Monday, May 30, 2005

Simplicity versus kids

I have come to the conclusion you cannot have true peace, contentment, and simplicity if you have children. I'm trying valiantly to let go of my fears; in fact, my e-mail meditation was on that very subject today. What fears are involved in striving for simplicity?

In the first place, we have always tended to hoard. Why? Because we might need it someday!
Aha! Fear of being in want. This is true of my collection of quilt books as it is of my collection of rubber bands and clothes that no longer fit. I can't count the times Ed has told me, "I gave away that jacket two years ago and now I could sure use it." He then tends to want to replace the object, which, of course, defeats the whole purpose of paring down. We are trying to face this specific fear and transcend it.

Fear is closely connected to worry. Now here is where the kids come into the story! I worry about their relationships, their finances, their jobs. I worry about whether they are making the right decisions. I worry about their being involved in a car wreck. I worry about their health, their eating habits, their exercise habits, if they are seeing the doctor and dentist on a timely basis. I worry how loss will affect them, how grief will strike them. I worry that they will move far, far away and I won't get to see them....(Yes, Matt, this is about you, you West Coast dreamer!)

I just have two kids. I wonder if someone has, say, five kids, is their worry compounded? Or maybe my 2-kid worries stretch to fill the available "worry space"?

Then there's the idea of shopping. Buying and accumulating more is against everything we are trying to do for ourselves right now as we are downsizing. But the key words here are for ourselves. There's always a loophole in life, right? And I am the first one to take advantage of a loophole as fast as I take advantage of a cute denim pair of overalls with flower embroidery - on sale - in Caroline's size. I can (fairly easily) restrict things I buy for myself. But my kids and their spouses and especially my 2-year-old Caroline - that's where it gets hard.

My point is that once you have children, you have to work extra hard on simplifying, and I am not even sure it's possible to simplify as successfully as one could simplify without children.

My mother, of course, has mastered the art of simplifying for herself but not for her family. She will joyfully shop at the Goodwill for herself and send me an outfit from LL Bean for my birthday.

I remember that when Ed and I were in Weight Watchers once, some of the women were bemoaning the fact that their houses were filled with treats and it was too tempting for them to resist. The leader asked, "Why are there treats in the house?" One woman's answer underscored what I am trying to say here. She said, "Just because I'm on a diet, I shouldn't punish the children!" I remember at this point Ed turned to me and whispered, "So what is she teaching the children? To grow up as heavy as she is?"

Somewhere in my attempt to rein in my spending (and my effort to consider carefully what purchases I make) I must ask myself if my joy in showering Caroline with gifts may in effect be teaching her that "things" mean "happiness" and that "more things" mean "more happiness." She only a little girl, though! And most of what I buy consists of books - we all know how important those are.

{Sigh} Life is too complicated. Now I have to end here, because I have to get ready to celebrate the 27th birthday of our firstborn! I also have a little surprise gift for Sarah, and I got these cute Caillou books for Caroline...

Saturday, May 28, 2005

That's a bunch of garbage!

It is a proven fact that the majority of people who decide to change their lives by living more simply also get more interested in the care and preservation of our environment. That has indeed happened to us. For instance, we bought canvas bags and now use those in the grocery instead of the plastic bags or paper sacks. We already recycle, even though our local town does not do anything, unfortunately, to encourage this practice.

For awhile, however, I have been considering the waste we generate, as a family and as a society. To illustrate: Today Ed and I ate at Wendy's for lunch. He got a combo meal with baked potato and I got a kid's meal and a small Frosty. Between the two of us, here's the waste we generated:
  1. 10 napkins (half unused)
  2. 3 plastic cups
  3. 3 plastic cup lids
  4. 2 straws
  5. 2 foil burger wrappers
  6. 1 small french fry cardboard container
  7. 1 kid's meal sack
  8. 2 spoons
  9. 2 sour cream containers
  10. 1 baked potato plastic container
  11. 2 straw papers
  12. 1 salt packet
  13. 2 paper tray liners
  14. 2 catsup miniature paper cups
That was just for us - 2 people. I then counted the other people eating in the restaurant. There were 30. Assuming each person had as much waste generation as each of us, it was easy to imagine the amount of trash this group of people generated. But that was just in 30 minutes. Now multiply that by the number of customers at Wendy's in our town today alone. Then multiply that by the Burger King customers, the McDonald's customers, the KFC customers, and every other fast food joint who served meals today in Ellsworth. Then multiply that to encompass the state of Maine - just for today. Then multiply that to encompass every fast food joint in the country today, then the world. And that's just for one day! It is totally incomprehensible to me how much trash that results day after day after day - just from fast food restaurants.

