The Right Recipe

I’ve been cooking a lot lately. I bet you have too. Not that I didn’t cook before life as we knew it imploded, but it certainly wasn’t to the tune of three square meals a day, seven days a week, and a generous dishing of snacks in between.

Keeping it somewhat variable has been a challenge; provided that I can find a recipe that I am not so intimidated by, and given that I can then subsequently find the ingredients for said recipe, it’s been a little dicey (lame culinary pun intended). I am not my grandmother’s granddaughter; that woman could always throw a little of this and a little of that together and make magic happen.

I’m not into the imprecise types of recipes that hold a vague sense of direction like “dash” or “sprinkle”. No, I much prefer to be given the specific, to the quarter of a teaspoon, step-by-step directions.

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I’m like this in a lot of ways; I like to know the expectations, the rules, the “how-to” of it all.

I’m apparently much more confident in others’ ability to know the correct answer than in my own.

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was scrolling through Pinterest to find a specific recipe, that I feel as though someone has handed me an ambiguous, nebulous recipe for life. A “dash” of home-schooling with a “sprinkle” of parenting, a “good amount” of working from home and a “pinch” of house-wifery.

On the one hand, I want someone to lay out for me what exactly it is I should be doing, and when I should be doing it. Tell me the schedule for meal times and bedtimes. Tell me how many hours my kids should be working on school work, and not on their screens. When should we work in activities, exercise, family games, arts and crafts. When to focus on the parenting of my kids and when I might be able to make time for myself or my marriage. Give me the formula for that mix that equals success.

But I can no more take that recipe – even if there was one – and create the best stay-at-home, homeschooling, work-from-home mother than I can cook in a three-star Michelin restaurant just by virtue of someone handing me the instructions for the dish. What is working for other people right now would likely not work for me.

Along this journey that I have been on in self-development and personal growth I have stumbled more times trying to follow someone else’s recipe to the letter than I have succeeded. I have tried to emulate other people’s strategies, to the time, to the day, to the activity, and it has never worked quite how they made it appear for me. For awhile I kept searching, though.

Because someone’s gotta have their shit figured out a bit better than me, right? There has to be an adult out there who can point me in the right direction.

Maybe not.

This new world order has shown me that there is a ton of room for improving upon my need and propensity to know the rules and expectations, to understand where the boundary lines fall, and to not question why and even if they should exist in the first place.

We’ve all been given an invitation to undo our own certainties, and release our need for the assurances of others.

Perhaps this might just be the way to find our own best recipe; starting over from scratch, with the ingredients we have, as much or as little as we want to add, and creating something new and wonderful from the basic ingredients. Just like learning the basics of how to perfect a recipe, however, we’ll need time and a fair amount of failure to get a palatable first pass, not to mention to perfect the process. How we can best support our families, our spouses, our friends, ourselves; how we can build our parenting, our marriages, our friendships, our habits in new and better ways.

Good luck in your own kitchens, readers, and remember to throw in a generous amount of grace with each stir of your spoon.

Exhale

Last week was…weird? Discombobulated? I struggle to find a word that succinctly wraps it all up nice and neatly in an orderly, grammatical way.

I didn’t know how to respond to everything that was happening, and happening so quickly. So many shifts. I was conflicted, caught somewhere between acting like everything was normal, because on some level things felt normal, and at the same time knowing everything was far from normal. I didn’t know what to do or not do, and my actions mimicked the confusion. Some days I stayed in pajamas. Other days I got dressed. I didn’t monitor anyone’s screen time for hours on end, or I was micro-focused on it, there was no in between. I put off going to the grocery store (and as a serial meal planner, this might have felt the most unhinged). Underlying all of that was knowing that my girls felt similarly, had less of an ability to hang on to their own emotions, and I had to show them some modicum of normality amidst a complete lack of it.

