Reflections During the Waning Dog Days of Summer

Life has started to slow down here on Wyndham Circle. While tiny signs of fall have struggled to emerge, they have been quickly stomped out by summer’s jealous heat and humidity. The DC area is a former swamp, after all.

Today I am indulging in a day off from work. Part of the reason is because my new accent chair was to be delivered today, but the biggest reason is that I simply needed a break. Time is precious. Work is important but so is free time to do what I want, even if it is nothing at all.

I have a colleague at work with ties to North Africa and Italy. He works in the peace building space with a focus on Libya and North Africa and the roles Europe and the United States play in the efforts to relieve the political turmoil taking place in that part of the world. Yesterday he told me about a friend of his who like him, is also an Italian working on the ground in areas of strife and unrest. This particular friend of his survived the war and violence of Afghanistan, the dangerous environment of North Africa, and the ferociousness of much of the Middle East only to come home to Italy after working in these areas of tumult so he could be killed in his own bed under his own roof during one of the strongest earthquakes Italy has seen in recent history. “Death has a strange sense of humor,” my colleague told me somberly.

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My office for today is my small, but comfortable home. My company is my cat and the friends I am calling who I have not spoken to in months. I am reminded that days like this should be treasured.

I remember his words on my day off work, during these waning dog days of summer; a day when I have peace and quiet, calmness and contentment and not the stress and exhaustion that is part of my daily job. I am spending this day in my small but beautiful home, enjoying my time on this earth and the simple pleasures that come with it. I am calling friends I have not seen or spoken to in ages. I am eating healthy food that also brings me delight. I am thinking how wonderful it is that I have been blessed to enjoy days like this when there are so many people in this world who are truly suffering. I am remembering that life is like the Wheel of Fortune. Some days/months/years are good and happy ones and some are difficult, depressing and severe, but that nothing—except death—is permanent. And for that reason, nothing should be taken for granted.

Enjoy the simple pleasures in your life. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.

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Remembering to Breathe

A friend recently complained on Facebook about how long it takes her to do even the simplest things in this town. For example, she had to take an entire day off work just to complete the mandatory annual vehicle safety test all Virginia car owners must do (and pay for). Imagine having to take an entire day off work to do vehicle maintenance work as mandated by law! Did she really have to take the whole day off to do this? Probably not. I’ve spent about half a day of my weekend doing the same exam, but I didn’t like it—weekends are precious to me.

She then went on to vent about how taxing it is just to buy a loaf of bread at the grocery store. That is literally true. Here, you have to deal with traffic, crowded grocery stores and long lines at the check-out. (That’s why I buy the majority of my groceries online and have them delivered to my home. And for items—especially certain produce and health and beauty products—that require an in-person visit to the store, I wake up early on a weekend and hit the shops before 10:00 a.m. when the streets and stores are empty. With the exception of getting up early, it’s relatively painless, and I still have the entire day/weekend to do non-errand-related things.)

But I do get her point. The suburbs of DC are not really suburbs. They are very urban and have extremely high population densities which means congested roads even on weekends, crowded shops and long lines. Coming from rural Minnesota, I can confirm that her complaint is legit, it truly is a chore to do the simplest things in this town due to the massive amount of people wanting to do the same thing as you at the very same time. (Happy are those who telework or have flexible schedules during the week while the rest of us are at the office!)

Because such daily struggles are so real here in DC/Northern Virginia, this article really spoke to me. It talks about eliminating certain things from your schedule so you can do more of the things you enjoy. It sounds simple and rational, but it is harder to do than it sounds. But if you can manage to make some small changes in this direction, noticeable benefits do arise. Some key take-aways from the article (emphasis is mine) include:

“With fewer activities, there’s less stress on your calendar and your budget. You have less worry about carpools, traffic, and arrival times. You relieve that feeling of living through over-full, overcomplicated days.

“More free time means more space for stillness and contemplation. It means more space for dreams and growth. It means more time for listening and reflecting.”

“When there’s open space in your calendar, there’s more room in your heart for considering your place in the world, for thinking about who you are and how you intend to live.”

This may all seem boring to some people out there. Especially those who need constant motion and company. But I think there is value in this philosophy for everyone.

A good friend of mine is recovering from surgery and has been told to give herself six weeks of physical rest before she can live the way she was living before her procedure. Already in week two, it is driving her nuts because she wants to go to the gym, move around and push herself physically, much like she did before her operation. And she even tried to do so after her surgery, but quickly learned it was a bad idea. There is something to be said about rest and disciplined stillness, whether it is physical or mental. There is nothing wrong with slowing down and reflecting. In fact, that is how some of the greatest inspirations are born—out of thoughtfulness, silence, thought. Action followed, but it required some silent thinking first.

