I don’t want to go out

I want to stay in

get things done

– David Bowie, Modern Love

I’ve been thinking about what I want to do this summer. I made all my usual lists, because in my life if you don’t write it down in a list so it can gather dust as you ignore it, it doesn’t exist. Don’t live it, write it, you know? Sing, exercise, eat right, find a new kind of writing project, “reconnect with friends and family” — a very fine nonmeasurable and nebulous goal, one certain to be quickly sucked right down the vortex of summer and all that is both good and bad about it.

I was in list-writing mode for summer, and then I started thinking more about Deep Economy, the new Bill McKibben book that came into my life rather spookily. First a friend emailed me about it, then a client recommended that I read it, and then my poli sci prof told the entire class about it and wrote the title and author on the board. All in the same week. The gospel of the book is to connect to people not things, to be part of a community, and to stop living for the accumulation of wealth because it’s an outmoded way of life that now does more harm than good.

All stuff we’ve heard before, really.

But sometimes things hit you right and take root in your mind as you become ready to understand their real meaning at last. Knowing a fact and knowing its meaning to your life are different. I was ready for these ideas to assume a new dimension. They have plugged themselves in the places I had sockets, planted their seeds in the places where I had soil.

McKibben plucked the scales from my eyes regarding my packratlike addiction to buying things. Little things. Knickknacky things. I’ve got a house full of things. Candles, candleholders, curly willow in a metal vase, perfume, plants, an excess of pillows, pottery, pictures, prints… Two more end-tables than I actually need. A hairdryer I have never turned on. A Pier One menagerie of clutter crammed into my small world, gathering dust.

I cannot talk to them, my things. They do not inspire me to sing or dance or smile. And indeed, as McKibben has made me realize, in many ways they detract from my happiness. He observes that a shiny new brand-name second coffee maker may not really make you happy like you think it will. It’s exciting when you buy it, but once you bring it home you may realize that you prefer the way the older, smaller one took up less space. You may realize that the difference in the coffee the machines make is hardly noticeable. Did you, did you really need the shiny new thing?

For so long I did.

I have no place for them, all my things. I think I tried to fill a hole in my life with things and now I’ve got a cluttered and dusty house that holds a tiny nonliving zoo of longing. I was very sad about this today until I realized that my things were infesting a very fine and lovely small house, whose bones are the same with or without my things. My sweet house is one thing that I deeply love. I can clean its lovely bones of the lesser parasites.

So maybe this summer will not be about achieving more and doing more. When I write down ideas for summer plans they just sound like yet another list to be tucked away in my planner to gather pen marks and eraser shavings, while the plan I actually live is something more organic, less wholesome — and much easier.

This time, maybe I can plan things, but plan gentler things that feel less like work. I’ve spent so many years learning, and all of it was so rich and good. Maybe this summer I can do quiet things that let me reflect. Maybe I can garden, and read from my reading list, and declutter my house.

I’m thinking yard sale. I’m thinking I’ll fill my empty spare room — the one that never did transition from being a guestroom to the room a housemate would fill — with all my junk and sell what I can and give the rest away. Paint my walls. Give things a proper deep dusting.

I wonder if I have had a relationship with the things in my home in part because there are no other people in my home. Certainly I am not a friendless loner, but I do sometimes feel that without a partner and a family, my life lacks the depth that most people have at my age, and that I wish my life had now. I don’t think I was built to have no one to care for, though my nature enables me to live on my own fairly well. I don’t mind quiet and solitude, don’t mind to eat alone, find strength in being alone and real pleasure in my work.

I have much, but I know I am missing out, hungry for food that I have never tasted but that tempts me nonetheless. When my family gathers there are no children and no men, only we three women, slowly growing older. I have dear friends who love me, but when I need to talk to someone face to face I feel like I am making a doctor’s appointment. And I don’t think that’s how I am supposed to feel, so I have learned to make do until my emotions heal themselves. I think that I know that my friends have their own private oases of talk and love, and I am programmed to want my own as well, unable to make do with an ersatz solution. I don’t pick the low-hanging fruit because it’s what lies in the high branches that I truly desire, and I cannot get there on my own.

McKibben’s statistics about American alienation are saddening. According to his book most people nowadays don’t know their next-door neighbor, and the percentage of people who visit regularly with their neighbors is dwindling fast. I myself was completely unaware that the medically fragile husband of my own next-door neighbor passed away until she mentioned it to me. Months later. I was horrified to learn that a life that was lived next door to mine was gently snuffed out one day, and no tremor of his death ever reached me.

Humans, McKibben observes, are the only primates that live alone. And college, he points out, is perhaps the only time in our existence that we live the way we evolved to live, in communal groups; no wonder so many people look back on those years with such fondness. McKibben also notes that in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s studies of “flow” (studies that McKibben says helped launch the study of human happiness and satisfaction), the two activities that brought Americans the most joy were dancing and volunteering, both of which allow people to make connections and feel part of something outside themselves, larger than themselves.

I don’t dare declare that I will spend my summer seeking joy and getting outside of myself (but I totally think I will volunteer to teach knitting at an upcoming church workshop). But I do think I can safely plan to be less ambitious and to make a new and very different kind of summer list. You know what writing projects that I will seek out? My beloved blog and my interesting clients. I will empty my home of clutter and sell what I can — taking as long as I like — and think about what truly satisfying changes I can make, like finally painting the walls the colors I dream of, and finding proper homes for the art that lies scattered half-assedly about the house, hung where the holes already were, the ones drilled by the people who lived here before. I bought art only to use it artlessly and without joy. It is only one more thing to gather dust.

What I am trying to say is that maybe this summer, for once, can be more about roots than leaves.

And by the way — dear blog friends who seek me and my writing out, thank you for listening! Truly, you are the friends who live in my house, the ones who are always there when I have something to say.

3 responses to “Roots

  1. And I am here, and I am listening, and enjoying both what you say and how you say it, and you make me think more often than not, so you do. And I think your thinking today sounds wonderful.

    On a personal note, I recognized the “hanging art where the holes already are” syndrome: let’s both make new holes!

  2. I have too much clutter too. But a lot of it is things I care about. The idea is to release them only to someone who would give them or it a good home. Do you have a “Freecycle” group in your town? Try googling “Freecycle” and I bet you will find one in Asheville. This is a net-based organization in which people advertise goods for giveaway but never for sale. Maybe you could try it. In the “Ferengi Way,” the “Great River of Material Goods” passes through people and the ideal is to keep it moving so that it brings advantage to everyone.
    Thanks for writing. I read your blog regularly. You write beautifully.

  3. Well, I spent just an hour or so yesterday just rearranging things and making better use of space, and already the DR and LR look better than I ever dreamed they could after so little work. There really is a HUGE difference from just arranging things so they are less haphazard and look like part of a design scheme. So far I haven’t even eliminated anything, just put things where they look nice(r). Like I moved an extra table from the side porch (where it sat collecting dust and ancient citronella lamps) onto the corner of the front porch. It now holds 4 or 5 of my excess candles and 4 suffering houseplants that never got enough sun inside. It looks great! It has a real purpose now.

    I hung two pics and LOVE how they look.

    Yes, Asheville does have Freecycle. I’ll freecycle what I can, but am hoping to just give things away to friends and maybe put the rest in a box on the curb for passers-by to just nab!

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