Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Free Yourself From Clutter! Clean House, Clear Mind

I find that the cleanliness of my house is directly related to the sanity of my mind. As a result, since going back to work my sanity quotient has taken a serious hit. Based on this revelation, I have embarked on a major decluttering initiative in our house. I found a great book called The Declutter Workbook: 101 Feng Shui Steps to Transform Your Life that is changing my home, and my perspective on life. Believe it or not, this little gem is only $.01 used on Amazon. You would think that the steps to decluttering your house would be obvious but this book does an amazing job of helping you identify all of the little things that you might otherwise miss. I found that I've looked at some of the clutter in my house for so long that I don't even notice it anymore. Chris & I have been using this book to tackle one room at a time and I am thrilled with the results! I'm also thrilled with the unintended consequence: decluttering the house has led to decluttering my life.

When I really look at all of the knick knacks around the house in a critical way, I'm amazed at all of the mindless spending we have done over the years. Did I really need all of these candles? And why do I have more picture frames than I do pictures or space to display them? April Dykman writes a great guest post on this subject on Get Rich Slowly, one of my favorite blogs. Her post is called Freedom From Mindless Spending. She discusses the reasons that lead us to purchase items for which we really have no need or attachment. She then talks about stripping your life down to the simple things that really bring you happiness. I enjoy being outside, hiking in the woods, camping under the stars, spending time on the water, curling up on the couch with a great book and a cup of coffee, catching up with a long time friend, driving in the mountains, taking my dog for a long walk, and spending a quiet night with my husband talking about our dreams for the future. None of these things involve much money or items that are mass produced and sold at Target. Now don't get me wrong, I love Target as much as the next twenty-six year old girl nesting in her first home. But when you think about it, the old cliché is true: the best things in life really are free. Freeing ourselves from mindless spending pads both our pockets and our mental well-being.

Chris & I are always looking for ways to make our money go farther so as part of our declutter project, we are selling a lot of old and unused things on Amazon and craigslist. We've decided to take the money from these sales and put it in a savings account that will be used next year to fund our cross-country road trip. It feels great to get back to basics, both in our house and in our lives. There is something very liberating about eliminating the noise in your life and getting back to enjoying the simple things. I love how much cleaner our house looks (even a clean house looks messy with random, unrelated figurines and objects everywhere). I love that this project is making us reevaluate our priorities while helping fund a great adventure in the trip. And I love how I can apply the concept of a cleaner house to the bigger picture of life. As April Dykman says in her post, "What made me happy? Seems like a simple question, but to find the real answer, you have to block out a barrage of ad campaigns, expectations from family members and peers, and the desire to keep up with the Joneses." So I vow from this day forward to stop and think twice before heading to the check out with a cart full of fake flowers and decorative wall hangings. And while I'm cruising down a two-lane highway in California next year, I won't remember what those flowers looked like one bit. But I'll never forget the color of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean or the quality campfire conversations and playlist debates with Chris. And you can't put a price tag on those.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Trip

I dream of moving out west. I've always dreamed of moving out west. I fully disclosed this to Chris before we got married. His career that is firmly rooted in Virginia doesn't mesh well with my wish of loading everything we own in a U-haul, becoming a nomad exploring the west coast for a few months, and settling down somewhere around Colorado. Of course, my rational side has always kept me here plugging along in corporate America and being an overly responsible twenty-six year old. But this little voice in the back of my head keeps saying "go soon, or you'll never go". And the voice is starting to yell.

I had a sudden epiphany while I was between jobs that we should drive across the country. It would be a great compromise between living in Virginia and seeing what's west of the Mississippi. And what better way to spend quality time together than getting back to basics and taking an adventure? That night I dragged Chris to Barnes & Noble and started devouring books like Live Your Road Trip Dream: Travel for a Year for the Cost of Staying Home
and Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America's Two-Lane Highways. I made a list of places to see and mapped out a general route, although I feel strongly about most of the trip being spontaneous. I pitched the idea to Chris with an arsenal of justifications and counter-arguments for the expected resistance. So he shocked me when he said an enthusiastic "sounds great!" I thought this was a passing generous mood, but a few months later we are still excitedly planning the trip and anticipating our big adventure. I'm picturing us hiking remote trails in national parks and hitting a scenic two-lane highway after an early morning breakfast in a local coffee shop.

