I have this fantasy where I get rid of all my stuff and live in a tiny house. It’s a charming cottage, with cedar shingles and flowers blooming in window boxes. Most importantly, it’s free of clutter. What little I still own fits within its walls. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. I park it next to a lake, where I can go kayaking if I like, or maybe just lounge in a hammock and read. Or, if I feel like an adventure, I hook my house up to a vehicle and go. It’s a simple, serene life.
It’s not realistic right now. I have too much stuff. Books would be a problem—I own way too many books. (I have a conflicting fantasy about owning a library with a rolling ladder. I don’t think that would fit in my tiny house.) I also have a husband, two tween boys, a dog, and a piranha. It wouldn’t be easy sticking all of us and our stuff in a tiny house. Maybe this cottage fantasy is more of a retirement plan, and I can work on paring down worldly possessions bit by bit every year.
I did clean out my closet this weekend, getting rid of clothing I haven’t worn for a long time either because they don’t fit or are no longer in style. I felt an inordinate amount of joy over seeing my clothes arranged by type (dresses, jackets, pants, skirts, tops) and by color. I admit to being a little obsessive compulsive about such things. I try not to force the urge on the people I live with, though I did make my boys go through their clothes and toys and get rid of things they no longer use. The three of us stared at their neatly organized closet, amazed at how much better it looked, thrilled to be free of clutter, even though my sons would have preferred to spend their time doing other things. They are growing up differently than I did, without so much of an attachment to material goods. They still want stuff, but most of those things are virtual and don’t take up physical space. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing.
I went to a talk by Dee Williams, author of The Big Tiny. After a medical emergency, she realized life is short and chose to live simply. She sold her large house which drained her finances and required too much upkeep for someone with health issues. She built a tiny house, and parked it behind a friend’s residence, bartering space for help with an elderly relative. At her presentation, Dee brought a tarp with her home’s 84 square foot floorplan to demonstrate how tiny her house is. She has a composting toilet but no running water. Her friend lets her bring in water and shower. Running water is a must for me, but I could certainly appreciate a utility bill of less than ten dollars a month and that it would take about five minutes to clean the house.
In contrast, I recently watched a documentary on Iris Apfel. Now in her nineties, Iris is a business woman, interior designer, and fashion icon, known for her large, round glasses and style with layering accessories. She’s a force of nature in the fashion industry, setting trends and mentoring designers. She’s a collector too—curating shows about fashion at the Met. She’s a fascinating person with refreshing views on beauty. She said, “I don’t see anything so wrong with a wrinkle. It’s kind of a badge of courage.” I agree. In the film, she relates a story about how she used to frequent Loehmann’s, a shop in Brooklyn. The founder would sit on a high stool, observing customers. One day the woman called her over. She said, “Young lady, I’ve been watching you. You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better: you have style.” While that would have crushed some people, Iris took it as a challenge to use fashion to become interesting. She succeeded, and went on to live a fabulous, jet-setting life filled with dazzling couture.
Here’s what bothered me about the film though. At one point, Iris takes the audience for a tour of her warehouse, filled with racks of clothing and remnants from her interior design business. I couldn’t help but wonder—valuable as it may be, what does a person do with all that stuff? It was just sitting there, unused and gathering dust. I think that has less to do with Iris Apfel and more to do with people who grew up during the Depression, who had to go without. My grandfather was the same way, hoarding tools he might someday use, as well as things he hoped to sell.
After he passed away, my mother was tasked with cleaning out his house and discovered countless brass keys and aluminum cigar containers. He wanted to sell the metal, but never got around to it. He was a man of few resources who had to make his own way. He was never wealthy, but he built a home and a carpenter business, and he took care of his family. He held onto things because he knew bad times could return, and he wanted to be prepared.
I can understand that. Still, after seeing what a challenge it was for my mom to unload all that stuff after he died, I decided I want to live my life differently. I don’t want to be weighed down by material possessions, and I don’t want them to be a burden to people after I’m gone. I don’t think my grandfather ever meant to burden my mother—he took pains to make funeral arrangements before he died, so it would be easier for those left behind to grieve. After my grandmother died, he bought a plot next to hers and had a headstone made that they would share. It was already carved with his name—the only thing missing was the date of his death, to be added after he passed. Even so, his house still hasn’t sold, and my mother has to pay taxes on it. I doubt that’s what he wanted, but what can you do? You can’t force interest from a buyer.
