Happy Mother’s Day!

At the beginning of the week, I tried unsuccessfully to plan a day that would include my mother, my mother-in-law and me.  It would be easy if we were all spending the same time together.  But that wouldn’t be the case.  I would need to see my mother, then my mother-in-law, and then make sure there was room for me, a mother.

All I really wanted was to spend the day with my own family, my four kids and my husband.  Yet we have mothers who should and need to be honored, so it’s important to see them too, and they live fairly close so there’s no real distance to get in the way.  We also each have siblings, most of whom are parents and have their own plans.  I tried to plan around everyone and include seeing our mothers.  It failed.

My mom didn’t want to go to lunch; my mother-in-law who seemed insulted but I’m not sure made her own plan because I had apparently made a plan.  I got frustrated and no longer wanted to see anyone.

Was I being too nice? Was I trying to do too much? Was I trying to control the day for everyone? I don’t know which of these is true or if it’s all the above.  What I do know is I spent a week being angry at everyone and feeling that no one was willing to work together.  My husband calls it “everyone puts themselves first and you don’t”.  I needed to let go.  After all, I got what I wanted: I would be going to lunch with my husband and four kids.  But something about the way the day got unplanned felt unsettling.  I was not happy with the outcome, so it was hard to let go.

Here’s the thing: I have to let go. Everyone makes their own choices for whatever reason they do.  I can’t accommodate everyone and make people do what I want, even if I happen to have the best (;0) idea.  I can enjoy the sunshine, my kids, my friends, and some favorite mothers who I will think about throughout the day.  I can love life, the birds I hear tweeting, the numerous butterflies I see landing and flying and dodging and darting.  I can enjoy discoveries like the bird’s nest with new baby birds in the hedge along my front yard.  I can appreciate the wonderful cards and gifts my children hand made just for me.  I can enjoy the promise of spring and focus on the things that will bloom from the positive choices I make.  Including the choice to let go.

Enjoy the day.  Enjoy the sunshine.  Watch the butterflies.  They seek the sweetness in life.

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God Bless America

As I loaded groceries into my car today, I found myself singing “God Bless America” to myself.  I thought, gee that’s funny, how did that get in my head?  I’m used to the latest pop song playing in my head from my daughter playing the latest craze music; I’m used to nursery rhymes reeling through from the songs I play for my younger children.  But “God Bless America”?  I haven’t heard that in a while.  Hmm…

Having finished loading the groceries, I got in the car, started it up, backed out of my spot, looked around to make sure I wasn’t hitting anything and as I turned to one side, I caught sight of a bumper sticker on a car parked two spots away from mine and which I had passed on the way to my car.  Lo and behold: the bumper sticker was red, white and blue and had the words “God Bless America”.  Wow.  Talk about an Aha! moment.

There is a concept called “thin slicing”, discussed in the book Blink by  Malcolm Gladwell, where you take in all kinds of information without even realizing it.  That’s what happened.  I never even realized I saw and took in the image and message of the bumper sticker.  It immediately associated with the song I knew, and before I knew it I was singing it in my head.  That was a powerful moment.

I already knew it, but this was so tangible that it was hard not to process the the power of what is all around us, small or big, and how much that affects us: negative or positive.

I talk about clutter a lot.  A friend and I discussed once how clutter is an “energy sapper”.  Even a frame that is set crooked affects me until I straighten it.  What about all the “frames” I can’t straighten? How do they affect me or you or anyone else?  I can get bigger here, like how not having beautiful things around you can make you grumpy–I mean even just nature.  A garden versus concrete.

But I can also talk small.  Like a negative comment, or a dig that someone gives.  Or positive.  Like when someone else straightened the frame and I don’t notice it anymore because now it’s straight.  And it makes my day better without knowing it.

I also considered the effect of advertising and propaganda, good or bad.  It’s so pervasive and sometimes not even that obvious.  It’s only noticed in passing: an ad on a bus or a taxi,  a quick commercial you’re not even watching.

What do you know that affects you, negative or positive?  Have you experienced a powerful connection like this one?  Or not know where something came from, but you know it had to come from somewhere?  What do you think of what we take in around us without even knowing?  Please share.

