Wednesday, May 27, 2020

It Wasn't Just the Hangers that were Bent out of Shape

AnnaliseArt via Pixabay
One of the topics I've been reading about lately is mindfulness. In related news, I hate when people mess with my laundry room set-up.

Not related, you say? That's what I said, too.

Until one morning earlier this week. Bear with me, and I'll take you there.

When you write a book about organization, the topic tends to infiltrate your life. I pride myself on devising neat, efficient ways of doing things and, once I get a system up and running, I want Easy Upkeep (the E in STYLE) to kick in. When other people mess with my system and I have to redo things the way I like them, I get cranky because, first of all, it slows me down and second of all, re-doing something I'd already set up in a workable way feels like a waste of time.

Which brings me to laundry. I have a thing about hangers being stored in such a way that I can grab a hanger one-handed while holding an item of clothing to be hung in the other hand. When someone (and I'm not naming any names here) comes along and squashes all the hangers together, that simple task becomes impossible. I have to put down the damp item of clothing, untangle the hangers and resume my task, which has now taken three times as long. Not only that, but it begins a whole "why do people have to mess with my systems?" monologue in my head, which was already engaged in a more productive monologue about the multitude of things I'd do when I finished hanging up the laundry.

I hear all of you laid-back, laundry-room-on-the-first-floor folks tsking me and shaking your heads. And I can't say you're wrong. In the scheme of things, it's not that big a deal. I mean, it's a hanger, right?

But the hanger is a symptom, not the problem. When I go down to the basement to do one of the (seemingly endless) steps in a laundry-related task, I'm often interrupting something else to do said task. I want to get in, get it done, and get back to business as soon as possible. I do not want to wrestle with hangers, move wayward laundry baskets or find that some other helpful person has left a load of clothes in the dryer. All of these tasks add unnecessary obstacles, ranging from the minuscule to the downright annoying -- obstacles that I must clear before I can get back to whatever it was I was doing before laundry so rudely interrupted my life.

Earlier this week, as I was muttering to myself about someone messing with my hangers, I heard myself. Anxious (as usual) to complete the laundry task before me as quickly as possible, I was allowing myself to get all bent out of shape over a molecule in a drop of water in a wave in the ocean.


I'd read on more than one occasion about doing tasks, even -- and perhaps especially -- the most mundane ones, in a mindful fashion. Turning off the endlessly looping "gotta do this next" tape, focusing on the simplicity of the task itself, and, perhaps, taming my mind in the process.

So I tried it. And it actually worked.

Oh, I still had to rearrange all the hangers and complete what I'd set out to do before adding the massive task of hanger rearrangement to my burgeoning to-do list but instead of doing it with gritted teeth and muttered accusations, I just, you know, did it. I focused on the moving and the folding and the hanging and, in short order, a rhythm developed.

And it was soothing. It bore no tension or accusations, and freed my mind to unclench. This was surprising in no small part because I hadn't realized that my mind had been clenched, let alone that it could even do something like that in the first place.

If this were a fairy tale, it would end with me happily hanging laundry à la Cinderella, with chirping birds and sunny skies, a song in my heart and life in a castle on the horizon.

Life-of-Pix via Pixabay
This is not a fairy tale. There are no birds helping with the laundry and the people who help are sometimes less than helpful, although they are well-intentioned. Usually.

But if I have to do laundry in the first place, maybe it's not such a bad idea to do it with my mind
unclenched. After all, the best ideas come when our minds are open enough to welcome them. I am, for example, open to the idea of relocating our laundry room to the ground floor of our house.

But that's another story.

Monday, May 25, 2020

In Loving Memory

pasja1000 via Pixabay
I've gone back and forth with myself about whether or not to post today. I often take Monday holidays off, partly because a regular post on a significant day doesn't seem to be the right fit and partly because a day off is pretty nice.

I'm lucky. I'm one of those who can stand at a distance today, grateful for the sacrifices other mothers' children and other people's parents and grandparents have made. My grandfather flew planes in WWII, but that is all I know. It was long before I knew him and though I am grateful for his service, its personal impact on me was minimal. In some ways, that should make me more grateful but, instead, it leaves me personalizing this day in a different way.

Memorial Day should be more than just a day off from work and, for many families it is just that -- a deeply meaningful day to remember and pay tribute to those they've loved who made personal sacrifices so we could enjoy the freedoms we have. But, for others, it's just another Monday and trying to twist it into something else feels anywhere from uncomfortable to inauthentic.

So, I propose that today, we take a moment to do what this day is intended for -- to think about the freedoms we have thanks to the sacrifices so many have so bravely made. If a moment is all we can offer with honesty and integrity, perhaps we can then explore a few more questions before heading off to barbecue our dinners or set off fireworks or even hang a flag.

