This time last week I found myself in the midst of an existential crisis. The kind where you cry and drum up all the reasons why your life is terrible. It went something like this.

“I can’t do it all.”

“Something has to change. I can’t keep doing this.”

“Everyone else’s needs are being met but mine.”

“When is it my turn?”

If this sounds familiar, read on. If not, you should probably find something else to do. And count your blessings while you’re at it, because you’re a lucky soul.

For those in the first group, let’s continue.

My initial interpretation of the feelings I was having was that I was unhappy. I was crying, after all. I must be unhappy. “My house is a mess. My yard is a disgrace. Life is terrible. Etcetera, etcetera.”

After my melt
down, I tried to put emotion aside and sort things out in an analytical manner. Working from emotion had given me swollen eyes and a stuffed up nose, which wasn’t helping the matter. So I did what my mama taught me to do. I looked inward.

My perception: “The house is a mess.”

Reality: My house is not a mess. The dining room is where we do homework. The kitchen counter has
a pile of papers on one end. The refrigerator needs to be cleaned and the dog needs a bath. Not a crisis situation.

My perception: “The yard is a disgrace.”

Reality: The gardens need to be weeded. I didn’t get around to thinning out the liriope before it got to be a gazillion degrees outside, so that will have to wait until fall. The grass is brown in the sunny spots, b
ut that happens every August. And now that I look around, every other yard on the block looks the same way.

My perception: “I can’t do it all.”

Reality: I decide what I do or don’t do. If I’m obsessing over something trivial, it’s my own doing. I choose what I do or don’t do.

My perception: “My life is terrible.”

Reality: My life
is enviable.

In an effort to break it down I started a list. In a matter of minutes I had a two page list of things to do. Tasks that would address my perceived deficiencies. Get it all done. But nowhere on the list were all the things I do every day. Empty the dishwasher. Feed the dog. Balance the checkbook. I looked at the list for a few minutes and started to sob again. I could spend entire days, weeks, months constantly in motion, and never get all of this done. The list would be constantly growing.

Constantly outpacin
g me without ever reaching any of my goals.

I felt overwhelmed.

So I made a new list.

I made a list called What I Want.

I’ll share a few items with you so you can get the gist, sparing the really personal ones for another time.

I want to support my son with his homework.

I want to be more faith-centered.

I want to have a clean house. (I surprised myself by acknowledging that.)

I want to make time for friends and family.

I want to finish the 1st draft of my novel.

I looked at both lists, and considered how many things on my To Do List supported my What I Want List. That was an epiphany for me. I was perceiving everything on my To Do List as time and energy suckers. When in fact, many of the things were supporting or accomplishing the things I said I wanted.

I felt like I had cracked the code.

We all get overwhelmed. Some days it feels like it’s just too much. But understanding the difference between feeling unhappy and acknowledging that you’re overwhelmed can be the difference between divorce and marriage, between joy and meltdown, between giving up or living to fight another day.

I’ll never again confuse overwhelmed and unhappy. When it feels like it’s just too much I’ll check the list and make sure the things I’m doing support the things I want. And I’ll remind myself that I don’t have to do it all. I choose what I do. My life is enviable. And I am grateful for it all.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

Are you one of the lucky folks who has never felt this way? Or are you also familiar with the Big O?

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Having Good Cancer

I studied the painting on the wall of the cold exam room. A jazz musician playing a shiny saxophone. I’d seen it before, but never gave it much attention. Today, though, I needed my thoughts to be focused on something other than my reason for being there.

My mind flashed back to a day nine years ago. I sat in the same room, paying no attention to the artwork. Probably planning the rest of my afternoon. Not knowing what would come next.

That day, when the doctor entered the room with a serious face, I didn’t notice. When she sat across from me, I thought nothing of it. Not until she spoke the word “cancer” did I have the faintest idea there was anything wrong.

“But this is the good kind of cancer,” she said in response to my shocked expression. I had no concept of good or bad at that moment. All I heard was “cancer.”

She said a few things I don’t remember. The words “surgeon” and “pathology” were the only ones that stuck. Her assistant would call me with more details. I figured I would ask questions then.

I just wanted to leave.

In the stillness of my car I cried. “Good cancer,” she said. I’ll focus on that. She didn’t have a sense of urgency getting me to the surgeon. That was another good sign. I’ve heard stories of people being sent straight to the hospital. I was going to wait for a phone call. I tried to convince myself that it really was “good.”

I don’t remember how long I sat there. My husband was out of town, so I picked up the phone and called one of my nurse friends. She repeated what the doctor said, that it was the good kind of cancer, and that I was going to be OK. But isn’t that what anyone would say to a sobbing friend?

My mind raced through so many different scenarios. What would happen to my four-year old son if I died before he grew up? He didn’t yet know what cancer was, so he wouldn’t understand what was happening. But at ten and thirteen, my other boys would. I would have to hold myself together, even though what I wanted to do was to curl up in a ball and cry.

