2011 Recap, of sorts

I have been struggling with how I wanted to do a “New Year” type post this year. There’s kind of a lot to sum up, but at the same time, it’s hard to place it all into context. Then I saw TJ’s post, inspired by Sundry‘s, and I figured the internet was nothing if not a haven for creative borrowing. So I’m creatively borrowing.

2011 Recap

1. What did you do in 2011 that you’d never done before?

A lot of therapy related things. A lot of self-compassion related things. I also had the same job in January 2011 as I had in December 2011, which hasn’t happened before.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?


I don’t really make “resolutions”, or haven’t in the past. My one goal for 2011 was to get better at asking for help when I need it, and to be more compassionate with myself, as an extension of taking care of my mental health, and I think I did both of those things pretty well.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?


My best friend gave birth to a little boy, Caden, in October, and my coworker had her second little boy in mid-December.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

My great-aunt Helen (Auntie) passed away in April, and a close friend of my family passed away very suddenly in December.

5. What countries did you visit?

None other than my own this year.

6. What would you like to have in 2012 that you lacked in 2011?

A better paying, career-oriented job, and more mental stability.

7. What dates from 2011 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

No dates, but a couple of weeks and month-long spans are pretty well cemented, thanks to pharmacy roulette. I’m not sure exactly which date my doctors changed me from “Major Depression” to Bipolar Disorder (Classic, Mixed type), but the resulting change in medications was pretty dramatic and created a space where I’m now functioning better than I have in years.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?


I stuck with therapy, held down my job, and managed to stick it through all the craziness. I also hosted Thanksgiving for 10 and Christmas for 8, both of which I’m proud of, AND I threw parties for Halloween and New Years.

9. What was your biggest failure?

I’m honestly not sure I have a good answer to this question. There are some things I did that didn’t go as well as I’d like, but overall, I handled 2011 proactively and with as much grace as I could muster, and I’m pretty proud of that, even if it was kind of ugly sometimes.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

Ongoing mental struggles aside, 2011 was the year of figuring out my joint pain. I was diagnosed with a very mild case of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (either classic or hypermobility) and am now operating 90-95% joint pain free most days. This is a big improvement over June, where I could barely walk and doing simple things like writing with a pencil or brushing my hair was excruciating.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

Technically I bought my iPhone at the very tail end of 2010, but that’s probably been the best gadget of the year.

12. Where did most of your money go?

Mortgage (duh), though I did also spend a good bit of money on clothing, thanks to the weight gain.

13. What did you get really excited about?

Star Wars: The Old Republic, Updating my Laptop, hosting holidays and parties, my little brother’s graduation with his Master’s degree. Having people come visit, especially my family. Lots of small things, really.

14. What song will always remind you of 2011?

Yael Naim’s New Soul

15. Compared to this time last year, are you:


– happier or sadder? much happier, though I still fight the depression and anxiety battles on a regular basis
– thinner or fatter? quite a bit fatter, thanks to the medicines
– richer or poorer? about the same.

16. What do you wish you’d done more of?


Meditation, spiritual seeking, and self care. Also, going to the gym (which is hard, because I don’t get that “woo I feel awesome!” thing from exercise). Also playing the piano.

17. What do you wish you’d done less of?


Doing nothing, while wishing I wanted to be doing something (especially something I used to enjoy)

18. How did you spend Christmas?

With my family, here at my house and then up with my brother and sister in law in Waco. It was wonderful, even if it did push the boundaries of my “amount of craziness I can handle” levels.

19. What was your favorite TV program?

Um. I don’t watch much TV? So probably Mythbusters or Dirty Jobs.

20. What were your favorite books of the year?

I really liked David Allen’s Get Things Done, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go There You Are, and rereading some of my favorite children’s and young adult books.

21. What was your favorite music from this year?


I didn’t listen to very much new music this year, and if anything, I spent more time listening to Audio Books (in my car) than I did listening to music. This is unusual, and I hope 2012 is more musical.

22. What were your favorite films of the year?

I saw only one film this year, so it gets to be my favorite (and it’d probably be my favorite anyway): The Muppets

23. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 27, and I had my mom here visiting. For my birthday, we put in my spring garden, and it was immensely fun.

24. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Finding the right meds sooner. I’d like to say “not being crazy in the brainpan”, but I’m not sure that’s one of those things I can really change.

25. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2011?

I vacillate back and forth between “eclectic graduate student” and “nerdy bookstore clerk”. I’m slowly learning to be more grown up, and I’ve branched out most of the time from t-shirts and jeans, or at least I’ve started wearing fun and geeky t-shirts (mostly from Threadless or ThinkGeek) instead of just plain solid colored ones. I hope 2012 sees me learning more about style and putting together outfits, because I really enjoy doing it.

