Thursday, March 27, 2014

What I Know About Running

I have been running now for just under a year and a half.  I'm pretty sure that makes me a total newbie - there are many things I don't know, many things I haven't experienced, many things I'm still experimenting with.  I commonly see people who tell me that they've run for 20, 30, 40 years consistently, and I've got a long way to go before I can count myself among their ranks.

But you've got to start somewhere, and here I am.  I'm still a newbie, but I've also got a year and a half of experience, and I'm sharing that experience here to help and encourage anyone who is just getting started.

Here's what I know about running so far that applies to just about everyone:

1)  You can start from zero.  When I began working out again, a year ago November, I was in terrible shape.  I didn't go out for a run....I went for a walk.  I called it a brisk walk, but I'm not even sure it was all that brisk.  I didn't buy new clothes, I didn't get fancy shoes, and I didn't prepare in any way except one: I set my alarm for verrrrry early, and I promised myself that when I got up in the morning I'd get out and move.  And then I did.  Those first walks were under 2.5 miles, round trip from my house to a beach and back, and I don't know if they improved my health a ton, but I do know that they felt good, that I started to appreciate the quiet of the morning, and that they got easier pretty quickly (even coming up the big hill).

2)  You can make progress pretty quickly.  November 2012: Walking 2.5 miles.  March 2013: Running 3 miles.  August 2013: Running 6 miles.  October 2013: First half marathon.  Scheduled May 2014: First full marathon.  I went from basically sedentary to a half marathon in a year, dropped down from a size 6-8 to a size 4 without dieting or trying to lose weight.  Many, many, many runners share that story, in some version or another.

3)  Find a goal, and engrave it on your heart, your mind, your soul.  In March 2013, barely able to run 3 miles, I decided to sign up for a half marathon.  I told everyone I knew what I had done (partially to keep myself accountable, partially because my friends are fabulous and I knew they'd support me by asking me about training and encouraging me)....even though I didn't exactly see how it was possible to run a half marathon, and even though that distance seemed fairly ridiculously long and difficult and impossible and crazy.  But every day, I told myself "In October, I'm running a half marathon" and that is when I started thinking of myself as a real runner.  Scared, worried, and feeling somewhat like a fraud....but a real runner.  Having that goal kept me motivated and on task, and there were days when I thought about sleeping in but went running anyway, because I could so clearly envision how great it would be to cross the finish line of that half marathon.

4)  Find a training plan (there are lots of them online for free), write it on your calendar, and then do it.  Trust the plan - you are not the first person to start a running program from scratch, and assuming you don't have major health obstacles, then there is no reason it can't work for you.  A good plan gives you plenty of time: most marathon plans say that you should have a year of running before you start the plan (which is usually 12-18 weeks; I chose an 18 week plan); I started my half marathon plan about six months into running, and gave myself six more months to work up to it.  Find a plan that suits you: there are walking plans, walk/run plans, novice plans, expert plans.  Some coaches have you run six days a week, some only three days a week.  Some plans will have elaborate run instructions (run at X pace for X minutes this day; do hill repeats this day; do intervals this day) and some just tell you how many miles to go.  Do a little research and find what works for you....and then stick to it.  For my marathon, I chose to do Hal Higdon's Novice I program, and I try to stick to the recommended mileage (though I've tweaked it to suit myself: my knees don't like three days in a row of running so I space it differently, which sometimes means I drop a short run; I have had to take a break of 3-4 days when my body told me I had to, and then I picked up where I left off).  Not sure where to find a plan?  Check out Hal Higdon, Galloway, Runner's World.  There are couch to 5k plans for those who haven't even done their first run yet, and there are expert plans to help you run your first three hour marathon (something I don't ever plan on doing).  Find the distance that suits you right now, then find a plan that suits you.

5)  Be prepared.  Before I go to bed each night, I look at the training plan to figure out how many miles I need to go, and set my alarm accordingly.  (I need a lot less time to run 3 miles than I do to run 10 miles.)  I lay out my shoes, clothes and gear (including a headlamp, RoadID, hairband, hat/coat for rain, headphones and iPhone, house key, and if I'm running by myself in the dark I add pepper spray) so that I have them ready (and to make sure that I don't forget anything when I'm too sleepy to think clearly).  Laying things out at night makes sure that I don't have the excuse of "oops all my running clothes are in the wash!" and it's just one less obstacle to face in the morning: when I wake up, there they are on the chair, a sign of my commitment, and their very visibility reminds me that I want to do this.

