Oct 5, 2017

Perfect Honeycombs

You know those internal struggles that have been around since time forgotten? What I've discovered is they don't go away; the best you can do is work on them diligently and improve yourself measure by measure. It's a process in phases, not a definite line to be reached and then crossed, leaving your issues behind you forever.

What does this have to do with honeycombs? Well, it's about the struggle for perfection. I battled it in school, in crafting Suzuyaki pottery in Japan, and I still face it in everyday life. Recently a memory has come to my aid... an insight that came to me from harvesting honey back in 2014:

Note the uncapping in the upper-left.
Laurén and I were standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the small, humid honey hut on my uncle's property. On the counter, built on the front and back of each wooden frame pulled from the hive, was a honeycomb made of tiny perfect hexagons. Behind the pale wax was the oozing, golden honey we were after. To proceed, we had to cut the caps off so the honey could drain into a filter. My uncle demonstrated how to do this with a serrated uncapping knife: with a steady sawing motion, he slid the blade through the tops of the caps and the honeycomb fell in chunks into the bucket below. It looked easy enough, so I had a try. I watched the combs, anxious to see the honey pour out as I cut it free. It was hard to keep my hand steady; when I sawed at the caps I was also gashing the wooden frame with the end of the knife and splintering it.

My uncle was less than pleased. After a few more failed slashes, I was feeling useless and guilty for destroying chunks of the frame. That's when I was told the advice that changed the experience: my eyes should be on the knife, keeping the end flat along the opposite edge; I shouldn't be focusing on the center honeycomb at all. You need to focus on the work itself, not the results.

It's easy to get obsessed with the results we desire from perfection and beat ourselves up over our mistakes, but that's not where our focus should be at all. I remember in the book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield explained how the work belongs to us but the results belong to God. I can plant the seed, water it, weed the soil, etc., but God brings forth the fruit of that plant.

I tried again: with the next frame held upright before me, I kept my focus on the knife. I didn't watch the caps fall in one smooth sheet, but that's what they did; freed, the honey slowly poured out. I remember Laurén was impressed by how perfectly the caps had separated. A part of me was a little sad that I didn't get to see it, but if I had looked then it probably wouldn't have happened.

You could label my initial attempt as a "failure," but a failure can show you where a change needs to be made. Failure is a strong word that could be used to describe any gap, tiny or great, between our ideals and our performance. It doesn't diminish your value as a human being. Failure = where change is needed... could it be that simple? If we give ourselves permission to "fail" and figure things out as we go, perhaps the anxiety of perfection and the avoidance of any and all shortcomings wouldn't hold us back emotionally.

If things don't go as well as you'd wanted, you still know you did your best. And hopefully you did it for the goodness and love of it. In my case, for the love of honey. 🍯



~ ~ ~

Jul 4, 2017

Adulting

I’m going to talk about video games. Probably didn’t expect that from a post titled “Adulting,” did you? This generational term is defined by Oxford as, “The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.” Doing your taxes or renewing your vehicle registration are classic examples, but it’s more likely you’ve heard it used in exasperation from 20-somethings, like “Adulting is so hard!” or “I just can’t adult today.”

Stardew Valley
I’ve had the opposite problem — every since I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up. I wanted an adult’s freedom of choice, independence, and the strength to stand up to other adults.

During the transition phase of teenagerhood, when you have growing freedom but little money, my time was dominated by Japanese manga, fantasy novels, horror movies, and RPG video games. But once in college, all these passions fell to the wayside — my ability to “adult” now meant the added responsibility of paying off my university tuition. My time went to working extra jobs to keep myself from drowning in the all-too-common student debt pool. I survived, but at the cost of time spent on things I actually love to do.

Then I moved to Japan! And traveled the world! Ultimate freedom, fueled by savings (worth it). And once I came back I followed the old pattern: work and save money. But for what? I was working long hours and taking 10/hr week commutes to "adult" –– pay my rent, cook enough food for myself, etc. In the late evenings, when my time was my own, I felt lost and tired. What was the purpose? I still hadn’t picked up the things I had enjoyed in years past, and now there was a sense of forbiddance to them: the things I did as a child/teen should stay there, lest I be perceived as “going backwards.” My generation has the nickname “boomerang” since many end up going back home because they can’t take care of themselves. I didn’t want to be perceived as a boomerang in any sense of the word. I had wanted to be an adult so long, how could I now turn around?