Here's the game plan: We'll go for four to six weeks in either spring or fall of 2010. May/June is my preference, but depending on certain circumstances it may be September/October. There are two main obstacles to overcome. 1) The dog. We thought for a brief second about taking her. Then we pictured ourselves staying in a hotel or trying to park near the St. Louis Arch with her panting and running around the car and barking at pedestrians. Scratch that. She has to stay here. We're planning to hit up my parents for an extended doggie vacation, for which they are currently unaware. We'll have to approach that one carefully. 2) Chris's job. He'll be starting a new one around January of next year and I can't imagine any job that would be ok with a four week vacation barely four months into work. Since his career is the one we plan to rely on most financially down the road, we can't give it the proverbial finger. So this could dictate a change of plans, or a delay of starting a new job. Regardless, we are determined to make this trip happen. As I frequently remind Chris, this is not something we will want to do with a two year old child, and the clock is ticking. Our years of only thinking about ourselves are numbered. This is just something that I have to do before I can officially settle down and start a family.

The map: Get one-way flights to San Francisco and load up the tent and supplies. Secure a long-term rental car (hopefully a hybrid SUV!) and begin by driving up the west coast to Seattle and possibly up into Canada and Vancouver. Cruise down through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Iowa, Missouri, and then the shortest way back to Virginia. And somehow we have to fit in Colorado and Utah. Maybe we'll start in Denver and drive across to San Francisco? We've started a savings account specifically for the trip and are convinced that with enough camping and grocery shopping we can do this on a very economical budget. We'll of course have to make some classic road trip CD's, take the computer so we can email and blog occasionally from the road (although we'll want limited contact with the media and the home front), and invest in our first camcorder for a video documentary of the trip.

I really believe that this will be a life-changing journey. There's something so refreshing about stripping away all of the daily hassles of society, all of the tv's and telephones, and being in contact with everyone 24 hours a day. I think that an experience like this gives you a new perspective on life and changes the way that you look at everything. I'm hoping that this trip will help me define what is really important to me and give me a chance to think about my direction. And most importantly it will be a voyage that Chris and I will take together, which I think will make us stronger in the long run. So we're socking away money, welcoming any advice and recommendations, and trying to refine our rustic camping skills.

In my case, I will likely have to quit my job to take this trip. That idea is a little scary to me, but the idea of waking up at seventy with regrets is even scarier. And I don't think that at seventy I will regret spending less time in the office and more time in nature. There is a great article in The Wall Street Journal this morning in the column called Yoder & Son (by Stephen Yoder and Isaac Yoder) called Road Trip: What Isaac Saw – and Learned. Isaac, a recent high school graduate, just finished his first solo road trip partly across the country. In the column, he quotes a man named Eric that he met on the road. "'For most people, the time to get a job comes around and they lose sight of what's really important,' Eric told me. 'We should have been doing this long ago.'" I couldn't have explained my need for this trip better myself. We have the rest of our lives to be responsible and climb the career ladder. But it's never too late to rewrite your future or change direction. So here's to our trip, great adventures, lessons you can't learn in an office… and a less ordinary life! 2010 can't get here soon enough.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Believe by The Bravery

My friend at work just turned me on to The Bravery last week and I must say, I am LOVING them! This is their song Believe. Enjoy!

The Modern “How You Doin’”

I was at Starbucks this morning when I heard a conversation that sums up communication today. It was like something straight out of the movie He's Just Not That Into You. A girl and guy were sitting at the table next to me dissecting the events of the night before. He interrupted her droning and cut to the chase: "Did he get your number?" She defensively, but excitedly, replied "no, but he asked if I'm on Facebook." What?! Now granted, I've been out of the dating world for several years now. But I think that if at the end of what I perceived to be a great night a guy just asked me if I was on Facebook, I'd be seriously insulted. To me this means "You're alright, and if I don't find someone else I like better tonight I'll check you out online and click through your friends and your pictures before I make any decisions." Another possibility is that he's going to "fish" on Facebook by putting out feelers to a couple of girls and seeing who bites (read: "you're alright, but let me see if Alexis – who is way out of my league – replies to my post first"). It could also mean that he's not interested and it's easier to reject me online where I'm one of his generic 877 "friends" than here in person.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for social networking online. If I was single, I would be all over eHarmony. In fact, my husband and I joke that their commercials are so tempting that even though we're happily married we'd still love to try out their site just out of curiosity to see who they'd pair us with. I think of it more as an assessment of my personality than actually making a match. "What do you mean I need someone with a stable personality who is exceptionally patient and hard to provoke?"

I also love Facebook. It's great for keeping in touch without too much commitment (like texting, only free!). For me, it replaces the dreaded class reunion. Who needs to work out like an Olympic athlete for months and spend a small fortune on a flattering outfit to find out what your old classmates are up to when you can stalk them online?

