Where was this book 20 years ago? Lisa Nichols would probably like to know that, too. She writes powerfully about the process of changing a scarcity-based, limited mindset and breaking through economic class boundaries. If it were easy, it wouldn’t take a book to figure it out. I nodded along with her on every page… until I got to the last 20%. Then I started taking notes.
“Did you grow up with a negative money mindset?” This, to me, is one of the most important questions of the book. I know I believed (and/or was taught) every single item on Nichols’s list of negative money beliefs. These include the ideas that “rich people get money by scamming the rest of us” and that if you’re rich, you can’t be a good person. I felt that having more money would corrupt me and make me selfish. Not just selfish, but soft, unable to retain my street smarts and grit.
I love this book, and I can’t possibly recommend it enough to anyone who is still caught in struggle. It doesn’t have to be that way. You’re smart enough to think your way out of any situation, but first you have to believe you can and that it’s worth the bother to try. That’s why we need books like Abundance Now. They teach us all the things that people from more privileged backgrounds picked up simply by breathing the air around them.
Since I’ve already strongly advised that you go out and read this book, read it right away, I’ll now share a bit to reinforce the message. I’ve crossed two economic class boundaries so far in my lifetime, from below-the-official-poverty-line to working class to middle class. I see no reason to stop going, now that I have a better idea of how it works. What I’ve learned is that there are enormous differences in mindset between people of each economic class. You can often figure out a person’s financial belief package in five minutes. One example from Abundance Now: “Average people teach their children how to survive. Rich people teach their kids how to get rich.” As a poor person, that statement would have made me spit with anger. I couldn’t see the possibility that someone might get rich from a positive contribution to humanity. Is it “okay” to get rich by selling goods or services that people want? Is it “okay” to be a wealthy surgeon, for example? What about someone like Bill Gates, who got rich selling software and now is using part of the money to try to eradicate malaria?
One of the first thinking exercises I learned when I was climbing the economic ladder was to try to see earning money as “permissible” or just “not evil” in all cases. The truth is that earning money and building wealth has no relationship to a person’s character or morals, in the same way that being poor doesn’t. You know that being poor and living in a rough neighborhood doesn’t automatically make you a thief, a drug addict, or a “welfare cheat.” What if the process of earning an education, building a career, and becoming prosperous helped you to relax and be more generous? What if you could use your newfound leverage to bring positive change to the people around you? What’s your personal “malaria” that you would love to eliminate from the world, if you could simply whip out your debit card and start working on it?
Money is energy, pure and simple. It’s an abstract means of exchange. If the idea of keeping it around makes you uncomfortable (for now), what about thinking of it as a current, flowing around you in the same way a creek would? What if you earned more and went ahead and gave it away? If the first idea that comes to mind is that you’d like to ease the financial burden from someone you love – why couldn’t that person be you?
Three weeks is a long time to be on the road. Preparations need to be made for the trip, but they also need to be made to put the house in cryogenic stasis while we’re away. It really isn’t as simple as slamming the door and hoping it latches on the way out. The more we travel, the better we get at it, and the closer it becomes to habit. We still make mistakes. I carefully padlocked the garage, locked the door handle and the deadbolt on the laundry room, shut and locked all the windows, locked the back door, locked and dead-bolted the front door… and left the dog door wide open. Any human under 200 pounds and any animal smaller than a boar would have had no trouble slipping inside, invisible to public gaze.
Fortunately, we don’t have anything worth stealing. Even the fridge was empty.
Household chores are my way of dealing with the frenetic energy I generate while planning a trip. I get too restless to concentrate on much else. I’ll read and re-read the same paragraph over and over while my mind churns over details. Bustling around doing minor, System One tasks helps to free my concentration for all the System Two mental bandwidth when I really need it.
do all the laundry wash the dishes wash the pet bedding wash the shower curtain clean the bathroom make a shopping list for when we get back hem my new travel pants rearrange the linen closet donate a bag to Goodwill turn in the library books dust the bookshelves put clean sheets on the bed put out fresh towels mop the floors make soup stock try to cook every single thing in the fridge freeze dinner for the night we get back plant the amaryllis bulb haul the waste bins to the curb refill the bottles in my shower kit pack the bags sort the mail scrub the sink UHOH! On the morning of the trip, the piece of cabinetry under the kitchen sink comes unglued, falls off, and nearly hits me as I walk by. It’s always something. Now, no matter what I do, THE HOUSE WILL NOT BE PERFECT while we’re gone.
I like to have this image of our place from my final walk-through. I can visualize it the way I saw it last. Nothing on any of the countertops, nothing on the bed, nothing on the floor. Not only are there no scary pools of organic gloop making compost tea in my refrigerator crispers, no mildewing towels spreading spores in my hamper, but there are also no important documents or keys lying forgotten on a table. This habit of the perimeter check is a keystone in our travel prep. A hotel room perimeter check can be done in 60 seconds; the house and yard can be done in 5 minutes. A campsite can be done almost instantly, because once you’ve folded and packed the tent with the car keys still inside, you learn to double check and shake it first. Anything on the ground that isn’t a leaf should already have gone in the backpacks.
I forgot to do the full hotel room perimeter check earlier this year. It’s no excuse, but I had started using an eye medication the night before, and I wasn’t strong on visuals. I left an entire change of clothes in a drawer. I like using the bottom dresser drawer as a dirty clothes hamper. I didn’t realize I was missing all these things until weeks later, when I didn’t have two things I had planned to bring on our trip. I emailed the hotel and they responded that they had mailed the box of clothes to our address and billed it to the credit card on file. (Hilton FTW!) This was great, except that we were already in Europe, and I had to track the package and put a hold on it from my phone over campsite wifi. One dumb mistake or lapse in attention can have a way of rippling outward, causing additional hassle, affecting not just me but other people as well.
There are a lot of bureaucratic matters that need to be handled before an international trip. They’re not negotiable. Nobody cares. If you show up without your passport, you’re not going. If you don’t have the necessary visa, you’re not getting in. If you don’t have your wallet, you’re not buying anything. If you miss a flight after checking your bags, I’ll tell you what happens. They delay the flight just long enough to find your bags in the hold and remove them, and everyone on board does one massive, synchronized eye roll. (Delays usually aren’t someone’s fault; they’re a result of the ripple effect of delays on other flights, usually due to weather). It’s debatable what to pack, or how well to organize the house; it is not debatable whether to get vaccinated, get the visa, follow security regulations, or board on time. Their rules are not our rules, they are THE rules.
What you learn from hanging around more experienced travelers is that frequent travel scrapes off all the sequins and glitter. No, you don’t have time for one last thing; no, you don’t have room for one more item; no, you’re not going to need that.
