The best birthday present: realizing I didn’t WANT anything!

For my recent birthday, a dear friend sent me an Amazon gift card. My teenage daughter saw it and said, “Ooh, lucky you! What do you want?”

Image result for don't get me anything for my birthday

No, seriously, it’s not.

For the first time in my life I could honestly say, “I can’t think of anything that I want.”

Victory!

Ok, I know that’s a weird response, but for a large part of my life I was a “buyer.” Frugal—yes, but also very covetous. As a teenager, I saved up for months for a name-brand denim jacket because I was sure “looking right” would bring me status and approval. It didn’t.

As a young married, I scoured decorating magazines and watched HGTV for hours (back when it was still interesting) plotting how to decorate my own humble abode. Having a house that “looked right” would bring me happiness and contentment. Nope, didn’t happen.

Even now I still struggle with covetousness. Last week I passed by a gorgeous house for sale and thought, “I want that!” But I don’t need something that large, I can’t afford it, and I already know it won’t bring me additional happiness.

Because buying and owning things don’t make life better. Things just smother life.

About ten years ago, after some financial setbacks, our family of ten was renting a small place in a town I don’t care to remember. It was there that I realized something: I wasn’t any more, or less, happy there than I’d been when I had a nicer house and better stuff.

Duh.

My happiness came from being focused on the people around me, not the stuff around me. I was very worried about my kids, having moved them from one place to another, and yet another in a short amount of time. We didn’t discuss what we’d lost but what we still had, and fortunately for us our kids’ wants were few and easily meet with a trip to the dollar store. (Since we’d quit watching TV a long time ago, our growing kids didn’t know what was trendy and what they “should” want.)

More recently I’ve learned about minimalist movements and have written here and here and here about my own attempts at eliminating junk. Before our move from Utah to Maine, I took countless trips to the dump and donation center, worried that all we owned wouldn’t fit in the largest rental truck. I’m happy to report that I’ve missed NONE of the stuff we threw/gave away, and that our 26-foot moving truck even had some room to spare. Not bad for a family of nine and all their possessions.

I’ve still got a long way to go in minimalism, though. Because this rental house has no closets, my bedroom has four large boxes of comforters, sheets, and pillows–more than we really need. Half of the boxes we packed for the move we haven’t touched yet, but are sitting in the garage waiting for the next move to a more permanent house. Some of those boxes may never be unpacked but tossed instead, and I’d be fine with that. I have dreams of moving into a tiny home when we retire in twenty years, but right now I’m needing the space of about eight tiny homes for what I still own.

But in my old age (sliding to 50, so I’m growing reflective in my maturity and sniffing haughtily as I do so) I’m realizing that my happiness is linked to only a few things:

  • my family, healthy and progressing;
  • my ability to write;
  • places to walk;
  • a peaceful place to live;
  • time to study and worship; and
  • enough clothes for a week.
Trish 2015 portrait small

I recently read that “women of a certain age” should avoid denim. I’m now avoiding things that tell me how I should dress.

(About those clothes: I’ve culled my wardrobe to have changes of clothes for one week, two batches for summer and winter. My uber-minimalist teenage son, who can fit all his possessions into two large bins, has taught me that I don’t need more than eight t-shirts and five pairs of jeans. But my sweaters . . . that’s still a work in progress. And I do still have a denim jacket, one that I inherited from a friend some years ago—it’s the one I’m wearing in my author photos.) ==>

My list above is short and peaceful. Quite the contrast to the lists of what I wanted when I was younger; those spanned 30 or 40 items. Seasonal duvet covers, dining room hutches, wall-hangings, couches, kitchen canisters, a bench for the front porch, skirts, jackets, sweaters, collectibles. (Oh, the dreaded collectibles! They’re all gone, now.)

But this year for my birthday, I couldn’t think of a single thing I wanted, because I already have all I want!

