Hitting Pain: Speed Bumps on the Road to Less

If one is lucky, a New England summer might yawn and stretch lazily into fall.  This year, however, the morning air became abruptly crisp. A smattering of ambitious leaves turned defiantly against the waning sun before the calendar could even declare September’s arrival. Personal growth happens like that, too. Sometimes it languishes, with little to no forward movement, and other times it feels like someone stepped on the accelerator without asking for permission.

My growth game has been languishing until very recently.  Since starting a new job, I’ve fallen into some of my old spending habits: Starbucks whenever the whim strikes, compulsive splurges on superfluous snacks, and etc. I know something is off when I walk into Whole Foods for cereal and quinoa cookies and leave with $75 of vegan junk food. Speaking of veganism, I’ve managed to twist plant based eating into: “This candy is made from plants, so it’s fine”. You know, the old “chocolate salad” logic. If I had used the aforementioned logic on my other issues, it wouldn’t have been long before wine coolers turned into liquor. Or “friendly” coffee with a woman I shouldn’t see turned into a tangled, painful mess. All that being said, I have made strides in the right direction. I don’t cry at dinner anymore. (Seriously, eliminating cheese from our home was ugly business.) Our weekly grocery list no longer contains four pounds of cheese and a carton of heavy cream. That’s noteworthy progress, if I do say so myself. I’m sure my arteries thank me. Also, Starbucks and snack binge(s) aside, I haven’t been blowing cash left and right. I have a Stevie Nicks tattoo to finish and several more tattoos in the queue. In addition, we finally turned our junk room into my walk-in closet and home office. We don’t have room for my addiction to Michael’s holiday decorations. My choices, overall, are more in line with my values.

It’s in my nature to do the “two steps forward and one step back” dance. But, sometimes, life necessitates that I suck it up and tango. I wouldn’t say that life has forced me to tango, but I have been “hitting pain”, as they sometimes refer to it in 12 Step fellowships, and pain is the great facilitator of change. A long time ago, I remember writing about how the word “no” is worthy of its own blog post. However, I haven’t been able to write about it because I am still learning how to use it. In fact, not only am I learning how to speak my truth, I’m still discovering what, exactly, that truth is. It is a complex process and it isn’t always pretty to behold.

In the beginning of August, I had an unsavory experience which forced me to make adjustments to my recovery meeting schedule. As a result, I decided to start attending a women’s meeting. In the past, I was resistant to the idea of gender specific meetings. To be completely honest, the idea of spending time with women feels about as appealing as throwing myself to a family of malnourished tigers. Don’t get me wrong: I love women. Well, one woman in particular. But being around a gaggle of girls has never been my scene. And that’s an understatement. I’m not really sure what that’s about – and why it’s an issue I haven’t been able to resolve in eight years of recovery.

Someone with substantially more recovery wisdom pointed out that maybe I don’t need to be someone who enjoys running with a clique of chicks. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin. However, I’m also an introvert. I crave human friendship – and my relationships are important to me – but I like meaningful one on one interaction. Anything else is painfully over or under stimulating (and sometimes both at the same time). It drains my spirit.

I’m going to stick with my women’s meeting; I know for a fact that it’s helping me grow. It’s also my responsibility to pass on the gift that was so freely given to me. However, I need to shut the door on the idea that there is something wrong with the way I operate in the world. The fears of my inner sixth grader aren’t calling the shots anymore. I am a strong, vibrant, nearly-31 year old woman. I don’t need a clique of chicks to have relationships of meaning and value. I am part of a diverse tribe. And, by and large, I enjoy meeting with said tribe members on an individual basis, thank you very much.

Too often, we live our lives based on what we think we “should” do. I know I am certainly guilty. I’ve come to realize that living from that platform is a debilitating form of existential dishonesty. It’s also frickin’ exhausting. My new life’s mission is to live my truth – and a huge part of living my truth is going to be exercising the word “no”.  If other people don’t like it, that’s too damn bad. The response of others is neither my business nor my responsibility. If someone has a problem, that’s their own shit. My only responsibility is to be honest. When I am in the wrong, it’s because I’ve been dishonest. I know my dishonesty has left casualties in its wake and I am working on making sure I don’t repeat the same mistakes.

