The Parable of the Bread

We keep our bread in the fridge. We do this because we don’t eat much bread, and if we store it outside of the fridge, we can’t finish it before it gets moldy. Except that this isn’t true.

We started keeping our bread in the fridge early in our marriage. Back in those days we really didn’t eat much bread. My husband Jon had a PB&J for breakfast every morning, and that was pretty much it for our bread consumption. I ate bagels and kaiser buns and garlic bread, but very little regular bread. Hence the fridge.

Now that we have two little kids and I eat a lot more sandwiches and toast myself, we go through a lot of bread. I would say we average about two days per loaf. It’s not astronomical, but if we take a loaf out of the freezer where they’re stored after we buy them and put it in the bread box, it’s going to be finished before it turns green and fuzzy. And yet, we kept putting our bread in the fridge. Because, you know, that’s just where the bread lives.

Jon and I actually had a discussion about this earlier in the week. The bread has been sitting on the counter for the past few weeks, because that way it defrosts faster and Hannah can make her own PB&J. It’s a move we’re making to encourage independence. Or get us (her parents) out of some extra work. Either way. Seeing this, Jon suggested we put it in the bread box, and I was all blown away, because we keep our bread in the fridge. Of course, the suggestion made perfect sense, and we made the switch.

I’m really headed somewhere with this. It’s not just an inane story about bread, I promise.

As I contemplated the earth-shattering revelation that we could keep our bread in the bread box, I realized that I do a lot of things in my life for no good reason. Maybe there was a good reason at one time, or maybe not, but there is no good reason anymore. And yet I continue doing things that way, without a second thought, because I always have. It’s just habit. Routine. Something I do without thinking.

Some of the stuff that I do just because is really not an issue. Like, the fact that I always put my pants on before my shirt. One of them has to go on first, and switching it up wouldn’t really save me any time or energy. But some of the stuff that I do out of habit is probably wasting me time and energy, or just causing me to needlessly eat cold bread.

It’s not always easy to see those things in our lives that we do for no reason, unfortunately. But I think that if we bring greater awareness, and start examining our actions a little more closely, they will pop up. We will develop the eyes to see them. And maybe, in the process, we’ll free up a little bit of time, space and energy that could be better used elsewhere.

Can you think of anything that you do just because? And where do you keep your bread? I’d love to hear!

The Downside of the Upside

There are times in my life when it feels like nothing is going right. We all have times like these, I think. Your car breaks down, your kid gets sick, your boss is being unreasonable, you get into a big fight with your partner, your toast burns and you find out that a childhood friend has been in an accident. There’s no two ways about it, times like these suck. I don’t enjoy them, not even a little.

There are other times when everything just seems to be going well. You probably know these times, too. You’re recognized for something you’ve been working on, your kid is suddenly a delight to be around, things with your partner are better than they have been in a long time, you get good news about a distant relative, you find the perfect new house to live in and adopt a dog to live in it with you. The surprise, for me, is that times like these can be just as hard.

Why is this? Why do I sometimes feel even worse when things seem to be going well than when they seem to be going badly? On the surface, it makes no sense. If everything is going to plan, you would think I would be happy. But dig a little deeper, and a truth emerges. The truth is that anything that is given to me can be taken away. Once I have something good, my dragons start telling me that I will lose it.

I am not alone in this, as it turns out. Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert shared her experience with similar issues in a fabulous TED talk:

As Janis Joplin sang in “Bobby McGee”, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. When you have something to lose, you become attached to it. The Buddha said that attachment is the root of suffering, and as I become older, I understand this more and more. My fear of losing what I have can make me awfully, awfully unhappy.

When I find myself in a position where things have been good, and I’m afraid of losing it, I take one of two routes. I either spend a lot of time trying to protect what I’ve got, or I start sabotaging myself because I know that I’m going to lose it anyway. Both of these routes are fruitless, though. There’s no way to seal good times in plastic and preserve them indefinitely. And sabotaging yourself is clearly not the route to contentment. Either way, I spend so much time worrying that I don’t even enjoy the good stuff that is happening.