6)  Fabulous shoes.  I'm all for a pair of killer heels or cute sandals, but running shoes are all about comfort, and by "fabulous" in this case I mean fitted to your feet and your running needs, comfortable.  I had really hoped to find some cool running shoes in great colors, but you don't choose running shoes based on how they look.  You don't need any special gear to run, but you must have really good shoes.  How do you know if they're good?  You go to a specialty running store where the staff are runners, and you take their advice.  Usually they want you to show up in a pair of old running shoes (even if you just wore them to walk the dog) if you have them, so they can look at the wear patterns.  Then, they'll watch you walk or run inside the store to see how your foot lands, and they'll make recommendations about what to try on.  They'll give you some tips (your heel shouldn't slip, there should be room but not too much in the toe box, etc.) and they'll often have you try one shoe brand on one foot and another on another foot so you can feel the differences.  I've had to try on 20 pairs before to find the "just right" one, but this is not a step to skimp on.  If your feet hurt, you can not run.  And sometimes it's not just your feet: if you wear the wrong shoe, your knees will hurt, your hips will hurt, your back will hurt.  Running isn't supposed to hurt like that, and your shoes will set the tone.  DO NOT go online and look at cute running shoes and order them in your size.  Do not assume that because ten years ago you ran in Nikes and they were great that if you order a pair of Nikes today they'll be great: every model of shoe is different, even within a brand.  And those dusty shoes in your closet?  Do yourself a favor and get a new pair.  The materials of the shoe break down over time and even if they were great a couple years back, they're not great now.  (Case in point: my legs were really hurting on my runs, and I started to think that I was just not cut out for distance running.  I got new shoes, and I could not BELIEVE the difference....the aches went away like magic.)  Become friends with your local running store staff.

7)  It's not about the gear (except shoes, of course).  All you need to really get going is a pair of great running shoes, and the rest is easy.  You'll want clothes that don't chafe, and technical fabrics will help wick away sweat, but the rest is just "whatever works."  There are a zillion cute running outfits out there, and yes, I do want them all, but the truth is that you can pull some old yoga pants out of your drawer, put on a decent sports bra with something to cover it, and head out the door.  If you want to look like a runner, Target has cheap running clothes that work pretty well.  As for me, I'm rewarding myself by buying a "nice" running outfit for my marathon, but that's about vanity, not about sport.  I did get a RoadID in case I get hit by a car or something because I run without carrying a driver's license or anything, and I think it was a good $20 investment; I also picked up pepper spray in case any bad guys jump out of the bushes in the dark.  When I started running longer distances, I bought a hydration belt, but I didn't need that until I hit the 10 mile distance.  You can get all geared up and you can look really great if you want (why not!), but running isn't about the gear.

8)  Find a way to track your distances and times.  When I first started, I drove the course I was going to run to see how far it was on my car odometer, and I used a basic sports watch (pulled out of a drawer where it hadn't really been used) to track time: you don't need much more than that, and for decades runners have just tracked their distances and times on paper.  However, I've since become addicted to MapMyRun, which I use on my iPhone.  On every run, I put in my headphones, start MapMyRun, and it shows me my time, distance, pace, splits, elevation, etc as I run and gives me a summary of the totals at the end.   Knowing that I've gone the appropriate distance is important for my training, of course, but hearing the little voice in my headphones telling me how fast I'm going also encourages me to speed up, to push a little harder at the end, etc.  And seeing the miles pile up over time, with weekly, monthly, and annual totals (all viewable on the computer, because it syncs automatically) makes me feel really proud of myself and motivates me to do even more.  I have the free version of MapMyRun (so frugal!), and you can also look at RunKeeper or Nike+ or a number of other programs.  I like them because I already had a smartphone so I'm not spending extra money, but if I had a few hundred dollars to blow I would probably buy myself a Garmin.

9)  It gets easier.  And then it gets harder.  And then it gets easier.  And then...  Running has ups and downs, just like everything.  Just at the point when I thought I was doing awesome, I hit some speedbumps where my runs started to suck.  Sometimes, there is a reason for that (you're sick, you've got an injury, you need new shoes), but sometimes there is a day, or a week, or even longer, when running just feels harder than you want it to, for no apparent reason.  I have learned that this is all part of it, that there are good days and bad days, and that just because you had a bad day today doesn't mean that it's going to stay bad if you keep at it.  I have learned to appreciate the magic of a good run, and not to let a bad one psych me out too much.  If you've got an injury then of course you should rest, but otherwise...just keep going.

