The weirdest month of my life, right here. March 2020! My father-in-law fell on February 27 and it turned out, broke a vertebra, and a week later, on March 5, he died. The next Tuesday, my union went on strike and we were on the picket lines for 3 days. With COVID19 closures looming we reached a contract settlement and the next Sunday we learned we’d be closed for the remainder of the month preparing for a massive scale distance teaching of children of all ages. Said preparation was spent with my own two small children at home with me, competing with my husband for work time, and binging on faaaaar too much Facebook. I let myself indulge in a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. I’ve been eating a lot. Too much. Trying to avoid feelings. Needless to say, my stress levels have been somewhat elevated.
On week 3 of this, we are settling in, figuring it out. My husband started actually distance teaching; we are officially on spring break so ours doesn’t start for another week. I’m sleeping kind of better and kind of worse. I’m walking every day. Inspired by this post, I’ve been doing little projects that have just kind of sat around forever and it feels good to finish them, use them, put them away, be done. I’m pushing myself to actually finish up things rather than get close and not see them to completion, and to avoid my old foe of spending time researching and ordering yet more supplies for projects and then not actually doing them.
I left off writing that last night . . . just couldn’t feel out where this was going . . . but I’m back again today. I have a vague feeling hanging about me, a constant unease. Maybe, as this article suggests and much more aptly describes, it’s grief. So many griefs this month, and it feels shallow to admit that the one that feels the biggest right now is this sense that I’ve spent 15 years in a career that I’m consciously choosing to be in said career at this time in my life, but is renowned for its degree of superfluous crap. The paperwork. The meetings. The documentation. The events. The committees. The TESTING. The TIME. All of that, in the snap of a finger, gone. Done. Don’t have to do it! Now: Do only the most important thing (teach) and in the simplest yet most effective way you can given the novelty of the format, etc. and take care of yourself while you do it. So while my intellectual brain knows that it’s temporary, and because of a very unusual circumstance, I also wonder . . . will I actually be able to go back to that?
Somehow turning the decade to 2020 gives me the feeling that a lot of time has passed… suddenly. Everything feels like a long time ago. This is compounded by the fact that I recently turned 50. As someone who tends to be very commonsense and logical, and who also spends a lot of time doing math, I don’t have any particular feelings about the number 50, but it has made me think more deeply about many things, including years past and years remaining.
While my family followed what was to teenager me an excruciatingly simple lifestyle, it wasn’t until I was out of university and on my own for a few years, working in a very fast-paced industry, that I began to explore simplicity on my own. I’ve honed various aspects of frugality and simplicity for the past 25 years or so.
In every simple living community or book I’ve observed or read, I’ve seen discussions of “how is simple living different from frugality” or “how is simple living different from minimalism?” The conversation always meanders through various ideas and opinions before someone reminds everyone that simple living is about choices – making choices to have choices.
This week, some of the choices I’ve made to make life simpler are
I’ve been more deliberate about practicing the 1980s style of smartphone use proposed by Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism, which is to turn on the ringer and leave it near the front door. That is to say, I’m treating it as a phone instead of an appendage.
I dug in and began the unpleasant pre-work that I’ve been avoiding for months for our 2019 taxes. It took about 3 hours and now I don’t have to dread it anymore. “Just begin” nearly always gets me through things like that.
I cooked ahead last weekend for scheduled long work days. It made those evenings much more relaxed.
I skipped Mari’s band concert after a long day at work. It was the first performance I’ve missed in 8 years of band and orchestra. This particular concert is held annually in the high school gym, which has dreadful acoustics, and parents sit on the (extremely uncomfortable) bleachers. The ratio of time that Mari played to time I would have spent to be there was about 1:8.
I contemplated making a baby blanket for an acquaintance’s baby shower, and then bought some favorite board books to share instead. The yarn or fabric would have cost the same as the books, and not everyone values handmade items. I’ve made many crocheted baby blankets and patchwork baby quilts over the years, and generally enjoy turning out a pretty present, but this month I decided that I had other time priorities.
I popped Mari’s well-worn CD of Anne of Green Gables into the car stereo this morning and from the first lines was whisked to a comfortable home in my memory. My mom bought this book for me when I traveled with my aunt at the age of 9. Once I got through the wordy descriptions in the first page, I was hooked. I finished it and immediately began reading it again. I read the series countless times over the years, continuing to read it into adulthood on occasion. The books have always been an escape for me; I recall taking an Anne book and my lunch to a park near my engineering job, sitting under a tree and reading to forget work stress for a while.
