I Wish That Was My Biggest Problem

“I wish that was my biggest problem.” That was the response I used to get from my mother when I expressed the usual teenage complaints. Want a new dress for Easter? Boyfriend didn’t call when you hoped he would? School dance ends too early? There she was, with that same pat phrase, “I wish that was my biggest problem.”
Of course, at that moment my biggest problem was my own annoyance at a mother who I felt didn’t take my issues with all the seriousness they deserved. Now that I have lived long enough to see and experience some much bigger issues, it feels appropriate to come up with my own list of things that—well, it would be great if any of these were MY biggest problem. Here are some for starters, and I hope this leads you to come up with a few of your own. Levity, after all, is one of the best tools to get us through our worst times.
– Which car should I buy? The Jaguar or the Lexus?
– Would I rather have chocolate ice cream or vanilla?
– Where can I find the best creme brûlée?
– What to wear to the party tonight? I have too many choices.
– How best to plan for a month’s vacation?
– If I stand under that tree, will a coconut fall on my head?
– What size large screen TV will be best for my new home entertainment center?
– I have such a wonderful circle of friends. How can I best show them my appreciation?
Here’s hoping this smattering is encouraging and that you have more of your own. Just remember, the point is to come up with something trivial that you wish was your absolutely biggest problem?
Have at it!

Restorative Justice

Seeking justice

According to wikipedia.org, restorative justice is a concept that aims to institute repair, reconciliation, and restoration of relationships, as opposed to simply seeking retribution. Though I would not recommend it in every situation—let’s face it, some people are just plain evil and only mean to do harm—it can be quite useful in many situations in which the wrong-doer is willing to make amends. Anyone familiar with the type of 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous has heard about Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all” and Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
An example I like to cite that applies to anyone who has ever inadvertently caused an auto accident is the carrying of insurance. With the insurance company acting as a go-between, financial compensation is agreed on for the person whose car was damaged or worse—anyone who has been injured. We carry this insurance as part of our responsibility as a licensed driver. I like this example because of the direct relationship between the damage and/or injury and the cause.
A few years ago, a landmark building in Chillicothe, Ohio was severely damaged by some teenagers who were essentially playing with fire. The damage was beyond these teens’ ability to repair, but it seems these offenders should have had a significant part in the cleanup. So much more can be learned when there is a clear link between cause and effect.
A significant part of this justice is for the offender to take responsibility, to apologize, and to atone. It is hoped the will help restore any relationship between the offender and the victim, and encourage a feeling of community. Instead of seeking revenge, it is hoped that the wronged party can make clear the best way to atone, and can more easily release the anger that can result from their victimization. They have the opportunity to feel less like a hopeless victim, and more like someone with agency in righting the wrong.
And of course, each party is heard. It is human nature to reach out, to tell your story, to want to know that story has truly been heard. And how much better it must be to feel there has been reconciliation instead of an ongoing conflict.

Journaling Can Be Therapeutic

Woman Writer
Preparing to Journal

I’m a writer, but mostly in the sense that everyone is. I read years ago about cultures that do not recognize anyone as a writer, an artist, a musician…because everyone has those abilities. In these cultures, it is not a competition; everyone produces at their own level, and a huge part of the value is the self-expression, the belief that we all need to express ourselves.
Writing is easier for me than it is for some, because I was always encouraged to write. I don’t have any memory of my writing being compared favorably or unfavorably to anyone else’s, though I cannot imagine that it didn’t happen. We live in too competitive a society for that to be avoided. As far as the writing I am focused on here, there is no need or even possibility for competition.
I am talking about journaling, a form of writing in which it might even be best if you can ignore all the rules you have been taught about being a writer, whether for term papers, letters to the editor, professional journals, the novel you would like to create…all those things I have named will do best with careful attention to detail and some good proofreading. Journaling is best done without any of those precautions, because you want to get your thoughts on paper and it is not for anyone else’s eyes. How your writing may appear to someone else is irrelevant here. Don’t even stop to correct your spelling. You are hearing that last sentence from someone who prides herself on being part of the Spelling Police.
Journaling doesn’t need to be like a dairy that is kept on a daily basis; it may be used in order to get yourself through a crisis and then forgotten about. If it has served its purpose, then that was clearly a good thing. For some, it is a form of self-counseling; for others it is an adjunct to whatever other therapies you choose. Note that I say “you choose”—it can be a professional therapist, or not. But for many, journaling is very therapeutic.
We all have stories to tell, whether we tell them to others, or silently to ourselves, or put them on paper. And telling these stories helps us make sense out of our lives, our situations, often clarifying those thoughts that feel so jumbled in our heads. If you don’t want anyone else to ever see what you write, feel free to write it and then put it through a crosscut shredder. The process itself is likely to help you sort things out; you don’t need physical evidence for this journaling to serve a purpose.
I had an incident of my own several years ago, when my first marriage was floundering. I journaled sporadically, and often in the backs of notebooks for the classes I was taking at the time. At one point I stumbled on a probably two-year-old journal entry “If things don’t get better, I need to leave.” Since this entry was dated and I realized things had in fact not gotten better, seeing that I had written that two years previously really helped me to take a serious look at my reality. I would be lying to say I immediately contacted an attorney, but there was a shift in my thinking to where I could no longer pretend that things would work themselves out if only I waited long enough.
What will you discover with your own journaling? I will of course never know, because it is your own private writing. But you will, and it will likely open your mind to a fuller view of your own interior and exterior life, both the bad parts and the good. So have lots of paper on hand, or lots of memory on your phone or laptop. This could be an adventure.