I felt so guilty about the waste. Then I read this:

In the world today more than 2 billion humans are now malnourished, and this is the largest number of hungry humans ever recorded in history (Neisheim, 1993; Bouis, 1995; World Health Organization, 1995)! Conceivably the numbers of malnourished will reach 3 to 5 billion in future decades.
I throw so much trash away without a second thought, and my belly is full. Suddenly I remembered a bumper sticker I saw once: Live simply, so others may simply live.

Living a life of simplicity, with integrity, is always expanded to include choices of how we spend our time, our money, our energy, the earth's resources, and yes, even whether we grab a handful of napkins at Wendy's and only use 5, or whether we only take the number of napkins we actually will use. Tiny decisions, global effects.

For those who are interested in some good tips on environmental responsibility, this is a good site:

Maybe Ed's not so crazy after all

Back in high school, a friend gave me a copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It was a very popular book back then. (I hope I kept it when we gave away so many books!)

I just had to share the the daily meditation message I received in my e-mail today, as the quote is from that book. It reinforces Ed's desire to have a Timeless Room:

And the astronomer said, Master, what of Time? And he answered:
You would measure time the measureless and the immeasurable. You would adjust your conduct and even direct the course of your spirit according to hours and seasons. Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch its flowing. Yet the timeless in you is aware of life's timelessness, and knows that yesterday is but today's memory and tomorrow is today's dream. And, that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space....

Kahlil Gibran
The Prophet

The people who send out these daily meditations always make an interpretive comment about the selected passage of the day. Here is what they said:

Time is an imaginary line, drawn by imaginary beings, to note their imaginary position. All that ever has been, or ever will be, is right here, right now, in this timeless moment.

The originators of the daily e-mail are Bert and Christina Carson, and their web site is

A free subscription to the daily e-mail can be obtained here:

Their meditations are always thought-provoking and provide a brief moment of tranquillity at the beginning of my day. I believe they have an impact on my journey to simplicity, if only to focus myself on the direction I am trying to take.

As far as Ed being not so crazy....well, in this he's pretty smart. In other things...I take the fifth!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Family Forever

When we moved from Tennessee to Maine, it was a major ordeal to coordinate. We were moving three cars as well as all our possessions. In my experience, moving has not been fun. In fact, moving is something I dreaded whenever Ed was assigned a new church. When we decided to move to Maine, I made Ed promise me that we would never move again! Content in our eternal housing stability, it didn't take us long to fill up this 3-story house with stuff, more stuff, and even more stuff. It didn't matter - we'd never move again!

Alas, fate intervened. Rachel got married and left. Matt is getting married and has left. We looked around us and agreed that it's time to find a small, cozy home for us old folks.

How on earth did we not think this would happen? We knew our house was huge, and we realized our kids would grow up and move out - at least we realized it on a subconscious level. It was more comfortable (but definitely not realistic) to imagine that it would always be the four of us - because as much as I enjoy seeing my kids fall in love and get married, it is a major source of loss for me. I miss them.

We four have had so much fun in this house! Matt used to play basketball in the driveway. Once he had his whole class over after a school play in which he was narrator. We still laugh about the time he was downstairs and saw a girl walking on the railroad tracks and ran up to his room to get a better view, hopped right up on the windowseat and ran smack dab into the window frame. Ed told him even though his nose may hurt, at least he didn't run into the window pane and fall into the yard two stories down. Matt and I stayed up countless nights reading Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby and The Jungle and Heart of Darkness. This house is where he recuperated from grueling jobs at Dunkin' Donuts and the grocery store. This is where he held his LAN parties - with computer cords snaking everywhere, even up to the third floor. This is where Matt finally grew taller than me. The pencil marks are still on the wall beside the sewing room door.

