Monday, April 27, 2020

Be Quiet Amid the Noise

I think my digital attention span has hit its limit.

With content arriving constantly from all directions, I feel more harassed than enlightened.  News sites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, podcasts... the list goes on, and includes TV and streaming services.  It's too much to absorb, too much to keep up with, and too much time invested for too little return.

Do you remember what it was like before the Internet was a constant presence in our lives?  I do.  I remember being able to concentrate, having time to imagine and think.  I remember turning on the TV to watch a specific show rather than sitting through a multi-hour binge.  I remember being bored and finding something useful or creative to do rather than scrolling through other people's photos and reposting GIFs or memes.

Sometimes we need to be quiet amid the noise.  We need to think our own thoughts rather than reading everyone else's.  When I start to feel FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out), I remind myself that being quiet is good.  It's okay to focus on my writing, to try to produce something valuable for you, instead of churning out tweets or videos or other content for the sake of enlarging my online "presence."

Technology is wonderful.  It has provided so many ways to encourage and keep in touch with loved ones during this time of quarantine.  It has enabled my husband to teach his 6th grade students remotely, and allowed so many people to work and attend meetings from home.  It has made this blog possible.

But we need to be able to turn technology off.  We need to focus on our surroundings and the people right in front of us.  And we need to make sure those outside voices don't drown out our inner one.

So be quiet.  Instead of trying to keep up -- whether that's obsessively listening to the news, checking your feed, or trying to be seen, heard, liked, or followed -- step back.  Be intentional about what you read or follow.  Tune out sometimes and do your own thing.  Unplug for an hour, a day, or a weekend.  The Internet will still be there when you get back.

And by the way, if you choose to follow Maximum Gratitude Minimal Stuff, I'm honored.  I'll do my best to keep creating content that's worth your time and attention.

P.S.  If you have school-age kids at home, you might find my new resource "Mom, I'm Bored" or The Quarantine To-Do List useful and fun.

Photo by Sander Crombach on Unsplash

Friday, April 24, 2020

On Eating Less

Have you found yourself stress-eating over the last several weeks?  Eating more snacks because you're sitting more, or because you're bored?  You're not alone.

Apparently, sales of snack and comfort foods are soaring, and articles about the "Quarantine 15" (pounds gained during this time) abound.  (Full disclosure: I've gained 4 pounds as of today.)

But you don't have to obsess about a diet or resign yourself to being heavier at the end of quarantine.  We may be buying more shelf-stable foods and desiring meals that are quick and easy to put together, but that doesn't mean we have to compromise our energy and our immune systems by eating poorly.

I'm going to simply focus on eating less.  Call it The Minimalist Diet.

Now, I'm not talking about truly depriving myself of calories my body needs to maintain and repair itself.  I'm talking about a simple reduction of portion size to two-thirds to three-quarters of what I would normally eat, and a reduction in the number of times I eat per day.

I won't have to count calories or carbs, or even give up pasta, potatoes, or baked goods.  My husband is going to join me -- would you like to, as well?

6 Tips for the Minimalist Diet

1.  Create structure.
Get up in the morning, shower, and get dressed, even if you're not going to leave the house.  Make your bed.  A habit of sitting around in your pajamas will make it easier to snack.  You may be home all day, but you shouldn't eat all day.  Don't nibble on seven mini meals; set times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and stick to that routine.

2.  Move around.
I have a bad habit of starting a writing project and then sitting at my desk for three hours before I get up and move.  Then I feel sluggish and stiff, and it's much harder to make myself take a walk around the block.  If you normally commute or go to meetings, use that time to walk, dance, do yoga or stretches, or do some bodyweight exercises.

3.  Stock strategically.

  • If pasta is your go-to comfort food, buy whole-grain varieties and tomato-based sauces.  Go light on the cheese.
  • Keep low-sodium canned soups on hand for quick meals, but stay away from cream-based varieties.  Lentil, split pea, minestrone, and chicken vegetable are all better choices.
  • Keep comforting and filling yams and baking potatoes on hand.  Remember that they are powerhouses of nutrition; it's the butter, sour cream, and bacon bits that pack on the calories and fat.  Try topping them with sautéed onions and mushrooms, low-fat cottage cheese, or a variety of herbs and spices.
  • If you really want to have chips or cookies with your lunch sandwich, buy only one variety at a time.  Stocking up on six kinds will just tempt you to eat more.

4.  Limit snacks.
If you feel hungry between meals, drink a glass of water or tea (thirst sometimes masquerades as hunger).  If you're still hungry, eat an apple, an orange, or a cup of berries.  Clean the kitchen after dinner and don't eat anything else before bedtime.