What Would You Like to Be Your Biggest Problem?

Credit: Edward Lear

You know how our mothers can sometimes drive us crazy? Mine has been deceased for several years now, so she no longer has the opportunity. And far be it from me to admit I could drive my own son crazy, though I am sure there are enough ways that I do. He’s a smart man, though, in that he accepts me for who and what I am and doesn’t waste time trying to change me.
My mother had one habit I used to hate, though, that has actually worked to my advantage as an adult. It is one that puts things into perspective. As a teen, I hated it, because it got in the way of the drama that some teens feel they cannot live without. I would be kvetching about not having the outfit ready that I wanted to wear that day, or about dinner being too late, or one of a million other everyday problems that we cannot get through this life without. And my mother would say “I wish that was my biggest problem.”
Granted, our problems don’t have to be huge to matter; if something is an issue, it deserves attention. But every issue does not need to be all-consuming.
I pulled this phrase of my mother’s out a few years ago, when a good friend of mine was suffering from breast cancer that was likely to be terminal (as it sadly turned out to be). When we needed a little levity, she and I took my mother’s expression and turned it into a joke for when things looked darkest: What would you like to be your biggest problem? Not just a problem, but the biggest one you will have to deal with for a while.
Here are a few we came up with, and I am sure you could add plenty of your own:
– When I am choosing a new car, would I rather have the BMW or the Lexus?
– Chocolate ice cream or vanilla?
– If I stand under that tree, will a coconut fall on my head?
– I have too many true friends. How will I keep up with them all?
– Two great job offers came in on the same day. Which one to choose?
– Next vacation, would I rather go to Italy or France?
Okay, you get the idea. These problems are so trivial they are almost phony. But aren’t they fun to come up with? And couldn’t we all use a little more fun these days?

Relatives Can Be So Interesting

My Grandmother Robinson and myself, way back when

I always knew I had a delightful paternal grandmother. (Not to give short rift to my mother’s mother, who has her own very different and unique story.) As a typically self-absorbed child, then teenager, I would tell her from time to time what was going on in my life. Yet it never occurred to me to ask what was happening or had happened in hers. It was only in my early adulthood that I recall her telling me a couple of stories, which I wish I had asked for earlier. Imagine how much more I could have learned about her history!
Even though she didn’t live far from us, we didn’t see her often enough. But I do remember from those days that she routinely prepared dinners for Thanksgiving, Christmas and our birthdays. The first time I showed up wearing lipstick, she noticed and commented in a flattering way. Since my father was her only child who lived to adulthood, my siblings and I were her only grandchildren.
As a young adult, I heard a few stories about my father’s growing-up years along with learning a little about his younger sister who only lived to the age of ten. She took my then-husband and myself fishing, and I will never forget the sight of this tiny woman, who was usually totally prim and proper, rolling up her pant legs to reel in a fish. In retrospect, I realize I started opening up to her more after her husband died. I guess I thought she was fully occupied with her marriage.
Several years after her death, I came across an autographed program from Arturo Toscanini’s farewell concert at Carnegie Hall, during the Great Depression—a sign of her love for classical music, and her determination to find her way to New York for this event.
For most of my life, I thought of her as a housewife who liked to sing. I knew she would sing, that she had been in the Glee Club during her years at The Ohio State University, but thought of it mostly as a hobby. I had no idea of her passion or her talent, because I never asked.
A recent event opened a whole new set of anecdotes. After preparing a short writeup to accompany a donation of her fur collar to the Worthington Historical Society, I sent a copy to my oldest brother and learned part of what I had missed. My grandmother had seen to it that this brother benefited from piano lessons and—one more thing I hadn’t bothered to learn about anyone outside of myself—she would often take him to those lessons and would warm up for her performances while she was waiting. He recently informed me that he had inherited a music cabinet from her with about 100 pounds of sheet music. Can you imagine? And here I thought of her as this meek, obedient little housewife.
I should add, I had thought of my grandfather as being a bit authoritarian, and it was only after he died that I learned he had been very appreciative of her musical talent. She talked about how on one of her “music days” he used that time to bake her a pie.
About the pie: She told me that none of those pies we had at family dinners were baked by her. She claimed to have baked three pies in her life, the first of which was good, the second mediocre and the third needing to be thrown out. At that point, he said “Don’t worry, I’ll bake the pies.” He never on that he was the one who baked them. Was that to make a macho impression, or was he protecting her image as a perfect housewife and cook? I guess we will never know.

