Always the Questions

(Photo from CNN)
I wonder what is going through the minds of these victims. Mostly they are just trying to survive right now, but in the future when they are, hopefully, back to a relatively normal life, they might be thinking along the same lines as I have been thinking since February, when I started this blog. They will have to come to their answers, as I have to come to mine.

This experience will have affected them in a major way. To be able to come to terms with it - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually - will undoubtedly be a enormous project. Though I am not affected by the hurricane physically, it does give me pause to ask myself again the questions of my life, the questions and thoughts that have developed repeatedly as I have written about the journey to simplicity:
  • What is precious to us in this life? What do we cherish? When it comes down to the nitty gritty, what is it we would try to save in an emergency? What is replaceable? What is not?
  • What can I control in my life? What is out of my control? Do I know the difference? Do I have the ability to accept that which I cannot change while changing the things I can?
  • Quote from March: The expression comes to my mind, "You wouldn't understand." "You had to be there." I think that says it all. As horrible as the images are on TV, we know we are only living vicariously through these victims. I have no idea what it would be like to suddenly have your existence reduced to a garbage bag of food and a blanket.
  • How much "stuff" have I accumulated when there are so many people who don't have the basics of food and shelter?
  • How much have I taken for granted in my life (house, family/friends, job, good health, etc.)?
  • Quote from May: For awhile, however, I have been considering the waste we generate, as a family and as a society. Sometimes we don't think about it until we see the sewers are backing up, or we are thousands of people living in the Superdome.
  • How much does it take for us to survive? To live sufficiently? To live comfortably? To live well? To live in a way to which we have become accustomed? What can we do without? What do we need? What can we share? How do we justify our lifestyle in the face of poverty and hunger?
I was going to blog about how discouraging it was to have not sold the house yet, but that will have to wait until another day. Today I cannot complain about anything that involves a roof over my head. Because I have a roof over my head.

Look up!

Sometimes all it takes to advance a few steps in the journey to simplicity is a change of perspective.

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite pastimes was to lie on the bed, look up at the ceiling, and pretend the ceiling was the floor of the room. I tried to imagine myself coming into the room, stepping over the door frame, and moving about the room in a whole new way. I could "look up" and see furniture hanging from the ceiling! I must have mastered this feat of imagination during my many required naps. (If Mama thought we were actually sleeping during those times, she was quite mistaken.) In another room, which we used as a bedroom at the time, we had one of those acoustic ceilings made of tiles with little dots all over them. Whenever I would find myself trapped in a nightmare, I would subconsciously try to wake up by forcing my mind's eye to see those dots, and all of a sudden I would really be awake, staring at the ceiling.

I think we spend a lot of time looking up when we are young. After all, we're little. We have to look up to see people's faces, to see on top of tables, to peer over the church pew in front of us, to watch the Christmas parade.

Now that I am an adult, I find myself mostly looking down. Now, there are perfectly good reasons for this. I am short, for one thing. Not quite as short as my sister, but short nonetheless. (Well, I'm two years older than she is, which she won't let me forget, and I have to remind myself that she too has shortcomings...oops, there I go again...sorry, Joy!) Because I am, as they say, vertically challenged, I find it easier to spot dog hair on the floor than cobwebs on the ceiling. When we clean the house for showings, I have to remind myself to look up and check the ceilings, corners, and tops of the walls for places that need dusting.

I also think my habit of looking down is a result of my tendency to trip over things. Lord knows I need all the awareness I can muster to compensate for my apparent neurological deficiencies.

