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 is all of the above. It certainly wasn't what I expected it to be. It simultaneously made me happy as well as sad. I both loved it and 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 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.
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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.
Let's be honest, nobody really LOVES Valentine's Day, do they? Many argue it's just a made-up Hallmark holiday, and you must admit they have a point. I've seen store shelves begin vomiting pink and red hearts as early as the day after Christmas. And truthfully, it can be a bit of a downer if you're single and wish you weren't, or if have young school-aged kids with 24 other students in each class for whom they (read: you) must make handmade Pinterest valentines (or buy the corny, overpriced, store-bought versions). Any teacher will tell you, a classroom full of two dozen preschoolers hyped-up on valentine candy bears little resemblance to the sweet cherubs pictured on said valentines. For most of us, it becomes a forced, obligatory day to spend money on roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and then summon all of our will-power not to eat any of it. And by the way, how did the feast day of a saint come to be associated with so much sex and edible underwear?
Like many, I used to really dislike Valentine's Day for all of the reasons listed above. Until, that is, I began to reflect on why this day is named after St. Valentine in the first place. First, a brief lesson:
Very little is known about the real St. Valentine, but he is believed to have been a priest (and some say bishop) and physician who was martyred for his faith in Rome during the third century. Some accounts say he befriended and healed from blindness his jailer's daughter. Others claim he defied the Emperor by secretly marrying couples to spare the husbands from war. He is the patron saint of lovers, epileptics and beekeepers (which I, as a lover and a former epileptic who loves honey, can really appreciate). Now, as anyone can tell you, the Catholic Church doesn't make just any ol' body a saint. Martyrdom alone requires a great demonstration of love, as does healing your enemy's daughter and risking your life to spare others theirs. So it makes sense that a day about love would be associated with this saintly, loving personality, regardless of how much of the legend is based in fact.
I would argue that if we re-calibrate the meaning of Valentine's Day to focus more on loving all others as St. Valentine did, rather than on just emphasizing romance and retail sales, it takes on a whole new meaning and could easily become a new favorite holiday.
So what does it mean to LOVE ALL?
L - Listen more, talk less
O - Observe where you can meet the needs of another
V - Value every being, even those who are challenging to love
E - Empathize with those who are hurting
A - Act to make the world a better place
L - Lean in and don't be afraid to risk yourself, your pride, or your comfort for the sake of others
L - Learn from those whom you wish to emulate, as well as from your own mistakes
Let Valentine's Day be an opportunity to celebrate all types of love, not just romance or love of chocolate, and to express it in all manner of ways. Be sensitive to the fact that people who don't have a sweetheart often need extra love from everyone else on February 14th. Maybe those little kids have the right idea in giving a valentine to everyone, even those they find challenging, because we all need love and love is all we need. What are some valentines you can pass out to show those in your life that they are special and valuable? Some ideas:
It doesn't take a dozen roses or a heart-shaped box of chocolate to make someone feel loved on Valentine's Day. With a little thought and a lot of heart, celebrating love on Valentine's Day--and every day--can be easy peasy!
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, or Festivus, December tends to be a frenzied time of year for most of us. Perhaps you are familiar with this old-fashioned holiday recipe?
1 cup Family Togetherness
3 cups Overcommitted Time
2 teaspoons Desire to Impress Others
1/2 cup Unrealistic Expectations
1 3/4 cup Excessive Spending
4 tablespoons Bad Nutrition and Lack of Exercise
2/3 cup Exhaustion
Name Your Goal
What's the most important point to your holiday? Is it spiritual reflection? Spending time with loved ones? Giving something back to help those less fortunate? Taking time to savor the tastes, sights and sounds of the season? Reliving fond memories through old traditions? For many of us, it is all of these things, but you must determine which is #1 on your list so that you can prioritize your activities accordingly. When scheduling conflicts arise, ask yourself which calendar item most reflects your #1 goal for the season. This will help you not to spread yourself too thin. It's okay to say "no", especially if it means saying "yes" to a more relaxed and enjoyable holiday!
Keep it Real
Even Martha Stewart doesn't do it all herself. She has a staff of people to make it all look easy...which it isn't. People are rarely impressed with frazzled hosts/hostesses. Be realistic and accept that you have limits. Embrace them and spend time on the things you enjoy doing to make the season special...a cheerful smile is always pretty impressive, don't you think? It's okay to buy the dessert for your party or to give a gift card you picked up at the supermarket, especially if it means having more time to spend with the people you care about.
Set a Budget
Also not impressive is bankruptcy. Don't give yourself the gift of massive credit card debt this year! Decide what purchases most reflect your #1 goal and budget accordingly. If giving to those less fortunate is at the top of your list, consider making charitable donations in a loved one's name as your gift to them. If enjoying the sights and sounds of the season is imperative, factor in those tickets to the Nutcracker or that especially tall Douglass Fir and plan ahead. It's okay to shorten your gift list to fit within your means...you may find that others are relieved to have the opportunity to shorten theirs too.
Norman Rockwell aside, most of us have some degree of dysfunction or disagreement within our extended families. Holidays tend to bring out the short tempers in everyone, so agree to some ground rules before your spinster great-aunt or your unemployed cousin move in for Christmas week or your mother-in-law reluctantly agrees to let you make the latkes for Hanukkah. It's okay to put all your cards on the table beforehand so that everyone knows what to expect (or what not to).
Give Yourself the Gift of Good Health
Stress and fatigue lead to illness. Over-indulgence leads to guilt and a wide array of health issues. Make the time to eat right, exercise and rest. Your friends and family would rather have you for the holidays than the presents, food and parties. It's okay to take care of you during this busy season so that others won't have to.
Don't forget, today's holidays are tomorrow's memories...you'll treasure them more if you don't make unreasonable demands on yourself. Even memorable holidays can be easy peasy if you just relax, celebrate and enjoy!
Re-printing this oldie but goody from last year's EasyPeasy Living Newsletter. (Click here to subscribe to our FREE monthly newsletter.)
Be honest. How many New Year's resolutions have you actually kept? I mean kept long term...as in accomplishments you have maintained over the years since you made up your mind to change?
Most of us resolve on January 1 to get fit, lose weight, get organized, quit smoking, save money... We jump head first into it only to burn out and give up before Valentine's Day. Many of us keep making the same resolutions year after year...and fail at them year after year.
For it to work and to stick, it requires commitment to real change...life change...permanent change. That's not something to undertake on a whim or to jump into without a plan, especially since our self-esteem is usually the biggest casualty of non-success. Resolutions may be made overnight but are only truly achieved over a lifetime. They require personal evolution.
Anyone who has studied science knows that evolution takes time and patience...perseverance, adaptability and survival. To put the odds in your favor, set yourself up for success:
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.
Ever since my kids' last embarrassing dental appointment I've been making a point of following behind their evening brushing job to make sure they are being thorough. They resisted at first, but I keep telling them it's just one more little way for me to show my love for them. So when I overheard this conversation between my husband and son at tuck-in time the other night, I had to chuckle.
Hubby: "Mother's Day is coming up this weekend, so we have to think of something nice we can do for Mummy."
Son: " I know! Maybe we can brush her teeth for her!"
My heart still does a little dance every time I think of that!
I've never been a jewelry-and-roses kind of mom and would much prefer to receive a lumpy clay paperweight clumsily wrapped in newspaper or a macaroni necklace that's been colored with magic marker. And while brushing my teeth for me may be more than he bargained for, I'll bet no fancy salon pedicure could ever feel so good.
But my favorite Mother's Day gift of all comes when I observe my offspring exhibiting their loving care for each other. These precious moments pop up from time to time throughout the year, not just on the second Sunday in May, and they always bring a smile to my face. Their cooperative teamwork in carrying a laundry basket upstairs, the sweet notes of comfort they write to one another to help sooth away disappointed tears, celebrating each others' successes and mourning each others' losses, sharing a favorite toy, and compromising on an activity as they play together. I even love to hear them echoing my advice. "When you are feeling frustrated, take a deep breath, relax and count to ten."
Sure, it isn't all sunshine and roses, and there is an equal amount of arguing, but I cling to these gifts as proof that they really are listening and all my efforts are not in vain. I believe that a mother is not someone who has borne or raised a child but someone who plants seeds of love and kindness and patiently tends the shoots until they blossom and make the world more beautiful. Happy Mother's Day to all you "gardeners" out there.
What's the best/funniest/sweetest/most memorable Mother's Day gift you've ever given or received?
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.