Tolerance and Generosity

Rockefeller Center, New York City, Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, 2007

Standing on what seemed like an endless line Tuesday afternoon at Wholefoods, I noticed my attitude beginning to slip and slide down a peg or two. I was impatient, judging what the person in front of me for buying foods that were really poor choices, and just wanting to go home and sit in my cave.

When I finally unloaded my groceries onto the belt, Ms. Attitude had moved further down a notch. I did smile and made happy holiday, small talk with the cashier. I’m positive I looked joyous, confident, and unbothered by what seemed like chaos surrounding me. Really! I’ve lived with my actor husband far to long now not to know how and when to put on a cheery face and be a comedian, while the world goes on its way, clinking and clanging around me, generally making me feel nasty.

But on the inside, my body wasn’t buying my “deck-the-halls” facade. The usual holiday dread was beginning to take hold and I was sure that I was going to blow it if I didn’t get home fairly soon. Even I hate me, when I get grumpy. As I sat in my car, at every single red light between Wholefoods and my house, I asked myself why I turn into such a grinchy curmudgeon every year at the end of November.

I don’t remember being that way as a kid. I was always excited by the holidays and started sneaking around in early December, to see if I could find the stash that Santa would eventually be leaving under the tree. I usually did find it, and even though I knew what I was going to unwrap on Christmas morning, I was still very excited.  The gifts I remember best were the Alice In Wonderland doll, with long blond hair that I could comb. And later, when I was getting into boys and rock ’n roll, a pink portable radio, I could take any where as I listened to The Platters, The Everly Brothers, and Johnny Mathis.

I spent the rest of my afternoon, thinking and trying to figure out my hang-up. I thought, “Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety.”  Or, “Maybe I wasn’t an introvert back then and now I am, unable to handle the holiday wear and tear of being with all those people intent on getting the biggest turkey for the lowest price.”

Like Scrooge, I revisited Christmas past, when my kids were small and we stayed at home for the holidays, because Santa wouldn’t be able to find us if we went somewhere else.  I couldn’t remember any difficult times.  I loved watching them digging through wrapping paper to find their most wanted toys and usually felt a bit of melancholy as we took the tree down and packed up the ornaments until next year.  I do miss those times.

Then 1987 came to mind. My dad had died several years earlier. Mom and my brothers came from New England to the spend a week with us.  My kids were in their teens by then and Mom had started giving them money so that they could buy what they wanted.  They loved having dollars to spend and it usually didn’t stay in their pockets for very long. One year, Lisa, spent her’s on a boa constrictor and live white mice to feed it. Mark usually spent his money on books and recordings of music by his favorite musicians.

On that particular Christmas morning, while everyone was sitting around the tree happily opening gifts and eating Blueberry Boy Bait, my yearly holiday coffee cake, Reid, my youngest brother noticed that Mom had given his son, who was at home with his mother, less money than she’d given my kids. I believe Mom’s thinking was that she should give Jesse less money because he was quite a bit younger. When she tried to explain, Reid had a fit, tossing his own Christmas check into the fire and stomping out of the room.

I was in tears, Zed was yelling  at everyone, and the kids slipped downstairs to get out-of-the-way.  While Bill was trying to calm everyone down, Mom and I got into our own little argument. As a result, she insisted that she needed to go to the airport right that minute so that she could fly back to New Hampshire and away from this craziness. Filled with shame and anger, I was ready to leave for the Bahamas.

After discovering that there were no flights out of Charlottesville on Christmas day, she made a reservation for the next day. We spent the day quietly, trying to avoid each other and ate our usual holiday meal of roast pork and perogies, without saying much. Afterwards, someone suggested that we take in one of the newest blockbuster movies. Later, when it came time to choose which one, there didn’t seem be too much interest in going, until my brothers discovered, Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal’s, comedy, Throw Momma From The Train, was playing at the nearest cinema.

The title says it all. Mom naturally decided to stay at home and pack for her escape the following morning. Tired and feeling as though we were about to go even more crazy than we already were, Bill and I decided to go to the movie as well, just to get out of the house.

It was, of course, the makings of a disaster. It was mean, cruel and I spent the rest of the evening feeling down and miserable that Christmas had turned into a Holiday Horror Show.  But no amount of apologizing made it better. Still angry at all of us, Mom left the next morning and called us when she got home, as if nothing had happened.  My brothers drove her car back to New Hampshire a day later and life went on as it usually does in dysfunctional families.  You have a fight over something silly, blame the whole thing on everyone else, and then act like it never happened, until the next time.

