Friday, November 30, 2007

You've got mail

In most ways, the family I grew up in was a traditional post World War II family. Our dad worked as a bank teller, and our mom stayed home and took care of the house. We didn’t have a lot of possessions, but what we did have was appreciated, and we lived a life of true abundance in the areas that mattered.

There was one aspect to our life, however, that differed from other families we knew. Our dad was the one who chose, signed, and addressed the Christmas cards. In most families, this task usually fell to the woman of the household, but not in ours. This was not a chore to him; it was pure pleasure. It started with picking out the card he wanted. Now, this seems like it should be a relatively easy task. Most Christmas cards are functional, decorative, and suitable for the occasion. But Daddy had to have an extraordinary card. It had to be extra-special, because it had to have A MESSAGE. It just had to. No “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” for him - oh, no. His cards were more like little booklets, several pages long, with some sort of story reminding everyone of the true meaning of Christmas. He liked stories that gave the recipients pause in the busy holiday season, a story that they could read and meditate on. These cards, as you can image, usually had to be mail-ordered. You could not find these cards in Walgreen’s.

I always thought his choice was kind of strange. After all, what was wrong with regular Christmas cards? We got lots of regular type cards in the mail at our house, lovely cards with sparkles on them, or shiny foil, with pictures of heavily adorned Christmas trees and yummy candy canes and whimsical snowmen. Their messages were terse - “Happy Holidays From Our House to Yours,” for instance - and they were perfectly wonderful cards.

My sister and I were usually the first to get the mail if we were home, and we would always go through the Christmas cards with anticipation. It was the unspoken rule in our house that we could open cards addressed to our parents if it also had “and Family” or “and Girls,” or, sometimes, our actual names. If the envelope was just addressed to our parents, it waited until Daddy got home from work. As each card was opened and oohed and ahed over, we taped it up to a door to join the others. We had to hang all the cards at an angle so they would stay closed until we decided to open them again.

Fortunately, we hardly ever received a booklet card like the ones Daddy sent. They would have been very hard to tape to the door.

I never could understand why Daddy had to make a big fuss over sending a drab card without sparkles, without candy canes, and filled up with a lot of boring printing. Now that I am grown, however, I can appreciate his insistence. Sitting down with pen and cards and stamps, he himself found the time in his busy life to write to friends and relatives, sending his personal messages on his spiritually provocative booklet cards, and therein he knew lay the true Christmas spirit. He knew he was giving a great gift - an opportunity for the recipients to reflect on the birth of Jesus, not as a one-time historical event, but as a continual presence in their lives, offering its wisdom and tolerance and compassion.

I’m creating our Christmas letters and addressing envelopes and buying stamps this week. As I go through each name, I see them in my mind’s eye, wondering how they are doing, thinking of our shared memories, both joyful and sad, and as I enclose our current family Christmas picture, I feel I am sending some Christmas love their way. I don’t have a booklet card, and my envelopes are printed on the computer, but I’m sending out Christmas spirit and love in every envelope. After all, I learned from the master.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

From Dry to Sober

As most of you know, my husband, Ed, is a recovering alcoholic (sober since 1984). When I married him, I had no experience with alcoholics, and I just thought if he had a stable, happy home life, he wouldn’t need alcohol anymore. Well, the next 10 years taught me otherwise, and during that time I learned almost everything there was to know about alcoholism (and so did he). One of his favorite lessons to cite is the difference between being “dry” and being “sober.” “People mistakenly use these word interchangeably,” he notes. “Being dry,” he says, “is truly hell on earth. When you’re dry, you are abstinent from alcohol, but you wake up every morning wanting it. When you’re sober, you’re still not drinking, but you're at peace because you’ve totally lost the desire for alcohol.” His empathy is reserved most for those poor, unfortunate folks for whom every day without alcohol is a struggle.

When Ed was a few years into sobriety, Rachel would position herself in front of the TV whenever a beer commercial came on so her dad wouldn’t be tempted. Ed would just laugh. He tried to explain to her that there was no internal fight anymore - no temptation, no craving, no desire. He had learned that he had been using alcohol to numb emotional pain, and after he learned how to heal, he didn’t need it or want it anymore. He will be forever labeled as as a “recovering” alcoholic, not a “recovered” alcoholic; hence, his license plate says “HEALING,” not “HEALED.” But the hold alcohol had on him for all his adult life until 1984 had virtually and completely disappeared. He was not dry; he was truly sober.

