simplicity

I have chosen three intentions to honor in 2017:  creativity, lightheartedness and simplicity.  They are all interrelated, and when I am living well within one, I am generally living well within the other two as well.  The opposite of honoring these three things in my life looks like this:  taking myself and my activities very seriously, stressing about our family schedule and how to make all of the pieces and overlaps work, not finding the humor in some of the ridiculous situations our family schedule causes, feeling disconnected from myself and others, and the ubiquitous “overwhelm.”   However, as much as I am drawn to its premise like a moth to a light in the darkness, simplicity does not come naturally to me.  Much like the moth, I flitter around it, admiring it, wanting it, but can’t quite find my way into it.  Because, hey, life is complicated, is it not?  And maybe that assumption is exactly the problem; maybe life is only complicated because I allow and expect it to be, and because everyone around me is confirming that their lives are also complicated. 

Part of finding simplicity in my life involves a paring down process.  Paring down all the new ideas I’d like to try out, paring down the long list of intentions that I’d like to honor in my life at every moment, paring down the “shoulds” that come from outside myself that impact me, and paring down the commitments that I make to myself and others.  In paring down, I create space in my life for those things that really matter.  It also sometimes means temporarily neglecting one part of my life to fully show up for another, and giving myself permission to do so.    

Someone told me when my kids were young and I was struggling with balancing their needs, with the needs of my marriage, with the needs of my career and with (usually not) finding anytime for myself and my own needs and friendships, that “you can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.”  I think it’s tempting look around and see how people are really succeeding in one area of their lives, and use that one success as a yardstick for how we should be doing in all areas of our own lives.  Part of simplicity for me is recognizing that by honoring and committing to a few intentions, other areas necessarily fall by the wayside, at least temporarily. 

As a coach, I’ve done a lot of work with my clients and for myself around honoring our unique values.  I define values as those things that without which our lives feel incomplete; things that are essential to who we uniquely are and our being happy in the world.  I had a list of 25 values that were essential to me, and each of those 25 words had a string of related words behind them that comprised that value.  I fooled myself into believing that I should be able to honor each of those values on a weekly, if not daily basis.  And it was too much, and too confusing: if asked, I couldn’t have even listed off half of the 25 off the top of my head, so there was no way that I was remembering to honor them all.  I told myself that I was a complex and curious person, with a lot of varied interests and talents, and I’d already spent painful hours narrowing down my list to 25, and that was the best I could do.  And then my own coach one day challenged me to narrow down my list of 25 to three!  I (literally) gasped, and immediately stated that that would be impossible (after all I was a complicated person with a lot of varied interests and talents).  And she asked if would commit to doing it none-the-less, and also suggested that I could consider the viewpoint that having a list of three values might provide freedom rather than constriction.  I tentatively agreed, while laughing that I’d never get the list down anywhere near to only three values.  And so, I started the process again, I whittled and added back and looked up definitions of words and grouped like themed words together.  It was like a new scrabble vocabulary game.  I bartered with myself trading out certain values while promising myself I would keep others.  To narrow it down I had to get to the point of taking a hard look at those values that were essential to my being, those without which I would feel empty and lost.  And I got to a list of four words, which felt like a huge victory, rather than a defeat for not getting to three!  My top four values, the ones that I hope to honor every day of  my life, are connection, authenticity, wisdom and groundedness.  There is complexity within each of those words, and words that underly each of them (for example curiosity plays a part in each ), but having a simple four-word guidepost is much more liberating (and authentic for me) than a half-forgotten list of 25.  And from there it’s easy to incorporate my list of intentions for each year, to layer those over my unchanging core values.

