22 August 2013

Totally made up swordfish dish

Over the years, my relationship with cooking has progressed from:
  • "I hate cooking, I'll only bake things if I can make them from mix in a box" to 
  • "OK, I can follow the recipe EXACTLY and have things mostly come out" to
  • "What the heck, I'll try making up some healthy stuff with whatever I happen to have on hand."
What a metamorphosis, let me tell you!
Those of you who've liked A Journey Into Health on Facebook have no doubt seen this, but for those of you who stay light on Facebook or just haven't found your way to my page there yet, I thought I'd share this one. Definitely my most creative one so far.
  • Get some quality swordfish. (I put it in a 9x11 baking pan, but any baking pan would probably do.)
  • Dress the fish in extra virgin olive oil (I don't measure anymore, just swish it back and forth a few times--and yes I know how uncomfortable not having a precise measure can be, so maybe 2-3 Tbsp.)
  • Sprinkle some ras el hanout (or some of its component spices) over the fish and rub it in until it's coated. (I got mine at Sofra Bakery, where they sell lots of such spices.)
  • Based on what I had left from my CSA share, I chopped up some tomatoes and a tomatillo, and some garlic, which I placed around the fish. (It was at this point that I felt like a real "cook", although I had honestly no clue whether it would come out good or not!)
  • Then I sprinkled the whole thing with sesame seeds, salt and pepper, some parsley, and a little more olive oil (on the veggies).
  • Baked at 350 degrees, until the fish split nicely with a knife. (Sorry I don't recall how long that was!)
Meanwhile, I cooked up some brown rice in veggie broth, and then plated the fish on top!

This recipe needs a name besides "totally made up swordfish dish", but it was too good not to share. I'll accept any ideas!


20 August 2013

Sharing Spaces (Chapter 6)

Here's chapter 6 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“Let there be space in your togetherness.”
- Kahlil Gibran -

Sharing spaces with other people—even those in your life who you love very much—can be challenging. Whether you’re in the process of moving and consolidating spaces with a new partner, re-designing your living spaces for happy co-existence, or taking a stand for the spaces you feel you have some real right to, maintaining a level of awareness about what’s really going on in yourself and others can help change the tone and ultimate result of some potentially difficult interactions.

Moving and Consolidating Spaces

Before my husband and I moved in together, we had two condos filled with things that represented two different, well-established lives. So naturally, when we started unpacking at the new house, we had duplicates of many things. Rather than arguing about how much of a thing we needed, automatically suggesting all his things go (as some women have a reputation for doing), or getting into any of our familiar argument patterns, I decided to lay out all our wares for display. Here, in this corner, are all the tall glasses we now jointly own. Here, in the other, are all the short ones, then the plastic ones, then the cups, the dishes, the forks, and so on. Doing this exercise allowed us to see which sets were missing pieces, which styles looked nicer or were the right sizes for how we wanted to use them, and what we could realistically fit into the new cabinets and drawers. We were easily able to negotiate and decide together which things to keep, and which ones to get rid of.
Since I’m a purger and my husband is a hoarder, I used this method to avoid some of the drama involved in consolidating our lives. And the truth is, you can’t really avoid it all. Purging things feels good to some people, for others it’s always difficult, and sometimes it just depends on the items. I personally love getting rid of things I’m not using, or things I’ve outgrown. It’s liberating! Also, since many of these items are still usable and don’t have much personal significance, I feel good when I donate them to charitable organizations. But tasks like packing have a great way of forcing you revisit all kinds of memories, because often you do have some emotional ties to the objects you’re looking through. I can’t tell you how many times when moving that I’ve randomly looked though some old photo albums, journals, or memorabilia of whatever kind, and completely lost track of time because I was reminiscing!  These aren’t always happy memories, but they represent a snapshot in the timeline of my life—a measure by which I can see how much I’ve grown, how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve overcome. So, the question becomes: do you take these objects along with you when you move, or do you get rid of them because you never really look at them any other time, they represent the past, and it’s more important to live in the now? To be honest, I still struggle with this question, and I can see where some people (like my husband) might have more things they’ve accumulated over the years that they’re attached to. What’s even trickier is when objects do not appear to you to have any personal significance, but to the other person sharing the space, they do. For example, I only recently learned why my husband buys so much and so many varieties of canned diet soda that drive me crazy by cluttering our pantry—growing up, his parents didn’t let their kids drink soda. Having a lot of soda in the house today means that he has a choice about what he can and cannot drink—a choice that was not given to him as a kid. This is information about him that I needed to be able to understand why having so many beverages is important, and hopefully it allows me to lighten up on the issue a bit.
In addition to different “donation philosophies” and prior experiences, consolidating spaces is also difficult because the amount of things you have always changes to fill up your current physical space. I can see how this happened to me—after college I lived in various apartments around Hartford, Connecticut. Each had a decent amount of space in them, and so the number of things (clothes, kitchen gadgets, etc.) grew to fit. My first apartment in Boston was quite small in comparison, with minimal closet and cabinet space. I had to make myself fit, so I found ways to do it, including a temporary storage unit back in Connecticut until I was really ready to let some things go. My second year in the Boston area, I moved into a larger apartment in the suburbs, so again my amount of “stuff” increased. But when I finally bought my 1000 square feet condo in 2004, I had tiny closets and had to wean down my load (especially of clothes and shoes)!  It was from this condo that I moved into the house with my husband. My husband’s condo, in comparison, had been huge. He had a two car garage, and 2000+ square feet of space all to himself. Maddeningly for me, he also had a ridiculous amount of closet space for a guy, with (seemingly) just a little bit of stuff in each one. Because of where we were each coming from, our new house was bigger (in my view) and smaller (in his view).
Such backstories and the feelings associated  with them aren’t always obvious—even to ourselves—and when two people are going through the process of moving and consolidating spaces, it makes perfect sense that challenges arise. I think the best two people can do is to pay attention and recognize where they’re coming from, and then explicitly communicate that to the other. Doing so requires some heightened self-awareness and effort, but it can make for a smoother transition overall.

