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Swimming Lessons Review: Time Stops When You’re Reading A Good Book

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As you may know, every month this year I’m going to pick something to focus on, depending on what I feel I need during that particular month. For January, it was a no-brainer. Slow Down.

The past few months have been busy, both at home and at work, and I realized that most of my life these days has been a blur. Well, I intend to change that going into the New Year.  Sure, I want to do EVERYTHING but I also want to savor time. Enjoy the slowness. Stop racing around.

One of the things I’ve given up while trying to be more productive is reading fiction. I used to read everything I could get my hands on but these days I mainly read nonfiction since I host the nonfiction book club at work. Or, I watch a lot of movies at home, since I can paint at the same time!

But you can lose yourself in a good book. You can travel to distant lands, meet fascinating people, solve mysteries, laugh, cry, love, hate. All of this can happen in a good book. You also slow down time – the world might rush by but within those pages you have no appointments to keep, bills to pay, or concerns to face. I’ve been avoiding good stories because I feel I’m just too busy to sit down and read. I think, however, that when you FEEL as if you’re too busy, then that’s when you most need to take that time to read. Even if it’s a few pages every night. TVs are loud and too stimulating. Books are quiet – in our world, we NEED quiet – and, by forcing you to rely on your imagination, great creativity boosters as well.

This year, I resolved to read more for pleasure and, as fate would have it, over the holidays I got an advanced copy of Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller (Tin House Books.) When this book first came out in hardcover, I was actually so enamored of the beautiful cover art that I made a chalkboard sign inspired by it for our store display.

And the paperback version is just as gorgeous! The palette is very similar but with darker tones. Yet again I was inspired and this time, created a painting to evoke not only the loveliness of the cover but also the captivating, dark beauty of the story itself.

Have you read anything by Claire Fuller yet? If you haven’t, well then you simply must. I’m in cozy, nesting mode for winter right now – surrounded by introspective gray skies and moody, drizzly Pacific Northwest weather. Perfect weather, in fact, for reading Claire’s book ; filled with dark family secrets, the pain of the unfulfilled life, and some of the most lyrically breathtaking prose you’ll ever read.

Here’s a particularly resonant passage (page 265, paperback)

“The world had become harder, more abrasive; sheets scratched, clothes irritated, and people feared. It was when I was underwater or in the garden that I felt relief. But precise moments of grief, like the pangs of childbirth, are hard to recall after ththe most intense pain has passed: nature’s trick to ensure we survive and continue to reproduce.”

Wasn’t that just gorgeous? I’m not going to give anything away but if you like piecing things together, uncovering different perspectives of the same shared experience, and leaving a book wiser and more emotionally aware than you when you started reading it, then this is definitely the book for you.

Life Can Be A Picnic – Slow Down!!

“To slow down is to be taken into the soul of things.” – Terry Tempest Williams.

This new year, I resolve to take time off and go on more picnics!! But seriously, as I look back on the past few months, I realize what a blur they have been. As social a job as I have, I am, at heart, an introvert – and love nothing more than being cozy and quiet at home, curled up with something good to read or working on a craft project. Perhaps even spending a few hours by the water, watching the waves break and the ducks play. I love the outgoing parts of my life too but this year I’m prioritizing more quiet time as well. It’s important, not just for introverts, to slow down, turn off the constant noise we are all exposed to today, and recharge.

We let our phones recharge. Our batteries recharge. Parents impose routines and limits on their children to ensure that the kids get rest and don’t get burned out on the demands of life. Shouldn’t we give ourselves the same care as well?

 

Little Things Got You Down? : Or The Power Of Perspective

My morning started off in a rather – no, VERY – irritating fashion. Not feeling well, I wanted to stay in bed until the last possible moment. My cat wanted to create a ruckus until I got up to play. She won – as my apartment walls are thin and I didn’t want to punish my neighbors as well.

This, I could have dealt with. My bathroom overflowing in a horrible manner and forming one of the Great Lakes – I just could NOT deal with. This badly-behaving bathroom only tends to do this when I’m on my way to work too! Many, many towels and a few choice words later, while I was in the middle of a WHY ME???? tirade, I stopped to reflect.

What am I gaining from this foul temper? The answer – just a bad mood all day – wasn’t pleasing or acceptable to me. It wasn’t helping now and it certainly won’t help later because I’ve set myself up with the mindset that every little thing today will just bother me more and more.  That’s the way irritating Little Things are. I read once that tiny constant annoyances are worse for our stress levels than dealing with one big thing. Maybe because the tension from those small things keeps building up since we think they’re actually too silly to deal with properly.

Back to this morning. It’s been a very busy, harried few months, both at work and at home, so I know that I’m more irritable now than I normally would be. Rushing around tends to do that to people. So, my mood was understandable but it still wasn’t doing me any good.

While I was squeezing the water out of the fourth towel, I thought back to a conversation I had last night about the horrible and heartbreaking homelessness  problem in this city. That jolted me into perspective really quickly.

And I repeat – this advice is for all the little things that bug you in your day, not for major illness or loss. For those, a grieving process is necessary and essential. In my minor case, I just STOPPED that flow of negative thinking, took a breath, and reversed that negative trajectory I was on.

Instead of listing all of the bad things, I thought about all of the things I was grateful for. A simple switch of words.

Horrible plumbing? Well at least I HAVE a bathroom.

Can’t sleep in? At least I HAVE a cat that can’t get enough of me.

Stressing over missing my bus to work? Well, at least I HAVE a job.

Sounds too easy – and somewhat too much of a cliche – to work. But you know what, it really did! And my dark mood lifted, I feel more optimistic about the day, and here I am, writing this post!

