Attitude of Gratitude: Spring

Although it cannot compare to my favorite season, spring in Maryland has a special appeal. We are past the worst of the brown muddy season of March and now plants are sprouting, flowers are blooming, and trees are starting to fill out with green again. Mornings are hazy and misty and cool, but by afternoon we can feel the warmth summer will bring. Bodies ache for hours outdoors and the sunlight starts to bleed into the evenings. Spring turns me a bit philosophical. How can it not?

Few parts of the world have as long and beautiful a spring season as the mid-Atlantic U.S. (Korea did, and they sold themselves as a land of four seasons!) However, spring is also a transitional season. Transitions can be as difficult as they can be beautiful. Spring reminds me to appreciate the journey and the change as much as I do the destination. Renewal and growth are always possible. Just as winter will come every year, so will spring.

Spring forces me to reconcile with the idea of time as a cycle and not linear. We move forward in time and things change, sometimes permanently. I will not get younger. My children will never be seven and three again. The people I have lost will not return. And yet, life continues. Flowers will bloom again. Other children will be seven and three. The earth will break and heal and break again. Eons later, humans will be an extinct species for the next intelligent life to discover. For now, I will enjoy the things that I can.

I do not understand the passing of time because I am a being that exists forever in the now, but I believe I understand it because I have a consciousness that remembers the past and has hopes for the future. I am pausing now to appreciate the unknowing and yet the certainty of returning to spring again next year.

I will dig in the dirt, breathe in the air, and experience thanks for the Earth in this moment and this season.

Attitude of Gratitude: Daily Journal

For February, I’ve been keeping an almost-daily gratitude journal. I’m trying to keep it simple and straightforward–just three specific things in my life I feel grateful for on that day and why. I can feel the difference in my motivation and patience on days I practice this habit. I thought I’d take a mid-month moment to check what I’ve written in the last few weeks. Some themes are emerging; my family members, job, friends, network/communities in Frederick, and nature all make frequent, consistent appearances.

I am noticing how this document is also starting to serve as a simple log for our family’s daily lives. For example, this morning I wrote: “I am grateful for the inquisitive, loving heart of my daughter. She declared it was Valentine’s day today. When I told her that holiday was over, she asked, ‘Why didn’t we invite all of our friends for a party?'” Her sincerity and sweetness for wanting to mark this holiday in the same way we had at Thanksgiving and Christmas reminded me that celebrations are important for children. I also felt her love for the families and friends in our circle through her plea. It was one of those beautiful, sweet moments that tend to be forgotten over the years.

I’m not judging myself if I am thankful for the same thing more than one day in a row. For example, sometimes I have made myself use one of the list items to notice something I am grateful about an area I’m struggling with in my life. Like last week, I was frustrated with some issues with the team I volunteer to coach for my son’s school. For a few days, I listed specific things about the coaching experience I’m grateful for, and it’s changing my attitude toward the problems I was having.

I am going to try to maintain this habit past this month. I feel that it is well worth the 2-5 minutes it takes to jot down these notes. I hope it will continue to help me feel inspired and grounded at the same time.

Attitude of Gratitude: Small Steps

Sometimes, I am my own worst enemy.

When I’m tackling a big, difficult project, like getting out of debt, I feel down if I can’t accomplish my goal quickly (read: instantly). When I have a month (like this month) where I choose to prioritize other aspects of my finances (building an emergency fund, breaking the paycheck to paycheck cycle by getting a month ahead, being honest about including all of my debts, and switching bank accounts/credit cards), I forget that this might slow my progress on my debt repayment for a month. Then, when I realize I might only be able to pay off $200 this month, I feel upset about my lack of progress and want to just give up.

However, “only” paying off a small amount on the debt this month is AMAZING. We are not increasing our debt (as we were at this time last year), and we are even continuing to reduce the total amount of debt we have. The choices we’ve made to get on more solid footing with our day-to-day finances will allow for faster progress on the debt in future months.

Small steps lead to great distances, if you just keep going.

