Five Things to Do While Socially Distancing, Besides Watch TV

I’ve lost track of how many days we’ve been socially distancing but being home 24/7 is finally starting to get to me. Maybe it took me a little longer to feel antsy because though I’m not typically a home-body, I do enjoy a healthy amount of social distancing as an introvert. But even introverts crave being social. We’re not hermits.

I enjoy binging on a good show and watching movies and documentaries and stand up, and yes I did watch Love is Blind, including the reunion episode. But I also get tired of TV and don’t want this experience to turn me into a screen zombie. A lot of us are already a little more screen zombified than usual with our phones just trying to stay connected to everyone and keep up with what’s going on.

Well, I’m tired of the news headlines and the interviews with people who are experiencing the worst case scenarios. And I’m definitely tired of being indoors. So what to do? Thought you’d never ask.

I have five ideas to share with you, that do not include TV, of things to do at home while we’re stuck here in this maddening time:

1. Spring clean.

Happy spring! (If you’re on the north side of the equator!) Through all this craziness (and sure, the weather may not be helping) you’ve probably forgotten that winter is officially over. So how about spend some time every day spring cleaning all those nooks and crannies you ignore all year long?

Get elbows deep into your disaster of a closet, or that one drawer you have in your house that you throw random shit into. Even if it is meant to be the random shit drawer, think of it as a treasure hunt. Who knows what you’ll discover in there! And who says chaos can’t be organized?

Get rid of clothes and shoes. And socks that you know you always say no to when you’re choosing which pair to wear. Just get rid of them.

Look under your bed and deal with the mess that may be there (last time I cleared out and cleaned the space under my bed I found a few moth wings. Embarrassing and gross).

Clean the insides of your kitchen cabinets. Clean your microwave (for goodness’ sake you should be doing this regularly anyway).

And when was the last time you deep cleaned your fridge? What about your pantry? The other day I reorganized my pantry items and it feels so good to now know what I actually have in there. (Goodbye three half-empty boxes of expired lasagna pasta.)

You get the point. There’s a lot you can do for your home while you two are stuck together right now. Make a big cup of coffee, put on your gym playlist, and give your place some love. A good dusting and shaking to reset your living space will make you feel so much better about being in it. Plus cleaning can be very therapeutic.

2. Dedicate time to your hobby.

When the world was normal you probably didn’t spend as much time on your hobby as you would have liked. Now that you’re home, how about you nurture those things you love to do? If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter/artist, paint/draw. A musician? Play. A baker? Make all those recipes you’ve got saved in your phone and bake your heart out. You get the picture. Take this time to enjoy your hobby. Get messy with it. Share it online (or don’t). Whether this thing you love to do is a passion or a casual hobby, now’s the perfect opportunity to dedicate a little more extra time to it.

3. Have a Skype party with your friends. 

Many of you may already be doing this, but just a reminder that even though we can’t hang out with friends physically right now we can still see each other virtually. Set up Skype (or whatever other app you use) on your laptop or TV screen and spend time together like you’re all in the same room. Bring wine and have some laughs. Have brunch! (This is the new way to brunch.) And there are probably a lot of people you know who live in another country or city, so how about you use this time to finally catch up?

4.  Go for a walk.

Where I am we’re allowed to go outside for walks while maintaining a six-feet distance from people, and this has been my saving grace. Cabin fever is real and a dose of fresh air is necessary. Especially if you have kids or/and a dog, going for a walk is a fantastic sanity-saving activity for everyone. And it’s exercise. If it’s still cold where you are, bundle up and get out there. If your kids are little and have bikes take them out and let them ride. Everyone will come home feeling refreshed and your dog especially will love you for it. Make it a part of your daily routine, weather permitting. It’ll provide some structure to your day and give you something to look forward to.

5. Have a spa day.

Just because you’re home-bound doesn’t mean you have to look or feel like a yeti. Granted I just changed into day clothes and it’s 3:30 p.m., but hear me out. The hair salon is closed and you can’t get your mani and pedi done, but you probably have everything you need at home to give yourself a good pampering.

In no specific order:

Give yourself a mani and pedi (hopefully you have the tools you need but if not just get creative), put on a facial mask, make a hair mask with just a few ingredients from your kitchen and give yourself a hair treatment, blow dry or curl your hair after you wash it if you want to feel extra bedazzled, put on some make-up (maybe watch a few make-up tutorials to really have fun with it), exfoliate your body, shave, wax, whatever, then dip into a luxurious bubble bath in your sparkly clean tub (because you deep cleaned your bathroom the other day while spring cleaning, right?). Light some candles, soak in the bubbles and the peace, and just chill. (Parents, you must do this part after bedtime, obviously.)

