On Hoarding Words

ImageThe closest I’ve come to understanding the hoarding tendency is through my habit of collecting books. I am a hoarder of words. I take comfort in books- the words, the covers, the sight of them filling a large bookshelf, or waiting for me on my nightstand or on my desk. Most of the books I read come from libraries, (I don’t own a kindle), but I’ve still managed to acquire a significant collection of books over the years. The thought of parting with some of these books has made me reluctant, greedy, as though my actual cells might suffer. They are only books after all, but I understand the life force that went into creating them, and the salubrious effect words can have, raising people above ignorance or setting in motion imaginings that can have lasting and ripple effects. They can transport a person to another time and place or simply bring them back to themselves.

I go through phases of reading certain types of books. One book leads to the next and the next and I just can’t stop. Often I will stumble on the mention of a book that makes it to my ‘to read’ list and if I like it, I will read others by the same author. When I’ve exhausted that author, I move on. Or if I really, really like the author, I read all that I can find about that author. My memoir -reading phase lasted months, perhaps a year. It started with The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, a New York City journalist who was sent to interview a farmer in upstate New York. She fell in love and left the city to join him in the hard labor of farming. I find it intriguing to read about people’s life altering decisions, and how they come about. Kimball’s whole life changed when she went to interview this farmer. Weary from her New York City life, I guess she was ripe for this change. Perhaps they were destined to meet. She became a farmer- or rather discovered she is a farmer, whichever it is. She and her husband (they married and had two children) now feed their community and their family organically, a labor of love and tenacity. Kimball’s dramatic change fuels her writing. http://www.kristinkimball.com/the-dirty-life

Despite all my reading, I think I may have been the last person to read The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr. At a recent writing workshop, the facilitator handed out excerpts from this book, and said “I’m sure everyone here is very familiar with this book”. I was familiar with it, but only because I happened to have read it the previous week! Leave no book unread is what I took away from that. Published in 1995, The Liars’ Club dramatically revived the art of memoir. Mary Carr’s command of the English language, along with her honesty, grit and courage left me in awe. I read Carr’s other memoirs as well and by the end of the last one I actually felt a sense of grief parting with these real life characters I had gotten to know so well. I read interviews Carr had given, and in one of these there was mention of another memoirist, Augusta Burroughs, which led me to read his books, including Running With Scissors. Fun fact, I found out he lives in the town where my daughters attend college. Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini is fiction that reads like memoir. Like a lot of fiction, the author’s real experiences are on the page. Calling it fiction allowed his father, the tyrant in the story, to temporarily deny its truth. Conroy offers up his angst to the page, one scene at a time. Like Mary Carr’s, his words do not convey self-pity, but rather a detached yet descriptive unfolding of his history.

I like reading anything about the brain and how it works and changes, and affects behavior. And then there are some of the classics that I skimmed in school and want to reread. The Catcher in the Rye brought me to another memoir, At Home in the World, written by Joyce Maynard, an author who broke the silence on her relationship with the famous J.D. Salinger. As sometimes happens with writing, her honesty triggered both praise and ridicule from readers.

I came across the name of Caroline Myss whose work appealed to my interest in health. Her book, Sacred Contracts, touches on the remarkable lives of Jesus and Buddha and so many saints. Using a new theory of archetypes that references the works of Jung and Plato, Myss describes an intricate map of how we can interpret our own sacred contracts, finding the purpose and meaning in our seemingly ordinary lives. Near the end of her 366 page book, I am struck by the simplicity of these words: “Each choice either serves your highest good or detracts from it”. There you have it. Every day decision making stripped down to the essential in that one sentence.

Then there are writing books. So many books on writing, and just when I think that surely I’ve read them all, I uncover ten more. The War of Art, the Artist’s Way, Bird by Bird, First Draft in 30 Days. There are also the books that are both memoirs and books on writing, like Stephen King’s On Writing and Theo Pauline Nestor’s Writing Is My Drink. Plus all the technical books on writing. There is a lot of helpful writing advice out there, but I have concluded that by far the best advice is this: apply ass to chair. And reading does eventually bring me back to the chair, to the page, where life and thoughts and history and all the words I’ve hoarded churn out into something of my own.

