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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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self improvement

TTT – The Boy, The Girl, The Dirt

There’s a meme going around my Facebook feeds lately, where friends tag others to publicly post 3 things they are grateful for every day for 5 consecutive days. Kinda like the 365 project lite, or 1-day cricket.

It’s made me remember that I used to dedicate Thursdays to Thankfulness.

I’d very recently purchased the Gratitude 365 Journal App – partly because it had the prettiest user interface out of the all the gratitude apps I’ve seen, but mostly because I want to fine-tune my perspectacles. I don’t have to tell you that there can be a lot of negativity on the internet; gone are the days of one-way mass media where a small group of elites opined. These days, an opinion piece could invite instant feedback and with it, hot judgement, cold trolling and many times, downright nastiness.

Politics and religion aside, parenting is one of those things that can press everyone’s crazy button – whether you’re a parent or not. Lately, I’ve grown so weary of reading comments that quickly deteriorate to name-calling and judgement. I’m also quickly losing what little patience I already have with manipulative scaremongers who prey on the insecurities of others to inflate their own misplaced sense of superiority and saintliness. As if parents don’t have enough secret oodles of self-doubt to deal with.

You know what I’m talking about, because we are surrounded by it daily.

It is hard not to be sucked in the game, and especially with the Facebook posting and the retweeting. I’m very opinionated on a raft of topics (read: most things). It’s probably why I started blogging, although I’ve made more of an effort with this blog to reflect and refine my words and deeds.

It also means I’m so much more susceptible to the hot judgements and the cold cynicism.

It may seem like disparate topics – gratitude and unrighteous judgement – and yet they can be two sides of the same coin. Self-righteousness is narcissistic because it assumes from the very start that my values and life experiences should determine everyone else’s True North. Yet, Gratitude is another kind of self-absorption, in that it requires discipline, and continual self-awareness and reflection.

Simply put, I find that focusing on things I’m thankful for helps slay the part of me that wants to think the worst of others. It’s not a coincidence that people who feel grateful are more likely to feel loved – and to want to love in return.

(I just want to put in a quick disclaimer that I’m not talking about Positive Thinking here. There is a difference between being perky and being thankful.)

Anyhoo – back to today’s Thursday’s Three Thank-yous

1) This active, growing boy

I am incubating a human being that is now strong enough to kick me awake. He’s starting to settle into a 3-hour pattern – which includes an 11pm Snoopy Dance (happening right now), a 2am plié, and a 5am Ninja-stealth wallop. He responds very positively to chocolate. I am also contemplating a life with an Even More Active Kid. (Remember that Arddun was crawling and standing by 6½ months, and walking by 10½ months.) I miss him when he’s zoning out, and there is a slow smile that breaks across my face when he starts up again because I know he’s still alive. I am so thankful for the privilege of carrying 2 babies in my lifetime. Having someone move independently of you while within you is a bizarre, delightful thing.

2) This loving, (mostly) obedient girl

Didn’t mean for this round of TTT to turn out to be so general — but I’ve really enjoyed Arddun’s company this week. Sure she wants to strike out now and then – refuses to hold my hand sometimes, bursts into tears when I say “not yet” or “no”… but her manners can be so beautiful, her gratitude can be so transparent, and her concern for my welfare, so guileless and genuine. I love how she has learnt contentment with her own company, something adults can struggle with still. I love how she mostly understands when I need space to accomplish other things; that she doesn’t need to be the centre of my universe all the time.

Arddun sitting on a red stool and reading in her room

3) The ability to own a plot of dirt

We officially became landowners yesterday. Not such a big deal to many Australians, but it’s surreal for a Singaporean like me. To own land and build your own house in Singapore (no matter how tiny) is the reserve and privilege of the fabulously, obscenely wealthy. We are not multi-millionaires, but we have been given enough to own a plot of dirt. (Weeeell, “own” is a strong word considering all land in Canberra is crown lease. But it’s still a great feeling.)

