Taming the acquisition monster

I am not a big shopper. I discovered years ago that retail therapy was not very effective for me. Frequently I order what I need online to avoid having to go to malls. So downsizing and simplifying have not been onerous for me.

There are, however, two places where my acquisition monster comes roaring out. One is books, which I’ll write about in a subsequent post, and the other has to do with travel.  If you were to wander around our room you would clearly see that there is something about the art and craft of other cultures that I find irresistibly appealing. I went to Vietnam with the best of intentions, but the struggle was mighty and I didn’t always win.

artist with painting

Artist Hoang Thanh Phong (ricepaperart@yahoo.com) with his painting Mindfulness (photo used with permission of artist)

I gave myself a pass for some gifts: a couple of cute embroidered dresses for our newest granddaughter, coconut candies and various little things for our house mates, friends and relatives.

My biggest struggle came when we ate lunch at a terrific restaurant in Hue. Original art adorned the walls. The artist was there and told us about his works, which were very inexpensive. I wanted one so much I could hardly restrain myself. It was a perfect storm of desire – the artwork was deeply spiritual, I loved it, I wanted to support the artist, it was affordable, it would be a great reminder of a trip of a life time. It didn’t help when two of our traveling companions bought several between them. But, we have no more wall space in our room. The last thing we need is a painting. I walked away. I’d be lying, though, if I said I never think about contacting the artist and seeing if the one I loved most is still available.  Continue reading

Making room for one another

I have a confession to make: We’re not really spending a year in a room. In the eight months we’ve lived at Beacon Hill Friends House we’ve travelled extensively both for work and for pleasure. In fact, I’m writing this post from Hue, Vietnam. I don’t see these trips as an escape from community, but rather a chance to explore community in different ways.

imageTo better understand Vietnam, I am reading Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald. She points out that the Vietnamese and American psyches are different with regard to space. For Americans, space seems less limited and the possibilities for expansion enormous. For the Vietnamese, it is clear that there is very limited space and to take too much of it is to deprive another. As Fitzgerald puts it:

Within the villages as within the nation, the amount of arable land was absolutely inelastic. The population of the village remained stable, and so to accumulate wealth meant to deprive the rest of the community of land, to fatten while one’s neighbor starved. Vietnam is no longer a closed economic system, but the idea remains with the Vietnamese that great wealth is antisocial, not a sign of success but a sign of selfishness.

The ways we share space or make room for one another (or not) color our own happiness as well as the health of  our community.

Among the scenes I’ve found most compelling in Vietnam is traffic, as reflected in the accompanying video captured by one of our travel companions, Bob Fox. Continue reading

Shining a light from one generation to another

Yesterday I turned 65. Bill and I had a really great day together, including a birthday dinner at the house. But there was no big ritual about it. I signed up for Medicare the month before. The day before I got my senior pass for the T, which allows me unlimited rides for $28 a month. But I did give a lot of thought to generations.

Over the last several years Bill and I have lost all the family members of the generation ahead of us except for one of my uncles. We’ve also lost our mentors and people who inspired us as they walked the path ahead. I understand far better now Marian Wright Edelman’s need to write the book Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors to honor the people who mentored and shed light on the way for her.

John DunneJust a month ago, we lost someone who started inspiring us in college and continued to do so up until his death. John Dunne was a prolific writer who taught at the University of Notre Dame for over 50 years. He was a great lover of God who saw life as a journey with God through time – a great adventure of which death was, perhaps, the most adventuresome part. Continue reading

Making friends with chores: Never too old to learn

Neither Bill nor I grew up in households where we shouldered especially demanding chores. Bill cut the lawn and took out the trash, but his mother once confided that she did me no favor by laundering, ironing and putting away his clothes for him.  In my family we were just expected to help out with whatever was needed. That might mean working in the garden, setting and clearing the table, or odd jobs.  And the easiest way was considered the best. This looseness around chores led to some interesting consequences early in our marriage. We often had a messy house. The first time I washed Bill’s shirts I put any that weren’t permanent press in a laundry bag to iron later. Several years and a couple of moves later we finally threw out the untouched laundry bag.

We carried our family of origin patterns over into our child-rearing. We tended to clean what we needed to when it seemed to need it rather than on a regular basis. Our kids helped out with things, but didn’t have regular chores. We more or less got the job done, but in a fairly undisciplined and sometimes untimely fashion. At some point when we could afford it we paid people to do the heavier duty cleaning of our house.

So, living in a house where we all have regular chores that need to be done at specific times has been a new and interesting experience. We IMG_2639have a chore for five weeks at a time and then switch. This cycle I sweep the kitchen courtyard on Wednesdays and the St. Francis courtyard on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. Because this is falling leaf season, I also put out the yard waste I’ve swept up for curbside pickup on Thursday evening. Continue reading

What makes a home

Coming back from our last trip, I realized how much Beacon Hill Friends House had become home. I began wondering what it is that makes a place a home. I imagine it’s different for everybody.