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Indecisions Indecisions

Making a decision is not in my tool box of strong skills.  Even Stop & Shop is overwhelming.  They finally have a good gluten-free aisle, but now check out all the pastas I can try…quinoa, corn, rice, rice and soy, corn and quinoa…

Years ago my husband and I were divided on what to plant along our back fence to replace aging bushes that provided privacy except when it rained and they sagged or it snowed and the snow sat on their limbs which bowed in every direction and acted as accommodating horizontal benches or it was sunny and you could see in between them.  Each year I said forsythia and he said arborvitae.  Another year would pass.  The aging bushes got taken out.  Another year passed.  I found euonymous.  Lovely green glossy leaves.  Bushy eventually.  Provides cover eventually.  Three years later they’ve grown quite nicely.  They do not provide full coverage quite yet.  Still, they have filled out, they are tall, they have glossy leaves.  They’re pretty.

But they are not forsythia and they are not arborvitae.  They are a compromise.  Neither one of us got what we wanted, but we did make a decision.  So I’m not sure I like them.  I can still see forsythia.

And that’s the problem with decisions.  You don’t always make the right choice, but you don’t know that until later.  And there isn’t a later if you don’t make a choice to begin with.  Or rather there is a later, but one that resulted from not making a decision.

I heard a story once about a woman who was pregnant and couldn’t decide which doctor she wanted to use for her delivery.  She was between two doctors (like Stevens’ of “two minds”) and pregnancy’s finale doesn’t wait so her due date got closer and closer.  Eventually she went into labor and ended up at a clinic.  Decision made.

Not clearing a pile of stuff is a way to delay a decision.  It’s very easy to clear a pile if you see that this go here and that goes there and this gets thrown away and that gets donated and everything is now in its neat little home and everything is put away and in its place.  I always liked that idea(l): a place for everything and everything in its place.  It sounds nice.  It is nice.  But it’s a kind of fiction.  A kind of control over things that maybe can be controlled.  When I look at a pile, I know I’m looking at decisions.  Does this go out? Does this get filed? Don’t I have that kind of file started?  That pile is a pile of decisions that may be easy or may be hard but decisions nonetheless and decisions, well, I don’t like them.

Here’s the thing with decisions.  In a sense, they are control: I have made a choice, I am in control, I will move forward and not back.  I accept this choice I have made and now the consequence.  And from that consequence, other choices and decisions to be made.  Move forward.  Move forward.

Having piles is a way of not doing that.  Not making a decision is a way of not doing that.  And that’s okay too.  Except it’s not really.  Because it’s a delay and a delay means stuck like stuck in traffic and you can’t see around that truck or around that corner.  And what is there if these cars get out of the way??

What is it about decisions? For me it’s making the “right” choice.  Intellectually, I know there is no right, but there are so many options! And each one a different consequence!  Remember the books with the choices you could make at every chapter and the choice you made got you to the next scene and subsequent choice until you got to the end?  I loved to hate those books.  I, of course, would always go back and try out the other options.  But the best part is: I always ended up safe.  I never went off the cliff, I never fell to my death, I never took the scary choices.

Ok, deciding between forsythia and arborvitae or between quinoa or corn pasta is not that life-threatening or risky.  But the point is you have to make a choice.  You have to say this is it.  I mean I can’t imagine picking Bachelor number 1 from behind a wall! Oh darn, I knew I should have picked 3!!

And the thing with decisions is they move you forward.  You have to accept.  You have to move on.  Or you can have regrets, which I am very good at.  Witness forsythia.

Yet what I am realizing is not making decisions is not fun.  What I decide may not be right or good or perfect.  What I decide will have its drawbacks.  But deciding is a muscle, like any other, that I have to flex and use and strengthen.  The more decisions I make and avoid delaying  the better I get at it.  And the stronger I become.  Even if I don’t like the consequence.  At that’s what I want to see when the traffic clears.

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Corner Tackle

Overwhelm is very easy.  Look at counter.  Counter is piled high.  Do I clear counter?  Look at counter again.  Walk away.

So I came up with a new strategy:  I don’t have to do all of it! I learned something the other day:  I only have to do something for five minutes.  To some people, that’s probably a “duh!” moment rather than an “aha!” moment, but to those of us with pile disorder, that’s not an intuitive solution.  Five minutes means just clear out a couple of things: random toys, things right on top, things falling off edge.  Generally I have a lot of trouble doing this.  It’s all so much! And there are so many categories of things! And that’s why I walk away.

But the five-minute idea changed everything.  And that’s my current “one small change”.   The kitchen counters have been piled high for sometime now.  They’re just a catchall: toys, mail, notes, laptop, things that need batteries, homework, random screws, etc.  The counter is a convenient spot for things that don’t have homes, or at least things that got lost on the way home.  On a cleared counter, one thing isn’t a big deal.  But to that one thing, a second thing is added, a third thing, and in short order there is a pile and… instant clutter.  I’ve noticed that three is the magic number: once an area is littered with a third thing, it’s a tipping point.  If it’s not addressed right then, all bets are off.  Nothing is going anywhere and the pile is going to keep on growing.  It becomes too much to do.