New Year Resolutions 2014

I love big beginnings. Maybe it’s the project manager/event organiser in me, but there’s nothing like sitting down with a blank canvas, drawing out a programme of work and determining The Approach. I’ve spoken before about past New Year resolutions, and I am a little late (as usual) in finalising this year’s list. But before I launch into this year’s idealism, let me go through a short (by my standards) review of last year’s effort.

Review of 2013’s resolutions

I had split last year’s resolutions into 3 personal mottos (“Be my own mum”, “Live in the moment”, “Glass is half full”) and 5 everyday goals (“Monday Meditation”, “Attend writers’ meetings”, “Write, Write, Write”, Weekday Devo” and “Read 10 books”.) And this approach has worked surprisingly well over the year, given all the crazy interruptions.

I attended meetings at the Writing group I’m part of, until I was no longer physically able to because I was in a different continent. I also started reading books again, but didn’t get anywhere near 10 books. I think I’ve read 5 books halfway. So really, that was a 25% success rate – not impressive, but it got the juices going anyway. The writing goal was the hardest to achieve, not only because of the packing and unpacking I did all year, but also because all willpower dried up – and with it, inspiration. I didn’t even feel like blogging, partly because I was Tupperwaring most nights towards the end of the year, but mostly because I didn’t want to bore you or myself with my grief and negativity.

But the biggest surprise to me was the success of Monday Meditations and my weekday devotions. Didn’t do it the whole year through, but there were stretches of months when I did both consistently. And then I’d lapse into one or the other, before going into it again. Most of all, it was always there at the back of my head as something I want to do and need to do. And then when my mother died, all that desire to reconnect with God really came rushing in. Even if it’s so I could whisper, “Tell mum I said Hi. And that I miss our chats. Would you?”

On the personal motto front, I forgot about the “Be my own mum” one a lot – chiefly because it didn’t matter to me that much anyway. My role as Daughter came into the foreground a lot more last year, and any brush of Momsy competition with another got quickly squelched by the weight of my apathy. (“So you never let your children watch television because you’re not a lazy parent. And you’ve never let them eat cheese toasties because of the sodium levels in bread, ham, AND cheese. Well, good for you.”) Probably not the desired outcome in terms of attitude, but it did mean that I breathed my own version of motherhood a lot more freely.

“Glass half full” was snorted at a lot last year. And yet, I did count my blessings even in the darkest of moments. But I wasn’t feeling up to the pop psychology of Being Positive all year round, and so I ignored that one, really.

“Live in the moment” proved to be my favourite, and I whisper that to myself a lot. It’s a wonderful way to shut down the million voices jostling for my immediate attention. “Be present” is the shorter version, but means the same thing. There is vacuuming to be done before visitors arrive, dishes to be washed before dinner, and Tupperware deliveries to be checked and repackaged by tonight. But my daughter just pulled out a box of jigsaw puzzles, and this is supposed to be our day together. There is a reason I quit my job. Drop everything else. Do the jigsaw. Be present.

Happiness: the 2014 project

Part of the reason I took up Tupperware was to distract myself every evening. I had reached a point after dinner and when Tony went off to his study nook, where I’d sit in my soi disant work room and feel the dark creep in. I have to say I ran a lot on adrenaline last year. The practical aspects of being the sole executrix of someone’s will, of being the main instrument in deconstructing a person’s life were a fabulous crutch I could use to gallop along from one important thing to another. Tupperware was another way to extend the busyness. It isn’t rocket science, fairly menial, and pushed me to meet new people and take an interest in the world around me while allowing me flexibility to take care of house and home.

But I think I always knew that eventually, I’d have to address the sadness properly. Which was why I had bought myself The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

As a Christian, it seems almost counter-intuitive to buy a secular self-help book on finding happiness, when we tell ourselves that the bible should suffice. The bible does suffice. It says a lot about what joy is, and it does make a distinction between worldly happiness and Godly joy. I’m not about to discard the Good Book. (Actually, the Good BOOKS, since there are 66 of them.) But I am experiencing some technical difficulties.

