Thursday, April 26, 2012

BlogHer's Life Well Lived Series, Week 36

How does blogging, journaling, writing and connecting online help to increase your happiness?

That is this week's "Getting Happy" question from BlogHer's Life Well Lived Series.  Here is the main post at their site.

When I started this blog nearly six years ago, it was at the prompting of a writing teacher who was just beginning to discover the wonders of instant feedback via comments from her readers.  The group of us that took the weekend-long workshop each went home, signed on to a blogging site and hit the ground running.  For someone who had yet to be published, it was a thrill to see my words in writing in a public space and even more exciting to hear what others had to say about my writing and my thoughts.  

More than 500 blog posts later, I've developed the courage to hone my writing skills and submit my work to online publications and traditional publishing houses thanks to the comments of many loyal readers.  Three of the original participants in that workshop are still blogging and commenting on my blog and I think we have all learned a lot about how to express ourselves, create conversation, and, more than anything, despite the fact that we live scattered throughout the United States, we have created solid bonds with each other. We support not only each other's writing efforts, but prop each other up in times of difficulty with parenting or illness and celebrate each other's successes in life.  

I have found that connecting with others through my blog, Facebook, or other online communities, I am able to share details of my life in real time with a group of people who are like-minded.  Rather than calling one trusted friend at a time, I can avail myself of a myriad of perspectives simultaneously and often get information I wouldn't have otherwise gotten.  I have found out about new places to submit my work and have gotten published online several times.  I have also been able to offer advice and tips to others who might be stuck in familiar positions.  While I can't wrap my arms around these women in person or pour a golden stream of champagne into a glass someone is holding, I can certainly offer virtual love and support and cheerlead from afar and I've learned that simply knowing someone is in your corner is often enough to keep you going until your partner gets home and wraps their arms around you.  

There is something magical about feeling connected to others, feeling understood, feeling like you're part of something bigger and, while it certainly isn't a substitute for personal, close-up relationships, my online communities are as real to me as those friendships I have with my neighbors.  Knowing that my voice is being heard and validated by others is vitally important to my well-being and has sustained my enthusiasm for this solitary endeavor known as writing.  

Head on over and enter the sweepstakes if you haven't before.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pressure Washing Philosophy

I haven't had much time to contemplate or philosophize lately, given the mad chaos of trying to get our house ready to put on the market. I am blessed and cursed to have a real estate agent who is also a dear friend and happens to be very particular. Like she won't put the house on the market until it's spotless - bark in the beds, countertops polished to a high shine, carpets shampooed, driveway pressure-washed spotless.

The kid I hired to pressure wash the driveway wasn't able to finish up on Saturday before he had to leave, so I told him I'd polish off the rest on my own.

Enter: contemplation time.  Pressure washing is a messy, wet, monotonous job.  It is gratifying in the sense that it gives immediate results, but it is also time consuming and gave me a lot of time to just stand and think.

For whatever reason, my mind drifted to The Four Agreements.  I read the book a long time ago and the most powerful lesson I took from it was to not take it personally. No matter what 'it' is. Bar none, that is the teaching that has most impacted my daily life since I read the book.

As I peeled layers of moss and mud off of the concrete driveway, my mind revealed a deeper understanding of this teaching as well.

When I first read "Don't take anything personally," it took a few minutes to wrap my head around the notion that the words and actions of others always have more to say about that person than they do about me.  That someone's sneer of derision or mocking laughter or shout of anger reflect their feelings about their own life, their own condition, their own state of being and are not an accurate assessment of me as a person and my value and worth.

It took yet another period of time for me to apply that to my own actions, but I soon discovered that when I yell at my kids or roll my eyes at Bubba, it is really out of some frustration or longing or sadness within me and, while I might think initially that it is one of them that caused me to act in such a way, I know that's not true.

Saturday afternoon I came to yet another understanding of this teaching.  I was thinking about a friend of mine who is going through a difficult time right now and feeling sadness and frustration and some degree of stress about it.  When I began to unpack that bundle of emotions I realized that I was taking her situation personally. That is, not that I was causing her life to be challenging, but that I was somehow expected to do something about it. Offer some solid advice or jump in and rescue her or perform some tangible act that would alleviate her suffering.  She is not asking me to do any of those things.  In my mind, though, simply standing by and offering love and reassurance and support doesn't feel like enough.

I was reminded of a time when a close family member was in a very stressful situation and I immediately wound myself up trying to come up with some solution for him.  I called often to ask if I could help, spent hours ruminating on different scenarios and even wondered what the ripple effect would be on my life if the situation got worse.

