Thoughts on friendship

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When I began this blog almost two years ago, I didn’t know that blogging would enable me to make friends in real life, as well as bring me closer to a worldwide community of like-minded people.

Since you’re reading this, let me tell you this: I appreciate you!

The nature of friendship

I have been reflecting on the nature of friendship over the last few weeks. That may be because our teenager is about to do her GSCEs and move on to a new school for Sixth Form in September.

I know she has been thinking about the friends she’ll leave behind at her old school, as well as the ones who’ll move on with her. Of course, there’ll be new pals for her to make and we all know that strangers are friends you just haven’t met yet.

But how has the nature of friendship changed since we were at school?

When you are young

As a child you imagine that you’ll have the same friends your whole life. Some people do still keep in touch with friends they had at primary school, but I expect that’s fairly rare in today’s upwardly mobile world. Sometimes, childhood friends are re-united when they find one another on social media, or they manage to keep in touch through their parents who continue to live in the home where they grew up.

Make new friends and keep the old: one is silver, the other gold

My oldest and dearest friend is godmother to our daughter. We have been friends for almost 30 years. We met when we both lived in a hall of residence owned by the the high street bank for which we worked in London. This was a subsidised ‘staff perk’ to attract young workers to spend time in the capital. In 1990, this was like being at university but with pay!

I was interested in joining the drama group to which my would-be friend belonged, so I looked her up. We became instant pals and have remained close ever since, even though we haven’t lived in the same place for much of that time.

Circumstantial friends?

I am very lucky to still have contact with friends I made during my undergraduate and postgraduate years at university. I also still have good friends I made in the early years of living in Warwickshire and later as a mum.

Happily, some of these friendships have persisted beyond those specific circumstances. Although I originally met my friend, Lynne, at a local parent/toddler group, we have since enjoyed many years singing together. These days, we meet monthly at a bread-making group, which I wrote about here.

Some connections that you make through work or hobbies also continue via social media (especially via Facebook which is the only reason I don’t delete my account). It’s lovely to keep in touch with people who mean a lot to you and there’s the added bonus that we do meet up (either regularly or from time-to-time).

Minimalism and friendship

I have been really fortunate to make new friends through the contacts I’ve made with those connected to the world of minimalism and simple living.

My lovely friend, Rae, hosted the London leg of Courtney Carver’s Tiny Wardrobe Tour two years ago. I realised, after the event, that were both Warwickshire-based and it’s been an absolute delight to get to know her.

Lindsey and I met, as part of my quarterly meet-ups. She’s been a great friend with whom it’s fabulous to compare simple living notes, as we compare and discuss our minimalism journey.

I’ve also begun to make friends around the globe (some in person and others virtually). What’s heart-warming and encouraging is how virtual friends can become real friends when you reach out to one another.

New ways to make friends

Connection is so important. It’s one of the four ingredients of Robert Lustig’s book that I wrote about here.

Listening to Liz Craft and Sarah Fain on Happier in Hollywood this weekend, I was reminded of the challenge of making new friends in a new location. In this ‘Listener Questions’ episode, one of the questions discussed was how to make friends when you move to a new area.

You may not want to be alone or even in that particular situation but this may still be a time when you can make connections. In his book, Resurrection Year, Sheridan Voysey calls this “ministering to others.” You may not relish being alone in a new place, but if you’re willing to put yourself out to serve others, you’ll no doubt reap the personal benefits of so doing.

That said, as the hosts of Happier in Hollywood suggested, “Put yourself out there but choose people who want to be with you.” As the pair remind us, you want, “volunteers not recruits” when it comes to friendship.

Special interest groups

If you do put yourself out there, it’s worth noting that natural friendships can take time to emerge. It may take a while to become established in a new group, especially if you join a longstanding community of people who’ve know each other a long time.

