My Clothes Shopping Rules

img_20190414_164035814
Goodwill finds: LOFT jeans, LOFT sweater, toddler (look for yours in the stuffed animal bin)

Last Saturday I told my husband that I just wanted to peek inside Goodwill for a pink sweater, and then we’d be done, I promise.

An hour and a shopping cart full later…..

I really don’t spend much on myself, besides medical bills, coffee dates, and the occasional cute outfit. Spending money paralyzes me. Shopping overwhelms me. Decisions in general make my head spin, so it’s not exactly my idea of a fun weekend to hang out at the mall.

But Goodwill’s low prices mitigate some of that fear. So much, in fact, that I’ve got a bag of rejects sitting in my closet waiting to go back to Goodwill.

That’s one of the weird things about being me. I freak out about spending money, and then when I do, I inevitably buy something I don’t even like that much.

Since I clearly have issues knowing my own mind and then making it up, I’ve had to develop some clothes shopping rules. They help me make a decision when I need to make one, and they keep me away from embarrassing impulse buys. (The cheetah print skirt….)

The Rules

(1) It absolutely must fit. Perfectly. If it needs hemming or taking in, forget it. It’s an automatic hard pass if I find myself thinking, “Well, it’ll fit if….” I don’t like belts, I can’t sew, it won’t happen. This rule prevents 90% of all purchases because I am too short for most bottoms, too embarrassed to wear most shorts, and too skinny to fit into almost everything else.

(2) It needs to coordinate with with multiple items in my preexisting wardrobe. Last year, I decided on a color palette (olive, pink, denim, gray, tan, chestnut, bright white), a color saturation (muted, some pastel), and a style (looser shirts, skinny jeans/leggings, long sweaters, some slight, tentative ventures into boho/hipster/vintage worlds). I can pretty much pick any random pair of pants and any random shirt and throw it together with any sweater. Voila, an outfit! Several things don’t exactly go with the New Me (and to be honest, I don’t exactly wear them, either). While I can’t work up the courage to get rid of these un-matchy pieces, I sure try my darndest not to bring any more of them home from Goodwill. If I can’t match the article of clothing to at least a couple of my regular outfits, it’s going back on the rack with a wistful farewell.

(3) I need to be able to wear it at work or church. Gone are the college days where cold shoulders or super high heels could even remotely be appropriate. Gone too are the days when dressing preppy for class or, at the other extreme, lounging in sweatpants, was a daily probability. I get ONE singular Saturday a week to wear something not work-appropriate or church-appropriate. Since I’ve already got lots of competition for that spot (short shorts! ripped jeans! graphic tees!), I don’t buy anything I couldn’t wear to work or church. I know now that I just won’t wear it, no matter how cute it looks in isolation from my real life. In case you’re wondering, I can wear normal clothes to work — even athleisure.

(4) It needs to fit with and cover the bra types I already own. You feel me? None of these weird straps and cutouts and necklines that are made for braless prepubescents and recklessly marketed to adult women.

(5) It needs to be well-made but easy to care for. This is actually a new rule for me, developed after reading Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth L. Cline. It should feel substantial, not thin or see through; be tailored well; include nice details; wash without turning into a permanently rumpled mess; and have no stains or holes. (Because, again, it’s delusional to think I’ll get around to fixing it.) I now try to avoid fast fashion brands that use cheap materials (even though my entire wardrobe is hypocritically Old Navy).

Last but not least: (6) It needs to be something I’ve wanted for awhile. I’ve got a running wish list: I’m on the hunt for a pleasantly colored yellow something in my life, a pink cardigan (maybe floral, please?), a white calf-length tulle skirt, a shirt with dinosaurs or hedgehogs or sloths or llamas (channeling my inner Ms. Frizzle here), those cute high-waisted shorts that tie in a bow, and maybe — the unicorn of petite clothing — a maxi skirt that doesn’t trip me onto my face. These are things I persistently find myself drooling over whenever I encounter fashion. They stay with me over the years and the Google searches. They are my true loves and my real style. And when I find them at Goodwill for $7.99 like a fated meeting — I feel absolutely no hesitation buying them.

Just last month I stumbled upon a leather jacket in exactly the color and style I’ve wanted since forever. It makes me happy in a way a leather jacket probably shouldn’t make me. I’m so glad I didn’t settle for the Target one that didn’t fit quite right, or the online one that cost a fortune. True love waits.

This rule also helps me make rational decisions when the price tag is high. If I’ve been wanting a piece for forever, I feel more confident spending a bit extra or buying it brand new instead of off the Goodwill rack. I know it’s not an impulse buy, so I’m okay forking over money for good quality and the exact look I want.

While I’ve got a lifetime of impulsive and disappointing buys to educate me, these rules really flow from that satisfaction of finding just the perfect piece for a price I’m willing to pay — and then loving it every time I pull it out of my closet.

Do you have any clothes shopping rules?

Advertisements

You Can’t Have It All, But You Can Prioritize What’s Most Important to You

oliver-hale-705232-unsplash

Good news! I finally realized that I don’t have to live my life according to every twinge of guilt that plagues my soul. In the absence of direct moral imperatives, I can choose my priorities, and I can order my days, years, and life around them.

I’ve been in a funk ever since birthing a baby. More accurately — I’ve been in one particular funk, the funk where I worry about what my abysmal housekeeping skills say about my mothering, and what my stay-at-home status says about my feminism, and what wearing a robe and unwashed hair until noon says about my success at life.

