Intentional Living: Create Empty Space

A question was posed by a dear cousin of mine this week on Instragram: “How do people get good at the ‘mindful living’ thing?” Not easily. “Does it ever come naturally?” I find that no, it does not. It takes a lot of work, which makes mindful living intentionally slow. For myself, I prefer the term intentional living. In my personal journey, I’ve found that it’s quite difficult to do. Once in a while, I find myself slipping, too, getting caught up in life’s quick pace, getting tangled in the feels.

I figure we could all remind each other how it is that we get to intentional living. How it is that we slow down. Since it’s not something that just happens because we wish it upon ourselves, we need to remind ourselves to reset, and re-orient towards the path we want to be on. There is a process in making an intentional life, with actionable steps along the way. An experimental journey, there are little equations that are reproducible, just the same as with any science. Having this lifestyle requires creating an environment for this lifestyle. This is where I suggest we all start. Because without the proper environment, a mindful life will struggle to thrive.

The Challenge: Creating Empty Space

I discovered ‘slow living’ closely after I discovered the process of de-cluttering. It only makes sense that the two come hand-in-hand. The aftermath of creating space in my life resulted in a slowness. Something that was once filled now had an emptiness to it, and because of that, there was either an opportunity to fill it with more, or to keep it intentionally empty.

Becoming Comfortable with Emptiness

Poor emptiness! The word itself has this negative connotation around it. It seems as if we are all terrified of emptiness. We associate the word with having “less than”. I mean, just look around. Every surface in our homes is filled with stuff. We don’t want an empty shelf, or an empty table. We are uncomfortable with sitting in emptiness. We turn on a TV, we turn on music, we grab our phone, or we open a book. We break the silence. We do everything we possibly can to fill empty space. At least for myself, it was an almost immediate reaction.

Having empty space gives us a place for eyes to rest. Gives us space to expand, or to enjoy, or to feel peaceful. That space and time of nothingness is where we unpack things. It’s where we process thoughts and create ideas without being distracted. It’s the environment that we need to help facilitate all other modes of intentional living.

The challenge

Empty one surface in your home every week for a month. It may be a dining table, a bedside table, a coffee table. It may be a drawer or a shelf, in your closet or your pantry. It may be an entire wall wherein you remove all of the picture frames and decor hanging from it. Remove every single item on the surface you have chosen, and live with it empty for the entire week. It’s a practice to start to get you to feel comfortable in the emptiness.

The mindful part? Pay attention to your reactions to that empty space. Listen to the stories you tell yourself. Do you feel weird at having an empty dining table? Do you ask yourself if guests who come over will think your unprepared, or boring, or dull? Do you start to fear that others will think that you have too little, because a shelf is empty? Are you scared that people will think you don’t have enough things? Pay attention to the voice inside our heads telling us why we think there ‘should’ be things there. It’s a great start for realizing the motivations behind the stories and reasons that explain why we are so uncomfortable with the thought of emptiness.

Additionally, there is an added benefit to this experiment, and that is the realization of what stuff we actually miss and what stuff we don’t. Living with it for a week, you will soon see which things you hardly miss, and which things you miss dearly. It brings awareness to the items you actually value. So often, we live with stuff just because it’s there and that’s how it’s always been and we forget what their roles are in our lives (if there ever was such a role). Doing this experiment gets you asking questions and makes us more intentional about the things we keep. It gives you an opportunity to just put back the things you really like, or the things that you use.

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  – William Morris

And you could, as well, miss everything you put away, and that’s fine too. But this is when you should interject and dig a bit deeper and ask yourself, “Why is it that I miss the stuff I miss?” And if you enjoyed this process, maybe start to apply it to every surface. Just remember to take it slow, a week at a time, otherwise, you’re back to a fiendishly hyperactive life.

A Very Debtist Birthday

Birthdays are kind of a tortuous thing for me these days. At some point, I think we all kind of went a bit astray and, may I say it, b-o-n-k-e-r-s, with the whole celebrations thing. I understand celebrating an event or accomplishment, but the whole excess consumption tied to each holiday really bothers me. I wanted to do something very different for this year (and hopefully here on out).

Over the past year, Mike and I have been struggling with trying to relate to family and friends that we want celebrations to be centered around less stuff. When we tell them we don’t want gifts, they insist that we must get something. What ends up happening is that they get us random things, or things we don’t even need, and these things literally immediately go to someone else, or get donated to Goodwill, because we do not want more stuff. So then we started to tell them specifically what things we want with an emphasis on the fact that we want to stray from plastic and excess waste. But then the packages show up wrapped in layers of colored paper and plastic ribbons tied to plastic balloons. Those who want to gift us money put them on plastic gift cards. I mean the whole ordeal has just been very difficult.

We have finally come to a point where we have wrangled down the gift giving quite a bit. Our immediate families STILL insist they get us a gift, so we have an agreed upon one from each side, instead of one from each person. My family got me pasta roller attachments so I can make pastas at home, and Mike’s side got me a pizza stone and peel so I can ramp up our homemade pizza game. As for the others, I wanted a solution. It’s so complicated explaining to 30 relatives why we don’t want gifts and then fighting their resistance against our request. It was time-consuming to make a specific list for them last Christmas, and then frustrating to find that our “bar of soap purchased without wrapping” was wrapped in cellophane with bows. I am not ungrateful, but I AM almost near hysterical. When did we all get so carried away? When did celebrations become tied to wayyyy more than just gathering together to relish in the joys of our accomplishments? Why is it so difficult to untangle people’s perceptions of what a party should look like from the actual party?

My vision of a birthday celebration includes:

+ A get together at a park (or beach, or home).

+ Sharing a meal cooked by loved ones.

+ A home-made birthday cake.

+ Sitting around a circle, telling stories or jokes.

+ Taking photos, or sharing old ones.

+ A birthday song, perhaps.

+ Hugs, kisses, and high-fives.

Not much more than that.

