Monday, March 5, 2018

Sometimes Happiness Is A Lonely Place

I was recently at a work conference where I had the opportunity to listen to a motivational speaker. In his presentation, he described how he had turned his life around from a life of crime to living a life of tremendous success.  Interestingly, he explained how when he was a criminal, he was constantly surrounded by people that supported him; yet now that he was living a different life, there were not as many people that rallied around him. He felt less lonely in his times of struggle than he did when things were going well.

At that same conference, I heard a woman speak of her work with incarcerated women. When these women were asked why they behaved badly and acted out, they all seem to echo the same reason- that when they were good, no one paid attention to them.

This got me thinking.

There have been many times in my life when I went through my own personal struggles. I am fortunate that at these points in my life, I was surrounded by people who were supportive and helped me through the rough patches. These people I had considered to be my true friends... there  with me through thick and thin.

But were they? Every life has ups and downs. When looking back at the ‘ups’ of my life, there are definitely times that I’ve not seen the same people with me, applauding. I remember when I had my first magazine article published. At the time, I was a stay-at-home mom with no significant career accomplishments on the horizon. The call from the publisher left me on a complete happiness high. My bubble was quickly burst, though, when the person I thought would be the most proud of me said he was ‘embarrassed’ and refused to tell anyone about the publication. How could that be? I wonder now if he felt a little threatened or resentful of my achievement. Sadly, this can be somewhat of a pattern in life.

Fortunately, though, there have also been some consistent friends who were there for my celebrations. Like one who was a shoulder to cry on years ago when I experienced a bad breakup; yet so genuinely shared in my recent excitement and insisted on going to lunch the very next day after hearing I got engaged. These friends- the ones that are capable of sharing happiness (and not just misery) alongside of me- are the ones that I consider to be steadfast and true.

Is it possible that the old adage “Misery Loves Company” is more accurate, than not? Is it easier to be there when someone is not in a good place? Do we feel better when we are needed? Do we see another’s win as a loss for us? Do we let our own roadblocks overcome our ability to share in each other's jubilation along the way?

I think we must be willing to build one another up during times of happiness as equally as we do during times of tribulation in order to be the best friend we can be.

Instead of focusing on how someone’s else’s success is not ours, we should shift the focus on how it CAN be ours. After all, advancement into the joyous times of my life would never have been possible if not for those that were there along the way – encouraging me and lifting me up when things were difficult. In that respect, my successes are just as much theirs as mine.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Sometimes The End Is Just As Special As The Beginning

When my parents were about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, I invited my four siblings to my house for a planning session. We knew we needed to do something to mark the occasion, but we weren’t quite sure what to do. My parents were adamant that they didn’t want a big party. They just wanted us to all be together as a family. We all lived near each other and family dinners and barbeques were not uncommon, so these activities did not seem celebratory enough.

When I reflected about the importance of the anniversary, I wondered if my parents were sad at all….to have had so many years go by so quickly. A wedding day is such a happy occasion, the start of a life journey and I thought maybe they might feel as if the best years of their marriage were behind them. I ached for them. Reaching this milestone meant a long span of memories and entrance into the golden years of their lives.  My desire was to use this opportunity to bring them back to those early moments and the joy and hope they experienced at the beginning of their marriage.

We as a family, were transplants to the Albany, New York area. My parents met and married in Brooklyn and because of my father’s career they had lived across three different states during the course of their marriage.

My oldest three siblings were born in Brooklyn and often reminisced about their earlier years there. I had never really been there other than to visit my grandmother once or twice at the holidays and again for her funeral when I was in the first grade. My parents had not been back, themselves, in some time.

As we sat around my dining room table brainstorming ideas, I blurted out my thoughts. Why don’t we take them to Brooklyn, to the church that they got married in – and then out to dinner? As the words were coming out of my mouth I thought maybe it was crazy. But then a look of delight came over my older siblings faces. They, too, hadn’t seen the old neighborhood in many years. They thought it was a great idea.

