Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Surprise Gifts in Simplifying, Part II (Conclusion)

Tomorrow at dawn we will leave New England for our new home in Florida. Our car is packed;  boxes, bike, and drums have been shipped ahead. My husband, Lacey (our toy poodle) and I are ready to say good-bye to the home in which we came together as a little family rather late in all our lives, and embark on a new journey.

What started out as a project to declutter my home has become a total revamping of my life. I’ve traded my cramped and overly-furnished home for one that is smaller but simple and restful, devoid of a lifetime’s worth of books and assorted collectibles. We’ve given away all the things we don’t need or can’t use, and are headed for a little villa on the coast where the weather is sunny and mild, and the vistas pleasing. We’re ready to live less encumbered, giving to the world and being supported by it in the ways we enjoy most, embodying “The Power of Less.”

I will have with me only what I need, and be doing only what feels right, I’ll be kayaking the mangrove swamps instead of surfing the Internet, taking long walks instead of constantly checking my e-mail, sitting at my harp more and at my computer less.

I’ll still check my e-mail daily, because remaining connected to people is crucially important to me, and I will continue to follow the people who inspire me, online and in print. In two weeks I will begin an on-line training program in harp therapy (IHTP), combining my love for music and healing work, something I have wanted to do for twenty years but didn’t have space in my life for, until now.

 I have identified what is essential to my life: time with my husband, time with family and friends (whom I’ll continue to see), and some time alone, doing the things I have longed to do and of which I have done too little. My top-priority list is short: 
  1. Health.
  2. Husband.
  3. Harp.
Clearing the clutter has allowed me to see that it all comes down to how I want to spend time, so precious and unpredictable, the currency of life itself. My husband and our health, and music – the stuff of our fulfillment, peace, and joy – are my priorities. 

As we are doing now, my book has taken flight, moving on into the wider universe. I hope it will continue to make its way to people who will find something in it they can use or enjoy. I hope readers will continue to recommend and share it – and when they look at its cover image of quiet beach and blue sky, they will see my life as it is now. Serene.

Today, life is good, and full of hope and promise. I deeply and truly wish that your life, too, be and continue to become what you want it to be. 



Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Surprise Gifts in Simplifying, Part I (#10 of 11)

Simplifying, the third principle in Leo Babauta’s “The Power of Less”, demands a certain amount of letting go – of “stuff” that serves no useful or important purpose, of plans and activities that waste time and energy, of things that are no longer necessary. 

Unfortunately, doing only that isn’t always enough. To really pare down to the essential, sometimes a major shift is required: retiring (as in my case) or leaving a job we love because our health has declined, moving away to be closer to a loved one who needs us, dropping out of clubs and activities in order to focus more on the things that matter most, the things that are essential.
“Focus” is Mr. Babauta’s fourth principle, and my focus is shifting to my health and serenity in this, the eighth decade of my life. I feel lighter for having made the decision to retire and to move away from the harsh New England winters I’ve known all my life. It didn’t come easily, giving up so much of what I’ve loved and worked so hard for, but I’m ready. Saying good-bye to my home and my neighborhood, knowing I won’t see the people I love as often, threatens to break my heart. We’ve promised each other we’ll travel to spend long, lovely visits together, and to keep in frequent touch via phone and the Internet. I am so grateful for the Internet!

On the last evening we were in Florida, before coming North to sell our home, my husband and I dined on a deck overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. We talked about the nine years we have been together, recalling how sick I was when we met, how we hadn’t been able to fully enjoy our grandchildren when they were little because I was so ill and so dedicated to my work, and he so intent on taking care of me and getting me stronger.

Afterward we took a walk on the boardwalk to the beach, down by the jetty, and stood on the sand, facing West. The sun was low in a puffy blue sky, and the surf softly lapped at the shore. We held hands.

“Look,” I said to him in wonderment, “it’s the cover of my book. Serenity. And we live here now. The picture has become our reality!”

We watched the fiery disc sink to the horizon, touch its own reflection and become larger as it sank into the sea, leaving a blazing trail of red, orange, pink and purple streaks across the darkening blue. 

