Thursday, April 7, 2016

5 Steps to Include Creativity in your Life

Children are naturally creative. They play with toys, make up stories, and create artistic items with zeal and gusto. Something happens as we get older. Our inhibitions take over and we become critical of our work. Creativity seems to fall by the wayside.

However, we are all still creative. It is in us somewhere. Whether we create delicious meals, fix cars, tend a garden, or actually paint, sing, write, or build. Creativity is an important part of who we are and adds an incredible dimension to our lives.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an excellent book about this - Big Magic. I had to read parts of it twice because it really struck a chord with me; though maybe not the way it did with most people. Her book really encourages you to get out there and express your creativity - don't let fear control you, embrace your creative drive!

Your children will benefit by watching you create. A good role model does instead of tells. You will benefit by being creative. Creating brings about a sense of accomplishment, pride, and positive mental health.Your family can create together! This is one activity that has no boundaries and all can participate.

My life has been full of creativity - from making Barbie doll clothes with a scissors and tape, to learning how to sew my own clothes including my wedding dress. I also knit my own sweaters in high school, and made clothing for our children. My sewing talents took a turn toward quilting, and with my aunt, we sell quilted wall hangings at an art show each year.

Music has been a part of my life from my first piano lesson in second grade, to parades at Disneyland with our high school marching band. My career for the last ten years has focused around teaching, and I am energized by creating unique lessons and activities.

No, I don't think I have a problem expressing my creativity personally or publicly. What I didn't realize until I read her book was that creativity is a part of me. I could no more turn my back on it than I could on my family.

On our journey towards simple life, I have tried to align my time with activities that add value to my life; and creativity is one of them. However, now that I work full time outside the house, it is hard for me to create as much as I used to.

To give me focus, I turned to a study aid I used fairly regularly with my middle school students to help remember something - acronyms. Here is a plan to help you accomplish more creatively.

F: Find Time

As any parent knows, especially those of us who work full time, finding time to devote to creativity is like a juggling act. I often feel like I have three balls in the air and if I catch the creativity one, two others drop. I love having a whole weekend afternoon to sew or write, but that just doesn't always happen.

Instead of lamenting this, be flexible in finding time that works for you. After dinner seems to be a good time for me to sit down for a half an hour, or an hour if I am lucky. Most of what I do can be broken down into small steps that can be worked on during this time frame.

Maybe you can find quiet time early in the morning, or in the car while waiting to pick up your kids. Nap time was always a productive time. Lunch time at work can also allow you time to work on a project. A lady I worked with would always pull out her crocheting during lunch.

O: Focus on ONE Thing at a Time

If I am writing on my computer, I tend to have multiple internet tabs open. Multi-tasking is never productive for me and I get distracted easily. Also, I tend to have multiple projects going on at once. Therefore I hop from one to the next, never finishing anything.

While working on a project, you will be most productive if you focus your attention on just that one thing. Even if it is for fifteen minutes, you will be surprised how much you get done. With multiple projects in the works, pick one and focus on that one for a certain time period.

For me, this means moving into a different room with my laptop, picking a time limit, or setting a small goal. You may find it helpful to designate days where you only focus on one type of project.

C: Curate Your Materials

Facing a large amount of supplies from which to work from can be stressful and overwhelming. You have so much to choose from, it is hard to make a choice of what to use and where to start.

Last year, I finally curated my fabric collection. I know what I normally use, and what makes me happy to work with. Additionally, seven years worth of quilting books were passed along to someone else because they just caused me anxiety to look at.

With a smaller, well curated collection of supplies, you are free to create instead of worrying about using everything that you have. You have a much clearer focus.

Supplies can also mean options. You can easily spend an hour searching through Pinterest posts for a pattern or idea. Pick one and give it a chance instead of overwhelming yourself with too many options.

U: Understand Limitations and Obstacles

Limitations include time, skills, supplies - anything that won’t change fast. You can definitely address and change these limitations over time; but in the short term, you just need to understand and work around them.