(My husband and kids did buy me a boxed book set—the second Percy Jackson series—which I’m sharing with my 10-year-old because she shared with me her boxed set of the first Percy Jackson series. Yes, I’m very mature for sliding toward 50 and I’m still sniffing haughtily about it.)

I have to admit there was something I wanted this year: a family portrait. For one weekend, the first time in over four years, our entire family was together, and I paid money (and I hate spending money) for a photographer to prove that. Here’s the wonderful result:

trish-9 FIXED

This is all I need: my family, healthy and happy. (With adequate clothes–note the prevalence of t-shirts and jeans.) But since I can’t live with all of them anymore, this reminder that they are still around, and still mine, has to be enough.

All I need for this portrait a frame. And maybe if I had a gift card to buy one . . .

Hey, Paula–guess what you bought me for my birthday!

     “The world is all about getting more, building higher, and looking better. The world believes ‘enough’ is defined by what they have, plus a little more. So they’re never satisfied. Their hearts are small and weak.” Gleace sat back and looked at his guests sadly. “And that’s why the world is dying.”  

     Perrin sighed. “I once told Shem I thought the most dangerous sentences began with the words, ‘I deserve . . .’”

    “Precisely right. The world will always believe it deserves more.”

~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti, Forest at the Edge series

What if we just quit bothering with the world? The easiness of essentialism.

What if, instead of worrying about the world and its expectations, we focused on only a couple of key items and let the rest of world just . . . go on its way?

Think about that: maybe there’s only a handful of things we really need to worry about, and as for the millions of other demands the world makes upon us we just ignore them.

Wouldn’t that be amazing?

My friend clued me into “Essentialism,” which redefines minimalism and suggests that we should “discern what is absolutely essential, then eliminate everything that is not.” Greg McKeon argues that we get too caught up in the non-essentials: “non-essentialism is this idea that everything has to be done and that you have to do it all. Everything is equally important so therefore I have to try to do it all. That’s an idea — if I can do it all, I can have it all.”

But what if we don’t bother with doing it all? Why would we want it all anyway?

What if we quit following every news outlet, every fashion, every new-and-latest thing, every competition and demand for our attention, and focus instead on only a few ESSENTIAL points?

We’d be a heckuva lot happier!

Consider how simpler life would be if we:

  • stopped fretting that our houses aren’t up to date (no, you don’t have to put shiplap on every wall),
  • that our kids aren’t excelling in every sport/musical instrument/dance/karate/theatrical production (freeing up afternoons and weekends),
  • that we’re not on top of every trend (anyone remember how fast Pokemon Go came and went? Men’s rompers will go the same way, so don’t give them another thought). 
  • And what if we let the world go on its way . . . without us?

I think about life in the 1800s, how people focused on survival, their immediate family and neighbors, their little communities, and had no idea what the gossip was on the other side of the state or the world. They could think about real things, urgent things, important things.

Whereas we think about silly, petty, and divisive things.

But we don’t have to. We can center our lives on very few priorities and shut out everything else.

So what would those priorities be? How about the only thing that really matters: developing Christlike attributes.

To become like Him is the main reason we’re on this earth, going through this trial of life to see what our hearts really want, and to see how we can become more like Him. And you know what? I’m thinking more and more that being like Christ is the best and only worry I need.

And that “worry” isn’t even a concern. Look what He said in Matthew 11:

 28 Come unto me, all ye that labor [to keep up with the demands of the world] and are heavy laden [with the world’s expectations], and I will give you rest [because we set that all aside].

29 Take my yoke upon you [and throw off what the world expects of you], and learn of me [instead of the world]; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls [because I teach the peaceable things of the kingdom].

30 For my yoke is easy [way easier than anything the world demands], and my burden is light [lighter than anything the world shoves upon you].

Matthew 11:28, We find rest in Christ

And that’s all there is to it.