There are so many things I want to do and mean to do, and then there are all the things I feel like I should do. Motherhood doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but it does come with pre-downloaded guilt. I can’t always tell you what specific thing I feel bad about, much less why I feel bad about it, but I can assure you I almost always feel bad about something. Call it hormones or the patriarchy, the result is the same: discouragement and paralysis. I don’t do any of the things I want to do or mean to do because I’m too busying doing the things I think I should do — or procrastinating on everything.

I tried bolstering my momentum with the thrill of crossing items off my to do list. This college hack failed to work its magic in the post-grad world. For one thing, the sheer number of unconnected tasks overwhelmed me.

If my to do list was whittled down to a less overwhelming number, it contained mundane items that required far too much of a learning curve than they were worth. (Check tire pressure. Unclog the drain. Clean that rubber part of the washing machine that breeds mold. All of those things required calling up my dad and having him walk me through the process again, only to end up watching YouTube tutorials.)

Most discouraging of all, a good chunk of my to do list had to be repeated almost instantly. Sweep the floors? Check! Sweep them again because the toddler dumped Cheerio dust on the floor? Check. ….and again because he tracked in dirt after you chased him outside to sweep up the Cheerio dust in peace? Forget it.

Bottom line: accomplishing things I didn’t want to do and didn’t care about did not make me feel successful or productive. I just felt so guilty admitting that I’d rather not clean my apartment than clean it. Don’t all successful women choose a clean home over sanity? Plus, I kind of did want to clean it. Just not all the time. Not when there were other things I wanted to do with my life.

Around that point in time, I was toying with the idea that maybe I didn’t have to live my life according to these vague shoulds that haunted every stolen moment of pleasure. I noodled on that, and I noodled on what that would look like practically, to live by conscious choices judged against my own values. Another college hack came to mind: the depressing but honest quip, “Friends, School, Sleep: Pick Two.”

friends school sleep

Of course, this is old news for us modern women. “You can have it all — just not at the same time.” I needed to harness that truth in an empowering way, instead of a discouraging way. I couldn’t resign myself to accepting even one season of life where sweeping up Cheerio dust was the biggest accomplishment of my every day.

I needed to prioritize, yes, but I needed to know that I could pick my priorities based off my values — not off shoulds that came from whatever undefined, unexplored, unwelcome value systems muddled around in my conscience.

I had to do a mental organizing of my plans, goals, and values — hanging them up on their own hooks where I could see them, and then consciously, daily pulling them down and fitting them together into something cohesive, practical, and fulfilling. Is this the year I’m going to write a book? Nah, that doesn’t pair well with where I’m at in motherhood. Maybe next year. Is this the week I’m finally going to get together with that mom I met at the playground? No, I’m choosing to rest up from my cold. I’ll come back to that when I’m recovered. Is this the day I’m going to mop the floors? Yes, it matters to me have to a somewhat clean floors, but I am only allotting time on Thursdays to exert any cares about that.

I’m finding so much freedom, satisfaction, and oddly enough, productivity in deciding to prioritize what I actually care about and conscientiously deciding to table other things.

The hardest part of adult life is the mental load. I’ve discovered I need to set things down so that I’m not juggling an armload of unfinished tasks every time I attempt to accomplish something. I need the habit and the intention of asking, “Is this important to me? If so, is this important to me now? If not, I’ll table it until later.”

Today, I prioritized writing. I have some office work that absolutely needs to get done today, but I checked in with my priorities and energy level and decided that I would be okay sacrificing some veg time after work in order to get the office stuff done. This morning, I wrote. This morning, I let the house go to pot, I let the toddler play independently, I ignored the other items on my to do list, and I wrote.

I don’t always prioritize writing. In fact, I struggle to fit it into my life at all anymore. I just don’t have the mental bandwidth or the time to prioritize it every day., or even every month. Generally I prioritize quality time with my son over everything else — my overarching value and goal for this season of life. But today, knowing he would be fine, I told him that Mommy was writing, and she’d play with him later. And having made my choice, I wrote without guilt.

The thing I had to get over is that another person could see me make that choice and say, “This is unacceptable. I value a clean home and quality time with my kids over writing. I would not make that choice.” I constantly found myself looking at my life through those eyes of judgment, through the eyes of someone else with different priorities — and I think that’s where a lot of the guilt came from. I knew that I could never convince a critic that I made a good choice, and I couldn’t handle that judgment.

I’m learning that I don’t have to live my life on the defensive against every imaginary criticism or different lifestyle. There are many good priorities in the world. There are many people who will rank their priorities differently and find fault with mine. That’s okay. I don’t need to pretend there aren’t good reasons for prioritizing different things than I do. I don’t need to adopt their ranking if I see otherwise. My priorities are different in this stage of life, in this season, on this day. And if I ever feel convicted to change those priorities, I can do so when and if that time comes.

When I became intentional about what I valued and what I wanted to accomplish, I could look at my life through my own priorities. Instead of focusing on all the things I still needed to do, I could focus on the things I chose to accomplish that day and feel successful. I didn’t have to hide from the things I didn’t do. I could look them squarely in the eye and say, “You’re not a priority right now, dishes. I’m cleaning the bathroom instead, and then I’m taking a nap.”