Obstacles include those things that constantly prevent you from creativity. These obstacles are both positive and negative. My family is a positive obstacle. I want to spend time with them, yet that time prevents me from creating. Finding a balance is the key with positive obstacles.

Negative obstacles, like criticism from others or yourself, need to go. We are adults. We are wonderful, highly productive, creative, unique adults and we have every right to create things that bring us joy.

S: Celebrate Success

Once you have completed something, celebrate! You can celebrate privately or publicly. You might not be as brave as I was to create a wedding dress to wear in front of 100 people, but you certainly can find small ways to celebrate.

Creating a collection, in real life or digitally, shows you how much you have accomplished. I have given away and donated almost every quilted item I made, but I look through photos of them once in awhile to admire what I created.

Finally, if you have children, continue to support their creativity no matter which direction it heads. Design creative projects the whole family can contribute to. Fortunately, I came from a very creative family and it was an everyday part of our lives and jobs.

What helps you encourage creativity in yourself and your family?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Changing My American Dream

The American Dream: A big house in the ‘burbs, nice cars, in-style clothes and furniture, exotic vacations… You know what I am talking about - the “thing” everyone is striving for. The goal we have to attain. The constant, yet elusive carrot-on-the-stick that we feel we need to reach.

Yep. That American Dream. I had one too, but I changed it last year and I am so much happier for it.

Ironically, if you google “The American Dream”, the definition that pops up is as follows:

the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity
to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, 
determination, and initiative.

This I have not given up on; this I strive for. It is the lake house, and all the trappings that I gave up. What happened? I discovered simple life and minimalism.

Minimalist is probably not how I would describe myself. That is until you really start reading what minimalism can be today, and the Minimalists say it best:

What is minimalism? If we had to sum it up in a single sentence, 
we would say, Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess 
in favor of focusing on what’s important
—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.

Yes, this past year, I have been striving to rid my life of excess in favor of focusing on what is important and it turns out, that house on the lake is just not what I want. Late last summer we finally agreed to sell our boat. It was either that or buy a house on the water so we would use it more. Yes, that seems silly, to buy a house just to use a boat, but there it is.

I began looking at listings for homes on lakes within 45 minutes of where I work, and I found they would either cost too much in mortgage and upkeep, or they were so uncomfortable looking that we would have to completely remodel them - a huge headache and expense. Not to mention the increased commute each day.

In comparison to how I feel living in our current home, which is a very comfortable feeling, they just didn’t cut it. I have come to the realization this past year that we have enough, and my quest has turned towards making our life more simple and easier. I love being at peace and I can do that right here.

Changing my American Dream meant re-evaluating my goals in life and working towards new ones. Here are some steps you can take to do this:

What makes you happy now?

Define what truly makes you happy and structure your life around those things. It may take time to sort this out, and a few trials and errors, but you should be able to find what adds value to your life. In this list, include people who make you happy so that you find ways to include them in your life. After making this list, how many items on the list were “things” such as a big house, fancy jewelry or luxury cars? I admit that I love driving my pickup truck, but it was a well-planned purchase that fit into our overall plan. Moving towards the realization that you have enough, and can be happy with what you have, is liberating.

What detracts from your happiness?

These are things you want to eliminate. Debt, a constant struggle to pay the bills, working your butt off just to survive, or not spending enough time with people or on things you enjoy. These detract from happiness, and your goals should align with reducing these as you increase the previous list of things that make you happy. Most things that detract from our happiness cause us stress, and stress can physically harm our bodies and our minds. Make some plans, and chart out small steps to remove these things from your life.

How do you spend your time?

Maybe you have reduced that list of things that detract from your happiness, but is your time well spent? Do you derive pleasure and satisfaction from the things you do? Or, do you have a lot of time-wasters? Do you take the steps to do the things on your bucket list? Set a few of them as your goals now, not in the future as you keep saying “Some day”. Spending even little bits of time doing something you love can improve your mood and allow you to find larger pockets of time to do them.

