Quiet Epiphanies

sharing the everyday stirrings of mind, heart, and spirit

Category: Everyday Life

Things I Do and Things I Don’t Do: Determining my priorities

Things I Do and Things I Don't Do: Determining my priorities

Sometimes I need to absolve myself of my guilt for feeding our son a banana and Cheerios for breakfast.

When I was growing up, I ate Cocoa Puffs with non-organic, probably antibiotic and hormone laden 2% milk for breakfast. Do I resent my parents for it? Will I blame my every present and future malady on the fact that I didn’t eat a nutritious breakfast every day of the week when I was a kid? Of course not. But in today’s culture, we are hyper-aware of the nutritional value or danger of foods and every meal is a mark of success or failure as a parent.

There’s something to be said for trying to do better. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As a perfectionist I already have voices in my head telling me plainly: DO EVERYTHING BETTER.

Shauna Niequist wrote about this “DO EVERYTHING BETTER” inner voice her lovely, beautiful book Bittersweet. Like so many other women, she became overwhelmed with the pressure to improve in every area of her life and “do it all.” She had lunch with an older, wiser woman one day who said something that stuck with her:

And this is what Denise told me: she said it’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard, she said, is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about.

So Shauna set about determining her priorities by creating two lists: “Things I Do” and “Things I Don’t Do.”

When I read about her lists, I immediately wanted to create my own. I have always been a perfectionist, but especially since becoming a mother I have been inundated with instructions for how to do things better. Everywhere I turn, there is a simple tip for getting something done, or getting it done better. I collected each one I came across, like a novice builder collecting nuts, bolts, and nails from bulk bins. I had a bunch of pieces, manageable in and of themselves, but putting them together to build a house is an entirely different task.

My lists are a work in progress, and they’re more aspiration than reality at the moment. But I hope by claiming my priorities and embracing my limitations, I will be freed to live a more satisfying life. Here are the beginnings of my two lists.

Things I Do:

  • Keep my body healthy by making eating and drinking as much my priority as taking care of these needs in others. I drink enough water and eat nutritious meals and snacks.
  • Make an effort to get regular exercise, even if it’s just a walk or quick yoga session.
  • Shower every day. If I don’t shower in the morning, my day is going to suck. I will feel like I just need to go back to bed the entire day. I may forget to brush my teeth, but I will never forget to shower.
  • Cook (at least somewhat) healthy meals without feeling like they have to be fancy, and I allow myself a “convenience” food (like frozen pizza) about once a week to give myself a break.
  • Recharge with at least an hour or two a week of quiet alone time, when I don’t have to meet anyone’s needs but my own. I want to use this time to read and write and generally think about things besides taking care of other people’s needs.
  • Go to church on Sunday with my family. I always feel better for it. Always.
  • Play with my son. Sometimes it’s hard not to just plop him in front of some toys and go clean something, but we are both so much happier when I engage him in play or read him a story.  I won’t want to remember the cleaning years from now, I’ll want to remember when he first stacked blocks and drew with crayons and gave his stuffed animals hugs and kisses.
  • Stay in touch with friends, making a point to see people in-person as much as is possible without feeling over-scheduled.
  • Make the bed in the morning. It doesn’t take long and it makes me feel a little less anxious about the overflowing laundry hamper in the room.

Things I Don’t Do:

  • As my opening line suggests, I do not make complicated breakfasts. It takes me a while to wake up and I don’t have the energy and brain capacity to cook well in the morning.
  • Worry about the ever-present baskets of unfolded or half-folded laundry in my living room. I despise folding and putting away laundry. Probably because I need to go through our closet and drawers and get rid of all the clothes we no longer wear or pack away what’s out of season. Ugh, I do not want to spend time doing that.
  • Extreme fitness, like running a marathon or crossfit or climbing a mountain. I’m too competitive and placing high expectations on myself only creates an “all or nothing” mentality and sets me up for either anxiety and pride or failure and depression. I’m learning to be gentle with myself and accept small victories.
  • Clean all the time. I could spend all my time cleaning so that everything was to my satisfaction, but I would miss out on a lot of Things I Do. So, yes, there are toys strewn around the living room most of the time. The kitchen sink usually has dirty dishes in it. Usually the only cleaning my bathroom sinks get is a quick once-over with a disinfecting wipe. When I finally do get around to scrubbing the bathtub, I spend extra time in the bathroom just admiring how shiny it is.
  • Thrill-seeking adventures. Skydiving, traveling to foreign remote locations and scuba diving all sound very unappealing to me.
  • Work out with groups of people. No Zuma. No hot yoga. Aside from a 5k or 10k run, I don’t like jiggling or sweating around other people. I’ll fire up a DVD or YouTube and do that in the privacy of my own living room.

What about your life? Are there things that you feel pressured to do or be better at that you want to put on your “Things I Don’t Do” list?

