Mirror, Mirror

Sometimes an abrupt shift in how you see yourself occurs. Things you believed about yourself turn out to be unfounded. As my statistics professor repeated enough times that I cannot forget even 25 years later: “correlation is not causation.”

Just because we behave a certain way on a regular basis doesn’t mean this behavior is driven by our personality, character, core values, or anything that is uniquely “us”. Rather, our behavior may be driven by the particular set of variables in play at a given time that make it easy or rewarding to behave the way we behave.

This is a hopeful message for anyone who thinks people can’t change. It’s actually quite easy to change behavior. The most direct example of this I have is from working with sales people–I always knew when their compensation plan changed because they instantly behaved differently.

We are, it turns out, so easily and frequently influenced in what we do, what we believe, and even how we feel that it’s impossible to tease apart what is our “true self” and what is one of humanity’s most basic survival skills: fitting in.

Realistically, we cannot know what is part of our “core” self vs social influence until the moment we are tested–the moment we are called upon to make a choice.

These moments usually go completely unnoticed. There is no sound track with dramatic music telling us this is a pivotal moment in our lives. Often, there is not so much as an intake of breath before we go forward and do or don’t do without deciding.

Defaulting gives social influence amazing power. It’s also incredibly efficient–imagine if we consciously examined every choice we could possibly make each day and pondered all the possibilities? It would be hard to get beyond brushing our teeth in a 24 hour period.

But every once in a while, many variables in our lives shift. In this shift, a void appears. This void is either not knowing what is expected of us or suddenly having cause to reject what we feel is expected of us (such as when a loved one dies and we find ourselves wondering if what we have been doing with our lives is worth it).

These are the moments when social convention comes in handy. It gives us a framework to either fit within or to rebel against. The trick is figuring out what the rules are. And when there is no one to influence you, to find that influence.

This is, perhaps, the most surprising thing of all for me. I have seen myself as an independent thinker. A creative spirit. Someone “different.” The mirror my life is holding up right now forces me to realize that my independence, creativity, and different-ness are merely a rouse.

Without the boundaries of social expectations, there are too many choices. The greatest irony? These expectations were the product of my own imagination–this should be an easy problem to solve.

Taking Stock

It’s officially been 2 months since my leave of absence began. I thought it would be a good time to enumerate both the new lessons I’ve learned and the old lessons that have  resurfaced as particularly relevant to this major shift in my life.

  1. Your time will fill. No matter how much you have to do or how long you think you have to do it, time will pass more quickly than you expected and you will get less done than you planned.
  2. It doesn’t matter how much of an out-of-the-box thinker you are; if there is no box, you can’t think outside of it.
  3. When you have a mile-long list of things to do and believe you have only a fraction of the time you need to get them done, you manage your time far more judiciously than when you have a short list of things to do and believe you have all day. (See #1.)
  4. There is always more opportunity than capacity.
  5. When one thing has been your biggest time investment for a long time, when you pull it out of your schedule, everything that surrounded it collapses on top of each other and you have to scratch and claw your way through the crap to shove in something new and get all the little stuff safely held at bay.
  6. Staying busy is not the hard part. It’s staying busy doing the important things instead of the distracting things that’s hard. (See #1.)
  7. Just because something must be done urgently doesn’t mean it should be done at all.
  8. I really mind a dirty house less than I mind cleaning it.
  9. We treat people we have an intimate personal relationship with like someone we have an intimate personal relationship with even when the topics are professional–it takes effort not to hear “I don’t love you” when you disagree.
  10. Working with your spouse is an opportunity to better your overall relationship. Creating artificial lines between your personal and professional relationship is only lying to yourself. The two roles are inseparable and must feed one another, driving both a closer, more intimate relationship and more creative energy from the feeling of being on the same team working towards the same goals.
  11. Sleep helps. This is theoretical. I used reverse logic: lack of sleep makes everything harder. Therefore, I believe that if I someday get enough sleep, it will make everything easier.
  12. Every day we have the opportunity to be more focused, more productive, more playful, more creative, more effective, more attuned to our health, and to get more sleep. We probably won’t do all of these things in the same day, however.
  13. At the end of the day, it’s you. There is only you and what you did and didn’t get done, whether what you did made a difference, and whether that difference is the difference you intended. Ultimately, there is not, and really never has been, anyone else to blame.

