Don’t Quote Me: Where Do You Want to Get To?

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. Living under the same roof as my (wonderful) parents, I strove for independence. At university, four years were dedicated to the goal of graduation; on to grad school and ditto. Throw in marriage, two kids, and a few passive career decisions and I simply moved from one clearly defined trajectory to another.

But the years slip by. Sometimes the way forward is crystal clear; other times we hang out on autopilot with decisions about marriage, children, and careers behind us. But kids get older, horizons blur, passions and aspirations evolve, and suddenly the path can seem less obvious. Major life changes could throw us irreversibly off course. Our priorities and values may do an about-turn. Many of us will, eventually, have our own Robert Frost experience, pondering those “two roads in a yellow wood.”

And what then?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat provides a wise insight: the way we “ought” to go very much depends on where we want to get to. And where we want to get to may be driven more by values than distinct goals.

Values are qualities that permeate our life. Things like spiritual faith, compassion, honesty, and adventure. If goals are ahead, values are now. We can’t achieve a value, we can only continue working toward it (and inside of it). If you’re full of compassion, you can never exhaust the need for compassion.

Goals are: become CEO of a major company; get an A+ on my Animal Physiology midterm; lose 10 pounds and finally run that 10K. Values are: use my leadership skills to grow and nurture a team; gain knowledge and do my best; pursue a healthy lifestyle, embracing habits that improve my wellbeing.

Values, then, can direct our goals and decisions.

If I value leading a healthy lifestyle – pursuing wellness in body and mind – committing to a daily walk around my neighbourhood seems like a fitting goal. What if I also value treating myself with kindness and respect? Perhaps reaching a specific number on the scale no longer seems like a worthwhile goal if I identify potentially damaging impacts on my mental health.

Ask yourself – when I take a step back, what am I aiming for? A closer relationship with God, financial independence, more time with family, less career stress? Do I want to work until my foot’s in the grave or retire at 45? Live big or small? Stay close or travel far? If I want to be affluent in retirement, but value honesty, using a Ponzi scheme to accrue wealth is not the ideal tactic (hopefully this is obvious even to people who might not value honesty; Ponzi schemes = bad news).

Once I know where I want to get to (and the values I want to exhibit along the way) I’m better able to determine how to get there.

Debating which way to go? The first step toward finding an answer may be identifying where you want to get to.

Cleaning Hack: Have Less Stuff

Can I let you in on a little secret? Want to know one of the easiest ways to have a neat(er) house? Have less stuff.

Intuitive, yes, but harder to implement than you might imagine.

One of my favourite ways to unwind is to declutter a space – the kitchen, a closet, my purse. I really do enjoy puttering around, putting things back in place, organizing what we have, and finding new homes (friends, donations, garbage) for superfluous, unneeded, or broken items.

I haven’t always been this way. My teenage and college rooms left much to be desired; I wasn’t much bothered by piles of paper on my desk or clothes draped haphazardly over chairs.

Some of my adult enthusiasm could be a form of prolonged nesting that comes with having children and buying a home (the sheer volume of “stuff” I’m responsible for has grown exponentially since adding tiny humans to the mix). But I think another reason is at play: Overall, I now have less unnecessary stuff.

There are never-ending hacks for organizing and rearranging a space for maximal efficiency. But at the end of the day, the easiest way to have a clean, uncluttered space is to have less stuff. Every time I help a particular child in our house clean up their room, I’m reminded of this. There are baskets full of paper, shelves full of books, yardsale knickknacks in every nook and cranny. Even when it’s fully organized, it still looks messy (to me). On a sliding scale of children’s rooms, I know it’s not that bad. But there is still so. much. stuff. Incredibly, it all gets used or has sentimental value so, for the most part, it stays. This particular child doesn’t seem to notice the volume of paraphernalia, so I’ve learned to let it bother me less (I’ve also learned to close the door more; being out of sight really does help push some things out of mind).

A friend of mine – a friend whose basement is full of neatly organized totes from which she can pull, with shocking accuracy, a particular toy set belonging to her now twenty-something daughter – once commented to my Mom: “Elisabeth’s not very sentimental is she.”

It’s true – I didn’t save a single baby outfit from either of my children. I have gotten rid of most of the things my own mother saved for me from my childhood. But I’d still argue with my friend’s assessment. I am deeply sentimental, but I choose to keep the nostalgia alive in photos (I make enormous photo books every year), traditions (food, music, decorations), and memories. We are a family of adventure, not possessions.

One year for Christmas we “gave” the kids a night in a hotel as their main gift. Not a single ounce of current clutter in my house is related to this trip, but we have memories of the hotel waterslide, the shoe-shine service, and the old-fashioned machine churning out free popcorn in the lobby at bedtime. We remember how we met an old friend along the way at a quirky cafe for delicious muffins, drove through an evening snow squall to get supper, and watched all the Hotel Transylvania movies while piled atop comfy hotel beds.

