‘Ambit’ is a term I picked up this year that clicked with me in a pleasing manner. It refers to the scope or boundary of something, and in a more archaic sense, it specifically meant an external boundary. I think of my ambit as the area that I consider “walking distance.” It’s where I amble. I begin to walk out a new ambit every time I move, and it expands each day, until I’ve walked up and down nearly every street within 3 miles, seen every house and garden, and finally started to orient myself to my surroundings. Another way to think of an ambit is as “stomping grounds,” although I don’t stomp as often as I might skip through a chalked hopscotch outline.
My husband’s ambit is different from mine in the same way that our lexicons are different. His personal mental dictionary is full of engineering terms and mathematical formulae, while mine includes more writing systems and foreign phrases. His ambit is built around his work commute, while mine is typically built around the public library, grocery store, and perhaps a local teahouse. He likes to make a game out of optimizing his route, finding the path with the fewest traffic lights, working out alternate pathways if a signal changes unfavorably. He’s like Pac-Man.
Sometimes I take my dog for walks. His preferred speed is about 30 mph, so I tend to go faster when I’m with him. What we notice together is quite different. He’s highly aware of smells that I can’t detect, and he regards every single other living creature we pass, regardless of species. He sniffs flowers. I have to watch him as we pass any trash on the ground, because one day he picked up a stale bun (only to spit it out a moment later). We used to run in the hills of a regional park together most days, and he learned the various routes. He pulls off the trail and sits when a bicycle comes our way. He’s chill around horses now. He is always ready to GO, day or night, rain or shine, high wind or calm. I take him at night because I know he would bite anyone who tried anything on me. Mostly, though, I take him because he has so much fun. He adds to my experience. One day, a kid at a bus stop watched us walk by. He grinned and said, “When I grow up, I’m going to have a dog just like that.”
Spike Walks are a different ambit from my solo expeditions. He tops out around 6 miles. On Sunday, we took him on a distance day that worked out to about 9 ½, with a stop at a dog park at the midpoint. He took the lead and trucked along, ears up, without asking for a break. After we got home, he was so tired he barely got out of his bed for 24 hours. My top neighborhood distance is 17 miles, much too far for a little guy whose legs are only about a foot long.
I started walking most days at the age of 6, when I walked a mile to school and a mile back every day. It felt like a million miles. I would stop to pet every cat at every house that had one. I was late a lot. One morning, I saw a rose petal fall, and it really impressed me that I looked in the right direction at just the right moment. I vividly recall the first time I saw the moon in the morning sky. Walking got into me. It’s really the only way to keep track of everything that’s going on, the important things, anyway. The weather. The phase of the moon. The rotation of the constellations. Neighbors’ gardens. Coins (I have a jar with about $40 of currency I’ve picked up since 2005, mostly pennies, a nickel last night). Interesting sidewalk graffiti. A tree with striations that look like a Dalek. How can anyone sit around night after night and miss all this?
Curiosity, awe, and gratitude fuel my life. I’m lucky that way. Going for walks with me is an exercise in patience, as much as in hamstrings, because I’m constantly stopping to take pictures of random things, such as a divot in the sidewalk that looks like a human ear. I probably have more blurry, backlit, unidentifiable pictures of birds than I do of family members. I do all the illustrations on my blog, sometimes because it seems like a good idea, mostly because I need an outlet for all the fascinating things I see when I walk around my ambit.
In first grade, I did two miles a day, and that continued through sixth grade. In seventh grade, the school was a mile and a half away, so my daily distance increased to three miles. It occurred to me one day to calculate the mileage I put on my shoes, and I had to do it twice because the number seemed much too high to be credible. Fifteen miles a week, 60 miles a month?! I was 12 and that little seed of mileage tracking sprouted.
The day I started running, I couldn’t make it around the block. One third of a mile and I couldn’t do it. I went home and lay on the floor until the black spots in my vision went away. I thought, “Well, I guess I know what I’m doing tomorrow,” and I went back out and found a 1/3 mile route without a hill and forced myself to keep going. A few weeks later, I ran the first mile of my life. Four years later, I ran my first marathon. My husband helped me map out my running routes in those early days, adding a tenth of a mile every few days, and he and Spike ran with me the first several months. Sometimes my teen stepdaughter would go with us. It was easy for them. Spike does it all barefoot, and the tiny increments of distance helped him toughen up his footpads until he could handle a routine 4-6 miles of varied terrain. It wasn’t until my first 8-mile race that I started reaching distances I had to do alone. I had my solo ambit, my dog ambit, and my family ambit.
Then we decided to go to Iceland. In the course of our travel research, I realized that lodging was very expensive, while campgrounds were easily accessible and came with showers and kitchen areas. We could extend our trip to three weeks if we camped. The cost of the new backpacking gear would be fully amortized by the savings from not staying in hotels, even if we never used it again. The trip planning suddenly got a lot more interesting. We did our first multi-day through hike. Now I’ve expanded my ambit to include backpacking adventures, and I can carry the tent and all the food and clothing I need for four days without a resupply. There are few places on Earth that couldn’t potentially find themselves under my feet now.
I’ve walked in the wilderness, and I’ve walked in farm country with horses and cows leaning over the fence to check me out. I’ve walked the suburbs. I’ve walked in dense urban downtowns, from the seediest to the scene-iest. New York, Boston, Las Vegas, Victoria, Vancouver, Aukland, Reykjavik, Cancun, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. I’ve walked in bleak industrial deserts, botanical gardens, picket-fence neighborhoods, trails so narrow they really needed a machete. I’ve carried shopping bags and I’ve worn my 45-pound pack. Whether I’ve lived in a downtown high rise apartment or down several miles of dirt road, I’ve always had an ambit. It’s the best way to see the world, one step at a time.
Overwhelm is the hardest part about clearing clutter. Once we start seeing it for what it is – an excessive amount of unnecessary stuff – we start noticing how many individual items there are. Each one was brought in, one at a time, but the decision-making process of choosing which things to let go can take much more mental effort than it took to choose to bring them home. We’re also evaluating years or decades worth of stuff, and trying to reverse the tide in a (hopefully) shorter time period. Decision fatigue is a serious issue. That’s why it helps to make top-down decisions before getting out the bags and boxes.
Systems take the mental strain out of everything. For instance, we don’t need to apply mental effort to brushing our teeth or using a fork. We know how it works and we’ve done it thousands of times. What objects belong in the house, or don’t, can also be an automatic assessment. We build a framework. Dishes belong in the kitchen, clothes belong in the closet, books belong on the shelf, goats and chickens belong outside, recycling goes in the bin, etc. Clutter comes from two places: Either we brought it in without a plan for how to use or store it, or someone else did. Either way, decisions have been delayed. Dozens or hundreds or thousands of them. Now it’s time to cut through the fog and gain some clarity.