“Please, God, let this be a mistake,” was the first stage of processing the news. But my conscience intervened. “Lisha, people get cancer diagnoses every day. Why should you be spared?”

“Then please, God, don’t let it be bad. No chemo, no disfiguring scars on my face.” My conscience again piped in. “Lisha, people have to go through chemo every day. Why should you be different? As for scars, vanity has no place here. This is about your life.”

I hung my head a little lower.

“Then God, just please don’t let me die. I want to grow old. I want to grow old with my husband, watching our sons grow up, playing with the grandchildren I dream about.”

Waiting.

Waiting.

I decided at that moment that I would not ask God for terms. I would pray to grow old. An old woman with scars to tell her tale.

My mind returned to the present as I heard footsteps approaching. I had time for one quick prayer before the doctor entered the room to deliver the results of yet another biopsy.

No terms this time. No conditions. Just please, God, let me grow old.

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Have you been diagnosed with a “Good Cancer?” I’d like to hear from you. 

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I’m in the company of some fabulous writers and bloggers over at Yeah Write this week. Click on over see for yourself!

Hello, my name is…

He stepped into my kitchen and extended his hand. I smiled and greeted him. While shaking his hand I glanced around the room.

My son was surrounded by his friends. Some he hadn’t seen since they all scattered for college nearly a year ago. They resembled the boys he hung out with in the past, only taller, with deeper voices, and facial hair. But this one I had never met. So he introduced himself.

“I’m John,” he said.

“I’m Miss Lisha,” I replied. But the sound of that name felt strange.

I realize that naming traditions and salutations vary in different places, so let me explain how we do it here. In the South, most adults are referred to as “Mister” or “Miss” followed by their first name. “Miss Lisha” has been the name my sons’ friends have called me for their entire lives. It always seemed right.

ImageDuring our years in the military, my husband and I were referred to by our surname, his salutation preceded by his rank, mine my “Mrs.” In those circles, it seemed right.

But this felt strange. What do I call myself to my grown sons’ friends?

This is new territory for me, and I’m not really sure how to handle it.

If I were meeting this young man in the workplace I would have introduced myself as “Lisha” without hesitation. But he was part of my son’s posse, and that made it feel different. In this setting, it almost felt a bit creepy, a bit too familiar for a personal introduction.

Now, I’ve never had any hang-ups about titles or formalities. To be honest, the whole “Mrs. Fink” thing makes me feel either antiquated or pretentious. I accepted it as part of our military lifestyle, but I much prefer “Miss Lisha.” It’s my “mom title.” Which is, after all, how I’ve defined myself for over two decades.

But now, with grown kids, who am I?

Miss Lisha? Lisha? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s time for a cool nickname so I can avoid the whole thing.

I want my boys to continue to use these “courtesy titles” with the adults they have known since childhood. Neighbors, mothers and fathers of their friends, even teachers with whom they still keep in touch. It’s a sign of respect – for them and for our traditions. But what about new introductions?

I guess I’m going to have to give this some time. I should probably take the lead from the kids young adults themselves. It’s new territory for them, too.

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

The Inbox

I pulled the box down from the shelf carefully, not wanting to spill its contents. Although not fragile, the things inside still regarded as some of my most cherished possessions.

I carefully removed the lid and gently touched the envelope on top. Despite being yellowed with age I immediately recognized my Aunt Tillie’s beautiful handwriting. “My Dearest Lisha,” the letter began, and in it she reminisced about the letters we had exchanged, how they began with large, block print of my childhood and continued without interruption until the most recent envelope arrived – with my wedding invitation.

letters 2

There were letters from my cousin Karen in Mississippi, and from my friend April, with whom I spent countless summer days. There were cards and notes from the students I shared a summer semester with in Quebec, and volumes from my sweet friend Jane that spanned years.

There were a few letters dated 1972, from my sister’s husband, who was serving in Vietnam. He reminded me to “stay sweet,” and “write him often, because my letters meant a lot” to him. His obviously meant a great deal to me, too.

They were all special, because I had kept every one of them.

There was a group tied with a ribbon, written by a guy I met in college who had joined the Army, and spent summers away at training. Some sweet, some funny – one entire postcard filled with fish puns was my favorite.

I wondered for a moment why I had kept them. Surely at the time I didn’t have the foresight to know I’d treasure them one day. There had to have been something in me, even at that age that understood the power of words.

boxI thought about the lost art of letter-writing, and how my children will never have a box of letters on colorful stationary, written in beautiful script. They each have a few from me, written on special occasions or as part of a retreat. But this kind of box, my original inbox, is a thing of the past.

When I was twelve, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Without hesitation, I answered. “A writer.”

I guess I didn’t realize I already was.

