You won’t believe me when I say it, but Jane has grown a lot of hair since her first birthday in February.
My mother loves to tell me that I didn’t get my first haircut until age 3. So I guess her bald genes come from me. 🙂
Now that my husband is off work for the summer, we’ve been spending most of our time in the backyard, at the kiddie pool, and cooking great food.
(I also spend quite a bit of time at the piano, but that’s nothing new).
Jane’s got her own little chair for the backyard (though climbing up on our patio furniture is fun too). Our backyard is small but we were determined to make it usable this summer. Being childless and cooped up in the summer is no fun, but once you have children it’s basically impossible to stay inside (unless you want to deal with constant crankiness).
My lettuce box is growing nicely (with swiss chard currently exploding out of its boundaries). I have some crops growing in my parent’s yard as well, but those plants are much more sad. We had an early June frost that did some serious damage, coupled with random hot temperatures and drying winds.
Jane had her first sandbox experience at the town fair. She spent a solid 30 minutes in there. Michael and I had a real conversation. I guess we’re going to need to get this child out to the beach soon!
This Bach fugue will be the death of me, but what better time to tackle a project such as this than summer? I’m lucky enough to have a flexible schedule for the next couple of months. It’ll probably take a good 30+ hours to get this one to about 80% competency. Bring it, Bach.
Spent some time with petting zoo animals as well. Jane was interested in the animals, but a little nervous (especially of the big and friendly llama). Michael’s tattoo is probably a couple of sessions away from completion!
With the approach and arrival of each new season, I start to get antsy. I complete goals I’ve been working on, and I start itching for a change. New ideas, new plans, new things to do.
It always starts with daydreaming. I would drive my daughter to daycare, hour-long commutes in the bright early morning of the Northern Hemisphere’s summer. I lost interest in my audiobooks and podcasts, normally so dear to me. Instead I opted for music. Sometimes I’d just let Spotify pick the tunes, and sometimes I’d listen to the same song 100 times in a row. But I chose music so I could think, and feel. Be inside my own mind instead of someone else’s.
With the daydreaming came reflection and forward-thinking. What would my 10-years-from-now self look like? What would she be doing? Where am I currently unsatisfied, and what can I do about it?
Hours and hours of these thoughts. What do I want my life to feel like? How do I be a better wife, a better mother, a better person?
These last few weeks have been so busy. I hosted an Online piano convention, and with the launch of that there were many little tasks, such that my mind couldn’t relax. I’d be at the dinner table with my family and be thinking about work. It would be 10pm and I’d feel guilty for reading my book instead of answering emails. I knew it was a small drop in the ocean of my life, that things wouldn’t be like this forever.
The convention is over now (and it WAS fun). Yesterday, the last day it ran, I took Jane to the paddling pool. I watched her pour water from the toy watering can, over and over. I watched her climb in and out of the pool, over and over. I watched her fill a bucket ever-so-slowly with small drops of water from little toys. And then I chased her around the pool when she ripped off her hat and refused to put it back on.
And in all this, I had one thought in my mind:
If I was given a death diagnosis – 6 months to live – this is exactly what I’d want to be doing. How lucky am I, to spend an hour of a hot summer afternoon watching my daughter play? What’s better?
And yet – and yet – until I actually started thinking about it, my mind was running thoughts like, Oh, I wonder if Logan took care of that task. Oh, I wonder if Michael remembered to rotate the laundry. Does Jane really want me to fill the watering can again, for the 100th time? Why is she just sitting on the edge of the pool – doesn’t she want to swim? Is she going to start freaking out if she remembers she’s wearing a hat and then tries to take her off? Am I going to have to haul her back to the car, kicking and screaming, if she takes off the hat and refuses to wear it?
(Sidenote: After chasing my hatless baby, and then scooping her up and committing to leaving the pool as punishment, she was chipper as a bird, waving and saying “bye” to everyone and anyone there.)
These thoughts run like rivers and are inevitable, I know. But when I caught myself, when I put on the 6-months-to-live lens, it took the 100 scattered pieces of my mind and drew them all back into one coherent whole. And the whole said, “what is more important than this, right now?“
Not work, as much as I love giving and contribution and meaningful endeavors. With six months to live, I would certainly find a project or two to throw myself into, to leave my mark.
But I was so lucky to be there with my daughter, and I’m so lucky so often, and yet I grumble and forget and blink and my day is gone and without gratitude.
For the last few weeks in my daydreams, I’ve been flashing 10 years ahead. In that vision I have plenty of time for my friends and my husband and my family, and I also have the freedom to do meaningful work. But more than just a vision, my 10-year idea comes with a feeling. A feeling of flow, a feeling of wholeness. The 100 bits of my mind, unified.
