Bold Humility

The ten years between age eighteen to twenty-eight—the beginning of undergrad to the birth of my first child—were marked by my profound arrogance.

This arrogance wasn’t there when I was seventeen. When I turned seventeen, I was still in high school just outside of Washington, DC. My classmates were the children of lawyers and judges and professors. They took all AP classes and got perfect scores on the SATs (and this was the old SAT back when it was harder to get a high score). Compared to them, I was brainless. I played the flute passably in the band, but the rest of them composed symphonies in their spare time and even the most casual of players had taken private lessons since toddlerhood. The girls in my lit class all had crushes on George Stephanopolis, which they discussed while eating the bagels they’d picked up on their drive to school, stopping only to correct me when I pronounced the word “facade” with a hard “c,” having seen it only in print and never heard it spoken.

I was sub-par, and I went off to college a few months before my eighteenth birthday knowing this very clearly.

But then something changed.

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Spring: Lessons in Faith

As storm after storm blanketed us with foot after foot of snow,

As I dumped epsom salts into a hot bath to soothe shovel-sore muscles,

As I ordered slightly irregular wool tights off the internet,

As tracked-in slush and salt and sand discolored the floor tiles,

As water drip-drip-dripped from the crack in my kitchen ceiling,

it was difficult to imagine that spring would one day arrive.

CIMG7229Yet today I sat in my driveway as the breeze carried maple flowers into my open book and my children laughed together and hid from dragons in shrubbery castles. The crocuses’ short tenure is over, but the daffodils are open, and we still have tulips to look forward to, if the deer don’t eat them all. Hopeful tom turkeys are displaying for hens in suburban backyards, and I’ve been finding blue eggshells on the sidewalk, proof that there are baby robins overhead.

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Habit Experiment Wrap-Up

March Recap

March’s habit:

Reduce yelling and swearing.

My goals:

1) Continue bringing awareness to my moods before I lose it through mindfulness and lovingkindness practices.

2) Sign up for Gretchen Rubin’s 21 Day Project “Quit Yelling At My Kids”

It would be awesome if I could say, “Well, folks: It worked! Every time I felt angry with my kids this month I took a deep breath, thought of one of Gretchen Rubin’s tips, and was able to manage the situation without throwing a tantrum.” But then I’d have to publish this post on April Fools Day because that’s not really how it worked.

Most of the month I yelled very little despite some stressful events. Then last week we were late for music lessons even after I’d utilized all of my advance-planning, early warning techniques to count us down to departure time, and I just lost it. I yelled all the way to our lessons, saying really ridiculous things, like how I was no longer going to buy them Lego kits because I didn’t want to turn them into little American consumers always obsessing over the next “thing” to buy. I recognized even in the middle of it all that I was being ridiculous. “I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore!” I yelled.

In the rearview mirror, the children stared impassively through their windows at the dirty snow and mini-malls. When we got to our destination I apologized, and we had hugs all around, and we’ve been pretty good since. I’ve snapped at them a few times, but I’ve calmed myself quickly and apologized. (We call it “hitting reset.”)

I think now that my yelling is related closely to anxiety. This article about postpartum rage captures the feeling fairly well. Although it would be a stretch to label my situation “postpartum,” the link between anxiety and rage feels right-on to me. My cat does the same thing. We thought he was aggressive, but the animal behaviorist said he lashes out just because he’s high-strung and generally misperceives small threats and even non-threats as really big threats that require fight or flight. We helped reduce his anxiety using conditioning techniques that involved small pieces of poached chicken, but as much as I like chicken, I suspect I’ll need a different approach for my own anxiety.

My kids and I have a lot of open discussion about my attempts not to yell and the quest for self-control in general. We talk about how, even when we try to stop ourselves from losing our cool, we aren’t going to be successful all of the time, and about how unpleasant and scary it is to feel like we’re out of control. It feels like progress. Even if I’m not 100% cured of yelling and swearing, sharing the process with my kids has to help. If nothing else, it shows them that I love them enough to work hard at something that’s very difficult for me, and maybe it even shows them ways that they can manage some of their very big emotions.

