Thursday, December 9, 2010

"How We Give Gifts: A Tribute to Love and Stuff" — Lindsey Piper

(sung to the tune of the Beatles "Help")

Stuff! You know I need it honey
Stuff! Keep spending lots of money
Stuff! To fill up all my shelves

When I was younger, not much younger than today
I really "needed" stuff (ps hey, mom & dad, I'm gay)
But now I see the light, my house is small for sure
Not to mention plastic crap, and over-flowed drawers

Help me change the way we give out stuuufff
Cause I think I am ok and have enouuuuggh
Don't get me wrong, great gifts are hiiip

Won't you please, please help me
gift-y, stuff freeeee.... oooooooooo.

To our dear friends and family,

There are two reasons for this letter: First, as many of you know, we have signed on a home in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Belfast, Maine, that we plan on moving into after Allison graduates from dental school in 2011. Many of you don’t know, however, that the home we’ll be moving to is small - very small by American standards (under 500 sq ft.) with very little storage. Second, we’ve been meaning for a long time to make a list of things that we really want and need for gifts so that people don’t have to guess (and it would be great to have that available for people we want to get gifts for, too!).

Moving into a place as small as our new home will be is going to be a big adjustment. Together we have amassed quite a lot of “stuff” over our combined 65 years. Starting this spring, we are going to need to start liquidating large volumes of our belongings: big things like furniture and appliances as well as a plethora of tchotchke and excess supplies of all sorts that have built up. The reality of this is a little stressful but it’s also pretty liberating. Right now we live in a generously-sized apartment with a very large attic and basement - lots and lots of storage. Our default, as it is for many people, is to simply put things that are not immediately useful or regularly used somewhere upstairs or downstairs, or to put it in a closet, cabinet or drawer in our apartment. When we get a gift or replace an item, like clothes, housewares or electronics, we frequently don’t dispose of or donate the original. Usually we just put the old one somewhere else “in case we ever need it” and use the new item. The end result of this is that we have a whole lot of work to do to bring this accumulation down to a size that will be comfortable in our new home. Virtually every drawer, shelf, closet, nook and cranny in our current home is full. So thinking about what we are going to have to do to adjust our lives to a very small space is daunting. But if we’re successful, imagine how much easier it’s going to be to move!

So... why are we telling everyone this? Well, it turns out we actually need your help to achieve this goal, and we’re going to need it for years to come. Because we have such an amazing, loving and generous circle of family and friends, each year we receive a lot of gifts… a whole lot of gifts. Just think about all the gifts! There are Christmas gifts and Valentine’s Day gifts and Easter gifts and birthday gifts and just plain old I-saw-something-and-thought-of-you gifts. All of these gifts, given to us with so much love, merriment, joy and sometimes, if we are all truly honest with ourselves, a certain sense of obligation, add up. In conjunction with the many things that we buy ourselves each year, they’ve added up in our lives to a critical mass that begs to be changed.

What we somewhat uncomfortably are asking you to do, and are asking ourselves to do, is to consider changing the way you buy us gifts or whether you buy us gifts at all. In our culture, as in many cultures, gift giving is an expression of love, gratitude and respect. And receiving gifts is also an expression of love, gratitude and respect. So what are we saying? Do we want you to stop expressing love, gratitude and respect for us? Are we saying that we don’t love or respect you or are not grateful for all of the gifts that have been given to us already and/or the sentiments behind them? No, not at all.

We are actually hoping that we can start to change the way we give and receive gifts, perhaps even shift our expressions of love, gratitude and respect for each other, while simultaneously reducing the number of garage sales, re-gifts, donations and square footage we’ll need over the course of our lives!

We are so incredibly fortunate. While we may want a few things, we honestly truly need nothing. If we never received a gift again, and only replaced things that wore out, we would be just fine. We have more love and great people in our lives than we ever hoped for.

But as far as gifts go, let’s face it - we all have had the experience of receiving a gift from someone, saying thank you and having thoughts like this: “Oh dear, where am I going to put that? ” or “I really wish I had gotten __ instead ” or “I really could have used __” or “Nice, but not my style. ” It also kind of stinks when you buy or make someone a gift and you never see them use it - even if you paid a lot of money for it, put in a lot of time and tried really hard to think of something they wanted or could use. None of those are great experiences - but the good news is we can do something about it!

If you see something out in the world that lovingly or humorously reminds you of us, please consider picking up the phone to tell us about it instead of bringing it to the register, especially if it’s not something you’re positive we want and need. Come Christmastime, holidays or our birthdays, ignore that nagging notion that you need to get us a gift to show us you love us. Call us to tell us about it and the thoughts it brought up. Write us a card or letter or just think of us fondly! Don’t get us wrong - there will always be things that we can’t afford or would really like as gifts. You can always feel free to ask us if we want that perfect gift that you see but is not on any wish list! You can always volunteer or donate to a cause in our name! Our obligation in this whole endeavor is to be honest with you about whether we want that gift you’re thinking of getting us or to tell you if we really need something. This is kind of radical and sometimes uncomfortable, don’t you think?

