Tuesday, February 28, 2017

2017 Renewal Challenge: Self

We've made it, dear readers. It is the end of February, the end of "winter," the end of our 2017 Renewal Challenge. We slowly made our way around the house, cleaning, re-purposing, and releasing that which does not serve us. We spent time revisiting our eating habits and the decisions that carry our food from farm to table to our bodies. We examined the way we rest, paying extra attention to releasing guilt and allowing our minds to freely exist in whatever season we're facing. We reflected on the way we interact with others, specifically those who seek to understand us and provide our lives with light and love. We also took time last week to focus on refreshing our daily perspective, keeping our minds in the moment, and surrounding ourselves with the environment we need to find fulfillment.

This last step is definitely the hardest, at least for me.....this last step is all about self - acceptance of self, but more importantly, intentional, purposeful celebration of self. Buckle up, lovelies.

So I'm not the most patient woman in the world. I get emotionally bogged down in negativity, I get territorial, I get insecure, I get lazy, I get overwhelmed, and I get greedy. I change my mind a lot about what I want to do with my life. I start projects sometimes that do not get finished. I am aging and am physically softer than most men prefer. I really don't enjoy working out to lose weight.

Some of these things I intend to change. Some of these things I do not intend to change.

I think the key to accepting who we are is to acknowledge our flaws, decide which flaws we'd like to change for ourselves, put a positive spin on flaws we have no intention of changing, and then find forgiveness when we slip up and hate on ourselves.

I do hope to finish what I start more often. I hope to get rid of my insecurity sooner rather than later. I think silencing insecurity has a rippling effect on territorial behaviors. I hope to realign my thoughts with positive things instead of letting the dark take over. On the flipside, I will always be emotionally charged and reactive, it's ingrained in who I am. It makes me a great storyteller, a passionate person, a whole-soul lover. Happy Jen will always be physically softer instead of chiseled. My body is a comfortable place for babies and my curves are a physical manifestation of the peace and prosperity I am experiencing in my life.

Some things about ourselves can be changed, while other things simply are the way they are. Try and see the positive side to your flaws. They exist for a reason and sometimes that reason is something good...maybe even invaluable. Without my passion I would have no voice. Without my reactive nature I would have no urgency to my actions. Without my greed, I would have no motivation to go and get it, Jen....go get it. Invaluable, these flaws, for they provide me with the characteristics I need to propel myself along.

So you have things you'd like to change about yourself, yes? Me too. But how?

Just begin. Doesn't matter if you start to change and fail a thousand times as long as you continue to begin again. Try again. Make the effort again and again and again.

I struggle immensely with self value. I worry that what I do is not enough, either with my work, my parenting, my friendships, or as a daughter. What I provide, my mind tells me, is not valuable enough. I need to do more to prove I am worth love and effort, attention and time. I need to do more to prove it's worth it to be around me, even though I am sometimes moody, smelly, sensitive, stubborn, unattractive, crying for no reason, chubby, or any of the other things about myself that I perceive others find distasteful and obnoxious.

Somewhere in the far corners of my heart I know I have an enormous amount of value and that I am worth going to the ends of the earth for. But that voice of light is smothered by bombarding insecurities and worries fueled by my ability to quite consistently compare myself to what I deem "beautiful, stable, functional, worthy."

This flaw of mine drives me nuts. I am capable of projecting a confident, strong woman on the outside, but I want to feel that way on the inside, too. So I work on it. I avoid comparisons by purposely staying away from "fashion" propaganda - it helps that I have zero interest in makeup and clothing lines and shoes....unless....do chicken-patterned rain boots count?

I look at myself in the mirror each day and pick out one thing to complement myself on. I spend time reading or baking or puttering around in my yard because that is where I can center myself, those places are where nothing can touch me. I can reconnect to the core of my own beauty - I can paint an image of myself surrounded by my flowers and my children and my chickens and my dog and I can put to rest my worries that I will never be enough because in that image, I am everything to all of them.

I fall back into my flawed nature all the time. But then I wake up the next morning and start walking, one step at a time, consistently dedicated to moving forward. Always take steps!

Last year's challenge was centered around self-sufficiency. I broke down ways to become more self-sufficient with our food, homes, health, money, and time. There's nothing more freeing or beneficial to your sense of self than learning. Decide what you want for your life and then learn how to accomplish the dream. It doesn't need to happen overnight - in fact the journey is as important as the arrival point. So take your time. Read all the books. Make notebooks. Listen to others. Learn how to build things yourself. And be sure to glance back to see how far you've come...that is the most magical part.

Build Confidence
I had to brainstorm some confidence-boosting tricks last summer when my new single-mama status had me feeling down. If you don't have time to click the link to that post, that's ok. Here's a quick and basic run-down of my tips, which I will repeat here for myself because I forget my own advice constantly my lovely readers because I love you.

Positive People - yep, get with them
Be Alone - get comfy in your own, independent lil' skin
Music Magic - light up your brain with some good tunes
Mirror, Mirror - Don't let your feelings of rejection cause you to give up on the things that make you feel beautiful
Flirt - It's fun and exciting and can accomidate all types of relationship statuses
Be Selfish - Pamper yourself with intention! Often!
Fake it - 'till you make it
Critical Challenge - Don't say anything critical about yourself for one entire day, then a week
Got Kids? - Talk to yourself the way you want your kids to talk to themselves
Don't Keep Your Head - Fall in love with yourself, with nature, with others

Trust Yourself
Rebuilding trust in yourself after a particularly hurtful time in your life can seem impossible, but the truth is it just takes time. I need to relearn how to trust my instincts. I sometimes think because my ex-husband was unfaithful and I stayed hopeful in such a broken and dark marriage for almost a decade that I am the most gullible, idiotic woman on the planet. I sometimes think my naivete and ignorance to the true feelings me ex harbored for me pretty much solidifies I am a complete moron. I confuse my marital devotion with ignorance all the time. I feel so, so stupid when I think back and see just how long I allowed someone to walk all over me, lie to me, disrespect me, and drag me through the mud of his own addictions and issues. Where was the confident Jen my daughters needed? Where was my sense? My intelligence? My no-crap-taken mentality? My strength?

It helps when I journal all the signs I purposely ignored - kinda proves I wasn't completely ignorant, just stubbornly dedicated to forcing a broken relationship to work. Hindsight and all that. But rebuilding trust in myself is, I'm learning, less about exploring the past and more about approaching the future without fear.

I do have the ability to make sound decisions for my life. I will one day believe in my intuition again. I will one day learn to take advice and suggestions lightly and forgive myself for the mistakes I've made. If everyone were born brilliant and with this whole life thing figured out, we'd have no need to learn and live at all, right? We'd be stagnant and boring, muted versions of ourselves. I prefer to glitter and shine....risk be damned.

We are who we are, beautifully flawed and hopelessly imperfect. Our lives are tiny little pinpricks of light in this big, bold world and to waste our fire on doubt and self hate is a tragedy. Celebrate who you are. Throw yourself a party. Invite others, or don't. Turn off your inner critic. Celebrate your verbosity. Call a friend and talk their ear off. Celebrate your thighs. Wear the shorts. Celebrate your mood swings. Write stories and paint pictures and take photographs of things that reflect how you feel. Relish the changes your body is experiencing, for you're well on your way to becoming a wiser and better version of yourself. If your head feels rainy, soak in the water for a minute, then find your sunshine - friends, family, kids, pets, flowers, or maybe the rain is your sunshine. Doesn't matter. Just find it. Carve out time for people who make you laugh, laugh, laugh. Carve out time to just be. Let people come to you. Know that you are enough, what you do is enough, and you don't need to do a single thing more unless it contributes to your own happiness. Make this year the year of you. I think you are wonderful and worth celebrating.

I am so glad you've come along on this Renewal Challenge, dear readers. I would love to hear your favorite renewal tip in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading.

Looking for some unique ways to feel renewed? I've got you covered :) Check out the other posts in my 2017 Renewal Challenge:

Monday, February 20, 2017

2017 Renewal Challenge: In the Moment

This post is dedicated to Mama Lynnette, a true believer of living in the moment.

