Gap Year

Yesterday, my daughter hit ‘submit’ on her online college application, which means graduation is on the horizon for my oldest child and with it, choices about how to begin life as a young adult.  This past year, we tackled the infamous, “Where do you want to go to college?” question, and discussion of a contemporary trend, the Gap Year.

The Gap Year is the period of time between high school graduation and freshman year at a university of choice.  It is an opportunity for young adults to take a sanctioned break from the academic system to explore, work, learn, grow, and get to know themselves.  The reasoning is that life experience, self-discovery, and a broader perspective on the world will benefit them as they enter the higher education system.

In my opinion, Mom & Dad are the ones deserving of the Gap Year.  I mean, by your forties (or later), you have a pretty good idea what gaps exist in your life.  It’s time to start rekindling that sense of adventure you lost the minute you graduated from college and set foot in your first cubicle.  In my case, immediately after fleeing said cubicle, I chose to start a family, which led into an 18 year blur of exhaustion, culminating in my daughter’s current college application process.

During that time my children grew up, a few dreams and travel plans were deferred.  A few friendships fell by the wayside, as we were all too busy with travel soccer practice to prioritize our own social lives.  A few business ideas sparked, but have not yet had time to ignite, as my changing worldview slowly shifts my focus from income potential to social good.  And one more thing, I need rest and relaxation like I need air and water.

Most of all, I crave uncertainty.  Not recklessness, but rather the potential and opportunity of being less defined.  Now I am older, and more financially secure, but I remember how it felt to feel so ungrounded at age 22.  My 20s were financially tight, but I was secure in my relationships.  How fluidly I moved with less burden, and how invigorating it was to be experimenting with my life’s path.

I have big decisions ahead of me, as does my daughter.  Of course, there is a standard path in front of me.  Continue paying the mortgage, build the nest egg, live safely and comfortably, but feel stagnant.  But there is another way.  Make changes, shake things up, take some risks, but feel fear.  My daughter plans to start college next fall, but Mom has her eye on the Gap Year.

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The Squirrel Incident

I look forward to the change of seasons each year, and there is certainly much to anticipate in the early days of autumn.  Cool air, cozy sweaters, crackling fires, and the beauty of the changing leaves.  Unfortunately, sometimes we anticipate the change of seasons through advertisements and holiday fantasies.  Starbucks will be soon be encouraging us to restart our Pumpkin Spice Latte habit.  Pottery Barn will send us yet another catalog, and in it, images of perfectly curated fall décor, along with beautifully adorned doorways welcoming trick-or-treating perfection.

I bought into this magazine lifestyle fantasy myself, until The Squirrel Incident.  Last September, my family was just finishing up a screened porch renovation.  Our 16 year old house was starting to show its age, and I thought we needed to get started on the ever growing home maintenance to-do list.  One item on that list included remodeling the screened porch.

Our home backs up to woods, and for years, squirrels have decided it would be more cozy to nest under the roof of our back porch than in the trees.  Over time, they ripped multiple holes in the screens and repeatedly tried to build nests, despite our efforts to wage all-out squirrel warfare as humanely and non-harmfully as possible.

We decided to repair the porch once and for all, replacing or repairing the floorboards, rails, roof, and screens.  The project was completed in early autumn, right as Pottery Barn was putting their summer outdoor furniture on clearance to make way for their new fall décor.  It occurred to me that we should own one of those beautiful outdoor sofas and chairs.  It would help us enjoy the new porch, I reasoned.  I wanted the magazine photo to be my reality.

Two weeks after the furniture was delivered, I innocently let the dog out onto our porch one morning, not realizing that a squirrel had torn through the new screen overnight, and was quietly perched on the back of our outdoor sofa.  The ensuing chase was chaotic, worthy of the squirrel scene in the movie ‘Christmas Vacation’.  Picture a squirrel running for its life, over every horizontal and vertical surface of the porch, my dog leaping after it over the new furniture, crazed in her single-minded pursuit.

Finally, I was able to separate the two animals.  The squirrel lived, my sofa did not.  The squirrel had dug its claws into the couch cushions as it ran, shredding the fabric, and leaving a trail of muddy footprints and urine (like I said, it was scared) across the pristine white Sunbrella fabric.  I checked the Pottery Barn catalog, and there were no squirrel disclaimers to be found, nor any tips on removing squirrel urine.

Turns out, life is not a glossy magazine photo.  Life is messy and imperfect and unpredictable.  I never imagined I’d be learning life lessons from a squirrel, but Mother Nature has a way of revealing her infinite wisdom in not so subtle ways.  I did not replace the sofa.  This fall, I will be sipping my (homemade) Pumpkin Spice Latte on the same ripped cushion I’ve been sitting on for a year now.  That’s life.  Messy, but good.

Affluenza Recovery

This post scares me.  Why?  Because it’s an admission of truth.  Uncomfortable truth.  The truth is that I’m not very good at affluence.  By chance, luck, or circumstance, it was unavailable to me as a child, but was given to me as an adult.  I guess I’ve seen both sides of the coin.  Maybe affluence isn’t the problem, so much as selfishness, greed, and envy.  I’ve tried all of those out, but each felt inauthentic and shallow.  In fact, affluence made me feel a little ill, but thankfully, I am now in the process of affluenza recovery.

