Gifts for a (wannabe) Minimalist

I used to have a wish list on Amazon, but I couldn’t add the things I truly want. They can’t deliver on world peace or solutions to the climate crisis, and don’t seem to have any products to eliminate racism and sexism and ableism and ageism and all the other ways people are told they’re not worthy. They do have books that can change your heart, so does the library. There are some products that bring ease and joy into my life (hello, stationery), and I’ve received many lovely gifts to cherish in my life. I’ve also received clutter, and, frankly, gifts that were downright insulting (yes, an ex-partner did give me a book on how to improve a specific sex technique, I’m not sure that reflected well on either of us!)

I’m a big fan of Valentines / Galentines ❤️ What’s not to enjoy about telling people they matter to you? If you or your beloved don’t enjoy hallmark cards or jewellery, and flowers are overpriced, here is a list of gifts for any occasion, for all occasions*.

  • poetry
  • undivided attention
  • laughter
  • hugs
  • sunrises and sunsets and stargazing
  • a walk or a paddle or a bike ride
  • candlelight
  • music and dancing
  • plants
  • art

*please note that all occasions are enhanced by chocolate and wine, or peanuts and beer, or cookies and tea, fruit and coffee, you get the idea.

ALSO, it may be too late to get it delivered by Valentine’s day, but I can’t recommend enough: Peace by Chocolate. Learn the story, support the causes, savour the treats, and maybe you can buy a bit of world peace after all.

Resolutions and Setbacks

clashing clothing with pj pants
pj’s at work are the best

Blue Monday!? There’s a tradition at my workplace for Blue Monday, where people wear their brightest, clashing-est clothing to fight off the darkness and cold of winter in Canada. I’m not sure the science behind it is solid, but it does mean I get to wear purple polka dot pajama pants all day so I don’t quibble. (Okay, I did quibble the first year we did it, because everyone else forgot – including the woman who suggested it in the first place – and as the only one dressed ridiculously, I did get more than my fair share of curious stares from the public waiting area outside my office.)

One reason people can feel down in January is that they aren’t meeting their expectations for their New Year’s resolutions. Did you stop bringing lunch from home and end up getting fast food? Maybe you’re not going to the gym every morning at 5 a.m. like you promised yourself you would.

Common resolutions I hear about in my line of work are getting through all emails before leaving the office, or doing daily work on a big project rather than leaving it to a panicked rush at the last minute. One client went back and retroactively put her project into her calendar so it would look like she’d worked on it each day – not to lie about it to anyone, more as an aspiration, “I want to become the kind of person my calendar says I am.”

When you don’t meet the resolution you made, what story do you tell yourself?

The only true story is: Setbacks are part of the process of change. They’re a healthy, expected part of forming any new habit. There’s no need to over-interpret them, or interpret them at all.

When you aren’t following your plan, ask yourself, what do I want? What can I do today to move towards that?

If you want an empty email box, stop reading this post and go deal with some emails. If you want to eat healthier lunches, pack a healthy lunch for tomorrow – go, get the food ready, we’ll wait. If you don’t do those things, the same thing applies the next day: Ask yourself what you want and what you can do for yourself that day to move towards it.

Small steps, big steps, no steps, they’re all part of the journey. Steps backward are too – I think of them as my inner rebel, telling myself, “You’re not the boss of me!” They don’t mean I failed or that I’m a failure, they don’t mean anything at all. The next day, I get to choose again what step to take.

The client who back-dated work in her calendar? When she felt the urge to do that again, she simply saw it as sign that she was thinking / worrying about the project. Rather than fall down the rabbit-hole of tying it to her whole identity, she noticed the thought and jotted down a few notes about the project while it was on her mind. Sometimes, that turned into a longer, productive session, sometimes it didn’t.

Changing habits is like walking through familiar woods. You’ve already worn a clear path along that ridge and down to the pond. When you decide you’d rather go over to the meadow now, it’s hard to get through the untamed brush. From time to time, you’ll step back onto the well-worn path because its familiarity and ease are soothing. You may find yourself at the pond and not even know how it happened. It’s okay – the meadow is still there, and you can take a step or two towards it, each step making the new path easier to follow.