If you have a partner this could be a fun couples thing you can do together. Otherwise, it’s the perfect me-time thing to do. And you don’t even have to do all the treatments in a single day. Maybe do a different thing each day of the week. #selfcareinthetimeofcorona

~

So there you have it. My five TV-free things-to-do-at-home ideas for this strange, strange time we’re living in. So far I’ve done #2, 3, and 4 but I’ve got my eye on #1 and I definitely want to do several of the ideas listed in #5.

I’d love to know what you’ve been doing to keep yourself from feeling like a restless couch potato these days. How have you been spending your socially distanced time? How have you been taking care of yourself?

Love in the Time of Corona (COVID-19)

I don’t recognize the world anymore and I’m trying not to be anxious about it. News headlines and press conferences and speeches made by leaders are making me feel like I’m in a Black Mirror episode. This COVID-19 pandemic has infected us in more than one way, turning us into a panicked, gloved, masked people who toilet-paper hoard. Who are we anymore?

I went for a walk yesterday evening, desperate to get out of my house and move my body, and I felt the alienation in the way passersby casually moved over to the next sidewalk before our paths could cross. Am I being paranoid or are they really trying to keep that six-feet distance? But from me? I’m not the virus. (Am I? Or maybe I am. Maybe we all are, and that’s the point.)

Then I found myself doing the same thing. I turned in the opposite direction when I heard a person cough lightly up ahead of me as they came out of their car. Nope, not today, and away I went. We’ve become afraid not only of this thing that we don’t understand, but of each other.

We’ve never been good with the unknown. We humans thrive on structure and predictability (well, most of us, I think). We always want answers, proof, assurance. All these things bring us comfort, much like the comfort a baby feels when she knows her mother is near.

But our sense of security and normalcy have been interrupted, watered down into strange days that pass into strange weeks. We’re not making any plans and we’re worrying about the ones we did make long ago that now sit there on our calendars, just floating in an unsure not-too-distant future, reminding us of a time where we could schedule something weeks in advance, so casually, so confidently, so… normally.

These last couple of weeks have been unsettling and jarring, and even though I’ve been loving the Coronavirus memes and jokes (keep them coming please), and enjoying the break from commuting, I know there have been many people around the world who have felt the jaws of this pandemic in a very real and tragic way. And my heart goes out to them.

*

I’m an introvert, so time spent at home and to myself is more of a life line for me than a challenge. However, this forced home-bound situation we’re finding ourselves in is even making me feel a little people-deprived and stir crazy.

Mostly though, it’s making me reflect on just how much we rely on each other and the many communities of which we are a part, in ways we don’t really think about. There’s so much we took for granted. The hugs we give friends, the spontaneous meet-ups, the birthday party or other celebration we plan because we want to be surrounded by people we like and love—all these things that came so easily and that felt so simple are just not so anymore. My parents aren’t a plane ride away anymore.

And really it wasn’t our fault that we took these simple joys for granted. I’d argue it’s in our nature to not actively appreciate or recognize what we have until it’s gone. And perhaps it’s impossible to be constantly appreciative. Perhaps we need strange and scary moments to shake us awake a little, from time to time (just not a pandemic please).

Yet through all this, we are doing what we do best as humans. We are adapting. In this time of isolation, of uncertainty, we are finding ways to connect and make each other laugh.

We’re playing music and singing songs to each other on our balconies, creating obstacle courses in our living rooms with pillows and cups so our kids can exercise and play, and so we can be kids with them again.

We’re Skyping, Face-timing, Zooming, Whatsapping, and whatever other video mechanisms are out there- ing to see each other, speak to each other, and tell each other that hey, we’re still here.

Through all this, we haven’t stopped believing that this will end. We haven’t stopped loving. And maybe after this becomes a chapter that we will dog-ear to tell our kids about when they’re older, we’ll love differently because of it.

Maybe we’ll hug each other next time for a few seconds longer. Book that flight to see that friend or family member that we’ve been putting off for years, because life. Maybe we’ll splash in the public pools with a little more glee and dance a little more freely at the next party we go to.

Maybe we’ll love our bodies better too. Maybe we’ll go out for more walks or take up running (because social distancing has made us want to run from the walls of our homes) or maybe we’ll be more attune to our health: drink more water, make a doctor’s appointment we’ve been avoiding, start taking vitamins, stop eating foods that make us feel less than good, sign up for our first 5K, or start going to therapy.

Who knows what we will be like after this is over. Who knows if we’ll move on to the next chapter and just, move on. Forget. Get on with life and continue with our old habits, our old familiar, comfortable ways. Netflix and numb.

Whatever happens, I just know that this whole experience has shown me that we do love each other, even though we have a shitty way of showing it sometimes. Small businesses are missing us right now. Parents are missing schools. College students are missing classrooms and campus events. Athletes are missing the roar of the stadium, the rush of the game. Museums are missing the steady flow of footsteps. Concert venues are missing music. And loved ones across lands and seas, and even mere streets, are missing each other.