But I was miserable. Something was missing from my life and I knew it, and nothing was filling the space (certainly not food or mindless hours of Facebook).

Enter the greatest blessing of my life: my boyfriend. He is the man I most admire in all the world. And he plays video games; that didn’t make me think any less of him, I enjoyed how he still got excited and animated about the different series he was working his way through. It didn’t dominate his life, it was just a slice of it. He encouraged me to pick the hobby back up.

To my surprise, there was a lot of shame and guilt I faced inside myself, all wrapped up in how people may perceive me as an “adult” playing video games. Didn’t I have better things to do? Weren’t there major accomplishments in my life I wanted to work towards; wasn’t I wasting my time?

Then I considered these words from C.S. Lewis:

“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

I began playing again. I completed Portal 2, started the very enjoyable Stardew Valley, and am even having a laugh over the kooky Octodad: the Dadliest Catch. It has made me happier… just to enjoy a little time without worrying about how it will be perceived, how it doesn’t make me money, how it is “childish.”

I want to reconnect with more of the things that delighted and inspired me as a child and teenager. Because you know who created those things? Adults.




~ ~ ~

P.S. Buck and I are off to Poland next week! There'll be more adventures to share soon. Have a great summer, everyone!

Apr 24, 2017

Finances & Retirement

I remember bragging at 24 I was retiring: "Goodbye Corporate America! I'm off to see the world as a perpetual backpacker!" (Four years later, I'm recounting this as an accountant back in suburban Michigan.) At that time, I was leaving to be a teacher in Japan, so the sentiment wasn't that I was going to stop working, but that I was going to stop doing unfulfilling work. Did I fulfill that goal?

So far, yes — though I'm working in an office again, I like my job: I have a great boss and a sustainable work environment that have made a great difference in my quality of life. It's where I need to be now, but not for the next three decades. It would be a dream to make writing my focus and career without the panic-inducing terror of becoming a starving artist. I've been thinking, how can I accomplish this?


Minty Fresh Finances


For years, I've been using Mint to track my finances. The web-based application is made by the same team that created Quickbooks and Turbotax. Mint is like a window that allows you to view (without manipulating) all your accounts and investments in one place. I primarily use the program for tracking short-term savings goals and monthly budgets.

As you close in on a budget, the tracking bar changes
 from green to yellow, and ultimately red if you go over.
My expenses are fairly basic: rent, food, gifts, car insurance, gas, internet, cell phone, chiropractor, utilities, short trips, and miscellany. The perfectionist in me never wants a "red" mark, so when a budget creeps too close to the limit, I readjust the budget higher. That way, every month is green! Certainly looks prettier, but it means I'm spending more than I intend to.

In the past, I've saved for specific goals (i.e. graduate university debt-free, travel around-the-world) that kept my spending tight and controlled. Without one, I feel lax about how much I spend, especially when it comes to indulgences like eating out.


Retiring Early = Possible?


I recently read an article by a World Domination Summit speaker about retiring in your 30s. Like, actual retiring. It got me thinking about financial freedom in a refreshing way:

  • It's time to trim the fat
I already adhere to the golden rule: spend less than you earn. I also avoid all debt like the plague. But I wouldn't get very far if I was constantly spending 90% of my earnings. I want to further reduce expenses and save all that I can.

I spent a full morning calculating my income and spending projections to discover a solid, real retirement amount to shoot for. Now with a specific goal in mind, I marched myself right into my Mint account and set my budgets back to 67% of my earnings.

I cringed as many of my budgets turned red, but that just means I'll have to give them extra focus next month. Saving 33% of my income is the best I can do for now, and will no doubt be challenging. For example, to keep my food budget from going over, I've got a lot more meal planning and cooking to do!

  • Investing in stock index funds
Here is where my fear and paranoia speak out: while I've been investing in mutual funds for several years, the recent direction of this country (and the world) scares me, so I'm reluctant to put more money into the market. I'm going to do more research into investing in stock index funds and then raking in dividends before I take action, because I can't shake the feeling the whole shabang is going to come tumbling down.

