Was It Worth It?

March 21, 2012

Wrapping Up, Part 3

“I wonder whether cutting back my personal consumption will do anything more than make me feel better. Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” Judith Levine, Not Buying It

“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” William Blake

I spent some time last week scanning through my posts from 2011—which, with the engagement, wedding, and trip to France, turned out to be a pretty big year for me. In addition to all that fun stuff, I learned a ton. I learned about the outrageous quantity of pesticides sprayed on imported cut flowers. I learned where to find used stuff in my community. I learned how to be a courteous bike commuter. I learned about the growing, mining, and manufacturing involved not just in food, toiletry, and cleaning supply production, but also in packaging, clothing, electronics, furniture, and media production. I discovered new ways to avoid food waste. I rediscovered my interest in writing. I evaluated my use of time, set new priorities, created a calendar, and stuck to my savings plan. And all because of the No Stuff Experiment.

Above I quote from Judith Levine’s book, Not Buying It: “Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” I’d say, yes, it is. For me, the No Stuff Experiment was a solution to consumer apathy. It was at times a wake-up call (like when I researched cotton farming), at times a refresher lesson (the cleaning product post). It forced me to take a hard look at my values and priorities and to make choices accordingly. Yes, I cheated here and there, and yes, the NSE rules were more lax than are rules for other shopping fasts. As a discerning reader, you are free to fault me for the flaws of my experiment.

And, yet, in spite of those flaws I came away with some important life lessons:

I can’t force my lifestyle onto other people—nor should I. Although, by the end of the year, I was alone in my commitment to the rules of the Experiment, I did this thing with the help and support of many of my closest friends and family. And I think it wore on some of them. I know it wore on Channing. I probably asked a little too much of him in the beginning. I asked not only that he not buy me gifts but also that he not by anything new for our shared home. I told him we couldn’t buy firewood for warming the living room on cold winter nights (remember when we used to have those?); I told him he couldn’t buy me roses for Valentine’s Day; I told him we couldn’t get a new couch. He was displeased but bore with me—for the first few months, anyway. Then the whole engagement thing happened.

Well, eventually, I stopped reminding/nagging Channing (and everyone else) about the Experiment. Shoving the responsibility of respecting my wacky rules onto others just started to seem rude and generally made me unhappy. I rediscovered that the best way to influence others is not with force but with information. Although ultimately none of the readers I’ve spoken to are interested in doing their own shopping fast, every one of them has found tidbits on the blog that convinced them to change one or two tiny aspects of their lives—or that at least made them think about their own consumer choices. That’s pretty huge.

I have way, way, way too much stuff. In December I borrowed a book from Melissa titled Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. This book is full of practical advice, a lot of which I’ve heard elsewhere, and yet it completely rebooted my thinking about clutter. About halfway through Kingston’s book, I realized I had a lot more decluttering to do, and I made this known to Channing. He said, “Haven’t we gotten rid of a lot of stuff already?” Yeah, we have. But…

Think for a moment about all the stuff in your house that you haven’t touched in a month or three months or six months or a whole year. Channing and I have tons of stuff like this—including stuff we haven’t even thought about since we moved in, in 2010: the plastic utensils collected from takeout orders in a kitchen drawer, the extra cheese grater, the serving trays we never use, all the pens and rubber bands in the office (you know, the office I just cleared out in October), the gigantic box of memorabilia from my trip to Australia in 2001—2001!

I know the husband and I won’t get around to clearing this stuff out anytime soon. And you know what?  That’s OK. I am happy, though, that thanks to the Experiment I have become aware of the abundance available to me in my own home. This awareness has made trips to stores like Target, Michael’s, and Office Depot a lot less frequent.

It’s my life. Based on the conversations I had with my Voluntary Simplicity group, I don’t think I’m alone in occasionally feeling like I have no control over how I spend my time. It used to be that when professional, social, and personal commitments piled up, I would either get angry or break down. But these days it’s easier to take a step back and examine why I’m overbooked (the Google calendar helps with this too). Which activities do I want to continue, and which are no longer aligned with my priorities and values?