5.  Serve smaller portions.
You don't have to measure it out – just eyeball it.  Serve yourself 65%-75% of what you would normally take, and don't have seconds.  If you decide to have dessert, take half of what you would normally eat (one cookie or one scoop of ice cream instead of two, for example).  Eat slowly.

6.  Make "I want to be healthy" your mantra and goal.
This is a stressful time.  Don't add to it by either worrying about your weight or by sitting on the couch and eating all day.  You know that bag of trail mix may look yummy, and you also know you'll feel horrible if you gorge on it.  You want to stay healthy and you want to feel good.  Give your body nutritious food and limit the treats.

By not making any foods off limits, you will never feel deprived.  By limiting quantities, you'll appreciate each bite more.  You still get to eat your favorites, just in a smaller amount and at a specific meal time.  When you slow down and savor each bite, you may notice that you feel full even when you eat less.  I know that I often eat so much that I'm uncomfortable, simply because I keep eating until my plate is empty.  If I serve myself a lot, I eat a lot.

If your stomach growls, don't panic and reach for food.  Especially if you carry a little extra weight, you're in no danger of actually depriving yourself of needed calories.  There are still people in the world who have to worry about getting enough to eat every day – you and I probably aren't part of that group.

Our bodies (and the planet) would probably be healthier if we learned to be satisfied with a little less.

P.S.  If you have school-age kids at home, you might find my new resource "Mom, I'm Bored" or The Quarantine To-Do List" useful and fun.

Photo by Gianluca Gerardi on Unsplash

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Our New Normal

Do you find that our current situation is putting things into perspective for you?

I don't want to disrespect the very real suffering that is occurring for many reasons:  COVID-19 illnesses and deaths, loss of income causing desperate financial difficulties for many families and businesses, and feelings of fear and isolation felt by so many, especially the elderly and parents who are struggling to engage and entertain their young children without the park, the library, school, sports, or play dates.

But has quarantine changed your level of busyness and consumption?  It has for my husband and I.

  • We're driving much less.  That isn't because we're not working, but because he's working from home and I'm not making any unnecessary shopping trips for books or spring clothes (my favorite stores are all more than 30 miles away).  And we haven't driven out of town to visit our kids or grandkids -- video chats are filling in for physical get-togethers.
  • We're cooking dinner more often.  We still order take-out a couple of nights a week, but most restaurants near us are offering a limited take-out menu, and it's not nearly as pleasant to bring home and reheat food in throw-away containers as it is to eat in the restaurant dining room.
  • We're buying less entertainment.  Whether we take an evening walk, read a library e-book, stream a movie, play online chess, write, listen to music, or simply have an old-fashioned conversation, we aren't paying anything extra for recreation.  We're not going to movies or concerts or planning a weekend getaway.

It's not that we don't miss these things.  We do miss them, and at this point going to our favorite restaurant, to a new movie, or even to choir rehearsal would be a special treat.  After more than a month without a lot of options, we'd enjoy having even one or two new places to go.

The problem for many of us is that in the past, we never limited ourselves to one or two places.  If we could afford to pay for it (or if we had a credit card), we rarely hesitated to go where we wanted when we wanted to.  We bought what we wanted when we wanted it (even if it turned out to be a passing whim).  We said yes to every desire of our hearts, even if the result was a house full of stuff we didn't need, a calendar full of activities that kept us in a frantic rush, and a mailbox full of bills we struggled to pay.

Clutter, fatigue, and debt never seemed to stop us from wanting and doing more.

But in the middle of this pandemic, we might be starting to ask ourselves the question which is at the heart of minimalism:  What is essential?

The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, have a theory that everything we own can be put into one of three piles:

  • Essentials.  These are the necessities we can't live without:  food, shelter, clothing.  A diabetic, a family with five children, or a construction worker might have specific requirements that differ from mine, but we are alike in our need for these basics.
  • Nonessentials.  These are things we choose to own, not because they're necessary to sustain life, but because they add value to our lives.  As Millburn says, "Strictly speaking, I don't need a couch, a bookshelf, or a dining table in my living room, but these items enhance, amplify, or augment my experience of life."
  • Junk.  Unfortunately, most of what we own belongs in this pile.  This stuff is neither necessary to life, nor does it serve a purpose or bring us joy.  At one time we may have thought we wanted or needed it, but now it gathers dust or adds to a pile in a closet.

Right now, some of us are discovering that we can't afford more junk, and that we may need to do without a few nonessentials as well.  New books, new clothes, regular professional manicures, or a second car may add value to our lives most of the time, but they aren't necessary in a crisis.

Now is our chance to figure out what is truly essential, to become very thoughtful about which nonessentials contribute the most to our lives, and to rid ourselves of junk.

