The Booming Minimalist

Musings of a Baby Boomer

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Beginnings

This is a different essay for me. It takes my readers through some emotional flashbacks as I struggled to write a meaningful piece and the finished product I delivered several hours later at my daughter’s wedding, on September 4, 2011.

I hope your takeaway will be similar to mine as I finished this writing; that the simple moments, gestures and details that life generously provides to each of us, are often the most memorable…and important.

Happy Anniversary, D & T!!!!

It was September 4, 2011, 5 a.m. In less than eight hours, the festivities of the day would begin. My hair would be carefully styled. Makeup painstakingly applied. Rustling fabric. Nervous smile. Joyful tears. My daughter’s wedding.

I stared at the screen in disbelief. Writer’s block. Brought on by procrastination. After all, it had been almost six months since I asked her. “I would like to speak in church at your wedding.” And since the acceptance of my offer…not one prepared word.

The hotel lobby where I had taken up residence was free from movement. Only the aroma of recently brewed coffee and occasional appearance of the hotel desk clerk provided distraction. I stared at the screen again….not one written word.

Memories flooded in. The call. “We have a newborn baby girl for you!” “When can you come to the agency to discuss?” Two years of anticipation, frustration, waiting, hoping, praying. Two long years, waiting to get to the top of the list. Tears filled my eyes.

6:30 a.m. My thoughts suddenly interrupted by the sound of children and their parents. A soccer team, headed for breakfast. Excited laughter. Had I been in thought this long? ….not a single written word.

March 26, 1980. JFK airport. Clutching my crumpled St. Jude card following ten weeks of intense prayer. “Please keep my baby safe.” “Please let her know I love her.” And now at the airport, staring out the window. “Please let the plane land safely.”

My tears were flowing freely now. Passersby perhaps wondering what tragedy this poor woman sitting alone in a hotel lobby, staring at her laptop screen, had just endured…. It’s my daughter’s wedding…

“Mom, I have someone I would like you to meet.” Hours before a 4–day holiday for just the two of us. A young man in a corduroy jacket with beautiful brown soulful eyes. “Happy to meet you”, he said. “What do you think?”, she said, later in our hotel room.

“Our bride’s mother, has prepared something to read to you,” said the minister. “Will you please come forward.” I rose from the pew and made my way, slowly, awkwardly, to the front of the tiny church. I looked out and saw my relatives and my dear friends. All whom had taken part in this remarkable journey called my life.

My hand shook as I unfolded the typewritten paper. Large font. Easy to read. I composed myself. I focused on the beautiful couple seated by the altar… I began to speak…

“Beginnings”

My phone rang one day, last February. I remember I was getting ready to have dinner with friends. I had been thinking about my daughter, who was flying that day to a conference in California.

It was her boyfriend of several years, who sounded a little stressed. He also had never initiated a call to me before. “Please tell me”, I asked, with my heart in the pit of my stomach,“Is T okay?” “ She is fine, Sue. I called to ask if it is okay to ask her to marry me.”

It was shortly after my tears of joy that it sunk in. This wonderful man, whom I had come to adore, had just asked me if he could marry my daughter.

And so, like every other beginning during her journey through life, I knew this decision would be made with great thought, deliberation, and commitment.

My mind raced back through a mother’s memory of the milestones of her life. The time when she first introduced me to him. Her first day at college, when she gently reminded me, “Mom, it’s time for you to leave now”. The football games where I would tell anyone who would listen, “that’s my daughter out there, leading the band”..And… of course, waiting anxiously at the airport, clutching my St. Jude card, waiting for the airplane to land that carried my precious baby daughter.

And so, on this wonderful day of a new beginning in their lives, I would like to share with D, whom I have come to love with all my heart, and to all who are gathered here to witness the beginning of their new life together……..

I looked up. She smiled. The beautiful, warm, reserved smile I love which says “Well done. Thank you Mom.”



Road Trip

imageAs a child, a “cousin”, (I have four of the “1st” variety), was more about a bloodline, than a relationship. They are the offspring of my mother’s two siblings. Time spent with them was primarily several hours on holidays. Depending on which of my mother’s siblings she was on good/bad terms with at the time, it was our unspoken understanding that I treat his/her cubs accordingly on that particular occasion. Two of my cousins are brothers, the three of us a year or so apart. The birth of the third, 13 years my junior, posed a formidable threat to the close relationship I had with my beloved aunt, so I pretty much denied his existence for several years.

