Dog Paddling in the Ocean...

September 28, 2012

That’s what I feel like I’m doing. Anyone else? Is it just me, or does life seem unaccountably, almost unbearably busy lately? I feel frantic! I have no down time between activities. I’m distracted—more so than normal. I shudder to think what the holidays will be like when I feel like this in September.

Since reading World Enough and Time, I’ve become more aware of time and my use of it, even going so far as to keep a time log a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it’s because I’m more aware that it seems like life has sped up?

From keeping the time log, I learned that I multi-task A LOT, and I do a lot of small tasks that add up to big chunks of time. I had to use a pen with an extra fine tip in order to fit all I did into the half hour boxes of the time log! Even if I was working out on the elliptical machine, I was also reading a magazine. If we had the TV on, I was cooking or cleaning the kitchen, balancing the checkbook or folding laundry. The only time I had large stretches of time doing one thing was when I went to the barn, and that’s because I didn’t record each individual thing I did while I was there.

No wonder I’m so tired by the end of the day. I really do cram a lot of little tasks into my days, often doing them one right after another. Since I can’t really point to any major accomplishment, except maybe keeping our lives running, I never get a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment from what I do. So many things I do “disappear”—they must be done again, and again (and again). They’re not even noticed by anyone unless I stop doing them.

Is this a problem? Maybe. If I’m running around filling my days with the little details, I never have to face my fears—the fear that I won’t have anything to say when I sit in front of a blank page, or the fear that if I stopped “doing,” my worth as a human being would plummet. I want to be a contributor in life, not just a taker, but the way in which I’m going about it now is not sustainable.

I don’t want to live like this anymore. I’m stepping back and calling a halt, starting with a day off tomorrow. I’m going to look at my current schedule and activities and ask:

*Does this need doing?
*Do I need to do it?
*Can it be done less frequently?
*Can someone help me with this so it will go quicker?

It’s a start. Maybe then I’ll be able to get my head above water.

Do you have any tips on controlling your schedule and commitments you can share?


How to Change the World

September 26, 2012

“Am I going to change the world, or am I going to change me? Or maybe change the world a little bit, just by changing me?”
—Sarah (“Sadie”) Delany, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years


This and That

September 24, 2012

It’s fall! Can you tell? Our weather still says summer, but that didn't stop us from a this-and-that weekend, here at the Johnson household. My husband and I puttered about the house and yard, together and apart—a relaxing and satisfying way to spend Saturday and Sunday.

Some of the things we did:

I began putting out fall decorations, with this little set of votive candles I just bought. Everything else is in the attic…time to send someone up there to bring the boxes down.

We cleaned our potting bench. My husband has taken up vegetable gardening, so we now share the bench which I had let get into quite a state:


I cleaned and refilled the bird bath and squirrel bird feeders:

Much better
Come and get it!

I found a little friend keeping the orchids bug free:

Scout enjoyed the warmth of the sun:

We admired growing things:

Baby basils
Dendrobium Salaya Candy

There was also a little laundry, a little horse time, a little online puttering (Pinterest, A Bowl Full of Lemons, Blacksburg Belle and more), a little vacuuming, some sports on TV and, of course, some reading.

I'm at my happiest when I'm savoring these little moments, small accomplishments and simple pleasures. I’m grateful I had the time to slow down and enjoy them.

What did you do this weekend?


The Promise

September 19, 2012

Jane Hirshfield, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, is one of our country’s finest poets, and I have never seen a poem of hers that I didn’t admire. Here’s a fine one that I see as being about our inability to control the world beyond us. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

The Promise

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,
who fled.

Stay, leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression, in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Jane Hirshfield, from her most recent book of poems, Come, Thief, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Poem reprinted by permission of Jane Hirshfield and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.

Everyday adventures

Pursuing Passions—5 Ways to Reignite the Spark

September 17, 2012

Since choosing “passion” as my word of the year, I’ve felt peculiarly passion-less. Ho hum. Frustrated and overwhelmed, yes. Lazy, yup. Motivated to pursue my passions? Uh, not really. What’s wrong with me?

Apparently, just choosing passion as a watchword doesn’t do it for me. I actually have to think about passion and do something to ignite it. In pondering this subject, I’ve found a few ways to reignite my flickering pilot light—maybe you’d be interested in hearing about what I’ve learned?

Perhaps the simplest trick is to set myself a specific and achievable goal. My horse, Tank, is one of my passions, but this time of year because of the heat and humidity, I find it more and more difficult to get myself down to the barn. When I’m there, I often choose not to do anything with him, but groom him and let him graze. Despite the whole “I can’t believe I have a horse” thing, I get just the tiniest bit bored, and we don’t really make any progress as a team. Hanging out is fine, but there are many things I’d like to learn—like trick or agility training, and how to do equine massage—and I want to keep up with our Parelli Natural Horsemanship games. While it’s still hot, I usually go to the barn about three times a week. One of those days, we’ll probably just continue to hang out, but I plan to have a goal, even if it’s a small one, for the other two days.

