Thursday, July 26, 2007

Interim Report

It’s been 2-1/2 years now since we began our downsizing/simplicity journey. During this time, we have often been approached for advice by those who are considering starting their own journey. Usually these are seekers who find themselves in life circumstances similar to our own. They are parents whose children have left the nest, couples who feel the need to sell their large houses and move to smaller ones, and individuals who feel their years of acquisition have not brought them the happiness they had hoped, and who are looking for more peace and simplicity as they live out their remaining years.

After much thought, here are the lessons we have learned, and the advice we would give, looking back on our 2-1/2 years of change.

Something is worth only as much as someone will pay for it. This goes for a house, books, collections, furniture, and everything else you have accumulated for the last few decades. Usually the first thing you do when downsizing is try to sell a lot of your stuff. This may result in a great surprise, as you know what you paid for the items, and can become quite disappointed when you realize the great disparity between what you paid for something and what someone else is willing to pay for the item now. It doesn’t matter that you paid $50 for that book. If someone will only give you a quarter for it, that’s what it’s worth. The lesson from this? It’s a much better plan not to buy the stuff in the first place than to try to sell it once you have bought it. I know - easier said than done. The accumulation addiction usually wins. One way around this is to give away more things than you sell. The pleasant feeling you get from being generous is much more a boon to your attitude than dwelling on the unfortunate fact that you just sold a $50 book for a quarter.

When you start emptying your life of “things,” your first step is to determine your priorities. I knew, for instance, that my collection of quilt books was staying, if I had to stack them in corners up to the ceiling. I knew that my Lincoln books were staying, and also books that had been gifts to us. But every other book was on the bargaining table. That was one of the hardest things we have done - getting rid of hundreds of books. The only way we could stand it was to imagine that we were releasing them into the world to be enjoyed by others.

Some people have a hard time with this step. To be successful, you really have to rethink your idea of ownership. In truth, we own nothing. We are stewards, and we keep things for a while, then pass them on - to family, friends, and even strangers. When this mindset takes root, paring down your stuff gets much easier to tolerate.

Even when you manage to divest yourself of much of your possessions, your new home may still be smaller than you think you need, and you might wonder desperately what on earth you have done, and how will you ever cope in such a small space. At this point, it would be nice to have the magic beaded purse in the just-published Harry Potter book. It is described as a very small purse, but because it was magic, it could hold anything - tents, furniture, swords - anything. Alas, that’s only fiction. When we first decided on a house plan for our new smaller house, the whole family warned me that my designated sewing room/office was not big enough to hold all my fabric, much less all my fabric plus a big roll-top desk, ironing board, quilt books, sewing machine and serger. I insisted that everything would fit.

It didn’t, of course. But wait - we have a basement and attic!

Hold it - that’s another potential hazard in downsizing. You know how it works: If you pay off a credit card but keep using it, you will find your balance will work its way back to its former high number. In downsizing, you may actually be able to fit your newly trimmed-down possessions in your smaller living space, but if you have access to an attic and/or basement, diligent focus has to be maintained so you don’t abuse those spaces and end up with more stuff than you want in your life - again. It can happen insidiously, and you won't even realize it.

In our divesting of possessions, we found it was helpful to adhere to the goal of getting rid of everything that was not useful, meaningful, or beautiful. Keep things that you need and those that add beauty or significance to your life. The idea is not to live sparsely (although that can indeed be a valid purpose for some people), but the idea is to live abundantly on less. That takes extensive thought and planning and a lot of important decision-making. It also forces you to define the word “abundant” for yourself, expanding it to encompass more than a simple physical meaning.

We also received some surprises, of course. We were astonished to realize that we don’t miss TV much at all - which is amazing for a couple who used to sit down every night and watch TV for hours.

On the downside, a less welcome surprise is how slow dial-up Internet is, and how frustrating it can be. I would say that is my major irritation - making a dirt road, lack of a garage, weak cell phone signal, and other rural deprivations seem minor in comparison.