  • Who? Whom will I remember today? Why?
  • What? What will I remember this person for? Why today?
  • When? When will I take the time to do this? For how long?
  • Where? Where will I engage in this memorializing? Why this place?
  • How? How will I remember this person, these people, this event? What will best pay them tribute?
In light of all the challenges our country is facing right now, it's more important than ever that today be significant because, whether we've been touched by a family member's sacrifice directly or not, taking the time to say thank you is a debt we all owe to those we memorialize today, for whatever reason.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Friday Feature: Flourishing

I've been reading a lot about happiness lately. It's not an unusual topic for me to be reading about, since I'm fascinated by positive psychology and teach a first year seminar in which we explore happiness, but it also feels timely.

Happiness isn't an elusive, ephemeral thing we have to wait for, like a butterfly lighting on our shoulder. It's something we can pursue, a fact that the founders of our country clearly understood.

But even those who study positive psychology don't think of life as a happy-happy-joy-joy existence 24/7. Instead, positive psychologists talk about flourishing, something that's possible to do even when we don't feel particularly joyous. And, because flourishing has multiple elements, it offers multiple angles in and, perhaps most important, more than one road to happiness.

As I type this, I am literally on the road, farther away from home than I've been in close to 70 days. Today, as we help my daughter move out of college housing for the last time, it's about relationships, engagement and meaning -- all aspects that contribute to flourishing, connection and, even in these troubling times, happiness.

Which road will you take?

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A Baker's Dozen of Commitments

geralt via Pixabay
So, the semester is over. Going online meant a much smaller pile of papers to file -- something I did Sunday night after I'd put in all of my grades. (Check it off the list!), which means I should be free to do...whatever I want!

And yet, I still find myself showing up in my home office, ready to tackle school-related odds and ends. On Monday, I committed to spending a maximum of two hours a day on school stuff, a line in the sand I buried both yesterday and today as I one loose end led to another and I dug into an inbox full of emails that didn't make the cut for consumption while I was teaching. Oh, and spent over an hour on a Zoom call with a student, making plans for next semester.

As I work my way through what I've now dubbed my transition week, I've created my list of things I want to do now that the semester is over. I'm posting this list here, in no particular order, to make myself accountable.

I hereby commit to:
  • limiting the number of times I check work email every day, and not checking it after 5 PM if at all possible. Teaching online made me feel a little like one of Pavlov's dogs (or how I imagine they felt anyway) and it's time to extinguish that behavior.
  • creating an automatic out of office email to help me with the commitment above.
  • downsizing my inboxes (work and home) with a daily target goals.
  • taking some time every day to read the good stuff in my inboxes that got shoved aside by all the "do this now!" emails.
  • getting creative -- writing, doing fun promo stuff (like making stuff on Canva), coloring, lettering, finally watching all those Sketchnoting videos.
  • spending less time on the computer and more time with books -- you know, the old-fashioned kind -- oh, and all those samples on my Kindle.
  • listening to the books I put on Audible.
  • going through the stacks of magazines I have stashed in various places, reading what's worthwhile and recycling the rest.
  • tackling house projects and organization projects, although I'm happy to report that the really obvious organization projects are much less visible. Progress has been made!
  • taking another look at that 20 for 2020 list and seeing what I want to focus on next.
  • taking out my pretty planner and writing things in it. For now, it will be things like webinars, but I'm optimistic that actual human contact isn't that far off :-)
  • watching TED Talks.
    enriquelopezgarre via Pixabay
Oh, and one last thing: not overcommitting.

Wish me luck!

Monday, May 18, 2020

Thinking Out Loud

Media Modifier via Pixabay
Yesterday afternoon, I turned in my grades, officially bringing the online experiment that was our spring semester to a close. As I graded final papers and responded to a flood of emails, I often talked back to the screen -- sometimes in joy, sometimes in frustration -- and I talked to my family about my progress (and my students' progress) -- anonymously, of course.

A lot.

Each time I'd have one of those conversations, I wondered why. I mean, grade the papers, do the work, check it off the list, right? The fact that my family's eyes would glaze over as I worked through my own thoughts out loud for the twentieth time made me wonder why I couldn't be a grown-up, do my job and keep my mouth shut.

Yeah. Sure. That's me.

I have never been a woman of few words. When I was a teenager, one of the phone companies did a promo where they handed out buttons that said, "I've got the gift of gab." I wore mine proudly. Never did a button describe me so well.

It isn't (just) that I like to talk. It's that I process out loud. My daughter does this, too, but less so than I do. And as I was processing all of this, partly in my head and partly out loud, it occurred to me that part of the reason for all of this was another loss I can ascribe to our rapid switch to online teaching.

No team.