This year, I got a little inspiration from Mr. Money Mustache, and we found a way to do our birthday in a very Debtist way. In the past, we would dine out with our friends and families, usually at a restaurant, for our birthdays. Each person’s meal would cost $15-$25 per person. If we weren’t doing that, someone would be throwing us a party, paying $50 for a cake, the same amount for balloons, confetti and decorations that we would trash that day, and so on. I used to count how many presents I would get each year at my birthday or during Christmas, and it would always be more than 20 gifts. I thought to myself, “Wow, what a waste to have people spend ludicrous amounts of money to throw parties and give gifts, while there are people who exist and barely have any food to eat.” So, I spoke to Mike, who feels the same torture as I, and whose birthday is two weeks away from mine, and we decided to do something different this year.

We created a FEED supper instead. The idea is simple. One hosts a supper (or in our case, a brunch) where each guest makes a donation to provide meals for families in need across the country before attending the event. 100% of the FEED supper donations will provide meals to American families through Feeding America. An estimated 42 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they do not know where their next meals are coming from. By coming together “to truly share a meal”, we can help change that.  We wrote our families and friends the following letter:

We can do a world of good.

Hi all,

For us, a simpler birthday is a more meaningful birthday. Instead of asking for gifts or inviting you guys to dine out this year, we request your help in feeding those in need! This year, we are hosting a FEED supper (erm, well, brunch…). For those who are able, we request a donation to FEED and in return, every person who makes a donation is invited to come over to our place on Sunday, July 1 at 10 a.m. for home-made pastries and coffee! I have gotten into quite the baking habit and Mike makes wonderful coffee selections from local coffee roasters. 

This helps to avoid stressful shopping and allows folks to focus dollars where really needed.

The best present for us is getting together with you.

It’s hard to believe that over 40 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. We can do something to change that.

Please consider making a small donation before attending this FEED Brunch, where we can celebrate our collective impact together.  

It only takes a little to make a big difference. By giving just $10, you can provide 90 meals to American families through FEED’s domestic giving partner, Feeding America. Our goal is to raise $500, but if we go over, even better!  100% of the proceeds will go towards Feeding America. 

Learn more about FEED Supper at feedprojects.com/feedsupper

We love you, and we appreciate your help in making a difference in the world.

Sincerely,

Sam

The letter links them to a website where they can make a donation of their choice. We have also invited them over to our house for pastries and coffee on a day between our birthdays. It’s something simple, but also something Mike and I are passionate about! We are very excited to see familiar faces, not only to celebrate our birthdays, but also to celebrate our impact!

Even after all of this, we were still asked to go out on my birthday to grab food by friends and family members. It took everything I had in me to flat out decline. It’s so hard to say no because you see the disappointment in their faces and hear it in their voices. But I had to stand my ground, otherwise I would have been the unhappy one. I gave them the spiel about how I did not want to do ANY spending on my actual day of birth. I emphasized the fact that we created the event to bring awareness to the excess consumption that advertising and social media has melded with the idea of celebration. I offered alternatives, such as joining us for a hike, or a bonfire. Interestingly, no one took us up on our offers, not even my parents. My mom was insisting we go out for breakfast at Lola’s Cafe, and when I said no to that, she insisted going to Breugger’s Bagels, because it is a cheap way to celebrate. She said, “We just want to spend time with our daughter on her birthday.” But when I declined again and asked if we could hike or go to the beach instead, she said they were busy. I think doing something so mundane was not considered a celebration, even though the celebration itself is internal, no?

Anyways, yesterday ended up being a good day. After helping my patients at work, and visiting with my family for an hour after work, Mike took me on a three mile hike to circumnavigate the only natural lake in Orange County. We then went home and made pasta. He had previously picked up a Coffee, Whiskey, Peanut Brittle Ice Cream from Kansha Creamery on his way home from work Friday (in a re-usable container, off course) and we dipped into that with a week-old left-over slice of cake from my mom’s end-of-the-school-year party. It was, I think, very reflective of the things I valued and what I envision my life to really be about in the upcoming year. More importantly, it was what made me happy. It’s a slow process, and maybe people will never understand the repercussions of our extravagant, Great-Gatsby lives. At least this year, I didn’t have to contribute.

The Privilege of Everything I Talk About

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Yesterday, I was reminiscing on the broad spectrum of topics that I address on this blog, which fall under the categories of finance, minimalism, ethical consumerism, ecofriendly habit shifts, and slow living, with occasional pesky posts spilling outside of these confines. I addressed on Instragram the difficulty with sticking to all the things that make up a whole “me”, adding a friendly reminder to always do “you”. The one thing that I did not speak aloud but which was ever present in my conscious mind was the fact that every one-way conversation I have on this site (and other platforms) has privilege written all over it.

There, I’ve said it.

Privilege is a word that has taken on a new meaning in today’s social context. When I bring up privilege in a conversation, people tend to act in a very defensive way, as if I had called them a name or said a bad word in front of the kids. They usually comment how they are not at all privileged and that they fall under a meager “middle-class” title. Do not get me wrong. I am not “wealthy” by American standards. As you all know, our net worth is negative half a million dollars, we rent a space and rely on co-housing in order to save money, we use travel rewards to travel, and our grocery budget is $50 a week. Still, I am able to say that as a middle-class U.S. citizen, I am extremely privileged.

When it comes to finances, it is apparent that I am of a well enough financial status to be able to look at my money and direct where it is going. I am able to have the access to loans in the first place to get a good education and to secure a career. I am then able to make enough to pay down the debt and to plan for a future. People around the world cannot even plan for a meal to eat tonight, let alone a safe place to “live”. Having a way to choose to budget my way towards financial freedom at a young age is something I feel very lucky to be a part of.