To round out the picture, I have three second cousins who in my youth lived within the same geographic area; a daughter of a great aunt, and a son and daughter of a great uncle, interestingly also within my age range. They periodically joined in many family festivities.

There was never a question where the young cousins would be seated for dinner at important family gatherings. Regardless of the chosen venue, a familiar card-like table structure appeared, an assignment none of us particularly cherished. At times, we were the only ones at the table who spoke English, as important adult discussions were often conducted in Greek.

With the exception of fond memories of watching “The Crawling Eye” with my older cousin, or sticking up for his younger brother when it became necessary, or arguing with my parents about the inequity of Santa’s presents versus the quantity of gifts my cousins had received, nothing warm and fuzzy comes to mind from those early encounters. However, to the credit of Papoo and Yaya (our grandparents), and my aunts and uncles, our Greek culture and strong family traditions of religion, food, and dance continued year after year throughout our youth. This is the bond that links our childhood forever.

As the original “mutt” (my father being Irish) in an otherwise purely Greek lineage; through marriage, our children and children’s children, my cousins and I have weaved a rich tapestry of religions, race, nationalities and cultures. Sadly, with the deaths of many of our beloved patriarchs and matriarchs, what remains of the annual Greek traditions I loved so dearly as a child and young adult, are now memories vividly recreated through the senses: a whiff of a cigar, pastitso baking in the oven, familiar music, a plate of feta and kasseri cheese, a familiar accent…..memories I share with my cousins.

As the years marched on, so did life. My youngest cousin (I eventually forgave him for being born) and I had the fortune of working blocks from each other in NYC for a short period of time. Our weekly lunches in Bryant Park helped us know each other better. Years of family ski trips with my aunt and uncle and his family, only increased the bond and closeness for this younger brother I never had.

Not so much for the rest of us… until several years ago….through the magic of Facebook, the reconnect I dearly sought presented. And with it- the passions, triumphs, and tragedies of my cousins’ lives…to start or continue a conversation. The cousins I barely knew. The individuals they had become. The lives they led.

A few weeks ago I accepted an invitation to attend my second youngest cousin’s son’s wedding. Following this cousin’s postings and those of his children for several years, I came to know the importance of family in his life. I was excited to attend and be a proud representative of our dwindling Greek heritage.

Generally a solo traveler, yet not looking forward to the three to four hour trek on a holiday weekend, I mustered up the courage to tackle the trip. Two days before the launch, I received a message from his older brother, “I am driving you to and from the wedding. My fee is a bagel and coffee.” My response: “ What kind of bagel do you like?”

And so began four and then eight hours of reaquainting and enjoying the company of my oldest first cousin and his wife. We talked, laughed, reminiced, and connected in a way we never had before. We all agreed. It was the road trip that was meant to be.

In the last few days, I have thought often about that road trip. How grateful I am. How much closer I feel to them. Most importantly…..The power within all of us to change what didn’t exist into what will be.



On frugal food choices

image Before I decluttered my first closet; before strategies to simplify my life; before the painful process of settling my parents affairs; I realized my financial situation needed a major overhaul. I had been living beyond my means for way too long- and believing (as my father did) that having some level of debt was the normal way of life in America. Actually, I rarely, if ever, had cash in my wallet. Most purchases were made with a credit card, for the advantage of “free points” for cashback opportunities. A joke on someone who no longer could pay the entire balance each month!

In no way, did I see myself as living extravagantly. Actually, after downsizing my full-time position and the addition of a second 20–25 hour job, I rationalized my mindless daily spending to a lack of time. Lack of time to plan a budget, lack of time to cook a meal, lack of time to do anything in a cost-effective way.

Breakfast, lunch and most dinners were either from WaWa or the closest restaurant enroute home. Since there was a Starbucks next to my full-time job, I joined the countless others who frequented there throughout the day. If I needed a pick-me-up mid-afternoon or at night depending on the shift I was working, I would purchase a sugary beverage or treat. Should someone suggest ordering out, I was the first one to agree- Take-out food for me was in effect, someone taking care of me, since I was too tired to do anything more than keep going at my two physical retail jobs.

