Thursday, April 23, 2015

Turning Points

I believe I've mentioned once or twice before I don't believe in coincidences. Things happen for a reason. And at the time they're supposed to happen.

April 2015 has become a turning point for me. As did September 2010 when my husband emailed me his decision wanting a divorce. Thus began a long healing process for me.

Three things occurred this month.

After years of stating I wasn't looking, not wanting a relationship, suddenly I find myself already in one. I think. It's still unclear where we're headed, but we're exploring whatever may lie ahead. And that has caused me to stop, take a breath and wonder when did it happen?

But, the two biggest events that happened this month are somewhat related. Okay, very related.

When my ex left, I kept the house, the furbabies, and my personal debt. I knew I had to keep the house for the sake of the furbabies, but I couldn't manage my debt and keep the house and furbabies. So, I turned to a debt management company who did just that. They took over my debt and managed it. They negotiated with my creditors to come up with a payment plan, and I sent my first payment in November 2010 with the plan to be debt free within five years.

Over the last five years, I witnessed my progress of paying down my debt and eventually watching my various accounts being paid off. With my final payment approaching, I arranged to send the payment a week earlier than scheduled. Why not? I mean, the money was already in my budget and I was getting antsy. I wanted this done. And, what's more, this final payment to this final creditor was now actually less than my regular monthly payment due to the rollover process- as creditors were paid off, their portion of the monthly payment was rolled into another account, thus accelerating the pay off. So, I arranged to send the payment to the management company on a Tuesday, and when I checked my account on Thursday, I saw the payment had posted and had been sent to the creditor.With this last payment to the management company, they were saying I was now debt free, and my dashboard on the website was changed to read "Next Payment Amount: n/a". Yet, we were still waiting to hear from the actual creditor, once the payment posted on my account with them.

On arriving at home that afternoon, I found a check in the mail from an insurance company who claimed I had been paying for a portion of a premium they had canceled a few years before. They discovered this error when auditing their books. The refund check even exceeded the final payment amount I had just sent to the management company! I felt like the Universe was saying, "Congratulations! You've done a great job, the last payment is on me and here's a little extra!"

The second major event to occur, coincidentally deals with financial issues. My school district and union have been negotiating a new contract as we've been without one for over eight years. Things had been escalating, to the point of strike talk. It's all posturing, I know, but that's the reality of labor negotiations. Having taught for thirty-two years, I've been through many negotiations, and only once did it lead to an actual strike.

The week after the final payment posted to the management account, I got an official email saying they considered me to be debt free as, according to their records, I had paid off my accounts, though we were still waiting for that final word from the final creditor, which we then got the next day, and that last credit account was finally marked 'inactive.' On Friday, the very same week, the district and union came to a tentative agreement which includes a salary raise higher than the union's last demand. And  a portion of the increase is retroactive to the beginning of this school year!


I find the timing of the two financial events to be somewhat interesting, coincidental, freaky. I get an official notice that I have paid off all my personal debt and no longer will be making payments to the management company, and the very next day my district and union settle for the first decent raise teachers in my district have seen in over eight years, after having had to endure pay cuts. It seems my finances are really turning around.


Perhaps the Universe is simply rewarding me for the struggles I've been through. And now, I can truly move forward.

I'll simply take it, and not say anything.

Except "Thank you."


Sunday, March 22, 2015

An Unexpected Teacher



If you look into the heart and soul of any relationship- be it a friend, a family member, or a potential romance- you might find yourself. Or, at the very least, you might discover pieces of yourself.

Sometimes, you may discover those pieces slowly over time, over the duration of the relationship.

Or, BAM! They may hit you upside the head like a two-by-four.

And that two-by-four hurts. Badly.

I’m still smarting from it; yet, very grateful for the encounter…

…and for the relationship itself that led to the encounter with the two-by-four.

... and to the young man on the other end of this relationship.

About four years ago, shortly after my divorce, I joined a few gay social (okay, hookup) apps to try and make some friends. I wasn’t trying to hookup and when I realized what was going on, I ended my memberships. I’d met a couple of men via them, some of them decent, nice guys. But, most of them were after one thing only, even if I said I wasn’t.