10)  Running is a mind game.  I've saved the best for last here: running is more about your brain than about your body.  There are all kinds of catchy slogans about this, but it comes down to this: you are capable of more than you think you are, and when you run past the voice in your head that says "STOP!" then you come to a much deeper understanding of yourself.  When it's just you and the road (or the trail, or the treadmill) and you push past the belief that you can't do one more step and you do an extra mile or an extra minute, you prove to yourself that you're capable of more than you thought, and it changes you.  My body often tells me that I'm done, that I can't go any faster, that I can't go any farther....and when my mind overrides the messages that my body is giving me, I can't tell you how good it feels.
And here are a few more thing about running.  These ones apply to me and may or may not apply to you - you tell me!
1)  Running makes me feel like a badass.  I can run 16 miles now, and I am so proud of that I can't even tell you.  I'm 44 years old and I can maintain an 8:30 pace for 10 miles, a 9:00 pace for 15 miles (don't ask me about that last mile of that 16 minute run just now!).  I never, ever, ever thought I'd be able to do that.  And I can.  And it makes me feel like a badass.  And....I love feeling like a badass.
2)  The earlier I run, or the worse the weather, the more like a badass I feel.  When I'm out there alone in the dark, and the houses don't even have lights on, and the moon and stars are out, I know I'm doing something special.  When it's pouring rain (where I live there is a lot of rain, very little snow) and I'm the only one out, I feel like a warrior, capable of anything.  I love that feeling.
3)  I love being outdoors, and I don't want a treadmill.  I'd rather run in the rain than feel like a rat in a science lab running nowhere.  I think that one of the reasons I've kept up with running is that it allows me to be outside for a portion of the day.  I live in a beautiful area (and feel very fortunate), so my runs can take me through an urban forest and along the edge of the sea.  When I hear the waves lapping at the shore, it utterly outweighs the wet or cold I might feel, and it eases whatever aches my heart might have.  And on a sunny day with blue skies, or on a day when I see great wildlife (seals, eagles, and sea lions are common), my soul simply soars.  I can't get that on a treadmill....and I want that.
4)  I love being disconnected from the world, running alone.  I carry my phone for safety reasons, and to use MapMyRun, but I'm not looking at it, it's tucked in a pocket (or into my sports bra, which functions just as well).  Nobody is asking me for anything, nobody is talking to's just me, my thoughts, my body, fresh air.  I've tried running with others, but it gets in the way of finding flow, and I really prefer running quietly, solo.  I don't even listen to music most of the time any more, preferring to get lost in my own thoughts instead.
5)  Running makes me believe that anything is possible.  What I could not do before, I can do now.  This makes me believe that I can make my other dreams come true, too.  I can't tell you what a lifesaver that is.
6)  I did not begin running to look better, but it made me look better....and I love it.  I wanted to feel stronger and more energetic, but running has changed my body in many ways.  I'm smaller, and clothes look nicer on me, and I look better. 
7)  Running makes me feel good.  Mentally, physically, spiritually, no part of me is unchanged because of running.  All of me is better: not only are my legs stronger, not only do I assume my heart is stronger, but my soul, my spirit, my mind all feel stronger as a result of running.  I love that.
8)  Running is a lifestyle.  I'm not just a runner when I'm running, I'm a runner all the time.  I plan my days around running: when I wake up, but also when I go to bed; what I eat, or when.  I plan my weekends around my long runs, making space in my life to put in those long distances and then recover from them.  I'm okay with leaving the party early because I have to get up early, and I'm okay being the designated driver because I'm in training and not drinking alcohol right now.  A couple of years ago, those would have seemed like large sacrifices, but now they seem tiny.  What I get back from running is so much more than those small things, and I don't think twice about it any more.
9)  Even though I mostly run solo by choice, running has made me some lovely connections with other people.  The (ex) brother-in-law and I have had deep conversations about running, my daughter and I have bonded over short runs, my best friend from college and I have done events together (and though we train separately, we talk about our training together with regularity).
10)   It's all worth it, because every time I run I feel renewed, powerful, capable.  Yes, it hurts.  No, I'm not a morning person.  Yes, I question my sanity sometimes when I'm soaking wet, cold, aching.
But it's all worth it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How I like my eggs

There was a (mostly unmemorable) Julie Roberts movie a few years back called Runaway Bride.  I've forgotten most of the details but the one that stuck with me is about the eggs.  In her many relationships, the main character ate her eggs just the way her partner did, believing that what he loved is what she loved.

I did that, too.  It occurs to me that I did that literally, as well as figuratively: my ex likes his eggs scrambled with cheese on top, and that's how I ate mine when we were together.

How does a person forget how they like their eggs?


In my family of origin, perhaps like many families in my era, there were two ways to do things: my dad's way, or the wrong way.  If I liked what my dad liked, I was a good little girl.  If I disliked what my dad liked, I was "difficult" and (one of my least favorite words ever, because it was applied to me so often) "persnickety."  Having an opinion different than his meant that I was being disrespectful, that I had bad taste, that I clearly hadn't thought it through.

I knew this about my father and rebelled against it in my teen years, like so many teens, and I thought that my rebellion was a sure sign that I had dealt with it, made up my own mind about how to do things, and that I was done being a people pleaser.

Au contraire.

It takes a lot more work than simply getting mad at dear ol' dad to move past things to change the pattern.


Bryan liked jazz.  I once spent a painful day at an all day jazz festival where I had to resist the urge to jump up and down shouting "I'm 32 years old and I DO NOT WANT TO LISTEN TO ELEVATOR MUSIC!"  (I know that there is very "un-elevator music" jazz.  This was not that.)  The music was like water torture to me, and instead of saying "You should go with your friends and I'll do something else" I went and spent the whole day at the concert thinking, "I must not be smart enough to enjoy this; it's got a classy quality and I know the fact that I would prefer to listen to pop music makes me seem less substantial and I should learn to like this..." and so I tried my hardest to enjoy it and pushed down my feelings of dislike, or to think about how much money the tickets cost and that I hadn't been to one of "my" concerts in years.

When I turned on the radio, Bryan would say, "You're not going to listen to THAT, are you?" and I would sheepishly turn the dial to something he liked.

