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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Pay Attention in October

I’m a bit late on my October tasks, but I gave myself a break after burying my father-in-law simply to meditate on life, its wonder and brevity, and focus on helping my husband through this difficult time. Without further ado, here is what my happiness muse tells me I should focus on during the month of October.

a) Meditate on koans.

When I first read this, I admit I thought she was instructing me to meditate on financial issues. However, once I read a bit farther, I realized that I was being instructed to meditate on the big questions. A koan is a story, a question or a statement which, in Zen-practice, is used to provoke the mind, to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level. Two koans that I have encountered often in general nomenclature are: (i) if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? and (ii) the only way out is through.

The statement “the only way out is through” seems particularly relevant to recent events in my world, namely my husband’s father dying, and to a much lesser degree, my anxiety and sadness surrounding The Boy starting kindergarten and beginning to grow his independence in leaps and bounds that I haven’t seen since he first became mobile. So this month I will meditate on “the only way out is through” and in doing so, I hope open my mind to greater possibility and awareness of the ways in which grief and anxiety change me.

I realize I’m probably way over simplifying this whole task of meditating on koans, and I want to delve deeper into it, but my heart needs a little time to heal, so I will start small and meditate more and deeper as I go. Once I fix the cushion on my meditation chair.

b) Examine True Rules.

These are concrete lessons that come out of people’s particular experiences. Again, recent events are going to provide me with lots of these life rules. Perhaps the only True Rule I will find is that life is short and can be taken away at any time, so I should live every day to the fullest. I suppose that’s a cliche, but cliches are that for a reason: generally, they tend to be true, and thus become overused and cliche.

Right now the only True Rules I can come up with are (i) children grown up even when you don’t want them to, and (ii) everything changes.

c) Stimulate the mind in new ways.

This sounds suspiciously like “try new things.”  Of course, I’ve been trying new things all year long, so I’ll bite. I just don’t know what I can fit into my schedule right now ….  I’ll keep you posted.

d) Keep a food diary.

Um, okay. While I admit I’m not in the shape I was in before I had a child and I’m a few pounds over my ideal weight, I’m not sure that keeping a diary in which I record every blessed thing that goes into my mouth will be particularly helpful.  I’m stressed out enough about it already.

I’m a little more nuts about my weight and size than many.  Once you’ve had an eating disorder, even when “cured,” it never really goes away, and I find myself freaking out over my weight and calling my sister to talk me down off the ledge.  Intellectually, I know I’m a healthy weight, but I look in the mirror and see someone I don’t recognize, someone I don’t want to be.  I hate feeling the waistband of my jeans touching my waist – not cutting into it, just touching it.

Despite knowing that tipping the scales at 100 pounds when I’m 5’7″ is scary and unhealthy, I still keep that in the back of my mind as my ideal, and I admit that unless I keep that girl in handcuffs, she will sneak up from the back of the bus and knock me over the head in the name of taking over my eating and obsessive exercise patterns.  I still look longingly at the photos I have in which my collarbone juts out like a shelf under my neck and the my neck looks as if it can barely withstand supporting the weight of my head.  I fight every day, every meal, not to let that girl take over.

I don’t want my child to grow up with food issues.  I don’t want him to believe that eating or not eating will make anyone love him more or less.  So I keep those photos hidden away and hope that someday I will be able to look at them and feel that girl is gone.  I want to know deep in my heart that girl is unhealthy, and never again, even deep in my hidden heart of hearts, want to emulate her.

So, no, I will not be keeping a food diary.  I live a food diary.

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Parenting Choices

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As I was drinking my morning coffee today, I came across an article about breastfeeding, specifically whether a woman can be a good mother if she chooses not to breastfeed.  Reading through it, I became thoroughly annoyed and decided to post an essay I wrote last year about my own experience with mothering and nursing.  The long and short of it is that every woman – no matter her background, education level, socioeconomic level, marital status, or anything else – has the right and should be encouraged to make her own decision as to what’s best for her and her child, without guilt, without fear.  What was right for me is not right for everyone, and I have no right to judge what any other woman does to keep her children fed and happy.

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Yesterday I had fifteen minutes to spare while waiting to go pick up my little man at school.  It wasn’t quite enough time to do any of the myriad household chores that seem to pile up daily like so much waste after a natural disaster, so I decided to have a cup of tea and surf around the CNN website to catch up my news.

I quickly read through the world and local news items that caught my eye, making sure I was up to date on where the presidential race stands and the weather, then clicked on the entertainment tab.  I scrolled down to the bottom, where I often find the most interesting tidbits buried deep by the techies at CNN.  I clicked on a link about celebrity moms.

One of the photos showed Alannis Morrissette with her son.  Next to her photo was a snippet from her interview on Good Morning America back in May.  The essence of the caption is this:  she is a proponent of breastfeeding and plans on allowing her son to continue nursing until he has decided he is done and weans himself.

