The Kindness of Strangers

Homeward bound.
Homeward bound.

I was traveling at the beginning of the new regime. On Inauguration Day, I witnessed the protests at a different statehouse, one that had defended slavery and bore the marks of a broken nation. On Saturday during the Women’s Marches, I walked the red clay trails of a state park, marching with all in spirit. On Sunday, we arrived in New Orleans for a much-needed vacation from the burdens of a country already spinning out of control, and found ourselves in an emergency room.

My husband became very ill with a bad infection on the 8-hour drive, and so we checked into our hotel and headed straight to the nearest emergency room. What followed were three days of uncertainty and fear in a strange city where we’d never been before and knew no one. Three days of an endless stream of nurses and doctors and housekeepers and aides who spoke in odd accents, from all walks of life and every corner of the globe, with compassion in their eyes and caring in their hearts. Three days of hearing and seeing the city’s poorest and sickest soothed and treated along the ER bays and hospital wards. Three days of witnessing what the world is like from outside my comfortable little box. Three days of relying on the kindness of strangers.

After spending our entire stay in The Big Easy living moment to moment, the drug-resistant infection finally turned a corner and we were cleared to go home on a beautiful spring-like morning that the natives thought unseasonably cold. Everyone on the staff shook our hands and told us how sorry they were that we never got a chance to see the real New Orleans, to taste her food, hear her music, savor her spirit. They told us to come back and give their fair city another chance.

And we will. But I feel like we’ve already experienced her soul without ever setting foot on Bourbon Street.

The Downsizing Dozen: Shifting Into Single Gear

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One of the major changes we’ve made in the last ten months, much to the shock and dismay of friends and family, is to pare down to one car. That’s right, when the third resident of our apartment moved out earlier this month, she took one of our cars with her. And with it went the fuel expenses, insurance rates, repair bills, registration fees, and that reassuring sense of independence that the second vehicle provides.

We had already transferred ownership last year, but the second car was still available to us as a backup. Since my daughter was born, the second vehicle was usually assigned as my main mode of transport, and our newer “travel” autos were taken by my husband for his longer, and daily, commutes.

When my old car finally drove away to greener pastures, we heaved a sigh of collective relief that our offspring had a dependable way to get to work, but the reality of what we would be giving up finally smacked us in the rear bumper:

  1. Making appointments without checking with each other constantly.
  2. Use of an alternate when one car is in for repairs.
  3. Something to follow and pick us up in at the auto repair shop (see above).
  4. Another vehicle to haul an overflow of extra people, or stuff.
  5. Driving downtown to meet the other for an impromptu meal or a wild hair.

Well, you get the idea. None of these are deal breakers, and since we both work from home now, neither of us is left without transportation for very long. Plus, we can better afford to maintain our single vehicle and pamper it in a nice garage, instead of leaving two out in the cold (and hail).

As our first full year of downsizing looms closer, we hope to continue our monogamous vehicular affair for the foreseeable future on the roads ahead. After all, we’ve already driven off the cliffs of suburban conformity, so why slow down now?

Once a month for the next twelve, I’ll feature another step in the downsizing journey that didn’t just begin when we sold our suburban house and moved to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014. This shift to a simpler life has been years in the making, and I hope you’ll join me in my family’s quest to get down to basics. 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, and Travel Time in March.

The Downsizing Dozen: Travel Time

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Bougainvillea, honeybells and manatees greeted me on my first trip to sunny Florida, where I discovered that most of my relatives have either retired or vacation on the Atlantic side. This year my spouse and I were determined not to spend another winter like the last one. And confident that our little apartment would be safe in management’s competent hands, we headed south last month.

Only to become stranded in northern Georgia by one of the worst ice storms I’ve ever seen. Just like last year, we slept in all our clothes by the fireplace, and assured our mortified hosts that we were used to this sort of thing. Twenty-four hours later, the power finally came back on, and we had already given up on a side trip to frigid Myrtle Beach in favor of any terrain that still remained ice-free. We continued our quest southward, cold records breaking as we went, until we finally reached the Florida I’ve always imagined (and temperatures above freezing).

