Living Lightly

Susan Vogt on living more simply but abundantly

Browsing Posts published by Susan Vogt

About 6 months ago I focused on trying to be kinder for Lent. One dimension of this was to be less judgmental of other people. By the end of Lent I realized that it’s harder to actually change my internal critical self than to give things away. Today, over half a year later, I’m noticing even more judgmental thinking. Maybe this is because of increased awareness, maybe it’s because there’s more to be judgmental about in our recent political climate, or maybe this is just a deeper spiritual issue.

After reflecting on this conundrum awhile, I’ve come to the conclusion that a helpful step might be to separate trivial judgments from substantive judgments that are worth spending emotional energy on.

For example, some trivial energy drainers that I’ve noticed in myself are:

  • On a plane I saw a woman with a full size pillow. I was tempted to say, “You don’t travel much, do you.” (To save space, I like to bring only a small inflatable pillow for long flights.)
  • Or “Whatever possessed that woman hobbling through the airport to think that wearing 3 inch heels was a good idea?”
  • While we’re on airports – Why on earth does CVG have long stretches of carpeting on the floor? It makes it harder to clean. If they want to reduce sound, do it with wall or ceiling sound deadeners. (I emailed this feedback to the management.)
  • At worship services, my internal liturgist sometimes thinks, “That song should be done at a quicker tempo.” Or “The lector should be trained to speak more clearly.”
  • When hearing people give public instructions, I wince at wordy, overly complicated directions.
  • On the radio, when the host ends an interview with, “Thank you for being here.” the guest should simply say, “You’re welcome.” not another, “Thank you.” Also, hosts on serious programs should not open the program with “Hey!” in an effort to be casual and friendly. “Good morning,” “Good Evening,” or “Welcome” work fine.
  • Oh yeah, can we all stop saying, “so…yeah” when closing a statement.

So, these are a few of my pet peeves, and I know they are all trivial. Perhaps venting them once here will help. I’m sure others probably have at least as many gripes about annoying mannerisms that I have. (Note to my brothers and kids: You don’t need to comment on this. 😕)

The point is that as much as I’ve committed to letting go of these trivial judgments of others, it’s taking a long time to free myself of such internal judgments. I welcome comments from readers on how you deal with trivial matters like these.

And why should you care? Because it weighs us down in negativity when we need our psychic energy to go towards actions that can make a positive difference in our world.

Stay tuned for my next blog post which will propose moving beyond trivial judgments to finding constructive ways to channel justified anger into action. Think politics, sexual abuse/cover-ups, global warming. So…yeah!

I’m a speaker and a writer. That means I care about words. I suppose we all do. I recently attended an international meeting that heightened my awareness of how we use words. Because the meeting included people from 23 countries that covered 5 continents we spoke many different languages and had simultaneous translations into 4 languages. When I got past the Tower of Babel, it reminded me of Pentecost when the apostles spoke their own language but were understood by people speaking many different tongues. Translations aren’t always perfect, but being translated and interacting with people who speak other languages taught me a lot about words. For example:

  • I’m too wordy. Many people are. Even introverts who typically think before they speak, can get caught up in over-explaining. I pride myself in getting to the point in both my speaking and writing, but I realized that because I was being translated it was important to use fewer words and to choose them carefully. This can hamper spontaneity but better to be heard than to have a whole sentence missed. Letting go of using too many words is a skill worthy of a Living Lightly blog.
  • Stretch to understand people. Many people at my conference spoke English as a second language. This meant it took more work on my part to understand a person who was not a native speaker. This limited in-depth communication, but forced me to find words that captured the basic meaning and to listen more carefully through unfamiliar accents. This same principle applies to English speakers in the USA whose language sounds different because of geography, class, age, or different life experiences.
  • Not everything has to be said. Some of the most memorable communication took place without words. We played “follow the leader” walking hand in hand to go through complicated corridors to a destination. We danced together (often awkwardly but laughing) at the evening cultural nights. We drew pictures, hugged, and watched people wipe tears from their eyes at sad or joyful moments.
  • Eating together is universal communication. Although I hesitated to sit with people at meals who I knew did not speak English, occasionally I took the risk. Not much was said, but smiles and exchanging names connected us – until a multilingual person could join the table. My lack of languages was humbling.

The experience reminded me of Mindfulness of Words – one of the virtues that as a Lay Marianist I seek to grow in. This used to be called “Silence of Words” but has evolved to an understanding that using words well is not just about silence, but also knowing when and how to speak with intentionality and love,

At the risk of repeating myself (which would be inconsistent with trying to limit unnecessary words) , I decided to check if I had ever blogged on “Letting go of Words” before. Indeed, I had. Click here for additional insights. What aspect of speaking or silence do you struggle with? What has helped you make your words count?

Sometimes you’re in a hurry. Sometimes you’re behind. Sometimes you just don’t want to take the time to figure out where to take your extra stuff. That was me last week. I was being good. I was going to a prayer service. BUT they asked folks to bring some school supplies as a goodwill offering for low income families. A nice idea, but I didn’t want to take the time to go out and buy anything.

But wait! Why don’t I just check our art supply drawers and office supply stockpile? Having raised four children and still having grandchildren who visit, we never purged our crayons, markers, and glue. Having gone to too many conferences (and organized some of them) we have way more folders than one family needs.

It didn’t take long to find:

  • 3 boxes of markers. (We still have 2 full boxes and about 20 loose ones.)
  • 32 unused pencils (We still have plenty. It’s the erasers that go bad.)
  • 2 bottles of school glue
  • 1 child’s safety scissors
  • 1 mega eraser for “Big Mistakes”
  • 150 sheets of packaged ruled paper
  • 66 clean colored folders (that have been used but don’t look like it). This was only 1/3 of our stash.

I think these will get us in the door to the prayer service.

What’s the point?
There’s probably plenty of other extra paraphernalia lurking around our home that I just haven’t gotten around to clearing out the “more than necessary for the grandkids” stuff. So, prayer and the Sisters of Charity did me a favor by prompting my 15 minute search and giving me a good cause to give it to. I didn’t even have to make a trip to Goodwill or one of my other go to donation places.

