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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Less is More project: Week 0 - First impressions

MacLauren70, Flickr



January is upon us. I feel similar to when I stand behind the start line on race day: a little nervous. (What did I get myself into? Am I ready for this?) But mostly excited. Only one week of "challenge prep" and I'm already becoming aware of all the things I had been taking for granted.

Which takes me to one of my current preoccupations: privilege. It only took reading a handful of articles on minimalism/frugality/simplicity to realize that making the decision to not spend is actually a privilege. As Meg Hourihan, another proponent of buying less, put it nicely:  “I’m not comfortable with how easily I spend money and buy things on impulse, simply because I have the luxury to do so." 

Voluntary simplicity: the term says it. It's a choice.

If I wanted to, I could go shopping. (Plus, the bank just offered to increase my credit card limit. How ironic.) I have not been coerced into buying only the essential. At no point have I (and will I, unless something goes awfully wrong) worried that my children would not have enough to eat, or that I would not be able to make ends meet. I fully appreciate that. 

As soon as you evoke the benefits of a simpler life, such as working less in order to focus on what really matters (spending quality time with loved ones, reading, meditating, spending time in nature, exercising, etc.), you add another layer of privilege. I never want to forget that some people simply do not have that option:

"People at the bottom of the social ladder are pressed for time not to go earn high incomes but to juggle all the different balls they have to keep in the air at the same time (child care, commute, lack of health insurance and physical safety), to barely keep afloat on low incomes. The kind of consumption that [minimalists] say we can do without is that of those who are already privileged." (source: The Global Sociology Blog)

I am worried about that "privileged brat" side of myself. Is it going to pop out unexpectedly? Come the middle of the year, am I going to whine about the fact that I haven't been able to drink a decent wine for the past 6 months? If you catch me talking like that, kindly guide me back onto my path, will you?


WEEK 0 IN REVIEW

Temptations 


1) The ever-tempting pharmacy


As part of my plan to replace some personal hygiene products with a homemade alternative, I went to the pharmacy to do what I envisioned would be my last purchase of the year: a small bottle of lavender essential oil (I will explain in a later post what this is for). Even if it wasn't January yet, I was on a mission to not buy anything else. I figured it would be good practice. I also thought it would be easy. I was mistaken: pharmacies are filled with temptations! There's all the cosmetics, nice soaps and lotions of course (not that I need any). There's the food aisle (chocolates, anyone?) And worst of the worst, there's the Sales section. Oh god. I fell for one thing. I bought mascara (even if I still have some - maybe I got scared it's not a true need, and unconsciously wanted to stock up). Then I quickly rushed out of the pharmacy before something else caught my eye!

2) So much bling

I had to take my watch for a battery replacement. I figured I would be in and out the jewelry store. I had not occurred to me that this store sells Pandora charms. I happen to have a Pandora bracelet. I started browsing the selection. Luckily for me, the salesperson was really not helpful - may I say she was borderline unpleasant? (I know, I know, this is a stressful period for salespeople.) In any case, it kind of turned me off. I left the store with nothing new except that battery in my watch, as planned. Pandora charms hardly qualify as a need!

3) Sports fans beware

Ever the basketball enthusiasts, we went to see a game. Afterwards, I caught myself browsing the Rainmen t-shirts. Some were nice. The price was reasonable: taking $20 out of my wallet surely wouldn't make a huge difference in the long run. And I do want to support the team. Slight detail though: I definitely do not need any more t-shirts!!! I walked away. 

4) Free... until proven otherwise

As a nice, free activity for the whole family, we visited the new central library in Halifax. Once we were there, though, I remembered the Lululemon store right across the corner, and also felt tempted to go to a restaurant afterwards. But those thoughts only briefly crossed my mind: I busied myself with finding books, and when we were done, we went back home and made homemade pizza instead! (which was delicious, by the way) 


5) Accidents happen

One of my favorite pairs of pants ripped beyond repair. I had to throw them away. In "normal times", I would probably have gone shopping to find a similar pair as a replacement (I liked them a lot). But I won't, because I don't need any more pants than I already have. 

6) Gifts

My friend S offered me a shoe rack. Free stuff is hard to resist, but I said no, thank you. I did accept, however, the ruled paper and erasers she handed me: they will go toward next year's school supplies. I hope I did not violate a rule by taking those.

Money saved this week: between clothes, jewelry and other random items... more than I'm willing to admit. Luckily I don't hang out in those places on a regular basis.