Two years ago, adapting and changing a travel schedule, or prolonging a trip heaven-forbid, would have struck dread in our hearts. We needed to get back to our jobs, or school or dog kennel. Even when we became freelancers a year ago, worry about the power going out or pipes freezing made us afraid to stay away too long from our homeowner responsibilities.

Now, as apartment dwellers we can be confident that however far we roam, and no matter how many detours and weather delays, we will return to salted sidewalks, a clear path to our door, and hopefully a running furnace.

Once a month for the next twelve, I’ll feature another step in the downsizing journey that didn’t just begin when we sold our suburban house and moved to a small walk-up apartment in June of 2014. This shift to a simpler life has been years in the making, and I hope you’ll join me in my family’s quest to get down to basics. 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, and Forgotten Food in February.

Peaks and Valleys

There comes a time when you have to go home, when the cries of birth, death and everything in between become too loud and insistent. An empty chair at the family table is waiting for you. They have set a plate in the usual spot, silver lies engraved with your initials, and a polished glass anticipates their bitter wine.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. By plane or bus, rail if you are lucky. No matter how you cross, there are always mountains blocking the way, and security demanding proof of your existence. Countless miles of fractured farmland and failing towns only slow down the connections to blood and genetics.

You were the pioneer. Why is it so hard to understand? Just a generation back they arrived on ships after traveling the world and surviving two World Wars. A whole continent unfurls west of the narrow strip of land where most of your people set claims.

You wanted to see it all for yourself. You headed west.

But you stayed away, and that was the problem.

When they demand your reasons, words drop uselessly to the floor. How can you describe to them what lies beyond the high ridges when they won’t believe in other lives. Perhaps there is safety in numbers, but you refuse to stand in line for an inheritance that never comes.

A life spent waiting for someone else to decide is not for you. You can only promise to return for a visit.

And then you head west again over the generational divide and down into valleys where the flat land spreads like a reaching hand, unfettered by kin or conqueror.

Winds of Reunion

It is windy but warm. We are gathered at an ocean-aqua picnic table by the river, eating Maryland blue crab in all its forms:  steamed and baked and cradled in sauce, the nip of Old Bay still bringing me home. I gaze down the line at the faces of my life — college friends who haven’t collected in this way for twenty years, my husband harboring the new life I’ve built far away, and the daughter who was born near this slow water but whisked away before she could fall under its murky spell.

The conversation blows in all directions, no one directs it, no one shuts the door. We overlook the marina under a cloudless sky, pushing back the looming front of responsibility, loosely moored to our timeless love for one another, knowing that after this banquet of the past and present, we must untie the memories and sail off into choppy waters.

To all of you, have a memorable holiday weekend.

Boxing With Baggage

9 AM and you’d think they were bringing aboard the last of their worldly possessions for passage to the New World. From back of the plane with the rest of economy-class steerage, I can observe the cramming and pummeling of each not-so-tiny bag.

There are desperate tussles at the gate as overly optimistic travelers have woefully underestimated the size of their carry-ons, tearful goodbyes to monstrosities that have no business riding shotgun, and frantic dashes to be the first to reach unclaimed territories in the overheads.

It’s been a while since I’ve flown anywhere, well before full body scans and pat downs that get too darn close to second base. When I last traveled, folks weren’t charged for checked luggage. And yes, as you might expect I had baby dinosaurs eating out of my hand at the terminal’s stone-age petting zoo.

I’m no innocent, though. I dutifully watched all those sound bites of violated passengers on the nightly news and listened to my husband complain about his last business flight when they searched his HAIR. (What’s up with that?)

However, I am unprepared for the amount of physical violence inflicted upon various personal belongings as people stuff their contraband under seats and between wheeled blocks of steel, or completely crush any unwittingly soft item suspected of too much wiggle room.

This is where I thank my lucky stars that I’ve only brought along a little duffle bag borrowed from my spouse, free swag from an ancient sports event displaying the powerful hieroglyphics of corporate-sponsored world domination. But, hey, you can’t beat the price.

