Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sorry For Ourselves

Self Pity, by D.H. Lawrence

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Three years ago my Spouse and I spent Christmas and celebrated the New Year in Ireland.
On December 31st, as we fast approached midnight, the two of us went with some family members in a car to the nearby small town. There would be fireworks at the end of the celebrations. We were immensely looking forward to it. My Spouse in particular was thrilled to be a witness to this occasion.
As we rode in the car along a gravel road, my Spouse let out an exclamation.
Our digital camera had been left on the kitchen table back at the house.
We were too close to midnight, however, and the road was too narrow to turn back in the darkness.
We had to continue, therefore, without it. My Spouse was deeply saddened. Opportunities like that do not come along very often. Travel is expensive and particularly at such a time of year. One does like to capture special memories to look back fondly on in years to come.
We both bemoaned the loss.
And then from the back seat of the car, out of the gloom and the silence, came a small but reassuring voice from a ten year old cousin who said, slowly and thoughtfully:
"the eyes...are the best the world."

He saved us, in a way, from self pity. He clearly had soaked up the earthly wisdom of his elders, dispensed it like a medicine and reminded us all that being empty handed does not signify the end of the world. Goodness, we should have been grateful that we had a digital camera to forget in the first place!
We could use that valuable wisdom in other aspects of our life too, to adapt a more permanent ability to 'lose' things and let go of material goods.

You Can't Be Too Careful

He who buys what he does not need, steals from himself.

-Author Unknown

When we moved to Texas, we bought a house. That, as a matter of fact, was the reason for going to Texas: everywhere else in the world, it seemed, had become far too expensive to own a home.
So we were enticed by the prospect of owning something at last. On our first look around the house, I noted a fifth bedroom. The real estate agent had said there were only four. 'Only' four, mind you.

"No", she said, "that is not a bedroom".
"Is it not?" I said. I was baffled.
It was not a bedroom, not technically. It was a closet. According to, I suppose, the deities who decide upon such things, a bedroom must have a window. Otherwise it is a closet.
My bedroom in the house I grew up in was smaller than that closet, which perhaps explains my determined persistence that it was actually a bedroom.
We felt incredibly lucky to be in that house. It was brand new, still smelled of paint, and nothing had been tainted or used.
We were almost afraid to begin living there. We were reluctant to hang anything on the walls for fear of scratching the paint; we cooked very gently, with the fan running to avoid our home smelling like a cafe; we walked permanently in bare feet across the carpet and closed cupboard doors with a whisper.
The house came equipped with a dishwasher, a sparkling accessory we would have no use for.
My Spouse and myself abhor dishwashers and find them, for ourselves, a waste of time, physical energy and money. Granted there are only two of us but all it takes, I feel, is a few moments standing at a kitchen sink and all one's dishes will be clean. Neither of us had ever owned a dishwasher, much less operated one.
Our house came, also, with a year-long guarantee that any faults or imperfections would be fixed by the builders. Any paint marks, chipped wood or loose nails would be amended at no extra cost to us since they would be considered defects from before we took possession of the house.
We made sure to inspect everything to get our money's worth. We were so very careful to note all the wall marks and loose doors and anything that the eye could see.
Two people were never more diligent. We joked with each other that we were obsessing: surely everything worth fixing had been discovered already?
Then we decided to ship out of there, so to speak. There were many reasons but we did receive one too many letters from our Home Owner's Association implying that our one and a half inch front lawn grass was upsetting the neighbours, changing irreparably the view of the landscape and causing untold chaos probably having a ripple effect to this day. Oh, one can only imagine.
Just across the street from our house, I remember, was an empty plot. Every couple of months, the most remarkable crowd of blue wildflowers would grow tall and radiant and it was the single bright spot seen from our window. Inevitably, though, some men would come with lawnmowers and slash everything to a forlorn patch of stubble. Talk about changing the landscape for the worse.
Our house, as it turned out, was on the market for almost a year. We were elsewhere and could do nothing to help the progress of its sale.
It was devastating to discover, when somebody did offer to buy it, that an inspection proved our dishwasher had a leak and it needed to be mended.
Oh, dear.
The twelve months after buying the house having long since passed, it became our responsibility, our pocket.
We had of course never used that dishwasher, not once. We never even opened the door to verify there was indeed a dishwasher inside.
That, I am afraid, was not very diligent of us but it was a lesson harshly learned.
Now we rent an apartment, and there is a peace of mind we lacked when we owned a house. We regret, of course, that we didn't buy a house at the 'right' time when the housing market was booming but for what it is worth, we find a great freedom in being able to bump about and hang paintings and use this apartment respectfully but happily.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

At the Drop of a Hat

"Vienna?" repeated Touie wonderingly, for she had never left England. It was now November; winter was coming on; little Mary was beginning to walk, as long as you held her sash.

"When do we leave?"
"Immediately," replied Arthur.
And Touie- bless her- merely rose from her needlework and murmured,
"then I must be quick."
-From the novel 'Arthur and George,' by Julian Barnes.

Envision it, for a moment. Your significant other comes home one windblown evening with grand and magnificent plans for the future- the immediate future, no less- and tells you to prepare for moving to another country.
You have no time to be bewildered or ask any questions. You have hours, minutes, even, to pack your entire life into some boxes and forge ahead to a new place. It is awfully exciting.
The passage delivered above, that of Touie putting aside her needlework without a word of complaint, is in my mind the single most romantic scene ever put on paper.
It stopped me cold when I read it first, for its pureness, sincerity and candour.
Practically speaking, however, how many of us could truthfully say we could pack up our lives at a moment's notice?
Even our 'emergency' lists are as long as our arm- we are all aware of those lists some of us create in case of fire or other necessary evacuation: what would we reach for if we had to leave our homes in haste? I recall making one of those lists a couple of years ago during a dreadful wildfire season. I was alarmed to find that my list was as long as my arm with no end in sight and as a result not helpful in the slightest. I am in no doubt that, had we been forced to get out quickly, I would not have known where to find that sentimental Christmas stocking or that precious birthday card from years back or that meaningful photograph.
I would be delighted to live in such a way that we could go anywhere at the drop of a hat.
Gigantic televisions, wall to wall speaker systems, fragile vases that cannot be so much as breathed on: they are all well and good to show off to guests but in their own way, they inhibit possibilities. Possessions, for their part, cause untold worry that we might not even be conscious of.
That is one of the reasons we are now scanning and shredding our important papers. They stretch far back into the past: electricity bills, credit card statements, college acceptance forms and the like, they are too troublesome to carry now that we have limited space. It seems that in each place we have lived there has been a storage hiding-hole of some kind. We used to have a basement at one point, and then a garage, and we have always had more closets than we knew what to do with. What a headache that caused in the long term: we had abundant space to hide our knick knacks, papers, extra shoes, clocks and superfluous kitchen implements.
Now, you see, we have nowhere to hide and that has saved us.
We are literally tripping over papers every day and our only solution is to scan them, fifty pages a day, and then take a hearty pleasure in destroying them. I can honestly attest that having no nook or cranny in this apartment has been our salvation.
I can remember many times we would miss something we were certain was buried in our house but could not be located in the jumble. The answer? To buy the same item once more (and consequently find the old one upon returning from the store.) That will never happen to us again. Even if our next apartment should have more closets than can be counted, we will not have anything to put into them. There are no dark, cobweb corners; no mysterious boxes of artifacts; no corner filled with nameless items. We know where everything is. We are acting on getting rid of most of it but at least we know where and what it is.
I am eager for the day when everything that matters to us can be bundled into one room, and we are ready for our next adventure. Or, simply ready for a clutter-free house.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Doing What Pleases Us

Precisely the least,

the softest,
a lizard's rustling,
a breath,
a flash, a moment -
a little makes the way of the best happiness.
-Frederich Nietzsche

We spent a few days in Amsterdam last year. We have friends who will always ask us, on hearing we travelled, if we saw such and such a place or visited this, or went there or viewed that.
The answer, most of the time, is that we did none of it.
We tend to find other things to do than following guide books when we explore a new place.
For us in Amsterdam, walking from morning until evening was our pleasure. We like to walk as much as we can no matter where we go but in a new city it is absolutely fascinating.
It was unbearably hot so we had to carefully walk under trees or wherever we found shade.
We found an incredibly-priced grocery store and for six days we shopped there for our little bits of food.
I remember ice cold drinkable yogurt in gallon containers for a modest 50 cents; barely warm pancakes with a hint, just a whiff, of blueberry that we wrapped in brown paper bags and ate for breakfast while walking on antiquated streets; and in the evening, swallowing the most delicious ice cream on the planet while sitting at a crowded street fountain on the way back to our apartment. Our feet were so hot and weary, and the water so raw and refreshing that I swear to this day I heard a 'hiss' when we dipped our toes into the fountain with the other merrymakers. The fact that mere yards away various street performers were entertaining us for free, well, that was an unexpected treat indeed.
The guide books, no doubt, told of wonders to the left and right of us and down the next street; but their information could never have taken the place of those pleasures.
If we had followed a tourist book goodness knows what we might have done but I am positive we would not know about steeping our feet, or drinkable yogurt which, I might add, was one of the most nectareous foods I have ever tasted.
Of course, the element of a foreign country or being on vacation seems to make such sweet thrills easier to come by. One could well say that the above only applies when having the luxury of a vacation.
It does not have to be like that: yesterday was Sunday and in the morning we went for a walk along by a river that runs near our apartment. We took photographs, collected some vividly coloured leaves and felt cold air sting our cheeks for the first time in months. When we have been complaining of heat during the summer months, with the coming of colder times it is too easy to forget the woes of heat and begin anew to complain, this time about the cold. We are not sun-people and so were mighty glad of the bite in the weather and glad that we could finally go for a walk without fear of sunstroke.
Warm, milky drinks can be looked forward to, and thick blankets can be shaken from their position in the closet and used, at long last.
There is always something simple to be glad about but I do not recall reading of them in any guide book or, for that matter, self-help book.
I myself look forward to watching the torrential rain from the safety of indoors, plenty of cups of tea, and hours of reading Calvin and Hobbes which always puts me in mind of the best and most comforting things about Winter.
We should, in the end, please ourselves and do what cheers us most without desperately following a list constructed by somebody else. If we look hard enough we might just find that our greatest pleasures are the least expensive ones. If so, if we manage to do that, imagine a source of fun that was renewable, that could be experienced more often.
It would be fine to live such a limitless life, not to save money, but to get the joy that comes with being creative.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Out To Dinner

We Alone, by Alice Walker

We alone can devalue gold
by not caring
if it falls or rises
in the marketplace.
Wherever there is gold
there is a chain, you know,
and if your chain
is gold
so much the worse
for you.