Happy January 😃

boy in forest, mouth full of raspberries
make your own path, you’ll find the best raspberry bushes there

Clowning Around on YouTube

I started a YouTube channel!(?!) It’s here: Karen Lowry youtube and before you go looking for exciting content … the two short videos I uploaded are just testimonials about that presentation I gave last November on privacy.

I did it because it was the easiest way to add videos to my site here, in terms of adding captions for accessibility and formatting for different browsers, etc. My daughter got a video-making accessory for christmas that she’s eager to use, so who knows if we’ll play around and add more. You should subscribe so I feel some pressure to actually make more videos, or at least upload ones of my cats playing. 😊

The best part? YouTube used my google ‘avatar’ which is me wearing a clown costume, which makes me laugh every time I see it, so that’s now my professional brand.

Any tips on using YouTube? Let me know about your experiences!

Welcome, 2020!

Welcome! is my theme this year

It already led me down a happy path of coincidence: Adriene Mischler tweeted out “Welcome Home” for her newest yoga series on youtube, an obvious sign for me to join in. I haven’t done thirty days of yoga before so we’ll see how my body reacts, but for years I’ve considered a daily yoga practice so here I am, living the dream.

“Use the poses to make discoveries,” she said in her Day 1 video, which seems like solid life advice. I am welcoming changes in my year ahead and will use the new situations to make discoveries. How is mothering a son away at university different than here at home? What jedi mind tricks will help me be a source of positive energy at work, as the government takes shaky steps to rebuild a program it destroyed? How will it feel to limit our travel adventures?

The yoga will help with one of the things I’m welcoming: Physical strength. I’m fine with the obvious changes in my body with menopause – they’re normal, and the whole package conveniently includes freedom from caring about nonsense (seriously, soooo much freedom), so hello, rolls of fat in odd places. BUT. I’m shocked at how weak my muscles are becoming. I’m fit and active, so why is climbing stairs now difficult? I need strong legs to carry me on all my adventures! I’ve done strength training before at gyms, but yoga with my cats each morning suits me and my life best right now.

What else to welcome? Challenging work. This can apply to my full-time job, but mostly I think of the climate crisis. We’re gradually doing more at home to lessen the harm we do to the planet and to date, it hasn’t really been difficult. To speed up the pace, we’re going to have to make bigger changes and that won’t be easy. It’s not really a challenge we can ignore.

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi

My recent emotional development grew from the buddhist idea of acceptance, of welcoming all thoughts. Rather than avoid, numb, or dismiss strong feelings, I learned to notice them and let them sit with me. Just a few years ago, the thought of feeling bad feelings on purpose terrified me, and now doing it daily in meditation gives me a stable base to (usually) keep my peace as life swirls around. An example: Hi, Injustice. Welcome to my life. You’ve walked by my side throughout, unnoticed when you worked to my advantage and the source of bitter tears when you pushed things off track. I notice you dancing around me, and instead of railing against your very existence, I look you in the eyes and name you. I use the energy I used to expend fighting you to calmly call you out, limit your impact, and heal those you harm.

At Lake Huron last week, I had a waterfront ceremony to welcome all the above, and more, into my heart. I called out invitations into the waves, and let each word come crashing to the shore at my feet. One invite was to welcome more patience, and when I’m feeling restless, I picture that wave I saw, so very, very far out on the blue horizon. I followed it as it shifted and swelled all the way to shore. It travelled a long way to reach me, and was worth the wait.

Welcome 2020, let’s go!

water with wave-shaped clouds on horizon
waves in the clouds

A Simple “Winter” Getaway

So still and grey, it could’ve been the sky, but the lake’s small waves lapping on the shore whispered hello. I always feel at home by the water.

boardwalk over dunes with water in the distance
Hello, Lake Huron

The campground was full of people and my yurt had little privacy, but I had miles of shoreline to myself. I was confused by the solitude. While I appreciated it (so. much.) I wondered if I’d missed some notice to stay away from the lake. Why wouldn’t everyone be here? But they weren’t, and I enjoyed hours of wandering along the calm beach until the sun started setting – I’d feel foolish if I got caught in the dark on unfamiliar trails.