In the end, it was truly life changing for me to go through these steps and change my American Dream. My new dream is peacefulness, and like the original definition of the American Dream, I am willing to work hard for this success.

Image Source @morguefile

Monday, March 14, 2016

Looking Up

Lookup to the sky. You’ll never find rainbows if you’re looking down. Charlie Chaplin

When I walk or bike, I find myself looking at the ground in front of me so that I don’t trip, or ride over an obstacle that might cause me to fall. Sometimes I feel this is how we look at life, down. Down in the mires of whatever we are doing, without paying attention to what is going on around us. In today's society, people are looking down at their phone, more than they are looking up at others around them. While missing out on what is going on around us is one downfall to looking down all the time; I have found another reason why looking up is better: Joy.

When I look up, I see this wonderful world around me. My spirits are uplifted, literally and figuratively. When I look up even higher, up at the sky, I feel an immense sense of peace and wonder. I am in awe. My whole mood changes in that moment. I find that whatever I was thinking about is gone, replaced by beauty. On my walk today, I was surrounded by blue sky and beautiful cloud formations. Looking up was transforming. 

There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope. Bernard Williams

While I’ve struggled with my drive to work each morning, I am forever delighted by the sunrises I see along the way. Each one is so unique, so beautiful and so uplifting. I am always tempted to stop along the way to try and capture the beauty of the sun rising above the city as I get closer to work. Since this isn’t safe, I have found ways to stop right after I leave my house, or at a stoplight, to capture the amazing creations.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. ~Rabindranath Tagore

While in Key West years ago, everyone would stand at Mallory Square to watch the sun set. All three nights, crowds clapped for an orange ball falling into the water. It was amazing, but not as beautiful as the sunsets we have at home with clouds in them.  As we go through life, our days can not always be clear blue skies. There are bound to be clouds that pass through. Those clouds are the interesting parts, the memories, the pain, the relief, the sorrow, the happiness and the joy. Clouds add to the beauty of the sky and they add dimensions to our lives. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

How We Ended Up With So Much Stuff

This month I am slowly working on replacing the shelf liner paper in all our kitchen cabinets and pantry. It is giving me a really good opportunity to touch everything in the kitchen and decide if we really need it/still want it. We did this a couple of years ago when we removed the cabinets above the breakfast bar and reorganized, but we still have a lot of things.
Some wedding presents, some from my grandmother's house, 
and some I "needed". All. Done.
This round of decluttering has me thinking about how we ended up with so much stuff. We never really earned big salaries, and felt we lived below our means. Yet, we accumulated so much stuff. How did this happen? Gifts and free stuff aside, we bought a lot of it. Why?

Instant Gratification

Living below our means still meant spending money. We have always been good at saving, but I think we could have saved more. Looking back, we often felt it was more important to purchase things, than to put that money into savings. A $10 purchase excited us more than $10 in savings. It was that instant gratification, that quick high we got purchasing something. $10 towards savings didn't quite do that. Today, I am much more excited about not spending that $10 knowing that at the end of the month, all those $10 will add up to something I can put in savings.

Making Life Easier/Better

Advertisements are purposely written to convince you to buy something, but sometimes just looking at an item gives me the idea it will make my life easier or better. Whether it is a kitchen gadget, or camping gear, we decided we needed it to improve our experiences. This is definitely the biggest category by far of all the things we purchased over the years. Our camping gear grew astronomically until we literally had to take a utility trailer with us to go tent camping. Every two years we upgraded to the newest phones, leaving a drawer of old ones it their wake. Kitchen cupboards, CD cabinets, tools, closets of clothes, all grew with each passing year.

Changing Seasons of Life

Here our purchases were often necessary, but still could have been reigned in. Children need things, but not as much as we purchased. Our camping life went from a tent, to a pop-up, to a parked camper, to a cottage and finally back to two tents. All the money spent along the way was a learning experience, but I don’t think we thought them through enough. We had the money, so why not.

