Here continues the adventure of our downsizing move, in which I find a rental listing while I am out of town, my husband looks it over, and three days later it’s ours. The new house has 63% of the square footage of our current house.
Monday: Hubby picks me up at airport. I throw my suitcase in the back seat and change from a sweater to the sleeveless top he brought me, since it was 32 F when I left that morning and it’s 82 F now. Two minutes later, we pull up in front of our new house. Two neighbors are waiting for us. (We’re early). We get the tour and wind up hanging around for over an hour, meeting everyone on the block and eating mandarins off the tree in OUR NEW BACK YARD! The most recent addition to the neighborhood (besides us) has lived there a mere 18 years. It transpires that two of the neighbors have banded together and bought our house cooperatively, perhaps so they can collectively vet tenants. We learn that we were the first of 84+ callers.
I’m in love with the house! It seems smaller in person, but also cuter. I like the exterior color better. Most of the storage didn’t really make it into the photos, something very interesting to note the next time I trust my husband to pick out a house for us. Extra cabinets – always a happy surprise! We go home with a sack of mandarins and grapefruits, chattering about what furniture will go where.
At home, more boxes are taped up and ready to pack. He’s working hard on his office. He’s packed his books in the same order they were on the shelves, so unpacking them will be the work of minutes. We’ve planned to bring over the bookshelves and garage shelving first, so we can unpack directly onto them in their permanent locations. The house is so small that there really isn’t a viable staging area in any room that would accommodate a stack of boxes, not unless we decide to forego furniture.
Tuesday: Unpack from my trip, do two loads of laundry, put fresh sheets on the bed, hang fresh towels, vacuum the bedroom. Do perimeter check, looking in each room of the house and identifying items that will not be moving to the new house. Call the vet to schedule dog’s booster shots and arrange boarding for parrot for the weekend. Pack for tomorrow, refilling all the little bottles in my shower kit. Talk more about furniture placement at the new place.
Wednesday: Leave at 8 AM. Stop by pet resort. Twelve hour road trip, including search for a notary public during our lunch stop. Go to grocery store at 9 PM to pick up items for Thanksgiving dinner. Check into hotel, unpack, set up dog crate, cook dinner in paper cups in the room microwave, scorch a potato and fill room with smell of burning. Share broken fork from my suitcase.
Thursday: Thanksgiving. Hubby works for a couple hours before we head over. I work on an online class I’m taking. Family time. Back to hotel, where I take the midterm of my online class. Write, illustrate, and format Friday’s blog post.
Friday: Both of us working in the morning. Work on Week 6 of my class. Family time.
Saturday: Up early, pack, check out of hotel. Another twelve hour road trip. Spend much of the time talking about the new house and our plans for the New Year. Get home and unpack. Finish Week 6 of my class. Carry empty boxes out to car and establish that 6 will fit in the back seat and 5 in the trunk. Plan is to do two 11-box loads per day.
Sunday: Take dog to vet for his booster shots. Pick up bird. Go out for breakfast and talk about the move. Come home and give dog a bath and trim his nails. Run vacuum and mop (robotically, thank goodness). Husband packs boxes to free up garage shelving for first load. I do Week 7 and 8 of my online class and make a pot of soup, just in time to receive very sad family news.
This week we’ll get the keys and find out whether the remodel is complete. Last we saw it, kitchen cabinet doors were being installed on what were formerly open shelves. The doors were hung but the handles had not been attached, and the floor still had a layer of paper taped down. A faucet was being replaced. There were some light fixtures being rewired and there was some construction going on in the garage. We were told that someone would be brought in to clean up after the construction debris was removed. A lot can happen in a week, but we’re also prepared for the possibility that they may need more time.
Our plan is to continue to anti-pack (more on this topic on Tuesday) and box up only what we absolutely know we want to bring to the new house. So far I have finished off a jar of sauerkraut, a bottle of ginger juice, and a pound of split peas from the pantry. My husband has put one item in the donation bag and set aside several other things for recycling and eBay. We have some furniture and other large items to advertise. We still need to reserve a moving van. We have 20 small boxes and two large boxes, plus a few others of various sizes that may or may not be used, since they are not as modular as the newly purchased ones. Last time we moved, we had 100 boxes; some were larger, but we’ve gotten rid of a lot in the last two years, and hopefully we will not exceed this amount. If we reuse the new boxes by unpacking as we go and refilling them, that means five trips.
Tune in next week for the latest installment of our adventures in downsizing.
I don’t do Black Friday. I used to refer to it as Buy Nothing Day, and in fact it’s still my practice to avoid buying anything or transacting any commerce on Thanksgiving or the day after. Now, though, I’m thinking of it as Slack Friday. It’s the perfect day to slack off.
I went on a Black Friday shopping trip precisely once. My brother and his family were planning to go, and there was something I wanted, so I arranged to tag along. We got up at 5 AM. I was unclear on the concept that the holiday sales don’t apply to everything in every store, and it turned out that the one thing I wanted was not on sale. So I got to experience waking up way too early, driving around in circles in the freezing cold, looking for a parking spot that wasn’t there, fighting the crowds, and listening to Christmas music FOR NO GOOD REASON. Honestly, I’d rather go to the transfer station and watch the dump Zamboni crush old couches. At least there are seagulls out there.