This is my truth, in all its raw and gritty glory: I do not want to attend a girl’s night out with a group of women. Hell, chicks or dicks, I don’t want to attend any rambunctious night out. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a person on the autism spectrum, but I imagine the kind of sensory overload I experience is not entirely dissimilar to a trip to a noisy store. For the record, when three unrelated people text me at once, I have a meltdown. I’m not built for it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I also will not spend one second of my time tolerating homophobia – or bullying masquerading as politics – for the sake of being polite. I will not put myself in those situations and, if I find myself unwittingly subjected, I will leave immediately. And no, I probably don’t want to take those family photos. I enjoy doing individual, outdoor portraiture for a good cause. Unless you’re an individual who wants outdoor/natural light photos done for a cause, I can’t help you. On the other side of that coin, I reserve the right to take photos for whomever I damn well please. If I decide to make someone exempt from my usual standard, that choice is mine – and mine alone.

Perhaps most importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind. In five years, reading educational material about studio lighting may not bore me to tears. Maybe I’ll want to invite ten women over for a pajama party. Maybe I will actually initiate a group text rather than contemplate throwing my phone down the garbage disposal. And all of that will be okay because I am a constantly evolving human being with unique preferences and a voice that deserves to be heard.

Uncovering these things has made me a little angry – mainly at myself – because I have denied my voice for so long. I have been afraid of offending or inconveniencing others. I have asked: “What will other people think?” I have been a people-pleaser. I should have been asking: “What do I need?” Nobody else is responsible for meeting my needs. And it’s not selfish to meet them myself. In fact, it’s the self-caring, healthy thing to do. Ultimately, the more I deprive myself, the more I end up harming other people, too.

At the end of the day, I am aiming for simplicity. I am striving for less. If you think about it, “less” is the antithesis of addiction, which is the craving for more. And the road to less is paved with the word “no”.

 

To Light a Candle

I am pretty proud of myself. I finally made an appointment to see the dentist. Granted, my bottom teeth are feeling alarmingly sensitive…but what really matters is that I have one foot in the door.

I know, I know: Not cool. But isn’t it funny how we only change when we are in pain? I think we are all guilty of it to some degree.

I wish I could say that pain didn’t motivate me to start looking at my eating habits. What I can say, however, is that it didn’t take¬†much pain. I’m not waiting for the situation to escalate or for some awful diagnosis to develop from continued unhealthy eating.

We’ve been cleaning out our freezer and pantry – eating through the last of our non-plant-based food items – and instead of savoring the cheese and butter, I have felt almost annoyed by the chore of slogging through all the dairy. Last Wednesday, we went to see Stevie Nicks and the Pretenders. Before the show, I ordered one “last” roll of my favorite sushi. (For the record, we haven’t given up on our commitment to spend less eating out. We had a gift certificate. ūüôā ) While it tasted delicious, I was acutely aware of how heavy it felt in my stomach. I worried I would feel too queasy to watch my rock’n roll goddess perform. Luckily, I rebounded… but another door slammed shut on my doubt. My body is ready for change.

IMG_5582
Our beautiful sushi platter. The roll on the front right is vegetarian!

After a night of fitful post-concert sleep, my wife and I dragged our tired selves to a new vegan juicery and cafe. (Who the hell can sleep after being in the presence of Stevie Nicks?) At first, the clubby music and steep prices at the eatery raised my eyebrow, but when our drinks and breakfast arrived, I felt surprisingly satisfied and inspired. The food was yummy and filling. Best of all, I didn’t feel gross after putting it in my body. It gave me pause to think that people will buy four or five $10+ cocktails in an evening without batting an eye, but one comparatively priced health drink might be considered over the top. Which product should we really value more? If your answer is the cocktail, we might need to talk.

IMG_5603
My smoothie (cold brew, banana, nut butter, almond milk) & vegan granola bar.

It seemed like a good morning to continue our foray into the world of veganism, so we went to Whole Foods to replenish our dwindling supplies. Instead of feeling limited by the lack of choice, I felt happy and excited to be proactively improving our health. At the check-out line, I braced myself for sticker shock but, because I had done my research, stocking up only cost us what I would usually spend on a week’s worth of groceries. It really helped to be at a different grocery store, too. There were a lot fewer processed foods jumping off the shelves – or maybe I just didn’t notice as much because it was unfamiliar territory.

