Is this the real life?

snow-dayAs we round out the first month of this shiny-if-not-still-perfect new year, many of us have had the opportunity already to enjoy multiple vacations. Some were on purpose over New Year’s Day and the holidays, and some came as a pleasant surprise, thanks to the widespread blanket of snow provided last week by Winter Storm Jonas.  We have seen parties, pajamas, pancakes, and about a million snow selfies thanks to the modern marvel that is social media.

Now the other shoe drops.  As the snow is clearing and the breaks are coming to an end, I keep seeing the same sad message posted over and over again: “Well, back to reality…”  But is it, though?  Is our normal routine the true definition of reality, or could it be that daily life itself is the illusion?

Let’s have a closer look at Snow Days vs. regular days and see how they match up.
(Note: Gross generalizations follow; feel free to replace them with your own experiences.  Also, weekends don’t count as regular days, in case that had to be said.)

Food
snow day foodOn a regular day, food is what happens between activities and obligations.  We grab drive-thru on our way to work, toss some processed and pre-formed freezer meals or (God help us) Lunchables into a bag for midday, and throw together whatever is quickest and least guilt-inducing for supper – not to mention all the caffeine we keep infusing just to make it through on pace.   Sure, we have phases of entree salads and crock pot meals, but I’d say those are balanced out by the days when we just can’t, so we eat out for all three meals.

snow day frenchtoastOn a Snow Day, food is an act of love.  As evidenced by the empty aisles at the grocery store, we prepare for every possible nutritional need or desire on a Snow Day.  French toast with bacon and strawberries, heaping pots of chili that simmer for hours, s’mores and piles of homemade sugar cookies…nothing is too good for our loved ones and ourselves.  The kitchen becomes a veritable playground for reviving old traditions, trying new things, and turning nutrition into an art form.

Family and Relationships
snow day 3On a regular day, relationships are something we dream about or long for or miss. 
In order to pay the bills or build the career, we are often leaving behind someone else we’d rather be with.  Meanwhile, we’re surrounded by secondary relationships with others who are forced into our circles by circumstance and equally wish they were home with someone else.  We’re all just trying to smile and make the best of it and love the ones we’re with.

Black-Family-in-SnowOn a Snow Day, relationships are right there in our faces, whether we like it or not.  We wake together, eat together, build snowmen together, go through our entire TiVo library together, get bored together, get irritated together, sleep together…  Okay, it’s a lot of togetherness, maybe too much after a while.  But the thing is, we’re connected.  We know what’s going on with each other, and we have the time and opportunity to share if we want to.  Plus, we can’t run away from each other when it gets difficult.

Fun
no funOn a regular day, we don’t have much fun; we function.  
We’re busy.  We’re worried.  We’re doing the grind and bringing home the bacon and recovering from doing the grind and bringing home the bacon.  Maybe we catch a good song on the car radio, make a silly face over dinner with the kids, or divert our attention with a little Facebook, and those moments are nice but they’re truly not enough.

 

snowday2On a Snow Day, we can barely function because we’re having so much fun!  Want to take advantage of the day off and sleep in?  Can’t, because the kids are jumping on your head to go look at the snow, play in the snow, take the animals out in the snow!  Need us to shovel the driveway?  Okay, but we’re totally just going to snowboard back down it when we’re done – or even before then!  Think you’re going to catch up on some work or chores?  Can’t, because there are piles of snowy outerwear strewn all over the house!  It’s a soggy, beautiful, mad mess all the day long.

Free Time
On a regular day, free time is…wait, free time? 
What is that?

snow day sabbathOn a Snow Day, we are given the gift of a mandatory Sabbath.  We’re stopping to look at the sky.  We’re getting outside and appreciating nature.  We’re taking time for the things that energize us and the people we love.  Our routines are broken, our fallbacks are shaken up, and we only have ourselves and whatever we brought with us into the day.  We are at rest…if not well rested.

On a regular day, we do what is necessary.
On a Snow Day, we do what we were made for.

THAT is the real life.  It’s okay not to want to leave it.

ta-dah!

When my girls were little, I quickly noticed that they based a large percentage of their feelings and reactions on mine.  This was most evident when they were learning to walk.  Anytime they wobbled, tripped, fell down, or even just startled themselves, they immediately looked to my face for a response.

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If I heeded my natural impulse to rush in and begin fussing over them, looking for injuries and cooing, “Oh, poor baby, are you okay?  Are you hurt?” they would take that as a cue that something was wrong – or should be.  Immediate result: terrified wailing, screaming, and gnashing of what few teeth they had.

It didn’t take me long to see that a better way was needed.  Instead of projecting worry, I trained myself to treat every fall like the world’s greatest magic trick.  Whenever they took a tumble, I would hold my breath, throw my hands in the air, and exclaim, “Ta-dah!”

