Problem solved…a form of gratitude

Sometimes when I’m feeling like there’s one setback after another, it helps to reflect on what has been repaired. I keep a little glass jar in my desk at work filled with colorful paper slips of “problems solved.”
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My students and I enjoy this poster that I replenish a few times a week. Anyone who has a need is invited to tear one off. At least once a week, I take one too, and I write the date and why I took that request on the back.
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Some of them are simple, like the day I forgot my cell phone at home and worried all day that my son would get sick at school and the nurse would try to call me and not be able to reach me. Some of them are more complicated and long-term and it’s not really clear when or how they’ll be answered. Just writing it down and releasing it to the universe eases my burden.
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I don’t have time to keep a journal, but writing helps me work through the things that weigh on my mind. My jar of patience, hope, healing, and more reminds me that even though there are always going to be new problems, many things I worried about are already in my past.

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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“Why am I so encumbered?”

My son and his friends enjoy playing online games together, and the other day I overheard him ask, “Why am I so encumbered?” What he meant was he was weighed down by the items his character was carrying, but it struck me that I’ve been encumbered too, if not by physical objects, at least by the maintenance of myself, the people in my family, and our stuff.

I have constant running to-do lists, one for work and one for home, and I realized I rarely feel a sense of accomplishment on either of them because there’s always more to do. Now that the boys have constant homework and activities, it feels like life has gotten infinitely more complicated. They are big enough to help out around the house, and they do, but there are three people’s schedules running through my head at all times and most events have to be scheduled weeks in advance to happen.

I’m working out how to enjoy my days and savor them, despite all of the parts that make me tired and sometimes weigh me down. Even though I can’t stand the idea of looking at one more list, I had to make one to remind me of all the good little routines that pull me up like helium-filled balloons. Here’s mine and I’d love your suggestions too.

  1. Every morning, I look forward to my same breakfast (coffee and raisin bread toast with peanut butter) and reading a few chapters from the Bible. That is often my only quiet time in an entire day!
  2. At least one meal where I sit down with my boys. It’s usually dinner, but even if it’s breakfast or lunch, we talk and find out what’s going on with each other.
  3. Time with my loved ones to go for walks, work on a New York Times crossword, or watch a movie. These are a few of the moments where my mind isn’t running on hyperspeed.
  4. Going to sleep at night. Usually it’s more like passing out from exhaustion, but I treasure those few minutes where I’m warm under the covers. I love my bed.
  5. Listening to RadioLab podcasts on the way to and from work. This amazing show has opened my world to so many new ideas I would have missed in my myopic little world.

[Image courtesy of public domain images on http://www.pixabay.com]

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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A thoughtful article about drone parenting (and you thought helicopter parenting was bad)

I just read this article by a parent who realized she was getting overly involved in her kids’ lives, especially their school work, and I shuddered when she said that often her first question to her sons after school was “What’s your homework today?”

Starting the after-school conversation with homework sounds cold and impersonal compared to “How are you?” or “How was your day?” which I always say first, but the second question I usually ask is “What’s your homework today?”

This mom said she micromanaged not because she was pushing her kids to excel, but because she realized her children were in that gray area of needing but not needing their parents so much anymore and she did not want to fail at parenting during this most critical time.

Like these parents, I could choose to look at my sons’ grades online every day if I want to (I don’t). She called this constant monitoring of her children “drone parenting,” and she gives some tips at the end of the article for how she stepped back and got back to being a more relaxed parent.

Since I’m a teacher, I sometimes feel an extra pressure for my kids to do well in school. After all, if I can’t help them stay organized, do their work on time, and get good grades, who can? I often advise parents to let their children become more independent and for kids to stop asking their parents to study with them, so I need to set the example by treating my own kids that way.

For the most part, I’m pretty hands-off when it comes to schoolwork, but every now and then I have that mini-breakdown where I fear I’m not doing enough (whatever enough is) and I start looking at my kids’ planners or their teachers’ websites to try to glean insight into what they’re doing every day in school.

I noticed I get more stressed out when I go into this mode and it doesn’t do anything helpful for my kids. Therefore, I vow not to be a drone parent!

[Image courtesy of public domain images on http://www.pixabay.com]

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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Hope for the discouraged

FullSizeRender (3)I will admit that I’ve been kind of discouraged with myself lately. Why can’t I have more energy, more patience, more gratefulness for all of the blessings in my life? Picking on yourself never leads to anything good, nor does comparing yourself to others. I look in the mirror and say “You could do better.”

