The Stuff of Life

There is one thing I can unequivocally state: No thing will make life perfect. Perfect moments are born of something intangible, something that goes beyond the sum of the objects. Things can participate in the making of a perfect moment, but they are not the assurance of perfect moments.

Case in point: my boys were crazy all morning. It was pouring rain. After an aborted attempt at at playing in the woods, we returned home. They were insane. Running, wrestling, breaking things, tearing apart the couches. And then suddenly, one wanted to play Play-Doh. Suddenly, there were four of us sitting at the table playing Play-Doh, using the Play-Doh oven and making Play-Doh snakes. A little moment of perfection passed through. Not because of the Play-Doh oven or the four new pots of Play-Doh we cracked open. But because there were the four of us, because we were all involved, because we weren’t fighting or negotiating.

No one could have created that moment. Yes, there were things, but the things did not make the moment.

I vacillate frequently between a fervent desire for the monastic minimalism of living in a hotel room, and reality, which is that I live on Earth with other humans and therefore must face it that stuff is going to be part of our story.

The Monastic Minimalism of Expecting First-Time Parents

What I want is for that stuff to not be in control of me and my space; on the other hand, I want more Play-Doh moments, where I can be the hero by bringing out four new pots of Play-Doh that I have kept sacredly hidden for a moment like this. I want this to be a reality without forgetting where I put them, without having to move two suitcases and a sewing machine to get to them, or even forgetting that I had them at all.

I have a recurring thought when it comes to the Stuff of Life: Where your treasure is your heart will be too. I will be exploring this thought in further detail in another post, but it’s worth mentioning here too.

For me, treasure in this context means money: whatever I sink my money into is where my heart is going to be.

If I want my heart to be fully present for my family (this desire can fluctuate, given how the scalawags are behaving on any given day), then my heart needs to not be on the money pit that can be my hobbies, my wardrobe, my coffee mugs. This is basic math.

The Stuff of Life is a catalyst for contented living, it is not life itself.

If I want more Play-Doh moments, I need to stop investing in Play-Doh and start playing with it.

Anticipation is Everything

A Not-Still Life: Scalawag and Backpack

My boys are currently five and almost four years old. This puts them at the very heart of an extremely selfish phase in which neither parental unit can even take out the trash without being asked “what did you buy me?” upon their return.

In an effort to keep our apartment relatively uncluttered, we are not big on collecting stuff for stuff’s sake. I am a proponent of the “practical gift” or the “experience gift”, which takes up no space and can provide a pleasant memory. This year, my sister, who lives on the other side of the world, did both of these.

She managed a feat this Christmas with those two little boys that highlighted a fascinating phenomenon that I think deserves to be examined: she harnessed the power of anticipation to make the pleasure they took in their Christmas gift last well beyond the tearing of wrapping paper. The pleasure lasted for two months leading up to Christmas and is still as strong today.

It started in October when the boys let it slip during one of their Saturday evening FaceTime chats with their aunt that they both wanted a new backpack for Christmas. Immediately, she started asking all the right questions. The boys each had pretty specific ideas of what they wanted. I don’t remember the details, but the word “sleek” was tossed about liberally as if we all understood what that meant as applied to a child’s backpack.

My sister went on Amazon and started sending me links. When it came down to it, I had no idea what sleek meant. I didn’t know, so I showed them the backpacks she proposed. Some were rejected out of hand for not having enough pockets or not being sleek enough.

And then came the day that she struck gold: she found the perfect backpacks. The boys were over the moon. I took a screen shot of them.

For every single day between the day they found their hearts’ desires and Christmas morning, they asked to see the photos of their backpacks. They examined every detail. Every. Detail. They knew their backpacks by heart. They talked about their backpacks together, each having memorized all the details of the other’s.

Because the delivery was done with discretion, they never knew they arrived. A few days before Christmas, the eldest scalawag looked up and saw an airplane in the sky and said, “look…that must be the airplane bringing our backpacks.”

On Christmas Eve, he was very concerned that the backpack had not arrived. He told me we needed to drive to the airport because surely there had been a problem.

On Christmas morning there were tears because the backpacks were tucked behind other little gifts and not visible at first sight.

And then the most exquisite gift opening occurred: their anticipation was satisfied. They opened every pocket, examined every detail, finally holding in their grubby scalawags hands what they had only seen in photos for two months. They wore their backpacks everywhere all weekend. They filled them and unfilled them, talking about how they were going to show all their friends at school.

We took pictures and videos of them wearing their new backpacks to send to their aunt, since she couldn’t be here for the unveiling.

I have long believed that the anticipation of a thing is better than the obtaining of said thing. In this case, I believe that the anticipation contributed to the pleasure they are taking in the thing.

These are my takeaways from my sister’s demonstration of gift giving prowess:

  1. Always be listening for hints
  2. Involve the recipient in the process
  3. Have willing accomplices
  4. Ask for and enjoy the feedback

Do you have tips for giving great gifts?