I vacillated between wanting to drink all the bottles of wine because I felt stressed and overwhelmed, a dear old coping mechanism of mine, and sticking religiously with my hydration plan that I have cultivated which I know makes me feel nourished and clear-headed. I have Pinterested school schedules, and I have not given a damn about what my kids were doing in terms of routine. I have thought about going for a walk and then scrolled Facebook for the better part of two hours. I have been zen, and I have utterly and completely lost my shit over the smallest of things. I have subscribed to virtual yoga classes and not done a single one. I have stuck to my somewhat normal workout routine thanks to my local gym community, albeit virtually, only to turn around and eat half a bag of chips I discovered hiding in the back of our pantry. I have cleaned out all of the kitchen cabinets in a Marie Kondo effort, and I have napped.

And you know what? Every single one of those things were OK.

I gave myself a pass last week. There was so much coming at me that if I took it all in I knew I would hit system overload. This sudden and abrupt shift of all the time in the world felt like a gift and a curse; I simultaneously wanted to take advantage of it and do all the things but also internally railed against the need to be productive.

After allowing myself that time to wallow, however, I knew that I needed to be a bit more intentional. On Sunday, my typical weekly planning day, I told myself I would stick to the basics that I have been working on building, before life spiraled into the plot for a sci-fi novel. Focusing on what made me feel best – gratitude, sleep, movement, water intake and limiting alcohol, auditing my consumption of media and reading materials, as well as sticking with my nightly routine – and discarding those that just weren’t sticking, such as waking at 5am and journaling every day. I have no time or tolerance at this juncture for working hard at things that I don’t thrive in doing. Also, building unsustainable habits that work through a pandemic but not into the days that will be reminiscent of business-as-normal probably isn’t the best laid plan.

There’s plenty that I want to drink about, there are more than enough things that could keep me up at night, and I am definitely not going to make the homeschool teacher all-star team.

And there are definitely times, like yesterday after a trip to the grocery store where people in an otherwise genuinely friendly community hesitated to look each other in the eye much less say hello from a safe distance, where I pause to feel the emotions that I can’t deny are there, swirling all about.

This is not a time for rockstars. It took us years to groom our at-work skills. This is a time to lower the bar, do what you can to make yourself feel good, feel your emotions, and for the love of god, connect with your social networks. Those things will help you through the five thousandth “Mommmm”, the incomprehensible math work and the sheer chaos that will likely ensue from being sheltered-in-place with those you love so, so dearly (and yes, I am trying not to be sarcastic here).

This is not a time to pick up heavy things just for the sake of lifting.

There has been this increasing pressure to be productive with all of our time. To be “busy”. I think this might be the time for us all to take a pause on productivity and perhaps just connect with those things that make us feel good – not temporarily good, but nourished, cared-for and genuinely good.

My boss once gave me a card, after a particularly rough day I had, and the front simply said, “Exhale”. I still have it. It reminds me to take deep breaths.

On a regular day, I need that reminder often. Now, I need that tattooed on my forehead. Or perhaps my hand because, let’s face it, I’m not really taking the time to pause in the mirror.

This is temporary. And it’s uncomfortable. It’s challenging and hard and lonely and beautiful and peaceful. It’s so many things, and all the things all at once. Let’s just focus on getting through it as best as we can. Cry when you need to, smile when you can, and take some deep breaths.

 

Slicing Toast

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Most of us cut toast without thinking about it. Whether it’s in twos or fours, squares or triangles, we each have a set way that we slice toast, an automatic response to a task built in our neural pathways, created the first time we observed someone cutting toast and strengthened each time we prepared our own.

Why do we slice toast this way?

What if we actively tried slicing our toast another way?

So much of what we do is simply performing rote tasks, and we don’t take the time to stop and question them.

Isn’t it worth thinking about why we do the things we do, and if they are the most efficient, productive use of our time and energy? Do the things that we do out of habit even align with our own personal beliefs, our goals, our end game?

The start to my days used to consist of hitting snooze. More than once. Coming home and starting dinner preparations included an automatic pop of a wine bottle or beer tab, because I “deserved” it after getting through the day and “needed” it to get through the evening. Putting the last kid to bed led straight to sitting on the couch, clicking power on the TV remote, and consuming mindless content for hours. And then, that routine simply automated cyclically, day after day, with no real intention.

