Minimalist Packing

Earlier this month, I went to Utah with my kids. It was our first trip back to Utah since we moved away more than six years ago, and it was my first trip by airplane on my own with my kids. Without my spouse to lug things, I decided it was time to practice minimalist packing.

Here’s what I packed (including what I wore on the airplane):

One dress, one hooded sweatshirt, one pair linen pants, one sun shirt, one skirt, one tank top, two t-shirts.

Not pictured: undergarments, socks, one set of pajamas, footwear (one pair walking shoes, one pair sandals), and one swimsuit.

Also not pictured: the shorts I forgot to pack.

I realized I’d left the shorts in Massachusetts almost as soon as we stepped through the door of our rental apartment at crazy o’clock PM after enduring a lightning strike to our airplane and a ridiculously long wait at the rental car counter with my daughter at my elbow saying, “Mommy, I think I might throw up.” There was only one couple in front of us at the counter, but they appeared to have never rented a car before. (“Should we get the extra insurance coverage, Bill?” “I don’t know, Edna. What do you think?” “Well, I’m not sure. We should have him explain the options again.” Me: “NO, you don’t want the extra coverage! It’s a racket! Just take the keys and get out so I can get my car and get outside before my kid tosses her cookies!”)

At any rate, I was in a bit of a state by the time I realized that I had no shorts. I texted my spouse in a panic, and he reminded me that if I really needed a pair, I could probably find a store in Salt Lake City that sells shorts.

But it turned out I didn’t need the shorts. Nor did I need the dress, the swimsuit, or the sandals. I walked all over Salt Lake City and even hiked in Little Cottonwood Canyon in my skirt, which was a first for me and something I would never, ever do in New England because ticks. But in Utah, it was fabulous! Highly recommended.

We did laundry once in the middle of our week-long trip, which, with the 97-degree heat, probably made it less unpleasant for our friends to hug us during the second half of the trip. Without a washer in our rental, things might have been a little more complicated, but as it was my exercise in minimalist packing was a complete success.

Maybe next time I can even get by without checking a bag.


Minimalist Blues

Inspired by the hip, minimal furnishings in the West Coast rental in which we stayed last week, I’ve decided to do some deep decluttering at my East Coast home.

Today, I got through one half of a closet full of unfinished crafts.

Before decluttering, but after I took all of the crafts out of the closet.

I still haven’t figured out what to do with our hard-drive from 2008 or data backup CD-ROMs going back to 2003, but at least we made room for the microscope and the sheet music.


We might have a better shot at “hip” and “minimal” if we just buy the rental house. Or maybe I can just share pictures of that house and pretend it’s mine.

Your Walkable Neighborhood

When I was a kid in military housing in California I could walk to school, a movie theater, a fast-food place, the commissary and the exchange (basically a grocery store and a department store), an ice cream place, a pool, and multiple playgrounds. In these places there were sidewalks, paths, or roads with large shoulders on which we could walk to reach our destinations in relative safety without taking the car. Once we moved away from California, this changed, and I spent the next 14 years of my life in places where walking not only wasn’t done, it wasn’t safe to do.

For our first decade together, my spouse and I lived in largely not-safe-to-walk areas. Then we moved out West and spent a wonderful  eight-plus years living in neighborhoods where we could walk safely and with relative ease to basic locations: grocery stores, cafes, playgrounds, libraries, farmers markets. I fear those years gave us a taste of something we’re going to struggle to find again.

CIMG8394In our current place of residence, we’re back to unsafe walking, and it’s really kind of bugging us. We are about a mile from a strip mall (grocery store, hair cutting place, Starbucks, an office supply store, a gym), two and a half miles from the downtown of our town, and four-and-a-half miles from our church. But to get to any of these places, we have to traverse along narrow sidewalk-less roads that we share with cars driving rather fast and not at all expecting to see a woman in a ridiculous sun hat pushing a stroller with a seven-year-old skipping along behind her.

What we’re wondering is, is how we’re living now the norm? Do most people live in places where they can safely walk to get a gallon of milk or a cup of coffee, or do most people live like we do now, close enough to walk but afraid to do so?

I want to hear from you. Do you live in a place where you could safely walk to get food? If not, does this bother you?

Please let me know in the comments. If you’re so inclined, you could figure out your neighborhood’s Walk Score and share that, too. Our current home scores 35/100. In California, it was 74, and in Utah it was 62-64. Brisbane (in Australia) gets a Walk Score of 100. (No wonder Tucker and Victoria love it so much!)