After discussing the logistics, ultimately, we rented two stretch limousines to accommodate our 20 person family (my parents, their five children, spouses and grandchildren). We told my parents to be ready early one Sunday morning and we all met at their house. When the limousines arrived we explained  their agenda for the day and they were equally as excited.  We traveled the few hours to Brooklyn as a family, laughing, drinking and snacking all the way to New York City. Our first stop was to attend mass at the church they were married in.

We had notified the church ahead of time and so the priest announced my parents to the congregation. Later, privately, he spent some time with us and told my parents that the priest who married them was still alive, at a nursing home down the road and often came by the church to visit. As I sat in the beautiful surroundings of this old church, I imagined my mother walking down the long aisle a young bride at 21- eager to share the adventure of life with my father.

After we left the church, we took a tour of the old neighborhood where my brothers and sister shared what they remembered.  And, back in those days it was common for people to have an iron grate on their front doors with their last initial scrolled in it. We were stunned to see that on my parents very first home the “C” (for Centi) was still there.

We ended the day with a fantastic dinner in Little Italy then began our journey home.

I remember so much about this trip. How happy my parents were, how much fun my kids had with their cousins and laughing at the stories their aunt and uncles would tell. And to be in that church picturing my parents saying their vows and seeing their very first home as a newlywed couple was very emotional. It was a day that I will never forget. It was a day when I learned where my history began.

It was an amazing experience for everyone involved.

I thought what we had given my parents was a tremendous gift, to relive this most significant day, the moment that it all began for them. However, my father would surprise me later by saying (and maintaining until his death) that the day we celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary was the absolute BEST day of his life. Imagine that? 50 years of memories and this was the best day of his life! As I have grown older, having adult children and missing my father, I finally get it myself. My father, above all, valued most the family that he created. He said for him, to go back to the spot where it all began with my mother, his children and his grandchildren was the perfect culmination of the most important years of his life and overwhelmed him with the highest level of pride and joy.  I had originally thought that to relive his wedding memory would be what affected him the most- but, it was about his legacy. It wasn’t about the start.  All along, it was about the end.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

We Can't Stop The Rain From Falling

This past May, I found myself very much looking forward to going on vacation. It had been a dark and gloomy Winter, and Spring was following the same path.

I had a bad case of cabin fever having been cooped up in the house for months. For every day of sun shine, it seemed as if there was six days of rain. The rain not only made me tired, it hampered any desires I had of partaking in the outdoor activities that I typically enjoyed.

I was certain that a few days in Mexico would cure my blahs.

So, imagine my dismay when lying at the beach on the very first day of vacation, I felt a rain drop.

As it began to steadily rain, my family and I packed up our belongings and begrudgingly headed back to our room. I was so irritated, hoping the rain would pass quickly. We decided to wait it out on the balcony of our room which overlooked the beach and the rest of the resort.

 My mood had grown as cloudy as the sky as I settled down into my chair, protected from the rain. But as I looked down over the beach I noticed something very strange. There were still people outside. People on the beach, people in the ocean and even people in the pool. They were going about their activities as if it wasn’t even raining. In fact, the rain was even coming down a little harder now, yet their fun never skipped a beat.

My initial reaction was that these people were crazy. But then it got me wondering…

Were they all just used to the tropical climate and the occasional rain that came with it? Or, did they know something I didn’t know?

I arrived at the conclusion that it was the latter.

These people were there to have fun and they were not going to let a rain shower hinder that. What a great attitude to have. As I contemplated their positive disposition, my mind began to refocus as well. I had previously judged the gray clouds to be ugly and dismal. But, now I began to see how beautiful my view was, even in the rain.

It made me question why I tend to put my life on hold just because of a little shower. After all, it’s just water and so what if I get a little wet. Rain may be a nuisance, but it’s certainly a necessity. Without rain, there would be no replenishment…no growth. Rain also purifies the air we breathe,  washing away pollutants as it falls.