How much better to sleep in! How much better to stay inside where it’s warm, snuggle on the couch with my dog, and read a book! Slack Friday is the one day I’m guaranteed not to have to cook. Eating leftovers is practically a necessity, if we ever want to feel secure that the fridge door will stay closed again. There’s pie. (Pie is never a leftover). The house is already holiday-clean and nothing, absolutely nothing, needs to get done.
I live in Southern California, where we know it’s winter when we have to wear socks. There are only a few months of the year when it’s cool enough to wear jeans, boots, and sweaters. This is the only time of the year when it feels like a good idea both to cook and eat hot soup. Using the oven is a pleasure rather than a punishment. We can enjoy a little cold weather or the sight of a patch of snow as pure novelty. Best of all, it’s the perfect temperature for distance running. The best things about Slack Friday are not things, or the acquiring of things, but atmospheric conditions and a shared vacation day.
What do I need, really? I’m a middle-aged suburbanite. I have everything already! I have clothes for every season and occasion, including even a few pairs of socks. Every room in my home is furnished comfortably. My kitchen is equipped to cook virtually anything. I have enough books to keep me occupied for at least three months. We have transportation and cleansers and toiletries and camping gear and musical instruments and fitness equipment and and and… What we never seem to have enough of is time. Sleep, and time. Well, money and sleep and time. I’m at an age where I’m much more interested in a plush savings account than a plush anything else.
What advertisers want us to do is to feel an intense excitement around the activity of buying and spending. This is why Christmas now starts 55 days early, and anyone who isn’t deeply thrilled by a two-month celebration of materialism is somehow trying to start a war and be a big mean old wet blanket. Just as we can’t even look at last night’s photos of Halloween costumes before we start hearing Christmas music, we can’t get through the Thanksgiving leftovers without being urged to venture into traffic and BUY ALL THE THINGS. It took ten years, but I convinced my family to step off this crazy train and slow the rate at which our gift-giving reciprocation tended to accelerate. We have shifted our focus to family meals and family vacations instead. Experiences, not things. Why do we think we need to buy each other stuff to show our love and friendship and appreciation? What happened to the group hugs and sing-alongs? Personally, I feel much better knowing my parents are saving for their retirement than I do having them spend lavishly on toys and treats for me.
While frugality does not necessarily lead to minimalism, the converse is usually true. Focusing on the most important things – reading, naps, reading with the dog, napping with the dog – tends to lead to most of one’s time being spent on things that don’t cost money. Treasure a perfectly free day with family, giving it the value it deserves, and it becomes difficult to imagine why anyone would mess up such a perfect day by leaving the house at all. (Unless someone is into making leaf rubbings).
One of the things I like to do on family free days such as Slack Friday is to try to sneak candid shots of people in a listening pose. I think people usually look their best while they are listening to someone. That’s when they look the smartest, the most relaxed, and the most thoughtful. Everyone is so sophisticated with the camera-radar now that it’s almost impossible to do. We have a family game of trying to snap pictures of each other napping with our mouths hanging open, which is much easier, and hilarious, and I still need to complete my collection, which is why I am promoting synchronized Slack Friday napping.
The days are short. This dumb old life is so short. When we look around the room during a gathering of friends or family, we can never know how many of us will still be here at this time next year. These are the days we’ll remember: the days when we wasted hours doing a jigsaw puzzle or playing board games or sitting around gossiping. Memories are not made at the mall. We spend so much of our time in parking lots and waiting at stoplights, so much time standing in line and completing transactions. Every day of the year we can do these things. How many times do we really get to have our loved ones in one place at the same time? How many days are there when we can kick back with nothing better to do?
The rhythm of life was probably like this much of the time for our pre-Industrial ancestors. They would not recognize the frenzied pace at which we rush through our days, or the chronic distraction of our screen-filled rooms and pockets. One of the gifts that minimalism can give us is a reminder that our modern lifestyle is not the only way to be human. Buying and selling and driving and parking can be only a small fraction of what we do with our time, if we choose it. We need time to listen and commune with one another, time to sit and be together, time to take in each other’s presence for the priceless glory that it is.
Plus there’s that pie to think about.
I don’t post on holidays or weekends. This is my little gift to you. I want to make sure y’all know not to bother looking for new material, so you can spend the day relaxing and spending time with loved ones. The irony here is that I usually wind up working on holidays anyway, denying myself the break I’m offering to everyone else. It’s an expression of love. Of course, a more popular choice is pie.
Sugar is love. People will overtly state that baking is the way they show love. Or cooking is the way they show love. Or that particular recipes are the way they feel connected to family tradition. Everyone I have ever met has a set holiday menu in mind, and any deviation from it is unthinkable. Going through a holiday without those particular dishes creates a forlorn, empty feeling, an echo of the feeling we have when we can’t be with family on these hallowed days. I know that I feel that way if I don’t eat cake on my birthday, even though I don’t usually eat cake the rest of the year. I feel that way when my family is 1000 miles away, celebrating something without me.
In my family, the traditional menu was turkey, stuffing, rolls, mashed potatoes, peas, green beans, candied yams, fruit salad with whipped cream, and pumpkin pie. I had to put black olives on all my fingertips and show everyone. Also: pickles.
My husband’s family had lemon pie, berry pie, and chocolate pie. He hates pumpkin. You can easily see a problem here: we both have THE WRONG PIES. I mean, talk about lose-lose. The only way to win this game would be to have four pies. And then we would eat them. And then it would be gain-gain.
