The Poetic and the Practical, Part One

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February 2, 2015 by Julia


It occurred to me the other day that people have both practical and poetic needs. In order to live our lives well, we have to plan and do good work – but also leave room for faith and magic. And I’m not just saying that because it flows nicely…although it does give me an inordinate amount of pleasure to say the poetic and the practical.

I’ve been excited about doing practical stuff better these days, and so that is what Part One will be about: my quest to do life better. (My brain is swimming in resolutions! Fingers crossed that doesn’t mean I’m having some sort of manic episode.) I only hope writing about it makes for a readable post…no doubt the poetic side sounds much more romantic and interesting. That’ll be Part Two, so stay tuned!

A large part of this practical goal-making has been inspired by the book Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin.

I got it for Christmas and scarfed it down like pomegranate seeds (how’s that for an addictive but healthy treat analogy?), highlighting about a third of the entire thing in the process. Author Rubin is refreshing in her pursuit of real-life happiness – she experiments in her own life, offers no generic or vague platitudes, and most importantly, preaches no “this is the one formula that will change your life forever” message.

Rubin acknowledges the many paradoxes of happiness and life, as well the personal differences that must pave our own roads to contentment. She follows her own happiness without shame or irony. She researches, and follows hunches, and makes lists like The Eight Splendid Truths (Ex.: “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”), Secrets of Adulthood (“The things that go wrong often make the best memories.”), or Paradoxes of Happiness (“Accept myself, and expect more of myself.”). It’s a book that made me happy just to read, regardless of how I might apply the suggestions to my own life. I recommend it to anyone, really.

To me, one of Rubin’s most striking suggestions is to “devote fifteen minutes a day to rid myself of something that made me feel bad. Fifteen minutes! I could do anything for fifteen minutes.” In her case, her “failure to cope with our family photographs was a constant, gnawing worry,” which inspires her to spend fifteen minutes a day on sorting those digital photographs into albums – a job she didn’t even bother to put a long-term time-limit on.

(Major digression alert, because I haven’t used enough parenthesis yet in this post [Eight, if you include this parenthesis-within-parenthesis thingamajig, which I’m not even sure is correct punctuation]: ANYWAY, it feels like the advent of digital family photographs has become a real challenge for modern-day parents. Yes, the photos are better now, but in the old days of film, the average parent wasn’t editing and discarding and posting and backing up – it’s now like a thirteen-step process. And back when we were teens we had the motivation to develop prints because we couldn’t see the photos until we did; where is the current motivation? I assume Rubin was like the majority of parents in feeling overwhelmed by her backlog of photos.)

So I decided to adopt Rubin’s 15-minutes-a-day on family photos resolution (I made it twenty minutes.) And I love it. The progress is slow, but it’s still an improvement on the “wait until a mythical week of free time materializes” method. I no longer just fantasize about all the projects I’d like to undertake with the thousands of beautiful photos I have of my children. I am actually working on a photo book that I plan to give to Fiona upon her high school graduation – the first of three volumes, which will each contain six years of her life. This bit of time each day will add up to enough effort in the long run, if I can stick to it.

Of course, that’s just one of the resolutions I mentioned. But before you start to think this might be a brag-fest or evangelistic “do it my way!” speech, let me say that I think all of these resolutions have already been broken, and it’s only February 2nd. The main thing is that I am figuring out what works for me, and I don’t want to be discouraged by an off day or week. If I don’t meet a goal for the day, I try to shrug it off, yoga-style, and re-commit the next day, with a little more strength and resilience. These are not goals with an end in sight; they are more like useful habits under development.

A lot of what I have been working on is a schedule for myself. Everyone needs structure, and without a boss or teacher to hand that to me, I have to make it on my own. For a long time as a new stay-at-home mother, I felt like I was just treading water at home, trying to keep our household afloat and not much more. We’re out of clean underwear? Must be time to do laundry! Out of food? Drag the baby to the grocery store!

True, it takes a while to determine how much weekly time I can afford to devote to organization, or writing, or playtime with the kids. And then there are the sick days or snow days where things have to be re-prioritized, yet it feels silly to then sit down and rewrite your “agenda” for the day.

But while I know plans are often foiled where winter and kids are involved, I still believe creating a loose schedule for myself is worth the effort.  Of course with a schedule it’s still hard work – but at least I don’t feel lost anymore. I feel more in charge of my life. And when I can switch my mindset to “Great, I just met my goals for Monday!” instead of “Crap, it’s Monday, I better straighten up before having company over tomorrow,” it just feels better.

Without further ado:

(Drum roll please!)

My Current Schedule (beta mode)

Me trying to be Mary Poppins

Monday: Basic Tidying Up & Meal Plans.

Our house is often a mess after the weekend, so I end up putting stuff away and vacuuming on Mondays, anyway. I’m also trying to now clean out the refrigerator, and make a meal plan and shopping list for the week.

Tuesday: Grocery Shopping.

Because I love guinea pigs.

