Saturday, December 20, 2014

Boundaries, not balance

I heard crisis management consultant Judy Smith, the inspiration for the character Olivia Pope on ABC's Scandal, speak at the Massachusetts Conference for Women.

What I thought was going to be a presentation on the principles of crisis management, was in fact a series of object lessons on setting priorities in one's life.

Judy Smith, who like me is a graduate of both American University and Boston University, provocatively said, "I don't believe in 'work-life balance.' No one is balancing anything, its just one day at a time. I DO believe in boundaries. Because when one has clear boundaries, one can stay focused on what is important while keeping distractions out."

Interestingly, back in October, I read a Huffington Post article about Warren Buffet's rules for productivity that promoted a similar philosophy.

Both Smith and Buffet suggest that, in order to be balanced or productive, one needs to have a list of the top five priorities in one's life. Anything not on that list shouldn't get one's attention. Period.


I recently switched jobs, away from my career of choice, in order to have more balance. (I also left my job because my manager was cuckoo banana crackers, but that's another story for another time.)

But maybe part of my balance problem is that I have too many things I'm trying to do. I'm too unfocused in my effort to my the modern "superwoman."

Maybe what I need are boundaries, not balance.

So, here are my top five priorities, to keep my focused on living a happy, healthy, productive life.

Clownface's Top Five Priorities for Living a Fulfilled Life
  • Being the best sister, aunt, daughter I can be
  • Continuously trying to maximize my ability to give AND receive love from my husband
  • Creating, enjoying and sharing life's adventures
  • Understanding and removing obstacles for people - starting with myself - to realize their true potential 
  • Cultivating peace and beauty

I've done this exercise before, when I was exploring leaving my non-profit career in early 2013. The list has changed only slightly since then. And it remains philosophical enough that I can create fluid but firm boundaries. Or balance. Or whatever you want to call the pursuit of a fulfilling life.

I'll keep you posted on my success. Being balanced, maintaining boundaries, pursuing a fulfilling life, whatever.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Few of My Favorite Things

I've learned to focus my enjoyment of winter holidays on the things that make my heart go pitter pat. These are:
  • Sending Christmas cards - in part because I love to receive Christmas cards. But sending them helps me remember the people who are important to me and gives me at least one touch point with them each year. BMG and I make a point of sending them to every family invited to our wedding, if only to communicate "Look! We're still married! Thanks for your support!"
  • Decorating the outside of The Tiny Bungalow, complete with lights. I love coming home at the end of the day to a gaily lit home and am thrilled by the beauty of evergreens with pops of colors adorning the house. And I try to decorate in non-denominational ways, so I can leave the lights up throughout the winter without looking like a lazy neighbor. Even better than admiring my house, is driving around to see other people's outdoor decorations. From the tacky to the sublime, I love it all. This may be, in part, because as a child my parents would drive me and my sibs through downtown Syracuse to look at the municipal lights after the Christmas Eve service at my grandmother's church. Riots of light mean, to the child in me, that it is *almost* time for Santa to visit. 
  • Delivering homemade cookies to neighbors and service people who make my life easier. For BMG and I this includes our mailman, the trash guy, our pharmacists and the ladies at the post office. We've also given to the UPS guy, the folks who staff the dump on the weekend and our favorite bartenders. This year's mason jar inspiration came from the folks at The Decorated Cookie. (And bonus! All of the mason jars we bought for the lemonade bar at the wedding are now officially out of the basement!)
  • Wrapping packages in unique and colorful ways, with the end goal being a Christmas tree surrounded by a rainbow of beautiful gifts. My mom has always been a generous gift giver, and the pristine display of presents under the tree on Christmas morning was a thrill I remember from childhood. This year, I've handmade gift embellishments that look like gnomes and am wrapping in craft paper and bakers twine. 
  • Christmas music, particularly the classics sung by Rat Pack-era musicians and other jazzy performers. I love listening to the music and singing it. I'm sorry caroling is considered so dorky, because it gives me a thrill to sing Christmas songs and to deliver the gift of music to neighbors. I also enjoy medieval choral music at Christmas time; it transports me to another time and place. I try to go to one concert a year. Usually by myself because no one else I know can stomach the stuff. 
Giving gifts to children in need, filling Christmas stockings, festive Christmas parties, eggnog and the joyful crowds at shopping malls are also among my favorite aspects of the seasons.
    What are the aspects of the holiday I don't like so much? Just three things come to mind: 
    • Obligation gift buying, particularly obligation gift giving generated by a surprise gift from a friend. Why? Unless the gift is one that I can return with a box of cookies, there is usually implied reciprocity that I may not be feeling. This, in turn, makes me feel pissy about shopping, rather than feeling generous love. So if you plan to give me a gift worth more than a loving token, consider talking with me about first. 
    • Disassembling the Christmas tree. The needles, the repacking of the ornaments, the scramble to find packing material for fragile items. Ugh. How do I deal? By making an indoor Christmas tree a rare occurrence rather than the norm. This year, BMG and I have decorated a tabletop Eiffel Tower instead of a tree. I'm telling people this is a "no tree" year because we have a kitten. While this is true, I'm grateful for the excuse to not have a tree indoors. (Hmmm. Maybe we'll get a kitten every year?) 
    Being childless by choice is one of the reasons I am able to make the winter holidays, and especially Christmas, exactly what I want it to be. I don't have the need to create magic for my children through contrivances like "Elf on a Shelf," nor do I have to withstand hours in line at the big box toy store or whiny children anxious for the 25th to arrive.

