So What’s Wrong With Being Pollyanna?

So for those of us of a certain age, a favorite childhood movie was Pollyanna, starring the very gifted child actor Hayley Mills. For those of you unfamiliar with the theme of the movie, Pollyanna is an orphan who goes to live with her much older and very bitter Aunt Polly in a town that is mired in religious intolerance and acrimony. Pollyanna chooses to live her life (even when tragedy befalls her late in the movie) in a positive way, looking for the good in every person and every situation, not judging anyone, knowing everyone has their own story that has shaped and molded the way they act. And since it’s a Disney movie, it won’t surprise you to hear that it has as happy an ending as her circumstances would allow. In fact, Pollyanna became a defined word in the dictionary, usually meaning someone illogically optimistic, someone who believes there is good when no one else would ever draw that conclusion.

Recently I found myself on the outside looking in at a sad and vitriolic discussion about a hot button topic. There are always two sides to every story, I know, but sometimes there is a right and a wrong side, or a much more right side compared and contrasted with a barely understandable side to a topic. And heaven knows that I don’t pretend to always be right although I do aspire to being on the right side of the things that matter to me the most: love, trust, friendship, tolerance, kindness. But this event had none of these things as part of its dialogue and it made me angry and sad.

I was chatting with a friend about this and why people had to behave the way they do, not only in the limited scope of the situation at hand but in general. The bitterness, the anger, the generalizations, the bigotry, the intolerance, the hurtful words. What makes a person come to that point when you would hope they were raised to have an open mind and a loving heart and a generous spirit. And why does a person choose that path when I have chosen another. And my friend Eileen (the most kind-hearted and intelligent woman you could imagine) told me that she was raised to believe the world and the people in it were mostly good, with a few bad apples, and maybe that made her a Pollyanna.

And that really resonated with me. What’s so wrong with being Pollyanna? What’s so bad about wanting to believe the best in people? What’s wrong about trying to focus on the individual instead of stereotyping the group? Why is it easier to focus on the negative instead of embracing the positive? Why oh why do we perpetuate the divisiveness that has separated us instead of reaching across the divide and trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes?

We are a people blessed, a nation that has been given much and from which much is expected. We have heroes great and small, from my mother who gives her mailman a cold iced tea on a hot summer day, to the soldiers of all creeds and races who defend our freedom every day. From my friends, some of whom have lost spouses or children and some of whom have battled serious illnesses to the people who stand up to intolerance every day. From those who share what they have without recognition or need for validation to those who take a stand every day and fight the good fight.

We can all be someone’s hero if we choose to. We can all do what’s right, even when it’s hard and especially when we may be the only one doing right. We can all learn that tearing each other down, or tearing down others we don’t know because we have some preconceived notion in our head about them is neither productive or helpful or kind. Use that energy to do good in the world. Reach out across the bridge that separates us and learn about someone instead of dismissing them. Open your heart, open your mind.

And if that makes me a Pollyanna, so be it. There are a lot worse things to be than that.

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I’m Thankful Thanksgiving Is Over

So it’s a few days since Thanksgiving – a day designed to give thanks for our blessings – is over. My great kid has come and gone, a whirlwind trip which saw us try to cram too much talk into too little time but his return is on the horizon. We watched the parade on television, enjoying the spectacle of the Broadway shows and the earnest goodness of the high school marching bands, the quasi-celebrities on the corporate-sponsored floats, the balloons big and small. We spent the day with our huge extended family, laughing and reminiscing. Being grateful for all we have been given, both material and those things you can feel in your heart and believe with your soul. And now it’s the Sunday after Thanksgiving and I would typically possibly ever so slowly be thinking about maybe (enough equivocation there, ya think?) getting into the Christmas season.

But after what I’ve seen and heard this past weekend, I’m ready to check out of Christmas before it even begins. I’m not unrealistic. Not at all. I expect that come September, I’m going to see fully decorated Christmas trees and lit menorahs in all the big box stores. I know I’ll begin to be bombarded with all manners of television and radio ads promoting the next big toy or electronic item or thing I don’t know I need until they tell me. And I’m OK with that. I guess.

