You might remember that back in January, my family sold our house, gave away our stuff and headed off on an open-ended adventure. It’s now May and we’ve been travelling through Canada for four months, living nomadically, balancing school/work/adventure/life and playing around with what it means to live a slower life.
In that time we’ve met a lot of people with a lot of questions about our situation:
What do we do for work? (We’re self-employed: I’m an author and my husband’s job allows him to work remotely.)
When do you work? (I work early most mornings and nights if needed, and Ben works Australian business hours. i.e. Early evening through to around midnight.)
Are the kids in school? (Yes, they’re enrolled in a Distance Education public school out of Sydney.)
How’s that going? (Oh, you know, swings and roundabouts.)
What do we miss about home? (Our family and friends, our little dog who is staying with Ben’s sister, my garden, magpies warbling in the morning.)
Don’t you get sick of each other? (Sometimes.)
How are we making this whole thing work? (With a lot of flexibility and experimentation and by learning to let go of the ‘shoulds’ and expectations of our old life.)
Can I come with you? (Uh…can I get back to you?)
The question I’ve found myself answering the most, however, is, “What’s it really like, honestly?”
When we first headed off in to the great unknown I tried to keep my expectations at bay. I tried going in to the entire experience with very few pre-conceived ideas about what it would feel like, how we would make it work and what we would learn.
But one of the things I was sure of, absolutely positive about in fact, is that life would be simpler.
I mean, how could it not be?
We were stripping away so many layers of commitment and stuff and status quo, it must follow that we would have more time, more headspace, more energy.
And in many ways selling our house, giving away our stuff and heading off to Canada for the first half of 2018 has simplified life enormously.
But in other, unexpected ways, it’s created a more-ness.
A complexity that I hadn’t considered, and can I tell you – I’m here for it because it’s juicy and delicious and overwhelming and life-affirming.
The simplicity that living a nomadic life brings is pretty great:
There’s no home maintenance to worry about, except for regular cleaning if we’re staying in our VRBO rentals for more than a week
We have way fewer belongings than we’ve ever owned before – fewer clothes, fewer entertainment options, fewer toys, less choice, less picking up, less tidying
I have a mobile phone that doesn’t work outside of WiFi and it’s amazing how liberating that feels
There are fewer social commitments and obligations to attend
We aren’t beholden to a school schedule or weekend sports
With less stuff, less to do, less to keep up with, less to prove, fewer requirements and fewer expectations, yes, life feels simpler.
And yet, as I mentioned above, it feels more complex too.
Yes, the logistics of balancing school/work/adventure/life is trickier.
Yes, working out where to go, where to stay and how to keep our budget in tact is a different kind of complexity.
Yes, we miss having the familiar structures and helping hands of family, friends and community at times too.
But the biggest complexity for me is undoubtedly the emotional kind, as I dig down in to layers of values and purpose and time and priorities and Big Life Questions that I’ve never had the headspace to explore before.
The past four months have been an excavation of the middle layers of life, a removal of the expectations and the status quo from our day-to-day, and in doing so we’ve uncovered depth that we didn’t know existed.
The peaks feel higher and the valleys deeper.
My feelings are bigger and sharper. My heart feels fuller and more vulnerable. I find myself asking questions that scare me, experimenting with ideas and perspectives that I had previously never considered.
Some of the stuff I’ve been unearthing is no joke. There’s been tears and terror and one moment where my entire body simply froze as my brain took up all available resources while it silently freaked out.
I don’t know whether my heart actually is fuller or more vulnerable, if my feelings are bigger or sharper, or if it simply feels that way because I’ve removed some of the layers that used to surround them.
Like the slow excavation of a mostly-buried fossil – it may look small on the surface but as the work of digging and removing layers of rock and soil continues, it appears to get larger.
What I do know is that my perspective and purpose are shifting.
I find myself wanting to get more involved in causes that are important to me, I want to be a force for good. I don’t want to create simplicity for simplicity’s sake, I want to remove layers of the unnecessary so that I can use that space, time and energy for things that matter.
So let me tell you what it’s really like. This is not what I expected.
As I remove those middle layers I realise, it’s no longer a matter of simple vs. complex. It’s about inessential vs. important.
The fun part is gradually figuring out which is which.
For spring break this year, my family visited friends who live near Washington D.C. and played tourist in our nation’s capital.
On one particular day, there was a fair amount of walking and waiting in line, especially for kids who don’t quite appreciate the experience yet and would really prefer to be with their friends playing.
