Recently, I read Courtney Carver’s Project 333: The Minimalist Fashion Challenge That Proves Less Really Is So Much More. If you’ve been with me since way way back (2010, probably), you might remember when I first tried Project 333, in which you chose only 33 items of clothing to wear for 3 months. It’s a project/challenge that dramatically changed my relationship with clothing and shopping for clothing (and other stuff, too). I highly recommend it.
Clicking on one of the links in the book took me to The Renewal Workshop, a company that takes old clothing from partner companies and refreshes it for resell. Clicking around on their site, I found a statement about their company values (here and here), and how they try to use those to guide their work.
Organizational values isn’t a new concept, and I’ve participated in the crafting of more missions/vision/values statements than I care to recall. However, I do know that when these documents are actively used in decision-making, they can be powerful. And powerful is something I’m longing to feel these days.
For most of the summer, I’ve been dreading the return to work. I have felt powerless and hopeless and probably about 10 other kinds of -less. Deciding to renovate my home office (which I mentioned here) was a small step to reclaiming some power and agency.
As I’ve worked in the room, making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of having a set of guiding values, and how I can have visual reminders of them in this space.
That’s my grandmother at 12, and also at 76 (at my wedding reception). As you might be able to infer, she was a bit of a pistol. When I was growing up, I thought she was the most social person I knew. She always had people around, and she was always doing something fun. She seemed happiest at the center of our large pack of family. Although I adored her, I didn’t think we were much alike.
What I’ve realized, now that I am as old as she was when I first knew her, is that she was, perhaps, as introverted as I am. And that I love my people as deeply as she did, even if I express it differently. What I knew, growing up, was that if I ever needed a place to go, she would take me in. I–and anyone I brought with me–would always be welcome. She was our connector and our safety net.
Probably because I am highly introverted, I don’t have a wide circle of people. But the people I have matter more than anything else to me. Many are family, and some are friends. Some are people I work with. I want fostering and caring for meaningful connection to be at the center of my life. Because I am introverted and my job requires a lot of interaction with others, this can be a challenge for me, but as I enter a new school year I want to place connection with others at the center of my decision making. I want to think about who and what I am saying yes and no to in the choices I make, and which choices will allow me to strengthen valuable connections with others. I want the people I love to know me as someone who will always take them in.
This is a value I have struggled to live by. Living when, where, and how I have, I’ve learned that it is easy to throw things away. To care for them carelessly, knowing that cheap replacements are readily available. For a whole host of reasons, I don’t want that kind of relationship with resources. Instead, I want to care well for the people and things that are mine to care for.
This is from a quilt that was pieced hand-stitched by my great-grandmother. She came to this country from Germany in the early 1900’s. When I look at this quilt, it’s clear to me that she used what she had, that she didn’t have much, and that she also took care to arrange her materials as pleasingly as she was able. I can see attention to line and color. I see craftsmanship and labor. It an unfinished piece—there is no batting in it. I long thought I would finish it and use it, but I don’t want to destroy it, and honestly, it is too fragile to use as a blanket.
Part of good stewardship, I think, is determining how to use things. Simply preserving them isn’t enough, and in my line of work (library services), particularly, there is often tension between using and preserving. This unfinished quilt is my great-grandmother’s art, and I don’t think art should sit hidden in drawers. What use can it serve there? I know that displaying it, where it will be exposed to light and dust, will shorten its life, but I did some research on how to display quilts in ways that minimize damage to them. I think hanging it here, as it is, strikes the right balance between using and preserving.
This, I think, is how to be a good steward of the resources (things, people, time, money) entrusted to me: seeing value, considering purposes and uses, and finding solutions to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
Health is the foundation of everything, right? Without physical, mental, emotional, and social health, we cannot do and be all that we might. In its extreme, we cannot live.
The larger plant I’ve placed on my desk is a peace lily. The first time I married, a friend gave me one as a gift. She said it was the perfect symbol for marriage: a plant that produces beautiful blooms, thrives in multiple conditions, and withstands drought. I want a healthier marriage with work. I want to be more like a peace lily. I hope the need to care, in the most concrete of ways, for the health of other living things, will remind me to value the health of myself and others in the choices I make about how to work.
I believe that we are all creative beings and need positive outlets for making and doing. I believe there is value in creating for the sake of creating—both for the creator and for those around them. When we cannot create, our health and relationships suffer. Creativity helps us find solutions and solve problems and see possibilities. Creativity is joy, and we need joy as much as we need love and safety. It’s not a frill, an extra, or a nice-to-have. It’s essential, especially in times such as the one we are living through.
I have adorned the walls with art made by those I love most (including me!), and my favorites are the ones my children made when they were young. Many (all?) of us are born artists (a term I’m using very loosely), but the world has a way of killing that part of us. I want to make time for creativity in my life and work, and I want to protect and support it for the children and adults I serve.
As a life-long people-pleaser and do-gooder, developing, communicating, and living by boundaries is an on-going challenge. When we suddenly shifted to working from home last spring, I worked all over my house, and I came to realize that it wasn’t good for me. Home had once been a sanctuary from work, a place where work wasn’t. And then work was everywhere, all the time. Home lost some of its meaning for me.
