Taming the Anxious Mind

This week I am learning the limitations of my cognitive powers and how anxiety is a full body experience. No amount of philosophy or mindfulness has been able to stop the stress dreams, the stomachaches, or the clenching of my jaw. I am on a steady diet of high fiber, probiotic foods and meditation, yet still I am struggling. Even when I have successfully shut down my rehashing of events and can recognize no reason for stress, a knot of nerves keeps emitting distress signals. All I can do is ride out the storm and do what seems to bring me the most relief: exercise, time outdoors, and creative expression.

Each day my attention has been divided in multiple directions: work, school volunteering, extracurricular activities, my daughter’s health issues, household management, etc. When I am in the grips of anxiety, it’s easy to get frantic with all that I could be doing, but I am currently not. This is when I need to really turn to my mindfulness and simplify my schedule. I have limitations and that is okay. I cannot fall into the trap of social comparison, measuring myself against those that *seem* to be doing it all flawlessly.

This past weekend, I mixed up the time for my daughter’s last soccer practice and showed up to the fields three hours late. When I realized my mistake, I could not help being swamped with agonizing regret and self-loathing. Who does this? I hate to fail others, and I hate to make mistakes, but no good comes from wallowing in negative feelings. All I will do is keep myself in this cycle of turmoil, bad outcomes, and recovery. Instead, I need to reflect on the cause and work towards a positive course of action to avoid further mix ups.

Writing about this makes me feel marginally better, as if I put medicine on a wound. This weekend I have made concerted efforts to speak my feelings, not hold them in and have them mutate into some other form, such as grumpiness. It’s the advice I give my children – give a name to it, so that we can deal with it. Negative emotions hold less power in the light.

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Needs, Wants, Work, and the American Way

Without realizing exactly what I was signing up for, I volunteered to be a Junior Achievement Consultant for my daughter’s first grade classroom. I discovered I would be leading five different class sessions to show the role businesses play in our communities and to inspire future entrepreneurship. Last week, I ran the lesson of needs versus wants. What do we truly need in order to survive? The lesson was presented in a fairly black and white manner. Clothes, food, and shelter were labeled as needs. Luckily, I had a few critical thinkers in the group, in particular, a little boy who challenged the idea that shelter and clothing were “needs.” In truth, these needs may be defined by the weather and the culture of where one lives. Also, not all food, clothes, and shelter are necessities. You may need a home with a roof and heat, but you do not need one with a game room.

When my winter semester ended, I had the choice of whether or not to teach more classes, as I already fulfilled my yearly contract. If I were to work more, I would earn more money. And as my Junior Achievement Consultant Handbook explained, money is necessary to supply both one’s needs and wants. However, it did not explain the harm of pursuing more money to purchase more wants. If I were to work more, I would have less quality, stress-free time with my children; I would have less time to read and write for pleasure; I would not be able to exercise as much; I would not be able to cook as many healthy meals; I would spend more time sitting and less time outdoors, etc.

I make enough money for the necessities of life and some savings. If I work more, it would be for items I truly don’t need. I am fine driving an older model Equinox I found through Craigslist, even though I don’t really like the color. I could work harder and purchase a newer, more stylish vehicle, but for me, the cost of working overtime is not worth the benefits.

Yes, I realize I am lucky that I have the luxury to choose. But a number of people could work less and have less. I marvel at how the picture of middle-class life has changed since I grew up.

According to Bloomberg, “In the 1890s, Americans had an average of 400 square feet of residential space per person. But by the early twenty-first century, that figure had doubled to 800 square feet.” Not only do these large homes cost more to build, they cost more to heat and cool. My childhood home was a modest ranch modular home. It was cute and comfortable, but no more than what was necessary. We bought our current home, which is an older cape cod structure, because we liked the peaceful setting and school district. Yes, higher ceilings, a large master bathroom, and an open staircase would be nice. But I believe a mortgage payment of under $800 is nicer.

Another change I see is in the school parking lots. Instead of driving vans, families want to drive Suburbans, Yukons, and Expeditions. It is not surprising that people are complaining that they no longer can live on middle-class wages. You can’t if you want to have all these so-called “necessities.” What happened to living below one’s means? It seems we are all being expected to live at the ceiling.

The big takeaway in the Junior Achievement “needs versus wants” lesson was the idea that individuals need to budget and prioritize. This concept is applicable not only for money management, but for time management. We can get buried in busy without actually accomplishing the items that are most important for our well-being and personal success. Time, like money, is a finite resource. And sometimes, we need time more than money.

Right now, I am a bad cog in the capitalist machine, as I am choosing time over money. Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge at guilt when people ask, “Are you off for the summer?” And I am not really off. I run a department, which means meetings, scheduling, staff interviews, etc. I am also expected to professionally development and plan my fall classes. Still, I am not working as many hours as I can, which doesn’t does not seem like the American way.

