Monday, May 19, 2014

The Amazing Thing Happening Right Now In Front Of Me

I’ve started writing multiple times and then deleted…type, backspace, type, backspace, type, backspace, like the ebb and flow of the ocean waves I hear as I type this.  We are on vacation, and first and foremost, I am grateful.  I’m afraid in writing this essay I will appear otherwise.  We are lucky to have the time and resources to go spend an entire week, together, on the beach.  I am grateful. 

And also, our vacation resembles the one described in this article.  A lot of normal life and everyday work and the usual annoyances came on vacation with us.  At this stage of life, trying to “vacate” is not actually possible, because my occupations travel with me and have more needs than ever away from their home and routine.

The first morning, we woke up to our usual pre-6 o’clock alarm clocks.  There are two of them and they are insistent and loud, their snooze buttons broken.  We moved out onto the balcony, listened to the waves and watched the surfers at dawn.  It was spectacular.  And then there were dolphins, a whole pod, surfacing and spraying, gliding effortlessly through the ocean. 

And then there was this shrill, constant, nasally noise that brought my nervous system into high alert and initiated my fight or flight response, otherwise known as whining.  In their excitement to get up early for the first day of vacation, the kids hadn’t realized that they added hours to their wait for the pool to open. 

We tried to call their attention to the amazing thing happening right now in front of them, but they would have none of it.  They wanted something else; they could think of nothing else but that what they wanted wasn’t happening. 

I wanted them to stop whining.  I felt like my desire for them to stop whining was more legitimate than their desire to have pool time at 7am.  I got frustrated and thought about how unvacationlike vacations can be.  I wanted something else; I could think of nothing else but that what I wanted wasn’t happening. 

I started missing the amazing thing happening right now in front of me.

I get stingy sometimes with my generosity towards my family.  I start thinking of myself as an overdrawn bank account whose patrons better make some deposits if they expect the good stuff to keep flowing.  A morning walk on the beach alone = sizable deposit.  Negotiating who gets the red ball for the 327th time today = sizable withdrawal.  On top of the frustration and difficulty of raising kids, I add righteous indignation and score keeping. 

This week I’m trading my bank account for an ocean view.  Literally, yes.  But also in the way I view myself, my family, my time, my vacation. 

In the morning when the wind is calm, the sea can be so still that the fin of a dolphin is visible 300 yards off shore.  The waves can be a peaceful white noise that provides the perfect background for laughing kids and melodic bird banter.  The water can race over sand to cool hot feet.  The ocean is peace. 

When the wind picks up, the waves break in layers and the chop makes it impossible to see any sea life.  The noise can be so loud it clouds my brain and makes me wish for silence.  The water can be so powerful that it can drag an unsuspecting toddler down on his back and tumble him like a seashell back towards the sea.  (The toddler will then bellow his rage and fear at the sea while his parents pick sand out of his ear.)  The ocean is turmoil. 

It’s all there.  Ebb and flow, ebb and flow.  All that I need to be fulfilled, happy, content, refreshed, and at peace is there, in me and around me.  All that I need to be left wanting, disappointed, dissatisfied, exhausted, and in turmoil is there, in me and around me.  I will have moments of each this day and every day, and those moments will flow back out and bring in something else.  If I can accept that the amazing thing happening right now in front of me is whatever is happening right now in front of me, even the moments of turmoil will be meaningful.

In the movie Good Will Hunting, the therapist Sean tells Will how his late wife used to wake herself up by farting in her sleep.  He goes on: “Ah, but, those are the things I miss the most.  The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about.  That’s what made her my wife.  Oh, and she had the goods on me, too; she knew all my little peccadillos.  People call these things imperfections, but they’re not – ah, that’s the good stuff.” 

The arguments about the red ball, the newly-broken ceramic fish that belongs to the condo owners, the endless feeding and dishes and changing and laundry, the whining and bickering; that’s the hard good stuff.  The swimming and wave frolicking, the reading and shell studying, the fresh-picked strawberries and corn on the cob, the laughing and smiling and sandy toes; that’s the easy good stuff.    

It’s all there; it’s all the amazing thing happening right now in front of me. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

What Happens If You Don't Like Each Other Anymore

Eden jumped and bounced next to me on the couch; the girl isn’t still, ever.  We were all four of us lounging in the living room.  Kasey had just gotten home from work and was sprawled along with lincoln logs and Isaac on the floor.  Eden threw an arm on me and leaned over. 

“I just love you so much, Mama.  I just wish I could marry you.  But you’re already married to Daddy.”

I smiled, loving the 5-year-old concept of love and marriage and hoping that it stays innocent like this for a very long time. 
“Will you and Daddy still be married when you are old people?” she asked. 

