Broken cars, autonomy, and other pieces of nostalgia

 

Wednesday was the feast of St Vincent de Paul. Most people have a passing familiarity with the name even if they aren’t Catholic– the Society of St Vincent de Paul is present almost everywhere, and they can be a major charitable force in the community (Just ask anyone in San Diego whether they know Fr. Joe).

I should know by now there is no such thing as coincidence, but the idea of the God wink is alive and well. One of the many things on my to do declutter list was to deal with an old car of ours. The transmission died a year or two ago and we’d been trying to offload it, without a great deal of success. It was not a burning need, just another tick list item to be dealt with.

Well, it wasn’t a burning need. That changed when they slapped the dreaded orange label on it, giving us three days to get the thing out of our lives or pay for the privilege. I knew from earlier forays into car disposal that St. VdeP would take the car, I just hadn’t ever gotten around to it– the piles of things inside took precedent. It was an utterly painless process– you tell them, you leave it for them, they take it and leave you the tax write off. No fuss, no muss.

Monday night, before they were hauling the thing away, my husband laid out the logistics and took my key. I handed it over with a steady hand but I apparently seemed slightly off because he just cocked his head and went “You’re not going all wibbly are you?” “Of course not! The thing hasn’t run in years and we’ve been trying to get rid of it. What’s there to get wibbly about?”

And that’s the sensible answer. Its also true, at least in part. It was a bit of a terrible car; it ran for about 3 or 4 years before entirely crapping out while I was driving to work. I nearly got run over by a giant F350 who couldn’t handle how slowly I was going, stuck in my little lemon of a roller skate in first gear. I didn’t have a great deal of love for the thing.

But for the times the thing reminded me of? That was more complicated.

The dent in the roof reminded me of college, when someone fell on the roof of the car while climbing a tree and dented it but good.

There were the jelly beans that were embedded in the upholstery from a previous owner with a more than mild obsession with the candy.

There was the fact that this was the first car that was mine. Not shared, not borrowed, MINE. I had never had the freedom to run to the store or go somewhere without a thousand and one logistics. It was this:

I’m hardly the first to feel that way. And nearly 8 years to the day after I first found a modicum of freedom, I had to give that symbol away. On the day before the feast of the Saint whose legacy is generosity to others. If there had to be a way for it to go, that’s a pretty good one.

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[Book Experience] The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I think at this point everyone on the planet has read, or at least heard of, Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It made a pretty big splash a few years ago and its still going strong. The hallmark of discussion around KonMari is the question “Does it spark joy?” You usually see it paired with the William Morris quote “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

I picked up the book from the library on the recommendation of a friend who found it to be life changing. I had already been reading minimalist blogs for a few months at the time, I had done my 30 day email course on mindfulness and several other of those resources around clutter and cleaning, and I figured I would give the book a go.

Wow, did it not really resonate with me.

KonMari is more then this:

(The stand alone clip doesn’t seem to be out there, so pardon the whole trailer. It should start at the right spot. And seriously, there were moment where I was definitely Emily Gilmore in this whole thing)

I get where she’s coming from on decluttering by category as opposed to room. The fact is that unless you really have everything out in one spot, you can miss things. It was one of several things I took away from the book that did work for me.

However, I cannot:

  • Ruthlessly trash my child’s artwork/schoolwork. I cannot ‘make due with a digital copy’
  • I cannot bring myself to cull certain physical momentos with the idea that ‘a picture will last longer.’
  • I cannot bring myself to thank a thing for its service and then discard it. I can’t find a way to be genuine in that and, honestly, its just weird to me.
  • I cannot face the task of unpacking my purse and repacking it every morning. I have better things to do with that hour.
  • I cannot face put everything away in a place separate from where it is used. So for example, you’re supposed to put away your dish soap, or your toiletries. Nothing should be out. I get wanting that clean look. I don’t have the inclination to clean up my shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and face wash and put them away somewhere other than my shower. I definitely don’t have enough spare room in the apartment to do that with everything so that nothing is in sight.

Interestingly, there seems to have been chatter as of late as to whether ‘does this spark joy’ is the right question to ask when decluttering. Its not the only question that I ask. There really aren’t that many things that are physical that ‘spark joy’ — but I certainly won’t trash my toilet brush for that reason. And some will say “But doesn’t a clean toilet spark joy?” My answer would be no, it doesn’t spark anything. It registers as a necessary thing, not joyful.