This house was a respite for Rachel, too. She was away in the dorms in Orono for most of our time here, but when she experienced stress with the College of Education at the university, it was here she could talk about it with us and sometimes cry. It was in this house that she watched countless football games on TV (along with Beverly Hills 90210). Here she played with her beloved Rusty dog, laughing when he climbed up on the couch to get a better view of a cat outside the window.

It was in this kitchen that Rachel proudly presented her new boyfriend, Chris, and I got to shake his hand for the second time (the first time was school open house years ago when he was Matt's science teacher). It was in our Timeless Room that Sarah and Matt excitedly told us their engagement news, after they returned from Schoodic Point where he proposed.

And it was here we continued the traditions for family Christmas. It may sound monotonous to outsiders, but these little rituals are what I will probably miss most. Daddy helps with lights, then leaves the rest to us until it's time for the angel on top. We have the annual argument of whether to use tinsel (Daddy likes it, Mama and kids don't). As we lift each ornament, we reminisce on its significance. Then we have another disagreement over the cardinals. Daddy thinks they are too old and disheveled and need to be thrown away. The kids absolutely adore those little birds and don't care how they look. So the birds manage to perch on the branches, slightly askew. We have another bird that is not a cardinal, and all its feathers have fallen off. The kids insist on its staying too. We humor them. The naked bird never stays upright. It ends up upside down within a few hours. Then before we open presents on Christmas Eve, we have to eat our special dinner of chili, cheese, and hard rolls. Rachel hates chili, but still insists on having it because it's tradition. She takes a few token bites. Of course, that's OK because on New Year's Day we have cabbage or greens and blackeyed peas and cornbread - a meal Matt hates.

I guess I can find consolation in the fact that these traditions started when the children were very young, and I know they will continue in our new house, and their houses as well, as they blend old traditions with the new.

Yes, we knew the children would grow up and move on, but having it actually happen catches us by surprise, in a way. They are our two important treasures. I hope their spouses realize how much we trust them to take care of our Rachel and Matt. I know Chris and Sarah are up to the challenge.

We will always be family. The family is just getting bigger. Now the house is ready for a new family to move in and start making memories. And Ed has promised me, that after this move, we will never move again!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Precious Dandelions

I don't know about the rest of the country, but it has rained here almost nonstop for over a week, and we are all pretty tired of it. I looked out the window the other day and saw the telltale signs - a yard covered with dandelions. Ed hadn't been able to mow the grass, and I was getting impatient. When we put the house on the market, I talked to Ed (OK, nagged Ed) about the importance of mowing the lawn. He hates to mow the lawn, and I can understand that. We have hills and slopes and rocks and sticks and bees and everything to make lawn mowing unpalatable, but with a "for sale" sign in the front yard, the lawn just has to be mowed on a regular basis now! And here he had the best, most valid excuse of all - it had rained and rained and rained.

I did notice how pretty the tulips and daffodils were, so many colors, so many shades. They are really gorgeous.

But those dandelions were everywhere. I think they were mocking me.

The next day 2-year-old Caroline came to visit. I was ecstatic that the rain decided to take a break and the sun was shining for a little while, and Caroline, as always, wanted to go outside and walk around the yard.

I said, "Look at all the pretty flowers!" Her eyes got big. "Yellow flowers!" she said.
"Yes," I said, "and pink, and orange, and red..." She immediately reached for a dandelion.
She pulled one up and clutched it tightly. I steered her toward the tulips. "These are tulips," I told her. "See how pretty the red colors are?" Caroline was not interested. She went back to the dandelions and plucked another one. And another one. My attempts to show my granddaughter the real flowers were met with only a cursory attention. She only had eyes for the little yellow, common, utterly irritating dandelions. I walked all over the yard with her while she toddled from one group of weeds to another, and her bouquet was getting fuller by the minute.

Finally she had plucked all her little hand could hold, and we started back to the house. Of course, as soon as she picks them she gives them away. One for Grammy, one for Pappy, one for Mama, even one for the dog. She presents her gifts as if they were the rarest orchids in the world - because to her, they are.

I receive an inspirational message by e-mail every day, and the one today made me think of Caroline and her precious dandelions. Here is what it said:

What a dawning appears to the man or woman who earnestly inquires, "Who is living life for me? Am I really thinking for myself or am I unknowingly projecting acquired ideas which may be all wrong?"