    Childless or not, what are your favorite parts of Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas and/or Kwanzaa? And what do you do to make the winter holidays joyful for you and your family?

    And, are there parts you don't like so much? What do you do to minimize or avoid them?

    Regardless of what parts of the winter holidays you love (or don't), I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

    Tuesday, December 2, 2014

    Changing to make change

    The events in Ferguson Missouri have inspired me to change my giving plan in 2015.

    A typical stingy New Englander, I have historically given away just 1% of my gross income. I have a budget and a plan, which helps me sort out the myriad requests I get in the mail, on social media and in the course of my daily life. My plan has looked like this:

    • 25% to any number of local organizations or chapters of local organizations that alleviate the symptoms of homelessness and poverty - particularly for children and families (e.g., Cradles to Crayons, Horizons for Homeless Children, Housing Families, the Red Cross). I often feel guilty that I'm not funding root cause organizations, but then I remember that poverty is persistent in human culture, I can't do everything and it is the day-to-day suffering that hurts my soul. 
    • 25% to conservation organizations, specifically the Trustees of the Reservation and the National Parks Conservation Association. I love these United States, and want to do my small part to ensure that our natural spaces remain preserved and accessible. 
    • 50% goes to the causes my friends love, in the form of sponsorship of walk-a-thons, run-a-thons, hair-cut-a-thons, hair-grow-a-thons, etc. I do this because I know it is hard to raise money, and it is hard to ask friends for help. (I do have a practice of not giving to friends if I philosophically do not support the organization for which they are raising money.)
    And when the budget is used up, I stop giving. (Sorry Movember, I was too generous earlier in the year.)

    However, the events in Ferguson Missouri triggered a deep anger in me about the power of conservative fear in blocking efforts to reform gun laws. I perceive that this same fear - the fear of "other" and the fear of "god" - is also driving efforts to restrict a woman's right to choose. So, my giving plan is changing to look more like this: 
    • 40% to human and civil rights organizations dedicated to reforming gun law and policing practices as part of their overall civil rights agenda
    • 25% to organizations dedicated to protecting and expanding a woman's right to direct her own health care
    • 25% to my beloved conservation organizations
    • 10% to the causes my friends love
    And, in 2015, I will double the amount of money I give away, budgeting 2% of my gross income. I want to be able to give bigger - albeit still modest - gifts to the organizations I believe are making positive change in the world. The doubling of my philanthropy budget will be complemented by the gift matching program at my office, which offers a match of up to $250 for employee's charitable gifts. 

    I haven't worked out the details yet, and am excited to do the research to figure out who will get the money, and how I can use social media to help spread the word about their cause. 

    But my giving won't end with the money I choose to give away. I recently took  new job, one that requires a shorter commute and therefore gives me more time to be a whole person. With some of my new time I will start volunteering. I will make my donations to organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering through volunteerism - at work and at home. This includes blood donations every eight weeks and preparing meals for my local community through Community Cooks. I am also trying to determine how I can participate in efforts to change the national conversation about race through efforts of organizations like the Public Conversations Project

    I learned about the power of a giving plan when I worked for the people who started what is now known as Bolder Giving. I loved the idea of being strategic and intentional with my charitable giving, regardless of whether I was middle class or if I was running the foundation BMG said I could start when he wins the lottery. And it feels good to freshen it up for 2015, so I can put my money where my heart and my mouth is. 

    Happy Giving Tuesday!