What I’m not OK with is the – in my humble opinion – the total ruination of Thanksgiving by the way the retail industry, following its motto of “enough is never enough”, has corrupted a day that is supposed to be about giving thanks. How many of us know what Thanksgiving is really about, as opposed to what it’s become? A day filled with football games and parades, too much food and wine, traffic jams and short tempers, people fighting over items they won’t remember buying a year from now.

George Washington proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving 225 years ago, designating it “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God”. People were thankful for a good harvest, for a roof over their heads, for their freedom, for their right to worship their God without fear of retribution. And many of us still view Thanksgiving this way. But many others now view it as a free-for-all to get the best prices on crap you don’t need for people you don’t necessarily like with money you don’t have. Only in America.

To read stories over the past few years about people waiting outside stores for days, sometimes weeks to be first in line is disheartening. Because nothing says “I love you” than skipping a Thanksgiving feast with your family so you can warm your hands over a sterno that’s heating up your can of beans outside Best Buy on Thanksgiving Day to buy something that is not necessary. I repeat: not necessary at all.

People have actually gotten killed, trampled by the crowds forcing their way into stores. Fistfights and calls to police abound as bad behavior goes out the window and is replaced by the “me” mentality. Is it worth it to you? Is it worth setting that kind of example for your children? Is it really the way you should live your life?

Should companies force employees to work on a holiday to satisfy their bottom line? Companies insist that employees are asked to volunteer to work on Thanksgiving but the anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. I happened to stay at a hotel on Thanksgiving night because we had traveled a long way from home. The hotel was across the street from a major shopping plaza and – when we checked in at about 8:00 pm – the parking lot was full and every store I could see had lines out the door.

So ask yourself this? What gifts did you get last holiday season? Can you even remember one of them? Can you remember what you bought for others? I have a very hazy idea but I couldn’t swear to anything. What I do remember though is the feeling I had when my son walked off the plane the day before Thanksgiving, after I hadn’t seen him in months. I remember watching the Yule Log the night before Christmas, remembering all the times I watched it with my Mom and my Dad when I grew up. I remember how the Thanksgiving and Christmas after my darling Dad died, my Burke cousins insisted we spend both holidays with them because they loved him as much as we did. I remember how – on New Year’s Eve – my son came home early from a party he was at to be with me at midnight, knowing how New Year’s Eve always makes me sad and how it made me burst into tears with gratitude at his enormous heart and compassionate soul. And I remember hoping, wishing, praying that this year would be better than the last and the one before that.

I don’t hold out much hope that retailers, now that they’ve had a taste of how they can lure suckers into their stores on holidays with smoke and mirrors and promises of discounts galore, will ever change their policy. It’s up to all of us to push back against this, to force retailers to change. I don’t really think Thanksgiving will ever be the way it was when I grew up. But I would be ever so thankful if it was.

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Be Present

Sometimes life can be a roller coaster. We careen from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, sometimes within the same day. We embrace optimism and then despair over something small. We see the good in people, the small moments that make us believe in the future and give us joy and then we sometimes turn on a dime, becoming annoyed when behind the wheel of a car, overreacting to a bad driver. Where is the middle and why aren’t we able to find it, despite having so many real (and virtual) friends available at the click of a keyboard to offer advice or suggestions?

We’re living at a time when we’re all more connected – at least digitally – than ever before, when we can express our thoughts and fears, our hopes and our pains, our triumphs and our minutiae to any and all who will read our tweets or follow our Facebook postings or look at our Instagram shots. But despite that connection, why are so many of us so isolated, so lonely, so accepting of another person’s company only through their words on your screen or their thoughts texted to your phone? Why can’t we find that comfortable middle ground?

For almost my entire life, I lived with other people. A happy family life growing up with two wonderful parents and two great sisters. I wasn’t interested in going to college far away so I chose a great local college and commuted back and forth, between home and the campus of this tiny school, every day for four years. I went from my parents’ home to living with my husband after we married, and then joyfully (after many years of heartbreaking results) welcoming my great kid.

