The Downsizing Dozen: Basic Bliss

anniversary - Version 2

Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated 30 years of marriage. The anniversary gave me an opportunity to compare what we had then, to what we have now. And I found us lacking.

We have less furniture now. When I moved in to my new husband’s duplex, I found the usual trappings for a bachelor pad, with the mandatory bookcase made out of boards and cinderblocks, and a mattress on a sheet of plywood. But our friends pooled their meager wages earned as teaching assistants and struggling writers to give us a queen-sized futon as a wedding gift that we used folded on the floor for a sofa, along with the towering coffee table, easy chairs and dining room set that my husband already owned. We were gifted a massive metal office desk that took up half of our spare room and a lovely Victorian dresser that we dragged around the country for 29 years.

We don’t keep unnecessary knickknacks. I brought very little when I moved 900 miles away for graduate school, but I possessed the soul of a collector, determined to scour local junk shops for kitsch to support my “eclectic” interior design plans. As a newlywed, I considered it my duty to transform our modest ranch house into a PeeWee’s Playhouse wonderland, my 1980s TV inspiration at the time. That wacky vision, combined with all the spoils from my in-laws’ big downsize to a retirement community that same year, led to a pretty cluttered and bizarre decorating scheme.

We need fewer clothes. About the only dowry I brought along was a big wardrobe with shoes and accessories, mostly vintage tat and ratty leftovers from college. I never threw any clothing away, even when something wore out, because that’s the way I grew up. My husband was the same way. And in your twenties, I believe style and the way you look are more important than at any other time. All that would change with a new baby several years later, providing very few opportunities to shower much less put together an outfit. But as a newly married couple, we felt compelled to buy more “sophisticated” clothing in rainbow pastels that screamed Miami Vice and shoulder pads the size of boulders to prove our maturity.

We are down to only kitchen essentials. What my husband lacked in furnishings, he made up for in pots and pans. The man wooed me by cooking Sunday dinner with all the fixings after I had nothing to offer but a couple of shriveled up pork chops with freezer burn. He’d inherited many mismatched dishes and silverware, odds and ends from his grandmothers. And I entered my married life with not one but two espresso machines and a demitasse set as wedding gifts, in addition to an addiction to PBS cooking shows. I plunged into gourmet cooking with a passion hotter than any flambé, determined to master the perfect roux, undaunted by a recipe’s 50 ingredients. All of those specialized dishes meant buying more fancy gadgets and better place settings to show off my artistically arranged micro-servings.

Thinking back, there were many other purchases and acquisitions those first few years, including a custom-built bed frame for our first mattress set, a brand-spanking-new car, and a cantankerous Corgi puppy. We finally qualified for a credit card and took on our first loan. We were proud of the parties we gave, the holiday dinners we cooked, and the guests we hosted.

And when we were ready to move 900 miles back to where I came from to start a new life, we realized that the large U-Haul truck we’d rented was too small.

Fortunately, we’ve remembered this moment of truth throughout the years, using it to fuel a shedding process that continues to this day. All the household goods we thought we needed for a successful marriage are no longer necessary. What we lack in possessions, is more than compensated by the love we share, and the trust that we will always have enough.

Well, this is the last of the Downsizing Dozen. If you’ve been following along, I hope you’ve found some value in the details of our journey to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014 and a simpler lifestyle. We will continue to examine, reduce and relinquish the old while we accumulate new experiences and fresh memories, life’s precious present. My inaugural post entitled Giving It All Away was featured in July, Make It Stick in August, Following Your Feet in September, Case of the Missing Mac in October, Diminished Drumsticks in November, Dwindling Decorations in December, Finding Focus in January, Forgotten Food in February, Travel Time in March, Shifting Into Single Gear in April, and Tiny Tending in May.

If You Had Only


come when I called
on a snowy night
too late to be casual

instead you admired
another’s reflection
in transparent doorways
passing to adulthood

while I struggled
to fulfill your fantasies
of a good girl in
a dark place

I burn through thirty
years toward reunion and
see there is no change
now yet still wish

you’d felt the same

#NaPoWriMo #12

I’m writing a poem every day in April as part of NaPoWriMo’s celebration of National Poetry Month. We may be able to live without poetry, but who would want to?

Feathering the Nest

You seem cold
so I pull out all I can remember
and rip this in shreds
to hang high like hope.

Soon, I notice the beginnings
of fear in fraying scraps from
a bathrobe you’ve forgotten
I gave you, the mother I miss gone
in a flutter of tailored blue trim, while
your memory’s soft batting spills
onto a crazy quilt of early crocus
chaos underneath.