Donations


A few times a year, I fill a bag of clothes and donate it to some charity (or friends with younger kids who appreciate hand-me-downs). In the past 2 years, prompted by some books I read as well as by a basement flood, I also got rid of a lot more things, e.g. baby gear/toys, duplicate kitchen supplies, some furniture. Whatever's left right now are things I have a harder time parting with, so this should be interesting. To be completely honest, however, there are things in this house that we took with us (a 1500 km trip) when we moved to Nova Scotia, 7½ years ago... that haven't been used once.  I think it's time to say farewell. Apart from a few baby sweaters that my grandmother knitted, that fit into one small box, and that I want my grandchildren to inherit, what else should I keep if it's not currently being used? Nothing!

In the past 2 weeks, I donated:

  • kitchen supplies (a variety of containers, a tea infuser, some towels/place mats/oven mitts)
  • recipe books
  • an iron
  • some clothes (including workout clothes - I could train every day in different ones and not have to do laundry for 2 weeks!)

Good riddance - the things that are in too bad a shape to even be donated: I got rid of children's footwear: 2 pairs of sneakers, 1 pair of boots, 1 pair of sandals and 1 pair of water shoes. I also got rid of the abovementioned ripped pants.


Observations

I realized that:

  • I own eight different tubs of lip balm: 2 in my bedroom, 2 in my office, and 4 in my purse. How on earth did that happen? Lip balms are an easy buy because they are not expensive. This year I will make sure I use them all before I buy any other.
  • I own four bottles of facial moisturizer, and as many of body lotion. In case you were wondering, no, my skin is not that dry. From now on I will wait until they are all empty before buying any more.
  • My kids are the only kids I know who did not receive any electronics for Christmas. 
  • I cannot afford to gain an ounce this year, lest I have to buy clothes in bigger sizes. 


Cogitations

I'm about to run out of chai tea. Is chai tea a need? I only have 1 pouch left. Will I have to assemble my own chai tea from now on?



What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...


Happy New Year to all! 



Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Less is More Project: Week 00 - Setting the stage

JSM


"People buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, to impress people they don't like."   (Clive Hamilton)


I am choosing this ultimate celebration of consumerism, Boxing Day, to launch the Less is More Project.

This is not a new fad, but rather a new step toward a life of mindfulness. For a few years now I have had a desire to let go of the material sphere and to take my distance from the ubiquitous consumerist tendencies, for reasons that range from saving the planet to saving my wallet, but mostly because it fits my quest for well-being. You see, I have noticed that the least I own, the lighter I feel. That every time I get rid of something, I acquire freedom. That past the initial high of acquiring stuff lies a much less exciting feeling, of the blasé type: once you've owned something for a little while, you become so accustomed to it that you don't even notice it anymore, let alone derive pleasure from it. What's more, what you are left with is less money in your account (that you could have used for other, more meaningful things) and more clutter in and around your house. Some people even sacrifice free time on the altar of consumerism, as they work longer hours in order to afford the stuff they buy. If those are the rules of the game, I don't want to follow them. More and more, I feel like I don't want to play the game altogether.

This mindset makes me feel a teeny bit like a fringe element of society. After all, that consumerist frensy seems to afflict all socioeconomic groups, with the exception maybe of the ones that struggle the most. Depending on our means (and often regardless of our means), most of us end up buying things we don't need, just because we like them, because the price is good, because the act of purchasing in itself gives us a high... or to keep up with the Joneses. Luckily, there is a growing trend to go back to the basics. It's called minimalism, or frugal living, or voluntary simplicity. Numerous people want to extricate themselves from the nonsense of consumerism. I want to be part of that group. I have already experimented with simplicity, and it has never failed to provide me with a great sense of freedom and meaningfulness. I want to take this further. I am curious to see how far I can go, and what good it will do me.

I also want to share about my experience. The discoveries. The ups and downs. The struggles and challenges, my strategies to overcome them, my successes... and my failures. This blog will be an open book on the whole process. In addition to narrating my Less is More Project, I will retell my past encounters with simplicity. I will include the stories of other people who are making the choice of frugal living. I will share my readings. I will tackle some related - and sometimes hot - topics. I might even explore some frugal, environmentally-friendly alternatives to some of the products we think we cannot live without!

