July 11, 2011

3 Steps to Learning to Trust Yourself -- or, Flexing the Trust-Your-Instincts Muscle

Last Christmas, my husband gave me a GPS device for my car, at my request. For as long as I can remember, I've had an awful sense of direction. If I combined all the minutes and hours I've spent being lost while driving or walking, I could have earned an advanced degree in geography in that time. Which, come to think of it, might not be a bad idea.

Last Saturday I switched on the GPS and headed to a lecture at a local college. The facility is one I hadn't visited before, so I also printed out a campus map and wrote down an on-site phone number, just in case. (Sometimes, in spite of having the GPS, I also print out directions from MapQuest or Google Maps, but I'm trying to stop this, since it seems to negate the point of having a GPS. Not to mention that it seems a tad obsessive.)

I had a vague idea of how to get to the college -- then again, I always have a "vague idea," usually wrong, about locations, so I tend not to trust them. This time, 'though, Ada (my name for the disembodied female voice on the GPS) agreed with my recollection. About half-way to my destination, Ada got the hiccups. She told me make a U-turn, which seemed odd, but which I dutifully made. Then, almost immediately, she asked me to make another one.  I repeated her directions not once, but twice, just in case I'd missed something crucial along the way.

But, no, Ada was stuck. Either she was malfunctioning or she'd decided the lecture wasn't worth going to. So, with apprehension --and because I'd forgotten my cell phone, unable to call that contact number I'd written down-- I disregarded Ada and kept heading in the direction I thought the college stood.

I made it to the lecture in time. It certainly helped that the route wasn't complicated and that there were directional signs as I neared the college.

Ever on Metaphor Alert, I thought about my experience while I waited for the lecture to begin. Yes, I'd panicked a little when Ada started repeating herself, and I was THAT close to flogging myself with a litany of self-reproach, including: "I should have printed out directions from MapQuest!" "I should have left earlier to allow for this!" and "I can't believe I forgot my phone again!" Maybe you've used one or more of these yourself. I sure have.

But --consciously-- I didn't. Mind you, I was going to a lecture for pleasure, so the pressure was less than if I'd been on my way to a business meeting or if I'd been picking someone up at the airport. Still, even if those had been the circumstances, I had little to fault myself for: I had prepared (GPS and campus map) and I had allotted enough time to get there, and forgetting my phone hardly merited self-flagellation.  The situation simply was, and getting wrought up about my situation would not have made it any easier.

Although it wasn't by choice, I decided to trust my instincts. And luckily, things turned out OK.  Of course, the result might have been different: I might not have made it to the school at all, or arrived too late to hear the lecture. Then what?

Even with different outcomes, I believe the learnings would have been very similar. That's because it's less about the situation itself, and more about how we handle the situation --how we respond to the circumstances we're given. Here are three things I'm taking away from that morning about learning to trust my instincts (and, ultimately, myself):
  1. Do what you can and then let go. Prepare appropriately. Beyond that, things are usually beyond your control.
  2. Stay in the moment. There's little point in anticipating disaster or berating yourself when things don't go as expected. In fact, either of these can cloud your ability to respond effectively if a plan does go off-course.
  3. Use it as an opportunity to hone your instincts. Sometimes we're so used to looking outside ourselves for "direction" that we neglect to develop our own capacity to listen to and guide ourselves. If I'd had my cell phone with me, I'd likely have used it to get directions by dialing the campus phone number I'd written down. But I didn't have it. I'd given myself enough travel time to know that I had a few minutes to test my instincts before I tried another tack, such as pulling over and asking for directions.
While I doubt that any of us actively want our plans to derail, it's bound to happen from time to time. The Trust-Your-Instincts muscle is one I want to develop and use more often. I'm aiming to be grateful for circumstances that give me that opportunity, as uncomfortable --oy!-- as they might be.

Image by I am marlon, on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

July 6, 2011

Women Reading

The New Novel - 1877 - Winslow Homer

I have a soft spot for paintings of women reading. It's hardly surprising. Reading is an obsession that I picked up very early. Like many other bookish kids, I loved everything about the experience. I eagerly anticipated my trips to the library and made a beeline for the "new arrivals" shelf when I walked in; I read the first paragraph of each book I thought I might borrow to see which would best suit my mood (I still do this); and I loved walking home with my week's stash, wondering which book I'd read first. I've been a bookworm ever since.

So you can see why I define myself as a reader. It's the first thing i say if I'm asked about my interests. It's followed closely by 'learning,' and the two are inseparable for me. Much of what I learned about the world as a child came from books, and as as I matured, I realized that books could also help me learn about myself. 

I'm an introvert who found herself working in a field usually reserved for extroverts. Over time, I learned to use the extrovert's tools so proficiently that most people are surprised when I tell them that the role doesn't come naturally --or easily-- to me. Channeling an extrovert can leave me depleted, sometimes exhausted, and I often turn to books to renew my energy.

Over the years, I've collected print and digital images of readers, almost always women. It's been a popular motif for painters over the years --it's hard to think that women holding their electronic reading devices will strike the same chord for artists, but, hey, who knows? From time to time, I'll share some of my favorites with you in this blog. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. The New Novel, above, is the first of these.

