What The Streets of Rome (& Espresso) Taught Me About Structure

(Lincoln logs courtesy of my daughter Helen, age 2)

 My first husband was an architect. We talked endlessly about public spaces that were created with people in mind – with the idea that people would enjoy themselves in them – from the curving stone paths of Rome (& piazzas where folks sip espresso while admiring a fountain) to the tiny restaurants that line San Francisco’s Mission District, Somerville’s Davis Square or Quebec’s Old City.

We talked about how good it felt to move about in these spaces and how different it felt to walk around big box retail and its adjacent parking lots.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about structure and how it affects us (both in terms of space and time). I think about it as a mom too because educators often say “children crave and benefit from structure!” so I try to understand what that really means.

I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago where it was critical to excel at academics and to do as many sports and extracurricular activities as possible in order to get into “a good college.” In junior high, I switched schools so I’d be “better prepared” for high school. In high school, I arose at 5:30am to start my day, completed my classes at 3:30, ran track, volunteered at a local organization and then stayed up long past midnight writing papers.

I believed that hard work would equal happiness (a.k.a. feeling bad now = feeling good later).

While there were many good things about about my education, there was also an accepted “norm” that forcing things to happen was necessary and that doing, learning, accomplishing more, more, more was always better.

Today, I don’t give up my happiness in this moment for a future goal, which doesn’t mean I don’t do the dishes, I just do them differently, as joyfully as I can (and not when I’m exhausted).

I also ask myself: What kind of structure would’ve served young me better?

Would I have learned more deeply if all my time wasn’t consumed with activity?

Would I have had more energy if there’d been equal focus on my internal landscape as on external outcomes?

As I ponder our big box retail stores and think about whether they were designed for us to be inspired by them or more with the idea of ensuring that we purchase a lot of things while keeping costs low, I think I know the answer. And they are successful in that.

But what happens when we apply this way of thinking to our internal life, when we are so focused on a bottom line or a specific outcome that we lose the ability to see the beauty that surrounds us in each moment?

In terms of the structure I create for myself today, I realize that I often do much better work when I get up and leave in the middle of something and watch a bit of a movie. Or if I take walks every few hours to clear my head before returning to my desk.

My structure looks more like freedom. What about you?

For me, having windows of time to work and write while my daughters are at school and eating oatmeal with them in the morning, these rhythms not only fuel my songs and my teaching, they fuel my life.

When I make feeling good a priority, I regain the beauty in my life whether I’m lying on the beach or not.

If I have no other goal than to make my day into the equivalent of a beautiful song, chances are that not only will whatever work I do be more vibrant, I’ll also be happier :)

What about you? What structures have served you best?

Which ones haven’t?

If your day were a work of art (maybe it already is :) ), what would it look like?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.

13 thoughts on “What The Streets of Rome (& Espresso) Taught Me About Structure

  1. I am lucky enough to feel like my life is a work of art, ever evolving, ever changing. At present, I am “on sabbatical” (i.e. not earning money), but am very engaged, active, even “productive” as an artist: re-envisioning pieces of the world through a curious, blessed lens I’ve been given and chosen to hone through acceptance, prayer, and the support of one amazing Dave-husband. Anne, thank you for putting yourself out into the world and sharing your beautiful music, your vulnerability, and your artistry with us, with me.

    • Mary Lisa,
      I love this! Thank you for sharing that you’re living your life this way. What a blessing and I’m so glad you’re cultivating this gift.

  2. Thanks Anne for this story & important reminder! For me, it’s what I’ll call non-structure structure… in other words, I need the regularity or structure of non-structured time and activities. It is the time spent on my daily walk through the woods, or time spent daydreaming that creates space for my creativity to come through. I recently read that both adults & kids today (ha ha) have so much “screen time” to prevent being bored (aka daydreaming) …. There’s a guy I often pass driving home from work who’s outside walking his dog (great!) while staring at his phone (every time) so I advocate for taking breaks to stare at the trees, go outside to feel the wind on your face and talk to your dog (or kids ha ha!)

