Last night we placed a blanket on our lawn and watched the Perseid meteor shower. We had a good view on the Oregon coast—clear skies and no light pollution. Even though my boys are thirteen and already too cool for some of the things they used to enjoy, we all felt a sense of awe watching meteors leave brilliant trails of light on a black velvet sky.
I love these moments. I know we’re too plugged in most of the time, each of us in our respective corners of the house. We’ve been better about unplugging this summer. One of my sons goes to swim practice four afternoons a week, so my other son and I committed to taking the dog for walks on the beach during that time. It’s been a good investment, if only for the chance to have deeper conversations with each other. We’ve enjoyed small discoveries—interesting rocks and shells, sculptural pieces of driftwood, washed-up jellyfish and isopods, and sculpin swimming in the estuary. One afternoon we didn’t walk at all, but stood mesmerized as we watched a whale breach over and over. It’s been good for the dog too, getting regular exercise. She’s a better dog for it, and we’re better people.
Even though my other son hasn’t been a part of our walks on the beach, we’ve included him in unplugging experiences too. We tried new restaurants and went roller skating a couple of times. He loves to read, so we’ve made weekly trips to the library. It’s been a great summer.
A complaint I’ve often heard about my boys’ generation is they can’t function without electronics—they always have to have a device in their hands, and they never go outside to play. They’re not social. They have no imagination. This is not true.
While my kids don’t play outside as much as I did, and they do love their phones and computers, that doesn’t mean they don’t like the outdoors. They do. Sometimes they just need a reminder to unplug, as do I.
They do have imaginations, and use them to create all kinds of art. Sometimes that art is made using pencils and paint, other times it involves a virtual canvas. They problem-solve constantly, whether it’s building worlds in Minecraft or solving puzzles in online games. They learn all the time. If they can’t figure something out, they research it using online resources. They watch videos about science experiments as well as silly stunts. They learn social skills, working with friends to win games. Yes, they are chatting over a distance, but they are still communicating. They talk to their friends in person too.
I think the biggest difference between their generation and others has to do with stuff. It’s not that my children don’t enjoy material belongings, but what they value is often virtual. They are not into physical toys. They still receive them as gifts sometimes, and they do play with them, but the enthusiasm is not the same as for online games.
When they were little, they enjoyed toys more. They had stuffed animals, legos, cars, dinosaurs, even toys they could ride. We had a lot of fun playing together, but every year we’d sort through the toys, passing along older toys to make room for new ones. Somehow we ended up with entire collections of Happy Meal toys—the other day I found one under the seat of my car. We got rid of boxes of toys and clothes before we moved 1,500 miles from Arizona to Oregon, but still, we had boxes and boxes that made the journey. In third grade, the boys’ teacher mentioned a project to give toys to other children. To my surprise, my kids were eager to participate. We went through their closet and collected five boxes of toys to give away. I was proud of my boys’ generosity, and amazed by their ability to let go of material belongings. It inspired me to go through my closet too. Letting go of my own belongings was a relief—it made me feel less weighed down. I wish I’d done more purging before we moved all those heavy boxes across the country.
Virtual toys are certainly lighter than physical ones, and they take up less room. I love that my boys don’t go crazy when we visit stores, wanting to buy more stuff. They see things they like, but they weigh the costs of purchasing them. They have learned to save their chore money for things they really want. This year one of my sons has made three major purchases with the money he’s earned: a video game, a fish tank, and a ukulele. The other, who hardly ever spends money, has only bought two items: a video game and an ocarina, which is a small, ceramic wind instrument.
The only problem with the boys not being into physical toys is gift-giving. While my husband and I know what games they’re into at the moment, it’s hard to translate this for relatives who are shopping for birthday or Christmas presents. To me, it feels selfish to ask for a gift card or cash even though the boys’ interests are so specific I know it will be nearly impossible for someone to find the exact gift they’ve been wanting. Asking for that feels like a demand, even though I prefer gift cards because they don’t take up space and they save on shipping costs for the giver. I also feel we shouldn’t make demands about the amount spent—it’s about being thought of by the giver.
I actually wish people wouldn’t give me gifts at all—just send me a note with kind words or give the money that would have been spent on a gift to a charity. I have everything I need, and the few things I want, I tend to buy for myself. I have more than enough. I know it’s not fair of me to force that idea on other people, however—on my kids or the people who give them gifts.
I don’t have an answer about how to handle the gift issue except to make gentle suggestions to givers and to teach my boys to be grateful receivers. And to periodically go through our stuff and pass along what we no longer need.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
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