If that isn't "taking it personally," I don't know what is.

Before I could finish thinking through what this all means for me going forward, the driveway was finished and I was soaking wet and speckled from head to toe with moss and mud.  I guess I'll have to find some other tedious project like polishing the silver so I can continue to think about all of this.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It's Time to Stop Judging My Life On Someone Else's Values

Over my lifetime, I have often found myself looking at my house through a different lens.

As a teenager, the hold-over gold velour couches and brown shag rug in the living room were generally ignored by me until the occasion arrived to invite a school friend inside. They became mortifying, shameful objects that mocked me as a poor kid whose parents had no style. Not that most of the families in town were better off, but, still, I wished for something classier at those times.

As a college student, I rarely considered my surroundings more than to discern whether or not there were enough clean bowls for a rapid-fire breakfast before my first class or if the sheets smelled sour. Until Dad came to visit, and then it was a race to clear the kitchen of the silverfish that were constantly scurrying through the cupboards and wash every stitch of clothing and vacuum the cat hair up as best I could so it wouldn't coat his white athletic socks. Nobody but him ever took their shoes off to come in my apartment.

After marriage, it was my in-laws who most skewed my lens, giving me the critical eye for dust or crumbs swept into the corners of the kitchen. This intensified more after having children despite the fact that their house is not immaculate, either.

I will occasionally don a new pair of spectacles for gatherings we host - a barbecue helps me scrutinize the weeds growing in the cracks of the deck and the fingerprints on the windows always look worst at night for dinner parties when the light from the kitchen is reflected off of the smudgy panes.

Despite all of that, there is nothing so soul-baring as readying your house to put up for sale. The knicknacks have to be banished and the caulk in the shower - black from years of mold - has to be scraped out and replaced. The carpets need to be shampooed, or replaced altogether, after years of chocolate milk and coffee spills, muddy shoes and dog-treasures dragged across them. I never realized how many doors we have in our house until I had to wipe them all down and touch up the paint where it has chipped off from slamming or furniture dinging into them or canine claws scratching to BE. LET. IN. ALREADY. I also never noticed how tarnished the brass door knocker is or paid much attention to the gap between the washer and dryer that fills up with lint.

After a few weeks of packing things and purging others, culling through what goes and what just goes away, I thought I was ready. I thought I had busted my butt preparing the house. And then my real estate agent came in. And she brought with her all of her "feng shui' wisdom and years of experience and pared down and shifted and, while I never quite saw things through her lens, I began feeling tired.

Which is how I generally feel when I see parts of my own life through a different set of eyes. Tired. That's because it usually means I begin making to-do lists for myself and bending over backwards to conform to a standard other than my own and, I'm not sure which of those things is more exhausting - running through a list of new tasks, or running through a list of tasks that didn't originate with me - but I'm not sure it matters.

In the end I know that, for this one purpose (selling my house as quickly as possible), such a process is necessary. But it has caused me to question whether it was necessary all of those other times I chose to look at my life or my house or my parenting from a viewpoint other than my own. I do think it is important to be able to see things from other perspectives, but when it ends up giving me a different set of values about myself, maybe it is all a bunch of hooey. Especially if it makes me feel judged and defensive and not good enough.

So this one time, I'm going ahead and wearing myself out. Pressure-washing the front walkway to get rid of moss and replacing the front door knob with a new one and packing away all of my favorite photos and mementos. If only so that I can sell this place and settle in to a new house where I can put them all out again and relax into my own point of view again.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Little Known Facts of the Leaf-Blower Economic Model

I figured out today that leaf-blowers are responsible for a great deal of commerce in the United States. I know that seems absurd, but think about it.

Everywhere I go there are people with enormous backpacks full of fuel strapped to their backs and gigantic vacuum-pipes in their hands, blowing dust and leaves and grass clippings around. Their co-workers are raking, mowing, edging, pruning, generally creating more stuff to be displaced by these loud, intrusive machines.

Let's first consider the gear that goes along with the leaf blower itself.
$$- The person running the damn thing has to wear some sort of ear-protection so as not to lose their eardrums while they are working.
$$ They must also purchase gloves to wear lest they burn their hands on the hot machine
$$ They must buy gasoline to power the obnoxious machine.

Then let's consider what happens to the stuff that gets blown around. An awful lot of it lands on the cars nearby - whether they are parked in lots around the area or simply stopped at a red light or driving past the work crew.
$$ - frequent car washes needed to get the pollen and dust removed from one's car
$$ - allergy medication for those of us whose bodies wholeheartedly reject the crap being blown all around us - eye drops, seasonal allergy relief, acupuncture, allergy shots, you name it, we're buying it.

