11.27.2015

Living Below Our Means: Three Tales about Relationship with Things

This series is titled "Living Below Our Means" first and foremost because it implies that we all have the means (limited, though it may be, even the seemingly unlimited means are limited to the realms of this world) to spend on things. The means could be tangible (money, possessions), or intangible (connection, opportunities).

In addition to having the means, we also have the freedom to choose to spend it on things according to our values. The title does not imply living with a limited amount of stuffs (as many would assume in minimalism). The set point of living within/below/above one's means runs the spectrum.

My personal goal, if you ask, is simply to decide mindfully on possessions that enhance the quality of my life, and with which I have a good relationship. Relationship with things, as I found out, is intricately related to that set point. Below are three tales about relationship with things. All of these are based on my personal experience.

I

Possessions can create a sense of calm, security, and help create a meaningful life. Think of a car, for example: it makes travel convenient, it provides a secure home-away-from-home respite, and for many of us, a necessity. My car, Skittles (yes, I do name my car), is the hardest working 1997 Honda Civic in the world. Blue Book value? I'd be lucky if I can get $500 for her, but I drive her like wearing a badge of honor. I paid my car outright a few years after I graduated from college, and I have traveled many miles with her ever since. 
When I found out I was pregnant, the first thing I thought was to buy a  safer, better, more modern car. Makes sense, but did I actually do that? No, because there are far better use of my money (my means) than getting a new car (a decision proven to be prudent, considering we were downsizing to a one-income household). And my relationship with my current car is that of gratitude: I am utterly thankful that she always works when I need her to work (except for that one time, in Whole Foods... which is about the best place to get stranded if you ever got stranded with your car broken, and the fix was a little jiggle on the battery connection, no tow truck needed!), and never needs much maintenance, either. No, my friend, this is not a woo-woo, sentimental, new-age thankfulness to an inanimate object. This is a straight-forward gratitude from repeated experience of satisfaction of using a product. If Honda is ever sold in Amazon, I'd give this Civic model a thousand stars. I wouldn't trade Skittles for a shiny new Volvo even though she is the oldest grandma on the school run. My reliable car truly enhances the quality of my life and allows me to live below my means.

II

To the rest of the world outside the U.S., the practice of returning products after they are purchased is quite a peculiar phenomenon. Take the money (aka risk) out of the equation and you have the "Buy now, think later, it's ok to change you mind!" 
It comes in many flavors. There's the legitimate return of defective/unsafe products, thank goodness for this! Or, the often-justified practice of returning things with tags still attached (not used, not altered, etc.). Or, the sorry-but-not-sorry-I'm-glad-I-can-still-return-it returns of consumable items -- items that will inevitably be thrown away once returned (e.g. cosmetics).
For the sake of sales drive, companies are essentially rewarding consumers for their change of hearts, impulse buys, regrets, all-around "bad" consumption behaviors. When rewarded again and again, a behavior will turn into a habit, a cycle, an addiction. The cycle of buying and returning goods is an equivalent of "stuff bulimia" -- hauling and purging of things partly drives the economy. The more turnover, the more products are moved, the more profits are generated. 
I do understand the appeal of returns/money back guarantee. After all, I'm not attached to my things, or do I? Somewhere along the cycle, I found that repeated buying and returning creates a feeling of unease, an anxiety with possessions I do own, "Should I keep this item, knowing that if I return it in the future, I will get my money back to get a newer, better thing?" I found myself keep finding "the wrong" in the things I have just purchased: too similar, not glossy enough, too shiny, not shiny enough, not different enough, do they just change the formula recently? I over-analyzed my purchases, I over-purchased things. Before long, I have spent much of my mental energy thinking and planning: planning my returns, thinking about what to do with the credit from my returns, plotting my future purchases, stalking for LE products. All the while, those items were sitting in my drawer, unused, or half-used half-heartedly. Yes, I used to have piles of unused makeup, waiting to decide whether I really wanted to use them or not. Who owns what now?

III

Shortly after my mother passed away, I was bequeathed with a not-so-small task of sorting her belongings, mostly her academic papers, journals, and books. It was excruciating, to say the least, to face the mountains upon mountains of papers, all of which meant a lot to my mom. It is her life's work. If you have been following me, I have been exercising the Marie Kondo method since the beginning of this year. Surely, my journey has lead me to this occasion; if I am KonMari-ing my own home, I should be up to this task. My siblings did agree.
A few weeks after I came back home from my mom's funeral, I found myself in mountains upon mountains of my own papers: my own old dissertation, thesis, projects, old textbooks, lecture notes, papers, journals. All of them which has nothing to do with my life now, as a stay-at-home mom. Day and night, I pored myself over these papers, trying to find the best way possible to weed them out, which stays? which goes? which sparks joy? I found myself researching the internet, joining KonMari facebook groups, lighting candles, all in the name of reducing belongings to those which spark joy
Honestly, the joy is no longer there. I don't even know what spark joy in facing my own anxiety of impermanence. I can't find joy in things, period. They are all so joy-less. These papers, which represent my hard work and best effort for most years of my adulthood, are joyless. Soon, these papers, too, won't be able to speak to the kind of person that I am, just like those of my mother's. If I am not these papers, or the thing that they represent, then who am I? Shouldn't things liberate us to see what's truly matter? Instead, I am buried in thoughts of despair and worthlessness. Just when I thought I'm at peace with my belongings, I found yet clutter upon clutter in both physical and psychological world. 
  

Can you relate to any of these tales? Have you find the right relationship with your stuffs/possessions? Do you own your possessions or have your possessions consume you, more than what you are willing to admit?

The opposite of materialism/consumerism is actually over-preoccupation of what to do with possessions (and some may argue that this is the definition of minimalism).

11.25.2015

Simple Gift

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight."

The events in the world lately hardly inspires any gratitude -- a sentiment I shared with many around me, real or virtual, most of them parents.

The truth is, when time is hard, I am most thankful for what I already have. I usually start small; food on my table, warm blanket on my bed, roof above my head, my son giggling (despite his froggy, throat-y, wet cough), time for silence and solitude.

Then I am thankful for so many people like you and me. People who, despite their worries, discouragement, fear, failure, still wake up in the morning and decide to make the best of their days by doing the right thing, by honoring each other's presence. Parents who rushed home to dinner, despite being late so many times before. Children who are hoping for their parents for dinner. Bus drivers who stop a few seconds longer so those who are running can come aboard from the pouring rain. Pharmacists who take that one last prescription a few minutes after closing time, knowing that the child need it that night. Grocery clerks who said thank you with a smile. Neighbors who asked, "Oh!! Do you want some of my basil?"

I am thankful for each and every one of you who makes this world simply work. When I witness these act of love and kindness, they restore my faith in goodness, in the universal bond that tie all of us as one human family, in something bigger than us. This is what gives me hope for a better future for me and my family and for all of us. Each one of us is a simple gift to one another.

Wishing you all a blessed Thanksgiving. May your home filled with love and gratitude.