On Creativity and Utility

There is certainly a utility to the minimalist extremism displayed by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, bloggers at The Minimalists; their example pushes the boundaries of possibility and allows us to envision radical but achievable new modes of living. At the same time, their lifestyle represents a largely unrealistic departure from that of the majority of Americans, and their blog leaves something to be desired regarding a means of incorporating their principles into typical American life.
That being said, I check their blog from time to time for inspiration of sorts and recently found the type of inspiration that makes me a repeat visiter to their site. This post on creativity spoke to my need for productivity, my desire to avoid consumption, and my recently latent creative urgings. I constantly seek satisfaction of my own sense of productivity and relish the crossing off of to-do list items. Oftentimes cleaning house or getting errands done, however, leaves me feeling more worn out than inspired. I see all the hours that have gone by accomplishing these tasks and feel as though all that time was rather wasted.
But when I consider creativity in all its myriad forms, from writing to cooking and baking, from crafting to gardening, I find a balance between productivity and personal fulfillment. The Minimalists conceptualize our human need to create as a desire to add value to our lives and worlds. This is countered by the necessity of consumption, which capitalism has exploited by creating a vast consumer market for items that are far outside the realm of necessity and ultimately leave us more depressed and empty than fulfilled.
The Minimalist bloggers suggest a turn toward creating more as a way to fill that void and avoid consumption. The overall premise that we need to buy less and go DIY more often is far from foreign to me. I firmly believe that the mass production of consumer goods is ground in industrialization, which served to reduce the burden of work that needed to be done in the home, increased our free time, and provided us with more disposable income. This historical era changed how we spent our time and our money while laying the foundation for today’s consumeristic, microwave-happy society. And that transformation may have wrought havoc on our base instincts. As new inventions reduce the need for us to develop by hand the things on which we rely for daily life, comestibles and furniture and clothing and toiletries, a creative void gapes ever-wider in our human nature.
What Joshua and Ryan suggest is focusing our creative energies on meaningful projects as a method to avoid over-consumption. While creative pursuits are certainly virtuous in their own right, I’d also like to recommend the merits of utilitarian creativity. As I attempt to pare down my life and be a model of simple living, I find that certain purely artistic pursuits seem wasteful and counterproductive. Much as I love t0 be behind a camera, I don’t need to capture and print another piece of artwork to adorn my walls, and knitting another scarf would run counter to all previous efforts at streamlining my wardrobe.
On the other hand, culturing homemade yogurt, growing fresh produce from seeds, building furniture from scrap lumber, preparing cleaning solutions at home, and other similar do-it-yourself projects engage our creative minds while satisfying our needs. The internet makes it exceedingly easy to take on these radical home economics projects (and so does this book) which yield a sense of accomplishment, fill our creative voids, save money, and meet the necessities of modern day life. When I first saw the title of this particular Minimalists blog post, “Create More, Consume Less,” I thought the central premise of the piece would be just this. Though their argument certainly resonated with me, I feel that their intentions could gain greater traction by reframing the idea of creativity.  Artistic endeavors certainly offer a deeply meaningful way to fill our creative voids, but any project in which we engage in the act of creating something, whether pleasurable or utilitarian in nature, can address that void as well while reducing our consumptive desires.
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On Privacy

Like many things in the lives of modern Americans, our attempts at achieving privacy are paradoxical. While we decry the horrors of government infringement upon our rights to keep certain aspects of our lives confidential, fear the technological advances that could make our every action and transaction known, and live in an increasingly  and unavoidably interconnected world, we also take extreme and unprecedented efforts to make our lives more private than they have ever been before. I began to think about our notions of privacy while house-sitting for my cousin Kristin. I found myself completely unsettled by the huge set of undressed triple windows overtaking the front wall of the family room. Even though no residences can be viewed from these windows and the nearest major road is 500 yards away, partially obscured by an old school, the open darkness felt as though it contained innumerable watching eyes, looking onto my own lighted activity. Though I wasn’t doing anything embarrassing or even exciting, the sense that someone could be watching me read without my knowledge was deeply unnerving.

But conversely, in my own home, I all too often feel stifled and entirely isolated when I spend a full day or two inside. No matter how many phone calls I may make, emails I send, or text messaging conversations I have, without any face to face interaction beyond my own family members, private life can feel rather unbearable. It is then that I find small tasks, errands to run or unnecessary shopping trips, just so I can come into contact with a public world, just so I can see the faces of strangers, just so I can know that I was seen by someone other than my dog and cat.

But is it really a public world into which I immersed myself? Without any interaction with others, without any impact on the community or the sharing of an experience, does leaving one’s house constitute a non-private action? Is public truly the opposite of private? And if not, what exactly are we seeking when we scorn excessive privacy measures? What are we trying to avoid when we fear that our privacy is being infringed upon? How do we conceptualize these terms, and who created these meanings?

In public, few people truly pay attention to those around them. In fact, I rarely find myself engaged in conversation or even nonverbal communication with strangers unless doing so is absolutely necessary. Completing a transaction, ordering a meal, telling the barista how you’d like your coffee: these are oftentimes the only ways in which we interact with others outside our private circles of friends and family.

How can we fail to notice the increasingly palpable absence of a true public space? I have become increasingly disillusioned with the public world as it becomes harder for me to penetrate. When I go out to coffee shops, record stores, local concerts, art museums, and even into the college classroom, I make an effort to be friendly to those I meet, to smile and say hello, foster whatever small talk I can, initiate any potential relationship to the best of my ability. Again and again, however, I fail to truly make a dent, to create lasting relationships or generate any common discourse.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m simply too socially awkward to forge friendship out of seemingly inconsequential interactions or maybe it is just the constraints of my life as a poor young person living in her hometown. But maybe it’s all of us. Maybe we no longer live in a society where outsiders can interact in such a way that the category of stranger is ever easily surpassed. The notion of a small town community, in which there is a town square or main street where people go to see and be seen, has become nearly obsolete. Walking down the streets you find people increasingly wrapped up in their own private worlds, engaged in phone conversation, text messaging furiously, averting their eyes, or walking far too quickly to take notice of their surroundings. It’s as though privacy has become increasingly accessible and in so doing, is infringing upon our public space.

