clothes were getting too big.  At first, I thought it was my imagination, but when I could feel my shorts slipping down below my hips on a regular basis, I knew it was really happening.  When I had to hitch up almost everything I wore every time I moved, I knew I was on to something.  I had not consciously changed my diet or anything, but I was definitely losing weight.  In all, I’ve lost about 30 pounds since I became step obsessed.

After a few months on my 5-mile-a-day plan, I decided to up the ante. I confess my motivation for doing so was less than pure.  Right around the same time Starbuck’s started selling their seasonal gingerbread for the holidays, I decided I had better walk more.  I decided that my new goal would be to walk over 5 miles every day and to average at least 6 miles a day on a weekly basis.  I’ve been managing an average of about 6.5 miles a day.

Now the holidays are over and more than one or two pieces of gingerbread have found their way into my tummy, but I haven’t gained any weight and my clothes actually feel a bit looser than they did in November.  It must have been a step in time.

Have you ever “stepped up to the plate” with some activity and set a goal?  Did you become compulsive about whatever the activity was?  What was the result?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com. 

Have a great day!

Terri 🙂

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

The other day, a friend of mine from work called.  She was questioning whether she wanted to keep working or retire.  Her will to work was starting to wear down, but she was concerned about the impact her leaving would have on the organization.  I encouraged her to decide based on what was best for her. I assured her that the government would find a way to soldier on without her.  She agreed and remarked bitterly, “I know all these people who seem so fond of me right now won’t give me a second thought once I’ve walked out the door.”

Her comment reminded me that one of my biggest concerns about retirement and moving cross country was that I would lose friends.

I’ve often said that I have a rather faulty emotional transmission.  It takes me a long time to connect with people.  Because I am shy, I often hang back when a new group of people is forming.  When everyone else is getting to know each other and forging relationships, I am still wrestling with my nerves and trying to calm the qualms in my gut.  It takes me even longer to disengage.  By the time I’m feeling comfortable and warmly clicking away on all cylinders with my new friends, other people are getting ready to move on.

When I started my first entry-level job with the government, I was hired with a whole group of new young college graduates.  We bonded over our new experiences and similarities.  It took me some time to weave myself into the group, but I reveled in this new comradery.  A couple of years later, I got the opportunity to take a career-enhancing job in another office.  I worked on an alternative schedule and had every other Friday off.  I hesitated about taking the new job because I couldn’t imagine leaving my friends, but a mentor told me that it was better to go away and leave everyone than to have everyone go away and leave you.  I ended up taking the job, but I didn’t really “go away and leave everyone.”  Every off Friday, I got up early and rode a freakin’ bus for over an hour round trip to visit my colleagues in my old office. I kept up my little pilgrimage for close to a year, even as other folks in my original cohort left the office.

Given my difficulty in shifting relationship gears, I could absolutely empathize with my friend’s concerns about leaving her work relationships.  I told her that I knew from my own experience that such fears don’t have to come true. 

I have always heard that some people come into our lives for a season, some people come into our lives for a reason, and some people come into our lives for a lifetime.  That is exactly what I experienced when I retired.  Retirement has shown me, quite clearly, that some people were part of my working life simply for that time in my life.  Some people were in relationship with me for a reason that was tied up with our work experience.  Retirement also teaches me, though, that there are definitely people I met through work that will grace me with their friendship throughout my lifetime.

I have had several surprises about who would fit into each category.  There are some people who I thought would be friends long after my work life ended who have actually turned out to be friends of the season or the reason.  On the other hand, there are people I expected to drift away when I retired who are still in touch and are still keeping my heart company.  There are actually more of the relationships that survived my retirement and move cross country than those that have faltered.  I am blessed with such faithful forever friends. 

I keep friends by being a friend.  I recognize that everyone is busy.  Having said that, I also realize that my time is probably more flexible than that of my still employed friends.  I bend to their schedules as much as possible. With technology that makes transcontinental communication less costly than it was when my family moved across country in 1965, it is relatively easy to stay in touch. I never mind that I am usually the one who reaches out first.  Friendship is such a valuable commodity, I guard it and grow it as much as I can. Maybe I can invest the time raising the priority and level of friendship-tending precisely because I am retired. Maybe relationships, rather than dwindling away because of retirement, can actually grow because of the increased time we have for them.