I’m appreciating the opportunity to work toward better integration of work and home. I don’t want work to be something so depleting that I need a completely separate place to recover from it. Because of working from home, I can no longer use that strategy (which, as longtime readers here know, wasn’t really working for me, anyway). Setting better boundaries is the way to do that. This year, I plan to limit work to this one room with a door. To help me remember the upside of boundaries–that they protect us and those around us, spur creativity, and allow us to say “yes” to the people and projects that align with our values–I painted the closet door pink. Color is fun! Boundaries, done right, allow for more fun, and a lot of other good stuff, too. (Also, too much white is boring and sterile.)
White space is an important design principle. It helps us see what’s important. Space is the yin to connection’s yang. Both are necessary in our work. I need space to be healthy, to create, to care for people and things; without those things, connection isn’t really possible.
When I left work in March, I left a desk full of clutter–papers, stacks of books, a bag of Valentine’s Day treats, and more. It’s all still there. Clearly, I didn’t really need all of that stuff to do my job. This week, I went back to my office to get the things I’ll want or need to work from home. The things I felt I’d really need fit into one box.
To renovate this room, I first cleared everything out of it, so that I could be purposeful about what I allowed back in.
Deciding what to bring back and what to release was hard! It wasn’t the practical stuff that tripped me up. It was all the meaningful stuff–photos, family things, art. It was a good exercise, though, to really think about what matters.
The pandemic, in its (horrible, hard, often cruel) way, is providing a similar kind of clearing out. So many things that filled my work hours have been stripped away. Of course, I don’t have much say in some of the things that remain or that have been added, but with the things I do get to choose, I’m appreciating the opportunity to consider what needs to be part of the work and what doesn’t, and how to make space to see clearly which is which.
For a few years, I taught in a cinderblock room completely surrounded by hallway, with no windows or skylights, which meant that I had no exposure to natural light during the day. So often, when I emerged from it to go home, I was surprised by the light I found; I’d have had no sense of the weather all day and felt startled, almost, if it were especially bright with sun or moody with clouds. It was terrible, being that cut off from the natural world day after day after day, especially in winter when the sun would already be setting as I walked to my car.
I painted the walls of this room white to maximize brightness. This south-facing window gets sun for much of the day. As I work this year, I want to remain light (in all senses of that word) and to seek enlightenment. I want to see things clearly, shine light on truth, and join my light with others who are doing the same. I want all of us to stop working under artificial light that keeps us out of touch with what’s really happening in the outside world.
The value of this room renovation isn’t really in the room. Sure, it’s a nice space to look at and be in, but it was the process of thinking about the room and its purposes that will mean more to me (and, I hope, others) over time.
Every year as summer wanes, I go back to work resolved to engage with it in a different way. I promise myself that I will keep getting exercise, that I will keep eating real food, that I will devote more time to what is important and less to what is urgent, that I will carve out time for friends and family and creative work, and that I will just not let it all get to me.
So far, every year, I have failed to fulfill such resolutions.
This year feels different. There are two sides to everything, and one side of this time in which so much is collapsing is fear: economic, social, physical, and political threats are all around us. On the other side, though, is opportunity. When so much is gone, changed, and changing, it is easier to let go of what was and try to figure out what can be.
What this country has been asking of its educational system and its educators has been untenable for a long time. Having that truth laid bare over the past few months has released something in me; I can no longer pretend (to myself or anyone else) that we can–or even should–do all that has been asked of us, which gives me permission to let myself off the hook for trying to.
The root cause of the failures of our educational system extend far beyond the system itself; nothing that I, personally, do is going to change or fix that. While I believe to the center of my core in the value of a strong public education system and its necessity to the well-being of our democracy and its citizens–that belief is the reason I entered the system and have never been able to leave it–I can see that the system is crumbling and all of our many band-aids are failing to save it. Coming to accept this truth has been not unlike the experience of losing faith. The despair has been real. But also: This kind of letting go feels freeing in a way that I don’t yet have words to express.
The question, then, is: What to do now? This system, flawed as it is, is the system our children have right now, today. They only have one childhood, and it is now. Many of those with means are opting their kids out of it, but many families remain. Many educators remain, too, out of our own economic necessity. What does this mean going forward, to know that vulnerable people are depending upon us in a system that is broken and we feel (probably are) powerless to fix?
It doesn’t mean that those of us who remain simply give up and go through the motions and take what we can get. I mean, it can, and I’ve certainly known educators who have chosen that route. (We’re all human. We are not heroes or saints. This is a thing humans do in response to threat, defeat, and hopelessness. They do what they have to do to survive. We should acknowledge that reality so that we can better mitigate it.)
For me, it means focusing on what agency I have and exercising it. I am under no illusion that this set of values I’ve laid out here is going to magically transform my life or my experiences in the coming year. I am sure the coming year will contain a good deal of struggle. But I am all out of fucks to give about some things that used to drive me: pleasing my bosses, building a career, preserving norms and “right” ways of doing things, reforming the system. Those things no longer feel relevant. That opens up a lot of space for me to choose different actions than I might have in the past, and this set of values will be the lens through which I make such choices.
I believe we are all, no matter what kind of life we’re living and what privileges we do or do not have, at a crossroad. I’m going to do my best to choose a path paved with love, for others and myself, and to be, in whatever ways I can, light and space that connects and cares for others in ways that are healthy for us all. I don’t have to save the world, but there are things I can do to make my little corner of it better than it might otherwise be. Maybe if we all did that, some of the threats barreling toward us would start to change course?