30 small things (aka Life Experiment #6)

“There are no large pleasures in life, only small ones,” a much older boyfriend once pronounced to an impressionable 25-year-old me. He paused for a moment, reflecting. “Except maybe the Prado or the Louvre.”

“I’ve already been to both,” I ventured.

“Well. . . .” He raised his hands as if to say: “So, that’s that!”

The older I get, the more I take his point. Not that there aren’t large pleasures and that they aren’t, well pleasurable. But the quality of our days, and thus our lives, is largely determined by small things.

Mulling over possible Life Experiments for June, I hit on the idea of doing one (small) nice thing for myself each day. Given that June 1—today—is my birthday, this seems especially apt. Plus it’s also in line with my ongoing quest for more playfulness and fun.

Last month’s Life Experiment involved Doing Less. Without going into a lot of detail, I’ll say that, strictly speaking, you could count it as a failure. In fact, if my goal had been to Do More, you might say I’d triumphed.

But this isn’t the whole story. More and more, I see these Life Experiments as planting seeds. The fruit they bear won’t necessarily be within a predictable time frame. This hit home for me a few weeks back when I signed up for a digital photography class that starts next week. As regular readers may recall, my Photo-a-Day experiment lasted just a few days. But now, here I am returning to the terrain I staked out then. The seed I planted is taking root, just not the way I planned.

When I sat down to the make the list of 30 small things, I had the idea of small pleasures—a massage, a dinner out with friends, new running shoes—but as I started to write, what leaped to mind were small nagging tasks. Exhibit A would be the sweater with a button that’s been waiting to be sewn back on for something like 10 years. (In a novel this might be a metaphor, but in my life, it’s fact.)

In Life Coach-land such tasks-in-waiting are known as “tolerations” and are said to be constant drains on our store of energy. In any case, I’m pretty sure I’d feel better with a shorter list. Massages and restaurant dinners are nice, but so is creating order. My hypothesis: Getting that button sewn back will make me unreasonably happy.

Life Experiment #6: Do once small nice thing for yourself each day—which may mean pleasurable in the doing but could also mean pleasurable in the sense of feeling-happier-having-done-it. (Hi there, sweater and button!)

Hello, Life Experiment #3 (plus an update).

laser cut cubes

In this Year of Experiments, the past month was about Creating Order, and in fact, some order has been created, though–as The Organizer warned me there might be, lots remains to be done.

Here’s what my basement looked like then.

The Organizer takes stock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what it looks like now:

As they say in 12-step programs, it’s about progress not perfection.

That being said, here is what I’ve found: Order is calming. Order is freeing. Order is something I want. Order is also, as one friend noted, always a work-in-progress. It’s a habit, not a goal.

As it happens, the same is also true of the act of forging human connections–the focus of Life Experiment #1, where I connected (or re-connected) with 30 people over the course of January. Much more to be said about that, but for now, just to note that this practice also underscored for me the importance of habit.

So here’s the bottom line: where I started envisioning this Year of Experiments as consecutive, I’m increasingly starting to see it as cumulative.  Spending some time–in this case, a month–consciously focusing on a quality that enriches my life is sort of like planting a seed.

And now for Life Experiment #3, which is about seeing more (and seeing differently) and framing (and re-framing).  Or to put it in concrete terms, during this month, I’ll be taking at least one photograph each day.

There are a bunch of reasons I settled on this particular Life Experiment.

For one thing, I got a new camera a few months back, and I’ve yet to really use it. For another–and this is a big one–I’ve just started co-teaching a photo and writing workshop for foster kids and am awed by what I’m reading and seeing. I won’t say much more about that–their stories are theirs–but this is another way to connect with what they’re doing.

I also know from past experience that using a camera opens up the world in new and unexpected ways. Years ago, I spent some summer weeks at the Maine Photographic Workshops (now Maine Media Workshops), and I recall a pervasive sense of heightened awareness. Thought it occurs to me that this may not be saying much–I am someone whose boyfriend once shaved his mustache for her as a birthday gift (It was not my favorite look) and I failed to notice. That is until he told me that the mysterious gift he’d been hinting at for hours was “right under your nose–or rather under my nose.”

So clearly, I can use some practice with this seeing thing. As always, you’re welcome to join me. I hope that you will.

When goals collide

scream and shout

A friend’s two-year-old once pitched a tantrum on a stairway landing between two floors of the family home.

What provoked the meltdown? Once the furious howls subsided, he choked out the following explanation: He wanted to be upstairs with his dad and downstairs with his mom. He wanted both, at the same time. He didn’t want to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate. Especially, during the past few weeks, as I’ve gotten increasingly busy.  At any given moment, I’m conflicted about what I should be doing—and doing next. There are so many things that need to be done, all vying for my attention.

