Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Challenges

It's faith in something and enthusiasm for something that makes a life worth living. --Oliver Wendell Holmes

Two days I began my journey into a simplified life. I read Benjamin Franklin's words, "Be sober and temperate, and you will be healthy." I looked up the definition of "temperate", and was intrigued by the old fashioned ring to the expression. The sound stirred up thoughts of prohibition, and yet still evoked the peaceful sense of a controlled, orderly way to live. Webster's dictionary defines temperate in this way: "marked by moderation, keeping or held within limits : not extreme or excessive". I have to admit, I was smitten with the concept. For years, perhaps even for most of my life, I have felt a desperate need to be on top of every area in my life. I've felt the need to dress in the latest style, to have my hair a specific way and a pathological desire to fit into the popular cultural landscape. While I'd always hoped to be accepted and liked on my merits, the fact remained that, deep down inside, I was a glutton for keeping up with the "Joneses". No one made me feel this way. I easily slid down the Slope of Consumption and happily made purchases on the way.

I've always loved to shop. Shopping, for me, was a Power Sport. In my husband's mind, shopping was a mission. He saw the needed item as an objective, the store as territory to traverse and the strategy involving speed and accuracy. On the other hand, I found shopping to be relaxing, even restorative. I could be upset by bad news, have worries over health or even just feel garden variety stress, and the first place I'd want to go would be to the mall. Somewhere between Banana Republic and French Connection, I'd find myself able to breathe again. Those purchases in hand felt like magic, soothing balms to my weary soul. I'd get an uplifting, soaring spirit from every credit card swipe. I'd buy clothes, jewelry, handbags, shoes, perfume and home decor. I'd feel blissfully dynamic on my way out to my car.

Yet, the opening of my trunk would begin to kill the rush of positive energy. Starting the drive home would already begin to leave me disappointed...and more than just a little embarrassed at my own greedy behavior. By the time I'd carry parcels in, I'd wonder what came over me. I felt ashamed at my own inability to find joy in other ways.

While I never got to the point of many women, who lose their homes and careers due to shopping addictions, I will say that I am not happy with myself about my views on shopping. I am completely rational, well educated and responsible. Therefore, it shouldn't take a new pair of suede boots, no matter how soft, to make me feel better about myself. I don't hoard and regularly give a great deal to the charity shops. But, I also realize that my sense of self-worth is too intrinsically tied to material gain to be healthy. So, I'm giving it up. All of it. No more recreational jaunts to the Gap. No more open catalogs surrounding me in bed. No more Internet browsing of fabulous sites. No more putting unneeded items on a worshipped pedestal.

Two ideas came my way this past year and inspired me to take on a Year of Temperate Living. The first was reading "The Year of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs. In this well written, clever, witty and touching journal, the author explores his roots by living according to even the most remote and obscure biblical principles. I devoured this book, mainly because I was deeply impressed at the level of commitment that these drastic measures entailed. I also noticed the profound impact that taking a year to gain perspective on life's greater meanings had on the writer. Although A.J. Jacobs never intended to go further past his year, he did find that the life changes he made were far reaching and powerful.

The other life impacting movement that caught my attention was theOctober Dress Project. This fascinating project took on many forms, took on different names, and created a frenzy of interest all over the Internet. Many women, like myself, found frustration in trying to be stylish....the frustration came financially, personally and even ethically. How can we continue to become voracious consumers and not become bankrupt...emotionally and pecuniary? I read account after account of the rich meaning women gained from this experience, including my friend, Alexandra's. I became enamored of trying it myself. Yet, when it came down to my own attempt at this project, I became way too caught up in the shopping aspect...the hunt for the Perfect Dress. I realized that, for me, this wasn't a healthy challenge.

And so, it begins: I'm laying down the challenge for myself. I'm not going to buy anything I don't need. I have already defined need vs. want in my own heart and life. I do not need clothes, shoes or accessories. I don't need to buy books, movies or entertainment features, as all of these can come from the library. I need food, health care, the love of my family and friends and nothing more.

Will it work? I hope so. I'm also hoping to learn some lessons about my own sense of strength along the way. I know that this will not be easy for me. But, I think I owe it to myself to try.

