Invest in your joy

A friend who is between jobs told me the other day that she had really curtailed her discretionary spending.

“Well, except for the pajamas.”

“The pajamas?”

“They are adorable”, she said. My (11year old) daughter and I got matching pajamas, and I love them so much. But I wonder if I should have spent that money.”

I told her I didn’t think a pair of $20 pajamas was going to be what put her on the streets. “Besides, I think there is a difference between spending and investing. And you made an investment in your joy.”

I hate to spend money, but love to invest in my joy. Let me explain the difference.

If I buy a six pack of beer, well, I may enjoy the beer, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. I will never get that $12 back. I will, in all likelihood, never think of those beers again. That is a cost.

But if I spent that $12 on a coffee mug that makes me smile when I see it, or that reminds me of the mug my grandfather drank out of, well, every time I use that mug for the rest of my life, I will feel a spark of joy. I just invested $12 in my future joy.

As much as possible, I want to own things that help me feel good. That’s it. Is it beautiful? Is it useful? And finally, even if it is one of those things, does it make me feel good? Not, “does it make me feel good when I buy it?”, but, “does it make me feel good that I own it?”.

Like I own this lamp. It’s ugly as sin. I hide it in a closet most of the year. But it emits a spectrum of light that is helpful to me around winter solstice when my seasonal depression kicks in. So, the lamp helps me feel good, and thus we keep it.

Or coffee cups. If the goal is to drink coffee, then practically any cup will do. Practically any coffee cup would be useful. But some coffee cups make me feel better than others. Having spent an awful lot of my life in diners, I love to drink coffee from a thick, heavy china mug. It keeps the coffee warm, it feels good in my hand, and when I drink from one, I feel safe and comfortable.

I drink coffee every day, multiple times a day. Let’s say, on average, four cups of coffee a day, times 360 days a year, equals 1440 cups of coffee. And let’s say that every time I drink coffee from a thick, heavy porcelain cup, I feel just a small shot of comfort, of happiness, of peace and belonging.

That means that by the one-time act of buying myself a good coffee cup that costs at most $8, I am going to make myself feel good 1440 times next year.

Why in the hell would I not do that?

When I was growing up, we owned Corelle dishes. Like these. I hated them. They are break-resistant, chip resistant, and, in my opinion, joy resistant. They are thin and feel weird to me. And every meal, we ate off of them.

Now I am a grown-ass man and can buy my own plates, so we own Fiestaware. They cost more. But they are heavy and sturdy, and when I eat off of them, I feel good. Because they cost more, we have bought them over time, slowly, and rely heavily on thrift stores and estate sales. But every single plate was worth it to me, because I believe them to be beautiful, and owning (and using) them makes me feel good.

If I wake up in the sheets that make me feel good, and I drink the brand of coffee that makes me feel good, and I drink it out of the coffee cup that makes me feel good, and I drink it at the table that has happy memories attached to it, under the wall of shelves I built that hold the bowls and platters we bought together at flea markets and antique stores (and thus are filled with happy memories) and all of which I believe are beautiful – why, I have had a wonderful morning just by waking up and drinking coffee.

Just imagine if your whole day was like that.

Planting as resistance

I went tree shopping today.

We live on half an acre, in a former suburb. The house was outside the city limits when my neighborhood was built, but it would be annexed just five years later while the Korean War was smoldering.

It was nearly a blank slate when we bought it nearly three years ago, with a beautiful southern magnolia in the front yard and seven pine trees scattered around the lot and not much else. It was a great house with good bones, not looking its seventy years. It had been a church parsonage for its whole life before we bought it, which meant it had been cared for but never loved. We decided to love it.

Along came the pandemic, and then we endured hell as foster parents (not from the kids – from the system) and then my Dad died from COVID and then we had a damn insurrection in Washington and through it all, the old house began to love us back.

It’s easy to anthropomorphize things like a house. Heck, I just did it in that last paragraph. But it did seem like the house was happier being cared for, like it liked having the perennial bed planted in the front yard, liked the new deck we put up after cutting down the overgrown wisteria crawling all over the back patio. It’s like it knew we were looking out for it when we fixed the leak in the roof and replaced the sewer pipes.

But it isn’t just because we love the house.