One of the games I teach is called How Many Shirts? We sit down with pencil and paper, and do an exercise. Assuming we find ourselves in a parallel universe where everything is the same, except that all our clothes have mysteriously vanished, how many shirts would we need? We come up with an estimate that factors in work, exercise, hot and cold weather, and formal occasions. Then we do the same for pants, shoes, etc. Armed with this information, we then count the existing shirts, pants, shorts, kilts, skirts, dresses, jumpsuits, Halloween costumes, tutus, etc. Generally, there are at least five times as many of each category as we decided we needed. That tends to include a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit, doesn’t go with anything else, or is just dated or stained. Say I decided I need ten sweaters, and I have 23. All I have to do is to choose my ten favorites and bag up the rest.
Here are some of the minimalist heuristics I use to keep clutter out of my house.
Bring in new things only when there is a specific, immediate need for them.
Can I afford it? Where will I store it? How will I clean it? If I don’t know, it doesn’t come home.
One in, one out.
Dishes must be safe for both the dishwasher and the microwave.
Clothes must be machine-washable, must fit and look flattering right now, and must go with at least two other garments.
All books must fit on the available shelves in a single row.
Paper-free whenever possible.
Tabletops and counters are work surfaces; they are not available for permanent storage.
Floors, chairs, couches, and beds are not storage areas.
Torn, stained, broken, rusty, expired = trash.
Consumables must be consumed. That includes food, toiletries, cleansers, socks, magazines, books… Most objects have a “useful lifespan,” after which they become clutter (or trash). This is a real sticking point for a lot of us. Just because it’s useful, doesn’t mean it’s useful to me. The minute it’s irrelevant in my life, it needs to move on, either to someone who can use it or to be recycled or remade into something else. Our homes are not landfills, and we’re not the Island of Misfit Toys. It’s not our responsibility to take care of orphaned stuff. On the contrary! It’s our responsibility to LET GO of everything we don’t use, so it’s available to be used for another purpose. It’s not our job to figure out what that purpose is. Donate it, give it away, recycle it, compost it; just let it go. It goes back to The Stuff Place, where it has an actual chance of being useful.
Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to get away from the stuff and make decisions in a neutral location. Bring a notepad to the park or a coffee shop or the public library, and free-write or make lists or drawings of what you want for your home environment. Try to make a complete inventory of everything you own, and then go home and get rid of anything you forgot you had. Try to estimate how many boxes are in your storage unit, and then cull down to that number. Tell yourself it’s okay to let go of things. Make a list of guidelines for your stuff that works for you. Then go back and put them into practice.
Monday: Hubby’s first day walking to work. He texts me: 1.44 miles and 26 minutes. This is why we moved – so we can have a taste of pre-freeway, pre-television life.
I start unpacking before breakfast, trying to empty a few more boxes before going back to the house to meet the junk haulers. They are supposed to call half an hour before arrival, which is scheduled sometime between 1 and 3 PM. They show up at 12:40 without calling first. I’m still on the road, so they wind up sitting in their truck in our driveway and waiting in the 80 degree heat. The company is called College Hunks Hauling Junk. I figured they were just being funny, until I got a good look at these fine young fellows. I could have sons that age, but if I did, they wouldn’t be nearly that good looking. Is this a thing? Model-gorgeous moving men as a marketing gimmick? Or is it just that SoCal is loaded with preternaturally attractive people?
Landlord comes over and gives me a very touching farewell speech. He says we are “very excellent” and “the best people” and that he will miss us. He thanks us for everything and hopes our pets are adjusting well. He is a gentle soul who spends most of his time growing roses since his stroke a few years ago. I feel good about our rent money having gone to his care and maintenance.
Spend 90 minutes washing windows. Bring back another carload. It really seemed like the house was almost empty. A few pans here, some canning jars there, a couple of lamps, and suddenly the car is full again. I drop off the ill-fated return phone at the post office and head home. Hubby meets me and helps unload, so we can head back again to clean. Stop to assemble our desks. Drive back to old house for two hours of work. I clean the bathrooms and the kitchen while he takes down pictures and putties holes in the wall. We have to go back one more time for the walk-through. Finish at 9:30, too late to go out, and wind up eating taco salad at home at 10.
Tuesday: Have breakfast outside on new deck. Feed a tiny mandarin to Noelie, who eats about ½ tsp and throws the rest to the dog. Unpack and organize a few more things. Figure out the new washing machine. Scrub off the paint transferred onto the car from where I backed into the gate yesterday. Change our address with USPS. Try to catch up on email. Mostly just wait around for new landlord to show up with the missing drawer fronts and cabinet doors, so I can start unpacking the kitchen. Go back to old house for final cleanup; half an hour of mopping and loading up the last few things. Amazing: the cleansers, mops, brooms, and flower pots make up an entire carload. House is immaculate and empty. I can preserve the visual of the final perimeter check for reassurance whenever I can’t find something and wonder if it got left behind. (It couldn’t have been).
Wednesday: Be careful what you wish for! The work crew knocks just after I step out of the shower, and I have to run to the door in a towel and ask them to give me a minute. It takes about 3 hours to hang the cabinet doors, replace the drawers, install a shelf and smoke detectors, and put down wood strips at the floor thresholds. Spend another 3 hours unpacking the kitchen. Exhausting, but it’s done, and I cook dinner.
Thursday: Organize more of the laundry room, clearing enough space that a shelving unit can be set up. Venture into the garage. Several boxes belong in the office. Where are we going to put this stuff?? We’re close to the point where we could run a functional household and stop dealing with the mess in the garage and laundry room. All we have to do is stop any recreational or athletic activities and put our hobbies on hold, and we’re golden. Break down the empty boxes I have stacked outside the back door, fortunately, because it rains only a couple of hours later. Walk the dog to meet hubby at work. He is delighted.
Friday: The demoralizing dregs. Each room has a couple of partial boxes with items that need to be carefully placed, because the available storage is almost completely full. “Office” consists of the pets’ crates, a bookshelf, our desks, and a bunch of boxes that are still taped closed. I set up a folding table in the kitchen. Hubby sets up the desktop computer and a couple of shelving units for the laundry room and garage. The Dementors have gotten out of the MISC boxes and are hovering around.