And then my marriage fell apart and my great kid and I moved on to our cozy little place we’ve called home now for 15 years. We had a great life because not only do we love each other but we enjoy each others company. As film fanatics, we saw many movies together, traveled to the happiest place on earth, spent time with friends and family and enjoyed our time together.

But as much as I love where I live, it was not part of my great kid’s future and he decided to go to college nearly 2,500 miles away from home. So about a year ago, after much weeping and promising to talk every day, he flew the nest and headed to his new adventure. And that was the first day in my entire life that I had lived alone.

Being on my own was – and is – hard for me. It’s easy, so easy to stay here in my house and not venture out. To turn down invitations because it involves too much effort or I don’t feel like going there on my own. And it becomes an endless circle of should I stay or should I go?

Fortunately, I can stay connected with people I know and love (and some virtual friends I’ve never met in person) via social media and texts and e-mails and phone calls and that helps ease the loneliness some. And I don’t want to sound like I’m unhappy with being alone; it’s just that it’s taken some getting used to and I’m not sure I’m there yet.

So I’d never advocate abandoning this new era of connectivity we all share these days because it has brought me such joy in so many ways. To reconnect with girls I knew in high school and to become real friends with them, some of whom I never even exchanged words with during our four years together, is a blessing I cannot express enough. To be able to see my great kid through a video chat while he’s across the country at college is a gift that not only makes his absence easier to bear but reminds me that our parents didn’t have that luxury when we went away to school or moved with our spouse to another part of the country. I can see him even when he’s so very far away, being given the chance to say “good night” or comfort him when he’s having a bad time at school or share my day with him or tell him how proud I am of him.

But – and to me this is a very big “but” – our connectivity via social media sometimes makes us forget that nothing can replace a face-to-face lunch with a friend, or being able to hug someone you love when you’re sad, or looking into the eyes of someone you care about, or receiving a handwritten letter unexpectedly from someone in your past. After all, being with someone, truly being with someone means that all five of your senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – can be truly engaged. The experience of being there, being present, being in the moment is an opportunity we sometimes forget but it is one we should not forgo; we should be more greedy for it. Life is too short to spend it behind the screen of a computer, living in a digital cocoon that doesn’t require us to embrace the intimacy that can only come from spending time with a friend, a lover, a parent, a child. But doing so requires action, real action on our parts. Yes, we’re all tired after a long day at work or a stressful commute or the endless stack of laundry to fold when we come home. And sometimes we’re emotionally tired from struggling to care for a parent, or dealing with our own frailties, or figuring out how to make our paycheck last until the next one arrives, or watching the ever-increasingly bad news we’re bombarded with every day.

But what I’ve learned, what I’ve tried to practice – even when it’s tough to do so – is that getting out and being among the madding crowd, being part of the daily dialogue, even being part of the daily traffic flow, makes us more connected in a much more real way than being satisfied with the virtual world that our fingertips connect us to.

So be present. Be in the moment. Be here. Be now. Life is short. Go out and live it.

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All the Lonely People. Where Do They All Come From?

So the news this week has been dominated with the tragic and sad passing of Robin Williams, apparently at his own hand. I’ve read more stories and heard more reports than I care to about the gripping depression he struggled with and when I first heard about this all I could think – which I think many people may have thought – is how someone so successful, so beloved, so talented could think that his life was not worth living any longer.

Depression is an insidious beast, creeping up on even the best of us at one time or another. But we never show it, or almost never show it, do we? We don’t want to be labeled as crazy or out of touch or nutty. We put on a happy face and go out into the world and nurse our pain and our aching hearts and our tired souls behind the facade of a smile, in the privacy of our homes.

We sit in our cars, waiting for the light to change and sometimes find ourselves overwhelmed by what is going on. The smallest thing might bring on tears. Sleep eludes some of us while others are fatigued beyond reason. We get up. We soldier on. And then we go home after putting on that happy face all day long and perhaps we sigh in relief that we can, for just a few hours, stop pretending that we’re ok. Because we’re not. But no one knows that, except for us.

