All things degrading

Day 6 is fear. Asking what are you afraid of? Why is fear holding you back? And they talk about how fear is a choice.

And in a way I suppose it is, but its so much more. To dismiss it as a choice, a mere expression of the mind undercuts how gripping fear can be. I should know, I’ve been fighting it for years.

 

Back in high school, I read The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery for the first time. One of the major themes in the book is overcoming fear. Its a great book, and I highly recommend. Its not the same YA type book as the early Anne books or the Emily books. There’s one passage that reverberates through my mind periodically, usually when I’m low:

Fear is the original sin. Almost all of the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.It is a cold slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading.

Obviously this isn’t theologically sound, and I’ll leave that aside for the moment. But think about that second sentence; how many sins, how many mistakes, come from a sense of fear? It may be misplaced or fair, but its there and its such a powerful motivator. It can override the rational centers of your brain in nothing flat, and then you can find yourself caught in a cycle. Fear can wind its way into anxiety, can eat you alive from the inside.

Fear has kept me in a job that went from ok to terrible to “I grow nauseous when I enter the building and can’t take a full breath until I leave.” Fear has kept me bogged down in patterns that stink, and laziness, and pacification with glowing screens and things that don’t matter. It kept me so wound up that I lost my love of reading, I lost my ability to write. I started to lose my faith. I lost myself.

“It is horrible to live with fear, and it is of all things degrading”

It is so degrading. It is an awful feeling to be so small, so eaten up inside that you cannot breath. To feel that you are so insignificant that nothing in the world cares about its impact on you, but your place in the world is so tenuous that everything is a scary, awful, sickness inducing, and feeling fear at taking a breath at the wrong moment.

So what can you do?

It certainly has helped to peel back the layers, to reassess priorities; to make sure that the pressures I feel, the things I’m scared of should have the pride of place that they quietly usurped. It is not a  quick process, and it is not an easy process. There are days that are so tiring, there are days that are so difficult to get through. Its not the stuff, necessarily, that I’m afraid of, that “what if I need it” feeling. Its the “what if I can never find a way to a better place” the “what if I will always be in this job I hate, that eats me alive.” The emotional decluttering is so much harder. It takes time, and prayer, and an abundance of grace.

Things and stuff and things and whatnot

I was bound to fall off the wagon at some point, day 5 was apparently it. So there will (hopefully) be two blog posts this evening to make up for the one missed from yesterday.

Day 5 was another thought day, thinking about the things in our lives that we feel like we must have, that we need, whether we do or not. Its funny, as I write I’m listening to the Minimalists podcast, and they’re all about what’s next. (as an aside, anyone else who’s watched the West Wing is probably hearing in their heads some variant on the theme of “Okay.” “Okay.” “What’s next?”)

I feel like I entered the commercial world backwards. I took my first job to pay for school, not things. I took my existing job with the intention to pay off my student loans as fast as humanly possible, and kept it because I had a kid instead. And we had to have two incomes to cover necessary expenditures (apartment, utilities, student loans which can’t go unpaid). The flip side of that coin was that there was a small amount of additional cash flow for creature comforts. I’ve never been a “shopper”– retail therapy is unheard of for me. It leads to odds and ends and bric a brac, and there are days where I felt like I needed Merlin from the Sword in the Stone to get things actually back up and put away:

The other odd thing, I think, that I suppose I should chock up to my “millenial-ness” is that when I started out in life, I didn’t buy anything in a set. Not a darn thing. Most of the furniture is hand me down or quick Target furniture. Its only in the last year or two that we’ve started to put together a cohesive home, not to mention gotten “real” furniture– you know, stuff that’s made out of more than particle board and glue and hope. But each of those awful functional things was so hard to come by, there was so much “blood and sweat equity” in there. I wasn’t anywhere close to buying a home, never had a way to put value or time into the home, so the things in the apartment became representative of the hard won battles. Each replacement was a measured, thoughtful replacement, even when the quality wasn’t awesome. How much does it suck to say “I should get rid of this” when its still functional? Its like this weird off shoot of the depression mind set that I know my grandparents and great-grandparents had. It comes from that same place of monetary insecurity, I think, where you try and make every little thing matter. You shudder to get rid of something in case you need it. The whole concept of being able to declutter is such a privilege.

