Monday, December 28, 2015

jobbity job job

Joblessness has officially ended. I start next Monday with a local high-tech company as an application support specialist. It's a challenging position with on-call requirements and a steep learning curve for someone whose unix skills just might be a little rusty. I'm so excited!

I have learned much about the elusive work-life balance since my last career job. I understand how important good food, sleep, exercise and play is for my performance. I'll need stamina and a clear mind for this job.

I'm happy that we have simplified our lives to be able to focus on what really matters to us. Having only a tiny apartment with the bare essentials in it means I don't have to spend much time on maintenance. We share a car that neither of us needs to get to work, so it sits quietly waiting to ferry us to the rock gym or the marina on weekends.

I wake early to run and practice yoga, so my body/mind is ready for the day.

My work wardrobe is basic, easy and machine-washable. I wear two rings and the same earrings I've worn for over 20 years. I don't have to comb my hair. I have two pairs of office shoes (boots and clogs).

We eat simple vegetarian stews or stir-fry, so meal prep is straightforward. I use a menu-planning, grocery list, recipe manager that saves much thinking time. Packing my lunch is quick and easy - some combination of apples, carrots, hard-boiled eggs, and leftovers.

All this simplification means I can focus on work during the day and focus on my own life priorities the rest of the time: talking with my kids on the phone, playing with my husband, planning travel adventures for our vacation days and a little reading thrown in for fun.

Bring it on, Monday!

Friday, December 11, 2015


I went to a job fair today. At the Metro station, I noticed a young woman searching around and staring at her phone, apparently lost. So, after we got off the escalator, I asked her if she needed directions. She looked relieved and said yes. Turns out she was headed for same the job fair, so we walked the few blocks chatting together. 

She has her Master’s Degree in some kind of IT/data analysis/health care research stuff. She came to this country 6 months ago from Nepal with her husband on an H1 Visa. They are here, in our country, to make a better life for themselves. 

But they are are not just making a better life for themselves. They are making a better America. 

This country was built on the skills, talents, ingenuity, and back-breaking labor of immigrants. Why do we keep forgetting that? Why does someone like Donald Trump preach a slew of anti-immigration policies when he, himself is a product of immigrants?

What, exactly, does his campaign slogan mean? “Make America Great Again

How far do we go back to claim the “Great America” we want to recreate?
America when the white man came over and killed off most of the indigenous people? 
America when we legally enslaved millions of Africans?
America before the Irish came?
America before the Chinese came?
America before the Scandinavians came?
America before the Italians came?
America before the Germans came?
America before the Mexicans came?
America before the Hmong came?
America before the Cubans came?
America before the Guyanese, the Dominicans, the Nepalese?
(order of immigration waves from here)

What would America be without immigration? Think about it just for one minute.

I hope Subita gets lucky at the job fair.

I hope we open our doors to our Syrian neighbors. 

To quote President Obama, in a speech in 2014,

“There is no us or them, there is only us.”

Saturday, December 5, 2015

winter weekends

For the three seasons of warm weather, we like to spend our weekends on Red Ranger. She'll be moving from Deltaville VA to Deale MD this spring, so we are looking forward to exploring our new cruising grounds. Today, however, it was 2 degrees C when we woke up, maybe not the best day to go sailing on an unheated boat (although it is sunny and the wind looks about perfect). While I'm well aware that the weather we get in NoVA doesn't really qualify as "winter" in the sense we are used to, but it's still chilly.

Since we've embraced a minimal lifestyle, we have the luxury of not having to spend our weekends churning through household chores or errands. For now, until I find a job, I'm able to clean, provision and cook on the weekdays. Those tasks don't require much time anyway, cleaning three tiny rooms goes pretty quickly.

So, how does one spend winter weekends? We do like to walk out to the coffee shop in the mornings to read and write for an hour or two. We also like to get exercise and fun at the rock gym. But that still leaves large stretches of loose time, since we're still getting acquainted to our new neighborhood and don't really know anyone. Last weekend we headed into the District to attend a climate march around the White House to show support for the Paris climate talks. I got to chat with a retired NOAA marine scientist and meet a few folks from the local Sierra Club. And we got to explore DC a bit more.

This weekend I'll be helping at the local library book sale. I went over yesterday to sort and stack books and meet some of the regular library volunteers. During the sale, they're even providing us lunch! I'm always up for bartering food for labor.

Wait, this could be a pattern. If I work this out, I can find a volunteer opportunity every weekend until the weather warms. It shouldn't be too hard. I'm already tapped in to a few activist organizations that I worked with in our former city. There are volunteer aggregate sites like VolunteerMatch and a local site that do all the searching for me. We have the Metro to get around.

Volunteering is a win-win. We get out, meet people, and support organizations that build up our communities. And the organizations, obviously, get to function and serve. Looking forward to hitting the search sites for next weekend's outing.