The Pinery

I came to the Pinery provincial park to spend time outdoors. I’d pictured a winter wonderland, but a recent stretch of unseasonable warmth sent us in a time warp back to fall. The only nod to earlier snowfalls was that some of the beach turned out to be a sand-snow mix, which only became obvious when I – oops – stepped on a ledge near the water and it caved in. Back up near the yurts there was a thin hint of ice on the river’s edge, but since it was already 8 degrees (!) when I saw that on a pre-dawn walk, I didn’t think it would last long.

dock and river
Old Ausable channel

Last March, the kids and I stayed at a yurt at McGregor Point park and I knew this one would be busier. It’s popular for the same reason I chose it: Only an hour’s drive from London (Ontario) and minutes from Grand Bend, it’s the easiest way to get away from it all without going far away. Maybe I had the lakefront to myself because it’s a fair walk from the yurts, about 20 minutes if you take the most direct route and don’t get distracted by the views along the way 😊. There are great hiking trails all over the park, so I guess that’s where everyone was – there was no skiing or snowshoeing going on, that’s for sure!

Simple, and Not

woman in winter hat
dressed warmly for star-gazing … why do I look so young in the dark?

I did not pack light for this short trip. Isn’t it ironic (🎶) that I can go for a week’s vacation with just a carryon bag but for a couple of days outside the city, I packed my trunk full? I needed bedding, water, food, dishes, utensils, toiletries, and clothing … and a beach chair and blankets for star-gazing. I don’t always enjoy the scanty hours of daylight in December, but long evenings of looking up at the night sky did their best to make up for it.

When I watched youtube videos about people living the ‘simple life’ in off-grid cabins, I used to (i.e., last week) think smugly, there’s nothing simple about having to figure out logistics of water and power and food. It seems like so much complicated effort … BUT … I’ve realized how urgent it is to stop taking those things for granted. I enjoy living in comfort, and a bit of time in a yurt now and then reminds me when I get home to be conscious of where my clean water is coming from, how I’m cooking our food, and where that food came from in the first place. I don’t know how we’re going to avoid worse climate crisis, but I won’t be so proud of packing light when that just means all the complicated issues are being hidden. I’m still proud of packing light as a sign of focusing on what’s really important, not on things (says the woman who carried a mug to the beach for a photo shoot).

The Mug

mug with colours of water and sky
Christmas gift that fits right in

A friend broke our no-gift rule this Christmas. She saw a couple of mugs she knew I’d love and then struggled to choose the best one. She did what any good (and ingenious) friend would do: A word search of my blog. It turns out I use the word “simple” really often, and the word “mindful” not so much. But … it’s the mindful part that’s really important, so here we are ❤️.

Back to the Water

I set out for a hike in the dark wee hours of the morning – well, not too wee, it was almost 7 am, I just waited until there was enough hint of dawn light that I could make out the path. I wandered dark forests until suddenly they changed to dunes and there I was at the lake for the sunrise. It faces the wrong way to see the actual sunrise but that early light is still magical, slowly bringing the world to life.

As I approached the lake this time it roared cheers of welcome, wind and waves exploding with energy. I wrote before about my ritual of release, where I stood by the ocean letting go of all sorts of emotional clutter. Well, being me, I had a ritual of welcome this time. I’ll write about it soon, but for now be assured I stood, arms outstretched as I called out above the noise of the surf, naming the things I’m welcoming into my life, as the waves carrying those things crashed onto the stony shore. Some combination of laughter and tears turned into exhilaration and all the weather’s raw energy filled my heart (while damp sandy air filled my eyes and hair).

I smiled the whole walk back, even feeling kindness toward a flock of Canadian Geese. If you don’t know these loathsome birds, consider yourself lucky: Legend has it that the reason Canadians are so nice is because all our nastiness was absorbed into the geese. To not feel contempt for them is a sign of deep joy indeed.

I’ll keep these warm feelings with me as the kids and I head up north to Mom’s soon, where it is (hopefully) still winter!

selfie on beach
my happy place

Privacy: Beyond Compliance

Using Privacy Principles for Better Business

I am feeling impatient as I wait for the professional video clips from a talk I gave recently, so rather than check email constantly I thought I’d write about the topic. For now, you’ll just have to visualize me inspiring the audience and happy participants giving testimonials about how wonderful it was. If it helps you picture it, I was wearing my favourite shirt with butterflies.

