It happened again just the other day. I got into a conversation with someone I had known socially for some time, a physically fit person who often talks about nutrition and healthy living. She shared that she had been diagnosed with a serious illness and that her doctor had told her there was nothing she could do about it through lifestyle modification. She wasn't any more impressed with this prognosis than I was when I got mine, and she set about it proving it wrong. In her case, it was an autoimmune disorder that can result in weight gain, fatigue, and joint pain, and the only known treatment is a lifetime on medication. Strange that, years later, nobody would guess she had ever been ill.
My radar is always pinging for stories of this nature, and I run across them all the time. Mine was an endocrine disorder. The story I just told involved an autoimmune disorder. Recently, I reviewed Shawn Stevenson's book Sleep Smarter, in which he shares how he reversed his degenerative disk disease. My husband had two herniated disks in his spine, and they healed. My brother broke his back in three places, and not only did his spine heal, but he goes snowboarding like nothing ever happened. These are not conditions like the common cold; these are serious problems. They would have been, anyway, decades in the past. They might still be, for the ordinary sort of person who accepts lame, textbook advice from a conventional physician.
Now, I believe in Western medicine. I'm vaccinated for everything I can be, I get the flu shot, and I'll look forward to more vaccinations as they are developed. If I'm prescribed antibiotics, I take them as directed. I go to the doctor when I have to. That, though, tends to be when I need a rubber stamp on a referral to a specialist. My most recent doctor is no good for much else. When I had my first appointment with her, I told her about my history with overcoming fibromyalgia, and she told me that I must have been misdiagnosed, because "people don't get better from fibromyalgia." She believed this because her own sister-in-law has it. I hope the sister-in-law isn't her patient. I also wonder about a medical training system that teaches physicians to brush off anecdotal reports from patients who healed, rather than enrolling them in some kind of study. Examine me! I'm right here and I'm willing!
One of the biggest issues with the ongoing professional development of physicians is that they spend their days with ill and injured people. Healthy, fit, active people only go to a doctor when there is an immediate need. Therefore, there's no feedback loop of information from people who are succeeding in being well. It's common sense for a doctor to say, Well, this is what tends to happen and doing this for the majority of patients tends to work out okay. It would not be common sense for a doctor to say, This illness derives from the patient's comfort zone, so dramatic lifestyle change will probably be necessary to beat this thing. It doesn't even seem to be common sense for a doctor to say LET'S BEAT THIS THING!
Another issue is that people in the medical field tend to be over-scheduled, exhausted, and burned out. They don't necessarily have time to keep up on the cutting edge of new research. If there were no educational requirements for them to learn anything about nutrition, for example, why and when would they pick up extracurricular information on their own? If they themselves are not models of peak health and fitness, can they really teach their patients how to live this way? I've had precisely one doctor who was anywhere near my fitness level, and she told me I inspired her to train for a triathlon. My dental hygienist told me I inspired her to ride her bike to work. My health professionals take health advice from me, and that's either a great thing or a complete travesty.
The point of all this is that it is UNSCIENTIFIC to tell patients that their conditions are incurable. It is UNSCIENTIFIC to rule out nutrition or physical activity as even remote, fringe possibilities. The real question that should be raised is why anyone would deviate from a diet complete in all necessary micronutrients, and why anyone would remain sedentary for the majority of each day. There is a vast gulf between what research tells us about health, and what our doctors communicate to us. When my doctor condescendingly patted me on the shoulder and told me not to bother with lifestyle modifications, he instead should have encouraged me to do my own research and take detailed notes. I was only twenty-two at the time, and he could even have encouraged me to pursue a career in the health sciences. Instead, what I get from conversations with medical professionals about my remarkable recovery is skepticism and pushback. I'm not supposed to exist, so they act as if I don't.
My advice to anyone who "has a diagnosis" of any kind is to question it. If a doctor told you that what you have is unresponsive to lifestyle modifications, get a new doctor. Certainly nobody can stop you from tracking your own health data and reading as much new research as possible. I'm talking about actual peer-reviewed journal articles, not blogs, although blogs can be included if the blogger can demonstrate results with your specific issue. I accidentally cured myself of fibromyalgia and thyroid disease, but it was published research that led to reversing my problems with insomnia, night terrors, and restless leg syndrome. I also relied on published research to reach a healthy weight. I follow Alzheimer's research because I have had relatives die of that disease, and I believe I can mitigate my risks. I've made a regular habit of reading about new medical research for the last twenty years, and it's paid off abundantly.
The biggest difference between healthy people and chronically ill people, in my experience, is that healthy people refuse to accept a diagnosis as the final answer. We won't tolerate being ill any longer than we must. We never stop looking for more information. We do the utmost to take care of ourselves, eating, exercising, and sleeping as well as we know how. I've met a couple of people who claim they have "never been sick a day in their lives," but almost all of the fit, healthy people in my acquaintance have successfully overcome at least one major health condition. Whether these are supposedly genetic conditions, injuries, or lifestyle illnesses, there is always something one can do besides feel helpless and hopeless. Even if I got a diagnosis (and a second and third opinion) claiming I would die tomorrow, I'd still do everything I could to be the best possible patient and research subject. I need to feel that my pain and suffering matter in some way, that my experience can be used to further research and to help others with the same condition. Being ill doesn't have to mean being a victim. Being told I'm ill doesn't have to mean it's true, or that it stays true.