A few things that I found helpful:

  • Her method for folding and putting clothes away in drawers, and her way of folding underwear and socks. They really do help save space.
  • The idea that your guiding light in decluttering and organizing should be having things which support what you want in life. This isn’t unique to Kondo, but everyone expresses it differently. I don’t really do the dream life thing though

Overall, I think this book can be helpful for those who are looking for a very bare bones minimalism, one in which there isn’t room for sentimentality or attachment. And perhaps someday I will get there. But for me, the approach was too Spartan.

Breaking the habit

In the last few weeks I’ve been focused on more mindful attention to my day, which accidentally cut computer time at the same time I was trying to limit mobile time. Whoops!

The farther I get into the journey, the more I realize that Catholic Minimalism and Secular Minimalism diverge in a lot of crucial ways, big and small. It was really driven home by this tweet I came across:

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>When we feel empty inside, it is us ourselves who’ve created that void—and only us who can fill it.</p>&mdash; The Minimalists (@TheMinimalists) <a href=”https://twitter.com/TheMinimalists/status/905801077035077632″>September 7, 2017</a></blockquote>
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Obviously, if you are pursuing Minimalism as part of, well, any denomination in the Christian tradition that isn’t going to jive. I can’t speak for other faith traditions but by guess is its not likely. Taking a moment to look at the two parts of that sentiment, there may be some truth to the first. It is possible that you can create discontentment or emptiness in yourself through your action or inaction. Its also possible to have these things come from without– a person who suffers from depression or a melancholic temperament didn’t get that way by amassing physical stuff. They are born with that burden, and to say that you can fill it by filling your life with meaning isn’t going to work. So, leaving aside those scenarios in which discontentment comes from without, we have to take as given the idea that amassing things is a sign of an unfulfilled life.

And there is some truth to that.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust[a] consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust[b]consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal — Matthew 6:19-20

As an aside, how good and rich is the Sermon on the Mount? There is so much there that I come back to time and again, no matter how many times I’ve read it. Now, its pretty clearly laid out here that our treasure should be in Heaven, not on Earth. Earth isn’t our home, after all. I’m not a theologian or a teacher, but I did find that the more I had in my day to day life, the more stuff got in my way, the harder it was to cultivate virtue, and mindfulness, and prayer– my Heavenly treasure.

But of course, when we clear out the muck and the mire, you don’t chose what to fill yourself with– well, I suppose in the very broadest sense, you’ve chosen to have faith. But that’s not the same thing as ‘you created this mess, you get yourself out.’ We rely so very heavily on grace and love and mercy, and thankful the Lord is full of those things.

All of this to say that, having found the secular minimalism movement is really great for triage how tos and storage options and folding your clothes so they’re easier to find, I am not finding the actual mindfulness, thoughtfulness, and philosophy that I need; not all of it anyway. Its hardly a surprise is it? So now, the quest is how to fold this all together with my faith. I have a few ideas, and a few things I’ve tried, and a few stumbling blocks along the way. But! Hopefully the progress I’ve made will allow me to keep trucking here.

One of the little bon mots that did resonate with me is that whatever you are doing with your time, that is where your true priority lies.

Finding purpose

Day 19 is Mission

It should be easier to find your mission, or your vocation, or your meaning when you’re Catholic, shouldn’t it? If you know your big picture goal (Heaven), it should be easier to find your little picture goal (vocation).

Why does it never work that way?

Or rather, when you are blessed to find your vocation (or vocations. I mean, mother is one, but there are others as well), why is it so hard to get to a place where you can fulfill it? I have a pretty solid understanding of why I’m here– wife and mother, and a certain skill set that jives with a certain job. And I don’t hold that job. I hold a job that makes me miserable, that drains my will to live and my ability to live out the other two vocations, and I work there even now because we need me to. How easy that essay makes it sound, to find what you need to do and just DO IT! Go for it! Your mission is everything!

Yeah, I bet its a lot easier when you’ve been working a six figure job for a while and you don’t have a family and you can just sell off all your fancy stuff and pay off the debt. Its a bit harder when you’re making a decent but not amazing salary, and you can’t do more than the aggressive payment plan with no extra payments, and you have to care for your kid and your husband.