Next, please consider what happens when they remove the leaves from the places where the trees dropped them.
$$ - the natural mulch and weed suppression that is provided by the leaves is gone. Necessitating hiring more workers to come by periodically and pull the weeds or spray toxic pesticides on them.
$$ - medications to combat the negative effects of the toxic pesticides
$$ - protective gear for the workers applying the toxic pesticides
$$ - the nutrients that would be provided to the soil if the leaves were allowed to break down there are no longer available, necessitating the purchase of fertilizers and the hiring of workers to apply said fertilizers.

These workers are all working longer hours than they would if the leaves were left to do their jobs, so they contribute further to the local economy by purchasing lunch in area restaurants and supermarkets.
These workers are doing less manual labor than they would if they simply raked the leaves from the sidewalks onto the beds where they could decompose. This could lead to one of two outcomes
$$ - higher insurance premiums to care for workers that are affected by pesticides and exposure to the exorbitant decibel level of the leaf-blower while not staying physically in-shape, or
$$ - the purchase of gym memberships or sports equipment by said workers in an effort to keep them healthy in other ways.

I am certain that this rudimentary musing has overlooked many other aspects of the leaf-blower economy, but in the ten minutes I contemplated the notion, the fact that I was able to come up with this list of things is mind-boggling.

So, even though it will probably get me labeled as a Communist and might possibly cause the further collapse of the entire Western economical model, I am advocating that these damn leaf-blowers be eradicated from the face of the planet.

Yours, quietly,

Friday, April 06, 2012

I'm Done Apologizing, I Think

We are doing pretty well.
It's hard to even write that down. The guilt wells up inside me like the steam inside Old Faithful and I want to cap it quickly and turn away. In our circle of friends, there are those who have been really affected by unemployment, decreased benefits, and exorbitant health care costs (especially if they have kids with special needs). At the school Eve attends, there are fully 30% of the kids who are on some sort of scholarship or financial aid and that diversity is a big part of the reason we love that school. Every day I read blogs written by people who are railing against the inequities in our society that create incredible hardships for hardworking individuals and make it nearly impossible for them to get ahead.

Bubba and I are ahead.

But that doesn't make us the enemy. I have a hard time not getting defensive about our relative financial security and trying to explain it away. The fact is, we both came from very meager beginnings and made it to college with a great deal of financial aid. We emerged with mountains of school loan debt and both took temporary jobs while we waited for our dream jobs to materialize. We were lucky in many ways, finding ourselves in the right place at the right time and Bubba got a job with unheard-of benefits. He also drew on his lessons about money management and was very conservative, maneuvering our finances deftly throughout the years. We purchased our first house before real estate prices skyrocketed and sold before the bubble burst.

We have worked very hard over the years and have volunteered in our community and donated both time and money to causes we believe in. And I still have guilt.

I have guilt when I talk to friends about our new home purchase because I know some of them are struggling to make house payments.

I have guilt when I tell my little sister we're headed to Hawaii for a vacation this summer with the girls because I know she's scraping money together for a long weekend in Vegas - her first vacation since she got married over a year ago.

I know that my closest friends are excited to see photos of the new house we'll move in to this summer.
I know that my family members don't begrudge us the tropical vacation as a family.
I know that my friends who have kids with special needs don't resent me because my kids are growing and thriving.

The notion that it might not be okay to share things about my life with friends and family seems silly, but there are times when I worry that some of the details might be misconstrued. We are fairly open with our girls about the cost of things - gasoline, new shoes, even mortgage payments. We talk often about the difference between 'want' and 'need' and how to decide when it is important to buy something. They understand that some of the things we value - fresh, organic whole foods, for example - also might be valued by others but are, more often than not, financially out-of-reach. They realize that we have family members who cannot afford many of the luxuries we have and that we help them out when we can. But at the end of the day, I don't want the message to my girls to be one of guilt and shame.

I don't want them to feel as though we ought not to indulge ourselves in a trip to Hawaii if we can afford it. We all work very hard throughout the year and enjoy spending time together as a family. I don't want them to think that they have to hide the nice things we do for ourselves out of a sense of propriety or deference to others. Their father is not Bernie Madoff or some former executive at Enron. His business has created nearly 30 jobs in the past three years and his employees are compensated well and given a great benefit package. We are committed to being a part of our community and doing what we can to make a difference for the families who are struggling and working hard to make their lives better. Hiding our own successes feels to me like an admission of guilt and, the fact is, we are guilty of nothing more than a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work.

So, we are doing pretty well.
And that does not make us the enemy.
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