All this missing I equate to loving.

And sure social media is great and has its pros, especially now, but I hope this experience of being physically a part because we have to reminds us that togetherness and connection and community in real life are infinitely more valuable than a tag on a post or a text convo that tapers off with “lol.”

Strange times, indeed, and stranger times ahead, probably.

This virus may be mutating and spreading rapidly, but let’s not forget, we hold our own powers too. In our ability to evolve and adapt and keep getting up. In our ability to love fiercely and endlessly, and spread that love—and hope and strength and support—rapidly.

In the end, history has proven that we are resilient. The courageous and inspiring stories always outlive and outshine the stories of fear.

Many stories will come out of this time, but I hope the overarching theme from those stories are not of fear. I hope they’re of love. I hope the story is of how we, the world, stepped up together to fight off fear because we love each other (except the toilet paper hoarders, they don’t love anyone but themselves apparently).

I hope the stories are of how families spent time together, learned something new about each other. I hope they’re of the heroism of the people on the front lines (thank you) and the resilience of people who overcame challenges that seemed insurmountable.

So yes let’s continue to socially distance for now to stay safe, but in the process, let’s also continue to love and show each other just how creative we can be in doing so. We’re in this together.

When I Was a Brand-New Mother

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Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Last summer, I was a brand-new mother. I had a soft, bulgy belly and hips that were too wide for shorts I’d worn easily the year before. I lived in a total of three or four outfits and wore makeup zero times. (The no make-up was wonderful, freeing.)

My days and nights had swirled into one big daydream. There I was at the center of it—on the couch, on the bed, on the couch, on the bed, outside on the steps—with the same loving people passing around me, always doing something, or keeping me company, doing nothing.

When they were gone—silence. My dog, a constant warmth at my feet, was vigilant, aware of the change in the air.

My life felt like an abstract painting that I was painting blindfolded. Looking at it now, I find the painting beautiful. I wish I could reach back into those days and swim there for a little while longer. Dip my feet in and tell myself it gets easier. Mostly, tell myself that I am amazing. I didn’t feel amazing. I felt happy, yes, but there were frequent dips of sadness. (With any gain a loss must come, a loss needed to make room for the new.)

I was in a daze, not working for the first time in years, listening to the sound of cicadas at dusk, I mean really listening, and contemplating the hot laziness that was summer, with a feathery new weight on my arm.

What was being lost in those days? Me.

Or, the me I had known up until the day I gave birth to my daughter.

I was unfurling into something, someone, who I’m still discovering today. Peeling layers and painting new ones. This is motherhood, a constant layering, a constant stream of newness to encounter. I was… all the phases of the moon, moving back and forth between pre- and post- mother me, trying to find common ground between who I was and who I was becoming.

*

My breasts felt foreign to me. They were too big for my chest, too tender to sleep on (so much for being able to sleep on my stomach again), they ached at certain times of the day and no longer belonged to me. They were on center stage, doing things I never knew they could do, teaching me about myself and about perseverance, patience, pain, power, selflessness, strength. Breastfeeding is hard.

*

Last summer, I was without a washer or dryer (perfect timing with a newborn), but I had my stainless-steel kitchen sink, a bar of laundry soap that smelled of cypress oil, and I had my trusted clothes rack, the kind that folded into itself, that I would set outside in my backyard on the sunniest days.

I loved to sit on the stairs that came out of my kitchen’s back door—my baby in my arms, still too delicate to hold her head up—and watch her clothes hang there in the sun, like tiny kisses. I never thought laundry could look so cute.

I felt anything but cute.

My hair was still lush from pregnancy, but my body felt… like an empty boat, bobbing in the middle of an ocean. In the celebrated realm of mother-to-be no longer, I’d been thrust into a strange new reality of am-now-mother, where I was supposed to get on with it and just know how to be.

I had nine months to prepare for this day, but let’s face it. I’d spent those months daydreaming about the blissful moments I’d spend holding my baby in perfectly clean outfits and sheets, seraphic music and chirping birds playing sweetly for us in the background. So unaware I was of all the bodily fluids, stained clothes, discomforts, well of emotions, loneliness, exhaustion, demands, decisions, hunger, diapers that awaited me. I mean I knew, but I didn’t know.

Everything felt so heavy (me physically, my tears, people’s opinions and advice, the new responsibility, the social media I finally turned away from, the thought of going back to work). Everything came down on me so fast, a sudden monsoon. I listened for my motherly instinct while voices crowded around me, all the while wondering, how in the hell have women been doing this all this time? (Also, my God, mom, thank you; I love you.)

On those steps of my kitchen’s back door I heard my heart say:

I’m someone’s mother. I’m… mom.