Note: The following appeared in Popular Amusements, a book by Rev. J.T. Crane. The book was published in 1869, only 8 years before Winslow Homer completed The New Novel. Here's the table of contents for the chapter "Novels and Novel-Reading." (Be warned, the "Seven Reasons Against Common Novel-Reading" make it pretty clear that reading a novel can ruin you for life.)

Novels and Novel-Reading
Definition of a Novel – A Vice of the Age – FOUR MAXIMS:
1. No Fiction if Little Leisure
2. Only the Best
3. Fiction to be but Small Part
4. If any Harm results, Stop at Once!
1. Wastes Time
2. Injures the Intellect
3. Unfits for Real Life
4. Creates Overgrowth of the Passions
5. Produces Mental Intoxication
6. Lessens the Horror of Crime and Wrong
7. Wars with all Piety, Disciplinary Rule.

July 1, 2011

Learning to 'Stay On My Mat,' or, Listening with Intention

At some point during every yoga class, our teacher reminds us to 'stay on your mat; stay in the room.'  More often than not, it's just what I need to hear at that moment.  My body may be on the mat, but my mind is moving ahead to the assignment that's due the next day, or back to yesterday's dinner.

I'm finding that the longer I commit to living mindfully, the more often I have to prompt myself to 'stay on the mat.' I think it's because I'm more aware now of when I'm not in the moment --and for someone like me who likes bright, shiny objects, Not Being In The Moment is a regular event.

At first, I recognized this tendency to 'drift away' during times when I was alone. I'd be meditating, or working on a project in my studio, or like now, writing a blog post. One minute I was fully engaged; the next I was making a virtual grocery list. So I'd tug myself back to the cushion or the table or computer.

Then I started noticing the same behavior when I was with someone else. I like to think that this doesn't occur often, but it happens often enough that red flags are now going up automatically. I'm trying to see these flags as a good thing: an opportunity for positive change, even while I mourn in advance the decline of all the multi-tasking-in-my-head that I'm so fond of.

Maybe this happens to you, too. You might be having coffee with a friend, someone you care for and whose company you enjoy. She's telling you what seems to be an interminable story about taking her car in for repairs. If she were an on-air reporter covering a ballgame, she'd be doing both the play-by-play and the color. She's skipping no detail about her car's ailment. You're looking right at her, with what you hope is an interested gaze, but you stopped following the game long ago.

It's just as easy to leave the mat when the speaker isn't a friend. It can be the barista at the local coffee shop whom you don't know all that well, or a stranger with whom you struck up a conversation. You find yourself drifting, only half listening. Do we have any more or less of a responsibility to be on the mat with someone we're not close to?

[Before we go any further, let's acknowledge that we're only human, so this kind of thing --drifting off the mat, that is-- will happen. Often. Then some more. So no repeated banging of heads against walls when it does, please.]

As I was saying...Surely we're allowed a little 'drift,' right? It's not as if if the people we're talking to are saying something really important.  If they were, then of course we'd listen more attentively.

But here's the problem with this thinking. Who are we to decide what is or isn't important to someone telling us his story? And more to the point, it's not whether a story is 'important' or not that matters. What matters is the potential for grace that resides in every interaction we have with another person.

If you're lucky, you've basked in this grace firsthand. You meet someone for the first time, perhaps only briefly, and walk away feeling a little more special than you did beforehand. What you experienced, most likely, was the effect of being with someone who was wholly present in the relationship while you were together. It's what people mention most often when they describe meeting charismatic individuals: the feeling that the other person's attention was focused completely on them, as if they were the only two people in the room.

Each of us has a fundamental desire to be truly seen and heard, to feel that who we are and what we say is valued. We may not always know exactly why we feel better when this happens, but we know we want to feel that way again.

Amazingly, we have the ability to give that same gift to others. And when we're truly available in a conversation, when we're fully present in the moment, we reap the rewards too. It's no longer just a car-repair story; it transforms into a story about connecting at a profound level with another human being, someone who wants to be acknowledged and valued, just as we do.

It takes great effort to approach our relationships this way, not to mention time and sensitivity to see the results. I know it'll take giant heaping doses of all three for me. Still, my investment in 'staying on the mat' in yoga keeps paying dividends, so it seems reasonable to trust this process too. As always, news at 11.

Image by OliYoung, from Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

June 24, 2011

Seeing the Essential

In a drawing class I took last year, the teacher asked her students to draw the "essence" of an object.  "It's difficult to do this well," she said. It's natural to want to tell everything we know about the object, and we do this by adding details. Instead, she wanted us convey the object's fundamental qualities with only a few strokes.  Expressing the essence of a sword, for instance, might be about the motions of slicing the air and thrusting.

She was right about how hard it is to do this. My object was a rubber duck, the kind that amuses kids in the bathtub. Abstracting it to communicate its light-hearted playfulness was the most difficult assignment I had all semester.

As I worked through the exercise, I started to think about "essence" as it related to the people in my life.  What if we saw only the essence of our friends, our partner, the neighbor down the street? What if we stripped away everything but the one pure aspect of their personality that best illuminates who they are.

It's like that photo you're lucky enough to take every once in a blue moon. The one where your sister is crinkling her eyes in a look of intense, delighted, curiosity. The one that everyone who looks at it says "Oh, yeah. That's Annie! You really captured her --she's so interested in everything around her!" And what if it was your heightened awareness, instead of your camera, that recognized Annie's essence?