What if you took 15 minutes today to scan your home for extra school supplies and take them to a school in need? What about extra tools, dishes, towels…Pick a category. You don’t have to do a whole house purge, just perhaps a weekly or monthly review of stuff you’ve outgrown, or just have extra.

See Purging for a Cause #2 for another example of this.

I feel too busy. That seems to be my mantra lately. Maybe it’s yours too. I thought my Taming Time blog post would help me declutter my calendar and life. It did help, but I want more. I’m finding that I’m being led into a deeper dimension of time. Lately I’ve realized that some of my stress comes from feeling that I have to make sure everything I do succeeds. Part of this comes from my sense of responsibility and that is good. But is it possible to be over-responsible?

I’ve had leadership roles in 2 national meetings this summer and a major role in an international one coming up this month. I find myself trying to help others with their tasks and fix a lot of problems. This is also good – maybe. The question that occurs to me, however, is when should I try to “help” others and when am I doing too much because I think I have the best way or I want it to be my way.

Of course this dynamic of controlling and being over-responsible not only applies to meetings but also to marriage, parenting, jobs, and friendships. Sometimes we (I) have to let go of thinking I can control the outcome of a job or relationship and focus on doing what I can, taking a break, and being present to the person next to me – in the house, car, store, or at a meeting. It reminds me of my parenting maxim, “We are responsible for the process we use in raising our children, not the outcome.”

I may make a mistake, forget a task, or be less than perfect. The project I’m working on may not meet my expectations. That’s OK. Life on earth will survive – or maybe it won’t. (I do worry about and work for environmental sustainability.) But how am I lightening the load of my neighbor by an attentive, non-judgmental ear. Sometimes that’s more important than saving the world.

How do you deal with letting go of control? Or maybe you have the opposite inclination – to let other people do the work and worry. How do we balance these two extremes?

PS: And, oh yes, please excuse the fact that this blog post is a week late. I’m sure you noticed.

Now that we have our solar panels installed, I thought I would be so happy. I am, but the feeling is fleeting. The same thing happened after we got replacement windows, or even when I get a book from Amazon, or the perfect all purpose travel blazer. But it’s not just about stuff. Often I wait with great anticipation for our kids to visit or to get an award. Somehow, I keep thinking that this purchase, event, or accomplishment will make me happy – and it does…for a very short time. Bottom line: Happiness of this kind is fleeting. I know that, but the emotional promise is still alluring.

So, is there anything that brings lasting happiness? Healthy relationships, having a spiritual core, working at something you love, finding meaning in life are all things that come to my mind. Usually these deeper satisfactions go beyond material stuff.

It was with this attitude that I watched Graham Hill’s Ted talk, Less stuff, more happiness. By virtue of my organized personality I really liked his super efficient, tiny apartment, which was clear of clutter and employed multiple use furniture. This was appealing. But, I realized that even if I had the perfect tiny house, this would not automatically bring lasting happiness. Some sages say that happiness is an inside job. True, but perhaps even truer is that happiness involves giving ourselves to others. Some examples that come to mind are:

  • Meaningful relationships (friendship, marriage, family)
  • Service
  • Commitment to the common good
  • Helping those in need

Pair these with time to be self-reflective and ponder creation and the prime source (who I call God) – maybe that’s enough.

How have you found happiness that lasts?

Yea! A couple days ago our new solar panels were activated. This is probably the opposite of my recent Keep it Simple post, because it wasn’t a simple or cheap endeavor, but it was worth it. Over a year ago we started thinking about getting solar panels for our roof. We contacted an installer, got a bid, and then procrastinated for about 9 months until another email offer woke us up. Now we were ready and we moved expeditiously.

After confirming that our roof was in good enough shape and checking out the payback timing we decided to invest in 16 panels. It took about 2 months and a hunk of money but we considered these 4 principles:

  1. It takes money to save money. Of course saving money over the long haul is good and applies to paying more if the higher quality product means it will last longer and be better for the environment.
  2. Doing our part. But, the bigger motivation was that although we can’t single handedly reverse global warming, we can do our part.
  3. The multiplier principle. As more people buy into solar, the multiplier effect kicks in and makes a bigger impact on reducing greenhouse gases plus reduces the cost because of economy of scale. (Caveat: We were also lucky that we moved fast enough that we bought the panels which were manufactured in China before Trump’s tariff goes into effect saving us more than $4,000.)
  4. Solar panels on Marianist sisters’ convent, Ranchi, India. Click to enlarge.

    We’re not first, but we won’t be the last. As proud as I am to now be contributing to part of the solution for global climate change, I was humbled 6 months ago (January 2018) to observe that the retreat center I was staying at in Ranchi, India was powered by solar panels. Several years earlier I had visited a newly constructed school and parish in a nearby rural area of India that was completely powered by solar. Many of the smart developing countries are leap-frogging carbon based energy sources and going straight to renewables, just like they’ve skipped landline phone installations and adopted cell phones as their primary phones.

I’m happy. Our house is happy. We expect to power about 95% of our electricity needs from the sun. According to the team of scientists led by Paul Hawken, rooftop solar installation ranks #10 among the top 100 ways to reverse global warming by 2050 DrawdownThe Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming  (Jim and I have just finished the training to lead Drawdown workshops  Contact me if you want to learn more.)

How have you saved energy (electrical or human) through modern technology? Has it cost more to do it? How did you decide?

Sometimes life gets messy, complicated, too busy, or painful. We, who like to think of ourselves as responsible hardworking people, can beat ourselves up thinking we’re not doing enough. It might be missing deadlines, not recycling enough, being lazy, or not living up to our values as fully as we would like. This week was like that for me.

I came back from a trip sick, felt miserable, at the last minute had to beg out of a meeting that I was supposed to lead, and felt guilty. I’m behind on my twice-a-month blog posts. I’m still sick. Letting go of my guilt was the first task. Picking an easy blog post was the second.

Here’s what I’ve got – Simple is good.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Forgive myself.