Life is constantly changing.  Whatever our "new normal" turns out to be, we can remind ourselves that we were always going to have to adapt to change.  My life today is very different than it was five or ten years ago, and whatever I'd like to think,  I really have no idea what the next five or ten years will bring.  It may be good, it may be bad, it may be a gradual shift or a sudden shock, it may come by choice or be completely out of my control.  I might attempt to cling to the past, but that's a recipe for failure and regret.

Meanwhile, we have an opportunity to evaluate everything.  We can change.  We can emerge from this crisis with thoughtfulness, intention, and a renewed appreciation for community and relationships.

P.S. If you have school-age kids at home, you might find my new resource "Mom, I'm Bored" or The Quarantine To-Do List fun and useful.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Monday, April 20, 2020

Clear Mental Clutter

This is a chapter from my new book, Uncluttered.

Most of us hang on to mental clutter just as we do physical clutter.  We worry, we complain, we gossip, we hold grudges.  These things steal our time, spoil our attitudes, and keep us from living with peace and purpose.  To be truly clutter-free, we must deal with these issues as well.

7 Types of Mental Clutter and How to Remove Them

1.  Worrying
Worry is a complete waste of time and energy.  We worry about things that haven't happened and may never happen, and it makes us anxious and grumpy.  Most of the things we worry about are out of our control, but even when we have the ability to prevent a negative outcome, we tend to whine about it before we take preventative action.

Worrying (like most types of mental clutter) is a habit, so you have to consciously train yourself to behave differently.  When you catch yourself fretting, stop and change your thoughts.  Focus on what you want to happen, rather than on what you fear might happen.  If you have any control in the situation, take constructive action.  Let your mind dwell on what's already wonderful in your life.

2.  Complaining
Moaning, complaining, and blaming everything and everyone else for your troubles will make you unpleasant to be around.  It will also make you unhappy and unable to notice and appreciate good things when they occur.

Complaining is a type of procrastination -- we find it easier to complain than to take steps to solve the problem.  Stop wasting energy on complaints and apply your intelligence toward a solution.

The best antidote to constant complaining is the regular practice of gratitude.  Gratitude opens your eyes to everything that is positive in your life and changes your focus from dissatisfaction to contentment.  Keep a gratitude journal -- the act of writing down what you are thankful for is powerful because it forces you to slow down and really pay attention to the good stuff.

3.  Gossiping
We gossip to shock and titillate ourselves and others, but it only shows how little of interest and importance is happening in our own lives.

Refuse to listen to or repeat gossip in any form, and decide that you will never say anything about anyone that you would not say to his face.

4.  Unforgiveness
Carrying a grudge is hard and unpleasant work.  Your silent or nasty treatment of the person you resent may hurt her, but it hurts and warps you too.

Forgiveness doesn't mean you're condoning bad behavior, simply that you're choosing to move on with a lighter emotional load.  Try to see the incident from the other person's point of view, and acknowledge your own part in the situation.  Even if you believe most of the fault lies elsewhere, offer forgiveness when you are calm enough to do so.  Let go of your grievance and get on with your life.

5.  Loose ends
It's amazing how many of us put things off until tomorrow when they can quite easily be done today.  For some reason, we resist making that phone call, returning that borrowed item, and completing that promised errand.  But things you've left undone will nag at you, and remembering all of those loose ends drains your energy and makes you feel burdened and tense.

Tie up those loose ends, and reduce your mental to-do list.  And if circumstance won't allow you to keep your promise, it is far better to contact the person and let him know than to just let the situation drift.

6.  Information overload
Information is a good thing, but too much of a good thing can be hell.

  • One gigabyte (GB) of information is the amount contained in 10 yards of shelved books.
  • One terabyte (TB) is the equivalent of 50,000 trees made into paper and printed.
  • One petabyte (PB) equals 1,024 TB.  200 PB represents all material ever printed on Earth.
  • One exabyte (EB) is 1,024 PB.  More than one EB of data is created on the internet each day.
  • One zettabyte (ZB) equals 1,024 EB.  Annual global internet traffic exceeds 1.3 ZB.

That's a mind-boggling amount of information.  And it's like the universe -- continually expanding.

We could spend forever online, but this would steal our lives.  Do you find yourself spending more and more time on the Web?  Has this activity become a substitute for firsthand experience of the real world?  Do you find that a large proportion of the data you are acquiring is not immediately useful but of the "just in case you need it" variety?  If so, it is just as much clutter as the physical kind that some people keep for the same reason.  And data searching can be just as addictive as social networking or online gaming, gambling, or pornography.  If you need help, please get it.

