Life’s Journey

            My friend and I have been sharing the various paths our lives have taken.  Neither of us had an easy time along the way. Both of us have disappointments. No matter where our journeys took us, we agree that the steps we traveled made us who we are today.

            When I was in Kindergarten I decided to become a teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher was kind to me; in fact, she barely spoke to me or recognized me in any way. She’d drop a bunch of worksheets on my desk and then move on to the next student. She did know what skills I was deficient in, however, because I worked on the name of colors, shapes, the alphabet and recognizing basic numbers.

            The one positive thing that the teacher offered was calm and safety. She never yelled at me or anyone else. She never slapped or threatened me in any way.

            Because I felt safer in Kindergarten than I did at home, I liked it there and soon chose teaching as a career.

            My first job was keeping score at a local bowling alley. I was only fourteen, but I had spent much of my early years in bowling alleys. My dad was a semi-professional bowler who traveled to competitions. He taught me to bowl when I was twelve. Keeping score was a logical choice.

            In college I began working for aa fast food restaurant. At first I only took orders and then handed them over when filled. As my confidence grew I learned to make coleslaw. I had to stick my hands into deep vats and stir the ingredients around. My hands and arms would get so cold that I couldn’t feel them.

When strawberry season arrived, I took over the pie-making enterprise.  I was the best at trimming the berries. I could cut off the stem so quickly and neatly that no one could match my efforts.

That was a major turning point on my life’s journey. Knowing that there was something I could do better than anyone else boosted my ego. Ironically, although I had been a good student out of fear of physical punishment, now my grades stayed high because my confidence had improved.

When I transferred to USC I found a job at the university book store. I was so happy! I begged for more hours but was refused because students were restricted to how many hours they could work in a week.

Books called my name. Sometimes while shelving new books, I had to stop and read the cover. If it appealed to me, I put one aside. Often I bought them even though my earnings were supposed to supplement the grants that paid my housing.

I returned to writing when I realized the university published a literary newspaper. I submitted poems, but never had any accepted. Despite those rejections, my confidence as a writer grew.

I got a job working the front desk in a residence hall. It was my responsibility to screen anyone entering. It forced me to talk to people, something I was wont in doing. I discovered that people often wanted to know what I was thinking. They would stand and listen, then share a bit of their story. I met some awesome people who remained friends until graduation.

Another step on my journey checked off.

I applied to be a resident advisor during the summer. The residents were not students, but an ever-changing group of conference attendees. Oh, my, they were a lot of fun! There were social events almost every evening. I was invited to attend, but understood that I was not to abandon my post. Often food was delivered to me. The person making the delivery would stand and talk.

I learned that I could talk to strangers, fulfilling another step on my journey.

My first full-time job was as a customer service representative in a furniture store. That was horrendous. All day long I was bombarded by unhappy, sometimes angry people. All found fault with the furniture or the delivery. I wanted money refunded. I didn’t know what to do and no one bothered to train me.

This was a step backward. My confidence took a hit.

The office had a switchboard for the telephone service. I applied when a position opened and got it. I loved connecting calls. It was fun and something I learned quickly. All I had to do was match the plug to the right hole.

Check one off for confidence!

When I took that job I knew it would never become a career: it was the first job offered.

The government needed employees, so I took the test and scored high enough to be hired by the infamous IRS. This was a huge step on my life’s journey, benefitted by the government’s need to hire women.

I hated seizing property to pay tax debts. I was terrible at calculating interest and penalties despite mat being a strength for me. I hated walking into dark bars and going into strangers’ homes.

Most people were respectful even though I represented a hated agency. One time I was threatened by the owner of an automobile tire shop. The next day I returned with gun-toting agents. Even though nothing happened, I tremble for days.

One positive that moved me along my journey was that I learned to speak to strangers. Another momentous event was meeting my future husband in the office. If I hadn’t met him, who knows were my journey would have gone?

In the past 46 years I’ve had three amazing children who are all successes in their own way. Add in seven talented grandchildren who fill me with joy.

I got to become that teacher 38 years ago, and taught for 34. In my college classes to earn my credentials and certificates, I garnered information that allowed me to mentor peers, lead workshops and participate in district-wide trainings.

My favorite part of the job was being a mentor. It filled my heart with joy when someone came to me for suggestions and advice.

Another step along the way.

Now that I am retired, you might think that my journey was nearly over. Wrong.

I listen to the news, read newspapers and magazines and talk with friends. I gather information from all those sources that develop my opinions and beliefs. I read books that take me into worlds and situations I met never see. I travel to countries I’d never thought about visiting.

Everything I’ve done, whether there were positive or negative outcomes, have made me who I am today. Because I am always learning, I know that I will continue to progress.

My life’s journey isn’t yet over and that’s a wonderful thing.

Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.