Vernon Howard

Why do I value the tulips over the dandelions? I guess society has taught me that dandelions are weeds (OK, my Dad may have had a hand in this idea - he was the weed expert!) which are inferior and tulips are real flowers and thus superior. I have never questioned that assumption. Why did Caroline go for the dandelions? Maybe because she had never seen a TV commercial touting tulips over dandelions, she had never opened a magazine article explaining which flowers were more important or more beautiful, she had never polled the neighbors to see which flower was more preferred. She just saw them, thought they were worthy of obtaining and worthy of giving to the people who mattered most to her.

In my quest for simplicity, when I make decisions over what is truly important to me, I will try to ignore what society might think is important. We tend to accumulate things based on what we have been told is important (it might be the biggest house, or car, or swimming pool, or the "right" designer clothes, or the highest salaried job) and rarely consider the fact that our inner spirit is leading us in a direction where choices are made on a deeper level and come from the inside and not the outside.

I look at Caroline in a different light now. I look at her as my teacher.

Thanks, Caroline. Love, Grammy.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Time and Silence

Time has always fascinated me. One of my favorite books is The Mirror, which is a novel about a young woman looking in her grandmother's mirror and being suddenly transported to her grandmother's body when her grandmother was a young woman. Time travel exchange. So intriguing! My mom is turning 82 years old. My dad died when he was 64. My mom has always been 8 years younger than my dad, and for years now she has been older than he ever was.

Ed says our mistake is in how we think of time - as linear. Even the word timeline denotes a linear route. I used to love to look at history books at the chronological timeline, seeing that first this happened, then this happened, then this happened. What I never thought about was expanding the timeline another direction. OK, so Columbus sailed in 1492 - what was happening in China then? Or Africa? I would love to take one year in history and find out what was happening everywhere in the world - in science, politics, religion, romance, literature, etc. To see the whole picture.

I know part of the simplicity idea is to be still and reflect on our lives and priorities and relationships. It is so hard for me to be still. Ed says I've always been that way. I have to be doing something. I watch TV and then I read during the commercials. He says I have to be still and listen to my inner voice. I tell him it just means I value time so much I don't want to waste it. He says my idea of wasting time is not a waste. Being still and doing nothing relaxes the spirit and revives the soul and gives me "time" outside the physical realm to reconnect my spirit with God.

It's hard for me to be still and do nothing. My mind keeps busy thinking of things I need to be doing.

When we had our downstairs repainted last year, we had to take out everything in the rooms, obviously, including everything on the wall. That included all the clocks. After the painting was completed, we put back everything - except we later realized we had neglected to put back a clock in our fireplace room. I kept nagging Ed to hang back the clock, and he balked. We finally left it without a clock, and we call it "The Timeless Room." It is supposed to be a relaxing area where you are forced to be without a clock (which is a reminder of time itself). I have to admit that sometimes I am little uncomfortable in that room. Oh, the chairs are comfy and in the chill it is heavenly to sit in front of the wood stove, but something makes me slightly jittery about not knowing what time it is.

Ed is the opposite. He'd be late to appointments if it weren't for me, sometimes, because he has no idea of time and doesn't really care. He wishes we had no time. He really hates daylight savings time going on and off, "as if we could make more daylight!" he says. Probably some of his anxiety comes from timed tests he has had to take all his life, which he never took well.

One day at work I found myself getting too stressed and I forced myself to stop typing and sit still and listen. It was a day I was by myself, so the only noise I heard was the ticking of my wall clock. As you can imagine, that stressed me more. Who was the comic book character that always said, "Time's a'wastin'!" That clock is ticking away and those seconds are gone forever. What did I accomplish in the last hour? The last day? The last week or month or year? When I think on those questions, I can even feel my heart beating faster! Those are anxiety-provoking questions for me.

This is definitely a lesson I have to learn if I want to bring simplicity and peace to my life. I have to make friends with time, that mysterious entity whose power seems to determine my outlook and increase my stress - in essence, it has set itself up as ruler of my life. The odd thing is that if I value time fully, how I use it should bring me a sense of peace and contentment, not panic.

