If 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.
As 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.