IMG_5607
Our new fruit bowl

To be fair, I still have animal products in my system… so I haven’t started the withdrawal process yet. The food in my work environment also continues to pose temptation. However, I am feeling cautiously optimistic and creatively inspired. Having a yummy vegan treat and a successful grocery experience really helped build my confidence. I also saw a comforting film this week. It talked about how perfection isn’t the aim of eating plant-based food – it’s improvement. Eating nutritiously doesn’t mean never, ever¬†indulging. It means being healthy¬†most of the time. I feel like I don’t have to say goodbye to our yearly batch of cut-out Christmas cookies (which we tend to give away) or a birthday sweet. On the rare occasion I do have something unwholesome, I just need to remember that I have’t given myself license to have¬†all the unwholesome things. Embracing minimalism has also taught me that the rarity of an occurrence adds to its overall value. I think that philosophy applies to food. It tastes more decadent if you don’t have it every day.

The question is whether or not this philosophy will work in application. A complete abstinence approach has been the¬†only way to treat my substance abuse issues. I’m on a mission to find out if food will be any different. I will adapt my methodology accordingly and report back to you.

The other interesting factor the film touched upon is the importance of a likeminded support system. I’m really blessed to have a wife who is on board. It would be much harder to make these changes with certain kinds of food still in the house. I also draw strength from watching documentaries and following online communities. It’s interesting how the tenets of recovery are the same regardless of how the addiction manifests.

We really just need to fill the voids inside us with genuine connection and community.

When I started following a personal finance blog last fall, I never knew I was about to embark on this crazy journey. First, I changed the way I view money and consumerism. Soon after, I simplified the way I relate to my possessions and the items in the space around me. I also started to prioritize activities and eliminate those that were not adding any value to my life. Next, I assessed how to lighten my footprint on the planet and be kinder to my global brothers and sisters. Finally, I examined my relationship with food and found it sorely lacking. One thing has become clear: Recovery is about¬†so much more than stopping a behavior. It is about growing and growing and growing. It is about discovering the interconnectedness of all things. It is about wading beyond the shallows of life and finding joy and understanding in the depths. Recovery isn’t about stopping. It’s about starting.

I needed to open my mind. Putting down alcohol, drugs, awful relationships, and credit cards seemed like miracle enough. But the miracle was only just beginning to unfold.

This stuff is¬†exciting. It is so much better than getting drunk or high. And if I can have it, so can you. I want you to know that it is not only possible….it is¬†waiting for you.

Sometimes it still takes pain for me to change, but I’m finding that I am increasingly motivated by a plain and simple desire to be better than the person I was yesterday. When I got clean and sober almost eight years ago, I had a flame the size of a candle burning steadily inside of me. It was enough to keep me alive. Today, that candle flame has expanded into a blazing inferno. Every time I share with others, it ignites further still.

I have never been the kind of person who can sit down and shut up. It used to be about trying to control the world around me. Now I stand up and speak because I want to pass on the gifts I have been so blessed to receive.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

– Eleanor Roosevelt

Mangrove Musings

I don’t know much about Ernest Hemingway, but I can certainly understand why he chose to keep a home in Key West. Florida was never on my “must-see” list – I had always dismissed it as a tourist trap – but after visiting several times, I found myself surprisingly and unabashedly in love. If you can get beyond the strip malls and the dangerous highways, there is something both indescribable and intoxicating about the peninsula.

I love the South in general. The sight of Spanish Moss destroys me in the best possible way. I love the flowers, the birds, and the vague sense that everything is a little haunted…like energy from several centuries is trapped in the humidity.

After dedicating several trips to the Tampa Bay region, J.L. and I picked the Florida Keys for our belated honeymoon. At first, we questioned our decision. Although our rental house in Grassy Key was beyond breathtaking, the weather was initially very moody. The wind washed pungent seagrass onto our small beach. When the grass started to rot, the smell was hard to abide. Furthermore, we realized we had chosen an especially busy week. The traffic was so bad that we were unable to enjoy Key West or Bahia Honda park.