During this time, I lived paycheck to paycheck- able to cover all my expenses, but as time went on, only able to make minimum payments on my credit card debt, with the fear of falling behind. Enter “The Total Money Makeover” book, by Dave Ramsey. The guiding principles in his book were the best financial advice I had ever been given. I continue to listen nightly to his daily podcast, to keep me on track and derive inspiration from others who have successfully followed his plan.

The first area of attack was my food cost. Although the $5–10 per meal cost seemed insignificant in the singular form; once I added up my weekly expenditure, I was shocked to discover that this single person was spending over $200 some weeks- especially if I added a few extra Starbuck drinks to the tab, or tips for meals out.

Dave Ramsey’s advice to someone digging out of debt is “to eat rice and beans, beans and rice during your debt snowball reduction”. I immediately began making changes- slowly, gradually making progress to what and where I ate. I prepped crockpot freezer meals and froze leftovers for lunches. I changed to drinking only tap water with all meals. I bought self-fill K-cups and sale coffee instead of stopping at convenience stores for my morning coffee. Each tiny step brought me closer and closer to significant savings on my food budget line. I listened to tips found on line, from frugal friends, and just became more creative. I started using cash only for grocery purchases.

At this writing, I spend no more than $30 on groceries each week for myself. I also mainly eat the same food everyday- a concept this foodie would have told you was impossible not too long ago, yet I eat healthier now than I have in a very long time.

Breakfast is usually an apple or banana with peanut butter, or oatmeal with dried fruit and coffee brewed at home.

Lunch is from my selection of pint containers from my freezer, reheated at work in the microwave, and a bottle of tap water. I bring some nuts or trail mix for a snack during the day. I make a different crockpot meal each week- sometimes pasta, sometimes a soup containing meat or bean protein. I love pork fried rice prepared in a local Chinese restaurant and will often purchase a quart to prepare six pint size containers, topping the rice in each with some frozen broccoli or mixed vegetables and freezing the containers.

Dinner is a turkey burger (I stock up on ground turkey on sale), a salad of organic spinach, a tomato, avocado, red onion, cucumber, and steamed vegetable from a variety of frozen vegetables purchased on sale. I choose frozen vegetables for the simplicity of steaming in the bag. Daily variety is derived from vegetables or a different ingredient added to my salad. I am never bored and quite satisfied. This also has provided me with enough savings for an occasional dinner out where I can enjoy a different cuisine and the company of a friend. Most times, I make a point of bringing home one-third to half of my dinners out to freeze for my lunches!

Since I now work in a pharmacy retail store, I purchase all my paper goods and toiletries with my discount, however also have learned the benefits of additional savings, utilizing coupons and shopping the clearance shelves. I shop sales for laundry detergent and use generic brands wherever possible. Other than real necessities like toilet paper, I have come to realize how very few items are necessary to live decently. Watching the average consumer as I work, I now understand how much I purchased on impulse rather than true need in the past.

What works for me, may not work for someone else. It is also easy to experiment (and sacrifice) without family or spousal considerations. However, with creativity and a good dose of determination, I was successful in taking one more step in simplifying my life. What once seemed improbable is now possible. In my case, a plan to be debt-free, and to ultimately achieve a life of simplicity and intention, whatever the short-term sacrifices may be.



On Decluttering

I visited my daughter in MA last week. During a torrential rain storm one evening, the power had gone out. After an afternoon of running errands, she and I returned home to a house aglow with candles, a blazing fire in her wood burning stove, her 2–week-old baby sleeping peacefully nearby in her bassinet. As we relaxed and reminisced in this pretty atmosphere, my son-in-law suggested how wonderful this was- and joked that power outages should happen more often!

Had this scenario played out a year ago, my reaction would have been quite different. Instead of enjoying Plan B, I would have been annoyed that our previous dinner plans were ruined by the lack of electricity. More importantly, it would not be a lovely memory with my family. I would have considered it a disruption.

Minimalism is a trendy topic these days. There are hundreds of articles, essays, opinions on this movement towards a simple lifestyle. If you skim the surface, minimalism appears to be nothing more than a decluttering process.

In reality, decluttering is only the tool- to rid your life of “too much”. Too much stuff, too much activity, too much debt, too much time spent on insignificance ….that steals your ability to focus on what is really important to your health, growth, relationships, passions.