Today, I am so grateful to just keep going. Furthermore, January has been a revolutionary month for us in reducing our spending, creating purpose in our budget, and getting on the same page, financially, as a couple. Not making as much progress on debt is just one small piece of the picture.

All of my most significant progress has been made by making small changes to my habits and life, consistently, over time. I am always awed by the progress I can make through consistent movement, even if minor, in the right direction. This is an amazing truth about change.

I feel grateful for my small steps in pursuit of my larger goals.

Nine Lessons Learned in Nine Years of Marriage

This is the first picture of Min and I after we were officially married in Seoul and registered at the U.S. Embassy, although we had the ceremony three days later. 

Tomorrow is our ninth wedding anniversary.  While we probably won’t do anything traditionally anniversary-ish (like get each other presents or go out to dinner), we will share stories with our children about how we met and what we did before we had them (that’s for another day on the blog).  We’ll spend time together.  This is what matters most to us.

With just a year shy of a decade of marriage experience, I would like to reflect on what has been one of the most profound experiences of personal growth as an adult. However, I also feel wildly unqualified to offer “advice” about marriage, so take all of these lessons for what they are: my own growth and reflection after nine years feeling happy and lucky to be married to Min for the vast majority of that time.

Look at those kids on their honeymoon in Cambodia, 2010.
  1. Marriage is not 50-50, it’s all-in. When I was young and single, I often heard my friends talk about their desire for partnership in a marriage. Women especially worried about becoming burdened with a greater responsibility for the domestic elements of their family life–cleaning, cooking, child-rearing. We would often say we wanted a marriage where chores, finances, and other joint endeavors were split “fifty-fifty,” the assumption being that equal contributions would result in equal status and thus, success in marital bliss. But marriage doesn’t work if each person isn’t giving everything they have to the partnership. That doesn’t mean work is 50-50, or even 70-30; it means 100-100. But sometimes, one of you can’t give the same as you did last week/month/year. If both of you are giving 100% of what you can in a safe, equitable partnership, the marriage will balance over time. (Note, this isn’t easy.)
  2. Assume the best about your partner’s intentions. This was a difficult one for me to learn–and when I hear complaints from others about their partner, it is the thing I wish I could teach them. It’s about trusting that your partner loves you. Believing that he didn’t leave the toilet seat up again (even though you have asked him to put it down a thousand times) to annoy you in the middle of the night. Believing that her inability to eat less junk food isn’t about her not loving you. Sometimes, it’s about intentionally choosing to ignore the critical comment directed your way because you trust your partner is giving 100% (see #1). It is an act of faith and entirely worth it.
  3. Notice the good things your partner does. One of my personal commandments is to “See the work.” In any relationship, but especially one as mundane and functional as a marriage can be, it is easy to overlook the things your partner does to support the function of the household. We tend to know how hard we are working, but underestimate the things our partner does for us. Recently, Min thanked me for taking care of the family finances, something I’ve handled since we moved back to the U.S. It warmed my little personal finance nerd heart. I try to thank him as often as I can when he prepares a meal, takes out the trash, or lets me take a nap.
  4. Learn to think long-term about your relationship. Time does not feel linear. It blows my mind every time I realize that there are more years between now and my high school graduation than there are between now and my children’s high school graduations. It makes no sense at all to me that my husband and I are not still the exact same people we were in the photos from our honeymoon. Marriages, like stock market investors, suffer when we feel too much like this current moment is forever and forget to think long-term. I’ve found that we need to regularly invest in our connection, but not be too thrown by the ups and downs of our lives and individual struggles.
  5. Remain curious about your partner. I find my husband’s thoughts about the world and our experiences fascinating. After a few years, it’s easy to think you know everything about your partner, and they know everything about you. Most of our best conversations, though, have stemmed from one of us asking the other about our thoughts on something in our ordinary lives. For example, until very recently, I didn’t know my husband had created a specific vision for raising the children. I know he’d been doing a great job with them as a full time parent, but I hadn’t realized how philosophically invested he was in their development, even though we talked about the kids all the time.
  6. Work on yourself. In stories and films, marriage is represented as either a) an eternal, static fact or b) the end result of a romance. The state of real-life marriage, however, is not static and by no means the end of anything. Being a good partner, taking care of yourself, meeting your needs outside of the marriage, and advocating well for your needs from the marriage are vital. I’m most grateful that I have a husband who cheers on the work I do to improve myself (such as when I went back to school or increased my exercise), and certainly that helps. But marriage is for adults only, so be an adult.
  7. Be kind and choose love. This isn’t easy to do. Let me tell you about the time I was working the worst job of my life, was pregnant and trying to find a better job, and I came home to my husband having quit (without notice) the only job he’d had since moving to the U.S. Oh, being kind and choosing love in that moment was hard. Actually, the only reason we lasted through that season was because we were legally bound and expecting a child. However, I am better now with #2 and #4 and recognize that Min wasn’t trying to make me lose my mind–he was refusing to be exploited any further by a petty, racist boss. I wish I could go back and choose to respond with kindness and love. I try to do so now.
  8. Tell positive stories about your relationship. It is no accident that we will be telling stories of our relationship to our children as part of our anniversary celebration. The stories we tell shape the way we view our lives and memories. I believe that what you say and write shapes how you think as much as it is the result of your thoughts. When I think of my mother and father’s relationship, I think of the way my dad talked about his proposal: “We were studying for finals and your mother kept pestering me, so I asked her to marry me so we could get back to work!” The reality was that the decision had been planned out (they were nearing graduation from college and it was during the Vietnam war, so there was a very real chance my dad could be drafted–he wasn’t) and a ring purchased in advance, but he made it sound like a low-key, funny anti-proposal. That was my dad.
  9. Let things go and think big-picture. Holding onto petty bitterness only hurts yourself. When Min first started doing the laundry, he washed a raw silk blouse of mine in the washing machine and dried a cashmere sweater in the drier. Of course, the clothes were ruined. I had a moment where I realized I could get mad at him about this, or I could let it go and have a husband who does the laundry. I chose the latter (because it’s way more important than any particular item of clothing). He is a caring, thoughtful man who does domestic chores (see #1), even if he doesn’t know how to do them the first time. I’m not complaining; I’m appreciating!
Still in love, after all these years. (from 2018)