When it comes to minimalism, I have enough stuff that surrounding myself with only things I love requires constant re-evaluation. The problem that we face when people refuse to honor our request for no gifts on special occasions is a problem many others would embrace. The fact that we are in a constant state of de-cluttering is only a painful and embarrassing reminder to myself that there are other people in the world who would beg for these things, but to whom I cannot get access to give these things to.

When it comes to ethical consumerism, I have access to markets that are mindful with their practices in production. I have the monetary ability to support ethical companies, and I have the material excess to not support unethical ones. I am able to be selective and can choose to go without when the price is too high, or when the ethics is absent. There is a quote that states that every dollar we use to consume goods is a vote towards the world we want to see. However, I recognize the unfairness of that quote. A mother in a third world country who does not have the money to pay for an expensive, ethically-made shirt is not automatically a mother who does not want to see a better world for her child.

When it comes to eco-friendly habit shifts, I am aware of the resources needed in order to create lifestyle changes for the better of the environment in the first place. It is already difficult enough to find the resources to be eco-friendly in a well-off community of Orange County, California. Imagine how much more difficult it must be for a Filipino to find sources of clean water outside of plastic bottles. As the island sinks underneath its own waste, don’t you think it has crossed their minds that this is unhealthy to the environment? And yet I ask, where do you expect them to get clean water?

When it comes to slow living, I have the space and time to reflect on ways in which I can have less in my life. I run away from having too much. I have a career that allows me time away from work in order to focus on myself. Me, me, me.

The complexities of privilege are so immense, and so conflicted, and so twisted, that it’s hard to describe exactly where each of us falls. What I know is this. If you are reading this blog, and you are trying to attempt financial freedom, or be an ethical shopper, or curb your environmental footprint, or embrace minimalism and slow living, please pause and recognize that you are of the privileged. Please use that privilege to make a difference in the world by being extremely intentional in the way you live, and the way you consume all things. Not just for the factory worker or child laboring in a far off land, but also, for the mother in your neighborhood who lives off of food stamps and does not have the extra dollars to “cast a vote for the world she wants to see.”

In writing this, I am not a martyr or a saint. The martyrs and saints are swimming in poverty, faced with disease and famine, caught in a state of war, plagued with injustice and ill-fate, and still, are trying to raise their children to be good people.

Slow Living: Slow Decision-Making on Having Children, or Not

It’s a funny thing, being married and not having children. Typically, the first question past somebody’s lips are, “Are you pregnant yet?”, regardless of their relationship to you, or lack thereof. “Yet” being the most offensive word in the entire inquiry. “Yet” as in, implying it was expected years ago. “Yet”, as in reminding every female of a biological clock ticking away in the distance. “Yet”, as if securing child-bearing as a factual part of every woman’s life, so as to rob her of freedom of choice.

We’ve had grandparents come up to us and tell us, “I want to have great-grandkids already (some of them already do, and still, their eyes turn to us)”, and our own parents saying “I want grandkids too!”. How noble of you to volunteer us for such an intensive endeavor. Sometimes I just want to tell them, in a very matter-of-fact way, that my purpose in life is not to serve them forever (oh, master), just as their calling in life is to not live through me forever (your highness).

Having children is a decision that I’ve tossed around, mulled over, succumbed to, and fought against. It’s a discussion that I’ve spilled out on the table to Mikey, and that we’ve shoved back into a closet. I have always been a very deliberate, and intentional person, who strives to have my actions reflect my values, although I was never able to recognize that before in my youth. My thinking has always been of a psychological nature. I was attracted to books that taught me more about the human nature than all my human interactions combined. Maybe that’s why I am deeply attracted to psychological thrillers, and equally, as deeply affected. I used to consider myself a secret rebel, because I had an urge to initially resist and go against whatever I was taught, with the assumption that what the world feeds me is not necessarily right. “A girl who thinks too much”, they said. I don’t think too much, I simply think. Whether that’s a short-coming on my part is debatable, one that I’d heatedly deny. Regardless, I continue to dissect my actions, my thoughts, my feelings to unfathomable depths until I reach some form of inner peace. This is just a small look into my extremely complicated, weirdo mind.

Child bearing is a concept whose importance is so heavily ingrained in a multitude of cultures, since the beginning of man-kind. There is a large part of myself that feels a resistance to the idea, despite being raised with the notion that this was my future written in stone. There was always this timeline that was assumed and impressioned on me, as I am sure it was impressioned on you. One that entails schooling, a career, marriage, a home, a new car, the first child or pet, a renovation of the home, the second child or pet, forty years of servitude to the man, and retirement on a Caribbean island. It’s a cycle that so many have lived through and wrongly romanticized, but we all don’t fit in the same shaped box that the world wishes to conform us to, do we now?

For many people, after marrying, they have this expectation of having kids as the next step. Whether they are aware of the puppet strings manipulating their decision to do that or not, it just “naturally” happens (tongue in cheek). It’s such a common assumption, that any random stranger meeting you for the first time and learning that you’re married will probably ask about your children within the first five minutes. This would occur in almost every part of the world.

It isn’t to say that having kids doesn’t turn out well. A majority of the time, it turns out wonderfully. It’s something that happens that many do not express regret over. It is, after all, a gift. Unfortunately, this does not mean that it was a decision that many people felt completely in control of. In fact, I would wager that a majority of people cannot completely explain why they chose to have kids in the first place. Answers I would typically hear include, “I wanted to experience the joys of motherhood”, “I wanted to embark on a journey with my husband”, “I want to learn from my children”, and “I wanted the challenge of raising a child right”. But these all sound like reiterations of extremely vague explanations-past that have no depth and crumble right after I ask the question, “Why?”

Some mothers immediately recognize their lack of control over the decision making process AFTER giving birth to their child. There is a line that is crossed wherein a person loses their singularity once a child is born. The unexpectedness of this loss, or the unpreparedness to understand that part of yourself (and your life) is now shared by someone else can be very depressing.

