Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Day 2: More than just firewood

Everyone cleared out after Memorial Day, so they were leaving as we arrived. We have the place to ourselves.  The entire wooded section is ours, and I can't see another tent until I walk down a path. 


An elderly man on a golfcart came by today. "Y'all are the only ones here!  How long are you staying?" When I told him three weeks, he said: "Well, then you'll need some firewood."  And drove off.

I thought he worked there, but apparently not.  He rents a site by the month, his home only 20 minutes away, and comes to stay for stretches in the summer to fish.

He looks just like my Grandpa Bill, down to the same newsboy cap.  Round, jolly features.  You can tell you like him immediately, even before he speaks.

About a half hour later he came back, with the back of the cart loaded with firewood.  When he got out of the cart to unload it, I saw he could barely use his right foot.  "Diabetes ate my foot," he said. "I don't move too well these days."

I started pulling off the firewood and stacking it up, so he didn't have to do any of it.  Kept thanking him for bringing it to us, and then found out he'd collected it for us.  Oh my.  How long did that take him?  He went around to the sites with abandoned wood left from the weekend, loading it on his golfcart.

He saw the kids running around and said to me: "Enjoy 'em.  I had five of them.  They will be GONE before you know it.  I worked 17 years and never took a vacation day.  My wife stayed home with them, and we needed the money.  I never took my kids anywhere, but we sure loved to camp.  All that working...well...it shredded my body. So here I am."  And pointed to his right foot.

We swapped campfire recipes and he taught me how to make chocolate eclairs, and then he drove off again.

At hour or so intervals throughout the day, he kept coming back with another batch of firewood.  A large part of me wanted to tell him to stop...I hated that he was working so hard, barely able to move, and using his strength to collect firewood for us.  Steve would be back later; he could collect it from the sites.  I kept saying over and over, "You have done so much already!  Really, you've done enough. Thank you so much!"

But I could see how proud he was of getting it for the kids.  Talking about all the campfires we could make.  So I kept unloading the wood, and thanking him profusely.

After the 6th or 7th trip, he said: "I'm not sure I can do this anymore.  I need some rest. My wife will be mad at me if I keep working myself like this." 

People amaze me.  How much joy it gave him to do that for us, even as he was pushing the outer limits of what he was probably supposed to be doing.  I could tell he felt a sense of purpose, of being needed and taking care of others.  Similiar to what got him through 17 years of no vacation days, taking care of his wife and 5 children.

There is a lot of goodness out there.

Day 1-2: Settling into our "tent, sweet, tent"

The first night of camping is usually a disaster, even when it goes well. All the setting up and organizing and whatnot. If you hate camping but have only done it for one night, I’m not surprised.

The second day, though, you get to just sit back and enjoy.

I told Steve that I feel like we’ve just moved into the most perfect 5000 square foot home. Yes, it’s all outdoors. But it’s all here. The picnic table for games and art. The "kitchen" table for food items. Campfire. The perfect flooring: The kids can’t possibly damage or stain it. A little training potty into the woods is our bathroom for Simone. The boys go the typical boy way. =)

It feels really exciting to set up this ridiculous housekeeping process.  Yes, we've been camping before. But never for three weeks.  There's a different style to it. 

I think so much of stress is about the same old stressor in our lives. That might be why there’s sometimes competition about stressors. Who has more children...younger children...who works or doesn't work....whose husband is gone more or more emotionally uninvolved.  We think if we could just change our stress to a new one, all would be well.   But actually, that novelty can help take away the burden of it.  Maybe that's why cleaning a friend's house seems more fun than my own?

Maybe that’s why I like novelty. Because if you switch things up enough, stress disappears. It's new and exciting...and when it stops being new and exciting, you can either do it a whole new way or shift gears completely.

Right now, I am loving the lack of home tasks. Yes, food takes 20 times as long. If coffee sounds good, I have to plan enough in advance to start the actual fire. :) But there’s something primal and cool about that. Making food on the fire is a triumph. I...made...fire!