To go back to my hardest moment, I knew that even if I got rid of all the baby clothes my child had out grown and then suddenly (nay, miraculously) got pregnant again I could buy more. I wasn’t worried that I would be in the same place as the first time, when I had to balance wardrobe with laundry and budget. It practically became a mantra as I packed the bags “I can replace these, someone else needs them more.” Because I got lucky, in some respects, with gifts of clothes and toys. I didn’t have to buy everything at Goodwill, but it was on the short list. These days, I could totally go buy the onesies at Target brand new for the 5 or 10 dollars more that they’ll cost. To be able to say that is to be in a good position, and not recognizing that would be a huge mistake.

A lot of the articles on minimalism that I’ve read have asked why you’re owned by your stuff, why you do x, y, and z to try and earn these things? Its hard to do that when you’ve spent your adult life heretofore (all ten or fifteen years of it) feeling that there is no getting ahead, that you won’t ever have something that is anything other than cheap or functional, that this whole concept of “decorating” or “homeyness” or “theme” were never achievable because who could afford it? That’s the hard part of letting go– realizing that even those little bits of civilized life you managed to scratch out may not be serving you. Its depressing if you’re not careful.

I think for me, the stuff is the least important thing. I need to make sure we have the appropriate amount of things to support our lives, and to make it so that cleaning doesn’t dominate my life. Its the other clutter– the draining work a day world, the feeling imprisoned by housework. That’s what we have to work on.

In Essence…

Essential
[uh-sen-shul]
adjective
1.

absolutely necessary; indispensable:

Discipline is essential in an army.
2.

pertaining to or constituting the essence of thing.
Day Four is Essentials. Its not an actionable essay so much as a reflection on having packed everything away.
I obviously didn’t pack everything away, we have essential and unessential items littered throughout our place. I don’t know that I can necessarily track what physical items are essential. I mean, some things are obvious. Clothing. Food. Toilet paper. Towels. Beds. Enough dishes to cook and feed the family.
But there are plenty of other things that may be essential to your life and to the life you want to lead that aren’t essential. Which is certainly a large part of this experiment. What is essential to a good life?
Well, time with the Lord, for sure. Time with family, no doubt. Time to breath and stretch the mind. But not everything in our home supports that on a daily basis. The other consideration, of course, is the fact that when you’re a family you must live and work and love together, but not everyone’s going to have that look the same. To be honest, I’m struggling with this concept.
What’s essential in life? And not the great big, pie in the sky essentials, but the actual nitty gritty essentials? From my spot at the computer, I can see the computer, books, hand lotion, Kleenex, the blinds and curtain on the window, some crackers, a coloring book, pens, my work bag, a vase of fake flowers, a small Lego dog built by my child, a water glass, and the strategic beer and cider reserve. I sit at an antique tea cart rather than desk– mostly because we owned the furniture and I think its pretty cool. And maybe someday I’ll use it as an actual tea cart. So, in this small area, what’s necessary? What’s essential?
I think hardcore minimalism would say ditch everything except the computer and the Kleenex, possibly the hand lotion, and the blinds are cool. But I look over this desk and feel like it is more minimal than what I’ve had, that it is stripped down to my essential working area. The Lego model is a visual reminder of my child, an act of love manifested on my desktop. The flowers? I love flowers; they tickle my soul. I can’t afford to buy flowers every week though, and this is a good compromise. Does that mean I’ve missed the point of getting down to essentials? Its absolutely possible. But I don’t think its a once for all type of assessment either. I think its like the writing process. You can’t edit a blank page, so you have to start somewhere, but you’re not going to edit it once and declare a masterpiece. You edit and refine and rewrite and throw it away in disgust, and come back in weeks or months or years. And someday, with a lot of hard work and a smattering of luck, you will get there.

Let it go, Let it gooooo

Day 3: the decluttering to end all decluttering

First, let us take a moment to appreciate the exquisite accident of fate that had decluttering fall on Amazon Prime day AND the Feast of St. Benedict. Just breathe it in. So I managed to set my task as reflecting on decluttering physical possessions on some sort of secular pseudo holiday devoted to shopping, and that happened to fall on the feast of a Saint who promulgated the monastic rule that is summarized by ora et labora: pray and work. Have you ever visited a Benedictine monastery? It is not cluttered, I can assure you.