Thought Experiments
  • Try taking one thing that has sentimental value and experiment with letting it go. First, review it thoroughly and think carefully about what it means to you. Is there anything you have in your life now that brings about similar feelings? Do you still need the item to feel this way? Now put the item in a donation pile for a little while. If you don’t feel compelled to retrieve it after a month, donate it to a worthy cause.
  • If you’re currently in the process of moving in with someone else, think about and talk with your partner about your perspectives on “stuff”. Are there particular things you and they are willing to let go, or not? Can you have a meaningful conversation about why you both want to keep certain things? Once you understand both perspectives, does it change how each of you reacts to the other?
  • Think about the various places you’ve lived and some of the objects you’ve acquired in each space. What life milestones (however small) do you associate with them? Do these milestones make you more or less attached to the objects? (For example, I still have a Pottery Barn armoire that I saved up to purchase for my first apartment in Boston—it cost me the same as one month’s rent at the time, and it makes me feel proud of my independence. It is not an object I would feel happy about getting rid of!)

Balancing Common and Individual Spaces

When you are moving or consolidating spaces with someone else, a strong need to establish your territory in the new space typically arises. At the time I’m writing this, my husband and I have been in our new home for a little over a year. We’re still working on creating a shared space, as well as on ensuring that we (both pretty independent people) have individual spaces we can leverage whenever a need arises. There are many common areas: the kitchen, which opens to the living room, for example. We spend a lot of time in there together, and often share this space with friends when we entertain. But since we have a large house, we’ve also taken opportunities to support our relationship by keeping some of our spaces separate.
When we first moved in, there were two rooms on our third floor—one was finished, and the other only partially so. My husband kindly allowed me to take the finished room and use it as my meditation / yoga / reading / workout space. I can decorate exactly as I please, and I can retreat to my room whenever I feel a need to re-center myself. My husband took the room across the hall from mine as his “man cave”. He picked out and laid down the floor, and I helped him paint the walls whatever colors he wanted. In there, he has a cushy double recliner, a TV about as wide as I am tall, most of the video game systems, all his extra computers, wires, and other various spare parts.

Meditation Room (Hers)
Man Cave (His)

Now, I’m one not of those wives who have banished all of my husband’s things to one place—in many cases we’ve redecorated to make the common spaces ours, rather than hers and his. But on some level, keeping some separateness and independence is important.  It brings us closer because being together is always a choice we make, rather than something we have to do. My belief is that having a choice means you reduce the likelihood of feeling any resentment toward the other person when they are in your space, because you will have (implicitly or explicitly) invited them in.
There are also ways to make shared spaces feel shared, but still retain some individuality. I took an interior design class a few months ago, and since we needed a topic to discuss with the class, I decided to use our home office as my project. When we moved into our new house, my husband and I both had desks for our computers, and I had a bookcase. We threw down an old red rug in the center, put his desk on one wall and mine across from it, stuck the bookcase in the corner near my desk, and called it a day. We didn’t put any effort into this room because we knew we had plans to come back to it later.

Office - Before (Hers)
Office - Before (His)

Initially, my idea was to have two desks facing each other, with an L-shaped extension on each one, and then to use the vertical space behind each of the desks for shelves. This would allow the furniture to be symmetrical, and give us light from one of the windows. Since all the furniture would be on one side of the space, I thought we could add a “media center” on the other side, to store all the joint office supplies and common items like the printer. But about it just didn’t feel right. Putting two desks facing each other would mean, essentially, that when we’re both in the office working on our computers (which we often are), we’d be looking at each other. I suppose that’s OK if you don’t want to get anything done, or you’re not easily distracted. Although I share my life with this man and love him very much, it felt a little uncomfortable to think that we’d end up staring at each other. What if I was trying to work and he wasn’t in the mood? Or worse yet, what if he was!
In class, the instructor and several of the students helped me sketch out a revised plan on the whiteboard. We settled on corner desks, but what was more intriguing was the suggestion the instructor gave me about the area rugs. What if, instead an area rug that took up the full space of the room, we did quarter-rounds under each desk? This would tie the “his and hers” spaces together separately, yet visually relate them. I thought this was pretty fabulous, and is what we ended up doing.