As we were walking from the Library of Congress on one end of the National Mall to the White House about a mile away, my kids (ages 9-14) were getting really whiny.
There was a time not too long ago when this situation would have made me quite anxious.
I would have felt the need to make them happy again, even it meant changing our plans, or stopping for expensive treats. I might have become snappy or frustrated, preaching at them how they should be grateful for the experience.
But this time? I just let them be upset.
And I kept on being excited and happy myself. I was being silly, skipping down the sidewalk.
I was allowing myself to be amazed at the details I noticed. I took pictures. I asked questions out loud for everyone to think about.
I ignored the grumpy faces and high pitched voices.
I remembered I had some gum in my backpack and handed it out to the troops and- voila! Everyone was back to their happy selves.
We got as close as possible to the White House for a family selfie (which was still too far away). We grabbed some souvenirs on the way back to the car and before we knew it, we were at the house playing with our friends again
What could have turned the rest of the day into an unpleasant experience, was diverted just by me choosing my own attitude and not trying to “fix” how my kids were feeling.
I have learned that it’s okay if my kids are hungry. It’s okay if they are uncomfortable–cold, tired, or have sore feet. Moods come and go, and my kids’ moods don’t have to determine my own.
However, recognizing the power of MY mood on theirs has been eye-opening.
Family travel can be a time of high stress.
I’ve learned to try to not compound a negative situation by adding my own negativity to the pile.
We may not be able to control everyone’s emotions, but we can control our own.
Denita Bremer is a stay-at-home mom to three kids who is currently feeding a dream to become a life coach. She lives in Colorado, but loves to travel to the earth’s beaches because life is better at the beach. She has a baby blog at Author of A Good Story.
I’ve had more than my fair share of faith crises. Indeed, when I was discerning my call to ministry I worried that my tendency to doubt and question disqualified me from becoming a pastor.
I’m grateful that I didn’t listen to those fears.
Spiritual valleys are just as formative and significant as mountaintop experiences – maybe even more so.
It’s not fun to have a dark night of the soul. It can be disorienting and scary.
Sometimes struggling with your faith even tests relationships with family and friends who may feel defensive about their own convictions. But persevering through that darkness and courageously asking those hard questions is revelatory.
We often emerge on the other side of spiritual crises filled with gifts we could only receive the hard way.
As often as not, our faith is renewed by spiritual crisis – but rarely as a simulacrum of what it was before.
Faith that has made it through a dark night is deeper, more nuanced, and maybe even substantively different. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
As Sarah Bessey writes in Out of Sorts, “Anyone who gets to the end of their life with the exact same beliefs and opinions as they had at the beginning is doing it wrong.”
Here are some of the practices and bits of wisdom that have sustained me through my own faith crises.
I admit, reading is my go-to no matter the nature of the crisis, but it is especially central to my spiritual life.
Poetry and spiritual memoirs are my personal favorites. My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman is presently at the top of my list, which is unsurprising since it’s a spiritual memoir by a poet.
I still consider reading Anne Lamott’s, Traveling Mercies, the summer I turned twenty to be one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
Talking (and praying) with wise mentors and friends
When I was fifteen I tearfully confessed to my church camp counselor that I didn’t believe in God.
He listened non-judgmentally and assured me that my questions and doubts were completely normal. I don’t know what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it.
His kindness to me in that encounter instilled in me a profound need to connect with other people of faith.
To this day, I still crave substantive conversations about faith, and regular appointments with my spiritual director are central to my spiritual health.
Faith crises can be paralyzing; we’re not sure what to do because we’re not sure what to believe.
But no matter what dogmas you discard or retain as you go about reordering your spiritual life, it’s key to keep practicing generosity, pursuing justice, and cultivating love for our neighbors.
Volunteer in a soup kitchen.
Give sacrificially to a non-profit organization that does good work.
Be relentlessly kind to the people in your life who are hardest to love.
Adopting a healthy atheism
Don’t worry – I’m not saying give up on God.
But many of us discover we have held childish or false beliefs about who God is, and until we let those go, we aren’t free to grasp deeper truths.
I could only enter into a relationship with a loving God in whom I live and move and have my being until I stopped believing in a God who capriciously doles out cancer and car accidents.
Remembering that faith is not the same thing as certainty
I’m not remotely certain that there is a God. Living my life as though there is despite my lack of certainty – that’s faith.
