Sunday, June 25, 2017

Talk less, listen more.

As Erma Bombeck famously stated in her "If I Had My Life To Live Over" essay, she said she would have "talked less and listened more."

Dear Erma, I wholeheartedly agree.

Yesterday my family and I had the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with my husbands 93 year old grandmother.  The kids and I have only actually met her a handful of times, and usually as a part of a family reunion. So getting to talk to her, or more accurately, listen to her, was a rare occasion  to get a glimpse into her life way back before World War II, before the invention of the television, and before she had six kids and a husband who left her shortly after the sixth one was born.

I came prepared with questions that I jotted down on the back of a receipt I found in my purse on the way over to her house.  My husband did not know the answers to any of the questions and he was as fascinated as I was to learn about her experiences as a young girl in boarding school and how she spent her summers in her youth.  Being of hearty English stock, she recalled how she persevered steadfastly and rather unemotionally after her mother left when she was 6 and confessed how she never really knew the woman who gave birth to her.  She considers her stepmother her real mother and cherishes her 3 step siblings.  While she couldn't remember specific activities they did together as children, she remembered fondly the fact that they always had chores to do on the farm and how no adults were concerned about how their kids or the neighbors' kids were being entertained.  They were left to their own devices to figure out how to pass the time between school and work and there was virtually no supervision once a child could manage tasks on his or her own.  She laughed at the memory of the neighbor boy peering in the window to watch their first tiny black and white television, and frowned with disdain remembering the "coming out" parties of her debutante acquaintances.  She took us through her history of meeting Grandpa (my husband had never heard that story) of raising her kids on her own farm, of teaching special needs children and running horse camps after her children were grown (and finally retiring at age 70!) and of always having her door open for when a niece or nephew or grandchild needed a place to stay, even for an indefinite period of time.  When I asked her when was her happiest time she grew pensive for a moment and didn't answer.  After the pause I gently asked further, "Was it when you had your six children all around you in the house?" She remained silent for another minute, then looked up and replied, "Yes. Yes I think it was."  I'm quite sure no one had ever asked her that question in 93 years.

As she talked for a good 75 minutes or so, my teenage kids were enraptured.  There was no checking of phones or talking among themselves or looking bored.  They added their own questions and comments to her stories, and laughed along when she told of a funny instance that had, until then, been long since forgotten. It was, quite simply, a magical time spent together, and one that we are all incredibly grateful and honored to have had experienced.

I asked similar questions to 2 great aunts from my father's side many years ago, shortly before they passed away.  It was amazing to get a real picture of these quiet, polite, and very reserved old ladies whooping it up in the South, playing the part of Scarlett O'Hara in the early part of the twentieth century, long before their hair turned white. Their eyes sparkled and their voices came alive as they told us all about the nicknames in the family, the weekly dances and courting rituals, and of course, the rampant racism that wasn't recognized as such in the innocence of their youth.  After those special moments we all saw them as real people, and no longer just as the twice-older generation with whom we had nothing in common and nothing similar to which we could relate.

Everybody has a story.  Every person who has ever walked on the Earth has had experiences unique to them, but are also a part of a shared experience called humanity.  Everyone has hopes and expectations, has experienced love in some form or another, and has suffered loss, which I believe is the great unifier.  It can be fun and extremely rewarding to get to know the stories and backgrounds of the people that you know by name but don't really know as fellow human beings; especially those with whom you have a presumption that you're too different to have a connection with besides familially.

So I would encourage you, when you have the chance, sit down with an elderly relative or friend of the  family and ask them about their life.  Take them back to what will most likely be a simpler time when they had their life in front of them instead of behind. They will most likely be delighted to share their life stories with you, and undoubtedly thrilled that someone took the time to ask. Unfortunately it seems that senior citizenship is not recognized or respected in American culture and often the elders in our society are pushed off to the side and even ignored when the younger people are around.  Wouldn't it be nice to change that within your own circle?

Here is a list of questions to get you started:

1.  Where did you go to elementary school? What was the culture there? What were the disciplinary actions doled out by the teachers?

2.  What did you do for fun as a family, before television and computers? Did your family have a radio that they listened to nightly?

3.  What were some of your favorite meals cooked by your mother? What did she do while you were in school?

4.  Did you have a secret hideout like a tree or a cave nearby? Who were your friends and what kind of games did you play?

5.  What was your first job? Do you remember what you got paid?

6.  How did you meet Grandpa/Grandma? Were you ever in love before you met him or her? How long did you date before getting engaged/married? May we see your wedding photos?

7.  What were your career goals?  Were you encouraged to follow your aspirations as a young adult?

8.  What was the political climate like when you were young? Was there racism or prejudice in the town where you grew up? If so, which groups of people were targets?

9.  What was your favorite toy as a child? Do you remember who gave it to you or where you got it?

10. What was your favorite subject in school?

11. What was the make of your first car?

12. Did you have a pet growing up? What was its name?

13. What were birthday parties like when you were young?

14. What was your favorite book growing up?

15. What did you wear to go to school?

16. Do you remember when you first got a television? A record player/phonograph?

17. Do you remember how much a loaf of bread cost when you were young? How about a chocolate bar? A soda at the soda fountain?

18. What did you worry about when you were younger? Did you have to participate in things like air raid drills?

19. Did you know your own grandparents?

20. When was the happiest time in your life?

Please feel free to add your own questions and let the conversation go off on as many tangents as the speaker wants.  I would also suggest keeping water or another beverage handy if the person isn't used to talking so much at one time.  You can also record the conversation to play for other relatives who might be interested.  We didn't record this conversation because I felt that Grandma wouldn't feel as comfortable speaking freely if she was being recorded, but if your person is up for it, it would be a wonderful keepsake to pass along to future generations (assuming of course they will have the correct technology to play the recording 😉)

All this to say, while we still have our precious elders with us, we should try to form a connection with them before they and their stories are gone forever.  Don't forget, you came from somewhere - we all did - and it is only through the the accomplishments and daily living of the people who came before us that led us to where we are today.  Find out about them.  Take the time to engage and question and listen to the fascinating stories about what came before you.  Hopefully the young ones of the future will do the same with us.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Renounce the Dream Spitters

You know who I'm talking about.  The discouragers, the putter-downers, the "well-meaning" people who let you know in no uncertain terms just how lame, stupid, and impossible your dream is, and who go out of their way to steer you in a different direction claiming it's for your own good.

I know a lot of these people. I call them the Dream Spitters.

Because that's what they do. They spit on your dreams.

Dream Spitters come in all forms - supervisors, friends, family members, acquaintances, and sometimes even strangers will, for some unknown reason,  make it a point to say to your face exactly why you shouldn't be doing what you're doing.  It's happened to me more times than I can count and all I can say is, protecting myself from the spit is extremely tiring.