We are by no means perfect, and we still buy things, even for the above reasons. However, over the last year, I have been trying very hard to analyze each purchase to see if I could a) do without it entirely, b) find a substitute with something I already own, or c) buy it with very purposeful intentions. A big win for me was a trip to the clothing store with our daughter yesterday; after an hour of following her around, I didn’t find one single thing I wanted for myself. It made me feel very happy :)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Gravel in Our Life

Oh so insignificant is the lonely piece of gravel. So tiny it is barely measurable. So abundant in our world, it is worthless on its own. No one would buy a piece of gravel by itself. No one would pay attention to it as it sits along the side of the road. You might be inclined to sweep it up if you notice it in the middle of your kitchen floor, especially if it might leave a gouge when stepped on. But really, no one ever pays attention to the lonely piece of gravel. 

Until it is inside your shoe. Oh boy, then do we pay attention to it. It is sharp and annoying; it screams at us. You shake your foot constantly trying to get it to move. Walking on it becomes nearly impossible. You just can’t go on. You have to stop and get that minuscule piece of stone out of your shoe!

That tiny piece of gravel can be a metaphor for the stressors in our lives. At first glance, the irritation of small things may be barely noticeable, or just a mild nagging feeling. As time moves on, this small feeling grows and grows until it is an ever-present pain in our life. And yes, like the itty, bitty piece of gravel, it causes physical pain. Headaches, stomach upset, shoulder tension and insomnia. However, unlike the piece of gravel, it is nearly impossible for us to just sit down and remove it from our life. Pretty soon, the stress has now grown into a boulder that we are literally carrying around with us every second of the day.

A year ago, if you would have asked me about my boulder, I am not sure I could have told you what I needed to do to reduce it and bring peace to my life. As we have removed layers of our life this past year, such as extra possessions and activities, impulse purchases, and clothes I didn’t really care about, it’s easier to identify what causes me stress. In fact, these stressors become pretty obvious when they aren’t hidden behind something else. I can now analyze situations and more accurately determine how I need to change the situation or myself.

Additionally, I can also see what brings me peace and contentment. With less in our lives, I notice how space brings me a sense of calmness and I enjoy that feeling! Having fewer choices of clothing to wear is really uplifting, something I would have never realized before.

Right now, I can accurately identify my most common stressors as making dinner and times when I have to get more than two things done at the same time. I am tackling the dinner problem first by changing our meal planning to include simple-to-make food that everyone likes. This may mean less variety and no fancy recipes, and right now, I’m fine with that. As for having to do too many things at once, I am learning to set some things aside as “would be nice to do” versus “absolutely has to be done.” I’m amazed by how little of it falls in the absolute category. Both of these strategies will be a work in progress for me as old habits die hard.

Some stressors are large - such as debt; and need to be chipped away little by little, like turning a bolder into a rock. Other stressors, like mine, require a change in our reaction or habit. Adopting some simple-life strategies may offer another way to reduce stress in your life. Some of the common ways to begin simplifying your life include these tips.

Evaluate Your Current Possessions

Look around your house and see if there are items you could live without. You might start with decluttering a whole room, or even just a single drawer. This could be a big sweeping activity, or a little bit each week. The goal is to remove items in your house and create space. This space is relaxing and frees your mind. It also frees your time when you have less to take care of. Decluttering can include simplifying your wardrobe to include only items that you really like. Not only will you feel better when you wear these clothes, you will have less decisions to make each day which reduces stress.

Evaluate Activities and Commitments

Do you spend a lot of time running from place to place? Would you like to stay home more often, or spend that time doing something that brings you a sense of accomplishment and joy? Look at your calendar for next month and decide if you can block off days of the month to do just that. It might involve saying no to invitations, or looking for carpool options for your children. Removing yourself from activities and commitments is difficult, so it is best to start small as you gradually add time back into your life. With time, it will become easier to do this. 