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear; the nearest synonym of faith is not belief, but trust.
Each day I imperfectly yet faithfully entrust myself to what is ultimately a profound mystery.
Living the questions
Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote,
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
When Mr. Wonderful and I had two little toddlers, we moved to an area with a public school system that did not meet our standards for our children’s education.
We promptly decided to homeschool. I read a lot of books and an untold amount of homeschooling blogs online, and made my outline.
The main thing was that we were going to be one of those amazing families that traveled around the world.
I didn’t want to do everything twice, so we would wait until our youngest child turned five. Our children would all be in a good age bracket to experience everything that would be on offer, and they’d all remember it!
No complaining of, “I went there as a baby and I don’t remember it, so it doesn’t count.”
We’d take short trips through the baby phase and wouldn’t be locked into any scheduling restrictions – we could travel whenever we wanted.
When Youngest turned five, we’d really turn it up. There would be multi-week trips around the US and Canada, and we’d even look at selling our house to travel full-time overseas.
I fully bought into the mindset that the world and its people are better than reading any textbook while stuck inside the four walls of a classroom.
We added three more children to those two toddlers and made a cross-country move. We landed in a very high-ranked school district in our new state but continued homeschooling because … PLANS.
While homeschooling may be associated with simple living, our experience with it has not for a single minute been easy.
It turns out that both Child 1 and Child 2 have special needs of the ADHD and autism variety that complicated things a lot.
Homeschooling had its bright and shiny moments with short road trips that we called “field trips” to everywhere we could think of. We’ve visited science museums and historical sites in almost every state east of the Mississippi River.
We’ve read literally thousands of library books. (I counted.) We’ve taken acting classes and performed in community theater productions.
But the day-to-day was an excruciating grind.
My structure-hungry children could never settle into a consistent routine because homeschooling activities aren’t daily. They’re weekly.
Co-op on Monday, theater on Tuesday, park day on Wednesday, etc. The Battle of Math was an on-and-off thing for years.
It eventually wore all of us out.
On August 30, 2017, three out of five children started public school. The youngest two have been registered to start first grade and Kindergarten in the upcoming fall.
Youngest Child turned five a couple of weeks ago. Nine years of waiting for that milestone birthday, all the wishful thinking and covetous following-along of world-schooling blogs, all of my PLANS…gone.
It has become very clear that I will never get to live in an RV and travel full time. My family – my husband and my five children, the people I have chosen to spend my life with – would not at all function well in that type of living situation. They don’t even vacation well for more than about ten days.
They need the stability of a home that doesn’t move or change, and a consistent every-single-day schedule. My husband’s job provides excellent insurance that covers all of the needed therapy, and we can’t leave that either. The kids need their therapist appointments.
They now get on the morning bus at the same time every day. They are in structured classrooms with amazing teachers. They have lunch every day at the same time. I pick them up in the afternoon at the same time.
Our children were doing well before, but now they are thriving.
We haven’t entirely ruled out homeschooling as an option for the future, but it’s highly unlikely that Child 1 and 2 will ever be pulled back out of public school.
I did then what was best for my children with homeschooling. I am doing now what is best for my children with public schooling. Many people, including their therapists, have assured me of this.
But there’s still an element of failure and loss.
Failure for never successfully establishing a comfortable routine and structure for my children to function within while learning outside the public school structure.
Failure for not being able to teach them myself, like so many other parents of special needs seem to be able to do.
Failure because I’m so darned tired, and relieved to not be homeschooling anymore!
And the loss of my full-time travel dreams, that I’ve fantasized over since I was about ten years old.
There is a grieving process when making a wholesale transition from one entire lifestyle to another very different lifestyle.
I ate, drank and breathed homeschooling for so long that I’m at a new starting point for myself. Kids are at school. Husband is at work. I have no paid employment or even volunteering positions.
I am rebuilding slowly. Now, I’m learning how to make quilts.
Trina Caudle and her family live in Connecticut. Instead of obsessively researching homeschooling methods and curriculum options, she is learning how to quilt and shares a blog with her sister to trade sewing and recipe notes: Operation Domestic Goddess.
Six years ago I was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when you ingest gluten. Even the tiniest amount of gluten, a mere crumb, can make me sick for weeks.
Not surprisingly, since my diagnosis, I haven’t been invited to many dinner parties. It’s just too hard to figure out how to safely feed someone like me.
But here’s the thing I want you to know, being invited into your home for a meal is about much more than food.