So, what’s the answer? I’m not entirely sure that I know, but I suspect that what it comes down to is feeling grateful for what I have, and living in the moment. The more that I can stop worrying about what might happen, the more that I can enjoy what is happening. My dragons may be right (although I highly doubt it), and it may be the last good thing that ever happens. If that’s the case, I would rather savour it and enjoy it than descend into a spiral of anxiety.

Dragons at the Ready
Photo credit: Aaron Webb on Flickr

The Crafting my Life course has been an exercise for me in embracing what is good. I’ve been enjoying the class immensely. It’s awesome to walk this path with the people in the class, and see what they’re doing in their lives. I’m working with all my might to enjoy it, and not spend the time worrying about what will come next, and if next week will go well, and what kind of evaluation I will be doing at the end. I am making every effort to slow down my brain and walk the path that I’m on today, trusting that it will take me where I need to go.

It’s not easy, living in the moment. Not for me, anyway. But like anything, the more I work at it, the better I get at it. It feels like a very worthwhile exercise.

Now, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you find the good times unsettling, too? Are you always waiting for the other shoe to drop? Or are you way more evolved than me? I’d love to hear!

In Defense of Wishes and Dreams

I worked in the corporate world for ten years. During those years, I saw a variety of initiatives come and go. One of the ones I remember most clearly was setting SMART goals. In this context, SMART is an acronym, which if my memory serves broke down into something like:

S – specific
M – measurable
A – achievable
R – results-focused
T – time-bound

The idea was that we were supposed to set our own goals, and then report back on them, and that’s how our employer would track our progress and productivity. It was meant to put the power in our hands and make us accountable. When we had SMART goals, we would have a better understanding of how to prioritize our workload and accomplish what we set out to do. After all, as Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.

I have no doubt that SMART goals, accountability and timelines work well for some people. But I am going to be honest and say that they don’t really work for me. In a nutshell, I find them demoralizing. Inevitably, something arises that interferes with my grand plan, and when that happens, it throws everything into disarray. I miss a deadline, and I feel discouraged, and I start wondering if my goal is really worthwhile at all. What’s the point of trying if I’m destined to fail?

When I’m faced with making SMART goals, my inclination is to make them as easy as possible. If my job performance is going to be judged based on these goals, I had better be able to fulfill them. You can encourage me to stretch myself, and include goals of varying difficulty, but I’m going to have a hard time setting a goal that I’m not sure I can deliver. In fact, I will probably even have a hard time setting a very specific goal with a set timeline for myself that I’m not sure I can deliver. After all, not shipping is the worst thing that can happen, right?

Maybe this is just my dragons talking, but I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. It explains why a lot of New Year’s resolutions fall through. You start off the year planning to exercise, and at first things go well and you feel great. Then you get sick and it falls by the wayside and when you think about it you feel guilty. Soon you don’t even want to think about it and you stop exercising altogether and you feel like a failure. See? Demoralizing.

In my own life, a lot of my inefficiency from guilt and negativity when a plan falls apart. Maybe it’s my inner perfectionist shining through. Maybe it’s my internal fear that whatever I try won’t work out, and what’s more, it will make people angry with me. Whatever it is, I can see the pattern very clearly. Once I give myself performance targets and deadlines, it’s almost like a recipe for finding myself in a position where I can’t even think about whatever it was I was doing anymore.

This year I’ve chosen “space” as my theme word. It’s not anything like a SMART goal. It’s the wishy-washiest wish going. But you know what? It’s working far better than any New Year’s resolution I’ve made ever has, because it’s not measurable or time-bound or any of those things. I can’t fail, so I don’t freak out when everything doesn’t go to plan. With my theme word, I’m giving myself more permission to do things in a way that works for me in the moment.

If I’d set out to write a certain amount every day in 2011, I would probably already be falling far short and feeling turned off by writing altogether. If I’d decided to do a certain amount of sewing or knitting I would have put it on my list every day, not found the time, and wasted a lot of energy feeling bad about my shortcomings. Butthese things aren’t happening, because my progress isn’t measurable and so I can’t come up short.

