welcome the flood

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*the following essay appeared in the Argus Leader as part of A Simple Year

 

In 2011, an artist named Candy Chang created an outdoor exhibition with the words “Before I die I want to _______” stenciled again and again across an enormous chalkboard wall. Passersby were invited to fill in the blanks with their own aspirations.

“Before I die I want to … tell my father I love him.”

“Before I die I want to … write a book.”

“Before I die I want to … clean out my basement.”

Okay, no one really wrote that they wanted to clean out their basement, as far as I know. But, just a few weeks ago, if faced with such a wall, I would have clutched the chalk in my hand, grinding it to powder as that very thought floated in my head, crowding out anything significant or less ridiculous.

First of all, let me add here that my father knows that I love him, so telling him doesn’t need to go on a dying-wish sort of list. Plus, I’ve already written a book. (Published, no. Written, yes. It counts.) But for whatever psychological reasons I have yet to fully come to terms with, the condition of my basement had become shameful to me, and I desperately wanted to be free of that shame.

Try to understand, just a few short weeks ago, my basement housed every decision I had been unable to make, every extraneous purchase I had ever fallen into, every broken thing I had failed to fix, and every manuscript I had been too afraid to send to a publisher, for fear of a phenomenon I’ll call “monumental-rejection-and-artistic-humiliation.”

All that gunk lurking beneath the surface of an otherwise luminous life had begun to pull me under in ways I never expected. Worse yet, it was a problem I seemed unable to solve on my own.

Maybe you don’t believe in God. I do. And I believe God has a sense of humor.

He sent a flood. You know, one of those just-to-your-house kind of floods. And, since God can be pretty … um … specific … the flood arrived in my basement.

It happens like this: I walk downstairs to check my laundry and plunge into ankle-deep water. My washing machine is pumping, pumping, pumping with a maddening mechanical monotony. The floor drain stubbornly refuses to drink any more, seizing up and blocking the water’s exit.

As I dash to punch the button on the machine, stopping the madness, my daughter’s kindergarten photo drifts by in the wake of my sloshing.

(All right, I made that last part up. It only felt that dramatic.)

Everything in the basement had been stored haphazardly, and much of it on the floor. Worthless things. Priceless things. Things I had been looking for. Things I had forgotten I had been looking for.

And now, all of it was drowning.

I will spare you the details. Many who read this will have survived much worse, of course. I, in fact, have survived much worse. But still. It was a pretty crummy wakeup call.

The cleanup began immediately, first the soggy items, then the years of accumulated “other.” My husband worked by my side. My daughter worked by my side. My father drove over to lift and carry and advise, though he had no obligation to do so. (I mentioned loving my father and telling him so often, didn’t I?)

I cried. Once. For a good ten minutes, as I peeled a soaking, bleeding photograph from the inside of a cardboard box—one of those black and white photo-booth strips of me and my daughter hamming it up—I allowed myself to become thoroughly overwhelmed by the task ahead of me. I sat in my basement and wept while others walked by with dripping rugs slung over their shoulders.

When I decided to simplify my life, I imagined slowly sorting through a box or two every other Saturday, pulling some unread books off the shelf, erasing the black from a few calendar squares. I did not imagine a flood, not even for a moment. Nor did I imagine: Two pickup trucks full of garbage, six carloads of donate-able household goods, a bulging recycling bin, and weeks worth of mind-numbing, back-bending, increasingly solitary work.

As of today, I’m about halfway to my goal of a sparkling, spare, and organized basement.

Life has a way of getting your attention when you least expect it, but when you’re the most ready to actually handle it (even if you think you’re not). Problems, I have discovered, don’t tend to fly away on their own—you have to release them, no matter how painful that might be.

For me, every trip to donate perfectly-good items from my basement felt like a stabbing confession: Here are my extras, my castaways, my redundancies. I have bought and been given more than I can use, more than my share. There are people without, but I have drowned in abundance.

I am part of the problem. 

But then, on the way home, a new feeling—one of lightness, freedom, forgiveness. I am also part of the solution … the moment I choose to be.

Life is full, glorious, bustling. I was busy, so I stuffed the details into boxes and stacked them out of sight. There would always be time (later) to deal with the extra toys, the report cards, the outgrown clothing, I reasoned. I had more important things to do.

But life blossoms within those details, doesn’t it? Behold: The life insurance policies tucked into their protective plastic—a gift to our newborn child. The letters we wrote to one another, back when we wrote letters. The crayon drawing of a blonde mother and brown-haired girl holding hands, surrounded by a meadow of flowers and fairies. The hundreds of scraps of poetry—words strung together like miniature lights, twinkling with hope and gratitude.

It is slipping too far down the rainbow of hyperbole to say I have been honored to clean out my own basement—to hold in my hands, once again, my grandmother’s organ lesson notebook or the baby clothes that still (miraculously!) smell like baby?

I’ve been through the flood. I would be a fool not to bask in the rainbow.

the road to simplicity is paved with failure

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*the following essay appeared in the Argus Leader as part of A Simple Year

 

What is the stuff that makes a life? How much is enough? How much is too much?