To everyone’s great relief, it worked.  The girls were distracted, I was at peace, and we were all able to move forward with whatever business had been at hand.

Fast forward to today and the great thorn in my fourteen-year-old’s side: Algebra.  Well, it’s not really Algebra that’s the problem; it’s the teacher’s method.  He’s a super nice guy and his students love him, but he only teaches to one learning style.  He lectures and gives quizzes and tests, and that’s it.

My girl is a visual and kinesthetic learner.  She needs graphics and models and most of all, lots of tactile practice.  In the absence of those tools, she struggled mightily through the first semester of that class, barely passing by the skin of her teeth.  Even though she scored no grades lower than a 98 in every other class, she takes each mistake and under-performance in this one as a personal condemnation.  She must just be “bad” at math.

This week, I had the idea to talk to her about this class in terms of a new strategy.  Among some other tools that we sought out, I dusted off the old, “Ta-dah!” approach and challenged her to use it herself every time she makes a mistake on a problem in this class.

As always, my words to my daughter immediately took on an unexpected resonance for myself.  I get enveloped in self-defeating cycles in my work and aspirations every day.  Each time I miss a task, break my diet, or even just oversleep, I face the choice of whether to pick up and and move on, or take it as a “sign” of futility and an excuse not to try again.

I read just this week in the Harvard Business Review that cultivating a positive attitude toward failure is a great contributor to ultimate success.  “In fact, evidence suggests venture capitalists often see failure as an asset—not a liability—in an entrepreneur’s record. Why? Because failure suggests a tolerance for risk, a perseverance to succeed and, most important, a passion to push the envelope.”

What works for babies and pioneers can surely work for me too, right?

Forgot to put an important date on the calendar?  Ta-dah!
Procrastinated through two-thirds of my writing time this morning?  Ta-dah!
Snapped at my mom, put my socks on backwards, and dropped everything I touched today?  Ta-freaking-dah!  (Also maybe some chamomile tea at that point.  Or a cocktail.)

And now, for my next trick…

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it. -Maya Angelou

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
-Maya Angelou

plants

2015 is now three weeks old, and the best gift I’ve received so far is plants.

Not real plants, mind you, as in flower boxes or a house cactus, but just the word itself.

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My family did an exercise this holiday wherein we each chose a word – any word that was on our hearts – and threw it in a hat.  Then we drew them out randomly, and whichever one each drew would be her word of meditation for 2015.

(Before I go accidentally taking credit for this lovely idea, please know it did not originate with me; my aunt suggested it based on a testimony she read recently, and there’s even a whole website dedicated to the concept here.)

So we drew our words and the most beautiful thoughts began to emerge: purposeful, patience, change, treasure…  And then I drew plantsIt was not at all what I expected, but the more I think about it, the more I love it.  You can do so many things with plants!

My daughter submitted it thinking of biological plants, with the implication that the person who received it would use the year to learn more about them scientifically.  To kick that off, we have some philodendron leaves soaking in our kitchen window sill right now.  They are cuttings from a plant of my aunt’s (the same one who initiated the exercise, in fact, so I love the symbolism of that); in a short time, they will sprout roots, and we will plant them into pots to begin new lives of their own.

phil leaves

But there’s so much more!

I love that, as a noun, the word is plural, implying a plentiful yield from that which was sown.

I love that, besides flora, it also can refer to places (again, plural!) where large quantities of manufacturing work happens – centers of productivity and industry.

Best of all, I love plants as a verb: to place or fix something in a specified location, usually with the intent that it will grow.  Whether I’m planting the seeds of our Three Sisters garden or planting a kiss on my girls’ cheeks or planting my stake in the ground, I am definitely praying for exponential growth this year.

And I pray the same for you.

    “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

 

the big reveal

Halloween costumes have been the subject of much colorful discussion this year in my circles.

First there was this cartoon, which I saw posted on several Facebook pages but most notably on A Mighty Girl:

costume dilemma

Somewhat related, several of my coworkers have loudly bemoaned their difficulties in finding the perfect work-appropriate costume that is fun while remaining firmly within our safety and HR-friendly standards.

And scary clown costumes are making headlines, thanks to some disturbing experimentalists in California and Europe, as well as our freaky friends at American Horror Story.

All this talk of dressing up and what to wear and whom to be and how to be it has me thinking.  I don’t believe we actually cover ourselves up in this tradition of donning the perfect disguise / gag / alter ego for the night.  Rather, our choices reveal much more about us than we intend.

halloween 13For example, two years ago, my oldest daughter, in the midst of a tumultuous inner bout with teenage emotional upheaval, chose that Halloween to become Storm, the X-Men team member with control over any type of weather.