I watched my daughter’s onsies, white and pink and yellow and blue, play in the wind as these words rolled around in my heart, picking up old wounds and planting new hopes.

*

An image of my daughter playing in this backyard one day conjures before me. I see her but I can’t see her face. I wonder what she will look like, just as I had wondered what she would smell like when she was still doing somersaults in my womb.

My womb, it feels like a bruised grapefruit.

I feel like a fallen tree.

I’m alone and it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, probably, I don’t know, I don’t check the time these days.

I’m happy, I tell my heart, who keeps fumbling with the words, trying them on for size—I’m mom.

There’s no selfie here and no social media to prove my feelings to. Good. There’s no one who calls to ask if I’m happy. Not so good.

I think my friends are giving me space. Others, I think, don’t know what to say. I’m too busy, they must think. Too busy being a mother and being happy.

*

People come over to hold my baby. I don’t put eyeliner on for these occasions, but I put on earrings. Earrings make me feel put together. They make me feel pretty.

The people stroke my baby’s sleeping face, softly, with their fingers, and my insides scream. Please don’t touch her face, I want to say, but I decide to wait it out and be polite. Later, I run a damp wash cloth over her cheeks (as she still sleeps).

(When will I stop treating her so delicately? I can’t picture treating her any other way.)

Before I had my daughter, everyone told me to get ready for no sleep. But that’s all my daughter does is sleep, all day, she sleeps. Even at night! Dare I say. Sometimes, I sleep too. Other times, most times, in the silence of the day, I watch her sleep.

I google questions that lead to more questions. I watch movies. I drink so much water. I wait for my husband to come home.

My dog wonders why we don’t walk together like we used to. I try not to think about it because I don’t have it in me to consume the sadness.

*

My hands sting from the laundry soap even though it’s suppose to be gentle on the skin. Washing gloves… I’ll walk to the store to get washing gloves. I’ll take my daughter and my dog.

But my daughter, she’s so new and the sun is so hot. What if she gets thirsty or too hot and she can’t tell me? What if I trip and fall while crossing the street and the stroller goes rolling out of my hands? (Extreme, but not far-fetched.) What if it starts to rain? (Very possible where I live.)

I decide to stay home because honestly, leaving the house requires a militarized kind of effort. And I think I need to nurse her soon. Her laundry is done anyway, and her clothes are probably dry. I go down to inspect the tiny colorful things. I’m happy, my heart tells me again. (I need so much reassurance these days.)

*

My eyes live on my daughter. I memorize her eyelashes, her nose, the dip in her upper lip, her chin, her hair, so dark and so much of it. I marvel, so thirsty to know her. I try to remember what it was like when I didn’t know her face, when I was so eager to know it.

*

The wind is warm and blowing a little too strongly now. The clothes rack shakes and threatens to fall, but instead of rescue her clothes, I retreat inside with my daughter (still asleep). My dog follows me, collar click-click-clacking.

You’re happy, aren’t you? I ask my daughter, and for a moment I imagine her replying, Yes, I’m happy, mom, because I’m with you. You’re the only person I’ve ever known and the only place I want to be. Can’t you see? You’re perfect for me, exactly as you are. (This makes me tear up because I hope that I am.)

I’m inside now, away from the wind. I settle into my nest of pillows and throw blankets on the couch. Remote control, check. Water bottle, check. Cell phone, check. Yes, my daughter is definitely happy and content. I feel a bubbling in my heart because I know this to be true, and the sureness of it and its simplicity puts me at ease.

I kiss her nose and as I do this I hear the soft thud of the clothes rack fall outside in the grass, but not a drop of worry accompanies the sound.

I’m mom… it’s all good… I’ve got this, I hear my heart say.

If a Blog Were a Creature…

Blog is a funny word, isn’t it?

If a blog were a creature, I imagine he’d be something like a slimy amoeba, but very jolly, and the only thing he would be able to say is: “Blog, blog, blog.” He would crawl his way through life saying “Blog, blog, blog.” He would look at birds high up in trees and say, “Blog.” He would stare with bubbly eyes at enticing ice cream cones in children’s hands and say, yearningly, “Blog.”

He’d be a really friendly dude but he’d have no friends because he’d keep scaring everyone away with his constant: “Blog, blog, blog.”

If a blog were a creature, he’d spend his days sitting in a fishing boat waiting for fish to catch his bait. He’d sit in his boat for hours, confident at first that fish would come, then by hour five then six then nine he’d start melting in the sun, that at that point would be setting, and by night fall he would be a bubble at the bottom of the boat, and he would disintegrate as he uttered, out of desperation to be heard by someone, anyone: “Blog.”

Overnight, in his sleep, he would regrow into the big healthy blog that he knows himself to be, and begin fishing again, eager because of the hope of a new day. He would greet the sun as though it never set on him the night before. “Blog,” he would say, happily, as he threw his line into the water. “Blog,” he would call out to the fish.

