How to find Magic in the Ordinary

Last weekend, our furnace quit.

That meant no heat and no hot water. We warmed the house by turning on our stove’s gas burners. My husband chivalrously carted buckets of hot water from the kitchen to the bathroom so that I could take a bath (sacred evening ritual) pioneer style.

After the furnace was repaired, I had several moments of reverence for the miracle of hot running water.

Last winter, we lost power during a winter storm (not unusual on our island). After a couple of days, the delight in dinner by candlelight and experiencing a computer-free existence faded, and I was tired of looking for clothes in a dark closet.

When the power came back on, I flipped on the closet light with amazement.

Years ago (many), while a college student, I traveled to Turkey on the cheap and encountered overflowing stand-up toilets in a hostel in Istanbul.

When I returned to the States, I had epiphanies of appreciation feeling the soft toilet paper in a clean bathroom.

Each of these times I felt, for a moment, the magic of the ordinary.

Sadly, in all cases, my reverence faded away with time, and I returned to taking much of life for granted.

How can we wake to the magic of ordinary life without enduring blackouts or filthy toilets?

The magic in ordinary life

I’ve read that what people miss most when they are forced to leave their homes or know they are dying is not the lost opportunity to visit Timbuktu or climb Kilimanjaro, but the simple stuff: Adam’s peanut butter on whole-wheat toast, the smell of fresh ground coffee every morning, the purple and yellow blooms on a winter pansy.

My friend Merna teaches immigrant and refugee teenagers to write poetry; the results are heart-rending. The kids describe what they miss from their homelands: onions cooking on the stove, tortillas on the grill, honking bicycles and jitneys, the morning smell of jasmine, a grandmother’s touch. Daily life. Ordinary stuff.

These days what I would sorely miss are my husband’s hugs, horse’s kisses, and movie night with the dogs, when we all crawl onto the bed to watch “The Queen” on Netflix. (The dogs are crazy for the Queen’s corgis.)

How can we wrest ourselves from the unconscious sense of entitlement that lets us take so much for granted?

If we could see how much is there for us on an ordinary day, we’d soak in abundance and delight in wonder.

Welcoming more enchantment

Enchantment invites the imagination to be a part of our everyday, grounded, worldly life. No need to leave science and common sense behind when we allow curiosity and surprise to accompany us through our days. (How many great scientists were enchanted by their fields and used imagination to interpret their data?)

Here are some ways to try:

Do without something for a while. You may be able to interrupt the trance of taking things for granted.

Stop and observe. Notice the world before you. If you were painting, what would you see? If you were conducting, what would you hear? If you had to leave, what would you miss?

Imagine that stones carry stories and trees, history. What might they tell you if you were willing to listen with curious ears?

Wander differently. You don’t need to visit another country. Take a spin around your backyard, neighborhood, or city, and deviate from your usual path. Walk backward for a bit. Close your eyes, and listen to sounds. Try navigating without sight. Vary your routine and see what you discover.

Indulge your senses. Eat your food super-sloowly and track the sensations that come with eating an everyday fruit, like an orange. Imagine what it was like for the first Northern European to take a bite. Using your imagination and all your senses, you may taste the hot sun and dusty paths where that orange was born.

Talk to the things that surround you. Not everyone wants to be Dr. Doolittle, but I regularly converse with my horses and say hello to my trees (especially Harriet, my copper beech). Do they understand? Don’t know–but it puts ME into more relationship with them.

Be grateful for the small stuff and the people around you. In amplifying my appreciation, I feel more connected to the world, and crack the door open for new enchantment to enter.

While we may think “enchantment” means spells, the real spell we’re under (or I am) is sleepwalking through life, taking the ordinary for granted, ignoring the opportunities for wonder that are right in front of us.

Brewing a batch of enchantment requires doses of gratitude, sensory awareness, being very present, wonder, and imagination.

With a bit of luck, you might encounter magic.

Got Rhythm?

We all have rhythm. It’s built into us through our heartbeats and the circadian (24 hour) rhythms that influence when we feel hungry, energetic, or sleepy.

As our biology influences our rhythms, so, too, does the way we work. 

Our distant ancestors followed rhythms that were tied to light. Our parents may have worked “on the clock,” subjected to a rhythm established in industrial times.

We no longer follow the sun or work 9–5. With our increasingly flexible workdays, we have the option of working 24-7.

Such flexibility might seem like a good thing. If you’re a night owl, you might be more than happy to forego commuting before dawn for another dread breakfast meeting.

I can assure you that I wasn’t happy when a former client announced that he was scheduling my workshop for 7 am. (I like to write in the morning – but strictly in my pajamas.)

