Friday, May 29, 2009

A Holiday from Guilt and Routine Can be Enough

We were supposed to go camping over Memorial Day weekend, but it didn’t work out. Therefore, to make up for the lost opportunity, we spent the first 2 days of the long weekend living life to the fullest. We had 2 incredible cookouts with friends, a full Saturday of baseball games, outdoor exercise, socializing, and even 7 ½ hours of amusement park rides. We more than made up for any lost camping weekend.

Then when the REAL holiday came around Monday morning…we were completely and utterly exhausted. We all woke up at the regular time, but it just seemed to be taking us forever to motivate to do anything. “What a waste!” I immediately thought to myself. “We could have done THIS and THIS or THIS….” What kind of “holiday” were we having at all?

But then I realized that we were having a “holiday” in the original context of the word. We were having a holiday from something, rather than to somewhere.

We had a holiday from school. A holiday from work. A holiday from cleaning the house (that one was mine, by the way). A holiday from our alarm clock.

A holiday from guilt and obligation.

And that alone was enough to make it a wonderful vacation.

A vacation should give us a discernable break from our daily routine, lifting the pressure off of us long enough to allow us to catch our breath, live life a little differently, and then fully return to our work with renewed energy and purpose. If we are not getting this feeling of “ahh” both during and after the vacation, it’s probably because we are doing one of the two things: a) putting pressure (and therefore, guilt) on ourselves to do too much in the effort to live an entire year’s worth of FUN in that one holiday, or b) not breaking out of our usual habits enough to make it feel any different from what we do every day. My friend Sarah called this type of vacation, “My life, just in a different place.”

A vacation doesn’t have to be expensive, long, or even far away to do the job- it just needs to be different and guilt-free. So, from now on, as long as those parameters are being met, I am going to try to kick back, relax, and refill….and teach my family to do the same.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Summer Inbox for your Kids

Today is the first day of summer for me…in a matter of speaking.

Today was my daughter’s last day of preschool for the year, so “summer” in the sense of “no structure, no alone time for Mommy, no morning routine” has begun. I get to ease into full-blown summer a bit due to my two sons still having weeks left at their elementary school, but today’s end-of-the-year preschool program served as a major wakeup call for me.

I need a plan.

Other parents I’ve talked to have a plan. It comes in the form of daycare, babysitters, and more varieties of camps than I knew ever existed. Some sounded absolutely wonderful. And absolutely exorbitant. But absolutely wonderful enough to get self-conscious about my organic, camp-free summer agenda where almighty ME is fully in charge of ensuring my children’s brains and bodies don’t turn to mush.

So, back to that PLAN.

I’ve written before about locating and attending free summer concert and theater series, library story hours, vacation bible schools, museums, parks, and the local sites in order to wonderfully and frugally create an enriching, educational summer. But after getting the “what can we watch?” question from my daughter in the first 5 minutes of “summer” today, I realize we need more than that. We need structure in our day, too, not just our week.

Then I spotted our soon-to-be-unused “homework center” in the corner of our dining room. These three simple stacked horizontal files serve as their “inbox” during the school year. They know to go there, and go through, whatever’s in that box before even asking to watch TV.

What if I could create a summer “inbox”? A mix of fun, education, and structure (not too much- this is summer after all) that the kids would know to turn to first before sliding into the lazy brainlessness that all teachers bemoan every September as they are forced to repeat the last half a year just to bring the kids back up to speed.

A Library book could go in the inbox. A note card with a single question to investigate, plus a website link. Torn out or printed out worksheets. A new crossword or Soduku book. A choice of one of three activities to do outside. A journal, with one prompt question written at the top of the page. A few individual activities, then one group adventure that requires your kids to cooperate. The possibilities are endless. And easy to think up.

And, in the end, a reward…hopefully in the form of a happy mommy who has had enough moments of peace and quiet to give her children her complete attention, energy, and love.

Better than any camp.



Monday, May 18, 2009

A Weekend with no job, money, or plan

Yesterday afternoon was different from most Sunday afternoons in my household.

Unlike most weekends, we had NOWHERE to go. Nothing we had to do. The morning rain had cancelled the t-ball game. I had no freelance singing work. The house was actually reasonably clean, and the kids had clean underwear in their drawers for tomorrow. My husband had no urgent project to complete.

Nothing we had to do.

This should sound like Utopia, right?

But it wasn't. I was grouchy, and for once, I knew why. I knew that after about half an hour of "nothing to do", the petitions would start coming. From the kids, it was the inevitable "can we watch something/eat something/buy something" mantra that I dread. From the husband, it was the inevitable, "Let's come up with a PLAN."

Now, my husband uses the word "let's" when talking about planning something fun the same way I use the word "let's" when talking about fixing something. We both mean "you."