I squeezed his hand and kissed him. “We live here now,” I marveled again.

Now that I’m well enough, we can finally enjoy the the time together that remains, doing the things we love most. We can’t know how long it will last, but we can make the most of every day.

(To be concluded next week.)  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Unutterable Lightness of Decluttering (#9 of 11)

Now that I’m somewhat recovered from the binge of exceeding my limits which I wrote about last week, I’m having a wonderful time with this surprisingly joyful project. Every time I realize there’s something I no longer need, especially if it’s something that consumes a lot of space, I feel a sense of victory over the belongings that have taken over my life.
My husband and I are longing to settle into the tidy little villa in Florida. Our newly decluttered and repainted home in Massachusetts is on the market. We have looked at everything we own and asked ourselves, “Do we really need this? The filing cabinets, the media bench, the floor lamps?” and, equally important, “Where would we put it?” (We voted to keep the media bench, live without the filing cabinets, and we’ll bring only two of the four lamps. We’re donating a lot of our clothes, especially the winter ones.)

We’ve been applying Principle #2 in Mr. Babauta’s book, “Choose what is essential.” We have given away almost all our furniture, including sofas, tables, chairs, a lovely pine desk, and two bookcases. I’ve recycled most of my books, keeping my music books and one bookcase in which to store them. My husband gladly agreed to give up his huge old vibraphone for a new compact one which will be delivered in Florida.

I have two weeks left in which to say good-bye to family and friends, see my doctors for check-ups and a flu shot, and anticipate what lies ahead: time in which to read for pleasure, stitch for relaxation, exercise for health, and meditate to quiet my mind. When we walk out of our old home for the last time, I’ll probably look at how shiny and gorgeous it looks, stripped of all the clutter and polished to please the eye of a prospective buyer, and I may wonder why I decided to give it up.

But only for a moment. I know why, and I’m elated at the prospect of living the simple life in an easier climate, and finally being fully retired. Deciding to move has made the war against clutter easier; we’re just packing the essentials and divesting ourselves of what’s left. 

A famous quote from Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s The Little Prince left me stunned the first time I read it, hand lettered on an original painting that hung in the home of a friend:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Choosing what is essential goes beyond furniture, lamps, books and filing cabinets. It’s about lifestyle. Serenity is my essential goal, intangible, but unmistakable, and literally invisible to the eye.

The serenity will be in the new spaces in my life.

(To be continued next week.)  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Speed Limits . . . . (#8 of 11)

I have run smack dab, headlong into a major obstacle to my downsizing/moving project.

I ran into fibromyalgia, which I sometimes forget that I have.
I usually control the fibro by limiting my activity, eating right, and resting frequently. On “good days,” I feel fine. But one of the symptoms of fibro is forgetfulness, made worse by my age-related memory loss. This combination – feeling fine and having a poor memory – sometimes makes me forget that I have fibromyalgia.

For example, last month a colleague invited me to a job interview with her boss. Forgetting that I’m planning to retire, I said, “Sure!”, jumped into my car and drove forty miles down unfamiliar roads in the near 100 degree Florida heat, forgetting to bring a bottle of drinking water. My friend and I trudged through miles of hospital corridors to the interview, which lasted a long while. Afterward, heading back to the parking lot, I became painfully aware that I had forgotten to bring the cane that I keep in my car.

I had been hired! Spirits high, I did a little shopping on my way home.

Back in the villa at last, exhausted and aching, I collapsed and slept until my husband served dinner, and then I collapsed again.

I spent most of the next few days horizontal, more tired, weak, and internally disrupted than I had in months. I phoned my friend’s boss and explained that I could not accept the job because of the fibromyalgia which I had forgotten I have. 

That was by far not the first time I’d made myself ill. My enthusiasm for new projects and adventures springs eternal, and from time-to-time I over reach my limits, taking on something I used to be able to do very well B.F. (Before Fibro), and forgotten I can no longer do.

