Fill 'er Up: How Choosing the Good Leaves No Space for the Bad

Invest Your Love.JPG
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.
— Mumford and Sons

 

We are getting near the half-way point of year. I know that's a hard pill to swallow. It's going to be June soon. Wasn't it just Christmas? How in the world is it possible that my kids only have 15 days of school left before summer break? If you're like me, this time of year usually incapacitates me. (I may or may not have tried to start my car with a remote control during one of these weeks). There are endless field trips, permission slips to sign, classes and camps to sign up for, tests to take, year end projects to finish, not to mention recitals, performances, award banquets to attend, and work schedules to juggle.

But, not this year.

This year is different. Everything is different. And I have to say it's because of one simple mantra that I've been repeating over and over all year long: Fill up on the good, Mary.

Back in January, my family chose "Choose the Good" as our family mission statement for 2016. We agreed we would all try to make good choices. OK, I realize that's a little vague. So we did qualify what "good" meant. If ever there was a decision to be made, we vowed, we would stop, think, breathe, and choose the best option. (And by best option, we mean the healthiest option.) We are trying to choose the options that would most likely give us joy, peace, happiness, health, and fulfill our daily lives. Reading books, spending time together, forgiving each other, hiking, walking, eating good foods, and trying our best to improve ourselves and our world--all constitute the "good." If we are hurting someone, ourselves included, it's not a good choice. Pretty simple.

What I discovered in the past six months is something extraordinary: By "filling up on the good" it became nearly impossible to choose the bad. Miraculous things happen when you "choose the good"--there's literally no room for bad.

I started waking early to read, as I used to do for years. Turns out when you start your day filled with the things you love, value, and prioritize, there is no chance they'll get lost in the daily shuffle. By 6:30 a.m., I've read a classic and a contemporary piece, written a bit, caught up with friends on social media, meditated, and stretched. Filled up with amazing and inspiring literature, I have no desire to turn on crap-news television, or even listen to mind-numbing talk radio. Filled up with delicious hand-pressed coffee and whole fruit, I don't crave sugary sweets, junk food, or a Starbucks hit. Filled up with kindness and positive affirmations from posting inspiring quotes on social media, I don't have space for negativity, toxicity, or even complacency. I feel ready to take on the day. No space for whining, complaining, or feeling down.

I'm positively charged; I'm full.

During the day, I've been filling up on amazing books, the occasional phone call/FaceTime sessions with long-distance friends, coffee and lunches with nearby friends, long walks, book signings, delicious, whole and clean meals, movies, game nights with my kids, and lots and lots of rest and naps on Saturdays and Sundays. It's amazing when you fill up on the good--rest, kindness, and freedom to enjoy the things you truly love and value--how much more grounded, centered, calm, and fulfilled you will feel. I am not running around like a crazy person, trying to cram in activities, projects, and whatever else that used to suck up my time.

I'm being intentional; I'm full.

By filling up on whole and real food (as little processed stuff as possible), I don't crave a glass of wine at the end of a long day of work. I don't crave a giant bag of nacho chips and faux cheese after a full day of denying myself "real food," because I am "trying to lose weight." Instead, I make sure to be full. I've been choosing to nutritious foods that sate me. And I've lost weight. LOST IT, PEOPLE!  If there is a delicious piece of cake offered, I eat it. If there is a steak on my plate, I eat it. If there is a beautiful, artisanal sandwich created for me, I eat it. I enjoy it. Then I stop when I am full of all that is good.

I'm satisfied; I'm full.

I fill my head throughout the day with beautiful art, lovely verse, and great music. I don't have time to surf the web, to mindlessly flip through catalogs, watch meaningless, time-sucking reality television. And I don't want to.

I'm inspired; I'm full.

I go to bed when I am tired. I don't force myself up with endless cups of coffee "to get one more thing done." I turn off my phone at 9. I sit and talk to my husband and fill my heart up with good things--humor, insights, and shared thoughts. I go to bed tired and ready to rest. I fill up on sleep--good solid, dream-filled sleep. So in the morning, I don't need to fill my body up with bad stuff--like Coke or sugar or any other of the toxic stuff we put in our bodies to "wake them up."

I'm rested; I'm full.

I have been filling up on writing too. I am doing it every day, all day in fact, while my kids are at school. By filling my day up with what I love to do, everything else--stress, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness and ineptitude--have ceased. It's easy to feel like crap when you're pulled in ninety different directions, answering emails, attending meetings, getting only a quarter way through a project before being pulled to another. It's impossible to feel full, if one never feels like they're "finished." Each day, I have a little goal for writing. I achieve that goal, and I am full.

