The Just-In-Case Blues

I’m still here. Despite the worst case scenarios of my all too rich imagination (and rabid social media), I haven’t succumbed to plague or pestilence. I’ve yet to be abducted by aliens, perish in an imminent ice age, or hit by a meteor. Despite this summer’s 100-year drought, my family still has plenty of water to drink and wash in. I continue to fill up my car’s gas tank and go to the store to buy out-of-season fruits and vegetables.

Truthfully, I am very fortunate that most of my forebodings have not come to pass. And now I must face the deepest of my hoarder-survivor-off-the-grid-bomb-shelter-apocalypse fears and get rid of safety nets.

This includes the above. What you see is an artistic shot of a Lodge cast iron dutch oven, the vessel I thought would save our lives. For over a decade it has resided on the hearth of various fireplaces, waiting for the day a lack of electricity would render our kitchen stove useless, and we could gather round a smoking wood fire like our caveman ancestors to heat up a can of soup.

I always envisioned how this humble caldron with a badly fitting lid would help us live another day in the great blizzard of the new millennium. Except that we are still waiting, and the cast iron of my preparedness has sat in the garage rusting for the last few years, a victim to spontaneous purge.

Or maybe I was just sick of dusting it.

Anyway, it has been polished up to look its best for the trip to Goodwill. Along with the last of the off-gassing Tupperware containers, some castoff clothing from my adult daughter’s youth, extra wood shims left without support, and an odd number of custard cups.

I can’t imagine how thrilled the good folks at my favorite charity will be.

So what will I store for the coming harsh winter and the Mayan end of times? Just take a look at these babies:

We may be doomed, but at least I’ll have green tomatoes.

Harry Potter Meets the Buddha

I spent a weekend at a women’s retreat and ended up sleeping under the stairs. (That’s the short version.)

It was love at first sight, that little cubby hidden behind the steps. You could have missed it. You could have dismissed it as a closet.

But the door stood open wide, light shining out in welcome, and tucked underneath the diagonal slash of stairwell was a comfy twin bed made up of old quilts and soft mismatched pillows.

I felt pulled into its spell even as I ducked my head to look at the rest. Space enough for a chair and dresser, not to mention a bedside table to hold the day’s pocketful of healing and peace.

Enough, and more. I knew I had to sleep there, under the soft footfalls of a great group of women practicing their nightly bedtime rituals.

I didn’t notice my roommate until the dark came, when hallway beams shone in through a timber teepee cut above my head. There he was, perched between reality and dreams, the long wisdom of his earlobes comforting me into quiet reflection.

I can’t help thinking Harry would have been a lot happier if an enlightened being shared his cupboard.

Resting safe in the knowledge that Buddha got your back.

Photo Friday: Dining Alone

This year I’ve decided to join the 365 Project on Flickr. There are many variations, but the main goal is to take one photo a day for 2011. As usual, I was a late starter, beginning on the 20th of January (I’m always wary of commitment). And I worried that I would run out of ideas. But, so far I’ve enjoyed the discipline while paying attention to the everyday beauty around me — yes, even in the suburbs.

So, I thought I’d start posting a photo every Friday, a tasty bit from my week of daily photos. This week, I’m focusing on the simplicity of my seldom-used dining room. It consists of a table (covered by a tablecloth to prevent my cat from carving his initials in the top), four chairs and a bench against the wall for setting aside extra dishes at a meal. As you can see, there are no stacks of papers, mail catalogs, sewing projects or jigsaw puzzles cluttering the surfaces.

The only decoration needed is a candle in a hurricane holder (with fingerprints), and the play of afternoon sunlight, free of charge.

Until next Friday. . . .

A Minimalist Moment: The Tannenbaum Tango

Our tree in its younger days.

What did you do on Black Friday? Were you hunkered down in lines outside superstores during the wee hours? Driving from mall to mall to check for any lingering unbelievable steals? Sleeping in because you blacked out on tryptophan? Or were you up in the attic untangling a mass of Christmas lights?

At my house, the day after Thanksgiving was spent setting up our ten-year-old artificial Christmas tree before my daughter went back to school. After growing up in a family nursery where cut evergreens provided a major source of winter income, and years of loyally spending big bucks on tree farms and garden centers in the midwest, I went rogue and bought our one (and probably only) artificial tree in 2000.

The purchase would be viewed as sacrilege by environmentalists and extended family alike, but I figured that since we were going the fake route, why not take it all the way with a decidedly unnatural but beautiful white tree full of gold, silver and purple ornaments with beaded garland. For nine years, this work of art has sparkled in front of our living room window, adding to the decorations outside (strings of blue LED lights).

This year, however, when we pulled out the pre-lit tiers of branches with color codes matching the center pole (no easy hinges on this baby), my husband, daughter and I could no longer deny that the formerly pristine “needles” had browned to a dingy gold. And so, after this Christmas, our one artificial guilty pleasure will be retired.