Would we act differently with others if we had that gift of seeing the essential? If "caring" is your husband's defining trait, would you complain when he needs to be reminded to take out the garbage or would you focus on his unfailing kindness toward you when you're feeling blue? If a friend's essential quality is fear, would you substitute kindness and inquiry for your usual impatience? And if someone is characterized by rage, would you decide to step away from the relationship rather than endure it?

And what about your own "essence" --the key quality that you project? How would others define it ? What do you think it is?

Image by Vermin Inc, from Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

June 20, 2011

Wearing My Intentions

When I first started reading jewelry designer Kathy Van Kleeck's blog, long before I met her, she was living in another state far, far away. I loved her jewelry designs from the start, and was delighted to learn that she was planning to moving to my town(!)

You'd think I would have reached out to her at that point, but hyper-introvert that I am, I didn't. She moved here, and I kept reading her blog. Still, I didn't introduce myself. You know... I didn't want to intrude. Well, maybe you don't know. Maybe you're a normal, friendly person who thinks it perfectly reasonable, if you've been reading someone's blog for months and months, and they move to your community, at least to leave a comment on their blog letting them know that you live there too.  Yep. Makes sense. But I didn't do it.

Lucky for me, we ended up taking a class together taught by a terrific mixed media artist and friend.  I did introduce myself then (finally), and we spent some relaxed time talking. We had a number of things in common --a childhood in Florida, for one. She told me that she, too, was an introvert, although I never would have known (which is what people say about me when I tell them I'm not naturally social).

Now we see each other regularly (I did take that follow-up step after the class to suggest we get together), and we have much more in common than those few things we talked about during the class. Often, we find ourselves talking about the rewards and mysteries of living a life with purpose, and how damn hard it can be to stay on track with our intentions.

Among her collection Kathy has a series of delightful Talismans. Each piece combines elements that are touchstones for the wearer's journey. Kathy calls it "the path towards 'waking up'.".  I like the 'look and feel' of these talismans, and I wanted to incorporate my own touchstones --in this case, three words that I chose as the focus of my attention for 2011.*  I also wanted to include a symbol in which I've long found special meaning: a heart resting in an open palm.

You can see the results of Kathy's lovely work. I was enchanted when I saw what she'd created. I like how each element has its own integrity yet joins with the others to create a piece that is much more than the sum of the parts.

I wear this necklace often, and routinely find myself reaching to clasp the pendants. It's become a natural gesture that keeps me mindful of what I most want to practice this year: choice, connection, and gratitude. The heart/hand pendant reminds me stay open: to what my heart is saying, to the people in my life, to new ideas and ways of doing things, to what I still need to learn.

And, of course, wearing a beautiful object handmade by a friend who crafted it with love and attention is a joy that can't be measured.


(here's what I said about the process of choosing my words for last year: 2010)

Images: Mine

June 17, 2011

Making Sense (or Not)

You know how when you're thinking of buying a new car and you've done your research and have one in mind, suddenly you see that car everywhere?

I wrote recently about making peace with not having all the answers. I even managed to turn Woody Allen's new film into a meditation on embracing the uncertainties of the present instead of longing for the narrative of an idealized past. So, when I came across Dani Shapiro's post at HuffPost, I couldn't help but see a huge neon Lesson-Alert sign.

At a time when she faced major upheaval and uncertainty in her life, Shapiro lost her grounding. She found herself questioning everything.  As a writer, she has a natural tendency to look for the narrative arc of her life, for the certainty of cause-and-effect, for chapters whose events resolve themselves neatly. Shouldn't life "make more sense?"  Well, she decides, not necessarily:
Sure, there are the fortunate few from whom the journey has thus far been smooth sailing, but for the vast majority of us, there are fits and starts, hiccups, confusion, mistakes, wrong turns, U-turns, graceless moments. Life's road is nothing if not strewn with pebbles, potholes, unexpected surprises, both happy and not-so-happy ones. As one of my dearest friends, the Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says, "We are always accommodating to a new situation." That ever-changing new situation is, in fact, what makes up the shape of our lives. And that shape assumes its own kind of integrity, over time. This is how it is, how it has been. The truth of who we are is all we have to offer each other. (my emphasis)
And so it seems that the answer may well be to embrace the complexity of our lives... We are all here, trying our best, muddling through. We make choices, we re-group, we deepen. We learn from each other. We all make sense.
In other words, we may have to accept that the "answer," such as it is, is that there is no answer. Surprisingly, I find this strangely comforting -- and yes, admittedly, a little disquieting. And, that I suppose, is part of the lesson: that experiencing conflicting feelings is natural, and that watching those feelings shift over time is simply part of "accommodating to a new situation."

Don't know about you, but to badly mangle a metaphor simile, I suspect that this topic is like a car-buy that I'll be researching all my life.

P.S. If you haven't read it, I recommend Shapiro's recent book, Devotion: a Memoir.
Image by morten gade, at Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

June 15, 2011

Midnight in Paris

I saw Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris a few days ago. It opened in Paris while I was there, and because I knew it was set to open soon at home, I waited to see it. It felt right seeing it here, feeling a little wistful, like Allen's protagonist.  Like Allen's Manhattan, Midnight in Paris is a valentine to a great city. And although I initially referred to it as a beautiful trifle, I've found myself thinking about the film over the past few days much more than a simple trifle would warrant.

