Running Lessons

I recently bought new running shoes. I knew mine were old because I had no memory of buying shoes after we moved from North Carolina, and we did that in late 2003. But then I looked under the tongue and saw that my shoes had, in fact, been manufactured in October 2002.

CIMG8940

I had been wearing—and trying to run in—nearly thirteen-year-old running shoes.

As my daughter noted, “Those shoes are older than me, Mommy!”

So, I bought new running shoes from a very competent salesman who I suspect was closer in age to my shoes than he was to my own age.

These new running shoes feel like a miracle.

Oh, my! The cushioning! The support!

I love to run in them, and so I’ve been running in them two or three times a week just because I love to run in them and because running in them means that I’m not responsible to anyone else for a half-hour or more at a stretch (I’m mapping longer and longer runs every time I go out).

In all of this running, I’ve noticed a curious thing. Our neighborhood is hilly, and when I’m running on a flat stretch or a slight decline, I think, “Man! I could run forever! I am so fit!” And when I’m running on an incline, I think, “Oh, no! I am so out of shape! Why am I even running right now?”

It feels harder to run uphill, so I must be less fit. It feels easier to run a little downhill (although not a lot downhill), so I must be more fit.

Of course, whether the road goes uphill or down does not at all influence my level of fitness, but that’s the first place my brain goes: it judges me based on external circumstances.

I wonder when else I’ve judged myself based on external factors, and because it’s what I do 24 hours a day, my thoughts inevitably turn to parenting.

I think about the time I was leading a La Leche League meeting about Gentle Guidance, and my three-year-old simply would not mind me at all. She was a holy terror, in fact, and although I was hugely pregnant—which is the only way I know how to be pregnant—I cut myself no slack. If I couldn’t get her to mind, I was apparently not qualified to speak about Gentle Guidance.

I think about the multiple times—the most recent just this morning—when my homeschooling session with my son has involved him refusing to even try to subtract nine from any other number and then bursting into tears and my barely avoiding (and sometimes not at all avoiding) yelling at him, because for Pete’s sake, I know he knows this. Why isn’t he even trying? And because I’m nearly yelling or actually yelling I think, “I totally suck at this. Why am I homeschooling my kids? What made me think I was qualified to do this?”

But now I’m thinking that each of these instances—and many others like them—are the parenting equivalent to running uphill. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I wonder if I’ll make it. But how difficult it feels at that moment has practically no relation to how fit I am to do it.

Because today at Trader Joe’s, two women went out of their way to tell me how delightful my children are and how clearly they love one another and what a great job I’m doing.

Because yesterday when we were having dinner, my son declared to all assembled that he LOVES math, and when we were doing his facts practice sheet today—subtracting nines—he said, “I’m flying through these like they’re nothing!”

Those are the downhill moments, and they say just as much about how fit I am as a parent as the uphill moments, but they’re a heck of a lot more encouraging.

Back in my La Leche League days, I had a co-leader whose mantra was, “Never quit on your worst day.” I’ve heard many criticisms of this idea, but it continues to work for me. If things aren’t working, they won’t work on our best day. But even if we have a horrible day, that doesn’t mean things aren’t working overall. It just means we’re having a horrible day. Things may well work just fine tomorrow, but I’ll never find that out if I quit on the worst day.

So, although I’m years past my La Leche League days, I still take this lesson to heart. It keeps me running up those hills, smiling all the way at that voice that tries to convince me that because it’s difficult, I shouldn’t be doing it.

When do you hear that voice that tells you to throw in the towel because you’re just not good enough? Do you listen to the voice, or do you laugh at it and keep on keeping on?

Transcendence on the Treadmill

a Treadmill

The treadmill at my gym is more compact but not as practical as this one. I wonder what this guy's listening to while exercising? (Image via Wikipedia)

In the interest of reducing stress (or at least making myself so tired that if I’m in a bad mood I lack the energy to yell at anyone), I’ve begun working out again. My goal is to work out every day.

