On differences of perspective.

We all approach the world in different ways; heck, we occupy different worlds, for the most part.  Even those of us who live together, who adore each other, and who share, in many ways, similar attitudes and beliefs.  Often, those differences are a real problem, and sometimes they’re just plain funny.

My husband is a very relaxed guy.  I am not.  I have always liked order.  He doesn’t care that much.  I’m sure this is about differences of upbringing: his was secure and loving, so he didn’t feel much need to control his environment.  I, on the other hand, did.  Anyway, we’ve struggled with this range of issues for the nearly twenty years we’ve been together, and usually with good humor.  Which is where this example comes in:

We recently bought a new fridge/freezer when our old one broke.  We got a pretty budget model which we thought would do fine.  Until we tried to load the freezer at home and realized that its single shelf is fixed in place six inches from the bottom and twelve from the top (never mind that it bows in the middle under ordinary weight).  I tried, for a few weeks, to live with the necessary chaos of frozen fruits and veg that results from this total lack of structure, and then I lost it.  The seventh time I tried to remove a single bag of peas and ended up working with both hands and my whole torso to staunch the flow of frozen food tumbling forth from the maw of this hideous beast, I hollered.  Len ambled in, helped put everything away again, and then stepped back as I started to, er, explain that we were going to buy BINS, TODAY, because we were going to create a SYSTEM, because WHO LIVES LIKE THIS?  I may have been emphatic, even vehement.  Len, bold man that he is, grinned at me and said, as he patted the freezer gently:

“We already have a system!  Frozen stuff goes in here.”

(Yes, we bought the bins.  No, I still can’t stop laughing.)

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On doing one thing at a time.

Like many of you, I struggle to be all things to all people.  Rather, I’ve given up EXPLICITLY trying to do that, because I’m too smart to keep at the impossible (sometimes), but I’m not smart enough, it seems to give it up entirely.  I still worry, when I’m parenting, that I’m not bringing in money.  When I’m bringing in money, I worry that it’s not building a career.  When I’m having conversations about building a career, I’m worry about the experience my kids are having in daycare and wondering what I should give up on in order to be more present somewhere, sometime.

But the bottom line is, we have to choose.  Most of us, as the self-help books point out, choose by default: we limp along in agony until eventually we fall on one side of the path or the other.  It’s unpleasant but surely saves on decision-making.  I am rather a master of this skill.  Case in point: a pretty fantastic job appeared recently at an institution near me, and I sweated for a week over whether or not to apply.  But every time I turn the decision over again, filling the wee hours with my remorse and trepidation, I arrive at the same place. I am not ready to go back to full-time work yet.  I want to spend more time in my children’s lives.  Other people may not; I may not eventually; but right now, I would feel sad and cheated and resentful if I could not spend these two-and-a-half weekdays with my boys.  So I will honor that and choose not to apply for full-time work.

The hard part, of course, is less making the choice and more living with it.  I have always believed in a keep-all-doors-open policy, which makes perfect sense if you are not sure where you want to go.  And so I mistrust my own clarity when I do have it.  But enough sleepless nights, going around the same circles, and even I come to see that my conclusions are always the same.  So the math leads me to believe what the soul has been trying to say all along.

This macro-dynamic of too-many-things shows up everywhere, of course.  In college, I changed majors four times, the last time in the middle of my junior year (bad idea, in case you wondered).  When designing courses, some people think about what reading and assignments to include; I have to think about what to leave out, because there’s SO MUCH great stuff to work with.  Last month I purchased no fewer than eight sample cans of paint in order to decide what color to paint the kitchen (and please note: they were all shades of white.  The kitchen is white).  My any.do app which I use to manage to-do lists typically includes eight or ten things under “today” and a similar number under “tomorrow”; never mind that any ONE of these things might be (was, in fact, today) enormous: making curtains for a friend.  (FYI, that project involves cutting and sewing ten panels of various lengths, hemming on all sides and creating top pockets for the tension rods she will use.  The fabric is a gauzy linen; the sewing machine is a temperamental thing with a bad attitude about tension.)  What special form of self-flagellation leads me to put all these items on a single day?  I realize it’s mostly a commitment to keeping the doors open, in case circumstances direct me to one or another of these things, they are all right there for the doing.  And on an average day, I probably do cross off three or four things.  But…three or four out of eight is kind of depressing.  I want to feel more efficient than that.  I want good reasons to tell some of these nagging voices to pipe down.