What I Read: March 2019

big little lies

Favorite: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

True confession: I’m tired of reading literary works. That’s almost all I read in high school and all I read in college, because I was a pretentious snob (okay, and scared of reading anything with overt sex and swear words). And I loved it — the highlighting, the “profound” margin scribbles, the essays dissecting this or that theme, the trawling through JSTOR looking for feminist interpretations of Pride & Prejudice. Most beloved, the group discussions. I’m convinced that good, literary works are best digested in groups.

But alas, I am a lone reading island surrounded by busy adults, shrouded in a fog of toddler interruptions.

So I find myself reading thoughtful, serious literary works and thinking, That is objectively a really good book — but I don’t love them, I don’t get excited about them, I don’t think I want to read them. I need a cheap, common, digestible hook to keep me going — quirky characters (maybe a bit stereotypical or unbelievable), a sense of humor, an almost-too-ridiculous situation, a mystery.

But I am still at my heart the same pretentious snob that requires something meaningful and well-written in even the lightest of books — which is why I adored Big Little Lies.

It’s got all those hooks I talked about, it addresses serious, relatable issues, and while it isn’t literary, it’s objectively a good book. I insisted my non-reading sisters read it, and they devoured it almost overnight.

As one Goodreads contributor quipped, “Probably the funniest book about murder and domestic abuse I’ll ever read.”

Bonus: Madeline and Ed are a great example of a normal, flawed egalitarian marriage.

Enough fangirling. The other books I finished up this month:

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, by Marcus Borg \\ 5 stars \\ My full thoughts here.

Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, by Marcus J. Borg \\ 4 stars \\ Biggest takeaway: Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of his time with alternate, subversive wisdom based on loving God and others. This reframed some tricky contemporary subjects for me. Instead of just looking at “what Jesus said” as a measure for how to approach today’s issues, I feel encouraged to approach today’s sacred cows with the love, courage, and clarity that Jesus did in his own time.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty \\ 4 stars \\ Being a highly sensitive person, I had to put it down for days every time she mentioned a child’s death. When it became clear that her goal was to help me come to terms with death, I almost refused point-blank to finish it. But I worked up enough courage to finish it. After all, Lent is the perfect time to contemplate that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins \\ 3 stars \\ In light of Gone Girl and Big Little Lies, this just didn’t measure up.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan \\ 3 stars \\ Sub-par writing, fascinating culture. Watch the movie first.

Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love \\ 3 stars \\ I need to write an entirely separate post on this. Its concepts saved my marriage, but it’s bizarrely incomplete and poorly constructed.

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, by Tish Harrison Warren \\ 3 stars \\ This sums up my spirituality, I think. (More thoughts here.)

What We Eat

wesual-click-719517-unsplash

I’m always curious about how real people eat. It’s nice to hear expert advice and inspiration from dietitians and chefs, but their enthusiasm can only motivate me so much — being, as I am, a non-cook who grew up eating frozen taquitos for lunch and can’t afford organic everything. I’ll just be honest: my budget, interests, and priorities don’t match professionals’.

Still, once I had a hungry child, I started caring more about what we ate. Neither my husband nor I cared about that before. We regularly skipped meals. We ate lots of spaghetti and chicken alfredo, the only variety being the random spices my husband tried out. Taco seasoned spaghetti was one such experiment. Fresh fruits and veggies? Eh. Occasionally we bought clementines and apples.

But when e.e. showed up with a pure, unspoiled gut, it felt like sin to feed him the same sugary, processed, meat-heavy, vegetation-barren diet we ate.

What to feed him? That was a mine field. The last time I’d done any real learning on diet was back in the dinosaur days of the food pyramid. Everyone swore by these specialized diets that cut out my favorite foods. (Give me my carbs and cheese!) Every diet seemed zeroed in on losing weight or reducing inflammation or detoxing or other stuff that was only tangential to my main question: What do I feed a human in general?

I read a couple books over the past year to figure out the new lay of the food land. The Whole Foods Diet, by John Mackey convinced me that immortality was within my grasp as long as I had the discipline to stay away from all my favorite snacks. What to Eat, by Marion Nestle stuck my spinning head back on straight. The website Real Mom Nutrition gave me the permission and confidence to do my best — even if that included more processed snacks.

Our new food philosophy is pretty simple: inexpensive, plant-based, reduced sugar, minimally processed but easily accessible. Am I really going to bake my own granola bars on the days I’m too tired to get dressed before noon? Absolutely not.

To borrow a line from another controversial area of baby nutrition, fed is best.

Having said that, the research is clear and consistent that a minimally-processed, plant-based diet is healthiest. That gives me both freedom and challenge in my meal planning. My rule of thumb with everything is, Would I be okay with my child eating as much of this food as he wants? If the answer is no, I don’t or rarely buy it (she says, as she eats mint chocolate chunk ice cream at her keyboard).

Because this is my other big thing with food: eating should be pleasant. It should make us feel good about our bodies. It should bring people together. It shouldn’t be a source of paranoia, or a headache, or a trigger for tantrums, adult or toddler. I want to create good associations with food for my son — both in the sense that he reaches for healthy food naturally, and that he doesn’t feel guilty about certain foods. I don’t want him drinking Kool-Aid and eating Twinkies after school everyday, but I also don’t want him to decline a treat at his friend’s birthday party out of an irrational fear of sugar. This means, to me, stocking our pantry and fridge with healthy, yummy foods instead of trying to keep certain things off-limits, and letting him regulate his own appetite within that boundary.

That’s the theoretical stuff. Practically, since I hate meal planning, I follow simple meal formulas and just plug in recipes that meet those requirements.