My favorite thing to listen to while I exercise is “To the Best of Our Knowledge” from Public Radio International. More than any music I’ve found, TTBOOK engages my mind well enough that I forget the tedium of running on a treadmill. It also helps me to ignore whatever program is running on the TVs looming above my head.

Tuesday I successfully ignored a TV program about fishermen getting caught in horrible storms and needing to be rescued (whose theme song was, oddly, “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi) while I listened to the TTBOOK show entitled “Religion in a Secular Age.” On it, Steve Paulson interviewed Karen Armstrong about her book, The Case for God.

There was a tremendous amount of awesome stuff in the interview, and I would highly recommend listening to the mp3 on the TTBOOK website. I may even pick up the book despite my impatience with nonfiction recently (except for Bill Bryson).

“God is not something out there,” said Armstrong of the Eastern view of God (in Buddhism, Hinduism, etc). “God is also the essence of each being.”

Armstrong described a 10th century BCE competition in India as a way of explaining the nature of theology. The priests would first go on retreat in the Indian jungle where they would fast and practice yoga in preparation for this competition. The object was to find a definition of the Brahman, which Armstrong described as “the ultimate reality in the Hindu world.”

The challenger would begin with “a very elliptical and poetical description of the Brahman and the others would listen and respond in kind.” It would go back and forth like this, the discussion continuing and evolving as each person offered another spin on the definition of the Brahman. The winner was the person who struck everyone else silent with his definition. In that silence, the Brahman was felt. The crowd experienced what Armstrong called, “the stunning experience of the impotence of speech.”

“Our minds go naturally into transcendence,” Armstrong stated. “The purpose of theology is to help people to live in that silence, in that beat of silence. And realize that when we speak about God we’re at the end of what words and thoughts can do.”

She went on to explain that a transcendent lifestyle is one that’s lived in compassion, in which one lives making an effort to empty oneself of the influence of ego—“a Self-emptying lifestyle” Armstrong calls it—through the act of compassion. She explained how the Golden Rule, which exists in some form in every major world religion, helps us to transcend our egos through compassion. Just focusing on what we don’t want others to do to us and refusing to do those things to others, brings us out of ourselves, allows us to transcend our egos.

“What holds us back from our Best Selves is egotism…which holds us back by enclosing us in a little selfish bubble” Compassion, Armstrong says, can help us to step outside ourselves. And if we’re able to step outside of ourselves we can rise above, transcend.

I think this may be why I find motherhood such an intensely spiritual experience (overall). When I allow myself to focus on my children and their needs, it draws me out of my egotism. It doesn’t always result in a transcendent experience. Especially during times when my needs haven’t been met adequately, I find that my ego holds on tenaciously and causes even more struggle and suffering. But when I can let go and just give to these little humans, allow them to pull me away from my ego, I can transcend and allow my Best Self to shine forth. Motherhood isn’t the path to transcendence for everyone, but it is my path.

I know I’m a better person now than before I had children. I’m certain I could have gotten here without having children, and I’m also sure I could have had children without allowing any of this bettering to occur. But by-and-large, I’ve embraced the daily challenge of connection and compassion my children offer me (demand of me). In this way motherhood has been an immersion course in compassion. My children speak that language fluently and it’s up to me to learn it from them (rather than teaching them the language I’ve learned, which is something short of compassion). My children help me to live more often in the silences.

Generosity Guilt

I took my first car-load of stuff to Thrift Town this afternoon. It took four trips from the car to the store to drop everything off. I tried to feel buoyed by the generosity of spirit that comes with giving in-kind donations to a worthy cause. Instead, I felt mainly relieved to have that stuff out of the house, which wasn’t a surprise. I was surprised to find that I also felt guilt and embarrassment for having so much good quality, totally salable but unnecessary-to-us stuff in essentially one room of our house (plus one bag of stuffed toys from my daughter’s bedroom). The large amount of fluff between what we need and what we actually have is kind of embarrassing, especially during a time when so many people are struggling to afford the basics, like food and diapers.