26. What kept you sane?

My husband, my friends, my cats, and my family. And my therapist. She’s pretty awesome.

27. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2011.


That if you’re comfortable sharing your stories, it’s almost always worth doing so – supportive people are everywhere, and I’ve found so many to offer support and empathy that it’s made everything so much easier. So many people don’t talk about the ugly parts of their past or themselves, and I’ve found that sharing that – even though it makes me more vulnerable – nearly always brings me closer to the people around me who care and who matter.

Making Mandalas

Crossposted from the Deadly Divas

Everyone has their own way of expressing emotion, of managing anxiety.

A year or so ago, when I was digging through reviews of various fountain pens, I stumbled across a blog called Spiritual Evolution of the Bean, by artist Stephanie Smith. She teaches the creation of mandalas as art and personal expression, and after following her instructions and making a few, I was totally hooked.

What is a mandala? Well, that depends. In the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, as a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction.*Any concentric diagram can be a mandala, though the most traditional mandalas are a circle circumscribed with a square.

For me, mandalas are a way of drawing that starts small and works concentrically outward, free of judgment, thinking, or really planning out what I want to do. They are a form of focused mindfulness, of being completely in the moment and allowing myself to express whatever comes to my mind (with no judgment).


How do you make one?

To create a mandala, you must first release all judgments about your ability to aesthetically put pen to paper. Throw those thoughts out the window because no one has to ever see it but you, (unless you choose to share it) and it’s totally your prerogative to destroy it once completed. – Stephanie Smith

After that, you take a piece of paper and a writing implement of some kind, and, starting in the middle, you work out in concentric circles, allowing your subconscious or unconscious mind to pick patterns at random. There is no wrong choice as long as you make simple geometric shapes repeated around the circle. You can use words, or not, but repeated ones seem to work better (like the repetition of the phrase “A thought can be changed” – kind of like a visual mantra).

Stephanie Smith explains the process much better than I ever could in two of her posts on the subject: Oh the Mandala and Mandala Process Continues (Go read them, I’ll be here when you get back)

I also highly recommend the following YouTube video. It’s a different style of mandala, but then, it’s a different person, and each person will tend toward slightly different patterns and styles.

YouTube – How to Grow a Mandala

Looking at other mandala art (and “Zentangles”, which are the same principle) for ideas of patterns is a lot of fun too, but the ultimate goal is making art, not looking at it. Spontaneous art, at that. Sometimes I plan out colors (or use the colors that someone requests), but usually I just find some markers that I like and go with it. All the ones you see pictured are made with prismacolor markers and black and white gel pens. Literally ANY media will work. Pencil, crayons, ballpoint pen, whatever.

Remember, the ultimate goal here is to let go of the conscious part of your brain that says you can or can’t do art. There is no “wrong” mandala. It might be uneven, or you might not like the colors overall when you’re done, but that doesn’t matter. And really, when you finish one, only you decide what to do with it – whether you save it, throw it away, frame it, or just keep a whole running notebook, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the process of doing it, the careful progression of repeated shapes around a circle. (I make lots, and they all provide relief of anxiety and help me feel calmer and more relaxed, but only a few of them end up on the internet or in frames.)

So the next time you find yourself bored, perhaps you’ll grab a piece of paper and doodle a mandala.

I’ve found them to be addicting, and now keep a little notebook with me for that purpose (mostly because my bills started getting mandala doodles on the return envelopes after awhile). They’re very good for keeping my brain busy in stressful situations, and also for filling in dead time while I’m waiting around for an appointment.

And sometimes they turn out quite pretty at the end.

*From Wikipedia

The Difference between Choice and Failure

Failure.

Ugly word, ugly connotations, ugly mental constructs built to avoid it. I was reading an article recently about when to stop doing something, and it kind of tweaked my brain about failure versus changing your mind.

From the original article:

In the past year it became increasingly clear that the Temple was not doing what it was supposed to do. It was the hub of a wonderful little community, no doubt about it. But it wasn’t helping people find their purpose in life, discover who they truly are, or change their lives to follow their dreams. And after exhaustive discussions with the others involved with running it—discussions about passing it on to new leadership, adding new programs, or even radically changing the structure of the Temple—it became clear that we didn’t have the humanpower to change things.

So there I was. The two options on the table were:

  1. Continue asking people to give their time, money and energy to an organization that was not changing lives; or
  2. Close the organization.

