Heart and Soul

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Gonna' Live 'Til I Die

I am dying.

But then, that’s the ultimate irony of life, isn’t it.

From the moment we are born ….every morning we rise to begin again…everything we do…it all brings us that much closer to our final breath.

Yet for the most part, we humans put on imaginary blinders and pretend that life is eternal. We live in a self-delusional cocoon where death is something that only happens to others. And in adopting that mindset, we not only lose sight of our mortal reality, we tend to waste precious time in activities and actions that really don’t matter.

I was starkly reminded of that life and death reality during a post holiday dinner with a friend of mine. She is a wonderful person who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. This woman is a spirited and positive-thinking individual who more than once has served as my councilor and confidant in times of need. Yet on this particular night the tables were turned. This time, I was the one listening as she described the severity of the disease that has invaded her body and against which she is now waging a battle for her life.

As my friend detailed the various treatments she is undergoing and the physical and mental side effects she is enduring, I found it impossible to equate her words with her appearance. Outwardly she looks the same as always---attractive and healthy, with a smile that warms the heart. Yet, my friend has changed dramatically in the life she now lives since receiving her cancer diagnosis.

She has taken a leave of absence from work and now spends time each day painting and quilting, two of her favorite hobbies. Her husband, a man usually busily engaged in his own activities, has reorganized his schedule and become a marvelous caretaker and a compassionate ally in her healing battle. And her friends, myself included, are making an extra effort to call and spend more time together.

And so it is I wonder, why does it take something like a brutal medical diagnosis with an immediate life-threatening dimension to force us to treasure life and those in it?

Why do we insist on wearing those blinders that encourage us to believe that the life we cherish and those we love will endure forever and therefore can be set aside or put on hold?

Why do we continually fool ourselves into believing that offering a kind word, giving a special hug, reading a book, playing a game, taking a walk, sharing a meal, or simply enjoying time with family and friends is a luxury allowed only after fulfilling work and professional responsibilities?

Why don’t we get it, that from the moment we are born, we begin dying---and that we need to spend time enjoying who and what we’ve got, while we can?

Like I said, I am dying. Matter of fact, we’re all dying.

But more important then concentrating on that inescapable and depressing fact, we need to focus on the joyous option that we are also given from the moment we are born…and that is to live fully, each and everyday, until we die.

Making Changes

MAKING CHANGES


“A New Year, A New You.”

As we turn the calendar to the New Year of 2006, many of us follow the trend of resolving to make ourselves over. We self-promise renewal in a continual quest to become thinner, richer, smarter, younger, healthier and, of course, better looking.

Never one to be left behind, I’ve made my list of New Year’s Resolutions with one central theme: to become “cool.”

I came to this resolve several weeks ago when my daughter and I were planning our family’s Christmas Eve Dinner. My “in-the-know” child suggested that “Tapas Style” would be a good way to serve this year’s holiday feast. I responded that I had no idea what “Tapas” meant, at which point she gave me a look that I clearly remember using on my grandmother when I talked to her about trendy subjects as bell bottoms and go-go boots.

It was at that precise moment that I clearly understood I had officially fallen into the out-of-touch generation. However, unlike my mother and her mother before her, I have since decided that out-of-touch is not where I want to be. So this year I’m dedicating myself to keeping up with all the latest trends and becoming “cool.”

As a lover of fashion, I decided to begin with my wardrobe. My New Year’s Motto a simple one of change and renewal. Out with full sized sweaters, high-heeled pumps and regular fit jeans and in with shrugs, uggs and low riders, baby!

So I set off to my favorite clothing mecca to shop for a new and trendy wardrobe, which now hangs in my closet, ready to wear. There’s just one small problem. I have no idea how to wear this stuff!

The uggs aren’t so bad. In fact, they’re downright warm and toasty. However, I must admit that I find the current fashion trend of pairing the oversized furry boots with dresses of satin and lace, a bit disorienting. But I’ve started out slow, putting together uggs with my best 3-piece suit and it seems to be working out ok.

