All posts by unwanting

About unwanting

Learning to live a bigger life in a smaller house.

Omit Needless Words. (Or: Why didn’t anyone tell me about Elements of Style?)

Part of my Mother’s Day was spent doing what I love best: reading outside on my sunny deck with the sounds of birds and lawnmowers and laughing children in the background. My book of choice this afternoon was Elements of Style, written by William Strunk and E.B. White. (Yes—the one and only E.B. White. The one who gave us Charlotte’s Web.) Strunk was White’s English professor in 1919 at Cornell University, and this little book was one he privately printed and passed out to all his students. It didn’t actually get published until after Strunk’s death (Strunk died in 1946; the book was published in 1959, with an introduction penned by White—since then, it’s never gone out of print). The tiny book is all of 85 pages, and as I work through it (slowly, thoughtfully chewing on each delicious morsel), each page uncovers another little gem about the craft of writing.

It’s page 23 that contains the best line of the whole book. It’s Strunk’s Rule #17 for principles of composition:

Omit needless words.

Oh the bold simplicity! Why am I only finding out about this book now? Strunk was a minimalist ahead of his time. He knew that good communication means stripping away the unnecessary. Since our great downsizing adventure began, I’ve learned the value of getting by with less. Little did I know I was ascribing to Strunk’s way of thinking. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying every day. As the story of my life unfolds, telling it in the best way means that I:

• Omit needless commitments

• Omit needless possessions

• Omit needless relationships

• Omit needless debt

As I read the book, this handbook for writers is a handbook for life, too: Communicate your purpose clearly. Get rid of the unnecessary. When telling your story, speak in specifics over generalities.

Omit. Then omit again so the good stuff can shine through.

 

Cabin in the Woods: Highly Recommended

Part Two of our family’s spring break was our best effort to get all “Little House on the Prairie” in 2017.

The first part of our spring break was a trip to Disney World with 176 teenagers. More about that here.

After the intensity of walking through the theme parks, checking on the well-being of our charges, and taking in all the sounds, sights, and smells of a very crowded tourist destination, we returned home and prepared for the second leg of spring break: a getaway to a cabin in the woods.

One of our favorite campgrounds is just over an hour drive from our house—perfect for a quick change of scene. Since it was still March, we knew tent camping probably was pushing it. So we rented one of the tiny cabins at the park—consisting of a front room with a table and a bed, and a back room with two bunk beds. It has electricity, but no running water.

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You may not believe me, but I did not have to force my children into the car. Maybe it’s because I gave them a healthy dose of the Ingalls family during bedtime reading at an early age. This excursion was only for 24 hours, but it was intentionally quiet, slow, and unplugged. We loaded up board games, books, sketch pads, and cozy pajamas—warm enough to facilitateIMG_2673 middle-of-the-night trips to the campground bathroom. We made a ceremony of heating the teakettle over a propane burner—a job our teenager enjoyed, shivering in his hoodie while ducks and geese circled in the water of the cold lake.

When you remove the regular day-to-day distractions, you start reawakening to things you forget to notice: the way water splashes around a wayward stick that’s fallen into a creek; the funny sound your brother makes when he sneezes; how good hot tea tastes when it’s all you have, and it doesn’t even matter that you forgot the sugar. At one point, I closed my eyes and tried to commit to memory the intoxicating sound of siblings laughing together as they played a card game. I don’t know if they’ll remember this particular evening, but I hope they remember how it felt.

At one point, an iPhone came out, and we, Ma and Pa, bristled. We made the stern, “We told you this trip was unplugged” faces. Turns out, the kids thought the perfect soundtrack for an evening in the cabin was some Beatles tunes. I had to agree. After all, even Pa Ingalls had his fiddle.

Disney World, You Make it Impossible for Me to Hate You

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Let me start off by saying we’re not Disney people. All I mean by that is that we’ve never gone to Disney World or Disney Land. We don’t buy Disney merchandise. A Disney vacation was just never something we put on our bucket list.

It’s not that we don’t like Disney, per se. They make great movies! (In fact, just last week I was weeping as I watched Beauty and the Beast on the silver screen.)

But, we are a band family, and my husband is a high school band director. And it just so happens that this year, the marching band took a trip over spring break … to Disney World.

My first (and possibly only) Disney World experience was riding in a caravan of buses loaded with 176 teenagers, a fleet of marching band uniforms, and band instruments of all shapes and sizes. I was ready for a vacation, and acting as a chaperone for the band trip would have to do.

It was great.

