In the 1990s, when I was doing a lot of workshops, I had a quarterly newsletter called Traveling Light. I enjoyed writing it and it did well for two years. Then I didn’t have anything else new to say on the subject, and ended the newsletter.
In the same way, I’ve said everything I had to about scaling down and organizing for now, so there won’t be any more Monday Morning Challenges on a regular basis. I’ll still post a blog when I have something interesting to say, but it won’t be the way it was.
There have been a couple of developments. We’re working on remembranceoftravelpast.com. It isn’t searchable by Google yet, but we've already had several orders. Also there's a new idea that I’m excited about: A large picture blend using a map of your childhood neighborhood with a picture of you as a child in it, and perhaps photos of your home, family, local landmarks etc. I’ve gotten a vintage map of Jackson Heights, and will be making one for myself that I’ll post. It is another kind of travel, in years as well as geography.
Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas for thankyoufornot.com. We’ll be illustrating and posting them, and sending the originators a magnet or poster showing their idea. Excitingly, my agent suggested that it would make an interesting book. So we have been thinking up more clever and creative thank-yous, e.g. “Thank you for not doing your Gregor Samsa imitation,” and “Thank you for not texting during my wedding,” with appropriate images. We probably have about 100, and have sent a selection to her.
So life goes on in a good way. And I’ll send this before the neighborhood goes dark.
I woke up realizing that I never have to buy another thing. I have enough clothes, jewelry, books, dishes, towels, furniture, computers etc. to last me for the rest of my life. I never again have to look through catalogs or hang out at Macy’s or Home Goods. It’s not that I think we have more than other people, just that we have plenty.
What do I still need to shop for? Food, plants for the garden, gifts for other people. I still want to travel, get to know interesting people, and spend more time with the ones I cherish. If I want to keep up with the world, there’s always the library, both physical and digital, Netflix streaming, and the Internet. The NY Times that arrives every morning like a pet demanding attention is always interesting, though it seems to get taken out of its blue plastic kennel less and less often.
But not having to buy anything else is a thought that makes me happy. It brings with it a sense of relief. Perhaps it’s a natural outcome to taking a closer look at your stuff and paring what you want and what you need.
A funny thing happened last Monday on the way from feeling listless and cranky. In the afternoon I was driving to Michael’s to pick up some supplies for a website Tom and I are working on, when I remembered an idea I had had several years ago, just a glimmer. Except that this time it brought its whole family. I started making notes when I got to the store, and by the time I was home again and had talked to Tom, it had a life of its own. I checked the Internet and, unlike most of my ideas, no one else was already doing it.
I’d hoped to have the website finished by this morning, but it’s not quite, so I’ll send you an email later in the week. What I seem to forget is that feeling restless and unproductive doesn’t just happen when I’m grumpy. Sometimes it’s the incubation period for a creative project that wants to be born, but doesn’t know how yet.
Someone (an inventor, a brilliant thinker) once wrote that people have at least one inspired idea every day, usually in passing, but few of us bother to remember it or write it down. It’s more of a kernel really, it doesn’t arrive full-blown, but it possesses great powers. His idea was to have a small notebook and capture these little gifts. I don’t have a notebook, but I’m trying to be more responsive.
Now the decluttering part: Last spring when I was giving more rides to friends, I cleaned out the inside of my car completely; I had the interior vacuumed and polished at the carwash. It never looked as if I were living in the car, but there were papers to push aside and cartons in the trunk on their way to the Goodwill. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me riding in a completely stuff-free car. Trunk too. And I find it’s no trouble to keep it that way.
What do you write about when you feel absolutely uninspired to write anything? I’m still saying goodbye to summer, bogged down in this cool and/or humid rainy weather. The garden reflects this. Impatiens that didn’t succumb to the mysterious summer virus look as if they should have. Everything else is leggy and begging to be put out of its misery. I look at it and feel its pain, but don't do anything about it.
I know it’s time to buy pumpkins and mums and Indian corn. In other years I filled my window boxes with gourds, tiny pumpkins, fall flowers, and wheat stalks, deep orange bows, but I can’t imagine the level of energy needed to do that right now. Maybe next week. Or next year.
Meanwhile life goes on, though not in every case. I’m once again immersed in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as I have to moderate it for a book club this week. I'm still waiting to get to the happy part. Two husbands of friends have died recently, much too young, reminding me how precious and precarious it all is--that there isn’t time to sit around uninspired.
Perhaps you were feeling cheerful and motivated until you started reading this blog. In that case I’ll stop and go take an aspirin for the headache I woke up with. And you can get on with this beautiful fall day.