One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler—the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers… Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” – Leonard Wolf, in Downhill All The Way: An Autobiography of the Years 1919-1939

So I went tree shopping today. I’m currently looking for a particular crab apple tree, one that has edible fruit and long blooms and is disease resistant and can put up with our severe summer humidity. I love crab apples – I planted three at our last house – but here I am going to try growing apples as well, and I need the crab for a pollinator, in addition to its being beautiful and a gift to the wildlife.

By next spring, we will have 2 apple trees, a crab apple, six plum trees, a peach, two figs, 10 blueberry bushes, four blackberries and two muscadine vines. The apples and crab will go in this fall, and the peach is currently sitting in the driveway waiting for me to plant it.

It’s not just the fruit. It’s that planting things that will endure are acts of resistance to a world gone mad. It’s a form of resistance against all the forces that try to harm us, that try to drag us down, that try to dehumanize us.

Growing fruit is a long-term commitment to a place. We will have figs and blueberries next year, but it will be at least 3 years before we have peaches, and perhaps five before we have apples. But they will feed people long after current politicians are long- dead, they provide us nourishment and flowers and pollen for the bees and food for the birds and perhaps most off all, they are our vote for a future that looks very different than the present.

They are living, growing monuments to hope, to the future, to a world that will long outlast the one we have now. They let me remember who I am and what I hope for in the midst of a world gone mad.And while I don’t think you have to plant trees – maybe you plant iris instead, or flowers, or raise children – I’m all in favor of planting something.

Do you have practices that sustain you in the midst of all this? If so, tell us about them in the comments below.

Photo by Jacob Farrar on Unsplash

A Good Walk Shared

I went for a walk this morning. That isn’t unusual – I walk about two and a third miles most mornings, rain or shine, and have done for more than a year.

What made it notable this morning was that I walked with a friend. Normally, my walking is a solitary pursuit, but my friend Jill is wanting to get back in the habit of exercising, and asked if she could walk with me this morning.

It’s a great walk, with gentle hills, through a midcentury neighborhood with ranch houses and mature trees and a creek, with surprises around many corners, like the airstream trailer or the bridge over the creek or the hedge of azaleas that is a wall of pink in the springtime. It is the high point of my day, this walk is, and I was glad to share it with someone else.

As we were walking along, I couldn’t help myself – I kept pointing out things that I was excited about. That live oak, the ways this house had renovated their garage, the unusual plants these people had in their side yard, the vintage car in the driveway. All things I knew to expect, because I have seen them every day for months.

I also took delight in showing her the house that really went all out for Christmas, and the house where you will see a giant inflatable bunny rabbit come Easter, and the house that put up the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag after the insurrection back in January. Sigh.

Really, it almost felt like hosting a tourist in your town – like I was the guide, giving the history of the houses, letting her know where the famous author had lived, I pointed out when we passed the home of the former governor, showed her where the city limits had been in the 50’s.

It was a lot of fun, this playing host. I had not realized how much of this walk I have internalized, how much I had soaked in, how well I knew this stretch, and how fascinated with it I was.

Some things are better when you share them.


Don’t do it by yourself.

One of my favorite stories:

A salesman was driving through the country on his way to his next appointment. He took a curve too fast and ended up in the ditch.

He had no cell service to call AAA, and was cursing his luck when he looked over the field next to the road and saw an old man and a mule, plowing the field.

He walked over to the man and asked for help. The farmer unhitched his mule and together they walked to the car.

The man hitched the mule to the car, told the salesman to stand back and gave a mighty holler.

“Sam – Pull! Mikey – Pull! Davey – Pull!”

And then the mule leaned in, and pulled, and with a creak and a groan the car rolled onto the road again.

As the farmer unhitched the mule, the salesman stood there in disbelief.

“I don’t understand”, he said. “You called three names out, but you only have one mule. What was that about?”

The man smiled. “Oh, that was to trick Davey here into thinking he wasn’t trying to do it alone. If he thought he had to do it by himself, he wouldn’t have even tried.”

* * *

When we know we have a team of people with us, we can accomplish things we never would have dreamed of taking on by ourselves.

Don’t do it by yourself.