This guilt and embarrassment won’t stop me from decluttering and donating. I hope that I’m able to use this feeling to motivate me to recognize what things we need and pass along the extra to those who need them more than we do. I also hope it helps me to be more mindful when I get ready to bring items into my home.

This kind of reminds me of a section of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl writes about how there is no general meaning of life, but rather each person develops a meaning for his or her life in each moment.

As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible….This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” It seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended.

In a way, the decluttering gives me a second chance. The first time around, I acquired too many possessions and allowed them to start owning me rather than the other way around. Now, I have a chance to give these possessions a second life in the home of someone who needs them and will be enriched by them in a way I was not. With any luck, as I move into the future and make decisions about which items to bring into my home, I am able to take responsibility for making a better decision than I have in the past.

What is life asking of me in this moment? I don’t think it’s asking me to be overwhelmed by embarrassment about mistakes I’ve made in the past or that I might make in the future. I think it’s asking me to reflect and to make difficult choices about what kind of home I wish to create for my family, not just the physical structure and its contents, but the feeling of the place where we dwell together.

Tonight, there’s the smell of home-cooked food lingering in the kitchen, reminding me of the meal we shared and enjoyed together. If you’re interested in trying what we made, it’s Pan-Fried Tofu and Greens with Almond-Ginger Drizzle (Bathing Rama) from Cynthia Lair’s Feeding the Whole Family. We used collard greens and served it over rice. The drizzle is similar to this Coconut Peanut Sauce, except it has almond butter instead of peanut butter and 1/3 cup water instead of the coconut milk. The book says the Coconut Peanut Sauce is also good on it, so we may try it that way next time. Ours looked like this:

Bathing Rama

Pan-Fried Tofu and Greens with Almond-Ginger Drizzle Over Brown Rice (Bathing Rama) (from Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair)

The kids loved the tofu and the rice. Not so much the collards and the drizzle. My husband and I loved it all. I’ll need to double it next time. Or serve more sides.

Happiness is Like a Butterfly

There was a poem on my bedroom wall when I was a child. It was something like,

Happiness is like a butterfly;

The more you chase it, the more it will elude you.

But if you turn your attention to other things,

It will come and softly sit on your shoulder.

This theme has been coming up for me again and again in the past weeks: If you strive for something, you can’t reach it.

The other day at the gym, I listened to an interview about writing with Lynda Barry on To the Best of Our Knowledge. Barry teaches writing classes and was discussing with interviewer Steve Paulson the methods she encourages her students to employ. Every task she gives them is designed to silence their inner critic. She wants to get her students back to an attitude of playfulness about their writing. Paulson asked her, well, at some point, though, you want to produce something good, you want to be a successful writer, right? Barry said that, if she thinks about whether her writing is “good” or not, it’s after it’s finished. If you start out writing with the idea that it has to be good or that you want it to make you a success, you’ll not be able to get anywhere with it. But if you write playfully and for no purpose but that of creating, you may well find success. I think it was Anne Lamott who talked about this in Bird by Bird, the phenomenon in which a second novel is a lot longer coming than a first, simply because now you’ve got something to live up to and that desire to be good—or to be better—gets in the way of creativity.

When I first read and followed the activities in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I became annoyed because so little of it seemed to focus on actually working on projects. What on earth could a daily walk have to do with writing? Writing was one thing I absolutely couldn’t do while walking. And what was all of this about making collages and writing three pages a day that I’d never look at again? How would I have enough time to write if I did all of this stuff? At the time, I sort of took it on faith that the professor who recommended the book to me had done so for a reason, and I just trudged through the activities. But now, years later, I think I’m finally starting to understand the sneaking up on creativity that Cameron was trying to lead her readers to.

This has been showing up in reference to happiness, too. I saw it in a comment on Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project Facebook page. I read it in Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, in which three groups were asked to listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The group given no instructions found the music more enjoyable than the group told to monitor their happiness while listening or the group told to “try to be happy.”