Office - After (Hers)
Office - After (His)

What’s also interesting about the new design is that even though there is technically more furniture in the room than before, it feels larger. My husband just jokes about these areas being “our own little islands”, but what he also pointed out was how the large red carpet dominated the space. Before, wherever you could kind of see the hardwood floor around the rug, there was furniture. With our new design, the desks and the rugs take up the same—rather than different—spaces, showing off more of the floor. This also goes to show you that what’s in the space can completely affect your impression of it!  Designing a common space to meet the requirements of the people sharing it, as well as addressing the constraints and leveraging the opportunities of the room’s size and shape can make a big difference in the design.

Thought Experiments
  • If you share a living space, is there a balance between the common and individual areas for each person? In which direction is the balance tipped? Is everything a common space? Are the spaces slanted toward the preferences of one person? Can you identify ways this might be impacting your relationship?
  • If you can’t designate individual spaces, are there simple changes you can make to the design to ensure everyone’s needs are met? For example, can you create any his/hers arrangements within the same room, as I did in the office?
  • If this idea of common vs. individual spaces feels foreign to you—in other words, you wonder why you wouldn’t just share everything—that may be fine too. It all depends on your relationship, and how much mental and emotional space each of you needs to have reflected in your physical spaces. Talk with your partner or roommate to make sure you’re on the same page, and if you are, great!

Communicating Your Spatial Needs to Those You Love

Last year my friend Paige started dating a man who lived in her building. She and Martin got along fabulously, and quickly started planning a new life together. However, Martin had three grown daughters, and there were a few instances where Martin’s physical and emotional spaces was the subject of contention among the women in his life.
First, Martin and Paige had different philosophies about children being in their parent’s bedroom. When Paige was raising her son, he wasn’t allowed to go into her room without explicit (and one would expect rare) permission. She believed this taught him respect, and is one of the reasons he grew up to be a real gentleman. Martin, however, had minimal boundaries—his girls could be in that room as much as any other in his apartment. This complicated things for Paige, who was told she could stay at Martin's to take advantage of various amenities, such as air conditioning and better Internet access. Naturally Paige had many questions about how to navigate this potential minefield in her new relationship. How should she react when she found Martin’s daughters laying around on, or sleeping in his bed? Should she honor Martin’s philosophy and adapt, or make her discomfort known to him? When she moved in with Martin, would he accept the bedroom as a joint space, even though they'd be keeping his furniture? And would she get more of a say in whether his daughters used the room? Paige had to make her feelings about their shared spaces explicit to Martin (or risk discomfort and resentment), and Martin needed to be open to the idea of a mutually-made decision (or risk disrespecting and devaluing Paige's equal needs as his life partner).
There were also internal space issues that fostered some discussion between the couple: Martin frequently traveled on business, which meant he had limited time at home. While Paige understood that a loving father would spend time with his daughters, she often found her expectations of when she would see Martin were not completely in line with his thinking. There were also a few occasions where Martin didn't appear to effectively communicate his plans to everyone who was expecting an exclusive piece of his limited attention. How well or poorly Martin managed the situation had a direct impact on how much Paige and his daughters felt like they were in competition for his time and his love (i.e., his mental and emotional spaces). Paige recognized that the outcome would also depend on how aware each person is about how these situations triggered them into displaying less-than-ideal responses (including those in herself).  She knew that insecurities and losses experienced in childhood could have an influence on situations like this, and sometimes make her react oddly or more strongly than she preferred. Sometimes, even when intellectually we know we’re being silly, our hearts take over and we have trouble reigning in our emotions. Discovering and clearly stating each person’s needs, actively listening to each other, and compromising in a way that feels comfortable to everyone is what will not just save, but also strengthen relationships.

Thought Experiments
  • Are you spending enough quality time with the important people in your life? Are you giving each special person a good amount of your time and attention? Do you notice anyone around you “getting into it” over you? If so, what might you be doing to contribute to the situation? What might you do differently to help improve it?
  • What is your philosophy about how relationships between parents and children, or partners, are supposed to be when sharing spaces? Do other people in your life understand where you’re coming from? Try explaining your rationale to them, but more importantly, really listen to their position instead of defending yours.
  • If you are receiving less attention from someone than you would like, try and put your finger on why you want more. Be honest with yourself, and try to determine whether this lack is triggering feelings from from your past (before you say anything). If it’s a legitimate request, having done this exercise will make talking to the other person feel less confrontational to you both.