For example: We live in Covington, KY but its right on the border of Cincinnati, OH and thus we’re part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area. Covington has weekly curbside recycling for the usual plastic bottles, glass, paper, cans, etc. BUT, I have to search for worthy homes for other household items like clothes and kitchenware. BUT, Cincinnati just started a new curbside recycling option called Simple Recycling. You just put clothing, shoes, and home goods in one of their large orange plastic bags and it gets picked up weekly. The problem is you have to live in one of the participating US cities. We just took our bag to one of our Cincinnati friends who gladly put it out with their curbside recycling. Done!

It’s not perfect, but it’s easy – if you live in the right city. Simple Recycling is not a non-profit but they recommend Donate Stuff  for people who want to go the extra mile and get a tax receipt. Unfortunately, Donate Stuff also does not operate in many cities.

Some questions for you:
*How do you keep your living lightly simple?
*When do you make compromises?
*What gets in the way of doing good because it’s just too complicated or takes too much time.
Others will appreciate your tips.

Our daughter was home for Mother’s Day. Yay! Now that she lives back in the States, I encourage her to take her stuff that’s been stored at our home to her home – a  much delayed goal. In the process Heidi identified 6 books that she said were obsolete and should be pitched.

  1. The Best Colleges, the Princeton Review,© 1992. OK this is fair. A lot has changed in colleges in the last 26 years.
  2. Cracking the GRE, the Princeton Review © 2000. Also fair. Anything you needed to know about this graduate school test has probably changed over 18 years.
  3. Real SAT, by The College Board © 1995. Comments on #1 & #2 apply.
  4. The Internet for Dummies © 1994. Since I’m still pretty dumb about the internet, I thought this might be worth keeping for reference but she said it’s obsolete
  5. More Unix for Dummies © 1995. What is Unix anyway? Same answer as #4.
  6. International Thesaurus of Quotations © 1970. I thought this would be worth saving but she pointed out I could find any quote quicker on the internet. OK.

In order to redeem myself I added one obsolete book of my own, Workbook for Lectors © 2015. Although this is the most current of all the books, since the Catholic lectionary repeats every 3 years, there’s no need to keep anything longer than 3 years.

Normally I take used books like this to Friends of the Library or Half Price Books, but since these are all paperbacks and truly obsolete, I suppose just recycling them as paper is easiest.

Why not take this prompt to do a quick scan of your home for obsolete books. Free your books and some space.

I’d love to know what “no longer needed by anyone” books you discover.

Sometimes our lives are cluttered with things. Sometimes it’s things to do that clutter our mind and time. I wonder if I will ever get my To Do list done before I die. Sure, I make time to nap, read, recreate, and take vacations so it’s not like I don’t take breaks, but still I wonder if I will ever really get caught up. So here’s a collection of tips I’ve developed over the years to deal with taming time.

1. Pray first: Even if you’re not “religious,” taking time daily to contemplate who I am and what’s important – is important. If I wait till there’s time, other priorities crowd out this spiritual time. Now that we are no longer in the active parenting stage of life, first thing in the morning works for me. For those with other bio-rhythms last thing at night can qualify as first in anticipation of the next day.

2. Set priorities: Most time-management gurus advise identifying no more 3 priorities that you hope to accomplish each day. Do those first, starting with the top priority. This is good unless your top priority is to create world peace or it becomes a day long project. Solution: Estimate the time your top priorities will take and if one might take more than 1/3 of your working day, reevaluate. Set deadlines. Exception: 3 Minute Rule. If several things are not top priorities but are quick and easy, do them early.

3. Keep a To Do List: Consider a To Do list not as a burden but rather a tool that frees you of the stress of keeping everything in your head. Some things are necessary and have a deadline; others are nice to do if time allows. One beauty of a To Do list is the satisfaction and joy of crossing tasks off (in red) when accomplished. My daughter recently co-authored a playful Wall Street Journal article, America Is Drowning in Lists, which includes ideas from the Ivy Lee Method to Bullet Journals.

4. Develop Email/Text/Phone Protocols: Only check emails after your basic priorities for the day are set lest you wallow in email purgatory before starting the important stuff. However, email does allow you to identify some 3 Minute Rule tasks from your To Do list and quickly cross them off.

  • Reduce Email:
    – Don’t reply to all unless “all” really need to know.
    – State the goal and deadline clearly. For example: Need a reply by ___.   OR   For your information – No need to reply avoids unnecessary “Thank you for your email” emails
    – Expedite scheduling large group meetings with an app like Doodle.
    – Filter and/or Unsubscribe from unwanted repetitive promotional emails.
  • Texting: Best for short messages, your kids, or times that might interrupt a person’s job. But, don’t overdo it. Don’t contribute to another person’s phone clutter.
  • Phones: Turn alerts off or ignore during meals or meetings unless your mother is in the hospital. The live person in front of you always comes first.

5. Check social media last and only for a limited time – maybe 30 minutes. Use Social Fixer to prune unnecessary Facebook posts.

6. Save Time for Recreation & Relaxing: This might come under setting the day’s priorities if you tend to be a Type A personality like me. Accomplishing a lot is good. Being a balanced person is better. Don’t waste time complaining unless you can do something to fix it.

7. Laugh, Turn it Over Sometimes people and life will interfere with even the best time management system. Think of these as a spiritual call to pay attention to the humans and life around me. Laugh at the folly of trying to completely control my life.

For additional ideas see my past posts under the TIME Tag cloud (bottom of right column), especially Wasting Time/Saving Time.

Arise! Happy Easter

For 6 weeks I’ve been trying to be kinder. This Lenten resolution stemmed partly from my kids kidding me about being judgmental of others. Although their examples were humorous, I recognized that there was some truth in my complaining about others’ foibles, the political state of the world, and also being hard on myself. Being a type A, organized personality, I set out a plan. I would try to be kinder to people by giving things to them, doing helpful acts, and speaking more kindly to and about others.

Here are 7 things I learned:
1. Transformation starts with intentionality and commitment.
As the Pachamama symposium explains:
*A VISION without a PLAN is just a DREAM.
*A PLAN without a VISION is just DRUDGERY.
*But, a VISION with a PLAN can change the world.

