If you follow me on Facebook you’re probably aware that our theme for April is Earth Month. My original plan was to offer some gardening-related tips and advice in today’s blog post, but to anyone who knows me well, that notion is spit-out-your-coffee laughable. To say that I do not have a green thumb is the understatement of the year. My best gardening advice is to never trust me with your plants.
Having said that, just because I seem incapable of growing things myself doesn’t mean I don’t have a deep appreciation for the things other people grow. In fact, I probably appreciate them even more because of my gardening “disability”. I enjoy having fresh cut flowers in my home while they last and like to admire other people’s gardens. Anyone who finds themselves with an over-abundance of fresh herbs or vegetables to share from their garden will find a grateful and enthusiastic taker here. I do have some azalea bushes and a rhododendron in my front yard and hydrangeas in my backyard that make me smile, partly because they remind me of my mother and partly because they seem to find a way to bloom beautifully year after year despite the fact that they live in my yard.
In any case, faced with a dearth of ideas on what to write about in this week’s blog on the topic of gardening and having some unexpected space in my daily routine yesterday, I decided to take a walk in the hopes that some sort of inspiration would jump into my path while I was admiring the fruits of other people’s labors in my neighborhood. And I did something I almost never do when going out for a walk on my own: I left my music at home and allowed the sounds around me to accompany my walk instead. It was an eye- (and ear-) opening experience.
I never realized before how much listening to music on my walks distracted me from connecting with the world around me. It sounds silly, now that I think of it, that I never noticed until now how much my music drowned out my environment and forced my focus inward. In fact, the purpose of my walks in the past has typically been more about de-stressing and processing what’s in my head and heart, whereas yesterday’s intention was to connect with my surroundings and let them lead my thoughts. It was pretty powerful.
I frankly expected this walk to be a little bit boring with all that open space in my mind, but I soon discovered how wrong I was. As I walked along the sidewalk leading up to my kids’ elementary school, I was greeted with a flood of memories...reminders of the many times I had walked my two now-teens to school as young children, of the conversations we’d had, of their joyfulness at meeting some of their friends along the way, of the worries I had often mulled over on my way home after dropping them off. Then I was drawn further back to my own childhood memories of climbing the small overgrown hill across from our bus stop to taste the honeysuckle before racing back down to the corner when the designated lookout shouted “BUS!” As I passed neighbors dutifully pruning and watering their carefully-tended gardens, I recalled my mother weeding the three round flower beds in our backyard and how my sisters and I still chuckle about the time we spotted our next door neighbor tending her garden in a white dress and high heels on her way in from church, such was her commitment to it.
As I turned the corner, I noticed the dandelions that had already turned white and remembered how we’d blow on them as kids, even though our parents told us not to...something kids still do today, and just as they no-doubt have done for centuries. There’s a comfort in knowing that we are connected down through the ages by a shared fascination with creation. When I was young, my father would take us backpacking. We’d go days at a time without seeing another living soul. I didn’t like that feeling of isolation, of separateness, of space between us and the rest of the world. But then I would imagine that we were treading upon the same land, surrounded by the same woods that native peoples and pioneers had trod upon two hundred years before us, and it reminded me that we were part of something eternal, something difficult to explain yet comforting that filled the gap between me and the rest of humanity in those lonely moments/
I took some time to appreciate the textures of the trees, which brought a smile to my lips. My father was also an avid amateur photographer when I was growing up and there were (and I assume still are) lots and lots (and lots) of photos of tree bark taken using a variety of shutter speeds and apertures among his vast slide collection. Remembering how I once stood for what seemed like hours in the snow, holding an umbrella over him and his camera equipment so that he could capture the May snow atop the fully blooming forsythia hedge in our backyard brought back warm thoughts as I continued on my breezy walk yesterday.