Reading can be a way to avoid the work of writing though. Devouring others’ stories is surely easier than writing our own. I think most of us have ways of procrastinating, avoiding that difficult project for just one more day. Why is it sometimes so hard to sit down and face the page? It’s the sitting down and starting that is often the hardest. In Working It Out is a book of essays written by 23 Writers, Artists, Scientists and Scholars who reflect on their lives and work. In this book, Virginia Valian writes of her struggle to sit down and work on her graduate thesis. Eventually, after much procrastinating and anxiety, she commits to fifteen minutes a day. “A nice solid amount of time, an amount of time I knew I could live through every day”, she writes. Her long essay in its entirety can be found here: http://writingismydrink.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/1977workingitout.pdf

During a brief lull in my reading, I got the idea that I should be able to speak about my writing. I hope this isn’t another tactic of mine to distract me from my writing. But here’s how I justify the idea. Though I talk about my writing in a writing group, I need practice in a more formal setting, as in really speak about it; leave the comfort of the page and face a visible audience, and present something that I have written. One never knows when this may come in handy. Writers like to write. But don’t we need to talk about our writing too? So I joined Toastmasters, a club that supports the task of improving ones public speaking skills, and I gave my first speech. This initial presentation, called the ice breaker, can be on any topic that reflects the life or interests of the speaker. I chose the topic of how simplifying enhances creativity. I took many of the words for my speech directly from this blog. Despite the mixed audience, my speech was very well received. It flowed. People were interested and inspired. This was encouraging. I surprised myself. I can write. I can put a few sentences together. But speak? I hardly knew I could speak. It was only a six minute speech, given to a small room of friendly people, but I liked the idea of contributing something to an audience, even in some small way.

So back to the books. Releasing some that I owned, that I don’t think I’ll want to keep coming back to, was my most difficult step in simplifying. Really, it has been my only difficult step in letting go of stuff. I still own books. And I still read compulsively. But I now give less importance to the tangible book. It’s what it leaves me with, how it expands my mind or fuels my own writing that is the real gift in its pages. Holding it is nice. But releasing it is better.






Simply Time: our precious commodity

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” ~Annie Dillard

Time flies, we all say. We have to stake a claim, choose what to spend it on, make the hard choices.  Life stretches forth like a patch of calico, busy, colorful, stealing our attention.   When are our lives full and when are they cluttered?  Which are our options, and which are our duties?   Work, play, errands, chores, goals. People, pets, homes, sickness, health. News, sleep, bills, passions,  relationships.   What is productivity and what is perpetual busyness?   When does it call for purposeful attention and when is it a distraction?

I didn’t answer the door the other day. It was a stranger, coming to ask me to buy or sign. I didn’t want to do either.  I don’t feel any obligation to answer the phone, so why should the door be any different? It would’ve diverted my attention from what I wanted to focus on, time stolen from me if I allowed it. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind so much. This time I did.  I felt satisfied afterwards, having protected that moment, keeping my attention from pivoting to someone else’s plan.  It was a small act of claiming, but how many times a day do we interrupt ourselves?  If we don’t know where we want to go, we will be taken any way the wind blows, swallowed into time’s abyss.  Then the day is over. Then the life is over.

We struggle to make peace with time and its passing.  Should we cling? Hold on loosely? Savor it, waste it, use it up, respect it for the limited gift that it is?  To gain some mastery over it requires fierceness; otherwise, it is gobbled up.  To say yes to one thing, we have to say no to another. Choose a path and don’t relent.  Focus and don’t look away.  Let something go. Let someone go.

When we realize how precious time is, we treasure it and we want more of it.  We feel the time behind us, evaporated, invisible. Was it real? Were we there? What did we do? What did we say? And ahead of us- what’s ahead?  Will we get to all we want to do? But if we look behind or ahead, time escapes us again, gone. The moment is over.  

Time can be so fleeting, so vague and wispy. Setting an intention for each block of time that we have helps us to contain it.  Like holding clouds in a jar, this kind of segmenting will protect it from the denseness of life, of time’s thieves.  Time will still pass, but we will have been there with it.


Without darkness, we wouldn’t know light. And without winter, how would we know spring? The sun is out, the wind and snow have relented, at least for now, so bring on the spring cleaning! I am so ready to shed layers and dust and stuff. It’s not truly spring cleaning until we can open the windows, but I’m going to start somewhere.