If a blog were a creature, he would sometimes feel insecure about his appearance because as a blog, he wears no clothes and has no face or shape. He has no body so no clothes would reasonably fit him. He has no lashes to apply mascara, not that he knows what makeup is. He worries that people will notice how horrible he looks, but he also worries that no one will notice him at all.

If a blog were a creature, I would invite him to dinner. I would ask him why he chose to be a blog, to which he would respond, “Blog.” I would ask him, why do you appear to be so happy all the time, and he would tell me his secrets but I wouldn’t understand him because all he would say is: “Blog.”

That’s why nobody likes you, I would say, frustrated because the dinner I’m paying for is expensive and the conversation is stale, and I’m realizing as the night progresses that a blog doesn’t eat because he has no teeth and no esophagus and no stomach either. He is a blog, he is but himself, a creature that exists for the mere sake of existence, but also, though no one seems to understand him, he has something to say.

“Blog, blog, blog,” he says, as I press on about why he lives the way he does.

“Blog, blog, blog,” he responds, when I say I’m just trying to help but it appears as though he could care less.

“Blog,” he says, finally, when I ask for the bill, and I eye him curiously wondering, if I don’t understand him, is it possible that he doesn’t understand me either?

“Blog,” he says again, as we exit the restaurant. I look at his bloggy face, his bulging eyes and mouth that resembles the outline of a number eight without the line in between. I think I see a trace of eyebrows but it’s just slime seeping downward; I think he is sweating but it’s hard to tell. He has no feet, he simply slides along the floor beside me. He’s usually jolly but tonight he seems sad. I don’t like this look on him.

“Blog,” I say.

“Blog,” he says, his eyes lighting up.

“Blog?” I say again.

“Blog,” he says, even more enthusiastically.

And finally I understand. I understand his language. I understand what he’s been trying to tell me, what he has been trying to tell the world. I understand because I realize he is an echo, and he is simply speaking my mind.

“Blog,” he says, relieved that I finally understand.

“Blog,” I say, back. “Blog, blog, blog.”

“Blog, blog, blog,” he says.

And so we finally begin to converse.

And in this moment, our moment, unscripted as it was, a stranger walking by slows down upon hearing our strange exchange, recognizing something in us.

“Blog?” says the stranger, looking up from her phone, curious.

Are we a déjà vu? An unearthed memory? A reflection? The words she’s been trying to find? The sign she’s been waiting for?

“Blog!” we cry happily, calling her to join us. We recognize her too, though we’ve never seen her before.

“Blog, blog, blog,” we sing together in the night.

The Importance of Doing Nothing (Sometimes)

I made a peanut butter banana smoothie earlier, and the blender, emptied of its contents, is waiting for me on the kitchen counter.  I can’t see it because I’m in my living room right now, but I know it’s there.

The plates from lunch are also there, waiting. And there may be a block of Swiss cheese under one of them that I forgot to put back in the fridge.

My baby’s bib is crumpled up on her high chair, also in the kitchen. Just another item in the long list of things waiting to be cleaned. It’s one of those long-sleeved full body bibs that has saved me from having to wash her clothes after every mealtime (we do baby-led weaning, which is extremely messy). The bib, however, as I’ve just noted, needs cleaning, so really there is no escaping constant washing and cleaning when you have a child.

My baby is finally asleep and I haven’t picked up the toys strewn upon the living room floor (that my dog lazily assesses from the couch). And I haven’t folded the clean clothes that have been sitting in the laundry basket since last weekend (today is Saturday).

I’m sitting here with my dog contemplating all these things I have not done, and these things are making me feel claustrophobic. I start to get up… then I decide to ignore them and do nothing. (How glorious!) My dog is quite the expert at happily doing nothing, so I’ll just take my queues from her tonight. She never judges—she understands.

Here are some things I did do today though:

I went to a car dealership (didn’t get the car I wanted but it was a cool learning experience).

I played with my baby. Marveled at her as she crawled—everywhere. Watched her raid my bookshelves and very much enjoyed the entertainment she provided removing every book and tossing it on the floor.

I watched a weird kids movie called Gnome Alone. Not sure how I feel about it. Wasn’t the most intelligent kids movie I’ve seen.

I fed my baby, bathed her, told her I loved her as I kissed her toes.

When I first sat down after she finally went to sleep, I felt guilty that I didn’t accomplish any of my chores that I had set out to do when the day first started. I felt guilty for sitting down instead of turning to the next thing that needed my attention.

Something always needs my attention. (The books she tossed on the floor? Still there.)

But sitting here doing nothing (well, now I’m writing) is bringing me a peaceful kind of joy.

And joy needs nurturing.