Breakfast is a dairy/egg, grain, and fruit, and it stays the same every week:

Monday: Siggi’s yogurt, frozen berries, and cereal sprinkled on top
Tuesday: whole wheat English muffin, cream cheese, whatever fruit we have on hand
Wednesday: oatmeal with a splash of milk and frozen berries
Thursday: goat cheese crumbles or yogurt, fruit, and cereal
Friday: oatmeal again
Weekend: probably more oatmeal or cereal if I’m exhausted, or French toast with cooked apple topping if I’m feeling like that kind of mom

Lunch is a meat alternate, grain, veggie, and supposedly a fruit (but sometimes we run out of fresh options, or my guys decide they’re not interested in that particular fruit that day — which happens more than I like, but, c’est la vie). Our favorites are beans and greens on quesadillas, with noodles, or with rice or quinoa; pasta salads; spinach and mushroom French bread pizzas; and stir fries, preferably with peanut noodles. We’re branching out into egg dishes now, such as huevos rancheros, with the occasional grilled cheese or PB&J when I’m running late on lunch.

Try Crazy Good Peanut Noodles with frozen stir fry or Kale and Cannellini Bean Pasta.

Dinner is a meat/meat alternate, grain, and veggie — soups and noodle dishes, mostly.

If I’m planning dinner, we mostly eat vegetarian. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable with eating meat, to be honest — or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m uncomfortable with all the mental gymnastics I perform to get around the inconsistencies in my thinking. The long and short of it is, I can’t stomach the idea of animals being poorly treated, I don’t think I can stomach the killing of even well-treated animals, but we can’t afford locally sourced meat, and my family still enjoys meat to the point where it’d create hassle and headache to accommodate everyone’s strong feelings on the subject.

So we still eat lots of spaghetti and chicken alfredo, pending my courage to address my concerns. We just add frozen veggies now.

Try Thai Green Curry with Spring Vegetables or add frozen spinach, a 1/4 cup of whole milk, and a new kind of noodle to shake up regular ol’ spaghetti.

Frozen produce is our secret to getting in enough fruit and veg every day. We buy steamable bags to throw in the microwave for a side, or add them into cooked dishes. We sprinkle frozen berries onto our breakfast foods. They’re quick, cost effective, and don’t spoil. And we live off canned beans — another quick, cheap, shelf-stable addition to meals.

Apart from a couple Pinterest finds, our favorite meals come from Cookie + Kate, a vegetarian website. We’ve also been enjoying new recipes from 100 Days of Real Food on a Budget, by Lisa Leake. Everything else originates from my husband’s brain or personal recipe stash passed down from the women in his family.

Okay: snacks. We splurge and fudge a bit to make sure e.e. gets fed without too much mom guilt. I wish I could say that we only eat homemade energy balls and fresh produce, but I only shop twice a month — snacks have got to last; we’re on the go during morning snack — they’ve got to pack well; and there are few veggies that a baby with a singular molar can eat.

Shamelessly, I buy shelf-stable snacks (i.e., more processed), but I’m willing to pay more to make sure they’ve got realer food and less sugar. Our go-tos are cheese sticks, cherry tomatoes, real peanut butter (ingredients: peanuts) on unsalted rice cakes, microwave popcorn, Craisins, raisins, and other dried fruits (DO NOT get freeze-dried strawberries — nasty), Squeez pouches, chips and salsa, Power Up Mega Omega trail mix, The Good Bean (chickpeas or favas and peas), Harvest Snaps green pea snap crisps, RW Garcia sweet potato crackers, and Triscuit original 100% whole wheat crackers. I’m not above purchasing Cheerios, Kix, and other processed cereals, either. (Some great practical guidance here.)

And on the occasions when there are cookies and candy and ultra-processed foods in the house? We eat them without guilt as special treats — Oreos, chocolate, Girl Scout Samoas, my in laws’ delicious molasses cookies. And I, personally, indulge every morning in a cup of coffee with a generous splash of Natural Bliss coffee creamer. I refuse to live in fear of individual foods when the overall pattern of our diets is healthy. Besides, when you’ve developed a hankering for quinoa and chickpeas, of all things, processed sugar doesn’t sit too well anymore.

I know we can eat better. I hope to continue to make more positive changes throughout the rest of our lives. But like I said: right now, I don’t have the time, interest, and budget to eat like a registered dietitian. I have other priorities that lead me to zap a can of refried beans in the microwave instead of make a lunch from scratch. I feed our family to the best of my priorities. We feel good about our food physically and emotionally, our son eats a wide variety of flavorful, healthy foods, and we all get fed.

What do you eat?

I’m Wearing Braces for Lent

387431-PC4AFQ-40
Photo Credit

The timing couldn’t have been better. I was having trouble thinking of what to give up for Lent this year. I’m not huge into fasting as a beneficial thing, as I’ve practiced enough self-flagellation in my lifetime that it doesn’t help me all that much. Once when I was younger, I tried fasting from food for twenty-four hours. In reality, I only skipped an additional snack or two, since it was normal for me to avoid cooking and eating in order to get on with my writing and reading. Cooking and eating three square meals a day would’ve put my feet to the spiritual fire. Intentionally nourishing my body and soul — that’s often the truer sacrifice for me.

I’m not a fan of giving up what’s good or needed (like food) for some ethereal higher purpose. Theologically, I think asceticism is anti-Christian. It introduces a dichotomy between body and spirit that’s confusing at best. We do not become more like Christ by abandoning our body and its needs. Christ became man so that our path to God could be distinctly human — not body-less.

