Category Archives: Uncategorized

Raise Your Tiny Glass to Simple Pleasures

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A Tiny Black Cow. Happy Birthday, Grandpa!

Grandpa was born in June. Maybe that’s why my memories of him seem to take place in summer. We probably often visited him at his birthday, or around Father’s Day. Grandpa was a writer and a storyteller. His loud, boisterous jokes and stories populated every family gathering.

Grandma and Grandpa’s little house on Poplar St. in West Bend, Wisconsin, didn’t have air conditioning. It would get hot, and my brother and I would retreat to the cool basement to play with the metal barn and plastic animals they kept in the closet.

“Kids! Time for a Black Cow!” he’d yell. We’d scramble up the stairs because we knew what that meant: A Black Cow was Grandpa’s signature drink: Root Beer from the bottle poured over vanilla ice cream.

I’d had Root Beer Floats before, and I suspect that Grandpa’s Black Cows had the exact same ingredients, but his Black Cows always tasted better. The root beer seemed darker and richer, the vanilla ice cream seemed creamier.

The thing is, Grandpa’s Black Cows were tiny. What I wanted was a huge frosted mug overflowing with frothy foam; what I got was a tiny juice glass. Just a dollop of ice cream went in each glass and Grandpa would dole out the root beer so as not to spill a drop. And there were no seconds.

They were too small. At least, to my kid brain, they were much, much too small. But I wasn’t going to argue with Grandpa. He would hand the thimble-sized Black Cow to each of us, and then say, “Now, don’t drink it all at once, or you’ll get a tummy ache.”

Was he being ironic? I could never tell.

I’m pretty sure the first time I had Grandpa’s tiny Black Cow, I drank it all in one gulp. (And no, I didn’t get a tummy ache.) But as I got older and wiser, I learned to sip it slowly. You know, put the tiny glass down between sips. Watch the cold drops of condensation run down the side of the tiny glass. Make it last.

I don’t know why Grandpa’s Black Cows were so small. I never asked him. Was it because he lived through the Depression? Was it because he was thin as a bean pole and never ate big portions of anything?

Grandpa’s been gone for quite a few years, but each year on his birthday, my siblings and I get an email from my Mom: “Today is Grandpa’s birthday. Did you celebrate with a Black Cow?”

This year on the 108th anniversary of his birth, I got the smallest glass out of my cabinet. I put just a dollop of ice cream, and poured the root beer carefully, listening to the wonderful fizzing sound as it hit the ice cream in the glass. I sat down and drank it. Slowly.

I think I get it now. Savor the sweet things, no matter how tiny. Drink them in without distractions. Consuming too much sweetness all at once causes a proverbial tummy ache.

Cheers to you, Grandpa.

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.

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.

Redemption (Dishwasher) Song

1797473_10153115037688971_8500511848191095366_nOur little cottage where we live has a kitchen that is just the right size for us. It doesn’t have a lot of counter space, but it is enough; everything has a place, and there is room for our little table with red chairs where all six of us can and often do sit down and eat together. Compared to my last kitchen, this kitchen is much more compact, and while I have all the necessary amenities, it lacks a dishwasher.

I’ve gone without a dishwasher before, but it was back in our newlywed days, before four kids. I didn’t think I’d survive this! But after two months in the new house, I don’t think I’ll be getting a dishwasher. I don’t want to sacrifice cabinet space for something that I’m starting to believe is unnecessary.

At noon on Sunday, there were a lot of dishes, since we’d just added our lunch dishes to the breakfast dishes didn’t make the cut before church. I gave a little sigh, because I was getting a little tired of doing so many dishes. But the kids and my husband pitched in, and soon the hot water was going, the dishes cleared from the table, and the food put away.

At one time, I only bought the cheapest, store-brand dish soap. Now I allow myself the name-brand stuff, with heavenly aromas. The stuff I have now is scented like pomegranate, and has a luscious color to match. So when I wash dishes, I breathe in the heavenly scent emanating from the bubbles. I look out the big window and appreciate the well-kept yard of our neighbor, Ted. I feel thankful that wherever we’ve lived, we’ve been lucky to have wonderful neighbors. Ted is no exception. If I can keep this up, this trying to frame dish washing as a time of meditation, a time for gratitude, a time to enjoy a moment of calm in the middle of our bustling family, I may never want a dishwasher again. Heck, I may even start to look forward to it!

