Monday, December 26, 2011

There Is No Wagon!

We’ve all heard the expression, maybe even said it a few times ourselves: “I’ve fallen off the wagon.” My question is “Just what is this wagon? And, for goodness sake, why can’t we just hop back on it?”
It seems that if we find ourselves shy of the goal, we tell ourselves that’s it -- our story has been written, our destiny has already been determined. But why? Why is it that we can succeed in so many areas of our life, and fail time and time again in others? Why is it that we expect a learning curve with some tasks but immediate perfection with the rest? And why do we tell ourselves that if it didn’t work the last time, it probably never will?
I have a friend with diabetes. She’s an overeater and has always struggled with her weight and her love for food. When suggesting to her a different approach to her quest, the silence on the other end of the line was evidence of her pain and crying soon followed.  Then she said, “I am so afraid.  I’ve tried so many times and I always end up failing and falling off the wagon.”  We talked some more and she opted for trying a new approach.
What she, and so many others, failed to realize was that by viewing her goal as a wagon she could fall off, or a train that once it jumped the track had no hope of ever returning, she was basically saying there was no room for second chances (so forget about the third or fourth try!). This was a very successful woman who had reached so many of the goals she set for herself. I asked her how she’d done it. She said it had taken time, trials, errors and lots of hard work.  In short, her success was an evolution – she just failed to see how the test she took each time she stepped on the scale was as well.
After all, could you cross a lake without knowing how to swim?  Would you give up the first time you swallowed some water? Would you panic then quit at the first sign of an endless bottom? Think about when you learned to ride a bike. Did you quit the first time you skinned your knee? Or even worse, stop loving the first time your heart was broken? (‘cause that hurts!)  Why is it because it didn’t work the first time, or even the fifth, we assume it never will? Think about it!!! Just because there is traffic, doesn’t mean you get off the road -- you just take another path. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

What's In A Smile?

Some years ago I was on the cereal aisle of my local grocery store when a man passed me with a little girl in his shopping cart. Amused by the cute toddler, I smiled at her and said hello. “Ay Dios mio, yo a ti te conozco!” he said (“Oh my goodness, I know you.”). Yeah right! I thought. I had heard plenty of pick-up lines in my time but in Spanish?
As it turns out, he not only knew me by first and last name, he knew my father, my mother and my sisters too.  It seems we had met at a party for our fathers’ fraternity back in Puerto Rico. “I put you on my feet and taught you to dance,” he said. “I was 14. You were 3.”
So there I stood, stunned and with Special K in hand, in another country, 40-something years later with no clue of who he was.   I asked him how he had recognized me since the last time we had seen each other, I was such a small child. His reply:  “You have the exact same smile.”
Now that was a “WOW!” moment.
A smile is more than just a simple gesture. It says something about who you are and how you view the world. When you smile, you create an energy that travels from the outside into the very inside of your soul.  Go ahead, try it. Hold a smile and feel your heart fill up! It lifts your mood, transforms your day and defines you as a person. When it’s given it brings joy to others, puts them at ease and welcomes them to get to know you.
I have two friends who used to avoid raising their upper lips when they smiled. Their restrained smiles caught my attention. Perhaps they didn’t like their teeth, or the whiteness of their smile, or the emotion a smile portrayed. Whatever the reason, it was a boundary they put between themselves and others – a habit they’d developed that wasn’t serving them or those around them.
People can mistakenly assume that when a person smiles a lot they must be leading a charmed life, a sort of “Pollyanna” existence void of pain and heartbreak. I remember a woman once said to me, “I can tell you’ve never had sorrow in your life because you’re always smiling.” My response to her was to say: “just because you can only see a smile, doesn’t mean I don’t carry scars in my heart;” and then I smiled.
Whether you’re in a good place or times are tough, if you’re struggling to hang on or grateful for a momentary reprieve from life’s hardships there’s always cause to smile. Don’t just take my word for it, test the theory for yourself.  For the next several weeks make a conscious effort to be aware of others, look them in the eye, and offer a smile. See what happens. See how you feel. See how others react to you. Who knows, you just might begin to experience for yourself the same thing you’re offering to others: Joy!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust: The story of how Daddy ended up in a green box and how we learned to laugh again.

This time of year always brings back memories of Daddy Lister (Papi Lister) and his last days with us. My step-father passed away right before Christmas and forever changed the way our family would think of the holiday season -- as well as how we would come to view an ordinary gift box.