I stumbled upon it while perusing my friend Rebecca’s blog:

I did on [sic] the work once on “I should be happier”. In a nutshell, I realized that this belief actually moves me away from happiness because when I am not happy and I believe this thought, I judge myself, compare myself, feel broken, etc. I lose sight of all happiness I have when I believe that thought. Without the thought I am free to be happy or not, but free – and much more likely to be happy, because there is nothing to fight against, no guilt, etc.

Like I said, this is coming up for me everywhere now. When I first think of these things, the first thought that comes to my mind is, “Oh, crap. And here I am doing a Happiness Project.” But then I take a step back and a deep breath and remember that all I’m doing is trying to set the stage for a peaceful, meaningful, joyful life. I don’t tell myself, “I will be happy. I must be happy. I should be happy.” (Or at least I don’t set out to say these things. Sometimes they just kind of pop in there.) Happiness isn’t the goal; it’s a guiding principle by which I judge my actions and resolutions. I look at my life and see that there are many things that hinder my mood and my relationships, especially with my children. I’m grouchy when I’m tired. Well, let’s see what happens when I get more sleep. I feel annoyed and even fearful when I find myself wishing the moments away during the day. OK, so I’ll take a deep breath and be in the moment, and see how that changes things. I do hope that, by doing these things that are kind of tangential to happiness, I might just find myself feeling happier. But if not, I’m still eating healthier, sleeping more, yelling less, deepening relationships. These are things worth doing regardless of the size of the payoff in bliss.

I’m reminded of Isaiah 58:9-12 again-

If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking of wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

If you do x, y, and z for the purpose of receiving good things in return, you’ll be disappointed. You do these things because they’re the right things to do, and if you do this work in that spirit, you just might get even better things in return than just a transient elevation of mood. I’m looking for something deeper and broader and longer lasting than my own happiness. I’m looking to “raise up the foundations of many generations” the only way I can: by working on the things I can reach.

At the beginning of this project, I found myself hung up on the idea that happiness results from virtuous action. I think I’m starting to understand this concept a little better. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells a story about working with his fellow concentration camp prisoners out in the bitter cold with inadequate clothing and no subcutaneous fat to help insulate them. They would look forward all morning to the time they would get to spend a few minutes warming themselves at a small stove. When the time came, their pleasure at this small amount of warmth was immense. They were practically joyful, even in the middle of such brutal and miserable circumstances. But there were guards who seemed to derive equal pleasure from denying the prisoners this comfort. Not only would they not let the prisoners warm themselves, sometimes they would knock over the stove and scatter the coals through the snow.

While virtuous action leads to happiness, someone who appears happy has not necessarily become so by engaging in virtuous action. It’s like how hard work can lead to material success, but material success isn’t always the result of hard work. The best bet appears to be focusing on the virtuous action rather than on the happiness. But what’s the difference, really between the two types of joy, that derived from an appreciation for the relief of suffering and that derived from the infliction of suffering? The sense I get is that the latter type involves a bitter core of experience. It’s not a joy originating from the soul, but one that lays on the surface, protecting the person experiencing it from opening themselves up and exposing their inner selves to the light. The former is a simple joy, but it’s an honest, transparent joy. Clearly, for Frankl it was also a sustaining joy.

Autumnal Equinox and Apple Pie

Apple Pie

Apple Pie for the Autumnal Equinox

My daughter asked to make apple pie for the first day of autumn. She apparently got the idea from the book Apple Pie 4th of July by Janet Wong. As the title suggests, they bake an apple pie for Independence Day, but my daughter expanded upon the idea and made what I thought was a suggestion very appropriate to the season.

I don’t bake much pie. I make a squash pie a couple of times a year, but gluten-free pie crust is a real pain to work with, so I avoid it except on special occasions, like when I really want pie. And I don’t think I’ve ever made a double-crust pie as an adult. I used to help my mom bake apple and cherry pies, so I wasn’t flying totally blind, but I knew that I was running a risk by making a pie from scratch with my 5-year-old while my 13-month-old toddled about trying to climb up the stool and open the hot stove.

