Spring flowers

I just finished going through my last Past Box, so I'm in a pensive mood, I guess. I feel as if I've just watched a movie of a part of my life. This box was mostly centered around college. My parents kept every letter I wrote to home from college. I read through them tonight, then replaced them in the Past Box. I had forgotten that I had performed in so many places, playing piano/organ and singing. I don't sing much anymore, unfortunately. But all it takes is a program or bulletin and the past comes alive for me again. I remember the Pie Jesu I sang at Trinity UMC. I remember learning the Un Bel Di aria at Lambuth. Both those pieces of music I can still sing from memory (in Latin and Italian respectively). The music still lives for me, even if I don't sing it much.

I am 50 years old now. Somehow I have the feeling that I am starting the second half of my life, when in reality the expected lifespan for a woman in the U.S. is shorter than 100 years, so in fact I am well into the second half of my life. The time has really flown, and it seems that every week goes by faster than the preceding week. Our son will graduate from college in May, get married in July, and our daughter and her husband will have their second child in November. Amidst all those exciting events, we will be selling our house and moving only God knows where. I don't say that to be sarcastic; it is true. Only God knows. The older I get, the less I like the "not knowing."

I can handle my Past Boxes. The past is fixed and stationary now. It can't be changed. The joys, the sorrows, the memories, the regrets - all are fixed in the medium we call "time." Each day now I am closer to the end of my life, and sometimes I feel time is running out. I don't know where my sense of urgency comes from. Maybe it's because the news is filled with fear and unrest and disasters. Maybe it's because my memory isn't as clear as it used to be, and I interpret that as a warning sign of aging. Maybe it's because I have so many things I want to do and so many things I want to create. I want to leave behind more of myself than the contents of my Past Boxes.

I remember a story about an old man planting an apple tree. A boy watched him for awhile, then said, "You crazy old fool. You know you'll never live to enjoy eating a single apple from that tree." The old man nodded and said, "I'm not planting the tree for me."

Last fall Ed planted many, many bulbs in the yard - daffodil type flowers - that will be popping up when the weather in Maine decides grudgingly to admit it's spring and melt the snow. We may not even be living here to see the flowers. Or we may be living here, realizing that next spring someone else will be here to enjoy their beauty. Ed said that's why he likes the perennial bulbs better than the annuals. He likes to plant once and see the flowers come back again and again. Even though he may not be here in this location to enjoy the sight, at least others will benefit.

My sister is a gardener par excellence. She can understand seed, bulb, and growing analogies.

I guess that I am trying to understand, on my journey to simplicity, what is it I am planting on the way, why I am planting it, and the importance of investing time and energy in leaving part of myself for those who come after me (including one as-yet-unnamed baby due in November!).

It's a shame

I know it's an old joke, but it's a shame when you finally get around to fixing up your house to make it attractive to buyers, you kind of hate to sell it!

We're doing things around here that we should have done years ago. Instead we've just been living with the inconvenience. For 9 years!

Case in point: We have a closet in the kitchen, tall and narrow. When you open it up, there is an accessory hinged to the right side of the closet. This accessory is a stack of shelves which you pull forward and around to get into the back part of the closet. Now this stack of shelves is full of canned goods - heavy canned goods. The shelves weren't screwed in properly in the first place, and have progressively come unhinged enough to make it very difficult to pull them out and around as they were meant to do. You have to grasp the accessory, pull up on it (against the weight of all the cans) to enable it to clear an obstruction and release itself. We have been fighting (and cussing) this piece of equipment for the 9 years we have been here. We knew if a potential buyer came through the house and opened that closet up, they would cuss too. So my husband Ed decided to change it.

He completely unscrewed the accessory shelves and made the closet into a broom closet, with the back shelves used for cleaning supplies. He took the part he removed and stood it up in an adjoining little room (used to be the back porch for the house) and, with another set of bookshelves, made a walk-in pantry for all our food. Now it is a pleasure to open the kitchen closet, and it would be easy for someone to put a lock on it to keep young kids away from cleaning supplies.

My question: Why have we lived with that "inconvenience" for 9 years and now finally fixed it before we sell the house? Sometimes we wonder where our brains are.


OK, I'll admit it. I'm a worrier.

I'm pretty familiar with the Bible, being the daughter of a church leader and wife of a minister. There is one section of the Book of Matthew with which I never could find common ground:

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than
food, and the body more important than clothes?
26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable
than they?
27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[1] ?
28 "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.
29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these."