Spending three days at Disney, Epcot, then Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, made me appreciate the magic that Disney is selling us. As a trying-to-be minimalist, I reject the idea of buying branded merchandise and falling into the trap of consumerism. But Disney is selling something beyond mouse ears and just a product.

As we walked through the Magic Kingdom, I saw families making memories, all experiencing the same things. Taking photos together. Laughing. Being excited. Discovering things at the same time with the same (or similar) level of wonder (granted, Grandma can’t quite match the exuberance of a four-year-old in a Cinderella costume).

Disney is the furthest thing from minimalism.

And yet.

The general atmosphere of Disney World reminds me of what families are striving for day-to-day. We want to be together and to share common joys and experiences. We want to let happiness and joy to take over, and stifle the deafening noise of stress and self-doubt.

The best part? Seeing our 9 year-old daughter look at her Daddy like he was Prince Charming. He gave her the kingdom.

Three Things I Don’t Need (Since I Bought a Small House)

The greatest lesson the Cozy Cottage has taught us is the lesson of letting go. Letting go can be a joyful thing. Letting go feels like removing weight from your shoulders. Each day, we’re walking a little lighter and more freely in our little house. I’ve compiled a list of three things I can do without. I don’t need them! I’m free!

1.) Microwave To be honest, this one scared me. I mean, who doesn’t love the smell of microwave popcorn? Or the satisfaction of heating water for your tea right in the mug? And what about re-heating leftovers? No, I definitely wasn’t ready to give up the microwave. And still … it took up precious room on the counter. And how much did we really use it? So I carried it down to the basement. It wasn’t plugged in, but it sat down there, just in case. A week went by. One night, my son brought it up to heat up some water for hot chocolate. But then I showed him how to heat it in a saucepan on the stove. It didn’t take that much longer than the microwave. Mind. Blown. The microwave is gone now. I make popcorn on the stovetop. It’s delicious. I make tea in a kettle. And leftovers get re-heated in a pan. Except for pizza. Have you ever re-heated pizza in the oven? It’s heavenly. Try it. You’ll thank me.

2.) A Fence Our dog Baxter is an active guy. He loves to chase squirrels, rabbits, and squirrels. Oh, and squirrels. Our last house had a nice yard that was entirely fenced in. The Cozy Cottage does not. Before we moved in, we thought, “Of course, we’ll have to put up a fence for the dog.” Well, we haven’t, and we’re not going to. We love the way our back yard opens up to our neighbors. We’ve had so many wonderful conversations with the folks on either side of our house, and many of those conversations wouldn’t have happened if we had a fence. Also, we walk more. Baxter refuses to let us laze on the couch. When he’s gotta go, he’s gotta go! So we get up, and we take a walk. A lot of times, my husband and I walk together, and we have uninterrupted conversation! Or sometimes I’ll grab one of my kids, and I love hearing what’s going on in their world. Best of all, sometimes I walk alone. I have real thoughts, and I can finish them. I’m getting closer to solving the planet’s problems and world domination. Fence? No thanks.

3.) Master Suite In the near future, I’m going to devote an entire post to our “Master Bedroom,” because even I can’t believe in our bedroom setup. Our house has two bedrooms. That’s right! So it’s taken a little creativity to make sure everyone has a comfortable place to sleep. I used to think I wanted a giant bedroom with a sitting area, maybe even a couch and a desk, and an adjoining bathroom with two sinks so my darling husband could brush his teeth at his sink while I washed my face beside him in my sink. Our reality is nothing like that. Our Cozy Cottage has one bathroom, and sometimes it gets a little crazy, especially when five people are trying to get ready at the same time. But our little “master” bedroom is just enough for our queen-size bed, a lamp, and a little bookshelf. We have one closet and no dresser (but thanks to IKEA, our bed has four spacious drawers beneath it). You know what? My tiny bedroom is awesome! It’s pretty easy to keep neat, and there isn’t room for a lot of extra junk in there. Therefore, it’s a very relaxing place to be. When I go in there, I know I have a lamp, a book, comfy pillows, and my jammies. Turns out I don’t need the other stuff.

 

 

 

The Reading Porch

Living in a small house means a little less privacy. Since buying our little house, we’ve had to reconfigure the way we live together as a family. For instance, three of our kids now share one bedroom, so there is no such thing as anyone here being alone in my room.

Most evenings, we are in our living room, doing a variety of things: homework, catching up on shows, knitting, practicing instruments. I like the way our family time is more concentrated in the small house. In some ways, our physical proximity causes some obstacles: Can you turn off your music? I’m trying to read. Or, Can you stop practicing? I’m trying to listen to my show. But I’ve watched my kids get better at communicating with each other as they work around the problems that arise. They are getting better at offering compromises, and seeing things from the other’s point of view. This show ends at 8:30. Can you wait and practice when it’s over?

