How changing my toothpaste got me to work toward daily change

Elephant Journal submission [update: published here, as “2 Morning rituals that did something better than change my life,” with modifications]:

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Morning view from my bedroom floor

We want change, but do we want the tiny, boring, almost unperceivable steps it takes to get there?

“The discipline you learn and the character you build from setting and achieving a goal can be more valuable than the achievement of the goal itself.” ~Bo Bennett

I’ve been living in Chile for almost a year and a half, and while my Spanish skills improved immensely, I could never get pulled in to a book in Spanish. There are some incredible Latin American authors and I wanted to hear their voices in original words…but constant dictionary pauses and the slow reading pace always overcame my patience. I’m not a great reader anyway, often in the middle of multiple books at the same time without finishing any or book binging on trips and then not having time to pick up a book again for weeks. It seemed like a formidable and unenjoyable challenge to push myself through a book in a foreign language.

However, I recently finished a 350 page novel by Isabel Allende, Retrato en Sepia or Portrait in Sepia. (Go me!) I cried multiple times, I laughed, I stayed up late reading, I got myself way too carsick reading this book. Allende is one of my favorite authors (I read her other books in English), but I attribute this accomplishment to something much more simple than her captivating writing: I changed my toothpaste.

A few months ago the artificial coloring of my toothpaste (since when is mint blue?) just didn’t make me feel like I was caring for my teeth enough. I’ve had sensitive and receding gum problems, as well as a constantly tight jaw and simply my mouth didn’t feel clean after brushing. I did my research and decided to make my own with two ingredients: baking soda and coconut oil.

At the same time I adopted the modified Bass brushing method and oil pulling with my extra coconut oil. Guided by Ayurvedic morning rituals, I also incorporated tongue scraping (before brushing) and drinking warm lemon water (after brushing). These changes happened almost at once, and the ritual took hold.

The time between waking and eating breakfast quickly became a golden hour of calm, awakening sacredness.

The routine brought about quiet time with myself that didn’t lend to typical time fillers (mindlessly scrolling through my phone, messaging with others, eating…). As I sat on my bed with the warm mug in my lap, I picked up Allende’s book and a scrap of paper. I creased the cover for the first time and began to read slowly. Every few moments I searched a new word to note down on paper, until my lemon water was sipped to a finish. Then I took a small spoonful of coconut oil and began to swish for up to 20 minutes.

Slowly, the glossary paper filled up, resigned to a bookmark, and the pages turned.

Reading an entire book stopped being about one large task, and turned into a short activity that lasted as long as my cup of warm water and oil pulling. And as a side benefit (in addition to whiter teeth), my gum health routine transformed into a journey of captivating historical fiction!

The moments reading on the bus or late at night were few compared to my morning ritual, without which I never would have committed to or finished the novel. Additionally, the book was divided into three parts, so it didn’t even have the typical motivation of reaching the end of a chapter during each reading session. It was simply time to spit out the coconut oil so I’d shut the book, feeling satisfied I sat still for so long and then move on with the rest of my day.

I realize now how I subtly broke a large goal into many mini goals, disguised as time fillers. Essentially, this is where real change happens. In the day-to-day.

It’s easy to see oneself in the future feeling accomplished and happy having achieved something big. We often imagine who and how we want to be in the future, but it’s harder to imagine what that change looks like because it’s a subtle step everyday.It’s more boring to think about than the reward, but this is exactly what can obstruct our path to our goals. We want to see big and fast change, and get frustrated when our small steps don’t seem to get there.

I’m grateful that I quickly began to enjoy the little, although slow, moments of change. The big task of reaching the last page was no longer the focus as I became enthralled with every single page.

As I open the cover to a new book (sad to say goodbye to the last one), I plan to incorporate more baby steps into my days. It’s clear to me now that writing and projects need daily care, like people or plants, not just occasional sporadic obsessiveness. I hope to link them to other self-care habits like midday stretching and cooking to facilitate more symbiotic incorporation into my life.

I wouldn’t say that my new toothpaste was life-changing, but—more importantly—it was certainly everyday-changing.


Related article (which I’ve bookmarked to remind myself again and again): You probably know to ask yourself, “What do I want?” Here’s a way better question

6.25.16, Family reunion, south of France

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Lacoste, Provence, France
Simply overwhelmed with gratitude. The sunlight hours and odd blue skies cast a dreamy haze over this lavender-infused trip. As we strolled through ancient ruins and limestone hill towns, the honoring of history was a common theme. Birthdays and anniversaries tinted our trip in the same way.
As a family, we are drawn to preserve our traditions. And as an individual I am moved as powerfully by an ancient towering aqueduct as by the love and spirits we propel by making family.
None of this existed not long ago, when grandma was just a dancer tapping her way through life. We’re so lucky to rediscover this magic again and again, as our history morphs and what was once everything we knew about each other becomes new again. The ruins are beautiful not because they once stood bold and intact, but because they tell a story and make us feel small yet significant against the backdrop of time.
Time is what cut this trip short before one more laugh or delightful meal. But time is what gave us this serendipitous window to join together before being thrust back into our own unique stories. So I only feel gratitude. For family and the places and people it takes us to.
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St. Remy de Provence, France