I could see the wheels spinning as she tried to find a way that she and I might get married sometime in the future. 

“Yep,” I answered.  “We’ll be married to each other for our whole lives.  That’s what it means to be married to someone.  I chose to live my life with Daddy for the rest of our lives.”

“And I chose Mama,” Kasey said.   

“But what happens if you don’t like each other anymore?”

Ahhh, yes.  Good question.  Kasey and I exchanged a look.  There was a lot in the look.  He looked like he was about to burst into laughing, which is actually a good thing.  We’re okay as long as we can still laugh at ourselves. 

Because, the truth is, we don’t always like each other.  We are, by the antibiotic grace of God, currently recovering from a period where not liking each other had become a bit of an infection.  I don’t know if fairy tale romances exist in real life, but I know that our story isn’t written that way.  We have had seasons where we are the source of each others’ happiness, and seasons where we are the source of each others’ pain.  We have fought and cried and screamed and hurt and regretted and wished things were different and despaired that they could be. 

But I chose him, and he chose me.  And we chose to live our lives together for as long as our lives last.  And we choose it again every day. 

And so, what happens if (when) we don’t like each other anymore? 

“Well, we learn to start liking each other again,” I replied.  “That’s what families do.  You don’t always like each other, but you always stick together and you learn how to like each other again.” 

There wasn’t a lot of forethought in my answer, but I like the idea that loving someone means learning to like them over and over again.  Because it implies that even after being with someone for a very long time, there is still a chance that you don’t know everything about them.  Choosing a stance as a learner means that new information is possible, new behavior, new patterns, new connections.  It leaves space for growth and change and hope. 

Being a learner requires sticking around when you want to run away.  Being a learner requires giving enough grace to stop looking back and start looking forward.  Being a learner requires having enough humility to have perceptions and beliefs changed. 

How else can the decision of two teenagers to link their lives forever actually be honored?  We are two learners, walking together.  That is love.  

“When you evoke curiosity and openness with a lack of judgment, you align yourself with beauty and delight and love – for their own sake.  You become the benevolence of God in action.”  --Geneen Roth

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Summer of Simplicity: The End Goal

“To what end do I lead a simple life at all, pray? That I may teach others to simplify their lives? – and so all our lives be simplified merely, like an algebraic formula? Or not, rather, that I may make use of the ground I have cleared to live more worthily and profitably?”
            --Henry David Thoreau

Doing a quick search for simple living or organizing your life will lead you to thousands of blogs, pinterest-worthy pdfs, and how-to articles. There is no shortage of helpful information on the methods and tools for simplifying. 

So why do I still find myself fighting with overflowing stuff, with hurriedness and impatience, with too-full schedules and too little reflection? 

It’s not an information problem. It’s an assimilation problem.

The question I am examining this summer is how do I put what I know and what I desire into practice? How do I move into a place of practicing simplicity and feeling the benefits? 

One thing I am learning is that many of the methods and tips floating out in the internet ether don’t help me. I am apt to be quickly inspired but then I struggle to follow through, usually because I am attempting a complete overhaul overnight. 

Even my process of living more simply must be simple. 

I’m beginning the new-to-me process of looking inward to determine what strategies might work for me. I’m abandoning spreadsheets and timelines and lists and schedules; they create stress and failure for me.

I’m not looking for algebraic formulas any longer. I’ve been asking myself as Thoreau did, how may I best make use of these days, this life, this place I am in? How may I live worthily and profitably? 

Three words are surfacing that are guiding my simplifying: connected…caring…creative. 

Connected: I want to connect with myself, my environment, and my family in the present moment.  I spend a lot of time distracting myself from what I’m feeling, from my overwhelming house, and from my own perfectionism.  I want to stare less at screens and more at eyes and sky.  I want to move from distraction to connection, to learn that it is safe and meaningful to be in each moment. 

Caring: I want to chip away at the piles that clutter our space and establish routines to make caring for our home more natural and built-in. I want to find ways to streamline some of the relentless tasks of mothering, like feeding and laundering. 

Creative: I want to build more writing time into my weeks, make photo albums so my kids can see pictures of themselves as babies, put nails in walls that have been bare for too long and hang my own creations on them. 

These ideals of connectedness, caring, and creativity are what living worthily and profitably in my space means. What does it mean to you? When you envision a simpler life, what do you see yourself doing, being? 

I invite you to join in with establishing simplicity this summer, in a way that is tailored specifically to your goals and your life. I’ll be recording my experiences and thoughts here, and sharing what I’m finding that works for me. I’ll be leaning away from spreadsheets and formulas and leaning into examining the process and gently, slowly, simply, moving forward.   