I have and have also created a lot of too much to do.  So I’m focused on not only one small area at a time, but recognizing that each area will take more than one visit.  The part of my kitchen counters that get the most paper and clutter are two very small spaces of barely two square feet each.   They can accumulate a closet worth of material the way grow grow beds in the wonderful gardening catalogs I get yield vegetables…30 lbs. of potatoes, four bushels of tomatoes, 50 zucchini, seven bushels of peppers, all in one 2×2 foot square bed!  If I could sell a grow bed that yields clutter, I’d be rich.

Right now the counter sections I worked on are basically clear, but I’m not done yet.  I have been chipping away for about one week and usually for more than 5 minutes at a time.  Knowing that I will stop when I have had enough, but that I will go back to it makes a difference.  I typically abandon projects, but it’s easier not to abandon a project if you’re only doing this one small part of the larger thing.  And it doesn’t feel bad that it’s taking so long because I gave myself more than one night to do it.  Imagine that?  A realistic goal!  I can take a week!  As I go, I am working on (yet another) new system to prevent the pile-ups.   That work began tonight and repurposes the drawers and files I already have. It will continue tomorrow.  But I feel good.  I’ve gotten to white space!  I tackled the counters one corner at a time, and they didn’t even see it coming.

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One Small Change

Four years ago when my third child was born, I found it hard to keep up with basic tasks like getting dirty dishes in the dishwasher.  How could I? There were still clean dishes in there and somehow I didn’t have the energy or ability to get it emptied and the dishes, with no where to go, piled up throughout the day.  By the end of the day, I was exhausted and now faced a kitchen with dirty dishes stacked in the sink, on the counter, on the stovetop and a still uncleared dinner table.  Then as now I had some family help and a once-a-week housekeeper, but my husband worked late and I was largely on my own.  It was not easy to meet every task.  I decided one day that I could not change everything, but maybe with one small change, I could make my days a little better.

I made a change.  It was a simple change, and maybe intuitive to many people, but it hadn’t been so simple for me.  I would run and empty the dishwasher at night.  I would make sure all the pots were cleaned and put away.  I would throw out the trash–not just put it by the back door but bring it out to the garbage can.

The first night was the hardest because I had so much to clean.  But I did it.  I ran and emptied the dishwasher.  I washed all the pots.  I threw out the trash.  It felt great. I felt lighter.

The next day I came down to an empty sink, a clean stovetop, a cleared off table, and an empty kitchen trash with no trash by the back door waiting to be tossed.  I couldn’t believe the difference it made.  My day had a positive start.  I didn’t feel the burden of having work to do before I even had work to do. Since I had an empty dishwasher, dishes could go in right away and didn’t have to pile up.  Since my pots were clean, I didn’t have to clean a pot before I used it.

That night at dinner, I ran the dishwasher before I brought the kids up for bed.  I convinced myself that it was okay to run it even if I had one more spot for a plate.  I was committed to getting the dishwasher emptied and the sink cleaned out.  I could only make that happen if I ran it early enough to be able to empty it. And it worked.

Of course, that was then.  Now I have four children and the dishwasher plan isn’t working so well.  But I know it made a difference.  I invoke that lesson to remind myself that one small change can make a big difference.

I am currently considering small changes to my very overwhelmed days.  I will post along the way.  Meanwhile, what small change can make a big difference to you?

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The Friendship Cup

After my third child was born, an old friend visited and brought not only a gift of pajamas for the baby but a tea cup for me.  It is a very pretty  and dainty tea cup with pink flowers, a fancy edge and saucer.  I call it my friendship cup.

For a while I didn’t use it because I thought it was too pretty and I drink tea out of big mugs.  Actually, if I could, I’d walk around with a tea i.v.

But I don’t.

Sometimes I love espresso in the afternoon, but espresso straight is a bit strong for my tastes.  I make it in an old-fashioned Italian stove-top espresso maker that perks.  No fancy machinery or frothing latte.  Just a simple pot that boils water and perks coffee for two.  I take a little espresso with lots of milk in it.  One day as I made this and searched for the right size cup, not too big, not too small, I remembered the gift of the tea cup.  Somehow it seemed the perfect size.

I found the cup hidden away, pulled it out, cleaned it and dried it.  I used it for my coffee.

