You Don’t Have to Check the Mail

My mom and I were having a spirited discussion the other day on the topic of busyness. She is almost 18 months into her retirement and has yet to come to grips with what to do with her time. As a nurse for more than 45 years, she is used to doing two things – solving problems and caring for others. Caring for herself has never been her strong suit; so, while she may have more time now, things like relaxing, learning new skills or hobbies, exploring the world around her (even if it’s in the backyard), or eating (yes, eating) are not on her priority list. What is on that list, you might be wondering (as I was). Problem solving and caring for others, that’s what. If she’s not actively doing either, she feels as if her days are for naught.

At noon on Saturday, my mom made the remark that she “should have been done cleaning her bathroom by now” and that if she wasn’t going to be able to get things done, there was “no point in living”. I know I should have been more sympathetic but, in that moment, her words just upset me, so I asked why she thought she always had to be doing something.

“That’s the way I was raised,” she answered. “It was bred into me. Your work is your worth.”

“That’s crap,” I spewed. “This business of thinking you always have to be busy, that’s your choice.”

Since retiring, my mom is not the same person she once was. She will tell you that she used to work circles around everyone else, spending 8 hours a day at the hospital, taking care of two children, and keeping the house clean all by herself. I know she did all those things, but I also remember a mom that spent hours just sitting on the porch watching the birds, one who read library books and took us on trips to the places in those stories, a mom who biked 15 miles one afternoon just to see if she still had it in her, one who built tents out of tables with her grandchildren, a mom who never met a stranger and most importantly, one who taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons:

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.

I reminded her of this last part on Saturday. She smiled, as if she could see in her mind’s eye any one of the many times she drilled this into me as a child.

“Yes, I always taught you to be independent and that the only two things you ever have to do in life are pay taxes and die.” After a few seconds she laughed and added, “And now, I don’t even have to pay taxes anymore.”

Somewhere in our conversation, I think it finally dawned on her that I look up to her. Not because of her work ethic or her ability multi-task. These things are as irrelevant to me now was they were when I was a child. I look up to her because she has always lived life on her own terms. She and my grandmother were the strongest, most free-spirited women I ever had the privilege of knowing and those attributes, more than any other, are the ones that I try to model in my own life.

Hearing my mom say that she felt useless when she wasn’t busy felt like someone had turned the world on its head. It took both of us a minute to really understand that what she was trying to say had very little to do with busyness and a whole lot to do with contribution. My mom wasn’t upset because she hadn’t finished cleaning the bathroom. She was upset because cleaning the bathroom was the only thing she had to do, and she just couldn’t make herself want to do it.

When you are engaged in activities that bring you joy, even the mundane is tolerable. When my mom was working, cleaning the bathroom was just part of the routine. It fit somewhere between grocery shopping and ironing her uniform to get ready for her next shift. It wasn’t the be all to end all. If it got done, great. If not, maybe next week. Life was about the adventure of nursing and being a mother and grandmother, not about scrubbing the toilet. With many of these things now missing from her life, the whole focus shifts and yes, I can see how she would feel distraught.

Though my mom will never read this, here’s what I would like for her to know.

You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do – not even clean the bathroom. You don’t have to keep appointments you never wanted to make in the first place. You don’t have to watch the news (I don’t). You don’t have to answer the phone (I don’t do that very often either). You don’t even have to check the mail every day. The world will not fall apart when these things don’t get done. Trust me, I know. And, no, you don’t have to take anyone’s advice, not even mine. But if you do…remember this:

  • Naps are good for you. It’s okay to take one every day.
  • It’s also okay to do nothing. Being still and present is actually really good for you.
  • There’s nothing wrong with what you already have. You don’t need to buy new things just because someone tells you that you should.
  • It’s okay to grieve the loss of a job, especially one that you loved. It will help you heal.
  • You are still a valuable member of society and you don’t have to do anything to prove that. But if you want to do something, there are hundreds of great ways to feel productive that don’t involve driving yourself crazy on chores that just repeat when you’re done. Try that hobby you always wanted to learn. Become a volunteer. Create something. The options are endless.

As someone who looks forward to the day when I don’t need to lease a portion of my time to money-making endeavors, I don’t always see the downside of retirement. Watching my mom struggle to find her identity again after leaving her job, has brought many things to light for me. I love my mom more than she probably knows and I want her to find her happiness again. To do that, I know I need to be more patient and understanding. She is not a minimalist. She doesn’t have the same ideas and interests that I do, so expecting her to be content just to sit on the patio and knit a hat is unrealistic. I have to meet her on her own terms, and if that means we clean the bathroom together until she finds her mojo again, then so be it. I’ll bring the mop.