Such conflicts are especially common in times of transition, at least that’s true for me. Right now, I’m juggling freelance writing with blogging, leading a writing workshop for foster kids, and looking for more paying work. I’m also trying to organize my home—a task that’s especially pressing since my lease is up in a couple of months, at which point I’ll need to move. (Speaking of which, I’ll also need to find another place to live.) Also: resolve legal matters relating to the Plan B Nation trademark, prepare my 2011 taxes, help out a friend with cat care, and pack for a trip to Boston. Plus: Be happier!

Not surprisingly, such internal conflicts are fertile breeding grounds for dissatisfaction. In her mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert notes that Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most want in life.  If any item clashed with another, he warned them, they were destined for unhappiness.

But while this may be a sound observation, it doesn’t tell us how to deal with such conflicts when they arise in the course of daily life.  How do we best move forward while engaged in an internal tug of war?

While I don’t have a magic bullet (sorry!), I do have a few strategies that have helped me in the past, and to which I’m now resorting.  As is so often the case with this blog, I’m sharing what I need to remember.

1. There’s no “right” decision

Consider the situation. Decide on next steps. Once you’ve made an informed decision, do your best to ignore that voice that’s second-guessing you. That nagging sense that whatever you’re doing isn’t the “right” thing? It’s just not true.

2. Keep moving forwards

Some years back, at a similar point of overwhelm, I remarked to a wildly efficient friend that I was tempted to give in and simply do nothing at all.  He gave me a horrified look: “No, no,” he said. “That way lies madness!”  Which made me laugh, which is always a good thing. And besides, the point’s a good one.  A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as the old saying goes.  For me, tracking progress is an essential strategy here.

3. Exercise

Sadly, I’m not one of those people who enjoys the actual experience of exercise, so I often let this one slide.  That being said, I always feel so much better after I’ve gotten moving that I’m determined to do better in making it a regular part of my life. In the meantime, as they say in 12-step programs: “Take my advice. I’m not using it.”

4. Say No

This is no time to add to your to-do list. Be ruthless (or as ruthless as you can be) about saying No. Need help? Read this.

5. Self-compassion

Simply put, give yourself a break. Recent research suggests that self-compassion is more effective than self-esteem in fostering contentment. Recognize that you’re in a tough situation and doing the best you can.  If you need some help in figuring out how to go about this, Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is a great starting point.

As I look ahead to the rest of the day, I still have that anxious feeling. Then I remind myself I’ve written this post. And that’s, at least, a start.

5 things I learned when The Organizer paid a visit

The Organizer takes stock

My friend Heidi is a professional organizer, and when she heard that this month’s Life Experiment is all about Creating Order, she offered to get me started.

I jumped at the opportunity.

She arrived promptly at 8:15 am, full of reassurances. “I don’t make judgments,” she said, more than once. “It’s about you and how you live.  My work is very personal, and everything is confidential.”

I’d done little to prepare for the visit; Heidi wanted to see what things looked like when I hadn’t made a special effort. Before we got to work, I took her on a quick top-to-bottom tour—from my clothes- and book-strewn bedroom to my chaotic basement, a potter’s field for old electronics, work files, and memorabilia.

Over the next two hours, we made substantial inroads, far more than I would have thought possible for such a short session. We started out by going through piles on my dining room table, where I’d gathered some of my most challenging small organization projects.

For example: What do you do with that collection of random screws, nails, and other mysterious hardware items?

Answer: Your throw it out.

Now this might not be the case for someone who is handy and does lots of home improvement projects, but as soon as Heidi told me I could pitch this stuff, I felt instant relief.

And, as she explained it, that’s a big part of what a professional organizer does: Gives you permission to toss stuff that you can’t seem to toss on your own.  (Or, as she diplomatically put it, surveying my living room: “It’s my job to get you to think about things, so this sort of situation doesn’t ensue.”)

That being said, Heidi certainly didn’t pressure me; she mainly just asked questions.

“Why do you need the instructions to your blender?” she inquired.

I skimmed through the little booklet. “Look! There are recipes! I’m going to put this with my recipe books.”

She gave me a long look. “Really?” she said. Really?

After that she let it go, except for one final observation. “I’ll bet you never go to that blender thing to make a recipe out of it. (Chances are she’s entirely right, but for now, I’m still keeping it.)

This isn’t the first time I’ve made an effort to be more organized (over the years, as I recounted in Salon, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on storage), and some of Heidi’s tips—such as the adage to “put like with like”—were already familiar to me.