All these memories carried with them a tidal wave of mixed emotions that quickly filled every space within my brain. I felt love for my family and joy at recalling scenes from both childhood and young motherhood; regret over having missed out on potentially thousands of similar walks I didn’t take over the years because I was too busy, too lazy or too wrapped up in my own thoughts to pay attention; agonizing grief over the loss of loved ones now gone, opportunities missed with my children, time wasted worrying about trivial things; gratitude at the gift of this beautiful creation through which we are all connected; humility at realizing that I am but a tiny speck in this grand, great universe, yet awe that I was created with the same loving attention to detail as the itty bitty budding pinecones I had just inspected.
As I sat down to process all of these feelings, I noticed a hawk gliding through the air above the trees that circled the chain link fence surrounding a tennis court. The lack of music on this walk made space for me to discern the dichotomy of sounds I was hearing...birds chirping in the trees as well as a distant lawn mower. I turned over in my head these examples of nature contrasted with the signs of modern development and technology, coexisting in the beautiful setting of our neighborhood park. I stood up and continued down the paved path that led through the woods. The asphalt made this shortcut through a lovely secluded spot more navigable for walkers and bike-riders alike, yet there was little traffic. Again, man-made convenience and natural beauty occupying the same space. I was struck by how all these contrasting elements made my walk feel richer and more interesting somehow.
I don’t know if it’s just the organizer in me, or if it’s simply part of human nature to want to label everything we experience and put it neatly into its designated spot, leaving no spaces empty lest something uncategorized creep in there. I thought about where I’d file this walk. Does it fit most neatly under love, joy, regret, sorrow, guilt, gratitude, or humility? The answer is it was all of the above. It certainly wasn't what I expected it to be. It simultaneously made me both happy and sad. I mostly loved it but also didn't. Perhaps I can just let it be something undefinable, I thought. Why does everything have to be simplified and labeled? After all, life is complex...we are complex. Sometimes complexity is messy, but therein lies its beauty. How often do we lose out to our need to neaten it up? We ignore one thought, idea or emotion in favor of another because we feel like we can’t process both, instead of just living in that uncomfortable-yet-fascinating space in-between them? We label people, institutions, ideas and experiences as friend or foe, ally or adversary, acceptable or unacceptable, positive or negative, when the reality is that most of what we encounter in life is a mixture of both and of everything in-between.
My simple nature walk reminded me that just as the beauty of the rainbow lies in the wide range of its colors, the beauty of life is experienced through our ability to detect and savor all the subtle nuances contained within our relationships, emotions and experiences and to value each and every varying shade. I can love someone who has made me angry, be disappointed at the choices my children make and still be proud of who they are, disagree profoundly with my friend and still grow from all she continues to teach me, or recognize some positive quality in a person I find generally loathesome. I can wish for time alone yet be comforted by those constantly surrounding me. I can feel gratitude for all my blessings while working to bring about change, just as I can desire challenge while craving rest. Life is most fully lived and meaningful when we allow ourselves to exist in and experience those spaces in-between our labels.
When I was a child, I didn’t get why grownups wouldn’t want dandelions growing in their lawns:
“Because they’re weeds”, was the answer I was given.
“So?” I’d say, “They make the yard look pretty.”
“But they’re weeds,” my parents insisted.
Now I understand. We were both right. Even weeds can be pretty and even pretty things can be unwanted. Dandelions grow in the in-between spaces.
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It’s almost Thanksgiving! You know, that beloved holiday where we watch football on TV and stuff our faces so that we have plenty of energy to shop til we drop on Black Friday…the one that heralds the coming of the Christmas season and the official start of the decorating wars…when we get the green light to start spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need.
Hmmmm...Thanksgiving. Thanks giving…giving thanks.
Thanksgiving is unique among the end-of-year holidays because it really lasts for only one day. Even Halloween gets bigger billing these days, with all the creepy decorations, parties, costume preparations, and spooky movie marathons on TV. By the time the big Thanksgiving holiday rolls around, we are usually so focused on football and eating and planning out our 4AM shopping strategy that we forget what this day is really supposed to be about. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?