I wasn't always able to protect myself though.  The first major Dream Spitter I encountered (and who earned the first official nickname) was in Seattle many years ago. I was newly engaged, excited about living in a new place, and along with my day job (which by the way was filled with Dream Spitters, my direct boss was the king of soul-crushing expectorating) I was going to sign language interpreting school at night.  One of my dreams was to be an ASL interpreter, specifically at concerts after seeing one at a concert and falling in love with the art and skill of interpreting music.  After about a year and half of school an opportunity arose for me to try interpreting for a church's worship music segment.  (Those of us who weren't certified yet weren't able to do any spoken word interpreting, but because music is more free flowing and doesn't have to be as exactly lined up as speech, it was a good way to practice in public.) I met with the signing supervisor, who was very warm and welcoming, I worked hard all week on memorizing the songs, and I was so excited on Saturday night when the musicians, pastor, signing supervisor, and I met for the rehearsal.  I was beaming with joy and anticipation as I stepped up onto the mini stage off to the side where I would be one step closer to my dream coming true.  The music started and I went into a zone - I was hearing the music and feeling the music, my entire body was engaged in the signing, not just my hands, and overall I felt this beautiful flow between the music coming out of the speakers and the signs appearing effortlessly one after the other.  It was a magical, beautiful, joy-filled, expressive experience for me, and when I was finished I felt like I had really accomplished something magnificent.  Yes, it was just a rehearsal in small church with no attendees, but for me it was a triumph. I felt like a bright shining light, emitting beauty and expression into the dark empty space. I had that sacred experience of what happens when what you think you want to do intersects with what you are supposed to do, and you feel like your dreams have aligned with your purpose. For me, it was a feeling of unequivocal exuberance and sparkling pride...which lasted for about 30 seconds.

Enter the Dream Spitter.

The warm and welcoming signing supervisor came up to me as I stepped down.  I was beaming and smiling, unable to contain my elation.  She frowned at me and held up a large lined notebook.  As the pastor began his sermon practice she sat me down and said these words to me:

"You have a beautiful signing style...but here's what you did wrong."

She proceeded to go down her extensive list of how she would have done it differently, how at this place instead of using this certain sign they used a different sign, and how the Deaf people she knew who attended this service preferred this song signed this particular way, etc. etc. etc.  She basically cut me off at the knees and let me know that while my signing might be acceptable somewhere else, here at this church SHE would be the one to take over the following morning.

I. Was. Crushed.

I got in my car and sobbed uncontrollably until I was calm enough to drive myself home.  Once I got there I called my fiancé (this was before cell phones so I had to wait to get home to call him) and started hysterically crying all over again.  I felt like my dream, my purpose, my ultimately fulfilling job that I was working toward had been snatched out of my hands and thrown far away, unable to be reached because I was so incredibly incompetent.  At that moment I felt like a huge ugly door had slammed shut on my beautiful, magical dream and I remember feeling utterly inconsolable.

I was young. I was impressionable.  I had hopes that didn't match my self-esteem. And I believed what this person said about my abilities, and assigned that poison to my soul.  Which I know now is the ultimate goal of the Dream Spitter.

I did not volunteer again, and although I kept going to school, my heart was no longer in it.  We moved shortly after we got married and I was unable to get my certification, but I didn't really care.  I had left this dream behind and did not possess the desire or the wherewithal to try to open the door to it again.

At the time I was so "in" it that I couldn't see the reality of the situation.  Too often this happens with young people who don't have a foundation of courage and determination to help see them through these times of disappointment and defeat.  Now that I'm 2 decades removed, and have encountered many similar incidents in my life, I can see that the following things were true in my scenario:

1. My signs were spot on.  Every sign was technically correct and would have been understood perfectly by a Deaf person watching.  I think it's important to note this because I wasn't a slacker - I cared about this assignment, I studied and worked diligently to make sure that what I was doing was absolutely accurate.  Music can be signed on a broad scale, and even though what I chose to do may not have aligned with the supervisor's choices, it was still right and would have been comprehended as it was intended. (Not to mention that it was her responsibility to tell me ahead of time if certain signs were preferred over others at this place.)

2. This Dream Spitter was a big fish in a teeny tiny pond.  I was young (she wasn't), I was cute (she wasn't), I was on my pre-wedding diet so I was thin-ish (she wasn't), and I was happy, energetic, and effusively excited about getting to sign for my first time outside of the classroom.  In other words, I was a threat to her domain, and seeing her position potentially jeopardized by this fresh and bubbly new person made her scared and feel the overwhelming need to put me in my place.

Sad, isn't it?  It was her job to be encouraging and supportive and ideally be a mentor to us up and coming interpreters. They needed signers and she complained incessantly about having her weekends constantly taken up by this job because she had no one to help her.  But as we can see, she didn't actually want anyone to help her, and certainly not anyone who might have been better at her job than she was.

There's no telling how many other people's dreams she has spit on throughout her life and how many additional people took her deliberate denigration to heart. But as I said in my last post, that must be one heavy heart she has to carry around, and one miserable life she has to feel the need to put people down instead of lifting them up.

This woman was just one of many Dream Spitters I have encountered in my life.  The boss who told me that my self-review numbers were way too high.  The music teacher who harped on my inadequacies with never a positive affirmation.  The close friend who let me know to my face all of my unforgivable faults that made me a terrible companion.  The co-worker who advised me to dial it down a notch because I was making the rest of them look bad by comparison.  The relative who told me that I would never find any kind of success as long as I was overweight.  The bridesmaid who admonished me post-ceremony in front of the wedding party that the wedding kiss went on too long.  The distant relative who advised me against looking for another job when I was crying myself to sleep every night.  The other boss who set me up on my first day to appear incompetent while she took over for my unpreparedness (Did I mention it was my very first day on the job?). I can think of at least ten more off the top of my head.  Dream Spitters are everywhere, and they will do everything they can to bring us dreamers down to their pitiful level, where they kill others' hope and anticipation in an pathetic attempt try to feel better about themselves.

So how do we combat the Dream Spitters?  The Joy Stealers? The people who are all too happy to see us fall flat on our faces after deliberately placing the banana peel under our feet.

First off, cut them out of your life.  Immediately.  You don't need them.  If you can't completely cut them out (i.e. family members that you have obligations to see) then cut them out of your circle that you tell good things to.  If you don't share your dreams with them, then they won't be able to spit on them.  When asked what you're working on, you have every right to reply "This and that," or "I've got a few things in the works," and leave it at that.  Usually that is enough to make the other person realize that you don't want to discuss it further, but if they don't get it the first time around, when they ask you, "Like what?" then you can feel free to say, "I'll let you know when it's done, I'm not really comfortable talking about it while I'm in process." Or something like that.  Usually these people love to talk about themselves so another tactic would be to answer the "What are you doing right now?" question with "Not much, what are YOU working on right now? I heard you joined a new book club (or knitting club, or cooking class, or whatever you heard they are into)." Or "You know, this and that.  How's work going? Did you get the new desk chair you wanted?" You get the idea.  The point is, get the focus off of yourself as quickly as possible and these all-too-discouraging people will forget about spitting on you and instead enjoy talking about their favorite subject: themselves.  You may have to put up with complaining and kvetching and whining from them about their current situation, but at least you and your aspirations will be off limits.