A Not Still-Life: Scalawag and Sleek Backpack

The Contentment Conundrum

I feel like I have spent my entire life searching after some thing that will bring me satisfaction. I can, and probably will, continue to dissect this urge for the remainder of my earthly life.

I have a vivid memory of Christmas morning as a child, seeing what today I would consider the embarrassment of abundance under the tree. I remember consciously thinking to myself, “There is happiness under that tree.”

My memory is equally as vivid of sitting in the living room, surrounded by torn wrapping paper and piles of lovely things and feeling emptier than such a small child has a right to feel.

I remember being ten years old and saving up my allowance of one dollar a week to buy a stone-washed denim jacket from K-Mart that I’d had my eye on. (Incidentally, this was also the day that I learned that sales tax was added on top of the purchase price in the state of Ohio, where I grew up, but I digress.) I was not even out the door with my fancy snap front stone-washed denim jacket (for which my mother had to chip in the ninety-eight cents sales tax) and I was already feeling the painful twinge of buyer’s remorse.

I have dozens of memories like this.

That’s all there is?

This isn’t what I thought it would be.

What’s next?

“Is that all there is?” asks the alley cat on Christmas morning.

Thoughts like these have leaked out of my unsatisfied soul for as long as I can remember.

An interest becomes an obsession. (I love this and I must have it.) An obsession becomes a by-all-(legal)-means-necessary drive to possess. (I will finally be happy once I have this!) Possession inevitably leads to disappointment. (I was happier when I was dreaming about it.) Disappointment leads to disdain. (This didn’t make me happy so it must be bad.) Disdain leads to self-hatred. (You thought that would make you happy? You fool!)

I have to believe that I am not the only person who lives this cycle out unendingly; I also have to believe that I am not the only person who wants this cycle to end.

I don’t just want to be happy. I want to be content.

…and everything in its place

Due to factors both within and beyond our control, my little family of four scalawag adventurers lives in a small fourth floor apartment.

My indulgent husband and I moved into this apartment in 2012 after the building, which is on the historic building registry, was renovated. We had long been intrigued by the building and when the apartments were complete, we asked to visit. Obviously, I fell in love with the view and after a series of pretty incredible miracles, we were residents of a historic landmark.

At the time, having children was the last thing on our minds. We took our time laying out the apartment, picking out our furniture. When we first moved in, I was pretty darn proud of the place we lived. It was mostly Salvation Army and Ikea chic, but it was unique, it was home and I loved it. The apartment was perfect for two people and our stuff.

But hah! Life had a wrench the size of a first baby boy and all the stuff that came along with him, planned for 2015, and a second wrench the size of another baby boy and his stuff in 2017.

…when the baby was smaller than the alley cat…

How do four people fit in this same, perfectly calibrated space with all of their stuff?

Easy answer? They don’t.

I have always admired my mother-in-law for her organization. In her home, which, is admittedly spacious, each item has a designated place to live. She doesn’t have to wrestle with the toaster to get to the spice rack or move a box of toys to get to her shoes.

Even before I had babies I admired her for this, but now I am in awe and have a near-constant dissatisfaction in my heart because I have to move all of our plastic storage containers to get to the rice cooker.

There are two options: 1. Move into a new apartment or 2. Get rid of stuff so that we all can fit (comfortably) in this apartment.

I have chosen the second option. I struggle to imagine what this is going to look like or how I will know when I have achieved it, but watch this space!

“Just like Laura Ingalls…”

When I was growing up, it seems like we had an inordinate number of storms that would knock the power out on our street. I was lucky to have an older sister who remained nonplussed at something that I would have found a little scary without her.

Without fail, my mother would say to us, as she would go about collecting flashlights and lighting candles, “Look girls! Now we are just like Laura Ingalls!”

Admittedly, Little House on the Prairie was a hit in our home. Maybe it was the cute little calico dresses or Nellie Olsen’s perfectly coiled curls that were so attractive to us. (I have so much more to say about life lessons learned from Little House but I am going muzzle myself for the moment…)

But what I think, truly, that was so attractive about that life was just how contented the Ingalls family seemed. Not just with their little house, but with their family relationships, with their lot in life, simple as it was. Yes, Hollywood. Also: life goals.

There was a sense of wonderment which took hold, if even for only a few minutes, as I considered what it would look and feel like to live differently.

What was fun for an hour on a stormy night was not how I wanted to live my life. However, whether to humor Mother, or because there was a genuine excitement about stepping outside of our usual routine and way of life, my sister and I would play along.

As I have grown up, that sense of wonderment has become a bit of an undercurrent. I don’t really want to live without electricity or without a car. But…what if?

When my husband and I met in 1997, neither of us had a television. We have been married since 1999 and never did get one. We have managed thus far to raise two little boys without one. That one unintentional decision set us on a path to intentionally do things a little bit differently than other people.

We don’t live just like Laura Ingalls, but I am constantly looking for ways to live more simply and with greater satisfaction.

This blog is going to follow my journey towards contentment.