The whole point is being together, getting to know each other better, and gathering around the table.
I may not eat your food, but will you please still invite me over for dinner?
Chances are you know someone with some kind of dietary restriction and are wondering how to host them for a meal.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Find out whether their dietary restriction is an allergy, an autoimmune issue, or simply a dietary preference. This will determine how careful you need to be about cross contamination. (Allergy and autoimmune = be extremely careful.)
2. Ask your guest if there is anything you should be aware of or any precautions you should take that you might not think of.
3. If your guest is avoiding something as a dietary preference (not an autoimmune disease or allergy), invite them to look through your menu plan to make sure you are on the same page.
4. If cross contamination is a serious issue, invite your guest to help you in preparing the meal. I love cooking with friends because it helps them to see exactly how to keep my food safe. After a few times, they get the hang of it and are able to do it themselves.
5. Let your guest know that it’s perfectly fine to bring their own food if that would make them more comfortable. Remember, they just want to be invited, whether they can eat your food or not!
Keeping the line of communication open and asking the right questions will help your guest not only feel safe, but feel wanted and valued. I’m grateful for friends who have the guts to invite me over for dinner, whether I can eat their food or not.
I shouldn’t be surprised…but I always am when I learn an important life lesson from my sons.
This past weekend, we watched as my soccer-loving son played a double-header match against stormy skies, stopping for lightning only once, but getting wet for a good part of the few hours we were on the fields.
Even in rain, we love watching our boys play the game they love so much.
We won the first game, 2-0. The second game of the double-header started off badly: within the first two minutes of play it was evident that the opposing team was out for a revenge win.
We could forgive some of the slide tackling – the field was slippery with rain. But you can’t blame the slippery field on elbows into backs, shirts tugged by other arms and hands, and from-behind bumps that knock over the fast players.
After the third such incident, without a whistle to call a foul, the parents went a bit nuts.
My son had a fast break with the ball with three defenders chasing close behind. He stepped into the box and went to kick the ball and one of them pushed his back while the second tackled him from behind.
He went down. And didn’t stand up.
When the whistle finally blew, the players on our team took a knee, but the opposing coach called his players off the field for a “timeout coaching session.”
This was the last straw, and I became that grizzly sideline mom and screamed at the coach to have his players “take a knee!”
Youth sports writer and blogger, Bob Cook, writes in his article about this very subject:
“It’s not a written rule that players do this [take a knee], and I couldn’t tell you when this started. But it’s become so ingrained in the sport that when that protocol is breached, people get upset.”
I was upset. But it wasn’t a broken rule, and I should have kept my mouth shut. I immediately regretted yelling, because I was inserting myself into my son’s game, on his turf.
What are our roles, as parents on the sidelines?
To support our players and encourage them in their sport. That’s it.
I crossed a line last week because I felt cheated. I felt that the referee wasn’t protecting my child from the unnecessary roughness from the opposing team. It’s part of the referee’s job to ensure the safety of our kids during a game.
Parents aren’t allowed to run out on the field when their child falls in a heap on the grass. For good reason.
I heard a wise parent recently talk about her son’s involvement with a sports team. Her son told her she wasn’t invited on the field. That was his space. She agreed.
This is great advice for sideline parents…especially as parents to boys.
I know that I need to see the soccer pitch as their territory, not mine. If we want to raise independent, well-rounded boys, then we need to stay off the field. This includes keeping our angry yelling off the sidelines as well.
A growing boy needs a time and place to figure out how to become a man. For sure, parents have a big role in their growing up – especially in the teen years. But we can absolutely let them have their space…especially on a field with other boys who are becoming men.
Parents have been given this incredible and terrifying job of teaching their children to eventually live without needing them.
This can be played out in how we support them in their sports. I can easily offer a consolation after the game and positive encouragement from the sidelines. I can be present at all their games.
But when he’s on the field, that’s his place.
So even after my faux-paux this weekend at my son’s game, I have some hard-learned advice for all the sideline parents out there filling our weekends with long drives to games, mud-and-grass-stained laundry, sitting in rain or heat: Step away from the field.
Our boys are becoming men on the turf, fields, pitch, and diamond.
Hospitality was one of the unexpected side effects of simplifying.
Once we purged the stuff, it wasn’t so overwhelming to have extra people in our space. And when we started saying no to the things we didn’t want to do, we suddenly had so much more free time to actually have people over!