Well, it is not about extravagant spreads of food in abundance. It is not about beautiful, impressive tablescapes a la Martha Stewart. It is not about kickoff time or fires in the fireplace or putting up the Christmas tree. It is not about traveling or pumpkin pie or gourds or falling leaves. It is not even about pilgrims or Native Americans or survival. And in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, it is most definitely not about large gatherings with family and friends. It is about gratitude…gratitude for life and whatever it has handed you…gratitude for blessings and gratitude for the hardships that make you appreciate the blessings…gratitude for what you have now and gratitude for what you once had…gratitude for the love of others and for the ability to love them back…gratitude for the chance to share your unique gifts and talents with the world and for those who have shared theirs with you...gratitude for hope and for the ability to keep on hoping even in the most hopeless of situations...and gratitude for the capacity to recognize all for which there is to be grateful.
Gratitude is an attitude. Gratitude is a gift. Gratitude is the thing that makes it possible to get through even the worst of days and still want to wake up and try again tomorrow. Want the secret to “easy peasy living”? It’s gratitude. Gratitude transforms what you have into enough. If you have sufficient amounts of gratitude, you'll never need more of anything else.
Never have we needed a holiday to contemplate and venerate gratitude more than we do this year. So let us be grateful for this Thanksgiving, whatever joys or disappointments it may bring. Before you dive head first into that turkey with all the trimmings, or whatever meager meal you've managed to scrape together this day, take a little time to reflect on all that you have instead of all that you wish you had.
Among the many blessings for which I am grateful, I add you, my faithful followers. I'm wishing you and your loved ones a truly safe and Happy Thanksgiving filled with all the gratitude your hearts can hold!
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People say it all the time…”Live in the now”...”Practice being more present”...”Hold the moment”. But what does all that actually mean? How do you live in the moment? Aren’t you supposed to remember the past and plan for the future? How can you do that if all you ever think about is the present? Isn’t ignoring the past and future just plain irresponsible? These are all very valid questions that make living in the present feel so challenging to a lot of people. Isn’t it supposed to be easier? Yes! And once you have the answers to these questions it will be.
First of all, let’s begin answering what it all means by talking about what it doesn’t mean. Living in the present does not mean never thinking about the past or the future. After all, they are equally important components of your life. Reflecting on the past helps you learn lessons you then carry forward with you to help you better navigate the challenges you find here in the present. Planning for the future gives you a sense of hope and provides you with goals that inspire your actions now in the present and begin your evolution into an ever better version of yourself. Both are essential ingredients to living a happy life. But there is a big difference between thinking about the past or future and dwelling in them. The goal should be to use your thoughts about the past and future to help guide your actions in the present. It’s important to realize that action can only take place in the present. You cannot act in the past...you can only learn from the actions you once took. You cannot act in the future...you can only plan the actions you hope to take when you get there.
Most of us have a natural tendency to spend way more time on reflecting and planning rather than we do on actually doing. Living in the present means flipping those proportions. It requires a continual, conscience decision in the present to change. That’s why it feels so hard sometimes. I don’t pretend to be past the hard part yet, but logic, experience and hope tell me that - just as with any other habit - living in the moment gets easier with practice. And guess what? Reflecting and planning are often solitary activities. If you want to connect more with the people around you, spend more time in the present.
Try some of these actions, or start with just one and gradually add more over time:
We are all living through an era of great uncertainty, where longing for the past can be a futile and depressing exercise and planning for the future is virtually impossible without more information. There is no time like the present to start living more in the present. With a little practice and a new perspective, even holding the moment can be easy peasy.
One of the most difficult aspects of social distancing is finding new and creative ways to stay connected to friends and loved ones. Zoom and FaceTime are great tools for having "face-to-face" conversations, but they are merely delivery tools much like FedEx or the postal service delivering a package. They do not replace the contents of the package itself. Traditional socializing has always been about so much more than just seeing someone else’s face while we interact. It also meets our need to celebrate milestones up close and in person, to burn off excess energy in real time as a group, work side-by-side in achieving a common goal, and exercise our collective creativity...all needs that are difficult to meet in this challenging time of social distancing.