For this reason, the best room in the house is just off the living room, in the back. I call it the Reading Porch, because that’s what I like to do back here. But it’s also the Writing Porch, the Homework Porch, the Mommy-and-Daddy-Have-to-Have-a-Private-Conversation Porch. The light streams in during late afternoon. On summer evenings, the windows are all flung open to allow in the warm breeze and the sound of crickets and cicadas. In the Fall, we turn on our little heater and warm our feet and wrap ourselves in a blanket. The fact that it’s not really weatherized is what makes it special: Sometimes it’s too cold out there during winter. Then, we can only look through the sliding glass door and look at it longingly, hoping for a warmer day.

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There’s an autumn chill in the air today, but the Reading Porch is still warm and cozy, which is why I’m out here instead of doing adulty things like errands or laundry. Those things can wait. It’s quiet out here, and I have a few chapters I’ve been wanting to read …

Learning to Get Lost

Let’s get lost
Lost in each other’s arms
Let’s get lost
Let them send out alarms
And though they’ll think us rather rude
Let’s tell the world we’re in that crazy mood …

IMG_2677We weren’t really lost this weekend, but we did take the wrong subway. For the second time in as many months, my husband and I, like giggling teens, packed an overnight bag and got on a Metra commuter train for a weekend getaway in the city. And despite the fact that we love Chicago, and we consider it our city, we are just as suburban as one would expect. So when it was time to get on the “L” to reach the theatre where we had tickets to see my favorite comedian, Maria Bamford, we were a little out of sorts. Can we use our debit card at the ticket station? Do we even know how to transfer from the Blue Line to the Brown Line? Was it Division Street we wanted, or Diversey?

 

Our new house, the Cozy Cottage, is responsible for all of this. Moving to a smaller house has given us a smaller mortgage, and a smaller list of worries, but we are thrown into a big new world of re-learning how to do things. After so many years of putting off our own dating life in lieu of child-rearing and bill paying, Cozy Cottage has freed up some of our time. And so we find ourselves, holding hands, sweating in the August heat, laughing that we must look like tourists, studying the map, checking our GPS.  I’m not even ashamed that I stare up at the skyscrapers and gasp. I feel small and insignificant. I’m learning to get lost. I like it.

via Daily Prompt: Learning

Starting Over

I love calendars, and crisp new calendars with empty squares gets me feeling all tingly with the thought of new possibilities and open-ended adventures.  We are five days into a new year, and I’ve already pored over my calendars: all of them! I have iCal, Google Calendar, then the good ol’ paper calendar that hangs on my kitchen wall. We call that one “Command Central.” But all those open squares! I want to fill them with new experiences.

I’m taking a firm stance on New Year’s Resolutions—what are they, other than a checklist for my future failings? I won’t make any resolutions. Instead, I’m just taking my first step into 2016 feeling positive that something will happen. I just hope that whatever happens, I’m ready for it.

IMG_1347 All I know, is our family’s decision to move to a small house has been life-changing, which is what this blog is all about. The less space for living has allowed more space for living. It’s been eight months since we’ve moved to our little house of less than 1,000 square feet, and already, I can breathe easier. I feel better about the future, and find that my smaller house is opening doors for bigger adventure. As I write more about specific changes our family has undergone to declutter and pare down our belongings, I hope to connect with others on the same journey.  Even more, I hope to give encouragement to someone who is feeling overwhelmed right now and are ready to make a change. You can do it! It’s never too late to start over.

Little House of Bricks

Brick HouseBefore it got dark last night, the wind started to swell, and we knew the storm was on its way. The kids all got home safely from school, as the sky got darker and the temperature dropped. We’ve been in our little house less than a year, so we are still getting to know each other as each season changes.

I couldn’t help but think of The Three Little Pigs as I looked outside from our large front window.

This was a beautiful storm, by most standards: I watched golden gingko leaves flutter in a sideways cascade from a neighbor’s tree while red maple leaves twirled along the curb.

I feel happy in my little house of bricks, my solid little fortress of warmth and coziness, as the wind swirls around me. Our previous house, which we decided to sell after 13 very happy years inside its walls, had started to feel like a house of sticks. It was beautiful, but one gust of wind (in the form of an unexpected bill or a large repair) could’ve dismantled it. We had too much. Too much mortgage. Too much stuff. Too much worry.

