One of the Benefits of Living in Town…

trash-canOK.  I have to say it.

I love curb-side garbage collection.

You drag piles of unwanted stuff to the end of your driveway and, by the end of the day, its gone!  That’s fantastic!

We always do a big purge after Christmas.  Since the house is totally bombed out from the holiday and we are typically home together, it is the perfect time to go through boxes and closets and the garage and chuck the stuff we just don’t need.

We used to live in a place where you had to haul your trash to the dump.  We used to go every three weeks or so- typically when the garage was getting a little ripe and the garbage needed to go away.  The best part of that was recycling.  Specifically, glass recycling.  The kids, when they were small, loved to come along so they could throw the bottles into the big steel bins.  Breaking glass makes such a joyful racket!

But now, the stuff just disappears.  Civic magic.

So good…

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The Way Things Are

downtown BIIf you have ever had the opportunity to live in a small town, I am sure you’ve noticed how, when one merchant closes their doors or moves to another location, the rest of the shops in town adjust accordingly.  One may simply expand their current location to include the vacated space but, more frequently, somebody calls “dibs” on the new space (or was in conversation with the ex-tenants prior to the move).  Once that happens, a cascade of adjustments washes over the retail core and into the surrounding community.

Perhaps it isn’t a new store but road work or a new building, or adjusted traffic patterns that change the habits of the town.  Long-time residents will grumble about adjusting their well-worn habits, newer community members find the changes exciting, and returning tourists will notice something is different but won’t be quite sure what it is.  Over a period of time, the newness of the situation will wear off and it will just become “the way things are.”  Folks will cease to complain about it but will, from time to time, reminisce about “how it used to be.”

The excitement may be centered on one particular location but the changes do ripple out into the community at large. While things at that center will “go back to normal” pretty quickly, these outer ripples often take some time to settle back out. Maybe you venture into a part of town that is outside your usual routine and are again reminded of the “new thing.”  Perhaps you sail right through that new stop sign and nervously look in the mirror for flashing blue lights, thankful nobody was coming the other way.  Or maybe you just fondly recall a wonderful dinner you shared with your spouse at that restaurant on the hill that is no longer there- “they used to make this drink called a ‘Midnight Ferry.’  So good!  Nobody does that anymore…”

Having spent a lot of time in my kayak, I visualize these interactions as the spreading ripples and currents from a paddle pushed through the water or the sudden drop of a stone into Puget Sound.

I read a book by Ital Calvino while I was in architecture school that described this same structure of a society as a tangled web of threads.  Each thread, a distinct connection stretching between two points but overlapping and intermingled with all the others. When one changes, it causes shifting all across that web of lives and experiences.

However physically incompatible these may be, I find the combination of these two perspectives begins to describe the apparent interwoven permanence of our lives but the fluid and easily disrupted quality of the lives we actually live.

However you chose to envision it, I believe our lives and that of our families, in many ways, share a similar structure.

rippleAs my wife and I go through the process of getting rid of excess possessions, not only do we have the immediate result of lightening our load” but these actions have consequences that ripple across the rest of our lives.  We have become much more aware of our possessions and are finding that, aside from food and replacing worn out items, there is very little that we do need. Going to the stores this Christmas season was unique, in that our new awareness allowed us to feel quite removed from the crush of holiday shopping.

While I expected some adjustment in our outlook on “stuff,” I was not expecting this strong, across-the-board awareness of how many of the things we buy are completely unnecessary.  Its not a fierce realization of the college freshman who has just become a vegetarian and is lecturing everybody they see about the evils of consuming meat.  It is a much broader understanding of where our lives are and where we wish them to actually be.  (Before I complete this thought, I felt it amusing to note that I am indeed writing about this in my blog for everybody to see… I just don’t think I’m lecturing, am I?)  It is like a blanket was thrown over the whole commercial landscape- indistinct forms are still visible but the crowd,color, and intensity are now hidden from view.  The real benefit here is that it has opened up some quiet space in my head.  I was also surprised by how uncomfortable I find myself when confronting that mental space.  It is a struggle to not go and fill that space with other things, to keep that space open.

This is the ripple caused by the small stone of simplifying our lives.  This year was a difficult one because we lost a family member to cancer.  Looking back on it with nine and half months of hindsight, I can see a similar structure (caused by a much larger stone) sending vibrations throughout our entire web of interactions.  Not only were there internal adjustments but mourning affects everything we do and how we think about our lives.

Why do we let the little things in life pile up and keep us from doing what we love? We used to take camping trips.  We used to do a lot more hiking.  I used to spend my free time fishing when the salmon were in.  It just seems we used to have more fun together.  I am sure we knew this but to actually confront it with the emotional ferocity that comes from dealing with loss is quite another thing.

One of the most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves is the freedom to step back and gain an understanding of how tentative our lives really are.  Sometimes it takes a devastating event to force us to take that step but there can be clarity in pain, understanding in that vibration across the web of our lives.