Equinox

I wrote a really long, rambling post of over 800 words and decided it would be easier to just start over.
Here are the pertinent points: my staycation is ending. My 6-month leave is starting. So is my new role of working on my husband’s business and balancing that with my other pursuits like photography and getting myself from adequately healthy to ridiculously healthy.

I immediately feel the need to go on a rant about how long I’ve had a job, been self-supporting, yada yada yada. Basically, the need to justify slowing down, even if only temporarily, as if I have to prove I am deserving of this time.

I have suggested to friends that we should all stop cleaning our houses when we’re visiting each other. Then, we would all just be accepted as we are, clean house or dirty, and we wouldn’t drive each other to keep wasting time pretending that we’re neat nuts for people who are supposed to care more about us than about the cleanliness of our homes.

I suggest we do the same when it comes to using over-work as a way of saying we’re important. Let’s just drop the judgmental tones and patronizing comments about people doing things for fun. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there’s plenty of research that suggests people who play more are also more creative problem solvers and more effective and efficient at work (and healthier). So, let’s start bragging about making play a priority instead.

The next time someone says, “Oh, I don’t have time to do x,” let’s remind one another that we all have time to do what we choose. Sometimes we’re willing to make the choices to prioritize that time and sometimes we’re not.

In the end, we only get one lifetime (at least in this form, depending on what you believe) to create meaning. A universal truth I keep reminding myself of is that people never regret not spending more time at work at the end of their lives. People regret not laughing more, crying more, playing more, connecting with loved ones more.

So, here I go into the next stage of my journey. Perfectly timed with the spring equinox. What better metaphor than spring to begin anew? I might have liked having 13 weeks of winter to rest and recuperate from the past 30 years, but I suspect not. After all, it can be hard work getting rest.

The Musings of a Passenger

It’s our final day in the Smokies.  Checkout time is at 11:00AM and I have a massage scheduled at 11:00AM.  As it turns out, it’s the last day the lodge will be open for the season.  Having fed us all breakfast, packed us all one last lunch for the road, and checked us all out, they are closing down the lodge for the winter.  I feel a little bad about the timing of my massage, but since I didn’t pick the time, I decide not to worry about it.

Pat takes another walk out to sunrise point while I head off to the massage room with the massage therapist.  After he walks, he will sit in the lodge lobby, in front of the giant fire place, reading something from the large library accumulated there.

The massage is wonderful.  I feel like jelly afterwards, oozing back into my clothes, out into the cold, and into the car.  It’s a nice state to go for a ride in, actually.  I try to sit so I’m not hunching up my shoulders, maintaing the state of relaxation I’ve obtained.  I look out the windows and absorb the limited view with little going on in my head (for once) besides the occasional reminder to relax a muscle that’s tightened up again.  After several minutes, Pat asks me if I’m sleeping.  I laugh at this–like I must be asleep if I am this relaxed.

I rouse myself a little.  Enough to engage in conversation with Pat.  I try to keep part of my mind checking in to make sure I’m staying relaxed periodically.  This gets a little tricky as we wind our way along the Cherahola Skyway where a storm apparently went through last night.  Fallen trees and other debris surprise us around many curves.  Fortunately, any of the trees that were all the way across the road have been cut and hauled away by now.  I find myself wondering if Snowbird Mountain was not hit by the storm or if we just slept through it.

The thick fog makes the views limited today.  I’m grateful that we had a couple of days of great visibility to see the spectacular views.  While I’ve never been one to go for scenic drives unless it was on the way to somewhere else, on a clear day, this drive is one that would be well worth going out of the way for.  Even from the car, it makes you feel connected to the world around you in a spectacular way.