I never particularly liked Thanksgiving. In Oregon, the weather is dire by that time of year. It’s dark by 5 PM. My mom would make me eat at least one slice of dark meat. If we had a video and asked people to spot the future vegan at the table, it would be pretty easy to guess who it was. Speaking of deviating from traditional holiday menus! In fact, four out of my five nuclear family members quit eating meat back in the 90s, and three of us are vegan. We’ve been able to preserve the core of the holiday – family and a table-collapsing million-course meal – while eradicating most of its traditional elements. All of us enjoy cooking, and divvying up who cooks which course is part of the fun. I typically spend three days cooking, and by that I mean, eat breakfast, start cooking, and wipe down the counters at bedtime. What used to be a downer of a day for me is now something I can embrace.
Can we love each other without thirty pounds of food, though?
My husband showed up while I was working on this piece. I asked him, “What was that holiday when you gained a bunch of weight?” He laughed. “Which one? Disambiguation, please!” I explained why I was asking. “I gained 25 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year” sometime in the early 2000s. (His top weight was 305). It looks as though most people gain 1-3 pounds a year, almost entirely over the winter holidays, and heavier people gain more. About 15% of the population gains more than 5 pounds. My honey is an outlier, although I’m sure he’s not alone. I’m half his size and I know I can certainly gain a pound a day. I also know that neither of us were any more likely to lose our “winter coats” than anyone else, until we decided to get serious and do something about it.
It starts with the Halloween candy. Then it’s the cookies and roasted nuts. Then it’s Thanksgiving dinner, which basically extends to three days by the time all the leftovers are eaten. This is immediately followed by more cookies, and breads, and fudge, and caramel corn, and who knows what else. We always sing the Smorgasbord song in the voice of Templeton the Rat from Charlotte’s Web. “Smorgasbord, orgasbord, orgasbord!” Then there are all the temptations of the mall food court; I’m convinced a lot of people only go gift shopping so they have an excuse to get a 300-calorie drink from that fishtailed lady I like to call the Green Sireen and a 900-calorie Cinnabon. Personally, I like candy canes. I like candy canes in a hot cocoa. I also used to like drinking Jolt Cola with a Red Vine for a straw, for what that’s worth.
Fortunately for me, I’m a distance runner. I live in a hot climate, and the winter holidays coincide with the best running weather. (The optimum temperature for running is 55 F). I can burn off a pound of fat every 38 miles, so by spring, I can pretty much dilute any thickness that has built up in my blood. Forget the thighs, it’s the arteries and the organs that concern me. I don’t overeat as much as I used to. I don’t overeat as much because I’ve finally learned that eating to a 10 out of 10 on the Hunger and Fullness Scale is physically painful. A 9 leaves me feeling headachy and sick. An 8 is bad enough to leave me feeling uncomfortable for hours. I don’t even eat to a 7 most of the time. I eat to a 7 out of 10 just often enough, on holidays and special occasions, to remind myself why I stop at one plate.
Some of us eat because we’re hedonists. Some of us eat because we’re absent-minded (raises hand) and we don’t really notice how much we’ve had. Some of us eat because we get seasonally depressed. Some of us eat because it’s a small compensation for putting up with our families. Some of us eat because we’re lonely and missing people we’ll never see again. Most of us eat because that’s what our culture does. We don’t know who we are outside the context of large quantities of food. It’s the ocean and we’re the fish.
I’m still trying to figure out how to do it. I’m still trying to figure out how to celebrate without stuffing myself like a macabre teddy bear. I keep reminding myself that I don’t actually have to make three dishes, an appetizer, and a dessert per guest. I’ve been getting little mash notes (smeared with mashed potato) from Past Self, scrawled with messages like ‘NO MORE CAKE!’ and ‘DON’T EAT THREE ROLLS!’ and ‘OW MY LIVER!’
It can be about other things. What if it was about donating to the local food bank? What if it was about inviting a lonely person to join the festivities? What if it was actually about gratitude, about celebrating abundance and prosperity? What if it was about getting together and looking at photo albums, or recording family history, or telling stories about our family trees? What if it was about making an alternative tradition, and banding together with others who’d rather not face the gauntlet of awkward-to-horrid family reunions? What if it was about reaching out to people of another culture, like the Wampanoag people did when the pilgrims came?
We are some of the wealthiest people in human history. We are so rich that we routinely throw away a third of our food production every year. We’re profligate. We can pause to notice our warm clothing, our blankets and soft beds, our ability to heat our homes on rainy nights. We can pause to feel grateful for our closest friends, for our family members who still live and breathe, even if it’s hard to have a satisfying conversation with them at times. There is a light at the hearth that we have kept lit for 125,000 years. We have banded together to survive the dark and cold. We have kept that spark of civilization burning. We have shared food and shared stories and shared body heat. We continue to gather together, even when it’s not always a perfect dream of family romance. It is my wish that you gather together with whomever sits around your hearth, actually or metaphorically, and feel glad to have them.
