Tag Archives: minimalism

Chocolate or Vanilla?

When I underwent emotional intelligence training, my coach asked me the question, “Chocolate or vanilla?” over and over. Now, my partner and I use that phrase frequently as we live our life together. It always makes me smile.

Life is ridiculously complicated. At other times, it’s ridiculously simple. Our experience lies in the heart of this paradox.

Chocolate or vanilla is about choice, and the recognition and reclamation of our ability to choose is the core of emotional intelligence.

Choice is about power.

One of the many seeds that inspired this post was this article that appeared in my news feed from The Guardian: “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer if You Can Afford It.” It caught my attention because my reflex now is to question all these kinds of assertions, whether they are a result of my own beliefs or someone else’s.

Is that true? I asked myself.

Upon reading the article, I discover the author is making a point that earning a living by writing is difficult. Agreed. Does that mean one is not a writer if they don’t earn a living writing? That depends on how one defines what a writer is. This circles around to identity. What is a writer? What is a real writer?

Why does it matter? If a person is compelled to write, they do so. Debating what a “real” writer is, making rules about what “counts” as writing (Editing? Tech writing? Poetry? Published writing? Unpublished writing? Writing for money? Blogging for free?). Gathering statistics about the high costs of publishing, editing, hiring an agent, advertising, etc., seem to me distractions from writing, even if it’s only for twenty minutes a day.

Is the issue about choosing to live creatively or about managing our expectations about such a life and feeling disempowered by the attendant difficulties in earning a living via our creativity?

The tone of the article bothers me because it’s focused negatively. It’s about being creatively disempowered because the world is the way it is. It’s all the reasons why writers can’t be successful (whatever that means) unless they have a certain amount of money.

I don’t accept that.

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Why not think about what is possible? Where is our power? The author states that space and time cost money. Is that true? We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We make hundreds of choices about how we spend that time. Some of our choices are unconscious, and some are not. The minimalism movement speaks to this. If our lives are so busy, noisy and cluttered that we don’t give our creative longings (or whatever else matters most to us) time and space, we’re the only ones who can fix that. And make no mistake, we can fix it. We have the power to simplify our lives and identify what matters most to us. If we want to. If we consent to.

As I observe myself and others navigate through their lives, it’s easy to pick out those who feel powerless from those who acknowledge at least some power. Note that power does not mean control. Power is “the ability to do something or act in a particular way.” Control is “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” (Online Oxford Dictionary) Power is intrinsic. Control is extrinsic.

It strikes me that when we feel disempowered about one thing, we frequently expand that feeling to our whole lives. We feel victimized, stuck, fearful, hopeless and helpless. Often, we’re enraged by the unfairness of life. We desperately try to find a sense of control. Our default is to stay focused on all the places we have no power, no matter what the situation.

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That focus is a choice. It might be unconscious, but it’s still a choice.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I know we each have obligations, complicated lives, and most of us need to earn a living. As a single mother of two boys, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, did volunteer work and took online courses to complete a college degree. Believe me, I know about being overwhelmed in life. During those years I also danced, told stories, wrote, and created visual art, because that’s who I am. I didn’t earn money with my creativity, but it was what kept me going in all the other areas of my life.

I understand that sometimes we are disempowered by addiction and/or other health issues, and we are unable to make choices because of it. In that case, we need help, and we can choose to get it. Or not.

Chocolate or vanilla?

As for space, writing can happen on a bed, on the floor, on a park bench, in a car, or in a Starbucks. In my life, I’m not at all sure where the boundary is between writing and living. I seem to always be doing both, whether or not I’m actually at the keyboard or with a pen in my hand.

Being creative is not the same as an ambition to get rich and famous via our work. If the goal is riches and fame, we’ve stepped out of our power. Then we’re going to need money, influence, professional support, and a lot of luck. Even if we do achieve fame, financial security and glory, however, let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll still need to manage our money and time, and we’ll still have exactly as much time as everyone else does.