I began 2014 asking myself these questions. I wanted to live more simply. I wanted to live with less: Less clutter, yes, but with fewer expectations as well, fewer distractions, fewer anxieties and doubts.

I think I had the idea that cleaning out my closets would somehow clean out my schedule and my perpetually racing mind. Actually, a mere two months into the living simply challenge, I can’t quite remember what I was thinking when this all began.

I only know how often I have already failed.

It happened like this: One of my first “homework” tasks set forth as part of the online course “A Simple Year: 12 Months of Guided Simplicity” was to thoroughly clean out my car.

My car. In January. In South Dakota.

To be clear, I do not have an attached, heated garage. Around here, it goes without saying that if your car is a mess in, say, November, you probably won’t vacuum down to the last stray Cheerio until, say, May.

Furthermore, I do not have time to clean out my car. It also turns out that I do not have time to exercise, to take my dog to the vet, or to, ahem, pay my bills on time.

Kind of sounds like a problem, yes?

Enter Courtney Carver, author, teacher, and creator of the blog Be More With Less. Various writers/bloggers take turns leading “A Simple Year,” and Carver’s February message followed up January’s clutter lessons with a look at the snare of busyness.

Since I had already failed the January module because I was too overwhelmed, I was eager to hear what Carver had to say about how (and why) to release busyness from my life.

“When I was consumed with being busy, I would complain and simultaneously justify my busy life, because I thought that was the way my life would always be,” Carver writes. “I convinced everyone around me that I was happy being “crazy-busy” all the time and spent any downtime I had convincing myself.”

You can say that again, sister.

Carver says her wake-up call to perils of chronic busy was her punch-in-the-face diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Her words were compelling, so I immediately cut back my to-do list. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t particularly painful either. I resigned from a committee. I dropped one of my daughter’s after school activities. I said no to a few things when I would have normally said yes.

Then I had a really, really nice weekend where I folded laundry and read a book and basically patted myself on the back.

Guess what happened next? Fueled by rest and a sense of empowerment (or possibly self-righteousness), I tumbled immediately back into the busy trap.

Because March is … you know … March. I have things to do in March. Things I promised to do last month. Things I promised to do last year.  I quickly realized that if you want a clearer schedule in March, you have to start saying no to things in January, hold fast in February, and cling like grim death to empty calendar squares in March.

By March first, all my calendar squares had filled back up. I liked what was in those squares, mostly. But there I was again, staring my busyness addiction in the face. The moment I said no to one obligation, I said yes to two others, thereby effectively sabotaging my own quest for a simple life.

I don’t even like being busy, and I’m not particularly good at being busy, so I’m still not sure why I do this. I only know it’s time to make a change, and the only way to do that is to begin.

Following Carver’s instructions, I created a “slow space” in my bedroom. In my case, that meant tackling the inhabitants of a three-drawer nightstand. I emptied everything out. Sorted. Threw away. Relocated.

It was a small thing, for sure, but looking at a clear space beside my bed did allow me to breathe a little easier. My reading glasses are there. My journal. A pen. One book. That’s about it. The drawers hold things that are precious to me—a handful of letters, notes I wrote when my daughter was an infant,  a few pieces of jewelry.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten in decluttering my life. For now, this is enough. I allow it to be enough.

I have realized a few things about myself in this process already. First, I don’t like to face my clutter. I used winter as an excuse for a perpetually messy car, when “winter” is a fairly lame excuse, as excuses go.

Second, I learned that optimism is not always my friend. I say yes to things because I am, for the most part, smart and creative. Also I apparently expect myself to wake on any given day with superpowers, because then I will truly be able to do what needs to be done in my life. Why else would I schedule myself to be in three different places at the same time on a day that also happens to be my birthday?

Maybe I will be able to work it out, I tell myself. Maybe by then I will be more capable than I am today.

Or maybe I’m just afraid. Afraid that if I say no to a request now, the phone will stop ringing for good. Afraid that no matter how much I accomplish, my work in the world will never be enough. I will never be enough.

Yeah. This is going to take longer than I expected.

quest for a simple year

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*this column originally appeared in the Argus Leader newspaper as part of A Simple Year

 

For me, it began in October, during a conversation with a friend.

“I’m not even going to think about Christmas until after Thanksgiving,” I confessed. “No shopping, no planning. Nothing.”

Blank stare.

“I mean it,” I said. “I’m just going to sit back and enjoy November. I’ll practice gratitude all month long.”

(Cue sound of crickets chirping.)

Finally, my beloved friend overcame her shock long enough to say, “You’ll never get away with it.”

What she meant was, if you don’t start at least making your list in November, you won’t have time to check it twice in December. The holiday season will exponentially expand into one enormous stress ball cascading down a hill-of-your-own-making, slick with good intentions.

“It’ll be all right,” I assured her. “I’m not buying presents for anyone this year anyway. Not even my nieces and nephews. And I’m not baking anything but Chex Mix. Things will be fine.”