Steve isn’t here tonight, so I’ve got the kids solo in the tent overnight. Right now, I’m unbelievably exhausted from having 8 hours of sleep across 2 nights. Moving and cleaning out the old place kept me up too late.

But even with that....even now...having the kids be able to dump food all over the ground – paint without worrying about spills – track muddy feet all over the place – hang wet clothes on tree branches....

Well, it seems like a spa vacation.

The only thing that might make it better is a post-move massage. I think that’s on the agenda this week.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Voluntary Homelessness

So we move tomorrow.

Into a tent.

For three weeks.

I should be a bit more unsettled, I suppose, on the eve of a move.  Into a tent.  But in truth, I'm feeling only excitement. 

We're whittling away at the clearing out.  There's hardly anything left in the freezer and fridge.  Boxes are to storage.  We have a lot of the fix-its taken care of, like hanging the new doors on the closet where the mirror cracked.

Yet to do:  Scrape off all the stickers from the patio door window.   *Sigh*  Oh yes, and clean out the oven.  I'll save that until last.

I'm curious to see how we look back on our three-weeks-o'-camping period.   We've already got the back-up plans in mind.  More than 24 hours of rain, and we're checking into the nearest hotel. :)  If it's too hot, I'll take the kids to the movies.  We have a clothing rod in the van, so Steve can hang all his work clothes.  Ha! 

It's interesting to me how long I spent researching a sublet or some other alternative plan, when I'm not really sure why we didn't embrace this from the beginning.  Beyond the complications of Steve going to work from the campground, I can't think of a single drawback. 

I was taking boxes out to the car tonight, and smelled that crisp, clean ocean air.  And felt a rush of excitement about this next adventure.  Our voluntary homelessness phase, living out of tents and themed suites for the next three months.  :) All that air and sunshine.  Campfires every night. 

I'm ready.  I'm excited to have the kids paint without worrying about carpets.  Eat without it mattering if anything spills.  Playing with dirt and sticks all day, and going hiking with the kids.  Geocaching.  And many days at Ocean Breeze Water Park.

I keep coming back to the idea that you can't live someone else's life.  You've got to figure out what your family needs...who you are...what makes your life "work"...without regard to how silly it sounds.  And breaking a lease so my 4-year-old can jump as much as he wants...?  Well, that might not make sense to most people.  But tonight, surrounded by boxes and camping gear...it's sounding *quite* perfect to me. 

Let the summer adventure begin. :)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Conversations as personality tests: Jack and Andrew

Andrew (4), pointing to an overpass bridge: "I think I'm going to climb ALL the way to the top of that."

Jack (6): "I don't think the police will let you do that.  I'm pretty sure it's illegal.  And besides, cars could hit you."

Andrew, to me (pretty much ignoring Jack): "What is the BIGGEST mountain in the WHOLE world?"

Me: "Mount Everest is the tallest."

Andrew: "I'm going to climb that."

Jack: "I don't think I'm going to do that. It's pretty dangerous."

Andrew: "Will the police kill you if you climb it?"

Jack: "A lot of people die.   It's really, really cold.  And sometimes they don't have enough water and food.  There are sharp rocks, too.   I DO want to go see it.  But not climb it."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

And the "most adoring" award goes to...

Jack said today, about Andrew:

"I think the most adoring person in the family is Andrew. He says 'hi' to everybody.  Even statues."

Yes! That's exactly it!

          It feels very, very good to connect with someone else's thoughts.  Even if it's someone you've never met.  Reading words that mirror your own mind is so deeply satisfying, it almost feels like a primal need.

          I know it's why I read; I want to explore my own depths by using others'  experiences.  Sometimes I learn more about myself by disagreeing with the writer.  Reading their thoughts and taking another path.  And sometimes, it feels eerily like someone else has written for me

          I love Miss Minimalist (Francine Jay).  Perhaps because in this unusual path we're taking for our family, I see myself in her.  And that she understands how you can reach these decisions that don't always make sense to others -  like streamlining to essentials being a form of liberation, not deprivation.  How owning things can seem like a closed door in life, not a sense of security.

