Happiness, wholeness, and the search for meaning

Since returning to work post-baby, I’ve been struggling with a feeling of insecurity about my worth in my job — something my achievement-motivated self did not anticipate.

But I suspect that these feelings of insecurity — and perhaps, related questions of my identity — aren’t totally new to being a mom (and a working mom). It’s the same reason I haven’t posted in my blog in a year and have only made a half-hearted attempt at getting my Etsy shop off the ground. In a world where it’s easy to share your opinions at the click of a button, where ideas are reiterated, and where blogging is a  career for some, what makes my mutterings unique in the vast blogosphere? If a search on Etsy of “Christmas Card” yield almost 190,000 results, why would anyone pick out mine?

While I certainly don’t have an answer to these questions (besides the suspicion that in reality, it’s only those people who already know me who’d be interested in my ponderings or my creations), I think I could benefit from taking a different approach. Instead of thinking about how others might perceive or value my efforts, perhaps I could focus on why I do these things and how (or if) they contribute to a fuller, happier, more whole life.

I’ve just finished reading The Happiness Project, and while I’m not ready to tackle personal happiness with a year-long project, some of the ideas in the book have been marinating in my mind (ex. “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good”).

One qualm I have about the book is that I don’t fully buy into the idea that the chief end in life is happiness. Not all situations call for a cheery attitude; unexceptional happiness can be be inappropriate, rude, and shallow. Instead, I wonder about the idea of a “Wholeness Project,” one that embraces a wider range of emotional experience as good and right. (I do think Rubin alludes to this type of idea in her exploration of the idea that deeper happiness often comes after an investment in activities that at the outset are not particularly “fun.”)

In thinking about my blog, then, I recognize that:

  1. Writing can be therapeutic for me in that it helps me to process things I’m going through.
  2. Adding personal content and experiences does not detract from, but rather enhances, the uniqueness of my writing.
  3. Dialogue about personal experiences of health and wholeness is in line with my goals for this blog.

So, rather than tailoring this blog to what I think others want to hear (or what I see others writing about), I’m going to continue to write about things that are meaningful to me. I hope you find a connection with my experiences and we can continue to grow in wholeness together!

Project home weatherization

Today while the little one was napping I decided to “conquer a nagging task”*… or a task that could have easily become a nagging task. I weatherized our windows!

Last fall we spent a good bit of $ on some renovation projects aimed at making our home more energy efficient and healthy. One of the comments from our energy auditor was, “Your windows aren’t good, but they’re the least of your problems.” Great! What a place to start…

We invested in a brand-spanking new and top-of-the-line energy-efficient boiler (replacing our ancient, carbon-monoxide leaking, gas-guzzling one). We got a new roof (turns out letting moisture into your home makes any other updates you do moot… who cares about nice furnishings if you’re letting water destroy the bones of the home?). We had new insulation put in the crawl space in the basement and in the attic. We got a new fan for our bathroom and for our stove. We re-graded the side of our house to keep rainwater moving away from the foundation.

Since those projects more than exhausted our available resources, we couldn’t even think about new windows (although we’ve started to dream about how nice those would be!). The good news is that we did save a hefty sum on our gas bill last winter (in one of the months, the average temperature was about equivalent, we kept the house almost 10 degrees warmer, and we spent $100 less on heating)…. and that’s on top of no longer having dangerous gases leaking in our home. Yay air quality!

The other good news is there are literal “bandaids” that help our drafty windows — those lovely plastic film window kits (like these). I don’t love the process of putting them up — cleaning the window frame, adhering the tape, lining up the plastic, using the hair dryer to shrink the film (okay maybe I like that part), and trimming the excess film (which, by the way, can be recycled alongside your grocery bags and plastic paper towel wrappers at local drop-offs). But the difference is huge — and totally worth it for our heating bills and for the environment.

*This is a reference to Gretchen Rubin’s book the Happiness Project.

Let’s talk about screens

I am, ashamedly, addicted to technology. Here’s my confession:

I spend my 90% of my workday on the computer.

I go home and work on homework or check email or check facebook or play candy crush on the computer (and/or on my iPhone). I watch TV (or TV shows on my computer). Sometimes, I even double up on screens: I’ll watch TV AND play Candy Crush. I am addicted to the busyness and excitement of getting new messages, of seeing new feeds, and keep my mind constantly jumping from task to task.

And on a usual day, I lie in bed at night with my “browser windows” of life open in my mind. Just like the physical browser on my computer, my mind is working at 15 things at once. It’s hard to settle down. It’s exhausting.

