More to Come

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I skipped my ROW80 Sunday Check-in.

Here’s the deal. I’ve been writing. Not every night, but frequently enough, and often twice a day. But I’ve not been writing so much from the exercises in The Pen and the Bell. I want to get back to them—I will get back to them—but this past week or so, I’ve been working through something else that’s been percolating for a while, and that’s kind of taking all of my attention.

I’m not being obtuse (or maybe I am but not intentionally). It’s just tough to explain in a small number of words. I’m actually working on a series of three (I think just three) blog posts to explain the insights I’ve gained during this period of reflection. I have a feeling they might also result in my reviving and adding to my Seven Personal Commandments from way back in my Happiness Project days. (Check out the “Happiness Project” category for an idea of what those were. July 2010 is when I wrote about my Seven Personal Commandments, so you can use the Archives drop-down, too. Or you can just wait until tomorrow or Friday when I link to the Commandments from the first blog post in the series.)

I don’t really have a good closing paragraph and need to go read to my daughter so I don’t have time to craft one, so I’m just going to stop here. Thanks for stopping by!

Choosing the Half-Full Glass

Cover of "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter a...

Cover of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

I wrote a fairly negative review of Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet a few weeks ago. I liked it okay, but in my review I pointed out what I saw as shortcomings of the writing and why I couldn’t wholeheartedly embrace the book even though I enjoyed the subject.

Tonight I went to book club, and I feel somewhat differently about the book now.

One woman told about how she, at first, shared many the same complaints the rest if us had until she experience a shift in how she looked at the book.

“For the first half of the book, I really didn’t like it. I kept focussing on all of the things that seemed unrealistic and sappy. I kept going back and forth between getting into the story and then feeling manipulated by the author,” she explained. “But about halfway through, I realized that this is a book about loss; the loss of the father-son relationship, the loss of a first love, the loss of the record, the loss of the homes and possessions of the internees. When I looked at it that way, I didn’t mind so much that some things didn’t seem realistic. They were all there for the purpose of illustrating these losses.”

The fact that the story is about historical events makes me expect it to be “real.” But should I expect that? A friend mentioned that before Jamie Ford published this novel, he was writing sci-fi/speculative fiction. Knowing this and looking at the novel through the lens of its themes and symbols has given me a new appreciation for the book. When we free the author from the expectation of realism, we open ourselves to the greater symbolic meaning of the story.

Now, if this was his goal, I think Ford should have given the reader a little more of a hint that this was how to read the story, and I still prefer more well-developed characters in my novels, but I think I may have been selling him short before.

What is our responsibility as readers of literature? Is it reasonable to sit back and expect a book to deliver a story like we passively experience a television show? Maybe reading fiction is more of a relationship between the author and the reader. Maybe it’s our responsibility to meet the author halfway, to learn what he’s trying to tell us and then allow ourselves to be led along that path, even if it doesn’t lead where we think it ought to. Maybe it’s more fair and more enjoyable to Assume Positive Intent on the part of the author and read in such a way that we allow ourselves to notice where things are working rather than where they’re not.

I think I tend to look for the flaws more than I look for the gems in a story. Would I want someone to read a story I wrote in that way? Would I want someone to treat me that way?

Another thing happened during book club that illustrated this idea off of the page.

I love to read, and I love to talk about books. It’s the reason I chose to major in English (why not get a degree in something I would do anyway?). In a book club environment, I get excited that I share a book with the people around me and I talk a lot. Boy howdy, do I talk a lot. I try not to, but every time someone says something, I get excited and want to add to it or explore another dimension of it or ask them to clarify or expand their point.

Tonight, we had quite a large group at book club (probably 25 or so people; I didn’t count), and there were about four of us who were doing most of the talking.

At one point, one of the big talkers (one of only two men in the group), said, “I have a question, and I’d like to hear an answer from some of those people who haven’t said much,” as he pointedly looked at me and the other two women who’d been talking a lot.

I immediately felt my face grow hot. I started thinking of all of the rude things I’d love to say to him for chastising me in front of the group. But I took a deep breath and managed to listen with only a slight bit of schadenfreude when only one person answered his question.

After the meeting, I mentioned the man’s comment to my friend as we climbed the library stairs.

“Well, you know sometimes that’s what it takes to get other people to join the conversation,” she said.

“I guess,” I said. “But he clearly singled out me and the other two women.”

“Well, maybe. But I don’t know, I guess I just prefer not to take those kinds of things personally.”

