Monday, January 28, 2013

Life on a Treadmill

That's how I've been feeling lately.  Like I am constantly moving, but never making progress.  Every day am busy with various child and home related tasks.  But as the day comes to a close, I have little to show for my efforts other than the fact that my child is alive and my family is fed.  Not that those are nothing, life at home with an infant does not lend itself to tangible results.  As soon as one task is complete, another takes its place.  My daily activities are on a never-ending cycle.

Put diapers in washer.  Hang out to dry.  Stuff diapers.  Put away.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Nurse child, change him, feed him solids, clean him (and the mess he made), put him down for a nap.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Wash dishes.  Make lunch.  Wash dishes.  Eat a snack.  Wash more dishes.  Make dinner.  Wash more dishes as I cook dinner.  How are there still more dishes?!  (Henry even does the dishes after dinner, yet I feel like all I do is wash dishes all.day.long.  Such is life sans dishwasher...)

I am am trying to carve out slices of time each day to do things I want to do, for me.  Writing more, for one.  Things that bring me back to who I was before I was a mom and make a bridge to who I will become.  But little slivers of time are all I can seem to grasp before they slip away and I am called to a more pressing task.

Last week I woke up at 5:30 a.m. when I had to feed HP.  Instead of going back to sleep until he woke up for the day at 8 a.m., I used that time for me.  It was glorious--two hours of reading, writing, drinking tea, and being alone with my thoughts.  The only problem?  My sanity was quickly slipping away by 8 p.m.  I need a lot of sleep.  It is a rare night that I am up past 9:30 p.m.  A 5:30 a.m. start was too early for me to arrive at the end of the day feeling calm, collected, and in control of my life.

I recently finished Barbara Kingsolver's newest novel Flight Behavior.  As I was reading, a statement struck me with its truth: "Being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself."  Exactly.  I have few moments of connections to other adults, yet I also have little time to myself.

HP's infancy is such a small, small part of my life.  If I tried to portray this time as pure drudgery, loneliness, and exhaustion I would not be being honest.  It brings me so much joy to watch him learn and grow.  At the end of the day I do have something to show for my effort--a happy, healthy, growing child.  But I also would not be being honest if I did not acknowledge how challenging I find it.  Washing dishes for the sixth time of the day often does feel like drudgery.  It is lonely to have such limited adult interaction.  I am exhausted after months of sleep deprivation.

I may feel like I am living life on a treadmill, but hopefully in the process I am building the endurance and strength that will help me on the next leg of my journey--wherever it takes me.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Mantras

My friend Abby sent me this link on identity-based habits a few weeks ago and it has changed my thinking about how to create the life I want.  Or as Erica puts it in her post today, my aspirational life.  You know, the one where everything in my life falls into perfect place and my family sits around the table after a hike eating homegrown kale, discussing novels, and wondering what in the world we're going to do with all of the delicious cheese we've made with the milk from our goats because we couldn't possibly consume it all.  This vision is also known as the one that will likely never happen.* 

Even if reality never perfectly aligns with the life I want for myself, I'm going to keep working to bring small pieces of it to fruition.  The tool I've mostly recently found to aid in that endeavor are mantras inspired by the identity-based habits post.  Repeating mantras about who I am and not just what I should do has helped me make better choices throughout the day.

For example, when hunger strikes in the afternoon and I really want to mix butter, flour, and sugar together to create a quick fake cookie dough (gross, but true), I say to myself, "I am someone who makes healthy choices."  The simple act of saying those words out loud helps me choose the carrot over the cookie dough. 

I have created a list of these mantras that speak to different aspects of my life.  I am a person who...
... makes healthy choices.
... exercises most days of the week.
... uses social media to connect, not to fill time.
... chooses to read over watching television.
... eats meals at the table, not on the couch.
... writes every day.
... plays games with my husband (of the card/board variety).
... crafts.
... is generous with my time and money.

Obviously I cannot focus on bringing each statement into being at every moment of the day, but I can call on each one when needed.  When I turn to automatically get on Facebook for the seventh time of the day--even though I get no true pleasure from it and feel worse after closing my browser--I remind myself that "I am a person who uses social media to connect, not to fill time."  And that statement alone makes it easier to walk away from my computer.