Here is a list of bureaucratic stuff we had to do before our trip:
Book plane tickets
Confirm that we didn’t need a visa or additional vaccinations
Confirm that our passports would still be valid
Check customs regulations for the countries we'd be visiting
Arrange to board our pets and get the dog a bath the day before our return
Register with the State Department (optional)
Get travel insurance (optional, but wise)
Notify our banks where and when we'd be traveling
Get an international data plan (the AT&T passport) for our phones
Put a hold on our mail
Put a hold on our CSA farm box delivery
Arrange to have my husband’s work laptop and business clothes shipped home before the backpacking part of the trip
Pack some small bills and coins in euros from last business trip
Renew our renter’s insurance (coincidence)
Activate our new debit cards (coincidence); they would have arrived after our departure if I hadn’t elected to delay my ticket by a few days
Not realize the ripple effect of the debit card expiration date hitting all our auto-payments
Deal with a steady stream of email relating to our auto-payments not going through for the entire trip
Watch an ATM eat our old debit card and then give an error message in Catalan, only days into the trip
Travel is one of the best supporting arguments for both members of a couple to have separate bank accounts. The best backup plan would be to travel with debit cards from two different banks and credit cards from at least two different issuers, each with its own independent expiration date. This is how it would happen if family members, colleagues, friends, or strangers traveled together. Married or committed partners have the advantage that when it’s time to collect any debts, you know where they live.
We travel frequently, so often that we don’t even really count weekend trips out of town. I don’t even really count traveling out of state unless it was a different time zone. It isn’t “travel” unless you leave the continent. What this means is that we always have a general sense of the state of our luggage. We have freshly replenished shower kits. We have a place to board our animals. (We found out the hard way that this can’t be done on a whim, not with exotics. There are usually physical exam requirements first. Space isn’t always available). We have a housekeeping routine. We have designated travel outfits for different seasons. We break in our boots and shoes. All the backpacking stuff is in one labeled bin. We have routine places we tend to stop on road trips, where we know the menu and the hours of operation.
It’s a sad irony that living like freewheeling gypsy wanderers is easier when you have the infrastructure of an engineer and a professional organizer.
Everything we do in advance is a gift to Vacation Self. What we’re doing is front-loading a lot of hassle and effort to buy ourselves larger chunks of High Quality Leisure Time. We’re clearing System Two tasks so our Future Selves can relax and play. On the way home, we had a status meeting and identified 83 separate line items of things we could improve for our next trip. Many of them involved gear to buy, invent, replace, or stop bringing. This gives us something to do in the stretches of home life when nothing interesting is going on.
We are indeed already planning our next trip. It adds to the anticipation. It gives us a shared goal to discuss and visualize. It gives us time to prevent hassles. Done right, it saves us from wandering around in the rain when all the restaurants are closed, or finding out the tour we had planned is not available on the only day we had scheduled. One day, we’ll crush it. We’ll wander seamlessly between one fantastic dream destination and another, whirling along like we’re living in our own personal musical. Until then, it’s back to the drawing board, editing and revising.
Give yourself jet lag in advance. Why not? What follows is the log of my 12-day jet lag experiment. It worked pretty well, and I plan to repeat it the next time I travel across time zones.
For the first time, I’m planning ahead and trying to do what I can to avoid jet lag. I’ll be traveling east by 9 time zones. The trip will last over two weeks, which is a long enough span of time to make the adjustment worthwhile. Since I work for myself and set my own schedule, I can make my own constraints. I’ve decided that it’s better to suffer at least some of the effects of jet lag in advance, at home, rather than have it spoil the first few days of our trip.
This morning, I woke up at 9:45 AM. This is unusually late even by my standards, but it’s 6:45 PM where I’m going! I like working late at night, and when I get into a groove, my schedule will start creeping later and later. I have been known to swing around the clock until I’m going to bed at 6 AM. This is a way I have of annoying myself, because I always sleep badly during the daytime, being woken up by every lawnmower, ice cream truck, and barking dog. My current schedule is not optimal either for home or travel. (Well, it would be fine if I went to Hawaii).
I’ve always hated taking early morning flights. In light of the reading I did on jet lag planning, I am changing my attitude. Getting up at 4 AM to go to the airport would not only give me more options and probably save money, but it would also put me closer to my goal of adjusting to the destination time zone. The tickets for this trip are already booked, but it’s something I’ll keep in mind for future trips.
My flight leaves in 12 days. I’m planning to adjust in 30-minute increments. I happen to be writing this on a Friday, so this plan won’t infringe too much on my husband’s ability to snooze a little over the weekend. I already know that the easiest way to get up earlier is to go to bed earlier, and that is more or less impossible unless you’re tired enough to go to sleep. Thus, I will be setting both a bedtime reminder and an alarm. Within a few days, I’ll be tired enough to start drifting off earlier. If I can keep to my plan, on the morning I leave, my alarm will go off at 3:45 AM, or 12:45 PM destination time. (My husband is leaving a few days before me, meaning on his travel day we would be getting up right around the same time).
I’m a childhood-onset insomniac, so I’ve been through every iteration of fully or semi-sleepless night possible. If there is one thing I know how to do, it’s to drag myself through the day no matter how tired I am. Let’s see how it goes.
Night 1: We’re both super-tired for some reason. It’s a Friday night and we’re asleep by 11. I wake up at 7:45 AM. The previous night, I slept from 2AM to 9:45 AM. I’ve already shifted two hours earlier and gotten an extra hour’s sleep. I feel groggy and out of sorts. Immediately, I make the connection to jet lag. If I feel this way after a 2-hour shift, how would I feel without the adjustment, being off by 10-12 hours?
Night 2: Stayed up until 1:00, woke up at 7:50. Not as tired as the 9-hour night.
Night 3: In bed at 11:30, up at 7:00. I have awoken before my alarm every day so far. I’ve shifted roughly 3 hours in 3 days with no real effort. Just keep reminding myself why I’m getting up.
Night 4: In bed at 10:30, up at 6:30. Took a while to fall asleep. Today I needed the alarm. The first 3 minutes were really bad, and all I wanted was to roll over and go back to sleep. Then I was fine. Unfortunately, I found out that what I thought should be an 8-hour adjustment was a fluke, an artefact caused by the difference between Daylight Savings start dates in the US and Europe. This definitely validates my plan, because I have more adjusting to do than I had thought.
Night 5: In bed at 11:30, up at 6:15. My husband gets up at 6, and he’ll only be here through the end of the week. I’ve decided to slow my rate of adjustment and just get up with his alarm. He did not sign on to be part of my experiment, and I can’t think of a way to wake up earlier without disturbing him. I’ll still have four days to adjust downward after his flight. Pretty tired. Going to bed earlier is definitely the complicated part of this plan.
Night 6: In bed at 11:30, up at 6:30. Forgot to set an alarm and gradually woke up while hubby was getting ready for work. Really tired and feeling stupid about not going to bed sooner.
Night 7: In bed at 11. Woke up while it was still dark, thinking hubby was leaving for work, but he was just using the bathroom. It was only 1 AM and I had mostly dragged myself awake. Woke up at 5:45 before the alarm. Managed to read quietly without waking him up. Feeling fine.