This morning, I took our dog Babe outside before I went to work. It was dawn, still rather dark. While she was smelling some exciting scent in the yard, I looked up. It was an ordinary night sky, yet it was extraordinary in that moment to me. The glowing stars appeared as if they had been randomly flung across the heavens, but I knew that there were constellations and patterns, and I realized for just a few seconds that I was looking at the same stars people had seen countless years ago. For a few minutes I had forgotten I was in my yard in Maine, trying to keep Babe from unearthing a skunk somewhere. For just a few minutes I had glimpsed the awe-inspiring size of our part of the galaxy, and realized my struggles for simplicity were, in one way, totally unrelated to the scheme of things - and yet, in another way, they were joining my spirit to that of the universe. And the ceiling was the floor, and the floor was the ceiling, and they all blended together. I must really look up more often.

Know what you want

I think one of the most difficult tasks I have encountered in the journey to simplicity is trying to discern what I want. What I really want. It seems easy enough, doesn't it? It should be. But as I mentioned before, companies spend billions of dollars a year in advertising, trying to convince me that what I want is what they've got. Friends and acquaintances can influence me. And (I hate to admit it) sometimes I want to just "buy something" because I had a bad day, and darn it, I deserve it, whatever it is.

If I ever wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps, it is in this area. Daddy was very sure of what he wanted and what his priorities were. Every year a few weeks before his birthday, September 1, I would try to figure out something creative to give him, not the same old stuff. And every year, he would ask for the same old stuff. "You know what I want," he would say, with twinkle in his eye. "Ties, page protectors, and cashews." What a puny list!

And how did he come up with the (to me) boring "Big Three"?

In my opinion neckties have been maligned as one of the most unimaginative gifts ever. The kind of gift a man opens and says, "Uh...yes, thanks...I guess." Not Daddy. He was required to wear ties at his job at the bank, and he rarely bought any for himself, so he really wanted ties. No kidding!

Also one of his hobbies was writing letters and in the course of that, he received many letters in return. Some were from famous people; others were from people who were not generally known. Bishop or paper carrier - it didn't matter to Daddy. Each letter was precious to him and he kept them all in notebooks, each letter gently slid into one of those plastic page protectors. The protectors were fragile and sometimes needed to be replaced, but mostly he wanted more because he had so many more letters to document and save.

Then there are the cashews. The nirvana of nuts. Now me, if I want some cashews, I'll pick up a can at the grocery store. Not Daddy. They were expensive, and he did not spend that kind of money on himself. He was wholly dependent on his family to provide him with a can of the delectable snack whenever gift-giving time rolled around. The rest of the year he was content to enjoy Seessel's butter pecan ice cream and Aunt Bessie's peanut brittle. But his delicious cashews were a joy for him to receive. They were one of the "big three" on his list.

Well, being stuck with a wish list from him that short just made me frustrated. I usually made him a card, but I still felt a letdown when the gift that accompanied a creative homemade card was one or two of the "big three." Ties, page protectors, and cashews. But do you know what? Daddy didn't feel the need to beat around the bush. He knew exactly what he wanted. And it was worth it to see his eyes light up when he opened another tie, another box of page protectors, and one more can of cashews.

I hope we all can learn from my dad. Don't waste money, don't accumulate a lot of things you really don't care about. When you are the gift giver, find out what someone truly wants, even it sounds dull to you. And if you are the lucky recipient, think long and hard about what is important to you. Go for your version of the ties, the page protectors, and the cashews. Your smile will be genuine and you will be one more step closer to contentment!

Lincoln meets World War II

A few years ago, my sister sent me a unique gift for my birthday. It was a young tree, an oak which is a direct descendant of the giant oak that marked the area of Abraham Lincoln's birthplace.
I was surprised to discover that through this company one can order trees descended from the properties of many famous people. Here's a list of some of the categories of tree owners they offer: American Presidents, American Revolution, Environmentalists, Native American, African American, Civil War, Famous Women, Military Heroes, Adventurers, Authors and Artists, Inventors and Science, Texas, Landmarks, and Children's Favorites. By golly, that should cover everyone's interests! They even have a new offering - Anyone want a descendant of a tree from Elvis's Graceland in Memphis?

