Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Chapter in "Get Satisfied" from Simple Living America

Why Losing it All Meant Winning Much More
By Galen Warden

Around 1990 my husband succumbed to major depression and just stopped working. I had to support the eight of us—we had six young children. In the months that followed it became apparent that, without either a college degree or full-time work experience, I would not earn enough to support us sufficiently. So... we began to sell our belongings. We received food from a local church soup kitchen, and hand-me-downs for my older kids from neighbors, as I continued to look for work. Plus we began to look for a low-cost rental, awaiting our inevitable eviction. Picture a financial domino effect—complete with jumps, flips, and cascades. But even then I was certain that this period of our lives held its own lessons, and would always be remembered as a very meaningful journey for us.

As we sold our belongings and began to scale down our lives, I felt a sense of liberty I did not expect. We had already spent a fair amount of time without a T.V. because I could not bear to see my children sit longingly in front of toy commercials. Of course they watched it at friends' houses. I told them I didn't hate T.V., but I wanted their time at home to be spent doing, not wishing. We had a big roll of white butcher paper and plenty of crayons, markers, and paint. We had Legos and Lincoln Logs and blocks. We had guitars and tambourines and keyboards. My husband was a musician and I am an artist, so creative equipment was readily available to them. Fast forward—today they are all artists and musicians either for their jobs or as a hobby.

We enjoyed our creativity at home, but getting out of the house was important, too. The problem there, again, was that we could not afford the normal entertainments: movies, local carnivals or amusement parks. Instead, I discovered that one of the coolest things to do when you have no money is "window shop." I'd take my girls to a fancy store, like Bloomingdale’s, and we'd try on fur coats! Window shopping is excellent therapy and recreation, plus it's educational. So much can be learned by not purchasing a thing, or spending a dime, if you do it right.

It’s helpful to remember that shopping in the traditional sense is very different, and much more stressful. You have to select the right thing. Does it go with my other stuff? Is it appropriate for my personal style? Does it fit? Does it match? Can I afford it? Should I go for cheap or splurge? Plus, you have to limit yourself to only visiting stores where items likely to conform to your taste, needs, and budget would be found.

When you window shop all of this stress is eliminated! You can window shop in any store that will allow you in. Money is no object. So why not go to the most expensive stores? The style doesn’t have to suit your taste. Ponder stuff you’d never put in your home. Somebody loves it. When you window shop, you can admire every item, learning to find its own particular merits, even if it is not in your personal taste.

It’s really quite amazing when you consider the millions of items for sale and the millions of different people buying them. Ask yourself what might have been in the mind of the manufacturer. Why did they choose to make this item? They must have imagined the perfect customer for it. You can picture the most sophisticated, or the most vain person, needing to pamper themselves with items of pure luxury—completely unnecessary extravagances whose qualities, details, or ornamentations augment an everyday object, simply to make it appeal to their sense of entitlement. If someone has to have the very most expensive one, then certainly someone will figure out how to make one of those that expensive. Eye each item—whether a tea cup, a coat, or a jewel— and paint an imaginary portrait of the character that would have to have that one! Until you walk into a store with this as your only purpose, you cannot imagine how wonderfully entertaining this can be.

To add a sense of history, and often irony, don't forget antique stores! There you can, not only enjoy imagining who might pay $200 for a fountain pen, you can try to picture its humble origins at 25¢ in the stationary store in 1920. This adds a wonderful twist. Antique items may represent a new technology for their time—the very latest thing—and with the perspective of history your child recognizes that one day their own modern things will be out-dated curiosities also. Vintage clothing may show shades of modern styles, back around again. And vintage photos are the perfect window on families that may have been similar to your own ancestors. Look into their eyes and imagine what that day may have been like, having their photo taken after a long horse and buggy ride into town!

Window shopping is a healthy adventure for well-behaved children 6 - 12 years or a little older. They are still young enough to have their values shaped. To appreciate that everyone doesn’t have the same taste, and to recognize that stuff is just stuff, and that very little is essential stuff. Every item in every store merely has the purpose of providing revenue to those who present it. There is no need for you to buy it. However, many people feel compelled to buy things they really don’t need. It is amazing how items themselves are somehow infused with the spirit of those desperate to possess them. There is a strange satisfaction in conjuring up that weakness in your self, recognizing it for what it is, and then watching it evaporate. Your power to overcome the siren of an item that calls out, "owning me will improve you," is a wonderful skill to teach children, and to hold onto throughout life. You will own your things. They will not own you.

At this moment, having lost everything those many years ago, I can gratefully say that I can afford to give regularly to the charities of my choice, Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army, among others... understanding that it is often someone just like me, because once it was me, that loses everything and needs a hand for a while. I can also happily say that, although I have more stuff than I had at that time, none of it, not a single thing, has the power it once had to hurt me. The threat of losing your things is a painful, even a devastatingly painful, feeling. When fear strikes your heart at the thought of your beautiful things going away, they own you. You do not own them.

My primary goal through those difficult times was to fiercely guard the kids against any negative impact from our situation. I was determined that it would be an opportunity for better priorities and perspective. I could use this experience to instill a sense of self-worth in them that was totally unrelated to status. And to teach them empathy for others they would encounter in their futures. What a gift! We sang, we drew, we played, we window shopped. With the exception of my husband, who took a few years to get better, we worked to remain happy, playful people.

