Gratitude

Today I am grateful for little things:

For shovels full of rich soil and seeds to put in it.

For growing grass and delicate blossoms.

For my two furry friends who console me in my solitude.

For silky, soft yarn that slips through my fingers as I knit.

For fresh cool air and the ability to breathe it in deeply.

For sunshine and clouds.

For the way black beans combine with rice for a hearty simple supper.

For the sound of the windchime dancing on the breeze.

What are you grateful for today?

A Bit of Butter

Sometimes the deliciously simple solution to our problems is right in front of our eyes.

I’m a bit of a Lord of the Rings fan, as much for the nuggets of wisdom and the rich symbolism that are strewn about the books as I am for the story. One of my favorite lines is spoken by Bilbo, “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that is scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right.” This scene takes place at the beginning of the story. Gandalf the wizard realizes the Bilbo’s magic ring is gaining too much power over him. Bilbo has possessed it so long that he is beginning to get thin. Gandalf urges Bilbo to let go of the ring. The rest of the three novel story revolves around the struggle to destroy this ring—this ring that gives power and extends life without giving life. The ring becomes a powerful symbol of possessiveness and the desire to control.

I often feel like Bilbo—a bit of butter scraped over too much bread. I have said that before and added with a bit of bitterness that I don’t even have a ring of power to show for it. But as I sit and analysis why I feel this way I wonder: do I have a ring of power that I try to hold onto even though I know it hurts me? I feel thin and stretched because I tend to have too many personal goals that I feel I need to accomplish; then on top of that I pile commitment after commitment. I feel that I need to do everything everyone asks me to do.

Why? I often feel powerless when I say yes to too many things. But if I’m honest, this tendency to take on too much is a bit of a power play. When I say yes to too many things it usually comes about because I want people to like me: I want to control how others feel about me. When I have all these goals I want to reach, it’s because I want to feel accomplished; I want to be a type of wonder woman, a super hero who manages all the challenges life throws at me. Of course, I have better, higher motives as well. Those are what I focus on until I realize I’m too thin and stretched. Then I have to ask myself where I’m overreaching.

Maybe it’s time to do a little interior spring cleaning. Maybe it’s time to dust out the corners of my heart. Maybe I need to dig a little to see what I need to let go of.

But that that’s a long term project. I need to feel less thin and stretched today: when I’m pressed for time and need to somehow need to finish writing my blog post, take a relevant photo, get to work on time. Oh yes. And eat. I forgot about eating.

I am really so stupid that I was taking pictures of dense, healthy, substantial bread wondering what I was going to make for breakfast this morning. Then I asked myself if I was try to make everything more complicated than it needs to be. Then I saw my solution right before my eyes. Then I ate my solution without toasting it, with nothing but the butter that was there. And it was delicious. It gave me strength and an idea how to wrap up my thoughts.

Sometimes the deliciously simple solution to our problems is right in front of our eyes.

When I feel too stretched, it is usually because I am trying control every aspect of my existence. I try so hard to cover all the bread with butter that I forget that for the moment all I need to do it cover a slice or two for breakfast. When I’m trying to look in every direction, I forget to focus on what is right in front of me. I wonder how many deliciously simple solutions that were right right in front of me throughout life that I’ve missed because I was trying too hard to control the situation.

Rest

Today I sat down to enjoy a cup of tea and take a little break between morning chores. The earth around me lay dormant, though somethings were starting to wake up for their yearly growth spurt. A pair of mourning doves landed on a sleeping maple to take a little rest. My cats stretched out lazily at my feet. It was a moment of quiet content broken only by my slowly and quietly getting my camera to capture a few images of the birds before slipping back into the moment of rest.

I wonder why it is so hard for me to take a rest. Rest is as natural as breathing. It is essential for health and wellbeing. I know this. I am my best self when I observe a day of rest, take times of rest throughout the day. I am not less productive when I do it. I am more productive, especially in terms of quality. Yet I more often than not run around like a hamster on its wheel wearing itself out while getting no where.