Claiming the Space You Deserve (and Knowing When Not to)

In college I liked Dave Matthews, so when I found out he was performing in concert close by, I called some friends of mine from Pennsylvania who were also fans, and we planned a visit which included four tickets to his Friday night show. As we made our way to what is now the Comcast Theatre, I smiled to myself, thinking Dave's was the kind of music that lended itself perfectly to sitting on the grass on a warm summer night. My friends and I arrived early and designated our space on the lawn with a blanket, then nibbled on some snacks we'd brought while catching up.
Unfortunately as soon as the music started, our lovely time started to disintegrate. More and more people filed in, and like a big city's Independence Day fireworks, blankets covered every blade of grass.  After a few songs, no one was able to sit and listen—you had to be on your feet or you’d be trampled. The young woman next to us smelled of pot, and was pretty drunk too. Her lit cigarette flailed about in her hand as she danced, in many cases getting dangerously close to our faces. Annoyed and sober, I tried to ask politely if she could please be careful with it. She mocked my request by overtly trodding all over our delineated space, dirtying our blanket and bunching it up everywhere. After that, all five feet, 100 some pounds of me nearly got into a knock out, drag down fight with this woman! I don’t know what it was about the venue or Dave Matthews’ music that prompted such behavior in people, but this was not at all what we expected, and rather than trying to reason with people, my group decided we were better off leaving prematurely. This turned out to be a wise decision—anyone living around Hartford, Connecticut might also recall that Dave's Friday night concert was actually the most tame of the three, with Saturday and Sunday nights including overturned and burned cars, a rape or two, and several other crimes.
While this concert story is an example of when you may not be able to claim your rightful space in a crowd, there are some circumstances where I think not backing down is the right thing to do. For example, sometimes when I go out West Coast Swing dancing, it’s a busy night and the floor can be crowded. From dancing with various leaders, however, I’ve observed that the way they handle the crowded dance floor has a direct affect on my experience as their follower. Regardless of their size, some men purposefully react to a crowd by taking up less space. They lead smaller moves, dance smaller themselves, get overprotective, and try to yank me out of harms way when someone is about to run into me. (As one might imagine, this often does more harm than good.) However, other leaders purposefully start to take up more space. They do this by extending their arms, traveling in every direction, and generally taking up more room in their part of the dance. They still watch out for people around them, but they lead big moves, as though they had all the space in the world. Sometimes this backfires, it’s true—but most times other people notice, and respond by giving us more space on the floor! In this situation, being assertive helps them (and their partner) claim the space they deserve. Having good instincts in one's internal spaces about what to do in crowded physical spaces can be a very important skill to develop.

Thought Experiments
  • The next time you’re out in a public space, take a few moments and observe people’s behavior. Can you spot examples of unkindness when it comes to each individuals’ personal space? What about examples of when others are respectful?
  • How respectful are you of other peoples’ spaces? See if you can find even more ways to show it. (For example, notice how close you stand to someone in the supermarket checkout line, and determine whether you should make any adjustments.)
  • Do what you can to claim your personal space when in crowds, but also recognize that it may not always be possible or desirable to do so. Pay attention and hone your skills—depending on the situation, it may keep you out of serious trouble!

13 August 2013

Designing Spaces with Purpose (Chapter 5)

Here's chapter 5 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“Our intention creates our reality.”
- Wayne Dyer –

The intention you have when designing a physical space can have a significant effect on how “successfully” you will be able to live or work within it. You may have to dig deep into your internal (emotional and mental) spaces to understand what your true intentions are, to figure out why certain aspects of a physical space don’t really support your purpose, or to discover which characteristics of it contribute to positive beneficial feelings you could use more of.

Making Multi-Purpose Spaces Work for You

I believe there should be a clear intention, or purpose, for every space in and around my home. In some rooms, this kind of focus is pretty obvious: I designed my bedroom, for example, to help ensure that I’d get a good night’s sleep. In other rooms though, the intention can be less apparent. Should my living room be a place for watching TV, playing video games, entertaining, watching a burning fire, and / or chatting with friends and family? Is the purpose of my deck to sit back and relax quietly in nature, to have large, boisterous outdoor parties, or grow and harvest various vegetables? Because we typically have a limited number of physical spaces, we may need to design them to support multiple purposes. And I think this is fine—as long as those purposes are compatible with one another.
I’m fortunate to have a space in my home that I designed just for me, and this room supports multiple purposes. First, I wanted to have a space where I could relax and decompress from life’s hectic pace by meditating, reading, and doing yoga postures. But I also needed a place where I could keep my body in tip-top shape by doing strength training and cardio workouts. To start, I used the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Lenox, Massachusetts as my inspiration. I take a trip there every so often, always returning to my busy life feeling renewed, refreshed, and centered. One of the rooms I particularly enjoy there is called the Sun Room, which is ridiculously simple in its decor: some sparsely populated bookcases along the back wall, a few (usually empty) desks, over-sized and well broken-in love seats or small couches strewn throughout, and a row of lounging chairs facing the wall of windows that overlook the mountains. There are no distractions (it's a "quiet space"), and there is no question about its intention—to help you slow down and relax. So, I covered a daybed my husband had with blankets and tons of pillows to make it the perfect place to sit and read (or curl up and nap), and added a big fluffy rug at its feet. A few trips to Target later and I had bookcases on which to store my various meditation and self-improvement books. All this satisfied my requirement for a reading area.
Next, I used a Shoji screen I bought from an oriental store to partition off a little corner of the room as my meditation space. Behind it, I put my cushion and a timer, and mounted a little shelf that would hold a few inspirational items. Above the shelf, I hung an abstract picture of a woman meditating. Later, I added a piece of art to the wall that I thought perfectly tied the meditation area to the reading area. It says: “With our thoughts, we make our world.”

