Category Archives: What is the meaning of life?

Giving Thanks

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Alas, I’ve let this blog project sit fallow for a while now; my job has been doing its best to consume all my time and energy. That’s the dilemma that originally prompted me to begin this blog in the first place: how to fit the good life into my busy life. Thanksgiving is upon us, once again, and so I take a moment out of my griping and grousing to reflect on my many, many blessings.   I am thankful for

  • My good health. I’m getting older (51), and my knees and hips ache a bit after a hard workout,  but all in all everything is functioning well. My body carries me around to where I need to go without pain.
  • My tremendous wealth. By modern, Western standards I’m far from wealthy, but hey – I have all the modern conveniences. The little bit of housework I do is done indoors, with the aid of shiny machines that wash my clothes, suck up my dust, cook my food, heat my house… And, unlike so many of my sisters around the world, I have too many clothes, too many books, too much food, too much stuff. I’m working on simplifying and reducing waste – and what a blessing to be in the position of dealing with surplus, rather than scarcity. I’m grateful for that.
  • My sweetie. I have the great good fortune to be engaged to a wise, funny, healthy, sexy man who loves me. More than that – he sees me, hears me, and knows me, without assuming that he already knows all there is to know about me. He takes good care of me – for example, making sure that I don’t have to worry about dinner when I come home from a late rehearsal. He is open and honest about what’s on his mind and in his heart. He has no plans to change me into the partner he had in mind – he takes me as I am. I’ve learned so much from this good, good man, and want to spend the rest of our time together on earth taking good care of him.
  • My daughter. The more time you spend with other people’s children, the more you appreciate your own – and I’ve spent 25 years teaching other people’s children. My beautiful 20-year-old daughter is spirited, determined, creative, smart, strong, kind, funny, and determined to make a good life for herself. She is working damned hard, and making great strides despite some trying    circumstances. I’m so proud of her.
  • My mom. A widow since my dad’s sudden passing two years ago, she has shown remarkable strength and grace throughout this time of transition. She’s not only coping, she’s thriving. She has surrounded herself with friends, support groups, family, and creative hobbies that she loves. She is taking excellent care of herself, providing a wonderful role model for my daughter, whom she has generously taken in since my daughter was forced to leave an unhealthy living situation. I’m so grateful to my mom for mothering my daughter just enough – giving her a safe place to stay, and nudging her gently but firmly toward good decisions.
  • The rest of my family. We’re a bunch of characters, to be sure, and have all worked through some serious hardships and hurdles. My brother and sister are great parents; their children are gorgeous and smart; and my aunts, uncles and cousins are fun, open, loving and joyful people. My dad taught me much about priorities, responsibility, intellectual curiosity and love. And      though they are long gone, I’m still benefiting from my grandparents’ examples of enjoying life and loving family.
  • My looks. Go ahead, call me superficial. Now that I’ve shed some excess weight that I’d been      carrying for many years, I like what I see when I look in the mirror. I like the planes and angles of my face. I like my cheekbones. I like my spare shoulders, my firm arms, the newly unearthed curve of my waist. I like my little hands and feet. My face is lined, but lively and interesting. I have a nice smile. I’m grateful that what I see in the mirror is pleasing to me.
  • My friends. I don’t have as many as I’d like, but I do have some jewels, and they are teaching me a lot about living the good life. Wise, funny, smart, creative, interesting friends add so much texture and beauty to the fabric of my life.
  • My job. I grouse about it, but the paycheck is good. My job has permitted me to be self-supporting for the past 25 years. Being financially dependent on a man can force a woman to make hard choices that do not serve her best self-interest, and I haven’t had to make those choices – at least not for that reason. Also, my job has given me the opportunity to live in Europe; though far from rich, I’ve been able to make some trips that I otherwise would never have been     able to afford. I’ve spent lots of time in France – enough to feel rather at home there – as well as some great trips to Belgium, Spain, Italy, Holland, England. Thanks to my job, I’ve had the experience of living in Germany and getting to know another way of living. By learning another      perspective on “the good life,” one more based on tradition, I’ve also learned a great deal about the American perspective, good and bad, and about myself. Plus, they have the BEST Christmas cookies over here! And how I’ll miss the bread, the beer, the Christmas markets, the wine      festivals, the architecture …
  • The 21st century. Oh, we have our problems, but I’m so grateful to be living in a place and time when being female does not limit my possibilities for full participation in society, for equal rights under the law, for financial independence, and for self-determination.

