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.

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.

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.

“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.