Szymanski: Be flexible; change is a normal part of our life cycle

Szymanski: Be flexible; change is a normal part of our life cycle
Columnist Lois Szymanski had to be flexible when these miniature horses came into her life. (Lois Szymanski)

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was from a total stranger. “Be flexible,” the woman in line at the grocery story said to her daughter. “Just flow with the punches. Flexibility will get you out of almost any sort of bad time.” I remember the doubt that wafted through my head. Flexibility wasn’t that big of a deal.

Over the years I’ve realized that she was right. This was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever absorbed. Expectations and life plans can change fast and one of our greatest survival skills is flexibility. You can sit and moan about how your plans have been ruined, or you can rapidly adapt and follow a different — and maybe better — path.


I married early in life, while still in college. It turned out to be a disaster. I realize now that I’d married the first guy I fell for as a means of escape. When things didn’t work out, I was catapulted into despair. I cried. I hated myself. I wanted to give up. But I didn’t. In time, I found a job in a different town, and ended up meeting my husband. Now, nearly 40 years later, I am glad I adapted and found a new plan.

When my own daughters went through breakups and hard times, I wanted to erase their pain. If only I could have recorded my life on some sort of fast-forward flip chart, emotions included. I would have shared it with them, so they could see my own despair and heartbreak in real-time. They would have had an amazing exhibit of how they WOULD get through it, by accepting, adapting and being flexible. And in the end, they did just that.

I’ve learned that the changes that come and go are often part of the cycles we go through in life. First there are the single years, then marriage and the honeymoon stage, followed by many years invested in raising our children. Before we know it, we are facing an empty nest. We’re changing and adapting, finding new ways to fill our lives and the voids that come and go. Then, the next thing you know, you’re nearing retirement — another new phase that requires flexibility to adapt. Throughout those years, there are so many unexpected changes.

Not only does flexibility play a part in the cycles we go through in life, but it has been important to the history of our nation as well. Last weekend, I attended the Corbit’s Charge event, a Civil War encampment with demonstrations and more hosted by the Pipe Creek Civil War Roundtable. It was like stepping back in time, and it made me think about the history of our nation, and the changes the United States of America has been through.

I am sure our first president could not have predicted a Civil War in our future. But drastic differences between the South and the North were bound to bring us down. At the same time, slavery could not be tolerated. The nation was catapulted into war, and a multitude of issues and problems followed. We still deal with some of those demons today. But the good changes that have come only happened only when our leaders were flexible.

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One example was in March of 1865 when Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency providing food, shelter, medical aid, employment aid, education, and other needs to blacks and poor whites. Recognizing the poverty these two groups were experiencing, and then addressing them made a difference. The Freedmen’s Bureau was the largest federal aid relief plan at the time, and it was the first large scale governmental welfare program. With help from the bureau, slaves gained the right to vote, while fair wages began to take shape a hand-up was provided. This helped forge a path to repair some of the new problems our nation faced. That flexibility made a difference.

Fast forward. Wilbur and Orville Wright thrilled the world with their 1902 glider, but they knew the world needed more. Being flexible, they changed direction to design their first powered airplane. Naming it “the Flyer,” the Wrights used wind tunnel data and lift and drag equations. They learned that to carry the weight of an engine, propellers, and added structural reinforcement, they needed to increase the wing area to more than 500 square feet. And it worked! On Dec.17, 1903, the Wright brothers made four short flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft. That aircraft became the basis for all that followed, including your last plane ride. Had the Wright Brothers stuck with the concept they developed for the glider; we may not have airplanes today. They were flexible.

From history to everyday life, being flexible is the best way to make things work, and to make dreams come true. That’s how I ended up with my miniature horses, Georgie McLittle and Princess Hazel.

Almost all of the horses in my life have belonged to my children. When they grew up and moved out, the horses went with them. All those years, I dreamed of a horse of my own, but had truly given up on seeing that dream come true. Then, a pony showed up in the field behind me. Horses are herd animals and I knew this little pony was feeling very alone, and that spurred me to look for a miniature horse to keep him company. The next thing I knew, Georgie McLittle was coming home with me. In my mind, this was my one and only pony. But when that first lonely pony moved out, Georgie was alone.

This was not what I planned! I can’t afford two ponies, I moaned. But then, I adapted. I found another pony to adopt from a horse rescue on the Eastern Shore. Even though I didn’t expect or plan for another pony, I am glad I have both Georgie McLittle and Princess Hazel. There are rewards in flexibility.

When things in life are not going the direction you planned, I hope you’ll find your flexibility, and make a new plan. I am sure something good is on the way.