Well, my sister, who knows every possible thing about me and my obsessions, appropriately sent me the Lincoln tree. It even came with a plaque of certification. We planted the tree in the yard and stuck the plaque in the ground beside it. Every Maine winter it lies dormant, and every spring when all the other trees are in bloom, the Lincoln tree still sleeps. Every spring we think that at last the poor Kentucky tree has succumbed to the harsh Maine winters. Then every July, when we have just about lost hope, the first leaves appear on the Lincoln tree and soon it looks vibrant again. So far, so good!

We've been joking about the tree lately because our Realtor, Diane, has taken a liking to mentioning the Lincoln tree when she takes people on tours of our house. At a showing a few weeks ago, the clients, Diane, Ed and I had congregated on the porch after the tour when Diane said, "Oh, yes, I forgot to mention the famous Lincoln tree from Lincoln's birthplace!" She pointed into the yard. The man scanned his eyes across the yard, seeing lots of mature trees, of course. "Which one is it?" he asked. "That one!" said Diane, trying to point in a clearer way. "Which one?" the man asked again, squinting through the afternoon sun. At that point, Ed offered to take the man across the yard so he could see the tree up close. When the man finally was shown the tiny young tree, he laughed. He had thought she had said something about a tree that was planted when Lincoln was born. Well, when people are searching for a tree, they assume the tree is taller than they are - especially if they think it is almost 200 years old!

Yesterday we had another showing. A courteous Japanese family was thinking of buying the house. They were so courteous they didn't even take any of the cookies and water we had on the table for them. (Nobody had actually encouraged them to partake, and I think they were too polite to assume that the refreshments represented our little attempt at hospitality.) They did not seem very fluent in English; we didn't know any details of how long they had been in the country, etc., but they really liked the house, which pleased us. We are glad they felt comfortable here and we hope they liked it enough to buy it. Later that night at dinner, I remarked to Ed, "Oh, no - they didn't get to see the Lincoln oak! Oh well, they might not know who Lincoln was." To which Ed thoughtfully remarked, "At least it isn't a Truman elm."

Who am I? Where am I?

I had strange dreams two consecutive nights. Ed interprets dreams, but these I could figure out on my own.

In the first dream, I was back in high school. Actually, that's a nightmare, not a dream. I have school nightmares a lot, and in them I am usually late for class or forgot something important. Anyway, in my first dream, I was in a school where the students had to wear ID badges at all times, and I had lost mine. I dug through my purse frantically trying to find my badge, but never could find it.

In the second dream, I was out somewhere and had to call Ed to ask him for directions on how to get home, because I had forgotten where I lived. Not that I was lost, mind you. I had simply forgotten where I lived! Later in the dream, I found myself at my childhood church singing in the choir. Someone asked me why I had tennis shoes on. I told him, "It's because all my other clothes are packed away in storage."

See? Easy to interpret! These dreams boil down to "Who am I?" and "Where am I?" with an added footnote of "How come everything I need is in storage?" My whole identity is undergoing review and revision during this downsizing. And my subconscious is starting to wonder where in heck I'm supposed to be living. In other words, transition anxiety in my life has become ubiquitous - even in sleep I am stressed!

The hot seat

I find most peace in my life when I try to live by the Serenity Prayer, which I mentioned many posts ago. In short, this familiar prayer urges us to control the things we can, let go of the things we can't control, and to have the wisdom to know the difference in these two categories.

That simple philosophy of life has really been helpful to me - up until now. Up until now, the control I managed to acquire gave me a sense of empowerment over my own life. This week I was asked to have control over someone else's life...and I didn't like it, not one bit.

I have been experiencing my first few weeks of jury duty. Actually, the judge said they call it "jury service" now to make it seem more palatable. They want us to think we are volunteering, when in actuality we are being drafted.

