Saturday, April 28, 2012

Forgotten Umbrellas and Lost Kites

It is supposed to rain today and my daughter forgot her umbrella. Her class is walking to the public library this afternoon, and the teacher said they would go regardless of weather, unless it stormed very hard.

I thought I would take her the umbrella. The umbrella and the library card she also forgot. But then I sighed and told myself,  Consequences. She needs to learn consequences. 

I am not good at letting my children feel pain. I can inflict it well enough; they lose privileges or receive punishments in a way that is reasonable and fair. I hate complacent bad behavior, and it is not dismissed. But letting them feel the pain they cause themselves - I am bad at that. I am quick to soothe. The tearful repentance, the heartbreak over breaking a thing through irresponsible use, the grief at ruining something for herself - I can barely let those things last a minute. They make me ache.

I rush to comfort. Sometimes I even try to prevent the discomfort. We took the kids to fly kites for the first time  and before I let them out of the van (VAN!) I told them gravely that kites break or kites get lost or tangled in trees and that is just the nature of kites. All true things, but why was I so reluctant to let them discover it for themselves?

As it turned out, the kites did not get broken or lost that day. And the clouds today are disappearing, so maybe it will not rain. I seem to be warning my children to be prepared for discomforts that don't happen. But sometimes I think I am so eager to to ease their experience of life, they will not be prepared for the big disappointments that will surely come.

I guess life will have to take care of that for me. I hope I get to stick around to comfort them then.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Beauty, Part Three

It is springtime in Cincinnati and the black locust trees are in bloom.

If you were visiting here, you might hardly notice them. Black locusts are not majestic trees. They are not the showstoppers that a cherry or a dogwood is. They do not have the regal height of an oak or maple, or the symmetry of a Bartlett pear. More than once I have stopped, startled, when I notice the trailing white blossoms of a black locust and thought, "Wait a minute - that tree blooms?"

But their smell is deep and intoxicating. It is sweetness with layers and depth, a breath of richness and variety at the time of year when the honeysuckle overwhelms everything.

I like the block locust. It has a beauty you can miss. You have to be mindful enough to look for it.

After our month of vanlessness and our new routine of walking to and from the bus stop, I have been noticing more about the fleeting beauty of the neighborhood. Every bloom lasts for such a short time, and I have often been too hurried to notice it. The redbuds this year were early and gorgeous, and the one dogwood on our street is a poem, as it is every spring. How do I not stand on the sidewalk and gather it all in? What could possibly be more important?

Old people understand this better than young people. The grandmother on the park bench is less impressed with what our efforts accomplish, so she pauses those efforts to watch the world. The world will put on a show, even if it plays to an empty house.

Beauty is not only something that engenders envy and hate, whatever the internet says. Beauty delights. The curve of a youthful cheek, such a brief and transitory thing, is a joy to behold, even when my own cheek is beginning to pouch. My eye rejoices in it. Envy is a thing that stomps out and mutilates, crippling our own capacity for joy. Envy shouts with Stalinesque brutality that if I can't have it, no one must have it, and how dare you display it. But it would be terrible tragedy - incomprehensibly awful - if the trim waist of a teenage girl disappeared from the world because I had a baby, or the bright sheen of her hair dimmed because mine went grey.

In the mercy of God, we cannot accomplish this, even at our most hateful. There is always another spring. The black locust trees reach out again with their scent, saying, Stop and turn around. There is something here to see. The girls grow taller and more still, the boys' shoulders broaden, and another generation of perfect human beauty puts on its show, while the grandmothers watch in the park and smile behind their hands.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Organizing Principles for My House

So how am I going to simplify our home?

Three times over the last year, I have donated piles of stuff to a charity that picks up donations at our door. Mounds of things have gone. Outgrown baby clothes and baby gear, old exercise equipment, furniture - anything that we don't use.

I love the principle of "useful, beautiful or loved" - that every possession in your life should be one of those things. But the problem is that so many things are useful or loved. If I kept only those things, I would still be drowning in too much stuff.

So when I pile up the the donations and call up Vietnam Veterans to schedule a pick-up (my charity of choice), here are the principles by which I am culling the house:

1. Storage is a cost. Last year I started reading The American Frugal Housewife, and one sentence stuck in my head: "Keep a bag for odd pieces of tape and strings; they will come in use."  Lydia Maria Child was dealing with a much lower level of prosperity than current Americans possess, but her principle still resonated. How many times had I wasted money buying something new when I could have saved an old thing and used it again?

So I tried it. I tried saving bits of this and that, things that might have a use in future.

It was a disaster. Not because I was saving things, but because I had too much stuff already. It does not matter if you save things if your home is so full of stuff that you cannot find the things you saved when you need them. Then, because you don't have ten hours to search through and reorganize enough to find it, you go out and buy a new thing anyway.