That’s where the stress and the anxiety come in. That’s where its hard to keep going. That’s where your faith is tested and tested and stressed and faces breaking. It is hard to find someone who owns that, who says “Yeah, its difficult. Yeah, its going to be hard. It is going to take longer than you want it to.” Its a harder message, isn’t it? No one wants to hear that when their enthusiasm is new and shiny and beautiful. No one wants to feel like they’ll fall off the wagon the way a thousand New Years resolutions have before.

Here’s the thing, though. It is tough. Its a total mindset change, there’s no possible WAY it could be easy. Its hard, and it should be hard. Things can’t be easy just because they’re good. Was there anything easy about Christ’s mission on earth? Was there anything easy about the lives of the Apostles, of the Saints and martyrs we hold up? Of course not. And isn’t it easy to say that, like that should be enough? That’s hardly enough when you’re beat down, and the people at work beat on your mentally, and you just don’t want to clean up or whatever the world needs now. That’s the hard part.

When the house is not a home…

Day 18? The house.

So I don’t have one.

The end.

 

Not really, no. Nothing is ever that simple. We have an apartment, in a good area, with enough space to create margin for us but not so much that its overwhelming or difficult to clean. We lucked into the place years ago and we already know that we’re going to stay here until we buy a home– if we ever do.

Its that whole pesky millennial student loan debit thang, compounded by the stagnant job market and earnings thang that economists keep tweaking about. And we could leave it there, if we chose. Right sized, right budgeted space.

I am, however, going to take this reflection in a different direction. Living in an apartment is, to a certain extent, already a minimal experience. You can’t change the color on the walls, or the walls themselves. You can’t change the kitchen, or update the bathrooms. All the little and big projects that eat up homeownership are non-existent. You can clutter up the space, no doubt, but you can’t change the space in a lasting way.

Its easier, in many respects, but its also not homey. I don’t find comfort in white walls and tons of blank space. Its not how I was raised, its not what I’m comfortable with. I have several styles I love: French Country, Italian country, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco. None of these are cozy in the hygge sense (and I have thoughts on that too).

We can hang pictures, and we have, along with a few icons. One of the books on my summer reading list is The Little Oratory, so I can figure out how to make a dedicated prayer space in this place. I have thoughts but none of them are coherent. Thing is, the house or apartment or townhouse isn’t a home without a certain atmosphere; without it, you have a showroom or a hotel, but not home.

So what makes the apartment homey? Could be the pillows and blankets, could be the lighting. I hold on to books and certain nostalgic pieces, which isn’t very minimalist in the contemporary sense, but does strike me as very Catholic. We should remember where we came from, we need to remember our ultimate home and destination. Its a weird headspace to be in– finding detachment from possessions while surrounding oneself with beauty and things that will assist in mindfulness and the ultimate goal.

A bear in his natural habitat… a Studebaker

Hey, it never hurts to start with the Muppets 🙂

You remember when you were 15 or 16 and you wanted a car SO BAD? A car meant freedom, meant being able to go places and do things, not depending on anyone for a ride hither and thither.

Fast forward a few years, and what a pain in the butt.

Day 17 is the CAR.

Fortunately for me, I don’t have a car payment any more, and you couldn’t pay me to upgrade unnecessarily. The annoying thing is that, for a one glorious semester, I was able to go places and do things car free, no worries. I studied abroad in Rome, and that city is walkable as all get out. And where it isn’t walkeable there’s a subway or a train system.

Sadly I no longer live in Rome; I’m back in America where the rivers of asphalt extend all over the place and you can’t get around outside of NYC or Chicago without a car. When I started to audit my day, to figure out where the time went, I found that the car gobbled up a decent chunk. It is necessary, sadly, given where we live and the absolute dearth of public transit. I’m not going to swap it out because I already own this thing, so that’s one good thing.

So now I really need to declutter the car. Its astonishing how much of a trap the thing is! I also don’t really know how to make the car a better environment for thoughtfulness and prayer, two things that really should be part of driving. If you have any thoughts, throw them at me!

When the TV isn’t the enemy

(We’re skipping day 15 because, well, who’s going to discuss the particulars of their financial situation in public? I mean really. Suffice to say, like most of my cohort, student loans dog my every move, and avocado toast is not my problem. Truthfully, I long for the days when avocados can be a regular part of my shopping list.)

Day 16 is Television.

Apparently the average American watches 8 hours of TV a day. F’real? On the average day, I have 2 to 2 and a half hours of free time, free time being defined as time not spent driving, at work, eating, preparing food to eat, or sleeping.

Seriously, where on earth does that time come from?!?!

