settling in (happiness project, part 6)

Remember all those posts I made over the last few months about my upcoming move, and all the related feelings and freakouts and meltdowns?

Well, it happened!

In the past few weeks, Husband and I have completed the first leg of our move from the boonies of Western Massachusetts to the suburbs of New York City. Needless to say, it’s been a pretty big adjustment–we’ve gone from a single-family house on a quiet dead-end street to a small apartment in a large complex on a busy road. My commute has gone from a five-minute drive to a forty-minute train followed by a twenty-five minute walk, which, for obvious reasons, means I’ve had to make some drastic changes to my morning and evening routines to accommodate a much longer journey to and from work. That means, to my sadness, less time for writing and internet-ing in both the morning and evening, and, since I’m now held to a train schedule, much less flexibility in that routine from day to day. The last few weeks have been a pretty constant jumble of adjusting to new routines, unpacking, organizing, hanging, decorating, and rearranging. It’s been an adventure.

And the best part? In just over two months, we’re going to do it all again when we move into the housing that Husband’s job provides for us starting in June. Woo!

A few people–okay, a lot of people–have asked us why we’ve bothered to put as much time and energy into settling into our current apartment, given that we’ll only be there about three months. And honestly, it’s a fair question. Unpacking clothes and kitchenware is one thing; hanging artwork and arranging books feels like creating a much more “permanent” space.

For me, though, creating something that feels like a permanent home is what makes this process doable. Husband and I have moved approximately a bajillion times since we’ve been living together (okay, so maybe it’s more like seven, but still!), and one of the things that I’ve realized in the process of all these moves is that I need to feel like I’m home, not in a temporary or uncertain space. The extent to which I’ve been able to do that over our different moves has varied, from having only a few of our books and pictures to being able fully furnish and settle into a home for over a year, and I’m fully aware that it’s been a privilege to be able to make each place we’ve lived feel at least slightly like ours for the time that we’ve been there.

As nice as it is to stay in a hotel for a few nights, most of us wouldn’t want to live in one if we can avoid it, and the reason why is the same reason that college students decorate rooms they’ll only inhabit for four months at a time and kids at overnight summer camps set up their bunks with pictures of home and bring along a favorite pillow or stuffed animal. There’s just something about being surrounded by familiar things that brings a sense of peace and serenity that we just don’t have in temporary spaces, and those feelings of serenity are crucial to our brains’ ability to adjust after a major transition. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on studying transitional and resettlement traumas–a number I suspect will go up over the next few years, as millions of refugees are resettled across the globe–as sociologists and psychologists and other social scientists examine the ways in which people create homes in new places and work to find familiarity in the unfamiliarity. From a less academic and extreme perspective, online outlets from Buzzfeed to Reader’s Digest have put together articles (listicles, whatever) about adjusting to a new place and making a new location feel like “home.” Clearly, this is a pretty common phenomenon, which shouldn’t be surprising: the average American can expect to move 11.4 times in their adult lifetime. No wonder we’re looking for as many ways as possible to make the process smoother.

I’m a confident enough person to be able to admit that I don’t, and will probably never, have the temperament needed to enjoy moving. And I’m okay with that. This happiness project has never been about changing my core personality, but rather understanding the ways I can change my perspectives and needs to increase the amount of happiness I feel on a day to day basis. I’ve made my peace with the fact that my moves will require more work because I’m determined to make my space–however temporary–feel like home as quickly as possible. This particular time, this has worked out in our favor: Husband and I went from “no unpacked boxes” to “everything unpacked, art on the walls, internet installed, fresh-baked bread cooling on the counter” in a week and a half. It helps that by this point we’re pretty much a relocation dream team, but in all honesty? Knowing that we’re getting damn good at this makes the fact that we’ve got yet another move coming up in June feel a little less scary.

But for now, at least, I have an unpacked apartment that feels like home.

And at the end of the day, even if we didn’t set everything up right away, I know that sometimes, happiness isn’t the stuff you have in your home, but who you share it with.

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10 things a year as a therapist taught me about life, work & growth

As of 6pm on Friday, I am no longer a therapist.

It’s a strange, bittersweet feeling. For over a year, being a therapist was more than just a job–it was part of my identity. Work didn’t get to stay at work; it was part of my life in a deeply profound way. My co-workers became my supporters in ways that were unlike anything I’d experienced at any other job; the concept of a “mental health day” took on an entirely new meaning, being present in my work became more important than ever.