All the women on both sides of my family are highly competent with a sewing machine, and many can knit, crochet, quilt, do cross-stitch, garden and can produce, etc. I can do all those things, and more. (Change a fuel filter, use shop tools, build furniture, etc). For about 15 years, I had a closet full of fabric, yarn, and almost every possible notion or craft tool on the market. I was saving up for a knitting machine. I also had a pretty deep pile of ongoing projects. Almost all of that stuff is gone now, and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, I still have all my crafting skills, and I’m proud of that. I could get up right now and drive to a fabric store and start a new project. I could draft a pattern for next year’s Halloween costume (the sexy anteater, warm and practical), and I could sew it and stand a good chance of winning a prize. I’ve won several prizes in costume contests over the years. I could start in on an afghan, quilt, or lace tablecloth. I could knit some socks or a hat or a sweater or a sweater dress. I could make the sort of children’s toy that will be worn to rags. If you’ve ever received a report that your chosen child refuses to go to sleep without the toy you made, you know that is a warm feeling. Recently I was tagged in a photo showing a rag doll I made about 15 years ago, still with her original dress, although the recipient is now nearly a grown woman. Stuff I made is still banging around in this world.
No project is as good as a finished project. Nothing in my oversized work basket was ever going to do anyone any good until it was completed. Not kidding about the work basket: I could easily have sat in it, even at my top weight. It was piled nearly to the handle, and I could barely carry it from one room to another, especially since things wanted to fall out. It typically had multiple knitting and crochet projects, some cut-out pattern pieces for a costume that wasn’t going to fit by the time I was done, a lucet, something new I was struggling to learn, several pattern books, and a few cross stitch pieces, started or not yet started. This laundry-basket sized enormity was only the outwardly visible part of my crafting. I also had two tubs of fabric and fabric scraps, plus a bag of yarn that had calved off the larger glacier. The tools themselves filled another plastic tote, until they outgrew that and I started needing separate containers for each craft. (The calligraphy pens and inks and paints, the tablet-weaving cards and threads, the table loom, the third sewing machine… ) It got to where I needed a separate closet just for my crafts. I knew where that led. I’ve seen what should have remained in one work basket explode out of an entire bedroom. It’s standard. It’s what happens.
Part of what happened was that I decided I was no longer going to have a crafting to-do list. I was going to finish each project I had started before I took on any new ones. I was going to throw away anything that I knew I no longer wanted to finish. If I was stuck for some reason, I was going to figure out why and I was going to learn what to do. After I was done, I was going to use up all my stockpile of materials in every medium. Then, when I was at PROJECT ZERO, I could decide on one project at a time, get the materials, and start working that same day.
You can probably guess that this never happened.
It wound up taking ten years to finish my current projects. One of them was a knitted Eeyore that was meant for a particular child, then for her sister when she got too old. I was stuck in a funny place in the pattern that I had frog-stitched (rip it, rip it) and reknit at least three times, only to find the same problem. I Googled the pattern to see if there was a correction; there wasn’t. Finally I started going to a knitting night at a local bookstore, thinking I could ask a more experienced knitter to help. I knitted the troublesome row again, and that time it counted out correctly. I still have no idea what mistake I was making that led me to think the pattern was off. I finished the toy and gave it to yet a third child who was conceived several years after I first bought the yarn.
I finished a cross stitch project that had been ongoing for a decade. It took a couple hundred hours. It then sat in the frame for a couple of years, until finally I sold it on eBay. It went for $30. I finished the afghan my grandma’s neighbor had in her workbasket when she died. I threw away what was intended to be a tablet-woven belt one day, but really amounted to an hour’s work and about $3 worth of materials. I threw away the partial body of what was going to be another rag doll but was really a tiny portion of free scrap muslin. I made and gave away a really awesome Mr. Hat puppet. I can’t even remember everything else that was in that basket. I got rid of the basket itself, as it was a gift from my first wedding and it had divorce cooties on it.
My fabric collection began with scraps and unwanted fabric I got free from someone else. I have learned over the years that FREE STUFF is the hardest to get rid of. It’s true for me and it’s true for most of my clients as well. I crocheted a king-sized afghan (known as the Ugly Blanket) out of scrap acrylic yarn compiled from all my yarny friends. I made what was intended as a lace-making pillow out of my bag labeled “scraps too small to use.” Not a single 1/16” snippet of thread or embroidery floss got thrown into my wastebasket, let me tell you! I had measured intentions for every 1”x2” oddly-shaped fabric scrap that ever came my way. I had a history of occasionally making dolls and puppets and dollhouse furniture and pouches and couching and various other things. I sincerely believed I could (and more importantly, should) use every piece of cabbage that was ever generated by me or anyone I knew. I could throw away actual food that I bought and let spoil, but I couldn’t throw away fabric scraps that would fit in the top of an aspirin bottle. It wasn’t until a lot of that stuff got too musty and mildewed to handle that I finally gave it up.
I used to go to fabric stores and buy anything I liked. Usually I had a specific project in mind, but not always. I never got out the door without spending at least $30, even if all I “needed” was a single skein of DMC floss. My stash grew and grew. I accumulated materials at least five times faster than I used them. I spent more time than I could afford on craft projects, while neglecting my health, my career, and my stagnant finances. I started finding that even two hours of work left my shoulder spasming for two days afterward. I had constant pain in my neck, my shoulders, my back, my elbow, my wrist, my hands. One day, during my annual strategic life review, I looked at myself and realized I needed a radical change. I made that change.
I still have unused fabric. I brought it with me on my last move, two years ago, and it’s been in the box ever since. I still feel an emotional attachment to making sure it “goes to the right person.” I feel stupid about this, because I work with this issue every day. I share because I know how common this problem is. IT’S JUST STUFF. New fabric is constantly being made (usually in sweatshop conditions) and it’s going to continue to be more beautiful (and tainted) every year. The new releases are always going to make our oldest stuff look hokey and dated in comparison. I got off that treadmill of UNREALIZED POTENTIAL. I traded in my crafting time for writing and for exercise. I now have orders of magnitude more readers than I could ever reach through hand-made crafted gifts. I also ran a marathon and became athletically fit. The chronic pain that was exacerbated by hunching over a needle is now mostly gone. I could go back any time, but the time never seems to happen. I used to buy fabric, and then one day I quit. I’m still working on putting that behind me and doing things I like better.
