Monday, January 6, 2014

Routine Maintenance

My routine starts back up tomorrow.  I'm looking forward to it.

It surprises me to write that.  For so long, I didn't look forward to it.  Dread might be the better verb.  That was off and on for most of my life.  I never looked forward to the end of a school holiday.  When I entered the work force I looked forward to going back even less.

I'm looking forward to our routine now.  The last few weeks, with Matthew and I both off work, we three have slept late, gone to bed late, had more family movie nights, eaten more chocolate.  At nine in the morning there can be a fire in the fireplace and hot cocoa is almost always an option.  There's a lovely decadence to those kinds of days, when I realize I'm wearing my cozy weekend tee shirt on a Wednesday or that Dory's never changed out of her pajamas for the day.

But I'm peeking around corners now, looking for something simmering on the stove, the sounds of the washing machine, a stack of construction paper with capital "A" drawn in crayon.  I'm ready to give a fond farewell to all these little daily luxuries, to release them back to their proper place as weekend and holiday treats.

I like my routine.  I would not have said that a year ago.  Now I can.  I like the rhythm of our morning, a general idea of when we will eat breakfast, knowing we will eat well, that we will have a walk, that we will start homeschooling around the same time, have snack (and a break for myself), have free time, have lunch, do art, have quiet time, on and on to dinner and bedtime and starting it all up again.  I, mostly, like the dailyness of it.  

It took several hard and conscious (I might say overly conscious) choices to arrive at this present juncture.  And my life is nowhere near a life of leisure.  We cook three meals a day around here, which requires all the preparation and clean-up it suggests.  We drive old cars, we do all our own cleaning (and that, sad to say, is done sparingly), we layer up and run the heat low even in the coldest season, and we accept the generosity of family, which comes in straightforward and surprising ways.  Even writing that list though, I ask, are those sacrifices?  I mean, really?  So in some ways, I suppose I do have a life of leisure.

What matters to me is I wake up in the morning and I'm not daunted by my day.  I wake up, my brain revs its engine a few times on natter, like groceries, or schedules, or part-time work, and then I manage to settle it down long enough to think: "thank you."  Sometimes I have to run to the bathroom first, then climb back in bed and scramble for that blessing.  Yet it comes and it comes more and more easily. I know what it's like to wake up and dread the day, to count down the hours until it's over and I'm back in bed.  I think a few hard choices and good fortune took me from that boat (for now) and I am grateful for both every day.

It scares the pants off me, making decisions that seem to fly right in the face of normal or mainstream.  I am not doing enough, working hard enough, proving myself, earning enough.  Occasionally these thoughts run rampant in my brain.  A few times a week, I climb the mental Cliffs on Insanity, built of worry, fear and anxiety and then I talk myself back down off them.  If I'm lucky, there's a friend to coax me down.  Still, that's an improvement for me.  It used to be a few times a week.

Now I'm glad we get along as well as we do everyday.  I'm glad that continuing to choose off-the-beaten-path continues to provide a generally happy day to day life.  Mostly, and I think I've written this before, I'm glad to be doing something I chose.  How much more satisfying to worry over a down payment while enjoying the life I create moment-by-moment than to muck about in a life I flung myself into, unable to even notice the house around me.  

Mostly, I like going off routine for a while so I can enjoy returning.  I like the fact that I felt topsy-turvy and a little upside down from so few rules, so few expectations.  I like that I feel right-side-up-again knowing that I'm returning to a rhythm of my own writing.

Monday, December 2, 2013

You Get What You Need

Last Wednesday, Dorothy and I took a quick trip to a nearby enormous craft store in search of cookie cutters.  We have plans for crafts to give as gifts and so there we were.

I do not shop very much.  I used to shop a lot or at least window-shop.  After necessity and then a bit of self-realization kicked in, I stopped visiting stores.  I might go to my local grocery a couple times a week, but that is my extravagance.

So in one of these superstores, I feel overwhelmed.  There are so many choices and, feeling price-conscious, I want the best deal and I also want the bang for my buck and by the way I have a coupon and are these seven the only kind you have?  Also, I think we need those there because that seems like a good price and we don't have any.  And maybe we ought to get these too.