The moments following the loss of a loved one are always raw and unfiltered. Thoughts are muddled by pain, grief, confusion, and a gaping hole where someone amazing once existed.......but strangely enough, intentions and actions and perception is remarkably clear. Nobody cares about things like dents in the truck, trolls on Facebook, or whether the apple you're trying to choke down is organic or not. The important things in life stand out one right after the other, little toy soldiers marching past the trivial and setting up a defensive wall against all the regrets and what if's and should-i-have's. You get by minute by minute, hour by hour, and you cling to those left behind and vow to never take them for granted. 

I think it's awful that we need to experience such heartache to truly appreciate the goodness around us. I think it's terribly unfair that we need to be dismantled and broken to truly recognize love, friendship, peace, kindness. I wish we could consistently acknowledge our blessings and understand how good we have it without getting yanked from our comfy places and dragged through despair. 

But that's not the way life works. We're not that perceptive. It's not our fault. Loss, lessons, juxtaposition, a balance of good and bad, and the living, sighing, breathing realization that until you experience sorrow, you'll never truly know joy...this is simply reality, both horrendously ugly and titillatingly beautiful.

I sometimes force myself to close my eyes during the good times - my eyelids are a camera shutter, capturing and imprinting how I feel to memory. I'll try and breathe in the smells around me, commit faces and voices to memory, memorize how they feel in my arms, the swell of love in my heart, the light shining on me. Remember this moment, Jen, I'll say to myself, cuz it will pass and then you'll fall back into your less-discerning coasting mode, where you worry about the small stuff and try and control all the things that don't matter at all. And then something bad will happen and you'll look around and wonder why you wasted so much time.  

Maybe there's a few tricks we can implement, aside from pretending like our eyes are cameras, to keep a very natural and human "coasting mode" from kicking in. Maybe we can lean on a couple tools to help us stay in the moment more often.

Soothing Places
Imagery is incredible and imaginations are powerful. I sometimes become so enveloped in my daydreams that they become reality. This can be good and bad; sometimes my daydreams are more like daymares. I can become filled with anxiety and spend way too much time reliving painful moments I wished I'd handled differently. I find it extraordinarily helpful to have a few soothing places to go in my mind when I can't seem to shake negativity.

One of my soothing places is my bed. I feel the sheets, I can smell the scent of my pillows, the light is cozy and gentle. I picture myself cocooned in soft blankets and melting into my safe spot, tucked away from chaos and experiencing nothing but rest. Another one of my soothing places is the seaside. I can smell the water, hear the gulls, feel the sand under my feet. I shade my eyes from the sunlight sparkling off the water, and hear the waves lapping at the shore, salty water crashing against my ankles, the rhythmic and constant pulse of the ocean sweeping shells onto the beach and then drawing them back out to sea again and again. Over and over. I could be hurting. I could be feeling like it's all over now. But the waves keep coming in and out. They will keep washing onto the shore whether my life is over or not. My problems' insignificance is comforting. Life continues with or without my approval. There is consistency and security to be found there.

Soothing People
I love each and every one of the distinctly different people in my life. Some are incredible at giving advice, others are my logical, grounded go-to's. Some love on me from afar with sweet texts and quotes, others show up on my doorstep and stand there ready for my pain. I know great cooks, I know wonderful listeners, I know comedians with hearts of gold and humor. I have friends who will fly with me into dreamy and unrealistic plans for the future and others who prefer to remind me of my credit card debt when I'm feeling impulsive. There is incredible value to all styles of friendship and love and support.

That being said, there is nothing wrong with using discernment during the various seasons of life. Sometimes I really need the friend who is logical and honest. Sometimes I really need the one who will lie to my face because she knows it's what I need to hear. I'm finding that at this particular moment of my life, I am drawn to the steady, consistent, accepting, gentle people in my life...the uncomplicated, unquestioning, quietly supportive souls speak to the anxious and fearful parts of me. Those anxious and fearful parts of me seem to be running the show these days and need the most attention, so I seek out those most soothing to my specific ailments. Find your soothing people and love on them and let them love on you. They will remind you to stay focused on this very moment and guide you gently to the next.

Disconnect from the Feeds
Nothing good comes from comparison...and that's kinda what social media is all about. Sharing and comparing, it's just what we humans do. If you're truly interested in living in the moment, you gotta shut it down. At least for a little while.

I've realized checking my social media feeds over and over is typically a sign of depression and boredom. I rarely go on there when I'm with other people or when I'm busy, but I am on there all the time when I'm feeling crummy and alone. What a terrible way to handle my sorrow - compound it with a good dose of social comparison! I don't know why I do it, but it's almost like I can't help it. I get bored, I want to see what people are doing, so I check my feeds. I never feel better after doing this. Now to be fair, I do read and see some pretty inspirational things on social media - especially after I get done blocking people and adjusting my feed content - but I can also find that kind of inspiration in books....or photo albums.....or outside in nature....all without the steady stream of not-so-inspirational things that often outnumber the good posts at least 2:1.

I have to force myself to do it, but when I do, putting my phone down and disconnecting almost always makes me feel better. I yearn for my phone and struggle, quite frankly, and feel naked without it, but once that panic passes and I become engrossed in another activity, I always end up feeling refreshed and happy and productive. I feel like I did my part to enjoy that moment, to truly soak it up and not miss a thing. It feels good.

Find your Church!
There's a very handsome and wise man I know who isn't particularly religious, but goes to church every chance he gets. And by church I mean some kind, any kind, of water with fish in it. The water is his place to reconnect and recenter himself. He typically goes by himself, sometimes late into the night, and always comes off the water happy, even if he doesn't catch a fish. I picture him out there with the sun setting, the water lapping against his kayak, the breeze softly blowing, every now and then feeling that tug of hope and possibility on his line, and I could see how he'd find God out there.

You don't need to be Christian. You don't even need to believe in a higher power. Find your sanctuary, your place to go and be when you need a change of heart or some time to think. Sit there, or stand there, or dance there, and reestablish your perspective. When your mind wanders into worry, bring it back to where you are at that very moment. Let yourself escape and acknowledge and be free from guilt. Your church is your place to worship and give thanks and be serenely and wholly you.

Is there truly a way to live in the moment, all the time? I don't know. Really, I don't. I'd like to think some enlightened minds out there somewhere have made it to the point where they can filter out all the garbage and just be. I'd like to think that maybe one day, with practice, I will be capable of keeping the perspective of someone who's just lost someone they love....the running-with-the-wind, time-is-short, Mama Lynnette way of living. Let's do this, she'd say. No time like the present! 

No time like the present. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

2017 Renewal Challenge: Relationships

There are two primary groups of thought when it comes to Valentine's Day:

Group A: It's a wonderful day filled with flowers and pink, hearts and dinners! An opportunity to show love and appreciation! A day of guaranteed romance! Bring on the chocolates and balloons!

Group B: I wish Cupid would literally stab me directly in the heart so I wouldn't need to endure the tragic, materialistic, greeting-card-concocted waste of money and time that is Valentine's Day.

I fit nicely right in-between the two. I adore flowers, but hate that close to 80% of the flowers found in the grocery store are shipped to America via poor Ecuadorian and Colombian farmers who are treated unfairly and paid even worse. I love chocolate, but again, poverty-stricken, unfair trade practices make it difficult to justify a few sweet bites of goodness at someone else's expense. And then there's the extravagant jewelry....yet again, stones shipped in from unknown places, mined by unknown, mistreated people, all so I can smile for an hour or two on a holiday the people who provided my goodies prolly never even heard of. So I suppose if done correctly, fairly, and with the right intentions, I could like Valentine's Day. But in my perfect world? Love would be celebrated and shown every single day.

And what better way to celebrate then by committing to renew the relationships in our lives?

Gather Friends Close
One of my best and wisest friends, when confronted with my worries that I am too "co-dependent" because I don't like being alone, reassured me with the following advice: "We are human beings, biologically made to exist in groups. We were not designed by nature to be alone and isolated. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be around others."