Looking back over my old blog posts, I came across this post I wrote a few years ago during my original Happiness Project in which I hypothesize about what happens when I lose it:

My newest hypothesis is that I live my life basically just trying to get through the day, shoving aside any of my own emotions because I don’t want to make time to deal with them. I was thinking about how in seismology, frequent small tremors help relieve pressure and prevent a major earthquake (this is probably poor geology here, but it doesn’t have to be accurate for the metaphor to work). Using this analogy, I’m thinking that if I can recognize my emotions as they come up and perhaps even express them, maybe I can avoid the Big One that could cause California to break off and become an island.

My science is suspect, but I still think it works as an analogy and as an argument for self-care. I find it—perhaps oddly—comforting that I’ve been writing about this for at least four years.

Oh, and Gretchen Rubin’s tips: They won’t be new to anyone who’s read her books. It’s kind of nice to get them as daily reminders, but not enough that I plan to buy another round for a different habit.

Habit Experiment Wrap-Up

So, now that it’s over, how has this whole Habit Experiment thing gone overall? It’s been okay. I’ve been exercising every day for almost four months now, and I do feel myself slightly less tied to the internet than I was before I started, but I don’t feel like I’ve gained the insights I realize now I was hoping to gain. Looking back at my Happiness Project posts, I think I got a lot more out of that structure and the themes and resolutions I set for myself back in 2010-2011. I would even consider doing a Happiness Project reboot if I weren’t such a slave to novelty. (I’m such an American, just like my kids.)

Habit Experiment: February Recap, March Kickoff

February Recap

My goals for February:

1) Do daily FlyLady routines more regularly, particularly bathroom swish-and-swipe and morning and bedtime routines.

2) Streamline my weekly cleaning.

3) Add in 15 minutes a day of zone decluttering/detail cleaning.

The daily routines for goal #1 went great. I only missed a total of two swish-and-swipe days, and our toilets and sinks are very shiny. The other two goals, haven’t gone so well. Weekly cleaning is getting done, but it’s still a challenge because I try to do more than just the quickie clean one hour will allow and it ends up taking me two hours or more. I went gangbusters with the 15 minutes a day the first week, despite a snow storm that dropped eighteen inches of snow that needed shoveling, but since then I’ve only cleaned the kitchen and laundry room floors, wiped out the fridge, and used an old toothbrush to clean around the fifty-year-old faucets in one of the bathrooms. For that last one, I called my spouse at work to tell him I’d done it.

“Does it look a lot different?” he asked.

“It’s pretty subtle,” I admitted. “That’s why I called you. Now you’ll be ready to give me ample praise when you see the faucets tonight.”

It turns out I need more praise for household tasks than I realized I did.

This month, without any fanfare at all, I’ve started a daily metta (lovingkindness) practice. It has two main parts:

-Each morning after I wake up but before I get out of bed and each evening after I get in bed but before I fall asleep I do some breathing. I count five breaths just focusing on the breath and then I take two breaths for each of the following statements:

May I be safe.

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I live with ease.

May I be free from suffering.

-During the day whenever there’s a lull or a time when I’m getting irritable, I breathe and repeat these statements to myself.

In the past week or so, I’ve started shifting to saying “we” instead of “I” when I repeat the statements, and I’m experimenting with saying them out loud with my kids before we start lessons each morning. Nothing miraculous has come of this, but I do feel less rattled when things don’t go my way and when I have a tantrum, I seem to cool down faster than before. The kids haven’t even mentioned the change, but they like to ring the Zen chime.

In The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, author Christopher Germer cautions that when beginning metta practice, it’s common to have an immediate period of improvement followed by a period about five weeks into the practice when things actually seem to get worse. He attributes this to a shift from doing the practice for its own sake to doing the practice with an endpoint in mind. Knowing this, I’m going to try to temper my enthusiasm for any positive outcomes and keep an eye out for disillusionment and, hopefully, remember it’s all part of the process.

And now for March’s goal:

Reduce yelling and swearing.