We have a culture that is driven by efficiency. I believe that efficiency is a good thing. So is water, but I don’t want to drown. Are we drowning in efficiency today? Would our efficiency produce more of quality and less garbage if we allowed ourselves more dormant time—time to watch a pair of mourning doves preen on branch, time to rejoice and give thanks for the shear wonder of our existence?

Tools for Time Management

Today I want to continue talking about time management tools. Different people have different relationships with time. Time management comes more naturally to some of us. Some of us are going to thrive with a schedule, while others will find following a schedule too limiting. But all of us need to come to grips with our relationship with time. Here are some tools I’ve found helpful.

Have the Right Attitude Towards Time

The most useful time management tool I have ever used is a simple attitude adjustment. When I realize that I am the one who chooses what I do with my time, everything changes.

Too often I feel at the mercy of time: It passes too quickly. There are so many obligations that I have. I have to go to work. I have to write a blog post on a certain day. I have to make supper. I don’t always feel like I have a choice about what I am doing. Somehow life planned my day out for me, and there is nothing I can do but respond.

A family heirloom clock that inspired me to write a fairytale. If only I could find the time to polish it up and get it published!

When I am feeling overwhelmed, I find it useful to remind myself that even my obligations are things that I have chosen. I choose to go to work because I want to be able to pay my bills. I choose to write a blog and post consistently because I have ideas that I want to share with the world. Of course, I need to eat to live, but when and what is my choice and I often make it more complicated than I need to.

Switching around how I think about these things helps me feel empowered to face them. I’m no longer at the mercy of time and a thousand obligations. I am an artist painting my life in the medium of time and obligations. Time has its limitations like any medium, but just as the limitations of oils gives character to the oil painting, the time in which we find ourselves gives character to our lives.

Creating a Schedule

I like making schedules. I don’t always have them, but life seems to go better when I do.

Scheduling works best for me when I jot things down on a piece of paper rather than when I go out and buy a fancy planner. I’m not sure if that is just because I haven’t found a planner I like, or if there is something liberating about writing things down on a scrap. Does it give a sense of order with a sense of flexibility built in? If buying a planner works best for you, go for it. But if you are new to scheduling, don’t wait till you buy a planner. Try it first on a scrap of paper and see if you take to it before you spend money on a planner.

The beauty of a schedule is that it helps me figure out how I can accomplish everything I want to accomplish. It also helps me be realistic. I might want to get 30 things done in a day but only have time for 10. A schedule gives me a visual image on how impossible my ideas are. It helps me adjust my expectations so that I am not constantly feeling inadequate. It encourages me to prioritize and to phase out or defer the things that aren’t as important to me.

Write Down What You Actually Do

In addition to making aschedule ahead of time, it can also be helpful to write down what you actually do. I usually do this on the same paper that I used to make the schedule. I find this at least as useful as having a plan to begin with. It helps me identify time drains. Say I had yard work scheduled but first I wanted to watch a YouTube video about organic weed control. One hour later I realize that I am watching habanero eating contests on YouTube and no yard work has been done and haven’t even watched any weed control videos. Writing it down helps me become more aware of my time drain quirks.

The reverse of that is that writing down what you do also helps you see when you are using your time productively. Some days we get a lot done, but maybe it isn’t what we set out to do. If I go out to do yard work but suddenly feel inspired to write a blog post, making the note on the schedule gives me a sense of accomplishment. It also lets me see how I might fit the yard work into another time slot.

Do It Now

We’ve all heard the adage: “Never put off till tomorrow that which you can do today.” I don’t think that is always good advice, but it has enough wisdom to be useful. Some projects are just going to get larger and larger as you put them off. Some opportunities will be missed if you don’t act immediately. Sometimes waiting to do something only prolongs the agony. You know you have to do that dreaded thing. You put it off because you don’t want to, but the dread hangs over you the whole time. It would be better if you just did it.

Bribe Yourself with a Promise of Free Time

All work and no play make Mary a dull girl. I believe we all need leisure to be our best selves.

One technique I use is to promise myself 15 minutes of leisure to every ____ minutes working on a project. The amount of time on the project depends on the day and the project. Sometimes I go 15 and 15. Other times I go 45 and 15. I wrote the draft of this blog taking a 15-minute break after 15 minutes of cleaning, then 15 minutes of writing.

Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

No single time management tool is going to fit your needs all the time. I started this post on a free day using the promise of a 15-minute break to get myself to write when I didn’t fel like it. I’m finishing it in Do It Now mode because it’s Thursday, and I am choosing to follow my plan of posting on Thursday. Mastering a time management tool does not mean that you will be bound by that tool in the future. It means that you now have another tool that you can pick up and put down at will.

What Works Best for You

What works well for me might not be the best for you. I don’t function well when I am constantly in Do It Now mode. I function best with a general plan. Other people do well in Do It Now mode. If that is how you operate best, fantastic! Just make sure that you aren’t so much in the habit of responding to things as they arise, that you never make time to reflect on what it is you truly want to accomplish in life. Make sure you are giving yourself time to accomplish them.

What works best for you? Do you have favorite time management technique? Is there something that you haven’t tried yet that might make your life run more smoothly?

Richer Than a King

Growing up poor, I learned that my worth comes from something other than economic status.

Sunday morning I awoke to a world encased in crystal and covered in diamonds. It brought me back to a favorite childhood memory.

One evening I decided to venture out sledding by the light of the full moon. I don’t remember much of the sledding. I remember standing on top of a hill looking out over a glittering valley. I was no longer a bumpkin in patched jeans: I was a princess covered in diamonds.

We were richer than kings, my Dad used to say. I rarely felt that way in my out of style, worn out clothing. And we could never afford a saddle for my pony. Funny that it never occurred to me how blessed I was to have a pony in the first place. This moonlit sledding venture was, perhaps, the first time I truly understood what Dad meant.

It’s also funny how I let the fact of being out of style influence my sense of self-worth. I never cared that much about the fashion industry. My own tastes gravitate to folk art. (I was fusion before fusion was cool.) Yet I was painfully aware that I was somehow different. (That’s what happens in high school when you listen to Russian opera instead of pop music.) I always felt like the odd one, like someone in the wrong place and time.

Now when I look back, I see that wasn’t such a bad thing. I learned that my worth comes from something other than economic status. I learned to exist and think independently. I learned to make my own sense of style and develop my own sense of beauty. I feel no need to buy the latest fashion, listen to the latest sound… Perhaps that makes me irrelevant in the eyes of some people. That fact is still somewhat painful to me, though less so than it was when I was young. The opinion of those people, even if it stings a little, is ultimately irrelevant to me.

I learned to see diamonds in the snow. I’d rather have that gift than all the jewels in the world. I’d rather have that gift than to be considered relevant by people who don’t understand where real wealth lies.

Facing Our Brokenness

It’s not easy to face our brokenness. When I look inside, sometimes all I can see is a cracked pot.

But an old, cracked pot, doesn’t need to lie forgotten in the snow. Put it together with some old, dried weeds and you have a bouquet.

Likewise, our brokenness, when we embrace others in their brokenness, takes on a new meaning. Even if the cracks remain visible, we become whole and significant.

An old, cracked pot, doesn’t need to lie forgotten in the snow. Put it together with some old, dried weeds and you have a bouquet.

How to Savor Nature Through Art

One of the best ways I have found to train myself to observe nature is to make a chronical of what I see through writing, photograph, and art. Winter is a good time to practice on houseplants, pets, and whatever you see out of your window. You may gravitate more to writing or visual arts. The nice thing about writing is you can use it to develop your all your senses. I gravitate to writing but enjoy visual arts as well.

I did a study of an orchid through writing, photography, and watercolor. I will use it as an example of how I observe nature through art.

Write about it.

Your writing can be practical or creative. A garden or nature journal is a good way to keep a record of what is or isn’t working for you. A poem is a good way to observe the color, form, and the emotions evoked.

If you go for creative writing, don’t get hung up on form. You don’t have to turn it in to your English teacher. I invite you to post what you write in the comments, but I promise I won’t grade it unless you ask me to.

What are some descriptive words you can use? Can you think of a metaphor? What are some poetic devices you can use?