Let’s Talk Turkey

In just a few days, many of us will sit down to a festive meal with our families. A lot of turkeys will be served, maybe a few hams, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, and possibly an assortment of pies and cakes. Growing up, I remember spending Thanksgiving with my grandparents. My reclusive uncle and aunt would put in an appearance, usually late, and my parents would spend the better part of the day just chatting with them while we played in the den. The day was priceless…phenomenal food, good company, and nowhere to be but there.

After my parents divorced when I was a teenager, I don’t really remember very many specific Thanksgivings and Turkey Days as a young adult were hit or miss for me. Some were spent at my Dad’s house, some at my Mom’s, some at my own house, where my Mom, my Granny, and I would work all day to prepare the meal, and even a few took place at the homes of friends. Back then, Thanksgiving was simply the gateway to Christmas; kind of like a kick-off party for the “real holiday season”. Only in the past few years have I really learned to observe this day for what it is. Of course, only in the past few years have I really learned the importance of gratitude as a daily habit. (Thanks, Minimalism! You did that for me.)

Now, that’s not to say that I’ve spent my whole life being ungrateful. I like to think I’ve done a fairly good job of counting my blessings and taking very little for granted. But in all areas of life, there’s always room for improvement. For us, one of those improvements was in our observation of the 4th Thursday of November. Instead of a day to feast and fantasize about the month ahead, a few years ago we started spending our Thanksgiving just doing simple, quiet, fun things with one another. Why? Because, the most important part of our life, the things we are most thankful for, are just that – the times throughout the year when we spend our day together doing absolutely nothing other than what we want to do at that moment. And so we thought, what better way to show gratitude than to relish in those things that make us most happy.

One year, we made a tiny version of the traditional Thanksgiving meal and ate it while watching football. Another year, we walked the beach and had lunch at Cracker Barrel. And still another year, we ate ham sandwiches and read books on the balcony of our Florida apartment, while watching little alligators sunning in the yard below. In doing this, we not only allowed ourselves time to reflect and enjoy, but we also turned a previously hectic and sometimes stressful holiday into a peaceful celebration that we actually looked forward to each year. Thanksgiving was no longer the opening act for the spectacle we call Christmas. It was a day of gratitude, as it was intended to be.

When we moved to Tennessee, we tried to incorporate my family into our simple celebration and I’ll be honest, it has been a real challenge. Last year, per my Mom’s request, we made a traditional meal and invited everyone to her house. Only my niece and the baby showed up, so we had dinner for 5 and lots of leftovers. Angie watched football, my niece slept in the recliner, my mom reminisced about Thanksgivings past and fussed about how she was “never going to go through all the trouble again” since “no one appreciated it”, and I played in the floor with the baby. I remember thinking that we had somehow missed the point of this day. Here we were, a small family, but a family nonetheless, gathered together but still separate. We were there out of an obligation to celebrate an occasion rather than to celebrate the simple joy of being together. I don’t mean to imply that it was a bad day. It wasn’t. But it just wasn’t the day that it could have been.

This year we are going to try flipping the script. We’re celebrating Thanksgiving at our house. There will be no turkey, no gravy, no cranberry sauce. And no expectations.

Our door is going to be open all day to all members of our family. In fact, the invitation even says, “drop in anytime, stay as long as you like”. We’ll be here all day. There’s no dress code, no requirement to bring a dish. We are serving chicken (probably a pot pie) and a garden salad. The food will be here until it runs out and even then, we can always make a sandwich. Football will be on the TV and a fire in the fireplace. The toy box will be open. The patio has plenty of seating. The well of hot coffee and tea will never go dry.

Simple. Warm. Inviting. Home. That’s Thanksgiving to us.

The holidays are stressful enough as it is so we are hoping to replace that sense of obligation and pressure with the opportunity for others to enjoy a few of life’s simple pleasures –  delicious food, quiet moments, and good company – even if it’s just for the day.

Will this be the start of a new family tradition? Probably not. In all likelihood, it will be remembered as the year we tried to minimize everyone’s Thanksgiving (LOL), but I still have my fingers crossed. As Ghandi so fondly said, “Be the change…” 😊

**As a side note, the turkey pictured above passed away this week. Freckles was 12 years old. She lived a long happy life on Angie’s parent’s farm in Texas. She loved watermelon rinds, pecans, and giving kisses.