The Great Clean Out of 2017.

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Dear friends,

One of my favorite memories about my unconventional father is his “honor garage sales.” Although I spent most of my life separated from my father, I lived with him for two full years in college. (It was a little weird; after all those years apart we were suddenly adult roommates.) Bob loved money and loved cutting a deal, but he didn’t much care for the logistics and customer relations aspects of hosting a garage sale. So he tagged all his items and displayed them in the front yard with a sign describing the rules of his garage sale. (“Take your item and leave your money in the envelope in the mailbox.”) Then he drove to the neighborhood bar where he threw back a few and waited out the crowd. Several hours later, Bob came home to an envelope full of money and a mostly cleared yard. What a deal!

I’ve started off 2017 with a New Year’s Resolution to purge my life of excess baggage.  My approach is a little different than Bob’s but it works for me. I made an extensive list of every “space” in my home to be purged, cleaned and/or reorganized. I mentally gave myself a full year to do the job, but I was exceptionally industrious in January and made a ton of progress. I purposefully avoided a list that said “Clean Den” because I knew it would be overwhelming. The key to success, I figured, was the satisfaction of seeing regular check marks indicating progress on my list.

In that spirit, my list says things like “De-clutter nightstands.” “Purge jewelry drawer.” “Tackle the den bookshelves.” You know . . . bite-size, manageable chunks. So far, I’ve tackled my dish pantry (it took an entire day); my dining room buffet; every single drawer and cabinet in my kitchen (all 39 of them), including the kitchen counter tops, coffee stand, and kitchen appliance cart; hung a new light fixture in the kitchen (okay, Mr. Mom did that, but I helped); repainted the fireplace mantle and screen; purged and reorganized the front coat closet; Mr. Mom’s closet; the mud room (really a glorified alcove); the master bathroom sink cabinet; every table surface and wall in the living room; and the half bath counter top. I’ve hauled too many car loads to count of purged possessions to a local charity resale store. And I’ve still got a long ways to go.

Including a basement that’s not even on the list because it’s too overwhelming.

But hey, it’s only February, right? And you ought to see my house. It really is looking so good.

I’m not sure that any woman who calls herself Magpie and has an entire pantry of dishes (on top of all the dishes in her large kitchen) can ever claim to be a minimalist. But, lordy, you ought to see how de-cluttered my house is looking. There are tables and counter tops and walls with plenty of open space. The drawers are organized. There are EMPTY drawers! (Okay, there’s one empty drawer in my buffet, but still. It’s EMPTY!) I actually gave away one bag of table linens and several boxes of dishes, my most treasured collections.

And I feel so good about my newly airy 2500 square feet of dwelling space!

Actually, I feel guilty. A little. Because no good deed goes unpunished in the Magpie psyche, I feel bad for living in such a big house and having spent money over the years on so many possessions I’m now giving away. But I read this article earlier this week and decided to “own my mistakes” and “let go.” And even Mr. Mom has given me an important affirmation. A couple of weeks ago he said “Things are really looking good honey. The key, I think, now is to maintain it. Quit bringing stuff home.”

No penance for past sins. Just forward progress. He’s a gem of a guy, ain’t he?

And I really feel like I’ve turned the corner emotionally. I amused my friends when I declared I was going to pare a little each year until five years from my death I would live in a very small space and be free of possessions. They are anxious to know how I’m going to know when I’m five years from death. But I figure barring a tragic accident or very sudden illness, I’ll know. And I’ll trim accordingly because I’m committed to not leaving a trail of possessions for my loved ones to deal with. It’s not what defines me, much as I’ve allowed it to as reflected in my self-selected nickname.

It’s worth mentioning my friend and colleague died suddenly two weeks ago at age 59. I absolutely adore his wife and our circle of friends’ shared grief has been a bit of a wake-up call. Life is short. Hug your people. Tell them you love them every day. Get your shit in order and focus on love and kindness, not things. I hear the message, dear universe.