Walking through present-day Paris, screenwriter and aspiring novelist Gil Pender pines for the '20s, the "Golden Age" when Paris was host to a coterie of artists and writers that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. Gil idealizes this past, and, luckily for him, is able to transport himself there each night, courtesy of a magical taxi that appears at the stroke of midnight.

Allen has great fun with this part of the film, and there are some wonderful set pieces as Gil hits the high spots with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and has his novel critiqued by "Gert." (Owen Wilson is terrific as Gil, by the way. He gives the character a warmth and charm that perfectly suits the tone of the film).

The present day holds little allure for Gil. He's dragged around Paris by his shallow, materialistic fiancée Inez, who belittles him, dismisses his artistic efforts, and deceives him with the pedantic professor husband of a friend. Allen doesn't hide the contempt he feels for her or for her equally repulsive parents and the obnoxious professor (a fun turn by Michael Sheen). In a film as generous as this one, this disdain could be jarring, but Allen gives the parents and the professor such hilarious dialogue and uses them so well as foils for Gil's good nature that it doesn't ring false.

So what does this have to do with intentional living? The more I thought about the movie, the more taken I was with how cleverly Allen reveals his themes, and in a story that revolves around time, how timeless they are.

I suspect that most of us bump up against these issues regularly. I know I do. Not about moving to Paris, of course (although I never rule that out ;-), but about listening closely to my heart first when I'm looking for answers; about gratefully embracing my life just as it is; and about pursuing my own dreams, not anyone else's. And because the story is packaged in a box of bonbons (I still have these on the brain from Paris!), Allen isn't heavy-handed about "messages."

By film's end, Gil has broken his engagement and decided to move to Paris and write.  He sees that idealizing the past is a dead end. Certainly, it's kept him from from appreciating the present. The catalyst for his decision is his love interest from the 20s, Adriana (a perfect Marion Cotillard), with whom, in a story-within-a-story, he time-travels to the turn of the 19th century. The Belle Époque is Adriana's ideal, her "golden age." She decides to stay, and wants Gil to stay with her. Gil's response is Allen's argument for the value of living in one's own time, but Adriana doesn't buy it, and Gil returns to the modern day alone.

Romantic love, Allen seems to say, isn't sufficient reason to give up a moment in time that's unique to you, a present that invites your dreams for the future.

He also suggests that Gil's focus on the past kept him in mayor denial about the truth of his relationship with Inez. There's an echo of this when Gertrude Stein tells him that she and Hemingway think his novel shows real promise. But hey were surprised, she says. that the novel's hero doesn't realize that his fiancée is sleeping with the "pedantic professor."

When Gil tells Inez and her parents that he's staying in Paris and not getting married, Allen lets us know, with a throw-away line, that this isn't just another version of Gil's idealization of Paris. If he should find later that Paris isn't right for him, Gil says, he'll leave. We understand that he's staying because it's the right place for him right now, not because he's compelled by a romantic notion.

It's not that Allen is mining deep ground here --it's not the nature of a film as ethereal as this one. But he's smart about getting both Gil and and the audience where he wants us to be. Midnight in Paris is a wonderful film --not a great one, but a delight nonetheless. And, although it took me a few days to realize it, it's a thoughtful one, too.

June 13, 2011

The Power of Living with Ambiguity

For over three months now, David Robinson has been writing a series of daily posts on his web site, The Direction of Intention, about recognizing the power within ourselves.  David is an artist, a life coach, and the business partner of the equally multi-talented Patti Digh.

One of David's recent posts refers to the importance of embracing ambiguity:
Stepping back into your self requires some comfort with ambiguity, the capacity to stand firmly within paradox. You have to release what you think you are in order to inhabit who you really are.
Ambiguity is something I've never been good at. In fact, if I had to make a list of things that make me anxious, ambiguity would pretty much top the list.  It's not surprising, given that I've built a career and a life on "getting it right" and "doing it perfectly." Ambiguity, as in a situation in which something can be understood in more than one way, doesn't have a place in either approach.

As a recovering perfectionist and a long-time believer in the theory of The One Right Answer, I keep having to curb my instinct to make quick judgments so that I can move on to the next thing, or conversely, my tendency not to act until I have all the answers. In short, I'm trying to live with ambiguity.

It's like being accustomed to walking down a well-lit path when, suddenly, all the lights are dimmed.  And, oh, you're not allowed to run.  In fact, because you can't see where you're going as well as you did in the past, you have to walk more slowly. And you have to trust your instincts more, instead of relying on the touchstones along the way.

It's a whole new way of traveling. It requires a lot of trust, mostly in yourself.  And that's the big payoff, actually: that as you rely less on the external markers --the "experts," whether people or things-- you start listening to yourself more, gaining confidence along the way.  As my friend Davis says:
You come to see yourself not as fixed, a single identity, but fluid, an ongoing relationship (many identities). When you are ready to cease seeking your power from others you have the capacity to see your power within your self. In fact, you cease seeing power as something possessed by one and not by another. You see power in everything and everyone. You see.

