mindfulness


Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself that I spent about 70% of my time in middle and high school writing novels. I tend to have to do this when I’m going through a period where I feel like I have little in common with the people around me, which happens from time to time. My early- to mid-20s were one such period, and I remember feeling more than anything like an alien who had been stranded on planet Earth only to have to try and make her way back home.

I’m saying all this not to expound upon what a unique and special snowflake I am, but to give you some background to understand my reaction to this line from Quiet, which I read last month:

I look back on my years as a Wall Street lawyer as time spent in a foreign country. It was absorbing, it was exciting, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people whom I never would have known otherwise. But I was always an expatriate.

I had to stop reading for a minute when I finished that line, and just look up and blink. I had never seen or heard it (“it” being this feeling that has followed me my entire life) phrased this way, but reading those sentences made me realize that back in the early 2000s, I didn’t know it, but I wasn’t the only alien stranded here on earth. I wasn’t the only expatriate.

The above paragraph gets to the heart of the matter, but really, reading Quiet was deeply gratifying. Not only did it show me that many of the things about myself that I have always thought (or were told) were character flaws aren’t, but it just made me sit and think about some other things that I’ve taken for granted. Like what I want out of a career (if I even want a traditional “career”). What that says about me. What makes me happy, and what merely feels like an obligation.

Much of my career was spent in the social work field, which I found satisfying and interesting, and for a long time I was bound and determined to resume that once my kids were old enough. But these last several months have me rethinking everything, including my dedication to my old career. Did I pursue social work because I felt a true personal passion for it, or because I felt a moral obligation to help other people? Why do I view helping through such a narrow lens? Why do I feel like being a stay-at-home mom is selfish sometimes? Why do I believe that taking my own nature into account when I’m making decisions is akin to cheating? Why do I think that spending my time writing, and finally challenging myself to write a good novel, isn’t a good enough use of my time?

1634

I don’t have any pictures uploaded of myself as a 13-year-old novelist, so this idyllic scene will have to suffice. You can’t see the cat that’s just out of the frame.

I should say that I’m closer to letting those things go than I ever have been, and reading books like Quiet and March have helped a lot. I didn’t realize how much I reflexively resist my nature or deny it, but I suspect that goes a long way toward explaining a lot of things: my mental struggles with not working; my lack of writing; even that feeling Cain describes above in relation to work, feeling like almost every job I’ve ever had was like being in a foreign country. Truthfully I think a lot of my struggles with being a stay-at-home mom arose from a sense of guilt or a reluctance to allow myself to enjoy it.

Does this all sound painfully neurotic, and certainly too neurotic for one’s mid-30s? (You should have been around in 2003 …) I just feel like my compass is finally facing the right direction. I am finally taking the steps that will lead me home. I don’t have to be an expatriate forever after all.

Advertisements

I finished Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours last week feeling pretty settled in the fact that I don’t think she’d like me very much.

Don’t get me wrong — I gleaned some good wisdom from her, especially stuff that I can take with me when I eventually resume working outside the home again. Learning more about how to be more efficient and mindful with one’s time is something I am always interested in.

But I would love to hear her thoughts on my lifestyle in general. Cloth diapering? Homemade yogurt? Cooking from scratch? Cleaning your own house?? — Based on an entire chapter in which she chronicles women’s triumphant liberation from the tyranny of homemaking, she clearly doesn’t think very highly of it in general, which is a sad thing to me. I’m not morally opposed to some of her suggestions, but her basic advice in the “home” section of the book seems to boil down to if you don’t want to do it, pay someone to do it for you, which I think is overly simplistic, not realistic for a lot of people, and frankly short-sighted. I think eschewing a lot of these humble, everyday, unglamorous errands and chores is, in a way, eschewing a lot of life in general.

Yeah, it gets old and tiresome and tedious, but there’s something inherently satisfying in homemaking to me that I think I would miss — a lot — if I were to allow someone else to maintain my home for me, do my cooking, wash my clothes, and do my gardening. And I read a blog post* today that elucidated that feeling pretty well:

A few weeks ago, as I was turning on the dishwasher before we left my place, she said something like, “Dishwashers are what’s wrong with the world.” Something about that sounded right. I asked her to explain.

“Life is composed of primarily mundane moments,” she says. “If we don’t learn to love these moments, we live a life of frustration and avoidance, always seeking ways to escape the mundane. Washing the dishes with patience and attention is a perfect opportunity to develop a love affair with simply existing. You might say it is the perfect mindfulness practice. To me, the dishwasher is the embodiment of our insatiable need, as a culture, to keep on running, running, running, trying to find something that was inside of us all along.”

We used to have to spend a lot more time and attention maintaining our basic possessions. Dishes had to be washed by hand, stoves had to be stoked, clothes had to be mended, and meals had to be prepared from scratch.