Bryan liked bread and cheese, in vast quantities.  When the waitress said, "May I refill your bread basket?" the answer was always yes, and the bread basket was always empty and needing refilling.  Before dinner, he could go through a wedge of cheese no problem.  With meals, he liked cheese.  Cheese on his eggs, cheese in his lunch, cheese with dinner, cheese before dinner, cheese and crackers as a snack.  Toast at breakfast, sandwiches or burgers on buns at lunch, bread with dinner, bread or crackers for snacks.  I told myself "It's a French way of eating" and "Why do I always have to be such a nay-sayer, why deny myself or him such simple pleasures?"  I ate what he did, in slightly smaller quantities, but I still gained 20 pounds during my marriage and felt sluggish (he gained much much more and acted much more sluggish), but I told myself that I'd rather celebrate life (more bread and cheese!) than be miserly about simple pleasures.

Bryan ate large quantities of cheese with every meal and complained about his body - obese - bitterly.  When I made a healthy meal - maybe a chicken curry, or grilled salmon and veggies - he complained, and ate a giant snack at bedtime, consisting of....cheese.

Bryan liked to shop for his clothes at Costco, and considered fashion a waste of time, energy, and money; he mocked people for their fashion, and if I said that I wanted to go clothes shopping with a girlfriend he acted like it was the most shallow activity in the world.  I never 100% came to his side of that equation, always secretly coveting beautiful clothes worn thoughtfully...but I gave up my fight, and felt myself get frumpier and frumpier, but told myself that I was living more important values.

I look back at photographs from that time and think, "MOM JEANS!  Why was I wearing mom jeans?!"

The list could go on and on.  What time we went to bed, what time we got up.  Music, food, art.  Leisure time.  It wasn't until we got divorced and needed to divvy up the furniture that I realized that though every single piece of furniture purchased during the marriage was to his preference (Mission style) and that though I had "happily" agreed to all of it....I hated it.  I find Mission lines to be too sharp, too heavy, too masculine, and I like my furniture to feel lighter, curvier, more feminine.  I was more surprised than he was (and he was plenty surprised) when I told him he could have it all, because I'd rather shop for furniture on Craigslist and yard sales than have Mission style furniture, which didn't represent who I am in any way.


I am aware now that this did not make me a better spouse.  I am aware that this meant that there was a falseness to my interactions with Bryan, and that it doesn't reflect well on me to say these things; my intentions might have been good (keep the peace) but the outcome wasn't good.  I can accept that: I made mistakes in my marriage, and one of the main ones was that I yielded all the time, trying not to rock the boat, and that meant that I agreed to things I never should have agreed to, offering a false version of myself, not only to Bryan but to myself as well. A marriage built on swallowed resentments can not thrive.

I wouldn't want to be with someone who agreed with me to placate me.  Maybe, ultimately, Bryan didn't want that either.  It's hard to tell, because when I suggested an alternate way, he shut me down, made fun of my choices or tastes, or acted like he was very put out because I was unsupportive, and I struggle with wondering why he did that, just as I wonder why my father treated me that way.

But this isn't about him, it's about me.

In any future partner, should there be one, I will bring my tastes and choices to the table, knowing what they are and standing my ground.  There's room for compromise, certainly, but compromise does not mean "doing it the other person's way every time," and it does not mean "giving up what I believe in."  There will be give and take next time, not just give.


What do I like?  I know the answers!  And I'm not ashamed of them!  And if you, dear reader, read this list and think "ew!" or "yuck!" or "I hate that style!" then you know what?  It's okay!  We can still be friends, because I hope you value the qualities of my heart and mind more than the small extras; that you are drawn to me because of the way I think, and that if we disagree about music (maybe you like elevator music, too!) then we can still be friends.

But we don't need to go to an all day smooth jazz concert together.  Ever.


I like, in no particular order:
- High heels, pencil skirts, ladylike blouses.  Little black dresses.  Sundresses.  Classic clothing, not too trendy.  Blazers with jeans and ballet flats, dresses with defined waists.  Black, white.  I'd rather pay a bit more for something and have fewer items.  I do not, ever, ever, ever shop at Costco for clothing.
- I like to get up really, really early, before the sun rises, and have quiet time to myself.  I go to bed at about the same time Katherine does as a result...but it's worth it to me.
- I love female singer-songwriters like Brandi Carlile, Emmylou Harris, Sarah McLachlan.  And I love all kinds of silly pop music, and happily sing along with Katy Perry on "Roar" or Sara Bareilles with "Brave."  I enjoy some country music.  I don't like jazz very much.  I love Beethoven and Mozart, but not all the time.  I dislike hip hop and rap.
- I love cottage style.  Not the kitschy kind with gingham and words stenciled on everything and chickens for décor, but an eclectic combination of beach style and English or French cottage style.  I like antique mahogany pieces mixed in with lighter, more contemporary pieces.  I like curving white dishes in interesting shapes.  I like silver trays filled with seashells.  I like books, and bookcases, in every room.  I like a lot of white.  I like art walls filled with pieces that mean something to me, even if the frames or artistic styles don't match.  I like some contemporary art, Emily Carr, northwest Native American art, impressionist art, Group of Seven art, Renaissance art, and pictures (from any era) of women reading.  I don't like abstract art, or art with sharp black lines.
- I like to have coffee for breakfast, giant salads for lunch (with beans and avocado and a mixture of greens and veggies), and a hearty dinner (hold the bread, please, except on special occasions).  I like limited amounts of cheese, because then I feel better.  I like wine on occasion, but not every day.
- I like to hike, to run, to bike, to walk, to explore.  I want to move my body and get out and see things, and given a chance, I'd do that every day.
- On weekends I want to go explore: a museum, a nearby town, a beach, a trail, a concert.  I want to canoe or kayak, take the tour, hit the road, hit the trail.  I don't care about TV.  I don't want to sleep until noon, I want to get out into the world.


