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The Purge (Part One): The Clothes Closet

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When I was five, we took our annual Colorado vacation in the hot month of July, and my mother left my packed suitcase with all my vacation clothes on her bed. She realized this about ten minutes on this side of Amarillo, six hours into the trip, and started sobbing as we pulled into the J.C. Penney parking lot. She and I hurried through the children’s section of the store where she chose three mix and match outfits from the clearance rack for our two weeks in Estes Park. Dad says she continued to sob in between naps all the way to Colorado.

I remember none of this, but the story is lore, and the photos of me during our vacation do look repetitive: sailor suit, white t-shirt/green shorts, blue romper. We had a very good vacation, and my rotation of three outfits for two weeks was actually not a big deal.  When we returned home my mother added the three new outfits to my closet full of clothes.

Which brings me to the current closet in the house we now live in. It’s a walk-in, not oversized, but adequate. My portion of it has built-in drawers and two rods the length of the wall where my clothes hang, color-coordinated and divided into occasions and seasons. In eight weeks, we will be moving to the Rosedale house, which doesn’t have a walk-in closet. The owner, who did some of the initial remodel, took an existing wall and added some built-ins where a few clothes can hang, and a few narrow drawers for things that don’t hang. The first (and only) time we looked at the house, I opened the reach-in closet door and saw the two short clothing rods and said, I can do this. But now, my recollection is that I walked through the entire house chanting that same sentence like a mantra, with glazed eyes and a dreamy smile.

Because we will now have to adjust our wardrobes to the reach-in closet, two weeks ago I designated a Closet Purge Day. About two-thirds of my clothes, shoes, and drawer items were destined to go, which is an exercise I’ve been wanting to do for about a year. Back when we had more money and I had more time, I purchased clothes and shoes from places where they sold them cheap. This seems like a paradox, but if you have more money, you might be more likely to treat clothing as disposable without thinking about how long it will last or whether you really need it. That’s me. The lure of shopping at a place where I could pick up mouthwash, a birthday card, raspberries and a marked down sweater was irresistible. It didn’t matter whether I needed the sweater. It was cheap and oh, so convenient. Hence, the walk-in closet with far too many clothes that I rarely wore.

The first pass at purging the closet was easy, because I had enough clothes that I knew were on the “outta here” list. The next purge, a few days later forced me to be honest with myself. Do you really love it and do you use it, or do you just want to keep it because you might need it someday? This is the question that determines the criteria for everything that is is being evaluated during The Purge, not just clothes. And it’s a question that forces me into other questions about why I can’t let go of stuff. Questions about why I keep buying things I don’t need, and why doing it makes me feel happier for a few minutes. It’s an uncomfortable place to go, but on Closet Purge Day, as I kept evaluating my clothes, shoes, and accessories, I realized that the purging got easier as the closet got emptier. I felt lighter and less burdened. It was a surprising feeling, so I planned another closet purge day for the next week.

I also started to look seriously at the Capsule method of building a wardrobe, which is whittling your wardrobe down to 33 items per season – shoes, accessories and jewelry included (workout clothes and sleepwear not included). Our closet wall at the new house is about right for this amount, so I’m giving it a go. This means no more cheap clothes, because fewer items of clothing means they have to withstand more wear. So when my clothes have to be replaced, I’m looking for better alternatives even if they are pricier. In the long run, it’s more cost effective. The other night Kyle noticed a hole in the seam of my shirt, which is an item of clothing that survived two purges. I bought it last summer at Target and have worn it only a handful of times (because I have so many other clothes to choose from).

Today is the third time I will have purged my closet, and the goal is to get my fall wardrobe to the requisite 33 items (which, by the way will not include jewelry. Please ask me about this). I’m far from a legalist and don’t like to participate in gimmicky goals, but I love a worthy and necessary challenge. And the closet in the Rosedale house is just the kick in the seat I need to do the necessary thing.

Some days this purging thing feels like my mother sitting in the front seat at the start of the journey, crying over what will be left behind and worrying that I’ve let go of something I might need someday. What if I let it all go and realize I’m unhappy without it? Of course, I know this isn’t the way it will work. My five-year-old self made it through those two weeks in Colorado with three outfits and my mother stopped crying about the clothes the minute we hit the Rocky Mountains. I didn’t need the clothes we left behind to enjoy the journey, and I don’t need them now. Most of them are already gone from my closet, and I don’t even miss them. So if my wardrobe starts to look repetitive, congratulate me. Or at least remember the size of our reach-in Rosedale closet.