Night 8: In bed at 10:40. Up at 4:20. Not even tired. Had lunch at 11 AM and realized it’s probably time to shift my mealtimes earlier.
Night 9: In bed at 8:30. Up with the alarm at 3:45. Woke up at 1 AM for the second time in two days, feeling like I could get up, but made myself go back to sleep. My dog has a grievance about being put to bed at 8 PM, and he whined for a while. Trying to figure out how to continue adjusting over the next few days without making life too difficult for my pets. (The bird sleeps from 7 to 7).
Night 10: In bed at 9:30. Up at 2:45 without an alarm. Took a nap from 6-8 AM. I’m still committed to shifting my wake-up time, because I believe it will work, and also because I believe half of the reason it works is drinking water and eating at the new wake-up time. But I’ve been getting pretty tired, and there’s the dog factor to consider.
Night 11: In bed at 9:45. Night terrors at 10:40. THIS. SUCKS. I deal with pavor nocturnus, and I hadn’t had an episode in over two years until this point. I woke up in my bathroom with the light on, panting, alone, and with no immediate idea what had happened. As my heart rate returned to normal, I remembered that I had “dreamed” a lizard was slowly crawling up my wall. Pavor dreams are more like split-second images of things that bother the primitive limbic brain, like spiders and snakes, rather than regular dreams, which are more like movies on any topic. I have always liked lizards and think they’re cute, so it annoys me even more that my sleeping brain decided an imaginary lizard was cause for doubling my heart rate and launching me out of bed in my sleep. Listened to podcasts until 11:15, back to sleep until I awoke naturally at 4:15. My experiment is effectively over. Even if this wasn’t Travel Day, I don’t feel comfortable tinkering with my sleep for a while. I’m not precisely where I wanted to be, but I am waking up naturally 5.5 hours earlier than I was at the start.
On the plane: I managed to sleep between 10:15 and 2:15, waking up every hour in between to readjust. One hour, I slept folded over the tray table, waking up when both of my arms went numb from the shoulders down. Nodded off for 20 minutes on my connecting flight.
First night in Hamburg: Fell asleep at midnight, then woke promptly at 2:30 AM. Lay awake for two hours. Comfy bed, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, no sleep! Got up at 7:30 to catch flight to Barcelona.
Results: I was exhausted from sleeping roughly 8 hours in two nights. I was able to go to bed and fall asleep at an appropriate time on the first night in Barcelona, and woke up naturally at about 8 AM. I slept pretty well throughout the trip. On the trip home, we had a 20-hour travel day and went to bed in our own home around 8:30 PM, or 5:30 AM Spanish time. My husband took Benadryl and slept for 11 hours; I woke up at 2:15 AM. On the second night home, I slept from 10 to 6. I can live with that.
There are several factors that contribute to the complexity of adjusting to a time zone change. Some are psychological, but most are physical. The psychological adjustment was easy for me to make because I had a specific deadline for something desirable. I didn’t feel like my default schedule had much going for it. Changing my sleep schedule would have a net positive impact, both for me and for my husband. The only drawback for us has been that I sometimes distract him when he’s getting ready for work in the morning and would rather talk to me.
The physical adjustments have a lot to do with hormone regulation. This includes melatonin, and it also includes leptin and ghrelin, the hormones that control satiety and appetite. There are most likely others, but three separate sleep-related hormones are enough to get my attention. The other, more obvious physical factors include mealtimes, hydration, and elimination. Gradually adjusting mealtimes also gradually adjusts the digestive system. It’s easier to get up earlier in the morning when you’re hungry. The easiest way is to respond to a full bladder!
About the pavor nocturnus problem: I’m pretty sure what set me off was messing with my blood sugar. That was the key to my two-year remission. I ate too close to bedtime because I was running around preparing for the trip. I already know that it’s best for me to plan meals to end at least three hours before bedtime, and this time, I pushed it to 90 minutes. That, combined with weeks of shifting my sleep times, stress about planning everything, and mild anxiety about sleeping in the house alone, was enough of a trigger. I haven’t had any more episodes in the following three weeks, and I believe it was a fluke.
I believe this gradual adjustment plan would still be feasible for someone working an ordinary 8-5 workweek. It would be difficult to come home, eat dinner, and go to bed almost immediately afterward. If I were doing this at an office job, I’d heat up a meal and eat it during my afternoon break, partly because of my parasomnia issues, partly because I’m sure I’d be hungry after eating breakfast at 4 AM. Our kid is 21 and out of the nest, but this plan could conceivably work for parents of young children because they get put to bed early anyway. Sleep deprivation in children is a real problem that affects their learning and development. Children of every age from infancy to 13 need at least 9 hours a night, and most age groups need at least 11. Going to bed weirdly early could have positive results for a family; let them get "extra" sleep while you get up early and do grown-up stuff. Being awake anywhere between 2-4 AM is a reliably quiet time to get through a great deal of work without interruption. Every family is different, but it’s something to think about. It’s not like travel itself isn’t going to cause some disruptions to the routine.
When we left for Spain, we had two things: an arrival ticket for Barcelona, and a departure ticket from Sevilla two weeks later. We had no hotel reservations, no rental car, no pending Couchsurfing requests, no train tickets. No schedule. No plans. No friends, family, or acquaintances. We didn’t even have language fluency. What we brought was a guidebook and a tent. This is what we call “the wing-it method.” It comes with its own gesture: flapping elbows.
Four years ago, we went off on our three-week trip around Iceland. I spent months planning every last conceivable detail. I had a two-page spreadsheet listing bus departure times for each city and what sights we would see there. I emailed backup copies of it and carried a printout with my passport. This was “the spreadsheet method.” For the most part, it worked fairly well, considering that I had been a skinflint and bought a four-year-old guidebook in order to save $12. The main problems we ran into were finding plant-based food, museums and tours that were closed the day we were in town, and random seabird attacks. The spreadsheet method is effective, but highly labor-intensive, and it can induce a false sense of security. Certainty is the enemy because it’s so often misplaced.
I had vague plans to put together a spreadsheet for the Spain trip. The problem was twofold. First, I decided to “upgrade” by coming up with some gorgeous design template that would look good on Pinterest. Then I could offer the template to my readers! Great idea, but perhaps not immediately before a long and complicated trip? Also, I have no design expertise whatsoever. Second, I was trying to preload three weeks’ worth of material on the blog while still being available to my clients and working on my novel. I was working through a stack of guidebooks and saving things to TripAdvisor, but the official fancy-dancy itinerary never got made. My husband was okay with this; we would be in Spain no matter how much or how little advance planning we did. The point was to see the country, meet people, learn about their culture, try the food, and see some birds (hopefully without being attacked by them this time).