Here is my orchid poem:

Winged flower flying
Glides over green
On slender stalk.

Roots reaching:
Skyward, Downward

Dance of delight.

My poem doesn’t follow any set structure. I made use of alliteration, metaphor, parallel structure of opposites, and short staccato lines. I didn’t try to fit it into any poetic mold, other than I wanted the lines short. The point was the orchid, not the poem.

The poem and my favorite of the photos with a little help from Photoshop. Unless you want to add a poem to your image, you can get beautiful photos with your phone without any photo editing.

Photograph It

You might not have a camera, but you probably have a phone. Most phones today have good cameras. I developed a love of photography playing with the camera on my phone. I have an expensive camera now, but my phone started me on that path.

Pick a subject for your study or just go outside and look for interesting subjects. If your subject is a houseplant, take pictures in different light and with different backgrounds. Arrange it with other objects. (If your subject is a cat, watch for the way it arranges itself with other objects.) Try different angles. Lie on the floor. Set the plant on the floor. Try different things till you come up with something you really like.

Don’t worry if most of your pictures aren’t that great. I took 34 pictures of the orchid and only liked about 5. The point was the orchid, not the photography.

Draw It or Paint It

I had an amazing art teacher in high school who taught us, among other things, that if you can see, you can draw. The biggest part of learning how to draw is learning how to see. And I believe she was correct. Seeing teaches you to draw and drawing teaches you to see. When you practice drawing you will be better both at the seeing and the drawing.

One way to warm yourself up to really seeing an object is to do a blind contour drawing. Look at the object and draw the outline without looking at your paper. Seriously. No peeking allowed. Don’t expect a masterpiece, but you might be pleasantly surprised. I often find the results strangely appealing. The best thing about the exercise is it gets you to focus on seeing rather than on producing a product.

Beautiful isn’t it? Contour drawings also cure you of the idea that every time you put a pencil to the paper you need to produce something awesome.

Now choose a medium and create your work of art. Water color is my favorite medium, so that’s what I did. If you don’t hoard art supplies like I do, just use what you have. Use a pen and printer paper if that’s all you have. Just enjoy.

It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. I actually like my photo of the painting better than the painting itself.

Your Turn

Pick and activity. Give yourself at least 15 minutes to observe and create.

What did you do? Were you happy with the results?

Sewing, Photography, Botanical Embroidery? What Is Your Kind of Creative Genius?

One of the main reasons I wanted to start a blog was to encourage other people to explore and develop their own creativity as I explore and develop mine. Everyone is gifted in a unique way. We often know what some of our gifts are but not others. I believe we all have hidden talents. I believe that we get funny ideas about what we can and can’t do that just don’t match reality. If you tell yourself you can’t paint, you won’t paint. You probably aren’t good at painting because you never gave yourself permission to try. If you don’t like painting, fine. But if you ever had the thought, “I wish I could paint like that!” Give it a try. Take a class. Watch YouTube videos. Your first paintings might disappoint you, but if you enjoy it, keep trying. You will get better with practice. But even if you get very good, you might never “paint like that.” You have your kind of creative genius; it never will be the next guy’s creative genius.

How do you find and develop yours? It is important to give yourself space to develop, nurture the things you genuinely enjoy, and learn when to let go of activities.

Give yourself room to develop.

I find that I sabotage my own creativity in two ways. I don’t give myself time to develop, or I don’t give myself mental permission to develop.

  1. There is never enough time to do everything. There is always something to do. Right now my house is a mess. I could convince myself that the most important thing for me to do right now is take out the compost, clean the bathroom, and clear the jumble of clothing off my bedroom floor. I could easily convince myself I really shouldn’t be writing right now. In order to make time to write, the other things have to wait. It takes a conscious effort to give myself permission to write.
  2. The other way we don’t give ourselves permission to be creative is that we get it in our heads that creativity is some rare gift that only a few people have. Maybe you were told you’d never be good at something, or maybe you just decided that on your own. Maybe you really won’t ever be great at something. If you enjoy it, why not develop it anyway?