Saturday: We go back to the old house to wait for the recyclers to come pick up the old refrigerator. I discover that one kitchen drawer was left full of stuff! So much for my “final” perimeter check. Throw it in a bag. While on that side of town, the dog gets taken to the vet, car gets washed, Goodwill donations get dropped off, old keys get mailed to property manager, and we stop for groceries. After this we’ll have to figure out where to do all these errands in our new city. We work together to clear the laundry room and garage at the new house. A few specific empty electronics boxes go into the small loft area at the top of the garage. The rest of the shelving units are assembled and organized. I push through the last couple of boxes in the living room.
Sunday: We have two choices: put up the work bench in the garage and finish the office, or enjoy the gorgeous weather and go for the distance walk we had planned. We walk about 9 ½ miles, getting home about an hour before a heavy rainstorm hits. The ice maker in the fridge has malfunctioned, leaking a very large puddle of water on the kitchen floor, which has of course saturated the bottom of the last remaining box. Moral: this is why we unpack our boxes and don’t leave cardboard on the floor.
We first heard of the existence of this house 28 days ago. Now we live here. The bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and laundry room are fully operational. There is no art on the walls yet. The living room is a work in progress, as we’re using a mishmash of old furniture until we have time to get a new couch. The garage can accommodate projects, and it’ll be “done done” with another hour’s work. I’d love to say the office is done, too, because that would mean we’re fully moved in. Then I do the math. We’ve slept here 9 nights. It’s actually pretty impressive that all our furniture is put together and we’re 90% unpacked already. We’ll most likely finish by dinnertime tonight. That’s because 1. We don’t have a lot of stuff, 2. We can’t bear to live in cluttered surroundings, and 3. All our “free time” has been directed toward completing the move. Moving is part annoyance, part drudgery, and part excitement. The proportion depends almost entirely on how much cubic clutter there is.
Jon Ronson has stepped into some new territory with his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. His previous books have had more to do with power at the top, with those well-placed in politics and business. This book has to do with the power of those at the bottom, our ability to shame specific people via social media. He interviews several notorious people who have been on the receiving end of this tidal wave of opprobrium. More interestingly, he delves into the nature of shame, how to overcome it, and how he himself realizes that he has been responsible for participating in public shaming.
Something that struck me while I read this book was that I was unfamiliar with almost all the people who were victims of massive public shaming. I knew about Justine Sacco, but only because I read an article explaining that she had made a dumb joke that was misinterpreted. I had read Jonah Lehrer’s book(s), and then read that he had falsified quotes, but I wasn’t aware that it had essentially destroyed his career. The others? I got nothing. I thought that might be a bright light in the darkness, to know that even after millions of people might have rushed to attack someone, there would still be far more who had no idea what happened, didn’t care, or didn’t think that person did anything wrong.
Ronson mentions briefly that he was the target of bullying for a couple of years in school. This is a subject of acute interest to me, because it happened to me, too. In fact, I suspect that the majority of kids at least feel like they were the target of bullying at some point. The reason for this is that it only takes one incident lasting a microsecond to cause permanent emotional scars. If bullying is sustained over a longer period of time, or if it appears in more than one setting, then trusting strangers becomes very challenging. There are two problems with bullying: bullies don’t always realize they are doing it (or think they are in the right), and we only remember the bullying we have felt, not what we have dished out. After long thought, I’m fairly certain that a lot of perceived bullying is seen by the “bullies” as a reaction to something the “bullied” person did. We feel real pain when we are shunned, ostracized, and publicly shamed, regardless of what brought it on.
It can be helpful, in a sad, weird kind of way, to see evidence that someone else went through a much worse public shaming than we ever have. It seems to chase away some of the shadows. I can vividly picture several of my most humiliating moments of public shaming, and feel glad that they happened before the Internet Era. Nothing anyone did to me will show up in a Google search. None of it ever impacted my career prospects or my ability to find love. I’m pretty much okay, mostly.
The most important thing about So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is that Ronson calls us out for our glee in participating in public shaming. It turns out that such practices have a long history. In fact, I once wrote a blog post entitled, “Bring Back the Stocks.” It recommended public shaming of people who text and drive. There was probably also something in there about people who stick their gum under the furniture. We all have something we loathe, some behavior we think deserves shaming, even when we ourselves have felt the sickness of shame in our own bodies. Ronson makes a sound case that shaming is the opposite of helpful, and that we should examine our tendency to ladle it out. Mostly, like all of his books, it is fascinating, a bit surreal at times, and occasionally quite funny.
Like most true things, the opposite is also true. I used to repeat something I had heard many times, which was: “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.” It’s a joke – sort of. I’ll explain it, because explaining jokes always takes out the humor, and that’s my intention. The core idea is that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Saying they are entitled to mine is a way of saying that my opinion has higher merit than theirs. Perhaps it does. I’ve really started to wish, though, that this was not the case. What I’m looking for is opinions that do merit more than my own. I want to hear from people who have more credentials than I do, who are smarter and better informed, who are more patient and tactful and better able to get their points across. I want to learn from them. If none of those cases apply, then I don’t want to get into a discussion at all. Sharing my opinion is the first, best way to start an obnoxious argument with which I have no desire to engage.
Now, I’m a friendly person. I like other people and I think I’m pretty good at drawing others out and finding their best traits. Political discussions are only going to bring out someone’s best traits if that person is highly skilled at civil discourse, which means that person is probably well on the way to a professional career in the field. This does not apply to anyone I know, nor does it apply to anyone I have ever met. There is nothing to be gained out of a political discussion with one of my peers – and, unfortunately, every discussion is a political discussion now, or will quickly become one. I’ve found this out the hard way, and now that I’ve turned 40 I think I finally understand how to disengage and just not go there.
No one is entitled to my opinion. Nobody gets to know what I really think about something. This privileged information won’t do them any good; nothing I think or say is going to change anyone’s mind. All sharing my opinion will do is to irritate at least one person, and it may take only a few seconds before a discussion is sparked that turns directly to antagonism. In person, it’s bad enough. In a text-based conversation, 90% of the relevant body language, facial expressions, vocal tone, and pauses are completely missing. Lost friendships are the norm now.
What’s the point?
What good is there to come of a bunch of arguments that lead nowhere? None of us are running for office. Well, maybe you are, but I’m certainly not. Speaking of nothing to be gained… Becoming a public figure in any field appears to be a tacit agreement that one can no longer have a private life of any kind. Every word you have ever written, every photograph that was ever taken of you, every conversation you ever had within earshot of anyone, is now public property. None of these things may have anything to do with your competence or dedication, or the results of your contribution, but your life is now nothing more than fuel for the fire of aggressive power struggles in the guise of casual chatter.