If the vision was to be kinder and the plan was to do at least one extra act of kindness a day, I committed to hold myself accountable by each morning anticipating what acts of kindness I might do, writing them down, and then reviewing my progress the next morning. Some days I couldn’t think of a specific kindness to do. On those days I planned to look for opportunities and then check myself the next morning to see if this heightened awareness made any difference. Consciously looking for opportunities helped.

2. Things will seem to get worse before they get better. At the beginning I felt like I was going backwards. I noticed more times that I slipped up and criticized others. The reality probably wasn’t any different, but consciously trying to change a habit heightens perception.

3. Speaking kindly, giving compliments, being “nice” is easier – in the short term because it takes effort to actually do an act of service or give something away, BUT

4. Doing direct, concrete acts of kindness is easier – in the long haul. This seeming contradiction was because I found it was harder to curb my tongue and negative thoughts than to just hand out some money or do a favor. I needed to search for what might be behind another’s behavior such as the needs they were trying to meet or the fears that drove them. This stirred up understanding or compassion rather than seeing the other as an adversary or wrong.

5. Actions, Thinking, and Feelings are all connected. I thought I could think, pray, or believe my way into loving an enemy. Sometimes a spiritual belief can lead to a compassionate act. But sometimes an action has to come first. An act of service or emotional encounter can lead to changed thinking. Any of these can be a entry point and lead to growth.

6. Using physical prompts can help good intentions. When my daily plans to be kinder evaporated into forgetfulness or busyness, I found prompts (like fasting, turning off media, putting tape on my mouth, notes in conspicuous places) could be a reminder.

7. It’s not all about me. In the end, I kept coming back to realize that this whole process of trying to be kinder could actually be a big ego trip. Hey, look how good I am! What helped me to tame undue pride was to call myself back to focusing on the other. Theologians call this “kenosis” or self emptying. This is the real spiritual challenge – to not focus on my own success or failure, but to focus on the good of the other, lest we become puffed up, self-absorbed, or feel guilty. A less academic term, that captures this concept for me is the “smug factor.”

Kindness can mean many things – giving people stuff, helping folks, saying kind words, not saying or thinking mean things about people, protecting the environment, and praying for people. On that last one – praying – I haven’t written much because it seemed like a throw away phrase. Something you say when someone dies and there’s no action to take. Well, it’s time to mention prayer.

PRAYER: You can never have too many rosaries – or can you? I realized that I could only say one rosary at a time and our household had several so we agreed to give two extra ones away. But it wasn’t so easy. I planned to walk to a neighborhood second hand religious goods store and give them the rosaries. Unfortunately it had gone out of business. I ended up taking them to our parish school. Done.

ACTS OF KINDNESS: Then I went on to more direct acts of kindness:

  • Donated 2 dresses and shoes to our contra dance dress swap last weekend,
  • Made applesauce and scones for community meals
  • Gave a Kroger gift card to someone in the checkout lane at the Kroger grocery.
  • Danced with a couple people who didn’t have partners at our dance

KIND SPEECH & THOUGHTS: But I’m still trying to speak more kindly like:
1. Giving compliments
2. Refraining from making a criticism about a person behind their back
3. Going beyond gossip to not even thinking negatively about another
4. Trying to understand why people evoke a critical reaction in me
I’ve done pretty well with #1 and am getting better at catching myself with #2. To help me I decided to put tape over my mouth for two days to remind myself to be mindful of my words every time I spoke. Don’t worry, I took it off and put it on my hand when I was in public.

LOVING AN ENEMY: But trying to really “love my enemies” when they seem to me to be harming others and our country through their political office or votes – now that’s a challenge. I lay a lot of blame on lack of media literacy. As an educated person I believe I read and listen to accurate news. But… it occurred to me that others probably think their news sources are accurate and mine are not. I decided to test my bias. For several days now I’ve been watching a variety of Fox News programs and comparing them to my preferred news sources – NPR and the NYT. I wanted to see if biased news was as readily apparent to me as I presumed it would be.

The results were mixed. Some Fox News was pretty straight news. An interview with the Saudi Foreign minister seemed rational. I didn’t agree with everything but I could see how a reasonable listener could accept it as honest news. But then there were the news commentators like Hannity, Levin, and Ingraham. Surely their over the top sarcasm and exaggeration would be seen through by a thoughtful person. Of course on the other side are the left leaning comedians like Colbert, Oliver, and Meyers. I like them, but hey, they’re comedians. Should a news show be held to a higher standard because people assume it’s factual? I leave that for you to ponder.

SOLIDARITY: As I reviewed this week, however, I realized that I’m trying to be kind to those who live in my bubble or who are public figures. What about those millions of people who live with real poverty, hunger, or violence. How can I be kind to them? That brings me back to prayer. I wanted to put my prayer into action, I am not about to move to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Mali, Kenya, or North Korea and try to be a missionary (though I’ve been to each of these countries – well, N. Korea if you count the DMZ). But I could try to be in solidarity with those who suffer much more intensely than I do. I decided to make 3 minor sacrifices to unite myself with those who don’t have a choice.

  1. I skipped lunch for two days and plan to eat nothing on Good Friday. I won’t starve but I wanted to feel the hunger.
  2. I decided to walk to the pharmacy to pick up a Rx. I could have driven but I wanted to remember that not everyone has a car or easy access to medical care.
  3. Last Saturday I participated in our local March For Our Lives.

None of these actions will change the world – but they will change me. Each time I feel the hunger, get in my car, take a pill, phone my congressman, I will remember those who don’t have a choice.

A strange thing started to happen to me last week. I was running out of ideas of kind things to do for others. (There’s only so many times you can count opening a door for someone. 😕 ) What I started to notice was that folks were being extra kind to me.

  • At the Korean restaurant the hostess noted that the only open table involved sitting on the floor. Without being asked, a lady who was already eating overheard our dilemma and volunteered to switch to the floor table. Wow!
  • A friend volunteered to go out of his way to pick me up for a weekend retreat because Jim needed our only car for an out of town trip.
  • I was responsible for morning prayer at the retreat and had brought a boom box for the CD I wanted to play. Only, darn, at the last minute I realized that I had lost the electric cord. I went to the front desk to ask if the retreat center had an extra CD player, and voila, there was my cord! Someone had found it in the parking lot and brought it to the desk.