          I could print this article (below) and pass it to someone without striking out a single sentence; that's how much it reflects my inner journey. 

          In life, I want my knapsack with my camera, computer, a few changes of clothes and a bottle of shampoo.  Okay, and my favorite moisturizer (oh my goodness, I love that stuff). :)

          Of course, I have three children in the mix - so there would be a few more knapsacks. ;)  But the spirit of less-is-more...it feels really good to have someone understand that inner-journey of life being travel. 

          And yes, indeed... planes, trains, hotels, and unfamiliar cities do make me extraordinarily happy.


From Francine (link here):

No Extra Baggage: How Traveling Lightly Changed My Life

By Francine Jay   |   May 17th, 2011

When I was in my twenties, I was bitten by the travel bug. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I realized that being in planes, trains, hotels, and unfamiliar cities made me extraordinarily happy.
Perhaps tellingly, this passion coincided with a “nesting phase” in my life. I’d graduated from college, shacked up with my now-husband, and was going through the typical process of setting up a household. We had left our sparsely-furnished dorm rooms, and enthusiastically went about filling our new abode—with furniture, d├ęcor, and the zillion other items we assumed were necessities.

Trouble is, we weren’t quite ready to settle down. We moved an average of once a year: the first time with all our belongings in the back of a car, the second with a small moving van, the third with a somewhat larger one. By our fourth move (this time cross-country), we had so much stuff we needed to hire professional movers. Our things were starting to drag us down, making us less mobile and flexible with each passing year.
Looking back, I think that travel became my escape from our increasingly-cluttered environment. Feeling stifled by the stuff we were accumulating, I was enamored with the idea of editing all my possessions down to a single suitcase. For each trip, I’d make a packing list weeks in advance, and relish the challenge of taking as few items as possible. I knew every ounce would weigh on me like a little anchor, so I was determined not to include a single item that was unnecessary or superfluous.

To me, traveling lightly was exhilarating—I had never felt so free! I was heady with the notion that I could go anywhere when all my stuff was in one little bag. When I returned from a trip, I would count the days until my next vacation. Half the excitement was the opportunity to explore other cultures; the other half was the chance to recreate that feeling of unbridled freedom. I looked forward to those precious weeks when all I needed was the stuff on my back.

Eventually, it dawned on me that the idea of living with just the essentials didn’t have to be limited to my twice-yearly vacations. I thought, “If it feels this great to travel lightly, how wonderful would it be to live this way? How much more could I accomplish, discover, experience, if I weren’t weighed down with so much stuff?”

From that point on, traveling lightly became a metaphor for how I wanted to live my life. I began to edit the contents of my surroundings with the same fervor as I had my suitcase. As I slowly ditched the extra “baggage,” I could feel the weight lifted from my shoulders.

Of course, decluttering an entire household is a much more ambitious project than packing a suitcase. However, I simply thought of all the little tips and tricks I’d used to lessen my burden on the road, and began to apply them to my everyday life. And you know what? The lessons I learned from traveling lightly became the foundation for my minimalist lifestyle:

1. Choose what to keep.

My first instinct when I set out to declutter was to choose what to toss. But then I reasoned: why not start with a blank slate—like an empty suitcase—and choose only what I wanted to include in my life? I outfitted my household as if I were packing a bag, choosing things carefully and deliberately, and getting rid of the excess.

2. Ditch the duplicates.

I realized that if you don’t need two cameras, hairbrushes, or lipsticks on the road, you don’t need them in real life either. It’s very liberating to embrace the idea that “one is enough.”

3. Forget the “just-in-cases.”

I don’t know how many things I’d squirreled away over the years, “just in case” I might need them someday. When traveling, on the other hand, I was content to fly by the seat of my pants, acquiring things on an as-needed basis (buying toothpaste in Thailand can be an adventure in itself!). Adopting this philosophy in my everyday life was a huge relief—I no longer felt any obligation to hoard things away for the future.

