Thursday, December 29, 2011

Clearing Space and Cutting Hair: Letting Go of Stuff in the New Year

I’ve never been fond of having too much stuff—stuff on the walls, on shelves, stored away, in the brain. Traveling and changing residences a lot in my twenties helped to facilitate my love of periodically paring down, because I could not possibly carry that much on my back, transport that much in my car, or find the space to store everything in whatever new space I was about to call home. But when you start living somewhere for a long time, with no plans to move for years or even decades, you have to grab the reins and take charge of this process a bit more, force it to happen, or readily give in if you feel a sudden urge to create change.

Unlike some, I enjoy the process of periodically going through my papers, my clothes, my boxes full of ‘special things’—and now my son’s clothes, books, and toys too-- and figuring out what no longer needs to be kept. Ideally, this kind of organizing can be done while alone, playing music, and at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time to allow the mind to pause and linger over old memories as you make choices about what you can let go of. Otherwise, if you don’t have the right time or space to do this, you might be tempted to just re-stuff jumbled piles into new boxes, afraid that you will make a hasty decision that you will regret.

In any case, I’ve been on a de-cluttering kick this holiday season. I took one of my 2.5 hour breaks one day and attacked my overflowing pile of papers and files on my bookshelf. I three-hole punched and stuck in a folder many pages of writing from the last couple years, and I threw away old drafts of grant applications, outdated insurance forms, and old writing magazines.

I also decided to finally throw away a folder full of rejection slips that I’ve collected for almost fifteen years. You might wonder why I hung onto these slips at all, and I assure you it’s not because I enjoy reinforcing my failures (at least not on a conscious level). No, I’ve kept these slips precisely because I’ve been so convinced of the opposite—that someday I would have such success that I would be able to look back on this folder, perhaps even show it to some of my students pining for instant publication and fame, and say, this is what it takes. You can’t be hurt by rejection, you’ve got to keep writing and learning and getting better. You’ve got to trust deeply in your intrinsic love of the process, in your intrinsic knowledge that this is what you want and need to do with your life—amongst other things, of course. Even writers can’t be writers all the time.

But you know what? That folder was taking up space that I could otherwise give to something else. I’ve barely submitted a piece in the last few years due to a lack of time, but also because I’ve transported my “publishing energy” to this blog. And I’ve said this before-- although my audience from this blog may be relatively small, I still am interacting way more with people who are reading my words than I was before. I have not given up on traditional publishing modes, but I’ve taken a sabbatical from pining for such goals because, a.) Like I said, I don’t have the time right now, and b.) refreshingly, the blog format allows me to let go of my perfectionist tendencies, and instead to just keep writing, as much as I can, and put stuff out there even before my ideas may be fully formed or paragraphs fully edited. Is it my best, most polished or lyrical writing? No. But is this process just as satisfying, albeit different, as it was to labor over essays for months, even years, putting them through rounds of feedback and revision? Yes.

There’s just as much of an ego-tripping danger in holding on to something to prove your worth as there is to holding on to something to prove your lack of worth. It’s really just the inverse of the same impulse. In my stubborn clinging to my own outdated notions of what it means “make it” as a writer, I devalue other crucial layers of my creative self that are evolving every day.  I persist in clinging to notions of "making it" (book contract, career in academia, recognized in literary circles) that I don’t even fully strive for anymore, for the longer certain beliefs have been established within me, the longer they take to dispel. On many levels, I still value more what the outward, linear trajectory of my life story “says about me” versus the inward, cyclical trajectory that I have come to know as the true reflection of the way I learn, grow, and live.

It’s important to say goodbye to things—to people, to homes, to outdated lifestyles, goals, and beliefs—on symbolic outward levels, on levels that we can recognize, in order to help move the stubborn clinging old stuff inside that persists, despite our best intentions. This, to me, is what this season of solstice and darkness and hibernation and reckoning has come to symbolize: saying goodbye and letting go. Shedding old skins, pledging to new ways, marking time with ritual so that our deepest desires and wisdom can sink into our conscious psyche and manifest in our actions that much more.

