A Midlife Reassessment

To say the last few months have been hard is to understate the facts.

On May 16, my Mom called me. My Dad had passed away unexpectedly, coming inside after doing some yard work. I was initially in shock, and slow to move. A few days later I was on a redeye to Alabma to be with my Mom and help her.

On May 20, my Mom passed away while I was on the way to her from the airport.

The seven weeks that followed, with me living in their house in Alabma, are a bit surreal to me. There are observations I made after the shock receded, observations about the deep south and America, that might be appropriate at another time. Today’s post is about minimalism and knowing what is worth keeping. I share this not to invoke sympathy, but to help establish the thinking that unfolded.

My parents, it turns out, kept almost everything. Every piece of paper that came to them was sorted, filed, and boxed. Every work related paper, every roster, letter, or handwritten note, going back almost fifty years, was stuffed into boxes in their house. While some of it was interesting, fleshing out my own memories of events in life, a lot of it was just cluttering volume.

The papers were only the most visible tip on the iceberg. There was more, so much more. Clothes going back decades, boxes and boxes and yet more boxes of photos. I am a sentimental fool, but it didn’t take long for me to reach a point where it was all just stuff. It all began to lose meaning, especially knowing that there was a limited amount that I could actually bring back home with me, a finite amount that I could even given proper attention to.

Now that I am home, I look around the house, and I find myself re-evaluating what I’ve kept over the years. There’s plenty I’ve kept because of need or sentiment – but there’s also plenty of things crowding drawers and shelves that were kept simply because it was easier to keep than to try and figure out how to dispose of it.

Take my stamp collection. There was a period of time where I would buy estate lots of stamps because, invariably, there were a few really great stamps buried in the collection. That’s great, well worth the investment, etc., etc. But I didn’t do anything to get rid of the junk. I still have a box full of stamps on paper that isn’t even worth the scrap it’s attached to or the box that’s holding it. But I’ve kept it through two moves because it’s there. I’m not going to give up stamp collecting, sporadic as I am at it. I still enjoy the hobby, the history it brings me into contact with. But I a reassessing what exactly it is I’m collecting.

Minimalizing what you have in life doesn’t have to be about getting rid of everything but your toothbrush and the One Book You Will Always Read (I’d tell you what mine is, but then I know you’d judge me). But it does mean getting rid of the cruft. Maybe Marie Kondo has it right – if it isn’t bringing you joy or serving a purpose, why keep it? (Confession: I know of Ms. Kondo, but I’ve never read her book or watched the Netflix special she did, I only know of her methodology through secondary sources. If I’m grossly misrepresenting her, it’s completely in ignorance and not intentional.)

I think about that as I look at my stuff. I have a lot of books. Shocking, I know. But truth is, some of them are still here because they fill the shelf so nicely. The actual books were dissappointments when read. Why do I keep them?

I’m trying not to make any permanent, major changes right now. I know I’m still in shock, still recovering from seven weeks of diving in and trying to sort, categorize, and arrange what my parents took a lifetime to put together. All while subtly avoiding the fact of why I’m doing it, what circumstances brought me there.

In the months leading up to this Spring, I found myself ebbing into the digitial minimalism movement. Perhaps a bit extremely, but definitely with an eye to limiting my digital overexposure. But digital minimalism is just an opposite extreme who’s mirror twin is analog minimalism (putting it all in the cloud, removing what you have in the physical world). I’ve wavered between the two over the years, never finding my place in either, but convinced there had to be a way.

Now I think there is a middle ground. The path is thin and worn in places, but there is a way between the two extremes. A way to live life minimizing your footprint in each. A way to draw experiences, not objects (digital or analog), to fill your space. A middle path that can let you find just the right balance.

My next step, though, is in bringing order to the chaos I have now.

So, I wrote the bulk of this blog post over a month and a half ago now, but I let it sit. I wanted to be sure that what I had written in the moment was still true to my heart. That you are reading these words is validation that it is.

You all know how to find me. You know what rocks I hide under, and which ones are most likely to expose me. Me, I’ve got some writing to do.

Analog Days of Spring

I didn’t plan to take a digital hiatus. I sort of fell into it – literally.

I had been mulling it for a few weeks. Yes, yes, I happened to be reading Digital Minimalism (spoiler: I don’t 100% agree with the author’s premises even if I do agree with some of the conclusions). But while that provided the seed, it was circumstance that caused it to germinate.

On March 16th, a day notable for being the day before my birthday, I had a fall. I won’t go into the details (they’re slightly embarrassing and involve doing the dishes), but the end result was that I was immobilized. My left knee was swollen to double it’s size, my darling wife had gotten me a cane without any hint of sarcasm, and I found myself just…not. Not going on Facebook. Not going on Twitter. Not.

The first week was probably the toughest. After a while, though, I realized the only thing I was really missing was some of the news items that would filter into my feeds. Twenty seconds and an RSS link later, that itch was scratched (and, subsequently, unscratched, as I realized some of my feeds reported the same stories as the others). I used to argue that I kept my Facebook account so I could talk to those people I didn’t talk to otherwise. Likewise, Twitter was where I “hung out” with the writing community. But in my absence, I found nothing was missed. The conversations continue with or without me. I’m not lamenting that no one noticed my absence – more, I’m observing that my ego aside, I really wasn’t contributing to the dialog.

This is not the story of how I became an evangelist for the Analog Only movement. I did, though, find that there were some things, especially once I was less mobile, that were easier if I went the “old” way. Reading, for instance, is more enjoyable when you have both the physical mark of your progress, as well as not being dependent on battery life and chargers. I’ve been streaming a lot more music, but on a radio, not a computer. And there’s something magical about unplugging throughout the day.

Don’t get me wrong – I still work for a great, very entrenched in the digital realm company, a company you could call a small social media network (our users interact, even if the primary medium of interaction isn’t words but images). We’re not a place where people go to share their life status, or show pictures of their successful lives so much as a place where a community can come together and share laughs and emotions.

But outside of work, the laptop is more often than not closed, the keyboard silent. What does that do to my writing? Honestly, that’s a great question. I’m still mulling on a novel idea, scribbling down paper notes as thoughts come to me. In the next few days a new daisy wheel for a Brother electric typewriter I picked up for $2 at a yard sale comes in, and I plan on giving that a go (I already replaced the ribbon and have no interest in having a correction tape). With luck, that will satisfy the desire to write with my fingers tapping without needing to be on a computer to do it.

In the meantime, I am long overdue on writing a friend a letter back. But more on that in another post.

No more recaps. No more filler.

This blog post is not a recap. I will not bore you with the minutia of my personal life the last six months. I’ve wondered if blogging – or at least my participation – was finally at an end. Imagine my surprise when I found myself typing up this post, then.

Unfortunately, I have no news to share. I stopped calling myself a writer for a while – after all, writer’s write, and I wasn’t doing that any more. Except that lately, I have been. A few new short stories are floating around the aether right now, and my weak stabs at outlining have recommenced.

OK, because life is fraught with continuous driving when you’re the father of three kids in their teens, I’m just going to leave this post here to be an easter egg in your RSS readers. Later today, I may even clean up the Goodreads feed so it’s closer to accurate.

Until then, here’s the article I’m mulling over today: Outline The Hell Out of Things, courtesy of Jeff Patterson (@jeffpatterson11) who answered my call for help on twitter.