All in all, it has been a fulfilling experience for us, and we are very content. I highly recommend the challenge - and it is an ongoing challenge, never quite finished, because temptations to keep buying and acquiring will always be there. You might be able to take some steps toward simplicity if you still have children at home, but I imagine it is much harder to be successful at it in that scenario. I think, though, that at some point in the cycle of life, you might get an internal nudge that a major change is in order, and it is at that point, simplicity is calling. When the kids start college and/or move out on their own and/or get married and start their own families, then you might sense it’s time. When the house just seems too big or seems to demand too much upkeep or financial investment, you might sense it’s time. When you feel smothered by the stuff you have accumulated, you might sense it’s time. When you find items that you have purchased but never used, you might sense it’s time. When a certain birthday rolls around and you want to reexamine your life, you might sense it’s time. When you realize that you could start sharing some of your possessions, you might sense it’s time. When you become conscious of how much of earth’s resources we as a nation use compared to the rest of the world, you might sense it’s time. The time is different for everyone, but sooner or later, if the urge strikes and won’t let go, heed the call for quality over quantity. I guarantee you that eventually it will spill into other areas of your life, not just the things you own, but the food you eat, the time you spend, and the value you assign to everything and everyone in your life. It is then, whether through a sudden recognition or a gradual awareness, that you realize you have started what will undoubtedly be one of the most remarkable journeys of your life.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Game of Life

Going to bed every night is a wonderful adventure, because I never know what I’m going to dream. Dreams can be a valid reflection of one’s life, so I pay attention to mine. Sometimes my dreams are nonsensical, and might easily have been produced by Lewis Carroll, but other times they show great insight into my current life circumstances. Rarely do they suggest a plan of action, but they can make clear, as if I had looked into a mirror, what conundrums I am facing these days.

Because I can sleep late on Friday mornings, the beginning of my weekends, I have lots of chances to dream Thursday nights. I also usually have time to watch the news on TV and a DVD or two, so I have plenty of material to work with in my receptive brain to produce Freud-quality scripts.

Last night was such a night. We watched the local news (something we do only once a week because our TV rabbit-ears reception is poor on our one local channel) and in order to see the national news which followed it, I endured the sports segment. The only sports I was involved in when I was young were playing badminton in our front yard, occasional basketball in the driveway, and bouncing a ball off the roof of our house. Other than that, I watched my cousins play a few baseball games when we travelled to see them in Arkansas. I never did get “into” sports of any kind until our daughter became the first female football manager at her high school, and after quite persistent begging on her part, I finally agreed to attend her games. After Ed patiently explained what those guys were doing out there on the field, their challenges, their victories, their threats, and the rules of the game, I finally was able to understand a sport, and I truly enjoyed cheering them to the state championship.

So, having just read my limited history of sports experiences, you can understand how sitting through the sports segment on TV is grueling for me, unless it’s football season. Last night, I watched Tiger Woods (see, I know a few names!) hit a birdie, a boogie, a booger, or something like that (OK, I’m not too keen on the terms). I find golf an enigma. Then I saw Barry Bonds, I think it was, hitting some home runs on his way to beating the home run record of Hank Aaron. After the national news, I did some hand quilting and as I sharpened my chalk pencil, the lead broke, and as the pencil was already a stub, I threw it away. Before bed, I watched an Agatha Christie mystery featuring her detective Hercule Poirot, and all through the movie, the characters were talking about a cricket match which was occurring simultaneously to the investigation.

You can see, now, how many ideas my sleeping brain had to work with. It would be interesting to see how my dreams would materialize and what I would learn about myself.

My brain didn’t disappoint. Here’s the scenario: I was in a neighborhood with a big back yard and my cousins and sister and I were playing baseball. I was at bat. This was no ordinarily baseball game, though. In the first place, the balls were the size of large marbles. In the second place, my bat was a chalk pencil that had been sharpened down to half its size. In the third place, I was backed up to a piano so that every time I swung my arms, I hit the piano. This was not good.

Needless to say, I got nowhere. All of a sudden I found myself on the other side (no, not heaven - the other side of the game). I was supposed to catch the ball. I had no mitt, of course, and the ball went flying over my head into the next yard. As I ran to get the ball, I realized it had landed in a field of horses, and I decided to try to the get one of the horses to give me the ball. Then when I looked over the fence, I realized that field was about 20 feet lower than my present position, and there is no way a horse would be able to retrieve that ball and return it to me.

This was one of those dreams that reflected a life situation, while at the same time, doing nothing to reassure or give thoughts on rectifying the situation. In every scenario of the dream, I was asked to do, or wanted to do, or was expected to do - the impossible. And these expectations in my life usually come from within myself. I’m still quilting on a quilt that I wanted to give to my daughter and her husband five years ago. I have quilts waiting in the wings that I want to make for my son and his wife, plus the two grandchildren, at least before the latter grow up. I want to starting sewing clothes again. I have to fit my exercise in every day. I haven’t played the piano in weeks, and haven’t played the harp in days, and that only in passing. I have a list a mile long of things to do before our trip to Memphis in August. It’s the usual stuff. Too many interests, not enough time. My to-do list is impossible to do, given the time allotted. And Ed keeps reminding me that I need “downtime” just to relax.