Post partum depression is increasing in occurrence among women in the United States. CDC research reports that nationally, 1 in 9 women experience post partum depression, and that some states, 1 in 5 women experience post partum depression. The cause is yet unknown and some would like to attribute it to hormonal changes, but there is no definitive truth. I took a Women’s Course once in college and I vividly remember research that argued that hormonal changes during menstruation and post partum actually cause women to have a heightened sense of awareness and a deeper connection spiritually and intuitively. In some indigenous cultures, these awakened abilities of women are so highly valued that women actually leave in groups once a month to go to the top of the mountains or in isolation somewhere to have the space to fully tap into this awareness. The class compares that to first world countries’ explanation of PMS, which could be the result of a woman’s awareness of their position or role in society, and the rage they feel at the injustice of it all. Likewise, post partum depression could be the sudden realization that they have just sacrificed a part of their lives for society. And while some may argue that hormonal changes could be the cause of depression, it is interesting to me that the risk factors and symptoms are non-hormonal at all, but rather societal.

Risk factors for Post Partum Depression Include

  • Difficulty getting pregnant.
  • Low social support.
  • Being a mom to multiples, like twins, or triplets.
  • Being a teen mom.
  • Preterm (before 37 weeks) labor and delivery.
  • Pregnancy and birth complications.
  • Having a baby who has been hospitalized.

Symptoms of Post Partum Depression Include

  • Feelings of anger.
  • Withdrawing from loved ones.
  • Feeling numb or disconnected from your baby.
  • Worrying that you will hurt the baby.
  • Feeling guilty about not being a good mom or doubting your ability to care for the baby.

This indicates to me that there is more to the depression than a scientific explanation of excessive neurochemicals floating around in one’s bloodstream. Whether it’s natural to feel our own humanness, or it’s due to a realization of an incomplete understanding of our undertaking, post partum depression at times happens but many are able to conquer it and move on to being fantastic and wonderful parents.

What I am going to say next may offend people because of my lack of experience in parenting and my statements regarding the task, but this is what I’ve observed and learned from deep discussions with current parents. Being a parent is romanticized as being a joy in life. A correction to that statement would be that it is a joy in life, at times. It cannot be denied that there are moments in parenting that are frustrating, infuriating, annoying, tiring, and downright unbearable. Raising a little human is much more difficult than raising a little fish. It requires more of ourselves than we would like to admit. It’s nice to pin on social media the good moments, the perfect family photo, the tenth photo you took that captures that “one moment” of child-like goodness, but it could also be extremely misleading to young would-be-parents to paint an image of perfection.

There is a devotion to being there for another human being that is required from all parents that I think really conflicts with my ambition to serve society with the aim of reaching a higher good. These two things are completely incompatible ends. There is going to come a point in my life, where my would-be child would likely ask me to play a game of hide-and-seek in the exact moment that I should be rushing out the door to get to work. I would have to either make a choice to play hide-and-seek without reserve or distraction for that child and be late to my first patient of the day, or to deny my child the game to see my first patient as promised. When I brought this up to Mike, he had the insight to say it could also be detrimental to both. Maybe you start the game of hide-and-seek which ends in frustration of being late and the need to end it early, thus resulting in you being a few minutes late for another human being. Now you’ve failed both the child and the patient. Which is why I am so angered by this idea of Life Work Balance that is being glamorized by the media. It’s this false lifestyle that can be really damaging to the human psyche. It’s an expectation that we have created, not only for women, but men and fathers too, that sets them up for failure. We pretend as if this can be transcended, when it can’t. It would be impossible for any human being to equally service everyone and everything at all times, day-to-day.

With that said, and with the knowledge of the human limitations for achieving SuperMom status, any devotion that I give to a fictitious child would hamper my strive to give to my community. Some might argue that you will be improving the community by raising a child right, with valued morals and principles, thus giving them the ability to contribute to THEIR community when they grow older. But isn’t that thinking a bit too much on the small-scale of things? I think I would have a greater effect on society if I could somehow touch multiple parents with my work. Whether that’s dentistry or my writing or my lifestyle. If I could influence a whole community of parents, whose child-rearing thinking, techniques and habits shift to raise a whole generation of better children, does that not make up for the one child I choose not to have? Instead of giving to one child, why not give to an entire world of children? I am not so egotistical as to think I would have this world-changing effect on society, but maybe I can change one or two or ten people through my work, who then pass it on to THEIR children, and is that not better already?

I was reading Ashlee Vance’s book on Elon Musk and an interview with Elon revealed to me that he was a huge proponent of procreation. Specifically, he reprimands smarter women for not procreating more. He notes the correlation between highly educated, career-driven, “successful and intellectual” women, and decreased child-bearing. He states that “smarter women” should have children, as an evolutionary responsibility to our race’s future. At first I was floored by this very influential and highly-educated man’s insistence on highly-educated women having children. For a second I was convinced. But then I had flashbacks from my evolutionary biology courses. Evolution is not generational. Evolution occurs over extremely long periods of time. It depends more on a mutational change that can permeate throughout the species and survive over numerous generations. Unless there is a mutational change that would make a smart woman’s child smarter than a regular human being, there is an unlikelihood that her having children will have an impact in the evolutionary progression of intelligence. Additionally, even if an intelligent woman has a child who is also more intelligent than his peers, there has to be the guarantee that that child will procreate with an equally intelligent human being. If the child procreates with someone with a lower IQ score, then there is no progress. There are other factors that could affect evolutionary intelligence. The technology which we are creating, at an increasingly rapid speed, is causing us as a species to access less and less of our brains. Atrophy of certain aspects of the brain due to an easier lifestyle can affect evolutionary intelligence more than the decision of one woman to have a child. Even something as simple as reading books, which was invented way before computers, is considered a fairly recent advancement in our society that arguably require us to draw less from niches in our brains that deal with imagination or memory.