Saturday, November 28, 2015


Storage.  We’re so used to the concept of storage. Closets, plastic bins, shelves, cupboards, garages, attics and off-site rental spaces - the more it grows, the more we get used it. Long ago, my husband and I purchased a special wooden shelf with slots designed to hold cassette tapes. It was functional and made of nice, light-colored wood with a felt backing and brackets to attach it to a wall. It was storage as decoration. Decoration with bonus storage. We took our cassettes out of the cardboard box they’d been living in and slid them into the waiting slots. We had arrived.

One day, we bought a cassette tape and brought it home. The shelf was full. My husband said, “Oh, we need to get a new shelf.” Something clicked in my head and I suggested “We need to get rid of an old cassette to make room for this new one.” I suddenly realized that storage doesn’t end. There are always more shelves to buy. It was a turning point for us and we stopped looking at storage as an ever-expandable supply. We started using our space as a fixed limitation. If the space is full, something has to go. One in, one out. Sometimes, it’s one in, two out.

Along the way I started reading about alternatives to the mainstream consumer-driven American lifestyle. Back in the day, it was called voluntary simplicity. Now it’s called minimalism. Whatever it’s called, it just makes sense. Acquiring things only ties us down. We wind up spending money on more and more storage for the stuff we didn't need in the first place.

Once one understands the false allure of ever-expanding storage, one can appreciate getting away from it. Open space is calming. Not having anything to dust is freeing. Once a new acquaintance stopped over our house, looked around and asked if we had just moved in. We’d been there 14 years. I loved the emptiness of that house, it was spare and functional. Things need breathing room, just like people. A shelf with only one or two things on it looks more hopeful than one packed to the gills.

Not accumulating things is a huge directional change for most people. We are sold the ideal of acquiring more and more. Our economy depends on shopping as entertainment, even shopping for more special purpose storage containers. Better, our hard-earned money should be saved, or used to spend on the people and experiences that really matter in life. Were we enriched by owning a shelf full of cassettes? Better to buy a ukulele and spend time jamming with friends or go to a concert.

We’ve come a long way from those youngsters with their cassette shelf. We eventually gave up the house, cars and all the stuff to move aboard a sailboat for a few years. Now we divide our time between the sailboat and a tiny apartment. I don’t miss any of the stuff and I still try to keep the boat lockers and apartment cupboards only half full. We love our freedom far more than closets and plastic bins.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

the itch to travel

While I know there are some of us who are perfectly content to live out our lives in one place and draw comfort from consistency, many people dream of traveling. We live in an age where traveling usually isn't too dangerous, too expensive, or too disruptive. We've seen the sights already in thousands of photographs, so we think we know what to expect. But until you actually close your front door, suitcase in hand, it's only dreaming.

Thirteen years ago, my mother-in-law and her sister made good on their dream of travel. They loaded up the van with clothes, a cooler, camping supplies (good intentions), books, Scotch, maps, and a cell phone (that was only turned on certain hours of the day) and embarked on a journey across the United States. They started from Schenectady NY and took the southern route across and up to Seattle WA and Victoria BC and back across the northern states.

I got the itch to read the journal my mother-in-law kept and share it. She also dictated a few adventures into a tape recorder. We got the tapes converted to a CD and she loaned me the CD, the photo albums and the notebook. Many hours of enjoyable typing later, here are their adventures.

My working title for the project comes from the introduction to several of the tape entries. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

book review - The Novice

We all have things we need to work on in life. Sometimes we don’t realize what we need to work on. Most times, however, we know the area of “development need” (“opportunity”?), but don’t really want to look our deficits straight in the eye. I’ve been ignoring one such for most of my life, but a few years ago, decided that it was high time to get working on it. 

In my case, I’m speaking of the peculiar shade of self-centeredness that can develop in an only child (my sister arrived when I was 10) with doting parents. Or maybe it’s just my natural state, that didn’t get challenged early on. I can apply some harsh (but truthful) words to describe myself: judgmental, selfish, miserly, critical, arrogant. The picture emerges…

I’ve learned about habits and training from simple things like diet and exercise and finally realized that I could apply study and practice to learning compassion, too. Practice eventually becomes change. 

So, I’m studying. 

In browsing the shelves in my new library, I found this parable of compassion, set down by Thích Nhất Hạnh. It’s a very old Buddhist story, but he retells it in charming English prose (one of the several languages he is proficient in). It’s a simply lovely book. 

The parable is one of Kinh Tam, a daughter of a wealthy family in long ago rural Vietnam who aspires at an early age to become a Buddhist nun. In the time she lives, there are no temples for nuns, only monks, so she disguises herself as a boy and runs off. Along her way, she encounters false accusations and injustice. The way in which she overcomes these injustices is to accept the consequences without trying to prove her innocence and practice magnanimity toward her accusers and the world as a whole. She rises above the injustices by reflecting loving kindness and compassion back at those who cast her out and beat her. Upon her death, the injustices are revealed and the accusers are profoundly changed by her love and the village builds a temple for nuns. 