7.  Restlessness
Many of us find it difficult to "switch off" in order to relax or sleep.  But lack of rest and regeneration makes it hard to be at our best mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Take time in the early evening to talk through problems or areas of conflict with your partner.  Don't stew!  Keep a notebook and pen by your bed so you can write down worries or prayers about issues that trouble you.  Leave those concerns on the page as you get ready for sleep.  Things often do seem easier to resolve in the morning.

You can expand your bedtime list to include all the things you want to remember to do the next day.  Then let yourself forget about them.  If you wake up in the night with more tasks on your mind, just scribble them down and go back to sleep.  At first, you may need to keep a small flashlight next to your bed, but with practice you'll be able to write in the dark.  After a while, you'll learn to get your whole list on paper in one go, and be able to sleep undisturbed.

Photo by Ghislaine Guerin on Unsplash.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Prepare for Re-Entry

At some point our current crisis will come to an end, and we will return to "normal" life.

Remember normal life, just a few short weeks ago?  We were busy -- usually too busy -- and anxious to keep up with what everyone else was doing, seeing, buying, eating, wearing, aspiring to.  We spent a lot of time shopping, and not just for things we needed like food, medicine, and toilet paper.  We weren't a community surviving together in challenging circumstances -- we spent our time competing and comparing and desiring what someone else had.

This global tragedy has cost too many lives and too many livelihoods, but it has had an upside.  We've been given a break from the constant barrage, and we suddenly have the freedom to evaluate our lives with almost no external pressure to keep up with the Joneses or anyone else.

We've all been stuck in roughly equal circumstances, and we all have the opportunity to emerge from this difficult historic moment as better versions of ourselves.

But to do this, we have to be willing to cut ties with our previous FOMO-driven busyness and consumerism.  We need to be honest about our true values and needs.

5 Areas to Consider Before Re-Entry

1.  We always claim that family is the most important thing.  But for how many of us did our previous lifestyle give the lie to that claim?  How often did family togetherness lose out to work, school, sports, screen addictions, shopping, and other activities?  Right now, we have the chance to re-align our choices and actions with our values.

2.  With almost all activities cancelled, we've probably had more rest and free time than we've enjoyed for years.  What was all of the busyness about?  Did it really add to our lives, or did the pressure and lack of focus diminish the benefits of those involvements?  Right now, we have the chance to thoughtfully evaluate each commitment and intentionally choose what we will allow back into our schedules.

3.  How about creativity -- is that important?  We spend an awful lot of time mindlessly partaking of other people's creativity.  Right now, we have the chance to curtail that and make time to use our talents to produce something ourselves, and to bring something good to the world around us.

4.  Since we've been forced to spend time at home, we've also been forced to come face-to-face with our possessions.  How do you feel about all of the stuff you've amassed?  How much of it is unnecessary?  How much of it impedes the comfort and function you need at home?  Right now, we have the chance to remove clutter and commit to more intentional accumulation going forward.

5.  If we're enduring financial hardships, we've probably questioned some of our spending habits.  Why didn't we save more when finances were good?  Why did we acquire so much debt?  Were we using our money in ways that truly brought satisfaction and well-being?  Right now, we have the chance to reassess our finances and make better decisions about how to use our limited resources.

If you're considering minimalism because you've recently been forced into owning less, I'm sorry for your situation.  But you don't need to view this as a disaster.  Owning less gives you the opportunity to find more freedom, more focus, and more energy to put into the things that really give meaning to your life. 

If you've been interested in minimalism for some time, I encourage you to be intentional about resuming normal life.  Consider what you've learned about yourself during this crisis, stay focused on the things that add value and bring joy, and discard the rest.

Photo by Lauren Griffiths on Unsplash

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Just Imagine

Schools have been out for nearly four weeks, and some districts have said the students will not return this school year.  Teachers are scrambling to create at-home assignments, post video lessons, and plan class meetings using Zoom.  But many people are concerned about students falling behind.

Maybe they will fall behind when it comes to regular curriculum or standardized testing.

But what if the real, important, long-term result is something quite different?  What if these students wind up gaining more than they lose?

For example:
  • What if they develop stronger relationships with their parents and siblings?
  • What if they become more creative, more self-reliant, and more able to entertain themselves?
  • What if they learn to love reading, journaling, and crafting?
  • What if they notice and start appreciating birds, flowers, trees, clouds, stars, and other features of our beautiful world?
  • What if they learn to enjoy simple pastimes, like a conversation, a bike ride, a game of cards, or a good joke?
  • What if this generation learns to cook, organize their space, do their laundry, take care of a garden, and keep a well-run home?
  • What if they learn to stretch a dollar and live with less?  To make and mend rather than running out to shop?
  • What if they learn the value of eating together as a family and sharing the little joys and difficulties of every day?
  • What if they place greater value on teachers, librarians, and all the previously unsung but essential professionals like truck drivers, grocers, cashiers, custodians, farm workers, mass transit providers, postal and delivery workers, mechanics, employees of water/sewer/waste disposal/power/communication services, and health care workers and their supporting staff?
  • What if they become less vulnerable to peer pressure, and more aware of their own true needs and desires?
  • What if they learn that it's fulfilling to be kind and compassionate toward others?
  • What if they learn to enjoy a slower pace and a simpler life?
  • What if they learn to cherish friendship and human contact?
  • What if, instead of learning to be dissatisfied with what they have, always needing to acquire or experience the next big thing, they learn gratitude and contentment?