We have a rule at my house that if politics are discussed, they may only be pre-Industrial. We can talk about the politics of antiquity, or the Dark Ages, or the medieval period. Anything past about 1603 is already treading dangerous ground. I used to hold a weekly open house, where we would feed dinner to anywhere from two to 20+ people. We had a ten-top dining table, another old table, a few folding tables, and enough folding chairs to accommodate just about everyone. One night we had a couple of people sitting on plastic coolers. The only way to have a fun party with a mixed group is to steer well away from topics that are guaranteed to get people all het up. Once, one of our friends dropped by, a charming and funny man who dearly loves to stir the pot. He introduced a political topic. Everyone else at the table started making siren whoops and calling, “Danger, Will Robinson! Warning!” “We don’t do that here!” We explained about the pre-Industrial rule, everyone laughed, and the conversation rolled on. Anyone who wanted to pursue that particular political thread had only to look him up on Facebook, where he stood ready to engage in that sort of thing.
We’ve forgotten how to make small talk and discuss things that leave everyone present with a warm, friendly feeling. This is one of the main problems with our society. We are constantly sizing one another up and figuring out whether they belong to our tribe or the rival tribe. There are only two options, only two answers, only two ways to think. There is Pepsi and there is Coke, but there is no water or mango juice or lemonade or “no thank you” on tap. Absolutely anything can signify your entire worldview, from your breakfast or your choice of clothing to your musical tastes, and suddenly you’re pigeonholed into one of the two available slots. Everything is polarized. The more we “discuss” complicated issues, the more we push farther away from each other. The reason is that we don’t know how to listen to each other and trigger a feeling of personal emotional connection.
Listening to people rant is extremely tedious. I’ve been hearing the same rants about the same set of topics since the early 90s. One example is the “pull up your pants” rant. There are no iterations of this that will be funny to me. I’ve heard it or read it nearly every day for over 25 years. I wouldn’t want to hear an interesting conversation that many times. The last time I was traumatized by seeing someone’s baggy pants hanging too low, it was an elderly white man at the post office, who didn’t appear to be wearing any drawers. I felt sad for him. Sadness for others is something we rarely feel. We take it for granted that when someone else does something we disagree with, or don’t like, the motive was hostility or selfishness. We don’t tend to assume loneliness, or confusion, or sorrow, or the desire for respect, or an attempt at sincere connection. You don’t agree with me so you must want to fight.
There is someone in my life whose default setting is Angry Rant. (Actually, there are several, so don’t go thinking I’m talking about you). My practice when I’m trapped in these settings is usually to do cross stitch and keep my head down. I don’t really have a poker face, you see. Since I turned 40, I’ve decided to try to learn more about being a truly great listener. I chose to simply pay full attention and hear this person out. What was he feeling? What was his motivation? What reaction was he seeking from me? What color were his eyes? As it turned out, his eyes are a really fascinating, unusually beautiful color. I had never noticed before. He talked, and I listened. I did ask one question. It was a curious question, about him and his life. The conversation shifted to how things had changed since he was young. I felt how overwhelmed and disappointed he was by how much the world had changed. His world was a nightmare vision of violence, theft, vanished public morality, and degradation. It scared and disgusted him. I could only compare his world to my world, a world of continual technological and medical advances, where extreme poverty is being eliminated, the blind are starting to be able to see, the deaf are starting to be able to hear, and the lame are able to walk. My world of miracles and his world of terror were not the same world, not at all. If I wanted to invite him to live in my world, he had to become aware of it first. That wasn’t going to happen if ever I were to engage with him in an oppositional manner, playing his rules on his game board. My game is Candy Land and his is Mortal Kombat. My only hope is to befriend him and care for him and feel genuine interest in his life and his feelings. That single, one-sided conversation seems to have turned a tide in our relationship. The truth is that I respect him and find him interesting – him, not necessarily his opinions. Now I’m also curious to see where our friendship leads.
This is why I believe no one is entitled to my opinion. Even if I were subpoenaed in a court of law, my opinion would not be required; my observations, yes, but my opinion, definitely not. I could make a list at least ten pages long of specific bullet points that I am quite sure have the power to start arguments almost anywhere I go. More than one person has wanted to argue with me about my shoes, my lunch, my phone, or the novel I’m reading. I don’t want to. I don’t want to argue with you or with anyone. I’ll listen to you. I’ll crack jokes with you. I’ll trade stories with you. I’ll have a poetry competition with you. I’ll sing with you. I’ll cry with you. We can walk together in silence, and we can hold hands if you want. If you want to argue, you’ll have to go to someone else.
We are three weeks into the process of moving into a new house. If you’ve moved recently, you know exactly what I mean. If this is not something you do often, you may have forgotten how physically demanding it is. We are still surrounded by towers of unpacked boxes, so it is very fresh in my mind. I’ve had plenty of occasion to think about the interplay of physical fitness, relocating, material possessions, and personal environment.
It is immediately obvious only minutes into a move that it takes its toll on the body. This is my 28th move as an adult. The great thing about it is that this is the first one I have done as a marathon runner. I’m also a backpacker, and this fall I spent a total of six days carrying a 45-pound pack up and down various trails. While I am 40 years old, this has been the easiest move for me physically. (Other than trying to knock myself unconscious by whacking my forehead on a door frame, that is!) Moving Day was 8 hours of carrying extremely heavy things, like my elliptical, an industrial sewing machine, and umpteen boxes of books, and this was after five days of climbing up and down on chairs, packing and stacking boxes, and carrying them up a series of steps into the new house. I’m tired, sure, but I haven’t had to take any anti-inflammatories.
As a former chronic pain and fatigue sufferer, I know that pain comes in many varieties. There’s the “time to go to the hospital” kind of pain: a fractured finger, various sprained fingers and a wrist, a severe muscle strain (when the muscle begins to separate from the bone), a dislocated rib, a dislocated hip. There’s the chronic stuff: the carpal tunnel syndrome, the tennis elbow, the tendonitis. There’s fibromyalgia, about which the less said, the better. Then there’s DOMS, or “delayed onset muscle soreness.” Even for very fit people, DOMS may kick in when we’ve started doing new routines. The comment after this is often “I’m sore in places I didn’t know I had places!” I had one day of this, in my quads, the first day after I had been squatting and lifting boxes. My poor hubby is still dealing with it. Part of the difference is that he has a sedentary job, while I’m up and down all day doing chores in between work segments. The other part is that, while he is very strong, I have kept up a regular fitness routine over the past two years, and he has not. He’s the control and I’m the variable.
Adding data to the experiment of our latest move, I wear an Apple Watch. I was chagrined to discover that I only burned an extra 200 calories on the day we spent 8 hours doing strenuous physical labor. That’s like a can of Pepsi and three Ritz crackers. I also barely made the goal of elevating my heartrate for 30 minutes. This is just one of many times when tracking my health metrics has clearly shown that I overestimate how often I exercise, how long my workouts are, what intensity I work, and how functionally fit I am. (Of course, I also tend to seriously underestimate how much I eat and how often I eat desserts).
