Down the Rabbit Hole of Self-Improvement

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I’ve been cleaning house this summer, and as I clear out my books, one of the things I’ve noticed is that I have an extraordinary number of self-help books.  I’m not talking a few, I’m talking dozens.  I’ve probably invested many hundreds of dollars, possibly thousands, in these little tomes of wisdom over the years. Read more

Random Thoughts (U.B.C. – Day 12)

Saturday.  It’s one of those charged concepts.  Does it mean a day of relaxation or a day to get twice as much done around the house because my husband is home?  Usually the latter.  Yesterday was no different.

Starting out early because The Boy awakened us at 6:25am, I tried in vain to coerce him into slumbering longer.  I summarily informed him that if he was going to wake me so early, he was forbidden to speak with me until I had my coffee.  He seemed to grasp that he’d crossed a line and was remarkably silent until I’d sucked down two cups of java. Read more

Cleaning House

I’ve been cleaning out my house for, well, it seems like forever. The reality is that while my house may be clean, it is cluttered. Extraordinarily cluttered, by my child’s things, my husband’s things, and a lot of my things.

I am claustrophobic, so much so that I cannot even pull the covers up over my head, so much so that if my space is too cluttered, I start to lose it. I like to have my things contained in an organized fashion. I’ve been known to refer to The Container Store as my spiritual home. I have turned The Boy into a convert, and he likes to have his Lego blocks organized either by the complete set or color and lined up on a bookshelf for ease of access. It sounds crazy, but he actually plays with them more if the blocks are organized and he can find them easily. Read more

Organize Me

One of my targets for 2014 is organization, namely with respect to my blog posts and getting draft articles written and out for submission. When I first started my blog, I tried keeping all my blog post ideas and social media tips in the same calendar as my off-line life, but it never really worked, and I found myself with pieces of folded up paper sticking out of my daily calendar and sticky notes with frayed edges falling out into the depths of my massive purse. Read more

Keep a Contented Heart in November

Well, here it is again. That time of the month. The time when I drag out my muse’s guide to finding happiness and write myself notes on the next layer of my happiness and joyful cake creation. Here’s what Ms. Muse has to say for the month of November.

Keep a contented heart.  A contented heart is a even sea in the midst of all storms.  So said William Secker in his treatise The Nonsuch Professor in His Meridian Splendor, published in 1660.  Amazing that it’s the same some three hundred and fifty years later.

a) Laugh out loud.

She’s right. I should laugh out loud more. We all should laugh out loud more. It just feels so gosh darn fantabulous when we do it. The sun seems to shine brighter for a few moments, the air seems to warm, and the endorphins rush through our bodies. It can change my whole outlook on a day.

What do I do to ensure I laugh out loud at least once a day? For starters, I have a child who is learning to read and sometimes mispronounces words in such a way that I can barely even understand what he’s trying to say. My child also loves to sing, and I mean loves it as if it’s his favorite chocolate treat. He belts out whatever tune he is listening to, and at times it’s all I can do to keep the car on the road I’m laughing so hard. Which makes him smile and sing more loudly, which makes me laugh more…. You get the picture.

I also read amusing books. Currently on my nightstand is Jen Lancaster‘s The Tao of Martha.  Ms. Lancaster is a seriously funny woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously. Consequently, when reading her books, of which there are many, I tend to laugh out loud and try to live my life with the same grain of salt approach she seems to espouse in her essays.

Laughter is good for anything that might ail us. We all need more, so I’m going to continue laughing and smiling and feeling good. It helps me get through the days when the sun doesn’t shine so brightly, which was a lot of September.

b) Use good manners.

I have my mother and Emily Post to thank for my somewhat rigid adherence to “proper” and “appropriate” behavior. My parents drilled me like they were each an Army Drill Sergeant to ensure that I knew and utilized manners. Proper table etiquette, even when all we were eating was grilled cheese sandwiches. Thank you notes for everything and in a timely manner, e.g. no later than two weeks after the event, the gift, etc.

One year for Christmas my mother found and gifted me a book on manners penned by none other than Ms. Emily Post. I still have it on my shelf with the the note-filled margins, underlined text, and dog-eared pages. I still consult Ms. Post regularly, but these days it seems that most of her advice is considered antiquated niceties that we can all eliminate from our lives due to the instantaneous and often impersonal nature of the digital age. I disagree wholeheartedly and so stick to the advice and manners that have gotten me this far in life.

Several years ago I bought the updated version of Emily Post’s book for my two step-daughters.