As I ran it all through my head, I realized that I was diving into victimhood. My stomach gurgled and hurt. I was anxious. Exhausted. And living in a story that was over, gone, and so very unimportant. But I was the one choosing to replay part of the nightmare, I felt my life had often been.

So instead of allowing myself to get depressed about the holidays being here again, or railing at myself for being a complete idiot, I decided to quit creating another version of Mr. Dickens’, Christmas Carol, and stay put in Christmas present.

It matters not what causes me to go all weird at Christmas. I choose to celebrate myself and those around me for all of the growing we have done over the years.  I want the spirit of holidays to fill me with generosity and tolerance for all of those around me, including myself. I needn’t fuss and fume because somebody else chooses to shop at eight o’clock in the evening on Turkey Day, or how they spend their pennies. I need only to look after myself, and live by my own values, which includes something about not judging others.  Oh, well.

How do you feel about Christmas and the holidays?  Do you love it or do you have demons like mine that come to visit every year at this time?  How do you handle them and send them on their way?

Living Simply

I thought yesterday was October first and here I am preparing for Thanksgiving.  Why do I feel like I’m living in a time capsule that moves forward at a gazillion miles an hour?

As a little kid, I felt time moved too slowly.  Adolescence was the worst.  All I wanted was to be grown up and out from under the boundaries my parents set up for me.  During my twenties it sped up a bit. But being the caretaker of two little people, I still felt pretty limited.  Once those little ones were in school, the pace picked up from that of a turtle to that of a hungry dog anxious to be fed.  Once Mark and Lisa left home there was no stopping the hours from rushing to the finish line.  These days I get up in the morning and before I know it, it’s time for bed.  There are never enough hours in the day to do all of the things I put on my list of daily intentions. It can be so very frustrating.

I want things to slow down a bit now, thank you very much and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Most everyone I know complains about there being too much to do in too little time.  While we whine about our computers being too slow, we wish for the time to take a nap, soak in a bathtub filled with bubbles, or simply lounge about, dreaming of what a real vacation might look like.

Today is my seventieth birthday.  It’s once more time for me to stop my craziness and think about what is most important to me.  Is it more pressing for me to spend my time and money accumulating more stuff and being seen at every community event? Or is it more important for me to slow down and smell the proverbial roses?  What about seeing friends for lunch or going for long walks in the woods or through streets crunchy with falling leaves? Do I need to go see every movie that is now playing at Charlottesville’s new fourteen screen movie complex this very week? Or might I stay at home, sitting in front of a fire, with a good book, snuggled up with my dog, Sam?

This past year, I seem to have opted for the long walks and the good book with sweet Sam at my feet.  And even though my pace is slowing naturally as I age, it’s not all that easy to stay in the slow lane.  If I’m running late for an appointment, I find myself swearing at the numerous red lights and the heavy traffic that makes me even later.  And if it’s too cold or too hot, I can easily find myself wishing that the season would move on and bring me more comfortable weather.  What I too often forget about, is living every moment as it arises.

I’m not one who is fond of this holiday time of year.  I do love being with my family and eating turkey with dressing and pumpkin pie, but I’m not happy with the consumerism that I sometimes feel wants to devour me.  Now Black Friday is set to begin Thanksgiving evening.  Will we now call it Black Thanksgiving? Those who have jobs in the big box stores that are so popular because of their low prices, are in many cases forced to work on one of the few days of the year that they have off to spend with their families.  A recent news report pointed out two women somewhere in California, already on line at their local Best Buy, so that they won’t miss out on the latest whatevers that they absolutely must have.

I could easily sit here and wish this season away, preferring it were March, and being able to work in my garden.  But where would that get me?  I’d have to skip tonight’s dinner at one of my favorite dining spots, and then hearing our local  symphony orchestra perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major Opus 92.  I’d miss being with my grandkid’s on Christmas day and most likely miss out on a snow storm or two that could transform my world into a fantasy land dressed in white.

It’s true that there may also be some very painful and unhappy days that I might be able to avoid by wishing life away. But if I didn’t enter the darkness from time to time, I’d never appreciate the light and the joy that surrounds me.

Today, I’m reminding myself once again, that rushing my way through life is not worth it. I don’t want to miss the smell of wood smoke in the air, and early daffodils poking their frilly, yellow heads out in February.  Once Thanksgiving is over, I’ll sit down and listen to Handel’s Messiah, while sipping a steamy mug of mulled cider as I write down all of the things I am grateful for this past year.