And if people can find privacy on the busiest of streets and in the most crowded of rooms, what do we have to fear? Sure, the government can follow our credit card transactions, our internet activity, etc. but of what use is such information to anyone? Sure, technology has made it easier to gather information that was once entirely private, but by the same token, that technology has made it easier than ever for people to remain in their own private worlds. What is really at stake with culture’s increasing dependence on computer and other technologies? I would argue that it is not so much our privacy which is threatened, but rather our ability to exist and interact in a public realm.

When I leave my home, I am prepared to meet others, interact with them, share kind words and maybe even a few smiles. I enjoy receiving a greeting when I walk into a store or restaurant, getting looks of appreciation and gratitude for the exchange of pleasantries. Small though they may be, these interactions serve not only as a steady stream of pick-me-ups, they also allow us to feel a sense of connection to others. I’m not likely to share an enlightening conversation with the girl who prepares my chai tea at the local coffee shop, nor do I expect the guy that rings up my latest purchase at the record store to foster a lasting friendship with me based upon my presence in his place of work. Nonetheless, I enjoy small talk because it creates, at the very least, an illusion of a public space and, at the very most, the opportunity to create meaningful public connections. When my private world becomes too overwhelming, often by virtue of the comforts and conveniences of modern technology, I like knowing that I can still find a public space offering the option of interaction with others (those others are largely employed in service sector jobs, but they nonetheless remain public others).

Privacy must be defined before we can accuse anyone of taking it from us. Do we want more time to ourselves, unfettered by interactions with anyone at all, allowing reflection, “me-time,” a spare minute to think? Or are we seeking a stronger sense of connection to those in our personal worlds, an ability to create closer bonds with those we already call friends or family? Private, as described by Microsoft Word’s Thesaurus, can mean both confidential and privileged. In this sense, when we talk about privacy, our private worlds, and infringements on privacy, we are speaking of the ability to keep certain parts of our lives secret, reserved, concealed from the prying eyes of others. We want to maintain some semblance of exclusivity. In my eyes, our fight for privacy is not fueled by fear of the government or even of anything as ludicrous as stalkers but rather by a sense that nothing is sacred anymore. When we feel that our actions are visible to all, it is our vulnerability and loss of control that is most scary. It is a delicate balance between our fears of banality, the importance of individuality, and the threat of falling into obscurity. When all we do is on display, we run the risk of being exposed as identical to everyone else. But when there is something we can keep to ourselves, it is easy to retain a semblance of, if not fool ourselves into thinking that, we are special, individual, and original. Is it our own need to feel special that fuels our desire to maintain privacy, to trick ourselves into thinking we are unique because no one else knows the intricate details of our lives? Is our sense of self, our feelings of individuality, what has really come to be challenged when we talk about our lack of privacy?

On Time Well Spent

Lately I’ve been struggling with questions of how best to live my life. I hate to have idle hours and thrive on productivity. But I also relish relaxation and dread days scheduled with obligations and appointments. Striking the balance between these things is where I find myself increasingly caught. In an effort to be more present in my own life, I try to minimize the time I spend in front of screens (maybe not a great thing to advocate as the writer of a blog). By curbing my desire to wile away the hours watching mindless sitcoms or trolling facebook albums of distant acquaintances, I assure myself fewer opportunities to compare my life to others, I reduce my exposure to advertising, I lessen the hold that consumerism has on my lifestyle, I sleep better at night. My efforts to avoid screens as much as possible are fueled by a variety of convictions that hold sway over areas in my life beyond technology and entertainment.

But as I spend more and more time away from the computer and the TV, I find myself in the midst of a conundrum of sorts. There are more idle hours on my hands with which I do not know what to do. As a reader, I’m often engaged in a new novel and I love to hike, run, and walk my dog when the weather lends itself to outdoor recreation. Cooking and baking are pursuits that provide me with both pleasure and a sense of accomplishment which makes these hobbies well suited to multiple aspects of my disposition. I have a small circle of friends, a close family, and a wonderful husband, all of whom I spend a reasonable amount of time with on a fairly regular basis as well. There does come a point, however, at which these relaxing and even indulgent activities grow monotonous, when my go-to companions are otherwise occupied, and I feel the need to come up with a new diversion. This is often the precise moment when I am filled with the desire to get out of the house. Unfortunately, more often than not, getting out of the house involves spending money. Much as I hate to admit it, strolling through the aisles of Target or the mall are activities I guiltily enjoy and often resort to as they make the time pass more easily and don’t necessarily require doling out any cash (although nine times out of ten, they end in some transaction).

Life, however, shouldn’t be simply about passing the time. I wholeheartedly agree with the European view of life, that we should work to live rather than the American mentality of living to work. But much as I try to embrace the slow-paced and indulgent lifestyle more commonly practiced across the pond, there’s a constant strain of the American work ethic in me that I cannot seem to drop. So when I attempt to spend an entire weekend simply lounging around the house, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing something wrong. I read, I take my dog on hikes, I spend time with my husband, I indulge in a movie, I cook a nice dinner, but I worry that I’m not really living my life. I’m certainly partaking in things that I enjoy and allowing myself a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of the workday week. But after lazy weekends such as these, I wake up on Monday morning feeling that I have nothing to show for my two days off, that my time could have been better spent, that I haven’t engaged in anything meaningful during those 48 hours of freedom.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem because I can’t figure out how to frame it in the first place. Am I failing to lead an optimally fulfilling life by virtue of my own poor decisions or am I living correctly but stunted by the infusion of work hard mentality? Am I simply experiencing a quarter-life crisis or is my outlook on life skewed by too novels and movies? Are my attempts to live with fewer screens futile in this age of convenience, when boredom reigns supreme because we have mastered the solutions to so many of our ancient ancestor’s problems?