Evaluate your Free Time

When you have free time, how do you spend it? Is it spent on activities that add value to your life? Adding value can include spending time engaged with family members, cooking healthy meals, exercising, working on a project or even just relaxing. Are there pockets of time when you find yourself surfing the internet or social media that could be turned into something else? By evaluating your time, you can decide if the activity you are involved in should remain a part of your life. Decide on a couple of things that add value and you want to spend more time doing. Then when you have free time, see if you can include a couple of these activities. 

Evaluate Your Purchases

Going shopping has turned into a nation-wide pastime. Sometimes we shop for fun, without truly thinking about what we are purchasing. Looking back over the years, I see a lot of impulse purchases that we could have easily done without. Evaluating your purchases helps with two things. First, you might bring less into your home and second, you might spend less money. Additionally, you will have less to take care of, more room in your home and more money to save or use towards paying off debts. Many people on a journey towards simple living are also those trying to pay off debts and/or save money for travel and other experiences.

Practice Gratitude and Being Present

Some of the best advice I have read is to practice gratitude - being thankful and appreciative of what you have and of the moment you are in. Small things such as a sunny day, or less traffic on your way to work, when noticed and appreciated, can bring a sense of contentment with your day. The more often I am grateful for small things that happen, the better my day is. Being present in the moment you are in, instead of always thinking about or striving for the future can help bring contentment as well.

I mention one point often - this is a journey with many twists and turns, gravel and boulders. No two days are the same, and life happens in between. However, trying to simplify our lives helps us deal with these better than we would have in the past, and may help turn that boulder in your life back into a tiny piece of gravel that can be removed from you shoe.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

My Life Would be So Much Better If….

I think at one point or another, everyone has said this to themselves. My life would be so much better if… If I moved, if I could buy a house, if I had kids, if my kids were older, if I had a different job, if I had a job, if it wasn’t raining out, if I didn’t have so much debt, if I didn’t have so much to do, if I didn’t have to clean the house, if, if if….

Cabin fever has set in hard for me. My job has been taking a lot of brainpower and time lately, including time at home at night and on weekends. The weather has been cold, and I don’t see much sun once I get home. Therefore, I haven’t been going for a walk at night or getting outside much at all. On my way home from work today, the thought passed through my mind that it would be nice to live in a warmer climate.

You've had those days too, haven't you? Just that one thing will make our lives better.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to follow that with - no, life wouldn’t be so much better if I lived in a warmer climate. I continually get emails from my parents in Florida complaining about heat and humidity, along with wind. They sit inside in their air conditioning as much as we sit inside with the furnace running.

Why though, do we default to this mindset? Why do we think something big has to happen for our lives to be so much better? As I pondered that thought all the way home, I decided that attitude plays a big role in our life. Now there are times when a big change is necessary; however, I am referring more to the times when we think it is just that one change that will solve everything.

There is a belief out there, one I totally agree with, about picking your attitude. No one tells you what attitude to take, what to say, how to behave, or what you must feel. We choose all of these things. I’m not going to go so far as saying we are masters of our own destiny; I believe we play a role in it, but I am not one to defend that statement very well.

So if I can pick my attitude, then I can believe my life doesn’t need a big change to be so much better. For example, there really is no reason why I am not going for a walk at night other than being lazy. I know that taking a walk would clear my head from all it has to do at work, and would energize my body. There are also plenty of winter sports to partake in, if I decide to do them. For example, I love snowshoeing, and could do it more often if I chose to. 

A recent snowshoeing day. We bundled up,
 and enjoyed being outside.

If the house is too noisy, or my husband is watching a movie I don’t like, I have the choice to go in another room and read a book instead of stay with the noise. If dinner is too stressful to make, I can make a simple one. If our children are fighting, they are probably bored and could use some attention instead.

There is no bed of roses and things are not greener on the other side of the fence. Wherever you are or whatever you do, your attitude comes with you. If you are a negative complainer, that is going to travel with you even if you switch jobs or move cities. If you feel your young children are a burden, you have the attitude that they are causing the burden. When they grow older, you will find another way to feel they are a burden.

