Joy

Do you remember when you were young and you would spin in a circle with your arms spread out, whirling and whirling until you dropped to the ground from the dizzies? You’d watch the clouds spin from your ground-level vantage point, if it didn’t make you too woozy. Essentially, you were self-inducing the same feeling you would later come to recognize as drunk. The point is, though, that you would spin in the circles for the simple joy of it. No need for someone to correct your technique or tell you that you were spinning wrong, there was only this moment when you played with gravity and gravity may have pulled you to the ground, but you still won. It was wondrous.

Then you “grew up,” stopped spinning because you realized that it gave you an upset stomach, or too closely reminded you of being drunk and nauseous. Other activities induced similar feelings of ‘glad to be in the moment’ for you: maybe it was spending time with friends, or spending alone time with a special someone, or reading a book, jumping from planes – whatever it was, you did this thing for the simple fact that it brought you joy.

Being joyful is a tricky proposition during adulthood because there’s so much that threatens it. How can a person be joyful when there’s so much pain? Joy isn’t a constant, or at least not for me, but it is there among the other emotions and deserves its nurturing too. We do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to allow ourselves that small respite from everything else we’re supposed to be doing to engage in the activities we love. I submit that our capacity for joy is one of the few things that makes life bearable. It isn’t money, or 500 skamillion friends, or an overabundance of things to do: it’s an appreciation of the moment, a connection to the very things that make us glad to be hanging around on this planet in the first place.

I am serious about protecting my own joy. This is an awkward time of year for many people, and definitely for me. I don’t handle conflicting demands on my time very well and instead usually opt to behave in a zombielike fashion because it’s easier that way. That is until this year when I promised myself I’d simplify. So far, and I admit it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, I’m doing well at cutting the excess out from the to-do list so that I can enjoy myself (go figure).

One of the most enjoyable activities for me this time of year is sending holiday greetings. Even though I’m killing trees and spending money on postage, I like to send a happy hello to another person that they can hold in their hands – like a 49 cent hug, I suppose. I know email is quicker and the graphics on my social media are all cute and what-not, but I haven’t put my hand to pen to cardstock so it doesn’t give me the same happy feeling that getting paper cuts on my tongue from licking envelopes does. That’s my unapologetic nod to doing a thing that makes me happy.

The other nod is that I love movies. On the big screen, popcorn beside the point. I love hanging out in an alternate reality for a length of time so that I can feel the feels without any sense of responsibility for them or any need to make them better. It’s the same reason I like to read, but my more immediate circle of friends understands the reading more than the movies. Why would I love to go spend too much money for a couple hours of escapism? Well, because it’s fun. The movie I saw yesterday, for its entire 130 minutes, momentarily filled a place in that part of me that still believes there is no problem that can’t be solved as long as we have hope. I left the theater with the same feeling I had when I used to whirl around in circles until I fell: a little woozy, but joyous.

As a warm-up with hopeful carryover beyond the New Year, I encourage us all to engage in the activities that bring us joy. They aren’t less important than our other commitments; that’s like saying our commitments to other things are more important than our commitment to our own health. That said, with all movie-going, card-sending joy in my heart, I encourage you to do the things that bring you joy. If it’s spending time with people, go do it. If it’s sitting around the house eating Cheetos, bring extra napkins to wipe that orange-y goodness off your fingers. If it’s writing your story, or telling your truth, or walking the dogs, go. You deserve the joy.

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Look for the Helpers

Fred Rogers of the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood show from yesteryear, once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s an understatement to say that the news has been a wee bit scary this year, and particularly recently. I am certain that on other elections people have been where I was on November 9, staring stunned and horrified into my coffee. I don’t like that feeling.

I’m left with the question: What did America just do? This election has been like when a party breaks up too late and friends are left passed out on the sofa when the parents come home. We were only playing, we didn’t mean to do anything wrong, we’d apologize. Sorry we messed up the house.

But we’re the parents now, and our house has been messed up for a while. When we don’t take steps to understand each other, isolation and fear ensue. This is not a leap of logic, this is basic kindergarten manners. Go make friends with the new kid, my grandmother would tell me, they look like they could use someone to talk to.

I love my country and I know we can behave better than this. One of the aspects of my nation that I took for granted until recently was its can-do spirit, its celebration of the underdog who rises to the top. Ask anyone who saw the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. In this election, though, there was no underdog, just candidates slinging mud that got splattered all on America’s face and there’s no one to wipe up the mess for us. That can-do spirit has taken a beating.

“This isn’t my mess, I didn’t do this,” I hear people saying. No, this isn’t any one person’s doing, but this is definitely a mess. We all live here, so we’ve got some work to do. If we are going to move forward we’re going to have to remember that it might not feel like it right now, but that America is a beautiful nation full of potential. We’re going to need to bridge the gap between what we have been doing and what we could be doing. However anyone voted in this election, and remember we have the right to disagree, we don’t have the right to hurt each other. To remix Mr. Rogers’ quote, there have indeed been scary things in the news, so we need to look for the helpers.