On a regular basis we fool ourselves into believing that important things have to be complicated.  We can mistakenly tell ourselves that for our children to feel well-loved we have to do and buy numerous things, when maybe all it takes is a five-minute conversation with them, fully present, fully listening without an agenda.    We fool ourselves into thinking that our values lists have to be long to fully honor our uniqueness in the world.  We think we have to fully consider every option rather than just going with the one that felt right all along.  There are so many ways that we make things more complicated than they need to be, when choosing simplicity would be both easier and more impactful.  There is simplicity and beauty in living a value driven life, and from my own experience, especially when there are only a few values and intentions to track to.     

sky where roof used to be

Sky where roof used to be
where everything you’ve lost is found
air full of past
burn destructed and then reborn

belonging in harm’s way
courting gratitude
for memories held that don’t
wisp away like smoke
embers fall from grace

ledges of life
roughly reassembled
out of synchronicity
papery images of past

going home
I drive by
burned roof open to moving sky

This poem was inspired by actual events (I guess all poems are, in one way or another).

One morning, driving to school, we noticed that a house on a street near the school had partially burned. My youngest daughter remained fascinated by the sight of it for weeks, as did I. We wondered what the story was: who lived there, were they OK, and what caused the fire?

Then the story appeared in our local paper. A woman had lived in the house with her cat, she had Alzheimer’s. Her son lived next door. Early one morning she was sitting out on her front porch when a neighbor (not her son) noticed the fire and helped get her off the porch and save her cat. She may have left the burner on, heating water for tea, she can’t remember. No one was hurt in the fire and everyone is grateful. It was her dream house, it will be rebuilt.

A few days later, driving by the remains of the house I was struck by the phrase, “sky where roof used to be” as through the jagged hole in the damaged roof you could see the juxtaposed blue sky and the clouds moving through it. I was inspired to construct a poem based on that phrase and the story of the woman, and wanted to have a photo of the damaged roof with the sky. I kept meaning to stop and take the photo. One evening, driving home from back to school night, I remembered again that I needed to take that photo. I kept driving as I felt the pull to get home as I’d been gone for several hours. Then something inside compelled me to turn back and actually get the photo taken.

The next morning I drove by the house again and the roof remains had been demolished to make way for the rebuild.

I finished this poem a few days later.

earned vs. given

So many drafts, so few published posts… Here’s one just to skew that balance a bit…

I’ve been thinking lately about my kids’ views of my life and our family life.  I think it’s easy for my kids to look at me and think that I’ve got it pretty easy, and in many senses I do.  I work in a part-time, flexible, well-paying job. I have a great husband who provides well for our family. I am home with my kids and play a large role in their lives, which is important to me.   In recent years, I  have found time to pursue some of my personal interests (including writing this blog) and do meaningful volunteer work.  What my kids don’t seem to have a sense of, and I what I feel that I need to impart more to them, is how hard I’ve worked and the sacrifices that I have made to get to where I am.  There were many years of harder times: the long hours worked, the studying for professional exams, the sadness of having my kids in childcare while they were young, the paying off of  student loans over many years, exhaustion when the kids were young, and the personal and professional sacrifices my husband and I both made to have our family be our priority.   A lot of this happened before our kids were born or while they were too young to really remember.   I want my children to have an awareness of this, not to change their view of me, rather to give them a sense that getting to where I am now is not a given, that it requires hard work and sacrifice and  I don’t want them to be resentful if they don’t get to an ‘easy life.’  I also want them to have a sense that there are no guarantees that my ‘easy life’ will last forever.  There are many things that could derail my current path, some of which are within my control, but many of which are outside of my control.

Which brings me to earned vs. given.   Most things in my life have been earned by me as opposed to being given to me.  Earning something is ‘harder’ in many senses than being given something. But for me, the things that I’ve earned mean much more to me than the things that were just given to me.  While included in my general definition of ‘things’ is the material stuff, it also means job promotions, respect, wisdom and a vast array of other intangible things.