Looking back on the past year, it’s hard to pick out the things that I learned from being a therapist as opposed to things I learned simply by getting another year older (and maybe a few months wiser). But that, I suppose, is why self-reflection has become such an important part of my growth process. I’ve written before about journaling and how daily reflective practice has changed the way I spend my time, but it really has made a huge difference–not just in my ability to look back at moments of gratitude, but to watch myself experience learning and growth. It’s also allowed me to read old entries and see the places where I learned hard lessons and received some painful reminders of my own limitations–limitations that, thanks in part to that active self-reflection, I was sometimes able to turn into strengths.

But not without challenges, and not without luck, and not without help.

For better or worse, I’m a lists person, and I do my best memory collection through organization. So, here we are:

10 Things a Year as a Therapist Taught Me about Life, Work & Growth

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the art of decluttering

It has been told to me, from time to time, that I have an odd definition of sexy.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a bearded Chris Evans as much as the nice gal (who is interested in dudes from time to time, and the rest of the time checks out Hayley Atwell, because dang, girl). But when I go looking online for pictures to drool over, it’s less this:

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(okay, sometimes it’s this)

and more this:

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DON’T YOU JUST WANT TO CRAWL IN AND STAY FOREVER

I’ll admit it—I’m kind of an interior design junkie. I check Apartment Therapy religiously. I go into HomeGoods and Pottery Barn and West Elm and just kind of look at things, picturing how they’d look in the adorable cottage home I’d love to own someday. I scroll through Instagram posts of bright, sunny apartments and gorgeously organized home offices, and sigh wistfully.

The reason for my wistful sigh is two-fold. First, I have a husband whose taste in interior décor is a little less rustic chic and a little more “HEY WIFE I FOUND THIS PICTURE OF A ZEBRA, CAN WE KEEP IT?”, as well as an insane dog who takes great delight in eating stuff that is not dog food, and can’t be left alone within reach of any kind of paper, leather, or even synthetic fabric that might resemble leather.

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“Who, me?”

Second, I’m kind of a pack rat. This has been true for pretty much my entire life. I’ve always been something of a magpie, but instead of shiny things, I pick up books and throw pillows (to the point where I’m no longer allowed in Target unsupervised) and journals and stationary supplies. I suspect I inherited this from my mother, whose addiction of choice is Saturday morning yard sales and library book fairs.

These two factors combined have resulted in a home that is full of an interesting collection of vaguely mismatched furniture (a combination of new, used, and inherited), more books than we know what to do with, a bunch of really weird artwork (including some Dali prints that I refuse to have in our bedroom, because I have bad enough insomnia already, dear), and just a lot of stuff. Maybe it’s because we’ve moved so many times in the past few years, but we’ve acquired doubles of a lot of stuff, as well as a bunch of stuff from our college days that not only do we not need, we don’t even really want. And yet, there it is, in our basement!

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Moving Day 2015. Not even one room’s worth of stuff. I cried. A lot. 

 

For the most part, I’ve been okay with all this stuff around the house, because it means living in a home that’s full of warmth and coziness and clearly well loved things. But as another relocation starts to loom on the horizon (more on that in a future post, when we’ve got a bit more info) and the idea of downsizing starts to look very real, I’ve had to look our stuff habit square in the eye and really start to figure out just how much of this stuff needs to stay.

Every packrat has a litany of justifications for their reluctance to get rid of things. I’m a combination of the just in case-er and the sentimentalist. Oh, those jeans in my closet that are completely unflattering and three sizes too small? Maybe my entire body shape and size will change! Those DVDs we never watch anymore because all our movies are on our hard drive? Maybe we’ll feel like watching the special features! (Actually, this one is legit; I do watch a bunch of the special features on DVDs all the time. The extended Lord of the Rings trilogy appendices and I have spent a lot of time together.) Those paperbacks on the bookshelf that I haven’t read in years? I had such a good time reading them, I like to look at them and think about how much fun they were! Those cookbooks we never use? They were a move-in present when I got my first apartment in college!

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SO MANY BOOKS. featuring a skinny dog who has fortunately gained more weight since this picture was taken.

Like I said: always a justification.

But as I’ve moved from room to room in our house, thinking about the very real possibility of going down to a smaller apartment without basement storage space and tons of square footage and dreading the idea of packing up all our crap yet again, I’ve slowly begun to admit to myself that it’s time to start getting rid of some of this nonsense.

