2013 – Bring It! and, Word of the Year

Image courtesy of Flickr user kaseycole

Image courtesy of Flickr user kaseycole

So, 12/21/12 has come and gone, and here we still are!  Phew!

These past few months have been tiring, complicated, sad, and full of opportunities for growth.  My energies have been focused on healing and introspection as we try as a family to find the new normal, over and over again.  We are still scrambling a bit to find our footing, but I think we are well on our way.

I am grateful for the arrival of 2013, and the new beginnings it represents.  I have never been one for resolutions, but this year I do feel that we are in the perfect place to push the reset button and make a fresh start.  The chaos of Hurricane Sandy and the holidays and the flu has passed, and we are finally settling back into a routine.

Last year, in lieu of a resolution I decided to pick a word of the year.  My inner geek loves the challenge of picking one word to embody my aspirations for the coming months.  Merriam-Webster picked two words for 2012 – “capitalism” and “socialism”; Oxford American Dictionary chose “gif” (pronounced “jif”, FYI); Dictionary.com chose “bluster”; and the American Dialect Society gave the honors to “hashtag”.  Personally, I don’t find any of these words particularly compelling, but whatever.

As for my personal Word of the Year for 2013:  NOW.  My challenge to myself is to cultivate mindfulness and presence – to be here now, to attend to what is true now.  Now.  And….now.

I am reading Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, and in it he describes the nature of life as a Buddhist monastic: we sit, we walk, we eat.  But doesn’t everyone do those things?  Yes, says the Zen master, but when we sit we know we are sitting, when we walk we know we are walking, and when we eat we know we are eating.

How often do we perform a task while our minds are in another place altogether?  I know I’m not the only one who gets in the car and starts driving only to arrive at my destination with no recollection whatsoever of how I got there.  Instead of attending to what is in front of me, I’m worrying about the past (which I cannot change) or the future (which I cannot control).  And I miss a lot along the way, not to mention the fact that this is not the surest road to mood stability.

I’ve started meditating regularly, and while it is often a struggle to just keep my body on the cushion – never mind cultivating a still mind full of concentration and focus – I have definitely noticed that I am much calmer and more able to meet difficult people and situations with compassion, patience, and attention.  I am a better parent, a better friend, and an all-around better person when I can stop the monkey mind for a moment and just do what I need to be doing NOW, whether that be listening to a story my kids want to tell, having a productive conversation with someone at work, understanding what a friend needs from me, or even paying attention to what I’m putting into my body instead of just shoveling in whatever food is convenient at the time.

So there you have it.  What about you?  What is your resolution or word for the coming year?

My word of 2012 (drumroll please)

This would be a good word of the year, but it's not the one I chose. image courtesy of flickr user libookperson

It seems that a number of the bloggers I follow are forging a new tradition.  They are not making resolutions this year (a practice that never appealed to me anyway); they are choosing a Word of 2012, words like “yes“, “edit“, and “focus“. This idea, to choose one word that has the potential to inspire and create intention, has captured my imagination.

Looking back over the American Dialect Society‘s list of Words of the Year (WotY) brings a sense of recognition and nostalgia: “tweet” for 2009, “metrosexual” in 2003, “chad” (as in hanging) for 2000, “Not!” in 1992, “google” for the decade 2000 – 2009.  It’s like turning the pages of your high school yearbook.  This year’s winner, “occupy”, seems a no-brainer: the word is brilliant shorthand for a complex idea that has come to capture public imagination.

Oxford Dictionary named “squeezed middle” the word of 2011 (significantly less compelling than “occupy”, and not even a word but two), and dictionary.com bestowed WotY honors upon “tergiversate”.  Yes, it’s a word.  ter-JIV-er-sate, to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; equivocate.  Hold onto that one for a crossword puzzle, because I can’t imagine any other context in which it would be useful.