The myth of inevitable progress

Our species has been on the earth for more than 200,000 years. 30,000 years ago, there was a sort of explosion of art and cave paintings showing up on multiple regions and continents. 12,000 years ago we began to build settlements and plant crops. We have a long and vigorous history as a species.  But much of what we expect life to be like is based on less than 100 years of our history.

Like the idea that you can retire. Or that you will make more money as you get older. Or that children will not work to support the family. That you will have access to clean water to drink. That you will be in love with the person you marry. That home ownership is normal and expected. That working for someone else for pay is normal and expected. And my favorite: That p is inevitable.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, however. After all, my grandfather was born in 1886. His son died in 2020. Two lives, during which time we went from horse and buggy to railroad to airplanes to visiting the moon to exploring Mars. My grandfather grew up in an age where a rusty nail could kill you, and in his 30’s would live through a global flu pandemic that killed millions. By the time his son was born, there were antibiotics and then polio took out most of a generation and then there was a vaccine and nobody died from polio and rarely did they die from the flu.

If all you knew of human history was the last 150 years, you would be convinced progress was inevitable. That over the long term, optimism is the only realism. That you should always be bullish.

But history tells us otherwise.

I love to grow things, and there are natural rhythms that occur you can depend on that guide our world. Like the last frost date in the springtime, the day on which your danger of freezing is gone and thus you can put out your tomatoes. But in 1815, there was a volcanic eruption in Bali that led to global climate impacts that lasted more than a year, including frost in Virginia in August. People starved, there was massive upheaval, and Mary Shelly was driven indoors and wrote Frankenstein as a result.

Life is not ordered – it is chaotic. Sometimes, the stings of good runs last a long time – but they are still strings, and not chains. And if you think that every day in the future will be like all the days you have had before, you will be OK… until you aren’t, and then you may be wiped out.

I no longer believe in the inevitability of progress, even if our economy is predicated on it. But nothing grows forever – things get sick and sometimes things die, and eventually, everything does.

Don’t mishear me: I’m not advocating for a survival bunker in the basement full of guns and body armor. But I do think it make sense to include in your plans the probability that things will not go according to plan.

Another time, I will talk about what I think a healthy amount of preparation looks like at the household level. But more important than any individual thing you do is, I think, the mindset with which you approach it. I don’t think things are guaranteed to get better or easier, which is why I have to learn how to get stronger and more resilient.

The important people

My father and I never had one of those father-son pissing contests that so many seem to have. Growing up, I thought (and still do) that the sun rose and set upon my dad.

Mom would often go to bed early, to lay in bed and read (I got that from her) and Dad would stay up and watch the news. I would stay up with him – just to be in his presence, uninterrupted. And sometimes, not often, and you could not plan a thing so important, but sometimes, we would get into a discussion after the news that might go for hours. The best memories of my childhood are of us sitting up late at night, discussing things – the future, my hopes and plans, how things work.

He would sit in his recliner and I would lay on the floor and I felt so proud to sit at his feet, to learn from this man who showed me that true greatness comes from serving others. He seemed ancient to me, but he was actually only 36 or 37 – four years younger than I am now.

The summer I turned 16, we sat up several times to discuss my job hunt. I had been offered a job at the grocery store in the nearby small town for minimum wage ($3.35 an hour in those days) or a job on the right-of-way crew for the power company, clearing brush away from the power lines for $4.50. I had a preference, and it revolved around the money.

Dad, however, advised against it. He told me that if I took the right-of-way job, at the end of the summer, I would know the other two guys on my crew really well, but that would be it. But, he said, if I took the job at the grocery store, I would meet a wide range of people. I would make some people really happy and upset others. I would see people at their best and at their worst, and I would know a lot of people at the end of the summer that I didn’t know now, and make lots of friends.

“And the only wealth in this world is friends,” he said.

So, I took the job at the grocery store. And it was a good job, and I stayed there until I graduated high school. But none of that is the story I wanted to tell you.

See, it was near the end of that summer, and I had been working at the grocery store for a few months. I had just gotten in from work and Mom was in bed and Dad was watching the news. So I sat on the floor at his feet and watched with him. And I knew, just knew, one of those treasured conversations was about to happen.

He turned off the tv when the news was over, and he asked how work was going.

“It is going great!” I said. “I am finally at a point where I know who the important people are.”