The other thing about the Watch is that I tend to pace laps around the house when I’m close to my exercise goal and it’s dark or cold outside. Moving into a significantly smaller house (728 square feet) that is full of stacks of boxes has made this less feasible. Most of my clutter clients absolutely could not walk a lap through each room of their home. They tend to fill each room with as much furniture as they can find, constricting the available space. Then they add stacks of bins, tubs, totes, boxes, cartons, and tottering towers of books, mail, and other reading material. THEN they add laundry and other small items, such as cat toys, to the floor. My people think nothing of turning sideways to get through a confined space, or picking their way over landmines of potential tripping hazards. They’re used to it, for one thing, but for another thing, they tend not to get up off their chairs, couches, or beds unless they have to. There is a night and day difference between being a fit person in a clear space and being a sedentary person in a cluttered space. I walk much faster and go through a much wider range of motion than I did when I was ill, just doing things like scrubbing the tub and carrying laundry, and that’s part of how I’m able to maintain my hard-earned muscle mass with far less effort than I ever imagined. Conversely, because I worked so hard to get fit, it’s also much easier to keep my home clean and clear.
Another thing that has stood out for me during this move is just how many of our material possessions relate to physical fitness and a more active lifestyle. Right now, our garage is just as full as ¾ of other typical American garages, because we’ve only been sleeping here three nights and we’re still processing stuff. That bulk includes an elliptical, a treadmill, a stair climber, a pull-up bar, and all our backpacking gear. In another garage, the same space could easily be filled by holiday decorations, boxes of memorabilia, and old magazines. Another garage might also contain the identical fitness equipment that we have, except that it might be further surrounded by so many other things that it has not been used. Perhaps not in months or years, perhaps never. We often feel that owning something checks the box, that once we’ve bought it, we’ve changed our lives. STUFF is about whether we make the space and time to use it even more than it is about whether we own it.
We don’t really need any of our fitness equipment. You can do absolutely every last thing that a top endurance athlete does, with no equipment at all, by walking and running outdoors and by learning how to do high intensity interval training and body weight workouts. Even walking 20 minutes a day and doing a plank pose for a few seconds once a day can build fitness. Heck, sitting on the floor and getting back up again once a day would be a dramatic improvement for many people. It counts. All of these activities are easier when we can clear at least a tiny amount of space in just one room, and when we start to bring our awareness to how we spend our time. I just have fitness equipment because I like to distract myself with passive entertainment (books, true crime shows, podcasts) while I work out. It’s more practical than packing up my worldly goods and rearranging them for a few hours every day.
Moving to a new home is an opportunity to adjust one’s lifestyle. We chose to move closer to my husband’s office so that he can walk to work instead of commuting on the freeway. We choose to limit our possessions to what will fit comfortably in the available space, because the space itself is more valuable to us (and costs more each month) than any of our belongings. We choose to eat healthy food and to be active, because we’re getting older and we understand that we are running out of time to build the bodies that will carry us through old age. We choose how we spend our time. The result of each of these decisions and choices has compounded into a pretty nice life.
I am deep in a dream when the jingling of the bells on our front doorknob snaps me awake. It’s my husband, an extreme lark by constitution, bringing oatmeal and tea. It’s 7 AM and we can’t pick up the moving van for two hours. Meanwhile, I’m not completely sure of my name or what century it is. We get into a conversation that ends in me doing a Keith Richards impression and him declaring that he is Cookie Monster. By the time I get out of the shower, he has already removed the legs from all the furniture in the house.
The listing for our new rental house went up 19 days ago. I was 1000 miles away at the time, and saw only photographic evidence of it before we filled out the application and provided half a dozen references and our credit reports. It was somewhat like believing in Sasquatch, but mainly because he was going to be your new college roommate. I came home just in time for us to leave again for Thanksgiving. Technically we have had only five days to pack. This… exciting… timeline is further compounded by the fact that the house is barely half the size of our old house, a whopping 728 square feet, or smaller than the average Hollywood closet. I would use ‘swimming pool’ as a unit of measure but that goes without saying.
I work as an organizer and clutter coach, and this is the 28th move of my adult life. So I feel quite confident in my plan that we can move and unpack two carloads a day the week before the move, reuse the same 20 boxes several times, have everything unpacked into the closets and cupboards, and simply drop all the furniture into place on moving day. Magically, the crock pot and bread machine will finish together, and we’ll sit down to a hot home cooked meal. People say I’m a dreamer…
I still insist that this plan could have worked. It could! Unfortunately, each of the staging areas we planned to use is unavailable. There are drawer fronts and cabinet doors missing in the kitchen and linen closet, waiting to be rehung, and there are two extremely bulky pieces of furniture in the garage waiting to be hauled off. They belonged to a previous tenant, and nobody really wants them. At least an actual white elephant might provide some company for our dog during the day. Maybe it could also stomp flat some of our empty boxes. Alas, it is merely a metaphorical white elephant.
The result has been that we have created a “staging area” (read: very large pile) in the laundry room, and our garage looks like a Standard American Garage rather than the laborrrratory it is supposed to be. If any Mad Science happens out there in the next two weeks, it is going to have to involve nanobots. The kitchen is getting unpacked last instead of first, which also rules out any interesting chemistry experiments. If this continues we will have to resort to poetry.
The office cabinet shown in the picture above is not the result of a failed rocketry experiment, although that would have made a great YouTube video. It’s because we have a California King mattress, which sort of implies by its very name that it should come with a Valet de Mattress Hauling and at least a couple of serfs. (Serfs up!) What does our quarter-acre mattress have to do with the pile of kindling we once called vital storage space?
Okay. We are stubborn and frugal people of blue collar extraction, which often tends to result in fraught storylines. We did the move ourselves. That means 5’4”, 123-lb me holding my end up of something heavy, wobbly, and higher than my head, while my 6’2” hockey playing, ex-logger husband holds up the other. We are trying to shove the mattress through a hallway that is shorter than the mattress is long, while simultaneously pushing it through two doorways and a 90-degree bend. It is much like trying to stuff a loaf of bread into an envelope, or trying to coax the actual white elephant mentioned earlier into a gym locker. It is like trying to shove a sleeping bag into a compression sack. It is like trying to pull on a pair of skinny jeans after stopping at Cinnabon. I am so busy thinking up good analogies for this process that I quit paying attention to what I am doing, and nearly cold-cock myself on the door frame. The resulting linear goose egg on my forehead is the sort of mark that could lead either to a lot of concerned inquiries about my marriage, or an adjunct professorship at Hogwarts.