Maybe the same thing will happen when I die—my kids will have an estate sale and then try to sell my house. I hope I’ll do things differently though. To me, it doesn’t make sense to hold on to things I’m not using. As I age, I want to purge extras from my life and choose to live simply. I hope I can downsize to my tiny cottage by the lake, free of all the possessions currently tying me down.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This week I was talking with a friend about advice. When you’re seeking advice, it’s always wonderful to find someone who can help you, who can say the exact right thing to help you solve a problem or give you a nudge to take a risk you would have been too scared to take otherwise. Sometimes you’re not seeking advice though, and when it comes unsolicited, usually from someone who means well, it can be difficult to digest. My friend related the story of her wedding shower, when someone announced that everyone present needed to share marriage advice with her. Some of the advice touched on topics the guest of honor didn’t feel comfortable discussing in a public setting. I imagine the person who started the chain of advice-giving had only the best of intentions, but my friend still felt like a bug, skewered to the wall and put on display.
I could relate. When I was trying to get pregnant, I felt like I was suddenly in the spotlight, a beacon for unsolicited advice. I have health issues which made it difficult to have children, and that was hard enough as it was, trying to understand what was going on with my body, and grieving the fact that I was never going to be able to have children like a normal person, that I would be lucky to have a child at all. It made me feel like a failure, like I wasn’t a real woman. People with good intentions, who had no idea what was going on with me or who didn’t understand the medical issue, came out of the woodwork to give me advice. A few people asked questions that were shockingly invasive.
Part of the problem is I am introverted, and wanted to keep the issue to myself. I hadn’t gone around telling everyone about my troubles, but some people in my inner circle had. Part of it was I was embarrassed—infertility is a deeply personal issue. It wasn’t my fault my body was screwed up, but I still felt like I had failed somehow. Like I was broken. There was so much pressure to have children—it was part of the culture that surrounded me. That was what a woman like me was supposed to do. No one said it directly, but within all those intrusive bits of advice, there was a message: if you can’t have children, you are to be pitied because you are not fulfilling your role. Never mind that I had a master’s degree and was working toward a doctoral degree. Never mind that I had a good job. Never mind that I was an adult in my late twenties who paid her own bills. It didn’t matter how independent or accomplished I was, it all came back to my ability to reproduce. The barrage of advice was relentless, and made me feel even worse about the situation.
Finally, I got pregnant with twins. I was scared to tell people for a while, worried I’d jinx myself and lose my children. I felt great joy and a sense of relief about finally being able to have children, and I hoped I’d find respite from all the advice and questions. I didn’t.
When you are pregnant with multiples, you start to show early, and my bulging waistline now made me a target for strangers. I worked with the public, providing customer service, and nearly every person, every day, had something to say about my pregnancy. It was exhausting. I was often tempted to hold up my hand, stopping people mid-sentence, to tick off a list of questions for them. “Are you pregnant?” “When are you due?” “Boy or girl?” “Twins? Oh my gosh! You’re so lucky!” The same thing over and over. Every. Freaking. Day. Now and again, I’d get a real weirdo, who would ask something off the wall. One guy wanted to know who my OBGYN was. “Why do you need to know that?” I asked him. Seriously, why did he need to know?
Now the unsolicited advice I got was about what I should be eating, how much weight I should or should not gain, what I needed to know about giving birth, how to get my figure back after birth, and how I should care for my bundles of joy once they arrived. Again, it was all well-intentioned. But here’s the thing: I am not normal. The body I live in is absolutely not normal. I can accept that, but what works for every other woman on this planet is not necessarily going to work for me. For example, I know that carbs are my kryptonite. A low-fat, veggie-only diet is never going to work for my body. I need low-carb protein, dang it, and woe to the fool who denies me. I am a carnivore, and you should not cross paths with a hungry carnivore. Especially one who is eating for three.