You know what? It’s true. I could do better, but instead of putting it like that, I’d like to say “I am better today.” Not better like a competition that I have to work at, but better because I’ve lived and learned for one more day.

Before I say anything to myself, I ask whether it’s something I’d say to someone I love. I certainly wouldn’t tell a friend,

“You can’t balance everything.”

“Why are you so lazy?”

“Other people can do this; why can’t you?”

Those are the kinds of things I would never even think about someone else, so why was it okay to talk to myself that way? I’m learning to think of myself as a kind and supportive friend to a younger woman who needs my help. She needs encouragement and a pep talk and sometimes a little time off from all of her responsibilities. I let her know she is strong and she can keep going, even when she thinks it’s impossible, and that she is better today, just for being herself.

What do you need to hear from yourself today?

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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Healthy things to do when you’re stressed

walking-349991_1280I spend a lot of time berating myself for not doing things better: not being more patient, efficient, and especially for how I tend to fall apart when I get stressed. Too much stress makes me feel like I am stuck in mud – all of a sudden, I’m tired all day, I can’t make decisions, and I start procrastinating big time. Not to mention the days I lie around and eat too much, which only increases my feelings of being bogged down.

It’s easy when I’m feeling good to think of all the ways I should handle stress; not so easy when I’m in the midst of it. So I decided I’d make a little list of positive (healthy – not drowning my troubles in margaritas) ways I can start to feel better right away. Instead of making decisions about how to handle things, I just take a quick inventory of whether I’m more mentally or physically tired and pick one from the list below. What’s on your stress relief list?

  1. Go out for a walk. This is the one that feels hardest to do sometimes, yet it has the most instantaneous effect because I’m getting away from what’s bothering me and getting my endorphins flowing. Sometimes I have to force myself to look around me rather than continue to stew over whatever’s on my mind while I walk, but walking makes everything better.
  1. Clean up the house. If I can’t go for a walk, the next best help is cleaning, which is usually the last thing I feel like doing when I’m stressed out, but again, it burns off some tension and the end result makes me feel better too.
  1. Take a nap. When I’m not productive, I layer the guilt trips onto myself like blankets on a cold winter night. But there are days I am really, really tired and truly can’t make good decisions or get anything done, and then I know it’s time for a break. Paying more attention to my body’s needs has headed off many a meltdown.
  1. Read a good book/do needlepoint/solve a puzzle. Sometimes I’m physically tired but mentally running a hundred miles an hour. These activities take my mind off things. Notice I didn’t add watching TV or movies. I’ve noticed that I tend to feel worse when I lie around watching Netflix or cruising Facebook when I’m down. Something about screen time pulls me deeper into the abyss.
  1. Consult with my higher power. To borrow from Alcoholics Anonymous, it helps to “let go and let God.” The times I feel most stressed are when I think I have to do it all myself, know it all myself, take care of it all myself. Sometimes huge stress is the reset button I need to remind me that I can’t handle everything on my own.

[Image courtesy of public domain images on http://www.pixabay.com]

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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Sending positive intentions to others (aka prayers)

praying-614374_1280My older son often has difficulty falling asleep.  I think it’s safe to say we’ve all had those nights where rumination and worry interrupt a good night’s rest. My advice to him? “Think of every person you’ve ever met and say a prayer for them.” That should take a while. It was a more intellectual version of counting sheep, and hopefully, a way to help others.

He said it helped him, and for me it sparked a new habit. Every night before I go to sleep I take a few minutes to pray for whoever is on my mind. That almost always includes my family and loved ones, but sometimes people I haven’t seen in years pop into my head too, even people I don’t even know.

For example, one time a man in his early twenties outside a movie theater approached me to ask for money. He was clearly a drug addict and looked so defeated and unhealthy. I was afraid, but I gave him a few dollars. He said thank you and walked away. I prayed for him then, knowing the money would probably go toward drugs rather than food. This was years ago, and yet I still pray for him regularly. I wonder what happened to him and I’ll never know, but I wanted so badly for him to feel loved. I could see he didn’t love himself and probably believed no one else did either.

I’ve dabbled with the idea of creating a prayer list because I’m an organized sort of person who loves to write things down (like everything I eat, every day). There are many prayer list apps our there if you’re interested. I thought about using one of them, but something about an app that reminds you to pray takes away the mystery for me. I am afraid it would become rote instead of the heartfelt spontaneous prayers I make now.