After I get up off the floor, we realize that we need to get caster cups for the bed frame anyway. We leave the mattress in situ. I sit down for a few minutes, a bit woozy, and then finish unloading the remaining boxes in the van, so we can head back for the second load. After riding across town for half an hour, I feel fine, but decide to stop for a snack. My hubby decides to keep going, driven by the strict 7 PM time cutoff on the van, while writing me off as a casualty for the day. Before I have finished eating my energy bar, he has loaded up the cabinet and rolled it out the front door. I have no idea any of this operation is underway until I hear him say, “Well, I guess that’s not going with us.” When the expression “close shave” is used, it generally does not mean a literal attempt to shave tangible, real-life beard stubble off of a man. (Or woman. I don’t judge). See photo. Fortunately, cabinetry is an inefficient means of decapitation; if ever you should need cranial removal services, say, during the coming zombie apocalypse, my vote is for a custom chainsaw prosthesis.
Speaking of chainsaws, we have this broken old IKEA couch which has been propped up by an anvil on one end for the past several months. I have forced this issue because it has made no sense to me to replace the couch when we are planning to relocate anyway, and don’t know the shape, size, or color of our future living closet. We have decided to bust it up ourselves and throw it in the curbside bin, rather than pay for a junk hauler. This decision has been undecided for us by the clutter gods, Whoops and Ohdang. The cabinet has just gone to Stuff Heaven, newly glinting meta-hardware sparkling around its aetherial doors. The interior space is gone while only the shell remains. We call the junk haulers.
Next comes the moving of the elliptical machine. One would think that moving such a thing up an incline would be much more difficult than rolling it down a ramp. One would think wrong. Ah well. It is a machine designed to provide a workout and build physical fitness, and arguably, it is succeeding. We have a moment of destiny while on the ramp. Hubby is in the van, pulling the heavy end of the machine backward on the handcart. I am standing on the ramp, pushing the handlebar end, which is precariously balanced on a furniture dolly, a flimsy item that resembles an empty picture frame with a wheel on each corner. As the heavy machine is levered off the ramp into the van bed, the dolly slides free and rolls toward me. This is when I thank Past Self for all the years of distance running, yoga, and dance classes. I simply step through the frame, one foot at a time, and it rolls down the ramp behind me, sounding like a series of roller skates being thrown into a dumpster. I prefer this to the alternative of being squashed flat by a glorified hamster wheel. Core strength FTW.
Somehow we get the van returned on time. We buy another ten boxes. We load another carload. We get it home and unloaded. We get the caster cups. We eat large steaming bowls of Japanese food, where the waitress tells us that she pays $1400 a month for a studio apartment. (I don’t ask, but it may be larger than our new house…) We go home and make the bed, which in this case starts with the frame and box springs.
The odyssey of our first night in our new home begins. While my lawfully wedded spouse is a lark, I am a night owl. He is capable of falling asleep before his head hits the pillow, and I don’t mean to imply decapitation again, not so soon anyway, but there is that whole ‘sawing logs’ thing. I realize we are living close to railroad tracks again. I finally fall asleep, only to wake up at 2:30, broiling hot, and get up to look for the thermostat. At 3 AM I realize that I don’t know where the package with my broken old phone that needs to be returned has wound up. At 4:30, I get an impromptu lesson in fluid mechanics and cavitation in old pipes; as the automatic sprinklers kick on, a banging and shuddering indicates that trapped underneath the house is the ghost of the Tin Woodman. I decide to go get my phone and listen to Mystery Show for a while. At 5:30 I finally fall back to sleep. My husband breathes the deep, peaceful breaths of the only carbon-based lifeform in our galaxy who could conceivably share a mattress with me. At 7, a flock of no fewer than 50 wild parrots flies over our house, a fact that our own parrot finds exhilarating and inspirational, which she demonstrates by imitating, to the last decibel, the backup beep of a garbage truck. Which makes our dog bark, or perhaps he is trying to whistle, in which case, wow. In other words, it’s a fairly normal Sunday morning. Feels like home already.
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. We thought the new house has 63% of the square footage of our current house, but it turns out it’s actually 53%! The listing was updated, and it says 728 square feet rather than 881. The discrepancy most likely has to do with the addition of the laundry room to the detached garage, or perhaps a transdimensional portal.
Monday: We meet our landlords to sign the papers. They are busy, too, and we can’t meet until 8:30 PM. As predicted last week, the construction is not 100% complete, and we agree that they will finish the last tiny touchup tasks over the next few days. That’s fine, because we’ll only be moving a few carloads before the weekend, while continuing to sleep at what is now officially The Old House. They offer to lend us a van!
Surreal Hollywood moment when the landlord mentions my book, Iceland by Bus and Backpack. It’s self-published and copies sold are still in the three digit range, but I feel FAMOUS for about 15 seconds. In the year the house was built, such a conversation would indeed have indicated something special; now it just means Google.
We unload the folding office bookcase and three sets of plastic storage shelves in the garage, which still has all the construction materials it had last week. I have brought over some hand soap and TP for the bathroom. See that the landlords have left a bird’s nest undisturbed in the porch rafters, which touches my heart. They also put a welcome mat at the back door.
(Finished Week 9 of my online class and took the final, finishing with 40 minutes to spare. Also tracked down a notary public. Turned in my last library books, a bittersweet moment. A busy day overall!)
Tuesday: I wake up to a large empty space in my husband’s office. Only 7:30 AM and already he has moved a carload on his way to work. I set to work taping together my portion of the new boxes, realizing partway through that I am doing this before breakfast. Drop my phone, shatter the screen, swear a lot, and submit a claim against my phone insurance, all in 20 minutes. Pack my quota of 11 boxes, the capacity of our car, and leave on the bus for an advance screening of a major new movie, because my life is so Hollywood. (This means standing in line for an hour and surrendering all your electronics at the door, which in my case is a lot like asking Red Sonja or Xena, Warrior Princess to divest themselves of weaponry, except the glass slivers coming out of the plastic wrap around my phone may be more dangerous right now. I sometimes sheath my phone in my boot as well). Hubby fills car with my boxes and picks me up at the bus stop. We drop off our first rent check and unpack. The empty boxes go back in the car for tomorrow.
Work has clearly been done on the house since yesterday; a few cabinet doors and drawer fronts are missing in the kitchen and linen closet. They were not painted to the landlord’s standards and he is having them redone. This makes unpacking a bit of a challenge, though; I had planned to do the kitchen first, since kitchens consist almost entirely of built-in storage. I mentally rejigger what gets moved on which day. Half the garage is still a work in progress as well; the construction debris has been cleared, but there are still some large pieces of furniture (hutches?) waiting to be hauled away.