I am reminded of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow quote “Into each life some rain must fall”.

There will always be a little dreary weather in life, but we can’t let it dampen our spirits. Sometimes the rain is exactly what we need…a little annoyance that is not always a set-back, but rather a set-up for our own future advancement and growth.

It rained one more time during my vacation in Mexico, but that time I wasn't in such a hurry to seek shelter. . I stayed right where I was on the beach.…not letting a little rain spoil my day.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Put Others First And The Blessings Will Surely Follow

As with most kids, birthdays were a huge deal for mine. Both their dad and I had large extended families and so their birthdays were like their own personal holidays. I loved lavishing the attention on them and making their days special. But at the same time, I wanted them to be aware that their sibling may feel left out and they needed to be considerate of that.

From when they were very young, I started the tradition of having them buy a gift for their brother/sister when it was their own birthday. They carefully chose something special and presented it to their sibling before any festivities could start in celebration of them.

They carried this tradition through many years, even into early adulthood. I believe that instilling this awareness in them at a young age played a huge role in their relationship today. At 23 and 21, they are able to enjoy the blessings of having a sibling and continue to have great love, respect and empathy for one another.

One Christmas a few years back, I wanted to gift something small to my co-workers. It was a small office, but I still needed something that wouldn’t break the bank. I decided on some homemade treats with a $1 scratch off lottery ticket attached.  The evening of our gift exchange, I got a call from one of my co-workers. She wanted to thank me for the ticket. It seemed she herself, in the true spirit of giving, had donated money that she really couldn’t afford to donate. When she scratched off the lottery ticket, though, she won the exact amount it would take to replace the funds.

My father often told a story about his brother who suffered from alcoholism. At one point in my uncle's struggles, he was on a retreat in a convent when he went to pray. He spotted several nuns saying their daily devotions. He decided that instead of petitioning for himself that day, he would ask God that the nuns' prayers be answered. As they were all walking out of church together they struck up a conversation. My uncle told the nuns that he had been praying for them…that he petitioned for their prayers to be answered. The nuns simply smiled and said to him, “we were praying for you”. Eventually, he was able to control his alcoholism and went on to counsel others with the same disease.

My kids learned empathy for others early on, starting with their relationship with one another. They were rewarded by sharing a bond and love that has transcended into their adult years.  My co-worker extended herself to someone in need creating a deficit for herself that she wasn’t quite sure she could manage. Her return came back to her in the exact amount needed to replenish her budget.  And, in the moment my uncle shifted the focus of his prayers onto others, he unknowingly deflected that grace right back unto himself.

Put others first and the blessings will surely follow.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sometimes On The Other Side Of Fear, You Find Joy

One of my most stifling and all-consuming fears evolved early on in my childhood, and I still remember the event that triggered it vividly. My mother had brought me to pick up my older sister from her piano lesson- and there it was. To me, the dog seemed like a giant; it was at least twice my size. As it approached us, I became frightened, and asked my mom to pick me up. As she held me in her arms, the dog jumped on my mother and tore the sleeve completely out of her coat and in the process scratched my legs drawing blood.

And that was it. From that day on, I was terrified of dogs. Terrified.

That fear became very crippling.  I would avoid walking by dogs, entering houses with dogs, and dog situations in general. Looking back now, I also instilled a little of that fear in my children by not allowing them to go near dogs, either. My son always asked for a dog. But we were of course, strictly a cat family.

Even later, well into my adult years, I found myself avoiding friends' houses if they had dogs. Sometimes I would own up to my fear and they would keep them away from me out of courtesy. If that didn’t happen, though, I would just find excuses not to visit. I wanted very much to control the fear, but any time I was near a dog, I began to feel the anxiety kicking in. And of course, dogs would sense that and always make a bee line for me…causing my stress to elevate even further.

I was forced to confront this fear recently when I entered into a relationship with a man and his dog. They came as a package. I knew if I didn’t tackle it head on it would be a relationship deal breaker. So, that’s exactly what I reluctantly did.

