Identify the Essential

What peace looks like to me

In trying to figure out what I could write about in a few spare moments on this insanely busy day, I decided to search for some zen thoughts. I consulted my closest friend…Google. Today, Google generously presented me with this article about 15 Can’t-Miss Ways to Declutter Your Mind. My mind is always whirring, which is why  I am trying to focus on living now and zen.

The article is especially relevant at this time of year. I scrolled through its suggestions and my mind got stuck on this idea today: “Identify the Essential.” I have a nasty habit of biting off more than I should chew. It’s never more than I can chew. It’s just more than I should force myself to chew. I am a highly energetic doer, so I nearly always manage to find a way to accomplish anything I set myself in motion to do, even when that means sacrificing sleep, time with my family, and peace of mind. I too often take on the unessential in an attempt to make things “more special”. It’s ridiculous, really.

Let me give you an example. Right after Thanksgiving, I started thinking about ways to make the holidays more memorable for the boys. So, I added things to our to-do list to add in these memories. I bought gingerbread house kits, tickets to see lights displays, and crafts for us to do as a family. I scheduled trips for skiing, ice skating, and play dates. And, I added all these things to our already packed holiday calendar. All this has accomplished is making me more frazzled than I already was. I’m shoving my kids into the car, dragging them off places in a tizzy, and I think all they’re really getting out of my attempt to create positive holiday memories for them is a lasting impression that their mom becomes even more psychotic each and every holiday season.

So, next week, we’re packing our bags and heading to our home away from home to relax. We might go skiing or snowshoeing. We might go skating, sledding, or to the hot springs. We might cuddle on the couch with the snow falling outside and watch Christmas movies. Or we might just stay in our pajamas, playing board games and doing puzzles. Maybe we’ll just nap and rest up for Christmas? All I know is that after an entire month of self-inflicted chaos, we’re going to take four full days to focus on the essential…time together. Because deep down inside I know that what is essential to my boys is time with us. Sure. They love their Christmas gifts. When the trees are taken down and the gifts are long forgotten, however, what they will take away from the holidays will either be memories of stress and discord or memories of fun and togetherness. I think they’d prefer the latter.

God’s Plans

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...

My life has not turned out at all like I had originally planned. When I was an innocent 18 year old in 1986 heading off to the University of Colorado, I planned to get my PhD, become a writing or literature professor, travel the world, read great books, and see amazing things. I had no plans to get married or have children because I felt my personality was not suited for either of those things.

Fast forward to 1999. I’m married because I met a fantastic guy who made me feel 100% comfortable and loved and who was a blast to be around. He was also willing to put up with me for the rest of my life, so there you go. I’m finishing my Master’s degree and working on my incredibly specialized thesis on sophistic rhetoric and its applicability to modern technical communication (yawn). I realize there is no way I actually want to pursue my PhD because I can’t see myself in a working environment with the professors who would be my colleagues. I mean, who wants to spend their days listening to some overinflated coworker carrying on about how he is the foremost authority on diary literature of women in the 19th century (double yawn)? Add to that the prospect of a dissertation and suddenly the professor gig is not worth the effort.

Jump forward twelve years. It’s 2011. I have my Master’s degree, am still happily married, and now am the career-less stay-at-home mother of two sons. Huh. I earn no paycheck, clean toilets (and if you’ve ever cleaned the toilet in a boy’s bathroom, well…all I can say is Ewwwwww!) and do laundry, and manage our small household. Not at all what I had planned.

There are days when I truly struggle with where my life is now compared with where I dreamed at 18 it would be. I never expected to be here, and yet all the choices I made brought me here. This means I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Even though I understand this on an intellectual level, my ego still has difficulty accepting that the life I created is not outwardly successful as I imagined it would be. I struggle not because my life is not great, but because I can’t seem to relinquish what I thought was supposed to do.

Once I saw a bumper sticker that has become a regular mantra in my life when I am struggling: “There are God’s plans and there are your plans. Your plans don’t count.”