These were happy but humbling experiences since I felt I wasn’t making much progress on doing concrete acts of kindness for others. I kept looking for opportunities and several eventually fell into my lap:

  1. Our upcoming weekend contra dance requested food for brunch. OK, I don’t like to cook, but I promised to make some scones.
  2. The same contra dance group always asks for folks to clean up after the Monday dance. I usually don’t do it because I have a long drive home. This time I volunteered.
  3. A letter came to our house addressed to someone we don’t know. I could have just marked “return to sender” on it, but the name sounded vaguely familiar. I decided to check with several neighbors to see if anyone knew a Kelly _____. It took me 6 knocks but I finally found Kelly and met a few new neighbors in the process. (We’ve had a high turnover in our neighborhood recently.)

So I made some progress in the “help others out” dimension of a kinder Lent, but I hadn’t really dealt with the underlying habit I was trying to change – judgmentalism. Yes, I did refrain several times from criticizing others. But I’m trying to substitute positive thoughts about people I find annoying or malicious, especially politicians. Then an interesting turn of events happened.

I was sitting next to a stranger at a group dinner. I asked what he did. His long response made me think he was pretty full of himself as he took opportunities to mention many of the impressive things he did. I decided not to complain about him to my husband when I got home. That’s progress. But then I started examining my own behavior. Don’t I look for ways to slip in my achievements when talking to strangers? In a way this fellow did me a favor. He helped me see how I was guilty of similar prideful talk. He helped me see how I might come across to others.

I guess it’s not worth mentioning a few other miscellaneous efforts I made. What habits are you trying to change?

Last week my husband mentioned to me that if the Church really wanted people to do something sacrificial during Lent, she might propose that we eat a vegan diet on Fridays or all of Lent. After all, fasting from meat still allows fish – even lobster – which is hardly a sacrifice. As I thought about it, I realized that not eating animals or animal products might be a way to be kind to nature and thus fit with this Lent’s focus. I decided to try it – for a day. Jim and I aren’t vegan but we do try to minimize the amount of meat we eat so I didn’t think this would be terribly hard, but it would raise my consciousness about what I eat.

I was wrong about it not being hard – even for a day.
Thursday: I managed breakfast and lunch OK. But, a guest prepared dinner for us that night and it included chicken. It would be rude (and thus unkind) not to eat the meal she had generously prepared for us. No problem. I would just substitute dinner the next day for my final vegan meal.

Friday: On Lenten Fridays I usually go to our parish fish fry. No problem. I would substitute pizza for the fish and skip the pepperoni topping. As I was about to bite into the pizza I realized that a main ingredient in pizza is cheese, which is made from milk, which comes from cows and thus doesn’t qualify as vegan. Duh. It would be a waste of food not to eat it so I decided to substitute Saturday’s dinner.

On Saturday, Jim cooked veggie burgers and had a vegetable side dish. Fine. Then I noticed he put melted cheese on the burger. I slyly scraped the cheese off but he caught me. And asked why it was more moral to waste a good hunk of cheese? He’s right of course.

On Sunday my son and I went out to dinner at a Korean restaurant. No problem. I ordered BiBimBap, my favorite rice and vegetable dish. But, I forgot that it came topped with a fried egg. Darn. Eggs are an animal byproduct of chickens. I semi-guiltily ate it and pushed my substitute dinner back another day.

Monday, I finally had my chance. I was eating solo at home so I put peanut butter and banana on a rice cake, had some applesauce and considered myself redeemed.

I didn’t consider my attempts to eat vegan for a day to qualify as doing a daily act of kindness so I supplemented by:

  • Giving a book away.
  • Giving my time away. I received several long phone calls one day that delayed what I had hoped to accomplish. I consciously tried to be attentive to the caller anyway.
  • I tried to help an older lady with a walker navigate a cafeteria line, but she actually was pretty experienced in doing this herself and didn’t need my help.
  • I chose several dresses that I liked well enough but hadn’t worn in a couple years and  donated them to “Dress for Success.”
  • I stopped myself from thinking a criticism about a speaker’s undue loquaciousness.
  • On days that I couldn’t think of a specific kindness to do, I made an intentional effort to look for opportunities that might present themselves to me during the day.

Lessons learned:

  1. I doubt that going vegan for me is worth the trouble. Vegetarianism seems good enough.
  2. The commitment to look for opportunities to be kind is a new mindset for me. This awareness is worth the trouble.



I’m finding it easier to be kind by giving stuff away or helping someone than to be kind by refraining from being judgmental.
For example, I took

  • some blankets and jackets to the cold shelter
  • some toiletries to the Respite Care Ctr. for indigent patients
  • a therapy brace to Guatemala. (Well, I didn’t quite take it to Guatemala, but since I finished my broken arm therapy, I gave the brace back to the company which sends used braces to patients in Guatemala.

I was kind to several friends who wanted company or a listening ear.

I was kind to the environment by patching a hole in my jeans rather than buying a new pair – the old Reduce-Reuse-Recycle routine. (Click to enlarge photos.)

All this was very intentional and I think “counted” as being kind…
BUT, I continue to catch myself in mid-sentence starting to criticize someone. I’m usually not complaining about a friend but rather a politician or other public figure. Sometimes I realized my judgmental remark in mid-sentence. Sometimes I was able to self-censor and catch myself before I spoke, but I still had the critical thought. Once I was able to rethink my complaint and reword it in non-judgmental way. Ideally, I’ll be able to break the habit of thinking negative thoughts about someone by substituting compassionate understanding of their needs or fears. (Although I still reserve the right to feel outrage with evil since it can motivate me to act.)

What I’ve learned about trying to change a negative habit:
1. Increase awareness: The first step seems to be an increased awareness that I’m doing it wrong. This may feel like backsliding but I think it’s mostly a matter of being more conscious of the habit I’m trying to change.
2. Reduce: The second step is to actually stop the habit – some of the time.
3. The goal is to change the attitude that underlies the bad habit.