I raised an eyebrow and shrugged, and we moved onto other topics.

But it occurred to me on the way home that her reaction to the comment in the meeting and the other woman’s reaction to the seeming unreality of the book were related. Both women chose to assume positive intent, and both came away from the situation with increased joy as a result.

Maybe this is one of the positive effects of my Happiness Project. While my initial reaction to both the book and the comment from my fellow book club member was still to look for the negative and cling tenaciously to that, a year ago, I would not have been open to the possibility that I could choose a path of greater happiness, (which, coincidentally, is also the path of greater connection).

And here I thought I was just going to book club to talk about a book.

I’m Dappled and Drowsy and Ready to Sleep

From Danielle LaPorte, who frequently says just the thing I need to hear just when I need to hear it, on the value of resting between projects:

We rest to integrate the benefits of the work that we have done.

CLEAN UP without rushing, without panic or guilt, and with respect for the patience you’ve been shown.

BE STILL in the ways that your body and mind crave.

LET THE NEWNESS ROOT. Allow yourself to be sensationally excited…without acting on it…yet.

When you rest, you have space for all of it.

And when you rise to meet the future, you will be very, very ready.

via creativity, the corpse pose + what to do in between projects | White Hot Truth: because self-realization rocks.

I’m once again reminding myself that I’ve had a doozy of a 2011. Deaths, layoffs, cross-country moves, hurricanes, not to mention the completion of a year-long Happiness Project.

After all of this, maybe it isn’t a horrible thing if I want to hole up in the house for a couple of weeks and just let myself catch up a little.

I keep feeling like I’m not really here in this state, this house. It doesn’t seem real. I’ve blamed Facebook for this lack of connectedness in the real world, so I’ve attempted to pull back from my virtual life. I’ve jumped into a social scene here with both feet, keeping myself busy every day, hoping to more firmly root myself in my geographical reality.

So far, I’ve not had much luck with this technique. And I’m exhausted.

I’m realizing that I don’t need to try to settle in. I breathe the air, I eat the food, I drink the water. Gradually, it will become a part of my being, and I will belong to this place. I don’t need to do anything but stop fighting it and let myself belong.

This is where the quiet comes in. Much like our brains use our time asleep to integrate the day’s thoughts, emotions, and activities, I need to let myself rest to integrate all of the changes these past months.

This isn’t the time for new, even though “new” and “unsettled” are where I feel safe right now. This is the time for letting the new become the familiar and the familiar to become home. Then I’ll have a firm starting point for my next project, whatever it is.

Maybe I’ll take a cue from Simon and Garfunkel:

Got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.

Paralyzed by Indecision

It’s now halfway through August and I still haven’t decided what my next “project” will be. I know I don’t have to have a project. But I would like a focus at least.

I was so pleased with how my Happiness Project went, I want to design a similarly profound program for this upcoming year. I’m just not sure how to do it.

Where my Happiness Project was designed around a breadth of activities, I would like this year to be more about depth. I want the assignments I give myself to be free from the “one month” duration. If I feel like I want to focus on an activity for longer than a month, I’d like to postpone the next activity. If I don’t like the chosen activity and want to move on after nine days, I want to feel free to do that without feeling like I’m breaking the rules.

Of course I could have done this even with my Happiness Project. But that would have broken the rules I’d set for myself, and we can’t have that. Living outside the rules is chaos. Anarchy. Or something like that.

I also know that right now I’m hungry for learning. I want to absorb information, assimilate it, digest it, make it my own.

In addition, I recognize that right now, I’m not really in a position to add much more to my plate. I’ve got a homeschooling first-grader and a toddler who just learned to jump with both feet at the same time and a new home and a blog. Either I need to drop something, or I need to find a way to be more efficient so I can eke out more time for new projects.

With all of this in mind, I’ve got a whole slew of ideas of things to do for this next year. I cannot do all of these. I know that. But I’m having trouble narrowing down the list, which means I can’t seem to pick a manageable number of things to work on, which means I can’t seem to decide on anything to work on.

Here are some of my ideas:

-Finish Levels 1, 2, and 3 of Rosetta Stone Latin American Spanish.

-Complete a naturalist course so I can be the smartypants who names all of the plants and animals on our hikes.

-Join Toastmasters and attend weekly meetings.

-Read Classics of literature, poetry, biography, drama, history, math, and science, and start a book club in order to discuss these Classics.