I get the need to be alone. I'm learning how to venture out and be comfortable alone more and more each day. But when push comes to shove, I am a gregarious creature in spirit, heart, and mind. I laugh harder, smile bigger, worry less, and learn more when I am around others. It doesn't need to be a huge group, nor does it need to be a specific person. I just grow better in a garden.

I often put pressure on myself to cut ties with this "needy" mentality of mine. I feel guilty for wanting to be around people. I worry that I'm not "being enough for myself" and therefore will never be enough for others. But I think that's the catch - if I really want to be true to myself, I need to accept all parts of myself....embrace them, even. And that means soaring high with my inner empath and allowing myself to depend, however vulnerable it makes me, on others.

On the flip side, some excel best on their own. They relish and delight in isolation. And I respect that, despite not relating as much to those needs.

But if I could go out on a limb here and just quickly speak to those isolationists.....friends enhance the world around us. Good friends, real friends, yes they require work, yes they can make you tired, yes they can disappoint you. But good friendships, really good friendships, they offer a hand to hold while you're at your weakest. They offer a sounding board. They offer a soul to share your joy with. One of my favorite quotes is by Emery Allen, who said, "You don't need another human being to make your life complete, but let's be honest. Having your wounds kissed by someone who doesn't see them as disasters in your soul but cracks to put their love into is the most calming thing in this world."

In exchange for vulnerability, you receive love....a love that will stand beside you while you work to be independent, while you work to make yourself happy, and while you strive to learn from your mistakes. Gather your friends close. They can be rays of sunshine on your cloudy days.

Renewing relationships can be as easy as shooting off a quick text or sending a Facebook message. Want to meet for coffee this Tuesday? What day works better for you? I'm heading out tonight if you're around! It can also be incredibly hard and awkward.

Life gets in the way of plans. Life gets in the way of forming connections. Life gets in the way of relationships. Sometimes our perspective becomes complacent on accident, like when we're so ridiculously busy with our own internal drama that we forget to include a friend in plans or forget to reach out and wish a good friend a happy birthday. Other times our relationships purposely take a back seat to new priorities in our lives. Children. Work. Travel.

The good news is, almost every broken relationship can be resolved by simply making a choice. Do you want to make the time for this person? Do the benefits to having them in your life outweigh the work it will take to reconnect? Are you willing to apologize? Are you healthy and strong enough to accept they might not accept your apology?

If you miss someone and you truly want them back in your life, you've gotta be willing to be humble, you've gotta be willing to take responsibility for allowing the relationship to slip without projecting any of that on the other person, and you've gotta be prepared for the other person to turn you down flat. It's that simple. That is your choice. You cannot predict what the other person will say, or do, and that's ok. If the only way to resolve a disconnected relationship is by permanently closing the door, then so be it. At least you've got closure...see what I did there. Hopefully the person on the receiving end of your effort will also make the choice to be humble, to take responsibility, and to apologize. Or maybe it truly is all your fault and you've just got to eat that. Or maybe the reconnection process won't have an ounce of drama at all and you can just pick up where you left off.

The point is, you are in control of your half of every relationship. If you're missing someone, take consistent, solid, repeating steps to bridge the gap. Make the choice to invest in that relationship and make it a priority. Maybe it will blossom, maybe it will fizzle into obscurity, but either way you can say you tried your best and are taking steps to improving your relationships with others.

Retrain Expectations
One of my favorite things about being around other people is how much I learn. Everyone is so different...even those I am close to and deeply care about sometimes have different opinions from me. It's incredibly interesting to me when a large group of people engage in friendly, intelligent debate. I love watching reactions, seeing tempers quietly flare, and feeling the passion coming off everyone in the room.

But the flip side to this diversity is that you won't always see eye to eye. Yes, it is great to hear other perspectives, but sometimes those perspectives work against the relationship you're trying to form.

A perfect example of this is my tendency to be extremely territorial of those I care about. For someone who considers herself a half-empath, I sure do turn my back on how others feel when they try and become a part of my close knit-relationship circle. Now I could wax poetic about how I was isolated and bullied as a kid and dip deep into the psychological reasons behind why I am the way I am, but then this post would be 400 more words and to be honest my kid will be up from her nap real soon here so let me just say - I am extremely territorial. Do not encroach on my relationships with others or behave in any way that I could perceive as threatening to the bonds I've worked tirelessly to maintain. I speak about this at length in my understanding territorial behaviors in females post - I get to "cut-a-B" levels when I feel like my relationship with someone I love is disrespected.

Unfortunately, those who are new to the group or who have not met me or know anything about my history don't understand this. They unknowingly walk right into the fire, a fire that burns as a deep grudge within my heart for way longer than it should. Did I mention I also suck at letting things go? I do. I suck at letting things go. Which is basically a death sentence for the new girl who tries to invite my best friend to coffee without me. First impression destroyed, wedge driven, mind shut.

Ultimately what this all leads to is me snarling in a corner while the newcomer looks around wondering why this lady is hunched over and snarling in the corner.

I need to retrain my expectations, you see. I cannot expect everyone to know my backstory. I cannot expect them to understand my version of a threat vs the traditional version of a threat. They do not and cannot read my mind. The same can be said of friends who've known me my whole life. They don't always know how I'm feeling. They cannot always understand why I'm upset. And instead of holding that against them, I need to understand this is the flip-side of the diversity that I love and hold so dear to my heart in almost every other circumstance.

Because we are different, we are never 100% one. This is the joy and this is also the sadness. I'm gonna hafta be a big girl and explain myself...which I've gotten better at doing over the years (lots of practice! heh heh! Hehe...ugh). I'm going to need to practice forgiveness and compassion. And yes, I'm going to need to provide for and tend to my own feelings instead of expecting them to be constantly met and coddled by those around me. Friends are wonderful, but like I said before, relationships are enhancements to your life.....a life you, yourself need to build on a steady and sturdy base.

Release the Weight
It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while I need to let people go. I think a healthy part of renewing your life and your relationships with those around you is to occasionally step back and ask if the relationship is serving you well.

Now I purposely wrote this section under the "expectations" section because if you go looking for flaws in your relationships, you're bound to find one or two in every single one of them. Everyone judges your decisions, especially those who care about you and think they know better than you do. Some are outward about it and others try and remain neutral but everyone has an opinion and will judge you from time to time. There are ways to deal with that judgement, and ending relationships is not one of them.

But every so often there are relationships that need to be released. You don't need to hate the person, you don't need to not care about the person, but sometimes your efforts are better spent elsewhere. I wrote a pretty long post about dealing with painful people last fall when things really started to take a turn for the worst with my ex-husband. It is very hard to get me to a place where I will no longer try, but once that happens, I've mentally and emotionally closed the door on that relationship. I do it for my own safekeeping. I do it for the safekeeping of the relationships that truly do nurture my soul and understand me and see me for who I am. And I do so with the understanding that should anyone I once made an effort to love ever came to my door in need of food and shelter, I would open it to them without question. I don't beleive that love ever really dies. It just gets locked up. And that's ok.

If you have relationships in your life that are weighing you down instead of helping you fly, that make you feel worse about yourself than better, it might be time to close the door on that relationship. Hope that one day the person shows up on your doorstep changed and filled with perspective....but do not count on it. It's hard but this step is imperative to renewing the relationships you do have left...the ones with those who truly do love you and need your attention.

Ooze Gratuity
One of my biggest fears (outside of losing relationships because the other person randomly decides I am not what they want....another story for another time) is being taken for granted. Getting comfortable with your relationships is inevitable. You become intimately attuned to the other person's mannerisms....the same things don't make you laugh any more. The little quirks are no longer unique, they are just a part of that person's persona. The touches and phrases become routine instead of tingling. It's what happens, naturally, as part of a relationship's natural rhythm.

But screw rhythms. It's perfectly ok to be comfortable and secure. It's a completely different thing to become lazy. Relationships take work....lots and lots of work. They take discomfort and inconvenience and sacrifice. For the right person, especially in the beginning, that discomfort and inconvenience and sacrifice might not seem like work at all. But once you start to truly know another person, it takes unique, appreciative, and proactive thought processes to keep relationships alive.

