Deeply on vacation last week, I would have missed this article in the Financial Section of Friday’s NY Times if Linda Levering hadn’t kindly sent it to me. It’s very interesting, a story about a young man who has pared his life down to 60 items, including socks and underwear. He’s not someone who lives in a tent and eats roadkill, he just likes to travel light. http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/13/you-probably-have-too-much-stuff/
When he’s our age, he’ll probably own more; it’s just the way of the world. Were we to count everything around us, I doubt any of us would come in under 1,000. Just try it in one room. Or your clothes closet. What’s just as interesting as the article are the comments it has engendered from both sides of the aisle.
One point he makes in the original interview is the value of buying quality stuff that lasts. If you pay more for something, be it a sweater, kitchen knife, lamp or watch, you think more about whether you really want it, and take better care of it if you do buy it. Being better made, it usually rewards you by lasting longer. Why not wait until you can afford exactly what you want instead of going ahead and settling for something not exactly right, something stop-gap. If you really need something stop-gap, find it at your local thrift store so you can easily discard it afterwards.
Think about owning one umbrella, one good pen, one winter coat that is exactly what you want, and ditching all the cheaper versions you have accumulated along the way. When you only have one, you’ll know exactly where it is. It will be easier to find and you'll be saving money--in replacement costs and storage fees--in the long run.
Blame it on the heat. Ninety-degree days, the Olympics, and my concentration on getting out the Iris Quarterly, the Garden Club newsletter I edit. But about five minutes ago I realized, shocked, that today was Monday and time for another challenge.
What I’ve been thinking about in the area of “stuff” is a column a member of my last year’s class forwarded to me. It concerns the importance of the things in our lives, and I found it insightful. You can read it at blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2012/08/the-psychological-importance-of-our-stuff.
I’ve always been interested in other viewpoints and it has valid things to say, but left me feeling defensive--as if I were some curmudgeon intent on storming strangers’ homes, looking around, and announcing, “You’re keeping all this junk?” It made me feel like a spoilsport, intent on destroying everyone else’s innocent fun. I had to remind myself that I never offer unsolicited advice, that I don’t judge other people’s way of life, and that my own house is filled with things that are important to me.
When people approach me, it is usually because they have lost control of their environment in some way. They need to sort out what is important from what no longer resonates, and are often tripped up by emotions that make doing this hard. By cutting through the morass of mail, computer information, stuff passed down to us and the gifts and momentos we receive for every occasion, we can happily emerge on the other side.
But it isn’t easy. On August 1, registration for OLLI programs at Stony Brook was done online for the first time. Registration opened at 10:00 a.m. By 10:45 a.m. my class, “The Psychology of Stuff,” was filled and closed to further registrants. It made me feel bad for people who might really need it and didn’t get in.
It also reminded me how widespread the problem of too much stuff is, how confounding our emotional relationship to physical things really is. Fortunately, the cooler days of Fall are the perfect time to sort it all out.
Summer is finally, undeniably here. On an Internet gardening site the advice was, “Don't forget to include some of the most important of summer's garden activities this month: Make time for reading a book, chillaxin' with friends, playing a little music, napping in the shade . . . ”
Since coming home a week ago we’ve managed to do just that, plus taking walks and watching the Olympics. Thursday we had a backyard party, inviting neighbors from the seven or eight houses surrounding us. We’re so lucky--they’re all helpful, friendly, down-to-earth people. Not one of them blasts rock music or collects junk cars in their front yard.
Summertime means easy living. Yet every now and then a little voice whispers that I should be doing something. Thinking about the next big project now that the novel is finished . . . weeding the front path . . . doing the dirty laundry from vacation . . . creating a photo essay on English gardens for our Garden Club website. The little voice reminds me that days are slipping by and I’m not showing a profit.
Frankly, I had to rouse myself even to write this blog. It's not as if responsibilities disappear from view. The basement is calling to say that it needs spiffing up. I’m just not answering the phone.
Back from England and a fascinating trip. Cool, often rainy, but that didn’t keep us from seeing everything we wanted--many beautiful gardens (Sissinghurst to the woman down the street in Marnhull), Wells, Winchester, and Canterbury cathedrals, and writers’ homes and gardens from Thomas Hardy to Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill to Rudyard Kipling, Vanessa Bell to T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). They all lived so creatively, so well!
Visiting T.S. Eliot’s remains in the church in East Coker, we stopped to ask directions and were invited in for coffee by a lovely British couple. Quite by accident, Tom and I saw the Olympic torch being carried through the streets of Canterbury. We visited Chafecombe from which my father’s family immigrated in the 1600s, and passed through Salisbury and Amesbury which my mother’s family left around the same time. As Tom pointed out, this makes me related to a few thousand other people--do the math.
While I was gone my friend Anne posted an interesting piece on her blog (anne-otations.me) in which she wondered why we don’t treat ourselves better, why we too often live in what I think of as “survival mode.” She talks about holding onto a phone that doesn’t make outgoing calls, an old computer that doesn’t serve her well as a writer. “This isn’t miserliness,” she writes, “for when my adult children need something I unhesitatingly fork over the money. So why this trauma when it comes to purchasing something for myself? Is it guilt? Negative self-esteem? ‘Do I deserve . . ?’”
