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Action #9: Be Still

Life has been far too noisy for me lately. For whatever reason I am built to thrive with frequent doses of silence and solitude. I used to think this was just a freaky thing about myself I could choose to ignore, but I can’t. Too long in the city and I can’t even hear myself think. I get overwhelmed by the hubbub that assaults me as soon as I set foot onto my busy street every morning. The din follows me in when I turn on my computer, which is full of competing voices shouting for attention. And speaking of shouting, my toddler seems to only have two settings: Asleep or Loud. I have been long overdue for some quiet time.
Here are some ideas on how to incorporate stillness into your life, to make room for wonder.

Ample Time and Money: Retreat! It turns out some of the people I respect the most have also needed this time alone to recharge. Jesus, for one. Another is one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote, “Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody – away from all those people I love most in the world – in order to regain a sense of proportion.”

I just spent a couple days at my family cabin with no electricity on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean just south of Big Sur (my family may not be rich in many material ways, but this little piece of heaven makes up for anything else we may lack). It is such a centering, grounding place for me. I immediately feel reconnected to the rhythms of the earth, to my past, to who I am and what my place is when I go there. There is nothing like watching the sun set in a spectacular light show with an unobstructed panoramic view and then seeing a gazillion stars revealed to regain a sense of proportion as just one tiny part of a great cloud of galaxies. I feel as L’Engle again writes, “I am created by a power who cares about the sparrow, and the rabbit in the snare, and the people on the crowded streets; who calls the stars by name. And you. And me. When I remember this it is as though pounds are lifted from me.”

Go somewhere you can be still enough to feel that. Get away from it all. Unplug, check out, and recharge before your battery runs dry. If you can go for a good long while, great, but even if it’s just for a weekend or 24 hours, it will do wonders. Mothers, in particular, need to treat themselves to a rejuvenating break, but tend to be the last to do it. Don’t feel guilty. The kids will survive. You need this! (As expected, my son was much more excited at the return of our dog than of me. His first words are “dog” and “Dude”, our dog’s name. Still no “mama”, dang it!)

Limited Resources: Observe some form of the Sabbath. Even if you are not remotely religious, practicing a day of rest, relaxation, and connection with community each week is a wonderful and much needed ritual we can all adapt to fit our circumstances. It doesn’t have to be done in a legalistic or rote way, just in ways that are helpful to you personally to be mindful and slow down from your hectic schedule. Check out sabbathmanifesto.org for inspiration.

Busy and Broke: Start a silence habit. Just like checking email has become a habit or bath time for our toddler is an anticipated part of the daily routine, I am hoping to incorporate some mindful silence daily. Before Little Man came along, I used to journal and read and pray in the mornings. Now, mornings are nonstop action from 6:30 on. It may require an adjustment of priorities, but if I retrain myself to take some time each day to pray or meditate or journal or read something soul lifting, I know it will become a habit that will benefit my mental, spiritual, physical and creative health.

May you all be able to create wonderful moments of stillness in your days. For those of you who check back here from time to time, you’ll notice I have not been posting twice a week as I had been. It will probably remain infrequent as I rearrange priorities to be present to a busy toddler and attempt to maintain mental health and good life balance and maybe even read some actual books. I haven’t quite decided to go the route of Yiyun Li, but I may be headed in that direction.

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Activities, Uncategorized

Action #3: Eat Well

Once a week, I will post a suggested activity for creating wonder in your life (mostly to get myself to do it, but I hope you’ll join me). I will include three different participation levels, so lack of time or money will be no excuse. Please share your experiences here to inspire others. Go forth and create wonder!

It may not seem related to creativity and wonder, but eating well is essential to taking care of yourself. You will not be able to create wonderful things if you are not well-fed. And eating something amazing can lead to surprise and awe for your tastebuds. So try it out this week. Eat well and share your experience here.

Ample Time and Money: Eat at that restaurant you have always wanted to go to. Summer Pierre writes in her book The Artist in the Office about putting off going to a certain restaurant until the day she would get the big shot book contract of her dreams. Some friends surprised her by taking her there and she realized “I didn’t have to wait to go there – my life was special occasion enough!” I used to not put a whole lot of value on food, and fancy restaurants in particular, but my husband is a big foodie.  Back when he was just my boyfriend, I saved up and surprised him with a trip to Gary Danko, one of the best restaurants in San Francisco. It was amazing! The service was like nothing I had ever experienced before by staff so professional and smooth they made you feel like royalty no matter who you were. The food was so exquisite it was the first time I realized what an art it is to create an awe-inspiring meal. The whole experience was truly a wonder we will never forget, and have since saved up and went several more times. If you have a place you’ve been dreaming of trying, make it happen now! Life is short, and it will be well worth it.

