Friday, November 26, 2010

Too much!

Nik's birthday and Christmas both fall in December, so for a couple of years now, we have experienced a double whammy of new toys and other gifts. We are also expecting a new little person at the end of January, and although I know new babies are small, the accessories that multiply around them can quickly take over one's home. Since our house isn't getting any bigger, my thoughts have been turning more and more to decluttering, simplifying and scaling back. We need to make space.

I know I am not alone. Everywhere I look, people are fighting the battle of too much and too many. Too much stuff in their houses. Too many commitments in their calendar. Too much shopping to do (especially at this time of year). Too many things to get done before the day is through. And, like me, most of these people know that there are huge benefits to scaling back: A cleaner and less cluttered home. Appreciation of the little things. More time and space to breathe, to be, to grow...

It sounds idyllic. Who wouldn't want to live that way? And yet, most of us don't. I am as guilty as the worst among us. In one breath, I profess love for simplicity, and in the next, I am adding detail after hopelessly complicated detail to my daily life. This seems most obvious now that Christmas is coming. Of course I want a family-friendly Christmas, centered on the true meaning of the season, with plenty of in-the-moment, unhurried quality time... But what about the Christmas cards with letters and photos, the gingerbread house from scratch, the real tree standing decorated in the living room, the pine garlands over the door and in the basement, the gifts for family, co-workers, neighbours, the new outfits for Christmas Day, the stocking stuffers, the advent calendar, the hamper contribution, the Christmas child shoebox, the church carol sing, the dinners, the parties, the baking... How do you know what to drop? How can you reasonably drop anything?

I wish I was like this only at Christmas, but my tendency to go overboard permeates most aspects of my life, and has been with me for a very long time. My figurine play as a young child involved the most elaborate set ups of most of the toys in the playroom. When my mom got after me to clean my room as a young teen, I would get quickly sidetracked organizing an overflowing 'junk' drawer, and after 30 minutes be sitting in a bigger mess than what I started with. Research projects and papers in high school and university always ended up taking over my life in the last week or two before the due date. At work, I volunteer for extra projects routinely. And, as I've mentioned in previous posts, I have become a voracious reader on all topics to do with children and parenting. As my mother has often said of me, I "don't do things by halves."

This characteristic is undoubtedly affecting my son. Baby Nik, thanks to second hand shopping and the generosity of family and friends, had just about every baby accessory they make. As a nearly three year old, he already has a ridiculous amount of toys. They may be neatly organized into designated spaces in nearly every room of the house, but put them all together and it would be an impressively overflowing pile. Books and clothing have also been obtained in abundance, and, while I try to resist overscheduling, in his first 3 years he has already been to story time, rhyme time, swim, rhythmic movement, yoga, and playgroup style classes. No music lessons yet, but I caught myself eyeballing an ad for them just the other day, and preschool registration has also been on my mind. An intervention may be in order.

I not concerned about having the time and space to do and have all of these things, because I know, through the powers of organization, you can fit impressive amounts into small space. I am worried though, about what effect this lifestyle will have on us, longterm. In his inspiring book, Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne writes about the effect of too many. He says, "Children given so very many choices learn to undervalue all, and hold out - always - for whatever elusive thing that is offered." Too many options for what to eat, amuse ourselves with, watch or wear... This is the typical lifestyle of our affluent culture, and we are marinating in it. How can it not cultivate an attitude of discontent?

2011 will be a year of adding a fourth to our family, and a subsequent break for me from my paid work. I would love for it also to be a year of scaling back, focusing on choosing mindfully instead of being swept away by a sea of too much and too many. Practically and spiritually, I think it would be at once extremely challenging and hugely beneficial.

Now, if only I can get my husband on board...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Geeks and misfits

Hello. My name is Lisa, and I'm not cool.

What is more, I have never been cool. Not in grade school, not in high school, not in university... Even now, as a married, mortgage-paying, career-holding mom, I am still not cool.

I come from a whole family of not cool, actually. Although I could never quite pin down the cool status of either of my parents, I have a pretty good handle on my siblings. My older sister leans toward the goody two-shoes bookworm type of not cool. My brother is classic computer geek not cool. My younger sister is adorable and likable... but still not cool. I think she lacks the mean girl gene. I am just plain old loud not cool. I think that might be the worst kind.

When I was growing up, I wanted desperately to be cool. Many tears were shed on the subject, and I also devoted quite a bit of energy to pretending I didn't care. Sometimes I felt like I was getting close to being cool, like the Christmas that I recieved a velcro-closure binder from my sister as a present. Everyone, it seemed, had a velcro-closure binder at school except for me. When I opened my new binder, it was full of lined paper. On the very first sheet, my sister had written something to the effect of "A binder for Lisa, so you can be just like everyone else," with a smiley face next to it. I took that binder to school proudly. Then I learned it was not a Note Tote, and that is what the cool kids had. That was in sixth grade, and the memory is still vibrant.

However, when I look at my twenties, and the people I am gravitating towards, 'cool' is not the word I would use to describe them. Do you know what l33t sp34k is? What about WOW? Have you played a MUD? Spend many hours of your teenage years in your basement? I think I like you. Do you read research for fun? Sit in the front row at lectures? Volunteer for extra work? You are my kind of people. Do you spend more money investing in some obscure hobby than in your personal appearance? Do you frequently forget to put on make-up, and yet still have a detailed memory for the last six books you've read? We need to get together some time.

In books and movies, I am increasing drawn to the misfit characters, rooting enthusiastically for the underdog. I love to hear about other people's weird parents, social blunders and obsessive interests. Tell me about your inept dealings with the opposite sex. Spare no detail of your less than perfect family holidays. And maybe it's petty, but if you sailed through the social scene in high school with a perfect manicure, I really do not want to know. Skip to the tough time you had adjusting to life past Grade 12.