Some of the apps even have boxes you can check off when prayers are answered. My children’s Sunday school teacher reminds them that ALL prayers are answered. It’s just that sometimes the answer is “not yet” or even “no.” One of the mysteries of faith is accepting that very bad things happen to good people. We can choose to believe the universe is random or that all things have meaning, but either way, we’re not yet ready to understand fully. You don’t see the result of some prayers for a long time or ever in some cases. Did all my prayers for the drug-addicted man who approached me in a parking lot help him in any way? I’d like to think so, but I’ll never be able to check off a box definitively.

Prayer has the power to bring you out of yourself and deeper into yourself at the same time. When you’re praying for others, you’re setting your ego aside. You’re pulling yourself out of “poor me” mode. Nothing snaps me out of a bad mood faster than remembering all the people who have gone through much worse than I could ever imagine. But you are also allowed (and encouraged) to ask for yourself. Just knowing it’s not all on me to fix anyone else or myself gives me a sense of peace. I am putting forth the effort, but I’m not working alone.

Whether you believe in prayer or not, I’m sure you can acknowledge that wishing someone well, even if they don’t know you are doing so, just might change their lives for the better. I’ll be praying for you.

[Image courtesy of Gadini at www.pixabay.com]

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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It’s 10x easier to do it yourself (but you shouldn’t)

FullSizeRenderI decided this was the summer that my sons would learn to cut the grass. They would take over a job I’ve been doing since I was 12. It’s a task that’s half tedious and annoying, half meditative and relaxing. I’ve been looking forward for years to pass the reins.

My younger son embraced the challenge, but he’s an independent type, one who doesn’t like to be told “the best way” to do something, even if he’s never done it himself. Therefore, there are little mohawks and tufts of grass that didn’t get cut because my directive to overlap each row went unheeded. The tracks run a criss-cross haphazard path rather than the orderly farmer’s rows I create each time I go out to mow.

As I watched him work, growing impatient at times to be finished (how I know the way that last twenty minutes seems to drag out!), getting frustrated when he got into corners it was hard to get out of, and altogether missing a few areas, I thought how much easier it would be to do it myself. I could keep cutting the grass — it’s only an hour a week, and only for those few precious months of summer.

I could do it myself and look out my windows at a yard mowed by someone with years of experience, or I could put my perfectionism aside for the more important goal of seeing my son learn how to do something better with practice (there were fewer mohawks the second time). I can appreciate his pluckiness – even though his arm isn’t quite long enough yet, he wants to try to start the mower himself each time.

I don’t even remember how I learned to cut the grass. Knowing my dad, he probably just sent me out and said “figure it out,” which is how I got so good at doing a lot of different things. I can show my son that I have that same confidence in him that my parents had in me. When my sons do a cleanup job that wastes paper towels, at least they are cleaning up, and when the grass isn’t cut perfectly, it’s still getting cut, and that’s good enough for me.

Traveling way outside my comfort zone

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“East or west, home is best.” This is a phrase I grew up hearing my father say often, especially when he got back from another international business trip. It’s something I say to myself nearly every time I pull into my driveway.

Even though I’ve been a single parent for the past several years, I’ve never in that time taken my kids anywhere overnight by myself. I don’t really enjoy traveling, flying, or going to new places. This spring and summer, I decided that had to change.

My kids and I just got home from a one-night trip to western Pennsylvania (about four hours away), to places we’d never been before. My older son developed a fascination with Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. He set a picture of it as our computer desktop background and asked me every few months about going.

Wow, was it worth it! We had a great time. My older son said the tour was even better than he had expected and my younger son (the one I’ve now and then accused of taking all his blessings for granted) thanked me many times for our trip and how much fun it was.

I will confess that I naturally have a lot of anxiety and the main way I keep it at bay is through routine. Get up at the same time every day, have the same breakfast every day, follow a to-do list I wrote the night before every day… what may sound boring to you is comfort to me.

Most people would be shocked to hear that I’m anxious because I come across as easygoing and carefree a lot of the time. That’s because I happen to be fortunate enough to have a lot of control over what I do when (a major indicator of human happiness). Only those who know me well see the cracks at the seams when we eat dinner two hours later than I expected or had plans to go somewhere that get changed last minute.