A blogger I follow tends to say “being present is being productive” when she talks about motherhood. I really like this mantra, especially on Saturdays like today, when I spent so much of my afternoon just being with my baby instead of putting her in her playpen so I could run around the house doing chores.

Saturdays—weekends in general—are the holy grail of “when I’m going to get things done.” But sometimes Monday comes along and I look back at my would-have-been productive weekend and I sigh and push everything to the next weekend.

In the midst of doing so many things=, all the time, on high speed, on auto-pilot, or on copious amounts of caffeine, it’s really good for the mind to do nothing sometimes. A healthy dose of not doing can help you achieve balance when you spend so much of your time doing. Self-care, self-preservation, protecting your sanity—whatever you want to call it and whatever that looks like for you—doing nothing should be a necessary part of the week.

The dirty blender and plates in my kitchen? I know they’ll greet me tomorrow morning. The clothes in my hamper? Sure, they may be wrinkled, but at least they are clean. The toys on the floor? They will be played with again tomorrow.

All is well. All is okay.

I simply can’t do everything all the time.

Sometimes, I need to do nothing.  I need to. And as my dog would agree, it’s a perfectly fine way to pass the time.

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Reflecting on ‘The Power of Meaning…’ by Emily Esfahani Smith

I just finished this book by Emily Esfahani Smith: The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. I don’t read nonfiction very often, but once in a while when I find a topic that intrigues me, curiosity pulls me in, and this book certainly did. It investigates how we can find meaning in life, on why a focus on meaning rather than happiness is so critical to our ability to thrive. The book was published recently, in 2017, so it includes all the latest research on this topic, which was definitely interesting to read about.

Our Obsession with Happiness

It’s true—happiness seems to be the goal we’re constantly aiming for in life. We make plans and buy things and pursue paths because we think it will make us happy. And for a brief moment it does. Ask anyone what they want out of life, and they will probably say “I just want to be happy.”

We use happiness to justify our actions, our means to our ends. Do what makes you happy, society says. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, America declares. We all just want to be happy!

And I get it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. But I’ve always believed that happiness isn’t the point of life. I don’t believe I was put here on this earth to be happy. Happiness to me is a fleeting emotion, and at the same time, a wonderful gift. (Also, how egocentric of us to think that life’s ultimate mission is to find our own personal happiness.) Happiness, I believe, is a by-product of how we choose to live and perceive our lives.

The Desire for Meaning

Enter Emily Esfahani Smith. This wise young author presents in her book the idea that meaning—not happiness—is what we’re all truly seeking on an innate level. And it makes sense if you think about it. Money and fame and success and all those traditional triggers for happiness don’t bring their recipients any lasting joy or fulfillment.

People live in gilded cages feeling empty and lost. Our obsession with buying more and more stuff stems from this desire to fill that void, to refuel that happiness tank that can never stay full. It can never stay full because it’s simply not the point. We’re chasing the wrong goal.

Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics; when people say they want to be happy, they mean they want to feel a sense of meaning in their lives. That’s life’s big question after all, the GREAT MYSTERY: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? What is the point of it all?

To answer these questions, we must either find a source of meaning or create meaning for ourselves. Only then can we lead meaningful lives and find that sense of fulfillment.

The Pillars of Meaning

Using research in psychology and neuroscience, and insights from philosophy and literature, Smith illuminates the four pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence—that can help us lead more satisfying lives.

Each pillar has its own chapter in the book, and all throughout we’re introduced to people, both ordinary and extraordinary, who are working to build meaning in their lives using these pillars. We meet astronauts, survivors of trauma, entrepreneurs, people facing impending deaths, a zoo keeper, and everyday people trying to make sense of their lives.

The stories entwine with fascinating research and scientific findings—from how awe affects the sense of self to the strange relationship between happiness and suicide, and to the factors that make some people more resilient in the face of adversity than others.

The beauty of these pillars is that they are accessible to everyone. Both with and without religion, individuals can build up each of these pillars in their lives. They are sources of meaning that cut through every aspect of existence. ~ Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

I read this book for a book club, and it was interesting to hear, during our meeting, how the pillars resonated differently with each person. Not surprisingly, one of the pillars I gravitated towards was the pillar of storytelling.

Storytelling is one of the oldest traditions in human history; it’s how we connect with ourselves and others, how we make sense of the world and our place in it. This method of discovering meaning through narrative is not just about the stories we share or hear, but about the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. These stories of the self can either lift us up or oppress us, depending on the perspective we choose. There is great power in the story and it’s ability to shed light, provide context, and promote healing and understanding.

It was interesting to notice, also, how many of these pillars already exist in many aspects of my life and the lives of the people I know closely. The more I read about each one the more I made connections with how certain people in my life arrive at meaning, whether they realize it or not, through one of the pillars.