Day 3 in the Minimalists is the packing party. And I’ll just be real a second, for just a millisecond (oh please, like no one else ever has Hamilton cue up in their heads when you use that phrase). There is no way that I am going to pack up every single possession I have for my whole family and then unpack as needed. Packing would take weeks in this house, and while that just goes to show you that there is room to let go, it also means I couldn’t follow this strategy. It was also undertaken by someone in a radically different season of life, so I just don’t feel bad on this front.

I started my decluttering efforts based on articles that came from the minimalist email course that I got in my bundle, which is from No Sidebar. They start with clothes, and I feel like that’s the easy gateway to decluttering. Everyone’s got something they don’t wear anymore. I imagine that for some people, this is relatively easy “Here is this thing I don’t like/doesn’t fit/I don’t wear. Gone.” You can use any number of delimiters for this: does it spark joy, does it fit, does it work with your season in life, do you wear it? I suppose it depends on whether you’re going general declutter, hardcore declutter or full on KonMarie.

I just wanted to have less clothes in my way when I got dressed in the morning.

I took a day off of work as vacation time, and got to work.

By the end of the day, I had 9 huge garbage bags full of clothes that went away to Goodwill. I like Goodwill because I used it when I didn’t have a clothes budget to speak of, and I like the thought of someone else walking down a similar path finding what they need as I did. That was the easy part. Where I have struggled, and continue to struggle through, is what is my litmus test? This isn’t about clearing space to find who I am or what I’m meant to do– I already know what my end goal is. I’m trying to simplify aspects of my life so its easier to do that. Fewer things in the house = cleaning done faster = a happier home + more free time. How simple!

Oh my word, it is not simple.

The hardest part was when I had to clean out the stash of my child’s baby clothes. You see, like most mothers, I banked all the clothes in good condition for my future children. The future children never arrived. No one ever tells you that may happen. They tell you live a Catholic marriage, be open to life, and you will be blessed. And we were, once. But not again. In five years, we have had no indication that we will ever have those baby days again. This isn’t an infertility blog, so no need for gory details, but suffice to say that there are tests, and blood work, and diet, and appointments, and it is hard and trying and leaves you in tears more often than not. And I had to bundle that up and put it in garbage bags to haul away to those lucky enough to get pregnant.

Someday, it will be a comfort to me. To think of those other little children who get to wear cute onesies or tee shirts, whose parents were able to clothe them even when faced with budget constraints. To know that those little outfits got use again, and that somewhere someone has cherished photographs of their child wearing those little scraps of cloth. But it doesn’t help me now, and it won’t for a while.

The idea with decluttering is that you are getting rid of things that no longer have a place in your life. If you KonMarie, you thank them for their service and move on. How do you move on from what was never started? How do you develop gratitude for a stifled, undeveloped dream? How do you pack these things away, let them go with a free spirit when they represent the future you hoped for that never came to be?

I don’t have an answer for you. I still don’t know. I moved on from there. I cleaned out the medicine cabinet (a wholly unemotional task) and the hallway closet (in which I said goodbye to a whole collection of hand lotions I was just never going to use). I cleaned off the top of my crafting area so that I could actually, you know, craft. I found clothes I had been missing, felt the rooms open up and breathe a little more.

I started to appreciate that our space is, in fact, big enough for our family. I stopped tripping over fourteen different items on my way to bed each night. And there is blessing in that. I have read variations on this theme, but they say that life happens in the margins. That God works in the blank space. But if you have no blank space, where are these wonderful moments supposed to happen? And if you’ve gone forever in a hectic, frantic full to bursting life, how do you even know where to make the blank space?

There is, of course, a tradition in the Church of not being attached to material things, of finding reminders in the physical world to reflect us up to God. I was reminded today of a trip to Subiaco. Have you ever been to Subiaco, in Italy? There is a big Benedictine monastery there. It was built over a grotto in which St Benedict spent time praying and meditating, and coming up with what would be the Rule of St Benedict. The grotto is now a chapel, and somehow (ha, let’s be real, this is big time Holy Spirit stuff right here) I was able to attend Mass in that grotto chapel. Now, there are a few chapels down there and I honestly don’t remember which one I was in. I do remember that this was still rough-hewn rock, nothing remotely fancy. If you have a minimal chapel, this was more minimal than that, no doubt. But the trappings of the Mass? They were magnificent. There is a tension, between the simple plan place, and the beautiful treasures that are an integral part of the celebration and sacrifice of the Mass.