So far we’ve moved half my clothes, my husband’s bookcase of textbooks, some kitchen appliances and canning jars, the garage shelves, and a lot of random garage items, most of which can’t be put away yet. The planning philosophy of moving Stuff We are Keeping But Won’t Use for at Least a Week is creating some odd priorities and juxtapositions. Wine glasses and the ironing board, cocktail dresses and sprinkler heads, croquet mallets and hiking boots and my chainmail bikini top.
I spent 59 minutes packing my 11 boxes. We were at the house for 46 minutes, unloading, unpacking, and handling the rent check. Had a late dinner at a Lebanese restaurant we once tried that is, unbelievably, only 6 minutes away now.
Wednesday: New phone arrives at 9 AM! Our pets are a little anxious, since we haven’t been home in the evenings, and I give them some extra cuddle time on the couch while messing with my phone transfer. Noelie rarely sits on my shoulder, but in the past couple of weeks she has wanted to ride around with me. These are moments of stillness in the maelstrom.
I spend some extra time with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, doing a brain dump and drawing diagrams of where our remaining furniture will go in the new rooms. Drinking a cup of tea and taking some deep breaths, I make some strategic decisions that leave me feeling much calmer.
Choose what I’m going to wear the rest of the week and pack the rest of the clothes in my closet. Wash bedding. Spend the rest of my afternoon dealing with the logistics of the move: reserving a moving van FOR SATURDAY, working out which extra equipment to rent, finding someone to haul away our broken old couch, looking for a dealer who might buy our washer and dryer. Extremely impressed with the U-Haul website.
Cook a pot of soup while hubby loads the car. Eat dinner, drive over, sit in nighttime construction traffic. Get to the new house and discover that, TODAY, the landlord has had the entire kitchen floor ripped out, installed new subflooring, and put down new Pergo. All due to a slight squeak at the threshold to the living room. This guy is a FINISHER par excellence. Respect. The ceiling vents have been replaced, a wall plate is put in, and the nicest blinds I’ve ever had have been installed in all the rooms. We are joking about dragging out the move to see how many other upgrades he will do! We unload the car, including one bag of frozen food for the freezer. Stop at our new grocery store and pick up dog food and dog cookies. Come home and set out more unboxable items for tomorrow morning’s load.
My time today: 61 minutes packing, loading, unloading, and unpacking. 65 minutes travel time, including grocery store. Considerably longer setting up my new phone.
Thursday: New phone is working in every way except being an actual telephone. Spend a lot of time and customer service calls trying to figure out why, which turns out to be a matter of finding the SIM card. Ohhh… The past three days, I have spent nearly as much time dealing with my smartphone as with my house move, which says a lot about my life.
Spend a total of 2 hours 19 minutes on packing and moving. Nothing has been done at the new house today, meaning I still can’t unpack in the kitchen or the linen closet, and we still can’t set up the garage shelving. Vexed. Interesting how my positive feelings about the surprise new flooring only lasted one day. I am an ingrate. Pick a bag of mandarins in the dark for hubby’s coworkers. Go home and eat leftovers from all the soup I made this week.
Almost everything that has been packed and moved has come from inside closets, cupboards, cabinets, and the garage. The bedroom looks untouched. Hubby’s office is obviously the main staging area. Until tonight, nothing at all had been packed from the living room. Now I have a cardboard monument stacked in the middle of the room, waiting for the rest of the books and incidentals. The illusion we have been able to maintain of ordinary daily life is now vaporizing. Tomorrow I am going to have to bust some serious butt getting ready for the big move, now under 36 hours away.
Friday: Sleep in a bit. Spend an hour on the phone scheduling Internet hookup, changing addresses with various service providers, finding out just how hard it is to get a broken old couch hauled away. We decide to cut it up and put it in the trash.
As I was packing yesterday, I boxed up all our anti-inflammatories, and realized it had been months since I had last taken one. I’m definitely a bit sore and tired from climbing up and down to reach high shelves, carrying boxes of books and the fireproof safe, and spending all week doing unaccustomed deep knee bends. But it’s getting done. This is one area where physical fitness pays a large dividend.
Spent 70 minutes on packing. Mutually decided we would skip the trip to the house tonight and go out for Mexican food. Hubby got out the drill and took apart his work benches. He also boxed up the TV screen. I saw the way he had carefully taped all the screws from his desk to one side with a lattice of masking tape, and my heart melted. Gotta have a Tool Man!
The kitchen is almost completely packed. All the books are done. The closets are all ¾ done. Everything on the walls is still there. We’re planning to do the cleanup on Sunday, which means packing all the cleaning tools and supplies that day. It will probably also mean some last-minute stuff we won’t feel like dealing with when we have the van, which has a 10-hour time limit.
Saturday: Hubby brings home breakfast at 7 and we work for an hour before picking up the moving van. Two trips with the van. Returned it at 7 PM with 20 minutes to spare. 8 hours 48 minutes packing and moving, 3 hours 47 minutes travel time. Pack another carload afterward. 90% finished with each room = a LOT of small, random items remaining. Stop at hardware store. Find a veg-friendly sushi joint a couple minutes away and eat a late dinner. Go home (HOME!) and set up bed. Actually, this summary is missing all the drama and funny parts. Come back tomorrow.
Sunday: Another heinously early start. Woke up to flock of wild parrots flying over our house! Hurrying to pack up and clean up, while returning to meet internet installer at 3 PM. They call twice to try to move up the appointment, but we can’t leave because we’re at the old house waiting for a junk removal appointment that falls through and has to be rescheduled anyway. Get that done and make a second trip. I’ll be going back tomorrow to meet the junk hauler, the fridge recycler, and an important mail delivery that we don’t want getting stuck in Forwarding Limbo.
At this point, the bedroom and bathroom are completely set up and unpacked. The pets have a spot for their sleeping crates. The fridge and freezer are set up, and we have functional utensil drawers. We have internet and we have everything we need to do laundry. I don’t really want to talk about the garage, laundry room, or kitchen right now. We first learned of the existence of this house on November 17, precisely 20 days ago, and now we’re already sleeping here.
Tune in next week for the latest installment of our adventures in downsizing. Oh, and tomorrow, for the hilarity known as MOVING DAY.
Stuffocation is a book for skeptics. James Wallman, who happens to be British, takes on affluenza and the various movements away from it. Anyone who has a “clutter problem” should feel relieved to see just how widespread it is. Wallman makes clear that it’s a cultural phenomenon, and addressing it on a sociological level helps to gain perspective.