With transcendence, for example, where you connect with something larger than yourself to find meaning, I saw how my tendency to seek out nature—the peace and tranquility of forests or the overwhelming majesty of the ocean—is my way of achieving a transcendent state, to recenter myself amidst the chaos of everyday.

It’s by recognizing these pillars that we can work to cultivate them more intentionally in our lives, and thus achieve a deeper sense of meaning for who we are and how we want to live.

There’s More to Life Than Being Happy

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast, easy read, well-written and well-researched. I had never heard of Smith before but I’m glad we are now acquainted, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak at an event next month.

Intrigued? Check out her TED Talk “There’s more to life than being happy”—and if you end up reading her book, let me know what you think!

Introverts Are Not Quiet People

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Photo by Tina Floersch

There is a difference between introverts and “quiet” people. It may be safe to say that most quiet people are introverts. BUT, not all introverts are quiet people. Introverts are often painted as these reserved quiet souls who would rather sit in a corner with a book and a blanket than talk to someone. This is not the universal truth of introversion.

It may be true that I prefer the company of a book and my dog to most people most of the time, but I do still crave and enjoy the company of other people, and—GOOD conversation. After all, we are humans before we are introverts or extroverts, and humans are social beings.

As an introvert, I’m just able to enjoy my own company more than an extrovert might be able to tolerate that same time being alone. Introverts value their alone time; we GUARD it. It’s a sort of survival mechanism. But we also value time with friends and the people that we love. We want to connect, and we seek meaningful interactions to do so.

Introverts sing on stage. We rally up crowds. We work in professions that demand performance, as teachers, lawyers, motivational speakers. We run for elected positions. We run companies and organize protests.

We are not all quiet people.

Being quiet is a personality trait, not a prerequisite for introversion.

As Erykah Badu sang, I pick my friends like I pick my fruit. If I’m going to expend my energy on something or someone, it better be worth it to me, because engaging with others takes a bit more effort. It just does. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value you, it just means my energy reserves are more easily depleted, so I have to use them more wisely. That’s my cell makeup, as an introvert.

Introverts go to networking events, but we may not go to the after-party if the event used up all our energy.

Introverts will talk to you on the phone for hours, but we may not want to talk to anyone right after we hang up, because all that mental energy needs rejuvenation.

Introverts go to parties and stay out till dawn. But we may not want to hang out the following few days or the next weekend.

Our alone time is simply our recoup time. It’s like when you work out. Your muscles are sore the next day so you need some time to rest before you go back out there.

Introverts just need time to rest.

And this alone time, or rest time, does not always involve being strictly alone. Being alone with certain people we love—that silent company that can exist between lovers, best friends, or close family members—that can also count. And it’s probably the most beautiful overlapping between introversion and extroversion. This ability to be both together and alone at the same time. It takes a special kind of relationship to be able to achieve this quiet harmonious way of being. Every introvert has at least one person in their lives that they can do this with (hopefully).

Introverts have things to say. We are not anti-social hermits. We have passions, and the people that we forge close bonds with, we love them deeply. We engage with the world, and love discovery and exploration just as much as the next person might. But we have a battery that needs tending. By taking some time out, we are not rejecting you, we are simply doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves.

Book Review: ‘The Namesake’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

Spoiler-free zone.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a marvelous writer. With her beautiful, precise prose that take you sailing into her stories, she’s one of those authors that makes you forget that you are reading. I loved her two short story collections, Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies, the latter of which won the Pulitzer prize, so I was excited to read her novel The Namesake, which also won the Pulitzer. I was not disappointed.

As with many of her short stories, The Namesake tackles themes of family, identity, culture clashes, and the theme she is perhaps most known for: the experience of American immigrants and their first-generation American children. Lahiri writes with such empathy and insight. Her characters are complex and, whether or not you agree with their decisions, you come to understand them.

The Namesake is told from varying perspectives. We’re engulfed in one character, which leads us to another, then another. It’s a seamless story that unravels into many, only to come back in the end as one.

The narratives of the different family members weave together not for a larger plot, but for a larger picture. Literary fiction at its finest, this intimate portrait of a family and their different experiences assimilating into American culture is moving and deeply insightful.

This is the story of the Gangulis, a Bengali couple who immigrates to America. We witness the couple become parents and raise a family in a land that is foreign to them. At the novel’s center is their first born, a son, whom they struggle to name.

The story of their son’s name is both interesting and thought-provoking. It emerges throughout the novel in different ways. As he grows, we watch his name affect his identity at various life stages, how it shapes his experiences and relationships with himself, his heritage, and his family.

“He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian. He hates having to live with it, with a pet name turned good name, day after day, second after second… At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear.” Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

What’s in a name? This book will surely tell you.

Lahiri has a way of capturing life’s moments between moments, those that are so subtle yet so significant in defining one’s journey and identity.

