Thursday, July 18, 2013

Living with Less

Today is kind of a downer. But I think it's an important downer that will hopefully spark some good discussion.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how tied I am to my possessions.

Some things are irreplaceable, and they remind me of good times or of people who left my life too soon.

But, honestly, the vast majority of my stuff is just that: stuff.

I feel like, as I get older, two things are happening:

1. I'm more and more aware of how temporary things are. People come and go from life pretty regularly. Some of them just become victims of growth - we outgrow people, they outgrow us, our lives outgrow each other. Sometimes people die. My father died when I was young, and, while I have a wonderful stepdad and many people I consider "father figures," there's always going to be a giant hole that my dad filled. He'll never walk me down the aisle (and god knows someone has to, since I fall down even when I'm not wearing tulle), he'll never tell me that my dog is cute (and he absolutely would), he'll never know who I am and how much I'm like him.

Here's my dad with my sister Tara (Hi Sis!) on the left, and me on the right. Dang we were cute! :)

*That's a lot of wood paneling, and anyone who ever wondered where I got this pasty ginger skin from, well...there ya go. I'm giving that plaid shirt and too much chest hair some serious side-eye too. 

My grandmother died a few years ago, and she was one of the most important and best people I've ever known. Today would have been her 91st birthday, so I've been thinking a lot about her I think. I'm thankful I got so much time with her, but she's gone.

*I've always had a thing for hats. Or doilies. Whatever. 

*The only picture where I really see any resemblance. Dang cheekbones and widow's peak. She had her eyebrows under control from an early age, unlike me. 

I also lost my Nana Rain when I was in college - I couldn't say Lorraine, so that's what she was called, and she was almost like another grandmother to me. 

*She was also the shortest person I've ever met. I can only assume this picture was taken at easter, given my colorful ensemble and the eggs on the table. I was probably 9? And hey, Heath! (My little brother.)

My mom's sister, my Aunt Ruby (far right, next to my mom's awesome Farrah Fawcett hair...) died this year, and she was the funniest lady - I miss her a lot. 

*And that's my mom's other sister, Ellen, to the left. This must have been in the early 80s.
**Also, my mom and I are actually the same person. They just cloned a taller, fairer version of her. She's like Dolly the Sheep. For realz. 

My stepdad's mother died a couple of Christmases ago, and my brother's grandmother, who I was really close to, died last year. 

I still have my memories of my dad, and my gramma, and everyone else, but I don't have them here anymore. That's it. There are no more memories that can be made.

Losing all of these people over the years has made me realize that I have to not take people for granted, and it's hard to do that when I can't devote time to the people who are really important.

2. I'm increasingly tied down by my possessions. By the "things." And things, unlike people and relationships, are almost too permanent. I certainly don't want to get rid of sentimental things. My dad's baseball glove, my gramma's last gift to me, all the things other people have given me, all of that reminds me of who I am, and that those people were absolutely influential in that.

But I have to stop making everything a sentimental thing.

That's not to say that I should just discard things people give me or that I get with special people, or take them for granted. But I do need to stop thinking "oh, I wore that shirt that time mom and I did this thing, and therefore it's special."

Because doing that leads to too much stuff.

And too much stuff is crippling in a way.

I'm surrounded, everyday, by things I like. But only a small percentage of those things are things that I absolutely love.

And, honestly, life is so short. Why would I want to spend it surrounded by things that don't make me the happiest and best person I can be?

More importantly, while the things and memories I have from the people who are gone are all I'll ever have from them, the amount of stuff that's basically meaningless to me in any real way, and people who don't enrich my life in some way, prevent me from having room to make new memories with other people and experiences.

Part of this is fueled by economic reality. If I want to curate a life in which all the things I own are things I love, and I get to constantly grow and have new experiences, I have to be willing to give up things I just sort of like.

If I want to go to Paris, I can't buy new clothes every week.

If I want to make memories with people I love, I can't throw away half my groceries because I bought too much and stuff went bad.

If I want to buy that really nice thing that will add to my life, I can't buy a billion little sort of nice things that don't.

I need to start living within my means, both economically (cause being a grad student, while awesome in many ways, is also kind of terrible for your wallet) and physically. I have a limited amount of space, even in my huge apartment. And, while I believe a person has unlimited love (you don't have as many pets as I do without thinking that!) I don't have unlimited anything else.

Basically, it's time to refocus on what's important.

That's why, over the next few months, I'm going to pare down my life. Not a ton of stuff, but enough that I can breathe again. And, as part of that, I'm paring down relationships that aren't working (and, in that vein, I'm going to stop putting as much effort into relationships that I'm keeping afloat all by myself), getting rid of negative thoughts that sabotage my happiness, and focusing on what I need to do and what I want to do, rather than what I sort of would kind of like to do.