I’ve noticed that, broadly speaking, this generation of kids, more so than my generation and the ones that came before, has been given a lot of things.  And it seems to have bred a culture of entitlement in some areas- a false expectation that the world owes them more than it should.  There seems to be a belief that “If my parents have ________, then I should too.”  That blank can be filled in by many things: the latest smartphone, designer clothes, a luxury car, fancy vacations, an easy life, power and prestige, a flexible schedule, choice to do as I please, etc.  and the kids aren’t entirely to blame for having this mentality, as many parents have (knowingly or unknowingly) promoted it.  The missing piece that is being forgotten is that, for the most part, the parents have earned these things, while the child has not.    Most kids on the surface love being given all sorts of things (and will even demand them) and parents can feel good about all they are providing for their kids, especially if they were lacking the equivalent of most of these things in their own childhood. The short-term effects can seem positive.  Though in the long run, I think this mentality and the expectations that go with it, will bring all sorts of discontent and meaninglessness into the lives of our children, especially as they journey into adulthood.

What if this generation of kids can’t ever earn for themselves all these things that they’ve been given freely?  As a parent I do not plan to continue to support my children financially into adulthood, nor do I plan to allow them to live off my coattails-professionally or personally.  I want them to have a sense of earning things for themselves, and the pride of accomplishment, and the experience of living short-term sacrifices in order to attain  longer term gains.  But it’s hard to go backwards, it’s hard to downgrade and downsize from where they’ve been.  It’s also hard to work for something that you were just given before.

I think we are misguided as parents to try to make our kids’ lives ‘easy’ and to try to save them from life’s disappointments and pain; I think we have to have lived through the harder parts of life to truly appreciate the easier parts of life.  I think that many things that we are given have a hollowness to them and can’t be fully appreciated for what they are.  Truly, I think we all need to have meaning in our lives, to know that the things we’re doing matter and that our lives have purpose.   I believe that things that are given to us can eat away at our own fulfillment, while things that we’ve earned can enhance our sense of meaning  and purpose in our lives.

I’m curious to know how others feel about all of this.

Reserve-Your-Nike-Earned-not-Given-T-Shirt-Now

What did I do today? (and confusing the Davids)

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When I have the time, I spend my day like a gatherer, a gatherer of information-some of which will hopefully ferment with enough experience to become actual wisdom.  Since I can not totally neglect my mother, homeowner, wife, volunteer and paid work duties for too long, my knowledge gathering days are also interspersed with other more (immediately) practical task days as well.  I find that at the end of either of these types of days, I can’t really list of what I have done in detail.  It all becomes part of some vague balancing of doing and being that is my life, but to try to retell it makes it seem dull and meaningless.  To me, that is far from the truth of it.  It’s kind of like why I feel like I am not a good story-teller or joke teller.  I can usually remember the beginning and the end/punchline/lesson, but the details in between get lost, and those are generally the meat, the buildup, of the story or joke.

I’ve talked to other mothers about the peculiar insignificance of our daily tasks.  Many days are primarily composed of what approximates 40, five-minute tasks.   Each task, while requiring completion, in and of itself is insignificant and should not be committed to memory.  None of the tasks requires rocket-science brain power,  just time.  But the math is clear, 200 minutes (5X40), or 3.3 hours of stuff that can only be described as… stuff.  Stuff:  put a few dishes in dishwasher, pick dirty socks up off couch, make a pediatrician appt., follow-up on school book fair info, pay club fees for soccer season, follow-up on confusing email about trip to the museum that I’m chaperoning, look for recipe for dinner tonight, send work related email, confirm carpool arrangements for tomorrow… you get the gist.  These are interspersed with a few other more time-consuming and significant tasks (that sometimes come from a hastily scratched, ever running, daily to-do list), and the bulk of my “kids are at school” hours are filled.