Secondly, remember remember remember that their dream spitting is not about you. It is about them.  I remember when I had my first baby and chose to not return to work outside my home I got calls every few weeks from a former colleague of mine.  She said she was calling to check in on the baby and me, but in every single conversation she would inevitably ask me when I was returning to work.  I would patiently explain to her that I was not going back to work, instead I was staying home to raise my child.  She could not understand this concept.  She would say things like, "But you could be doing so much MORE!" and"But you have skills and an education, don't you want to put them to good use?" and "But don't you want more out of your life?" Not only were these comments incredibly rude, but they were also supremely disrespectful of the choice I had made of the way I wanted to live this new chapter of my life.  Because I had a different opinion than her, she simply couldn't comprehend why I, or anyone, would make that choice.  Dream spitter.

Now, this woman chose to remain unmarried and childless and used her time and efforts to move up the corporate ladder.  At any point during that time I could have said to her, "But don't you want MORE out of your life? Won't this choice leave you unfulfilled because no one ever said on their deathbed 'I wish I'd spent more time at the office?' Why would you ever NOT want to have a family?"   I could have easily (and some would argue justifiably) spit on her dreams because they were diametrically opposed from mine.  But I pride myself on being a lifter-upper, not a keeper-downer.

Thirdly, recognize that 9 times out of 10 the reason the Dream Spitters are doing the spitting is because they are unhappy in their own lives.  This is obvious, but when you're in the midst of someone making you feel like your dreams are impossible it's can be hard to see the root of where it's coming from.  You might want to willingly take on what they are dishing out because it's easier to give up than to keep plugging away at your dream. But don't ever let the Dream Spitters win.  It's what they want, and they don't deserve it.

Lastly, realize that the Dream Spitters of the world are wholly and completely consumed by outside validation.  Their lives are all about what other people think, or more accurately, what they THINK other people are thinking.  Miss Dream Spitter Sign Language Interpreter enjoyed her position of power and relished reigning over her underlings.  Do you know what I found out about her later? Her husband left her, her first daughter had a baby out of wedlock (which was a big deal to the small tightly-knit church community), her son had been nearly arrested, and her other daughter left the house as soon as she could to get away from her mother.  I have to assume that mine weren't the only dreams she made a habit of spitting upon.

The list goes on.  The friend who kept telling me what was wrong with me was dealing with a crumbling marriage and an fierce desire to work but kept coming up short in finding her perfect job. Horrible boss #1 had just gone through her third divorce and it was common knowledge that she only had that job because she was a friend of one of the directors there.  The colleague who badgered me about my decision to give up my job only found her validation from outside forces like her job title and her salary - she couldn't get it from inside of herself, nor could any of the other people who have felt so free to spit on my and other people's dreams.  The trick is to not let these people's frustrations and disappointments about their own lives rub off on you or me or anyone else who is trying to live a fulfilled and happy life according to their own terms.

So my friend, I encourage you to renounce the Dream Spitters in your life!! You have my permission to cut anyone out of your life who spits on your dreams and doesn't see you as the luminous, stellar, amazing, accomplished, capable-of-anything, talented person THAT YOU ARE.  Not all of us will be able to fulfill our dreams or see them fully realized, but each and every single one of us deserves the chance to try.  And while we're trying, we don't need some yucky Dream Spitters to get in our way.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Teflon Skin

Allow me to set the scene for you: It's mid-May, in the year 2017, I'm in a lovely town in a mid-Atlantic state in the United States of America.  The sun is out, the sky is blue, a catered lunch is about to be served, and everyone is joyfully milling about in pastel florals and lightweight suits.  I'm leaning down to find my table number card when out of nowhere...

WHAM!!!!! I'm smacked across the face with blatant, discriminatory, personally pinpointed, directed fully toward me racism.

This is no joke.  When it happened I was so stunned I couldn't breathe for a moment.  Several moments actually.  While it's not important what was said, what is important was that it had to do with my being unwelcome there, the person's offense that I was in his presence, and that he thought his remarks were terribly terribly funny.

2017. The United States of America.

For some background, this is person that I've actually known for many years.  While I do not know him well, we have been in each other's lives enough for him to have been on the receiving end of my family's generosity for things like like the loss of his wife, a house move, a significant birthday, etc.  This is NOT the first time he has been prejudicial and pejorative to me; the times before making it abundantly clear that he would have been proud to wear a brown shirt overseas in the early 1940s.

Yikes.

Enough about him though - he's not worth the time or the effort it takes to type his description.  What I do want to talk about here is: What do we do when we're faced with brazen, unabashed prejudice and racism? Aimed at ourselves or at others. Not what "should" we do, but what do we DO?

Firstly I just want to say that I have never understood racism and I never will.  For every single human being on the Earth the following things are true:

1. When a human being is cut by a sharp object he or she bleeds blood and it's the color red.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

2. When a human being has dust fly up his or her nose, he or she sneezes.  Involuntarily.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

3. If a human being's heart stops beating, he or she dies.

Every single time. Every. Single. Human. Being.

4. At some point during every day a human being will need to rid itself of waste matter that his or her body has generated.  So he or she will urinate.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

5. If a new human being is going to be created, it can only be created one way.  No matter what color, what race, what genetic makeup, or what religion is observed. There are different methods to achieve this conception, but it can literally only be created one way.

Every. Single. Human. Being.

Obviously I could go on, but the point is that, with rare exception, every single human being has more things going on in it that are the same as other human beings than things going on in it that are different.  We may think differently, we may love differently, we may grieve differently, but on the most basic level, every single human being's bodily functions are the same.  I would add, in my opinion, that every single human being on the planet wants to live without fear, without discrimination, without neglect, and without indifference. I would argue that just about every human being on some level wants to feel love, to feel seen, to feel joy, and be free to live the life he or she believes he or she is meant to live.

So if we're more alike than we are different, why do so many people hate each other?

I believe it's because every single human being was also given a brain which generates thoughts and ideas and conceptions and opinions.  It's when these opinions differ (even down to "I think you shouldn't exist and you think you should") that the problems arise.  And more often than not, a person will have certain thoughts or understandings based on what they were taught in childhood, the same way they were taught to walk or dress or feed themselves.  For some, prejudice is as ingrained in them as breathing, and for others, tolerance is built and fostered instead.

But that's about who's on the giving end.  What about those of us on the receiving end of the racial slurs and unmitigated narrow-mindedness? How do we handle them in a way that doesn't give the bullies the satisfaction of our acceptance and us believing that what they say is true?