We're in Vegas again, and I've been thinking about my fixation on luxury hotels. We live pretty modestly at home. Just what is it that's so special about hotels? Oddly, I think there are some lessons about minimalism here.
Our room is about the size of my first apartment. I've lived in larger houses, but there's something about the dimensions of this space that feels appropriate and comfortable to me. My husband and I always set up our bedroom in the smallest room of whatever house we're living in. At home, the bed takes up almost the entire room. Given the opportunity, we'd always take a smaller house over a larger house. Less to clean. Cheaper to heat and cool. Mostly, we just like having the coziness of a human-scale room, where everything is in proportion to our form.
The only personal stuff we have is the stuff we brought. We have exactly the right amount of clothing. We planned what to wear, so everything coordinates and we know we look good. There's all kinds of space in the closet for triple what we actually have in there. We have linens, toiletries, pens, paper, a hair dryer, and an ironing board. We have our electronics, and that means access to all the work tools and entertainment we could ever hope to need. What else "should" we have that isn't here? Boxes of memorabilia and sentimental keepsakes? Tubs of fabric, yarn, and craft supplies? Holiday decorations? A few dozen extra pairs of shoes and a hundred articles of clothing we won't wear? What are we missing?
Our pets. We're missing our pets, but we'll see them again soon.
There are things in the room that we aren't using and don't need. A large-screen TV and its small companion in the bathroom. Seriously? Why is there always a TV in a hotel bathroom? Do people really watch TV while they're brushing their teeth or shaving? There's a mini-bar, and we don't drink. There is a tray of snacks, none of which are the kind of thing we eat at home. As it is, we're only eating two meals a day and we're still feeling saturated with excess calories, even though we're walking an average of five miles a day and we always take the stairs. You can't work off a bad diet. There's a respectable gym at the hotel, but what makes this place unsustainable for us is that we have to rely on restaurants for our meals.
The one issue I have with hotels is that I'm not emotionally comfortable having other people clean up after me. If they left a supply closet unlocked, I'd totally squeegee the bathroom, run the vacuum, and make the bed myself. I always have to talk myself down and remember that this is someone's livelihood. A sucky one, but a livelihood all the same. I've cleaned houses for money, so why should I begrudge someone else that opportunity? Still torn about it, and probably always will be. Either way, in the end, it's nice to have gleaming clean surfaces, windows, and mirrors. Whether someone else cleans them or whether I do it, I'm never going to settle for dusty, grimy, or greasy. Even on vacation.
What we have in a hotel room is potential. It's a stylish, attractive, comfortable room. It has plenty of sunlight and it also has blackout curtains. There's a desk, a table with chairs, a couch, a bed, and a bathroom. There are plenty of lamps and electrical outlets. What else do we really need in a room? We don't need piles of papers and mail. We don't need stacks of catalogs, old magazines, and books we've already read. We don't need collections of clothes that don't fit. We don't need souvenirs.There is very little that we truly do need.
What we have at home is security. In spite of downsizing three times, in spite of our interest in minimalism, we still have plenty of stuff. The majority of our belongings are not used on a daily, or even a weekly, basis. We keep various tools because they may come in handy or because we think we might need them. Years might go by, and we might not need them, but the potential is there. I'm sure I could come up with a use for a deflated soccer ball or a candy wrapper if I waited long enough and thought hard enough. More than the random possessions, what we have at home is that sense of territory. This is our place to mess up however we like. Nobody tells us what to do here. Well, actually our landlord lives next door, and he does tell us what to do sometimes. Neighbors are always going to have a certain amount of input. In that sense, the security of home can be somewhat restrictive. In a hotel, almost anything goes. At home, people notice, and they remember. Security isn't everything.
The more time we spend in hotels, the more we realize that what makes our home environment feel personal is our personal presence. It's our conversation, the clothing we're actually wearing at this moment, and our musical preferences. It's our choice of reading material. It's our involvement in our work and our projects. There's nothing in particular about a room or a collection of stuff that speaks about our shared life. What makes a place home for us is being together, usually with our critters in our laps. Why do we carry so much stuff when all we really need is each other?
We're celebrating our seventh wedding anniversary. All told, we've been together for ten years. When we met, I can state with great confidence that romance was the very last thing on my mind. I wanted no part of being in love again, not until I felt financially secure on my own at least, and I had actually gotten down on my knees and prayed never to feel infatuated or have a crush on anyone ever again. I had been divorced for five years. I'd hardened my heart and swallowed my tears. Cupid, get away from me. I have things to do.
Divorce will paradoxically make a romantic out of you just as you think you're being your most pragmatic. Even when you know all the nuts and bolts of quarreling over housework and arguing about money, even when you know how hard it is to get along with someone else's family, you still think that next time it'll be better. Even when you know approximately how long it takes to find out someone else's secret single habits, even when you've mutually evaluated every possible flaw and failing, you still think you'll find someone worth feeling warm and snuggly about. Then it happens. You can hardly believe it's true. You put it under the microscope and examine it to within an inch of its life, and somehow it survives scrutiny. Real love can put up with almost anything.
We were helpless against each other. From the day we met, we were intrigued with each other. We always had something to talk about. We annoyed each other. We argued about politics. He taunted me and I kicked his chair. I threw my shoe at him and he walked off with it. We started having three-second phone conversations. We left each other notes. We had lunch together every day. People were talking about us, and we snorted and laughed it off. Give me a break. We were both divorced, fat, and broke, too jaded to want anything from anyone, and besides, at that point we were both casually dating other people.
