Sunday, May 27, 2007

Other People's Lives

Neighborhood. Just the word stirs up an array of iconic and nostalgic images of living side by side: porch swings, stray cats, driveways, shrubberies, abandoned cars, gables and eaves, metal trash cans… Our neighborhood of Bouldin Creek in South Austin has a particularly unique array of homes and yards, all nestled together, each an expression of personal style working in harmony and juxtaposition with the other. Ryan, Sadie (our dog), and I walked for an hour just the other evening through our ‘hood, dreaming of lives other than our own. We cherish our life together, of course, but a peek into other people’s lives offers new ideas and fresh perspectives about where we’re going and where we’ve come.

These walks offer an experience of simultaneous nostalgia and future dreams, like a film reel floating through my psyche as I walk past yards and houses. A butterfly lands on a flowery vine, a cat basks on a front stoop with her three kittens blinking at us as we pass, and a young couple gathers with friends on their cozy front porch for Friday evening drinks as the hazy sun comes to rest on the tree line. I am reminded of visits with family friends, enjoying the chance to be at their home and eat their food. Or of the potlucks my roommate and I used to host in our ranch-house apartment in Moscow, Idaho – hours of communal eating and drinking as the sun sank behind the trees and the moon joined our revelry. I yearn to be likewise sitting with friends again, like many times before.

I also look to the future as Ryan and I talk of our plans to one day own a home. We discuss certain things we like about some houses and other things we aren’t so fond of. For instance, we love front porches and green building, but are miffed by the modern homes that spring up between the little cottages, towering overhead like a behemoth: too pretentious! Sometimes, we love things about a yard or house we can’t quite explain; it is simply its ambiance that draws us to appreciate it. The owners may share similar ideologies about life, or they express something we admire in a creative way. We love to talk about what we will do when we own a house one day: entertain, garden, decorate, and tinker in the shed. These moments of looking ahead and dreaming of what we want provide nourishment for our spirits and our relationship. We have enjoyed thinking and talking about the future since we started dating 7 years ago.

Mostly, though, our walk is the convergence of the past and future in the present. My experience is the result of who I am and what I choose to notice and think about. Our experience together is the result of our personalities feeding off of and inspiring the other. Simply enjoying a quiet stroll through our neighborhood, one step at a time, purposefully taking our time to zigzag through the streets – we love our lives knowing others love theirs. Then we may return to our delightful little apartment and charmed lives, rejoicing in the fact that we don’t need anything but what we already have.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Pressing Your Restart Button

Last night, Ryan and I went camping with friends on Lake Travis, near Austin. It was Ryan’s birthday and we planned on celebrating with swimming, beer, and grilled food. I was looking forward to getting out of the city, but found once I got there that it was hard to relax, especially around a group of people. It took several hours, and a few beers, before my mind-frame began to shift and I settled into my surroundings and our activities. I felt restless, like I wanted to be by myself and reconnect somehow; press my "restart button", so to speak. But this trip was something we had all been planning and I knew these opportunities didn’t come along too often, so I wanted to make sure to enjoy my time with friends, and be present and enthusiastic about celebrating my husband’s birthday.

I tend to be a fairly out-going and friendly person, so when I am in a quiet, pensive mood, people notice and often ask if I am OK. This question can often make me feel defensive, as if I need to explain why I am in an “alternative” mood from the norm. It takes a lot of inner patience in these situations not to draw even more attention to my mood and answer, “Yes, I’m fine, OK?!?!” This response isn’t going to make me feel better (or the person who asked the question), so I find it more worthwhile to focus on my breath and ease through these inquiries with a smile. I know I’ll get out of my funk sooner or later and finding ways to make a smooth transition out of a bad mood can often prevent regret for my snappy comments or reactions later. I fared pretty well yesterday, and eventually was greatly enjoying being away from the city and with friends by the lake (see photo below).