That’s nine things. I learned more than that, and of course I have a lot more to learn, but I think that’s a pretty good reflection of the most important lessons from my own marriage experiences so far.

What have you learned about marriage? Any advice for us before we enter the double digit years? Let me know!

Reflections on 2018: Accomplishment through Mental Health Treatment

I didn’t expect to learn so much in my 37th year on the planet, but I really did. What I’ve learned this year is:

  1. Start small, keep going. Big changes happen through persistence.
  2. You don’t need to know the end destination when you start, just the direction. (In fact, an openness to how goals will be achieved can bring surprising results.)
  3. Figure out your internal voice; you can’t serve yourself or others well if you don’t know who you are.
  4. Being a positive influence is not always the easy choice, but it is always the right choice.
  5. Strive for authenticity and inclusion, not perfection and recognition.

I learned these through adversity and accomplishments. I’ve accomplished a lot in 2018, but this year has been one of incredible emotional transitions and huge challenges.  When I reflect on my accomplishments for 2018, I must do so in an honest context of the difficulties (and joys) I’ve experienced this year.

Last year at this time, I was offered my dream job, with a generous raise, in the middle of a school year.  I was beyond excited, and it should have forecast a year of hope and joy for our family.

I was also in more debt than I’d ever been in my adult life.  I felt out of control–like I was drowning every day and failing my family as a provider.  My relationship with Min was strained, though improving.  My son spent Thanksgiving of last year telling me what a terrible mother I was because he felt disconnected from me.  My own mother was in crisis (and didn’t share with me the extent of her pain until February).  My sister and niece were still living in my basement (yes, that post is coming).  And then, on top of all this one of my best friends was critically injured.