My sister gave Ed a book called “101 Things To Do Before You Die,” a book I rewrite for myself every day, it seems. The list gets longer and the allotted time gets shorter. I’m no physics expert, but it looks like to me that that sets me up for as impossible a situation as in my dream last night.

The whole thing can be quite depressing, but I choose to look at it with a favorable attitude. I’m glad I have a list that encompasses exciting, interesting, or even mundane but necessary things to do. I am never bored. I have lots to look forward to. Every night is a dream adventure, and every day is another adventure waiting to happen. Fortunately, my life will not be judged on how much I accomplished on my “to do” list. I want my life to be evaluated rather on the beauty I can create in the time given me, kindness, compassion, joy, love, appreciation of the moment, spiritual awareness, and irreplaceable time with family and friends. Each day is a blank slate, and most of the time the highlight of my day is not something that had been written on my “to do” list.

I saw a deer crossing our dirt road on my way to work yesterday. She was in no hurry, and neither was I, so we looked at each other for a few minutes, one of us standing in the road, the other sitting in the car. Then she looked around in a wondering kind of way, probably thinking, “Now what was I doing? Oh yeah, crossing the road,” and she sauntered into a neighbor’s yard. I didn’t have to ask her to retrieve a ball, and she was not 20 feet below me. Sometimes dreams are fun, but if we stay aware, real life moments can be even better.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Message for Joy

About this time of year, I start seeing them - announcements of family reunions. Some of these families are huge, and have a grand time gathering hundreds of their relatives together, the logistics of which boggle my mind. I never can quite fully engage in a conversation when people are talking about their many uncles and aunts and cousins. My sister, Joy, and I only knew intimately one relative on our dad’s side - his mother- and she died when we were young.

Our mother had only one sibling, a brother, who went on to marry and raise 3 boys, our only cousins. Add to that our maternal grandparents and our great-aunt Bessie, and we could have held a family reunion in a fairly large closet.

Of course, Daddy and Mama had more distant relatives, cousins and such, but they usually seemed to us to be just acquaintances we’d hear about or meet occasionally, not people we really considered “family.”

As for me and my little sister, it was just the two of us, our age difference being just short of 2 years.

I’ve read that you’d better learn to get along with your sibling, because of all the people in your life, they will have known you the longest, longer than your parents (whom you will most likely outlive), longer than your spouse, and longer than your own children.

Joy and I didn’t have to learn to get along - we just did, most of the time. We were raised in an environment of no DVDs, no computers, no Nintendo, and a mother who didn’t work outside the home. Our companions consisted of a radio playing oldies music (not what we now consider oldies, but what our mom considered oldies), occasional TV (mostly on Saturday mornings), various cats, an injured “foster” wild bird, and a rooster named Mr. Fluff. We had loads of library books and whatever else we could find around the house to amuse us.

We were rarely bored. We built tents out of sheets on the clothesline. We played in the garage. We played dolls. We wrote and acted in our own plays. We created our own spy agency, initiating meetings and dues. We saved up and bought a bicycle to share. We played badminton in the front yard. We played jacks with Mama’s real rubber ball. We played Monopoly and gin rummy and checkers. We colored pictures in coloring books, then demanded that Mama grade them. We planned so well for the beloved annual family vacation trip that we made lists of what to pack months in advance. We lay in bed at night with our transistor radios under our pillows, listening to the latest pop music. We liked the same groups (The Monkees, Herman’s Hermits and Cowsills). We liked the same TV shows (Honey West, Wild Wild West, The Avengers). We both sang in the choir (she was an alto and I was a soprano). We both survived years of piano lessons with Miss Vuille.

We constantly rearranged our room. We always shared a room, and always shared one closet, so it was fortunate we got along.

Yet, as we grew, there were differences. We both took Home Economics in high school, with my falling in love with sewing and Joy finding it way too frustrating. She went on to graduate from college and get an advanced degree from Ole Miss; I could only tolerate one year of college before I was ready for something else. She moved to Washington, DC, for a while, and I stayed close to home. I married at age 19, and 4 years later had my first child. I am now enjoying the role of grandmother. Joy, on the other hand, lived an independent life after college for a few years, got married later, and started her family later, so she is now the mother of 2 teenagers (God bless her!). My interests developed into playing the pipe organ and harp, cross-stitching, and quilting. Her interests took her into gardening and woodworking. I can applique flowers, but she knows all their Latin names.

We were "the 4 Tiffins" for so long that when our Dad died, we put only 3 red roses on his casket, representing the 3 of us left. We were always a closeknit family, and, in our glorious childhood naivete, thought everyone else grew up in the same kind of environment, until we grew older and wiser and realized we had been so richly blessed.