Feathers, shells
and sea-shaped stones
are all as rare.

This could be our revolution:
to love what is plentiful
as much as
what's scarce.

There is a film my Spouse and I watch often. 'The Man Without a Past' is a film that, in fact, has done much to encourage us to live the simpler life we are striving for every day.
The story revolves around a group of impoverished people who live in freight containers on the waterfront in Helsinki. They do not, for all intents and purposes, exist. These people have been cast to the side of a society which does not want or need them.
They scarcely know where their next meals will come from. They have absolutely nothing of material value.
When the main character turns up with no recollection of his name or life, these people feed him what little they have and they take care of him.
The man of the 'house' in one scene stares for a long time at the stranger. He sums up the situation and says, "it's Friday. Let's go out for dinner."
And here the audience is left awfully confused and struggling, most likely, to make sense of those words. One wonders at this scene of two men planning to go out for a meal, and how on earth they would afford such a luxury.
The next moment, however, shows the two men better dressed than in previous scenes.
We see that they are lining up with bowl and spoon in their hands. They are at a soup kitchen and they are partaking of the free meal handed out to the homeless.
This, then, is a film that challenges our perception of the phrases 'luxury', 'entertainment' and 'dining out.' It is one of the more profound statements the film makes. Because it is too easy to forget there really are people that cannot conceive of 'saving' to go to a restaurant no matter how much they aspire to. It will never happen in their lifetime.
Think about it: did they, or did they not, 'go out to dinner'? I believe they did. All they had to do was see it from another angle which, when given their circumstances, is not so difficult.
The point is simply that we need to be more imaginative and industrious about how to get by and far less demanding.
We think that we cannot live without this or that: it simply is not so. It is only that we have forgotten how to do without our frills, to the point where we do not even consider them frills anymore. Shining new items, and brand-name products are as much a part of our existence now as breathing in and out.
At this time my Spouse and myself are attempting to rid ourselves of a three-drawer dresser that has plagued us for a long time. We have used it to its fullest extent but it is so terribly heavy and takes up more space than it saves, rendering it nothing but a troublesome burden. An expensive one, at that, when we make another cross-country move.
We are primarily trying to get it out of our apartment; we're not greedily asking for lashings of money. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, nobody wants it.
I know that there are people out there who would be willing to take a used item, be it clothing, books or household items. Finding those few people, however, is a monstrous task.
I fear greatly that we will have to haul the dresser away ourselves and dispose of it. It makes me very sad: it is a beautiful item. The only flaw, as I see it from the perspective of a potential buyer, is that the dresser does not come sealed in plastic, smelling of a factory and with a price tag of some hundreds of dollars.
My Spouse takes a packed lunch to work. We used to buy deli meat and complain about it every week. It was not just the price, it was the bland taste and the lack of creativity that was stifling us. The twenty minutes of a precious Saturday we lost waiting in line at the deli counter did not help either. Now we cook meatballs for a much lower price, and lunch is not a problem. Lunch is also very tasty. There is no shame in cooking instead of going to a restaurant and no shame in taking a home-cooked lunch to work instead of a pre-cooked, fancy label package.
It is all about the personal kinds of value that you place on things, and a little bit of compromise, if one must see it that way.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

An Ode

This was a simple homage to my mother's overseas Christmas visit and my farewell to her at the end of it, through the medium of a poem addressed to her shoes. For three weeks she kept her shoes inside the front door under the Christmas tree -we do not wear shoes in the house- and I felt at the end of her trip that I had somehow taken their presence, and hers, for granted.

Ode to Mater's Shoes, That Used to Rest By the Front Door: Christmas 2002

Ah! I shall miss thee both,
twin shoes, a pair so fine
that had their place by the door
(sometimes I put mine)
Ah, but when ye leave
I'll see ye no more,
Mater's new shoes
that rested by the door
when oft she wasn't smoking;
I would that those shoes, a while
could stay and rest here longer
afore they go on their mile.
Goodbye to Mater's shoes,
I'll miss thee both, it's true.
As for the feet that filled the shoes,
mayhap I'll miss them too.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday Night Fever

We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy
even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry.
-E.B. White

This is Friday. Soon it will be evening. What, oh what, do we have planned?
-Dinner will be rice and absolutely heavenly home-cooked chicken. There may be wine; recently we were married for the second time (it came with even less fuss than the first) and friends gave us a bottle of wine. We have yet to open it.
-We will perhaps watch fifteen minutes of a DVD while we eat. Our television is not connected to enable us to receive any channels and so we live exclusively on our collection of DVDs.
-A trip to the library to pick up four Akira Kurosawa films we had ordered. There is something unequivocally soothing about Kurosawa's work. They always make us feel better for watching them, and a little wiser too.
-There is an unexplored grocery store across the road from the library. We do not usually deviate but in recent weeks we have seen an alarming increase in the price of food. Our breakfast cereal went up by 50 cents overnight. As the price of dried fruits, milk and other goods seemed to be heading in the general direction of up we decided to try a new grocery and hope that the issue is confined to that one particular store. It will be quite interesting. We may find new items, or our favourites for better prices.
-We will scan a stack of papers, mostly ten year old bills and statements, and then shred them; thankfully, one more box will be emptied and we can waltz on its crushed remains.
-As we scan/shred, we will listen to some music. I had been playing some Christmas music in recent days but 'Mele Kalikimaka' just will not stop haunting me and has soaked into my brain like a weed to the point where, if I find myself singing it one more time, it may have to be deleted from the computer. So, no Christmas music tonight, then. I quite like Carla Bruni for an evening of tidying. Her music is comforting, bewitching and classy.
While reading on the Internet some reviews of her album, 'Quelqu'un m'a dit,' I once came across a remark that I still cling to: “she is like a European massage.”
-We may do a laundry. Last week passed happily enough without us needing to do one, so we have earned, I suppose, some 'credit points.' That is a joke between us, of course.
-I may reread part of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.' Perhaps I will write a review of the book at some point. It made me so happy when I read it the first time over a year ago and even reading small portions is still such a delight. It is a Winter book, in a way, full of rain, lit candles, dry, erudite gentlemen, manners and secret passageways. I read it in Spring last year, however and if I am ever at a loss for a book to read I pick that up.

For a super Friday night, all it takes for us is a little bit of cleaning in our apartment, some music, and good food that we cooked ourselves and know exactly the cost of.
For a long time we asked each other, baffled, “what do couples do on a Friday night? Aren't we supposed to be going out and committing our souls to a video store, or lining up in a movie theater or something?” We stopped asking that rhetorical question a couple of years ago because those things just do not work for us. I am not fond of video stores myself because I find their selections awfully limited and the money they charge horrifies me when I remember it. The thing to do is find an effective, hopefully cheaper but happy way of spending a Friday. You could telephone somebody. You could dig up some books that need rereading or visit the library for some new ones. There is absolutely always something good to do.

Chain Reaction

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.
One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery,
and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
-Aldo Leopold, from "A Sand County Almanac."