Last year for a birthday, we bought passes to a local ski hill. While skiing does necessitate gear (we could rent, I guess, but cha-ching), once it’s organized in our storage room it doesn’t really factor into house clutter).

We definitely “do” gifts – but most of these are consumables (food, bath products, clothing) or long-term toy investments (like LEGO)

Material things can hold deep significance and I love bringing items into our home that are beautiful and useful – things that improve our wellbeing and the function of our living spaces.

There’s nothing wrong with hacking and storing and buying all the fancy organizational doohickeys you want (and I do hack and store and, occasionally, buy some of those doohickeys myself). But the simple math of it is this: the less we buy, the less we own – the less we own, the less we have to manage, store, and maintain. Having less stuff will, in general, not only make our homes feel lighter and more streamlined, our lives may follow suit. In the words of Gretchen Rubin: “Outer order, inner calm.” I couldn’t agree more.

One night over Christmas Break we told the kids they had to play downstairs when they woke up in the morning and they had to do LEGO (quiet, less chance of fighting) while we slept in for a change. For the next week of mornings they wowed us with Christmas-themed LEGO creations.

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.

Casual Friday + Love of the Week

  • I got the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week; aside from a sore arm, the only downside was utter exhaustion on Days #2 & 3. Bless his heart, John took the kidlets on an all-morning yardsale extravaganza. I told a friend what they were doing and she said: “I hope they find some good stuff.” Too which I retorted: “Define good.” The kids, one in particular, have a penchant for weaseling their father into purchasing items (or “treasures” as they prefer to label the assortment of trinkets that trickle home) on these excursions. They actually do have a great eye, I can’t deny that. I also can’t deny the over-flowing bookshelves and toy box. Pleasantly they did find “good” stuff – some ski poles for me, a great new outdoor chair set, and I spent the morning with my feet up (literally), sipping a delicious bulletproof coffee and revelling in the quiet.
  • I got a blog comment from SHU, blogger extraordinaire and co-host of one of my favourite podcasts, Best of Both Worlds. Epically cool.
  • Last Friday was a day off school and the kids and I were joined by friends at a local hidden gem: Pirate’s Cove. Discovered by my husband Father’s Day 2020 (a day which just so happened to coincide with a mental breakdown on my part where I couldn’t fathom helping with childcare…so he spent the entirety of Father’s Day being on solo-parenting duty, ironically enough), we’ve returned to Pirate’s Cove over and over. Being out of plain sight – I drove by the spot regularly, unawares, for years – gives it an edge of whimsy. The surrounding beach is also covered in tidal pools. Together the kids happily explored – and fell into – various tidal pools discovering mussels, crabs, and catching lots of little amphipods.
Tide pool explorers
The kids first visit to Pirate’s Cove back in June 2020.

Love of the Week: John. Wonderful husband, father, friend and an all-around great guy.

Life highlight: celebrating our 10th anniversary in Paris. Trip of a lifetime!

It’s Father’s Day this weekend, and I’m so thankful to be navigating this parenting labyrinth – and life in general – with this wonderful man by my side. Forget love of the week, this guy is the love of my life!

It will be a low-key weekend, but we’re anxiously anticipating a time (in the hopefully not-so-distant future) when we can steal away for a few days together sans kiddos.

We’ll be in the middle of a particularly tough day and one of us will just sigh and say: “Remember ____[insert trip without children in tow]?” At this point I’d take a shanty in Timbuktu…

Looking forward to celebrating his role as an awesome Papa with some delicious food – takeout sushi and pecan pie will most certainly be involved – and some local adventuring. We’ve also got tickets to visit George’s Island, recently opened up to the public. Lighthouses, a ferry, and picnicking on a sunny day – sounds hard to beat.

How Our Return to School Reminds Me of a Jewish Folk Tale

2020 and 2021 have been historic years. From lockdown restrictions to career changes and the intense personal trauma and grief so many people have faced, I’m more than happy to put this period behind us.

But there have been lots of lessons learned amidst the challenges and I was recently struck by a parallel I noticed with the story arc from one of our favourite children’s books.

All winter we shuffled along; schools and churches and businesses were open, but everything felt harder and less spontaneous. I complained more than I’d care to admit. I missed my family. I was tired of sending my kids to after-school lessons and clubs in masks. I wanted this “new normal” to be abnormal again. And then came May. Variant cases skyrocketed in our province; with positive tests rising each day, we entered a month-long lockdown. Schools were closed, non-essential businesses shuttered and travel was heavily restricted.

I wasn’t prepared for how hard this second lockdown felt. Masks are familiar and not being able to visit family when we want to feels sadly routine. But something felt different this time; having friends and family living in regions with re-opening strategies (my sister sent pictures from Disney when we were slogging through another round of Math via Google Meet), all felt extra discouraging and isolating.