4. Modularize.

When I travel, I put everything into packing cubes. Not only do they keep my stuff organized, they limit how much I can take. If something doesn’t fit in the allotted cube, it doesn’t go with me. I utilized this same concept in my closet (and around my house). I assigned each category of item a specific space or container; once full, nothing new can be added until something comes out.

5. Favor versatile and multi-functional items.

If I’m going to carry something around the world, it better be a workhorse—in other words, either perform a multitude of functions or be appropriate for a variety of climates, occasions, and activities. The same now goes for everything I own: whether it’s a shoe, a shirt, a sautee pan, or a piece of furniture, the more versatile the better.

6. Don’t be seduced by the souvenir.

I learned early in my travels that I didn’t need a snow globe, t-shirt, or magnet from every destination I visited. By the same token, I don’t need things to commemorate every event in my life (be it a birthday, wedding, graduation, etc.). I’m a firm believer that memories (and digital photos) make the best souvenirs.

7. Embrace technology.

Going digital (with books, music, photos, and documents) significantly lightened my luggage—I won’t carry any physical item that can be reduced to bits and bytes. Likewise, I’ve eliminated entire filing cabinets and bookshelves in my home by scanning paperwork, buying ebooks, and using my laptop as my office.

8. Be a borrower.

I’ve discovered that it’s not necessary to own everything you might ever need. Borrowing—whether it’s a fellow traveler’s guidebook, or a neighbor’s ladder—fosters cooperation, camaraderie, and friendship. Of course, you should be just as generous with your own stuff!

9. Lighten your footprint.

Traveling lightly made me fall in love with public transit, and the idea of walking everywhere. Therefore, I’ve tried to structure my life to be car-free whenever possible. It means less worry, less expense, and less impact on the planet.

10. Make the world your home.

George Carlin famously described a house as “a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” He went on to say, “If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.” So true! I’ve found that when your “pile of stuff” is small enough, you can feel at home anywhere in the world.

As it turns out, I ended up taking Carlin’s words quite literally. Although my initial goal was a decluttered life, I eventually sold my house, reduced all my possessions to a single duffel bag, and moved overseas to London, England. Because my load was light, I was able to move on a dime, with little hassle and cost. I find it absolutely liberating to be able to carry everything I own, and embrace any opportunity that arises.

I’ve come to view life as one big, wonderful, extended journey—and the less I’m dragging around, the more I enjoy it. I’d never envy someone with more cars, more clothes, more furniture, or more stuff—just as I’d never envy a traveler with more luggage. The joy of “less” is ingrained in every fiber of my being. And although my entire life may not always fit in a suitcase, I’ll forever strive to travel as lightly through life as possible.

Francine Jay is the author of The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life. She writes about living with less at Miss Minimalist.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Chocolate cake for the soul" (because it's much tastier than chicken soup)

I spent my morning with a group of awesome moms, talking about how to be better stewards of our children.  How to fill ourselves up, so we can give back to these little creatures who need fed/wiped/hugged/carried/etc...

And ended my night eating chocolate cake and laughing with a group of women, talking about how to be better wives to our husbands.

I am feeling inspired in a way that only other women can inspire.  It's amazing to me, on a regular basis, how much that "village" of women is an important ingredient in being the best wife/mom I can be.  There's something very specific and particular about the way that talking with others can validate and re-fuel me. 

They understand that you can be driven batty by your children and still love them fiercely.  How complicated it can be to be a caring, loving wife at the end of a long day.  No judgment.  And somehow, talking about those complications makes it easier to move past them.  To come home and be that patient mom...the caring wife.

Today was a very good day.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"What a crazy-ass life we're stringing together for our children."

This phrase was uttered by my husband, with a voice filled with awe, as we sat in the living room and listened to music...laughing at the ridiculousness of our life right now. Ridiculousness includes moving from our current place, most likely into a tent for 2-3 weeks.  Unless we have better luck finding a sublet to cover us until we leave on our summer trip.  We figure we'll tent during the week and take off for a new place every weekend.  Fun, right?  ;)

What I hope my children learn from their chaos:

- How to find calm and peace inwardly, even when life around you is in upheaval.

