This blog is not dead, despite all appearances. I know there is dust piling up on the words and posts, and it’s starting to feel abandoned and creepy and there are ominous creaking noises coming from the hall. There is nothing dramatic behind this pause. I’m not looking for anything or waiting for anything or wanting for anything. I am busy and well. I’m working and volunteering and working out and cooking and doing those things you do. I have always had things to say in the past because I was always looking for something or waiting for something or wanting something, and it’s easy to talk about that, because that’s all we lucky, spoiled comfortable folks seem to talk about and it’s easy to just pick up the thread. (It’s something you do when you’re young too, though, isn’t it–press forward, forward, forward. I’m outgrowing it, but still tripping on these itchy feet of mine.) I am learning to want what I have. Although that sounds like it’s about things, it’s not. I’ve never been huge on things. I am…learning to want where I am. In life. I’m always going to be somewhere; it will often be mundane. I have learned, in a rather painfully slow way that should probably be embarrassing to admit, that if I want there to be more to my life, it can’t be about me. I’m over me. I mean, not over me in some dismissive way, as I will always have a certain vested interest in my ongoingness, and will very often get swept up in my feelings and ascribe much importance to them. As well I should. As well we all should. But I’m over believing that there is some kind of happiness to be found by exerting too much energy over my own concerns and worries and fears and wants. So far, this blog has been about me and I’m figuring out how to change the channel. So, yes, after all that, that’s all. Just in the middle of changing the channel. I’m analog by nature, so it takes a while to find the right one.
He was my favourite instantly, Ozzie. I still couldn’t tell you why, exactly. In a way, all the puppies we worked with over the spring and summer were my favourite, each one with its own way of being a boisterous, lovey, clever little imp. But Ozzie really was my favourite. Maybe it can happen with dogs too, where you just know you’re going to be great friends before you’ve even said hello. “He’s sensitive,” Kieran said the first time he brought him home, plopping him down on the grass. And he is. He watches you with a slight crinkle across his forehead. He likes to curl up in your lap, coiling himself into a perfect circle.
But he’s also a goof.
He snores. He groans contentedly or like a grumpy old man, depending. He’s big on wet-nosed snorgles.
So when PADS was desperately short on puppy raisers in the fall, it was a bit of a no-brainer. So now we’re full-time volunteers. It’s a big job, turning a goofball puppy into an assistance dog. We’re learning constantly, all three of us.
When we first started with PADS, I thought the puppy raisers were maybe a little…intense about their charges. I mean, some of them were talking about keeping their puppy’s baby teeth (I don’t/won’t do that). But now, I get it. Your dog is with you everywhere you go, every day. You become symbiotic in a way, checking in with each other as you move through crowds, his head is on your knee every morning on the train, he’s curled against your feet at your desk, his breath rising and falling and filling the silence. You see him master a command and you’re so proud because you did this, you figured it out together. Your puppy is going to help somebody—it’s happening! And then you realize that maybe you’re talking about the dog too much. Maybe it’s weird.
But then, people are curious. Suddenly people talk to you on the bus, the train, in the streets. Your co-workers linger in your office, finally asking if they can pet the dog in the same shy, eager voice kids use when they want a Popsicle and know it’s a long shot. “I know he’s working, but he’s so cute.” Everyone says that.
PADS clients talk about how people finally see them once they’re with their dog. But this has proven to be true for us too, in a way. People see Ozzie padding along earnestly beside me and they catch my eye and smile. It’s a nicer way to move through the city, sharing conspiratorial grins.
It’ll be hard to let him go in the spring. Hurt-your-heart hard. But if he goes on to help someone have a better life, it’ll be worth it.
So, with the recent release of the movie, it appears that the fashionable thing to do at the moment is to snipe about Eat, Pray, Love. It’s faux feminism wrapped in deceptive, inaccessible privilege. It’s more bullshit self-actualization, the Oprah-fication of everything. And, snidely, with a slight hiss, it’s self-indulgent.
Now, listen. Whatever blows your hair back. What you like, you like, and what I like, I like — chacun á son goût. Really. I happened to love the book. I thought it was well written and that Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s voice was intelligent and witty and warm. I didn’t quite love the last third of the book as much as the first two parts, but, you know, it was still a book where I found phrases and words that would make me pause and roll them around on my tongue just for the pleasure of it, like a deep, red wine. Elizabeth Gilbert is a writer. And I will tuck my feet under me and curl up on the couch and pore over a VCR manual if it’s well written, if it has words that are chosen and spun and delicious and golden.
So if you didn’t happen to like it because you didn’t happen to like it, then that’s fine by me. But what’s making me cranky — well there are two things making me cranky. The first is the whole faux feminism, privileged, yadda, yadda business. These things always make me kind of weary. Why can’t successful women be feminists? Does money take away that right? Do you think Elizabeth Gilbert would have been able to walk away from her marriage, decide to travel and write and do what she really wants with her life instead of having babies if she wasn’t a fucking feminist? Is there some gold standard of feminism that I’m not aware of?
As for Ms. Gilbert’s international and emotional journey being one that most women can’t aspire to, well, nope it’s not. (Nor does she really sell it that way. It’s just, simply, her journey.) I certainly wouldn’t be able to decide to take a year off to travel should my life hit the skids. But, then, it wasn’t really a year off, was it? She was able to take the trip because she had a book deal. I don’t know from experience, but I hear writing a book is hard. Really hard. A shit ton of work. So, in other words, it wasn’t a year off. She was travelling, sure, and living life, but she was also working — doing what she does to make a living. “Working” has a slightly different ring to it than swanning around Italy just because you’re spoiled and you can, doesn’t it? Certainly, her version of working for a living is almost immeasurably more interesting than mine or, I’m sure, most women, but I’m not sure why her success in this regard isn’t considered inspiring and instead revokes her status as a feminist. I thought that was the point of feminism — we can do what we want, and we can do it well.