What this project is:

Beginning on January 1, 2015 and ending on December 31, 2015, I will not buy anything unless it answers a true need¸ such as basic groceries (I will have to determine along the way what exactly that encompasses), sunscreen, school supplies and seasonal clothes for the kids as they outgrow them - new winter boots, for example.

I am not expecting to personally need any of the following during the year to come: clothes, accessories, books, music, wine, games, sport equipment, household furnishings big and small, electronics, gadgets, etc. I might want them, but not need them, and that's precisely the point! No need, no buy.

Gifts are still in the air: how am I going to manage loved ones' birthdays, the traditional end-of-year gift to the teachers, etc? Especially given the fact that I do not enjoy making or baking things? We will see as we go.

I will also keep track of the things I get rid of, just to see how much stuff I still owned (after donating a lot already in the past two years) that I did not need. 

I will be as honest and well-intentioned as I can throughout this project, e.g. I will not try and make excuses.

What this project is not:

This is not a hardcore homesteading project. I am not ready yet for a self-sufficient, off the grid existence, therefore I will keep buying most of the food we consume. However, I will try and be creative with replacing cosmetics, hygiene and household products with a homemade, simple and clean alternative. I have already been going in that direction, so the idea will be to switch almost entirely to those alternatives as the year goes by.

This is not about obtaining for free the things I want no matter what. This is about not acquiring those things in the first place, and being okay with it. 

I have been asked if I would renounce luxuries such as professional hairdressing, my gym membership and eating out - after all, none of those fulfills an actual need. For now, however, I want to focus on actual things that I might have bought, as opposed to services. I also value experiences (such as concerts and traveling) much more than objects. That being said, my use of bars, cafes and restaurants will remain very occasional, and I will question my use of other services and entertainment publicly on this blog.

I will not sell everything and move into a tree house or a sailboat... not yet, anyway. Given the fact that we live in the countryside and that D commutes to work downtown, I will also not get rid of the car.

If the house or car require maintenance, I will make sure it gets done. However, there will be no upgrades or renovations.

I will not do an inventory of what I already own before the project starts, and I will not go and stockpile either (something that was reproached to Judith Levine after she published Not Buying It - My Year Without Shopping). I want this project to be the most genuine as possible. Apart from writing this post, I will do absolutely nothing unusual in preparation for the start of the project.

The goal:

The main goal is not to save money (although that will most certainly be a positive side-effect), but mostly to discover how little I actually need, and the true reasons why we consume.

Your participation: 

You are more than welcome to participate in the project in your own unique way! Let's all start where we are, and get where we can. Please share your questions, anecdotes, insights and suggestions in the comments. 

To ensure you will not miss a post, become a Follower (top left corner of the page). 

You can also follow me on Facebook: 
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To subscribe by email, write to mleuxj@gmail.com

I cannot wait to read your input!





Saturday, December 13, 2014

The ambition dilemma

Horia Varlan, Flickr



I was recently reading this post by fellow blogger Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist.

It is about the ambitions you have as a young adult, that will or will not materialize themselves by the time you hit midlife.

It is a topic that speaks to me as I approach (two years from now) my forties: have I accomplished, or am I in the way of accomplishing, what I really wanted in life?

Becker talks about choosing between career paths, some that will bring fame, prestige and money, some that will provide other types of - mostly non-material - benefits. I read his post early morning yesterday, sipping on my coffee, and it is still resonating with me so much I had to write about it.

As a young(er) woman, I had big dreams. And a way to achieve them. I started by attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world (arguably the best in the country - depending on the year and the faculty you look at).

On the way to - ahem! - stardom, a couple things happened.

I could blame it on the children, and it would not be entirely false - becoming a mother did have an impact on the order I put my priorities in - but it wasn't all of it.

With adult life, and the help of experience, readings, discussions with other, older, wiser adults, and pure and simple introspection, I realized that there are some things I value highly that kind of get in the way of a BIG career. Notably the following:


