These posts are always inelegant and dull, but: I’m taking a course right now (training to become a yoga instructor) and don’t have any free time. I love this new space and haven’t forgotten it. This isn’t my usual slackerdom/wandering off/not knowing what to say. Right now I have so many things I wish I had the time to say. I’ll see you at the end of March, unless something shifts and I have a free day before then. x
Kieran and I have made the choice to forgo exchanging gifts on each other’s birthdays for a few years running now. We’ve chosen this for a few reasons, not the least of which is that we seem to have simply gotten past the point where we need to commemorate important days or events with stuff. Instead, we’ve gone for a nice dinner together or to dinner with friends. And while that’s always been perfectly nice, we had to admit it lacked a little…something. Romance? Specialness?
One problem is that going for dinner together or with friends is not especially unusual (probably not as unusual as it should be anyway), so it just didn’t feel special to do so on our birthday. Gifts, however unnecessary, are usually thoughtful and — regardless of whether it’s social conditioning to believe so — at least speak to something a little romantic as a result. So this year we found a way to make our birthdays special without making it about stuff: We picked the weekend that’s smack in the middle of our two birthdays and went away on a little getaway to Galiano Island. We rented a little cabin that was surrounded by trees and farmland and overlooked the sea. When we weren’t lolling about in front of the wood stove, we enjoyed hearty meals at the local pub and walks with the dogs (Oz was home from “college” for the weekend). In other words, we found just the thing.
This Christmas, my family graciously went along with the idea of not exchanging gifts, which Zen Habits describes wonderfully here. Our usual Christmas tradition is to draw names from a hat and to buy something special for the person whose name you’ve drawn. And it must be said that there is something lovely and special about exchanging gifts — the thoughtfulness behind the gesture, the fun in finding the perfect surprise. But it must also be said that shopping during the holiday season is wretched and stressful, and half the time everyone would be so drained by the time Christmas rolled around, some of the magic would be gone. We’ve decided that what we want most is to just, simply, enjoy each other’s company without the stress and weariness of the season nipping at our heels.
The idea of not exchanging gifts is bigger than just saving ourselves the hassle, though. No one in our family needs a single thing. Not a thing. If anything, we all have too much, despite our best efforts. Not exchanging gifts gives us the space and time to acknowledge how blessed we are to have everything we need. What I’m most excited about is that we’ve decided to take it a step further to pass on the blessings. We still drew names from a hat, but this year we’re going to donate in that person’s name to a charity that is meaningful to them. I can’t wait to see the different organizations that get honoured this year!
Even if you’re not forgoing gifts with your loved ones, if you have someone on your list who’s difficult to shop for, I found the holiday “catalogues” for various organizations to be so fun and unique and full of cool ideas of virtual gifts you can give that happen to make the world a better place. You can adopt wildlife through the World Wildlife Fund, you can give a family in a developing country a start on farming with a goat, chickens, and other livestock through World Vision, or a fair day’s pay to labourers or clean water to a community in need through Oxfam Unwrapped. And, of course, you could always donate to my favourite charity, PADS!
Love, bebes. And happy holidays!
Part 1, for those who don’t care for scrolling.
The thing with the Internet is…well, see, it’s not the Internet. It’s me.* The thing with me is that I have discipline, at least some, but I lack willpower. And I lack willpower because I have an overwhelming innate laziness that I need to do battle with every waking moment of every day. I would call my laziness congenital because it feels like the kind of disorder that is congenital, and all the evidence, both concrete and anecdotal, indicates that I was born this way. But calling this congenital would be doing my parents — my farmer parents — a great disservice. While they harvest entire crops of grains — simultaneously managing a flock of sheep, mind you — I spend three months putting off re-potting the fuchsia on my balcony.