I start the first session of “The Psychology of Stuff,” the class I’m teaching at Stony Brook University in the OLLI program, by taking attendance (which is required). But when I call their names, I ask class members to choose one thing in their lives they’d love to get rid of before next week's class.
Some of the items people chose last year were hilarious:
“Anything with shoulder pads.”
“The extra furnace in the basement.”
“A painting my aunt did and left me that I really hate.”
“A loveseat in the garage that I’ve had since the sixties.”
“Some sports shirts. I must have 100.”
“A Mickey Mouse TV set that was my daughter’s.”
“A chair with a broken spoke back that I planned to make into a stool.”
“The twin bed frames that my brother and I slept on.”
This year’s entries were more expected, though just as heartfelt:
“My Mother-of-the-Bride and Mother-of-the-Groom dresses.”
“Tax returns from the 1970s.”
“A console TV.”
“Forty years of teaching materials.”
“Children’s books I was saving in the basement for my future grandchildren. The kids are here, the books are moldy.”
“All those plastic containers whose tops and bottoms don’t fit.”
“Years of art magazines I was planning to use for inspiration.”
Perhaps because the items they chose were more down-to-earth, this year’s class did better in getting them out of their lives fast. Removing a non-working furnace or a loveseat your spouse is attached to (figuratively, not literally) takes a little more effort.
It’s fun to identify something that’s been nagging at the edge of your consciousness--like the shelf of cheap vases and baskets that hang around long after the floral arrangements that came in them have returned to that great garden in the sky--identify them and have someone assure you that you can get them out of your life.
Try picking out something that you haven't quite been able to part with but want to--I give you permission to discard it this week. I'd love to hear what it is!
Last week I talked about how a cleaner frees people up to do other things. Thus freed, I was inspired to get started on the upstairs bathroom.
Back story: Our house was built in 1952, and when we moved in there was a monochromatic upstairs bathroom in a color my artist friend Donna calls Titty Pink. I mean, the room was completely tiled in that color--floor, walls and even the ceiling. The fixtures were all the same dusky peach and there was a marbleized formica vanity top that took up most of the room.
About ten years ago I couldn’t stand it any longer and had the sink, toilet, and bathtub replaced with new white fixtures and a white surround and white tile around the bathtub. Since I wanted the room to be blue and white, I covered the floor with peel-and-stick vinyl tiles and wallpapered over the hated pink with a blue-and-white pillow ticking design.
Ten years later, the floor tiles and wallpapered walls were looking pretty shabby--it wasn’t my best work to begin with--so we called two local contractors highly recommended on Angie's List. All we wanted was to have the walls (on less than half of a small bathroom) replaced with white tile, and a new floor put in. The first contractor swore that if he tried to do that the “whole room would collapse.” Not to worry; he would completely replace the bathroom for $10,000. At the look on our faces, he dropped his offer to $7,000. The second contractor was more realistic, but never got back to us with a price.
So I decided to uncover what was underneath and evaluate it. I stripped the wallpaper first. “Strippable wallpaper” means that you peel away the top covering that comes off in little pieces, then you soak and try to remove the heavy underpaper, then you spray on more Dif and attack the white adhesive film that is left with a metal scraper. When you get tired of that, pull up the vinyl tiles and scrub off the adhesive left behind with Goof Off.
A surprise: The tile underneath, when diluted by white fixtures, was kind of pleasant. Looking for color ideas, I found a website, “Save the Pink Bathrooms!” It claimed that one in four mid-century bathrooms were done in Mamie Eisenhower pink, about 5 million in all. Now they are loved now for their vintage look. Not by me, especially. But on the second try, I got the right color for the window, radiator cover, and door.
Here are Before-and-After photos from Week One. The bathroom needs to be accessorized, and I’m still pondering the fate of the medicine cabinet (original) and the lights (ten years old).
But it shows what you can do when you aren’t worried about dusting anymore.
Maria came on Wednesday. I had cleaned some the week before, so that she would not not be too frightened by what she found. She looked younger than I expected for the mother of grown children, and was cheerful and energetic. I told her just to do the downstairs (living room, dining room, kitchen, bath, and den) so she could get to know the house, and let me know the supplies she needed.
It only took her five hours to whip the downstairs into shape; when I came down once, she was Swiffer-dusting the lampshades--who knew people dusted lampshades? Magicianlike, she made the brownish scratches in the bottom of the white sink disappear.
We’re in awe, if not love. She promised to clean the top of the refrigerator when she comes back in two weeks.