- Knowing what belongings are valuable to you, and that it's not always logical.  My 6th grade spelling trophy, the Easter Bunny suit, and oodles of child artwork made the cut.  Mattresses and couches did not.

- Just go for it.  A different home...a new career...a two-month summer trip.  Figure it out as you go along.  Our family motto (not yet shared with the G-rating part of the family): "Just f-ing do it."  This one phrase has brought us some of the most fabulous chunks of our life. 

- Living below your means and accruing savings can open up a lot of opportunities in life.  It's not about how much you make, but how much you save.

- Dream really big, really crazy dreams.  And then find a way to make them happen.  You are never too late in the game to shift gears.  You've never gone so far down the wrong path that you can't turn around.  Or cut through the woods to find a whole new path you hadn't imagined yet...

- That a family filled with love and laughter and respect actually IS a stable foundation, even if that foundation is only lightly velcroed to one place.  

- That life really is much more about kite-flying, going to the beach, watching movies in sleeping bags, and camping than many will tell you.  You get to choose what fills your life. 

- That the less you own, the more your life is portable and liberated.  None of the joy we're feeling right would be joy if we were loaded down with our belongings.  Treading lightly means we can go anywhere and do anything.  Not everyone needs that feeling...but it's how we live our family  best. 

- Life is pretty damn interesting, if you let it be.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Freedom Writers

An ongoing discussion in our house (and in my mind) is whether I should keep teaching in the classroom.  There's always something in life that makes it seem too complicated, too unnecessary, and almost frivolous to get the kids up early, feed and clothe them, bring them 40 minutes away and then head to teach.  If there were all in traditional school all day, it would make more sense.  But we've chosen a logistically complicated schooling path (for another post).  We've had so many babysitting ups-and-downs, sick kids, and other Very Good Reasons why I should just stay online.   More convenient.

But convenient is "convenient" for a reason, and that lack of complexity really isn't a bonus.  I keep seeing that again and again.

I have a very complicated teaching arrangement this 8-weeks.  I teach the earliest class on Wednesday morning, pick up the kids from Jackie's and come home for a couple of hours, and then teach until 10 at night.  Long day.  Good day, but long.

In this morning's class, we watched "Freedom Writers" in the last half.  It's a 4-hour class, and I was pretty sure they'd get sick of my teaching after that long.  So I'm going to mix things up a bit and watch some movies about writing.

Oh...my...goodness.  What a movie.

It was likely particularly powerful because I'm the Hilary Swank character in a very racially and socio-economically diverse classroom of freshman composition students.  So we were watching ourselves on screen, and we all were very aware of that.  We don't have fist-fights....everyone is an adult...but racial topics can and do exist and come up often in writing and discussion.  The life stories within my classroom are fairly similar to the ones on the screen.

I loved how the movie showed the classroom becoming a family, because that really does happen.  I've seen it in yearlong courses...semester-long...and 8-week ones.  Handled right, the classroom becomes this safe haven of discussion and depth that some students don't have anywhere else in their lives.  I read papers about things they've never shared, they open up in peer discussion about some very deep-seated longings in their life.  And (most of the time), each ending of class seems like a loss of a good friend.

That doesn't happen with my online courses.  I believe in online learning, and I believe that the level of education is amazing.  The students are getting one-on-one teaching, in many ways, because of how much email and individual conversation there is between us about their work.  But that family dynamic isn't there.

Maybe I do need to re-apply for classroom teaching next fall, after our move to Williamsburg.  I keep wanting to clear out the space in my life, create more breathing room.  Or at least co-exist more of my schedule, like teaching at the boys' co-op like I've done this year.  Teaching is teaching, and I love all of it.  Whether it's Playdoh Economics for 6-9yo, or advanced college economics, I derive a lot of life energy from all of it.