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I thought that as they went out into the world as young women and began interviewing for jobs, receiving engagement, wedding or baby gifts, knowing how to deal with the acknowledging and thanking people for their kindnesses would be helpful, especially since so few people attend to social niceties these days with the advent of e-mail. I gave the books with that precise sentiment.  As both opened the gift in my presence, they both said thank you, having such a resource would be great.

Two years later?  Both books are still sitting on the shelf in their respective closets upstairs, unopened. One moved out and left her copy here.  Does anybody want to purchase a slightly used copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette? I can give you a really good deal!

c) Give positive reviews.

I consider this up there with manners. If I’ve received good service or had a good experience, I say it. I shout it from the rooftops. I am a firm believer in the maxim that if you let people know they’ve done a good job, that will make them want to do it again and again to get the feel good rush from positive feedback.

Accordingly, I’m one of those people on Amazon and Yelp and Open Table who reviews service providers. If the meal, the product, the service has been good, I let the provider know. Of course, I also let them know if it’s been bad, but I think it’s just as important to put out good vibes into the world as bad.

d) Find an area of refuge.

I’m working on this. I actually reclaimed my sunroom over Labor Day weekend and made it into a sitting/reading area.

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However, it’s off the kitchen, so although it’s a lovely spot in which to have a cup of coffee and chat with Ernie Hemingway or a friend when children are playing, it’s not really a refuge. Too public. So I’m looking for different space in the house.

Our house has a central family room where everything happens. We also have a formal living room, which at this stage of our lives is largely unused. The only time it sees traffic is when the Christmas tree goes up and when packages are delivered to the front door. It also tends – like so many other open spaces – to attract junk and become a storage area when it’s not being used for the Christmas tree.

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For some time, I’ve been planning to make the back corner of the room into a quiet area where I can meditate and practice yoga. It’s sunny and bright, and the farthest corner of the house away from the main traffic areas, so it feels distant. Just what I need for quieting my mind and soul.

Of course, I have an office, too, but currently it’s situated in the laundry room on the other side of the master bath, and over the garage, so it’s not quite as isolated and quiet.

Plus, it’s cold. It is so cold that even when the heat is on, I need an electric space heater to keep marginally warm. It is so cold that once the outside temperature drops below 40 degrees, my cat won’t even hang out in there with me. It is so cold that the winter after we moved into our house we needed to install heat into our garage to ensure that the pipes for the laundry didn’t freeze. I don’t know precisely what the previous owners did about that particular problem, but I don’t care. I now have a garage that stays at a relatively balmy 55 degrees all winter. Getting into a cold car is not really a problem, unless of course, I’ve been lazy and haven’t put the car into the garage, nor is frozen pipes, truly the most important thing.

My husband decided several months ago that his office, located off the family room, should be mine so that I wouldn’t have to spend so much time upstairs away from the central living area, but it’s still got a lot of his books and other stuff in it, so it doesn’t feel like mine yet.

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Maybe I’ll work on getting the walls covered with my stuff and then I’ll want to use it more. I’ll keep you posted.

For now, though, I think my quiet area in the formal living room – or the Christmas tree room as we call it – is my best bet. I’ve got a folding room divider that I’ll put behind the couch, a meditation chair for which I’ve just redone the cushion, my super thick yoga mat, and a Bose sound dock into which I can pop my iPhone to play ocean music. Now I just need to get all the junk out of that room.

And did I forget to mention that Thanksgiving is at our house?  Namaste.

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April is for Lightening Up

Unwilling to write yesterday for fear I would awaken to find whatever I created was an April Fool’s joke played by the universe, here I am today looking forward to my April goals as promulgated by my happiness muse, Gretchen Rubin.

a) Sing in the morning. I don’t know about singing, but I have started putting on music in the morning when I awaken. I’m afraid if I begin singing, something horrible will happen. Perhaps my husband will divorce me after hearing the horrid noise emanating from my throat, perhaps the skies will open, and the gods will smite me for daring to blemish the beauty of an early morning with something so foul, or my child will be horrified and seek to become emancipated at age five. I have a horrible singing voice and sound like nothing so much as a melee between a bunch of alley cats. My son told me at age three that he didn’t want me to sing to him any longer because I had a terrible voice.

I’ve also purchased an under-counter radio/cd player for my kitchen. In my mind, these types of appliances have long been the province of my grandparents; it seemed as though my nana had some type of machine under every inch of cabinet space in her mongrel kitchen that my grandfather built piece by piece. Regardless, I don’t want a radio taking up valuable counter space, so I caved. I haven’t yet installed it, so Ernie Hemingway hasn’t seen it. I’m hoping the reaction is not explosive, unless it’s along the lines of ‘what a fantastic idea!’