After the retelling of the parable, the book includes a essay by Thích Nhất Hạnh and also one written about his life by one of his long-time students, Sister Chan Khong. Many things that have happened to Thích Nhất Hạnh parallel the injustices portrayed in the parable. His continued compassion, loving kindness and service to his students and countrymen, especially during the long Vietnam war, echo the compassionate practices of Kinh Tam.

Strongly recommended reading. Parables are great ways to internalize lessons. Study and practice. Practice and study. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

slow housewifery

This week I am embracing the role of housewife.  As long as I am unemployed, might as well savor the joys of what I’m calling “slow housewifery”. My mother did this every day, as long as I knew her. It involves simple daily tasks and projects done at a thoughtful (dare I say, mindful) pace and with appreciation for the task and for its outcome. (I also just finished reading hand wash cold and loved the author’s care instructions for an ordinary life.)

After exercise and breakfast, the day begins with the tidying phase. Tidying is making the bed, sweeping the floor and cleaning up the breakfast mess. These little jobs don’t take long, but they are so satisfying when completed. I recently read Colin Wright’s post about the time he takes each week to reset his life to zero and decided I wanted to do that with the daily tidying. Every morning. Reset the rooms to zero. 

The next phase is to leave, get out, shuffle into the light. The outdoors is a huge part of my happy mind. Even if I have already gone for a run before breakfast, I feel the need to get out once the tidying is done. In this new town, there is a nice grocery store a 20-minute walk from the apartment. I gather my canvas bag and list (I use the Paprika recipe manager and love it!), sally forth, and turn on Map My Run, so I can get credits for my challenges. Even if I only need one item, the walk out helps me greet the day.

I explore along the way, of course, since I am still learning this town. The other day I happened upon a soccer field with two fire trucks parked, one from our town and one from the next town over. The radio was on and the gear was all piled neatly ready to be donned in case they got a call, but the teams were enjoying a beautiful fall day out of the station.

In between the high rise office buildings and parking garages that make up this section of town (and I use the term loosely, since this is not a town, but a “census-designated place”), the development authorities are attempting to preserve a bit of nature in the tween spaces and make it accessible to pedestrians. Translation: there are trails through the woods!  Yi-ha!  I found a place to walk! One of these trails is actually on the way between my apartment and the grocery store. 

Once I have returned with today’s recipe ingredients (black bean-sweet potato chili and cornbread) and put them away, it’s time for the second cup of tea and to get down to the day’s projects. My current project is to digitize a notebook and audio recordings created during the 2002 round-the-country journey my mother-in-law and her sister made. I have the photos scanned, the audio transcribed and am 3/4 of the way through the handwritten notebook. I plan to post the edited version into blog format so the whole family can relive it anytime.

Yesterday I also enjoyed some plain old connection time. I chatted on the phone with both my daughter and mother-in-law about just stuff: what friends and family are up to, who made what Halloween costume (and which dog has to wear the pig suit again this year!) and what fun recipes they’ve been making. 

Life. Slow. Mindful. Tidy. 

The path to the grocery store. The leaves smelled so good this morning.

Monday, November 2, 2015

book review - The Buddha Walks into the Office

I’m currently unemployed.

I had a nice job that I quite enjoyed, but it was in a city we no longer live in. I am missing the people there and the projects. I liked it because I basically got to invent the job and build a framework of procedures to maintain the departmental computer hardware and software inventory. I was a steward of the computer assets and of the interactions of the people with their computer issues. 

So, what does one do when one is currently unemployed? Hunt for jobs? Or, go to the library and get a pile of books to read? Off I went to get a new library card and browse the shelves. This book was sitting on the shelf waiting for me.

It’s been on my reading list for awhile. The author is a meditation teacher of some renown that I have taken some online classes with. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about stewardship and the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood. 

The tag line for this book is “A Guide to Livelihood for a New Generation”. While I’m not young, I am (again) at one of the crossroads of life when one evaluates one’s direction. Unemployment does that. 

Lodro is a gifted writer. His writing is accessible and polished. This book is a blend of personal perspective and Buddhist teachings. 

He organizes the text into four parts, encompassing three yanas (Sanskrit for vehicle):
  1. Hinayana: Live with Purpose
  2. Mahayana: On-the-Job Compassion
  3. Mahayana: Six Tools for Compassionate Leadership
  4. Vajrayana: Be Awake for Each Moment
I specifically enjoyed reading, in part 2, the Three Steps for Creating Social Change through Inner Change. 
Step 1: Cutting through Fixed Views, which is familiar to me as managing expectations. Or maybe I should say “unmanaging expectations”.
Step 2: Raising Your Gaze, which speaks of removing yourself from emotional clouds in your view.
Step 3: Compassionate Activity, which basically says to be present and be the positive change you want to see.

While written for people currently in their 20’s and 30’s, it is a compelling read for anyone looking to see their daily work in a new light. I would (and maybe will) read it a second time through. It gave me some insight into how to be a more compassionate person in the workplace and also to understand the concept of "work" in daily living, as in - they are the same thing. Now, armed with some touchy-feely-goodness about work, maybe I can get out of the chair and find some.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

cars, cars and more cars

Culture shock. That’s what’s going on in this woman right now. I had heard it was going to be different, but then again, difference is what makes exploring interesting. 