All of these events cast a shadow on my professional success and left my celebration of that and the holidays subdued.  I worried I wasn’t going to live up to the demands and expectations of the job–hello, imposter syndrome!–while I also felt that I had precious few people in my life I could turn to for emotional support. 

Everyone in my life needed me to be strong and stable, but I was feeling anything but.

I reached out to my Employer Assistance Program (EAP) and saw a great therapist for a few months.  With her help, I realized that I needed to reconnect with my values and ruthlessly prioritize self-care that has the most impact (since I didn’t really have much time to devote to it).  From that exploration, I started exercising 3-4 times per week regularly, increasing my reading for pleasure, writing regularly (this blog), and giving in ways that mattered to me.

Most of my achievements this year are a direct result of this radical commitment to my own mental health. Thankfully, the project has been working. I’m ending this year with some significant progress in my life and goals and much better connected with my own values than I was feeling around this time last year.

Here are a few highlights from 2018:

  • Paid off over $11,000 of debt! We have fundamentally changed our habits regarding spending and managing money to be guided by our values. We have a small emergency fund, have opened college funds for both kids (to reduce taxes this year and in anticipation of applying for Maryland 529 saver’s grants next year), and are planning ahead with our finances rather than always being two steps behind. We still have a long way to go, but we are gathering momentum in the right direction.
  • Read 84 books and counting… You can check out my “year in books” where I recorded my ratings and such. Goodreads is my favorite social media platform, and if you’d like to be my friend, please do so. That said, I’m thinking about setting a goal for quality over quantity reading for next year. I’d like to still read over 75 books each year, but I might be setting a rule where if I’m not going to rate it a 4 or 5 star, I’m allowed to quit the book (notable exceptions for any novels I am reading aloud with my children or any books I’m expected to read for work). I don’t like quitting books, because even so-so books inspire my thinking and writing and it feels “incomplete.”
  • Slowed down, simplified, practiced patience. I began meditation and mindfulness as a central part of my life. I’m not perfect at this, but I’ve been digging deeper into the notion that restricting my options actually helps me feel more free to live as I choose. I’m planning to continue this journey.
  • Settled into our “forever” family home. At one point in my life, I aspired to be a nomad and live abroad regularly, but several life events this year have led us to the decision that Frederick is where we want to raise our family, and that we love our house and neighborhood. This year, we replaced the roof of our townhouse, completing our list of “must do” home repair/renovation from when we moved in 2013 (we have some “want to do” items, but they will have to wait until we can pay for them in cash, with no debt). It was a foreclosure, so the list was quite lengthy and expensive. I will admit we were not really as ready financially for homeownership as we should have been when we bought, but we lucked into a great value and have been slowly DIY-ing and bargain-hunting our way to a beautiful, luxurious family home we plan to live in until our children graduate from high school and we are ready to downsize.
  • Wrote 83 (and counting) blog entries!  I also wrote a lot outside of the blog. I wrote journals, reflections, poetry, creative fiction, and nonfiction. Since my father passed in 2014, I’ve struggled to write–something that has always been so vital to my sense of identity and self. This writing has been healing and powerful.

There’s more, but they are harder to put into measurable outcomes: I have also developed a deeper closeness with my husband and children, though that’s hard to measure. I have a respectable fitness routine that regularly incorporates strength training, and I feel more fit than I have since before I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2009 (also, my resting heart rate seems to have lowered by about 7-10 bpm). I eat more healthfully, environmentally, and mindfully. I feel more grateful and connected to my life, even when I feel alone or stressed.

I hope to post some goals for 2019 soon, but I felt I needed to reflect on this year before I outlined my aspirations for the new year.

Loving Life as It Is

Driving home yesterday after an especially productive day in the office, I noticed (as I often do) the fine weather and beautiful scenery in my hometown of Frederick.  I was excited to see my family and hear about their day.  I planned out dinner in my head and thought about the week’s schedule.  I listened to an audiobook, downloaded from the library.  I thought about my recent workouts and my plan for fitness for the week.  I felt calm and peaceful and connected with my life, exactly as it is.