Which leads to the question of its replacement. Or not. In the quest to conquer clutter in my life, all but the Christmas stash has been ransacked. And now, I have to address the white elephant, or should I say snowman, in the room. (And yes, it includes the Frosty collection that has snowballed over the years.)

This past Friday, already on a roll from decorating the tree, we decided to go ahead and put up all the decorations. And, there was simply not enough room at the inn for snow people, or snow globes, or even the manger. My diligence in purging furniture has led to a holiday housing shortfall. Too many festive guests, so somebody will have to move on to the Island of Misfit Toys (or Goodwill).

Picking out who goes will be difficult, kind of like choosing your favorite puppy from an adorable litter. The stockings will never leave, nor the little wire tabletop tree with blinking lights that my daughter named “Timmy” one year for some reason. Ornaments sporting the big orange T’s of my husband’s favorite team won’t be heading out any time soon, despite a less than stellar football season. The herd of tiny plastic reindeer, with nearly all its fake fur loved off, has already made the trip back to the dorm.

As for our largest symbol of the holidays, both ancient and modern, I’m thinking of taking a sneaky detour from the whole fake vs. real dilemma. I’ve got my eye on one of those old-fashioned feather trees for next year. Made out of genuine wood and fowl and not some cheap plastic imitation, it is still the antique version of an artificial Christmas tree. I’ll think of it as a piece of seasonal furniture that you can take apart and put away after the big twelve days.

Or, I can probably turn it into a handy stool for the rest of the year.

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.

A Minimalist Moment: Taking on the “100 Thing Challenge”

My unending quest towards minimalism and the state of less has led me to one of the most influential leaders in this movement. Whether intentionally or not, Dave Bruno of The 100 Thing Challenge phenomenon laid the gauntlet down for minimalists everywhere to take stock of their belongings, set a limit to those items and try to live with that number for a certain period of time without accumulating more.

Yes, that’s right. He asks you to list every single thing you own, or at least attempt it. As you look around your humble abode, you may be thinking “What the? That’s a recipe for insanity!”

So, of course I had to try this exercise.

Dave does provide some rules to keep frustration and suicidal tendencies at bay. For him, the experiment lasted one year and he gave himself permission to bend or break the rules as needed. As a family man, he only counted items that he personally owned, leaving out all the furnishings and household goods he shared with the wife and kids.

He also groups pesky multiples like socks and undies as one item, and techie items include their accessories. Books and collections may or may not be counted as one. Obviously, he encourages participants to create rules based on their own situations, which has prompted critics to point out whether a game with self-enforced refereeing constitutes a challenge.

Of course, the location-independent minimal extremists have taken it to a whole new level, pushing themselves to 75 or even 50 items on their microscopic lists of worldly possessions.

As for me? As a middle-aged boomer with a house and a husband and too many pets, my personal list comes to around 150, which includes a car and a ukulele. It does not include an extensive CD collection which is slowly becoming digitalized, or an accurate count of my paperclips and staples.

And, no, I will NOT list all 150 items on this blog. (I’ll wait until I’m down to 114.) And, yes, I have every intention of shrinking this list rather than growing it. For every item added, I will let go of one (or more) possessions.

Anyway, I think the anal among us (of which I am a card-carrying member) miss the point of Dave Bruno’s idea. It’s not about creating the world’s smallest or most essential list. He’s asking you to take responsibility for your stuff by making a list, and to physically write it down for you and/or all the world to see–and to acknowledge his three R’s:

Reduce (get rid of some of your stuff)

Refuse (to get more new stuff)

Rejigger (your priorities)

For me, this literal writing of a list was a pain in the patootie, and an excellent opportunity to really “feel” the amount of my stuff as I wrote it out by hand. I could even pause in my practice to purge something that wasn’t worth adding to the list.

And sometimes my hand refused to write an item down. (Ooooh, creepy, is it not?)

I, for one, think that everyone should give Dave Bruno’s 100 Thing Challenge, and anti-accumulation, a chance.

Want more? Check out my other Minimalist Moments:

Traveling Light

Organization–Do You Need It?

Hobbling the Hobbies

War of the Squirrels

I’m a nature lover. I feed the birds, stop for deer crossing the road, and look the other way when the rabbits wipe out my moss rose. Yes, I’m one of those soft-hearted, wimpy souls who can’t stand to kill anything that has invaded the house, but instead captures said varmint in a humane trap and then drives it all over creation looking for a nice spot to drop the little dickens off — so it will become someone else’s problem.

Yeah, I’m one of those.

Until now.

It’s because of the squirrels. Those bad, bad squirrels.

I don’t know what I said to tick them off. I don’t know what I did, but it must have been a doozy. Maybe it was some past-life fetish I indulged in that required squirrel appetizers. Or maybe I showed off one too many squirrel-fur collars on my coat in another century.

All I do know is that the unfortunate squirrel karma started up recently. Up to now, the squirrel kind and I had no quarrels in my present life. All that changed when I glanced out my kitchen window the other day, and saw my finch feeder lying on the ground. That isn’t a surprise, because it’s hung low on a fence within easy access to squirrels and raccoons, and they like to goof around with the feeders from time to time. And that’s okay with me as long as the little buggers don’t carry them off into the woods for target practice or illegal squirrel purposes.

