stand up eight

The Buddhist quote I posted a couple weeks ago had been rolling around in my head for several days prior and it really speaks to the perseverance and determination needed to make changes in our outlook on life, the way our families and communities operate,  and how we choose to inhabit this world.

We can all think of examples of where people have made a difference through conscious action- equal rights, marriage rights, the right to make a decent wage for a days work, etc.  These fights all took time to develop public support and to change deeply-held opinions.  Some were decades-long struggles that were won through commitment to a vision of how to make our society a better place for all of us.

cigarette buttThis same sort of dedication needs to be applied if we wish to make improvements and changes in our own lives because we will face similar difficulties with social pressures as well as our own deeply-rooted habits.  Ever try to quit smoking?  It is not as simple as just not lighting up.  The habit is woven into the fabric of your day and it takes time to remove that particular strand.  There will no doubt be days where you miss a thread.  But if you keep working at it, it is indeed possible to change your life.

Those days, where strands are missed, are the ones where doubt creeps in.  Where we begin to question our motives.  When we are perhaps unable to see the vision that was so clear just yesterday.  Fall down seven times, stand up eight speaks not just to determination but to trust as well.  If you can reaffirm that you set yourself on this mission for good reasons, then standing up, facing down your doubt, and retracing that missed strand of bad habit is your only next step.

Strength isn’t the absence of weakness, it is acting in spite of it.  It is believing in the face of doubt.  Rather than giving up and trying something easier, we keep to our decision and work around the difficulties.

I think that we may be in for a few years of difficulty in the United States.  Our misguided culture has elected a governing body that does not have our best interests in mind and there will be unpleasant repercussions from that action.  In light of that, we need more than ever to create stronger communities and take better care of ourselves.

  • We need to not buy into the politics of division and negativity that tear us apart.
  • We need to not follow every shiny new trend created to distract us.
  • We need to shed unnecessary expenses and some of the daily luxuries that have made us soft and weak as a people.
  • We need to want less and live a more economically realistic life because our outsized needs are forcing us into debt and ruining our lives.
  • We need to regain a sense of compassion and understanding for our fellow human beings- this is not a weakness, it is the source of a community’s strength.

In effect, we need to retrain ourselves to be a self-sufficient and confident nation that has the strength to wrest power out of the hands of corporations and big money interests and give it back to those that matter- you and me.

This won’t be done through outright battle with the entrenched powers.  We won’t win.  I believe the way to take our country back is by changing our own habits and helping others to do the same.  If we control our own lives, it is much less likely that we will allow others to control us.

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.

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?

Living Lightly

Happiness-Hands1I see the era of the McMansion coming to an end.  You know, those enormous houses that have been springing out of plan books and onto tight lotline cul-de-sacs all across the United States for the past 20 years. Their time of relative popularity is waning because people are tired of spending all their money and time taking care of these houses.  We find ourselves house poor and unable to achieve happiness in our lives.

Today, we see that:

  • Home ownership is dropping
  • Living expenses are continuing to rise
  • The median home cost has nearly doubled in the last 20 years
  • Wages have been stagnant for that same 20 years
  • Average home sizes have almost tripled since 1960
  • Young adults are rightfully skeptical of financial institutions
  • Young people are equally confused about why they need such a big house
  • Trust in our governmental representatives is at an all-time low
  • Oil prices continue to rise (despite the current lull- that will be “corrected” soon)
  • The results of unsustainable personal debt levels are becoming painfully visible
  • and who knows what the weather is doing these days…

There will always be a segment of our population that can afford to live in grand homes with the privilege and comfort that wealth can provide.  However, for those of us who will never be part of that elite community, we are realizing that homes and possessions and heavy financial obligations are an unyielding source of stress that do not guarantee happiness.  Retail therapy has never really helped anybody do anything except fill their closets and storage units with more fabulous shoes, seasonal jackets, sports equipment, and organization systems than we know what to do with.

Perhaps the North Star of this 21st century move toward a more sustainable life is the Tiny House Movement.  I am referring to the folks that are building fully-functional homes on 8’x20′ dual axle trailers.  These are not poorly built mobile-homes but hand-crafted homes built to suit their owners particular needs and comfort that just happen to be mobile! Due to size and weight restrictions (not to mention the need to handle freeway speeds!), these unique structures are constructed to very tight tolerances but still offer the features we expect of “home.”

A great example of one of these homes is the one built by Guillaume and Jenna of Tiny House Giant Journey fame.  Theirs is a customized plan from the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company which they are towing around the the US and Canada as they pursue their dream careers in travel journalism.  They are one of the few folks that actually tow their house around like a camper and, because of that, I also see them as accidental evangelists of a simpler and lighter way to live.