We have just finished our move from downtown Richmond VA to Tysons Corner VA, this past weekend. Richmond is a beautiful city with a historic downtown area, sporting an ancient State Capitol complex that graces downtown with gardens, statuary and a fountain. There are cobblestone streets nearby with tiny, unique restaurants, welcoming coffee shops, friendly bookstores, the James Center YMCA and my beautiful, restless James River.  All this was two blocks from our apartment. My awesome job was a mere 5 blocks uptown. Walk score: 82

I really haven't spent much time behind the wheel of a car since we sold our suburban house in 2009, and I didn't drive much then either. The grocery store was 2 blocks, my job was a 30-minute walk and the kids were able to walk to elementary, middle and high schools. Church was a 20-minute walk and Grandma’s house was not much further. I’m not a big fan of cars. I like walking. I really, really like walking.

Now we live at the intersection of two big roads. One of them is legendary: Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway. I can see it from my 12th floor window, a constant stream of moving lights. It’s entrance and exit ramps are part of the foundational infrastructure of this place. All lesser roads mere specks in it’s eye. The other road is an old town connector, State Route 7, Leesburg Pike, constructed in 1933, from cowpaths. Today it is 6 lanes of stop and go traffic with feeder lanes running parallel to it to allow access to all the gas stations and quickie marts that line it through Tysons Corner. Walk score: 49

Did I mention the malls? There are two here in this quadrant of the Corner. One grander than the other, with all the dead-end loading docks and circular routes around parking garages that mark commerce as we know it today. The outer ring of roadway below my window, between my apartment and the mall, is 7 lanes wide.

There are sidewalks. Lots and lots of decorative pavement connecting areas together, but only where it looks good. There are huge gaps in the functionality of that pedestrian thread. I looked at the 45-minute trek to the regional library today on the satellite view online and couldn't quite figure out how to navigate the journey across highway ramps on foot. 

I am not going to let this daunt me. I will walk this place. If it means climbing down embankments and going the long way around to get to the safe sidewalks, I will know this land from the ground up. I will explore it’s parking lots and trails. I will go North, East, South and West as far as my legs will carry me. 

This bus goes to "Layover". 

Sunday, October 11, 2015


We've been traveling for the past week. Now I have a big stack of receipts sitting on the table, waiting for me to type them into my October spreadsheet. For the past 4 or 5 years I've been tallying every single expense on vast monthly spreadsheets. In general, I enjoy having the data and understanding where the money goes. I ponder each category and muse on the budget and examine the comparisons from year to year. 

It's not the first time I've done this careful expense tracking. I learned at my father's knee. We would spend evenings reviewing the logs he kept and the 25-year budgets he made that got my sister and I through college and a comfortable retirement for him and my mother. When I moved out and my husband and I were saving for our first house, I started logging like I had been taught and saved like crazy to amass that first $10,000 we ever had.  

I know there are tools that do all this logging now. I tried some. I think I stopped using them because it was almost too easy. Using a tool that monitored my credit cards took away all the manual data entry which had allowed me the time to ruminate about why that particular $20 was spent. I felt I needed the counting. It's just like watching the calories on a diet. 

I find, with this particular stack of receipts, that I am tired. I think it's time to take a break from the obsessive counting and tallying. Does writing down an expense after it's been spent really change my behavior? Does knowing how much we lived on last year really help me? After all, at then end of the month, do I have more than I started with or not? Isn't that all I need to know?

Months and years can be very different from months and years in the past. Is it really necessary to know how much we spent on books in October of 2012? Is it any prediction of what I might spend on books this month? We're moving this month. That will stretch many of the budget categories out of whack. 

Is it a budget or an expense log? What is its purpose? Does it keep me on a track, or does it just make me a compulsive penny pincher? Is it worth my time? 

I know most of the planned expenses that are in the next 6-12 months. There are some trips, I need some dental work, the holidays are coming. Isn't that enough?  

I may just toss this stack of receipts away. Some were hotel rooms, some were meals - we slept and we ate - it's over. It's time to take a break from counting it all. That doesn't mean spending will get all out of control. It just means I might relax a bit about examining it, rehashing it and saving all the details.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

sentimental stories about stuff

I have a small Mason jar full of sentimental stuff that doesn't mean anything to anyone else. I have a box of sentimental stuff in my sister’s attic. I used to have a 3-bedroom house full of stuff. 

Mementos, souvenirs, memorabilia, cherished objects: these are hard for many people to give up when they attempt to clear their lives of extraneous things. Minimalists teach us that clutter drains our energy and keeps us from living our lives fully. We are to pare down our collection of objects to those that are useful in our daily lives and that give us joy (or, at least peace). But the things that evoke our memories are the hardest to part with. Even KonMari says to leave mementos for last, once you have done all the easy categories, like your sock drawer.