I’m already finding that there are interesting side effects from someone coming in, besides a cleaner house. The rooms look so sparkling that I’m not willing for anything to clutter them up. Things get put away or into the recycling bag immediately, nothing stays on the kitchen counters or dining room table. It’s easier to maintain than I thought.
A second effect was described to me by a friend who recently rehired a cleaner after a hiatus. My friend was so inspired that she took down, washed, and ironed all her curtains. Her husband refinished a coffee table that had been languishing for decades. My sense is that there’s something about being freed up from routine tasks that gives you the energy to plunge into other projects. It’s as if there is a certain amount of energy (or guilt) earmarked for Home Maintenance that needs to be used up.
Without planning to, I cleared out the basement that had become a repository over the spring and summer. I opened the sewing machine I had gotten for Christmas and read the directions (computerized and way more complicated than the Singer I had as a young adult). And I embarked on a large upstairs bathroom project which I’ll explain about next week. With pictures.
Meanwhile, I taught my first class of the fall on “The Psychology of Stuff” over at Stony Brook University (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute). I’d wondered last September if there was enough to say about our attachment to things to fill up twelve weeks. Not to worry. Making peace with stuff, finding the perfect balance to feel happy and supported without being overwhelmed, is the goal of nearly everyone.
A few years ago I took a six-week creativity seminar with the sculptor and painter, Anne Richter; it involved writing and art exercises. During one session, she told us to pick out something we wanted to get rid of, but was still in our lives. I chose a wooden screen door frame I had bought several years earlier at Home Depot. It had a nice spindle design and seemed reminiscent of old-fashioned summer mornings. Nostalgia for $29.95.
The trouble was, the door needed to be painted and installed, and I never quite got around to figuring how to fit it on the back door. So it stayed in the basement, still wrapped in its plastic covering. Now the time had come.
Then Anne told us we had ten minutes to write a country-western song (the creativity part), saying goodbye.
I was aghast. I never listened to that kind of music, much less knew how to write something in that style. Yet an assignment was an assignment. The clock was ticking. After ten minutes, this is what I had:
Goodbye, You Old Screen Door
First I saw you in the store
Sweetest damn thing I ever saw.
You were a great little back screen door,
But you ain’t right for me.
You’ve been keeping out of view
Wrapped in plastic like the dew
Untouchable, inscrutable too,
You aren’t the door for me.
I don’t know how to put you on
And I ain’t going to learn.
You want a long ride in my truck?
Or you just want to burn?
It’s time we went our separate ways,
You’re just too cute for me.
I don’t want you round my back door.
You should have stayed a tree.
It won’t play well at the Grand Ol’ Opry, but it did the job. I put the door out by the curb early enough so someone could come along and take it before the garbagemen came. Someone did.
September is the perfect time to get something you know you’ll never use out of your life. You don’t even have to write an essay or a song or an ode to it. But I’d love to hear it if you do!
There was a lively response to last week’s blog about hiring a cleaning woman, everything from, “Do it, you’ll never be sorry!” to “Why is this such a big issue for you?”--as if I were obsessing over whether to have the lawn mowed. It is an issue for me. Not because I think I would be exploiting another human being (how do you exploit someone by paying them $25 to $30 an hour?) or even because I see it as class-ism any longer. And I don’t have some Zen idea that all tasks are equally sacred and that I should mindfully Ajax the toilet.
If anything, it goes back to my pioneer roots that you can--and should--do everything for yourself. I like to make stuff, remodel rooms, wallpaper, and put down tile. Tom, who can do sophisticated things like put together lawnmowers, and wire in electrical fixtures, doesn’t get having someone come in and clean. But his standards are--um, a little different than mine.
Mostly now I don’t want to worry about whether I should be washing the baseboards instead of reading a book. I want to put my time and energy toward more creative stuff. The responses I've gotten seem to point in that direction:
“Get the cleaning woman. I never had one until Germany. I think my family would have been happier if I had one when the kids were little. My mother had different ladies come once a week sometimes when I was young, though I still had my chores. Then I married Jay who always had a maid and he insisted. Once every 2 weeks. I talked him out of every week. No complaints except the guilt that I should be doing it even though I'm lousy at it (allergic to most cleaners that make it easier). If you can do it, DO IT! You should be having salons among other things. Your time is too valuable. It changed my life. As long as you can get exercise some other way!” Donna L.
“When my second child was born a friend came to visit. I had just taken the cloth diapers off the line but had not folded them yet. The new baby had colic and I hadn't slept in days. The toddler needed attention too. But she was horrified at the unfolded laundry. I told her that if she had come to see us, we were glad for the company. If she came to see my house, she'd seen it. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. She moved the laundry aside and took a seat. We've been the closest of friends ever since.