But other truths came as either novel insights or much-needed reminders. For the record, here they are:

1. No one wants your old cassette tapes.

No one. Absolutely no one.  After a rejection from Goodwill, I’d been planning to move on. Heidi told me not to bother.

2. You don’t have to be like your parents

“I’m sort of like my mother,” I explained, as I dithered over whether to discard some melted-down candle remnants.

Heidi’s matter-of-fact response: “You don’t have to be.”

3.  Just because something was once pretty doesn’t mean it still is.

“I loved this,” I said wistfully, gazing at my one-time favorite Vera Bradley tote bag, now torn and stained.

I wondered if I should keep it—until Heidi’s voice broke in. “You can’t donate that,” she said practically. “You have to throw it away.”

A scummy candle holder with a floral pattern elicited a similar response.

Me: “It’s sort of pretty.”

Heidi: “Not so much anymore.”

Bonus tip:  If something has sentimental value but no current use, think of taking a digital photo and discarding the object itself.

4.  Projects take less time than you think they will . . .

“It’s going to take me hours just to go through that,” I said gesturing to a pile of boxes on the stairway landing as we emerged from the basement.

Heidi stopped me right there. “Why?” she said.

“Oh, you know,” I said vaguely. “Lots of random things in various places, have to go through it all.”

“Well, let’s just see,” said Heidi.

And you know what? Most of those boxes were empty, except for packing materials. After five or 10 minutes, only a small stack of papers and binders remained to be sorted.

5.  Unless they take more

As she gathered up her things, preparing to leave, Heidi said: “You know you have a lot of work to do, right?”

The words brought me back to earth. I’d felt like we’d accomplished so much! And yet, this was just a beginning.

“How long do you think the whole house will take?”

“Well, it depends on how much time you spend but, maybe  . . . a month or so?”

Happily, one month is exactly the length of my Creating Order Life Experiment. Three days down, 27 to go. Yes, I’m just getting started.

Special offer: Heidi—whose full name is Heidi Robinson—is offering a two-hour organizing session for $50—that’s 50% off her usual rate—to the first five Northampton-area Plan B Nation readers to contact her. You can reach her by phone at 413-219-7433 or email her at heidilisa43@yahoo.com.

Life Experiment #2: Creating Order

“Order is everything,” my friend Melissa once remarked, more than two decades ago.

When an offhand comment sticks in your mind, there’s likely a very good reason why, and in this case, that reason is readily apparent everywhere I look.

I am living in chaos.

It is a fertile, vibrant chaos, to be sure—fascinating books, scribbled notes, Christmas decorations, piles of colorful clothes, fliers for events I’d like to attend, bowls of local apples and onions, recipes I’d like to make. At times, I view the mess as akin to compost—materials that make my days both richer and more nourishing.

But mostly it’s a way better metaphor than it is a way of life. It’s frustrating, and it’s time-consuming, and sometimes it’s even expensive. (This morning, I searched for some books about organization that I’d picked up years ago. Tellingly, I couldn’t find them.)

Which is why February’s Life Experiment will be about Creating Order.

As some of you may recall, I’ve dubbed 2012 my Year of Experiments. Each month, I’m embarking on a new set of activities around a particular theme. At the end of each month, I’ll give some thought to how my life has shifted and share the results.

In particular, I’m interested in how activities that are apparently unrelated affect and inform each other. Here, I think of the old saying “Trust in God and clean house.” (Not to be confused with another old saying: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”) How will bringing order to my living space change my life in other ways? Stay tuned for the answer.

Or better yet, join me! Make February your month of creating order—or pick a Life Experiment of your own and watch to see how things change.

As a reminder, here are my suggested guidelines for Life Experiments. (I described these in more detail in a previous post.):

1.  Select process goals, not outcome goals

2. Select activities that are directly related to your larger goals

3. Pick activities that are satisfying (and even fun) in themselves.

And now, here it is, my personal Life Experiment #2: Every day I will take one or more specific and quantifiable actions aimed at creating order at home. (Examples: I will take 10 articles of clothing to Goodwill. I will spend an hour sorting through office papers.)

I’ll keep myself accountable by tracking the actions I take each day. (In case you’re wondering, an update on January’s Life Experiment is shortly forthcoming.)

 ♦

Order, organization, neatness—these are not qualities that come naturally to me. I will never be that person who, as happiness maven Gretchen Rubin once did, explains my compatibility with a mate in terms of a shared affinity for order, (“He’ll  say ‘Let’s take 20 minutes and tidy up,’” Rubin told the New York Times, in describing her husband.)

I do, however, think that I can do better.  Maybe a lot better.  I plan to give it a shot.