New Year, Same Great You

I’m going to talk about New Year’s resolutions. I know…yawn. There are probably thousands of articles bopping around the internet right now on the topic. But, I feel the need to express my alternative view of goal-making. This is not about “new year, new you,” which is a terribly overused title. What’s wrong with the old you? “New you” implies that the old you isn’t worth keeping around.

Sure, there may be some things you’d like to focus on, and January 1 is as good a time as any to take stock and plan ahead. I shied away from resolutions for…well, my whole life, because it all seemed like too much pressure. But last year, I realized there were some aspects of life I wanted to focus on: simplicity and listening to my intuition.

Taking stock now, I see that I accomplished the goal of focusing on those things. My life is simpler; I keep it in mind when accepting/declining new responsibilities, but I haven’t totally got a handle on it (I may never). That’s okay; the point is to be mindful about it.

This year, my focus is nurturing my relationships with my family — making time for Jason and me to connect, play with the kids, hang out with my parents and sister. I don’t have a set number of hours, but I know if I keep it at the top of my mind by writing about it, meditating on it, at the end of the year, I’ll feel good about it. I don’t want to make some brand new, unreal version of myself; I want make my life more satisfying and enrich the lives of the people around me.

If you want to make your focus being more active or eating more intuitively (one of my last year’s goals) go ahead. It’s all about mindset. You have to ask yourself, “Am I doing this because it’s what I’m ‘supposed’ to do or because it’ll improve my quality of life in a way that I want.

That last bit, “in a way that I want,” is important. You are under no obligation to make the choices society say are healthy. You want to eat cake and donuts for breakfast? Good for you. You want to smoke, spend a bunch of money or drink a whole bottle of wine? Fine. The point is to not kid yourself; don’t spend your energy rationalizing your behavior. Just decide to do them or not do them.  We all know what the possible consequences of these behaviors are, and sometimes we choose to do them anyway. That doesn’t make us bad people; it makes us humans who like to enjoy life.

I am not talking about addiction here, which generally tends to make people miserable; I’m talking about the choice to binge on cookies on a Friday night or spend 11 hours watching Star Wars movies. It may your stomach feel terrible and give you a tendency to reverse your sentences like Yoda the day after, but maybe it’s worth it to you every now and then. Or maybe it’s not. Either way is okay.

So when you make your resolutions or goals or whatever you like to call them, don’t make them for other people and don’t be too rigid about them. Think about what would truly make you feel more satisfied with your life — just one or two things, not a whole list of 10 — and focus on that. Or don’t make any resolutions. Maybe you’re fine with everything how it is in the moment. If so, cheers to you.

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Meds?

ashkey.001Several weeks ago, I discovered my days go a lot better if I start them with writing instead of with email. My general thought process has been “let’s just bang through these emails real quick before getting down to write.” Two hours later, the emails have sent me off into a flurry of activity to find, investigate, file and respond, and I am too tired and scattered to start the hard work of creating anything.

Thing is, getting through those emails doesn’t give me the same gratifying sense of accomplishment as writing, or creating anything, does. I love the intense focus I feel when putting pen to paper (or pixels to screen). I love that, when I’m done, I feel a sense of completion — closure, if you will.

So many of the things I do these days don’t have that feeling. They don’t promote focus, and they are never truly finished. There will be thirty seven more emails tomorrow, no matter how empty I get the inbox today. There will be more dishes in the sink five minutes after I get the kitchen clean. It leads to frustration and a lack of sense of accomplishment.

So now, I start with writing on the weekdays. I blog here, write for the magazine or do a freelance piece. I’ve also cut down on my freelance work, as much as it pains me, because between work, freelance, volunteering and parenting, I was beginning to feel like I was trying to cram three full-time jobs into the space of one, and I was scattered — doing a little of this and a little of that all day long, rarely finishing anything to satisfaction.

I hate the feeling of doing so much stuff I’m not doing any of it particularly well. The principal who went out on a limb and hired me for my teaching job back in the early 2000’s once said of our curriculum it was “a mile wide and an inch deep.” It rang really true with me, because I felt like I was being asked to cram more and more stuff into the children’s heads, without really getting into the meat of anything.

That metaphor can be expanded to everything we do. So much stuff is trying to grab our attention, it’s easy to run around all day long and never give your full attention to anything. Meditation helps with this problem, but it is truly a practice. You might not feel any differently the first time you do it, but if you keep it up, you start to notice better focus and more calm “off the mat” as well.

There are a few free meditation apps that really help me. I have several, because I refuse to buy a subscription, so I just use the few free ones in each app. Even just three or four minutes per day seem to help. I don’t meditate on the weekends, though. Weekends are for kids’ sports, birthday parties, cub scouts and sleeping.

So, I’ve cut down and prioritized, and I’m feeling calmer and more satisfied with my life now. Oh yeah, and I also went up on my meds, so I can’t take all the credit for the new, chill me. I never know which comes first; do my habits start to slip, so I get depressed or do I get depressed and so my habits start to slip? Either way, they feed each other. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend it was all lifestyle change when I’ve had a fair amount of help from chemistry.