I will forever be grateful to my best good friend cuz despite being friends for over 20 years, and despite me having kids and us both moving far far away from each other multiple times and despite relationship troubles and post-partum depression and changes to our circle of friends she has always, consistently made time for me on my own terms. She will come to me, she is flexible with me, she does not ask for anything in return except my willingness to go along with the plans she's already created. She calls me, she texts me, she deals with my crap, and I deal with her crap. We are far from perfect and we fight. But despite our differences I have so much appreciation in my heart for who she is and what she's done to keep our friendship alive over the years.

That kind of appreciation is often forgotten. We get bogged down and we forget to say thank you. We forget to pay it forward. We forget to return kindness with kindness. I am so, so guilty of not wanting to leave my house much. I like it here and this is where I am most comfortable. But I tell you what, you come over, and I'll try and reward your effort by feeding you good food and giving you all of my attention and treating you like the most honored king or queen in all the land.

You don't need to return kindness in the exact same way it is delivered. The idea is to simply return the kindness. Try. Make effort. Do the best you can without needing to be reminded that yes, it takes two to make things magic. Be grateful for those in your life and don't take them for granted. An appreciated relationship is a rewarding relationship.

I think the hardest part about tending to our relationships is the fact that we need to really look at ourselves and evaluate what we could be doing differently. Relationships include at least two people, always, but you as an individual can only control one side of that equation. Dive into your relationships with a grateful heart, an understanding spirit, a selective eye, and a willingness to view those you keep close as embellishments on a canvas that should already be sparkling with all the wonderful things you have to offer this world. Keep your garden clean, nurtured, and loved, and everyone will blossom :)

How do you handle the relationships in your life? Have you found children, work, or other priorities getting in the way of holding on to those outside of your own home? What's your favorite way to bring the "spark" back into your relationships? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading.


Looking for some unique ways to feel renewed? I've got you covered :) Check out the other posts in my 2017 Renewal Challenge:

Monday, February 6, 2017

2017 Renewal Challenge: Rest

One of my absolute favorite places in the whole wide world is my bed. I love laying down in my bed, reading in my bed...I've even been known to eat candy and cake and french fries in my bed. It's a place of comfort to me, where everything I need is right there at my fingertips and relaxation surrounds me.

Except lately. Lately I've been jumping onto my phone in the morning and at night and my pulse starts to quicken. We are a divided country and the things I see and hear and read keep me up at night, they inspire me to take action, they push my worries and anxiety into overdrive.

A little light reading before bed, yes Jen? How about getting drowned in inequality and rich man puppetry and shaming and removing the rights of others and fearing for your daughters' safety instead. Meh-heh-heh sweet dreams, Clarice! 

I've never really been one to just let things go. I completely suck at it, frankly. I dwell and obsess until the problem is resolved. This flaw of mine has an upside: it's instilled a sense of purpose to my life and I often find myself saying, "if you don't like it, do something about it." So I act a lot. Sometimes irrationally. Almost always reactively.

The activist within me hates to rest. The humanitarian within me feels guilty for resting. The young woman within me screams at me to get out and live before it's all over. And the mama within me shames me for not making the most out of my babies' childhoods while I still can.

Resting does not come easily to me. Resting is most definitely a challenge.

Release the guilt!
Everyone needs sleep and everyone deserves peace, even us well-off, white, suburban moms. My mind, recalling images of starving, war-ravaged children, often fights me on this. What do you have to complain about, Jen? What are you tired for? Do you have any idea how easy you have it? Are you appreciating your privilege enough? Are you getting lazy because it's "the American way?" What could you be doing instead of resting?

Every now and then, particularly when I'm around someone who validates a restful, relaxed lifestyle, I can coerce my brain into letting me shut down for a little while. But the guilt still seethes.

One of the only things that works for me is the reminder that without rest, I am acting with only a portion of my potential greatness. When I think about all the things I want to accomplish, when I actually envision myself on the ground, making things happen, I never imagine myself standing there with dark circles, a furrowed brow, and a hazy consciousness. Nope. The successful Jen in my dreams is always alert, quick-thinking, anticipating. She is confident, composed, ready. She most definitely is not yawning and snapping at her kids and bursting out in tears at ASPCA commercials.

The only way I can be the very best mom, friend, daughter, significant other, and Jen I can be is if I give myself permission to release my focus and zone out every now and then. Shut out the worries. Stash away the fear. Give my mind and my heart a break. Live fully in my privilege and realize that once I'm done resting, I'll get right back to working and passing freedom and privilege to others.

Have you heard of this yet? Hygge is a Danish word that kinda sorta means "coziness." It's an idea, or rather a collection of ideas, that purports our standard, ho-hum moments can be transformed into special, meaningful, delicious experiences simply by tending to the small stuff. Blankets, hot chocolate, soothing music, warm lighting, good company, long books, drawn-out meals....these are just a few things that can create hygge. The Danish have long winters with very little daylight, so they created hygge as a way to continue happy, healthy, appreciative, enjoyable lifestyles despite the bleakness outside. When we take the time to light candles, create warmth, and set the stage for comfort, we are forced to focus on that very moment - the attention to detail helps you appreciate the moment you've created for yourself and for others.

I tried my hand at hygge last week and wouldn't you know it? It was wonderfully restful. I lit a candle, I turned my TV into a cross-country train ride (check out SlowTV on Netflix), I brewed myself some tea, grabbed my blanket, and set out my seed catalogs. With each "settling in" step, I found myself anticipating the warmth, serenity, and relaxation ahead. My mind focused on creating a peaceful environment, one filled with things I love and find soothing. By the time I'd fallen into the beautiful abyss that is springtime seed planting, the worries I'd previously been obsessing over were shoved to the back burner. My mind was resting and it felt glorious.

Resting doesn't need to mean sitting on the couch watching TV. It doesn't need to mean sitting at all, actually. One of my favorite ways to rest is by way of creation. When I'm trying a new cookie recipe, I am resting. When I'm painting or coloring, I am resting. When I'm digging new seeds into the dirt, I am resting. Each of those things require a great deal of concentration and with every scoop of flour, splatter of paint, and sprinkle of seeds, my worries slip farther and father into the background.

Think of something enjoyable that challenges your brain and requires total focus. It could be swimming. It could be writing. Heck, it could be playing an online hidden object game. Write them down or save them to a note in your phone. Next time you find yourself getting overwhelmed and in need of rest, whip out that list and pick something, anything, to give yourself a break. The things you need to worry about will be there waiting, so give yourself permission to walk back to your problems refreshed and ready to tackle them with a clear head.

A Life of Seasons
Our world cycles back and forth, round and round, from sunny summer days to freezing winter nights. Our lives are no different. Sometimes we are stuck in a season of stress and inconsistency and worry. Sometimes we are flying high in a season of security and potential and excitement. Each season calls forward its own set of needs, including needs centered around rest and renewal. Sometimes we can go a whole week without needing a time out. Other times we need to take 10 time outs a day.  Your seasonal swings are natural and they are ok.

If you're not able to cope today, don't cope. Take care of the bare minimum obligations and then get out of your head for a little while. When your mind is telling you it can't do it, listen. Give it a rest. These sleepy, exhausted moments can carry on for a couple days - let them. You don't need to "make up for it," the next day, that will happen naturally once you've regained your strenth. Sometimes I can look at the world with a sense of awe and inspiration. Other times I see nothing but sadness and darkness. What goes up must come down.....every storm runs out of rain.....and change is the only constant. Allow yourself to circle round and round and accept the seasons of your life. The hard times create the contrast we need to truly recognize the light....so give yourself a break and rest up when you're feeling down.

It's not easy to clear our heads from the clutter of the day. I'm not going to lie, most of these posts I write here on this blog are for me. I can't tell you how many times I've revisited the blog and tried to remind myself of what I just said....like the one about being too busy living to be busy in any other way, or tips on how to stress less. I've read the dealing with judgement gracefully post more times than I can count. I write these things down to serve as reminders to myself. My head is at its peak darkness right before I rest. One of the very first things I do when I get to the point where I am about to explode from anxiety is (and this is gonna sound insane.....because it kinda is insane) I get on Google. I get on Google and I type my problem right in the search bar and I read. I read for perspective. I read for comparison. And once I've gotten my fill of internet insanity, I start to wean down my content into pieces that distract me and make me feel good.

