Thursday, March 19, 2015

Embracing Joy

I'm not sure I can put a finger on it exactly, or list all the reasons why, but I've been feeling a deep sense of joy recently (this feeling may or may not have coincided with the advent of my baby finally sleeping 12-13 hours through the night). Life certainly isn't perfect, things are still busy and stressful and there are many days where normal life frustrations get me down (remind me to tell you about the day I yelled at my son so intensely he peed his pants...)

But overall, life is so, so good right now.

Which scares me.

You see, when things seem to be going well for me, my mind inevitably reacts with questions: Why are things so good right now? Is it because something terrible is about to happen? Nobody is allowed too much happiness in life, I bet something horrible is going to happen soon. I be there's going to be a car accident. Someone's going to die. Someone's going to get sick. What's the worst possible thing that could happen to me right now? How can I be prepared?

You get the idea.

I never really used to think much of this tendency of mine to dwell on negative future possibilities until I read Dr. BrenĂ© Brown's Daring Greatly last summer. If you haven't read this book yet, you probably should. I even recommend buying it. It's one that needs to be revisited over and over again.

Brown is a researcher in social science, and she studies fear, shame, and vulnerability. One of her arguments is that in order to avoid shame and pain, people put on different forms of mental armor or shields to protect themselves, things like numbing, perfectionism, cynicism, etc.

One mental shield she called "Foreboding Joy". People who use this shield are incapable of enjoying the happiness of the moment. Instead, they are constantly worried about the possible bad things that could potentially happen. In this way, they refuse to acknowledge the joy that is in front of them, waiting for them if they would just feel it.

It was a strange experience for me, to read about this part of myself in her book, and realize for the first time what a disservice I was doing to myself by forever dwelling on these negative possibilities and mentally trying to prepare myself for the worst.

It meant I was refusing to simply feel the joy.

It's been surprisingly hard to turn that side of my brain off. There's a part of me that feels it's very productive for me to to imagine these possible future scenarios and try to prepare for them. But I realized there's a deeper issue going on. When I have these negative worry thoughts, it's not just because I'm trying to be prepared, it's because there is some part of me that honestly believes I don't deserve this moment of joy.

There is so much pain in this world. So many people have hard struggles. I have friends and family so close to me going through such terribly hard things, and I wonder, what have I ever done to deserve happiness? What did I ever do to get such a beautiful life?

I feel guilty that my life is so happy.

And I also feel like it won't last, because I don't deserve a happy life, and so it's only a matter of time before that super horrible thing happens.

But what Brown's book has also helped me see is that I am doing no one any favors by dwelling in this negative space. Decreasing how much I enjoy my blessed life doesn't help anyone else who is suffering. It only unnecessarily adds misery to the world.

So I am working on it. I'm trying so very hard to just let the joy flow through me right now. To just swim in the cuddles of my baby, and laugh with my three-year-old at tickle time, and soak in the knowledge from my grad school classes, and love my husband more, and enjoy one more slice of chocolate pie because I'm nursing, and just let it swirl around and fill me up. The joy is right there, all around me.

This is a season of joy. Seasons of pain and sorrow may be in my future, but that doesn't change that this is a season of joy. I don't need to feel guilty about it, and I don't need to reject it.

I just need to embrace it.

Monday, March 16, 2015

5 Life Lessons From My De-Cluttering Binge

It was about the end of January that I cane to confront the hard truth.

Over the past year or so, I had many excuses to explain away the clutter: I was pregnant, I had a new baby, I was sick, our tiny apartment was too small for a four-person growing family, if we lived in a house it would all be better. . .

But I finally confronted the truth. All excuses aside, we were just lazy, disorganized, messy people.

The beds were never made, there were always dirty dishes spread over all the counters, books and clothes and toys and mail and whatever random crap just piled up everywhere. I about died of shame any time anyone popped over for a surprise visit.

It was depressing.

So when I came across Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, at my local library, I grabbed it up eagerly. I knew we needed help, and something had to change.

Okay, let's start with the caveats. Marie Kondo is Japanese. All of her clients are Japanese, and it is obvious that all of her experience with organizing and decluttering is heavily influenced by her culture (sometimes I had images of neon flashing Hello Kittys or big-bellied Buddhas speaking to their underwear coming through her advice). Not everything she says or does translates perfectly to an American home. She never addresses how to handle holiday decorations, her aesthetic is clearly much more spare and modern than most Americans are comfortable with (unless you really dig that minimalist, modern look, which is cool if you do, but I find it depressing), and she does NOT have kids. Or a husband, as far as I can tell.

And yeah, if I didn't have a husband and kids, I'd like to think my little apartment would be sparkling clean all the time.

BUT, caveats aside, I literally found this book to be LIFE CHANGING! I know, it sounds extreme. Let me see if I can explain.