Those verses never made much sense to me. Oh, I understand verse 27, for what does worry accomplish? Nothing! But as for the rest of it.... Of course the birds don't worry! In the first place, they have no human mind that recognizes their fate and the possibilities thereof. In the second place, they certainly do not sow or reap or store away in barns because they don't need to. They don't have to worry about rent or mortgage, life insurance, health insurance, house insurance, taxes, electric bills, heating bills, phone bills, medical bills, or college tuition. They don't have to buy clothes so they don't have that expense. I can be "dressed like one of these" in all my glory too (just like God created me, in my birthday suit) but I'd be arrested the minute I stepped out of my house, which, by the way, is my current source of stress. The house, I mean, not my lack of clothing.

The more we aim at simplification, the more stressful it becomes! We have two weeks until the house is officially on the market. Yikes! So much to do in two weeks! Some of it is dependent on other people doing their part. Our son-in-law will be here Saturday to finish installing a new floor covering in the pantry. Our son will hopefully be here soon to help me move the computer et al up to the second floor and out of the dining room. And my husband, who is the absolute slowest person I have ever met, has countless things to do, which, yes, I worry about getting done.

Downsizing may reap benefits later - after the majority of it is accomplished - but meanwhile it is stressing me to no end!


We want a smaller house, of course. We do not appreciate, however, the decorating trends of the 1970s. And after having just paid for a new foundation for this old Victorian we live in, and a new roof, and paint inside and out, we are quite ready to move into a house that we can - well - move into! Not rip up carpet, not fix electrical lines, not replace the bathroom fixtures! My husband Ed is talented at many things - but carpentry, plumbing, floor-laying, and electrical skills are not included in the "Ed package."

We're tired of trying to maintain a large house. That is one reason we want to simplify.

However, we do not mean by simplification that we are willing to live like bums, so to speak. We still have taste. In fact, that's one of the ideas the simplicity books mention - better to have one delicious piece of chocolate than a whole buffet of cheap, processed food. Quantity versus quality sort of thing. We still want a home where we can feel cozy, comfortable, that is a pleasure to live in. The colors, the smells, the textures, the warmth that we seek - this is our goal.

I write this because we saw two houses for sale yesterday. Even though this house will not officially be on the market until April 1, we are spending some time touring houses that are for sale right now, to get an idea of what's out there at what price. Each of these houses had its own individual deficits, but they shared one thing: Any person from the 1970s could have walked in and have thought it was a "cool pad."

The first house looked like a garage. Not a house garage, but a mechanic's garage complete with concrete floor. They had enclosed the garage part, left the concrete floor, left the big table/bench tool area in the rear, and tried to start lowering the massive ceilings. Apparently they didn't get very far before they moved, and just lived upstairs during the "renovation."
Up a very steep staircase was the second floor. Actually, the floor was what we first noticed. Several square feet of old shag carpet. One room had an animal-print type shag with swirls of beige and brown, and the other bedroom had the exact same pattern except in bright blue.
All the walls had cheap semi-dark paneling. Oh, my! There was a kitchen on the second floor. I didn't look much closer; I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. I thought it had to be a joke, to be honest. Someone must have been pulling our legs! The "house," or "garage," as my husband prefers to call it, came with 3 acres of wooded land. They really need to tear down the "structure" and just sell the land. The poor real estate agent showing it to us was embarrassed to even show it. Our real estate agent couldn't believe his eyes. And to top it off, the "house" didn't even have central heat, oil or whatever. They had a hookup for a wood stove in the "garage" downstairs portion, then had a small wood stove upstairs and 2 electric wall heaters.

I'm telling you, that had to be the ugliest house I have ever seen. Should have taken my camera, because a word description just does not suffice.

The second house was an old farmhouse, younger than our Victorian built in 1890 - the farmhouse was built in 1900. I think I want a little newer than that! Anyway, it had shag carpet from the '70s all over the place and nothing else updated since then either. The upstairs had a creak on the floor so loud I thought I would fall through the floor. It wasn't just one individual creak on one individual board - it was a major defect creak that would wake anyone up within 20 yards. During the energy crisis in those years, they decided to lower the ceilings to preserve heat, so they had a metal grid put up and placed in it those styrofoam sections. This grid was not done well, and the sections were falling in several places.

So I started thinking about aesthetics. We are definitely trying to simplify, but can't we have a house that #1 looks a bit more up-to-date and #2 does not require pulling up miles of shag carpet, and #3 looks 90% ready to move in when the time comes? Is that too much to ask?
Are we too picky?

So today we went by the modular home company, a place highly recommended to us by a number of people. I'm sure exploring this avenue will be an adventure in itself. They say you can personalize the floor plans to the max and from the day they get your call to order the house of choice (and your downpayment!) they can have your dream house built in 8 weeks.

