Word(s) of the Year: Be Kind

Forgive me for being unfashionably late to the party – I realize the “word-of-the-year” idea has been trending for over a decade now. I did latch on to the concept once, with mediocre enthusiasm/success, when I picked the word “Simplify” back in 2015ish. We were a family of four living in a very small apartment that had to serve as our home office, living spaces, and a storage facility for some large work equipment. To say it felt cramped is like saying you might feel a bit damp in the middle of a tsunami.

But I think having that word prompt did have some impact: I wrote it on the outside of my planner that year and would get periodic nudges to say “no” to a commitment or to downsize a particular storage tote. In subsequent years I’ve more fully embraced many of the tenants of minimalism and, in general, aim to keep life as simple as possible (this is often easier said than done).

All that to say: I didn’t feel any external pressure to participate in this sort of thing (I’ve written before about all the “good” things I don’t have to do and this certainly falls into that category), but couldn’t help shake my idea once it lodged itself inside my weary-from-pandemic-life grey matter.


My word(s)/motto for 2022 is/are: Be Kind.


Well, first, why not? Growing up in Sunday School, the Golden Rule was one of the earliest lessons I remember hearing and it certainly bears repeating in our current global milieu. Somehow it can feel harder to live like Jesus as we get older, but those early lessons are no less important.

More specifically? Because I know I have a long way to go in this regard.

I recently got the chance to discuss an anxiety-producing social situation with a very patient and dear friend. I was afraid of how I was being perceived (perhaps justifiably so) in a complicated situation with many moving parts and considerations. At the end of an impassioned speech that left me questioning my motives and capacity for kindness, my friend (very kindly) told me that I was one of the kindest people she knew.

She does know a lot of people…but I’m not convinced.

Because I know myself.

Because I know the (usually unwarranted) glares I give my kids that could melt ice. And I want them to remember me smiling, not glaring.

Because I know the times I’ve modified my walking route to avoid talking to a specific person – someone that I know is looking for friendship.

Because in 2022 I want to be kinder:

  1. Kinder to the kids (with my words and my eyes). Enough said.
  2. Kinder to my spouse. He is my best friend in all the world, but I can be an absolutely terrible nag sometimes (maybe a lot of the time?!) and have a tendancy to “lecture.” I really want to get better about this negative habit.
  3. Kinder to my friends. I have the annoying habit of interrupting other people mid-sentence. I keep telling myself to reign it in, but seem to fail miserably. Hopefully a reminder to “Be kind” will prompt me in this direction.
  4. Kinder to strangers. (I need to smile more, though that can be tricky with everyone wearing masks; side note – when a lady behind me in line complimented me on my earrings a month ago, it MADE MY DAY. I feel so hidden when out in public which, as an introvert, I actually like to a certain extent, but that kindness from a friendly stranger who was standing 6 feet away felt so refreshing).
  5. Kinder to myself. I am going to glare and lecture and interrupt. A lot of the time I’ve been too rigid and have expected too much from myself. I’m hoping, in some areas of life at least, that by asking less from myself, I might – paradoxically enough – manage to do more? Do more things I enjoy, be more productive, explore creative passions…be kinder to those I love.

So that’s where I’m at – looking quasi-optimistically ahead to 2022 with a vision to be kind(er).

If you participate in the one-word annual theme, what did you pick this year? I really like Tobia’s choice of “Celebrate.” How whimsical and…celebratory!

Header photo by Dee @ Copper and Wild on Unsplash

Here’s A Thought: Evaluate Your Cart Before You Check Out

With each passing year I find myself more and more attracted to the principles of minimalism. As I’ve mentioned before, minimalism doesn’t look to get rid of everything. It looks to prioritize those possessions or activities that are most valued and then removes the rest. Keep the flowers but pull the weeds is a mental picture I often use.

Yet…this tendency toward minimalism doesn’t mean I’m immune to the siren song of a new throw pillow or fancy storage container. While I appreciate the potential impact of small aesthetic decisions – I also know the subtle regret of coming home with stuff I did not really need (or want).