So here is what I learned: storage is a cost. It costs you something. It costs you time and space and potentially money. When I consider whether to save something for future use now, I will ask myself if the cost to me of storing it is worth the savings later. With something precious like books,  the answer is obvious. But with other things, a more realistic answer is usually no. If no, then can someone else use it? Can it be donated? Can it be recycled?

If not, the garbage truck comes every week, and I will have learned not to buy that particular thing again the next time.

2. Everything in my closet fits. If I were in an accident tomorrow, and my husband had to bring me a change of clothes at the hospital, could he grab any random thing from my closet? Or would he unknowingly grab something from the dream-of-fitting-into-it section?

Get rid of those clothes.

Maybe you will lose or gain the weight necessary to wear them again. Maybe you will. But then won't you want the excitement of buying new things? Storage is a cost. By keeping those clothes, I am less able to manage emergencies because I have to manage my possessions.

Maybe the issue isn't size.  I have t-shirts I loved when I bought them that just don't fit right anymore (this is why I'd rather buy all my shirts from thrift stores: they come already shrunk), or have had various unremovable stains installed by small, eager hands. Whatever the reason - if I don't want to wear it, then I why am I keeping it? On a day I'm behind on the laundry, I will wear the ugly shirt, and then I will wash it again and store it again, and so forth. All that effort for a shirt I hate and don't need.

3. If I don't want to wash it, then I don't want to keep it. If a dress or a sweater keeps staying on the bottom of a laundry pile because it has special laundering requirements that I don't have time or energy for, I need to rid myself of that dress or sweater.

Maybe it's not a fancy dress or sweater. Maybe it's something simple you still hate to wash. I HATE clothes with velcro, because the velcro snags everything else in the wash, so I have to be careful what I wash with it.  I will no longer keep kids' hats, gloves or coats that have velcro on them. They are too disruptive to the routine of laundry. I want to respond to my life, not my possessions.

4. Buy it once. I read that bit of advice from Dave Cormier on Bonnie's recycling blog. It put  succinctly something we've applied to furniture, but not always to other things.

Buying cheap and disposable creates more clutter than buying sturdy and permanent. I know this. This is why I don't even bother buying paperback picture books anymore. The children might as well eat them, as long as they last.

If something is necessary enough to buy for my home, it is necessary enough to buy carefully and well.

5. Beware of organizing products. I once went shopping with a friend who said she needed, among other things, a container for her pencils. We went to Target and she paid money for a shiny, empty metal canister that looked exactly like the shiny, empty metal canisters formerly containing high-calorie infant formula that were sitting in my house, waiting to be recycled. It was an eye-opening moment for me. And now my kids' colored pencils are gathered into a shiny metal canister I did not buy at Target.

I'm skeptical of organizing products, not just because it may be manufacturing a false need, but because it suggests a "solution" that may actually make the problem worse.  I love Ikea as much as the next person. So calm! So serene! Full of the promise that you can impose order on your stuff by buying stuff to put your stuff in!

But buying more things cannot make my home contain fewer things. Simplifying my life means living more simply. There is no other way to to do it. I can't simplify my home by adding more stuff to it.

That doesn't mean organizing doodads are never useful. This week I will buy a DVD folder to put all our kid movies in so I can finally throw away the jewel cases. That seems an adequately useful product. Bookshelves are obviously a useful organizer. But I still view with skepticism most products on offer.

6. Admit the limitations of my home.  I have several art nouveau prints we bought when we moved into the house, full of ambition about how to decorate. They have been in my closet for years. We have an old house with real plaster walls over two-by-fours that are actually two-by-fours. A stud-finder cannot find the studs in that 100-year-old plaster. We just have to hammer in a nail and hope we're lucky.

In other words, I cannot hang anything heavy on my walls. There is no reason to keep posters whose frames would (and have) pulled out the hooks I used to hang them. My home has limitations. I should get over it and adapt. Goodbye, art nouveau prints.

So that's it. These are the things I will keep in mind when I am scraping my way through the detritus of our home. What about you? What would you add?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Year of Uncluttering

Last winter, I spent a day and night at Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The Shaker movement has died out, but the village has been restored and turned into a hotel and retreat center. The Shakers placed high value on simplicity and peace, and the village retains that character. There is a stillness there that came from more than the cold winter air.

When I came back home, I thought a lot about what a peaceful home is, and whether I cultivate peace for and in my children. I don't think I do, really. I cultivate peace between people - harmony between the sisters is expected, and I take away toys if they fight over them - but inner stillness? No.

The Shakers believed that inner stillness was supported and encouraged by a simple and orderly environment. I have four children and a messy, cluttered home. There is very little order around here.