Pandemic Puppies and Side Effects

credit: Lauren Rathbone, Pixabay

Early in the pandemic, a lot of people started getting puppies and dogs, to the point where several humane societies emptied out.  I am sure there are many who are still happily ensconced with their new owners, and some who have unfortunately been surrendered when the owners returned to their regular schedules and found themselves overwhelmed.  That is still better, though, than to keep an animal and neglect it.

Countless articles have been written about this phenomenon.  So many of these sudden pet owners had wanted a dog for years but felt unable to make the time to properly introduce it to their family and provide proper training.  Many, I am sure, made that time when they had a slowdown of their regular work schedules, and have continued to provide the best of homes.

While so many people were being furloughed, veterinarians were working nonstop, not only taking care of new pets but also treating minor conditions that long-time pet owners suddenly noticed once they were spending a lot more time at home with their pets.

I do suspect that a lot of the appeal of adding pets to a household during the pandemic—that will continue.  The pandemic has been such a stressor for so many, and the presence of an animal whose only goal is to love you…well, that will be a stress reducer in the future too.  Once this pandemic is gone (or absorbed into our daily life, if that is the case), we will not suddenly stop having stressors in our lives.

I admit, I lied about animals only wanting to love you.  They want treats too.  And walks.  And attention-seeking behavior at times when you are already preoccupied—well, that is part of the package.  But they do have a habit of worming their way into our lives.  Many is the person who merely tolerated the animal that another family member wanted, only to be sobbing uncontrollably when old age an infirmity catch up with that same animal.  Many is the person who swears to never get another pet and then finds one within weeks.  

Which is not to say life without animals is some vast wasteland.  If you are not inclined to have them around, please stick to your guns about that.  There is a lot of work involved, and good veterinary care is definitely no bargain these days.  Sometimes we find ourselves seeking veterinary care that we never dreamed we would agree to.  Did you know that there are veterinarians who perform acupuncture on pets?  I can tell you from experience that it gave at least one of my former dogs some good relief from back pain.  But acupuncture?  For animals?  Who knew?

This all leads to one conclusion:  The pandemic has made us re-think a lot of things, and it is doubtful that things will return to the way they were before.  The break some of us had in our schedules is likely to leave us more mindful of the directions we choose.  Whether or not to add these critters to your own life is one more thing to be mindful about.  Hopefully, whether you choose to live in a home with pets or without, you have settled on a plan that brings you joy.

Righteous Anger and COVID

polio patient in iron lung, circa 1937, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives

I am angry. Furious, even. And no, I will not be taking anger management classes. This is righteous anger, not random fury at someone who might have accidentally cut me off in traffic. It is aimed at those who refuse to take COVID-19 seriously, thereby endangering us all.
Let me go back a few years, quite a few because my husband was two years old at the time. The Salk vaccine for polio was still five years from being released to the public. The man who would later become my husband caught a mild case of polio. He was considered to have fully recovered, didn’t need leg braces, and it is doubtful he spent any time in an iron lung. (No one alive today remembers.) Then his early adult years introduced him to post-polio syndrome, which presents differently among polio survivors. The book “The Polio Paradox” by Richard L. Bruno, H.D., Ph.D. goes into a lot more detail for lay people who are interested. A couple of survivors told me it felt like their polio had come back.
In my husband’s case, it affected his back, has been progressive, and severely limits his physical activity. I don’t tell you this in order to garner sympathy; it is just important for others to realize that the end of an illness is not necessarily the end of its effects.
With polio, the good news is that it does not affect sufferers’ cognitive abilities, either during the actual illness or with post-polio syndrome. We know that the same cannot be said of long COVID, that brain fog is one of many long-term effects present in survivors.
Which leads to the disease we are dealing with today. Yeah, that pesky COVID that we never stop hearing about. Unlike post-polio syndrome, which usually would set in several years after the actual illness, long COVID gives no relief between active illness and the onset of symptoms. Or at least that appears to be the case so far; with COVID being so new, we don’t know yet if there will also be a form of long COVID that sets in several years after people thought they had recovered. We also don’t know if it will be consistent, progressive…if it will have an end point. What we do know is the news so far is not good.
Which leads to my anger. How can anyone justify being in such denial that they feel perfectly okay with refusing to mask, refusing to vaccinate (and I am referring here to people who have no medical justification for this decision), just deciding that it is their right to be stubborn and the heck with anyone who suffers from it? How dare they?
Back in the days of polio, we had a much smaller knowledge base. Since then, science has advanced exponentially, and good websites make so much information available to anyone willing to do the research. We can exercise our common sense in weeding out the bad websites.
It is already well known that many infected with COVID show zero symptoms, so we have no business deciding there is no way we can spread it if we are not ill ourselves.
Hospital Intensive Care Units are having to send people home to make room for more COVID cases, many of whom are children ineligible for vaccines who were carelessly subjected to this disease thanks to some adults who very much are eligible.
I have been fully vaccinated for several months now, yet this is the second year I will be foregoing a visit to my son who lives out of state, due to my wishing to neither contract nor spread this illness. Meantime, around 700,000 people were recently gathered in South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally which will undoubtedly spread innumerable cases around the country. How it is reasonable that I am staying home so these people can gallivant all over creation?
It is not about these people’s freedoms. True freedom involves also respecting the freedom of others, and the mindset of COVID deniers does none of that.
Yes, I am angry. Irate. Furious. To feel otherwise seems to me to be just another form of denial.

Silly Diagnostic Labels

As a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, I am expected to assign labels to clients based on their “symptoms.” I put that word in quotes, because the bulk of my counseling hours are spent helping people navigate their way through situations. The “symptoms” are their perfectly normal responses to abnormal circumstances. Did you suffer abuse as a child and now have issues with trust, and/or PostTraumatic Stress? Sounds like a normal reaction to me, though the diagnostic label would likely be PostTraumatic Stress Disorder. Seriously, is it a disorder or a normal reaction you would like to mitigate or overcome?
Of course you want to feel better. I am here to help you process your issues so you can do exactly that. I’m just not sure how helpful a label is in that process. After all, each of you is unique, and though some labels may apply to you, they certainly do not define you.
To be fair, these diagnostic categories do give us a better feel for what we are dealing with, which of course leads to better ideas as to what approach will be most helpful. Just as a reputable medical person would never suggest treating asthma the same way they would a broken bone, I would never advocate that all clients be treated in an identical manner.
As I write this, I am reminded that there is valid overlap. I was about to bring addictions into the previous paragraph, when I was pretty much gobsmacked by the thought that there is almost invariably a link between addictions and previous trauma.
In one of my more rebellious moods, I came up with my own diagnostic system—one which is definitely not validated by any professional research. But in some ways it does cut to the chase. It refers to everyone being on a continuum, between NWC and JFN. NWC is my shorthand for Nothing’s Wrong wit Choo—you are unhappy and want to feel better, but you are mentally stable so there is that. JFN, my shorthand for Just Flippin’ Nuts, is not one I have given anyone; it is just there for comparison. My clients are not crazy, and I don’t say that to be facetious. If someone comes to me with a pervasive problem, such as psychosis of any type, I am likely to refer them to someone with a specialty in that area. This is not to be critical of that client; they simply deserve a therapist who specializes in their specific issue. I do not have enough experience in those areas and attempting to treat those potential clients would be doing them a disservice.
So here is my final word: We are all on the continuum between NWC and JFN, and in any normal lifespan we will move around a bit on the continuum, depending on our current situations and stressors.
Will it pass academic muster? Probably not, but I still like it and I hope you do too.