One possible way in is to join a sub-group. Last year, I wrote about my decision to join the WI. My ‘way in’, in terms of getting to know people, has been to join the WI Reading Group. We meet monthly at someone’s house over wine and nibbles, often followed by cake (of course!) and tea or coffee. Whilst we do spend a good amount of time discussing the book for that month, we also connect in ways that aren’t possible when you’re in a monthly WI meeting of 50+ members.

So, find your ‘tribe’ and you may make some unexpected friends.

And remember, it’s said that a dog is ‘(wo)man’s best friend’. You always have a friend when you have a dog.


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Making room for giving back

Ollie

One of the key tenets of minimalism is the elimination of things that no longer add value, in order to make way for the things that do. When you’re not chasing ‘the next thing’ all the time, you have the chance to reflect on how to live your life.

Last year, one question I asked myself was whether or not I could make some space to give back to the community. Could I add value in someone else’s life?

Pets as Therapy

For some time, I had been aware of the charity Pets as Therapy. Established 35 years ago, Pets as Therapy exists to provide joy, comfort and companionship to people who appreciate being able to engage with a friendly and sociable pet. Usually, the visits are to establishments where a pet isn’t normally present, such as a residential home, nursing home, hospice, school or even a prison.

‘PAT’ Dogs

Around once a term, the ‘PAT Dogs’ (as they are known) visit the library of the university where I work. The students love meeting the dogs (who come in all shapes and sizes) and their visit has become a much-anticipated feature in the academic year calendar.

(I must say that when I was at university, we had a library cat. He was named, appropriately, LC.)

Last summer, I popped over to check out the PAT dogs for myself and talked to their owners. I was curious as to whether or not our loving but impish little Cockapoo might have a suitable temperament to be accepted as a ‘PAT dog’ himself. In fact, the only way to find out was to request an assessment, so we arranged this with the local area
co-ordinator, Kate.

Our assessment

Pets as Therapy protocols require the assessment to be completed away from the family home. This is understandable; if you’re going to be visiting an establishment with your pet, you need to be able to demonstrate that your pooch can behave himself in public.

We agreed to meet at Pets at Home. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Pets at Home is the superstore for all things related to pets. From cat food to guinea pigs, Pets at Home has it all.

Kate took us through a series of assessments, ticking off the criteria on the charity’s application form as we went along. Would Ollie walk nicely to heel? How would he respond to a stranger stroking him (including his tail). Would he react badly to Kate dropping a walking stick behind him?

We spent around 40 minutes in the store. Ollie was good as gold, although the sound of the squeaky toys was almost too much to bear. Seated at my feet, he would lean over slightly, ears alert, straining to hear what was going on. It was as though he was saying, “I would like a squeaky toy!!”

The outcome

One application, two references and some time later, we were accepted to be PAT volunteers. As soon as I heard the news, I was back onto area co-ordinator, Kate, to see if there was an establishment we could visit. There were three, one of which was just a 15 minute walk from our house.

Our nursing home establishment

The establishment Kate suggested was a small nursing home whose PAT dog had sadly died. As a result, the home was awaiting a new volunteer.

I went along (without dog) to find out more and met the nursing home’s activities co-ordinator, Joy. Over a cup of coffee and biscuit (thanks, Chef!), we agreed that Ollie and I would visit for an hour, once a fortnight. Joy explained that I should expect to be known as “Ollie’s mom” and that Ollie might – from time-to-time – be invited as VIP to special events.

Our first visit

For our first visit, there was snow on the ground, as we in the midst of the awful weather wrought by ‘the beast from the East’. Joy had wondered if we might cancel, but we were determined to make it, albeit we had to remove wellies and other winter clothing on arrival, leaving a heap of belongings in the hall.

We had top billing as visitors that morning; Joy had even printed a flyer (with a picture of a little black cockapoo that looked very much like Ollie) to remind people that we were coming.

Top of the bill

Our first gathering in the lounge was really lovely. I have to confess to feeling a bit nervous but our visit brought people together, as residents came down from their rooms to see what all the fuss was about.

