We Don’t Have to Go Back to the Way Things Used to Be

Would I lie to you?
Would I lie to you honey?
Now would I say something that wasn't true?
I'm asking you sugar
Would I lie to you?
— "Lie to You," Eurythmics

The world lies to us. 

We accept these lies as truth, even when evidence points to the contrary.

This point was driven home over and over when our family moved into our little house.

  • You don’t need “as large of a house as you can afford.” 
  • You don’t always have to have a car payment.
  • Family members don’t all need their own rooms and their own bathrooms.
  • Master suites, family rooms, and spare bedrooms are nice, but they are not essential trappings of a happy life.
  • The things your neighbors and friends have aren’t necessarily things you need to have, too.

During the pandemic, more lies were exposed:

  • You don’t have to put in long hours at the office to be productive at your job.
  • Being busy isn’t the same as being productive.
  • Being productive isn’t the same as being happy.
  • Your job doesn’t define you.

Slate’s podcast, What Next, explored the changing landscape of workplaces in a post-COVID world. In the episode, So, what happens to WFH now? workers and employees are rethinking what the work week should look like after being disrupted by the pandemic. Should we all go back to the way it was? Or is it maybe time to try something different?

The financial strain my husband and I felt when we were paying for a house we could barely afford, exacerbated by a 4 year salary freeze at his job that seemed to keep us even further away from ever getting our feet planted firmly on the ground forced us to take a step back: Is this right? Does it really have to be this way? Does this make sense?

Ask yourself those questions every day. Don’t take someone else’s word for how you should be doing things. It’s okay to stop, let your brain settle, and reassess. We don’t have to go back to the way things used to be.

Originally published July 26, 2021 on My Huntley News

Putting Down Roots: Not for the Timid

My husband and I both enjoy gardening, but we typically don’t garden at the same time. Our styles and techniques couldn’t be more polar opposite. I’m a timid gardener: I don’t often trust my own intuition about what plants need, and I usually have an uneasy feeling that a neighbor or passerby will see me in the garden and click their tongue at the inept way I’m doing whatever it is I’m doing. The only time I really hit my stride is when attacking a sworn weed-enemy (I’m looking at you, creeping Charlie!). Once I get going, I love removing weeds. Maybe it’s because weeding is a lot like my day job as an editor—there’s something satisfying about taking the excess (words or weeds) and removing their chokehold on the beautiful, colorful bouquet in the center, whether that bouquet is made of flowers or paragraphs.

By comparison, my husband is a confident gardener. When he looks at our garden, he sees a better version of it in his head, then he somehow knows how to make it happen. His laser focus identifies hostas and grasses that have expanded to thick clumps so that he can divide them up into more manageable plant babies. He digs deep beneath the roots, pulls them out, sticks them in a wheelbarrow, then plants them in their new home in a different corner of the garden. 

His physical, visceral attack on the daisies, the brown-eyed Susans, and the coneflowers comes across as almost violent to me. How can you take a shovel, disrupt the earth beneath these delicate flowers, and rip them from their home? How do they tolerate the shock of leaving the cool, damp earth, only to have their roots exposed to the unforgiving sun? Then, after a bumpy wheelbarrow ride, how can they possibly endure having their roots squashed back into a gaping hole before being assaulted by frigid water rushing from the garden hose? I shudder to think of it. I rarely stay to watch. I, the timid gardener, can’t take the spectacle.

Is it much different when we humans pack up our belongings and move to a new home, a new city, a new job? We feel exposed and tender and a little bruised, and there are moments when we may feel the shift is too much to bear. But slowly, gradually, our roots repair themselves and start reaching down deep toward the center of the earth, while simultaneously spreading our arms out, to embrace our new environment. We discover that the corner of the world where we were planted might have been good for a while, but there are so many other beautiful places to establish new roots. We discover we’re hardier than we think: delicate in appearance, but strong and sinewy where it matters.

It never fails. My husband, the violent gardener, knows what he’s doing. He knows that sometimes the most delicate beings are oftentimes the strongest; who are we to underestimate them? Before long, the daisies, the brown-eyed Susans, and the coneflowers are dancing whimsically in the breeze in their new spot. They stand tall, rising to the occasion of being dressed in sweet-smelling mulch contained by crisp, sharp edging. Heads are faced upwards. Faces are open and smiling. Ready to face this new world.

Originally published July 1, 2021 on My Huntley News

Pie is our Family Crest

My sister made me this Michigan Blueberry pie … with our Great-Aunt Anna’s piecrust recipe, of course.

The story is legend in my family: My oldest son, Clark, was a teenager when I entered the kitchen and found him, mid-bite, eating a piece of the pie I had just finished making. The realization came over me slowly as I took in the scene: his fork slid slowly out of his mouth while he looked over and locked eyes with mine. Although his eyes remained fixed sideways on me, his body remained forward, leaning over the pie plate where his left arm was positioned like a protective sentinel against like-minded key lime enthusiasts. Looking down, I saw that this wasn’t his first bite.

“I accidentally ate half the pie, Mom.”