But I do appreciate the practice of Lent when approached as giving up what’s easy for what’s good and necessary. Last year I gave up social media. The initial day or two was a bit hard, but once I was freed from the fear of missing out — it was, after all, only for forty days — I was free, indeed. I tapped into something my body and soul desperately needed: the headspace and time to do other nourishing things, headspace and time that Facebook had monopolized.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling led to give up social media this year. So what would I give up?

Enter adult braces.

Yes, folks, I am a twenty-four-year-old in need of braces. Two days before Ash Wednesday, the orthodontist glued the brackets onto my teeth, strung them up with wire, and sent me off with a goody bag full of strange cleaning tools.

Braces are insanely primitive — a whole bunch of METAL and WIRE, GLUED (yes, GLUED) to your teeth, in order to wrench bone through gums. And your body responds to them as the primitive contraptions that they are: it salivates over them as it does any foreign object. Your poor teeth ache from the pressure. Your even poorer lips and cheeks get shredded and sore until they literally callous over from the braces rubbing up against them.

P.S. The only real way to circumvent your mouth’s inner suffering is sticking wads of wax all over the brackets. Attractive.

And actually functioning with braces? Well, it’s about as gainly as walking with your shoelaces tied together. There I was on Ash Wednesday, the alto section leader, trying desperately to swallow excess saliva at every breath mark, my lips getting stuck on the brackets, my soft consonants going tacky.

It’s a great way to remember one’s mortality, in a reverse fashion — your once normal adult mouth getting reduced to a goulish metallic grin that cancels out all the maturity you worked so hard to project in your already youthful body. And by youthful, I don’t mean the sexy kind. I mean the kind where someone asks what high school you attend, even though you’re married, with a child, six years out from your last high school experience.

I haven’t even kissed my husband yet. Mostly because it hurts, but also because I feel thirteen again.

That’s really the worst part of adult braces. You’re supposed to have your teeth together by now — you’re married with a child six years out of high school, for Pete’s sake. You’re supposed to have your teeth together, and you don’t, and everyone knows it.

It’s my worst nightmare: everyone, from total strangers to my in laws to my coworkers to my beloved husband, everyone, everyone, everyone knows something weird and unattractive about myself, and I can’t do a thing about them knowing.

It’s one of those things that are private enough (or gross enough?) that nobody feels comfortable acknowledging, so it becomes the elephant in the room. You know they know about your mouth full of metal and wire, but they’re too polite to say anything, and it’s silly for you to pretend your entire mouth isn’t radically altered, but you’re too polite to weird them out with your dental sob story.

I’ve never felt much insecurity about my body, but now I feel all of it. I try not to smile too big or talk too much — mostly because, again, it hurts, but also because I’m desperately trying to cling on to control over how I appear to people. I want to be that put-together adult woman with all her teeth in a straight row, and now I look like a thirteen-year-old with obvious dental problems.

That’s what I’m giving up for Lent: my carefully curated self-image of perfection — an image that’s as unobtrusive, benign, normal, and put-together as possible. An image all can love. An image that doesn’t shock or confuse or weird anyone out. An image that invites affection and admiration. An image that doesn’t let out all the crazy and gross and problematic unless it’s on my terms.

And with that carefully curated self-image, I fostered a belief that I could only be loved and appreciated if I was lovable and appreciable in every minute way; if I was normal and benign and mature and put-together, not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature. And along with that was a belief that by being normal and benign and mature and put-together and not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature, I could ensure that people would love me.

Well, my adult braces have blown that smokescreen right up.

Being forced to give up control over a very noticeable part of my body — I am forced to realize a few facts of life that were true before I had braces, are true now that I have them, and will continue to be true when I get them off: I am flawed, and I am loved, and I can’t control either of those things.

The response to my monstrosity of metal and wire has been nothing but gracious. My preschool students didn’t notice at first, and when one did, they all demanded to see them, open-mouthed, studious — and then they moved on without a word of praise or censure. My husband asked to see them, and I said no, and he said okay, and didn’t indulge me my wild fantasies of him either having a thing for metal-mouthed women or filing for divorce at the sight of me. Nobody has done the no-you-look-good! protest that we all know is fake. They’ve just noticed and been kind. No admiration, no pity, no revulsion.

Because really, adult braces — and adults with obvious flaws — are incredibly normal.

For Lent, I’m letting myself receive grace, love, and normalcy despite those obvious flaws, dental and otherwise.

And I’m obsessively brushing my teeth.

The Unmotivated Person’s Guide to Getting Stuff Done

rawpixel-777268-unsplash

Update on my housekeeping streak: I kind of failed all through this month. I sat around in my robe longer than I wanted. I stretched out my morning coffee to give myself an excuse not to do anything yet. I stopped cleaning the bathroom every day and keeping my sink shiny. Sometimes the dishes sat for a day. And I didn’t even try to keep up with Flylady’s daily challenges.

I did a little each day and tried to do a little more the next, but I ended up doing barely anything today and next to nothing the day after that. That’s how my August went.

I was just so unmotivated, and bummed that I couldn’t keep up the motivation that made me such an awesome housekeeper once upon a time.

But I tried something new, something I’d learned from my obsessive study of childhood development: focus on the needs a negative behavior is communicating rather than the behavior itself. When you address only the behavior, the needs remain unmet and come out again in destructive ways. When you meet the needs, the behavior changes too.