-Continue the two other monthly book clubs I’m part of already.

-Enroll in the online/off-campus Master’s Degree program through George Wythe University.

-Take piano lessons.

-Take a sign language class.

-Take an online Buddhism class.

-Go to a bible study at at least two different churches of different denominations.

-Attend the weekly Buddhist meditation at one of the local UU churches. (There aren’t any Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples in Massachusetts. I’m a little surprised at how much I miss going to the Shin Buddhist services.)

-Write a novel for National Novel Writing Month in November (again).

-Implement the FlyLady housework, meal planning, and self-care routines.

-Join a gym, buy some personal training, and become buff (as buff as a 35-year-old mother of two can be in no more than thirty minutes a day).

-Play flute in a community band/orchestra.

-Do a 365 photo project.

-Attend an entire Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction series (I only attended three classes worth before we moved from Utah, so I’ve reduced my stress a little, but imagine how laid back I would be if I went through the entire series).

-Just going to town on my vast “to-read” list on Goodreads, reading like 50 books in the course of the year or something ambitious like that.

I was going to do something like a zero-waste challenge or a “buy nothing for a year” challenge something trendy like that, but I just don’t think I can do that without it being tremendously taxing to me emotionally. I already agonize over expenses and waste. No need to intentionally increase the intensity of that agony.

So I’ll just agonize over my wish list instead.

(Update: I forgot the online fermentation class I’m considering. That should be added to the list, too.)

Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’; Keep Them Boxes Movin’

The title of this post is a reference to the theme song of the television show Rawhide. I’m not sure I ever saw the show myself, but my parents sang the song quite often when I was a kid, mostly when they were trying to get all three of us kids out the door.

I just thought of the song when I went to put a title on this post about moving in.

Which we did on Monday.

The day went much more smoothly than I would ever have dared imagine. I enjoyed a very pleasant walk by myself from the hotel to our new house a little after 7am. I’d just measured and cut the shelf liner for the first shelf when I heard the rumble of the moving truck outside. I stashed the rest of the shelf liner and supplies and met the movers at the door. After showing them around the house and naming the rooms for them (dining room, tv room, toy room, girl’s bedroom, office, etc), we all got to work. I avoided heavy lifting and instead got to cross off numbers on the inventory sheet as items came off the truck and tell the guys where to put things in the house.

Soon after we began, the neighbors brought over some sodas and a bowl of apple slices. They tried to get me to let them bring a chair over for me, but I insisted I preferred to stand. I cannot stand the idea of sitting in the shade while the poor movers are lugging all of my worldly possessions (way more than I actually need, by the way) into my home in the hot sun. I still feel like a slacker just standing there, but I feel like less of one standing than I would sitting.

I like chatting with movers. These guys were local, but they’d done a fair amount of traveling in the past. Movers and other military “brats” generally share my broad knowledge of the United States, and it’s interesting to get different perspectives on the places I know. For example, the one guy talked about how great the food was in Utah.

“Really?” I asked, incredulous. “So, you like fry sauce?”

Turns out he went to—and liked—a couple of steakhouses in Salt Lake City. I can agree that there are some good steaks to be had in Salt Lake, but I wouldn’t say I was ever really impressed with the food we had while living in Utah. It was clear, though, that he’d not been there since before the Olympics. He talked about how unnatural it was to eat a steak and not be able to wash it down with a beer, a reflection of the even more restrictive liquor laws in Utah before the Olympics came through in 2002. To be honest, I don’t find the current alcohol laws in Utah to be that much different from the laws in Massachusetts. We still have to go to a special store to buy even beer. There are just more of those stores around than in Utah, they’re not run by the state, and they have wine and beer tastings pretty much constantly.

At any rate, this is some of the kind of stuff I talked about with the movers before my husband and the kids arrived with the car and the rest of our possessions from the hotel room.

I handed the clipboard with the inventory sheet to my husband and went back in the house to cut the rest of the shelf liner out before the kitchen cupboards became entirely boxed in. When I got back out to the driveway, my son was riding his tricycle around the garage, my daughter was sitting on a chair crossing off numbers on the inventory sheet, and my husband was supervising the children and directing the placement of items.

By 12:30, the movers were done and on their way.

I spent the afternoon unpacking “just one more box” until it was 5:00, and we’d missed lunch. We went out for burgers and hot dogs (ketchup and fries are vegetables, right?), then came back home to do a few more hours of work to get the bedrooms in shape to sleep.