At the start of this year, I had planned to tackle two major projects: train for a half Ironman and expand my freelance editing business. I quickly realized that spending ten or fifteen hours training every week would not allow much time for the editing business. I am still working a full-time job, after all. So, I had to make a decision about which activity was more important to me. The No Stuff Experiment prepared me to do just that. (For more about the time issue, see my earlier posts in this category.)

I will do this again. OK, so I successfully completed the No Stuff Experiment when I had few responsibilities outside of putting in eight hours at the office every day and paying some bills. What would this thing look like if I were a bit older, lived in a different city or a bigger house, had a kid or two? What would I learn if I gave up the restaurant meals, movie tickets, and consignment shopping in addition to new nonessential material goods? The No Stuff Experiment is something I want to come back to every few years, like a detox or cleanse program for my inner consumer. I’ll have to tweak the rules to accommodate lesson #1 above, of course, but I’m sure I can come up with some new guidelines that will similarly stimulate creativity, problem-solving skills, and self-reflection. Seems like a useful tool for the future me.

Thanks, everyone, for your attention and patience these last fifteen months. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. I’m looking forward to starting my new blog project, The Rosy Skillet, in the fall of 2012, and I hope you all will join me there. I may also post on No Stuff Experiment every now and again as I come across new information about consumption, clutter, and stuff.


Most of you—especially those of you with kids, I’d imagine—are familiar with the household calendar concept. The premise is this: one calendar, posted in a heavily trafficked area of the house, that lists all activities for every member of the household. Maybe it’s color coded. Maybe it includes chores. However it’s customized, the household calendar is powerful organizational tool. And yet, Channing and I didn’t have one until Tuesday.

Here’s the rub: The new hubs and I have felt especially popular since the wedding. We’ve been invited to what seems like a gazillion dinners, sporting events, concerts, and birthday parties over the past seven weeks. We went to the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello last Saturday and plan to hit the Frederick Oktoberfest next Saturday (I’m hoping Channing will don some authentic lederhosen so we can get in for free). We’ve got a Riesling tasting to attend and tickets to football and baseball games. We’re running a ten miler on Sunday. To be honest, I haven’t felt all that busy—our activities have been fun, spontaneous, and, to some extent, relaxing—but we’ve overbooked enough times lately that, when Channing suggested we keep a joint calendar, I was thrilled.

But where would we get a calendar? Our home printer was out of ink, and since we’re no longer on those pesky bulk mailing lists, we didn’t have any 2011 wall calendars lying around the house. And we certainly weren’t going to buy a new one. Plus, I wanted something we could view both at home and at work—so that ruled out the iCal on our home computer. At first I thought I would create something in Numbers and share it with Channing via my Dropbox. But then I remembered that Google has a free calendar product that Channing and I could each access from our separate Gmail accounts. Yep, the Google calendar seemed like a good idea—mostly because I wouldn’t have to spend too much time on setup.

So, like I said, I created our aptly named “Calendar of Fun” on Tuesday, and I have to say, it’s pretty fantastic. The calendar is private, so only the two of us can view it. I set it up so that we can both add and modify events, just as we could on a paper calendar. As an added bonus, there is a bit of extra room for a description of each event, so we can use the calendar to share websites for festival schedules or restaurant menus with each other. Although I haven’t explored the option yet, I think our Google calendar will sync with the iCal, both on our desktop and on my iPad. Isn’t technology amazing? (I’m guessing at least a handful of readers are using Google calendars or maybe some other fancy digital calendars I’m not aware of. Feel free to share any calendar-related tips in the comments.)

Remember back in March when I wrote that post about reevaluating my use of time? Well, this calendar is another tool I can use to ensure I’m making wise decisions about “extracurricular” activities. For example, Channing has requested that we limit our joint weekend activities to no more than two. There are some nuances to this number. Generally we’ll count only activities that take us outside the house, but in some cases—e.g., parties or dinners that require both planning and hosting responsibilities—in-house activities will count too. Channing wants to ensure he has plenty of time to relax, and I have to say, I appreciate this. He keeps my hyperplanning tendencies in check. Only recently have I discovered what some college friends meant when they declined dinner plans with the excuse, “We haven’t spent enough time in our room today.” Spending time at home on the weekends has become an absolute necessity. It keeps me centered and provides peace of mind so that my workweeks are not just bearable but enjoyable.