In fact, rather than looking for helpers, we need to be the helpers.

Just Checking In

In my previous post I mentioned that the death of a friend sent me into a bit of a mental fog so I needed to follow my routine in order to get myself through the grieving process. It has helped, and going to the funeral allowed me to celebrate her and thank the universe that she was in my life. The church was full – as in, standing room only. This was a quiet person who habitually checked in to see how people were doing. She wasn’t obtrusive, didn’t need to be the center of attention; she just cared about other people – and she let them know.

She called me once a year, usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to find out about the kids and tell me she loved me. She didn’t believe in social media, preferring a phone call or sitting around a coffee shop talking face to face to a post on a website. She made a difference by working hard and being kind.

In fact, she so fervently believed in working hard that, for reasons that are still unclear to me, she had me washing walls one day in the classroom we both served in. She told me there was nothing that a good bleaching couldn’t get rid of (this was in the days before we knew bleach was a problem) and that the classroom needed a good cleaning. She was also the boss of me in personality if not officially, so I swallowed my snark and got busy. While we washed walls, we chatted about the students, our own kids, the teacher we worked for and adored. When I left that classroom to teach in my own, she reminded me to keep the classrooms clean and bright. I know she meant that both metaphorically and literally. I have not washed walls since then, but I do believe in the joy of shared effort.

I looked forward to those annual calls, whether we’d seen each other the previous week or not for a few months. Sometimes I even called her first, but not often enough. “I love you, keep working hard,” she’d say before she hung up.

I love you too, my friend. I will.

The Power of Routine

Teachers are procedural superninjas. We spend the first days of school teaching the students how to enter the room, how to complete their bell work, how to get ready for class, where to put the homework, and so much more. It is astounding to sit and break down what we consider mundane routines, or the things we do because that’s how we do it. Not important? I present to you the age-old debate of which direction the toilet paper roll should face. It’s okay … I’ll wait while you argue about this either internally or with someone else.

Routine is everything. Still don’t agree? Change the order in which you get dressed, or do laundry, or make your sandwich differently. You will feel that there’s a disturbance in the force, young Skywalker. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is something else entirely if your routines interrupt the flow of your day or interfere with you going to work or living your life, but routines are also something of a life enhancer.

I submit to you the need for a routine of productivity. Have you ever noticed that when you have a lot to do, you either get a lot done, or you don’t do anything at all? I am on my A+ productivity game when I have conflicting priorities. I am also well aware that I get distracted by sparklies – lately in the form of a tech game on my tablet. I also know that these conflicting desires between relaxation and fun, work and chores creates a type of creative tension. In the act of having much to do, I notice that I putter. I do this activity for a bit, then that activity for a bit, then back to this, and so on, and nothing gets completed in a timely fashion.

I don’t believe in 100% structured time, but I do believe in the power of routine. In an effort to up the ante on my productivity so that I have more time for my sewing projects, I have been teaching myself to mind my time a bit better. I have a set time to come home because I pick up my son on the way. I began spending the first half hour after he’s home doing my housekeeping/ bookkeeping, managing the house type chores, and then working on homework and projects in a 25 minute work/5 minute break schedule called the Pomodoro method. At first, I rejected the notion that a break should “only” be five minutes. My five-minute break became 10, then 15, then I would realize I spent more time breaking than working. Oopsie. Because I only use timers for cooking, I put my phone on vibrate and set that timer. For me, that works a lot better and I can whoop out some major productivity before dinner (or before bedtime, if I have appointments after work). It keeps me from ‘needing’ a snack that is, in reality just another task avoidance technique, but also allows me to get the snack during my five-minute break if that’s on my personal free/happy time agenda.

After feeling all satisfied about the increase in productivity, I began to wonder about those times when I don’t have conflicting priorities or when working on anything at all is not on my horizon because of life. That’s the test of routine, isn’t it? I’ve been known to counsel others to keep following their routines when they were working through difficult times, but I hadn’t applied that notion to myself until recently when a friend passed away. I needed to grieve, and my brain got muddled along with my heart, but I still had my job and I still had homework to do. I decided to follow my routines. I did the coming home routine, then the productivity routine, and then when I was finished with my to-do list, I had the time to mourn her loss and send my shouts out to the universe in thanks that I got to know her.

We need our routines. They help us get projects done on time, certainly, but they also help us when our thinking is otherwise distracted, either through stress, confusion, grief, or some combination of any of life’s events. I now wonder whether that’s why my stereotype of a British person includes time for tea. We’re doing the day, we’re breaking for tea, we’re back to doing the day. There’s comfort in routine, and I am absolutely in favor of that.