So, listen. Those last few paragraphs were really just because I get all twitchy when women accuse other women of not doing feminism correctly. “You’re not conforming to the tacitly understood scripts of non-conformity! Here’s my academic argument as to why you, as a woman, are not good enough. Let me lash out at you in the name of feminism to defend…other women!” So, you might be surprised to learn that, in fact, the whole point of this here post is not about feminism but is instead to muse about how freaking weird we here in North America are about pleasure. [Here, let me insert a thesis apropos of nothing and in complete betrayal of the entire introduction! This type of thing is, I'm sure, why people like Elizabeth Gilbert are internationally successful authors and why I am a middling editor at Random Non-descript Non-profit.]
So, uh, to back up a bit, this slightly out-of-character post isn’t because I’m just so damn passionate about Eat, Pray, Love. I mean, I liked it and all, and clearly the feminist comments irk the hell out of me, but it’s not some personal mission or anything to get everyone to like this particular book. However, the inevitable comments about the book being “self-indulgent” do hit me a little closer to home. You see, I happened to read the book while we were biking across Canada, which makes it sort of inextricable for me in my mind from our bike trip. It wasn’t just the timing, though, it also has to do with the parallels — we went on our epic, life-changing journey after I had chosen to walk away from my own shitty, soul-eating situation (in my case a truly wretched job) in search of something better, bigger, more alive. Biking across Canada was…awesome. It was fun, it was terribly hard, it was feet dangling off of docks and sunshine and birds startled into flight and the crush of muscles pulling you up a hill and the wind racing next to you on the way down. It was without a question the best thing I’ve ever done with my life, and I grew stronger in every way imaginable. In fact, not a day goes by when my core isn’t nurtured by all the things I learned cycling under the big wide sky. I am kinder, wiser, and more compassionate, with a well of forgiveness that sprung up in me after I had time and silence, peace and thoughtfulness.
And that trip — that incandescent trip — gets lumped in the self-indulgent yuppie pile.
And, yeah, okay, sure it does. We heard it before we left, we heard it during, we heard it after. For all the people who were excited or inspired, there would be one or two who would cut their eyes at us and talk about our adventure with thinly veiled hostility. Before we left, there were vague rumours and speculation floating around, largely to do with how we were financing the time off work. While we were on the road we were asked again and again who we were riding for, what cause were we supporting. One woman, who had approached us in a roadside restaurant in rural Ontario somewhere, actually turned on her heel and walked away from us in disgust when she found out we weren’t riding for charity, that all of our work was just for our own pleasure.
How we financed the trip actually turns out to be relevant to my point, so I’ll tell you how we financed it: we saved. We saved every penny we could for two years. This didn’t stop us from making our usual charitable contributions [ahem, random lady in Ontario], or from contributing to our regular savings plans. So it wasn’t easy. We made do, we went without, we lived small. We made dozens of little sacrifices on a daily basis (which I go into below), not the least of which was me sticking out my job, even though it was completely toxic. That part? The part with all the careful planning and hard work? That part felt pretty much the opposite of self-indulgent.
Now, suppose we didn’t want to take that trip. Suppose it had just never crossed our minds, for whatever reason. Suppose instead of having a goal that we were working towards we were just sort of…going along. And in just sort of going along we didn’t have to make the choice to live in a 500 square-foot, one bedroom apartment and instead we lived somewhere in the suburbs, in a McMansion even. Because we could. And suppose that in living in the suburbs we had to get a car, maybe even two, instead of biking and taking transit like we chose (and choose) to do. And instead of making our meals from scratch and brown bagging our lunches we chose to grab takeout and fast food, ignoring the health and environmental implications — no time to cook on account of the long commute, you see. And instead of training for our bike trip, we parked ourselves in front of the TV, and became part of whichever demographic it is that’s keeping crappy reality television afloat. All of those things are, arguably, pretty self-indulgent aren’t they? They aren’t thoughtful, conscious, compassionate, or generous choices. Yet they’re also, arguably, pretty normal, pretty standard fare here in North America. So normal that, in fact, had we made any or all of those choices, no one would have spat the word “self-indulgent” at us, probably because it wouldn’t have occurred to them to notice us at all.
So it would seem that if you make a conscious choice to be self-indulgent, which is really just another way of saying if you make a conscious choice to take pleasure in your life, then that brand of self-indulgence is unacceptable. But if your self-indulgence happens to fit within the norm and is neither a choice nor especially pleasurable, then that’s okay. No one will sneer at you in parking lots or hiss about your finances behind your back. We seem to be, as a society, uncomfortable with pleasure. We grouse constantly about all the things that everyone shouldn’t be doing, we have fits about all the people who shouldn’t be fucking or enjoying fucking, we fixate on all the things we shouldn’t eat…and we forget about all the things we could be doing, whether it’s enjoying eating or fucking or sitting on the end of a dock with our face turned up to the August sun.