Chasing wishes and dreams can feel frivolous and indulgent and maybe even wasteful. But I’m here to tell you it’s not. In fact, I believe that it can be the most productive thing you can do, especially when doing it frees you from the patterns that are holding you back. It has certainly freed me to actually do things and streamline my life without facing massive internal resistance. So I’m ditching the SMART goals and wishing and dreaming a little more. And I say that you can, too. Let’s give ourselves the space to wish and dream, and see what happens. I bet it will be better than maximizing our synergies through strategic goal-setting. It has to be.

Now, tell me what you think. Do you find very specific, measurable goals helpful and motivating, or demoralizing? And how do you feel when you don’t fulfill the SMART goal? I’d love to hear!

PS – The class is just wrapping up its first week, and you can still register today and tomorrow. After that, I’m closing registration for the session. There’s still lots of time left to get on board and craft your life. So don’t miss out, sign up and join us!

Pants I Love

On Friday I went on a shopping trip for myself. Such decadence! The venue was my local second-hand shop. I like second-hand shopping. For one thing, it’s lighter on the earth. For another, it’s much more affordable. When you have two little kids who constantly smear their sticky hands all over you, affordability feels even more important. My daily life is just not conducive to wearing fancy clothes that I splurged on.

I went in to the store with a mission: find three or four shirts, two sweaters and a couple pairs of pants. I loaded up my basket with several promising prospects, and headed for the change room. First up? Four candidates for the game of “Who Wants to be Amber’s New Jeans?” One of the four pairs of jeans didn’t fit, so that went into the reject pile. Three pairs did fit. I tried them all on a couple of times as I mulled over which ones to buy.

One pair was a clear winner. The jeans fit well, they didn’t sit too low and they were in great shape. But what of the other ones? I came in with the goal of finding a couple of pairs, after all, and they both fit. But I didn’t really love either of them. One of them was a little bit too tight, and the other one exposed my posterior rather alarmingly when I tried bending over in the change room.

My first impulse was to buy a second pair of pants, simply because they were cheap. A familiar script started in my head: “What do you expect from a $9 pair of pants? You should just buy them anyway. Even if you don’t wear them much, it’s OK, because you didn’t spend much on them.”

But then, in that change room, under unflattering fluorescent lighting, I had an epiphany. I remembered that 2011 is about finding space in my life for myself. I don’t have space for pants that I don’t like, even if they are cheap. Especially when I have already found a pair that I do like. Why spend my money on pants that are just going to make me unhappy every time I wear them? That’s just accumulating more stuff in my life that doesn’t work for me, and I certainly don’t need that.

I deserve pants that fit. I think we all do. At the risk of digressing, I realize that many people struggle far more than I do to find reasonably priced, quality clothing that actually fits. It seems that women’s clothing manufacturers like to believe we all come in one shape and five sizes. Surprise, we don’t!

Getting back to my original point, when I have an attitude that says I might as well buy things because they’re cheap, I accumulate stuff. And you know what? The $9 here and the $12 there and the $7 someplace else add up. They add up to a fair bit of spending, and a whole lot of extra odds and ends around my house. They add up to wearing pants that make me unhappy and tripping over cheap toys that my children have left on the floor. That doesn’t sound like living with intention to me.

As part of my “space” theme for 2011, I’ve decided to do an experiment. I’m going to see what my life is like when I only bring things into my home that I love. Not necessarily expensive things, or lots of things, just a few, affordable items that I really need and that speak to me. I’ll let you know how it goes, and how successful I am.

What about you? Do you ever find yourself buying something cheap just because it’s cheap? And does that work for you, or not? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Crafting my Life Launches Tomorrow!

It’s crunch time for me. Crafting my Life launches tomorrow, and I vacillate between feeling totally excited, completely overwhelmed and absolutely terrified. This is a big deal for me, B-I-G.

In the middle of this hectic time, I’m working hard to create space for myself. I realize that if I’m all stressed out that I don’t function all that well. Panic is not conducive to productivity, as it turns out. So I’m doing little things to keep my head clear. I’m working to be present while I walk my daughter to school and back. I started back at yoga class. I sing in the shower.