I need to remember that not all divergent paths are negative ones. The detours I’ve taken may have led me off the map I had set for myself, but they’ve still gotten me somewhere. It might be a more circuitous path, but life is about the journey and not the destination, right? So, maybe the secret to success isn’t in the achieving all your intended goals. Maybe it’s in appreciating the experiences you’ve had, especially the ones that were never part of your plans. Most of my greatest joys have come through things I never thought were supposed to happen. Maybe I’m not off track. Maybe I’m actually onto something.

Hell Week

Ground Zero

In college there is this lovely ritual where new pledges are hazed mercilessly for a full week while under conditional acceptance to the fraternity they are hoping to join. I have to admit that I recall that week of school each year with particular fondness. Nothing like watching college guys strip down to their skivvies and dance around in the University Memorial Center fountain while Madonna’s Like a Virgin plays. The tradition is aptly called Hell Week, and when it’s someone else’s week of hell it’s genuinely amusing and in good fun.

The seven days from December 12-December 19th each year comprise my own personal Hell Week. While I’m not being forced to carry around a baby doll while wearing a giant diaper on the outside of my clothing, it’s still a test of my spirit, my holiday spirit. How far am I willing to go and how much stress can I take? Why is this week my Hell Week? Well, in addition to all my “normal” life activities (cleaning, laundry, cooking, errand running, homework coaching, care of pets and children, etc.), I have the holiday crunch. Christmas cards have to go out, wrapping must be done, gifts for neighbors and teachers made and distributed, boxes must be shipped, and school Christmas parties attended. To top it all off, December 20th is my husband’s birthday, which means I’m also looking for birthday gifts, birthday cake, and preparing to host family for that celebration. My current to-do list, which does not include any of my regularly scheduled responsibilities, is over 20 items long. I’m going cross-eyed looking at it.

In my constant effort to find greater peace in my life, I could just shred the list, pop A Christmas Story in the DVD player, pour some Bailey’s into a mug of hot chocolate, and let it all go. I could do that. But, I know how much all the holiday fanfare means to my hubby and my kids. Just because I would rather pack a suitcase, lock up the house, and spend the entire Christmas holiday on a beach in Hawaii doesn’t mean that’s their holiday fantasy. So, I suck it up.

I know I’m not the only person who does this. I know we are all overburdened this time of year. My method of dealing with Hell Week is simple. I pause occasionally to find stillness and to breathe consciously, even if remembering to find temporary stillness requires setting the alarm on my iPhone. When I stop rushing, remove myself from the chaos, and quiet my life momentarily, I become centered and find the energy to begin again from a better place. To adjust my Grinch attitude, I try my best to do this:

“Learn to become still. And to take your attention away from what you don’t want, and all the emotional charge around it, and place your attention on what you wish to experience” ~ Michael Beckwith

Namaste, friends.

Unexpected Gifts

Lucky Girls

Today is my friend Celeste’s birthday. Last night she called and asked if I would be willing to go for a manicure/pedicure with her today to help her celebrate. Well, what kind of friend would I be if I had denied her birthday request? So, today we sat side by side in Tootsies Nail Shoppe in Wash Park enjoying some pampering. It was heavenly.

Afterward we had just enough time to stop into The Tavern for a quick beer and some long overdue conversation. As we sat there catching up, though, it occurred to me that what made the day special was not the manicure and pedicure that left my winter hands and feet sparkling and soft. It wasn’t the “me” time or the ability to afford it. It wasn’t even the time spent with a good friend musing about life. It’s the friendship itself.

It’s easy to become preoccupied with life’s minutiae and lose sight of what’s truly important. Celeste and I met at the Taste of Colorado. In an act totally out of character, I started a conversation with a stranger who would become one of my dearest friends. With our busy schedules, sometimes we lose sight of each other for weeks at a time. I’m grateful when we can get in a skate or a coffee date or a hike with our boys. I’ve learned a lot from Celeste, like how to bargain at a garage sale and how to t-stop on roller blades. She’s taught me it’s okay to laugh at myself when I do silly things, like showing up at the zoo unintentionally wearing two different flip-flops. We’ve tried new things together (snowboarding) and trekked 50-miles in Southern California for MS. And, if I ever decide to go on the Amazing Race, Celeste would most definitely be my first choice for race partner. I’m a better person today because of the time we’ve spent together.