You don't need to read blogs (although, let's face it, they're pretty dang fantastic). You can read poetry. You can look at pretty pictures. You can listen to music. You can watch funny videos. The point is to find content that is not social media (you cannot control or predict social media content) and use the content to propel you into a more restful state. Sometimes escaping to a good book or a 22-minute-long video of The Office outtakes is all you really need to center yourself. True story.

Resting does not come easily to some of us. This week's challenge is to find new, sustainable ways to rest so we can all operate during our active phases at our full potential. The monarch butterfly rests in that cocoon for two whole weeks before emerging in all of her beautiful glory.....pretty sure we can take a half hour to watch cats on YouTube, sip on tea, read a good blog post, and laugh.

What are your favorite ways to rest? Do you struggle to let go and really immerse yourself in relaxation? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below. As always, thank you so so much for reading :)

Looking for some unique ways to feel renewed? I've got you covered :) Check out the other posts in my 2017 Renewal Challenge:
Around the House


Monday, January 30, 2017

2017 Renewal Challenge: Eating

Hello again my lovely readers. I have missed you. I have some very exciting things to share with you, things that will explain my absence and hopefully inspire your creative side....but I am a mean ol' blogger and you'll need to wait to hear about those things until March.

You see, we have some renewing to tend to.

These last few days filled my heart with fear, anger, and pain. Our political climate is the most volatile I've ever personally seen it and as I sit back and let wave after wave of heartbreaking news crash over me, I find myself feeling extraordinarily powerless. I feel trapped and I feel afraid....and like most animals in my predicament, my first instinct is to bite, snap, and do everything in my power to regain control of the situation. But instead I read....I read everything I can. And instead I march. And instead I sign petitions. And donate money. Instead I have conversations with my daughters. I talk to my friends. I read a little more. And of course, I write.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my hope is that this series develops into a little bag of tricks we can tap into when our soul needs some healing. I started slow a few weeks ago, talking about how to renew our homes and the spaces around us, and will continue to "up the ante" each week and get a little closer to true introspection as time goes by. Today's post, therefore, doesn't come close to addressing the personal turmoil and anarchy that has moved into my soul as of late. Instead, I am staying dedicated to taking it slow...step by step....and maintaining hope that by the end, light will have reached all the dark places.

So today we talk about something simple....something we can control...something that is constant and biological and often times in need of reflection.....


I absolutely adore food, don't you? I love flavors and textures and trying new things. I have a super sensitive "spicy" palate that makes those around me laugh and I can devour an entire pizza all by my lonesome like any true All-American Woman should. I love cooking and testing out new recipes. One of my favorite things of all time is taking something I've grown, making it into a meal, feeding it to others, and watching their faces light up. Food is life and love and opportunity.

But then, on the flip side, there's my reflection in the mirror. I poke, pinch, grip, lift, squeeze, and prod at the areas of my body that don't match up with whatever perfect Jen image I've concocted in my head for the day. I notice dimples and wrinkles and more flesh in my hands and I start to despise food, or rather my disconnection from it, and begin to see food as an enemy. If I eat you, I lose. If I taste you, I've let myself down. It sometimes gets to the point where just an aftertaste of something I've recently eaten triggers feelings of immense guilt and shame. You've failed again, Jen. You weren't supposed to eat anything at all today. Let your body eat all the fat you've got, kay?


My relationship with food is quite two-faced.

It's times like these, when the winter cold and early dusk keep me inside and inactive, that those destructive and cloudy thoughts begin to shake my happiness tree. All the fruits of an active, healthy, happy summer and harvest season come plopping down around me and I start to sink in the mushy, stinky decay of self-loathing. Working out is no longer attractive. Eating good food is no longer attractive. Cooking is no longer attractive. In my head, I am no longer attractive. My entire being - heart, mind, and body - turns into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

And that's where this particular page of our renewal comes in. It's at this very moment, these most destructive times, that we need to find the courage to stop ourselves...pause, recognize we're sad, recognize it's ok to be sad, but then also recognize it's time to regain our happiness. Time to realign the power struggle. Time to reconnect to our plates in an intimate and loving way. Time to renew ourselves in the most basic and primal of forms.

Choices, Choices
The buzzwords are everywhere....organic, homegrown, GMO, pesticide-free, cage-free, free-range, hormone-free.....I don't need to tell you anymore that reading labels and choosing foods that are as close to nature as possible is by far the very best way to keep good food, and only good food, on your plate. Processed foods are no good. Fast food drive-thrus are no good. Excessive amounts of anything is no good. We know all this.

Contrary to popular belief, I do partake in all those no-good-things I mentioned above. It happens. I'm imperfect and I love to eat garbage, especially when I'm distraught. But I beg you, implore you, if you're looking to renew your eating habits and feel more connected to your food, quit the no-good-things. Quit them cold turkey. Forgive yourself when you mess up and then come back to the green side. I've found my sugar cravings go down when I decrease the amount of candy I eat. I found my cravings for McDonald's cheeseburgers go down when I stop eating McDonald's cheeseburgers. Weird how that works, hmm? Almost like, maybe, the manufacturers are placing addictive additives in those products that cause us to chemically depend on them and therefore want more...and more...and more....dunno, just a theory.

Producers, Producers
I absolutely love pork sausage. I buy pounds of it every month and use it in practically every meal requiring meat. Now I could just go to the store and buy a package of pork sausage made from pigs from all over the world....but instead I order my meat from a farm....with a farmer who comes out, himself, to deliver his product.

Remember that disconnection from our food I mentioned earlier? This is a beautiful way to reconnect. Meet the people who make your food. Listen to their stories, follow them on social media, and regain confidence in what you're eating. Using discretion when buying food reestablishes producer-to-consumer relationships that were long ago buried beneath the wheels of refrigerated trucks. As an added bonus? When you buy from someone you know, that someone is likely nearby. Eating in-season foods that naturally grow around you is incredibly beneficial to your health. And it's not as difficult as you might think...I break down some of my favorite "eating seasonally" tricks in this post.

Choose good things from good places delivered by good people. Such action reforges the broken chains of our food system and helps us connect to our food in very personal, responsible, and cooperative ways.

Grocery Shopping Woes
I don't think we'll ever be rid of grocery stores forever. I'd love to sit here and dream that we'll all one day have our own gardens and everyone will be more self-sufficient and the major food conglomerates will all go out of business...but one look at the McDonald's drive thru on a Saturday morning in 2017 when we all know that stuff ain't good clearly shows me people do not care enough to make my dreamland come to life. And similarly, I don't have the time to drive to a few different farms each week to get everything I need, and the local winters' market doesn't sell it all (yet....fingers crossed the food movement will one day make it so our farmers carry everything we need). Until then, we will always need grocery stores to feed our people.

And people, grocery stores are expensive. All those no-good-things I mentioned earlier? Well in addition to being more readily available and addictive, they're also cheaper. I'm a single mama with a chicken addiction and a big ol house of growing females to feed. I don't have the money to be dropping hundreds each week on food...even when I know the money is supporting organics and local food. I've found myself choosing between organic milk and grassfed butter recently. Eating good food on a budget is not as easy as they say, especially in the off-season when the ground is frozen, and especially if you're looking to get your shopping done at one place instead of 5.

And so I've found myself at Aldi recently. Yes. You heard me. This is not some kinda sponsored-blog-post thing, this is my real-life-learning-experience thing. I went there because I was gifted a gift card. I walked out with my mind blown. They had organic produce. Organic dairy. Organic snack crackers and cereals. They even had sprouted grain bread - sprouted grain bread! And let's face it, if the standards of organic labeling are slipping (which they are), then an organic pepper from Aldi is no lesser of an organic pepper than one from Trader Joes or Whole Foods or any of those other high-priced places. Frankly, if I have to shop at a grocery store, I'm not buying local anyways, so I may as well shop somewhere that allows me to stay within my budget and holds me over until my growing season starts.

Ideally I'd shop during the off-season at a co-op...because food co-ops are way better than any grocery store.....but my local co-op is not open yet. So until then, finding affordable ways to eat the food that makes me feel good is the way I'm heading.