Time went by. The other people left the picture. The first time he called me on the phone, I asked him what he wanted and why he was calling me. I was mean. I wanted him to go away because I was afraid for my job. Then I got a better job that paid more somewhere else. It took us weeks to work out the parameters of how we would be together. It took more like a year to hammer out the details of living in the same zip code, much less living under the same roof.
He wanted to live together without getting married. I wanted to get married and not live together. We compromised. Somehow, we wound up doing both. Still not sure how that happened. The truth was that not living together and not being together was never an option. The phone reception was too bad. As soon as we realized how much more we could talk after we got married, it was a lost cause.
I knew I had to marry him when I realized that no matter what happened, I would always be curious about what he was doing. I would always want his opinion. I would always find myself trying to make him laugh, which is basically impossible unless I'm talking about how he never laughs at my jokes. Or the time I farted at the library. He's the first person I think of whenever anything interesting happens, or anything embarrassing, or even when I have a boring random thought. He's the person I want to impress.
Loving someone for ten years isn't really about that person. You can love anyone or be annoyed or bored by anyone. It's not about their personal qualities or character. It's about how open you are. It's about what you see in people and how you interpret what they say and do. We keep believing in fairy tales and thinking that true love comes from somewhere outside, like a meteorite or gamma rays. You can really only feel the love that you feel. If you want to be shaken up and transformed by crazy love, you have to make it happen inside yourself. You turn on the spigot of love and keep turning it until it quits sputtering a thin, rusty trickle and gushes out, clear and pure.
It just so happens that the man I chose is a terrific human being. I dote on him. He's one of the coolest, most interesting people I ever met. I only found out all these cool things about him after I got to know him, though. I looked for certain things, to check if they were there, and they were. He's brave. He's strong. He's hilarious. He's generous. He's sweet. He's confusing sometimes, and he reacts differently than I would in the same situations, and he has his own particular value system that is tougher than mine in some ways. He still surprises me. I don't know all his stories yet. Sometimes, he says things that stop me in my tracks and have me following him around for days, asking him to tell me more. I married him because I believed him when he said he thought there could be something more. He was right. There's still more. There will always be more because he keeps growing and changing and improving over time. I hope I do, too. That's the commitment.
Marriage is about being a mutual admiration society. It's about reflecting each other back to each other, providing a beneficent mirror that helps us see ourselves truly and recognize our weak spots. It's about cheerleading. It's about facilitating each other to live the best life possible, and that means being the best self possible, and sometimes that means being tough on each other. We've had some moments of radical candor that took real humility and courage on both sides. That's where the trust comes from. We'll never fake each other out. We have each other's backs. He's on my zombie apocalypse squad. We're like two sparrows in a nest, and he's my sparrow, and I'm his.
People often ask if you believe in love at first sight. He doesn't. I do. I mean, we did see each other and we did get married, so you can't really rule it out. It feels like fate. If I hadn't taken that temp assignment that day, if either of our previous marriages had worked out, if I had had enough money to follow up on my plan to teach English in Japan... So many things had to fall into place for us to meet. We've met thousands of people, though, and we only found each other when we found each other. Love is about the story you tell yourselves, the story of how lost and lonely you'd be without each other, the story of how ridiculous your life was when you were by yourself, like a bicycle with only one wheel. Maybe we're really more like two unicycles riding side by side.
Where will we be in another ten years? Who knows? I'm pretty sure we'll be together, if the Fates allow. I could never begin to explain all our inside jokes to someone else. We're a secret society with a closed membership of two. Somehow, we've gotten all wrapped up around each other. I think we share a brain. I know that at this point we share a heart.
I love you, babe. Thank you for being my somebody.
Joshua Becker discovered minimalism after spending a day organizing his garage, while his young son begged to play with him. A conversation with a neighbor included the words that "I don't need to own all this stuff." He realized that having less stuff would make his life easier and put his priority back where he wanted it: his family. Thus began years of downsizing their possessions and blogging about the process. The More of Less is a deeper, more personal look at the implications of materialism. It's also something of a how-to guide.
The More of Less suggests experiments for testing out the idea of minimalism without doing anything drastic. One such experiment is "leveling," or removing stuff from a room temporarily and seeing what it feels like. Knowing those things are boxed up and ready to reclaim may provide a sense of security for those who are anxious about "getting rid of everything." Another suggestion is to start with the easy stuff. (My recommendation is junk mail).
Becker points out that security is one of the reasons we cling so tightly to our stuff. We feel that having it protects us in some way. Getting rid of it makes us vulnerable to something. WHAT IF I NEED IT? He cites research that "those who do not feel internally secure in their personal relationships will often put a higher value on physical possessions." He goes on to say that "the opposite is often true as well: those who are overestimating what their possessions can do for them tend to undervalue and put too little work into their relationships."
I can share something personal here: I have realized that I am clinging to certain things specifically because I associate them with having visitors to my house. I keep board games that haven't been played in years, in case someone comes to visit who might want to play. I keep dozens of cookbooks so I'll be able to find "the perfect recipe" for dinner parties I don't even have room to host in my 728-square-foot house. I have a cabinet of extra guest bedding, when overnight guests would have to sleep on the floor in our living room. In weight and volume, I have the ghost of a human friend or family member represented in THINGS I don't really need. Hospitality is not things. Friendship is not things.
