I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs this year. I think the significance of that is a separate post in its own right, and one that I intend to write about sometime soon. Suffice it to say, it comes down to two things (I think): my introversion and a present sense of loneliness when it comes to friendships.
Anyway, in one of those memoirs, Dancing Fish and Ammonites, by Penelope Lively, I was intrigued by the last chapter, “Six Things”, where Lively essentially describes the significance of six material things in her life. She prefaces the chapter with this:
My house has many things, too, besides those books—the accretions of a lifetime. Not many of them are valuable; some of them are eloquent. People’s possessions speak of them: they are resonant and betraying and reflective.
. . . I have picked out six of the things that articulate something of who I am. . . . [A]t this late point in life, I have seen these objects in the house imbued with new significance — I have seen how they reflect interests, and concerns, how they chart where I’ve been, and how I’ve been.
She goes on to describe the story of each item and dubs it a “material memoir” of sorts. I loved that notion, and ever since reading it months ago, it has been on my mind.
What would I choose as my six things?
Right away I imposed upon myself the rule that neither books nor photos (or devices that hold photos) would count. Those are a given, I think, for many of us. Maybe I’ll even do a separate entry about that one day; that is, which six books I couldn’t live without.
So, what’s left? This was harder than I thought it’d be, not because there were too many things, but because I was struck at how few I came up with. The process revealed that I do not have much in the way of material possessions that I feel deeply connected to on some level. Perhaps that is a good thing.
The process also revealed that there is much about the house that I don’t feel is truly mine. I don’t really have much in the way of material things that I carried forward from childhood or even my college/early adult years. Moreover, so much of the things in our home are shared, if not utilitarian. That was an interesting and unexpected realization.
Given the relative age difference between Lively and me—she’s 81 and I am 40—I wonder if that is part of it too. Perhaps I have not really begun that life phase of acquiring meaningful things. Maybe I never will. Or maybe the significance of things already in my midst have not had the full measure of time to reveal themselves yet.
But, eventually, some of my possessions did trickle forward, though perhaps with a sort of latent value that required me to really think about them first. I’m still thinking about the significance between items that I acquired myself versus those that were given to me, items that were objects found in nature versus those that were paid for with money. I think those differences speak volumes, and I will continue to ponder that a while longer. For now, though, here are my six things.
1. The diamond earrings from E. My husband, E, and I have been together for twenty years this summer (though married only since 2002). In 1997, after a few years of dating, he gave me a pair of diamond earrings for Christmas. They are humble and flawed (if you look closely), and were purchased with far more love than money. After all, he was still in graduate student budget mode at the time. Could we afford to upgrade this pair now? Yes. But the thing is, I don’t want to. Bigger, flawless diamonds are not who I am. I like to hold these earrings and know the backstory of how they came to be, and how they still, after all this time, matter just as much to me now. Notably, they are one of the few things I specifically bequeath to my daughter in my will.
2. Driftwood and rocks from Lake Champlain in Shelburne, VT. I’ve posted before about the significance of Shelburne, VT to my husband and me. When we go, I pick up these lovely pieces of driftwood that collect along the shore of Lake Champlain just steps from the cottage we rent at Shelburne Farms.
They have a distinct sound when you walk on them or toss one on the ground. I love their weathered grey color, smoothness, and sometimes erratic shapes. I carefully nestle a few each year in my suitcase, and they’ve taken up residence around the living room. And the rocks. Oh, the rocks. These smooth stones of black shale, veined with quartz are, in a word, mesmerizing. I could (and often do) spend hours poking through them along the shore. Inevitably, I pick a few to take home. These stones and sticks, I see them every day and am reminded of that special place, a place that I hope one day will be a more permanent fixture in my life.
3. Shells collected at various beaches. In my living room sits a jar of shells that we’ve collected as a family (and even a few since before M was born almost seven years ago). They hail from beaches domestic and afar. Other than the Atlantic Surf Clams, I probably cannot even tell you what beaches we were on when we found those treasures. But no matter. It’s what they represent and remind me of: long stretches of time together to walk—uninterrupted and unhurried—along the shore, just to take in the salty breezes and hear the cries from the gulls overhead. Those walks where the water lapped at our feet, us wondering whether the next wave would deliver a new treasure just for us to see. Each shell is plucked as being so very important, and it is, at least in that moment. That importance fades over time, it seems. Collectively, though, seeing these shells accumulate from year to year (and particularly in the middle of winter), I am reminded that summer will always come again, as will vacations and time to let our guard down together.