A donation truck is coming through our neighborhood tomorrow, so that gave me extra incentive to get started now. I personally like to start with my bedroom.  Yesterday, I went through every piece of clothing, and even tried on the questionable ones until all that was left was what I really wanted.   It brought back the memory of when my daughters were little and I’d have them go through their clothing at the start of each season, figuring out what still fit and passing on what didn’t to their younger sister, or donating it. They used to call this the fashion game, and they had fun with it.  This sorting became a seasonal habit that stuck with themLast week, one of them told me her college sent an email to the students, suggesting they bring home some winter items when they leave for spring break. “It’s like my mother talking”, she said. Of course she was planning to go through her stuff and bring home her winter items. 

Seems there are always those clothing items that sit in a drawer, untouched.  Yesterday, I finally let go of my camisole tanks.  They’re pretty. I like them. Except that I never actually wear them. These camisoles are meant to be worn under other tops. That makes two tops, plus an undergarment. That’s three layers.  I really just don’t like layering. And if you are going out, you probably need a coat or a sweater. There’s four. How can we ever get to the important stuff of life if just getting dressed requires four layers?  I can hardly stand to put on my winter coat, in fact, which is a bit of a problem in New England from, say, November through March. (It has been my mission to find the thinnest possible winter coat that is still warm). So after offering the camisoles to my daughters, (can you believe they turned them down? I mean, who doesn’t want their mother’s clothes?!) I put them in the donation bag.  I also purged a purse and a few tops and jeans that really never fit right and a pair of shoes and a few other things.  Oh and I finally got rid of my ski pants. I loved these ski pants at one time in my life-the time that I skied.

My shorts still sit in a bin in my closet, and I think they’ll be there for quite a while longer. But the clocks were moved ahead today, and spring beckons.  It was actually somewhat comfortable outside and there is a collective sigh of relief, almost joy?  Once my clothes were bagged up, I dusted and vacuumed and changed the sheets, and voila. Master bedroom, check.  Next time, the kitchen.   If you clean it, spring will come.  That’s my motto this month.

Simplify: a discipline alternative


We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Aristotle

Discipline is just choosing between what you want now and what you want most. anonymous

I recently had a revelation. I simplify because I lack discipline. It’s one of those facts that you’ve known all along but comes into focus one day. For me, simplifying takes the place of discipline, and then leads to happiness.

Looking back, I’ve never really been disciplined.  I can blame that on my temperament, my upbringing, or anything else I can come up with, but it just never came naturally to me.   I remember starting on a strict diet when I was a teen, and how my parents did not have to worry that it would get out of control.  My diet lasted three days. I got consistent exercise only in the fall, because that is when I played a sport. If I didn’t show up, there would be consequences, people mad at me. I required structure, demands, few choices.

Fortunately for our daughters, they seem to take after their father.  I’ve never had to remind them to do their homework, eat their veggies or get some exercise.  They dedicated themselves to rigorous ballet classes and AP courses. And they studied their way through freshman year of college.  I remember sitting through a preprofessional ballet class with one of my daughters when she was contemplating switching to a more serious and structured dance school. I thought the class seemed dreadful, confining, boring. When the long ninety minutes was over, we left and I thought well, that takes care of that. I thought of the time and money we would save by not ever coming back. Her response was just the opposite. “I have to have this”, she said, longing in her eyes.

I don’t like stagnation and I know that to move forward, to fulfill my goals, to be happy, demands commitment.  So I do some things that seem to require discipline and focus, like practicing yoga, for instance.  And simplifying in ways that make sense to me.  But I don’t do these things because I am disciplined.   I find discipline only because I do them.

Without simplifying, I don’t stand a chance. I know that if I have too many things in my own way- on my agenda, in my head, on my plate, I will never make it to that yoga class. I won’t sit down and write if I am distracted by all the things I have to do afterwards or did before that. If I am tripping over things on the way to my desk, I may never make it into the chair. Eliminating all that I can, except what matters the most to me, is how I actually stay consistent with those things that matter.  Like most people, when I’m overwhelmed or tired, I am at my weakest. So my method of finding- or rather replacing- discipline is to remove the things that I can which keep me from what I want most.  If I am clogged and cluttered with the extraneous, I can’t see the path I know I want to be on, let alone move forward on it.

I simplify my diet by organizing my pantry and fridge. I streamline my wardrobe by only keeping what I like. I unriddle my exercise routine by committing ahead of time to a workout or scheduled yoga class.  I focus on what I want by eliminating from my agenda that which I don’t, as far as it is in my control. And only then, when I have pared down as much as I am able to, will I make the choices that give my life a forward momentum. One good choice leads to the next, and good things happen. Dreams come true.