The wing-it method [are you flapping your elbows?] has little middle ground. At its best, it allows for fabulous moments of serendipity. At its worst, it can be a real killjoy. Not every problem can be solved with money. If you don’t have money or feasible plans, a wing-it fail can get you into trouble. Each of the following factors is a force multiplier. Any of them can spoil an otherwise nice day. Each additional factor can make it feel exponentially worse. An ATM eating your card. Being stranded. Being hungry when all the surrounding stores and restaurants are closed for at least three hours. Having even a minor injury, or mosquito bites. Carrying 35 or more pounds of luggage. Being jet-lagged and sleep deprived. Having a headache. Getting a stern lecture in a language you can barely understand. Finding out that your journal got wet in the rain because your daypack isn’t waterproof.
What worked on this trip? We made every single one of our transportation connections. We were charged fairly on all our transactions. We slept pretty well. We only got caught in the rain on three different days, when we were prepared for more. The recommendations we picked up from TripAdvisor and the guidebooks were reliably accurate. We had fun and took a couple thousand photos.
What didn’t work? We had to make three separate stops and spend $50 on the first day because I forgot a charger cable, and my entire bottle of deodorant leaked into my entire container of melatonin pills. We used up our data allowance on the phone plan only halfway through the trip, couldn’t upgrade, and then figured out only after we got home that the expiration date on the payment card needed to be updated. An ATM ate our debit card and the error message was in Catalan. I was cold almost every day. Twenty mosquitos got into our tent one night. Both my pens ran dry at inopportune times. Part of my toenail came off. I spent four hours of the trip trying to read bus schedules in Spanish and figure out amended itineraries. We lost an hour at one of the sites we liked best because the location dot on TripAdvisor was 10 kilometers off. We almost wound up going to Gibraltar on a Sunday, when everything would have been closed. We had a few not-fun “NOW what do we do?” moments.
We learned. We learned that what’s true in one country or city may not be true elsewhere. We learned to cross-check site locations through independent sources. We learned to take screen shots. We learned that for us, the most important research to do in advance is how to find a grocery store and how to get to the camping. We learned that guidebooks don’t always include the types of sites that interest us the most. We did a status meeting on the flight home and wrote a two-page “lessons learned” report in preparation for our next trip. We learned to rely on each other more and to be more open about our moods and qualitative experience.
We’ve been lucky in our travels. We’ve never been involved in a riot or a transit strike. We’ve never been mugged. We’ve never had food poisoning. We’ve never left behind anything important. I haven’t even been street-harassed, something that happens to me at home on a near-daily basis even though I’m 40. Generally speaking, we feel safer on the road than we do at home. That’s why we go. Other parts of the world are much cleaner, nicer, and more civilized (whatever that means, exactly) than where we live. The wing-it method involves trust, and a lot of it. Trust in the goodness and altruism of ordinary people. Trust in commerce. Trust in government. Trust in animal behavior. Trust in our equipment. Trust in each other. Trust in our own powers of situational awareness, grit, stamina, and flexibility. Trust in our ability to turn any event into at least an interesting story.
We just got back from Europe. Technically, at least one of us was gone for over three weeks. I’ll be writing about our trip over the next couple of weeks, sharing photos, and talking about our continuing quest toward more experiences and less gear. Part of this quest includes language learning.
Where did we go?
Spain: Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid train station, Ronda, Algeciras, Tarifa, La Linea, Sevilla
Gibraltar (England? Spain? You decide)
Airports: LAX, LHR, HAM, BCN, MUC, CDG, ORD, LAX again
Modes of transport: plane, train, bus, subway, light trail, taxi, walking, SO MANY STAIRS
How many languages did we try?
Technically 5: German, Spanish, French, a few phrases of Arabic, and some sign-reading in Catalan.
How many different places did we sleep?
Ten in 18 days.
Will there be monkeys?
How much did we walk?
141.35 miles, averaging 8.31 per day.
How many flights of stairs did we climb?
327, averaging 19.24 flights per day.
About those monkeys…?
You’re just going to have to wait.
This is the kind of book you buy yourself as a treat. It would be perfect for a New Year’s Resolution session, though there’s no reason to wait. It would also be very interesting to do as part of a group mastermind retreat. Ayse Birsel has a profound gift for making complicated things look simple.
The first thing you notice is that there are charming drawings throughout the book. Lots of books have cute sketches. What I like about Design the Life You Love is that it also offers several completely different approaches to each exercise. If one type of diagram doesn’t grab you, another one might. It’s impossible to read this book without wondering how to apply these designs to other areas of life.
There is a particular exercise from the book that I’m hooked on right now, and that is to imagine a metaphor for your life. Examples included a beehive and a flying machine. It feels like having a ready image for this could be transformative, and you’d know it when you see it. I don’t have one yet, but I want to!
Something just came to mind: a newspaper! Useful, full of words, can be found anywhere in the world, and spends a lot of time around parrots.
Design the Life You Love can be skimmed quickly, and it would be an enjoyable skim. Its strength, though, is in the exercises. They deserve fuller consideration. They have the power to be utterly transformative. Somehow, seeing aspects of your personal story laid out in a different arrangement can bring fresh insights. For instance, if ballroom dance is one of my favorite activities, why do I only do it at the occasional wedding? Where is my supposedly favorite thing in my weekly calendar? How much of what really is in my weekly calendar got there through intention, and how much through inertia? Do your homework and find out whether you’re really living your ideal life, or whether it’s time to design it a bit differently.
At some point, everyone settles for something. We quit striving. We stay in relationships or homes or jobs or family configurations, and we’re done. Hopefully, this is because we’re fulfilled and gratified, and we’ve reached the ultimate version of our utmost desires. Realistically, it’s either because we know there are better options that we don’t think we can have, or because we never knew there were better options.
Some people will stay with a bad boss. This is a fairly neutral example, a good starting place, because almost everyone has worked for an ineffective manager at some point. A petty tyrant, an incompetent, someone who is afraid of confrontation, a micromanager, a wielder of double standards, perhaps a genuine sociopath. Why on earth would anyone work for this person, under these conditions? One person may feel trapped by an underwater mortgage, and labor under the belief that “there are no jobs” close enough to the house. Another person may feel terrified of looking for a new job. Someone else may be a chronic procrastinator who would rather jump off a ledge than write an updated résumé. One person may be clinging to a tiny feature of the job, such as the schedule or the commute. Another person may think every job is just like this, and not even notice anything is wrong, even when all the A Players quit and go work somewhere else. Sadly, another person may see the job as an improvement over a dysfunctional family background, in the same way that a convict might not be overwhelmed by the prospect of military discipline. Eventually, the smartest people with the most initiative will find better jobs elsewhere, and everyone who is left is there for bad reasons. This turns into a downward spiral where productivity, profits, and morale all continue to drop.
Some people will stay in a bad relationship. This tends to overlap with the problem of staying in a bad job. There are some of the same reasons (low self-esteem, anxiety, procrastination), but it turns out that a lot of people who stay in bad relationships feel stuck in every area of life. The bad relationship may be tied directly to the bad job. Maybe the partner is a naysayer or manipulator who won’t tolerate anyone being happy or empowered. Making more money and having more leverage and options can be very threatening to weak people. A jealous, suspicious person may insist on a partner who will stay home, unemployed and socially isolated. A false dilemma or lose-win scenario may be put in place, whereby only one person is “winning.” One party may throw tantrums and cause so much drama that it doesn’t feel worth it to try to change even the smallest aspect of a shared life.