4. My camera. I really don’t know where I would be without my camera. I’ve had many over the years, and each one has been so supremely significant to me while in my possession. I’ve long since given away my first 35mm (film!) camera, and the few digital SLRs I owned after that, but I will always remember each one as special. The camera I have now is no different, other than the fact that it was also the one thing I allowed myself to buy right before leaving my job at the law firm three years ago. By leaving that job, I was walking away from a more viable income source than what I’ve cobbled together for myself by writing and working as a VERY part-time attorney. It was my last significant purchase with money I earned completely on my own. For any woman who has ratcheted down her career in the name of her children, you know exactly what I might be feeling when I note that. It’s not bothersome to me, but it’s a significance that is tied to this particular camera, and it’s not lost on me.
5. My bunny coffee mug. This little guy only came into my possession a few years ago, but for some reason I am profoundly attached to it. I bought it at a craft fair and it was made by a local potter. Strange that it took so many years to find the “right” mug–the handle, the weight, the size . . . all of it. Just perfect. I think what also gives it significance is that on some level it solidifies that I am a bona fide adult, one who needs coffee on a daily basis just to keep up with life, and there’s no turning my back on that fact anymore. Nothing else makes me feel quite like an adult as does my mug.
6. The necklace that hangs around my neck. I bought it out of a catalog some years ago, so it’s not something profoundly unique. On one side has a tree (affirming my affinity for trees), and the other side simply says this:
By now I’ve almost developed a sort of superstitious relationship with it. I am afraid to take it off for fear of something bad happening. Perhaps this is a talisman of my anxiety if nothing else. I do, on occasion, take it off in order to wear something fancy if the event (or my mood) requires, but it’s rare. I feel naked without it.
Remember what is important to you. Words that I need to literally wear around my neck in order to remember it, every single day.
What’s important to you? What are your “six things”?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I normally don’t read (much less review) books like Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently, by Caroline L. Arnold, but I really liked the premise of the notion that in order to see big changes (over the long term) all it takes is a micro change that you commit to and stick with. Knowing that there a few people in my life (personally and online) who lament about things they wish they could do differently or changes they wish they could make permanent, I thought perhaps I’d share a quick review of this book.
As the book jacket aptly points out,
[N]early 90 percent of personal improvement resolutions end in failure. These endless defeats may tempt you to take increasingly drastic steps to effect change, but in fact it’s the small but pivotal behavioral change—the microresolution—that is actually most likely to get you to your goal.
Arnold more succinctly puts it like this a few pages into the introduction:
The way to free ourselves from cynicism and reverse our expectation of failure is to learn how to make resolutions we can sustain.
A microresolution is easy to keep.
It makes sense, really, when you think about all those grand plans of initiating a major life(style) change and then finding yourself failing or flailing mere weeks or even days later. That’s the beauty of the microresolution. It’s small enough to keep but also big enough to eventually make a difference.
One of Arnold’s own examples related to losing weight. Sound familiar? Instead of a sweeping resolution to “get thin by summer” or “never snack again” or “never eat cookies again”, she did something very specific: she (micro)resolved to never eat the conference room cookies again. In other words, she “kept [her] resolution reasonable and limited“. By structuring it in this very precise way, it was not only easy to accomplish, but also easy to measure success. If there were cookies in the conference room and she didn’t eat any, she succeeded. It was but one way that she started the effort to reach her larger goal of thwarting her increasing weight gain.
I mean, it’s so refreshingly simple, isn’t it? I think so.
After an enlightening short chapter about why our typically larger resolutions fail, in Part One of the book Arnold gets into the seven “rules” for making microresolutions. In quick chapters, she uses examples from her own life as well as others’, pointing out what worked, what didn’t. She instructs us on the how and why of making microresolutions, with advice about how to give it a positive spin and structuring them in a way to offer almost immediate gratification when we achieve the goal on a daily (or otherwise regular) basis. She points out how to tell when a microresolution isn’t small enough, and when it can be expanded. Arnold educates us about the difference between our new behaviors and bona fide good habits (that will eventually form if we stick with our microresolutions for the long term).
She also tells us how many microresolutions we should have at any given time. Ready for this? TWO. That’s it.
Part Two of the book digs a little deeper into various realms that a reader might want to focus her microresolutions, with each chapter focusing on a different one: sleep, fitness, diet/nutrition, clutter, relationships, spending, punctuality, and organization. Obviously you can skip to the chapter(s) that might resonate with you most given what you are trying to accomplish.
For me, I basically focused on the diet/nutrition chapter the most, but I did also peek at the relationships and organization chapters as well, making mental notes for later.