It became routine simply by not trying to do something different.

Put that way, it seems a little silly, doesn’t it?

Start with slicing toast. Apply this introspection across every one of your seemingly mindless, habitual tasks. But, a piece of advice: start one by one, or you’ll get overwhelmed quickly. Work through one habit for a period of time and then start on another.

A trick that has worked and continues to work for me is to keep track of the days that I am successful at not following through with an old habit or creating a new habit. I do this for three months; each month I try to improve on the percentage of success over the last. I prefer to see this progress visually, so I print out a simple tracker made in Excel and fill in successful boxes in black and unsuccessful boxes in red each day. The act of referring to this sheet daily keeps me mindful.

By the end of the three months, I usually have a good success rate, and a habit formed. Then, I will start a new tracking sheet for the next three months, and add another habit, while still tracking the last until it is a three-month streak of success. That is when something that I want to do, or hope to do, or something that I wish to stop, moves from intention to habit to simply something that I do – or don’t do – almost without thinking about it.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

And it’s not about slicing toast.

 

Disparate Paths

Our journeys are never the same.

There may be similarities; for instance, we’re all carrying extra weight. We all have some things to shed. A portion of your weight might look familiar to me; we may meet at a juncture and connect over the shared burden.

But, I do not know what came before that point for you, and vice versa. You may be in the very beginning, the middle or nearing the end of this particular climb.

We may continue on the same path together for a while, or we may choose alternate routes. We could also travel along the same path, but at different paces.

I might not see your path; you might not choose to travel mine. If you did, you might see something along that very same course that I didn’t.

We often make the mistake of following someone else’s path to get a similar result.

Take what you want, and leave the rest. Some things are just not necessary tools for your journey.

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Change

Intentional internal change is not like a lightning bolt or an explosion.

External change, the kind that can alter our lives in an instant, can happen like that, loud and fast. However, when we are trying to create change within ourselves, it is rarely sudden, and is more like a long, slow build. It never really reaches any sort of peak; more accurately, it becomes.

I wanted to type “it simply becomes” there, but it is anything but simple.

Internal change comes from consistency. It comes from developing a pattern of listening to, nourishing and respecting ourselves, our minds and our bodies. It comes from seeking out, encouraging, feeding and creating the right kind of energy, from being aware of our consumption at every level. It comes from changing our inner dialogue; unlearning the patterns created from our past and external influences, and learning how to hold an internal conversation that builds ourselves up rather than allowing the inner critic to step in and tear us down.

Consistency is not an overnight action. It is methodical and practiced. It is based in habits. It usually includes a few starts and stops. It requires patience, perhaps most especially with ourselves, because the little ways in which we stretch ourselves can feel really big and uncomfortable.

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And then, something happens.

It happens quietly. You work towards a thing slowly. You practice. You fumble and start again. However, after some time, you suddenly realize you’re not just working towards that thing, you are a person who does that thing. It may still require effort, but rather than negotiating with yourself, weighing your options, or much internal debate, you now just do the thing.

You can know what you want to change, but without a foundation of what might seem like trivial details, changes made with little to no support can be quick-lived and unsustainable.

If you are looking for true change, identify and work on those small things you can commit to consistently; when building a new default by design, there will be trial and error. If you fail, simply start again. There are times where difficulty and challenge can be an indication that perhaps that particular practice or habit simply wasn’t meant for you. But, if you feel a pull in that direction, it may just mean you need to give yourself a bit of grace and try again.

Small changes really do lead to the big ones; how you do the little things is how you will do the big things.

 

Permission Slips

I ask for permission more times than any thirty-five year old mother of three children should.

I look for an okay on a whole host of decisions, from my family to a myriad of strangers; my parents, my husband, my kids, my boss, my co-workers, my friends; hell, even the staff member who runs the Fitting Rooms at TJMaxx.