I found that a complete change of focus from the care and maintenance of “things”,  to experiences with people I care about, is the single most important mindset change in my entire life.

This piece is about the beginning of my road to a new found freedom through a “decluttering” process.  The first logical place for me was my home.  Although I will tell you  I believed decluttering was completed after I donated the contents of my storage unit (see my previous posts), I was so, so wrong.

An article suggesting that the bathroom is the ideal space to begin the decluttering process was my inspiration.  I selected my small master bathroom consisting of a sink with a lower cabinet, a small medicine cabinet, and a stall shower.  The direction was to remove everything, and return to closeted space only what is used daily, leaving any counter areas completely clear.

When I finished, all that remained visible was a small dish with a bar of soap and a candle atop the cabinet. A hand towel, bathmat, and bath towel replaced the previous array of towels I displayed in this one-person bathroom space. With the advantage of a white-on-white bathroom from ceiling to floor, along with cabinetry, the end result was a completely Zen-like experience.

In days to come, I found this tiny space not only an inspiration to declutter another area of my home, but a welcoming “zone” on a stressful day.

I continued the process room by room, drawer by drawer, closet by closet. Each area was a personal triumph.  I found myself returning to each completed area, with a sense of accomplishment and the  momentum to forge on!

Through inspirational essays by The Minimalists, I considered almost every physical item in my home with great deliberation as to whether it added value to my life. I donated. I trashed. The end result? I was surrounded with only those items which were useful or significant to my life.

During this process, I did significant research on “capsule wardrobes”. By far the best information I found was Project 333, a concept developed by Courtney Carver of BeMoreWithLess.  Her immensely popular course; whereby you dress with only 33 items (excluding intimate clothing and workout gear) for a three month period; then boxing the remainder for consideration at a later time; seemed to be an excellent solution to my clothing overload. Too many years of too many unworn clothes cluttering my closets!  I let go of (maybe-it-will-fit-again OR It-was-a-mistake-but-I-paid-for-it OR I-should-have-this-in-my-wardrobe) guilt feelings.

Being single with considerable closet space, I was able to utilize my closets to devise a capsule wardrobe for each season. I am now left with clothing that reflects my personal style in colors I love. I no longer need to think about what to wear. It takes less than a few minutes to dress and a short time to pack for a trip utilizing a smaller suitcase.  I feel comfortable and confident in my clothing.  Good fit, good quality,which will last season after season, is now all that matters to me. Period.

What I love about Courtney Carver, is her authenticity. If you read her personal story, on a web site free of pop-up ads or advertisement, you will get much, much more than an instructive course on decluttering your closet. I suggest you start with the beginning videos on her site to get a sense of who she is, someone who genuinely wants to inspire others through her own life lessons. She is a teacher and mentor to many, many people. She is a favorite blogger of mine.

In my beginning blog posts, I have revealed the circumstances and experiences shaping my decision to seek a simpler life.  Many through learned behaviors, as well as some induced by society throughout the years in the pursuit of the “American dream”.

Yet I have only begun to tell the new stories of what I am sure will be a lifelong challenge to live simply amidst a society where over-consumption is the still the acceptable norm. I hope you will continue to enjoy my journey!

 

 



The French Connection

Air France- JFK NYC bound for Paris. Less than one month post-911. We waited nervously for takeoff on the half occupied plane… searching, studying… Every. Single. Face. Followed by Xanax and copious glasses of wine.

One day jobless. A strange emotional mixture of freedom, exhilaration, fear, opportunity, soul-searching.

Provence France 2001. I can’t recall names of the streets I walked, sites I visited, recipes taught during cooking school (sorry Madeleine). I can’t tell you the details of what had been a carefully planned itinerary. Yet many memories became vivid reminders of a lifestyle I yearned to own; a Thoreau-like existence by American standards, an everyday experience in southern French culture. Simple at its best.

The tiny B&B I had chosen was nestled within the city of Avignon, ancient stone dwellings connected to one another, condo-style, in an interesting jigsaw puzzle pattern. The upstairs room was accessible by steep winding wooden stairs. In our simply appointed room, sheer white curtains billowed in the afternoon breeze. A pretty floral quilt adorned the bed. There was a small dresser topped with a simple white doily and small lamp. A tiny washcloset next to the bed was filled with the aroma of lavender soap. Looking down from the windows was a small picturesque courtyard, with an inground pool surrounded by plant life indigenous to the southeastern region of France. Several small cafe tables were scattered around a cobblestone patio. Both kitchen and living rooms of the house had access to this niche of southern French paradise.