Even marriage is not things. The More of Less includes a story that astonished me. A woman named Ali Eastburn sold her wedding ring and used the proceeds toward drilling water wells in sub-Saharan Africa. Afterward, several of her friends donated their rings. Eastburn started a nonprofit called With This Ring. So far it has collected OVER A THOUSAND RINGS and has provided clean water for tens of thousands of people on three continents. This makes me shiver all over. There really is enough for everyone in the entire world to live comfortably, if only we shared more. How powerful for your marriage, to have a project like that to talk about rather than whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher. I've never taken off my ring since our wedding day almost exactly seven years ago. If these people can give up their wedding rings, surely more of us can "give up" some of the extra stuff we never even use.
What we really want, according to Becker, is security, acceptance, and contentment. Generosity and gratitude are ways to attain these feelings. Working harder on our personal relationships is another way. Volunteering and service are ways we can fill our empty hours, the time we free after we quit spending so much time shopping and shuffling our possessions around. Reducing the materialism encouraged by our culture also frees us from the financial anxieties that distract us from living a higher calling.
Becker and his wife decided to put all the proceeds from the sales of The More of Less toward their charity, The Hope Effect, which seeks to change orphan care around the world. He explains that they were able to do this because their minimalist lifestyle has put them in the financial position where they didn't need the money. If they weren't going to spend it on buying stuff, paying off debts they no longer have, or adding more money than they needed to their retirement savings, what else would they do? Giving it away was the obvious solution. That's what The More of Less really means.
Some suggestions from the book:
Always make sure your garbage and recycling bins are full on pickup days, as you downsize broken things, old papers, etc.
If you think you can't afford to go on vacation or have some other experience, look around at your physical possessions and estimate how much they cost. One couple in the book realized they had spend over $10,000 in four years, almost entirely on things that cost under $40 each.
If your kids have too many toys, stop and think about who is buying stuff for them.
Keep relationships in your life even if they don't "bring benefit into your life." The real question is whether you bring benefit into theirs.
What do you want to do this weekend? Argue about money? Sounds fun, right?
Actually, it's entirely possible to have fun while discussing finances with your partner. All it takes is a willingness to pull off the band-aid and look at the wound together. There's no need for blame or recriminations unless the starting positions are adversarial. If you're on the same team, there's one thing you can't afford, and that is defensiveness. You both want the same things. You want to be happy together, you want to enjoy your life, and you want to be covered at the time when life's inevitable tidal wave of hassle heads in your direction. Everything else is negotiable.
My husband and I began our friendship by discussing our finances. That was when we made the jump from colleagues and lunch buddies to real friends. I was sleeping on an air mattress when we met, and he was fresh out of a divorce with a hot raw custody battle. A couple years down the road, when we started having romantic feelings for each other, they began on a bedrock of trust and respect. We've always been able to discuss money openly, in a professional and businesslike manner. Money is just money. It's like game tokens. We had a much tougher time admitting we like-liked each other.
Our roles are divided. He plays offense, I play defense. His strategy has always been to earn more, and mine has always been to save more. I've been known to physically break into hives after spending money on something that was out of my comfort zone, or accidentally taking out my emergency credit card instead of my debit card. He's of the opinion that it's silly to spend time worrying about pocket change, when the value of an hour of his time is so much higher. Better to spend time learning more job skills than clipping coupons. A fair chunk of his disposable income goes to textbooks, which he reads cover to cover. It works, too; his income is now about what our collective income was when we met. It's easy to see why I tend to be the one more interested in micro-managing our expenses or researching new personal finance trends.
Then we went to a personal finance seminar, and everything changed. One engineer to another. We learned about Mr. Money Mustache, and how he became financially independent at thirty. In the past week, there has been much lamentation about If Only Someone Had Shown Me That Spreadsheet When I Was Twenty. Now we have an FI spreadsheet of our own! (Courtesy of the Mad Fientist. Then we had the great delight of listening to him interview MMM on his podcast. Almost too much awesome to handle!)
The difference between financial independence and retirement is one of nuance. Financial independence means you have enough money invested to live off the interest for the rest of your life. Most FI people choose to continue to work because they like working, and it's more interesting than sitting around. Retirement tends to imply that you're dedicating the rest of your life to hedonism, such as sitting in a recliner in front of a television, or playing golf every day. Someone who is sixty and has been working for decades at an unfulfilling job may adore that idea. For a younger person who has a cool job, it sounds boring at best and dreadful at worst. Retirement feels like escaping pain, while financial independence feels like pursuing awesomeness.
My career track has given me many gifts, such as the ability to listen to people condescend to me while maintaining a placid smile on my face. Also: data entry, typing, and dictation. We sat side by side and took turns looking up the balances in our various accounts. It turned out that we had a small savings account we'd forgotten about, an investment account with one penny in it, and a credit card we never use. Now, he's over there counting coins and separating the euros from the yuan. We both tend to hide cash stashes here and there, and consolidating them is an exercise in hilarity. Subcategory: Underwear Money. I joked about keeping money in the dog's doggie-bag pouch, and then we both thought it might be a good idea.