In other words, sometimes we need more than just video conferencing to restore our sense of connectedness. Besides, Zoom fatigue is becoming a reality for many, especially now that so many of us use it for school and work. Below are just a few suggestions for ways to jazz up your socializing while maintaining a safe distance.* Best of all, none of them require a video stream!
Outdoor BYOP Movie Night (ok, this one requires video, but not that kind of video!) - All you need is a projector and a large screen or blank outside wall to host a family-friendly screening for your friends and neighbors. Allow plenty of distance between viewers and encourage participants to bring their own drinks and popcorn.
Drive-through Birthday/Graduation Parade - Encourage friends and family to drive by your house at an appointed time in cars decorated with balloons while the “guest of honor” stands outside to greet them as they drive by. Music and individually-wrapped candy or gifts tossed out the window are optional.
Outdoor String/Percussion Ensemble Concert - Medical experts have expressed concern about singing and some types of wind-blown instruments spreading the virus across a distance to an audience, but string and percussion instruments are safer and the performers are able to wear masks too. Set up a stage in your town square, or simply gather your neighborhood musicians on your driveway for a socially-distanced performance.
Patio Talks - Invite a few friends over to your outdoor space for an in-person visit. Be sure to wear a mask, maintain your distance and don’t share food or drink with members outside your immediate household.
Outdoor Olympics - Form teams from within your own household to compete at a distance with teams from other households. Suggested events include relay races, timed obstacle course (one participant at a time), horseshoe/cornhole/croquet tournament, bike/running races, and long jump.
BYOF Bonfire - Each family brings their own hotdogs and s’mores to a bonfire. Wear masks and maintain a distance while telling stories and playing socially-distanced games like cornhole, horseshoes, frisbee or croquet.
Sidewalk Chalk Gallery Walk - Neighborhood artists create chalk masterpieces on the sidewalk or driveways. Then invite neighbors to stroll through the neighborhood on a gallery walk and leave comments of their own in chalk.
Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt - Text or email out a list of items that can be seen from outside throughout the neighborhood and set a start/stop time for finding them all. The household who finds them all first wins. Cover a wide enough area that people can easily maintain distance while searching.
Tag-Team Community Project - Put your heads together to come up with a multi-step or assembly line project that benefits your community. Then assign each step or responsibility to a different household. Each family can photo-document their efforts to create a shared sense of accomplishment with the entire group.
Outdoor Storytime - Gather outside at a distance while wearing masks to listen to a family-friendly story narrated by a natural storyteller in your group. Encourage each family to bring their own copy of the book to better view the pictures. Having the storyteller use a microphone will reduce loud talking/shouting which can contribute to spread of the disease.
Round Robin Storytelling/Play - This is similar to Outdoor Storytime, only each family takes turns acting out a scene from the story for the audience. It can be an established story or play, or each family can add to a made-up story, improv-style.
What are some ways that you are staying connected? Share your ideas in the comments!
Hopefully the Covid-19 crisis will be behind us either this year or next, but it may not be the last of its kind. Finding new ways to maintain our social fabric even in the face of a pandemic will only strengthen us as a society for generations to come.
With a little creativity and a few willing collaborators, even socializing while distancing can be easy peasy!
*You should still wear a mask and maintain a distance of 6 feet between you and members of other households during each of these outdoor activities as well as refrain from sharing food or drink with individuals that are not part of your immediate household.
It’s never a good sign when it starts raining in your garage…especially when your kitchen is above the garage and you’ve just stepped in a wet patch near the dishwasher!
So yes, we need a new dishwasher and no, there is no room for one in our budget right now. At first I was so busy being grateful that it wasn’t an issue with the kitchen plumbing that I forgot to groan about having to hand wash all my dishes for the foreseeable future. It didn’t take long for me to remember just how much I hate it. I mostly hate not having any room on my tiny counter to put all the clean dishes and how quickly I run out of dry dish towels since I don’t have a drainer and have to drain them on a towel. (I’m actually anti-dish drainer because I think they invite you to leave the job unfinished and take up valuable space even when not in use.) But once I figured out that I could use the empty dishwasher as my drying rack, my perspective began to change. I began to see the silver lining to this cloud and realized that what at first seemed like a curse may indeed become a blessing.