What was the need behind my failure to do housework like a champ?

Sleep deprivation. Even though my baby regularly sleeps through the night, it’s taken me a couple months to adjust to that. I woke up at odd hours and couldn’t get back to sleep.

Armed with this unsurprising find, I focused on meeting my needs. I stopped beating myself and pushing myself to do more. I did the bare minimum, rested as much as possible, and focused on getting enough sleep.

And it worked! Once I got enough sleep, my motivation to get up and get going came back. I’m still getting back into a routine, but I’m confident I’ll get there.

Tl;dr: The secret to getting stuff done is meeting the need underneath why you feel unmotivated. Maybe it’s perfectionism. Maybe it’s depression, or sleep deprivation, or saying yes to the wrong things. Whatever it is, work on meeting that need first, and don’t beat yourself up in the meantime.

What Kind of Books Do You Love?

christin-hume-482925-unsplash

I recently discovered the only podcast I ever get excited about: “What Should I Read Next?” with Anne Bogel. It’s a literary matchmaking show with lots of fun bookish conversation on the side. Anne asks her guests about three books they love, one book they don’t love, and what they’re currently reading, then makes suggestions on what they should pick up next.

It makes for fascinating literary discussions, and it’s such a great conversation starter in real life. My husband and I have discussed this about our adult reading lives and our childhood reading lives (our picks were somewhat different at different ages and stages). These have been some of my favorite conversations in our relationship to date.

I learned so much about what my husband looks for in a good read. He loves the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a nonfiction work entitled, The Troubador’s Song: The Capture and Ransom of Richard the Lionheart. For him, he likes involved narratives that develop over the years between familiar characters within a richly-imagined culture.

Why on earth he listed Harry Potter as his book he didn’t love, I have no idea, as that series falls perfectly within those parameters. I’m still going after him to read Harry Potter. He stopped at the first book, a few chapters in, after scoffing at chocolate frogs and Bertie’s Every Flavor Beans — an absolutely ridiculous reason to quit a book, if you ask me.

But I’m biased, because the Harry Potter series definitely makes it into the “books I love” category. (I’m re-reading them this summer. They’re even better the second time around!) I adore The Help, by Kathryn Stockett — another perennial re-read. And the latest book that got me excited (and my husband teary) is The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, by Miranda Cuevas. A book I absolutely hated: Dietland, by Sarai Walker.

The common threads between all of these?

(1) They involve character development within a community — and by that, I don’t just mean that the characters are multi-faceted and grow as the story progresses. They learn about themselves and others through relationship — their biases, their strengths, their passions, their purpose — and we, the reader, learn about both the characters and the world by seeing different perspectives about the same events.

Though I’ve enjoyed plenty well-written novels in the first person tense, I generally don’t fall over myself to read books told in that way, especially if they focus too much on the interior life. The self is just too isolated of a viewpoint to truly understand the world. I’m too much of an interior person myself; exclusively reading another person’s interior thoughts gives me anxiety about human beings. But the self and the individual’s perspective make up part of the world, which is why I love books that combine different first person accounts (like The Help) or have a more omniscient narrator (as in Harry Potter).

(2) The authors slip in crucial plot points without fanfare. It drives me nuts when authors dramatize, over-describe, or frantically signal to pay attention to key moments. Books that do that often have underdeveloped villains and protagonists, as the villains are clearly marked as villains and the protagonists clearly aren’t villains, in a black-and-white sort of way.

I’m outgrowing the mystery genre itself, but I still appreciate plots that have you thinking you’ve figured it out and then dash your confidence in your judgment. J. K. Rowling does this exceptionally well. Re-reading her series, I find more and more information that seems like random fun facts at the moment but turn out to be critical points of information or key turning points in the series.

(3) These books are self-aware, even if their characters are not. I don’t mind reading about experiences and perspectives different from my own, or encountering dark or immoral elements, but I won’t get excited about any book lacking a strong moral core. The book needs to show awareness that the character’s perspective or actions are at least questionable or nuanced, if not downright destructive. Dietland failed on this account for me: it praised a violent feminist revolution and the protagonist’s hardening toward others, things I cannot get behind, things that weren’t exposed as destructive and wrong.

This is another reason why I dislike many first person accounts: I really have to like the narrator to stick with them for a whole book, and in order for me to like the narrator, she needs to be self-aware of her faults. If one of her flaws is that she isn’t self-aware, I won’t enjoy the narrative, no matter how accurate a reflection on the interior life it is. Books that drop hints that it’s okay to laugh at, dislike, be mad at, and get frustrated with even the main characters are my jam.

(4) There’s a foreign piece to the stories that initially peaks my interest — whether that’s a fantastical element, a well-described historical time period (like 1960’s Mississippi), another culture, or a character with a life experience completely different from my own.

(5) These books are wholistic. I was going to say realistic, but that often signals to people “dark, gritty, and hopeless.” While many perspectives fall within that depressing category, I think a wholistic view of life involves the dark, the gritty, the hopeless, and the humorous, the hopeful, and the quirky. Humans are weird and lovable and aggravating all at the same time. I love how Harry Potter, The Help, and The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole all deal with deep, difficult subjects but still make me laugh and inspire me to keep living.

But these aren’t cheap laughs — they have heart and substance, which is why I have a difficult time getting through books by Roald Dahl or Lemony Snickett or the Eddie Dickens trilogy — dark humor and ridiculousness alone give me a literal headache. I need to cry and rejoice and believe as well as laugh.