People assume that because I have nine kids I’m constantly busy and harried. But the truth is–and sometimes I’m embarrassed to admit it–I’m not. Quite often I can spend hours each day in pursuits I enjoy–writing, reading, researching–because we don’t bother with the non-essentials.

My kids aren’t involved in many activities; we don’t run around endlessly every afternoon from one thing to another–I let them entertain themselves like some 1970s throwback mom. I don’t demand perfect grades from them (grades aren’t an indicator of future success anyway), but I let them push themselves, which they do.

My house isn’t spotless or trendy (I’ve got better things to do), I make simple meals for dinner, and, frankly, I’m pretty relaxed most of the time. I almost feel guilty about that . . . but then I decide I don’t need to bother with worldly guilt, either, and let the feeling go.

We take care of each other, study the gospel, go to church, play together, educate each other and . . . that’s about it. Easy.

I am, however, trying to increase the amount of time I spend on others, trying to find additional ways we can be of service, because that’s really the purpose of life: taking care of others as Christ did.

The apostle James put it in simple terms:

27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction [taking care of the vulnerable and needy around us], and to keep himself unspotted from the world [ignore the world].  ~ James 1:27

That’s it. Only two things, just like Christ said to the lawyer in Matthew 22:

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind [not giving any of your heart, soul, or mind to the world which will treat you cruelly].

38 This is the first and great commandment [which will keep you unspotted and unburdened by the world].

39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself [by taking care of the vulnerable and needy].

40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets [and you need not bother about anything else].

Simple, sweet, and satisfying! (Unlike the world.)

We can do that. Anyone can do that.

And we should, because consider these words of Christ:

36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall again the whole world [be accepted by it, follow its trends and demands religiously], and lose his own soul? [Worldliness kills the soul—simple as that.]  ~Mark 8:36

I’m not saying it’s easy to shut out the world. I’ve been working on doing that for quite some time now, trying to cut off more and more connections to it, especially through social media. Our family quit TV and radio some years ago (just getting rid of advertisements significantly increased peace in our lives). There are still many aspects I struggle with, and likely will my entire life. It’s hard to live in the world and not have some of it rub off on you, like trying to squeeze between muddy elephants without getting dirty.Image result for herd of muddy elephants

Purposely not doing what everyone else around you is can be a little disconcerting. Sometimes I suffer from FOMO: fear of missing out. But just because the crowd is insistent, just because you feel the need to be like everyone else, you don’t have to be. This image, which I ran across many years ago, has seared deeply into my soul. I want to be that guy.

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I’m discovering that when I ask God how I can step further away from the world so that I can be closer to Him, He gives me ideas, nudges me away from distractions and gently prods me toward more important activities. He wants me and my family to be unspotted, and He wants to ease our burdens. I have full confidence that He can get us all the way where we need—and want—to be, because, awesomely, He’s already done it himself:

“These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace [because haven’t you grown weary of keeping up with the world yet?]. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world [and so can you].”  ~John 16:3

     “You look so tired, Young Pere. So weary, my sweet boy. Did you ever have a day of peace in the world?”
     “No,” he sighed. “Not that I remember.”
     “Then isn’t it time to let go of the world?”
     ~Book 8 (Yes, there’s a book 8!)

Don’t care what the world thinks: 7 steps in the pursuit of peace!

In a quest for a more peaceful existence (I really wish I could live in the world of Books 5 and 6 of my series), I’ve been eliminating that which causes undue stress. No, I’m not abandoning my house or nine children, but I’ve been thinking about my dad, how he was the most calm, pleasant, peaceful man I knew.

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My dad, Rudy Strebel, in 2007, holding a granddaughter.

Not that his life was easy—he suffered as a child in WWII Germany, then had a wife he dearly loved but who had frequent and violent bouts with PTSD from her traumatic life as a refugee. In their 50+ years of marriage, I never knew him to lose his temper with her but did his best to soothe her paranoia and terror, every time. And I can count on three fingers the amount of time he slightly raised his voice at me.