This tendency came into play in my decision to go Internet free in two ways. First, there’s a flipside to my laziness. The nice thing about getting old, you see, is that you start to see how all the elements of your personality, even those you hate, can act like something like a prism. You spend your 20s glumly contemplating your flaws, and in an effort to keep them out of sight, exert yourself to smother them, keep them from surfacing. But at some point you realize that all you had to do was hold your flaws up to the light just so, and then you can see how they gleam and spill over with colour. I am about as lazy as you can get while still maintaining the cornerstones of normalcy (barring catastrophe or, I suppose, an incredible windfall, I will always be gainfully employed, for example). But when you hold that up to the light there’s something else: With great laziness comes a keen eye for efficiency. I can’t tolerate the effort required to do something in a way that doesn’t make sense or that can be done better, if doing it better means releasing me sooner from the onerous state of not doing nothing. My relationship with the Internet had reached a point where it was becoming inefficient, and having it around to suck me into not doing shit was having the effect of making that shit way harder once I got around to it. For example, ignoring the vacuuming for a few days results in a thick film of cat hair on the furniture that takes over half an hour to get up instead of five minutes. The same applies to any of the little everyday things that are easy to ignore, and easier to rue ignoring.
Secondly, however, is that despite my drive for efficiency, there’s still the other larger issue of my great propensity to suck despite this, and all the things I need to do in order to work around this basic fact. I recently attended a seminar on working with clients who have a disability — specifically Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, which, in short, is brain damage — and the facilitator articulated a coping strategy that I realized could be applied to anyone. Now I’m not comparing suffering from garden variety laziness to FASD or any other form of brain damage (much as I might sometimes feel brain damaged while staring blankly at the blinking cursor on my monitor at work); that’s not where I’m going with this, so bear with me. The seminar facilitator urged us to think of FASD in the same terms as we would think of any other physical disability: We all know it doesn’t make any sense to become angry with a paraplegic for being unable to walk up a flight of stairs, nor does it make any sense to punish them for failing to do so, or even failing to try. What makes sense is to give them the tools that they need in order to be able to go up the stairs (a mechanical lift maybe), or to set them up in an environment in which they can function without aids (a home without stairs). Now this was exquisitely put for me in two ways. First the unselfish bit: What a sensible and accessible, yet compassionate, way to approach a sometimes baffling disorder. Second (and this is the selfish part), I realized she was articulating precisely and succinctly a coping technique that I have been somewhat blindly and clumsily putting into place over the last number of years as I fumble my way through the project I’ve wearily dubbed It’s Time to Stop Failing As an Adult. And hearing it articulated meant that I could go about refining it.
While being incredibly lazy is incomparable to having a disability, it can be vaguely debilitating in its own right. Simple things like laundry and dishes can seem overwhelming, all the more so if you happen to be doing something pleasant the moment you realize they need to be done. Any success I’ve had in not appearing lazy is the result of acknowledging — even embracing — the all-encompassing effect of my laziness, and the fact that it’s not going to go away. I will not wake up tomorrow as the person who’s raring to go to the gym or who decides to just “get the dishes out of the way” before she relaxes. In other words, there’s no point in trying to shame this out of me (my 20s would have been a different, more stellar, story if shame could cure me); instead I need to create an environment in which someone like me can succeed. (An example of this technique is my little triumph over laundry, which is when I first began to think of simplifying as an effective means of working around my personal shortcomings.)
The Internet is both the best and worst thing that could happen to someone as lazy as I [me?]. It’s this great, interactive, educational, social portal that requires a minimum of output from its users…but somehow that minimum of output seems to spread to the other areas of your life. The Internet is a dangerous time suck for me, and I know I’m not alone in that. That, I suspect, is near universal. (I don’t know exactly where I land on the spectrum of human ability to stop trifling around with stupid shit in order to get things done, but on second thought, I’m starting to suspect I’m closer to the centre than I sometimes I think.) At some point over the last number of years, more days than not I would come home from work and do what could only be described as diddly fuck all. Unless languidly lolling through websites you’re half paying attention to qualifies as doing something. With time, this became alarming enough that I managed to correct the course such that I became much better about closing the laptop and becoming more consistent about getting done what needed to be done. I could have left well enough alone, but there was still one thing missing from the picture: I never managed to get to the things I wanted to do. Of particular note, I never managed to write.
