Friday, July 3, 2020

What's Important Can't Be Seen

As the fire season in California gets longer and longer, the possibility of evacuation and loss becomes more real.

So it wasn't just an intellectual exercise when my husband and I discussed what we would take if that necessity arose.

As we looked around our home, we realized how much of the stuff we own we could easily get along without.

That's not to say it wouldn't be a hassle if all of our possessions were damaged or destroyed, and it's not to say we wouldn't miss some of them.  But we agreed that we can enjoy these things while we have them and at the same time their loss wouldn't be devastating.  That's actually a liberating feeling.

We don't have to wait for a dangerous situation.  We can begin today to think about what we really need and treasure.  We can get rid of the clutter and excess, and loosen our emotional attachments to everything else.  This can be a very peaceful way to live.

Look around your house and imagine you have thirty minutes to evacuate, and the only things you can take with you are what you can fit in the back of your car.  What would you take?  If you did lose it all, and had to start all over again, how would you do it differently?

When you get right down to it, it's surprising how little we need.

Our happiness really doesn't depend on owning a houseful of stuff.  Sure we have basic needs that need to be met: food, utilities, shelter, transportation.  Financial adviser Dave Ramsey, author of The Total Money Makeover, calls these The Four Walls.  Along with basic clothing, these are the things you fund first when you're in a financial crisis, because these are the necessities for survival.  Everything else is gravy.

But if you're forced to leave your house for any reason, you're probably not worried about your furniture, your TV, or your collections.  You don't care that much about your brand-new stand mixer or your deluxe outdoor grill.  You're not worried about the items in the back of your clothes closet or the sports equipment in the garage.

In a hurry, you're grabbing your kids and your pets.  Medications, important papers, your phone and laptop, and your wallet.  You might add a change of clothes and underwear, and your pet's leash, bowls, and litter box.  If you have time, you might take some family photos or a scrapbook, and your child might want a favorite toy.  But once your family is safe, you'll realize that everything else is either replaceable or completely unimportant.

Who you are, what you really value, and what you can contribute to the world has nothing to do with the stuff you own.  The things that are really important can't be seen.

We know this, but we don't always live like we know this.

So when I get too caught up in deciding on new upholstery for my couch, or new curtains for my window, or a new outfit for a special occasion, or whether I should upgrade my phone... that's the time to remember this truth.  I need to own some things, but not many, and I certainly don't need to waste much time worrying about them.

Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

Monday, June 29, 2020

First Things

A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with, but how efficiently we can put first things first.

Victoria Moran 

I'm so pleased to introduce my new book Resilient: How Minimalism Helps You Cope With the Challenges of Life, available now on Amazon.  I cannot explain the problems that arose publishing this book under its original title (Everything to Gain), because for the life of me, I can't understand them myself!  I'm chalking it up to the disruptions of COVID-19, and to the apparently reduced staff at Kindle Direct Publishing.  Resilient (with a gorgeous cover photo by my husband Jon) is currently available in the Kindle edition and will soon (I HOPE!) be available in paperback as well.

Because of the issues surrounding publication, I was actually able to add more material and to reshape what I had originally planned for this book, and I'm even happier with the final result.

All of us are uncertain about the future, but minimalism can help us deal with whatever might come next.

Living at full capacity is exhausting, and it makes us less effective.  When a phone or computer gets close to its limits, it may start acting strangely.  Apps may close without notice, crashes are more frequent, the battery drains more quickly.

We are the same.  When we're overloaded and overwhelmed, our energy is drained.  We have less patience and flexibility.  We're so bogged down by what we've accumulated in the past that we have no heart for what comes next.

When we let ourselves get frazzled and distracted by too much stuff and busyness, we're left with less energy to cope, let alone find peace in adversity.  But if we choose to live with less clutter, busyness, debt, and stress, something amazing happens.  While before we could barely keep up, now we have the capacity to focus, to pay attention.  We can use our precious resources of time and energy in ways that bring us the greatest fulfillment.

The answer to lightening your physical and mental load isn't more square footage, a smart gadget, or a better organizing system.  It's found when you look closely at what takes up your space, time, and energy and offload all of the excess.

When you know your priorities, it's easier to discard the things that don't support them, whether that's clutter in your closets, bloat in your budget, or commitments on your calendar.

When you know what really matters to you, and make those things the focus of your life, you're not bogged down with minutiae.  You've gained the capacity to be resilient – to learn, adapt, and resourcefully deal with problems and setbacks.