How beautiful! How beautiful this reminder, right in front of me, embedded in my memory, that there is a place for beautiful important physical things in a well placed life. A reminder that there can be reminders in physical objects that point us toward Heaven, toward the Good, the True, the Beautiful, the important. But it isn’t everything, no, not by half. There are some things which are good in their necessity, but not inherently meaningful. My bath towel, for example, is an important part of my routine, lest I have to drip dry after every shower (an impossibility some humid days, I swear). It does not spark joy, it does not carry meaning, it does not put me in mind of greater things. But it still has a place, and as long as it can do its job and dry me off without causing damage, that is enough for that. The difficult part is determining what fits into what category, and I’m still learning there.

Wishing, and hoping, and planning, and praying…

Day 2 has dawned (and nearly set, given the time of day). My writing occurs in the evening hours, when I have a moment to digest what has gone right and wrong in my day, when I have the brief after dinner time when my husband does dishes (oh I am so blessed!) and I can… think.

Day 2, in the Minimalists’ time frame, is planning. Having identified what you must do, you have to identify what is standing in the way. Most of the planning questions they ask are based around possessions, or are already answered with a reconsideration of the Faith. A handful stood out though:

Why am I discontented?

How will I define success?

What is standing in the way of my musts?

And that first one. Hoo boy, that first one. Why am I discontented? How did I go from joyful student to bride to be to happy newlywed to expectant mother to… this? How did I slip into a world where my day to day slips by, with long days and short years, and never in the best sense? How did I lose sight of my vocations, and my joys, and my life? Its a depressing day when you wake up and realize how long you have been sleepwalking, how much you have missed in the winter of your disco tent. (and now, a meme:)

now is the winter of our disco tent

I wish I could tell you when I realized how far I had drifted. I think it was when my anxiety began to run high, and I started to have crying fits at work almost every day for no other reason than I was there. Not that anyone noticed– I am separated from the rest of my group in the physical space, to the point where I don’t think my supervisors remember that I’m technically theirs; and doesn’t that make things worse? I realized that there was nothing helping me, and it wasn’t getting better. I couldn’t face going to a doctor– I didn’t want to go on a cocktail of pills that might help but would definitely have side effects. I knew I hadn’t always been this way and so I thought maybe I could get myself out of it. I knew folks who have clinical depression, and their experiences and mine were different, so I told myself.

Now the fact of the matter is that I am a strong, stubborn, pig headed, powerful woman who comes from a long line of strong, stubborn, pig headed, powerful woman. We ran away to the big city in the 1890s and rolled up our stocking and wore rogue and figs to the family. We owned and ran cattle ranches when women did no such thing. We survived the Indian Schools that hurt so many. We moved our family across oceans for a better life, and when we struggled we scratched it out with faith that all would come aright. It hit me some time this year that I was not living up to my inheritance, in this respect. And at first, that was the most depressing thought of all. That I might have any number of ancestresses looking down on me from purgatory or Heaven, shaking their heads in exasperation at what a disappointment I had become.

I had to move past that, I had to allow myself to celebrate the personality traits and temperament that had been fired and refined through generations, and I had to embrace the faith that was handed down to me, and I had to get up off my butt. I was discontented because I felt that I was foiled at every turn. I knew what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be, where my skills lay. And even as those around me agreed with my assessment, I was still held back.

At the beginning of the year, on a whim, I took Jen Fulwhiler’s Saint of the Year online quizzy thing. I figured it would be amusing. I took my spin, said a quick (though genuine) prayer, and hit the button. I got Frances of Rome. Have you ever heard of Frances? She was strong willed though quiet, and figured out her vocation early. And then life got in the way. And she spent some time upset, and feeling like she was being interfered with by the world. And she was put into a position where she was required to work at being a wife– the social whirl that came with her station, the parties and things that were not her. And then she had a vision– of St Alexis, a name that is in my own lineage, and near at that– who told her she had a choice to live, or not. She chose to live. And she struggled and struggled and found her way to a life in which she fulfilled the vocation she had identified and the one that she was provided by God.

