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.

Where Your Treasure Is- Lessons From a Mermaid

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Matthew 6:21

When I was a little girl, I was given a garnet ring for my birthday.  Garnet was my birthstone, and I loved its fiery scarlet hue and the way it sparkled in the sun. I wore the ring every day, never taking it off.  That is, hardly ever. 

During the summer following my birthday, I went swimming with my family at a small nearby lake.  My sisters and I pretended we were mermaids, searching the lake bed for hidden jewels. I never swam with my eyes closed- I loved the way rays of sun shone through the water’s silt and glinted on objects lying in the sand.   At the ocean, we filled empty soda cans with sand and threw them into the deep, diving after them in a contest to see who would be the first to recover them.  In the calm of the lake, we did not have to contend with the tide, so we tossed smaller objects in order to make the search more challenging.

Toward the end of the day, my sisters tired of the game, and went to shore in search of treasures of the edible persuasion, leaving me alone in the darkening lake water.  I tossed a small white stone a few feet away and pretending it was a rare opalescent pearl, ducked to the bottom to find it.  Lost in my fantasy, I dolphin-kicked my way to the deep, searching the sand until my lungs burned for air.  Each time, I found the stone and each time, my swagger grew greater.  I  imagined that perhaps I was a real mermaid who could find any treasure in my magic lagoon.  But the rays of the sinking sun were weakening, and the pebble looked less and less like a treasure and more and more like a plain old river rock.  I needed something more beautiful- something that would catch the light and glitter like a real jewel.   In a moment of foolish daring, I slipped the garnet ring off my finger and dropped it in the water close to my feet.  I plunged into the water to retrieve it but after searching the sandy bottom until I was out of breath, came up empty-handed.  Again and again I searched, but my ring was not to be found.  Realizing I had made a terrible mistake, I began to cry.  After tearfully explaining to my father that I lost my precious garnet, I nervously watched from the shore while he trolled the lake bed like a submerged submarine.  For several minutes he searched for the ring, but it was hopelessly lost, and I cried most of the trip home, sick over the loss of my most prized posession.  I never replaced the ring, although I still love the warm claret color of a garnet.

That day taught me several life lessons.  I learned I was not, nor ever would be a real mermaid.  I learned to not allow confidence to overshadow discrimination.  But mostly I learned to hold on to the things I love.

Now that I am no longer a child, I have come to realize that the real jewels of my life are the people in my path, who work by my side, who live in my heart.  Like a faceted russet stone that glitters in the sun, they reflect light, bouncing rainbows across the room, adding dimension and beauty to my life. 

I thought of this while I was talking to my youngest daughter this week.  As mothers and daughters do, we sometimes struggle to agree, and in my frustration, I was tempted to speak harshly and sarcastically.  But she is my garnet ring, a precious gem of scarlet and gold and I realized to speak unkindly to her is to toss her into the deep, trusting that I can find her again later.  What if I were to lose her? What if I were to dive deep, swim until my lungs scream, search the sandy lake bottom, and come up sputtering, unable to find her gleaming in the light? 

Thankful for the reminder, I bit my tongue and choose my words carefully.  Words of love, laced with kindness.  Words that are warm and full of light. Words that hold her close and tell her that she is my treasure.  Because she is.  And where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

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