His whole body changed – I don’t have the tools to describe it. He looked overtaken by a wave of sadness.

He got out of his recliner and sat down on the floor next to me. He looked me in the eye, put his hand on my leg and said “Son, they are all important people. Every single one of them. Don’t ever forget that.”

I never have.

Learning to learn.

In a meeting with an intern a while back, she complained that the things she was studying in school didn’t seem relevant to our work.

“After all”, she said, “how often do we use algebra here?”

I told her she was missing the point.

You don’t go to school to learn things. Not really, anyway.

You go to school to learn how to learn things.

Most of the ways people make money now did not exist when I was in college. There was no way, for instance, they could have taught me how to make iPhone apps – the average person had never even seen a cell phone, and the iPhone was years in the future.

Change is the only certainty, and in the world of the future, you have to be able to learn new things. Because if you don’t, you will get left behind.

As an example: right now everyone says the future of the internet is video. I love writing, and hate being filmed, so it would be easy to ignore them and keep on writing.

But if they are right, then I will one day be as obsolete as a computer programmer who hated all languages other than C++. People who do not change get left behind.

So I am trying to learn how to edit video.  I’m not good at it, and the learning curve is steep. But I will get there.

Unitize your time.

Those of us who are in the helping professions seldom end up having 40 hour, structured workweeks. Instead, we are often responsible for creating our own schedule, which always involves other people’s schedules, which can lead to long, unstructured days.

For instance, I have an office, but am only in it three to four hours a day, with the rest being nighttime meetings, breakfast meetings, coffeeshop meetings, or time spent out in the field. And I still have paperwork to do and writing to do, and all the other sorts of things people expect me to do.

If I’m not careful, I can end up having a day where I have a breakfast meeting at 7:30, get to the office at 9:00, have a lunch meeting at 1:00 PM, spend time in the field until 6:00, where I grab something in the drive thru on my way to a seminar I am supposed to teach at 7:30 PM, and finally get home at 10:00, exhausted.

And for many of us, this sort of thing happens all the time. It is really easy to have a workday that spans 12 or 14 hours, and we wonder why we are exhausted and burned out.

Or maybe we are really good at sticking to eight hour days, but we end up giving up our days off to “just catch up”.

A technique I have learned that has really helped planning my days and weeks. It goes like this:

Your day is split into three units: Morning, afternoon, and evening. You have two goals – don’t work more than two units any given day, and don’t work more than 12 units in a given week.

For the days, you shouldn’t work all three units in a given day. So, if you know you are going to have night meetings, schedule your day so you are not working that morning or afternoon. If you have a full day packed from 9-5, don’t schedule anything that evening.

For the weeks, if you know you have to work Saturday morning and have a presentation Tuesday night, you are already starting the week with two units filled. Throw in a Thursday night meeting and we are up to three, which means, if 12 is our goal, that we can’t work full days the rest of the week.

I find this much more helpful (and realistic) than counting hours. It is easy to wrap my head around, easy to plan around and imposes structure. It turns your calendar into more than a device for recording your appointments and meetings, but rather a framework for structuring your life.

Trash and Time

Take some leftover chicken bones, add the tops and trimmings from a carrot, the peel of some onions and the broccoli stalks you aren’t going to eat and put all that in a pot.  Add enough water to cover it all, bring it to a boil and then put it on a very, very low simmer for six hours or so.

What you just did is make broth. Really good broth, actually, and it didn’t cost you a thing. You were going to throw all of that away.

You just made something amazing… out of trash. Well, trash and time.

I know one thing about you – you have been through some shit. We all have. And you have survived the shit that you had to go through. But now there are the pieces to pick up. Now you have to face being a 40 year old woman who is wanting to be in a relationship, or you are a 50 year old former account executive you learned how to sell everything, but mostly ended up selling his soul. How do you live with that? What do you do with that?

You see, the Universe is inherently frugal. No wasted effort. Rocks fall in straight lines, after all. And so the Universe need not go to the effort of finding new ingredients when she is fully capable of turning the trash you bring to the table into broth.

It’s easy to think it’s all wasted. The time, the effort, the pain. But it isn’t wasted. It’s all ingredients for your broth. To make something amazing, all you need is trash and time.