Although the actual day of winter solstice passed by in our home without even a lit candle or nod of ritual (what can I say? we are tired; the days blend), this season of letting go and inviting change has not escaped me. Not only have I been purging files, but I’ve also been rearranging items on shelves, re-hanging pictures on walls, moving furniture and plants, and getting rid of bags full of old blankets and clothes. My motivation may be practical and aesthetic (our tiny home’s clutter has reached an all-time high, and we are debating how to either create a little zone for Cedar or, more drastically, move our bed into the living room so we can give him the bedroom), but my underlying impulse to clear space and get rid of things has a more primordial drive. As I continue to move furniture and plants, I cannot help but also dust and clean long-neglected corners of the home, corners which I might not see or notice in my every day, but which are there, collecting physical and psychological weight all the same.

I love how small acts like rearranging pictures on the walls and repositioning things on shelves can make a space feel so different. It’s so easy to get stuck in thinking that this one way of arranging things is the best or only way, when in truth there are a multitude of ways in which we can inhabit our space. I have this fantasy of someday taking our family to live abroad for a year and packing up all our stuff in storage—but ironically, a big part of this fantasy involves the process of then coming home again; of how our home will feel new to us, and by extension how we will be freed to recreate our space, and our lives, in a vital way.

The other unexpected change that my husband and I have embarked on this holiday has come in the form of hair. My husband took the biggest leap and cut off his long locks that he has grown out since high school. He’s been considering doing this for some time, but he’s also known that once he does, he may not have long hair again for a long time—or ever. (Who wants to go through the awkward growing out phases at this age?) It helped that his sister, Sarah, is a hair stylist who brought her shears to our Christmas gathering and gave cuts and highlights to just about everyone in the room.

As for me, I got my bangs trimmed and a shorter cut. Then when Sarah asked if I wanted some color, I confessed to my long-harbored desire to do something even more playful. I just am so low-maintenance and frugal that I can’t really justify spending the money nor time involved in re-coloring roots and what not, but now that she was offering, why not, what did I have to lose?

So here I am, feeling trendier than I have in years with my amber-streaked hair that has loads more “dimension” that I never knew was lacking. Change is fun, and even if it’s “just” on the surface, the surface too is a valid part of the equation that helps us stir up our crusty interiors. It’s probably no coincidence that my new haircut is coinciding with a period in my life in which I am gearing up to lead some workshops and be more “out in the world” than I have been since before I got pregnant. And the fact that my husband and I are working to help clear up our living space is no doubt conspiring to make room for new, more conscious ways of being alive together in our home.

Our homes may be the place where we chill out and relax, but they are also the places from which our habits our born. If we live (and work, for some of us) in a space that has not been “updated” in a long time, it follows that it might be that much harder to break into new modes of thinking and seeing. And similarly, if we slouch within messy clothes or stagnant haircuts for too long, this too can affect the way in which we carry ourselves in the world.  

So here’s to clearing space, cutting hair, and letting go. Here’s to asking ourselves not just what we want to do or acquire in the New Year, but also what we want to say goodbye to. After all, if we want to invite something new into our lives, first we need to make the room for it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Toy Envy, Consumerism, and What We Really Need

Lately, an article from Wired magazine about the 5 best toys of all time has been circling the net again. It’s a good article, but if you don’t want to read it, I’ll tell you what the list consists of: sticks, boxes, string, cardboard tubes, and dirt.

Of course, I'm all for reducing consumerism and fostering imaginative play, but it occurs to me that only someone who already has plenty of money and toys for their kids can make these kinds of assertions. The popularity of this article speaks to the culture of materialism-overload that it comes from. But for anyone who doesn’t have the means to buy special treats for their kids, to suggest that they already have the ideal toys for their at their disposal, strikes me as a bit… privileged.

Kids like variety, they like being exposed to new things, and toddlers in particular have notoriously short attention spans. There are lots of activities that don’t require money that can help keep them entertained, but when it comes down to it, having the money to buy a diverse range of experiences for your kids—whether in the form of toys or enriching activities—is pretty damn helpful.

Like many parents these days, when I was planning for my life with my child I imagined that I would limit the number of bright, plastic noise-making toys that entered our home, and instead collect (expensive) wooden toys that would last much longer (and be less of an eyesore). I would fill baskets with natural objects like shells, pinecones, and stones, in lieu of plastic doo-dads, and we would start painting and making arts and crafts as soon as developmentally possible.

Well, first of all, I was not accounting for a generous aunt who spent months scouring Goodwill to collect for us a big box of plastic noise-making toys-- a Leapfrog “piano”, a bilingual “guitar”, a talking cookie jar shape sorter, a singing “Alphabet Pal”caterpillar, a singing plastic book, a talking dog, and then some. Next, add in the grandparents and others who’ve contributed over time: a musical, flashing ring stacker, a musical dump truck, a singing bear, a singing Easter bunny, a musical remote control airplane, a musical activity center, a singing train, and before you know it, we are one of those families whose house is chock full of plastic, noise-making toys.