I really only shop when I have something specific in mind.  Because I have asked her, Dorothy even knows to chant: just get what we need.  Just get what need.  She's the little angel on my shoulder singing a little Mick Jagger in my ear. Sometimes, when a little plastic doodad necklace with the latest holiday emblems makes its way into her little paws, I sing to her too.

We left the store with the cookie cutters and I, at least, carried the sense of being robbed.  These cookie cutters have a specific and timely purpose that have nothing to do with baking and probably won't be needed next year.  Then they will be put away for 345 or so days or maybe forever.

I realized, I do not feel good spending money on items we hardly need and might be able to find elsewhere second-hand.  Already I thought of two places to go: my stepmother and craigslist.  I am lucky; my step-mother makes craigslist almost unnecessary.  She is an efficient and organized person who has a place for just about everything and what she has bought throughout the years she takes care of.  She is not a woman who will need to buy something twice.  She shared her cookie cutters and now the big round plastic box holding approximately two dozen styles of holiday cookie cutters are in the front seat of my car, in the plastic bag, nestled next to the receipt, ready to be returned.

They are cookie cutters.  They cost $15 and change.  Why the fuss?

The fuss is we live carefully.  The fuss is we have limited space and I have no interest in needing more space to hold more stuff.  The fuss is not wanting to raise our daughter in anymore of a disposable world than she already sees.  The fuss is these cookie cutters feel like the soft rumbling of a tsunami that seems to wait at the doorstep, the threat of things and wasted money and not enough time, room, or peace.

Reading those words, I think, man, I do NOT sound like a good time.  But what to do?  I've been exhausted and wrung out by the desire for more.  I've made so many poor choices based on superficial longing.  I've felt less-than because of the little I have, even while I'm surrounded by things. I'm DONE.  Not fun, just done.

This all feels a little preachy.  I've felt a strange surliness the past two days, the after-effects of the holiday I suppose.  Even good holidays or maybe especially good holidays have that effect.  I want to be clear, I'm no monk.  I certainly have longings for tangible creations I do not have.  Perhaps that's why I'm writing this- to help shake the fugue that's come on in the last couple days as we tentatively explore the idea of home-buying.  With that in mind and Christmas in the foreground, a perfect storm of  want-versus-need looms.

Whatever the impetus, as I haul my bag of cookie cutters back to the store, I lighten up.  Whether the amount of stuff we have is a blessing or a curse, it's always a choice.  I like feeling I choose it and not the other way around.  That's all I really want, not to throw out all my stuff or yours.  I want to feel in charge of my own feelings and not thrown around the room by that sense of ever-available lack.

I still have longings.  I have one and it is bottomless and it is most annoying precisely at moments like these when my soap-box is out and I've made myself comfortable on top of it.  Whenever I might chastise anyone (hello husband and daughter!) about accumulation they can always point to this:  books.  I would throw all my money at them if I could and there are so many I could part with and yet I do not.  I suspect (or maybe I just hope) that's true of a lot of us.  No matter how much we shake, there's still that one place we will always overfill.  Lots and lots and lots of books, books piled high around the room.  We watched a movie recently with that very room, crammed floor to ceiling with books, a character's jumbled study and I thought, how lovely.  So preach I might, but there are pitfalls I walk gladly into all the time.

That's a little encouraging though.  Maybe there's still some good-times-girl in there yet.

Take good care.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Learned Gift

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”  Marcel Proust

I love that tomorrow is a day of gratitude.  Whether you acknowledge it all month long, all week long, or only for that one day, tomorrow is a day when at one point or another nearly all of us here in the US will stop and say something for which we are thankful.

Do you know one of the most surprising points of parenting for me?  Gratitude and children.  I imagined, pre-children, if you raised your child with, well, love, that's all your child would want to give.  He would give and give gladly.  Some kids probably do.  My kid, not so much.  Not yet.