Limiting our planned activities also occasions the opportunity for spur-of-the-moment fun. I cancelled all of my plans the weekend after our wedding because I needed to take some time off-schedule. That weekend I relearned how enjoyable it is to have the freedom to accept a dinner invitation received only three or four hours in advance. I finished my first long run in three weeks, and I think I even cooked brunch (a rarity after a three-hour run on a Sunday morning).

To conclude, I’d like to add one item to everyone’s weekend calendar: September 24, National Punctuation Day! For a few simplicity-minded, punctuation-related celebration ideas, visit the official NPD website. (I’m hoping to celebrate my favorite grammar-related holiday with Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison at the National Book Festival.)

Do You Have the Time?

April 11, 2011

Last night, a few hours after our April Voluntary Simplicity meeting, I came across a passage in Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that perfectly expressed some of the ideas we had discussed during the meeting. This month’s topic was time, a subject I addressed here only a couple of weeks ago. In the passage, Murakami describes how when he was thirty-three he reordered every aspect of his life around his focus on writing novels. He started going to bed early and waking up with the sun. He realized he could concentrate best in the morning, so he decided to write during that time. He ran and did errands in the afternoon and spent his time in the evening relaxing, reading, and listening to music before bed.

Murakami didn’t just revamp his private, working life, he reconsidered his social life too. He writes, “We [Murakami and his wife] also decided that from now on we’d meet with only the people we wanted to see and, as much as possible, get by not seeing those we didn’t. We felt that, for a time at least, we could allow ourselves this modest indulgence.” He had been running a jazz club for seven years; for seven years he had had to greet whoever walked in the door with “a friendly smile” on his face. So, you (well, those introverts among us, at least) can see why he would want to cut back on his social visits.

Yesterday our Voluntary Simplicity group didn’t talk specifically about “this modest indulgence.” But we did talk about finding time to cultivate our most important relationships. Sally shared a story about spending time with her daughter. She has started driving her fourteen-year-old daughter home from high school in the afternoons. When they arrive home, her daughter makes the two of them a cup of tea, and they sit together in the kitchen and talk or read for a while before the planned activities of the evening. This daily ritual was Sally’s daughter’s idea—one afternoon she asked Sally out of the blue if she would like a cup of tea—and over the past few months it has become a mainstay of the family’s routine.

Such rituals don’t always come so easy. Murakami writes, “I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.” A few of us in the group occasionally feel out of balance (which is probably why the Voluntary Simplicity group appealed to us in the first place). It can be hard to find consonance in your life when odds and ends and responsibilities and social pressure start piling up. They can distract you from your initial purpose. Murakami endeavored to reduce the noise and set his own priorities. What I like about his story is he leads a simple, deliberate life without identifying it as such. He just lives the way he wants to live. We should all be so lucky.

Although most of us in the group occasionally feel distracted or rushed, we all also enjoy moments of what psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls “flow,” or the “state in which action follows action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part. . . . We experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between past, present, and future.” I’m sure you’ve experienced this; I’m sure you’ve been so immersed in a task you’ve lost your sense of time. For me, this feeling comes when I run or write or sew; Helene once found flow in a two-day art class; Sally, a teacher, has encountered it in the classroom; Judy and Bernice experience flow in their gardens; Nan finds it in the mountains, on a hike. (Several in the group experience flow while cooking or baking, but I find I lose myself more in eating and in the conversations that come when friends or family—or just Channing and I—gather around a really good meal.)

I pulled a couple of lessons from our discussion yesterday. First, we all have only twenty-four hours a day, and it’s up to us to make the most of them. This doesn’t necessarily mean packing in the experiences until we’re used up and burnt out. It just means savoring as many of those moments as we can. Second, the hobbies, the work, the relationships that, as Jay Bookman put it in “Caught in the Current,” “pull together the various pieces of our fragmented self and focus them again on a single purpose, a single goal, a single activity”—they are what’s important. And we should take every opportunity to bring them into our lives.