The awful resentment in granny’s
faded remnants still swings too low,
blocking your chance to rise
above, her bitter view spun on threads
she sewed into your youth,
your marriage. And even though
I bend the branches down,
you can’t look far enough beyond.

Instead, you build on hard ground
with only heavy hurt,
using a muddled history
as nesting wattle over and over,
unable to see
your life in the trees.

NaPoWriMo #5

*A friend of mine had the idea to put her colorful quilting scraps outside for birds to use in their nests, helping to create spontaneous works of art in nature. I began to envision the memories evoked by suddenly seeing a piece of old clothing in a new outdoor context, which led me down a completely different path.

I’m writing a poem a day in April as part of NaPoWriMo’s celebration of National Poetry Month. We may be able to live without poetry, but who would want to?

How to Live or Die by the Outcome of the Game

  1. Position yourself as far away from the TV as possible.
  2. As an alternative, you can dominate the viewing selection by turning up the volume on repulsive shows like Hoarders, thus forcing fans to flee into another part of the house.
  3. Stock up on perishables to sustain you, since no one else will be eating until the final score, and maybe for several hours after depending on the injustice of the sports gods.
  4. Keep earplugs nearby in case of excessive screaming over a bad call by a vision-impaired referee.
  5. Become engrossed in a good book set in a land devoid of all competitive activities but that still offers a compelling plot line. (No Hunger Games, in other words)
  6. Sneak in a nap during halftime while fans are mumbling about strategy behind closed doors.
  7. Above all (and this is most important) always remove yourself from the premises during the last “five” minutes of the game, which could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.
  8. Return for happy hour or unhappy hour, depending on the fates.
  9. Next Saturday: Do it all over again.

The State of My Union

Uh oh. Is that yellow snow I see?

This one’s personal, not political. I got to thinking earlier this week about the benefits of reviewing “the messes I get myself into,” otherwise known as my path. I believe it is prudent to be accountable every so often, to see whether life as I know it still works. For me and everyone else.

The Castle. Also called the Hair Palace. We’re down to a cat and a dog as our four-legged companions. (For the well-meaning — no, we do not want any more roommates right now, thank you.) With all my spare time and lovely empty space, you’d think the place would be spotless. Fail. I blame it on excessive shedding: mine, pets, and squirrels. Unfortunately, daily schedules don’t work for me. Only complete vacuum anarchy imposed by my spouse.

Mother Nature. Where others see only unemployment and stagnation, I’m digging the chance to stay home and watch the cold beauty of winter from my (relatively) warm kitchen. As long as I overlook all the yellow snow in the backyard. From the dog. (Why am I still hearing Zappa in my head?)

Art. Okay, those who know me, please don’t tell my mother. Yet. My mom and I have had a lifelong struggle over the making of art, to create or not to create. To keep or not to keep. She was an oil painter, I was a jack-of-all-trades, and guess what, my daughter lives and breathes art, starting from the moment she could hold a crayon. These days, I can only “do” art when it pleases me. And as long as I don’t become the pack mule of art supplies that I used to be, I’m happy to give it room on my plate. It may or may not appear on this blog in the future.

Hobbies. Dare I say it? A simpler life is opening the door to old pastimes. The new twist is that I can commit and be held accountable to online communities who encourage delicious projects in knitting, photography, writing and journaling. Maybe even cooking, but I could be pushing my luck there. Again, as long as I don’t rush out and buy the latest crafty gadget or gizmo, I can still be a minimalist and a hobbyist, mostly with what I already own. More on these in upcoming posts.

Facebook. It seems there’s been a lot of deleting and deactivating going on in the blogosphere. I’m keeping my account because a) it is private and b) less than 100 friends. And I know all of them, from one part of my life or another. I don’t chat. I don’t play games. (Sound like a lot of fun, don’t I?) I keep my wall posts down to one or less a day. And I’ve shut off most email notifications to control my clicking addiction.

Facebook (Again). For me, this social scene is worth every annoying privacy breach blocked, if only for the connections I’ve made with old friends who have been missing in action over the years. In some cases, we’ve reunited right before a major event in our lives, when we need each other the most. There will be follow-ups through phone calls, greeting cards and visits, but I can’t ignore the online synchronicities.

Astrology. I know, everybody’s been asking. If this is some astronomer’s idea of a joke, then I think they better revisit the whole Pluto debacle, too. My answer is that the shift in the constellations has been known since the first century and the old zodiac won’t work with 13 signs. I’m just amazed at how many folks who don’t believe in this stuff get all riled up when they aren’t Scorpios or other signs anymore. Maybe if Ophiuchus was the “football-bearer” instead of messing about with snakes, he would be better received.