I learned to listen to my body and disregard bad advice. I learned that when you care for multiple babies, all those nice little parenting rules go flying out the window. You’re in survival mode, and you do what you need to do to keep those things fed, diapered, and happy, or you’ll lose your mind. When people ask me what it was like to have twins, I’m way too honest. “That first year was hell,” I say with a sweet smile. If they say they always wanted to have twins, I’ll throw in a horror story as a bonus treat (preferably one that involves projectile vomiting or poo—I have quite a repertoire of those). One woman told me she always wanted to have triplets. I informed her she was mental.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love my children, and I’m so blessed to have them. They are awesome kids, and I feel grateful for that too. In spite of my failings, they are turning out to be wonderful human beings. But I’ll tell you the same thing I told my sister-in-law, when she was having a baby shower and someone decided she needed pumped full of advice. “Having a kid is not going to be easy,” I said. “Everyone is going to give you advice. Some of it will be good advice, some of it will be bad. Do what works best for you and your baby, and don’t worry about what everyone else thinks.” That’s the best advice I can give.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
When I moved to the Oregon coast five years ago, the first place I went was to the wreck of the Peter Iredale. As I stood next to that rusted iron hull and dipped my toes in the frigid surf, I remember feeling blessed to live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. I felt like I was finally home after wandering in the wilderness for many years. I turned forty last year, and started a new birthday tradition: to revisit that moment each year, sneaking away to the shipwreck to slip my feet into the ocean. A ritual to reflect on my life and express gratitude for the good things.
I celebrated my birthday this week, but didn’t have a chance to visit the Peter Iredale on the actual day of my birth. Twin storms blew in, and with hurricane force winds and twenty foot waves, the beach wasn’t exactly peaceful. I visited once the winds calmed down, but even then, I had to brave freezing rain to set foot in the shipwreck for a few short moments.
By the time I got back to the car, I was dripping—my hair completely soaked and plastered to my face—like I’d just stepped out of the shower and into a wind tunnel. I had a good laugh about my ill-fated adventure as I cranked up the heat and drove home. So much for serious self-reflection.
My forties have been good thus far—maybe my best decade yet. Not physically, as my worn out knees can attest, but definitely emotionally. I’m more at peace than I’ve ever been.
It seems like my twenties were all about reaching milestones: getting my education, obtaining the right job, traveling, getting married, buying a house, having kids. It was a race to be a grown-up, to prove myself. It’s not that I was trying to impress anyone in particular. I had goals for myself, things I felt I needed to accomplish to be whole. I managed to check off my to-do list just before I entered my thirties.
The first half of my thirties were rough, juggling the care of small children with a demanding job. I felt out of balance most of the time, and stress took a toll on my physical and emotional health. A major reorganization at work made things even harder. I felt broken, longing for change, clinging to faith so I wouldn’t lose hope. It was a dark time I wouldn’t want to revisit, but it served a purpose. I started writing and that kept me sane. Then we sold our house, moved from Arizona to Oregon for a job opportunity, and I found respite against chaos through a new life. As bad as things were, I’m glad I experienced them. I’m stronger now than I was, and without those stressful times, there might not have been an impetus to change. I realized I can’t live without writing. It’s something I have to do, even if that means writing late at night after working all day to pay the bills.
In the last half of that decade, three of my books were published. It wasn’t easy. I learned hard lessons, and I’m still learning. I’ve made mistakes, but in the process, I’ve become a better writer, and I’ve learned a whole bunch about marketing and social media. As tough as it’s been, I’ve relished learning. There were moments of self-doubt and despair to be sure—a sense of scaling an impossible obstacle, thoughts about digging a hole and wondering if I’d ever be able to climb out. Overall though, I feel energized by the challenges I’ve faced in building my writing skills and getting exposure for my work. I have lots of ideas for stories I want to write.
So now I’m forty-something. I’ve survived (in no particular order) a close encounter with a rattlesnake (and a bear—though not at the same time, and the bear wasn’t as scary), a fist-fight (I didn’t start it, but I sure as hell finished it), break-ups and make-ups, betrayals from close friends and admired mentors, a boss from the fiery depths of Hades, an equipment malfunction forty feet under the sea, a stalker, a hurricane, major surgery, and an endocrine disorder that will probably kill me if I don’t get hit by a bus first. I have constellations of scars, souvenirs of battle. (And so what? Lots of people have survived worse.)
But here’s the great thing about being in your forties, kids. You just don’t care anymore. I’m not saying I don’t care about people. I do. If I’ve adopted you into my fold, I love you unconditionally. It’s you and me against the world. I’m passionate about the people and things I love. But I’m not out to impress anyone. Not anymore. And that is liberating.