This is one of my most dreaded chores, in part because it takes forever and is physically exhausting when you take into account how long the walk is to our front door from our car. Also, I have to keep Jack happy the whole time. I am learning to be grateful for the fact that I can buy so many groceries for my family, though. Cheesy to say, but true. Anyway, this chore gets an entire day to itself because it’s pretty draining for me. And yeah, I do forget stuff and have to go back two days later. But the big trip is done on Tuesdays.

Wednesday: Laundry.

I also enjoyed the movie Lilo and Stitch.

I do a week’s worth of laundry in one day for myself and the kids. (Kudos to my husband, who washes his own clothes.) It’s usually about four loads. One of my rules is that it must all be folded and put away by the end of the day…because I know otherwise it will sit in a basket for four days, taunting me. I don’t spend much time on sorting by color or trying to get stains out. That ship sailed after Jack was born.

Thursday: Extra Cleaning.

Just kidding. I’m nowhere near that skinny

This is the actual cleaning, rather than the tidying up I constantly do. I just hit the areas of the house that most need it. It’s pretty haphazard, but I do feel like things have been cleaner lately.

Friday: Organizing and/or Getting Rid of Stuff. By Friday I’m pretty run down, and it’s been tricky getting motivated to tackle the less urgent tasks of organization or runs to Goodwill. But I do enjoy it once I get started, and I think if I can keep it up, it will make a big difference in my stress level. It already does.

Saturday: Family Day. This one has been around for years, now, and it has been a huge success for us. It works because everyone gets what they want – Dennis and I both need a break by the weekend, but we also want fun, quality time with the kids. So I take the kids in the morning, and I usually play with them for part of the time. Then we all go somewhere for a family lunch and ice cream, and then to a family-friendly activity like the nature center or a playground. I take a break in the afternoon while Dennis watches the kids, and then around dinnertime we have family movie night with popcorn and pizza on the couch. Of course, not every Saturday can go this way, but we do love it when it does.

Sunday: Visiting with Family. We are lucky enough to have both sets of parents/grandparents within driving distance, and so we usually alternate Sundays spending time with one side of the family. I am thrilled that Fiona and Jack are so comfortable with their grandparents.

I also have daily goals:


20 – 30 minutes of Yoga. I do this at home with a video, while Jack watches stuff on the iPad. I usually have to pause at least once when he needs something, and I don’t always get to do the resting pose or meditate at the end, but I still enjoy it despite the interruptions.

15 – 20 minutes on family photos.

Spend a consolidated 60 minutes on the random to-do list. I’ve been trying to gather all my phone calls, scheduling, texts, emails, fixing stuff or planning into a daily hour. I’m tired of feeling like every spare moment should be spent calling the pediatrician or responding to texts or whatever – that stuff leaves me feeling scattered when I try to handle it in the checkout line or at a red light. It’s a challenge to really focus for a full hour when the kids are pulling me in different directions, but I’ve already accomplished more than usual this way, and I’m going to keep trying.

Other new, assorted goals: to cook more and try new dinners. To eat at least one vegetable and one fruit each day. To keep notes on all of the non-fiction I’m reading, in one place. To not send unnecessary texts. (Unless they are fun banter or something.) Examples of unnecessary texts: “We just arrived.” “We are running five minutes late.” “Where r you?” before actually looking around for a moment.

In my experience thus far with these new goals, I have felt happier and more empowered, more pro-active. But I also worry that I might get too wrapped up in such practical but often less meaningful activities, and forget to read and write or spend enough down time with my family. I have crashed, every so often. It’s like I am this strong, determined woman with good habits and a can-do attitude…until suddenly I’m so tired I can do nothing but sleep or veg out for four nights in a row. Hard to say if this is due to my recent bouts of the flu and then a virus this past weekend, or due to excessive working on meeting of goals.

And I’m still seeing how much time these things add up to – I know I can literally add the hours up, but a lot of it is intuitive, like – how much of this is feasible? Sometimes I can creatively involve Jack in the tasks of the day, and we’re like buddies working on stuff together. But if he’s been glued to the TV or I feel he needs more attention, I may not be able to spend a full hour on computer work that day. I don’t want to feel like this is a failure on my part, or to feel frantic about meeting my goals. The overarching goal is always to do the right thing (especially by my loved ones), while enjoying my life as much as possible.

So that’s it. To be honest, this past weekend was rough (again, I was so fatigued that I think Jack’s new, current virus was something I passed on to him – and my phone is really, truly broken now – I can see people texting me but the touch screen doesn’t work, so I can’t click on the texts to read anything, or answer phone calls), and I began to feel my first doubts about all of these resolutions since the new year began.

But this Monday morning, habit took over, and I am glad that it did. School was delayed two hours, and so I took the extra time to do yoga. I cleaned out old food from the refrigerator. The house is not trashed because I have been keeping it up on a more regular basis. I’ve felt a starved need to write these past few days, so I am making time for that with a feeling of trust that I will also be able to vacuum and tidy up (Monday’s goals), and then spend twenty minutes on photos.

I’ve also spent a lot of time cuddling poor sick Jack and taking him to the doctor, which is obviously more important than some of the lesser goals. Even if I deny Monday’s schedule in the name of writing and cuddles, I am glad to have these practical guidelines in the back of my mind. The guidelines make sense, and they will wait for me.


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