Lack of schedule: liberating or not?

Freedom from an imposed or arbitrary schedule can feel liberating, which is why vacation, retirement, or working for one’s self can feel great, at least for a while.

But, devoid of rhythms imposed by other-directed schedules, our days can lose their spines, and we’re left feeling like we’re spinning around.

At a minimum, those external demands, deadlines, and meetings keep us pulsing through our days.

Without them, where’s the incentive to get out of bed on a bad hair day?

Becoming a-rhythmic

Job or no job, many of us have gone a-rhythmic with our days.

I was initially delighted when the Internet offered me the freedom and flexibility to work when I wanted. Ride my horse at ten am? Yay! Work at 9 pm? No problem!

Until one day, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t tell, from my schedule, when I was “off work,” and when I was “on.”

My schedule had lost its boundaries. It was as if I was composing music by stuffing in more and more notes while forgetting to add rests. (Usually called cacophony.)

What I lost

As I survey our new world, I notice how many the rhythms that used to be part of life are endangered:

  • Eating regular family meals together. (Stats vary, but a 2003 study suggested that US families eat dinner together only three or fewer times a week, with 10 percent never eating dinner together at all.)
  • Going to bed and rising on a regular schedule. (Sleep doctors keep trying to convince their patients on this one.)
  • Observing a sabbath, rest day, or even intentional time off, consistently every week. (Read Marilyn Paul’s book with her convincing rationale for rest days. You could try a rest break if you’re not yet up to taking a full day.)
  • Taking vacations at all. (In one 2017 study, 52 percent of Americans didn’t use all of their paid vacation days.)
  • Stopping work at a given time, or establishing work-free zones. (Guilty as charged!)

Rhythm is about more than schedules

Our loss of rhythm isn’t just about our crazy schedules. It’s about listening to our bodies in a world that’s gone head-centric and body-negligent.

In some African cultures today, the beat of work lives like a pulse entering the body and then manifesting through music, song, and dance. It’s as if the rhythm lives in their bones–and in their souls. You can see it in this video.

Listening to the rhythms of life

Can we recapture that sense of everyday rhythms by listening more to life?

Watch how people walk and see if you can feel their beat. Listen to how a rooster crows on fixed intervals. Explore if that amorphous rush of traffic might contain hidden rhythms that give its noise a shape.

Maybe some of your everyday work, whether chopping onions, sweeping a broom, or pumping iron, might be more fun when you can feel its beat.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the erratic tap tap of my fingers on a keyboard gives me the rhythmic boost that I need.

Become your own composer

Once you start to listen, then you can compose. Has your life become bland as you march to a steady, but monotonous, four-four beat? Could you add more rhythmic variety?

If you’re always working at a high rhythmic intensity, could you deliberately insert some downtempo activities?

Have you structured the rhythm of your days to be so complicated that even a professional dancer might stumble? How about notching back, and introducing some time in an easy to follow two-two beat?

If no one but you is driving your schedule, why not introduce a few regular beats into your life to set a rhythm for your week?

  • Create routines, for your early morning, evening or mealtimes, that punctuate your day.
  • Set regular weekly meetings with friends and colleagues, or join a class.
  • Plan together-times with your family or partner you can count on.
  • Create deadlines that fit the rhythm you want to establish for yourself.
  • Publish a blog every Thursday–my secret formula!

Finding more flow

Rhythm comes from the Greek word that means “to flow.”

Let’s give it more attention, so we can become master composers of our days.

 

 

Is it time to create your “Joy List?”

This week, I’m balancing writing an article about coping with life’s little losses by remembering all the joys that I’m finding.

I’m creating a “Joy List,” a go-to, no-thinking-required list of top pleasures, delight-full projects, music that moves, things that make me sing, gratitude-enhancing activities–a list I can quickly summon when the pain of loss is great or the weight of the world is heavy.

A Joy List is like an emergency kit for the soul that doesn’t require you to think about what will pick up your spirits (who wants to think when you’re weighed down already?). I go to it for items that are sure-fire, often sensual, and easy to pull off. I use them to restore brain sanity before I decide what to do next, maybe reading a great book, continuing my writing, or picking a project that will, hopefully, also be pleasurable.

NOT reading the news.

Given the state of the world, I’d recommend a Joy List to anyone.

Always near the top of the list is my garden. I need do nothing more than open my eyes and peer out our living room window to soak in delight. I planted our flower beds a bit randomly with flower colors that don’t “go together” and are too near each other, like magenta and white oriental lilies near the fading orange-red gladiolas. But the fragrance from those misplaced lilies make me swoon.

Captivating fragrances always have a place on my Joy List.