The next morning, we awoke to the sounds of breakfast table preparation on the patio and of course the chirping birds I had been promised. Our hostess had set one of the cafe tables with a basket of warm croissants, a flask of fresh squeezed juice, an assortment of fruit jams, a pot of delicious smelling coffee; a much anticipated ritual in the days to come. We grew quite fond of our hostess, and chose to spend most nights with her on the patio sharing a bottle of wine, loaf of French bread, beautiful olives, cheeses, and cured meats we had picked up from the outdoor markets we passed during the day. Lucky for us, she spoke fluent English and we shared our stories of France and America, often late into the night.

We quickly adjusted to the slow pace of life in Avignon. We lunched with the locals- a slow, leisurely process enjoying the daily selection limited to one prepared dish from beautiful fresh ingredients. We lingered in the courtyard near a local theater house, observing the comings and goings of a diverse community with interesting, individual styles. We relished in undiscovered art- an old door in peeling Provence blue paint; a chipped ceramic pot with magnificent blooming flowers; a cat basking in the sun inside a shop window; a varietal mountain of olives in the open air market; a clothesline of textiles drying in the breeze; happy merchants sharing lunch and a bottle of wine at a local flea-market. A city that oozed simple contentment.

The next leg of our trip to the most southern region of France did not disappoint. Arles is encircled by an environment of exceptional beauty near the banks of the Rhône river and the untamed land of Camargue. For one magical week, from the home base of our host and hostess, Madeleine and Erick Vedel, we hiked the undisturbed beauty of the area each morning, cooked within the confines of their simple home throughout the late afternoon and dined with them until the wee hours of the morning at their table.

Living like I had never known. A study in appreciation of nature: a fragrant giant rosemary bush, a bull running wild in the untouched beauty of the Camargue, fields and fields of lavender. A focus on relationships: Laughter and conversation into the night with new friends. The preparation of simple meals, consumption of wines from a local grove, often delivered and enjoyed with the winemaker. Simple picnic lunches prepared from bits of leftovers from the previous night’s meal. Conversation with local artisans about their handcrafted wares. Learning reverence for the animal chosen and prepared for the meal- every possible part consumed. The sensual overload of the weekly market and instruction in the careful choice of ingredients for the evening meal. A lifestyle that offered value. Slow, intentional living. A focus on people and experiences over consumption and greed.

We are the sum of our experiences. I am an American, a patriot, proud of my freedom and my country. Yet, I learned lessons during this meaningful journey to the simple joys of living that will last my lifetime. A reference book of sorts that I would visit over and over again. Although it would come later in my life journey, after many starts and stops; ultimately, lessons towards creating a simple life that makes me excited to start each day, choose fulfilling work, live a life of intention and value.



Flashback-Part 1

image  Sometimes there is an extraordinary experience in your life when everything just feels right to you. So very right. It nags at you. It calls your name. Instead of pursuing, you dismiss it; only to relive it through your memories again and again…and smile. I am a wannabe chef. Fifteen years ago, the wanderlust and culinary sides of me collided. I spent the early months of 2001 researching and planning a solo trip to southern France to explore the art of Provencal cooking and the beautiful French countryside. To my delight I had located a cooking school/hiking/exploring tour run by an American woman married to a French chef. The location was in Arles France, in southern Provence.

I planned on staying in France for several weeks, so the first leg of my trip was planned for Avignon, south of Paris, but north of Arles. Easily accessible by train. I found a charming B&B located right in the city, run by a recently widowed woman. She offered me the room where I would be awakened by the sound of chirping birds each morning. It sounded wonderful. Since I was planning on traveling alone, I purchased an ample sized backpack to hold minimal clothing and toiletries. I bought a braided rubber clothesline to wash and hang my clothing at night in a sink or tub. I was beyond excited for this adventure.