In my composition classes, we analyze the following commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNzXze5Yza8.  The Cadillac commercial should be viewed as a satire. Instead, it is a realistic portrayal of American consumerism: “As for all the stuff, that’s the upside of taking only two weeks off in August.”

A New Year of Daily Intentions

Spending New Year’s Eve sick was the best dose of reality. New year’s day was not the day I would begin my marathon training; it was not the day I would sort through my closet and minimize; it was not the day I would begin writing ten pages a day. It was the day I took care of myself, so that I could heal faster.

The best advice I read for the new year was to set daily intentions instead of one overarching resolution. On a given day I may intend to create a new lecture, clean out the fridge, write a blog, or rest and drink lots of liquids. It means taking a moment to read the day, consider my obligations, and gauge my own personal needs. Some days I genuinely need to work out, not to meet a dictating resolution for the year, but to clear my head and balance my emotions.

In my field of composition and rhetoric, I have learned that timing is key. A writer crafts his response to fit a particular moment. The action is co-determined by the setting, the current conversation, and audience. Likewise, my everyday actions are also determined by multiple factors. Perhaps it would be different if my life did not involve children and a job that has varying demands day by day. All I can do is make the best decisions in the moment. This is what I can cook and eat with the available ingredients and the allotted time. I have had write this blog post in pieces because sometimes a six year old appears on my lap or the noise level in the house escalates beyond the point at which I can concentrate. In those moments, I move on to a different intention, which doesn’t require the same cognitive labor or better serves the needs of my household.

My goal is not to set myself up for disappointment or agitation but to still have expectations. I have discovered when I have set up unsustainable goals, such as I am going to write 500 words a day, when I fail, I quit. A daily intention is not about a streak of behaviors that can be broken. It’s not a diet you can fail. It’s about waking up each morning and planning what you have to do and what you want to do. Today is the last day of my children’s winter break. My intention is to remove the holiday decorations, visit with my parents, let my children dictate some fun activities, and prepare for a work day tomorrow.

Ode to the Junk Drawer

Today, I was finally going to sew on a button– one of those things I always say I am going to do, but never do. At the end of last summer, the button popped from one of my favorite pair of jean shorts. They had seen me through a variety of shapes and forms, and I was not ready to retire them quite yet. I put the button in an empty margarita glass where I now keep my odds and ends. The fact that I keep spare buttons in a margarita glass says everything about where I am in my life at the moment. Nearly a year later, as I prepare for vacation and realize I will not have the luxury of every other day laundry, I went to sew my button on, but the button was gone, as well as a good portion of my other odds and ends. My husband decided to do my a favor and clean out “the junk.” Of course, I was livid. He was less than apologetic, as he genuinely thought he was doing me a favor. It’s easy to be judgmental and dismissive of the things people keep, which made my wonder, why do I keep so much “junk”?

For me, I spend a lot of time imagining what my future self may do: from sewing buttons to creating steampunk art (see my Pinterest for proof). The beads, charms, buttons, and random pieces contain possibilities. Unfortunately, I rarely have the time or energy to create much beyond meals and class plans. To throw them out, though, would be dismissing the possibility that I ever will have the time. That’s too much to bear. I like knowing I have a drawer full of treasures waiting to be rediscovered. I like knowing that I may make a piece of collage art, put together a necklace, or bring new life to a pair of jeans.

Being a working parent of small children, I had to put aside some pieces of myself. I don’t have hours to get lost in projects or to follow my whimsies. Instead of making messes, I am cleaning messes. It will not always be this way. I don’t know if keeping all these things is exactly healthy, as it is a form of hoarding. It also seems to go against the “be present” mantra of today’s preferred self-help operating mode of mindfulness, as it is an activity designed for “someday.” However, collecting, organizing, and revisiting my little treasures brings me joy. That is enough of a reason for me to keep “the junk.”

The Iconic Summer Road Trip: Niagara Falls

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Growing up, the few family vacations we took were not centered around amusement parks, luxury resorts, or current cultural trends. They were centered around iconic natural and historical landmarks: the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore, Gettysburg, and Washington D.C. We did not travel to relax; we traveled to explore. This is still how I like to travel. I have no desire to lounge around poolside or on a sandy beach. I want to see new places and be active within those environments. We kicked off our first summer trip with this spirit, taking in the iconic Niagara Falls. I was only there once twenty-five years ago and that trip is only a hazy memory.

My husband was reluctant to travel there, worrying about the tourist trappings that formed around the natural wonder. It was not a concern without merit. The surrounding area boasts of many “must-see” attractions that are low-rate productions, and it is hard to find a reasonably priced meal among the cost-inflated chain restaurants. Thanks to a Groupon deal we ended up staying at a tourist city staple, the Waterpark hotel. While it did detract a bit from the larger purpose of the trip, it’s hard to deny the value of active water play. I had a larger problem with the arcades, which my children think are a vacation requirement and I think are gaudy money pits. Still, we were never bored and entertained ourselves into a zombie-like state of fatigue every day.