One of the things that has caught both Pat and me by surprise since moving to Chattanooga is how beautiful this part of the country really is.  Even though we have both been to this region many times earlier in our lives, we both sort of dismissed it.  Perhaps it’s like the way we tend to mind our manners less with people we know will continue to love us anyway–the Smokies were accessible.  You would think this would make them more desirable, but we both tended to prefer trips out West when we started planning vacations.  The Rockies and Sierra Nevadas seemed far more appealing than the Smokies.

Now, discovering another incredibly beautiful place nearly every time we turn a corner, I feel dismayed that we missed earlier opportunities to more fully explore this area of the country.  Like I’ve been a bad friend, taking the Smokies for granted, thinking they would be there waiting for me to find time for them.  As it turns out, they did.  But, to use a photography analogy, I previously saw “the Smokies” through a wide angle lens–a single scene to take in one shot.  I now see “the Smokies” through a macro lens–an infinite collection of possibilities, each with their own virtues.  I don’t have enough life left to see the things I now want to see just in this area.  Then again, I suppose even a full lifetime wouldn’t be enough time anyway.

This causes me to ponder the whole concept of being nomadic.  If the purpose is to see and experience new things, can’t that be achieved while standing in one place?  After all, when I get out my macro lens, I discover the closer I get to a subject, the more of its details that are revealed, the more magnificent my subject seems.  Each time I experience this, I am awed by the things I never noticed before.

Here is an example of a Katydid (I think), which I normally would just see as a large, green bug, but its beauty is revealed in its intricate details and varying colors when viewed up close:

I am reminded of an experience I had back in Columbus that I may have mentioned before.  I used to ride my bike to work regularly.  My favorite part of the ride was the short stretch along the Olentangy multi-use trail.  I would enter a section of the trail that was in thick woods.  Then, the woods fell away abruptly to an open field that had been turned into a prairie habitat, full of wild flowers.  I could hear the birds all around me and I felt certain there were birds all over the flowers in that field, but I could never see any.

Then, on a Sunday, I went roller blading on the same trail.  At that speed, I was able to see some song sparrows and goldfinches popping in and out among the flowers.  I was surprised I didn’t see more birds, though.

One day, on a weekend, I went for a walk and ended up strolling through the prairie.  I spotted motion and stopped and stood still to better see.  When I stopped moving, it was like a curtain lifted.  For the first time, I saw that the prairie was buzzing (literally) with life–bees, hummingbirds, several types of sparrows, chipmunks, mosquitos, so many forms of life moving all around me that I couldn’t begin to count them all.  But I had to stand still to notice they were there.

I suppose, as is true of virtually everything in life, it’s all about balance.  A balance between seeing the forest and seeing the trees means a balance between moving and standing still.  A balance between seeking and finding means a balance between dreaming and realizing.  I wonder how you know when you’ve found the balance point?

Just a few things

There is nothing like moving to make you think about things.  And I mean that in the most literal of ways.  I pick up each thing I own, examine it, think about the last time I used it,  think about whether that thing is worth the trouble of packing, lifting, carrying, and placing back in my life at the next location.  When I add into the mix a reduction of space by 1/2, I scrutinize even more carefully.  Is this thing worth my time and energy?  Where will I put it in my new place?  Is this something I will be able to find and use?  Is it something I will replace if I don’t have it?  I never cease to be amazed at the number of things that have found a place in my home that have turned out to be a drain on my energy.

Having purchased our last house from my father, we inherited all the things that he didn’t want in his life anymore.  This included things from four grandparents, my mother, and my aunt–the leavings from their lives that I felt like I should be emotionally attached to.  But none of those things were them. Detaching objects from people was a mandatory step in reducing our burden when moving from our house last year.  Now, we have reduced our space again by half, requiring yet another reduction.

Digital photography is a great tool for dealing with balancing emotional attachment and physical space.  Pictures of the things that represented something important take up only virtual space.  This method, suggested by my brother, has allowed me to unload things I don’t know what to do with ranging from trophies to family heirlooms.  Take a picture, sell or donate the item, move on.  Interestingly, I don’t find myself looking at the pictures of these objects when I want to remember the people and experiences that went with them; I just remember.