The death of Robin Williams has started a long overdue discussion on the topic of depression, of mental and emotional illness. People are using social media to encourage each other to reach out to others, to stop trying to shoulder their burden on their own. To say that there is no shame in admitting that you suffer with depression. Depression is not a four-letter word, despite what some people may think and despite how insurance companies treat people who suffer from it, who suffer from anxiety and emotional distress.

Insurance companies pay far less – and some pay nothing at all – for someone who needs help coping with an emotional illness or depression or anxiety. Because insurance companies are either too stupid or don’t care enough to realize that depression just doesn’t affect you emotionally, it affects you physically too so not helping you get assistance to deal with emotional issues means they’ll be paying more later when you suffer the physical consequences. And maybe if insurance companies treated emotional and mental illness the same way they do physical illnesses, we’d have fewer people turning to alcohol or pot or drugs or cigarettes or gambling or any other addictive behavior you can think of that helps them forget their problems for a little while, or enables them to put an emotional band-aid on their aching heart or tired brain.

I’ve talked before about a story my friend, Dolores, shared with me, a story she’d heard from her priest. He gave a sermon where he said our world is populated with too many people like Eleanor Rigby and how sad that was and how we all needed to reach out to people like that. (And if you’re of an age where you don’t know who Eleanor Rigby is, feel free to Google it and come back later and finish reading this). And that’s what has been resonating with me all this week as I thought about Robin Williams.

A man whose public persona was always on. Glib, funny, sharp, whip smart with a brain that never stopped. A man whose public face hid the agony his personal life had brought him. A man who didn’t – or couldn’t – reach out for help or let others in. A man who – despite having legions of fans, success beyond all measure, a loving wife, 3 children whom he adored and I’m sure adored him – decided he could not go on any longer because his inner demons were more than he could handle. All the lonely people. Where do they all come from? All the lonely people. Where do they all belong?

I am a lucky person, very lucky indeed. When I have been sad or struggling, I had people I could talk to, people who would listen without judging, who offered good advice and suggestions, who knew that there’s very little difference between a pat on the back and a kick in the ass but also know which one I needed at any given time. People who haven’t given up on me during times when I wanted to give up on myself. Powerful and strong women (and a powerful and strong great kid) who are such blessings. And don’t for one minute think I don’t know it and that I don’t say my prayers every day thanking God for allowing them to be in my life.

So maybe through this tragedy we can all learn something. We can be that voice of reason for someone. We can be the shoulder to cry on. We can be the person who makes someone laugh through their tears. We can assure them that yes, it will get better because nothing lasts forever, neither the good nor the bad, and the reason we can assure them of that is because we’ve walked that same path they’re now on. We can be present in their lives. We can let them know they’re valuable and that they matter and that the world is a better place because they’re in it.

And maybe that will be the legacy of Robin Williams. That his untimely death will remind us all that we’re not alone, that there is help, that we’re not meant to go through this life on our own. That asking for help does not make us weak. Quite the contrary; it shows how strong we are.

Thank you, Robin Williams, and Godspeed.

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Less Is Maybe More

So some of you may know that I just celebrated a milestone birthday, which was less traumatic then I thought it would be. I was blessed to be feted with a surprise party at which so many people I love so dearly attended and made me feel so extraordinarily special. And one of them was my younger sister who flew clear across the country for the weekend to be at the party.

My sister has a wonderful eye for the aesthetic, a sense of what works in decor and what doesn’t. She sees what others don’t and has a vision that works, a skill I hope she’s able to leverage into a business some day because she’s so awfully good at it. Anyway, for a while she’s been telling me I need to pare down my possessions and streamline the things I’ve accumulated, some over a lifetime and some just in the last 15 years that I’ve been on my own.

It’s always hard to see your own things from a fresh perspective, whether it’s your house or your closet or even what’s going on in your life. Maybe it’s tunnel vision, maybe it’s denial, maybe it’s lack of perception; I don’t pretend to know. But her suggestions got me thinking and I’ve been trying to reassess and – to quote the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem – let it go.