We’ll still have to choose between chocolate and vanilla every minute, and if we refuse to choose, somebody else will choose for us.

We can’t reclaim or effectively hold onto our power unless we’re willing to question everything, and questioning everything is not supported in this culture. If we’re not living the life we want, there’s one important question to ask:

If we feel disempowered, do we want to feel differently? Do we consent to change?

Most of us will immediately say yes, of course we don’t want to feel disempowered! What a stupid question! BUT we can’t, because we have no money. We have no time. We have health limitations. We can’t find work, or we have work, but our boss hates us. Our commute is too long. We don’t have the space we need. Nobody loves us. Nobody cares. We’re alone. We’re too old. We’re too young. We’re too tired. We’re the wrong color or sex. Nothing and no one is the way we need them to be in order for us to live in our power.

The truth is that our personal power has nothing to do with the people around us or the way the world works. Only one person can fundamentally disempower us, and that person looks back at us out of the mirror.

Another unwelcome truth is that many people who feel chronically disempowered are getting some kind of a payoff for staying stuck in that place.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

This hidden payoff is a hard, hard thing to admit and excavate, take it from me. Our defenses rise, our feelings boil, our beliefs become more fanatical, all our old wounds bleed. Hidden payoffs are buried deeply in psychic war zones. Many of us never go there unless we’re forced to by some kind of a catastrophic, life-and-death situation.

I started this post on a Tuesday morning. I was sitting at my little workstation in my attic space next to an open window. The air was fresh and cool. It was misty out, and I could hear the spring song of birds. I opened my laptop and skimmed headlines about politics, COVID-19, and overnight killer tornados in Tennessee. There was the seductive content on my screen, manipulated by the media, Google, and advertising. Then there was the world outside my window, gentle, lovely, moist, and promising the new beginning of spring.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I shut the laptop, picked up a clipboard and pen, and began this post long hand, the old-fashioned way, in my chair in front of an open window.

Choice. Personal power. I am a writer. My daily crime.

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Integrity

Oxford Online Dictionary lists several meanings for integrity: “The quality of being honest …, the state of being whole and undivided, the condition of being unified …, internal consistency.” Integrity is an important piece of emotional intelligence. Like success, integrity is a quality we define for ourselves. If we don’t do so, the world is filled with people who will impose their idea of integrity upon us.

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Integrity is not about optics. We’re all familiar with people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Internal consistency and wholeness mean our words, actions, intentions, thoughts and feelings work together. Integrity is not flashy, sexy, loud, or the center of attention. It’s a quiet, steady reliability; a deliberate and focused intentionality.

Integrity is not by any means perfect, or a destination. It’s a daily practice. It holds us accountable and responsible for our choices.

From an emotional intelligence perspective, the practice of integrity begins with keeping our word to ourselves. It also requires authenticity, or honesty. It sounds simple, but when I first began thinking about integrity, I felt blank. Honesty, yes, I could get a handle on that. I don’t cheat or steal. That seemed to me a superficial look at integrity, however. I wanted to push deeper into it than cheating and stealing.

At the same time I was learning emotional intelligence, I was reading a book titled The Energy of Money by Maria Nemeth, Ph.D. Several pages are devoted to excavating one’s individual standards of integrity. It’s a fascinating and provocative exercise, starting with exploring who we pretend we are, who we’re afraid we are, and who we really are. Nemeth provides a series of exercises, at the end of which I had a 3 x 5 card with six to eight words or short phrases that seemed, at that point in time, to be the bare bones of my integrity.

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Then I came to Maine and my whole life changed. For a long time, I felt myself to be in utter chaos. I still had the card with my standards of integrity on it, stuck in The Energy of Money like a bookmark.

Gradually, the dust settled. I stood up tall again and looked around me. I began to master emotional intelligence, transformed my health with a different way of eating, and wrote myself out of confusion, loss and my old life. I reread The Energy of Money, and the book, along with other resources, helped me heal my relationship with money. I put the card with my standards of integrity on my bulletin board in my work space, where I could look at it every day.