We had an example of this flying Virgin Airlines, a wonderful airline. On the way over they “bumped” us to a row with just two seats, larger and with more legroom, so that a family could sit together in our original coach row of four across. So when they asked us at the airport if we wanted to return in larger seats (at a cost of 30 pounds each) we didn’t hesitate to say yes. We had a wonderful trip home; they passed out lunch menus, and served a miniature tea before we arrived at JFK. Ironically, in survival mode, I originally chose them because they offered the best deal.
But I’ve been moving out of survival mode for years. We no longer fly at inconvenient times (very early morning or late at night) just to save money, or rent cars without a GPS--driving on the “wrong” side of the road or deciphering signs in another language is challenge enough. Survival mode may feel virtuous and thrifty, but too often it’s not worth the discomfort. If you can’t think of a justifiable reason, “Because I can” usually works.
A good article in this Sunday’s NY Times Travel Section by Matt Richtel on Vacation Sabotage. A lot of the points were for people still working who have a hard time disconnecting from their jobs and electronic devices, getting relaxed, and worrying about “re-entry,” which is no longer my particular problem. But one part of the article still rings true for me:
Don’t Prepare for Your Own Death
Matt Richtel starts out, “Before I go on vacation, even for a week, I prepare as though I’m headed to the coroner. I empty the in-box, clean the piles on the desk, put away all the laundry, dust. On the face of it I’m just getting my personal effects in order so that, presuming I survive my vacation, I also spend it worry-free, liberated to enjoy things to the fullest. But in the process, experts say, I am also significantly raising the stakes for my impending trip.”
He goes on to link preparation with over-expectations about the trip, which is not part of my problem--I’ve rarely had a vacation I didn’t love. I never have the feeling that I have to see every museum, cathedral, or historic site in a particular place since I “might never be back again,” or that I have to go to the beach every day on another type of vacation to “get my money’s worth.” In the long run, what does it matter? It’s the experience you’re having that counts, and if it’s sipping cappucino while reading a book on the front porch or in a French cafe, that’s what you’ll remember fondly.
But part of me acts as if I will never get home again, something akin to the awe I feel when we turn down our street after being away for several weeks and see the house still there. This year I realized that, though Andy and Robin have our wills, there is a lot of specific financial information they should have as well, so I’m mailing them copies of that. If I have time, I’m going to go through other papers, books etc. in my office and discard anything now outdated so that no one else has to.
The last time Houdini left his beloved house he wept, having a premonition that he would never see it again. He challenged people in his audience to punch him in the stomach as hard as they could, but this time he didn’t prevail. His premonition came true.
But who knows? He may have wept every time he left home with that same premonition, and nobody bothered to comment on that.
The point is that getting ready for vacation is a good time to think about what you’re leaving behind, if only temporarily.
Since I'll be leaving the Internet behind--I don't know if the houses we're renting in England even have WiFi--this may be the last Monday Morning Challenge for a couple of weeks.
This weekend we went to visit Andy and Robin and the kids in their newly configured house. The work was extensive--they had to move out for five months--but it was worth it. They didn’t really enlarge the house, just worked out wasted, awkward, and unused spaces, removed some walls and added built-ins until they had created an upstairs with three bedrooms, bathroom, and reading loft for the kids, and a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and guest room/family room downstairs. This from a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with no family room and a miniscule kitchen. Every detail was carefully thought out and selected; the result is functional and gorgeous.
A side benefit is that the house has only what they want and need. (Yes, there are still cartons in the basement, but they have already discarded a lot of stuff). It’s an inspiration to me to pare down further, to look around and decide exactly what is necessary to keep to live a satisfying life. It means not letting things hang around because they are already here and “still perfectly good” or might come in handy sometime.
The larger lesson is that your home can be anything you want it to be. The old idea of a parlor or living room that is never used except for company is gone--I hope. If you want an art studio or office instead of a dining room, go for it. Make yourself the equivalent of a reading loft. You deserve it!
Taking a contrarian view: What does our stuff do for us? I’ve talked about how weird the idea is of passing on and leaving behind an extensive stage set that someone else will have to dismantle. They’ll have to make decisions about each book, each sweater, each muffin tin, and we’ll have no say in the matter.
But while we’re still here, we need these things. The other day when I was discarding the mail, charity appeals and catalogs, it struck me that we were receiving them because we were people with established lives; it showed that on some level we were here. I had a similar feeling seeing the umbrella on the backyard patio. It hadn’t just appeared. Someone had chosen it (from patioshoppers.com if you must know) and planned this area with enthusiasm and hope.
So our surroundings are a culmination of all the years we’ve lived, everything we’ve done, what we have been given from our families and friends, the places we’ve traveled to--physically and metaphorically. There was a piece in the Times written by a man whose family moved frequently when he was a child, and whose car was repossessed every few months. As an adult, things don’t mean much to him; when he moves it’s easy for him to leave everything behind and buy what fits where he is now.