To lessen the chance of emotional explosion during pie prep, I peeled, cored, and chopped the apples last night. I was going to make the dough for the crust, but my husband suggested our daughter might be disappointed that she didn’t get to measure and pour the ingredients, so I waited. And went to bed early.

As luck would have it, I got about an hour of solitude before either child woke up for the morning, during which I sipped my tea and watched the clouds race across the sky (and then did dishes and checked e-mail). When my daughter awoke, we started on the pie immediately. When the baby woke up about 20 minutes later, I strapped him to my back, and we went back to work.

As predicted, the dough was temperamental and there was more filling than I’d counted on, but I managed to fit everything in and kind of tuck the crust around the edges. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.

We’re in that period full of possibility when we don’t know yet whether the pie will taste as good as we anticipate (or even if I cooked it long enough). For now, we’re just enjoying looking at the results of our work and enjoying the smell of apples and cinnamon. I might even make some vanilla ice cream to go with the pie tonight.

And I can say honestly that baking with my daughter was a thoroughly enjoyable experience this morning. Happy Autumn!

Hooray! Another Chance to Practice Patience and Mindfulness!

First, the wonderful and amazing part: I went to bed at 10:30 last night. The difference? Instead of telling myself I was starting an early bedtime that I’d keep all month, I told myself that I was going to bed at 10:30 just tonight. I’m pretty darned tired today, though, despite getting up at the same time this morning as I usually do. It’s like my sleep-deprived body says, “Oh! You’re going to get more sleep? Well then, let’s decrease this adrenaline so you can rest well!” The only cure is to either stop going to bed early or to keep going to bed early, either of which I think I can do.

Now, the challenging part(s):

  1. Interrupting my tooth brushing and face washing multiple times to wash my son’s hands after he reached in to grab the toilet paper floating in the toilet bowl. Luckily this was necessary only at home. In the public restrooms (we visited three in our travels today), my reflexes were faster as I yelled, “No! Don’t touch the potty!” like a maniac and dove for the baby.
  2. My daughter’s flute lesson which I spent chasing my son as he ran down the hall laughing, played all of the pianos with granola-y hands, tried to climb on the organ, and then tried to get into a box of joint compound (with a look on his face that clearly said, “Wow! This is the best box I’ve opened all day!”).
  3. Shoe shopping. With both children. I will say nothing else about this. Let us never speak of it again.
  4. A trip to Kangaroo Zoo, this indoor playground filled with inflatable slides and bouncy houses and E. coli. Most of the visit involved me standing at the bottom of a slide with my son waiting for my daughter to slide down only to have her yell, “It’s too fast!” and climb back down the other side. The biggest challenge came at the end of the visit when I told my daughter that she could not have a Slush Puppie (or as she called it, a “slush puffy,” since she only has the vaguest clue what it is and only asked for one because the little girl she was playing with got one). Negotiations quickly broke down and ended with me very calmly removing my daughter bodily from the premises while wearing my son on my front in the mei tai, carrying the diaper bag, and putting my shoes back on. My daughter then proceeded to scream and cry, “I want to go on a slide!” the entire 20-minute drive home. I must say, I remained remarkably calm the whole time. I continued to breathe rather than screaming back at my first-born or driving off the side of the road. By the time we arrived home, both children were crying and my head and neck ached like crazy, but at least we were home. I let the children play in the mud and eat green tomatoes while I sat outside watching them and drinking de-alcoholized wine.

While I do appreciate the practice in Being my Best Self in the face of adversity, in the interest of self care, I plan never to return to Kangaroo Zoo or to the shoe store.

And I’m definitely going to bed at 10:30 tonight.

What’s my Goal Again?

Cropped screenshot of Donna Reed from the trai...

Image via Wikipedia

The past couple of days, I’ve been in a really pissy mood. So has my daughter. I wonder if those are related somehow.

At any rate, I realize that when I’m feeling irritable, I mentally tag that as Something To Change. If I weren’t doing something wrong, I wouldn’t feel irritable, right? And then I go about dissecting every part of my life—diet, interpersonal interactions, time spent on the computer, books I’m reading, activity level, etc—to try and figure out the Something to Change so I’m no longer irritable. Despite the fact that this never works to improve my mood.