No doubt meant for a quick trip to the gym for spinning class and high tea, my little bag offers plenty of room to take on a minimalist’s wardrobe of tees and shorts to last three days of sun, sand and tan, plus a library paperback and enough UV block to slather on post-burn. I wear the same outfit both flying days, but who’s there to notice besides the familiar guy next to me in the same clothes he wore on the first day, too.

Okay, so granted we are heading for a three-day weekend event at the beach where clothing is optional (although required on my part to prevent blinding). But I am so delighted with my one bag that I’d be willing to beat my skivvies on a rock in the nearest drainage ditch than slow myself down on longer trips with enough luggage to make me feel like a pack mule.

After flashbacks of cattle chutes on the family farm, my turn’s next — a fast stroll down the aisle, taking care not to sideswipe the territorial businessmen in first class, ignoring the shrinking outer space of the overhead compartments and worries over which way the wheels need to face. I slide into my window seat, duffle neatly tucked under the seat. Turn off the phone, pull out the paperback, and I’m ready to stare at the scenic vista of an MD-80 wing with a little too much rust on the flaps for my liking.

About a week later, everyone is finally packed in like fully booked sardines, having disobeyed all instructions of what to do with their appendages, electronics and tray tables. Overheated children are kicking up a roar louder than the engines when the first of many overhead bins bursts open like coffins of the undead in a cheap horror flick. Frustrated flight attendants scramble to stop the avalanche before they have to start their luggage Jenga game all over again.

And this is just the first connecting flight.

Almost enough to tempt a skinflint minimalist like me to cough up the cash for a Bloody Mary.

Here’s to friendlier skies.

A Minimalist Moment: Traveling Light

One of the big advantages to a minimal life is easy prep for travel. It seems like I used to take years to get ready to go on vacation. Of course, family pet attrition has been a big factor. I used to dread dragging out the feeders and water dispensers, fortifying the litter boxes, writing instructions to the cat sitter, wrapping the house in plastic, and taking out all the batteries in the smoke alarms–oh, yes. One trip we pulled in the driveway only to hear a piercing wail from a defective alarm entertaining all the cats inside. No telling how long it had been going off. I don’t think they were ever the same after that.

Life is simple now: one dog off to the kennel, one cat who is mostly trustworthy and can only fight with himself, and one piece of luggage.

ONE PIECE OF LUGGAGE, you say?

Yep, size depending on length of excursion. Okay, I cheat a little sometimes by fitting bulky shoes in a grocery bag along with the hats and rain gear. But the limited space is a worthy challenge for me. I long ago realized that I have a tendency to over-pack and never wear half of my items. The unnecessary stuff would come home clean but wrinkled.

Over the years I have gradually weaned myself from the fully equipped set of luggage that I presumed every gal-about-town and savvy seasoned traveler needed to conquer the world. I went from an overnight bag, carry-on and large check-in suitcase to just the overnight and carry-on, to just the carry-on and a backpack for my 10 days in Europe, to just the carry-on for most trips or a messenger bag for weekends.

Then there is the easing of my obsessive compulsive crucial 15 minutes of take-off on a trip. I learned a little too well from my OCD mother who would sit in the car in rigid concentration, silently running through her mental checklist of unattended disasters waiting to happen. This is after she ran in to check the stove 43 times and re-locked in proper sequence the series of deadbolts on the backdoor to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

If you would challenge her on this behavior, she always cited the time when my brother DID actually leave the water running in the cow trough when we were already 500 miles away and the neighbor had to go shut it off—catastrophic tsunami narrowly averted.

This is part of the reason why my parents do not travel—not to mention the hassle of dragging out all those feeders and waterers for the livestock.

I, on the other hand, have forced myself to only check the stove about 27 times, and assure myself roughly 6 times that the toilet isn’t running before I go. After my fifteen minutes and my husband flooring the accelerator for a fast exit, I figure there’s nothing I can do about it, and go through my zen travel stage of acceptance. What happens, happens.

Welcome, my friends, to the joys of traveling light. It’s getting better all the time, as the Beatles would say.

Wait.

Is the cat still in the closet?

Want More? Check out my other Minimalist Moments:

Organization — Do You Need It?

Hobbling the Hobbies

Out of the Closet