Doing things and not doing things

From graduation speeches to self-help articles to general words of wisdom from relatives, celebrities and historical figures, there seems to be a prevailing sentiment that you should grab life my the horns and dive into it, to mix metaphors terribly. In the words of Mark Twain, which I’ve heard reiterated in numerous different manners over the years, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”Day Away

This is advice that I typically follow.  As much as possible, I try to say yes to experiences and events that I know will expand my world view, provide fun in the moment and memories to look back upon, and enrich my life at large.  A friend in Divinity school referred to this way of being as a “Yes Philosophy.”  I really do believe that it’s through getting out of my comfort zone and saying yes to opportunities that I develop, grow, find joy and live life fully. 

And yet, my two favorite days of the year are Christmas and my birthday, in part because there are great celebrations attached to each (festive meals and time with friends and family and gifts and sweets galore), but also in part because they are the two days of the year that I have no expectations of myself.  I refuse to make a to-list — even a “for fun” to-do list — on either day, and in fact, it would seem sacrilege to assign tasks to either day. 

Basking in the openness, the relaxation, and the coziness of the present moment never fails to be both enjoyable and restorative.  I end the days feeling refreshed and with a greater sense of clarity about who I am and what I am doing with my life.  And I am able to have these gloriously spacious Christmases and Birthdays precisely because I don’t say yes to doing things on those days.    

In a similar vein, I’ve said yes to a few travel opportunities recently: Caleb and I have a trip to Costa Rica planned for his spring break, and we’re spending the month of June in Europe.  These will be action packed weeks and I am thrilled that we have the chance to embark on adventure together.  I’ve also scheduled a retreat for myself, in the beginning of May, during which I’ll spend four days in silence (with the exception of a morning, afternoon and evening chapel services) at the country home of a monastic order.  Excited as I am about Caleb’s and my planned trips, I am noticing that I feel most eager for four days of silence, reflection and solitude. 

I think it’s worth paying attention to these feelings and worth considering what they are telling me about what I desire and need to live the life I want to live.  I’m going to keep saying a hearty yes to experiences and opportunities and to doing things, but I’m also going to make time for not doing things. 

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Taking Advice

I take most advice that I receive with a grain of salt. 

First, there’s the most frequent form of advice I collect: unsolicited advice.  When bestowed unsolicited advice, I take it with a handful of salt in two senses of the expression: I’m not likely to take the advice very seriously, and I’m salty — inwardly eye-rolling and a tad-bit annoyed — that people feel entitled to share their opinions and suggestions for my betterment with me, without my asking for it. advice

Remembering words from Chicago Tribune Mary Schmich’s hypothetical graduation speech “Wear Sunscreen” helps me feel less annoyed than compassionate toward advice-giving enthusiasts, but still un-inclined to incorporate their “words of wisdom” into my life.  She writes, “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

The second type of advice that I often receive is advice that I’ve requested.  I have my go-to advisors for everything from work to relationships to my emotional and spiritual improvement: my parents, my husband, a handful of friends, my sister, a few former work supervisors and a smattering of mentors.  But even with all of these people — individuals whom I trust and respect enough to go to for advice in the first place — I don’t always take their suggestions. I weigh their advice, considering how it feels — at a gut level — and imagining what it would look like put into practice in my life. 

Maybe fifty percent of the time I end up acting upon requested advice that I receive.  This isn’t to say that I don’t take seriously the advice that I ultimately end up discarding; if I asked for advice, I’m going to listen to it and consider it carefully.  I just may end up deciding that it’s not the best solution for me, considering all of the other pieces of the puzzle to which only I am fully aware.   

If I am being completely honest with myself, though, deciding that it’s not the best solution for me only accounts for a portion of the advice that I don’t take.  Sometimes I don’t take advice that I sought, even when I know I would be better if I did, because it’s too hard to take.  Maybe I don’t have the discipline to put it into action, or I’m afraid, or I’m overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin.  Whatever the particular circumstances, these are not good reasons to discard advice. 

Seeing this tendency in myself to shirk advice that I actually know would benefit me to take, I’m trying something this year.  I am committing to taking all of the advice of one person: my spiritual director, Rosemary.  I’ve chosen Rosemary for several reasons: I completely trust that she has my best interests at heart, she is an intelligent, perceptive, and wise human being and so I know that her advice is good…and I only meet with her monthly, so there’s only so much advice that she can give me. 