I will say this about my self-indulgent trip: it made me a better person. That time and that peace wouldn’t have been possible if I had been working, keeping up with all the mundane demands of being an adult. And without that time, the compassion and forgiveness that I can offer the world now simply wouldn’t have happened. Or it would have taken years and years for me to find it among all the noise. So, yes, Ms. Gilbert’s travelling for a year in response to a nasty divorce is maybe a little frivolous from the outside looking in, but I can tell you from experience that the work involved in getting to a place where you can take true pleasure in your life is anything but. We’re not obliged to suffer or abstain. It’s okay to enjoy life even when other people can’t. We are blessed, really, to live the silly, frivolous lives that we do. And it’s easy to forget to be grateful for the silly, frivolous life that you have if you’re not taking pleasure in it. There is, in the end, more humility and grace in gratefulness, in truly appreciating how lucky you are to have a job, a couch, a TV, abundant food, choices.
Remember what it was like to be a self-conscious teenager? How you cared about appearances? How you cared even more about what other people thought about you? I have a theory on why we grow out of this. Sure, there’s the emotional maturity that’s borne of age. But then there’s also the constant humiliation of being alive, grinding you down, until you accept that there’s quite simply no point in caring.
For example: Medical tests. It’s first thing Monday morning. You’re starving and caffeine deprived because you have to do a barium swallow. To your dismay, a flimsy paper gown is involved. To your further dismay, you haven’t shaved your legs in…uh, you’re not sure. A while. Your hairy legs poke out of your paper gown and you’re awkwardly balancing your belongings, which you’ve been told to bring, as you’re led past a room full of people to a dim room that houses the x-ray equipment. You’re asked to gulp down a cup full of barium and lay back on a cool, hard table of sorts. The barium is chalky, distasteful. Your body wants to say no; you gag softly a couple of times. Your stomach appears in x-ray on a screen next to your head. The doctor and the nurse watch the image, muttering to each other.
“Your stomach’s not opening up,” the doctor says blandly, “Try to relax and think of your favourite food.”
“Uh,” you say. You can’t think of a single thing you’d like to eat. You would, however, like to un-eat the barium.
“What’s your favourite food?” he asks briskly.
“Uh.” You don’t have a favourite food. You never have. “Uh, French fries?” You offer this in a panic. You actually don’t really like fries.
The doctor looks at the screen expectantly. “Hmm. Are you thinking of the fries? Think of the fries!”
You close your eyes and imagine French fries, unable to come up with a more appealing imaginary option.
“Think of the fries! French fries!“
“Poutine!” The nurse offers helpfully.
“Yes! POUTINE!” The doctor brays. They consult the screen.
“Chocolate!” The nurse shouts.
“Chocolate cake!” The doctor counters excitedly.
“BROWNIES WITH ICE CREAM!”
“CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES!” (They’re starting to get shrill. Meanwhile, you’re starting to panic.)
“APPLE PI—Ah. There we go.”
With this, the nurse pats your hairy leg. You’re free to go back and change. As you’re lurching stiffly back through the room full of waiting people, trying not to let the paper gown — which opens in the back — expose your backside, you drop some of your things. You’re forced to bend over to retrieve them.
And so commences your week.
Thanks to a Twitter exchange yesterday, I got to thinking about the transmogrification of the blogosphere from personal blogs to lifestyle blogs, a change that is due in no small part to the massive upsurge in corporate sponsorship. This shift has taken place in tandem with my own personal shift towards simplicity, where I’ve become committed to drastically reducing my consumption. It’s been (is) a great journey — challenging, eye-opening, interesting, surprising. What I love about lifestyle blogs is their style. What I hate about them is that I just really don’t care what other people have spent money on. Stuff is…stuff. It means nothing. Who cares. I would love to see lifestyle blogs that had that same sense of style (of course there could still be style — style is about more than stuff!) but, in lieu of gushing and jumpy claps over a pair of artfully photographed dangly earrings, shared instead about the art of living small, about what you did instead of choosing to buy another pair of earrings that don’t matter, that don’t change anything, that don’t deepen your experience of the world.
I’m not, however, interested in another environmentalist blog, telling me how to live green. Not because I don’t think those blogs are important or interesting, but because I already have a nice little list going, and because I already have a pretty solid handle on how to live green. You know, that whole thing with the grad studies at the McGill School of Environment and all. (McGill didn’t get its international reputation by having loose standards, I can tell you that much. They are nothing if not stringent and thorough.) What I want is to find a blog that shares the joy of living small, of not consuming. From the outside, not jumping on the shiny bandwagon of stuff sounds dry-heavingly pious and dull, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s proving to be the best decision we’ve made. [If you know of such a blog, please share.]
I would love to write that blog, and perhaps I’ll try, but it’s a hard sell. It’s hard to make it into something fun to read, something that would interest the average person, the average person who is someone who generally has no interest in simplicity. It would take a damn good, a damn witty writer to get people to gallop along with posts on “Washing the tub with baking soda is the best! thing! ever!” If I am that writer, which I would love to be, OMG, I haven’t found her yet. Which brings me to how I ended up with the giggles over this whole idea. So far, lifestyle blogs seem to be wedded to corporate sponsors. Apart from the fact that I have, like, six readers, one of whom is my mom, can you imagine a site that could be less appealing in terms of ad space? “Welcome, sponsors, to the blog that encourages people not to buy your products! Invest freely and I will talk about how I’m not going to spend your money. Especially on your stuff.”
There’s a moment, in the mornings, that I just love, although I’m not sure why. I’m generally miserable in the mornings — tired, cranky, completely out of sorts, needing my own space — and the crowded commuter trains, with everyone jammed up into everyone else’s space and the smells and the awkward jostling, it compounds my misery, makes it petulant and personal. I get off the train with a huge crowd in the heart of downtown and we all stream out towards the escalators, this bobbing crowd of trench coats and umbrellas and briefcases, and suddenly I’m buoyant. I like the way we wordlessly and without pause sort ourselves into right and left on the escalators, standers and walkers, as though these traits are innate (I’m a walker). I like the sound of high heels echoing on the sidewalk after the escalator spits us out into the city. I like the city in the morning, the crazy guy feeding the pigeons, the kids hawking free dailies, the man setting up his flower cart. They’re there every morning and so are we, the nameless hundreds dispersing to glittering office towers. We have our coffees and our lunches and we’re about to go in to do whatever it is we do, but first we have to wait together for the light to change.