I see choosing a personal WotY as less of a resolution-making-type activity and more of an intellectual exercise in wrapping my mind around the complexity that is my life.  I already am painfully aware of the areas where I need improvement – but can I create a code word that can help keep me focused?  Can I find one word that identifies and teases out the underlying current that runs like groundwater through my being and springs to the surface through my many faults?

I have pondered and meditated, and I have chosen for my 2012 WotY: foundation.  The basis or groundwork of anything.  In a nutshell, what I need to focus on right now is laying the foundation for a healthy life.  I need to work on sustaining my mental health.  I need to take better care of my physical health.  Most importantly, I need to focus on living my message and building a healthy home for my family.

When I am not at my best (a euphemism for hypomania or agitated depression), I forget to make dinner, keep track of our schedule, and give the kids a bath and get them to bed on time.  This tends to happen when I am not eating well, exercising enough, or getting enough rest.  I jump from task to task without finishing anything, and I can’t focus attention when my kids want to tell me about their days, play a game of checkers, or read the next chapter of Junie B.  I am always scrambling but never really getting anything important done – because, let’s face it, those are the really important things.

This is not good for my children, and it is not the kind of mother I want to be.  I want our home to be a place of peace, consistency, solace, love, hugs, laughs, and fun, a place where my family feels cherished and cared for.  My personal code word – foundation – will remind me what is important, and to remember that laying a good groundwork will make everything else fall into place.

Why we buy stuff…and how we can stop

courtesy of flickr user *Saffy*

I heard an interview on NPR the other day with neuroscientist Dean Buonomano, author of the new book Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives.  One cognitive bias he discussed stuck out in my mind in particular: our bias towards immediate gratification.  Buonomano argues that this is hard-wired into us, and that we are powerless to resist.

While I was mulling that one, I read an article on Copyblogger (okay, so I’m a tech geek) that talks about ways to convert blog visits to sales of your product (e-book, consulting, whatever).  The author answers the question of why people buy things thusly:

Very few of the things we buy are truly necessary.

Everything else we buy is used as a way of telling the story of who we are, what we believe, and what we aspire to be.

As someone who is currently getting much more serious about simplifying, I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two ideas.  On the one hand, our brains are hard-wired to want what we want when we want it, and on the other hand the advertising and marketing industries have become very good at convincing us that if we buy this thing, it will enhance our deepest selves and help us communicate that self to others.

Is it any wonder that voluntary simplicity is so difficult?  Or that so many people have put themselves so deeply into debt buying stuff?

Yes, self-control is key.  But I’ve found that I also have to be much smarter about the environments in which I choose to place myself.  If I find myself where the options are many and arrayed in such a way to make me want them, then my self-control will wane rather quickly and I will impulsively purchase something that I don’t really want.

So, here are some strategies I have developed for buying less:

1.  Don’t go shopping!  If I can possibly help it, I avoid going to stores.  I prefer to get food wholesale or at the farmer’s market.  I don’t like buying clothing, especially for myself, but if I must, I like to go to consignment stores.  Impulse buying is definitely not as much of a threat there, since you often have to spend time sifting through things to find one or two garments you actually want to buy!  Otherwise, try to borrow, or go to garage sales, or Freecycle, or at least Internet shop.

2.  Always shop from a list.  If I do go to a grocery store, I always bring a list.  I find that having a list (and a menu for the week planned out ahead of time) makes me much less likely to impulse buy.  I also have a wish list of bigger things (like cookware or furniture) so I can keep an eye out for them at garage sales and the like, and also so I can have time to think.  Many things get put on the list but then are crossed off when I change my mind a day or a month later.

3.  Don’t shop with your kids, if you can avoid it.  ‘Nuff said.  If you must, try to have something fun planned afterwards so you have the distraction factor on your side.  And make sure they are well-fed and well-rested before you go, to minimize the likelihood that their complaining will wear down your resolve.