Although it was her birthday today, I was the one who got a gift…a reminder that it’s not the little things (like manicures) that make life worth living. It’s the intangibles like unexpected friendships that matter most.

Big Brother

Inundation of Baby Information

Ever get the feeling that someone out there knows more about you than you know about yourself? I’ve been getting all these mailings via the US Postal Service (and oodles more in my email inbox too) geared toward expectant mothers and mothers of infants. I am a bit befuddled. I don’t think I am pregnant. I don’t appear to be exhibiting any of the usual symptoms. Furthermore, my husband was fixed 8 years ago and, due to health issues, I take birth control pills. At this point, the only pregnancy at my house would have to occur through immaculate conception. And, anyone who knows me knows that “immaculate” part is questionable.

I’ve gotten information about the best hospitals in Denver for childbirth, photography studios specializing in newborns, and reasons why I should save cord blood. My 8 and 10 year old sons are a tad too old for the three containers of infant formula that have shown up. Flyers for pediatricians’ offices, coupons for Carter’s clothing, and copies of American Baby magazine continue to arrive despite the fact that it is thankfully highly unlikely I am with child.

When the mail onslaught first began, I was troubled. I don’t like junk mail to begin with, but junk mail that isn’t even remotely applicable to me is that much more unwelcome. It’s filled my recycle bin each week. As time has gone on and the mailings have continued, however, I’ve started seeing them in a different light. Now they make me smile. In a time when people are overly concerned about privacy, they simply prove that the Big Brother that everyone worries about, the one that is collecting information about our buying habits and preferences, isn’t always right in his assumptions. It’s wise to be careful with your information, but it’s not sensible to become obsessed with protecting it. Unless you habitually purchase using cash alone, Big Brother will find it out about you and you’ll know when he does. Suddenly you’ll start receiving a plethora of catalogs for fruitcake, just like the one you purchased for your Great Aunt Mildred for Christmas. Don’t worry. I know you don’t like fruitcake. Your secret is safe with me.

Little Lessons

So many DVDs, so little free time

I have a little confession: my family and I have become addicted to Little House on the Prairie. How we got to this point is a long story starting with a lesson in school about Laura Ingalls Wilder and ending with repeated trips to the library to check out DVDs.

Last night after we had cruised through another disc in Season Two, hubby said, “I think every American should have to watch this show.”

I have to agree. Little House is exactly the kind of show this nation needs right now. It’s filled with messages about getting along with others despite differences, facing challenges with bravery and tenacity, appreciating the little things, and giving back as much as you get in this world. Those are appropriate reminders in days when no one can find common ground, the easiest way is the only way, and we have more than ever before and it’s still not enough.

Last night before bed, I asked the boys to list off some of the lessons they’ve learned from the show thus far. Their answers were both insightful and humorous.

  • Never try to keep a raccoon for a pet.
  • Don’t spoil your kids or they will be mean like Nellie.
  • Be grateful for what you have.
  • Don’t blow yourself up with dynamite.
  • If you are good to others, they will be good friends.
  • It’s okay to push a bully if they’re asking for it.
  • Wear your glasses even if other kids call you “Four Eyes.”
  • Never climb a tree to get a kite. It’s not worth it.
  • Once upon a time, Mankato was the big city.

I’m chagrined to admit that I get teary eyed at nearly each episode, but watching the shows again has reminded me of how much I have to appreciate and how little time I spend actually appreciating it. I’m thankful that I don’t have to go outside to pee in the middle of the night in the dead of winter. I’m thankful that I have an ample supply of hot water at my fingertips. I’m thankful that my house is heated and I’m not perpetually doomed to smell like a campfire. And I’m eternally thankful that I don’t have to deal with that bitchy Harriet Oleson.

Mostly, though, what I’m taking away from our addiction to Little House is time with my family, snuggled on the couch, talking about life and love and friendship. I’m happy to have this time with my boys before they become teens and want nothing more to do with me. I’m also thrilled to know that when times get tough for my little guys in the next few years we’ll be able to draw upon the things we’ve observed with the Ingalls. And, if they give me a hard time about their Christmas gifts this year, I’m just going to remind them that Laura received a tin cup, a piece of peppermint candy, and a shiny new penny and said it was the best Christmas ever.