Even with all the money grabs and tourist traps, the integrity and wonder of Niagara Falls shined through. Thanks to the fact that my son and I are early birds by design, we were able to sneak into the Niagara Falls parking lot before the gates came down and had a perfect, unobstructed view of both the Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls without any parking fees. The children were properly awed, and we enjoyed breaking out a selfie stick for the first time. However, after taking in the sheer scope of the falls, it took a lot of convincing to get them on one of the boats they saw braving the waters. When we went to the American side to take in the New York state park, we bought an attraction pass to climb along side the waterfalls, take a voyage on the Maid of the Mist, watch a movie on the legends of Niagara Falls, and visit the aquarium. My favorite part was getting close to the waterfalls and really experiencing their power. I did not remember getting that wet when I took the boat ride many years ago, but both the Cave of the Mists and the Maid of the Mist soaked me pretty well. The only real disappointment was the aquarium, which is quite small and centered on one attraction, sea lions.

Overall, it was a great trip. The children enjoyed entering another country and were fascinated by how many different languages they heard spoken by the tourists. It wasn’t the Disney Cruise my son wanted, but I think it was a much more valuable world experience. I would definitely go again.

Return to Meditation

It’s funny how the less busy I am, the more I need meditation. When I have my normal teaching schedule, I have a clear set of tasks. Grading papers, because of the focus required, seems almost like meditative training. When your mind begins to wander, you must always return to the paper, like a meditation guru returns to the breath.

However, when my days are not filled with eight hours of must-dos, I am unmoored and pulled in the many directions of want-to-dos. I want to work on my garden. I want to write more. I want to plan a summer schedule. I want to clean my office and bedroom. I want to cook some healthy dishes. So I turned to meditation today in order to increase my productivity and avoid decision paralysis — what should I be doing now? When starting to read Tim Ferriss’ Tools of the Titans, he stated 80 percent of his 200 featured “titans” had a type of meditative or mindfulness practice. As I titan-wannabe, I gravitated to this actionable item. I can do this.

When I hit play on my Google top search result of five-minute meditations, I was struck with the irony of doing a mindfulness meditation now in order to do more later. I was focusing on the present in order to better perform in the future. Part of mindfulness is letting go of the rehashing and rehearsing cycle we all fall into. It was hard to use meditation to prepare for the day without bringing in a rehearsal of what I could write or do. The meditation I chose asked me to focus on my feet, stomach, and breath. It did not ask me to draft a to-do list. And that is a good thing. I need to appreciate what I am doing now instead of thinking about what else I should/could be doing. If I do this, no moment will be lost.

Bath Bombing the New Year

Even though my Christmas card declared this year the best year yet, featuring a collage of happy moments, 2016 was a tough one politically, professionally, and personally. On the whole, the world seems a bit crueler and more mismanaged. In my little social media filter bubble, the past year is being blamed for celebrity deaths and misfortunes. It has become the embodiment of the shock and horror many feel about the election of our next president. While I cannot control the rebel forces in Syria, prevent more beloved celebrities from dying of heart disease, or even make my five year old like school, I can control my own well-being, actions, and environment.

I always find that time in between Christmas and New Year’s to be emotionally hard. It is one of those in-between times, where you are suspended in limbo between events and life changes. As an early riser with two small children, I no longer look forward to the ball drop or use the night as an excuse to consume a bottle of champagne. Instead, I solidify my old fart status by remarking on the swift passage of time, “How can it be 2017? Wasn’t it just 1997? Where did the time go?” My feelings on New Years being such, I see no reason to wait to begin new projects, adventures, and musings.

One of my greatest joys is buying craft supplies and thrift store potential makeovers, organizing them, and imagining the possibilities. Rarely, though, do the possibilities become reality. This holiday break I finally forced myself to play. Instead of simply compiling Pinterest pins and reading reviews, I bought some essential oils and began creating my own diffuser sets and bath bombs. Over my nearly four decades of existence, I have discovered there are two ways I work: relentless research with prolonged indecision and flying by the seat of my pants. Honestly, the second is much more fun and yields much more memorable lessons.

Here is the bath bomb recipe I tried: https://brightnest.com/posts/little-luxuries-how-to-make-the-perfect-bath-bomb. What I learned: two teaspoons is an excessive amount of essential oil, you need pack your stainless steal balls hard, and wear gloves. In other words, I need to tweak a few things, but I still ended the night in a fizzy bath. I would have missed this scientific bathing wonder if I had simply sat on the couch scrolling through social media.

Lesson: make things in the New Year.

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