Trying to simplify surely does involve a lot of stressful decisions!

I am, however, filled with gratitude that I did not have nightmares about shag carpet in my sleep last night. And my second point of gratitude is that I woke up in this lovely house and not in one of the houses we saw yesterday!

The Past Boxes

I've procrastinated in writing this post because the task of the Past Boxes was a very difficult job to undertake and an equally difficult job to write about - but here goes.

I had a fantastic childhood. Warm, loving family, exciting vacation trips, caring teachers, wacky friends - and I saved all the memorabilia those entailed. My parents saved some things for me, and when I got old enough I started saving things for myself. I put all these things lovingly in what I called Past Boxes. Sometimes a cardboard box, sometimes a plastic Rubbermaid type box, but they each contained treasured memories and were identified by a label marked "PAST."

As you can imagine, by age 50, my present age, I have quite an accumulation in my Past Boxes.
Ed gently broached the subject last week, suggesting I might want to consolidate some Past Boxes, which to me very clearly meant "throw some of that stuff away." I didn't really think it could be done, but one day last week I sat down with a few Past Boxes and took out every single item to decide its future.

Oddly enough, the Family Circle magazine had arrived in the mail, and the article I had started to read was an article on dealing with things like this. (I am editing the sidebar in the article to the statements pertaining to my Past Boxes.) Here is the excerpt:

Is It Junk? Use these guidelines to help you determine what you're hoarding:
You've got junk if:
- It wouldn't really affect you if you saw it again.

It's not junk if:
- It generates good feelings.
- It will enrich or delight the coming generation.

I'm sure most people keep some treasured memories. What's a treasured memory depends on the person.

The problem I encountered with dissecting my Past Boxes is the problem I expected to encounter - it was an emotionally wrenching experience. Bluntly put, so many of my fond memories involve people who are dead. That not only makes it more difficult to let go of something; it also makes me acutely aware that people who share my wonderful memories have died, are dying, will die, and part of the memory itself dies with them.

For instance, I came across a satire my best friend Bernie and I had written in high school. Together we wrote a newsletter in French, complete with advertisements, joking about our beloved teacher, Mrs. McTyier - the works. I laughed aloud re-reading it. So what do I do with it? The only other person in the world who would care about this newsletter is Bernie herself. And she died 2 years ago at the age of 49. Only two people created this newsletter, only two people share that memory. Now I'm the only one alive who holds it in my heart.
My kids wouldn't care about it. My husband doesn't even know French. It just makes me sad. I don't like to be the sole memory holder of something special. A memory is meant to be shared.

I think I can better understand now about the depression some elderly people are stricken with as they watch their contemporaries die. It's the memories. One death means one less person who shares your specific memory. It can be as focused as writing a French newsletter with your best friend, or as vast as a generation sharing memories of living through the Great Depression or World War II or even what it was like to grow up in the turmoil of the '60s. The expression comes to my mind, "You wouldn't understand." "You had to be there." You had to be there - to really appreciate this memory. You had to be there - with the accompanying laughter, smells, sights - the whole experience. It just can't be described effectively. You just had to be there.

So when I read the Family Circle's guideline "It will enrich or delight the coming generation," I really had to be truthful with myself. Most of the stuff in my Past Boxes are only important to me. Oh, I'm sure my grandchildren would be intrigued to see my elementary and high school report cards (as my kids were), and maybe they would giggle at a picture I drew when I was 5 years old. But most of the stuff? Just near and dear to me.

There's a message on notebook paper from our son Matt (date unknown), that says, "Dear Dad, Happy Father's Day! I love you! Sorry for what I've said about you this year. I was just kidding..."

There's a handwritten letter from a former teacher whom I idolized (and still do) that says, "You remain the highlight of my teaching career, and if you could know all of the wonderful people - students - that I've encountered through the years, then you would understand what high praise that indeed is! You had a matchless combination of intellectual ability and gentleness of personality that makes me treasure you so..."

There are birthday cards I received as far back as, well, my original birthday in 1954! There are get-well cards from relatives and friends. There are lots of cards I made myself for my parents. There are homemade "bulletins" that sister Joy and I made for our family Thanksgiving service every year, when the 4 of us would gather in the tiny den, where the piano was, and have a family Thanksgiving service. (We practically lived at church as kids, since Dad was a choir director and church leader, so these homemade services had all the accoutrements of a real worship service - invocation, hymns, responsive readings, and sermons!) There are the little cards that came with floral arrangements from my husband, some of them bearing messages no one else would understand but us (thank goodness!).