And that feeling, it isn’t 10 years away. How depressing if it was! I can have that feeling – fulfillment? – right now, if only I look for it.
It’s not hard to find.
So often we think of the future as something to reach for, goals to check off. And that’s a fun thing to do, and to think about. But what we really want from our future is a feeling. Freedom, happiness, confidence, fulfillment. We might say we want money in our future, say, but what we really want is what the money will give us – freedom, happiness, confidence, fulfillment.
I don’t have the freedom to hop a plane tomorrow, it’s true. But I have the freedom to go on a random road trip if adventure is what I seek.
I don’t have the things that I imagine would bring me more happiness, such as a house in a city. But our house in a town is better than any house that I know. It’s got great ratty hardwood floors and color and spunk and personality and lots and lots of plants (thanks for that, Michael).
I don’t have some things I imagine would bring me more confidence, such as really nice clothes. I have okay clothes, some new, but lots of items that are many years old. I also don’t have the 125lb body I had pre-pregnancy. But I’m fit and hearty and healthy at 140lbs. And maybe not having all the nice things is its own little gift. If I only had a few main outfits, could I not be happy or confident? If I can’t be happy or confident without a variety of trendy outfits, what does that say about my life and my priorities?
And if the things I imagine will bring me fulfillment aren’t already present in my life, then that’s a significant problem. Fulfillment comes from meaningful work and healthy relationships. I’m lucky enough to have those right now if only I notice them and invest in them.
My 10-year future is here, right now. Less grand, but the feelings are all there for the taking, all the goodness of life before me like a buffet, if only I notice and take a bite.
In a previous post I talked about knowing what you want. And how, if you live in a constant state of ambivalence, you’ll just keep getting what you’ve always gotten, regardless of if you want it or not. If you want something different, you have to choose. Even if choosing means the exclusion of all other options.
Those are nice words to say, and I stand by them 100%. That doesn’t mean I’m a pro at decision-making. Decision-making is a huge area of weakness for me. I’m barely evolved beyond being able to answer “What do you want for dinner”, let alone answering larger, more life-changing decisions.
One area that I’ve struggled with for years is the decision between city and country. Michael and I have had countless conversations on the matter since we started dating in 2012, and we’ve never settled the matter.
Each time we chat about it, I hope that the conversation will unearth a strong opinion in him. I hope that, after some deliberation, he’ll declare, “I’m all for city life. Let’s do city life!” And I’ll be tugged along with the gusto of his decision. My own ambivalence will be transformed by his certainty.
I’ve basically been hoping that he’ll make the decision for me.
Alas, our most recent conversation about city versus country yielded no such fruit. Even when I asked “If you had to choose one right now – gun to your head – what would you choose?”, he still didn’t give a confident answer. We just kept deliberating the pros and cons.
Small Town Life
Right now we’re not living the city or country life, but a weird hybrid: small-town life.
It’s not such a small town. A little hamlet or village would be equivocal to country life, I think. No, our town is townly enough to have a Wal-Mart. It’s not country living.
But, even though by definition it’s a city, it’s not city life either.
Back when we used to live in Toronto, we learned that the perspective on what constitutes a “small town” there is very different. In Saskatchewan, a small town is something like Radville or Milestone – a little place with no grocery store and less than a thousand people.
In Toronto, I had a piano student who purportedly grew up in a “small town”. When I asked him what town that was, he said, “Niagara Falls”.
Niagara Falls has a population of 88,000. I’m not saying it’s a thriving metropolis, but it certainly isn’t the grassy, deer-filled expanse of Radville, Saskatchewan, population 860.
For the last four years we’ve lived the small-ish town life. Michael grew up with this life, but it’s new to me. I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Ultimately I think I’d rather dwell in a place that was either definitively a big city, or definitively country. A town just sort of feels like it’s half-assing it. A town is ambivalent, unsure of what it wants to be.
But when I used to live in Regina, the second-largest city in Saskatchewan (population 200,000, give or take), I used to say the same thing. “If I’m going to live in a city, I want a city,” I would declare. “This city is too small. There’s nothing to do and you always run into people you know.”. Besides, it was too big to afford the unlocked-door safety of a smaller town.
(True fact: Regina used to be ranked in the top 5 most dangerous places to live in Canada. Anecdotally, I always felt much, much safer in Toronto despite the significant difference in size.)
Big City Life
Michael and I, having debated the merits of city versus country life early in our relationship, decided on city life in the summer of 2013. We were in our mid-twenties and were passionate musicians. We had fantasies of “making it big”, and had all kinds of plans, from playing rock shows to teaching cooking classes together.
