50 Days Happier: Day 5 – Pre-Vacation Clear Out

For the next eight or nine days I’ll be “off the grid.”  I’ll be spending Friday and Saturday on the road because of an unexpected death in my stepson’s family.  On Sunday, the family leaves  for a camping vacation that will have me traipsing around the  woods, under rocks, and through lakes until Friday morning.  On Friday afternoon, I head directly from the campsite to Chapel Hill, NC to attend the retirement party of a dear friend and mentor.  With everything that is in the works, all the packing and preparations still in front of me, I have decided to give myself a bit of a break with regard to the challenge.  Thus, I’ve resolved to keep my eye out for any impromptu opportunities to organize or dump some trash while I sift through closets and the basement to collect all our camping gear, but no major new projects.

While I did manage to do a little clearing out while I was packing, an entirely different, and far more difficult, challenge dropped into my lap.  Most of my efforts in this challenge have been focused on my physical environment, but today I was confronted with the need to do a bit of emotional purging, prioritizing, and simplifying.

I’ve always believed that “toxic relationships” were a product of bad or mean or broken people.  I realized today that this isn’t necessarily true.  Good people with good intentions, who (at least in theory) genuinely like each other, can simply be ill-suited to maintain a healthy and functioning friendship.  The ironic part is that such friendships are in some ways even more dysfunctional than those with known assholes.  After all, you can generally tell when an asshole is going to strike.  People with bad intentions throw up warning signals like beacons.  But people who genuinely care for you, who have no intention of inflicting harm, who are good people, seem to be the ones with the ability to cut the deepest.  And when those woundings aren’t isolated incidents, but come over and over, maintaining such a friendship is like a roller coaster ride–simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.  Perhaps when I was younger, I was able to manage these kinds of relationship.  Who I am I kidding, I was actually attracted to these kinds of relationships.  They are exciting, intoxicating.  But now, I am just too old for roller coasters and if I ask myself the question, mantra, I have adopted for these 50 days–Does this relationship make me happy?–my most honest self does not want to say ‘no’, and cannot, no matter which way I spin it, say ‘yes’.

Such is life, I suppose.

I am relieved that I’ll have a few days in the wilderness to process these first five days of the challenge–this last one especially.  Though in some ways, I feel like I haven’t really done that much, in others I feel like the ground underneath my feet has shifted just enough to make me a little disoriented.  When I return, I hope to be recharged and ready to rock!


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50 Days Happier

Tell me if you’ve heard this one.

The sun is rising or has already risen.  You are laying in bed having woken up later or earlier than you intended.  You know from the outset, that this will be “one of those days.”  You will be stuck in your head, moody, withdrawn or more clingy than usual.

Beyond the basics of dressing and eating and voiding, the only thoughts your mind seems to be capable of wrestling with are huge ones: Am I happy? Am I living the life I want to live?  Why are the answers to these first two questions, No?

Maybe minutes or hours later, you realize that you have done this before. The mood, the questions.  The long and convoluted series of partial answers that you are, have been, grappling with are all familiar–the compulsion to make to-lists, or art projects, to clean or meditate or exercise yourself so that you can shake this feeling.

Eventually, you find the right thing.  It is a distraction, but practical or positive enough to pass for productivity and it gets you through the day and onto the next, when you are more yourself and the existential crisis that buried you eyeball deep in dissatisfaction is forgotten.

I had this day yesterday…again. Except this time I am making an effort to change how the day ends.

Dreaming of Self-Sufficiency

I am an ardent dreamer, though my dreams are rarely of the fantastic variety. Even when I am unconscious, my “dreams” tend toward the aspirational definitions of that word. When I dream, I shape goals, explore possibilities, test scenarios, and solve problems.  Most of these dreams are related in some way to my ongoing vision of a “perfect life”. This is a life in which I am fulfilled, a life that I know without question is meaningful.  This is a life that makes use of my intelligence and skills and creativity and challenges me to continue to learn and grow.   This is a life in which my ideals and ethical commitments are consistent with my actions and in which the relationships I keep are nurturing. This is a life in which I do not want or need or crave, but sustain and provide and and relish.  Most of all, this life one that I have made, will make, with my own hands and heart.  It will fit me…perfectly.

Though I think the description doesn’t really suit my dream life, “self-sufficient” is the best I can come up with.  I want to live within my own means, by my own terms, without debt, and without taking an undue ecological toll on my habitat. To a large degree, my interests and hobbies and passions plug into this vision.  This is something I am, for the most part, proud of.   I brew my own beer, garden, knit, and make things from discarded materials because these are activities that make me happy and feed the vision of the life I wish I were living.  I compulsively read about tiny houses, lifehacks, skoolies, and minimalism because these are examples of other people, in other places making the things I know I want for myself work.

And this is where the problem starts. Because in compulsively looking to the material artifacts left by other peoples’ lives, you inevitably begin to question the conditions of their making. And there, you can find a lot of places to make excuses.  You compile long lists of excuses.

These people are young and unattached, without major commitments or children.  These people don’t have crippling debt. They have savings  accounts and inheritances.  These people figured it out so easily, they didn’t have to wander around the country collecting degrees until they figured out what they wanted to do with themselves.  These people have spouses and peers and people around them that want to help them realize their dreams–want to dream with them.

inevitably, from these excuses comes resentment.  A silent and simmering anger toward everyone and everything you perceive to be keeping your dreams firmly moored in the abstraction, of futurity, of fiction, that maybe bubbles up here and there as frustration or annoyance, and sometimes boils into full-throated arguments about nothing important at all.

Did you see that?

I slipped back into writing about the hypothetical “you”. The “all of us”.  Let’s be honest, I am talking about me and no one else.

What it Boils Down to is This

If you strip back all of the psycho-emotional hooey, the reasons for my feelings of dissatisfaction are simple.  The life I envision for myself–the perfect life–is one of relative simplicity, tight curation, sustainability, and adaptability.  The life I am currently living is in no way unenjoyable or unfulfilling.  But, it is filled with unnecessary complexity, it is haphazard and unorganized in places, excessive, and (perhaps most anguishing) entirely static.  Where I imagine streamlined processes and spaces, I see layers of figurative hurdles and physical clutter.   I imagine all things in their right places, a beautiful expression of form and function.  Instead, I see scores of objects in purposeless limbo waiting for the spark potentiality to make sense of their existence.  The spark rarely comes.  Where I imagine the ability to adapt, change, and travel as my life evolves, I feel trapped physically and financially for no really good reason I can name.  All of this is to say that there are too many things about the way I live my life (and the material expression of that living) that make me unhappy.

Deciding to be 50 Days Happier

Rather than focusing on all the reasons I feel stuck or why I cannot achieve the ends that I think about so often about,  I have decided to focus on the things that I can do and trust that they will make me (at least incrementally) happier. Self-work (sadly) isn’t something I have a ton of time to do during the academic year, so I have decided to work with the time I have left this summer, roughly 50 days.

I have decided to give this effort, which I have glibly coined the “50 Days Happier” challenge, a couple of ground rules.  They are:

  • Be firm, flexible, and kind to yourself.
  • Let joy lead the way by allowing the question, “does this make you happy?” to be the ultimate decision maker.
  • Use this opportunity to determine what is truly important and what you have been holding onto for less productive/practical/fulfilling reasons.
  • Use this opportunity to bring your actions and physical space in line with your dreams and intentions.
  • These are your strategies–purge, reduce, simplify, organize, recycle, and complete–use them in that order.
  • Be intentional and self-reflexive. The process is what counts.


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