While we certainly encountered our fair share of challenges, J.L. and I were not about to sulk in such a beautiful place. I’m so glad we made that conscientious choice. ¬†We may not have posed for a photo at the southernmost point of the U.S., but we did stuff our faces full of mahi-mahi, spend a glorious day in the Everglades, get acquainted with a crew of rescued dolphins, watch gigantic fish swim in the lights underneath our dock, eat cheesecake by the fire, and swim like fiends in our ridiculous pool. All the while, the air was filled with the perfume of tropical flowers and tiny lizards scurried over every conceivable surface.

Our very favorite thing, however, may have been taking the kayak out to explore the little inlets near our rental property. We saw so many birds – most notably a crane – and a prehistoric horseshoe crab. In one cove, we floated in one or two feet of water, while below us there were literally thousands and thousands of upside-down jellyfish. It was a surreal experience.

While I will never forget the beauty of the Keys – nor the novelty of seeing a sea turtle in the wild or a crab crawling out of a hole in the forest floor – I am still haunted by some of the pollution I witnessed.

In one of the state parks, there is a sign informing visitors that the Keys are on a well-traveled shipping route and, unfortunately, the passing ships are responsible for much of the trash that washes up on shore. As if the sign wasn’t disconcerting enough, the volume of trash I saw trapped in the mangroves shook me to my core. There wasn’t much I could do about it from the kayak – or without an army of helpers – but the image made a lasting impression. I don’t remember seeing nearly as much garbage twenty years ago as I played on the pristine, rocky beaches of Downeast Maine.

One of the most amazing things about getting clean and sober is that the world begins to open up to you. I have been very blessed to travel in recovery; this year I am looking forward to visiting St. Augustine, seeing Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, and celebrating my 31st birthday in New York City. Before I got sober, I had never even stepped foot on an airplane. Traveling is most definitely a gift… but it is also a teacher. It forces you to see the world with fresh eyes. When I was active in my disease, I was too absorbed in my addiction to think about how my life impacts the planet or my neighbors around the globe. Today, not only am I self-aware, but I am also aware of the world around me.

When I wrote Losing the Mess, I shared about how I am striving to cultivate an oasis of peace in a chaotic world. I think that sometimes we can focus on the problems around us rather than attending to the issues within us. It is the perfect cop out: “How can I possibly work on myself when there are so many problems around me that need to be solved? It would be¬†selfish.¬†No one would dare accuse me of making excuses when I’m being¬†helpful”.¬†This armor we construct around our fear is more transparent than we think.

I have always been a very sensitive and altruistic person, so it took awhile for me to understand the concept of self-care and “wearing the world like a loose cloak”. When I took the burdens of the world on my shoulders, I didn’t realize I was adding to them rather than alleviating them. Working on myself is the best possible thing I can do to foster healthy relationships and heal our ailing planet.

It sounds counterintuitive… but most things that work are contrary in nature. Imagine if everyone in the world stopped fighting and worked on becoming the best person they could be. I think we might finally know peace.

I don’t have control over anyone else, though, so I can only focus on myself. This has become a key mantra for me in the past year: “Can’t control others, can only control myself”. Aaaaaand repeat. Because I forget just about every five seconds. Relating to the world from this perspective helps me maintain a sense of compassion. I am still far from perfect, but it has saved me from becoming an angry and jaded person.

In Losing the Mess, I talked about “skimming some of the murk from the swamp” by bettering the space within my control. I guess this post is about¬†how¬†I am continuing to explore that concept. It has been almost a year since my honeymoon and – coupled with the fact that I just recently watched the documentary The True Cost – I am beginning to push the envelope of personal change further still.

I never thought about the people who make my clothes. After watching¬†The True Cost, I am a changed woman. I love documentaries – part of the work I do with the Human Too campaign draws from the documentary spirit – but I think it’s easy to walk away from these visual educations and think: “Ugh! Society¬†sucks. Why can’t other people get their¬†shit together? Human beings are¬†gross. This world is doomed”.

Whelp, that attitude isn’t very helpful. And I don’t think that’s the kind of reaction filmmakers are trying to inspire, either. I admit, I looked at the footage of shoppers in various chain stores – and beating the shit out of each other on Black Friday – and thought “Murderers! Awful, awful people!” But then I stopped and thought: ” You’re the same.¬†How about focusing on how¬†you can do better?”

I don’t think I am going to single-handedly save the world by shopping from fair trade stores and rinsing out my plastic cups for recycling. But if I try to treat the environment and my global brothers and sisters with thoughtfulness and love, at least I can look back on my life and feel a sense of peace because I did the best I could with what I had. What more do we have to offer, really, than our very best?