Where I’m really struggling is in the shrug and low rider jeans department. Now every time I see a nubile young woman wrapped up in a body hugging cropped tee shirt topped off with a shoulder to shoulder shrug, I absolutely love the look. However when I attempt to pull off that same fashion statement, I end up looking like someone wearing a half knit sweater that’s unraveling as I wear it. Then when you add to that a pair of low rider jeans that not only fail to cover my love handles and healthy belly, but tragically over emphasize them and cause them to hang out from underneath my too-short shirt, it’s definitely a bad picture.

The good news is that I’ve found a solution to my fashion dilemma and it’s right out the pages of my grandmother’s stylebook. I’ve discovered that if I simply trade-in my cropped tee for a full-length model, I can wear the lowest cut jeans in the universe and appear as cool as anyone. I just have to add one simple undergarment…..a corset.

Yep, that’s right. I now put on a one-piece, shoulder to leg, hold-it-all-in, elastic body armor and I’m good to go for any fashion trend on the market. The only drawback I’ve found so far is that after about three hours, my internal organs start to feel as if they are being compacted and I have a little trouble breathing. But it’s a small price to pay for being cool.

Next on my cool resolution list… tattoos. I’m thinking maybe a cute little butterfly on my ankle.

Undoubtedly way cool!

'Tis The Season

This week in the midst of the traditional Ho-Ho-Ho shopping frenzy, I find that I have experienced a personal epiphany. It’s a magical revelation related to the task of shopping for that perfect Yuletide gift. In a nutshell, I’ve come to realize that holiday shopping is an art practiced by two types of people. “The Listers” and “The Wanderers.”

Listers initiate their Holiday Shopping by creating multiple lists that encompass all of their gift giving needs. They categorize their lists into groups of family, friends, and neighbors, and then create appropriate subcategories of malls and plazas where they plan to shop. They know the exact store, aisle and shelf containing all of their gift items and, just to be on the safe side, they memorize the appropriate UPC codes, style numbers, and manufacturer’s names.

Well-prepared Listers also maintain a cross-indexed stash of neatly clipped coupons to compliment their gift lists. In addition, they create strategic GPS maps of various shopping excursion routes. These charts are precise and help to guide Listers from store to store in a perfectly ordered plan, which of course includes suggested stopoffs for lunch and snacks.

Traditionally, Listers are categorized as females.

As for “Wanderers,” they also start their holiday shopping quests armed with lists…usually prepared for them by caring Listers. However, these shopping guides almost always end up rebelliously stuffed into Wanderer’s back pockets, for this breed of shopper believes that lists are for wimps. And so they bravely exhibit their trailblazing spirits by surging into crowded malls and plazas and attacking their shopping tasks mano-a-mano.

As a result, Wanderer’s shopping excursions are often marked by multiple journeys up and down mall hallways, circling in a stupor akin to first time tourists in a big city. They rub their eyes, they scratch their heads and dazedly gaze up at storefront signs as if the words are foreign and unfamiliar.

Every once in a while Wanderers actually venture into a store in an attempt to capture the gift of their dreams. Yet, within minutes of entering a shopping wonderland, Wanderers often find themselves frightened and disoriented. In desperation, they blindly decide to snatch the closest object at hand. They then stumble to the checkout and shove the randomly selected item at the clerk, all the while feebly pleading for complimentary gift wrap.

When Wanderers finally emerge from the depths of their holiday shopping hell, they instinctively head for the nearest first aid station, where they find comfort in the administration of medicinal barley and hops.

Traditionally, Wanderers are categorized as males.

Yet the good news is that cell phone technology has provided Listers and Wanderers with a compromise means of connecting and achieving a much greater Holiday shopping success. With a flip of a phone and a flick of a speed dial, Wanderers have found a way to continue their proud tradition of shopping without lists, while searching the sky for Lister saviors to guide them step by step to the exact gift of their holiday dreams.

Not exactly a star, 3 Wisemen, and a baby, but definitely some essential Holiday Salvation!

A Hershey Kiss and Hot Chocolate

Between the eggnog and the cookies, the tree and all the trimmings, the shopping and the wrapping, and my family’s 6 December Birthdays, this month is always a hectic one for me. Yet this year, I’ve even managed to ratchet up my holiday chaos to a whole new level by scheduling signings of my Chicken Wing Wisdom book on weekends and many evenings. The end result of this temporary insanity is that I am quickly becoming THE MASTER of multi-tasking.