So the suggestions are around getting rid of TV or internet or cable or whathaveyou. This is one of those areas I just do not jive with the average American. In all honesty that makes the task of simplified living so much harder. I can’t not eat. I can’t abdicate responsibility for my child, or myself, or my home. In the handful of hours left, I have a small window to do things I enjoy, or things that are good for me– reading in the former category, prayer in the latter, as an example. But when you have too much going on and its truly uncuttable, what then?

Would that my life were simplified simply by eliminating the TV. I did notice that I was filling odd 5 minute blocks of time with mindless scrolling and internet browsing, and I’ve tried to be more mindful of that, which is a challenge in its own right. Its related, but its not the same challenge. I don’t gain a whole working day when I cut that time– I gain 5 minute increments, generally in the office where I can’t do a whole lot else. Its finding what can be done in such small, limited blocks that is the challenge.

 

Me vs. the (digital) world

(I’m skipping a few days here– donating and selling are fairly straightforward, and if you’re unfamiliar with the Catholic concept of charity and donating objects, there are many explanations out there that would exceed mine.)

So it seems that one of the hallmarks of the modern minimalist the embrace of all things digital. Photos? Digitize them! Documents? Scan them! Music, movie? Why buy when you can stream or just have digital copies!

I have one issue with this: I am a technological black hole. Technology doesn’t like me, and I’m not terribly fond of it. For real, things blow out near me, and not infrequently. I can’t relinquish the physical objects for certain things– documents, DVDs, CDs, books– because if I did, I would lose them altogether after a period of time. If I know that they’re fleeting like that, why bother to keep them in the first place?

Well, because they have value or necessity. I am struggling with the minimalist push to have these things out of sight and mind, safely tucked in a cloud. I am also struggling with the minimalist push to only have things with calculable value. Value is more than “I paid $X.” but that’s what it comes across as in these blogs and books that I’m reading. I won’t be taking the digital route, and that doesn’t make things less simple, or more cluttered. It is, honestly, a recognition that tools and storage systems are not one size fits all. And that’s ok.

Trash & Treasure

Its really astonishing how much actual trash ends up tucked away, in corners and crevices. A broken hair dryer that should have been thrown away– its not like I’m ever going to repair it. A second vacuum that still works but only barely, and we end up dragging the other vacuum upstairs anyway.

There’s also the clothes, the ones that are comfortable but a touch threadbare. The older I get, the more I realize that things that weren’t trash years ago are trash now. They don’t have value or they’re damaged. Its my pack rat tendencies. Its hard to let go sometimes, to reorder yourself to recognize what is trash, what is your treasure, and what has the potential to be someone else’s treasure.

I don’t feel like we’re ever really well equipped to determine what’s trash and what’s not. I know it wasn’t on my home ec curriculum list, and if you’re raised in a certain level of simplicity, there’s not necessarily a lot of trash. Its an interesting conundrum, and a good mental exercise.

Everything and nothing

Whenever you talk to little kids, they feel everything very deeply. This is the best thing ever, until its the worst thing ever, and everything is perfect until its not. The phrase “I need” comes up a lot as well.

“I need to get out of bed!”

“I need this new toy!”

“I need that cookie!”

We spend so much time trying to break our children of that habit, to teach them the different between need and want, to accurately describe a need as a need, and not ascribe need to something that is a want.

And then it all falls to pieces when you grow up.

“Oh I can’t throw that old thing of cloth out, I need it for this project I’ve been meaning to do forever.”

“I can’t stop working even though its not what I need to do, because it supports other needs”

My favorite part of scripture, the one that echos through my mind more often than not, the one that I come back to, is the Sermon on the Mount. Specifically:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.

Apologies for how long that is (Its Matthew 6:25-34 if you’re looking). But just look at that. Every line. EVERY LINE. Its an indictment of the day to day, the lack of faith that drives us to continue to stockpile goods and food and money to preserve our lives as we like them. And then we stress over it. “Have you ever added even a day to your life by worrying?” Well no, no I haven’t. In all likelihood I have forfeited days by worrying. And yet its like a compulsion.

I continue to edit and edit and edit and even as I do I realize that I don’t have ever a fraction of the faith of someone who is poor and who keeps going on the strength of their faith. And if I lost my job tomorrow, if an expensive crisis hit, would I stand? Would I trust? Or would I crumble. And this is where the detachment from items is so good to cultivate, because I need the answer to be yes.