Some people will stay in a bad home environment. We do it to ourselves. We inflict it on the other people who share our homes. We accept it when it’s someone else’s mess. Squalor doesn’t happen overnight, although a person who generates squalor can start creating disaster in just minutes. We tell ourselves all sorts of things while our homes gradually fill up with clutter and muck and filth. Many of those things have to do with other people supposedly judging us. It accumulates and amplifies and reinforces itself. At a certain point, we’ll start bogarting other people’s personal space and convincing ourselves why we think that’s okay. Parents hoard their children’s closets and bedrooms; adult children leave things at their own parents’ homes; former roommates walk off leaving large, ugly furniture and boxes behind and insisting that someone else takes care of it free of charge. We live with people who make a racket while we’re trying to sleep (or vice versa). We abdicate on our share of the finances, or put up with people who do it to us. We manage to sit and stare at screens while the sink and catbox overflow and laundry is piled on the floor. Why do we put up with living this way?
Some people will tolerate poor health. Patient compliance is a notorious problem in the world of health care. We get prescriptions and don’t fill them, we refuse to do physical therapy exercises, we’d genuinely rather die several years sooner than make any dietary changes. I hate to say it, but I have to raise my hand on this one. I got a diagnosis that I had a thyroid nodule, and it might be cancerous, and it seemed to be growing quite rapidly. It shows up in photos from the time that include my neck. I had a constant tickle in my throat, and I couldn’t speak when I lay on my back. Something was seriously wrong, okay? My endocrinologist told me I needed to get a biopsy. I did… over a year later. What I was thinking during those months was a studied void. I just pretended nothing was wrong, ignored my condition, and quickly slapped away any thought of it whenever it bubbled up, which was not as often as you would expect. There is a weird parallel between my denial of my serious health issue and the sad state of my first marriage. The fact that my first husband didn’t have anything to say about my medical procrastination should speak for itself.
Fortunately, I survived both the endocrine crisis and the lame marriage. I was on the gurney, wearing the surgical gown, getting the ultrasound that would indicate where to puncture my throat, when it transpired that the nodule had nearly disappeared. All that remained was the same minuscule volume that would have been taken for the biopsy. According to the doctor, it wasn’t cancer, because cancer doesn’t shrink. I never had a problem with my thyroid again. My first husband asked for a divorce roughly a year later, and I haven’t seen or heard from him in about 15 years. I learned never to tolerate uncertainty about my body, to push through my fear and get whatever tests are required, to take medical advice seriously. I learned a long list of things I was no longer willing to tolerate in a relationship, and that helped me to figure out what I actually did want. Both of those issues happened around the same point in time, because I was young and still didn’t understand how much more was possible for me. I could trudge through my days and ignore problems that didn’t feel serious enough to take action.
Everyone has a different line that can’t be crossed. Some people have bigger bubbles than others. It can be instructive to watch someone with a bigger bubble handle annoyances that we would have silently put up with. For instance, one of my biggest pet peeves is having my seat jostled, either on a plane or in a movie theater, but I tend to sit and stew and let a black cloud form over my head rather than say anything. Someone who works for an airline told me that when a kid kept kicking his seat, he made the mother switch seats with him. I thought, YOU CAN DO THAT?!? I started getting up and moving when someone would kick my seat at the movies, and then I started sitting in the row with empty space behind it. Seat-kickers are no longer an annoyance for me. I just hope they all sit in the same block of seats one day so they can annoy each other instead.
We have more power than we think we do. The trouble with power is that it’s taken, not given, and we don’t realize we have to pick it up and start wielding it ourselves. Nobody is going to come along and say, “You are officially allowed to do this now.” (Except me, perhaps). You are allowed to find a new job and leave the old one. You are allowed to break off relationships, with romantic partners, with friends, even with family members. You are allowed to set whatever cleaning standards you want for your home. You are allowed to get rid of any possessions you don’t want anymore, no matter who gave them to you or how much they cost. You are allowed to take charge of your health, your food intake, and your fitness level, no matter what anyone else says. You are allowed to speak up whenever anything doesn’t sit right with you. You can follow the Rules of You, and other people can choose whether to respect your rules or stay out of your way.
These are some of my rules. I won’t tolerate anyone yelling at me. Anyone who thinks it’s okay to raise an angry voice will do it again, and I don’t want that in my life. It’s unprofessional. I won’t tolerate hate speech in my home, and I won’t stand around listening to it, either. At minimum, I will promptly get up and walk away from the conversation. I am not interested in hanging around recreational drug use, so if I’m in a situation where people start to partake, I leave. It’s not like I would be a value-add in any of those scenarios anyway, and staying around wouldn’t be doing anyone else any favors. People are free to do whatever they want, and they should, but not everything that people do needs to be done in my bubble. It’s no different from choosing what music to play. People who like one style of music can play that station, and people who like something else can choose their own.
The more power we claim, the more we can shape our world. My parents always told me I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I was prepared to accept the consequences, so I should try to find out what the consequences would probably be. I discovered that most choices don’t really have any consequences, because not only do they not bother anyone else, other people won’t even notice. Nobody cares what color of clothing I wear, what music I play on my headphones, what I read… When I make a rule like “don’t discuss post-Industrial politics at my dinner table,” people are bemused, but they accept it. When I decided to run a marathon, I signed up and trained and did it. Nobody tried to stop me. When I decided to self-publish a book, I did it, and I didn’t have to ask for permission. Same with my website – I didn’t have to fill out an application or get a permit. I just did it. As time went by, I realized that nobody who is close to me is really ever surprised by anything I choose to do, because I am now a doer of things.
Don’t put up with half a life. Don’t trudge through your days. Don’t let anyone be mean to you. Don’t listen to naysayers or rude people. Don’t tolerate depressing situations. Stand up and say what you want. Take action on things that are important to you. Make things that you want to make. Make your career, make your financial security, make your body, make your physical environment, make your relationships. Make everything the way you want it. You don’t need permission because all that power is already yours.
My niece is still a picky eater. I was, too, and I didn’t start to turn it around until I moved into my own apartment. Nothing magical happened in my case; I responded to peer pressure, a new ideology, and the necessity of learning to cook for myself. I thought I would help my niece, one Questioner to another, to explore this issue of resisting most foods. I had recently seen her eat a dinner of nothing but potatoes and cake, and she’s old enough now, at 10, to start learning to eat in a way that works for the long term.
We were eating my Mexican casserole, a crowd-pleasing dish. It’s so good that on more than one occasion, someone has emailed me days later asking for the recipe. Teenagers inhale it. Most people eat seconds. My niece and a 6-year-old picky boy have been the only people who didn’t like it.