In thinking about this recent conversation I had with my friend about what retirement would do to her work relationships, another thought also occurred to me. Is there really anything intrinsically wrong with relationships that turn out to be based only on a season or a reason?  Those people that have meandered out of my life since I retired were no less valuable to me nor were the relationships less sweet because our connections were limited to my work life.  Our time together was precious.  Our relationships enriched my life and contributed to who I am today.

Also, you never know.  People who wandered out of my life may one day wander back.

What do you do to tend work-related friendships after retirement?  Have you been successful in finding your “forever friends?” Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can send me an email at terrirretirement@gmail.com.

Happy New Year!

Terri 🙂

A Traditional Christmas

I think of traditions as little hooks that attach my soul to people, events, and values.  Traditions can serve as reminders of what is important to me.  Sometimes, when life starts to get routine or joyless, fulfilling a tradition can give me an infusion of happiness.  Traditions can force me to get outside the struggles of the moment and make me focus on happier times and, also, the blessings that blanket my overall life.

All of that is fine and positive.  It can be difficult, however, to let go of traditions when they no longer serve.  Those hooks strain and bend and mangle before they eventually break.  Sometimes I cling to traditions long after they cease to be useful or even reasonable. 

Christmas is one of those seasons most fraught with tradition.  In my family, following certain Christmas traditions and rituals has an almost mythic quality.  The traditions are numerous, varied, and complex.  Christmas in our house was always a huge, shiny affair involving every kind of delicacy, entertainment, and a truckload of presents.  Some of our traditions would be familiar to most American families- like decorating a tree and hanging stockings.  Other traditions are more specific to our family.  For instance, we always hung the bedraggled silver tinfoil bells that first graced my parents’ wedding reception.  Other traditions would be regarded as just plain wackadoodle by most people… like eating the traditional festive Christmas dinner of warmed up Kentucky Fried Chicken. 

At any rate, getting from the middle of November to the end of the year while fulfilling all the traditional holiday responsibilities could be something of a marathon in my household.  I can remember worrying, even as a small child, that my mother would wear herself out completing all the traditional preparations.  I remember begging her to not too get too tired to fulfill the most important tradition- everyone must be happy at Christmas.

The other unwritten rule about Christmas traditions is that they should never change or the world as we know it will crumble like a gingerbread cookie.  I convinced myself to believe in Santa Claus by sheer force of will until I was eleven years old just to avoid defiling a Christmas tradition.

I’ve come to the painful conclusion that Christmas traditions can and should change over time.  In 2014, Max and I moved to Florida at the beginning of December.  He had this brilliant idea that my family could celebrate Christmas at Thanksgiving when we would all be together.  We made a brave effort, but it was clear my family thought this was some form of sacrilege.  My mother had a Christmas tree at Thanksgiving and some presents.  My mother had a regular Christmas for my brother and his family on Christmas Day.  Also, because she couldn’t stand the thought of me not having Christmas on Christmas Day, she ended up mailing gifts for Max and me in our new home in Florida.  She even sent a small artificial Christmas tree.  Oddly enough, the world did not end because of the Christmas tradition violations.  Frankly, with the move and unpacking, it was kind of restful to have a quiet, spur-of-the-moment kind of Christmas.

In 2015, we were able to bring back some of the fa-la-la-de-rol.  Max and I were more settled in to our new home and my mother had moved from California.  We decorated, had Christmas presents under the tree, attended seasonal entertainments, and shared a nice time together.  Things were still not the same as in yesteryear.  They couldn’t be.  We lived 3000 miles away from some of our traditions.  My brother and his family were not with us.  Still, we found we had enough of our old tradition hooks and crafted enough new ones to make the holiday season unquestionably joyous. 

This year, with my mother’s illness, it is a challenge to find the merry and bright.  The vague notion of shopping and decorating and attending entertainments sounds tempting.  It is seductive to contemplate an escape into jolliness and frivolity.  The actual execution of that vague notion is daunting, however.  It seems easier to shut the door on the whole thing and lock myself away in the sadness.

Easier, perhaps.  But not better.  I am trying to plow through the inertia and grasp some tradition.  While it initially felt like overcoming the funk would be more effort than it was worth, I am finding that the Christmas traditions are lifting my mood a little bit.  After all, shutting the door on the shopping, decorating, entertainment, and trappings also tempts me to shut the door on another Christmas tradition.  The most important Christmas tradition.  The tradition of Joy.

“Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be for all people for there is born to you this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”                                                            Luke 2:10-11

What are your holiday traditions?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment.  In the alternative, you can email me at terriretirement@gmail.com.  Merry Christmas!  May God bless us, everyone!

Terri 🙂