On Slowing Down

IMG_8229
“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” – Rumi

It’s a beautiful summer morning, clear and still cool. I’m sitting outside on our patio, sipping tea and listening to the birds, watching the sun catch the tops of the cedars, and counting my blessings for the holiday time that stretches before me. Now I can really slow down. 

We’re in a season of transition for everyone in our house: the youngest boys have just finished finished middle school, our 18-year-old graduated a couple of weeks ago from high school, and our eldest completed his undergraduate degree and graduated in mid-June. In the middle of all this, my husband was offered a new job. June was crazy.

Now, with the year-end concerts and celebrations and graduation ceremonies behind us, I feel as though I can take a deep breath and unwind. But as I sit with my  tea, listening to the distant voices of neighbours drifting through the trees, I’m not feeling the calm I expected. In the quiet of the morning, I’m noticing anxiety fluttering within.

And this is the big surprise for me about slowing down: it doesn’t automatically leave me feeling all calm and centred and grounded. When I slow down, I also notice less comfortable states. Hello sadness. Hello anxiety. No wonder it’s so easy for me to keep myself busy.

When I began my journey toward simplicity, I wanted to reduce the stress and distraction of a too-busy life. I wanted to feel calm and healthy and centred. I began slowing down in a very deliberate way, saying no to additional work and social obligations, and making space for meditation and journalling, walks in the woods and extra rest. Slowing down has definitely been a pathway toward greater calm. I just didn’t anticipate where else it would take me.

Today it’s a fluttering of anxiety. Some days it’s sadness. Those uncomfortable states I’d rather avoid. But somehow in slowing down, there’s also patience and compassion enough for me to stay with the feelings and explore them a little. What’s that fluttering in my stomach? Anxiety? What’s that all about?

Slow down and listen. Underneath today’s anxious flutterings is some sadness. My middle boy has finished high school and I’m watching as he takes his first adult steps away from me. My impulse is to hold on tightly. And I know that I can’t. I know that my work now is to stand back and let him stand on his own. It’s the way things are supposed to be – and it’s unbearably sad for me.

When I’m running at full speed, I can ignore these states, the anxiety, the sadness. When I slow down, I can’t help but notice what’s happening. I have to pay attention. And if I’m patient with myself, gentle, I can live a while with the feelings that arise. I can hear what they’re telling me, let them inform my direction.

Today I might give myself some time to celebrate the adult that my son is becoming – and to grieve the inevitable endings that come along with this passage. I might pour another cup of tea and sit outside a little longer, listening to the birds, listening for the wisdom that sometimes comes in slowing down.

 

10 Steps toward Simplicity

 

simplicityIf you’re looking for a simplicity guru, I am not your girl. I’m actually the girl who has spent most of her life trying to make things as complicated as possible. Really.

In the year before I began my simplicity project, I juggled a demanding full-time job, a blended family, and a health condition requiring monthly visits to a specialist in Vancouver (a two-hour ferry ride away). I began two big new writing projects and participated in an online writers’ group. I took golf lessons, a semester-long photography course, and an intensive writing workshop. I had surgery and I published my book, An Alphabet of Men: Dating My Way from Adam to Zak (a book about the  year when I took complication to dizzying new heights).

As you can see, simplicity hasn’t really been my thing.

But after a difficult surgery, and a longer-than-anticipated recovery, I realized that maybe things had become a teeny bit out of hand.

Okay, maybe I realized that I was exhausted and strung out, and that I wasn’t going to get better if I kept up this frantic pace in my life.

And so my Year of Simplicity began. Here are 10 small steps I’ve taken in the first three months of my journey:

1. Find inspiration

I started by reading Courtney Carver’s Soulful Simplicity, and Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living. Their stories provided me with the insight and the inspiration to begin. They also reminded me that embracing simplicity takes time, critical information for somebody who would most certainly have set out to declutter her entire house in a single weekend.

2. Identify the longing

My Year of Simplicity began as a deep longing for things to be different, and before I began, I had to get to the heart of what simplicity looked like for me. I knew I was ready to give up on crazy, super-busy, frantic distraction. That was pretty clear. But I needed to know exactly what I was hoping to feel instead: calm, centered, and grounded.

3. Create a Yes and No list

So what was I saying yes to? Rest. Journalling. Calm. I was saying yes to space, stillness and silence. Yes to paring down, to knowing I was enough and had enough. I was saying yes to breath and trust and freedom.

And no? I was saying no to busyness, distraction and over-commitment. No to clutter and people pleasing and striving. No to controlling everything in my life.

It’s good, it turns out, to be really clear about these things.

4. Keep reminders at hand

The home screen on my phone is a photo that embodies simple living for me. The first pages of the journal I write in every morning have reminders about why I’m embracing simplicity. You’ll find my Yes and No list there, and a simple graphic surrounded by all the words that describe my version of simplicity.