Since I found this book at the library and read it right before vacation, I decided to wait until I returned to actually start my microresolutions, knowing that I couldn’t keep them in their first week while on a very indulgent time away from home. Why start with a failure, right?
So here are my two current microresolutions:
1. No eating after 10pm. A lot of the regrettable eating (and, let’s face it, occasionally some drinks too, especially in summer) happens in the half hour before I usually go to bed. I’m resolving to stop that. Only a few days in, it’s hard, but manageable, and that’s the point.
2. No wheat between wake-up and 4pm. I’m not sure if I’ve structured this one the right way yet. But the truth is I get really bloated when I eat wheat, end up feeling crabby if I eat too much of it, and most of it is snacking or “I’m too lazy to make something healthy”. Like the Goldfish lying around, or a couple of slices left over from last night’s loaf of crusty bread. But I love, LOVE bread and pizza and the like, so I am intentionally still allowing myself those things, but it might be for dinner, rather than all day long. I’m also not cutting out carbs altogether with this one–I can still have a baked potato for lunch or have popcorn as a snack. Maybe not much healthier than a hunk of bread and butter, but certainly some. Notably those also take more work to make than slicing a baguette, so I am not even sure there will end up being a tit for tat replacement because I’m lazy sometimes.
All in all, what Arnold points out is intuitive. But before this book I hadn’t really thought about it quite the same (or right) way, particularly all of the reasons why bigger resolutions often fall by the wayside, AND that it is OK to make the smallest of changes and still call it a success. I think too many of us feel like we have to go big or go home with everything, and that’s just not the case.
I’ll keep you posted periodically of how I do with these microresolutions.
What about you? Is there some small change that you could make? Let’s microresolve together!
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
The new bookshelves are here. I’m being deliberate about what goes where, which books will get priority seating. It’s a task that I could get lost in forever, perhaps especially this summer. Truth is, I’m having a rough go of it. I feel perpetually raw for so many reasons, known and unknown. My status, it seems, has hovered somewhere between salt in wound and gnat in room, with a cloak of irrelevance worn too many times in between. It’s hard to feel like that all of the time. Books have become my balm. They are my friends right now. We’re tight. We hang.
Yet given the many obligations I have to tend to, I can’t take all that much time to ponder the placement of my closest confidants. Maybe another time, but not right now. There are repair men to wait for, suitcases to be packed, dust motes to battle.
Still, I am indulging in a quick glance at my books as I tuck each one away. When I picked up Observe the Lark, poems by Katie Louchheim, I happened to turn to this poem. I don’t remember ever reading it, though I must have. It’s almost like she was speaking directly to me, right here in this moment. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall having read it before, when it wasn’t relevant. I suppose this is why books can so easily become friends—they always offer exactly the right words to say at exactly the right time.
The Sensitive One
You who are so sensitive,
so finely honed, so favored,
you walk through words.
The trees talk to you,
fiercely dispute their right
to own your silence.
Lush meadows, pleading streams,
lonely paths call you by name,
memorize your footfall.
You close the troubled doors,
You were last observed
reforesting, planting a new world.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Even though it was nine years ago, I remember that giddy anticipation when we purchased our house. Our first house. This house.
Were we taking too much of a financial risk? I was barely a year into my job as a law firm associate. The very month during which we closed was also the apex of the bloated housing bubble. Needless to say, we leaped without much of a parachute, much less any alternate flight plans.
Would we spend all of our free time cleaning and tweaking this house? Our 800 SF apartment had been quite enough to maintain, it seemed.
Was this too big for just the two of us? We had no plans for animals or children.
But perhaps most pressing at the time, where will we sit?
We quickly realized we needed to fill these rooms if we wanted to use them. Wasn’t that the point, in fact, of buying a home?
Given the inflated cost of the house, our budget for furnishings was meager. We decided to start with the living room. We only had one piece to bring from the apartment: an oversized, overstuffed chair and ottoman. A faded sage twill, it was incredibly comfortable, at least to our twenty and thirtysomething year old bodies. It was practical too: the ottoman doubled as seating during parties. No matter that it took up a third of our new living room.
Yes, we would have to design and coordinate any new living room furniture around this chair.
We filled the room, somewhat in haste and all without really projecting into the future. No, we didn’t exactly account for our actual daily endeavors and pastimes in mind, or how our bodies might age (hint: much faster than we anticipated). We bought a honking large armoire to tuck away the tube television. A coffee table and an end table with the world’s sharpest corners rounded out the rest of the room. People could sit now too. The couch we ended up with was striped in green and blue, and a more scaled down version of the stuffy, puffy chair. Eventually we added a cheap book shelf to the room and a little bit of tabletop lighting.