My trip was planned for October 10, 2001. My birthday was the day before, and this was the present of a lifetime to myself. I had been working in NYC for a large medical insurance company. The company had three regional offices and I was the Office Manager for Sales for the smaller Manhattan branch. We managed the healthcare policies for large companies such as Macy’s, Goldman-Sachs, Cantor-Fitzgerald. It was a difficult, fast-paced environment. I managed the administrative assistants who assisted the sales force. In exchange for a four hour commute each day by train (two hours each way) and a stressful job, I received an excellent salary. Needless to say, I had little if any free-time, boarding the train at 6 a.m. each morning and returning after 7:30 pm each night. I was usually so exhausted from my week, that I spent weekends sleeping when not catching up on errands and chores.

On one particular September morning, I remember looking at a magnificent sunrise while riding the train to work. I arrived at my office on the 44th floor near Times Square about 9:00 a.m. A coworker approached me and said there had been a serious tragedy. A plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. Details were sketchy. Since we occupied the tallest building on 6th Avenue, we had an unobstructed view of the twin towers from a corner office. Several of us gathered by the window. We gasped as we witnessed the flames as the second plane hit the South Tower almost an hour later. The date was 09/11/2001.

When I returned to work several days later, I remember the sickening feeling as I looked at a pile of outgoing mail on my desk from the day before the tragedy. Many were addressed to offices that no longer existed. Over 25% of our accounts were housed in those buildings. Many of our sales people were further traumatized by the loss of their clients; relationships that had existed for many years.

Over dinner with friends later that month, I expressed my concerns in traveling to Europe alone in the upcoming week. With a good deal of wine and some prodding from the group, my good friend Karen, a fellow adventurer and culinary enthusiast offered to accompany me.

On October 9, 2001, my 48th birthday, a half hour before leaving for the day, I was called to the HR office. It had been a pleasant day. Some good friends at work had taken me to lunch to celebrate my birthday. I remember the HR woman looking very uncomfortable. We had a nice working relationship, and together had solved some challenging personnel issues.  Several minutes later, the Vice President of Sales came into her office. “I am very sorry Sue, but your position is being eliminated. Due to the recent tragedy, we have found it necessary to consolidate many middle management positions. We were not sure whether to inform you before or after your vacation, but we thought this might be best. We have a generous package to offer you, should you not contest our decision.”

The next evening, with many conflicting emotions, Karen and I boarded a plane bound for Paris, France.



Opening Pandora’s Box

image Shortly after the liquidation of the house contents, I needed to devote my free-time to digging through boxes and boxes of personal papers- in pursuit of a deluge of documents required by the government in application for Medicaid. Box after box provided clues to my father’s financial process. One box contained small “gifts” (clocks, leather bound notepads, fitness wristwatches, etc); mini-perks my father had received after opening numerous credit card accounts or for just being an “excellent” customer. It seems my Dad who boasted about his 900 credit score (yes, it was true), was engaged in a financial chess game- opening card after card, for every zero interest offer he could find. Unfortunately, his game was not exclusive to the credit card companies, he also opened and closed bank accounts, a continuous movement of funds- bank to bank.

Although my focus was to locate the jigsaw puzzle pieces of his complicated personal financial scheme, I couldn’t help realizing that his lifelong teaching, about the importance of always having (and living off) excellent credit had some serious flaws.

The more and more I dug, the less I wanted to deal with the reality I was uncovering. The sale of their condo, just three years prior at the ages of 86–87, to a slightly larger rental home in an exclusive gated community added another layer to the “game”. Undoubtedly, the choice of this home provided the space to house everything they owned. The money from the sale of their home provided additional funds to continue living beyond their means, purchasing more goods (a newly leased luxury car, four televisions, a new bedroom set, custom blinds throughout the home). My mother particularly still felt the need to “keep up with the Joneses”. Visitors were provided a tour of this museum of sorts. With great joy, as one toured each room (including the closets) she would exclaim- “This will take your breath away”. There was little deposited in savings from the condo sale.

My discoveries brought great sadness. In her state of dementia, devoid of reasoning and judgement, my mother will never realize that the choices she and my father made throughout their lifetime will not sustain the level of comfort she expects in her final years.

In turn, I must realize that I have provided her with the safety, good care, and routine important for a dementia patient. Unfortunately, I cannot be responsible for her life choices or her happiness.

I closed the boxes and shut the closet door that housed them. I looked around my own home. I thought of the extensive reading I had been doing on living a simple life. It was time to dig in.