I'm willing to stand up for what I like now, never again agreeing to someone else's ways just to keep the peace.  The irony doesn't escape me: I tried to keep the peace all the way until my divorce, and we all know that divorce is about the least peaceful process ever, no matter how well it's done.  (It's soul wrenching.)

With Bryan, for whatever his own reasons, he responded like my father did when we had a disagreement.  He disapproved of me, he felt undervalued, it became a test of my love for him.  By yielding, I was trying to say, "I care about you and I will give you this piece of myself as proof of that love," just as I had with my father.

But love doesn't work like that, and so it didn't work.  I could not fill up the holes inside of Bryan, because that is not something a partner, even a loving partner, can do. 


I hope that by recognizing the patterns, I can escape repeating them.

The world will not end if I say, "Here's what I like, and I feel strongly about it."  The world will not end if I say, "Tonight I'm making my favorite meal for dinner," instead of always making someone else's favorites.  The right partner won't argue with me if I say, "Last weekend we did X (his preference), so this weekend let's do Y (my preference)." 

Maybe I'll even find a partner who even truly shares my preference, who has a passion for things I'm passionate about.  What would it be like to have a partner that said, "I found a hike online that I haven't done before - let's pack our backpacks tonight and get to bed early so that we can be at the trailhead before 8am tomorrow"?  What would it be like to have a partner who said, "I went by the market and picked up some Dungeness crabs for dinner - I thought I'd throw together a salad and I can have dinner on the table at 6 if you like"?  What would it be like to have a partner who said, "I was reading the paper and that play you were interested in is coming to town - it's getting good reviews and I'd like to go too!"

And when we don't agree?  What if he laughed and said, "You go ahead and go with your girlfriends to that show - I'm afraid it's not my style," or "I'm buying (insert sports team) seasons' tickets with my friend but don't worry I don't expect you to come," (to which I would say "thank you" because I'm not into watching sports).  What if he didn't like seafood (oh no!) but knew I did so he said, "I went by the market and got some salmon for you and some chicken for me - let's grill tonight"?

It's not rocket science, but it will require me being honest about what I like and not backing down if he disagrees with my opinion "to keep the peace."  It's harder than it sounds when you've been conditioned since birth to do so.


I like my eggs scrambled, with avocado and salsa on top.  For lunch, not for breakfast.


How do you like your eggs?  Did you, too, forget what mattered to you when you were married?  What have you remembered since your divorce?  What small pleasures have returned to you since divorcing?  What styles have you (re)discovered?  How do you spend your happy leisure time in your new life?

If you forgot how you liked your eggs....why is that?  Did you learn it in your family of origin, or somewhere else?

How do you plan to remember what you value, never again giving it up?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Simple Life

In my unemployment, I have a lot of time on my hands, and I have come to spend a great deal of it pondering what I wish the shape of my life to be.

If I could have any life, what would it look like?  If I could do anything, be anything, live in any way, what shape would that take?  How would I spend my days?  What would my home look like?

I'm shocked that I still don't quite have all those answers, and then I'm amused at my own shock.  These simple questions are the hardest questions of all, and the ones that matter most (aside from the "and who shall I spend my time with?" question).

The simplest things are the hardest.

Examples abound of how the simplest things are the hardest.  Who amongst us does this simple list well?
- Minimum eight hours a night of sleep (and it's well documented why we should do that)
- Daily exercise, 10,000 steps a day or equivalent
- Minimum five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, very limited processed food
- Volunteer regularly in community (also well documented how important this is)
- Turn off the TV to read (also well documented)
- Change the furnace filter, clean the gutters, get the oil changed, review insurance policies annually
....and I'm just getting warmed up.  99.9% of the people I know struggle with just the first three items on that list, and those are the most basic of the basics.  They are, for many people, also the most difficult.  I could list 100 things more, from flossing to brushing the dog to meditating (which some call prayer), all of which I know are good for me and all of which I believe in, but which I struggle to do regularly.

At the end of the day, tired and stressed, it's easy for me to skip flossing, turn on my computer and click on a TV show instead of reading.  This generally makes me go to bed later than I ought to, and it also interrupts my sleep because I spent two hours before bed staring at a bright screen.  The fix is as simple as can be (spend two minutes flossing, open a book and not a laptop, go to bed at bedtime) and yet despite its simplicity I still do the "wrong" thing sometimes. 

