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.

But first, let me (not) take a selfie

Confession might be good for the soul, but it’s definitely not good for the ego. To wit: I am not particularly photogenic. If I grin with reckless abandon, the photo looks like I’m in pain. If I try to look like I have a secret, it tends to look like I have to go to the bathroom. The only time I look like myself is when I’m not paying any attention to someone else’s camera/phone/camcorder. In other words, there is no selfie that will ever turn out well. This also doesn’t bode well for driver’s license photos, staff pictures, yearbook pictures, etc. In an era where everyone’s everything is exposed everywhere (sorry, got stuck in alliteration land), I am blissfully undocumented. Most of the time, I prefer it this way.

When I peruse my social media, I delight in pictures of my friends’ vacations, their children and grandchildren. I am a huge fan of pictures of particularly well-presented food as well. Recently, however, a picture of myself and a friend appeared on social media, which caused a familial frenzy. We don’t live in the same geographic area, so pictures are a great way to keep in touch. So are letters, though, and I usually draw stick figures to accompany the lines for visual effect. I am a) older and b) still not photogenic, so any current photos aren’t really all that useful.

I know there’s a lot I could do to “become” more photogenic: stand a certain way, angle my head a certain way, and wear certain colors. Ultimately, I have to wonder why I should bother. If I look best when I’m not looking, that must mean my best angle is face averted away from the camera. Either way, I don’t really care whether I’m in a picture or not. It bothers me slightly that I don’t look more like me, but not enough that I’ll practice making smiley faces in my mirror or on my phone or whatever it is people do to figure out their best face.

Today, I was reading a fantastic article about swimsuits and how to look great in them, and I realized I’ve been a bit hypocritical about the whole celebrating oneself business I’ve been espousing. I am healthy and vibrant, but I don’t like pictures. I love swimming, but I hate swimsuits. Well, that’s kinda silly, now, isn’t it? If I look like a person and dress like a person, and I’m person-shaped, I’m probably a person who doesn’t need to stinking worry about whether or not I have thigh gap or thick ankles or whatevertheheck it is people worry about.

I will continue to be relatively unfeatured in pictures on my social media. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, obviously. I will still delight in the photos other people post, even as I have to wonder how many pictures they took or how long it took them to realize they had to stand just so to look that fantastic. I will remain elusive and relatively undocumented, a modern-day Audrey Hepburn without the acting chops.

 

Spring Cleaning Part Two: My Closet

Yesterday I mentioned that it was time for me to sort through the closets to free up some space. I don’t believe that hanging on to items I don’t/won’t use serves any purpose except for making my closets looks full of miscellaneous stuff that sits there sullen, judging me for not using the items or not taking care of them properly. It’s Toy Story in my closets, but without the toys. Today, I decided to begin spring cleaning in my own closet. The bulk of dubious items included my wedding dress, bridesmaid’s dresses, shoes through the ages, and really what amounted to piles and heaps of random stuff.

I laughed as I put aside the bridesmaid’s dresses, a tribute to the 80s, 90s, and early millennium. My wedding dress, while highly sentimental, isn’t going to be passed down from generation to generation. My daughter is four inches taller than I am and is built differently. I still have the photos from my wedding, and aside for some residual smugness over the fact that I can still wear the dress, the fact that I’m not going to wear it again begs the question of what it’s still doing hanging around the house.

I did some checking, and now I know of plenty shops, consignment and otherwise, that accept formal wear. It would make me happy to know that another person could wear the wedding dress, and hopefully they’d be as happy as I’ve been. I don’t hold onto memorabilia as a method of making me happy. It makes me just as happy, if not moreso, to share with someone else. Those bridesmaid dresses, though. Maybe someone can repurpose them and turn them into skirts, tops, or maybe throw pillows.

I didn’t have any trouble tossing out the shoes from my quest to find the perfect pair of black flats. I now know that the perfect pair doesn’t exist, so I have since settled on three: penny loafers, oxfords, and ballet slippers. All the rest went happily into the donation pile. I have one lettered shirt from my sorority days, and one logoed shirt from my days of wearing spirit wear at my old school, but other than that, the only clothes in my closet are the ones I wear–and my daughter’s dresses.