 

Fall from Grace

I don’t know why my first skiing trip came to mind in the middle of July, but it did. It’s not like it snows here, which it doesn’t, and unfortunately we’re in the middle of a heat wave, so it’s not even raining.

The interesting thing is that I’d never thought about skiing. I’d seen it on television, but never pictured myself with boards strapped to my feet barreling down a snow-covered slope. And to get there? I’d have to swing on a questionable-looking chair as it steadily climbed up the mountain. Not for me with my fear of heights.

The closest I had gotten was after I had graduated from college and, on a lark, took a class at the local community college about skiing. At the conclusion was an outing. Because I lived in the SF Bay Area, I owned no clothing that would keep a person warm in freezing temperatures.

I went shopping and quickly discovered that, with my limited funds, I could not purchase a suitable coat or pants or boots. I did buy a pair of supposedly insulated rubber boots, but that was it. I would have to make do with what I had.

One Saturday morning I climbed on a yellow school bus, excited, yet at the same time terrified. I knew no one, so I had no way to spend the time other than drifting over whatever passed through my mind.

I did notice the cold. About the time that snow began to appear along the side of the highway, my feet became uncomfortable and my fingers ached. We took a bathroom break. I was miserable! Nothing I wore was sufficient for the trip.

The rest of that trip went by in a mind-numbing haze. I had no money to rent skis or a toboggan, so I spent the time I braved the outdoors walking about. Most of the time I hung out in the lodge, dreaming over the hot chocolate I saw others drinking.

So, after that adventure, why would I ever go skiing? Because young adults don’t often remember misery.

A couple of friends from work convinced me that I’d really like to learn to ski. By now I had enough money to buy a decent coat and gloves and warm socks. I figured I’d rent equipment and so had saved what I hoped would be enough.

The drive was uneventful. We talked and laughed and so the miles sped by. According to my friends, it was a beautiful day for skiing. The sky was blue, there was plenty of snow and it wasn’t too cold. They were right.

Except for one small thing: I didn’t know how to ski.

They gave me some basic instructions. They showed me how to grab the rope to go up the bunny slope. Once there, they demonstrated how to put my skis into a V-shape in order to turn, slow down, and stop. They went down with me, once. Then set me free.

I did pretty well. I am not an idiot, so I learn quickly. I am fairly coordinated, so I thought I had mastered the basics.

I moved on to the easiest chair lift. Getting on a chair while wearing skis is not easy. There’s a lot of timing involved. You’ve got to get into position as soon as the chair gets to the post. Then look over your shoulder while reaching for the bar. Then sit while the chair is still moving.

The first time my butt barely touched the seat and I had to hang on for dear life all the way to the top. The next time I did better, and each time after that it was a little bit easier.

No one had explained how to get off before I hopped on at the bottom. While the chair is moving, as it gets lower to the ground, you’ve got to jump off and ski out of the way before the seat bumps you in the back. I watched those in front of me, so when my turn came, I managed, but felt the chair brush the back of my legs.

The first few trips down I succeeded. I turned, I slowed, and I stopped as I approached the line waiting to go back up. I felt proud.

I went back up. Handled getting on and off. Successfully went down. As I approached the line, however, something went wrong.

I put my skis in a V-shaped and dug in my inner blades. I didn’t slow down. I got closer and closer to the kid at the end of the line. I dug in even harder. I kept sliding forward. Closer and closer I got.

I know that my eyes opened wider and wider in shock and preparation for the inevitable.

I was helpless to prevent myself from hitting the kid. I bumped into his back, nearly knocking him down, as I fell onto my skis, landing on my tailbone with an excruciatingly painful crack.

I felt my cheeks redden. The kid turned to me, all eight years of him, and said as he put his skis into that elusive V, “Lady, you stop like this.”

I was both humiliated and in such deep pain that I found it difficult to get up. Thankfully a woman came up behind me, reached down and pulled me up. She brushed the snow off my back and asked if I was okay.

I wasn’t. I skied over to a log and sat. Bad idea. I took off my skis and walked them back to the rental shop, mincing my steps. I struggled up the steps to the lodge. I found a chair, but, oh, that hurt!

The drive home was terrible. Because my tailbone hurt so bad, I had to lay down in the backseat of a VW bug. Not comfortable.

That night I couldn’t sleep. Between the intense pain and the recalled embarrassment, there was no chance of sleep.

The next day I went to work, but had to go see a doctor at the end of my shift. Nothing was broken, but I was badly bruised. I was given a blow-up pillow to sit on until it healed.

Despite that disaster, I did eventually go skiing again. I was never good at it, but I never crashed into anyone, either.

The lesson that I learned is that sometimes it’s better to fall before you think you are going to hit someone.

This applies to all facets of life. Fall while you still have the strength of character to pull yourself, brush yourself off and try again.