It was all ours. These pieces quickly became fixtures within the central corridor of our home. People could sit and gather, think and talk, flop and snooze.
And tomorrow, we say goodbye to all of it in order to make way for new things.* Pieces that won’t break our backs anymore. Pieces that are more thought out with what we like to do in this room. Pieces that take into account the wide range of ages that frequent our home.
Up until a few days ago, I was happy about the whole thing. I mean, of course I still am. Our new space will have some additions I have coveted for many years (read: far more bookshelf space) and will lend itself to a more streamlined flow. We also have an opportunity to make others happy in the process. Yes. Good things.
And yet I am suddenly sentimental about one piece that is moving on: our sofa.
While watching my daughter lounge across the blue and green stripes earlier this week, I was unexpectedly face to face with an attachment I didn’t know I had to this workaday piece of furniture.
All in a moment, I remembered all that has happened on those 82 inches of upholstery and fill.
The endless hours of nursing her in that first (draining) year, her soft wisps of hair fluttering against my naked skin.
The Al Bundy years.
The (seemingly) endless hours of tending to her through the stomach bug/roseola/colds/strep/swine flu/fevers.
The infinite games of Uno and Go Fish.
Emma and Paul getting priority seating.
The countless cereal bars and yogurt smoothies consumed there by her for breakfast. Every. Day.
The slowly growing length of her legs that used to take up just one cushion, then two, and now three.
The naps where she fell asleep on top of me and I just breathed in the scent of her hair until she awoke.
The skills learned.
The books read.
The birthday and Christmas presents opened.
The sillies and the tickles.
The tears and the laughter.
I guess it’s not surprising that I am feeling sentimental about the sofa, though I wasn’t really expecting this reaction. It’s caused a few tears for sure. I thought maybe giving away her bed or our dining room table would someday move me like this, but not the sofa that I can no longer sit in for more than an hour without suffering the painful consequence. Yet, when I really think about it, there is a physical closeness that takes place on the sofa that is very much unlike what happens around a table or even a child’s bed. Snuggles ensue. Hugs happen. Heads rest upon shoulders. Toes touch knees. Intimate moments become indelible imprints. It is, it seems, the natural order of things when two or more people are sitting in such comfortable and close proximity.
But it’s time to let it go. It is.
And, just maybe, it will become sentimental to someone else too.
* I’m happy to pay all of it forward. The chair went (for free) to a woman who was looking to finish furnishing her own living room on the cheap. I was a little irritated because she never came back for the ottoman as promised, but I ultimately found another sweet, older woman who was looking to decorate her much-saved for and recently purchaed beach house where she will visit with her ten grandchildren each summer. She will reupholster the ottoman and use it as a coffee table. And the rest? It will be going to help formerly homeless individuals who are taking those first steps of having their own place to call home, and just need a little help filling the space. For those of you living in the greater Boston area and whom might have gently used furniture to donate, I encourage you to reach out to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. There are many—too many—families who could use what you no longer need. Other than the chair and ottoman (which I gave away via Freecycle), this is where all of our living room furniture is going to live its second life, and hopefully a wonderful one at that.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I’ve learned a few truths so far this summer. Not all of them have been good, but some have. If nothing else, it’s all helped inform some of the messages I need to make sure I convey to my daughter as she gets older. These are things that I wish I had realized and come to accept much sooner in life.
Not everyone is going to like you, no matter what you say or do, so learn early on how to cut the wheat from the chaff.
Not everyone is going to like it when you openly voice negative or minority opinions. Express them anyway.
Some people will misconstrue your words and actions. Sometimes it is intentional, other times it is not. Plan accordingly.
Passive-aggressive people exist, and there is nothing you can really do about that except learn how to cope. Their tendencies are often deep-seated.
Sometimes it’s you. But, as patterns emerge, you will one day realize that sometimes, it really isn’t you. It’s them.
Not everyone fights fairly. How you decide to handle that is up to you, but self-preservation, ultimately, must be a priority.
Books can fill voids quite nicely. Especially when you feel alone. There may be times when you read lots of books. That’s OK.
New friends can come about in the most unexpected places. They will validate you in ways that you didn’t even know you were missing.
It’s OK to do things alone. In fact, it’s important to do things alone. Be comfortable with yourself.
Loneliness is really hard. But continually giving a piece of yourself away unrequited is even harder.
Do it for yourself. Don’t wait for someone to cheer you on. Be your own loudest cheerleader. Find the reward in the doing, not the pleasing.
Take lots of pictures. There is much goodness right at your own two feet.
What about you? What important truths have you learned so far this summer?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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