I will continue to write "The Preppy Yogini", but I hope you will join me in my new venture: The Year of Temperate Living.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me. ~Anaïs Nin

I’ve been a terrible poo-poo’er of New Year’s Resolutions in the past. Every year, I have watched people on national television share their goal to lose 10 pounds, to find Mr. (or Miss) Right, to get out of debt or to learn to speak fluent Italian. I’ve seen friends fall apart as their will power crumbles after dieting for 3 weeks, when the realization that life eating only cabbage isn’t much fun. I’ve seen expensive pieces of home fitness equipment become relegated to awkward coat racks. I’ve noticed that those who decide to give up McDonald’s often have a secret stash of Twinkie’s and Cheeto’s in the back of their closets. New Year’s resolutions are hard. They are tough to maintain. Worse yet, most of the time we end up feeling worse about ourselves than we did on December 31st. Before midnight, we think everything and anything is possible. We believe we’ll have the strength and determination to create a new and better version of ourselves. We always have the idea that we can be thinner, more intellectual, more successful, wealthier and more interesting. In turn, we are confident that these miraculous changes will finally bring us the long sought after happiness we’ve always desired. It should come as no surprise that by Valentine’s Day, most of us have slipped back into the roles of “same old us”.

Therefore, this year I’d like to do something differently for my New Year’s resolutions: I’d like to set up as few changes as possible. In doing so, I hope that I will feel more confident in who I am, in what I stand for and in what direction my life will lead. I hope my readers will wish me luck in these endeavors. I have no doubt that, as simple as they are, I may well find them challenging.

I resolve to remain at my current weight, and not to lose a single ounce. I therefore resolve to look in the mirror and be thankful that I’m not fighting a debilitating, or life threatening, disease. I resolve to make peace with my reflection and refrain from criticizing the way I look, but rather to find the find the good in the woman looking at me. I promise to refrain from complaining about my thighs, my wrinkles and my outward self. I resolve to take good care of the body I’ve been given and to be thankful for every moment I am breathing, walking and spending time with those I love. My body may be far from perfect but it’s time we we made peace with one another.

I resolve to live within my means….and to refrain from drooling every time a new catalog comes in the mail. I promise to look at the beautiful clothes I own and the loved furniture, knowing that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the store. I resolve to take joy in what I’ve been blessed with instead the joy I’ll feel when I rely on something else to make me happy. I resolve to reuse, renew and just take stock in my current possessions…without giving a single thought to what the “Joneses” might be doing. I promise to take good care of the things I have, so that I won’t need new.

I resolve to spend more time being thankful and less time being envious.

I resolve to play with my dogs as much as possible.

I resolve to get rid of the words "would have", "could have" and "should have".

I resolve to let go of guilt and regret.

I resolve to look at my son’s graduation as a beginning, rather than an ending.

I resolve to see my friends more often, even if it means traveling on my own.

I resolve to smile when I’m grumpy and say a cheerful thank you when I’m annoyed with mediocre service.

I resolve to ignore my bad hair days.

I resolve to put things away when I take them out.

I resolve to let myself off the hook when I slip up.

I resolve not to judge other people.

I resolve to enjoy the films and books I like, without apology or embarrassment. If people think I’m foolish for watching movies in which the heroines all wear corsets, they simply don’t have to watch with me.

I resolve to be a kind, funny, literate middle aged woman, to live in today, instead of the past or the future.

I resolve to take these resolutions only as seriously as I feel like at any given moment.

I resolve to stop speaking when the only words coming out of my mouth are argumentative.

I resolve to put books down, or turn movies off, if I really don't like them. Sometimes, not finishing everything I begin is going to be okay.

I resolve to sleep in on days I'm able to, and to enjoy those peaceful few moments in cozy warmth.

I resolve to just give myself a year to be me….to work on living each day as it presents itself and to refrain from self-badgering.

Hopefully, I can accomplish this. But, if you hear me bemoaning the way I look in my jeans, feel free to call me on it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best Friends

"Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only a true friend will leave footprints on your heart."

Not long ago, I was volunteering at our beautiful library in town, when two older women walked in. They were bundled up against the Maine December winds and had all the usual tourist paraphernalia: cameras, umbrellas, that extra layer of sweatshirt that has "Maine"embroidered on it, purchases from the knick-knack stores and maps of our historic, but small, downtown area. Yet, these women had a different kind of twinkle in their eye. When at the library, I'm accustomed to answering questions about our elegant park, the best places to eat and the area attractions. I can suggest museums, that are a short drive away, the best shopping and out of the way spots that are the exceptionally picturesque. What was unusual about these ladies was that they asked none of these queries. They smiled, they walked around the airy, light-filled space and when they did come up to me, they simply beamed and asked if I would take their picture. I was more than pleased to oblige. As I was positioning them just outside, with Camden harbor in the background, they told me that they had been best friends since they were six years old, and as they relayed in hushed, elegant Carolina drawls, this trip to coast of Maine had been a dream of theirs since high school. Their joy, the longevity of their friendship and their palpable appreciation of being in a special place at a special time, tore at my heartstrings. I felt deeply honored to have been a witness, and even a modest participant, in their experience.