Looking at the “task days” as compared to my “information gathering days,” some ironic similarities and discrepancies surface.  Info gathering generally starts out with a specific purpose, something I have happened upon or thought about prior, that I want to follow-up or do more research on.  Today as an example.  Recently I listened to a “This American Life”  episode on NPR with Ira Glass.  While I’ve probably listened to the show before, it hadn’t really been notable to me until this recent listen.  Now of course I can’t remember what that specific episode was about (here’s the part where I’ve forgotten some relevant details which would make my story a good one), but it led me to look up the show online and listen to many of the excerpts from past shows that were played during the 500th show review highlights.  As part of that, I happened upon one of Ira’s highlights, which was an episode about Americans living in Paris and included Ira touring around with David Sedaris.  Except for some reason, as I was starting the episode, I got it into my head that it was David Foster Wallace that Ira was talking with.  And this led to a huge “does not compute” warning in my brain.  I have read works from both DS and DFW and liked them for entirely different reasons, combine this with having listened to DFW’s Kenyon College commencement speech a few years back, and I was thoroughly and utterly confused.  Here’s what’s running through my head… “DFW’s voice is much higher than I remember it and he’s much gayer than I would have thought…he’s much more odd too…his persona does not match his writing at all, I would have expected more of a quieter, intellectual type person.”   And then I had to go to bed, as it was too late for me to be up anyway.

Over several days I kept trying to reconcile the gap between who I thought DFW was, and who he seemed to be in this interview.  Today I vowed to look into it, as something just wasn’t right.  And sure enough, after a few google searches, the mystery was solved. I’d had the wrong David in my head.  This process then rekindled my admiration of all things DFW, and I watched several interviews that were done with him before his untimely death in 2008.  Somehow in that process (again, not sure of the details here) I ended up on a tangent of reading things about and from Leo Tolstoy, quotes from his “Calendar of Wisdom,” and vowed to myself that once I finish slogging through his “The Kingdom of God is Within You”  (and it is a slog, while there are some gems in the text, you have to get through a lot of other less interesting, more preachy stuff, to find them), I will read his “War and Peace” once and for all.  (I’m not sure how I got through high school and college without ever having that book as required reading.)   Which then somehow led me to looking at some excerpts from Susan Sontag’s published diaries “As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh.”

Through some mystical process, much of this fabulous knowledge then somehow osmosisly (not a real word) disperses into what is already in my consciousness and congeals itself into my broad philosophies of life.  However, to go back and try to pick out individual quotes, philosophies, beliefs to share with others is next to impossible.  It’s there, but just not as a separate, identifiable entity.  I could not tell you specific sources for individual threads of knowledge and belief, rather I could (only in writing) give you the bibliography of all that’s contributed to my philosophy of life.   However, this bibliography does not actually exist, so perhaps I should add to to my running to do list, to be completed on a task day.

Which then would actually bring this blog post full circle.

Looking back fifteen years

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Fifteen years ago today, my life’s path was forever altered when our first daughter was born.  She came into the world in an unexpected manner -breech, via a C-section- and has been doing unexpected things ever since!

I can remember exactly where I was in my life then.  My husband and I were six months into the ownership of our first home in the suburbs of Boston. I was in my late 20’s, on the fast track in my career, yet still tentative and unsure of my abilities in so many areas of life. Somehow, having a baby then seemed like a good idea.

And she arrived.  I remember the first nights home with her.  Due to my C-section, we were sleeping in our extra bedroom that was on the ground level of our house, so that I could avoid the stairs.  I remember her waking up every few hours to breastfeed and rocking in my glider, feeling totally inept and unable to protect her from the dark, scary forces that I was sure were lurking in the black darkness outside the bedroom window.

We had the summer to settle in and the world of being a parent started to feel a little less scary.  I joined a new moms group to remind myself that I wasn’t crazy and not be alone in my struggles.  I took long stroller walks with my new baby.   At times I would walk through a small cemetery that was near our neighborhood.  I remember one day, near the end of my maternity leave, noticing a headstone that I hadn’t read before.  Based on the dates of birth and death, it was for a baby that had died several months before its first birthday.   I stood there, frozen still, in my denim shorts overalls, red t-shirt and white canvas sneakers.  I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain and grief that that family must have experienced.  I looked down at my own several month old baby and cried, trying to imagine how I would cope if I ever lost her.  I made a silent promise to myself that day to not forget.  To not forget this family and baby that I had not known, by reminding myself to hold and cherish every day that I had with my own baby.