Lastly, I would like to challenge the idea that intelligence is measured solely by biological factors. It has been discovered that IQ tests do not test intelligence alone, but rather motivation as well, which I would argue can be taught. Environmental factors can greatly shape a person’s motivation to learn. It would be wrongly assuming of anyone to think that a highly educated woman’s child will be born smarter than a child born in a third world country to two parents who work in factories. It has been shown time and time again that people from third world countries tend to tap into their potentials more than people from first world countries, given the same resources. Perhaps it is the survival-of-the-fittest in us all and an early introduction to how pressing the survival call actually is during our childhood years that help to shape this. Regardless, I think to myself at times, that maybe the smarter thing to do would be to not have children, but to give a child in need the resources and the ability to be able to reach their hidden potential.

I think this humanitarian ideal calls more to me now than ever before. There are plenty of children in this world already. I am one of those children who was born in a third world country. I have done outreach programs to third world countries multiple times in my life. I know that there is a need for help. Nicole Kidman’s role as Sue Brierly in Lion captured it best.

“Having a child, couldn’t guarantee it will make anything better. But to take a child that’s suffering like you boys were. Give you a chance in the world. That’s something.

I think about this quote all the time. I wonder about whether wanting children is a selfish thing. Historically, having children came from a selfish need to increase the number of hands on a farm, or a need to carry the family name that we so wear with pride. The more modern reasons for wanting children that I touched on above all insinuate a sense of selfish pleasure out of the entire experience. It would be wrong of me to say that having children is just yet another social status symbol that we portray to the world, saying we are successful and happy, although partially, I believe that is true. Congratulations, yet another box you’ve checked off on your to-do list! Off course, I wouldn’t deny in the same breath that there is more to it than that. But the reasons that I hear always center around “I”. “I wanted to experience the joys of motherhood”. “I wanted to embark on a journey with my husband”. “I want to learn from my children”. “I wanted the challenge of raising a child right”.

But what is it that we want to give? And can we do that with what we already have?

The game plan for me was always to have children of my own. But it’s on pause right now, while I try to riddle through past influences and determine whether that choice was really made by me, or by someone else. This is just the transitional phase, and as with any transitional phase, it involves some heavy soul-searching, unearthing, and re-configuring. Undoubtedly, it would be insane of me, and completely degrading, if I decide to have children simply because someone else wants me to. Then again, people will call me insane for digging this deeply on a decision that some would unwittingly make in a heartbeat. There is a sense of “Hurry up already!” that we feel, like a scent seeping into a room. But as with everything else … slow and intentional, mindful and true.

Freedom: Why I Choose to Stay Part Time

When I first graduated from dental school, I imagined myself working as many days as possible at multiple offices to lead a “successful” and rich lifestyle. The goals were like any other typical goals, pay down student debt, buy a huge house in Southern California, travel the world, buy nice things to fill the house, start a family and raise children, etc. I wasn’t quite as intentional back then with my lifestyle as I am now, as you can probably tell. But I was ready to enter the workforce and “getter done”. After so much schooling, I felt like I was behind everyone else and I needed some catching up to do.

So how did I end up here?

The first person who ever suggested I work part-time was my financial advisor. We had just met and we were delving into what our goals were for the future and what our ideal lifestyle model would be like. When I rushed headlong into my ideas of working 6 days a week at multiple offices, for the rest of my life until I retire at past 65, he stopped me then and there and asked me to consider an alternative. Burnout is a prevalent result in dentistry. Due to the high stresses of the job, a majority of dentists experience burnout at an earlier age than they would like, which causes them to either cut down significantly on the days they work or quit dentistry all-together. My financial advisor, who deals with mostly newly graduated dentists, have seen time and time again, young new grads quitting dentistry a few years out of school. Despite my whole-hearted belief that this could never happen to me, he highly recommended that I limit myself to only four or five days a week. Long-term, he says that that would be most conducive to the lifestyle that me and Mike were trying to live. Off course, with anything anyone says to me, I took it with a grain of salt, but was still slightly stubborn in my ways. I had barely started work at that time, and was really feeling professionally driven. To me, I have watched my parents before me, and my friends around me, work the usual 9-5, Monday to Friday every week, and I (arrogantly, pompously, and ignorantly) assumed that I was more capable than that. I felt like I could take on the whole world at that point in life. We all feel like superheroes when we are young and naive.

And maybe we could, but does it mean that we should? The second person who insisted I work part-time was my boss. A little back story on where I work and my relationship with my boss. I started working at an office five minutes from my house at the age of 19 years old. I was a volunteer at first, but the office manager (who happened to be the wife of the dentist who owned the practice), saw my drive and interest and decided to train me from scratch to be a dental assistant. She paid for my x-ray licensing exams, bought me scrubs, set up one-on-one training sessions with the dental assistants, etc., etc. She basically became my second mother and took me by the hand and showed me the ropes. She held a lot of belief in me and I grew confidence and independence under her wing. She saw my love for writing, and actually had me write the entire website for the office from scratch. Every single written word on that site was mine, and I became so proud of it. She was very trusting, patient, and just all-together generous with her time. Eventually, I started working as a dental assistant on the IV sedation team, which was being run by the owner of the practice. He, too, had the same generosity as his wife, and shared so much knowledge, tips, and advice. I knew I wanted to be a dentist since I was eight years old, but I did not come to love dentistry until I worked with them at this office. These two people became my second parents, and did as fantastic a job as my first (real) parents in raising me to find my self-worth, as well as instilling in me the core need to put others first when it comes to doing dental work. When I graduated dental school, I reached out to them and they made room for me in their two practices to start my journey. Again, they’ve trusted in my abilities, although I do not know what they ever see in me, but I hold a lot of respect and feel a lot of gratitude towards these two people. They are the type to hold the best interests of those around them to heart, and I trust them fully and hold their opinions quite highly.