So! [claps hands] Moving on! I mentioned in January wanting to find a rewarding new volunteer opportunity, preferably something to do with puppies, as part of my New Year’s resolution to have fun. Well, guess what!
Enter PADS, an organization that trains assistance dogs: service dogs for people with disabilities, hearing dogs for the hard of hearing, and therapy dogs. And, after attending Puppy School for a couple of months, Kieran and I qualified to become Puppy Sitters. Oh, you heard me! Puppy! Sitters!
Here’s how it works: PADS hand picks puppies that they think will make great service dogs (mostly labs, which in addition to being especially roly poly and adorable, are very well suited to being service dogs), and these puppies are placed into Early Puppyhood Education (EPE) (I’m not making this up). Five days a week, the puppies are in school, learning commands and patience and obedience. Don’t worry about the puppies in school being lonely or unloved, though! Not only do they get to wrassle and play with their adorable schoolmates often, they get tons of love from their handlers. They also have volunteer Puppy Cuddlers who come in to snuggle and play with the puppies twice a day, which helps to socialize the pups in addition to letting them feel loved. And, yes, you can volunteer to be a PUPPY CUDDLER (there is a waiting list, though, AS YOU CAN IMAGINE).
Anyway! On the weekends, the puppies are relinquished into the care of the team of Puppy Sitters, who take the puppies into their homes and carry on the EPE training (this is why we had to go to Puppy School, to learn all the commands and how the whole thing works), while also giving the puppies more socialization opportunities. In addition to getting used to the quirks of your particular home (be it kids, stairs, elevators, other dogs or, oh say, three cats), the puppies get to come with you everywhere you go during the weekend. The pups have little assistance dog capes that allow them to come with you on the bus, to restaurants and stores, concerts, you name it. So, in short, you know how you see assistance dogs getting on a train during rush hour like it’s no big thing? We get to teach the dogs how to do that!
Now, I’ll tell you what: It’s heart-burstingly fun. We take a pup about every other weekend, and there have been a few times where they’ve needed an extra hand and we’ve volunteered during the week and pups have gone with Kieran to his work (this is another thing the puppies need to learn — how to behave in an office!). So, every other weekend, we fall in love with a new puppy, and each puppy has his or her own
little big personality and challenges, and hot damn if I don’t end up learning from them in the course of teaching them how to navigate the world. There was Paris, who very much wanted to chase the cats, but who also wagged her tail so hard every time you entered the room that she basically took her whole body with it. There’s something very…warm and giggly and silly feeling when you leave a room for five minutes and here’s this puppy so happy you’re back! “It’s you! I like you! Hello!” I would like to remember to at least grin at folks when I’m happy to see them.
And then there was London, who was so very patient and serious, but who also was cunning enough to case the joint and then wait until you were indisposed to take all the mischievous opportunities she had filed away for safekeeping. And that is how she ate DIRTY CAT LITTER as I watched helplessly and dry heaved into the phone while making a doctor’s appointment. London got to meet our nephews and treated us to a huge display of PUPPY EXUBERANCE when she and my five-year old nephew played a game of tag. London had the endearing habit of doing this, to check on you, before she groaned and flopped on the floor by your feet.
She also had a sweet habit of always maintaining some kind of physical contact with you — usually a chin or a paw across your foot — while she was sitting on the floor by your feet on the bus or ferry.
And then there was our little Presley girl. We had her for a week, the first week after she was weaned. Our roly poly little downy rascal. We loved her. How could you not? She would be naughty and rambunctious and then she would whimper and curl up in your lap for snuggles before her nap. She was still too little to go down stairs by herself, so we had to carry her, which was my favourite — her round puppy belly pressed into my arm and her wet puppy nose snorgling my neck.
It’s a lot of work — a surprising amount of work — and it takes a great deal of discipline on both the part of the dog and the handler to stick to the program. I’m often physically exhausted after a weekend with the puppies, but I’m also…inspired and nourished and…full-up. The dogs are so eager to learn and to please and in the end the work they will do is so important.
And then there’s always this, and once again it’s incredible to me that we’re the ones technically doing them a favour (turn volume up for maximum cuteness):
I’ve been taking a beginner’s ballet class for adults. This is, in fact, something I’ve dabbled in off and on for a few years now, which you would think would result in some notable improvement or progress towards grace, but no. Ballet is, I suspect, akin to learning a new language: something that, as a kid, you can pick up almost thoughtlessly but, as an adult, you will stutter through awkwardly and, despite the sincerity of your intentions, this awkwardness will likely go on almost interminably. The crux of this — of dancing well or speaking a new language — is the need for abandon, the need to say the wrong thing or take a huge misstep and keep going anyway, possibly with renewed zeal. Abandon, zeal, hunger for learning, these are things kids come by naturally and we ridiculous adults shy away from as though something so delicious and intoxicating must be harmful to the health at its core. Heaven forbid we suffer foolishness after the age of 16!