Well, one way is to not take anything someone else says personally. Ever. Good or bad, whatever someone else says about you is merely their opinion of you, it is never who you actually are. When an epithet is aimed directly at you, channel Jackie Robinson and duck so you don't get hit.  Cover yourself in figurative Teflon so the barbs simply bounce off and don't stick.  Remember the schoolyard saying, "I'm rubber and you're glue. Everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!"  If you don't take on what the offender is trying to put onto you, then they are stuck alone with their misery and overwhelming need to feel superior.  Have you ever met a calm, content, or peaceful racist?  No, because they are so churned up with their hate and intolerance that they can't relax and enjoy their lives.  They have to scream and shout and burn crosses and hold pitchforks to get the debasement out of themselves and onto others.  The bigot's bigotry is less about the victim than it is about their own low self-esteem and the sheer discomfort they suffer by having to live in their own skin every day.

Another way to handle these horrible people is to speak up.  In dangerous situations we're told to keep quiet, to not make a scene, and to just try to get out of the situation alive. But in the non-violent situations where astonishingly inappropriate things are said, if someone stands up to the bully, there's a chance that the bully will become aware of the offensiveness of his or her actions and want to change. While I would expect on some level that the person who recently tried to offend me would somehow realistically see that what was said was utterly and completely discriminatory, I now know that he actually believed what he said was funny, and believed I would think it was funny too.  He's so unbelievably ignorant that it's remotely possible that if his egregious offensiveness was pointed out to him, he might have a tiny bit of remorse about it. (But between you and me I doubt it, and the realization wouldn't stop him from saying it again.)

Whether or not you speak up against offenders, either on your own behalf or on those of others, the most important thing is: DO NOT TAKE IT ON AND DO NOT TAKE IT IN.

IT'S NOT YOURS AND IT NEVER WAS.  DO NOT TAKE IT ON AND DO NOT TAKE IT IN. 

If you have brown eyes and someone says, "Wow, those are some ugly blue eyes you have," you would look at them like they were nuts and think "Really? What a stupid and ridiculous thing to say."  If you're seven feet tall and someone says, "It's a shame that you're so short," you would think, "Seriously? You're kidding, right?"  If someone puts you down in a racist or prejudicial way then it's no different.  No matter what they say, if they are treating you as less of a 100% human being then it's as silly and absurd as calling a blond-haired person a brunette.  It's not true, it makes no sense, and just because someone says it does not make it accurate, valid, or credible.

If you've never had prejudice assigned to you then there's no possible way you can understand what it feels like. But if you have then you know how difficult it is to hear and to try to let it bounce off of you without taking it in.  We can quote Eleanor Roosevelt ("No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.") as much as we want but there's a reason why the "rubber-glue" and "sticks and stones" rhymes were devised on those playgrounds long ago.  Because words can injure souls, and when we get made fun of or disparaged for nothing but the way we were made then we don't have many built-in defenses against that.

As for myself, I'm putting this latest incident behind me and moving forward because I do not want to spend one more second of my life thinking about this person or what was said to me.  And because I really do believe that what goes around comes around, I can be grateful that I am who I am and that I do not have the burden of carrying that person's heavy and damaged heart around for every beleaguered step of life.  All I can control is myself, my own actions and my own reactions.  Ultimately the racist is going to be more affected by his words and actions than I am, because I have the choice to not accept them. But if racism and prejudice are parts of what make up a person, then they will never truly experience happiness or peace.

As for myself, I'll choose joy and happiness, fulfillment and contentment, sympathy and empathy, serenity and peace. But never the path of least resistance to get there.






Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Choices We Make

I have repeated this quote more than once here on my blog:

"Change your thoughts and you change your world." -Norman Vincent Peale

Here is another quote, courtesy of Bill, the amazingly nice guy who works at the post office:
"Happiness is a choice."

Thank you Bill. I was reminded of both of these today while going through a situation that could have  easily gone two different ways.  I could have ended up feeling angry, annoyed, upset and frustrated, or, I could have found myself feeling cheerful, grateful, content, and peaceful.

I surprised myself and went for the latter. Here's what happened:

Without going into too much detail I will say that I was disrespected for the umpteenth time where I volunteer.  My supervisor did something, which she does often, which showed me again her complete and utter disregard for my time, my going above and beyond what's expected, and for all that I have done (without compensation) over the past 5 years there.

(I should say here that I am not the only volunteer who feels this way.  Because this person is so wrapped up in her own issues and is mentally unable to be considerate of other people's time and lives, I was fully aware that what happened was not a deliberate act of malice toward me. It was just a result of her usual carelessness and overall indifference for anyone else's needs or feelings.)

At this moment, when this thing happened yet again, I realized that I had a choice in how I was going to handle it.  I could give in to the feelings of anger, disappointment, annoyance, and disrespect that were bubbling up in my stomach, OR, I could make the choice to consciously change my mind about the situation and turn those knee jerk reactions into contentment, calm, acceptance, and peace.

I considered my situation and the choices I had (basically to stick around and do my job or stomp off in a huff) and I thought about what I wanted to fill my body with and what I would be projecting to the world when I did that.  I got out of my head and took a moment to actually look around and take in the reality of my surroundings. When I did that it was like a switch got flipped inside of myself.  I flipped the switch to "choose happiness" and the ire that had been foaming inside me settled down into serenity.  While couldn't change the circumstances, I realized that I could accept them, and then move forward into what would be the best and healthiest scenario for me.

To clarify, I wasn't being physically or emotionally harmed, I wasn't just accepting abuse or prejudice - that I would not do.  But I realized that I was experiencing a first world problem* and the only person hurting me at that moment was myself.  My supervisor had done her thing, she was over it and had moved on, so if I chose to spend the next few hours simmering in my own frustration, I had no one to blame but myself.  So I stuck around and did my job and every time I saw her I reminded myself that I could only control my own actions and no one else's.

Amazingly, right before I left she apologized for her actions, at which point I made another choice. Honestly, I was so fed up that I wanted to chew her out and call out every single infraction from the past few years, ending with this final frustrating straw.  But instead I graciously accepted her apology and went on my way. I left the place feeling peaceful and a little proud of how I handled the whole situation. What happened next astounded me.

As composed as I was feeling emotionally, physically this whole internal dissonance was wreaking having with my stomach.  Because I had spent a good hour with all of the negative stuff building up inside me, I was feeling a bit nauseous and off-kilter constitutionally. Coca-cola usually tends to settle my uneasy gut so even though I've been doing limited carbs and sugar lately, I went in search of a Coke.  On my way I passed by Panera and remembered that I still had my free birthday pastry to claim if it hadn't expired yet.  So I went in, handed the cashier my card, and to my delight she told me that not only was my free birthday treat still on there, but it was also free bagel month and I was entitled to a free bagel as well.

Needless to say, after my recently exhausting experience I was ecstatic.  I said something like, "Who-hooo! This is great! You just made my day!" The cashier must have picked up on my palpable joy because after I picked out my 2 carb-laden snacks she held out an empty cup and said, "Here, have a drink. It's on me."