Given enough time, I suppose I would have managed to steer myself out of the tailspin of lost time in order to develop the discipline needed to ignore the pleasing, numbing ease of constant passive amusement that the Internet provides. I did manage to start getting other shit done after all. But is there any real benefit in losing more time when a relatively simple change can help you to get to where you want to be now? And how much more time is worth losing? Why wait to live the life you want to live, be the person you want to be? If you can identify what’s holding you back and you’re ready to change it, then there’s very little argument against it. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, it’s far more efficient and effective for me to change my environment to suit my needs (or perhaps more accurately, my weaknesses) than to try to change who I am.
So what’s changed now that we’re on the other side? We are still at the beginning stages of this little experiment — it’s only been a month or two — so time will tell how many other changes and discoveries there are to come. However, there are, of course, already some discoveries of note. The first day we were without Internet access was striking for a conversation we had: There was a moment after we’d finished breakfast where we realized that, “Since there was nothing else to do, we might as well do the stuff we need to do.” Uh. Wait, what? There was a certain dawning horror that resonated through the room after that, when we realized how normal it had become for us to ignore what really needed to be done in favour of bland amusement. I also think this blog is perhaps the most telling yet unintuitive example of how crippling the Internet can be for me: I may be the only blogger who blogs more as a result of no longer having Internet access.
Finally, what’s also of note is how different my expectations of what this change would bring are from the reality. I thought, for example, that I would need to find a hobby, knitting or some such, to keep me occupied during my down time at home. This is so off the mark it’s laughable. I don’t need a hobby because I don’t have time for one. Not even a little bit. I have yet to find myself out of things to do, the vast majority of which are the mundane, day-to-day crap of adult life. It’s no wonder life often felt slightly out of control before — I was wasting time I simply didn’t have to begin with. You often hear about how overwhelming the constant onslaught of information is for people in the information age, and I think there’s something to that — there is a certain stillness, peace, to my evenings that wasn’t there before. But I also think that’s largely missing the forest for the trees. Taking in all this information and, now in the era of social networking, participating in it takes time that we don’t actually have. The Internet and TV may be relatively new to the scene, but laundry and dishes have been around since about forever, and will go on for about forever too.
Oh, but! Let’s not leave out what has become something of a hobby now, whenever I do find the time: I am writing. For real. There’s time for it, an evening here and there, and there’s the fertile, quiet space for it now too. I’m not afraid to say that this, if anything, is what I hope becomes the discovery that unfolds and blooms because of this latest decision to let go.
*Obviously, Kieran is on this journey too, and we made this decision together, although I’m writing about this from my own perspective. Some of our reasons overlap (time suck), but he has his own reasons that I won’t do the disservice of trying to put into words for him.
Over the years, as our journey towards simplicity has slowly gathered momentum, I have noticed that each decision to get rid of something has followed a specific, predictable pattern.
Something surfaces, somehow separates from the backdrop of all the other stuff and habits in your world, and makes itself known to your conscious mind. You realize that the thing in question you either haven’t used in ages, or you do use it but don’t really need to or (perhaps secretly) maybe don’t even want to.
You begin to toy with idea of getting rid of the thing, weighing the pros and cons, contemplating the what ifs (“Maybe I’ll need it later,” is the argument your brain likes to have with itself immediately after noting that you haven’t used the espresso machine in two years.) But the idea of getting rid of it niggles anyway, and you roll it around for a while.
If the thing in question is a Big Thing that you actually do use but it’s dead weight anyway, you go into a sub-phase before you can move on. In this phase you worry that getting rid of the Big Thing will be wildly inconvenient, or otherwise suck hugely in ways both predictable and unpredictable. The negotiations and discussions in this phase are real — as are the merits and demerits they raise — as opposed to the hamsters in your brain jumping on their squeaky little wheels seemingly just for the hell of it. This isn’t the “Seriously, self. Get a grip. If ever it comes to pass that you need another set of salt and pepper shakers you can just buy some,” tail chasing that inevitably goes on when you’re cleaning out the closets. This is more so some “Uh, we are going to change everything. Are…we ready to do that?” hand wringing that is at least somewhat rooted in legitimacy. (For example, we went through something of a drawn out Phase 2a when deciding to go car free, wherein we discussed everything from how we would negotiate grocery shopping to trips out of town.)