 Usually, I resist adding things to my schedule. I don’t like the feeling of being too busy, too scattered, pulled in 100 different directions. But I’ve noticed that sometimes if I’m feeling blasé, it’s because I’m not experiencing anything new—I’m stuck in a rut of same old, same old. Adding something fun, different, exciting can be just the spark that ignites a new passion, or reignites an old one. Right now, I’m taking one of Laure Ferlita’s terrific online classes. For a modest time investment, I’m having a ball revisiting San Francisco through the pages of my sketchbook.

Sure, you say. Adding something sounds great but how can I pack one more thing into my full schedule? To make room, I take something away. Don’t tell anyone, but my favorite thing to get rid of is household chores—I skip dusting, or order dinner instead of cooking it. I don’t shop or go to the library as often as usual. I also reduce my TV watching in favor of more enriching activities.

During the Summer Olympics, I watched hours of equestrian events on TV. I got excited watching those experts and their spectacular horses, and I took that excitement with me to the barn. Whatever your chosen passion, search out someone who’s really good at your shared passion. Don’t compare yourself or become discouraged because you’re not as good—be inspired by her or his accomplishments. I’ll never be an Olympic equestrian, but I can be a better rider and partner to Tank.

Once a month, I take a day off. I don’t do anything I don’t want to do. I don’t clean, cook, do laundry, run errands. I write only if I feel like it. (I always read!) Sometimes I go see Tank, and sometimes I hang out at home all day. I try not to get sucked into mindless web surfing, but if that’s what I feel like doing, I let myself. It takes a bit of life arrangement to do this, but surprisingly, I find that after just one day in which I don’t let myself work, I come back to the usual routine with lots more energy and passion.

None of these tips is revolutionary in any way, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement them. Many days, especially during the hot summer months, all I want to do is flop on the couch and watch a movie, or curl up someplace cool with a book. It takes effort to pursue passions—but if I put in that effort, that little spark of passion burns up into a steady flame. My goal is to look back on a passionate life lived—not realize I wasted too much of my time on the trivial.

What are your tips or tricks for staying interested in your passions?


Just (Don't) Do It

September 14, 2012

Despite the love/hate relationship I have with lists, I’m creating a new one: The Do Not Do List.

The Do Not Do List has been on my mind for quite a while. I’ve been jotting down things I won’t do anymore (see below) and I keep stumbling on articles that talk about the concept, which I think is a rather important one. Yes, it is important to know what you want to do. It is just as important to know what you will not do.

There are several reasons why something would land on a Do Not Do List. I’m not talking about the obvious illegal or immoral things, but things that, for whatever reason, you choose not to do. Maybe it’s a chore like washing windows, or a social obligation you decide no longer fits with your life. Do Not Dos can be as simple as “Do not check email before breakfast” or they can involve more weighty items related to work, parenting, volunteering, social or family issues. Each person’s list will be different.

Things for the Do Not Do list fall into a couple of categories: things you don’t want to do or dislike doing, and things you’d like to do, but currently don’t have the time or resources for. Think about that first type for a minute. We’re adults with (hopefully) mature minds of our own. Surely there are a number of things we do out of habit that we do not need to do. When we stop doing them, we free up time for more important and enjoyable activities.

The second category, things you’d like to do, can be placed temporarily on the Do Not Do List, to allow you to concentrate on a few priorities. You might develop a “Do Later” subcategory on the Do Not Do List. This is the type of thing I put on the Six-Year Calendar of Happiness.

The Do Not Do List helps you get rid of activities that are not adding to the sum of your happiness and productivity, but it also helps you focus on your most rewarding current priorities by streamlining your To Do List. Once something lands on the Do Not Do List, you don’t have to think about it anymore. You should feel a psychic burden lifted from your shoulders.

The Do Not Do List doesn’t have to be set in stone. Some things might stay on it for a week, a few months, a few years. Possibly some things will stay on it forever. Reevaluate occasionally to make sure it’s still working for you.

Here are a few examples of things I currently Do Not Do:

Take clothes to consignment stores. Too much work for not a big enough return. If I have unwanted clothes, I donate them to Goodwill Industries.

Read every article in a magazine. It might sound crazy, but I used to think I needed to read every single piece in a magazine, especially if I bought it instead of checking it out from the library. I would read articles that I was not particularly interested in because I was afraid of missing something I really needed to read, or the one paragraph or sentence that would spark a brilliant idea. I’ve come to realize that if there’s an idea or important concept out there for me, it will find me. I’ve also learned to stop reading books that I really don’t like.

Go on diets. Sure, I could stand to lose a few pounds. I have several strategies I use when the number on the scale (or the waistband on the pants) tells me my weight has crept up, but I do not cut out any food groups, restrict my calories to a very low level or follow someone else’s eating plan. I know those methods do not work for me. I become instantly rebellious, hyper focused on food and generally make things worse for myself. My way is excruciatingly slow (try five pounds in 10 weeks), but I do not usually feel deprived, and each time I have to make adjustments to keep my weight under control, I try to make lifetime habit changes. I also try to do it from a position of love for my body and what it does for me, instead of trying to punish it. Easier said than done, but I’m working on it.