With our daughter, I was especially thoughtful by way of please and thank you.  Modeling is what we practiced, no forced good graces here.  Sharing was done the same way.  We tried to share most of our things with her and to respect when she did not want to share her own things.  As she grew up I gave thanks whenever she received something, be it a gift-wrapped present or a glass of water.  I grew more conscious of my own thanks-giving practice because of her.  I noticed how often I thanked strangers but how easily I would forget a "please" or "you're welcome" with people I am close to.  Here was another way having a child raised my awareness.

I think, five and a bit years in, the effort, mostly, speaks for itself.  There are still occasions I offer a reminder (that parental mutter "is there anything you want to say to…?") but she's fairly free with her appreciation.

Yet gratitude, the way I define it, is still a struggle.  At five the concept of giving gifts to others as an expression of thanks baffles her.  Packing a shoebox for a church toy drive seems thoughtless.  Shopping for mommy or Gram for Christmas brings up resentment.  "But I want those things!" arises and some part of me wants to rise up too.  That part usually wants to start shouting, be thankful, dammit!  I imagine she might shout, back off, dammit!

I sense there's a feeling of lack- if I give this, I will have less.  That is a logical conclusion and usually accurate.  Yet, I can look around and see how much she has and recognize, giving this will not diminish you, not in a real, innate sense.  It might even increase you, once done a few times.  But she does not that feel that, yet.  I'm probably not going to shout her out of that feeling, am I?  Dammit.

So much of parenting takes time.  We are saddled with our children's milestones, unaware until they're handed over, that they are ours to notice and note.  We are still so preoccupied with our own.  Yet there they are, these targets to hit.  We are grateful for those parents who laugh and blithely wave a dismissive hand over the "do you think she ought to be… by now?"  There are others who set our teeth on edge with their excessive bragging or phony concern- "she's one and she's talking in complete sentences! Do you think it's too early?"  Your child might walk early but talk late.  He might write easily but struggle with using the potty.  No matter the practice, it will take time and it will be a practice.

Brene Brown considers gratitude not to be an attitude, but a practice.  If you're not practicing it, you're not living it.  Gratitude, I'm starting to understand, might be something learned just like please, thank you, walking, and flushing the toilet.  No more and no less a practice.

So I dig deep as our daughter reaches an age where I might start should-ing her into different feelings.  She should want to give!  She should gladly share!  She's had five years to practice; she should get a little more time to figure this out.

She hits "thank you" on a sixty-forty ratio, unprompted and from her own heart.  I prompt twenty percent.  A chunk get missed.

Do you know what I noticed about her recently?  Dorothy does not pass a pair of shoes, a necklace, a blouse, a hair bow she does not like.  She compliments friends and strangers alike on some interesting aspect of their person.  "I really like your hair," she will tell the woman checking us out at the grocery store.  "I really like your necklace," she says to a favorite librarian.  And these folks beam and thank her.  She gives it sincerely and they feel it truly.

So no, my child does not rush to donate her things to kids in need.  She is more likely to clutch that shoebox of underwear and crayons to her chest and shake her head, lips pursed, tears bitten back.  And she would rather not shop for someone else's Christmas present, thank-you-very-much.  But, just so you know, those are some really nice shoes you're wearing.

These are the little gifts everywhere, on the way to nowhere in particular.  Some days she will hit all her thanks, most days some will get missed.  I will do the same.  We will always be learning.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I'll Have What She's Having...

A few days ago, I watched Dorothy lay out a clear boundary.  There was a question of a friend coming to play at the same another friend would be there.  Friend L and Friend M we will call them.  Dorothy has not seen Friend L in some time and misses her terribly.  I expected a loud and hasty yes! when asked if we could include Friend L in our prearranged play-date with Friend M.

Dorothy said no.

Her explanation was simple.  It was hard being in the middle of two friends.  She wanted to see Friend L so much, but she wanted to enjoy that time with her.  She would feel pulled between two friends.  She didn't like that feeling.  I complicate the language here, but the meaning was clear: when given a choice about a fun time, she took care of her own needs.

My daughter, my hero.  Brene Brown says, in her The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, "I just want to grow up to be her" when describing a brave moment she witnessed her daughter have.  That's exactly how I feel.  How do I grow up to be her?