Our dandelion-like weeds, which spring up everywhere, are stunning if you ignore the fact that they are uninvited party crashers. My Joy List requires delighting in the abundant growing-ness of life (and letting go of my expectations to ever be weed-free).

My list includes simple pleasures like coffee and telephone calls with friends, Upbeat music like Gambia by Sona Jobarteh or sweet and mellow like the acoustic version of Take on Me (acoustic) by Ah-ha. Keep a list of your sure-fire favorites to use in a pinch. Sometimes I put my songs on repeat and let them salve my soul.

Comedy always has a place on the list–thank goodness for online access! I never tire of watching a young Bill Murray in Stripes lead an unusual Army drill. Robin Williams. Kate McKinnon and Tina Fey almost always make me smile. Pick whatever crazy thing will make you laugh. Your list is just for you.

 

The furry additions to my list this week are staring at me right now with tails wagging furiously–Royce and WInston. How did I forget how much energy a young Springer Spaniel can pack into a relatively small body? As my husband describes them, they’re like two thirteen-year-old brothers, rambunctious, loveable and possibly on speed, careening around the property on dirt bikes. If I start the day at 5:30, I know that the moment I try and sneak into the kitchen for my first quiet cup of tea, it’s “Game On!”

Who can resist a compressed package of joy running straight at you? Unlike our last foster dog, Franklin, who was a bit stand-offish about showing and receiving affection, these guys are in-your-face with love. Fortunately, I adore doggie hugs and luscious licks.

The boys would need a lot of training and a big dose of calm before they could ever be used as “therapy dogs.” But, already they’re therapeutic to me.

Like mainlining joy.

My dogs, like the other items on My Joy list, counter my despair as I look at the United States and our backward slide in areas like care for the environment, civil rights, and education. Unprecedented heat waves, blatant racism at rallies, immigrant and refugee children held in cages–heartbreaks are everywhere. I used to believe that the world was becoming steadily better, and I was a part of making that happen. Today that idea looks like “the good ‘ole days.”

It takes effort to keep the faith and notice all the good that’s still happening around me, often undocumented.

That’s why finding joy is so important. With one whistle, my furry joy-boys will remind me that life is GOOD and will be even better when I agree to PLAY BALL NOW. Then, they’ll reward me with some of their super slobbery Mommy-it’s-going-to-be-all-right kisses.

A truth I still need to remember.

 

When good enough beats great

When the late William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, was asked how he managed to write one poem (or more) every day, he offered a phrase that endeared him to many:”I lower my standards.” Stafford wasn’t suggesting that he had low standards for the poems he published, just that he knew how the daily practice of turning his thoughts and observations into poems furthered his craft.

Many of us have high standards and want much of what we do and plan to be the best it can be.

We want the report to look beautiful as well as be useful. We want to find the best AirBNB in Barcelona, the most highly rated pair of shears, and cook the best dinner for our dinner guests.

All are admirable goals, but “best” can be exhausting.

We’re egged on by online sites offering have-to-read rating systems, because who would want to buy an electric toothbrush that had a 4.2 rating when you could have one that was 5 stars? We study the comments. Two hours later, we’re still researching toothbrushes while being tempted to check out the best roller point pen before ordering our next batch. (Guilty!)

The problem with “the best” or even “great” is that it sucks up our time and turns us away from what’s most important. Often, our friends don’t want “the best” dinner–they just want us to be wholeheartedly with them. In the area of house cleaning, I am definitely “good enough” and not “great.” When I focus on making my home impeccable, it usually means I’m avoiding writing.

My singing teacher, Peggy, hung a sign on her studio wall that said it all:

“Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually,”

That was so Peggy, choosing to focus on her students one hundred and ten percent plus, rather than worry about a little clutter or dust around the edges. Her students accepted the bargain and loved her for it.

When we set a bar too high, we may talk ourselves into giving up before we’ve even started.

Lower the bar, with humility

I recently took on a project of teaching Zumba at a local senior center. (I know, this defeats rule # 1 below, “Say No”  to new projects.) I couldn’t resist the possibility of teaching Zumba for the first time with this absolutely wonderful group.

Turns out teaching Zumba takes way more preparation than I anticipated, and I didn’t have much time. Half of the day I had allocated for preparing was lost as my computer came up with every possible tactic to keep me from putting together a simple playlist of music. Then, I realized that my poor, getting poorer, memory was not about to allow me to memorize the choreography for seven songs in one evening. What to do?

I lowered my standards.

When I dance, I’m usually improvising, so I decided to call on that skill. With a heaping dose of humility, the next day I explained to the group that I’d need to improvise class for a while.