Then I encountered the idea of minimalism about a year ago. I gave up my habit of making lists, and lists of lists. I developed a practice of reverse listing—taking brief daily notes about how I in fact do spend my time—rather than making long lists of what I HAVE to do or SHOULD do. I worked on feeling good about what I do accomplish instead of focusing on what I’m not accomplishing. I started to trust myself to the flow of each day and where my curiosity, creativity and standards of integrity led me.

Integrity does not provide me with a higher moral ground or a sense of righteousness. I don’t wear it like a medal. In fact, more often than not, it requires me to deal with life in ways I’d much prefer to avoid, like having difficult conversations with people, allowing myself to be seen and heard, or making hard choices and dealing with painful consequences.

Minimalism is, for me, largely about keeping it simple. One day I took my 3 x 5 card and started re-working my standards of integrity. I wasn’t happy with the language, and my life had changed a great deal since I had first written them.

I had changed a great deal.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

For a couple of weeks I played around with words and ideas. I thought hard about what really matters to me in a week, a day, an hour. One of the basic tenets of minimalism is that if everything is important, nothing is. What are the most powerful ideas guiding my choices, the absolute essential core of who I am in the world? What are my best tools for navigation through life?

When I was satisfied, I got a new 3 x 5 card, labeled it Standards of Integrity, and listed: authenticity, creativity, seeing it clear, and warriorship. I put it back on my bulletin board. These four simple standards are always with me, as I write, as I work, as I relax, and as I interact with others. I visualize them as a circle of four overlapping circles, connected, with no beginning and no end. If I’m groping in the dark, trying to see something clearly, I’m resisting and fighting denial, assumptions, arguing with what is, and my own not-so-useful internal narratives. That’s warriorship. I’m in pursuit of understanding and clarity about the places where I can learn, grow, and use my power effectively. That’s authenticity. I’m sharing and communicating honestly with others in my life about my needs, thoughts, experiences and ideas. That’s more authenticity and warriorship, along with creativity.

I rarely use one standard without employing the other three.

I’ve discovered that these four standards make to-do lists redundant. As long as I’m living by the standards, what I’m actually doing is less important than my being. My current daily to-do list is the same simple items every single day: Eat well. Hydrate well. Exercise. Write. Keep it simple. Stay now. If I successfully accomplish those most important tasks, that’s what matters. On busy days, when I deal with a lot of other tasks, housework, or hours at work, I might complete a lot of productive activities, but if I haven’t addressed my own physical and emotional needs and written, I don’t feel good about the day and the way I spent it, because I didn’t keep my priorities straight. The next day, I try to refocus.

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Developing personal standards of integrity is not some kind of a silver bullet. It doesn’t mean I float through life, confident, beloved by all (!!!), and never making a mistake. (I can’t even write that last sentence without giggling.) Most of the time, I feel like a hot mess. I’m constantly second-guessing myself. I’m rarely lost, though. My integrity is a compass, a way to ground and a place to start. Let’s face it: life is messy. We are all fallible and flawed, which is to say we’re all beautifully human.

I can’t make life less messy, but I can simplify my own life and the inside of my head. Developing standards of integrity is something of a hero’s journey because it requires us to take a long, hard, honest look at ourselves in relationship to not only money, but all the other things in our lives. For me, that journey was well worth taking.

Authenticity. Creativity. Seeing it clear. Warriorship. My daily crimes.

Unconditional Love

Photo by Kevin Quezada on Unsplash

I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.

One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.

I was wrong.

Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.

But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.

You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.

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Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite—conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.

In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.

Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.

A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”

Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.

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Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.

When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.

On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!

I don’t want to admit that unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted that the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, that we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.

My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now that I’ve received some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood that they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!

Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.

Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.

Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.

Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.

Sometimes unconditional love requires the hardest thing of all—letting the loved one go.

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My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.

Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.

As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.

We are on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.

Practicing unconditional love. My daily crime.

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