Category Archives: Self-Improvment

Happy Day!

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Today, I’m good.

I slept well, and woke up feeling rested, strong, and ready for the day.

I’ve lost about ten pounds so far this year. I notice it a little bit in my face, and I have a few pair of pants that now need a belt, but mostly I look about the same. Still, it feels like a good accomplishment.

The dogs seem content. Though they each have health issues, this has been a good week for them.

I’ve got several good books going. I’m reading That Sounds Fun by Annie F. Downs, Everything is Figure-outable by Marie Forleo and Indelible by Laurie Buchanan. For my morning study time, I’m reading The Power of Daily Practice by Eric Maisel, PhD. For my evening walks, I’m listening to Eternal by Lisa Scottoline.

I’ve just completed filling every page in my sketchbook with drawings, and I’m ready to start another.

My bush beans have finally poked through the ground in the garden. The peas are up, too. The pumpkin is looking quite impressive. After a traumatic start, I think my tomatoes are all going to make it. The pole beans have just started to climb their tepees.

I had a couple really productive days outside last week. I moved a rhododendron plant to make room for several daylilies that I had to thin and move from another bed, to make room for two Gold Drop Potentilla that I bought on sale. I think the bushes will stand up better to my big dog’s thrashing through the flower beds looking for snakes. The daylilies seem to have handled the mid-season transplant just fine. In fact, I swear they seem a little relieved to be out of the big dog’s path of destruction! My hollyhocks are up, taller than me, and loaded with buds, just outside the kitchen door.

I crawled around on hands and knees pulling weeds. Nothing new, except that I can actually see the progress I’ve made. I moved the last of my straw to the garden, to mulch the tomatoes and squash. I picked up a bunch of windfall and a dozen dog toys. I mowed the back yard and, oh, it looks nice!

I met a few friends and cousins after work for a drink on Friday. On Saturday, I ran into a couple other cousins, and had a good chat over coffee. Then I ran to the gallery for a wonderful conversation with another cousin, who shared the news that my work is selling well this year. And even better, reported that she’s getting good feedback about it, too.

Today, before work, I’m going to stop in at the farmhouse to say good-bye to my cousin, Keith, as I won’t be able to be in town to see him off. I’ll be working at the golf course, then, for the rest of the day. After today, though, I have three days off. Oh yeah, plus…the boat that will be coming in to the harbor and carrying Keith away…will be delivering my sisters to the island!!! Oh, Happy Day!!

Here I Am

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I’ve been neglectful of my writing for a couple weeks now. The first one I missed – a “Timeout for Art” blog – was easy to skip over. It hasn’t been that long since I re-started an art-centered blog, and I’ve already missed a few times. The other one, my Sunday blog, has been a pretty regular habit for a while now. I don’t like abandoning my commitments, and it didn’t feel right to skip my weekly post. Then another whole week went by, with nothing. And then another. No art blog; no Sunday blog. By that time, the “gremlins” moved in.

These questions ran through my mind:

“Has anyone even noticed?”

“Does anybody even read what I write anymore?”

“Do I even have anything new to say?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Who cares?”

These thoughts were accompanied by all the usual justifications and excuses:

“I’m too busy!”

“I have too many other obligations!”

“There isn’t enough time!”

And these were followed by self-criticism:

“I’m a quitter.”

“I never follow through.”

“Lazy bum.”

It’s quite the worm hole I travel down, when I neglect things. I’ve had similar conversations in my head over not getting my daily walk in, or letting the recyclables pile up.

When I first started this blog, almost nine years ago, I wrote “when the spirit moved me,” usually two or three times a week. It was a way to pay attention to life as it was going on around me, and a bit of self-discipline that, I thought, couldn’t hurt. Then, my friend Lisa and I agreed to share our artwork and methods in a weekly “Timeout for Art” blog. Lisa was much more dependable than me, and I gave it up before long. Often, I participated in the “April A to Z Challenge,” posting a blog every day except Sunday for the month. Once, I took on a more extreme challenge, and posted a blog every single day of the year!

Eventually, I settled on a couple regular weekly posts, on days that coordinated with my work schedule. Recently, feeling a little overwhelmed by other tasks and obligations and, honestly, by a real concern that I have pretty much already said everything I have to say, I cut back to one blog per week, on Sunday. Then I reintroduced Timeout for Art, on Wednesdays. Though I sometimes scrambled for writing material, I had settled into a habit. Then, three weeks ago, in the middle of all the craziness that spring brings to my life, that habit fell apart.