Life feels so much better when you relate to it from a gentle place. I am interested in judging less and doing more. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It matters what¬†I am doing. I used to get offended when people in recovery meetings told me to “mind my own business”. Now I cherish that advice because it refocuses my attention on the one thing I can control: myself.

Here are some of the changes I am implementing:

  • Giving up bottled water. Although I am not willing to sacrifice my favorite seltzer, there will still be a whopping 48+ plastic bottles/month that no longer come from my household.
  • Recycling more in general. I need to stop being lazy and rinse out my yogurt dishes, margarine containers, and rare iced coffee cups .
  • Buying fewer articles of clothing, i.e.¬†not shopping for “fun”. (Seeing how much damage the garment industry is doing has taken the fun out of it for me.)
  • Researching earth and people friendly brands. Patagonia is my favorite. I also like the looks of Alternative Apparel for basics.
  • Giving up some of my favorite brands…like Victoria’s Secret. Vicky, the secret is out: You’re mean! We’re breaking up!
  • Simplifying holidays. There’s no reason we need to have presents stacked from floor to ceiling. (We got off to a pretty good start on this goal in 2016.)
  • Focusing more on consumable gifts. Experiences are much more valuable than things.
  • Adopting an attitude of longevity in spending versus an attitude of disposability. I do not need to replace perfectly good items just because it’s “trendy”. I will ask myself: “Is this item high quality and made to last?”

I’m not sharing all this on some mad mission to change the world. I’m sharing this because maybe there are people out there, like me, who are just trying to navigate this shit with some sense of dignity, grace, compassion, and peace. I know I don’t feel very peaceful when I’m railing against other people about what they “should” be doing. I feel peaceful when I make changes in my own life and share my story with others.

I think that’s what the process of healing often looks like: sharing your story and saying, “Hey, if you’re interested, I can show you how I got to this point in my life”. I know that’s how it worked for me when I was getting clean and sober. ¬†No one said: “You have to do it this way,” or “Hey, you’re pretty fucked up. Why don’t you pull your shit together?” People just shared about how they modified themselves and, if I wanted to make a change, I was welcome to ask them to show me the way.

I recognize that I am profoundly privileged to be thinking about these issues. My life no longer revolves around some form of addictive obsession. I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a reasonable amount of mental and spiritual wellness. My heart is overflowing with gratitude.

It always amazes me that the happiest people in the world are those who arguably have the least. It’s not the millionaire or the king. I want to emulate the people who find abundance in “enough”. Now that I don’t have to chase substances or behaviors, I want to stop chasing “more”. ¬†I want to honor the planet that sustains me and share my abundance with my brothers and sisters.

New Curtains

Not to beat a dead horse, but I am still flabbergasted by the huge difference it has made to delete Facebook from my phone, examine my spending, and gradually purge my house of unwanted items and unnecessary excess. I really can’t get over it. They say that in order to form a habit and change your life, you have to change something you do every day. I never expected that changing such small things would have such a massive impact. This is my fourth blog post in a month. I’m lucky if I¬†clear four posts in a YEAR. These days,¬†I sometimes wake up so inspired that I can barely contain genuine feelings of excitement about the day. It used to take a Red Bull and a cup of coffee before I could move beyond “meh”. I don’t drink coffee anymore. Well… rarely. As a treat. And mostly decaf. I am a tea person now.

I can imagine a critical and/or unhappy-in-life skeptic thinking: “Well, Autumn, you’re obviously going through a phase”. And that’s okay. People said that about my initial sobriety. This isn’t a phase, it’s just another curtain drawing back to reveal the next level of my recovery.

Recovery, as a whole, has been a series of curtains drawing back to reveal life in ever more stark relief. My addiction kept me in a haze. As I gradually recovered, the world not only came into focus but also brightened and intensified in color. It has been a slow process but the exciting part, for me, is that it will continue as long as I’m willing to examine how I can improve.

While I do take the time to talk about what it was like before and how recovery works for me, this “on-going story of recovery from addiction” is just the story of my life. It’s about the evolution that occurs with the appearance of each new curtain: some are pulled aside slowly and others are thrown wide open. I can try to explain what recovery feels like…or I can just show you.