So, how do we approach downsizing our collection of sentimental objects? I offer the concept of stories to guide decisions of what to keep and what to purge. Each object we have in our homes is there because of a story: an event or relationship in our lives. These may be stories about a special someone, stories about places we have traveled, stories about transitions in our lives, stories about our family history. The stories are the connection between us and our stuff. But are all stories important? How do we decide if the story is reason enough to keep the object?

Stories about family history are important to preserve. Material things help solidify those stories. My father has a framed copy of the front page of the newspaper his great-grandfather ran during the Civil War, in the Georgia town that bore his name. The American Union was a Northern-leaning newspaper and our ancestor was burned in effigy for publishing it. This object has a strong story and is worth keeping for our family.

Sometimes objects we keep tell personal stories, but the stories generally aren't interesting to anyone else. When we were cleaning out my mother's sewing room, I found a dolly and all the clothes that she had made for me when I was small. My first instinct was to stow it in my keepsake box at my sister’s. Then I realized that I just wanted to remember the story of my mother making it and us playing together. It's not like I was going to forget my mother if I didn’t keep this one handmade toy. Out it went.

Handmade objects can be particularly difficult to let go of, but it gets easier with practice. Acknowledge the time, effort and love that went into the making of the object, then reflect on whether or not you need to keep it. Have you been saving it because you use it and like it or because someone made it for you? It is the thing or the story?

I used to feel guilty getting rid of things that loved ones made for me, but I realize that for me, keeping things just because someone made them is sometimes a heavier burden than the guilt of letting them go. I hope my loved ones understand. It doesn't mean that I don’t return their love. In fact, I’m feel I’m able to love people more without the material things in the way.

Understand the stories that are connected to the objects you own. Are those stories still valuable to you? Do you need the object to remind you of the story, or will the story stand on it’s own in your mind? Would a photo of the object be enough?  Would a short written piece along with the photo suffice? Break the connection between story and object. Just keep the story. Or keep something really small.

The stories in my treasure jar.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

moving checklist

While we thought we'd be in this spot for a little longer, we follow the motto written in William Heat Least Moon's book, River Horse.

Proceed as the way opens.

The way has opened to a new job in a new location. We are riding the current.

For many folks, moving is an overwhelming task. A friend mentioned that she hasn't moved since 1978. It is a process that takes practice. I actually enjoy it. I think I've got it down to the essential tasks. 

Here we go.

  1. Notifications
    1. Landlord - gather invoice for lease termination fee
    2. Cancel YMCA membership 
    3. Quit part-time job (very sorry to see this gig go, it's been lots of fun)
    4. Separate from volunteer organizations (sob!, but I'll find new ones)
  2. Scout new location
    1. Google Maps
    2. DC Metro Transit Maps
    3. Driving around in circles a lot 
  3. Reduce total volume to move
    1. Eat everything in the freezer and pantry
    2. Gather anything that we don't use and donate
    3. Sort through that stack of paper (that might have been sitting for a year or so) and ditch most of it
  4. Find new digs
    1. Craigslist
    2. Another driving day
  5. Pack
    1. Kitchen
    2. Closets
    3. Roll up the futon (ok, so we do have some chairs, too)
    4. Store quilting fabric out of the way on the boat. Wait - using the boat as a storage unit, isn't that backwards?
  6. Transport
    1. Smallest U-Haul truck they have
    2. Follow with car
  7. More notifications
    1. Change address on renter's and car insurance
    2. Forward address with USPS
    3. (Banks are all with St. Brendan's, so no need to change any of that stuff)
    4. Update family and friends on where they can find us
  8. Unpack
    1. Stack up dishes and pans
    2. Hang up clothes
    3. Roll out futon
  9. Explore
    1. Bike path
    2. Yoga
    3. Coffee
    4. Beer


Tuesday, September 8, 2015


I popped into the drug store the other day to pick up a bus pass and noticed the Halloween decorations. That means Christmas is coming soon! The year goes by pretty quickly in Consumer HolidayLand. It's time to start planning the Family Holiday Celebration and already the question has been raised "What are we doing for gifts this year?"

The amount of consumer goods produced, purchased and wasted (take a look at store shelves on 26 Dec.) for a single holiday worldwide has a significant impact on the Earth's resources and on the global economy. We, in affluent countries, have an excess of material goods, consumer debt and issues with storage. It's worth examining this gift giving tradition we practice and making some changes.

Gift giving can be a difficult process, both on the giver's side and on the receiver's side. As a giver, I want to select a gift that express my love and intimate knowledge of what my loved one would like to receive. As a receiver, I want to be delighted and feel loved. It's a tough balance.

