Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Money, Money, Money...Money


"Practicing gratitude, we feel rich, full, enough. For those of us with a tendency toward greed, practicing gratitude can be like eating before you go grocery shopping."--Laura Jomon Martin

My older friend Linda loves anything new--or at least, new to her. If someone is getting rid of, say, a glass coffee table or a set of kitchen chairs, she can't pass it up. Her neighbor sells her all kinds of things--frog stuffed animals, a used television even though she has two TVs and four rooms, dining room chairs with tall backs that loom like gargoyles over her tiny kitchen table. Every week that I visit her she has some new acquisition to show me. She has a back-up cell phone even though she hardly ever leaves the house, a motorized wheelchair that sits untouched up against the wall, and an extra bed for those overnight visitors that have yet to materialize. When she told me yesterday that she was thinking about replacing her two perfectly good easy chairs with a couch that her neighbor was giving away, it was all I could do not to call her on her preoccupation with material things.

But I didn't have to say a word. "Some people have jobs to think about." She said, "All I have to think about all day is my furniture and things."

If I were to be honest with myself, I would have to say that the reason that Linda's chronic discontent with her stuff bothers me is because it's a condition that I also share. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about shopping: collecting coupons, making lists of books and clothes I want to buy, subscribing to shopping sites offering deep discounts. When I'm in shopping mode it's like I'm in a fog and nothing else exists but finding that next great deal. It's the very opposite of mindfulness. Yes, I may have a brief moment of clarity when I think of my household budget or the stuff that I already bought the day before, and sometimes that stops me in my tracks. Other times I live in denial, believing (right or wrong) that I deserve to buy myself something nice and that I can afford it.

This is a tough thing for me to admit because I don't want to believe that A. I'm acquisitive, even greedy at times B. I'm living an aspirational life that often centers around spending money. It was one thing when I was a single girl living in Hoboken and my bank account bore only my name. Now that I'm married, my actions affect more than one person.

That's when I pledge to go on a starvation diet. I won't buy anything but groceries for two months! I will only window-shop and I'll unsubscribe from Shop it To Me. I'll be a more mindful shopper and will only buy what I need. But then I'm faced with that gaping void again. What to do to replace that shopping high? Sweets? No, that's just as bad a habit. Alcohol? Ditto. Trashy celebrity gossip? Reality TV? No and no!

So I'm working on a list of things to do that are fun and free (or at least cheap). This is what I have so far:

Write down gratitudes
Listen to CDs I haven't played in years
Try new recipes
Take pictures when I see something unusual or compelling
Collage using old photographs, stamps, wrapping paper, pages from magazines, etc.
Take a long walk with the puppy, preferably leading to somewhere I haven't been
Reduce my book backlog by reading what I already own
Write an email to a friend or just pick up the phone
Send a pretty card to someone who will appreciate receiving it (Grandma, my Swedish cousins, etc.)
Read and write poetry. Remember how much you love poetry?
Work on that pile of hand washables. Not exactly fun, but you might find that cleaning a sweater you haven't worn in a year is almost like wearing something new.
Make a plan to write more, and then do it!
Go to the gym (someone I know who works in reception at a gym told me they have a thick binder of members who signed up at the gym but haven't checked in in months. Yet they continue to pay for membership. Gyms love these people.)
Pay the cats some attention. Maybe then they'll hate the dog less.

More suggestions are always welcome.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Present moments you'd rather skip


"To train in staying open and curious--to train in dissolving the barriers that we erect between ourselves and the world--is the best use of our human lives."--Pema Chodron

"Ordinary life might seem hassled, repetitive, and boring. When you are impatient, resentful, or uninterested in daily life, you will be blind to the the potential for living cheerfully and creatively."--Andy Karr and Michael Wood, from their essay "Mindfulness, Photography, and Living an Artistic Life"

How do you remain present, drinking in the moment with all your senses, if what you're experiencing is something you'd rather escape?

I was in the Hynes Convention Center T station last night when this question popped up. I was trying to read my copy of The Mindfulness Revolution but I kept looking up waiting for a train that wasn't coming. The station was packed with mostly college students from Berklee, with their bass guitar cases, ears plugged up with the sounds of their latest downloads. I recently made a conscious decision not to use headphones in public because I didn't like the way I was purposely cutting myself off from the world. So now I only use them when I'm at the gym, where I think it's OK to zone out to classic rock (which now means bands like Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Live, the stuff we were listening to in college. So what does that make Led Zeppelin and The Doors? Classical rock?)

So there was some breakdown on the Green Line and trains were running behind schedule. Nothing newsworthy there. But at that moment I wanted to be anywhere but standing in that station. It's been a while since I've had a vacation. I need to escape Brookline for a while--at least for a week. I'm tired of the snow and sleet and piles of dog sh*t everywhere because people seem to think the poo will melt along with the snow, so they might as well leave it there. If I have to climb a curbside mountain of snow in high-heeled boots, sometimes even sinking and getting stuck, to scoop up Carmelita's mess into a little pink baggie, and then carry that baggy swinging in my right hand like a noxious evening bag for the rest of the walk, so should every other dog owner. Maybe I'll write an Op-Ed for The Brookline Tab about that. When exactly did I turn into an 80-year old man?

T.S. Eliot was wrong--March, not April, is the cruelest month. Unless you're Irish there really isn't anything to celebrate, and the weather hasn't turned yet, so even when it's the first day of spring it doesn't feel any different from the last day of winter. March is 31 days of blah, unless you have Spring Break and plans to go to Daytona, or better yet, you have tickets to South America where you're going to help build houses or something.

The usual escapes--clothes shopping, red wine, chocolate, buying books to add to the Jenga-like pile on my bedside table--none of these things are working to snap me out of my funk. So if I can't find enjoyment in my usual escapes and I don't want to live in the present moment, then where is there to go? I guess acceptance of what is. Practicing gratitude. Not judging your circumstances as either good or bad. Letting yourself be bored or tired or cranky and not actively trying to change it. If you wait long enough, moods naturally shift.

So when I'm sandwiched between a college boy in a hoodie who hasn't showered since Friday night's kegger and an older woman in a massive puffy jacket who keeps sighing when people inevitably bump into her, I accept that this is life and yes it's sometimes irritating and inconvenient, boring and mediocre. There's no real alternative so you might as well just go with it.

That's what I imagine someone more mature than me--who doesn't expect life to be a thrill-a-minute-- might say.