In black and white, Option 1 looks ridiculous. But when you’re standing at the brink, looking at giving up something you’ve worked so hard on, you start to justify. 90% of nonprofit boards would choose Option 1. Because quitting looks an awful lot like failure.

Faced with that, you start finding reasons not to quit. You start to rationalize.

Now, when it comes to rationalization, I am a champion. I am Grand Poo-Bah Queen Of All Rationalizations. In my mind, I’m even now coming up with a list of things I’ve rationalized, so that I can rationalize to you my title. As Queen of Rationalizations, I hate failure.

Failure means losing. It means you set out to do something and couldn’t, you stupid ass. Your lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, inability to follow through (etc. etc. etc.) all got in the way and now you can’t keep up with the things you said you would do.

But… what if that’s not how it works?

What if saying “you know, this isn’t working anymore” isn’t failure. Rationally I don’t think it is. Every person has limits, and every person changes over time. Nobody expects you to stick with what you say you want to be when you grow up, especially if you’re seven when they ask.

It’s one thing to say “I’m going to become a great soccer player”. But when you find out that massive amounts of running makes your old knee sprain turn into a grapefruit sized, swollen angry mess, maybe changing your mind isn’t failure.

Maybe even “I really don’t like this anymore; it’s making me crazy” isn’t failure.

Recently, I pretty much quit playing MMOs. Some part of me is very sad at this, because I really do enjoy gaming. But another (hopefully more rational) part of me says that I have other things I need to focus on. That part was actually pretty easy. What wasn’t easy was the blogging thing. A few years ago I started blogging about WoW. I blogged about roleplay and raiding, the intersection of the two, and how to build little immersions into your gameplay in a way that enriched the game. I also became kind of a crusader for the idea that roleplay wasn’t stupid, and it didn’t mean you couldn’t hack it in PVE or PVP.

When I stopped playing the game though, I stopped writing about it. And I felt like a huge failure. I’d said I wanted to be a good blogger. I wanted to write interesting content that other people would enjoy, occasionally even posting silly things. I decided, very early on in the life of the blog, that I was going to have new content at least 4 days a week.

And so, when I stopped writing, I got out the big red rubber stamp and branded myself a failure. I had failed as a blogger.

Then someone*, in the midst of a rant about my failure, said something very interesting. What if I chose to stop blogging instead of just not doing it. What if, instead of beating myself up about how I couldn’t do it and was such a failure at something as “trivial”** as blogging, I chose to let that go?

Somewhere, in the back recesses of my brain, something went CLUNK.

Amazingly enough, saying “I’m choosing not to write this blog right now because I can’t sustain MMO time and have other real life priorities” changed failure into a decision to go another direction.

Nobody ever told me that looking at something, seeing that it wasn’t working (for whatever reason), and choosing to do something else wasn’t failing at it. It might LOOK like failure, from an uninformed outsider’s perspective, but it wasn’t. Several years of LIFE had passed since I started writing – the kind of life that changed who I am and what my priorities had to be.

That’s not failure. That’s just, well, life.

Now, I’m not saying there are no failures. I failed to keep my garden alive through the drought this spring. But I can still be a gardener even with dead plants in my veggie garden. I still choose to have that be part of who I am. I’m not a failed gardener, I just failed THIS particular garden THIS particular spring. And I know why, and I couldn’t do much about it, so I’m choosing to let that go and be thankful that at least I got tomatoes.

But I’m trying very hard to look at my life and my job and my relationships and evaluate what is and isn’t working, and to not brand myself a failure when I choose to discontinue something that has become toxic, unfun, or mentally unsafe. When I run into those situations, I’m looking at options and choosing new directions.

If you’d told 5-Years-Ago-Me that I was considering getting my massage therapy license and no longer considering being a classroom teacher, I’d have thought you were crazy. But Current-Me likes that idea and is interested in it.

Stick-to-it-iveness is a good trait to have.

So is knowing when to stop digging.

*Probably either Hillary, Marty, or my therapist.
** HA. Anyone who’s ever tried to produce new content 5 days a week for two+ years knows that there’s nothing trivial about it, but I was rationalizing why I was a failure, see?

Book Update

Since my last book update, I have finished Diet for a Dead Planet (Christopher D Cook) and The Consumer’s Guide for Effective Environmental Choices (The Union of Concerned Scientists), gotten halfway through Redwall, and read The Last Little Cat.

I highly recommend Diet for a Dead Planet to anyone who wants to read about the human costs to the current agricultural system – not so much as a condemnation (which it is) but also as a history of how the system actually developed, both industrially and politically. It’s written in such a way as to be easy to read in small chunks, and it was my bedtime reading book for awhile. Cook also does a great job of endnoting his work, so anything that seems outrageous can be fact-checked – something I did a few times.