To clarify, these are the kinds of books that I most often get excited about — that I re-read — that I rip through and then beg all my friends to read them. There are many, many other books that are exciting, well-written, and worth reading — that have changed my life, even — that don’t meet all these criteria. (The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas is an example.) But when I’m looking for a book that I know I’ll enjoy, these are the kinds of books I turn to.

I no longer think in terms of “good” or “bad” books. (Okay, I do think some books are objectively awful.) That’s one thing Anne Bogel talks about often: just because a book isn’t for you doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. This changes throughout life, too. There are books I adored as a kid (and still do for nostalgia’s sake) that wouldn’t exactly fit every criterion above.

And it’s fascinating how two people can love the same book for different reasons. Many people love Harry Potter, for instance, but wouldn’t be remotely interested in reading the other two books I love. Myself, I don’t love Harry Potter for the fantasy genre, per se; there are many fantasy books that aren’t for me because they fail to meet the criteria I listed above.

If you enjoy the same kinds of books I do, check out some of my other recent favorites:

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Emma, by Jane Austen

What are three books you love and one you don’t? Have you identified the common threads between them? Do you have any suggestions for what I should read next?

P.S. Two of my favorite WSIRN episodes: an interview with Jen Hatmaker on “When your reading life is nothing like people expect” and a chat with Patience Randle about “The quest for the perfect coffeeshop read.”

How I Kicked My Perfectionism

the-creative-exchange-682637-unsplash

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a neat person. Once I was out from under my mom’s reminders, I never made my bed, washed my dishes in a reasonable time frame, or kept my room clutter-free.

It didn’t bother me too much at first, but by the time I became a mother, the guilt caught up with me. When company came over, I scrambled to pull a thin facade of cleanliness and discipline over the disaster zones. Something had to give.

I tried excuses: “I’m a new mom; I’m tired.” I tried adjusting my expectations: “Who says a disciplined person needs to have her bed made every day? Mess is a sign of genius, anyway!” I tried psychoanalyzing: “All those years as a stay-at-home daughter guilted me into thinking it’s my duty as a woman to keep the house clean above all else!” I tried prioritizing: “I’d rather spend time with family than keep my house clean.” I tried rationalizing: “The floor’s just going to get dirty again, so why exert too much effort to keep it clean?”

Nothing worked to either alleviate my guilt or motivate me to clean.

Drowning, I turned to Marla Cilley, a.k.a “The Flylady,” who promised to teach inept homemakers like me how to get their house in order once and for all. The very first step was getting my kitchen sink clear and shiny before bed, every day.

I thought that was a stupid and meaningless thing to focus on, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I shined my sink as baby step number one, eventually adding on other routines throughout the month — laying out next day’s clothes, making my bed every morning, and giving the bathroom sink and toilet a quick swish and swipe every morning. I followed her daily missions, decluttering and cleaning different zones in my house.

It’s been two months, and my apartment is in great shape. Not perfect, but I feel in control of the mess and free of guilt. If company drops by, I no longer rush to shove stuff into closets, slam doors to hide messy rooms, or apologize profusely for not having enough time to clean a cruddy toilet. I now can’t imagine not making my bed or folding up the throw blanket after I use it. I get up in the morning and immediately start putting away dishes. I’ve turned into my industrious mother — I, the girl who left a bowl of encrusted macaroni out in her dorm room for months.

What changed?

I figured out the root issue: I wasn’t undisciplined or lazy, per se. I didn’t need a new outlook on the joy of cleaning. I just needed to kick my perfectionism.

In all of her emails and articles, the Flylady constantly hammered perfectionism out of me. I did only a little each day. I couldn’t tidy up my house in one go like Marie Kondo insisted, but I could shine a sink. I religiously prohibited myself from doing any cleaning other than what the Flylady prescribed in the baby steps.

“We do what we can today, and then we do a little more tomorrow,” said the Flylady.

“Progress over perfection!” her emails reminded me.

Something over nothing, I chanted to myself whenever I wanted to throw in the towel.

This simple phrase has revolutionized my life.

Without realizing it, I had expected myself to be able to do the impossible (make your apartment look perfect all the time!), or the possible in an impossible time frame (clean everything even though your baby kept you up all night!). Again and again, I failed those impossible expectations, heaping shame, guilt, and discouragement over me until I was too petrified to do anything productive.

Subconsciously I was thinking, “Why wash the dishes when I don’t have the energy to keep the rest of the house clean?” The Flylady taught me to think, “I don’t have the energy to clean the rest of the house, but I can wash the dishes and be done for the day.” And not only “be done,” but to celebrate that small accomplishment, to focus on what I could do and what I did do instead of everything I couldn’t do or didn’t want to do.

With my perfectionist expectations exploded, I succeeded all the time. The successes gave me more energy and motivation to do a little more the next day, or to bounce back a couple days after that if I didn’t do much the next day, after all.

was disciplined! I wasn’t lazy! I could keep my house clean! And out of that newly-found self, I kept challenging myself without burning out.

“Your house didn’t get messy in one day,” the Flylady said, “and you won’t be able to get in clean in one day, either.”

Words I now live by.

I truly feel like I’ve kicked perfectionism’s hold over my life. And not just in the housecleaning area — I apply the mantra “something over nothing” to developing habits or tackling projects in other areas of my life, like using kinder words to my husband, writing, and working out.