So, as we cross the threshold of a new calendar year, it is a time to take stock of where we have been, what we have done, and where we would like to be.  It is a time to bid farewell to those we have lost.  As the light returns to the world, this is the time to let go of old frustrations and begin to move forward again.

I will be forty four years old in a couple weeks.  I no longer have access to the absolute surety of youth but, I believe that is a good thing.  I have come to see that “the way things are” isn’t a fixed point but one that evolves along with our lives, with our communities (whatever form those may take).  Viewing the world in black or white is an easy way to get through life.  Something either is or it isn’t.  You don’t have to think about it.

Maybe I’m just stubborn but I don’t want to just “get through life.”  This is the only one we get.  No rehearsals, no do-overs, no rewind.  There is so much to see.  So much to experience.  If you only do things one way, you never make the effort question why we do what we do.  It is certainly safer to stay on the well-beaten path but, if you don’t have the courage to step off the trail to see what else is out there, you miss so many things.

Seeing the world in shades of grey may not be the easy way to live but it offers a much richer palette to live by.  I truly look forward to what 2015 will bring.

A short tale of Road Complaints, Compassion, and Good People

toll gate threeI came of age in the Pacific Northwest.  However, I learned to drive in Massachusetts.  Here, you need to be constantly attentive and a little pushy just to keep your spot on the road.  Folks cut you off, switch lanes without warning, and generally act like they are completely entitled to the entire highway.  Around here, we yell at the windshield, “What?  You think you OWN the highway??”

That is actually a defining trait of the Massachusetts driver- bitching out loud about the other drivers on the road.  If you watch closely as you travel, you can see people’s mouths working soundlessly behind their windshields as they drive.  Sometimes they are singing but, more often than not, they are berating some other driver who just did something stupid.

A couple days ago, I was in my truck, heading down a four lane road to the gas station when I came up on a car that was coming to a stop with its hazards on.  Two people got out and started walking in the direction of the nearby church.  As a native driver, I started my dialog about “who the hell parks on the road like that?  Doesn’t the church have a parking lot?  Somebody is going to hit them and won’t that be a mess.  What were they thinking?  Andover drivers…”

As I blew past them, it belatedly dawned on me that they were most likely out of gas.  Well.  A little embarrassed about my tirade and a little to far beyond to stop and offer a ride, I continued on to the gas station.  While the attendant was filling my tank, I stepped into the office to ask the manager Dan if they had a loaner gas can.  I told him that I had passed a car on the road that looked like it was out of gas and figured I could give them a hand.

“Kinda like a Boy Scout thing?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I guess so,” I replied.

“OK.  No deposit on the can but you need to bring it back yourself.”

So, with both truck and gas can full, I pulled out of the lot and headed back toward the car.  The two folks, a father and son, were almost to the gas station, so I pulled over and asked them if their car was out of gas.  Surprised, they confirmed that was indeed the case.

“Hop in!  I’ve got some gas in the back of my truck for you.”

With Jose and Javi in the truck, I got us back to their car.  On the way, Jose kept asking if he could pay me back or “make me whole” as he put it.  I declined thinking that a couple minutes of my time and $4.00 of gas was just the sort of thing we should be able to do for our neighbors.  As a Boy Scout (I actually was in Scouts when I was a kid), we were told to “do a good turn daily” which meant to do at least one thing to help others every day.  This felt like my good turn for the day.

Fueled up, I led them back to the station to return the gas can and to make sure their car didn’t misbehave like some do after running out of fuel.  Jose insisted that I wait five minutes so he could run to the bank next door and get some cash to pay me back.  I sighed with a smile and agreed.  He returned just a few minutes later with a smile of his own.  “I know you didn’t expect anything in return but please allow me to ‘pay it forward’ today.  Merry Christmas.”  He discretely handed me some folded bills.  I looked down to see five $20 bills in my hand!  I looked up in surprise and he waved as he was walking away.

“Merry Christmas” he repeated.

I am sure there are a number of ways to relate to this story but I chose to see it as one small connection with another human being.  Even if it was just for a couple minutes, we both reached out to trust another and found, not the danger and demons we all fear, but kindness and compassion from the heart of a neighbor.

Merry Christmas indeed.

 

What to do if I don’t shop? as told by an Aussie ex-pat turned Kiwi

I came across a blog last night that is written by this Aussie ex-pat in New Zealand named Lee.  Here is somebody on the other side of the globe- as far from Massachusetts, USA as you can get- and she is struggling with the very same consumerist culture I am.  The stuff, the guilt, the accepted “script” for life, the upsizing…

She comes at it from a different perspective but the questions ring so very true to me as do some of her answers.  If a tiny home, downsizing, pretty good life, minimalist community can be forged across oceans, than perhaps this big ol’ world ain’t quite so big or quite so broken after all.  

The post I am reblogging is just one of quite a few on her page.  It just happens to be the one that ultimately moved me to repost!  Have a look.

What to do if I don’t shop?