My beloved cousin, who moved away this year to law school, is being the Mad Hatter for Halloween: a kinetic, poetic creature driven mad by his craft, but coping through the whimsical interpretation of a comforting domestic ritual: afternoon tea.  (He also happened to escape an unjust conviction and sentence through manipulation of the “law” and an appeal to the Queen of Hearts, who had condemned him.)

Celebrities often dress up in surprisingly tame choices – surprising until you remember that they are already larger than life.  In that case, a simple cat or garden gnome costume is comforting in the other direction: a reflection of things that are ordinary, simple, and safe.

When you consider that the original purpose of wearing a disguise on Halloween had to do with warding off unwelcome spirits and/or attacks against the soul, the expressiveness of our costumes becomes all the more poignant.

I myself am not dressing up for Halloween, and haven’t done so for years.  Whether it’s due to an excess of honesty (I am who I am and I like who I am), crippling indecision, or mere self-deprecation (I don’t feel qualified to wear the one I really want to be), I will leave to your imagination.

Then again, that might tell you everything you need to know.

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.  -Oscar Wilde

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. -Oscar Wilde

 

jammed

"you know, the best thing about a paper jam is that it forces you to open up the machine and look for what went wrong."

“you know, the best thing about a paper jam is that it forces you to open up the machine and look for what went wrong.”

Wherever there is a process, there will eventually be a jam.  Such is the nature of life in this fallen world, and I have mostly come to accept it so as to preserve what few full-color strands of hair I have left.

Some jams I am prepared for, because they kind of make sense and are part of my routine – like traffic jams.  Most of the time, I know what happened (human error) and whom to blame (all those other pesky humans out there).  Certainly, I do plenty of fussing and fuming while weeding my way through the mess, and it may put me in a bad mood for a bit, but I make it through and am able to move on until the next one.

In my job, however, I deal with a much more diabolical form of jam: the paper jam.  In this, I know I am wrestling with pure, insensate evil and there is no one to blame.  Even the machine seems mystified.  Sometimes it can direct me to the general region that is being affected by the jam, but beyond that, all it can do is blink its lights impotently at me and wait for me to set things right.

I can’t begin to tally the number of hours in my life I have lost to paper jams.  They come at the worst possible times – usually in a rush of work, and preferably with some one at my desk in need of the finished product (read: a fully charged audience).  There I’ll be, flinging and slamming each of the printer’s thousands of important drawers and doors, violently poking around its innards, smearing my face with unset ink and singeing my fingertips on the unresponsive rollers…all the while with an innocent, increasingly uncomfortable bystander to whom I must make encouraging small talk such as “Happens all the time!” or  “Almost got it, now!” or  “Would you like to go out for many drinks after work today?…Ow!” (jerks and reveals smoking, cartoon-flattened index finger).

No matter how expensive, fancy, or durable the machine, all copiers and printers can get jammed, and usually by the smallest obstacles.  They are made to handle big jobs and adverse conditions, yet a shred of paper the size of a pencil eraser can shut them down.  Until the offending object is fished out and removed, that sophisticated apparatus – however integral to corporate function – is little better than a doorstop.

It occurred to me while resolving a series of paper jams at work this very day that having depression is a remarkably similar process.  Most of the time, through whatever coping mechanisms I have in place, the machine runs at peak performance, functioning and generating projects as needed.  But unexpected and seemingly innocuous things can work their way into the cogs and before I know it, production has shut down and my lights are all blinking like the deck of the starship Enterprise.

When that happens, the smart thing to do is to stop, locate the source of the blockage, and carefully address it in order to get things moving again as quickly and healthily as possible.  I almost never do the smart thing.

Instead, I  keep trying to force paper through the gummed-up works, all to no avail, and ruining whatever hope there was for those projects.  Where my body is clearly crying out for adjustment, reflection, and a little TLC, all my mind can see is inefficiency and a need for more power.  I ignore the warning signs, fight back tears, and try to muscle through.

Keeping up appearances plays a big part in this approach (a.k.a. denial), especially living in the South.  I could probably ask people for more time or even, you know, for help…but I don’t.  This is a culture of severe politeness and I do not want to force others to get messy with me.  Instead, I put on a chipper face, shoulder-down, and ask them how their day is going.

This isn’t wrong, necessarily; there is honor in serving and being considerate, and none in co-dependency or expecting others to fix me.  I wish I could find the balance, though, between being myself and being what I think others can handle / want to see.

Until I find that balance, if I disappear every once in a while, you’ll know why and where to find me: I’m probably at home, nursing my roller burns and fashioning those ink smears on my cheeks into war paint.