John bought a shirt recently (thrifted, of course) and I had to smile when I saw the underside of the tag:
Wash this when dirty.
No complicated instructions, just a healthy dose of common sense.
And it got me thinking – wouldn’t it be great if life came with a bunch of giant tags?
Sleep When Tired
It’s Okay To Say No; or, Just Say Yes
Eat When Hungry
Drink More Water
Cry When Sad
Smile When Happy
Laughter Is Encouraged
Alas, life doesn’t always come with handy labels. But I did get a kick out of this tag. (Side note: does anyone else say they “Get a kick” out of something? It means to find an object or situation funny/interesting, but I don’t know if it’s a localized colloquialism or a broader social phrase?)
I’m back with another poem. I know – who have I become?
Poetry is a genre I want to love but often find tedious. I’m recognizing I really do appreciate this form of art, just not always from traditional sources.
I love lyrical music and, in this format, consume poetry daily! And perhaps that is part of the allure of picture books, as they so often read and function like accessible poetry (especially some of the masterfully-written rhyming books).
So maybe I’m a poetry buff after all? Regardless of my official status, here is a poem I’ve loved for years:
Be like the bird, who Resting in his flight On a twig too slight Feels it give way beneath him, Yet sings Knowing he has wings.
What wonderful imagery: to sing when the branch gives way and then take flight.
Putting this into practice is where the challenge begins but, sometimes, when the world seems to give way beneath us we remember dormant skill sets. (Unfortunately, mine don’t include the ability to fly. Wouldn’t that be convenient.)
I’m always a sucker for the pretty sneakers. My latest set? A pastel pink pair with white soles.
At first, I selected walking routes based on the weather report. Really. For months I tiptoed around puddles and groaned when I saw some new hazard come my way.
But their demise was inevitable; I’d known this the moment I checked out at the sporting goods store. Sure enough, eventually, I came across unavoidable mud and went running on a trail that turned my soles gray.
And then, magically, it was okay. I didn’t have to tiptoe around perfection anymore because it was gone. From that moment on, walks got easier. There was an unmistakable sense of liberation…because surviving that first imperfection was the hardest.
There is also a demerit hidden in here because the “new” pair I reference in this post is actually a year old and needs to be replaced. I’ve been wearing my orthotics (gold star!) and have it on my radar to replace them soon. But then I’ll want to keep those sneakers in pristine shape and the cycle will repeat itself…
I don’t subscribe to many newsletters, but if I could only choose one to receive it would be James Clear’s 3-2-1 Thursday.
I’ve taken so many quotes from this weekly (short-but-insightful) collection of thoughts. From a recent newsletter, the following:
Remove the branches of a thorn bush today and you’ll avoid a scrape this year. But next year, you’ll face the same problem again.
Remove the root of the bush today, and the entire plant will die.
Are you solving problems at the branch level or the root level?
I read this on a day I was literally cutting back thorn bushes and lamenting my lack of proper tools to get at/destroy the roots. I was doing all sorts of unpleasant work but was limited to a temporary solution (removing the branches). It blanketed the entire task with a sense of resigned defeat because the roots – the most important area for me to address – were still thriving below the surface.
In life when something is routinely frustrating or gets in the way of my productivity or life satisfaction how often do I try to tackle the problem “above ground” at the branch level? (That was a rhetorical question, by the way, to which I sheepishly answer: often.)
Am I willing to endure the misery (usually short-lived) of tackling the issue at the root? Though, if I’m being honest, I’m not always able to differentiate between a branch and a root…
As for those pesky real-life thorns on our property (that have now punctured/ruined two soccer balls), we have plans for a backhoe to come and remove them at the root.
Is there anything you’re currently attacking at the branch level that you’d like to eradicate further down, at the roots?
I’ve written about this topic before, but it keeps coming to mind. Some of the text below is recycled from an old blog post, but I’ve added in a few new thoughts.
While you and I may look at a Jackson Pollock, van Gogh or Picasso and have wildly different visceral responses (regarding the aforementioned: interesting, love his work, and meh) – everyone gravitates toward particular aesthetics – there is no mistaking that we will have some reaction. Ambivalence. Admiration. Curiosity. Disgust.
Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.
One of the perks of forging ahead into adulthood is honing in on, and exploiting, our natural aesthetic preferences. We no longer have to live with the brown shag carpeting of our youth – though give it enough time and that particular design preference is sure to come back. (Exhibit A: Wallpaper. It’s everywhere.)
We put time and effort into considering these sorts of decisions on the large scale: exterior landscaping for our new home, the colour of our living room walls or vehicle, a wedding dress. Significant resources (time and financial) are invested in curating a particular aesthetic in our clothes, hair, and makeup choices.
But I’d argue that much smaller, seemingly mundane, decisions can have a big impact too.