I happened upon that passage in an old book tucked away on a shelf in my college library a couple of years ago. I immediately checked out the book on reading those marvellous words, supposing the writer to be special in some way. Of course, I was right.
When my two weeks were up, I prepared to sadly take the book back to the library. It had not been checked out for ten years. I ascertained this from the dates stamped inside the front cover. Ten years and nobody at all had read this book!
As it came about, I did find another edition in a chain bookstore but it was a soulless and unopened version that didn't lift my spirits in the same way. I don't mean the content, of course. That was superb. But there are some books whose pages beg to be smelled and cherished, especially if they are well read, well marked and have some history; even if one does not know what that past might entail.
And oh, I relished the smell of a book that had not been pried open in a decade but had lain in a library surrounded by other volumes and gathering dust and must.
A little plan formed in my head. I could, perhaps, ask the librarian to sell me the book. Either that, or I could offer to buy the library a new one. I would do it willingly. Nobody, clearly nobody had wanted this book for ten years and it was taking up valuable space on the shelf.
I decided to do it. It was very hard for me to gather enough courage to do this as I would ordinarily never dream of asking for such an outrageous thing. I ached about it for two days.
At the last moment, I thought of just returning the book and running away quickly.
I found myself, however, at the desk, asking if I could speak to somebody.
A cold pair of eyes looked me up and down. Perhaps she suspected I wanted her job.
Well, if I did have her job, my first task would be to sell me the book when I came enquiring.
"What is it about?"
"Well," I trembled, "I came to return this book." I paused.
She held out her hand.
"I think I'd like to buy it, if I may."
"As you can see, it hasn't been checked out for a decade. I love this particular edition and I would be willing to buy the library another copy, if you preferred. Or I could give money."
There was an awfully long silence.
"We don't normally do that."
Ah: 'normally' was a fine word, indicating negotiation was a possibility.
"I see. I'd really like it, though. Isn't there anything we can do?"
She shook her head as if trying to wake from this bizarre dream.
"Let me get somebody who could talk to you."
She brought out another lady who was very kind but assured me they just couldn't do it.
"But, you can buy it from amazon or a chain bookstore," she advised helpfully.
"No, I know that, thank you. I wanted this one, see. I love this copy. A completely personal thing, you understand. It's old and used and I love books like this. And look at this, it hasn't been checked out for so long." I showed her.
"We can't just sell our books. I'd like to help you but if everybody wanted to do that..."
"I would be willing to buy a new copy if that suited you better. It could be an easy swap, without anybody losing out."
"Well, the problem is, it would cost us too much money to restock it."
"We would have to restock the shelf and adjust the computer file and it causes all kinds of complications. It isn't just a matter of swapping them, you know."
I didn't think that I could or should proceed after hearing that. I did not want to hear what she would come up with if I countered that argument.
I quietly returned the book and left. I was sad, not because I didn't get what I wanted, but because I was willing to bet that due to my drawing attention to the book, within a year it would be hauled to a big dump and burned.
We can't always have what we desire but we all know that she could have helped me. I foolishly imagined it might aid them to be rid of a book nobody had checked out in years. Assuming they followed a logical pattern of thinking, that is. Perhaps the librarian did not have the power to let me have the book but she did not even try. Her unwillingness to help was the trouble.

Books are precious. Any commodity is, for that matter. It may not seem like such a crucial element, but with a little bit of effort that book would have gone to a good home and been treated as a treasure. It all makes a difference. We take so much for granted, and can at times be astonishingly wasteful.
In England last year, my Spouse and I were ambling along by the side of a river, taking in the exquisiteness of the area. We noticed a young woman crouching down beside the water. She had, on the ground by her side, an enormous sack of bread. She was feeding the bread to the ducks on the water. As we passed by, she turned to us and offered to let us help feed the birds. And so, for about twenty minutes on a gorgeous Spring afternoon, we stood flinging torn-up pieces of bread into the water. She told us, in broken English, that she worked in a restaurant. At day's end, the restaurant would discard all the leftover bread. She sought it out every day and came to the river to feed the creatures with it.
She did a little thing, just a fleeting, insignificant thing. The bread might have been burned and the ducks would have found something else to eat. Ostensibly, nothing changed. But she did what she had to do, regardless. That mattered. Conscience would not let her leave that bread behind. One thing absent in us for the most part, is conscience. We do not much consider that a little act can make a world of difference. We are caught up too much, perhaps, in needing to see an effect, needing to be a witness to the reaction.
We all have to learn to proverbially leave an anonymous gift on a stranger's doorstep- neither taking credit nor seeing the outcome. Someday, hopefully, we will find out that it was part of a vital chain reaction more important than we could have imagined.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Of Mice and Men

"I threw my cup away when I saw a child drinking from his hands at the trough."

There was once a man who decided he had too many possessions. Life was more complicated than it should be. So he left his home and his belongings behind and moved to the edge of a wood where he built a small house. This man needed nothing, he told everybody. He had an abundance of fruits from the forest and water from the nearby pond. The man sometimes found wild vegetables and ate them, or he caught some fish when he was hungry. All was well for a time, and he was content. He had nothing and wanted nothing.
Then one day a tiny little mouse came out of the forest. It made a nest for itself in the man's new home. This annoyed the man greatly. He did not know what to do. He tried to ignore it but the mouse ate whatever little fruits he had stored. He tried to pretend the mouse wasn't bothering him but he could hear it scuttling around at night and it infuriated him.
"What shall I do?" he asked the nearby villagers in despair. "How can I get rid of this mouse?"
"You must get a cat," said the wisest man in the village. "The cat will catch the mouse and ensure no other pests will come to live with you."
"Thank you," said the grateful man.
He bought a cat shortly after.
He brought the cat home and was pleased to see that the mouse was now frightened at the cat's presence.
Then the cat cried. It was hungry.
"Where will I get milk?" he wondered. All he ate were fruits and wild vegetables.
"You must get a cow," said the wisest man in the village. "The cow will provide enough milk for you to feed the cat so that the mouse will not come back."
"Thank you," said the grateful man.
He bought a cow shortly after.
He brought the cow home and gave the cat some milk.
Then the cow bellowed. Where would he keep the cow?
"You must build a barn," said the wisest man in the village. "The cow will then be happy and will provide enough milk for you to feed the cat so that the mouse will not come back."
"Thank you," said the grateful man.
So the man built a barn to give shelter to the cow. Not long afterwards, he bought a dog, also. He was getting fearful that somebody would enter the barn and steal the precious cow.
"But what," he asked in misery, "will I feed the dog?"

And all because of a tiny little mouse; things do add up without our noticing them.

To put it less elegantly for a moment: if we have books, we need shelves to store them on;
if we have multiple kinds of clothing, we need multiple kinds of shoes to wear with them;
floors need supplies to keep them clean;
even simple candles need lighting implements;
hair requires shampoo, a brush, a hairdryer...

Does it never end? Does the torrent of 'stuff' we believe we need, never stop?
We ceased using a land-line some months ago due to increasingly high rental costs and now we rely solely on our Internet phone. It is wonderful to be saving so much money but when the Internet is not working, the phone does not work either, a trouble that never arose when we had a separate phone line.
A few days ago we woke up to a dark apartment. When we looked out of the window, we saw a dark street. We had a few things to do around and about so, after a disastrous breakfast, we got in our car and drove. As we went, we noticed that traffic lights were acting strangely everywhere we looked and that not one of the stores had a light on. A storm during the night had apparently wiped out all electricity not on our street alone but within a whole mile radius. I saw that a pharmacy's automatic doors were shut: I wondered aloud how customers would get in without electricity. My Spouse said, "even if they could get in, they can't buy anything. The tills won't open and so there won't be cash available."
"Yes," I said, "but at least one could use a credit card."
"No, they can't. No electricity, remember?"
Oh, dear.
I am not sure what might be the solution. There is no obvious or quick mending of this.
The poor fellow in the story, which my Spouse first told me, attempted a simpler life. Unfortunately it cost him dearly. Most likely he was not a materialistic man or would not have felt possessions were a burden to begin with.
It almost feels as though, once something has been invented, we become clueless as to how to live without it. Once our lives become entwined with a gadget or machine or service, our entire way of living can all of a sudden depend greatly on that item. It is a rather ominous thought.
I suggest at the very least that we can start from right now and not grow any more dependent; that would be a good beginning.
Instead of, for example, buying yet another shelf, drawer, dresser, wall-pocket, basket, barrel or indeed any hiding place for 'stuff', ask yourself if the new storage will help to improve your life.
Perhaps the items to be put into hiding are not really useful, or used, or enabling your life in any way.
Then discard it, if you can.
From now on, let us obviate the need for more and more accessories: keep it simple.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Fine System

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."

I feel greatly privileged that my local library has such a vast collection of films, books and music. I appreciate the fact that I can go there at any time and take advantage of what is on offer. It is not like that everywhere, I know. Anything I could ever want is on hand and sometimes they order from other libraries too, if they do not have a copy.
Some time back I requested a new Tom Waits CD called 'Orphans.'
Because the album was brand new and in high demand, there were a good number of people on the list in front of me, also waiting for it. This is a list I can see regularly on the Internet on our library account. When somebody checks the item back in, you can see the long list get smaller. I do that when it is something I am waiting anxiously for and looking forward to with enthusiasm. "Hurray!" I will shout to my Spouse on a slow day. "Number 9 brought back 'Orphans!" And Spouse will cheer and we will feel that bit closer to hearing the music.
After ordering, I calculated that, according to the number of people in front of me, I should get the CD within two months.
That was last May.
This is October.
Something was not adding up. How could people be so slow to return an item? I could only think that people were, for some reason unknown to me, willing to fork out enormous library fines for keeping a CD weeks overdue.
Surely with that money they could have bought their own copy of the CD?
I am most particular about bringing back library items on time, as is my Spouse. We bring them back days before they are due. It not being mine, I will not keep it longer than I need to watch/read/listen.
It seemed that library patrons were keeping the album for weeks at a time. Not understanding the mentality of people who are reluctant to hand back library property, I searched on the library website to see what sort of stiff fines we were talking about.
I did indeed find a note about library fines. I read it once, twice, showed my Spouse, who read it once, twice. This could not be possible, surely?
The following day, having to return a book, we made it our business to ask the librarian about the note we had seen. She would, hopefully, say that it was a ghastly mistake on the website and of course it did not make any sense.
"So," we said, "can you tell us about your policy on library fines?"
"Oh," she said, clucking and shaking her head, "we don't fine people now. We stopped all that."
It was true, then. Horror of horrors.
"You don't fine people? At all?"
"No. They weren't paying and it was getting difficult so we abolished the fines."
"But what incentive do people have to bring anything back?"
"Oh, sometimes they don't bring back the book but then we send them a letter."
"A letter. I see."
"Yes. After two months they get a harsh letter."
Oh, my. I can see them trembling already.
"Why did you stop, though? People can just keep things, anything they want!"
"We trust people," she said kindly. "Some folks bring them back, and some don't."
"So. No more fines, then." I just wanted to verify one last time.
"No more fines." She beamed as she said it, as if we should be pleased.
I am awfully sorry, Madam Librarian, but you smiled at the wrong couple. We happen to think that library fines are a perfectly good idea, one that was part of our consciousness growing up, one that is ingrained in our personalities and a completely natural instinct. I do not take any selfish pleasure from the fact that we return everything on time just as we do not pat ourselves on the back for stopping at red lights or not leaping in front of people when there is a line at the grocery store.

