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When I read a book or watch a movie, I often internalize what I read, hear, or see.  This may explain why I once wrote a letter to Jason Sebastian, a boy I didn’t know (unless you count passing him in the hallway) in the style of Charlotte Brontë after reading Jane Eyre. Surprisingly/not surprisingly, he didn’t write back.

After I returned home last night from watching the documentary, The Minimalists, I felt as though my own life were a documentary.  I recommend trying it some time.  Not in the “mockumentary” style that is currently popular, but imagine your life being filmed with no narration or explanation.  The mundane act of filling a pot of water becomes exciting– what will happen next?  Every sound, word, action, and even silence . . . stillness . . . gains noble importance while highlighting the absurdity of life.

As an astute reader, I am sure you have gathered (correctly, I might add) that The Minimalists is about minimalism.  I first became interested in minimalism, or voluntary simplicity, involuntarily.  I was going to school for my master’s, caring for my toddler daughter, and we found ourselves faced with my husband’s sudden lay-off.  My first task was to cut expenses as drastically as I could, and one way I found I could do it was by switching my daughter to cloth diapers.  I bought the most basic style while admiring the fancier versions which would essentially do the same job.

My husband eventually found a job and our financial life was back on track, so I bought the more expensive cloth diapers I had originally wanted.  I knew they would somehow make my life easier and make an unpleasant task more pleasant.  I read reviews, did my usual amount of research, and sampled all sorts.  Astonishingly, I found that the simple, cheaper style I had initially purchased were the most effective and efficient. Like any good American, I then decided it was necessary to buy more.  Just as astonishingly, I found that I then had too many.  Too many to wash, store, and care for.  I sold what I no longer needed (yes, selling used diapers is a “thing”) and moved on with my life.

There was an uncomfortable aspect to the cloth diapering world.* (And an even more disturbing side that involves adults– pleasepleaseplease refrain from searching for it.  You won’t be able to unsee it.) I found that some women were addicted to buying and selling cloth diapers.  One woman on a forum confessed she was in debt to the tune of $10K– spent solely on cloth diapers.  Some people spent hours waiting for an “upload,” the chance to purchase a coveted style made by a work-at-home-mother (WAHM).  Sometimes, a single diaper cost hundreds of dollars.

My lessons learned didn’t end there.  I then entered the world of baby carriers.  The baby carrier market was just starting to take off.  There were WAHMs who had simple businesses back then whose products are now sold in major retail outlets.  Again, I was on a quest for the ultimate carrier, just as I had done with diapers.  I bought and sold several, and eventually realized, just as I had with diapers, that the simple styles were the most useful, and having too many was a burden, not a help.

In the baby carrier world, the same addictions were present, with people buying and selling for the thrill of it and not out of necessity.  One woman who had the financial means bought just about every single style carrier available, including custom, specialized versions.  She was, as you may have guessed, the most popular poster on the baby carrier forum.  Who says money can’t buy happiness, if it helps you make online friends?

The purchasers of these products were generally mothers who prided themselves on living a “natural” life.  However, words like “enabling” and “addiction” were commonly used by people posting on the forums.  There was a special help section designated for those who were genuinely addicted.  Whether or not it was utilized, I don’t know.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all was that women would joke about having more children as a reason to purchase more of these products. And I would say– not all of it was in jest.  Some did follow through with this intention. I say this without judgment.  I say this to illustrate the depths of our collective consumerism: bringing a human life into the world for the purpose of buying.

We can see this same pattern– creating a want disguised as a need– over and over and over again.  The fact that these were pieces of cloth, does it make them any more absurd than anything else, or do they simply do a better job showing how strong our desire for more of anything is?

As for me, I continued on my path of aiming for more with less.  I joined a local voluntary simplicity group and gained much from the one meeting I attended.  Ironically, the group eventually disbanded because no one had time for it anymore.

I have much more to say on this topic, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll end it here for today. . .


