Friday, July 17, 2009

Traveling Light

All of us have every day life lessons we hold dear from our parents. Many of us pay our bills, do our laundry or cook in the same methods our parents taught us, at least by example. I fold towels and make beds using the same technique as my mother. I wipe counters down in the same sweeping gestures, using a paper towel to catch the crumbs, the way my dad did. I have a filing method identical to theirs, though I have to admit that I'm not as meticulous in my administration skills. I answer the phone with the same cadence in my voice, and often use the same word choices they might have used. I have comparable sets of strengths and weaknesses. And yet, when it comes to packing a suitcase, I couldn't be 'less' their child. My mother and father had packing lightly down to a science. My father, never the most patient man when traveling and never one to waste time in any area of his life, insisted that they each bring one carry on bag to any destination. He was convinced that on no trip would anyone every need more than he could carry on a flight. Although Dad has since passed away, Mom continues in this admirable and simple packing method. I have never seen my mother look out of place, lacking in some way or otherwise unprepared on a journey. So, where did I go wrong?

I seem to have missed out on both the nature and nurture of this critical skill. However, my husband, though not a blood relation to my parents, seems to have inherited the trait. He teases me about the amount I will pack for one night away. I believe I have packed more for an overnight than he has packed for a week. Will he be less prepared than I am? Will he be missing a critical pair of shoes during his time away? It has yet to happen. I can fill a steamer trunk for a weekend away, and still not have exactly what I need, when I need it. I own one of the largest suitcases made, and have to be extremely careful as I pack it now, because of the new weight restrictions. I can easily stuff my Brontosaurus on wheels with shoes, skirts, sweaters, jewelry, back up shirts in case of spills (likely in my case) and outerwear to the point of bursting. I travel with a veritable pharmacy of allergy medicine, skin cream and Advil, never knowing what I will need when I need it. Knowing that I bring everything but the kitchen sink (though I admit I did pack the Quesadilla maker for a ski trip), I would be exceptionally well prepared for any eventuality. So, why is it that I have a suitcase full of everything, but nothing that works on my trips?

I have traveled to Arizona with the Winnebago bag filled to the point of worrying about the zipper busting open. On arrival, and for the remainder of my trip, I have worn clothes out of my mother's closet. I have gone to California to visit my cousin, confident that I would be right at home, and have needed her to run me to Macy's upon arrival. I have learned, by process of "What doesn't work" that I know exactly what I need to bring on a trip, and seem to gravitate towards packing the exact opposite. And yet, I'm working on my "travel survival without errors" artistry. My daughter, who has inherited the adroit equipment attribute, is teaching me. As I prepare for an upcoming week away, she is helping me put multiple, appropriate outfits together, using a minimal number of pieces. I'm learning that 'more' doesn't mean 'right', and that a suitcase filled with single wear pieces isn't helpful. I'm discovering that just because I own 28 pairs of shoes does mean that all 56 must travel with me like children. It's still very difficult for me to narrow down, make multi-tasking choices and be brutal in my assessment of needs. But, I'm trying to make a valiant effort to streamline this process to allow me to bring just one carry on bag. The reward at the end? No long wait at Carousel B, no missing luggage reports to fill out, and no more bruised shins from slamming the suitcase version of King Kong into my legs.

As I prepare for both my upcoming trip, as well as this blog piece, I realize how much of life is easier if we travel lightly. The more metaphorical baggage we insist on carrying along with us, the more weighed down we will be. As we tote our emotional loads, we become overwhelmed, exhausted and unprepared for the reality of our day's adventures, because we're so bogged down in the past. It's very difficult to let go of this baggage. For many of us, the burdens we bear are at the very heart of who we are. The pain in our lives, for good or bad, has shaped us into the people we are today. And yet, by continuing to drag that heavy, imaginary Samsonite case everywhere we go, we miss out on the chance to create new memories, experience different things and be open to new possibilities. We're so filled with the past, there is no room for the future.

My best advice is to find ways to let your heaviness of heart dissipate. Using meditation, prayer, exercise, journaling or just casting your cares on the wind, you can release them with full knowledge that you don't need carry them any longer. You can talk to friends, write articles or hike those troubles out. They're only weighing you down. They do not help you on your journey. They just take up space. Much like a suitcase filled with inappropriate clothing, a heart and mind packed with frustration, sorrow and bitterness will only make you feel worse about the way you travel through life.

As I attempt my vacation with just one carry on, I look ahead with a lightness in my heart and a spring in my step. Will I miss something? Probably. Will it be the end of the world? Absolutely not. I will learn to adjust and make do...and hopefully have a much easier time along the way.

Down by the riverside, I laid my burdens down, Now I'm traveling light, My spirit lifted high,I found my freedom now And I'm traveling light.... Billie Holliday

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Simple Things...