When my wife and I met them this past weekend in Milton, Massachusetts, they still expressed some surprise that people would turn out in decent numbers to meet them, listen to their stories, and tour their beautifully crafted home on wheels.  It is remarkable to me that, despite the strong social and economic push toward upgrading and upsizing our lives, there are more and more people that feel like these conditions put unnecessary pressure on our lives that detract from the very quality of life we are striving to improve!

Guillaume and Jenna are inspiring to me partly because, as my family works to decrease our possessions and better manage our obligations, here is a couple that has radically changed their lifestyle to eliminate debt and minimize their monthly expenses while still living a full and rich life.

You know it can be done but understanding the concept and seeing the reality are two different things!

They have made the move to a Tiny House based on their own motivation and needs.  Perhaps one of the most beautiful things about this movement is that it has developed out of a deep desire for freedom and self-reliance.  Every story I read about people like Guillaume and Jenna is unique in that they all come to their decision from a different direction but have found a clear expression of their need to live more simply in these tiny homes.  The deeply American concepts of “Freedom” and “Self-Reliance” have lost much of their power over the last couple decades by those who wished for us to follow along with their version of freedom, by those who want us to need whatever product they’re selling, to be afraid of actually thinking for ourselves.

We, as a people, have become so distracted by the next new and shiny thing, that we have forgotten how fortunate we are to live where we do and however we choose to.  We are so busy wanting that we have lost sight of what we actually have.  We have been looking for that easy fix for so long that we forget that we can take charge of our own lives!

If Living Lightly means divesting ourselves of most of our possessions, paying off our debt, and living in a smaller home that is easy to afford and care for, then do it!  It may mean simplifying the complex schedules our lives run on these days and paying more attention to the people that matter most to us.  It may also mean taking the time to volunteer and help those who are less fortunate than ourselves because giving to others is, paradoxically, as good for us as it is for the recipient of our attentions.

The Tiny House movement is a symbol of how out of balance we have become and offers a one way to help restore a sense of calm and purpose to our lives.  It certainly isn’t the only way to go about it but it addresses one of the key issues we face today.  I believe it also offers us the opportunity to live for something other than constantly maintaining our expensive homes and our untenable lifestyles.  In every blog, article, and book I have read about living lightly, there is one element that people have found in greater abundance after changing their lifestyle- happiness.  They have found a sense of contentment that was missing despite the full closets and full schedules.

It had been sitting right there the whole time.  They just needed to push the crap out of the way and pick it up.

Becoming an Adult

small-houseIt is generally agreed upon that, in order to become an adult these days, you need to get a good job, buy a home, have a couple kids, put one or two new cars in the garage, and, when the time is right, upgrade that “starter home” you fell in love with to one that more appropriately matches your growing status and collection of stuff.  Once you upsize, you will need to work harder or get a better job because it is more expensive to live there.  Plus, you need more furniture and accessories to properly big-houseoutfit your new home.  Kids rooms, office, living room as well as a family room and possibly bonus room.  You have a yard with outdoor living spaces now that need to be maintained.  Also, a larger house has greater financial demands- a new roof is that much more expensive, repainting a big house costs that much more.  Never mind the larger heating and cooling expenses.

As the kids get older, there are dance lessons, braces, soccer club fees, school activity fees, new clothes, shoes and doctor visits.  Let’s not even talk about saving for college.

Pretty soon, that new car is in need of repair or replacement, your credit card debt is starting to get out of hand, the washing machine goes on the fritz, and the burden of life becomes greater.

It starts to feel like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it?  In many ways, we are compelled to do this by the desire to “keep up” with our neighbors, the television programs we watch, and the movies we see, but it is not the only way to live!  It may take a while to get out from under the burden of it all but, if you are willing and dedicated, it is something that can indeed be done.  I am not saying sell all your possessions and become a monk.  No.  What I am saying is that by:

  • getting rid of many of the things we pack our homes with
  • rethinking our patterns of consumption and how we make purchases,
  • reconsidering the quality of the lives we have versus the quality of life we wish we had
  • taking a good look at what it actually is that we work so hard for everyday

we can indeed reduce the daily stress and expense of our lives and give ourselves the gift of opportunity to do more of the things we want- spend easy time with friends and family, travel, volunteer at your favorite charity, or even just do nothing!

My kids are nearly grown.  Such a weird thing to think about because I have been a parent for the last 20 years.  You know they will grow up- that’s just how things go- but to have it happen after such a long time is a little disorienting.

I have two step-daughters who have been finished with college for years.  Their brother is a junior in high school now and is spending the entire school year abroad in Taiwan.  His youngest sister is a freshman and will be graduating in just 3 1/2 short years.  They are all fantastic, unique, intelligent, and talented people doing their best to figure out this new 21st century world.