When I invested in electric toothbrushes for our family I made a small splurge, spending an additional $9.99 to get the pink version for myself. It’s a subtle colour, but really does make me happy every time I use my toothbrush (and, as a bonus, it helps me avoid using my husband’s toothbrush by accident). Two years later, that $9.99 has bought me a disproportionate amount of daily happiness. Even the knowledge that I spent extra money helps elevate the experience, in essence saying: “You were worth it.”
That’s pretty weighty stuff for a Philips Sonicare.
The ability to improve aesthetics (and by improve, I simply mean enhancing your personal satisfaction) is often quite easy. When I got a new phone a few years ago the selection of a pretty floral case took less than a minute longer than tracking down a plain black case. Maybe you’d prefer the sleek look of a low-profile black case; go ahead and embrace that choice and refuse to settle for the hand-me-down neon green Otterbox your friend is offering. If the epitome of your aesthetic ideal is a house filled with white: walls, furniture, clothing, and dishes, by all means indulge (unless you have small children, in which case this would be insanity).
Think about things you’re going to see/handle frequently. A phone case, wine glasses, travel mug, dinner plates, the Sharpies you use on your desk calendar, a laptop cover, a diaper bag. I often select candles that come in a nice votive over their ordinary cousins on the shelf.
Life is short and, in general, abundantly more fulfilling when we are able to notice the beauty around us. Stopping to smell the roses is great. So plant some on your back doorstep. Add a pop of colour to your sofa with a quirky throw pillow, hunt for a duvet cover you actually like, and order the whimsical pens you’ve been admiring. Some other ideas for aesthetic exploration:
For starters, I’m not a poetry buff. Much of it – modern and otherwise – goes over my head. But every once in a while, I’ll stumble across a poem that has staying power. For example, I have deep sentimental attachments to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Robert Frost) and Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (William Butler Yeats) and get a thrill each time I hear them.
And such is the case with Loveliest of Trees by A.E. Housman.
I’m jumping back to the (slightly melancholic) theme of the brevity of life. It is sobering to think that This too shall pass, but I contend this mindset can also motivate the pursuit of rich intentionality in our choices. Memento mori, right?
(I can’t be all wrong; Susan Cain has just put out what is sure to be a bestseller on the power of a “bittersweet” outlook in life; Oliver Burkeman is making the circuit discussing time management for “mere mortals,” working with a figure of ~4,000 weeks).
Where I live, cherry blossoms are in bloom. And Housman is right – they really are the loveliest of trees. It’s a short season, so I make an effort to remember which houses boast the best blossoms and direct my walking/driving routes by these locations.
Life is short and even if I get every single one of those 4000 weeks, for events that happen cyclically, like enjoying the brief – but breathtaking – wonder of cherry trees in full bloom, there are limited opportunities to enjoy the experience.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough, And stands about the woodland ride Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten, Twenty will not come again, And take from seventy springs a score, It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom Fifty springs are little room, About the woodlands I will go To see the cherry hung with snow.
A. E. Housman
I, quite likely, have fewer than 50 springs remaining. I almost certainly have fewer than 50 springs where I’ll be fully mobile. Perhaps, at some point, I’ll no longer live in a part of the world with cherry blossoms.
Which makes me more aware of my privilege in seeing them this year. It could, after all, be my last.
And they are lovely.
So let’s go – out of our way if need be – to see the “blossoms” when they’re in season. This might be literal blossoms on a cherry tree or to make time to cuddle a friend’s new baby (I can assure you that, too, is a fleeting experience).
Laura Vanderkam and Diane from Life Off Headset have both blogged about the beauty and abundance of cherry blossoms in DC lately. Are you enjoying blossoms – of any variety – where you live? More generally, are there any activities/events you can never get enough of? How can we best use our remaining “fifty springs” to enjoy the beautiful things in life?
To my shame, I leave a lot of compliments/verbal affirmations unspoken, especially to those I love the most. And I want that behaviour to change because I know I’m overlooking the power of (genuine) compliments.
A few months ago I wrote about an unexpected incident in a checkout line at the DollarStore. I was masked, as were all the people around me, and I wasn’t expecting an interaction of any sort. But then the woman behind me leaned forward to say how much she admired my earrings.
By all accounts, this was a tiny gesture. I wasn’t overly chatty in lineups before the pandemic. I’m introverted and, rightly or wrongly, tend to hibernate in big social settings (including the chaos that is checkout lines).
But that comment? It made my day.
I thanked her, told her my husband had bought them for me (which she seemed to find particularly endearing), and we went our separate ways.
But here I am writing about that compliment. Months later.
I felt particularly sorry for cashiers during this pandemic. They interact with a steady stream of people all day while standing on their feet in masks. It must have been especially exhausting and scary in early days pre-vaccine.
I typically visit our town’s small grocery store several times a week. One cashier always looked especially tired. She was clearly apprehensive about her front-facing position and wore 3-layered masks long before it was the standard recommendation. Sadly, I’ll admit I still don’t know her name, but she stands out to me because she had the nicest masks.