 

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What Happened Last Friday

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We bought a house last Friday. Literally. We signed our names on eight pages of paperwork, confirmed the money wire, hugged the realtor, and then I went back to work.

It’s a great house, or at least everyone tells me that it is. Built in 1928, it’s a foursquare craftsman with a wraparound porch on a corner lot. Kyle and I had been attending an open house in an adjoining neighborhood and met a realtor who told us about the house on the corner. It was “coming soon” and she encouraged us to set up a private showing so we could be ready when it hit the market. She gave us the details as people were milling all around us. As an aside, I had no idea that it’s now a thing to hold an open house where food, wine and beer are included. Because these two neighborhoods are near downtown and filled with old homes that aren’t yet price-inflated, houses go fast and even pending homes are held open. We thought we had crashed a party, but we joined in the festivities and were social with people we didn’t know, including the realtor.

“You should just drive by,” she said after telling us all the enticing details about the property, and being honest to also inform us that it needed work. So we left the open house/party, drove by, and exactly one week later, less than 24 hours after it listed, the sellers accepted our offer over several others to purchase the house. We were giddy and celebrated that night, congratulating ourselves and talking about all the amazing transformations that would be made to the craftsman on the corner. Unfortunately, the next day I woke up with a panicky morning-after syndrome and actually said aloud, “What have we done?” And I said it again, multiple times, all day. The house is half the size of our current home, it was built in 1928 and needs serious cosmetic work, and it’s on the opposite side of town from where we have lived for 20 years. But it was a great deal and should be an even better investment, which at times, tempers my panic.

There is a backstory here that’s important. Until about five years ago, Kyle and I were people on a trajectory of climbing income, bigger house, more stuff. Then we both decided to dive into non-profit work, which has the unfortunate reputation of being the kind of work which shouldn’t pay too decent of a salary. And it doesn’t – if any. Yet we remained in the same house, despite the fact that it is too big, too expensive, and doesn’t match our financial reality anymore. It was around Christmas of last year that we began to wonder what it might look like if we actually changed our lifestyle and scaled things back. We started to throw around quite a few “what if” questions that seemed ridiculous and scary. And then, somewhere along the way, they started to make a little bit of sense. And then, finally, they became the only thing that made sense.

From the first night we drove by the house to the closing last Friday, a short three weeks passed. I’m starting to realize that some things are best done with ferocity of speed, lest your cold feet hold you back. It still makes sense, but if it hadn’t happened so quickly it’s possible I would have made a list of reasons why we shouldn’t – couldn’t – leave our beautiful home and the thousand memories it holds. So it’s a done deal. We have a fixer-upper house (I do not watch Netflix shows with similar names, by the way) and we will move before Christmas. The thought of this is huge for me. I’m both a static and restless person. I like the comfort of the familiar, but fear boredom. I don’t spend a lot of time wondering if this is a personality flaw, but instead have embraced the fact that my life is filled with a cycle of new beginnings that scare the crap out of me. This has the effect of making not-so-dramatic new beginnings feel like the highest level of drama. Which is why God gave me Kyle, who always settles the drama.

Writing also settles it. My blog has been lonely anyway, so I think it’s a good time to reunite with it and share the journey. I know almost nothing about remodeling and living in an old home, simplifying my life by purging possessions, living with less, and all other things related to the road we are about to travel. But I’m excited for the adventure, admittedly with a touch of fear and trepidation, and ready to chronicle this one good story as it unfolds.

Make Something Beautiful

But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.

― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Back in the 1970s, there was a crafting craze called “foiling.” It caught on mostly with women like my mother who stayed at home to clean, cook, take care of children, and volunteer at church and in the community. But still, these women had time on their hands and some of them began to foil. My mother had a talent for sewing, but she was quickly caught up in the art of foiling. Things around our house were suddenly covered in foil: book covers, picture frames, and finally, a lamp base. This was not pretty art. In order to protect the foil from tearing, a sealant was applied, which turned the creases in the foil to a rusty brown color. No one would look at my mother’s magnum opus of foil art – her lamp base – and sigh with pleasure at its beauty. The lamp remained with us for decades, centered on the nightstand in the guest bedroom as if on display. I watched the brown creases deepen in color until the shade became something more like trash to be thrown out. I don’t know why my mother chose foil art as an additional way to express her creativity. It was basically a craft of covering things: cover the item with foil and then cover the foil with goop. Was this art? Craft? The answer is probably subjective, but I’m not interested in what to call the piece. I’m more interested in the creator, and what took place within her during the time she was creating.