Somehow that day the coffee tasted better.  I may have been down; I may have been a little lonely or thinking about coffee chats by water coolers.  Either way, the coffee tasted better.   Holding that cup by its little handle brought me a connection to my friend, and I felt less lonely.  I thought how sweet it was that she had thought of me.  Bringing gifts for new babies is common; bringing gifts for new mothers is less so.  But moms (and dads) need comfort too.

That tea cup is comfort.

(What brings you closer to a friend?)

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What is Clutter?

Clearly I’m on a clutter roll here… Clutter is anything that is in the way of something else.  This idea struck me last night.

Right now, my book club is clutter.  I love my book club: the friends, the interaction, the discussion, even the dinner–our venue is a casual restaurant which is so fun–no clean-up!  But I’m reading (or not really) books in which I’m not all that interested in right now.  The books are fine, the books are interesting, but right now rather than the latest Pulitzer winner, I’m on the parenting and organizing circuit.  I can’t get my head around much else.  It’s not that I don’t want to read the books.  But actually I don’t want to read the books.

So last night I walked into my bedroom and caught sight of my desk, which I cleared off and relocated (that’s another story), and an unexpected and involuntary jerk of joy swam across my face.  There resting on my desk was a copy of a book I wanted to read! And there was nothing beside it! You see earlier in the day I forced myself to accept that I did not want to and would in fact not read the current book club selection and I made myself return it to the library.  That book had been next to the book I was given recently from the World Book Night USA list (The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, if you must know), a not so demanding read that pulled me right in with the first page. The book I was Supposed to read was telling me that I was not Allowed to read the other book because I was Supposed to be reading that one first (In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, if you must know).  And I did want to read it.  Really, I did.  And I started it too.  But with so little time, did I really want to invest all those hours (I am a painfully slow reader) into a book I didn’t really want to read right now –as good and great as it might be– instead of doing something else I’d rather do–say read a different book, or maybe -gasp- some poetry – or write in my blog? How could I?

I did.  I stopped reading the book.  I accepted the loss and future challenge of returning to it when I was ready.  I returned the book.  I am going to hang up my book club hat for now.  I am going to read other books.  I am going to write in my blog.

When I saw my desk and only the book I wanted to read, I realized then the other book was clutter.  The other book was reminding me of what I was supposed to do rather than what I wanted to do.  It was a distraction.  It had to go.  It was a relief and a joy to see that it was gone.  In that moment, I understood clarity.  Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.  But sometimes you don’t.  Some things are elective even though they feel like they’re not.  If the elective becomes clutter and not joy, it has to go.

In that microcosm I saw the macro.  Is my general house clutter a distraction from at the very least my writing?  Yes.  Is it easy to get rid of?  No.  Am I ignoring it to write right now?  Yes.  Will I address the clutter?  I am.  But at least for now, not at the expense of writing.

What is your clutter? What can you let go of to make room for what you really want?  It can be as small as a book you don’t want to read.

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Things Become Wallpaper

I am a confessed clutterer.  But I wouldn’t say hoarder.  I do get rid of things.  But the rate at which things leave is not as great at the rate at which they come in and stay.  So I have piles.  Piles on the counters, piles on the dressers, piles on the floor, piles on the coffee table.  Piles piles piles.  I don’t mind them so much–they’re kind of like old friends.  And that’s the problem.  Old friends stay.  They’re comfortable, they feel safe, we enjoy their company, they stay late.  And then we don’t notice them so much anymore.  They’re just part of our lives.

With friends, it’s not a problem; with piles sometimes it is.  Piles become wallpaper.  And it’s not fancy.

I don’t mind it so much, but other people do.  It’s very easy to walk into a house and look at stuff when you’re not used to seeing it and wonder where it all came from and why it’s there or nobody is getting rid of it.  But I’ve got a story for every scrap of paper and a reason for every abandoned –or interrupted– project.  I am fond of saying that I am very good at starting projects, but I’m not very good at finishing them.  Unfinished projects after all are accommodating: they’re not going anywhere.  They’ll wait.  Just like an old friend.

This is not to say that I want there to be piles or unfinished projects all over the house.  I do want to be able to sit on the couch and look out at a calm room so that I can read a magazine in peace and not feel like every corner is calling my attention.  It’s just that every corner is calling my attention.  And quite frankly, with four children under the age of 9, my life is not really my own. That’s not an excuse of a defense; it’s a simple fact.  And I’m not the most skillful at time management.

That’s how things become wallpaper.