For one thing, washing and drying dishes is something everyone in my family can do…even the more “spatially challenged” among them. My kids have finally completed the Dishwashing Badge in our Life Skills Badge Program. My husband is more sensitive about helping with dinner clean up, and I don’t have to worry about whether the bowl I really want to use is going to take up too much space in the dishwasher later. Maybe now we won’t have to take out a second mortgage just to pay the water bills that also fund my daughter’s showers. (She’s the only 11-year-old I know with permanently wrinkled hands.) And once the kitchen cleanup is done, it’s done…no more dishes to put away later since I ascribe to the dry-them-and-put-them-away-now philosophy.
Best of all, I’m no longer worrying about what will happen if my dishwasher breaks…I already know. My children will enjoy an excuse to play in some sudsy water before school. My husband and I will giggle and flirt as we snap dish towels at each other. I’ll imagine my mother, now gone to her rest, washing that very same serving spoon back in our kitchen on Timber Trail Rd. The clean scent of the dish washing liquid will remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen.
Sometimes we need something to break to realize how truly unimportant it is. And often in our never-ending quest to simplify our lives, we end up complicating them instead. The modern conveniences designed to free up our time wind up stealing our opportunities to forge that time into something memorable. Think about your funniest family anecdotes. Chances are they felt like catastrophes at the time. (Someday I’ll share my “Mom in a Manhole” story…a real family classic.) Next time “disaster” strikes, look for the hidden blessing instead of feeling cursed.
I suppose we will replace the dishwasher eventually, but I’m not in any hurry. It might be kind of fun to share KP duty with my sister after a family holiday meal just like the old days. But only if she dries.
Okay, I will admit that there are days when living does not feel so easy peasy. You know the ones I mean...where the simplest tasks just seem to take so much extra effort, and worries about work, family, money, health or the future weigh on your soul, threatening to pull you under the current of daily life. I'm having one of those days today, in fact.
Sometimes we are so busy swimming as fast as we can to keep up that we forget to enjoy the water. We allow our fears of encountering a big shark to prevent us from noticing all the tiny colorful fish and the playful dolphins. Okay, I think you get the picture. Corny ocean metaphors aside, the point is that life's beauty is mostly found in the details. Sure, it's important to have big picture goals and dreams, but that picture will be pretty bland and boring if you omit the fine points.
It is on those dark days, when I feel like I'm drowning and despair starts to take hold, that I find myself desperately searching for the tiniest clues that life really is worth the effort of living. It is then that I become more keenly aware of the awesomeness of the nature that surrounds me and begin to appreciate the small kindnesses of the strangers I encounter which would normally go unnoticed. I become more grateful for even the littlest gestures by friends and family that allow me to really feel their unconditional love.
That friendly store clerk who goes the extra mile to help you, the neighbor who cuts your grass for you unasked, the child who draws you a picture, the sister who calls you to share a cute story about her grandchild just to brighten your day without even realizing how dark it was, the beautiful flowering bush in your front yard that reminds you of a lost loved one...I prefer to think of each of these as little love notes from God. But whatever your beliefs, these little details are not just clues that life is worth living...they are the point of living at all. A stable job, good health, a firm financial foundation, a solid future, and yes--even organization and efficiency-- are not the point of life...they are but tools to help you enjoy the real thing and the vehicle by which you can help others enjoy theirs. Remember that each of us has the opportunity to play the role of lifeguard for someone else when we become the store clerk, the neighbor, the child, the sister, and even the flowering bush that elicits beautiful memories, if we just take the time out of our busy day to do it.
So next time you're having a not-so-easy peasy day, slow down a bit and just enjoy the water...you just may find that it feels pretty good in here!
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.