*I am using past tense because I have no knowledge of the way things are now, though I would hazard a guess that they haven’t changed.

photo credit: – “I consume therefore I am” via photopin (license)

Guilty As Charged

It’s not too much of a secret that I enjoy decorating, but my favorite space in the house belongs to this guy: Bubble.

bubble-5

Bubble the Betta fish was a gift to one of my daughters from my mother.  My daughter really, really wanted a Betta and I was promised that they made easy pets. We trusted the man at the aquarium shop to help us pick out the needed supplies, including the tank that held 1.5 gallons.  I reveled in the freedom of not researching a topic on my own– for the first time in . . . I can’t remember!

But, alas, old habits die hard, or maybe they don’t die ever, and after the tank was raring to go, I set about researching The Ideal Life of a Betta Fish.  It turns out that the tank was entirely too small, and we’d need at least a 10 gallon, including a heater.  Bubble also required better food, more plants, an adjustable filter, etc.  In the end, Bubble’s supplies cost 20 times what he did, but who’s keeping track?  (Besides me, I mean.)

When we first brought Bubble home, my first order of business each time I entered my daughter’s room was to determine whether or not Bubble was dead.  Being a friendly and reassuring fish, he made sure to come to the front of the tank whenever I approached.*  After several months of his somehow surviving and our winning the battle against algae, I finally am able to not only relax, but to enjoy him.**

I think to myself, Bubble not only has a good life, he has a great life.  Respecting his preference to be a solitary soul, he lives alone, in what can only be deemed a mansion. Not that he’d describe it that way– fish don’t use words like “mansion.”  They’d call it a “fishsion.” He has plants to hide in (from whom, I’m not sure), a leaf to rest on, and a good diet that helps him avoid obesity.

The happy life of Bubble gives me a sense of accomplishment and peace, which is uncommon in my own mind. Most notably, I feel a lack of Guilt.  In many, or maybe all other areas of my life, Guilt prevails.  It doesn’t always win– the laundry might go too many days without being folded– but the feelings are still there, looming.  My Guilt touches mundane aspects of my life (I really shouldn’t be using K-Cups) to the more profound (I’m not doing enough for others . . . how can I make a difference before my time on Earth ends?).

The Guilt, then, ends up becoming noisy, nagging, ever-present chatter.  Its persistence makes it difficult to decipher what counts and what doesn’t, what needs real change and evaluation, and what can be let go.  It also has, on occasion, encouraged me to rebel.  If Guilt Alarms are set off on a regular basis, it becomes easier and even necessary to simply ignore them– some of the time, but the ringing in my head remains.

Living a life led by Guilt is inauthentic. Guilt robs us of our ability to feel, think, and act freely.  It steals a sense of self.  We can’t know our true motivations for what we do, and some might assume that when Guilt is a person’s default, an act of kindness or joy really “only” arose from Guilt. In stark contrast to generosity, Guilt requires that one focus on one’s self in a negative way.  A true feeling of accomplishment is often out of reach because Guilt and Perfectionism are close friends, and support each other in saying: You could have done it better.

I wish I had an easy way out of Guilt, but I’d probably feel guilty if I did. It’s imperative that I do, however. One of the most damaging consequences of treating ourselves poorly— by being consumed by Guilt— is that we risk treating others in the same way.  If I feel guilty, then I may inadvertently encourage you to feel the same about yourself. Maybe it comes down to what is often the answer, mindfulness and generosity.  In mindfulness, we can begin to see who we are through the lens of acceptance.  Giving generously allows us to focus on others, in a way that is true and meaningful.  Next time one of the Guilt Alarms goes off, which will likely be soon, I will instead take it as a signal that the Guilt needs to be released, which will make room for a more authentic life.


 

*Nah, he just checks to see if I have food.

**Unless I turn the tank light on after it’s been off for awhile.  Then he seems dead again, but it’s only because he’s been sleeping.  I panic whenever that happens.