So when I started working with my boss and he asked me how many days I hoped to work, again I said 6 days a week. He looked at me kind of funny, as if seeing his former, younger self with the same fire in my eyes, shook his head, and then said to me, “You don’t want to work six days a week. It’ll burn you out. You’ll feel too tired to think and then you will make mistakes, and then you will feel less and less confident. Plus it wouldn’t be giving your best standard of care to your patients. In fact, I don’t want you working six days a week.” I was kind of surprised, but at the same time, I recalled my financial advisor saying the same thing and I said, “Okay.”

Initially he gave me three days a week, and then he bumped it up to four days a week, and then five days every other week. But I think he saw that I was looking for more. When one of the doctors at one of the offices left to fulfill her own dental dreams, he had me cover for her until he hired a new doctor, which then had me working six days every other week, and five days every other week. I was so excited for the chance, I jumped at it and went to town. I worked so much, and though I loved my job and went to work every day with a smile on my face (and, more importantly, left work every day with a smile on my face), I started to see what he meant. Burn out is a real thing, and although you may not feel it, it IS reflected in one way or another. Perhaps it is in your work, or the way you treat others. I started to lose that time that I used to take with my patients, and I was practicing more of an in-and-out type dentistry. The Hi- Let’s get to work – Bye! It wasn’t just dentistry either. I started to bring that home with me, relishing the space that I needed for myself, and taking away from the time I should have given to Mike and my family and friends. It only lasted a month or two before we hired a new doctor that fit well with our practice. But I saw what I needed to see, which was this.

You cannot take care of other people if you do not take care of yourself first. My job is built around helping others, whether that’s helping them out of pain, helping them feel confident with their smile, helping them learn about hygiene techniques that will prevent future disease, or just helping them understand more about teeth. I entered dentistry for this aspect of it, and to detract from my ability to help others to a high level of standard is selfish and wrong, especially when the driving force is money. Luckily, I also found a shift in my “needs and wants” in life, and I realized that I don’t need the money as bad as I thought. Sure, I still have bills to pay and loans to be free from. But I also used to spend on things that were simply wasteful. I cut that out and found that I do have the time, and space, to give to myself, before I give unto others.

My brother once asked me why I did not work more if I was so concerned about paying off my student loans really quickly. Fair question, since that’s all I seemingly preach. My answer is this. The reason why I want to pay off student debt quickly is not so I can be rich quicker. It’s so I can be free. If working more days now is required to get rid of the debt quicker, then all I am doing is trading freedom now for freedom later. The result of that trade would be a worn down, energetically deprived me, who would get less out of life in my earlier years than if I were to continue at a more moderate pace. The truth is, I just don’t think the trade is worth it. If freedom is what you seek, then there is no need to get more freedom in exchange for freedom. I think it all comes down to the question, “What do you value?” To be able to answer that question requires a lot of deep soul searching that I am not completely sure is even complete yet. But so far, I’ve come to the conclusion that things I value include aspects of life that cannot be found in the workplace. I value space – for a reset, to be mindful, to be open and to think clearly. I value health, which is prolonged by the avoidance of stressors and physical ailments via static postures. Speaking of stasis, I value trying to avoid stasis in all aspects, by always learning something new. I find that if I was at work all the time, I would not have the space or time to learn new things, which would be a shame, since I also value creativity and self-expression. Lastly, I value taking care of people, and it’s easy to forget that we are people too.

In 2017, I worked an average of 3 days a week. It’s almost laughable, that a young, arguably driven dentist, would work less than half of the year. Even though I worked alternating 4 and 5 day weeks, and a few months of 5 and 6 day weeks, I took multiple long vacations, some as long as 2-3 weeks. I no longer seek to fill my time solely with work. I am more mindful about drawing boundaries and really saying no in order to have the space to increase my own self-worth. I aim to learn new things about the world, and where my place lies in it. The time off has given me a better understanding as to why I do things the way I do and how I could live life in a way that is better for the planet and for the people. More importantly, I am able to implement that change. It’s not just all talk, but I actually get to experiment with different lifestyles and really DO. I spend a majority of my weekends solely with family members and friends, because I have my own weekdays off where I can spend it on myself. I like that I don’t have to detract from other people’s time. Time is like any other resource we have. Like money, if you have an excess amount of time, you are more likely to be liberal in giving it away to others. If you have little time, then you will be more stingy with it, wanting to keep it for yourself. Now I know that time is a better thing to earn than money. Off course, I could go out there and find other offices to work at on my days off, but honestly, I have come to realize the value of working part time. What started as a recommendation by my financial planner and a command by my boss has become an autonomous choice to choose freedom above all else. I wouldn’t trade the peace and happiness that I’ve found for a house, or a new car. Would you?

Curating Closets: Letting Go of Trends

Fashion trends are a funny thing. Always, I’m reminded of the day I sat in my college biology class and watched hundreds of lemmings following each other until they’ve all jumped to their perilous death in a state of herd mentality amidst a migration. I think back to my own succumbing to the scrunchy frenzy, the bell bottoms fad, the constriction of skinny jeans, the poofiness of fur vests, et cetera, et cetera. If these trends seem a bit outdated, well, it may be because at some point, I kind of got tired of following, perhaps shortly after watching cute lemmings jump off a cliff. I must’ve said to myself, “Let me be a lemming no more!”

I spent 7 years of my late teens and early twenties in a shopping mall, because that’s where I worked. I spent five of those years working at a retail store. Four of those years, I held the titles of merchandise specialist and visuals specialist. This endowed me the responsibility of displaying products in such a way that makes them appealing to buy. I enjoyed my work because I usually had autonomy over it, working solo in the wee hours of the morning before the mall doors opened to thousands of customers. I was creating beautiful imagery with my work, highlighting certain products in covetable ways. Suffice it to say, I know all about trends.

I know how fast they come about,

How forcefully they are pushed into people’s minds,

How they can shape a person’s wants even before walking into the store.

I have seen them fly off shelves,

The same day they are placed.

I’ve seen disappointment in people’s faces,

when they come a day too late.