Having these mantras is more effective than telling myself, "I will only get on Facebook once a day."  When I create rules, I try to find ways to break them.  I spend the whole day thinking about how I "can't" get on Facebook.  My mantra gently reminds me that a different choice is more in line with my values and will bring more joy to my life.  

And isn't that the real kicker?  When I live out those statements I am happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than when I do not.  Why is it not instinctive to make the choice that brings me joy?  I seem to have created habits and routines that bring passive pleasure instead of true satisfaction.  As we all know, changing habits is easier said that done.

But that won't stop me from trying, because I also want to be a person who leads a life that reflects my values.

*Especially the cheese part.  We can always eat more cheese.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Top 10 Books I Read in 2012

In 2012, I didn't read as much as I would like to, but isn't that always the case?  I fell off the reading bandwagon for a bit in the summer months after HP was born (no surprise there).  I am hoping 2013 will be a year of books for me.  When I am reading, I feel more like myself.  I need to remember that watching television generally doesn't make me feel good about how I spend my time and make reading a priority.

I have a horrible problem where I struggle to remember books just a few months after I read them.  I don't mean I struggle to remember the titles of what I read (though that's also true), but I can't even recall the basic plot lines of books.  On the one hand, it's great, because if I enjoy a book I can pick it up again the next year and it's like I'm reading it for the first time.  On the other hand, I've been in many situations where I try to explain something I read in a book, only to discover--much to my dismay--that key facts are no longer in my grasp.  Two years ago I started writing down the books I read each year, with stars next to my favorites so I can come back to them again and again.  In the last few months I've started jotting down notes and favorite quotes from each book to aid my leaky memory.  So here are the ten books that garnered the most stars in 2012, in order of when I read them:

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Beautiful writing, beautiful story.  This was one of those books where I just drank in the prose and wanted to slow down to better savor every word.   There are many novels written about Germany in the years leading up to, and during WWII, but The Book Thief, narrated by Death, has to be one of the best. 

The Dirty Life  by Kristen Kimball
Oh, how I wished I lived down the street from this farm so I could abandon the grocery store and get all of our food from their lovely operation.  This book chronicles the start of Essex Farm as Kimball and her husband pioneer a new way to envision local food.  Instead of a CSA (community supported agriculture) where members  purchase a weekly share of food, members pay a set amount for the year and then can take as much produce, meat, dairy, and eggs as they can eat.  I love the concept and hope it spreads.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
I had been avoiding reading this book because I was intimidated by both its length and subject.  Once I started, I could not stop reading.  Hillenbrand describes the Louis Zamperini's experience in the Pacific during WWII, first as a fighter pilot, then as a prisoner of war.  I learned more from this book about the Pacific Theater than from any history class I've taken.  A well-written, important work.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Neil and I listened to this book on our trip to New Mexico in the spring. I liked it so much in audio form that I listened to the next two while painting the house.  The books are narrated by Flavia de Luce, an 11 year-old aspiring chemist and sleuth in post-WWII England.  A lovely, light read.

The Color of Atmosphere: One doctor's journey in and out of medicine by Maggie Kozol
So fascinating.  A pediatrician describes her experience first as a doctor in the armed services, then in a private practice.  Ultimately, she decides to leave the profession.  This book gave me new insight into our medical system.  It's no secret that I am not a fan of health insurance, and this book showed their evils shortcomings from the doctor's perspective.

Maybe One by Bill McKibbon
McKibbon, the founder of 350.org, makes the argument for having fewer children.  I wrote a whole post on my thoughts on this book last summer.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
If I had to pick a favorite of my favorites, this one might be it.  The whole time I was reading I kept nodding along and exclaiming, "Yes, yes, YES!"  We live in an extroverted world and as an introvert, it was a refreshing read.  Introversion produces results that are different, and sometimes (dare I say) better, than what extroversion yields.  I found myself especially interested in Cain's description of how our society caters to extroverts.  Something both powerful and important is being lost when we do not create spaces for introverts to flourish in our schools, workplaces, and families.  A must read.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
This was the first book I read after HP was born, and drew me back into reading for pleasure after a month-long hiatus.  It is a beautifully written story of twin boys born to an Indian nun in Ethiopia.  It follows them--and their complicated family--from India, to Africa, to America, and back again.  Verghese tackles wide-ranging concepts with ease, from Ethiopia struggling to find its post-colonial identity to the inequality inherent in the American medical system.  

