Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why routines rule


It's 8 p.m. right now, which means that Dan and I have finished dinner, cleaned the kitchen, and retreated to our offices.  At 9 p.m. we'll head to the couch to watch a show together--The Good Wife or Revenge on a Monday, Scandal on a Friday or Saturday.  More days than not look the same for us.  We eat dinner at the same time unless we need to stay late for work, we each cook on our assigned nights, we do laundry on weekends and fold the clean clothes in front of the TV.

My eyes practically glaze over when I rehearse our schedule.  I wonder: Is there such thing as too much routine?  Can routine become a hindrance more than a help, suffocating rather than life giving?

Routine is in my blood and my bones.  I am an Episcopalian, after all, part of a tradition that prides itself on its highly structured liturgy, where the philosophy is, if it's not mentioned in the prayer book, we don't need it. During my childhood, my family ate regular dinners together and rearranged our furniture around the same way each year when we chose our Christmas tree.  We ate Krispy Kreme donuts the day before school began and bought the exact same kind of vanilla ice cream every time we went to the grocery store.  Familiarity trumped novelty times a million.

So this routine thing is not something new, but the degree to which I live according to routine may have reached an unprecedented level.  I can name plenty of reasons why routines help us, but I wonder at what point there are diminishing returns.  If routines can
  • reduce the number of decisions we have to make each day
  • allow us to structure our time more effectively (by reducing said decisions and combining errands and similar tasks)
  • relieve our anxiety about unknowns
  • provide us with opportunities to anticipate pleasant parts of the future
  • and, most importantly, give meaning to the chaos of our seemingly random lives,
then, is the reverse extreme not also true?  Routines hold the capacity to
  • render us unable to see choice or decision in our day
  • discourage spontaneity and opportunities for refreshment
  • eliminate mystery and surprise
  • provide us with opportunities to fear and dread unpleasant parts of the future
  • and predetermine the meaning of our lives.

It's a thought experiment, overstated for effect, but it raises questions worth asking.  I will not explore those questions here because right now, I simply want to revel in the healing power of routine.

The amount of change Dan and I have experienced in the past five years--deaths of loved ones, deployment, major moves, new jobs, renovations, major illnesses striking important people in our lives--has made routine all the more essential.  Our homes, our cities, our careers, and our families, nearly every one of our sources of stability, may change, but there are some things we can always count on, rituals which tether us to one another and keep us from floating away into a world of complete randomness and chaos.

The Google Calendar-synced grocery list, for me, is not simply about habit or time management or healthy living goals, although I suppose it is all those things.  It is sacred.  It is as sacred as the prayers we read on Sunday at church or the "I love you" my family says before hanging up the phone.


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Monday, March 16, 2015

On my nightstand: March edition

Here's a look at what I've been reading this month. To see more of what I've been reading or to trade book recommendations, follow me on Goodreads. I'd love to hear about any recent literary gems you've found (or books that I shouldn't waste my time reading)!


Quite the tearjerker (and I say that as someone who does not cry easily).  This book follows the unlikely friendship-turned-something-more between a small town girl and a worldly quadriplegic.  Not only is the story good, but the questions and perspectives the author raises on euthanasia and disability make the book a worthwhile read.


I finally read the novel everyone went crazy over the past few summers, and I found it entertaining, but certainly not deserving of the hype (but rarely can a book live up to that level of buildup).  If you want a page-turner and to experience an author play with unreliable narrators, this is your book.

Anne Lamott's stuff is always good, but be forewarned that much of this material is recycled.  If you have read her other work, this may be the one to skip.   But her essay on her dog Sadie gets me every time.  Her writing, as usual, is irreverent and poetic, profound and sweet and true.


I love Nate Berkus's design sense but not his writing.  Partly my issue was with the Kindle version of this book: the book depended heavily on pictures of other people's homes, and the images just did not translate well on my screen.  But mostly, my complaint was with the book's composition.  Each chapter traced a significant actor in Berkus's life, an organizational method that seemed promising, but we learned little about the people or emotions behind the things.