Let me attempt to sum up the new policy: nobody was paying their dues so the cunning library brains dreamed up the idea to do away with fines entirely so that they would not have to hand over the same fines they were not paying anyway, and...oh, dear. It is all too much for me, this twisted logic.
What happened to responsibility?
Why are we so afraid to make people pay what they owe?
Are we afraid of offending them or of violating their human rights?
That is what it all comes down to: being responsible.
I would think that if people are not returning borrowed items, they need to be fined. If they do not pay their dues, they ought to have their access restricted.

I feel quite strongly about this. I am unable to see the good this no-fine library policy has done for us. Of course it is not just about libraries. It is a growing trend, and a frightening one, to shun responsibility and, if we can, to blame somebody else.

We have an issue with fixing real problems, it seems. That infiltrates all aspects of our lives; if we think somebody else is responsible for our dilemmas then I am afraid that we shall never get out of any trouble, be it financial or personal.

'The Little Prince,' by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is one of my favourite books in the world. These lines mean a lot to me when I consider that we each have to do our part to make things better:

"It's a question of discipline," the little prince told me later on.
"When you've finished washing and dressing each morning,
you must tend your planet."

I do not suggest that library fines will save the world but they do instigate a certain discipline, without which we are sorely lost.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Taking What You Need

“The hardest thing is to take less when you can get more”
-Kin Hubbard

I have already mentioned several times my Achilles' heel in simple living: I am fond of books and all-you-can-eat buffet.
The first time I saw a buffet was few years ago; I was almost hesitant to go back for a second plate. I can barely imagine that now, given how much I eat when we do go out. I thought that somebody would 'catch me' so to speak, and throw me out of the restaurant.
I make sure that I am hungry when I go to a buffet but somehow, no matter how much food I eat, I always have to be coaxed reluctantly out of there.
Somewhere inside me, I have the feeling that I am wasting it; we have paid for it, I am entitled to it, I could have more- so why don't I?

Recently I stumbled upon an out-of-the-way place I had previously only seen in my dreams.
I found a bookshelf in the woods that held about three thousand books.
The idea was that you could come by and choose to leave your unwanted books to be reused, but at the same time you could take anything you wanted from the shelf. Anything, any number. I swear I had dreamed it before.
We dropped off about 150 books in this magical place and once we had put them tidily on the shelf, we set to work picking out new books.
My Spouse and I thought we were in heaven, we truly did. I kept looking around to check if I had woken up yet but we were still surrounded by books and trees.
Other people were there too, gently leafing through hundreds of books.
How many should I take?
I had a number in mind which closely resembled the number we had just dropped off. I know the idea had been to get rid of things but this was an opportunity for us to pick up some new books. At the worst, we would end up with the same number of books in our house we had that morning.
I started pulling books off the shelf. I could hardly breathe. I could take this one or that, it didn't matter: they were all FREE!
My Spouse came quietly up to my side and said something about “taking it easy.”
What in the world? I thought crossly, what a golden opportunity to have fresh books and you talk about only taking a few?
I attempted to hand over the bundle of books to my Spouse and said “if you take these to the car, I'll free up my arms and I can keep looking.”
My Spouse said “no.”
I was stunned.
“But I can hardly carry what I've got! My arms are sore.”
“Then maybe you have taken enough?” was the reply.
At first I was frustrated, and then I thought more about it. We were trying to make our lives easier, and lighter. I remembered a Zen line about the 'refreshing whinny of a packhorse unloaded of everything' and I stopped grabbing books for a moment . I pictured us inside a small moving truck, on a long road with just a few precious books, our computer, some mementos. I added a few hundred more books to that vision and suddenly the truck got bigger. I looked more carefully and saw that while we were driving one moving truck there was another one in front of us, also full of our things. And one behind us, too...the road was full of moving trucks that belonged to us!

That was extremely difficult. I love books more than anything and the possibility of only taking a handful was devastating to me. The alternative, however, was not very pleasant. Either we wanted to be lighter, or we did not. I longed to take as many as possible because they were 'there' and I considered it a waste if I did not. I forgot to consider that somebody else would come to this spot and make use of the books and that nothing would, in the end, be wasted. And even if the books were destined to be burned, in the worst case, all I needed to do was take a decent, simple amount of books and be happy.

Hit It On the 57

Whatever else you do or forbear,
impose upon yourself the task of happiness;
and now and then abandon yourself
to the joy of laughter.
From “Whatever Else You Do” by Max Ehrmann

I have a friend who visited me from afar last year. As I showed her around my country by bus and on foot, we stopped in a cafe to eat.
Our burgers shortly afterwards arrived and I reached for the ketchup bottle to add a little dollop on the side of my plate.
I thumped away at the bottle but nothing emerged. My hand was becoming sore, my food cold. I grew impatient.
My friend watched me in her calm way and said sagely, “hit it on the 57.”
I did not know at all what that meant, but I trusted my friend and supposed that turning the bottle to a 57 degree angle might dislodge any obstruction and send gallons of sauce my way. I am not terribly accurate when it comes to precise degrees and I presumed that my friend must be the mathematical sort who knew about such things.
So I turned the bottle at a reasonably 57-ish degree angle, hoped for the best, and banged on the end.
The sauce flew out, but it missed my plate by half the restaurant's length. Or thereabouts.
My friend looked at me with a puzzled eye. “Why did you do that?”
“You said to hit it on the 57,” I wailed. There was sauce everywhere else but not a drop on my plate.
“ know that I meant you to actually hit where the number 57 is written on the end of the bottle...didn't you?”

Light dawned on me at last.
It was a Heinz bottle, you see, with its little '57 varieties' slogan emblazoned on the neck of the bottle. Apparently, hitting the bottle on that particular spot makes the sauce come out more easily.
If I recall correctly it took two hours to eat the meal because we both just could not stop laughing.
No, that really has nothing to do with frugality but it has everything to do with the fact that the simple memory cheers me up when I am feeling a mite gloomy. It costs me nothing to remember how much fun we had.

I do not recall any items I bought that day; I do not remember shopping; I could not tell you what I wore or whether my clothes matched or how much money I was carrying. You have a bad memory! one might say, but no—just a selective one. I keep what is important and everything else passes on as it should.

Oyster Stew

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

-from 'Famous', by Naomi Shihab Nye

I appreciate the above lines for their warm suggestion that we can learn from each other, that we each have our talents and something to share with the world, that kindness and usefulness are so much more urgently needed than extravagance or frills or as the poet says, being famous.

My good friend and 'surrogate grandmother', she tells stories. She weaves stories set in places so small ‘you couldn’t cuss a cat in there without getting hairs in your mouth’ and in country so vast that the walls of a room seem to melt away as she regales us with her life tales.

I applaud her stories which all seem to be based around simple happiness she shared with people throughout the years. The best ones she relates are full of laughter about good times that for certain no amount of money could buy.

I am fond of one in particular that I believe defines love and a happy marriage.

She told me of her first Christmas with her husband, many moons ago. She was very nervous about cooking for somebody else. As an offhand comment and polite enquiry, she asked her husband whether he happened to like Oyster Stew.

He agreed that he would like her to try and cook that.
Pleased with a challenge, she cheerfully made the meal and continued to do so for the following thirty nine years.

One Christmas, when their three sons were grown, he softly asked if she might make something new this year. She was happy to oblige but wondered why he should seek a change when he liked it so much.
He was forced to admit that he had never liked it very much at all. That first Christmas he had only agreed to 'taste' it to see how an Oyster Stew might be. Then she had made again it the next year , this time without asking and she cooked it for four decades with the notion that it had always been his tradition; while he said not a word because he thought it had been hers—and neither wanted to offend the other.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Making People Understand

Ed, by Louis Simpson

Ed was in love with a cocktail waitress,
but Ed’s family, and his friends,
didn’t approve. So he broke it off.

He married a respectable woman
who played the piano. She played well enough
to have been a professional.

Ed’s wife left him …
Years later, at a family gathering
Ed got drunk and made a fool of himself.

He said, “I should have married Doreen.”

“Well,” they said, “why didn’t you?”

It can be prohibitively troublesome to make friends and family understand your need to be frugal and live a simple life. When you muse out loud that you might do away with your bed entirely, they may, for example, smile and nod gently but as they do so, a glazed look enters their eyes. They do not get it.

That is acceptable, thankfully. They do not have to completely understand, as long as they allow you to do what must be done.

Then again, instead of a blank look you might get a full blooded, two-hour long defensive speech on the necessity of furniture.

If you talk to a friend who has several cars about the possibilities of your cycling to work; or with somebody who dines out regularly that you would like to start a vegetable garden; or discuss compact studio living with a person that wholeheartedly and unwaveringly believes in positioning fancy sculptures in every corner of their luxury-carpeted house, you perhaps will run into some difficulties. That is why being sure of yourself is so crucial.