You know. Those little impulse purchases from Walmart or the DollarStore. Things that I thought I might like/want/need, but that very definitely hadn’t shown up on my shopping list.

Lately, I’ve been trying to curb some of that behaviour with a simple hack: I evaluate every item in my cart before checking out. As in I physically stop and assess each item in the cart (unless I’m at Costco and have one of those giant carts full of things in which case I might as well just drain my bank account and hand it all over to Costco because there is no turning back. When I see people leaving with one item in their giant cart, it blows my mind. How do they manage this sorcery? Costco, if you’re listening, I’m sorry, but I just can’t walk out without spending large amounts of money on giant quantities of things and I kinda, sorta always feel guilty walking through your enormous sliding doors. But I do love your jumbo bags of pumpkin seeds).

I’ve been doing this for a long time via online retailers – I’ll add items to my cart and let decisions simmer for a few days. I often end up moving items to “Save for later” or delete them entirely. But it can be hard to duplicate that delayed check-out experience when you’re standing in line at the pharmacy and happen to see an adorable pair of slipper socks or a festively wrapped box of Lindor’s.

When I take a quick inventory of the items I’m going to be spending cold, hard-earned cash on, I try to think through a hierarchy of questions, including some or all of the following:

  • Was this on my list?
  • Do I want or need this?
  • Is it aesthetically pleasing or of practical use?
  • Does it feed a passion or interest?
  • Is this item built to last/of good quality?
  • Do I want to handle rehoming this item (donating or selling or consigning or – perish the though – trashing).
  • And finally, though we may all be a bit Marie Kondo’d out, I think it helps to ask if the item sparks joy – which can be a sort of umbrella over all the rest of the questions.

Here are a few examples of this reasoning in action:

  1. Abby bought a ukulele this summer, after months of saving up her allowance. It was a wonderful purchase but I knew it wasn’t going to be a long-term passion. Sure enough, aside from a week of near-steady practice when it first arrived, this item has largely stayed on her closet shelf. And that’s okay. At the time of purchase, it fueled an interest and we let it runs its course. It’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s good quality and will be VERY easy to rehome if she decides to completely abandon this hobby (sell or donate).

2. Usually, a plastic action figure selling for $3 that is bound to break in a week would not meet my testing criteria but years ago, when we were taking a long family roadtrip, I wanted to get the kids a few small toys for the drive. I try to avoid plastic toys like the plague and we’ve managed relatively well thus far. But Levi loves Transformers and we couldn’t find one at a local thrift store in time. So I bought one of the $3 variety at the DollarStore. I knew it was cheap. I knew it would break. But I also knew I needed this toy for a very specific purpose. I didn’t need it to last a long time. It was liable to get lost in all the chaos of traveling. I just wanted something, short-term, to fill a specific need. And so I bought it. It broke after about 8 hours, but he spent those 8 hours happily playing with it. I haven’t bought another DollarStore action figure before or since, but don’t regret the decision.

At IKEA last week I opted against buying the sock hanger dohickey for the laundry room (after it had found its way into my shopping cart) and set aside the desk organizer that wasn’t quite right. I made the decision to say “no” quickly and easily by running through the questions listed above in a matter of seconds (neither were on my list, I didn’t need them, they weren’t high quality, and I didn’t want to rehome them) – but it is definitely a muscle that builds over time.

When I’m wheeling toward the checkout I’ll ask myself if I really want to buy those price-reduced bananas (which means I’ll have to make muffins ASAP) or that new painting for over the couch (it’s nice, but do I really want to spend my Friday evening trying to find a stud behind drywall and fighting with drill bits). I still refer back to the concept from Fumio Sasaki of a Silent To-Do List: every single item in our house sends subliminal messages which can lead to physical and emotional clutter.

Sometimes I vote “yes” to the bananas and “yes” to the plastic action figure. But hopefully only after I’ve paused. Because bananas and action figures can morph into big new houses or shiny new cars and I’d rather test these value-driven financial decisions on $1.50 worth of bananas first.

What about you – any frugal hints to help with overbuying/impulse purchasing?