Niece: [picking at plate, making a disgusted face and grumbling something about tomatoes]
Me: The last time I made this, you complained about the onions and I left them out this time, just for you. What do you like to eat?
Me: Pizza? Soup? Cookies? There must be something. What’s your favorite?
Niece: I don’t know.
Me: What’s the worst thing that would happen if you put something in your mouth that didn’t taste good?
Niece: [immediately] You’d throw up.
Me: And then what? What’s the worst thing that would happen if you threw up? Would it catch on fire?
Niece: [laughing] Nooo!
Me: Would your head explode?
Niece: [laughing] No.
Me: Being able to make yourself eat things that aren’t your favorite is a super power.
Picky eating is sad and limiting. I know some extreme picky eaters who haven’t been able to conquer the problem as adults, and it can be socially embarrassing. It can also lead to health problems. I was fortunate in two ways: I learned to fight my gag reflex as a child when we were too poor to afford much, and I learned that I can force myself to eat things if my rational mind tells me I should. That’s how I found out that eventually, things that started out tasting nasty and gross can and will taste delicious. It takes repeated attempts and preparing them in various ways.
I am still picky in some ways. Basically anything that even resembles anything I ate during a particular period of my life is a downer for me. I don’t even want to look at a picture of macaroni and cheese. I don’t cook with spaghetti or macaroni noodles, even in completely different dishes like soup. Arguably, it tastes exactly the same, but I use other shapes. The only comfort food I still like from childhood is tater tots. My ex-husband, an excellent cook, made a meal once that was reminiscent to me of a particular tuna casserole recipe. The only ingredient they had in common was dill, which I love. It wasn’t a casserole, it didn’t have tuna, it didn’t have noodles, it wasn’t even the same color. Somehow, it reminded me of this other dish, and I couldn’t eat it. I still wonder what was going on there. Was I suppressing some anxiety about our marriage? Was my immune system fighting off something that day? What’s different now is that I would have cheerfully forced down the weird dish, thanked him for making dinner, and maybe brought home a new cookbook. My picky, irrational feelings about a food are nobody’s business but my own, and I’m sorry I was rude to my ex.
Of course, another valid solution is to take over the meal planning. Grabbing the ladle and cooking for others can be a sneaky way of providing for your own picky pickle-ness.
There are SO many factors that could objectively play a part in picky eating. I think it’s almost entirely a physical, mechanical, or chemical issue, and only partly an issue of psychology. Obviously, the sensation of disgust that makes us gag or spit things out is a survival trait. When we open a container of moldy leftovers, and the sight of blue spores makes us gag, that’s biology’s way of telling us DO NOT PUT THAT IN YOUR MOUTH. What is going on, though, when we feel disgust at the sight, taste, and texture of fresh, healthy foods?
Most picky eaters like and dislike the same foods. I listed some off once, to the 6-year-old picky boy I mentioned earlier. I was complaining about how hard it is to cook for young children. “Kids only like to eat creamy peanut butter and jelly on white bread, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, cereal, Capri Suns, pizza, French fries, and sugar.” The boy nodded and replied, “And corn dogs.” Adult picky eaters tend to have issues with vegetables, fruits, whole grains… in other words, anything that contains dietary fiber. “IT’S THE TEXTURE.” I really think that’s the issue. If it has fiber, they don’t want it, so they end up eating a diet almost entirely deficient in micronutrients. I think these two things are part of the problem.
My hypothesis is that picky eating is driven by a combination of gut flora, micronutrient balance, and blood sugar levels. Further, I think it can start at any time, but that it usually begins in infancy or toddlerhood. Every week that it continues would then further exacerbate the condition. I know a lot of picky eaters who “can’t eat breakfast,” and I think that morning nausea is another clue. Picky eating may not be a part of someone’s personality as much as a natural response to a particular physical state. The physical state then causes anxiety, disgust, and dread, rather than the reverse.
I don’t have the training or ability to test out my hypothesis at this time, although if I do go back to school in pursuit of nutrition certification, this is something I would really like to explore. What I do know is that dietary fiber helps to regulate the release of insulin, and that eating particular foods contributes both to micronutrient intake and to supporting colonies of gut microbiota. That means my idea is objectively testable, that it can be proved or disproved.
Anecdotally, the majority of people in my acquaintance are obese or severely obese. It appears to me that picky eating correlates with size. The obvious guess would be that larger people are less picky, that their willingness to eat anything and everything is the reason they are heavy. I think it’s the opposite. Not only do my friends and acquaintances have very specific ideas of what they do and don’t want to eat, they will sometimes only eat a particular food from a specific brand or location of a specific restaurant. These restaurants typically don’t have so much as a single healthy option on the menu. When I go to places like these for social occasions, I marvel at how there is virtually no overlap between the Venn diagram circles of my diet and my friends’ diets. Some of my friends won’t even drink water because it “tastes bad.”
Here is some stuff I refuse to eat on the grounds that it disgusts me: Ranch dressing, Pop Tarts, marshmallows, gummy candy, coffee, peanut butter-flavored desserts, alcohol, meat (especially bacon), white bread, popsicles, diet soda, artificial sweeteners, Cadbury Crème Eggs. The very idea of a breakfast of crêpes with whipped cream and hot chocolate. Bleargh!
See, that’s the weird thing. I look at something like “caramel drizzle” and it makes me shudder all over. It feels like my teeth are trying to crawl away in fright. Some of these foods have disgusted me since childhood, but others only started to be repulsive to me after I transitioned to a healthier diet. I didn’t intend to lose my taste for chocolate; it just happened. Instead, I found myself developing a strong taste preference for foods like kale, eggplant, pumpkin, avocado, sweet potatoes, and other healthy whole foods. Some of these new foods I had not only never tried until adulthood, I had never seen or heard of them. I wonder if sometimes the age of first introduction is part of how we decide whether we like a certain food; as a child, I hated asparagus, broccoli, and artichokes, but I love them now. The taste buds supposedly change every two years, so it certainly seems possible.
It would be a good idea if we periodically reviewed what we eat with an eye toward longevity and optimal health. I had a conversation with a friend who, it emerged, drank soda every day but did not drink water or eat cruciferous vegetables, lumping them all under the category of “broccoli,” although I strongly suspect she had never tasted at least two or three non-broccoli vegetables on the list. How can you know you’ll hate something you’ve never tried? Picky eaters know, because they base their revulsions and preferences on sight as often as anything else. I see it and I know, I just know, I will hate it. That’s how I wind up creating a world in which I behave as though soda is good for me and vegetables and water are bad for me.
When I was a picky eater, I had weird health problems, and then I got fat. When I started changing my diet, eating healthy foods and giving up unhealthy foods, my results changed, too. Suddenly everything changed. I lost the weight, I quit getting migraines, I quit having night terrors, and suddenly it was easy both to maintain my goal weight and to sleep 8 hours a night. It seems like more than a coincidence to have such disparate results correlate with a specific point on the timeline. Even if it really was something else, like astrological influences or the lifting of a voodoo curse, there are no arguments against eating more cruciferous vegetables. I made a decision, I made a commitment, I started doing something that definitely did not come naturally, and before I knew it, it had become my preference. Learning to eat weird stuff over and over again is the only way to make it stop seeming weird.