Book Review: Living More with Less by Doris Janzen Longacre

Living More with Less
Living More with Less by Doris Janzen Longacre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me a long time to read this book. There is a lot to chew on in its pages, and a lot to challenge me towards action within my home and my self, within my community, and within the world at large. I plan to write a more reflective review hopefully in the next day or so, but for now, I just want to note a few things that were particularly interesting to me about this book. Read More

Excuses, Excuses

Breakfast at my house (on a weekday when Daddy’s already off to work):

Green Smoothie






“What is it, Sweetie?”


“What, Sweetie?”


“What do you need, Honey?”


“Can I get you something?”


“Oh, for the love of Mike, what do you want?”

Lunch at my house:

My 6.5-year-old to her 2.5-year-old brother: “You’re a geologist!”


“You’re an oceanographer!”


“You’re a geophysicist!”


Me: “Honey, please stop calling your brother things. He thinks you’re insulting him.”

Her: “What does ‘insulting’ mean?”

Dinner at my house:

Dinner (or rather, what I want for dinner after surviving breakfast and lunch and if I can't have a book and a closed door, which is what I REALLY want)

The typical scenario in which no one needs anything until the moment my rear end touches the seat of my chair. I alternate between being the dutiful, long-suffering mother getting the milk/straw/yellow cup/asparagus that’s been requested and acting like my maternal grandfather. Whenever all of his eight children, their spouses, and various progeny were visiting, my grandpa ate hunched over his food possessively, both elbows on the table, watching the goings-on from the corner of his eye.

In other words, I’ve been working on a post about mindfulness and parenting (in response to a comment on my post “Simply Living: My Voluntary Simplicity Project“), and I find that I’ve not been able to focus long enough to even write it. But I thought you might enjoy this slice of my life (and there’s much more where that came from) while I try to get my frazzled brain around this mindfulness thing.

I’m cautiously optimistic.

Living Our Values as Parents (or By Choosing Not to Be Parents)

Years ago, long before I became a mother, I was riding in my boss’s car along with several other co-workers on our way to an off-site department lunch.

“So, Cheryl, do you have any children?” one of my co-workers asked my boss.

“No,” replied my boss. “Children were never on my to-do list.”

I’ve always found that reply amusing, but it’s only been recently that I really understood that what she was saying was that she was prioritizing her career as a scientist over a potential role as a mother. This doesn’t mean that she couldn’t see value in a mother’s role, it just wasn’t her value for her life.

This, to me, is the essence of voluntary simplicity: Looking honestly at our values and aligning our lives with them, even if this means our lives don’t look like the brochure. This is a simple thing to say but it can be difficult to implement because often saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” or at least “not now” to a slew of others.

Periodically I ask my husband if he’s happy with the amount of time he spends with our kids.

His answer is always yes.

“I like spending time with them, but I also like the work that I do,” he explains.

As a scientist engaged in biological research, he’s only recently been in a “job” job. After his bachelor’s degree, he went to more than ten years of school and postdoctoral training. He didn’t get his first post-post-doc job until he was solidly in his 30’s. He’s devoted much of his life and his time to his career. It’s something he values and that he finds enriching. Through science, he believes he can make his mark on the world and do the most good he can for humanity.

He values his children and his role as a father. He is very engaged in our children’s lives, devoting essentially every hour he’s home in the evenings and on the weekends to being present with them. He arranges his schedule at work so he gets in to lab before the kids wake up in the morning and comes home in time for dinner between 5:00 and 5:30 so he can see them and play with them and read to them before they go to bed.

He wants to make a mark on the world through his role as a father as well as through his role as a scientist.

On the other hand, I don’t have a career calling, at least not that I’ve discovered. I enjoy writing, and I can see how I could make a mark on the world through my writing. But being a parent is the primary way that I believe I can make my mark on the world. Parenting feeds and, I think, enhances my writing, so the two are intertwined, but I prioritize my parenting over my writing. As a result, I spend the majority of my time with my children and write in the evenings and on weekends.

My husband and I have arranged our lives around these values. The way this looks in our lives is that my primary occupation is at home with our children and his primary occupation is at lab with his scientific career. We’ve done this even during the lean postdoc days in the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area where we lived simply but just barely voluntarily. Even then, we didn’t feel like we were sacrificing because we were living our values.

Our roles are synergistic in a way that reflects and supports the priority we place on our values. My husband’s salary as a scientist is, for now, the sole source of income for our family. My caring for our children and teaching them at home allows him to work at a career he loves and bring home the money that supports our family’s needs. When he’s home and spends time with our children, he supports my writing.