My goals:

1) Continue bringing awareness to my moods before I lose it through mindfulness and lovingkindness practices.

2) Sign up for Gretchen Rubin’s 21 Day Project “Quit Yelling At My Kids”

I’m hesitant about both of my goals this month, the first because listing the practice here attaches it to my goal to yell and swear less, which could derail the practice, and the second because it costs 5 bucks and involves getting a daily e-mail, which I have in spades already. But it’s only twenty-one days, and I figure it’s worth a shot. Plus I’m curious about what sort of tips Rubin has included in these projects.

People are generally surprised (or at least act surprised) when I tell them I yell and swear at home. I have a reputation for being “quiet,” which I can see, but it’s strange to me just how big a deal this seems to be. I mean, people at church have been going out of their way to thank me for talking in meetings, which feels weird because I feel like I’ve been talking all along.

At any rate, my yelling and swearing comes out when I’m with people I care about and who I know won’t stop loving me if I show my ugly side (although to be honest, this is a constant fear). Kind of a crappy reward for being one of my close friends or loved ones, and I’d like to curb it a bit.

It’s the last month of my Habit Experiment! I’m very glad to be about done with this particular project. It’s been educational, but I’m not feeling it like I thought I would.

Points to Ponder:

Do you ever find your goals to be at cross purposes, with one canceling out or threatening to cancel out another?

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

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I am pretty sure I didn’t understand this book, but I still enjoyed it.

I enjoyed the journey on foot and by rail through India, a country I find intriguing but way too scary to actually visit. And anyway, I won’t ever be able to visit this particular India since this one existed what, 150 years ago or so?

I enjoyed the interactions of the many different cultures in the book. Multiple religions and ethnic backgrounds and languages all met at different points along the road, and Kipling really made these differences come alive in a way that allowed me to see the individuals underneath. Kipling lets us see inside the characters through direct access to their thoughts and through often hilarious asides and sarcastic remarks in other languages. I never really had a sense for how mixed the population of India is (or perhaps just was? I don’t know how different Kipling’s India is from India of the 21st century).

I especially enjoyed the developing relationship between Kim and the lama as the orphan boy grows to trust and to love the holy man. This development seems to mirror the way that going through the outward motions of a spiritual practice eventually leads to internal change. Their relationship develops alongside the spiritual journey, and both involve themes of sacrifice and of bearing burdens for the sake of love.

There is in this novel an element of trust that I also find in narratives of long foot journeys set in the United States, like those along the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. No matter where they went, Kim and the lama trusted that what they needed would be provided, and it was, if not always in the way they originally expected. I find the freedom in that perspective compelling.

One of my favorite passages:

“And so [the lama] petted and comforted Kim with wise saws and grave texts on that little understood beast, our body, who, being but a delusion, insists on posing as the soul, to the darkening of the Way, and the immense multiplication of unnecessary evils.” (p 334)

Kim can blend in, chameleon-like, in almost any situation. He studies others closely and is a natural at trying on different personalities, classes, and ethnicities. This opens up some interesting career options, but it also highlights this idea of the body being an illusion. The lama fasts and meditates in an attempt to liberate himself from his body in the traditional Buddhist way, but Kim dips in and out of different identities, and in this way frees himself from his body and finds his soul.

My nine-year-old and I read this book aloud together, and I think it was a combination of her persistent nature and the interesting and amusing little bits Kipling works into the novel that enabled her to stick with it chapter by chapter each evening. (She also enjoyed trying to trace Kim and the lama’s travels in our atlas, which was difficult at times because the spellings of the city names in the atlas were often different from those in the novel.) Accepting that we didn’t understand what was going on sometimes and just trusting that something resembling understanding would come eventually, we trucked along. We both got something different out of this book, but I think we both enjoyed it.

It did confuse my five-year-old, though. “I know about lamas, Mommy!” he broke in while I was reading one of the early chapters. “They’re related to camels!” I need to introduce him to the Ogden Nash poem about one-L lamas and two-L llamas.

I read this for my Cavalcade of Classics. Click the link to see more books—both read and yet un-read—from my challenge list. 