I think I mentioned three different addictions in my introduction: social media, consumerism, and caffeine. It is no coincidence that I feel better; these are all things that have a powerful ability to change the brain. So much can be linked back to addiction. I would even go so far as to argue that addiction could be the achilles heel of our civilization: the scourge of more.

That’s one of the reasons I am so passionate about fighting it.

The irony of addiction is that you chase more but you end up manifesting¬†less.¬†Now that I am no longer chained to my phone, I write more, I bake more (I made a delicious pudding pie, outrageous Valentine’s Day cookies, and sinful macaroni and cheese), and I have more time to dedicate to clearing ¬†space and bettering our home. I discovered that if I throw items relating to tasks I have been procrastinating SMACK in the middle of the living room floor, it offends my OCD sensibilities to the point that I have to attend to them immediately. I read a year’s worth of magazines this way and also sorted through our entire record collection. (We subsequently got $45 of store credit to spend on records to which we will actually listen!)

If you’re struggling with procrastination, throw your shit in the middle of the floor in the most unsightly place you can find. It’s pretty funny how fast you get motivated.

When I moved in with my now-wife, J.L., in 2013, our spare room became a dumping ground. One can’t designate it as a bedroom because it doesn’t have a closet, but it would certainly make an adequate guest area or office. It has been weighing on me for years. Since Christmas, we have been transforming the area into my personal walk-in closet and writing/meditation area. (I say “we” because J.L. has been such a good sport and my muscle-for-hire ūüėČ ) It’s still a work in progress, but the space is almost clear. I bought a garment rack so I can see my clothes. The items that I don’t wear can no longer be hidden in some dark corner of the master bedroom closet. It is so clear how much I¬†don’t need. I have discovered that there is a pattern to my basic personal style and I am determined to stick to that in the future rather than fall prey to the little jolt I get every time I make a purchase.

I mentioned that I bought a garment rack. I also bought a little turquoise table for a light display, a picture frame, two mason jars, three baskets, and a professional outfit. These items are all for our home/life betterment project. Examining my spending hasn’t meant NO spending at all. It just means that I put more thought into the items I buy rather than shopping for the sake of shopping. I wait three days before I order an item online. I go to the store with a list and I stick to the list. (Most of the time. I’m certainly not perfect!) Consumerism is the hardest habit to break. But I am on track to be one hundred percent debt free by the end of 2018. What temporary shopping high could possibly be more valuable than that?

We have a vision for our life in ten years. They say life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. But I think it’s okay – if not necessary – to dream. Our dream is to buy an eco-friendly condo in our favorite beach town and to live amongst the palm trees and tropical flowers. Perhaps J.L. will work at a state park. Since there will be no snow, I can finally drive a classic car or truck. We can park on the causeway and watch the dolphins, pelicans, and herons with our morning tea or coffee.

I can make space for this vision by not only clearing away the financial clutter, but also by lightening our physical possessions. I don’t want to drag a bunch of shit halfway across the country that I either a.) don’t use or b.) don’t care about but keep for sentimental reasons. My house still looks like a mermaid and a storybook gypsy had a baby and it threw-up everywhere: there are sea shells, rocks, dried flowers, jeweled glass bottles, lights, a folk-art unicorn, pin-up girls, and the list goes on…However, every single item I keep makes me smile. If it doesn’t, it goes. Or it will go in the next 5-8 years. Also, as a general rule of thumb, for every new thing that comes through the door, something else gets tossed into the donate pile.

The Minimalists point out that people are not in their possessions. I agree up to a certain point. On the other hand, I view some of my possessions as fragments of my life frozen in time. They bridge the gap between the present moment and a memory. Take, for example, the Bass River Mercantile root beer bottle adorned with a single dried carnation. The bottle is from an anniversary trip to Cape Cod. When I see it, I remember the overcast sky and taking pictures of shells with J.L. I remember getting a massage at the spa that was so relaxing I cried and hugged my masseuse. The carnation? Well, that is from a stranger who sat next to me at WaterFire in Providence, Rhode Island. I specifically remember feeling very “anti-people” and I didn’t want to be enveloped by the crush of the crowd. A woman and her companions, one of whom may have been her elderly, disabled father, asked if there was room to sit next to us. Then she asked for help with her camera. English wasn’t her first language and the experience that transpired ended up making me laugh and reminding me that people are mostly lovely and good. The woman found out it was my birthday and she gave me the little red flower. Every time I look at it, I’m reminded that people are good. And that I am a part of a benevolent universal fabric that sends me messages precisely when I need them.

