All my Christmases have a different story

Merry Christmas Across the MilesAll my Christmases have a different story, generally reflecting the state of my life at the time. My childhood Christmases – when I still believed Santa brought the gifts – were full of excitement and anticipation. Those were also the times when I still enjoyed going to church services and even sang in the choir when I was 13 and 14. I’m an only child but my mother had 6 siblings so I grew up with plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins and we all went to my grandparent’s house for dinner on Christmas. I have happy memories of those years. In my early adult years we all started moving away and then I got married and entered a new phase.

Our relationship was a rocky one with lots of ups and downs during our almost 9 years of marriage but, I have good memories of some of the Christmases we spent together. He had a great sense of humor and was very quick-witted so he could usually make me laugh, even when I was mad at him. Some stories only became funny in later telling; like the year he came home drunk from a work Christmas party and fell onto our little 4′ tree that I had just finished lovingly decorating! He was almost 6’5″ and about 230 lbs so you can imagine what happened to the tree. Then there was the year our dog got into a whole tray of gingerbread men and spent the next few hours puking and pooping (this is a companion story to the year my son’s cat got into his Easter basket and came walking across the floor the next day with a long strand of green cellophane trailing from her butt!) In the fifth year of our marriage our son was born and we had some nice Christmases together as a family – until we didn’t.

Then there were all the single parent Christmases. Except for the first Christmas in the first house I owned, all those years blur together in my mind. The stress, financial anxieties, and pressure (mostly self-inflicted) of doing everything possible to give my son happy Christmas memories. The sadness and feelings of failure despite all the effort. The difficult relationships. The loneliness of not having a partner when it seemed that everyone around me was part of a couple. The awkward social gatherings with my ex-husband’s family – he there with his girlfriend and me, of course, alone. Forced joviality for the sake of my son, when inside I was seething over another year of late child support payments and neglectful behavior.

After I moved to Florida, my feelings about Christmas gradually changed. I let go of unrealistic expectations and began to take responsibility for my own happiness instead of thinking like a victim. A few years later my parents retired and joined me and I had a lot of really nice Christmases with my parents and my son, who arrived from wherever he was living to spend Christmas with us. Gradually, and privately, I began to find my way back to God and reconnect with the meaning of Christmas.

This year marks another big change in Christmas. My 40-year-old son finally got married and had a baby so his life is completely different from when he came here last Christmas. Naturally, they wanted to celebrate Christmas in their own home and with her family so they came for a visit a couple of weeks before Christmas. We had a wonderful visit and my mother was thrilled to meet her great-grandson but, Christmas this year has been very different.

Matthew with his Nanna Catton 12-8-17

The new great-grandmother!

On Christmas Day Mom and I had a nice dinner and then we opened Liberty’s gifts – 2 new toys and lots of treats and chewies!  We exchanged our gifts and then watched “A Christmas Carol”, as we always do. My son called from his home a thousand miles away to wish us a Merry Christmas and thank us for the gifts we sent. It was so nice to hear his voice but, his presence was certainly missed. I had some sad moments this Christmas but, I’m thankful that my feelings have mostly been of happiness and gratitude. That is a gift in itself.

If you’re struggling with feelings of unhappiness during this time of the year I have two suggestions – find a way to be of service to others, and read “Happiness is a Serious Problem” by Dennis Prager. (I’m not talking about clinical depression or any serious mental health issue – if you fall into this category please seek professional help). I’ve mentioned this book before because it was such an eye opener for me – I’ve read it all the way through three times and I periodically re-read sections. He also has a YouTube video in which he lectures about happiness – one of his favorite topics!

Liberty - Christmas portrait #1

Liberty’s Christmas 2017 portrait

See more of my artwork and books at Lynda Linke Productions

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MY Therapy Dog

How are things on your end

Liberty encourages me to stay engaged!

It’s been two years since Liberty came to live with me and one of the things about her that won my heart when I first met her was her sweet, friendly personality. I have often wondered how anyone could have surrendered her to a shelter – especially one that only keeps animals for 30 days! – but, I’m glad they did because she has been a great joy and blessing in my life. Early on I realized she would be a great therapy dog because her affectionate nature is such a comfort to ME.