To make this work, we also need to put in the effort to make wish lists available to you. Or if we don’t have a list available, we need to not be upset with what comes to us (or doesn't)! Alternatively, we can actually make a date of it and go shopping for gifts together! All of this is going to be especially important when we have kids in the next couple of years. We will need help to get that fancy running stroller that we covet but can’t really afford and our kids will grow like weeds and need new or new-to-them-clothes. If we don’t have the space for all of the adult things we have, we really, really are not going to have the space for all of the adorable toys, clothes and games that are out there! And we also deeply want to keep reducing the impact that we have on the earth. That in and of itself is a very valuable gift that we are asking of our loved ones. Ultimately, it’s a new adventure for all of us and could end up being a lot of fun!

The Other Side of Moving — Elizabeth Garber

The day I agreed to sell my house, I felt like I got on a train, a rumbling old steam engine that was going to take me on a journey. There would be no stopping until I reached the “other side.” That first day I opened a notebook and made pages of notes, mapping out how I was going to do this, what I would pack and store, what I would sell, what would go to my office (files, finances), my mother’s attic (wedding dress, children’s treasures), on and on, creating the grand map for how I would consolidate my life for the two years before I move into Cohousing. From then on, every day from the moment I woke up I was aware I was on the “moving” train. I’d emerge from sleep creating lists, as well as plans, where was I going to live, housesit, rent? Sleep became more difficult as I scoured the chess board of options through the night, slowly edging from a vision through fear, panic, overwhelmedness, prayer, brainstorms, until a workable plan for my life in transition emerged. And during the day, when I wasn’t working or going for a walk or cooking meals, I was packing and organizing my life. I was on a train, I couldn’t stop, I had to keep to the schedule.

Fortunately I started with my desk, going through every file and drawer. I say fortunately, because at the beginning of moving I could still think, examine and sort wisely. By the end of moving, there was no energy or mind left for minutiae! Then books, sorting what I need for the winter to read, what for long-term keeping, what to give to the library and to give away to friends. Then the photo albums I’d created every year for my children’s childhood — I stored in big plastic tubs with firmly locking lids. My kids called home asking about the photo albums, admonishing me to keep them safe. We agreed that these albums are our most treasured belonging. The living room steadily filled with boxes and storage tubs.

I realized I was going to clean out and organize every drawer, every shelf, every closet of my life. What an incredible cleansing process! Each day, I allowed myself to do whatever I was drawn to clean next. I got excited, ooh yes, finally I could clean out the Christmas wrappings, the bottom of my closet, the drawer where I saved photos that hadn’t gone into the photo album. At the end of each project there was another drawer, sorted, wiped clean and empty. This process could not be rushed. Two months passed, each stop on the journey passed, the give-away, the yard sale, the packing party. My back recovered, I got over my cough, I used every herb and tea I knew to get sleep, and I kept making the next revised list. What was left to do? What had to wait until the last minute?

I must confess, I had a secret pleasure that helped me come home from work and look forward to packing, the mindless non-decision making kind of packing and cleaning. I listened to the Harry Potter books 1-5, read aloud, with terrifically varied voices and accents, so that I always had their friendly company late into the night. And the challenges that Harry, Hermione and Ron were dealing with made packing look easy. I will lend my collection to anyone who would like them when they are moving!

Then it was the night before moving day. I got home from work and my mother arrived. I am so blessed to have an energetic, enthusiastic, fun 81 year old mother who would organize and pack my pantry and hardware drawers all through moving day. Before we went to sleep, she sprayed oven cleaner in the oven, and we choked and gagged to get away from the stink of it! She was planning to clean the oven the next morning. At 3:30 am on moving day, I woke up smelling the oven cleaner. I knew what I had to do. I found a painter’s face mask and rubber gloves. By 4am, I was kneeling down with my head in the oven, cleaning out the cooked on baking and broiling spills and splatters of the last 9 years. I was laughing as I worked, this is part of the spiritual practice of cleansing and attending to every aspect of my life.

I was so happy that in a few hours I’d be able to take my mother a cup a coffee when she woke up in and tell her I had a surprise for her, that I’d done the oven. When we were kids and weeding long rows of beans or peas, she taught us about doing surprises for each other. She’d leave her row and weed a few feet of our rows, so it was a surprise when we got to it. This was my weeding ahead for her. I was on a roll, this was moving day. I would strip the beds, wash and dry the sheets and pack the bedding away. I would work my way through the list of what had been waiting for me to do.