Habit Experiment: January Recap, February Kickoff

January Recap

My goal for January was:

1) Write a little something every day.

I’ve pretty much done this in January, but I realized I was already pretty much doing it before January, so I’ve not noticed much of a difference this month.

As I’ve continued to reevaluate my Habit Experiment, I found this quote from a letter Hunter S. Thompson wrote to a friend in 1958:

“So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.”

I’m not sure if a twenty-two-year-old Hunter S. Thompson is the best person to take advice from, but I like the sentiment. It reflects the shift in perspective I’ve been experiencing towards my Habit Experiment. I’m not ready to jettison goals entirely, but I’m trying to see them in the context of what I’d like the big picture of my life to look like (I’m not even to the point of figuring how to “make a living”). Conclusions are in short supply at this point, but I trust that asking the questions is a good place to start.

And now for February’s goal:

Implement FlyLady routines

My goals:

1) Do daily FlyLady routines more regularly, particularly bathroom swish-and-swipe and morning and bedtime routines.

2) Streamline my weekly cleaning.

3) Add in 15 minutes a day of zone decluttering/detail cleaning.

So, how do these goals promote the way of life I’d like to have? I’d like to have less stuff so I’m more mobile (and less embarrassed when movers come to pack up our house), and I would like each of the things I own to have a purpose. The stuff I have I’d like to be tidy and clean, but I also don’t want to spend all of my time cleaning and organizing my stuff. My hope is that routines will help me keep things decluttered and tidy with a minimal outlay of time and energy.

I must admit, my heart’s not really in this one. I’ve been off-and-on following FlyLady routines for nearly nine years now with off-and-on success. I could blame my children, but if I really wanted to keep to cleaning routines, I bet I could. I suspect that it doesn’t matter as much to me as I think it does. I’m not sure that “recommitting” to routines is going to help now, but I’m giving it a try. (I should probably make next month’s goal, “Brush up on my pep talks to myself.”)

Points to Ponder:

Do you focus on goals or on a way of life…or both?

Habit Experiment: December Recap, January Kickoff

December Recap

My goal for December was:

1) Read for thirty minutes a day.

I didn’t read every day, but this month did help me to shift my perspective on my Habit Experiment. I’ve not been responding well to the detailed plan, to the metrics and all of that, and I’ve not been keeping to my habits very well.

I can think of a few possible causes for this:

1) Trying to do too much at one time.

2) General fatigue at the end of the year.

3) Some habits actually take longer than 21 days to develop.

In addition, I’ve noticed that the habits I’m keeping best are the ones that I do right after I wake up. When I exercise as soon as I wake up, I exercise daily. When I get out of bed and meditate, I can do that every day. Same thing if I write just after the alarm goes off (I’ve been working ahead). Of course, the trouble is that once I do one of these things, the spell is broken (and the kids are awake). I’ve tried going back to bed and starting again, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. I get up, do one habit, then the rest of the day is a wash. Not really, but that’s how it feels when I focus on the habits I’m not doing habitually.

So, I’m letting myself re-interpret my goals. Instead of forcing myself to take a walk in the cold, dark New England morning, worrying that every shadow is a skunk ready to spray me, I’ve been doing free workout videos from Fitness Blender in my basement. It’s not the great outdoors, but there are no skunks (knock wood), and I get to watch the thermostat go up as much as two degrees by the end of my workout.

Instead of making myself meditate on my cushion, I’ve been cultivating mindfulness in random moments throughout the day and bringing my awareness to the sounds in my bedroom while I’m falling asleep at night. Starting in January, I’ll also be multitasking reading and mindfulness by reading about mindfulness. I’m pretty sure multitasking mindfulness kind of defeats the purpose, but I’m going to try it anyway.

Instead of trying to enforce a bedtime for myself, I’m developing a habit of thinking of the hours between 8pm and 6am as “sacred to sleep.” I don’t necessarily sleep that whole time, but I keep my focus on winding down and keeping things sleep-like during those hours. There are a couple of evening meetings I’ve not been able to weasel out of, so this gets derailed about once a week or so, but perfection isn’t really the goal, is it? (Certainly not the stated goal, at least.)

