Lemons to Lemonade

This past week someone commented on my ability to turn a negative into a positive.  I guess I haven’t thought about this for awhile, but in contemplating it after the conversation ended, I realized that it is a learned behavior that through time and practice has become hard wired.

I come from a long line of positive thinkers.  My mother, who was by no means saccharine, could add a teaspoon of sugar to any sour situation, making the medicine go down as well as Mary Poppins herself.  When disaster prevailed, her solution was to have a good cry, preferably wrapped in her arms and held close to her heart, followed by, “That’s enough now.  Dry your tears, buck up, and let’s get to work to fix this.”

My grandmother, Helen Dow, was a bit more stoic, but infinitely kind and gentle.  She had eyes that danced with laughter, and she approached life much like making cookies.  If you spill in too much salt, just increase the flour, sugar, butter and vanilla until you double the batch.  You’ll end up with twice the fun.

I adored these two women and learned much from their grace under pressure.  If plans fell to pieces, serendipity abounded.  It’s all in how you define success.  I guess I picked it up by osmosis, or at least by careful observance and modeling.  However, in thinking more carefully, there are steps to follow.  Here are 10 basic beliefs to get you started.  (And yes, there are more of food metaphors.)

  1.  Remember you have options.  If you are handed a bowl full of lemons, you can lemonslet them sit on the table, just as they are.  They won’t be anything but lemons.  They’ll look like lemons, smell like lemons, and taste like lemons as long as they are left untouched.  Or until they rot. Then, they’ll turn brown, smell awful, seep into the bowl, grow mold, and lose their shape.  You can enjoy- even relish fresh lemons, just as you can bask in the sadness of life’s disappointments.  But only for a season.  It’s up to you to determine how long that season is.  Just know that the longer the season, the less fresh the fruit.
  2. It’s okay to cry over spilled milk.  Positive thinking is not ignoring the reality of a tough situation, or pretending that we aren’t daunted by disaster.  When faced with sadness or disappointment, it’s important to recognize and validate those feelings.  After all, the elephant is never going to leave the room until you acknowledge him, name him, and even nurture him for awhile.   Have a good cry.  Emotional tears release endorphins. They release stress.  They clear your sinuses.  And a good cry makes you look as miserable as you feel, so you are no longer bound to hide behind a false smile.
  3. Share the wealth.  Admittedly, this is something that I preach much better than I practice.   I have a tendency to “forget” to mention if something is amiss in my life, so when life events- like my divorce, or a major surgery- arose, people were stunned.  I heard a lot of “Why-didn’t-you-tell me?” and “I-had-no-idea!”  Loved ones were actually hurt that I had not kept them in the loop.  So although I still prefer to silently shed my tears in the shower, I try to be a little more open about my personal challenges.  I’m not saying that we need to post every little issue on Facebook, but sharing disappointments, fears, and challenges with a trusted family member or friend can garner support, encouragement and a fresh perspective.
  4. Don’t give up.  I am a practical Yankee at heart, who believes in mending, gluing and repairing as much as possible before calling it quits.  When my children struggled to find a solution to a problem, their father often urged them to “Find another way.”  These were wise words.  Most torn relationships can be sewn back together.  They may bear the scars of the stitches, but given the correct attention, scars become badges of honor.  And some things just take perseverance. When I trained to be a smoking cessation coach, I learned that most people make several quit attempts before they succeed.  We learn a little every time we fail, so the next attempt may just be the winner.
  5. When all else fails, let it go.  One evening when I was around twelve years old, I new-year-broken-dishesbegan to set the table for dinner.  The plates were stacked on a shelf that was just above my shoulders, and in my attempt to juggle enough for our family of ten, the stack began to slip from my grasp.  One by one, the plates fell to the floor, smashing to ceramic shards, until there was one lone plate in my hand.  I turned to my horror-stricken mother.  Her eyes were wide and her mouth open, but no sound escaped.  I knew the next moments were not going to be pretty.  I looked at the lone plate in my arms and without a word, let it fall too.  Some things are not salvagable. When you meet the end of the road, call it quits and find another route.
  6. Look for the silver lining.  This may be the most important step, as it’s the key to turning a negative to a positive.  I’m not Pollyanna-ish, but really, some of the best things in life result from trials.   As a child, my daughter Elizabeth was often in the hospital.  I often wondered if all the tests, prodding,  IVs and blood draws would make her feel as if she lost part of her youth.  Now an adult, she assures me that her life was in many ways richer.  She met incredible doctors and nurses.  She learned a lot about her body.  And what touched me most is she says that the time she and I spent in hospital rooms together strengthened our relationship.  Even though she often felt sick and scared, she believed that she and I were an invincible team, and she never doubted that together we could overcome any obstacle.
  7. Separate needs from wants, and appreciate what you have.  When disaster strikes, assess the situation.  Are your loved ones still alive?  Are your relationships intact?  Remind yourself that “stuff” can be replaced, and evaluate whether it is something you really needed anyway.  Chances are, losing “things” will matter less to you once you categorize according to needs and wants.  And when the worst happens and you lose someone you love, bask in the memories of the time you did have.   Recall a conversation.  Tell the story of a particularly memorable occasion.  Let your mind wander back to a time when you were both happy, and allow yourself to bask in that sunlight for a bit.  Then, take a look at the people who are still with you.  These are your treasures.  Cherish today with them.
  8. Prepare by making every little moment as special as possible.  When my kids were growing up, we often did things together, but I also tried to spend one-on-one time with each of them every week.  My son tells me that his self esteem soared after taking a long walk on the beach together, or going out for pizza.  As parents we often think that the best times of our kids’ lives will be the trips to Disney or the huge birthday parties.  But now I know that the most precious moments were those laughing over silly illustrations in a book, or listening to a mix tape together.  It is these moments that build the armor to withstand the winds of disaster.
  9. The cookie will crumble, but know that this too shall pass.  No poor situation lasts for ever.  Sometimes you just have to get through it.
  10. Look up.  I would be a liar if I pretended that my faith has nothing to do with mysky-22116_960_720 ability to turn negatives to positives.  We don’t always understand why, and it’s not that trials won’t come.  But we are never alone.  And in the end, it all comes out in the wash.