More and more, I’m coming to think that it’s the latter. With such rapid advances in technology and design and society, tasks that used to occupy so much of the average human’s time are now done completely by machine, or simplified such that they can be completed in a matter of minutes, or outsourced to people who are paid to do the grunt work for us. In an effort to fill up all of our now-excess free time, many people in the US simply work more hours each day while some European nations enjoy larger chunks of leisure time for wining, dining, and socializing. Other working people head to their cozy homes at night to aimlessly surf the internet or mindlessly flip through TV channels. Through the power of the internet, anyone can discover and master rare art forms and quirky hobbies and social groups are created around an unlimited number of common interests. We have created an impressive and creative array of options for entertaining ourselves now that we can pop our meals in the microwave, toss dirty dishes in a dish washer, pay to keep our homes in good shape, hire someone else to clean our houses and walk our dogs.

A recent development in the grand scheme of human history, this influx of free time has yet to reach all corners of the world. And for those lucky enough to enjoy spare time, it comes as both a blessing and a curse, a luxury that comes with heavy responsibility. There are millions if not billions of people in the world to whom these technological advances that make life more simple are positively unheard of. As civilization advances, so do the number and weight of its social problems, from hunger to poverty to pollution, crime, exploitation, oppression. If those of us who gain leisure time from these advances don’t spend any of it addressing the advancement of these concurrent problems, who will?

I’m a firm believer that, by virtue of having (unearned) privilege, the most fortunate among us also carry a moral responsibility to dispense some of that privilege onto others. The amount of time and energy people spend on activities with no larger purpose than momentary entertainment – browsing websites or watching reality TV or tossing back a few drinks at the bar – are not things we necessarily need to give up. In fact, these are necessary forms of release that allow us to deal with the stress and anxiety inherent to live itself. But if we never critically examine how we spend our time, if we are constantly trying to avoid the reality of our lives and the world around us, what is the point of living at all? If we cannot spare just a few hours each week to truly consider and act in the interest of others, to consider the problems that exist in the world and how we may be positioned to solve them through actions small and large, then can we consider any of our time to be well spent?

On Class Consciousness and Consumerism

One of my greatest personal battles as of late has been over the idea of social class. Where I fit in to the hierarchy, where I’ve been before as a child in my parent’s household, where I’d like to be, and where others my age are. My class consciousness was first raised in college as I imagine it is in with many people. I distinctly remember having a profound sense of good fortune around this time – I was constantly reminding myself of how lucky I was to have been born into my particular family, given all the security and support, financial and otherwise, that entailed. Spending some time in India also expanded my idea of class, both through my observations of the caste system and my deepened understanding of the depths of poverty and inequality outside of the United States.

Though I thought I was highly cognizant of how class functioned in my own life, it wasn’t until pretty recently that I realized I still have much to consider on the subject. Becoming independent of my parents and leading a low- to lower-middle class existence with my husband, working as a social worker in poverty-stricken Baltimore, and taking graduate level sociology courses have all given me cause to reconsider what I thought I knew about social class and how it pertains to me. Though my thoughts on this matter are still far from conclusive, I’ve been coming to terms with some difficult realities that are hard to ignore.

One of the notions that my coursework on the construction of inequality, in particular class inequality, comes back to again and again is that our American idea of class is very much based in consumerism. A much larger proportion of Americans classify themselves as middle- or working-class than truly belong within this designation. Though the absolute definition of and current hierarchical construction of class are hard to pinpoint, there is this pervasive idea that the middle class carries the weight of this country, represents the utmost of our national ideals, and protects our most prized values and myths.

Consumerism is so deeply tied to notions of middle class life that the two are inextricably linked. I’ve witnessed in my own life, work-wise and personally, people buying their way into a middle-class existence. We think that if we have the right things, we can nudge our way into the class in which we’d like to exist. I see myself doing it every weekend. I think of thousands of infinitesimal improvements which can be made to my home, all of which cost money. And I kid myself into thinking that each purchase will be the last one, that final adjustment necessary to make my home complete and myself happy. I have this elusive ideal of what a home should look like that is wound up in notions of middle class security and consumer power. I consider myself a fairly socially conscious person, one who is especially wary of the role of money in our culture. But still I subscribe to this idea that I need to buy things in order to make my home, and by extension myself, look and feel a certain way. My motivations for transforming my home into something better and more cozy are driven by the desire to have a secure middle class life, to mirror the kind of settings I find on television and in films that happy middle class families call home.

I’m overwhelmed by the number of things I think I need to buy in order to be happy and disappointed in my obsession with ownership. Why do I need to own an entire set of garden tools when I use them just a couple of times a year and my neighbor has a perfectly functional collection of shovels and rakes that she uses just as often? Why should we all shell out the cash for appliances that we only use on an occasional basis when we know others who own them already? Why do frivolous items bring us so much joy at checkout but then find their way into the trash so quickly? We confuse our wants with our needs. The high value we place on personal property and ownership is grossly distorted and we rarely pause to think about what we buy.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from all of this musing. That I am securely below the class into which I was born is an undeniable fact. It doesn’t bother me to be poor, but it takes a bit of readjusting, some getting used to when I realize what I would need to sacrifice in order to spend money the way my parents did bringing me up. That I am sadly buying into the drive to buy things is also hard to ignore, and I work as hard as I can to curb this desire. But why does it feel so good to buy things? Why is shopping an impulse that can be so overpowering? Does it have to do with the satisfaction of earning money, of exchanging the income wrought by hard work for things that make life more beautiful, easy or joyful? Or is it more because we’re bored, because we have hours of free time and dollars of disposable income that we are unable to keep up with? I hate to admit it but I think the later is probably the most common and the most accurate explanation for it all.