  • Contemplation is important to me - and by contemplation I mean all things ranging from petting a cat absentmindedly and daydreaming to taking a quiet stroll in nature. Meditation fits in that category, too. I do not do well if I don't have some alone time to indulge in those contemplative activities on a daily basis. Maybe my previous life was spent in some monastery? I used to feel somewhat guilty about my contemplative predispositions, until my favorite aunt, M, told me how central it is to her life.
  • Balance is very important to me - I cannot bear the idea of not having enough time to sleep full nights, to eat healthy meals, to exercise, to write, to read a book, to relax with loved ones. Those things are sacred to me. I am lucky enough to have the choice, and I won't waste it by neglecting what matters. 
  • Stress is okay... in small doses. I function really well under pressure, be it in the form of tight deadlines (crazy translation industry!) or in the form of undisciplined students. It does not affect me too, too much. I rarely become overwhelmed. BUT. I need time to recharge my batteries on a regular basis. I am no Energizer Bunny. I cannot go-go-go. I need breaks. Peacefulness is both underrated and underrepresented in our society. In my life, it occupies a special place. 
  • I question the real motives behind ambition. Do we have ambition because we aspire to something, or do we have ambition because we want to get rid of something (e.g. feelings of inadequacy, of not being enough, of lacking value?) The former is a great motor. The latter... not so much. Before I go "on a quest", I examine my true motives.
  • I cannot fathom taking advantage of others to advance my own career.
  • I'm willing to set the bar lower and to sacrifice some sense of accomplishment and material luxury if it means that all of the above criteria will be met. My family's and my own well-being makes it all worth it.


Instead of single-mindedly following the path to "as much fame, prestige and money I can get", I have made each life and career choice mindfully. I started small and slow. Back in the day, my main drive was to remain the main caregiver for my own children. Gradually, I instilled more time and energy into my career, but always with the bigger picture in mind. It's easy to get carried away, especially with a start-up business, and I sometimes got caught up in the excitement: there were moments when I took too much on my shoulders, and was rewarded with "economic growth" (i.e. money) and renowned clients (i.e. big companies), but soon realized other areas of my life were suffering. I had to learn the fine art of keeping everything afloat and balanced.

Keeping my business on the smaller side not only helps me maintain balance, it also allows me to indulge in other things I cherish, namely, working with people. I teach French "on the side". I give talks and workshops. I write. Without being specific with the numbers, let's just say teaching pays significantly less than translating professionally. As for the talks and workshops and writing gigs, they are occasional at best, and do not yield a significant income - yet. Still, I hold on to those activities for dear life - because they make me feel alive, precisely. As much I enjoy (greatly!) my work in the translation business, I cannot fail to notice that:


  • Translation does not exclaim, when I walk into a room, "Yay! You're here!"
  • Translation does not chat with me and ask for my input on important, sometimes personal, issues.
  • Translation does not excitedly want to show me her latest project.
  • Translation does not run to me screaming "I love you!" and give me cuddles.
  • Translation does not thank me profusely, teary-eyed, for what I've done for their child or themselves.


(Note: all those things happened in the past week in the context of me teaching and tutoring.)


I think this whole letting go of ambition belongs to a wider predilection for detachment. Detachment from trying to impress people (I would rather inspire people). Detachment from accumulating stuff (I would rather accumulate wisdom). This detachment does not only apply to my career. It applies to my life as a whole. However, there are some things I have NOT renounced:


  • Striving for excellence - what I do, I do it well, as any of my clients could tell you. 
  • Hard work, passion and dedication - when I am immersed in something I love, like preparing lesson plans or reviewing a text for style and flow, I could go all night. I have not lost the drive to accomplish things, to push myself. If I had, I would not get up at 5 am to run in the cold and dark Canadian winters before work, or set my alarm on weekend mornings to take advantage of the quiet house before everyone gets up to write my future book. 
  • Wealth and prestige - there's nothing wrong with them per se, and I still get excited when I make "gains" in those areas. 


However... bygone is the yearning to prove something at all costs.


What have you been willing to let go in order to achieve balance and well-being for yourself and your loved ones? Share in the comments.





Saturday, December 6, 2014

Joy

Jack Mallon, Flickr


Who does that to themselves? I think as I get out of bed on a cold, dark December morning.

I get dressed nonetheless. Try to find comfort in the fact that my new gear will make the run more comfortable: thin, 2-layer socks and thin, 2-layer mitts, keep you warm without being bulky. Totally worth the price.

I take 2 puffs of my bronchodilator (asthma requires it in this weather). I think back on the time I "could not" exercise because of asthma, and feel grateful that it was eventually properly diagnosed and treated. It will always need attention, but it will never stop me.

I step out. Two things immediately hit me: 1) the cold; 2) the pink, orange and yellow layers that paint the sky at this hour. In awe, I start running.

Despite the inhaler, breathing is a challenge. Those lungs haven't exercised in that kind of cold since last year. Hopefully, they will get used to it again. The conversation with "running partner K" makes everything more bearable. And a quick look at the multicolored sky makes whatever's left of the discomfort vanish.