He chose to be peaceful, and he was also very careful as to what he let into his life. He didn’t read, watch, or listen to anything that could harm his spirit or drag him down.

He wasn’t ignorant of the world, but he purposely distanced himself  from it to remain unspotted as it splashed in filthy waters.

Lately I’ve been trying to pursue peace as he did, and have implemented ways to limit what weighs down my mind and soul. I’ve incorporated a number of minimalist ideas, and I’m finding greater calm in my life by doing the following:

  1. Unsubscribe! To those emails that entice you to see what’s on sale, what the latest thing is, what you “really don’t want to miss!”

Miss it anyway. Don’t be lured in, don’t be tricked into buying something simply because it’s a great deal, and don’t waste time reading what can’t elevate you. It’s all distracting, even just deleting it, having to swat it away like a pesky mosquito. Get rid of them altogether. I’ve been opening, scrolling down, and unsubscribing from dozens of emails–even from places where I still buy something once or twice a year–and my feeds are cleaner, sleeker, and calmer. All that remains now is that which is really important for me to consider.

2. Unfollow! Here’s an awesome feature on Facebook: stay friends, but stop seeing every little thing they do.

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I’ve realized that I care only about my family (we have a secret group just for us), and some neighbors and friends who consistently demonstrate insight and humor–qualities I value.

The other hundreds of “friends”? I’ve unfollowed them. I can always check on them every few months if I feel the need (if I remember who they are).

In the meantime, I’ve cut out a mind-cluttering stream of whining, bragging, complaining, and comparing. It’s been like leaving junior high all over again–sweet relief!

Now I have a feed of primarily funny, inspiring, and heartfelt posts.

Twitter, Instagram, all those others? I don’t even go there, but you can also pare those down significantly to refine your life.

3. Tune out! I quit listening to the radio years ago and felt my blood pressure in the car normalize instantly. We never watch TV news, I skim the newspaper for only important news, and I’ve quit following nearly every online news outlet.

The result? The world keeps on churning but I don’t have to swim in that muck. I know what’s going on, but I observe only from a distance. Getting angry over the world doesn’t fix it. Stepping away from it, however, allows me to continue raising my family with peace of mind.

4. Ignore trends! Years ago, I quit following trends in home décor, clothing, and etc. by eliminating magazines and TV shows that told me what I had was out of date. How much more I love my house and wardrobe now that I’m not worried what the world thinks of it! And I’ve saved a lot of money, too.

And no one, ever, has said anything about me not being trendy enough. It’s like no one really cares.

5. Don’t participate! Like my dad, I’ve chosen to not listen to music that degrades or is “hard.” I listen to soundtracks and trailer albums instead. I read only books that satisfy and uplift; one summer, I sent back nearly a dozen library books after their first chapters because they were smutty, suggestive, or crude. I don’t watch rated-R movies or anything excessively violent, vulgar, or profane. All of that introduces anger and angst to my soul, qualities I’m purposely ushering out.

Yes, it’s sometimes hard to find something current to watch or read, but there are also a lot of classics out there waiting to be discovered. I’m also taking up my dad’s habit to read more biographies of truly great people, and more doctrinal works that teach me deeper about the nature of God.

6. Choose kindness! This one can be tough, especially for me because I inherited my mother’s cynical mind and tongue (when she was well, she was acerbic and hilarious). My father, however, while full of dad-jokes (he invented them all), was also unfailingly kind, even to his end. He suffered from Alzheimer’s, but the staff at his assisted living center said that while many in his condition became angry or violent, my dad never did. It was as if his mind had been choosing for so long to be kind that it simply didn’t understand rudeness.

Kindness softens the soul, and when I’m kind to people, especially strangers, sweet peace comes. As an introvert, I don’t like talking to people and tend to be abrupt with strangers, especially when I’m checking out with my groceries. I need this t-shirt:

Introverts t-shirt

But I’m trying harder to smile genuinely, thank sincerely, and respond to their questions with more than two-word answers.