I start projects, then I drive to karate, then I make dinner, then I give baths, put kids to bed, and by the time I attempt to return to project 1 I notice project 2 and start that.  Pretty soon I have multiple projects in every room.  I plan to get back to every one.  Maybe just not in this life. (I just haven’t accepted that yet.)

So the piles that moved to the dresser from the bookcase that got freed up for books are waiting.  The magazines and newspapers to be gathered or sorted or recycled are waiting.  The mail on top of the kids’ finished homework on top of the field trip slip on top of the health care letter on top of my two year old’s drawing on top of the laptop are waiting.  The outgrown clothes or still good but out of season clothes or unsure about what to do with clothes are waiting.  And oh wait the laundry just called me.  Or was that my son who ran out of t-shirts calling?

And so the project I started in the office got interrupted by the project I started in the living room got interrupted by…the laundry.  And as the projects accumulate, they become part of the housescape and eventually wallpaper.  So that I may notice the piles on the dresser, but not as much as the guest who just came in.

Which brings me to the guest who just came in.  The guest is not used to clutter and piles as wallpaper.  But I am.  It doesn’t mean I like it and it doesn’t mean I’m not addressing it.  But I also know that I don’t hide things.  There are people whose houses appear pristine, but that’s because everything just got shoved into the closet or behind the dresser.  It’s funny, but I’m the opposite.  My drawers and shelves and cabinets are in much better shape than what’s out.  When I put things away, they are organized.  And if I can’t do it the “right way”, I don’t do it.  I call it: “I’m not up to that yet” as in that project is in hold mode.  Other people call it perfectionism.

I am certainly not perfect and maybe I aspire to be (ideal is nice).  One thing I do know:  I would like to change my wallpaper, just not as quickly as the guest who just came in.

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My Aha Moment: The Blogging “Community”

The other day after a long hiatus from a brief intro to this blog, I decided to jump back in and so to speak just do it.  I did it.  I posted.  Done.

And then something happened.  I got “likes” and responses.  I was giddy and couldn’t believe it.  As in, somebody actually read that? And liked it? Wow! I was shocked.

Before I posted, I read some other blogs and actually commented.  I loved what people had to say.  Then people liked what I had to say–ok maybe people won’t always like it.  I read that other people follow people.  And so I started that too.  I get new posts to my email.  Aha! I get it! Now I feel the community. You get to know people, what they’re doing, what they’re going through.  You get to see that it really is a great big world.

When I started this, I was missing (and still am) that camaraderie that comes from neighbors and people hanging out.  I didn’t get the whole blog thing.  I feel like an old dinosaur shaking my finger at the young people: I used to walk up hill both ways to school.  But now I get it: this is the neighborhood; this is the community.  It doesn’t replace face to face and good old-fashioned sitting around the table.  But it does offer a huge outlet and hand-holding, a pat on the back, an I can relate kind of exchange.

It’s taken me a long time, but Aha! I got it.  Now let’s see if I can keep up.

What does blogging or at least reading do for you?

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Did You Give Yourself A Valentine?

First Happy Valentine’s Day! Second, did you give yourself a valentine today?

It occurred to me at the end of this heart-filled day that I didn’t and haven’t taken the time to make myself a valentine.  I remember my son in kindergarten making valentines for everyone in his class and then making one for himself.  To Aidan, Love Aidan.  I thought that was funny.  But maybe he had the right idea.

A valentine is a show of love or appreciation or at least acknowledgement.  My husband in a very hectic work week with painfully long hours remembered his tradition of handwritten notes and chocolate for the kids.  They found their note this morning and devoured the hearts for breakfast in the most silent morning kitchen I can recall.  The children exchanged valentines at school, bought goodies at the bake sale.  My daughter even bought me gluten-free cookies! I was very impressed at her thoughtfulness.  At the end of the day–well, the children’s day–I was still helping with a report due tomorrow.  After they go to bed, I still have dishes and laundry you can’t dream up. And then where am I?

So I decided I would write.  That’s my valentine to myself.

In a busy house with four kids, I always have something to do for someone else.  And I don’t make time for the things I love.  You might have more or less or no kids.  You might have dogs or cats.  You might have someone who depends on you and who you take care of.  You might have a job that keeps late hours.  No matter your circumstance, you are in there.

What have you done today for yourself? What special thing can you give yourself as a valentine? It could be a kind word, an acceptance, it could be something you’ve been neglecting (like writing or art or just being still).  Somewhere in today, find yourself and give yourself a gift, a show of love or appreciation.

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