That’s probably enough from my state of mind. If you’ve hung on this long, I thank you and promise fermented libations when you next see me. For those lost along the way, I can only hope they gleaned something useful and took it back to their own lives and communities.

Just remember: we’re all in this together.

A Minimalist Moment: What Do You Give A Minimalist?

Every few months my mother asks me the following: Do you want the ________ that was great-great-________’s? (Fill in the blanks with an assorted array of dishware, spoons, nicknacks and relatives.)

And my answer?

Well, there is a reason why, when my mother visits, she marvels at the empty space in my house.

I’m pretty much over the guilt-in-refusal tactic, but the lady is persistent. I guess my mom thinks she’ll catch me at a weak moment. For the record I have accepted well-loved heirlooms and hand-selected oddities over the years. I enjoy them for a while — and then return them so another relative can have a chance. (Cough)

Her latest offering of monogramed silver plate has prompted me to imagine how difficult it must be to pass along the ancestral hoard to a minimalist in the family. The good news is that, as far as I know, I’m the only one. The bad news is that I’m the only “girl” as my mother would say, and the last possible depository for certain categories like jewelry and similar girly stuff.

There are those out there who would label me an ungrateful wretch, that I should count my blessings there is evidence of my family’s rich history, that it wasn’t destroyed by war or sold for food. (Actually, some of it was, but we don’t know what, so we can’t whine over specifics. Just in general.)

While I certainly understand this point of view, I have also been burned by dragging “priceless” or “antique” treasures through many moves, afraid to sell or give them away because I might incur the wrath of the ancestors.

Believe me. I had no illusions that I was going to end up on the highlights of the Antiques Road Show with any of the family artifacts. But I learned the hard way that beauty (and worth) is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes, there’s a reason why that interesting bed pan of great-aunt Ethel’s or the frighteningly ornate armoire from the Transylvania side is moving on down the family line.

Are any of you having a vision of the Petrie family brooch from The Dick Van Dyke Show? If you’ve never seen “The Curse of the Petrie People” check it out on Hulu (Season 5, Episode 18).

Let’s face it: All the valuable stuff has been sold long ago for food. Or land. Or passage over to a new land. What remains are remnants that hold sentimental value. And if you are not particularly sentimental, then you’re an odd duck. And one of those ungrateful relatives.

What do I value? Family photo albums full (unfortunately) of unknown faces since most of this information has been taken to the grave. My family is reduced to sitting around the table after a holiday meal making educated guesses.

And the most important treasure I keep? When I walked through my grandmother’s house for the last time, I was told to take whatever I wanted, whatever was important to me.

I came out empty-handed.

I already had everything I needed. The gift of memories.

What Little I Know…

is probably enough. Enough to realize that I know nothing. All the best-laid plans based on the soundest of information can go awry in a second. This happy suburban life can crumble with one sure, swift kick in the right place.

That said, the daily uncertainty is also what makes life interesting. It’s just that never knowing (or understanding) what awaits you when you wake up is how I spent my childhood.

Every morning revealed a new plan according to the whims of my parents. One day we would be off to look at their latest real estate prospect (some old wreck of a farm a la Green Acres), and the next, taking a quick trip up to New Jersey for a flat or two of blueberries.

Much of the routine was determined by weather, or the lack of it. Sunny growing seasons brought long, grueling days with late night dinners, but the dark, dreary winters demanded hours of doing nothing but eating, sitting by the stove and weaving dreams for future mirages that could change by the hour.

There are those who say “How wonderful that your parents were so spontaneous!” and I agree. It was, until that particular family trait became relentless and exhausting to a child who wanted everyone to be happy, and tried to people-please as a result. The constant shifting of my future well-being led me to find refuge in regular school schedules and visits with my conventional and steady grandparents.

When I reached adulthood, I sought the status quo at all costs. I thought that predicting every day would make me happy. It did not.

Surprise — those “spontaneity” genes I’d inherited kicked in and determined my days boring and lackluster. In response, I’d either blow things up or swerve wildly off the orderly path. Regular 9-to-5 jobs never worked out. Only parenthood kept me steady, and once again the school schedules gave me a time limit to all my ramblings and mental detours.

Recently, I was convinced that I had finally settled down in my old age: empty-nester working a regular part-time job (with a built-in, ever-changing schedule to satisfy those nonconformist cravings), conventional commitments to both church and state, plus a few weird hobbies thrown in for good measure.