Here is where things branch. If the thing in question is a useless piece of crap (extra salt and pepper shakers) you move onto Phase 3; if it’s not exactly useless but somehow superfluous anyway, you move onto Phase 4.
You drop the piece of crap at the curb (or, preferably, at a charity in need of your donations), and forget it ever existed. The time you spent staring at the salt shaker wondering if you would regret its absence was an absolute waste of time, just as the thing itself was an absolute waste of space. One day maybe you’ll remember this fact so you can bypass the hamster wheel arguments with yourself, but who knows. Maybe it’s somehow innate. We all seem to do it.
You close your eyes and pull the plug: You get rid of the Big Deal Thing and…you wait. You wait for all the shitty inconveniences and regrettable extra miles you have to go to now. And they do come, although not as some unassailable onslaught like you’d imagined during the height of your hand wringing. Instead they trickle in, and they’re manageable, easy to almost mindlessly swat away. What you’re not expecting though is that for every little inconvenience, there are at least two positive changes you couldn’t have predicted, things you’d never give up now that they’ve bloomed in the wake of that which you have left behind. When we went car free, for example, we never could have predicted how much more physically fit we’d become just automatically, really, or just how much money we’d save. (And that’s just the start of the list of happy changes I could list. We’re car-free ten years and counting for a reason, much as I know the people who want to hear about it are few and far between.)
For whatever reason, I didn’t think that getting rid of the Internet would fall into this pattern. The Internet, like a car, is at least arguably useful and necessary. I can’t imagine looking for work without the Internet, for example, not any more. And unlike a car, there is no real alternative to the Internet — there’s no walking or biking or public transit equivalent. What’s more, unlike a car, the Internet is actually generally pretty fun, or at least more consistently so.
And yet. (Part 2 to follow shortly, although — natch — no Internet does make blogging somewhat trickier. See you in a bit.)
Part one for the chronologically inclined.
Nothing has changed my life so profoundly for the better in the last year than our volunteer work. While there’s no one thing that I can extract from the daisy chain of activities and changes that have nudged me into the steady, happy place that I’m enjoying right now, volunteering does get a special place of honour. If I had to pick a moment when our lives took an unexpected left turn, the one that eventually landed us here, it would be the moment when we walked through the door of the PADS training facility for our volunteer orientation. I was still having trouble breathing then and I struggled through the session, already maxed out on the pulls I could take on my inhaler. I couldn’t always listen in that state — skimming the surface of panic as my lungs knotted — but at the front of the room a Golden Retriever was dozing, and I found myself watching him, the way the strawberry blonde hair around his ears formed silky curls, the way he occasionally opened his deep brown eyes to assess us. There is something calming about sleepy dog’s eyes, the way they blink at you languidly, seeing but not seeing.
Puppy raising is a tremendous, almost overwhelming commitment. All day, every day. By the end of your fourteen months with your puppy — the puppy you held and loved and learned with and took to the vet and cleaned up after when he was sick and slept beside on the floor all night after he was in pain from surgery — you have to just…let him go. The phrase you hear time and again about service animals is that they’re not pets, which sounds cold and clinical, the implication being that they’re not to be petted and played with. And while this is certainly true when the animal is working (not at all so when he’s off duty), it’s far more complex – richer — than that. Service animals aren’t pets: they’re more than pets. They come with you everywhere, to work, to every restaurant and coffee run, on vacation…hell, they come with you to the damn bathroom. You learn to communicate with each other (I found myself talking to Oz as if he had spoken, saying things like “Okay, buddy. We’ll leave in just a minute,” and he would constantly surprise me by demonstrating how much he understood outside of his commands), and eventually you move from training the puppy to working together.
Turning Oz in for his advanced training turned out to be a different kind of heartache than I was expecting. I thought there would be tears, the gasping, chin-wobbling kind. Instead, it turned out to be the right thing to do for Oz. He was so used to constant learning and new challenges that he’d become bored, having mastered everything we needed to teach him. A week or two before he was turned in, one of the cats swatted his nose and he scooted over to my side for reassurance and I realized how long it had been since he had done that. He didn’t need us anymore. So turning Oz in didn’t produce the tears and drama I had steeled myself for, but it did produce a little aching ember of heartache, small and red hot, that flares up from time to time and catches me off guard.