So of all the beginner’s ballet classes for adults, this latest one is my favourite. Never have you seen a more motley crew of ballerinas: short, tall, chubby, gangling, middle-aged and sagging, knees popping during pliés, arabesques that barely creak themselves off the ground, thighs that jiggle distractingly during piqués. But through it all we’ve a teacher happily urging us on, celebrating with us that one little victory, that one perfect moment where the music lifts itself out of the background and into your body and your arm floats out just so, or your steps glide and skip just as they should.
Last class we took on grand jetés and, well, oh my. Some women lurched grimly across the room, with the set, determined faces that people have when they are getting through some difficult and daunting trial. Others flung themselves across the floor, with flagrant disregard to the music or the teacher’s instructions, and simply jumped with as much gusto as they could muster, seemingly with the hope that enthusiasm could stand in for technique or grace (which I dare say it can). One woman was quite helpless with laughter the whole time and her jetés, which started off well enough, derailed into something that for all the world looked like a particularly spindly pair of scissors being catapulted across the room. And then the biggest, most delightful surprise of all: a rather squat woman who just floated over the floor, leaping high into the air with astonishing grace, seeming to hang, suspended in the air, for a delicious second or two before flitting back down. We all loved that! And, emboldened by her success, we all renewed our own efforts.
This class ended just as every class does, with a proper reverence, in which most of us are sweating, red-faced, and happy as we lilt through our curtsies. And then our teacher turns and says quietly and firmly “Love your body,” and just then we all do.
It has been years, you guys. Years and years and years of failing at laundry. Years of looming piles of stale clothes. Years of a bumper crop of dirty clothes languishing in the laundry baskets that are meant for clean laundry. One big stinky Festival of Fail after another. So you might be nearly as surprised as I am to learn that I have won. I have kicked laundry’s ass. I AM WINNING AT LIFE. Well, at least at laundry, but it feels surprisingly the same as WINNING AT LIFE.
And the thing is? It’s not like I didn’t do laundry; I did the damn laundry. Often, even. I just couldn’t somehow do all of it. I had, in fact, given up on the enterprise of fixing the laundry problem because it had become clear that the laundry problem was me. Me. I suck at laundry, for really really reals, amen. And the only person who sucks at it more than me is my husband (sorry, Dear). So given how difficult and rare it is to execute a personality reversal, the Blue Yon Belly household appeared doomed to a lifetime of slumping piles of clothes threatening to burst the closet doors.
And then I, we, fixed the whole problem by accident.
See, the thing is, we’ve been doing this…project. Over the last year or so, we’ve kind of, sort of, totally started changing the way we live. It’s not all cult-y or anything creepy, so you don’t need to start mumbling excuses at your sneakers while you slink towards the door. In fact, it’s not terribly exciting or even all that different from how we lived before (that’s the kind of, sort of part), it’s just that it’s planned and charted and discussed (that’s the totally bit). And it’s working.
It’s no big thing, really. In fact, it’s simple. And there, I’ve gone and done it, because I’ve stolen my own punchline: it’s simple. We’ve made the decision to live simply. That’s all.
It could have been argued that we were already living fairly simply, since we spent the greater part of the last decade living in a 500-square foot apartment with no car, no cable, no cell phones, no gaming systems, and, well, y’all have seen the TV. (Nothing has changed except that we’ve splashed out on a second bedroom and an extra 345 square-feet. Or, as I think of it: 345 Square-feet of Worth It.) So, yeah, it’s not like we were huge consumers to begin with. You know, compared to the average North American. I mean, there are people out there with Hummers and snowmobiles and, and…jet skis. And those people aren’t even necessarily anything but middle class. Certainly more middle class than I am, but still.
And yet we had, among some other detritus (what was that in the corner? A VCR?), the impenetrable Mountain O’ Laundry and it occurred to us that despite some laudable efforts, we weren’t living quite as simply as we liked to believe. There’s a lot to be said here, but suffice it to say, we’ve since learned that North American standards of consumption are not a good yard stick with which to measure one’s girth as a consumer. It’s like setting your moral compass to Hannibal Lecter: Sure, snorting an eight ball* and unwittingly racing your Ferrari over a little old lady is reprehensible, but have you eaten anyone’s face today? No? Well then, I’m OK, you’re OK!
[Sigh. This is the part that's tricky: telling a multifaceted story that not only has no defined beginning or end, but in which you're also very much still treading through the middle. It's...it's a process, this project.] So let’s bring it back to the laundry. I think the laundry can be a good parable for simplifying any part of your life. I said that we fixed the problem by accident because when we set about simplifying I wasn’t expecting that I would be giving myself the tools to address certain long-standing problems; I just thought we’d be de-cluttering and saving money and that would kind of be it. But instead, as the boxes of clutter and old clothes were carted off to charity, tiny little revelations bloomed in their wake. And one big revelation: if you simplify your life, your life gets simpler. WHO COULD HAVE SEEN THAT ONE COMING. (Um, I didn’t.) (Like, I thought we’d have less crap, but I didn’t realize that would equate to a hell of a lot more time on my hands and a whole bunch of other stuff I will get into some other time maybe.) Anyway, here’s the little process I’ve learned. Let’s call it the Make Your Life Easier So That You Can Stop Sucking Method.
Step 1: Admit you suck. And that you’re not going to change.
We have a tendency to psychologize the reasons why we suck at something, casting these long narratives about being overwhelmed or perfectionists or not feeling good enough. This can be helpful. It’s good to identify these issues, because they can be true. But they’re probably not going to go away in time to get the laundry done. And even with years of therapy, these things might not go away. Besides, who cares if we suck at something? Everyone sucks at something. Admitting you suck at [something] is not the same as sucking as a human being.