I’ve been reading Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore. I’m only about a third through it, so perhaps it veers off in some unforeseen direction, but so far it seems to be about how there’s a cultural expectation in the US for everyone to be happy (or at least to act happy), and the responsibility for this happiness largely falls on the shoulders of women. “A pretty girl is a girl with a smile on her face,” Gore’s grandfather told her. “A smile always makes everyone feel at ease.” Whether a woman is happy or not, Gore asserts, our culture encourages her to smile so that those around her feel better. Suppressing our true emotions and showing only happiness is a recipe for depression, which is part of why women have higher rates of depression than men (along with doctors’ expectation that women should be smiling more than men, which leads doctors to diagnose women with depression more often than men with the same symptoms). People from other countries, especially Europeans, aren’t as cheerful as Americans, says Gore, and Americans haven’t always been as cheerful as we are today.

I’m not sure if I agree with all of her conclusions, but Gore has got me thinking about happiness and about what it is I should be striving for. Is it realistic that my goal should be to never feel irritable? Or, more to the point since the thing that really disappoints me is when I snap at my loved ones, is it realistic to aim for never expressing my irritability? Is a “happy person” never irritable? What percentage of the time is a happy person happy? If it’s less than 100%, what are they feeling the rest of the time? Would I be fine with my current level of happiness if I were in another culture? Could I be just fine being my regular old tacitrun self if I moved to Europe? Do Europeans do Happiness Projects?

In addition, I wonder how a Happiness Project fits in with my ideas of feminism. I realize reading Gore’s book that I hold in high esteem the image of the uncomplaining wife and mother. She’s a woman who keeps a neat house, feeds her family nutritious foods, and gently but firmly molds her children into responsible adults, all while exuding elegance and ease. Where does this image come from? And why do I still want so badly to live up to it even as my conscious mind rails against it? Perhaps it’s just because I don’t have a clear and appealing alternative to Donna Reed or June Cleaver.

I seem to recall feeling out of sorts and full of questions and doubt the first week or two of practicing mindfulness. Perhaps this is just the disequilibrium that necessarily follows the implementation of changes in my routine and precedes increased understanding. If only I were better at observing my reactions with detachment. I have the feeling that would decrease the odds of my having a big old whiny freakout while I’m waiting for whatever insights are coming.

A Life Lesson from Two Clowns

Today on All Things Considered (wow, I really listen to a lot of NPR), they aired the penultimate installment in their Summer Jobs series. A listener shared a story of the summer he spent dressed up as a toy soldier at FAO Schwarz. There were two clowns who also worked with him. One clown would always say things like, “The rugrats are really getting to me today,” under his breath, and then turn around and greet the kids. The other clown really had a great time in his job, and was always enthusiastic. He would do things like arrange the stuffed toys in a semi-circle and read them stories. People would look at the first clown and say, “Wow, that guy has the hardest job in the world.” People would look at the second clown and say, “Wow, that guy has the best job in the world.” The listener has used this throughout his life as a lesson about how other people can tell when we’re enjoying ourselves and when we aren’t, even if we try to hide it. If we’re enjoying ourselves, our efforts look effortless. If not, the things we do look like hard work.

I heard this story and thought about how it relates to the subjective nature of the experience of happiness. Today, for example, I just loved being with my kids. It wasn’t an objectively awesome day. The baby was fussy but didn’t want to nap, my daughter screamed at me multiple times when she was frustrated while trying to learn a new task, drinks were spilled, scrambled eggs were rubbed into hair, blackberries were rubbed into clothing, my toothbrush was thrown into the toilet. But I started the day by greeting my children with a smile and hugging them as they got out of bed, even though I really might have rather had more quiet before jumping into the day. That mood continued all day and made my interactions with the kids feel less like work and more like sharing love and creating positive memories.