Our bodies are made of cells, and those cells are made from food. We behave as though all foods are interchangeable, and that what we eat should be determined by taste preference alone. We truly don’t know better, because we aren’t taught nutrition in school. Our doctors aren’t, either! It stands to reason, though, that there might be a difference in results between someone who drinks soda every day and someone who never does, or someone who eats zero cruciferous vegetables compared to someone who eats 2-4 cups a day of them. It’s worth testing it out for at least a few weeks. Going back is usually an option, unless you find out that you no longer have a taste for the junk you used to like.
Getting rid of clutter is challenging because it’s complicated. There are always multiple reasons why the space got that way. There are often multiple reasons why we feel conflicted as to whether to keep something or get rid of it. After the decision is made to let something go, we often feel yet more conflict about how to dispose of something. Give it away? Donate it to an organization? Which one? Are we supposed to clean it first? Is it recyclable? Will we have to pay to haul it away? We add layers of decisions to the first decision. We don’t always realize that we’re deliberately, yet subconsciously, delaying. This is usually because there are hidden obstacles that we haven’t yet overcome.
One way to approach the issue is to sort items by what is blocking us about them:
Fear that we’ll change our minds after it’s too late
Lack of knowledge of how to get rid of it
Guilt or feeling like we don’t have permission to get rid of it
Strong, yet undesired, emotional connection to the object
Lack of energy
Partner or family member’s active interference
Preference to avoid work on space clearing in favor of something more fun
Anxiety is usually one of the first hidden obstacles. For many of us, it’s the hidden obstacle behind everything. Whenever we contemplate taking an action, there are umpteen reasons we can imagine why it might be a bad idea. Anxiety can stop us from pursuing opportunities even when we are virtually guaranteed to succeed. It can make simple decisions feel overwhelming. It can even stop us from leaving the house on time. The way it works, it simply helps us to rationalize and justify why we should stay in our comfort zones. Inaction is the best course of action when we want to protect ourselves and maintain the illusion of safety. Clutter, junk, and stuff are insulators. They help us to create a cozy nest where few people want to come in and bother us. We can become anxious not just about the thought of letting go of something by mistake, but of having a less crowded space, or of making any changes at all.
Not knowing what to do is another common obstacle. This always surprises me, because we now have the entire internet at our fingertips. There are instructional videos for everything. I couldn’t figure out how to wrap my earbud cords, so I Googled a video of a teenage boy carefully demonstrating how to do it. That video had over 100,000 hits. I found a video of how to fold fitted sheets, and though I had to play it back three times, I now know how. (My previous solution was to own only one set of sheets, but that started to be more of a hassle than this basic fabric origami). I’ve watched several videos on such scintillating topics as how to clean colored grout and how to clean a shower door track. There are probably videos on how to make homemade glitter or saddle an ostrich. It’s okay not to know things. It’s also really easy to find out how to do things, without anyone ever finding out we didn’t know how!
Guilt can be a major obstacle. Guilt makes us feel like we’re not allowed to have what we want. Guilt makes us feel like our decisions will hurt other people’s feelings. This may or may not be true. Sometimes, though, we’ve been set up due to other people’s inappropriate expectations or poor boundaries. Other people don’t get to decide what to keep in our homes. Other people don’t get to dictate our taste preferences. Gifts are sometimes gifts, and sometimes symbols of power and control. I’ve seen this happen with all sorts of things, from clothing to furniture to entire houses. “I gave you this and now you owe me.” Another area where guilt tends to interfere is with the physical symbols of unfulfilled intentions. We buy or accumulate materials that we thought Future Self would want, and then we kick ourselves when it turns out we were wrong. This might include books, fitness equipment, art supplies, expired vegetables, or all sorts of other things. We also tend to feel guilt over wasted money, such as what we’ve spent on clothes that we never wore. Sometimes we feel guilt over a past event, and we bury the associated paperwork or other items that remind us of what happened. This can include stolen items.
Shame is one of the strongest emotions that interferes with space clearing. Shame can be generated by the space itself. Rather than simply getting on with the tasks at hand, we spiral into self-criticism. How could I let it get this way? Why am I like this? This negative self-talk is never helpful. Whenever it comes up, we pause for compassion. I’m working on it now. I’m ready now. It’s going to be okay. In a short while, nobody will ever be able to tell how this looked. When overwhelming shame is an issue, almost anything can set it off. It’s like standing chest-deep in the ocean, knowing a wave will slap us in the face any moment now.
Emotional connections to specific objects are – wait for it – unnecessary. Stuff is just stuff. Any other person would be able to pick up a particular object and shrug. We build our own stories and attribute significance to things, and none of this is visible to others, because they see our special objects only as objects. Someone who sees my wedding ring doesn’t see my marriage. Most of the objects we venerate are not emotionally significant in positive ways, though. They remind us of the past. The only future they can create for us is a future in which we’re surrounded by stuff and old memories. Stuff can’t propel us into a destiny.
Grief stops us in our tracks. Grief objects seem to have an almost religious aura around them. Many of us never had a problem with clutter or space clearing until we experienced strong grief. Death of a parent is a major trigger. Loss causes us to cling to even the most ordinary objects, and we feel as though throwing away the object is throwing away the person. How can we throw away an old hairbrush or partially used prescription bottle? Oh, is it sad. Grief works on its own schedule. Grief hangs in the air even when we methodically go about our business. All we can do is to remind ourselves that the vanished loved one probably would have felt concerned (or embarrassed) that we still hang on to these things. When I go, won’t someone please throw away my old socks quickly?
Lack of energy is a problem that can continue for years. Sometimes it’s related to grief or depression. Sometimes it’s related to a sickness. Sometimes we’re not sure where our energy went. It’s my contention that living in a cluttered or squalid space drains energy, both mental and physical. When we have to pick our way over scattered objects on the floor, it’s draining. When we’re constantly breathing dust and mold, it’s draining. When we can’t operate in the kitchen, we’re not inspired to cook healthy meals. When we look around a room and see the evidence of dozens or hundreds of unmade decisions, it’s mentally taxing. Ugh. Having fought chronic pain and fatigue, I understand the feeling that even the slightest physical effort is like climbing an eternal ladder. The more sedentary we are, though, the worse it gets. The only way to regain physical strength is to 1. Eat sufficient micronutrients and 2. Keep moving a little more each day. Space clearing and housework are two basic, minimal workouts that can start to bring us back. Standing up and moving for even 60 seconds at a time is an improvement. It’s an improvement that needs to happen at some point if we ever want to feel normal again. Carry out a bag of trash and rest for an hour, if necessary. Take all day to put away a load of laundry if you need to, a few items at a time. It’s okay. Up and moving, up and moving, 1% better every day.