The best reward --at least for ambiguity-averse people like me-- is learning to trust the process, whether tending a garden, creating a business plan, nurturing a friendship, writing a book, or raising a child.  It's the relief that comes from acknowledging that not having all the answers is o.k. (talk about alien concepts!). I'm learning that confusion and conflict and, yes, ambiguity, are not something to fear or run from, but to accept and treat kindly, bewildering as that sometimes feels.

Geesh this is hard.  What's your relationship to ambiguity?

Image by an untrained eye, in Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

June 10, 2011

Travel Re-Entry

Returning home from a long trip tends to disorient me for a few days, leaving me in a kind of limbo. As I try to step into my usual routines, the place I left continues to tug at my emotions. This time, re-entry seems to be taking longer than usual and some of the feelings are both new and more intense.

This is my third day back, so I can't attribute my liminal state only to jet lag. I spent three weeks in France, the last 9 days on my own in Paris. For me, there's something about solo travel that demands extra energy. Sometimes this is physical, but most of the time it's psychic. Without another person to filter experiences through, I'm invited (or forced, depending on your outlook) to process everything on my own, and while that can be exhilarating, it can also be draining.

My time in Paris was heavy on the processing, since I made a conscious choice to "wander" rather than "sightsee." I'm finding that the more I travel for pleasure, the less I "do," and, as a result, the more I enjoy the experience. I did catch one museum exhibition and visited one historic site, but mostly I strolled through neighborhoods. I scouted out vest-pocket parks (a true Parisian art form) for lunching and people-watching, and did surprisingly little planning, other than to decide which part of the city to Metro or walk to each day.

I don't know whether it's simply the way I'm built, or whether others have similar responses, but traveling in this way --I suppose you could call it "slow travel"-- heightens my senses. When I'm not rushing to get to the next place or focusing on what I'm supposed to be learning, I seem to take more in. And this taking in, and ruminating about it (I'm nothing if not a ruminator) left me feeling pretty emotionally depleted by the end of the day --a good kind of depleted, if you know what I mean. I found that I needed LOTS of sleep and that, unusual for a morning person like me, I had a tough time getting going in the mornings.

But wait. Wasn't I talking about re-entry? This time around, I'm feeling as if everything is a bit muffled, as if I'm participating in some sort of test that requires me to walk around with a blanket over my head. That's the physical part (the dregs of the jet lag) but there's this other stuff going on that seems more existential. Damned if I know exactly what it is, but it has something to do with 1) yearning for somewhere/something else vs. what I have here and now, and 2) wondering about the value of what I'm doing in the here and now.

Yeah, I know, it's not exactly rocket science that returning from a trip may spark these type of feelings. And yes, at one level, it's pretty banal. On the other hand --and I'm one of those people for whom there's always another hand-- maybe it's not such a bad thing for these emotions to bubble up right now. What's that Zen adage about the teacher appearing when the student is ready?

It's also possible that my efforts to live more intentionally, as hit-or-miss  as they sometimes seem, may be pushing these thoughts and feelings to the surface (I envision a tiny gnome yielding an even tinier stickpin, prodding away -- don't ask me why).

So rather than fight the discomfort, I'll invite it in and see where the conversation leads, hoping for a little more clarity. Writing this post is a step in that direction.

Does travel throw you for an emotional loop? If it does, how do you handle it?

Image by jah~ at Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License.

May 9, 2011

Simplicity: There's No App for That

If you read my last post, I've been ruminating recently on what it means to 'live more simply.' This has been front and center over the last few days as I've grown increasingly fixated on my husband's new iPad.  I hadn't paid much attention to it until he offered to let me take it on my upcoming vacation. He suggested that it would be lighter to carry than my laptop, and since this is a leisure rather than a business trip, the iPad's touch-pad keyboard should adequately meet my needs.

It took me less than a couple of hours of getting acquainted with this new time-sucker technological marvel before I discovered the world of iPad apps (as in 'applications'). There are, I kid you not, a gazillion of them. OK, I exaggerate. But only slightly. The more I thought about it, the longer the list of apps I knew I had to have to make my trip easier (and better).

I have now downloaded to the iPad one-and-a-half screens of postage-sized images, representing these apps. This is in addition to the couple of screens that my husband already has saved. Among my "must-haves" are 1) an app with maps of the places I'll be visiting; 2) an app for making lists and writing notes to myself on the fly; 3) an app in case I want to blog while I'm away; 4) a meditation app with a timer that will chime after a fixed number of minutes; and 5) an app with soothing nature sounds in case I can't get to sleep at night. Then there's the TED app, in case I feel the need to be motivated to do something world-changing while I'm away; the app that will let me Photoshop my photos on the go; and the one that aggregates and continually updates every news source known to man.

I suspect that the only thing that might justify the amount of time I've spent app-searching would be spending the next two years circling the globe while I use them. If you make your own list of things that would have been more useful for me to be doing instead of this, anything on your list will be a better choice.

So what does this have to do with simplicity?

I started doing this --cross my heart-- because I figured it would help make the things I already do more efficient. For example, I'm a list-maker. I figure it's better to keep my list of, say, places to visit, electronically instead of on ticket stubs and napkins that I'm bound to lose. Too, the geographically challenged me won't have to carry maps; and an alarm clock app might well come in handy.