  • Focusing on what brings true happiness
I don't need that much money to be content. It comes down to how you use your time and resources. Enough of my laments that I don't have enough time! Too many frivolous hours have been sucked away by Facebook, YouTube, and mind-numbing drives to and from work while listening to crap on the radio. So I'm suspending my Facebook account indefinitely (third time's the charm), limiting my video surfing time, and downloading engaging Podcasts to listen to in the car.

The first wail of protest I hear is: "How will you keep in touch with anyone without Facebook?" I'm going old school with an address book, a stack of parchment paper, and a calligraphy pen. Writing letters is something that brings me a lot of happiness and feels more intimate. Besides, there's always LINE and texting for instant messages.

As for resources, there's a fantastic library in my city — it's about time I use it to dig into all those books I want to read. With high-speed internet at home, I can continue to Skype friends from around the world, too. Books and friends = real joy.


Let's see how this experiment goes, and how much of a difference it makes by year's end.



~ ~ ~

Mar 30, 2017

Rekindling

There's a lot of ground to cover between last post and this one; instead of reaching back into the past, I'm going to jump right into the present: my story, as it stands now, is one of a young woman living in a Michigan suburb home to a significant population of Japanese expats, working a great middle class job, and floating a few inches off the ground thanks to one very special reason: I'm sharing this story, this life, and all my love with the greatest man I know. I feel incredibly blessed everyday because we are together. Buck, you are truly the best.💗

~ ~ ~


Hidden inside the local hospital's cancer center is a yoga studio; circular glass walls surround an inner courtyard of air-cleansing plants, heated stone flooring that warms our bare feet, and suspended sculptures of colored glass that shine in the sunlight. At its center is a round pool with a floating lotus flower to remind us to be calm in both mind and body.

But I've discovered I'm not calm here. The usual objections don't apply — the cost is reasonable, the teacher knowledgable, the location just 4 miles from home, and the yoga-style easy to follow; yet a growing feeling of being unwelcome has taken root...

The evening class consists of half a dozen middle-aged women struggling with their weight. Their eyes skip over me as they enter class and they talk amongst themselves before we begin. At the last practice I tried to start an upbeat conversation with the woman beside me by talking about the coming of spring. She agreed in a few words, and left it there. I tried again several minutes later, commenting on how nice the courtyard looked with the raised pool. This time, she didn't reply at all. I felt rejection in her silence.

The teacher, a distant woman in her 60s, usually exchanges pleasantries with me, however during practice she consistently makes off-hand comments such as:

Move into this twist. It's difficult... well, for some of us.
This becomes harder when you get old, but you wouldn't know.
Who's in their 20s in this class again? Raise your hand? Oh yes, that's right.

During yoga, I noticed the woman next to me had a limited range of movement during certain bends. Despite my neck/spinal pain and post-work exhaustion, I was doing my best to follow my breath into the move myself when the teacher once again interrupted the flow of class to comment, "You're a 'bendy' so it's no problem for you, but we're older." I felt frustrated as the class's unwanted attention focused in on me.

At the end of the session, my neighbor finally acknowledged me with a half-joking, half-disgusted: "I try not to look at you during class. You're too bendy."

It clicked for me then... my youth is unwelcome here. When the teacher brings the class's attention towards me instead of the practice, I'm being separated from the others while they are being given an open invitation to envy me. Perhaps without being conscious of it, they see me as a youthful "everything comes easy to you" straw woman to size up their limitations to and feel jealous of. This feelings seeps into the very air, and has poisoned my experience.

I considered giving the message to namaste outta my way and continue practicing there, but have since changed my mind. It's not me, but my practice, that makes them feel this way... everyone wants to feel accepted just as they are, especially when their own inner critic keeps putting them down. It's not the right place for me, so I'm moving my practice to a more welcoming (and younger, more expensive, farther away) yoga sala. I understand their feelings of insecurity — I feel sheepish about practicing somewhere with experienced yogis who can do so much more than I can. But I want to watch them, to learn from them, and accept my limitations while at the same time striving to do better.

If courage is being brave despite fear, maybe contentment is being confident despite envy/insecurity. We're human, so fear and insecurity come up naturally within us, but if you dig into your deeper resources you don't have to give in to it.