And then the glorious news that a combination of high vaccination rates, along with the success of our lockdown measures at curbing the spread of COVID, was paving the way for the re-opening of schools. All winter I grumbled about school lunches – the hassle and mess and time. I have never been so happy to pack a school lunchbox as I was June 2nd. Walking the kids to school for their first day back, I couldn’t shake the jubilant feeling that I was living out the major plot points of A Squash and a Squeeze

In A Squash and a Squeeze, the first book by duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, we follow the trials and tribulations of a grey-haired lady who bemoans the size of her house, which she calls “a squash and a squeeze.” She consults a wise rabbi-like man (this picture book is based on a traditional Jewish folk tale), who tells her to bring her farm animals into the home. She does just that, eventually welcoming a hen, goat, pig and other creatures that squawk and moo. You can imagine the scene – chaotic, loud, messy. Her already-small home shrinks before her eyes, but she continues undaunted, though acutely aware of the dwindling real estate: “It was teeny for four and it’s weeny for five.”

When the wise old man finally tells her to bring all the animals out again, that home she disliked – the one that felt like a “squash and a squeeze”- feels palatial.

A month of screen shares, Math worksheets, Playdoh creations, and constant snack requests was exhausting. But I’d been complaining of the pressures of juggling work and life pre-lockdown. How free my schedule feels now; how happy I am to pack lunches and look at homework folders and set a morning alarm. Life feels spacious and light when I compare it to our own “squash and a squeeze.”

It helps to remember that perspective can often change our reality. And inspiration for that perspective can come from the most unlikely of sources, including the children’s section of your local library.

Don’t Quote Me: Hiring A Dog? Don’t Bark.

Sound familiar?

Don’t hire a dog, then bark yourself.

David Ogilvy

Wait, you’ve never hired a dog?

Okay, maybe dog hiring isn’t really the rage anymore…but I bet you’ve asked your teenager to pack their own lunchbox or convinced your co-worker to take the lead on an important project or asked your husband to book plane tickets for spring break.

I love the idea of delegating, but often have a hard time letting go of a sense of control. For instance, I’ll ask my husband to handle switching insurance companies but then check in every few days to get an update: what are the rates, which brokers have you tried, do we have all the temporary paperwork we need, and so forth. Basically, I’ve hired a “dog” (my husband) but I’m still barking.

Sometimes the answer is to not hire a dog at all, and keep right on barking myself. If I can’t fully relinquish control of a task, why bother delegating? I’ll both aggravate the “dog” and add a layer of complexity to the job itself. If it’s important enough to me, I should just do it myself.

But other times, I need to delegate and let go…

Yesterday, after a busy day of work and errands, we capped off the hot afternoon by floating in a friend’s pool. Fun, but then home to a pile of wet towels and bathing suits I didn’t have the energy to deal with.

Then I remembered: over a decade ago I birthed a child that is now perfectly capable of handling this job! Every item ended up askew in ways that defied the basic laws of Physics, but it was done. I didn’t correct or make suggestions (though I may have cringed slightly on the inside). The clothes ended up being perfectly dry after several hours on the line (bonus points: I had her get the clothes off the line, too). And yes, there was huffing from my pint-sized helper. But, from my end, absolutely no barking.

My little porpoise.
My water baby, turned forced-labour laundry guru. Also, cutest watermelon bathing suit, ever.

Productivity Hack: Give Yourself a Deadline

There are a lot of deadlines in life: job applications, insurance claims, license renewals, work projects, not to mention the fact the kids are always running dangerously low on clean underwear.

But sometimes, when I’m stuck on a task, a deadline is just what I need.

I’m a big fan of Gretchen Rubin’s work and have many Obliger tendencies. This means I, typically, respond to external expectations – (when my husband asks me to call the mechanic, I do it; those cookies I agreed to provide for the bake sale will be there on time) – but I tend to have a hard time responding to my own, inner expectations. 

During the initial lockdown in spring 2020, I was having a hard time completing a nebulous personal project. For over a decade I’ve been sending monthly update e-mails to family and friends. In addition, I also recorded regular summaries on my children’s development for their first 24 months. Reading about those details now – comments about their sleep patterns, transition to solid food, and first words and steps – nearly crushes me with nostalgia (tempered by my relief they are now old enough to wipe their own noses, bathe themselves, and sleep through the night). 

I don’t journal regularly and these updates were a treasure trove of family memories. There were dozens of files, not to mention pages and pages of archived emails. It was a daunting task to collate information from various sources (I’d switched primary e-mail accounts during this time), pull together old files, and then organize and format hundreds of pages. I wanted to do it because I valued the end result, but each step felt daunting.

I knew to aim for progress, not completion, but somehow I just didn’t have the enthusiasm to get this across the finish line. On a whim, I texted a friend. I described the task ahead of me and promised her a crisp $20 bill if I failed to complete the project in less than a month. The stakes were pretty low, but now I had someone holding me accountable and maybe, just maybe, silently rooting for my failure. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks.

My book was complete and ordered within three days of sending that text and on my doorstep in under a week.

Deadlines can be anxiety-producing and sometimes we need to take a step back and cut ourselves some slack (or quit)? But other times, an arbitrary deadline might be just the motivation needed to complete that nagging task.

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.