So how do you change your attitude to feel that right now, right where you are is a good life that doesn’t need a big change to be so much better?

You start small. You start by accepting that you are the one who can change. As I mentioned above, there is nothing stopping me from going for a walk in the winter. I have plenty of warm clothes to bundle up in. If you don’t like your job, start by polishing up and/or developing some skills that could be transferred to another job and then start looking. I just read a really thought-provoking book by Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You . He makes some good points about liking your job more when you are really good at it, no matter what your job is; rather than chasing a passion driven job.

If you are in debt, start to reduce your spending and impulse buys; little by little, you can pay off your debt. I have read about many people who like Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball Plan for debt reduction.

If your young children are draining, try to set some routines and consistencies. When you are tired, the last thing you want to do is enforce consistency, but again, it is like my walking - the benefits are quickly seen.

While these ideas may be too general, or not applicable to your exact situation, if you start thinking about how you can change your attitude, instead of changing the physical situation you are in, you might find small ways to begin molding your current physical situation into one that is a better life for you.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Constant Quest for Improvement

All the journeys we are on represent the ways we want to improve ourselves and our lives. Striving for a simple life includes the desire to create a better life through learning, trial and error, experimentation, practice, and strong-willed follow through. In the past year, I have learned more about ways to improve my lifestyle than I ever did.

In the past, my learning dealt with other, more tangible things like real-food recipes, or quilting techniques. Now I am dealing with bigger, abstract concepts. Every day I am exposed to more and more ideas to try and concepts to learn about, and that is OK. Except, I feel like I am on a treadmill that I can’t get off and it is causing some stress.

Each new idea I read is a flashing neon sign to “try me!” I am prone to trying too many new things without giving them proper due diligence. Sometimes I can't see the forest through the trees.
We all have the ambition to improve in some aspects of our lives. We may want to earn more money, get a better job, eat healthy, exercise more, read a book a week, learn something new or in depth, or spend more time with family.

We are also bombarded with advertisements to improve: buy this new gadget and make your life easier, this pill will help you lose weight, upgrade your cellphone to improve your phone experience. TV shows are created around the whole topic of improving - think of almost every show on HGTV - each one is a story of improvement.

No wonder this gets to be overwhelming and stressful. How can we ever keep up with all the improvements we are supposed to make in our lives? The concept of “enough” seems lost because everything we want to improve, or we are told we need to improve, flies in the face of being happy with what we have and deciding we have enough. Or does it?

Listening to the Gratitude Diaries podcast, Janice Kaplan states it is ok to practice gratitude and still have ambition. Thus, even though I am grateful for everything I have, I can still have the desire to improve. For me, I understand that to mean that I can be grateful for all I have, and decide I have enough. But, I can look at my core values and decide that I could improve in some of them for various important reasons.

For example, one of my core values is health. I am very grateful that I have good health; however, I am doing some things that are not good for my long term health and I want to improve - namely eating habits, increased exercise and improved mental health. Even that is a long list!

So how do we sort through all of the improvements we want to make while still maintaining our simple life journey? Today I made a list of my values, the things that are most important to me and add value to my day. Creativity, health (physical and mental), spending time with family, and finances.

If I see an idea for improvement, I will check to see if it falls under ones of these categories. However, I can find too many things I want to do that align with a value. To prioritize them, I realize some are more important than others and I will devote more time to them, such as the health category. Other categories are going to have to take a side seat. For example, my quilting may only happen one afternoon a week, usually on the weekend. Writing a couple of nights a week works out well for my creativity and my family life. While my exercise goals are four times a week, and healthy cooking is every day.

Despite these parameters, this is definitely a process that will be a struggle for me because I still want to improve in too many areas all the time. Hopefully, these guidelines will help me prioritize, and let some things go. Do you find yourself with too many ideas? What helps you maintain balance in your life?