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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The months of June, July, and August offer endless possibilities for children: lessons, camps, reading programs, etc. My seven year old is not interested. Summer for him is swimming in the pool, hanging out at home, and playdates with his friends. He wants nothing to do with anything that smacks of organization, instruction, or scheduling. I am baffled by this behavior. I blame it on the fact that he has no social media account, so he cannot understand what he is missing out on via social comparison.
I even restrict his screen use. It’s something that he needs to earn via reading, personal hygiene, and household chores. Many times throughout the day, he and his sister are happy playing with their respective figurines: she with her Polly Pockets (thank you e-bay) and him with WWE wrestlers. They set up bowling games with water bottles. They turn his bunk bed into a restaurant. I should be happy. This is what is encouraged by experts, what many lament today’s children are missing: self-directed, imaginative play. However, I am still caught up by the scheduled activities and excursions that my children don’t know they should want.
Clearly, I have too much time on my hands and too much time to reflect if my greatest parenting crisis is that my children are content to stay home. When the fourth of July hit, and our plans for the fell through, I was crippled with angst, experiencing a full blown mid-summer break crisis. What have we accomplished? What have we done?
I envisioned my summer nights differently: bursts of creativity, late night typing, epiphanies, and professional growth. Instead, I find myself heavy-lidded and drained, searching for mindless entertainment. My summertime days of full-time parenting are relentless. I understand this time to be a privilege, both because I can do this and because I do not always have to do this. In a few short months, I will be back in my college office and immersed in my conversations on writing, education, and culture. But for now, I am the invisible architecture of my children’s existence, creating boundaries and direction, making the space in which they live.
However, it is difficult to shed what I have come to see as valuable and productive. I prefer enduring work, a piece of writing, a new learning experience, then the ephemeral household labors. Last night, I began reading Charles Duhigg’s new book, Better, Stronger, Faster, the Secrets of Being Productive. I completed the first chapter on motivation, which discusses how when faced with challenging circumstances, Marines-in-training were asked why they were completing a particular obstacle. If they could identify a larger goal, such as building a better future for their family, they were more motivated to keep going.
While the concept of “big picture motivation” is not new to me, I began last night to consider it in light of my summer at home. Why am I limiting screen time? Why do I need to vacuum? I am setting up standards of behavior that will shape how my children live their adulthood. This exercise was a good reminder that what I am doing is important, even though it does not require me using my Ph.D., even though it is considered ordinary and to some unambitious.