That wisdom has lain heavily on my mind this week, the week of Black Friday, the first official week of the frantic Christmas-shopping season of 2007. I don’t even need to consult a calendar to know what week this is; the flyers in the newspaper and the mountain of catalogs in the mail serve as inescapable clues. Two Christmas-shopping seasons ago, we were desperately trying to sell our house. Last Christmas-shopping season, we were in the middle of building this house and living out of town with Rachel and her family. This is actually the first Christmas-shopping season that we have been unencumbered with house-selling anxiety or house-building anxiety. It is the first time we have been able to calmly reflect on where we are in our simplicity journey and where we want to be - and even how far we have come - in the midst of all the advertising, sales, priority topplers, and financial hazards inherent in this season.

We don’t watch much TV anymore, so we’re immune to those commercials, but we do get a daily newspaper and a few magazines, and, of course, that aforementioned mail avalanche of catalogs, and we do go to the mall occasionally and the grocery store every few days, so we know it’s Christmas-shopping season and we are aware of what’s out there, what’s new, what’s enticing, so we are not wholly unaffected. I have found myself drooling over the new digital cameras, amazed at how inexpensive they are (for many more megapixels than my current camera has), and there are a few DVDs I would enjoy owning, and quilt paraphernalia is always tempting, but even as I let these feelings pass over me, I note awareness of them and let them go. I then put the paper down and head back to my office/sewing room, where I am attempting to make most of my gifts this year - a time-consuming and frequently anxiety-ridden process for those of us who are both procrastinators and perfectionists - that deadly personality combination.

My conclusion is that it may be a long stretch of time for me to travel the simplicity journey from “dry” to “sober,” and that’s OK. It’s impossible to put blinders on with this surrounding consumerism furor, and it’s just the truth to acknowledge that certain things would be enjoyable to have or be useful in my work and hobbies.

Meditation techniques usually instruct the practitioner that, when thoughts intrude during the relaxation time, the best course of action is to silently acknowledge them, then let them go. In the simplicity journey, I am trying to acknowledge these tempting ways to spend money and let them go, looking forward to the time when I move from “dry” to “sober,” knowing that it’s a long trip with many stages. It is one thing to state your priorities, yet wake up every morning desperately wishing you could buy the latest gadget. It is another thing to state your priorities, and actually feel more content and happy without so much “stuff.” I’m sure that day will come.

In the meantime, back to my homemade gifts. Hey - no peeking!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pasta Buffet

My mother astounded me the other night. She said that in her 84 years of life, she had never heard of throwing spaghetti noodles on the wall to determine whether or not they were al dente. She almost didn’t believe that such a technique existed. Surely most of you have heard of it. You cook the noodles for a certain length of time, then to check if they are ready, you throw one onto the wall (or ceiling, in some cases!) and if it sticks, then all the noodles in the pot have reached the perfect texture. There are people who swear by this method and other people who scoff at it. I personally don’t care about its efficacy, but since Mom and I weren’t really talking about cooking techniques, it didn’t matter. We were discussing my looming Certified Medical Transcriptionist exam, and I was using the pasta as a metaphor.

I told my mother that after months of intensive studying, which got more concentrated as the date of the exam neared, I finally felt that my brain was no longer holding onto any more information. Especially the day before the test, I felt as if I were throwing spaghetti noodles on the wall in a desperate attempt to “learn” as much as I could as fast as I could, and even as I knew most of the noodles were falling immediately, I was hoping fervently that some of them would stick, at least for another 24 hours.

Well, my test is over, and I am happy to report that I passed. However, in retrospect, I was studying spaghetti and ended up being tested on macaroni. You may not think that would make much of a difference. After all, they are both pasta. Yes, that’s true, but they have different uses and go with different sauces. I found it quite intriguing that nothing I studied the day before the exam was on the test. None of it. Zip. I did indeed have some of the spaghetti adhere to the wall of my brain, but the meal was, alas, macaroni, very little of which I had prepared.

Nonetheless, I did pass, although I think that victory was due more to my 11 years of experience as a transcriptionist than my rigorous study. And I have reasserted my belief that, given the test’s authority to ask any question related to the medical field - in addition to grammar and medicolegal issues - I was lucky the test was just macaroni and not something from a separate food group altogether. It does give another meaning, though, to “using one’s noodle.”

Oh, well. I’m very excited with the result, and, with my time and energy now freed, my focus on the journey to simplicity can resume once again. By the way, I am now in the process of emptying all the information I temporarily stored. If anybody needs a great way to memorize medication suffixes, I’m your lady. Maybe you’ll get more use out of it than I did. Everyone pass your plate - there’s enough here for all of us!

Friday, November 09, 2007

From Cells to Stars

I have been acutely aware ever since the VIVmag article came out that one of my featured quotes was this: “I miss having an enclosed two-car garage, but I’ve learned to scrape ice and snow without too much complaining.” Of course, it’s November again and my quote is coming back to haunt me.