Gretchen Rubin writes about the value of acting the way you want to feel in order to feel that way. If we act warm and friendly to others, they’ll act warm and friendly in return. If we act surly and standoffish, we’re likely to get that in return. If I wake up in a bad mood and don’t make an effort to pull myself out of it, I won’t be open to experiencing my children’s positive mood if they start the day with one. If I try to act energetic and happy, then not only will I be open to their joy, I might even influence their mood positively as they reflect back my enthusiasm.

It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny or cloudy if I keep the curtains closed. The weather outside might be dreary and depressing, but it might also be beautiful and sunny; if I don’t open the curtains for fear it might be cloudy, I also miss the chance to let the light in.

September is Self-Care Month!

Ah, September! I’m excited to start month #2 of my Happiness Project! Here’s the plan:

September 2010 – Self Care

Focus: Do those things I know (or suspect) will help put me in a positive physical and emotional state.

Resolutions:

  • Get More Sleep. I don’t want to make any drastic changes and my expectations are fairly modest given that I still have a youngster who wakes up at night, but I would like to ease my bedtime back from midnight to, say, 10:30. I’m nervous about how this might impact my “Mommy Time,” but I want to give it a try.
  • Take a Daily 10-Minute Walk Outside. I’m already going to the gym three times a week, but I find that I’m more grounded when I spend a little time moving about outside. I hope that getting outside and walking around will help ease the transition from the warm and lovely Utah summer to the rather less warm and often not so lovely (to a non-skier) Utah winter. It worked in North Carolina when my nemesis was the humid summer; I figure I’ll try it with winter here. This is also a way to introduce the idea of mindfulness and walking meditation to my kids.
  • No Sugar or Alcohol. This is the “fast” portion of my Self-Care month. I was inspired by the idea of a fast as a way to clear impediments to reaching my goals and Being my Best Self. I’ve resolved myself to the reality that sugar and alcohol do not bring out the best in me, and I’d like to see what happens when I avoid them entirely for a month. The sugar fast includes processed cane sugar, but allows more complex sugars like honey, fruit juice, maple syrup, agave, and date sugar, which don’t seem to give me as much trouble as refined sugar. I’ve prepared for this fast by ordering a sampler of Ariel de-alcoholized wines and by eating as many gluten-free cupcakes as I can get my hands on. There is an exception for birthdays, though. There are no birthdays in our family in September, but if we go to a party and they have gluten-free, dairy-free cake, I’m eating it.
  • Veggies at Every Meal. I was going to try for the “one pound fresh, one pound cooked” rule for daily veggie intake, but I don’t really know how much a pound of veggies is, and I don’t want to weigh my food. I get fixated on details anyway (like, is it one pound before cooking or one pound after cooking?), and I worry that this kind of rule would result in me getting all worried about the measurements and ignoring the point of eating more veggies, ie, healthier eating. So, veggies at every meal, it is! I’ve already got my Greens Smoothie routine in the morning. Now just to make sure I include veggies at lunch and dinner.

For a complete schedule of my focus areas for the year, click the link to the left.

These resolutions look a little vanilla to me now, but I’ve already instituted a number of self-care practices in recent months. I was having trouble dealing with the “mom of two kids” thing, so I joined a gym (where I work out three days a week), hired a babysitter to watch the kids two afternoons a week, hired a once-monthly housekeeper, and hired a guy to mow and edge twice a month. Those have had pretty significant positive effects, and I will definitely keep doing those (especially the working out), but I’m looking forward to trying some self-care practices that don’t involve spending money.

Along with my new resolutions, I will continue to practice the resolutions I’ve practiced throughout August and to read books about happiness from various disciplines and traditions. I just picked up a stack of happiness books from the library for this purpose (but then decided to read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians first. I’ve got quite the novel habit going, and I just needed one more before submerging myself in nonfiction again).

Embracing the Challenge

Today, I am grateful to my son for providing me with a challenge to my mindfulness practice. This gratefulness comes upon reflection, as I did not have the presence of mind (nor the superpower) to be grateful in the moment. The moment kind of sucked. And lasted all day.