I'm not beating myself up over these failures.  I'm observing my life, trying to decide what to keep and what to toss.  I have accomplishments, too: running is top of the list right now, but I do a decent job of eating well, a great job of volunteering in my community.  I am connected to friends and family.  My house is pretty clean and very organized, my bills paid.  I'm not trying to be perfect, just trying to make good choices, and to either change bad habits or stop stressing about them.

What habits are you struggling with?  Which habits, when done well, lead to a good life?  Which habits are you proud of?

A simple life rests on a foundation of simple habits and choices, and I'm trying to parse out what those are.  Flossing is a simple habit that leads to cleaner teeth and long term health, but I know there is a great deal more to life than that.

I'm looking at the bigger picture, as well as the smaller one, trying to build a life that fits me.

Enter: Pinterest.

I can't decide if Pinterest is wonderful or pure evil.  It's filled with all kinds of visions of some kind of perfect life, and if I type in "simple living" or "simple life" or "living simply" or "simple style" then I get a shocking number of beautiful pictures to look at, all purporting to show me what the simplicity I seek looks like.

I hope it comes as no surprise to you that very few of these pictures, when analyzed, represent my type of simplicity.  There are plenty of Martha Stewart-esque visions of simplicity: these involve possibly a million hours of crafting to create a perfect vision, but the tablescapes are cluttered and the visions make me tired just looking at them.  There are also plenty of simple visions that are lovely but utterly impractical and false: they show a single vase of maybe three flowers placed on a wooden table in the middle of a field, and the vision is restful and lovely.....but who put the table there?  And why are there no chairs?  And while the vista is fantastic, what does it tell me about how to live, or how does it fit into anyone's life?  There are no answers there, either.  Some simple visions seem to be whitewashed versions of life: everything is a room is painted or slipcovered in white, and there is a wire basket of eggs placed on a linen cloth (in artful disarray) with two plates stacked on one another, perhaps a white flower on one of those plates.  Conversely, some simple living pictures look like flea market displays, a glorious profusion of color and knick-knacks and textures and styles, with so many items clustered in a room that I start to think that just cleaning/dusting such a room would take a month.  No, no, and no.  How are those visions simplicity?  They may be pretty pictures but they are not a life.

I can not imagine living in those Pinterest pictures.  Pinterest, or magazines, or catalogues, or stores - none of them can show me what it means to live simply.

The surprise is that when I look away from all of the beautiful offerings on Pinterest and wonder what I want my life of simplicity to look like, the answers are becoming startlingly clear.

I want my home to be a place that invites Katherine and I to live.  I want soft linens on my bed and pillows that feel just right.  I want places to sit curled up with a book, and places to sit and watch movies.  I want a table ready for friends and family to gather and eat.  I want it to be warm, and practical....but also with touches of beauty.  I want it to be personal and to reflect who I am as a person, and I want it to contain the items that make day to day living easier.  I want enough, but not too much.

And so it occurs to me, that I've been seeking simplicity on Pinterest....and it was in my house the whole time.

Simplicity is not hours and hours of artfully arranging a photoshoot for Pinterest, as pretty as those results may be.

Simplicity, for me, is curling up on my grandfather's sofa, leaning on a throw pillow that was a gift from a friend, pulling a hand knit (also a gift) throw over my legs, and reading a library book.  Add in a cup of tea in my favorite mug, put Katherine on the other end of the sofa with her own book, and a dog lying on the floor next to us....and my vision is nirvana.

I've been living it all along.

If simplicity is about simple living, then this is it.  Grandpa's sofa - a Victorian button back chesterfield with wood trim and legs - isn't fashionable, but I still think it's pretty.  On my coffee table I have a silver tray (picked up at a thrift shop years ago) that is piled up with seashells that I've found on various beach trips: moon snails and muscles and periwinkles and sand dollars that caught my eye and are more precious to me than anything available off a shelf.  Next to one of the chairs there is a basket picked up a few years ago at the farmer's market, originally made in Ghana by a woman's talented fingers, and it's filled with throw blankets.  There is a piano inherited from my grandmother, and a lawyer's glass front bookcase from my grandfather that is filled with poetry and books on spirituality and a handful of hiking books (because those hiking books sometimes feel more spiritual to me than the holy books).  My living and dining rooms are connected, and hundreds of meals have been had in that dining room, ranging from Katherine's big birthday parties with delivery pizza on paper plates, to extended family dinners at Christmas with a full prime rib dinner served on wedding china.  Sometimes, the table has another family or two, our friends, and the wine flows freely and my entrée is complimented by someone else's salad and someone else's dessert and then somebody's kid knocks over a wine glass and there's a giant mess and people picking up broken glass and asking for a whisk pan and rags and someone else scraping a plate of ruined food into the trash and grabbing another plate to start fresh.  The wine glasses are replaceable, the bin of rags is under the kitchen sink, and there's always too much food, and it's okay.  It's my version of beautifully simple.

There are family pictures on the walls, inexpensive pieces of art picked up here and there.  The whole place is cluttered with candles (one form of clutter that I truly love; the other is books), which I light frequently.  The candles are a simple joy - they come from Target or Ikea because I can't afford the lovely pure soy and beeswax ones I want, but merely watching a flame flicker in low light rests my mind and so I light candles daily.