From the time I was in graduate school, I was trained to work as part of a team. When a team of teachers works with students and shares ideas, good things (usually) come out of it. Different styles  converge around the table to consider multiple solutions, both inside and outside of the box. As brainstorming ensues, the list of "what if we tried this?" grows and a shared plan emerges. Emailing colleagues just doesn't have the same effect. When a gift of gab team player goes online, she talks back to her computer screen, but it rarely has anything relevant in the way of a reply.

The concept that the first step in solving a problem is identifying it definitely applies here. As online learning becomes woven more deeply into the tapestry of education, losses like this are something we need to consider and plan for. Well-designed online courses definitely have a place in our busy, tech-focused society, but operating in a vacuum is a real danger. As the semester progressed, I found small ways to up the social ante for my students, using tools that allowed them to post videos and respond to one another, and to virtually visit with me through Zoom office hours. It's not the same as face-to-face, but it's a start. While the feedback I got was largely positive, offering options matters, too; not every student wants to post a video and not every class should be asynchronous (not meeting at specific times).

Peggy Marco via Pixabay
Being thrown into online teaching was quite the experience. I learned a lot, I made some mistakes and, as it turns out, I learned a few things about myself as well. I didn't hate this (I thought I would) and I see real potential for turning my classes into dynamic online learning communities where those who think out loud (like I do) can find their space alongside those who are happy to be alone with their laptops and the content. And, while I haven't yet solved my need for a team, recognizing its importance will help me identify when and where it's needed most and, eventually, find a way to make that work as well.

Till then, my husband and daughter are probably on the hot seat. But, right now, we're all on break.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Friday Feature: Multitasking

As I type this on Thursday evening, I'm watching the news. Tomorrow, I'll struggle to remember what the forecast was.


You bet.

I know I shouldn't multitask. I know the importance of focus. I'm currently reading a book called Focus. I teach about not just focus, but also psychological theorists who believe attention is the gateway to learning.

And yet I still multitask. Is there any hope for me and others like me?

I'm happy to say that the answer is yes. Not only can we step away from the multiple tasks, but, according to the Mayo Clinic, we can also build our focusing skills.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I still have a few college essays to focus on.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The More Things Change
While working on last week's posts, I came across this one and it struck me how similar things feel now with all of the newness of online instruction. Not too long ago, I changed offices at work, and I even got to personalize the space a little. I'm now part of a suite of offices populated by colleagues who are fun and I'm looking forward to revisiting that office soon. But, for now, my office is just off my living room, my wardrobe is at-home casual, and I still don't miss those inservices.

When I retired from public education, I knew there would be things I wouldn't miss. Early morning meetings. Faculty meetings. Irrelevant inservices. (Are you sensing a theme?)

But it didn't take me long to realize that there's one thing I do miss: an office.

I also miss the people and the parts of the job I loved, of course, but I expected that. I didn't expect a small, cluttered room with hand-me-down furniture to leave a void.

At first, being able to work at home -- anywhere I wanted -- was exciting. Tired of sitting at a desk? Move to the sofa. Tired of the sofa? Relocate to the dining room table. Sick of the house, or just plain distracted? Head over to Starbucks.

The wardrobe was better, too. Well, not better quality or more professional -- just cheaper and more comfortable. Sweatshirts and pj bottoms were de rigeur and makeup was optional.

I'm not sure why it surprised me to discover that adjusting to this new lifestyle also required adjusting my perception of who I was. For 27 years, I'd been a professional educator and a semi-professional writer. My new work environment and wardrobe, though functional and comfortable, didn't feel like professional anything. And even though articles and books got written and edited, classes got planned and correspondence got sent -- all amid the comforts of home -- the lack of a traditional workspace, though romantic and freeing in theory, made the limbo created by an early retirement less gap than chasm.

A year into this adventure, I was hired as an adjunct professor, adding a new role to the midlife collage, and bringing with it an unexpected bonus.

Office hours.

Once a week, for an hour, I pulled an office chair up to an L-shaped desk in a shared room with little to offer in the way of decor -- a far cry from the crazy quilt of animal prints and bright colors that had been my home base in an elementary school across town.

And I loved it.

Three semesters later, my course load has grown and with it, my office hours. I'm required to offer an hour for each course I teach, but I typically spend more time in the office than that. It's peaceful -- mostly -- and the academic atmosphere fills a void I didn't expect to have, but that -- once again -- shouldn't have surprised me. After all, you can take the counselor out of the school, but, apparently, you can't take the school out of the counselor.

At home, I'm working on making my office less haphazard and more of a true workspace. My Wednesday posts (and new blog) on organization have nudged me toward more efficiency, as well as more personalization.

If Virgina Woolf is right, and "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," then I think, perhaps, I'm on the right track.