This morning, when I awoke from my hazy sleeping bag fluff, I felt even more present as we spent the morning drinking coffee and chatting peacefully. I greatly enjoy mornings in general, but at this point, after a full day of camping, I felt that my restart button had been sufficiently pressed. I think of my days as a middle-schooler, playing Nintendo and enjoying the satisfaction of pressing the restart button and watching a fudged-up game disappear and a new chance presented as the game begins again. I find many simple ways each day to press my own restart button, but sometimes an overnight trip to the woods is a reminder of how long it can take to feel “restarted”. It can take several weeks of vacation in many cases to feel sufficiently refreshed. But no matter how long it takes, it is important to pay attention to the various moods we go through during these periods of rejuvenation, good or bad. Not every moment of a vacation or playtime is going to be perfect. The bad moods or moments are just as important as the good and can make the experience even more real and special once you resurface into a good-feeling phase. The goal is to be patient with oneself through the good and the bad, for this is the balance of life (the yin and yang). In what ways do you press your restart button?

The birthday boy gets ready for some fun (and beer) in the sun

You can probably tell that my mood had lifted by this point!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Time On My Side

My dog, Sadie, walks up to the screen door and looks back at me. “Will you let me out, please?” her eyes ask. I open the door and she walks out with clear intent: to flop down in the big patch of late-afternoon sun pooling on our balcony floor. She does so with no other purpose in mind but to lie down in it and soak it up, save for the occasional fly buzzing by that catches her attention. I watch as her ribs start to expand and contract at a slightly faster clip. Eventually, she sits up and is in full pant, but still seems to be drinking up the sun like a pint of Guinness, eyes fluttering in canine ecstasy. Time progresses for her in a different way than it does for me. She is an inspiration, not just because of the simplicity of her nature, but because she only does one thing at a time. And because she does not have to go to work, “accomplish” things on her to-do list, or think ahead to what she is going to eat for dinner, time is never of-the-essence for her.

My relationship with time, on the other hand, is much akin to the relationship I once had with my 6th Grade Reading teacher, a nun and former catholic schoolteacher who always seemed to take everything a little too seriously. This was public school after all, not purgatory. I always had one eye on her, thinking that at any moment she would sneak up behind me and catch me doing something I wasn’t supposed to (like slipping my shoes on and off distractedly under my desk, god forbid!). I was rather petrified of her, actually, and would get so nervous some mornings before catching the bus to school that I would get sick to my stomach and ask to stay home. Yet, for some reason, I always wanted to get on her good side, get to know her a little better, and try to understand why she was so…well, mean! The fear of her, after all, came from the complete lack of control I felt I had when I was in her classroom. Even asking to go to the bathroom felt like original sin. Funny how being nervous all the time does little to bolster one’s reading skills. I don’t remember a single book I read that year. But I made it through, relatively unscathed, with one lesson to hold on to: there are some things in life you cannot control, you just handle them as best you can, try not to vomit, and move on. Time is something I will never be able to control either. But time and I need some relationship counseling. I want to have time on my side again.

In high school, I used to sway my hips back and forth and sing, “Tiiiiiiiime is on my side, yes it is!” a line from the Rolling Stones song. Time felt friendly and constant back then, so it seems from my current perspective. More and more, when I take a moment to check the clock I experience a second of utter shock and horror (flash back to reading class), wondering what happened to the last hour of my life and thinking how much I still want to do. Admittedly, I put a lot on my plate each day and expect to get most of it done. I never do, and never will, and I have yet to accept this. I still haven’t learned my lesson.

There is hope, however, in that we DO have agency over our relationship with time. Meditation is one of the ways in which I can purposefully slow my breath, my mind, and thus, my perception of time. Because time is relative and elusive, what matters is our perception of it and the steps we take each day to foster a loving, not fearful, relationship with time. I continue to work hard at this because I feel it is essential to living a good, happy life. Like my panting dog on the balcony, I will strive to go through each day with clear intent and focus, and just try to allow life to happen as it is meant to, not how I plan for it to be.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Addicted to Non-Fiction

I am a non-fiction junkie. While in my youth I may have curled up with a good book, these days I curl up with a good dose of information, via magazines mostly, and the occasional email newsletter. I devour page after page, always coming back for more, poring through magazines from cover to cover (I’m not much of a skimmer). You may wonder why this could be construed as a negative thing – why, in fact, I am using the word “junkie” to describe something that I essentially enjoy doing. Simply put, I wish to offer a narrative concerning the vast amount of information that is available to us on a daily basis, particularly to women via the magazine industry. Is it possible that we’ve become non-fiction addicts? How do we mediate the vast amount of information available to us?