I also know how fast they fade,

For the next week, I am back at my job,

Placing a new “It” thing to be chased.

I am not above fashion trends, in the sense that I, too, fell for every single one of them. However, over time, I started following the beating of my own drum, in fashion and other things, and I kind of fell out of sync with fashion trends. As I grew older and delved into de-cluttering and implemented “slower fashion”, I found that fashion trends leave me feeling a bit sick. For one group of people to sway an entire population’s opinion on what is “beautiful”, it has got me wondering whether we’ve got ourselves a real-life state of Panem in our midst. The Capitol would be proud.

Alack.

One day, my  I was walking in the mall as my twenty-six-year-old self, when I saw a large quote plastered on the wall.

“Fashion is about dressing according to what’s fashionable. Style is about being yourself.”                                                                                     -Oscar De Le Renta

I remember stopping in front of the escalators and turning to fully face the words, re-reading the quote multiple times. I had flashbacks of the discomfort of skinny jeans, the itchiness of colored stockings, the chafing of jelly shoes, and the hazards of five-inch platform clogs. I remember feeling not-quite-myself when wearing clothes that someone else decided looked good. I, admittedly, was a bit loony for thinking Aviator glasses can look good on everyone, and that I had to buy corduroy pants in every Fall color. There were times where I also felt short of “enough”. The V-neck tee craze had me buying V-necks in multiple colors, and then lamenting my pre-teen bod that had nothing to show off in a V-neck. But they had everyone wearing V-Necks, even the men.

I looked down at my own outfit that day and knew that I was doing something right. I had on a grey sweater over a black tee and my favorite denim. This post isn’t to brag that I’ve done away with vanity all together. I am human, and I still look in mirrors, you know. But I want to look in a mirror and see myself. I still appreciate being polished at times, and elevated, and all-together looking F-I-N-E. But I don’t want to look good only momentarily, until the next trendy thing comes along. Before you know it, you’ve got the trends running the show. Once the new IT thing comes out, whatever IT thing you wore yesterday should no longer be worn, lest you be mocked for being behind the times or wearing something that is so ridiculous that, why again did we think that was cool?! Instead of having the previously 2-4 seasons a year, fashion now has 52 seasons a year, with new trends being released each time. Trends keep you reaching for the next thing, and like life, it’ll have you in quite the chase. It’s a little too exhausting for my style.

So I’ve let the trends go. I’d hate to say that I avoid them completely, for if there is something that I happen to like wearing (and always have liked wearing), and then some guy up in the cloud somewhere decides that this thing is trendy, I’m not going to go out and start renouncing the thing all-together! No, I just let trends do their own thing in a space separate from mine, and I’ll be over here, singing my own tune.

So if you’re looking for curating closets advice, here it is. You do you. You find whatever expression makes your little heart happy, whatever combo you find comfy, and you just remember that your biggest accessory is found in your smile and the way you carry yourself and how you treat others. That’s all the advice I can give you, and I hope it helps you in your curating, to let go of some things that you have been holding on to, maybe because a hypothetical someone once told you you needed to.

Cultivating Happiness by Going Back to the Breath.

When I first stepped into a yoga studio, I was not in search of an awakening of sorts. I was twenty and I had not started the search for my life’s purpose or meaning. I wasn’t even aware that I had yet to find my true self. In a way, Yoga was the one who found me, and has been creeping into life’s little crevices ever since, teaching me that only one thing keeps us fully alive, that which is our life source: the breath.

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I attended my first yoga class to support a best friend from high school , J. Lowe,  (pictured above and throughout this post) who just discovered yoga and was teaching her first class. A third bestie completed our trio and we brought along Mike and a roommate of his. I saw the class solely as an exercise routine. Although we were being reminded throughout class to return to our breath, I was too busy concentrating on the sweat dripping down from my forehead to my toes, causing me to slip and slide from my mat like a waterslide laid out amidst summer grass. My mind, a restless wanderer, was constantly wondering whether anyone was looking at me and what they thought of my stance. I was shy of my newbie skill set and the inability to hold postures as gracefully as some of the other swans in the room. I was exhausted ten minutes in, and realized that I didn’t have a single thread of muscle in my puny body. I kept wondering when the hour would be up, looking forward to eating something soon, despite the late hour. I thought that this would be way easier, if only I didn’t have bangs. I was looking around to see what posture to hold, what everyone was wearing, how my friends were faring.

At that point in my life, I had what they call a monkey mind. All these thoughts that had nothing to do with the yoga itself kept barging in and disrupting me and my process. Accompanied with these thoughts were a collection of emotions. Shyness, frustration, insecurity, loneliness, tiredness, empathy, embarrassment, anger, happiness, restlessness, hunger, to name a few and not necessarily in that order. It was an accurate representation of what my life was, a mirrored reflection of a million particles squeezed into a tiny space and creating tumultuous friction as they collided and fought for my attention.

A chase is a word I so lovingly use to describe my past lifestyle. Fast forward a few years later, where I started to do a bit of soul searching to answer one main question. How can I find happiness? I started with the question, “What will make me happy?” and I didn’t stop asking follow up questions. Even now, I still haven’t stopped.

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If you ask somebody what will make them happy, they may say, money will make me happy. Okay why money? Because I will have the ability to pay for food on the table. Okay why food? Because I want to go through every day knowing that I won’t go hungry. Okay why don’t you want to go hungry? Because I don’t want to suffer or feel pain. What will make you feel pain? Being constricted. What else will make you feel constricted? A work schedule, a timeline, expectations… and so on and so forth. And when you strip it down to the barest ingredient, what I found in all my answers was that external forces, things you cannot control, those are what causes a majority of our negative emotions. These external causes of unhappiness include material goods, status, pressures, expectations, and so on. Internal forces, those that we can control because they are inside of us, are the weapons with which we can yield and carve and create our own happiness. They say that happiness comes from within, and I wholly believe in that. I write all the time about how all these things we try to purchase and achieve and accomplish, maybe they will bring us happiness, momentarily, but that happiness will fade. And like some addicting drug, you will then need more to trigger that happiness again, and then even more. The chase will have you wasting your life away trying to find a happiness that is temporary, when you can slow life down and find happiness that is constant.