May your Thanksgiving be full of good friends, family, good food, good fun, and gratitude for all the good things in your life.

An Open Letter to My Students

I wondered what I would say to my senior students on their last day of high school. I had only a few twelfth-graders this year, but they were a special few. There were three extraordinary young men in my drama class, one of whom had been my student for all four years of high school. Teaching in a small school like ours, one gets to know some students quite well, and it’s been a privilege to know these three. So, what can you say to the departing seniors on their last day of high school? Well, through misty eyes I looked at this group of thespians, and what I said was,

            “Don’t forget how creative you all are. Don’t neglect that creativity as the years roll on and the adult responsibilities pile up. You are all deeply creative people, and if you don’t respect your creativity, it’ll bite you on the butt.”

            “Remember who you wanted to be.” So says the bumper sticker on my classroom desk. I can’t find the original author of this quote, but it’s an apt thought for our departing students. But there’s a problem here: many of these young people don’t really know who they want to be, or even who they are. And – even if they do have that insight – how can they remember those youthful dreams after decades of raising kids and paying bills and getting by?  So, with that in mind, I’d like to expand my advice to this year’s students.

            My advice to you, dear young ones, is to keep a journal. It doesn’t have to be a written one, though I certainly treasure the time for reflection that writing in a journal fosters. Perhaps you’ll sit down in front of a video camera and record your thoughts of the moment. Perhaps your journal will contain as many images as words: drawings, paintings, photos. But however you choose to tackle it, you should pause often to record your thoughts. Who are you, and who do you want to be? What do you love, and whom? What brings you joy? What brings you peace? What stirs your imagination? What do you yearn for?

            Let me tell you, darlings, as the years roll on and the adult responsibilities pile up, you don’t want to lose focus on these questions. Oh, the answers will change over time. For example, at your age, my greatest thrill was to go dancing in nightclubs. Now? Meh. But dancing is a thread that’s woven through my life, and it still brings me joy. As you keep your journals, you will notice strong threads woven in among the changing colors of your life’s tapestry. And those threads, some bright, some dark, represent your truest nature. Do not lose these threads, my loves. If you do, they’ll weave themselves into your dreams and strangle your peace of mind.

            And I promise you, you’ll enjoy looking back at those journals and hearing the voice of your younger self. The passing of time can make that teenage self seem like a stranger, but – I’m not sure whom I’m paraphrasing here – in your older self exists every age you’ve been: child, youth, young adult, and so on. The passing of time sometimes makes my younger self seem like a stranger, blurring memories and blending details into a fog. But hearing my own voice from back then, seeing my words on the page, brings it all back. In my journals I see patterns, themes, battles begun long ago and only now showing signs of victory. It’s the cheapest therapy you can buy – for the price of a pen and a notebook, I regularly have the kind of epiphanies that others pay thousands of dollars to achieve.

            So buy yourselves a graduation present, dear ones: a journal. Spend some time getting to know yourself better. Don’t forget to check in regularly and continue this vital conversation with yourself. Don’t forget who you wanted to be.

Motherly Wisdom

Mothers’ Day is once again upon us.  In honor of my strong and lovely mother, and all the mothers out there who have shaped our lives with their wisdom, love, and guidance, I’d like to reflect on the most valuable lesson my mother taught me, and do my best to pass that lesson on to my own gorgeous, brilliant daughter.

 Dearest Daughter,

            So it’s eight A.M, and you really want to sleep a few more hours. Tough shit. Working grown-ups are out of bed and on their way to work by now. So you’ve had a hard time concentrating through a dull lecture, and now you have an assignment that’s due next week. You’d really rather hit Facebook, and then go hang out with some friends this evening. Tough shit. You need to get started on that assignment right now, while the instructions and information are still clear in your mind. Suck it up. Woman up. Put on your big girl panties, drink a cup of coffee, and get to work. You’ll feel so much better afterward, and you’ll have truly earned a little free time – just a little, and probably far less than you’d like.