Nothing panned out the way we had dreamed. Looking back, we lacked an essential component of bringing dreams to life – action. We only half-heartedly searched for a guitarist and bassist to complete our rock quartet, of which I was the singer and he was the drummer.
If we’d been really passionate, we would’ve written music together. Keyboard, vocals, drums. People have done more with less. But we didn’t bother.
After spending a month or two planning a cooking class that we ultimately didn’t get enough sign-ups for (despite having a space and getting a write-up in a local news column), the cooking class dream died. Really, it was cowardice. I didn’t want to teach cooking classes. I was too scared. I was secretly relieved when we didn’t have to do it
But there we were, in Toronto, the best city in Canada. In a great, well-connected neighborhood, we enjoyed our 450-square-foot apartment and all the amenities of city life.
…In theory. We were mainly too broke to enjoy the nightlife, and while I loved small-space apartment life (and could even tolerate the silverfish that sometimes surfaced in the bathroom), Michael didn’t. He’s the kind of guy who wanted a yard and a mortgage.
So after a couple years of Toronto, we moved to a small town, where we’re debating city versus country all over again. It’s as though we’ve been in a holding pattern the last four years, a waiting room. Life is asking, what’s it going to be next? And we’re twiddling our thumbs.
It’s not all bad. There are things I like about small town life. The fact that I’m able to both raise a child and work part-time without the exorbitant costs of a big city is nice. Michael and I see each other more because he doesn’t have a 90-minute commute to work. Our life is good.
But it’s not our final place. Does anyone ever move somewhere and think, “Yes, this is it. I’m here forever.”? Really, I want to know. I’ve never felt that way about anywhere.
I’ve had the experience of country life, too. Once when I was a baby. But that doesn’t count, because I don’t remember it. Though I suspect that my early unremembered childhood experiences have contributed to my feelings of longing toward country life – in a way it feels like home.
My second country experience was as a teenager. To the horror of my family, I had dropped out of my final year of high school. I was a degenerate.
After a year of aimless drifting, I decided to finish high school after all. But I didn’t want to do it in Regina, a place filled with, to my binary teenage thinking, mean girls and uncompassionate teachers.
I decided I wanted to finish high school in a small town, where my grandparents resided and had a beautiful acreage. It was close enough to town that you could walk if you really wanted, but far enough that, at night, it was quiet. And my goodness, the starry sky.
Everyone agreed to this arrangement, probably because they were desperate for me to resign my degenerate ways. And so I lived the country life for six months.
…Sort of. I didn’t do any country chores, such as gardening, landscaping, and lawn mowing that naturally go along with country life. It was more of an amuse bouche of country life.
I remember how the quiet nights always drew me into the deepest of existential questions. In the country is where I became fascinated with life’s mysteries, like Easter Island, Atlantis, near-death experiences and pretty much everything guys like Alan Watts wrote.
I remember gazing into my grandparent’s artful expanse of a yard, with neat hedges surrounding a gigantic, abundant garden. The edges of the lot were lined with poplars that permanently swayed in the breeze, the rustling leaves as liquid as a rushing stream.
Armed with a notebook, a cigarette and some coffee, I spent many mornings on the patio overlooking the garden. I worked out my teenage angst on those pages. To the relief of my family, I began to heal. I became a little more like an adult, a little less like a delinquent.
When my grandparents sold that lot a decade ago, I felt like I’d lost the only real home I’d ever had. I spent my babyhood and a brief – but significant – window of my teenagehood there. The country was there for me at pivotal moments of growth.
And so, country life tugs at me, soft but insistent.
Country versus City
“I want a hobbit house,” I declared to Michael for the hundredth time in our relationship.
“You can have a hobbit house as long as it’s in the yard of a real house,” he countered.
“So if we lived on the country, then I’d get a hobbit house?” I asked.
And that’s how the hundred-and-first conversation about country versus city began.
One day I’m fantasizing about hobbit houses and having a dedicated grand piano room, complete with a sprawling library. I think fondly of putting my hands in the dirt and raising children who can spend most of the hours of their day outside.
The next day I’m daydreaming about living in Manhattan, one of my favorite places on earth. Living in a small condo above a bagel shop, being at the center of the universe. Finding energy and sustenance in the hustle and bustle, existing among the highest achievers.
And then I’m back to my fantasies of country life, finding energy and sustenance in the quiet and space. Cities are loud, polluted and expensive. The country is clean, quiet and affordable. On the country you have more time for meaningful hobbies, for family, for the things that matter most.