It was a pleasant way to spend the commute – listening to L.M. Montgomery’s loving descriptions of the natural beauty of Avonlea, every sentence a mark of her craft. The activities of the characters were a reminder of the world pre-technology. Anne fantasized about living near a babbling brook and spending the night in a wild cherry tree; she didn’t spend all her hours with earbuds and a smartphone. Rachel Lynde observed everything that happened in the neighborhood because she wasn’t parked in front of a TV. An 8-mile horse-driven buggy drive was a pleasure, not a time-sucking chore as it can be today in a much faster car. I’m sure there will be a million more examples; I’m only on chapter 2.
For many years, it was my fantasy to live far from the bustle of cities and suburbs, in a country cottage with a large garden and abundant physical and mental space. My parents moved to such a place when I was in college, and on my occasional visits I loved the sounds of the owls at night and roosters and cows early in the morning, the always changing landscapes of the Shenandoah foothills, and the lack of busy-ness. Oh, there was lots to do: painting outbuildings, harvesting berries, making jam, weeding, hanging laundry, painting the long stretches of fences – but there was also time to climb into the hills and marvel at the views, to enjoy a visit with the sociable barn cat, or to just think. For about a decade until upkeep became too much work for my aging parents, it was a much-loved refuge for me from the various cities in which I lived.
When, as of late, I begin to feel a real need for that refuge, I know that I need to step back and reconsider commitments. When home feels less like a cabin and more like a hotel, I know I am too busy. Recently, the fantasies of moving to the country resurfaced, and I asked myself why. It’s been a busy few weeks back to work and school, and we’re all still adjusting: we will adjust. I have given myself the position of always-willing-to-drive mother for Mari and her friends; while this can take a lot of time, there are benefits, such as knowing they are all safe, and the opportunities for conversation in the car. This is also temporary and will likely ease by the end of the winter; after her friends have navigated Minnesota winter roads, I will be more likely to consider them safe drivers.
When I was finishing my grad degree, I realized I had always been waiting for the next stage. As a young child, like many kids, I always wanted to be older. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get to college. The rapid, always-changing pace of college suited me, but I was eager to finish. The summer job I had between college and grad school was perfect in that within a few weeks I was ready to be a student again. And then I was done — I moved across the country and I was on my own… to discover that the grass was not as green as I had expected. After a couple of years I just wanted out of the corporate world. I realized that there was always something to be finished, always something new to begin that probably wasn’t going to match my expectations.
The stress of this time will pass, and I will have some fond memories of it. Doing what I can now to make each day enjoyable for all of us will give us each a better time now and better memories in the future. And part of making every day better for all of us means giving myself more breaks.
A year ago I read the idea of a “20-minute daily vacation” in Laura Vanderkam’s Off the Clock. It’s time to implement it!
Windows open for days on end Listening to the frogs and owls at night Flowers, bees, and butterflies Biking somewhere, or biking nowhere in particular An afternoon at the lake Line-dried sheets Thunderstorm! Leaving the house without outerwear for so many months that we forget about it Long daylight hours Grills fired up all around the neighborhood Garden bounty Outdoor festivals Farmers markets Greenery everywhere Less laundry to do with reduced bulk of summer clothes Picnics Sitting by the campfire Stargazing Increased unscheduled time Outdoor concerts
When did liquid soap become ubiquitous? I recall when I made the change for handwashing in my home; I had a cat that obsessively licked bar soap, and I thought it might be bad for her. Over time I became more aware of the environmental consequences of liquid soap: more fuel for transport; unnecessary ingredients, including some that have been shown to be harmful; all those plastic containers. Once Mari was old enough to hold a bar of soap, long after the cat had spent her 9 lives, we gladly made the change back.
Pros of Bar Soap:
– Minimal packaging
– No anti-microbials
– Easily available in unscented form, or naturally scented
– Soap dishes never wear out and are easy to “refill”
– Lots of fun options for soap dishes – beautiful china, interesting rocks. I use seashells that we collected on a family trip.