It’s like the concept of self-control, where we are told to pray for it and desire it and wait for it to be given and exercise it. We are told what it looks like, and what it doesn’t look like. We are told the consequences of not having any. But I think it’s also useful to know how self-control happens, in the most base and practical of ways. Like how your body needs glucose to help your brain control impulses. And that insufficient sleep impairs your brain’s ability to absorb glucose. And that you could try waiting the recommended 10 minutes for the wave of temptation to dissipate. A 10-minute wait  – the practical form of spotting sin and then fleeing from the devil.

Likewise, I’m trying to work out how to develop gratitude and happiness through concrete actions. I’m not going to stop meditating, and I know that my joy comes from the Lord. But I also know that shaking oneself out of a funk often requires faking it till you’re making it. Happiness is a side product of love in action. I need an action list.

The Happiness Project has a chapter for each month, and all Gretchen does is talk about what she decided to do for herself. Her January was about research on energy generation – feeling pumped enough to even want to be happy. In practical terms, she resolved to

  • get decent sleep for a month,
  • to get out of the house for some form of exercise 20 minutes a day (even if it’s just walking),
  • to declutter her house, and
  • to tackle her long-term to-do list.

And that’s what my January resolutions have become. PERFECT approach for me, because I do have a short attention span most times, and a month is long enough to form a habit, but not too long that I get discouraged by the interminability of it.

I’m also continuing my mottos from last year, and they now are:

  • Be present
  • Choose kindness
  • Keep records

So yes – wish me all the very best. If you’re the praying kind, then pray that I’ll learn to be kind – for that is one of my biggest struggles. And for those of you who have resolved to do better by not doing worse, I salute your effort. I salute your will. I salute your desire to be a better person.

New Year Resolutions 2013

We all know the drill. Or at least, I do. I make these stupendous new year’s resolutions the week before the clock chimes 12 on the 31st, and I’m struggling to even remember what it is I promised myself to do by mid February. Ish.

The idealism sets in around Christmas time when you’re in the warm embrace of Michael Bublé crooning that he’ll be home for Christmas, peaks when it’s an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve and you’re almost feverish with a burning desire to get your 26″ waistline back next year WITHOUT RESORTING TO SAUSAGE-STUFFING SHAPEWEAR… and then grows sorta desperate when you’ve entered the first week of January and you haven’t finalised your list.

Or that’s me, anyway.

Tony regards New Year Resolutions with a bit of an eyeroll and a yawn. I am much more starry-eyed about it. There’s something about (thirty) second chances that I’m an absolute sucker for. Something about the lifelong desire for personal improvement. Something about a clean slate, a fresh canvas, and innocence reborn.

In terms of resolution-making, I’ve tried a variety of forms and tactics.

I’ve done the vanilla Listing Method, where you go “1. Go to the gym more regularly. 2. Take up baking.”

I’ve done the General Zen Self Improvement ones, like “Listen more. Do less. Eat healthy. Champion underdogs. Seek purity.”

I’ve made long lists. I’ve made short, manageable ones. One year, I made just one resolution for the whole year, which I half kept because I went to the gym twice a week for half a year before the irony of getting takeaway dinners after gym classes set in and stuck. I even made a New Year’s Theme, which isn’t so much a resolution as a mantra or motto one keeps for the year ahead. Mei Ann, who first put the idea in my head, had chosen something like Carpe Diem. I went with Cool Bananas – something I had my work team chant to me whenever I found myself near losing my stack because of idiocy.

I’ve read the articles that bang on about why New Resolutions Don’t Work. Hasn’t fazed me yet. Because ultimately, I’m an idealist. And I love lists. And I love new beginnings. And I never want to stop trying.

So here’s to trying.

Velle’s New Year Resolutions 2013

The following list is more “thematic”, ala the Cool Bananas of 2008 (see above). It’s the 3 rules I want to remember for the year, because I want to be able to apply them to situations I encounter frequently.

Be my own mum

I find myself comparing our family to everyone else’s constantly. A part of it is benchmarking, but most of it is due to insecurity. I’ve always been competitive, but since I became a mother, the competitive streak has grown a mile wide, taken over my cerebral cortex, and now mentally karate-chops every other kid and mother I encounter whose way of living differs to mine. It is a horrible disease.