And now a lifetime (hers so far) has passed.  In some ways it feels like so much has filled those years, and in some ways they’ve flown by inexplicably fast.  Looking forward, we’ve got a driver’s permit and a sophomore year of high school in our very near future.  But for now, I will say a prayer of remembrance and gratitude for the blessing that all my children are still here on this earth with me.

haven’t been feelin’ it…

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” Ernest Hemingway

“There is an enormous distance between thinking and the act of writing.” Eric Hoffer

“I also noticed, as the months went by, how myths and legends came floating into my mind. It was some time before I realized that the myths dovetailed into a pattern, that they were telling a coherent story.”
Eric Hoffer

I haven’t been here (my blog) in a while. I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve been trying not to beat myself up about not posting anything. Aside from some poetry that hasn’t felt relevant (or ready) to post here, I haven’t been writing much, and I guess that for the moment I am OK with that. I have been reading and thinking (two of my favorite activities) and have picked up some handy quotes in the interim, which I have posted above.

It seems that while living my life provides the material for my writing, that living also gets in the way of my writing. Fully living causes me to switch from observing life, to really being deeply engaged in life, which feels important to do (at least every once in a while). While I have been in a transition of sorts for several years now (could be my own little mid-life crisis), it seems that just recently my husband may have entered some transitions of his own too. And that’s a lot of transition for one household to handle, thus fueling my need to really be engaged in the living of my life/our lives currently.

I’ve been having a bit of a paradigm shift along with all of this, due to the reading I’ve been doing, a new church we’ve been attending and the realization that my assumptions about some of my husband’s motivations in life may have been way off the mark.

More on all of this I am sure will follow, when the writing compels me more than the living.

There’s a reason it’s called a living room

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These objects
are not yet ours
in our home
new and lovely, smelling of pleasant stores
visually appeasing
my sense of ownership
and borrowed space.

Too beautiful to be not functional
but the tempered balanced arrangement
scares my use until later
maybe I will light that candle.

For now I wrap myself in a throw
and then will attempt to arrange it
back like it was
rumpled yet beautiful,
actionless, yet foretelling diagonal movement.

Patterns and blues intermix
to break my matching rules,
yet it works better than matching
it complements
for matching creates precise limits
and I want to embrace it all instead
yet have a unifying sense
of belonging
together.

Just enough, not too many
singular pieces to be traded in and out in the future
perhaps repurposed in another room
or life
new with old, never completely starting over
bringing in pieces from the past.

In a room of living that I once said was dead, redundant space.

step out of your life

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I had the good fortune of being on a seven-day family vacation last week. It was a trip that was earned by my husband through his job.   His company planned the location and dates, and set up events and activities, while also allowing for plenty of rest and relaxation. It was lovely, and I am so grateful for having gone. Being away in a tropical place (lacking a kitchen, school, children’s regular activities, home to maintain and car to drive) truly allowed me to “step out of my life.” What I mean by “my life” is my day-to-day regular routine and way of viewing myself, others and my surroundings.

I believe that we all need a break sometimes. No matter how wonderful and beautiful we know our lives to be, we can easily lose sight of that. We can get stuck in focusing on the negative aspects of our lives. Or we can just live our lives unconsciously and have no recognition of what in our life is serving us well or not. We can get caught up in “busyness” and not allow our bodies to rest and our souls to bloom. We can lose our sense of wonder and awe for our world and the people in it. I was able to rediscover these things during our week away, and I am intentionally trying to maintain them now that I’ve stepped back into my regular routine.

Last week I was surrounded by a natural beauty much different from the environment of our home state. Coming home, I learned to rediscover the natural beauty that surrounds me on a daily basis, as it all looks new again. During an unseasonably warm evening a few nights ago, my youngest daughter and I took a leisurely exploration around our surrounding neighborhood. We noticed lots of things. The winter air was light with the promise of spring. The sunset was deep blue and orange. The trees waved happily in the light breeze. We took it all in hungrily.

