Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Authentic Life

From Oprah, to Dr. Phil, to the myriad of self-help books and motivational speakers, clearly people are searching not just for spiritual truth, but for that je ne sais quoi that would bring meaning to one's life.  That life's purpose may or may not be tied to one's religious convictions, but it's a well in need of filling in many people's lives.

I'm no exception.  I dare say, however, that I'm a lot closer to fulfilling that longing than many, at least in the Western world.  Now, to say that I'm closer simply means that I have a vague idea of what it would take for me to be fully at peace and content with my life, not that I've already arrived at such a state of mind.

For starters, I realize that it's a state of mind.  Happiness is something I have to make up my mind to be.  I have some ideas as to where I see myself in 5-10 years, but while I'm working on that plan, I have to be satisfied with good enough for the time being.

Here's how the following are playing into my leading a fulfilling life.


I recently embraced the fact that when it comes to my spiritual-religious beliefs, I'm a deist.  I believe in a creator-God, and I believe in some form of life after death.  I am content with this minimal level of knowledge and belief.  It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to think of worship as anything that involves being in awe of God's great masterpieces, both in nature and via human ingenuity (which comes from God, imho).  I no longer worry about doing things to please religious "authority" figures, or even others who walk around holier-than-thou.  I do the best I can, and when I stumble, I pick myself up and drive on.  I no longer feel the incessant need to try to figure out the inner workings of the universe, and it's soooo freeing!


I see this as a work in progress, but boy have we gotten to a point where I'm really starting to see the potential, which is only motivating me to keep it going.  I've pared down my wardrobe, donated hundreds of books, and have had an ongoing plastic bin that we keep filling with various items from around the house that we decide are not essential to our joy.  With every trip to Goodwill (and recently even a few items sold on Craigslist!), I can actually feel my home environment expanding to bring to the surface further items that need not be collecting dust any longer.  I hope to be in a place of maintenance by the time we get settled in our new home, which we expect to be sometime in the next year.


It has given me great pleasure and fulfillment to focus so intensely on my relationship with my daughter over the past year and some change.  Now that she's a toddler, it's a bit challenging to juggle her continued need - and my continued desire - to keep our attachment to each other strong and secure, and to help her along the way of independence, as is my role as her mother.  We are moving ever so slowly towards gentle discipline (as in instructing and guiding, NOT punishment), while still enjoying the AP basics of breastfeeding, cosleeping, and baby-wearing.


We technically have several more years of parenting before we add homeschooling to our official repertoire of responsibilities, but since I take a long time to adjust to anything, I'm liking the idea of slowly introducing aspects of preschool activities into our daily routine.  I'm researching age-appropriate developmental milestones and how to best encourage them, and I'm trying out different ways to give Maya the opportunity to explore the world around her in new and interesting ways.  My biggest challenge will be to establish some sort of regular contact with other children, but that is on my horizon, along with daily (at least every other day!) time in the great outdoors.


I feel as though we've fallen off the wagon a little in our time living in an apartment, but that's mainly because we aren't currently composting.  We still always have more recycling than trash to take out, and we always consider reusing what we already have before purchasing something new.  This also works well with our minimalist aspirations.  But more than that, I absolutely love line-drying our laundry, as it brings back lovely memories of my own childhood and gives Maya a way to help me out, even at such a young age of 13 months!  Next on my agenda is completely eliminating store-bought cleaning supplies and focusing on baking soda, vinegar, and whatever other natural ingredients I can use to make my own concoctions.  I'm not there yet.  What's even more urgent is starting to grow some of our own edibles.  I've never had a green thumb, and as much as I hate to waste (both money, time, and stuff), I don't like to take risks with growing something I'm afraid will only end up in the garbage.  But it's on my list.


Our marriage has taken a back seat since the birth of Maya.  Yet to Alex's credit, he has never once held it against me or complained about coming second in my life.  He understands that this is a phase of life, and that he had 15 years of just me-and-him time, and once Maya is a little more independent and will enjoy spending time alone or with friends, we'll have our time back.  It takes a real secure man to be able to put his own needs on hold while his daughter is getting her needs met.  This is only a testament to my good taste ;)  But seriously, when I look to the future, I see us together, as Alex said on our first date at the Post Exchange, "Just you and me, babe, on top of the world!"  Only now we'll also have our little Maya the bee to bring smiles to our faces.