I’m also trying to consider everyone with a kinder heart, and a more generous attitude. Even just thinking kindly brings peace.

7. Be quiet! No, not “kindly shut up,” but I mean, take time to be quiet and disconnect. Yesterday it was 85 degrees, so I took my 5-year-old son to a splash pad. I watched him for 45 minutes racing the sprays and screaming when the water went up his nose. He dried off for ten minutes and we watched a front-loader moving dirt the whole time, seeing how much dirt he dropped as he drove.

It was “quiet” in that I wasn’t listening to music, or playing on my phone, nor was I even reading. I was simply enjoying the water splashing, the boy yelling (happily), and the truck moving dirt. Purely peaceful, purely disconnected from the bigger world. I could focus on the most important part of the world, right in front of me. 

I am finding greater quiet and calm in my life in a world that’s increasingly not, and I’m always looking for new strategies. What works for you? How do you eliminate the world and its nonsense, and find peace and serenity instead?

“We don’t care about what the world thinks of us, Young Pere. You know that. We left it behind and have never regretted it.”

Peto realized there were many pure men and women, but they couldn’t exist in the polluted world.

~ Book 6, Flight of the Wounded Falcon      

Getting rid of things is not getting rid of people

Anyone else get paralyzed by decluttering?

By staring at that old, ratty thing that you’ve had in a box for years, but can’t throw away or donate because of memories, guilt, or because you’d hauled it around for 28 years and it seems ludicrous to finally dump it now?

On the other hand, I look around my house and think, “If that were lost in a fire, would I try to replace it?” The only things I’d want to preserve, aside from my family, are our photos.

Everything else? Nah, they can go.

So why can’t I just chuck them now?

My kids will have to, in a few years. I should save them the hassle.

When my parents started to decline about six years ago, we began the first of many moves, putting them progressively into more intensive care, and also smaller rooms. The first time my siblings and I walked through our old house, which could have served as a backdrop for “That 70’s Show,” I was a little weepy.

Until I took a good look at the green shag carpet, which had been there since my parents bought the house in 1978.

(Not my parents’ old house, but could have been.)

Hideous.

The longer I looked at items my parents no longer needed in their new residence, the more I found myself wanting to chuck them. We preserved photos, journals, my dad’s paintings, and a few books. But everything else?

Within an hour we were tossing the majority into a dumpster. And we couldn’t do it fast enough. Who really needs Tupperware that’s forty years old?

We had to go through the process three more times, as they moved again, and finally as they passed. Each time we took home fewer items, until when my dad died all I wanted were his scriptures. My siblings took a few items, and the rest we donated. It filled the back seat of a car.

As I looked around his room, I realized that he lived quite well with very little.

The entire tiny house movement is based on this: the fewer items we own, the freer we are to live. The less house we own, the more money, time, resources, and peace we have.

I’m fascinated by minimalist movements, like Becoming Minimalist , full of advice to getting rid of all of the stuff we accumulate, thinking it will bring us joy.

(From the Becoming Minimalist Facebook page.)

Or Marie Kondo’s konmari approach to keeping only items that “spark joy” and releasing all those things that no longer do. She suggests giving them to find a new home, to bring joy to someone else.

I did that a few years ago with a china set my parents bought me before I was married. I used it exactly twice. Then I sold it, 25 years later, to a family in our neighborhood for $50. I felt simultaneously guilty and relieved; guilty because I thought it was so important that I never used it (and took it with us on a dozen moves), and relieved that someone else could enjoy it.

Probably 1/2 of all I own I wish I could “send on its way,” but guilt holds me back. My husband made this, or my deceased sister bought me that, or my mom used to wear this, or I read this once, thirty years ago.

I need to remember that the love and memories associated with that person or event don’t leave with the item.