The whole group was there this month! Thanks to Bernice, Helene, Judy, Mary, Melissa, Nan, and Sally for the thoughts and stories that found their way into this post.

Reclaiming Time

March 23, 2011

When Melissa and I started this experiment, Helene and Jim assured us that we would have more free time. For me, this prediction has been true to a certain extent. I rarely run errands at lunchtime or after work these days, and my weekend errands are limited to trips to the farmers market, grocery store, and library. I haven’t seen the inside of a clothing store, big box store, or mall since December. I don’t have any new pants to hem, I make only one shopping list a week, and I spend very little time in the car traveling to and from stores. And yet my days seem filled to the brim with activity.

I’ve been taking notice of all this activity since our first Voluntary Simplicity meeting in January. Even without the extra time spent in cars or in crowds, I still manage to feel harried and irritated at certain points during the week. So, I’ve started taking small steps toward eliminating draining chores from and introducing more meaningful and productive endeavors to my life.

1. I’ve started walking to work.

I had been walking home from work pretty regularly since I began my new job a year ago. On my walk-home days, I would catch a ride with Channing, who passes by my office on his way to the toll road, in the morning. About two months ago, though, I noticed that the morning rides left me feeling rushed. I was on Channing’s schedule, not my own. Plus, the various ranting dude podcasts Channing listens to in the morning usually make me irritable.

Walking to work, in contrast, is ridiculously pleasant, even in chilly weather. My pace is leisurely and the views are fabulous. My route goes past a lake, through the neighborhood shopping center, then past a soccer field and elementary school. Thanks to Reston’s pedestrian tunnels, I have to navigate intersection traffic only once. I notice the trees and the birds (tons of cardinals this winter) and the pattern of ice on the lake. I wave to my neighbors. I occasionally stop at the shopping center for a cup of tea or hot chocolate. The best part is I get to choose my own soundtrack. So, I arrive at work not only feeling more happy and relaxed, but sometimes laughing, singing, or smiling (as was the case after I listened to Darryl “DMC” McDaniels’ story on the Moth podcast a couple of weeks ago).

I do have to leave the house earlier, which requires a little extra planning. I try to make my lunch and set out my clothes the night before. I wake up a few minutes earlier now—mostly to accommodate my running/swimming schedule—but the early alarm also helps me get out the door on time. These are only tiny changes to my daily routine, and they are worth it.

2. I reevaluated my regular activities.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of a freelancing project that caused me to cancel all my social appointments for two weeks, I spent a few minutes writing down my regular, free-time activities. The list was pretty simple and included things like running/training, freelancing, blogging, and attending Voluntary Simplicity meetings. I listed eight or nine activities and decided I could cut one entirely (freelancing). Of the seven or eight left, I established a couple priorities (running/training and blogging). The rest I’ll continue to enjoy when I have time. Cutting freelancing alone has opened up a ton of time (ten to fifteen hours a week), but still, I’m planning to reexamine the list in a month or so—maybe swap a volunteer activity or two for one of my other hobbies.

3. I am phasing out my long-term to-do list.

I have a to-do list in my head that includes tasks I’ve been meaning to complete since December. Yikes. Last week I crossed one item off the list when I finally hemmed a pair of pants I bought last November. I’m also making steady progress on one of my outstanding Christmas gifts—a knitting project (my first knit-in-the-round project!). I should wrap that sucker up this week.

In the last month or so, I’ve made a concerted effort not to add to this long-term to-do list. Right now, I plan to finish up the last few tasks on the list and not start a new one—ever. Of course, I will probably take on multiday projects in the future, but I’m hoping to see each such project to completion before I undertake another one. Also, I love lists and imagine I will still make short mental to-do lists of tasks I can reasonably accomplish in one day (the key word here is “reasonably”). But I hope never to have a long-term list hanging over my head again.