So let’s be real. Me? My issue is a relatively serious, lifelong condition: Chronic Generalized Laziness (CGL). I have found that there is, quite simply, no cure for CGL. There is no effective motivation or deterrent or medication (at least I’m guessing on that one — I’ve never tried methamphetamines). Given the choice between doing the laundry or sitting in a lump on the couch, feeling miserable and deplorable for not doing the laundry, I will always, always, mysteriously, choose feeling miserable and deplorable. Because that’s the option that involves more sitting.
Step 2: Observe how you behave and then accommodate your handicap (Or: Find the limit)
When I said there is no cure for CGL, I was kind of wrong. For me, there is a cure: shame. I will not go to work in dirty clothes. So, I noticed, I will always do precisely enough laundry so that I can go about the world as a clean, presentable, non-smelly person (well, hopefully). The rest of the laundry was just never pressing enough because I didn’t need those other clothes or the spare towels in order to prevent shaming myself. And given the option between doing unnecessary laundry or pretty much anything else, I will do anything else, thank you very much.
Put another way, I am able to overcome my CGL for what amounts to three or four loads of laundry. After that, it’s too much, forget it, please get out of my life, OMG I hate this, etc., etc. I can tell myself I SHOULD do more than three loads and technically there’s no reason why I can’t or won’t, but I don’t and never do. So there’s the limit: three loads. It’s what I’m actually willing to do and it’s what I need to do to accommodate my shame.
Step 3: Wait a minute, did you just say you don’t need those other clothes or the spare towels? (Or: Simplify to accommodate the limit)
Hey, Genius: What if you just got rid of all those clothes you don’t need? Took those extra linens to the women’s shelter? What if you got rid of everything except your favourites that you end up wearing all the time anyway? If you can only do three loads, what if you only had three loads’ worth?
This is, of course, exactly what we did. And guess what? We’re down to three loads a week — lights, darks, linens — and it gets done every week. Our closet is surprisingly full, considering. I thought we would have to be pretty bare bones like monks or something to have only three loads’ worth**, but there’s a bit of a rotation and it works out great. The best part? I no longer hate myself every time I pass the hamper.
Conclusion: There’s a winning formula in this
IF you want to spend less time doing bullshit crap jobs, THEN own less bullshit crap. Bullshit crap requires maintenance, cleaning, dusting, putting away, installation of batteries, recycling, troubleshooting…Or put another way: Less stuff means more time. Enjoy.
*Does one snort an eight ball? You know, some things I’m glad I don’t know.
**Fellow editor friends: Why is my brain faintly telling me this is possessive? Three loads’ worth? Am tired. My Chicago is in the other room and my CGL is flaring up. It is possessive, isn’t it? I’m putting the apostrophe in.
My beloved Jen, The Trephinist’s, ingenious meme. (Our friendship was born out of a meme, so of course I had to take her up on it.)
WHEN SOMEONE I LOVE DIES
God, I don’t know. One foot in front of the other until one day you’ll find you’ve walked far enough that you’re no longer standing at the precipice of that great chasm of grief. That and, simply: cry. I somehow went completely numb at both my grandma and my grandpa’s funerals and just…didn’t cry. So now I give myself permission to feel it. Let it out. Cry. It helps you to get those feet moving on that long walk ahead of you.
WHEN I HATE MY JOB
Sigh. Yeah. Despite how much I like my job, this happens every weekday around 3:00 in the afternoon. It’s because I’m at the end of my attention span, I’m terminally bored, and my blood sugar is crashing. I.e., I’m DONE for the day. Only there’s two and half more hours to go. Editing for eight hours — staring at the page, trying to keep the big picture while sifting through the minutiae of commas, semi-colons, em dashes — it’s just this slow burn until WHAM! 3:00 burnout. So:
When it’s mild: I get up, lurch out of my office (which has terrible ventilation and air that deadens in this escalating, stifling way), make myself an herbal tea, stare out the window while the kettle is boiling, then wander back to the Publishing department and strike up a conversation with an amenable-looking co-worker. Once my tea is at a drinkable temperature, I retreat to my office, stare at something on the computer screen that looks officious and important, but really just drink the tea and think my thoughts. Generally, this takes about 20 minutes to half an hour all told, which I’m sure is less than awesome in the eyes of my employer, but WHATEVER, eyes of my employer, THAT is why I don’t take a morning coffee break. (This accounts for 90% of the 3:00 crashes.)
When it’s moderate: See above, but replace herbal tea with green tea. Add an apple. Maybe some surreptitious surfing of the Internet wherein I indulge in one juicy blog post. (This accounts for 5% of the 3:00 crashes.)
When it’s moderate to high: See above, but instead add in a fruitless passage wherein I TRY to work but find myself staring out the window after re-reading the same sentence eleventy times. In this case, I invent a five-minute errand that will take me outside where I can breathe AIR, actual AIR (often just buying a lottery ticket [natch] or some nuts from the newsstand downstairs). If, upon my return from breathing actual air, I’m still unable to get past re-reading that same fracking sentence, I switch to doing something administrative and mindless. (This accounts for 4% of the 3:00 crashes.)
When it’s really, really, really bad: Full honesty? I give up. And, like, stare at the wall for two hours until it’s time to go home. Oh, it’s ridiculous, alright. And I don’t exactly feel good about it. But on the other hand, trying to be productive as an editor for eight straight hours is equally ridiculous. The human mind is simply not built like that, so I don’t exactly feel bad about it either. (This accounts for 1% of the 3:00 crashes.)