As someone who has given up owning items in many categories of traditional gifts (decorations/adornments/accessories, hardcopy media, house-related tools and general clutter), I've learned to deal with receiving gifts that I know I won't use. I simply express my gratitude, bring the item home and immediately donate, return or re-gift it. I have hurt some feelings when givers have asked about gifts later, but I've tried to explain that I appreciate the thought behind the gift, but I have no use for that particular physical object. It's the best I can do. I refuse to keep an item just because so-and-so gave it to me. I'm over that. We still love each other.                                                

My mother-in-law began many years ago to gift her children theatre tickets for Christmas. It's been wonderful!  Receiving theatre tickets is like getting two gifts - the social experience of unwrapping a gift of love on Christmas morning and the show itself, on a later date. Even better is attending the show with your loved one!!

Gifts of experiences have many advantages over durable goods. Tickets, museum memberships, restaurant certificates and pre-paid balloon rides can still be wrapped and opened on Christmas morning. Experiential gifts also shift dollars from converting natural resources to factory-made goods to direct income for actors, musicians, outdoor guides, yoga teachers, spa workers, chefs and others.

The best feature of experiential gifts is the potential of a shared activity with the family. My father gave us a family reunion in Portland OR last year. That was incredibly awesome. Memories of experiences, shared time with family - these "things" are more important, and more loving than any item purchased at the mall. It doesn't have to be huge. That coffeeshop card can come wrapped with an invitation to share a cup every week or every month. Time invested with family and friends is a gift that truly shows love.

Examine your family's gift giving traditions and practices. Talk to them all about making a shift from durable goods to non-durable goods, like tasty foods, or to experiences, both individual and shared. Make a new tradition. 

If your family doesn't want to change traditions and still expects a pile of fancy wrapped presents on Christmas morning, do what you can to make yourself comfortable, knowing that only by example, can you enlighten. And you can enlighten, only if the other person is open to enlightenment. Accept that and be true to yourself.

What is our family planning to do about gifts this year? I'm not sure yet, but I do know I won’t be going to the mall.

Here are some words of wisdom from my favorite Minimalist writers about how to bring your family around to the idea of gifts that can be loving, yet don't use unnecessary natural resources or become clutter in someone's home.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

joyful mornings

Mornings are my favorite time of day. Most mornings I'm waiting quietly abed for the alarm to sound. When we are traveling overnight in our sailboat, I relish the 4 AM shift so I can enjoy the dawn. It's spectacular at sea. Dawn is pretty great most days, even when I can't see the horizon. 

One of the things I like about mornings, besides the light, sounds and smells, is that the morning transition is perfectly suited for routine. Routines give us structure and comfort. My morning routine is solid, and it helps me greet the new day with minimal decisions to make and activities that get my body and mind ready for whatever the day will bring. My morning routine, simply, gives me joy.

Exercise is first. Depending on the day of the week, it's either a run/walk outside, a cycling class, or yoga. I'm fortunate to live two blocks from the Y, so yoga and cycling are easy to get to. I set my clothes out the night before. Occasionally I skip a day, but I've usually decided that the night before. I don't give myself the option in the morning. I get mentally ready before I sleep. I have my alarms set with the activity for that day. If I am still asleep when it sounds (and it's Thursday), I'm greeted with "Get up! It's YOGA day!"  

Starting with exercise gives me an opportunity to connect with my body, to give it some attention and, in return, I get energy and a happy feeling that lasts for hours. I've been lately trying to combine exercise with meditation. Thich Nhat Han wrote a book about walking meditation and it was taught to us at the Zen Center. Leo Babauta also talks about breathing and being present in running. As long as I make sure I am running safely (cars, ground surface, dogs, etc.), the mind is free to focus on the breath while propelling the feet along. I do miss the seated meditation that I started in earnest this year (and started slacking off on), so will probably add that back in to my morning routine.

Breakfast is second. Prepping breakfast is a mindfulness practice in its own right. I assemble all the tools and ingredients and try to do all the process steps in the same order. Oatmeal and tea are my weekdays. Some eggs and croissants may peek in on the weekends. I make the quick oatmeal, so I measure out water to boil for our coffee, tea and oatmeal - no need for any pots to clean. I add raisins, chopped walnuts, my spice blend and a sliced banana. 

Washing up is third. This encompasses both the kitchen and the self. Cleaning the kitchen after every meal goes a long way towards making life pleasant. Doing the same sequence of things every day eliminates thinking about what needs to be done and frees the mind for problem solving or philosophy. Even simplifying one small thing makes a difference. I've started using the same soap for hair and skin: saves time and money and there is less to recycle at the end.

Dressing is fourth. Decision fatigue is a real thing, so I've reduced the choices in my closet. I grab either a dress or skirt + shirt combo. Every item in there is something I love. I only have to remember whether I've worn that outfit already this week, since I only wash things when they have been worn a few times. I have a pair of sandals, clogs, and knee boots, so shoe choice is weather dependent.

Ready to head out the door! I'm energized, fed and clean. Body and mind are prepared for a new day. 

Joyful Morning Oatmeal Spice Blend
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon orange peel

Mix in a small jar, enough for a week or so.