When we decide to live by our values, we have to admit that we’re prioritizing many important things, which can be a difficult process. Our family is arranged in one of the couple of ways that are deemed acceptable by our culture, which I think makes it a little easier. The way my husband and I articulate our values vis-à-vis children and career is pretty darned traditional and therefore (besides the homeschooling) accepted by our culture, but if our values were switched, I think we’d end up with a little more difficulty.

Even if it accurately reflected my family’s values, it would be less acceptable for me as a woman to say, “You know, I love my kids and value my role as a mother, but I see my career as the way I’ll make my mark on the world. I’m comfortable leaving the daytime child-rearing to others and having my time with the children after work and on weekends.”

The answer a woman must give to be a “good mother,” the only acceptable answer, is that she’s torn up inside about leaving her children, but that she has to work to bring in more money. Even women whose spouses have very high-paying jobs express this “I need to work for the money” when they choose to continue their careers after birthing their children.

Even though my husband and tons of other men state clearly their priorities for career over child-rearing and it’s seen as normal and even admirable, if a mother makes a statement like this, she’s callous or unmotherly. I don’t know why this is.

Whatever the reason, any deviation from the cultural norm is viewed with suspicion. If he valued being with our children over having a career (and acted upon that value), my husband would be looked at with raised eyebrows and given less societal support than stay-at-home moms get (and that’s precious little to start with).

And if both my husband and I had careers that were central to our lives and our fulfillment and we chose not to have children, woe betide us for being so selfish as to recognize and live by our values. It would be more culturally acceptable if we had children anyway and then outsourced their upbringing, complaining all the while that it sucks but we both need to work to support the financial needs of our family and sacrifice time with our children to do it.

I don’t get why this is. Don’t all children deserve to be raised by people who value child-rearing over essentially everything else in their lives and who don’t feel acutely in every moment that they’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else?

Here’s the thing: when we live in line with our values, we don’t feel it as a sacrifice. We might feel pressure from family, friends, and society at large to make different choices, we might look wistfully into an imagined alternate future, but we’ll ultimately know that we’ve made the right choice based on our values.

A sense of sacrifice is a sure sign we’re not living our values.

I spend my days with my kids, and I don’t feel that I’ve sacrificed my career because I’m living my values. My husband works full-time outside the home and doesn’t feel that he’s sacrificed time with his kids because he’s living his values. Even though we each complain on the bad days, the way we’ve arranged things works for our family because it’s in line with our values. A feeling of sacrifice would signify that we’re not living in line with our values.

We don’t feel like we’re sacrificing. We feel like we’re simply living.

Possession Identity

“Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw. We feel and act about certain things that are ours very much as we feel and act about ourselves.”

 William James

This is today’s Moment of Happiness from Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

I remember times in my life when my sense of identity was very much tied up with objects.

My first car was a 1983 Volvo 240DL wagon. My parents had bought it new when I was 6 years old and I remembered how huge the backseat had seemed and how smooth the vinyl upholstery was under my legs. I learned to drive on that car (and I taught my husband how to drive stick on it) and it just kind of became mine during my sophomore year of college. That car was blue, and she was boxy. She handled like crap in the snow (rear-wheel drive), and I could fit an entire full-size mattress in the trunk if I put the back seat down. Two friends and I slept in the back when we went to Halloween at Ohio University one year because we were afraid we’d be puked on if we slept in the house where we were staying.  When I sold that car, I cried.

In college, there was a professor who was trying to quit smoking by only buying cigarettes one at a time for a quarter each from the smokers clustered outside the academic buildings before and after classes. One day, I was smoking with a couple of other people before Brit Lit when this professor came out of the building, surveying the scene.

“Ah!” he said when he saw me. “A Camel smoker!”

I traded him a smoke for a quarter and thought to myself, “A Camel smoker…yes, that’s what I am.”

I’ve not smoked in 15 years and it’s been nearly 10 years since I said farewell to that Volvo. I think I’ve loosened my attachment to things in the intervening years, but when I give up clothes or when I consider buying a different car (I’m still driving the car that replaced the Volvo, by the way), I still think, “Who am I if I don’t wear this item, if I don’t drive this car?”

In a slight shift from that, as a mother, I realize I’ve begun to base my identity on my relationship with my children. While one could argue that defining oneself by one’s relationships to living people is perhaps a little healthier than defining oneself by the brand of cigarettes one smokes (for more reasons than one), it still doesn’t take into account who I am on my own (or, for that matter, who my children are separate from me).

Who are we on our own, unattached to people or things? Is this why we cling so tenaciously to possessions and people and social media? Are we afraid of who we’ll meet when we’re all alone in the quiet? Is that what I’m afraid of?

My Bold Plan for 2012

Like many, I feel the urge to make resolutions at the start of the new year, but I don’t like resolutions because I never keep them. Therefore, I’m making a Bold Plan instead. A Bold Plan sounds more important, anyway.