I’m not only cleaning out the physical clutter, I’m sweeping away the emotional detritus. Or trying to, anyway. And I’m telling everyone I care about in every way I know how — I love you!

And there’s a minimalist quality to those three simple words that are fitting, don’t you think?

With gratitude {for the energy and inspiration to clean, for the incredible luxury of worldly goods I can share with others, for a large circle of peeps to love, for today’s breath},

Joan, who thinks Bob almost had it just right and is seriously contemplating a “charity garage sale” where everything is free, first come, first served, and wonders what you think about her crackpot idea

 

 

 

Money for nothing.

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Dear friends,

Monday, Mr. Mom drove me to a doctor’s appointment because 1) it’s 90 miles away and 2) I dearly value time in the car with my favorite guy and he’s very good about indulging me on car trips. As we were leaving the big city, we encountered what is sometimes called a “panhandler” while stopped at a busy intersection. I instinctively reached for my wallet but quickly remembered it was empty.

“Do you have any cash?” I asked Mr. Mom.

“For what?” he said.

“The man. Holding the sign,” I said as I pointed in the gentleman’s direction. “I want to give him some money and I don’t have any.”

The light turned green as Mr. Mom explained his wallet was buried in his back pocket.  We left the intersection without helping a haggard looking man whose cardboard sign said he was hungry.

We were silent for a bit then Mr. Mom asked “How often do you do that? Give money to strangers.”

“Every time I can,” I answered. “If I see someone asking and I have cash on me, I give it. Last week when I visited Kate in Tulsa, we encountered a fellow at an intersection and I gave him all I had, which was $10.”

I could tell Mr. Mom was surprised but had no further comment.

Earlier in the day, while waiting at the doctor’s office, I overheard two women talking. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop and it took me a few moments to piece together that between the two of them (presumably an adult daughter and her older mother), they were having trouble coming up with $8 for the daughter’s co-pay. The mother had a debit card with $6 on it and the daughter was rummaging through her purse for change. That’s when I discovered my wallet my was empty. I was about to offer my own debit card when the nurse called my name. I walked into the examination room feeling guilty for not insisting the nurse give me a moment to help.

I haven’t always been this way. I used to be notoriously cash poor. I carry a credit card and a debit card and use them almost exclusively, even for minor purchases like coffee. When I worked in the big city I was frequently approached by individuals seeking money and almost always turned them away with a truthful statement: “I’m sorry. I don’t have any cash on me.”

But in recent years I’ve started carrying cash for the express purpose of giving it away. I consider it just one form of the variety of charitable contributions I am committed to. (In case you’re wondering, higher education, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are all high on my priority list.) But in regard to my cash donations, I’m not very methodical about it, honestly. I have no scheme for “who” merits “what.” I’ve given as little as $1 and as much as $40 depending on how much cash I have on me and how in need the person making the request appears.

I find it curious that I’ve been occasionally criticized by friends and acquaintances for this practice.  The critics seem convinced that panhandlers are “too lazy” to work, or use the money for alcohol or drugs. And don’t get the critics started on the “fake veterans” whose “ploy” they find particularly objectionable.  I have no idea how anyone seems so sure of their conclusion that the needy aren’t really in need. They are strangers, after all. So what do we know about them except the fact that they are asking for money? I want to say to the critics “On what basis are you making this assumption?” but I usually keep quiet.

A few times I have said this: “Have you ever thought about what circumstances would lead an individual to ask a complete stranger for money and think that is the preferred option over all others? I have. And I’ve concluded things must be pretty desperate — or other viable options exhausted — to compel someone to beg.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “bootstraps” theory of life. Especially American life. There seems to be a strain of the American psyche that values self-determination, rugged independence and individual industriousness above all else. I admire self-made men and women. I do. But I also think not every soul on this earth can pull themselves up by the bootstraps — for a variety of reasons that I’m in no position to judge. It doesn’t make them less than. And it doesn’t make them pitiable. It does make them worthy of my help.