A young man messaged me on the last app I was on and we began chatting. At first, I was a bit resistant; as he was very young and my gut reaction was he was looking for a daddy, if not a sugar daddy. I thought he was cute, but wondered why he wanted all those facial piercings and stretched ears. As I didn’t want to be a daddy in the biological or gay senses of the word, I was guarded, but interested in what he had to say. After all, just chatting can’t hurt, can it? So, we kept chatting. Soon, he made his move and suggested fooling around. As there was over 1,000 miles between us, I didn’t see how that was possible, nor was I interested, so I politely declined. And he respected my wishes, and he never brought it up again. So, we continued to just chat.

Further on, he shared an intimate secret with me. He had a substance problem. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay, yet something held me back, something wouldn’t let me leave. After all, I reasoned, he was so far away and I could end it anytime I wanted. After all, just chatting can’t hurt, can it?

As we continued chatting, now almost nightly over the first year, I began to look forward to them. They helped ease the loneliness. Sometimes the chats would be superficial, about our days at work, or sometimes he shared his escapades with me. I kept asking myself, “Why is he telling me this? We don’t know each other, it doesn’t matter to me what he does.” Then it hit me, he was hurting, reaching out for help, whether he knew it or not. I offered what support I could not being a trained drug counselor, and I felt I did my best, if not more than I should have. He tried to go clean, but shared each relapse.

I took each relapse hard, I was very hurt. I had failed him; I wasn’t doing enough to help him solve his problems. He had rejected me. I told myself to leave each time, but still I couldn’t. And still, I couldn’t understand why. What kept me tethered to this young man who was causing me such pain?

As we chatted over the years, he shared with me some of the lyrics he wrote. I saw something in them. I saw glimmers of hope. Then I saw it, deep down he wanted to come clean. And maybe the Universe brought us together for me to help him get clean, to help get him to his destination, to help him continue his journey. This was either a grave responsibility laid on me, or would be merely a byproduct of our friendship. Either way, it was very humbling if that’s what the Universe saw in me.


At one point, he was arrested, and put in a drug treatment program. He went because he was forced to, being court ordered and because he didn’t want to go to jail. I tried to keep him upbeat about it as we celebrated his 30 day, 60 day, 90 day, and six month progresses

We also shared moments in our personal lives. He shared dates he went on, I shared about my divorce and the emotional and financial aftermath. I would share the few dates I went on (if they indeed were dates) and he shared his breakups. We talked about our coming out, our dysfunctional families, how and why he turned to drugs, and why I never did. We talked about the suicide of a potential boyfriend of his, the death of his baby brother, and the passing of my beloved dog and cat. We were there for each other.

He graduated his treatment program one year ago, and has remained clean since. We have continued chatting, and we both have enjoyed discovering who he is becoming; a talented young man, full of strength and creativity.

Yet, through it all, I was discovering someone else.

I was discovering me.

I have discovered, and come to accept, I am not responsible for his, or anyone else’s, actions. If he chooses to throw it all away and use again, it will be his choice, and as long as I know I helped as much as I could; I could (and would, this time) walk away with my head held high. Though I would greatly miss the dear friend he has become.

I have discovered that if, in the middle of a chat session, he suddenly disappears and I don’t hear back the same day, it doesn’t mean he’s discovered someone better than me who may want to fool around. His phone simply may have died, or he simply fell asleep. I’m learning not to take things personally nor make assumptions.

But, the biggest discovery of all, was that I had to go through the pain of his relapses. I had been reading a book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, by Pema Chödrön, ©2012, Shambhala Pubs., when the two-by-four hit.  Pema Chödrön, an American born Buddhist nun, writes in this book that, according to Buddhism, we have a fixed-identity where we see ourselves as either good or bad, worthy or unworthy, this way or that way. People show up in our lives and they either just help us along, i.e., our friends, or they challenge us in how we see ourselves, i.e., our ‘enemies’. I never saw this young man as an enemy; yet, he has challenged me on how I see myself. In fact, he has challenged me more than anyone else. I came to see I was a caretaker, a fixer of people. Yet, I could not take care of myself. And that was why I couldn’t let go of him, he wasn’t fixed yet. However, it was I who wasn’t quite fixed. In learning to not take care of him, I was learning to take care of myself. And if I didn’t learn this lesson, I would be stuck in that emotional logjam until I did, if ever. And that was why he was brought into my life, for me to learn this about myself through our relationship.