What if these children actually come out AHEAD?

Just imagine.

Photo by Steven Feldman on Unsplash.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Little Things Mean a Lot

Recently, I read this question in an essay by Ben Mikaelsen, and it made me think:

Whatever I'm doing, every minute of every day, if everybody in the world were doing the same thing, would it be a better world or a worse world?

The example Mikaelsen shared was about littering.  If no one is around, and you toss a used gum wrapper on the ground, who's to care?  Why does that matter?  Well, if 7.5 billion people around the world all did the same thing, it would instantly fill up a whole landfill.  What a mess!  So he chooses not to commit that small act.

On the other hand, if you smile at a stranger, maybe it momentarily lifts his mood, but otherwise it's not a big deal, right?  However, if everyone decided to smile at strangers, we'd create bridges of understanding and peace all over the world.  That small act, repeated by all of us, would change everything.

I often feel that my efforts to do good in the world are so puny they make no difference.  Sure, I recycle, I use cloth napkins and natural cleaning supplies, I never forget my reusable bags, I combine errands so I don't make a bunch of little car trips.  I try to keep an open mind, and I try to be generous with my time and resources.  I pray for others.  I apologize when I need to.  I give lots of hugs.

These are tiny, tiny actions.  And what good are they, in the big scheme?

I also convince myself that my negative actions don't have large consequences.  When I get in an argument, or cut someone off with my car, or fail to keep a promise, or waste time scrolling on Pinterest, what's the difference?  At most I'm affecting myself and one other person, right?  This is where Mikaelsen's question really hits home.  If everybody in the world were doing all of these things, would the world be a better place or would it be worse?  If seems pretty clear that small angry, selfish, unreliable, and unproductive actions, multiplied by billions, would ruin everything.

We humans have tremendous potential to destroy ourselves and the world we live in, but we also have the magnificent ability to make this world a wonderful home.  Perhaps my positive actions don't yield much.  But together, each of us choosing to be our best selves is momentous.

If you think you are too small to be effective, you've never been in bed with a mosquito.
Betty Reese

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Il dolce far niente (The sweetness of doing nothing)

I truly hope that you and your family are keeping well as you self-isolate during this time.  And if you are, I hope you're giving thanks for

  • your health
  • your home, which shelters you and your family
  • the many essential workers that keep medical and other necessary services functioning
  • your ability to remain connected with others, online if nowhere else.

Right now, you may be missing a lot of things:  your church, your gym, your children's school, your favorite restaurant, your office camaraderie, the trip you had to postpone or even cancel.  You can't go where you usually go or do what you usually do.  And it's easy in such circumstances to feel impatient or morose, to just want to hurry through this time and get back to "normal" life.

Yet we don't want to simply waste these days.  We don't want to just hurry through life to get to a different time or circumstance, do we?

Oh, wait a minute... maybe we do.  Isn't that the way we usually behave?

We tend to focus on the big events, don't we?

Holidays, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, promotions, and trips command our attention.  As we finish one big project, we immediately dive into planning for the next one.

When I look at my family photo albums, I see evidence of all of those special times.  But some of my favorite photos and memories are the ones I took on "nothing special" days.  Pictures of my kids playing with leaves in the back yard, of my dad sitting on a park bench holding my daughter's doll because she's gone to play, of my two kids holding hands as they walk away from me on a trail through the woods near their grandparents' house.  No hoopla, just normal events of a normal life.  But they bring a smile to my face.

A reader recently commented that one of my old posts, "Una Bella Vita," is a favorite inspirational re-read.  (Thank you, anonymous commenter; you really gave me a lift!)  This reader prompted me to go back and look at this post myself, and I was struck by the following section which seems to apply to our situation today:

... [the Italian] concept that seems truly foreign to Americans: il dolce far niente, "the sweetness of doing nothing."  It refers to the ability to focus on, enjoy, and completely bask in a moment without multi-tasking or being in a hurry to move on to the next thing.  You're not wallowing in FOMO, obsessing about your to-do list, or numbing your thoughts with TV.  Instead, you're entranced by a sunset, savoring a juicy peach, or gently rocking your infant son who has fallen asleep on your shoulder.