Privacy Laws

I became a Privacy Officer the same day I heard that phrase for the first time. It was the early 2000’s and there was new privacy legislation here in Canada. It became (a big) part of my job to learn about the laws and how they applied to our non-profit organization. Over the years, there were more laws, and more, and I studied to become certified as a Privacy and Information Professional through the IAPP (International Association of Privacy Professionals) to understand them. Along the way, the privacy world burst into prominence with social media, the Internet of Things, identity theft, surveillance states, email phishing, and smart cities.

Privacy laws struggle to keep up with technology and it’s hard to imagine how the standards that (should) apply to massive global corporations can also be implemented by small businesses and freelancers. When I did the talk in Toronto, that was my audience: Professional Organizers, mostly sole proprietors, not companies with legal teams and their own privacy office.

Beyond Compliance

People dread the idea of “compliance”: How much is it going to cost in time, energy, and inconvenience to meet all the privacy rules I have to follow? What is the minimum I can do to comply? What is the shortest time I can spend going to workshops like Karen’s to have to learn about this? What happens if I make a mistake? Does it involve a stockade?

The thing is, the outcome of my workshops is not a laundry list of tasks to ensure compliance, the outcome is better services. Most privacy laws around the world are based on the same ten principles, so rather than detail every law’s requirements, I talk about using the principles to build a better business. Here’s how:

  1. Privacy equals respect
    Show respect for clients’ information in the ways you ask them questions, talk about them with others, and care for their information. Clients share intimate information with you so that you will help them. When you honour the confidentiality of the stories they’ve entrusted to you, you strengthen your relationship with them, improving your services.
  2. Privacy equals effective communication
    I get questions daily along the lines of “Is it okay if I gather/document/share this information about this client?” The answer is (almost) always, “First, be clear about why you see a need to do that. Second, ask the client.” When you have clear conversations with your clients about what information you need from them and how/why you are planning to use it, you build a stronger relationship with them, improving your services

The ten principles are:

  • Accountability
  • Purpose
  • Consent
  • Limiting Collection
  • Limiting Use
  • Ensuring Accuracy
  • Safeguards
  • Openness
  • Access
  • Challenging Compliance

In going through each of these in my talks, I cover the requirements of the laws: How to gather, store, share, and delete information appropriately. Most importantly, when you understand what you’re doing with clients’ information and why, you can talk clearly with them about it and come to an agreement you both understand.

Ask Me More, Anytime!

And if you want me to come and talk with your group, let me know – I love doing this work! … and maybe soon I’ll have a clip I can show you of my butterfly shirt 🙂

A Mess of Words

I’m a wannabe-minimalist living a simple, happy life without clutter [see: Every single thing I post]. I choose my excesses with joy [see: ALL THE PENS!] and my favourite is … Words. I write words, play with words, copy words, read words, think in words. I fit words into crossword puzzles, I study words in other languages, I find them in word searches, and I follow linguists and dictionaries on twitter.

Words = Joy!

Organizing Writing Files

The more writing I do, the more words I keep around. I have (such pretty) journals, notebooks of writing exercises, drafts of a few words to many thousand, poems and essays, blog posts and books. How can I organize all these words, keep them tidy? My filing systems for work and home are straightforward: Items either need to be acted upon or have a specific reason to be stored for reference. At work, I have a single “Ideas” folder for the in-between, the not-quite-ripe thoughts, those not yet ready for action.

With my writing, the ideas overflow. To contain the unformed ideas in a single folder is to hold the ocean in a seashell. I once tried having a folder called “Ocean” and just put all my drafts, quotes, ideas, and ramblings in there. It worked wonderfully on an emotional level, very much not so in practical terms.

Not Too Tidy, but Tagged

Completed pieces fall easily into a tidy filing system, but for my reams of unfinished work there is no tidy. It took me awhile to realize, but there shouldn’t be a tidiness to my ideas. In this part of my life, things aren’t black and white, they’re a jumble of creativity bursting with colour. These aren’t objects or information that fit into my decluttering methods; these are treasures, words. I do want to find them again later though, so I need a bit of a system, and COLOUR it is! I don’t fuss about what category a bit of writing might fall into, how I will use that juicy phrase from a writing exercise, or how to store the brilliant list of scenes I made for an abandoned novel. I let them stay jumbled, and tag them with colour.