But, I missed this outlet. Whether or not anyone cares, or reads it, this is different from the private ramblings in my journal. I need to consider that others may see what I write, so I have to keep my ranting in check. I have to think about grammar, punctuation, and spelling. And, the reasons that drove me to start a blog in the first place are still valid. So, here I am. Again.

Haunted

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It’s true what they say, that the older you get, the more familiar you become with loss.

I’ve grown accustomed to death.

First, there are the somewhat expected ones: grandparents and elderly family friends. Next, parents, godparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers. Then contemporaries, siblings and friends. Interspersed throughout are the tragic, unexpected and “too soon” deaths of the very young. As a child, dumbfounded by loss, I thought I’d never get used to it. Now, with age, it has become all too familiar.

If I were to place all the people I have known in my life in two columns, one for the living, and one for the dead, I’m sure that second list would outstrip the first one by a mile. Fortunately, my memory is not nearly good enough these days to even attempt it. It might make a slightly morbid but entertaining group exercise, sometime.

But I am not haunted by the dead.

My Dad, long removed from this earth, often accompanies me as I work in the garden. We keep a running dialogue going, in my head, as I make the furrows and plant the seeds. He offers bits of advise that I’ve heard many times before, and sometimes I get a brand new kernel of wisdom from him. He hasn’t softened much, in his opinions. Flowers are still “Nonsense! A waste of time and garden space!” And “that damned quack grass” is still a mortal enemy. Still, it’s always a pleasure to have a chat with him.

Others visit me when I’m asleep. When my dreams are peopled with friends and dear ones who are no longer here, I wake up smiling. How nice to have had such a good conversation with my Mom! Or, there was Vince, such a comforting presence, talking fervently about local politics, and offering me tea. Grandpa Ted. Ernie Martin. Muggs Bass. My brother David. Being just as predictably maddening as he always was in life.

The difference is that, having experienced the loss of my brother David, having realized what a treasure he was, having spent much time missing him, and mourning him, in my dreams I now know better. No matter how annoying his behavior, I look at him with love. My precious little brother. I wish I’d seen it when he was alive: how special his own crazy personality was; how fleeting his life. It’s things like that that haunt me.

When I was much younger, I used to be haunted by moments when I looked foolish, or did something that embarrassed me. Now, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a single example; they all seem so trivial. But I remember times when I could have easily been kind, but I was curt or short-tempered instead. As a parent, a sister, a daughter, a friend, I have fallen short. Why did I not listen better, show more appreciation, hug longer? It makes me cringe to think of so many incidents that I should have handled differently. Better. In some cases, the people are still here, so I can hope to turn it around, make up for it in some way. Too many are gone. When they visit my dreams, I try to do better.

Ground

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“Ground” is a perfect topic for this week, in this time of the year. I’ve been watching the ground for weeks!

I am constantly looking down; in the springtime, there is always something new to observe. First, I watch the steady regression of the snow cover, then I note the things that are revealed. The pale grass in my yard brightens with each spring day; rain intensifies the many shades of green. Under the trees at the edge of my driveway, wild ramps and trout lilies carpet the ground.

Walking down the Fox Lake Road, the view changes daily. Bright greens shoot up among fields of dull grasses. Ferns slowly uncurl their fronds. Brambles that just yesterday were bare, show bright buds at the ends of every branch. From areas where there was nothing of interest to see, suddenly a cluster of trilliums bloom. Always, especially after a rain, and just in case luck favors me, I watch for morels.

It’s not all new. Around my lawn, before I can mow the quickly growing grass, I pick up windfall shaken down by winter winds from several large trees, clothespins dropped and forgotten under the clothesline, and a dozen dog toys.

My big dog, Darla, loves to carry her toys outside. She’s choosy about which one gets to go out with her on any given day. If it’s muddy, she always seems to want the white lamb; the crazy chicken is her current favorite. No matter; she never brings them back inside. I pick them up, regularly, and bring them inside. There comes a time, though, when the day is too cold, or the snow is too deep, or I’m simply neglectful. The toys are abandoned outside, and buried under the snow. It’s an annual ritual, when the snow melts, to gather them up, wash them, and give them back to Darla. She greets them all like long-lost friends, and we begin again.

It’s not all good. The fenced-in space for my vegetable garden needs a lot of work. The light deer fence has come down along the whole south side, and is tangled in the milkweed, blackberry brambles and tall grasses that grows in the field there. Weeds have sprung up in the planting beds, and the mulch that marked the pathways has pretty much disappeared. The flower beds are covered in clumps of blown-in leaves, and choked in quack grass. That’s what forces me down to the ground.