Do you ever wonder what implications technology has for how countries relate to one another, how safe our futures really are, or how close we are to becoming a "Big Brother" state?  That's basically the question of this book, but the authors who answer are not alarmists but informed speculators.  The book is a thought exercise, not exactly a prediction or prescription, but it got my wheels turning about just how deeply and broadly our connectivity affects our world.


I'm linking up to Modern Mrs Darcy's Quick Lit (a monthly book review linkup). To see more book reviews, head over to the site!




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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Creating empty spaces


For Lent, when I was younger, I would give things up: chocolate, soda, ice cream (you have to understand that in my childhood home, where no fewer than six pints of Ben and Jerry's or Haagen Daaz would be in our freezer at any given time, that was a real struggle).  As I grew older, and Lent-motivated renunciations of food groups seemed to have more to do with dieting or body image than spirituality, at least among my peers, I shied away from fasting and abstaining.  I took on practices like reading the Bible or a devotional book, praying more frequently, and meditating.

But lately, I have been coming back around to the idea of removing, of stripping away that which is not essential.  One of my favorite professors at Vanderbilt spoke about Lent as a time of "spring cleaning," clearing clutter.  The parts of the faith that add dead weight--whether the crap that inevitably builds up in the church storage--ahem, I mean "teen"--room, the frenetic, anxious energy of our nightly prayers, the self-hatred accompanying indulgence in sweets--can be shoved away to make room for new life.

The pace at which life now seems to move makes this way of understanding Lent particularly compelling.  Like nearly everyone else I know, I feel pulled in millions of different directions, perpetually distracted, scattered, which does little for my ability to be present in the moment, ready to discern and respond to how God is calling.  So this Lent, I'm trying not to do much of anything.  When I cook dinner, instead of immediately queuing up a podcast, I chop vegetables silently.  At night, as I turn out my bedside lamp, I put down the book I'm reading and remain still before launching into prayer.  In the car, as much as it pains me, I'll spend part of my commute simply staring at the road, not listening to the radio or making a phone call or somehow otherwise multitasking as I always am wont to do.

How is it going so far?  It's hard, it's really hard.

I worry about what the constant opportunities for stimulation do to our creativity--a distraction is only the touch of an electronic device away--and I see how much the wiring of my brain has changed in the years since the smartphone.  Yet even more important than my growing awareness of my diminishing brainpower is the realization that life becomes one-dimensional when I am always splitting my attention.  I miss the sharp smell of the onion as I'm slicing thin ribbons for a pasta dish, the delicate coating of the last remnants of snow on tree branches, the small tremble of my dog Gigi's body as she gingerly ventures into the ice coated pond by our house.  I blast my own noise over the intimate but subtle ways God reaches out by planting seeds in my imagination, pulling on my heartstrings, attuning me to the world's hungers and pains and joys and beauty.  I fill up every empty space so that God can hardly seep in because I have left no room.

God is in the margins.  That's what I'm learning this Lent.


Do you observe Lent?  What have you discovered?  Or, have you found the pull of devices and distractions to be strong in your own life?


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Monday, March 2, 2015

The Best of February

I love roundup blog posts.  This post revisits some of my favorites that may have been buried on my social media feeds and mentions a few new finds.  Here are some of the highlights of what I've been watching, reading, eating, and enjoying this month:



I intended to post this yesterday, but life had other plans--or more specifically, the weather.  Like almost everyone else, I'm tired of the snow and ice, even more so after spinning out on an icy patch of road yesterday and hitting a sign.  The car is in the shop, and fortunately I didn't hurt myself or anyone else, but spring, can you please get here?