For example, last Saturday while sitting in the middle of a local mall, meeting/greeting/signing books, I was also writing this Heart and Soul commentary. The topic was one I’d been chewing on since Thanksgiving and the commentary was shaping up as a real doozy. Basically, my Irish sensibilities have been totally inflamed by the current, “politically correct” demand to displace the centuries old, “Merry Christmas” with the new and insipid “Happy Holidays.” Personally I think the debate swirling around this issue insults people’s intelligence as well their valued personal traditions. If I want to say Merry Christmas, as I have done throughout the Decembers of my life, then I should be able to do so freely and without fear of offending anyone.

However just as I was rolling into paragraph three and really getting to the meat of the issue, my creative juices came to a complete and total halt as I heard a voice say, “My daughter is going to write our story one day.”

I looked up from my writing pad to find a middle aged woman standing before me, her appearance clearly defining her as a woman more of labor, than luxury. I immediately remembered her as someone who had passed by my signing table earlier in the day. Specifically I recalled that she paused only briefly, as she was pushing a man in a wheelchair and had 2 children tagging alongside. That poignant image, along with the directness of her statement, begged my undivided attention as she spoke.

“My husband is blind and my son is autistic. I’m the one who takes care of them. Since they take so much of my attention, my daughter, who is perfectly healthy, gets left out a lot. So we have this special thing that we do. When she needs time with me, she leaves a Hershey Kiss on my pillow. And when I need time with her, I leave a Hershey Kiss on her pillow. So when I see that Hershey kiss, I know that I need to make sure that we to have time to talk and drink hot chocolate.”

The woman’s words poured out so quickly that I initially found them somewhat stunning. Yet as I began to grasp the story she was telling, I found her spirit irresistible and her love for her family most remarkable. I also found that I was suddenly much less concerned whether people were wishing me Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Kwanzaa or Happy Holidays. For in her simple story, this worn and weary woman reminded me of the true message of the season…love.

So, I’ve decided to take a page from this wise woman’s life story and change my focus on “the acceptable greeting” for the holidays. Whether it’s Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or Blessed Kwanzaa, who really cares? As long as the wishes come from the heart and are given with love, that’s what’s important

Just like a Hershey kiss and a big steaming mug of hot chocolate.

Gobble Til You Wobble

While Thanksgiving is unquestionably a holiday all about the food, my personal turkey day traditions also include a focus outside the realm of, "Gobble ‘til you wobble."

Like many Americans, I spend days preparing my dining table with freshly polished silver, sparkling crystal, and fine china plates on which to serve our family’s treasured recipes. Yet I also find that each Thanksgiving, my day is defined by memories of two special people---my former mother-in-law and my mother---both women of determination and common sense, who occupy a special place in my heart, and in my Thanksgivings Past.

My former mother-in-law could easily be defined as a hard headed and tough German woman with a heart of gold. From the time I first met her in 1967, it was clear that family was her life’s sole focus. One of my strongest memories of her familial devotion occurred in 1971, when my former husband and I were new parents spending Thanksgiving 500 miles away from home.

That year, not only did my mother-in-law load her two younger sons into the car and undertake the long trek to spend the Thanksgiving Holiday with us, she also brought the entire meal with her. Yes, that’s right. From a 20 pound turkey to mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and of course, her famous squash, every element of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner arrived completely prepared and, amazingly, still warm!

Being young at the time, I principally appreciated the dinner for its face value of excellent food and nourishment. Yet now, some thirty-four years later, I more fully understand and value the loving effort my former mother-in-law made that Thanksgiving, in bringing family and food to our doorstep. The memory also serves as an enduring reminder of the importance of family above all else. And for that constant tweak, I am eternally indebted.

As for my mom, she was a whole different story. She was a tough independent businesswoman who, while she loved her family, was also satisfied with the pleasure of her own company on holidays and everyday. However, on Thanksgiving Eve 1998, her solitary lifestyle changed.

Mom had been suffering from a variety of ailments for some time and that November the varied diseases and conditions finally got the best of her aging body. As a result, a doctor admitted her to a Senior Care Facility a week before Thanksgiving. However, the first time I walked through the doors, I knew I couldn’t leave her there.