Header photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

Here’s a Thought: Try Giving The Same Gift (But Different) Every Year

I love repetition. I like to eat the same meals. I like to read the same books. I like to re-watch the same holiday movies.

Not surprisingly this tendency has influenced my gift-giving habits over the years.

Yesterday I mentioned how our family opens a new ornament each Christmas Eve. The excitement is always palpable as we’re all eager to see what ornament we’ll get this time around.

In a similar vein, every year (for her birthday in October) I gift a particular friend a new Christmas ornament. Her birthday is close enough to Christmas she only has to store it away for a month and every year she knows what to expect. Somehow, to me, that makes the experience all the more exciting.

Every Christmas my husband buys me a new set of earrings – almost always studs, which is what I wear 95% of the time. Last week I was in a store lineup when the lady waiting behind me commented how much she admired my earrings. I was surprised to receive the compliment (we’re all so hidden behind masks these days) – it brightened my day and it made me so happy I had taken the time to put on those particular earrings that morning.

I buy my husband socks every Christmas, including at least one fun/funky pair. I buy him a new graphic T-shirt. He gets a Star Wars LEGO set. He knows he’s going to receive these gifts, but he doesn’t know the specifics which helps to elevate the experience. Every year I unwrap Twizzlers and Brooksides and new earrings.

Years ago I started making annual photo calendars for the grandparents. It’s a labour of love as I comb through 1000s of images from the year to find the best ones to summarize noteworthy/photogenic events. Last year I debated whether I would keep this tradition going; somehow, this filtered back to my parents who actually contacted me about their concern over this decision. Apparently, it’s one of their favourite gifts. They don’t primarily use it for the calendar function (though I do, very sweetly, take the time to add in all the relevant family birthdays/anniversaries for them) – they just like having ready access to curated photos and often refer to the calendar to show friends updated pictures of all the family (I organize all the pictures from my siblings as well). This year, as in years prior, they will be receiving a photo calendar. And, chances are, it will be their favourite gift under the tree.

It could be a new candle, bath towel, book, vinyl record, mug, or Christmas ornament, but consider the gift of repetition. It can make buying gifts – and receiving them – all the more special.

What about you? Any annual gifts you like to give and/or receive?

Here’s a Thought: Do I Have the Right Tools?

I sometimes (often) put up with minor – or major – inconveniences for a shockingly long time. I wore running sneakers for months past their expiration date when they were giving me painful blisters. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time hunting for the one pen that works among the dozen or so cluttering up my desk.

This begs the question – do I have the right tools for the job? Chances are, if the answer is no, the solution could be quick and inexpensive.

Over the years I’ve developed a frustrating sensitivity to the sun. If exposed for too long, I get intense migraines that level me (often combined with crushing fatigue, how lovely). For years I used whatever hats we had lying around, the branded type you get in swag bags at a conference or buy at a tourist trap on vacation; they never adjusted well, weren’t comfortable, and this meant I’d often opt to go hatless – a decision I always regretted. Then a few years ago, I found a soft, slightly elasticized running hat with a fully adjustable Velcro backing. It makes running and every other outdoor activity so much more comfortable in the summer. I now rarely get migraines from being outside in the sun.

For years my parents had a malfunctioning can opener which was an endless source of frustration. It took 5 minutes, pinched fingers, and close contact with dangerously sharp metal to get the contents out of a can of corn. What a simple problem to fix. Buy a new can opener. Why did it take so long?

Most jobs are objectively more pleasant with the right materials. From a good mop for cleaning your floors to a salon-grade blowdryer that dries hair in a fraction of the time, a small investment can make a job easier, more efficient, and far more enjoyable.

And, for some healthy habits, like running or opening a can of veggies to go with your supper, they may even make you more likely to commit to good choices long-term.

Identify the problem. Then get on to the task of fixing it. More often than not, there’s a simple (and inexpensive) solution. A box of new pens, comfortable sneakers, a can opener, a hat.

Here’s A Thought: Do You Binge or Savour?

Do you prefer to binge or savour?