It's also great for wimps like me, who want to keep in touch but are way too afraid of awkwardness or rejection to actually call someone up that we haven't talked to in years. Or also for people like me, who are really bad about keeping in touch and wait so long that it gets to the uncomfortable stage where you're not sure if the person will either a) remember you or b) be angry with you for staying out of touch for so long. Facebook is a great way to test the waters. Drop a quick, friendly, casual "Hey, how are you, hope you're doing well, would love to catch up…" and then wait nervously to see if there is ever a reply.

Just tonight in fact I have taken on two such contacts. The first is a former friend from high school. I would even go so far as to say this guy was at points my best friend. We kept in touch through the first few years of college but drifted apart later on. A few months ago I had dinner with a mutual friend and we reminisced on the fun times. Gosh, I thought. It's probably been seven years since I last talked to him (insert cliché about how time flies). I don't even know if he's still in the country. So naturally, I friended him on Facebook. He accepted my friend request but neither of us ever sent a note or even posted a "hi". Last night as I was ironing my work clothes for the week, I hit play on my alarm clock CD player to fill the silence. The room filled with the best 80's music ever made. This was the CD that made me believe that I do in fact love 80's music. The CD he had made me senior year of high school, after my protests that 80's music was all techno and no talent. The memories flooded back like a collage of the highlights of my high school life, set to the soundtrack of legends like U2 and Tom Petty. How, I thought, have I lost touch with someone that I was once so close with? That knew me so well? So tonight I wrote him a note on Facebook, reread it five times, stressed over tone and word choice, and hit send. I really hope he writes me back. And if he doesn't, I can just pretend that he doesn't check his Facebook anymore.

The second contact tonight was a former roommate from college. We met freshman year and were good friends through college, including roommates in my first apartment junior year. We've shared a lot, including a home for a year, and still I've managed to lose touch. This one is probably on me, which I am very aware of and feel very guilty about. She moved out of state but still called and emailed, as well as meeting me for dinner whenever she was in town. And somehow even that was too much for me to keep up with and she called and emailed less and less, I assume feeling that the communication was too one sided, and now I haven't talked to her in a year. God bless Facebook for the reminder that today is her birthday. So after not talking for a year, I posted a quick "happy birthday, hope things are swell, would love to catch up" on her wall. I hope she understands that's code for "sorry I'm an idiot, I really do want to be your friend, please give me another shot to not be a loser." Again, we'll wait to see what happens.

So in summary, I feel sorry for the girl at Starbucks. Because if the guy was really that interested, he would have gotten her number. This sounds horribly old-fashioned considering I'm only 26 but I'm glad that I didn't have to contend with Facebook while dating. There were enough other ways to misinterpret a guy's comments and actions and enough other ways to torture yourself wondering if he was interested. But as much as I might rant about how texting and Facebook have been the downfall of quality relationships, I secretly love and respect the latter. After all, as much as I use it as a crutch to keep in touch, my communication probably wouldn't stand on its own without it. And at the end of the day I'll salute anything that lets you get all of the dirt for free, without any of the small talk, and in the comfort of your own home in your sweats with a container of Ben & Jerry's.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Afraid to Forget

I've been at my job almost 3 months now and today I passed a significant milestone: calling in sick for the first time. Of course I'm not actually sick. That's what makes today so great. I didn't plan this. I woke up this Monday morning and got going as usual. It wasn't until I was in the shower that the thought occurred to me that I really didn't want to go today. I am such a rule follower that the internal debate over whether to call in sick to work is usually enough to ruin the joy of a sick day for me. I continued going through all the normal motions of getting ready for work, but once that little voice pops up in my head it's hard to silence it. I started picturing my day off doing all of the boring everyday things that I can't do while I'm at work, like reading and eating junk.

Now, unlike my old job, this idea was cause for a serious discussion with Chris. My last job had the very advantageous benefit of unlimited time off, within reason. As long as your manager approved it, you were free to go and no one monitored how many days or hours you took off. Consequently, I had never really considered how many days off I took in an average year. I always felt like I was responsible and even wondered if the open time away policy worked like reverse psychology and actually made me take less time off. When you can take the time whenever you want, it's easy to just not take any time unless you actually need it (a novel concept, I know…). So when the offer came in for my current job, it wasn't the longer hours or the 25% pay cut that bothered me. No, it was the limits on my time off that had me in tears over whether to accept. The offer was very standard: two weeks off for vacation and 6 personal days a year for sick time or appointments or in my opinion, a vacation day here and there toward the end of the year. But suddenly I felt suffocated, like my cubicle was closing in on me. When I actually did the math, I realized that this would probably be plenty of time to cover my normal time off plans in a year. But it was the rule that scared me. The written-in-stone boundaries.