Little was automated or outsourced. All of these routine labors demanded our time, and also our presence and attention. It was normal to have to zoom in and slow down for much of our waking day. We had no choice but to respect that certain daily tasks could not be done without a willing, real-time investment of attention.

“It helps to cultivate patience,” says Lily, “and the enjoyment of a task which we usually discard as ‘not worth it’, too boring, too mundane, blase. It gives us the chance to take a little peek into the tiny but enormous world of simply noticing what is around you, and engaging fully with it. If you are someone who is naturally averse to washing dishes, you abhor it, you avoid it at all costs, you grudgingly go through it as quickly as possible… Well then, this is the perfect opportunity to engage fully with those feelings, and to gently scrub them away, until what you are left with is the realization that life is an amazing, and beautiful, and precious gift, no matter what kind of activity you are engaged in. You are surrounded by great textures, and images, and formations of light, and sounds, and smells, and everything, all the time.”

I think there is a lot of wisdom here. This time of year, you hear a lot of people talking about how much they’re looking forward to summer vacations or bemoaning that they just need a break from the mundane. One of my goals in life, generally speaking, is to have a life I don’t feel the need to escape from. As I’ve said to Steve many times, doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen and vacuuming the floors and doing the laundry and all that goes into homemaking is, in essence, Sisyphean (Laura Vanderkam even uses the same word!)It makes no sense to me to spend so much of my time fighting against it when these “primarily mundane moments” are all around me. If I want a life I don’t feel the need to escape from, I need to be at peace with everything in it, not just the pretty parts that I like.

So this is why I can’t fully get on board with Laura Vanderkam, though I think her advice probably works really well for people who have a very different life than I do or who are truly more pressed for time than I am. As a stay at home mom I need to use my time wisely, but I have a lot more flexibility with that time than a working mom does. But even if my time were more divided and I did find myself feeling more frazzled and rushed every day, I still think I might stop and do the dishes (or fold the laundry, or pack my own lunch, or plant my own flowers). I want to be fully engaged with all of my life. Not just some of it.

Anyway. In other news, I did this to my hair:

8632239442_5271600bb7

I think the lighting here makes me look kind of sickly … but you get the idea. Now I just need to find a mountain to climb so I can start singing about how the hills are alive. I love it.

* Raptitude.com: one of my favorite blogs these days. Go check it out.

… or so says Laura Vanderkam in 168 Hours. I started reading it on Tuesday and am about 2/3 of the way through it — so far, so good, although it has made me continue to miss being in the workforce! (I know, I know … move on …) — Her comments on balancing career and home were an encouragement to me, though, instead of making me feel guilty, lazy, or condescended to. It makes me feel hopeful that someday I will have the opportunity to put some of this advice to practice.

In the meantime, the first immediate takeaway that I have from reading is the reminder that how I spend (or waste) my time is a choice, not a mandate, and that the best way to make the most of my time (and thus, my life) is to, well, spend as much of my time as I can on those things that are important priorities, not mindless time-fillers. I am especially bad about this at night, but I’m working on it. Reading books, not surfing the web on the iPad. Getting to sleep at a reasonable hour. Cleaning up in the moment rather than letting clutter sit. It’s a process, but it always will be.

This week in particular was a good example of living according to my priorities. Now that the ten-miler is finished, I’m not attached to a training plan anymore — and consequently, my workouts became a much lower priority. It was suddenly incredibly easy to just “not have time” to get a three-mile run in simply because random other things happened to pop up. Of course, this isn’t at all how I want to be prioritizing my time, so I’ll have to do some things a bit differently next week. Just yesterday I realized (as it was happening, of course) that I wasn’t using my time wisely if I wanted to be able to run, do some errands and get some baking accomplished while also having enough time to hang out with my babe and not feel frazzled trying to get everything done. I managed, but barely. It’s becoming so clear to me that managing my time in accordance with my values and priorities is something I really need to be working on. If I have a hard enough time with it now — as a stay-at-home mom to one easy-enough baby — how much harder would this be if I had multiple children and/0r a career or graduate school to balance as well? So I can consider this time in my life a good time to practice these habits and start living fully in the way that I want to.

Anyway. Today is Easter (He is risen!) so here are a few pictures from brunch:

8606414047_c152ddd690

Will and Steve arrived late to brunch because Will took a nice long nap after church. (We lucked out after we had to wake him up a full two hours early to take him to the early service!)

8606410783_95474441db

Look at this big gummy smile. Someday he will have teeth and I will miss this! (By the way, do you think he needs a haircut?)

8606411611_76f6cd8ff4

Happy Easter!

Next week I will observe the one-year anniversary of my last day of work. Since then, it’s been a day by day challenge to adjust to a new way of life — not just a new daily routine, but a new way of looking out at the world.