At Christmas and on my birthday, I binge Twizzlers. Yes, Twizzlers. A huge part of the pleasure (for me) is to eat Twizzlers in large quantities. I feel minimal guilt – I eat very little candy the rest of the year – but that one package is consumed (almost exclusively by me) in about 24 hours. One piece of licorice is never enough. Yet, were I given an entire bowl of jelly beans, I could easily eat just one.

I binged Waco, but only allow myself one episode of The Great British Baking Show at a time. I’ve binged books in one night (regretting the decision early the next morning; though, for the right book, it’s totally worth it). When I recently re-read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, I limited reading bouts to a single chapter at a time.

A few years ago I spent a glorious anniversary trip in Paris with my husband. There we binged on: art galleries, long walks, colourful storefronts, and fresh baguettes. We savoured: a van Gogh exhibit, our walk down the Champs de Elysses, a delectable eclair, filled with silky smooth crème pâtissière. One evening we spent several unhurried hours sitting in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, watching the sunlight fade and surrounded by thousands of tourists and Parisians, the air filled with the scent of summer air and the cheerful sounds of music and laughter. Binge and savour.

My immediate family all have poor eyesight (except my Dad, who we joke got all the “good” genes…and now my two siblings who had corrective laser surgery); each year at Christmas my Mom would carve out time to sit in front of the Christmas tree, take off her glasses and glide in her rocking chair while the twinkling lights blurred to create a magical world reserved for the nearsighted. After binging on Christmas treats, concerts, presents, and family, this was an experience to savour.

Sometimes, the same experience can induce both binging and savouring. When we make our annual summer trip to my parent’s home at the lake, I binge s’mores but savour the campfire we toast them over. I binge sunsets, looking for them every single night, but then I sit on the beach and savour them.

Night after night – summer after summer – and it never gets old.

By default, I tend toward bingeing – books, food, sitcoms, activities. Sometimes I need to be reminded that learning to savour is a valuable skill. Slowing down to better appreciate: the moment, the person, the art, the food, can lend a whole new experience.

As Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, so wisely pointed out: there is a time for everything under the sun. There are times to binge and times to savour. Maybe, if you’re lucky and have eyes tuned for it, you can find opportunities to binge-savour your own “sunset” moments this summer.

Zoom in on Perfection – It’s an Illusion

I’ve been reading home renovation blogs for years.*

*To clarify, this is one of those interests that remains strictly in the “aspirational” category. I once tackled a painting project my brother-in-law promised would take an hour – or less – to complete. It took me 6 hours and two trips to the hardware store. I ruined one of my favourite shirts – despite wearing a cover-up. I was sore for a week, got a sunburn and the end result suggested a kindergartener had been wielding the paintbrush (a kindergartener that hadn’t yet fully mastered the art of staying inside the lines).

Back to those DIY blogs. One of my favourite design duos got their start years ago with a very basic internet presence: simple website, simple projects, simple house. Over the last decade, I’ve followed along as they’ve morphed into an empire of sorts. There are furniture lines, partnerships with major brands, sponsored content, full-time staff, and even a clothing line. Despite $2,000 mirrors and a 5,000-square foot house making their lifestyle and renovation budgets a bit less…relatable…I’ve remained a loyal reader, mostly because of the pictures.

They provide spectacular eye candy: gorgeous wallpaper, custom closets with colour-coded clothing, modern-rustic exposed beams. For good measure they might throw in a steaming latte sitting next to a flickering candle on a spotless countertop. With nary a coffee table book, Persian rug or chambray throw pillow out of place – their home (and thus their life?) looks practically perfect. Some days it’s inspirational to view this content and, other days, when my floors are littered with discarded socks and cookie crumbs and when dated light fixtures reveal a sink full of dirty dishes, my life all feels too imperfect.

Last week I happened to zoom in on one of those perfectly staged photos. The lighting was stunning, the distribution of objects within the field of view provided maximum impact. But viewed at 150%, I could see that within this aesthetically “perfect” stairway vignette there was actually cracked caulking at the bottom of each step. And scuffed treads. Another day, new photo. Dream kitchen. Zoom. Dirt and dings on the cabinets, crumbs all over the floor.