Joy In Trying: A lesson from a boy learning to walk

Joy In Trying: A lesson from a boy learning to walkMy son just learned to walk. His methodology for learning fascinated me. One day he stood at the rail of his crib and started dramatically falling forward onto the mattress. He reached his hands out and caught himself, giggled and looked up at me with a cheesy grin before doing it again. And again. And again. He kept climbing up to the rail, facing inward toward the mattress, then falling forward and laughing.

He became more and more focused on his task, holding his breath for a moment then huffing and puffing, like he had to remember to breathe because his brain was working so hard on other things. He stood in the corner of his crib like a boxer on the ropes, eyes narrowed, staring down the center of the mattress as though it was his opponent. With a huff, he raised both of his arms straight above his head and took two shaky steps forward before falling onto the mattress in exactly the way he had been doing repeatedly. After a brief fit of giggles, he was up and ready to do it again.

It was at this moment I realized: at one year old, he knows he needs to practice.

My son learned to walk in his crib. Although it seems more difficult to learn to walk on the unsteady surface of a mattress, he needed the security of a soft landing to give him the confidence to try. When we tried to get him to walk independently on hard surfaces, he would go floppy and fall to the floor or cry in panic and cling to our pant legs. He walked only in his crib until he could walk all the way across the crib, from rail to rail, with a sure step.

When I see my son’s methodical nature in moments like this, it takes my breath away. Where did he learn to think ahead to prevent himself from getting hurt? He’s methodical. That’s his personality coming through.

I’m the same way. I want to see several steps ahead before I take that first step. I want to make sure I have a soft landing. I don’t take a risk unless I can see how it might play out. And while that can be a very useful trait, it can also be stifling. It can mean missing out on a fun time because I was afraid of wasting my time. It can mean settling for something that’s “good enough” rather than pursuing something that seems too good to be true.

Sometimes you can’t see ahead. Sometimes all you have is a gut feeling that something needs to change. Or sometimes the change just happens and you’re forced to take some risks in finding your way to a new normal. How do I prepare my son for those moments? How do I prepare myself?

A voice whispers in my ear: let go of fear. But how? It’s always there, like the ground beneath my feet staring me down, waiting for me to fall.

When my son falls, I cheer him on. I realized through him that we all need to know that people we love are watching us, cheering us on, even if we fall. We need people there when we fail to say, “You’re doing great! Keep at it!” We need to know from the beginning that we are loved whether or not we “succeed.”

How do I let go of fear? Instead of looking what I have to lose, I must start looking at what I have to gain. How can I live a life of joy without some spontaneity? How can I truly love others if I’m not willing to risk heartbreak? How can I embrace my passions if I’m holding on too tightly to stability?

My son laughed after falling onto the mattress. What if I found joy after each of my failed attempts? What if I looked at life like a practice session, knowing that each little fall would help me figure out how to walk? Maybe if I place my value in how hard I try instead of how little I fail, I would have more of a child-like joy.

Step One: Write

Step One: Write!

I’ve been a writer since I was a kid. I remember making my own books using cardboard covered in wrapping paper, using string for binding. But even back then I was apprehensive about others reading my writing.

One day when I was maybe nine, my parents took me along on a visit to some of their friends. I brought my little handmade book and some other activities to keep myself entertained while the adults socialized. My book was accidentally left behind we returned home. When my parents’ friends returned it to me later, I saw they had written a note of praise on the last page of my book. I was inwardly proud, but a flush of embarrassment also lit my cheeks. I had written that story for myself. I didn’t think anyone would read it!

Over time, writing became something I did for others. It stopped being an outlet for my creativity, for my own pleasure. It became something I did for a grade or for approval. At some point, I started reading my words with a critical eye toward the quality of my work and the errors of my writing became all I could see. I read the stories I had written and thought of how juvenile and unoriginal they sounded. I also began to see writing stories as one more thing that set me apart from everyone else. Adults are always looking for the things that make them different because it makes them feel special, but when you’re an awkward pre-teen or teen, differences feel more like a liability than a gift.

Looking back now, I think about what it must have been like to come across my little cardboard-bound book. If I stumbled across a book like that today, it would probably make my day to see the raw creativity and care put into it. (Do children even come up with their own crafts like that anymore?) I wish that I could see my writing now with that kind of delight. I wish that I could approach it as a precious outpouring of my individual creativity that should be treasured and encouraged.

It’s easy to feel that my voice has no place in the world. It’s easy to think that everything I have to say has been said before, and probably better. That may be true. But I think about that little girl, binding her own books with yarn and cardboard, and I think, “How dare you stop her?”

So I’m going to start writing again. It may not seem good enough. It may not be the most original content ever put to (digital) paper. But I’m going to do my best to look at myself with compassion, to nurture that little girl inside me that wants to create.

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