In the morning, when my alarm goes off in the dark when the rest of the world is still sleeping, it is both the most difficult thing and the simplest to get up and go for a run.  It is simple to prepare Katherine a lunch with a fruit and a veggie (often carrot sticks) alongside her favorite entrée (tortellini); when I'm working it's simple to prepare myself a lunch, too, but mine has a big green salad with garbanzo beans in it.  It's a simple pleasure to pull out the worn bamboo cutting board and the good knife to chop things rhythmically between sips of coffee in the morning as NPR plays, to use the same lunch bags and to tuck cloth napkins in them along with the food (packaged into little metal containers that appear to last for many, many years).

I'm working at creating more of these simple rituals and habits, because I find that when I adopt them, their beautiful simplicity speaks to me.  Sure, it'd be nice to be able to afford to go out to lunch every day, but it would take too much time and make me fat and I'd feel sluggish all afternoon from the restaurant food.

I think that living simply is rooted in living, and not in acquiring.  If you'd like a more fashionable life, it wouldn't be hard to find one more fashionable than mine - I know plenty of people with prettier things.  But it is at the heart of simplicity to take comfort in what one already has, rather than heading out to seek more, more, more.

Sometimes I need something new: the glasses break and need replacing, the vacuum refuses to suck up the pet hair, the shoes are scuffed beyond polishing.  I am at a phase in my life, however, where I don't lack for many necessities:  under my bed is a storage bin filled with queen sized sheets, in the closet there is a stack of many extra blankets, and if the whole neighborhood came over for dinner we could probably find enough glasses, plates, and flatwear to host them.  The table expands to seat many, but if it's not enough, we can pull up a folding table from the basement and cover it in a pretty cloth and find enough seating to go around.  The kitchen is filled with gadgets and pans of every size, and if you're making a cake there are different sizes and shapes of cake pans just waiting for you, and when it's done you have a choice of cake plates to put it on.  (The fancy crystal one, the white porcelain one, or the plastic cake-case for taking it somewhere?) 

So, my simple life is perhaps about getting rid of some excess, not about changing it out for something more stylish or popular.

My simple life is about creating space in my life to live.

Time to go to the library to browse.
Time to make home made popcorn and watch a movie with it.
Time to invite friends for dinner, and to make something tasty and then sit down to enjoy it together.
Time to put our things in a backpack and head to the woods for a hike.
Time to putter in the garden, coaxing strawberries and tomatoes to grow.
Time to take our bikes out of the garage and use them.
Time to play a board game, to do a cartwheel in the back yard, to throw a BBQ, to walk to the beach to look for seashells.
Time to do the science fair project without feeling rushed.
Time to write a note to a friend, put a stamp on it, and mail it.
Time to see the exhibit, visit the street fair, go look for whales, try out the new restaurant.
Time to volunteer.
Time to help a friend.
Time to dream, and to plan.
Time to go to concerts.

"Getting and spending we lay waste our powers" (Wordsworth) and I know I have sometimes been caught up in my own desires to get and spend.  (Right now, if someone would send me some beautiful black Frye boots, I can't tell you how much I'd appreciate them.  Size 8, please.)  But the life I dream of is not about stuff, it's about living.

I want time to love, time to play, time to dream.  I want time to make a difference in my community and in the world at large.  I want time to relish every second of Katherine's childhood, knowing as I do that it is slipping through my fingers.  I want time to be creative.  I want time to fall in love, and to live in that love.  I want time for friends.  I want time for nature. I want time to explore the world, near and far.  I want time to move my body.

My home will never be featured in a magazine, but it is comfortable and so often filled with people in addition to Katherine and I that I know it has something special to draw those beautiful people in.  I will never be featured in Vogue, but I have enough style to draw an eye or two or to feel good about myself. I have enough.

But I am much closer to my dreams than I thought.  Concert tickets ready to go, a calendar full of plans (including a movie night in, just Katherine and I).  Volunteerism, writing projects, a stack of cards at the ready to send to friends.  I make a lot of people birthday cakes (and last weekend's lemon and strawberry cake was particularly yummy) to show my love to them.  This year I'll have to travel near, not far, but I'll take time with my daughter to have fun in the local sun.

I'll keep working on flossing, on creating good habits that help me in my goals, on keeping the TV off.

Perhaps the hardest thing of all is to remember that the beautiful life I seek has simply been sitting here all along, in all of its imperfect glory.  Look past the weeds in the garden, the dog hair on the floor, the unfolded basket of laundry next to the bed...and maybe it's perfect after all.

I will find the right job.  I will find my ain true love.

But I'm working on recognizing what I already have, too.