We all have different lifestyles and we enjoy them to some extent; not everyone who lives elaborately will try to change your mind for you. But some will, for various reasons of their own:

-Misguided kindness: they might think that you are somehow 'depriving' yourself of the frills of life, and will suffer badly for lack of the things they live and breathe for. It is up to them, then, to 'save' you.

-Wistful envy: despite shopping habits showing the contrary, it would be reasonable to assume we are all aware that constant purchasing of useless items does nothing to supplement our happiness. We yearn to be brave enough to throw off the shackles of a wasteful society and live burden free. Not everyone is plucky enough to live a simpler life, but doubtless we would all like to have less possessions to worry about.

If you adapt a more frugal and careful way, it becomes increasingly problematic to socialise the way you might have done. There will always be birthdays or special evenings to attend, and friends might invite you to a bar or restaurant where you're obliged to either buy a round of drinks or pay for a meal you know you could cook better at home. It's a very thorny issue and one not resolved by surrendering and going along every time. Likewise, staying home for the rest of your life watching your tomatoes grow is no more acceptable.

The trick is to first and foremost explain to your friends and family how you will be living from now on. Tell them your outlined plan, and frankly say that you can't possibly go out to dinner to spend $40 or more when you have put so much effort into saving $3 on grocery. Those do not sit very well side by side and it undermines what you are trying to achieve. You must make them believe that being simpler makes you happy and brings you the satisfaction you never had when you had all those rooms full of unwanted junk. The only real way to make people see you are happy is to be consistent in your chosen lifestyle. It is perfectly admissible, I think, to relax from time to time if social obligations spring up. If you are unflinching and steadfast, you can decide as the occasion arises how you will spend your money. It is just about impossible to say 'no birthdays' or 'no restaurants' because, of course, there are unavoidable situations that call for such sacrifices. Only the individual can judge the importance of each. Consistency, however, is the key. Unless your friends and family see a pattern in your way of living, they won't believe it and they will continue to believe you are thwarting your own life and in turn will try to 'help' you.

We all ought to worry less about what people think of us. After all, we are living for ourselves and immediate family, not for anybody else. The people who do not understand you, and show it in their actions, are most likely not worth fussing about anyway. I myself consider it a wonderful filter of a sort. As I said, not everyone has to adapt our lifestyle but at the least, live and let live.

We have a perfectly lovely Christmas tree stuffed into a closet at the moment. I want to stand it up and decorate it and leave it there permanently. What a waste, being in the closet for the rest of the year! There are some treasured decorations from good friends, decorations that we only see for a few weeks in the year. I know that at some point we will l invite friends over and oh my goodness, they shall see our tree! It might not look right at all, depending, of course, on when they come over.

I am quite torn between not wasting the tree, which takes up valuable space unused in our apartment, and risking looking silly when we invite people in, say, March. What shall we do then? One can hardly hide the tree under the bed until our friends leave. No, we have to decide what we want more. We cannot just dismiss the opinions of others but at the same time we should not concern ourselves so much with what people might think of us to the extent that it limits our ability to be happy.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

How Likely Is It...

A man was stranded in the desert. He crawled in the blinding sun along the endless sand. Gasping for breath and fearing he would not last very much longer, he was astonished to see what appeared to be a small building in the distance. Gathering his last ounce of strength and praying for his life that it would not be a mirage, he inched his weary way to where a man was indeed standing in the doorway of a hut.

“Please,” he choked. “I need water.”
“Would you like to buy a tie?” was the devastating reply.
The traveller was horrified.
“No. I don't need a tie. Just a drink.”
“Are you sure? You seem hesitant. Look, just for you, a deal—half price. I've got some excellent ties. What do you think?”
“Water,” was all the broken fellow could muster. This strange salesman in the desert—he must be half mad!
“We've got ties in many colours, some different materials—”
Our hero had to keep crawling. The salesman was still shouting after him, to offer an even better deal. The sun seethed in an unforgiving sky.
He might find a spring or a well, or—no. All was lost. He was going to lose consciousness at any moment and there was surely no well in the desert. That was desperation talking.
And then, he saw another building, much larger than the first. Perhaps his life was spared after all.
Oh, thank goodness. A large and beautiful sign said 'HOTEL.'
He dragged his body over to the doorway and cried for help. Somebody came to the door.
“Water,” the fatigued man whispered. “Do you have water?”
“Yes, yes we do,” came the merciful response.
At this, the thirsty man sank into the sand. He was saved.
“But I'm dreadfully sorry, Sir. This is a hotel. I simply can't let you in without a tie.”

I have heard this tale many times from different sources. The question it brings to mind for me is this: how likely is it, that in order to survive, one would need a tie in the desert?
The answer, of course, is an undisputed 'not likely at all.'
We all agree on that and on the foolishness of the situation: nobody would suggest that the traveller was short-sighted in neglecting to pack a tie for his journey.

However, while we people say one thing, we live life a completely different way. We instead store and hoard items that we will, if we are honest with ourselves, never get to use.

I cannot count the number of times we hesitated to throw something out because of 'possible guests'. This was a significant rationalisation for us.

-What if we ever have more guests than there are forks? In that case, we had surely better keep the unused plastic fork we picked up from that restaurant. Just in case.
-What if one of our guests forgets to bring a hairbrush? We should always keep a spare one in our bathroom. Just in case.
-Assuredly, we are the only two in the apartment but I would like to keep 16 mugs—and only one of us uses them—should some break, or we should happen to have 16 visitors who all want to partake of tea or coffee at the exact same time. Just in case.

I am all in favour, mind you, of being imaginative and using seemingly random items for new purposes but for the most part we have neither time nor inclination to be so crafty. It becomes a burden at moving time when you end up paying to move and perhaps store boxes full of such things. It is an encumbrance in every-day life when trying to maneuver over or under barrel loads of jumble that do nothing but ensure one cannot sit at one's kitchen table. Some of the items I have been known to hold onto in case of emergency are:

-Socks with holes in them. I have not thought of a single solitary reason yet to keep these but I cannot let go. They are not even useful for dusting furniture.
-The wire used to hold bread wrapping together.
-Empty Tic-Tac boxes in case I should fall into possession of Tic-Tac-shaped items in sufficient quantities to require such a container (bearing in mind the great possibility that such items would come with their own, new container.)
-The cotton belt of a thick winter house coat that was given away or sold to someone in the desert years ago.
-The unused side of a greeting card, because the front picture is so very pretty.
-Those circular, sponge-like dividers that come with a new spindle of CDs or DVDs. Oh, dear. I can count four of those right now without moving from my chair.

If you are living this way, it is probably not the most efficient you can be. Being a 'pack rat' does not equal being creative and clever. This is especially true if the items stored are not easily located if an opportunity does arise.

The right questions to ask yourself then, are:

  1. How much is it costing me to keep? Could I be using my space for living rather than hoarding needless items?

  2. How likely is it that it will ever be used? Can I see a situation—without having to resort to absurd 'tie-in-a-desert' scenarios—where I will find a functional use for it? Do I honestly think that a single shoelace will get me out of some domestic disaster? How Likely Is it?

At this point I am not entirely sure we want to keep so much as our couches. I can envision a life without them. They are heavy and I cannot think of a single occasion, even when we had seven people in our home, that the couches were used to capacity. The same goes for the bed; we are giving serious consideration to purchasing a bed that can be folded into a couch in the daytime. It would effectively kill two birds with one stone, a feat not often achieved with two such burdensome items.

Once we get past the heart-rending vision of our poor, befuddled guests having no bed to sleep in; once they stop invading our dreams knock-knocking on the window crying that there are 15 of them and there are not enough vessels for all to drink from, then I think we will have mastered the art and conquered our fears.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Designer Shoes

You, with designer shoes on your feet—have you lived?
—gone barefoot once, in the early chill
of dawn, and climbed to the top of a hill;
felt the soft, wet grass between your toes
and watched the sun as it slowly rose?
You, with designer shoes on your feet—have you lived?

This is one of my own poems from eons ago; comments and thoughts are always welcome regarding any of my posts.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Enough is Enough

for my birthday
another trip
around the sun

-a Haiku by Jim Kacian

I think this is an elegant and fragile way of defining 'enough.' How many of us could honestly be that grateful for something so simple? We are rarely satisfied for very long—that, I am afraid, is the modern consumer inside all of us—racing ahead, imagining the next thing we can get. Sometimes it is not even for ourselves that we spend so lavishly. That does not make it more justifiable, however. We just do not know when to stop.
We are so caught up in celebrating birthdays and other occasions that we in fact go into debt for such things.
It is not an inconsequential point to add that most gifts do not see out the year; they end up being neglected or discarded to the rubbish pile.
There is a story by the writer O. Henry that I find, frankly, bemusing. Entitled 'The Gift of the Magi,' it is set at Christmas time and concerns a very nice young couple who are dreadfully poor. So impoverished, in fact, that food is scarce and the story gives the impression they are concerned they might not last very much longer if things continue that way.
I find the story hard to take, myself.
He decides to sell the last precious thing that he owns, as does she, and they do this independently of each other.
With the fine money they make, do they buy food, or pay bills, or save the money in a box under the bed—or make their lives easier in any way?
They do none of those things.
They buy each other a present.
Perhaps I inadvertently brushed past the real moral of the story: that they are in love and want to share kindness and make the other happy. I am certain that is a lovely idea, all well and good and heart warming, but for that Christmas, just that one hungry, difficult and troublesome occasion, I wonder why he could not simply have said,

“Sorry, Della, there just isn't any money. Next year will be better, I promise.”