For most of my life, I’ve been a writer. And for most of my life I would have cringed to type those words The little voice inside me would have whispered back, You know that’s not true. You’re not a real writer. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a freelance editor, a magazine editor, started and maintained a blog, written a few articles that were published and ghostwritten two books. But still, it would have felt like I was skirting the truth a bit to proclaim myself “a writer.” I needed credentials, a mountain of published works, a platform, a big following, possibly an agent. Those were the real writers. They were the artists.

I muddled along with that belief, still blogging and finally finishing a manuscript after several years, but I put it in a folder on my desktop and left it alone. Suddenly, my writing changed course. I started a non-profit on a shoestring, which meant that for several years I couldn’t afford to hire a marketing director or any staff that might help me communicate to the masses. Immediately I began doing the work of convincing potential donors that ours was an organization worth investing in and that their money would be used to do good for vulnerable, under-resourced people. I learned a different way to write, but still, I wrote. And still, I refused to think of myself as a writer.

And then, on one of our trips to visit the people we work with in Ghana, something happened that began an evolution in the the way I think about creativity and the act of creating. Our organization works with twelve students who have been orphaned and live with relatives. These are the most vulnerable people in the villages where we work. They are children, which immediately puts them in the margins, and they have been thrust into the homes of relatives who didn’t ask for the responsibility of raising them, but took them in because of cultural obligation. They are the lowest in the familial hierarchy – often kept from attending school and given the last and least of everything in the family. Our staff in Ghana provides an after-school program where the students do crafts, receive one-on-one mentoring, tutoring, and encouragement. Our team hosted the students at the guest house where we were staying and provided an art session for them so they could experience finger-painting for the first time. Each student created a piece of art and signed their name to it, and we carried the pieces to the veranda to dry. Blank, white paper had transformed into splashes of vibrant color that was both abstract with a few recognizable elements: a flag in one corner, a heart in the middle, and always a thickly scrawled name at the bottom. I stood looking at the the pieces scattered across the table and cement floor. I envisioned framing the pieces, or mounting them on canvas and how they might look adorning the walls of the Ghana office or the homes of the students. I could hear the children inside the house, clamoring for another piece of paper and more paint on the table. And for another hour, they continued to create. They proudly held up each finished piece, staring at their own creation. They were artists. It didn’t matter that these pieces would never hang in a gallery or be purchased by art collectors. The children had made something from nothing and they proclaimed their creations to be very good.

As I think back to the works of art created by the children in the village that day, I am certain this matters. We’ve spent enough time with these twelve children in their schools, homes, and walking the dusty streets of their villages to recognize when they are experiencing something that makes them come alive. It doesn’t happen very often, but it did that day and we got to see it happen. We were witnessing a natural act of creativity by children who were hardwired, but not necessarily encouraged, to create.

Here is a thought: maybe we are all artists, and because we were created by an artist who has placed creativity DNA is us, we are unfulfilled if we do not continue the act of creation and then offer it out into the world. This sounds easy to dismiss, but maybe we should suspend the pragmatic and practical and broaden our definition of art. A simple definition: the act of making something. Whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to create from nothing. Foil art. Finger paint art. Poetry. A new business venture. A recipe. If it’s in you, give yourself permission. So let’s all take a deep breath and proclaim ourselves artists (even if we don’t believe it yet), because there is a world out there that needs us to create something beautiful today.

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Empty House. Deep Breath. Move On.

For months, I was adamant that we would not sell Dad’s house. I couldn’t imagine letting it go. It held all my parents’ stuff, and hanging on to stuff after Dad’s death in December was part of the gut-wrenching grieving process. Everything became sacred, even the tacky bird lamp which I plucked from their entryway, along with the table where it was displayed – a table that is so not my style. I took the only wall space available in my living room and slid the table into it and crowned it with the bird lamp. And there it still sits, along with clutter in almost every room of my house consisting of the stuff I needed in order to calm my grief. His house is empty, but ours is crammed full.

I refused an on-site estate sale, so little by little we have parceled out furniture to our kids, relatives, friends, and the estate sale company that picked up the remainder. A haul-away company took the junk no one wanted, then we took some things to Salvation Army and filled more than a few trash cans. I use the word “we”, but I mostly stayed away because I couldn’t watch what was happening. Each time I walked through the house, it was a little emptier than the last time and my parents seemed further away. I didn’t like it that the stuff had such a direct correlation to my grief, but that’s the mystery of grieving. Things that shouldn’t matter became the lifeline that keeps one nostril above water.