This is a lesson I learned from my own dear Mom, and I want to once again thank her for this priceless wisdom. When my sister and I were little (brother came along later), we would whine, complain, mutter and groan when asked/told to take care of our responsibilities around the house: vacuuming, dusting, setting the table, and – especially – stripping the dirty sheets off our beds on Saturday morning. I mean, Saturday morning was that special, golden time when children were meant to watch cartoons, eat sugary cereal, and then spend the rest of the day outside playing with friends, right? Oh, how bitterly we complained. But did Mom get upset? Did she yell? Did she take our grumbling personally? Not at all. She merely reminded us that the work had to be done before we could go out to have fun, and if it was not done my X o’clock, we’d face a punishment. Thanks so much, Mom! Because what she was teaching us was reality – the work must be done, period. Why waste emotion protesting about the basic, grubby chores of daily existence? Why not just pitch in, get the work done, and then go play?

I don’t think I consciously digested this lesson until my twenties or thirties, but this frame of mind fueled my successes in my younger years, and continues to do so today. Is it fun to get up every morning earlier than I’d like to, stumble through the same old routine of shower, dress, eat, gather work things and drive off in the dark? No – it’s not fun, and sometimes it gets me down. Tough shit. When I put on my big girl panties and remember how lucky I am to have a job, live in a nice house with a lovely bathroom in which to do the same old morning ablutions, have plenty of food, plenty of money to pay for fuel, shelter, and medical care, and plenty of free time after work to play – then I realize how fortunate I am, and I stop grumbling and get to work doing what I have to do. In fact, when I start to sag during a necessary task, I say aloud, “You can do this. Keep it up. Keep moving.” OK, I might seem a bit nuts to an observer, but I need the reminder. You see, dear daughter, that feeling of wanting to take a break and just relax doesn’t go away, but that’s the voice of a spoiled little child. I give her a pat on the head, say “Tough shit, dear,” and move on with what I have to do.

            You can do that too – in fact, you must. We all must. Life is full of grubby, un-fun work that must be done. You have to do your chores before you can go out and play. If you chose not to do your chores by the deadline, you’ll face a punishment. Tough shit.

 (P.S. My mom never used such language when we were little, and does not today. She did not succeed in teaching me that sort of class. Sorry, Mom.)

 (P.S. #2: I’m extraordinarily proud of the way my daughter is putting this lesson into practice lately. She’s going through a tough period and a major transition, but she’s wearing those big-girl panties and showing us all what perseverance looks like. With guts like that, you’ll go far, baby!)

 

Life is a Competition?

I had a conversation the other day with three women, all mothers. When I walked into our school’s office, they were bemoaning our community’s shortage of parent volunteers to lead youth activities such as scouts and sports teams. I chimed in with how glad I was that my daughter (now nearly 20) had been more interested in performing arts than in team sports, since I was able to avoid transporting her to daily sports practice, weekends spent at children’s sports competitions, and the endless fundraising. I recalled that during my daughter’s few years on the community swim team, I was the only parent who took advantage of the half-empty pool to get some exercise. The other parents, mostly moms, sat out in the lobby during practice and chatted about the last fundraiser, the next fundraiser, and the schedule of meets. My daughter was a bit overweight at this time (age eight), and her doctor had suggested swimming as a healthy way to get some exercise. We went to swimming practice once a week, and did other activities on other days – music lessons near home, long walks with our dogs, bike rides, and so on. I didn’t want her schedule to be too regimented at such a young age – I mean, childhood is a time for exploration, yes? I just didn’t get the grim, dogged determination that these swim-team parents showed, spending hours in the swimming pool lobby while their kids swam, the spending their weekends driving all over Germany to meets. These were Americans, mind you – military families and the odd teacher family, like ours. I guess we were odd, because we just didn’t see the point of all this competition for such young children. We just wanted our daughter to get some exercise and improve her swimming skills – a good thing to have in case one ever falls into the water. Hey, it happens – and it’s good to be prepared.