No one complained.

The group was more than OK, and we had fun together. Turns out they needed my smile more than perfect steps.

How many mountains do you want to climb this week?

Many of the mountain peaks in our schedules are caused by our expectations. I’ve been informed that podcasters “should” produce on a regular weekly schedule. Guess what? No can do, even though I have some great interviews in the queue. No one will die as a result of gaps in my production calendar.

Gardeners “should” weed and keep the most pervasive weeds down. My standards dropped below the low mark while I tried negotiating a truce with a major group of weeds: “If I don’t pull you out this year, could you promise not to come next?” (Lost that one.)

Writers “should” write. Now, this point is different because writing is a priority for me and not a “should do.” I aim to write every day and I do pretty well with that. Good enough.

Tips for best-aholics or those who always go for great

Do Less

Learn to say “No” or negotiate. Breathe before you pick up that Zumba class (alas). Overfilling your tank won’t help your engine run any better, and it might defeat you. (But you already know that.)

Check your priorities

Reserve “great” or “really good” for what matters most. Then limit your priorities. (You can read about a cool system that helps you focus here.)

Get Help

If Tom Sawyer could do it, so can you, Pay for help to paint that fence or stage a work party people can’t resist. Buying help may be pricey, but if it relieves you, improves the work, or allows you to keep your attention on what matters most, maybe it’s not as expensive as you think. At your workplace, delegate and collaborate.

Assess what’s required

When I’m avoiding a task, it looms large. When I assess how much time it will actually take, I usually calm down. I estimate that weeding that pernicious sticky weed out of the garden could be done in an hour. That’s do-able. The rest can wait.

Don’t polish the first draft

If you are working on a project that will go through multiple iterations, don’t fuss the early versions.

Choose when not to settle

Lowering your standards in some areas allows you to focus on what’s really important. Enjoy polishing that final draft.

In closing

The memoirist Kerry Cohen, with whom I did a writing weekend, encouraged me to keep writing by signing her book with this inscription:

“It doesn’t have to great, just good enough.”

That might be a motto for life.

Does it spark joy? If not, create your own.

I fell in love with Marie Kondo, the queen of tidying, when I watched her NETFLIX series during last February’s let’s-hope-it-never-comes-again blizzard. I am not a convert yet, although I’ve taken a little ground. What I loved most in the series was hearing her laugh and ask her clients,  “Does it spark joy?”

I’ve been carrying that question around ever since. It’s a profound question–applicable to a lot more than deciding what to do with my grandmother’s beloved china.

Joy is the fruit at the heart of many spiritual disciplines.

This week, I was thinking about joy on a more mundane level, as I began the heavy task of mucking mountains of manure from our backyard. The horses have been happily prolific this spring. Normally, I find mucking meditative, but I was tired, and for sure shoveling sh-t was not sparking joy.

Then I thought: why not create joy now? even though I would never have put mucking on my joy list. 

The challenge of creating joy gave me the boost I needed. I slowed down, listened to the birds more, and felt my gratitude as I watched my horse grazing in the sunshine, a lifelong dream come true. Then, after dumping several heavy wheelbarrow loads of manure, I lay down in the grass. Rays of sunshine covered my face as I heard the crows clamoring, felt an aerial visit from an unknown bug, and let myself sink onto the ground supported by the earth. This was joy.

Lying there, I let stress melt away. I tried out two practices that I read can help us calm and reset our nervous systems: deep breathing with a slight smile on the face and humming. They worked.

With five simple actions: gratitude, slowing, giving myself a breather, putting a slight smile on my face, and humming, I felt less burdened. As I resumed picking, I resisted trying to finish the job, knowing that more shoveling would hurt my back. Pushing to do it all was tempting but back pain does not bring me joy.

When the task is less pleasant

Sometimes we don’t have the liberty of throwing out tasks that do not feel pleasing, as you might jettison the green cardigan with holes in the elbows that was given to you by dear Aunt Edith.

I needed to catch up on some financial and administrative work that I’d been avoiding, even though what I really wanted to do was write.

Approaching these tasks as drudgery was not going to make them more pleasant. Could I shift?

  • I put on some upbeat music to help me clean and make my office inviting.
  • I gave thanks for the privilege of having such tasks to do.
  • I sprinkled rugosa rose petals on my desk, adding a sweet fragrance to the air.
  • I gave myself a time limit, two hours, and a reward: a return to my writing.
  • I reminded myself to breathe.

Did I find joy as I kept getting locked out of my accounts and spent (too much) time with customer service? Let’s just say I shifted from “I really don’t want to do this” to “This is OK.” I was pleased with what I did.