Humor is definitely a key to our financial harmony. We also both like flipping the bird at the big banks. Debt-free because "forget you!" It also helps that we build our leisure time around things that don't cost money. Our main hobbies are playing with our pets, napping, side hustles, sending each other emoji-glyphics, and reading the news. We save money because we're both savers by nature, and also because we'd rather blow it on epic travel adventures than dribble it away on junk food, cable TV, and other wallpaper background expenses. Iceland or reality TV? Morocco or taco chips? That's not even a question.
Single people can make all the financial spreadsheets they want, and nobody else has to know or care. It does tend to be a signifier of frugality and maturity. The older you get in the dating market, the more your financial position factors in. When you're twenty, you can afford not to care how poor your sweetie is. When you're forty or older, you have to ask whether you have enough saved for two retirements plus someone else's debt elimination plan. When my boyfriend (now husband) proposed sitting down one evening and comparing retirement plans, little cartoon hearts popped out all around my head and torso, setting me up to accept his marriage proposal a few months later. "Financial spreadsheets together, for reals?" Cupid shot me with a slide rule.
If you show me your PowerPoint, I’ll show you my spread sheets. Word.
When you're part of a couple (or more, I guess), usually one person has to take the initiative. If you independently come up with the same idea and suggest it simultaneously, this is an extremely good sign that you're on the same wavelength. High five. It's more likely that one of you is naturally more cautious and meticulous, and that you'll have to sell your honeymuffin on the concept. I'd venture that the best way to do this is to do all the tracking and research on your own side first. The next thing is to keep it friendly, funny, and approachable. Gamify it. Have incentives. Offer to do all the nitpicky data entry yourself. If your impulse is to cut back on expenses, it will most likely feel like "deprivation" to the other party, so it's better to offer fun substitutes for those activities or expenses. Trade shoulder massages instead of going to every new release movie. Have a tapas night instead of going out for sushi, or learn to make your own sushi at home. Finger-wagging and lectures are not going to fly. Make a pinboard of photos of your savings goals, such as the house, the vacation, or the inflatable dinosaur suit you always wanted.
We've been holding a Status Meeting at breakfast every Saturday morning all year, and we love it. Now that we've set up the financial independence spreadsheet, it has instantly become an agenda item. We used to discuss many of these numbers, but now they're in a more detailed, more accessible format. The only thing missing is a chart of our progress from month to month, and that will probably happen, because we have the spreadsheet skills to set it up.
Money is just money. It's a simple metric to track, though. It's easier to "put a number" on an actual number than it is to rate your job satisfaction or life fulfillment. The more fulfilled you feel in your daily life, the easier it is to separate that feeling of contentment from the act of spending and purchasing stuff all the time. We're buying freedom and options in life.
I start the day stiff and crooked. I’m 41 and my joints crack sometimes. My hair started going gray over half a lifetime ago. I have my issues: worries about members of my family, worries about saving enough for retirement, little annoyances of home repair and phone calls I’d rather not have to make, daily chores, what to make for dinner. There’s one tiny slice of the day when I can put all that stuff aside and escape it all. It’s a guilty pleasure. I know what some people think of “women like me,” as I roll out my yoga mat, and I don’t care. Let them be jealous. For half an hour, more if I can get away with it, I’m going to get all the hassle out of my system and leave it on the mat.
Stress does things to us. Sometimes I catch my reflection in my laptop screen. Every single time, and I mean EVERY SINGLE TIME, this happens, I see that my shoulders are hunched up and there’s a crease between my eyebrows. I try not to, but my shoulders hunch forward when I type. In fact, I type so much that my biceps get sore. It’s easy for the accumulation of daily stress to build up without our noticing. That’s how we come to realize one day that we can’t sit on the floor and get up again anymore. Not without a laborious, embarrassing process of grabbing onto furniture or asking for a hand up, anyway. I’m determined that I’ll still be able to get off the floor when I’m 80, and what I’m doing on the mat every day is one way to work on that. In the meantime, though, my daily desire is to get rid of the tension and aches and pains that have started creeping up on me since the previous day. I’d like to leave all that on the mat.
It’s more than just the aches and pains that I want to leave behind, though. It’s my story. Yoga teachers often mention this. The story is the way we explain ourselves to ourselves. Whatever may or may not be true about reality, we interpret it based on our perceptions. My story may be that someone is being mean to me, or that something is unfair. My story may be that life is difficult. My story may involve all kinds of catastrophizing about money, politics, the weather, aging, my brown lawn, or how to interpret the look the person on the next mat gave me in class. Whether any of this is true or not, whether any of it will still be relevant to me in five years, is all beside the point. For the next fraction of time, my job is to focus on my body and my breath. I’d like to stop my mind from drifting away and get myself focused back on the mat.
So much of my thoughts, feeling, and behavior revolves around my mood. When I’m content, I can be a good listener. I can take extra time and I feel like I can afford to be generous with my attention. When I’m crabby, burned out, or anxious, it makes me selfish without realizing. I feel like I need the conversation to keep circling back to my problems. I tune out. I take things personally. I can’t quite reach the threshold where I can be present for someone else. The more I practice setting aside my story, the more I work on releasing physical stress, the easier it becomes for me to realize when I am not being my best self. I can recognize a mood for what it is: a temporary emotional state that will soon pass. I can check in and remind myself to behave in a way that is more consistent with my intentions.