The truth is, Cedar loves these toys, and most babies and toddlers do. It's the parents they drive crazy. Some are not that bad—in particular the ones that play music without words. The ones that drive me mad are the ones that sing, talk or giggle in syrupy sweet, incredibly annoying "kid-like" voice. Why do manufacturers think that kids will only respond to such voices? You can sound friendly and sweet without being nauseating.

In any case, since the relatives have bought Cedar plenty of toys, I have not felt the need to buy much-- until recently that is. We've reached a point where Cedar is not very excited about any of his toys (unless of course another kid comes over and starts playing with them). And while I am somewhat proud of the fact that I've only ever bought Cedar a handful of toys (mostly from Value Village) and I think this makes it that much more special for him to experience new toys when at preschool or friends’ homes, I also have recognized that I get toy envy when I go other parents’ homes.

Mostly, I get wooden toy envy. Wooden toys are more expensive and harder to find used, so we don’t have many. I covet those cute little Plan Toy xylophones and shape sorters, those Melissa and Doug puzzles and blocks, those expensive push toys and wooden kitchen sets complete with wooden fruits and vegetables that can be cut apart with a play wooden knife. I also covet those sturdy little easels, those velvety plush beanbag chairs, those tunnels and tents for toddlers to crawl through. And the more I’m exposed to, the more I start wanting more stuff for Cedar.

One built-in limitation is that our home is small (850 square feet), so there isn't room for us to collect too much, without it feeling like utter chaos. There isn't much storage space to store stuff away, so we have to live with it all in sight.

Our other built-in limitation is that we simply cannot afford to buy a lot. Instead, I borrow a lot of board books from the library, trade toys now and then with my neighbor, find random things in the house for Cedar to play with (radios, flashlights, dominos), and scan Value Village now and then for a treat (more of a way to help pass a long day, than anything).

Enter the Christmas season. I wasn't planning to get Cedar much; I figured he'd get plenty from the grandparents and this would be enough of a toy windfall for one month. But somehow, I've gotten suckered into the materialism of the season, and found myself buying more than ever. A few books here, a used few puzzles there, a couple things from Fred Meyer (yes, plastic), a set of wooden stringing beads (relatively expensive), and some stickers and dot paint tubes from the art store. Once I caved and started to spend, suddenly it was as I'd given myself permission to access a long-harbored, unconscious list of coveted things. This toy lust was compounded by a few Amazon searches prompted by my dad who requested a Christmas wish list, not to mention my joining a new mom’s list serve with daily deals and offers.

I’ve felt a tad guilty about my recent splurge, but I've countered this with an entitled sense of “I/we deserver this” to at long last be the one to pick out a few special toys for my son. I've spent about $100, and depending on who you are that may seem like nothing or like a whole lot. For me, it's a lot to spend in a few weeks, with the purpose of giving it to a child all at once, so I am spreading it out. A few of the presents have already come out of hiding in fact-- we've been having some looong afternoons, and I've needed it. Why wait till Christmas, after all, the day when he'll have way more than enough to keep him stimulated? It’s not like he knows what Christmas is yet.

For now though, I'm done. I highly doubt I will buy him another toy for many months. I'd rather put money towards going to a music class together, or to check out more drop-in play spaces. We need to get out of the house every day, preferably for several hours, and not just to the grocery store; but with our rainy weather in the NW, we can't just rely on playing outside at parks—or sticks, boxes, and mud.

It's important to point out how we don't need lots of expensive toys for our children, and how they can be happy with much less. But the truth is, it's hard to get around needing money to keep a child entertained. After all, we all need a break from parenting, especially stay-at-home parents; none of us can be entirely present, patient and engaged if we are on 24-7. So, there are a number of ways we get these breaks. If we have plenty of money, we can pay for babysitters and daycares to get our “recharge/adult time”. We can also pay to bring our kids to enriching classes, which we may or may not participate in ourselves. Or, if these are not viable options, we can buy more toys or, evil of evils, turn on the T.V. (a subject of its own).