Are you struggling to afford the good-for-you-foods? Get outside your comfort zone and try somewhere new. Maybe your winter farmers markets are better equipped than mine - farmers market prices are comparable or even cheaper than grocery stores, especially when you're buying organic.

You might've caught me mentioning the "off-season" up there in that previous section....here in northern Illinois, food doesn't start popping up till the ground thaws sometime in May, and even then, we are short on the fun stuff (tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, summer squash, cauliflower) until August at the earliest. I've tried my hand at growing things for the past three years and only last year did I produce enough to preserve anything for the winter.

Gardening is by far the most cost-effective, enriching way to connect to our food. I wrote an entire Growing a Garden Series based on my experiences and the tips and tricks I wish I knew in years 1 and 2 of my gardening adventure. It takes time, yes, and money upfront, yes, but once you get into your groove, and start to literally bear the fruits of your labor, there is nothing more satisfying or fulfilling than eating healthy, delicious food from your own backyard. This is my favorite eating renewal tip - grow something!

Meal Planning
It might seem like a no-brainer, meal planning, but it's hard. Meal planning is hard. You've gotta look at what you have, and compare it to what you need, and then compare all that to what you ate last week, and see if you can turn anything into multiple meals, and take your work schedule into consideration, and plan for days when you have the kids or don't have the kids, and keep meals on hand for nights when plans fall through or you're running late.

But it's so, so worth it.

I do not like cooking when I'm in my food funk mood. I don't want to eat healthy, I want to sit and be fed and then sleep. Cooking requires me to get up, take action, think, prepare. I don't like doing any of those things when I'm depressed. I just want to be watching Netflix.

But can I please tell you, once I'm in there, and I toss that garlic into the olive oil, and I add some meat and veggies, and the smell of homemade biscuits hits my nose, I feel something....and it's not the shadowy feeling I felt on the couch while watching Netflix.....it's like a high. I get high off productivity. And meal planning forces me to be productive. If I have a menu sitting there I know I've got ingredients, many of which are perishable, sitting around waiting on me to dice them up before they go bad. If I have a menu sitting there I know I've spent time and money selecting a good healthy meal for my family. If I have a menu sitting there I don't need to scramble to throw something together, I just need to get up and cook it.

Meal planning motivates me to cook, keeps me on a nice grocery budget, assures I use everything in my fridge and pantry, and eliminates some of the stress of serving dinner. I feel better when I cook. I feel better about what I eat and I feel joy when others eat what I serve. It's a lovely experience once I get off my butt and get to it...which is what my weekly menu gently nudges me to do.

You might not be good at it. Do it anyways. You might not particularly like it. Do it anyways. If you are looking to renew your relationship with eating, you gotta learn how to create the things you eat. Start small. Have your kids help you cook. Take a weekend and create a bunch of freezer meals and basics like homemade bone broth or pasta sauce so when you're short on time, your meal is just a jar away.

And I challenge you to step away from the microwave. Try making tortillas from scratch. Mix up your own buttermilk. I do this super-amazing thing where I make double the recipe of some of my favorite sauces and then freeze half of them so next time I make that meal, I can be lazy.

Cooking connects you to your food much like purchasing from a farmer connects you to your food - it injects personality and emotion and effort into your eating experience. I feel proud when I serve food I've cooked. I am proud of myself and I want to keep cooking because I feel good about what I've accomplished. I don't get that same satisfaction from microwaved chicken nuggets. Granted, I'll get nuggets....so that's always a win....but there's always something missing from that experience...something that causes me guilt later.

Give cooking a shot. Start small - make macaroni and cheese or chicken and rice or ravioli. It's an experience that leads to a deeper appreciation for what you're putting into your body. 

The Physical Act of Eating
When I lived in Europe one of my favorite culture shocks was the dining experience. No waiters bugging you every five minutes, no time limit on how long you can sit and talk, and absolutely zero pressure to buy anything. Every restaurant I ate at, from Germany to France to Luxembourg, shared this one thing in common: let them eat.

I still notice the difference today in America. Every time I go out to eat, the waiter or waitress will come by my table 3, 4, sometimes 5 times in under an hour to "check" on us. He will ask me if I want to see desserts before I've finished packing up my entree. She will bring the check well ahead of when I've finished sipping my drink. There is a urgency to turn, turn, turn the tables and get more people in, get them fed, get them out. It's sad to me - and in my opinion, completely indicative of the disconnection Americans have with their food and eating experiences.

I loved sitting at the heavily-carved wooden tables and laughing and talking for hours - literally hours - over my half-finished plate of schnitzel and pomme fritz. I loved that I had to wave wildly and flag someone down if I needed something instead of getting interrupted moments before sharing heartbreaking news, or delivering a hilarious punchline, or getting kissed by someone I love. I adored eating in Europe because it was about the experience of breaking bread with others - not about flipping tables as fast as you could.

Eating in America has become a frenzied, frantic action of "squeeze in a quick lunch" or "I gotta get out of there within the hour." We eat on the go - supper in a sack, breakfast in a cup. In the case of green smoothies, this is an entirely acceptable solution to a poorly-planned morning, but everyday? Or on a nice night out? Or for dinner every night? All that time spent cooking....just to get up and walk away from the table 10 minutes later?

I've worked very hard to slow down my eating....to try and taste my food, to talk to those around me. A few years ago I implemented a "how was your day" practice around my dinner table. Now my four-year-old initiates it every night. "How was your day today, Mama? What did you do today? Tell me all about it!" Her little voice is like a rolling and bubbling stream....it's soothing. And it connects me to my plate, the moment, the people around me. I learn about my kids and what they're thinking and experiencing.

Slow down. Take a breath. Relax. Make it about every bite, not every plate. And enjoy those around you.

Eating is supposed celebration of flavor and life, dear readers. It is intended to be a source of nourishment and enjoyment, a respite from the chores that never seem to leave our side. In a world that is increasingly chaotic, one truth always remains....we all gotta eat. Eating can be transformative in all the right ways - it just needs to be approached with a sense of joy and purpose.

And to all the readers out there who, like me, hate food this time of year, be kind to yourself. Be gentle. Try to renew your relationship with food. And remember, those blessed enough to live a long life rarely look back and say, "I wish I hadn't eaten so much pizza and cake. I wish I hadn't had that second glass of wine. I wish I'd spent less time laughing around the table and more time working out at the gym." We all hope for a happy and healthy life. Let's make it so and start loving the way we eat.

Do you struggle with food this time of year? What are your favorite ways to stay aligned with nature and nourishment during these cold winter months? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading!

Monday, January 2, 2017

2017 Renewal Challenge: Around the House

Welcome, dear readers, to Week 1 of the Flaws, Forgiven Renewal series. I wanted to kick 2017 off with some positive, practical, and easy ways to rejuvenate our daily lives....cuz let's face it, after 2016, we're all feeling a little less-than-fresh.

Each week in January we'll bring the renewal challenges up a notch, graduating from easy tasks around the house to more challenging suggestions aimed at evaluating and lightening the soul. My hope is that by the end of this series we'll have a happy lil' bag of tools and ideas to gently, joyfully guide us through these last winter months.

To start things off we're gonna go literal......how can we embrace renewal around the house?

Now I know what I'm you're thinking. Jen, what is this, little miss Suzy Homemaker time? I don't need to be told to clean my crap up. I know how to clean and if I don't, it's cuz I don't wanna. I get you. But hear me out. Our environment always, always affects us, whether we want it to or not, whether we admit it or not, whether we realize it or not. These next few ideas may sound simple, but can have profound effects on our emotional, spiritual, and yes, physical well-being. And it's not even all about cleaning, kay?

Ok so this one, tiny suggestion really is all about cleaning. I promise this is the only one. I'm not going to suggest you implement a weekly routine, or print out a checklist, or get down and scrub grout. I am instead going to suggest you find one thing, one element of your house that hasn't been touched in a while, and try to make it look new again. It could be the grease trap over your stove. It could be the windows. It could be the baseboards. Find one category or thing in your house, preferably something you can see or notice every single day that drives you nuts, and clean the ever-lovin' crap out of it. Like the stained shower curtain you always stare at when you're going pee. Or the dirty spot of carpet you see every time you do yoga. Or the books in your bedroom that are obnoxiously leaning in the wrong direction. Find something that makes you squirm and roll your eyes and clean it.