The core of the plan is completing an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program on my own. By “on my own,” I mean that I’m fifteen minutes away from the founding clinic of the MBSR program but I’m choosing to do the program as outlined in the book Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn rather than sign up for the classes that begin late January.

I began taking the MBSR classes in Salt Lake City, but we moved halfway through the 8-week program. The jury was still out for me about whether it was helping or not, but I’d like to give it a try again, especially since my vow to go to bed at 9:30 lasted only three nights.

What this means is that I’ve decided to wake up at 4:30 am each day. My husband gets up at that time, and with him on-call for the toddler, this should (should) give me at least one hour during which I can practice the meditation and yoga techniques suggested in the program. At the very least, I think it’s more likely to work than trying to meditate during the dinner-and-bedtime cavalcade in the evening. By the time I’d have a chance to meditate, I would just pass out. Yes, I will likely lose consciousness when I attempt it at 4:30am, too, but I’m hopeful that, in time, I’ll be able to get to bed earlier, get a greater amount of more productive sleep, and be awake and alert at 4:30am.

I am not at all sure that this will work, but I’m going to give it a try.

Along with the waking up at 4:30 plan, I’m instituting a few more guidelines to help me, maybe, minimize the distractions that keep me up until all hours every night.

At a basic level, this is a simplification plan, although I know that life will become more complicated as I implement the plan. I’m prepared for this.

I think.

It’s like when you pull a whole bunch of stuff out of a closet to de-clutter it: It looks much worse before it looks better. I’m hopeful this is the way this Bold Plan will work (although I’d be totally happy if it never looked messy at all and I just slid easily into a mindfulness-induced state of blissful calm).

Here’s the detailed plan:

1. Get up at 4:30 each morning for 8 weeks to meditate and/or practice yoga for an hour. With any luck, after eight weeks of this, I will have a firmly established meditation practice that I will be able to continue indefinitely.

2. Reduce internet use to one hour in the evenings on weekdays (while I’m nursing the toddler to sleep).

3. Plan to blog only once per week. I may well find time to blog during that one hour of daily internet use, but I won’t be planning on that. I’ll journal during the week, though, so it’s possible that, come the weekend, I’ll just go on a blogging spree and post enough to cover the prior week.

4. Read just one book at a time. This to me means one “pleasure” book at a time. I’m planning to read Full Catastrophe Living as I move through the program, and I want to keep working on the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really Are, because I think that with a daily meditation practice, the insights from that book might yield some pretty powerful fruits, but I’ll only read one other book besides those. I find I need fiction to maintain balance.

I am not making “go to bed earlier” part of the plan. I resist a bedtime so much that I fear putting it as a goal will just make me feel contrary and will decrease the likelihood that I’ll go to bed earlier. Instead, Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends coming up with three goals for the 8-week program, which you then set aside and actively not work towards during the program.

My three goals for the program:

1. Reduced anxiety levels (including decreased anxiety around being yelled at/tailgated/flipped the bird while driving in New England and decreased anxiety in social situations and commenting on blogs).

2. More effective sleep. Whether this means more sleep or just better sleep, I don’t really care as long as I feel better rested.

3. Responding in anger less often. I almost immediately translate fear, discomfort, sadness, lack of control, and being overwhelmed into anger. I’m hoping to let each of these things be what they are rather than jumping to the fight-or-flight response.

So, those are my goals, which I will now forget about for eight weeks.

Oh, did I mention that the mindfulness program is based in Buddhist teachings? Yes, well, that’s the reason for the indirect and paradoxical approach to achieving goals. I’m cool with it, though. I’m not great with keeping to my goals, so maybe I can trick myself into accidentally working towards them.

I’m beginning this program on January 1st, although not at 4:30 am since my husband doesn’t have to work that day.

So, there’s the Bold Plan. Let’s see how it goes.

Take That, Marketers!

Praying mantis
Image by Shiva Shankar (via Wikipedia).

My husband took our 6.5-year-old daughter to her first in-the-theater movie yesterday. Well, first not counting the 3D bugs film she saw once in an IMAX theater and spent the whole time saying loudly, “What’s that? Oh, no! What’s that? Does it eat people?” while attempting to ward off with her hands the praying mantis that was jumping at her from the screen. (We solved the problem by having her watch without the 3D glasses.)

At any rate, this was the first time she had the opportunity to sit through twenty minutes of commercials before the feature began. As a child who doesn’t watch television except what’s on DVDs and Netflix, she needed some explanation from my husband about what these miniature shows were. My husband explained that people make them to convince people to buy things.