– Lower cost per handwash
– Takes up less space in the cabinet, so easier to buy in bulk, with further cost savings
– Less weight for transport (liquid soap contains water, which weighs 8 pounds per gallon)
Bar soap demonstrates the green triangle about which I first read in a simple living book: if something is good for one aspects of health, budget, and the environment, then it is likely good for the other two as well. Three priorities met with one small effort!
It’s been a thrifty week. We’ve all been at work or school for long hours, and it’s been fairly cold. None of us has any desire to go out in the dark and cold for anything unnecessary or superfluous. I’ve been so pressed for time that I was utterly thrilled to find two jars of soup in the freezer last night to finish out my workweek lunches.
I’m reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits in an atomically slow fashion – about 3 pages/day during my work lunch (I’m guessing I’ll beat my coworker, who is reading Chernow’s Hamilton in the same manner). Today I was reading Clear’s summary of the cue, craving, response, and reward progression that everyone consciously or unconsciously experiences many times each day, and it occurred to me that Thom and I both find rewards in our frugality.
What are the rewards to which we have conditioned ourselves? The challenge of making something by hand The security of savings Creating things that are better in some way – unique or tastier or containing our favorite materials – than we could purchase
Some might say that I need more excitement in my life, if leftover soup is that exciting. But why would I want to change the ability to experience happiness over such little things?
(Ilse) Hygge is all over the media these past couple of years and our library has some lovely books on the subject, but I think I’ve known about it most of my life… it just didn’t have a name and wasn’t practiced to the extent that it is elsewhere. After reading about hygge, I realized that this is what I always loved about my visits to family in Germany – the focus on simple pleasures such as friends and family, the outdoors, and good food. All were often combined in a leisurely midday dinner or afternoon coffee outside. My grandparents’ house on Long Island was full of hygge, but somehow it always felt to me that it ended when I left… I didn’t feel the same anywhere else.
Before hygge awareness arrived, I had already adopted the “home as cabin” mindset. I think that some of my friends understand this, but not all. Honestly, we’ve mostly quit hosting since my return to full-time work, primarily because of my schedule, but also because I became aware of some house snobbery among a couple who are otherwise good friends. They do have a nice house, but I don’t feel a lot of hygge there.
What makes me feel a sense of calm and wellbeing in our house?
Good aromas… baking bread, spices, fresh air in the summer
Sounds of nature… owls in summer, rain in spring and fall, wind in winter
Snoozing pets… they are so easily pleased – a fleece blanket, a sunbeam, a lap
Coziness… in winter, ample warm blankets and throws, throughout the house
The right lights… reading lamps, LED candles on timers
(Kelli) I love it when it’s quiet. Right now I’m up past my bedtime to get it. With my kids at 4 and 2 right now, I’m craving quiet and introspection. They are at a really fun age and I love it when they will snuggle me, which they will do with book after book (hygge) or with the TV (not so much). We have a wood burning fireplace and it is sooooooo cozy when we have a fire! We’ve only done so twice! I really want to do that a few more times this winter.
I also finally figured out how to get my own little spot in the house, which is a little writing desk in our sun porch. No one messes it up, or leaves junk on it, or litters it with crumbs. Since it’s very drafty I’ve put on a heater and usually use a blanket and light a little candle in there. (In fact I just got up and moved so I could sit at my little desk).
Speaking of candles, I’ve come to embrace aromas a bit more, but I’m picky. They have to be oh-so-subtle.
One million blankets? Seems that’s yes. 😉
(Ilse) Ooh, quiet! Yes. There is not enough of that in the world and it is so necessary after a busy workday. In the summer, our screened porch is my refuge, and I love to sit outside but out of reach of the mosquitoes. In the winter, I sometimes have difficulty finding quiet in the house and retreat to the library instead.
What would my dream house have that would increase hygge?
(Ilse) A windowseat looking out on the back yard, large enough for 2, or 1 and a very large pile of books. An indoor garden of some type – some houses in warm climates have large planting areas inside the house (but I don’t intend to move for that feature!). Less clutter.
(Kelli) I think I’d live in the country so I could have a big bonfire area, or be outside under the stars. I miss that about my childhood home.
What can I do in my present house to increase hygge?
(Ilse) We actually priced adding a bay window for a windowseat in our living room when we replaced our windows. Since it cost as much as all the other windows together, it was an obvious decision.
