Before smartphones, there was mom.

We’re plugged in 24 hours a day now. We’re all part of one big machine, whether we are conscious of that or not. And if we can’t unplug from that machine, eventually we’re going to become mindless. ~Alan Lightman

Lately, I’ve been trying to think of ways to resist the constant pull of technology and social media. I’m planning on deactivating my Facebook account in February…whether that will be a permanent thing, or just temporary, has yet to be determined. All I know is that I need a break from it. It has become nothing more than a platform for people (myself included) to voice their complaints on everything from their relationships to traffic and – especially this time of year – the weather. I think I can do without that for a little while.

Another idea that keeps popping into my head is getting rid of my smartphone. So far, I’ve talked myself out of doing that, since I use it for absolutely everything…it’s my camera, GPS, encyclopedia, and radio. I download books to my Kindle app for my monthly book group. I have a special trails app for all the hiking we do. I have a tabata app for when I workout at home. I use this thing for far more than just calling and texting people. Could I live without it? How DID I ever live without it?!

I’m trying to think back to the days before smartphones. I remember when I had my teeny little Ericsson flip phone about 15 years ago, that at the time seemed so advanced, though I couldn’t even text with it. How did I ever get to where I needed to go? What if I got lost? And what did I do when I absolutely had to know, RIGHT THEN, who invented those crazy elaborate devices that performed simple operations by sending a rubber ball through an insane sort of obstacle course (answer: Rube Goldberg)?

I called mom.

My mom was the reference librarian at our town’s public library for many years. She is a veritable encyclopedia of information all by herself, but armed with the infinite amount of information available on the Internet, she is absolutely un-stump-able. I would frequently call her long-distance (back when that was a thing) whenever I had a random question about a movie/book title, or the spelling of a particular word. Oftentimes, the questions were much more complicated than that, but she was always able to give me the answer very quickly.

I called her numerous times when I was lost in Boston, and she would patiently give me turn-by-turn directions (from memory) over the phone until I found my way to Storrow Drive, whence I could find my own way home. When I moved to Indiana, I would continue to call her whenever I was lost in the maze of neighborhoods full of identical mid-century houses, nary a landmark to be seen. I would give her my cross-street, and she would plug my coordinates into MapQuest and get me wherever I needed to go.

My mom never seemed put out by any of these requests, but she loves solving puzzles, so it’s in her nature. I like to think I take after her in that regard, and I think the hours I spend researching various topics online out of my own curiosity is a clue that I do. Unfortunately, the ability to access all of this information from a handheld device has taken me away from the people right in front of me, on so very many occasions.

I’m not sure how practical it would be to go back to the days of a simple talk/text cellphone…the days of calling mom whenever I got stuck. I know she wouldn’t mind, but my parents are far better at unplugging than I am. I wouldn’t be able to guarantee that I could reach them. They are often without a cellphone, and don’t even have a voicemail box set up. They are also completely unapologetic about this, as well they should be. On the rare occasion they are questioned about it, they simply ask “What did people do in the days before cellphones??”

What DID we do?

We got lost. Sometimes we were lucky and had a map in the glove box. Other times, we had to – the HORROR – stop and ask someone for directions. We had to actually consult another human being. I often wonder if my shyness and introversion is exacerbated by the fact that there is very little need for human interaction these days. I can do everything online – I don’t even have to call and TALK to anyone. It is both a blessing and a curse.

Long story short, I’d love to disconnect. I’m just not sure how far I’m willing to go. I’d like to get out of my comfort zone, but it’s just so damn convenient living this way. But perhaps, it’s not as much of an adventure. And that’s something that everyone could use a little more of.

You know...that THING?! With the things??

You know…that THING?! With the things that move and it does something at the end? You know??

Reboot the mission

Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it. ~Ellen Goodman

Many times lately, I’ve found myself sitting in traffic on the way to and from work, thinking about what my life would have been like if I’d discovered minimalism ten years ago. I have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. I decided to go to school when I was 25, years later than most of my friends. I’d been working in libraries since the day I turned 14, and LOVED my job, but I knew that I would never make enough money to get by unless I got a degree.