So while the Western world (and DC especially) glorifies constant movement, busyness and action, I no longer buy into the hype that those who don’t constantly hustle fall behind. Those who don’t also remember to breathe and reflect will, in the end, cause themselves more harm than good. The challenge is making those arrangements in our lives to be able to do all this—to slow down, reflect and contemplate.

It is possible though and it does require sacrifice. But, I have found, it is totally worth it.

Seasonal Shifts

This time of year in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, something shifts in the atmosphere. It’s very slight, but also very noticeable. The sun’s patterns begin to change, the nights get a shade darker, the air oh-so-graudally begins to dry out. The mornings are a tinge cooler, the evenings a little more comfortable. It’s not so much that the seasons begin to change this time in August as much as it is the fact that summer is simply coming to an end.

I’ve seen this subtle transformation take place in different parts of the world, and I’ve seen how different cultures respond to it. In Kyrgyzstan where I did my Peace Corps service, the people of the Chui Valley start the canning process, preserving their fruits and vegetables while the harvest is plentiful and healthy. Beets, onions, berries, cherries, pickles, carrots and peaches. All of it stuffed tightly into jars with salts and seasonings, sugars and spices, stored away for those long winter days and nights that are not too far away.

In South Korea, you know summer is coming to an end when you start to see red chili peppers drying out in the sun on top of blankets and tarps spread out on the sidewalks. No doubt these fiery delights are being prepped for the autumnal kimchi crop, soon to be packed into clay pots along with a variety of salts and seasonings where they will ferment with a mixture of cabbage, scallions, and sometimes dried fish, all part of the age-old process of producing one of the country’s traditional side dishes—a product of huge national pride.

Yes, there are many ways the world reacts to the end of summer.

Soju on the rug

This year in our home, the end of summer coincides with our continuous home decorating efforts. Our bare condo is slowly showing signs of warmth and comfort, and even though our work would have taken place no matter what time of year I purchased and moved into the place, the “nesting” activities only further emphasize the coming fall ahead. Just a few days ago the new braided rug arrived for the master bedroom, covering the hard bamboo floors with a cushion of softness and traditional coziness, reminiscent of my childhood days growing up in rural Minnesota in a home full of beautiful braided rugs, often with a dog lying on top. Of course, now that I am on my own the dog has been replaced a cat, but the tradition of creating an inviting sense of warmth that was so prominent in my childhood house continues in my “adult” abode.

I’ve even noticed my music playlist gradually changing. The Nicki Minaj, Enrique Iglesias, SWAAY and Jason Derulo tunes are being swapped out for James Taylor, Nora Jones, The Zach Brown Band and Alison Krauss songs. And alas, the kitchen table is not being spared either as it sees less watermelon and more spaghetti squash.

Summer is ending. What changes are you making as you prepare for the transition into fall?

Today I Bought Myself Flowers

As a city person, I consider buying fresh flowers a luxury. It’s almost along the same line as paying for a manicure or pedicure—it can be a lot of money for temporary pleasure.

Ever since the home buying process began, I’ve been living frugally, waiting for my finances to even out. On top of buying a home, the physical acts of moving and getting settled in can add up in expenses. And until I finish unpacking my last box and moving in that last piece of furniture (which will be next weekend with the couch and accent chair) I will continue to forbid myself the indulgence of pretty nails—nails that will only be destroyed with the manual labor involved with “settling in.”

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Table flowers

But I let myself slip today with the flowers. And they weren’t that expensive, to be honest. (Although if I add them to my weekly shopping list like I’d like to, it could get scary.) But I made an exception today. The condo was looking stark without living room furniture and needed some color and sophistication that only a vase of fresh flowers could bring, so I broke down and bought two bouquets at Whole Foods today, slipping them into my favorite vase at home.

As I admired them throughout the afternoon, pleased with my splurge, I came to the conclusion that it’s important to buy oneself flowers every once in a while. And they don’t have to be flowers literally and it doesn’t have to be something that can be bought. The point is to once in a while allow yourself to experience something simple that brings you pleasure, a treat you wouldn’t ordinarily indulge in but one that makes you happy.

Today it was flowers. Next week, it might be donuts, who knows? What was your “flower purchase” today?