There’s something freeing about that, but also something sad. If you look around your home you’ll see that so many things hold your history. Sitting in my living room I can see the antique glass lamp from my parents; the rug on the wall we carried back from the Navaho reservation; art bought in Ecuador, Italy, Russia, Morocco; the piece of marble our friend Dick gave us years ago because it fit perfectly on our antique carved cabinet. Framed paintings of fish by Andrew and Emily, the dining room table from Tom’s family.
All these things enhance our lives, show that we have lived. That’s why I think it's so important to discard all those things that don’t mean anything, that we no longer use or love. Because they can crowd out what's meaningful and hide who we are.
Last Monday’s challenge,“Don’t make it bigger than it is,” resonated with quite a few people. It’s hard to live in the present when an event out of the usual is casting a long shadow. Besides travel or giving a presentation, entertaining can have the same effect. I don’t mean having a few friends over for dinner; I mean something like giving a party or shower.
I love giving parties, always have. But as soon as I send out the invitations, the event swells to the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon. Planning for it blots out the sun.
One reason is that I’ve been to too many parties where I’ve wished I were somewhere--anywhere--else. Just when I’ve talked to everyone who looks familiar and am thinking about how to escape, the host announces that he’s started the coals under the barbeque and we will be eating in just two or three hours. How can you walk out before dinner is served?
I never want people to feel marooned that way in my back yard, so I try to have interesting things for them to do, and plenty of food and drink as soon as they arrive. More than that, I want them to have a memorable experience. Hell, I want it to be the most exciting party they’ve ever been to. The more time I have, the more I think up ideas to try and make it so.
There are the more mundane concerns, of course, like the fear of leaving something crucial undone--forgetting to buy ice or clean the guest bathroom, or running out of the dessert everyone really wants. It goes back to when I was growing up and would hear adults (my mother) whisper things like, “I didn’t want to say anything, but did you notice she used paper napkins?” Oh, the shame!
The worst party I ever went to was an annual Halloween bash that most other people, it appeared, had wisely stopped attending. We sat down to eat and were lightheartedly served food meant to resemble things like eyeballs and intestines; in the middle of dinner, all the lights went out, plunging us into blackness. Heh, heh, heh.
Maybe you can over-think parties.
Just to keep on topic, last week when I had an extra hour I cleared off my computer desktop and reduced my email messages from 1,586 to 510. I'm sure I can cut them down more. Moving into an increasingly digital world gives us more places to try and keep clutter-free.
Sometimes when I have something special coming up, a vacation, a speaking engagement, or a party I’m giving, it seems to splash over into the rest of my life. It makes it harder to concentrate on the other things I have to do, even makes me reluctant to make plans too close to the event.
As far as travel, it’s partly that because I'm anxious to learn everything I can about where I’m going, so I don’t go to Paris and miss the Eiffel Tower. But it’s also a sense memory that goes back to the days when foreign vacations were complicated. Going abroad meant going to the bank on your lunch hour to buy American Express travelers checks; locating the receipts for cameras, watches etc. you were taking to prove that you hadn’t bought them on the trip; packing film, travel irons, hairdryers, and special outlet plugs; trying to figure out how to call home in case of emergency. Passports expired every three years instead of ten. You had to make sure your tickets arrived in the mail, and that you had maps and travel guides and enough books to read.
And now? In five minutes on the Internet you can cancel the newspaper, have the mail held, notify your credit cards that you’ll be out of the country, and print up your plane confirmation. All you need is a passport, ATM card, a change of clothes, and a Kindle or iPad, and you’re good to go. Internet cafes are as easy to find in foreign lands as nail salons or Starbucks at home. You can get Preparation-H in any language.
So why does it still seem like a big deal? We’re leaving for England July 6, and when we were invited to a party on July 4th, my kneejerk reaction was, “No, it’s too close!”
Of course it’s not. I travel with a carry-on suitcase, not a steamer trunk. If you told me I had to be ready to leave three hours from now, I could be, albeit with a lot of rushing around.
Something similar happens with entertaining, but I’ll talk about another time.
Meanwhile I have to remind myself, “Don’t make it bigger than it is,” and get on with my life.
I haven’t been thinking much about what’s inside the house these days, I’ve been too enthralled by the garden outside-- weeding and mulching, moving plants and shrubs around the way people rearrange living rooms, sitting watching the fish or wandering around. I’ve set up a special garden to try and attract hummingbirds (last chance, you little ingrates), and put down a new floor in the garden room. We sleep there now, drifting off to the soft splash of the pond. The rest of the house feels unnecessary.
Who wants to think about decluttering in May?
This is the perfect month to give yourself a break from worrying about the clothes in your closet that haven’t been worn for years, the papers stashed in cartons needing attention, the knickknacks you’ve been meaning to make decisions about. They aren’t going anywhere. On the other hand, the sun might.
Life is too short not to stop and prune the roses.