Friday, February 25, 2011

12 Steps to Creating Your Essential Life

"Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking." Marcus Aurelius

I can't do some of the things I used to docan't do them at all.I certainly can't do all of the things that I used to do.

Welcome to living in an aging body.

I keep returning to the idea that one of the "developmental tasks" of this stage of my life is to discover my essential life.

From Wikipedia: "In philosophy, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity."

So how do I boil my life down to its essence?

My mother grew up during the Great Depression. She is a frugal woman. Most autumns, she would make wild grape jam. The grapes grew in abundance along the Kinnickkinnick River not far from our house. I suppose the land was owned by somebody, but we harvested wild grapes in autumn and watercress in the spring without feeling like we were stealing. My sister and I helped create the jams.

(If you haven't been around the jam making process, watch the 6 minute video "Boiling Down to Heightened Flavors: The Specialty Jams of Josephine's Feast."  We didn't have her fancy copper pots [which I love], but you get the idea.)

So, with my endearing (I hope) tendency to stretch metaphor until it almost snaps, here are my steps to creating an essential life, as inspired by jam making.

Step 1 - Pick the fruit!
Make a list of the things about which you are passionate, what gives you joy, without which you imagine your life would not be your life. (You may want to check out Zen Habits'  "Short but Powerful Guide to Finding Your Passion.")

Step 2 -Wash the jars and lids.
You may need to make some space in your life for the essentials. Free time. Get out of over-commitments, including those you've made to yourself. ["There was no need to do any housework at all. After four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse." Quentin Crisp]

Step 3 -Wash and hull the fruit.
Look at your list and remove the hulls and stems.Are there things on your list that you put there because you think they ought to be there? Look at an item, say it to yourself, take a breath and pay attention to how your body is feeling. Do you feel heavy or tired or resigned? Leave on the list only those things that make you feel lighter energized or excited.

Step 4 - Crush the fruit.
When making jam, crushing the fruit gets it into manageable pieces and releases the natural pectin so it can thicken. Look at your list and define a "nibble." For instance, I am passionate about learning, but attending an eight week face-to-face college class is beyond my energy level. I can take a half-day workshop every now and then or attend a series of webinars.

Step 5 -Add the sweetener.
Different fruits require different amounts of sweetener. Some folks mix sweeter fruits with less sweet and use no artificial sweetener at all. I love listening to beautiful music and on rare occasions (someone comes to my house and plays it) I need no sweetener at all. Other times (going out to a concert) I need to add sweeteners (rest before, help with transportation) in order to make a good jam.
Step 6 - Mix the fruit with the pectin and cook to a full boil.
[Pectin, which occurs naturally in fruit, is what makes the jam "set" or thicken.  The pectin you buy is natural apple pectin, but is more concentrated.  Using pectin dramatically reduces the cooking time, which helps to preserve the vitamins and flavor of the fruit, and uses much less added sugar.]
What tools and tricks can help make my participation in my passion possible or easier? I love to write, but I couldn't do it these days without Dragon NaturallySpeaking from

A "full boil" in this protracted metaphor is trying it in real life and paying attention to how it works.

Step 7 - Get the jars and lids sanitizing.
Are these spaces I created in my life spacious enough?Are there bits of old crud still adhering to the space I thought I cleared? I need to take another look and make sure things are really clean.

Step 8 - Add the remaining sweetener and bring to a boil again.
What about the sweetener?Maybe I thought I would be a purist and not add any, but I find myself avoiding the things I said I loved.Try adding some more sweetener. Make it easier Make it more fun..

Step 9 - Skim any excessive foam.
When too much air gets into the boil it produces foam which won't harm you but makes the jam looks scummy.  Have I gone overboard in some way? Are there bits that are uncomfortable or exhausting now that I'm trying them in real life? Skim them away.

Step 10 - Test for "jell" (thickness).
In jam making, I put a little bit out and let it cool to room temperature. Is it the right consistency? In creating my essential life, I live it for a while and see if I have created the right balance between activity and rest, excitement and contentment, doing and being. Adjusting the ingredients or even remaking the jam can get it to the right consistency.

Step 11 - Fill the jars and put the lid and rings on
The size, shape and decorative nature of the jars are a matter of personal preference. It helps, though, to put some limits around each flavor, so I can appreciate each one.

Step 12 - Process the jars in the boiling water bath
The elements of my life should be surrounded by life itself, submerged beneath the roiling waters of day to day to day,stored for a while in a cool dark place and then brought out to be appreciated.

(Thanks to How to make Jam at for jogging my memory.)

Report from last week's bingo experiment:

I thought about doing something noble ("listening to music" ) as a reward, but it was me trying to be better than I am. It turned out to be M&Ms .I did get one bingo and came very close to another two, so the card definitely has potential.

Have you had to adjust your activities as  your body has changed?  How have you adapted? What tools and tricks do you use? What are the challenges?

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