“What are they trying to sell here?” he asked.

“A car,” our daughter answered. (When she’s a little older, we’ll explain that they’re not actually selling the car, they’re selling a lifestyle and a set of emotions, but for now, this is a decent lesson in being an aware consumer.)

“Does this ad make you want to buy a new car?”

“No, because we already have a car.”

When the next ad came up, they had a similar exchange.

“They’re selling a camera,” she said.

“Does it make you want to buy a new camera?” he asked.

“No, because we already have a camera.”

Then came another ad.

“What are they selling in this one?” my husband asked.

Our daughter thought about it for a moment.

“I don’t know, but it’s in that bottle.”

It was an ad for Coca-cola.

SCORE! A victory over consumerism without even moving to the country and living off the grid! (All we had to do was get rid of pay TV, homeschool, and avoid shopping malls and mainstream eating establishments and grocery stores.)

Simplicity Parenting: The Book Review

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids
Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Lisa M. Ross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this book for both the practical suggestions (backed by both formal research and informal observation) and for its tone.

Since I began reading this book, I’ve made some concrete changes in our home environment, including reducing the number of toys and books my children have easy access to (I put many into a “library” in our basement until I can work up the courage to donate/sell/throw away), reducing the number of scheduled activities I have for my children, and implementing some basic daily routines, most notably the “flute-practice-after-breakfast” routine.

There have been some small but noticeable changes in the way my children go about their days in the weeks since I’ve made these changes. We’ve had fewer arguments about flute practice, and my daughter (age 6.5) has been practicing more regularly and with more joy. She’s even begun initiating flute practice on her own without my even prompting her!

My children, especially my 2yo son, are playing imaginatively with everyday objects more than they were before, making an empty toy bin into a car for the stuffed toys and things like that.

And my daughter has lightened up about the order in which we use the colored plastic cups and flatware. She used to scream at me and my husband if we forgot and gave her a blue cup before the green cup. The order was green, light blue, dark blue, yellow, orange, pink, pink, and woe betide the parent who tried to go out of order. There were no discussions about the cups, and we made no changes directly related to the cups, she just stopped getting angry with us about them. Which has been quite a relief.

Of course, my son has also decided that the toy room is much too neat, so he goes in and up-ends three or four toy bins at a time into the middle of the room. That’s not so cool, but at least it doesn’t take long to pick everything up.

I was already in the habit of simplifying our home, but this book really helped give me the confidence to cut deeper, and to remove toys and books without my children’s input about which we kept and which we got rid of. The books were a real change for me, though. I knew the kids (and I) were somewhat overwhelmed by the number of books on their shelves, but I felt like I just couldn’t get rid of any of them. Books are unequivocally good, right? But once I halved the number of books, they’ve been much more engaged with the ones they have left. And they don’t even seem to notice that any are missing.

One area that I’m going to try to work on a little bit more is verbal clutter. From the book:

“In our era of spin and counterspin, when words are parsed and split, where news stands beside opinion and embraces blogs, meaning is often drowned out. Just as it’s hard to cherish a toy lost in the middle of a mountain of play things, when we say less, our words mean more.”

Although I fear that if I really take that to heart, I might blog a lot less.

The tone of the book was the real refreshing piece, though. Payne clearly delights in childhood and the whimsy of children. His anecdotes and suggestions are peppered with images of children interacting with each other and with adults and the funny and adorable things they do and say. I felt a sense of peace and well-being reading such a sunny view of childhood. Not that Payne isn’t realistic about the struggles of parenting and children’s sometimes not-so-desirable actions, he just doesn’t focus on them. He treats children as human beings to be loved and guided rather than creatures to be trained and manipulated, and “misbehavior” as a sign that something in the child’s environment might do with some changing.

Payne talks about how one of the biggest differences between parenting now and parenting a generation ago is how much data about our children we have available and how many “experts” we have to consult to make sure we’re doing this really big job right. But in this, too, he offers reassurance.

“For all of the measures we now have at our fingertips, by and large children defy them by being both more ‘normal’ and more extraordinary than any scientific measure, or means of quantifying them.”

This rings true to me, and it promotes the freedom we as parents have to love our kids and to let go of worrying that we’re not giving them an “ideal” childhood, whatever that might be.

The only thing that I thought was a little lacking was that Payne is very much focused on two-working-parent homes. As a stay-at-home mom who homeschools, I would have kind of liked a little bit of information directed towards me or that at least reflected my demographic. However, I know I’m in a pretty tiny minority, so I don’t hold it against the author for not including me and my friends. His suggestions are significant and applicable even to those of us who do not see our specific situations in his case studies.

View all my reviews