There is a note from a church member: "I keep asking the Lord what we have done to deserve a preacher and his family like you..." Ha ha, that could be easily misinterpreted! But the rest of the note is highly complimentary. A note from a highly respected musician to me after she heard me play the organ one Sunday: "I just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed the music. You used the organ so effectively..."

As you can see, I keep just about every compliment I receive - they're incredibly uplifting to read when I'm down in the dumps.

There are articles I wrote and was fortunate enough to have published from The Upper Room and a Memphis newspaper and magazine. There are programs from performances I have been in - Aida, Faust. Dinner theaters. Amahl and the Night Visitors. Piano recitals. Church bulletins from services where I sang or played the organ. The handbook from the Tiffin Spy Agency, a club Joy and I used to have with only 2 members - us! Numerous poems I have written (silly ones, not anything impressive). A newletter from the hospital where Bernie and I were Candy-Stripers (our pictures are in it).

Of course, there are things from our wedding in 1974 and our renewal of vows wedding on our 20th anniversary in 1994. There are obituaries of people who were important to us. I have some autographs (Agatha Christie, Duke Ellington, Ed Muskie, Neil Armstrong, to name a few).
The most unusual things in the boxes are 4 T-shirts. Matt used to love tomatoes, and the restaurant where we ate every Sunday knew us and called him "The Tomato Kid." We had T-shirts made up saying, Mother of the Tomato Kid, Father of the Tomato Kid, Sister of the Tomato Kid, and, of course, one for Matt saying simply The Tomato Kid. (His sister, a teenager at the time, was mortified but we made her wear it all of 10 minutes.)

I have a folder full of letters my parents (mostly Dad) sent to me while I was away at college. Many of these letters are written in, on, and around the church bulletin. What original stationery! He figured I would get his letter and enjoy perusing the bulletin at the same time!

Anything from my Dad is a treasure, since he died in 1980 at the age of 64. I found one letter, undated except for "Tuesday afternoon - at the bank." Apparently he had hurt my feelings that morning (how I can't imagine because it would have been so unlike him), but here is what he wrote:
Dear Carol, My heart has been heavy all day since I stupidly blurted that out this morning to you - I know it hurt you, though it wasn't my intention at all. How often each one of us hurts the one or ones we love by not thinking before speaking. I am sorry, honey - and God helping me, I will try to use my brain a little more before using my tongue. My heart, though, is in the right place. Please know that I love you dearly, and your best welfare and potential is a very great concern to me. Please forgive, and have a happy week, so I can too! ....With much love, from your imperfect Daddy."

So, you can see my Past Boxes dilemma. Actually, I thought I handled it all right. I shed a few tears and had some laughs, but I managed to throw away some Weekly Readers from 1963 and many birthday cards I've received through the years. For the rest - well, I kind of squooshed it down to make it look like I'd thrown out a lot more, and I was still able to get the top on the box. After all, how can a parent throw out her daughter's one-page "diary" from a family trip? I mean, she rated (with colorful comments) the service station restrooms from Memphis to Mt. Sterling, Kentucky! One never knows when one might need something like that in the future!

Matt's turn

Son Matt and his fiancee Sarah are here to clean out his stuff. For awhile, I sat on his bed and watched them. I think Sarah enjoyed a lot of the experience, because she got to see what kind of things Matt kept through the years. He still has a sizable comic book collection, which he said he'll keep a few years longer. He's still hoping it's worth something.

I told them both that I hoped they learn from our mistakes about just letting unimportant things pile up. Matt says he really doesn't do that anymore, and he's right. All the stuff he's trashing and recycling consists of the remnants of several years of growing up. Indeed, we moved to Maine when he was only 13, and a person is supposed to change and develop during the teenage years. I would have been very disappointed if he had the same interests and taste of a 13-year-old when he turned 20, for instance! So he has a good excuse - better than I have for the last few years of my accumulation; I've been an adult for awhile now and should have known better.

A peculiar situation - My husband and I are clearing out and downsizing, and here Matt and Sarah are looking forward to starting a new life together. We're trying to get rid of things; they're concentrating on acquiring things. We just want them to make sure they know the difference between trash and treasure along the way!

No fair!

I cleaned out the bathroom closet yesterday. I have many half-empty bottles of shampoo and conditioner and assorted hair products. I have 3 different size curling irons, a backup blow-dryer, a small blow-dryer (for travelling), a blow-dryer attachment (I think it's to a blow-dryer that broke a long time ago), half-empty bubble bath bottles, an old set of electric hair curlers, and other grooming aids too numerous to mention. In another area, there are bottles of nail polish that have turned yellow and congealed, as well as many items of makeup, most of which has probably expired. (Lots of small makeup samples; even if I don't use that particular product, I hate to throw it away!) I have several brushes, one flat, one round, one heat resistant, one heat conducting. Two boxes of hair coloring (never had the courage to try them and instead got it done at the salon). Sunblockers, body lotions, face lotions, hand lotions. Makeup remover, fingernail polish remover. Assorted clips and bobby pins and headbands. Mousse, hair gel, hair spray. Contacts solution.