No matter - I didn't try to avoid it. I had reached the ripe old age of 50 and had never been called to serve on a jury, probably because we spent so little time in one place as we were moved around in the ministry. I was intrigued by the courtroom. I had never seen a real jury in action. I had minor trepidation in the midst of all this curiosity and anticipation, though, because I have always considered myself to be - well, not exactly wishy-washy, but I try to give both sides on any argument equal time and if the area is gray and not black and white, I find it hard to make up my mind. In one way, that qualifies me exceedingly well for a jury, but in another way, I'm a jury's worst nightmare. See? Even in discussing this, I see the gift and the curse in thinking this way!

The judge told us we were released from confidentiality about our participation in the cases after the fact, so I feel free to mention a few things here. The first case was not that important. A young man was visually identified by a state trooper as driving a car when he had been suspended from doing so. Sounded pretty clear-cut. Then we found out the trooper saw him only in passing, and waited 6 days to issue the summons, at which time the young man and his girlfriend swore it must have been someone else. It would have been an easy case if the officer had pulled him over immediately, but...we had to find him not guilty because there was too much doubt.

I didn't lose any sleep over that case.

The next case was rape. Suffice it to say, most of the jury figured the guy did it, but, for reasons I will not address here, he got off too.

I started losing sleep.

Then came the most recent case. This was a 65-year-old man accused of inappropriate sexual contact (touching through clothes) with a couple of girls, 8 and 9 years old. The state's case was weak - his word against theirs. There apparently was some tickling going on and the defendant, a small-statured old man with a mustache, balding head and bowtie, insisted if the touching happened at all, it was incidental. No witnesses. No evidence. We just had to sit there and make a grave decision - whether to send this man to jail and in the process give him the legal requirement to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

We agonized. We almost became a hung jury, but the holdouts who thought he was guilty decided to change their verdict because a hung jury would have required the girls to go through another trial. It had already been a year since this happened in the first place. Everyone involved in the case, even secondarily, had been under this cloud for a year to have their day in court. And, Lord help me, I was one of 12 people who were commissioned to decide the verdict.

That threw the Serenity Prayer out the window temporarily for me. It's easy to say, "Control the things you can," but it's not easy to come to a decision - with very, very little to work with - that will affect lives forever in a huge way. The pressure was enormous.

The verdict after 2-1/2 hours of deliberation was not guilty. It was decided we just didn't have enough evidence to say this man did it. Did he do it intentionally? Accidentally? Did the girls have a skewed perception of what happened? If he was innocent, we cursed the defendant for being stupid enough to put himself in a position of vulnerability. If he was guilty, we doubly cursed him for doing such a despicable thing. As a jury, we were certainly in a cursing mood.

I can say for sure most of the jury had a restless night after that. Did we save an innocent old man from being labeled for life and going to jail? Or did we let a potential child molester out to prey again?

There is not much serenity about being on a jury.


My e-mail meditation for the day:

When we transcend ourselves and become in our ascent towards God so simple that the bare supreme Love can lay hold of us, then we cease, and we and all our selfhood die in God. And in this death we become the hidden children of God, and find a new life within us.

Jan van Ruysbroeck
The Sparkling Stone

To transcend one's self. To rise above the bad habits that have been ingrained in us since we started earning money and our choices were much more independently made. I can look back and see when we lived a more frugal life. I remember when we used card tables pushed together for a dining room table. I remember making most of my own clothes. I remember when eating out was a special occasion, not a last-minute decision. I remember life with one TV and - gasp - even one phone!

The difference in then and now is that those times represented involuntary simplicity as opposed to voluntary simplicity. We didn't have much back then because we just didn't have much - not because we chose to be frugal. We had to.

Now we are trying to change our mindset to voluntarily live a life of simplicity. It's easy to pass up a purchase when you can't afford it. It's much more difficult to pass up the same purchase when your wallet has enough money, but your mind realizes you don't really need the item.

The journey to simplicity is one we take as a chosen decision and goal, not because circumstances force us to. And part of that journey is "death to the old self" in order to find a new life within us.