I hate planning "fun" all the time. Sometimes I don't feel "fun." Sometimes I don't WANT to be "fun." Sometimes I want to just be.

The problem is, when I don't plan something fun, the natural, lazy tendencies of my kids (as with most kids, I would venture) will steer toward the remote control or candy cabinet. My husband will find a project to do, and we will end up spending the afternoon in a distracted, disconnected stupor of media babysitting, individual projects, and unsupervised snacking. At the end of the day, my husband and I may feel so guilty over the wasted day that we'll go BUY SOMETHING to make up for it.


So, it's now back on me to PLAN something in order to save us all from this inevitable doom, right?

Well, yesterday, I learned that wasn't so. Yesterday, I learned that there is another option, and I didn't plan, watch, eat, or spend a thing: I asked my husband what HE thought would be fun, and we immediately and unquestionably went along with it.

Now, I don't want to indicate that I've never given my husband a chance to plan a family activity. It's just that when I do ask his opinion, I always think about whether it's a good one or not. Then I'll agree or disagree, and eventually we'll try to come up with a compromise. Yesterday, I was too tired to argue, and even though his plan sounded boring and problematic from the start- load up all kids and all bikes in unpleasantly cool, cloudy weather and go for a hike/ride around our city's downtown river island - I just shut up and agreed.

It was the best afternoon any of us can remember.

Throughout the afternoon, not only did we go along with every idea of my husband's, but we went along with the kids' ideas of "fun", too. Why not? I had nothing better to offer, for "once." Every side trail they wanted to explore, every rock that needed to be picked up, every fascinating bump in the path that needed to be ridden over...over and over again...was allowed, repeated by all, and celebrated. And it was fun. I had no idea that skipping rocks for a complete hour could hold my attention. I saw parts of the island I had never before been to. I never hurried up, cut off, redirected, or suppressed any idea that was offered, and we all benefitted.

I allowed my family to plan, and they were actually good at it. What they wanted to do was fun- for all of us. When given the paramaters of sugar-free, money-free, and tv-free, they proved that they could drive the cruise ship for a while, and do a better job of it than me.

As the long summer ahead looms without a lot of camps, money, or even solid plans, I am cautiously optomistic that we may be in for the a fantastic couple of long as I remember to hand over the reigns and enthusiatically grab my riding hat!


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The key to making all tasks meaningful

I would love to say that my days are filled with exciting, important tasks that have a lasting impact on society and the world at large. That I could point to everything I’d done at the end of each day and say, “See? Look at all I have accomplished! Aren’t you so glad I was here?!”

Unfortunately, I find that at the end of most days, there is no tangible evidence that I have done anything at all with my day.

If I clean the entire house, top to bottom, while the kids are at school, it is destroyed again by bedtime. If I make a beautiful meal, it’s scarfed down instantly or, worse, thrown away (those ungrateful brats!). New dirty laundry appears faster than I can carry the clean laundry back upstairs, clean toilets last as long as the time it takes my boys to drink a glass of water, an hour spent reading to my children is forgotten the instant I need to make just one phone call, …do I need to go on?

Since the effect of everything I do seems so fleeting and unnoticed, it’s tempting to either stop doing it altogether (*note: don’t try this- it actually does get worse if you ignore it…I tried), or just resign yourself to never making an impact on the world past what you can barely remember yourself.

But I think I may have found a cure. A single trick that will make anything and everything we do during our day have meaning, impact, and joy. A single act that will keep every minute of our day unwasted.

Before beginning any task, I have started to ask myself the question, “Is there any way I could be helping someone, loving someone, while I’m doing this?” And the answer is almost always “yes.”

I’m learning that I don’t have to ignore my mundane, but necessary, routine…or complete it…in order to get around to the “important stuff” that actually lasts. They can be done at the same time.

Here are some of the questions I’ve asked myself this week:
While I’m cooking dinner for my family, could I make some extra to freeze for a future sick neighbor?
-Could I walk my child to school instead of drive in order to love the Earth?

-Could I get my exercise today by mowing and weeding my elderly neighbor’s lawn instead of just going for that run?

-When I clean the house today, could I pick all of the areas my husband most cares about instead of just the ones that drive me crazy?

-While waiting for my son to get out of baseball practice, could I write a quick note to my aunt?

-As long as I’m playing with my own child, could I call my neighbor and offer to watch her child, too?

-Can I ask my daughter to help me fold laundry so I can find out what’s bothering her today?

-Could I teach my son how to cook this meal as I’m doing it?

-Can I remember, and write down, what went wrong with this procedure so that I can help others avoid it in the future?

-As I’m waiting in this long line, could I cheer someone up?