I have not always felt this way.

For much of my teen and adult life, I felt compelled to leave whatever life I was living for something better.  I think I was trying to escape myself.  While I remain interested in self-improvement, I believe that my most profound progress has come through diving deeply inside my existence as it is–in seeking contentment, not distraction.

Yesterday was a moment where I felt that connection deeply.  I will keep working to seek those moments.  The habits I am developing (I cleaned out my car as part of my December Declutter project and focus on acceptance as part of my meditation) are part of allowing me to feel that content more often.

Attitude of Gratitude: Thanksgiving Edition

This is a picture from my wedding photo shoot in January 2010 in Korea.  Pictured are my brother, mom, sister, dad, me, and Min.  It was cold and had snowed the night before. I didn’t want to do a wedding shoot because I was still on steroids (long story) and thought my face looked bloated.  My brother, mom, and sister had caught a terrible cold during the week they’d been traveling in Seoul and weren’t fully recovered (not mentioning the bachelor/bachelorette shenanigans either).  My father was still in treatment for his cancer.  We were running late, and I wasn’t sure we’d have enough time to get everyone food before making it to the dance hall we’d reserved for the ceremony.

This picture is a miracle–all the things that led to these people I love–all being in the same place at the same time to support my marriage in a foreign country to a man they didn’t know.  It’s miraculous.

This year has taught me to appreciate how miraculous life really can be.

Many of the people I hold close in my heart have had a difficult year.  I have had close friends experience grave illness and permanent disability, lose family and close friends, lose their homes and vehicles to fires and accidents.  I have helped file a missing persons report remotely on a dear one who was planning to end his life, and I have given more money to GoFundMe’s than ever before.  I lost three friends, very suddenly–one just last week.  Two of them had young (under age 10) children.  My heart aches and my eyes get moist thinking about loss this year.

I am so grateful for the chance to live this beautiful life  To have the love of a kind, supportive husband and two healthy, funny children.  To have a career where I am paid enough to do something useful for students and to have an employer who challenges and supports my growth in this role.  To live in this wonderful home, this friendly neighborhood, this beautiful little city, in this great state of Maryland.  To have more than enough to meet all my basic needs and be able to engage in meaningful hobbies, side hustles, and financial goals.  To be able to travel with my family.  To have my health and my love and my intellect and the time to reflect on my enjoyment of these things.

I am trying to spend more time developing my gratitude for these beautiful things in my day to day life–without the need for the universe to show me loss to sharpen my appreciation for what is there.

This Thanksgiving, I hosted family and friends in my home.  This was not our plan.  Our plan was to travel to visit family and be guests.  When the plans changed at the last minute, gratitude is what made me appreciate the change and the opportunity–to welcome what is beautiful and work hard to make everyone’s holiday a bit more joyful.

Last minute Thanksgiving table with friends and family (and no Turkey–haha!)

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  Enjoy your miraculous blessings!

Attitude of Gratitude: Voting!

I voted today.  I love voting!

I consider it my patriotic duty to be as informed as I can about political issues and vote in each and every election.

I have done so at every opportunity–even primaries, even when living in Korea–since I was 18 years old.

Several of our state and local contests this year have outcomes that matter very much to me, my family, and my job (everything from the governor to the Board of Education), but I won’t be talking about any specific politician here, just my love for casting a ballot and appreciation of my small role in our great democracy.  Maryland has lots of early voting opportunities, which is great since I will be out of town on the actual day of elections this year.   I was able to take my lunch hour and wait in line to cast my ballot a full week before the actual election day.  In Maryland, you can even register to vote the same day as early voting!

Where did my love of voting come from?  I grew up in a DC suburb and very much enjoyed studying government in high school.  However, many people I grew up with became quickly disillusioned with how insignificant your vote seems.  Not me!