I used to take my sweet Stella to PAWS to Read at the library and to visit an adult day care center and Liberty and I volunteer with Haven Hospice and PAWS to Read but I recently followed up on something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while – I took Liberty for the test to be registered with Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Inc. She has been through three levels of AKC training classes but she is still excitable at times and pulls on her leash a bit too much so I wasn’t sure if she would do well on the test. The test was done in three parts – one “handling” test that was done in a large feed and tractor supply store and two “observation” tests in a nursing home. The store offered lots of noise and distractions but, despite that and the excitement of meeting two new dogs and lots of new people, she followed all her commands beautifully. Her previous experience visiting nursing homes and assisted living facilities helped her a lot with the observation tests but I think her sweet gentle way with the patients played a big part in passing those tests. I have worked to help her be a well-behaved dog but I can’t take any credit for her sweet nature. Now we’re all set for any volunteer opportunities that require registration with a therapy dog organization and we’re also covered by liability insurance. I’m hoping we’ll be able to do more work with children. Of course, Liberty couldn’t care less – it’s all just fun to her!

I often say that Liberty is MY therapy dog because she is such a wonderful companion and brings me so much happiness. Research shows that having a pet is good for your health – emotionally and physically – and I can testify to that. I know I would be very lonely without her. She makes me smile when I’m down and  I can actually feel my heart expand when we visit a facility and she greets everyone with licks and tail wags. It’s so nice to see someone’s face light up when they see her.

I take her with me almost everywhere I go, even on vacations – it’s good for her socialization and, honestly, I just love her company. Last weekend we went to see our Alliance of Therapy Dogs tester, Angela, present two of her American Staffordshire Terriers in a show – there were hundreds of dogs (lots of barking!) and people there but, after getting over her initial nervousness, Liberty behaved perfectly. She sat or laid quietly by my side and watched all the dogs and people walking by and she seemed to pay special attention when her buddy, Carly, was in the rink going through her paces. It didn’t bother her one bit that she was the only “mutt” in the whole arena!

Angela & Carly at dog show 4-9-16

Angela & Carly at the dog show

 

Dogs are not our whole life but, they make our lives whole.  ~Roger Caras

4-12-16 another tough day at work

Another tough day on the job 🙂

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Stuff I Like- Part 4

Ocean dreaming 001An October morning at the beach!!

My tolerance for the heat and humidity of the summer months here in NE Florida has decreased over the past few years so I don’t go to the beach as much during those months as I used to but, the spring and fall are delightful. I especially love October and November and, during the years that I had a timeshare in St. Augustine Beach, I always went in late October/early November. The early mornings and nights are cool, the air during the day is warm but, not stifling, the sky is usually clear blue and there is almost always a pleasant breeze. Another bonus is that the beach is quiet in the fall because it is in between family vacation time and the arrival of the “snowbirds” so there are very few people around. I almost feel like the wide open space belongs to me. I live close to the beach, just a 10 minute drive, but my favorite beach is a few miles north of where I live and well worth the few extra minutes it takes to get there. Even the drive is a pleasure – an officially designated scenic highway that winds through a lush hammock, over an inlet, and offers beautiful unobstructed views of the ocean. A rare treat on the East coast.

I was waiting for a day with cooler temperatures and no rain in the forecast so I could put Liberty in the car and head for the beach and that day arrived this week. The timing was perfect because I had been feeling a little bit blue and I knew I needed to take what I call a “happiness action”. We got there and were walking along the shore well before 9 and it was a beautiful morning – I could feel my mood lift. Yes, I practice what I preach! I don’t wait for someone or something to make me happy – I find it for myself.

I have a 20′ retractable leash for Liberty that I only use when we go to the beach so she can run in and out of the ocean and chase the sandpipers. The first time I took her to the beach, just a couple of weeks after she came to live with me last April, she was afraid of the ocean. Every time a wave approached she ran the other way! I walked along the shore, where the water is shallow, and gently encouraged her to let the waves wash around her feet. Gradually, she realized the water could only reach as far as she allowed and that began the relationship she has with the ocean to this day – she loves to run in and out of the waves as they rush to the shore but she never lets them wash over her! It brings me great happiness to watch her play – her pure joy is contagious! She met a black Lab, who was also enjoying the ocean, and they ran around and leapt at each other for a few minutes while his owner and I laughed at their antics. She also met a nice little boy and an elderly man who stopped to greet her. Liberty is a social bridge for me and I often speak to people who I wouldn’t have met if I was alone. No wonder I refer to her as my “therapy dog”.