8537425801_e6a9b91ed2

Being a stay-at-home mom has been harder for me than I expected, but for much different reasons than I would have anticipated. Before, if I had to guess what the hardest part of staying home would be for me, I would have chosen some vague variation on losing patience with children or being tired or not having anyone to talk to every day. But instead, by far the hardest thing has been giving up what feels like the whole outside world.

One piece of very good advice that my sister Leah gave me when Will was born was to not let my world shrink too much. Without a job outside the home, it can be so, so easy to let my life be contained to the four walls of my house, and I have put a lot of effort into pushing against that. Ever since Will grew out of the newborn stage I have been very intentional about making sure my world was bigger than that, and I think it’s helped a lot. But I honestly did not expect that I would miss that old life, and certainly not that I would still miss it so much a year later.

Point of clarification — I don’t mean that I miss not being a mom, because I don’t. But I miss feeling like I have a place out in the world.

8537426739_17ff7cd92b

Anyway. All that to say, since I am a stay-at-home mom at the present, it does me no good to sit here sighing and looking wistfully out the window, imagining how very, very green the grass is on the other side of the fence, instead of enjoying my baby and investing my energy into my home. So I am trying to look at things differently. Can being a stay-at-home mom be a form of mindfulness?

In my own burgeoning practice of mindfulness, I’m trying to stay focused on one thing at a time. Not checking email and reading blogs and eating ice cream and watching TV and carrying on a conversation with my husband and trying to address the mess in the sink. I want to try and take the same approach to being a stay-at-home mom. Just do one thing right now, and do it well, and make the most of the simplicity in my life right now. After all, one of the major reasons I decided to stay home was so that I could have a simple life for a while.

8538532708_e81787cf37

But that simple life has turned out to be much more of a challenge to me — and so much more humbling — than I expected it to be. I hope I am up to the task.

By the way — these lovely pictures were taken by my very talented friend Maggie! Maggie was also our wedding photographer. I will share more of these pictures soon!

1. My word for 2013 is mindfulness. I want to be making the most of my time, and what I’ve realized is that the first step here needs to be mindfulness. I need to be aware of what I am doing and not moving aimlessly through my days. I keep saying that starts … NOW, though, and then not changing anything. One step at a time. I guess recognizing my lack of mindfulness is the first step.

2. The yoga work/study ended up not working, unfortunately. The timing overlapped directly with Will’s nap, meaning I couldn’t take him with me after all and that I had to ask my sister Karen to come by every week to watch him while I was gone; and in addition to that I wound up having to schedule my entire day around what was supposed to (in my mind, anyway) be a one-hour commitment. I guess that’s just my life stage right now, though. I’m glad I gave it a chance, but it wasn’t worth it in the end. Since regular, weekly yoga is prohibitively expensive for us now I am going to have to focus a lot on my home practice — which, happily, will dovetail nicely with my emphasis on mindfulness this year. I do still plan to go to yoga classes, just not every week, and probably not nearly as often as I was hoping to. Sigh. Once the ten miler and potential half-marathon are over, I plan to put a lot more energy into my yoga practice. I may not be able to get into some of the more advanced poses I want to be able to do, but I am really missing the mental benefits (and the deep stretch!) that I enjoyed when I was practicing more regularly.

3. I just saw this on Pinterest:

happycircle-ggsc

(click to enlarge)

(source)

Look what #1 is — heh. Mindfulness. Reading these kinds of infographics is very affirming, because these are habits I try to cultivate and maintain and it’s good to see concrete evidence of the ways in which they pay off. In a lot of ways, I feel very happy these days.

4. I have a lot of updates on previous posts that I want to write — about dressing as a stay-at-home mom, about introversion vs. extroversion and where I fall on the spectrum, mindfulness and happiness in general, and about more of my natural living merit badges — but I want to watch another episode of Downton Abbey, so it’ll have to wait. (We rented season one from the library. Obsessed.)

5. Look at this picture from this morning. Steve took Will to Target while I was doing my long run (12 miles — my longest distance yet!).

8479658133_b239ab5882

I know. Not that I’m biased or anything, but I think he’s basically the cutest baby that ever was.

Happy weekend!

I get so consumed with thinking about the future.

Actually, in my mind it’s not just the future, it’s THE FUTURE, all emphasis, all the time. I get so consumed with thinking about what comes next — when Will is older and he and his future sibling/s are out of the baby stage. Trying to decide about their schooling, about my career, our choices and lifestyle as a family. It gets overwhelming at times.