Little by little this dog spent more time at my house. Sometimes even alone with me as his caretaker, while my boyfriend worked. As I would feed him, walk him, and play with him, we slowly began to bond. He grew to trust me, and I began to trust him.  As it turned out, he is the most gentle, loving, loyal dog a person could ask for.

Initially my best hope was that I could simply co-exist with him, but much to my surprise, he has brought me complete joy…. a joy that I never knew existed. Now, I look forward to walking in the door to his wagging tail, miss him when he is not around, and love having the extra heartbeat in the house.

I could never picture my life without him.

I am so appreciative as to how he has enriched my life. He has made me more at ease with other dogs too, and thus, I have experienced things and can be present in places that I never would have otherwise. It has so drastically changed my perspective that he now has a new little brother who we adopted six months ago.

It is hard to believe that someone who had such an overwhelming fear is now a dog owner and dog lover…OF TWO DOGS!  And had I not faced my fears, I would’ve missed out on this amazing experience….a happiness that was missing all along.

 Now when I look back at this adventure, I can apply the outcome to other areas of my life.  And, when I am faced with something that makes me scared, I try my best to power through and remind myself…that sometimes on the other side of fear, you find joy.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

You Never Know Who's Watching

During her senior year in college my daughter found herself on the painful side of a break up. They had been together for five years and it was an incredibly difficult experience for her. At 21 years old, five years is one-fourth of your life-- it's a long time to spend with one person. They were on the downward slide to college graduation and planning on attending graduate school near each other. As far as my daughter was concerned, they were going to begin their lives together.

There are ways to handle break ups with maturity, kindness, and respect. Yet unfortunately, this was not the case with the boy whom I had grown to love like a second son. He was incredibly mean and hurtful to my daughter, which was way out of the character that I knew. She was devastated and confused, to say the least, that someone she trusted could treat her in this way.

My daughter leaned on me quite a bit during this time. It was frustrating for me, since this was the first time in her life that I couldn’t fix something. However, she knew I’d been through a divorce and a recent breakup myself and would be able to share a lot of my own experiences with her. I tried to show her that in the times of my life that were difficult, I stayed strong, kept my head up and took the high road. And that ultimately, these actions, as hard as they can be, lead you to a better place.  I would be lying if I said that my strength never wavered, but for the most part, I tried to set an example for my kids. I was hoping that through my struggles they would learn how to maneuver through relationship problems of their own and know that you can come out of these troubles in a positive way- as a better person.

Through it all I was amazed at how tough and tenacious my daughter truly was -facing it on a daily basis, head-on. She, too, took the high road on many occasions when I knew that it would have been so much easier for her not to.

In his senior year of high school, my son was on the opposite side of a break up. He had spent a major part of his high school years dating her on and off- but decided to end the relationship.

Her mother came to see me shortly after the break up. She wanted to thank me. She said that my son had set the bar high for any future boys her daughter dated and went on to say that even in breaking up with her daughter, he treated her with dignity and respect and she wanted me to know how much she appreciated that. To date, my son and that girl are still friends.

These events in my children’s lives were not only learning experiences for them, but they taught me so much as well. Although it was challenging at times for me to stay strong in my own situations it was well worth the struggle because I had been an example for my kids on how to handle themselves at similar points in their lives. They both demonstrated to me that they were able to navigate these circumstances positively- and be better people for it.

I read somewhere that you should strive to handle the difficulties in life with strength and fortitude because you never know who is watching. I know now, my kids were watching.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

We Are Always Exactly Where We're Meant To Be, Even If We Get There Kicking And Screaming.

My daughter has always been a great student. She was not one I had to nag about homework or ask about grades. She is very ambitious, and has a hard time accepting anything less than an “A”.

As her senior year of high school approached, I reminded her that this was about to pay off. With a 97 average, highest honors and ranking in the top 10% of her class, I told her she would write her ticket. So, imagine my disbelief when she only got into one college.

