The Lost Art of Reading Aloud

newspaper

People share the written word like passing dishes at potluck meals (remember those?). Try this…no this…taste this one…it’s to die for. We quickly forward articles using hyperlinks. We make book recommendations on Facebook or via Twitter. Poems are posted with photos on Pinterest, Instagram or by text. Once, for my birthday, I asked my coworkers for book and blog recommendations and have yet to make it through that list.

I’m glad for so much sharing; it exposes me to so much more than I otherwise would see and expands my perspectives. But all this instant sharing is a bit overwhelming, too. Because we can now can send links and titles so quickly, we offer suggestions freely and without significant discernment. As a result, the rate of giving far exceeds the ability to receive.

The other day, I read aloud to my husband a lengthy article profiling a renegade personality. I thought the piece would be interesting and wanted to share it with him so we could talk about it afterward. I was struck by how long it had been since I’ve read aloud with another adult. I enjoyed actively experiencing good writing together.

Remember the daily ritual of reading the newspaper over breakfast or after dinner and saying, “listen to this…”? I loved reading books aloud with my children when they were young and talking about the last chapter in the car on the way to school. If everyone had read them independently, we couldn’t have anticipated together what would happen next.

Yes, reading aloud is slower. And, listening to someone read requires more attention. But this type of shared experience is a rich opportunity to connect over ideas, stories or life themes in a way that is hard to duplicate with hyperlinks. Let’s bring back the art of reading aloud and linger over conversations for a change of pace.

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A Sense of Ease

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P1000255During a beginner’s yoga session, I was struck by a phrase I don’t often hear.

Feel the sense of ease,” she said, as I was feeling quite the opposite.

My shoulders were drawn up, my body was tight. I wondered if it was physically possible to feel any kind of lightness while contorting my body this way.

I focused on it. I imagined feeling a sense of ease and even just that small mental shift made a difference. It didn’t become easy, but it did feel more comfortable.

That phrase has stuck with me. During some of my recent runs, even with shortness of breath as I climb the steeper sections, I’ve been thinking about feeling a sense of ease. I think about a sense of lightness with each step rather than straining up the incline with heavy feet. And I have been reaching the top of the hill in a better frame of mind.

As I start to feel anxiety about a complicated problem, I have been pausing to imagine a sense of ease as I work through it. I’ve been surprised at how this has reduced stress. It is also a nice complement to embracing joy, another life value I hold. Feeling joy brings a sense of ease.

How often do I struggle against life needlessly when, perhaps, a slight shift in approach could make all the difference? Feel the sense of ease.

Do Smartphones Enable Simplicity?

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/steefafa/5224718826/in/photolist-8XG3T5-7diM4F-ai1nhN-azNu9q-dfyxwk-9S7gJc-8apPoP-8at1XN-8atdBu-maPTkS-mw98dM-aD1Xri-b6Qo6z-mw9CkT-7SKyAL-e3iZTD-e3pF5d-9Du1fw-fawizi-e3pEM5-e3pEWy-8apydi-8appVk-8at2Qh-6up6S5-6MgPPw-8aq9Kt-8aq5HD-6uccuE-ncQtAm-bYpC3m-b1YVP6-fduDXr-e3iZz8-e3iZBc-e3iZCz-e3iZCK-e3pERh-e3iZQk-e3iZSa-e3pF87-e3iZRe-e3pF3W-e3pEQ1-e3iZR2-e3pELh-e3iZDx-e3iZWH-e3pENQ-e3pEWmMillions of songs at our fingertips. Libraries of books with a quick download. Albums of photos easily shared anywhere, anytime. There’s no longer a need to store and maintain shelves of CDs, walls of books and thick books full of pictures. No need. So whatever we keep now is by choice.

For me, its books. I love having them in our home. It makes me feel happy. Like I can jump into another world or learn something new anytime. So I’ll always keep some number of books nearby along with my Kindle app. And there’s a difference between selectively keeping as an additive versus storing or going without.

No doubt technology has made it easier for my husband and me to downsize and simplify. Yet while on vacation recently I noticed how distracted I’d become by my phone. Checking it constantly to see if I had new email, texts, missed calls or interesting posts. It’s very cool to feel instantly connected to friends, family and the world. Yet, it has a tendency to pull me from things I know are deeply important, like fully experiencing the moment.

A couple of days into my vacation, I left my phone in the room to go to the pool. I felt like I was missing something until I started noticing the sound of the ocean waves nearby, listening to children playing and feeling the sun on my face. I began to truly relax and regroup.

It was yet another reminder to me that achieving simplicity is an ongoing process. It requires intentionality to find the desired balance in life. Day by day.

Do Dogs Simplify Our Lives?

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Carl

Carl fit in my hand as a blue-eyed, six-week-old Weimaraner puppy when we brought him home. We were only two years from being empty-nesters, what were we thinking? That was a time when life was anything but simple. With complex family schedules, long work commutes, and a three-bedroom house with a large yard to maintain, adding a dog to the mix only made it harder to keep up. Yet, Carl became an instant part of our family.