Since those days I've become a successful career woman and own my own home. The value of learning that “stuff is just stuff,” the liberty of having nothing to lose and reveling consciously in that freedom, is the richest reward that one could gain from the painful exorcism of losing it all.

My chapter also includes a poem, which I am posting separately.

From: Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough
October 1, 2007 ISBN 978-0974380681
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Poem: The Sweeetness In You

The Sweetness in You

I know how fragile life is.
Breath preciously taken in and carefully given out again.
You are a living rhythm of earth’s waves, tides, seasons.

Your heart, a delicate flower
Opening and closing its valves within a golden cage of bones.
A miracle each moment. Every time.

I adore your skin, its intricate capillaries peaking through
And blue veins like ribbons
Feeding every inch of you.

I fully acknowledge the mercy of life:
The gifts of cloud and sea and field
To our unworthy eyes and hands.

Water from the well.
Sun on the sand.
Life is good! So good. So good.

And things—the stuff of society:
Jewels and sweaters and heels and purses,
Lamps and radios and rubber tires…
All of it I appreciate more than you could understand.
The hands that made. The minds that planned.
The dreams that originated every wish that became
A thing to use, to want, to have.

From the silver thimble my great grandmother used
To the gleaming granite countertop I polish with joy—
All of the things of life are sweet.

But none is as precious as warm skin with fine hairs and freckles.
…The flower of the heart opening and closing its valves.
…Blue ribbons coursing through you.
…The breath of life taken in... most of it given back.

Be life with me!
Even more fragile than things.
Be precious gift of warm blood and bones.

Be aware with me
That the things we create wither
As easily as life escapes the delicate skin of the dead.

But as long as rosy cheeks flush with hope,
The joy of you is complete without a thing.

Let them take the house.
Let the items I have treasured slip away...
Bring me your splendor caged in bones,
That glorious mind that sparks with light.
The life of you… mine for the giving of mine to.

Nothing extra needed, dear.
No thing, but the sweetness in you
Which decorates the sweetness in me
Better than any thing.

Galen Warden

Begin the Bee Blog

I woke up at 5:25 this morning and decided to blog. My daughter came over last night and told me about a terrible anxiety attack she had yesterday while sitting in class at college. My heart broke for her. We talked. As I spoke I felt the unbearable weight of my words as they left my lips. Are these the right words? Will they guide her? Will she take them the right way? Am I wrong? Am I telling her things that will resonate harmfully later when she looks back on this moment seeking help for a present distress? How the power of being her mother weighed on me, like the weight of the whole world of mothers' words weigh on the whole world of children - infants to adults.

Is not a mother the ultimate healer? comforter? source of security and relief from the world's woes? But mothers are also wounders, harming their sweet pups with words that hurt instead of heal. The power of the mother's ability to wound is so terrifying to me. With every word I felt that weight, and hoped to only heal and comfort and let her know how very, very, very much I love her. With that strain behind every word - the accute need in her eyes - my heart stretched yet again - stretching like your brain stretches when you force yourself to tackle a really difficult spreadsheet for your marketing plan. Just like your I.Q. goes up when you challenge your brain - I think my Heart Quotient went up last night, stretching to hold all of my daughter's pain, straining to say only healing things, to remove my ego, my needs, my pre-conceptions from the equation of her desperate situation.

I won't know how well I did last night. I won't know if something I said helped or hurt. She will wake up today, bruised and weak, and, hopefully, call her dad for the number of the psychiatrist he knows and trusts. But whether my attempts at comfort truly made things better is not a significant fact for her. Or for me. That she finds an answer. That this stops happening to her. That she musters the courage to do whatever it takes to be better. Those are all that matter. My words are only planks of wood thrown in front of her as she navigates this quicksand. If they carry her across this one day to the next, so that she can really get the help she needs, they've done their job and they can sink away into the darkness of amnesia that usually follows such lows in life.

I know that bees can be scary. They have the power to sting. But their venom also has the power to heal - relieving one of humanity's greatest enemies - arthritis. It also protects the hive - wards off predators. Bees work together. They work for the good of the hive. They make liquid gold from flowers! I imagine that bees dream of flowers, of fields of flowers waiting to be harvested. I imagine that bees dream of the hive. Of their brothers working together to build, to clean, to gather pollen, to create a beautiful world they can call their own.

For my daughter I dream of a solution to her anxiety attacks. It might be a doctor who can prescribe something to balance her better - the hard work of arriving at that magic pill may seem daunting, but it may be well worth it. Or they may pass, maybe she'll just start talking to a really good psychologist and overcome some root cause with a lot of hard work. Whatever her answer - I won't rest until she has one. This world, the hive, needs her more than it knows now - her special insight is always striking, and her ability to communicate is rare. She wants to teach, or be an administrator, at the high school level. She has a lot of hard work ahead of her.

There is a lot to say - and the sweet opportunity of life is so short. I decided that one more blog among the thousands was a simple, humble way to begin to say my piece. I'm just another bee buzzing and working away for the good of the hive. I leave you with a dream of bees - a field of echinacea at Gaia Farm in North Carolina.