It went like clockwork, the two moving guys came with a U-Haul truck and carried away the piles of boxes, the paintings, the furniture, and we kept packing the last things that needed to be dealt with while reassuring the cat that it was alright. By two o’clock my mother and I were starving but satisfied, the last surfaces wiped off, the last load gone in the truck. We had been an incredible team, each doing the next thing to do, seamless, easy, and we were having a good time. A friend brought us coconut milk to hydrate us and cookies to hold us over until a late lunch. We left the empty apartment, fed and patted the cat, gathered up food for a picnic dinner, rented a movie and went to a B&B where I’d reserved a room for the night. By five pm, we’d each had a hot shower and were in our sumptuously soft twin beds, talking over the amazing day. Then she read the NY Times and I napped. The deep astounding weariness of the last few weeks of packing began to recede. I slept deeply all night. When I woke up briefly, my mind was quiet and blank, there was (nearly) nothing really left to do.

I had entered the “other side” of moving. The train had reached a little country station, and I was let off in a new place, to discover what my life was like. My mother went home. I walked through my empty apartment and felt at ease. I remembered how it was when I bought it — when I had envisioned how we would live there. The rooms were empty again and ready for my new friend who was buying it. She came by holding up paint chips to the walls planning the life she’ll live in this space. I was glad to offer my feedback.

This process of moving was so intense and all involving, I am glad for our Cohousing community that we are getting on the train one at a time, to spread this out over time. This way those off us who are on the other side can help our future neighbors as they prep for selling their houses with painting parties and then moving parties. I feel so grateful for all who helped me and will soon be able to offer a hand to them.

Now, I am house-sitting for a friend before moving to a winter rental which is furnished, complete with sheets and towels. I realize this is my first week of stepping out of twenty-five years of being a householder who created home for her family. Now I feel very simple, like I’m on a meditation retreat. I have a few changes of clothes and simple food for the week. I move through my friend’s house and observe how we each gather objects that are full of meaning for ourselves and assemble a life. I have dissembled the objects of my life, and have put them away. I’m glad that I have this space and time before I create my new home at Cohousing. I’m aware that my relationship to the objects that I have saved and stored will change a great deal over this two year break.

Living without the things of my life, all there is left is me. I feel like I am simply an aware presence living a life. I am not rushing around in a house filled with tasks I have to do. I feel very mindful, choosing each next thing to do. It is a much simpler life. I’m actually doing what I’ve wanted to do. No computer in the evening. Instead, I’m reading the memoir I’ve wanted to read for months. I go to bed early, sleep deeply, ah, heaven, refilling the well of my energy. Waking up early, I discover I want to meditate, then stretch and exercise, then eat a good breakfast, all without rushing. Then walk to work. This is good, simple, moment by moment.

A Ball of Yarn — Coleen O'Connell

To think that it can all start with a ball of yarn. The design, the preliminary planning, and the decisions all take time before the process can begin. The moment arrives and the chosen yarn is unraveled and the creation begins to be woven. There is anticipatory excitement in those first stitches.

The months ahead will involve painstaking attention as the connections of yarn are woven into interactions that will result in a bundle of warmth and protection. There will be frustrating days; there will be delays in the process as the knitting gets placed on the back burner; days when unraveling will have to happen in order to get back on track after a small mistake; days when the yarn breaks and has to be repaired. But certainly there will be days when growth will be apparent and celebrated. But the eye is always on the prize – the knitting together of a beautiful and functional creation. The commitment to the goal is essential to its attainment. The vision of beauty to be realized never wavers.

Breaking from the standard patterns – the ones that you see over and over again – the vision is fresh. To think out of the box is to design something that will have lasting value in a world that calls for and practices mediocrity. Distinctive. A model others will want to emulate or copy. Practical and functional. Though others who come after will want the design, there will never be a creation quite like this one. The yarns will never be able to be truly reproduced again. This creation will be unique.

And so it is with knitting together an Ecovillage. The designs are set, the pattern determined, the knitters are lining up to do the weaving. The process is about to unfold as the stunning vision of a shared dream is seeing its way to finally being realized. Breaking ground this spring will be like taking out that first ball of yarn awaiting diligent hands that will turn it into a beautiful sweater. The excitement will be palpable. Patience and diligence will be necessary as the designs are made real. The coming together of a diverse group of people, weaving together a community beautiful and unique in our little village of Belfast, Maine, will be the realization of a long held dream. Let us hope that others will want our design and pattern; that others will want to knit together such a thing of beauty.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the day we can set the needles aside, try on our creation for its perfect fit, and see the sensations of the world reflected in our labor. Let it be so.