Just about everything else, though, adds to, rather than simplifies, my days. If I made a point of using all the other apps over the course of my trip, I'd be doing nothing but reading news media from around the world, watching TED talks, looking at photos on Flickr, blogging, making lists and organizing them into neat virtual folders, Skype-ing, keeping up with Friends on Facebook, and Photoshopping whatever meager amount of photos I managed to take in the moments between visits to the iPad.

It strikes me that there are two related things going on here. One is about efficiency, which may or may not have anything to do with living life more simply; the other is about adding to, rather than subtracting --the latter, after all, is the object of simplifying one's life.

I've been taught to believe that if I can make a task more efficient, my life will be less complicated. It sounds reasonable. If it usually takes an hour to do something and a new process whittles the task down to 30 minutes, you've saved half an hour, right?

My news aggregator app does that. If each morning I were to read the major stories in every major newspaper in the world, it might take me --let's just pick a number-- 17 hours. Having all of those stories on one screen, as this app allows, might let me read them in, say, 11 hours.

The thing is, at home I never read all the world's major newspapers. What's more, on past vacations I usually make it a point to read only newspapers from the area in which I'm traveling, a habit I find fun, interesting, and relaxing.

The moral, it seems, is that efficiency alone does you no good if, simultaneously, you're adding content. It doesn't matter if it's good content --great content, even. The result is More, and More and Simple are not good companions.

Adding stuff to our lives life almost never simplifies them. OK, meditation and massages may be an exception (but even then we probably have to drop --subtract-- something to do them regularly). Downloading that news aggregator app, I realize now, will only make me feel guilty for Not Keeping Up (yep, NKU: a leading American malady). The symptoms will start right after I open the app and, feeling overwhelmed with all the offerings, delete the entire screen's contents.

If instead, I became fully absorbed with global goings-on and spent the next six hours reading those articles, I'd feel even worse. I would have missed out on the stroll or the music or the trees or the art or the conversation or the little girl dancing to the music of a street band (during my last trip).

I feel a metaphor coming on about adding apps being like cluttering your life with unwanted and unneeded busy-ness, but it's not that black-and-white. Some of the apps will, in fact, subtract the unnecessary and unwanted. They'll soften the longing I feel for the people I love most by keeping me connected to them, they'll relieve my confusion by helping me find that bookstore that I read about, and they'll reduce my fear of over-sleeping and missing my train.

I suppose the metaphor, if there is one, is about being thoughtful and intentional about what we bring into our lives. Which requires, of course, that we be very clear about what we value and most desire for ourselves. There should be an app for that...

Top Image by Kevin Grocki on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.

May 4, 2011

Simplifying Your Life?

If my conversations, in person and online, are any indication, I'm not the only one who wants to live a simpler life. It's easy to understand why. Our days seem increasingly complicated, our choices more difficult. Every decision seems to have more moving parts, each piece more intricate than the last, even as technology is supposed to be making things less complicated and more intuitive.

As we look for a path that feels right for us, it's sometimes hard to remember which came first, our desire for simplicity or the marketing machine that, depending on how you look at it, either feeds it or created it.

I remember asking this question the first time that I picked up a copy of the magazine Real Simple. Over the years, Real Simple has become a wildly popular "lifestyle" publication. Its tag line is "life made easier," and its articles aim to help readers streamline their lives -- that is, make them simpler. Advice ranges from the most efficient way to iron a shirt to how to organize our closets, to how to buy the perfect pair of black pants.

As helpful as some of the advice can be, it doesn't take long to realize that much of it is linked directly to consumerism. Paradoxically, Real Simple's advice for "simplifying" regularly depends on buying something.  If you want to spend less time ironing those shirts, or want to skip ironing altogether, you'll appreciate the half-dozen little-or-no-iron shirts in the article's sidebar; organizing your closet is so much easier if you have the right equipment: note the racks and dividers featured for the reader's convenience; buying the perfect pair of black pants requires that you -- uh -- buy a pair of black pants.

I'm not singling out Real Simple because I think it's a bad magazine, or because it's alone in its mission (it's not). In fact, I'm a subscriber, and I do find some of its articles useful. But I never forget (really, they don't let me) that it subsists on advertising, and that those advertisers buy space in the magazine because they believe that Real Simple's readers are the kind of people who will buy their products.

All of which is a long way 'round to the question: what does living one's life more simply mean, anyway?

For me, living with less -- as in with fewer things -- is what first comes to mind.  But this doesn't seem to jibe with the business world's interpretation.  Simplicity is now  a "lifestyle concept," with its own brand and demographic, and a corresponding list of products (color-coded clothes hangers) and experiences (exotic yoga retreats). It's a world in which, if you believe the hype messages, living with less requires buying more.

Of course, there's more to simplifying our lives than cutting back on the number of physical objects that surround us. We can clear out mental clutter by, say, limiting our use of technology (checking our email only at certain times of the day, or disconnecting altogether periodically); cultivate spirituality by starting a meditation practice; or prioritize something we care deeply about but have neglected, whether writing or weaving or volunteering. (Naturally, there's an app for those. But that's another story.)

Here's the thing, though. However we choose to uncomplicate our lives, what's important is that our choices and our process reflect or own values and our own needs, not those of advertisers, "experts," or the media. It's worth consuming a healthy pinch of salt with the advice of anyone whose main purpose is to capitalize on a trend. As a bumper sticker I saw last week opined: "Critical Thinking: The Other National Deficit."