Regardless, the goal seems to be having more lightness and more music in my mornings, so whether I sing is irrelevant. The idea is to make this whole happiness project thing work for me, so I’m not being bullied into singing.

b) Acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings. Although not as good as I could be, I’m told I’m actually pretty good at this. Having a young child is terrific practice. The person with whom I have the most trouble in this area is the person with whom it should be easiest. But I’ll keep trying.

c) Be a treasure house of happy memories. Holidays with my family remind me how fabulous we all are at remembering the good and putting aside the unpleasant. It’s not that we forget; it’s that we deliberately choose to put the negative aside in favor of the smiles, the laughter and the warm feelings. This is one of my favorite things about my family, and one of the things I most want to pass on to my child. Having a sense of history, a sense of your place in the world, is important, but having positive experiences to frame your sense of self is one of the most extraordinary gifts a parent can give a child.

d) Take time for projects. I recently cleaned out what we call “Mummy’s Closet” in my house. It’s a small area in the hallway that looks remarkably similar to the closet in which Harry Potter spent his nights while living with the Dursleys of Privet Drive, in which I keep gifts and books and crafting materials. Everything in it is my exclusive domain. I can hardly ever find the things I want in there, and I have found that I often “lose” Christmas and Hanukkah gifts I’ve bought early in the year, so I decided the contents needed to be culled and organized.

I made a pilgrimage to my spiritual home, The Container Store, and purchased several bins, which I separated into three categories: yarn, patterns, crochet hooks and knitting needles; jewelry making supplies; and fabric and sewing notions and patterns. I am hopeful that now I’ve seen all the wondrous colors and projects available to me, I will make time for them.  I’ve already made a couple of jewelry items and pulled out a sweater that I started working on before I began law school in 1993. When I asked my mother for help in figuring out where in the pattern I had stopped, we joked that although it’s been so long since I started the sweater that the style has likely gone out of fashion and come back in again.

My main project for April, however, is writing., or rather the devoting of daily time to my writing practice. I’ve got hundreds of starts – stories, essays, poems, just about anything – and I need to devote myself to finishing some things and making other nascent thoughts into reality. I could commit to getting up thirty minutes earlier each morning to write in peace, but I am far too committed to my sleep for that. I’d like to say I’ll take thirty minutes each night after putting my son to be, but I get so little time with Ernie Hemingway as it is that I will not sacrifice those hours each night before we both go to bed. Instead, I will make time during my day, giving up thirty minutes of mindless internet surfing or watching one television show on my DVR. Writing is a much better use of my time, and much more likely to help keep me sane than cruising around the ‘net or watching Emily Thorne get her “Revenge” on the Grayson family.

On Being a Junkie

It is said by many that the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem.

I am an addict.  A beauty product addict, to be precise.  That’s right, I am a product junkie.  And this is my year to get the monkey off my back, to ignore the insatiable urges, to fight the irresistible force that forces me to buy all manner of beauty products: makeup, hair, face treatments, appliances, treatments…you name it; I’ve either bought it, tried it, or quite possibly, still have it stashed under my sink or in my linen closet.

The state of my under sink bathroom cabinet that tipped me over the edge:

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Notice the plethora of hair products, a particular weakness of mine. I have naturally curly hair, but neither curly like Bernadette Peters nor classically waved like Sarah Jessica Parker; no, my hair is somewhere in between, and accordingly frustrating as I try to force it to commit to one camp or another.  Unsuccessfully.  Thirty plus years of trying ended with me choosing chemical straightening over everyday rounds with the blow dryer and either a flat iron or curling iron. Since I would allow a professional wrestler to break my arm rather than let my hair go naturally curly, I felt quite safe in throwing out all the products targeted to making curls more prominent.

Notice also all the skin lotions.  I have exceptionally dry skin.  Like the old alligator in the Lubriderm ad campaign.  In preparation for the culling, I pulled out all the bottles and consolidated all the part-used bottles and tubs into other mostly empty bottles and tubs.  There are still a lot of them, but instead of twenty-five bottles and tubs, I’ve now only got about twelve.  Seriously, I don’t have to buy body lotion for about two years.  That’s if I use the stuff every day.  Which I’m trying to do since I hate the tight, itchy sensation of super dry skin.

The state of my bathroom counter that further contributed to sending me over the edge (not even taking into account Ernie Hemingway’s side of the two sink vanity):

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Again, notice all the hair products.  Is anyone sensing a theme?