This realization about affluence hit me over the head a few years ago, actually.  I sat counting the number of chairs in my house(s), along with the number of Facebook friends I actually considered my true friends, and the chairs happened to significantly outnumber the meaningful people in my life.  The rest of the people I didn’t really interact with, but I was definitely spending money on chairs trying to impress them.  Not many of those people ever did come over to sit in my chairs.

That is the essence of affluenza.  Not feeling secure in yourself or your relationships, and trying to find security in owning more things.  After all, chairs don’t judge you, and if you need support, chairs are always there for you.  Friends on the other hand, are more difficult to obtain, require regular upkeep, and therefore, feel a little more risky.  Sure, friends can also be bought, but not the quality ones.

So, I made a decision.  I started getting rid of the clutter on my chairs, followed by the chairs themselves.  At first, my life felt a little empty and I felt weak, but I’m now feeling stronger through life experiences and relationships.  Soon I’ll be moving on to downsizing the rooms and houses that hold the remaining chairs.  If affluence sticks around during that process, then perhaps I’ll now have the skills in place to use it for good.  Perhaps I’m building up an immunity to affluenza.  I suspect I’ll always own at least one chair, but until my friends outnumber my furniture, I have more work to do.

Enjoy Your Mornings

There are a lot of morning routine articles on the internet these days, so it’s obviously a popular topic.  I think we can all agree:  We want to start the day off right and feel happy.  I have to admit, I am morning routine Jedi, remaining remarkably consistent on this front.  However, every time a read a list of morning routine suggestions, I start to cringe.

Wake up early, take a deep breath, stretch, meditate, journal 3 pages, brew artisanal coffee, exercise, then allow yourself to take care of your family (who is just now waking up at a reasonable hour), get them off to school, then work productively for 3 hours at your stand up desk, at which point you are allowed to check email and Facebook.  In the real world, it would now be lunchtime, and I would be stressed and exhausted, and probably reaching for something sugary to eat.

The one thing I can tell you I don’t want in the morning is to get slammed in the face with someone else’s to do list for a proper morning.  I want my morning to make ME happy.  Which is why I suggest that it’s ok to take it down a notch, keep things simple, and focus on doing a few things you like.

How I Enjoy My Mornings:

Wake up without an alarm – Pretty doable if I get to bed a decent hour and make sure natural morning light can penetrate my bedroom fortress.  If not, I have a backup alarm, but it’s set to happy nature sounds.

Put away the clean dishes (on a good day) – This practice is related to my compulsive need to eliminate food and cooking chaos through a perpetually clean sink.  I don’t always feel like doing it, but I feel satisfied having it done.  Perhaps I’ll blog about the joy of a clean sink one day, or recover from my compulsiveness.

Make a cup of tea – Warmth and joy.  Even more joy than the sink.

Read a book (or a blog) –  Reading is my thing.  I’m not a social media gal, as I like to avoid FOMO.

Make a second cup of tea – This gives me permission to procrastinate exercise within reason.  If I take too long, the tea gets cold and yucky, so I tend to get moving.

Exercise & Make a smoothie –  Smoothie comes first if I’m low on energy, Exercise comes first if I’m feeling like Wonder Woman.  Exercise can be a long run or a short yoga session.  I don’t judge, I just do it.

Walk the dog – My mandatory outdoor time, weather excuses are not permitted.

Start the rest of my day – This is actually the first point in my day when I’m most likely to feel stress, because the rest of my day is less predictable and therefore requires more mental effort.  Maybe I should title this part of the day ‘Acknowledge Stress’.  Not become stressed, just acknowledge it and face the day.

I’m guessing no one else in the universe has a clean sink on their morning routine list besides me, and that’s ok.  Mornings are uniquely adaptable to your taste.  Morning routines are allowed to be easy.  The point is to enjoy your mornings.  All you need is a little routine to help you start off right, whatever right feels like for you.

 

Opportunistic Sitting

chair

My favorite chair, mostly because it’s outside.

I think I sit too much.  This is the epiphany I arrived at after a few months of wearing a Garmin Vivoactive, the running watch that happens to count steps and remind you to feel guilty whenever you don’t move.

What I noticed over time from the data was that after a run of 6 miles or more, I tended to sit around for most of the day.  On days I didn’t run, I walked more.  Aside from once-weekly long run days, most days my total number of steps was about the same whether I ran or not.  Not cool.

There must be too many places to sit in my house.  After all, if I wanted to eat better, I would remove unhealthy temptations from my pantry.  So it follows that if I want to move more, then my house should not be filled with places to sit.  Thus the inventory of seating options began.

Awareness is not always an easy thing to possess.  After a household scan, I counted 33 chairs, benches, and stools.  Add in the outdoor spaces and that number soared to 44.  This is not including couches.  I have 7 of those.  Note:  we are a family of 4.  I must curl up into a fetal position now, having so far yet to go on the minimalism practice.