It turns out that, perhaps unexpectedly, the way to deal with the level of commitment and the inevitable heartbreak is to, simply, invest. Give it your all. If you can’t keep this puppy, than you might as well do everything you can to shape him into something than can truly help someone. Somehow it’s this sentiment that makes the whole thing easy, even though it’s not. And it’s this sentiment — putting your heart and soul into helping someone you don’t yet know exists simply because they need something that you can give – this is what cracked the world open, filled my days with warm, golden light.
It took me several months to work up the nerve to cut the cord after reading this, but…I knew in my heart that the author had a point: The Internet kills creativity and productivity. At least, it certainly does for me. Thank you to Shannon C. for introducing me to that site!
After declaring in the new About page that I’m going to move away from journal style blogging, my first post or two is going to be journal style. It just feels a little…odd to not start at the beginning, if a general update on where I’m at can be considered the beginning. (Although, it does at least set a sort of explanatory foundation for the stuff I want to talk about in this space.)
The good news is that things are actually pretty awesome right now, in a quiet, unassuming kind of way. Nobody has won the lottery and there have been no lavish trips abroad or any of the other things you picture when somebody talks about things being awesome. But for the first time in years, thing are solid, stable, settled (at last), which turns out to be fundamentally necessary to opening the door to awesome.
For starters, we’ve stayed in one place. After a decade of almost constant upheaval, we haven’t moved — apartments or cities or provinces — and this has proven to be predictably yet, somehow, surprisingly effective in bolstering our general well being. At some point in the last year or two, we finally managed to quietly transition from that weird waiting state that hovers between being shell shocked and being settled in, but at last we’ve made it across and we’re good and comfy now.
What’s also rather lovely is that nothing actively shitty is going on right now. No crazy harassing co-workers, no family drama, no grieving, no renovations, and no one is coughing until their lungs bleed. This little respite from life’s struggles is like a serene little island bobbing unexpectedly into view after so many months of pitching through choppy waters in a rickety lifeboat, frantically paddling in order to stay afloat while lurching towards a horizon that offered up no inkling of where you were headed or how long it would take to get there. I’m happy to bask here on these sunny beaches until life demands that I clamber back into that lifeboat and start paddling again. [Dear Universe: Not yet, please. Thank you.] In the meantime, there’s a happy busyness to life (happy and busy seem to have taken up residence with one another and it seems obvious now that they were meant to be together).
I’m still doing ballet, and at some point in the last year, my instructor pulled me aside and told me I was ready to start attending the advanced class. I was as pleasantly surprised as I was uncertain, although uncertainty won out the first time I stood among my new classmates. These were not women who had taken up ballet on a lark — these were women who had trained as girls or young women, some of them at the freaking Royal Winnipeg (glack), others with BFAs in dance. A couple of women were lacing up the ribbons on their pointe shoes. I felt suddenly awkward and on the spot, timid and small. I even felt a gush of that hot anxious feeling you’d get in junior high gym class and someone popular (and maybe a little mean) was picking teams — that feeling of neither wanting to stick out nor wanting to be invisible. I was — and am — miles behind those women in skill level, and am unlikely to ever catch up to them. In those first few moments of the new class, before the music started and I was compelled to do my best to keep up, I realized with a curious mix of fear, dismay, and excitement that ballet had suddenly shifted for me, from a fun little experiment with other women in the same boat to some other private, unnamed journey.
Something surprising happened that first class: the steps and sequences that I’d been struggling to master in the beginner’s class fell effortlessly into place as soon as I had to add more complicated elements to them. Suddenly the new elements were the focus of my struggle, which gave my previous efforts the space they needed to become comfortable. As adults we forget, I think, what it’s like to learn, what we need to learn, but my instructor was deft in her timing in guiding me towards a new challenge when I needed it.