Now I am awash in refashioning my home, my professional career, and my lifestyle. At the start, in my enthusiasm, I planned to clear and pack a room a day. Now I’m finding that I am worn out by Noon. Pushing too hard makes me ill, and so, predictably, I’m in a fibro flare-up, wiped out, hurting all over.

The first principle of the art of decluttering, according to Leo Babauta, is: Set Limits. I need to continually remind myself to remember that I have fibromyalgia, and slow down, take my time, set limits to match reality, which is no more than a room a week, at best. 

The short list:
  1. Set limits.
  2. Be realistic.
When I find myself worrying about whether I’ll meet the schedule I’ve set for accomplishing this enormous task, I remind myself . . . I’ll do the best I can, and it will take as long as it takes. The only pressure is what I create for myself, and I must stop doing that. I really, really need to “take it slow.”

And with this realization, The Simple Life begins, as a mindset, an approach to living.

(To be continued next week.)  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Is It Worth the Struggle? (#7 of 11)

Decluttering our home, already a daunting prospect, has now been combined with staging it for the market. It’s a mammoth undertaking, and time is short. This calls for detailed strategizing.
Strategizing can be time consuming, but it really impacts how well a project proceeds once it is put into motion. I’ve found this to be true about most large undertakings – long trips, remodeling jobs, writing. 

I wrestled with the content and purpose of my book far longer (about twenty years) than it took me to finally sit down write it, straight through (fifteen months). 

I mentally remodeled the kitchen, with its terra cotta flooring, compatible counter tops and wall paint colors, comparing paint chips and material samples, for longer (about two months) than the installers spent transforming the kitchen (three days).

When we travel the 1500 miles between the overly furnished home we’re sprucing up to sell and the neat villa we’re gradually moving into, my husband and I plan the route, the stops, and the snacks and clothing we’ll bring along. We’ve learned that planning pays off in a seamless experience once we’re underway.

I enjoy spontaneity, but when faced with a large project and a short deadline, I’m a planner.

So I’ve been reading books on organizing, simplifying, packing and moving. I ordered boxes in four sizes, packing paper and bubble wrap, marking pens and miles of packing tape. In two weeks something called a “Pod” will be delivered to our home and two strong men will come to help us load it. Most of our stuff has gone to charities that have been coming by to pick up our surplus and recycle it. We’ve filled a lot of trash bags. We’re only about halfway through.

My goal is to leave our house neat, polished, and “staged,” as sterile and also inviting as an elegant hotel suite, with only basic furniture and minimal decor. The dining table will be set attractively for two, with place mats and napkins, color-coordinated plates and stemware, tall candles in cut-glass bases, and a tasteful arrangement of really convincing artificial flowers. I never use artificial flowers in my real life, but no one will be there to tend to real flowers. The bed will be made up with an ivory-colored comforter. Matching towels will hang on the towel rack. The closets will be empty.

I am concentrating on Mr. Babuta’s advice:

  1. Identify the essential.
  2. Eliminate the rest.

It sounds easy, but it’s not. I am in a hurry to start living The Simple Life, but this is a tortuous process and can’t be rushed. We leave in four weeks. So much to eliminate, so little time!

I must admit, though, that every time we relinquish something we don’t need, don’t enjoy, or haven’t used, I feel a flash of satisfaction, knowing it brings us closer to our goal. If you’ve been tempted to downsize, I recommend you try it, and let me know how it feels for you!

(To be continued next week.)  

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Low Road’s the Right Road for Me (#6 of 11)

After working for sixty years, I am finally retiring, lured by visions of great chunks of free time in which to practice music, dabble in art, relax with needlework, and read everything I can hardly wait to read. I’ve been walking around the house singing the lyrics of a catchy song from the 40‘s by Jamie Cullum which go:
“Some like the high road, I like the low road,
Free from the care and strife.
Sounds corny and seedy, but yes, indeedy
Give me the simple life!”