The Consumer’s Guide was pretty dry but good to read, since it actually takes SCIENCE to the idea behind “greening” your everyday decisions. Especially in light of this week being Earth Day (more on that later this week), it’s nice to read something that says “these things actually make a difference, but those things really don’t”. For example, choosing to buy an energy efficient refrigerator is a much more important decision than whether you use plastic or paper grocery bags. They line up their scientific method and have a large section of data and analysis in the back of the book to support their findings as well. (Not surprising, given the authors.) Unfortunately, it’s about 10 years old, so it’s not as up to date as it could be, and a lot of the progress they see as possible hasn’t come about yet.

I have given up on the Dalai Lama’s book for now, mostly because it is a little too thinky for me right now. I’ve put off most of the other books for another time.

Instead, on my reading list, I have:

  • Bunnicula and The Celery Stalks at Midnight, by James Howe
  • The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan
  • The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels, by Ree Drummond
  • Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
  • A Garden Book for Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast, by the River Oaks Garden Club, and Houston Garden Book, by John Kriegel

Plus, of course, finishing Redwall and whatever other Brian Jacques books I can track down at work. Hopefully this will be a good continuation of both fun reading that I’ll enjoy and reading that will feed my brain (pun intended) as I research and study various things about our food industry and about my local gardening climate.

Also, for what it’s worth, those books at the top of this post are the first books I’ve actually finished since all this started last year. *\o/*

How does your garden grow?

(Another sort of kum-ba-ya post for this week. Apparently I’m in that kind of mood.)

Reason #1 (which is actually a few reasons):

Because it’s fun. I get to spend time outside in the sun. I get to eat fresh, fully ripened vegetables I know were grown well and healthily. I get to feed garden spiders, meet snapping turtles, and watch lizards and skinks feast on craneflies, mosquitoes, and whatever else they can catch. I can go out and pick pretty flowers for my kitchen and cook with fresh herbs. I get 30-60 minutes of sunshine and “meditation” time every few days (or every day in the summer) while I water and tend to things, time spent alone, but with purpose. Because it forces me to actively pay attention to my surroundings. Because I can easily see the results of my work, whether it’s fewer weeds, pruned plants, picked harvests, or cleared out space for new things.

Reason #2:

Because it’s never just “go to work, come home, live meaningless and repetitive life” with a garden. In fact, I’d never really thought about it that way, until I read a recent article on Cracked.com about things they never tell children about being adults. Apparently, once you become an adult, you never have “summer” again – “summer” just means more work and then weekends doing housework and then more work, with no chance to re-create yourself and take breaks to think.

There’s a certain truth to that, unless you’re a teacher (at which point summer sometimes means working two seasonal jobs to get extra income). At work, time is measured in arbitrary weeks. Those weeks change, with weekends and shifts … well, shifting every week. Time is measured in coupons and promotions, sales plans and marketing strategies. It’s measured in hours of different colored squares that tell me that this hour I have to answer the phone, but next hour I have to stand at Register 3, before I go to lunch.

When I go home, though, I look at the plants in the yard. I notice that the replanted Pentas look a little droopy and need water, but that the mulch is holding up on the new bed pretty well. I notice that the gerbera daisies seem to be thriving in the bed with the hibiscus plant, and silently cheer to FINALLY have a spot for them (and that the new one I got last week with no color indication is, in fact, PEACH. NEW COLOR YAY!). I notice that the purple coneflowers have sprouted their batch of babies for this year, taking my total plants from 6 to about 30, and that the shasta daisies out front need water. I notice that it’s time to start eating lettuce, and that the radishes are starting to look radishey. I notice that the crepe myrtles are budding out, and that a few still need to be pruned.

I notice that it’s late March.

In June, I’ll be noticing something different. I’ll be pulling out dead squash and tomato plants and starting the season of “wait and see”, giving me time to plan a fall garden and start preparing for winter.  By September, I’ll be hoping to keep a last few plants alive, thankful for the butterfly and wildflower gardens ability to tolerate heat and drought. In October, I’ll plant broccoli and winter squash.

In short, even though I go to work, and my work is “meaningless” in terms of creating that new start, creating chapters and dividing lines in my life the way school once did, I always have the garden to find that meaning. Every spring is different. Some plants will die, others will thrive. I’ll hand turn the compost and coffee grounds and dead leaves into the soil, tilling under any last vestiges of what might’ve been left over last year, and start again fresh.

The seasons are pretty spiffy like that.