Then we all passed out, exhausted, with the night sounds coming in through the windows and the ceiling fans keeping us cool.

I woke up stiff and sore the next morning (probably should have accepted that chair), but I worked out most of the kinks with some yoga, then got to work again.

As much of a pain as moving is, there is something quite satisfying about unpacking boxes and breaking them down, and flattening and rolling packing paper.

And while this wasn’t the way I’d anticipated starting off the year following my Happiness Project, it seems appropriate to start the new year with a new home in a new place.

I just hope we get to stick around for a few years now. I really like our house, and I’m not in the mood to move again anytime soon.

Compiling a Packing List for my Emotional Baggage

It's pretty stuffed in there...

As we begin our last week in housing limbo and the last week of my Happiness Project, I’m thinking a lot about what I want to take with me and what I want to leave behind from our past several years.

Physical items are generally easy to get rid of but it can get complicated when deciding which items to cull. I find that the de-cluttering process becomes tied up with the “emotional baggage” part.

My technique for de-cluttering material goods is to use “Give Away,” “Throw Away” and “Put Away” bins to sort stuff. I’m tempted to use a similar technique to decide what emotional goods (patterns of thought and behavior that sometimes serve me well and other times don’t) to bring with me, perhaps without the “Give Away” bin. I know I’ll be passing some of that along to my kids, whether I mean to or not. No need to decide ahead of time what to burden them with.

I’ve learned a lot of great techniques and habits in the past year of following my Happiness Project. I want to use this transition as a time to really put these to work for me to encourage the qualities I admire in myself and to gradually leave behind those I don’t like so much.

Some of my ideas for the other two bins:

Put Away:

1. Generosity. In Utah, I experienced a more intense focus on community than I’ve felt before. It’s the kind of place where neighbors bring baked goods to your house when you first move in and meals spontaneously appear when you have a baby. I want to take with me this practice of generosity, even when it’s not received well. A gift is a gift. It’s the recipient’s decision what they do with it.

2. A Make-it-From-Scratch Sensibility. I’ve had friends who kept chickens and bees. They had elaborate vegetable gardens. They canned and dehydrated and froze food. They fermented kombucha and yogurt and sourdough and beer. They knit and crocheted and sewed and spun and dyed and wove. They baked their own crackers, for crying out loud.

I don’t want to do everything from scratch, but I want to always think in that direction. There’s a sense of connectedness that comes from knowing the origins of the goods I use every day and knowing that, in a pinch, I could be at least somewhat self-sufficient.

Throw Away:

1. An Assumption of Personal Slights. The story I tell myself is that I’m a misfit and that interpersonal relationships just aren’t my thing. Then I set about finding things that support this story. I find out that I’m the person left off the invite list for casual gatherings of all sorts. I discover that three friends I’ve invited to an event at my home have chosen to go to another friend’s home together instead. I’m the only one in a group of friends who isn’t hugged. When things like this happen, I wonder what’s wrong with me. I wonder why it is that I never seem to be as important to my friends as they are to me.

Here’s what I realize: none of these things necessarily say anything about me. And if they do, maybe all they say is that I’m perpetually the new person in town, and I’m expecting closeness sooner than others are ready to offer it to me. I want to stop the “Oh, woe is me!” cycle.

I recognize that this pattern of behavior is so ingrained that it’s going to take a lot to slough it off (as I type, I can hear my mom poking fun at me as she did when I had social troubles as a child, singing, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m gonna eat some worms”). Knowing I won’t be able to talk myself out of these thoughts, I’m going to go with my new technique of focusing on the sensations in my body. I won’t fight the feelings that arise, the loneliness and confusion and sense that I’m always just in some mysterious way not good enough. But I won’t cling to them either. I’ll let them float by like clouds overhead. Or at least that’s the plan.

2. The Need to be Better Than. There’s great value to always wanting to learn and challenge oneself and expand one’s horizons. But I have a tendency to compare myself to others, especially when it comes to intellectual things, and that’s not so valuable. I had an office mate once who told me, “You’re the most relentlessly intelligent person I’ve ever met.” He’s the same guy who, when I got off the phone with someone who just was not understanding what I was trying to explain, said, “You don’t suffer fools gladly, do you?” These statements, especially taken together, make me realize that I probably hold myself apart a little too much. I do enjoy learning things, and I like being knowledgable about a broad range of subjects. But it doesn’t serve anyone if I compare myself to others. Either they come up short and I feel the bitter loneliness of superiority, or I come up short and just feel stupid. I want to have an open exchange of ideas with others, and that’s easier when I’m not constantly wondering if I measure up.