So what are we to do? Waste our hours composing blog posts on the issue, posts that will never be read far and wide? Indulging our every whim in other areas, like food or entertainment? Shoring up our reserves of self-restraint and exercising our will power to resist the desire to buy? I’d like to think that the answer is something more essential than all that, although maybe not so simple. When we’re bombarded with images of goods and the houses in which they belong, with images of purchases and the people to whom they belong, we can’t help but be impacted by the messages sent alongside those advertisements for the goods themselves. Our conception of the middle class and our high value placed on that ideal is not uniformly bad, but I would argue that its association with certain ways of thinking is. When we blindly buy into the culture we are fed, the culture which rests upon Walmart, credit cards, shopping complexes, and malls, we also buy into the conception that middle class happiness is for sale. The values that middleclassness should be about seem to have fallen by the wayside.

What all this thought on class consciousness seems to boil down to, for me, is the connection between class and values. Middleclass life was originally packaged and sold to Americans as an emblem for a set of values, which have quickly been surpassed by a set of spending habits. That is not to say that the values of low or upper class people are wrong, but rather, that the class which we all so long to belong to, that has been relentlessly marketed to the American people, is founded upon something that appears to have been lost. And the danger inherent in the misplacement of those values is the true cause for concern – not that we are being thoughtless and wasteful in our consumption habits, not that we are driving ourselves into deeper and deeper debt, not that we cure our boredom with credit cards and armloads of shopping bags. It is the disease of our changing values which causes these symptoms, not the symptoms themselves, that is essential to cure first.

On Female Vocalists and Healing

I’ve always found great solace in books, probably more so than most people. At times when I’ve felt most lost, alone, and confused, I’ve regained a sense of myself by revisiting those books with which I’ve most identified, a firm reminder of who I am. But when I experienced my first heartbreak – my first real, gut-wrenching, hopeless phase of inconsolable sobbing and impending doom at the thought of being without he who I had come to know so well – no piece of fiction could provide me with even a modicum of comfort. I’ve always been a lover of music, but never more so than when I was despondent and broken-hearted. It was during these times that songs provided companionship to me, more than any written word or kindly offered shoulder could.

Prior to my first heartbreak, female vocalists generally held little lasting appeal for me. It wasn’t that I categorically refused to listen to women singers, but rather that the songs I was most interested in were of a style that doesn’t lend itself to the female voice as well. It was mostly indie rock and alternative for me, but not yet the folksy ballads and substantial pop of artists like Laura Marling or Regina Spektor. I wanted music that moved me through beat and rhythm, rather than vocal beauty and lyric. My limited world experience barely resembles that of adult female artists. Since I didn’t relate to musicians of my sex, I stuck to what I knew – the omnipotent male voice of independent, alternative rock. Maybe it was my youthful immaturity or maybe I just hadn’t yet found the right voice from among the female offerings, but it wasn’t until my first broken heart that I could rightfully place any female artist among my favorites.

In the mournful words and music composed by Feist, Rachael Yamagata, and the like, I learned that my feelings of complete despair, false hope, and futile torment were not as unique as I had heretofore imagined. To most, that would seem all the more reason to lose hope, but not I. In finding their songs about unrequited love, imagining one’s ex-lover everywhere, and indulging oneself with mythical mental reunions, I learned that my heartbreak was not earth-shattering, in fact it was nothing new at all. I needed to hear a female perspective to recognize that successful and content women could emerge from the wreckage of long-term relationships fully intact. No male voice could cure my lonesomeness,  but these distinctive female songs of heartbreaks true and deeply felt allowed the intolerable pain of my experience some meager outlet. I gorged on the music which indulged these emotions without guilt or remorse. Finding these songs was like having arrived upon my own holy grail, a journey on which I never knew I had embarked until I arrived at my destination. These were the people who most fully helped me recover, find my own two feet again, and recognize that my heartbreak was nothing the world hadn’t seen before. The world was only going to continue turning and I had to keep up.

In time I was able to heal without fully relying upon those ladies in which I first found such grand solace. From the consolation within and the truth behind these women’s songs came the strength of solidarity, no matter how intangible and imaginary. Though I never spoke to these women directly, never confided in or personally encountered them, I drank up their empathy like a magic elixir to stimulate the healing process.

Now when I hear those songs, I grow nostalgic for that time of grief, recovery, and healing. It is not a sadistic notion but rather a longing for those formative months when I thought I was lost and broken. As cliche as the point is, out of heartbreaks come the most pure versions of ourselves. After a thorough period of nurturing and cleansing, we are left with an amazingly stunning picture of ourselves, a more clear and focused image with which we can better understand and identify our own nature. The important part is finding a consolation in someone or something, anything that nurtures and heals, and regaining the clarity of mind of finish that healing process for yourself. And I’d like to thank some of the following ladies for that.

On Ambulatory Compositions

There are countless memoirs born of pilgrimages taken by foot. From Bill Bryson’s tale of walking the Appalachian Trail to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail to the lure of El Camino de Santiago, numerous accounts of walking distances long and arduous and perilous have been shared in print and on film.

For quite some time, I found it surprising that so much walking could produce so many stories. How much plot is there to develop through the monotony of miles upon miles of trail? How much story can be weaned from the seemingly infinite number of footfalls that carry our memoirists to their distant end? Surprisingly, and maybe quite obviously to everyone else but me, a whole lot.

