Saturday, September 13, 2014

Making My Life

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to create the best possible life for myself: how to take my gifts and my challenges, and to form them into something meaningful and beautiful so that many, many, many years from now I will smile from my deathbed, content with my choices and proud of my legacy.

It better be many, many, many years from now because I feel like I'm just barely getting started!  Whatever my accomplishments, they are small in the face of what I am trying to do with my life.  I feel like I'm on the right path, but that I have a long, long way to go before I accomplish what I hope to do.

I used to think that such achievements were gifts of the universe: that a gift of brilliance caused career success, that the gift of thoughtfulness created good parenting, that the gift of fate found the right partner.  Thankfully, I no longer see it in such a way.  I still believe that the universe hands out gifts, but more and more I see the role that I play in my own life, and how brilliance, thoughtfulness, and luck have less to do with success than I first believed.

I think it's all in the small moments: those Zen masters were on to something.  I think that my future success is less about my inherent talents, and more about what I do with my talents.  I believe that we've all got amazing potential....and that it's really, really easy to let that potential slip away.

The gifts of the universe matter, and I do not dismiss that idea.  I was born into a middle class family in a safe country.  I have never experienced war or famine.  I have never lived in a dictatorship.  I have never been in danger of being sold into slavery (now known as human trafficking, but as far as I can tell it's the same thing).  I've always had access to safe, comfortable housing, and I've always had access to medical care.  I have never spent a day without food.  My early education was an expectation (free K-12).

I had other gifts, too.  My parents believed in education and promoted that idea with me.  I was given a library card, and we used it and used it and used it.  As a child, we did family hikes and bike rides, and we had a boat and we spent lots of time out in the islands enjoying nature.  I was told that I was capable of doing anything (this was mixed with other far less positive messages, but still, this message was there).  I was taught good manners, so that I might feel comfortable in any society.

These are gifts I don't take for granted.  Without these foundations, I have no idea who I might be, but I'm pretty sure that if my soul was placed in a child living in a garbage dump slum in Mumbai, my potential would be greatly reduced.  I am grateful for my fortune, and I know that it was given to me, not earned in any way.

What I do with it, though, that's up to me.

I've met plenty of brilliant people who are deeply unhappy because their colleagues loathe them and so their careers don't go in the right direction, and so that brilliance gets lost.  I've met parents who are thoughtful and kind and want only the best for their children, but who get so stuck in trying to be thoughtful that they are frozen in indecision and become overly permissive and their kids run amuck.  I've met those who have had great luck: my parents are a good example, because they met as teenagers, fell in love, and have been together and in love ever since....but they also have a deeply dysfunctional relationship that is often difficult to be around because despite that love, their interactions are frequently cringeworthy (and reminiscent of Edith and Archie Bunker), and they complain about each other constantly, and bickering is part of the background noise when they're together, despite all of that love, granted at such a young age.

The gifts we receive matter.  I believe that.  I have probably received more than my fair share of gifts, and I am grateful for them.

But the older I get, the more I believe that what makes people truly special is how they USE their gifts, applying them in their everyday life, to create a life that is satisfying, rich (not in the monetary sense), joyful, and peaceful.

That's the life I'm aiming for.

Right now, there are things in my life that are going well, and there are things in my life that aren't going so well.  Going well: my relationship with my daughter (hurrah!), my career (hurrah!), my friendships (hurrah!).  My house is pretty clean.  I eat pretty healthy food, frugally and home prepared.  My bills are paid on time.  That's pretty good.

There are also some things that aren't so perfect.  I went to the doctor this week for my annual labs, and was informed that I've gained 11 pounds since my last visit.  I am pretty darned sure that means that I've gained 11 pounds since APRIL because I got my running injury and started my new job at the same time, and exercise went down and donut consumption went up.  I knew that my pants didn't fit properly, that I felt squishy, that I needed to get back to good habits, but that 11 pounds is pretty tangible as a number on a chart, and tells me I'm headed the wrong direction.  Oops.  My running injury happened on an 18 mile run; now I am sure I could not run 5.

My finances aren't so perfect.  My bills are paid on time, but I live far too close to the edge, with little savings to buffer me: my finances depend upon everything going very well with few surprises, and we all know that isn't reality.  I probably can't afford my house, despite what the bank says, but I can't afford to sell it either, as not only does it represent security and community, but it also represents my biggest investment and the one financial holding that I have that is doing well.  My retirement fund is miniscule, Tessa's college fund won't get her through a full year, and I can't go skiing or get on an airplane or attend plays and concerts with regularity.  I've held off on going to the dentist because I don't want to deal with co-pays.  This is not okay with me.  I've got some credit card debt, acquired during unemployment, that is going to take me more than a year to pay off before I can get ahead (putting that money into savings instead of paying off debt).

And there are all these big goals I have: to be the best development director, and to advance my career by moving to a larger organization; to spend my weekends hiking and camping and skiing and traveling; to write the essays that refuse to leave me alone and the book that I've drafted a couple chapters for; to find true love and partnership and to not only live in that relationship for myself but also model it for my daughter.  Oh, and I'd like to cure cancer.  I can do that in my volunteer time and in my career, working with cancer agencies.  (I say it tongue in cheek, but not really.  I want to see cancer end before it gets to Tessa, and I spend a fair amount of time with a volunteer organization that helps cancer patients already, and I dream of working for a big cancer research facility in their fundraising (development) department.)

