Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Frugal Tuesday: The Spiritual Headslap

The second day of my "summer" freedom.

Usually on Tuesday I provide myself with a tally of savings or losses during the past week. This alternately gives me a sense of accomplishment (moving forward) or failure (dropping back), or sets me up with an active goal to attack, like the failed Pantry Challenge. (Is it really a failure if the fridge/freezer/pantry are filled from a friend's generous gifts or the leftovers from a really great party? OK, not so much.) Looking back, I realize that, week to week, I am ahead or behind nearly equal amounts. What has become different is that I think longer and more fully about what I want to buy, eat, wear, read, and how I will address that.

Case in point: yesterday I went out to run errands. I had four, and I planned my driving in a circular manner that would take me to/through each one in a neat circle. (I love geometry -- math that I use!) Then I realized that I wanted to find a book by a favorite writer's other pseudonyms. Thought about buying it as an audiobook (if it existed that way) -- but that depends so much on the performer. Thought about buying it as an ebook (first title in series not available as ebook) or from Amazon at a discount. Ultimately decided (while I was pumping gas) to try the half-price store because my plan is, after all, to sell it back, get rid of it after I read it, to re-circulate it, and it is not possible to share ebooks or audiobooks... yet. The only way to read this book and re-use it was to buy the book and sell it back, later (or donate it). There was a Borders next to the gas station, but there was the half-price store another mile away, where I would find the paperback book (if I could) at 50% cost plus my teacher's discount. Drove there. Found several books: decided to buy one, because I'm simply checking this second line out, although I am pretty certain I'll like them. She's a good writer. And buying it at half-price made sense, in that case.

This whole thought process wouldn't have occured to me five months ago. I would simply have gone to Borders and bought at least one, maybe more, of the books. My investment yesterday? A mile's worth of gas, fifteen minutes finding and buying it, $3.35, and the three hours reading it this morning. personal satisfaction of buying mindfully. And I had a nice conversation with the guy who helped me find it, and ran into a friend I hadn't seen for a while. I got to hear about his trip to London with students and his pacemaker. All in all, a worthwhile investment.

But it gave me the proverbial head slap -- not the real kind, where someone actually hits you but the spiritual kind, where truth or reality or something smacks you around for a while, making you pay attention.
I've been reading a lot of blogs that focus on "frugality" or "minimalism" since October in an attempt to find a few reference points for myself as I worked to de-clutter my apartment and my life. But my goals for 2011 are more about management and change. Head slap!
The first thing I realized yesterday is that I need to make my own definitions of the topics under consideration. There is a huge difference between frugality, declutteringminimalism, and emptiness. Many of the blogs I read are all about getting rid of or managing stuff -- mostly tangible material items -- whether they focus on any of the first three. Some of the people writing about de-cluttering are really writing about organization: finding better ways to manage or maintain or access their stuff, which is not the same thing. Neatly organized clutter is still clutter; it's possible that it is less disturbing to that individual, but not to me. Any more.

A neatly organized hoarder is still a hoarder, and it's only a matter of time before they are, once again, the Collyer Brothers perched among their newspaper stacks. Now incorporating all the fabulous organization/storage products I lovelovelove.

Some people writing about decluttering write about simply emptying their homes and lives of junk. Their struggle is to eliminate the junk.

Both interested me for a while. I read blogs and bought books about organizing, about decluttering, about eliminating. But it is not enough, and I finally figured out why. Head slap!

Here's how I define the terminology:
  • Frugality is actively considering all the costs of something prior to commiting those resources, and trying to "spend" efficiently, be it money, time, energy, or spiritual currency.
  • Decluttering is the practice of moving clutter of any kind out of my life and my space. Permanently (not in my garage or a storage space I rent or my mom's attic).
  • Minimalism is keeping the "stuff" in my life to a level at which it doesn't take over and control me, my time, my future; further, that everything I do own contributes something significant, including beauty (the William Morris philosophy).
But these are all useless without further change on my part. Each of them, when practiced correctly, leaves emptiness.

And that's dangerous. That's where I see the trap ahead of me: the empty space where new "stuff" rushes in.

Because something else will: all the blogs that focus on minimalism, decluttering, or frugality -- or, rather, the good ones -- don't just talk about emptying out the basement. They complete the act of "lessening" with adding something valuable to the free space. Because there is no "empty" space, but there can be a void. If I just have a void, I'll fill it again, with stuff and distractions in order to avoid the void. If I get the distractions and stuff out of the way, the hope of anyone really practicising frugality or minimalism is that there is the time, space, and desire to do something else, something greater or just more fulfilling than the crap you're owning or doing pre-decluttering.

What good is emptying the basement if it just fills up with newer, frugal crap?

Dig a hole. Fill it up. Head slap.

So filling -- fulfillment -- is the second half of the activity... maybe the harder part. After all, we clutter and shop and fill our lives with meaningless stuff to avoid the meaningful stuff, right? We allow others' priorities to derail or distract us because our own needs are scarier than theirs, or more naked, or more confusing to other people.

But what I have noticed about minimalist blogs and frugal blogs is that while there's a lot of advice about eliminating stuff, about the personal call to declutter and detox one's 21st century life, there is much less about how to spiritually/creatively/intellectually/actively fill up the apparently giant hole within us. About either the process of refilling or the "stuff" of fulfillment.

I think this is because when one decides to declutter, it is necessary (if it is to be an effective and complete act) to distance oneself from the "stuff." To depersonalize Aunt Grace's china and childhood stuffed toys and your best friend's gag gifts before being able to donate/sell/trash the stuff. Once you start, shedding is relatively easy and can become almost a reverse compulsion. (Something I've noticed in the language of some blogs: these voices sound like those of anorexics or medieval pentients, punishing themselves for have any but the most utilitarian multi-use items and pride in few tiny material objects still left in their universe... and for how long?) 

But decluttering is only one step, which is where frugality and minimalism come in. To be successful, this has to be a change that I practice daily, for the rest of my life. Thus, it is about mindfulness and envisioning a life that I have ignored or distracted myself from wanting or creating, or something like that. Hence, my goals for 2011 -- and I didn't even know what I was doing when I defined them! Hel-lo, universe!

So now that I have dug myself into a hole, I have to fill it up. Better, this time. Damn it, that means change.

Yes, it was a spiritual head slap.

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