5. Say no

This seems so simple, but remember, simplicity hasn’t really been my thing. I’m a lifelong “yes girl.” If there’s an invitation, an opportunity, the possibility of an adventure, I’m all in. “No” is hard for me. But I’m learning, and my late-November surgery helped. I had to turn down every single Christmas invitation (and, sadly, all the middle school band concerts) on the calendar. Rather than feeling like I was missing out, I felt liberated, loving the slower pace of that particular Christmas season. It’s made it easier to say no since.

 

6. Let go of being a workplace star

This is a recurring challenge for me. Not only am I a lifelong yes girl, I’m also far more concerned than I should be about what other people think of me. I know it’s none of my business. But saying no at work has meant having to let go of my super-competent workplace armour.

This is not comfortable at all for me.

What if someone thinks I’m not working hard enough? What if someone thinks I’m lazy? What if someone – heaven forbid! – doubts my capability?  In my journey toward greater simplicity, this continues to be one of my biggest struggles. But what I’m also learning is that I can’t do as much as I once thought I could. And in the end, I’d rather do fewer things well, even at the risk of losing star status.

7. Do one thing at a time

You can imagine how somebody like me might do with a step like this. Yes. Definitely another big challenge. I started by clearing the pile of 5 or 6 books on my bedside table, committing to read one book at a time. At first I felt twitchy and kept reaching for my Kindle, with its library of hundreds of books. But I’m gradually rediscovering the pleasure of fully immersing myself in the pleasure of a single book. And the biggest surprise is that I’m reading more. The challenge, of course, is to apply the “one thing” approach to other parts of my life.

8. Unsubscribe

This has been an easy and hugely liberating step for me. In my quest to live a healthier, greener, more creative, simpler, more soul-satisfying, more productive life (!!), I had ended up on a shocking number of subscriber lists. And while I could rely on weekly tips for making my website more effective and for preparing delicious green smoothies, all those emails were taking an enormous toll on my psychic energy. One of the beautiful things about unsubscribing is that I have a much greater sense that I am enough. Even without the smoothie recipe.

9. Rest

Another great gift of my surgery was that I realized how exhausted I was. These days, sleep is a priority, and I’m a complete convert to yoga nidra, a form of rest meditation that is transformative.

10. Check in

Every few weeks, I check in during Morning Pages. Three months in, I am calm, centered, and clear about my purpose. But I can see that I’ll need to be vigilant, or I’ll easily backslide into complication and distraction. It isn’t easy to change the habits of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning Again to Play

When I let go of perfectionism and my need for control, there’s room, I’m learning, for play.

 

 

fullsizeoutput_1321

I love to play, but I’m not always very good at it. My default tends to be focussed and somewhat driven. It’s easy for me to forget how to be playful. But when I let go of perfectionism and my need for control, there’s room, I’m learning, for play.

This week our photography homework has been to experiment with shutter speeds and f-stops. Because I am such a beginner with these concepts, I can let go of the outcome and truly just play around. I’ve been tromping through pumpkin fields, and wandering the local woods and beaches. (It’s the first time in years that I’ve wished I owned a pair of rubber boots!)

I’ve been setting up my camera and just playing around.

What happens if I set the aperture to 4.5? What kind of shutter speed do I need? Now what happens when I change the aperture to 22?

I’m immersed in the process, messing around with the controls on my camera, and trying to remember as many steps as possible. Because I can’t yet predict what a particular shutter speed or aperture will do to my image, I’m not worried about what the image might actually look like. I can be guided by playful curiosity and experimentation alone.

A couple of days ago, I set up my tripod at the foot of our local pier. It was a beautiful, clear evening, and I wanted to see how high I could set the aperture. I was hoping to capture the rosy sky and the faint snowy outline of Mt. Baker in the distance. When I looked at the images afterwards, I was surprised by the blurred figures in the foreground.

So that’s how photographers do that!

Now I want to go and mess around some more and see if I can capture blurred swirls of water around ocean rocks.

I might need some rubber boots for that kind of play.

 

My Dance with Perfectionism

This isn’t about the photographs, is it? It’s about my fear of judgement. This is just me getting into that comfortable old slow dance with perfectionism again.

 

IMG_0381

So I’m heading back for my second photography class tonight where we have to share two photographs we’ve taken this week. As soon as our instructor announced that we were to bring two fall-themed photographs to the next class, I started to panic. Because if everyone was going to see them, they’d have to be perfect.

Even if this was a beginner’s class!

I’ve been blogging – and posting photographs on my blog – for years. I post on Instagram daily. Sharing two photographs should be no big deal. But this assignment was different! These photographs would be projected onto the wall for everyone in the class to see. And my inner critic kicked into overdrive.

The colours in this photo are too washed out.

The composition in this one is dull.

Pumpkins? You’re kidding, right? What a cliche!

My critic’s underlying message? Not good enough. Not good enough. Not good enough. 

You have no idea how many photographs I’ve taken – and ruled out – in the last week.

As with any life lesson I have to keep relearning, it took me a while to recognize what was going on. “Oh. This isn’t about the photographs, is it? It’s about my fear of judgement. This is just me getting into that comfortable old slow dance with perfectionism again.”

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown reminds us that in order to let go of perfectionism, we need to cultivate self-compassion. It’s not that easy for me. But for the last couple of days, I’ve been gentler with myself.