My “So Wrong” Moment at the Wal-Mart

Hey y’all! Today I’m hanging out over at Renee Schuls-Jacobson‘s blog, sharing a story about a really embarrassing moment. It’s not the usual stuff you read over here, it’s a funny story that includes a Wal-Mart parking lot, a guy pleasuring himself, and a police officer. (Now you’re curious, aren’t you?).

So CLICK HERE to hop on over and read about my So Wrong experience. And show Renee some blog love while you’re there. She’s good people. 🙂

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Good riddance.

The morning started like every other school day. Except this one was different. This was the day he was leaving.

As I went through the motions of getting my youngest son ready for his school day, I was preparing myself for my middle son to leave for college.

Amid the hustle of making breakfast and double-checking backpacks, I was trying to think of the little things he still needed to pack, and all the things I wanted to tell him. Time did not permit, however, and we hustled out the door.

But there was still so much I wanted to say.

I wanted to remind him to keep breakfast food in his room, because he likes to sleep til the absolute last minute. But there was no time.

We drove little brother to school in C’s car, with dad following in my packed SUV. Mr. Wonderful let me ride with my boy, allowing me to squeeze in the last few precious hours. After dropping his brother off, we rendezvoused for breakfast.

Once we settled in at a table my husband asked, “What Shakespeare play had that dad who gave the good advice to his son? ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be…’”

“Hamlet,” C replied.

Then he looked across the table with a smirk and said, “Dad, don’t be a Polonius.”

The moment looked a little like this, only at a Subway in New Orleans. (Source: theoldglobe.org)

The moment looked a little like this, only at a Subway in New Orleans.
(Source: theoldglobe.org)

His father smiled back in silent agreement.

But there was still so much more I wanted to say.

I wanted to remind him that I’d packed all the medicine he’d need if he got sick, and that his insurance card was in his wallet. And that if he needed anything, he had my credit card.

Instead we chatted about the campus, and its proximity to the beach. Then we got back in the cars and headed east.

For the next few hours, Slick and I chatted about many things. Some profound, some mundane. Some practical, some superfluous.

But there was still much more I wanted to say.

And before I knew it, we arrived at campus. We unloaded the car and unpacked his things. We discussed the importance of organization when mom wasn’t there to find things. We talked about the dynamics of living with a roommate. Not ready to separate, we went shopping for snacks and drinks and breakfast foods, and notebooks and pens and extension cords. We had lunch and laughed when he spilled ketchup on his shorts – and I wished I’d bought that stain remover thing I’d seen in Target. Then I remembered doing laundry with Mr. Wonderful in college, and smiled. He’d figure it out. And he’ll have the time of his life doing so.

We returned to the dorm and I felt a quiet satisfaction, knowing he was ready.

It was time for me to go.

Quickly, before he had a chance to see me cry.

I told him again how much I loved him, and how proud I was of the man he had become. And even though there was so much more I wanted to say, I simply said goodbye.

Good riddance, son. I hope you have the time of your life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyLOkbW9yCI
(Click the link, it all makes sense when you do.)

 

Becoming brave

Stevie Nicks was right. Time really does make you bolder.

Folks who know me now have a hard time comprehending that there was a time when I wouldn’t stand up for myself. Because these days you pretty much know where you stand with me. But it was not always the case.

It may be hard to believe that there was a time in my life when the mere thought of standing up for myself made me tremble in paralyzing fear. But there was. This fear permeated all aspects of my life: school, relationships, jobs. I did not express myself. I did not challenge. I did not speak up. I was the most non-confrontational person on the planet.

Growing up, I was the good girl. The one who complied with all instructions, usually with a smile. I sought validation from others in everything I did, as if the approval of others was the only way I could be happy. My parents didn’t push me, it was just the way I was wired. A perfectionist from birth.

The thought of speaking up to a stranger in a grocery store would have me abandoning my shopping cart and digging for my car keys. The notion of defending myself in the workplace made me want to quit my job.  I was a pushover.

Beginning my adult life as an Officer’s Wife didn’t help. As a matter of fact, upon arrival at his duty station two days after we were married, I was handed a copy of a book called Mrs. Lieutenant, a social guide to being an Army officer’s wife. More etiquette and expectations. I did exactly what that book said I was supposed to. I dressed the way it suggested. I learned the proper greetings and attended the social events. I served my husband, the community, and the Army with a smile.

When my children were born, the pattern continued. Every teacher knew she could count on me, because I never said “no.” Even when I should have.

I seemed to disappear behind this person who couldn’t speak up.

But somewhere along the way the need to serve myself surfaced. And I found my voice.

I learned that speaking up for myself wasn’t a selfish act. I learned that disagreeing wasn’t a sign of disrespect. The change began.

Then I got a cancer diagnosis. And I cared a little less about pleasing others.

Then Hurricane Katrina shook my world. And standing up for myself became necessary for survival.

Then my mother died. And I learned that our legacy outlives us.

Then my husband spent a year in Iraq. And being strong was all I had left.

Then I learned to be brave.