Would she not have understood that proclamation? Would she not have replied, 'Not to worry, Jim. I know how hard you work. We don't need to starve to prove our love for each other.'
Am I a heartless, unromantic cheapskate? It is just that I tend to think simple is better, that priorities need to be set firmly, and that one does not at all need to go overboard with spending to prove affection for somebody. And if you do not have the money to spare, well, then, you just do not.
Perhaps a simple, homemade card at any time, not only on special occasions, would be enough. Or a telephone call, or a friendly visit; something affordable yet effective that does not run the risk of being forgotten by next week.

We Do Make a Difference

There was once a king of a vast and beautiful land. One day he was strolling in the grounds of his palace. He all of a sudden thought how magnificent it would be if he could have a pond filled not with water and multi-coloured fish, but with milk.

So he ordered his men to dig a very deep hole. They did as they were directed. That evening, the king instructed his people to each bring one glass of milk to fill the pond. He gave the word that it must be filled by sunrise. When night fell, men and women for miles around went to the king's pond with their glasses.
There was one man who watched them pass by from inside his little cottage. He thought to himself, 'look at how many people are putting milk in the pond. There must be thousands of them. Surely if I brought a glass of water instead, it could not make a difference?'
He told himself that he could not afford to sacrifice so much milk.
He considered for a long time, and finally, just before dawn, left the house with a glass of water in his hands. He walked for two miles. When he reached the pond, he knelt down in the thick darkness and poured water into the hole.
With his task accomplished, he crept away carefully, telling himself all the while that he had done the right thing.
In the morning the king woke and hurried down with anticipation to see his new pond. Nobody in the world would have something as wondrous as this.

But when the king arrived, he saw that the pond was as clear as glass. Everybody had poured water, not milk.
The blue sky and the king's horrified face were reflected in the still water.

My Spouse told me that story some years ago. I am not certain of the exact origin or age of the tale but its validity in our modern world is incontrovertible. It reflects this side of human nature: we believe, for some inexplicable reason, that we cannot make a difference. That causes not one but two major difficulties.

Firstly, if we retire from the world, so to speak, and actively do nothing to better it, our valuable contribution will be lost. If we have ideas about how to make something better and if we can encourage people to live a cleaner and simpler life, we will have done some great good.

Secondly, in assuming that our actions have no repercussions whatsoever, we become permanently blind to the damage we do. For instance, the excessively colossal cars we pass on the roads that never appear to carry more than one person—always begs the question 'why?' Consider the myriad of plastic bags from grocery stores or excessive packaging on items. Those do cause enormous damage in the long term, whether we are open to seeing it or not.

I think it is sufficient to say that our actions do, after all, matter. Being a passive caretaker of the environment is certainly better than actively causing destruction—albeit unintentional damage— but still, that isn't enough anymore. We need to first see that our behaviour does cast a long shadow.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

For What?

A commuter shaves and takes the train, and then rides back to shave again.
-E. B. White

People hardly stop to ask what all the shopping and buying is actually doing to benefit them. Looking at material possessions from another point of view, the things we own do not help us one whit.
They make us work longer hours so we can, just barely, afford them.
They make us bitter and possessive when Mr. Jones next door has a smaller/bigger/newer/faster/different coloured model.
We are in constant need of new storage space for them.
We worry that we cannot protect them and that somebody will steal them from under our noses.
We worry they might break down and leave us bereft.
They kill dreams: we cannot very well move to that little log cabin in the woods or to an exotic country while lugging around a 60 inch television or three cars.

The E.B. White line I quoted above strikes home with me for its representation of the foolish strides people will take in order to have a 'good life.' It reminds me that existence is meaningless if we live only to make money, never asking if perhaps there are things we could do without, thus invalidating the need to work every waking hour. In my mind, I try to visualise this commuter of E.B. White's; he owns a house many miles from where he works. He cannot afford to live closer to his workplace because it is much more costly and of course he has the house to pay for, and always something to be in debt about, be it birthdays or dining out or repainting and redecorating the entire house once a year. Perhaps he has children. Yes, they are expensive.

Baby gates, for example. I am not particularly fond of them. My Spouse recently spoke with his brother, who mentioned that his small son is now moving about, soon to be on his feet. The subject of baby gates arose. My Spouse's brother said he had not, and would not, buy a baby gate. He said it was merely a “phase” the baby was going through, and that all they had to do was be more careful and watch out for the baby. It was as simple as that but startlingly profound in its straightforwardness. Despite everyone chiming in about how wonderful and necessary they are, one parent was able to see clearly that it is only as important as you make it. Everything, in one way or another, can be managed without. Was there not a world before baby gates existed? It is refreshing to see there are parents who feel that responsibility for a child's safety should not be given to a packaged item constructed by a stranger.

When I was growing up we had neither washing machine nor dryer; everything was scrubbed in a bathtub and dried on a clothesline outdoors. It is not much of an argument to say that times are faster and busier now; there was an age—before my time—when families had perhaps six times the number of children they might do today, and somehow there was time for cleaning clothes and cooking fresh food. I myself do not understand how things can have changed so vastly that this kind of life has become impossible. It is not normal anymore. Perhaps most of us are afraid, in one way or another. Afraid that Mr. Jones from next door will 'win' if we choose to plant a vegetable garden, stop buying the most fashionable things, give up the accessories and the necessity for both couples to work. Surely it cannot be poles apart from the era I just hearkened back to? I have an idea we worry too much about what other people think of us.

I would like to advise that commuter, should I meet him on a morning train, that he ought to make a list of what he works for, all the things he suspects he should own.

I do not doubt that a typical counter to the whole discussion would be: 'but those hard working people would have valued and treasured a washing machine or a car.' Yes, they would. They would. But not if it meant Mr. Commuter could only come home to shave.

Diminished by Possession

"Possessions are usually diminished by possession."

-Friedrich Nietzsche

When I was in college some years ago, I desperately needed a text for one of my classes. The college store sold the edition for $99. For three crafty weeks I did what I could to circumvent buying the book; I copied pages from fellow students' books, read pages in the reference section at the library (I was not permitted to check it out and could read it for a paltry two hours in a day.)
After three weeks I realised that it was imperative I buy the book. It practically broke my heart to resort to buying such an expensive and utterly useless item.
One afternoon I was walking home from college (it was a small town and one could walk everywhere) with my mind made up. I determined I would do the deed tomorrow. After all, I had been strong for long enough. I had showed them! My grades would suffer if I did not buy my own copy.
There was a thrift store on the corner of my street that I visited from time to time. Or, every day, if I am honest.
So I entered and browsed the bookshelves. Perhaps I expected I might dig up a novel of some sort. I was not presuming to find my text book for 99 cents. But there it was, indeed. It was one of the finest deals of my life, and since then I have had enormous difficulty purchasing books at full price from a chain bookstore. Being a textbook, 99 cents was actually rather expensive; the rest of the paperbacks were priced at around 25 cents.

In the same way that it became challenging for me to buy books at full price when I have found them in thrift stores for as little as 25 cents, it is a matter of principle that my Spouse and I cannot and will not spent $400 each on a flight across the country when we know that at this very moment a traveller could go from one end of Europe to another for 99 cents with My brother uses it all the time. I hope he knows just how lucky he is.
We cannot bring ourselves to spend that kind of money when people we know are getting such excellent deals as part of their ordinary daily life. We have so many friends we want to visit but travelling around the US is impossible for us right now, sadly.
Admittedly, I like Ryanair. To be sure, food is not included in the ticket price but for that money, I'd stand on one leg for the journey, just to be able to travel. They get you where you want to go and it doesn't cost a fortune.

I always laugh when I think of the first time I flew with that airline. My Spouse and I had left Amsterdam seven hours earlier than was required, in order to be 'on time' for our flight to Ireland. I'm quite, shall we say, on edge and a stickler when it comes to being punctual and I detest being at the end of a queue. There is positively nothing wrong with being on time but I do get the feeling sometimes that I spend excess amounts of time worrying about making sure I get my money's worth. You can take it too far. The trouble is, with Ryanair there are no seat assignments and they have a first come, first serve policy, so you may not get a seat at all if you join the queue too late. Even if you succeeded in getting a seat, there may not be two seats together. So I was particularly concerned at this time.