I'm a "best friend" kind of a woman too. A boy I once knew remarked about me, decades ago, that I'm attracted to boys, but prefer the company of girls. He said this in the nasty tones of condescension, but in reality, he
wasn't far off the mark. Throughout most of my life, I've had a best friend. Unlike the two beautiful ladies from Charleston, however, I haven't had one best friend for more than four decades. It seems, in my life, that I've had different best friends during different seasons in my life. When specific events have taken a turn to shift onto a new path, I've been fortunate to have a friend who has shared the journey with me. When my biological father left our family, and my mom was bravely putting the two of our lives back together, I had a best friend who let me sleep over all I wanted, in her very happy "normal" family. At Kathy's house, I felt secure and part of a peacefully safe tribe. When I was going through feelings of unease at being the only "only child" I knew, my friend Maria welcomed me into her busy, chaotic, fast paced house....getting a taste of sibling life. When I was passionately curious about spirituality and religion, fate opened up the door for me to have not one, but twin best friends who came from a deeply kind Episcopalian home. From them, I learned the faith that would become my own, and would forever change my life. As a new student in a boarding school 3000 miles away from my home, God gave me a from the same place and from a similar background. We were able to forge through unknown territory together on adventures. She held my head in her lap when I cried over a boy, long since forgotten. She inspired me to take life as it was presented to me, rather than worrying over the way that it had not transpired.

As an adult, I found this experience of friendship appearing didn't change. As a new bride living in Germany, I met others...each one a newlywed too, and each one eager to form a support system. We could pour out our hearts, express our misgivings, our fears and just wonder if what new marriage in foreign country was 'supposed' to be like this. Some of these friends were more hesitant about venturing out on their own but taught me how to cook beyond my ability to heat up frozen food. Others were pioneers, not even using a map to find some out of the way corner of Europe to investigate. I found I learned skills from each of them. Later, I found a best friend in
my childbirth class, another in preschool story hour, one at the children's soccer game and still another purely by chance. Each one of these women was part of my life for a milestone season. From them, I learned independence, how to budget properly, how to mix a mean Martini, how to tell if the hockey puck is off-sides, how to ask the doctor the right questions when I had cancer and how to tell a joke without forgetting the punchline. I've learned how to read a map, how to dress more stylishly and how to find a good hairdresser. I've discovered that some lessons come in the form of 'what not to do' not to treat my husband, how not to parent, how not to overreact and how not to leave a marriage. I've learned that some lessons are learned by the experience of others. I've learned that loyalty isn't always forever. I've had my heart broken, and my life the same friend at different times.

I don't have a best friend right now. I don't even have a close friend nearby. Most everyone I know has moved, and while I have terrific people to know near and far, I miss that sense of intimacy. I miss being able to look at a woman, with a twinkle in her eye and say "Do you remember that time at that place?", and have her laugh uproariously over an event that's revealed only in shorthand conversation. I miss going shopping together and going to the theater. I miss lying in someone else's bed at midnight, drinking coffee and watching movies. I miss passing books and forth and then phoning every few hours and asking, "What chapter on you on?". I miss having my friend know my favorite foods and laughing about the ones I won't eat. I miss her redoing my hair because "Seriously...what was I thinking?". I miss having someone know my story without my having to rehash 44 years. I miss having a friend remind me of an event that I'd long forgotten...and feeling blessed that someone else could help be my memory keeper. I miss crying on her shoulder, and having her cry on mine. I miss sharing sweaters, borrowing earrings and ordering in Chinese food. I miss having a best friend.

Yet, I continually count my blessings. I have a husband who does love me very much, and despite his need to watch either the Red Sox or the Bruins at all times, is a good and decent man. I have teenagers who are smart and funny and interesting people. I have an accomplished, successful mother of whom I'm extremely proud, and cousins who make me laugh, in spite of myself. I have two dogs and one bunny, who think I've Queen of the World. I have friends with whom I'm still in touch after many yeas, and others who have slipped out of my life. I have wonderful memories, and painful ones. I have hope.