My grandmother, Helen Dow

It is a beautiful beach day.  I rise early, pack a lunch and drive to the coast, where I settle in my beach chair, wiggle my toes in the warming sand, and sip iced coffee.  I watch as families populated the beach, carefully choosing the best spot for their blankets, unpacking kites and plastic pails, handing out drinks and snacks, just as I had done when  my children were little. 

Helen Dow

My mother, Connie Dow (Madison) sometime in the late 40s

Me (Garrie) with my firstborn, Abby-1983

As I sit in my faded canvas chair, I marvel at how the beach changes day-to-day, and yet  in many ways, it remains the same. The beach has been a favorite spot for my family for four generations, and I suspect, will be continue to be long after my bones have returned to the sea.  My grandmother sat in this very sand, clad in a heavy swim costume, her hair caught up in a crisp cotton cap to protect it from the salt air.  My mother, barely a teenager, mugged for a camera on this beach in her two piece swimsuit, and a generation later, wearing my first bikini, I rode waves with my father in the same briny sea.  And it was only yesterday- or was it years ago – that I dressed my children in fluorescent swimwear so I could see them as they ran to the rocks on Straws Point to search for star fish and periwinkles.  

Indeed, the houses that line the beach have changed over the years.  When my mother was young, only a few tiny cottages dotted the horizon, but by the time I was a teenager, the houses were bigger and closer together.  When we vacationed at the beach I would wade in the water and look at those houses in awe. They were summer homes- rambling white buildings that housed extended families who slammed in and out the screen doors and set up volley ball nets during low tide.  I dreamed of living in such a home- to be able to run from the foaming sea to a hot shower without shivering under a wet towel for the third of a mile walk to my grandparent’s cottage on Cable Road. 

Most of the summer homes are gone now, and in their places are large year-round structures of concrete and stone, with tinted picture windows and outdoor showers with hot water to keep their hardwood floors from getting sandy.   And instead of walking a third of a mile to my grandparents’ cottage, I drive forty miles to spend a day listening to the song that is sung to me only by the sea.

Older sister Martha-Jean, our dad, Charles Madison, and me

And yet, with all the changes, so much is the same.  Children are warned to not go in past their waists.  Fathers lift their toddlers high in the air and quickly dunk them in an exciting game of tag with the waves.  Mothers wipe sand and sunscreen from their children’s eyes, and soothe them with cookies and a sip of lemonade.  Seagulls cry to each other while swooping from the skies in search of forgotten sandwiches and chips. 

It is the same gray sand that burns the soles of my feet at noon, and cools when the sun begins to sink below the trees to the west.  It is the same barnacled rocks that scrape the toes and knees of those who hover too close to their edges.  It is the same cold Atlantic water where my grandmother waded. The same frothing breakers that crashed over my mother as she floated parallel to the shore.  The same freezing surf that lifts me and rushes me headlong to the shore until my lungs burn for air.  It is the same in and out, sometimes green, sometimes blue, crash and ebb.

Gabe. Okay, this is really at Venice Beach, but it’s still the seaside

A couple of hours after I arrive at the beach, I heard a familiar voice from behind me and turn to see my son, Gabe, slipping off his sneakers.  Minutes later, we are side by side in the water.  I watch his lanky frame disappear in the churning froth, only to reappear several yards away.  He rides waves like his mother.  Like his grandfather.  He loves the beach like his grandmother and great-grandmother. And although he is a different man on a different day, from a different generation, he is much the same as they were. I feel the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and I can’t help but think they are smiling down on him.

My mother and grandmother. The young woman in the back ground with her hair up and back to the camera is me. I was young. Once.

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