For those interested in my other goals:

“Mindful Internet Use”: Reading Plato’s Republic this month has made me look at the Internet and all “shadows and reflections” differently than I did before. Plato has a way of taking the fun out of lurking on Facebook or reading strangers’ funny text messages. I’m not sure if I’m using the Internet less or not, but I’m certainly more mindful of how I’m doing it.

“Drive Less”: I drove 639 miles in December (odometer reading went from 120,952 to 121,591), even more below the 800 miles/month limit I gave myself. Where the heck did I used to go that I’m not going anymore? It’s a mystery, but I like it.

And now for January’s goal:

Establish a Daily Writing Practice

My goal:

1) Write a little something every day.

In light of my December realizations, I’m going to leave this very open. I can write about what I’m reading, or I can draft a blog post, or I can write thank-you notes for Christmas gifts, or maybe I can type a silly story for my kids on the typewriter my mom sent my five-year-old for Christmas. (It’s a totally awesome typewriter. It’s a Smith-Corona Vantage that my dad bought in 1979. My mom and I had to send away to upstate New York for a new ribbon, but it was worth it. My kids love it, and so do I. And being able to load a sheet of paper into a typewriter and adjust the margins has to be a valuable skill for a 21st-century kid, right?)

So, my goal is just to put down some words about something every day. Easy-peasy. (Maybe.)

Points to Ponder:

What do you do when you find yourself falling behind your goals? Do you push harder? Reevaluate and modify your expectations? Eat more chocolate?

Habit Experiment: November Recap, December Kickoff

November Recap

My one goal for November was:

1) Meditate for ten minutes each day.

The first two weeks of the month did not go well. Not only did I not meditate, I also dropped all of my other habits. I worried I’d given myself too much to juggle all at once (maybe I shouldn’t have had that spectator toss me that bowling ball), but mid-month, things turned around.

The main difference the second half of the month was that I decided to act each day the way that I thought Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch would act. This didn’t turn out quite like I expected, but it did get me out of bed and onto the dark streets of our neighborhood before 6:00 every morning. And once I was finished with my walk, I found it easy to hang up my jacket, wrestle out of my boots, and sit down to meditate before the rest of my family discovered I was home.

Then after about a week of that, I embarrassed myself in front of a friend and then blogged about it, and ever since, I’ve been kind of ridiculously happy.

I mentioned this to my spouse in the car this morning, and he raised his eyebrows and peered at me from the corner of his eye. I suspect this was because I’d just a few hours before snapped at him for interrupting me (three times while I was trying to say the phrase “chocolate pecan pie”).

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Gratitude for Imperfection

On the train home from Boston the other night, I referred to my friend’s son by the wrong name.

She was very nice about it when she corrected me. “Now that you mention it, he does look like a Josh,” she said. She was sweet, but I was mortified.

Five hours later, I found myself unable to sleep because I felt so embarrassed about my gaffe. My friend had laughed it off and given me a hug, and the other friend who was with us dismissed it as not a problem at all. “We don’t see each other’s kids much,” she comforted, but still I felt embarrassed, which made me feel even sillier because how silly is it to feel upset about this when no one else does?

While reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess with my kids, I was struck by Sara Crewe’s practice of letting an inner sense guide her actions and her attitudes despite her external circumstances. In her case, this meant acting as though she was a princess and treating people with grace and politeness despite the fact that she was being treated like a scullery maid and errand drudge.

I decided I wanted to do something similar, but since I don’t really go in for princess stuff, I cast about for a person or ideal that I could emulate in difficult moments. After rejecting the Dalai Lama because I couldn’t imagine what he would if his kids were yelling at each other, I settled on Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch.

Dorothea’s not a perfect choice for me, but I like her all the more because she isn’t perfect. She has strong moral convictions and she acts upon those convictions even when it’s unpleasant or uncomfortable to do so. She makes mistakes, but she makes them for all the right reasons.