I'm accomplished; I'm full.

By filling my day up with things I love to do, and designing every aspect of my day, with intention and purpose, aimed solely at "choosing the good"--I have reclaimed and restored my life.

Is there anxiety? Is there worry? Is there fear? Yes. Every parent worries about their kids. Every human worries about making ends meet and providing for oneself and one's family, but there is less space in my brain for all that now. I can't worry about money, the future, and things I can't control, because I don't have the time. I've filled my days to the brim, and it's made all the difference.

You can be full too!

It's amazing how tiny choices can add up to such huge life-changing movements. If you're interested in doing it as well, I'd say start small. Try these 3 steps:

1) Start from a place of abundance, not deprivation.  Instead of saying, "no more x, y, z" (Coke, candy, wine, sugar, etc.), ask yourself instead: "What do I love?" Answer that question and then fill yourself up with it, and see where it gets you. Listen to your body and watch the time. If you are doing something and an hour goes by and it felt like a minute,  guess what? You love it. You've reached a state of flow. So go with it. Keep filling yourself up with that.

2) Make a list of all that you do in a day. If there isn't one thing on your list that you love to do then you have some rearranging to do. When I first made my list, I was astonished how little I slept, how little I read, how little I wrote, how much television I watched, how much time I spent driving and working, and how burnt out and stressed out I was. Awareness is half the battle, friends.

3) Read. Read. Read. Carve out 20 minutes to start. I set a timer for me and my son, just before my husband comes home from work. We sit quietly and read together for 20 minutes. I've read nearly 30 books this year so far by reading in 20 minute chunks here and there throughout the day. It's amazing how quickly it can add up. If you want to kick start your "good life" today, then I suggest reading these books:

Design the Life You Love: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Meaningful Future by Ayse Birsel (Don't know what you love? Don't know where to begin? Birsel's book will lead the way. One of my favorites so far this year.)

Better than Before: What I Learned about Making and Breaking Habits--To Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin (Can't say enough about this gem of a book. Rubin will help you figure out the best way to structure your day to rid yourself of unhealthy habits and replace them with positive, life-fulfilling ones. I can honestly say, her book changed my life. Go read it, now.)

Day Designer: The Strategic Planner & Daily Agenda for Living a Well-Designed Life by Whitney English (Stop making long lists and losing them. With this carefully designed planner, you can carefully plan out chunks of your day, so that you actually schedule the things that bring you the most happiness and fulfillment.)

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (Already bristling a little? Feeling a little resistant? Think I've got it made? More time than you? More money and resources? I assure you. Nope. I've got the same 24. I've got bills. I've got kids. I've got responsibilities. This book is a swift kick in the ass for every whiner out there who says:I don't have the time. I don't have the money. I don't have a good family. I don't have a husband. I don't have a wife. I don't. I can't. I won't. Pressfield's got no time for that b.s. He's used those excuses himself. If you're serious about changing your life, and serious about living your life with purpose and dignity, get his book and read it ASAP. You won't regret it.)

Now go fill 'er up!

 

 

 

3 Steps to Having Everything: Eat S@#t. Fall in Love. Do the Work.

Besides being a writer, a blogger, and mom, I have a day job too. It just so happens that I work in higher education at a Jesuit University. Though I work mainly in an administrative role at a Center for Innovation, I get to teach storytelling and Design Thinking. (BTW, Design Thinking is simply another way of saying, I teach an approach to problem solving, critical thinking, and empathizing with others). Design Thinking helps creatives be creative, and it helps people who don't think they're creative access their demiurgic selves through a deliberate process. It helps one empathize, ideate, create, communicate, and finally, test out new ideas and processes. Simply put, I get to spend my days helping others "figure stuff out." I work with students, faculty, staff, corporate clients, startups, and all sorts of neat people who are bursting with passion and enthusiasm, but happen to be wrestling with defining, containing, or expressing their big ideas. 

It's, in a word, awesome. At least it's awesome, when I get to do what it is I love to do. 

Granted we all have to eat the proverbial "shit sandwich" that Buddhists (and now Elizabeth Gilbert) so wisely speak of.  Yes, we all know the shit-sandwich well. These are the tasks that one must bear down, bite through, and get over with before getting to the good stuff. No birth comes without the sweaty, horrendous, bloody final push.  No adorable baby comes without dirty diapers. No work of art comes without cleaning brushes. No decision gets made without the dreaded committee meeting.  No marathons get run without training on hills. You get the picture.