Actually, it sounded more like, “I akthidentally athe half thuh pie, Mom.” (His mouth was still full, after all.)

He didn’t necessarily mean it apologetically; he stated this as mere fact, offered up as a logical explanation for the scene before me.

It remains a question in our family to this day: Can one eat half a pie, accidentally?

If I had to choose a family crest–symbols to represent our family’s interest and priorities–there would be music notes. Probably books or a pen. And most definitely pie.

When I got married, my sister gave me a handful of recipe cards written in her confident handwriting. She’d married more than a decade earlier, so I trusted her to vet all the best recipes. Among them was “Tanta Anna’s No-Roll Pie Crust.” It remains today to be the only pie crust I’ve ever made. I may never venture into the world of pie crusts shaped with wooden rolling pins. Tanta Anna (my great-aunt), and her hand-shaped pie crusts have sustained me and my family for decades, long after she’s left this earth.

Birthday pies have replaced birthday cakes in our house. When I went on a no-sugar diet for several weeks, I just switched over to making pie crusts for quiche. With my very hungry husband and four hungry children, there have been countless pies I’ve baked that I never got a crumb of. These days, with two teenage boys plus a tween with bottomless stomachs, I abide by a two-pie rule. If you’re gonna make one, you might as well make a second so everyone can have some.

Tanta Anna’s pie crust recipe is still in my recipe box, on the same card hand-written by my sister. The card is stained and warped with years of use. Now, it rarely needs to come out: I’ve memorized the recipe. It’s become part of my DNA. Making a pie crust is a repetitive, meditative motion that has become ingrained in my mom muscle memory. Crimping the edge of the dough is like rocking a baby, or grabbing a child’s hand before crossing the street.

I can’t be mad if my kid “accidentally” eats half of a pie I baked. It’s all part of the circle of life. It’s a badge of honor, a return hug. It’s the wordless equivalent of saying, “Thanks, Mom.”

I mean, “Thankth, Mom.”

Get Out!

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Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

When my kids were toddlers, distraction was my most useful parenting tool. If you’re in a store with a 3 year-old and he suddenly wants a 5-foot stuffed bunny that the store so kindly placed right at eye level of your little darling, you know just saying “No” isn’t going to cut it. If he wants that bunny more than anything, on top of being tired and hungry, things are going to get ugly quick unless you come up with a distraction. There’s going to be a scene.

“Look!” you say with feigned enthusiasm. “Look over there!” (What’s over there? I don’t know. Anything: a picture of a puppy, a balloon, a flashing light … whatever gets the focus off that 5-foot stuffed bunny.) If you use just the right lilt in your voice and swing the cart in the right direction, you might make him forget that he was about to scream bloody murder about that bunny. Take that moment, multiply it by 100 times a day, and there you have the life of a toddler.

But maybe it’s not that different for adults.

Maybe I’m tired and hungry, but I’m feeling frustrated today. Irritable. I’m thinking about events currently in the news, thinking about work and family obligations, and today is a day I just wanted to relax. I wanted things to go my way. But they didn’t. Same goes for my husband. We spent a good amount of time this afternoon complaining to each other about the maddening things that hijacked our plans for a relaxing, stress-free day.

The more we talked, the more we were getting upset: not at each other, really. We were just feeding off each other’s frustrations, and as we counted the ways things had not gone our way, our voices got louder, and tone got sharper, our blood pressure was mounting.

Time to get out

We’ve been here before. Life is stressful. A lot of times it’s just little stuff, but even a tiny pebble in your shoe can be maddening sometimes.

Our little house, only two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen, and my beloved reading porch, sometimes isn’t enough to contain the mounting frustrations of every day life. Today is one of those days.

So we got out. We walked right out of our house and distracted ourselves, the way we distracted our little toddlers for so many years in the past. Now, as I write, I’m sitting at a table at our local library, in front of a gorgeous window overlooking a park. It’s so quiet here. There’s free wi-fi and a coffee shop downstairs. Bathrooms I don’t have to clean. Looking across the table, I see my husband’s face. He’s happily clacking away on his laptop. The creases in his forehead that were there just a few hours ago are gone.

A change of scenery, a change of pace, is good for all of us. In fact, it’s necessary. And for some reason, living in our small house has amplified that lesson for me. For one, the small house has fewer chores that demand my time. It takes just a few minutes to tidy it up. And because it’s so small, it’s taught me that my whole life can’t take place inside the walls of my house. I have to get out some times. I have to walk out the door and see new views and meet new people.

Sometimes I need quiet. Sometimes I need noise to drown out my worries. But the point is that a change of scenery can be good and give us a much-needed change in perspective. Today, getting out turned I-can’t-believe-that-happened into I-feel-so-lucky-to-be-here-right-now.

Attitude adjustment achieved. Adult temper tantrum thwarted.

 

Thank you for airing your clean laundry in public

There are a lot of things we don’t talk about with our acquaintances. Certain things, like money, or sex, or illness, or past traumas. Or mistakes.

The line, “Please don’t air your dirty laundry in public” is one of those idioms addressing this phenomenon of secrets. “Please, we don’t want to hear about that unpleasantness.”