Sure, the most creative and resourceful amongst us will create budget-friendly craft projects for our little ones, and although I don’t consider myself outside the realm of those who might do such things, I do have my limits. A 20-month old's attention span is not long. When I'm tired, I don't really feel like getting out messy paints for what might be a five minute project. I can only invent so many new games or find that many new household objects that might be interesting to my son for two minutes of a day. And so, I’ve found myself resorting to letting him watch an Elmo video or Sesame Street clips on youtube more and more. Or-- I find myself realizing the value in having a healthy supply of toys. Enough toys so that you actually have enough to put a bunch away for a while, with the idea that they’ll seem “new” again when you cycle them back out in rotation.

There is, I believe, only one true antidote to feeling like you need to spend lots of money on your child-- and that is being surrounded and supported by a strong community. That means: relatives who will babysit for free, trustworthy neighbors with similar-aged kids who will swap childcare, and friends who will meet up often for playdates to make full-time parenting a bit less mundane.
Finding and sustaining this community, however, is harder than it may seem. As a relatively new stay-at-home mom, I’ve taken my child to plenty of play gyms, storytimes, and music classes, participated in PEPS (a great support group for moms in Seattle), enrolled my son in a toddler co-op preschool one morning a week, and reached out to lots of old friends and acquaintances who have kids of similar ages, but despite all this I still find it hard to create the kind of community I seek.

Everyone is busy—working long hours, caring for multiples, keeping up with complicated schedules. Everyone is tired. And it takes effort to foster a connection that goes beyond a familiar face you exchange a few pleasantries with at playgroups. Even if most of us parents end up passing long afternoons at home with our kids during which we wish we had a more creative option, for some reason getting a playdate on the calendar- and following through- can still be a hard feat to accomplish-- especially if your kids have different nap schedules or once we’ve entered the season of perpetual colds. Although I feel fortunate to know a good number of moms in Seattle right now, sadly, much of this community remains online and via good intentions. There have been many with whom I’ve wanted to nurture a friendship, but after too many failed attempts to get together, I’ve let go of my former hopes.

Community is the true secret to enjoying parenthood and childhood—not toys, whether of the natural or manufactured variety. But it takes a lot more than having kids of a similar age to foster a sustaining connection. Sometimes the viability of a connection does come down to scheduling, proximity and convenience; sometimes, for example, driving all the way across town for a playdate can seem like more effort than it’s worth. But ultimately, creating community has to be something that is mutually sought out and desired. All too often, it ends up being easier to go into default mode—which for our culture means staying isolated within our own nuclear families, sticking to what we already know, and buying stuff to fill in the voids.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Goodbye Old Tree

Last week, five men showed up on our property at 8 a.m. and proceeded to cut down a tree. Not just any tree, but a 100+ foot, seventy-year-old big leaf maple. A tree that towered over me as a child, and a tree that sheltered the front of our house as an adult. A tree that bursts into green in the spring, and glows a vibrant yellow in the fall. A tree that sheds all of its leaves in November, leaves that we are still often raking into the new year. A tree that has grown humongous roots and been circled for decades by flowers: tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, bluebells, and forget-me-nots. A fairy ring, Els used to call it, Els who planted most of those flowers during the forty years that she lived here. I have only lived here for four. But as a young child, I lived next door for ten.

When I was young, Frank used to climb up in the tree himself to take out the dead limbs. I remember my parents talking about it, and Els being nervous. He took out two of the main limbs himself when they were dying, which left two massive remaining ones-- still plenty of tree. In recent years, I had noticed that the leaves on one side of the tree looked smaller- a sign of decay. There was also a smaller dead limb in the middle—“smaller”, yet still large enough that it would likely be fatal if it fell on your head. Maple is hard wood.

This year, we finally decided that we needed to get serious and do something about the tree. Our neighbors had politely enquired about its safety shortly after one of our big cedars came down one day into their backyard, missing their house by a few feet. Root rot. We hadn’t a clue.

We got several bids and no one could tell us anything conclusive without expensive testing, but everyone agreed that the maple was in its “twilight years”, and showing signs of decay. Some suggested erecting a cable that would bind together the two main limbs and prevent “catastrophic failure”, but another said that this would not guarantee that the tree would not fall. Either onto our house, onto the neighbor’s house, into the street and power lines, or- worst case scenario-- onto a person. Even if a cable could buy us a few more years or at most another decade of enjoying the tree, it was still on its way out. So we decided to shell out the big bucks and have it removed as recommended.