What are some of the things you’d like to take with you, and what are some of the things you’d like to leave behind?

Week 48 Review: Embracing Entropy

Back when my daughter and I were in preschool together (we did a one-day-a-week parent-participation preschool program with an evening parent-ed class), we parents used to talk about periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium. Kids go through periods of relative stability when things seem just peachy-keen and they’re agreeable, sweet little creatures and their parents feel like geniuses at child-rearing, for what other reason could there be for their children to be so wonderful? These stable periods alternate with periods of learning and growth and instability, marked by tantrums and irritability and frustration, which leave parents feeling like they clearly have no idea about this whole parenting thing and they probably should never have had children in the first place.

Equilibrium and disequilibrium. And not just kids go through these periods. We all do, to one extent or another.

I think I’ve been through a little period of disequilibrium this week.

Of course things are up-in-the-air. We just moved cross-country, sold one house, and are in the process of buying another. We live in a hotel, for crying out loud, and as of Tuesday, we’ll have no home address whatsoever. I have an oven, but no pans in which to bake anything. We have no set place to put the scissors or my headphones, and so I can never find these items when I want them (but am constantly tripping over them when I don’t). The housekeepers might show up at any time during the day, or they might not show up at all and we’ll be left with overflowing trash cans and dirty towels. I don’t leave the hotel without a stack of maps and written directions to even the simplest destination.

But even within this period of upheaval, I notice the ebb and flow of equilibrium and disequilibrium.

I think that this most recent period of disequilibrium came about with the knowledge that this is the last month of my Happiness Project and I really don’t know what I’m going to do next. What kind of blog will this be after August 1st? Should I even continue keeping a blog? I spend a fair amount of time blogging, and perhaps my time would be better spent.

Maybe I ought to focus my time on reading classics of literature, history, biography, and poetry in order to make myself a better teacher for my children and to enrich my own life through education. Maybe this is the time I should get myself into a more intense workout routine, maybe finally do a triathlon or a half-marathon or something. Or maybe I could take piano lessons. Or I could play my flute in a community band. Or take a course to become a naturalist. Or I could just go back to my perennial goal and finish the novel I started in November and join (or start) a local writing group.

And I feel irritated because even when I decide what to do, I won’t be able to put my plan into action until we’re settled in our new house.

I know that things are going well, and I’m very grateful for the fact that we have a closing date and a move-in date set for our house here. I’m enjoying it here and loving the hikes the kids and I take. But we’re still in flux and it’s getting to me.

Tonight, after a lot of pouting and stomping about, I left my husband with the kids and spent an hour on the treadmill downstairs. By the time I was nice and sweaty and tired, I’d decided to do my best to embrace the disequilibrium. I can’t get to stability and routine without going through the chaos. This is a time to release my hold on all of the routines and objects and ideas I’ve clung to so fiercely and let myself explore other possibilities and take in new ideas. There will be a time to choose a new course, or to allow a new course to unfold before me, it’s just not now.

The key during this time I’m in now is to read and to hike and to meet new people, to spend my time in enriching activities and taking care of myself by eating as well as I can and getting a decent amount of sleep. And I need to remember that feeling confused or in chaos doesn’t mean that I’ve failed as a mother or a person. It’s just the result of this period of growth. This is a time of waiting and collecting and learning. The equilibrium will follow. Things will get easier. I will find the scissors and maybe even the headphones.

And then, just as certainly, they’ll get more difficult again. I might as well sit back and enjoy it instead of railing against it.

Double Vision: June Review/July Kickoff

Today I misjudged how long it would take me to get lost and then get back to meet up with a group of moms I was meeting for the first time. I ended up being more than an hour late getting together with them. I mentioned my concerns about time out loud while driving the kids back west from Needham.

“We’re going to be really, really late meeting these moms,” I told my daughter, who was riding in the backseat with her brother. “I hope they aren’t upset with me for being so late.”

My daughter was quiet a few moments before saying, “If I were a grown-up and I had kids and you were supposed to meet me at the park, I wouldn’t be mad at you for being late, Mommy.”

Why the reassurance of a six-year-old would help, I’m not sure, but it really did. It helped me pause and reflect on all of the things I was saying to myself about myself because I was late, that I was over-scheduling myself, that I was going to seem flakey, that it was going to seem like I didn’t care about meeting with them, that they would dismiss me as a possible friend because I wasn’t reliable.