IN FEAR WE TRUST (PART I)

 

teddy bear

Most of us have heard the tale of How the Teddy Bear Came to Be.  Theodore Roosevelt famously spared the life of a black bear (though in reality, he had the bear killed), and this act of compassion was immortalized in a cartoon.  Toymakers then designed a bear based on the depiction of the bear as a cuddly, non-threatening animal.

This is notable, because at the time this took place:

“Bears were monsters . . . for generations at that point, the bear had been a shorthand for all the danger that people were encountering on the frontier, and the federal government was actually systematically exterminating bears and lots of other predators too, like coyotes and wolves. These animals, they were being demonized. They were called murderers because they killed people’s livestock.” (Credit: TED Talk)

It became easier to make peace with bears once they seemed harmless, literally transformed into a child’s plaything, entertaining audience members as part of traveling circuses across the United States.  Once people felt they could control bears and use them for their amusement, bears had an improved chance for survival as a species.

We can see how the perception of bears, and not the bears themselves, changed.  This perception didn’t remain intangible: it was played out in action, determining the fate of bears, whether they lived, or whether they died.

When I listened to the TED Talk, the terms “monsters,” “all the danger people were encountering,” “demonized,” and “murderers” jumped out at me. These same attributes have also been used, historically, to describe human beings.  Specifically, they have been used to identify some groups of people of color.

Recently, Governor Paul LePage of Maine said:

“Let me tell you this, explain to you, I made the comment that black people are trafficking in our state, now ever since I said that comment I’ve been collecting every single drug dealer who has been arrested in our state. I don’t ask them to come to Maine and sell their poison, but they come and I will tell you that 90-plus percent of those pictures in my book, and it’s a three-ringed binder, are black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Conn., the Bronx and Brooklyn.”

In January, LePage told an audience in Bridgton, “These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.” (Credit: Portland Press Harold)

If we were to peer into the brains of those who believe Gov. LePage, we might find feelings of anger, perhaps some of hatred, but unquestionably, the feeling of fear.  Fear of blacks and Hispanics, of “these types of guys” coming to sell drugs and impregnating white girls.

Fear is a tricky bird.  It has the ability to keep us safe, but it can also lead us into dangerous territory.  As animals, we have a lot to fear, and this fear is immensely powerful.  We may fear for that which is most basic and essential for survival: the safety of our loved ones and our own, food, and shelter.  Who and what we see as a threat— our perception of danger — will guide our actions.

It dawned on me that the root of racism, is fear. If actions are shaped by perceptions, and if perceptions are influenced by fear, then we can conclude that the racial/ethnic groups feared the most will also be more likely to be targets of oppression.

photo credit: Little boy holds his teddy bear inside via photopin (license)

Scammed

scam

I was off to Little Caesar’s (I know, I know . . . but you just can’t beat the price) on a mission. I’d ordered 4 pizzas and some breadsticks, but somehow came home with only 3 pizzas. An hour later, I realized the error and went back to try to get my missing pizza.

As I entered, there was a customer in front of me who turned to me with a smile on her way out the door. I smiled back, suddenly realizing that perhaps I knew her. In the days when I pretended that I was comfortable attending church, this woman was very friendly with me during church social events years ago. She was married with a few children, and there was a sense that perhaps her family had experienced homelessness or at least transiency. In some awkward twist, my husband and I were asked (even though I don’t think she knew our names), along with another couple, to be her child’s Godparents. While we were present at the actual ceremony, it was the last time we were involved in the lives of the family, and never extended ourselves to them in any way.

Silently reassuring myself that I wasn’t a scammer, I explained that I was missing a pizza to the man at the counter, clutching my receipt as proof. He went back to speak to a manager, and I heard her ask if I had a receipt. Whew! Verified as not a scammer. I was given my pizza and headed on my way.

As I walked toward the car, I heard the woman– yes, it was the woman from church. She was swearing at one of her children, who was sitting in the front seat of her van. She wanted the keys and he wouldn’t give them to her.