So, how do I envision this authentic life that I'm working towards?

For starters, we need to move.  We need to live somewhere where the cost of living is drastically lower, and the pace of life is much slower.  While we are blessed that Alex no longer has to work more than the usual 40 hour week in order to support our lifestyle, it is still not ideal.  And that's what I'm talking about here - the ideal.  I feel best after a nice weekend spent just the three of us, and truly, what I want for us is to be able to bring that level of closeness and togetherness to at least 50% of our weekly life.  Perhaps an online business or if I ever get around to selling my books (and writing more), or better yet, passive income in the form of real estate.  There is no reason that only those who are currently rich should be the only ones to enjoy the time that affords them with their loved ones and pursuing their passions.  But the truth is that it takes money to make money, and so we find ourselves in that stage of the planning.

For the longest time, we've talked about "early retirement", but that was only because we couldn't imagine working at our jobs forever.  But what if the activities for which we get paid aren't drudgery at all?  Then there's no reason to stop and "retire"!  So with that definition in mind, we have just over 10 years to get all of our ducks in a row and get to a place where we can be living the life we've dreamed of.

That life includes travel, or perhaps just living abroad where we feel we're on vacation!  A Mediterranean climate is a must for that to happen!  This is why homeschooling is a no-brainer for us.  Well, it's one of the reasons.  We are not going to be slaves to the school system's schedule for living our lives.  There's only that pesky question of income sufficient to support our lifestyle (which by no means is to be extravagant.  We don't want a big house - we actually are having a real hard time finding something as small as we'd prefer!  We don't care about the latest electronic gadgets (well, maybe Alex a little, but even he is reasonable in that department).  And while I know I mentioned travel as an ideal, I also realize that this takes money, which is why I suggested settling in a vacation-like destination.  (No, not Florida, btw!)

That authentic life that I envision involves lots of nature, but still close to civilization.  A moderate climate with four seasons is fine, but a year-round summer would be ok too if it didn't involve excessive humidity.  Being able to not only have wonderful, breathtaking views, both from our windows and just from a short distance down the street, but also being able to actually be in that nature, to feel a part of it, to touch the natural world without taking anything but photographs and leaving nothing but footprints!  Listening to the silence, or the waves crashing against the shore, or the wind in the branches, birds singing.  A life conducive to meditation would be ideal for me.

For Alex, a social life would be ideal.  The ability to have shops and bars and restaurants just a short drive - if not walk! - from home.  Being able to enjoy the nightlife - not in the form of late-night drunken fests, but by watching a town come alive when the sun goes down.  You meet different people at different times of the day, and we like to keep it diverse!

To be honest, as I'm writing this, Andalucia, Spain comes to mind.  We only visited there once, for our honeymoon a decade ago, and yet.... either Spain or a place just like it!

The ideal way we envision getting to our dream is by first establishing passive income from a rental property, which would ease our worries over finding work at our destination right away.  To get there, we must first be completely in the black in our finances.  We still have my student loans to pay off, and we're about to take on paying for Alex's going back to college.  The latter is a must to open up opportunities for him to be able to find work similar to what he's doing now but outside the government.  So while he's in school, we won't be able to pay off my loans completely.

We were hoping to get into a mortgage with a monthly payment that is several hundred dollars per month less than what we're paying in rent at our apartment, but alas, this isn't looking as promising as we had hoped.  The homes that are newly renovated, or even just simply move-in ready, tend to be in really crappy neighborhoods - dirty, with shady characters loitering on the streets, bars in people's windows also tell me crime is a concern.  On the other hand, the good neighborhoods are full of homes that need a lot of work - read money - before they can really be considered livable.  And I watch House Hunters - we are not being too picky.  We don't care about the color of the paint on the walls or if the kitchen appliances are outdated.  We do care about water damage or lead paint though!

That is, if we strictly stick to the budget we set out for ourselves, which would allow us $300+ monthly savings, leading to a quick (6-7 years) pay off of my student loans.  But as I said, alas, it is not meant to be.  We have to make a lateral move if we are going to get the ball rolling on that rental property.  It makes no sense to be throwing money away by renting if we could be working - albeit slowly - towards paying down a mortgage.