I’m convinced that I need to live more simply, being present in every moment.  Time here is too short. It should not take cancer or any other dreaded disease to slow me down, forcing me to finally begin appreciating the littlest things that I too frequently overlook each and every day.

Happy Thanksgiving Y’ All!
I hope you enjoy every precious moment.

Chasing Ice

© 2007, Joan Z. Rough. August 15, 2007, off the coast of Greenland.

It’s November. Halloween is over. Americans spent eighty billion dollars on candy and costumes this Halloween. When it comes to money, what we have spent on the current election is unspeakable. Christmas carols will soon be echoing throughout every mall in every state of the union. The big push will be on to get the biggest and bestest gifts to put under the tree, so that we all can have more things that we want but don’t really need.

There are millions of our fellow citizens still without power, water and food after the visitation of Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy.  Many of them have lost everything and are homeless.  On Tuesday, we will all trek to the polls to vote (I sure hope YOU do), making decisions that will affect how life will unfold during the next four years and beyond.  The big decision we make together as a nation will have consequences one way or another for all of us.  We all need to rethink what we value most.

I will be seventy years old this month.  I am not as concerned about my own welfare as I am for the children of this world and this beautiful blue orb we call home.  I have grandchildren ages nine and twelve, as well as a step-granddaughter who is twenty-four.  I think about how they will fare in the upside-down, topsy-turvy world they will be inheriting from US.  Yes, from you and me.

What will it take for them to reach their seventies as easily as I have? Will our nation be continuously at war, trying to keep peace around the world, while we ignore our own citizens? Today we argue about the issues we have with the economy, unemployment and health care. What about our infrastructure?  There is much of New York City that will need to be rebuilt in order for it to survive the New Normal that Mother Nature has in store.  There are bridges all over our nation that need rebuilding. Our ancient power-grid will not last forever.  Almost every aspect of life will need to change if we are to continue living here on this planet without destroying it and ourselves.

I could write pages filled with the things we need to do in order to keep us all safe and comfortable as we move into an uncertain future.  I could climb on a wooden crate on a street corner and yell and scream about the alarming rate at which glaciers in the far north are melting and that water levels around the world are already rising.  Would you listen if I told you we are running out of fresh water?  That the air we breathe is full of toxins that will eventually bring death and suffering to all of us?

Most of us don’t like to think about those questions. Who wants to consider painful scenarios in which there seems to be little hope. Some say we have no problems. They believe that we can live just as we are. If certain plants or animals become extinct, they won’t notice or care. But fifty-eight percent of us agree that we do have some major problems.  The rest deny that anything is changing and if it is, it certainly isn’t being caused by human activity.

Every November, Charlottesville hosts the Virginia Film Festival.  This is it’s 25th season.  Yesterday, I had the privilege of seeing, Chasing Ice, a film that will be released to the general public in the near future. I urge all of you to see it, the creation of world-renowned photographer, James Balog. In 2007, he founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), a photographic project in which the rate of ice melt is being visually recorded in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana. Using the art of photography and the known science around global warming, he presents moving, visual proof that the glaciers are melting at a rate so fast, that it is almost unimaginable.

The stunning beauty of this film will take your breath away, as well as raise questions that all of us must consider. Through recognizing the tragedy that we are all participating in, and speaking about it openly, I believe we will find ways to adapt our behaviors in a changing world.

New Beginnings

Zoe, Bill (also known as Granddaddy), and Noah reading Brer Rabbit.

I’m tired.  The period between Thanksgiving and January 1st, always leaves me out of breath and exhausted.  There is too much to do. Time to write, paint or stare into space is diminished.  Instead I get pulled into the rush, rush of the season, stay up too late, get up too early and am tempted by the yumminess that pervades store shelves, edible and otherwise.  It isn’t that the holidays are nasty. It’s that these big celebrations come all at once and last for well over a month.

Bill and I had a fun visit with our daughter, her partner and our two amazingly wonderful grandchildren in North Carolina.  We rented a small Townhouse just a quarter of a mile from their house for a week.  We took turns cooking, went to see the movie, Tin Tin on Christmas eve, and spent Christmas morning wading through gift wrap. Zoe spent two nights with us, Noah only one.  He said he heard strange noises in the night and couldn’t sleep.  We did a lot of walking and I was thrilled that Lisa took me to her Groove class, a delightful dance/exercise class featuring fantabulous music and soaking wet clothing by the end of the hour.  The weather was cold but perfect.