Links I've pondered:

Recipes we've devoured:

  • Killer granola.  SO.  GOOD.
  • Mexican cauliflower rice.  I've been meaning to try this forever, and I finally did.  I think I prefer it roasted or mashed, but this preparation is nice for variety.
  • Chickpea scramble.  A nice alternative to scrambled eggs for people who don't like or don't eat eggs, good for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Books I've loved (or tolerated):

Stay tuned for reviews on the 15th of each month and follow me on Goodreads to see my ratings.
  • Me Before You
  • Gone Girl
  • The Battle for God
  • C.S. Lewis: A Life
  • Lizzy and Jane
  • Small Victories
  • Do the Work

Shows we're inhaling:

  • Weeds  I hate to admit it, but after months of begging me to watch the show, Dan won me over.  I despised the concept but enjoy the show (all seasons are available on Netflix).
  • House of Cards.  Still trying to get into it, but maybe the drop of the third season's episodes will give us the push we need!
  • Shark Tank.  Why, oh why, is it so interesting to watch people pitch their products?  But it is.

Products I'm enjoying:

  • Our Tesla.  This really is the only one worth mentioning.  It arrived this month, and it is amazing.  I relish the thought that I will never need to get gas again (well, practically never--we do have a Jeep).  We're carsharing, which deserves its own post.
  • But, if I had to mention something else, I would say this shower spray.  I know...a car and shower spray?  I think I'm nuts too.  But seriously: this stuff requires no wiping or scrubbing and seriously cuts down on the amount of residue that builds up in our new shower.

And, the best of the blog this month:


What did you enjoy this month?  Any favorites to share?


Friday, February 27, 2015

#AskHerMore and preaching in heels

reese witherspoon quote
Photo credit: AP Photo via Facebook
I'll admit right away that I didn't watch the Oscars this year, but one of the first things I saw in each recap was a mention of Reese Witherspoon's #AskHerMore campaign and Patricia Arquette's appeal for equal pay.  The feminist edge to the Academy Awards elicited mixed reactions, it seems, which I can understand.  Many woman cheered, while others complained, disappointed, that the show had far too serious a tone, that maybe the year's biggest event was not the time or place to air such grievances.

But, of course, that was the point: When better to call attention to an issue?  Why not tag on to an already huge platform and highlight how differently women and men are treated when they have supposedly reached the very pinnacle of their careers?

I don't think that the problem is the dresses or the hair or the diamonds.  I imagine most of the women on Sunday night's red carpet enjoyed or at least actively participated in the crafting of their looks, and, while I could begin an entirely other conversation on how we celebrate one particular type of beauty, how its limited, and how its a problem, I want to keep things simple here and say that fashion is fun.  Fashion is a form of self-expression, what we want the world to know about us at first glance.  

I always say that we were not created as floating, ghost-like souls, so our bodies must matter.  The dichotomy that we've set up is really unfortunate, then: either one does serious work or looks pretty; it's either brains or beauty.  Younger generations have begun to complicate that presumption somewhat, but it still operates.  Just look at all of the shapeless clergy shirts on women pastors and priests and men's suits on women lawyers.  To be taken seriously in fields previously dominated by men, women must look like men.  If women dare to stray from the unspoken dress code, that becomes all anyone can talk about: instead of engaging the content of the sermon or the case, the only topic worth mentioning is the high heels or earrings the woman professional chose to wear.  It often is a lose-lose: (many) women downplay their own tastes and preferences to be taken seriously or they honor their own likes and dislikes but lose respect and credibility.

What I hope becomes possible is a both-and: We can care about outward appearance and be respected for our brains and wit.  Fussing over silhouettes or pant length may not interest everyone--although I do notice, to my delight, that there seems to be growing attention to male fashion, and it is becoming more socially acceptable for men to adopt characteristically "feminine" habits towards dress and grooming--and I don't argue that it should.  But I hope that the way forward is decidedly less narrow, less constraining.

Maybe the point is not that the press shouldn't ask Reese who she is wearing (although they might ask her that after seeking her reflections on her attitude towards taking on her latest role) but that they should spend as much time asking Kanye West and Neil Patrick Harris and Brad Pitt the same.


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