Tag Archives: de-clutter

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Confession time. I’m not a packrat. In fact, I’m like the opposite of a packrat. Which I guess is someone who not only constantly gets rid of their own things but harbors fantasies of cleaning out the closets, shelves and toy rooms of others as well. Yep – that’s me.

But wait! That’s not the confession. The confession is this. There’s one little tiny, packrat-like thing that I do. When I find a receipt or card or movie ticket stub or even a crumpled old parking garage pass hiding in the bottom of an old purse or coat pocket – I keep it. I take these things out from their hiding place and I look over them and I smile. Sometimes I even cry.

This weekend I found the receipt in the photo up there. It’s almost two years old and it’s from the time when I just gotten over the 6-month culture shock hump. I felt in my groove in my little life in Antananarivo, Madagascar. I had friends. I knew which store to go to buy toilet paper, tissues, dark chocolate and parsley. And even now I can still picture the produce guy who would weigh my food and print out my sticker at the Leader Price on the dusty, crowded, chaotic Hydrocarbon Road in Tana. I look at this receipt and I can actually feel what my day was like that day.

I see this receipt and I’m back there. I’m reminded of all the parts of myself that I leave behind in all of these little places. I’m reminded that I only really think I leave them behind – they’re still with me. Like little slips of paper hiding in the pocket of the jacket I haven’t worn in years…just waiting for me to bring them back out again.

And so, I never throw these little things away. I can’t. After my moment of remembering, I re-hide them. I slip them into books. I put them back into new purses. I slide them under the socks in my bottom drawer. It’s all like a little ritual now. They’re my little reminders that wherever I go I take a bit of my old life with me. Wherever I go I never truly leave behind the things I think I’ve left behind.

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As many of you know, my youngest son is a Type I Diabetic. I have found the learning curve, while steep, to be incredibly fascinating. If there’s some sort of degree that combines nutrition, chemistry, math and nursing in a six month crash course – I’ve earned it, hands down.

One of the most challenging aspects that any parent of a Type I Diabetic will tell you is that there is just simply so much guesswork going on. Every step of the way you’re calculating carbs and insulin and exercise and stress to come up with a magic number that keeps blood glucose from going too high or too low. Right there in front of me is this 6 year old person whose body actually has the correct answers – the right dosing, the right exercise, the right amount of carbs – for any given situation and yet there is just no way, no tool, that can tell us EXACTLY what we need to know.

But, we’re lucky that now we can get closer to finding the best answers. Last week, my son started using a Continuous Glucose Monitor. If you’re curious you can read more about it here. The gist is that he wears a small device on his stomach that automatically calculates his blood glucose every five minutes and then sends the information to a receiver that looks a bit like a cell phone circa 2004. One week in and we’re loving this thing! Suddenly we have all of this important information that helps us make better decisions, faster.

However, here’s the catch…having this much information is addicting. When Sam’s sensor fell off yesterday in the pool and then we had trouble putting on a new one, I just let him keep it off for the night. I found myself really feeling the absence of the constant feed of information that, in just one week, I have come to see as so important…more than important – essential for addressing Sam’s diabetes.

This got me thinking about how we deal with this sort of thing all of the time as expats. We think we know something (or need to know something), we think we can get all the answers we need, whenever we want and then BAM! - no internet, no television, no language skills, no IDEA what’s going on…anywhere! So, I reminded myself that this is not the first time I’ve found myself without information that I’d really like to have. I’ve survived the information void during international transitions, so surely I can use those skills to get over this 15-hour hump of non-continual glucose monitoring. After facing down the hellish void of reduced information (Seriously, how did I grow up in the pre-Google world?) I came up with this personal Q&A for dealing with the space between knowing and not knowing:

1) Is it really necessary to have this info? (Facebook – I’m talking to you!)

2) Have I been able to get by without this information in the past?

3) When I’ve been without this info, what did I do? How did I get things done anyway?

4) What’s the worst thing that could happen?

5) (My favorite) What might be the benefit of not having this information at my fingertips…or breathing down my neck?

To be fair, we’re back to the CGM today – safe and sound. We survived last night. Of course we did, because before 6 days ago that’s what we’d been doing for almost 6 months. I’m happy to have it back though and oddly pleased with having had to handle a forced hiatus. Nothing like going without all that info to make you appreciate what it’s like to have it back.

Lately I’ve had a lot on my plate. We’re packing out from our current posting in Madagascar…only I’m not in Madagascar. For most of us in this lifestyle, the international transition can be a huge source of stress. I can now say for the record, that’s true even if you’re watching the move via Skype and email.

Each morning, while I can’t completely resist the urge to grab my phone and check my email for the latest in my husband’s adventures (especially on the topic of shipping our dog which has always been my territory…my very stressful territory), I am at least trying to do it mindfully. I’m trying to at least first take a deep breath and ask myself, “Do you need to do this now? Can you pack lunches first? Get coffee? Hit the snooze button?” Sometimes…well maybe once…I did wait until I’d at least packed the kids’ lunches.

During these times, in an effort to be more mindful, I allow myself the space to reflect on all the little parts of me that pop-up in times of stress. In my book, The Expat Activity Book, I call these the “mini-professionals.” They’re the parts of me that micromanage my daily ability to be my typically diverse and dynamic self. When we’re moving, The Calculator is mentally negotiating costs and distances and timetables (all the time!). I can also be taken over by The Resolver – this one can be the most difficult because she believes that there is a right answer to every problem (and she tends to write emails that say as much). She can be especially annoying when dealing with airlines and government officials in developing countries.

One of the interesting things I’ve found is that by simply naming and greeting these parts of myself, I open up space for these mini-professionals to be less demanding. It’s a bit like acknowledging the elephant in the room. Once I admit they’re there, then it becomes easier to manage them – giving them space to help in any way they can and to shut up when I need to get something else done.