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Let's Play Nice

Cousins met at the park today, to run and reunite and soak in sun.  They were a blur of a threesome, sometimes scattered around the playground, sometimes huddled close. 

We aunts stood nearby, talking and watching. 

A fourth tried to join them, but wasn’t welcomed.  The three had their thing, their feel, their history, and were enjoying their group the way it was. 

“This girl isn’t being nice to you; let’s go find another girl to play with,” the dad said to the fourth, loud enough for us all to hear. 

I felt pricked, embarrassed, ashamed that my kid wasn’t being nice.

But wait.  What does that mean, exactly, to be nice?  Does it mean that our three have to play equally with everyone at the playground?  Is this about being inclusive no matter what?  Is it nice to play with someone that you really don’t want to play with?  Is it nice to pretend to want to be with someone when you don’t really want to be with them? 

(Is it nice to talk about my child this way knowing that she and her mother are overhearing you?) 

I admit, I’m a bit of a language lover and semantics is my playground.  And I don’t like the word nice; it’s not welcome to play much in my vocabulary.  I don’t like the connotations of being a “nice girl.”  In my experience, it means the quiet, subdued, submissive girl who doesn’t want to be a bother and doesn’t have a voice and will do anything to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and doesn’t get much respect and doesn’t really know who she is.  Yep, it means all that. 

And as it turns out, these connotations bear a striking resemblance to the word’s origins.  The Latin nescire, meaning “not know,” birthed the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant,” birthed the Middle English meaning “stupid.”  Yep, it’s all there. 

I like the word kind.  I am all about kindness.  To me, kindness is the beautiful juncture of truth and goodness.  It doesn’t mean the appearance of goodness at the expense of truth; that’s flattery.  It doesn’t mean truth at the expense of goodness; that’s brash. 

Kindness means treating people like family, knowing and being known like family.  The origins of the word kind (Old English cynd) are closely related to the word kinThe beautiful heart of the word kind means that what’s on the inside is known, but it comes out gently

Nice forces a kid to relinquish his toy; kind teaches kids how to take turns over time. 
Nice says what you want to hear; kind says what it means.
Nice always smoothes over awkwardness; kind endures discomfort when needed.

Kindness is more of a long-haul virtue.  It can’t be coerced with consequences or a stern look.  It comes from the inside, from the heart, and it takes time to foster and grow and learn.  It can be hard to raise kids to be kind in a culture that pushes them to be nice. 

But it’s the kindest thing I can do. 

While I’ve been typing this, I’ve been interrupted a million times and am, ahem, struggling to be kind.  I finally realized this and told Kasey the irony of working on an essay on kindness while I’m struggling to practice it.  He smiled and gently said, “Well, maybe it’s good timing, then.” 

That is kindness.  

Monday, May 5, 2014

Great Eggspectations

One of the benefits of our new adventure in homeschooling is that we can do crazy stuff that no sane teacher with 25 students would attempt. 

This past week, we walked on eggs.  

I have to admit, I was skeptical.  I saw the pictures and heard the report of this post by Noirin at Playdough to Plato, but I thought maybe she had somehow “magicked” her eggs, as Isaac would say.  I was prepared for much cracking and oozing, but thankfully, I was proved wrong. 

The architectural genius of the arch stands.  We looked at some pictures of bridges that use arches to support themselves, and we talked about how the arch evenly distributes the force put on it. 

We noticed the arches on eggs and I had the kids each squeeze an egg in their hand to show that they couldn’t crack it when the force was spread throughout their whole hand.  I also held my breath and hoped they couldn’t crack it, because they are strong little buggers (the kids, that is).  Then they each cracked an egg on the side of a bowl, concentrating all the force in one small spot. 

We talked about how a hen can sit on an egg without cracking it, but the baby chick’s beak can poke through the egg from the inside when the chick pecks at one small spot.  Isaac asked if he could sit on an egg like a hen, but I wasn’t willing to take the experiment that far. 

So we established that evenly distributed force on an arch = good bridge and contained egg, while too much force concentrated on one spot = bad bridge and egg mess. 

At that point, I couldn’t put the actual standing on eggs part off anymore, so we set up a couple dozen eggs (pointier side down and inspected for hairline fractures) on a tablecloth on the floor, and hopped to it.  Well, we didn’t actually hop.  I lifted Eden up and set her gently down on the eggs, no hopping allowed.  

And, it worked!  Eden was so excited to find that she could stand on eggs without cracking them!  She made sure not to put all of her weight on her heels or toes, and none of the eggs cracked even a little bit. 