Why am I discontented?

For me, it wasn’t all the random stuff. It was circumstances, it was life. Like Frances, I am so certain I know what I am meant to do, and I can’t get there no matter how hard I try.

What stands in the way?

Me

I am in my own way, shaking my fist at the sky and demanding to know why life is terrible and not what I wanted and not what I am meant to do. I struggle, very much so, with wanting things to work when I have identified their end.

And that’s just not how life works. That’s not how God works. He uses the changes and foibles and bumps in the road. We can’t know what he intends for us, not really, and we can’t know how we’re supposed to get there even when we have an inkling of where we’re supposed to go in this life.

The tool that is minimalism encourages simple living/minimalism/stoicism in regards to the physical world, but also in regards to mentality. I can’t keep filling up my mind with more exit strategies and plots and possible ways out. It’s clearly not working. And in the mean time, I have let my physical space fill up with unnecessary things, the better to distract when I’m scraping rock bottom. That’s hardly a plan in the A to B to C sort of way, but its a framework at the very least.

“My yoke is easy, and my burden light”

My initial thought for this blog was to follow along the 21 day journey that the Minimalists outline on their website, some of which I’ve done in the last few months, and some of which I haven’t. Its a nice outline to get me into the blogging habit too. One thing I suppose I should say at the onset is that I already know I will not agree with everything they put out there or that modern proponents of simple living/minimalism subscribe to. For one thing, I’m not a Stoic. I read some of the Stoics in college (not a great deal, but we easily spent 10 class periods on them and the Epicureans). Beyond that, none of the minimalism I’ve read is pure Stoicism. There is a very different idea of the Good Life. Since I’m writing this from a Catholic perspective it should be pretty clear what the end of a Good Life is. For all that, I don’t know that anyone in that group would argue the point with me, as it could be seen as “my end” or “my truth.” So, with that little disclaimer out of the way…

Day 1 is Decision Making.

Where woulds and shoulds become actions. When you write your manifesto, the way you want your life to shake out. The examples given are concrete– I must spend less time watching TV/mindlessly checking Facebook. The point though is to get to the less step by step, I think. Why should I spend less time on Facebook? I should eat more healthy, but why? I should be less down about work, but why? I should be more mindful of my prayer habit and habits of the mind. BUT WHY?

I occupy that demographer’s sweet spot– the millennial, married, working mother of a school age child. I have a Master’s degree. I have student loans. I don’t own a home. I do own a car. I’m part of that generation that is killing industries left and right– paper towels, diamond, you name it (but not avocado toast, apparently). I have avoided the news where I can because you just can’t take people seriously when they act like you are the devil incarnate and attacking the American way of life.

It occurred to me earlier this year that I don’t dream anymore. I don’t mean at night, though on the rare occasions that I do dream they are mundane in the extreme. I mean I don’t have aspirations like I used to. When I was young, I dreamed. I dreamed of a fabulous wardrobe, or a beautiful townhouse before settling down. I dreamed I would travel– England, Italy, Spain, France to start. I dreamed I would never be far from the sea, that I could somehow make that happen. I dreamed of getting married and having a family, yes, but in those dreams I lived in a lovely house, large enough to accommodate us all but not so big as to be unwieldy. I dreamed of a garden, with the herbs in an Elizabethan knot garden surrounded by a walkway and pergola, covered in wisteria. I dreamed of having friends over, of learning new drinks to make for large crowds. I dreamed of books and books and books– to read, to write, to someday publish. And some time in the last five years, I stopped dreaming. What room was there to dream? There was no hope of getting out of my circumstances I felt. No house. No large group of friends to gather with– we scattered to the four winds in hopes of a job that might allow us to pay our debts. No travel, or townhouse. Certainly no travel, except through the corridors of my own mind.

I don’t expect a more minimal lifestyle to help bring dreaming back into my life, but I hope it will be part of a sea change in my thinking patterns. After all, I wasn’t always this way.