Limited Resources: Plan a dinner party where everybody makes a different part of the meal. Use fresh, local ingredients. Browse the beautiful produce at your Farmer’s Market to see what’s in season and get ideas. Check out the Slow Food website to see why this is important. Or just trust your tastebuds. Everything tastes better when it’s fresh. And even better when shared with friends. We have been doing this in the city with a group of our friends every couple of months or so. We have a rotating list of course assignments – at each meal, different people are in charge of an appetizer, a main dish, a supporting side dish, a dessert, wine, and pre- and post- dinner drinks – so no one is saddled with cooking too much of the meal and you have a different role every time.  We keep it exciting by challenging each other to make something we’ve never attempted before (no tried and true family recipes, this is all about experimentation and creativity). We just did it last night and it was incredible! Oysters three ways (not usually a big fan, but anything drenched in butter and garlic and baked with cheese on top is a hit with me), handmade pasta with the yummiest homemade pesto and marinara sauces I have ever tasted (sounds simple, but when was the last time you ate noodles that were made just minutes before you consumed them? So good!), an excellent spinach side salad with a sweet homemade vinaigrette topped with hard-boiled egg and bacon bits (mine sans the bacon, but still delish), and a dessert of orange churros in homemade vanilla ice cream served ablaze with rum! Not to mention sangria, an assortment of Spanish wines, and champagne. Decadent! Plus, I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. It is so good for the soul to get together with friends and share a special meal. It doesn’t have to be so extravagant either. Shared grilled cheese and tomato soup is just as nice. Get your friends together this week and mangia!

Busy and Broke: So often we are rushing through our days and our meals become an afterthought. Take a moment next time you are eating to slow down and savor what you are putting in your mouth. Revel in a juicy summer peach. Notice how it feels in your mouth. Imagine how it is going to nourish your body and keep you going. Give thanks for it.

(I was going to end with a video of my son eating  a peach, but found that WordPress no longer allows you to upload videos unless you pay for a video upgrade. This, along with the discovery that I have to pay for an upgrade to be ad-free, means I am just about fed up with WordPress. Any suggestions for free blog sites that allow you to be ad-free and post videos at no cost?)



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Baby on Board: Slow Travel by Necessity

Before our son was born, my husband and I naively proclaimed that this baby would operate on our schedule. After all, if we just took him everywhere we went, wouldn’t he be used to traveling and eating out late and just adapt to our on-the-go lifestyle? I just heard the collective “HA!” of all you seasoned parents who know what a pipe dream that was. How wrong we were really sank in on the way back from a weekend trip to Tahoe when he was barely two months old, during which he screamed his lungs out, making what should have been a four-hour trip take nearly eight with all the times we stopped to comfort him and try to figure out what he needed. Fortunately, he’s gotten better at being in his car seat, but we have certainly learned that babies come with their own set of needs and preferences which require huge adaptation on our parts, and often deference of our own desires. Duh. Welcome to parenthood, right?

While becoming parents has dramatically impacted our day-to-day routine (wow, we watch a lot of TV since we have to be home for his 6pm bedtime and dang, getting up for the day at dark:thirty hurts), one of the things I miss most about our pre-baby life (besides sleep) was the ease of travel without a little one. We could up and go without packing or planning much. We could drive into the night and sleep until noon to make up for it. We could take international flights to multiple destinations and not think twice. That life is gone. And we can mourn it and be miserable, or we can adapt. I wrote about the Slow Movement as it applies to parenting a couple posts ago, and Slow Travel seems to be the philosophy that will serve us well at this stage of our lives, and maybe convert us in the hereafter.

“The art of living,” says Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, “is about learning how to give time to each and every thing.” Whether it’s slow food, travel, or parenting, it simply means doing things at the appropriate pace to truly enjoy the experience. It means gathering with friends to prepare a meal together instead of eating fast food. It means stooping to see and feel and smell the grass with your son as he explores it for the first time instead of urging him to hurry up to get wherever you are going. Slow travel is about being present in the moment, not checking off must-see destinations with your nose in a guidebook, not getting from here to there as fast as possible, but enjoying the journey and taking the time to engage in the culture wherever you are.