That afternoon, all six of us busied ourselves to get our kitchen cleaned up so we could go and do something fun with the rest of our day. We worked together and bumped into each other and talked.

At some point, Ben, our 14 year old, picked up his guitar and started singing a little “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley. As my 18 year old dried dishes, he joined in singing:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;

None but ourselves can free our mind.

Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,

‘Cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.

How long shall they kill our prophets,

While we stand aside and look?

Yes, some say it’s just a part of it:

We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever had:

Redemption songs …

A glass, a fork, a saucepan. I’m finding my redemption in my little house. One dish at a time.

The No-Return Policy on the Gift of Downsizing

We’ve all had to open a gift we didn’t like at some time or another. Despite the cake, the streamers, the good intentions of the gift-giver, sometimes someone hands you a gift, and a gut reaction takes over. “What am I going to do with this?” “How much time is it going to take me to return this to the store?”

Hopefully this doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Face it: some gifts are impractical. Or the wrong size. Or we already have one. At a party, you say “thank you” and you try to disguise your disappointment.

Unpacking after a move is a bit like that.

As we preparedgift_guide_photo for our move from a 2,000+ square foot home into a less than 1,000 square foot home, I remember reading a blog that said packing for a move was like wrapping party gifts for yourself: in a week or so, you’d unwrap the present, and you’d have one of two reactions: “Yay! I love that!” or “Aww crap, why did I bring that along?”

As mentioned in my previous post, our family filled two dumpsters of unnecessary stuff to lighten our load before we moved. So when I read that, I figured that wouldn’t apply to me: I was paring down to the absolute minimum, so every box would be a joy to open on the other side of the moving truck.

Not so. I have three moving boxes sitting stagnant in my bedroom right now, to prove my point. Why did I bring that stuff?

Talk about awkward. I mean, if anyone should know what I want for a gift, it’s me!

I can’t call myself a minimalist yet. I’m more like a recovering pack-rat. But with my new tinier house, I’m finding that the best gift I can give myself is space. To live in. I don’t want to store things that don’t add joy to my life. I don’t want to spend my day returning things or disposing of things that are getting in the way of having an adventure.

If anyone reading this is de-cluttering or downsizing, I am here to cheer you on. Give yourself that gift to make intentional choices in your life. Make changes in your life so that you start to unwrap each day as a gift. Make space for new relationships and new experiences. These are the things that always come in the right size. And you never have to return them.

Back in Whack

We had to face the facts: we were out of whack.

We were getting by, but we were struggling financially, and it was robbing our peace of mind. My husband and I have jobs that we love, and four children that we love more. We knew we had to make more money so that we could build our retirement while also saving for the kids’ college funds.

Oh—while also paying for music lessons, soccer and ballet.

But even after completing Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, and paying off all our debt except the mortgage (YAY us!!), we couldn’t keep up. All it took was for a surprise auto repair or an unexpected medical bill, and we were struggling again and sliding back into debt.

Which is why we got to a point in 2014 where we knew we had to make a change: we either had to work and earn more, or pay less. We definitely didn’t want to work more—if anything, we wanted to play more! And we had already cut back on cable, groceries, clothing and eating out. If we were going to cut back, it was going to have to be in a big way.

So we sold our house.

Despite loving our home, and making many precious memories within its walls with our babies, we realized that our house of thirteen years was a beautiful albatross hanging around our necks. While it was providing warmth and shelter and beautiful space for Thanksgiving dinners and backyard shindigs, it was punching us squarely in the gut each month when we payed our mortgage bill.

The past six months have been a time of learning, of letting go, of re-evaluating what is important and what we were willing to do without. We started a journey that we’ve called “unwanting,” because our new version of the American Dream involves wanting less, so that we can live more. This is not an easy task. For one thing, it’s completely counter-cultural. Many people who will hear what we’ve done will say, “That’s fine for you, but I could/would never do this.” Today,  I am starting this blog on the other side, inside the cozy cottage we now call home, and I can tell you that we are no longer out of whack.

We are completely in whack, baby.

In April 2015, we moved from our 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom home of over 2,000 square feet to a cozy 2-bedroom, 1-bath home, coming in just under 1,000 square feet. We have half the space and half the bathrooms, but we also have half the mortgage payment and half the worry.

We still have four kids and a dog. You may think we’re crazy.

Maybe we are.