I wish we could have given them a road map to American adulthood, like the one my parents used that had been crafted over the last 60 years.  Do well in high school, get into a good college, develop a passion for a interesting course of study, and graduate with a degree.  That path would lead toward a good job and a comfortable sense of security.

We all know now that that sense of security is an illusion pennybut I don’t think it always masked as harsh a reality as it does today.  Middle class income and a thrifty sensibility (handed down by parents that lived through the Great Depression) was once enough to raise a family on.  These days, my eldest daughter and many, many others in their late 20’s (she is 28) are finding they are hard-pressed to find a place to live and make ends meet with the salaries that are available to them.  Unless you go to law school or get into the risky financial industry, you just can’t make enough money to get by today.

Twenty years ago, I was employed at an ad agency as an Interactive Producer getting paid $40,000/yr.  That was enough to pay the rent on our little farm house on 1/2 acre ($650) and maybe a hundred dollars in bills (electric, water, phone) plus food.  We didn’t pay for cable since there were a couple stations that still broadcast over the air and we had a VCR.  Cell phones weren’t a thing yet and internet access wasn’t part of your Verizon bill because all you needed was a phone line and a 56k modem.  (Amazon was around already but they only sold books.)  This may sound quaint now but it was pretty up to date at the time.  We drove an old car that we could maintain ourselves and gas cost $1.23/gallon.  The median price of a new house in the US at the end of 1996 was $144,900.

If we were to do the same thing today, rent for that same house would be closer to $1500, bills (including power, water, cell phone and internet) would be more like $250 and that same job would still pay around $40,000/yr.  A twenty year old car today needs a mechanic with specialized diagnostic equipment to do the maintenance work and gas is $3.79/gallon.  If you wanted to purchase a home based on the median at the end of 2013, you would take on a 30 year mortgage for $275,500.

My daughter has a good job where she makes $42,000/yr.  She has a car payment on a reliable vehicle, gas to get to and from work, an iPhone, health insurance, and a credit card payment each month.  Pretty small pile of bills but, with what is left over, she could not afford a studio apartment in the town we live in, never mind the utilities.  Buying an average house is even more out of reach with the tight mortgage market and the added expense of property taxes and insurance.

That is the brutal truth- while everything has gotten more expensive, wages have not increased in 20 years.  Once it was a mark of shame for a young adult to be “still” living with their parents but, these days, it is a realistic necessity.  It is reality for not only for the Millennials but for some of their parents as well.  In the 1950’s, a single income was typically enough to manage a household.  The Nineties brought the two-earner household into the mainstream.  Today, we are hard-pressed to make do (without resorting to credit) on two incomes.

The next 10 years are going to bring some big changes to our society.  The ridiculous political games in Washington, growing social discontent and constant wars will certainly have an impact, but I think it is today’s economic realities that will be the flash point.  We are no longer the nation we once were and are unable to recognize that.  Because of that blindness, we may be unable to do anything to remedy our own decline.  I think we have grown lazy and are more likely to get upset by celebrity tabloid news than the reality that our nation is being controlled by big money and big industry leaving little power or wealth for the vast majority of us.  Why are we not, as a population, outraged that we are still earning the same wages we were twenty years ago?

Despite all this, I do still have faith in the American people’s ability to recognize the problems facing us and take on the challenge to improve our own lives.  I believe we need to see past the immediate differences of opinion that divide us and look toward the nation that we can be once more.  We must adjust our expectations of what we need and how we need to live.  Our future will be one where we build and live in much smaller homes, multi-generational living will be more common and popular, fewer products and less stuff will fill our lives, and simpler lifestyles will ultimately need to develop.  We can no longer afford nor support the current American life.

Consume less

cheeseburgerOne of the defining elements of our culture is the ever-present need to purchase more and more things.  Economy is in the tank?  The president tells us all to go shopping.  Feeling depressed?  Retail therapy will help! You ever watch TV?  We are assaulted with well-crafted (or not so well-crafted) advertisements designed to move us to buy something whether it is a brand of facial tissue, food, cars, or whatever.  There is always something else that we need.

What if we step back from that for a moment and ask ourselves what we truly need.  This isn’t a spiritual question.  It’s a basic, human existence question- an American, 21st century one at that.  I am not hinting that we all need to leave our homes and move into a grass hut.  In a world full of tech and other stuff, do we really need to pre-order that new iPhone when we still have a fully functional model that is only a year old?  Do we really need 20 pair of pants or the absolute freshest fashions?  How is it that a 3,000 sf house is considered a reasonable size these days?  In so many ways this manipulation of the general public to need all these things affect our personal sense of worth.  “Everybody else has Ugg boots…”  “Why don’t I have a Lexus?”  Little nagging bits of friction in our mind.  So subtle but also very disruptive.