So I made a list of the rooms in our house, and within those rooms, where de-cluttering and downsizing needs to happen. In the kitchen, it’s cookbooks and Tupperware and mugs (not the cute ones we’ve acquired over our years together, but the boring ones that came in four-packs and just take up space). In the living room, it’s books and board games and movies. In the bedroom, it’s clothes.

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Or as Sammi calls them, “those comfy things I lie down on.”

Once I made the list of rooms that needed purging, I set about the next task: identifying local charities and organizations that accept donations of the stuff we’ve got to give. This project gave me more of a reason to actually get this project done: getting things to people who will actually make use of them. What am I doing with clothes I don’t wear, books I don’t read, kitchen utensils I don’t use? Wasting space. Someone else, though, could ace a job interview, find a favorite novel, furnish a new kitchen after leaving a bad marriage or starting out on their own for the first time.

Seems like a better use of stuff, in my opinion.

So how does this stuff work in practice?

Actually really well. For my first de-cluttering project, I tackled my closet, a jungle of hanging clothes that has taken on wardrobe to Narnia proportions over the past few years. One hanger at a time, I looked at each shirt, skirt, dress, and sweater (oh my lord, you guys, I had so many cardigans), and really asked myself: have I worn this in the past six months? Will I wear it in the next six months? Do I like the way the fabric feels? Do I like the way it looks on my body? What do I wear it with to make an outfit? Do I actually really want to keep it? An hour later, I found myself with a greatly downsized closet, and a profound feeling of relief.

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The kept.

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The rejected. Featuring pillows smooshed by the dog.

Since my closet makeover, I’ve been able to get dressed in the morning without sorting through twenty hangers of stuff I haven’t worn in years. I was able to call my work wife over and have her go through my downsized pile and take all the stuff she wanted to build a work wardrobe (and now I get to see how cute she looks when she wears it!). The rest went to a local immigration center, which provides comprehensive services to immigrant individuals and families transitioning to the area.

We’ll see how I do when I get to books. I suspect less well. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I don’t think I’m ever going to have one of those streamlined, utterly neat apartments with nothing on the floor and beautifully clean surfaces—I’m just not that sort of person. But as I move through the different rooms of my house, cooking in one, relaxing in another, I’ve started to get an idea of which things in the room stress me out, and which make me smile when I see them. I’ve started to figure out what areas feel busy and cluttered, and which feel comfortably lived-in.

I’ve started to understand, one project at a time, what makes something worth keeping.

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Spoilers: It’s less about the stuff, and more about who you share it with.

conscious unplugging (happiness project, part 2)

Ah, the internet. There are few things as delightful as the sweet silliness as never-before-seen puppy videos, the enthralling awesomeness of a great “okay, but what if…” retelling of a beloved story (this post about what could have happened if Aunt Petunia had really, genuinely taken Harry Potter into her home will never not be my favorite thing ever), or a snuggled-up Netflix marathon of a childhood favorite series (looking at you, Digimon). Unfortunately, what I found over several months of spending about 60-70% of my at-home free time staring at my computer, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. In my case, too much internet time was making me feel totally unproductive, and I’d get into bed at the end of the night feeling like I hadn’t done anything useful with my time.

Nick speaks to me on a spiritual level.

One thing that has been pretty consistent for me throughout my life is that I thrive on being busy. I love my down time, but I’m at my happiest when I’m learning, bouncing from place to place, writing, drawing, and generally just feeling like I’m being productive and positive. But looking over the way I’d been spending my down time over the last few months, it was clear that I needed to make a change, because my feelings of happy productivity were going down the tube. I was spending a lot of time with screens–if I wasn’t on my laptop, I was scrolling through Tumblr on my phone or watching a movie. Since I work a desk job that involves a lot of computer-based paperwork time, I was likely spending upwards of 5 to 6 hours staring at a screen each day. For a twenty-four hour day, that was too much for me. (Caveat: I’m not throwing shade at people who spend more time than that on a screen. Whether it’s your job or your self-care, you do you. It was just more than I felt comfortable with for my own purposes. With the exception of the occasional eight-hour Netflix binge, which I do not regret having. Ever.) By spending all of my time online, I was consuming a lot of media, but not really making anything, learning anything significant, or really feeling positive about what I was doing.

actual image of how cute I look, though

That said, it was so nice to just collapse into brainless internet world after a day of emotionally exhausting therapy work that I wasn’t ready to give up on internet time completely. Because of that, the first change I made was to set a goal of taking 30 minutes of non-screen recreation time each day.