Here goes:
-I'm going through my clothes again. As Ruth at Living Well, Spending Less said, when my closet is organized, I feel like my life is less filled with chaos. I'm absolutely not going to get it pared down to 40 hangers (omg I can't even imagine) but I am going to cut it down to things I love. There's no reason to own clothes I only kind of like. There are a few sentimental things (the Razorback sweatshirt my mom wore in college, my Phi Mu shirts, stuff like that) but they're all things I wear regularly. And, honestly, if I can't wake up everyday and find something I at least like, what's the point? Someone else could use those clothes, someone else my love them. I'm having another swap with my friends in August, so that should help quite a bit.

-I've got to get rid of some books. As horrifying as that thought is, I have some books that I will never read again, or will never read at all, and, while I love collecting history books, I have some that are just not good. Or I have duplicates of. Having that many distracts me from the ones I really love. And now that I know about the awesome used book store that takes donations at the public library, I can give them to someone who will love them, and help out a great cause.

-Shoes. Oh god.

-I've got to majorly cut some of the "house stuff" I have. No one needs that many spatulas.

-Finally, I've got to make some decisions about people. I often feel like I have a lot of acquaintances, and very few "real" or close friends. And that's okay. I value my friendships, whether they're the "come to my party" kind, the "let's get coffee kind," or the "I'm having an emotional breakdown at 3 am and need to talk to you even though you have to work tomorrow" kind. All of these are valuable. What isn't valuable, and what takes time away from the people who are on "Team Amber," is the amount of time I spend on people who either don't treat me like a friend, regardless of how I treat them, or who I use (admittedly) for validation, but who add nothing real to my life.

For example, there is one person in particular who I really need to stop spending so much time on. This person is an okay human being, and we enjoy each other's company, but they've reached their limit on how much they can give. We just want different things. And I spend so much time worrying about them, about how they perceive me, about what they want.

Which is fine - I am concerned with my friends' feelings, and they're concerned with mine. But this person, who I genuinely believe does care about me, just doesn't care enough for the amount of time I spend on them.

That's okay. People outgrow each other. I just need to stop using this person for the validation I receive from them, and they need to stop using me as a convenience - and if we both do that and decide we want more, great. If not, they can't be in my life in any real way.

This isn't about kicking people out of my life. It's about focusing my energy on the people who are good for me and who I genuinely enjoy being around. Who add something to my life, who energize me, who want the best for me just like I do for them.

Those are hard things to recognize, but I absolutely have to do it.

Because, in the end, isn't it better to surround myself, not just with things I love, but with people and memories that I love too?

I also think that this refocus of energy, both on people and stuff, will help me get the work done that I need to do. I'm finally feeling really good about my work and writing, and am at that magical place where I need to get work done and want to get it done. I have one more comp to write, orals to take, and I'm ABD. I'll be infinitely closer to achieving the academic and professional goal I've been working towards for years. And spending time with people and things that distract me from that (a little distraction is good - no one can look at that much history all the time!) means spending time away from something that truly inspires and fulfills me.

Basically, I need to grow up and start realizing that my life is my life, and, ultimately, it's up to me to choose what it is.

I can't control everything, and I don't want to, but I can control my happiness. So let's do this.


  1. I think it's important to have these kinds of revelations every so often. I call this my debriding time (which is kind of a gross term, we use it when we talk about debriding dead skin from burn victims but it's got practical application in colloquial use as well!)

    I think the issue is two-fold, particularly with regards to family, losing people, and memories. It takes a while for our brains to realize that it's not the "thing" that holds the memory, and that our memories aren't going to fade if we don't have those "things." I go through the stuff I have from my mom once every 6 months or so, and I get rid of stuff every time...things that aren't really her essence, but were too painful to let go before. I've got it whittled down from 7 of those huge plastic tubs to two small, tubs--so small you could fit 6 of them in the original container. And the stuff I have now is the stuff I really love, and is important, but through the process I was also able to reaffirm that even if all of it disappeared, she wouldn't.

    The other side is how we are burdened by our belongings sometimes. It's easy to do, especially because we live in a heavily consumer culture. I've got some great buddhist books, if you ever want to borrow some! But what I try to do is practice non-attachment. Nothing is permanent, and though non-attachment I am able to let go of the feelings I've attached to my "things." People are included in this! And once I was able to create empty space, I started loving and craving that empty space. I have entire drawers in my house that are empty, and it's my goal to keep them that way. When we stick things in there, I start looking for either a "real" place to put that stuff, or I throw it away. I also have this book called "Throw Away 50 Things" that helped me learn how NOT to value my junk. Especially with the way the internet works...I brought a ton of stuff into work and just scanned it all and put it on a thumb drive.

    It's harder with books and stuff, because part of that is our professional livelihood. but remember--if it's not really useful, you can always find it again if you need it, or ILL it, or get a digital copy. And someone else might be able to use it. (And if it IS useful, keep it!)

    1. I think I need to read the "Throw Away 50 Things" book! I do struggle with books, because I consider some of my books my friends. But I try to think of it like "well, someone will want this book - someone can use it and love it." Thanks for the advice - you're my minimalism guru! :)