But maybe it isn’t so surprising. After all, I was never such a prolific amateur essayist as when I was employed as a dog walker. All those hours of walking for work allowed me the opportunity to think more deeply and with fewer interruptions than any other day to day circumstances did. I have found that walking, whether with animals for pay or through beautiful trail on a months-long pilgrimage, allows for meditation quite unparalleled by any other physical state of being. Sitting is too stationary for me, requiring that my mind wander in countless directions at once to overcompensate for my great physical stillness. Running requires a mental fortitude that leaves little room for higher thinking or insightful analysis to occur. Driving leaves me far too prone to necessary, at times potentially life-saving, distraction and reactions. Even placing myself before a blank computer screen or an empty page cannot inspire the outpouring of insightful and well-composed thoughts and sentences that walking can. A walk requires physical movement toward a destination but it is slow and plodding, largely effortless but constant and rhythmic. It not only parallels the writing process but lends itself to the type of deep and thorough meditation that inspires that process.

And so we walk and we write about it. And we browse bookstores and wonder how Bill Bryson can have so much to say about his months walking along the Appalachian Trail or how Cheryl Strayed could muse on the deserts and mountains of the Pacific Crest Trail for more than 200 pages. And then we find ourselves on sidewalks, hiking trails, paved walking paths, mall aisles and realize just how easily the words come while we walk. Our thoughts aren’t so much on the walking itself, the rise and fall of each foot or the nature of the terrain under our feet. Our thoughts aren’t even necessarily on anything related to ourselves or our immediate surroundings. Our thoughts are slowly stringing themselves in a most beautiful and seemingly autonomous way from point A to point B, like a strand of Christmas lights with periodic flashes of dazzling light along the way.

The only trouble for me is remembering it all. Those perfectly constructed phrases strung together in my mind’s eye on a walk are hard to recall when I make it back home. I’m torn between a desire to prolong my ambulatory state, so ripe for creativity and literary brilliance, and an eagerness to get home and record it all for posterity, to take pen to paper and make those delightfully composed thoughts more permanent and lasting.

That the protagonists of so many months-long pilgrimages are able to remember their detailed reflections and coherent strands of thought is mind-boggling to me. I’m sure there is quite a bit of editing post-pilgrimage, and additions and revisions are bound to be made upon returning home and opening up a computer to transcribe the whole experience. Nonetheless, walking sets in motion quite nicely the best mentality I’ve yet to find for writing, the prime conditions for thinking thoughts that are constructive, eloquently articulated, appropriately framed and meaningful enough to share. Though writer’s block may settle in when forced to write for a specific purpose, I find that my words are never stifled when I open myself up to the compositional possibilities offered by an easy stroll.

On the Joys and Pains of Running

My decision to become a runner was a fairly unconscious one born out of a mild case of sibling rivalry. My older sister Katie was always the athletic one in the family. As a shy girl lacking in confidence, I never really took to sports myself and always feared that my athletic efforts would fall far short of those of my elder sister. Sure, I dabbled in recreational softball and basketball leagues, then followed her footsteps and tried out for the high school volleyball and softball teams. Volleyball was my favorite sport of them all, and though I never became anything close to the star player Katie was, I could at least hold my own against her in a practice round. Things didn’t go quite so well with me in the softball realm – I was cut from the JV team during my sophomore year. The whole episode made my mother cry but produced little more than apathy in me on account of who would have been my coach (and even who would have been my teammates) had I made the cut. But I guess that’s a story for another time.

In contrast, volleyball was something I had a shot at, so I tried my hardest to do well and secure a spot on the team. My volleyball coaches throughout high school placed a high value upon the total physical fitness of our team’s members. It wasn’t until I was trying out for the varsity squad that I took my physical condition so seriously. Our coach informed us that anyone trying out for the team who was unable to complete a mile-long run in less than nine minutes would immediately be cut. Long before this rule had been put in place, I was a staunch anti-runner in stark contrast to my sister Katie who ran long distances with apparent ease. I knew I would need to start a new relationship with running if I hoped to play volleyball which I so badly wanted to do.

The nine-minute-mile rule was announced the spring before tryouts and I worked all summer long to ensure that, come our first practice that fall, I would be in prime running condition. Most of my training took place in the unfinished portion of my parents’ basement which housed a cheap treadmill (so cheap in fact that it required the additional support of a few sturdy encyclopedias to maintain a flat running surface). Despite the less-than-ideal training conditions, I worked for three months to get my time below nine minutes and made the team. I thought running and I were done.

It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what encouraged me to start running again. It happened during my college years, long after Katie had become something of an accomplished long-distance runner with a few half-marathons under her belt. It may have been the realization that my body was succumbing to the dreaded freshmen-fifteen or that my older sister was achieving physical feats far beyond those I had dreamed she could accomplish and the accompanying belief that I could do the same. Maybe I was looking for a way to deal with the anxiety induced by my new college environment or I thought it would help me make friends since I saw plenty of runners jogging around campus. Whatever the cause of my resurgent interest in running, it eventually stuck this time around. At the end of my third year of school on what should have been my college graduation day, I skipped out on pomp and circumstance in order to run my first half-marathon. I had built up my running routine to a pretty consistent six mile route the previous winter. I figured, if my sister can complete a 13.1 mile race, what’s stopping me from going that extra distance too?

Though, at the time of this writing, I’ve only completed 13.1 miles once in my life and never more than that, I still consider myself a runner, albiet not the most serious sort. I partake in the occasional 5k and am currently training for my first 10-miler, but more than anything I like the training aspect of these races. Putting down the money to participate in a race is the kind of commitment that motivates me to get running like nothing else. If I’m not in training, I find myself quickly slipping into laziness and sloth. Much as I would love to be the kind of person who builds running into her daily routine year-round no matter what race is coming up (or not coming up), I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am not and probably never will be that person. But I persist in my efforts to get there.