That’s what I want. In The Simple Life, I would not be drowning in paper that pours from the mailbox, the front door, and the computer printer. There would be fewer phonecalls, e-mails, catalogues, and bills. I would have all I need and nothing extra. There would be  time to meditate, exercise, eat right, read, practice music, enjoy at least one more activity of my choice every day, nap, and still get the laundry and shopping done.

But Elaine St. James, in her book Living the Simple Life, recommends having only three or four ongoing goals at any time, to avoid self-sabotage by overwhelm. So I have narrowed it down to:

1. Exercising
2. Practicing music
3. Enjoying time with my husband.

I figure that meditation, socializing, reading, crossword puzzles, and laundry will fit into the spaces and not get overlooked. And in the Simple Life, I can cut myself some slack.

Now that I can see it manifesting right before me, all I have to do is finish the decluttering project I’ve begun, responsibly close my professional practice, and embrace what lies ahead. 

But another complication has arisen.

A couple of posts ago I wrote, “I’m seriously considering selling our cluttered house in exchange for a neat one.” I wasn’t kidding. Now Husband and I have decided to leave our home in New England and make our vacation in Florida our permanent lifestyle, instead. So I am paring down my life while simultaneously redefining it and also relocating it.

I’m giddy at the prospect of living in the sun by the sea, where it’s always Summer (by New England standards), with the wonderful new friends I’m making there. 

Have you ever noticed that when a room or a whole house is being cleaned and tidied, first there must be some disorder? As drawers and closets are emptied, and the step stool and cleaning supplies and equipment are added to the mix, the room or house can quickly resemble a disaster area for awhile. It seems that creating order requires first an increase in chaos. 

So my home has become a shambles of boxes and piles of dishes, mountains of clothes and books. The decision-making (keep? store? recycle?) is endless, and exhausting.

I can barely tolerate thinking about all the upcoming goodbyes and sad partings from family and old friends.

As I pursue my dream, The Simple Life, the burning question for me is, “How can I keep this simple?”

I'm wide open to ideas and especially encouragement.

(To be continued next week.)  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

More or Less . . . (#5 of 11)

When I apply my face makeup, I recite what my esthetician told me about how to keep it looking natural. 
“Less is more,” she said.

“Less is more,” I recite to myself, as I dab on the tinted moisturizer, fluff on the powder, make a pass with the mascara wand, and take in the total effect.

She was right. Too much makeup isn’t pretty, because it’s neither natural nor necessary.

It’s easy enough to hold back with makeup, but in other areas of life I fall into the common trap of thinking that if a little bit is good, then a lot must be better, and too much . . . well, that must be the best! And so, along with many other Americans, I too often eat too much, spend too much, and fill my space and my life with a superfluity of things I love –  books, clothes, food, culinary equipment, musical instruments, electronics and media – and cabinets, containers, and furniture in which to store them.

Because more is better, right? And temptation is strong.

The expression “less is more” doesn’t really make sense, of course (less is exactly what the word means: less), but when something is good, I’m apt to crave more of it. I tell myself that less is more, in order to be able to stop at less and know I’ve come out ahead.

I have always been attracted to places and things that are furnished and decorated precisely enough, with no excess, but I’ve found that condition difficult to achieve and maintain. Now, in my ongoing search for the simpler life, I have discovered a guru of simplicity, Leo Babauta. His website is the essence of minimalism, a bare white background with the sparest of text.

His blog, Zen Habits, which claims over 250,000 followers, is also a model of “less is more.” He describes his focus as “finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives . . . clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness.”

Mr. Babauta is the author of many books with titles such as: The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life and Zen Habits: Handbook For Life. I’m starting with one of his first, The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Business and in Life, in which he explains 6 Principles of his art:

  1. Set limits.
  2. Choose what is essential.
  3. Simplify
  4. Focus
  5. Create new habits.
  6. Start small

Given his popularity and productivity, his ideas for simplicity seem well worth considering. I, for one, plan to memorize his list and put it to work. I’ll let you know how I do.