They’re just things I’m throwing away, not the people.

High Polish Tatra mountains

Writing Book 5, and forcing characters to leave behind all that they own, made me wonder how I’d face the same situation. I admit, it’s left me mixed. I want to be able to toss it all, but irrationality holds me back.

A friend told me of her parents’ house—true hoarders—and their many packed sheds in their backyard. They’d asked their grandson to pull some weeds so they could open the door again (it’d been that long since they’d been in there), and as the brawny boy leaned against the shed for leverage, the entire thing crashed down. Everything was destroyed.

The boy’s father cheered.

The boy’s grandparents mourned.

Nothing was salvageable, nor could they remember what they had stored in there for many decades (mostly old paint, it turned out). But they resented having to throw it all away anyway.

(Don’t let this be your children’s fate.)

The rest of the family was thrilled when that shed came down. In fact, they had the grandson lean against all of the other sheds, hoping for a similar result. When my friend’s parents finally die, they’ll need at least three dumpsters, she estimates, to unload all of the stuff no one—not even her parents—can use.

There’s some strange pride in not letting things go, in holding on to something beyond its usefulness.

In not allowing anyone else to have it.

In not acknowledging that you never needed it in the first place.

Some psychiatrists suggest it’s a mental illness, or maybe conditioning from grandparents who endured The Depression nearly one hundred years ago. I remember well the “get more attitude” of the 1980s, where acquiring stuff was all the rage, where your value was based upon what you owned. I think a lot of us in my generation still suffer from this early programming.

But there’s simply no good reason to hoard stuff. No one needs 12 hammers, as one elderly man I know possessed (among a great many other things). He said someone might need to borrow one. In the thirty years I knew him, no one ever came looking to borrow a hammer. Or one of his 15 hand saws. Or 20 screwdrivers. He could have given them away long before they became rusty, to someone who truly would have appreciated them. But no.

I have a friend who has an entire bedroom stuffed with bins and boxes, all for Christmas. It takes her a full week to decorate her house, inside and out, and three Christmas trees. She admits it stresses out her family, especially since every surface is covered in something breakable, but every item is wrapped up in memories, she insists.

The memories of her children, however, of their anxious Christmases, may not be so favorable.

Why do we keep old furniture that’s damaged or even moldy, clothes that don’t fit, knick-knacks that went out of fashion years ago, paintings that no longer interest us, and books we’ll never read again?

Stuff our kids will throw out in another generation with alacrity?

For reasons I don’t yet understand, we often choose to remain burdened and laden by all that we own.  I want to empty out my bedroom closet, but that means tossing a stack of yearbooks. All I need to do is scan in the handful of photos I appear in, then throw away the books I have never, ever looked at since I graduated in the 1980s.

I also have several paintings I did in high school, which I’ll never display because they’re pretty poor, but which I can’t bear to give away. I’ve needlessly hauled them around for decades.

Sometimes I wish we could have a random fire, hitting particular items so that I’ll be forced to get rid of them. Moving many times has helped; each time I had to throw away boxes of destroyed stuff I thought I couldn’t live without I was relieved that I had a reason to get rid of them.

I have to admit, I’ve purposely dropped one or two items during a move just so that I didn’t have to find a shelf for them later.

I’m slowly sliding closer to minimalism. Each shelf that gets emptier, each old box that vanishes, each bag I bring to charity lightens my heart and eases my conscience.

By the time our youngest leaves the house in 15 years, we anticipate we’ll be moving into a tiny home, and that should force me to get rid of the last of the crud. I hope that by the time my husband and I die, our kids will need only an hour to clean up what we left behind. 

Doesn’t this just feel so clean, so simple, so serene?

Until then, I’ll try each week to toss out 10 items I don’t need. That’s my goal for the summer, and we’ll see how it goes.

If you happen to be good at separating things from those who gave them to you, tell me how you did it. I’m gonna need some motivation by August!