I tackle the flower beds one at a time. I work on hands and knees. One by one, I roll away the rocks that form the border. I pull the grasses that have taken hold between the stones then, digging down with my bare hands, I follow the long white roots into the bed. I’ve never been able to get used to wearing garden gloves. I can’t feel anything through them – not the bulbs and corms I’m trying to save or the tangled roots I’m attempting to eradicate – so I sacrifice neat fingernails for the satisfaction of getting my hands in the earth.

It’s a slow process, and one that is continually interrupted by more pressing duties. Last week, I spent parts of three days getting the lawn mowed. Before the summer season gets underway, I have to tackle the vegetable garden, and get plants and seeds into the ground. Always, there are other jobs calling me away. Recently, the mosquitoes have hatched, and their fierce attack brings all outdoor work to a quick halt in the evening. Still, it’s satisfying to see the progress, and when I’m able, on almost any bright day, I’ll spend at least part of it on the ground.

Gratitude

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Ah, gratitude. I’ve written about this before. Often, and – I think – recently. So recently, that I’ve wondered if I should bypass this word, this time. But, I just recently finished my A to Z blog-writing challenge, and returned to my long list based on the Table of Contents in David Whyte’s book, Consolations. It’s too early to start changing the plan. So, gratitude.

I have, finally, thoroughly embraced a daily gratitude practice. I write, every single day, a list of things that I am thankful for. The habit alone makes me happy. I have, for most of my life, traveled through my days by the seat of my pants, ad-libbing everything from waking and sleeping times to whether the dishes would get done, or pile up in the sink. I’ve lately embraced habit as a way to make life easier.

I used to smoke. When I decided to quit that habit, about twenty or so years ago, it was really hard. In addition to the addiction, which is real, I had the habit of smoking, Now that I am a non-smoker, I don’t wonder, after a big meal or when I pick up the telephone, whether I should light a cigarette or not. It doesn’t even cross my mind. My life is easier as a non-smoker for many reasons, but one important one is that I don’t have those decisions to make all through the day.

Because I was giving up rather than adding a habit, it didn’t occur to me right away just how much habits make life easier. We all have daily habits that are such a natural part of our lives that we don’t even think about them. Forming a habit takes time. Some studies say two weeks; others suggest thirty days or even longer. Once it’s there, though, it comes easily. With this awareness, I’ve incorporated quite a few new and helpful habits into my life in recent years. I’m proud of every one of them.

So, writing down things that I’m thankful for is a good thing, all on its own. I know it would please my mother, and it adds another bit of discipline into my disorganized life. Beyond that, the gratitude habit has opened my eyes. It would be easy to write a simple, rote list of blessings in my life: my family, a roof over my head, and food to eat are always things I’m grateful for. Repetitive, but true. Since I try to write sincerely about things that please me, I am more observant, and more aware.

When I’m forced out of bed at two in the morning to let a dog outside, and the moon is bright, or the sky is full of stars, I think, “thank you,” and the next day, “last night’s bright moon,” or “that beautiful sky full of stars” will show up in my gratitude-writing. If it rains when we need rain, or the sunshine raises my spirits, I take note. A phone call or a message from a loved one will surely make the list. I’ve become more appreciative of the small pleasures in my life, as I pay more attention to them. Gratitude is a habit. A simple, eye-opening, life-enhancing, happiness-inducing habit. I highly recommend it!

Giving

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I enjoy giving much more than receiving.

I think that’s how most people are. Giving opens my heart; receiving intimidates me.

I can hand out compliments all day. I try, in every single interaction, to find something honestly positive to say. I’m good at it. When I’m given a compliment, however, I freeze. My first instinct is to deny it. No, I don’t look nice, I’m not that talented, and I’m not so smart. I worry that the compliment-giver is just being patronizing, that their words aren’t sincere, or that they are speaking out of pity. I have to force myself to accept their words, and to voice a simple “Thank you.” The same dichotomy is present in gift-giving and gift receiving

In The Mirror Has Two Faces, Barbra Streisand says, “I want someone to know me…to really know me!” Choosing thoughtful gifts for others based on their interests is a way to show them that they are known, and understood. It can be as simple as remembering a favorite color or a hobby.

Shared interests make giving even more fun. My daughter Kate and I are both avid readers, and we often share similar taste in reading material. Lately, we’ve both been working to expand our knowledge and awareness about race relations in this country. We have lively discussions about books we’ve found, and give each other suggestions about what to read next. She told me about The New Jim Crow; I sent her a copy of Caste.

Even when I limit myself to buying books as gifts (because shopping for and shipping out other things can be hard to do from this location, and because I love getting books as gifts, so I assume everyone else feels that way, too!), I work hard to match the book to the recipient. I know that both of my daughters share an appreciation for the works of Stephen King, and that my grandson Michael always appreciates a book about Beaver Island. It’s more of a struggle to find the “perfect” book for my other grandchildren, but I’m always up for the challenge.