In The Pursuit Of A Simple Life

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As anyone who has had the responsibility of liquidating a loved one’s lifelong belongings will attest, it is a cruel mixture of guilt and relief. Especially when these material items were of significant importance- a legacy of sorts to my Mom.

The donation of some items was satisfying, especially the useful items such as a bed, mattress, car which undoubtedly improved someone’s circumstances. The liquidation of the rest was not.

With the exception of the day my Mom was admitted to the Memory Care facility, this is the one day that I cannot forget; nor let go.

The closing date for her small house was quickly approaching and I already had too much on my plate to consider selling this large inventory, nor did I know where to begin.

The liquidator was recommended to me by someone in my community. They were a father and son operation. Their crew was respectful. But the site of my Mom’s trinkets being carefully wrapped and removed from the house was ingrained in my memory forever.

In the days to come I would realize that it had nothing to do with the items themselves, but the value she placed on them. Sadly, in her demented state, she has never spoken about any favorite life experiences; instead her concerns are only about her possessions- where they are, how they are being maintained. Perhaps the source of her security and happiness- a dear friend offered.

To answer her questions honestly would be cruel. So I perpetuate the lie. How do you admit to someone that the importance of her lifetime: her collectables, furniture, and clothing is forever gone. It is her hope… to see her belongings again. The truth will destroy her hope and her dream.

Perhaps it was at that moment, as I watched my parents “stuff” being loaded on a truck, that the first seeds of minimalism were implanted. I know I went home that day and looked around at my own possessions. My first thought was that my daughter and son-in-law never endure this painful and useless exercise in getting rid of my “stuff”. My second thought was that anything material I owned didn’t matter to me.

Weeks before I stumbled on The Minimalists TedX conference on U-Tube, I was already taking a serious inventory of my own life, and what really mattered to me. The top ten that came to mind that day included mother-daughter trips, vacations with my best friend, meaningful conversations and warm gatherings with friends, visits with my daughter and son-in-law, the love of my cats, my love of reading and writing.

Steve Jobs wrote during his last days, “I have come to the pinnacle of success in business. In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success. However, apart from work, I have little joy. Finally, my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed. At this time, lying on the hospital bed and remembering all my life, I realize that all the accolades and riches of which I was once so proud, have become insignificant with my imminent death”.

What I discovered as my journey toward simplicity continues, is that the “decluttering” of my possessions is only the beautiful beginning.



The Times They Are A’changing…

Sometimes help arrives from the most unexpected places.

Faced with the realization that I was slowly financially sinking after almost a year of unattentiveness to my own welfare- I decided to do what I always did best… work harder. I took a part-time job in another retail store, not too far from my full-time employer. Thus began my year of working 7 days, 60–65 hours a week. The decision started out as a plan. My current boss was being readied for a higher position, and I had the hopes of assuming her role. The light at the end of tunnel!  All I needed to get out of my situation was to regain my previous salary, or in this case, an increased salary for this higher volume store. Help was just around the bend!

Unbeknownst to all of us at the store level, corporate-wise, the company was undergoing a major reorganization. It would be several months before we learned that company-wide, my position as assistant manager was being eliminated. In fact, all full-time positions with the exception of store managers were being eliminated.

On the homefront, I was exhausted. The seven day work week, almost entirely on my feet, had begun to take its toll. My Mom did not take too kindly to her new surroundings and her frequent calls from the facility begging and sometimes demanding that she be allowed to “go home”, ripped my heart out. There were nights that I could not sleep at all.

My strength and support came from my family and friends who forced me to be objective about the decisions I had made for my Mom. I also found comfort in an on-line Alzheimer’s Association group, as well as local dementia caregiver’s support meetings, as I searched for answers on how to cope with this terrible disease.

It was at one of these meetings where I learned the name of Teepa  Snow. An expert in Alzheimer’s disease, she conducted seminars for caregivers and loved ones of Alzheimer’s patients, and lucky for me, most were available on U-Tube. For close to a month, I would play these U-Tube episodes sometimes repeatedly searching for answers on how to converse and interact with a dementia patient.

One day, as I searched for perhaps an undiscovered video she had produced, I stumbled on a TedX presentation by >The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. The presentation was compelling, so I watched it through to the end. I had never heard the term “minimalism” before, but their stories of corporate climbing to successful positions and the trappings that this “success” bought, sounded like the typical “American Dream” many aspire to. To work harder, be an expert in multi-tasking, acquire the latest gadgets, fill every moment with some activity was to be truly successful.