'"Tis the gift to be simple,'tis the gift to be free,'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,And when we find ourselves in the place just right, It will be in the valley of love and delight." ~ Elder Joseph Brackett, jr., "Shaker Hymn"

The first lines of the hymn quoted just above are among my favorite, not just among songs sung in worship, but of inspirational poetry, as well. Written in 1848, this hymn is relatively new in the grand scheme of Christian worship songs. The Shakers were considered radical, even by their founding denomination, the Quakers. Therefore, it's all the more extraordinary that this beautiful song not only made its way into most Protestant hymnals of all denominations, but became a popular melody for other pieces, including Aaron Copeland's "Appalachian Piece". The simple, inspiring, deeply moving beauty of this song has brought it lasting fame. Additionally, the additional lyrics, which speak of friendship, understanding, compassion and utterly unadulterated joy, resonate with mainstream society today, as much as they must have in the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, in the mid-19th century.

One of the most common conversations I have with both my yoga students, and my friends, recently, has been a longing for a return to the simple things in life. Although very few want to renounce all their wordly possessions and join ashrams or monasteries, all yearn for a time of uncomplicated lives. Some dream of the carefree days of childhood in which there was nothing more pressing than riding bikes or catching fireflies. Others are beginning to find that technology, designed to make life easier, has actually increased stress and demands on their time. The sad fact is that life has become increasingly demanding, difficult and drama-filled. We spend our days running from place to place, we live in fear of losing our jobs and our homes. We read books about decluttering our homes, and yet, we think we need more to fill the void. We worry about our children's exposure to the ugliness of life, long after they have been desensitized through years of television and movies. We find ourselves running on a hamster wheel every day, never getting ahead and always feeling as we need to stay on that wheel...or something dreadful will happen. It becomes a never ending cycle.

The sad truth is that we are our own hamster wheel. We wake up every morning, and we climb onto that circle and we begin to run...and run. We make that choice of our own volition. While we can blame society all we like, we choose to check email ten times a day and we choose to create drama in our lives, where there needn't be any. There are stresses we simply can't avoid. We have to work to pay our bills, provide for our families and put food on the table. But, we can choose to release those areas in our lives that simply aren't working for us with any benefit. We can decide to walk away from unchangeable, unmanageable situations. We can say "no" when we want to. I have a wonderful friend who had a great deal of trouble not agreeing to volunteer for every job she was asked to do. She became very close to burn out in all areas of her life from spreading herself far too thinly. So, she came up with a response that would keep her from feeling rude, and yet, would get her off the hook. When asked "Will you run this program this year?", she smiled kindly and said, "No, but thank you very much for thinking of me."

"No, but thank you very much for thinking of me" has become one of my mantras. I, too, have been a 'helpaholic'. When asked to step in and assist, I generally do agree. Why? Because I do believe in service to my community. The question is knowing how to pick and choose, and when to say "When". Simplifying our lives does not mean relinquishing all of our commitments. Some of them are critically important. Where would the world be if everyone said "No!" and stayed home? The trick is finding that all important balance of what we can do to benefit others, our families, ourselves and our communities, without risking our own well being in doing so. There is not a magic formula for this balance. Some people have a higher tolerance for multi-tasking than others. But, for everyone, taking the time to pause, to truly consider all the possibilities before agreeing to a job (or saying "No, thank you") can give you the much needed moments to discover if the position is viable. All too often, we are pressured into making an impulsive decision on the stop. After years of agreeing immediately, I've discovered that, in 24 hours, or even in 12 hours, my choices are more sound and I have fewer regrets in either direction of a decision.

Simplicity is not as easy to achieve as it can feel when we're yearning for it. The truth is that we like our computers, we like our stylish clothes and well running cars and we like our modern amenities. Even those of us who set simplicity as a goal find ourselves pulled towards 'keeping up with the Joneses'. For many people, myself included, this is far less to do with envy, and far more to do with admiration. We see something we like, from a convenient kitchen appliance to photos from a restful, but beautiful, trip, and we think "Wow! That looks amazing! I want that too!". We come to realize that in making our lives simple, we still create more work. Making our peace with the idea that simplicity doesn't always equal ease is a crucial concept. In Yoga, one of most basic asanas is also one of the most challenging. Staff Pose involves sitting upright, with flexed feet and long legs in front of your body, and a straight back. The yogini's head is pulled in alignment with her spine, and her goal is to create a perfect L with her body. As basic as this may appear, it actually involves an enormous amount of concentration and core strength. Our first impulse is to slump forward. Then, we want to bend our legs and our head will naturally weigh our neck off balance. Even in this seemingly uncomplicated pose, we find we must work very hard to achieve our goal of balance.

Simplicity can mean a variety of things to a variety of people. It might mean letting go of areas in our lives that are doing more harm than good. It could mean changing our behaviors to find joy in smaller achievements, rather than enormous ones. It could be as genuine as "just saying no". It might mean reevaluating our priorities. Or, it might be a question of releasing negative emotions. Does it mean we must relinquish our lives as we know them? Of course not. But, it might take some clearness of thought to illuminate ways to help ourselves become happier. The goal of the Shakers wasn't to deprive themselves and to be miserable. It was to eliminate distractions so that they could more clearly see the Light. I hope that, in your own quest to simplify, your path will be gently illuminated, as well.