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman
Duckerman, an expat living in Paris, compares and contrasts the French and American styles of parenting.  I loved the practical, well-balanced perspective the French bring to their child-rearing.  Much of it resonated with how I was raised and how I am trying to raise HP.  Now if only HP could have slept through the night at two-months like all the French children...

I have to admit that this book was a little on the scary side for me.  What can I say?  I'm a wimp!  Even so, I was engrossed in the story and look forward to the sequel.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Neil and I both flew through this one near the end of the year.  The two main characters are involved in a magical competition set in a circus.  Fantastical things happen, but I felt invested in the outcome (which isn't always the case for me).  I was transported into their world, but it still felt like my own.  Magical realism at its best.

And yes, I realize there are actually eleven books on the list instead of ten.  I just couldn't pick one to cut out.  Hopefully 2013 will also be filled with interesting, engaging books.

Monday, January 7, 2013

My Happiness Project

"It's the most wonderful time of the year..."

I know that song is speaking of Christmas, but I have to disagree.  I think the beginning of the new year is really the most wonderful time.  I love the chance to envision the life I want to lead, set goals, make resolutions, and outline concrete steps I can take to make that vision a reality.

I have been on a bit of a "self improvement" kick lately, and the turning of the calendar has added fuel to the fire.  I recently read both Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and The Power of Less by Leo Babauta.   Rubin had a theme for each month and then created specific resolutions that related to the chosen theme.  For example, in January her theme was "energy" and some of her resolutions were to go to sleep earlier, to declutter her environment, and act more energetic.  Babauta's book emphasizes the need to focus on one habit at a time instead of trying to tackle too much.

I am taking the wisdom from both books and planning my own "Happiness Project" for 2013.  I've spent time brainstorming what my various themes and resolutions will be and how I will prioritize them.  My problem with change is that I want to do it all right away and have trouble heeding Babauta's advice.  I do not want to only focus on one theme or one habit; I want to do it all, right now.  Of course that approach inevitably leads to failure.  Instead of making a lot of change quickly, I end up not changing at all.  This phenomenon is why Babauta encourages readers to focus on only one habit for thirty days.

So I am taking a deep breath, and letting go of the fact that I want to learn how to better use my DSLR right now.  I have been wanting that since I bought the camera at the beginning of August and have made no appreciable progress towards that goal.  It is okay for me to say that I won't tackle that project until May and instead will focus on more pressing issues like how I can better use my time or how I can improve my marriage.

This month's theme?  Order.  I want to purge and reorganize all the rooms in our house so that we only have items we want and that everything has a place.  As part of this reorganization we also need to create a home that is ready for a crawler, since by month's end I have a feeling HP will be fully on the move.  I chose to focus on order first, because a disorganized and cluttered space negatively affects my mood.  As a stay-at-home mom, a peaceful environment is vital to my well-being, and by extension, the well-being of my family.

Realistically it will take at least two months to do a whole-house purge.  Things just move slower with a baby, and I am unwilling to give up my evenings for the project.  I like to think that I will spend time after dinner cleaning the house, but it's a lie.  I have always had an unwritten rule that after dinner is my time, whether that be for reading, talking to friends, hanging out with my husband, watching television, or staring at a wall.  I have always been this way.  In college I only did homework after dinner on the rarest of occasions because I would rather wake up at 4am to finish a paper than write it at 9pm.  It's just how I'm wired.  Instead of trying to change that part of me, I am resolving to be more focused during HP's nap time and while he plays independently during the day.

In addition to the large organizational projects, I have decided to focus on one of the many resolutions I brainstormed for "order".  I decided the single change that will bring the most order (and happiness!) to my life will be to spend ten minutes every evening straightening the house.  (This may seem counter to the previous paragraph, but it's pointless to do the clean before HP goes to bed, and it's just ten minutes, so I think I can handle it.)  The few nights I've done the clean-up have been less painful than I imagined and have made it such a pleasure to wake up to a tidy home.  Hopefully by the month's end this will be come a routine part of my day that I will continue throughout the remainder of the year.

I used to be a self-help naysayer and thought the books were silly.  In some ways I still think they are.  But if it helps me (or anyone for that matter) make a positive change, then what's to knock?