The single fact that stood out the most for me has to do with the way that clutter has made house fires more dangerous, due to what is called ‘flashover.’ This is the point at which a house fire becomes so hot that everything in the space bursts into flame. According to Wallman, the flashover point used to take about 28 minutes, thirty years ago. Now, due to the sheer mass of stuff in the average home, it takes between THREE and FOUR minutes. That is abjectly terrifying. I always worry that my clients will die in house fires, because
1. They have to pick their way through “goat trails” in each room and they might not make it out of a dark, smoky house,
2. They sometimes have rodent problems, and rats are known to chew wiring and thus cause house fires,
3. The piles of books, papers, and fabrics could easily catch fire,
4. They often pile various objects on and around their stoves,
5. They tend to delay home repairs due to a list of reasons.
I never knew that simply having a large quantity of stuff increases the danger of a fire quite so much! Now I have to worry, not only about my people, but about the emergency responders as well. Love a firefighter: clear your clutter!
Another interesting point was that research on cortisol levels indicates that clutter is much more stressful for women than for men who live with them in the same home.
Wallman takes on minimalism, a subject dear to my heart, and I laughed at several points. He points out that the leading minimalist writers and thought leaders each have a specific number of personal possessions that they discuss. Yet, despite the rules-lawyering involved, each person has arrived at a different number representing minimalism. I have felt the impulse to take a complete inventory of my possessions several times, and I have read many of these books and articles. Every time I picked up a clipboard to start work, I quickly decided that I should downsize more stuff first! I agree with Wallman that there is no way the category BOOKS counts as one item. [guffaw]
Next comes the “simple life,” the time-honored tradition of moving to the country to live a more traditional, agrarian lifestyle. Wallman points out that Henry David Thoreau only tried living at Walden Pond for two years before permanently abandoning that much-vaunted simple life. I have been interested in simple living since the early 90s, and personally, I have no desire to move to the country. My grandmother grew up on a farm, and she moved away! Farming is not learned so much as it is acquired, through years of compounded lore-gathering. It is not an undertaking to be commenced on impulse, let’s put it that way. I have enough veterinary problems with my pet dog, who has the quite common canine problem of Addison’s disease, to want to think of multiplying that by livestock. To me, urban life is simple, while country life is endlessly demanding and complex.
Wallman’s proposal is what he calls experientalism, the focus on experiences rather than material items. He directs his keen analytical gaze on this trend as well – nothing escapes him – and makes a solid argument in favor of it. We keep items such as a surfboard for their use, not necessarily their decorative value. He provides an example of an Australian man who has a vast cache of expensive sporting equipment, all of which he uses regularly. I tend to agree that this still counts as minimalism, although it might be less compatible with a nomadic lifestyle. Ultimately, why would anyone keep a single darn thing that didn’t get used or enjoyed regularly? (Other than a fire extinguisher, which I hope you have and equally hope that you never need. I keep mine under the kitchen sink).
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and kept reading it at times when I should have been doing something else, namely, packing for my move. I would put it in the same category as The End of Overeating and Mindless Eating, in that it takes what feels like a personal failing and demonstrates how broader forces are in play. It’s a fascinating, quick read with great insights. It also mentions Jenna Marbles and Monty Python, if that tells you anything. Highly recommended.
Thinking about politics makes me tired. One of the main reasons for this is that people tend to get hung up on a particular topic, and then have the same conversation about it, with the same talking points, over and over again. I’ve been hearing the same bumper-sticker summaries of the same concepts for the thirty years I’ve been paying attention. It’s like that joke about the prisoners who only have to call out the code numbers for different jokes, because they’ve been telling the same ones for so long. What I really want to talk about, though, is that I think we also have a strong basic tendency to write off friendships for similar reasons. There are just certain things that we may perhaps let bother us more than they need to.
The fictional representation of friendship is one of boundless loyalty. Friends walk in rhythm and share a destiny. They’ll save each other’s lives, take bullets for each other, and nurse each other through fatal illnesses. They cry for each other. They let each other in to their deepest layers of emotion. Even when they fight, they can’t stay apart. The bonds are too strong. They snap back together and hug it out. This isn’t total fiction, though. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were friends who had a major falling-out over politics, then rebuilt, and remained fast friends until their near-simultaneous death. “While I breathe I shall be your friend,” wrote Adams.
Does this kind of friendship still exist? Could it have survived the advent of modern social media?
Why is it so easy to toss aside a friendship? It’s even easier to douse the spark of fresh acquaintance, to let the moment pass and just go home. There are so many reasons to let these social bonds weaken and slip away.
How can I be friends with someone who is always late? It’s so disrespectful.
How can I be friends with someone who votes that way? What an idiot.
We would hang out more, but it’s such a long drive. So. Tired.
I don’t need new friends. I barely have enough time to see the friends I already have.
Two words: Mommy Wars.
We would hang out, but all four of us don’t get along equally well.
We used to be friends, but that was before Facebook ruined it.
I can’t have anyone over with the house looking like this.
We had an argument that one time.
I mean, it makes perfect sense. We should only be friends with people who are never annoying. We shouldn’t bother being friends with people who are emotionally needy. We should only spend time with people who are always in “prime-time” mode and ready to make a 10/10 experience. Never a dull moment. If they’re not there for us 100% of the time, if they don’t always say just the right thing in just the right way, screw ‘em. We need to be on the lookout for people who improve our group photos. Not a value-add? Sorry, you can’t sit with us.
Can we be friends again after we’ve hurt each other’s feelings? Can we apologize, even when all that comes of it may be awkwardness and sorrow? Can we stand to tear open old wounds and look for our contribution to what went wrong? Can we make the first move? What does a friendship look like after we’ve made each other angry a few times?
A broken friendship can hit you in the gut the same way a romantic breakup can. You just feel nauseated even thinking about it. Being in the same room as That Person can thicken the air to the point that you’d rather just run away, physically run out the door. Surely there can be no moving past this. That sick feeling is just anxiety. It’s possible, though very hard, to sit with that feeling and work through it. At home, of course, in privacy, we can try to imagine a different outcome. We can picture that friendship, strengthened and deepened by true honesty and forgiveness. Sometimes the hurt feelings suddenly dissolve. They do, sometimes. Enough time has gone by, and it’s okay somehow.
We’re different people now. We’re older and wiser and we’ve started to realize that real friendships are not so common. We know there are bumps in the road. We’re big enough that we can go first and risk making ourselves vulnerable. We can send a note to say: Hello, I was thinking about you. I miss you. How are you?
It’s surprising, but true: Often, the response is, Hey, it’s nice to hear from you. Don’t worry about that other stuff.
Because friendship is one of the best things there is, and forgiveness is as easy as setting down a heavy backpack.
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.
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