Why does the body fill up with so much stress, irritation, resentment, anxiety, worry, criticism given and received, bitterness, envy, and grudges? Where does all that come from? It’s like a pollution in the muscles. What would it feel like if instead my body were filled with joy, enthusiasm, tranquility, gratitude, acceptance, and appreciation? How would I stand? How would I sit? How would my shoulders feel? I don’t know yet, but I’d like to find out. I have a sense that I’m more likely to find it somewhere on the mat.
Last week, I attended a discussion session on voluntary simplicity. It arrested my attention and made me realize that the disciplines of voluntary simplicity and minimalism do not always overlap. The mindset of one will not always be the mindset of the other. Often, the two lifestyles are indistinguishable, but at other times, they may diverge and bring different results.
Voluntary simplicity revolves around mindfulness, environmental sustainability, and frugality. Simple living may be motivated by a rejection of materialism and our modern style of hyper-consumption. There can be an element of solidarity with the majority of the world who do not have access to First World luxuries.
Minimalism involves focusing on only those elements of life that offer maximum value. It is connected to movements in art, music, and literature. For some, the attraction to a minimalist lifestyle is as much about a design sensibility as it is about consumption patterns.
Simple living might mean gardening, canning one's own produce, and keeping bees, chickens, and/or goats as a way of living closer to nature, lowering the carbon footprint, connecting with neighbors, and slowing down to a pre-Industrial pace. Minimalism might mean selling one's house and living as a nomad, traveling the world with nothing but a laptop and a backpack.
Simple living might mean meditating and purposefully creating downtime, with the aim of allowing space for rambling conversations, appreciating quiet moments, and finding peace of mind. Minimalism might mean working around the clock, immersing oneself in a passion project to the exclusion of all else.
Simple living might include stacks of used paperbacks. Minimalism might mean a series of e-books.
Simple living might involve riding a bicycle. Minimalism might involve relying on a car-sharing service.
Simple living might involve cases of canning jars, a woodworking shop, or hand-knitted socks. Minimalism might involve giving those tools away in the process of downsizing or relocating to another continent.
Both voluntary simplicity and minimalism agree on a rejection of clutter, shallow relationships, debt, long commutes, and working at an unsatisfying job merely for the sake of the paycheck. Both disciplines agree on the importance of living intentionally. Both voluntary simplicity and minimalism reject our cultural norms of distraction, disconnection, passive entertainment, reckless overspending, sedentary oblivion, unhealthy recreational eating, and generally marking time until retirement.
I've felt a certain tension between my interests in these two lifestyles. For instance, our household revolves around our dog and our parrot, yet they tie us to a physical location and add considerable complications to our travel arrangements. My husband has a garage workshop that is not portable by any means. It's a true passion in the minimalist sense, yet the circuit boards, soldering iron, robot parts, and other electronics hardly qualify under the rubric of voluntary simplicity. I walk everywhere in our town, accompanied by my Apple Watch, Bluetooth headset, iPhone, and iPad, doing my best impersonation of a cyborg. While I believe the collective carbon footprint of my devices is less than that of a second vehicle, my mind is never really at rest.
During our group discussion on voluntary simplicity, something clicked for me. I realized that I tend to focus on material possessions due to my work with hoarding and chronic disorganization. Yet, in my personal life, my belongings are largely irrelevant. My only remaining areas of clutter are books and the (simple) paper notes I'm still processing into my (minimalist) digital files. I don't have emotional attachments here; it's a matter of scheduling a break from work long enough to blast through them. The issue is that I still have plenty of work to do in mental simplicity. I can pause occasionally. I can take a breath and pull back to examine my priorities. I can slow down and recognize when I'm keeping myself busy just to sustain momentum.
This is really the point of both minimalism and voluntary simplicity. Peace of mind. Rejection of needless stress. Allowing space for connection, passion, inspiration, and intention. Appreciation of all the potential we have for greater joy and fulfillment.
Decisions erode our focus and willpower. We don't realize how many dozens of choice points we face each day, and we only start to realize how much they eat into our mental bandwidth after it’s brought to our attention. It's formally known as 'decision fatigue.' Habits are one way to reduce the number of decisions we need to make each day. Not giving a [fig] is another way. Making a policy is one of the key skills that separates happy, relaxed, successful people from the rest of us.
Everyone has the ability to make a policy. We do it all the time without realizing it. How funky
and scary leftovers need to be before we definitely won’t risk taking a bite is one of those firm
policy decisions. Spores? Nope. Blue-green, aqua, or teal? No thank you. We don’t have to
dither or waste any time making up our minds. We have a policy in place. See how easy it is?
It’s easiest for us to make firm policies when a situation arouses disgust or fear. We won’t eat
gross moldy food; we won’t let our personal hygiene drop past a certain level, even if we’re
feeling ill; we have bare minimum standards for the kind of spills we’ll tolerate on our floors
before cleaning up. We won’t walk down dark alleys or handle exotic creatures such as
tarantulas or snakes. Some of us are more comfortable with activities or behaviors that others
would avoid, but we’re generally aware of that. I won’t scream when I see a snake on the trail,
but I will respect its space and leave it to go about its snaky business without interference from
It’s easy to make a policy for situations that come up only rarely. Am I a hugger or not a
hugger? Policy decision. Do I handle or not handle exotic animals? Policy decision. Am I an
early flight person or a late-night flight person? Do I check bags or do I aim for just a carry-on?