I’ve started with my house, donating what I can and repurposing other things or sharing them with someone else. Why I had several hundred DVDs I’ll never know but I don’t any more. And I have to admit that it’s rather freeing to see stuff go out the door and find a new home somewhere else.

Clothes have been a little harder challenge because – and I don’t know if this is just me – there’s always a sentimental attachment to a piece of clothing. I don’t want to let go of the dress I wore when my great kid was christened, even though I’ll probably never fit into it again. I’ll never part with the shirt I was wearing in the hospital the night my father died – even though it’s got a hole in it – because letting go of that would mean letting go of another connection I have to him. But there are plenty of things that I have sent to new homes with the thought “what was I thinking when I bought this” and hoping that the new owner will get just a new piece of clothing without the emotional baggage that was attached to it here in my tiny space at home.

And then there comes the big stuff, the life stuff. Letting go is much harder in this category. What or who makes the cut? What is worth hanging on to? Who is not worth fighting for any more? And why are these decisions so hard?

So the big stuff, the road not traveled decision, the path I choose next is the place at which I find myself. I suspect some decisions will be easy while others I’ll struggle with. And maybe I won’t make the right choices all the time but I have to think that I’m at a crossroads for a reason, that if I pay attention to the signs obvious and less so that I’ll figure it out.

Or so I hope.



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Being Book Smart Is Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be

So when my great kid decided to drive across the country to head back to school after his Christmas break, he – by his own admission – overestimated his stamina and his judgment in thinking he could make a 2500 mile trip in about 4 days or so. And I’m not sure he would have admitted said overestimation if he hadn’t gotten a speeding ticket along the way, a ticket which was mailed to our  home address, which is why I saw it. A ticket he says he got because (pick one) the middle of the country is too boring to look at so he wanted to get where he was supposed to be more quickly or he was too tired and really need to get to his hotel to go to sleep or maybe he just plain ol’ drives too fast. In fact, don’t just pick one; you can pick all three, as I think all of them are true to some extent.

In any event, he didn’t have the option of paying said ticket online so he told me he’d send them a check. Big mistake.

Like any Generation Y kid, he had lived his life using a debit card (sometimes his, sometimes mine but that’s another story). A check was the equivalent of using a VCR instead of streaming video on demand, at least in his eyes. He didn’t know how to write one. So he asked me what to do and I told him – or at least I thought I told him – how to do it. (And I know this makes him sound kind of dopey and he’s really a bright kid so, if by chance he’s reading it, I’m sorry for making you sound dopey!)

Done and done, he told me, and we thought all was well. Until about 3 weeks later when a lovely letter arrived from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania suggesting they might want to suspend his driver’s license since he hadn’t paid his ticket. I couldn’t reach him so I gave them a call and asked them to double-check the check. Oh, we got the check – the lovely lady on the phone told me – but we couldn’t cash it because he didn’t sign it so we sent it back. Sigh. 

All’s well that ends well with that story but it got me thinking that maybe in lieu of – or in addition to – all the history and geography (do they even call it that any more?) and other subjects they teach in grammar and high school (and even college), maybe we should be pushing our educators and our schools to teach our kids some life skills. Balancing a checkbook doesn’t always come naturally, nor does filling out a job application, or writing a college essay, or applying for auto or health insurance, or any of the other tasks that we as adults have (hopefully) mastered. These types of skills are not intuitive. 

We as a nation have already learned the value of teaching art and music in our schools (and my darling cousin, Dan, does that for his students exceedingly well). It’s a matter of record that early exposure to the arts while in school helps students in all kinds of areas of their life, including math and reading and critical thinking. (Unless, of course, you’re the geniuses at the New York school who just cancelled the kindergarden show because – to paraphrase what their acting principal said – it takes up valuable time that could be used preparing 6 year old kids for college. Save us from people like this). 