I put myself in that position a lot, pulled between lots of people of love.  I will make plans to attend a function with one set of friends, meet an entirely unrelated set of friends, ask them along too, and then remember my parents are meeting us there.  It is fun, but at some point halfway through, I stop enjoying myself, swamped in a self-inflicted pressure to entertain, and it takes some effort and a baklava sundae to pull myself back out of this muck.

It would be less problematic if I did not do this every year.

If you want to see chaotic, watch me navigate GreekFest with my family, two sets of friends and their families, and all of the teachers my husband invited to hang out with us.  Someone ends up with Ouzo on their clothes every time.

This is something I'm learning.  How do we include and yet set some boundaries?  How do we enjoy but not take responsibility for the enjoyment of others?  No one assigned me Activities Director; how do I un-assign myself?  There's something for me to work towards.

I take no responsibility for Dorothy making her clear and conscious decision.  I am glad to see I have not parented her away from that yet.  I'm optimistic she might child me towards some of those moments for myself.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


"Work is love made visible." Khalil Gibran

Work is a blessing, but this is a well-kept secret.  At least, I'm only just realizing it.  I think our parents know it and I'm certain our grandparents did, but I wonder if, for some of my generation, this concept is lost to us or on us?  I am a 30-something who, for the longest time, thought, work is something you do when you've screwed up and not figured out how to get by without it.  Work felt like failure.

Why is that?  I'm immersed in the work of Brene Brown right now and she talks a lot about our society being one of "fun, fast, and easy."  That if our work doesn't meet that criteria it's not worth doing.  I think I fell into this category.  There was what I enjoyed doing and then there was getting paid, or keeping the house clean, or keeping the yard mowed and that all fell into the category of work.

I've worked since I was fifteen and took my first nanny job for a busy couple who ran their own business.  I worked for them for several years, I worked in restaurants through half of high school, and all of college.  I've worked hard to get good grades because that would mean something and I went straight into work I hated as soon as I graduated.

That's not work.  That's drudgery.  Sometimes it's drudgery with a paycheck and sometimes it's drudgery with just the promise of a paycheck, but it's drudgery nonetheless and there's usually money tied up in it somewhere.  You can define it as work, but I don't think I'm going to anymore.

What if work doesn't have to look like that?  What if work was never about "getting through it"?  What if work is a concept that looks more like: the place I put my attention, for a certain period of time and with the expectation of the outcome I desire?  I expect, in most of the world, that's a common understanding.  In the small world of my personal experience, I've redefined the wheel.  Work as an effort made, a task worth doing, a job well done!  That feels so satisfying to me.  That feels inspiring.  Nothing can be menial when I expect to feel proud of my accomplishment.  In "fun, fast, and easy," I held so little pride.

I want my work to be something I do for the satisfaction it gives me and the contentment it brings me.  And sometimes there's money tied up in it.

Yet this is not really about the work.  There's something else, something that makes this work not only a job well done but brings great contentment too.  Is my mind right when I do it?  I love the idea of getting right with God; when I work, am I right with me?  Hello, mind blown.  The job becomes less important and the intention I bring to it becomes everything.  This is terrible because it means I'm responsible and it's freeing and wonderful because it means I'm responsible.  What do I bring to my work?

Yesterday, my five year old and I raked leaves.  We had a perfect day for it, the temperature brisk but not cold, the sky the "blue true dream" e.e. cummings would appreciate.  We are strong and healthy girls and well able to attend our modest yard of leaves with our modest collection of tools.

There are no trees of significance in our yard.  We have one dogwood and one tree to which I have not been properly introduced.  They drop their small offering of leaves briskly and with little fanfare.  Our neighbor, however, has the most magnificent tree, with a thick, arms-wide trunk and bark that disgorges itself in smooth, white, weathered strips as we near winter.  We spend most of the year admiring this tree and a small portion of the year cleaning what it gives to our yard.   Yesterday we made our offering for all that time spent admiring.