As Britain's Queen Elizabeth recently said, "[T]hough self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths, and of none, are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation."

Perhaps you're feeling isolated, even bored, while you're at home.  I admit that for me, Easter Sunday without a beautiful, music-filled, exhilarating church service followed by a family celebration is unprecedented, and feels a bit empty.

But if we find no pleasure at all in our day-to-day chores and projects, if we cannot savor the sweetness of having less to do or fewer places to rush off to, if we find no joy in simply talking, listening, cooking dinner, taking a walk, reading a book, creating something, or simply putting our feet up, then we're going to be just "getting through" an awful lot of time.  Time which all of the essential workers, braving the risks so that services we need are up and running, might love to have.

Life is the day-to-day stuff.

The special events are wonderful, and of course we want to anticipate, enjoy, and remember them too.  But it seems much smarter to appreciate life every day than to just plod through it, waiting for the next big excitement.  No Disney cruise or gala social event makes up for a cruddy everyday life.

So I challenge you:  Just for a while, think only about today.  Think about the jobs you will do, and be glad you have jobs to do.  Enjoy your abilities and your competence as you do them.  Find ways to improve your skills if you can.  Appreciate the people you will encounter in your home, at the grocery, on the phone, or online.  As much as it depends on you, make those encounters pleasant.  Enjoy the beauty you can see and hear and taste and touch and smell.  Don't miss any of it.

My best wishes to all of you.

Photo by Boba Jaglicic on Unsplash

Friday, April 10, 2020

All That Remains: Learning, Laughter, and Love

It's all been canceled.  School, sports, concerts, plays.  Weddings and even funerals are being postponed.  No one is traveling.  Movie openings have been put on hold; museums, zoos, galleries, bowling alleys, and parks are closed.

Whatever you might have been planning, it's probably not happening any time soon.  This weird limbo is our current "normal," and even if we're lucky enough to remain healthy and able to earn a living, it still takes some getting used to.

But some things remain.

1.  Learning

You may be suddenly home schooling, and your kids are suddenly parted from their teachers and friends.  But learning can continue -- learning can always continue, for both you and your children!

Now is your chance to do more gardening and crafting with your kids.  You have an opportunity to teach them some of your skills, including skills they need for life like cleaning, cooking, and how to use free time wisely rather than wasting it.

Here are a few educational resources I've come across:

  • BraveWriter.  Developed by professional writer, journalist, editor, and former home schooling mom Julie Bogart, BraveWriter gives a parent the tools to help his child become a fluent and confident writer.  During this time of Covid-19 confinement, BraveWriter is offering some of their resources for free until April 30, 2020.
  • Math Learning Center.  Offering free math apps, the Math Learning Center allows home learners to practice math operations, fractions, geometry and more with a discovery approach that helps students learn multiple strategies for problem solving.
  • MysteryScience.  Full of lessons and simple science experiments for kindergarten through grade 5, MysteryScience is offering free membership through June 30, 2020.
  • TEDed.  TEDed is a resource for all kinds of fascinating things kids can learn about.  There are hundreds of informative videos to watch, and TEDed is currently offering daily emails of lesson plans in all subjects for all age groups (including grownups).
  • San Diego Zoo Live Cams.  The zoo is currently closed, but your kids can watch live and archived footage of pandas, baboons, penguins, polar bears, apes, koalas, giraffes, elephants, tigers, condors, butterflies, and more!

2.  Laughter

Psychologists say that using humor to cope with grim circumstances is a very healthy response, so the ability to laugh during this situation is a life-saver.  Funny memes and videos can help.

  • BoredPanda featured this collection of memes which I enjoyed, especially the "Where's Waldo" and 2020 Olympics (which made me laugh out loud).
  • Smart babies on YouTube will very effectively take your mind off Covid-19.
  • What's funny to me might not be funny at all to you, so let me encourage you to make a list of movies, TV shows, books, websites, or comedians that always make you laugh.  Then make sure to watch/read/listen to them in the days to come.

3.  Love

We're spending more time at home, with fewer outside activities.  Yet even with social distancing, we still need social contact.  We need human contact -- it's built into our DNA.  People who feel deprived of affection feel less happy, more lonely, more likely to experience depression and stress, and less healthy overall.  How can we meet this need during a pandemic?