The Beauty of Tags

I do a lot of writing by hand, but store almost everything digitally. I use a mix of methods, whatever’s easiest at the time. Sometimes it’s a photo, sometimes scanned to a pdf, sometimes typed – and for that I use Word, Mac Pages, Scrivener, or Notes. I take screenshots too. The beauty of using tags is that the format doesn’t matter.

coloured list of tags

Red is about love and friendship. Purple means adventures! Blue for my kids, because they chose it. I use Orange for my home (probably don’t need a psychology degree to relate this to my neglect of my hundred year old home). And so on.

From the kaleidoscope of ideas mixing in my head and on the page, every so often, connections swirl into a coherent idea: the basis for an essay, a blog post, or presentation. To build that piece of work, I look around at the relevant tag: What have I said or thought about this before? New connections strengthen the idea, and I find ways to weave in those treasured words.

When I’m working on a book draft, I turn to my tags for inspiration if I’m stuck. In the evening, with no mental energy to create something new, I sometimes just scan through the contents of a tag for fun, gathering words together, and wake up the next day ready to write what I want to say. As I read books or online and get struck with new insights, I easily find my notes on that same topic and add to them.

Give tags a try, and add some colour to a gray December day 🙂

Practical Tips

Mac computers

Colour tags are easy and built into the Finder. To set them up, open a Finder window, go to the Finder menu at the top, select Preferences, then Tags. You can name each colour, and say which ones you want to always have visible in the Finder window. To tag a file or group of selected files, simply right-click on it/them and pick a colour. Or, you can drag the file over to the colour / tag on the left and you’ll see the colour dot show up with the file now.

screenshot showing Mac Finder
yes, every book I start to write ends up being called something like The Assholery of Men 🙂

To find all your files with a certain tag, just click that colour in the Finder window. Voila!

To save you googling, no, you can’t tag in the Notes app on your iPhone or on the Mac – ugh. I use folders in Notes that match my tags, but to be honest, don’t usually remember to move things there, and there’s no colour.

Scrivener

The colours in Scrivener are called Labels. To keep my brain organized, I use them the same way I use tags for my files in Finder. There are many other way of using these labels effectively: I highly recommend aprildavila.com for tutorials and information about scrivener.

Windows

You can add tags to files, but no colours. (Well, there are third party utilities you can download to add colours, I haven’t done that.) To add tags, open Explorer (press ÿ and E, or double click My Computer). Right-click on a file, select Properties, then the Details tab. Click on Tag and type the word you want to use and use semicolons to add more tags if you want, then OK. To add a column to show the tags in the list of files, right-click in the heading row in Explorer and select Tag. You can also search by tags in Explorer – here are good instructions for that https://www.howtogeek.com/344543/how-to-tag-any-windows-file-for-easy-organization/

Radical Decluttering

A funny thing happened as I cleared my house of excess stuff: The invisibility cloak lifted off my furniture. I’d taken it for granted, it was part of the scenery. I hadn’t considered living without my lovely living room wall unit, for example, until there was almost nothing left in it and the starkness of the empty shelves was jarring. Away it went. When we held a yard sale, people asked about buying the shelf units and tables we used for displays, so off those went too. The small rooms of my house opened up and don’t feel small anymore (except for the one with the big piano … which my son plays every day, so, it stays – the music more wonderful than open space).

Lifting the Invisibility Cloak

I wondered, what else? What else is invisible to me when I’m decluttering? What assumptions am I making about what I need?

What else am I keeping just because everyone has one of those?

Most importantly, what am I keeping that I don’t want to keep?

Here’s a list of things that are no longer part of my life. I’m not telling you that you should live without these things – it’s about personal preferences, not comparison. If you think your life would be simpler, freer, without something on the list but feel you can’t possibly let it go, here’s your permission – ta da! – and practical tips on how to make it work. And please leave comments telling me what other things you live without to open up space and time in your life. 