(To be continued next week.)  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Declutter – Or Simply Move Away and Start Over? (#4 of 11)

I grew up in a household devoted to never throwing anything away that we might need someday – including an old-fashioned toaster that didn’t pop the toast up, but depended on you to stand by and watch toast happening. 
Which may explain why decluttering comes so hard for me.

One tip for decluttering recommends imagining that your home and everything in it was consumed by fire, and asking yourself:
  1. Would I miss this? 
  2. Could I live without it? 
  3. Could I replace it?” 
When I imagine coming home to everything burned to ashes, I am relieved at the thought of having all that decision-making taken out of my hands.

Moving out of the busy center of my life, into a thoughtfully furnished home devoid of accumulated clutter, is a beguiling alternative.

My husband and I have rented a charming villa in which to vacation in the South. It is smaller than our home up North, but feels more spacious because it is totally clutter free. The furniture fits the space and supports the light and airy feeling of beach living. The cupboards, drawers, and dresser-tops are completely bare except for exactly enough sets of matching towels and sheets, dishes and cups, pots and pans, all tucked out of sight. Our landlords generously left us not only a warm welcoming note and a small, decorative centerpiece, but also a bottle of wine in the fridge, a bag of Cape Cod potato chips in the cupboard, and two prepared dinners in the freezer.

It was everything we needed in order to feel happy, comfortable, and at home.

But after we ate the dinner and chips and drank the wine, we needed to shop for groceries. On the way to the market we stopped in at the hardware store, where I made friends with Irene, who manages the housewares department. We arrived back at the villa later that day with a double boiler, a new grille, and a tub mat. The following day, at the farmers’ market, I bought an apron, place mats and matching napkins.

Every day, we brought a few more things into the house that we needed . . . a jug of bath gel, a shower caddy, a portable file cabinet. 

I failed to mention that we had brought along a complete set of drums (my husband is a professional jazz percussionist). On our second trip to the villa, we brought my folk harp, plus music stands, sheet music, an electronic tuner and a metronome.

I’m closely watching the handwriting on the wall. Life is giving me another chance to be a minimalist, to keep clutter from encroaching on this lovely place where we come to relax, and housework is as easy as swiping a sponge across a counter.

I’m seriously considering selling our cluttered house in exchange for a neat one. 

Maybe that's what it will take to do it for me.

(To be continued next week.)  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Just When I Thought It Couldn’t Get Any Worse . . . (#3 of 11)

Today the new kitchen countertops will be installed. Bad timing, because I’m deep into my decluttering project, but it’s the only time the installer could come. Everything currently occupying the counters needs to be removed. 
My husband produces a giant plastic tub which we load with small appliances – toaster oven, traditional toaster, food processor, hand mixer, blender (I’m noticing the duplication of functions for the first time), knife rack, coffee grinder, bag sealer. The tub is full. We drag it into the small second bedroom/office/library/den/music room.

The counters are still far from empty. We start carrying things by hand into the multi-purpose room – electric samovar; utensil caddies; oversized bottles and canisters of cooking ingredients that are too large to fit in the cabinets; giant jars of pasta, legumes, and grains (we do eat healthy!); the drain rack; the vegetable juicer. By now the furniture in the second bedroom is overflowing with stuff piled on top. We set up a card table to hold the overflow.

I had no idea how much stuff that we hardly ever use has overtaken the kitchen counters. I am even more amazed by how ample the counters appear as we strip them naked. This must be what the kitchen looked like on the day I moved in, before I had unpacked anything. Funny, I don’t remember it ever looking this, so . . .. exposed. It feels bizarre. But in a good way.

The new counter tops arrive at eight a.m. 

There’s been a mistake.  We ordered light colored granite, this is black marble. If we accept it, we’ll have to redo the floor to blend with it, and the tiny kitchen will become a dark cave. 

Black marble goes back out the door, and my husband and I exchange looks of resignation. We need to bring everything we moved back into the kitchen.

But wait! This is the perfect time to declutter the kitchen! If I cull now, the mess that has assembled over time won’t take over the new light granite counters that will be coming in a couple of weeks.