That's true freedom.

Consider:  What are your "first things"?  Do your daily choices reflect them?  

Photo © Jon Trefzger

Friday, June 26, 2020

We Need Nature

I have to admit I was not much of a nature kid growing up.  I rode my bike and skated on the sidewalk and climbed trees and played tag, but I was not intrepid or athletic, I didn't enjoy getting dirty, and I had no one to guide me toward an interest in the natural world.  My family didn't do much camping, as my mother didn't care for it, and my dad was busy working two jobs, and grew up in the West Indies, so didn't know much about the flora and fauna, or even the stars, of the San Francisco Bay Area.  I liked trees and fog and flowers, but didn't know much about them.

My husband, however, grew up on nine acres of woods and pasture in rural Placer County, California.  He and his three brothers roamed the woods, raised cattle for 4H, and backpacked all over the Sierras with their dad, a professional geologist and avid amateur astronomer.

So Jon has taught middle school science for over 30 years, and has an informed interest in geology, astronomy, botany, birding, and several other areas.  Most of my knowledge of the natural world has come from him, and as I've learned and observed more, I've increased my appreciation.

One thing I love to do in nature, especially when away from crowds of people or sounds of vehicles, is to walk or sit in silence, simply looking, listening, smelling, and feeling the woods or mountains or ocean or wherever I am.  I don't need or want any man-made input or entertainment.  Nature itself is compelling enough.

A growing body of scientific research indicates that time spent in nature relieves anxiety and depression, helps prevent or reduce obesity, boosts the immune system, improves social bonding and reduces violent behavior, inspires creativity, and strengthens the ideals of conservation.  That's an amazing list of benefits that we should all want to enjoy.

We need to beware living in a world that is becoming increasingly mechanized.

Machines don't need anything green, but we do.  In an urban setting, parks, gardens, and other green spaces aren't just nice amenities, they aren't luxuries, they are necessities.  Rooftop gardens, window planters, and street trees are essential for sanity and humanity in cities.  More organic, multi-crop farms bordered by hedges and streams and wooded areas are essential.  And preserving the wild spaces we have left is also essential.

It is minimalist to have an interest in conservation, to spend quiet time outdoors, and to teach your children to be curious about and nurturing toward our planet – not just the spectacular wonders on so many people's bucket lists, but the small corners of green everywhere around us.  We don't have to travel far to spend time in nature.

When reminiscing about childhood memories, people seldom mention the best day they spent watching TV or playing a video game.  What they do recall, if they're lucky enough to have had such experiences with their families, are camping trips, hikes, hours spent playing in a tree house, the time it snowed on the beach in Mendocino (true story), rafting down a river, catching fireflies, or watching a meteor shower from Grandpa's pasture.  Give your children memories like this, and make them for yourself.  Take regular doses of "Vitamin N."

Photo by Christopher Jolly on Unsplash

Monday, June 22, 2020

Cultivate Self-Worth

During the coronavirus pandemic, social media use has increased significantly, according to new data from a Nielsen study.  While social distancing, we are immersing ourselves in social media as a safe way to connect with others.

And this is fine, if we control our need for external validation.

When I check and recheck the metrics on my blog to see how many page views and subscribers I have, that can be a search for information, or it can be an unhealthy need for external validation.  When I start to doubt my abilities as a writer, or to doubt the value of my message, based on how broad my readership is or on how many people choose to comment, I start losing my sense of motivation and direction.

And it's okay to be excited when one of my articles is published on No Sidebar, but I shouldn't let that rush of serotonin become something I need in order to keep writing every day.  If I'm starting to find self-worth in the opinions of people I've never met and an editorial agenda over which I have no control, I'm going to flounder.

Susie Moore, author of Stop Checking Your Likes: Shake Off the Need for Approval and Live an Incredible Life, writes "Likes have become the current measurement of external approval.  Of fitting in.  Of how good we are allowed to feel."

We acknowledge this every time we add a thumbs up or a little red heart to something a friend has posted on Facebook or Instagram.  I even feel a certain obligation to respond, because I want to let my friends know I'm paying attention and that I think their posts are moving, accurate, important, thought-provoking, funny, valuable. 

That they are valuable.

External approval, whether in the form of social media likes, compliments, or other positive feedback, boosts the levels of feel good chemicals in our brains.  Serotonin, for example, is increased by events that stir up feelings of self-worth and connectedness.