Kondo has developed and perfected a method (the "KonMarie" method) for organizing and tidying that she guarantees, if followed, will lead to life-long organization. She claims that she has a 100% success rate, and that none of her clients have ever relapsed. You can't argue with numbers like that, so I was more than game to try out her method.

She has five categories of things to declutter and organize:

1.) Clothes
2.) Books
3.) Papers (Files, etc.)
4.) All Other Objects
5.) Sentimental Things

To follow her method completely, you must tackle each of these categories in order (the order is very important to her), and proceed to throw out or keep items based on the criteria of whether or not it brings you joy. Then you organize only the possessions that bring you joy in a logical way where everything has a place. She goes into much more detail in the book with suggestions and tips I don't have space to discuss here, some of which I found super helpful, and some of which I'm going to ignore completely (she had some super extreme and ridiculous suggestions, I just looked past those).

As soon as I finished the book, I jumped into my own decluttering project, sticking as close to her method as I found practical. So far I've worked my way through my clothes and books (the story of my books deserves it's own post), and I'm working through my papers, but this is a HUGE project. It is going to take months to finish, but this process has already been so transformative for me. I've had so many epiphanies, finally internalized lessons I've heard all my life but never taken to heart, and learned things about myself as well. Really, I am not over exaggerating when I say the process of organizing my home has been life-changing.

Here are a few of the epiphanies I've had through this experience:

A House of Order
When I think about my home, this home that I am creating, and the ideal home I want to have, certain words come to mind. PEACE is a big one. JOY is another one. I want a home that is peaceful, calm, filled with joy and light and happy memories. And when I imagine what this home looks like, clutter is not a part of it. This home isn't obsessively clean, or stark and bare (no home with children should be), but it is a home where things have a place, and they are generally kept in place. I want a house of order, and this process has helped me focus that vision and bring it closer to reality.

"Joy" as a Material Philosophy
I've been searching for a philosophy about how to relate to material possessions. Our consumer culture focuses very much on "More! More! More!" and sometimes it's hard not to feel that pull. However I think we all recognize that's not a healthy way to think about things. The philosophy in my home growing up was "Necessity vs. Want," and while I think this is a much healthier view of things, I've talked before about how sometimes there is a fuzzy line between needs and wants, and this wasn't providing clear guidance for me. I've dabbled in the Zero Waste Home philosophy (way too stressful for me) and other minimalist philosophies, but ultimately, none of these philosophies really spoke to me.

But when Kondo started talking about only keeping things that bring you joy, that totally clicked with me. Suddenly, it doesn't have to be about whether I need it or only want it, it doesn't have to be about function, or hoarding, or not being wasteful, or other things that tended to add stress to my life. Instead, it gets to be about joy! This idea has been super profound for me. Not only is it allowing me to let go of A LOT of things we already have (we've hung on to so many ugly, low quality, broken, or underused things because it felt wasteful to throw them out), it's changing the way I bring things in. Now when I shop, instead of asking questions about value and discount and coupons and sales that leave my head spinning, I think about whether it brings me joy. When it has to actually bring you joy, you buy a lot less stuff.


Outer Order Brings Inner Calm
Possessions carry a lot of weight. Not just physically, but mentally. I really felt this the last time we packed up our lives and moved across the country (the event that started me thinking about a minimalist philosophy), but I can't believe all the stuff I still felt was necessary to hang on to (like that box of all my lesson plans from when I taught school years ago. I have them all on my computer, why have I been lugging around the physical paper? Why?) It wasn't until I started throwing things away that I realized how great it felt mentally to let that weight go. Life feels lighter, physically and mentally. I feel more in control. I feel calmer and more at peace.

Order Creates Energy
One of the things that worries me the most is the effort it takes to keep things tidy and organized. Laziness has always been the cause I've attributed to all the clutter. I'm just too lazy to clean up and put things away. It takes effort.

But what I've noticed from this experience is that when I REALLY focus on the joy of my possessions and finding the perfect way to organize them, it creates the energy and motivation in me to keep it up. Kondo talks about how no one who follows her method ever relapses, and I think it's because of this energy that is created by the order. You feel so good when everything is in the right place, when you only have things you love, that you don't want to lose that good feeling by not taking the extra five seconds to fold your pants and put them away. At least that's the way it's been working for me.

Everyone Needs a Sapce
At the end of her book, Kondo talks about how everyone needs a space, a place for their things that are their own. Considering that in my entire life I've NEVER had my own room, this idea really struck a chord with me. It also helped me gain perspective on how to deal with the tidyness habits of those I live with. As much as I like to think that this little home is my domain and I have control over everything in it and can force tidyness on everyone, that is simply not true. Kondo says (after making this mistake herself) that you should never throw out or reorganize the possessions of any other person. I'm trying to respect this line with my husband, and leave his possessions and his space to himself. However, I'm finding that my new tidyness obsession is contagious; my husband has asked for my help cleaning out his clothes too and got really excited over the idea of getting bookshelves for his game collection. I'm even trying to respect this line with my three-year-old, while at the same time teaching him how to care for his possessions and keep them tidy. It's an experiment right now, this realm of kids and clutter, one I'm still working through, but I'll write it about it in more depth some day.