  3. Thanks, Anne. This message comes at a good time for me. I grew up on the North Shore too. I did the whole New Trier thing where grades and extracurriculars were greatly emphasized, and often defining. I don’t consider myself to be a Type A person, and I have never felt a pull toward “more, faster, better,” but society’s values can certainly sneak up on us if we’re not careful.

    I went back to school 5 years ago and all of that came right back – that “forcing things to happen” and more is always better mentality engulfed me once again. I finished grad school last summer, and am working in my new field now. That full stop after graduation was a huge shock to my system, and I am smack dab in the process of trying to reorient and create a more balanced life for myself.

    Thanks for making me think more about structure. These days I am trying focus on the freedom that can come from living in the grey, and NOT being in control. I find I am often still struggling to unwind. The temptation to apply old mentalities to my new life is STRONG. Trying to shake things up by doing things in new and different ways is working. Making more space for self-care is helping. My goals are to let things unfold on their own as they are meant to, and to celebrate the process more than the results. Wish me luck!

    • Amazing Laura! There are certain atmospheres that seem to make it harder to stay slow and in flow, but having the awareness is so key. It’s so great you’re making more space for self-care and I celebrate you celebrating the process :) Thanks for the beautiful reminder!

  4. Wow, Anne I had a very similar experience growing up, too. I grew up on the West side of Chicago. What is it with the culture there? Anyway, I have been learning to practice gratitude, to enjoy the moment, the process, and the journey. To not be so tied to a particular outcome. To work hard, but not to use exhaustion as a status symbol. Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences!

    • Yes J. Russo, no more exhaustion as a status-symbol! I meet so many more people these days who do work in flowing way and it’s a beautiful thing to observe and bring into my own life. Thanks for the sharing your sense of gratitude and enjoyment!

  5. Oh boy. This arrived in my inbox just when I was ready to read it. Your words would have hit a brick wall just last week. I would’ve met them at the door of my mind with “im sure this is great but I really have too much to do right now to finish reading any one email. I need to read the next and the next and the next…” I am turning a corner. I have been trying to navigate it for a few days now. And your words just took me there. Thank you.

    Yesterday (and a month of days before that) I spent the day glued to my new computer. It was no longer crashing every ten minutes so I had to catch up. There seemed to be so much catching up to do. Today my daughter was home sick from school. So what to do? Keep trying to finish the unfunishable task? Or snuggle with my little girl who won’t be little much longer? Get to all those emails? Book all my shows for this summer? Or watch s movie about teenage mermaids and giggle about baby dinosaurs? I chose to lead with the beautiful stuff – my almost ten year old – and the rest fell into line behind. And got done.

    I chose joy. I thanks for reminding me I could.

  6. This is so beautiful Meghan! Thank you for your honesty. It’s so true. Time and time again, prioritizing the good stuff somehow allows everything else falls into place..It’s like an energetic law or something :) I’m so glad you got to giggle and snuggle with your daughter! I kept my littles home from school today for similar reasons so I can love them up after a super busy week for me. We are heading to a tree house! XO, A

  7. I’m so happy to hear that your life is now like a song. Your girls will have more space in their lives for imagination, intuition and music, too. My life was not as structured until the last two years of high school, when we began visiting colleges and became concerned about taking the SATs. After that life became more hectic: advanced placement exams in French to qualify for junior year abroad, a double major in preparation for a grant to grad school, the senior honor’s paper and written comprehensives. It was difficult to find time to write short stories and poems around the requirements. I’m happy to have had a quieter childhood and a boarding school that valued the inner life and creativity.

  8. Oh that’s so nice to hear that you had space until later in high school! I think once creativity and our inner life is cultivated, it can always be revisited later. I would love to see you again one of these days, share stories and have you meet our girls! What was your boarding school?

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