What in your life is right in front of you, simple and perfectly beautiful?
What simple habits are you cultivating?
What does your dream life look like?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014



"Hope" is the thing with feathers

By Emily Dickinson 1830–1886
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Spring is in the air, and in my part of the country the danger of snow is long past, and my rhododendrons have fat buds on them, and the dogwoods in the corners of my yard have tiny buds on them, and the hydrangea has a few small leaves and - best of all - the lilac beside my front porch is tipped in green on every branch, with visible buds.  The cherry blossoms are everywhere now, and I've had a vase of daffodils (at $1.19 for ten, even I could afford them!) in the kitchen for the last week.
I am hopeful that spring is here for me, too.  My energy is renewed, and I feel that little bird within me singing its song again.  I swear it went quiet for the winter and I feared it had died, but perhaps it was only sleeping, waiting for the time to be right.
I have multiple interesting prospects for jobs once again, three different jobs that I'd be proud to claim, doing work that is meaningful to me for organizations that I deeply respect.  They'd all be challenging in their own ways, but I'm up for the challenge.  Miraculously, two of them are really close to home with minimal commutes, and the third is just an average commute away.  All three pay "enough" - less than I first hoped for, but enough, I think, to move on to the next phase of my life.  It'll be tight and I don't know when I can go to Paris, even with frequent flier miles, but I think I'd be okay.

If I get the job.
Yesterday, an executive director, at our second coffee meeting (the first was in the fall) looked me in the eye and told me that when we first met he was upset that he couldn't afford me (he's at a small organization), but that with my new, reduced expectation (humble pie) he'd "offer the job on the spot" if he could.  (He needs to post it, there is a board of directors to account to, so that did not happen.  And I'm an expert at the "runner up" position, so I'm not counting my chickens yet.)  But the little bird within me trilled such a glorious spring song when I heard his words, and the song was a sound I'd nearly forgotten.
Hope.  Beautiful, beautiful hope.  If she wasn't dead, she was certainly ill, hanging on by a thread, and I welcome her back into my life.
I am nesting heavily (again with the bird metaphor - sorry!) and taking care of my home.  I have no money for projects, but I've boxed up old books and offered them for trade at the local bookstore, I got rid of hundreds of CDs (I may have adored those 90s bands in the 90s but I can barely remember most of them now!).  I cleaned my attic and organized it and got rid of heaps of things in the process - it's so big and empty-ish (it's still got camping equipment and holiday decorations and the like) that Katherine can go up there to do gymnastics, and does so gleefully.  I went into the yard for the first time in months, three days in a row, and worked until I ached.  I trimmed mercilessly, I put primroses and pansies into the empty pots, I started the process of weeding which will take weeks but gets me started.  I mowed the lawn on a rare sunny day, I replaced lightbulbs in the string of lights, I refilled the little plug-in fountain in the corner of the yard that is so small to be barely noticeable except its pretty trickling sound.
I think I'm getting ready for a new life.
I've started making lists of projects, dreams, and plans....with a big notebook of lists to go with those dreams and plans to take steps to make them happen.
And I'm running.  Running, running, running, more than ever before.  On Sunday I ran more than 16 miles in a miserable, drizzly rain that soaked me to the skin and gave me an awful chill, even though I was sweating like a lumberjack as I huffed and puffed.  But proud?  Oh, I'm proud of that.  I started running just a year ago November, 15 pounds overweight and unable to run a mile without feeling like it was going to kill me.  My marathon is less than two months away, and I'm on track for it (as long as this ache I feel in my knees isn't a sign of something ominous).  That I can look people in the eye and say "I'm running a marathon in May" fills my soul with something akin to hope: I am more of an athlete than I ever knew, and proud of my accomplishments.  My SLOW runs are at nine minutes per mile, and those used to be my fast miles.  I can run for ten miles at an 8:30 pace, and I've completed multiple training runs of a half marathon distance at a sub 4:00:00 pace (and it was only October when I wasn't sure if I could do that).
I'm filled with hope.  Hope that I can get back the life I'm trying to create, hope that I can remember that I never really lost it.  Though I have had some very, very black days in the face of this unemployment (I keep saying it, and I'll keep saying it: cancer, divorce, AND unemployment is TOO MUCH!) I do try to remember that really the only thing wrong in my life is that I don't have a job (and the financial burden that implies).
Katherine is hormonal as eleven year old girls can be, and it drives me nuts when she rolls her eyes, but then suddenly she'll crawl into my bed to talk to me, or she'll say "Remember the time we...." or she'll tell me an idea she had, or she'll come up with a plan for something for us to do, and all is right with my world.  She's doing well-ish in school (forgetfulness aside....she does her homework but doesn't turn it in?!), she's doing great in gymnastics, and we're on track for a giant science fair project due in a couple of weeks.  She has great friends, and keeps making more at her "new" school.
And Bryan and I?  We're okay, too.  He has continued to pay child support despite his own difficulties, and I respect him for it.  I don't understand him, I don't always agree with him, and I feel sorry for him a lot...but we're okay.  He even housesat for me to take care of the pets recently when I went out of town, and it didn't irk me to have him in the house.  I left a bottle of wine for him to say thank you, and he thanked me for it.
So, here I am, with more hope than before, and for now, that is enough.  I have opportunities, and people helping me, and I have not given up.
It is enough to make me grateful.  And I hope that soon I will have more to report....and then we will celebrate!