I was stunned.  Seriously.  I wanted a soda to help make myself feel better and here she was handing me free one.  I mean, WOW!  I felt like the universe was giving a me high five for handling the situation gracefully and healthily, rather than in my old way, by which I would still be angry and upset about it several hours later and carrying around huge amounts of negativity and indignation.

Did my supervisor behave inappropriately and disrespectfully? Absolutely. Did I have every right to be angry and annoyed? I believe the answer to that is a resounding "yes." But I was not being purposely or personally victimized or mistreated.  I was merely on the receiving end of her typical forgetfulness and inconsiderate attitude toward others. She messed up yet again, it affected me yet again, but ultimately it was my choice to let someone else's impudence and ineptitude interfere with the joy and peace that I try to cultivate in my life. Or not.

We have these choices every moment of every day.  Any time we have to deal with an annoying or less-than-ideal situation we get to make the choice of how we're going to handle it. And even if we have every right to be angry or exasperated, we have to decide if that's how we want to go through our day, or if we want to consciously make another choice.  It's natural to feel displeasure, and sometimes it's important to feel those necessary feelings.  But we can allow ourselves to work through them and then choose to let them go instead of hanging onto them long after the catalytic situation is over.  Your choices are always your own, and more often than not we get a confirmation that we've made the right ones.  Sometimes it's in the laughter you hear from the people around you, sometimes it's a hug from a loved one, and sometimes, when you're really lucky, it's a free Coke when you really really need one.



*What I want to add about first world problems is this: So often people will classify things as "First World Problems," meaning that they really aren't anything to get upset about, especially when compared to the other, often horrendous, actual life-or-death problems that other people have to deal with. I completely subscribe to looking at our minor annoyances this way because it keeps them in perspective and gets us out of our own heads where things can be magnified. But there is also something to be said for having enough skin in the game of your life that you take things seriously, and that you care enough to let something bother you, even for a short time. I remember many years ago we had house cleaners who broke a pair of treasured candleholders I had.  They were not worth a lot of money, but I really liked them, and since I had gotten them at Home Goods a few years prior they were virtually irreplaceable.  I remember complaining to one of my friends about it and saying, "I know, they're just things," to which she responded passionately, "Yeah, but they're YOUR things! No one has a right to be careless with your things, you have every right to be upset about this!" And you know what? She was right.  Yes, they were only things, but I was engaged enough in my life and in surrounding myself with things that I liked to look at and that brought me joy that I was upset when someone else took them from me.  I CARED. I'm not someone who angers easily or who takes a lot of opportunities to be annoyed by things, but when I do choose to get upset it reminds me that I'm a person who is fully living life, jumping in with both feet, and investing in every moment with my emotions and spirit and vigor.  I would much rather live my life that way, as opposed to the people I know who just cruise along on an even keel, without any ups or downs at all.  Again, I don't want to hold onto things that make me upset, but feeling them at the time is another life-affirming experience that we each get to have in our time here on Earth.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Loneliness...

...and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.  - Mother Teresa

My husband and I watched a wonderful documentary last night called "Wizard Mode." It's about an autistic man who is a world champion pinball player.  It is a fascinating look into his life as he travels around the world, playing in competitions, while trying to gain some independence by getting his first job, learning to drive a car, and flying for the first time without his parents.  Perhaps the most amazing thing about his journey is how he has used pinball to become more social, and as a way to open up communication with others, since the autism can make interpersonal interactions difficult and frustrating for him.  We got a very personal look at all of his ups and downs, and while I was audibly cheering for him during the tournaments, I also found myself sobbing at the one thing he struggles with in all aspects of his life:

Loneliness.

There's really nothing worse is there?

There have been several scientific studies published recently that prove that loneliness is worse for a person's health than smoking or obesity.  Especially in older people.  It makes sense when you think about it. And for anyone who has ever felt the heavy, dark, sour weight of loneliness in their chest, they will most heartily agree.

Smoking damages our lungs (and other internal and external organs). Obesity damages our hearts (and blood vessels and joints). But loneliness damages our souls, and unfortunately there's no medicine  or operation that can repair that.

While no one likes to feel lonely, most of us can endure it for short amounts of time without any detrimental or lasting effects.  But the research is showing that long-term loneliness can actually lead to earlier death based on a number of factors.  Here is the link to one of the articles, and I highly recommend giving it a read: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/01/18/loneliness-might-be-a-bigger-health-risk-than-smoking-or-obesity/#efd10d25d13e.

Here's one of the most interesting findings:
Social isolation may be a more significant health factor than smoking or obesity, whether the person feels lonely or not. 

Wow! The effects of long-term loneliness could be significantly detrimental to a person even if they don't feel or exhibit any of the symptoms.

I'm not going to get into whys and hows and the facts of the studies here, but all of what I've read made me think: People have control over quitting smoking, and people have control over their exercise and nutrition, so can people have control over their loneliness?

At first thought it seems like that is a more difficult thing to overcome because the lack of loneliness absolutely depends upon other people.  An individual makes a choice whether or not to put a cigarette into his or her mouth but to thwart loneliness, one or more additional people must be involved. This inherently creates risks - of rejection, abandonment, and exclusion.  These can feel mountainous when you're putting yourself out there to meet people and hopefully make new friends.  But like any other goal you wish you accomplish, it can't happen without great amounts of hope, drive, hard work, and determination to never give up.

So what are some ways that a lonely person can combat the loneliness? Well, since there is no "instant friend" that you can simply add water to, here are some ideas to help you feel less lonely overall:

1. Get out of your house and DO SOMETHING!  Translation: Get out of your head and whatever you're thinking about from the past.  Go somewhere, ANYWHERE, where there are other people around: A grocery store. A park. A museum. Downtown. Ride the subway. Stroll the mall. Surround yourself with other people, even if they are complete strangers.  This will remind you that there is a big and potentially friendly world out there. Even if you're sitting completely alone on a park bench there will be life around you - bikers, hikers, picnickers, toddlers blowing bubbles, etc.  You will feel like a part of the human race if you are in an environment where there is human activity.  Not to mention, you could meet someone who could become a friend in one of these situations.  You will be making yourself available for someone to find you and talk to you.

You could also go to places where talking with each other is encouraged.  Join a tour group that's visiting your closest major city, even if you aren't a tourist.  Everyone is always chatting and asking questions in those groups of people.  Go to a general store in the middle of a small town - the proprietor will almost always want to tell you stories about the town and how long the store has been there, etc.  If you have the money, take a cruise by yourself - I've heard several stories of people doing this and making lifelong friends in the process.  The point is, get yourself out and doing social things and you will automatically be more sociable.

In that same vein,  I highly recommend taking a class in a subject that interests you or join one of the thousands of MeetUp groups in your area that focus on one of your hobbies or passions.  These MeetUps were specifically designed to help people meet others with similar interests so you might as well take advantage of the fact that they are out there just waiting for you to sign up.