See, I’m a tolerant suburbanite.

But when I walked out and picked up the feeding tube, I found to my horror huge gaping holes had been gnawed into the plastic, and a whole container of high quality (and extremely expensive, I might add) thistle seed had been dumped in a big pile on the ground, to the disdain of the chickadees who wouldn’t lower themselves to that level, literally.

Now I wish I’d taken a picture — but it would just make me mad all over again every time I looked at it. Several of the holes were at least four inches wide, and obviously took some time to chisel out. Why on earth, after all these years, would they go after bird food that they apparently didn’t even want to stuff into their little greedy cheek bags?

Or am I thinking of chipmunks?

Anyway, it was the last straw for me. I’ve taken down all but the most difficult-to-reach feeder, which is a piece of rusty junk, anyway. And when that one’s vandalized, I will replace it with one sporting all the qualities of Fort Knox . . . for birds . . . preferably with long iron spikes and a drawbridge.

The one good thing to come out of this? I’ve downsized my bird-feeding equipment to one battered tube feeder and a basket of suet.

It’s certainly one way to achieve the simple life in the suburbs. It’s getting squirrelly out here.

Goodwill Hauling

Almost every week I make an entrance into the small Goodwill outlet near my grocery store, loaded down with goodies like Santa Claus. As the door buzzer rings out, one of the two Goodwill ladies pops out, looks my way — and smiles in recognition.

Yep, in my quest for the simple life, I’ve become a Goodwill regular. I’ve entered the place where everyone knows my face (and my stuff). And, I’m proud of it.

I’ve been hauling to the good place for, well, forever. Every time I get upset, I purge. Needless to say, I’ve gotten upset a lot over the years, and Goodwill is one of the institutions which has benefitted from my dysfunctional life and my feeble attempt to control the world. Luckily, I’ve married a natural-born minimalist who doesn’t mind my expurgation rampages, and given birth to a tolerant young woman who lets me be all “OCD” on her. I’m also very respectful of other people’s stuff (i.e., I ask first).

When we moved to Indiana, I was overjoyed to find drive-through Goodwill stores. Oh, the easy rush of convenient drop-off purging is so addictive! I get a quick shot of that wonderful lightness of being without having to get out of my car (but I do, it’s only polite). Although my current store doesn’t have a drive-through, I can still practice the more deliberate and mindful ritual of parking curbside and walking my crap into the sanctuary of riddance.

I suppose the time will come when I can no longer find any “thing” to take to the Goodwill. Perhaps they will evolve into depositories for more ethereal baggage like bad habits or psychoses? My husband often worries aloud that one day he will be deposited in the car for a quick trip to Goodwill when he no longer serves a purpose. And the cat looks kinda nervous when the donation bags show up by the garage door. Who’s next?

But I digress.

Until that fateful day when I’m down to nothing but the clothes on my back and a prayer, I will continue to enjoy the donation high I get every time I walk into the Goodwill store.

Where there’s stuff, there’s hope.

New Year, New Theme

After much soul searching, and–okay, just plain goofing off–I’ve finally chosen my theme for this year. I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions which I tend to break as soon as possible. In fact, I’m proud to say I’ve set up and ignored about five million schedules and lists of good intentions during my nearly half-century of existence.

No, my theme isn’t really a goal as much as it is a perspective, or a frame to view the world. It’s also a way of life that I’ve flirted with since I was a kid. In this complicated life, full of utility bill deadlines, crazy commutes, dental appointments and emergency trips to the convenience store, I have a longing for (get ready) SIMPLE.

SIMPLE is not “suburban.” How’s that for an obvious statement? But wait a minute! Where do I live? Hmmmm. Yes, I do believe I live in suburbia–a more practical, middle-class, midwestern suburbia, but one that qualifies, nonetheless.

And I’m afraid I would be classified as a card-carrying suburbanite. Mind you, I never got the hang of play groups and hyperventilate at the thought of hauling multiples of screaming children to soccer practice, but I do have to drive everywhere, and confess to occasional forays into retail therapy at Target and Home Depot. Oh, and I do like my wireless internet and cable TV.

I admit I was a willing but disappointed participant in our move from the country life seven years ago, after being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Things were simpler in the country, but I had more stuff to maintain. Now I have a lot less stuff, but find my interactions with the outside world a bit overwhelming. All I ask is a happy medium.

So this year, I’m focused on simplifying the life that I’ve already started to declutter in my “letting go” phase of last year. I’ve been scouring the organization books, and immersing myself in the minimalism blogs. These are useful sources but also a marvelous delay tactic. During this year, I will hold myself to implementing the gems of wisdom I’ve squirreled away. Drawing from my own life experiences, I may have a few unique (or crazy) ideas that I’ll try to pass along–although are there any more original thoughts left in the universe?

All in all, I hope to untangle the knots of a complicated modern life without flatlining myself.

Simple, right?