“Sisters are different flowers from the same garden.” The author of this quote is unknown, but the idea rings true. Today is Joy’s 51st birthday, so, I guess, as of today we have known each other for 51 years. That seems like a long, long time. But it has been filled with love and laughter (LOTS of laughter!) and I am proud to call her my sister. Happy birthday, Joy! Here’s to many more years of sharing our lives!

Friday, July 06, 2007

It's a bet

I have never considered myself much of a gambler. I’ve bought a handful of lottery scratch tickets through the years ($1 each), mostly to put in Christmas stockings, but I’ve never been addicted to investing serious money in Megabucks or Powerball or anything like that. I know that some Mainers consistently and faithfully spend a lot of their hard-earned cash on the dream of winning big. I see them in the stores, many dressed shabbily, standing in line for their tickets, hoping that this time they will finally get the luck they deserve.

When we were still living in Tennessee, Ed and I attended Annual Conference, the local governing body of the United Methodist Church. I remember one year sitting in a huge sanctuary while the members (consisting of clergy and lay representatives) debated the problem of gambling. They knew that poor people who could least afford it were a major source of revenue for state lotteries, and they felt it was their Christian duty to pass an official church resolution condemning the lotteries and discouraging members’ participation in them. Ed and I, and maybe a few others with whom we were sitting, brought up amongst ourselves the topic of the stock market. Wasn’t that gambling? Many people have won and lost fortunes in the stock market. True, the odds are more in your favor than the odds of winning the lottery, but it seemed to us that it was still gambling in its own way, albeit a more socially acceptable form of gambling (in which, of course, the United Methodist Church had financial interests). The other difference, of course, is that the stock market has been a form of gambling for the wealthier people, and the lottery has been the mainstay of the poor.

I’m not trying to speak against or for the lottery, the race track, or the stock market. I have just been thinking about gambling the last few weeks, because I found myself right in the midst of it. I’m talking about gas prices.

I pass my preferred gas station on my way to work every morning, and they are one of these businesses that stays open all night, so at 4:00 a.m. it is lit up and ready to go. As I drive by, I always look at the price, illuminated as well, right by the street. Then I glance down at my dashboard gauge to see how much gas is left in my tank. If my gauge shows my tank is running under half, the gambling conversation begins in my head.

“It’s $2.98 a gallon today. Should I go ahead and fill up, gambling against the chance that it will be $3.00 tomorrow? Or should I wait instead, gambling on the fact that it will go down tomorrow?” It has happened both ways, you know. I’ve seen the price at $2.98, the next day it was $3.05, and folks filled up, thinking it was a rising trend, when the very next day, it was back down to $2.98! Gambling on gas prices is a daily occurrence in this country.

The conclusion, of course, is that we all gamble all our lives. We gamble when we get in a car that we won’t get in a wreck, thinking the necessity to drive the car outweighs the risk of getting injured or killed. We gamble if we get on a plane or other mode of transportation - same scenario. We gamble when we buy an appliance if we choose to buy or not buy the “3-year protection plan.” We gamble when we buy a house, sell a house, or move. We gamble if we change jobs. We gamble if we don’t back up our hard drives. We gamble on a choice of colleges or universities for us or our kids. Heck, we even take a huge gamble when we have kids at all - or choose a mate. I married Ed, an alcoholic, gambling on odds that he would eventually get sober (which took WAY longer than I had imagined, but the gamble paid off in 1984).

We have whole industries based on gambling - they’re called insurance companies. Reader’s Digest printed a timely observation a few years ago, which said something like this: “The life insurance company is betting you don’t die soon. You’re betting you do. You hope they win, and you’re paying them to think that way!”

I know those poor people can’t afford those lottery tickets. I know gambling can be a debilitating addiction. But I see how those poor people live, and they’re not really gambling; they’re just buying hope. I don’t know if they realize the calculations that say the odds are enormously against them, but I think they must know that already, in a myriad of ways. They’re used to the odds being against them. The hope of winning the lottery is the only hope they have for a better future, at least from their perspective. Sad, but true.

One definition of gambling is “an enterprise undertaken or attempted with a risk of loss and a chance of profit or success.” That certainly sounds to me like a definition of life - for all of us.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Another mysteryof the universe

We have now lived in our new house for over 6 months. Why is it that our health insurance company, whom I have notified twice of our change of address, still sends mail to our old house, whereas the junk mail and useless catalogs, which I had hoped we had left behind, have found our new address in spite of everything?