And last, but certainly not least, the pile of old makeup that I finally threw out:

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I have resisted throwing out the stuff for years, mostly because every time I consider it, I see all the labels and cringe to think of all the money it represents:  Chanel, Dior, Estee Lauder, as well as the occasional Cover Girl, L’Oreal Paris  and mongrel brand tossed in for good measure.  With it  all in the trash, that seems like a silly rationalization, especially when I consider that ninety percent of it predates the birth of my child, some of it ringing up the decade mark.

At age 44, it’s time for me to give up the fantasy that I will one day be one of those chic, lipstick wearing sophisticates portrayed in the advertisements of the aforementioned companies.  If I looked like Kiera Knightly, Jennifer Lopez, January Jones, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Kate Hudson, or any of the various ethereally beautiful models who peddle the products on their airbrushed and photoshopped faces, perhaps I’d feel differently.

However, my reality is that if I have a tube of lipstick in my pocket, it’s more liable to fall out and roll under my car seat, melting into a waxy puddle that can never be removed from my car mat than be whipped out at a moment’s notice when I have an impending business encounter. If I have a tube of lipstick in the inside pocket of my purse, it’s likely to be used as a pen or a crayon, not swiped across my lips to give my pale complexion a bit of color before I meet my husband for an unplanned assignation.

Lip gloss with a hint of color – I’m all about that. Those lovely little tubes that smell delightful but hold no interest for my child and are easy to put on without a mirror as I’m dashing around during the day?  Yeah, baby!  Stock me up.  But true color that could bleed or will make me look like a clown if not applied properly?  No way.

At least for the foreseeable future, those days are behind me.  Perhaps someday in the future, but even if I get there, my lipstick tubes will likely be ready for dissection by an archeologist by then.  Better to give up the fight now and simply admit defeat.  I can always buy new ones … when I don’t have mortgages and car payments to make, a rapidly growing child needing clothes every few months as he shoots up and out of them.

I wish I could say that I bought all these various products over the years because I’m a reformed shopaholic, and although that it a tiny piece, that’s not all of it.  The sad truth is that I purchased all the products because of an inability to accept myself for who and what I was.  I wanted curlier hair, straighter hair, glossier hair, tighter skin, brighter skin, less cellulite, longer and stronger fingernails, silky smooth feet, tanner skin without going out in the sun (although that’s actually a good thing).  I wanted to be the glamorous woman behind the products, the fantasy offered by those advertising geniuses.  I wanted to be noticed, to be envied, to be cherished as all of those women appeared to be.  I wanted to be a better me, a different me.

Since 2013 is my year to discover and embrace my bliss, it is about time to get rid of all the evidence and baggage I’ve accumulated over the years that allows me to put off facing the reality in the mirror.  I am … me. Just me.  No better than that, no worse than that.  I’ve got my strengths, my weaknesses, my admirable qualities and my traits that make me and others cringe.  I can try to change, but the only real change can come from within.  I can’t change my cynicism by wearing red lipstick, but I can change it by stopping myself from imagining that having those perfect pillow red lips will make me less of a doubter.

I can be happy with myself and find my happiness in the wonders of life all around me.  Trying.  Now THAT makes me happy.

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March to Aim Higher

March is the month to Aim Higher. Here is the checklist Gretchen Rubin’s book suggests I follow.

a) Launch a blog. Check. Make time for regular posting, figure out what posting schedule works best for me, find time to edit the thousands of words I’ve put down on paper so that they are understandable and pithy. Well, I can’t say I’m exactly hot on the trail of those items just yet. I’m working on the schedule, thinking that maybe once a week is good, but I know I’m far off from consistency at this point. Right now my most regular appointment is with the little notebook I carry around in my purse for moments when inspiration hits.

b) Enjoy the fun of failure. Is this kind of like laughing at yourself when learning to ice skate or ski and you fall hard on your butt? In the right mood, I’m quite good at that. Of course, the next day when I wake up with giant bruises and achy muscles, I’m not so happy, but I can laugh at the time. I think I’m going to have to work super hard on this goal. I’m going to take this task slowly and hope I can build up to it over time.

I’m really good at laughing at myself when I fail physically; I would never call myself an athlete, even though I do try to incorporate regular yoga practice into my life. But baseball, softball, foot ball, basketball and other team sports? I’m a miserable failure, and I have no choice but to laugh when I get out on the field or court or rink with friends or my son because otherwise I would simply cry. I’m okay with that, however. I’ve made it this far in life without being an athlete, and I know myself well enough to know that I’m not going to decide to run a marathon just because I think it sounds cool. I have no illusions about what training to run 26.2 miles and then actually doing it in one fell swoop will do to my beat up knees with one damaged ACL; I like walking much better.