Things I Happily Live Without

  • Iron and ironing board. I kept shifting these around to new places in the house as I decluttered, until I caught myself sighing with frustration. Oh yeah. I don’t like ironing. I wonder if … I could get by on clothes that aren’t too wrinkly from the line or dryer (wool dryer balls are the best). Well, yes I could! There were only two pieces – a summer top and a dress – that really didn’t work without being ironed, so I said good bye to them, and haven’t sighed in frustration (about ironing) since 🙂
  • Coffee table. When my kids were small, the coffee table was a never-ending stress of bumps and climbing/falls, as well as great protection from the floor of lava. We moved it to the side when we started having regular “dance parties”, yoga sessions, and playing wii sports. Once it was to the side … we didn’t use it at all. Once we gave it away … we didn’t miss it ever. We do have a couch with wide arms for resting things on, and a windowsill behind the couch for drinks. If we’re sharing a bowl of popcorn, it simply sits on the couch between us.
  • Cleaning products. Vinegar and baking soda do a great job. We have soap and laundry detergent too.
  • Shoes with heels. They’re so lovely, but it turns out that minor back pain isn’t inevitable with age. No heels, happy back, easy decision.
  • Hairdryer. One hot summer I stopped using it because it made me sweat more than it dried anything. When the weather cooled, I was loathe to pick it back up – I found it tedious and noisy and bad for my hair. Now I brush my hair after the shower and go.
  • Organizing boxes. I had so very many of these. I loved organizing and re-organizing things into just the right type of boxes. I had ones with drawers, wheels, ventilation holes, and extra compartments. Almost all of the contents though, were things we rarely used. The only ones remaining are for seasonal decorations and equipment. I miss the lovely boxes more than the contents.
  • “Beauty” products. I’m angry about the expectation that women need to change their appearance to be acceptable to society, and also delighted at the ways people use makeup and hair products to express themselves. If you wish you could ditch the products, I am here to tell you that you can. I work in a professional environment with nothing but clean (and moisturized, wow it’s dry in our building) skin and hair, and have for decades. For a few weeks, people said I looked tired, then they adapted, and rather than be chastised for not meeting standards, it turned out I changed the standards. One woman told me she was relieved to be allowed (!?) to stop wearing makeup because it irritated her eyes so much – yikes! Celebrate your beauty your own way, giving your looks as much or as little attention as you want.
  • Television, stereo. If these are an enjoyable part of your life, of course, just skip this bit. To me, they were background items that one simply has, unquestioned. When I did question, I found my own space much more open and calmer without them. The music from my phone is fine for me, and we only used the tv to play on the wii … which we stopped using over the years and recently sold. So the little tv will go off with a kid to university, as a bigger monitor for a laptop computer probably.
  • Clock in the bedroom. Before we all had phones, we had those glowing digital nags in our rooms, making it all too easy to turn a brief disruption in sleep into a night of insomnia, filled with calculations about how much time there was left to fall asleep before the jolting alarm. I was sleeping with my daughter who breastfed through the night and unplugged the clock on advice from an online forum. What a transformation! Our nights were relaxed and peaceful, our waking in the morning gentle and natural, not alarming. The first thing I do in a hotel room is unplug the clock. Occasionally I set an alarm – with pretty music – on my phone, if I need to get up particularly early. Mostly, though, I go to bed early, and let my body (and cats) tell me when it’s time to wake.

What else? What have you let go (or never used) that we all take for granted?

 

Letting Go

Resetting My Life

I wrote before about the start of my radical decluttering journey (Powerful Books) – it was (officially) in 2015, after years of chaos and trauma in my personal life, when I’d found hope and excitement about the future. (Unofficially, I can trace my first step to a moment of sparkling lights glistening on snow in 2013 when I suddenly remembered what hope felt like … but these things take time, as they should.) On a trip to NYC, I wrote the heading “Reset My Life” in my journal and found it echoed in Marie Kondo’s book that I bought there.

While the decluttering was mostly of physical things, it started with a vision of how I wanted to live my life, how I wanted to feel. That made it easier to get rid of excess stuff – I knew what I wanted to keep and why – and it cleared the space I needed to process my emotional clutter.

Releasing Emotional Clutter

I grew to a point where I was ready to do a big purge of excess stuff from my heart, to lighten the load my soul was carrying. I planned out a Ritual of Release that suited me, and used a trip to the ocean to hold the ritual. Inspired by a tweet along the lines of “If you didn’t swim naked in the ocean on your birthday, did you even turn thirty?” I did consider a good salty skinny dip as part of the ritual, despite being over fifty. Unfortunately for me, fortunately for everyone else, it was bitterly cold and stormy, there was to be no swimming.