She shook her head and turned away, muttering. I’m pretty sure she pitied me for at least five minutes before she went back to executing an elegant and memorable holiday season of delight for her family. She’s kind of awesome like that.

This is how naïve I am: I thought people would encourage my “simple holiday” inspiration. I suspected everyone needed a pause from the breakneck speed of November/December, and that lots of my friends would enjoy stepping off the merry-go-round with me. We’d stand off to the side, mugs of steaming hot cocoa in hand, and say, “Well, if this isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is.”

I was, as you might have surmised, mistaken.

The world rumbled along, as the world tends to do. People shopped. They called me for gift ideas. They texted me with gift ideas. They emailed photos of the gifts they had already bought for one another. They invited me shopping. Wouldn’t you rather hang out over some hot chocolate and watch the snow fall, I wondered?

No. They wouldn’t.

The first thing I learned about simplifying my life was that it’s none of my business if other people don’t want to simplify theirs. Nobody is going to cheer me along or affirm me. December blessed me with extra time for concerts and music and holiday lights. It was lovely. I drank plenty of hot chocolate, usually with my daughter, listening to the news of her day. Other times, I drank my hot chocolate alone.

All that time I spent not obsessing over Christmas gave me time to obsess about something else. My life is way more complicated than it needs to be. Too much time in the car, too many deadlines, too much debt, too many unanswered emails. I’m stressed. And I’m not okay with that.

So, if December can be simplified, why not January? Why not, say, 2014?

For that kind of endeavor, I would need help. I enrolled in A Simple Year: 12 Months of Guided Simplicity, an online course led by renowned writers, bloggers, and minimalists. I’ve been following select minimalist blogs lately, and some of what they encourage simply wouldn’t work in Sioux Falls, at least not in the Sioux Falls I know. One of the questions I hope to answer is: What does simplicity look like here, in this city we call home?

I hope you’ll join me. Each month, I’ll write about the simplicity challenges ahead and what I’m doing to adapt the advice of national simplicity experts into a Sioux Falls family lifestyle. You don’t have to sign up for a course, but you’re welcome to join me online.

In the meantime, there’s a thought that has been haunting me lately. The first challenge of the year deals with possessions, specifically with those possessions that have clouded the shine of life and become little more than clutter. Not long ago, someone asked me what I would do with my time if I had six months left on earth. (That’s right, I have those kind of perky friends.) Naturally, spending time with my family was top on my list.

Another thought kept rising to the surface, however—a thought I was deeply ashamed of. If I had six months to live, one of my top priorities would be … wait for it … to clean my house. I wouldn’t want anyone to have the burden of digging through these closets, poring over those notebooks and letters, deciding (through their grief) what to keep and what to release.

I wouldn’t want anyone discovering the presents stuffed into the back of my bedroom closet. I want to give those gifts while we can all still enjoy them. I wouldn’t want my beloveds to stand in the basement and weep because so much work lies before them. I would want them to remember the living we did together, not the (very tangible) mess I left behind.

The way I see it, if one of your dying wishes would be to sit at home and sort through your overblown collection of books and magazines, your life is not what it could be. I can do better. I deserve to do better.

You don’t have to step off the merry-go-round with me. But maybe you’d like to try—just for a rotation or two. I’m guessing the view has something wonderful and unexpected to offer.

 

time as tyrant

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Sometimes, time seems like a tyrant when it should be a blessing. I have three weeks ahead of me that promise to-do lists, deadlines, and, most likely, yet another blast of unforgiving winter.

Even a stretch of lovely hint-of-spring days doesn’t seem like enough when the cold swirls around once again. An evening with a good book and good company pales when morning dawns, too much work penciled into a too small calendar square awaiting. Have a better attitude, I tell myself. Just keep swimming.

In the quest to live more simply, I have discovered rather quickly that a schedule, like an ocean liner,  does not turn on a dime. Things I promised to accomplish weeks ago are now glaring at me, demanding to be done. Unexpected requests wash ashore. The phone rings. Things break and need to be repaired or replaced. Other things just fall apart.

So what?

So … nothing. I have decided to stop and enjoy this time anyway. For the next few weeks, weeks when I have pressing business every single day (often into the evening) I vow to pause. I will use the camera on my phone to take a photo every day. I will take the time to notice life around me unfolding, blessing me with the gift, not the tyranny, of time. I will participate in that life because I am meant for more than just keeping my nose to an imaginary grindstone.

Of course this means I may  fail at one or more of my pressing-business-to-do list-items. I may fall behind on a project. I may miss an appointment.

Enough.

I am allowed to fail. I allow myself to fail.

The photo above is far from perfect. But when I looked up at this ceiling, I was comforted by its symmetry. There might be an order to this, it seemed to remind me, even if you don’t always notice it. The ceiling is white, but I filtered to shade it blue—my small attempt at painting the sky, at stepping out of my chaos and joining in the chorus if only for a moment.

Then today I paused to record this dusting of snow tucked inside last years blossoms. The flowers will be back, I tell myself. As will the rain, the air, the light.

And I will be here as well. Noticing.

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