This process of decluttering and reorganizing my life has been a profound experience for me. Even though I understand how this book might not be for everyone (you really have to read past the cultural quirks) I highly recommend a good decluttering binge. Look for more posts as I continue to work on this process over the next few months. I'm hoping there are even more lessons to be learned.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Books I Read in February

After pulling an un-intentional almost all-nighter, I turned in my less-than-stellar ten page midterm essay yesterday, and bam! I'm on spring break! One whole week of no class!

I wish I could tell you that I'm doing something super fun, like camping and surfing in Costa Rica where my younger sister is for her spring break. But alas, I'm an old married mother of two, and must be more responsible than that. So, we're keeping the nanny for her regular schedule and I'll be hitting the library hard next week. Super exciting.

But hopefully I'll have a moment or two to pop back over here with a few thoughts, because I'm bursting with books and things and ideas that I want to talk about.

Despite the fact that the past five or so weeks have hit pretty hard (major project for my church calling, grad school deciding to be super intense, potty-training. . .), February managed to be a pretty awesome reading month for me. Relatively speaking.

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

I read this one for my virtual book club, and I must say I enjoyed it immensely. Julia's life is completely fascinating, and while I don't think I ever would've been friends with her in real life (she's a bit intense), I loved reading about her passion for food. I love food too. In fact many of the blog post ideas I have floating around in my head are about food. I love books, so I write about books. I love food (especially now that I'm not pregnant), so I'm feeling an itch to write about food. . .

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Read this one for class. Look, I can freely admit that Hemingway had style. The man knew how to turn a phrase beautifully. But ugh. Beyond that I really don't care for him. Maybe I'm too much of a feminist? If you like Hemingway, that's fine, but if you haven't read him, my advice is don't waste your time.

I'd read about this book in a few places recently, so when I saw it at my library early in February I decided to check it out. Honestly, I thought the title was a bit over-dramatic at first, but YOU GUYS! IT'S NOT A LIE! THIS BOOK HAS COMPLETELY CHANGED MY LIFE! Sorry for all the caps and exclamation points, but you should hear me talk about this book in real life. I've become a total disciple, and I tell everyone I meet about this book and how it will change their lives too. Obviously, this book is going to get it's own, full-length post someday real soon (and maybe even a series of posts). Do I sound a little crazy? Maybe. But I'm not kidding when I say reading this book was life-changing.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

You can't take a course on the Modern American Novel and not read The Great Gatsby. I've written before about my opinion of this book, and I was hoping that this time around I'd be able to appreciate it a little bit more, see why everyone else seems to think this is the best book ever. But nope. I still find it just as depressing, just as soul-sucking, and just as demoralizing as ever. Seriously, not a single likable character. Like Hemingway, I'll give Fitzgerald his due as an artist. The man knows how to write. But I'm sorry, I just don't love story.

You know, with Valentine's Day being in February and all, I decided it was a good month to work on improving my marriage. If you haven't heard of Dr. Gottman before, he's basically the country's leading academic expert on relationships. I'd only read a few of his shorter articles before, but this book had been on my to-read list for a while, so when I found it available for audio book download, I jumped on it. So, I don't actually recommend this one as an audio book (there are a lot of check lists and quizzes that would have been far easier to process if I had seen them on paper instead of listening to them meticulously read aloud), but I do completely recommend this book for anyone in a relationship. This stuff is just absolutely brilliant. According to his assessment quizzes, my marriage is doing quite well, but there was still tons of stuff I took away to think about and work on. I actually made a list of questions and topics from this book to talk about with my husband for our Valentine's date, and we had such a great discussion that it turned into one of our best dates ever. Or at least in a very long time. Now I really want to read his book on raising emotionally intelligent children.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Ah, finally, a book for my class that I could really enjoy! Despite the fact that she is critical and pessimistic along with the rest of her Modern compatriots, Wharton still has hints of hope that totally redeem her. And this book is just beautiful. Sure, the ending isn't all roses and flowers, but nobody wants that from their high-brow literature anyway (except for maybe me). Honestly, I think Wharton might be the best female author this country has ever produced (maybe even the best author period, but it's been a while since I've read any Henry James, and I remember liking him quite a bit too). Obviously, this is the book I chose to write my paper on, and even if my paper wasn't that good, the book still is.

Wow, six books in one short month. That's the most I've done in a while (yay for audio books and a long commute!). March isn't likely to be as good. (I've stopped finishing the books for my novels class. This always happens about mid-semester. Once they start assigning papers, I kind of stop doing the assigned reading. It's all about survival and priorities in grad school.)