I would caution you against solitary activities such as seeing a movie alone (you're surrounded by people but talking and interaction are discouraged), playing online/phone games, or scrolling through Facebook for hours at a time.  These time suckers will certainly help to pass the lonely hours, but you will end up just as lonely when they are over.

Another way to meet people is to go to a restaurant that has communal seating.  It may seem strange at first, but if you go out to eat alone and sit in a booth by yourself, there's no chance to meet someone besides the waiter taking your order.  But if you sit at a communal table, there are ample opportunities for conversation.  If no one is talking to you, you can ask the people next to you what they ordered and if they are enjoying it.  They might even give you a taste.  Some restaurants even have specifically designated "Community Nights" where the food is served family style and interpersonal communication is encouraged.  The same goes for open mike nights, poetry readings, book groups (many libraries provide these for free), art appreciation nights at museums, etc.  These can be easy situations because there is already something else going on (a performance or a lecture) and you already have something built-in to talk about.  Whatever you can find, get out there and do it.  Even if you don't end up making any friends, you weren't lonely for those few hours, and that will get the anti-loneliness chemicals going in your body and that will make you feel better overall. Even if it's difficult the first few times to put yourself out there, it will get easier by the third time, I promise.

I guess a more important topic would be figuring out how to prevent loneliness in the first place.  To that, I have a few suggestions:

1. Don't let your friendships lapse.  We all get busy, we all have limited time, but we also have to remember that we are also all going to lose loved ones at one time or another.  While we might not feel like keeping our dress pants on and meeting that friend for dinner after a long day of work, in the long run it will yield a better result than sitting home alone in our comfy pants watching Netflix alone. Also, don't always wait for your friends to call you. If you have a spare moment, give them a call or send them a text letting them know you're thinking about them.  A little word of encouragement can go a long way for a person going through a rough time, and chances are if you are there for them in their time of need, then they will reciprocate and be there for you.

It doesn't take much.  If you're at the store and you see a fancy bar of chocolate with a panda on the label, and your friend loves pandas, buy the candy bar and give it to her the next time you see her, telling her it made you think of her.  Or if you see a funny friendship card that reminds you of a far away friend, get it and take 30 seconds to sign it and put it in the mailbox.  Or take the time to drop off some soup to a friend who is under the weather. These things don't take too much time or extra effort but they can make all the difference in keeping a friendship alive. Much like with marriage, if you don't consciously cultivate the relationship, the more likely it is to die on the vine from neglect.

Here's another idea: Try hosting casual get-togethers instead of intimidating dinner parties.  Instead of watching Jeopardy by yourself for the hundredth time, record a bunch of shows in a row, invite some people over, put out some chips and have a Jeopardy party.  People can come in their pajamas and instead of having to worry about making scintillating dinner conversation, there's already a built in activity that will most likely end up being fun and even rowdy.  If Jeopardy's not your thing, then have a "Cleaning out the Freezer" party, where people can come and help you eat up the leftovers that are taking up space in your freezer.  Here's a personal favorite of mine: If you're going to be repainting a room, invite people over beforehand to paint whatever they want on it.  They can paint cartoons, a mural, graffiti, whatever; but there's something incredibly fun and kind of "exuberantly rule-breaking" about painting something on a wall.  You're going to paint over it anyway, so it's just for fun, and it can be a really terrific time for everyone involved.  Don't overthink your get-togethers, just take whatever you already like to do and bring some people into it.

2. Practice showing people consideration who aren't your friends. This will help you to practice your social skills in a non-judgmental, low-risk environment.  It takes very little to acknowledge the people who generally feel invisible but your recognition will most likely be felt in a big way.  For example, I always take a moment to thank the person who is collecting the shopping carts in the parking lot.  Sometimes I get a response and sometimes I don't, but it doesn't matter. I'm doing it to show them that I see them, their presence is important, and that what they are doing is appreciated. Inside a store, when the cashier or clerk asks me how I'm doing today, I always respond and ask them back.  (To be honest, most of the time I don't really care about their answer, but this is how a friendly world operates and that's the kind of world I'd like to live in.) I also think it's important to acknowledge your fellow human beings when you're on a walk or a hike.  Sometimes it's just a nod, sometimes just a smile, sometimes it's a verbal "Hello" or "Good morning."  But it's so refreshing to have these interactions so that we're reminded we're not alone in the world.

3. If you are a parent, please please please LISTEN TO YOUR CHILDREN!! This is vital to a child's self-esteem and can make all the difference when they want to open themselves up and be vulnerable to another person. Even if you've had a long day, even if you can barely keep your eyes open, even if there are dishes to wash and laundry to be folded and emails to return, take the time to listen to them and acknowledge what they have to say.  I understand that all you want your preschooler to do is go to bed and that the last thing you want to hear is them repeating for the fifteenth time that they got to pass out the play dough today...but listen and smile and tell her how proud you are of her anyway.  Not only is it your job to do this, but it is also a precious thing to remember when ten years from that moment the teenager has nothing to say to you about her day at school or her time at the mall with her friends.  Keep in the front of your mind that this time will not last forever and it is now or never to forge a bond with your child.  There is no way to build a foundation after a house is built, nor is there a way to build a healthy and trusting relationship with your child after the fact.

Here's what listening to your child - and I mean really, mindfully listening and reacting appropriately, not just absentmindedly nodding while playing Words With Friends on your phone - does. You are providing them with the single most important thing that any human being can provide to someone they love.  You are showing them that they matter. You're not just telling them, you are showing them in a very tangible way.  This does wonders for a youngster's self-esteem and has positive long lasting effects that you may not even know about.  A regularly ignored child ends up having a sisyphean struggle throughout his or her life yearning to be validated while worrying that they aren't worthy of validation in the first place. Adults who crave attention didn't get enough of it in their childhoods and often don't realize it when they are being intrusive or annoying to others. Their unfulfilled need to be noticed was ingrained while their brains and emotions were still developing at a very basic level.  The subsequent behaviors have a tendency to push people away, which can result in isolation, loneliness, and despair at not being able to fit in.  So if you want what is best for your child (translation: a happy and healthy life from childhood through adulthood) please please please listen to what they have to say.  If you do the listening while they are young and naturally want to talk to you, they will most likely relish you listening to them when they get older as well.

There's a reason why there's the saying, "It takes a village."  In other countries and cultures it is very common for have two or three generations living together under one roof.  Conversely, it seems like in America, branching out on one's own and moving away from the family is more the norm and "what people do to be considered successful." While I understand that people need their space and it can be cumbersome to always have family members underfoot, in those other cultures it's pretty difficult to be lonely.  Or feel unsupported. Or unloved. Or completely alone.  Which I believe is the point of those living situations.

Now of course there are loners - people who are naturally predisposed to enjoy alone time and who feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable in social situations.  There are also people who are naturally shy and prefer fewer personal interactions overall.  But there is a big difference between "alone time" and "lonely time."  