Their story was the realization that for each, this did not bring happiness. In fact, both (life-long friends) had been miserable. I dug into their web site TheMinimalists.com and then found link after link after link- particularly BeMoreWithLess.com Courtney Carver, BecomingMinimalist.com Joshua Becker, SlowYourHome.com- Brooke McAlary, to name a few of my favorites.

The term Minimalism by broad definition is living with “intention” and focusing on what brings value to your own life. Its about experiences, relationships and building memories….definitely less busy, and with less “stuff”. Its also referred to as a Simple Life. I thought back to all my parents “stuff” that I just sold and donated. I thought back to all the “stuff” I had acquired over the years and moved and stored. I thought of money wasted thoughtlessly, instead of intentionally, most of my life… I’m in, I thought. This is a direction I need to explore.



The Road Is Long With Many A Winding Turn

It became increasingly clear the month after my Dad’s death, that continuing in my capacity as store manager would not be possible much longer. However, I was still unaware of the extent of my mother’s dementia, and with the exception of forgetting dates and details of recent events, I attributed her memory loss to trauma from my Dad’s illness and then death.

On the recommendation from a dear friend, I hired a part-time caretaker to assist my Mom for several hours a day in the activities of daily living. In the meantime, I had found a small co-op home for her in the retirement community where I lived, and was in the process of completing the necessary paperwork. I believed that in living within walking distance from me, with part-time help and a smaller, more manageable home, she would do quite well.

I continued in my full-time position, working 50+ hours per week through the holiday season but with the understanding that I would step-down from a store manager to an assistant manager in a neighboring store come January. Physically and mentally, it was the most challenging holiday season I ever endured. In addition to the personnel issues I inherited upon my hire (well-disclosed) and increased store traffic, I was still in a critical learning curve. Although I was a seasoned store manager, this was a company with many operational complexities which I still had not fully grasped.

After checking in on my mother each morning, I would arrive at work an hour early most days and pour over my sales numbers, review applications, set up interviews and plan for the day in a restaurant in the mall near my store. Lunch was another meal in the mall, followed by a fast-food dinner most evenings, either in one of the same restaurants or grabbing a fast-food meal on the way home. I usually just crawled into bed minutes after arriving home.

At least six months before my Dad’s death, I had begun to cook meals for my parents. When my Dad mentioned that my Mom had hung up her pots and pans, never actually revealing that she could not cook, I had worried about them eating all meals outside their home. I managed this feat by ordering my groceries through a local home delivery service once a month, setting up three slow cookers at a time and freezing meal-size portions for them. After my Dad’s death, I continued this system for my Mom, relying on her home health aide to heat her meals for her.

Prior to closing on her new home, Mom fell seriously ill. Her chronic breathing problem turned acute, I summoned an ambulance when she could not walk greater than a few steps. Her hospitalization lasted several weeks and she was sent to a rehabilitation center for physical therapy.

By this time, I had transitioned to my new assistant manager position. Like in most retail companies, that came with close to a 50% reduction in pay. Closing up one house, purchasing the second, boxing up my parents belongings, arranging for storage space and visiting my mother in the rehab facility left little time to think about my own health, well-being and financial issues. My immediate family (one daughter and one aunt) is small (I am a single only child) but the emotional support from them and their spouses was mighty. However, all physically lived many hours and states away. I relied considerably on a wonderful caretaker and the help of some dear friends to help me pack and move the tremendous amount of “stuff”… to various places. Since her original home was in a gated community, a garage sale had been out of the question.

By this time, my paycheck covered my critical home, utility, insurance expense and credit card payments, but not much more. I rarely purchased groceries anymore, ate out all the time, grabbed coffee and breakfast from the Starbucks next door from where I worked and used my credit cards to purchase my meals and any other daily expenditures. I was in survival mode, confident there would be a light at the end of the tunnel once my Mom was settled in her new home. I put my life on the back burner and trudged on.

It would be five months later, after many falls, hallucinatory events, and the realization that she could no longer function without full-time care, that I found it necessary to sell the newly purchased small home and place my Mom in a Memory Care facility.

It was also at that point that I had to finally face the toll this had taken on my own well-being and the effects of poor planning- my parents, as well as my own.

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