I am still on the lookout for a best friend. I hope she's on the lookout for me too. I am just waiting for us to recognize each other.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Time Between

But what minutes! Count them by sensation, and not by calendars, and each moment is a day. ~Benjamin Disraeli

As a writer, one of the of skills I find the most fascinating is an author's ability to account for the non-linear aspects of time. Talented writers can express this through flash-backs, through moving in multiple directions of a character's imagination or simply by writing with the fluidity of ocean currents, moving from one time to another. Not long ago, I read that "time is linear, but human behavior is circular". Moving between times in a character's life, or moving between characters living at different points in history, is an intriguing method in story telling. As time becomes less fixed and more movable, the characters can relate to one another, and the story can be told, by unwrapping each layer of scarf covering the singular core of the protagonist. As time becomes less of a fixed point in the literary horizon, the author is free to explore what actions happened before she came on the scene, as well as to look ahead as to the ramifications of an action years later. These perspectives can tell a story more deeply, while not boring the reader with dull facts about 'what happened before'.

Two books that used this concept with artistry and finesse are "Labor Day" by Joyce Maynard and "Dreaming in French" by Megan McAndrew. Both of these brilliant, insightful novels revolve around a young adolescent, struggling to come to terms with their own lives 'in between' childhood and adulthood, while still dealing with life changing events that forever bind their existence into a time 'before' and 'after'. The central story in the novels themselves can be looked as the "time in between"...the days during which everything changed. Yet, both of these extraordinary stories use time in a non-linear fashion; to help the authors to give background information that isn't dull, but is exceptionally relevant. Both novels explore the deep seated feelings of not belonging, of wanting one's parents to be 'normal' and of being uncertain of one's place in an increasingly adult world. Both of these stories tell, in the eyes of dramatically different main characters, the impact of feeling out of place, of not being a child any longer, but also not being ready for adulthood. These novels accomplish the feat of combining innocence with unyielding knowledge, of being equally balanced between a character's intelligence and inexperience. Both are gifts of instinctual capture the minds, thoughts, deliberations and allowances of the 13 year old mind during exceptional circumstances. I couldn't put either book down once I began reading.

The time in between childhood and adulthood seems to go on forever, when a person is young. I remember being 13 and feeling desperate to be 16. Then, at 16, I was desperate to be 18. I can materialize my adolescent self and feel her frustration, her joys, her insecurities, her gifts and her fears. I can conjure her up with a photograph, and want to look into her eyes, admonishing her to cherish every moment of youth, encouraging her not to cry over boys who will be forgotten or slights that will vanish. I want to whisper to her the secret of "you may want to move on right may not like the way you look or the way your life is, but there will come a time that you would do anything for five minutes back in these shoes....". I want to give young Ellen a hug, make her a cup of tea, and without giving away too much of the adventure that lies ahead, assuring her that all will not only be will be far better than well. I wish I could allow young Ellen to relax, to breathe and to imprint every single moment of youth on herself so that I could better recall it with clarity now. I would like her to see that her life will not be over when she sees the first gray hair, that her hopes and dreams will far surpass anything she could imagined for herself and that time itself will become her friend and companion. Time becomes one's medicine to help get over loss, one's ally in making choices and one's vault in which to bank one's precious memories.

I would also like to encourage my younger self not to discount the memories of older people. As a child and a young teen, I remember listening to the stories of my grandmother and great-aunts as they recalled their childhoods growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It seemed to always be cold. It appeared as if everyone was always fighting, and that there was never enough money. Beyond that, I simply didn't listen. I would hear the same grievances rolled out every year, and the same grudges being held from infractions that occurred when they were my own age. I simply didn't listen with the rapt attention to the stories of our family because I thought these retellings, these hashings over and these tribulations were "boring" and "done". What I failed to realize was that my grandmother's recollections of her own adolescence were windows into the universal spirit of all coming of age stories. I wish I'd understood that within these squabbles lay buried family histories I'd never come to explain or perceive. In Grandma's own 'time between' would lie the answers to my own. I was even given the gift of non-linear time to explore and to enrich, but I wasn't ready to use the gift when it was presented to me.

"The time between" is an alluring concept to deduce. It can be a literary device. It can be a way of explaining moments that seem to stand out between two fixed points. It can also be a way to comprehend those times in a person's life in which she feels suspended between two sides of bridge. Underneath the bridge appears a bottomless chasm. On one side is the familiar, the known and the learned. But that side has begun to crumble and we have no choice but to cross the rickety, shaky bridge ahead. What is on the far side is shrouded in mist and we can't see ahead. Yet, we press, carefully, tentatively pressing on with each step, and hoping the sun will break through the fog that lies ahead.

If you happen to peer into the clouds and see what awaits, find a hush within yourself....and ask questions. You never know what the answers will be. I'm sure they will surprise you.