Reading SpaceWorkout Space

For yoga and working out, I needed the hardwood floor to be bare, and to access to equipment—for example, a yoga mat, strap and block; weights and gloves; and most importantly, a little TV with a DVD player and VCR so I could use my videos. My friend Paige donated a TV stand, which I put into the corner and filled with DVDs and old-school video tapes. I re-purposed an old coat rack (which had a shelf and four large hooks) to hold the lighter equipment, pleasantly surprised when the hooks perfectly cradled my rolled up yoga mat.
While perfectly functional, I wasn’t completely happy with this room and couldn’t initially figure out why. One day I was reading in our den, and I when I looked up, I found myself thinking that it cultivated the Sun Room feeling much more than my multi-purpose room upstairs! Then it occurred to me that while it might be possible to combine the reading, meditation, and yoga intentions in a single space, my workouts didn’t really fit. The workouts I do are intense—many of the DVDs I use and the exercises I do are not at all compatible with relaxation! The cardio leaves me speechless and drenched, while the strength training circuits make me grunt and groan like a thick-necked muscle man in a gym. When I do these workouts, the music is loud, my body is pushed to its physical limits, and my mind works hard to retain focus. Plus, because the different workouts require different equipment, I can’t permanently keep anything inside the space, so it tends to look barren.
Now that I have a better understanding of why that part of the space isn’t working, I can investigate solutions, such as using a decorative fabric panel (or another screen) to hide the workout area when it’s not in use, but keep the things behind it easily accessible.

Thought Experiments
  • Once you’ve articulated your intention for a space, take a look around. Which things in the space support your intention? Is there anything that doesn’t? What about the arrangement of objects in the space? Are there things you might add, remove, or arrange differently, now that you’re looking at it this way? (For example, if you want your bedroom to be a relaxing, quiet space, ask yourself how many electronics and gadgets you should have in it!)
  • Do you have spaces that do (or must) serve multiple purposes? How are these purposes in sync with each other? Are there commonalities you can use to tie different areas of the room together? (For example, the wall art I mentioned.) If the purposes are in opposition with each other, think about whether you really “do it all”, or if you need to prioritize.
  • Do other people who you share spaces with agree with your intentions, or do they have other ideas? Do your spaces try to serve too many different people, and not really work for anyone? Talk through any differences and discuss ways to create designated areas within the same space, and / or leverage any commonalities to pull the space together.

Fostering Creativity in Your Spaces

Some time ago, I attended a free social media seminar. During the networking hour, I got into a conversation with the owner of the space where the seminar was being held—Takako rented out different sized work areas in the space by the hour or day to college students or other young people with entrepreneurial interests, with no long-term commitments or leases required. When she excitedly told me that the space “lent itself to creativity”, I was intrigued, and asked what it was about the space made her feel that way. She told me it invited creativity because nothing was hidden, and described how she modified it to expose all the “bones”—everywhere you looked you could see pipes, wood, and brick. Takako explained that when a space is exposed like this, one can feel safe to explore. There are no hidden agendas or things one can’t see, lurking behind walls or in ceiling panels. With this sense of safety, one is free to dream up new things. I thought this was in interesting way to look at space, and one I hadn’t really considered. Given that Takako was an architect, I assume she knows her stuff!
Based on this conversation, I started thinking about which spaces made me feel most creative, and what characteristics they had. The more I thought about it and talked with others, the more I realized Takako was onto something with the safety angle. For me, I’m most creative when I’m not stressed by clutter or distracted by other people with whom I don’t feel safe. I usually need to straighten up my physical spaces before I can do creative work and get into the kind of “flow” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described. Similarly, when I fill my “time space” with the clutter of too many tasks and the added anxiety about whether I’ll be able to get them all done, I have trouble being creative. When collaborating, I might worry what people think of my ideas, and can be afraid to take risks when others I don’t completely trust are around—the fear of being criticized can stifle my attempts at creativity. Yet when I’m alone and feel like I have all the time in the world, ideas come rushing into my head regardless of where I am: sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs on our deck, looking aimlessly out at the lawn; enjoying a bubble bath; driving with plenty of time to get to my destination; or waking up before the sun (and everyone else). I think some of my most interesting ideas, clever solutions to problems, and best writing emerge (and make me reach for Post-its and a pen pretty quickly!) when I am able to enjoy a high level of safety in my physical, mental and emotional spaces.
Catering to the senses in the physical space of one’s body also seems to be an important requirement for creativity: friends have voluntarily mentioned hearing (for example, playing music or inspiring videos); sight (looking at art, seeing the dried colors on a painter’s palette, taking in the expanse of nature); smell (for example, of wood in a workshop); and touch (having the right materials available). The idea of stimulating one’s senses to support creativity struck me as interesting, and at least two other situations got me thinking more about how to bring more sense stimulation into spaces where I’d like to be more creative. For example, one evening I was leaving a local high school after taking a continuing education class, and one of my fellow students (who happened to be an artist) randomly commented on the décor, noting how everything—lockers, walls, stairs, carpet, seating, paint, and so on—was covered in tan and dark blue. Sure I thought it was dull, but she lamented the lost opportunities to inspire young minds because of the lack of stimulation in the physical space in which they were sent to expand their thinking!  I also had recently attended a virtual seminar at work about “Gamestorming”, by Dave Gray.  In it, he cited a study done by Elizabeth Gould, which apparently contradicted earlier studies that brain cells do not regenerate. Turns out, when mice were kept in small cages (with little stimulation), her results were consistent with the original research. But when the mice were given more freedom and stimulation in their environment (in the form of colors, activities they could do to acquire food, and so on), their brain cells actually did regenerate. Dave then made a wonderful analogy to the cubes in our typical office environments, and how we “could not have done a better job” stifling creativity in most workplaces!
Noticing when you are most creative and thinking about how the physical and mental spaces you are in at the time support or hinder your creativity can be a useful exercise for anyone wanting to bring more fresh ideas into their lives.