Well, on second thought, maybe we skip the slippery part about asking ourselves what we really, truly need and just take the easier step of just starting to say “no.”

You can’t look at the finish line when you are just beginning the process.  Its like quitting smoking.  Don’t go cold turkey, that rarely works!  Instead, cut a cigarette or two out of your day and do that for a week.  Then another one.  You can work yourself from a pack down to just a couple butts a day fairly easily.  The last couple were tough but, that’s the finish line- changing old habits is never an easy thing to do.  But you really can see more deeply the value of that change the further into the process you get.

So, just begin the process by consuming less. It doesn’t really matter what you start with- food, clothes, TV, booze, whatever.  Just start to reduce your consumption of something- but do it with intent, with focus.  Its going to be slow-going because you will be straining against an entire life’s worth of training.  But, once you get started, you’ll develop some confidence in your ability to say, “No.  I don’t really need that right now.”  This incremental improvement will soon start to affect other aspects of your life.

An example: last week, I took my wife out to lion-kingsee The Lion King at the Boston Opera House for her birthday.  The best part was that she had no idea!  In order keep up the mystery until the last minute, I schemed to take her in to town for a cannoli and to wander around the Downtown Crossing shopping district while we waited for Will Call to open up so we could pick up our tickets.  Don’t worry, the cannoli was fantastic!  So was the show!  That was not affected at all by our new-found thriftiness.  It was the window shopping.  Looking in all the shops and people-watching used to be a leisurely way to enjoy an afternoon.  But now, all we could see were lots of things we really had no need for.  Looking at it now, I understand why we felt like strangers wandering through this land of commerce but, at the time, it was pretty surprising!

This “slow and steady” mindset has really helped us make progress toward our goal of consuming less.  There have also been some interesting and unforeseen consequences.  Don’t get me wrong, I totally love the big, splashy, dramatic statements.  I am NEVER GOING TO MCDONALDS EVER AGAIN!  You really feel like your making a difference in your life right away!  You can say it out loud to your friends and they will support you!  You get to use exclamation points in your inner dialog!  But, its like going cold turkey.  It rarely works.

I totally love cheeseburgers.

But, maybe not today…

Debt

millstoneThese days, debt is the great anchor/mill stone/weight around the neck of every one of us.  We can point our finger at corporations, the media, popular culture, or even our families for not teaching us any better.  But really, we are in control of our own lives.  That’s the worst part- we did this to ourselves!  It was easy to get there.  It is much harder to get out of debt.

Those winter pounds go on so easily but,
come spring its back on the bike, back in the gym,
to sweat and struggle ourselves back to fitness.

If we can stay true to our goals on a more-or-less consistent basis- financial freedom, fewer possessions, and developing a more sustainable way of living- it will be  much easier to keep our balance.  The best part of this is that we actually have a long-term goal!  After almost 20 years, we have a goal other than just trying to make the mortgage and pay our bills.

How do we break our old, bad habits?  That is what the next four years of my life are going to be about.  By the time our youngest child graduates from high school, my wife and I want to be debt-free, have a house that we can proudly put on the market, give our favorite possessions to our older kids, sell or give away the rest, and hit the road for a while.  A good long while.  I want to live lightly.  I want to rekindle that sense of freedom that we had when we were younger.  I don’t want to relive my past.  That is, shockingly, the past!  What I do know is that we were on to something back then and set it aside in order to raise a family.  It’s time to pick it back up again.

When we sold our large home in bainbridge-houseWashington State, along with a deep sense of loss and finality, there was this incredible feeling of lightness and freedom!  My wife and I were free from the burden of that beautiful home that we had painstakingly built (every 2×6 and window and light fixture and tile!) and I felt like Neil Armstrong on the moon!  It was like gravity didn’t have quite as strong a hold of me any longer and each stride I took was ten feet long.  I was explaining how hard it was to give up this home to a builder I had done quite a bit of work for.  His comments to me were spot on.  He said, “so, your telling me that you built a house.  And now your selling it?  I don’t see the problem.  Isn’t that what we do?  Congrats on finding a buyer!  That’s great!”  I got so caught up in the personal angst of selling our home that I lost track of the reality of it all.  That was indeed what I did for a living- did beautiful work for people and then walked away.  Time to turn this place over to somebody else!

Does that sense of freedom and joy necessarily need to be a temporary feeling?  Can we live our lives with less?  Even more importantly, can we thrive with fewer possessions and a smaller footprint upon our world?  I truly believe we can and that downsizing, that reduction in scale is something that many many people are considering and acting upon.  I know we are actively working toward it.  More on our ideas later.