And the beauty of this is; we have talked about this. I have shared this lesson with him and he lets me know when I’m either taking care of him or not taking care of me.

I have also shared with him I was no longer hurting when I thought he might be tempted, but was now afraid for him that he’d start using. The pain of my help being rejected had now turned to fear he’d start using again. He suggested that I be afraid, that I own the fear, that I let it dissipate over time, not to rush it. And that he learned that lesson from me. It stings a little when your words come back to you.

It seems we both are learning to communicate with each other.

Needless to say, we have grown quite attached to each other. Facing emotions he has masked with drugs for so long is very frightening for him yet, he is taking that step. I’m proud of him. I am facing emotions I have masked with fear, yet I am trying to take that step. He says he is proud of me.

We believe we were brought together for a reason, or two. Where life will take us, we are not sure.

People come into our lives for a reason. Some stay for a day, others for a lifetime. Yet, some stay for only a season.  I hope we continue this journey together for a long, long time.

I’m very proud to call this 22 year old man in recovery my friend, and I’m very grateful to have learned this valuable lesson about myself because of him as well.

And I’m grateful we can continue to help each other on our respective journeys and that the Universe has brought us together.

After all, just chatting didn't hurt, did it?

Friday, February 27, 2015

My Albatross

They say seeing is believing.

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a sailor kills a friendly albatross, and as punishment, is forced to wear the carcass around his neck. This gave rise to the phrase of 'an albatross around the neck' being used as a metaphor representing psychological or emotional burdens often seen as overbearing, or as a curse.

I've had such an albatross hanging around my neck these last few months, though at times it felt more like an anchor weighing me down. The value of my house went up this last year, and with that, so did the property taxes. In fact, the taxes are the highest they've been since I bought my house eleven years ago. I've been cutting out any unnecessary expenses as I've been trying to save every penny to be able to pay the new taxes. I've also been concerned about whether my income tax refund would be enough to help with the property taxes, and if it would come in time to avoid penalties.

Come tax time, I gathered all my documents, scheduled an appointment with my tax preparer and waited anxiously for the (hopefully) good news. In the end, I was getting a decent refund, meaning I'd get enough for my taxes and have some left over. Now, all I had to do was wait for the actual money to be deposited into my bank account, so I could actually write the check to the county tax collector.

Within a week (!) of my preparer filing my forms with both the state and federal governments, the refunds from both sources were deposited, the check was written and mailed off. Now, like an anxious child waiting for Christmas, I'm waiting to see that the check has cleared the bank, and the tax collector has certified my account as 'current.'

While in my head I know I have paid my taxes, and I realize it's just a matter of time for the system to catch up and I know my other financial situations are improving, I just can't let go of this dead weight that has been hanging around my spirit weighing me down.

How do you let go of something like this? I know my situation is changing, and yet, I'm not in a place to accept it, to feel the impact it will have on my life; physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

I've even created a spreadsheet of what my monthly finances will look like once my debt management plan is over. It looks wonderful. So, wonderful in fact, I'm beginning to make plans on what to do with the increase in my budget. It's hard to imagine that I will be in that position, soon.

Maybe it's because I haven't seen it yet. I haven't seen the evidence my check has cleared the bank. I haven't seen the evidence on the tax collector's website that my account has been stamped 'current.' I haven't seen the evidence that my payment to my debt management company has been stopped. I haven't seen the evidence that my bank account is growing.

But, I know I will. Maybe that's when I can let go of this heaviness.

 And then I can feel that my albatross is finally gone.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

That Sinking Feeling

It's beginning to sink in.

I'll be debt free soon.

Except for my mortgage, that is.