And then the economy tanked, taking all those illusions of prosperity and security with it. My husband and I discover that the stable and placid institutions we work for have become roiling seas of fear and discontent. The status quo has taken a nasty turn into a maelstrom of downsizing and layoffs. And what do I find for my life preserver?

Those spontaneity genes again.

I’ve come prepared with the backing of all those sailors, immigrants and crazy entrepreneurs who sit in my family tree–from the ancestor who came over in the early 1900’s just to ride a motorcycle across the entire US and then go back home to Germany for the rest of his life, to the gutsy generations who fled war-ravaged Europe for another do-over on American soil in the dusk of their lives.

Yes, yes, there’s all that irony business when I realize something I hated as a kid is helping me cope with the present and future storms of life. This is all part of the great ocean of change, and the most I can try for is a balance between the humdrum and the upheaval. I really don’t know what will come and what will go.

But I’m ready for the voyage.

I hope.

What They Don’t Tell You About College Orientation

Letting Go #11:

When the opportunity to participate in our daughter’s college orientation came up we thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to go back and relive our wild youth. Stay in the dorm overnight sharing a twin bed. Sneak out and drink beer. Break curfew. Play our stereos too loud (make that ipods). Hang out in dorm rooms with people we don’t know. Skip breakfast. Share the communal bathrooms. Arrive late to class (make that programs). Do something vaguely illegal. Ah, the college good ol’ days.”

What we got instead, was more of the same stress of preparing the offspring for THE OUTSIDE WORLD. Too many kids, too many nervous and pushy parents, too many rules, too many meetings, too many forms to fill out, too much money–not enough fun. It seems to be a recurring theme in the Y generation’s life experience.

When did the ritual of growing up become such a job? I have to say that the program was well-coordinated and the food was great. The air-conditioned dorm we stayed in was far better than anything my husband and I lived in even during grad school. I tried to have fun, I really did. But it was still a lot of work–even for the slacker parents that we are.

I came home exhausted. Maybe those college memories are way too rose-colored. Maybe my body was better prepared for that environment–back when my thyroid was functioning. Maybe I’ve blotted out all the paperwork and formalities of entering college in 1978. But darn it, I just don’t recall it being this complicated. All I remember is paying the bursar and making up my twin bed (regular size, not “extra long”), and doing my best to avoid the “Kool-aid” at the freshman mixer thoughtfully hosted by the richest frat on campus.

All I know is that this little trip down college memory lane sure wasn’t the wild overnighter that I pictured in my 49-year-old head. Gotta let go of this one in a big way. Let’s face it–nobody wants to see a middle-aged girl gone wild.

The Easter Hunt (Maybe)

Letting Go #7:

Once upon a time we had a little girl who loved to look for jelly beans that her father hid in all sorts of ingenious places in our house the night before Easter. My husband, who loves eggs and candy in all forms, could give the Easter Bunny a run for his money. Year after year, the hunt for the magic beans would take place all over the house on Easter morning, the level of difficulty rising as the child became more skilled at the task. This was no small feat because we have somehow produced a child with an eagle eye and acute attention to detail. (Case in point: At six years old she came home after carpeting was installed, and within five minutes noticed that all the floor heating vents had been covered up and two doors re-hung in the wrong doorways—details that had been overlooked by her mother when she signed off on the job.)

So, it’s safe to say that very few beans were missed—but there were always a couple every year that were up too high for my daughter to see, or camouflaged so well that a chameleon would have been jealous. These orphans came out of hiding many months or years later during a move, or a paint job, or at the end of a trail of ants. Despite the potential for insect invasions, the little mummified discoveries always brought smiles to our faces because they called up fond memories of dyed eggs, fake grass and candy overload.

All was well in the kingdom of candy-induced cavities, until the day when my daughter decided that she was too old for the Easter hunt. She warned us that she would no longer participate in this event, and if the candy was hidden, the beans would just lie there until they (and her parents) became ancient relics. Her old man, however, thought she was just bluffing, and disappeared into the bowels of the house late Saturday night. The next day, when she noticed that the empty Easter basket was ready to go, our no-longer-little girl stomped back into her room and shut the door.

Oops. . . . Her father quickly and quietly gathered all the offending orbs from their clever and artistic hiding places and tucked them safely away in the cupboard. I don’t believe we even had a basket out that year. Dad and I both learned the hard way that we needed to respect our daughter’s right to grow up. She had given us plenty of hints about this particular development, and it was our fault that we didn’t listen, that we insisted on holding tight to her childhood like it was ours.