Some were too frail to come down that morning, notably Hilda (104 years old!). So, instead, for part of our time, we went and had a chat with people wherever they happened to be. It was so lovely to see the delight on people’s faces when they realised that I had brought Ollie to see them. To my great relief, Ollie wasn’t overwhelmed; he rather enjoying all the attention (especially as this included dog treats that I had brought with us).

Getting into a routine

Now that we are ‘regulars’, we continue to have our morning coffee gathering, but we also make time to pop and visit those who aren’t able to come down to the lounge. To my surprise, we occasionally bump into people we know whose parents are staying at the home for a short period of respite.

As promised, we (Ollie) were special VIP guests at the Easter fair when “Ollie” helped with the raffle and “Ollie’s mom” enjoyed meeting family members who had come to visit residents.

Mission accomplished

Now that I have time to step back and muse on the subject, I ask myself if we are making a difference and achieving our intended aim. I suppose only the residents at the nursing home can answer that. But there’s something else: I always come away feeling that we did the right thing. Being kind to others is one of the best things we can do. It’s said that when you do good, you’ll feel good. I really agree with that.


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One purchase, one tree

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The team at Arhaus was recently able to showcase my advice on an infographic they were developing (pictured), which includes ways to make our homes more environmentally friendly. Spot the community tip!

Eco-minimalism

A concern for the environment is one of the reasons why people choose to live a more intentional life. We’ve talked about sustainability on the blog before:

You might remember Cheryl Magyar’s helpful great piece on reducing everyday disposables. My own recent post on why second hand should become second nature also sparked some great comments.

We all need to consider if what we buy is promoting sustainability or contributing negatively to the environment (especially if what we buy is replacing something we already own). Arhaus uses reclaimed and sustainable materials as often as they can. For example, many of their dining and kitchen tables are sourced from reclaimed wood.

One purchase, one tree

I liked the idea of a store planting a tree for every purchase. I wonder if you know of other organisations who do this?

Plant a tree anyway

This reminded me that planting a tree is a lovely way to give a “non-stuff” gift. When my twin godsons were christened, the godparents got together and planted a pair of trees on their behalf. As the trees grew, so would the boys (indeed, the twins are now 9 and shooting up!).

During the year in which my husband Andrew turned 50, he also planted a tree in memory of my late grandmother who died during the month after his birthday. I think that’s a lovely memorial and an appropriate way to remember a long life, well-lived. W

When might you plant a tree?

Have you ever planted a tree, or supported a tree-planting scheme? And what sort of purchase (especially for the home) might prompt you to do this in the future? I’d love to know if this idea appeals to you.


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Why we should declutter our ‘to do’ lists

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For someone (like me) who is extremely task driven, ticking items off my ‘to do’ list delivers a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Be they work tasks or household chores, that literal or virtual “tick” against each item infers productivity, usefulness and a sense of moving forward. Right?

In today’s society, being goal-oriented is usually something to be admired. If we have goals and targets, we know where we’re heading. Even better, breaking down larger projects into manageable chunks makes a larger or audacious goal more attainable.

We’ve all heard the old joke:

How to you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…..

Productivity addicts

What happens, though, if we allows this ‘productivity mindset’ to seep into every aspect of our lives? What if every day becomes a 24/7 ‘to do’ list?

I’m currently reading Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball. It’s a book I’d resisted for a while, as I felt uncomfortable with its key tenet: that women were shouldering more of the domestic burden than men and that, to redress the balance, women needed to ‘drop the ball’. Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Plus, Warwickshire libraries delivered the e-book version to me in the click of a button so here we are. I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t tell me how it ends!

Jot it all down

In Chapter 5, Dufu addresses the issue of the never-ending ‘to do’ list. She describes a coaching exercise she leads in which she asks women to jot down every single thing they expect to achieve in the coming 24 hour period. That includes every achievement, no matter how small, such as making breakfast or scheduling an appointment.

Before you read on, you may like to try this.