What about you? Who are your mini-professionals? Are any of them taking over? What are they good for? What strategies do you use to keep them in check? When are they at their worst? Their best?

These can be really helpful questions to ask yourself during transition – or any time. And remember, simply acknowledging is a huge first step to better understanding all of the many, many sides of your dynamic self!

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For those of us that celebrate Christmas, doing so abroad – away from friends and family – can be especially difficult. Christmas is a time where we crave the familiar, we resort to tradition and we strive to make the day as special as possible. We build it up. Often the day is just perfect. But, sometimes it’s not.

As I write this, I realize this is true for any special day – birthdays, anniversaries, and cultural and religious holidays. You don’t have to celebrate Christmas to recognize that any tradition you hold dear can be difficult to manage when you’re outside your home culture. You want, you need, everything to be just so…and yet, you know very well you won’t be able to have each and every last thing fit perfectly into your pre-reasoned plan.

So as an expat, trying to fit a bit of your own tradition into a place that you only temporarily call home, what can you do?

The Internet is full of great ideas. Not to get too sidetracked here, but I think it’s one of the great blessings of the modern age. Wanna’ know how to beat holiday stress? Google it! The answers are endless. In fact, here’s one I posted on the World Tree Coaching Facebook page just yesterday.

But, it’s up to each of us to look at what might work and try things out. We all know it’s a never-ending battle to force a tradition to be “perfect.” Things change and so do we; yet it’s common (and natural) to try to hold on to making these moments really count. So don’t be shy about figuring out new (and healthier) ways to handle the holidays (whichever ones you celebrate). If you’re feeling stuck – here are a couple of my favorite holiday survival techniques. I'm writing from the Christmas perspective below, but seriously - feel free to sub any special day (from Valentine’s Day to wedding anniversaries).

1) Harness the power of definition. You, not your parents, your friends back home (with their cozy knit hats, Starbuck’s, snow flurries and twinkly lights) or the media, can tell you what your holiday should be like. Sit down and decide to redefine your traditions so that they fit your mobile lifestyle. Passionately keep the things that work, but get rid of the things that stress you out, cause you un-needed mental clutter or make you feel guilty.

2) If you don’t have family with you – consider redefining your definition of family. This might seem pretty bold, but as an expat, I bet you do it already. Find the people you most love, the ones you most enjoy and the individuals who share your values. Make them a part of your family away from family. Unburden yourself from the label of mother, daughter, and sister and accept “friend” as being just as wonderful.

3) Give up on gifts for your spouse or partner. Gasp! I know – this sounds crazy, but I swear this is a good one. If you treat everyday as a potential day for a gift – “I saw this and thought of you,” “I knew you’d love this, I couldn’t resist,” “I hope you don’t mind, but I picked this up for you.” – you take off a lot of holiday pressure. You might even find that you enjoy moments with your spouse or partner more when you’re not stressed over finding the perfect thing or anxious over what’s hiding behind box number three. What you will surely realize is that when (or if) you do splurge on something special, it means so much more. Don’t go rogue on this one though – it requires careful planning and consideration with your significant other.

After years of trial and error, these are just a few that have worked for me. I’d love to hear your tricks for making the holidays fit your lifestyle (whether you're an expat or firmly planted in your hometown). How do you make your special days special without leaving yourself drained, lonely, homesick or worse? Add your thoughts to the comments section – I’d love to build a nice long list!

And, for those of you celebrating – Happy Holidays!

We’re coming up on our 5-year anniversary of our Foreign Service life. The crazy thing is – in some ways I don’t know where the 5 years have gone and in others I realize that our old life, the pre-Foreign Service life seems like a distant memory.

Every step of this journey has been a learning experience. Perhaps more than anyone, expats learn to say, “Never say ‘never.”” The truth is, no one knows what’s just around the bend, but our lifestyle adds a whole additional set of layers.

With so much unpredictability, we benefit from putting ourselves in full-simplify-mode. If you don’t need it, give it away. If it’s broken, throw it out. If you haven’t used it in a year (or more), someone else surely will. If you live in a developing country – one woman’s trash is almost surely another woman’s treasure. Play Santa. Play giver-of-things. When you unload, you unlock so much space (literally and figuratively).

Need motivation?

A key to finding your motivation (especially for things that can be challenging) is taking the time to examine the values you hold most dear and use those as your source of inspiration.

Are you naturally altruistic? Focus on who could benefit from the stuff you give away.

Do you value environmental responsibility? Think about lowering your carbon footprint by not shipping so many things to your next home. Or, if you’re staying put, think about the power of reuse and recycle – someone can put your un-wanted (or un-needed) things to use!

Do your values center on financial responsibility? Have a yard sale. The money you make can go into savings or help you purchase something you really need.

Is a sense of freedom your most important value? Then take time to remind yourself how it will feel to not be bogged down by all that extra weight.

What about family? Do you value family above all else? Then get the kids involved! Plan a family celebration – a pizza night or a trip to get ice cream – once you’ve unloaded all those extra things. Sound like bribery? So what – perhaps your kids’ primary motivation is a special treat.

Put that motivation to work!

Once you have a sense of what values most motivate you, give yourself frequent reminders to stay on task. Put up sticky notes around the house. Email your spouse or partner and update him or her on how things are going. Ask them to reply so you get an easy in-box reminder. Treat yourself to something special at different stages of simplification – a chocolate sundae today (you may notice a theme with the ice cream…primary motivator anyone?), a massage next week. Be kind to yourself! Say, “Well done!”

So, what are you really waiting for? If you start now, you’ll be halfway there in no time! Before you know it, you’ll be done…and enjoying that chocolate shake.

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Visual motivation courtesy of Blue Bell - the best ice cream in the country