My house of bricks is small. But it’s strong. Sometimes, I feel like this little cottage is taking care of us, rather than the other way around. Last night, my husband came home after work, and decided our gutters should to be cleared out before the storm hit, just in case. His little garage is neatly stocked with all his tools. He quickly grabbed a small ladder and some gloves, and went around the perimeter of the house. In less than 15 minutes,  all the gutters were cleared.

“I’m … done,” he said, hardly able to believe it. We looked at each other.

“Want some dinner?” I asked. Just like the Little Pigs, I had a bubbling hot pot on the stove. But we wouldn’t be cooking up the Big Bad Wolf tonight. He was outside where he belonged, unable to penetrate our little house of bricks.

Don’t Miss the Things that Won’t Wait

IMG_1794I learned a simple lesson at the shores of Lake Michigan this summer. Some things don’t wait.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But we live in a pretty on-demand world: I can’t remember the last time I watched some as a live broadcast on TV. My Netflix queue has all sorts of things just waiting for me, lined up like soldiers, ready to deploy when I’m good and ready (I promise, I’m coming for you soon, Downton Abbey! You too, Breaking Bad!). If I can’t answer the phone, I know the person will leave a voicemail or a text; I’ll get back to them later.

Each evening while in Michigan, we were in a race against time to get dinner on the table and the dishes washed so we could hike the 1/2 mile to the shore to witness arguably the best show on earth: a golden sun descending into placid blue waters. We were past the vernal equinox, and each night the sunset happened a little sooner, a little sooner.

We’d emerge from the woods as the sun was still up in the sky, but starting to cast pink and orange shadows across the horizon. The kids and their cousins would run out ahead of us, drawn to the shores and its lapping waves. All across the shoreline, kids were still splashing and playing, mothers and fathers calling out to them from the sand, one hand on their hips, the other hand shading their eyes.

My favorite part is when you see, all up and down the shore, the moment when people stop what they’re doing and look out to the horizon. It’s like they know that the sunset is coming, and they know if they don’t stop what they’re doing and look up, they’ll miss it. I found myself watching the people almost as much as the sunset. There they were, lined up in a ragged row: standing, sitting, leaning into loved ones. After an entire day of the sun hanging in the sky, sometimes beating down with unrelenting intensity, it was suddenly retreating, glowing so marvelously that now we want to beg it to come back, or at least linger a while longer.

But the sun doesn’t wait. If you miss tonight’s sunset, that beautiful moment in the world reserved only for this night is gone forever. If you missed it, don’t be sad. Tomorrow there will be another one. But you can’t put tonight’s sunset in a queue to be enjoyed later.

IMG_1823As I’m trying my hardest to pursue a minimalist life, to let the simple pleasures outweigh the worries and stresses, I think about those sunsets a lot: making my life about creating space so there’s time to look up and watch what is happening before me: that goes for sunsets, growing children, and precious relationships.

Pay Up: Self-Inflicted Penalties When We’re in Too Deep

If it weren’t for my frugal, old-fashioned Mom and her strong take on living within your means and paying for only what you can afford, I might’ve completely bought in to the narrative that surrounded me in the media, my community, and from my peers.

More = Happiness. Get more. If you can’t afford more, borrow money to get more.

As soon as I turned 18, my mailbox was flooded with offers of credit cards. Now that my son is 18, the same is happening to him. Everyone and anyone wants to loan him money, and the confusing, risky terms of the loans are explained in itsy-bitsy type on the lower half of the back page of the offer.

My Mom tried her hardest to get through to me, and in a lot of ways, she did. But I still made some mistakes.  As it turns out, it is really easy to get in too deep—whether it’s with debt, or time commitments, or other stressors that we take on willingly. It takes almost no effort to say “yes” to too much. But later, having too much takes a toll. And the cost doesn’t only come out of our pockets:

  • We pay with our time. Having too much means we have to work harder just to stay afloat. We take extra shifts at work to pay down that nasty credit card bill.
  • We pay with sleep (or lack of it). I never realized how my sleep was interrupted by a.) lying awake worrying about money and b.) having crazy dreams about being chased or falling off cliffs.
  • We pay with relationships. Sometimes I had to exclude myself from fun events because going out to eat or seeing a show just wasn’t in the budget. That meant missing out on fun times with friends or loved ones.
  • We pay with our health. Worrying takes a toll on your body. For me, it’s headaches. But our bodies have all kinds of ways to make us feel miserable when we’ve got too much going on.

It’s going to take a while to turn the tide, but instead of paying my debt collectors, I’m starting to pay myself with time for quality experiences, paying my loved ones with my time, and for goodness’ sake, no more dreams about driving over cliffs in the desert! Momma needs her sleep.