And we need those feelings of value and belonging.  But when social media likes become the measure of how accepted and welcome I feel, then a post that receives fewer or negative responses is going to make me feel ignored and unwanted.  I will soon have no sense of my own worth unless someone else gives it to me.  And that's dangerous.

5 Ways to Overcome the Need for External Approval

1.  Remember your uniqueness.
There is no one like you.  You are here for a reason, and have something to offer the world that others cannot.  But you can't do that by pretending to be someone you're not or by wishing you were someone different.

Take time to ponder your interests, and talk to a friend or mentor who can help you identify your talents and strengths.  Develop a clear sense of purpose and you'll be less likely to seek external validation.

2.  Consider reducing your presence on social media.
Social media is wonderful for staying in touch with friends and loved ones.  But it's possible to do that with email, phone calls, even good old snail mail.

When social media is twisted into a venue for comparison and competition, it quickly becomes toxic.  When you spend hours creating Pinterest boards and longing for the perfect wardrobe, home, or vacation, you're squandering the time and energy you need to craft your own life.

Examine the way you use social media, and make sure it's really a positive means of connection rather than something that increases envy or dissatisfaction.  Remove yourself if you need to.

3.  Trust your gut.
Look around at your home and your life choices.  Are the decisions you've made your own or based on someone else's influence?  Are you chasing career goals and home ownership because that's how you were raised, or are you following your own values, even if they lead to different outcomes?  Are your social media posts designed to draw approval from others, or are they a true expression of yourself?

Take time to get in touch with your inner self through prayer, meditation, or journaling.  The next time you make a decision, let it come from the real you.  Let being true to yourself be your measure of success and of how you feel about an action.

4.  Learn to live with criticism.
Journalist Julia Ubbenga reminds us "Avoiding suffering at all costs stifles our ability to take risks – and ultimately to grow.  Accept that suffering and criticism are parts of life and allow them to happen.  Realize that, although they're not fun, they always pass and you'll still be okay."

Hard moments can teach us about ourselves.  Sometimes we learn that we were wrong, that we need to change and ask forgiveness.  Other times we'll be confirmed in our convictions, and ultimately emerge stronger and more self-confident.  The people we most revere, like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela have stood firm even when they were rejected.

5.  Boost serotonin in other ways.
When you notice that you're seeking approval, increase your brain's feel good chemicals.

  • Take a walk in the sun.
  • Do some yoga or ride your bike.
  • Get a massage.
  • Find at least three things to be thankful for.
  • Look at photos of past happy events.
  • Help someone else.

With social media use on the rise, it's the perfect time to overcome your need for external approval.  Realize that you are valuable, just as you are.

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Friday, June 19, 2020

You Are Essential

As a singer, choir director, and music educator, my career role in society has always been deemed non-essential.  With the current emphasis on STEM-based education* and the centrality of organized sports, the arts are always vulnerable to budget cuts, even at the university level.

However, the arts require focus and discipline.  They have been proven to develop critical thinking and creative problem-solving, important skills for anyone who wants to become innovative, adaptive, and resilient.  And arts such as drama, dance, opera, and performance in choirs, bands, and orchestras require a cooperative mindset, the ability to collaborate and bring out the best in each individual in order to meet a common goal.

I'd say those qualities are essential to our future on this planet.

Perhaps we don't intend to label and characterize jobs and people as "essential" or "non-essential," but we have done so in our response to COVID-19.  And it makes sense – some businesses and jobs are life-and-death vital, and some are not.

I deeply appreciate all of the health care workers, first responders, grocery clerks, delivery personnel, janitors, sanitation engineers, bus drivers, and others who have worked so hard to provide critical services during the past few months.  We could not survive without them.

But I also appreciate my hairdresser, my massage therapist, and the friendly servers at my favorite breakfast place who were all labeled non-essential and were thus unable to work.  I miss the cast and crew of Broadway Sacramento, the pastor at my church, and my town's librarians.

My husband, a 6th grade teacher, missed his students this spring, and reports that Zoom meetings and online lessons could never take the place of day-to-day contact in the classroom.  Yet he appreciates parents who stepped up to supervise and facilitate their kids' distance learning.

We are all essential to someone.

Parents are essential to their children, and those kids are essential to parents, grandparents, teachers, and the world.  All workers are essential to the people they support, whether that means other vendors who supply them, or the families who rely on their income.  My dad used to say that when you smiled at someone you were making the world better.  That's pretty darn essential too.

You are essential to me.  Thank you for reading.

*STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Photo by Samuel Sianipar on Unsplash