On my best days, running is nothing short of pure pleasure. My feet practically jump into my running shoes with anticipation, each stride comes effortlessly, and I barely glance at my watch, enjoying the process of running too much to pay notice to the dwindling down the minutes until it’s over. I end things with a nice stretch and a rewarding ice-cold chocolate milk. I envision myself a real runner, someone who could run a consistent 6 miles before work every morning (if only I didn’t make so many excuses not to when I wake up).

But most of my runs aren’t full of that much ease. More often than not, it is essential that I immediately capitalize on the first surge of motivation that comes my way in order to get out the door and running. The deadness in my limbs wares off as the distance I cover increases, my legs requiring less and less convincing to move. While my mileage may not be too impressive on an average day, my body feels like it’s been sufficiently put to work. More often than not, I come home contentedly tired and with a smile on my face.

On my worst days, every footfall is a mental battle won, but each victory is infinitely short, undermined by the commencement of a new and arduous fight. The minutes on the clock never move fast enough and the leaden feelings in my legs never abates. I return home red in the face and tired to the bone in the worst way possible. I never want to run again, I tell myself that walking my dog will do just fine for exercise, and I shove the running shoes to the back of the closet. These runs take a little more than stretching and chocolate milk to recover from.

If I’m lucky, the next day will be sunny  and warm with the slightest breeze – the type of day when perfect weather is motivation enough to get me back to running again. Sometimes I dig those running shoes out and put them on while I’m whiling away the hours, forcing myself to feel like a runner so that I can maybe start to act like one. And then there are times when my recovery doesn’t come until weeks, even months, later. When a bad run pushes me off the exercise bandwagon with a vengeance and violently bars me re-entry. When my mind convinces my body that it is incapable of running, of achieving what I want it to achieve.

The longer I’ve been a runner, the more I’ve come to understand that running is truly a mental exercise as much as a physical one. No matter how common and cliche this adage may sound, it is undeniably true and powerful. My running behavior fluctuates in close parallel to my mood, my mental state, my emotional stability. The longer its been since my last run, the more subject I am to mood swings and stress. The more consistently I hit the pavement, the more constant my happiness and confidence. When my mind is able to convince my body that it enjoys running, it seems that nearly anything is possible. This understanding has helped me to realize how powerful the mind is, not just in physical challenges but in mental and emotional ones too (ie meditation).

Half-marathoning sure wasn’t easy and I walked much more than I intended to when I completed my first 13.1 miler. But I did cross the finish line and in a surprisingly short amount of time given how often I felt that I slowed to a walk. At an early point in the race, probably around mile four, I told myself that I couldn’t do it. My mind and my body seemed to agree that there was no way I could complete another nine miles at a fast clip. But I knew it was all in my head, a mental battle that I had to win in order to rise to the physical challenge. I needed to overcome the conditions, running on unfamiliar, boring terrain in a crowd of people (who seemed to be running with such ease and grace) during the early hours of the morning (my then-least favorite time to run) on a relatively empty stomach. I had to convince myself that those nine miles were doable in order to actually put my body to it.

And then the simplest thought dawned on me and at once I knew that I would finish the race. I realized that I could walk. The choice I had to make wasn’t between running and not running, but rather between finishing and dropping out. There are plenty of ways to finish a race and running, walking and crawling are just a few of them. The idea of running another nine miles seemed unbearably daunting, enough to make me want to walk right off the course and give up. But when such a simple and obvious strategy, to slow from a run to a walk, instantly dawned upon me, I knew I would log all 13.1 miles. Maybe I wouldn’t run all 13 and I sure as hell would not look graceful while doing it. But I had landed upon a strategy which put my mind at ease and, in doing so, instilled my body with the ability to do those next nine miles.

I sometimes feel strange calling myself a runner because I don’t have all the fancy gear or run lots of challenging and prestigious races. But when I’m running (which also happens to be when I often have the most clarity on things), I realize that the simple fusion of the physical motion and my mental fortitude is a pleasure for me regardless of where I’m running or what I’m outfitted with. Sure, my favorite place to run is through the woods on a single track trail while wearing my green mesh tank top and nylon running shorts. But even on my less than ideal runs, when humidity is high and I’m plodding along through ugly suburban sprawl, I can find a simple joy in the motion of running and a satisfaction in the fact that I allowed myself to finish.

No matter my speed, distance covered, running conditions, or time logged, running offers me a sense of joyous freedom and evidence of a degree of mental endurance heretofore unknown. With running comes a series of pains that can be felt in the legs, the knees, the back, and other areas less tangible. But it also supplies a pure and simple joy born of submitting to the natural inclination to run and challenging your mind to let your body demonstrate its furthest limits.

On Spending

Recent conversations with a number of my equally financially-strained friends have gotten me thinking about something I hate to dwell on or be swayed by – money. A short 40 years ago, the spending patterns and perceived “necessities” of the average family were drastically different from those of today’s typical American family unit. When social security legislation and food stamps were originally introduced in the 1960s, food constituted about one-third of the average family’s expenditures. Today our income goes toward a much wider array of services and products that we conceptualize as essential. Food is merely just one of the needs we have to spend money to satisfy, on top of shelter and clothing. However we now add to the mix cell phones, internet service, technology devices, high-cost transportation, insurance of all sorts, sanitary products, and a whole host of other items we can’t imagine  living without.