In the meantime, we will be able to truly make our surroundings our own.  I miss the color walls we had in our house.  I hate the popcorn ceiling AND WALLS that we have now!  And while I absolutely love our one-level living and specifically the layout here, it's a pain to go for a walk down the stairs with a stroller (so I almost always wear Maya in a carrier, but there have been times when my back wouldn't allow it, or we were walking to the farmer's market and I needed the stroller to do the heavy lifting of the groceries).  Even when driving for groceries, carrying them and Maya at the same time up a flight of stairs is getting old.  Yet would I really want to live in a ground-level unit, where there's so much traffic from cars parking and people walking that I'd never be able to have my window shades open? No privacy and I wouldn't feel very safe either.

And so, our journey must start even under less than ideal circumstances.  We are working to pay off all of our debt (like I said, we only have my student loans at this time, and we'll be adding a mortgage), so that we can begin to live in a way that will feel like living, not just surviving from day to day.  And - this is very important - as our parents enabled for us by the sacrifices they made, so too we must continue to pass on economic wisdom to Maya to make sure she doesn't make the mistakes we made in our early adulthood by incurring unnecessary debt.  (I consider most of my student loans as unnecessary debt as well.  But that's another topic.)

I'm looking forward to this change.  I think it will be in the right direction.

Staying at Home to Parent Full-Time

Let me cut straight to the chase.  The number one reason I wanted to stay home with Maya was because, after 10 years of marriage and our long struggle to become parents, I couldn't imagine doing all of that, going through all we went through, so that I could be a part-time mom.  I understand that this isn't a choice for some people, but when we looked at our circumstances, it did make financial sense in addition to my desire to give my all to my baby, 24/7.  The idea that I should continue to work outside the home so that I could then turn around and give my entire income to child care providers who would be raising my daughter while I was working, well, it just sounded ludicrous.  I wanted to be a mom.  I did not want a child for the sake of having an accessory.  I'm sorry, but I see too much of that everywhere I turn.  People having kids just because that's what you "do" at a certain age or stage in your life, or worse, in an attempt to make yourself feel grown-up (for teen moms) or to try to coerce a man (the baby's daddy) to stay with you.

Ok, so I actually wanted - and still do - to spend my time with Maya.  I have chosen to put my other interests aside to make room for Maya in my life.  I strongly disagree with the parenting advice that states that we ought to try to make the baby fit into our life, since the baby is the newcomer.  Um, that's like saying to newlyweds that they need to get their spouse to fit into their bachelor/ette life. No, when you get married, your life changes.  It's supposed to.  And when you become a parent, your life changes, and it's supposed to.  If your career is more important than family life, then don't have kids.  It's that simple.  Nowadays, this is a valid choice.  If you're not going to give parenting your all, then don't do it half-ass.  Your child deserves better.

Now, I'm not saying that I am the perfect mother, because that's insane. It's impossible to do everything right all the time.  However, I am saying that my priority at this point in my life is my daughter and not myself.  To that end, I am doing everything in my power, to the best of my abilities, to give her the best start in life.  That's not to say that other parents don't have the same mindset while going about it completely differently.  Again, everyone's circumstances are different.  But for me, staying home full time is how I'm trying to provide the best start in life for my daughter.

For one thing, attachment is the foundation of all of her future relationships.  During her critical infant and toddler years, she needs to develop a secure attachment to her primary caretakers (her dad and me), so that she can learn to trust, and so that she can learn what a healthy relationship is all about.  She cannot have a strong attachment to someone who doesn't spend significant time with her.
Also, we are raising Maya in a multilingual household.  Especially with Polish, it would be very difficult for her to have sufficient exposure to the language if she didn't hear it from me all day long.

Finally, there are various values that Alex and I hope to pass on to her that we know are not shared by the mainstream.  It would be very difficult to find child care providers who were equally passionate about the environment, for a start.  I know of none that would be willing to cloth diaper or practice elimination communication with her.