But you’re alienated. You can’t walk everywhere – you have to drive if you want groceries. There are the countless chores. You can’t rely on Skip the Dishes if you’re in a rush at suppertime. You don’t see your friends as much. And that’s not to mention the bugs, rodents and pests.
In the city, everyone’s so close. You can walk to all the stores and swing by a friend’s house. There’s no lack of fun, interesting and enriching activities to do. Kids have more schooling options, and those options don’t involve rural bus routes. You’re closer to every type of service, including emergency services.
But in the city it’s easy to get distracted by all the shiny things. You spend so much time coming and going, and not enough time being. It’s too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind and abandon productive and meaningful hobbies. You don’t spend as much time outside, and that outside time is spent marinating in the exhaust fumes of thousands of vehicles.
As Michael so succinctly said, city life is “rush rush go go fast.”
But then there’s the diversity in a city. People from all over the world, speaking all kinds of languages. And whatever weird niche thing you’re into, there are others who are too. The city is a great place to be a vegan. It would be great if I was a Wiccan scholar or a video game entrepreneur or any other random thing I could conceive.
Country life tends to bring with it a certain stubbornness of mind, a certain clinging to tradition and fear of the new. The city is open, where the country is closed. I fear that living in a town, and the country, would create a closed mind in me, too.
What they say about small town living is true – people are generally very friendly. But there’s a price to pay if you exist outside the norm. In a city, you can let your freak flag fly
So we oscillate, back and forth. How do you decide between country or city once and for all?
Is one or the other objectively better?
Or is there a clear internal signal that guides you in one direction?
This is the easiest question, this is the hardest question.
(It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.)
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
List of 10 ideas
As I ate my big bowl of morning oatmeal, I penned down yet another “list of 10 ideas”, a habit I’ve adopted at James Altucher’s suggestion. Sometimes the process is challenging – when you’ve spent a couple months making lists, you’ve exhausted a lot of the good and obvious ideas. You’ve hit the point where you need to dig deeper.
The idea of being “the best” at something stuck in my head, so I decided to make a list of 10 things I could be the best at.
Since we’re all friends here, here’s my list:
Best piano player
Best piano teacher
Best piano website/channel
Best non-fiction writer
Best fiction writer
Best script writer
Best personal growth leader
Best vegan chef
Being the Best Ever
As I looked over my list, I realized that I wouldn’t actually want to be the best ever at most of these. I don’t have the desire to be the best parent or wife ever. I want to be a great parent and wife, but I don’t feel the need to be the best. For now, good enough is good enough.
And as much as I love cooking, I don’t need to be the best at it, either. My husband is a better cook than me and I don’t even feel the need to be better than him, let alone better than everyone. So scratch that.
Thinking about being the best piano player is laughable. It’s just impossible. I don’t have what it takes, and I have no inclination to compete at the back-breaking level necessary to get there.
Here’s what feels like an actual possibility: Having the best piano website/channel. It feels real because I can visualize it. I can come up with 100 ideas of things to do over the next 5-10 years to become the best. And then I can come up with 100 more.
This is something that feels within my grasp to be the best at. And it’s different than being the best piano teacher or piano player. I need to be good at both of those to have a relevant website/channel for piano players, but building an online business, recording videos and creating courses and events are unique to having the best piano website/channel.
Yes, this is one that fires me up.
But there are a couple ideas on my list that scare me.
Follow the Fear
Be the best personal growth leader? How could I ever hope to be better than David Allen or Stephen Covey? I’m a little baby and they’re giants in the field.
But there’s a difference between a scary thought and an impossible thought. Being the best piano player is an impossible thought. Being the best personal growth leader isn’t impossible. It’s scary. And where there’s fear, there’s something to examine more closely.
Can I be a better non-fiction writer than Cal Newport or Michael Pollan? Would I even want to play in that league? The thought makes my blood run cold.
Thinking like this changes everything.
I write every day. I read every day. I’m obsessed with personal development. But journaling and blogging with the intention to have fun and introspect is one thing. Writing with the intention of becoming the best is a completely different thing.
If I wanted to be the best writer, what would I do differently? Would I journal differently? Would I read different books? Would I take classes? Would I spend more time writing, or would I spend the same amount of time writing differently? Would I need a mentor? How would I go about getting better, aside from repetition? How would I earn a living from writing? Would I have to drop everything else? What if I could never be good enough? What if people said I was a terrible writer and that I’m wasting my time? What if I built my whole life around being the best writer ever and it was all for nothing?
These are scary, scary thoughts. Because making decisions here means rewriting my life. It means living differently.
It means getting clear on what I want.
That’s the scariest thing.