At $100 a pop, we only sent four applications. I learned later from her advisor that this may have been our biggest mistake. However, this was my first child through the process and it was never communicated to me how steep the competition truly was...until it was too late.

On several occasions through the process I suggested that she should consider applying to Siena College. We had a strong family legacy with the school. My father was one of the school’s earliest graduates (in the 40’s) and spent a good portion of his career at Siena retiring in the late 80’s. Several members of my immediate family were also graduates. Siena played a big role in my father’s life- he was very proud of the school and it had a special place in his heart. When he passed away a few months before my daughter’s graduation, she witnessed how great the Siena community was to my family. But despite my urging, she still didn’t want to apply. She was convinced it was too close to home and she wanted more independence. So, in the true ‘never a quitter’ spirit she possesses, she moved forward with her four applications.

As each rejection letter arrived my daughter became more and more distraught. It was difficult to explain to her how this could even happen. I was dumbfounded myself. On a daily basis lunch table discussions with friends and Facebook posts were a glaring reminder to her that others were having greater success than she was. I could see the disappointment growing each day. I wanted her to be enjoying the last few months of high school, but it became a stressful time. We put a deposit down on the one school that accepted her, although she was not enthused. She was not able to enjoy the experience of choosing a school, as it was her only option.  At the Freshman orientation that summer, I could see the sadness in her eyes. They separated the parents and the students and as I looked across the campus I saw that she was not engaging herself in the activities and it pained me to watch. The thought of leaving her there on move in day was breaking my heart. I couldn’t stand that she felt so defeated when she should be celebrating her accomplishments.

But again, she is not a quitter and was focused on sticking with the cards she was dealt. I knew it was a mistake, but I also knew that she had to come to her own conclusions.

One day- less than a month before she was to leave for college- she came to me and asked if she could bring her car to school. When I asked her why, she said it was because she planned on coming home as much as she possibly could. I explained to her that this was not a good sign. I told her that being away from home would be a big adjustment under normal (Freshman) circumstances and that if she already felt she couldn’t stay there she needed to give that some serious thought.

Then the next morning, I got a text.

“Do you think it’s too late for me to apply to Siena?”

I felt both relief and panic at the same time. It was late in the summer and it was possible they wouldn’t look at her application. I feared yet another bumpy road ahead and didn’t know if she could take it. Even if they accepted her application there were other hurdles; getting her transcript and other needed documents together in AUGUST, was there any aid left, would they give her an equivalent financial package at this late date?  I explained all of this to her but told her I would make the call. Ultimately, Siena did agree to look at her application and the call from the admissions counselor was just what my daughter needed to hear. “When we looked at your grades it was a no-brainer. We definitely have a spot for you in our incoming class.” The package they offered also made it possible for her to attend.

Remarkably, once she made this change everything began to fall into place for her- like it was meant to be from the beginning. There was a new enthusiasm inside my daughter and she was finally excited about the prospect of starting college.

Her four years seemed to sail by, smoothly and easily, from day one. Her experience was rich with opportunities I don’t believe she would’ve otherwise had. She had a fantastic work study job. She somehow fell into the best housing. She made amazing friends. There were no hurdles in her path and she graduated  Magna Cum Laude. A reluctant graduate I might add, because she didn’t want to leave the school she had grown to love.

We came so close to sending her to college kicking and screaming and here she was kicking and screaming to stay! 

I'm convinced from the very beginning; she was meant to be at Siena. Maybe it was what we came to call her Siena Angel (my dad- who would’ve been over the moon that she was there) but I believe it was supposed to be her college experience all along. She was so fixated on what she thought her course should be that she fought the glaring signals- in the form of struggles- along the way.

And all the while she was meant to be somewhere else.

Sometimes we are too focused on the trip when we just need to relax and let the journey unfold before us.

And, trust that we are exactly where we are meant to be – even if we get there kicking and screaming.