So now the house is completely empty and the “sale pending” sign has been in the yard for over a month. This is Friday – closing day, and last night I pre-signed since I need to be in the shop all day. The new owners are a sweet older couple who are so excited that they have been known to go over and walk (sneak?) around the back yard or find the door unlocked to the garage and meander in. It’s their dream house and today they will begin to fill it with their own stuff.

Maybe I’m in the last stage of grief – the one where you finally and solidly know that you must rise up and out, and that the loss you thought would drown you will instead produce something that you never imagined. At the office where the closing took place, I sat in a conference room and signed eleven documents, including the deed to the house. My penmanship was terrible because I left my glasses in the car, but I knew my signing was another in an eight-month long series of goodbyes. Despite the enormity of what I was letting go of,  I didn’t have the heart flutter, sweating palms or a feeling that the walls were closing in on me (remember I told you how much I hate goodbyes in this post.) I’ve already said goodbye. And then said it again. I’ve grieved. And then grieved more. And now, it’s time to move on. I’m celebrating tonight, and rising up tomorrow to do just that.

Good Boy, Pierre

Absolutely hate goodbyes. Dogs are dogs, I know. They aren’t people and so there isn’t really a need to write a long, sad, introspective blog post on the many ways this furry guy brought joy to our lives. He died three days before his 15th birthday. We helped the process along because it was the right thing to do, but making an appointment to say a forever goodbye is about the sorriest way to spend a Saturday. So this blog post is for you Pierre. I’m writing it as you lay at my feet, waiting for your 2:30 appointment. I’ve said my goodbye and thanked you for hanging in there with this family for so long. Some days were better than others, and lately you’ve had mostly bad days. But from now on, we only remember the good: the squirrel yelp, barking at toys in the pool, your determination to jump high enough to bite the possum on the fence, your place in the big chair, and your sweet disposition that inspired at least three other families to bring Westies into their family. So, goodbye buddy. And one last time: Good boy, Pierre.

Taking the Royal into 2016

I remember the sound of typewriter keys on Saturday mornings. Dad would finish his Sunday school lesson by typing his notes on the old Royal, circa 1940-something. It’s a gray, metal machine that weighs about as much as a full box of encyclopedias. Every week he was teaching – which was most weeks – he hauled it back and forth from the kitchen to the spare bedroom. By the time I was in high school, he had moved up to an electric typewriter and retired the Royal to a quiet existence in the linen closet.

Years ago, I laid claim to this old typewriter and promptly placed it on a shelf in an upstairs closet that held the things we couldn’t give away, but never touched. I couldn’t imagine myself typing on it. It was too slow, too heavy, and the font was one size only. Besides, it was outdated technology that held no promise of productivity. Worthless except for its antique value. For a decade I didn’t give the Royal another thought until Dad died last month. The day after his memorial service I went straight to the closet, lifted the heavy as heck typewriter and carried it downstairs to the den bar. We ordered a universal ribbon cartridge that fits most old typewriters and I loaded paper in and began to type quotes. It was clearly a grief project (I highly recommend these), and one that gave me a surprising amount of comfort and connection. Decades ago, my mother typed recipes on index cards on the Royal, and so there were times when the click of the keys were from her fingers. In elementary school I typed my first (very short) stories on it. I was hearing memories.

Because I am an only child, there has been no exercise of divvying up the items that belonged to my parents. Everything that was special to them now belongs to me, and I do not take this lightly. So the typewriter is being put to use to communicate messages of gratitude, encouragement and love, with a contrastingly jarring clack as I type. Any font my computer can spit out pales against the quirky lettering of the Royal, and when I place them side by side, the smudgy, uneven typewritten words prevail. But it comes at a cost. The keys must be pressed with about 10 times more force than my laptop keys, and if you hit the wrong key you don’t get to backspace with a handy delete key. You take the paper out and start over again, even if you were three words from finishing. The keyboard on the typewriter is a QWERTY, cleverly named because the letters at the top-left corner of the keyboard begin with QWERTY. Most computers have this layout, but with very different spacing between the keys. My third and pinky finger are weaklings and can’t push the typewriter keys down, so I type with only forefingers. It’s slow going, but far more precise.