I'm watching my progress on my dashboard at the debt management program's website where I'm enrolled. While I am embarrassed to state how much I owed before, I am proud to say I have paid off 96% of  that debt. One more account will be paid off in a month, and the last one the month after that. Visually I can see the progress as they show a bar graph with one bar showing what I owed when I started, and the second one showing what I currently owe. I love watching that second one shrink! I often check in on the website just to give myself a boost when I'm having a rough day.

I share my progress with some very close friends who congratulate me and I beam with pride, yet I can't quite internalize what I've accomplished even though I'm watching my progress.

And yet, I'm writing down lists of things I need or want to accomplish, once I am no longer sending that payment.

I need to:
  • clean or replace the upstairs carpeting;
  • replace the dishwasher and stove;
  • redo the front flowerbeds and back garden;
  • buy new pots to transpot my houseplants;
  • attend to small household repairs;
  • rebuild my savings.
I want to:
  • continue to make my mark on my house with artwork and other furnishings that reflect me;
  • replace the curtains in my office as they're faded and need replacing;
  • replace the curtains in the guest room to match the other drapes upstairs as I have a theme going;
  • replace the living room sofa as my dogs ruined it;
  • replace my camera;
  • replace my laptop;
  • update my wardrobe by replacing the clothes that are worn out or stained;
  • live a little! Okay, maybe live a lot!
I think the fact that I'm making lists is proof that I know where I'm going, I know what's happening. And that's good.

I think the fact that I can't feel good about the success is a bigger issue. And that's not so good.

I think that comes from never feeling good about my successes before, because they were never acknowledged for what they were, "Very good, but you can do better."

I just don't know how I can do better than paying off all this debt. On my own.


Well, I can do better by learning to better live within the means I will have, while making the necessary purchases I need and want, yet not all at once. And by truly asking myself if it is a 'need' or a 'want' and if it's a 'want', can I live without it? Then act accordingly.

I can also do better by taking time to just sit with the emotion I get when I start to see what I make of my house and as I see my bank accounts grow. In other words, as I make each repair or purchase, just sit and reflect on the fact that now I can do it, I can make the necessary repairs, or desired purchases.

And then appreciate it.

I'll just take it one step at a time.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

My Oxygen Mask

I did something unusual this past week.

I took a sick day.

Yes, I really was sick. I rarely take them, even if I am sick; which is rare, anyway. My district gives me ten days a year, and they accumulate over time. One of my former principals once advised me to save them as we never know what may happen in the future, i.e., hospitalization, severe illness, etc. When my first partner died, I used three weeks' worth as bereavement, since my district didn't recognize same-sex couples then. Ever since then, I've been collecting them, yet taking only one or two a year for mental health. As a bonus, if I have enough days saved when I retire, I can cash them in for extra service time, meaning I can either retire a year earlier than my current target and get one more year's credit for a full 37 years credit, or retire as planned in 2020 and get one extra year for 38 years. So, there's a plus to not using my sick days.

I do see the need to take them once in a while, at least for my mental health, if not for my actual physical health. This class has been exceptionally challenging this year. It seems each class has been more challenging than the prior since my ex left me. Maybe it is no coincidence; after all, my divorce has turned my life upside down-emotionally, mentally and financially, so as I'm coping through the changes, I'm not as 'on' my teaching game. My colleagues tell me otherwise. The students are just getting more challenging in their behaviors, and that my class is indeed a 'unique' group.

It's very stressful to take a sick day, planned or not. I need to make sure my lessons are up to date, I try to have everything ready for the substitute to make his/her day as easy as possible. Plus, I like to find a substitute I can rely on. In my years of teaching, I've encountered many substitutes who are very competent, as well as a few who leave a bit to be desired. I hate returning after taking a sick day to find out that the substitute didn't cover any of my plans and I have to reteach what I left for him/her to do, or that my class ran all over the substitute. I like to have a regular substitute or two who get to know my students and who my students get to know. It's easier for all concerned. Therefore, I keep a list of my preferred substitutes. It took me a while to find one, as many of my preferred substitutes were unavailable for the day I wanted, a Monday, as I guessed a few other teachers wanted to extend their weekend. But, eventually I did. So, I called the Substitute Office and reported my absence for Monday.