However, I will say that the times I have had to scrape the frost off the car are the very same times that the night sky is cloudless and clear, and the stars are not only visible but stunning. How can I complain about a little scraping and cold weather when the view is so extraordinary? (I would say “out of this world,” but miraculously it is indeed in this world.) The fact that we live in a rural-type area where there are no street lights to mar the scene just enhances the effect.

On my drive to work after one such morning this week, I reflected on my ironic situation. For the seemingly endless stretch of time that I have been preparing for my CMT test, I’ve been studying some of the smallest things in the universe - cells, nerves, tendons, blood particles - even some “invisible” things like x-rays and MRIs and disease processes and hormones - and in the midst of all this information reverberating in my brain, I have had opportunities to gaze upon some of the things on the other end of the size spectrum - the planets and stars and that huge expanse of space. The things on one end are just as wondrous to me as the things on the other end. And all these objects, for the majority of the time, seem to function well in their assigned roles day in and day out, with probably not a lot of attention from us concerning any of it. Most of us go through years of our heart beating over and over without giving it a second thought, and we assume the sun will come up tomorrow morning just as it has for millions of years.

Those who are trying to simplify their lives usually state a common goal - that of the ability to enjoy the present moment. These are the moments I cherish. Whether it’s watching a twinkle in the sky, or feeling a heartbeat, it’s all still miraculous to me.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A little publicity

I always get introspective this time of year. For one thing, it’s about time to write our annual Christmas letter to family and friends, and this requires me to sit down with a nice cup of hot tea and a heated blanket (yes, it’s winter in Maine) to ruminate on the year’s events. Halloween also marked a year since we moved out of our Victorian house and, at that time, temporarily into our daughter’s home until December 23, 2006, when we finally moved into our present small house. We have therefore had a year of great adjustment.

I have another reason for the introspection today, though. The article in VIVmag that features me along with three other women came out yesterday (“Inconspicuous Consumption, VIVmag Nov/Dec issue online only at, and I must say I am shocked. I had assumed the three other women would be as ordinary and average as I am, but instead they are three accomplished women, one who has started her own company and two who have recently published books! I don’t consider my personal achievements are worthy of inclusion, but I am honored to be mentioned in the same article.

“Celebrity” or not, I guess when it comes to trying to simplify, we’re all in the same boat. We make the same kinds of sacrifices for the same kinds of reasons, and we all try to emerge from the attempt with some increased assurance that we are making a difference in at least a small way.

Ed keeps telling me that I need to bring my blog back totally to posting about our struggle with simplicity and downsizing. He claims that I tend to go off on tangents about other subjects. In a way, this is true. However, in my defense, this “simplicity” movement encompasses our whole lives in myriad ways. It’s hard to isolate.

You may remember my mentioning that as I study for my Certified Medical Transcriptionist test, I am realizing that the body is an integrated unit - no organ stands alone, no system stands alone, and as much as I try to focus on definitive study to one area or organ, it is virtually impossible, for try as I might to isolate my study, another area or organ winds its way into the reading material.

The journey to simplicity has the same kind of map - it’s not a straight journey, but a circuitous one. As I state in my blog description, this journey encompasses and affects everything else in my life - from aging, grandparenting, how I spend my time, my money, my energy, what I eat, what I buy, identifying and maintaining priorities, my wishes and dreams - all this cannot be separated from the root of simplicity. It is as if a giant tree has grown after this seed took root in our minds, a seed which is basically a stated value that we have adopted as our life attitude. Either what we do pushes us closer to our goal of simplifying or it nudges us further away. Nevertheless, the goal is there, the root is there, the idea of enriching our lives by the crazy notion of debulking our lives remains always our intention. When you start out with a certain stated life principle, that principle should be visible in all other areas of your life, and it, like a bodily organ, cannot stand alone.

I hope that my blog, for the majority of the time, reflects that. Meanwhile, the aforementioned article is out on the Internet, and it gave me an exciting opportunity to have my picture professionally taken (thanks, Billy), and to give me yet another occasion for introspection in this wondrous year of the journey of our lives.

The journey becomes somewhat challening, however, with impending arrival of the holidays, which I would say is the most difficult part of the simplification process, as we are well aware that our society does not encourage frugality during the consumer-driven Christmas shopping season. I salute and take courage from the other featured women - Debra Amador, Judith Levine, Mary Carlomagno - as well as countless others who are becoming role models for what it means to simplify. We’re all on the journey, trying to walk in the same general direction, seeking joy and contentment, energized, and ready to talk about the trip to anyone who is willing to listen.

Godspeed to us all!