We lift each item and consider our options: 

!. return it to the counter.
2. store in the cupboards,
3. relegate to the garage (still in turmoil from the declutteriing                begun last week), 
4. sell, 
5. offer to the kids or a neighbor, 
6. donate to a charity, or 
7. discard?

But before I can begin – I must declutter the kitchen cupboards, to make room for the things that will be relocating there. I remove the contents of the cupboards and pile them onto the counters, to be sorted. 

All this is to explain why, with the garage totally uninhabitable by cars due to the decluttering that began a few days ago, the kitchen is in shambles, and there is no space to walk through the office/guest room/music room/den.

I am decluttering!

(To be continued next week.)  

Monday, August 13, 2012

Is This Serenity, or Chaos? (#2 of 11)

I’ve been inspired to move all the “stuff” that is overflowing my living space into the garage and thereby gain a serene and clutter-free home. In the movie which inspired me, it looked easy – the guy just rolled it all up in a rug and heaved it through the garage door.
My problem, however, includes the garage. Especially the garage! There is barely room for the cars, what with the boats, bikes, books, luggage, dishes, vases and appliances that disappeared from the house and I had no idea I still owned. Oh, and the flower pots and tools and trash, lots of trash, that I thought my husband had disposed of years ago. I cannot remember when we were last able to fit both cars in there at the same time.

So before I can heave things into the garage (Actually, in my vision, the stuff is boxed, and the boxes are labeled and very neatly stacked on pallets against the back wall, leaving plenty of room for the kayaks and the cars.) we must clean out the garage. That is why we spent Day 1 of the decluttering project – the most beautiful beach day that ever dawned, complete with clear skies, tropical temperatures, and guarantees of a splendid sunset with no biting bugs – you-know-where.

We worked together, armed with the magic list: 

1. Recycle?
2. Keep?
3. Give away?
4, Sell?
5. Trash?

We crossed off “sell” because that would involve more work, and began negotiating each item, each book, each “thing,” one by one. It took a long time. We frequently got hung up on the words recycle (“Do you mean ‘put it in the recycling bin,’ or ‘pass it on to someone we know?’”) and dumpster (“Not the trash dumpster, I mean the recycling dumpster next to the church.”) Over time, we worked more efficiently, and grew more tired. By the end of the afternoon we were about one-quarter of our way through the job. The garage now contained, in addition to the original layers, three new piles of stuff that had been designated for various fates. Another pile sat on the driveway, headed back into the house (“I need this! I can’t believe it’s been in the garage all this time!”)

I collapsed on the couch in the living room (after moving the dog and clearing off a blanket and some throw pillows – seven to be exact; I just haven’t been able to bring myself to do the obvious) when my cell phone trilled.

“Great day at the beach,” my daughter had texted. “I’m tired and sandy, and happy.”

“Started cleaning out the garage,” I texted back. “Tired and grubby, also happy.”

It’s true. I feel lighter. can hardly wait to get back to clearing out more stuff! It will be a while, though, before we can get a car in there.

(To be continued next week.)  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Got Clutter? (#1 of 11)

In a movie I watched last night, the man expecting his girlfriend to visit for the first time unrolled an area rug, threw all the “stuff” lying all over the apartment onto it, rolled it up and tossed it all into the garage. Zap! His apartment was neat and tidy. 

“That,” I said to my husband, “is what I want to do!”

Although peace, purpose, and joy characterize my life, I long for the serenity of neatly organized space around me. Not sterile and devoid of pleasing things to look at and to do, but neither do I enjoy a jumble of things that need to be moved around all the time to find other things, or to clear space for guests (or, often, for myself).

Some people are enlivened and inspired by evidence of activity, busyness, and lots going on. For me, it registers chaos. Yet because I am active, busy, and involved in lots of things (and am descended from pack rats), my home is cluttered. The tiny living room holds many, many drums of different kinds, a stage-size vibraphone, multiple audio system components, stacks of CD’s and DVD’s, the television set, lots of mail, dog grooming equipment,a file cabinet, boxes, my needlework supplies, the dog, her favorite blanket and pillow,  and, of course, the furniture – all of it comfortable and capacious, including one chair piled high with clean laundry waiting to be folded – and photographs and decorative artifacts from around the world. 