It’s fun to daydream about all the could-be’s. I love taking 20 minutes imagining all sorts of futures, just me and my brain. It’s one of my favorite quiet activities and I engage in it several times a week, usually as my daughter’s falling asleep for a nap.
Sometimes I’ll imagine traveling to beautiful places. Sometimes I’ll imagine having an abundance of wonderful friends. Sometimes I’ll visualize my perfect office or library or piano room.
These could-be’s are lovely because they’re ephemeral. It’s one thing to dream up a lovely future and watch it disappear as pleasantly as steam from a cup of coffee. The moment passes, the coffee cools, and nothing changes.
But if the thing you’re dreaming up is no longer a could-be, it’s a will-be – that’s scary. It means making decisions. It means saying yes to 1 thing and no to 100 other things.
I want to stay in a state where anything is possible. It’s the most comfortable place in the world to be.
But if I choose to be the best writer, I’m doing so at the expense of being the best at pretty much everything else in life.
If I decide to become the best writer, then I will probably never become the best piano player. Not ever, not someday. Never.
What’s more scary than the death of infinite possibilities?
This is why deciding what you want is the hardest thing. It’s a “yes” to one delicious meal, while saying “no” to every other potentially delicious meal on the menu. And you can’t come back to the restaurant ever again. At least as far as you know.
Thinking about what you want is fun. Deciding what you want is something that most of us avoid. I know I have. I know I do.
But I must observe the quantum particle. I must take it from the state of infinite possibilities into flesh-and-bones reality.
What do you want to choose?
“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver
Or rather, “One of many ways I embarrassed myself as a teenager.”
In the year 2001, the movie Moulin Rouge came out. I was 15 years old. It was a little edgy, people sang and danced, and Ewan McGregor was the male lead. Obviously it was my favorite movie.
The massively popular hit “Lady Marmalade” (Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim) was released in conjunction with the movie. You’ll remember it as the song with this lyric:
Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?
“Will you sleep with me tonight” in a lyric was a big deal at the time (though by modern standards it seems rather tame). It was a suggestive song performed by female superstars of the early 2000s. I idolized these women with their booming vocals and their take-charge attitude.
I also idolized, of course, their sexiness. I was an awkward 15-year old (what 15-year old isn’t awkward?), and wanted to absorb their feminine confidence via osmosis.
The takeaway thus far: You could say that I was passionate about Moulin Rouge and the associated hit song.
Let’s cue forward several weeks to a drama class assignment. My friends and I loved drama class – I even got the highest marks in drama for my grade one year (but not this year).
Our assignment? To make a coordinated dance number to a song. We split into groups of four, were given general instructions, and left to our devices.
It started well. My group agreed on an Aretha Franklin song (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T”). We were making moves at a friend’s house one afternoon, but it was a little boring. You could say I wasn’t passionate about this particular project.
So I thought – why don’t we make a dance to Lady Marmalade instead?
My group was divided on the merits of this idea. Rightly, one girl from the group pointed out how it was an inappropriate song choice. Too suggestive for school. She was the voice of reason.
I proceeded to steamroll her. (Sorry, Kim!)
We each chose a “character” – I got to be Christina Aguilera, the lead, of course. How much more fun it was to play a character in this dance assignment! How much more appropriate for a drama presentation this way! One thing’s for certain: I was passionate about directing this new number.
Presentation day came. I’m not sure what we expected, but it probably wasn’t an audience full of our female classmates. Since this experience was over half my life ago, I can’t remember why there weren’t any guys in the audience, but for some inexplicable reason they were absent.
In our heads, this is how the dance went: We pumped the tunes, acted sexy and strong while lip-syncing our parts, and the guys would say, “How sexy and cool.”
In reality, this is how the dance went: We pumped the tunes, acted sexy but looked awkward because we were awkward, while lip-syncing our parts. And the girls probably said, “Why are they gyrating at us?”
The moral of the story is this: When choosing to follow your passion, reality is your friend. Stay in touch with reality or forever cringe in retrospect.
If you dream of leading the bohemian life of a traveling painter, but you’re not a painter, then you probably shouldn’t pursue that dream. At the very least, you should become a good painter first.
I dreamed of impressing everyone with sexy dancing, but I was neither sexy nor a dancer. I had this idea in my head of what I wanted to be, but there was a large canyon between that and reality. So, cringing forever.
Secondary moral of the story: Sometimes the first choice is the best choice, even if it isn’t as exciting. (I love you Aretha!)
But if you do decide to drop everything and pursue a passion that isn’t remotely connected to your actual reality, your embarrassment will be a source of education and inspiration for many years to come.