Creating this class is reminding me of something that I probably already knew, and that is that I can choose my reaction to the situation I find myself in. I can let myself become overwhelmed and freak out, or I can see the difficulty, accept that I don’t have to like it, and then find a way to work within it. Sometimes just acknowledging that I have a right to feel overwhelmed helps me to feel a little calmer. It reminds me that I am OK, and what I’m feeling is OK.

I guess you could say that I’m really trying to be Zen. I’m not always succeeding, which my daughter Hannah tells me when she says, “Mom, you need to apologize for yelling at me.” But being clear on my goals, and what I’m hoping to get out of the situation, is helpful. As is being gentle on myself when I don’t handle things well.

I do have some happy thoughts that are helping me to keep my focus and hold my space. They’re things like:

  • The amazingly awesome people who are taking this journey with me.
  • Offers of help from others.
  • The meal plan we’re trying out that is saving me lots of time at 5pm every day.
  • Having time set aside to get a haircut this weekend, some much-needed and long overdue self care.
  • Leftover candy canes. They just make me feel happy.

I don’t know how this class will turn out, but I’m trusting the process. I am happy with my lesson plan, and I have really enjoyed writing it. Plus, I believe that when you get a couple of dozen people who are committed to living with intention together, good things will follow. I can’t see into the future, but I’m making the space, and I choose to believe that good things will fill it.

Tomorrow will be a good day.

You can join in, too – it’s not too late! Check out the sign up page and get on board. Or just wish me luck – that’s awesome, too.

The Fabulous Robin

I have this online friend. Her name is Robin, but she’s better known to most people as woowoo mama. She has a great blog, which really speaks to me when I read it. She’s cool. If you haven’t visited her, you should.

Robin got in touch with me when she heard that I was doing this course, and offered to help. At first, my dragons piped up. “You don’t want to be a burden,” they said. “If you ask for too much, then you’ll make her angry and she won’t like you anymore at all.” I was tempted to write her back and say, “Thanks so much, but I’ve got it all under control, and I really don’t need any help at all!”

But then I remembered that in 2011 I am all about giving myself space. And it occurred to me that accepting help that is offered is one great way to give myself space. And so I took her up on it.

Robin has kindly agreed to act as Community Leader for the Crafting my Life online community. The online community is a place where people who are registered for the class can get together and talk and share the journey. Robin will be helping to keep the discussion going and generally serving as a resource. And I so appreciate her for it.

I think that this space thing is really working out for me. It’s reminding me that I do not have to do everything-all-by-myself-all-the-time. I can seize any opportunity I find to give myself a little breathing room. And you can, too. I give you permission.

Now exhale. Ahhhh. Doesn’t that feel better?

But that’s not all! As part of the class I am interviewing some really fabulous folks, and I will share the audio from those interviews during the class. I will be interviewing Robin for the 12th and final week, which is all about carrying the change forward. I’m really looking forward to hearing what she has to say.

If you would like to craft your life, you have until 9pm today to enter for a chance at a free course registration. Or you can just go ahead and sign up – I’d love to have you!

Now, tell me. When someone offers to help you, what is your first impulse? Do you find it easy to accept, or are you inclined to say no for fear of being a burden? I’d love to hear!

Children are Starving

My dragons (a.k.a. my lizard brain) love to knock me down a peg or two. It’s their number one talent. I think they view it as their purpose in life. By keeping my expectations low and my ambitions less-than-ambitious, they’re trying to keep me from getting hurt. They know that I may fail, maybe even publicly, and they want to prevent that. My dragons are very concerned about What Other People Will Think, and so they try to keep me from embarrassing myself.

One of the ways that my dragons knock me down a notch is by reminding me how privileged I am. “Children are starving in this world,” they say. “There are mothers just like you who can’t feed their babies,” they remind me. Then they pipe in with, “Even right in your own backyard, there are homeless people living in tents in the winter.” The message is clear: who am I to want anything, when so many people are suffering? I should just accept what I have already and be grateful for it, instead of chasing my dreams.

My dragons have a point, in that I am very privileged. It’s important not to forget that, because when you start to forget that, you lose compassion for others. But all the same, the fact that others are suffering does not mean that I should not pursue a better life for myself.

