Your last post really spoke to me. Now how the "f" do I do it??
My last post about reducing stress for ourselves, resonated with a lot of people, and my favorite response was the one above. It gets right to heart of the matter. Sure reducing stress is a good idea, but how the "f" do we do it?
This post has taken me a long time to write, because I struggle with stress myself. Some days are better than others. Progress, in this area, at least for me, both comes slow and requires slowness.
I did eventually figure out how to crawl out from under that desk I wrote about in the last post, though, and even all these years later, I still return to what I learned at that time. One strategy that I bumbled into then, and still use now is something like "no solution," or taking a breather, or redirecting your energy. Very simply, the strategy is to put your life goal aside, and deal with your life instead. For me, these days it looks a lot like not writing (my goal) and cleaning the kitchen pantry instead, which is exactly what I did last weekend.
It was high time the job was done too. Since December brown bugs had been appearing. Tiny as the head of a pin, they buzzed under cabinets and perched themselves on the top of cereal boxes. I kept hoping they would go away but they didn't. When I found one swirling in a pot of boiling pasta, I finally reached my limit.
It was time.
You'd think things had become desperate enough that I would have been committed to the whole effort of cleaning the pantry from the beginning, but I wasn't. I imagined I'd root out a single box that was housing the family of brown bugs, clean a couple shelves off, and be done with it. But after playing tetris with the cans for awhile, I was struck by a shock of hope. Even a small amount of work was bringing a sorely needed sense of order, so I decided to go for broke. I pulled everything out onto the kitchen counter and began the task in earnest.
Here's some of what I found. Four bottles of toasted sesame seed oil, three opened boxes of baking soda (one expired in 2012), Indian curries that I can’t recall how to spell, cake flour, bread flour and two entire sets of ingredients for making gluten free muffins. Capers from Greece, a opened box of orange jello that had never been made, and preserved apricots I made a few years ago.
This is to say nothing of the spice collection, which astonished me, both in its breadth (what was I thinking of making the day I bought asafetida?) and its depth (how did I not know that I had four bottles of bay leaves?). And that was just the beginning. The pile spilled down the length of the counter and rose up like a small mountain.
I learned a lot looking at that pile.
The first, undeniable, realization was just how big it was. There was a lot of food, and a lot of it was going to go to waste. To even be able to see what I had, I needed to get rid of a lot. The heft of the guilt felt as heavy as the food itself. I felt awful. It can be so hard to look at the mess we make for ourselves that we let the mess continue. The pantry seemed to fall in this category.
And then memory came. It was my first apartment, the one on Stanyan and Fredrick, the first place I ever lived all by myself. It was a sunny studio with an ample pantry and old gas stove held together by a bungee cord. I loved that apartment. And in particular, I loved the pantry. I loved it so much I took photographs of the first three cans of tuna and two bags of spaghetti I put in there. It was a milestone. Forget the new car I had just bought, it was storing my own cans of tuna that made me feel like I had finally become an adult.
And then returning my attention to the matter at hand, I saw the box of Kosher salt. I thought of my mom. She has taught me everything I know about cooking. Many lessons have to do with salt. It's the ingredient that balances a vinaigrette, that deepens a chocolate cake, that corrects sour. Salt opens the window to all kinds of tastes and makes food come alive.
I thought of her when I glanced at the four bottles of bay leaves. I use them in chicken soup when my kids are sick. Bay leaves are the only non perishable ingredient in that dish, and so they are as much a part of my first aid kit as Advil or Tylenol or bandaids. Which accounts for how I ended up with four bottles.
And I even thought of her when I touched the asafetida. I had the gumption to think I could take on that Indian recipe, not because my mom taught me how to make Indian food, but because my mom taught me I could handle anything in the kitchen. I fear nothing and make everything, because my mom didn't just hand down her recipes, she showed me the way to cook.
And so as terrible as I felt, I could also see that there was a good lot of love in that mountain of food. For awhile, as I made my way through the mess, my thoughts toggled between these two kinds of feelings, back and forth between love and shame.
Soon, though, a bit of order started to emerge. Space reappeared on the counter, logical piles started to cluster, and I could imagine how I was going to put things back to rights. I stood back for a moment, took a deep breath and what came to me was not a thought. It was a sense. It was that voice that blows in from above, that feels like not me, that reveals the wise thing. It said, "Sweetheart, it's simple, you need less."
And it wasn't just less food. It was less time spent in Whole Foods. It was less pressure to cook the perfect home cooked meal every night. It was less guessing about what I had in the pantry.
My pantry had gotten clogged up with a problem of plenty. I had plenty of everything, good intentions, healthy food, and financial resources. What I had been lacking was time spent taking stock of what I already had. Not knowing, or not taking the time to find out what was already in the pantry, meant that I had been buying the same thing over and over and over again, from baking soda to bay leaves. The repeats were everywhere. And storing them was making it difficult to see what I had, which led me to buy more, making the problem worse.
Sweetheart, it's simple, you need less.
With sorting--navy beans with navy beans, cereals lined up where the kids can reach them, Asian ingredients together--the mess settled out. Everything found its place. I found the box housing the brown bugs (an unopened box of number 12 spaghetti, if you want to know), and discarded it. I discovered a delightful jar containing all of the ingredients needed to make minestrone, a gift from a friend. I learned I had run out of simple granulated sugar--a staple I actually need.
In very concrete terms my life had become less stressful. The kitchen was bug free and I was free from gnatty feeling that comes from avoiding the thing that really needs to be done. The pantry, once the locus of potential hazard for the whole family, looked calm and balanced, like a Barnett Newman painting. My twenty-five year old, pantry loving self, was present and pleased with the job. It felt good.
And it made me wonder. What else am I loading up on that I already have?
My pantry was showing me that I cram up my life with the mistaken notion that I'm missing something, when in fact I have it in triplicate right under my nose. This is a real cause of my stress, and maybe yours too. We move around so fast, that the movement alone stimulates the vague sense of forgetting something, or missing something, or about to miss something. And it's not true. It is a feeling, a feeling that can lead toward over doing things.
A correction can come from taking a break from the pursuit, whatever the pursuit may be. Time taken to clean out a drawer or a closet or a pantry or a garage--it can make a real difference. It sounds unrelated, but it's not.
Establishing clarity somewhere, makes clarity more possible everywhere.
That's how the "no solution," take a break and deal with your life strategy works (or the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, if you're into that). Our lives are always talking to us, calling us toward wholeness. Our homes, our cars, our relationships, they are showing us the way. All we need to do is offer ourselves the time it takes to listen.