I’m excited to see how this goes.  If she recommends a book, I’m reading it.  If she suggests a spiritual practice, I’m trying it.  If she tells me to lighten up, I will make my very best attempt. 

I’m curious to hear what others think.  Who do you go to for advice?  Do you always take it?  If you had to pick one person whose advice you unreservedly incorporated, who would it be?

Goal-Driven

I love setting goals in my personal life, as is obvious to anyone who has read my posts about New Year’s resolutions, words to guide my year, and summer intentions.  Goals orient my free time, give me a sense of purpose and enable me to stretch myself. 

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Given my affinity for goal-setting, it came as a bit of a surprise when I realized, through a conversation with a mentor, that I’m not particularly goal-oriented in my work-life.  I had given my mentor a call to ask for her advice about choosing a curriculum for Pre-K through 5 faith formation classes at the Church were I work.  It has become apparent to the faith formation coordinator with whom I work that our teachers are dissatisfied with the curriculum that we are currently using, but I don’t know where to begin in choosing — or advising our faith formation coordinator to choose — a new curriculum.  There are hundreds out there, and the thought of reviewing the pros and cons of each and making a decision to switch to a different one is daunting.

After explaining the situation to my mentor, I expected her to say: check out this publisher or that one; get this information from your teachers; consider this thought.  But instead, she posed a simple question: “What’s your goal?” 

My goal?

Truthfully, I hadn’t thought about my goal.  I had gotten so stuck on the little details — whether a curriculum offers a book or handouts, involves using the Bible as a base, or the liturgical calendar, and so on — that I had lost track of the bigger picture, namely the question, “What is the goal of the faith formation program at my parish?”  Why do I want children to enroll in the program?  What do I think children and their families should take away from the program?  How do I hope catechists will benefit from volunteering for the program?

My mentor reminded me that my actions and decisions should stem from my goals — not from minuscule distinctions between various curricula options.  Without knowledge of my goal, I will be lacking a compass when making choices, and not only will I get bogged down in the details, I will likely make less wise decisions. 

I’m going to keep this bit of wisdom in mind as I move forward in choosing a curriculum, and also when considering other areas of my work and life.  When at a loss for what to do next, asking the question “What is my goal?” will almost always be a good place to start. 

Have you thought about the underlying goals of your work and personal life lately?  What are they?  How do they inform your decisions?  I’d love to hear how this looks for others. 

A Day-Off Strategy for Maximizing Enjoyment

Because I work at a church, I often end up working on weekends, meaning that my days off are fragmented — say, a Friday and Monday, or a Tuesday and a Thursday, with work sandwiched in between.  While I understand that working on weekends comes with the territory of church-employment, it’s not my favorite aspect of my job.  Practically speaking, most other people have weekends off, so that’s when social events happen, and I often end up missing them.  Less rationally, but significant in my mental-processing, is that I miss the ethos of a weekend: celebratory Friday nights, activity filled Saturdays, and lazy Sundays.  There is no substitute for the joy, rest and energy that these elements provide.  Two separate week days off just doesn’t offer the same restoration.    

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Making valentine garlands was an item on my “For-Fun” list

 

 While there is no replacement for the traditional weekend, I have found that being intentional about how I spend my days off helps me feel more satisfied with the fragmented days that, for now, are my lot.  Being intentional involves scheduling social activities, such as a lunch date with a friend who works from home, or an outing with Caleb (whom I am lucky to say has a fairly flexible schedule) and it also involves being really clear about how I am going to spend my time.  It can be easy to fritter away time (on both weekends and weekdays) but the saving grace of a full weekend is that there are multiple days in a row: if I blow off Saturday by sleeping late and dawdling through the work I need to get done, I still have Sunday to do things that will satisfy me.  With a day off here and there, I have to be extra-careful to fill the day with tasks and activities that will leave me feeling as if I have made the most of my day.

One way that I do this is by writing a For-Fun List that I make sure to attend to just as carefully as I attend to my To-Do List.  I have found that my perfect day-off includes a mixture of productive — though not necessarily “fun” — tasks such as cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, going to the gym, and catching up on personal emails (these go on my “To-Do” list) as well as purely enjoyable tasks such as reading for fun, trying a new recipe, putting out holiday decorations, or calling a friend (these go on my “For Fun” list). 

What kinds of tasks would you lay out on your for-fun list?

Lizzie Borden Took an Axe…

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to “Go on an Adventure” each month.  Seeing new places and trying new things brings me a lot of satisfaction, and I’m lucky to live in an area abounding with sites and attractions.  It’s pretty amazing that I can google “things to do in the greater-Providence area” and easily find a list of possibilities. 