My go-to, feel-good cleaning task (and this sounds insane) is scrubbing my walls. I never, ever wipe down my walls, ever....so in every room of this house there are smudges, crusty bits of something, hand prints, dust (that's right, it can collect vertically, on a wall), hair, and weird splotches of liquid from gosh only knows where. Once a year I go around my house with a wet cloth in one hand and a dry cloth in the other and I wipe down my walls. I wipe down the corners. I wipe down the wall behind my kids' dinner chairs. I wipe down light switches and the areas over our heater vents. I wipe down the walls surrounding the sinks and around the door frames. And when I'm done, guess what? I get to walk into my bedroom and not be like, "who the hell flung toothpaste onto the wall next to my bed!" Renewal!

The amount of things in my home overwhelms me. Sometimes I get the biggest urge to pick everything up and throw it on the street....and I mean everything. All these stupid "coordinating desk items" that are staring at me right now as I type, for instance, are toeing the line. They say clutter and mess weighs on your person and can influence your mood the minute you wake up. They say it sucks up your energy even when out of sight, like in a closet or a basement. I say it's just annoying, moving things to clean, washing things because they sit there and get dirty, finding places for things to go when I'm tryin to impress people with a clean house. The less we have, the more we have.

A surefire way to get rid of stuff is to give everything an expiration date. If I don't touch a baking pan at least once a year, for example, I don't need it. Even if someday I might host a party that might make use of a special ribbon-shaped bake pan, oh well. I'll hafta bake with one of the pans I kept and used regularly, instead. Hair care and personal beauty products might have a shorter shelf life. If I don't use that bottle of straightening balm at least once a month, I don't need it. And no, nobody wants it. Throw it away and remember this feeling the next time you're faced with a shelf full of expensive hair products that you think you've gotta have, Jen. Same with clothes, same with toys, same with keepsakes and cards and photos. It's not easy, throwing away or donating things I've spent money on or become attached to, but the feeling I have when I open that closet or cabinet and see my very favorite things sitting there, smiling at me from a clean and uncluttered spot on the shelf, makes me ridiculously happy. Renewal!

Let the light in....literally. Every morning I get up and walk around my house opening the curtains, even if it's not entirely light out yet. Now I am no morning person, so I look more like the stepmother than Cinderella when I throw open those shades, but when that morning light filters in it absolutely changes my mood. We as humans need light to see by but light is also used to judge the time of day, to orient us to our surroundings, to help us gauge the heat or coolness of the day. Light is vital to the management and stability of our internal clocks; allowing yourself to fall into rhythm with the light of each season helps your body undergo the natural cycles intended for all living creatures. Winter is a time of rest. Let yourself be cocooned in darkness a few hours early. If you're like me and you can't reasonably go to bed at 4:30PM, invest in some pretty lamps with gentle glows, or better yet, have a few nights where candlelight is your guide. Light is a fantastic source of energy and heat, so if you're feeling depressed or cold, get creative, lean on our shared sky, and let the light shine through. Renewal!

This is maybe my favorite suggestion of the week. One of the best things in the whole wide world is taking something that would've gone in the trash and turning it into something awesome I can use and enjoy for as many years as I want. There's a little bit of backstory to this one....you see, I have two small kids, a young dog, a cat, and chickens. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in or outside of my home is safe from destruction. I've made the foolish mistake of purchasing nice, white, clean, pretty, fragile, Mama-only things before, and they almost always get broken, smashed, massacred, stained, scratched, or chewed. And it makes me angry when my things get broken. And then I get angry that I am angry about things getting broken.

It's way, way easier to furnish my home with things I don't care so much about. Things that I found on the side of the road. Things somebody gave me. Things destined for the trash. Free things. Lost things. Repurposed things. These things, when broken, do not represent a loss of money (something I constantly stress about) and are easy to replace (I'll just make another one). It's really, really freeing to have things I enjoy but do not need to protect or covet. My most recent project included an old kitchen window and some sample paints from the hardware store. I am not the best artist, and to some this thing is not worthy of primo-wall-space right over my dining table, but I love the bright colors and the reminder that spring is coming. I painted a symbol of rebirth in rejuvenating colors on a repurposed window...and I absolutely love it. And guess what...if it breaks, I can just toss it out, no tears necessary. Renewal!

Sometimes no amount of lipstick will make you wanna kiss a pig. I mean if we're really talking about kissing pigs here, I would kiss any of them with or without lipstick, no questions asked, but I digress....Sometimes you really do need new sheets. Sometimes your towels are gross and falling apart. Sometimes you see a beautiful throw pillow and you imagine yourself sinking into it and you smile and decide you're gonna buy it. It's ok to replace things in your home. The only warning I have is to be sure the items you're purchasing really are replacing something else - not simply adding to a collection. Be sure to live within your means and really think about the item you're replacing.  Bonus points if you take the old item and find a creative way to repurpose it.

I always, always splurge on bedding. My bed is my sacred space and blankets, to me, are like wrappable clouds from heaven. I own three sets of sheets, all of them GOTS-certified and organic, because I am a prissy bed queen and I gotta accept that. I take time a few times a month to air out my bed, wash my sheets, and cycle on through to the next set. I'm bonkers about soft blankets. This is my area of excess. But I feel like I redeem myself when the sheets start to go...because I turn them into pillowcases or curtains for the chickens (chickens need window treatments too). And then I buy new bedding. And I feel guilty about it for exactly 5-6 hours until I sink into that freshly-made bed and let out the most genuine and joyful sigh I've ever felt in my whole life. Replacing old, worn, broken things is ok. Consider it an improvement to your environment and enjoy every bit of the selection process. Renewal!

Renewing your home and the area around you can be as simple or as detailed as you like. If you find you enjoy the deep-cleaning process, or the decluttering process, or repurposing things around your house, do it again. If you hate it, try another idea. Pay special attention to the areas around your home where you spend the most time. A few small changes to your physical surroundings will positively impact you spiritually and emotionally...and what better way to start the new year?

I'd love to hear some of the ways you're renewing things around your home in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading :) Happy New Year!


Monday, December 19, 2016

Creating Grateful Kids at Christmastime

Buy them a Hatchimal, the end.


I am absolutely, 100% kidding. Hatchimals are not the answer, people.  

I remember being a kid and coming down the stairs and seeing the Christmas lights reflecting off the wrapping paper. There's nothing quite like the feeling of seeing that tree transform into a crowning, glorious king standing over boxes containing all things possible. What's in those packages? What might I get? It could be anything in there. I loved that feeling. I want my kids to feel that feeling.

So I buy them Christmas presents. I often spend more than I should. I am similar to many other imperfect parents out there - I want nothing more than a joyful, exceptional, educational childhood for my two daughters. I spend money I should really be putting toward my credit card bill, or waterproof boots, or truck repairs, or my student loans, because in my Christmas head, my kids' happiness is more important. And presents = happiness, right?

It takes me hours to pick out their gifts. I open maybe 4-5 Amazon windows at once and compare what's on sale to what's on their wish lists and price check with other vendors and calculate shipping costs and timetable delivery windows and compare how much I've spent on each kid and then, finally, I'm ready to order.

The boxes arrive and I stash them away, checking beforehand to ensure everything was delivered, again calculating who will get what and did I get enough for it to look equal for each girl and which present should be from Santa and which from me?

Then comes wrapping time. I spend hours upon hours wrapping things perfectly, signing Santa's name just so, picking out the perfect bows and making each package look as pretty as I can with these goshdang dull ass scissors, why haven't I replaced them yet, is this glue on my scissors? Am I seriously out of scotch tape again?

Hiding wrapped gifts is always a challenge. Shove them under the bed this year? What about that one cat who loves to eat shiny things? Is there room in the closet? What about when your youngest wants to grab your yoga mat "for you" out of there? Do I have enough clothes to hide them? How about the basement? The mice aren't active yet, right?