Participants are then invited to do the maths to calculate how long they think all of these achievements will really take.

Tried it?

Dufu’s declaration that she has never encountered anyone who could realistically complete all of her tasks in less than 24 hours is unsurprising. As she writes, “The point of the exercise is to show that just making lists and trying to get everything on them completed is not a winning strategy. Trying to do it all guarantees only one result: burnout.”

The endless ‘to do’ list

Are you, like me, a sucker for a nice ‘to do’ list? In a professional setting, it’s natural and desirable to use a variety of tools to help keep all the plates spinning. Indeed, my highly-productive and efficient colleague, Cheryl, even has the following mantra on her office mug: Get Stuff Done.

But do we need to adopt this sort of mindset at home, particularly at weekends?

For sure, there are times when you absolutely need a list. Imagine you’re organising a family gathering or planning something significant like a wedding. You’re going to need to need to approach it like you’re about to embark upon a military operation in a theatre of war! Especially where family is involved…

What’s a Weekend?

/wiːkˈɛnd,ˈwiːkɛnd/
noun
Saturday and Sunday, especially regarded as a time for leisure

In the wonderful Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess, delivers one of her classic lines, “What is a weekend?”

Although the concept of ‘weekend’ has been part of our culture for many decades, full time workers may still ask themselves, “What weekend?” when they return to the workplace after a busy two days at home.

Setting yourself (or others) a set of tasks, or weekend jobs, runs counter to the idea that a weekend is supposed to be for doing what you enjoy; recharging your batteries; having a slow start; or – dare I suggest it – doing nothing at all?

I was always a woman on a mission when it came to weekend planning. I’d have my iPad at the bedside with the notes app primed to receive my usual set of household chores. I’d sometimes ring the changes and jot tasks down on pen and paper. Either way, there’d always be a list.

Letting go

Just lately, I’ve decided to let go. And whilst each weekend day follows more of a meandering path, jobs still get done. Meals get cooked. Washing is washed, dried, ironed and put away. The recycling is put out. The dog is walked twice a day. And I no longer feel the urge to go about my day in an energy-driven frenzy of activity, no matter how rewarding this might feel.

Reading the message behind Tiffany Dufu’s exercise reminded me that I’m on the right track. There’ll never be enough hours in the day, so why beat yourself up if you haven’t ticked off everything on the list you created for yourself?

Going a step further

Courtney Carver’s Soulful Simplicity introduced me to the Italian notion of dolce far niente: the sweetness of doing nothing. I haven’t mastered that particular art just yet, but my virtual ‘to do’ list can take a hike.


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More

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What drives us to yearn for ‘more’ or ‘better’ when we know that the more we consume, the more we deplete both our own, and the earth’s, precious resources?

As I have considered before, there are a variety of reasons we buy more than we actually need. They include:

  • Wanting to make a certain impression
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • Fear of missing out (especially on a ‘bargain’)
  • Having something ‘just in case’
  • Believing that ownership will make a real difference to our lives or even our happiness

The ownership myth

Ownership is a privilege but with it comes responsibility. You not only have to pay for the thing, but you have to maintain, upgrade, insure, clean and take care of it.

Worse, as Courtney Carver warns in her book, Soulful Simplicity, “If you use a credit card, the item might not even be yours. It’s possible that you are literally walking around in someone else’s shoes because you’re still paying them off…”

We own stuff for so many reasons. As Carver advises, “Once you acknowledge why you buy and what you think your stuff is doing for you, you will be more intentional about what comes into your home and life, and you will have more clarity about what needs to go.”

When can ‘more’ actually make a difference?

In her terrific book, America the Anxious: Why our Search for Happiness is Driving us Crazy and How to Find it for Real, Ruth Whippman cites a much-misquoted study about the relationship between happiness and income.

Whippman explains that the study, by Daniel Kahneman, is reported as showing that money makes no difference to happiness above an income of $75k per year.