With the Holidays upon us, we are all going to start feeling extremely frazzled and rushed. Our fuses, quite naturally, are going to be short. When you start feeling like things are rapidly  going downhill:

1. Pause

2. Breathe

3. Reverse

Focus: Or The Power of A Timeout

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We all feel harried at times by the pressures that life, and sometimes we alone, put on ourselves. During those times, whether we notice it or not, many physical changes can occur: our breathing becomes shallow or we might even hold our breath; we become tense and overloaded by every little thing that’s going on and get angry and frustrated by even the smallest inconveniences. That’s when the power of focus comes in. For a few minutes at least, while you are feeling this way, try and put everything else out of your mind and focus on simple, uncomplicated things- like taking slow, deep breaths, admiring the beauty and details of a flower, or even really studying the forms and lines of the stapler on your desk. Whatever you chose, really focus on it- so that your mind and thoughts slow down and, even if just for a few minutes, you will experience peace and a liberating change in perspective.

Take these beautiful rhododendrons, for example. I was having a stressful morning. You know, one of those mornings when you’re running late and the cat knocks over her water dish and your toast burns and you got about five hours of sleep as usual and that of course inevitably sets you on a downward spiral of negative self assessment and wondering how you’ve managed to waste most of your life and whether you’re actually even doing anything purposeful now … well, you get the idea. With each passing moment, I could feel myself getting more and more agitated as I was waiting for the bus. Well, to be clear, waiting for the NEXT bus -since I already missed the first one. By a minute.

In the middle of all of this, I looked over and saw these beautiful rhododendrons. And I wish I could say that their beauty immediately bettered my mood but to be honest, I just glanced at them for a few minutes before resuming my internal grumbling and worrying.  I did, however, eventually decide that while it came down to me to make whatever life-altering long-term changes I needed to, I can also choose not to ‘sweat the small stuff’ today. Annoying things happen but they don’t have to derail your life – you owe it to yourself to pick happiness as often as you can. So, I looked at those flowers again- and this time felt wonder at every detail. That shockingly beautiful shade of pink, the tiny pearls in the center, the delicate papery petals. I focused on all of those things and while my problems still remained, I found myself in a better mood to deal with them.

Mondays

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Monday. That very word invokes a feeling of dread and despair. If you work a standard schedule, it usually signifies the day we return to work after a too-short weekend. And, for some reason, it doesn’t even seem to matter if you have a job that you enjoy – this universal hatred of Mondays is the great equalizer. For me and my work schedule, I know it’s because the weekends are the only time I can do anything for myself, my art, chores around the house, or with my friends and family. So, my weekend flies by way too quickly!

Heading to work this morning, I started feeling that grumpiness descend on me and then immediately thought: I hate living like this! Weekends end – that happens EVERY week- so no point feeling bad about it. I thought, instead, that it would be nice to think of some ways to make that weekend feeling of Possibility last ALL week. So, I came up with some things I’m going to incorporate into my life:

1. COLOR INFLUENCES MOOD so surround yourself with your favorite, happy colors. This may be as simple as an article of clothing or setting lovey flowers (like these vibrant, yellow poppies) on your work desk.
2. MAKE MONDAYS A DAY RO LOOK FORWARD TO by setting up a standing date to do something fun by yourself or with a friend. Treat yourself to your favorite breakfast or a yoga appointment after work. Take a lunchtime walk or pick out a new book for the week.
3. VOLUNTEER. Thinking about the needs of others helps to put things in perspective and giving back to society is a natural mood-booster.
4. CREATE MINI GOALS FOR THE WEEK , such as targets for workouts, completing a few pages on that book you’ve wanted to do, clearing one area of your house of clutter. That way, you look forward to making headway on personal projects, and not just work, when the week starts. If you’re like me, you have to do everything on those two days – chores, social life, creative pursuits. It makes the time fly by and you don’t feel very well rested. I’m going to try and do as many chores as I can during the work week and schedule social time then as well. And by that token, make sure you schedule time during the week to continue doing the things you reserve for weekends. For me, that will be finding more time to work on art – a lunch here and there, for example. At the very least, I try to reserve my Sundays for working on whatever I want to. I need personal time , so for me that means staying at home and unwinding. For you, that could mean going out with friends.
5. And finally, my favorite technique: START YOUR WEEK ON SUNDAY. Mentally, if the first day of your week is something you have control over, it sets the tone for the rest of the week. So go ahead, and think of Mondays as the new Tuesdays: Nothing to fret over!!

I’m going to try and incorporate these things in my life and I hope you’ll be able to find some ways to make that transition into the work week more pleasant for yourself as well!

Have a wonderful week!!

The Mindfulness of Corresponding

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I’ve been writing a lot of letters lately. The entire act has been a way to slow down and practice mindfulness in a world that I often feel is rushing past me entirely too frantically. For half an hour, I am lost in a process that is deeply rooted in history and get to indulge myself in all of the beautiful accoutrements- pretty paper, lovely stamps (the ones above are sweet little seashells) fountain pens, inks, washi tape. Things that I can never resist collecting, so why not put them to good use! The meditative steps to letter writing are mirrored by the act of receiving mail as well. You, the letter-writer slow down as you write, focused on every beautiful detail. They, your recipient, don’t feel the pressure of immediate response (as happens with emails) and so they get to slow down as well – savoring each word long after they are first read. In today’s age, when everything is urgent, short, immediate – lingering over something is a rare luxury. When was the last time you were able to have long, uninterrupted thoughts? Making dainty little packages, sending them off, knowing they will be eagerly received – a slow ritual in a hyper world, yes, but one that somehow feels more and more important as technology keeps progressing.