The crafts and treasures from my kids are all in my “special” box, labeled that way and on the shelf. I’m not ready to get rid of those, but they also don’t take up an unnecessary amount of space. My daughter’s forays into the world of art include bodiless people that are still charming to the rosy-hued glasses of momma love. My son’s truck and train pictures still make me smile. I will give these items to them at some point, but for now, that’s one of the few boxes in my closet that I don’t’ need to use on a regular basis.

The corner where I keep my grandma’s craft supplies whammied my emotions. We enjoyed a particularly complicated relationship, and while I loved her dearly, about the only thing we had in common was crafts. We both liked needlepoint and crewel. We could spend hours together working on whatever projects we were in process with at the time. I have no doubt that this is part of the reason she had me go to needlepoint club with her. I remain grateful for the gift of time and creativity that she gave me.

When she died, she willed her crafting supplies to my sister and me, and we shared the vast array of creative potential. Today, when I opened up the boxes for the first time in probably seven or eight years, I was hit with the double whammy of completely knowing why I hadn’t used the items in the boxes and knowing that no craft should go unfinished. There were patterns for table runners and holiday decorations, skeins of yarn for needlepoint, canvases and more. Now that my kids are grown, I could theoretically begin working on needlepoint projects galore, but I know I won’t. When grandma died, my desire to needlepoint and crewel went with her. I have, on the odd occasion, picked up needle and thread and created a gift or two, but otherwise, nope.

This is no sadness to me. What I regret is that someone else couldn’t enjoy these materials sooner. I wasn’t ready to part with them, but now I am. If grandma were standing beside me, I can guarantee you she’d say, “About time.”

My closet is now clean(ish) and ready for the boxes my kids want to store in there. I don’t usually personify things like closets, but they are the anthropological evidence of who people are. I am always going to be fond of hand-crafted needlepoint projects, whether or not I’m the one making them, and I am definitely my grandmother’s granddaughter. My closet is now both physically and metaphorically clean. Not bad for a couple hours of labor.

Spring Cleaning

Living light and relatively uncluttered is an idea with increasing appeal. Instead of sorting through boxes to find what I’m looking for, what if the object I seek is already on the shelf? Woah, paradigm shift. I am not a particularly memento-laden person, but even so, marriage and children have contributed quite a bit to the amount of miscellany in the house. In other words, we’re a little cluttered around here.

I am not a physically sentimental person, and by that I mean that I do not need to hold on to my report cards, notes, or even photos from my youth. However, because of some law of adulthood, I still have them. I put my keepsakes in boxes multiple years ago, where they still sit. I believe there’s some piece of housekeeping advice that if a person hasn’t used something in the past year, they’re probably not going to. I support that idea, but I certainly haven’t done anything about it.

Spring cleaning, whatever time of year people choose to engage in it, is a great time to go ahead and peek in those boxes of yesteryear. I used to be in the habit of going through my closets each February. I’m not sure why that month, and I don’t know why I stopped. I do know that the closets are a little less sparkly and I’m a little more befuddled about my belongings than I am when I’ve sorted through them.

It’s odd that something as straightforward as knowing where the screwdriver is, for example, can help other areas of life (particularly those with some assembly required). At the moment, the closets include relics of hobbies and decades gone by. I’d really rather they feature the possibilities of the present.

Self-Reflection and the Allegory of the Cave

I picture self-awareness as a series of funhouse mirrors, in which the perception of self is distorted by our experiences and what we like to think of as knowledge. The goal of self-awareness, then, might be to choose the mirror of self-reflection wisely. Way back in long, long ago time, I took a philosophy class in which we read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. His theory was that knowledge gained through the senses is no more than opinion (thanks, web person Amy on Philosophyser, for your lovely summary). I thought the cave allegory was abundantly cool, and also abundantly scary. I think I know a thing, but I don’t really know it. As time has passed, I am reminded daily of how true that is.