This is the neatest room in the house. The other rooms hold heaps of stuff from a multitude of times and places, most of it in occasional use. No room lacks books in abundance, despite my ownership of an e-reader that is amply loaded.

I am inspired to move all the “stuff” we don’t need underfoot into the garage. But naturally, the garage is a problem area, too. So I am hatching a plan in which I INTEND (the first Ingredient in my Recipe for a Healed Life) to add to my peace of mind and my day-to-day level of joy, by committing to a new GOAL (Ingredient # 4): to declutter the space in which I live. And I’m starting with the garage, for reasons which will become obvious, as I will be tracking Project DeClutter on this blog.

A lovely, talented, successful, and generous blogger named Amanda (see her blog here) has shared with me some recommendations for blogging. She told me that:

  1. Readers appreciate short posts.
  2. Posts should be frequent and regular.
  3. Readers like lists.

So – welcome to my personal ClutterBlog! Join me in my adventure in decluttering, or just cheer me on. Send along your tips and personal experiences. I’ll post briefly (500 words max., I promise!) once every week, and every post will contain a list.

(To be continued next week.)                                                             

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What Is Worth Remembering . . . or Best Forgotten?

I am cursed with the gift of Total Recall. I call it a “curse” because there are many things I would like to forget, but can’t, and those things have haunted me for many years.
Writing memoir had me dredging up my past and re-living it, with all its pain and illness, complete with resurrected symptoms. It was still well worth doing, because it not only served many intended purposes but also, as a surprise benefit, softened my most painful memories and took away their sting. When they had been served, acknowledged, and were ready to be let go, I was ready to move forward unencumbered by the pain they had carried.
But not all my memories became easier to live with, only the ones that made their way into the book, which didn’t cover my whole life, by a long shot! More memories – some familiar, some newly emerged – lay in wait, ready to pounce. 
And pounce they did! I needed another means of silencing the stories from my past that still had the power to upset me. If only I could forget them! 
But my curse, my “Velcro memory,” doesn’t let me. I needed to take the matter in hand. If I can’t erase them from my memory, I decided, at least I can still choose what to do with them when they pop up.
I tried several mental and behavioral strategies and finally came up with my latest tool for peace of mind. I installed a mental image of a traffic light somewhere just above and in front of me. The green light is imprinted with the word “Remember.” The red light reads, “Don’t Remember.” To activate it, all I need to do is reach up and touch the light I want to turn on.
Now when an event from the past sneaks up on me, I check my private traffic signal and my emotions, and I make a choice. If the remembered event was one that made me happy at the time, and the feelings coming up are of pleasure and joy, I mentally reach up and activate the green light and allow myself to Remember. But if the memory is of a time I was unhappy, and the emerging feelings are the hurtful kind, I touch the red light instead, and read its message: “Don’t Remember.”
Admittedly, pressing the brake pedal at an actual traffic light when it’s red, and bring the car to a stop, is easier. In a car, I can sit there and wait for the light to change again to green, while I idly listen to the radio or watch the traffic. Applying the brake to my memory is not as simple, because my mind wants to gallop off in its chosen direction, not just sit there doing not much of anything. I need to distract myself, take my mind somewhere else, stop it from plunging ahead.
Fortunately, I was taught how to do this by a wonderful and wise man, a Buddhist teacher who gave me spiritual direction while I was still actively grieving and taught me how to bring my thoughts to a stop and take them in a new, positive direction. His method was by chanting, and so I learned to chant as a form of spiritual practice. It worked after only a few tries, and I found it very helpful when my mind needed to be directed away from pain, toward hope and belief.
While the chant he taught me was far-reaching (and happened to be in Chinese), my new chant for stopping the flow of unwelcome memories is simply, “Don’t remember.” That is my chant, from start to finish. It works because I mean it, and I know that I can redirect my mind. At first I needed to repeat it a few times, now once is enough. 
“Don’t remember,” I tell myself. And then, “Think of something else.” And I direct my mind to where I am now, and what is happening now (which is also a Buddhist practice).
 “Be here, now,” I tell myself. “Here. Now.”
My mental traffic turns a corner. I can move forward again.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