So as part of my commitment to Peace in All Things (a mother of two under four: bwahahaha), I decided today that come hell or high water, I would achieve SOMETHING.  I was not going to spend my available time on Pinterest and Facebook, planning and pining.  I was going to find my way into that beautiful, soul-soothing creative space and emerge without having done everything but having made something.  Because that has to be enough, and I have to practice it.  And so I did.  Four panels only, but that’s something for an afternoon.  Small hands may have helpfully pushed each pin all the way into the pincushion (“I like the colors, Mama!”), and even smaller hands may have spent quality time measuring my chair repeatedly (“My measure tape!  I measure for you!”), but I was able to be and do together.  This feels like spiritual practice.  It feels like good work, one thing at a time.

On simplicity and plenty.

My idea of bliss is spacious: open fields, airy rooms, bright spaces.  I’ve always thought it was an aesthetic thing, but as I’m reading (again, in parts) Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting, I realize that’s it’s more than that.  As usual, aesthetics are also ethics, and I believe in a lifestyle that is simple, natural, deep, and direct.

Yesterday was our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and while we had a lovely night out, the day itself was hard.  I’d been looking forward to it, because I had both boys and a playdate in the morning AND a visit from another friend in the afternoon.  But the boys were more or less intractable.  We spent much of the morning in a tussle to get TO our friends’ house and the rest of it in a tussle to get back home.  I’ve never seen so much crying.  It occurs to me, of course, that what they want is simple downtime — to rummage through their toys, invent new games, lie on the floor under the table, eat an oversized apple in a particularly messy and inefficient way.

Payne’s book makes the case that such downtime is not only valuable for kids; it’s necessary.  For them and for us.  Our lives are too complicated, too fast, too crowded, too loud, and the net result is that we don’t have much space to permit our feelings, our processing, our development, our SELVES, to show up.  We feel sad about something so we put on a movie.  We have a window of time between meetings so we hit Pinterest.  Even the guilty pleasures we adore sometimes drop away from our lives, squeezed out by a sense that we don’t deserve such luxury and that anyway, we don’t have time.  Reading is like that for me.  But it’s astonishing how time stretches out when we let it.  I check the clock after fifteen minutes of reading because I’m sure it’s been an hour already.  Singing does that.  Gardening does that.  Lying on the floor with our kids does that.

Time with our kids, and SPACE with our kids, is like that.  We filled up Ezra’s walls with pictures of animals because he loves them, but before long he seems not to care about them anymore, and the room just looks smaller, cluttered, with less room for air and light.  The single bird-feeder, mounted outside his window, does far more for entertainment, learning, and connection to the animal world than the twenty pictures all over the walls.  And yet, when I try to reduce the book collection, as Payne recommends, I hit a wall.  There are a few things I don’t love, but mostly his two-shelf collection is carefully chosen and thoroughly wonderful.  How to get it down to twelve books, and why?  Perhaps a commitment to rotation more often would soothe my concerns here…or perhaps we try to winnow in other places.

Because I do think there’s a place where abundance still does mean abundance.  A collection of fabrics that I love makes me feel rich, as does a well-chosen shelf of books.  A stack of good magazines, arranged in a lovely basket, ditto.  A coffee table obscured by heaps of books and magazines, however, makes me crazy.  So the line between simplicity and plenty is a moving target for me, highly conditional, field-specific, and storage-dependent.  I revile the notion of storing lots of stuff — why?  WHY? — but I honor the desire to keep what really matters.

I come back, over and over again in my life, to the Craftsman principle articulated by William Morris: “Let there be nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or find to be beautiful.”  With kids, I grant you, that’s a bit of a stretch, but then we’re not shooting for ideal.  We’re just looking to feel at home in our lives.  So we keep tacking back and forth, then, clearing out and making way, hoping the new air and light will help us make best use and beauty of all the chosen objects of our lives.