I’m also a victim of this strange 21st century mindset that the things we want are actually the things we need. Though it is not essential to our survival to have an internet connection, most of our lives would be so drastically changed by the lack thereof that we classify this as a fundamental need. The same goes for cell phones. When it comes to clothing, no longer can we simply buy a few suits to meet the expectations of our employers. There are a variety of occasions for which we feel compelled to outfit ourselves differently. So I have clothes for bed, the gym, work, hiking, spending time with friends, business casual events, formal affairs, weddings, business meetings, and everything in between. Do we really need such varied and extensive wardrobes? No. But does having one make our life easier, even better? Maybe. The problem is that, once we start, it can become hard to stifle the urge to spend more, to consume endlessly. We have all these clothes for all these occasions, but also (ladies at least) need the appropriate undergarments, footwear, and accessories to go along, to make us look put-together, or to embody the image that we feel we need to personify. Sometimes our reasons are purely social or self-indulgent, though there are more fundamental ramifications when it comes to looking good for job interviews, career enhancement, and other functions that directly correlate to one’s livelihood and source of income.

Then there’s the myth that women need to pile on makeup. To spend thousands of dollars annually on creams, powders, lipsticks, eye shadows, polishes, perfumes, lotions, sprays, and who knows how many other products to get the right look. I’m not trying to knock my female friends who are partial to makeup. For some, it’s truly a form of artistic expression and for others, as with certain styles of dress, it is important to achieve a polished look for the workplace. At the same time, we’re fed the misinformation that we should be consuming these products the same way we need to consume groceries, clothes, and sanitary goods – that makeup is as essential for the modern woman as vitamins and minerals. If you’ve got the money and it makes you feel good, I don’t want to stand in your way of indulging in makeup and the joy, confidence, and fun it can bring. At the same time, I don’t want young girls to be brought up thinking of cosmetics as an essential need. I don’t think that you need to own them to be successful or happy or employed. I’m living proof of this fact. No, I don’t have an established career or even a full time job but I’m holding down two part time ones as well as attending school and I don’t own a lick of makeup (unless you consider chapstick to be a cosmetic).

Some of my most liberal-thinking and beautiful friends still subscribe to the belief that they need to cover their faces with at least a little bit of makeup to face the world, and it pains me to witness this. For one thing, I consider it a waste of money. Makeup is more a nuisance and an annoyance than a source of happiness for me, so why would I spend my money on it? I firmly believe that I am a more confident person expressly because I don’t hide behind a layer of powders and creams, and I wish that more women felt this way. Though I have never been an extremely confident person, I find myself taking strength from things other than my physical appearance to grow my confidence. But while my physical attributes are factoring less into my sense of self, my increased confidence causes me to feel more physically beautiful. I deeply hope that future women and girls can experience this sense of beauty and confidence that, cliche as it sounds, comes first and foremost from within.

But my rant on makeup is merely a tangential example of a consumer product we are fed to believe is an essential and a source of happiness. Cosmetics also serve as a pretty solid example of how we’re throwing our money away on things that are unnecessary and sometimes even a crutch. In these tough economic times, people are trying to save, to spend less, and to prioritize their expenditures. I’m not here to say that doing so is easy. I feel as though I’ve grown skilled at managing my very limited income, but I also don’t yet have a family to support or a mortgage to pay off (and for this I am very thankful).

Still I don’t spend on much beyond the true essentials, and I’m a happy person. The fact that I don’t always buy new clothes, get every movie I want on DVD, or treat myself to expensive dinners despite my passion for good food has no negative impact on the quality of my life. In fact, when I deny myself some of the things I want, it ultimately can serve to make me even happier. Rather than buying new movies, I indulge in quality classic film on basic cable (which cost me nothing beyond the cable bill I’m already paying anyway). And shopping in thrift stores is an environmentally- and wallet-friendly alternative that also can prove a lot more fun than mall shopping. I find things in Goodwills, Salvation Armies, and boutique thrift shops that are affordable and diverse, from unbelievable, one-of-a-kind pieces to basics that originally came off the same shelves as products from the mall, but are now a bit cheaper and in need of a new home. Eating at home provides opportunities for experimenting with new foods and recipes, making for fun experiences both in the preparation and consumption of dinner. I try to think creatively to make the most of my low-cost life and to find the small joys that come with my money-saving ways. And I feel like I’ve been pretty successful at that.

Though I don’t advocate hoarding all your money to better enjoy your life, I do encourage you to think about how you spend the money you work hard to bring home. Maybe it could be better spent on experiences and building memories than on consumer goods that prove to be limited sources of joy and entertainment. Maybe it could be better saved than spent on a new lipstick – and maybe your sense of confidence would even perk up a bit with that one too. Rather than drastically alter your lifestyle or your bank account, I simply hope that you think outside the box when it comes to what you consider essential expenditures, and do your best to find more fundamental sources of joy and entertainment. I am no expert on happiness but I can speak from personal experience when I say that deciding to spend less can actually bestow more joy in the end. I don’t need fancy technology or advanced special effects to be entertained or hundreds of dollars worth of cosmetics to feel good about myself, but rather some good old-fashioned company and absolutely free conversation.

On Phonelessness

Just the other day, I lost one of my most prized possessions: a $20 antique silver ring that I’ve worn pretty much every single moment since I first bought it about two and a half years ago. I was torn up and tore my house apart in my search for the ring, going over every last step I took since the time when I imagined it had slipped off. Luckily my search lasted just a little over 24 hours, but it was a painful 24 at that. I don’t know why I’m so attached to the ring or why it felt like the loss of something so much bigger, but now I cherish it in an entirely new way.

So I find it a bit laughable that I am so much less distraught over the loss of my iPhone. I didn’t actually loose it – I’m not that absentminded – but it has died, I think irreparably so. I loved this phone mostly because of my very neurotic nature. I loved having my music and camera in one place, the world wide web at my fingertips, and most of all, the limitless notepad where I stored all the books I wanted to find at the library, music I planned on listening to, gift ideas, directions, potential topics for blog posts, and oh so much more that I think I have irretrievably lost.