I seek validation; I am afraid of judgement and criticism; I want to please everyone. I have guilt and shame around pursuing my own objectives when I already have a demanding career, children to nourish, encourage and raise, a husband to be present for, and a house to maintain. I feel incompetent when I can’t do it all, so why add something else to the list?

When you allow others’ thoughts or actions or opinions to formulate how you make decisions, you lose awareness of what’s important to you, what your interests are, what you value, and what makes you feel fulfilled.

You lose your sense of self.

Aha.

Asking permission shows up subtly. It’s not an outright ask; it lives at the corner of our actions. It hides in self-conscious and insecure behaviors, in making ourselves, our work and our passions small. It masquerades as asking for others’ opinions and seeking outside influence. It lulls us into procrastination. It trips us as we’re climbing the staircase of action, and holds us there, feeling like we’re still climbing but we’re simply spinning our wheels with the inaction of seeking perfection.

Seeking approval limits our possibilities, our experiences, and doing what is important to us. It also pushes us to do too much of the stuff that doesn’t serve us or fill our own cups.

My husband gets extremely exasperated when I make a decision, but then recant or second-guess that decision. I used to tell myself that I needed more data, needed to think through every possible outcome or consequence, assess all of my options. Truthfully, it’s because I never really made a decision at all. More often than not I need to talk through choices with someone, or multiple people, before I follow through because I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with my choice.

We mistakenly believe that aligning our choices and our actions with those around us will lead to a sense of assurance.

I’m starting to see it for what it really is, simply a lack of confidence. I’m more likely searching for external validation or approval than better alternatives. And I don’t want to be dictating my life and my decisions based on others’ wants, needs and opinions.

Approval only comes at the expense of knowing what we want and being true to ourselves. And that need for approval smothers our souls.

Once you’re able to identify and build what is important to you, other people’s opinions or judgements lose the weight you thought they once held. It becomes easier to walk away from things that don’t serve you or your highest interests, and replace them with things that allow personal growth, fulfillment and satisfaction.

Giver yourself permission to buy those shoes. Give yourself permission to put you, your hobbies and your goals on the calendar. Give yourself permission to build yourself into everything you can and want to become. Give yourself permission to ask for help without needing to seek approval. Give yourself permission to walk away from situations and people that drain your energy rather than revitalize it.

Who are you asking to grant you permission to be who you want to be?

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Factory Settings

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What is your default state?

For me, my default state used to be overwhelm. Frustration. Anxiety. Anger. Stress.

As strange as it might sound, I look back and realize I was comfortable there. I knew these states intimately; they were like a cozy, well-worn sweatshirt. I wrapped myself in them, and ironically felt that they protected me. I don’t know that I ever realized I could change what I believed to be my automatic responses and reactions, much less wanted to. I’m quite sure I would have told you I couldn’t change where I was at, even if I tried.

I never recognized that I could improve upon those places I automatically went to.

I believed it was simply part of who I was.

These states of being were a part of my story, something that I never thought to question. I believed they were intrinsically woven into my character, simply the way I was hardwired.

And I was damn proud of who I was.

Thankfully, I learned to ask questions. Through self-development, self-discovery and self-evaluation, and learning from a whole lot of external sources about how to focus on the internal ones, I discovered that unlearning these behaviors might actually serve me, and my family, better.

Now, I am damn proud of who I am, but even more proud of who I am becoming.

Those states of overwhelm, frustration, stress, anger and anxiety still linger around, showing up and knocking on my door from time to time; I haven’t been miraculously cured overnight. Sometimes, those deeply rooted default reactions bypass all the good intentions in a zero-to-sixty flash. I’ve noticed that this is especially true when I haven’t been focusing on myself and my needs first; when I haven’t been filling my cup before filling others.

Yet, there are times where I catch it in time, and that’s where I can see my progress. It’s taken a few years of focusing and committing to a different state of being to move myself beyond these mindsets. It’s a daily practice that I still fail amazingly well at. However, in those moments where I do manage to catch it, I glimpse what is possible and that gives me the fuel to keep working persistently toward new default states, creating my own factory settings.