For me, the physical attributes for a place to be home are minimal: good light, a comfortable place to sit, books (of course!), a few cherished things and easy access to outdoors. It helps if the place is relatively neat, but that doesn’t always happen with us.


The physical environment is the least of it for me. Primarily it’s about the people. First, I’d have to say, home is where Bill is. We’ve been married twice as long as we lived before marriage. Home is where we sheltered children and aging parents. But, we sheltered them more with ourselves than with a specific physical environment.

Home is a place where it’s ok to be who and how you are. Not long after returning from a trip I was sitting in the kitchen writing while one housemate made dinner and various people wandered through. I could have gotten more done in the quiet of the library. But, I woke up really crabby that day – jet-lagged and discouraged by the clutter in our room. Continue reading

Eking meaning from my first black eye

carol shinerIt was just before lunch and I was happily striding down Chestnut Street, rushing to fetch that Volvo we’re either going to keep or sell.

I never made it to the car. Catching my toe on a loose brick, I planted my face on the brick sidewalk. Luckily for my face, my right hand broke the fall a bit. Not so lucky for my hand. Sure changed my plans for the day. Instead of reading, writing, walking and playing with our granddaughter, I spent the day at urgent care and radiology, icing and resting. I was incredibly lucky — no broken bones, just a very sore hand and my first ever shiner.

I will also admit to a shaken psyche. One of the ways I calm myself when shaken is to try to make meaning from the event. Writer Carolyn Myss suggests that we treat the unexpected in our lives as a form of spiritual direction. The fall was certainly unexpected — what might it direct my attention toward? Continue reading

Are we losing our habitat?

The other day I walked to the Museum of Science to see a movie about coral reefs. I’ve been intrigued with reefs ever since reading an article in the science section of the New York Times a little over six years ago about the death of many coral reefs and the efforts to restore them. The article brought tears to my eyes. Coral reefs, sometimes called the rain forests of the sea, are diverse communities that shelter a vast array of species. If any one of those species is at risk, if the diversity gets lost, it puts the whole community at risk. If the coral, the habitat of the community, dies off it threatens the species who live there. Many scientists quoted in the article were pessimistic about our ability to reverse the dramatic loss of reefs in recent times.


Wikimedia Commons photo by Mikhail Rogov

The movie, a visual delight, was more hopeful, but also suggested that reefs could disappear in our lifetime. The opening scenes confirmed an intuition I had about human communities and coral reefs.  The scenes flashed back and forth between cities packed with people and traffic moving in all directions and reefs with schools of fish streaming in all directions. Point made: Community is our human habitat, our coral. Continue reading

Promises kept, it’s time for the woods

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

I have loved Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” since I was young. Then, I was grabbed with the narrator’s sense of service and duty. Lately, the poem has struck me differently. I am taken by his attraction to the lovely, dark and deep woods. I can imagine him longing to go into them to see what’s there, to feel the magic and reverence that woods can inspire.

IMG_2328While thinking about this at some point I realized that I felt the same attraction and that, wonder of wonders, Bill and I have no more promises to keep. We’ve raised our children. Our fathers died somewhat young and we cared for our mothers in our home for the last little bits of each of their lives. We had various returning nesters that we sheltered. But now they are independent. We have left our salaried jobs and work for ourselves. The only promises left to keep are to each other and to God. We can hold hands and walk into the woods. Who knows what we’ll find there? Hopefully we’ll discover new opportunities for service, expansive ideas, gratefulness for the journey and joy in the small, precious things of life.

What attracts you and what do you hope to find?

The changing roles of a downsized life

As we downsize, I realize that giving up certain things also involves giving up certain roles. At Christmas time we packed up my mother’s dishes (which had been her mother’s) and Bill’s mother’s dishes and took them to Maleita, our oldest daughter. Handing over the dishes as well as moving out of the big house made it clear to me that I wouldn’t be hosting the holiday meals. It’s a role I’ve loved – gathering whatever family and friends were available and enjoying good food and good companionship.

And it’s not just the holiday meals – we loved providing hospitality to people from all over. We were blessed with a house big enough to have people stay. Maybe because my work has often involved intangibles I love the concreteness and sensuality of cooking for people – the colors and scents and tastes, even the feel of stirring a risotto or kneading bread. I love figuring out what people enjoy eating and serving them that. I have to admit to a certain sadness at giving that up. Continue reading

Cherishing Things

IMG_2282Our room is comforting to me. It feels like home even though we’ve only been in it a little while. There are two large windows overlooking the street with a large tree shading them. Birds sing in the morning. The place is new to us, but there is a comfort in what we kept and brought with us. On the bed is the brightly embroidered bedspread we never intended to buy on our trip to visit our daughter and son-in-law when they were working in India. IMG_2279On the window sill sits a ceramic man who used to stand on a swing until it rotted years ago. It was a present from our friend Judy, who lived near us in three very different places – Detroit, California and Florida. It reminds me that friendships last despite distance.

Continue reading