At the time, I was very ambitious…freshly divorced from a man who was adamantly opposed to my being successful at anything outside of the kitchen, I wanted to go all the way. I wanted to get my bachelor’s in technology, then go on to Simmons for my Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree. This would be the safest way to stay relevant in an age when libraries are becoming increasingly under-appreciated. I was hoping to follow in the footsteps of some of my colleagues who had worked tirelessly to reinvigorate the image of the public library and promote its relevance in today’s world by using the same technologies that were supposedly rendering us a thing of the past.

I began my education at ITT in June 2007. I was a good student, and was selected for an internship with a government agency in Boston. I worked at their help desk, answering phones, and responding to a variety of complaints (usually, I just told the user to reboot). For 8 months, I worked 60+ hours between my library job and my internship, on top of a full-time course-load at ITT. I was burnt out. Just when I was about to completely unravel, I received full-time job offers from both my employers simultaneously. I had to choose between a job that I loved, and one that I knew would guarantee my financial security.

I chose the money. My heart wanted to stay at my beloved library, with my wonderful patrons and co-workers who were like family to me. But, my brain knew that my student loans hung above me like an ominous raincloud, just waiting for their opportunity to crush my American dreams. I began working in Boston full-time, though I was still an intern. I received my associate’s degree, then continued on with the bachelor’s Information Security program. And then, the government imposed a hiring freeze. I was next in line for a permanent position, but found myself facing possible unemployment once I graduated, as one has to be in school to maintain internship eligibility.

Somewhat miraculously, one of the telecom contractors was retiring about that time, and they asked if I would be willing to replace him. It would mean going “to the dark side”…contractors are treated as second-class citizens in federal buildings, receive little to no benefits, and there’s pretty much no going back. But, I nearly doubled my salary. Once again, I sold my soul to get more money. In my mind, I was doing the right thing for my future.

Today, I’m making more money than I ever thought I would. But those pesky student loans came due, like clockwork, 6 months after I graduated. Since I have to drive to work (my company pays for parking, but not public transportation), I had to get a reliable car. Between student loans, car payments, and hundreds of dollars a month in gas, I find myself feeling more broke than ever before.

Was any of this necessary? Couldn’t I have lived more simply, and continued doing what I love? Would I have been happier? Have I wasted the last 7 years of my life chasing someone else’s idea of “success”? These questions torture me daily. At this point, it’s futile…I have to make peace with the decisions I made years ago. And I firmly believe that all of the choices we make – big or small – determine the course of our lives. From meeting my wonderful husband, to being able to make that trip to Sweden, there is definitely some good that has come from my decisions. Would I do it differently if I had the chance? Absolutely.

For now, I will look at my job as a means to an end. The bills will all be paid off in time, and that will enable us to live more freely. And the more simply we live now, the sooner that day will come. This whole epiphany has only strengthened my resolve to pare down my possessions and my lifestyle. I would be just as happy with a meal at home and a walk on the beach as I would eating out at a fancy restaurant, if not more so. And I really, REALLY don’t need another pair of shoes. Much as I want them. Making these small sacrifices daily will make a big difference over time.

It’s time to reboot!

Bumps in the road.

The intention of voluntary simplicity is not to dogmatically live with less. It’s a more demanding intention of living with balance. This is a middle way that moves between the extremes of poverty and indulgence. ~Duane Elgin

I’ve only just begun this minimalist journey, but have already encountered a number of roadblocks. It’s a bit discouraging, but I’m doing my best to get past these and forge ahead, since I’m sure my situation is not that unique. Judging by my last couple of posts, it’s obvious that I have been focusing largely on my wardrobe as a starting place to eliminate excess belongings. This just made sense, since clothes have been a major issue for me for as long as I can recall. Unfortunately, as cathartic as it has been to get rid of ill-fitting, unflattering, worn-out clothes, I am also coming to the realization that I have very few items that fit me well.

I started doing CrossFit late last summer. CrossFit is an exercise program focused on strength and conditioning, and their prescription for fitness is  “constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement”. On their Getting Started page, they state: “We are a ‘minimalist program’ and this is reflected by the functionality and limited number of our exercises and the simplicity of the equipment we use compared to most commercial gyms.” How ironic that I would have chosen this particular program over all others, just months before having a minimalist epiphany.

Since I started CrossFit, I have noticed some changes in how my clothes fit. What were once tiny chicken legs can now barely squeeze into my skinny jeans, since my thighs have grown in size from so many squats. I have yet other pairs that used to be snug, but are now sagging due to sitting much lower on my shrinking waist. Sweaters and other long-sleeved shirts are becoming increasingly tight around my upper arms. While I welcome these changes, for someone who is trying to avoid purchasing new things, they are making this minimalist lifestyle a bit difficult. I have one pair of jeans that fit relatively well, though only when fresh out of the dryer. I live in jeans on the weekends (don’t we all?), so this is a sad state of affairs. I fear that I may have to give in and purchase a new pair.

Moving into a new apartment necessitated picking up a couple of items. Our dilapidated TV stand, which we were only able to use for the past two years thanks to some reinforcement from my handyman father-in-law, did not survive the journey and so a more robust one was purchased from IKEA. Our couch (also from IKEA) was torn to shreds by our mischievous furball, Seamus, so I purchased a new set of covers for it. The new TV stand is solid wood, and I know we will use it for many years to come. The new couch cover, while certainly not cheap, was a far better deal than replacing the couch altogether, and since one of our main wishes was to have an apartment large enough to have company, I wanted the living room to be somewhat presentable.

Sleepy Pixie

Pixie approves of the new cover.

Naughty boy

Seamus isn’t sold on his new “scratch lounge”…

I feel that these purchases fall under the umbrella of “minsumerism”…don’t mindlessly consume; buy only what you need. “Need” is certainly a subjective term, and I think each individual needs to determine for themselves what is necessary, and what is excessive. This paring-down of possessions is an ongoing process for me, and I think that as time goes on, I will be able to part with more items and learn to live more simply in many other areas of life.

So much stuff.

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.
~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Seamus the cat

My ever-helpful moving buddy, Seamus.

I move quite frequently. On more than a dozen occasions since I left high school, I have found myself packing up all my belongings and hauling them off to my latest destination. With each move, the amount of things to pack into boxes increased dramatically. Exponentially, even.

Some of the moves were impulsive ones, leaving me geographically isolated from family and friends. When I wasn’t getting lost in a cornfield somewhere (one of my favorite pastimes, up until the tornado incident…storm-chaser material, I am not!), I filled my free time with solo shopping trips, justifying the expense by telling myself I deserved to be surrounded by things that I liked. I was a hard-working, self-sufficient, independent gal. I moved out to Indiana in a hatchback Mitsubishi, and moved back in a U-Haul. I should have stuck to the cornfields.

Finding places for all my things got trickier as time went on. Unlike Indiana real estate, square footage in Massachusetts comes at a premium, and in order to move into my last residence in our beautiful hometown of Rockport, I needed to rent a storage unit to house many of these things for the two years we were there. The unit was essentially a large, expensive, off-site closet. My then-fiance (now husband) was in the Army and deployed at the time, so my brother very kindly hired me a moving company, who loaded up all of my furniture and boxes and moved them into our tiny new apartment, and then brought the overflow to the storage unit.

I envisioned trekking there to retrieve items at least a couple times a month, but for nearly two years, the unit was barely disturbed. I never knew I had so much unnecessary stuff – stuff that I wouldn’t realize was missing if it suddenly disappeared forever.

Cat in a box

What is wrong with this picture?

In the photo above, you see some of the items that were deemed “essential”…things that were “too good” for the storage unit. These include a jump rope (despite us having no yard and living in a second-floor apartment with low ceilings), an ornamental cross (I’m agnostic), and an entire set of Encyclopædia Britannica from the 90s that I snagged from my old library simply because Volume 8’s spine reads “Menage – Ottawa”. Come on, that’s hilarious.

I’m glad to say that after my most recent purge, the only items that remain in my care are the bookshelf, Seamus, and Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 8. My prized possession.

I guess what I’ve learned from all of this is that the things that matter to you now might not matter at all a couple of years down the road. Love for material objects is fleeting. I wish I knew, when I held something in my hand, whether I would still love it as much in ten years. I am going to try to ask myself that about everything I want to purchase from now on, before I get in the checkout line.