My daughter’s comment helped me realize that she loves me unconditionally, and that that’s the kind of friendship I’m looking for. If a group of moms refuses to even consider me as a friend because I’m late getting to the park, that just narrows the field for me. I don’t want that many friends anyway.

As it turns out, the reception I received when I arrived at the park—one of the moms walking over to my car when I’d barely gotten out of my seat, giving me a big smile and introducing herself with a handshake—was more in line with my daughter’s reassurances than they were with my worries.

In Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, Inman fears his experiences in the war have made it impossible for him to mix back into society. During his long travels back towards his home in western North Carolina, he happens upon a woman who’s lived alone with her herd of goats for nearly three decades.

The image that comes to mind when I think of these two characters is of that test they give at the optometrist where they give you double vision and then gradually make an adjustment and you’re supposed to tell them when the two images match up. I imagine Inman and the hermit woman are one image and the other image is the place they’d fit in the rest of the world. But instead of matching up seamlessly, these two images never quite fit. The edges always overlap slightly. They look like they ought to fit, but they don’t.

I frequently feel this way myself. Mostly it’s confusing, and kind of lonely. I try to suss out what I could be doing differently to fit better into my world, and no matter what I do, I never quite line up with the space available for me.

I realized this month that part of my reason for undertaking this Happiness Project is to try to fit better in the world. I’d just like to feel less disoriented in social situations. The Friendship focus in April and June’s Sharing Happiness focus are particularly oriented towards this goal. Neither has really shaved off my edges enough for me to fit comfortably, but this month I have sensed something of a letting go.

I still feel nervous getting together with people, but for the first time, I don’t feel particularly embarrassed letting people know that I’m trying to connect with them and build a friendship with them. I’ve begun voicing the things that feel uncomfortable in a conversation (mostly things that I do but would rather not, like responding readily to questions about myself but not easily coming up with questions about the other person), and thanking people with a smile for things they’ve done that have helped me feel happier or more welcome.

In a way, I’m allowing myself to feel more open and vulnerable. This is either wonderful timing for making new friends in a new part of the country, or it’s horrible timing because these are tough-skinned New Englanders who are going to see my exposed underbelly as an opportunity to wound. I tend to think it’s the former, and so far my experiences have borne that out.

When I expect people to be kind and helpful, they generally are.

The plan for July, the last month of my year-long happiness project, is to take what’s worked for the other eleven months and apply those resoutions with renewed vigor. An earlier bedtime is something that worked well for me, as was eating no sugar and drinking no alcohol. Noticing judgmental thoughts has become a habit with me, but breathing several times a day could use a little more attention. I’d like to get back to taking a picture of the kids each day and making a point of acting silly with them. Decluttering is sure to accompany unpacking our possessions at the end of this month. I’m guessing other resolutions will rise to the surface as the month wears on.

By the end of the month, if all goes according to plan, we should be moving into our new home. This is exciting, but it also means that much of the month will be spent living in a hotel. In such close quarters for so long, I might find myself longing for the goat-herding and cheese-making life of the hermit woman in Cold Mountain (who am I kidding? I already do), but what better time to focus on happiness and what works to increase my happiness and bring me closer to my family?

Week 41 Review: Simmering

This week I’ve been thinking about how external circumstances affect my mood. I’ve noticed that I go through my day wondering if this will make me happy or if that will make me happy.

Then I catch myself and remind myself of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication in which he posits that nothing can “make” us feel one way or another. Rather, we choose how we’re going to react to different situations. (I go into this in more detail in one of my early posts.)

So I revise my self-talk: what action will best set the stage for happiness?

Which is sort of a cop out because it’s essentially the same question as “Will this make me happy?”

The question that’s been simmering away on the back of my mental stove is, “How do I disconnect my mood from my external circumstances?” I don’t want to be a slave to whatever happens to be going on in my day. I don’t want to blame my kids when I feel angry. I don’t want to feel anxious and irritable just because I’ve had a religious discussion with someone on Facebook. I don’t want to be surly and pouty when we’re driving across Nebraska in a rented minivan next week.

I realize that I already know how to divorce my emotions from my external circumstances: mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the person on whose work the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class I’m taking is based, talks about how suffering results when we wish reality was different from what it is. This doesn’t mean that we don’t try to change our reality, just that we learn how to accept the way things are in each moment. Railing against pain only makes it worse.