Here's the thing about loneliness:  It's painful. It can feel like the marrow is being sucked out of your bones leaving you empty, fragile, and despondent.  It can unearth horrible of feelings of inequality and unfulfilled desires in a person's psyche and lead them to the conviction that there is something fundamentally flawed about them. When no one is available when someone needs help or a friendly ear to listen, loneliness is an extremely unwelcome guest who fills the air with darkness and desperate longing. It has the power to push a person who may be teetering on the edge of depression over into the deep black depths of despair,  which is also a very significant reason why loneliness can lead to an earlier death.

Homo sapiens are, by design, a social species.  When we do not get the social interaction that we physically and emotionally need, our brains go into self-preservation mode, the same way that a human will try to survive in the midst of severe hunger or thirst.  Physiologically, loneliness can raise our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in high blood pressure and a compromised immune system. On a practical level, lonely people are more likely to perish in a fire, forget to take their medication, or be left for days undiscovered if they are in a fatal accident of some kind at home.

Simply put, we all need human interaction and to experience sociality. The root of loneliness is feeling unworthy and unwanted, which you are NOT! Whatever you do, DO NOT give into the loneliness and believe that it is just your destiny. You were put on this Earth for a reason and you are worthy of friendships and love because you exist.  When loneliness comes calling, shut the door in its face and pick up the phone instead. Nourish your relationships. Fill your lunch hours and spare time with social interactions. Don't just fall back into the comfy pants - they'll still be there when you come back home.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Turn Off The Voices Part 3

There's a fantastic song by Kacey Musgraves called "Follow Your Arrow." Here are some of the lyrics:

If you can't lose the weight then you're just fat
But if you lose too much then you're on crack
You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't
So you might as well just do whatever you want

Can't win for losing you just disappoint 'em
Just 'cause you can't beat 'em don't mean you should join 'em
Say what you feel, love who you love
'Cause you just get so many trips 'round the sun
Yeah you only live once

So follow your arrow wherever it points
Yeah, follow your arrow wherever it points.

The message of the song is of course, to just be yourself no matter what anyone else thinks.  Same as the message of so many books, movies, songs, and every episode of Sesame Street. I agree wholeheartedly with this message and I hope that everyone who is reading this blog isn't afraid to be 100%, wholly, authentically themselves every minute of every day.  Because that can really be the key to having a happy life - living it the way you are truly meant to.

What I also want to address in this third installment of what has become my "Turn Off the Voices" series, is the simple and unpleasant fact that no matter what we do, we will be judged. By someone. By someones. By a lot of people or just by a few.  But no matter what, somebody will be judging us for every moment that we are living fully as our authentic selves.

Why is that? From an anthropological standpoint I don't really know.  I suppose the earliest people compared themselves to one another from a purely procreational standpoint - the stronger the man, the better hunter and provider he would be?  The more feminine the woman, the more she resembled and emitted survivalist motherly characteristics? I honestly don't know if current human behavior can be traced back to our earlier models.  But here's what I do know:

No matter how hard you try, there is going to be someone who doesn't want to you to succeed.
No matter how good you are at something, there is going to be someone who thinks they are better.
No matter how highly you think of yourself, there is going to be someone who doesn't agree.
No matter what your intentions are, there is going to be someone who doesn't "get" what you're trying to do.

No matter all of these things....because they don't matter.

In the grand scheme of things and on a day-to-day basis. They simply don't matter.

The naysayers don't matter. The dragger-downers, the joy-stealers, the bull-headed self-righteous snobs, and the too-sad-to-understand-how-someone-else-could-be-happy people don't matter.

They want so desperately to matter though. They need to pull the happy people down to their miserable level to help make themselves feel better about themselves and their lives.  They derive satisfaction from crushing other people's dreams and insulting their way of doing things.  There will always be these kinds of joy-suckers who will gladly ruin your life if you let them.

The trick is NOT. TO. LET. THEM.

The trick is realizing that it's not you who has a problem, it's THEM.

The trick is being strong enough in your own self-worth that it doesn't matter what anyone else says about you, you KNOW that you are good enough just the way you are right now.

How can you know this to your very core?  It's not just looking in the mirror and repeating affirmations to your reflection every day (although I'm told this helps a lot). It's realizing on an intrinsically deep level that the very fact that you are standing on this Earth means that you are worthy to be here. You are worthy to be happy and fulfilled simply because you exist.  It was a million to one chance that you would be born and it's a million to one chance that you are still here.  Always remember that you are a miracle, that your life is a gift, and it is up to you to spend it either squandering away precious moments on what some rude person said, or letting that nonsense roll off of you, leaving you free to enjoy every glorious living moment you can.

To that, you need to make the choice to surround yourself with people who will lift you up and support you and share in your happiness.  You need to make the choice to let go of those people in your life who no longer fit your vision of yourself, the same way you get rid of clothing that is old or stained or doesn't fit well any more.  If someone is going to disrespect you or put you down then you do not need them in your life. Period.

We're going to be judged no matter what we do. That's a bummer, but knowing that fact frees us up to consciously do whatever makes us happy since the unsolicited judgment is coming regardless.  As Kacey put it so eloquently, we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't so we might as well do whatever we want...and not waste our time and effort worrying about what anyone else might be thinking.

P.S. It's also a lot easier to feel less judged when we stop judging others.  It's amazing how that works.

Turn Off the Voices Part 2

Sometimes I'm amazed at how many people feel the need to weigh in on my life and the choices I've made.  And they usually do so quite vocally and directly to my face.  Do I give off a vibe that says "Please, come and judge me and make sure it's mean and unhelpful?"

I must, because so many people do it to me, whether it's a clothing choice, or a life decision, or my music, or my non-profit - people just can't seem to get the hang of saying, "Good job," or "Nice work," or "Love what you've done with the place."

While I know that none of these judgments should affect me or my choices in any way, the words and actions directed toward me do hurt, especially when they come from people who claim to care about me and my well being.

Here's an example: Years ago a close family member was visiting our new house.  We were so excited, happily showing him around, gleefully pointing out this or that, and then about halfway through the tour he looks up at wall, shakes his head and exclaims, "I've never seen so many pictures in one house! Why are there so many pictures?" (He's talking about photographs of loved ones, not painted art.) After letting the indignation at trying to steal my joy settle down, I responded this way, "Well, people fill their houses with what they like to look at, so that's what I like to look at."  He didn't say anything, but just kept on shaking his head in disgust.

Here's what I wanted to say:
"Do you live here? Is it any of your business what I care to put into it?"
"Did you pay for this house? (No.) So what do you care what I hang on the walls?"
"Just because your house has absolutely no photos in it, or anything remotely personal at all, and it's cold and impersonal and looks like a show home at all times even though you've lived there for 40 years doesn't mean that that's the only right way to do it!"
"Don't you have any manners? Don't you know that even if you are thinking something unkind the polite thing to do is to keep it to yourself?!!"

Of course I said none of these things but every time he visits now I brace myself for the rude, unsolicited comments about my inappropriate decorating choices.