Acting like Dorothea this week has helped me to get out and do what had to be done—my morning walk, my ten minutes of meditation, getting to bed by 10:00, making dinner—even when I didn’t feel like it because those were the right things to do. Dorothea has even helped me to speak more gently to my children than I might otherwise. (Or at least, she’s helped me speak more gently some of the time. I did some very un-Dorothea-like yelling around mid-week.)

But after my mistake Sunday night I was at a loss. Would Dorothea Brooke have messed up her friend’s son’s name? I can’t really imagine it, but if she did, would she have stayed up half the night worrying about? (Actually, I think she just might have.)

My plan to emulate a fictional character had sort of broken down, but I wasn’t upset with myself for not acting like Dorothea; I was upset with myself for making a stupid mistake and then being upset about it even though no one else really cared.

I’m almost forty, and I’m still waiting to feel comfortable in my own skin.

Feeling comfortable in my skin is going to require either not making mistakes anymore (i.e. perfection) or learning to forgive myself when I do something silly. For decades I’ve tried for perfection because forgiveness just feels too difficult, but in reality both feel equally impossible to me.

My inclination is to tackle both the mistakes and the habit of feeling bad about them like I would any other bad habit—take them by the lapels and shake—but maybe that’s not the best approach.

Our minister gave a sermon that same morning about the challenge of feeling grateful for things that happen that we wouldn’t choose. She was thinking of accidents, life-threatening medical conditions, and chronic illness, but while “goofing up in public” and “overreacting to social gaffes” seem tiny in comparison, they might be a place to begin. Small as they are, they do fall into the category of something about me that I wouldn’t choose.

Maybe if I approached this relatively little thing as a spiritual practice of gratitude and sought out the positives about making mistakes, it would ease the discomfort a bit. And because it’s a spiritual practice, I wouldn’t have the goal of actually feeling grateful, just looking at it with a grateful frame of mind, which takes some of the pressure off.

Maybe by practicing feeling grateful for the small unpleasant things in my life—like persistent eczema and getting lost while driving—I’ll be more ready to feel grateful for the bigger things that I wouldn’t choose to happen (and would prefer not even to name) but that are sure to happen nonetheless.

It seems worth a try. If, that is, I can find something positive about making mistakes.

How do you tackle your mistakes and imperfections? Are you able to feel grateful for both the “good” and the “bad”?

Habit Experiment November Mid-Month Check-In

So, I think I broke my Habit Experiment.

Since I kicked off Meditation Month, I have let slide basically all of my habits. I’ve not been exercising, I check the internet constantly, and I’ve been staying up late. It’s like adding daily meditation—or even thinking of adding meditation because it’s not like I’ve been meditating regularly, either—knocked me completely off-kilter. It was the habit that broke the camel’s back, the tipping point towards habitual chaos.

Now that I’m foundering, I’m left with the question: What do I do now?

Do I hit pause on more habits until I get my act together, or do I just assume that I’ll have little hiccups along the way and keep trucking along undaunted?

I lean towards the latter, but I’m not even sure where to start. The end of daylight saving threw me for a loop, and even when I do manage to wake up early enough to walk, the frigid temperatures make we want to bundle up and then sit at the kitchen table and drink my coffee while I’m doing a crossword instead of trekking about the neighborhood.

And if I don’t walk, I feel miserable about myself all day and it seems pointless to do all of my other habits.

I suspect that’s where I’m going astray. Because walking in the morning might help me feel better, but it isn’t evidence of inherent goodness. Meditating in the morning might ground me, but not doing it won’t make me a bad person.

I need to do the habits without all of the brain chatter. Just do them and not think about whether I’m a “good girl” or not for doing them.

(And while I’m at it, maybe I should work on breaking the habit of using the phrase “good girl” to describe myself. Where do I get off being so patronizing to myself?)

So, tomorrow I’ll try again. I’ll wake up and maybe I’ll take a walk. And then maybe I’ll meditate. And if I don’t walk and I don’t meditate tomorrow…well, there’s always the next tomorrow.