So, that dark and rainy Thanksgiving Eve, I packed up my mother’s meager belongings, bundled her into my car and brought her home to live with my husband and me. Little did I know she would die a short four months later, and further, that my memories of her sitting at the kitchen table that Thanksgiving Morning---blanket shawled around her shoulders, glasses askew on her nose, polishing rag in one hand and silver serving pieces before her --- would be one of the most long lasting and affecting memories of the Thanksgiving Holiday--- and of my life.

So now each year as I rise early on Thanksgiving Morn and begin last minute holiday preparations, I hold a little gathering in the kitchen. Quietly and respectfully I call together the spirits of my mother and my former mother-in-law. I thank them for all the valuable life lessons that they've taught me and for being women of distinct value and honor. And I ask that they to continue to watch over our family and care for us on Thanksgiving and everyday.

My Father's Child

Shortly after my mother’s passing in 1999, I started including a new line in my writer’s biography that I still retain today. It reads, "Christina will always be her mother’s daughter."

That statement is important to me because despite our many differences, my mom and I were close and, quite honestly, I miss her now that she’s not around to drive me crazy anymore. It was also my hope that those simple six words might serve as a comforting reminder to all readers that no matter how permanently death separates us from those we love, it cannot change the reality of people’s individual significance in our lives.

For instance, as I continue to age "gracefully," I quite often find myself replicating many of my mother’s mannerisms, phrases, and god help me, her Irish sense of humor. There are even moments when I purposefully use some of her favored sayings as a quietly reverential way of keeping her spirit alive.

I’ve also recognized that some of the professional traits that have furthered my career are directly attributable to my mother. Although she never earned more than a high school diploma, mom capably worked her way through the secretarial ranks into management, eventually becoming one of the first women executives of a prominent Western New York Bank. Her work ethic, coupled with her tough as nails can-do attitude, still provide an excellent professional template for any businessperson to follow.

And so it was, for all those reasons and more, that six years ago I officially adopted my "mother’s daughter" bio line.

Yet several months ago I was shocked by the discovery that while I may always be my mother’s daughter, I am, by nature, my father’s child.

This bit of wisdom came as a surprise to me, in part, because I really haven’t had much contact with my dad in more than twenty years. He and my mother divorced in the early 1980’s. From that point on, my father pretty much went his own way, using an occasional card or phone call to stay in touch.

However since my mother’s passing, my father has made somewhat of a return appearance into my life and this past January he requested that I visit him in Florida where he now lives. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed.
During our three days together I began to realize the many similarities between my father and myself. Not traits that I mimic or mannerisms I have adopted, but talents and innate sensibilities that exactly match.

My father is a writer, a fact I never knew until he began sharing his poems and stories that he’d crafted over the years. The interior of the condo he now calls home reveals my father’s flair for decorating, a talent of his that I recall from my youth, and one for which I am also often given credit. My father is a lover of music, regularly playing a wide range of performers on his stereo , just as I do in my own home.

In between our Florida sightseeing trips and shared meals my father told me a number of stories about his youth and mine, in much the same way that I tell my children tales of our shared pasts. That particular similarity became even more startling when I recognized that my father and I are inveterate storytellers, right down to the common words and phrases we use. In browsing through his stacks of books and videotapes I discovered that my father and I share exact tastes in literature and movies. We also have the same likes and dislikes in food and drink. Most essentially, we are both ice cream and chocolate addicts….milk chocolate only, thank-you very much.

Since returning from my mid winter visit it has taken quite some time to process all that I learned about my father. It has also been somewhat disorienting to come to grips with the reality that the essence of who I am, the inner part of my being, is truly connected to my father much more than my mother. After so many years of his absence from my life, it’s been a surprising lesson revealed.

In the end though, I’m grateful that my father reached out and allowed me to learn something about who he is, which, in turn, has helped me to discover more about myself. While the experience had its fair share of challenging and even painful moments, by becoming re-acquainted with my father I've definitely formulated a stronger foundation from which to live the second half of my life.

And I have also reaffirmed the truth that despite all of my inborn talents and characteristics, I will always be my mother’s daughter.
 
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