“I don’t want to work out today,” I’ll say to myself. “I’m too tired. But I should work out today. Do I do something I hate, or do I feel guilty for the rest of the day?”

“No,” myself will say back, “it’s not that you don’t want to work out today. You just don’t want to drive to the gym and run on the elliptical for half an hour. What about cycling while watching Netflix? What about yoga at home? What about ten minutes on the elliptical? What’s something you do want to do, instead of doing nothing at all?

The biggest gift I got from learning how to keep my apartment clean wasn’t a clean apartment. It was learning that when I dodged my perfectionism and did something, I could do whatever I set my mind to.

Slowly. Imperfectly. But eventually.

And that’s something, indeed.

Quick Party Idea for When You Forget Your Husband’s Birthday

img_20180603_154451587
Grandpa Emmerich supervises the birthday shenanigans.

It’s been a crazy past few weeks. In the midst of multiple weddings and weekends spent apart, Erich turned twenty-four in another state while I was driving home from my sister’s graduation. Guys get a bad rep for forgetting important dates, but I’m not far behind — I only got a happy birthday in with an hour to spare.

When I got home, I realized that I’d never purchased the gift that I’d spent weeks thinking about; that I was too tired and inept to make an ice cream cake; and that Emmerich could not put off his nap long enough for us to run to Walgreens for some streamers and balloons.

Epic wife fail.

But epic wife fails are the mother of invention, and I came up with the perfect quick party idea.

Not far from where we live is a cute touristy town we’d been wanting to walk through ever since we moved here. On some hot pink sticky notes, I wrote down a few addresses and clues: “May you always stay young at heart!” (for a toy store); “I wouldn’t trade you for anything” (for a trading post); “You life is a masterpiece” (for an art museum); and “I’m sweet on you!” (for a candy and ice cream shop).

As soon as Erich walked through the door from a long trip, I handed him the stack of clues, hustled him back into the car, and we were off!

All the addresses were in walking distance from each other, so we parked way too far away and strolled through town. We snapped some photos and ate some birthday treats, then caught tadpoles on our way back to the car.

Besides being a last minute birthday party, this is a fun, simple, potentially free date night idea, and a great way to explore a new area without getting burnt out!

img_20180603_153438283
Apparently, there’s a small (free!) art museum lodged in a historic home between all the shops. We caught the tail end of their Wisconsin Modernists exhibit. Definitely the most enjoyable and non-overwhelming way to look at art! Here Emmerich color coordinates with “Confidence.”
img_20180603_154438878
Emmerich tried to sneak a bit of Daddy’s Pirate’s Booty ice cream!

I Broke the Myers-Briggs Test

mec-rawlings-264513-unsplash
A self-portrait of my personality

Does anyone else have trouble with personality tests?

I used to love taking personality tests, particularly the Myers-Briggs. Throughout high school and most of college, I consistently tested as an E/INFJ. My friends and I would discuss the nuances of our results and uncovered lots of insight into ourselves and our friendships.

Then several things happened:

  • I started seriously dating, which brought out a completely different side of me. While I was pretty nonconfrontational and undemanding with everyone else in my life, I was this raging storm of confrontation, demands, and neediness with him and him alone. To this day, I am like two different people when it comes to things like confrontation, conflict, and communication. In my marriage, I am blunt and initiate conflict and confrontation with no fear. With everyone else, I live in fear of conflict. In my marriage, I expect Erich to pull his weight in the relationship. With everyone else, I can overextend myself.
  • Dating also aroused my latent anxiety, and I developed or became aware of habits that looked a lot like insecure-anxious attachment. I had developed coping mechanisms to control this anxiety with other people, but with Erich, it all came out. Which was my real personality — the flood of anxiety or the strength that reined it in?
  • I got burnt out by college and withdrew into introversion. I’ve always been more of an ambivert, but I noticeably changed into an introvert in my senior year — and people annoyed me like never before. I hung out with “my people” and dropped as many obligations that involved dealing with people and their emotions as possible. Today, whether I am introverted or extroverted (that is, whether I lose or gain energy around people) depends primarily on the individuals, the social situation, and how much sleep I got the night before.
  • My inner life and my outer life are very different beasts. At work, I am driven, detail-oriented, and perfectionist out of principle. My self-control is insanely good in public. At home, I have often felt legitimately out of control. In personal conversation, I am docile and overeager to find common ground — to the point where the words coming out of my mouth make no sense because I’m trying to say everything and nothing at the same time. When interacting online, I tend to be too blunt, and stirred up far too much trouble when younger behind the protection of email.
  • My two closest friends (my husband, an ISTP, and my college roommate of three years, something like an INFP) began rubbing off on me. Their major personality differences balanced me out, teaching me new ways of thinking and interacting with the world.

All of these things taken together make personality tests a nightmare. Radically different parts of my personality switch on and off depending on the person I’m with or the situation I’m in. There is a huge difference between how I instinctively react, feel, and believe and who I allow myself to be.

It’s no wonder that the last time I took an Enneagram test, I got this message: “It is not clear from these test results which type you are.”

Do you have similar problems with personality tests? What do you get typed as? The Enneagram tentatively has me as a 6 (which sort of makes sense), and the last time I took a Myers-Briggs test, I got ISFP/Adventurer (which is accurate in its data but not in its explanation of the data).

Edited to reflect my newfound realization that I’ve been spelling “Myers” with an extra E my entire life! Word lovers, psychologists, and people who actually pay attention when they read, I apologize for the agony my misspelling has been causing you.