That is why I would lovingly pack-up and carry my silly flowers and rocks; looking at these items is like thumbing through a chronicle of my life’s happiest memories. While I am not interested in creating a museum, I know that my brain is fallible and my life’s narrative is precious. I would not remember these moments otherwise. My choices give me creative license to shape my story. I can either smother myself with objects that hold no meaning or I can curate a narrative that celebrates joy and only joy.

One of my favorite artists, Patti Smith, often considers the value of objects in her books and photographs. In an article on one of Smith’s traveling museum exhibitions, Vince Carducci notes:

The chasm between the dead gelatin silver print and the living memory-image is something Smith seems to want to close. This is where the artifacts in the installation come in. Her father‚Äôs cracked teacup, her late husband Fred ‚ÄúSonic‚ÄĚ Smith‚Äôs cherished 1964 Mosrite‚ÄúVentures‚ÄĚ-model electric guitar, an unadorned red marble cross left to her by Mapplethorpe, each thing by its continued presence sustains a relationship that loss has threatened to take away; the objects serve as talismans of a reality that is photographically destined to remain unredeemed.

My goal is to keep my talismans thoughtful, if not few. And maybe, like Patti Smith, I’ll write a book. I’m not quite sure what it will be about but, as the fabric of each new curtain billows and unfurls, I am given plenty of material to choose from.

Losing the Mess

Life is invariably messy. But does it have to be? There are so many factors in the world we can’t single-handedly control. Right now, the tension within the United States is palpable, never mind the tension brewing with our neighbors on the same continent and across the ocean. I try to steer away from taking heated public political stances because I personally believe it doesn’t help push our society forward – rather it perpetuates the backward momentum – but it is undeniable that we live in scary times. If you look beyond the inflammatory headlines and simply examine the legislation, available as stark, inarguable, fact, it is impossible not to feel a chill of existential anxiety run down your spine and sit like a rock in your stomach. Who can say how it will all conclude? It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on; we collectively have a lot riding on the¬†less-than-pure-white White House.

If that isn’t enough, we are each fighting our own messy personal battles. For example: I can’t control the fact that my upper G.I. system has recently decided to stage a rebellion in my esophagus. No specialists are immediately available, and the discomfort has resulted in being pulled from medication that helps me stay focused, patient, less impulsive, and less¬†irritable. Just when I thought I was starting to get ahead with my health, my body threw a curve ball.

With the world in such an uncertain state of chaos and the circumstances of our lives often out of our control, how can one possibly be content? How can we attain even a modicum of serenity? Doesn’t the grand scale of all this¬†uncertainty make us VICTIMS of circumstance? I think society would respond with a resounding “hell YES”! ¬† But lately, I have been questioning this programmed “victim” attitude in both the personal and political spectrum.

With my personal circumstances, for example, I could ask: “How am I supposed to function?” One version of the aforementioned question would be rhetorical and soaked in self-pity. I would be lying if I said that wasn’t the first version of the question that I did, indeed, ask. I panicked. I shed some tears. I’m a recovering worrier. It’s what I do. But then I asked the non-rhetorical, pro-active question: “Okay, what can I do to function as best I can until this situation gets resolved?”

I think that victims become victimizers. It’s standard practice for political discourse on social media. It’s identity politics. One group feels victimized by another and retaliates by trying to make the other group feel as miserable as possible. Or, in a more general sense, one individual has a miserable life so he or she does x, y, or z and these behaviors detract from the general benefit of his/her personal relationships and society as a whole.

I recently deleted Facebook from my phone for just this reason. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve taken “vacations” but I’ve never permanently pulled the plug. I log on to manage Human Too and to periodically check my wall, but I don’t read my newsfeed anymore. As a gay woman, I very well could be in the political crosshairs. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to feel like a victim or let my peers suck me into bullying and general misery. You don’t like gay people? Fine. Are you a gay person who feels shitty about the current state of affairs? Fine. I can acknowledge both as co-existing realities but I am NOT going to wallow in the swamp by spending HOURS of my time scrolling through the murk every day. I can’t do anything to clean the water in the swamp if I’m stuck in it up to my chest. When I’m submerged, the water isn’t getting clean. My soul is just getting dirty.