He was with us for nearly 10 years and through many life changes. Carl moved with us five times, took many trips and watched our son and daughter move out to start their own lives. With him, the house was always a little dirtier, the planning more challenging, opportunities for spontaneity curtailed. Yet, he brought an energy to our lives and we loved him deeply.

Sadly, we had to say a painful goodbye about six months ago after learning he had cancer and being unable to stop the rapid progression. The truth is, life is simpler now in many ways. No taking Carl outside one more time each night despite the weather. No fur to sweep up or loud alerts that something moved outside. No searching for his lost blanket when taking him on a trip or filling up half the car with his bed, food, and, well, his 100-pound self.

But then again, I miss him every day. I no longer have a “ready at a moment’s notice” running partner. We don’t erupt with unexpected laugher from a comical Carl expression. Sometimes the quiet of his absence is deafening. The clean door window makes it all too apparent that he isn’t watching for our return. And even though his large frame often crowded our bed, we miss seeing his chin on the edge of it every night asking for permission to come up.

Does having a dog align with simplifying your life? Maybe not. But my biggest reasons for simplifying are to bring more balance and joy to my life. Carl did that. So maybe it does.

Simple Birthdays

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ImageBirthdays were special occasions in my childhood home. They weren’t ridiculously special. We didn’t rent party tents, small ponies or clowns. They were simple and memorable.

There were extra gestures of love. Acknowledgments of your birthday in the first moments of the day. Mom made your favorite dinner and dessert, followed by the opening of a card and presents. Joyful discussion ensued about the selection process while you tried it out or on. Usually, it was just my mom, dad, brother and me. Sometimes, if my birthday landed on a weekend, I invited a friend over.

I think the tone of your childhood birthdays sets your attitude about birthdays for life. Cause I still like ‘em. Admittedly, I also like stretching them out into a full weekend of birthday moments.

This year was fun. Still no tents or small ponies. Just simple celebrations. Dinner one night with my husband and friends at a local brew pub. Dinner the next night with both of my grown children and their significants (which isn’t always easy to pull off). And a happy hour after work with my coworkers where we laughed about which celebrities we share birthdays with (mine were not impressive).

One of our work culture traditions is to celebrate birthdays in whatever way the birthday person finds meaningful. I told them I’d like a book or blog title from each person with a statement about why they liked it. I wanted to learn more about their interests and break out of my usual genre choices. Many offered more than one choice so I now have a full reading list. It’ll be like opening birthday gifts all year and I’m looking forward to trading opinions with those who made the recommendations.

Simple celebrations. Simple gestures. Simple gifts.

Pure joy.

Creating Big Small Spaces

We’ve been moving toward simplicity for over four years and I’m more convinced than ever that this will be a lifelong pursuit. Seems like simple should be easy, but clearly it’s not. While there are many advantages to small spaces, it absolutely means thinking about how every square foot gets used. We’ve spent the last month or so rearranging our small house, trying to figure out the best configuration for the way we live. As we talk about how to make it work better for us, our priorities sometimes collide. Do we create spaces that work best for our needs or for hosting guests? He says the former. I say we need to suit both needs. Yet there’s only so much room in here.

Lately, I’ve become fascinated with convertible furniture. See this video, and this one, for examples. This seems like the answer to downsizing. Yet, the cool designs are also very expensive. And while justifications are easy, there are many values at play (saving money, being green, buying local) so nothing is a perfect fit.

Still, I’m enjoying the process of figuring it out because I truly believe living small (space-wise, not imagination-wise) works for us. The top three benefits I’m noticing are:

  1. I’m less stressed because it takes so little time to keep up with cleaning, which leaves more time with family and friends and doing things I enjoy.
  2. I can afford to live in a location I love.
  3. I buy less and therefore become less attached to things.

I’m always interested in creative solutions and ideas. Please share your thoughts about making life work better.

Simple is Not Easy

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ImageTwo years ago, my daughter hosted Thanksgiving with her boyfriend. They invited parents and siblings from both sides and some close friends. During dinner, her boyfriend dropped to his knee and proposed to my daughter. She was overjoyed. Dinner took a backstage to hugs and congratulations and stories of keeping secrets. Then, before we had time for dessert, to revel in the moment or hear her side of the story (what she suspected and didn’t), she left to take her shift at a nearby restaurant. 

This year, my husband asked a grocery clerk how her holiday was. “Quiet,” she said. “After I got home from working I was too tired to do much.” Our family feels strongly about not eating out or shopping on Thanksgiving Day so that others can experience time with family and friends. There’s a growing campaign called “Buy Nothing Day” for Black Friday (and now for Thanksgiving Day too). They say millions of people in 60 countries now make the commitment. 

Leo Babauta takes it even further with his challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013. He doesn’t mean literally. Necessities are, after all, necessary. He means no gifts or gadgets for yourself or for others. It’s an expression of freedom. Read his post. 