I didn’t have to google to find last weekend’s adventure, however, because it is one that I have been dying (pun intended) to go on for years: the Lizzie Borden House Museum Tour.  I’ve been intrigued by the Lizzie Borden mystery since reading a Young Adult version of the tale in the fifth grade, and I have an affinity for house tours anyway. 

Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical before the tour because a) the website boasts of offering psychic readings to their guests in addition to house tours b) I’m cheap and eighteen dollars felt steep for a house tour… but the proclivity to psychics and sensitivity to the paranormal that both the owner of the Lizzie house and the tour guide apparently have made the tour all the more interesting, and it was absolutely worth every one of the eighteen dollars spent. 

Caleb and I learned all sorts of interesting facts about Lizzie and the Borden family (Lizzie was a kleptomaniac; the crime scene of the Borden murders was only the second in the United States to be photographed; Lizzie and her sister Emma refused to call their maid by her real name, instead referring to her by the name of their maid from years before; Lizzie’s trial lasted 13 days, but she was acquitted in just 15 minutes), we got a total kick out of our tour guide’s description of the paranormal activity she experiences while offering tours and we enjoyed our fellow tour-goers (one, turns out, was a homicide detective; he was very interested in the crime scene photographs). 

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Cozying up on the (reproduction) couch where Andrew Borden was axed!

I would highly recommend this adventure to other New Englanders, or those visiting the area!

 

Quotes for the Year

For my sixteenth birthday, one of my best high school friends got me this little pink polka-dotted journal, and since then, I’ve written my favorite poems and quotations in it.  When I read something in a book or magazine that speaks to me, I copy it down.  When a friend or family member says something that I want to remember, I record it.  When I see a quotation inscribed on a memorial, or floating around on the internet, or in a church program, I snap a picture to then later transcribe into my book. 

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I filled up my pink journal a decade after receiving it, and around the same time I found an old journal of my moms that had been used for the same purpose, with only a few pages filled.  I started a new “quote book” in it.  I return to these books time and again when I am in need of motivation, inspiration, comfort or hope. 

Over my holiday vacation, I spent several hours reading through the entire collection, and I picked out a generous handful of quotes to guide my year.  (Can you tell that I’m into New Years?  I’ve got words, I’ve got goals, I’ve got quotes!  It’s very orienting for me. And interestingly, though I didn’t intend this, I realize that they can roughly be categorized within my words for the year…plus one more category: perseverance). 

To use a quotation itself to explain my inclination towards quotations at guides: “One is pat to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal.”  I agree with Richard Winn Livingstone’s sentiment, and for me, quotes serve as an ideal — a model, an example — to work towards.   

Perspective

“For there is only trying.  The rest is not our business.” —T. S. Eliot

Life is hard but love wins.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

“And now the you don’t have to be perfect you can just be good” – John Steinbeck

“Be joyful thought you have considered all the facts” – Wendell Berry

“Energy creates energy.  It is by spending myself that I became rich.” – Sarah Bernhardt

“At the best moments a great humility fused with a great ambition: to be only what I was, but to the utmost of what I was” – Stephen Spender

Prayerfulness

“Prayer uncovers the truth that sets us free (John 8:32)” – Henri Nouwen

“Grace is the assistance God gives us to do hat is good, true, noble and right.” — Matthew Kelly

“All moments are key moments, and life itself is grace” – Frederich Buechner

“To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, today is big with blessings” – Mary Baker Edy

“A sheltered life can be a daring life as well.  For all serious daring starts from within.” – Eudora Welty

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable” – Mary Oliver

Poise

“Be soft.  Do not let the world make you hard.  Do not let pain make you hate.  Do not let bitterness steal your sweetness.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“The most congenial social occasions are those ruled by cheerful deference for all” – Goethe

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance” — Brene Brown

Perseverance

“I am not afraid.  I was born to do this.” – Joan of Arc

“Everything is hard before it gets easy.” -Goethe

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act.  The rest is really tenacity” — Amelia Earhart

Resolutions

A post or two back, I wrote about my words for 2017: Perspective, Prayerfulness and Poise.  I’m letting those words propel me, like the wind behind a boat, into this year that I hope will be one of growth and goodness. 

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But, we all know that a boat needs more than a bluster to venture far.  A rudder to guide it, a centerboard to balance it and a sail to catch the breeze are as necessary as the wind, and so, too, are some specific smart goals to accompany my words for the year.  Smart goals are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based, and they’re meant to add focus and specificity to one’s actions. 