Every time I ended up in her lineup I made a point to comment on how seeing her and her beautiful masks (such pretty patterns!) was a bright point in my shopping experience. And every single time her eyes would light up and she’d tell me where she bought them (a local farmers market) and that taking the time to source nice masks was a big boost to her spirits.
My compliment was entirely genuine – her masks were lovely and I did notice. But it would have been easy to mumble “Debit please” and scamper out of the store, leaving the compliment unspoken.
And so often I do leave compliments unspoken. Why?
I went out to coffee with a new friend recently and she wore a simple – but lovely – sweater. It was a shade of blue I can’t properly do justice; rich, warm, bright, and happy (because I think “happy” is a great colour descriptor). She wore matching earrings; paired with casual jeans it was a perfect outfit. The entire time we were together I kept thinking about how well the whole ensemble suited her. But it felt…awkward to say anything. I haven’t known her very long and how do you even inject that information into a short conversation?
At the end of an hour, when she got up to leave, I finally got up the nerve to blurt out: “That sweater and colour look great on you.“
Not surprisingly, she looked elated to receive this compliment. Maybe she didn’t think anything about her outfit when she left the house or maybe she spent a long time curating it. Either way, it looked fabulous…so why not tell her?
I know there is a fine line between patronizing comments and true compliments. I try to be authentic, but sometimes it can be about quality AND quantity and I’m determined to work on both.
And I think that’s where attention plays such a central role. When we’re on the lookout for the good and the beautiful in life – for the magical way the lights blur when I take off my glasses to look at the Christmas tree, for the reset that comes from sitting down at a table with a bowl of comfort food and some candles – we can be more open to seeing and sharing that delight with others.
Compliment God – look at the beautiful blue sky, listen to the crashing of the waves, taste a delicious meal and thank Him for being such a great Creator. Compliment your spouse – for their outfit or gorgeous eyes or romantic gesture. Compliment your children – on their beautifully illegible place cards or on giving the best bedtime hugs or for their empathetic response to a sad friend. Compliment someone’s earrings or their hard-to-describe-happy-blue sweater.
And if you see someone wearing a beautiful mask, go ahead and compliment them too and thank them for injecting beauty into the world in a simple way.
Your turn. What’s the nicest compliment someone has paid you recently? How did it make you feel?
I love the power of a story. This is a sad one, but it left a lasting impression.
I’ve described my friend Dot on the blog before – she was my 80s-something spitfire “landlord/surrogate grandmother” when I was in university. Dot had the most active social calendar of any senior I’ve met. There was Bridge Club. And Birthday Club (12 ladies and they celebrated one woman each month – I mean, can you get better than that in your 80s? And let me tell you, those women knew how to celebrate a birthday). She was on every board at her church, volunteered for charitable committees, and had more friends than you could shake a stick at.
One of those friends – let’s call her Gail – came over for supper every Thursday night. (Dot and I ate supper together in her tiny kitchen every evening; food was included in my rent and those meals spent together are some of my happiest memories from university. Bonus – Dot happened to be a fabulous cook. But on Thursdays, I knew my place was in the kitchen. Alone.) Dot and Gail laughed over gin and tonics (always, always gin and tonic) and ate a fancy meal together in the dining room before gallivanting off to Film Club together.
Gail was a force of energy. She was big and boisterous, with a larger-than-life personality. She loved to laugh and had a rich British accent that magnified her charm. But over the course of many Thursday-night visits, I pieced together more and more of her heartbreaking story.
She was retired, though from what career I can’t recall. She had been married to a university professor who had made a name for himself as a top researcher in his field. Their lives were hectic as they raised two boys and managed work responsibilities. Their vision for the future had a singular focus – retire and travel the world together.
If I remember the story correctly, Gail’s husband – let’s call him Jim – kept putting off retirement by tiny increments until they had delayed their plans for several years. But that was okay as the best was yet to come.
Finally, the day of retirement dawned; they packed their bags and headed for Hawaii.
Mid-flight, en route to this first destination of retirement wanderlust, Jim had a stroke. He survived for over a decade but was confined to a wheelchair, requiring constant care and, eventually, a nursing home.
They had waited for a tomorrow that never came.
Gail was cheerful and friendly; she drank her gin and tonic and she and Dot made quite the cane-toting pair when heading off to Film Club. But I bet she would have given anything to have been off traveling the world with her life partner.
Two points jump to mind, though this story could leave each of us with different lessons to unpack:
Time is finite. If there is something we really want to do, why wait? We scrimp and save and plan for a day we’re not guaranteed to have come our way.
Hard stuff happens; we adapt. I’m sure Gail shed many tears over the situation. I suspect she regretted Jim’s decision to delay retirement. She visited Jim every day, helped care for him, and provided me with regular updates on his health. But she also carved out time for friends and fun (she was also a member of the aforementioned Birthday Club) and didn’t let her life – which looked so vastly different from what she had planned – pass her by.
I don’t necessarily have a key takeaway from this story, but I think of it often, even though I was only a teenager when I met Gail and, obviously, felt like I had all the time in the world.