I am learning that we can control a lot more than we think. There are, of course, things I can’t change and must accept. My addiction is one of those things. But I can control my response to just about everything.

Even though the world is arguably more chaotic than it has ever been in my lifetime and I must face life on life’s terms – unexpected hurdles and all – I am also finding ways to invite in more peace and contentment than ever before. And that, my friends, is the beauty of recovery. Recovery is constant learning and growth. But you don’t have to be in recovery to strive for constant learning and growth. One could posit that a life richly lived is the same by definition.

Discovering the Frugalwoods blog a few months ago jump-started my most recent self-evolution. It taught me to let go of society’s definition of success. (I am, in fact, wildly successful! I have a daily reprieve from a deadly disease. And I have a really kind heart.) It taught me about letting go of yet another addiction: consumerism. It taught me how to change my attitude toward money. I didn’t pick a high-paying field but that doesn’t mean I can’t save for retirement. After a few trial runs with some of the principles that work for our family, we are on our way.

It didn’t stop with the Frugalwoods. The Universe has had many things to show me and my heart has been wide open.

I am currently reading a book called Everything that Remains by The Minimalists.¬†The word minimalism often conjures an extreme picture of stark rooms and empty closets. But it’s not really about that. Because when you get rid of all your stuff you are still left with you. It’s about clearing your life of things that don’t add value…and stopping the pursuit of even more things that don’t add value¬†to fill the bottomless void inside.

You will never walk into my home and find barren shelves and empty walls. But I am engaging in a massive clean-out and a firm assessment of whether or not an item/activity adds value. Keeping Facebook on my phone does not add value. An excess of clothes I don’t wear or coffee mugs I don’t drink from do not add value. Buying shit I do not need does not add value.

I said in my last post that I don’t deal in extremes anymore. This is still true. I intend to keep my antique bottles and my seashells and most of my decorations. We will still celebrate holidays and live a full life. It just means that I don’t need¬†more. I don’t need to buy an Audi in two years when my current vehicle is paid off. We don’t need to go out to eat at least once a week. We don’t need presents stacked from floor to ceiling every Christmas. I don’t need to buy everything I see that glitters appealingly in my direction because I “deserve” it.

Every time an item hits the trash or the donate pile, I feel like I can breathe a little easier. Adopting some of the Frugalwoods and Minimalists’ ideologies has added a whole new element of calm and gratitude to my life. I have realized that what I have is¬†enough. It is¬†beyond enough. I have realized that the “things” I value most are time, freedom, kindness, and travel with my wife. I have realized that I can better utilize my money to support these values and that I can quite literally clear both my physical space and my head space for these values.

Everything that Remains also talks about the difference between passion and excitement. As an addict, this resounded so deeply with me that I sat briefly in stunned reverie. I am historically accustomed to experiencing life in highs and lows: excitement and despair. I can fall back onto this roller coaster if I am not careful. Not dealing in extremes does require constant vigilance. The Minimalists point out that passion is not¬†excitement. Sure, passion can feel exciting at moments, but it is also loving something so much that you’re willing to “drudge through the drudgery”. It is discipline and patience. It is putting in the work to master a skill. To say that I needed to hear that message is a vast understatement.

So, yes, while the world burns and my own life continues to be perfectly imperfect, I have been choosing to cultivate an oasis of peace.

I think that the answers to life’s biggest questions are sometimes so painfully simple that it’s appalling that we don’t all “get” them. But the simplest answers are sometimes the hardest to swallow. Recovery programs are full of infuriatingly simple clich√©s that prove this very point. It has certainly taken me years to get basic principles…and yet I still need constant reminders. I can’t help but wonder, however, what it would be like if the whole world stopped and asked: “How does this add value…to my life and the lives of others? Is this word or action adding value?” And if we all deprogrammed ourselves from excess, consumerism, and an overstimulating amount of technology, would our relationships be better? Would our waste be reduced and there be enough resources for everyone?

The answer is simple but the execution is hard. I can only do my part. Perhaps in cultivating my own oasis of peace, I can skim a little of the murk from the swamp.

*If you’re interested in a FREE copy of the book¬†Everything That Remains, please visit here.