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What I Learned

Unless the sky falls (again), we will be moving in less than a week. It’s hard to believe. In fact, it’s impossible to believe, but that’s okay. Today is real, and I know what I need to do right now. The future can take care of itself.

As I moved around the kitchen early this morning, feeding (and tripping over) the cats, making breakfast, heating water for tea, watching the sky lighten, it occurred to me the last seven years in this old farmhouse have taught me a magnificent lesson.

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

When I moved to Maine, I had a solid idea about what I was moving into, a whole set of expectations and dreams, none of which turned out to be real.

The loss of my fantasies was heartbreaking and took me years to process. During that time, I started this blog and later remodeled it, finished my first book, wrote my second, and began my third, started publishing my fiction serially on Substack, put everything I’ve learned about emotional intelligence into action, grew deep roots in my community, found a great job I love, and became part of a second family.

At the same time, I experienced disempowerment in terms of my living space and physical surroundings. Never before have I lived in a place where I had so little power to respond to my needs and preferences, and never have I been so overwhelmed with maintenance tasks I could not take care of.

Because of my emotional intelligence training, my disempowerment was visible to me, and I was able to turn towards what I did have power over, again and again, until it became second nature. It didn’t feel good, but it was invaluable practice at managing my own power, at recognizing my own power.

Always before in my life, I’ve had plans and projects, things I wanted to buy, walls I wanted to paint, the ability to rearrange furniture, make repairs, have new shelves built, and discard what was no longer useful. Such activity gave me a great deal of pleasure and was thoroughly distracting. It was never finished, so I stayed firmly focused on externals.

In this house, that distraction has been unavailable. To stand in my own power has been to stand still with myself, to work internally, to feel my feelings, create, stretch, grow, learn, explore. It’s been lonely. It’s been uncomfortable. It’s been transformative. It’s been internal, invisible, and has nothing to do with a shiny presentation.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Most of us would acknowledge real change and healing come from the inside, not from the surface. But understanding that intellectually is not the same as spending years living it. I would never have voluntarily given up the power to manage my surroundings. When I realized it was happening I had a choice to make, and I chose to explore this new, unexpected territory.

That choice is one of the best I’ve ever made.

I have learned a dream home, a dream wardrobe, a dream body, a dream library, is not a life. What others see of me and my possessions and home is not me. My presentation has nothing to do with my state of health, presence, and groundedness.

Our new home is old, though not as old as this farm, and it needs some work. Sure, it needs new exterior paint and other cosmetic help, but that’s not where I’ll start. Those changes are fun and everyone can see and appreciate them, but the invisible, internal issues like plumbing, wiring, and insulation are what will really make a difference to my experience living there.

The looks of the new house are not what matters. It’s the life we create inside it that matters.

The color of my hair doesn’t matter. It’s what’s inside my head that matters.

The clothes I wear don’t matter. It’s the health and peace in my body that matter.

Attaining perfection (and perfect control) of my space is not what matters. It’s the ability to manage my thoughts and feelings, maintain integrity, and live well that matter.

In these last few days of packing, sorting, and endless tasks and details, at every step I’m thinking about what I learned and how grateful I am for the lesson. I didn’t choose to learn it. I wouldn’t have volunteered to learn it. I was forced into it, tricked into it, even.

But that’s not important. My life has consistently taken me exactly where I need to go, in spite of how much I whine and complain about some of the places I’ve been. Now, just ahead, is a whole new chapter.

I wonder what I will learn.

(Next weekend we’re moving, so you won’t see a post here from me. I’ll be back in two weeks!)

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

New Year’s Day

On the first day of 2021 I joined friends for ice skating.

It was the best kind of impromptu celebration, begun with a generous invitation from one friend and coworker to another to bring her young daughter and enjoy the ice on the water adjoining her property. Then I was asked to come, and another mother and young daughter. The invitation was casual. Not everyone had skates. Masking and social distancing were taken for granted. No one expected to be inside or any kind of a party. No RSVP.

In the end, three adult couples, two children, an ecstatic dog and I found ourselves under a cold, sunny sky on a lake-sized pond. A snowstorm approached; the air bit with cold anticipation in the shadows on the shore, but the sun on the ice welcomed us.

I never heard ice speak before I came to Maine, but it does. It booms and thrums, singing in deep tones that one feels in the bones of one’s feet and legs as much as hears. It’s a primal, otherworldly sound, like whales singing, and it formed a wondrous background for the whole afternoon. Stepping onto the ice was like walking onto the body of an ancient primordial being, an old god of nature. The high, pure tones of the children and barking dog made a cheerful contrast to the resonant lake, frozen into still grandeur.

I have not skated since I was nine years old and have no skates, but I love my friends and their children, and I love this little corner of Maine. I’m also rather fond of the dog!