Reason #3:

Because when I work in a garden, in a muddy t-shirt and stained jeans and old boots, with my hair tied up in a bandanna and enough dirt going around that I eventually end up finding it not only between my toes but behind my ears and IN MY BRA, it doesn’t matter what I look like. It doesn’t matter if I can wear a bikini and not be in a state of high anxiety the whole time. It doesn’t matter if my (body part) doesn’t conform to (unrealistic social standard).

I’m in the garden. I can spend an afternoon with a shovel and a pickaxe, a rake and a hand mattock, and bust through many square feet of 30 year neglected shrubs. I can weed and water, put down mulch, prune plants and deadhead flowers. I can carry bags of mulch and topsoil and sand and poo. I know my way around a lawnmower and a weedeater; I’ve used a chainsaw and a pole saw. I can trim bushes and cultivate baby plants into strong seedlings that will grow into fully developed plants. I can tend things as they grow. And then, after all that tending, I get flowers and vegetables and fruits to show for it.

In the garden, I’m strong, capable, and awesome, even if I have dirt in my bra. It doesn’t matter what my mental state is, if I’m having a good or a bad day, the sheer physicality of the work grounds me and evens things out.

The Earth is strong, and I gain strength from working with it.

A little follow up to Kindness

Earlier this week I posted a comparison of the words Niceness and Kindness, particularly in regard to how they affect our interactions with people.

Today, I was called to Jury Duty.

For a number of reasons, going to something like Jury Duty in downtown Houston for criminal court in one of the largest cities in the country is more than just the usual Ugh/Pain in the Ass/Do I really have to do this? reaction.

I started preparing for having to do this three weeks ago. I made maps and memorized them, checked and double checked that I had the proper amount of cash. Treated myself to a new multi-color pencil to take with me for drawing mandalas as a way to help with anxiety. I called my doctor and arranged to make sure that I wouldn’t have to worry about my meds at all this week and got her advice on ways to manage the situation (as well as her assurance that, if I woke up today in a huge anxiety attack, that she would call the courthouse and help me deal with getting rescheduled). I carefully analyzed my clothes for comfort level, ability to stay warm, and ability to almost completely hide my body. I packed my purse two days ago.

Today, prepared for the worst of the worst, but going into it knowing I’d done everything in my power to make it as manageable an experience as possible… I went, and was blown away by kindness.

The man at the metal detector, who not only smiled, but struck up a little conversation about my insulated water bottle. The parking garage attendant who gave me advice on parking, told me how to get to the elevators (on the other side of the building), and then gave me excellent directions for how to get back to the highway from his parking garage. The jury summons attendants greeting people and giving directions to make sure we got where we needed to be and didn’t have to flounder around in the wrong place. The multiple friendly and good natured people waiting with me in various places.

And especially Bailiff Anderson, who had probably the most control over what was a largely uncontrolled process for us, and who went out of his way to make it at least tolerable.

You see, I got selected to go in with a jury pool of 80 people for a large criminal case. We were the largest group by far, and 80 people can be a little unwieldy in the best of situations. And then there were problems. We had to walk a little over 3 blocks to get to the right courthouse, go to the 15th floor, wait, go to the 20th floor, wait some more. Go into a courtroom, go back outside. Go into a different courtroom. And Bailiff Anderson, who had no more idea what was causing the delays than we did for most of it, cracked jokes and generally was an incredibly good sport with the 80 strangers standing around who had no idea what was going on, why it was taking so long, and really, none of whom was thrilled to even be there in the first place.

In the end, he had to explain that there had been some major issue with the case (the judge wasn’t able to talk about it, so he got the honors), and we were to be dismissed.

And then we played The Price Is Right to get our dismissal tickets.

Which is all to say that the kindness thing really does work. None of those people had to be kind, but they all chose to treat us like humans – possibly even as confused and uncomfortable humans who could really use a friendly face.

Because of them, what could have been a really, truly horrible day was stressful and exhausting, but manageable instead of sending me into an anxiety spiral for the next few days.

I won’t say I’m glad for doing it, especially since today is “Sunday” and I start my work week tomorrow.

But I’m very, very glad for those people who chose to be kind today, when their jobs really do put them in contact with a lot of unhappy people on a very regular basis. Perhaps they’re just kind, friendly people in general, or perhaps they too made the choice to be kind rather than simply polite.

*A note to Bailiff Anderson – you told us to tell your wife and your boss that you were awesome. Sadly, I don’t know either of those people, though I did mention you to the attendant on the way out of the courthouse. Instead, I’ll give you what little word fame I can. Thank you for your service and your great attitude.