Here’s what I wrote in my dreamy little apartment in Victoria, BC, the day before the ritual (actually, I posted this online on my blog … the blog that I didn’t tell anyone about or share … I guess I was just practicing, warming up).

reset my life

I’m going to the ocean tomorrow to have a ceremony where I let go of my emotional clutter. I open space in my heart to treasure my current life and the people in it, and to welcome new adventures and new people.

I’m doing it at the ocean because water washes things away, takes them within and transforms them, sending the new mix back as waves to the shore, some calm, some crashing in with drama.

I carried a painful story in my heart for decades. One time, I wrote it out, as much as I could remember. I was worried someone would read the story but I didn’t want to shred the paper, so I soaked it in water and made it into a ball. I kept that ball near for a long time. One day, I was ready to let go, and when I let go of that ball, I felt all the shame and humiliation go too. The story no longer haunts me.

I started to do this with my other difficult stories. The more I let go, the easier it got.

Tomorrow, at the water ceremony, I am letting go of the past and of expectations for the future. It marks the end of a transformation I began a few years ago, and the beginning of the period of my life when I embrace the joy of the present, with mindfulness and clarity. I have intentions for how I live each day. I reset my life and every day is now a celebration.

Here are the things I’m leaving at the ocean because I don’t need them anymore:

  • expectations and fears of the future
  • judgments and assumptions about others
  • need for others’ approval
  • shame
  • bitterness about past injustices
  • roles I’ve played: victim, overachiever, failure, cry baby, thief, damaged goods, helpless
  • relationships that are done
  • guilt

I release the emotions, knowing waves will bring them back at times, but I will no longer keep them within me, I’ll notice them and let them flow back out.

For the roles I’ve played, I will hug each version of me that I’m saying good-bye to. I’ll tell her I love her, and let her be free to swim forever in the water she loves.

I will apologize to people from past relationships and wish them well. I will thank them for being what I needed at the time.

I see myself as whole and healed, open and grateful for this magical life. Love to all.

Ritual of Release

My ceremony itself was a bit of a scene because magic works that way. I enjoyed an early morning wander through the streets of Victoria and when I got to the park near the ocean, there was an arch of trees making a green tunnel leading to the rocks and water. I was transformed walking through it.

I scrambled down to the rocky beach, soaking up the beauty and power of the water. The waves started getting a bit out of control, very big, and a strong wind ushered in black skies even though the forecast was clear. Just as I got out my papers with my ceremony and list, crazy pelting rain started – I can still remember the feel of it against my legs, stinging through layers of clothing – and I stood there in a storm, calling out words as I “threw” them from my heart out into the water. I was laughing the whole time because it was so ridiculously perfect. Water. My whole being was being released by water.

And it worked. It worked so well that when I started writing this post I tried to remember what things I had released that day into the ocean, and I could only list a couple. The others were gone. I left them on the other side of the continent, deep in the Pacific Ocean.

Not all of it went easily. There were plants, you know long seaweedy tangles of green on the shore, and sometimes the waves would come in and get stuck on the plants as the water went back out. For sure, some of the things I was releasing were stuck in that tangle, but they did get out there eventually.

I had one thing that didn’t go, a habit I wanted to break but hadn’t put on the list. I didn’t think it was, you know, ripe yet, I but felt like I should let it go. I waited till the next day and then in a different spot, I really, really tried to send it out in the waves, but the waves coming back in were taunting me, splashing it back at me. About a year after that, I realized I was ready, and while the river here in town is small, it gladly accepts my offerings, when it’s the right time.

Let it go.

Karen on a cliff in Newfoundland
Newfoundland, 2016 The other ocean 🙂

If I Can Do the Impossible, So Can You

Once upon a time in my early thirties I took up running to humour a friend. We followed her plan, running for a few minutes, walking for a minute or two or three, and repeating this for thirty minutes. We did it a few times a week for over a year before making a radical change: We repeated the run/walk bits for forty minutes. Astonishing, I know.