From houses to food to bodies to children (and everything in between), we’re inundated with images that suggest perfection. It all seems so…attainable. If we only could find a way to dress our family in coordinating outfits and make it to Machu Picchu for the golden-hour sunset shot – then we’d reach perfection.

But perfection is an illusion. When we’re struggling with our own basket of anxieties, foibles, and griefs, it’s so easy to look at something or someone else and see perfection. Perfection could be: a number on the scale, a figure in the bank, a street address or a particular type of car in the driveway. If only we could get that, life would be perfect.

I have scuffs on my stairs and crumbs on my floor (counter and table, too). And I often wish them – will them – away. But those crumbs don’t make me a failure, don’t reduce my value, don’t make my life less beautiful. They just make me a person with scuffs on her stairs and crumbs on her floor (proverbially and literally). Nothing more or less.

Some days I rail at the kids to eat over their plates and take off their shoes, but on the good days, I zoom out: I ignore the crumbs (or take the time to sweep them up without complaint) and say: Today isn’t perfect. But today is good.

Here’s A Thought: What’s Your Thing?

I don’t do crafts with my kids. I have no skills in makeup or hair design. I can’t paint a room, I rarely make bread from scratch, and I will stall a 5-speed car every time I get behind the wheel. Even worse – in a house full of fanatics – I can’t even solve a Rubix Cube.

When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were reserved for cartoons. This was before binge-watching was a verb and forget about Netflix – we didn’t even have cable. If you didn’t get your butt out of bed by 7 AM to watch Bugs Bunny, you were out of luck. Aside from happy hours spent with Inspector Gadget and Looney Tunes, I vividly remember the Saturday morning service announcements put out by Concerned Children’s Advertisers. They came up with witty numbers like: “Don’t you put it in your mouth. Don’t you stuff it in your face. Though it might look good to eat, and it might look good to taste.” Does anyone else remember those furry little blue creatures?!

But the commercial I remember best depicts a series of kids demonstrating their “thing.” There’s Aiden, waving his magic handkerchiefs (against a backdrop of the same wood paneling we had in our dated 1970’s basement), while his sister shouts “Mom, Mom. Aiden cut me in half again.” Classic.

From bug collections to tap-dancing, skateboarding, martial arts, and dinosaur sound effects, the takehome message: “Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something. What’s your thing?”

Opportunities for comparison are everywhere. Power up your computer or swipe your finger and you have access to a world of women we perceive to be better: better workers, better wives, better mothers, better daughters, better friends. Few people are immune to this comparison game.

We know. These are curated snapshots, they don’t actually represent reality. These women have insecurities too. I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. Yet that photo of the smiling family in matching outfits on the beach, or that impressive law school degree, or that sunset shot from a yacht off the coast of Greece make it pretty tough to ignore the messages we tell ourselves. 

You’re not enough. You’ll never be enough.

We live in a world telling us to embrace our strengths while it subversively asks us to recognize our weaknesses. We are, directly or indirectly, made to feel less than if we haven’t mastered all the categories. Women – and I’d argue mother’s all the more – are expected to: have a fulfilling career, be a good cook (healthy, organic food for bonus points), be physically active, and volunteer in numerous capacities; extroversion is a must, and don’t forget to prioritize self-care in the form of yoga practice, meditation, and routine massages.

Amidst the drone of outside chatter, what if we could all say, with confidence, “This is my thing.”

Hi. I’m Elisabeth, and my thing is books. I read on the couch and in the car (but only when it’s stopped or, hello barf bag) and on airplanes; I read in waiting rooms, poolside on vacation, and before bed. Aside from feelings of wistfulness that there are always too many books and too little time, this is the one area of life where I feel 100% guilt-free. And nowhere do I need this more than in the guilt-ridden landscape of motherhood.