I love the idea of having a word (or three, in my case) to give an overarching theme to the year, but I know that it’s the practicality of smart goals that will make living out my words possible.  With this in mind, I have created a few smart goals to accompany each of my words for the year.

Perspective

Most of my smart goals are related to Perspective, for a few reasons.  First, it’s my primary word for the year; prayerfulness and poise stem from it and I hope lead towards it.  Secondly, it’s a bit of a catch all.  The place where I most need perspective is work (I need to not let the petty (and legitimate) frustrations, the causes for anxiety, the at-times-annoying people get to me the way I do), and I’m of the mind that focusing on all the joyful, successful, meaningful and life-giving aspects of my life outside of work will help me remember what is important, thus giving me perspective when I have to deal with the inevitable challenges at work.  For this reason, I’ve crafted a whole slew of goals that will direct my attention outside of work.  That’s perspective after all, right? (one of my favorite definitions: a true understanding of the relative importance of things).

  • Try at least one new recipe from each of my cookbooks.  I have all these great cookbooks, but every time I want to try a new recipe, I look on pinterest or elsewhere on the internet, not in them.  I thought this would be a good goal to help me enjoy my home more… and delve into a hobby that I always take pleasure in, cooking.
  • Read Middlemarch.  I have a “Read Before I Die” list and, for the past several years, have tried to read one or two books off of it each year.  This is the year for Middlemarch.
  • Go on one adventure a month (I have a list of adventures, which I’ll discuss in a different post).
  • Complete a full twelve weeks of BBG (this is the exercise plan that I use fairly consistently — I really like it — but hop all over with; having consistency and a sense of completion but completing the full 12-week cycle will be satisfying).
  • Decrease sugar consumption by taking sugar-free weeks, or weeks with sugar just one or two days.  There is no reason that I should be having dessert every day, if not multiple times a day.  With 28 upon me, it’s time to change this.
  • Acknowledge birthdays. Send cards, texts, emails or phone calls.  Do something to celebrate and connect with the people I love. 
  • Blog 50 times.
  • Connect with my siblings monthly, at minimum.  My brothers and sister, along with Caleb and my parents, are the people who matter most to me in the world and I almost always have fun and feel lifted up when I talk/text/snap with them.  And yet, I don’t do it enough. 
  • Get organized with giving.  I donate here and there, but in a highly disorganized fashion.  I want to consider what causes and organizations I value and admire (and Caleb, too) and get organized about making donations to them. 

Prayerfulness

  • Reflect/journal for at least fifteen minutes each day. 
  • Continue to invest in Spiritual Direction, and integrate what Rosemary (my Spiritual Director) has to say to me into my life. 
  • When I have a lull moment — in the grocery store line, or the shower or the car — give a “help, thanks, wow” prayer: ask for help with something I need, say thanks for something I’m grateful for, and lift a word of praise.
  • A feeling of skepticism accompanies most of my moments of prayer; let the skepticism go

Poise

  • Wear heels more, because: look good, feel good, do good.  Or, as William James more poignantly wrote, “Actions seems to follow feeling, but really actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”  In other words, if I look poised, I will feel more poised, and I will be more poised.
  • Floss daily and take vitamins at least a few times each week.  Flossing is one of those things that I have known for a long time I should do regularly, but just couldn’t have been bothered about it.  I figured that 2017 was as good a time to commit to this as any, and I knew that developing this healthy habit would help me feel on top of my life; the same goes for vitamins.  These goals loosely tie into poise for the same reason as wearing heals.
  • Before going into situations that I know will push my buttons, prepare myself: take a deep breath and say a prayer for composure and remind myself that I have agency and the ability to be poised.  Then go act accordingly!

“Life is Hard. But Love Wins.”

I recently read this quote by Glennon Doyle Melton on her Instagram feed: “Life is hard.  But love wins.”  If I had to pick six words to summarize my philosophy of life, those might be them. dsc_0133

Challenge, struggle, grief, pain, frustration, annoyance, anxiety — these things are real.  Informed by Internal Family Systems model, I am a big proponent of acknowledging and naming all our feelings, of giving the negative as well as the positive a voice, of normalizing the dark aspects of ourselves and our experiences that we so often want to hide or gloss over.  Life is hard.  And if not particularly so in the present moment, we know that it will be: we will all face losses and heartache and disappointment, in some capacity.  As one of my favorite Divinity School professors said, “the one thing I guaranteed my children upon giving them life was death.” 