In the case of judgmentalism I think the demon is thinking that I’m better than, righter than, more important than other human beings. I don’t consciously believe that, but the urge to be loved, liked, and succeed is pretty universal. The challenge I think is to balance a healthy self-regard with remembering it’s not all about ME. That’s a life long journey.

Oh yes, and then there was Sunday when my goal was to be kind to myself. I indulged myself in a giant cookie and started the long overdue project of organizing the loose photos from 1990 to 2002 – when we mostly went digital. I like organizing stuff but this may take the rest of the Lenten Sundays.

Ash Wednesday: I started this first Be Kinder week with giving several things away and trying to bite my tongue from making a criticism. The latter was by far the harder. I was successful at taking 2 pairs of jeans and 2 tops to Goodwill. I also took 2 sheets to the Catholic Worker House. Yea! The problem came right after the Ash Wednesday service. During our parish Salad Supper that followed Mass, I commented that probably it would have been better not to sing a song during the distribution of ashes because I couldn’t hear the words of the ash giver. I may be right but that’s not the point. I was halfway through my comment at the dinner table when I caught myself and said, “Oh oh, I just violated my Don’t be judgmental resolution.” Then I tried to wriggle out of it by rationalizing that I wasn’t being judgmental about a person; it was just a comment. I can see that the temptation here is to justify my judgmentalism by calling it constructive criticism or giving feedback.

Day 2: Does it count? I wasn’t sure how I would be kinder today so I wondered if I could carry over some of yesterday’s give aways?  Since I gave more than one thing away, can I count it as several days? Since I took stuff to more than one place can it count for 2 days? The sheets weren’t new. Should I just count them as one? I then realized that paying too much attention to what counts was not in the spirit of Lent. I decided to pay attention to who crossed my path on my walk, smile, and greet them. It wasn’t much, but I saw a few people and it did bring a mindfulness to my walk.

Day 3: Beyond the usual. I went to a funeral of a friend today. I think that counts as being kind, but I would have done it anyway. Shouldn’t a Kinder Lent be about doing things beyond my normal habits? Yes. I decided to feed the hungry by taking a bunch of raw vegetables to our parish fish fry. I also dropped off a blanket to our local cold shelter.

Day 4: Progress or backsliding? Two times I stopped myself from criticizing friends behind their backs. They were minor complaints but I held it in. Unfortunately, I also made an intervention that I thought was harmless but the person took it as a criticism. I guess I have a ways to go. I also helped push a friend’s car that was stuck, but I would have done that anyway. It doesn’t count.

Day 5: Be kind to self day. Since it’s Sunday I took a long nap and watched the Olympics.

Day 6: Be kind to nature. I recycled a dying plant by putting it in the compost and saving some of its dirt for this African violet.

Day 7: Be kind to an animal. This was one of those empty days when I wasn’t sure how I would be kind. I just watched for opportunities. I reached out to a sad friend and then…I saw a dead squirrel on my walk. Hmmm. I paused then decided to pick up the squirrel with a dust pan and bury it in the holler behind our house.

In future weeks I won’t bore you with a daily log of my acts or refraining from complaining, but I thought it might be helpful to me and to you, to see the process of trying to build a habit of kindness. It takes daily intentionality and holding oneself accountable. Have you ever tried to change a negative attitude or habit? What helped?

Over the past 8 years rather than just giving something up for Lent I’ve tried to do something pro-active to make me a better, more loving person. This has included:
2010-Giving away one category of possessions a day
2011-Continuing to give stuff away including intangibles
2012-Eating on a Food Stamp budget
2013-Creating less waste
2014-Decluttering hidden stuff by pruning a Drawer-a-Day

2015-Trying to buy nothing other than food
2016-Clearing paper clutter from my desk and obsolete paper from file cabinets
2017-Cleaning my mind and heart of anger, i.e. Political Conversations

Although my home and heart certainly still have room for more pruning, I’ve been searching for my next step. Lent is a good time to take stock of who I am, how I can become a better human, and start practices that that can become ongoing habits of virtue.

My decision for 2018: Be Kind
This may sound like a fluffy, general, be nice kind of resolution but it stemmed from my self-awareness that I can be overly judgmental, a tightwad, and care too much about what people think of me. Focusing on others is a growing edge I want to foster. I was also prompted by a 10 year old refrigerator note to myself: “BE KIND: Don’t be a Jerk. Honor the Absent, Give the Benefit of the Doubt.” It’s a nice idea, but I hadn’t made much progress toward these ideals.

The challenge will be to go beyond just general, feel good, niceness. I knew I needed to make this goal more deliberate, conscious, and systematic. I want to bring a heightened consciousness to what might initially seem like a very meek goal – just be kind.

THE PLAN: To each day intentionally do something specific, and go out of my way, to be kind:

  1. To another human being. This will probably include continuing to give stuff away to people who need it, but will also include acts of verbal kindness to those I meet in my daily travels (stores, meetings, in traffic, etc.) I already have a few items that I plan to give away, but instead of just waiting for Viet Vets to pick up my miscellaneous stuff, I plan to actually take my donations to a person or place that can use it. I also plan on finding ways to compliment another, but more importantly to bite my tongue when tempted to criticize or complain about a person in their absence.
  2. To planet earth. This will probably include more recycling, paying attention to the animals and plant life around me, and generally choosing something tangible that I can do to improve our common home beyond what I normally do. Should involvement with our local Pachamama Alliance environmental group count?
  3. To myself. On Sundays I’ll probably take a rest and find something to do that renews my spirit. Do you think it would be OK to ventilate about life’s frustrations and maybe even some people. 🙂

In order to avoid Being Kind just ending up as a pleasant platitude that doesn’t really challenge and transform my life, I am committing to write a specific action plan in my journal each morning. The next morning I will note whether I accomplished my action (or inaction in the case of complaining about someone). If I didn’t do my planned action was I able to find a substitute? Of course knowing that I’ll be telling you all about my successes and admitting my failures will also keep me motivated. (My husband also calls me to honesty.)

TAKE AWAY: I’m thinking that making a specific daily decision is the key to developing an ongoing attitude and habit of kindness, not just an occasional being nice. What do you think?