I am not a go-with-the-flow type of person, so taking a last minute trip to somewhere I’ve never been before, finding a hotel online, and driving across the state with some handwritten directions scrawled on a scrap of paper were definitely pushing my boundaries. To one of my world-traveling coworkers, I equated it with her going to Russia.

It got me thinking, what else can I do to keep growing and experiencing new things? What do you do, large and small, to get out of your comfort zone and into the great big world? I’d love your ideas! (Please don’t suggest varying my breakfast, ’cause that ain’t happening.)

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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The broken cup

I am a person of routine. I wake up at 5:40 without an alarm, make a cup of coffee, toast two pieces of raisin bread, spread two tablespoons of peanut butter on my toast, then have my toast and coffee with the same cup and the same plate every morning.

As you can guess, the cup is the one that’s all smashed up in the picture above.

One morning I used a different mug to make green tea because I wasn’t feeling well and I knew the tea would be soothing. My son was reaching up over his head in the cabinet to pull out a cup for his own breakfast and wouldn’t you know it, my favorite cup smashed all over the floor. He was extremely apologetic, and I told him it was okay, but I had to go into the other room where I burst into tears.

This was a cup that my mom had bought for me. It was handmade glazed pottery. It felt smooth in my hands and it was the perfect size and the perfect color. If you have a favorite coffee mug, you know the feeling I mean when the cup is just the right weight and the handle fits just right with your hand. This cup felt like it was made for me. I loved the soothing color of the glaze. I loved that it was a gift from my mother that I used every day and enjoyed so much.

My son picked up the handle from the floor and said, “This piece doesn’t have any jagged edges. We could put it in a special little box and save it.”

This is the moment I snapped back to reality and was thankful that I had a son who needed my guidance on how to handle broken things, because life is full of broken things.

“We’re going to pick up the pieces and throw them out,” I told him. “If we save the handle, every time we look at it, we’ll remember the broken cup. It’s just a cup and we can’t make a shrine to a cup.” Of course, I had to take a picture of my cup. I never would have thought to take a picture of my cup when it was intact because I took it for granted that it would be there to use every day. But after a few days, I deleted it from my phone, realizing I needed to let it go.

This happened a few weeks ago and I’ve moved on. I have a new favorite cup. It’s made in China and it’s not very attractive and I don’t feel like looking at Christmas lights in the summer, but it holds coffee and it does the job. I figure this cup will get broken someday too, and that’s okay.

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If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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Why clinging to the past (or the future) makes you suffer

Being a parent forces you to constantly be aware of the passage of time. Your life runs to the rhythm of school years and holidays and sports seasons and annual checkups. Parents feel it, and kids feel it too. I don’t know how many times my kids have said they can’t wait for this day or that trip or alternately, that they don’t want summer to be over or to grow up too fast.

If you haven’t seen this video about the girl who doesn’t want her baby brother to grow up because he’s just sooo cute, it hits you in two layers. The first is how adorable she is (and she’s right about her baby brother). But there’s also a deeper undercurrent of the pain we share with her of wanting to stop time.

I recently read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle explains the difference between clock time and psychological time. Clock time is what you use to function day to day, to get places on time and do what you need to do. Psychological time is the attachment you feel to the past or the future, anything that is pulling you away from the moment you are in right now. Psychological time can bring suffering because you are either comparing now to the past and finding it lacking, or you feel that you need something in the future to make you happier.

The girl who doesn’t want her baby brother to grow up was experiencing the pain of living on psychological time. I see it in my own life as well. I am flooded with old emails that I don’t want to get rid of in case there’s an important memory I’ll lose. I sometimes feel sad when I look at family pictures, even though they are from happy events, because I long to relive them or to be younger (or especially to see my kids be younger again).

When we hold on to the past like this, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to fully experience the present. By lamenting about how short the summer seems or how quickly a vacation passes, you are robbing the event of its enjoyment by anticipating its end. If you are a planner like I am, you might spend a lot of your present time with your thoughts on the future. People say I’m “organized,” or but it’s really a form of anxiety about things that haven’t happened yet.

Since reading Tolle’s book and watching Sadie cry over her baby brother, I am trying to keep re-centering myself in the present moment, to stop dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. I hope that my kids see a difference in my attentiveness toward them and that they too practice living in the now.

As Oogway says to Po in Kung Fu Panda, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

If you like reading about families, please check out my novel, Giving Myself Away.

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