Anyway, if we know that teaching the arts to our children helps them become better and smarter people, why don’t our educators realize that teaching our children some life skills will also help them become more rounded and better able to navigate the difficult world they’ll all face one day? (And, yes, I know that we as parents also have to teach our children life skills but teachers and parents should be partnering on efforts that will ultimately benefit our kids).

And my great kid now knows how to write a check properly. Let’s hope the next one he writes is for a far greater purpose than the one that the fine folks at the DMV in Pennsylvania got from him. 

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All Roads Eventually Lead You Home

So some of you may know that I took an early retirement from my job to spend more time with my parents and my great kid. I had been at work for more years than I can count and missing too many milestones, too many moments with the 3 people I loved the most. And while it was not an easy decision, it was made easier by the fact that the job I was doing – while it paid well – was not much more than pushing paper around, creating endless spreadsheets to defend or justify or rationalize money for the number-crunchers, and defend prices to people who didn’t really understand them (and that included people in the company I worked for).

But the one part of my job that I loved – and that I missed dearly after I left – was the interaction with people. The conversations with co-workers like my great good friend, Deborah, still the bravest and hardest-working woman I know. The business relationships that started off as phone conversations and eventually evolved into true friendships that I value even to this day, with special people like Dawn and Cindy and Smoochie (and since I’m the only person that calls Smoochie by that name, he/she shall remain anonymous in this post). These friendships have been blessings in my life.

The job though was just a job and one that – for reasons too long and boring to go into here – was morphing less into being of service to my customers and more about satisfying increasingly arbitrary benchmarks. So when I left, I was not missing the concept of working but the people who made the days not only tolerable but enjoyable.

So after the few years since my beloved Dad died and now almost a year since my great kid has relocated his life across the country,  I knew that I needed to do more than I was doing. When I was writing my financial blog (an experience beyond rewarding for me and one I hope to revisit soon), I worked from home and while that can be a very liberating experience to be in control of your time, to be on the schedule that works for you, to skip the horrific traffic jams and winter storms and derailed trains that make up a commute to work, it is also an isolating experience. Because I guess it’s true that no man is an island and when I ventured out of my tiny house into the real world, I found myself soaking up conversations and spilling my guts to anyone and everyone who would listen.

I missed talking to people and I missed the part of my job that had been diminished by others over the years, the part that involved helping people, solving problems, providing good – and maybe great – customer service. I knew there was good I could do and I knew I could be good doing good.

Anyway, I have taken a long way around to talk about the job I am blessed to do now. I work for a great company that is all about helping people, caring for people, making the lives of those people we love and honor better and safer and happier. And I work for the most amazing woman, someone who has a light within her that shines on everyone, a woman with a passion for helping. But how I got here is why I think that you have to watch out for the road placed in front of you.

When my Dad came out of rehab after one of his many stays at the hospital during the last few months of his life, someone suggested to us that we should get help for him at home, not only to make sure he would be okay but to take some of the physical burden off of my mother and also to enable her to take care of herself as well. Because being a caregiver for a family member is a hard and often thankless job. All the attention almost always goes to the patient, while very little praise or recognition is directed towards the caregiver. And so my Mom and I interviewed multiple companies, represented by people ranging from extraordinarily competent to those about whom the less I tell you, the better.

One of those people turned out to be my boss and the caregiver she personally selected for my Dad was a wonderful man who made both of my parents’ lives better. And since I’m a believer that everything happens for a reason, when I stumbled last year across an ad she had placed looking for someone to provide customer service and utilize their people skills for her business, I had to apply. And so happily for me, I got the job.

But it’s not just a job to me. Because every day I can go out into the real world and interact with people and listen to their stories and educate them about how and why we can help their parents, their spouses, their friends, even themselves. I’m doing real good in the world. I’m not pushing paper, I’m not doing busy work; I’m making people’s lives better. In my heart of hearts, I feel like it was the work I was always meant to do. I followed the road and it led me to Right at Home. And I learned that it’s never too late to jump start your career, or point your ship towards a different star, or reinvent your dreams. As that great philosopher of our time, Yoda, says “Mind what you have learned. Save you it can”. I did and it did.

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