Simplifying one’s life need not mean eliminating all luxuries but it might be a helpful practice to ask ourselves whether a contemplated purchase or possession is a necessity or a luxury. This can focus our decisions about how we spend our money and time.

For example, during this cold winter I thought about those who don’t have a warm place to live or warm clothes. I had an extra winter coat, a scarf, and ear muffs. Clearly these would be necessities for a person in need so I took them to the local Cold Shelter and felt virtuous.

At the same time, I found 8 thin dressy leather gloves plus a dozen very elegant napkins that I inherited from a rich relative. These were not gloves that would keep anyone warm and the napkins were beautiful but not functional since they were made of a thin, transparent material. Both items clearly fit the luxury category and might best be used walking on the red carpet at the Oscars or hosting a tea for a dignitary. I decided to take them to a nearby antique dealer.

This got me thinking about what really is a necessity and what is nice, perhaps even beautiful, but more of a luxury if one is trying to live simply. Sometimes the decision is clear and easy like the above, but often it’s muddied by lifestyle, stage of life, who I compare myself with, and how extreme I want this “simplicity” thing to be in my life. Is there no room for treats or simply living a middle class lifestyle?

OBVIOUS NECESSITIES: Food, Clothing, Shelter, Health Care, Education.

Of course there’s lots of wriggle room in the above categories. Clean water is a necessity, but what about soft drinks or wine? Clothing is a necessity but how stylish need it be and how many slacks are reasonable? Shelter is a given, but last week I spent 10 January days in a convent in India with no heat. I wasn’t always comfortable but it increased my empathy for those who are cold by necessity not choice. Education is a necessity but does that include private schooling or a doctorate?

Realizing that this is a subjective subject, I propose the following Guide for the Sincere Seeker (or guilt driven purchaser or purger). Consider the following questions when the distinction between a need and a treat are murkier:

  1. Who do I compare myself to? If my frame of reference are millionaires then I can cut myself a lot more slack than if I compare myself to an unemployed single parent. Action step: Rub shoulders with some folk who have less material goods than yourself. This might mean taking the bus, serving meals in a soup kitchen, walking a poor neighborhood, tutoring an indigent child… Knowing the poor can keep us more honest about our real needs.
  2. Is it necessary for the health and well-being of my family? Think household supplies and tools.
  3. Is it necessary for my job? This includes professional looking clothes and tools.
  4. Will buying _____ help me serve others better? Thus, I can justify having internet and other technology that helps me do my work, keep connected to our out of town family and friends. Having unused bedrooms allows me to host out of town family, guests, and sometimes people in need of a temporary home.
  5. Will this purchase deepen my spiritual life? This applies to books, movies, music, retreats…
  6. Will spending money on _____ help create community? Offering hospitality, helping someone take advantage of an opportunity to grow, donating to worthy causes, etc.
  7. Do I already have a serviceable version of ______? Is a new one going to make my life easier so that I have more time to serve, or is it simply a shiny thing to boost my pride?
  8. Is it a quality product that will last? Sometimes, it’s worth paying more for something even though it may look like a luxury to others. Consider such things as a fuel efficient car or solar panels.
  9. Is it fair that I have ______, when others cannot afford it? If it’s a necessity; Yes. If it’s optional; Maybe not.
  10. Can I do without it and not suffer undo harm?

TREATS: And then there is the question of treating oneself or others. I’m not opposed to an occasional treat. Heck, a dinner out can be both convenient, relationship building, and at times a necessity. A massage may be a luxury but call it that and count it as reinvigorating your body and spirit. We needn’t be misers with ourselves, but that’s where rubbing shoulders with those who have less can keep us honest. It can keep our treats and luxuries in bounds.

Stay tuned for my February 14, 2018 Lenten practice. It will have to do with being kind.

In the spirit of end of the year lists, I’ve picked a dozen favorite snippets from my 2017 blog posts. This was like picking a favorite child but in my ongoing effort to save you all reading time, I forced myself to whittle my original 18 down to 12. Click on the links to get the full story.

1. First world debates: It’s sobering to remember that some people don’t have the money to pay for necessities, much less gifts, whether online or local. Some of our neighbors on planet earth are hungry, living in dangerous places, fleeing war zones, living with addictions or family violence. What a luxury it is to debate the best way to spend and save our discretionary money.

2. Don’t complicate giving
stuff away. Sometimes figuring out the best place to take stuff can be a hassle. Relax, just keep giving. Trying to be too pure about the details can tie up energy. In these troubled times free your energy for the truly major political issues like caring for the poor, healing relationships, and protecting the environment.

3. Going Beyond my bubble: Perhaps the most life-giving action I can take is to enter into the world of people who think differently from me on political issues. Learn to love those who voted differently from oneself by understanding them better.

4. Lessons learned from pruning paper:  plus Strategies:
a. One thing leads to another.
b. Uncovering history can be a sacred experience in seeing the categories of our lives evolve.
c. Most everything takes longer than anticipated.

5. Media Literacy: It’s going to be impossible to make good political decisions if we can’t even agree on what the facts are. A population that can be swayed by propaganda and biased news is being hacked even if the voting machines aren’t. Our minds are being played with. I think one of the most important steps to building a healthy democracy is to recognize false advertising.

6. Letting go of health: I don’t wish bad health or an accident on anyone – But wait! Maybe I do. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. My broken arm has slowed me down, but has taught me a lot

7. Letting go of Anger: Let go of the anger against the person. Keep the outrage with evil.

8. Letting Go of Mistakes: We can’t go back and undo the past – we only learn from it to do better in the future. Mistakes are the tools of learning.

9. Letting Go of Being Right: Check for the flaws in my own position. Check for the truth in my adversary’s position.

10. Plastic Do’s & Don’ts: DO NOT put plastic bags in curbside recycling. Make a place.

11. Letting Go of Worry: Differentiate between productive worry and unproductive worry.

12. Wasting Time vs. Saving Time“Haste makes waste.” Cultivate patience. Make time to read, think, laugh, exercise, and pray. Slow down enough to be mindful of the people and places around me.

Bonus: Nature can be a window to the soul.

Tweet any of the above if you like.