There are times in our lives when we don’t have the opportunity to fully step out of our lives and take a true vacation. However, this does not have to prevent us from looking at our lives, our surroundings and our habits with a new lens. We can step away from certain habits and try something new, in order to ascertain whether our current habits are serving our lives well and whether they are aligned with our fundamental values and priorities.  We can look at the things around us with a renewed sense of appreciation and awe.

It’s easy to look back and remember how good things were, as in retrospect we tend to focus more on the positive. It’s harder, but much more rewarding, to truly see the good that exists in our lives today, right now, before it is gone. These are the thoughts that help us to be satisfied now and to sustain us in the future.

Aloneness and perspective

This morning I was cherishing being alone in our house. I actually like to be alone. I like the quiet, the stillness, the time to think and just be. With three school age children, a husband, a part-time job and the all the other normal aspects of a busy life, my life does not always offer times for me to be alone. So I was enjoying having time to myself and not having anyone there to make any demands of me or my time. But I started thinking about what if I were truly alone. What if I didn’t have the backdrop that three children would come home to me this afternoon, that my husband would return from his business trip this evening, that I could call a friend if I had been in need of company? Under a different set of circumstances, the exact same situation-the one the I was cherishing- could actually have been a situation of sadness and emptiness for me. So, in some sense, how we feel about an event or a situation is relative.

How many other events in our life can this sentiment pertain to? Think of how our mindset, our expectations and our circumstances can invoke different feelings for the exact same event. Parenting provides some obvious examples of this for me. When we are not rushed to be somewhere and not feeling pulled to be doing something else, we too can delight in the unplanned moments of wonder and discovery that occur with our children on a regular basis. But if we’re running late or have something else that we feel we really need to be doing, those stalled moments, where the task at hand falls by the wayside, can be frustrating and troublesome.

For me, sometimes I need to realize that things don’t always present themselves in my life at the most opportune or convenient time; to be open to their occurrence and be able to find the connection, or the joy or the lesson for me in that moment is my work. And in those rare moments where a desired situation does arise at an opportune time, I will continue to celebrate!

Risk and regret

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my risk aversion and what it has meant in my life, and on the flip side, about others who have no qualms with risk and what it has meant for how they live their lives. I’ve realized that security is important to me- physical security, financial security, secure relationships, etc. These are all important aspects of living a fulfilling life, as long as they are not taken to the extreme. In the Christian faith, we ask forgiveness for both the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone. This can be applied to the things we’ve done or haven’t done to/for others, as well as ourselves. Things left undone has been the much bigger issue for me than things done. And honestly, until recently, I’ve always thought that it was a better place to be, because rarely had I intentionally hurt someone else or myself. But perhaps this is not a better place. If you want to live a full and intentional life, you have to take some risks, and you can’t easily default to “no, I won’t do _____ because I am not sure how it will turn out” or “no, I can’t do _______ because don’t want to make a mistake (or fail)”. Sometimes, this is where my risk aversion has left me, with fine opportunities that I could have seized upon and didn’t. Part of my risk aversion has come from not listening to or trusting my inner voice, which would have included looking closely at how I felt about something, rather than just weighing the hard fact pros and cons (which generally led me down the road to over-analyzation). While I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of having to regret something that I had done, I downplayed the feelings that could come from regretting something that I hadn’t done.

This is not to say that every opportunity that comes our way should be taken. Evaluating these opportunities requires discernment. And for my friends who err on the side of not considering risk enough, there may be a different lesson for you here; to consider using the more logical aspects of decision making and not just follow your feeling impulse in any moment. In addition, to realize that actions can have unintended consequences and require trade-offs in our lives that we perhaps wouldn’t be willing to make if we’d thought through those.

As with so many aspects of our lives, we’re left with trying to find balance; balancing the knowledge of who we are and what our default tendencies are, as well as balancing the two sides of the risk spectrum.