I can’t seem to end this post; I just keep rambling and no clever one-liner is bubbling to the surface, so I’ll just stop. The point is, if you feel crazy/depressed/dissatisfied, maybe try simplifying your life, and if you try that and it doesn’t help or if that seems like an insurmountable task, maybe visit your doctor.

The Virtues of Being a Quitter

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2008, NOT snowboarding

I grew up in the era of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This is pretty sage advice, especially for children like me, who shied away from doing anything at which I wasn’t instantly perfect. The problem with me, the pitfall, is that when I take something to heart, I am all in. The reason I talk about balance and middle ground all the time is because I have trouble finding it. I give you exhibit A, snowboarding:

In my early 20’s I went skiing with some friends and decided to learn to snowboard. It was all the rage, and I thought I looked pretty cute with a board tucked under my arm. I took lessons for two days and stuck with this new-fangled sport for four days. For four days, I repeatedly tumbled down the mountain, cracking my head on ice, bruising my knees and cracking my tailbone. I could be found huddled on the side of the run, practically crying my head hurt so bad from being bashed on packed snow, sniffling and fishing ibuprofen out of my pocket. I listened to my instructor, I practiced, but it just wasn’t in me. To top it off, I was doing this by myself, since my friends were all already badasses at boarding, and I couldn’t keep up with them.

Finally, halfway through the fourth day, I fell shortly after stumbling off the lift. I lay there in the snow and thought, “That’s it. I am f&^%ing done.” I clipped out, stood up, tucked the board under my arm and walked down the mountain. And it was beautiful. I was enjoying myself for the first time that trip. The snow made things so silent. I could look up at the towering firs, with their dusting of snow, and it was so peaceful – quite the contrast from sliding down a mountain mostly on my head.

Several people stopped and asked if I was okay. I just smiled and said, “yes.” For the first time on that vacation, I was actually okay. It was time…well, past time, to give up snowboarding, and I finally realized it. It was a relief to admit I had failed at this thing, and I was over it.

Sometimes, giving up isn’t really failure. Sometimes, knowing when to cash in your chips is your success. There is a satisfaction in knowing you’ve done your absolute best at a task and failed anyway. You can move on, knowing you suck at that, and you never have to do it again.

A 2am Conversation with Jim Morrison

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Me, at Jim Morrison’s grave, Pére-Lachaise Cemetery, 1997

I am awake. Suddenly, two hours into a night’s sleep. I was sleeping soundly, and then I am just awake. And can’t go back to sleep. Perhaps it’s that subtle yet persistent ache in my right shoulder that comes and goes at random – the mark of being 40. Maybe it’s too much coffee or too little dinner.

My brain starts its usual buzz. It used to frustrate me the way it would tune up with all manner of thoughts at inopportune times like this. Now, I just let it do its thing and find myself amused and occasionally enlightened by its antics.

My brain is full of movie quotes and song lyrics, prompted by remembered bits of conversation or thoughts of my own. One train of thought leads me to think, “people are so strange…” which, in turn, leads into the old Doors song, which will now pop up in my head at random for the next 48 hours, peppered in with thoughts of grocery lists and Donald Trump. “You know, Jim, people are strange even when you’re not a stranger.”

I start to make up stories in my head – one about two people stranded on a deserted island. I imagine the perilous relationship they’ll have, how they’ll survive, what will happen between them. They’ll have a child, maybe two, but they don’t really like each other. In fact, there is hate. He is cruel. In the end, she kills him, but I can’t figure out how. Then, I realize this is a cobbled together idea based on Swiss Family Robinson, Big Little Lies, and Dolores Claiborne – not at all original. I sigh and scrap it.

A thought comes through, unbidden (as if any of these musings are bidden.) What are you distracting yourself from? I attempt to clear my head. I breathe in and out slowly, feeling my chest and abdomen expand, counting the breaths. There is an anxiety I feel in my heart and when I notice it, my heartbeat begin to quicken and intensify. I am worried. Life is so complex. There is money that needs to be made, health to be attended to, passions to respect, other people to consider. How does this all work together?

People are strange. I am strange. (Funny, I just accidentally typed “strange” as “strong.”) Why is this all so complicated? Maybe you are missing the big picture. What do you mean? With all your frustrations with how media and choices and other people make your life complicated, have you ever stopped to consider how YOU make your life complicated? Oh.

I read articles, I listen to other people, I take everything so seriously. What if I just decided not to? What if I just spent all day on the internet if I felt like it and lost the guilt that I’m ruining my eyes and my attention span? What if I spent all day walking the dog and not working or spent all day working and ignoring my children? What if I spent all day playing with my children and ignoring work and my phone? If I REALLY tapped into my intuition, not what everything else is telling me, would I actually end up doing any of those things all day?

So, I am sitting on the couch at 2am on a Wednesday morning. I am not frustrated, because I am supposed to get eight hours of sleep to be my most productive. I am grateful for this quiet time, when everyone else is asleep, to write and think. I am happy that I have time to nap later. I am chucking my silly schedules out the window, at least for now, until I feel I need them again, and I am going with my gut. Even though it scares me, makes that anxiety start my heart fluttering again. Not everything that scares you is worth doing, but this feels right. I’m going to post this most random and intimate of posts from the randomness that is my brain and not worry (too much) if people will like it. Yes, my heart is hammering at the thought.

Thanks, Jim. You’ve been a big help.