Confused? Well, let me explain. My mom has always been a strong caretaker. She took care of us kids. She took care of her mother, her sisters and also my father until he passed away. And, until the cancer finally won, she took care of Daddy Lister. After his passing, finding just the right place for his ashes was the last thing she would ever do for him. And so the guest began. What would eventually unfold is the stuff of legend in our family.

It all began when mom first brought my step-father’s ashes home and placed them on the kitchen table. My husband at the time came in. Not knowing the contents of the box, he moved it out of the way -- into the laundry room. On the floor. Right next to the cat’s litter box! OMG!...When mom made the discovery, I could barely understand what she was saying because she was crying so hard: “Someone...put Lister...on the floor...right next to cat poop.”

After many apologies, we moved Daddy Lister to the guest room and my daughter and I escaped the tension to do some necessary Christmas shopping. Some of our new-found purchases came with beautiful, silver-bowed gift boxes -- one green and one blue. When we got back home, I used the green box to wrap a present for my mother-in-law and placed it under the tree. Some time later, my mom spotted the green, velvet box and decided it would be the perfect place to put Daddy Lister. Without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed and swapped out the present into the empty blue box.

Now this is when good communication would have worked to our advantage because when mom got into the car to go to dinner and my husband saw her carrying that green box in her lap, assumptions were made. Concerned with her reaction, he took me aside and he whispered “are you OK with your mom taking Lister with us to dinner?”

When mom heard the story she couldn’t help herself. Mom had not laughed in quite a while so I was tickled to hear her first chuckle, then a contained snicker, then she was in all-out hysterical laughter. Soon we were all laughing so hard our sides hurt with running tears and all. It was exactly what we needed. If only for a moment, normality returned. Joy happened. The pain subsided.

I guess life is like that. Just when you think you can’t take any more, there’s a moment. Something funny happens and you forget for a split second how sad you are. You surrender sorrow, you smile, you get a funny feeling inside and, finally, you just have to laugh.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A half-mutilated Raggedy Andy, a Two-cotton balled Snowman, a silver fish perforated Dog and other Christmas Treasures

Every year about this time we all head off to the local high school tree lot, the garden center at the home improvement store or maybe just up into the dark recesses of our silver fish-infested attic -- all in search of the perfect Christmas tree. We hog-tie them to our cars; and then, like giant bonsai trees, shape them into perfect cones -- fat on the bottom, equally full on all sides and pointed enough on top for an angel or a smiling Santa face. It is quite the ceremony.  Fake and real, flocked and tinseled, our Christmas trees are more than just an expression of the season. They are, in some ways, the story of our lives.

Let me just be honest for a second. My tree is not the Van Gogh variety. It is not likely to be featured in a Southern Living or any other home magazine. It is, in a word, pitiful.  There are no antique glass ornaments, no color theme to speak-just the snowman that my daughter made in school that is now down to two balls, six black dots and a lop-sided top hat.

You see, in the early days money was tight. There was barely enough for presents and certainly no extra for store-bought ornaments. Instead, I bought a bolt of red and white gingham ribbon and made bows for the tree limbs. My girls contributed with ornaments made in their art class and my clients with their homemade gift labels which then became ornaments. All-in-all, our tree was cheerful but it’s safe to say it never would have made it in the Festival of Trees.

Today, I reflect on last year’s tree ceremony when a close friend offered to help hang the ornaments and, as a trade-off, I put her hair color on.  As we unveiled those silver fish- affected boxes, out came the crispy, dry, wrinkled bows held by thin frail wire, the picture frame ornaments still with their “place photo here” insert sheets, the bare-thin dog, Raggedy Andy, and the sad toy soldier…all of them parading onto the tree.  We even created sections, like in a hospital ward, by how “affected” they were.  We laughed so hard, it took us forever to finish that sucker and her color might have gone a little bit too dark!

But laughter brought on reflection when my friend said “I know you can afford nice ornaments!  What’s up with this picture?” Well, you see, every year when I unpack those hand-made ornaments from my girls’ childhood or the special tokens my clients gave me at the holidays, I think of my life and the journey I’ve been on. Each make-shift ornament reminds me of how far I’ve come and those who helped me along the way. I can remember friends who made sure to remember a single mom at Christmas; my kids and how they grew and changed with each passing season; and special times when joy was measured in memories and not in the total of a sales receipt.

This season, as you put up your tree, I invite you to reflect on your own Christmases past. Are you still close with the people whose ornaments you now find wrapped in tissue? What traditions and Christmas vacations do you still hold dear? And now that you are grown, can you still recall the joy of Christmas morning and the sound of your little padded feet coming down the hall?

Merry Christmas y Feliz Navidad!