There’s been a renewed emphasis in the last couple of years, especially on social media, on the notion of “paying it forward.” Again, I find it curious that folks want to buy breakfast for the person in line behind them at McDonald’s but don’t want to help the person asking for it face-to-face. I’m not trying to judge. I’m trying to understand. Both are money for nothing, in my book, but somehow the unseen person seems so much worthier.

For what’s it worth, this reflection on the “bootstraps” theory isn’t meant to be a political statement. But I will admit I’m politically exhausted and dispirited right now. I’ve allowed myself to wallow a bit about the Bannon-ization of the White House, which is just plain wrong. Say what you will about anybody in the White House right now, it’s up to ALL of us to build a better world. So I’m trying to focus less on what elected officials are doing wrong in my mind, and more on what I can do right.

And I’m putting my money where my mouth is, or in this case, in the requestor’s hand.

With gratitude {for days mercifully long gone when a co-pay put me in a bind},

Joan, who for too many years criticized her mother for giving her last dime to anyone who needed it and now understands Colleen was doing the Lord’s work in her own way

PS: I’ve written around this topic before so forgive me if you think I’m a harpy. But this post sums up my feelings on the topic of entitlements versus opportunity and is, in my humble opinion, worth your time if you’re so inclined. And this is my favorite post on the topic of begging.

India Travelogue, Ep. 20:

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When I started this, I had no idea I’d write this many episodes. But here I am. I can’t say how many more I’ll post, so I wanted to pause for a moment with a postcard-worthy snapshot I took of our Kerala riverboat ride. If a photo is worth a thousand words, this one needs no caption. I never could have imagined this and yet, in an odd way, it looks exactly how I thought India should.

India Travelogue, Ep. 19:

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This photo is from the same evening as yesterday’s post, shot while I walked at night through a small village in Kerala. I was surprised that all the doors were open and you could see inside every home and shop. (So unlike America, where we close ourselves off.) Because I’ve sewn my whole life and love to quilt, this scene stopped me in my tracks. We pay lots of money in the US for antique, treadle sewing machines. This one was a beaut. I thought about my fancy Bernina machine at home that probably cost more than the annual income of several of the families in this village combined. Some things are universal though: the owner of this shop saved an impressive pile of scraps. (I would have enjoyed sorting through them because what quilter doesn’t love a pile of scraps?)

India Travelogue, Ep. 18:

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I snapped this photo on the next to last day of our trip. We were in Kerala and took a boat ride to a scenic spot where we ate whole fish steamed in banana leaves at a modest, roadside stand. The proprietor beamed with pride when we praised his cooking as the best of our trip.

While returning, our guide suggested we stop our boat early and walk the rest of the way through a small village. The sun was setting and we spent a good bit of time standing outside a temple where people were singing and praying. By the time we walked back to our waiting van, it was dark. As we passed the open doors of village homes, I couldn’t help but pause and look inside.

I felt nosy looking too long, and a little intrusive taking this photo. Most of all I felt humbled by the life that is mine.

White. American. Educated. Healthy. Prosperous.

Why are these blessings mine and not others?

I’ve long known I’m an incurable existentialist and answering questions such as this can be a fool’s errand. Or naval gazing of a sort that is the purview of a prosperous, white American.

So I did the only thing I knew to do. I quietly whispered “Namaste” to the open door and continued my journey.

***

Namaste is a traditional Hindu greeting translated as “The God/light in me honors the God/light in you.”

 

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 17:

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I have been known to be a prolific shopper in my day, but I was pretty restrained in India, in part because of the monetary crisis (cash shortage) that hit the day after we arrived, and in part because I had spent a butt-load of money on a 25th Wedding Anniversary party right before my big trip.

I’ve already talked about the trinkets I brought home as gifts for others, but this quilt is one of  three “treasures” I bought for myself. It’s hand sewn by Indian women who make their living this way and it’s patched together from used saris (traditional Indian dresses).