That was two years ago. My husband, who can’t give up his first childhood, suggested an Easter candy hunt FOR ME. I scoffed it off (I should know better). Sure enough, on my way through the living room last Sunday morning, I thought I saw a glowing pink orb out of the corner of my eye—the Easter Bunny had struck again! And he failed to hide the little smile on his face as I half-heartedly muttered my protests. For the sake of pest control (I proclaimed), I began to look for the hidden beans. Most were easy, but then the quest got challenging. As I explained earlier, I am not the most observant person in the world. (Did I mention that I’m extremely near-sighted, too?) As I bumbled around searching for strays, lo and behold the grown-up daughter appeared and started giving me hints about locating the ones I missed. “You’re getting warmer,” she’d coax when I became discouraged. As I found them, I placed my prizes in the large communal basket in our dining room centerpiece—a good compromise between easy access candy and a nod to the holiday.

What goes around, comes around. I suspect our daughter’s practicing for the Easter hunt she’ll help us with in assisted living, while we grow into our second childhoods.

Our daughter and the Easter Bunny (in earlier days)
Our daughter and the Easter Bunny (in earlier days)

Trying to Get EVERYONE to Like Me

Letting Go #4:

First of all, I want to thank everyone who likes me—for liking me. “Like” is not to be confused with the elementary school (heck, maybe it’s preschool by now) criteria for becoming a boyfriend or girlfriend. (Example: Subject #1 sends a BFF messenger to Subject #2 to say that he or she “likes” him or her, and wants to go out—providing their moms can drive them to the play date). No. What I’m talking about is general affection and friendship which can include love in all its forms.

Second, I would like to apologize to all the people who like me—for ignoring them while I spend all my waking hours trying to get unapproachable or messed up people to give me the hint of a sign that they might acknowledge and/or accept my presence in the room. It’s like I’ve signed up for the Marathon of Hopeless Causes in Friendship and I’m determined to come in first. But no matter what happens—I always leave a loser. Maybe I’m ambitious—I want the gold medal in connecting well with people. Maybe I want to be popular (although that became a hopeless cause in puberty). Maybe it’s a way for me to pretend that everyone will always respond in a friendly manner to me when I give them a kind smile and a little encouragement. Unfortunately, in today’s stressed-out, crazy world, this is often an invitation for people to dump all their bad moods, hang ups, prejudices, jealousies, karma and just plain sadism onto me. Often hit and run. And then I spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing and reanalyzing WHAT WENT WRONG.

Why don’t they like me? (Me thinks I have too much time on my hands so I play this game in my head.) I seem to spend most of my obsessing on complete strangers. I worry over many little nuggets of rejection: Why did that person honk at me? Why wouldn’t the cashier talk to me? Why won’t the neighbors’ abused and dysfunctional Great Danes stop viciously lunging at me? (Yep, I’m afraid to say that my liking issues include unfriendly animals, too.) I’ve had many unfriendly incidents with public servants at the post office, bureau of motor vehicles and library. Well, now that I’m a public servant myself, and have friends who are public servants, I’m beginning to see that trying to get people to like me can have dire consequences in the public sector. Using my farm background as an analogy, you don’t want to be waving ANYTHING (regardless of whether it’s red or not) in front of an angry dairy bull. Even if it’s a friendly wave with a kind smile. In other words, there may be a very good reason why individuals are giving off the “don’t come near me and don’t you even try to be all friendly” vibes. They are warning you to stay away for your own mental health and personal safety. And, there are times when one kind word will win you a friend for life with someone who is very unstable (which may shorten your life immediately).

These days I mumble the following phrase like a mantra: Don’t take it personally! This is rapidly becoming my favorite slogan as I try to control those frisky hormones during my “second puberty” menopausal honeymoon. Right now I take everything personally. But luckily, it’s more like “how dare you—you *******!” when I’m cut off in traffic, rather than the “oh gosh, that’s okay—maybe this happened for a reason” attitude from the old perimenopausal days. While my big dramas were always with a boyfriend’s rejection when I was young, now it’s the rejection from other women that cuts me the deepest. I suppose it’s because I didn’t grow up with sisters. Men are easier to understand for me, but women—a whole other story. Whoever it is, I’m learning to come to terms with the knowledge that not everyone wants to be my friend, or even wants to be friendly. And that’s okay.

So, the next time my Facebook invitation is ignored, I will graciously mutter my mantra under my breath—and go Twitter someone who really likes me.