   Click to enlarge

It was just one leaf – but it kept hanging on. That’s what I thought as I looked outside my bedroom window from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5. As I sat in my prayer space during those two weeks, I kept pondering the spunk of this lonely leaf (see the middle of our neighbor’s window). I thought about the trials of this political year and how caring for the common good can be tiring and frustrating. Yet, like the leaf, we hang on. We continue to go to meetings, call our congressional representatives, donate to worthy causes, and give a hand to those in need.

And then, on December 6, it was gone. I knew the leaf would eventually fall to the earth and become part of the ongoing cycle of life…But it gave me hope to see that it kept trying to stay connected. So my prayer turned to pondering my aging body and when would I die? And what would happen to the essence of my being after I died? Is there really an afterlife? Is there really a God? Or is this just a myth that helps people deal with the trials of life? Hmmm.

And then the birds came. Male cardinals – in their bright red plumage. Five of them flitted around the bare tree on Dec. 6. Cardinals are common in Kentucky. (It’s our state bird.) But five of them on one small dogwood tree at the same time. That was unusual. Maybe I noticed them that day because the tree was so bare. Then I started noticing the squirrels scampering across the wires. It always seems miraculous that they don’t fall. So my thoughts were pulled out of the depths of desolation and uncertainty to hope, the web of life, and the wonder of creation. I have no proof that there is an afterlife, but I have this intuitive sense that there are cycles to life and maybe it is more about being transformed and living through the next generation. I don’t know, but I can believe, and that shapes how I spend my days and hang on today.

And then there were the boxes of loose photos – approximately 1,500 photos stored neatly under a window bench. They lived in the land between conscientiously organizing them into photo albums and the digital era (1994 – 2004 for us). I discovered them because I was searching for some memento photos for a friend who was moving out of town. This started me on a compulsive roll. I decided to prune the obvious duplicates and poor quality photos. (See pile).

Then another insight – Hey, the kids will be coming home for Christmas soon, This could serve the dual purpose of reminiscing together and passing some photos on to them. I would then feel free to pitch the rest. It could be a way to say farewell to the old year and welcome the new – sort of a family bonding and purging time. (I’m writing this before the kids arrive so they may just chalk this up to one more of Mom’s corny ideas. Meanwhile, some of you might want to try the photo review yourselves – either this New Years or on some other family occasion.

Be mindful. Hanging on for awhile can be virtuous, but eventually we need to let go of the non-essentials to see more clearly and nurture the ongoing life around us. Nature can be a window to the soul.

Check out the ritual I created for letting go of Memorabilia: Letting Go Of a Symbol – Internalizing the Memory


Living lightly is not only a matter of reducing material possessions but also not crowding my time with trivia. By virtue of my personality, I enjoy the challenge of saving time. Sometimes this means doing things faster or multitasking. Of course there are pros and cons to speed and efficiency. It takes time to play, pray, and nurture relationships but appreciating people, beauty, and life are important. It’s tricky to find a good balance. As we prepare for Christmas gatherings, may we use our time well, saving time for relationships is not wasteful.

My own family dug into this challenge of saving vs wasting time at our December family conference call. I asked, “What practices save you time and what practices waste your time?”

  • Daughter: Waste – researching things to buy on the internet.
  • Me: Waste – Facebook, waiting (in lines or for tech support), looking for lost stuff, shopping, computer glitches). Save – multitasking (organize my files, GPS, googling information)
  • Husband: Waste – napping, BUT Save – getting up early because I can nap during the day
  • Son #3: Waste – video games. Save – skipping breakfast
  • Son #1: Save – buying groceries online. Waste – when online vendor makes a mistake
  • Son #2: Save – playing video games (by interspersing something that is relaxing with doing work, I’m more efficient at my work, which saves me time in the long run.) Waste – sleep. I hate sleeping. It wastes too much of each day.

This conversation heightened my awareness of time wasters/savers that occurred during the next 2 weeks. For example:
TIME WASTERS came in several categories:

  • Stupid Mistakes – I didn’t realize that putting soybeans in a plastic container in the microwave for 15 minutes would burn the soybeans and melt the plastic. Click to enlarge photos.
  • Unavoidable delays – Booking a trip to India took about 20 minutes of human contact and 2+ hours of intermittent time on hold. It’s a long story. 🙁
  • Unproductive time
    – Accidents. My car was rear-ended. It wasn’t my fault but it still took a lot of time to deal with insurance companies and the repair shop. I hadn’t scheduled an accident into my week.
    – Researching purchases: I needed new fitted sheets for my twin mattresses plus I wanted a contour rug to fit around our toilet. We have very usable but older twin mattresses, but,  manufacturers have gone to thicker mattresses and thus deep pocket sheets. Also our 30 year old toilet base is too large for the contour toilet rugs. After spending about 5 hours visiting stores and searching online I came up smarter but empty handed.


  • Reduce phone calls: The National Do Not Call Registry blocks many calls but does not apply to charities, political calls, and surveys. To block other landline calls just wait for the dial tone, Dial 1160, and follow the instructions.
  • Reduce email: Since I sign a lot of online petitions, I also get on too many political email lists. Gmail conveniently puts these in the Promotional tab but too quickly that can add up to 1000 emails. I periodically unsubscribe to all but the most vital ones to me.
  • Reduce Facebook posts: I like to keep abreast of family, friends, and causes on Facebook, but it can become a time hog. I block all ads and recipes. I also use Social Fixer to filter phrases like Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, Mother’s Day.
  • Multi-tasking: Use phone hold time to check emails and Facebook Use exercise and walking time to listen to podcasts or radio. Use TV time to fold laundry. Use time waiting in lines to pray for the people around me or meditate rather than fuming.

1. The old maxim, “Haste makes waste” is true.
2. Since I can’t control the world or avoid all accidents, cultivate patience and perspective.
3. Sometimes saving time isn’t worth it. Make time to read, think, laugh, exercise, and pray.
4. Slow down enough to be mindful of the people and places around me.
5. Don’t lose stuff. Easier said than done. Having less stuff makes what I do have easier to keep track of. Organizing stuff takes time but makes it easier to find later. Being conscious of my movements can help, but who is always totally present to the moment? Bottom line: Chill!