A thin, bitter layer of snow covered the ice at the shoreline, but where the sun reached it was bare, the ice tea-colored, clear and thick, filled with trapped air bubbles like frozen champagne, cracks running through various layers below our feet.

Our hostess provided the kids with aluminum lawn chairs with frayed webbing, retrieved from a shed by the lake. After their skates were on, they could hold the back of the lawn chairs and slide them along for balance and stability as they gained confidence.

Once the children were deployed with their chair supports, the adults with skates laced them on and slid away. Those without skates walked gingerly out onto the glassy ice to monitor the children.

The dog, a goofy youngster who, between you and me, is kind of a chicken and won’t do more than wade on the edges of the lake during the warm season while his family swims and boats, went suddenly from being the one no one could keep up with on land to having to defend his superior speed and agility on the ice. He raced off happily with a small group striking out for the far side of the lake, his paws slipping and sliding sideways, several inches of pink tongue dangling, ears flopping, tail in the air.

I sat on the dock, my bottom getting numb with cold, watching the kids and adults with them in the foreground and the skaters and dog, reduced to small blots of moving color in the far distance, beyond them.

The kids, in their colorful coats and winter gear, were up and then down, up and then down. They talked. They laughed. They used the chairs and then abandoned them, half collapsed on the singing ice. Adults called out encouragement and words of advice. Determination in every line of their bulky, padded bodies, they slid and staggered, leaned and swayed, made headway and collapsed. They lay with their ears pressed to the ice to hear it speak. They lay with their faces in the sun.

The more skilled skaters returned and joined in the play. Racing from one to another, the dog tried to keep up but was foiled by the more confident skaters’ ability to stop suddenly — without falling! Putting on the brakes, he careened across the ice, all four legs splayed, an expression of consternation on his face. How are they stopping like that?

He occasionally came to me (we’re old friends), panting and grinning, filled with joy and vitality, his chestnut coat soft and warm under my hands, but I was too stationary to be much fun and he was soon away again.

As skates were traded back and forth, another small group set out for the other side of the lake, one of my friends highly visible in the clear air because of her cherry red coat. Again, the dog took the lead, a low reddish blur, running gracefully as long as he didn’t want to stop. They skimmed, moving impossibly fast, while, nearer to me, the children began to stay on their feet more easily and it was clear at least some of the falling was now voluntary. It was like being in a painting by Breugel come to life.

As I watched, joy and gratitude filled me. What a year it’s been, an impossibly difficult, stressful, frustrating year, saturated with fear and loss, chaos and uncertainty, hatred and conflict.

Yet here, on the first day of the new year, were gathered together joy, blessings and beauties that endure: the peace and patience of winter, the tough bonds of family and friendship, the miracle of children, the innocence of play, the delight of the animals we love, the simplicity of sharing. I found tears in my eyes, and I wondered if it’s ever possible to fully express the preciousness of the gift of life in our place with our people.

I forget, sometimes, how unutterably beautiful life can be.

The kids began to get tired, and every parent knows that’s when the potential for tears and injuries starts growing. The ice had stolen all warmth from my feet. We gathered up the forlorn, crumpled aluminum chairs, folded them, and put them away. Snacks and drinks appeared from bags scattered on the dock. A hat came off a small head to reveal hair wet with perspiration. The children sprawled wearily, legs splayed, cheeks flushed, eyes starry.

Someone mentioned hot cocoa.

I was cold, but not ready to return to everyday life. I decided to walk the two miles home. The sun dimmed, the sky turning pearly as the storm approached. I turned down offers of a ride and said good-bye, treading a narrow road climbing up through the trees from the lake. My feet and hands ached with cold, but my face was warm under my mask and wool Buff, and my body and head were warm in my coat and hood. I stretched out my stride, welcoming the uphill walk. The dog followed me for a few yards, but turned back, drawn by the confusion of loading up cars and tired kids.

I gained the public gravel road and strode along, moving up a steep hill, feeling my feet and then hands gradually warm, conscious of and grateful for my ability to breathe deeply, feeling my heart thud in my chest, warmed with happiness and pleasure, and thinking about how to share it all in a post.

I crested the hill, feeling loose and strong, moving into my usual long-legged pace, watching the sky get milkier and milkier and the sun disappear as the edge of the front loomed.

It was good to be home and regain the solitude of my attic aerie. It was good to have a hot meal. It’s good to remember it all now, and put it into words on the screen. It’s good to share, to remind one another and be reminded that life is precious and beautiful and there’s always much to be grateful for. Today the snow is falling and several inches lie on the ice we played on yesterday, but I won’t forget.

Best New Year’s day ever.

My daily crime.

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

Leave It Better Than You Found It

I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.

Photo by Jenelle Ball on Unsplash

This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel that I had the ability to do something good.

This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.

So, what does that mean?

If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.

Been there, done that. Not doing it again.

If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.

Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.

Here’s the hardest thing of all. It may be that the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.

I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.

If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.

Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.

We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”

An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience that my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.

Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:

  • Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
  • Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
  • Do I rush in and try to fix problems that belong to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
  • Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
  • Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
  • Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
  • Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
  • Do I have expectations of others?
  • Am I highly invested in the outcomes of choices that others make?
  • Am I being honest about who I am and giving freely from my authenticity?
  • Can I be wrong? Do I know how to say I’m sorry? Do I take responsibility when I’ve hurt someone? Can I accept an apology? Can I practice forgiveness?
  • Can I be honest about my feelings?
  • Do I use my power to make others bigger or silence and diminish them?
  • Do I keep my word?
  • Am I able to give and take gracefully and equally?
  • Do I value the needs of others as much as I value my own?
  • Can I bless the ground between us?

I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.

Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.

As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.

Leaving the world and the people around me better than I found them. My daily crime.

Photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash

Sharing Happy

Is it possible to share our happiness? More specifically, is it possible for me to share the things that make me happy with others? I ask because my immediate answer to the first question is yes, of course. My immediate answer to the second question is no. Well, rarely. Let’s say rarely.

Photo by Kevin Quezada on Unsplash

Martin Seligman makes a statement in his book, Authentic Happiness, that I’ve been thinking about for several weeks. He writes that seeking out others to share our happiness with, and telling them how much we value the moment “is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure.”

I’ve struggled all my life with an intense desire to share my happiness with loved ones and an inability to do so.

It works well the other way. For me, one of the joys of connection is allowing myself to become enlarged by the presence of others. I’ve always loved being exposed to what those around me enjoy: new music, new movies, new books, new ideas and new ways of doing things. All my close relationships have made me bigger and contributed to who I am in this moment, and I’m deeply grateful for it.

But I rarely seem to find reciprocity. Or flexibility. Or curiosity. Or something. I’ve never been able to figure out why. Is it that the things that make me happy are stupid, or inappropriate, or boring? Is it something about me? Is it that some people don’t value sharing emotional experience and joy and I have a genius for wanting to connect with those kinds of people?

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Maybe some people have no happiness to share?

My inability to share my happiness and enjoyment with others has left me with a painful feeling of guilt, as though it’s disloyal or a betrayal if I enjoy something others can’t. Or won’t. Guilt turns me inward; I pursue my happiness in secret, stifling my longing to share it, struggling with feelings of rejection and resentment. I show up in their lives to share. Why don’t they want to with me? Am I needy? Demanding?

Around and around I go as I think about this, getting nowhere useful.

When I encounter a hairball like this in my life, I look at it through the lens of power dynamics. The fact is I know what makes me happy. I value experiencing the happiness and delights of others. Both are entirely within my power. I do long to share my own happiness, but sharing requires the participation of another, and that is not in my power.

Guilt and shame are not useful burdens to carry around. My happiness takes nothing away from anyone else. Making myself unhappy doesn’t ease someone else’s unhappiness. Hiding my happiness doesn’t seem like a useful choice. As for resentment, holding on to that only hurts me.

Another problem with my strong desire to share my own happiness is that it reinforces people pleasing. I tie myself into knots thinking about exactly the right timing and approach in order to get someone else to be interested in sharing something I enjoy. Or I tie myself into another kind of knot trying to optimize what I think makes others happy, regardless of the personal cost to myself. If we can’t share happiness, and if something other than what I have to offer gives someone happiness, I disappear as much as I can so there’s maximum room for whatever I think is most wanted.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

It sounds so easy. Find someone to share our happiness with. Tell them what the moment means to us. Enjoy the pleasure.

What am I doing wrong?

As I think about this, I wind up in a familiar place—with myself. Exploring happiness during these last weeks has made me newly conscious of my experience. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve gradually learned to befriend and care for myself, replacing old habits of self-destruction and self-loathing. I see now that much of what I’ve done for myself, rather than waiting for someone to read my mind and do it for me, or give me permission to do what gives me pleasure, have been the same things that make me happy. It’s just not a word I’ve felt very friendly with or applied to myself before.

I’ve thought about all this during my Thanksgiving break. I spent hours and hours cutting greens and making holiday decorations. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was extremely stressful and uncomfortable. I enjoyed it because I love working with my hands, giving gifts, and sharing (there’s that word again) the glory of our evergreen trees and the spirit of the season. It was stressful and uncomfortable because I feel so much anxiety about sharing those things that give me such pleasure. Would I be making people uncomfortable, imposing a gift return obligation? Were the decorations ugly or inappropriate in some way? Would people already have wreaths and decorations and have no use for them? Were they too much? Too little? People probably can and have made or bought something much better.