WHEN I WANT TO STAB MY HUSBAND IN THE FACE
In the beginning, we used to fight balls out. Now, I think we’re getting to a point where we’re realizing that, somehow, time makes a marriage stronger, yet more fragile. Like, we can really hurt each other now, if we’re not careful. So:
When I want to stab my husband in the face because **I** am in a snit for some reason, usually to do with low blood sugar: A silent mantra of “Be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice, benicebenicebenicebenicebenice,” whilst trying to extricate myself from the room before saying the tantalizing mean thing dancing on my tongue with “hanger” glee.
When I want to stab my husband in the face because **he** is in a snit for some reason, usually to do with low blood sugar: I quite simply say “Please don’t take it out on me that [the Canucks are losing] [you're hungry] [Ikea on a Sunday is hell on Earth]” and, if it continues, “Um, you’re hurting my feelings.” You know, just saying out loud the plain, simple truth of it. Go figure.
WHEN I AM AFRAID TO DIE
Yes. This happens when I’ve forgotten to live. Which is to say, when I’ve neglected to go out, see my friends, do those things I do that make me happy (yoga, ballet, using my limbs to transport me to areas of the planet that don’t involve my couch). And, there’s a quiet little undercurrent at the very heart of me that swells and gushes when I’m nourished on living, and withers when I’m starved for some viva: writing. So, when I find myself afraid to die, it usually begins with an internal horror at how I’ve not been writing. I am afraid to die before I’ve done this for myself, before I’ve been a capital “w” Writer to my own satisfaction. Failing to do this is the most disappointing thing I can think of: squandering my life and neglecting to do the one thing I’ve always wanted to do.
However, I’m increasingly finding that my own satisfaction is in the doing, the trying. So these fears tend to be a reaction to the fact that I’m not trying — to live or to write. So, if you’re afraid to die, silly self, it means you need to get out and live a little. And then write about it.
WHEN I AM TERRIFIED THAT MY BOOK WON’T APPEAL TO VERY MANY PEOPLE
Ah, yes. I am scared of this. And it’s incredible that I can worry about this — a testament to just how much I can live inside my own head, flinging myself on the hamster wheel of anxiety and worry, racing myself to nowhere while listening to the frantic squeaks of my circular thoughts. Incredible because … I haven’t written a book. I think we can all safely agree that wanting to write a book is not nearly the same thing as sitting down every day for, oh, a year or two and writing a book. As I’ve…matured a little, as a person and as a (sometimes) writer, I worry about this far less than I used to. It’s kind of a place I wander to when thinking about writing in general, an old haunt that I return to when I’m on autopilot, the way I sometimes start walking to my old apartment when I’m distracted and tired and going somewhere else that happens to be in the general area. I have an excellent cure, though, for this fear: WRITE THE BOOK FIRST, YOU POMPOUS, DELUSIONAL ASSHOLE. YOU HAVE NOT EARNED THE RIGHT TO WORRY ABOUT THIS.
WHEN I HIT A DRY SPELL MUCH LIKE THE ONE I JUST WENT THROUGH AND STOP WRITING ALTOGETHER (AND WE’RE TALKING ABOUT MORE THAN JUST THIS BLOG, BUT, LIKE, ALTOGETHER, ALTOGETHER, EVEN E-MAIL)
You know how sometimes you hear about a marriage that breaks up and then someone in the know will maybe have a few too many drinks one night and will lean in and say in a low, conspiratorial voice “But s/he told me they hadn’t had sex in years” and you say “Really? Years? How does that…even…?” And then you fall silent and think about how stiflingly terrifying it would be to be in that situation. Like, there must be a point where you both want to have sex, but somehow enough time has passed that suddenly it’s really awkward to be the one to initiate it, so you hope the other person will initiate, while s/he is frantically hoping that you’ll be the one to initiate. [Aside: Yes, hello, Mom and Dad. We're suddenly talking about sex. It'll be over soon.] The only way I can see out of that kind of Catch 22, is to a) SACK UP and admit that you want a divorce because you are no longer attracted to your spouse (or you just really don’t want to, and can’t, wear the latex body suit while oinking like a pig or whatever it is) because, while unpleasant and disappointing, admitting the truth is surely less humiliating than PRETENDING for several years, or b) SACK UP and get really drunk and wear the latex body suit while oinking like a pig because, while certainly unpleasant and disappointing, at least you get to have sex and THAT is surely less humiliating than the whole PRETENDING that’s it’s OK to just not have sex. So to bring this whole awkward analogy back to writing, I think what I’m trying to say is that you (I) need to SACK UP and either admit that you no longer want to be a writer. Or, if that doesn’t ring true, you (I) need to SACK UP and write something, anything (a meme even!), so that you can, uh, break the seal, ignore how awkward and unnatural it feels at first, and start over.
Of course, if I’m choosing to go with Option B, I need to scratch the surface a little about the why of it all. Generally speaking, one feels like writing when one has things to write about. No one in their right mind pens a novel about their daily commune with the sofa, or the nuances of flicking through celebrity gossip sites with a bag of Kettle Chips nestled on their chest. So it comes back to remembering to live, pursuing a life, like I said before. (That, and NEVER RENOVATING AGAIN.)
WHEN I AM WORRIED I MIGHT BE MAKING THE WRONG LIFE DECISION
There are very few life decisions that can actually be classified as wrong and, objectively, you will know what they are from miles away. Drinking and driving, consuming escalating amounts of cocaine, getting in the car with the creepy-eyed man in a trench coat who you saw lurking behind some trees earlier — those are bad life decisions. Moving to a new city, quitting your job to go back to school, accepting that job offer or turning down that job offer — these are decisions that could be a mistake if you tally up certain markers. Decisions like these might turn out differently than you thought, disappoint you, cost you money or pride, or just, simply, not work out. But, if you’re in the position to make these decisions, you’re capable of dealing with whatever is going to happen. And how you deal with these things when they go lurching sideways is precisely what makes you who you are: an interesting, capable person, who’s not afraid to take risks.