Thought Experiments
  • What physical spaces make you feel creative? What characteristics of that space do you think bring about this feeling? (A friend of mine mentioned the outdoors, because “the peace and love found in nature quiet my ego”.) Consider how to bring more of these characteristics into other spaces that you have to live or work in.
  • Can you identify any barriers in your physical or mental spaces that might be distracting you from being as creative as you’d like to be? Consider whether any of those barriers can be traced to your sense of safety.
  • Are there ways you can think of to open up more “time space” in your day-to-day life to allow more creative ideas to emerge?
  • How much “sense stimulation” is available to you in the spaces where you’d like to be creative? Pick your favorite sense and try introducing more things to stimulate that sense in spaces you’ve designated for creative work or play. Notice what happens.

Escaping Your Typical Spaces

Even the smallest changes to the spaces in my life can sometimes free me up and help me get unstuck. Whether it’s a problem I’m trying to solve, or I’m just feeling overwhelmed with everything I have to do and can’t seem to move in any direction, creating a simple, short escape from either my current mental or physical space always seems to do the trick. For example, after visiting some friends one holiday weekend, I planned to work on this book. I didn’t sleep well the night before, and I woke up feeling cranky and sore (likely from all the driving). As the hours of the day ticked by, my anxiousness about not having written anything started to build. I had no energy and grew tired of hearing my own complaints, so I decided to go for a walk with my husband. As we did our typical loop through the neighborhood, I continued to complain about how overwhelmed I felt, how I’d never be able to get this book written in my spare time, and so on. He kindly alternated between listening, and asking questions that annoyed me at first, but then got me thinking. By the time we finished the walk, I was ready to just sit down and write already! The Thursday night before this same holiday weekend, I was nearing the end of a stressful week at work. I had a meeting marathon that Monday, then two full days of training, followed by a day packed with sessions I had to facilitate. We were leaving Friday after work, and I was trying to pack while practicing a presentation I had to deliver at a meeting the next morning. (I had to temporarily leave another meeting to give it, that’s how crazy my schedule was!) When my husband came home from softball that evening, I was in total panic. I didn’t feel comfortable with the presentation, I’d been going non-stop since I walked in the door, and I wasn’t anywhere near packed. I distinctly recall standing with my hands on the kitchen island, bending over with my head down between my arms, and feeling like something had to give. I eventually told him I was going to go upstairs and practice the presentation, because packing could technically wait until tomorrow after work if it had to. But then I got a better idea. I decided that before practicing the presentation, I needed to just stop. I sat in meditation for twenty minutes before practicing, finishing my packing, and having some time to spare! The bottom line is, taking just a few minutes to escape your current physical or mental spaces (even when you feel you have no time) can make you so much more resilient and productive.
Of course, everyone recognizes that as larger, more drastic changes to one’s physical and mental scenery, vacations are the ultimate escape. Whether they’re short “staycations” or week-long trips away, there’s something about removing yourself from the routine aspects of life that can really rejuvenate you. At the beginning of May I went with my friend Vianne to West Palm Beach, Florida for a long weekend. The weather in Boston was cold and rainy, and when we arrived, our moods were instantly improved by the sun and the warm, humid air. Over the weekend we shopped, ate and drank, soaked in the sun, and let go of all the things we typically worried about. Personally, the beach is one of my favorite places to escape to, and why I decided my bedroom décor should be inspired by it.
To create my escape inside this room, I first found a very nice patchwork quilt with matching pillow shams at an outlet store in Kittery, Maine. The patches are squares of different colors and textures—some shiny and silver, some silky and lilac-colored, others velvety and blue. I am a fan of decorating rooms based on a central element, and this bedding ensemble was it!  I already had a neutral tan carpet and some black Pottery Barn furniture, so the walls needed some color. This room also had a cathedral ceiling with two of the walls extending high up into a loft, whose walls I had already daringly painted a dark burgundy. I thought a light purple would look nice joining up with the burgundy, so I painted two of the walls a lilac, pulling one of the colors from the quilt. I also wanted to pull one of the blues into the walls, but not have the same colors on opposite walls. For some reason, I was obsessed with not having the different colored walls look too symmetrical. I laid on my bed for hours upon hours until I figured out how to organize the colors on the various walls so they’d be just a tad off

Beach-themed Bedroom

Looking back, I understand why I couldn’t have the colors on the walls be completely symmetrical: the beach (in other words nature) is not in any way, shape, or form symmetrical—it’s random, whimsical, and free, with the kind of total abandon that allows you to relax and encourages you to just..let..go. Anyway, I completed the look by finding the perfect artwork for the wall above the bed— a photo of a dock that led to the beach, at dusk, just as the sky broke into a soft shade of purple. I had it framed in black with gold trim (to match the furniture).