I thought the tree guys would be here all day; that’s what I’d been told, and even that had seemed fast to me. But when they got to work by 8:15, I could tell it would go even faster. Our family of three stood by the window and watched as the arborist spun around on a rope, wielding the saw. Crash! Down came the first branches. Down, down, down. Before we knew it, he was already working on the main two trunks, sectioning off chunks that fell with loud booms. Meanwhile, four guys with orange hard hats scampered below, wielding their own chainsaws, pulling the smaller branches up the steps to be chipped, and leaving us a pile of rounds for firewood.

Cedar was mesmerized. We ate our oatmeal on the daybed, staring out the window. Down, down, down, came the tree. By 10:00, the whine of the chainsaws was starting to get to me so I decided to take Cedar out to get some groceries. Surely they would still be here when we got back. But when we drove home at just past eleven, the yard was silent. You could still smell the gas from the saws in the air and the ground was littered with a confetti of wood shavings. Otherwise, what was left was a giant stump, five feet in diameter, and a huge pile of wood for my husband to chop.

It felt… surreal. Less than three hours and the old tree was gone. Cedar and I stepped up onto the trunk, which now was the perfect platform to give some future speech or poetry reading from, or play king of the mountain. The sky above was open, which is nice since our property is otherwise surrounded by tall trees and shielded from sunlight. But I also felt a stirring of sadness. Something that grew steadily and slowly for decades was erased within minutes. Responsible as our choice to cut down the tree was, the speed at which it was removed still felt like an incursion.

Now, when you sit at the window seat, the ideal spot to read and stare out the window all day, you can be seen from the street. Part of the beauty of that perch was that you used to be totally hidden from view, looking out on a mossy green oasis of trees. And we could pretty much walk around naked in our house and not worry. Granted, we still mostly can. But in the grand scope of how little has changed on this property over the course of decades, saying goodbye to that maple is no small thing.

Thankfully, we have one more big towering maple in back. The two maples were probably planted at the same time, anchoring the house, to the south and the north. Raking their leaves in the fall is always a long, time-consuming process, and yet, I love those trees, and by extension, those leaves. I love looking up into their lush canopies, seeing the squirrels jump from limb to limb, and the baby flickers emerge in the spring. The maple in back is also in its twilight years, but it’s not yet showing any signs of decay. We can enjoy it a while longer.

Every fall when I rake the leaves from the maples, I think of Frank and how much time and energy he used to put into caring for this yard. I had come a few times to help Frank rake when he was weak from cancer, and he’d shown me his method of getting every last leaf, creating little piles, lifting them into the wheelbarrow with the help of the rake, and then stacking the compost pile in a tidy square, a few feet high, and only when the leaves were moist so they would properly decay. For the next couple years, I made sure I was as thorough as Frank had been about getting all of the leaves. It felt important. I instructed Matthew about how the compost pile should be shaped. Because that’s the way Frank did it, and he must have had a good reason.

Eventually, though, I let this protocol slide. Now, I am no longer as vigilant about getting all the leaves (especially those pesky little ones from the plum and apple trees), and I let Matthew dictate the shape of the compost pile. These days, we don’t have the time to be perfectionists about anything. It feels good enough if we manage to get the bulk of the leaves raked, and just hold the basics of this place together, not let it slide into a state of neglect. 

These days, I have also not had much time to write about Els, Frank and the cabin. Motherhood has consumed me, and any writing energy I have has gone towards addressing my present. But now, for the first time in months, I feel a melancholy stirring inside, sprouting from that same seed of gratitude that infused me after Frank passed away, and as I moved in and discovered him and Els’s artifacts during the months that followed. This tug of melancholy reminds me of how this legacy is still waiting within me, dormant yet pungent, waiting for me to return to the outline of chapters and words I laid down over two years ago. It reminds me of how the roots of the story of Matthew, Cedar and I, and our present life in this cedar cabin, extend so much deeper and farther than the in-your-face immersion in parenting that we have been swimming and breathing through, day by day. It excites me to think about delving into Els and Frank’s past again, to find passages in Els’s letters about planting seedlings that today tower over us, or passages in Frank’s letters that hint at visions of countries and ports that no longer exist, at least not like they did then.

Everything changes. The old generation can barely recognize the new. Trees have their cycles. The one you plant today, you likely will not get to enjoy when it is full-grown and towering. But your children will. Or someone else’s children. Everything has its story. And everything, in the end, will die.

Now, the stump looks ugly, bare and obtrusive. But my husband reminded me that this is the worst it will look. Next spring, the fairy ring of blossoms will come up again, and we will get to choose a new tree to plant in their midst.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...