After our walk we enjoyed a drink and some snacks and then Liberty stretched out in the sand and watched the birds running along the shoreline and the people walking by. As I wrote in my journal, I kept pausing to gaze at the ocean and the blue sky and I thanked God over and over for such a beautiful day. All this beauty and happiness cost me nothing but the gas for my car! Makarios 🙂

We don’t make ourselves happy, but we can make choices that lead to happiness. ~Randy Alcorn

Fun in the ocean 10-15-15 beautiful morning at the beach 10-15-15

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More about happiness

Whole and Perfect-The Love HatIn my last post I was writing about expectations and how they can make you unhappy. As mentioned in that post, I recently read”Happiness is a Serious Problem“by Dennis Prager, which led me to do a lot of thinking about the concept of happiness; what it actually means and how to”get” it. For one thing, happiness is not a light weight or simple idea. Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness but in our contemporary culture they are usually confused with each other. I’ve known people who had plenty of money and every material possession they desired and they were often unhappy and I’ve known people who were poor or who had serious health issues (or both) and were happy.  The most important thing I have learned from my own experiences is that this elusive thing has to come from inside yourself – no one can give it to you. That is a statement that can easily be misinterpreted because we all immediately assume that our happiness is derived from things outside of ourselves – relationships, family, material possessions, money, success, approval, etc., that hold great importance to us. I’m not trying to say that those things aren’t enjoyable or pleasurable or don’t add to your happiness; I’m saying that if you’re trying to find happiness solely from external things it will be fleeting or will often seem to be just beyond your reach .

I wasn’t consciously aware of it but, I used to be a person who was always waiting to be happy. Surely, if a certain man loved me or if I lost weight or if I made more money or if my relationship with my son was better or if I won the lottery or if I lived somewhere else – then I’d be happy!  When I was younger my mother used to say I was a “cock-eyed optimist” or that I saw the world through “rose-colored glasses”. Those are nice ways of saying that someone doesn’t see things clearly and is not grounded in reality – in fact, is emotionally immature. I’m much happier now because I have the strength and maturity to deal with negativity when it confronts me instead of trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. The truth is, if you’re happy within yourself, you’ll enjoy all life’s blessings in a more fulfilling way but you’ll also be strong enough to weather life’s storms and keep your balance. It’s not always easy to find your happiness and holding onto it through all the challenges and sadness of life is an ongoing task. Thankfully, I do have a much better understanding of what need to be happy than I did as a younger person and, yes, –  wait for it – self-love was my biggest discovery because it led to everything else!

In past posts I’ve shared my thoughts about expectations, gratitude and humility, which I think are all elements of happiness. Forgiveness is something I didn’t recognize as an element of happiness until I read somewhere that it is more about you than the person you’re trying to forgive. I was awed and humbled by the forgiveness exhibited by some of the families of the victims of the shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston this summer and the Amish school in Pennsylvania a few years ago. Thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with anything like that and I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to forgive in that type of situation. I’m ashamed to admit that I have struggled to forgive in situations that were of much less significance. I know that forgiveness is a fundamental tenet of Christianity but, it can bring peace of mind and emotional well-being to anyone. If you harbor feelings of anger and hurt toward someone, who are you punishing? Even if you never again see someone who has wronged you, you’ll feel better if you forgive them for whatever they did and let go of those bad feelings. In the end, forgiveness is really about the type of person you want to be, how you want to think and feel.

I’m fascinated by the concept of human happiness. It is so much deeper and more nuanced than I realized. I just started reading “Happiness” by Randy Alcorn, a Christian pastor and author of more than 40 books, and I learned that the word for blessed in Greek, makarios, was used by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount and actually means to be happy or blissful but, it also means “a self-contained happiness”. I guess I’m on the right track.

It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere.  ~Agnes Repplier

 

 

Liberty finds her bliss

Liberty finds her bliss

 

Happiness can be found at Lynda Linke Productions  New Christmas cards are available now!

Christmas Eve

 

Expectations

HopeI’ve been working on the problem of having expectations for a long time – especially unrealistic expectations – but, I’m still not quite where I want to be. Expectations of myself, of the outcomes of situations, of other people, and expectations that others have of me. Expectations I have had of myself have led me down some dark pathways of romantic idealism, failed perfectionism (alas, all perfectionism fails), self-criticism and doubt. Expectations regarding the outcome of situations have often led to disappointment and unhappiness. Expectations of people have led to feelings of betrayal, disillusionment and sadness. I’ve made a lot of progress on everything except my expectations of other people – maybe the answer is to have very low expectations!.