I knew this even before I started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class. The trouble isn’t that I don’t know what to do; it’s that I don’t want to do it. Mindfulness is boring. And it’s slow. And it requires me to stop ruminating on negative things, stop poking that bruise. It requires me to realize just how much I depend on feeling anxious and depressed and how I perpetuate those feelings because they’re so familiar. It’s what I know. Not only is mindfulness is a big unknown, but it threatens to take away that old familiar pain. And where would that leave me?

The reason I turn away from mindfulness is that I know it works. And I’m not sure I’m ready to give up the comfort of that pain.

(Zoie from TouchstoneZ describes her difficult path out of depression in her magnificent post Unraveling What I’ve Knit Together. She makes a similar point to mine with more eloquence than I do here.)

Us or Them: Six Tips for Meeting Mom’s Needs

One day, I’ll have my mornings back. One day, the kids will be old enough to stay home alone while I go to the gym. One day, I’ll get to go to the bathroom by myself. In the meantime, I’ve got to find ways to meet my needs in the best way I can.

Over the course of my Happiness Project, I’ve found several guidelines for meeting my needs that, if I bother to follow them, seem to work fairly well to keep balance in my life between my needs and those of my kids. I might be wrong, but I think at least some of these would be applicable even to people without kids.

These were all identified in retrospect after discovering that—surprise!—I was sometimes actually meeting my needs. I offer them here in the hopes that some of them might work for you, too.

1) Identify what meets my needs. This sounds easier than it is. I live a lot of my life on autopilot and don’t stop to reflect on what is actually meeting my needs and what isn’t. What do I like to do? What brings me happiness? What just fills time until the next activity? Sometimes this can be deceptive because the things that bring me long-term happiness aren’t always those things that are pleasant in the short-term. In my day-to-day life, some of the things that I find necessary to my happiness are exercise, quiet (including meditation), writing, and reading. Identifying needs also includes exploring other ways of meeting my needs, like this Mindfulness class I’m doing right now. I don’t know if 40 minutes of mindfulness meditation each day is going to be something I work into my schedule long-term, but I won’t know unless I try.

2) Schedule my needs first. Back when I used to watch daytime TV, it seemed like everyone talking about personal finance would tell you to “pay yourself first.” I look at scheduling my needs first kind of like that. The way my life works, my kids get all of my time by default. If I don’t stake my claim on it, it’s theirs. Even if I do stake my claim, it’s sometimes theirs. I try to look a week ahead (or sometimes just a day ahead) and schedule in when I’m going to exercise. I set up childcare for a trip to the gym or a jog around the park, or I schedule in a hike with the family. Scheduling them isn’t a guarantee I’ll do them, but at least it decreases the energy barriers and tips the odds in my favor.

3) Develop routines. I go to yoga every Thursday night. I have our sitter every Tuesday and Friday morning. I blog every day. I do these things whether I feel like I need to (or even want to). Having a schedule keeps the inner argument out of it.

4) Have concrete goals with a way to track progress. During National Novel Writing Month, I wrote 1667 words per day. I plugged in my word count and it showed me on a graph how close I was to reaching my goal. This was remarkably effective in keeping me motivated. For years, I followed Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and did my Morning Pages, three pages of longhand written first thing every single morning. The routine helped, but so did having my concrete goal (three pages) and the visible sign of progress (filling the notebooks). Reading has the concrete goal part built in, and I track my progress on Goodreads.

5) Prioritize activities. I have friends who knit. And knit, and knit. They are passionate about knitting and that meets their needs (at least some of their needs). I like knitting. But it’s not my passion, and it doesn’t meet my basic needs in the way that other activities do. I would love to make more time for it, but knowing I have limited time in my day, I choose to prioritize writing or reading or exercising over knitting. Of course, logic doesn’t always factor into these decisions. If it did, I’d put Facebook much lower on my priorities list.

6) Be flexible. Sometimes, despite my best plans, I don’t get to work out at the gym. Maybe a kid’s sick or the babysitter’s late or my husband’s been called away on an interview. I maybe put in an exercise video to do with the kids, or I allow enough time to walk to run errands rather than drive, or I mow the lawn, or take the kids to the zoo or the gardens or some other place that involves me wearing my son on my back and walking all over creation.

What are some of the ways you’ve found to balance your needs with those of your children or other loved ones, or with other responsibilities?