And so, with Maya's best interest in mind, Alex and I decided for me to stay home full time while we moved across the state line and downsized our townhome to a one bedroom with den apartment.  This way, Alex's commute time is drastically cut, and he is able to spend significant time with Maya every day after work.  He also changed positions so that he wouldn't be required to travel regularly the way he used to.  This choice came at a price.  We are not near our families.  It's a big hassle to go see them, and they rarely if ever come to see us.  Still, with all due respect, it was more important for Maya to have her parents available than to see her extended family on a regular basis.  I wish she'd have been able to get the benefit of both, but our circumstances did not allow that.

After over a year of staying home full time with Maya, the fog of postpartum anxiety finally having lifted, I'm starting to see our arrangement in a more balanced way.  In other words, there are pros and cons.  Just the same, it doesn't change my mind about us having made the best decision for our family.  It does, however, prompt me to consider ways to address the cons so that they don't interfere with the overall pros.  But that's for another time.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Religious Minimalist: I'm a Deist

My husband Alex knows me too well.  I used to fight him whenever he met any of my crazy ideas with the understanding that it was "just a phase".  I'm finally starting to see the wisdom of that approach.  Indeed, I go through a lot of phases!

So as far as my spiritual journey is concerned, I'm not converting, not to Judaism and not to Quakerism.  Although I truly resonate well with the typical testimonies of the Quakers, I had to take a good hard look at my life and consider - am I practicing silent waiting worship at home at least? Because I may very well agree with everything a religion stands for, but what of it if I'm not practicing it?  I've already got that with my current cultural Catholic conundrum.

Instead of trying to label the ideal to which I've been aspiring spiritually, I decided to consider the current state of my heart, mind, and soul.  And I'm happy to report that I am finally in a place where I feel comfortable calling myself.... a Deist.

I considered this label some months ago, but I was still hung up on the issue of an afterlife and the idea that God is personal rather than transcendent.  That's why I tried on "Theist" instead, but that didn't really lead to anywhere but more confusion.

Alas, I have arrived.  I'm a Deist.  I look around our great big world, and I see the work of an intelligent designer.  That much I'm certain of.  I do not know the details of what this intelligent designer is like, but clearly it's a God far beyond anything I am.  I cannot turn liquid into solid or gas. I cannot cause the seasons to come and go on a cyclical timing.  I cannot create a seemingly endless variety of living creatures who manifest their defense mechanisms (just to name one example) in a multitude of different ways.  No, I am not God, and so God is not "just like me".

Instead, I think there is that of God (to borrow from the Quaker tradition) in each of us.  I'd take it a step further by saying that this "suchness" is not even limited only to human beings.  I share with other animals and plant life, and frankly with inanimate life something that unites us all to our source, and hence makes us all equal in one regard.  We are all created "in God's image", as Christians like to say.  But that's because it goes without saying that any given creation maintains something of its creator, whether in its design, its usefulness, its physical appearance, its personality, or a slew of other criteria.  Unlike the Christian understanding, though, I do not think there is anything we can do to lose that mark of our creator on our being, and so there's nothing we need to do to gain it.  No baptism, no rite of initiation is needed to welcome us into the family of God.  There isn't a place on the time-space continuum where we are apart from God, so how can we say we need to try to gain access?

Lately, I've been returning to a Zen cartoon I first read as a teenager that expresses perfectly how I feel about who I am on the spiritual plane.  The cartoon shows a little wave with a face drawn on, lamenting to a larger wave, also with a face, about how its so small compared to some of the other waves.  The big wave responds that the little wave simply hasn't realized who it truly is.  It's mistakenly associated itself with its temporary form as that wave, when in reality, as soon as it crashes against the shore, it'll be "gone".  But it's the current form of that wave that disappears, not that "suchness" that is inherent to all waves.  Rather, the little wave - like all waves - is actually water, a part of the ocean, and when it crashes against the shore, it simply continues on as the big vast ocean, until it manifests as another wave.

So too I imagine each living thing that is currently contained in a physical body.  That which makes me "me" is not my physical body.  When I look at baby photos of myself and then look in the mirror, I see two totally different bodies.  How can both be one and the same "me"?  No, "I" am something that is inside both those bodies, something that doesn't change even as the body does.  And if that "I" is not tied to the body, then neither does death sever it from continued existence.