This is familiar territory, as it’s always the background to posting on this blog. I push through it when I’m writing, but I usually talk myself out of giving spontaneous creative gifts. I decide whatever I want to do is a dumb idea, a waste of time, and, frankly, it’s too scary to be that vulnerable and risk rejection, misunderstanding, or making someone uncomfortable.

It’s too scary to share the things that make me happy.

Sigh.

Working with Seligman’s book and thinking about happiness has changed things. I decided I was going to do something I love to do, share my enjoyment with others, and damn the consequences, or, better yet, completely let go of outcomes. Even if what I made gets thrown directly into the fireplace, what have I lost? My enjoyment of gathering, making, and giving remains intact. My happiness and expression of love are still free in the world instead of hidden and imprisoned in my own heart.

Sharing happiness. My daily crime.

Past Happy

It’s interesting, the way I begin with a book report in this series of posts on happy, and wind up squarely in my own current experience.

For the first three posts on this subject, go here, here, and here. All posts are inspired by Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness.

Seligman suggests that enduring or baseline happiness (as opposed to momentary) has much to do with our thoughts and feelings about our past, present, and future. He spends some time going over research about what comes first, our thoughts or feelings, but I won’t go into that here. What I know is that thoughts are not feelings and feelings are not thoughts, and my understanding of the science is that they’re so intimately connected neurologically and chemically we’re not yet sure which comes first or exactly how they influence each other.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

As I age, I understand my past better and better. I like to think part of this is my own increasing wisdom and compassion. When we’re young, it’s easy to be judgmental, rigid, and unforgiving. It takes time and experience to gain perspective and accumulate our own history of injustices committed; not-so-great choices; and unthinking, unintended cruelties. If we are aging with grace and learning as we go, we also learn about patterns of behavior in ourselves and others. We figure out it was never all about us and the adults in our childish lives were not gods, but ordinary people.

The past is past, but our memories endure, and we’re all shaped in significant and sometimes painful ways by our childhoods. Some of us live in the past, repeating dysfunctional patterns and unable to move on. We believe our past experience determines our future experience. We know nothing will ever work out for us because we believe it never has. We’re hopelessly cursed, or doomed, or oppressed.

However, research clearly indicates that our past does not determine our future, and Seligman proposes that changing the way we think about our past can increase our present enduring state of happiness in powerful ways.

Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

This is not easy work. In my own experience it’s a practice rather than a destination. It requires courage, strength, and determination to excavate our past, along with a good dose of honesty. It stretches our compassion. We must put aside our tendency to play the victim and take on some responsibility. I did not embark on this sort of work in order to be happy. I did it out of a desire to understand myself, others, and my experience; I wanted to heal. I also wanted peace, which is a defined component of happiness.

Shaking off the belief that our past necessarily determines our future, along with developing gratitude and forgiveness, are key in changing the way we think about our past. Seligman doesn’t write about acceptance, but for me it’s an additional important piece.

Gratitude. Forgiveness. Acceptance.

Looking back through these lenses is challenging, to say the least. Some of us look back on long years of pain and some at a few significant events, but if we are unhappy about our past it feels impossible to approach it with gratitude, forgiveness or acceptance, let alone all three. And we don’t have to, if we don’t care about being happy or healing or moving on.

I do care about those things, and I can attest to the relief of thinking about the past with gratitude for teachers and lessons learned rather than bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, though challenging, softens my tendency to curl up into a hard shell and never come out again. At the end of the day, others don’t victimize us and life is not against us. Life happens to us, and to other people, and we all churn around together, bumping into one another, sometimes with a kiss and sometimes with a knife. Life is chaotic and messy.

For me, acceptance is closely linked with forgiveness. Things happen. We all make choices. Most of us are doing the best we can most of the time. To be human is to be imperfect. If we cannot accept ourselves and others for the complex, inconsistent, occasional hot messes that we are, we are choosing to be chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, not only with life in general, but with ourselves.

The hardest work of all, for me, has been applying gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance to myself. I suspect a lot of people can relate to this. Underneath my hurt and anger with others about parts of my history are rage and abuse towards myself. As I heal that, my grievances with others have fallen away.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

When I think about my past and learn how it influences my level of enduring happiness, I feel satisfied with how much work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. My goal at the time wasn’t happiness, exactly, but healing is healing, and I’m happier walking around with scars than I was with open wounds. I’m certainly much happier now than I’ve ever been before, which means I’m more peaceful, and peace was one of my goals.

The best part about working with our past is that we have all the power. We know where we’ve been and what our experience was. We can make choices about how we think about our history. We can refocus and reframe. We can consider our memories from the viewpoint of others who influenced us instead of just our own. We can forgive ourselves for what we did, what we said and who we were, and in doing so we can forgive others.

The past is over, but its influence is not gone. We can choose what that influence will be on our present and future. Will we let it drag us down and hold us back or make it part of the wind beneath our wings?

Past happy. My daily crime.

Freedom