But oddly enough, I feel enlightened, unburdened, carefree. Maybe a portion of my lack of distress is simple due to the fact that phones are replaceable. I doubt I’d replace this one with another iPhone for I’m much too poor to do that. But I almost wish I didn’t have to replace my phone and could, instead, exist with simply internet access and a landline (though I don’t have the latter so I guess this plan doesn’t work out so well). But it’s impossible to deny the fact that, sadly enough, I need some kind of telephone in order to communicate with the world. I walk dogs part time and my boss likes me to text her before I head out in the mornings so she knows that I’m covered for the day. I need to be on call for my other part time job because I work with kids and if they get out of school early or if something happens at the Community Center where I work, my boss needs to be able to get in touch with me quickly so I can adjust my schedule. Working with other people just makes it impossible to stay as isolated as I sometimes want. Even socially I imagine there would be repercussions. So many people just don’t want to take the time to make a phone call these days, especially when a quick and easy text message will suffice. So for the person who may not be dying to talk to me, the fact that getting in touch with me would require picking up the phone and calling a landline could simply end our correspondence – that would just be too much effort. Which makes me feel bad about myself, but also about the ways that we communicate now and the changing shape of relationships.

On the one hand, I love constant connectivity because I can get in touch with someone at virtually any minute I think of it. If I want to let me fiance know I’ll be home late, or if I see a funny reference to an inside joke with a friend, I can get my point across in a matter of seconds and connect with that other person. This is a blessing and a curse, and I guess the benefit of such connectivity doesn’t always outweigh the downside.

I find myself constantly frustrated by people who don’t pay attention to me because they’re attached to their phones. There’s a reason we have nicknames for these new forms of technology such as “Crackberry” and I have witnessed such addictions first-hand. Even people I know with not-so-“smart” phones are oftentimes constantly texting and missing the happenings before their very eyes. I’m not always so innocent because there have been times when my hurry to return a text or my fear of forgetting something before making a note of it on my phone have removed me more than was necessary from the present moment. And sadly this has almost become acceptable behavior which most people get away with scot-free. I’m a big fan of multitasking and I always wish there were more hours in a day to get to all the things I want to do, however there is a line that we are dangerously close to crossing with no hope of a return. It is simply impossible to multitask when it comes to conversations, relationships, and communication in general. Have you ever tried to carry on two conversations at once? In doing so, both parties are bound to get less than your full attention which is both rude and alienating. And that’s my rant about the abundance of cellular phones and the danger of such plentitude – our relationships and conversations will suffer as we grow increasingly distant from those who we interact with face to face.

I know that people need to get in touch with me somehow for practical reasons, so I’ll find a replacement. But I already spend too much of my time worrying about things other than the present moment, I don’t need some new-fangled technology to add yet another distraction. So I think I’ll be just fine with Mike’s recycled flip phone – a Motorola model that I had some 5 years ago. I don’t need to always be able to figure out what the name of the song on the radio is before it ends or to text people immediately once the urge to do so strikes or to have email capabilities at all times – smart phones really aren’t necessary for my lifestyle. And I love that I had so much fun setting up my “old-fashioned” cell phone. Sure, I can’t send or receive photos on it and I’ve lost the ability to get online, but I was just as excited (maybe even more so) to choose my settings, wallpaper, and ringtones for this phone as I would have been for a brand-spanking-new model. It’s the simple things that do it for me. So, after relishing a few brief moments of phonelessness and soaking up every last vibration-free second, I’m back in the world of the hyper-connected. I’ve got an aged but reliable phone and, though the iPhone and I had a good run together, I’m perfectly content with reverting back to my roots. Who really needs an app for everything anyway?

On Dogearers

I’m a self-professed book worm, but I stand apart from a majority of bibliophiles in one respect – dog-earring pages. I’ve heard countless people revile the dog-earrer, the person who, by turning down the corner of a page, marks the whole beautiful book, renders its pristine perfection obsolete. I, for one, would like to make an argument to the contrary.

I ear-mark pages like no one else I know. I don’t like to mar my books with notes in the margins unless they’re for strictly academic purposes. Instead most of the thoughts that a particular volume generates in my mind are likely to find life on a blog post, within the pages of a notebook, or in a Word document filed away on my computer. But while it is highly unlikely that you’ll find me notating the margins of library books, I love to revisit passages that were particularly well-put, enlightening, or poignant. A well-phrased sentence is to one of the highest forms of art and I have a profound appreciation for this type of accomplishment. So I dog-ear the pages containing noteworthy passages in order to allow myself the opportunity to revisit these words again and again.

I have plenty of books on my bookshelf that are particularly thick at the corners from folding and prodding – and I like them that way. A well-worn book is as comforting to me as a warm fire around the holidays. I find great beauty in the ways a book can wear its love, especially when that expression of love was demonstrated by a reader other than myself. And this is why I love dog-earred library books. I love to imagine who was the previous reader and what made them fold down the corner of a particular page with such care. Were they, like me, the type of reader to fold important passages in lieu of annotating a volume that did not belong to them? Or did they simply use the ear-mark as a sort of bookmark, a method of picking up exactly where they left off? And if so, why this particular point – were they growing bored with the story or was it simply time to make dinner, answer a phone call, or doze off for the night?

To some, these ponderings probably sound like a waste of time, if not entirely antiquated in a day and age when libraries are increasingly unpopular and more words than ever are printed on screens rather than tangible pages. But I hope that at least a small few of you out there will understand what I mean. Maybe you hate dog-earrers (sorry!) but maybe you can appreciate a well-loved book, the musty smell of   old volumes and the struggle of deciphering a stranger’s long-ago notes in the margin. Maybe you have a love of words and find strength, joy, and clarity in revisiting them again and again, as do I. If nothing else, I hope that those anti-dog-earrers out there can recognize my behavior as a sign of love and affection, of being engaged and provoked by a book, rather than one done in ignorance and lending itself only to imperfection.