In fact, Whippman explains that money over and above this level still makes a difference to a person’s overall satisfaction. And, of course, a person’s overall financial picture has a huge bearing on one’s life. As Whippman shrewdly observes, “Unsurprisingly, the further down the income scale you go, the more important it is.” That said, most of us in the western world already have more than enough.

Cultivating a sufficiency mindset

No matter what your income level, living on less than you earn brings enormous benefits. As Dave Ramsey repeats each time his radio show airs: “Live like no-one else so that, later, you can live (and give) like no-one else.”

Bestselling author of The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist, reminds us that when we let go of chasing what we don’t really need, it frees up energy to enable us to make a difference with what we already have. Having recently heard Twist in discussion with Oprah Winfrey in Supersoul Conversations, I am particularly struck by her philosophy that a sufficiency mindset is so much greater than a scarcity mindset. We already have enough. We are enough.

When more is more

When you adopt a minimalist lifestyle, it’s possible to pursue the things that really add value and that make a difference, not only to your own life but (hopefully) to the lives of others. Here, I come back to the ideas of connection and community, which I touched upon in my last post.

When it comes to connection and contribution, I’m about to embark upon a new adventure. Along with our Cockapoo, Ollie, I’ve recently been accepted as a volunteer with Pets as Therapy. This UK charity aims to foster connections with people through pet visits to establishments where pets are otherwise not available. I’m hoping to visit a local retirement or care home where the regular visit from me and my waggy-tailed chum might bring a ray of sunshine into someone’s day. Here’s when more is definitely more!

It’s not about stuff

No amount of ‘stuff’ is going to make a positive difference to our lives. Just as food should be about nourishing the body rather than feeding the emotions, so the stuff we own should serve a genuine need rather than fill a psychological hole.

As Whippman concludes in her book, “…if we focus on living a connected, fulfilling and meaningful life, then if we’re lucky, happiness might just hitch a ride.” And there’s no mention of stuff there.


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Do you know the difference between pleasure and happiness?

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Do you understand the difference between pleasure and happiness? Can you explain how reward differs from contentment? Robert Lustig certainly can and his latest book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science behind the Corporate Takeover of our Bodies and Brains, has something powerful to say about happiness and wellbeing.

About Robert Lustig

Robert Lustig MD is perhaps best known for his bestseller, Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease.

These are not minimalist book titles!

Lustig is a professor of paediatrics, as well as being chief science officer of EatREAL, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to reversing childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. His latest work argues that the corporate world has manipulated us specifically to get us to buy junk we don’t need. It’s an argument you may have come across before, but here we are offered the science behind the message.

We have been ‘manipulated’

Lustig argues that business has conflated pleasure with happiness and “with clear-cut intent” to get us to engage with behaviours that result in society feeling, “…fat, sick, stupid, broke, addicted, depressed and most decidedly unhappy.”

Recognise that rush of pleasure when you:

  • bite into something super sweet and delicious?
  • purchase something shiny and new?
  • see a notification on your smartphone?

That rush is one of dopamine, bringing fleeting reward or pleasure, but this is only ever short-lived and ends up with you wanting more. These things are genuinely addictive.

There is another way

By contrast, Lustig argues that the ‘happy chemical’, serotonin, provides longer-term contentment. He explains the difference between the dopamine effect, which creates, “That feels good. I want more.” versus the seratonin effect that brings about a sense of, “That feels good. I have enough.”

As Lustig says, it’s about understanding the difference between chasing fleeting reward and longer-lasting contentment.

How do we achieve this?

With clear scientific evidence to back up his argument, Lustig argues that real contentment is to be found through his 4 C’s, which increase serotonin in the brain to promote well-being. 

They are:

  • Connect
  • Contribute
  • Cope
  • Cook

I’ll use these themes as categories on future blog posts, so be sure to look out for them.

What it means in practice

Connect

Actively participate in actual social interactions. Social engagement or emotional bonding correlates with contentment, says Lustig.