We’re moving again. If I’m counting right, this will be the 28th time I have moved since 1993. As a married couple, it will be our fifth since 2009, and technically there are six in there because we converged two households when we got married. At time of writing, I have not yet seen the house in person. I thought it could be interesting to post about the process of planning and organizing the move from a minimalist perspective.
Why are we moving again? In 2013, we moved three times in seven months, so one would think we’d want to put down deeper roots. When we rented our current house, we had a tight deadline, and every house we called about was already rented. The house we got had only been on Craigslist for 45 minutes, and there were two other families looking at it when we went for the tour the next morning. I filled in all the applications on my phone in the car while we drove back to Sacramento. We didn’t know the area well, and we figured we would stay put while we learned our way around and figured out our dream neighborhood. Now we know where that is. We’re excited about this move!
We’re downsizing again. Each time we have moved, the kitchen and garage have had half the storage of the previous house, meaning we’re at a quarter of where we started. This time, the garage will be bigger, but the rest of the house will be smaller. We’re in a 3 bedroom, 2 bath, 1386 square foot house, built in 1961. The new house is 881 square feet with 2 bedrooms and one bathroom. ONE. BATHROOM. (When I was a kid, five of us shared one bathroom. As an adult, I’ve started to think that personal bathrooms are one of the secrets to a relaxed married life). This house was built circa 1930, and it’s extremely interesting to me how house sizes have inflated over the years, adding roughly 300 square feet per decade. In a sense, we’re going back in time. Not only will we have a vintage house, we’ll have a vintage commute, as my husband will be close enough to walk to work.
Okay, enough about the house! Let’s talk about moving!
Step One: We discussed what we wanted in a house long before we decided to move. (#1: No carpets. SUCCESS!) We agreed that certain things were expendable and would not be relocating with us. We assume that an international relocation may one day be a part of the career ladder, which is THRILLING, and thus gradual downsizing has been working well for us. It’s a mutual dream.
Step Two: We started looking for a house. This is the fourth one we tried. We called on the first day it was listed. There were 83 applications besides ours!
Tuesday: See link in Trulia email, forward to hubby, about an hour after reaching my parents’ house from the airport. He responds 7 minutes later saying he has called. Wednesday: He tours the house, while other rival renters are present, and takes 56 photos. Sends me the photos in our shared album, which I pore over. Fill out lengthy application, contact three personal references each, send Dropbox links and Contact cards back and forth over phone. Thursday: Supply credit reports, also doing mine remotely. Friday: Learn that we have the house! Give notice to current property manager. They respond with 12/19 move-out date. Saturday: Hubby buys some empty boxes. Sunday: He starts packing his office, filling five boxes.
I’ll be seeing the house and meeting the property manager to sign papers immediately after landing at the airport on Monday (day of posting). We are to receive the keys, even though technically we don’t take occupancy until the first. Note that this is Thanksgiving week.
Since the house is so close to my husband’s work, the plan is for him to take over a trunkful of small boxes each day. Then he can drive home as usual, pick me up, and we can unpack a second carload. This will allow me to have most of the kitchen moved in before we spend a night there, and we’ll be able to unpack many things (such as clothes) as we go. By the time we hire a moving van for the things that won’t fit in our car, the “fiddly bits” will be long gone. We can unpack and reuse boxes for multiple loads.
This is the plan. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will work out according to plan.
What we have going for us is that our current house is clean and we don’t have all that much stuff. The last time we moved, we had 100 boxes in total, and several of those contained only one item, such as a lamp or a comforter. We’ve unloaded a lot in the last two years, including about a third of my kitchen doodads, extra serving platters, redundant towels, furniture for rooms we no longer have, boxes of books, and all sorts of other things. I’ve made a concerted effort to pare down our pantry, winnow my wardrobe, purge the papers, and downsize the Dickens out of everything.
Most people wouldn’t want to move between Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially if they were in our situation, with a 20-hour round-trip drive coming up. There’s the weather. There’s the early sundown. I suspect, though, that if we were trying to move to this neighborhood in spring or summer, we’d never find a house. The market is too competitive. I’m excited because we’ll be able to start the New Year in our new home!!!
I will post once a week about our progress as we pack, move, unpack, deep-clean our current house, change our addresses everywhere, and adjust to our new home.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book is that rarest of rare things, a super exciting new release that actually lives up to my inflated expectations of it. I’m crotchety about books, and I hate the feeling of even not completely disapproving of trendy things. That’s why I waited so long to read all the Harry Potter books, more fool me. That’s why I never bought Crocs or knock-off Ugg boots. That’s why I didn’t get a cell phone until texting was already a thing. Fortunately, I let go of defining myself by stuff I didn’t want, and that’s part of why I was ready for Big Magic. I hope everyone is always ready for Big Magic.
I listened to the author reading the audiobook. Not everyone is equally good at this, and not everyone will take the time to do it; Stephen King is a great narrator, for instance, but usually a voice actor reads his work. Gilbert is gifted. I listened to her at 1x speed, if that tells you anything. I was spellbound.