One of Life's Happy Little Surprises

I’ll confess something, here, that is somewhat embarrassing – or at least WAS highly embarrassing at the time. When I was a teen-ager, struggling with the problems of everyday teen-age living, I would write in my journal, “Dear Diary, I have this problem.” Then I’d write all about my problem and close with, “What do you advise me to do?”
Then I would shift gears and write, “Dear Samantha, here is what I think you should do.” I would draw back and do my best to be objective and mature, and give good advice. When I reverted to being myself again I’d read the “advice” I had been “given,” and do my best to follow it. Most often, it was in the vein of, “Be patient, let it work out,” or, “Speak up, but say it nicely.” In other words, what my emerging wisdom was telling me. This was probably my earliest form of true prayer, speaking to God and trying to listen for the answers.
I’ve often said that for me, writing has been a compulsion. I wrote because I felt driven. I could not NOT write. I NEVER went anywhere without at least a scrap of paper to scribble on. When I pack for a trip, whether for two days or two months, I still bring a few pens and a notebook with lots of blank pages. I own at least thirty of these half-filled journals that lie around the house or piled in boxes, marked “Confidential - Do Not Read.” They contain the expression of my random thoughts and feelings across decades, in words I felt I could not live with had they remained locked inside.
We who write often ask ourselves and each other why we bother. Most of us know we’ll never become rich and famous from writing . . . if fame and fortune were what we were after, writing would hardly be the favored approach. Almost anything else brings more material reward than writing does.
But as my teen-age journal dialoging demonstrates, writing has been more than a compulsion, and brought me more than release. It brought me to the brink of insight, the ability to see more deeply and clearly into my experience. As an adult, writing my memoir brought me an entirely new perspective on the major events in my own life.
Last week it finally brought me something else – a feeling of glee which I can’t say I’ve ever experienced before – because I saw myself on YouTube for the first time, and it was heady, and fun!
I had been interviewed about my book on a terrific little television program, called “Alivelihood: New Adventures As We Age.” Karma Kitaj, the show host, interviews men and women who have made major changes in their careers at mid-life, and someone had told her about me and the story contained in my memoir. So I found myself sitting on a program set, under spotlights in an otherwise dark room, with the giant black eyes of cameras trained on me, answering questions.
It was scary. There was no script, and I had no idea what Karma’s questions would be. I wasn’t at all confident I wouldn’t stumble on my answers, make mistakes, sound foolish. But somehow I made my way through the thirty on-air minutes and went home with a DVD to show me how I had looked and sounded.
It was OK, and I wasn’t unhappy with the result, especially since no one was able tell me when the show airs and so I have no idea whether anyone ever watches it.
But last week I found that a ten-minute edited clip of the show had gone up on YouTube, for the world to see, and when I watched it I felt a flash of joy, a fleeting moment of what I suppose fame might feel like, if I were actually famous.
Anyone can get on YouTube, I know it’s no big deal, but this had happened without any action on my part. Karma develops her show, the station (BATV) does the technical work, and a video editor created the clip and posted in on the Internet.
So writing my book has given me not only the satisfactions that I experienced on its completion, but also this little extra “kick” of seeing myself interviewed on a program I much admire, where interesting people answer wonderful questions on a theme that is inspirational – namely, that it is never too late to go in new directions, and to have new adventures. This was my new, little adventure, and it was fun! 
One cannot know what might follow from putting one’s thoughts in writing, or what insights might emerge, or where it will take you. But showing up on YouTube was fun, and something that would not have happened, in my case, if not for my compulsion to put my memories into words, and write them down. 

Do you write? Please tell me why you do, or don't. Is it a compulsion, a drive for self-expression, or an art you are drawn to? What purpose, if any, does it serve for you? I am very interested in your comments.