Facebook (by way of an example) does not count here. Lustig explains the more people use Facebook, the less “subjective well-being” they experience. Just as a diet of processed food fails to support our well-being, so our daily “digital diet” is also doing us harm.

Contribute

By contributing to society (perhaps through work, volunteering or other activities), this (again) increases contentment through feelings of self-worth. Ever read stories of people who gave up their Christmas Day to help at a shelter for the homeless? These volunteers’ feelings of well-being can be directly attributed to the feel-good factor associated with contribution.

Cope

This is mega important. Sleep better, be more mindful, exercise more. These coping strategies are essential to our well-being.

Simply:

  • Get your 8 hours
  • Don’t multi-task
  • Be more mindful or intentional in how you approach your day-to-day activities
  • Take exercise

Cook

The JERF (Just Eat Real Food) message has been around for a while but Lustig makes a particular case for cooking for ourselves, for our friends and for our families. If we do this, we’ll not only be eating foods that can boost that happy chemical, serotonin, but we’ll also be contributing and connecting as well. And sugar is a no no. Period.

All together now

Taken together, these 4 C’s provide the essential support we need to move away from transient moments of reward (pleasure) to a more contented state (happiness).

As a minimalist, reading this book gave me an insight into why we know – instinctively – that more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness. When it comes to more, it’s more of the 4 C’s we really need.

Lustig’s work is based on solid science; it’s not an easy read, but if you’ve ever battled with overcoming negative habits or been concerned that your time spent on social media isn’t adding to your subjective well-being, this book explains why.


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Give warm greetings and farewells

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Each time I finish a book, I find invariably that there’s something that particularly stands out or that resonates with me. There’s that one thing – sometimes just a small notion – that sticks in my mind.

When I read Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, it was McKeown’s exhortation to “Do less, but better!” that stayed with me. Likewise, James Wallman’s Stuffocation left me with this simple but perfect mantra: “Experiences over stuff.”

A ‘sticky’ resolution

So, I wasn’t surprised when I finished Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home and found myself musing over one of her many resolutions. It was this:

“Give warm greetings and farewells.”

In spite of Rubin’s sensible acknowledgement that you can only change yourself, she made an exception when proposing this resolution to her family.

She wanted to ensure that family members felt acknowledged and welcomed when returning home. Further, she wanted these brief but important moments of connection to be extended to saying farewell whenever a family member left for his or her daily trip to work or school or wherever they were going.

How important are these moments of connectedness!

How connected are we really?

We live in a connected world. As of June 2017, Facebook is said to have had 2.01 billion active users; Twitter 328 million and Instagram 600 million. Today’s technology enables us to reach people in myriad ways, whenever we feel like it. Our teenagers are ultra-connected, with an almost constant flow of SnapChat snippets and ‘streaks’ to keep them – and their network – tethered by wifi.

And yet, when our loved ones walk through the door, do we lift our heads from the iPad, put down the virtual pencil or look up from whatever we are doing? Not always. Why? Because we are distracted. We are drowning in busy-ness. We’ll be there in a minute.

This won’t be new, but I suppose we have to disconnect to reconnect.

Who greets you first?

The late, great Nora Ephron wrote:

“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

Many a true word said in jest….

I once attended a family gathering at which the children of the host acknowledged their grandparents’ arrival with something akin to mild indifference. Witnessing the grandparents’ confusion and hurt made me resolve that, within our own family, we would always ensure that we made our own parents feel truly welcome.

Spark those connections

Reading Rubin’s resolution reminded me of the importance of this daily ritual, as we acknowledge the daily comings and goings of loved ones.

So, now, within our little family of three (plus dog!), we now observe this resolution in our own day-to-day interactions and remind each other, “Warm greetings and farewells!” It really does make a difference.

Do you have a mantra or resolution to help you maintain those family connections? What’s your way of sparking and maintaining a connection with loved ones? Let me know by replying below!


 

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