Lots of things get between me and my big goals.  The number one thing is fatigue.  I don't know about you, dear reader, but I am freakin' exhausted.  The usual nine to five routine (which is really eight to six many days, or more), making breakfast and packing lunches in the morning, and then coming home to make dinner and get to gymnastics on time and check homework and feed the pets and run the laundry, well, just those basics are tiring.  I wake up tired, and I come home tired, and I'm tired in between.  By the time 8pm rolls around and I am still doing these bits of life's work, all I want to do is curl up in bed with Netflix on my laptop and zone out.  I am so tired that I can't read, don't want to call a friend, don't want to play a board game with Tessa or kitchen dance or bake or walk the dog or pop down to the ocean to see the moonlight reflecting on the waves or to write in my journal or to send a letter to a friend or anything else....I want to tune out.

And that is not okay with me, because "tuned out" is not what I'm going to be excited about on my death bed, sometime after 2069.  (I think I'd like to live to 2075, actually.)

I'm walking the line between being gentle with myself - being a single working mom isn't easy, and all those years of cancer treatment created a fatigue that is well documented and far from imaginary - and pushing myself to my personal limit, because if I don't, I won't get the life I dream of.

I've started meeting a friend at 5:15am a couple days of week to exercise.  I've sworn off the donuts offered to volunteers at a station outside my office.  I've put a moratorium on TV/Netflix on the weekdays.  I'm trying to squeeze extra dollars into retirement, college, and debt so that I can get ahead - which means turning down the glass of wine, the new shoes, and more.

It's the little moments that all add up.  Choosing to get out of debt means making four hundred small choices at the grocery store, carpooling instead of driving alone, borrowing the equipment instead of buying it, going to the library instead of the bookstore, inviting the friend over here instead of going out, making my winter coat last one more season.  It means that my two year old cell phone is good enough.  It's not a decision "I don't want to have any debt, because debt gets in the way of me living my dreams," it's "I will not buy coffee on the way to work," and "I'll eat this because it's on sale, even though I kind of wanted that" and a thousand other small choices.

I'm trying to create the pattern of my days to set myself for all of these good habits that will get me where I want to go.  I feel most peaceful in an organized space, and I learned that about myself years ago, so I know that before I go to work the breakfast dishes need to be in the dishwasher, the counters wiped down, or when I get home from work I'll face the kitchen with dread and be tempted to order take out.  I know that when it's the end of the day and I face my bed it looks like a beautiful invitation with it's smooth covers and plumped up pillows, and so it's worth the small task of making it each morning.  I know that I'm much more likely to get the birthday card out or the note of encouragement for a friend if I have a stack of cards, a jar of pens, and stamps sitting in the secretary waiting for me to use them.  I grew up in a household where we routinely ran out of toilet paper, dish soap, light bulbs, and batteries because of disorganization, and so I have created a household where those things are waiting for me when I need them (and where I don't need to run an errand on a Wednesday night at 9pm to get some necessity).  I have my grocery shopping pretty figured out - every Sunday afternoon or evening - and my meal planning routine, so we eat pretty well and it's not inconvenient, but this takes major planning: I sit down with the calendar of events (gymnastics this day, board meeting this day, this day Katherine will be with her dad, we'll need to eat leftovers here, but I have some time to cook here....and I piece it all together, find recipes to make food that's in season so tastier and cheaper, and write it all on a little whiteboard in my kitchen every week).

But I have a long way to go.

I don't make time to write, and I want to.
I have fallen out of the exercise habit, which includes laying out running clothes the night before, including headlamp and reflective bands, dog leash and pepper spray, and setting the alarm for 4:45am.
I want to fall in love, but I don't put myself in a position to meet the love of my life.
I have a (relatively new) bad TV/Netflix in the evening habit.
I am so so so very tempted by clothing, shoes, and purses, as well as accessories galore.  I spent so many years feeling frumpy and awful that I've discovered my inner fashionista, and now I want to explore that....but must do so on a budget.  (Yes, I know to do consignment and to shop wisely etc, but it still has a cost.)

It's the day to day routines.  Setting the alarm, putting it on the calendar, following the routines and the rituals.  Finding a balance between work/career, volunteering for the causes dearest to me, being an engaged mother, caring for the house, taking care of my body, feeding Katherine and I, managing my finances, being part of community (family and friends), writing, spending time in nature, sleeping, down time, travel, adventure, reading, planning for the future, living in the moment.

If you could please send me a schedule of all of this, it'd be helpful, because I never did figure out how to get all the sides of a Rubik's Cube, and this is at least that complicated.

We all do this stuff, every single day, either by the choices we make consciously or by ignoring it, which is a choice of it's own. (I have the choice not to pay my bills.  This will lead, I believe, to debt collectors and sleepless nights for even though it's a "do nothing" event, it's a form of management with a series of consequences, and not a path I plan to take.  Same is true of exercise, parenting, career, etc.)

I deeply believe that the true brilliance comes from those who prioritize what is important to them and lives those values.  That is the kind of brilliance I want in my life, and that is what I'm working on.  I'll let you know, around 2075, if I was successful!


How do you manage your day to day life to make sure that you live your values and create the life you dream of?  How do you choose what is most important?  How do you create routines and rituals around that life, so that you accomplish your goals without running yourself into the ground with exhaustion?  How do you find a way to be gentle with yourself on this path, while still striving?

Dear readers, I'd love to hear from you about this.  I don't think we spend nearly enough time talking about it, and I think the answers hold The Key to It All.  Little steps that add up to a big journey...and I'd love to hear how you walk your journey. 


And now, this Saturday morning, I'm going to put on my running shoes, squeeze into my too-tight-at-the-moment running shorts, and try to put a few miles in.  It won't be fast and it won't be far, but it's something.  I might not be able to figure out how to make my whole life work out, but surely I can get rid of those new 11 pounds.

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