I have three magazine subscriptions (my guilty-pleasure, “isn’t-it-great-to-be-a-woman” reading): Self, Domino, and Real Simple…oh, and Vegetarian Times, but I consider this magazine to be in a different category than the others since it is not as much of an “indulgence” for me reading-wise (though it does offer indulgent recipes). I also read our local newspaper daily, and with the remainder of time I have in my day for reading (which isn’t much) I peruse the web for political and environmental issues, news headlines, petitions, and blogs. If I find I am slacking in any of these areas, I begin to fear I might be missing out on key pieces of information, without which my journey “through the goalposts of life” will be miscalculated somehow, drop-kicking me into vast, unknown regions of ignorance and despair. If April comes and my March magazine issues have not been read, I resolve to read more vigilantly until I get caught up. I get frustrated when I don’t have enough time to read interesting articles on the web or sign petitions. I want to be able to read my friend’s blog, know what’s going on in Africa, and save the world all at the same time! This addiction to information is fueled, of course, by the fact that it is in endless supply. I often picture the world wide web as that ever-expanding universe we call home (how can something that defies time and space be expanding?!?!). I will never be able to read everything there is to read. So why do I care so much? Why does it matter that I read every gosh-darned magazine each month?

I am particularly drawn to the topics of exercise and nutrition. I have done enough research on these subjects to warrant a degree in them, at least that is how it feels. Thanks to the information I have gleaned over the years, I am proud to say that I have never succumbed to diet or workout fads and have managed to maintain healthy habits overall. A caveat, however, arises when I am out for a run and start to wonder if I am pushing myself above my “heart rate threshold” and therefore burning muscle instead of fat (oh, no!). Or I will happen upon an article stating that running compacts muscles, and thus the thighs that I have been known to obsess about will not, after all, get thinner because of this form of exercise (oh, my god). My head wants to explode at this point. But I love to run! And darn it, I'd rather be strong than skinny any day! But what do I do with all this information? Then I look at my husband, who just runs for the fun of it and doesn’t give a moment’s thought to whether or not he is burning fat or muscle. When I run with him, I sometimes think to myself, “That’s not fair! Why do women have to worry so much about such stupid things?” I will save pushing the gender argument for now, but the fact is, having so much information at one’s disposal can be more menace than help.

So, will I stop reading these magazines and try to wean myself off my non-fiction addiction? Well, no, at least not for now. What I need is to find a way to enjoy reading about these topics while moderating how the information affects me. I appreciate that I am interested in many different things and perform daily activities like reading and learning whole-heartedly. As always, it’s about balance; knowing when you are “reading” into things so much that you have trouble getting out and recreating for the joy of it (like riding a horse!). How do you moderate the information in your life?

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Letting Go of Logistics

This entry was originally posted on my friend's blog: I thought I would feature it on my blog and reference Karl's wonderful blog as well. Enjoy!

This past January, I made only one resolution. I usually make a list of goals to check off as the year goes by. This year, however, I felt like I could sum up my wishes and goals for 2007 in one sentence: “Live each day for the joy of it and stop stalling on all the logistics.” This loosely translates to, “Life is a Journey, not a Destination.” Being a Virgo, a first-born child of four, and a hyper-organized person, this resolution has, for the past several months, proven to be the best one I have ever made.