Then I started thinking about what my husband Ed has to fool with. A hair brush (not too much need for that anymore!). A razor. A bar of soap. Hmm...I think that's about it. I asked him what he uses for shampoo, and he said, "Whatever you have in the shower stall at the time."

OK, now this is total gender inequity! Can I help it if sometimes my hair is longer and sometimes shorter and I need different size tools for different lengths of hair? Can I help it if I need an astringent shampoo at one time, then a conditioning shampoo at another time, then a special shampoo for color-treated hair yet another time? Can I be blamed for having to walk through the makeup counters at the department store a few times a month right when they are pushing their newest product which is guaranteed to make me beautiful? Especially on days where if I spend $25 they will throw in a free gift of $40 worth of products?

All right, my rant is over for now. I have wasted a lot of things in my life, but I think grooming/cleaning products have got to be at the top of my list. This will be a hard habit to break. The older I get, the more susceptible I am to commercials which assure me that their products will roll back time.

And I promise to cut back drastically, right after I pick up my recently pre-ordered purchase from Clinique (along with the free gift!) at the mall next week. I promise!


The word stuff has always intrigued me. When we lived in Tennessee, one of the Nashville malls featured Louie Anderson, the comedian, in their ads. At the end of the ads, the camera focused on him standing there, and he said, "Hickory Hollow Mall. Just more stuff!" I wondered then about our role as consumer - and the fact that the mall people thought that word stuff would excite us so much that we would jump out of our chairs and head for their stores.

Today, I looked up the word stuff. It has several definitions, of course, but this was the one that caught my eye (from GuruNet):
  1. Informal.
    1. Unspecified material: Put that stuff over there.
    2. Household or personal articles considered as a group.
    3. Worthless objects.
How appropriate! Is that our goal in life - to accumulate more stuff? Nothing specific, nothing of value - just stuff. It's all so enticing, so tempting, so available. And we never can get enough! There's always more out there - a newer model of something, a different color of something...it's on sale...it tastes good...I work hard for my money and I deserve to buy things...

How much do I need? How much do I cherish?

They say it's much easier to prevent weight gain than to lose excess weight. And it's much easier not to buy the "stuff" and bring it in the house than to figure out how to get rid of it once you've paid "good money" for it. Oh well - we start the journey from where we are now. That's all we can do!

Poor kids!

So, how does simplifying affect the kids? The simplicity books say that it is extremely hard to simplify and cut back when you have kids still living with you. (That I can quite understand!)
Ours are grown now - but what we do does affect them.

What do you think was the first question we heard from the kids when we talked about one of the small houses we are considering? "Where would we sleep?" Hello? You don't live here anymore, do you? And if you come visit overnight, well, we'll find somewhere for you to sleep.

Seriously, it made us think. This will be the first house Ed and I will live in where the kids do not have their own rooms. It's a final symbol, I guess, of their moving out on their own. And I think that realization has hurt them a little. I can empathize. My sister and I have our childhood bedroom (we always shared) still available at our mom's house. It can be a comforting feeling to walk in there.

Well, I guess our sense of loss at having the kids move out is now reciprocated in their feelings of loss over their "rooms." Why does simplification carry with it so much loss? I think I must have skipped over that chapter.

Two playing the game

There is, I would strongly suspect, a difference between an individual simplifying and a couple simplifying. The good thing about the couple scenario is that the other person can help you see the places you are holding back, whereas an individual usually has blinders on when deciding what he/she really needs. On the other hand, only an individual can, in the end, make the hard decisions on what to get rid of when it comes to his/her belongings.

Yesterday Ed noticed 3 boxes of quilt magazines on the landing. "Three boxes? Why do you need to keep quilt magazines? Where are you going to put them?" So I find myself having to justify keeping 3 boxes of quilt magazines. Then I start to second-guess myself. What if he's right? What if they have to go? Waaah! Well, he's not a quilter, so he wouldn't understand.

And it's the same with his end of the bargain. Every once in awhile I'll take something of his I know he'll never use, etc., and put it in the give-away pile, then he retrieves it, saying he cherishes it, then he'll give me the long (usually boring) story about why.

So a couple keeps each other on their toes about facing reality, but some decisions just have to made individually in the gut.