I just finished a book by author, lecturer, and radio host Dennis Prager titled “Happiness is a Serious Problem”. He devotes an entire chapter to expectations so, I guess I’m not the only person who wrestles with this issue. He states that “in general, expectations lead to unhappiness” and I tend to agree. He defines expectations as “taking for granted that something will happen or regarding something as virtually inevitable”, therefore, with rare exceptions, where we do not have complete control we should not have expectations. And in just how many situations in your life do you have complete control? I don’t know about you, but I realized some time ago that the only things I have any control over are my thoughts and actions – and even that can be a huge challenge at times!

Still, as logical as all that sounds … does it mean we can never have any expectations of other people and our relationships with them? When we marry someone and take vows with them before God, should we not expect them to keep those vows? Should close friends not expect honesty, trustworthiness and loyalty? It is in the area of close relationships that I have the most difficulty in letting go of expectations. I’m not talking about forgiving honest mistakes or tolerating human flaws because I know that no one is perfect, certainly not me, and I always hope (or do I expect?) to receive forgiveness and tolerance from those who are closest to me. We all disappoint each other at times without meaning to, but I’m thinking of much more serious injuries like lying, cheating, betrayal, and other forms of disloyalty. Loyalty and honesty are very important to me. That is what you can expect from me if I’m a friend of yours and it is what I expect in return from you. Needless to say, I’ve had some crushing disappointments but, was it because I expected a certain type of behavior or was it because I trusted someone? Where is the line between trusting and expecting in relationships? Doesn’t a person’s character invite you to expect a certain type of behavior from them?

Another long-held expectation I had was regarding my relationship with my son. I always thought that once he was an adult he would honor and respect me. I didn’t invent this idea – remember the fifth commandment “Honor your father and your mother”? – and yet, this concept seems to be foreign to him. Perhaps I bear some responsibility for not instilling it in him at an early age but, whatever the reason, I recently had to re-evaluate my thinking and begin to let go of my expectation that someday we would have a warm, comfortable and friendly adult relationship. I would love to be able to just enjoy relaxed conversations with him without feeling like I’m walking blindfolded through a mine field. Recent events have forced me to admit that this may never happen and I need to stop waiting for something of which he may not be emotionally capable. I think I need to learn the difference between hope and expectation.

If you align expectations with reality, you will never be disappointed. ~Terrell Owens

Liberty has Great Expectations!

Liberty has Great Expectations!

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Other People’s Lives

A Star to DiscoverRemember that old saying “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”? I guess this is a human failing that has been with us for a long time because even one of the Ten Commandments addresses “coveting”. Have you compared yourself to other people and thought they were more successful than you, had more money, more advantages, happier relationships, were better looking, better parents, smarter, more creative, more confident, etc., etc.? Did you “covet” what they had? I think envying what other people have (or your perception of what they have) leads to thoughts and behavior that can only diminish your self-respect. I admit that I’ve wasted a fair amount of time and energy on that type of counterproductive thinking. For a long time I didn’t understand that success has to be defined by each individual – no one has the right to tell you what success means. It’s also important to understand the distinction between admiring someone and finding inspiration from the way they live their life and comparing yourself unfavorably or envying them. I believe that until you make peace with who you are you’ll never be content with what you have.

Here’s a news flash – everyone has their insecurities, doubts, and fears. Everyone has burdens they have to carry and, as an outside observer of their life, you can’t know what they are. No life is “perfect” or free of sorrow and pain – no matter how great it may look from the outside. A divorced friend of mine once told me that she always felt so lonely and like a failure when she observed all the “happy” couples and families in church. I told her that she should not compare her life to what she perceives other lives to be because that is all it is – her perception. Anyone who had observed her in church with her husband before they were divorced would have had no idea how unhappy she was. There is no way to know what is going on in someone else’s marriage based on outward appearances. As a divorced person, I was often envious of friends who seemed to be happily married but, many of those friends are now divorced, proving again that it is a mistake to compare your life to anyone else’s life.