Big Magic belongs on the shelf next to Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. It’s a tutorial from one insider to another. Both books also openly acknowledge a mystical, preternatural or even supernatural element to creative inspiration and the art of writing. I may change my mind one day, but right now, I’m of the belief that certain things can be learned but not taught. That means the message will make sense to certain people who are of the disposition to receive it, but will not make sense to those who lack the ability to pick up the transmission. I checked for one-star reviews of Pressfield’s book (“bullying,” “crap,” “mess… ridiculous,” “garbage”) because I knew they would be there, just as I’m checking Gilbert’s single stars (“crap,” “who is the audience for this book – everyone, it seems,” “self-indulgent,” “this is written for girls,” “This is the worst book I’ve read in recent memory,” “Completely not worth it.”), because I knew these bad reviews would be there, and they would be hilarious. I can only hope that one day I, too, will get reviews like this. Whenever I absolutely swoon over a book, it appears there is a disgruntled hordette of people who loathe it and can’t believe it got published. I can think of several of my personal friends who probably won’t like it, either. It’s really up to you to figure out which camp you are in.
NB: You don’t have to finish reading books that don’t engage you. According to my LibraryThing, I have only ever given out a one-star review seven times out of over 4000 entries, once to a parrot training manual that included physical abuse, and the last time I used a one-star rating was 2009. As I look these books over, I wonder why I ever bothered choosing, finishing, or reviewing a piece of not-for-me genre fiction in my catalog. I think I picked it up on impulse before a road trip and then got stuck with nothing else to listen to. Even that seems funny to me now. Obviously this was before podcasts! I have a smartphone. There is never again going to be an occasion when I have “no choice” but to do something I find boring or irrelevant to my interests.
That is part of how magic works. We have to make ourselves ready for it, and we have to let it in. We have to discard the notion that we are obligated or duty-bound to do anything beyond the requirements of physical survival and basic human decency. It seems that the natural, mainstream human reaction is to regard this idea with ridicule, disgust, or annoyance. None of those feelings will ever get anyone anywhere, with the possible exception of avoiding a case of food poisoning. Skepticism and the critical faculty are necessary when it comes to pseudoscience, politics, and pickpockets, but they don’t make much in the way of art. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is going to be read and re-read and discussed in book clubs and writers’ groups. Not everyone is going to get it or like it, but those who do are going to love it to bits and wear the cover off.
It’s a week before Thanksgiving. I point this out because, if your household is anything like mine, the gasket of your refrigerator door will be in serious danger of exploding. You’ll need a bungee cord to keep the freezer closed. You’ll have to unscrew the lightbulb to make room for one last storage container. At the very least, you’ll have to put on a Tchaikovsky playlist while putting away the leftovers, to set the right mood for the game of Fridge Tetris.
Fridge Tetris is a part of the greater discipline known as Pack Fu, or the applied science of spatial relations. The idea is to fit everything into a confined area with the maximum finesse. Done at the highest level of expertise, everything is not only stacked in the most streamlined manner, but also arranged in such a way that the things that will need to come out first are the easiest to reach. Accessibility is a key component.
Everyone in my family has highly refined Pack Fu skills. Fridge Tetris is a sort of holiday game for us. Packing up and putting away leftovers is a multi-player affair, almost as inherently fascinating as loading the truck for a camping trip. Getting everything in there without bending any shelves is cause for cheering and high fives all around. My husband’s family also places great store in Pack Fu, and it’s hard to say which of us is better at it.
There are five things you can do today to prepare for the Great Thanksgiving Weekend Fridge Tetris Championship.
I keep a roll of masking tape and some markers in the drawer closest to the fridge. I put a strip of masking tape on anything that goes in a container and write the contents and the date. This has made life SO MUCH EASIER. We virtually always eat leftovers before they spoil now. All our storage containers are from the same set, so when stuff is stacked up in the fridge, it’s like so many Legos. Which one is the cranberry sauce? Which one is the gravy? Literacy is my super power!
The main reason that we need to be so good at Fridge Tetris in my family is that we all cook like we’re getting ready to cross the continent in an oxcart. It’s routine for us to have 16 people at a casual family dinner. Sometimes it’s easier (and it’s definitely cheaper) to cook at home than to try to find a restaurant with a big enough table. Even with this crowd, there still tend to be enough leftovers for at least a second day, sometimes three. For most of our marriage, I have not only done a Thanksgiving dinner, but also hosted a party the following Saturday, and I might wind up making 20 different dishes in three days. It takes a broomstick to stuff all the leftovers in the fridge afterward. A different family might plan more sensibly and make only double the necessary amount of food, instead of triple, but where’s the fun in that?
At this time of year, it’s important to keep our priorities straight. Or should I say – PIE-orities? A table creaking under the weight of a bounteous buffet is a great way to keep everyone’s focus on eating rather than directing conversation to the most sensitive topics. Don’t irritate – masticate! Then put on “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and compete to see who gets the Fridge Tetris trophy this year.
It takes photographic proof now, because people who meet me for the first time refuse to believe that I ever used to be fat. Part of the belief system of Being a Fat Person includes resenting fit people, because they are obviously “born that way.” I hate to say that I used to buy into this attitude. I had a lot of negative beliefs about exercise, about health food, about people who go to the gym. My outlook changed, but my physical form and my activities changed first. As I shifted into this radically different energy, I began sifting through and testing out various ideas about fitness, food, and body image.