Wear shoes, no matter how cute, that hurt my feet, legs or back. I’m constantly on the lookout for comfortable, cute shoes and I’m willing to pay a bit more for them. So far I’ve had limited success. (Suggestions welcomed!)

We live in a complicated world in which the ability to say no to the extraneous and focus on the essential has become a vital skill. We cannot possibly focus quality attention on as many things as demand that attention. We have to pick and choose, no matter how difficult that might be (and I find it difficult). Even if we feel guilty for giving up unpleasant tasks, it’s still easier to dispose of things we don’t like doing, and much harder to streamline our enjoyable interests.  What are we willing to give up in order to accomplish something significant in an area of highest priority? Putting those things on a Do Not Do List, or even a Do Later List, can help simplify and clarify our lives.

What is on your Do Not Do List?


Light From Within

September 12, 2012

Photo courtesy Adam Jackson
“People are like stained glass windows, the true beauty can be seen only when there is light from within. The darker the night, the brighter the windows.”
—Elisabeth Kubler-Ross


World Enough & Time

September 07, 2012


Even the title has a certain timeless feel to it.

I first read about the book World Enough & Time, by Christian McEwan, on Susan J. Tweit’s blog, and I ordered it at once. The subtitle, “On creativity and slowing down,” coupled with Tweit’s review of the book proved irresistible.

Amazon.com’s description says, “According to McEwen, the nonstop emphasis on productivity that is so prevalent in our society is counterproductive for anyone wanting to be creative”—something I wholeheartedly agree with. My default speed is slow. I spent a lot of time alone as a child, and though I was occasionally lonely, I mostly enjoyed the solitude and freedom to do and think as I chose. Spending afternoons in my room, listening to music, daydreaming, writing in my journal or reading formed my personality. As I have grown up and gone from child to parent, from student to worker, I’ve lost nearly all of that unscheduled, dreamy time and I want it back. I hate the speed of 21st century life, and the common assumption that busy is better and packed schedules equal fulfilling lives. McEwen encourages us to allow ourselves to slow down and pay attention.

This really excellent book deserves a slow and thoughtful read. McEwan has pondered long on her subject matter, and draws on a wide range of sources to flesh out her points, quoting writers, philosophers, artists, musicians, psychologists and others. Some reasons I liked World Enough & Time:

It reinforces something I believe in: slowing down is good for us, not just as a tool for creativity but also a way to heal troubled minds and hearts.

The way the book is written encourages you to slow down—not that it’s difficult to read, but that each page holds so much to digest. Before each new chapter is a title page with a single quote so that there is a sort of pause before you go on to new material. Each chapter ends with a couple of simple suggested activities and more quotes to ponder.

The writing is beautiful, with evocative chapter titles like “The Art of Looking,” “A Feast of Words,” “The Space Between” and “A Day So Happy.”

Here is one of my favorite passages from the book:

“Computer ‘memory’ is literal and predictable; it does not alter over time. Human memory is considerably more fluid. We need time to muse and dream, to mull, to ruminate, to sort through our own insights and associations. In the words of the philosopher William James, ‘The connecting is the thinking.’ Without space for that free-floating receptivity, short-term (or primary) memory is not transformed into the long-term (or secondary) kind. Our memories are not consolidated. We mislay the tiny details of our lived experience, the originality and satisfaction of our own opinions.” In other words, without time to process our lives, we forget them. I’ve often felt like an oddball because of my need for quiet time every day just to sit and think or daydream, letting my mind roam where it wants to go. I feel better about that need, now that I know it’s essential for realizing a fully-lived life.

World Enough & Time is not just a book for “creatives”—artists, writers, musicians, etc. It’s a book for anyone interested in stepping out of the mad rush of the world to live at his or her own pace.  I plan to keep it out where I can reread it more slowly (yes, I quickly read a book on slowing down!) and internalize its ideas.

How do you slow down the pace of life?


Prairie Sure

September 05, 2012

I love the images in this poem by Carol Light, of Washington state.

Prairie Sure

Would I miss the way a breeze dimples
the butter-colored curtains on Sunday mornings,
or nights gnashed by cicadas and thunderstorms?
The leaning gossip, the half-alive ripple
of sunflowers, sagging eternities of corn 
and sorghum, September preaching yellow, yellow
in all directions, the windowsills swelling
with Mason jars, the blue sky bluest borne
through tinted glass above the milled grains?
The dust, the heat, distrusted, the screen door
slapping as the slat-backed porch swing sighs,
the hatch of houseflies, the furlongs of freight trains,
and how they sing this routine, so sure, so sure—
the rote grace of every tempered life?

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2011 by Carol Light, whose poems have been published in Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest and elsewhere. Poem reprinted from The Literary Bohemian, Issue 12, June 2011, by permission of Carol Light and the publisher.