It also swings the other way. I question my parenting constantly. I know it’s healthy to evaluate what we’re doing as parents, and to seek God and others to plug the holes. But my gut is telling me that I veer towards grabbing a whole bunch of “parent molds” in an effort to stuff our little family in them.

Fact: I am a new parent. But I’ve also been me a lot longer than I’ve been a parent. So I should probably stick to what I know best.

Fact: Arddun is a little individual with a growing personality that is All Hers. She will struggle with certain temptations, and yet sail through others. Comparing her to other kids who are better/less behaved in any given scenario just isn’t fair to her OR to me.

Fact: There will always be other parents (and non-parents!) who will judge me, Arddun, and Tony. They will do the comparisons, they will whisper behind our backs, they may approve or disapprove. I cannot change any of that, but lugging my family along to appease someone else’s Golden Standard is both impractical and ridiculous.

We need to set our own bars according to the gifts, character traits and resources made available to us.

I need to stop trying to grow the perfect kid on the off-chance that someone might award me a gold star for good parenting. Even if that gold star comes from the people I love and whose good opinion I desire greatly.

And I need to grow thicker skin.

Live in the moment

How many times have I been “playing” with Arddun while mentally listing things I “ought to” be doing at that moment? How many times have I depended on her to play quietly while I rushed around with housework and tomorrow’s worries and tonight’s writing assignment? How many times has Tony talked to me about something important to him while my mind has drifted on to Saturday’s church potluck?

This resolution isn’t about turning into a helicopter parent and filling Arddun’s every waking moment with All of My Quality Time. But it is about being wholly present in each moment – heart, body, soul. I am so much more distracted and distractible now as a parent than I’ve ever been. My mind is like dandelion sometimes- 18,000 different directions as soon as the wind picks up, even though the body is present and still.

I want to remember that I’m not a child-minder – I’m a parent. And I’m not a housemate – I’m a wife. It’s time to live each moment more purposefully and give the people in them the respect they deserve.

It’s time to get grounded.

The glass is half full

I used to be such an optimist. It came with the territory of being a ditzy arts student, seemingly unencumbered by something as weighty as facts and realism. I am, of course, being slightly facetious when I say this. But that’s my problem right there.

I don’t know how I’ve allowed this part of me to change, but I think I’ve lost this optimism. This ability to look at the world Sunny Side Up. This quickness to give others the benefit of the doubt. This courage to emote daringly. To look for the laugh. To brave the weather with a smile and some sass. To walk in and add sunshine to a room.

I’ve blamed lots of things over the years. A church that has traditionally frowned upon emotions as something of an inferior worship to an intellectual discourse on God our Father. Hurtful accusations of leading with my heart and being emotional, as if this part of my femininity is something weak to be suppressed or cured from. An emphasis overall on analytical skills over instinct, on quantitative over qualitative. Pessimism couched as realism. Optimism couched as the product of a fanciful, childish mind.

But the truth is, I’ve allowed myself to become cynical. And cynicism comes from a hardness of the heart.

And so here’s to softening it again, and to considering others as better than myself. Here’s to living joyfully, to embracing my Inner Dork, and to charging ahead like a child who knows she’s safe because her Father’s always watching.

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Velle’s 2013 Goals

This bit reads like a linear list of New Year’s resolutions. But as they say with project management and strategy, the trick is to make things bite-sized and specific.

  • Monday Meditation
    Pray for half an hour on Mondays
  • Weekday Devo
    Read a short devotional on my iPhone on weekdays
  • Write , Write, Write
    Blog twice a week, write 4 magazine articles, write and finish a novella. This is probably the most difficult to achieve, I think.
  • Attend 80% of Writer’s Club meetings
    I’d stopped attending my writer’s club since I was pregnant with Arddun. Time to get back on the horse, get inspired, and work those muscles.
  • Read 10 books
    Have been talking about starting a book club for AGES. Finally time to get off my backside and make it happen.

What are your New Year Resolutions? Care to share?

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