We were right by our gate, standing triumphantly there for two hours before any other travellers joined us. Immediately after that, the line grew to more than a hundred people long. Good, I thought with satisfied glee. We are first. I would not take a break to use the restroom, and I urged my Spouse to stay right by my side. Just in case. One never knows what an airline will do at the last minute. You see, we were so very well prepared.
Shortly before we were due to board, however, my Spouse and I presumably both blinked at the same time.
In that instant, for I promise there was no other opportunity, the gate number changed and the entire line, every soul but us two, moved from our gate to the one immediately on our right. They must have moved in one fluid motion, like the world's biggest centipede, all of a hush so as not to alert the two people who had been waiting the longest and who had left their vacation behind hours too early.
I was livid as I joined the queue. Every person who had been behind us was now standing in front of us. My Spouse is more of the 'it's all right,' type. I am not. I reiterate, I am not. I was boiling.
The gate led, not directly to the plane itself, but to a gigantic courtyard, at the end of which was the jet, and a ladder one would climb to enter the plane.
We watched the passengers go out the gate. When our turn came, my Spouse and I made a pact. We showed our boarding passes, nodded at each other, ran out into that courtyard and, bags jiggling violently, overtook almost every passenger who had usurped us. It seemed they were stuck in mud and we were gliding along. Nothing would stop us. We were running fast enough for us, hopefully, to get good seats. We ran and we ran, ignoring the stupefied faces of the slower passengers. I am sure we broke all codes of honour and no doubt we looked like very rude, impatient people, but of course we were trying to reclaim what was ours to begin with.
The plane had a ladder at each end.
We noticed a large number of passengers were climbing into the near end of the plane and jamming up the front, but nobody was paying attention to the back. We adjusted to turbo speed and hastened to that portion of the plane, hoping to cut those people off before they reached mid plane.
My Spouse was a good 100 feet in front of me and I thought I saw him slow down for a moment, but was too fueled by ambition to pay attention. By the time my brain registered what had happened, it was too late. My Spouse, thinking to take a short cut at an angle, almost ran into the rope that stretched along the side of the plane for restriction purposes. Spouse came within an inch of somersaulting over the rope and into the belly of the plane. I did not know about any of this until I reached the plane and I too was pulled up short, catapult-style, just in time. For a horrifying moment I nearly lost my balance but some shred of dignity, I suppose, kept me on my feet.
It is pathetic, no doubt, but we were hysterical and could scarcely get ourselves up the ladder. When we got onto the plane, most of the seats were empty. I could hardly breathe. I could only picture us—after a day-long, arduous, truculent attempt to gain our seats, which, mind you, included cutting short our vacation—lying on our backs, luggage scattered to the four winds, all the evil passengers laughing at us as they passed us by for the second time.
We surely laughed but I did learn from that experience. If we appear foolish, it is likely no more than how most people must look in a department store on the opening day of a sale, when any shop can suddenly resemble a zoo. Nobody really owns anything and being territorial is so much more pain than it is worth. I was especially tense for those hours that we sacrificed, and for what? To ensure we got the best seats, two seats together, and so on.
It is all part of learning to let go not just of physical things, but also thoughts of 'grabbing' and 'having' and 'possessing'. It may seem like an old fashioned style of living, but if most of what you carry is in your head, nobody can take anything away from you. Less worry, less to lose, happier days.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Not Green, Just Common Sense

To live is to collect, and we're well-armed with junk.
Meanwhile the jungle is spreading east from Central Park.
We're using too much electricity,
And that, no doubt, is why it's growing dark.

-George Faludy

The above was written in 1957, half a century ago. It was written in an age when the cry of the environmentalist was but a weak voice in a flurry of consumerism. It was not the topical thing, nor the popular thing to discuss being kind to the environment.
To be perfectly honest the lifestyle my Spouse and I are trying to live by is not centered around being environmentally 'green' at all; sometimes it simply works out that way and we can be even more encouraged that we are doing the right thing.
No, most of what we do is for personal moral reasons.
When I do a laundry, I make sure there are enough items in the washing machine to constitute a justified washing. I would not dream of throwing in one pair of socks and a T-shirt and turning on the machine. True, it is because I try hard to save money but more than that, it is because that sort of consumption is not necessary at all. Putting the the environment aside for a moment, if I may, it seems hideous to me to continuously run a tap while brushing teeth or washing up.
My point is that it should be a normal human instinct not to waste things. We need not know anything about the Ozone layer or the Polar ice caps melting to know that we should use what we need, and not a scintilla more.
Along with using just what we need, we also, as a matter of course, ought to be able to bring those needs and wants to a respectable level. I am loath to bandy about the word 'obnoxious' when the I hear the phrase 'consumerism' but we all have our pet hates and I thoroughly dislike the notion of buying or grabbing things just because you can.
I recall a recent article about a family that regularly attended an all-you-can-eat buffet. As I have admitted oft before, books and buffet are two words that I am still working on battling when it comes to my own desires. The family in question were familiar with the restaurant and with the policy of taking everything you can eat. Perhaps they were a little too familiar. The staff at this restaurant watched helplessly for week after week as this family would enter, take enormous plates of food and, according to what I read, would take one or two bites before giving up the plate and going back for more, often for the very same item of food they just abandoned. Perhaps the food had grown cold or something. Their own reasons were not made clear. I'm all for trying foods at buffets and giving up if I do not like something, but I would generally take a little bit at first, just to find out if I like it. Then, I go back for more. (And more. And more. But I digress. I do love a good buffet.) After some time, the owner could not take it anymore and personally removed them from the restaurant. They were banned for life. It is likely that at the end of the buffet time, uneaten food would be discarded anyway. This is being used as the argument to defend this family. It is the policy of most restaurants and it's probably the easiest option for them money wise or I am sure they wouldn't do that. However, that is not the issue.
It is up to each and every one of us to take what we need, waste as little of anything as possible, save a little money if we can, and hope that what we did was the right thing. That is all that matters. I am not insinuating we should not be concerned with other people wasting resources but we should do our own work first and perfect our own kind way of living.
Water, for example, is a precious commodity. Should I for any imaginative reason be given gallons of the stuff and told to waste it as I pleased, I am sure I couldn't bring myself to hurl it all about the place for jest. I do not believe I could physically do it, even if I were told that the water would be thrown away regardless at the end of the exercise. I could only live by my own principles. That is all I can do, while learning.
And for me, as I always say, it is indeed a learning process. It is only in recent times that I started washing up with cold water. My Spouse pointed it out to me and I defiantly announced that one needed to wash up with hot or nothing would get clean. I do like a challenge, so I opted for Spouse's method, ready to gloat at the first opportunity when the pots were still rimmed with grease. It was not to be. I was thunderstruck to find that it had no adverse affect on the plates and pots and pans. And all this time, I had insisted I could not do it any other way. We are waiting on the electricity bill that will expose the difference but I think I already know the answer.

Cold(er) showers are much harder to adjust to than washing up (unless one anthropomorphises kitchen ware.) Like anything else, we learn to make do with what we have. It isn't about money but the knowledge that I d not NEED a scalding hot burst of water for twenty minutes each day. Which brings me to the last point about showers: colder showers are, by their unlovable nature, shorter showers and I find myself spending my 'extra' moments working on other things.

I referred to our wedding in my previous post as as a 'Green Wedding,' but I assure you truthfully that not one of us was considering its effects on the environment when those extra sandwiches were handed out to pub-goers outside the wedding party. We had the wedding we needed, and spent nothing more. Giving that food away was the kind thing to do. We hurt nothing in the wake of our wedding.

It is a matter of human instinct and common sense to want to save things instead of wasting. At least, it should be.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Green Wedding

We got married in Ireland in 2006. From the moment we planned an actual date, to the wedding day itself, no more than three weeks passed.
Here is how we did it.
We had twenty eight people at our wedding, including ourselves. Once we made that list there were no additions as we had considered at length about who to invite.
Officially, we had neither best man nor bridesmaid; instead we each had a witness that would sign the register and do the legal part of those roles.
We had no notion of hiring a car to take the bride to the ceremony; my mother's car worked perfectly and the bride arrived even before the guests were ready!
We had one of our guests take the photos and do the video filming at the same time. It's astonishing what some people can do with only one pair of hands.
The flowers were organised by a friend of the family who makes a living with flower arranging. The flowers looked beautiful during the ceremony and were left alone afterwards; we had no more need of them and other people got to appreciate them.
I spent less than four Euro on luxury writing paper and hand wrote an invitation to each person.
I was able to personally deliver a number of them, so the total cost of wedding invitations including postage was less than ten Euro.
The bride's wedding dress was bought for $15 in a discount warehouse (thank ye kindly, Cargo Largo) about four years before the wedding took place; initially we considered the possibility of utilising the dress when attending an opera, or something of that fancy nature. Now, we look back on that and we hurt ourselves laughing...opera? Our entire wedding cost less than the proposed opera. Instead, the dress had the honour of being the wedding gown, as purple was the bride's most favourite colour!
The groom wore his best suit for the occasion. Neither of us purchased a new item of clothing for the day.
On the wedding day at the reception, all the ladies present and accounted for received a small, handmade bag filled with little trinkets such as a handmade chocolate, a bookmark, a party whistle in the colour of the bride's dress, and a colourful piece of jewellery. A very good friend and her mother put those bags together, and prepared the whole thing so we didn't have to worry at all. The velvet bag also magically matched the colour of the wedding dress, a rare feat since neither friend nor mother had seen so much as a picture of the dress. One of the guests who received a token said, “I'll never forget this as long as I live.” Money cannot buy that sort of affirmation.
The reception was held in a section of a very small pub that would hold barely any more than the chosen number of people so 'straggler guests' were not an option. The highlight of the location was its proximity to a beautiful lake in a remote green area. This way guests had somewhere to walk and talk if the pub felt too crowded or if the day was fine weather-wise. When we stopped by to ask the pub owner about our crowd occupying his pub for a night, he advised us that booking it was not necessary. He promised he would make sure that the little room to the side was kept free. We could hang whatever decorations we chose. Then I asked about money, and held my breath.
He gave me a strange look and said “what money? Don't worry about that.”
Because he wasn't a greedy man and because it was a public house, it cost us absolutely no money at all to borrow the pub for a Saturday. This was a bonus we had not considered or counted upon or thought was possible on this earth. As an incredible bonus, they were performing some renovations on the pub and we would practically be the first customers in the shiny pub.
We decided on a catered buffet rather than a sit-down meal. What this enabled us to do was keep the days before the wedding mostly free; it allowed for a relaxed atmosphere where people could eat in their own time and mingle with each other; and, as the meal would be mostly cold, serving and layout would be far less complicated. The guests had a choice of turkey, ham, salad, smoked salmon, sandwiches, pasta...for less than 300 Euro the food was cooked for us and delivered to the pub at the very moment the wedding ceremony was ending. Such perfect timing. And naturally, the guests had their choice of drink, as the bar was merely feet away!
At the end of the evening, about midnight, one of our most kindhearted guests, who later claimed our wedding to be “the best day of her life,” went to the people in the rest of the pub and asked if anybody would like some food with their drink. The food was devoured in moments and the happiness our wedding brought extended far beyond the small invited party.
We specified on our invitations that guests should bring no gifts. I underlined it twice and made it very clear. We were unsure at that stage what part of the world we would live in next; it made no sense for us to begin collecting exquisite fine china, hand blown glass baubles, or anything, of any kind. We kindly but firmly asked for no gifts and everybody respected that. However, some good souls did slip a sum of money into an envelope with the defence that money was not, after all, really a gift.
The bride's hair was arranged the morning of the wedding, in a local salon, at a cost of 20 Euro and about thirty minutes of time.
The groom ran a comb quickly through his hair and it cost nothing, and no minutes of time. Proving the point that one can always be more frugal!
The music for the ceremony was chosen the night before. Four classical/church tunes were selected and put onto a CD. While the groom was ever so carefully choosing the music, (the bride wanted to be surprised) he was also painting a masterpiece at the kitchen table.
Two of the guests brought guitars to the reception and sang for us; they made it a truly memorable experience.
The wedding preparation was a scene of tranquility, a veritable ocean of halcyon calmness. Do recall, we did all this in under three weeks.
Our honeymoon, so to speak, was an empty house by the ocean, donated for a few days by some very thoughtful family members who just didn't know what to do when we said 'no gifts.' It was a wonderful thought. Without that offer, we would simply have agreed to go without a honeymoon.
The day was distinctly memorable and I consider it was a thoughtful wedding, not just to our guests but because there was no waste, no lavish spending and no stress.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Simple Happiness