We all have to do things we don't like.  Me? What are the shit sandwiches I have to chew on? The usual. (I'm pretty sure no one likes to do them.) Emailing. Processing paperwork and invoices. Navigating office politics. Meetings. (And let's not forget the added double-decker shit sandwich that I as a women get to eat.) Yes, like most women, on daily basis we all must contend with (inside and outside of our institutions) big egos, misogyny, the random sexist comment, and still for many of us, unequal pay, and higher work expectations. And like most women, I have to bear down and bite through all the b.s. every day and serve it up with a smile. YUM! More please!  Lest I be perceived as ungrateful, angry, "difficult," or the dreaded "B" word. 

So what makes eating the shit sandwich possible? Bearable? 

The answer is simple: I am in love.

What? How did we go from eating shit to falling love? 

Let me explain. One of the perks of working at a Jesuit college is everyone is drunk on what I lovingly refer to as Je-ju (Jesuit Juice.) Students, faculty, and staff are well-versed in all sorts of mindful and meaningful quotes and practices that promote the examined life. One of my favorite quotes was just read aloud during a student award ceremony. The quote by Father Pedro Arrupe says, quite beautifully, 

What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
- Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

The answer is I am in love with learning. I am in love with curiosity. I am in love with art. I am in love with creativity. I am in love with students, their passion, their curiosity, their eagerness to learn too. I am in love with the learners mindset. I am in love with books. I am in love with writing. I am in love with others' minds, which I learn so much from. I am in love with photography. I am in love with life. I race out of bed each morning to read my favorite books, write my 3-5 pages, connect with the friends who I love on social media. I spend my evenings in love with my kids, with my husband, and my home. I am amazed daily by the incredible students I meet (like my intern Ese, who just won the Student Employee of the Year), the trees outside that are blooming, the poetry I read each day, the food I get to eat and the coffee I drink. I spend each night before I close my eyes counting my blessings--thinking of all the people, place, books, ideas and moments I was able to experience during the day. 

By knowing what I love, and spending time with the things love, I have, as Arrupe so brilliantly pointed out, decided everything. I have decided what is important, what matters, and what I will fill up the days of my life with, what I won't, and what I will put up with (the shit sandwiches, if you will). I am lucky that I have more love than shit in my life. But, I'd venture to say it is a bit more than luck. It takes work--hard work--to fill yourself up with good things and things you're in love with. It means making some hard decisions. It means putting down the phone at 9 p.m. and going to bed. It means getting up early. It means attending the meetings and completing the paperwork. It means showing up, every day. It means being a professional. 

I often wonder, when I hear people complain about their lives, why don't they just don't fall in love. Why don't they do what they love? "I don't have the time," they say. "I can't," they say. And I understand. I was like them once. I too was once afraid to admit what I loved. It's a scary thing. It takes courage to go after the life you love. It takes strength and fortitude to bite down on the shit sandwich, in order to get to the good parts. It takes dedication. It takes work. 

But, it's worth it. 

Because, it's your life, we're are talking about. YOUR LIFE. Let me repeat: YOUR LIFE. If your life is is more shit than love, then what are you doing with your day? How can you change it? Or better yet, ask yourself before you do anything: Do I love this? Or, do I love (x,y,  or z enough) to eat this shit sandwich and do the necessary work?

If the answer is no, then get out there and find out what you love: It will decide everything.

Everything.

 

5 Things I Do Before I Go to My Day Job

Like most women I don't get a lot of time to myself. As soon as my kids are up, my life becomes about them--making sure they're fed, dressed and ready to go; signing permission slips that "slipped past" me the night before in the midst of the afternoon and evening minivan-patrol (which entails four hours every weeknight driving carpools of kids to various theater, choir, musical instrument practice), and listening to them tell me about their upcoming days. (Granted, there's that whole getting-myself-ready-to-put-a-full-day-in-the-office-by-8:00 a.m. I have to do as well, but at this stage in the game, I can do all that in 10 minutes flat.  Brush hair, brush teeth, apply mascara and lipstick, throw on dress, and I am out the door. OK, it may take twenty minutes if I am going for a good-hair day and decide to pull out the straightener.) 