In the past year, we've had one or two homeowner emergencies that became bigger than they needed to because I could not attend to them. I was too weighed down with managing the usual chaos of our lives to move with any speed. After a few heartfelt discussions with my husband - whose pack rat tendencies are a disastrous match with my poor housewifery - he agreed that I could start tossing things without getting his permission for every item.

By the end of this year, I want to have a genuinely simple house. No collections of junk, no piles of unworn clothes or dusty exercise equipment. I want a home that allows me to be still. I want a home that allows me to respond to life with hospitality and peace, rather than just manage possessions.
The husband started working third shift this week.

Third shift, for those of you who don't know, means working nights. He worked nights when I was pregnant with our first three kids. He worked nights when I was writing my first blog, but I never mentioned it because I was more concerned back then about strangers reading that information and considering it an opportunity for crime.

Now he has switched to third shift again, and I am writing about it not only because I am less worried but because it is such a big change for the family now, and I need to talk about it. Third shift means coming home in the morning before the kids go to school, and then sleeping till dinner time. When he works nights, he not only needs to sleep during the day, but he needs more sleep than he would get at night. Your body never forgets that you are a diurnal creature; you need more sleep because the sleep you get is worse sleep.

I could not work third shift. It would kill me. But the husband adapts to it very well. He likes the culture of third shift: the freedom to do the work without meetings, the oddball employees night work attracts, the absence of management with their impending panic. He sleeps fairly well during the day, and he loves the feeling, when he opens a beer at 8 am and climbs under the covers by 9, that he is getting away with something. All you day people are scurrying around with responsibilities, while he gets to sleep. Ha.

In case it isn't clear yet, my husband likes working third shift because he has me. I do the extra work necessary so that he can work third shift. I take care of all the household tasks. I respect his need for sleep. This was particularly hard when I had babies, and I wasn't getting much sleep at night myself. All night long alone with your first baby is especially hard, and we had no family in the area to help us out. It was a lonely and difficult time.

I have four kids now, of course, but they walk on their own and sleep all night long. I can pile them all in the van (VAN!) and drive them to a park to get their attention off me. I am hoping this time will be easier. But they also have homework and other responsibilities, and I am not sure how much of the load I will  have to carry by myself. I guess time will tell.

For now I am trying new breakfast recipes and learning to sleep in the middle of the bed again. I haven't been sleeping well, and I could really use a nap.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

We Have a Minivan!

My parents came to visit and they brought us a minivan.

It's an old minivan. It has 150,000 miles on it and has needed one repair already since we got it. The engine has a low rumble that makes me nervous, but my parents drove it all the way from Texas without trouble, so it clearly has a few miles left in it.

So we have a vehicle again.

For now, the kids are still riding the bus. I would like to keep them on the bus until the school year is out, but it is a relief to know we could switch to the van if there are any problems. My six year old came home yesterday and said that some big girls were picking on her. "They kept calling me 'orphan' and shouting 'Bananas!' at me," she explained. I have no idea what that means and neither does she, but she was not sufficiently troubled by it to give up bus-riding, which she otherwise enjoys. If that's the worst thing that happens, I will consider bus-riding a success.

And now I am trying to decide how much of vehicled life I want to re-adapt to. I love being able to walk a few blocks to pick up the kids rather than drive, but I have already learned to always bring the stroller with me.  A few neighborhood prostitutes have started walking that stretch of road during the afternoon, and I get more attention than I want if I wait there alone. My stroller marks me as MOM, and moms get respected or left alone here. I have never had so much as an unkind word directed toward me when I am pushing the stroller.

One of the privileges of visible motherhood: men do not assume I'm a prostitute. Remember that next time you feel bad about looking like a mom.

(Disclaimer: I have not actually asked the two women and one transgendered man if they are prostitutes, so I could be making false assumptions. But in this neighborhood, shorts that short and heels that high usually indicate this, as well as being very impractical attire for the half mile they walk over and over. So I'm guessing. But maybe they volunteer at the nursing home down the street and like to stretch their legs. I couldn't say for sure, and it seems rude to ask.)

So far, the minivan has felt like a safety valve. I can walk where I want, but I have the van as back-up. It feels good to have back-up. It also means we could all ride to church together for the first time in ages on Sunday. I would like to tell you that I celebrated the occasion by being perfectly patient and serene during the getting-ready-for-church, Sunday-morning chaos.

I would like to tell you that.

So. Anyway. This is our life now. The van is scarred on one side from an old side-swiping accident, which is the only thing that distinguishes it from any other minivan. It is how our friends will grow to recognize our new vehicle (I have named the van Clara, which I privately pronounce as assonant with "scar"). It's not a bad way to recognize the Mitchell family, really. Banged up, but still useful.

Yeah. That'll do.