If you’ve read Lahiri’s short stories, you will enjoy her novel The Namesake. And likewise if you’ve read this book you will enjoy her short stories! Her writing is elegant and exquisitely detailed, but most of all, her characters will linger with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Have you read The Namesake?

How to Begin the Writing Process in 4 Easy Steps

Step 1: Consume coffee.
Or any caffeinated beverage of your choice. (Alcohol, optional.)

Step 2: Procrastinate for as long as needed.
This step is crucial, so don’t skip it (ha, of course you won’t). For example, you can ask yourself existential questions. Draw sketches of your next tattoo. Compose an email that doesn’t need to be sent. Google different ways to end the email because “Best” is so boring and such a cop out and never felt complete to begin with and what does it even mean? Best what? It’s lazy, that’s what it is. Or you can post a status about writing to make yourself feel like you’re at least doing something writing-related, even though writing a status does not count as writing but don’t tell yourself that because trust the process and this step is so crucial, did I mention that? (Do you feel the caffeine?)

Step 3: Stare at your document and try not to panic.writing is
(Easy.) Try not to do this all day, though. Step 3 is like quick sand so keep your mind strong and whatever you do, do NOT leave your chair. The blank page may hypnotize you, it may give you hunger pangs, it may speak to you in a foreign language inside your head. Let it. Be brave. Practice breathing exercises. Feel the words tumble in your head. Gather them like chalk in your hands. This is your arena. You were made for this. Blood will be shed. (Metaphorically, of course. Calm down.)

Step 4: Write something. Anything. Just start writing.
The magic will happen but only if you start. Remember, the first draft is about giving yourself material to work with. You can’t mold your creation if you don’t have clay. Those first words to fill up your page are warm-up words. Don’t criticize them, celebrate them, coax them out. Those first words are the first logs in a fire pit. They will catch fire, but you have to add more, you have to keep going. Write first, edit later! (Note: Writing “Blah, blah, blah” is acceptable, but only for the first minute, or so, give or take, depending on the day, and the temperature in the room, and whether or not you had breakfast. Also, stop biting your nails. No need to be a savage.)

Step 5:
There is no step 5! Stop trying to skip steps and go back to Step 4!

(Also, stop putting so much pressure on yourself; you’re not writing the next Game of Thrones episode. But man, wouldn’t that be fun?) (Note: Do NOT write the next Game of Thrones episode, unless you are still on Step 2, in which case… carry on, then, and send me a copy.)

~ Mad Girl Writing

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Letters from Oahu, Hawaii |Part I

February 28, 2017

The Ocean and Ourselves

As I write this I’m sitting on the sharp rocky edges of an island, a six-hour plane-ride away from the closest continent. It’s the furthest away I’ve ever been from mainland, but I feel free, not isolated. Or perhaps it’s because I have only been here a few days. (Oh, the magic of novelty.)

The ocean is royalty here. The waves move in and out, methodical and hypnotic, an expression of peace and power. The ceaseless whooshing a lullaby, an orchestra, a narrative that tells the story of existence, if only we could comprehend its language. We try; we listen. It fills our senses—I am like a sea shell. Clouds kiss the horizon, reflections on the water.

The water—so much water. We were whale watching earlier, from the shore. From where we stand their tails are tiny. If we’re lucky, we see the subtle movements in the waves, the way the puffs of water spray upwards from their breaths, a reminder that we’re not so unlike them. Water and air is life for us both.

The ocean is a reminder of the breath in your heart. As the civilizations of modern man churn on, the ocean rolls on; it just is. A treasure of a billion secrets, so trust-worthy. Nothing humbles me like the ocean. Perhaps we are each one of us a teardrop of the ocean. Our veins are mini-streams and currents—trapped. And so we yearn for greatness, for the grandiose body of which we were once a part; we are constantly drawn to that which we can never hold in the small palms of our hands. The great tragedy of our yearning.

I will miss this sound. I know I will come back to it in daydreams. The breathing of the waves, like a thousand distant showers, endless exhales; they vibrate in my soul, clear out all the useless noise, wipe clean my mind’s pathways.

I think we are drawn to the ocean because we are made of water. How simple a conclusion! Seventy percent of our body is water and 100 percent of our life is dependent on water. And so we see the ocean as an extension of ourselves. Of the power we hope to someday achieve. (We have yet to conquer the ocean, and ourselves.)

When we see the ocean we recognize something in ourselves in all of creation—an alignment suddenly clicks. The answers we seek lie somewhere in the depths, we can feel them. (Are they destined to remain unknown?)

Somehow knowing they are merely there brings us peace, even if we cannot touch them, and so we watch, we listen, from the safety of the shore, from the semi-safety of our boats. We bob on the surface of life’s great mysteries and inhale the grains of salt and wind; oh majestic fear of the unknown; we wrestle with wanting to jump in, and not wanting to disturb the beast.

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