In addition to being a kind of self-reflective human person anyway, I was recently obliged to complete a self-evaluation for my job. For someone who finds giving myself an A+ and a smiley face on anything difficult, this is a painful process. It’s not that I don’t think I have exemplary skills in a certain category, it’s that I know there is always room for me to do better, to be better, to learn more, and to share more. For me to suggest to my peer evaluator that I’m super stupendous awesome is an untruth. The only thing I can claim to be super stupendous awesome at is in being willing to improve. Anything we’re passionate about is both the greatest source of joy and its greatest pain. I am a practitioner who will never perfect my craft. I’m not sure that perfection is the correct goal anyway, just innovation. Oh, yeah, only that.

Of course, I know the paperwork process of self-reflection. I use evidence to support why I check a certain thing, swear internally, and then choose a particular skill to focus on for improvement. Since I can’t choose “everything” (there’s no box for that), I choose my area of personal primary concern and detail what I would do to improve upon that. It was then that I remembered the Allegory of the Cave, all the Marianne Williamson books I’ve ever read, and my tendency to laugh at myself. I am not afraid of my inadequacy, but if I am powerful beyond measure, I haven’t been using my cajones very productively. Or, if I have, I was looking at a reflection in the cave, and not at its reality.

My aunt used to refer to certain outfits she wore as a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. I tend to think of self-reflection in the same way. I’m a human: flawed, biased, abundantly excited about, oh, pretty much everything, and always willing to learn. How this translates into my daily life remains a happy mystery. I just cover the bases of perception, remembering that the energy I toss out impacts other people, and that they react to that.

People are wonderfully complicated, and yet we’re essentially just carbon-based life forms (thank you Star Trek for that). Yep, I’m alluding to fashion, science fiction, other bloggers, and the Allegory of the Cave all in a few hundred words. These are not mutually exclusive. They all just serve to remind me that, no matter how well I know myself, and regardless of how I actually performed on the day of my observation, I am a combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. I wore my favorite Friday outfit (fashion), included music and metacognition (sublime), and told really bad jokes (ridiculous). All things considered, that’s not bad for a day in the life of human person perceiving myself using only the senses and reasoning to guide the way.

 

I Put This Moment Here

1986, senior year of college (don’t judge). One of my room mates was an artist, a creative person who acted the part of a tortured soul while wearing designer jeans and vacationing with friends. To be fair, we were all trying on personas; fortunately the tortured soul façade didn’t stick. One aspect that did was that she had incredible taste in music. My own musical choices were more Madonna and top-40 rock ballads punctuated with Safety Dance. Look it up and laugh if you must – it was big hair and loud voices for me. My friend, though, liked to explore the depths of her soul with acoustically jarring music in a range of styles. She liked my top-40 nonsense, but she also liked more experimental music. In particular, she played Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush almost, but not quite incessantly.

A set of lyrics from Kate Bush stayed with me. The name of the song didn’t, but I still remember Bush’s haunting, melodic whisper:

I put this moment … here

I put this moment … here

Many years and multiple top-40 hits later, I still think of this refrain. Perhaps the song itself was shocking, though obviously not enough that I remember anything else about it. The idea of placing memories in locations, almost like a collection, was brilliant, quite relatable for an overly enthusiastic 21 year old with no clear sense of direction. At the time, I figured if I just kept putting my moments … here, answers would reveal themselves to me because I had organized my memories so nicely.

Obviously, it didn’t work out that way. Some of the moments I put away were painful, others were celebratory. Some didn’t get put away very well at all, their telltale reverberations ricocheting around my noggin. Those memories were the recurring ones: holidays, dinner around the table with my family, laughter in general.

This is, theoretically, the time of year when we give thanks. Some people pass their gratitude around the dinner table only to forget it by the time the pumpkin pie is served. I can rattle off a gargantuan list of what I’m grateful for (my family, friends, health, etc.), but truly one of the biggest things I’m grateful for is my memory. All those little mismatched moments piece together willy-nilly to make up my psyche. Depending on the time of year, the music playing in the background, or my mood, I sift through my memories like a child turns a kaleidoscope. Each memory is unique – and because it’s memory, it changes in the act of remembering.

I hadn’t thought about my roommate in a while, until today when I remembered those two lines as I was reflecting on a difficult moment. I own my internal conflict as much as my tranquility and it usually works out that both are within easy distance of each other. So the kaleidoscope turns, and I file another moment away until I need it again later. I was glad to remember an old friend, and I chuckled as I remembered our different yet harmonious blend of music. Kind of like us.