Unfortunately, though, my first few attempts at hospitality were super stressful. I had certain expectations of what everything should be and look like and I turned into a basket case whenever we had guests.
It didn’t take long for me to not want to have people over anymore.
When it dawned on me that my love of simple could (and should) extend into how we did hospitality, things got a lot less stressful and I actually enjoyed entertaining.
Here’s what I learned:
Keep food and drink simple
My loved ones are aware of my affinity for simplicity and know that unless I get some wild idea, they will not be eating a five course meal. Instead, “keep it simple” is my motto and I abide by it in all things, especially when it comes to feeding people.
And you know what? They love it. In fact, we recently had friends over who hadn’t had our burrito bowls yet (which is just a fancy way of saying we had beans and rice with some extra toppings). It was so good they kept saying they needed to make them at their house.
Delicious frugal food FTW.
Some of our favorite foods for feeding lots of people are:
Soup and bread
Roast chicken and veggies
Pulled pork sandwiches and salad (or any shredded meat I can make in my Instant Pot)
Potluck style meals where everyone brings something – especially great if you’re hosting a Friendsgiving get together
Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
If we’re serving drinks, too, we’ll usually stick to wine or one of our easy signature cocktails.
Prep ahead when possible
I’ll let you in on a little secret…I hate having help in the kitchen. Really. It’s my space to focus and do my thing so when someone asks me if I need help I say no.
Which is why I try to prep things ahead as much as possible so food is ready when guests arrive. Because we keep food so simple, this is really easy to do. (If they do arrive before I’m done, I make them a drink and tell them I’d much rather they chat with me while I finish things up. Much more fun.)
If you’re not as, um, quirky as I am, prepping ahead will afford you more quality time to spend with your guests.
Ask for contributions
I used to say no when people asked if they could bring something over. Crazy! Personally, I love bringing a gift of some kind when I get invited to someone’s house, so I figure if they’re asking they actually want to bring something, right?
Don’t be afraid to say yes and give them a suggestion. If you have everything you need for dinner, suggest a dessert or a bottle of wine.
There’s no need for you to do everything.
Clean the important places
I used to rush around my house, frantically cleaning everything. I’d even go into deep clean mode on my bookshelves. Not anymore. Now, I have three top spots I make sure are tidy and don’t worry about the rest:
• Kitchen: I make sure the counters are wiped and clear of everything but serving essentials and the food. I clean up as I go while making things so I don’t get stressed out about piles of dirty dishes. The table is clear, save for napkins and a bouquet of flowers.
• Bathroom: Now that we have two (hallelujah!), I just focus on getting one ready for guests. I make sure the usual items are clean, launder the hand towel and make sure there’s enough soap for washing. As my kids are older and in charge of cleaning the bathrooms (again, hallelujah!), I just check over their work. When guests arrive I just let them know which bathroom to use.
• Living room: I just make sure stuff is picked up and put away and vacuum the floors. Depending on how many people are coming over, I’ll pull in more seating.
If there are other kids coming over, especially littles, I have the kids make sure there are no choking hazards/easily broken items in reach. Otherwise I’ll shut doors and not worry about the places people won’t be hanging out in.
Green and inexperienced, I was recruited to step into the role of marketing director for a local retirement community.
My education combined with a love and natural propensity for those senior to me far outweighed my managerial skillset, and only days after I was hired I found myself in the position of needing to hire a new sales associate.
Because I hadn’t interviewed many people at that time – okay, any people – I read what I could could get my hands on about best interviewing practices and compiled a list of basic questions. Plus, I had been interviewed a dozen or more times, so there was that.
Sifting through a competitive pool of applicants, I selected three to interview.
More than anything I was trying to find a good fit for the role and someone with whom I felt comfortable. We would be working closely together.
I would go on to hire Mary Jane, over 20 years my senior. Time would soon tell she was an excellent choice–professional, empathetic, and, man, she could close a deal.
Over 25 years later, I still remember Mary Jane’s interview, specifically her answer to one question:
“What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?”
Without hesitation she replied, “Raising my two sons to be responsible and independent, decent men who contribute back to society and don’t just take.”
She went on to say they had both graduated from college, had landed good jobs, and were now doing well out on their own.
What is interesting to me now that I couldn’t have know back then is that Mary Jane’s answer would be formative in my life. By answering truthfully and simply being “who” she was, she influenced me in a powerful way.
How so? you might wonder.
What can you take away from our conversation?
It pays to be yourself.