I've been feeling down a lot lately. A number of things have contributed to my feeling down, and ultimately to my getting sick. I've felt overwhelmed with all the changes in my life combined with the difficult class I have this year, the general workload that accompanies teaching and the continued demoralization of the profession. I must have looked so bad that when I walked into the faculty room yesterday, a friend told me I looked like I was about to implode. On top of all that, a number of friends have shared some of their concerns with me and like a good friend I've tried to be there for them. And yet, there's one friend I've ignored a lot lately.

Me.

Once I got over the fact I was actually taking a sick day, and ignored the actual cold I had, as well as the teacher guilt: will my class be okay? Did I leave enough work for the substitute? Will he survive? I knew I'd done the right thing. Yes, physically, I still felt miserable, but I knew my class was in good hands, though I feared they would they run roughshod over him. But, isn't that what he's being paid for? To manage their day and try and maintain my educational program?




A friend once reminded me of what they say in those airline safety demonstrations, "If you're traveling with a small child or someone else who needs your assistance, put your oxygen mask on first, before assisting others."

So, I slept some more after I woke up to phone the school telling them I wouldn't be in; then, I read a bit, I wrote some, chatted with a friend, read some more, wrote a few more lines, continued chatting, took a nap, forced gallons of fluids, and noticed my general mood beginning to elevate ever so slightly.

I actually felt better emotionally. As this was a Monday I was taking off, I'd also slept and rested most of the weekend which contributed to my physical improvement. Yet, the one day off from this class did me a world of good. Okay, maybe a small world, but it felt good to take the day. For me.

Maybe I'll use my oxygen mask a couple more times before the end of the year. Just don't tell my principal.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Money and Self-Image

It's odd how one thing can affect your self-esteem. 

Like financial issues.

I recently blogged about the approaching turning point in my financial struggles. In May of this year, I will have paid off all my personal debt from before my divorce.

Paying off this debt, taking care of my dogs and cat, and managing to pay all the bills, including the mortgage- both before and after refinancing, while living alone has been a struggle. There have been times I've barely made it to the end of the month. But, I've learned I can be as frugal as I need to be. I've learned I have to do what I have to do in order to survive. No, I haven't necessarily enjoyed it. I've given up or seriously altered my spending habits, like my Yankee Candle obsession.

And at times I felt utterly defeated by it all. Even though, I knew I was doing all I could, and still managing to carry on, I was merely surviving. I wasn't enjoying life. I wasn't living. Depression was all around me. 

I even began to feel undateable. 

Yes, I could have found a roommate to help (and I tried, but no one seemed interested) but would I have learned to be as self-reliant and frugal if I depended on additional income? Would I have learned to appreciate my success? Probably not.

So, when I saw the end in sight and a bit more financial freedom, I felt a huge weight begin to lessen, that is until...

I got hit with a big car repair to the tune of an estimated $1,500 on top of the second installment of my property taxes and car registration, both due in April. I was counting on my tax refund for the latter two, and the repair threw me for a loop but I've also learned that whatever comes along I can handle it, maybe begrudgingly, but I'll get through it.

I did what I needed. I sold some securities I'd had for a while. I hated to, but I had no choice. The repairs ended up being less than what was expected and I ended up with a bit extra from the sale.

Just having that little extra began to lift my spirits and my self-worth. I felt like going out, or buying myself a little present. Or something for the house. I even began to glimpse the master bathroom remodeled, or see my back yard as a drought-tolerant California-native-plant-filled garden rather than the overgrown weed-filled eyesore that it is. But, I did nothing as the major expenses were still coming due soon. 
So, I just put it in my savings pending the outcome of my tax return.

And in time, I will achieve all what I want to achieve.

So, with the little extra money in my savings account now earmarked for something I have to take care of, my spirits have temporarily sunk once again.