Monday, August 3, 2015

you got this

I’m holding on to a vertical wall by my fingers and toes looking intently at colorful plastic formations. My left hand can reach this one, my right foot can bump up to that one and then I have to slowly raise my left foot up to where my left hand is clinging in order to continue climbing upwards. About 25 feet below me, I hear a woman sing out “You got this!” It’s just the boost I need to stretch my leg up and barely connect that toe to stand up with enough balance to reach the next hold, and then the next and then next, until I’m up 45 feet, slapping the top bar with my free hand.

Once back on the ground (thanks to my trusty belay partner), I look for her to say “thank you”, but she’s already moved on to encourage someone else. It’s just another night at the gym.

I realized the other day that I’ve been spending much of my free time at the gym. I have been trying to simplify my life for some time now, following minimalist writers, such as Leo Babauta and Joshua Becker. They write about minimalism as decluttering your life to make room for your passions. I guess one of my passions is the gym. I didn’t plan it, it just happened. 

When we moved to back to land, I scouted apartments based on proximity to the YMCA. In the last city I lived in, it was a short bike ride to the downtown YMCA and all the yoga classes I could fit in. I wanted to do that again.

Mondays and Wednesdays I go to cycling at 6:00 AM, yoga at 1:00 PM and the rock gym at 5:30 PM. Tuesdays I just walk/run outside. Thursdays is yoga at 6:00 AM and sometimes the rock gym. Fridays is yoga at 1:00 PM and the rock gym.  Weekends are for walking and sailing. That’s 6 classes at the Y and usually 3 nights at the rock gym.

Why? It’s about being in touch with my body, for sure, but it’s also about community. There’s a bond between people who are pushing the limits of their bodies together in the same room. When we cycle on those stationary bikes with the music blaring, we are all racing together, as if the entire Tour de France is behind us. When we stretch, fold and twist in yoga, we are there for each other, breathing in and breathing out, intentional and focused.

And at the rock gym, it’s a combination spectator and participant sport. We climb, we chat, we take turns belaying each other. Groups of 2, 3, 4 form and disperse as people mill around working on the problems on the wall. We engage in dialog with the route setters, both verbally and with our bodies as we try to figure out the how to get up this one or that. We learn, we make friends, and we shout “You got this!”.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

book review - the life-changing magic of tidying up

I’ve been wanting to read this book for awhile. Yet, I resisted the urge to buy an electronic copy, even though I read most of my books electronically. This one seemed like it needed to be a hard copy in my hands. I guess because it’s about stuff.

I visited my sister a bit ago. My sister and brother-in-law bought a big house about 15 years ago, with pool and 4.5 baths - nice spaces to raise their family. When they first bought it, it was spacious, but needed quite a bit of work. They’ve put a lot of work into it, but over the years, it has become, well, cluttered. Really cluttered. Really, really cluttered.

When I was visiting this time, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps my sister, who appreciates Eastern philosophy, might also enjoy reading this book. So we hopped off to an actual brick and mortar bookstore and got 2 copies.

The book is not your standard technical recipe for decluttering a house. It’s more about the relationship between you and your stuff. It’s about respecting and loving your stuff. It’s about being grateful, not for your stuff, but to your stuff. Thanking your stuff for doing a good job of whatever it is the stuff does.

It’s about gracefully letting go of the stuff you no longer love and that no longer serves your needs. Thanking it and letting it go on it’s way, out of your house.

My sister was a bit disappointed that Kon-Mari (as Marie is known) does not advocate parting with stuff that you no longer love and going out to buy stuff you love better. As in - I don’t love this bowl, but I need a bowl, therefore I’ll ditch this bowl and go buy a more beautiful and expensive bowl that I will love.  Not.  I think the buying activity is where we go so wrong. We do it too fast, without really considering if we will love (or need) this piece of stuff. This book is about how to decide between keeping and letting go, not getting more.

So we started reading aloud to each other while we did other chores (she’s renovating one of the bathrooms) and talking about stuff, literally. Kon-Mari has a pretty strict method to tidy and it was interesting to read and discuss.

The day before I left, we started in the wardrobe with the accessories. We got out a fresh trash bag to hold the items to be donated and got to work. Everything came out on the floor where we sat. Following the instructions, every item was handled, listened to and folded. Then it went back in the drawer or into the donation bag. Donated items were thanked for their service.

One of the things Kon-Mari discusses is folding. She prefers folding clothes over hanging them and claims each item has a specific way it should be folded. She offers suggestions, but says each items knows it’s own best way. At one point, my sister made a little jumping noise and exclaimed something like “This scarf really did just tell me I was folding it wrong!”. Maybe it did.

Once you have let go the items that you do not love, you can focus on tidying (or caring for) the ones you do love. Kon-Mari describes the things you love as the ones that “spark joy”. She encourages you to thank your stuff on a daily basis for it’s service. When you enter your home and take off your shoes, you say “Thank you, shoes.” While I’m trying to improve my gratitude practice, I hadn’t thought to extend that gratitude to my stuff. It feels good.

After returning home, my sister has been reporting on the number of bags donated and the change in her wardrobe, dresser and closet (yes, all three were full, as well as the auxiliary storage area, the floor).