So this morning as my heart sped at the idea of having a day at home to myself and my palms got sweaty at the idea of having to make the fake sick phone call to my boss, I asked Chris for his opinion. After all, now these kinds of decisions affect him since one sick day now means one less day I could take off for a long weekend with him later. Unfortunately, Chris actually was feeling sick this morning which made me feel even guiltier for considering calling in for a day of luxury when he had to drag himself to work truly feeling under the weather. Luckily, I have a very understanding and indulgent husband. After making my case that I needed a mental health day and I had been working very hard and there were lots of things I could take care of around the house, all of which Chris agreed with, I finally convinced myself to make the call.

Ten minutes later, after pacing around the room, working up a sweat, rehearsing my speech and sick voice out loud, and making the call, I was free. The whole day stretched out in front of me. The opportunities were endless. I normally feel euphoria at this point from the unusual sense of having a whole weekday outside of someone else's rule, but this time felt different. I realized that I fell easily back into the pattern that I had when I was home between jobs. I spent the morning reading and taking breaks to work on things around the house. I gave the dog some much appreciated attention. Everything just felt right and normal. And I was alone with my thoughts.

Somewhere around lunchtime, a strong sense of nostalgia hit. It's been a little less than three months that I've been back at work, and I'm disappointed to admit how quickly I'm drifting away from my mission of finding my path. At the risk of sounding cheesy, the weeks that I was home between jobs were the happiest of my life. It's not that I don't want to work. Yes, someday when Chris and I have kids I hope to be able to stay home. But right now it's just us, and I realize I can't be a stay at home wife. When I was out of work, I spent my days thinking of ways to reinvent my career. To be able to work from home and be my own boss and do something that I really love. I was inspired to make a change. And then before I knew it I took the practical route and was back at a desk job so fast it made my head spin. I promised myself that it was temporary and that this was just a bridge to have some income while I continued to pursue my yet undetermined dream.

This is where the disappointment comes in. As strongly motivated as I felt when I went back to work, I've lost my momentum. It's amazing how a generic desk job can suck the life and inspiration right out of you even when you make a conscious effort not to let it. As I sit here this afternoon with my cup of coffee, my happy dog, and my laptop I realize that the day off was meant to be. I'm glad that I got a reminder so early on of where I really want to be and what I really want to do. It's time to refocus. Hopefully this wakeup call will save me from selling my career life to the highest bidder for another five years.

Fortunately, while I was out of work I did have an epiphany about my dream. It took twelve weeks of deep introspection. I've always known that I love to read but while I was home, I read countless books. I found that I could read for eight hours a day and not get tired of it. One day it hit me that if I love reading so much, maybe I would also love writing. I had enjoyed it in elementary school and been enrolled in the gifted creative writing class. I enjoyed my English classes in middle school and high school. As a business major in college, I took a four year hiatus from writing and have never really picked it up since. But it seems logical to try to spend your adult life doing something that you enjoyed so much as a child, when your ideas and preferences weren't shaped as much by what would pay the most money or bring the most recognition. I've always felt that I wanted to do something that had more of an impact and inspired people to improve their lives. What better way to make a go at that than through writing?

So the best part of my sick day wasn't the peace and quiet or the junk food or the freedom to sit on the couch all day. It was the kick in the rear to get back on track. To not let my current job stand in the way of my future goals. I can go back to work tomorrow with a renewed sense of purpose and a calm mind. Oh and (thanks to the sick day) a cleaner house, which never hurts.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The First Day of the Rest of My Life

Here I sit at Panera with my wonderful husband on a beautiful Sunday morning. I should be relaxed and happy. I am happy, but instead of relaxing I'm thinking about how I have to go back to work tomorrow and how I'm so glad it's a short week. This is what I do every Sunday, and as it gets later in the day my attitude gets farther in the dumpster. It's not that I hate my job. It's a fine job. I like the people I work with, the work isn't too bad, and it pays the bills. I don't work odd hours and they don't bother me at home, which is more than I can say for my last job. So why do I go through this same ritual of misery & self-pity every Sunday? Why do I spend one of my two days of freedom every week dreading tomorrow?