All these thoughts have crowded in my mind, leaving me very little peace. And then the Gospel today walloped me. Our priest highlighted the contrast between the “wise and learned” and “the little ones” going into the etymology of the words. That the wise and learned were the “professionally certified” and the little ones refer not specifically to children, but to those who had not gone deep into theological education. Rather, they accepted their faith and their God and prayed and worshiped and that was that. It made me think of the simplicity of mental habits– it is so easy to overthink EVERYTHING. Your faith. Your job. Your current place in life. The barriers between yourself and your vocation. The barriers between yourself and joy. I firmly believe that there is a place for thought, for reason, for education. I also know that I can make the simple complex and turn myself into a pretzel of misery. It was thought provoking, to sit in front of the alter and be reminded that there are certain aspects of life that SHOULD be simple, that don’t have to be overbearing or overblown.

So what must I do?

I must be authentic

I must have time to read and to think

I must have time to pray

I must have time for family

I must honor the commitments I have made

I must be mindful of new commitments

I must not be a slave to technology or news or other things that take up brain space with no value

I must consider finally starting to exercise with consistency

I must let acknowledge the season that I am in, and become comfortable letting go of those reminders of seasons past, seasons future, or seasons not meant to be.

I must be a Catholic wife and mother first

I must be mindful of my thoughts, my actions, and my possessions.

 

And I totally reserve the right to revisit this list in a later post. None of it is full of concrete steps, though I have taken some that are going toward these goals. And none of it touches on decluttering per se, which is honestly fascinating but holy cow I need to come to the light at the end of the tunnel someday soon.

Hello, world!

Hopefully I am not overtaxing myself with this blog, but I’m also hoping it’ll keep me accountable.

I’ve been spending more and more time feeling utterly, completely overwhelmed. Things came to a bit of a head in the spring– I was not enjoying my day job (which was bouncing me around and about on top of it), I was not finding time for my family or my hobbies or my vocation. And oh, my vocation. I am a wife and mother first, but firmly believed I had found a job that worked for me and was truly why I’m supposed to be on this planet– and I have been kept from it for YEARS.

I was casting about, when the Holy Spirit decided to wallop me over the head. For days, I was inundated by adds for a Homemaker’s bundle of resources– Facebook, Twitter, blog feeds, interactions from real life friends. Somehow this thing came out of nowhere, and so I took the plunge and spent the $40. And for the first time I felt like I could breathe– just a little.

And then I had to sort through all the eBooks and eCourses and workshops and lectures and workbooks. It was a lot of information. So I went through and made sure I had all my accounts registered and usernames and passwords. This inadvertently started an email course on minimalism.

And I was fascinated.

There was so much good information, so many good reminders that were True, with the capital T. Things like the fact that ‘you are enough’ and reminders that the way you spend your time is really how you indicate what you value. The email course ran for 30 days, and I struggled with some parts, but the struggle wasn’t awful for once. I had started cultivating a prayer habit with the New Year, and just carving out morning and evening prayer time was a big step, but I realized I was inundated with far too much STUFF– and I don’t mean only physical stuff. Its the mental stuff, and the lacking time with God, and lacking time with family. I could feel it in my bones.

But I also felt like there were aspects that were missing, or that made me think I couldn’t be minimalist. For example, you will pry my books out of my cold dead hands. So many people in the minimalist spheres say that the information is valuable, not the book. But the books for me contain memories and marginalia– the coffee stains from long nights in the College caf which then remind me of the lecture the next day, and the realizations I forgot I had. And marginalia! I cannot replace the same snarky certainty that I possessed as an undergrad and I would rather not miss them.

More importantly, I hear so much about seeking your own happiness, finding your true mission, seeing where your passion lies. And hearing it over and over reminded me that these things aren’t my ultimate end. My ultimate end is Heaven, to face the Good, the True, the Beautiful with no intermediate. And so often I saw people say “you don’t have to be a monk.” That would be the point where I felt like an utter idiot. Why was I looking to the secular world when there was a long tradition of minimal Catholic life that spanned such a long period of time?

All of this is a long winded way of saying that I’ve been on this journey for several months, and I’ve now reached the point where I don’t want to lose the original verve that I had when the Holy Spirit came bursting into my life. I also struggle with finding a balance between the helpful secular aspects of minimalism in our current world, and the Catholic life I try to lead every day. So hopefully some of my discoveries with benefit someone else too.