I didn’t stop.

I drove out of the parking lot, and spotted an elderly woman on the other side of the “busy” street. (I use the word “busy” here loosely, given that this is a suburb.) She was very slowly making her way, pushing her grocery cart in front of her. Every step looked like a concerted effort to steady herself. It was getting dark. How long would it take her to get where she was going? I couldn’t leave her. I drove around to get to her side of the street, thinking I’d missed her, but at her pace . . . where would she have gone?

I spotted her in a parking lot, stopping in front of a smoke shop. I hesitated. Would I help her if she were smoking? Wouldn’t that be enabling? If she smoked, I felt less sorry for her.

With a sigh of relief, I realized the smoke shop was closed, and she was headed into a pizza place. Pizza? Wait– didn’t I have a brand new pizza in the back of my car? She shouldn’t be spending her social security money on a pizza when I had one to offer (admittedly, likely not as good).

THIS WAS FATE. It was all some master plan so that I might Do a Good Deed. Not realizing my order was incomplete to begin with, then miraculously having the receipt as proof (usually the Little Caesar’s people offer to throw it away, and I always accept), now coming upon this woman in need? It all made sense.

Without believing what I was doing, I found myself parking the car and walking into the pizza place. It was joint, really. I found the woman and saw her grocery cart– it had some empty shopping bags. Was she homeless? What was I getting myself into? But no, she didn’t look homeless, so I carried on.

“Would you like me to take you to your home somewhere?”

She looked at me with beautiful blue eyes, closing them as she told me, “No, I’m all right.”

Silently reassuring myself that I wasn’t a scammer, I proceeded, “I have a pizza you can have. Would you like it?”

Again, she responded in the same way, closing her eyes as she repeated, “”No, I’m all right.”

And with that, I left. What else could I do? My eyes teared up as a drove home, thinking of her walking slowly down the dark streets of my not-always-so-safe suburb.

I told some of my children what happened, and we laughed thinking about how I really DID sound like a scammer–offering an elderly woman a ride home out of the blue? Just “happened” to have a pizza in my car?

But it hit me. I am a scammer. I am a scammer because the woman from church may have needed me at some point, just to listen, to not box her in with stereotypes, and I did none of those things. I didn’t invite her over, I didn’t make an effort to connect with my Goddaughter, even if she didn’t know my name, and I never opened up my mind to her completely. I saw her life unfolding as though it were fixed and scripted. When she spoke with me and gave me advice, I never gave it as much thought or value as I would if it had come from someone else. I was too busy, I had my own problems, and I just didn’t want to get too close.  It’s possible that she would not have wanted or needed my help, either– whose to say who would have helped whom?

When I saw her with her child and the swearing between them, I thought– I have parenting struggles, too. I felt helpless. I did nothing.

The elderly woman–  I would only help her conditionally. If she smoked? No. If she were homeless? No. I would only Do a Good Deed if it were easy, if it were comfortable, if it meant that I could do a quick errand and then be on my way, feeling good about my Good Deed.

The elderly woman didn’t accept my help. Maybe she looks forward to her summer night walks, maybe each step she takes independently reminds her that yes, she is all right. Maybe she wondered why I thought she needed help, because maybe she didn’t need it at all.  Maybe it offended her, for me to have assumed anything. Maybe she thought I was a scammer.  And I guess she’d be right.

Image Source: “Scam Means Fraud Scheme To Rip-off Or Deceive” by Stuart Miles on freedigitalphotos.net

Doggone

Long time no write.  As my fans (you know who you are, the both of ya!) have been begging me to hit the ol’ keyboard again, here I am.

We are getting a dog.  And, like everything else in my life, I have decided to make the process as overwhelmingly complicated as possible.

Let’s backtrack a little.

We had a dog.  That’s right– had.  For three weeks in November, a 6 month old Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier was ours.  Here she is:

I did everything wrong. I:

(1) found her from Craigslist.