Yesterday, I clicked on a random TED talk that ended up being related to this idea. It was about stillness. Travel Writer Pico Iyer talks about the importance of stillness and of “going nowhere.” He talks about how workers today are working fewer days than our predecessors but feel like they’re working more. We are lacking stillness. Our work lives and our home lives are missing stillness, and so we just keep going, going, going.

I am struck by how few of the “activities” that I do on the computer, especially in the evening after work, are meaningful, productive, or active. We thank technology for making us more productive, for giving us more capacity, for allowing us to get more done. But far too often, I find that my screens are a barrier to my productivity, and really to my overall well-being. I do appreciate that I have both the physical time and the technological capacity to decompress with a few episodes of a chosen TV show. I appreciate the way that Facebook keeps me connected to people whose lives I might otherwise miss. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts on a blog like this. And I’m appreciative of the access to information I have — thank you Google.

But technology does not have any inherent limits or ethical boundaries. Technology can be dangerous. Technology wants to be used. Technology is an addiction. Overuse of technology leads to eye strain, arthritis, and depression. Technology can control.

So let’s instead control technology. It is only by our own choice that we can set our own personal limits on how we allow technology to influence our lives. This may look like:

  • Turning off screens two hours before bed.
  • Using an old-fashioned alarm clock and 100% powering down your phone.
  • Limiting your “screen time.” Before you turn on Netflix, decide how many episodes you will watch today. Don’t wait to decide that until the cliffhanger at the end of the next episode.
  • Don’t keep your e-mail open constantly, but rather check it periodically. Especially at work, the “ping” of a new email can be a major distraction and reducer of productivity. Check for new messages when you actually have a good few minutes to respond to messages accordingly.

What other strategies do you use to keep your technology use in balance?

It’s not very glamorous….. Home Indoor Air Quality!

That sounds dreadfully boring!

But it’s actually really important, and something that a lot of people (myself included) don’t know a lot about.

After recently learning that our ancient boiler was spilling carbon monoxide over the last few years at least, I began to worry about what other hidden dangers may be lurking in the air in my home. (I tend to worry about the cosmetics concerns of our house…. but what about the invisible dangers?)

While you could bring in an expert to do some tests in your home, there are some basic things that you can do to improve your air quality. These are things I learned from our home energy contractor and some things I found online.

  • Get a carbon monoxide detector and install it! (I think we have one we’ve never installed!)
  • Consider the air fresheners you use. Many of the air fresheners out there contain a harmful type of chemical called phtalates that can have harmful effects in kids and adults. A study published by the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that 12 out of 14 air fresheners tested contained some level of phtalates. The worst? Walgreens Air Freshener spray, Walgreens Solid Air Freshener, Ozium Glycolized Air Sanitizer. Those with moderate levels of Phtlates included: Oust Air Sanitizer Spray, Glade Plug in Scented Oil, Glade Air Infusians, Febreeze Noticeables, and Air Wick Scented Oil. Those without Phtalates included: Febreeze Air Effects Air Refresher and Renuzit Subtle Effects.
  • Air fresheners and other fragrances can also contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Use fragrance free or naturally-scented laundry products and cleaning products; use lemons and baking soda for a fresh scent in your kitchen.
  • Use your bathroom fan. Not only does it help to tamper mold growth, it also helps rid your bathroom of odors (meaning you don’t need to use those chemical-ridden air fresheners!)
  • Use your stove exhaust fan every time you cook on the stove or in the oven.
  • Vent your clothes dryer to the outside, and make sure you are cleaning the lint trap regularly.
  • Solve any moisture problems in the basement. Make sure the dirt outside the house has a slope away from the house to allow rain to runoff away from your house, not into the basement. Use a dehumidifier.
  • Fill your house with houseplants! There’s some combination of the bacteria in soil and the the plants themselves that help to rid the air of harmful chemicals. However, it may realistically take a LOT of plants (hundreds) to make a significant difference in your air quality… Nevertheless, I like houseplants, so I’m keeping this one on the list 🙂
  • Take care of lead dust. Exposure to lead dust is associated with lower IQ and behavior problems in children, and cardiovascular, kidney, and reproductive problems in adults. Our house almost certainly has had lead paint — any house built prior to ’78 likely has it (and newer homes can also track it in from outside). You can find more information than you’d ever want to know at the EPA website. Some things to do when renovating:
    • Ask contractors who come into your home what practices they will use to be lead-safe
    • Use plastic dropcloths when painting/ sanding. Tape them down to the floor.
    • Cover ducts and close windows.
    • Inspect areas for chipping, peeling or cracking paint
    • Turn off forced air/ air conditioners when working on your home
    • If disturbing paint, spray water to keep dust from spreading; use wet-sanding methods
    • Use an all-purpose cleaner to clean up any dust
    • Vacuum (with a HEPA filter) and mop regularly. Use a product with phosphates (like Spic and Span) — lead dust adheres to the phosphates.
    • Remove shoes at the door so you don’t track lead dust in from outside.
  • Don’t smoke. Especially not indoors.