And yet.  (Those are two golden words themselves, offering the chance for a closer examination, a longer look, a turning over of an idea, like a coin in your hand, to get a different perspective.)

Hope, satisfaction, relief, connection, warmth, joy, kindness — these things, the many manifestations of love in its various emotions and flavors, are also real. dsc_0107

Caleb is visiting his parents and siblings in Ohio for our sweet niece’s first birthday party, so I’m spending the morning in bed, content with my laptop, journal, a stack of books, and a cup of coffee.  I’m cozy under the weight of the quilt my mom made us for a wedding gift, with its “courthouse steps” and “Ohio star” patterns, mixing fabrics from my childhood — snips of halloween costumes and Cameroonian prints and my St. Andrew School uniform.  What a gift of love.  What a tangible reminder of the attention, time, creativity, discipline and tenderness my mom has wrapped around me — warm and protective, like the quilt itself — for the past almost-three decades.dsc_0125

I’ve felt anxious and sad about my parents this past week.  My mom slipped on the ice — breaking her nose, jamming her shoulder and gashing her forehead — and then they’re also about to head off for six months in Uganda.  I worry about them and I worry about me and what I would do if something happened to them.

The realness of love doesn’t negate the hardness of life, but maybe it makes it worth it. 

Words for the Year

New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap.  I always begin the book group I facilitate with an icebreaker question — a way for the varied members gathered to get to know each other better, and a way for me to be reminded of everyone’s names — and this past week I asked after any New Year’s Resolutions.  Not only did 90% of the group not have resolutions, they actively disdained the whole premise of resolutions. 

Haters gonna hate/to each their own/different strokes for different folks/insert your chosen cliche here, and I stand firmly and excitedly by the premise of New Year’s Resolutions.  Goal setting, in general, gives me a sense of order, the chance to self-examine — to reflect on where I am and where I want to be — and an opportunity for growth.  Sure, January first is an arbitrary date for initiating goals and reflecting, but aren’t all holidays arbitrary dates for celebrating the things that matter to us (patriotism, gratitude, faith, love) and the things that make life fun (candy, autumn, warm weather)?  And isn’t an arbitrary date better than no date at all?  Having a set date ensures — for me, at least — that reviewing my life and making plans to improve it will happen at least annually. 

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Because I so enjoy the process of making New Year’s resolutions, and goal setting in general, I tend to make many resolutions.  For the past few years, I have also picked a word as an overarching theme for the year.  This year, I chose three words (all related) and each of my more concrete goals relates in some way to the words.  The words are like the light at the beginning and the end of the tunnel, and my individual goals are like the path that stretches through the tunnel.  The purpose of each individual goal is to help me reach the end, but the light at the end is also the light that propels me to move forward and illuminates the path. 

This year, my words are perspective, prayerfulness and poise.  I spent the afternoon journaling about the words to help me get a better sense of what they mean to me — how I hope they will frame my year, and what I hope they will guide me towards. 

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Do you have New Year’s Resolutions?

Holiday Reading

I was like a kid in a candy shop with my Christmas holiday reading — delighted, and a tad bit hyper-active. I bounced back and forth between three winners: Anna Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley, David Brooks’ The Road to Character, and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.

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Since its recent publication, I had been saving Miller’s Valley, and, much as I enjoyed it, I also regretted finishing it.  For me, having an unread Anna Quindlen novel is akin to possessing a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It’s comforting to know that when hard-times come I have an almost-guaranteed good read on the shelf…all I can say is that my girl Anna better be hard at work on her next novel and taking good care of her health. 

The Road to Character is my kind of non-fiction: interesting, well-researched, digest-able, and relevant.  I don’t read anything that I think is entirely irrelevant (is anything entirely irrelevant?), but hey, a biography of Marcel Proust is uncontestedly less applicable to my life than the insights of David Brooks. What I particularly appreciate about Brooks is his ability to, on top of presenting thought-provoking information, instigate self-reflection.  I certainly wouldn’t consider his non-fiction “self-help,” but it prods me to examine my way of being in the world.

And Zadie Smith?  Well, she’s just flawless.  Swing Time includes almost all of my favorite attributes of R.F.P.P: it’s a coming-of-age story meets family drama meets tale of female friendship.  On top of that, it’s an “expand your worldview” kind of novel, giving me the opportunity to look at the world from a new perspective. 

I would highly recommend all three of these books.