(2) spent about 20 minutes researching the breed, glossing over aspects I didn’t like.

(3) emailed my husband her information and titled the email, PLEASE DON’T DIVORCE ME.

(4) bought her with zero approval from said husband (who to his credit or foolishness– you choose– did not divorce me).

(5) had my children be on their best behavior around the dog when deciding whether or not she would work with our family.

(6) chose a terrier even though I had vowed never, ever, ever, ever to own a terrier again.

You probably think those are many mistakes.  Oh, so many mistakes.  BUT WAIT!  There are more.

I let my toddler give the dog a hug, albeit a quick one, while the dog was chewing on a toy.

I stood and watched with that “hmm . . .” feeling, the one you’re not supposed to ignore.  But I hushed it away to watch what the dog was going to do.*

And then?

The dog bit her on the face.

We were lucky . . .oh so lucky . . .the dog had excellent bite inhibition, and not even a little tooth mark was left.

So, I panicked.  I rationalized, but she’s just a puppy . . .she’s new to our home, she was chewing on a toy, etc. But then panicked again.

I think it’s pretty clear by now that I am no dog expert, so I posted on a dog forum and got mixed responses.  Some people said that I just needed to make sure my children had better dog manners and that they should always be supervised, some  thought she was a great pup for not leaving a mark, and others told me to contact a professional.

I couldn’t ignore that “hmm” feeling again, so I contacted my vet.  She said she would not keep the dog with young children.  I contacted a behaviorist.  The behaviorist said she would rehome the dog immediately, and would not do an in-person evaluation because this was aggressive behavior.  I contacted breed rescues.  They said I should rehome.  My friend who is a vet said we were lucky once, but she would absolutely rehome the dog.

In the meantime, everyone fell in love with the dog, including my husband.  I quickly “schooled” myself on basic dog calming signals— signs that dogs show us they are stressed.  I watched (and seemed to be the only one who noticed) as the dog snapped at the air near my toddler on several occasions, even when my toddler was ignoring her. . .but always toward her face.  Her beautiful, perfect little face. With my family angry at me for doing it, I contacted the previous owner who wanted her back (and gave me no money back, by the way).  We said goodbye.

Now, you can imagine the tears and horribly conflicted feelings that followed.  While my husband started saying it was too soon to even think about another dog, the children and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  And then when I was about to give up on the idea, my husband said I should keep going.

This time, we were going to do everything “right.”  But what is right when it comes to bringing a dog into the family?  I still haven’t figured that out.

We started by looking at breeds.  Everything always pointed back to Golden Retrievers, so I looked into a Golden Retriever breed rescue group.  Turns out, the group will not adopt to people with children under the age of 6.

I thought about getting a mixed breed adult.  That way we would know the personality of the dog and likely have a calmer, more settled dog right away.

But my husband said, no.  This time we needed a puppy.  (And, I’ve learned, a 6 month old dog is an adolescent– the true puppy stage is done.)  A mixed breed puppy seemed too iffy to me now.  What if it was part terrier?  What if it was a herding breed and would nip the kids while running?  Or part hound, and would never leave our cats alone?  With a puppy and no real information about its breeds, the dog’s personality and characteristics would be largely unknown.

We decided (well, truth be told, I ultimately decided) that a Golden Retriever puppy would be the best bet for us. My husband just said, “Are you sure you want such a big dog?”

After a very exhaustive search of trying to find a reputable breeder who would have puppies within the relatively near future (some people wait a year or even years for certain litters), we are bringing home our puppy on Saturday, if all goes as planned.

I’ve been spending most of my free time educating myself on how to be the Best Possible Dog Owner, but as with parenting, I’m pretty sure I’ll be finding how much I don’t know.

*Why I thought it was a good idea to essentially experiment with an unknown dog with my small child, I’ll never know, and I am horrified that I did.  But, when I told this to the behaviorist, she said that when she was a mom with young children and dogs, she knew nothing about dogs– she just got lucky.  So did we.