Fresh stack of books from the library, she found the closest bench and settled in…

We’ve read classical literature (Swiss Family Robinson, Anne of Green Gables, and Laura Ingalls Wilder) and newer hits too (Harry Potter, Roald Dahl). We read Bible stories at breakfast, and Nancy Drew at night. We’ve read picture books about talking narwhals, a gluttonous caterpillar, and the sounds on a construction site (at night and at Christmas). We’ve tackled tough topics: cancer and grief, slavery and war, disability and persecution. We’ve read about children living on the streets of Paris; we’ve cheered as Matilda stands up to that bully Miss Trunchbull; we’ve wondered how a guy named Mike and his steam shovel could possibly win the bet.

We’ve looked for Waldo and lifted flaps to find the baby’s belly. We’ve watched an old woman bring her farmyard menagerie inside, and learned valuable life lessons along the way.

He learned about the Titanic at school and an obsession was born; the picture he’s looking at, which the book suggested could be the actual iceberg that caused the sinking of the Titanic, was his fav.

When you strip away my bursts of frustration over dirty clothes on the floor, my woefully intermittent enforcement of flossing, and my unwillingness/inability to engage in imaginative play of any sort – books, this I do well. This is my thing.

I haven’t read a book on how to paint a room, drive a stick-shift, or make sourdough. And that’s okay. Life is short and I’ll let painting and driving and kneading be someone else’s thing.

Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something. What’s your thing?

She came in to ask if we could read together; it was late – past bedtime – but how could I refuse? The Mysterious Benedict Society for her; Station Eleven (just the sort of book one should read in the midst of a pandemic) for me.

Here’s A Thought: Give Yourself Permission to Quit

I’ve already given us permission to eat ice cream for supper, ditch the gimmicky toothpaste, and feed our kids more cereal (if that would make life easier). Now I’m going to suggest we think about giving ourselves permission to quit.

Years ago, at a local craft market, I came across a piece of art that used rocks and sea glass to create a whimsical and minimalistic (but recognizable) scene. I set out to recreate something similar on my own – not only would I save money, but I’d also be able to give personalized art to people about whom I cared deeply. I started the creative process – with enthusiasm.

First step: sourcing materials. While visiting my parent’s beloved lakeside house a few weeks later, I went to a nearby island and collected a baggie full of suitable rocks. My family has been visiting this island for over thirty years, so these water-weathered pebbles had deep nostalgic significance. Off to a good start! I pulled together a collection of sea glass sourced during various coastal adventures and prepared for the next stage: planning.

I generally enjoy creative projects but this time I was just not “feeling it.” I wanted to be engaged and loved the idea of the project, but felt no actual motivation to keep going.

So I put the rocks in a drawer and told myself: I’ll tackle this next year for Christmas. It was just a little baggie, but every time I opened the drawer I felt a stab of guilt, mixed with dread. I’d need to get special glue and a shadow-box frame. Then I’d need to think of sentimental scenes for each recipient. What extra materials would I need to create a canoe out of tiny pieces of driftwood for my Dad? And those beach-loving friends might appreciate an abstract campfire, right? I wanted this to be perfect.

Then, one random weekday while I was doing a load of laundry, I thought of those rocks. Again. Several Christmases had passed me by since I collected them from the shoreline of Goat Island, but not a week went by that I didn’t see (or at least think of) them. I stopped sorting whites from darks and headed straight to my desk; seconds later the entire contents of the bag were at the bottom of a garbage can.

I texted a friend in triumph. Truth was, no one was forcing me to complete this project. No one even knew I was planning it; there was zero external pressure. And, frankly, after a few years of this…I’d had enough internal pressure. So I gave myself permission to quit. It felt exhilarating. 

Rules can be arbitrary (especially the ones we set for ourselves) and projects can be misaligned with our interests and time. As Laura Vanderkam writes: “Possibilities are infinite. Time is not. You are always choosing. Choose wisely.

It’s great to set high expectations and give ourselves room to grow through challenge and novelty. But other times? We need to cut ourselves some slack, and that might include granting ourselves permission to quit. This could be a job, training for a marathon, or stepping back from a toxic friendship; maybe you need to quit the PTA committee or say “no” to the expectation you have to host the entire family on Christmas Day (even Uncle Steve’s crazed Rottweiler). Or, maybe you’ll just give yourself permission to throw out a baggie of rocks. You are an adult – and that comes with a lot more autonomy than you may think.