It was a fun little experiment, and the bonus is now we have tons of eggs to eat.  I admit, I bought the cheap eggs from the sad little factory farm hens because I thought for sure they’d get cracked.  But if you can convince your inner doubting Thomas to try this speggtacular experiment (see what I did there??), get the good eggs from the happy hens because they really will survive!  

Friday, May 2, 2014

How Not To Live Simply

If you're interested in reading more posts about simple living, check out posts with the "simple living" tag.  

I want to live simply, to spend less and have less and think less about stuff.  I don’t like clutter and I don’t embrace an identity as a consumer.  I check Simplicity Parenting and other simple-living books out of the library at least once a year and re-re-renew my desire to live simply. 

And yet.  You’d not quite believe my commitment to simple living if you wandered through my house.  My dreams of my house looking like a Real Simple 2-page spread have not quite been realized.  And as the stuff piles up around me, my mind feels more and more cluttered and scattered. 

I’ve been mulling this over recently and have identified a few (okay, seven) of the areas that constantly trip me up, and I thought I’d share them with you.  I came across this blog post by Katie that inspired my list.  So here they are, my 7 Tips for NOT Living a Simple Life:

1.      After you’re finished borrowing something from a friend, hang it in a plastic bag by the back door. 
Because, you know, maybe my friend will just happen to conveniently drop by the house and I’ll just happen to remember that I have her stuff and hand it over.  And in the meantime, what is lovelier than the sight of colorful plastic bags littering the entryway?  

2.      Hang on to lotion bottles (and shampoo, hairspray, detangler, cleaning supplies, deodorant, etc.) that have a little bit left in the bottom that you can’t quite get out. 
I do this because I don’t want to be wasteful, but it’s ridiculous.  Instead of spending the extra 10 seconds on unscrewing the pump tube lid to smack some lotion in my hand, I buy a full one and jam our bathroom shelves with almost-empty bottles. 

3.      Keep every single piece of artwork or coloring that your prolific children/artists create.
When I say prolific, man do I mean it.  I am currently sorting piles that go back years.  I am afraid to get rid of things because each one is special to the artist and most of them are special to me, too.  

But you know what happens when too many creations are deemed special?  None of them get treated as such.  So, I’m working towards sorting and choosing our favorites, and then storing some of them so they are easily found and reviewed.  Others will be displayed around the house, properly framed and treated as special.   

4.      Store clothes in 5 different locations in your house.
Am I the only one that does this?  Somehow we’ve ended up with a makeshift closet in the basement by the washer and dryer, which consists of a pvc pipe for hanging clothes and 2 laundry baskets for folded clothes.  And then we have our real closets upstairs which end up with fewer clothes in them than the fakey closet.  And then there’s the dressers and the tubs of off-season clothes stored in the bedroom.  And finally, there are the piles of sort-of-clean-but-sort-of-dirty clothes in the bathroom. 

The result?  I never really know what I have, and it looks like I have far less than I actually do. 

5.      Sort the kids’ toys and put the extras in the basement. 
I was inspired by Simplicity Parenting to reduce the number of toys my kids have access to by 50%.  And it really has made a difference.  With far fewer options, they play much longer with a toy and engage with it much more.  The days of grabbing and dumping without playing are over. 

The trouble is, the extra toys never quite made it out of the house.  I put them in the basement, with the idea that I would be one of those super organized parents who rotates toys upstairs and down, so the kids get the benefit of many toys without the overcrowded, stressful environment.  But, lo and behold, the kids go in the basement, and find the extra toys, and grab and dump, and occasionally drag something upstairs.  And the cycle begins again.  I am not one of those super organized rotating toy parents, so it’s time for the toys to be evicted. 

6.      Keep every single piece of important mail in a “to file” pile. 
I have “to file” piles that were shoved in folders and transferred to our new house when we moved.  Two years ago.  My kitchen command center reveals that my filing skills haven’t gotten much better. 

7.      Once you’ve sorted your stuff and selected what’s going in the giveaway pile (congratulations!!), put the bags and boxes in the basement, the back of your van, or the garage.  Trust that they will miraculously transport themselves where they need to go.

It can be hard to actually, finally, get RID of the stuff.  Our attachments to things, our hopes of making a buck off of them, our fears about not having enough in the future…all of those feelings and more keep us bound to things.  I’ve heard (and experienced a little) that it can be immensely freeing to get rid of bunches of excess.

I’m learning that it takes a lot of work and intentionality to create and MAINTAIN a simple environment.  If I do nothing, the stuff just pours in the door and accumulates everywhere.  If I want my environment, mind, and spirit to be free of stuff, then my hands have to do some constant work.

I have a few specific goals for my “Summer of Simplicity” that I’ll share in some upcoming posts.  Feel free to stay tuned and join with me!  What are some of your best strategies for NOT living a simple life?