If I can do this throughout my day, every day, then nothing I ever do will be meaningless or wasted. There still may be nothing tangible to "show" for my day, but hopefully there will at least be something at the end of it all to show for my life.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Life in the Interruptions

As you can probably guess, I do not like it when people waste my time.

I put myself under a lot of pressure to be an ultra-productive mother, wife, housekeeper, neighbor, volunteer, employee, and citizen, and the only way I can get this accomplished is if I work FAST. I believe that 99% of the things I’m doing are important, honorable, unselfish. Good things, that need to be done.

And so I have my LIST. My “inbox”. My set of criteria for what I am supposed to accomplish each day that will prove to myself and the world that I am worthy of respect, responsibility, and good karma. Every day, my list is growing, and I love that feeling of “being on a roll,” when the day just opens up and allows you to amaze yourself with how much you can get done.

But then, along come the interruptions.

Little bundles of knees and elbows that sit in my lap and try to type along with me while I’m writing, just desperate for any attention and time they can garnish. Older, slower interruptions that want to chat in the grocery store line when I’m already running late. Tiny, invisible interruptions that invade our childrens’ bodies and give them a fever just bad enough to keep them out of school, one at a time of course, and wipe out entire WEEKS of scheduled meetings, workouts, and any chance of concentration.

And those are just the small interruptions. What about the bad medical diagnosis? The corporate layoffs? The terrible late-night phone call that changes everything?

How on EARTH am I supposed to get everything done that I’m supposed to under these conditions? If ONLY I could control everything around me, then I would amaze the world at what I would get done. I SWEAR if everyone would just GET OUT OF MY WAY and give me ONE HOUR, ONE WEEKEND, or better yet, ONE MONTH to get everything in order that I just KNOW I’m supposed to be doing, THEN I will be able to slow down and listen to you, and play with you, and spend time with you, and…love you…like I should be doing now. I’m so sorry.

Life IS in the interruptions.

In the end, I’m not going to be judged by how far I got through my own fabricated inbox, but how I dealt with the universe’s interruptions. Whenever someone or something enters into my day unannounced, it’s arrogant and ignorant of me to automatically assume that what I had planned was more important.

Yes, the job must be finished, dinner (in some form, at least) must be cooked, and you will find me running down the highway naked and screaming if the house is not eventually picked up, but that should not be what my day is about. That’s just the boring, mundane stuff. The stuff that I can come up with on my own.

People, and opportunities, are the ones that interrupt the routine. And that’s something I don’t want to miss out on anymore.

I don't want on my tombstone, “She kept a good house.”


Monday, May 4, 2009

Harnessing The Blahs

I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as a wasted emotion or thought. That each blip that enters out brain is there for a purpose, and that it is our job to make full use of it. I have personally witnessed in my own life and in others how anger, grief, jealousy, pride, and a host of other seemingly negative emotions can be turned into something productive and healthy.

But I have a hard time with simply The Blahs.

Unlike true depression, The Blahs usually occur just for one day, and can render an entire 24-hour period useless. This unfocused, gray feeling of general discontent and lack of motivation is so hard to work with because it just feels like…nothing. It’s hard to harness “nothing” and turn it into anything good.

Today, I am having one of these days. It’s raining. Again. It’s Monday. I just got back from my college reunion and I miss my friends and have realized the next time we’ll all be back together again, we’ll be over 40. My house is a wreck. Again.

The traditional female American response to this nebulous emotion is to grab a credit card in one hand and a pint of ice cream in the other, hoping to fill the void of nothingness with something that feels good, even if it’s just for a second. Then, of course, The Blahs double.

But not today. Today I refuse to give into this feeling. I refuse to waste an entire day of my life. I am determined to come up with a formula, once and for all, that would cure this condition, once and for all. And I think I have it.

If The Blahs are about nothingness, then they need to be filled with something. Something that would not have been accomplished that day had the blahs not occurred.

And because The Blahs are accompanied by an extreme lack of motivation, that Something has to be easily attainable.

Enter the 10 minute cure.

I set the kitchen timer and gave myself the following tasks to be done today, each for only 10 minutes:

1. Do something productive.
2. Do something self-indulgent.
3. Do something nice.

Earth-shattering, I know. But I decided to try it. So, for 10 minutes I cleaned out 2 drawers in my kitchen that have been sticking due to the explosion of clutter trapped inside. A little while later, I unapologetically read a magazine…in the middle of the day! And finally, in 10 minutes I wrote a letter to an elderly friend, made a thank-you snack package for my kids’ bus driver, picked flowers to bring to the preschool teachers, and planned dinner for my neighbor with a new baby.

None of these things would have been done without the occurrence of “the blahs.” This feeling has now had a purpose, a productive outcome, and…an end.

They’re gone, and my day is back.