Suffice it to say that I have arrived at a place on my spiritual journey where I do not need to have all the answers.  I know God exists, though I don't know the details of what "He" is like.  I know "He" created me along with everything else, and that means "He" willed me into being, which means I am here with a purpose; I am loved.  I also know that whatever I truly am is not limited to the time I'm living in or the body which I occupy.  As such, I believe in eternal life, life after death, an afterlife. However, I don't know the details of what that will be like.  Perhaps my consciousness will blend in with the consciousness of all the others who are on the other side, and just like Jesus said, there will be no more Gentiles or Jews, women or men, freedmen or slaves, but we will all be One.

To use another Christian metaphor, right now I am associating myself with - oh, for the sake of argument, let's say "God's left pinkie finger".  So, while I'm in my current body, I think this body and I are one.  I am this body.  But really, my body is only one of God's pinkie fingers.  It's not the whole essence of me or God.  And when I die, I'll realize this; I'll understand my place in the "body of God". I'm ok knowing that while I don't know how that will affect how I feel about who I am, it will be fine once I get there.  I won't "miss" the way I am now.  I won't feel deprived of whatever I treasure in this worldly life.  I'll be hand in hand with my creator, one with "Him" in every way, blissful.

I think everyone says they want to be happy, but they are quick to put limitations on that happiness. We are quick to say that we can only be happy if.... if we're in a physical body, or if we are able to utilize all of our senses, or if we can stay in the company of our loved ones, or if we can do supernatural things that we currently only dream of.  I'm content knowing that one way or another, when I die, I will be at peace and blissful.  I'll be happy.  Why waste the time I'm given on this plane of existence trying to figure out what that happiness will look like?  It won't change the fact that I shall return to my Maker, and it won't change the amount of time I have here to enjoy what I have in my current life.

Do I believe in reincarnation?  Will I get to see my deceased loved ones again?  These are questions about the details of the afterlife, questions that I don't know the answers to and that's OK.  I don't understand how television or radio signals work, but I'm happy to make use of them and enjoy them and just be glad that someone understands them and has been able to make them available to me.  Why do I think I have to figure everything out?  I don't.  I'm not God.  Only God knows everything.  That's the way the design works.

I think that's where the story of Adam and Eve comes from - that we are perfectly blissful in God's presence until the moment we decide we want to understand something that God didn't intend for us to understand.  Ever since "our first parents" fell from grace by becoming discontent with paradise, humanity has continued to carry this "original sin" (!), which is merely a lack of being content with what you've been given.

The truth is, that I am actually quite content with my newly embraced label of Deist.  I believe in God.  I believe in eternal life.  I believe in these things because I see evidence for them in the natural world.  Now, they're not literal or personified concepts, like the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition affirms, but I'm ok with abstract thought.

In the end, I think fear of death is the reason people seek out and cling to religion.  And fear of death comes from a lack of awareness of our true nature.  We are too attached to our physical bodies to go beyond the ego and let go of our fears and the accompanying baggage that muddies what ought to be a life filled with joy and peace.

I do not fear death.  I say this in the same way that I said (and proved it to be true) that I didn't fear giving birth to my daughter Maya.  There were naysayers along the way when I'd say I planned a natural homebirth.  They'd try to project their own fears and ignorance onto me.  But in the end, even though my childbirth wasn't exactly like I imagined it, the one thing that never crossed my mind during the entire labor and delivery was fear.  Not once did I feel afraid.  I was in the zone, I was enduring contractions and "the ring of fire" during pushing, but I did not fear.  I was too busy, too in the moment, to entertain the useless thoughts of fear.  In the same way, I do not fear death.  I have peace about it.

Now, that's not to say that I don't hope for a very long life, surrounded by my loved ones; I do.  I just don't buy into the scare tactics of certain religions that would have me believe that unless I join them, I will be sorry.

Perhaps this, too is a phase.  Maybe I'll find some new loophole at some point in the future and get back on my rollercoaster seeking "the perfect religion".  I truly hope not.  I hope I've finally arrived home.  There are still aspects of my spiritual life that need to be addressed - how to incorporate my Deist beliefs into parenting my daughter, or how to get the most out of our family attendance at a Catholic church.  But I'm happy to be where I find myself now.  I'm a Deist, and I attend a Catholic church with my family.  I'll save the details for another day.

For now, I've found a religious identity that jives perfectly with my overall minimalist aspirations.