But I would miss seeing my adult learners, having the courage to come back to the classroom.  Feeling rusty and lacking confidence when they sit in the classroom that first night.  And then seeing them emerge from that fear, and becoming empowered learners who seem on fire about the potential ahead of them.  Seeing that connection between us all, as we grow as a unit throughout the class session.

The character's father said to her: "Your blessing is your burden."  And for now, perhaps I should make peace that classroom teaching is not going to leave my life.  And while there are burdens about it, it definitely is more of a blessing and a positive in my life - and I need to find some way to protect that part of my life. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day...to my husband (yes, I'm serious)

My husband woke up early with the children today, made everyone breakfast, got them dressed, brought Jack to Russian, and has had them at the park for 6 hours now so I could have some space to myself.

This from a man who has been working full-time and taking 6 graduate accounting courses this semester.  When we went camping, I'd take the kids hiking while he sat back at the campfire with a textbook.  This week, he finished all his final exams. It should have been him sacked out on the couch with the remote.

Words cannot describe how grateful I am for this man in our family:  husband to me and father to my children.  Taking care of us is something he does very well.

I have big shoes to fill on Father's Day.

I have watched the progression of Self from the beginning of my solo-time this morning  until now.  I began on the couch watching Law and Order and wearing my pajamas.  It was so nice to just catch a breath and have some space filled with quiet.

And as time went by, I found myself vacuuming...making food for the week...finishing all the laundry and PUTTING IT AWAY...cleaning toilets...making piles of boxes to bring to storage for the move.

Our house looks beautiful.  And trust me...it did NOT this morning.

Family life really is a circle of give and take.  When we take care of each other, we equip them to take care of us as well.  Steve's gift of Time today means he'll come home to a nice dinner...all his dress shirts cleaned and hung up...and the house immaculate.  If he'd taken the children out with the expectation that I'd stay home and clean, I'm quite certain that wouldn't have happened.  But knowing his graciousness today was to re-fuel my spirit, I felt overwhelmed with love to then take care of him.

I feel very blessed by this family in my life.

Happy Mother's Day

When I look around, I see so many ways that my mother's legacy is still very alive and very real.  And I picture her watching us with a content smile about the family that she left behind.

We talk of her often.  My children have cemented the idea that even when you die...people love you, talk about you, and remember you.  That if something happens to me, I will always be their mom.  That love and family extends far beyond physical bodies.

My dad is in Italy right now, continuing that legacy of exploration and travel that they started together.  And while she would love to have been there, I also know she'd be so glad he was doing this.  Exploring the world and taking advantage of every opportunity.

I wish so often that she could see my children, growing so much every day.  How much joy they brought her.  And yet, I feel her in these moments, too.  What we create in our lives keeps moving forward in the world.  Her love and curiosity and sense of family is still very much here, because of her.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.  You are loved and missed.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What I want my children to learn about camping

(1) How amazing food (and instant coffee) tastes when you made the fire that boiled the water.  So satisfying, on a most primal level.

(2) Situate the cots away from the sides of the tent, so it doesn't wick through when raining.

(3) There is nothing more precious than silk long johns on a cold camping night.

(4) Get to the site as early as possible.  Setting up the tent when dark is possible, but not awesome.

(5) Bring 3 times the number of socks you think you'll need.  Wet socks can ruin any situation; dry socks can solve most of them.

(6) Knowing how to live in the most simple of situations (shelter, food, warmth) is very empowering.  All things seem possible.

(7) Conversations around the campfire are some of the best you'll ever have.

(8) Cotton socks with wool ones over them = toasty toes.

(9) As Jack said: "When you're camping and you can't do things the way you normally do, just think of something else and try another way."  Yup. Resourcefulness and creativity are quite possibly the most important lessons you learn when there's no electricity or running water.

(10) Never underestimate the value of excellent camping gear.  Good pillows, high-quality cots, and warm sleeping bags might not be rugged...but they make the journey a lot more positive.  I could sleep out there every night.