I once had a conversation with a happily married friend who told me that she was envious of me because I was single and could do whatever I wanted without discussing it or compromising with anyone. She said she loved her husband but was envious of my “personal freedom”. That eye-opening conversation occurred when I was in my mid 40’s, a period of great personal growth for me, and the timing was perfect because it helped me to see that each of us truly has a unique life and our own path to travel. It is our responsibility to use the opportunities and abilities to create a happy, meaningful life. Can we have every single thing we desire? Probably not. If we get to the other side of the fence is the grass actually greener? Probably not. An important part of my own journey has been learning to be grateful for the many gifts I have been given and the life I have created. Adopting an attitude of gratitude allowed me to feel genuine happiness for someone else’s success without envying them or comparing myself to them.

I recently read something that was written by a hospice nurse who noted that the most common regret she heard from patients with a short time to live was that they wished they had the courage to live a life that was true to themselves, not the life others expected of them. It does take courage to live a life in which you are true to yourself but a good place to start is to stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, compare yourself to the person you were yesterday and try to be closer to your true self today. Remember, personal responsibility is implicit in our God-given right to the “pursuit of happiness”. Did you think that meant you have the right to be happy? Sorry to break it to you but, it simply means we have the right and the free will to pursue happiness – and don’t delude yourself into thinking that having equal rights means everyone is entitled to the same level of happiness or success. Equal rights are merely a starting point, not a guarantee of outcomes. Our own choices, actions, and thoughts, along with how we play the hand we’re dealt, will determine our happiness.

Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony. ~Mahatma Gandhi

I’m not here to make you happy

Let your spirit danceThe only happiness for which I am responsible is my own. Does that sound selfish to you? That’s a knee-jerk reaction – stop and really think about it. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about other people or that I don’t try to help someone who is suffering in some way. It simply means that I know I can add happiness to someone’s life with acts of kindness and love, I can share happy occasions, I can show by example what happiness looks like but, I can’t make someone happy. The true revelation for me came when I understood what an important responsibility finding my own happiness was, not only to me but, to everyone around me. We are all walking the path of our lives alone and, even though we have companions along the way who can add happiness to our journey; it is up to each of us to figure out what is truly meaningful. When you are happy with yourself you can be a beacon of light to others who are searching for their own happiness. It is a gift you can share everyday.

Kindness, compassion, and charity are ways to add and share happiness. It feels great to make someone smile or lighten their burden but you shouldn’t try to solve their problems or “rescue” them from their life – that’s your ego at work, not your humanity. I learned a lot about this from working in social services for 22 years (plus several years of volunteer work) – when I first started I was trying to “fix” people by solving their problems for them and I became frustrated when they came back with the same problems again and again. Eventually, I came to understand that all I could do was to provide the tools and let them do the work themselves – or not. I accepted that everyone is on their own journey and has to learn their own life lessons. The outcome is up to them and I learned that, no matter what you do, some people just don’t want to take responsibility for their own lives. I also learned that trying to control another person is always more about my needs than theirs.

On the topic of making someone happy – when did parents start thinking they have to make their kids happy at all cost? Recently I shared a YouTube video on Facebook of comedian Louis C.K. His humor can be quite profane but, at times, it is also profound. In this particular video he is asked how he handles it when his kids ask for a Smart Phone and he answers that he just tells them they can’t have one. What a novel idea! He makes two statements that I really like – “I’m not here to make them happy” and “I’m not raising children, I’m raising the grown ups they’re going to be”. The reality is that it is not your job to fulfill every wish your child has. You’ll serve them better if you help them to understand that they won’t always get everything they want in life and teach them to control their natural instinct to be selfish and greedy. It is your job to teach them how to become an independent adult; not how to prolong their childhood indefinitely. Part of your job is to give them the tools they need to find their own happiness but, that will be impossible if you haven’t figured it out for yourself. If you’re still parenting I advise you to clean up your energy field and discover your happiness ASAP! It really is true that children learn best by example.

If you actually believe that you can make someone happy you probably should look in the mirror and figure out what need of your own you’re trying to fulfill. Are you acting out of guilt? Are you avoiding your own problems by trying to control another person’s life? Are you trying to force a relationship to be more than it ever could be? I’ve done all those things in the past but, after I learned how to be happy with myself, I never did them again.  No one can do that for you.

Simple but, not easy!

Stella adds to my happiness!

Stella adds to my happiness!

Christmas is coming soon!! – check out my latest Christmas greeting cards by visiting my online shop at Zazzle