  • If you're at home with family, avoiding Covid-19 exposure yet not ill, make sure to spend time hugging and cuddling.  Sit close together as you binge on Netflix.  Let your child sit in your lap or lean on your shoulder.  Stroke each other's hair, give neck rubs, take your spouse's arm when you walk around the block.
  • Use some of your extra time to do something other than sit in front of a screen.  Hand write a letter, instead.  It's so much more personal than email, and takes more effort than a phone call.  Your hand touches the paper and forms the words upon it, and the letter travels across the miles to deliver your thoughts to another person.  And what a surprise when your recipient opens her mailbox to find something that's not an ad or a bill!  It's a little bit of magic, a little bit of love.
  • When you are out at the grocery or the drug store, don't get into the habit of acting like you're in a personal bubble, even if you are keeping six feet of distance between yourself and others.  Smile, make eye contact, say hello, wish others well.  You'll feel better, and so will they.

Photo by Daniel Filipe Antunes Santos on Unsplash

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Magic of Reading

"Now for it!  Now for the last gasp!" said Sam as he struggled to his feet.  He bent over Frodo, rousing him gently.  Frodo groaned, but with a great effort of will he staggered up, and then he fell upon his knees again.  He raised his eyes with difficulty to the dark slopes of Mount Doom towering above him, and then pitifully he began to crawl forward on his hands.

When we read of Sam and Frodo's last desperate attempts to destroy Sauron's evil Ring in The Lord of the Rings, author J. R. R. Tolkien helps us to see and feel their torment.  They are in pain, so parched they can no longer swallow.  The fumes of Mount Doom make breathing difficult, and they are dizzy and stumbling.  Only their strength of will enables them to continue the journey to "the end of ends."  And we are there, toiling with them.

And yet, Mount Doom is not a real place.  Sauron and the Ring are not real, and our heroes Frodo and Sam are figments of imagination.  But Tolkien's words transport us to their world, their suffering and grim determination.  We travel with them, and hope for them.  This is the power and magic of words.

The ability to read gives us access to information, it gives us a glimpse into our history, the way of life and the thoughts of people who lived before us and of people who live far away.  But reading does even more.

5 Benefits of Reading

1.  Reading reduces stress.
Research from the MindLab at the University of Sussex shows that reading is the most effective way to overcome stress, even better than taking a walk or listening to music.  Reading a good book slows your heartbeat and eases muscle tension, results that psychologists attribute to the mind's concentration on something other than daily worries and demands.

2.  Reading sharpens our minds.
Neuroscientists at Northwestern University have shown that reading stimulates neural networks in the brain that improve our conceptual processing of abstract content.  There's also evidence that regular readers experience less cognitive decline as they age than non-readers.

3.  Reading fiction before bed improves sleep.
When the last activity of the day disengages you from the tasks on your to-do list, you sleep longer and more deeply.  Fiction rouses the imagination and demands attention, allowing us to stop planning and projecting into the future.

4.  Reading provides a sense of belonging.
According to Melanie Green, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Communication at SUNY Buffalo, "Stories allow us to feel connected with others and part of something bigger than ourselves."  Reading satisfies our need for human connection because it can mimic what we feel during real social interactions.  And books provide the perfect communal experience, whether in a book club or a family read-aloud which creates shared memories and closeness.

5.  Reading helps us think, feel, and reimagine who we want to be.
In a study published by the Annual Review of Psychology, researchers showed that when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves.  "When you read, you start to see the world from a new perspective," explains Dr. Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto.  Reading increases empathy, and it allows you to give up some of your own habits and thoughts as you contemplate people and circumstances different from your own.  In short, reading changes you.

One of the reasons many people find it difficult to part with books they own, even if they have no plans to re-read them, is because the contents of those books have become part of their identity.  Books contain ideas we have absorbed, and help us become who we are.  They are valuable parts of our past and present experience, which may make us cling to them the way we hang on to old photographs and personal mementos.  However, it is because we identify with them so closely that we can learn to part with them.  What we have gained isn't embodied in the books themselves, but in the activity of reading.

Reading is the magic that unlocks the messages that so transform us.

As J. K. Rowling stated in her 2008 Harvard commencement address, "Unlike any other creature on this planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced."  This is because we can communicate through writing and reading.  And Rowling's character Albus Dumbledore reminds us, "Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic."

P.S.  If you enjoyed this post and would like ideas, inspiration, and hundreds of book suggestions for you and your children as you shelter at home, you might find value in my book The Magic of Words: Help Your Child Be a Reader for Life, available on Amazon.

Photo by Nguyen Thu Hoai on Unsplash

Friday, April 3, 2020

MINIMALIST TOOL KIT: Take the Declutter Dare

Do you have a lot of pent up energy since you're spending so much time at home with so few places to go?  Why not take the Declutter Dare?

Get the whole family involved and follow this link for instructions that will help you to declutter 100 items in just one hour.  YES YOU CAN!