Around that time, I was visiting my mother and came in from a challenging but successful forty minute run/walk, full of pride and adrenaline. Her neighbours, athletic types, were visiting and they joined in my joy before bursting my bubble by saying, “You’ll be running for a full hour soon.” They weren’t joking.

I got on my soapbox (well, the stone step by the fireplace) and ranted that people like them didn’t understand people like me. It had taken over a year to accomplish today’s forty minutes and there was no way my body was capable of anything more than that. It was a miracle that I was running at all, given my innate couch-potato-ness.

Properly chastened, they didn’t say much, until one murmured, “So, I guess forty-one minutes next week would be out of the question? No way you’d do forty-two the week after that?”

Well, the short version of the next twenty years is that I ended up running multiple marathons and celebrated my 50th birthday by doing a 50K trail run in Hell, Michigan (thanks JAM). I was even a sponsored athlete for a running store for a year (my mother still doesn’t believe me about that) and they’d introduce me by saying, “Karen is proof that anyone can be a runner: If she can do it, you can do it.”

 

How did this happen? I had never wanted or dreamt of being a runner. I remember crossing the finish line of my first half-marathon – I’d had no intention of running that far, I just thought running 10K would take me as long as most people take for the 21.1K of a half, so I signed up for that clinic. Turns out it doesn’t work that way, and there I was, less than a year after having my forty minute limit challenged, crossing the finish line of a half-marathon. I cried. Not from pride, but from terror at doing something I believed was impossible. If I could do this, what else was there? What other limits had I imposed on myself? My life completely opened up in that moment, and the blossoming continues to this day.

What other limits had I imposed on myself?

I don’t run anymore (well, there is a 5K Chocolate Run I do with the kids on Mother’s day – the aid stations have chocolate covered strawberries, and instead of a bagel and banana at the finish, you get chocolate croissants and a chocolate caramel coated apple and fudge and truffles and that’s my son in the green shirt on the race’s home page … I digress) but some of my most important life lessons I learned from running:

 

Build up gradually, with breaks and drop-backs

I did run 41 minutes the following week, and 42 the week after that. Then I went back to 40 for a week or two, then did 45. My first marathon was 5 hours 10 minutes, every step of it built up gradually. I use this for all sorts of skills now, my biggest struggle being the patience it takes because I can’t become a master overnight. But how mind-blowing is it that I can become a master at all?!

Pace yourself

My happiest runs were always when I ‘stayed within myself’ and my most frustrating ones were when I tried to keep up with others or with a pace I thought I should be able to keep. Many runners like running with a group that is just slightly faster than them – I do not. I also hated doing speedwork, so if running faster is your thing, I am not the one to give you advice.

I do know that no good can come from comparing myself to others. Even the gradual build-up described above isn’t constant. There’s a lot to be said for balancing times of just being, celebrating yourself as you are, with times of striving to be more. Listen to your body and your intuition, they’ll tell you when to push and when to back off. You have no obligation to improve, but when you do crave a challenge, run with it.

When you do challenge yourself, run up steep hills

I remember standing at the foot of a short, steep hill my first evening with the training group and wondering what kind of gag it was when they suggested we actually run up it. Like building gradually though, it was a manageable bit to push through (okay, I only got halfway the first night) and the results were astounding. In so many areas of my life, I now choose to do something that’s really hard or scary – in a small dose – so I can grow stronger.

There’s a lot to be said for balancing times of just being, celebrating yourself as you are, with times of striving to be more.

Nature is a wellspring of physical and spiritual energy

Forest trails, quiet lakes, babbling brooks, and dramatic cliffs heal and invigorate. Always. Profoundly. Covering fifty kilometres of them in ten hours was, perhaps, a bit much. I’m thrilled that I did it, and have no interest in ever doing it again. No matter what is going on in my life, spending time outdoors is guaranteed to make it better. I’m lucky to have a half-hour walk to work each morning and evening. It’s in a city, but along quiet tree-lined streets, with a big sky to inspire me and charge my battery every single day.

Now, go do the impossible, gradually

What limits are you putting on yourself? If you think that people like me don’t understand what it’s like for people like you, you’re right, I’m not you. I do know that sometimes, you can do a little more tomorrow than you’re doing today, and that sometimes that little more will add up to a whole lot of magic.

May the wind always be at your back.