I was expecting a business-related answer when I asked Mary Jane about her greatest accomplishment.
Initially I was taken aback by her candid, personal reply, but I quickly realized raising children to adult well is no small thing. It was clear she responded authentically and honestly, and that her priorities were in good order.
This job required someone who could engage people on an emotional and personal level, and Mary Jane – just by being herself – demonstrated this was her natural inclination.
Had she stifled her gut response and tried to deliver a contrived answer or something she thought I wanted to hear, it likely would have come off as mechanical and rehearsed.
Even with my inexperience, I would’ve known she was giving me a prescribed answer.
Your words and your influence are powerful.
Neither one of us could have predicted that over a quarter century later I would remember Mary Jane’s interview, let alone write about it!
But even before I had children, before I needed advice, she seeded parenting wisdom that, years later, would find its way in to my parenting philosophy.
Good or bad, your words are impacting those around you every day; your influence is reaching into future generations.
Keeping these two things in mind should affect how you’re living today, and inspire you to live the best version of yourself.
Parent with the end goal in mind.
A casual remark in a job interview, at least in part, gave me a bullseye to shoot for as I raised my children.
My husband and I were intentional parents, and there were specific values we wanted to instill in our children. Though it never occurred to us to create a family purpose statement, we parented hard and on purpose, doing our best to communicate and cultivate those values in our children.
Today, two of our children have graduated college, are out on their own, and are working in jobs they enjoy. Our youngest has just completed his junior year. Of course, we will want to give him the perfect gift when he graduates, but by watching our older two, we know we’ve probably already given him the best things we could offer.
If you’re in a season of interviewing for a job, be confident in your strengths, humble in your shortcomings, but more than anything, be yourself.
If you’re struggling with your value or worth, believe that you’re influencing and impacting those around you, and what you have to offer makes a difference.
If you’re a parent, it’s always helpful to consider your long-term hopes and dreams for your children, to know who you hope they’ll grow up to be.
And if I go on a job interview and I’m asked about my greatest accomplishment? I already know my answer.
At our house, a lot changes between Saturday morning and Saturday night. We have six children, and often someone has some kind of sports ball thing happening during the day.
And of course, there is the almost-weekly cleaning of the house, all hands on deck.
On especially beautiful Saturdays, there might even be time to go to the park and then naps for everyone. A nap for you! And a nap for you! And a nap for you!
But on one particularly slow Saturday, when there was not much cleaning to be done, and there were no athletic competitions to attend, and everything outside was gray and cold and damp, the eight of us remained inside.
My 13-year-old daughter Lucy began work on a painting she had been talking about for months. I peeked into her room from time to time, checking on her progress.
She had envisioned a little girl walking into a dark and foreboding wood. The painting would be of the girl from behind, in a white night gown. In front of her would be the shadows from the trees and fog drifting over a narrow path, and deep in the recesses of the painting she imagined tiny flashes of light: faeries waiting.
It was fun watching her progress, catching snapshots of the emergence of this image. I stopped by her room every hour or so.
I had to go away for a few hours later in the afternoon, and when I came home, I couldn’t wait to see the painting. But as soon as I walked in the door, my 8-year-old son gave me the news.
“Lucy painted over her painting.”
She painted over her painting?
“She did what?”
“She didn’t like her painting, so she painted over it.”
My son seemed oddly unaffected. I, however, was heartbroken.
Though I have been busy, perhaps overbusy, all my life, it seems to me now that I have accomplished little that matters, that the books have never come up to what was in my head, and that the rewards—the comfortable income, the public notice, the literary prizes, and the honorary degrees—have been tinsel, not what a grown man should be content with.
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
I have continued thinking about this thing my daughter did, this painting over of what I thought was becoming a lovely creation.
I know why she did it—I have had, and sometimes given in, to that impulse as well.
A short story goes nowhere? Delete it.
A poem stares back up at me, impotent and lazy: ball up the paper and throw it in the bin.
I stumble on the first 15,000 words of a novel that never quite survived its birth? Put the entire folder in the trash.
I know what it’s like to feel disappointment in what I have created.
Are our creations, our stories, our paintings, our photographs, our sculptures, our pottery, our sewing, our songs…are they always meant to be these shining beacons, things we put up on pedestals and worship, as at the end of a pilgrimage?
Or are these creations of ours actually more like mile markers, posts that show us both how far we have come and how far we have yet to travel?
I am leaning towards the latter.