How big of a tipper am I? Do I look for parking as close as possible, or do I accept a certain
distance and save time by walking some extra yardage? Am I committed in my relationship, or
do I somehow think there’s room for potential romantic interactions with other people? Am I a
dog person or a cat person?
Where we don’t always realize there might be room for a policy decision are matters of daily
routine. How many times are we late in the morning because we made room for a choice point
about stopping for breakfast or coffee? How many times are we held up because we tried to fit
in one more task or chore before leaving? How much time do we spend fretting over what to
wear or what to eat for dinner? Are we committing to our health by getting enough sleep,
eating well, and exercising? Are we committing to peace of mind by maintaining a restful,
organized personal environment?
The more I put personal policies into place, the more I realize how liberating they are. So much
mental clarity can be found by just making up my mind once and for all about certain things. I
floss my teeth every night. Policy. I sleep 7.5-8 hours a night, even if I want to stay up late instead. Policy. I eat in such a way that I meet the RDA of all key micronutrients each day. I exercise at least 30 minutes every day, even if all I do is go for a walk. My policy is to try to beone percent healthier every year. That means walking a little faster, being active a little longer each day, increasing my range of motion and flexibility just a little bit, sleeping a little better, eating vegetables and fruit a little more often, and having a little more muscle mass. When I think of these things in one-percent increments, it feels manageable. It feels like something I can do, something that I can control, something that will always fit in my schedule.
Here are some policies that I like in my life:
Have an ultra-comfy and relaxing bedroom
Weigh in every day, just like I use a clock, a speedometer, and a thermometer
Power-slam a glass of water as soon as I wake up
Try to be a world-class listener
If I have something nice to say, say it
Check my emergency preparedness on a scheduled basis
Never miss a chance to say "I love you" to the important people in my life
Go to a gas station as soon as it hits a quarter tank
Seek out current research on health, fitness, etc and assume it probably has a point
Have a Power Hour once a week when I take care of any unfinished business
Do chores every day so I never have to do housework on the weekend
Only answer the phone if the number is in my contacts list
Be the first to apologize
Go ahead and scratch mosquito bites
Always buy lemonade from kids with lemonade stands
Stand up for other people if they are being treated unfairly
Return wallets or other items when I find them
Unsubscribe immediately from any email list I don’t want to be on
Make written goals every New Year and check progress every quarter
If I thought about it, I probably have hundreds of policies about everything from what I order in
a restaurant to how I choose what to read next. The idea is that when I have to use mental
bandwidth on a decision, it’s a big enough deal that it truly merits special attention. I’m not
going to burn through my quota of mental power for the day merely deciding what to wear. I’m certainly not going to burn through all my decision-making willpower before lunch! Policies
can always be revised on demand. Usually, though, a decision like "default to oatmeal for
breakfast every day" is a simple, risk-free decision. Policies are a simple, perhaps paradoxical
way to create freedom and flexibility. Almost all my brainpower is available for the fun, creative stuff.
Richard Wiseman's book, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot is based entirely on psychological studies. That makes it dramatically different from most self-help books. These are things that people actually do, even when it seems counterintuitive. I was surprised by almost everything in this book, and that made it a compelling read.
Here are a few findings:
"Low self-esteem causes materialistic tendencies," and can be countered by writing lists of "nice things about me."
Weaknesses in a resume should be addressed at the beginning of a job interview, rather than
People who are embarrassed believe they are far more noticeable than they actually are.
When someone criticizes someone else, people associate the negative traits with the critic.
Imagining yourself doing something from a third-person perspective makes you much more
likely to carry out the task.
When trying to overcome a hurtful event from the past, it can be helpful to think about positive
aspects that arose from it, such as strength, wisdom, or compassion. Another method is to think of three benefits of your current situation and three negative consequences if the hurtful event had gone the way you wanted. (For instance, if I had stayed in my first marriage, I never would have met my current husband, I never would have met any of my Californian friends, and I am very doubtful that I ever would have gotten fit or run a marathon).
Between 60-90% of drugs "depend, to some extent, on the placebo effect." (!)
"Being in a group exaggerates people's opinions, causing them to make a more extreme decision than they would on their own. Compared to individuals, groups tend to be more dogmatic, better able to justify irrational actions, more likely to see their actions as highly moral, and more apt to form stereotypical views of outsiders."
The book included a brief relationship quiz devised by the great John Gottman. My husband and I did it, and we scored 18 out of 20. We both missed the same question, which was the other's first job. It was fun and validating, and made us feel like we know each other pretty well.
This was an entertaining, fascinating book. Each chapter contains findings from several studies,
so it's ideal for picking up and reading in brief segments. What I've shared is just a small
sample, and there's bound to be something to pique anyone's interest.
We entered in solemnity, already knowing there was nothing we could do. The poor little thing was on life support, hanging on just long enough to say goodbye. We're all at that age when we've lost family and close friends. In some ways, losing a pet is harder. There are no complications or communication breakdowns. There's just this warm little ball of unconditional love. We sometimes have more years of memories with a pet than we had with our family of origin. We grow up with them, relocate with them, cry on them, take naps with them, share meals with them - and then, suddenly, they're frail. They go gray around the muzzle. They move slowly with the rickety gait of age. They quit eating. It's time to go. We really want to hang on one more year, but it's time to go.
