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.

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It’s really funny…

It’s funny the way my mind works.  I come to a conclusion.  Ha!  An answer!  And then I stew.  I analyze.  I ponder.  I try to find grand connections to make my desires more relevant on a larger scale.  Then I start again.

Take “downsizing” for example.  In my head, I have been trying to relate my desire to have fewer possessions and a simpler life to the growing problem of climate change, our culture of excess, and what I can do about it.

So, instead of long-winded essays on the lack of governmental authority or corporate greed, all I’m simply going to say is:

I just want less stuff.  

I want less chaos in my life.  I want to regain a sense of playful exploration without the unnecessary burdens we force on ourselves.  We spend too much time and effort buying and maintaining our possessions.  The times I find that my wife and I are the happiest are when we get away from all that- camping, fishing, travelling, hanging with our kids.

Its going to take work.  Sure.  I am good with that.  I have always been a work hard-play hard kinda guy.

Its going to be a struggle sometimes.  Of course.  I am good with that too.  Life is suffering, right?  But do we need to cause so many headaches for ourselves?

Perhaps living a simpler life also means a less complicated mental life.

“it’s just too much…”

hourglass“We don’t really have lives of our own.  If we are not shuttling our kids around to hockey games and track meets (you have to keep up with everybody so, of course the kids are scheduled for 10x more stuff than they have time for…) we are fixing or cleaning or replacing or moving something around the house.  It’s either work, kids, or house.  It’s just too much.  I dream about a little house… Someday…”

I believe this comment from one of my neighbors is the struggle of our generation- the very late Boomers and Gen Xers.  Our lives have grown and upsized and expanded to become so busy and so full of activity that we feel there is just no time for us anymore.  In order to be an adult member of our 21st century world, we feel as though we must be always moving ahead, always having the lasted tech, always trying to be one step ahead of our ever-smiling yet ever-competitive neighbors, always moving.

When I was younger, I used to have grand ideas.  My young and sheltered mind thought these ideas were so obvious and so correct yet so (obviously) under-appreciated that I was certain that nobody had ever thought if it before.

This is not one of those ideas.

Many of us are now starting to realize how crazy this sort of life is.  Its exhausting.  Its unsustainable.  Its unrealistic.  And our children aren’t really happy with it either.  They don’t fully know how to play the “constant upgrade” game yet but they are learning.  They certainly are developing unrealistic expectations of how life is supposed to be that they learned from us!

The first step, as they say in addiction counseling, is to admit that you have a problem.  “it’s just too much” can certainly be an acknowledgement of the problem or it might just be that you are catching your breath before heading back into the game.  It is much more difficult than you might expect to actually understand that the life you are living is not healthy and be willing to do something about it. Changing long-standing habits can be very difficult to do because it calls for a consistent and conscious effort.  Its a little bit like snowshoessnowshoeing- all you are doing is going for a walk in the snow but it is such a struggle at first!  Every single footstep is carefully placed and your gait is modified to accommodate the unfamiliar equipment on your feet.  Soon you find that, as you become more accustomed to the activity, less of your focus will be on the basic mechanics of walking and more on the ability to go places that you otherwise would not have been able to visit.

The child in me says “sell it all!  Burn it!  Move into a yurt!  Buy a VW camper or an Airstream!”  I agree with him.  I usually do.  However, the adult in me knows that this is a longer duration life adjustment.  Meaning, my wife and I have put certain things in motion that require us to stay here and follow through with them.  But that does not mean that we can’t start clearing out unneeded stuff, revisit why we do the things we do, and adjust our level of consumption in preparation for that upcoming change.  We have the time to ask ourselves: do we actually need it?  What is that new item replacing?  Where would it “live?”  Will we use it tomorrow?  The day after?

CraigsList, eBay, consignment shops, yard sales, give-aways, Salvation Army, or even Dumpsters are all great options.  I have had pretty good success over the last couple weeks unloading some of our possessions on eBay.  Made a little extra money but, even more importantly, I have gotten rid of a number of items that were just taking up space in our house.  Now that I have gotten started, I am finding all sorts of stuff to get rid of!

The benefit of having a longer term goal is that you don’t need to rush the process.  That extra time can also be a detriment if you are a well-trained collector of stuff- like most of us.  Moving forward, an even better thing to learn is how to say “NO.”  The culling of your possessions is going to take several different waves of chukking.  If you aren’t ready to let something go yet, then keep it!  Maybe next time you will be ready.