I am a major proponent of breastfeeding, as well.  I read the Time Magazine article in May about extended breastfeeding and attachment parenting, and at the time I sat down for a good long think about my own feelings on the subject.  It’s a deeply personal decision and while I might advocate it as a positive in developing a strong bond with your child, it is by no means the only method by which a mother can bond with a child, and for a whole variety of reasons, it’s simply not for everyone.  That being said, here’s what else I thought about.

My son is nearly 5.  I nursed until he was thirty-nine months old, including through recuperation from a lumpectomy.  I held him constantly until mobility grabbed hold, and I never let him cry.  Until almost age four, my son slept in bed with my husband and me.  Now, The Boy starts out the night solo in the room next to mine, but more nights than not, ends up back with my Ernie Hemingway and me by morning.  It has only been recently that my husband and I resumed any social life.  Until four months ago, my son had never spent the night away from me; in June, Ernie Hemingway and I went away for a weekend and The Boy spent two nights with my parents.  The only people who have ever watched The Boy are my parents, my sister, and very occasionally his older sisters.

Apparently, all that makes me an attachment parent.  Apparently, that makes my parenting style is about self-sacrifice and utter devotion to my child, devoid of any intention to raise a self-sufficient child.

But I don’t see it that way.

I was raised by a young mother who became a single mother.  She did the best she could do, exceedingly well, and came as close as possible to attachment parenting before it was defined.  Although she was not able to nurse me due to medication given her to cease lactation, she held me constantly and may have even slept with me, but in any event never left me to cry.  Until I was school age, I don’t believe she ever left me with anyone but family or close friends.

I am independent, self-sufficient, and accomplished.  I had a successful and lengthy professional career, and I voluntarily gave that up for my son, who is more important to me than any career ever could be.  I am raising my son the way my mother raised me:  we are bonded and he is confident that I am always there.  I encourage my son to explore the world and make the experience personal and intimate.

I did all this because it’s what felt right to me, not because I was subscribing to someone else’s definition of being a parent.  I nursed my child because it was the healthiest option for us.  I slept with him because after he was born he lost nearly 2 pounds and I needed to nurse constantly to get the weight back up, but I still needed sleep.  It was the best option for us.  I held The Boy, refusing to let him cry because I love him and can’t stand to see those little eyes filled with confusion and hurt when beloved mummy won’t hold and cuddle him.

If I am attachment parent, that’s fine with me.  I waited until I was almost forty to have a child.  I waited so that I afford – financially and emotionally – essentially to drop out of life and spend my time knowing and raising my child.  My son is the single most important contribution I will make to the future of this world, and why shouldn’t I devote all my energy to that endeavor?  Shouldn’t we all have the choice to do that for our children?  It has been a wonderful experience for us, and every parent should be able to say that without fear of judgment.

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I applaud Kristin Chase, Casey MullinsCasi Densomre-Koon and Catherine Connors for their willingness to stand up and defend their decisions, their lifestyle, and ultimately for a mother’s right to choose how to best nourish her children.  These women and so many unnamed others have given me the courage to take ownership of my situation, to stand up and proudly flex my parenting choice muscles.

February: Remembering Love

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According to my magical happiness tome and my spiritual diva guide, Gretchen Rubin, February is the month to Remember Love.  Her suggestions for working on her marriage are categorized as follows:

a) Quit nagging. This is pretty self-explanatory, and I’ve actually been doing this fairly successfully for a while. I find I’m much happier when I just let go and take care of myself and my actions, rather than worrying about what everyone around me is doing.  I try to look at it as successfully managing my stress levels. The more I nag, the more my blood pressure rises and the higher my anxiety goes, so I stopped. Mostly. After all, nobody’s perfect.

I wasn’t sure how my little experiment was going to go as there was a part of me that viewed my inability to motivate action with my nagging as a sort of personal failure. Occasionally I think if my husband truly loved me he would do as I asked instead of ignoring me.  Am I alone in having that thought once in a while? Probably.  Nevertheless, I decided to try not nagging for a week and see what happened. The funny thing is the very things about which I had been nagging him began happening – WITHOUT ME EVEN HAVING TO OPEN MY MOUTH!

I gave it another week and got similar results. So I’ve kept my experiment going for a few months now, and I’m finding that more gets done when I keep my mouth shut and just take care of my own business. When I nag, not a whole lot gets done. It’s quite liberating, and I know my husband appreciates it because he smiles a lot more.

b) Don’t expect praise or appreciation. I’m pretty good with this. I keep my house clean for me, not for anyone else. I do the laundry not because I want people to be appreciative of the fact that they have clean clothes, clean towels and clean sheets, but because I want clean clothes, towels, and sheets, and it’s just as easy to do everybody else’s stuff when I do my own. Plus, I want my child and my husband to look neat and clean, but again, that’s my issue, not theirs. It’s taken me many years, but I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I’m OCD about my living space, and the craziness I impose is for myself alone. Consequently, I don’t expect a thank you when I clean up the kitchen after dinner or put clean clothes in their drawers. I do things because I want to, not because I want people to thank me. It’s just how I roll.

c) Fight right. Many years of dysfunctional relationship and lots of psychoanalysis during my teens, twenties and into my thirties has made me hyper-aware of how to fight so that it’s constructive instead of destructive. There are certain lines you just don’t cross, even with a spouse, or perhaps especially with a spouse. Children grow up watching their parents interact, which includes sometimes disagree or fight, and I don’t want my child to learn bad communication and interaction habits from me. I want him to learn how to cherish the people he loves, and if there is a disagreement, how to resolve it in a way that both parties feel heard and appreciated.