Sitting in the waiting room of a veterinary hospital, it's impossible to avoid thinking of all the pets you've lost over the years. Phoebe, who would whisper "Give me a kiss, give me a kiss" and say "Bye bye" when she rode in the carrier. Rita, who would climb up her ladder, and then turn around and climb down on the underside, upside down and backward. Mr. Puffy, who finally learned to fly at age twelve, and spoke at fifteen. He asked for: "Oatmeal." I thought of Spike, with his early diagnosis of Addison's disease, and how he was only two when I sat vigil with him, sure he wasn't going to make it until morning. He's still with us at eight, but we've been sure we were going to lose him half a dozen times. He's spent more time with doctors over the last five years than the two of us humans combined. This time I wasn't there for one of my own, but I knew what my friend was going through, hamstrung by grief and shock.
We try to hold back and not love them so much, so it won't hurt so bad when they go. We can't help it. They love us with such a pure devotion. That's why they're here: to teach us how to love properly, with full abandon and bursting hearts. To greet each other joyously, to trust completely, to forgive effortlessly. Perfect acceptance, perfect friendship, perfect love.
They don't understand how to criticize, judge, or blame. They also don't understand anything about veterinary medicine. They live in a world of scents and smells more profound than anything we can imagine. All they know is that they're in a weird, antiseptic world of fear, pain, and confusion. They're poked and prodded and assaulted with pills. They're locked in cages. They hear the cries of other frightened, sick animals. They're already ill, and now we ask this of them. It's not too much - they'd die for us if we said the word - but it is a challenging request. Please forget everything that happens to you in here. I just want you to get better and hang on one more year, one more year.
I understood the dynamics when I began to tune in to the conversation of a married couple on the other side of the room. They were about a decade older than me. I gathered that they were the companions of the standard poodle down the hall. Whenever the door opened, I could see him, mouth slack with pain and stress. The couple were discussing the prognosis and the cost of the procedure. What would they tell the kids? Despite the sensitivity of the topic and the lateness of the hour, they sounded like they were maintaining rationality.
The upshot was this: the dog needed major surgery, but he was elderly and could only expect, at most, another couple of years of a natural lifespan. He had already had an expensive treatment that had not helped. The surgery might not work, and he might not survive the procedure. My antennae went up when the dollar figure came up, because it matched what I still owe on my student loan. Six thousand dollars. Ooof, I thought, that'll leave a mark. Enough to contribute to an IRA for the year. Enough to cover their high schooler's college tuition for a term (maybe). Enough to bring home another dog (after some time had passed) and leave a hefty donation to the animal shelter. Enough for an older used car. Enough for the entire family to live off for a couple of months. How many malaria nets it might buy, I can only guess.
This is middle age. You wade through grief after sorrow after devastation after loss. You keep your family together. You keep going to work. You think about the price tag of everything, because old age and frailty are coming your way soon enough - if you're lucky. You may wind up caring for your own parents before your kids are out of the nest.
I felt for that couple. I almost wanted to offer my condolences, but I didn't want to make them uncomfortable. These matters are private, even if they must be discussed in a small room with an audience. Sad as it was, I felt they were making the right choice, for themselves and for their family. The surgery was too expensive, the poor furry fellow might not survive, he couldn't possibly comprehend the fear or physical agony, and they had children to support.
They went ahead with the surgery.
Something shrank inside me. Oh, no. Oh dear. They had made a major emotional decision at midnight on a work night. It might take them years to pay for it. Their beloved dog may have crossed the Rainbow Bridge long before they saw the last of the bills. At the next crisis, their position might be that much more precarious, forcing them into options they never would have faced otherwise.
The door opened again, and I saw another glimpse of the poodle's face. He was the picture of misery. He couldn't get comfortable either standing or lying down. He didn't get a say in this. He'd do what was asked of him for his entire life, which was to be there for his human family, until he could keep going no longer. I hoped he made it through the procedure and that his recovery wasn't too hard on him.
Very few happy things happen in a veterinary hospital. At best, all that happens is that the animal has to stand on a slippery metal table, suffer some confusing indignities like the thermometer, and get stuck with booster shot needles. At worst, there is pain, fear, sadness, and the longing to turn back the clock. I loved you so much when you were tiny. How could you let this happen to you? Why is your lifespan so short? Please don't say goodbye. Oh, not tonight. Just one more year. One more year.
It takes courage to let go. Nothing like the courage they show, hanging on just to please us, even when they can't eat. Even when they can't walk. Even when they can't stand up anymore. They've always been there for us, and when they finally need us to be there for them, to stand up for them and do what's right, we balk. We look at life without them and we are seized by cowardice. I can't do this without you. I can't go home and look at your bed and your empty bowl. I can't walk in my front door, knowing you won't be there waiting for me. I remember collapsing at my own front door with the key still in my hand, weeping on my knees for the one who wasn't there. Crying into the carpet, Oh my baby, why, why?
To enter the Temple of Sadness is to lose a piece of your heart. There is no earthly way to get out of there unscathed. They mop the floors with bitter tears. The only way is to somehow try to prepare yourself well in advance. Look into that sweet little face and remember, You are only here for a short time. We will love each other well. We will mark each other's hearts. We will bring something higher and better into this world. Then, before we know it, the time will be up. You couldn't pace yourself. You fit three human lifetimes into one, with triple the love, triple the bravery, triple the joy and gratitude. Now it's your time. Thank you for being my friend. Now it's time to say goodbye. See you on the other side.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.