Just today a song on the radio reminded me of my early days in Virginia. I moved here when I was 24 — no job, no relationship, not even any friends in town! (Leah and my cousin Rebecca both lived here already, though, so it’s not like I was completely alone.) At the time none of this bothered me, but I remember later in my 20s feeling just the way I do now — unable to relax and enjoy the moment because I was so consumed with my anxiety over the future. Would I ever get where I wanted to go?

72_524848242766_5460_n

(I think this was taken in March 2007.)

Thinking back on that time in my life is like thinking about a different person. Look how different things are now:

4036334152_4d620c657a

8415040382_e23bd2f32b

And in the meantime I built meaningful friendships and a career I loved. I got where I was going to go, and I was always going to do so whether or not I spent all my time wondering if THE FUTURE was ever going to arrive. Of course it was. So why was I so worried?

I don’t want to look back on this time in my life and think to myself, why did I spend so much time worrying? Why didn’t I just enjoy it? — AT ALL.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:34

Obviously I can’t ignore the future and expect that that someday I’m thinking about will never arrive. (I’m living 20s-Amy’s someday right now, after all.) Instead, the best thing I can do is keep Future Amy in mind as I make my day-to-day decisions. Make my present look more like the future I am dreaming, rather than wishing away the present in hopes that the future will arrive sooner.

I think the reason I am clinging so tightly to a locked-down, this-is-what-will-happen-and-when step-by-step march into the next decade is that, I’ve realized, this stay-at-home mom lifestyle makes me feel like I am flying without a safety net, like I am untethered to the “outside world”. It feels terribly risky. I don’t know why, but there you go. It’s helping me to expand my definition of what life can be; I think deep down I still doubt that what I do every day is really worthwhile.

8040640784_c3b89a62a8

I mean, I doubt Will agrees with that.

Letting go of my anxiety over what comes next means letting go of the trapeze and just … flying. No safety net, just trust.

Time to work this out! I need my yoga mat.

While wasting time on Pinterest just now I came across this quote that I pinned a while back:

Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming.
— Alice Walker

To be honest my present does not look at all like the future I am dreaming. I want to be doing, not observing, and creating, not consuming. But lately that’s not happening.

This is a total excuse, but part of my sluggishness is that I am struggling a lot with my energy levels. I feel tired and worn out a lot of the time, so it makes it harder for me to motivate myself to get anything done. Little tasks feel like big tasks, and big tasks feel like they’re insurmountable challenges — even if I’m just thinking about loading the dishwasher. I am getting enough sleep these days, for the most part (Will has slept straight through the night [with a 10:00 dream feed] for about the last week! so exciting) but it’s still super hard to drag myself out of bed early for a run. I don’t know whether I’m not eating enough to sustain running and breastfeeding, or if my thyroid is out of whack, or if it’s just that I feel like I never really fully kicked that virus I had last month, or (honestly! I can take it!) if I’m having a long lazy moment, but it’s getting old.

I think I am just in a funk. What’s the best way to break out of a funk? I am letting myself slide into bad habits, becoming disorganized, overlooking clutter, and then feeling too overwhelmed to address anything. That has to stop — and yet, even just thinking about snapping out of it and getting off the sofa feels too hard. I feel stuck.

I want to reboot 2013. I have an ongoing list of projects in the back of my mind, and I need to address it without allowing it to make me feel overwhelmed. I need to remember that life is a process, not a destination to race toward. More than checking things off an endless to-do list, I need to get back on track with creating and maintaining good habits — both homemaking practices and personal wellness practices. I guess I just didn’t realize how easy it would be to fall off the wagon!

So to get myself inspired, I have been reading some zen habits.

Many of us work in an endless stream of tasks, browser tasks, social media, emails, meetings, rushing from one thing to another, never pausing and never ending.

Then the day is over, and we are exhausted, and we often have very little to show for it. And we start the next day, ready for a mindless stream of tasks and distractions.

That is not how I want to live anymore. (But we are making progress here, and not achieving perfection, even when it comes to living mindfully.)

enso

(source — this is enso, the Japanese symbol of zen mindfulness.)

I’m also thinking about something I’ve seen some other bloggers do, and that’s choose a word that I want to represent 2013. I am trying to decide between mindfulness and simplify. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had a great big obvious word to represent 2012, and that was joy. I kept that word in mind as I moved through the year and looking back, it did turn out to be an incredibly joyful year. So I want to do the same for 2013. Simplify or mindfulness?

At any rate, I need to be doing more to make my present look more like the future that I want — but I think I need to start from the ground up, not just forcing myself to go through the motions just to check them off the list. One thing at a time. I need to clean my kitchen, but why do I need to clean my kitchen? — because I want a calm, serene living space. Why do I want a calm, serene living space? — because walking into a messy kitchen stresses me out, but a clean, streamlined space makes me happy and relaxed. — And so on.

One thing at a time, though. One thought at a time. Happiness is a practice, remember?