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.


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.

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.

The Trouble With More

give-a-mouse-a-cookie…is that it creates more.  Much like that children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, even a simple action can create a snowball effect that can quickly become something you did not expect.  We read this story to our children when they were young as a way to teach them about making choices and their consequences but is equally appropriate when discussing how we end up with all this stuff.

If a hungry little mouse shows up on your doorstep, you might want to give him a cookie. And if you give him a cookie, he’ll ask for a glass of milk. He’ll want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache, and then he’ll ask for a pair of scissors to give himself a trim…

My father has always said that once you end up buying a refrigerator, it’s all over.  That was his clear delineation between childhood and adulthood.  Its hard to backpack around Europe when you own a refrigerator.  Equally difficult is bicycle touring or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  I am not so sure he was really talking about losing the ability to be footloose and fancy free.  The problem is not really the refrigerator itself, but all the things that owning one implies.  By owning that fridge, you have begun the process of “settling down.”

  • You start collecting all the necessary things it takes to operate a comfortable, modern American household.
  • You buy a mini-van rather than the RoadTrek van you really wanted.
  • Long-term practicality begins to gain prominence and short-term joy is told to just be patient.
  • You become responsible for more than just yourself- maybe its just a partner or perhaps there are children.  Either way, the expectations of others necessarily color your views of what is important.
  • The cross-country bike tour you were planning gets moved to the back burner because you really ought to find a “real job.”

When I was in college, my mother used a pencil to write my address in her contact book because I was single and moved around so frequently.  It was pretty easy to do back then.  I had a duffel bag for my clothes, a few books, a couple boxes, my camping gear, and my bicycle.  That was it.  It would all fit in the back of my 1981 Toyota Tercel liftback (and I could still see out the back!)

The last move I made was when we sold our containershome on Bainbridge Island and moved to Massachusetts.  Everything my family of six owned, except for the items we would be needing while we looked for a new home, went into a 28′ long x 8′ wide x 8′ high shipping container and we packed that thing full to the roof.  One of my good friends, who is apparently a Tetris fanatic, took great joy and care to fit each piece of furniture, each box, each bed frame, into its perfect little spot.  That thing was so well packed that there was not an inch of available space for that load to shift during transit.  Needless to say, when we opened the container to offload our stuff into our new house, everything was EXACTLY where Phil had placed it six months prior.

The biggest consequence of having more is that, once you purchase that refrigerator, your life has changed permanently.  The old life is still visible but it is more like an entry in your diary rather than a living, breathing reality.  There may come a time when you will be able to return to something more closely aligned with those early ideals but the glowing coals of a rich life are a very different heat than the grand inferno of youth.

If the expectation is that you will be able to simply take up where you left off, you are neglecting the reality of how different you really are from that earlier version of your current self.  Try going out to see a band at a bar some night.  I still love live music but find that the scene that used to be so shiny and exciting is less so these days.  Seeing the awkward, flirty games people play with one another is like watching some show on the WB network.  Also, paying $5 for a can of beer seems kind of ridiculous.

We should, instead, pass along a yearning for that fire, that passion for life.  If we can divest ourselves from the habit of constantly needing more, I believe we will be better able to see what truly makes us happy.  If we can teach our children that life isn’t about having the most stuff but living and loving and adventure, we may have given them the tools to see through some of the veils of what we “need” to begin to understand what is truly makes them happy and confident adults.  Infatuations will fade but the things that really resonate with us are part of who we are.  Figure that out, and do it.

To hell with the mouse.