4.  Examine your language and thinking.  I recently came across a blog called Penniless Parenting, which includes a weekly Needs vs. Wants post that examines the difference between what we actually NEED (i.e. food/water, shelter, and clothing) versus what we say we need but which is actually a WANT.  Electricity, hot running water, disposable toilet paper – all wants, really.  Perhaps luxuries that we would rather not live without, but in terms of survival they are not actually necessary.  Personally, I am unwilling to live without any of the above at this time, but simply by changing the way we think about things helps to change our relationship with Stuff.

What are your tips for living simply?

Go Confidently

courtesy of flickr user art by erin leigh

How many times have you seen this quote, on mugs, inspirational posters, magnets, greeting cards, paperweights, you name it.  It is a credo for taking life by the horns and going after the things you want.

Or is it?

I recently learned that this quote is incomplete.  Here it is in its entirety:

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler. ~ Henry David Thoreau

In fact, even this, while universally attributed to Thoreau but with no source noted, seems to be paraphrased from something he wrote in Walden:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the veritable poster child for simple living has had his words put on posters of misty mountain sunsets or powerful ocean waves and plastered in corporate boardrooms and lobbies as a rallying cry to go out and work more, earn more, and have more?

Yes, go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Yes, live the life you’ve imagined.  But what Thoreau is really saying here is that complicated dreams produce complicated lives, and these complicated lives require a lot of work to maintain.  When we focus on what it is that we are really looking for – love, companionship, community, interesting and meaningful work, new things to learn, comfort, security – we find that our perspective shifts so that we are content with less stuff and more grounded in ourselves and our world.

Simplify, Simplify

courtesy of flickr user coco frigerio

“Our life is frittered away by detail.  Simplicity, simplicity.”  ~Henry David Thoreau

When I was in my intensive psychiatric program this spring, one of their mantras was:  Simplify.

When you are in a place in your life where you are struggling and suffering, and getting through the days is a challenge, then strip it down.  Make it simple.  Decide what you need to do, what is a priority – and be brutally honest about what is really a need – and just do that.  Nothing keeps you down in a state of depression more than feeling lazy and unaccomplished, and when you set unreasonable goals for yourself you are setting yourself up to feel just that way.  As one of my colleagues (if that’s the right word) said, “Expectations are premeditated failure.”

So here I am in this place in my life where the tasks of daily living are a struggle.  Simplicity has always appealed to me in theory, but I had no idea what it meant in practice before.  Now I do, in a very real way.  I keep my days simple – get up, get breakfast for everyone, get showered and dressed, do stuff around the house, get people where they need to go, eat again…you get the idea.  There is no energy left for the extras, but as I get a little better each day I add an extra layer to the basic tasks.  I pop popcorn on the stove for snack, I make barbecue sauce from scratch, I include a little gardening in my home maintenance, I declutter a bit here and there.

I always thought that personally, I would feel empty just being a “homemaker”, but what I’m finding it is actually an incredibly liberating way to live, at least for now.  I have spent much of my adult life as what I would describe as a spiritual seeker, but I spent much more time reading about things like mindfulness and self-observation than actually practicing them.  Now, I have altered my expectations for myself, and I finally, for the first time in my life, feel really and truly free.  I’m not spending my time rushing through one task so I can attend to the next and the next and the next, crossing one thing off my mile-long to-do list while adding five more.  I am mindfully doing things like squeezing lemons for lemonade or watching my kids play at the park, and I feel fulfilled.  It may not be this way forever, but for now I am enjoying it.

The thing is – this kind of living doesn’t make for the most exciting blogging in the world.  I’m trying to live life as it comes, which means that I do a lot of things like spraying my kids with a hose and taking a leisurely stroll through the farmer’s market, but I’m not always thinking about how I can write about these things to make them appealing to readers.  I’m also not photographing things, because I don’t want to watch my life through a lens.  I want to LIVE it.  Over time, I’m sure I’ll find a way to synthesize the two – living mindfully and writing about my life – but for now, one thing at a time, one day at a time.  Everything doesn’t have to get done RIGHT NOW anymore.