I agree. And I struggle. I grew up giving and getting gifts at Christmas. The Magi gave gifts, we reasoned. And I admit, I enjoyed the magic of Santa Claus as a child.  Yet, I know, as Babauta says,

We are more than consumers. We don’t need to buy gifts to celebrate the holidays with each other … We are alive, and don’t want to waste the hours we have in chain box stores and malls buying things we don’t really need…(and) sales don’t mean we’re saving money — it means we’re spending it. We used precious life hours earning our money, and we want to use that to live, not buy.

Buying local is an option to big box stores and malls and a high preference for me. Yet we still don’t “need” much of what is purchased. And as we move toward simplifying, more stuff just fills the house and requires more time for cleaning and maintaining, exactly what we’ve been working to reduce for the past few years.

For now, we have no young children in our immediate family expecting stockings to be filled with care so we can more easily wrestle with options. We didn’t exchange two years ago and it felt weird. Last year we agreed to find an experience together, instead. We did a group wine tasting class and laughed a lot. It was fun although it didn’t happen until months later so Christmas Day still seemed strange. Christmas morning has always involved waking up to a gifts under the tree (when we were young and for our children, too) so it’s hard to replace that level of anticipation with something else. 

It’s something our family is wrestling with again as we prepare for Christmas together. 

Simple is not easy.

The Art of Good Enough

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You’d think an iced coffee would be a simple order. Predictable, straight forward, no real drama involved. But no. At work the other day the hallway chatter was about the local co-op. They changed their iced coffee from a simple gallon of brewed coffee kept in the refrigerator to a new product that is “cold brewed” for 16 hours. Of course, a new price reflects the more complex process. A coworker was surprised at the cash register when he paid $2.25 for what once costs $1.50.

“Was it better?” I asked. “Well, yes, I could taste a difference, but I was happy with the other option.” Because we go there daily, we asked the barista if the old version was still available. Turns out, they still make it for their employees (who want to keep the cost-saving option). So now, we are going covert and asking for the stash in the back.

The conversation turned to “what happened to good enough?” They’ve forced us to have premium or nothing, one said. Apparently, there was a taste-testing event at the co-op, presumably set up by the manufacturer of the new cold-press machine to show that customers prefer the more complicated process. Somebody apparently made the compelling case and the store raised their price to cover the machinery and process.

“I was content with what they had. I don’t need a 16-hour cold-pressed process,” was the observation. Seems to me, the coffee scenario represents much of life. We have what we need, what works, what is good enough. But then a newer, fancier product comes along with compelling arguments about why we can’t live without it. From small purchases to large, we are constantly encouraged to trade up instead of keeping what’s good enough. As my husband and I continue to figure out how to downsize and simplify in order to reduce stress and increase happiness, the art of good enough is key.

What’s Your Smile Worth?

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Graduation speakers are hit and miss. Today’s was a hit. During my son-in-law’s ceremony today in Raleigh, NC, Walter Bond kept 6,000 people entertained and intrigued. A former NBA player turned motivational speaker, Bond told his personal story of perseverance and gaining perspective. He talked about the difference between arrogance and confidence. Confidence people like. Arrogance, not so much.

And likability, he emphasized, is key. People hire, and fire, based on whether they like someone. Proof in point, Bond surveyed past clients and found out that 20% of the time, he is hired because someone likes his smile. I might be disappointed that my talent was being overlooked. Not Bond. He said he just made a mental note and now he smiles everywhere he goes. He made the audience laugh when he said that some people brighten a room when they enter. And some…when they leave.

Being prepared is important. Working hard to improve–clearly critical to success. But being kind, fun, humble, confident, likable….smiling easily?

These are characteristics that can make all the difference. In business.

And in life.

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ImageI went to a talk on mindfulness last night with my daughter, husband and friend.  Chan Huy, founder of the Institute of Applied Mindfulness in Montreal, talked about the peace that comes when living in the present, when we are mindful of our breathing in and out, of every step we take, of the blessings we have right now. He said the past is full of regrets (or at least our reflections are often about our missteps) and the future is full of threats (or it can often seem that way), but we can rest in the present moment. Rest and connect with the blessings and beauty we already possess but are often too distracted to notice.

I remember the morning of my wedding when I walked to the end of the dock at my parent’s lake and sat there by myself. My life was about to change dramatically and there were many details of the day, much less the rest of my life, to fret about. But I dangled my feet in the water and noticed the woods across the blue expanse, the familiar pussy willows along the shoreline and the fishing boats tied to piers, rocking with the waves. I soaked in the smells, the sounds and the sights in an effort to permanently imprint them on my soul. I’m so glad I chose to do that rather than pace the floor with worry. It’s a memory I still relish, 29 years later.

Now, in yet another stage of life, I believe simplification is a form of mindfulness. A way of removing the extraneous which so often overwhelms and distracts us. A way of understanding how little is necessary to be truly content (like simply enjoying coffee on the porch). And like other practices of mindfulness, simplifying doesn’t come without intentional practice…and breathing deeply.