But, it's very interesting how much we can tie our self-esteem to our financial picture. With the deeper breathing room I'll soon have, maybe everything will begin to turn around, and I'll actually feel like meeting people.
Or gasp! Actually date someone. Maybe.

After all, I still have my trust issues to overcome...

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Relationships

I recently went out with a gay male friend for lunch at a coffee shop near my house. As we stood in the vestibule of the restaurant waiting to be seated, he nudged me and indicated the ostensibly straight young man in the white t-shirt tightly stretched across his nicely developed chest draping himself across his girlfriend. 

I think I muttered an "Ewwww, no!"

My friend then pointed out the young Latino waiter with the neatly trimmed beard who had several open tables, "Maybe we can be seated in his section."

I think I said, "Yeah, whatever." 

To which my friend retorted, "I'm only trying to find guys I think you think are cute."

And I responded with, "I'm tired of men and their bullshit! I've sworn off men!"

And on later reflection, I can't even recall a time when my friend actually pointed out another guy to me, even the few times we were actually in West Hollywood rather than the gay desert where I live known as the North San Fernando Valley.

And all that got me to thinking about the R-word and what it means to me at this time. And so, this is what I've come up with:

Relationships are:
  • Challenging
  • Difficult
  • Time consuming
  • Draining
Wow! What a downer.

I realize my list is hardly positive. After all, I'm not in a place to regard them in a positive light right now. 

Okay, let me think.  Maybe there are some positives:
  • Companionship- wait, I can get that from a dog or cat;
  • Sex- I can take care of that need myself; and I don't want anyone poking at me in the middle of the night because he's horny, yet too tired when I'm in the mood;
  • Conversation- I can talk with my friends on the phone or via text, or during our occasional gatherings.
In facing my inner demons over the last few years, I've discovered my trust issues are now raised like the hackles of an alpha wolf fiercely guarding his pups.

No one is getting near them.

I've written about some of my trust issues before: how do I know he's telling me the truth, in any instance; his HIV status, his views on monogamy, his current relationship status, etc.

Yes, I've been hurt, and badly. We all have. Many people go on to get over their hurt and forge new and better relationships. Yet, right now, I see no need for one. 

I've always been independent, after all I am an Aquarian, the independent child of the Zodiac, the free-thinker, the misunderstood one. Yet, whenever a man came into my life and began to pay me some attention, I immediately began to think of developing a relationship with him, and stick it out despite red flags flapping frantically in hurricane force winds.

My dichotomy...my own personal catch-22;
To wit:

My first partner was a bit jealous and so afraid of losing me, we hardly ever went to gay events or clubs, to eliminate the potential competition, I guess. I saw elements of my stepfather in him: possessiveness, jealousy among the strongest. And because my ex wanted me, I stuck it out for nearly nine years until he died. It felt nice to be wanted and needed even if it wasn't by someone who could meet all my needs whatever they were.
 
My ex-husband couldn't communicate with me. I tried sharing my feelings regarding situations/conflicts and he couldn't take responsibility for his part. He shifted the blame to me. He also later turned out to be a bit possessive and chased the close friend he associated with my first partner out of my life. She and I were estranged for a number of years, until I learned he was responsible for pushing her away, and not someone else. And yet I stuck it out unhappily for almost sixteen years until he asked for a divorce.

The few men I've met since have also let me down, in that I saw that they were good, decent men and I found them attractive. I began to think of them as possible boyfriends, or more, but nothing materialized leaving me feeling rejected, hurt and now distrusting.

As my financial situation improves giving me resources and self-esteem to get back out there, I fear I'll be repeating the habits of settling for someone simply because he wants to be with me and I'll ignore the signs. Better to be with someone, anyone, rather than being alone. After all, I've done that before.

But, lately I've been thinking the opposite. It is better to be alone than with just anyone. And that is true. But, I've been thinking of making this my life's goal: be single. Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy being single but not alone. 

I'll look to construct a geographically desirable social circle to socialize with. I'll attend writers' workshops to socialize and obtain feedback and encouragement on my writing.

I'll find a social group to hang out with to make new friends to occasionally catch a movie or a coffee.

And we'll see what happens...