When I meet people now that I did not know in my teens, I always feel more comfortable with them when I find out they were in choir, or the school band, or the chess club. I love to discover that she wanted to learn to play the bagpipes, or that he spent the better part of a year trying to design a working hovercraft.

As I find I am drawn more and more to the uncool, the cool people are accordingly becoming less and less attractive. People who have a huge inter-mingling group of friends, who always have plans, who spare no time in bringing up whatever expensive brand-name thing they just bought... They make me nervous. If your hair is always in place, and your life follows suit, or at least you put a lot of effort into making it look that way, I get downright uncomfortable. And if you are more proficient at making excuses for following the crowd than you are at sticking to your guns with tenacious integrity... That's a deal-breaker. I'm sorry, but this is just not going to work out.

As much as I love the geeks and misfits of the world, though, I still have trouble loving the uncool in myself. I still catch myself chasing the cool. I am a little too proud of my lululemon yoga pants. I get too much satisfaction when the popular girl at work laughs at one of my jokes. I still feel unpretty when I walk past the trendy salon in the mall.

I am trying to let go of it. I want to be a genuine, driven, mindful, conscientious person. I want to be known for my intelligence, passion and integrity. These are things not so compatible with cool. And they aren't worth sacrificing.

But I'm keeping the yoga pants.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The tyranny of the should

There is something about the fall that always causes time to move faster for me. Maybe it is because the days get shorter, or because all the summer vacation days are officially behind us. When I was younger, I thought it was because school was starting up again, and things really were busier, with new teachers or professors to get used to, and homework taking up the evening hours again. This year, I suppose I could blame in on pregnancy hormones, or Nik dropping his nap completely, or taking on too many projects at work. Whatever it may be, as the winter approaches, and I invariably find myself falling behind once again, I feel myself more and more under the tyranny of the should.

I am sure I am not alone in this habit of particularly pessimistic form of self-commentary. Looking at the glass as perpetually half-empty, when the days fly by and the list of things I haven't done gets longer, it is so easy to berate myself for all the things I should have done:

I should vacuum. I should dust. I should work on that knit blanket I said I would make for the new baby. I should bake. I should clear off my scrapbooking desk, and use some of that mountain of supplies I have amassed over the years. Come to think of it, I haven't printed any pictures in such a long time, I really should get on that, too. Oh, and make an appointment for formal portraits for the family, or at least for Nik, before it is time to send out the Christmas cards. And my Christmas card list needs updating. I should get to that one of these days...

And on and on it goes.

I could fill hundreds of lines with "should" statements, and I am still not convinced I would come to an end. The goals might get loftier than those of housework (I should make more time for charity, or some such), but I don't think I would run out of things to put down. And that is even before I start into the "should have"s and the "should not"s. There is always ample opportunity for me to 'should all over myself'.

Over the years, I have learned strategies to break free from this depressing thought pattern, and the change always begins with recognizing that I have fallen victim to the tyranny yet again. If you, too, have gotten stuck there in your own life, I wanted to share five techniques that have brought me the most relief; those things I should do more often. ;-)

Make a "Done" list - This is one of the most practical pick-me-ups that I have turned to when I realize I am exhausted at the end of yet another day, and am silently berating myself for the things I failed to get to. For one full day, write down everything you accomplished. This includes taking a shower, unloading the dishwasher, and making the bed. Write down how many stories you read to a child, how many loads of laundry were washed and dried (maybe even folded and put away), and how many phone calls you answered. If you start in the morning, and keep track all day, you will be surprised at how much you really are accomplishing. It is no wonder you are having trouble getting to that filing, or whatever task is not getting done in your life. Give yourself a break!

A helping of humility - Sometimes the reason we are so aggravated with ourselves at the end of the day is because we are trying to reach some unreachable standard. You may think it is an admirable behaviour to try to be the perfect parent, perfect spouse or perfect employee, but believing that it is even possible for you to reach some perfect standard at anything is the classic pride that goes before a fall. Realize that you are not perfect, and that you cannot become so even with vast amounts of effort. An attitude born from humility will help you take setbacks in stride, accept compliments without becoming conceited, and remind you to cut others some slack, too.

Ask for assistance - Sometimes we forget that we are not the only ones out there. Family members, friends and co-workers often are able and willing to help out, but in our rush to get things done, we forget to let them know that we are struggling. Humility can help here again, because it frees us of the belief that only we can do it 'right'. Whether the help given is in practical contributions, helping us to plan our priorities, or just reassurance that we are doing fine, the support of others makes it much easier to leave the "should" cycle behind.

Take time out - I know it seems counter-intuitive, but when we have really gotten caught up in our own little hamster wheels, sometimes the best thing to do is to just stop. Stop trying to catch up, stop obsessing, stop doing that 'just one more thing', stop adding things to your list of shoulds... and just take a breath. Whether with prayer, meditation, deep breathing or just a cup a tea, even five minutes of time out can recharge you for the work ahead, and give you perspective on what is most important.

Put it in perspective - Ah, yes, that elusive perspective. It is hard to see the big picture when we are caught in a day to day cycle of the details. If you are having a hard time letting anything go item on your list go unfinished, ask yourself two questions: What needs to be done today, and what will matter next year? We need to eat, we need clean clothes to wear. Likewise, our loved ones need to know they are loved, and we all need fond memories to look back on. But the dusting? It can really wait.

I expect that I will never be completely free of the tyranny of the should. Bad habits die hard, after all. But I am getting better at recognizing when I have moved there, and quicker to give myself permission to leave. I wish the same for you, especially as we move into the business of the pre-holiday season.
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