I've known for awhile that this isn't what I want to do with my life. In fact, I know a lot about what I don't want to do. I just haven't figured out what I DO want to do. I know that I want to do something that makes a difference (in people's lives, not in a bottom line). I want to do something that inspires me and inspires other people. I want to have time for my family and friends. I want to have a healthy, active lifestyle and a clean, organized house. I want an income from work that doesn't feel like work and isn't a traditional job. I guess I kind of want everything. I want to have it all. And I don't think that's too much to ask!

In January I lost my job at a large corporation that closed its doors for good. It had been my home since college graduation. In all honesty, this was the first time I had really had to deal with adversity in my adult life. I am a person who has always worked hard and stayed within the lines. I have always dreamed of taking risks or taking the road less traveled. But in the end, I have chosen the safe road. The one that climbed the corporate ladder and advanced farther into a career that I didn't like for the reward of great money. And looking back, it worked out ok. I sacrificed a few years to be able to buy a house at a young age, not have much debt, lead a comfortable lifestyle, and allow my husband the freedom to lay a foundation in a career he loves. I had a definite love/hate relationship with my last job. The more I advanced, the harder it was to walk away. I was proud of my success but I knew in the back of my mind that each day I spent on that corporate campus was one day farther away from beginning the journey toward the life that I wanted.

When we got the news at work that it was the end of the road, it was very sudden. I went back for one more half day and then found myself driving out of the parking lot for the last time at noon on a Monday. I didn't even know where to go, both literally and figuratively. This was at the lowest point of the bad economy and a sluggish job market. I had no prospects, and the local market was now flooded with talented people who had the same skills as me (most with more experience). So it surprised me when instead of feeling panic, I felt relief. I was amazed that instead of being scared of the future, I was just glad that I didn't have to go back to the past. And I suddenly realized that today really was the first day of the rest of my life.

I could do whatever I wanted. I could start a new career. I could make a total change. I could do something meaningful or look for a job working from home. There was one thing I knew for sure: I was not going back to a job like the one I had just left. This was the beginning of my new life. It was the kick that I needed to make a change. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew I could only go up from here. It was the most liberating feeling I'd had since college graduation. I spent eight weeks relaxing and enjoying my extended vacation. Fortunately, I was paid my old salary for 60 days and then was eligible to collect unemployment through September. I felt like I had all the time in the world. Every morning I got up, watched my husband leave for work, exercised, ate a healthy lunch, and did all of the things that I never had time to do when I was working. I really made the most of my time off and saw the results in my health. I lost weight, became more toned, and lost stress related symptoms that had been with me for years. My family and friends noticed the difference in my health and attitude. I suddenly felt sorry for everyone who was unfortunate enough to be stuck doing something they don't love. I was thriving as a stay-at-home wife, although I knew it couldn't last. It was honestly the best eight weeks of my life and I knew I was never going back to my old ways.

I was just starting to think that it was time to start looking for a new job when I got an unexpected voicemail. In this tough economy, I actually got an unsolicited call from a small local company looking to fill an opening immediately. This happened to be in my old industry and fit my skill set exactly. It was a perfect match. The interview was amazing. I knew I was a shoe-in. So like any normal person, I went home and celebrated and spoke of the relief of a great job landing in my lap in a market where no one is hiring, right? Wrong. I called my husband and cried. I solicited advice from my friends and family. I had a near meltdown over what I knew was the impending decision of whether to take a job just like the old one. I didn't want to go back to the old life. But was I crazy to turn down this opportunity just to "follow my dreams" when so many people right now can't get a job or pay their bills? We couldn't live on my husband's salary alone forever….

Flash forward to today at Panera. I'm two months into the new job. The good thing is it's exactly what I knew it would be. The bad thing is also that it's exactly what I knew it would be. It's secure and not too stressful and pays the bills. However, I still have that feeling that every day I'm taking one more step away from the life that I'm meant to lead, whatever that may be.

While I was off work, I did a lot of soul searching. I found that I love to read. I probably read 20 books in the 12 weeks that I ended up being off work. I also surprised myself by finding that I love to write. Journaling really helped me sort through my thoughts and emotions over losing my job, which I'll dig into much more in future postings. I also love to help and inspire people. I love to work toward improvement, whether it's self improvement, home improvement, financial improvement, or just general life improvement. And I want to travel. I've always wanted to find something that combines all of these passions and I think that blogging may be a good start. If I can share just one thing from my experience that motivates someone else to improve their life, it's a success. After all, why can't we all have it all? I hope that you'll stick with me through this journey, and hopefully be inspired to begin a journey of your own!