Amy, Flickr


Running partner K talks about her lack of sleep, but does not use it as an excuse to skip morning runs. As she says simply but wisely, running  before the day starts has twice the benefits of sleeping that extra hour. We will both be busy today. But we're not stressed: we know that run will have prepared us for anything the day throws at us.

Now I am sweating. Sweating outdoors when it's below freezing point. That in itself is a miracle, especially for the woman-who-is-always-cold.

Running partner K tells the story of a coworker who recently had to undergo heart surgery. A man in good shape, who has always exercised and eats well. Life can be unfair. But the surgery went well, and according to his doctors, the only reason he recovered so fast and is already back on his feet is because he was such in a good shape in the first place. Which reminds me of a documentary I watched recently: taking care of your health doesn't only make your life longer; it also makes it healthier. No matter what happens, you are better equipped to deal with it. You suffer less. Or for a shorter amount of time. And apparently, there is a nice proportion of centenarians who die peacefully in their sleep, without having to endure a long disease.

That applies to mental health as well: nurture your mental health, and life will be significantly more enjoyable. Great news: running takes care of that as well. Our run is now over, and I feel like I've ingested a joy potion. My legs are tired but I'm bouncing. My body is damp and salty under those layers of winter running clothes, but I feel light. K points to a bird in the sky and we both marvel.

As I reach my driveway, I come upon a gathering of blue jays and chickadees. I see them everyday, yet right now I almost cry they're so beautiful.

This is why we do this to ourselves.


Find inspiration here!
One of my favorite movies of all times
(might be because of the music)


Monday, December 1, 2014

How to get people to despise you

Kiwi Morado, Flickr


My friend A, in a surge of honesty, recently declared that "there is only one person I hate in Nova Scotia". We were instantly intrigued, for if there's a person who likes EVERYONE, it's A. I've never heard her say anything mildly negative about anyone. She loves all human beings. It's as if she wears special glasses that allow her to see people's qualities and magnify them, all the while completely overlooking any flaw they might have. Her using the "H-word" about someone was unusual to say the least.

Curious, I asked: "What makes you hate that person?"

The reasons proved to be rather simple. According to A, that unpleasant person is guilty of the following:


  • She talks way too much
  • She talks solely about herself
  • If someone tries to add their grain of salt, she interrupts to keep talking about herself
  • She fails to notice the non-verbal cues people show as they lose interest. E.g. if you start looking away, turn your feet or even slowly back up or walk away, she just keeps on talking (she might talk louder or follow you to force you to keep listening)
  • If she feels cranky, you can be sure you will pay the price (even if you have nothing to do with it)
  • Etc.


Ensued a discussion about "those people who don't know when to shut it" and "those people who think only their own stories are worth telling".

This all reminded me of Dale Carnegie's advice on "How to Win Friends and Influence People", one the first popular self-help books to be published (in 1936). It was probably the first self-help book I read, too. I stumbled upon it at my great-aunt's cottage. That great-aunt arguably being the most pleasant and kind person I had ever met, I figured her owning this book was no accident. I picked the book. I read it. I was 15. It had a bigger impact on my interpersonal relationships than I could ever have imagined.

As it turns out, my friend A's insight, my great-aunt D's attitude in life, and the contents of that book have a lot of things in common. In fact, the rules of pleasant human interactions are both simple and effective... that is, once we know them and, more importantly, once we apply them to everyday life. I feel that most adults eventually master most of those rules spontaneously, although following them can be a challenge even on a good day. In any case, a reminder is a never bad thing.

Here's a sample of the "rules" put forward by Carnegie. They work for everything: friendship, love, family ties, the workplace, adults, children,... name it. Once we know those rules, the main challenge might be to be consistentgenuine and sincere in their application:


  • Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  • Become genuinely interested in other people.
  • Smile.
  • Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  • Be a good listener. 
  • Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Talk in terms of the other person's interest.
  • Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
  • Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say "You're Wrong."
  • If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  • Begin in a friendly way.
  • Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  • Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
  • Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
  • Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.
  • Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  • Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  • Let the other person save face.
  • Praise every improvement.
  • Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  • Use encouragement. 
  • Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  • Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.


Does any of this particularly talk to you? Do you find any of them to be a challenge? Is any one of them your "specialty"? Do you have your own "tricks of the trade" that make human interaction easier and more rewarding? Share in the comments!