I remember staying up late with my college roommates for my first election night–waiting for the results to come in–and finally giving up and going to bed.  It was 2000.  It was a good thing I went to bed, since that was the election that took a month and a Supreme Court case to finally decide!  That was quite a wake up call about both the power and the impotence of voting.  Many of my fellow young voters were turned off by that historic election (one of the first where the outcome of the presidential election by electoral college was different than the popular vote), but I found it the experience instilled a kind of reverence for the way that each vote is cast and the role every ballot has in an election.

Sometimes, it is easy to get down about the results of elections if they don’t go your way.  Certainly, I’ve noticed a lot more people in my life talking about politics in the last couple years–for good reasons.  I have some anxieties about how policies regarding immigration will impact Min, who holds a green card.  However, I feel that it is important to keep election anxiety in perspective, even during really dark times.  The great news for U.S. citizens is that there is always another major election in just two years!

I appreciate that I have a voice in the direction of my state, local, and national government.  I am hopeful that this year’s results will favor the ideals and values I support.  I am grateful I can continue to contribute in my small way to the direction of my country.

If you haven’t done so already–VOTE!  It’s powerful and important.

Beginning a Meditation Practice

As I dig deeper into my work on minimalism and health, I have found the appeal of meditation as a path into greater mindfulness is growing.  While I’ve been practicing yoga on and off since I was 18 years old, I’ve never actively practiced meditation.  I didn’t know a lot about the subject, so I’m giving myself a month to work towards establishing the habit and seeing where it leads.

I checked out Meditation for Dummies from the library to give myself a general overview of the topic and some basic first steps.  The book is a good guide for beginners who want to know more about different styles and types of meditation.  I took a yoga class with a 15 minute meditation at my gym.  I’ve decided to keep a meditation journal for this month as I try to give over five or more minutes each day to establishing a practice.

I am noticing that it is easier for me to observe something about myself (a lack of flexibility in one hip, being hungry during preparation for a medical procedure, etc.), and not immediately jump to correct it.  The letting go of internal judgments has been very good for my productivity at work and home.

Although I have set my intention for my meditation practice to seek contentedness, I believe that it will help me move from a mindset of “self-improvement” to a mindset of “self-acceptance.”  There is great irony in seeking to improve yourself by no longer seeking to improve, but instead to accept and appreciate.  I acknowledge this complexity.

Challenges to Minimalism

I have written before about my attraction to minimalism.  I’ve followed and read about it for years without being able to just go full-on Marie Kondo.

I grew up in a family that consumes resources in ways inconsistent with my core values.  Many frugal people and fiscally responsible people say they learned those practices at home; I did not.  While my father was quite “cheap” in some ways that I inherited (wearing clothes until well past their functionality), my family was constantly in debt and worried about the financial future, even though both of my parents worked as highly paid professionals in the sciences.  I remember my parents discussing how the checks they wrote at the grocery store would “clear” after their paychecks hit–hopefully–but we always had extravagant Christmases and went on huge back-to-school shopping splurges.

My mother likes to tell the story of my second Christmas that she thinks is “cute,” but I think is rather telling of how different I am than my family with regards to consumerism.  We had traveled to Florida to spend Christmas with my father’s parents.  Mom had carefully chosen and wrapped tons of presents because this was the first Christmas I would remember, and I was the first child and what child doesn’t love unwrapping mounds of shiny, new toys?  Well, I opened the first present–a Fisher Price doll house–and played with it contentedly for about an hour.  Mom urged me to open the other gifts.  I responded, “No, thanks.  This is enough for today.”

Needless to say, the adults began the pressure of consumerism rather than accepting that answer.  I am actively working to reject it through my shopping ban and fast food fast.  Overriding your childhood programming is more challenging than it seems to be.

I also have a tendency towards being a packrat and a mean “cheap” streak that stockpiles free stuff (mostly from family members “upgrading” their own things) that might one day be useful.

My frugality urges me to conserve still usable resources for the time I will eventually need to use them because my current versions will wear out or need replacing.

The minimalist response to this tends to be to trust that the universe will provide.  I find this challenging, but I’m working on it.

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  I only recommend services and products that I use.

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