So the old Royal and I are stepping into 2016 together. I am beginning to believe that there is nothing that doesn’t come back around in some form or another. There is an Adinkra symbol in Ghanaian culture called Sankofa. It’s in the shape of a swan that has turned its long neck to look backward. Sankofa symbolizes how much we can learn from the past, and that often looking back is one way we move forward. This is true whether we are learning from mistakes or rediscovering the value of what we thought was left behind. The typewriter is comforting, but also teaches me the beauty of the imperfect – smudged letters, uneven spacing, one font size. I’m typing those quotes and listening to the memories of weekly Sunday school lessons, handed-down recipes and a child’s short stories. I thought these things were gone forever, and maybe that meant they didn’t matter anymore. But now I know they are still with me – comforting and familiar like the typewriter that brought them all back.

 

Thoughts on Double-Timing It

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Two days before Christmas, I did this to my car. It was completely my fault, and adding insult to injury (actually, my injury was only a bruised leg and a stiff shoulder), I was ticketed for not yielding right of way. And we had to pay for the damage repair. And we lost our good driver “bonus” that came each January. I beat myself up for days.

And yet, it would have been far worse if I hadn’t seen the car coming and slammed on my brakes. But it was not enough and I can still hear the doomsday sound of screeching tires and the crunch of two automobiles colliding. Like an idiot, I tried to tell the officer that the car’s driver must have been speeding because the two lanes I was crossing during rush hour were completely clear. He begged to differ. It was my bad, and I made Christmas not so merry for a few people.

For the two weeks of Christmas holiday, I drove a loaner that made me feel like I was doing laps in a go-kart. I swear my back end had to be four inches from the ground, but it was actually a nice compact car that was easy to park and opened a wide swath of space in our garage. I was practicing gratefulness, but I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to the rental when the body repair shop called to tell me my Kia Sorento was ready.

“You’ll never know you had an accident,” they said with great confidence, which is exactly what I wanted to hear. Let’s wipe this from our memory, shall we? The car looked just as I had remembered, and I felt a little emotional as I climbed behind the wheel. At this point, I should tell you that I’m not a car person. I don’t get new car fever, and I don’t trade in my car on any regular basis. This was my first new car in almost a decade and I aim to keep this one until the wheels fall off. I’m actually envious of the people who call Car Talk and when asked how many miles are on the car answer well above the hundred thousand mark.

I drove my car out of the parking lot of the repair shop and onto the main street, where I eased into the left turn lane and clicked on my signal. And at that moment, I knew that my Sorento and I – however long we will be together – were probably never going to wipe the accident from our memory. The clicking of my turn signal was in double time, like a nervous woman incessantly tapping her long fingernails. I turned it off and then on again, and still, she tapped in fast motion. I checked the right turn signal, and the slow, rhythmic sound was a soothing contrast to the impatient clicking of the leftie.

I could have turned the car around and demanded they fix the hyperactive turn signal, but I didn’t. I realized the irony and the lesson immediately. Nope, the Sorento and I were going to endure her flaw because I need to be reminded of something every time I turn left: there exists in me a problem with speed. I thrive on going fast -everything from walking to talking. In Ghana, as I spoke to groups of our families in the Rising Village program, Isaac, our Ghana director, was constantly giving me a signal to slow down my rapid speech – palms down, pressing lower and lower. “Slow down, please Lisa,” he would say with that ever-present smile.

Yes, Lisa, please slow down. I avoid the grocery store during the mornings because that’s when all the slow people shop, and there is nothing that makes me lose my religion like getting behind someone who shuffles through the aisles as if they have never stepped foot inside that store. Here’s another sad fact: sometimes I count down how long it takes me to get dressed in the morning and I’m not making that up. If I can get dressed in 40 seconds I’m doing good. My goal is 30. It’s a game, really, because nothing in my life demands that level of speed. I can’t really explain it, and I should probably seek therapy for it, but the turn signal is cheaper. It’s double-time click has been a reminder that I shot out into the lane to make that left turn because, once again, I was in a big, fat hurry. Every time I turn left, it’s like a chant: Too fast, too fast, too fast, too fast. 

I drive like a granny now, and it’s not because I made some resolution to “slow down in 2015.” It’s because I want to keep that Sorento and call in a radio car show and boast that my Kia has 145,000 miles on it, and here’s this little noise it’s been making…” And also, because I can look back and list quite a few other mishaps that occurred because I was too impatient to slow down, or just wait patiently. I still find myself tempted to play “beat the clock” while getting dressed or doing a dozen other daily tasks, but now I’m paying attention to my need for speed and intentionally slowing things down. And if I need a poignant reminder, I can always slowly walk to my car, get in, drive the speed limit, and make a bunch of left turns.