The Dalai Lama wrote, in The Book of Joy:

“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy.”

I get it. I’m a master at turning tasks into a form of suffering, particularly when I’m tired or overwhelmed.

So why can’t I become a master of infusing my work with joy?

Of course, not everything will spark joy. But we can create joy on our own.

If I can find joy in mucking, maybe I will find it filing pillars of papers.

Again the Dalai Lama:

“the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.” 

I’m rewarding myself now by writing this post and thinking of you reading, which always sparks joy.

 

How to move your creative potential into practice

We’re all innately creative.

Creativity, like love, is a force field that surrounds us and comes through as it’s needed.

As writer and photographer Jan Phillips in her book Creativity Unzipped writes:

“Creativity is … released automatically when we are on the right paths, in our right minds. It is a force waiting to be released, inherent in each and every one of us.”

Don’t prejudge whether you are creative

We may limit ourselves by thinking that to be creative requires being artistic, and that to be artistic means being a visual artist.

Or, maybe you have an image of a creative person as being free-flowing and slightly eccentric, like me, when my hair looks styled by wind blowing across an airfield, or I forgot to match my socks in the morning, or my sweater buttoning failure demonstrates why you should always button your sweaters from the bottom up.

The best image of creativity? YOU doing what you love, whether you look polished or messy, put-together or haphazard. Creativity doesn’t care.

Moving from potential to practice

Another way to say this is that we all have the potential to be creative. Don’t confuse expressing creativity to being Beethoven, designing change-the-world products, or being the best in your field. The world needs what we are each uniquely called to do.

Knowing we have potential can be uplifting, but moving from potential to possibility requires practice–we need to be working.

By working, I don’t mean the “ugh I’ve got to work” kind–but the passionate, playful kind where you devote yourself to something you love and let it lead you forward.

Paraphrasing Picasso’s famous quote from the lead picture, creative inspiration needs to find you working.

The three foundations of creative practice: Devotion. dedication, and discipline

Devotion

The first step in developing a robust creative practice is to ask, “What do I most care about?” The effort of creating becomes easier when you feel called or in love with what you do.

When you’re devoted to someone, you want to be around them. When you’re devoted to your practice, you’re willing to show up again and again, in service to that which is begging for your attention.

For example, some years ago I was devoted to gardening (read, obsessed). I didn’t need to ask why, if, or how to garden. I just went out each day and asked, “What’s next?” My devotion led me from being a rabid, untrained beginner to beginning to know about the art and craft of gardening.

Dedication

Once you’ve found what you love–which can change with time–you must dedicate yourself to it, make space for it, and nourish it in your life. Perhaps inspire yourself with how your work may someday benefit another.

Devotion and dedication don’t require proof of talent.

Years ago, I did a fantastic six-day workshop with The Circle Way creator and writing coach, Christina Baldwin. After many lessons, the most powerful learning for me was realizing that I had the right to call myself a writer. This didn’t mean that I:

  1. Had talent (although I hoped that I did).
  2. Was a good writer.
  3. Would ever be published, recognized or read by others.

Calling myself a writer only meant that I was willing to dedicate a piece of my life to writing. And this I have done ever since.

Being dedicated means that you’re willing to endure the pain of not meeting your standards, at least for a while.

Ira Glass, the founder of the story-based radio show This American Life, speaks of the gap one must tolerate, at the beginning of developing a craft, between knowing what is good and observing what you can do. (Listen to his wisdom here.) You may have to tolerate not being very good for a long time.

That challenge is staring me in the face these days as I work on my book. I have to produce what many writers call “a shitty first draft.” I hate pulling together work that doesn’t yet meet my standards, but it’s what the project requires. Ouch!

Dedication requires keeping going despite your self-critique.

Discipline

Assuming that you love what you are doing and are willing to dedicate a portion of your life to it, you’ll still need a structure to support your efforts. No sense calling yourself a baker or candlestick maker if you only allow yourself to do your creative work after paying all your bills, organizing your closets, and chasing away all the spiders (unless cleaning is your creative craft).

Your practice wants a starring role in your calendar. Design your life so you can’t avoid your calling. If you want to play guitar, leave yours standing up in the living room. If you want to cook, keep cookbooks out and your cupboards stocked. If you’re a writer, inventor, or are birthing a project, carry a notebook with you just in case the muse does an unexpected fly-by.

Then, keep your project center stage by inventing routines and rituals that focus your attention.

You can live the creative life

With the three D’s of devotion, dedication, and discipline, you can design your life to take creativity from the world of potential to the world of doing and discovery.

Position your creative project on a gorgeous plate in front of you–then feast on it every day.

Join our creative quest!

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