Why Everyone Needs a Little Ice Cream

I stood in line at Giant Eagle, my selections displayed on the belt. A middle-aged man came up behind me in line and laughed a bit. He made a comment about working at a restaurant/ catering company that also provides cooking classes, and how little many people know about healthy foods. He said he often looks at what people buy when he’s shopping and (harmlessly) judges their purchases for the relative health. I think he didn’t know what to do with my choices — because I had quite the variety of “healthy” and “unhealthy” food — from a 5 lb. bag of organic carrots to two 1/2 gallons of full-fat ice cream. 

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Believe it or not, my choice to buy ice cream (and consume it in small quantities on a regular basis) is part of my overall view on health and wellness. I believe that health is not about deprivation or having the most self control, but of making choices that make you feel good — physically, emotionally, relationally. etc. Eating ice cream makes me happy and satisfies me in a way that no carrot ever will. But eating ONLY ice cream also doesn’t fulfill me…. as much as I want it to– because having too much drains me of energy and lowers my self esteem. Ice cream signifies indulgence: letting go of control, enjoying the simple things in life. It’s not always right to let go of control. Some control is good and important. I mostly fill my body with food that not only tastes good but provides  mix of protein, carbs, vitamins, fiber, healthy fats, etc. But I save room for that precious serving of ice cream (which conveniently has protein and calcium… and less conveniently has some saturated fat and a bunch of added sugars), because my body needs that, too. 

In the end, it all comes back to balance. 

Tempeh veggie bowls

I made something pretty tasty — sans recipe– for dinner tonight. I am generally a recipe follower on most things. Goes along with my rule-follower tendencies, I think.

But we had some veggies that were on the verge of going bad and Devon suggested we use some of the tempeh we had stored in the freezer. (Tempeh is a soy based product, like tofu, but with more density and, in my opinion, a more pleasing texture.)

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Generally speaking, this is what I made:

Tempeh veggie bowls
Ingredients:
1 c brown rice
Chopped mixed fresh veggies (I used: chopped onions, assorted bell peppers, zucchini, shredded carrots)
Olive Oil
1 block tempeh
Soy sauce
Spices (I used several dashes chili powder, a dash of paprika and a touch of cayenne pepper)
Garlic, minced
Fresh tomatoes, chopped
Salsa

Directions:
1. Start rice cooking. Use 2x the water and, if you wish, a bit of oil. I usually cook for about 40 minutes.
2. Chop tempeh into bite-sized pieces. Marinate in a few dashes of soy sauce, a bit of olive oil, spices of your choice (such as chile powder and paprika), and several cloves of fresh minced garlic.
3. Chop veggies. Heat oil in large skillet. Once hot, add veggies and sauté. After veggies begin to soften, add tempeh mixture and cook until hot and slightly browned.
4. Once the rice is done (water is absorbed), pile a few spoonfuls of rice, veggie/tempeh mix, salsa, and fresh tomatoes in a bowl. Enjoy!

Editorial comments: tomatoes were from our little garden!! So good and sweet!! Salsa was from a homemade batch my sister-in-law Rochelle had given us for Christmas. Yum!!

A Birthday Feast

I had a birthday yesterday! One of the great things about birthdays is getting to eat what you want. At first I was stuck. What is my favorite food? I really like ice cream, but I haven’t found that ice cream is actually the best meal replacement to make me feel good physically. Then I thought about how much I like fresh food– whatever is in season. Based on that and some inspiration from the Internet, my birthday dinner menu consisted of:

Grilled chicken

Corn on the cob

This fantastic chickpea, pesto, tomato & mozzarella salad from the Blog Two Peas and Their Pod

Chocolate zucchini cake

Grilled zucchini, adapted from a recipe by the Pioneer Woman. The zucchini was from Diane’s farm stand in Hazelwood, Dylamato’s. 

For other thoughts on the food I like, check out my Pinterest food board. I probably have just as many sweets on there as I do “healthy” foods… like I said, it’s all about balance!!

Thanks to Devon, Rachel, Candace, Jordan, Andie and Kyle for doing the legwork on cooking up all this great food! Yum!!