            Our years with the swim team were few. Not only were we not interested travelling across Germany and beyond for frequent swim meets throughout our daughter’s second and third-grade school years (a few, OK, but nearly every weekend from September through March?), we even refused to go along with Sundays spent fundraising on the base – offering instead to donate the amount she’d be expected to earn. The team leadership was horrified! Suffering through a Sunday of bagging purchases at the PX was an important character-builder, apparently. Well, we weren’t having it, and our wee daughter wasn’t too broken up about having to leave the team. It seems that some of her teammates had been pretty unkind whenever Coach wasn’t looking.

            So, back to today’s discussion in the school office. I was astonished, but not surprised, at the other mothers’ acceptance of the demands on team parents. And I made a bold assertion: while I certainly can see that many valuable life lessons can be learned from team sports, kids can also get those same lessons about teamwork, hard work, quick thinking and perseverance through other activities, such as drama, the activity that I currently “coach.” We discussed what competitive team sports can teach our children: cooperation, team work, how to handle losing, and competition. They all agreed on this last point, that a drive to compete is important in life.

            But is it? I left the conversation to get back to work, chuckling to myself at having stirred the pot a bit and having challenged some assumptions – I do enjoy doing that. And I was sincere when I said that kids can learn valuable lessons from team sports – but is a sense of competition really necessary, or even desirable, off the playing field? One of the mothers said, “Well, the drama kids have to compete for parts.” That’s true; there’s usually more than one budding actor who’d like the leading role. But once the roles have been assigned, the kids gel into a supportive, productive team. In fact, team doesn’t adequately express the closeness they develop; family would be a better word.

            I reflected for the rest of the day about competition – what role does it play in my life? I’ve often said that I’m not a competitive person; in fact, competitive people get on my nerves. I’ve had some unpleasant encounters with men and women who made a conscious effort to “top” me in various endeavors. For example, I ran for exercise when I was younger, and those determined to run faster than me were disappointed by my lack of concern and refusal to compete. I just wanted to run the best race I could, hopefully a little faster than I had the last time, and I didn’t care who finished ahead of me. I’ve participated in many sorts of performing arts, but I was no “diva” – realizing that the good performance of my fellow actors and dancers reflected well on the whole cast or troupe. Perhaps my lack of competitive drive came from the fact that, in certain areas that mattered to me – school, acting, dancing, work – I had good skills and felt secure in my level of achievement. I really enjoy my time in the spotlight, but am then glad to step aside and applaud someone else’s performance. I mean, I don’t want to read only stories that I’ve written – I want to read lots of stories by many good writers. I don’t want to eat only food that I’ve cooked – I want to be invited to your house to sample your specialties and praise them lavishly. I don’t need to have the fanciest outfit, the biggest house, or the most electronic toys. How silly is that!

            What I said to the other mamas back in the school office was, “You shouldn’t compare yourself to others. If you’re competing, it should only be with yourself, trying to improve your own performance.” And I believe that. When I related this story to my wonderful partner/boyfriend, he gently but firmly disagreed. He reminded me of how sheltered we are, as DoDDS teachers, in that we have lots of creative freedom on the job and do not have to compete to keep our positions. Of course, there’s no possibility of “moving up the ladder” either, unless we choose to become principals or other administrative types (no, thank you). D. worked in private industry for many years, both as a salesman and a manager, and competition was a part of his daily life. He’s also a life-long athlete and sports fan, and his explanations of the nature of competition often fell back onto examples from the world of college and professional sports – something that has very little relevance for me. Finally, he pointed out that men seem to be hard-wired for competition – no doubt that’s true for many, if not most males.

            My job does not involve competition – just lots of creative work on my own, cooperative work with my students, and the occasional bit of collaborative work with my colleagues. I’m not in competition with other teachers – what a silly idea! My hobbies are not competitive. Oh, I might enter a writing competition, I suppose, and it would be wonderful to have my work acknowledged by established writers or by my peers, but writing isn’t really about competition. Travel, entertaining, fitness – these activities are geared toward improving my quality of life, not toward showing up anyone else.

            So, in the end, I reject the idea that a sense of competition is a necessary ingredient of the good life. Overly competitive people are obnoxious, and far too concerned with external validation. I’m fabulous, and your fabulousness does not take away one iota of mine. Let’s all be fabulous together – there’s plenty of fabulous to go around.