Ed and I decided we need a "Timeless Room" in our new house too.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Matthew 12, excerpt:
What happens when an evil spirit comes out of a man? It goes through dry areas looking for a place to rest. But it doesn't find it. 44Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives there, it finds the house empty. The house has been swept clean and put in order. 45Then the evil spirit goes and takes with it seven other spirits more evil than itself. They go in and live there. That man is worse off than before.

OK, the above verse is talking demons but I find it strangely familiar. I think cleaning and uncluttering your house is getting rid of demons in a way, demonic mess that screws up your life, sucks your energy, time, and money until you are a weak, wimpy, useless shell.

I was thinking about that verse this week. I went on to order a couple of books for my grandchild, and the demons reared up. "Look at all the new books out! Think of all the room you have now that you've cleared out your house! Lots of room for lots of new books! Read! Buy! Spend!" And when I sit down with the Eddie Bauer catalog, the little demons pop out of there too, "Hey, look, since you gave away all those clothes to the Goodwill, look how much room you have in your closet! It's time to build your wardrobe back again! Buy! Order! It's on sale!"

Those who aim to simplify need to take these demons into account. They will try to get back in your house and will bring their friends with them. This is just a friendly warning. Get some earplugs. You're going to need them.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

I want to be the boss

I've come to the conclusion that the more control you have over your own life, the less stressful it will be.

Take, for instance, heating oil. Here in New England the price goes up, up, up. Now with automobile gas, you can just choose to drive less, but you have to have heat. The oil company brings the oil to your house and they tell you how much you will pay. You can't barter, you can't "talk them down." It's whatever they're charging and that's it. We have a contract with an oil company and they come every so often and fill up the tank. We don't even know the current price until we get the bill in the mail the next day. That's stressful.

That's why Ed and I want to be as independent as possible. The more you depend on others to do something, the more control you give away. I guess I'm one of these people that they talk about when they say, "If you want it done right, do it yourself." Not that I can do it right, but at least I know to show up on time, what deadlines are, how important a certain task is, etc. (I'm thinking now of a cleaning lady who cleaned our kitchen recently and was supposed to come back in 3 days to clean a laundry sink - never showed, never called, never heard from again.)

Specifically with heating, Ed can buy the wood, saw the wood, split the wood, and store the wood. Unless, God forbid, he had an accident or something, our heating with wood is pretty much dependent on Ed himself doing his job (which he does). For the same reason, when we move we want to get a generator and not depend on the electric company to keep things going in the event of an ice storm or something like that. Self-reliance.

I figure there are two keys to keeping your life as stress-free as possible. The first is my favorite prayer, the Serenity Prayer, which is familiar to most everyone. Change the things you can, accept the things you can't change, and having the wisdom to know the difference. I can't change the price of heating oil, but I can certainly move to a small, cozy house that can be heated almost totally with wood.

The second key came from my friend Sally, and before her from Viktor Frankl in his book Man's Search for Meaning. Sally and I are medical transcriptionists and we "met" on an MT site, finally got to meet in person for a few days, and now "meet" again on the web. A question was asked on the site about how to deal with difficult dictators. Here is what Sally wrote:
When I get a dictator that is difficult for me, I always try to put myself in his/her shoes. Often I can hear in their voice that they are tired, rushed, frustrated, puzzled, concerned, happy, sad, or even if they just don't feel well. Sometimes, that alone helps me to "hear" better. I have even prayed for them. Theirs is not an easy job.

I can't repeat one sentence of dictation even at regular speed without tripping over my tongue. I don't know how they manage to get it out at the speed of light.

That second step for me is found in her quote. It is attitude. Sally has a remarkable attitude toward dealing with difficult dictators. She becomes empathetic and relates to them on a different, more personal level. The same theme was written by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. His book details what he learned from those horrible experiences. Here is what he had to say:

Everything can be taken from a man but ...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
So if we control the things we can (trying to simplify our lives and making decisions that enhance this goal), accept the things we can't control (having an accepting, peace-filled attitude), and really pay attention to the difference between to two (wisdom), we will be so much better off!

The use of the Serenity Prayer and its corresponding attitude adjustment can affect all areas of our lives - from eating to finances to how we spend our time and energy. Oh, I have so much more growing to do!