Sometimes we get hung up in space clearing because we live with other people who don’t want us to do it. The clutter can symbolize a stuck emotional situation. We really need to pause and evaluate whether this living situation is going to work for the long term. We also really need to assess what our personal contributions are to this problem. As often as not, when I’m called in for a home visit, the person who made the call is blaming family members or roommates for what may be largely his or her own fault. We want to claim all the common areas of the home for our own things, and we feel irritated when the other people we live with leave out a couple of items. We always need to focus on our own stuff, and keep going until our own stuff is done. Sometimes, we’re genuinely living with someone else who is the source of the clutter or squalor. Counseling can help, because whether the house gets cleared or not, whether we stay or go, we need to figure out why we put up with this. It can be extremely difficult to convince another person to get help, and that is not necessarily our job.
Finally, we stay in cluttered spaces because we’re willing to. We’ve done it this long, and there’s no particular reason to change today. (Unless there’s an eviction notice, that is…) There is always, always something more appealing to do. Like staring at the wall. If there is anything in this world that qualifies as an aversive task, it’s cleaning up. We sometimes feel it as a humiliation. Why should I clean a toilet? Why should I do these chores? There are those of us who feel like our very souls are dying whenever we feel forced to wash a dish or carry a bag of garbage outside. We can’t bear it. The result, though, is that we live surrounded by piles and grime and bad smells. Nobody would choose that. It just happens. It happens as the result of a lack of systems and a lack of routine effort. A little bit every day. There will always be a good book to read, or a cup of tea to be drunk, or a cat waiting to crawl into a lap, or the entire internet to attempt to experience. It’s nicer to experience these things as rewards after a few small successes, movements toward a more pleasant and comforting space.
Do you even remember a time when most people didn’t have a camera at the ready in their pockets? It took over so fast. Not so long ago, I was mentally saving up for a camcorder. Now, I can’t remember the last time I saw one, and that includes weddings and graduation ceremonies. Over a trillion photos were taken in 2015. How many of those were artfully posed and cropped? What parts of life are we hiding from posterity? What is it about the moment we’re capturing that we don’t want our friends to see?
I confess, I do it myself. When I’m taking photos or making illustrations, I usually spend more time fussing over the backdrop than I do taking the shot. It’s an intrinsic part of the composition. I don’t want a piece of lint detracting from my close-up photo. It’s confusing because it’s too hard to tell whether it was intentional; whether it’s telling part of the story or it just crept in there. I want the focus on my subject, not some random junk in the background. What is that, exactly? A window frame? Part of a chair? I usually like how my shots turn out. That’s a major advantage of being able to take thousands of pictures without paying to develop them all (only to find out that the lens cap was on or my finger was blocking the lens). The practice of staging my shots does sometimes tell a false story.
It doesn’t always go the way you’d think, though! Whenever I need a picture of clutter for an illustration, I have to wrack my brain. I have fished stacks of newspaper out of the recycling. I have pulled out junk mail and strewn it about. Naturally, I have dozens of pictures documenting my home visits, but those are for my personal reference. I can’t very well share photos of my clients’ homes. (It’s a hazard, anyway, because my people have a tendency to feel better about their own junk after they’ve seen someone else’s). If I leave a laundry basket half full because I want to go to the movie theater in the middle of the day, I’m not very well going to take a picture of it and post it on the Internet. I’m just… not going to document it.
This is what we have to watch out for: This tendency we have to want certain things to remain off the record.
The day I found out my ex-husband had spent our house savings behind my back, I was at work. I simply, suddenly, knew. I called him and asked how much we had in our shared account. He sputtered and blustered and tried to change the subject. When we got home, I made him show me the bank statements. He said he had been planning to pay it off on payday. (Ha). In his mind, I never needed to know because he was going to “fix it.” He thought he could somehow repay what amounted to months of our shared income without my noticing, and that the betrayal wouldn’t count. Why should the reality of those cold, hard numerals reflect so badly on his pure intentions?
I keep a calendar in my phone. It records all my appointments over the last four years or so. What it doesn’t record are all the times I showed up late. I have this glossy, color-coded, inaccurate historical document that makes me look organized and punctual. I’ll be sure to archive it for my biographer.
My dog has this Oscar-worthy performance in which he shows one of us that he hasn’t been fed, that he is in fact in serious danger of starving to death. It’s tragic. At least once a month, one of us falls for it. He empties his dish so quickly that there’s no way to tell he’s about to get two dinners. It’s not like he keeps a food log.
Most people don’t keep a food log. Any time I have suggested it, people are like, UM, NO. It feels like too much work. (It isn’t, especially if you basically eat the same two weeks’ worth of food over and over again). I do it to keep myself honest and to keep track of my micronutrient consumption. My honey doesn’t see it that way. He gives himself the loophole of skipping certain days that are “unusual” for some reason. What most people will do, when they attempt to start bringing some focus and awareness to their eating habits, is to get discouraged by “messing up” one day and then to eat more than usual the rest of that day. “I’ll start over tomorrow.” We so, so want today not to count. We want this moment not to count. We apparently want this one real life that we live to NOT COUNT. Give me a do-over! I promise I won’t screw up this time!
I have a failed coaching relationship. I was asked to help someone lose a significant amount of weight over a short period of time. She asked if I thought she could do it, and I crunched the numbers and said yes, if she was very focused. She told me that she poses in family photos by hiding behind her kids so that nobody can tell how much weight she’s gained. She didn’t make her weight goal by the deadline she had chosen, and that was the last I heard from her. I should have known. Her motivation was not to overcome her health issues, to be stronger, or to prove something to herself about her inner fortitude. Her motivation was to look better in photos, ASAP. She didn’t want to confront the demons (kidney failure was on the list) or figure out what to do about her sugar addiction. She wanted a fantasy on demand. I’ve learned more about radical candor since then. What we want is perfection on a controlled schedule. What we can have is a series of reality checks and a syllabus full of difficult assignments. We want the diploma when we should be earning the education; we want the wedding ceremony when we should be building the marriage.
Nobody is judging us. REALITY is judging us. We keep getting results from our behaviors, and we keep wanting those results to be anomalous. We can’t bear to think that we’re doing so many things to ourselves. We don’t think the portrait of Future Self hanging in the Future Museum could possibly be us. I’m not getting old, not me! I’m obviously much too clever for that. I would never unintentionally set myself up with unintended consequences! The two most commonly procrastinated activities are planning for retirement and dealing with health problems. The most common deathbed regret is never fulfilling our dreams. We keep thinking we have more time, more time, more time.
We keep wanting the perfect photograph. We have these happy moments we can display. We never take pictures of ourselves when we’re fighting. We don’t record when we’re being unfair or inconsiderate. Probably not too many people photograph themselves stealing someone’s lunch from the fridge at work or sticking chewed gum under a café table. We want the record to show that we are cute and fun, that everything really is okay. How much better would it be if we could face reality, confront it without a filter, and react accordingly?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.