This morning, I’m finally feeling that I can get back to things I left on the back burner while I was otherwise engaged.  Last night, I decided it was time to get over the big overwhelm and holiday grind.  I plan to take a long walk today instead of going to Yoga.  The day is sunny and on the warm side.  I slept in until 7:30 (I know, I know!) and took my time walking Sam and having my breakfast.  From my kitchen window, I caught a glimpse of a neighbor I haven’t seen in months and ran out to give her a hug and meet her new dog, Mystique.  It felt wonderful to renew our connection and we promised to get together soon for tea and allow Sam and Mystique get to know each other.

I’ll tackle the heaps of paper surrounding my computer.  They keep sliding down onto my mouse pad, making writing extremely difficult at times.  And then there is the stuff in my head that needs attention.  Things I haven’t had time to write about, like the fact that I have made the commitment to write a memoir.  It’s been hard for me to say it out loud or to jot it down on paper because once I put it out there it becomes a fact. I can’t hide from myself anymore or the voice of my inner critic who screeches, “Who the !#@$ do you think you are?  Write a memoir?  You can’t do that.  There is nothing in your life that other people would be interested in reading!!”

Sound silly? I think it’s pretty typical and since that screechy voice comes from someone I envision as being about three feet tall and wears her hair standing on end, I can only laugh.  I tell her,  “It’ll be okay.  I am writing a memoir … because I can, because I want to, because I need to understand who I really am and how I got that way. I can file away all my stories in my head, but they will never become clear to me until they are written down on paper.”

Bill is going on a trip for a week this month.  I’ll use the time to tend to myself and retreat from the usual business I get bogged down in.  I did it for a week in the fall at the beach and it was lovely. At home I’m tempted to ramp up that kind of alone time with too much stuff. Since I’ll miss Bill, keeping busy helps the time pass quickly until his return.  But I won’t do that this time.  I plan on rolling in and out of bed when I feel like it, not knowing how the day will unfold.  I’ll just let it happen. Let it be a surprise. Take long walks, deep breaths, write, read and leave the holiday season behind for another year.

Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving Eve.  There is so much to celebrate and to be grateful for, I don’t know where to begin. But needing to begin somewhere, I am grateful for this lovely Iris that I planted last spring.

It is one that blooms twice a year, in spring and in the fall.  I’ve been admiring them in a garden that I’m familiar with for several seasons. Even entertained the idea of slipping in one moonless night with a shovel.  But of course that is stealing.  This bit of loveliness that I carefully set in my garden in May did not bloom at that time, but weeks ago I began to see signs that she was getting ready to present me with a glorious Thanksgiving gift.  It has been a fairly warm fall here, but we’ve had hard freezes and still she stayed the course.  I am grateful for this bit of color, as the rest of garden goes brown for the winter.


I am grateful for my veterinarian, Richard,  who is working with two of my pets who have been strangely ill these last weeks.  He’s promised to not charge me for rent because I’m in his office so often and kindly puts up with my panic when Peppermint, the cat, can’t walk without falling over or when sweet Molly, my little Maltese-mix , throws up all over the place and is in serious pain.  Both are doing better, but seem to have life long issues that they will need medication for.


I am grateful for all of my family.  My supportive husband who edits and helps me clean up most of these posts. He seems to know where I’m coming from and where I’m going before I do.  My children and grandchildren continue to be my teachers and sparkling rays of sunshine on dark, rainy days. For my brother, Zed, who has helped me through much loss.

I am grateful for all my helpers along the way.  Kevin, for recently agreeing to be my writing coach as I begin to cross treacherous seas and entertain the idea of a book.  He will be going off on a Semester At Sea, Around the World Cruise in the New Year. With his other coaching and writing jobs he may not be with me for long, but he is giving me phenomenal direction, not by telling me what to do, but by asking pertinent questions.

I am grateful to my dear friend, Sharon, who through her own pain, steadily holds the torch for me while I dig through layers of the past.  I can’t do it without the light she sheds on my life.

I am grateful to all of you who come to visit here and let me know what you think, whether by leaving a comment or sending an email.  I am grateful for all of you who don’t leave comments but come back again and again.  I know you are out there.

I am grateful for the richness of my life … my friends, those I find difficult, and the day-to-day comings and goings of people and creatures who cross my path.

May Peace Be With You All!