~ ~ ~

Jul 1, 2015

A Month in Italy

Miss me? Since my last update, I've traveled through central Italy, spent 10 days with my sister, and then two weeks in Sweden with Laurén and friends. I feel as if I've been so busy out doing things, I haven't spent much time in front of the computer updating about it. This has also led to me being out of touch -- a weakness of my character I'm aware of and trying to become better at, at the least to assuage my conscience. And so, here I am!

After going to the World Expo in Milan, I intended to visit Venice. Little did I know that it's impossible to book accommodation in Venice last minute for a weekend. Even the camp sites were full. Instead, I spent a few days in the city of Parma, the home of parmesan cheese and prosciutto di Parma. During this time I lost my voice, saw a work by Da Vinci up close, became familiar with the uncomfortable treatment of women by Italian men, and had dinner with a Parisian passionate about language learning.

Once in Florence, I took an oil painting class as my "skill to learn in Italy." When I wasn't painting in the open-windowed studio loft, I explored the magnificent old city. One night I happened upon an English-speaking church that put on cultural performances in the evening. Thus I saw my first opera, Carmen.

Painting a blue-eyed Mona Lisa

The opera Carmen

SARAH VISITS

After Florence, I met up with my sister in Rome. From there we traveled by train, ferry, and bus to Napoli, the Isle of Capri, back up to Florence, Greve in Chianti, Pisa, and finally Rome again to take our respective flights. What an amazing whirlwind it was! My favorite memories from our time together were:

(1) Dinner inside the wine cellar of a Tuscan farmhouse that extended to 3 hours of talking and laughing over many gratis glasses of expensive wine and grappa that our waiter – who looked like Michael Bublé – served us. The stars that night over the Tuscan countryside were very clear and beautiful.

(2) Taking a walking tour from a hand-drawn map of Napoli by our hostel host, Giovanni. His passion for the city, combined with his wry sense of humor, put our fears of Napoli's purse-snatching reputation at ease. Thanks to him we saw beyond the scuzzy exterior and enjoyed a deeper look into Napoli's unique spirit.

(3) Climbing the Tower of Pisa, where every "round" of the stairs has gravity pulling you in a different direction. The view from the top of this crooked bell tower was incredible.

(4) The look on Sarah's face when she saw the Coliseum for the first time. Just a few hours after she'd landed, we were eating lunch and having a glass of wine just across the street from this ancient world wonder... and she couldn't believe it!

(5) Climbing up to the top of the cupola in St. Peter's Basilica cupola. The stairs were incredibly narrow, and tilted on an angle to follow the shape of the dome. The steps were worn and sunken from the millions and millions of those who, for centuries, have walked before us.

FOOD FARE

Italy's reputation for amazing food precedes itself, and it's well-earned. Here is a sampling of the many dishes I had the pleasure of tasting:

Home-cooked two-course Italian meal with my host Lia in Florence.


Prosciutto di Parma, handmade gnocchi with from-the-source parmesan cheese, oven-fired pizza, Florentine house red wine, flower-shaped gelato

Gelato, Tuscan salad, home-cooked meal, fresh-shaved beef sandwich

Handmade linguini, stuffed peppers, Napoli pizza (so good! Pope Francis ate here, too), Tuscan beef served in a wine cellar in Chianti, chocolate-brownie dessert, Chianti Classico wine

Roman eggplant, tiramisu and tea by the Spanish Steps, Tuscan farm salad, breakfast looking out over the Tuscan hillside, savory chicken and prosciutto

WHAT'S NEXT?

I've spent the last two weeks hanging out in Götborg, Sweden. Laurén, our new friends, and I celebrated midsommar, the summer solstice, at a small cabin along the sea. From here we ate pickled herring and Swedish meatballs as the sun lowered in the sky but never seemed to set. The nearly 24 hours of sunlight fills you with energy, as if midnight were mid-afternoon. That is, of course, when the rainclouds part so you can see the sun.

In no time I'll be boarding my next flight, this time to Berlin. There is only 5 weeks left on my Schengen visa for mainland Europe, and I intend to go through Germany, France, and Iceland with the time I have left. That, and a stint in the U.K. in-between. There's no denying it though, that this trip is quickly coming to it's close. Today begins the 10th month of this amazing journey... and I have come to the point where, instead of dreading the end, I am at peace with moving on to the new chapter when that time comes.


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