A year later, it’s still hard, and at times I’m simply hopeless, but at least once a class there’s one good, buoyant moment, a pirouette that sails, a rise that flows up and out, just as it should. Last week, I got flustered while learning a new sequence because there were people peering in the window watching us. There was nothing for it: I had to come to a full stop partway through and count to the music, out loud even (one-two-three, two-two-three, and STEP-two-three), before I could rejoin my partner, laughing through my embarrassment. My instructor shrugged good-naturedly. “If you were auditioning for me, I would have hired you because you found a way to keep going,” she called out over the music. If that’s not a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is.
To be continued…
If I was to tell you five things about myself with the hope of making you think I am an interesting person — as one should in an About page — the best I could come up with would be the following choice pieces of trivia: I was in a U2 video (which at least sounds like a bigger deal than it probably was; but still: U2 video); I cycled across Canada (7000 kilometres across all 10 provinces); I’ve had the privilege of moving around and experiencing a few of Canada’s coolest cities – Edmonton (yes, Edmonton; don’t start), Vancouver, Montréal – but also had the privilege of growing up on a farm; and I raise and train assistance dogs as a volunteer.
But let’s be real. Those sparkly little gems are scattered across great swaths of the mundane burlap of adult reality: the office job (editor), with its emails and blinking cursor and me thumbing through the omniscient (just kidding) Chicago Manual of Style; trains crowded with gloomy commuters; the mortgage, the baseboards chewed by puppies in training, the grit of scattered cat litter underfoot. That’s my life. Usually with more dirty dishes than I probably just let on.
About Blue Yon Belly
This is the third iteration of this blog. Although I have, for all intents and purposes, taken the previous iteration out back of the barn and put it out of its misery, there are some vestiges lying about. There may be some broken links here and there as a result of the cull, for which I apologize, but which I will unapologetically not bother fixing (for one thing, I no longer have an Internet connection — more on that some other time — and for another thing, I, well, I can’t be arsed.) No matter. I hope instead to fill up this space with things worth reading.
In years previous, I’ve treated this as your standard journal-type blog; this approach, frankly, stopped working for me a couple of years before I finally gave up the ghost. One problem I had with the journal approach is that daily life, as I alluded to above, isn’t all that exciting and attempting to write about it in a chirpy, feebly engaging way became a strain. The other problem I had was that if one happens to be flailing through one’s life, much as I was these last couple of years, one starts to become increasingly sheepish after a while about publicly documenting it. [Word to the wise: If you choose to move six times — spanning three cities and three provinces — in the course of six years and, in the interest of full insanity, throw into the mix returning to school to complete your grad studies, four career changes, getting married, and buying and renovating a home, be prepared to embark upon an extended bout of seemingly inexplicable flailing that you will be entirely helpless to stop.] I limped along because I didn’t want to quit blogging, but I didn’t know how to get the train to switch tracks: I don’t have a lifestyle shiny enough to become a lifestyle blogger (unless readers are now drawn to “Style” sections that include four-year-old Gap T-shirts with faint coffee stains towards the hem?), and I don’t have kids so, you know, mommy blogging is out. While I am political, writing about my politics makes me uncomfortable, as does writing about some of the other issues close to my heart (environmentalism, for example) (See? You just groaned inwardly at that word. That’s why I get shy.). I finally allowed the whole thing to go fallow for a while until I could formulate what I wanted from this space.
So what do I want from this space? First and foremost, this is a space where I will flex my muscles as a writer and, I dearly hope, create from time to time writing worth showcasing. But this will also be a space where I hope to explore ideas that are important to me: right now these ideas include living simply and living with a focus on compassion. The Internet is pretty much batshit nuts, but if it does one thing well, it’s allowing like-minded people to find each other; I’m hoping to find and be found by people who are exploring and trying — trying to do good, to be kind and whole.
Cursory small-type caveat: I still want to be “e-nonymous” for now. On these pages, I am “jeci” or “Jay.” No last name or birth name please, since both are too specific and Google-able. If you are reading this and you are my boss or co-worker, a potential employer, or one of the more assholic of my ex-boyfriends, please go away. Thank you.