This is who I am. A little odd, probably not entirely sane, but content to be myself, and at peace with my life. I don’t feel the need to apologize for that, and I won’t cave to be something I’m not. I don’t have all the answers I thought I had in my twenties, but I’m okay with not knowing as long as I keep learning. I’m still driven to reach my goals, but I don’t feel the same pressure to make things happen. I’ve lived long enough to know nothing ever happens quite like you plan, and I’ve failed enough to know I can survive and things will work out eventually. This is me at forty one.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
After I finished my master’s degree and got my first grown-up job, I decided to reward myself with a trip. I had been focused in college, trying to get through as quickly as possible to cut expenses. Perhaps overly focused—I took classes year-round, dedicating summer and winter breaks to study, as well as to working to pay for school. I’m not sure I would do it the same way if I were to go back in time—maybe I wouldn’t push so hard. Maybe I’d take advantage of a study abroad opportunity. At the time though, travel wasn’t something I could afford.
The first trip I took was to Europe. Since then, I’ve gotten to go to other places, like Australia and Puerto Rico. That first excursion was different though—I was on my own for the first time, halfway across the world. Well, not quite on my own. I signed up with a tour group, expecting to meet up with other travelers in their twenties. Instead, I landed in Amsterdam and discovered my fellow travelers were all of retirement age. After the initial awkwardness wore off, I had a wonderful time. It was like traveling with two dozen affectionate grandparents. I still stay in touch with one of the women I met. She’s now in her nineties, and sharp as ever. From her, I learned that having style is more about confidence than what you wear. She had so much charisma, it was easy to forget her age.
One of the most important lessons I learned from that trip is the world is not a theme park created for my amusement. I wasn’t in Disneyland. I was visiting real countries with real consequences. This was most evident to me in Venice. Our group was headed to dinner, and somewhere, dazed with wonder walking those beautiful labyrinthine streets, I fell behind. For one panicked moment, I was lost. I didn’t know where I was, or where we were headed. I knew no one (though some of the men in the streets seemed awfully eager to get to know me). Suddenly, the world seemed dark and dangerous. Luckily, our guide noticed I was missing and backtracked to find me. I was fortunate someone was looking out for me. From then on, I took pains to stay with the group.
Another important lesson from that trip was this: people think differently, and that’s okay. Growing up in America, I was unaware that people in other countries are not as squeamish about nudity. Eager to use the hotel’s pool in Munich, I donned my suit, grabbed a towel, and opened the door to the recreation area. An old man sat just inside the entrance, a white bathrobe draped over his shoulders. I’m not sure why he had the robe, because he sure wasn’t using it for its intended purpose. I got an eyeful. Old man full frontal. Shocked out of my naivety, but determined to try to fit in with the locals, I resisted the urge to run back upstairs to my room, and swam anyway. I wasn’t ready to shed my own suit, nor will I ever be, but I realized my way of thinking wasn’t representative of the rest of the world. I think that’s a good thing, because I learn more interacting with people who are different from me.
Then there was my trip to Australia. One night I gazed at different constellations than the ones I knew, and watched as a fruit bat sailed past the face of the moon. I met scuba divers from all over the world in the Great Barrier Reef, played underwater paparazzo with a shark, fed kangaroos, sat in on lectures at a university, and discovered that beets come standard on burgers in Australia. I’m not a fan of beets, but I loved learning that ketchup is called tomato sauce in the land down under. Even better, child safety seats are called baby capsules, which sounds much more exciting. Like tiny flying saucers for babies.
I also learned that the United States is on a world stage. At the time, one of the Bush daughters was getting married. Most Americans I knew could not have cared less, but I remember watching the news in Australia, which covered the story. Over b-roll of collectible plates featuring the young couple, the reporter claimed the nuptials of the President’s daughter were “as close to a royal wedding” as America gets. That aside, the Australians I spoke with knew more about American politics than I did.
One day a cabbie asked me about the upcoming presidential election, and whether I planned to vote for Obama or McCain. He favored Obama because he felt world relations would fare better under his leadership. I was surprised he had an opinion about it—I knew nothing about Australian politics, other than what I’d seen on the news during my stay. I realized how we vote in America doesn’t just affect the United States. There are global implications. I knew this, in theory, before that conversation, but hearing it from someone with a different worldview underscored the point.
As I’ve followed our current presidential election, I’ve been thinking about that cabbie a lot lately. I wonder what he thinks about this round of candidates. I hope, as a country, we do right by him and our other international neighbors. I hope we vote wisely for all of us.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016