Some ideas I rejected. That’s always fun to do. I have remained unmoved by beliefs relating to team sports, for instance. Some people respond intuitively to ideas about working together as a unit or always bringing everything you have for your team. I won’t rule that out, but at this point in life it hasn’t really clicked for me. I’m not particularly motivated by the idea of one of my exes seeing my newly fit form and feeling jealous; revenge doesn’t do it for me, for one thing, but I also happen to know that at least a few of my exes prefer big girls. (I just never thought I was one). I’m completely deaf to the appeals of the Paleo lifestyle. I don’t feel the call to win a race or set a world record in anything. I don’t particularly want to be physically attractive or look a certain way in the trend of the moment. On the contrary, it’s unlikely I would even recognize the trend of the moment, just as I have to think hard to remember which sports season it’s supposed to be.
There are a lot of ideas about fitness that I do find convincing, though. As with every change I have made, the list of things I like about it gets longer as I get deeper into the experience. This is how change happens. We talk ourselves into it. We learn so much that we are fully convinced it’s the best way. The old way starts to look less and less attractive in comparison, until finally, we can barely believe we ever thought or acted that way. It’s true of the way I chop onions and it’s true of the way I maintain my physical health, too.
Here is my list, in no particular order:
Athletic people are experiencing life in a different way, a way that I know nothing about, and that seems worth exploring.
Smaller body, smaller clothes, smaller laundry piles, smaller suitcase. QED.
I can set an example for younger girls and women of physical strength that I never saw in women when I was young.
It’s my body to do with as I will.
Strength training is no less valid a form of personal expression than other body modifications, including tattoos, piercings, tooth bleaching, hair dye, manicures, make-up, fashion, or even cosmetic surgery.
On two occasions, I have been attacked on the street by strange men. I was able to run to safety.
I wear a size zero (or smaller, unfortunately). As much cultural hysteria as there is around this mystical size, it is perfectly within a “normal” size range for vintage clothes. I’m the exact height and weight of Betty Grable, although I’m bigger in the waist, thigh, calf, and ankle.
I can do things with my body that are illegal in many parts of the world, and would not have been allowed for me in my own culture just a short time ago. Like voting, I feel a responsibility to my foremothers to make the best possible use of my freedom to run and hike and travel alone.
When I walk, run, or bike outdoors, I’m adding to the safety of my neighborhood. The more people are outside, the more witnesses and phones and video cameras. When I was a kid, children could play outside and walk to school, and I think we can and should bring that back.
There is Alzheimer’s Disease in my family tree. I have every reason to follow Alzheimer’s research and to modify my lifestyle to delay onset or reduce my risk. That includes exercise, eating a diet low in sugar and saturated fat, and the same factors that reduce risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Being fit feels good. It feels good by itself, but it also feels good to be able to do things easily that used to be difficult.
People on planes are excited when I ask to sit in the middle seat. They’ve even waved me over.
My husband can pick me up and carry me down the hall.
I suspect I could probably pick him up, too, but he won’t let me.
I can fit in a child’s Halloween costume or tutu if I so desire.
I feel totally confident wearing a swimsuit in public. A bikini, even.
You can only see my stretch marks now if I show you where to look. I don’t even have cellulite on my thighs anymore.
If someone yells “RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” I know exactly how fast I can go, and for how long.
I’m faster than a speeding toddler running toward traffic, although I hope I don’t have to prove it again…
Exercise reliably elevates mood. The more strenuous the activity, the longer I do it, the more often I do it, the better the results.
I’m 40 and I don’t need any pharmaceuticals or medical appliances. I’d rather spend that money on other things.
All my “numbers” are on target, including blood pressure, fasting glucose, lipid panel, resting heart rate, waist/hip ratio, percent body fat, and BMI.
I no longer have to spend time arguing over whether BMI is valid for the individual, because I don’t feel defensive about my health metrics.
I can sit on the floor and get back up again without holding on to anything.
Not only that, I can climb a fence, climb a rope, and do a pull-up.
I can open jars.
I know how to calculate how many calories to pack on backwoods expeditions.
I can still eat everything I used to eat when I was fat. Now, I can do it without the guilt or recriminations, because I have more information.
I’m fitter now than I was when I was 30, and MUCH fitter than when I was 20. There is every reason to expect that I can be even fitter at 50 than I am now.
I don’t have to go to the chiropractor anymore.
I have something in common with more people now. When I go to a wedding or other social event, and see another woman with posture like mine, I know we can be deep in conversation in under a minute.
I can carry a 45-pound backpack. If you realize how big a deal that is and how much of the world that opens up, I might want to go on a trip with you.
I sometimes see photos of beautiful young actresses and celebrities, and realize I have better abs.
I have the cardio endurance to dance every song.
I can climb a tree with my nephews and niece.
The more we go out, the more my dog loves me.
My doctors always say, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!” or “I wish all my patients were like you.” I convinced one of my doctors to take up triathlon, so I can claim the distinction that my doctor takes health advice from me!
I used to be chronically ill and fatigued. I had my cancer scare at age 23. I know everything I need to know about pain, about feeling trapped by fate, about feeling like my body was my enemy. It was a powerful learning experience in its own way. There are many other ways to experience living in a human body, and I’ve learned even more from trying out a few other options.