Pulling the Plug

Given that I have absolutely no semblance of self-control, as anyone who has ever seen me near pasta can confirm, one of the first things I did was move my laptop to a place where it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d see when I got home from work. To my surprise, the “out of sight, out of mind” approach actually helped a lot. Instead of immediately seeking Mr. Laptop out as soon as I got through the door and calmed the dog, I was more likely to go for a book or notebook that was left in a more conspicuous location.

The next important thing was identifying some things to replace that lost computer time, and I jumped to reading right away. I’ve always been an avid reader, something I’m very happy to have inherited from my mom (along with her speed-reading ability–thanks, mommy!). Having read just about every book in my house twice or more, I scooted over to my local library for a new library card and a big ol’ stack of books.

my personal fantasy

There is something absolutely exhilarating, for me at least, about starting a new, never-read-before book. As much as I love the warm and fuzzies that come from re-reading an old favorite, new books feel like setting off on an adventure. I tend to be fairly selective in my book choices, which I base off a mixture of recommendations from sources whose opinions I trust (friends, family, bloggers, reviewers, scholarly journals), my own interests, and, rarely, random, judged-by-its-cover bookstore finds. It’s a little tricky sometimes, because I try to be diverse in my choices–my 2015 reading goal was to read 50 books by authors who fall outside of the straight/white/male archetype, so I’ve had to hunt a bit more in libraries and bookstores to find more books by women, POC, queer authors, disabled authors, etc. That said, the work totally pays off, and I’ve gotten to expand my mindset and read some texts that I wouldn’t normally have picked just based on general “top ten books to read this year” lists.

me too, Matilda. ❤

I also stocked up on some coloring books. Apparently, “coloring for grown-ups” has been a growing trend (one that some people tend to mock as “infantilizing” and “a refusal to grow up”, which I think says a lot more about the people writing those sorts of articles than the people picking up a colored pencil a few days a week), and I’ve found it to be an exceptionally relaxing activity. It becomes simultaneously mindless and engaging, where you both focus on what you’re doing–adding color, shading, dimension, etc depending on the complexity of your pictures–and let your mind drift away from your stresses and worries, the world shrinking down to the page in front of you, slowly blossoming to life and color. If that’s childish and infantilizing, I’ll take it. Y’all haters can stick to reading economic reports, or whatever else you’re doing in your Super Grown Up free time.

Friday self-care #coloringforgrownups #mandalas #selfcare #therapistsneedtherapytoo #tgif

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Measuring Changes (without computer-generated charts!)

The first thing I noticed when I put away my screens and started picking up my books, markers, and pens again was that I really did feel more productive. I felt proud of myself when I got to watch the stack of books in my “read” pile get higher than my “to-read” pile, and when I got to bring books back to the library (to exchange for new ones, obvs!) and tell the librarian about which ones were my favorites. I also found myself reading during my downtime during the day as well–bringing a book with me if I was eating lunch on my own, reading in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices, and being able to chat about what I was reading to others. Reading in the evenings also helped me feel sleepier, as I wasn’t looking at a backlit screen.

actual image of my bedtime process

With my creative projects, such as coloring and writing, the progress was slower–it took a month to put out a new chapter of a story I’ve been writing, and a really cool picture might take a few hours to finish–but I felt just as good about what I completed. I got great feedback from the people who read my online stories (some people have even made artwork to go along with them, which is seriously just the coolest thing in the whole wide world!) and I love posting pictures of my finished pictures and sharing them with my friends. I’ve been trying get some friends to come over for a coloring date, and I’ve had some early interest in that–who knows, maybe I’ll start a club!

slow day at the office #mandalas #arttherapy #coloringforgrownups #therapistsneedtherapytoo

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While my initial goal was to just take 30 minutes of each day to avoid screen time, I actually have found myself having some days where I don’t spend any time at all on my computer outside of work. This isn’t to say I’ve become totally screen-free–I still check my phone to scroll through Facebook, Tumblr, etc. But the radical decrease has definitely led to me feeling more productive and more like I’ve accomplished something in my free time at the end of the day. Part of this, as I already mentioned, is about having tangible, visual ways of looking at the things I’ve done: a new book to add to the “read” stack (or even just the shift of a bookmark), a finished picture, a few more scribbles to add to a story. But there’s also just the reflection aspect of thinking about what I did after coming home from work and feeling like I did something that actively engaged my mind, rather than sitting at my computer, which feels (again, to me, as a subjective experience) like a much more passive consumption of information and imagery. I felt more positive, more accomplished, and more like I’d done something worth doing–all of the feelings that give me those overachiever warm-fuzzies!