We have become slower travelers by necessity. In his first nine months, we have only taken our son on short trips around our home state of California. Hardcore slow travelers even eschew driving or flying. In this way, it is a philosophy that goes hand in hand with Ecotourism, attempting to do as little damage as possible, and even aiming to help out the place you’re going. Fortunately, we live in an amazing place and just staying home in San Francisco can be like traveling around the world with the right frame of mind. But we are in desperate need of a true vacation.

So, we are going on our first international trip with Little Man. Pre-baby, we had hoped to hop around Indonesia this year. We went to Gili Meno and Java right before we got pregnant, and made great friends we’d love to see again, plus we wanted to go to Bali and some of the other islands. Post-baby we realize this would be a tad too ambitious, and probably not enjoyable to lug a baby around an extremely hot, occasionally dangerous, and often frustrating country. We’ll save that until he can carry his own bag. For now, we are headed to Taiwan. We are going to stay with my husband’s parents in Taipei for three weeks. We will have a home base. We will live in the city like locals. If we go anywhere, we will take the train to the coast, and play at the beach. We will hunker down and take it slow. It will be better for the environment, for our baby’s schedule, for the thrilled grandparents, and for our peace of mind.

Just like I would never label myself “green” or “progressive” because I could never live up to the die-hard followers of those philosophies, I wouldn’t call myself truly “slow” yet. But just as I believe my attempt to be a little greener whenever possible is good, I think taking it a little slower will make a difference, too.

Stay tuned for adventures in slow travel with Little Man and the in-laws. We leave on April 6th and I will hopefully be posting regularly while we’re there from my new iPad!

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Mothering on the Middle Road

Modern mothers are bombarded with vast amounts of conflicting information about their parenting choices and are pressured to choose sides. Even upon becoming pregnant, it felt as if I had to opt between a hypnotic orgasmic water birth at home or a conveniently planned c-section at a baby factory hospital. Like most issues in life, I don’t find myself drawn to either extreme, but fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe it’s because I’m a Libra, or a peacekeeping middle child, but I’m often able to see value on both sides of any argument. The birth of my son ended up falling in the middle,too –  a natural childbirth in a hospital (and I’m not ashamed to admit that if there’s a next time, I’ll probably choose an epidural).

The middle road does not grab headlines. It doesn’t spur comment wars in blog posts. The middle isn’t sexy, but I’d venture to guess most people dwell there and are doing just fine, taking bits and pieces from this or that side of the spectrum and making it work for them when it comes to a whole host of issues, from sleep training to deciding what to feed their babies. Yet at each new stage, I continue to be barraged by the fear-mongering headlines and blog posts and forums of those opinionated enough to say that their way is the right way. Little Man is eight months old now and I’m hearing things like I should be getting him on preschool lists now (or more like, yesterday) and I should be starting to develop his brain with education materials, especially bilingual ones if I want any chance of locking in a foreign language while I can. And so I’ve stumbled upon the next two camps looking for new recruits: “concerted cultivation” vs. “slow parenting”.

I can very easily turn into a Type-A worrywart overachieving listmaker, but over the years I’ve learned that very little comes of this. Worrying doesn’t make things go my way and the stress of spinning my wheels just isn’t worth it.  So I try not to buy into all this fast-track parenting, the concerted cultivation thing saying I should be giving my kid a head start by inundating him with educational materials on him, signing up years in advance for the right school, taking a million classes, etc. Not because I’m too lazy or it’s too overwhelming, but because I don’t really believe in the end result. Jump into the rat race now and it will never stop. I don’t want him to live in a pressure cooker this young, only to end up a stressed-out adult. It’s difficult to avoid, though. Even after reading Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, which debunks a lot of the myths we think will make our kids smarter (hey, it turns out those lame Baby Einstein videos are actually bad for your kid!), I found myself making a checklist of things that their studies show do work. I had to give myself the ‘ol “whoa nellie”, when I started getting excited about having Little Man write up play plans because it will improve his concentration and help him engage in extended play. Hello! He’s eight months old!

So I was relieved to discover the other side when I heard Carl Honore being interviewed about his book “Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting“. He actually doesn’t use the term “slow parenting“, though there is a whole group of people who do. Instead, he encourages doing things at the “right speed”, or the appropriate pace at which each task can best be enjoyed, emphasizing quality over quantity, and being present in the moment. A quote from a New York Times interview with him says “childrearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product development. It is not a project; it’s a journey.” Ah…what a relief. I’m sure I will end up in the middle of the two extremes as usual, but it helps to be aware I have choices and there is no right way. I will make my best concerted effort to cultivate enjoyment of this journey.