The superstitious part of me wonders if I brought this upon myself by having the audacity to plan my day. From 9-12, the babysitter would watch the kids while I worked out and bought the cat his special food to keep him from peeing on everything. At 12, we’d eat lunch, then I’d put the baby down for a nap, my daughter and I would practice flute and reading, then I’d start dinner so it was done in time for us to eat before soccer practice. During soccer practice, I would blog.

Instead, my son wouldn’t let me out of his sight while the babysitter was here. I don’t know if he’s teething or getting a cold or just having some delayed-onset separation anxiety, but I chose to stay at home rather than leave him crying frantically. So from 9-12, the babysitter and I tag-teamed the kids. I kept the baby from falling down the stairs while the babysitter and my daughter played hide-the-basketball-in-the-yard. Then the babysitter kept the baby from grabbing the flutes while I helped my daughter practice. And in the middle of this, I noticed that something smelled like smoke and discovered that I had not put enough water in the pan when I set the beets steaming. I also did a load of laundry. I am grateful the smoke wasn’t coming from the laundry. Those who know me may remember that I had a fire in the washing machine once.

Lunch went off without a hitch.

The baby refused to fall asleep after lunch, so the kids and I went together to the vet’s office and then stopped for gelato because, frankly, it’s been that kind of day. I drove all around trying to get the baby to fall asleep on the way home, but he wouldn’t relinquish his kung-fu grip on consciousness. So, we stopped at a new park and spent 30 minutes wearing out the one-year-old and gathering sand to strew about the house.

On the way home from the park, the baby fell asleep.

During the 40 minutes he slept, my daughter and I opened a package that came in the mail that contained gifts for her, her brother, and for me. She and I opened ours, and then she spent the remaining 35 minutes trying to convince me that she should open the baby’s presents, too. After the baby woke up and watched his sister open his presents, I spent the next hour making dinner and explaining that the gifts were brother’s and that, while she could play with them, she could not push him down when he tried to play with them.

While my daughter was helping me mix up the corn muffins to go with our soup, I gave my son a wooden spoon and a bowl with a small amount of flour in it to keep him from trying to climb the stool behind his sister and help at the counter, too. I trust I don’t need to describe what my kitchen floor looks like that this point, but at least my son sustained no head injuries during the mixing of the corn muffin batter.

As I was putting the muffins in the oven, my husband got home. He took the kids into the other room and shut the door so I could do the dishes and clear the table for dinner.

This was the point at which the gratefulness began to set in.

And now they’re at soccer practice and I’m blogging.

Things I did well today:

  • I expressed my needs and obtained the assistance necessary to meet these needs.
  • When plans changed, I took a breath and let them change.
  • I let go of my desire for a clean(ish) kitchen in favor of the happiness (and safety) of my family.
  • I invited my children to join me in tasks when they wanted to help.
  • I Assumed Positive Intent and was, for the most part my Best Self.

Things I would like to work on:

  • I would like to get better at recognizing that “why me?” voice inside quicker and pausing to breathe and put things into perspective before the negative feelings snowball.
  • I snapped at my husband when he let the baby in the kitchen while I was doing dishes because he opened the door to ask me about something unrelated to my attempts to remain sane. I would rather calmly express my need to focus on one task (or I guess it was three tasks) at a time and thank him for keeping the children occupied while I got everything ready for dinner.

A month ago, a day like this would have involved a lot of yelling, a lot of crying, and a big old pity party for myself at the end of the day. While I wouldn’t describe the day as “fun,” there were moments of happiness in the midst of all of the chaos: watching my son dance and clap while my daughter played her flute, watching both children’s expressions as they tried different flavors of gelato and sorbetto, playing outside on a lovely not-too-hot day. The fact that I’m able to recognize anything but the difficulties is proof that I’ve changed, at least a little.

And now I’m looking forward to going to the gym to listen to This American Life while running on the treadmill. (Well, actually, I’m looking forward to listening to This American Life, and I’m looking forward to how I’ll feel after running on the treadmill. The actual running part I’m pretty neutral about.)