She made an observation that gives me hope. She said it’s hard to say thank you to her clothes and then drop them on the floor. 

That’s the “life-changing” and “magic” part of this book.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

ice cream + me = bff

We're off to Rehoboth Beach, DE in 2 weeks and one of the many things I'm looking forward to is enjoying an ice cream on the boardwalk. In our rich country of large grocery stores with whole aisles devoted to frozen food, it's easy to take ice cream for granted. I beg to differ, ice cream is an amazing concoction. Think of how delicious and special it is. First, cream from a cow, then sweetness and ice. I revere the person who first thought to make cold, sweet cream.

When I was a child, I had a storybook by Tasha Tudor titled Becky's Birthday, in which part of the celebration of this young girl's special day was home-made ice cream, back in the days before freezers and electricity. A bucket with a crank and paddles, salt, ice and strong arms made ice cream back in those days. I loved looking at the illustration on that page; barefoot children licking the paddles in the sunshine.

We had it good growing up, though. We didn't have to crank any paddles. There was a Carvel stand down the road and my Dad would sometimes lead an outing there to get a cone on a hot evening after dinner. He, always chocolate. Me, black raspberry - if they had it, or chocolate if they didn't. Black raspberry was my favorite simply because they didn't have it every time, and, well, and it's purple!

For the two years we lived aboard Red Ranger, we had no freezer, so there was never ice cream at home. We rationalized our decision not to have a freezer by classifying eating ice cream as an experience, not an everyday necessity. Ice cream is so much better when eaten outside, anyway. I can remember one hot, sweaty afternoon in St. Augustine, FL, after a long walk to get groceries. We sat outside the store, sharing a pint, using the take-out plastic spoons - fortifying ourselves for the long walk back to the marina.

Late one evening, on vacation in Portland, OR last year, I stood in line on the sidewalk at Salt & Straw with my family and the neighbors and waited my turn for the store-made delights. I happily licked a strawberry-honey-balsamic-black pepper cone while my sister sampled the lavender. Our treats were all the more delicious for the opportunity to relax and chat in the long line.

This summer, we spent a day with sailing buddies in the bayside village of Cape Charles, VA where, at Brown Dog, I indulged in the daily special: beet and goat cheese. Hubby enjoyed his trusty favorite, chocolate. Hot afternoons with an ice cream - does life get any better?

Maybe my desire to eat ice cream outdoors as a special treat is just a way of rationalizing my decision to keep sugar out of my kitchen, but it's also part of my gratitude practice, part of intentionally enjoying thing I used to take for granted. I do have a freezer right now, but it's full of vegetables, soup, bean burgers, walnuts and bread. I don't want to keep ice cream in box from the grocery store in there.

I'd rather wait to enjoy ice cream outdoors at the beach.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

rethinking house

I was leafing through a high-end shelter magazine that was laying around my sister's house last week. (disclaimer: it was not hers, it was a freebie sent to her husband's business. Leave it. Suze.) It got me thinking about house.

What is house? In it's most basic form, house is shelter: shelter from the weather, animals, and enemies. House is what we build to keep the neighbors from picking through our stuff, goats from joining us at the dinner table and the hot sun from burning our skin.

Because house provides us with shelter, we get all emotionally attached to it and start calling it "home". I'm thinking about house, though - the bones of our shelter and how we use it, not the pride and longing and happiness we may feel when we think about it.

What is house? It's the place where we carry out many of the daily activities of living. We sleep there. We prepare and eat our meals there. We raise our families there. We work and play and relax there. We depend on the structure of our house to support these activities. We want a quiet and safe place to sleep. We want a cooker and running water to help us prepare our food. We want interior spaces to enhance our work and play and relaxation.

I think it's possible we may have gone a bit too far in our expectations of house. If this magazine represents our expectations of house, then house has also become art museum, spa, restaurant/cooking school, library, hotel and movie theater. Wait, didn't we used to go out and experience those things in public spaces? With other people?

We have been sold the concept that house now means all those auxiliary activities that we used to do socially. We have been conditioned through advertising to view house as all-inclusive retreat center where we should be able to have spaces and furnishings to do whatever we want to do - all by ourselves (or with our select friends). The companies that make home theaters, sectional couches and high-end kitchen appliances want us to build bigger and bigger individual palaces where we can spend lots of money on things that only we can use.

We need to rethink house. I think we need to reassess our expectations of shelter. House should function as a place to sleep, eat and be safe. The rest of our activities should be done outside of house.

Go to the art museum. The museums have better art than most of us can afford and they rotate it and provide some back story.

Go to the movie theater. Get excited about the drama with a room full of other people and experience the huge view and great surround sound.

Go to the library and find books you haven't already read.

Go to a restaurant and get a special meal. Eat ice cream on the sidewalk with friends on a hot afternoon instead of from your state-of-the-art freezer.

Put your visiting family up at a hotel instead of maintaining guest rooms that otherwise never get used.

Let house, just be house.

Tammy Strobel's Tiny House