WHEN I AM UNJUSTIFIABLY HESITANT
Why? Because you might look foolish? You know who really looks foolish? Who people really do roll their eyes at? The prigs who are so self-focused they come up with lame excuses and never take any risks for fear of looking foolish. People love seeing other people go for it, even if it ends in failure. They’re not looking for the win, they’re looking for the game. So be game!
WHEN I AM BAD AT SOMETHING
See above. Way to be brave enough to try!
WHEN I DECIDE THAT I AM FAT AND UGLY
Reality check: You are a size eight. Sometimes 10 (although then the waist will definitely be too big). This means that you’re neither skinny nor fat, which means…you’re normal. And normal means healthy. And healthy means you take care of yourself, which is pretty damn attractive in itself, isn’t it? As for your pores: Well…yeah. They’re big. But at what point did you become so fascinating and beguiling that people are staring at your face? Surely people do notice at some point, but there’s no way they spend any amount of time actually doing more than just noticing.
WHEN I AM HURT OR ANGRY
Ah, the healing power of sarcasm. Call a friend and say scathing, witty things. Laugh your ass off. Feel better.
WHEN I AM AFRAID
WHEN I AM SAD
There are things in my life that are certainly worthy of being sad about. If this wasn’t the case, I don’t think I would know how blessed I am to have the friends that I have, that I’ve always had. You can dwell on the fact that you’ve fallen down, or you can marvel at how many people rushed forward to help you up.
WHEN I BECOME CONVINCED THAT NO ONE REALLY CARES ABOUT ME
…Wait. When’s the last time you spoke to the people you care about and need to care about you? Call. E-mail. Instant message. Voila. You’re laughing in, what, half a minute?
WHEN I AM STRICKEN BY THE NOTION THAT I WILL BECOME LONELY AND DEPRESSED WHEN I AM ELDERLY BECAUSE EVERYONE HAS BABIES AND FAMILIES AND I DON’T
Having kids is no guarantee that you’re going to be looked after when you’re old. If it was, there wouldn’t be all those lonely old people out there. Kids die, or they move away, or they’re maybe just assholes. Your best bet is to save enough money to get into a nice home when the time comes. Something you’ll be able to do easily on account of not having kids. Heh.
WHEN I WORRY THAT ONE OR BOTH OF US IS GOING TO FUCK UP OUR MARRIAGE AND IT WILL END IN DIVORCE
You’re happy right now, aren’t you? So…you’re worried about something that…isn’t happening? And might never happen? What an excellent use of your time. This is exactly what you should be doing instead of spending time with your husband, whom you enjoy.
WHEN I WORRY ABOUT OTHER THINGS THAT HAVEN’T HAPPENED YET AND MIGHT NEVER HAPPEN
These thoughts are preceded by “What will I do if [something only marginally in my control goes sideways]?” Answer: There’s no way to throw the right pitch until you know what the count is…or who’s at bat, or who’s on base. A good game isn’t just throwing the ball across the plate; a good game is a series of strategic plays, some perfect, some just inside, some walked on purpose. And those kinds of plays, the good plays, are decisions you can’t make until you know the score. In the meantime, why don’t you stop worrying and instead enjoy the things you’re afraid of losing?
WHEN I AM FIGHTING MY TENDENCY TO PROCRASTINATE, IF SOMETHING THAT FLARES UP EVERY TEN MINUTES CAN BE CALLED A TENDENCY INSTEAD OF, SAY, A DEEP AND SEARING CHARACTER FLAW
“Vegetables before dessert.” Sure dessert is fun and it’s the best part. But when you eat nothing but dessert, you feel slimy and gross and you don’t have any energy, and eventually you just hate yourself. It’s turns out the enjoyable things in life are only enjoyable once you’ve put your time in on the less enjoyable bits. Earn that indulgence and it will actually feel like an indulgence, instead of just a hollow failure.
WHEN I AM WISHING I HAD A PONY OR A BOAT OR A MACBOOK AIR WITH A SOLID-STATE HARD DRIVE
Remember how last week you took that big bag of clothes to the Sally Ann? And how you have that box of old electronics in your closet, just sitting there waiting to go to the recycling depot? These are a sign that you already have more stuff than you need. You need food. You don’t need stuff. You don’t need more crap in your closets that you will tire of long before the end of their life cycle. There is no grace in taking more than you need.
WHEN MY FLESH IS TRYING TO CRAWL OFF MY BODY AND I AM AFRAID OF SOMETHING BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS
You are an extrovert. You need to interact with other humans, or your brain will try to run screaming out of your left ear. BACK AWAY FROM THE LAPTOP. Call your friends. Go somewhere.
WHEN IT’S GOOD, WHICH IS AT LEAST LIKE NINETY PERCENT OF THE TIME
Don’t forget to be thankful. You may have earned this, but you’re not entitled to happiness. In fact, other than basic human dignity, you’re not entitled to anything. So this is a gift, a blessing, this moment, this life.
WHEN IT’S BAD
Don’t forget to be thankful. You may not have earned this, but you’re not entitled to happiness. Unlike many people in this world, you have not been robbed of your right to basic human dignity. This is a gift, a blessing, this moment, this life.
WHEN IT’S REALLY, REALLY BAD
One foot in front of the other. Again. And Again. And again. Crawl if you have to. Get going on that walk, the one that moves you away from the chasm.