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.
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Sleep

When I was a little girl, I hated going to sleep.  On summer nights I would lie in my bed and listen to the slap of PF Flyers hit the pavement while the older kids in the neighborhood played hide and seek in the shadows of the elm trees on Green Street.  I thought being sent to bed was insulting, and going to sleep a waste of time.  Most of all, I was afraid I’d miss something fun and exciting.

In the morning, I wakened early, the smell of toast and coffee tickling my nose, and crept silently down the stairs so I could surprise my mother and father by bursting into the kitchen with a loud “Boo!”  For years, Boo was a pet name only used by my parents, not shared by my siblings or friends. 

But things have changed.  Nobody calls me Boo anymore.   Although I still follow the scent of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, there are no stairs to creep down, and no parents buttering toast in the kitchen.  And even though I still find life fun and exciting, I cherish my sleep.

As babies, my children would fight sleep, pumping their arms and legs, and struggling to keep their drooping eyes open until at last, they relented.  I loved to hold my sleeping infants in my arms, their relaxed little bodies like rag dolls, their breathing light and even.    I would watch them sleep, their rosebud lips and the blush of their cheeks so delicate, so tender that I would barely stand to put them down.

Each had a unique way to slip into restful peace.  Abby would lay her head across my shoulder and thumb in her mouth, stroke my earlobe as she drifted off to sleep.  Gabe loved to nap in a pack on my back. He would gather the hair at the nape of my neck in his tight fists and rub his face in my hair until the rocking of my steps swung him to the Land of Nod.  Elizabeth could slumber anywhere, as long as she had her green patchwork quilt.  At church, she would snuggle under her beloved “nigh-night” and be in deep repose before we got to opening song’s second verse. 

We rarely think about sleep unless it eludes us.  Usually, I drift off within moments of lying down, but lately, worries have occupied my mind and night after night I lay in quiet darkness for hours, eyes open, unable to drift off.  I revisit the problem in my head, playing out different solutions, different responses, different paths, over and over, with no resolution.  Finally, I fall into a restless sleep, waking every couple of hours to change position, flip my pillow and try again to slip into a state of unconsciousness.  I wake feeling worse than when I went to bed, head aching, stomach churning, knowing that it will be seventeen hours before I can again crawl between the cool sheets and sink into my awaiting pillow.  I think of my precious Elizabeth and how many times she dragged her tattered quilt with her on hospital visits. She would wrap the quilt around the hospital pillow, replacing its antiseptic smell with the quilt’s familiarity.  If only I could wrap that quilt around my pillow and hide in its scent.

Friends offered their favorite remedies for insomnia- a cup of warm milk, a glass of wine, a shot of bourbon.  I have tried reading, watching television, praying, and playing Solitaire on the computer until my eyes blur.  Still, once I nestle down under my comforter, it begins again- the same nagging concern, the same unsolved problem, and again I watch the LED display of my alarm clock click from ten to eleven to twelve. 

Last night my thoughts turned again to the memories of my sleeping infants.  What was it that made them relent, to allow sleep to overtake them and carry them silently through the night?  It was trust.  Trust that the strong arms that held them would not let them fall.   Trust that they would be warm and fed and safe.  Trust that tomorrow would come, that after a time, the ebony night would be split open by the pale golden fingers of the sun.  Trust that they were held close by someone who would love them beyond days that could be numbered. 

Could it be that I was lacking trust?  I trust…sort  of.  I give over the problem, but find myself clinging to a corner, just in case.  I know that I need to relent- to let go, but I pump my arms and legs, and thrash against it, much the way my infants fought their naps. 

But that isn’t really trust and I know that I need to release my hold totally and completely.  I realize that it is time to stop fighting, to stop controlling, to stop directing.  It is time to know that the arms that hold me are strong and will not let me fall. That I will be warm and fed and safe, and that this ebony night will someday be split open by the pale golden fingers of the Son.  He will hold me close because He loves us beyond days that can be numbered.

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