Where do you thrive?

  1. Some people enjoy one thing and specialize in that one thing. Maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s painting. Maybe they enjoy both but specialize in one and dabble in the other. That’s great. These folks enrich the world with their mastery.
  2. Then there are the all-purpose creative people. I’m in that category. Name something creative, and I’ve probably tried or thought about trying it for at least 10 seconds. And I get pretty good at things. I’ve developed all five senses through conscious observation and practical exercise. I am an observer before I am a creator. I am fairly good at a lot of things but haven’t specialized enough to be truly great. And that’s great. People like me enrich the world by singing in church and community choirs, bringing tasty meals to potlucks, knitting people sweaters, and creating eclectic blogs.
  3. Then there are people whose talent is for things not generally considered creative. Maybe home organizing is your true art. Then there is city planning, engineering, coding, running a department store… These are arts. They are necessary. And they really are creative. Sewer systems are not glamorous, but the lack of them is even less so. Aren’t you glad someone thought of them and figured out how to bring them to the world? If that’s your form of creative genius, you are fantastic!

Learn how to let go of the things that aren’t right for you.

  1. You can’t do everything. I’m still trying to learn this. I genuinely enjoy trying different things, so it can be hard for me to let go. In some ways, the Internet made it easier for me to give some things up. I’m constantly bombarded with ads for crafts, and Pinterest has more ideas for me every day. It’s overwhelming. My sanity requires me to say, “This is fun to look at, but I’m never going to do it.” Then there are the things that I enjoyed in the past that I never get around to anymore. These are harder to let go of. But there just isn’t time for everything. Life has different seasons. I find the greatest happiness in living in harmony with the season of today.
  2.  You won’t enjoy everything. I don’t like quilting; it’s easy for me to let go of. I never got into scrapbooking either, but I tried to talk myself into it because someone gave me a handmade book that was for scrapbooking. It took me years to say, “I’m never going to do this.” I used the book for a sketch book instead. Don’t let other people’s ideas of what you might like or how you should use your talents make you feel like you should be doing something that just isn’t right for you. You are the steward of your own talents.

What is your kind of creative genius?

I’m always going to challenge you to do something at the end of each blogpost. And I do really hope you will try some of the things I recommend. But I’d rather inspire you to find your creative niche than to have you follow my footsteps. If I suggest drawing, and you take up botanical embroidery instead, fantastic!

Your task for today is to think about where your creative genius lies. Do you fit in one of the three categories I mentioned? Do you feel it lies in an area that I didn’t mention? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Is there something you’d like to try or try again? Find a way to make it happen. I’d like to hear about that in the comments too.

The Refreshing Silence of Winter

Today I invite you to drink deeply of the golden silence of winter. Think of a snowy night when the traffic is minimal, and folks are at home where it’s warm. Snow muffles what little sound there is. The silence invites you. Step outside and breath in the cold, quiet air. Let your self be revived if only for a moment.

Maybe your conditions are not as I described them. Maybe your winter is gray and rainy. Maybe you are reading this as you procrastinate from a task with a looming deadline, sirens are going down the street, and your teenager is blasting the kind of music you hate. Never mind all that. If you procrastinate a few more minutes, it isn’t going to make much difference. You might even find yourself revived enough to finish the task at hand. Your teenager won’t die if you ask them to turn down the volume. (They might think they are dying and act like they are dying, but it won’t actually be fatal. Maybe they need an invitation into reviving silence too.)

One way or another, step away from the noise even if you can only do it in your mind.

Speaking of your mind—when you step into silence, your mind can sometimes become very noisy. A thousand thoughts may crowd into your head. Stepping into silence, ironically can be like stepping into a noisy party in your head. A few dozen thoughts can suddenly start trying to talk over the background music. We never heard them when our attention was turned outward, but now they see their opportunity to get our attention, and they all start to yell.

Ask them to be still for a moment. It is important to try to keep them at bay and give silence its place. Like whitespace on a page that makes it possible to read the written word, silence is the background that makes our thoughts intelligible. The silence will let them be heard when the time is right, but that is a subject for another day. Today we are making space for the silence.