You’re just learning, darling. You’re a beginner. Nobody expects National Geographic quality. And look how much you’ve learned, just in this week. 

On my way home yesterday, I drove past the marina near my house and was captivated by the saturated colours of the boathouses in the warm evening light. Even as I was taking the picture, I could hear the critic’s voice in my head.  “This does not qualify as a fall picture.”

I think I might use it anyway. It’s good enough.

 

Life Lessons in Photography Class

Every time I learn something new, I have to start by learning all my old lessons over again.

IMG_7094

You know how there are some lessons you just have to keep learning over and over? The ones you think you’ve figured out and then somehow forget? It’s happening to me right now. Again.

I just started a beginner’s photography course at the local college. After using my dSLR for ten years, I decided it was time to stretch myself and move beyond using the little green “automatic” button and (when I was feeling really crazy) that one with the little mountains on it. It was time, I decided, to actually find out about apertures and f stops.

This being a beginner’s class, we started with the basics – a good thing really, given my attention span. And then at the end of our first class, our instructor sent us away with an assignment: return next week with two fall photographs.

And the Universe started to laugh. Because every time I learn something new, I have to start by learning all my old lessons over again.

The biggest lesson for me, always, is about giving up control. I so love the illusion that I am completely in control. And my biggest struggles occur when I get those gentle (and not so gentle) reminders that I’m not actually the boss of everything.

Like this morning. This morning I had a plan. I had an exact picture in my mind of the photograph I was going to capture. The sun would be rising over some local fields as the early morning fog began to lift. It was going to be perfect!

Except as I started shooting, I could see that the pictures weren’t working. I was facing towards the sun, and even though it was hidden behind fog, there was too much light. Everything in the foreground was too dark, and those beautiful foggy fields and trees? You could hardly see them because they were so washed out.

Disappointed, I grabbed my camera and crossed the road to see if there were any promising vistas with the sun behind me. I took a couple of pictures, and they were a little better, but I still wasn’t happy. I hadn’t captured the exact image I wanted.

And then I turned around to this:

fullsizeoutput_130c

And it was like a big, beautiful reminder: Stay open! Let go of your expectations, and just see what emerges. Trust the process. Trust me. 

When I got back to my car, the sun had risen above the fog and had lit the entire field with warm golden light. The trees that had been black silhouettes in my first set of photographs were now flashing green and gold, and the fog had lightened, revealing distant trees. The photos I captured weren’t the ones I planned on, but they were so much more interesting than the image I had wanted.

And once again, I was reminded about letting go, about giving up control, about staying focussed on the process and not the outcome. And so, until I forget again, I’m handing myself over to the Universe – at least just a little. Today I’ve got photographic evidence that this might not be such a bad idea.

 

 

 

On Voice and Vocation

IMG_5837I’m fascinated by voice, by the way we find our voices, speaking up and giving voice to our ideas, opinions and emotions. I’m also interested in the ways in which we lose our voices, by the ways we silence ourselves — or find ourselves silenced.

For me, it’s personal. I haven’t had a voice in 2 1/2 years. And it’s the second time I’ve lost my voice for a long period of time. Clearly the Universe is trying to tell me something!

A couple of days ago, I came across a new idea: the connection between voice and vocation (or calling). Voice comes from the Latin word vox, which is related to another Latin word, vocare, to call. The word vocation, or calling, comes from vocare.

This was a revelation for me, as another one of my preoccupations is with purpose, and what it is we’re meant to be doing with our lives. While I love my work (in online course development), I’ve felt for a long time as though I’m meant to be doing something more. And it’s interesting to me that my voice loss has required that I slow down at work, and has also prevented me from returning to teaching, which I always expected to do.

So this whole voice and vocation connection has me following new pathways of inquiry. I’m asking myself:

What do I feel called to do?

How can I give voice to my purpose?

What callings am I not giving voice to? 

These are questions, I suspect, that we might all consider.

I invite you to give voice to your musings below.

Always Begin Again

What lights me up? What am I longing for?

cropped-img_6981.jpgI’ve been feeling lost for a while now, without direction. After publishing my first book last December, I’ve been waiting for creative inspiration. I’ve been journalling and taking photographs and editing some of my poetry; I spent time this summer at a writing workshop on Cortes Island, and even started writing a new book. But none of these creative practices have really been lighting me up.

And I want to feel lit up.

Reading Rebecca Campbell, I was reminded of this truth: “We follow our calling by following what lights us up.”

What lights me up? What am I longing for?

When I asked myself these questions, I realized I was feeling the pull to return to blogging. I’ve missed the creativity and the connection.

But I also felt like I’d outgrown my old blog.

Why not begin again?

Yes. Why not? Beginning again is central to my meditation practice. Why not bring it to my creative practices too? And why not begin anew with a space that reflects who I am now?

I’ve been on a journey for years now to live a more wholehearted, creative and awake life. I still spend more time feeling distracted and lost than on the right path.

But I’m learning to trust in the journey.

This is what I want to write about now. This feels like the next step for me on my journey.