Finally, the day arrives. Christmas Eve. The kids get into bed and fall asleep late because they are so excited and you are also excited because it's time to play Santa. Time to arrange the presents just so, carefully stacking them so each and every label faces out, each package manipulated so it fits perfectly and every last present can be seen. I prop them up and rearrange and shift low-hanging ornaments around and tuck and balance and finally, finally, it is done. I pour myself a drink and sit there on the couch, smiling and glowing at my accomplishment in the colorful, dim light given off by the tree. They are going to be so happy, I say. And then I go to sleep.

Christmas morning breaks and the sound of hurried little feet wakes the whole house and soon it is present time. Ripping, paper, plastic, ribbons in pieces.

And, inevitably, smiles. But then, like a pin to a balloon, you catch a glimpse of downturned eyes. Maybe even tears. I asked Santa for _____ and it's not here or I was really hoping for _____, but I guess this is ok too. Or, and this is the most gut-wrenching reaction in my humble opinion, no smiles at all, just a whooshing sound as the gift you worked so hard to pick out is tossed into a pile of forever forgotten and unappreciated.

Sometimes, dear readers, kids are straight asshats.

I've tried very hard to teach my children to find joy in the little things. To be grateful for the big things. To keep the perspective....but truth be told, it's hard for me to accomplish those things. I get just as excited when I buy things I really want. I get just as disappointed when someone spends money on something I didn't really need. I'm just better at hiding it.

But there is something to be said about learning gratuity at an early age. Maybe if I'd learned to practice being happy in the moment a few years earlier, I wouldn't be so gosh-awful at it right now. Maybe if I'd learned to ween off my attachment to things when I was younger, I wouldn't be so stuck in a traditional American lifestyle today. Maybe there are things I can do to help create a sense of gratefulness and joy in my kids regardless of what's under the tree. Practice makes perfect, amirite?

Teach manners
The very first thing a kid should say after getting a present is thank you. I don't care if they love it or not, I don't care if they just started talking last year, that kid should know and understand "thank you" as an automatic response to getting anything. It's basic manners and believe me, kids are capable of executing this one.

I didn't insist on this enough with my oldest and she still, at ten years old, needs to be reminded to say thank you. My four year old, however, was taught at a very young age that if Mama gets something for her, she needs to say thank you before that object is handed over to her. Kid training, manipulation, white lies, call it what you will.....kids need to say thank you. Letting this one slide opens up a world of ungrateful behavior possibilities in the future.

Teach privilege
Show them what underprivileged looks like. When you visit the city to go Christmas shopping explain on the ride over about people on the streets who have no homes, no food, no money, and no closets full of toys. Show them videos and pictures of kids from other areas of the world. Show them how one dirty teddy bear is a most treasured possession in some families.

There's a vast number of people who believe this type of awareness is "too mature" for kids. Let them keep their innocence, this group tells me...and to that I argue, if a child's "innocence" leads to selfishness and a warped sense of entitlement, egocentrism, and ignorance, then perhaps a little loss of "innocence" is a necessary and needed component of parenting. We can, being parents after all, select which images to show them, how to explain it to them, and how best to teach them about the realities of life. What a precious and important opportunity to move our young and beautiful minds in a more productive, empathetic, and gracious direction.

Teach hardship
Make them go without. Kid complaining about not having the same motorized scooter as that kid next door? Take their bike away. Kid not capable of following your very specific and repeated instructions about brushing their teeth? Make them mix up the next batch of homemade toothpaste instead of having free time. Kid not wanting to eat what you make for dinner? Send their butt to bed 'till you're done enjoying your meal. Kid not wanting to help fold laundry? Stop washing their clothes for a week and tell them to solve their own problems when they're getting ready for school and they have no underwear.

This can be done for younger kids too. I am not as extreme with my youngest yet, she is still at that beautiful age where she pretty much appreciates her food and listens to my instructions. But that doesn't mean I get to slack on teaching her how things come to be. I talk to her about where the water comes from. I show her how hard it is to grow something from a seed. She understands the sacrifice involved in standing outside in the cold and scraping the truck down so we can drive into town. You can teach hardship without it being a punishment. The point is to highlight the secret, hidden efforts that hum in the background of everything we're blessed to have in this country.

Teach wonder
Joy lives in the small things! The best part about this particular point? It already comes natural to your kids. Children live in the minute, moment-to-moment, and truly find magic in the smallest places. Encourage and support this by allowing them to explore, get dirty, and be independent. Show them wonder in your own way - do a quick science experiment. Do a cooking lesson. Do some crafts. Do some magic shows. Do some puppet shows. Do some writing. Do some art. Do some hiking.

Do you get the picture? heh heh heh seewhatididthere! Kids who find wonder in the small things are the same kids who get a Christmas present, pop the bow off, hold it to their little hearts, and exclaim "thank you!" with tears in their eyes, thinking the bow is the present. That kind of mentality is hard to keep as expectations crowd around them....but with some encouragement and modeling at home, magic can be found everywhere.

Teach generosity
It's better to give than to receive, eh? Tell that to my empty bank account. That is what my evil Kermit tells me each time I see a red bucket, a Toys for Tots box, or another GoFundMe link. Thankfully I've learned to tune out my evil Kermit years ago.

Once you start giving you realize it really isn't the money and stuff that makes you happy - it's getting rid of it that frees your soul. Spending on others is ridiculously rewarding, especially when done regularly. I often let fear get in the way of giving. I'm afraid - I need to feed my own kids, or get my own kids presents, or have enough to pay our own bills.....but over the years as I've spontaneously given to people who I believe truly need it, I've learned the money, in all of its irrelevant glory, always finds a way back to me. I gave more this year, the year of my divorce and single-mama-starting point, than I ever did when married....and guess what, I've not been shoved out of my house or stranded in the gutter or forced to eat moldy bread.

Teach the lesson of trust and responsible giving to kiddos. Teach them to give whenever they can. Give money. Give time. Give love. A generous heart is a grateful and thankful heart. Give often.

Teach value
Money has no value other than that which we place on it ourselves. And guess what...the same can be said about every other thing in our lives. We get to choose what has value and what does not. It's our decision as smart, brainy lil humans. And it's a skill we can teach to our kids.

Materialism is constantly calling to me. Buy the nicest car, have the cutest curtains, make sure the kids are dressed in the best clothes. These desires often capitalize on deep-seeded insecurities about acceptance....I want to be liked....I want to be viewed a certain way. It's a losing battle that even kids feel, especially on the playground when the ever-present love and acceptance of mama and home is dulled by distance. Teach kids to value themselves over their possessions. Teach kids how to value the food instead of the plates the food sits on. Teach them to place value on relationships, human interactions, words, music, art, animals, and nature. Teach them the riches in the soil and the riches around the dinner table. Those are the things that hold value - and the sooner they learn that, the sooner their Christmas lists will detail things that fill their hearts and minds and souls instead of toy closets.

Now I know what you might be thinking. And I agree. These lessons are a mite unrealistic, aren't they? I mean, I love presents. How can I expect my kids not to? And the answer is that this isn't about not wanting presents - it's about truly appreciating the ones you get.

And, my dear readers, these lessons don't mean a thing when they're not exemplified at home. It is critical to not only point out and teach manners, privilege, hardship, wonder, generosity, and value, but to lead by example. Half the reason my kid loves the snow is because I giggle like a schoolgirl when it falls from the sky. I'll wake them up just to show them a full moon and hold them in my arms and sing them soft songs before returning them to bed. I'll jump up and down when I find our first pumpkin of the season. I try and sing loudly even when I'm sad. Kids are watching you - and that is perhaps the most important part of teaching, being aware of what you actions and your responses say to your students.

Kids are kids. They will make mistakes and behave like jerks and test patience and they won't learn any of these lessons overnight. The point, however, is to give them the chance. A book is useless until it's picked up. A message is irrelevant until it's heard. And presents don't mean a thing until they are received by a grateful heart.

What do you do to teach your kiddos generosity? If you're not a parent, what types of challenges do you endure when dealing with the kids around you at Christmastime? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading! Merry Christmas :)