So I laugh at myself regularly when engaging in sports or sports like conduct. I am aiming to do this in all areas of my life.

c) Ask for help. In this area I am a subscriber to the maxim, “do as I say, not as I do.” I am the first person to tell those around me to ask for help, yet I am the last to ask for help. For me, asking for help is like admitting defeat, admitting failure. It’s hard to do. I dislike it immensely. I get angry at myself; I get defensive and angry at the people around me who tell me they want to do the helping.

I’m not entirely sure why I have such difficulty asking for help, but I suspect it has something to do with not wanting to reveal weakness, not wanting to show that I am vulnerable. I’m sure a therapist would have something to say about it. Perhaps I’ll start asking for help by finding a good therapist and asking her. Or perhaps I’ll just remind myself regularly that my husband, my sister, my parents, and my friends love me and would help me as readily as I would help them.

d) Work smart. I know I need to do this. I need to set up a dedicated work space and set regular hours in which I occupy that space. I definitely need to stop work from invading all areas of my life at all hours. Ernie Hemingway and I discuss this regularly as we are both truly slaves to our “to do” lists. We allow our electronic devices to take away our attention and to interrupt our family time. As a result, we end up “working” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Recently, I made a suggestion that Ernie agreed to try. We both agreed to dump our mobile phones and our Blackberry devices at the door at 5pm (or whenever we get home), and not check them or answer them until the next morning. Of course, because Ernie’s older child hates me, she only calls on his mobile, so that throws a little monkey wrench into the plan, but overall, we’ve been doing okay with it. I don’t want to try to force Ernie into following my rules, but perhaps if I’m better about “working smarter,” Ernie will be also.

e) Enjoy now. This is another hard one for me. My entire life I was planning for the future: I’ve got to get good grades in high school so I can get into a good college; I’ve got to get good grades in college so I can get into a good graduate school; I’ve got to get good grades in law school so I can get a good job in a good firm and make good money; once I have the good job and the good income, I can focus on my life, then I can live my life. I’ve always looked forward, planning for the future – the next vacation, the next milestone, the next season.

Having a child has helped me live in the moment much more than I ever have, but I’ve still got that big list bouncing around in my head, the list that includes things like cleaning the garage and finishing up my latest knitting project when school starts up again in September, organizing my writing notebooks and assignments when summer camp starts, and other such sundry items.

March will be a tough month for me, challenging in its simplicity and pull. I hope I’m up to the challenge.

Finding Guidance

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Determining to begin my January portion of my happiness project, I went looking for the guiding tome, Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project.  I read it several months ago and, knowing I wanted to follow through with doing my own version at some point, put it under the edge of my bed with the rest of my “to be read” or “read and really liked so want to keep” books.  At least I thought I did.

Of course, it wasn’t there, and I ended up ripping apart my books piles and bookshelves trying to find it.  Find it, I did, however.  Then I was faced with the herculean task of putting the shelves and piles back together.  Which I did.  Haphazardly.  Until another day.

On to the January portion of the project.  The goal for January is:  Boost Energy:  Vitality.  This includes the following items:

(a)  Go to sleep earlier.  Oh, how I would love to go to sleep earlier.  Especially tonight, when I have a cold and just want to snuggle down under the covers and shut out the world.  If I could actually get to bed by 10pm most nights, I would be oh so happy.  That would give me a solid eight hours per night, which I’ve found over the years simply makes me a nicer person to be around.

(b)  Exercise better.  I’m not really sure what “better” is supposed to man.  I am absolutely not going to be one of those crazy people who says they’re going to work out for two hours every day (been there, done that, never going back).  I just want to be healthy, so I’m going to shoot for three to four yoga classes a week.  If I can do that, I’ll feel good.  And if I cannot accomplish that every week, I’m going to give myself a break.

(c)  Toss, restore, organize.  This is a must.  I’ve let my files, my books, my magazines, my photos, my projects, my everything, get totally out of control in the name of not having the time.  I need to make the time.  I need to make the time so that I’m not wasting time trying to find things.  So, tomorrow I will put my book piles and book shelves back together.  And then I will move on to my office.  Then my closets – clothing, gifts that I’ve purchased and forgotten about, crafts projects started and never finished (I need to be honest with myself about whether I ever will finish them, and if not, throw them out).  My child’s outgrown and out of season clothing.

(d)  Tackle a nagging task.  I don’t know which task I’ll choose.  Perhaps I’ll combine (c) and (d) when cleaning/organizing/culling through the paperwork in my office.

(e)  Act more energetic.  I think this will follow naturally from getting more sleep and exercising better.

Today I’ve found my guidance and set some goals.  Tonight I’ll begin implementing those goals.  And tomorrow I’ll put my books in order.