I’d like to figure out some way to arrange my houseplants to appear more garden-like. They are all in disparate pots all over the house. I’ve recently seen some articles about houseplants being the new decorating trend, so I’ll look for some ideas. (whoever would have guessed that a small house filled with houseplants would become trendy?)
We could decrease clutter. This is a constant goal and we’ve made a lot of progress. The clutter takes a few predictable forms in our house: books, footwear (particularly in winter), and papers. Happily, decreasing clutter is almost always free except for the time. Here’s where to focus my energy!
(Kelli) I agree with the clutter. It is just such a mental energy suck. Looking around I feel overwhelmed almost all the time, which makes it hard to relax, be present, want to have people over, focus my thoughts on other things. In one aspect, though, I want MORE items – and that’s to have more on the walls. We have had pretty spare walls for a few years after I put my foot down in this house of no “man cave” decor such as our former teeny little home had (vintage Northwoods, but still. SO. MUCH. NORTHWOODS.). I want more family photos, and photos from our trips, and, ok, a few vintage northwoods items would be kinda hyggetastic.
(Ilse) Until I get back to creating a photogenic hygge-ful space, I’m going to channel my inner cat. Sylvester finds hygge everywhere, and he spreads the hygge spirit with his rumbly purr and physical and temperamental warmth. Warm blankets, fireplace, family, book, tea, purrrrrrrrrrrrr.
The sun is poking through the clouds, shining with unusual intensity for a cloudy day directly into our dining room. The house is quiet – only the animals and I are awake. I am sitting at the keyboard, thinking. This is what I wanted more of when I quit that crazy job. Time to just think. It’s been a year now, and that anniversary as well as the lack of padding in our bank account has made me ponder my choice, which still feels right. I’ve never had a job that felt like such a good match to my skills, and because there is room to grow in the organization, I believe that our income situation will improve in time. In the meantime, Mari’s only home for two more years. I want to make those happy years, not two more years with a stressed-to-the-limit mom.
I met my friend Mary to walk and talk yesterday, and our conversation turned to how I have more time now. I definitely do, though its source is not really obvious. One hour of daily work time saving has been given to sleep that I didn’t know I was missing until I felt the resulting change. I am not spending hours each week on a job hunt, as I was for much of 2018. Overall, it’s hard to say whether reduced stress or the changed work environment is the most significant factor.
My previous job required “deep work” for the entire day. Every task, every day, required problem solving in a different situation, resolution in a timely manner, with close to zero tolerance for error. But all day long I was interrupted by someone in person or by phone, text, or page at least every 15 minutes. Sometimes it was something that could have been asked in an email. Sometimes it was production staff asking me when I would be done using some equipment (I managed to never say, “Sooner if you stop interrupting me.”). Sometimes it was actually something urgent. Every day when I came home, my brain was exhausted – and then I would still continue to receive texts and emails and ponder unsolved issues, often in the middle of the night. My coworkers were similarly stressed, which multiplied the effect.
Now, I am still interrupted for most of the day, but I have at least an hour every morning with close to zero interruptions. The deep work I do comes in concentrated bursts, and there is no manufacturing urgency. When I leave for the day, I am done. I don’t have to make tentative weekend plans around the possibility of being called in to fix something. I have mental energy left in the evenings to learn new things, to begin creative projects, and, most importantly, to be available to my family in more than robot mode.
It is still difficult to catch up with friends due to everyone’s different schedules and time demands, but when I do, I can to settle in and enjoy the time, rather than being stressed about what I’m not getting done. Yesterday, Mary and I walked for an hour on a day with weather that can only be described as perfect (yes, in January!). Both the outdoor time in the sunshine and the discussion were therapeutic.
So, life is very good, but there is some threat of financial strain. To minimize that I will be renewing my focus on frugality, continuing to seek ways of saving on a regular basis. My budgeting approach is somewhat casual except for one rule, which covers just about everything: don’t spend if it’s not necessary or if it’s not in line with family priorities. (I have a formal budget in a spreadsheet, but I don’t look at it very often… it helps that I have a strong memory for numbers.) Our default when something is necessary is to first consider if something else can be substituted or repurposed, which results in many fun creative experiments and a lot of learning. I was considering some sort of formal budget challenge, but after reviewing expenses from the past year, think that I would rather just focus on that one rule, and allow that energy to go to new learning instead.
Is frugality part of your simple living path? What tools do you use to maintain a frugal lifestyle when there are so many anti-frugal influences every day?