Are you trying to simplify your life? How are you going about it? What's helping?

Image by MinimalistPhotography101.com, at Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License.

April 29, 2011

National Poetry Month: The Ponds

I've been thinking a lot about imperfection, how striving for it rarely brings anything other than distress and frustration. We should know better (well, let's just say that I should know better). Perfection, after all, is a Platonic ideal, and like that green light at the end of Daisy's dock in The Great Gatsby, it's unreachable, unattainable. And more important, it's not real. The time we spend seeking illusion is time lost.
The words Mary Oliver uses to describe the lillies in this poem (yep, another one) --"lopsided," "slumped," "unstoppable decay"-- stand in for our "difficult world." But along with these imperfections there's light, lots of it. Brings to mind the words of Leonard Cohen's gorgeous song, Anthem: "there is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in." Amen to that.

The Ponds

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.
Nobody could count all of them –

the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided –
and that one wears an orange blight –
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away –
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled –
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing –
that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

--Mary Oliver

April 27, 2011

National Poetry Month: Peonies

I've been reading Mary Oliver's latest book of poems, Swan.  With her images and rhythms in my mind, it's hard to resist her words when it's time to offer a new poem for National Poetry Month. So I won't.

Peonies, to me, are the most ephemeral of flowers, and Oliver captures "their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment" exactly. Whatever today brings, "cherish your humble and silky life."


Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?
Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

--Mary Oliver

Image by Muffet, at Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.

April 26, 2011

National Poetry Month: Daffodils

Last fall we planted daffodil bulbs in the front and back yards of our new home. It's an annual tradition since we moved to this part of the country, and I think of it as one of our most hopeful acts of the year. We know we won't see the results for many months, but the daffodils haven't let us down yet.

When we wake each morning, we see the backyard daffodils from our bedroom window: the different varieties living companionably with each other and with the neighboring blooms.

Daffodils also line the walk when we step out the front door. I think of them as the spring's welcoming committee. We've been in this house a full year now, and I've never felt as truly at home as i do here. Gratitude comes naturally when the daffodils are in bloom.

Thanks to Dominique Browning of Slow Love Life for reminding me of Wordsworth's lovely poem.


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

--William Wordsworth

Image: Mine, Spring 2011

April 25, 2011

National Poetry Month: Tomato

Nope, I don't eat tomatoes, but I was captivated by this poem.

In honor of National Poetry Month, because we can never have enough good poetry in the world.


     Tomato in my salad bowl
     Is all there is.
     Big as a watermelon,
big as the art,
big as my mind.
     Glistening, shining, with
time's still rush,
     We're locked together
for this part of eternity,
     Tomato and me.

     I feel taken into
the cherry roundness,
     orange redness,
it's fact of existing.
     I've never known
a tomato
quite like this.

     This could go on a long time,
     It's so compelling.
     I'm becoming a tomato,
     Tomato me.
     Who'll blink first, me or tomato?

     It is said that
"Freedom is not needing to know what comes next."

     I eat it.

I notice a leaf of lettuce.

--Donald Rothberg

Image by Muffet, at Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.

April 23, 2011

National Poetry Month: The Journey

The extraordinary and the ordinary both yield great beauty. Look. Always. Remember, though, that our truth is never anywhere else but inside us.

In honor of National Poetry Month, because there can never be enough good poetry in the world.

The Journey

Above the mountains
the Geese turn into
the light again
Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.
Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens
so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.
Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that
small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.
Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out
someone has written
something new
in the ashes
of your life.
You are not leaving
You are arriving.

-David Whyte

Image via environmental graffiti, from an exhibit mounted by The Library of Congress of selected photographs from NASA's image collection, taken by the Landsat 7 satellite. This image is of the Kalahari Desert, Namibia

April 21, 2011

National Poetry Month: Grasshopper

 "For the poem he is writing is the act of always being awake, better than anything."  Or, as people much smarter than I have said: be here now.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, because we can never have enough good poetry in the world.


It's funny when the mind thinks about the psyche,
as if a grasshopper could ponder a helicopter.

It's a bad idea to fall asleep
while flying a helicopter:

when you wake up, the helicopter is gone
and you are too, left behind in a dream,

and there is no way to catch up,
for catching up doesn't figure

in the scheme of things. You are
who you are, right now,

and the mind is so scared it closes its eyes
and then forgets it has eyes

and the grasshopper, the one that thinks
you're a helicopter, leaps onto your back!

He is a brave little grasshopper
and he never sleeps

for the poem he writes is the act
of always being awake, better than anything

you could ever write or do.
Then he springs away.

--Ron Padgett

Image by jster91, from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.   

April 20, 2011

National Poetry Month: When Death Comes

How much richer could our lives be if we were willing to be "brides married to amazement"? Mary Oliver strikes again.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, because we can never have enough good poetry in the world.

When Death Comes

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

--Mary Oliver

Image by KRob2005, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

April 18, 2011

On Contradictions

I've been working on a project for a class I'm taking. It's an art class at my local university, and this is the last project of the semester. I've enjoyed the class tremendously, yet I can't wait to be done. All semester we've moved from project to project with little time to rest or reflect between assignments. It's exactly the kind of intense experience I wanted, and I'm so very glad that it'll be over in a week.

