I’ve settled on the realization that joy and contentment in life are about engagement with our everyday rituals. A few days ago I had a conversation with a friend about this and we agreed that being intentional with our most basic decisions is hugely important to overall quality of life. The pandemic has forced me to establish a sense of personal alignment and self-reliance that has manifested into a contented and happy life. I live alone and infrequently go into the office due to coronavirus, which has been a struggle at times, but ultimately I came to realize the privilege and gift of having so much time to myself. Plus, it would have been very difficult had I not forced myself to reckon with the fact that my happiness is entirely up to me.
Still, life is a journey. Growth and learning never stop. There are days (often, if I’m honest) when I find myself overwhelmed, anxious, lonely and grappling with old wounds. To avoid falling into my old habits of numbing, escaping and responding to things in ways that don’t serve me, I’ve created a kind of toolkit to put myself back on the path of growth and personal alignment through everyday engagement.
Cooking. I mention this first because it took my years to see the profound benefits of preparing and creating my own meals. I had fallen for the commercial trapping of convenience when it came to eating for a long time. In lockdown I had the time to explore and learn how to cook. Now, I make my own meals most days and look forward to cooking dinner at the end of the day. It’s something that seems so simple, but I was mystified by how rewarding and relaxing it is to cook. I spent some time thinking about why something so simple added so much enjoyment to my days. I think it’s using my own two hands for something besides typing on a keyboard. Actually creating something that’s just meant to be temporary, for my immediate enjoyment and nourishment. It’s a mindful process that takes time and attention. I have found that if my day is not going as I’d wanted or I’m not feeling my best, the simple act of cooking can turn it around. Part of this engagement is also the preparation, planning, going to the farmer’s market and grocer for ingredients and having a glass of wine while I dance around the kitchen as my concoctions simmer.
Reading something that inspires me and makes me feel connected in the morning over coffee. As a writer, I devour the written word and it’s no surprise that I find reading to be something that adds to my life. Over the past month, I like to start the day reading a few sections of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It’s his deep exploration of the universal connection with humans and the earth that has been speaking to me lately. I also tend to write in the morning, so taking in writers who I would happily imbue my own writing doesn’t hurt. These writers have included Virginia Wolf, T.S. Elliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marth Beck and Henry David Thoreau.
Being conscious and intentional about where I spend my money. While talking to my friend, I told her that for so long I’d fallen into the trap of impulse buying. I think I was culturally influenced by this idea that the reason we earn money is to spend it. That the more I spent and bought things on a regular basis was somehow a sign of success, i.e. I can now buy a new television because my paychecks are higher than they used to be and therefore I’m succeeding. This is a false and superficial understanding of success and being choosy about spending has, instead, become a form of empowerment in my life. Financial health is a sign of success in that it is indicative of personal growth and using our purchasing power only as a way to add to our lives or the lives of others, allowing a sense of control as well as freedom from using the external as a measure of our successes or immediate comfort. When I do decide to spend my money, it is because I’ve reflected on why this thing I’m buying is something I want to invite into my life. I know that the things I wear, use, eat and surround myself with are things I put thought and research into and, in turn, aren’t forgotten about in the back of a closet, but enjoyed and bring something significant to my life.
Consuming content that aligns with my values and inspires me. As we know, the noise from social media is intense. It’s difficult to filter out everything that does not add to our lives. I often find myself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok at the end of the day. The numbing effect can be comforting, but there’s no substance to it and it really isn’t engagement. Instead, I set aside time to consume content from people that I respect and learn from. Recently, that has included Kylie Flavell’s YouTube channel or podcasts that I listen to while I’m walking, like Tim Ferris, On Being, Dinner for One and The Self Love Fix or I read fiction. I still mindlessly scroll through Instagram as these activities are like a comforting cocoon to avoid thinking, but setting aside time for things I want to consume on an intellectual level helps limit my zombie time.
Writing fiction or a blog post. Writing has been my creative passion since childhood. I have many long-term goals, including finishing and publishing the novel I’m writing and growing NYD. I also have a fulltime job in another field and always struggled with motivating and finding time to write, but it is very important to me. I’ve had to reframe my mind around making this part of my daily life and a priority. Seth Godin refers to this as the creative practice, dedicating at least an hour to writing each day. I wish I could say that the increased control of my schedule during the pandemic helped, but for the first ten months of the pandemic I wrote almost nothing. In fact, I went through a phase of questioning what this creative passion of mine was even adding to my life. Long story short, I had to do a lot of internal growth and healing to reconnect with writing. Now, I see it as part of my daily routine that slowly builds toward my end goal for each project. The ritualized creative effort of writing also provides a sort of monitoring of my life as a whole. If I’m struggling to create, it’s usually indicative that something else in my life is out of balance. Having creative projects encourages intentionality because it requires a certain amount of work on ourselves in order to find the discipline to show up and create.
Creating something that’s not attached to a long-term goal or monetization. I sometimes paint and play piano. I’m terrible at both, but it’s about the engagement and flow of being creative in a way that’s not attached to anything besides being expressive and curious. I think trying new things is important in the same way, whether that’s a craft, a new activity, even cooking, anything that we use our hands and bodies for that we aren’t trying to profit from, just steeping in the creative is an important tool for joy.
Meditation. Slowing down, connecting with my breath and body.
Bopping around town. Whenever I have a day off to myself, one of me favorite things to do is just explore my local area or visit places that speak to my soul. I live near Manhattan, so it’s easy to get out and explore. This can look like going to a museum, the park, a bookstore I’ve frequented many times just to try to find a new book, an antique store I’ve never been to in hopes of discovering a treasure or even going to the movie theater alone (more so in pre-pandemic times) to see a film that interests me. It’s about waking up and saying, what’s something I’d like to try today? Then, stepping away from my daily routine for a refreshing change and cultural intake.
Thinking about my journey so far. The reason I’ve been able to find a life where I experience joy and contentment most days is because I was forced to face myself during the pandemic. Granted, I’ve been growing for years and actively working through depression and mindset. So, it was a path I was already on, but stepping away from the hustle of our pre-Covid world, all I really had was myself and I’ve had to face myself every day. If I’m going to be happy, I’ve got to care for myself and be attentive, even protective of that happiness.
When my friend and I spoke the other day, we described it as a kind of bubble that’s necessary for keeping in what we want in and having a boundary between ourselves and the rest of the world. This doesn’t mean building walls. In fact, I’ve learned that being more protective and intentional about my inner world allows me to be more vulnerable and open because I know who I am. If I feel like that self-alignment has been interrupted, I rely on the above toolkit to get back on track. I have a better sense of self-reliance, understanding what I want and think, when I’m engaged with everything in my life, down to the most mundane aspects.