So I know if I want to get the "Big Rocks" in, as they say, I have put them in jar first thing in the morning. So each night, before I got to bed, which admittedly is early--usually around 9:30 or 10 p.m.--I always make a list of things I absolutely need to get done by 7 a.m. so that no matter what happens during the following day I have already done what it is that I love to do, want to do, and genuinely fills me up as a human being. Moreover, if I do it before 7 a.m., nothing--no hijacked day, no long meeting, no traffic jam--will be an excuse for why I didn't get these things done.

So to answer the question I am most asked: How do you get all that reading and writing done? I have a simple answer: I wake up in the middle of the night to do it. Actually, it's more like 4:30 a.m., sometimes 4:45 a.m. I have an alarm, but I often don't need to set it. My body is well trained and wakes up a few minutes before. 

So here are the 5 Things I Do Before I Go to My Day Job:

1. Exercise.

4:30 a.m. The first thing I do, like a good Irish girl, is to put the kettle on. Granted it's to boil water for fresh pressed coffee, not tea, but I used the kettle for a very good reason. While the water is boiling, I have fifteen minutes to do some mat work. I do about 100 Pilates sit-ups, leg lifts, push-ups, and planks, and then stretch. By the time the kettle whistles, I am done, and I feel totally awake and energized. (Note: That's not all the exercise I do. I will walk throughout the day, and try to reach 10,000 steps as well. Sometimes that means a walk before or after dinner too.)

2. Read a classic.

4:45 a.m. I pour myself a cup of fresh-pressed coffee, peel a grapefruit, and bring it over to the kitchen table where the book I am reading is already opened to the page that I left off on the day before. Right now I am completely immersed in War and Peace.  It may be two-hundred years old, but it's still spot-on about the human condition. I actually pop up out of bed each morning excited to find out what is in store for all my favorite Russian aristocrats. (Listen to a recent podcast discussion of the book, which I participated in, here.)

3. Read a contemporary book.

5:30 a.m. I move my bookmark to the page I left off on War and Peace, and move on to a contemporary book. I read no less than three contemporary books at any given time. (This week I am reading Patti Smith's M Train, Charlie Duhigg's The Power of Habit, and Matt Haig's Reason to Stay Alive. I alternate each book each day, and then pick one to carry one in my purse if I need a cerebral "hit" while waiting in carpool, standing in line somewhere, or waiting for dinner to cook.)

4. Write.

5:50 a.m. It's time to start writing. I can write 3-5 pages in about a half hour, and so that's what I try to do each day. I sit at my computer and write without any goal or agenda until 6:00 a.m. The first ten minutes is not always great. In fact, sometimes I know I am just "stretching" and have to delete almost everything I wrote, but sometimes I don't. I usually get a good flow going and I try to wrap up at 6:30 a.m., so I have something left in the tank for the next day. (A helpful hip from Papa himself.)

5. Get social.

6:30 a.m.  After I quickly drive my daughter to the Metro bus stop (it takes 2 minutes), I come back and I post a photograph or a quote from the books I am reading to Instagram and hashtag the hell out of them. I do this for two reasons: 1) Hashtags help me quickly explain to my audience why I chose the said quote or picture and 2) It helps my potential audience find me. (So far, it's been working). I spend about 15 minutes going through my social media pages and posts, respond, engage, and repost. (Like it or not, this the work of the modern-day writer...I just happen to love it). I try to be off social media and my phone by the time my son wakes up at 7:00 a.m. Because once he's up, I'm all his and we're in "get ready to get the heck out of the house by 7:30 mode."

Now, I know waking early is not for everyone. There are plenty of night owls out there that find their optimum time is after the kids go to bed (which works too, I know). But, for me,  I am always far too drained by the end of the work day to do anything more than nod occasionally in acknowledgment from across the dinner table as my kids speak. I know there are so many of us out there in the same boat.  So many of us spend our days working hard for everyone else. And it's hard to find a minute for ourselves. But, we must. YOU HEAR ME: WE MUST. If we don't do it now, then when? There is never going to be a perfect time to read, to write, to exercise, or do any of the things that matter to you and that fill you up as a human being. There will always be something. So if there is something you want to do, and feel like you have "no time" to do it, my humble suggestion is this:  

Find the time.

Make the time.

Today.

Then guard it with your life.

Become a fierce defender of your precious time. It is all that you have. There is no shame in doing what you love. There is no shame in doing the work that fills up your tank. Honor it. Love it. And for god-sake just do it.