“I don’t know where to start.” This is the initial reaction of most people who have recognized the need for change in some area of life. It marks the threshold between a 2 and a 3 on the Readiness Scale. It can be overwhelming and discouraging to experience a moment of clarity and see the results of years living on autopilot. This? Was not according to plan. This was not intentional. If I had known this was going to happen, I would have made these changes long ago. I just never knew what to do. In the arena of clutter and space clearing, it helps to focus on a single square foot at a time.
When I started running, I couldn’t make it around the block. On my first day, I had to walk part of the way, and then lie on the floor until the black spots in my vision faded. I decided I would measure my progress by running one sidewalk square farther each day. I was sure I could do that much, even if I was dizzy or had a headache or a skinned knee. As it turned out, I made progress far more quickly than I had dreamed possible, because I started out with a modest, unimpressive goal. I went from 1/3 mile on my first day to a marathon four years later. The point of this story is not to let the marathon so much as cross your mind on Day One. (I didn’t! Are you kidding?) The point is to choose a goal you know you can and will do every single day, no matter how rotten you feel. One sidewalk square a day was going to add up to more total miles by the end of the year than waiting to “feel like” the kind of athlete who ran long distances. One square foot at a time is going to take you to a cleared house and the ability to declare it DONE.
How big is one square foot? Perhaps you have a ruler or a tape measure. (Do you know where it is?) I am recommending a way of creating a metric that shows you have made measurable progress. A ruler serendipitously happened to appear at the table while I was writing this! I asked to borrow it for a minute, and measured the distance from my elbow to my wrist, which is roughly 11 inches. Your forearm might be similar. After a day or two, you can probably eyeball a square foot, or close enough for practical purposes.
One square foot could be next to (or inside) your kitchen sink. It could be on your bathroom counter. It could be on your nightstand or dresser. It could be a section of hallway floor, or the space closest to the front door. It could be part of a shelf in the linen closet. It could be the top of the dryer. It could be found on the passenger seat of your car. It could be found on a chair or your desk at work. Square feet are everywhere, aren’t they?
Where do you start? It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter where you start because all of it needs to be done. There are no rules. You only need to please yourself, unless you live with others, in which case you can earn some brownie points and please them, too, if you like. Start wherever it makes sense to you to start.
Part of how it “got like this” is that the 24 hours we all get each day is being stretched too thin. Your time is allocated in such a way that not enough is left to beautify your surroundings and give yourself the proper home that you deserve. One of the reasons we are focusing on doing a small amount each day is that we need to redistribute our time, making sure we leave space for ourselves. When I finished uncluttering my life, I found that it only takes 40 minutes, five days a week, to stay on top of every possible chore. (Not counting cooking, which I enjoy, and therefore does not qualify as a chore). There were definitely days I spent longer than that purging papers or going through boxes or organizing closets. Not anymore. My house looks the way I want it to look every day. I love it.
I’m willing to bet that hidden inside of you is someone who loves beauty and the finer things in life. There is a hidden home waiting for you to find it. You have the power to arrange your surroundings the way you want them to be, and to exert your aesthetic preferences. This means more than individual items that are pretty or interesting; it means entire rooms. It doesn’t matter what you choose as long as it is chosen, as long as it’s intentional. Maybe you are a “failed perfectionist,” meaning that you strongly prefer things a certain way, but feel that it isn’t worth the time until you know you can get it exactly right. You’re a shadow artist and your talents are a secret. I am here to tell you that your time is now. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have a strong desire for something better. You are ready to start. You’ll keep going because you want to know what DONE will look like.
It’s that time of year again. Those who are enamored of tinsel and twinkling lights are going to notice that I can’t do a plausible job of faking enthusiasm. I tend to think of this season as the cold, wet gap between Halloween and New Year’s, with a brief pit stop for the annual three-day cooking frenzy that I call Harvest Feast. My family of origin always offset major holiday celebrations by a day, because my dad worked, and I’ve found that throwing a party on T-Day Saturday works out well. I’m writing about a holiday season that doesn’t do much for me because there are certain things about it that I find very mysterious. I wonder if my observations might help people during the non-major-holiday parts of the year.
Where do you find the time? I’ve noticed an overlap between those who rave about how much fun they are having putting up decorations every winter, and those who complain about housework throughout the year. It’s the same house, but a completely different paradigm depending on what month it is. It goes a little like this:
Love this, having so much fun, took so many pictures, put on special music, rearranged everything, put up decorations, made special food, Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Hate this, this sucks, laundry, dishes, clean the bathroom, kids are driving me crazy
If I had to choose, I’d rather spend a couple of days a year miserable and be happy the rest of the time, but it seems like many people have that turned around. They’ll spend umpteen hours working around the house if it’s related to decorating, but they feel a sense of resentment and dread spending the same amount of time making it look nice in a more neutral manner. I have some hypotheses about this.
I’d like to see that famous holiday cheer distributed more evenly across the year, particularly the forgiveness and altruism. I would hope that we could all feel pride and delight in our homes every day and night of the year. I would hope that we could all feel a sense of the sacred, or at least the excitement of a special occasion, at every meal. I would hope that we could all pause for a moment to appreciate our loved ones at least once a day. I’m even cool with more group singing. The same resentment that many people wish I wouldn’t feel toward their favorite holidays, I wish other people would not feel toward their daily routine. We have the power to choose how we respond to social obligation and peer pressure; we may feel the same sense of grim duty and defensiveness, but mine is limited to two months of the year. I choose to elevate my daily tasks to a sense of aesthetic calling and to search for the extraordinary in the everyday. That is possible for anyone who chooses to be open to it.
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.