Thought Experiments
  • When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck, try doing something to change your physical or mental scenery, even for just five minutes. Take a short walk, try meditating, or even just sit in an area of a room where you don’t normally to get a new perspective.
  • Think back to when you felt centered and relaxed while in a “vacation space”. What is it about that space that makes it feel like a vacation to you? Are there ways you can bring aspects of the vacation space into your more daily spaces?
  • Imagine you were on vacation right now and could do anything you wanted with your time—what would that look like? Can you re-prioritize any activities to create more space in your life to do those things now?
  • Try taking a weekend to yourself, even if you don’t physically go anywhere. Do whatever you want to do whenever you want, and savor every moment!

Reframing Your Space Perceptions

It’s easy in today’s fast-paced world to get “burnt out” on the physical spaces one lives or works in. At these times, it’s also tempting to think about making a physical move like changing your job or moving. Some people I know have made these kinds of changes to their living or working spaces and have reaped tremendous benefits in their mental and emotional spaces as a result. And, I’ve seen even more people hop from place to place, on an endless search for something they never seem to find. After thinking about this a great deal, I’m of the mind that reframing one’s perception of a physical space with a clear, internal purpose can be an effective alternative.
For example, I currently work at a software company, and since taking on more management responsibilities my “time space” no longer feels like my own. There are days (some consecutive!) where I am in collaborative meetings with colleagues straight through from nine to five, and am still expected to get individual work done. We have three buildings on campus, so getting to meetings often involves traveling, and there are really no designated breaks for things like grabbing a coffee, eating lunch, or even stopping to use the rest room. Not long ago, I started getting into a state about this, feeling anxious about keeping colleagues waiting and watching as my resentment about the lack of space in my schedule grew more intense. My out-of-work life wasn’t much better—my mornings were packed with exercise, meditation, and writing, plus I had a busy post-work social calendar, meeting up with friends for dinner, dancing, taking classes in other things that interested me, and so on. I basically never slowed down!
I started to daydream about my ideal day, which allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted. What if I could take a half hour nap whenever I felt tired? Or, if I was suddenly motivated to write a poem, I could go scribble it down? Or if I could use the mornings (when I’m typically more creative) as meeting-free, sketching time? What if I could meet a friend for lunch on occasion, and have my after-work time free? What if I was able to work on whatever task I was most motivated to do at a particular time (work or home-related), instead of being forced into a specific time box in which to do a subset of the tasks I needed to accomplish? Unless you work for yourself, you probably can relate to what I’m describing. But the reality is, society has a way of forcing us into schedules that don’t always sync up with what our bodies or our minds truly want to do.
So what could I do to improve my situation? Should I really stop exercising and doing my meditation? That didn’t seem right! Should I change jobs, or become a consultant and work for myself?  It seemed like after the initial distraction of something new, I’d end up in a similar place. Should I stop doing all the fun things I picked up after work, given that they typically fulfilled me more than my job and kept my social circles alive?  At first I felt trapped, but slowly came to realize I still had choices.
I thought back to an exercise my friend Paige and I had done a while back, intent on discovering our personal values. These values permeated both our work and home lives, and were a good representation of what made each of us feel happy and content. Perhaps obviously, one of mine happens to be “quality me time”.  If I don’t have enough space for myself, I feel unsettled. Taking that personal value into account, I decided to make small changes to things that were under my control—and most of that had less to do my actual physical spaces than with shifts in my mental ones.
I started with my morning routine. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that my exercising and meditating activities were my choice, and really part of taking care of myself!  And if I wanted to do something else with the hour and a half (like writing, reading, or sleeping), no one was stopping me. As soon as I mentally reframed the situation in this way, I appreciated doing these activities again, knowing that if I wanted to, I could always reclaim the time for different things (or nothing). Next, I started thinking about small changes I could make at work that would make me feel more comfortable. For example, because I felt I sat too much during the day, I now have a standing workstation, and I suggest “walking meetings” whenever I have one-on-ones with people (and the weather is good). Interestingly enough, others are appreciative of the idea and often take me up on my offer. I’ve actually started taking stretch breaks every hour or so. And, if I’m late to a meeting because I had to prepare a nutritious lunch or take a rest room break, I have gotten better about making my colleagues wait (though in truth, several of them are late too)! They’d have to say for sure, but I think I’m more pleasant to deal with and more engaged in the meetings because I feel less stressed overall. So what about my busy social life? While it took about a month to shift things, I now have certain designated days of the week where I do something out, and other ones that are non-negotiable “open” days. That’s not to say I always do nothing on those days, but having the open space (as opposed to being scheduled every night) gives me more freedom to decide what to do. Whenever a possible activity comes up, I ask myself how closely it aligns with my other four personal values, and make a decision about whether to attend by prioritizing it against other things I could be doing with the time. And if I borrow from an open day because scheduling requires it, I’m sure to give myself one back! 
I’ve learned that when you have a clear understanding of what really makes you feel good, you can look around and make small changes to your physical and mental spaces to improve your situation. Although sometimes they’re worth the risk, big, sweeping changes aren’t always necessary, and won’t always improve things. A collection of little changes over time can be even more effective not only because they help you deal with spaces you can’t change, but because they have a side effect of making you feel more confident and empowered.

