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Archive for April, 2013

Living a Hijacked Life

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Unless you are a complete loner, at some point, your life is going to be hijacked. It may come gradually, like when you learn you are going to be a parent. It may come with great celebration, like when your daughter gets engaged and you become enmeshed in wedding planning. It may come suddenly, like when someone you love has a medical emergency.

I am submerged in the third of the above-mentioned scenarios.  My boyfriend fell playing tennis last week and broke his wrist in “several” places.  He will have surgery later this week, after which he will be in a cast for three months, maybe more.  For the foreseeable future, he will need me to drive him to his appointments, tie his shoes, and yes, cut his meat.

And that means, of course, that the things I was going to do in my own life are going to get at least postponed and more often erased.  It also means that when his needs veer in an unanticipated direction, what  I’ve committed to for myself gets cancelled on short notice.  I’ve been down this road with this man before. It really does feel like a hijacking.

I was raised in a family that values helping.  I do like to make a positive difference in others’ lives.  But I will not pretend I’m delighted with this turn of events.  I’ve been riding shotgun on his cancer detour for the last two years.  Before that, there were other situations where he needed my help  because of health challenges.  Just how often am I supposed to let this guy’s problems take over my life?  Am I enabling a “drama queen” with all this helping?

He was not looking for this kind of attention when I met him, I am certain of that.  He still does all he can on his own and tries to help with chores even with one arm wrapped in fiberglass.  So no, I don’t think this is a situation that demands the tough love of walking away.  It’s life–at it’s most maddening.  My life.  And his life.  Intertwined as they should be when you are blessed to have in your life people you care about and spend a lot of time with.

When things happen to me more than once, I see them as lessons I didn’t learn well the first time.  This is one of those situations.  Maybe you can learn from me.  So what’s to learn (and do/no do) when your life gets hijacked?

  • Forego the martyr routine.  It’s highly over-rated.  Sure, you can’t do what you had wanted to do with your time.  But you still need to take care of yourself along with meeting the other person’s needs.  If you literally have no time to lavish on yourself, you can still maintain your posture and make an effort to breath deeply.  Maybe a 5-minute meditation or a 20-minute nap is feasible.  I do laps around the hospital when I end up waiting there.  Find the things you can do for yourself and do them.  You are the only person who can totally deny yourself what you need.  Don’t.
  • Expect whoever has stolen your life to do as much as he/she can for themselves. That gives them as much dignity and sense of worth as possible and you a breather.  It’s tempting to scurry around trying to make everything right for that person, but that doesn’t serve either of you as well.  Even with children, this is the case.  A newborn is helpless and pretty demanding.  But babies who have alone time (in an infant-safe place, of course) learn faster than those whose parents haul them around and entertain them every waking minute.
  • Find the balance points.  If you are doing all the giving in this context, look for receiving in other contexts.  Maybe you get to watch the TV show you want together instead of letting him have his preference.  Maybe what you have for dinner is your preference instead of his (or hers).  This feels “wrong” because so much of the focus is on the “sick person” but trying to balance things where you can does a lot to forestall resentment and burnout.

When a loved one hijacks your life, respect your own feelings about that.  Yes, you want to give the care that’s needed.  No, it’s not automatically what you want to do at a specific moment.  When it isn’t, feeling frustrated or just plain angry is normal.  Find safe ways to channel that away.  (I yell in the shower and also find moving dirt in the garden helps.)

And see it for the gift it is. Yes, your life has been hijacked.  That means someone trusts you enough to ask your help.  You are a good person.  But please, be good to yourself, too.


A Proper Hello

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

You can learn the most amazing things from the littlest people. Last week, my one-year-old granddaughter taught me a huge lesson about saying “Hello.” She knows how to do it right. Me? Well, let’s just say I’ve gotten a bit too complacent.

When someone Cora loves comes to where she already is, her excitement at seeing him or her is expressed with her whole body.  A huge smile spreads across her face–ear to ear, no kidding.  She throws her arms open in welcome and starts forward, a miniature version of an Italian grandma.  (She has not one drop of Italian in her.)  Then comes the best part.  She does this delighted little happy dance where she hops from foot to foot in rapid succession before she comes running toward you.

That welcome still has me smiling a week later.  In fact it impressed me enough to decide I want to do a better job of saying “Hello” to those I love myself.   The first test of that commitment came yesterday.  I wasn’t expecting myself to pull off the happy dance but I wanted to at least offer  a warm, sincere acknowledgement of my joy at seeing someone I care about.

The friend I was going to visit was one I hadn’t seen in more than a year.  She’s helped me through a very rough patch and is, truly, a dear friend.  But despite my desire to be obviously joyful when we first met, things didn’t quite work out that way.  She was taking the dog out when I got there.  You can’t interfere with a dog’s business.  And then her husband appeared from the backyard, and we got lost in conversation quickly.  So much for the delighted hello–happy dance or not.