Gifts that are given to me are, first of all, just too much. Too generous. Either too big and too expensive, or too many small, thoughtful things. They are so thoughtful! So timely! Immediately, I feel shame that I have not met the gift-giving standard. Did I even send a card? What measly or cheap gift did I give, to now be receiving this wondrous thing? What did I ever do to deserve such kindness?

Of course, if I voice these doubts and concerns out loud, I am generally reassured with compliments…which are equally difficult to accept. Receiving is just plain hard. Giving, on the other hand, is easy!

What In the World??

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What is going on? Where are the stars and planets? It seems, according to my life, that something must certainly be out of whack. What in the world?

Usually, my life rolls along on a pretty even keel. I have good days and bad days in a fair balance, in between the majority of days that are just routine. Which is fine with me.

The last couple of days, though, have brought a string of unfortunate events, one on top of another.

First, the weather. Is it wanting to be spring…or fall? Rain turns to snow, then, along with cold weather and whipping winds, it turns back to rain. The weather affects my ability to get a good walk in, which makes it harder to get rid of a sour mood.

It seems like I often come home from work with a poor frame of mind. I get so tired of all the machinations of just getting through a day. But, I’d need much more room than I have here, to do my grumbling about that!

Yesterday, my bathroom ceiling developed a serious leak. Water dripped into the bathtub for hours, as the rain came down outside. The drywall on the ceiling sagged, and felt spongy. Where is that water coming from? My bathroom is on the first floor of a story-and-a-half house, with an inaccessible space above it. The roof is a 12-12 pitch; there is no plumbing up there. It wasn’t raining that hard!

Then, while I was cooking dinner, the panel of indicator lights on the back of the stove started going crazy. There was a humming sound coming from it as the clock flashed on and off, with numbers on display that made no sense. The indicator lights for “Bake,” “Broil,” and “Clean” flashed on and off, too. After several minutes of that, it all went dark. I have no oven, until I get it fixed.

Today, for the first time this month, I didn’t have a blog written ahead. No problem, I was up early enough to write. I had it started, even. The title was “Waking Up.” Then, in helping Blackie Chan get down from the bed, I wrenched my back. Blackie Chan is my smallest, lightest dog! I’ve made that maneuver hundreds of times before. Today, I put my back out! So, the rest of the morning was spent alternating hot compresses and ice packs, so that I could go to work.

And, once again, work was a strain of swallowing my pride, accepting my station, and just continuing to do my job. By the time I got home, the rain was pouring down (and still dripping enthusiastically into the bathtub inside, as well), and the temperature had dropped. No walk. I’d make a nice dinner.

No oven.

Okay. Dinner would be leftovers warmed-up on top of the stove. I decided to treat myself to dessert. I had a box of no-bake cheesecake, and all of the ingredients I needed to put it together. With the crust nicely formed and chilling in the refrigerator, I mixed up the filling. Nice and thick. I pulled the beaters out of the bowl. Then, in a moment of idiocy, I pushed the button that I thought (because that’s how it was on my old mixer) would release the beaters. On this new mixer (that I’ve had, and used, for at least five years, mind you) that button is the “burst of power.” Pushing it sent the beaters madly spinning, coating everything with sweet filling. From the floor to the coffee pot to the entire stove top to the overhead cabinets to last night’s dishes still in the drainer, everything is spattered.

What else could possibly go wrong? What in the world?

Vaccine

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“I got my first one!”

“Have you gotten your vaccination?”

“You’re going to get vaccinated, aren’t you?”

“Which vaccine did you get?”

“We’re all vaccinated up.”

Never in my lifetime, until now, has there been such a preponderance of talk about vaccines, and vaccination status.

As a young child, I knew what vaccinations were. I grew up in a time when death or disfigurement from childhood diseases was a real fear. Though I hated getting shots, and would run to close myself in the bathroom to hide when Doctor McBride came to the house, I knew they were for my own good. I watched the progress of the blister caused by the Small Pox vaccine, and was proud of the scar it left behind.

When the polio vaccine came out, the doctor handed the paper cups, each holding a sugar cube that held the vaccine dose, to my mother, so that she could do the honors. “This won’t hurt,” she told her three or four children gathered around, “It tastes sweet!” And each of us put the cube on our tongue, and let it dissolve there, as my mother nodded approval, and the doctor and my father grinned.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize how important that moment was. I didn’t think of it much at all. Even later when I went to school, always with one or two children who, it was pointed out, “had polio when they were little.” It was just normal life, that there were children who limped and wore braces on their legs, or who had a withered arm, or who were wheelchair bound, because they’d had polio. Even in high school, when we learned about the polio wards, and iron lungs, and the devastation the disease had wrought, I didn’t think much about it.