I raked and Dorothy, my little daughter, alternated between raking and playing in piles of leaves.  She also embraced the job of dogsbody, fetching us waters and snacks and Kleenex when such items were needed.  I raked and I raked with such appreciation.

I appreciated that she is five and old enough to be helpful and old enough to stay busy while I worked.  I appreciated the weather.  I appreciated my gloves because it really hurts to hold a wooden handle that long.  I appreciated the feeling of pulling the rake through the grass, leaving neatly combed trails in my wake. I appreciated purposely, thriftily, intentionally crafting a life where I was home to work in the middle of the week and my daughter was home to assist.  Sometimes I forgot what I was doing, and, in my head, crafted columns I would write for The Huffington Post just as soon as they email.  Mostly I appreciated that I appreciated what I was doing.

Do you know what I can say about that kind of gratitude put into that kind of work?  It builds.  It does.

So now I look back and think- Thank you for the drudgery.  Those times I worked but did not appreciate it, those times I resented the employers who hired and paid me and resented the people I love who needed me to have this job, and hated myself for crafting such a miserable life for myself, those times make now possible.  I don't think we all need to experience what we do not want so acutely, in order to appreciate what we have.  That's just the way I get down.  Yet the path gets me there, to here, just the same as another.  I have to appreciate all the work I suffered through because now, with the rake in my hand, I was so immensely glad of the work I could do.  I worked hard.  It was not fast or easy.  We took time to jump in leaves and during our breaks I stopped to make Dorothy the clover necklace she requested.  It was hard work and it was fun and at the end I was proud of what we accomplished.

The effect was not neat or especially tidy.  The grass was desperately long and scraggly in some places, dry and scrubby in others and I would say there's enough clover out there to keep a cow content for an afternoon and festoon Dory in thousands of necklaces.  But a yard once carpeted in dry crunchy leaves now resembles a yard again.

When I was done, I was tired, a little sore, and supremely satisfied.  It is such temporary work, removing these bits of nature that will thoughtlessly and relentlessly return to right back where they came from next year. Instead of feeling downcast- this will all be repeated next year- I felt empowered.  Bring it ON, Mother Nature.  I have my rake, my gloves, and my kid.  We can do this.  I've got this muscle to work, this gratitude thing going, and I'm not afraid of some hard work.  Let's dance, Lady.

In the title of this blog, I didn't put Work first because I think it's more important than Play and Rest- I think they all deserve equal attention.  Yet, slowly, I am getting excited about the idea that making Work, whether it's in a yard or on a computer, a priority makes the other two that much more gratifying.   It makes them sweeter.

I don't know why it can feel so difficult to move from saying, this is my work. to saying, this is my work! but adding that straight vertical line to the top of that dot at the end of that sentence- that is my work.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hello There

It's surprised me how long it's taken to craft and start this blog.  When I say 'craft,' I mean to describe staring blankly at Blogger's layout page, marveling over how advanced blogging technology now is while simultaneously wondering how to make my title picture smaller.  Is there no central communication group with whom I might email this question: how do I shrink the title picture?  I shy away from looking in the group forum.  I am an old-fashioned 30-something; I would rather sit on hold for half an hour waiting for a live person, who maybe speaks a language near my own, than hunt through online pages communicating the random thoughts of people who use Blogger.  This is probably not at all what the Group Forum is like.  I don't know; I haven't looked.  And my picture is still enormous.

I'm not really worried about the title picture, at least not much, but I'm worried about a new blog.  I worry about my inability to commit to a blog.  I have had two blogs in the past, one about knitting and one about parenting.  They both eventually fizzled.  Is it fair to blame the subject of the second as the reason the blog itself became nearly impossible to maintain?

No, I don't think that's fair.

I have an intention here to share and explore what regularly works in my life, what helps me best accomplish those three words listed on that simply enormous picture: joy, contentment, and satisfaction.  I'm hopeful this space will help me learn and focus my intentions for this small and large creation that is my own life.  I think a blog can work like that.

I am also hopeful that by the time I give up on this blog for my fourth (Making Online Forum Groups Work for You!), I will have learned how to shrink my title picture.