Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Challenging Choice

    "To the question whether I am a pessimist or an optimist I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic. "              
~ Albert Schweitzer

I recently came across an expression that has taken up occupancy in the corners of my thoughts, popping up at the oddest moments.  "Realistic optimism"*, the term for at attitude that can support us as we face the challenges of aging in the midst of a "forever young" movement**, initially seemed an oxymoron.  Whenever I watch the news these days - a plethora of chaos and cruelty, fear and hatred - I have to fight off a sense of despair that can threaten to shroud the day in a dark consuming cloud.  When I receive a call saying another friend or family member is struggling with loss or incipient loss, it's hard to stay optimistic.  When I struggle to call forth a word or name that I know I know, I experience a moment of anxiety.

But then, an e-mail arrives with a photo of my nephew's beautiful children, or a friend's daughter, a lovely young bride.  Or I hear from someone I don't recognize telling me how the course he took from me years ago influenced him to be a better husband and father.  Or, surprise, surprise, a local TV station shares a story of compassion or generosity.  Or - best of all, I look at this week's calendar and see three dates with my husband and realize once again that we have found our way into a deeper, gentler friendship than I would ever have expected.  We have learned how to discuss our vastly different political views (well, much of the time); we laugh at the same jokes; we like the same people; we enjoy The Voice together - he a Country Western fan, me an Opera fan.   Go figure?!

Realistic optimism - accepting the reality that the world seems, no, is more dangerous, that bad things happen to good people, that we and those we love will decline and die.  Yet,  AT THE SAME TIME, remembering there are reasons to be optimistic. There are moments of unbelievable beauty and unexpected gestures of kindness and decency from strangers.  There are the people we love who return our love many times over.  Old friends who forgive our forgetfulness.  New friends who open their hearts and homes to us.  Another opportunity to learn, another possibility to contribute.  AT THE SAME TIME.

So, when John and I drive to meet friends on Thanksgiving Day for a splendid buffet that eliminates the need to cook, and we take turns sharing gratitudes from the past year as has become our tradition, high on my list will be discovering this concept of realistic optimism.  Not always easy to maintain, but always, always a blessing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* realistic optimism - from The Wonder of Aging by Michael Gurian
**forever young society - from Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Simplify, Simplify

Our life is frittered away by detail.  Simplify, simplify.
~ Henry David Thoreau

My efforts to simplify started four years ago (although I didn't recognize it as such at the time) when we decided to move to St. George where we owned a second home.  When we sold our Vegas home, we had just 27 days to move. In the midst of the recession, and deluged with foreclosures, the Vegas consignment stores had a glut of belongings.  So we moved a houseful of furniture to a house full of furniture.  There were boxes and crates, chairs and lamps, electronic devices stacked in the garage, and on the patio and courtyard.  Luckily, St. George is a low crime community, so nothing was stolen - I think.

After more than 25 years of marriage and a business run from our home, the accumulation of "stuff" was overwhelming and the decisions required to diminish it equally so, but necessity IS the mother of invention. Boxes and bags of books went to the library; we placed furniture and accessories in several consignment stores; Catholic Charities volunteers came to know John by name as we sent crates of redundancies for donation. Gradually, the patio and courtyard cleared and I could park my car in the garage.  We had successfully downsized.

What followed was months of organizing what was left.  Organizing and reorganizing, labeling and relabeling until I finally realized that merely organizing the stuff was like the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Better organized, yes, but still too much stuff - so this January I began a campaign of donating or gifting three objects, tossing three objects, and reusing or storing three objects every day. I waged war on the stuff  for six months!  

So recently, when my sister commented that although we have a lot of stuff, our home doesn't look cluttered, (and meant it as a compliment), I was initially disheartened.  All that work, all those months of donating and consigning and tossing.  All the organizing and labeling.  What had I missed?  

Looking back on my efforts, I realize that I had used the criteria of orderly, functional, and creative as I made my decisions. But not simple.  Why not simple? Why now?  And why has it become so easy to let go of things I thought so important until now?

Over these past weeks, I have renewed my campaign.  Another donation to Catholic Charities.  Another to the library.  A box to the food pantry.  I don't have satisfactory answers to my questions yet, but this much I know:
  • The more I let go of, the easier it gets.
  • The fewer choices, the easier to choose.
  • As I simplify space and objects, I'm instinctively simplifying routines and activities as well.
  • Less IS more - more space, more time, more freedom, more peace of mind, more satisfaction.
  • And less is less as well - less to clean, less to maintain, less to insure, less to worry about, less to remember.
  • For me, simplifying means making life simpleR, not necessarily simple. (I'll never be a minimalist!)
  • To let go of possessions, I've learned to let go of the meaning attached to them.
  • Possessions have no intrinsic value in themselves.
  • People simplify their lives for different reasons - some political, some ethical or spiritual, some economics, some purely out of immediate necessity.  I started out of necessity but am now thinking about simplifying more philosophically.
  • Although there are movements that foster simpler life styles (the tiny house movement, Voluntary Simplicity, minimalism, etc.) and that are attracting younger folks, I suspect conscious aging fosters simplifying for different reasons.
  • Holding this as a process rather than a project reduces stress and encourages creative problem solving.
  • Some days it's even fun.