Harder for me is balancing reduction and waste.  I hate getting rid of an object that I spent money on that I don’t feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of yet. Likewise, I hate to get rid of something I might use.  Clothes are hard for this reason.  I seem to always end up with items I consider expensive that hang in my closet far more than on my body.  I decided that I should get my wardrobe down to 7 outfits for each season.  Then, I won’t need much space and I will save time deciding what to wear.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t been too practical.  I have a wardrobe for work, hanging out, going out, working out, biking, hiking, skiing, and yoga.  I have highly technical clothing for virtually every weather possibility.  These are practical clothes that I use to death, but it’s a slow death.  Now that I work from home, my work clothes will be needed about as often as my ski pants.  Being prepared and being a nomad don’t seem to fit well together.

I think about a book I once read called Your Money or Your Life.  It talked a lot about the concept of “enoughness.”  The stats show that there is an optimal state of wealth, and it’s not what we think of as wealth.  Once you have food, shelter, and clothing, your happiness maximizes at some minimal level of comfort beyond that point and then the stress of maintaining things causes your happiness to decline.  The trick is that there is no formula for determining what your personal level of eoughness is.  I, for one, cannot imagine life without my iPad or iPhone.  Yet, was I less happy before they existed?  It’s a slippery slope.  I introduce something new into my life and it takes hold, becomes part of what I do each day, and I cannot imagine giving it up.  Yet there is a cost to all of these things–even those that don’t require a data plan.  Clothes have to be cleaned, put away, decided upon.  Pictures have to be arranged, hung, dusted.  Collectibles have to be maintained, safe-guarded, cared-for.

I wonder if I should start a website where people can trade homes not for vacations, but for cleaning out the clutter?  If someone else came into my home and made the decision for me about what I needed to keep and what I could live without, wouldn’t it be easier for them to decide?  In the meantime, I struggle to find places for the debris of my life that I cannot part with, but don’t have a place for.  I wonder how we’ll reduce what we have to a set of things that we can take with us and how much comfort I am willing to give up in exchange for more space, time, and energy to do what I enjoy?

Getting Started

After struggling to enjoy our mostly mainstream life, the stress and boredom got to us. In 2000, I was working for a company that kicked off the implosion of the telecom industry and realized that depending on a corporate job for a living was not a sure bet. For the next 5 years, I was in a constant state of wondering if my job was going away. This motivated us to systematically eliminate debt, reduce our expenses, build our savings, and think about how we could live without my corporate job. In particular, we wanted to live on the road and really experience North America. RVs are nice, but we’re environmentalists and we couldn’t justify the gas. We imagined a life of living in an area for a few weeks either in a tent or in a cheap hotel and driving on–touring from our Honda mini-van.

However, I haven’t been without some form of income since I was 9 years old and I find I care a lot about my career. As such, living without my corporate job was just a bit too scary of a leap for me; I couldn’t imagine where my identity would come from with no career. But, since the situation I was in really wasn’t a career either, my first step was to find a different job with a growing company that was less depressing than the dying company I was at. This I accomplished at the beginning of 2006.

At the time, we still thought I would have to leave the corporate world all together to live on the road. As we continued to plan for that, we waited for the right time to sell our house. While 2006 would have been a great time to sell in the market, we had 2 English Mastiffs and renting really wasn’t an option. We were content to enjoy our dogs and worry about selling later. Sadly, we lost one in 2008 and the other in 2009. While losing our canine kids was a horrible loss, it did free us up to pursue our plans. Unfortunately, the housing market was in the toilet. However, we managed to sell our house in 2010 during a recovery period. Simultaneously, the company I worked for was being purchased by a much larger corporation. We decided to rent a house and wait things out once more.

As it turned out, the new company has a much more friendly attitude towards working remotely. As a result, we’ve revised our plan to include me keeping my career while we move around. We’re not sure what that means yet, but we decided to start by establishing residency in a state with less tax burden than the one we were in. We now find ourselves with a 6-month lease on a really cool apartment in Chattanooga, TN. So, expect more entries on life from Chattanooga for the next 6 months.

Dianne