It was only much later, when I had my own children, that I realized the importance of that event. When I knew, first-hand, the overpowering urge to keep my children safe, and the constant, underlying fear that something beyond my control could happen to them, I understood the smiles and nods that accompanied the dispensing of those sugar cubes. During that time in my life, vaccination talk was a thing: appointments had to be scheduled, paperwork filled out, and boosters given on time. Still, they were small asides, not major conversations.

When my children were getting their vaccines, for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, and other childhood diseases, Small Pox vaccines were no longer given. The danger – which was miniscule – of dying from side effects of the vaccine was greater than the danger of contracting the disease! That’s how successful it was! So, when the controversial possibility that vaccines contributed to autism started making the news, I was unwavering in my position.

I felt then, as I do now, that the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh the risks. So, now that Covid-19 has made vaccination a major talking point, I’m happy to join the crowds in announcing: I got my first vaccination; mine was the Pfizer vaccine; I’m scheduled for my second; side effects were minor; and it’s a big relief!

Rest

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When my “To-Do” list is long and overwhelming, I have to remind myself to rest.

When deadlines loom, and time seems short, it’s not easy to take time out, but that’s when it is most necessary.

Sometimes a few minutes is enough. I step out the door, breathe in fresh air, and take a moment to admire what’s budding or sprouting or blossoming. Or, I sit down in the comfortable armchair, where I almost never sit, beside whichever small dog has settled there, and open a book. I might make a cup of tea and page through a magazine. Sometimes, I just allow myself a few moments of stillness.

Other days, a longer break is in order. The dogs are always up for a walk, no matter the weather, and it is a welcome break for me, too. Or, I might call a daughter, a sister or a friend for a few minutes of conversation. Or, I gather a book, a beer, my camera and my sketchbook. I load everything – plus three dogs – into the car for a run to Fox Lake. There, I’ll sit at the picnic table while the dogs enjoy the brand new smells, and change of scenery.

Sometimes, simply changing from one activity to another is enough. When I’m struggling with tax documents, writing a blog can seem restful. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by a blogging challenge, shaking out the rugs gives me a break. As a master procrastinator, I recognize these things for the diversionary tactics that they are. Still, if something productive is getting done, seriously, what the hell.

Then there are times when the only thing to do is come to a full stop, I can feel the agitation of too much to do and not enough time. Nerves are getting in the way of any progress. I know that panic, or tears, are close. No break, whether long or short, and no alternate activity will cut it. Then, I just have to respect my need for rest. I have to be bravely careless enough to let all forward motion stop. Make soup. Watch a movie. Read something mindless. Take a nap. Save shame and judgment for another day. Just rest.

New

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Here is spring.

Winter started slowly this year, and was, all told, a pretty mediocre season, here on Beaver Island. Cold temperatures came late and only sporadically. Though we had a couple big snows and considerable ice, there were no records broken.

No matter. When the ground is finally clear, when the new green shoots poke out of the ground and the trees start to bud, I welcome spring. Though I’ve been present for the changing seasons for nearly seventy years now, spring comes as if it’s never happened before, and I greet it with surprise and wonder.

I’ve always lived in Michigan, and I enjoy the changing seasons. I don’t love everything about any of the seasons, but there are things to appreciate in each. I love summertime, and look forward to it. The ever lengthening and warming days make me happy. I enjoy summer’s energy. When the nights start to cool and the trees show their colors in the fall, I like the change. Simmering soups and long walks through the crackling leaves replace the busyness of summer. When the holidays get close, and first snow falls, I appreciate the beauty, and the quiet and introspection that the winter offers.

Just like all the other seasons, I know that spring is coming. Still, I am amazed. Did I doubt that winter would give way? Did I forget that spring arrives every single year? It seemed like a miracle. It opens up like a distant memory. This season always surprises me. In the spring, everything seems brand new.

Walking down the Fox Lake Road with my dogs, the smell of onions is suddenly present. Oh, the ramps! I’d forgotten! Looking down, speckled green leaves poke out of the dry ground cover. Trout lilies! Nearly obscured by the overgrown grapevines, my forsythia bursts into flower. Has it always been that bright? Have I seen that yellow before? The pale, bright green on the ends of the tree branches. Is that new? And the smell of lilac! That deeper, musty smell that reminds me about morel mushrooms. In the springtime, the regular seems extraordinary.

No matter how many times this pattern repeats, no matter how many times I’ve watched the seasons change, spring is always brand new!