(Just to be clear: airing other people’s dirty laundry? That’s a no-no. Keep your hands in your own laundry, please.)

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Photo by Karen Maes on Unsplash

I, for one, am a fan of hanging out laundry in public. And by that, I’m referring to actual laundry. You know: sheets, and pillowcases. Towels and underwear. Years ago, I heard a rumor that in the somewhat conservative suburb where I live, there is an ordinance against hanging your clothes out on a clothesline. It prompted me to immediately purchase a clothesline. Consider it my own form of suburban civil disobedience.

The laundry police have never stopped by my house, even though I religiously hang freshly cleaned laundry out on the line to dry. I love the ritual of pulling out cold, damp clothes from my basement washing machine, carrying them upstairs in a clothes basket balanced on my hip, then shaking them out on my deck and attaching them to my line with wooden clothespins. Almost immediately, you can feel the moisture from the fabric being pulled out by the warmth of the sun. All that free energy, plus the added bonus of being outside and hearing birds sing in the back yard while you do a mundane chore. I don’t often compare myself to Snow White, but my clothesline does make me feel a bit like that domestic Disney waif.

In the same way, this blog is a way for me to air a little of my “clean” laundry. The process of downsizing our home began four years ago when a combination of a pay freeze, bad financial decisions, consumerism, and valuing things over experiences and peace of mind resulted in us living in a house that was beginning to feel less and less like home and more like an albatross hanging around our necks.

Three times now, I’ve spoken in public about our family’s experience of downsizing to a smaller home. There are a couple things that always feel a little embarrassing to say out loud: that in the process of moving, we not only donated a bunch of stuff, but we additionally filled two dumpsters of stuff from our home! That is hard to admit out loud. But it’s true.

The other difficult thing to say out loud: our monthly mortgage payment used to be nearly 50% of our monthly income. We thought that was normal. We thought that was the price of the American Dream! Then, when we attended Financial Peace University and started working toward financial wellness, we learned that our mortgage payment should actually be closer to 25% of our monthly income.

(By the way, the first time I heard that 25% number, I scoffed. I thought it was impossible to achieve. But I’m here to tell you it IS possible, and WOW, does it make a difference in the way you sleep at night!)

But I want to say these things out loud now. I’m compelled to! Because not too long ago, we thought we were doing the right thing. We thought we were keeping up with the Joneses, even if we were feeling exhausted and worried all the time.

Our little house has taught us so much. Our lives are more balanced. We’ve had some rich experiences in the past few years that have happened as a direct result of our move to a much smaller home.

So this is why I air my laundry, and I encourage you to, too. Clean up the messes in your life the best you can, then talk about it! Encourage others who may be silently suffering, wondering, or searching. Be honest and vulnerable and human. We aren’t all that different from each other.

Porch Life

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Visible across the way from our house are two homes that cause a lot of discussion when my husband and I take the dog for a walk. For 3-1/2 years since we moved into this neighborhood, we’ve passed these two homes countless times; you could say they are part of our daily scenery.

The one house is what you’d call a farmhouse style: it looms large with lots of sunny windows. It’s a newer construction boasting all the amenities, conveniences, and 21st century square footage coupled with old fashioned curb appeal. The best thing about this house, to me, is the lovely wraparound porch. Hanging between the porch posts are lush, green plants in baskets. Those plants are never dried up or wilted! The porch has wicker furniture, bedecked with luxurious cushions and throw pillows. If there was ever a place to flop down on an August afternoon into a soft, fluffy cushion on a wicker chair and fan yourself with your wide-brimmed hat while saying, “I do declare, what I wouldn’t give for some Sweet Tea right at this moment!” it is on that porch.

Never, not once, have I seen anyone sitting on that porch!

Beside the Sweet Tea house is a 50s ranch, utilitarian, small in size, but neat as a pin. The owners, let’s call them Tony and Flo, keep the sidewalk swept, the grass mowed, and the shrubs well manicured.

Tony and Flo don’t have a porch. They barely have a stoop. From their house, they could practically reach out and touch the Sweet Tea porch, but they’re probably too polite. Instead, Tony and Flo get two lawn chairs from their garage, set them up on their asphalt driveway, and sit, happy as clams, living their best porch life on a makeshift, asphalt driveway. They always wave to me when I’m out walking the dog, and I often see them talking with neighbors passing by. They look positively serene out there.

How can a Sweet Tea porch sit empty, while a slab of asphalt is the site of so much contentment and community?

This is the lesson our little house has taught me. I’ve only just learned it and I suspect Tony and Flo have known for much longer: It’s not about chasing after the bigger, better stuff. It’s about having just what you need, then taking time often to slow down and celebrate and feel gratitude for what you already have.

Summer is coming to a close: the cicadas’ song tells me so. Find your porch, whether you have a Sweet Tea spot or just a patch of grass or asphalt big enough for a chair. Have a seat, look around, smile at your neighbors, and tell yourself, “Aren’t I lucky?”

xoxo,

Carol