Silence is like the winter rain and snow that refresh the earth so that life can spring up again when the season changes. If the plants spring up too soon, they are killed or set back by the frost. Let yourself be refreshed by the silence before you let your thoughts spring up.

When the winter rains and snows come, don’t curse them. Bless them: They are inviting you into blessed, refreshing silence.

Taking Inventory in the Root Cellar and in Life: Is It Time to Make a Pie?

I found a moldy squash in my closet a few days ago. There’s nothing unusual about that; it happens to me all the time. I practice the ancient art of live storage of vegetables. In the days before refrigerators, people grew vegetables that would keep in a cold cellar or attic. If the proper handling and storage conditions are maintained, a nice variety of vegetables will keep well into the winter. I’ve had squash keep into the spring. The thing is: with live storage, you can’t just tuck your fruits and veggies away and forget about them. Some things will go bad. You have to go through the produce in storage from time to time, make use of the things that are likely to go bad soon, and dispose of things that have gone bad. One rotten apple really will spoil the whole barrel.

It’s not a big loss if you catch it in time. The rotten apple or squash goes to the compost heap, returns to the soil to nourish growth in a future year. It may come back as a flower, or tomato, or weeds. It will probably also come back as a squash. Some of my healthiest plants are volunteers that come up from seeds in the compost heap. If you neglect the things in storage, however, you very quickly will end up with a mushy rotting mess. That too will go to the compost and come back in time, but you will lose a lot of your harvest in the short term.

That rotting squash got me thinking: Life is a lot like keeping produce in live storage. Our minds and our hearts are like attics and root cellars. We store a lot of things in them. We have to have some care as to what we are putting in storage and how we handle it when we put it in. Not everything deserves a place in our minds and hearts. We should have some care what we read, listen to, or watch and who we hang around with. And even if we take care about having the right things in our hearts and mind, we still have to clear things out from time to time. We store up dreams, ideas, things we want to try. We make bucket lists. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s healthy.

But the problem is we tend to hold onto things until they get moldy. They were good when we put them in, but they can stay there past their time. If we keep on hanging on to them after that, they ooze out onto the other plans and dreams and make those go off too.

Is it time to go through the things that you have stored away in yourself? Are there apples that are starting to get wrinkled? Maybe you should a pie with them before they go off. Do you have a squishy squash that needs to go to the compost? Don’t let it make your prize pumpkin go bad.

I’ve found that letting go of dreams or ideas when it’s time is a remarkably good way of making my mind a fertile ground for new intellectual, creative, and spiritual growth. Sometimes a dream gets reworked into something else. Sometimes a fragment appears in a new setting. Sometimes letting go of one thing make time and space for a new and better thing.

The art of finding the proper time is essential both for live storage and for a fully lived life. Your vegetables, dreams, ideas, and plans may have all been sound when you stored them away. But maybe you left them there a little too long. You missed the optimal time. Nevermind. Let it go. If you compost it, it will still enrich your soil. Maybe you stored away a little too much. You could have given a little of that squash to the neighbors. Maybe your idea was there to inspire others, but you kept it for yourself, and it went off. Nevermind. Let it go. If you compost it, it will enrich your soil. Maybe it was only there to enrich the soil in the first place. The important thing is to let it go without fretting. Fretting is just another way of keeping the rotting squash in storage. It’s time to let go.

Or maybe you have an idea that is still sound and will keep until a new season of your life. Don’t be afraid to keep it in storage while you attend to the things that need done today. The time will come when the other ideas are spent. Then you can bring it out and make use of it. If it gets moldy. You know what to do with it. Who knows what seeds it carries to spring up from the ground and bear new fruit.

What is still sound and ready to use today? Is it time to make and enjoy a pie? Is it time to roast some root vegetables? Better do that before the time has past.

Your challenge for today is to take 5 or 10 minutes to ask yourself: Do you have in your life that you need to take to the compost heap? Are there things that you need to make something of now before the ingredients go off? Are there things that your spending time on that you could keep in storage a little bit longer? Write it down or tell someone. And take the appropriate actions.