Of course, nobody’s perfect, so this will be an on-going project for the rest of my life. After all, I’m only human.

d) No dumping. Finally, something I’m great at! I don’t dump anything on my husband because I know he’s got his own concerns and stresses at work, plus a whole host of other weighty things on his mind. Consequently, unless it’s something really important or something that requires his counsel, such as decisions regarding our child’s education or medical care, I talk to my girlfriends, my sister, my mother, and leave that stressful part of my life behind when hubby walks through the door. He doesn’t need to hear how I’m wondering if I’m a bad mother because I don’t arrange enough playdates or because I do too much for our son.

e) Give proofs of love. This is hard because we’re both so busy, but that’s no excuse. A quick hug and kiss in the morning, a note tucked into his wallet, a brief touch just to say “Hi, I’m here,” can make all the difference in the world, can easily brighten a day. I know my husband sometimes feels – like every other man whose wife is preoccupied with preschool age children – that I’m distracted and am so focused on our son that I take him for granted and forget about him, so I need to change that. I’m going to start hugging more; hugging relieves stress, after all, and boosts feelings of closeness. Everybody can use less stress and more feelings of closeness. I’m also going to figure out a way for us to spend some more time alone, other than late evenings after our little guy is asleep.

I can’t forget why I fell in love with my husband in the first place. After all, the life I have now, the life I love, my miracle boy … none of that would have happened without my husband. So I devote the month of February to showing my husband just how much he means to me.

One Sick Mama

Mama is sick.  Coughing, chills, 102.6 fever, shaking, body aching, vertigo sick.  I’ve been in bed for most of the last two days, except when I had to go get my boy from school, and even that was iffy; I drove so slow I think people must have presumed I was an 80 plus year old woman behind the wheel.  I probably should see a doctor, but I’m too stubborn.  I grew up with a mother who is a nurse, and her rule of thumb was three days.  As in most non-serious conditions will resolve themselves in three days, and if you’re not showing signs of improvement in three days, you should go to the doctor.

My darling hubby brought the kid to school yesterday so I could stay in bed, mostly because I was so dizzy I could barely stand, but I still had to get up and get the boy at 1:30.  Came home, did a few other things that needed to get done – yes, because a mother’s obligations never stop, even when she is sick – and then collapsed on the floor with The Boy while he demonstrated for me how to put his newest Lego set together.    I was so zapped all I could do was smile.  Oh, and I called Hubby to tell him to come home ASAP, as I was likely going to pass out soon and it might be good if The Boy’s other parent was around to reassure him when that happened.

Hubby arrived home around 6pm, and shortly thereafter I was tucked into bed with a dose of NyQuil under my belt, the humidifier running, and a couple of boxes of tissue close at hand.  Plus my insanely possessive cat, Bella, curled around my knees for added help in sweating out the fever.  Thanks, baby girl.

I slept through the next roughly twelve hours, checking my temperature each time I woke up, and by morning I was feeling pretty good – I had gotten it down to 101.2!  I was feeling like I could beat this with a few extra hours in bed.  Ah, the hubris of mothers.  The world, she laughs at us, and our silly notions that we can handle it all.

I asked Hubby to take The Boy to school again, but he had an early meeting that could not be missed or put off.  I understand; I used to practice law and know how it gets around this time of year.  So I dragged my sorry ass out of bed, then clothed, fed, and dragged an extraordinarily unhappy child to school.

I’m bored out of my skull from sitting in bed, and I need to do something other than watch back episodes of The Good Wife, Hawaii Five-O, or NCIS online.  I’ve tried reading, but it’s hard to concentrate with my nose and my cough interrupting me every  fifteen seconds; I tend to lose my train of thought and place a bit too easily.  I don’t want to talk on the phone because it  makes me cough.  Although that reminds, me, I need to call my mother, because she has this beastly illness, too, so I need to check on her.

Needless to say, I’ve made no progress on my book piles or organizing anything.  Moving makes me cough.  Maybe I will just watch some television online.

So here I am, at least until I have to get up to get The Boy from school at 1:30.  At which time I’ll crawl back into bed and beg my child to get me some water and a cool wet cloth.  At least I have my psycho kitty for company, and she doesn’t expect conversation out of me.

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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.