Next Steps: Unplugging Shabbat

Now that I’ve made some progress toward making screen-free time part of my daily routine, my next step is to make one day each week (or at least one 24-hour period) screen-free. Back in grad school, one thing I tried to do from time to time was to have a screen-free Shabbat: unplugging my computer and phone (unless I was on-call for work) from candle-lighting time on Friday to after Havdallah on Saturday. Back then, the two exceptions to my Shabbat Sha-unplugging were Skype calls and phone calls with long-distance friends and family, as well as snuggly movie dates with the Spouse.

spoonsies.

Because my Shabbat preference has always been to keep the day meaningful, relaxed, and connected to the people around me (as well as to not totally set myself up for failure), I think keeping those two exceptions in place is a good way to start. Cuddling up on the couch to watch a movie while the candles burn down feels very different from lying in bed with Netflix eight inches from my face on my laptop screen, just as a Skype call with my nephew or grandmother is very different from texting or Facebooking. My goal will be to start unplugging Shabbat two weeks from now, which coincidentally will match up with my 25th birthday–not a bad way to kick off my next quarter-century!

Do you have any thoughts about how you use your time? Are there changes that you want to make to your daily activities that you think might make you feel happier? What’s a goal you could set for yourself, and what do you need to do to help yourself reach it? Let’s chat in the comments! 🙂

on being a semi-adult (now with 100% more gifs!)

There are a lot of people who think I have my life together. And on a lot of things, I totally do! I am not going to make the mistakes that I’m not a fairly well functioning member of the world society, and I’m doing a decent job at the whole “grown-up” thing: I’m married (okay, recent, but still a thing!), I live by myself for the moment and only freak out about being alone in a strange house sometimes, I can cook and bake like a boss, I have an awesome internship where I get to help lots and lots of people, I’m only a few inches from a Master’s degree, I have a five-year-plan and a budget system and all that good adult-y stuff.

 

But on a lot of levels, I tend to freak out about the adult-y things I’m not doing.  My current internship–which is amazing–is unpaid, and I’m currently living in my parents’ guest cottage (yes, my parents have a guest cottage, privilege is amazing, etc etc; that’s a post for another day). So while I’m not currently worried about paying rent or utilities, I don’t have an income, and at the end of the summer when Husband and I go back to Maine (as is the current plan), we are effectively  homeless. I don’t have a job lined up for September and my current applications haven’t gotten much of a response yet. This is partially, I suspect, because I won’t be licensed as an LMSW-CC until mid-September, which is putting a big-time damper on my application strength. Which is…stressful.

 

In a lot of ways, I’m in adulthood limbo. I want to feel like I’m totally on top of things and doing an A+ job navigating through life, but I feel really unprepared for a lot of things. How can I find an apartment when I don’t know what my income will be? How can I budget for loan repayment when I don’t know what my other costs will be? How do I work on making these decisions–really big decisions!–with a husband I only see once or twice a week and isn’t able to call as often as either of us would like? It’s a frustrating place to be, and more frustrating when I know that a lot of people do think of me as one of the more “together” people they know. Which is obviously a perception I’d like to hold onto.

On the other hand, it can be really cathartic to just be open about how ridiculous the transition into adulthood is. I know for a fact that I’m not the only person in my position–successfully “adulting” in some ways, tooooootally overwhelmed by the transition in others. How much easier would it be if people were willing to just be honest about how slow and awkward and scary becoming a grown-up can be? Or how nerve-wracking the job search is? Or how complicated it is to figure out things like loan payment plans and budgeting and licensure and figuring out how to not be a student can be?

It’s cathartic, I think, to be open about the fact that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing in our lives. I mean, general direction yes: I know what I want to do, where I want to do it, who I want to do it with. I’ve got a five year plan. Hell, I’ve got a 10 year plan! But what I don’t have, practically speaking, is a six-month plan.

And I will own that.

Because, on the adulthood struggle-bus or not, I am awesome.