“On another occasion, someone asked me to help wallpaper her bathroom. At the very last, she asked to trim one piece herself. Of course she cut it too short and was berating herself for the mistake. I told her that when she has a guest who won't be satisfied until she finds a fault, to take her straight to the short cut paper and show it to her. The search will be over before it begins and everyone can relax.
“The moral of this tale is that friends come to see you. Critics come to see your home. Invite the friends. Skip the critics.” Myra F.
“I started having someone in to clean when I was working and going to school. When I was finished with school I kept the cleaning person. When my husband realized that I wasn't going to school anymore, he suggested we give up the cleaning service. I told him I wasn't doing one more thing than I was before, and if he wanted the cleaning service to go I was good with that as long as he did the cleaning. Now retired, I have someone come in to clean every other week. Having someone clean for me so freeing; it has nothing to do with entertaining, it has to do with never thinking about cleaning. Life should be about doing the things we love and not doing the things we hate (if possible).” Liz R.
I love all these comments. Myra’s about having friends, not critics, rings so true. Your friends come to see you and if there’s stimulating conversation and great food it’s even better but not necessary. My last critic was in August 2011, when I volunteered to host a gathering of new OLLI members. It was a lot of work, cleaning inside and out and preparing little sandwiches and chocolate-dipped strawberries for 14 people. The leader complained that my street was “too narrow for parking,” and that it was too hot in my living room (it was threatening rain so we couldn’t be outside). I suggested she’d be cooler if she took off her jacket, but it would have “spoiled” her ensemble, so she just sat there steaming. Fool me once . . .
Liz and Donna and everyone else I talked to who said to go for it, thanks for your input! I called Maria on Saturday and she’s coming on the 12th. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how much I love to entertain, how much I love to feed people, but hate the pressure I feel beforehand. I have to remind myself that all those witty and cultured women in Paris and London who presided over brilliant literary salons also had staff to do the cleaning and create the food. The only thing they had to do was be cultured and charming. Surely I can do that.
More lately I’ve had a house cleaner offered to me, a wonderful woman with some availability. I’ve never had a cleaner. I grew up with something called a maid. Cora came every week and had “toting privileges.” This was hardly a scenario out of The Help, but it was Maryland in the 1950s and 1960s, and "to tote” meant you could carry away as much unwanted food, clothes, and household goods as you could carry. When I first got married ten days after graduating from college, Cora was involved, but not exactly: she stayed at the house to make sure no one stole the wedding presents. Word.
Since then I’ve never felt the need for cleaning staff. Doing it myself never stopped me from entertaining. Yet I’m shocked when I discover something afterward, like fingerprints around a door handle. Where did those come from? Why didn’t I ever notice them before? No doubt the rest of the world has. They probably learned how to wipe down doors as toddlers.
Sometimes I wish I could be more like Alida. Years ago we attended a party on the Stanford White compound in St. James, given by one of the architect's descendants, a professional singer and charming personality. We’d been to a dance performance by her daughter and came back to the house afterward. It had that lived-in look. Every surface was crammed with memorabilia or papers or books or what-have-you; nothing looked to have been tidied up. I almost wept. With envy, that is. Not at the amount of stuff--which would have made me crazy--but that she was so at ease with herself and the way she lived. She assumed we would accept her as she was and everyone did.
She was right. Life is big, and messy, and you need to pick the parts you can control.
So I have choices. One is to lower my own standards, just invite as many people over as I want, whenever I want and feel totally relaxed about it. Every dinner doesn’t have to be worthy of a Michelin star (especially if you have plenty of wine). The house won't be in Martha Stewart Living.
The second option is to hire a cleaning service and have meals sent in from Mirabelle’s. But I'd need to get a job to pay for it. The last option is to bite the dust rag and clean thoroughly myself. The thing is, I have other, more exciting (to me) things I'd rather do. And I don't think I'd be very good at it.
I love the honesty of the first approach. Come for pizza! We’ll get Chinese take-out! Hope you aren’t allergic to dust! Yet there’s a part of me that’s hot-wired to do my best, to try and delight people, to turn life into a special occasion. Did I mention I love to cook? But with all that comes pressure.
So I’m seriously considering that cleaning woman (forget the euphemisms, that's what she is), and I'm waiting to find out more. I’ve checked with friends who say it will change my life, presumably for the better. Then I’ll be able to concentrate on the Port Jefferson literary salon, with dainty morsels and sparkling conversation.