So annoying and uncalled for.

Another example: About 13 years ago we had house guests staying with us for a few days.  We showed them around the city, provided several meals for them, and prior to them arriving we cleaned and prepared the house for their arrival and stay. (Quick backstory: at this time I was working on Sunday mornings and I had this thing about how I liked to be the one who got first crack at the Sunday paper. I didn't get upset if I didn't, but it was just one of those little things in life that brought me joy.  So my husband would always leave the complete untouched paper for me out on the table for when I got home and I would get the chance to open it up myself.  It was actually a very sweet and romantic gesture because there were times when he would carefully pull the comics out, read them, and then refold them and put them back exactly where they were so I could have my little bit of fun. I realize this all sounds perfectly silly and inconsequential, but it was our thing and we enjoyed it.) So I got home on Sunday around noon, greeted everyone (they were just sitting around reading and relaxing contentedly), sat down at the dining room table with my full, unmarred Sunday paper, and started happily pulling out my favorite sections: the puzzles, the comics, Parade magazine, Life and Arts, the coupons, etc. and put the rest of the paper aside. One of our guests got up from the couch, came over, watched what I was doing and asked, "Is that all you're going to read?" I looked up, realized that this might have been considered rude, so I held out the removed sections and said, "Oh I'm sorry, did you want to read these? You can have them." He looked down at me disgustedly and said, "No.  Is that ALL you're going to read?" I looked at the sections in my hand, then at the pile of the rest of the paper, then up at him and said, "Umm...yes, for now." He shook his head like he was terribly offended and asked again, "That's IT?" I looked down at my paper and suddenly waves of shame started washing over me.  Without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked out of the room, continuing to shake his head like he was appalled by even the sight of me.

Seems like a ridiculous little exchange doesn't it? But the truth is, even though this happened more than 13 years ago, nearly every time I riffle through my intact Sunday paper, I feel a little pang of pain, remembering what he said and how much it hurt my feelings.  I know that I should not let this person's opinion of me affect anything I do in my daily life whatsoever, but unfortunately it has stayed with me to this day. I still hear his judgmental voice and see the shaking of his head, both stealing away my joy and replacing it with my all too familiar self-reproach.

Again, why did this person, who claims to be my friend and care about me, give a horse's behind about what sections of the Sunday paper I chose to read? Was it offensive to him in particular that I wasn't devouring Op-Eds or Real Estate? Why did he care so much about my bad (in his mind) choices that he had to speak up in front of everyone to point them out? Why was it more important to him to make sure I knew just how exasperated he was with me than to even consider for a moment how it might make me feel.

What I wanted to say:
"You're welcome for all of the meals I've made, for all of the time I've taken to show you around, and for allowing you to stay with us in the first place."
"You're welcome for all of the time and effort it took to get the guest room and bathroom clean and ready for your arrival."
"You're welcome for all of the times that I held my tongue and didn't express to you exactly what I thought of the choices you were making or the things you were doing."
"You're welcome for treating you the way I would want to be treated even though you can't possibly return the favor."

Just one more example: On my most recent CD I was working with a studio engineer who was also a wanna be musician/recording artist. He had found no success in his music career so he started a recording studio instead.  I hired him as an engineer (not as a producer) to record some vocal tracks that I could send to my producer in another state. In one session (that turned out to be my last with this guy) I was singing one of my original songs to get a reference take and all of a sudden he comes bursting out of the booth yelling, "Hold it, hold it, stop singing, this song needs some work." He proceeds to take my lyric sheet off of the music stand, picks up a pencil, and starts crossing off lyrics from the sheet. Literally. He was going through the song saying, "You don't need this, you don't need this, we get it...this is too repetitive, cut this chorus and go straight to the bridge," etc.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  I reminded him that the song itself was already finished, the instrumental backing tracks had already been recorded, all that was left to do was to record the vocal.  To which he responded, "Well you're just going to have to re-record all of it this way."

WHAT?!

Not only was this my 4th professional CD recording, not only had I worked with several other engineers and producers who would never have dreamed of doing something incredibly offensive like this, but when I spoke to other engineers in the field about this they all responded unanimously with things like, "Wow! That was incredibly unethical and out of line. That's not how things are done when you're a professional." I had another engineer who fancied himself a producer try to change a chord progression and the time signature in one of my originals.  Not his place, not his job, and not the way it works with people who actually know what they're doing.

I had become friendly with one of the studio musicians who worked frequently with the first guy and after the whole situation happened I asked him, "What was that all about?" To which he answered, "Well, you're too nice."

Too nice.  I'm so nice that people feel completely comfortable walking all over me like a plush carpet.

Apparently I'm also so nice that people have absolutely no problem with tossing good manners out the window and returning gifts I've given to them directly back to me.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Over the past 20 years or so, I have had 6 different people accept gifts from me, and then either at that moment, or at a later date, give them right back to me, telling me either that they didn't want it, it wasn't their style, or they couldn't use it. One person did it twice.

Those of you who know me know that I love giving gifts. I do it for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and very often just for no other reason than I saw something I thought someone would like so I got it, wrapped it, and gave it to them.  While I try to be an extremely thoughtful gift giver, of course I miss the mark sometimes.  Everyone does.  So how should a person react when they are given a gift they'd rather not have?

(I know the answer to this because it has happened to me many times.)
1. Thank the gift giver graciously, either in person or in a note of some kind, remembering that the giver took time, effort, and money to purchase and wrap this tangible expression of thoughtfulness expressly for you.
2. If the gift has been sent through the mail, always let the person know that it arrived - this is an item that falls under the category of "common courtesy" that many people tend to forgo.

If you don't like the gift, or can't see yourself using it you have a few options:
1. Find out where it was purchased and try to return it to the store.
2. Rewrap and regift it to someone whom the original giver does not know.
3. Donate it to a charity of your choice (be careful about trying to resell it online if the giver visits the same sites that you do).

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES IN A CIVILIZED SOCIETY IS THE POLITE THING TO DO IS TO RETURN IT DIRECTLY TO THE GIVER LETTNG THEM KNOW IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS JUST HOW MUCH YOU DON'T LIKE IT!!!!

I can't believe that things like that need to be pointed out to the grown-up, adult, college-educated people I used to know.  (And yes, I call them ones that I used to know because I do not need the overt callousness of those unhappy, rude, and unappreciative people who had the gall to do that to me in my life any longer.)

I guess because I'm generally a pretty easygoing person, people see me as a low-risk opportunity in which they can show their true selves.  But I know plenty of women who are not as agreeable, who are not as laid back, and whom no one would dare treat as unkindly as I have been treated. Does that mean I need to change who I am to avoid harsh judgment? Is it possible to be a nice, happy, non-confrontational person who doesn't get bombarded with judgment and criticism at regular intervals along the way?

Answer? No.  Better answer? No, but I don't care. My constant criticizers have no place in my life, and more importantly, no place in my head.