It was wonderful to see her again and great that we had the chance to get together.  But why didn’t I greet her with open arms and obvious joy?  Was I on autopilot?  Was I too timid?  Or was the whole idea really out in left field?

Maybe it was none of those things.  I wanted to make sure my friend knew I appreciated the chance to spend time with her. That happened.  We talked about many things and enjoyed catching up with each other’s lives.  Did we both miss out by me not doing that little happy dance?  Probably not.  But I still wish my exuberance had been a little more obvious.

Ironically, since we are both grandmas, I ended up telling her about Cora’s full throttle hello.  And she asked why she hadn’t gotten that.  I didn’t (and don’t) have a good answer.  It would have been fun for me. But it’s Cora’s way to say hello.  I’m not sure I can make it mine.

Maybe it’s not Cora’s hello that I need to master here.  What I want to do better at is acknowledging the presence of a special person when we first reconnect.  That can be my kids. Or grandkids.  Or siblings. It could be friends, neighbors, or long lost cousins.

More often though, it’s my significant other.   And sometimes, when we return to each other’s company, even the basic word “Hello” gets lost in hauling in groceries or making sure the garage door closed properly.

Life would be sweeter if I remembered a happy “Hello!” though.  If I want to be happy, I need to acknowledge the things that make me happy–like returning to the presence of someone I love.  Then again, maybe I need to come up with my own dance.


Leisure — The Salt of Life

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Some folks may be feeling sorry for themselves because the Great Recession trashed their Golden Years retirement plans.  That makes as much sense as being upset because the caterpillar turned into a butterfly.

We spend our working years looking forward to not working—to long lazy stretches of lying on the warm sand at a sunny beach or relaxing in a favorite recliner.  Reality is different though—100% leisure isn’t satisfying in the long haul.   Yep.  It’s a bad idea even if you can fund it.

Leisure is like salt–when you sprinkle a little on what you have cooking it brings out the flavor.  But if you try to exist on a steady diet of just salt, your meals are going to be not only very unpleasant.  They will be dangerous.

Too much salt can kill you.  That’s true of leisure as well. Leisure steals a lot of important emotional nutrients from your diet if you resort to it too often.  You don’t feel competent because you haven’t done anything to prove your mettle.  You lose confidence in yourself because you aren’t doing anything significant.  You start to ask yourself scary questions like “Why am I even here?” You lose your enthusiasm for life.  There’s no zing in “doing nothing.”

Leisure means you expend little, if any, effort.  It is not the same as play.  Play is far more active and personal—and much more essential.  According to researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, play helps our brains develop, makes our empathy bloom, helps us navigate complex social situations, and is essential to creativity and innovation. Play is for everyone, too—not just kids.

Most of us do need more play when we retire.  Careers are built on the mantra of productivity and play is, by definition (at least by Dr. Brown), not productive.  So we don’t value play.  Stuart notes that the opposite of play isn’t work.  It’s depression.  So yes, we do need to play when we retire.  But play is active.  When you play, you are doing something and having fun at it.

Play is fun and we like to do it—at least once we can get past that productivity thing.  But we don’t need an exclusive diet of that either.  Play is like sugar—it sweetens up your life and makes things a lot nicer.  You need more of it than leisure—just like you use more sugar than salt in your cooking (unless you’re making dill pickles or sauerkraut).

But the real deal is flour.  (In a gluten-free environment, it’s just not wheat flour.)  You use flour—lots of it–in bread and pasta.  You use it for gravy and coating the chicken you are going to bake or—gasp!—fry. And, of course, there’s flour in cookies, cakes, and pastries.  In my kitchen analogy, the piece we need the most of, the “flour”, is work.

We need work, just like we need starch in our diets.  But just like whole grain flour is good for you and bleached white flour is not, meaningful unpaid work is better for you than anything you do for money that you don’t have your heart in.  The work you need when you retire should be more wholesome and more enriching—but it should be there.

Having to let go of the old Golden Years idea of retirement is probably the nicest “downside” of an economic mess if you’re looking at the last third of life.  If you can’t do the leisure-centered version of retirement, rejoice.  You didn’t need all that leisure.  You need a chance to play and a chance to do meaningful work along with that leisure.  With some effort and reflection, you might be able get both of those things in work you continue to do for pay.  If that’s not possible, you can still fit them into your day with a bit of ingenuity and effort because none of the three is a 24/7 requirement.  (Only basics like breathing truly fall in that category.)

Human beings are not made to sit around the swimming pool sipping mojitos day after day.  That kind of experience is only fun as an interlude–a break between more emotionally, mentally, and physically engaging activities. A little is pleasant.  A lot is a maddening prison.

Learn to play.  Find good work.  Sprinkle in some leisure every once in a while.  You’ll be miles ahead of the folks who packed the car and moved to Easy Street the day they stopped working.