Happiness, by Carl Sandburg

I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river.
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

How can we be happy without travelling far from home?

When my Spouse and I want a new book or film we go to the library and we get it for free. I also know that our local library holds a free cinema night once a month. Although we haven't lived here long enough to attend that yet, or a number of events the library offers, we surely could not complain about the facilities available.
When we are hungry we cook, most likely while listening to music in the kitchen, the windows thrown wide open to let in the breeze and connect us with the outside world for a while.
We have a large map on one wall of our apartment, yellow splashes denoting the places we have been to; we look fondly at it when we think about globetrotting and it reminds us of good times and treasured memories.
When I feel frustrated with the apartment and that I need to get out, I do a thorough clean and vacuum the floors; it makes the place feel like new and a whole lot bigger. I have a (three year old) pumpkin-scented candle that I light when all is clean and it gives our home a restored warmth.
I recently had a yearning for an ice pop. It seemed to come out of nowhere. I am wary of the validity of such thoughts, and as a result don't advocate cravings that urge me to buy something.
This desire struck me in the middle of the week; nowadays we do one grocery a week, on the weekend. If we run out of anything in between weekends due to lack of organisation or it just was not on our list to begin with, we generally teach ourselves a lesson by doing without it until the next trip. My Spouse says it builds character. I'm inclined, sporadically, to deem my character worthy of an intermission but the majority of the time I do see the necessity in foregoing an impulse.
As a result, we resolved the matter by making our own ice pops. We had an ice cube tray, and we poured lemonade into about six of the squares. A couple of hours later my character was indeed very happy to be crunching on very tasty and guilt-free ice cubes. Speaking with open vanity, I must add that they were far better than what I had been anticipating from a store.
A few years ago we inhabited a small town bursting at the seams with history and beauty. I happened, within two months of our moving there, to visit the local museum. It was the last day of my mother's trip to see me, and she and I both wanted to explore one last place.
My mother and I were the only visitors that day and we got a wonderful three hour tour from the guide in which we discovered everything there was to know about the place I would live in for three wonderful years.
I said bashfully to the tour guide, "I had no idea this place was here. I'm very embarrassed. I've lived here for two months and didn't even know this existed."
The tour guide looked at me for a moment and then said, "I've had people stop by that lived twenty five years in this town without visiting the museum. There's no need to feel bad."

One just never knows the treasure a small town can hold. The tour guide is now a very good friend to me, my mother and my Spouse. Had we not gone there that day to take a chance on what the town had to offer, we simply would never have known. It cost us absolutely nothing and I'm certain that most places have free activities of one kind or another. I cannot, however, promise that they will each come with a free surrogate grandmother but one can still explore the local area without accruing much expense.
People tend to look too far and too complex when trying to be happy. Most of my joy comes from being at home not because it costs us less, although that helps a good deal, but because it is without doubt more effective and memorable to make your own fun rather than buying into somebody else's idea of entertainment.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Trying to be Wise

Why grab possessions like thieves,
or divide them like socialists,
when you can ignore them like wise men?

-Natalie Clifford Barney

Ordinarily our small, two bedroom apartment consists of just my Spouse and myself. Since we usually work and read together in the same room, we do manage in this environment. A few weeks ago, though, we had occasion to invite five other people from a long distance. Thus, for two nights at Summer's end we had seven people sleeping in our home.
We had about one month to prepare for this and when we began, the situation was desperate.
Something had to be done urgently about the lawnmower that hibernated in our kitchen, along with the superfluous washing machine and dryer. Believe it or not, this was the most we had seen of our apartment since moving in: it had been so much more dreadful just months earlier.
Every corner had been occupied with cardboard boxes. Most of those boxes contained, as it turned out, unfamiliar and needless things that should never have been packed in our previous place.
We do not usually live that way but circumstances had brought us to a very odd situation.
My Spouse moved into the apartment a few months before I saw it; I had been warned it was cramped and that our possessions were taking up all the breathing room. I thought I understood what that meant but I truly had no idea. When I walked in the door that April afternoon, I took two steps and could go no further. For days my suitcases remained by the door, the only space left for them. I didn't find the couch for three days. We hung clothes on the workout equipment that lurked in the living room. We literally did not have an inch of space to spare.
And yes, the lawnmower had pride of place in the kitchen.
We had already decided that this was going to be the start of a new way of life and although it seemed an impossible task, as we opened boxes we simply found ways to deal with the items. Everything had its place and if not then it was not going to remain in our home any longer. We did it piece by piece and felt elated whenever another cardboard box could be emptied, crushed and taken out to the rubbish. Some of what we got rid of in that period includes the workout machine, a lumbering metal bookshelf, a kitchen table, a very heavy computer chair, an extra vacuum cleaner and finally, the lawnmower, washing machine and dryer. Without the blessed facility of 'craigslist' to find people who would merrily buy or take our unwanted goods, we never would have conquered the mass of contrivances that cluttered our lives.
Along with removing things, we needed to economise on space with the things we were keeping. One of our first ventures was to purchase DVD and CD wallets. We unburdened ourselves of a significant stockpile: every slip cover went to the rubbish pile and every plastic case was consigned to a giveaway pile. When this job was completed we could hold our entire film and music collection in our arms and they took up no more space than a few books. One of the advantages was that we could continue to add new discs without visibly sacrificing more space, as we had left a good number of empty sleeves in the wallets. Even if we eventually had to add another wallet it would scarcely be noticed.
That made a considerable difference but there was always more to do. A couple of months passed where we felt the majority of the work has been done—after all, we now could see our carpet and we were not tripping over garden implements to make breakfast.
But then, of course, we invited a large number of people, and the stakes became higher. We had become complacent and reluctant to get down to the real, personal treasures that were causing our boxes to overflow. Despite an improvement, it was acceptable for us only, and there was absolutely no possibility that we could have anybody to stay with us that way.
A month before our guests were due, we aimed to have another sweep of the place with all the energy and conviction we could muster. This time around there was far less obvious clutter which is why it was so much more dismaying to let things go. I am convinced of this: that we were only able to get through that time, and have five people to stay, because when it came down to it, they were more important to us than the stuff we had been carrying for years. It was clear; we said to ourselves and to each other: you can keep all this, be sentimental, hang on to everything and go easy on yourself –but if you do that, you cannot invite anybody. There just will not be room. Choose.
We found it as straightforward as that to sum up. We wanted room, but we also wanted to hold on to Christmas and birthday cards—many of which had no year stated—ornaments, old notebooks, old electricity bills and credit card statements 'just in case'. Most of the above could be scanned and saved onto the computer and then shredded, finally. It helped, when we were addled, to question if this item or that had been used within, say, six months? In general the answer was that we did not even know what we had, yet we were paying a lot of money to move it all.
We hardened our hearts, to an extent, which is the best advice I can offer at this time as to to how to tear oneself away from what seems essential. Almost everything requires a second, third, fourth examination, and sooner or later you will view it as an extra appendage. Within four weeks we said farewell to three tables, a large lamp, old backpacks, a few hundred magazines, numerous personal papers and about 150 books we knew we would never read again and which were readily available in the library should we change our minds.
They all found fine homes, and we discovered that ours could be wonderful with hardly a stick of furniture in it save for what we actually make use of, every day.
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I welcome comments and thoughts.