I like to be in control…of everything. This trait has become more noticeable over the years as levels of responsibilities have increased, and life has come to seem more and more fragile. Grad school really did me in. I went from shunning a planner to being an addict, toting it along with me like a trusty water bottle. Water is the source of life; a planner is not. I didn’t realize the degree to which I was allowing logistics to influence my short and long-term decisions. This boiled down to developing a fear of the unknown or unexpected, and pushing away the possibility of living spontaneously. I could vaguely remember a time when people described me as “happy-go-lucky.” That title implies a sense of uncalculated whimsy, doesn’t it? It means that I was perceived, at least, as being happy and optimistic despite the occasional mishap or, how do you say…”logistical error.” When and how did I become so off-kilter and how could I find that same sense of whimsy and balance in my adult life?

I live an incredibly easy life and have come to believe that humans create their own happiness within the context of their lives. Likewise, we create our own misery, even within the context of an easy life. Negativity manifests itself underneath my eyelids before waking some mornings like a fog rolling in. We’ve all woken up at some point feeling “off” without being able to figure out why. This, of course, leaves us with a sense of having lost control of our emotions somewhere along the way, whether during sleep or as a result of an occurrence during the day. How can we push through this fog of negativity quickly and efficiently and live each day simply for the joy of it? And can we do it without implementing control and force?

For me, this is where my resolution comes in. A logistic is what gets us from point A to point B. It is the plan we have to make for the future that prevents us from enjoying what is going on in the present.
Certainly, it pays to plan ahead in many circumstances and a well-laid plan is often preferred. But when logistics cause us to feel overwhelmed and stressed, then it is clear that we are spending too much time and energy on them. We have thus relinquished control to the Great To-Do List of Life.

Since making my resolution, I have responded to this dilemma by doing the following: When I am bothered by something that is not happening in the present moment (i.e. something that I’m going to have to deal with later), I give myself a silent cue and take a deep breath to shift my focus to the present moment. Dwelling on it now is not allowing me to feel happy now. I am stalling on negativity and not doing justice to my hour/day/life. “Now” has its own array of experiences and emotions and I might miss out on them if I am simply planning ahead and worrying about logistics.

I have started to say each morning upon waking, before any other thoughts about the day are allowed to creep in, “This is going to be a great day. Today is my one chance to have a great day.” It’s a simple endeavor, and doesn’t involve force or control as long as you put your mind to it first thing. It puts all my focus on just one day, which is much less overwhelming than thinking about everything I’m going to have to do over the next week/month/year. It also limits my To-Do list to one goal, having a great day, which is a lot easier than thinking about all the little things that need to be done. Having a great day is a subjective experience and, as I mentioned before, you control (for lack of a better word) whether your day, no matter what happens good or bad, is happy or miserable. It is a choice and having a choice is a very happy thing.

Larissa Chace Smith, 3/31/07

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Knowing Your Rites

Tonight, Ryan made a delicious meal of Pasta with Mustard Greens and Ricotta, accompanied by Shredded Carrot Salad with Fresh Parsley and Raspberry Vinaigrette. Spring is the time to rediscover many of earth’s bounties that we have missed over the past fall and winter months (or they just were not as fresh because they were shipped from hundreds of miles away). Fresh strawberries and greens of all kinds are just some of the in-season delicacies to be enjoyed this time of year. I revisited the meaning of Easter this year when I read about its pagan origins and the rite of spring that has been celebrated for thousands of years. No matter what your religious affiliation, if any, it nourishes the spirit to celebrate the seasons, and I feel I get equally excited about winter turning to spring, spring turning to summer, and so on. It is nature’s cycle, and our adaptations to each shift, that makes us so intrinsically tied to the earth as humans.

We have been cooking with more greens and feeling less tempted to eat heavy foods now that spring is in full-force. Trips to our local Food Co-op have become more joyful, with produce bins filled to the brim with new colors, shapes, and textures. Yesterday, we cleaned our kitchen from top to bottom with spring-cleaning gusto (OK, maybe “gusto” isn’t quite the word). This feat always renews my appreciation for the space in which we make our meals. So, after our lovely spring dinner tonight with our friend, Conrad, I finished cleaning the dishes and wiping down the counters to find that a thunderstorm was underway. This spring rain, always a blessing in Texas, will not dampen our spirits. We welcome it by opening the screen door after days of thick humidity. We welcome spring’s gestures, be they mild or powerful, with full lungs and open hearts.