When you live with intention, pursuing your dreams with passion, you are a creative force. Most people’s dreams centre around improving things. Improving things for themselves, yes, but also improving things for others. Maybe you want to write a book that will help shift perspectives and create positive change, or even just bring joy and entertainment to others. Maybe you want to take amazing photographs that show people the world through your eyes. Maybe you want to start a non-profit group, or start a business, or just find some time to meditate.

Whatever your dreams are, I can make a pretty safe bet as to what they’re not. I doubt that your dreams involve increasing suffering, or making the world a worse place, or taking food away from those starving children. Who wants that? No one, that’s who. We’re not setting out to pillage the earth and leave destruction in our wake. And if we’re mindful, we can avoid that fate.

We may be privileged. We may have a lot more than others. We may feel that we are greedy to ask for more. But we are not. When we live our dreams and make our art, we are acting as creative forces in the world. We may even be building something that will help those very starving children. And we don’t need to justify that to anyone – least of all, some dragons who are clearly very misguided in the first place.

Do you ever worry feel as if you don’t have the right to follow your dreams when there’s so much suffering in the world? How do you resolve that feeling – or do you? I’d love to hear.

Embracing Enough

The holidays may be over, but I still have a lot of Christmas chocolate kicking around. And as I was eating some the other day, I started thinking about the concept of ‘enough’.

I have a sweet tooth. I like chips and french fries and starchy, salty treats well enough, but given the choice I’ll go for the bowl of ice cream every time. I like sweets, and I can eat a lot of them. If I don’t pay attention, I’ll down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s without noticing. Every Halloween, without fail, I make myself sick eating tiny chocolate bars by the dozen. Even as I eat them, I think to myself, “I’m really full already. I will probably regret this later.” And yet, when faced with the prospect of another treat, I can’t restrain myself.

My body sends me lots of signals, but I don’t seem to be able to listen. It says, “OK, Amber, enough. I’ve had enough. I’m good. You can stop it with the peanut butter cups for now. In fact, if you give me more peanut butter cups, I’m not going to feel so good.” And I don’t listen. Then it says, “I’m feeling really very full here, and not so hot. Please stop.” And still, I don’t listen. I want to listen. I tell myself I should listen. But I don’t listen, because peanut butter cups are so awesome, and I might as well just finish them and remove the temptation.

My overindulgence in sweets isn’t about portion control, or weight loss, or even food. It’s more about disregarding what I know is healthy for me, and failing to recognize when enough is enough.

Perhaps I need fewer peanut butter cups, and more green beans?

I do the same thing in many other areas of my life. I play some Angry Birds on my phone to unwind. It’s fun. And then I think I should go do something else, but I don’t. Pretty soon I’ve wasted the better part of 90 minutes flinging imaginary birds at imaginary pigs, and I’m berating myself because I haven’t done the stuff I have to do. I took the game playing from ‘enough’ to ‘too much’, and I regret it.

I think that a lot of our problems stem from our failure to recognize ‘enough’. Most of us, especially most of us living in the developed world with access to the internet and computers of our own, have all that we need for our basic survival. We know where our next meal is coming from. If we couldn’t make it to the store for the next week our diet might be less than spectacular, but we wouldn’t starve. We have ‘enough’ and then some. But we still want more. We still crave that extra peanut butter cup, those extra 20 minutes playing video games, the new pair of shoes, the new kitchen gadget, the nicer car and nicer home and nicer life.

For 2011, I’ve chosen the word ‘space’ to set my intentions for the year. I want to find space in my life to breathe, space in my life for the things that are important to me, and space in my life for myself. I think that a big part of finding this space will be learning to recognize ‘enough’. If I can simplify, slow down and listen to that part of me that’s wiser than I often let on, I think maybe I can find the space I need. I can stop overdoing it, and start recognizing the truth of the situation.

This year, for me, will be about simplifying and finding ‘enough’. I will probably still eat too many sweets, and spend too much time playing video games. But maybe, slowly, I can find my way to a more healthy place. I bet I can. I can find ‘enough’. I know I already have it, if I open my eyes to see.

What about you? Do you ever find yourself overdoing it and failing to recognize when enough is enough? How do you overcome that? I’d love to hear!