Sometimes I surprise myself with thoughts or feelings that seem to contradict themselves.  I can understand my feelings about my class: you can have a good experience and still long for a break, or look forward to an ending so that you can move on to the next good thing.

It's more puzzling when the contradictions show themselves in my behavior. How can I bemoan our society's obsession with celebrity culture, then gobble up an entire issue of People magazine during my visit to my dentist's office (and later regale my husband with the details of Reese Witherspoon's wedding)? Or consider myself a "woman of substance" AND blather on (and on) about snagging a Marc Jacobs jacket for $25 (!) at a consignment sale?

My magazine subscriptions tell some of the story: Yoga Journal and Whole Living, but also Vogue and Bazaar. Then there's my reading list: I'm reading both Everyday Zen and Pop! Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything. It's a small source of comfort that the former is much more interesting than the latter.

Never mind that I'm working my way through the Buddhism section of my public library even as I accumulate art supplies as if the local art store was going out of business tomorrow. Surely these inconsistencies in my behavior mask some deep-seated personality conflict, one that I need to find and fix right now, no?

Well, uh, no. Not necessarily.

Years ago, a dear friend and I, over many glasses of wine, admitted to another dear friend our fear that the two of us were downright superficial people. Without missing a beat, and with great energy and affection, our friend said: "Well, sure, you may be superficial, but you're not shallow!"  At the time, we all broke into laughter and couldn't stop for ten minutes, yet we knew what she was trying to say. I've come to see the value of that seemingly illogical (and still very funny) statement. "Superficial" doesn't have to mean "shallow," no matter what the dictionary says. And by extension, "contradiction" isn't automatically bad.

I think of consistency these days less as a virtue than as a practical consideration. There's no doubt that it's important to be consistent about such things as doing what we promise to do or showing up when we say we will. People need to know that they can trust us, and consistency of action and thought is part of how we build that trust and our sense of integrity. This is consistency based on values. Contradictions that attack our core values are worth paying serious attention to.

Often, though, our contradictions simply make life more interesting and colorful, and remind us that we're human. So why not enjoy them?  After all, as Oscar Wilde once said --very wisely, I think-- "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative."

Image by chexee, on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.

April 17, 2011

National Poetry Month: Eating Poetry

Poetry and dogs, and knowing that there is a Scottish Poetry Library (above), a combination you can't NOT love.  In celebration of National Poetry Month, because we can never have enough good poetry. 

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

--Mark Strand

Image by chrisdonia, from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.

April 15, 2011

National Poetry Month: Flying at Night

Ted Kooser's poems speak often of people living quiet lives in quiet places. These seemingly uncomplicated characters and settings seem to glow amidst the beauty of his metaphors and the images his words evoke.

In Flying at Night, I love how he  juxtaposes the enormity of a galaxy with the farmer "drawing his sheds and barn back into the little system of his care" and the "shimmering novas" with "lonely lights like his."

Kooser (I can't help but think of him as "Ted" after looking at his photo), was poet laureate of the U.S. from 2004 to 2006. He's founded a project called American Life in Poetry, for which he writes a weekly column that features contemporary American poems. He offers the column free to newspapers and online publications, and there's no cost to reprint previous columns. "The sole mission of this project, says the ALP website, "is to promote poetry...[and] create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture." You go, Ted!

 Flying at Night

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

-Ted Kooser

Image of Ted Kooser by Sarah Greene, from American Life in Poetry.

April 14, 2011

National Poetry Month: Anthem

My Photo - November 2009
After last week's post, I couldn't resist bringing Leonard Cohen back for National Poetry Month. These are the lyrics to Anthem, one of my favorite of his songs. I particularly like the chorus, which celebrates the imperfect, the "crack" that serves to let the light in. 

As in many of his poems and lyrics, Cohen reminds us that the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful live side by side. The lyrics seem to be influenced by Buddhist concepts of mindfulness and of the acceptance that imperfection is part of the human condition. (It's worth noting that Cohen lived for five years at a Zen Buddhist monastery and was ordained a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1996.)

The lyrics alternate between raging at the world and accepting what is. Cohen suggests that logic isn't the answer ("you can add up the parts but you won't have the sum") and that only after we've exhausted the things outside us that we think can save us ("like a refugee") will we experience true love.


The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.

April 12, 2011

National Poetry Month: Weighing In

Weighing In
What the scale tells you is how much the earth
has missed you, body, how it wants you back
again after you leave it to go forth

into the light. Do you remember how
earth hardly noticed you then? Others would rock
you in their arms, warm in the flow

that fed you, coaxed you upright. Then earth began
to claim you with spots and fevers, began to lick
at you with a bruised knee, a bloody shin,

and finally to stoke you, body, drumming
intimate coded messages through music
you danced to unawares, there in your dreaming

and your poems and your obedient blood.
Body, how useful you became, how lucky,
heavy with news and breakage, rich, and sad,

sometimes, imagining that greedy zero
you must have been, that promising empty sack
of possibilities, never-to-come tomorrow.

But look at you now, body, soft old shoe
that love wears when it’s stirring, look down, look
how earth wants what you weigh, needs what you know.
- Rhina P. Espaillat