If we do not paint our paintings, and show them to those around us, until they are perfect, we will live long, fruitless lives. If we do not write our books until the ideas are fully formed, and our conclusions sure, and our skill at its peak, will there be any books?
Our creations remind us where we come from, and they can also lead us home.
Later that Saturday night, my daughter wandered into our room.
Nearly everyone else was asleep, and it was unusual for her to come and search us out. She leaned against the bed, and I asked her about her painting, and when she told me she had painted over it, I smiled. I encouraged her.
I’ve been consistently journaling for 25 years now. I have no doubt that this has been the most important habit in my life that helps me stay sane (or at least return to sanity when stress, confusion, or circumstances knock me down).
This is what I think is most important about journaling: find what works for you. What do you want to get out it? That’s really all that matters.
When I boil it down to the simplest reason for me, I journal because I like how it makes me feel. I look forward to how I know I’ll feel when I’m done.
For me, the many benefits of regular journaling include:
• It helps me recognize patterns in desires, longings, and values that help me direct the course of my life.
• It helps me identify consistent causes of stress that need attention so I can look for ways to make effective change.
• It helps me slow down, pay attention, be more present, and mindful. This is simply because that’s what a writing habit has done for me, not necessarily because I’m thinking of how I’ll record something later.
• It helps me remember meaningful moments, activities, milestones, and trips.
• I really value the clarity that comes for me when I know what I feel, what I think, what matters to me. And journaling helps me articulate that to myself.
• It boosts my daily mood, fills me with gratitude, helps me have perspective on my life and challenging situations.
• It makes me feel less frantic because of the internal clarity.
• Creativity! Writing down ideas, fragments of ideas, bits and bobs that may never be anything. I know that this practice strengthens and bolsters my creativity, problem-solving, and strategic thinking.
I enjoy the simple pleasure of writing, deciding which word to use, challenging myself to describe how I feel more specifically, and the actual physical sensation of pen on paper is a delight.
Although the basic habit of sitting down with pen and paper has been consistent for decades, the style and structure of writing vary for me dramatically. And I’m not just talking about how I wrote when I was 15 years old compared to 30 years old.
When I sit down with my journal, I’m subconsciously asking myself, “what do I need today?” And then I move to meet that need in a variety of ways.
Most often, I already have something pressing on my mind and what I need is to simply process it and articulate it. But, other times, my answer to the question is that I need to focus on things I’m thankful for, so I make a gratitude list.
Or perhaps, I’m feeling discouraged, so I need to celebrate accomplishments and growth. If that’s the case, maybe I’ll make a list of gold stars for myself for the week, healthy habits I’ve kept, moments I’ve acted according to my values with my children or friends.
Maybe I’ve been spiraling with negative thoughts, in which case I make a list of what I call “true things,” to help me refocus (it’s my own adaption of “affirmations” that I’ve seen other people do). Sometimes what I need is the creative outlet so I draft a poem or a bit of dialog to save for a short story idea.
Although I have a desired outcome in mind when I start to write, I allow myself a lot of variety in how I reach that outcome.
This is something I’ve found extremely effective for me in many healthy habits: variation in the context of consistency. It combines the satisfaction of ritual with the freedom I need to keep it feeling fresh and fun. For me this applies to exercise, household chores, cooking routines, and more.
I don’t journal with anyone else in mind.
I don’t ever think about a reader or worry about making sure I’ve explained something clearly enough for a stranger to understand.
It’s really all about me releasing stress, filling myself with gratitude, celebrating my small accomplishments with healthy choices, processing things that are confusing, and getting clarity about what matters to me.
I don’t worry about making sure it’s a complete narrative of my life, ready for biographers to parse.
I only think about “what do I need right now for this day?” I don’t think about how it looks, or how anyone else would experience the jumble of words.
Sometimes I use the pages to doodle something I might make public, or paste ticket stubs, or pay attention to making my handwriting look cool, but I don’t worry about doing any of that consistently. I only do that if it feels like what I need that day.
And so, most pages are just messy stream of consciousness rambles that leave me with what I was hoping for: feeling full of clarity, gratitude, and awe.
I am a little biased, obviously, but for me, journaling feels like a magic elixir.
I do think it would benefit the world and all human relationships for people to improve their communication skills and to spend time reflecting on who they want to be and what matters to them.
But, really, I just hope that this description of how I do it frees you to consider ways that you might be able to spend some time putting thoughts into words in a way that works for you.