I knew when I saw it I had to have it. I asked how much and the seller said $350. I paused but not long. I mean . . . I’m a quilter. How could I say no?

But then my friend Vandana walked up and took over. She frowned at me and stared at the seller. “How much?” she demanded. He repeated the price and she immediately gave him a stern “No!”

By the time she finished negotiating, the price was $160 and I was one happy camper.

I grew up poor enough that bargaining has always been deeply embarrassing to me. To my way of thinking, not paying the sticker price means you can’t afford it. When shopping for cars and houses, I have on many occasions told my husband “Just pay what they’re asking!” (Fortunately, he doesn’t listen to me.)

But Vandana . . . She is a stud. Just watching her work was a primer in deal-making. She was firm but not belligerent or rude. Hard-nosed but not unreasonable. Tough but fair. Bargaining is de rigueur in her culture and she made sure her American friends got square deals in every single instance.

And ain’t my prize just grand?

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 16:

Click here for video

I love this video more than any I shot on my trip. This man’s skill with a machete and his ability to serve coconut fast is incredible. I can’t remember how much we paid per coconut, but it was minimal, perhaps a dollar or two. In addition to drinking the coconut water, we ate the flesh. And as my friend Vandana pointed out, there’s no comparison to the coconut you get in the states. The coconut in India is far more tender (not at all chewy like it is here) and sweeter. These coconut vendors were common in Kerala but this particular man had the very best fruit (and the best technique).

India Travelogue, Ep. 15:

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After yesterday’s rant about clean air, I just wanted to share a lighthearted photo today.

These are my friends Vandana and Rama. They grew up in India but moved to the states after college. Both are accomplished scientists whose families contribute so much to our small community. I’ve been their friends for five years and I cannot tell you how much they’ve enriched my life. New culture, new foods, new faith traditions, and new perspectives have all come my way because of their friendship.

They are the reason I traveled to India last month. Without their planning, their encouragement, their guidance, and their patience, I never would have contemplated a trip to a locale so far outside my knowledge and comfort zone. That they agreed to take four American women who’d never traveled to India on a two-week trip says a great deal about their spirit of adventure and fortitude (and, frankly, their denial of our frailties, neuroses and demands).

This photo was taken late in our trip (in Karala) as they introduced us to the delight of fresh coconut water. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about that. Today, I just want to say friendship is one of the greatest blessings of my life. Trips come and go but friends are for life (if you do it right).

India Travelogue, Ep. 14:

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Today’s photo is from a newspaper story I read the first day of our trip. The air quality was shockingly bad during our visit. Many folks were wearing masks and even though we discussed buying them, we somehow failed to do it, to our own detriment. (I had only once before encountered smog so bad, in San Paulo, Brazil.) Ten days into our trip, the burning in my nose and throat turned into a respiratory infection and I came home sick. I can only imagine how much one’s quality of life is diminished by this level of pollution over time. At the risk of sounding political, anyone who wishes to dismantle the EPA (I’m calling out you, @realdonaldTrump and your toady, Pruitt) should be made to breathe polluted air until you cry uncle. Seriously, don’t be an ignorant or willfully misinformed or blasé American. Fight to protect your air! #india #travel #anamericangoestoindia

India Travelogue, Ep. 13.

Click here to watch video:

Today’s post is a short video I shot on one of our long van rides. We were in a rural area and traffic was light so it’s not a nail-biter compared to Delhi, which I did not have the opportunity to video. But it does show how dividing lines are considered mere suggestions. Drivers routinely move into oncoming traffic and split the middle when passing. And notice the motorized rickshaw (called “autos”) that heads right for us (wrong lane, wrong way).

Driving rules that if broken would get you ticketed or arrested in the US are mostly ignored in India but it all seems to work out somehow. Nobody’s asleep at the wheel because you have to be alert in a game where all rules are negotiable. Bonus points to anyone who noticed Indians drive on the opposite side of the road as Americans.