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As with the yoga example, the external forces are what create a majority of our discomfort on and off the mat. When I was first learning the poses, I would remember being uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of having pain, in some of the more advanced body configurations. What was even worse, was the narrative that quickly followed that pain. My monkey mind would ask me questions like, “What am I doing here?”, “There’s no way you can make it until the end of the class”, “Everybody is watching you fail”, “You’ll never get to be as good as them”, etc. And with that story comes the emotions listed above. As those emotions got triggered, the physical pain would actually feel worse, solely because it is perceived as larger than what it truly is, after being brought to the forefront of the mind. Much of the suffering comes from the emotions we tie to the actions, rather than the action itself. It’s the story that kills us. Slowly, over time, I developed a way to let these thoughts go, which then allowed me to control the amount of suffering there was. Once I let the narrative float by, like clouds, or the thoughts run through, like water, I became more able to sit in those positions with a feeling of groundedness, or contentment. There is a sense of peace that comes with letting things go and returning to the breath, focusing on the one thing that really matters in our life. I learned so much from this lesson than any other lesson about what it really means to be a human being.

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“There are inevitably going to be these pains that arise, whether they are physical, emotional, loss of a loved one, things not going exactly as you want them to go. But the story that we layer on top of that… that actually creates a more intense layer of suffering that can impede this deeper layer of happiness that we are often looking for.”                                                                                            -Corey Muscara

Do you ever notice how a lot of tension in our lives come from the resistance towards things that are happening to us? Instead of pushing back, trying to reshape what happens, forcing control over situations, try to just let it happen. Once I got into that space, I started to really feel free. It was not that everything became one hundred percent perfect, la-dee-da in my life. There were still days when I felt tired, when Mike and I had different viewpoints, when money seemed to control everything, when I had an explosion of emotions, and when my thoughts continued to be all over the place, but my relationship towards everything has shifted to a place of disconnect from these external factors, and somehow, I ended up more grounded. Imagine being tied down to all of these things when the hypothetical tornado hits. These things will just fly up in the air, and you along with it. But to be fully free from it means that you will find an easier time planting your feet solidly on the ground. The ability to watch a whirlwind of life’s surprises pass you by without being swayed is a superpower that we have, but we fail to cultivate. I have found only one way of strengthening that power, and that is to return to the breath.

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To try, at home.

Try to sit cross-legged in a room for even five minutes and focus on your breath. If this is the first time you are trying this, it will be very difficult. Your mind will wander through a rabbit hole, and may possibly never come back. But try to allow these thoughts to simply pass. Practice letting it go and coming back to the breath every time.

Do this at least once a day when your space and mind is clear. I do this while going through a flow in my living room in the early mornings, as the sun peaks through our glass door. Usually, it’s after my roommate and Mike have left, so that the space is quiet and still. Typically, I prefer to do this prior to work, just to clear my head and reap all the benefits. Sometimes, it’s good to come back to in the evenings before bed, just to let everything go. Whatever works for your schedule will be fine.

It has taken me years to get to the point I am at now, but it is still nowhere close to the point I want to be. I have an outlandish dream of being ordained as a monk at some point in my life, and while that seems too crazy to come to fruition, I try in my everyday life to at least be a bit better at letting go. While I am not writing this as a way to get all hippie on you, I am hoping that sharing this experience will (even minutely) increase happiness in the world.

For flows from my friend J. Lowe, check out her YouTube channel or subscribe to her newsletters.

The Daily Grind, Two Ways.

You’re dreaming of something unremembered, when the blaring of a device set in such a way to guarantee waking you brings you back to reality, to another work day. The sun is shining in your bedroom window, predicting another blissful day in Southern California. Without the time to soak up the natural warmth of the sunlight as it floods in to warm your bed, you exchange that leisure awakening for a warm shower instead, meant to shock you awake and get you started for a new day. You rush by the coffee pot and push a button, to stream a liquid medicine into a portable mug, one that is ready as you rush out the door to join others in their morning commute. The drug dilates you to match your already feverish pace. You drive by the same scenery every day, but you don’t notice the scenes, barring a car accident pulled over on the side of the road, or new construction on the outskirts of the freeway. Your mind is elsewhere, on an island far away or on your to-do list, to which you’re driving momentarily. Or your mind is still dreaming of the bed you wish you were laying on, while the gears of your car transport you to where you don’t want to be. You sit at the same desk as you did yesterday, and despite the long hours and the hard work, the pile of boxes on your checklist never decreases. It’s a time machine that takes you back to yesterday. The daily grind, one way.

 

You wake from this nightmare one morning, in time with your natural bodily workings, and only after a full night’s rest. The first sound you hear is of birds chirping outside your window. Slowly turning to your nightstand, you pick up the book you were reading before you fell asleep, and thumb the pages, noticing the way they feel under your fingertips. You read a few pages as you wake, even if you have to re-read a line or two a few times before registering the words. Meanwhile, the sunlight warms you under the heavy comforters, until the heat prompts you to stand. You slip on your warm slippers to protect your feet from the cold floods, and walk downstairs. You savor the smell of pine from the Christmas tree, as the sun light filters onto your dining table, creating glittery fractured fragments as it passes through stained glass windows. You think about coffee. You weigh the appropriate amount of coffee beans on a scale, as you heat up the espresso machine. A bean too many. You return the devilish seed back into its home, saving it for another day. The beans are freshly ground, the smell, enticing and bold. You extract the right amount of espresso, then foam the milk. You pour the milk, and regardless of the outcome, you already know that you’ve created something for yourself. The routine is immersive, the experience entirely sensory. You sip, sit, and stay awhile, with your daily grind, another way.