Why not leave a comment below if you take this challenge?  Were you successful?  Was it worthwhile?  How do you feel now?

P.S.  If you enjoyed this challenge, you might like my book Uncluttered.  It's a comprehensive handbook for a simpler life; a creative, encouraging, multi-faceted guide to help you remove the stuff that's bogging you down so you can gain focus and peace.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

The Rewards of Quarantine

As our homes become sanctuaries from the Covid-19 pandemic, they are once again restored to the center of our lives.

I'm feeling cabin fever as much as the next person, but I've also been realizing how much of my life has migrated away from home in the last few years.  During this time

  • we are not traveling outside our home states or countries, unless by unavoidable necessity.
  • we are not commuting to an office, if it's at all possible to work from home.
  • we are not eating out in restaurants (although we may be ordering meals online, we're consuming them in our own dining rooms).
  • we are not seeking recreation away from home, since outside options for shopping, socializing, and other diversions have shrunk to nearly zero.

The World Health Organization has advised people to manage their mental well-being as much as their physical health.  For those who have self-isolated, the WHO suggests eating healthily, keeping regular sleep routines, and reviving hobbies.

But is this advice enough for people hunkered down at home with feelings of fear, loneliness, and sadness?

We're having to create new means of attachment to those outside of our immediate families.  We're attending church services online, postponing weddings and funerals, and holding digital gatherings.  I'm visiting with my young grandsons via video chat, which was somewhat confusing and unsatisfying to them at first, although they are adjusting.  But this adjustment is something we're all going through.

Adapting to this new life of quarantine can have its rewards, but we must put some energy into developing them.

3 Opportunities of Self-Isolation

1.  Reconnect with your family.
My husband and I don't work together, and we don't normally do all of our leisure activities together either.  But that has changed.  Our computers are currently set up side by side for working at the dining table, and we've been playing board games and taking walks together.  My choir and his chess club are cancelled for the season, so he's been playing chess online as we both listen to music on classical radio.

If you have school-age children, you know how school and after-school activities can actually drive a wedge between siblings.  As children get more involved with their age-mates in school, sports, band, and social life, friendships with their brothers and sisters become less and less important.  But with those outside activities on hold, siblings have a chance to reconnect, to figure out what they have in common, and to forge new shared interests.

Family isn't just a group of people who happen to share an address, even if the busyness of modern life can make us feel that way.  Family life can be a wonderful, supportive foundation for all other relationships, and right now we have an opportunity to strengthen and mend where necessary.

2.  Deepen your spiritual life.
Another victim of busyness can be our inner lives.  Normally we are rushing from one activity to another, and nothing slows us down except illness.  Right now, we have a chance to connect with our spirituality in a way we may not have done for a long time.

In our current situation, you can't say you don't have time to pray or meditate, to practice keeping a gratitude journal, to read the Bible or another spiritual text, or to contemplate your true purpose and life goals.

Rediscovering or enlarging the role of faith in your life will create permanent benefits.

3.  Combat the epidemic of loneliness.
Another way to strengthen your spirit is to reach out and help someone else.  Loneliness isn't a situation created by Covid-19 -- it's merely been accentuated.  A 2020 survey by US health insurer Cigna found that 61% of adults are lonely, up from 54% in 2018.  The majority of those who admit their loneliness are under age 50.

In Great Britain, when officials asked for volunteers to deliver basic goods and provide companionship (even if digitally) to an estimated 1.5 million elderly people living alone, they received 500,000 offers of help within 24 hours, and that number has continued to grow.  Some people are loaning their pets to those who live alone.  It's being reported that "with such outreach, the narrative of fear and isolation is being shifted to one of neighborliness and community."  The WHO has dropped the term "social distancing" and substituted "physical distancing."  After all, the urge to be social cannot be denied.

What we long for isn't cliquishness and gossip, however.  It's kindness, in word and deed.  And right now, we have time for long phone calls.  We have time to cook a double meal, and drop the extra food at a neighbor's house.  We can greet the strangers we see while walking the dog or visiting the grocery store.  We can arrange to meet book club or other organization members using Zoom.  We can use video chat to read a book to a grandchild while his mother takes a mini-break.  We can write informative, funny, encouraging letters (the extra effort required shows real love and caring).

Our job at this time is to keep ourselves healthy -- physically, mentally, and emotionally.  We need to remain informed, but it will do us no good to wallow in the news or attempt to keep up with each new prediction 24/7.  Dwelling on what might happen does no one any good, but making the most of this time will benefit you and those around you a great deal.

We're all in this together!  And as Neil Greenberg, professor at King's College London and president of the United Kingdom Psychological Trauma Society reminds us, "We might end up, when we get back to normal socialization, in a community with a better capacity for links than before."

Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash.