Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Year of New Goals

Ring out the old, ring in the new,Ring, happy bells, across the snow:The year is going, let him go;Ring out the false, ring in the true.~Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1850

Happy New Year ! January 1st happens to be one of my favorite days of the year. This isn’t simply because it’s a holiday. I happen to love new beginnings. I love starting a new calendar. I adore taking down last year’s calendar and putting up my new one, in ceremonial fashion. There is something magical about the morphing between December and January. It’s not the same as the transition between June and July. There is a newness, a freshness and a way to think about the direction in which you wish to head. I love the idea that we can recreate our lives with a whole year ahead to accomplish our goals.

Because of my love for new beginnings, as well as books, it’s no wonder that I adore books that talk about new beginnings that flow over the course of a year. Two incredible books, that both examine this idea, are “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs and “Simple Abundance: A daybook of Comfort & Joy” by Sarah Ban Breathnach. The authors of these books have extremely different goals. The former examines a secular Jewish man’s goal of following every single biblical tenet for one year; especially those little known ones that are far removed from the Ten Commandments. The latter is a day by day plan to, obviously, simplify one’s life and connect with a deeper sense of self in doing so. While these books are intrinsically dissimilar in their approach to looking the year ahead, they are remarkably symbiotic in the way the theme is “radical change in a year”. I recommend both; one for laughs and the other for inspiration.

Both of these books have inspired me to make some radical changes in my own life. My own area is that of finances: the way I look at our income, the way I spend our income and the way I picture needs vs. wants. Like many families, our spending has exceeded our income. This isn’t because we have lived like Kings. Nor, is it because we’ve consistently made foolish decisions. We, like many other Americans, have watched our expenses rise, our income fall, and our investments plummet. We have lived ‘just’ above our means. We have failed to plan for the unexpected, like new brakes for the truck, or major dental work. We have shopped recreationally, and if we’ve seen something we liked, and it seemed to be ‘not expensive’, we bought it. We had meals out, at places like “The Olive Garden”, believing “it’s not too expensive”. We have failed to plan and been impulsive, rather than planners. We haven’t gone to Las Vegas and gambled. We haven’t sent our checking account number overseas in a scam. We’ve just bought when we didn’t need to, and spent when we didn’t have to. We said “But, it’s on sale !” as justification for a purchase.

I am looking at the year ahead as the “the Year of No Spending”. This doesn’t mean we’re going to go without groceries or car repair. This also doesn’t mean that, if one of the children has a cavity, we’ll fail to take them to the dentist. What it does mean is that I don’t need that cute skirt at Banana Republic, that Jeff doesn’t need the latest drill at Home Depot, and our kids will be just fine without going to the mall. We will replace things that are actually necessary and broken. But, we are going to investigate “Making Do” rather than immediately replacing the non-essentials. Shopping will be out of need, and not a form of entertainment. I’m going to stop watching shows like “What not to wear”, no matter how much I love them…because it instills in me a sense that what I have, and what I look like, is simply not good enough. I’m going to “Shop in my closet”, and create new from old. Caroline and I are fortunate in that we can wear each other‘s clothes…which means we can share items back and forth. This is going to be our year of counting our blessings about what we already have, rather than feeling as our current possessions are inadequate. I am learning to rediscover the library, rather than ordering from Amazon, and am happy to rent movies rather than go to the theatre.

I don’t expect this will be easy. It’s simple for me to say today that I have all I need. I imagine that, by March, this is going to get very old. But, it’s a goal is also a necessity. We need to learn to find more create ways to stay on top of our budget, especially with one child in private school, and the other beginning college soon. It is also about more than finances: it’s about appreciation of what we already have, materially and emotionally. Our culture is often sending us the message to look for ‘more’. I believe, for my own life, this is the year to look for ‘less is more’.

I’ll post updates monthly on this topic. I wish each of you well in 2009 and hope I will have the willpower to talk myself out of those great sales at Macy’s. And, Ann Taylor. And the Gap. And Pottery Barn. And Anthropologie. And Crate & Barrel. Not to mention all the good food in restaurants I love. This is going to be harder than I thought, but I know it will be worth it. Just keep reminding me.

Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man. ~Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gym Class Hero...

How many people went to school in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s ? I’m positive that other Generation X’ers (as we are known, in addition to the post-Baby Boomers) will remember Gym Class, before the days when it morphed into P.E. Some people will smile and remember fondly games of Dodge Ball and Capture the Flag. Others may even still have their Presidential Physical Fitness test awards proudly displayed. I have very different memories. I hated Gym. I created such a variety of made up illnesses, I’m sure my Gym Class teacher was convinced I was ready for hospice care by 9th grade. I didn’t like getting dirty. I couldn’t climb a rope. I was terrified of balls, both big and small. And, even if I had to stand in the batter’s box, I’m not sure if I ever actually connected bat to ball once in softball. Most of all, I was terrified of embarrassing myself. I knew I was not coordinated, and rather than continue to subject myself to further ridicule and humiliation, my friend Maryann and I decided to make our first political statement: we refused, “on personal grounds” to take the timed running test in 6th grade. We called ourselves “Conscientious Objectors”. In fact, we just stunk at running and didn’t want anyone to know. So, while the other kids were running circles around us, literally, Maryann and I slowly walked around the track, not even moving up to a jog, as the Gym teacher shook his head and berated us.

What I hadn’t learned, at this young age, was that no matter what other people said, I failed to challenge myself. I may have thought I was getting out of an obligation in a pseudo-cool way. In reality, I short changed myself. I failed to try because I was afraid of failure. In doing so, I received more than a low mark in that class: I received a low mark in my self-esteem because I let other people dictate how I felt about myself. I thought I’d be a bad runner, so I didn’t bother. I mocked it, and took the opposing view. Sometimes, challenges are our own measure of ourselves. We can choose to run away (or in my case, walk slowly away), or we can choose to face them head on. Other than Maryann, who is still a dear friend, I can’t think of another person in that 6th grade Gym class. So, I had nothing to lose by trying my best. And, yet, I let fear of failure hold me back.

Not long ago, I rented “The Bucket List” with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, two of my favorite actors. I had expected somewhat of a comedy about two men crossing off the most unbelievable feats of bravery from their ‘to do before I die’ list. In reality, this moving was much more heart warming and life affirming than I’d ever imagined. The most surprising experience the two men found, as they journeyed around the globe, looking for the next ‘big thing’, was the depth of their friendship. And, that wasn’t even on the list. This film taught me to look challenges square in the face, and even if I don’t make my goals, at least I will have tried, rather than mocked.

It never ceases to amaze me that life’s journey took me down the path to become a Yoga Instructor. How I went from Gym Class Wallflower to the teacher of a busy practice still baffles me. What I realized is that my own personal journey was not about climbing Mt. Everest, or standing on the Great Pyramids, but gaining in strength of body, mind and spirit. When another friend, Tammie, invited me to take a Yoga class with her almost 10 years ago, I went along to be a good sport. Little by little Yoga was able to strip away my own personal defense mechanisms of “I can’t” and “I won’t” to “I can” and “I will”. I believe that, because I came from a place, deep inside me, of deep reserve and a lack of self-confidence, I’ve been able to empower my own students to try asanas they didn’t believe they could do. Not long ago, I helped a student into her first headstand. Not only was I able to demonstrate with ease, but I was able to encourage and assist her in her own growth in her strength, and in her practice. It was far more gratifying to celebrate Alexandra’s success than my own. Why ? Because I not only faced my own fear, but I helped someone else do the same.

Challenges don’t have to be enormous, life changing events. For some people, it can be scarier to begin a conversation with a stranger than it is to go rock climbing. For others, even trying foods out of their ‘comfort zone’ can be problematic. Challenges don’t have mean bungee jumping or helicopter-skiing. Challenges mean facing something within ourselves that we would rather hide away. It’s much easier to scoff about not going to a party, than it is to cross that big room, look someone you don’t know in the eye and start talking. Yet, the only person we short change is ourselves. It’s okay not to cliff dive. But, what about taking on one challenge this coming year, and seeing if you meet it ? You don’t have to run in the Boston Marathon, but what about trying to jog around the block ? You don’t have to be the next Martha Stewart, but you can try to shake things up for dinners when company comes over. What about just inviting someone you don’t know well out for coffee ?

We all have our mountains to climb. They just appear in different forms to each of us. I wish each of you a wonderful journey as you create your own personal life list. It doesn't matter if we don't reach the top of our mountain. What matters is that we stopped scoffing, and started trying.

Panic at the thought of doing a thing is a challenge to do it. ~Henry S. Haskins

Monday, December 29, 2008

De-clutter and discover

Like many families, my husband and I have made a goal to become more organized in the year ahead. We want to create a streamlined system in our house, in which we can find exactly what we need at a moment’s notice. We want to open our closets without being attacked by sporting equipment and old coats. We want to be able to have drop in guests arrive without our frantically storing miscellaneous ‘piles’ in boxes, hidden away. We want to clean sweep our home, and make sure that we’re efficient, organized, tidy and attractive…at any moment. It’s a noble goal, isn’t it ?

Unfortunately, this goal just isn’t as easy as it sounds. We have far too much ‘stuff’. Even though we’ve been married for more than 20 years, and have two children, and three pets, it seems as if we have enough stuff to last a lifetime, and yet, I can’t seem to fathom where it all came from! The first step in our reorganization has been to really take a critical look at what we have and why we have it. It’s much easier to be organized if there is a place for everything. And, it’s much easier to create a place for everything without clutter. I’m a purger…I am happy to create bags of items for the next yard sale, or to donate to our church’s thrift shop. Jeff is a self-described pack rat. He would keep everything, except for trash, if he could fit it into our basement. I’ve learned that some of the things Jeff’s salvaged from my “we don’t need this !” pile have come in handy, and he’s come to see the light that perhaps we don’t need a dozen out of date lamps on the cellar shelves. We’ve learned to appreciate one another’s strengths, and areas of weakness, as we move on with this project. TV shows like “Clean House” and “Mission Organization” have been great inspiration and sources for ideas.

For my Christmas present, Jeff built me custom shelving for the dining room cupboards. I now have plate racks that I can hold all my platters and service pieces upright upon. And, I see them, and reach for them without risking my life each time I try to get one out. I had thought I had too many, and yet, now that they’re organized, I see that each one has a special use. It’s much easier to use what I have (and not want to buy yet another dish) when I can see it. It’s almost like Christmas every morning when I open my cupboard now, as I rediscover what I already own, and am thrilled to see them. We hope to have this same kind of clean sweep and organizational approach beyond the dining room. We want to stay on top of smaller budget. We want to keep clutter from accumulating daily in the front hall. We want to feel more in control of our home, and all that’s in it.

Getting a handle on clutter and organization isn’t just about our homes. Of course, discovering my laundry room has a floor has been a fantastic expedition. But, in truth, we all need to focus on decluttering our minds and spirits too. Far too often, we let our thoughts, our hearts and our concerns rest on things that don’t really matter in the long run. We worry about what the neighbors will think if the dog gets out again. We worry that our children won’t get into a good enough college. We worry that our guests won’t like what we’ve cooked. We worry that we are alone in the world. The fact is, none of these things can be changed by worrying. I love the way Jesus puts this in the Gospel of Matthew “Can any of you add a single hour to the length of your life by worrying?”. The Dalai Lama also wrote “If a problem can be solved, there is nothing to worry about. If it can't be solved, worrying will do no good.” The wisdom from both of these teachers is compelling.

Yet as a worrier, I have a hard time focusing on what truly matters, at times. It’s hard to focus on what I can do, when my thoughts are so filled with overwhelming thoughts of what I can’t do. So, what to do next ? Practicing breathing meditation can help. Sitting and taking time to be fully relaxed and completely at peace, each day, can create ‘space’ in your mind. Additionally, I use mantras and imagery to create positive pathways of good thoughts. When I fill my mind with worry, there is no room to create beauty. When I open up space by practicing Yoga, by reading, by volunteering in the community and by helping others, I find that the clutter problem in my mind seems to solve itself. I am learning to place my concerns in their own compartments, without letting take over, making my thoughts a big mess. It’s all about creating space…and just as we can create space in our laundry rooms, we can create it in our hearts and minds, as well. One book I found to be incredibly helpful in this is Sarah Ban Breathnach’s “Romancing the Ordinary”. I hope you will also find it to be a wonderful companion on your journey. The author has an amazing way of cutting through the clutter of every day "outer" life, so that we have the time, space and energy to create a beautiful inner life.

So, go forth and de-clutter ! You never know what you may find when you have the space to see it.