Thought Experiments
  • Are there any physical spaces you feel like you absolutely have to get out of? What characteristics of these spaces make you want a change? Have you been in a similar situation before? Consider making some changes in how you think about or react to being in these spaces, and notice whether it helps alleviate some of your discomfort.
  • Take some time to discover your top five personal values. (There are many resources online to help you to this.) Which aspects of your home and/or work spaces support these values? Which do not support, or even conflict with these values? Are there any adjustments you can make to better align them?
  • Take an inventory of where you spend your time, and see if you can’t allocate more “time space” to being in physical and mental spaces that are highest priority for you.

07 August 2013

Watching Life Happen

I have to temporarily interrupt my string of blog posts that are my book chapters to tell a very special story. This is all true, and happened to me last Sunday.

After a late night out with a girlfriend Saturday, I was lucky I hadn't agreed to meet my new yogi friend, Mickey, at LifeAlive in Cambridge until noon. Fortunately my brain was working enough to recognize that driving would be easier, and made the connection that parking in the Green/Pearl Street garage near Central Square would be a completely reasonable thing to do -- it's not a bad price, and I could walk to the restaurant. So I did that, Mickey and I had a nice lunch, and then I worked on a presentation at the 1365 coffee house next door until around 4 pm.

Walking back to my car, I spotted an African American man, maybe in his late 20s or early 30s, dressed nicely in shorts, a casual T-shirt, and sandals (with socks, but I won't hold that against him!). He was sitting on the stairs of the tae kwon do place that was across the street from the garage. As I passed, he noticed me too. He said, "Hey, how's it going?" I said, "Not bad, how are you?" He said something like "OK" or "good", and I walked into the garage.

When I got to my car, I immediately noticed that my rear passenger tire was flat. It had been low on air (as one of my yoga students pointed out weeks ago), and I'd filled it twice since then. Now it was completely dead. Hmmm...I decided that I needed to get out of the garage. Although the rate was reasonable, it was not likely to be reasonable after waiting N hours for AAA. So I paid and pulled out of the garage, which happened to be right in front of the man sitting on the stairs. I got out of the car to get my bag out of the trunk, searching for my phone and my AAA card. He came over and asked if I needed help.

"Yes, thank you" I said, hoping to save myself the time. I wasn't in a hurry really, but something about waiting around for AAA annoyed me--changing my tire with this guy (i.e. ourselves) felt better. We started pulling stuff out of the trunk, and before you know it we were sitting on the curb next to each other. He was monkeying with the jack, and couldn't get it in the right position to be able to turn the crank, which would raise the jack and thus the car. He told me I was missing a part maybe, but I never use the stuff, so I doubted it. It had to be all there.

After a few minutes of fumbling, the thinnest Caucasian man I've ever seen, with a gray beard down to his chest and shopping cart in toe, charged over to us and started saying "let me do it." He smelled distinctly of booze. Before either of us could say anything, this man was practically under my car. He pushed the other guy out of the way and sat down next to me on the curb, playing with the jack. The younger guy kept trying to tell him that the jack was broken. The older man was cursing up a storm (for no apparent reason) and insisted the younger one didn't know what he was doing. The next minute the older guy looked at me and growled, "Get out of my way!" The younger man rephrased that in a kinder way, hinting to the older man to be more polite to me (a lady).

For the next 30 minutes, I watched as the older, white, drunk, homeless man changed my tire, occasionally aided by the younger, black, decently dressed and more civilized one. He threw the full weight of his body (likely less than mine) on the wrench to loosen the bolts that were insanely tight. He taught the younger guy which direction to turn the wrench--it's "righty tighty, lefty loosey EXCEPT on Dodges, he explained. It turned out that the homeless man used to change tires on trucks! He showed the young man how to pry off the hub cap. How to jack the car up just enough, then loosen the bolts, then jack it up all the way. And on and on. He wasn't too nice about it, but there was an underlying kindness in him, and he definitely knew what he was doing.

For the most part I stood in the back, watching one or both of them work, amazed at this experience. As my friend Jason said later upon hearing this story, "life was happening". I felt so incredibly happy, in awe, and blessed.

Once the older man was done, he gave me a lecture about getting the tire fixed right away (I did a few days later), and to tell the shop to put some lube on the bolts because I'd never have gotten them loose myself. I didn't have much cash on me, but I had two $5 bills. I was prepared to give the money to the homeless man, and offer a ride to the younger one who I'd learned was waiting for his sister. I happened to ask the young man first, if he needed a ride somewhere. "No," he said. "I'm just at the shelter up the street."

No words. Just love. Just wanting to help. More.