Righteous Anger

Whenever I hear “That is one angry woman,” I get—you guessed it—angry. It’s as if anger is an aberration, something to be ashamed of. And of course that “one angry woman” expression induces fury in those of us who see it for what it is: an instrument of control.
I certainly agree that misdirected or purely aimless anger is problematic. That does not mean all anger should be suppressed, though. It is just one of our many emotions, which can offer guidance for how we live our lives.
Let’s consider a day in which nothing angers us. We turn on the news, learn of the latest bombings of civilians overseas and yet another mass shooting, and we likely react with a mixture of emotions—which have admittedly been tamped down in order to keep them to tolerable levels. We are sad, heartbroken really, that these things are continuing on such a frequent basis. We are likely incensed for the same reasons. Frustration is likely part of the mix, because wouldn’t we all love to be able to stop this carnage singlehandedly, yet that goal is blocked every single day. There may be several more emotions depending on your own life experience and emotional makeup, and these all deserve our attention.
Suppose you have encountered someone who keeps crossing obvious boundaries—making sexual or threatening comments, touching you despite your constant backing off—if you downplay anger in such a situation, you may reduce your awareness to the point where you fail to recognize the potential danger. Clearly, that is not a great idea.
No, I am not suggesting that you nurture every bit of your anger; it can become so overwhelming that it interferes with your physical and mental well-being, and could even lead you to act out in ways you could later regret. But it does deserve to be noted, attended to.
And of course, how you handle your anger is another matter. If I feel wronged, it does no good to cuss out the offender; in cases where they may not realize what they did, it could be helpful to point out “This is a problem because…” It is a learning opportunity they may or may not take advantage of. If you have a knee-jerk reaction to attack verbally—or worse yet, physically—following every affront, it is far more likely that the offender will feel justified and learn nothing.
So many social movements have taken hold because of anger that was well directed. Not only would we not have benefited from the Civil Rights movement, there would likely still be slaves on plantations south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Martin Luther King was noted for his emphasis on loving “our white brothers and sisters” while continuing the various protests that would bring change. John Lewis, who, on Bloody Sunday, famously suffered a cracked skull on the bridge that may soon be named after him, went on to devote the rest of his life to improving conditions in this country and was a congressional representative for several years.
Following Germaine Greer’s publication of The Feminine Mystique way back in the 1960s, a huge number of women began acknowledging their anger at the lack of opportunities for women, and thus the feminist movement took hold. Again, well directed anger.
There are clearly times when anger is inappropriate, and we would be wise to assess situations to decide when it is time to just let that go. It serves no purpose to just let it fester. But it can be a signal.
Rather than just dismiss anger out of hand, maybe we should all try our best to take a look at each situation and act accordingly.

(Photo credit: Peggy and Marco Lachman-Anke from Pixabay)

Ask Everyone

Ask everyone

You all know I have a Masters Degree, since that is required for me to get my license. What you may not all know is that I was in my 50s before that degree was conferred. I would be a liar if I said I knew from the age of 5 that I wanted to be a counselor. I started my freshman year of college with only very vague goals, and that is surely part of why it took me so long to complete even my Bachelor’s degree. Any excuse to drop out and I took it, until I didn’t.
I was 32 years old when I got my Bachelor of Arts Degree, and a divorce. Once I found a counselor I really liked (to process the divorce), I started thinking how much I would like to go into that same field. Then I quickly started un-thinking that, because I could not see my way clear to how I would ever pay tuition while I raised my child. I didn’t even tell anyone my goal; I just fumbled along the best I could with the generalized degree I had, working at jobs I didn’t much like but that I was pretty good at. There was also the one job I did like, self-employed, performing personalized singing telegrams. It required my creative side, which was what I loved about it.
Even after my son was fully grown, I would take stabs at figuring out how to finance graduate school, but I kept looking in the wrong places. It is especially curious that I never darkened the door of a college Financial Aid office. Now wouldn’t that seem like a logical place to go?
My mistake was simple: I thought I should be able to figure it out for myself, so I did very little asking for advice, even from experts. Blaming myself for not knowing what I had not been told, I just kept fumbling along without that degree. After enough years passed, I decided it just wasn’t in the stars. One favorite excuse? I won’t have enough working years left to justify the investment.
Then an opportunity pretty much smacked me in the face. I took it, started classes, and learned by Week 2 how most of my fellow students were funded: They had jobs in social service fields, with companies that paid for graduate school as an inducement. These were all companies I had been perfectly well qualified to work for; it just had never occurred to me to even try.
The point of this vignette is simple: Don’t follow my example. Had I swallowed my pride just the teensy amount it would take to ask questions, I would have either gotten into graduate school sooner or made an informed and rational decision to be content with the formal education I already had.
I doubt I would have started graduate school the minute the ink on my divorce papers was dry. Working full time while attending classes part time would mean I would miss out on too much of my child’s growing up. The years running the singing telegram company gave me plenty of latitude to be a more involved parent, for which I will always be grateful. But it would have been nice to have a plan for following a new career path when the time was right.
The short version of all this? Ask around. A lot. And read. And brainstorm, accepting even the worst ideas as ideas that may lead to better ones. There is no shame in not knowing, only in not bothering to learn. Whatever your age, you still have all the years ahead of you to change your path or just tweak the one you are on, to evaluate and re-evaluate your direction in life. The embarrassment of asking for advice and information pales next to the frustration of continuously thinking “If only.”