Ok, I’m back.  Feeling overwhelmed, I decided to focus on a single positive action.  I would move my laptop to a taller table, remove the chair, and enjoy my new standing desk.  Result of experiment:  I went two full weeks without writing a blog post and my email inbox swelled into total anarchy.  I mean, why stand at the computer, when my iPad is next to this comfy sofa?  And besides, I need to stay current on my YouTube subscriptions.  Why does my human brain default to lazy?

A few nights ago during dinner, our family got on the topic of designing our ideal room.  Turns out, my ideal room has glass walls (to enjoy the stellar view), a lap pool, bike trainer, treadmill, yoga mat, smoothie & green tea bar, and an adjacent sunny courtyard filled with an organic produce garden and waterfall.

Heck, if the location of said room was temperate enough, I may not even need the indoor sports equipment, or the garden courtyard.  So maybe what I’m realistically envisioning is a tent on a tropical island.  Either way, no chairs are necessary, because of course, I would be sipping my green tea under the waterfall, or happily sitting on a rock.

Who even decided that a house should be filled with chairs, and why did everyone else follow along?  At some point in my life, my focus obviously turned to chair accumulation, and I’m not sure I even noticed at the time.  Now I must focus on shaping my environment to reduce opportunistic sitting, since clearly my brain and body default to mush when I am presented with leisure options.

I wonder what I should do with the extra 40 chairs?

A Dog’s Life

Zoe

Zoe, the Lawn Connoisseur

My dog Zoe is a rescue dog.  People often ask what type of dog she is, to which I usually reply, “Generic Brown.”  Although she is a mixed breed, I never had her tested, lovingly joking to her that she could remain undefined and would continue to love her as-is.  She may be lacking pedigree, but in her mind, she deserves only the best.

The ongoing joke in my family is Zoe’s habit of relieving herself only on premium grass.  Her delicate hiney is too good for common weeds.  No, the minute I turn my head, she sneaks off and uses the most pristine patch of perfectly manicured front lawn she can find.  All attempts by me to steer her toward common ground and dog areas have failed.  She’s got a radar for the good stuff, a taste for the finer things in life.

Just last month, we put a brand new patch of sod in our backyard.  I came outside to find the delicate new grass had promptly been christened by her highness.  At our favorite vacation spot, she consistently goes on the resort Bermuda grass, right next to the sign reading ‘Please Keep Off The Grass’.  She knows quality when she sees it.

Zoe’s kind of got a point here.  If this daily ritual is her main gift to the world (after love and affection), why not make it special?  She doesn’t do the whole deprivation thing, only using the nice grass at Christmas time or to impress when other dogs come over to visit.  Every day is reason enough for her to indulge.

Dogs really do lead the good life.  Toileting habits aside, maybe we should do the same.  Maybe we should burn the nice candle, and use the fancy dishes, for no other reason than joy.  If you are going to partake in something, why not have only the best and then use it often?  Less is more, but less can also mean better.  You deserve it, as does Zoe.

Decluttering is Shallow

If minimalism is deep, then decluttering is shallow.  I don’t mean shallow in a judgmental, negative sense.  Rather, that decluttering our home is the act of peeling back the initial layer of what hides our authentic selves.  Decluttering removes what is on the surface, in essence, exfoliating the superficial surface of our lifestyle, revealing a glimpse of the true person underneath.

It can be easy to become stuck in decluttering, and to avoid moving on to the deeper actions of crafting your life.  Figuring out who you truly are and what motivates you involves feeling vulnerable.  It feels safer to dwell in the shallows, rearranging a bookshelf, or wiping the kitchen countertops, quietly avoiding the possessions you have a difficult time addressing but know you want to let go.  It is easy to hide.

I have been there.  Sometimes I feel stuck or stagnant in my minimalism practice, which I believe is something to be embraced and celebrated.  This discomfort means I’ve gotten past the shallows, and can begin to dive deeper into who I am and what person I want to be in the world.  When there are no distractions to hide behind, and no more easy things to get rid of, there is opportunity for self-discovery.

Going deep involves facing your shortcomings.  For me, that was feeling like I wasn’t fit enough, or thin enough, or popular enough, or doing work that I cared about.  What that looked like in my home was lots of fitness gear, kitchen gadgets, luxury items, and books on self-improvement, creativity, and adventure.  These were the possessions I valued, but they were standing in my way.

It felt so much safer to stay home and consume content, reading about things that others were doing.  I bought new pieces of fitness gear, hoping to find a shortcut to speed or ease the effort of working out.  I justified my nutritional shortcomings by dwelling on healthy cooking.  I purchased a house that was too large and difficult to maintain.

What I wasn’t doing in accumulating these things was diving deeper into my life by taking action.  You cannot curate the life you want by making aspirational purchases.  In fact, I think it can be paralyzing to own these things.  Things distract you from taking effective action.  Things shelter you from the rewards that come from struggle.  Things are just a snapshot of who you want to be.

Go ahead and dive deep.  Keep the things that serve you, but let go of the things that serve as a safety net or a distraction.  Build resourcefulness, empowerment, and self-confidence by accomplishing things with less.  Be vulnerable.  Be enough.   Be you.