Saturday, April 1, 2017

"Next Year": When I Decided "Being Present" Wasn't Just BS

In my many attempts to gain some order over my life and fight off the ever-present dragons of anxiety, I've often been given advice to be "present-centered" or "live in the moment."

Most times, I smiled blankly and nodded, feeling as if this advice (whether coming from a friend, a motivational piece of writing, or a mental health professional) was akin to telling me my lungs would work better if they "just stopped needing oxygen."

I'm a planner. It's central to my identity to have a sense of the future and what I'll be doing in it. I love designing curriculum for my classes down to the minute details. I like organizing lists of possible summer camps for my daughter and color coding them to determine the best fit.

I distinctly remember a conversation with my husband after a particularly rough day of living life where I was sitting on the bed and opened my computer to look at my Google calendar with all of its to-do lists and color coordinating activities. "Ah," I said out loud. "This is the calmest I've been all day long."

"Really?!" He was incredulous.

"Yeah, looking at my calendar makes me feel so at ease."

"That is literally the opposite of how looking at a calendar makes me feel," he replied.

It was an interesting insight into the dynamics of our relationship, but it is also a clear picture of how I function. I like my time to be planned, ordered, and controlled. I hate being late, and I want meetings set weeks in advance so that I can come to them prepared and confident. My brain often focuses on the future, and I've always thought that advice to do otherwise was asking for trouble. After all, my future-focused brain had allowed me to accomplish a lot. It was at least partially responsible for success in my education, career, and family. All of those areas of my life had required planning and the ability to map out ways to achieve complex, multi-faceted tasks.

My spirit animal, Leslie Knope.

My husband and I bought our first home eight years ago when we were 23. We reasoned it was a "starter home," as the terminology goes. It has three bedrooms (though one doesn't have a closet, so I think it's technically a "bonus room") and one bathroom. It is about 1400 square feet. 

When we first moved in, it was just the two of us and two cats. We added a dog that first year. We told ourselves we'd probably move again in about three years.

We added our daughter two years later. We told ourselves we would move when we were settled into our new role as parents. "Next year. We'll move next year." 

Things kept moving along. We even put our house on the market once, but we didn't put much effort into it (more out of laziness than anything). We didn't get any interest, so, "Next year." 

We looked into options to rent it out instead. In the meantime, we didn't hang pictures or paint walls. We didn't replace carpet or fix up the yard. We weren't sure what we were going to do with it, and it felt like a waste of time and energy. "Next year." 

Then we added our son in the past year. Surely moving with an infant seemed silly. "Next year." 

We're now a family of four in a space that many of our professional peers would deem "too small" for our needs. 

When we first moved in, there were rooms we never even entered. Beyond our own bedroom, the other two were simply storage, and not well managed or maintained storage. We basically just threw stuff in there and shut the doors. When our daughter came, we crammed all that stuff into the bonus room and shut that door. When our son came, we finally had to deal with it. In the end, we kept almost nothing from that room, and why would we? If it could sit untouched for more than five years, we obviously didn't need it. Over the past two years, we have donated, recycled, or trashed most of the things we don't use. That process isn't complete, but most of the things in my home now serve purpose and are intentionally placed there. It's a nice change. 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading about minimalism quite a bit. In my dabbling, I've found several people talking about downsizing. In the extreme, this has led to the "tiny house" movement as a way to push back against a notion that bigger is better when it comes to living space.

While I do have general ecological and sustainability concerns as a human being aware of my impact on the world around me, I am not looking to join a tiny house movement or push myself to the extreme in avoiding consumption. I just want to make my life simpler and more enjoyable. 

But reading all of the discussions about the housing question in these minimalists groups and writings did start to raise some questions for me. 

Houses are getting bigger, even post-recession. This 2016 NYT article explains that a third of newly constructed homes top 3,000 square feet. The average is 2,687. Even as the size of families has been steadily falling and reached a low of 2.5 in 2016, the number of bedrooms in newly constructed houses has grown with nearly half having four or more. 

Couple that with the social media pressure of being "Pinterest-worthy," and that's a lot of space to not only inhabit but decorate and fill (and heat and cool). 

Getting rid of many of the superfluous items in our house and rejecting some of the pressure to refill those empty spaces has done a lot to alleviate my ongoing struggles with housekeeping, and that has made me recognize that my "too small" space isn't really too small at all. Sure, we're cramped by the standards that have made homes twice the size of ours average, but the more I examined our habits, the more I realized that we don't actually need more space. In fact, there is a lot to suggest that much of that extra space is actually being used as storage. And even with vastly larger homes, the storage rental industry is booming, with many people paying a monthly fee on an indefinite basis to have even more storage for their stuff. What is the likelihood that all of those people (1 in 10 have rental space) are actually going to their storage sheds and using those things on a regular basis? It seems much more likely that those items are just sitting there, untouched, waiting to become fodder for reality TV. 


All of this reading and reflecting on the role of possessions, the value of space, and the way that cultural norms regarding housing size standards across the world, I began to question the internal pressure I was putting on myself to leave our "starter home." Once I began questioning, I realized it wasn't actually internal pressure at all; it was entirely external. I wasn't unhappy with my space. I wasn't feeling cramped or frustrated (though I would definitely appreciate a second bathroom; a project we're now planning to embark upon). I didn't think my kids were suffering with small rooms. 


Instead, I was asking myself what other people would think. We already live in a neighborhood far more run-down than most of our professional peers. We already chose to stay in the city when most of the people we knew had left for the suburbs when they had kids (and trust me, I understand the choice; the school situation alone is enough to drive you mad.) Were people questioning why we hadn't moved? What would people think when I invited them over? Could I have people over at all if my kitchen table only seats four? If my daughter has a friend come play, will that friend go home and tell her parents our house isn't nice? 

Those were the questions that were making me want to move, and those questions are ridiculous. So what if I have to throw crappy dinner parties? I have good, real friendships. They won't care. I bet they're also not questioning why we live where we live, and if they are, so what? I know why I've made the choices that I have, and I'm not spending my day worrying about why they made different ones. I wasn't hearing the voices of real people; I was hearing the voices of imaginary ones, and so a decision was made. 

I'd be damned if imaginary people were going to run me out of my house! 

We're staying put. Perhaps eventually we'll decide that this house really is too small: when both kids are bigger, when we decide we have to have more furniture, I don't know what the future holds. But for the foreseeable future, this space is plenty, so we're staying. No more "next years." 

Once I made that decision, it was like a switch was flipped inside of me. That very next weekend, I printed pictures, bought frames, and hung things on the walls. Two weeks later, I asked my mom to come help me paint all the rooms in the upstairs, rooms that had been the same beige color since we moved in nearly a decade ago. I'm making plans now to landscape the mud pit of a back yard so that we could actually, I don't know, use it to hang out? 



I started living in my house. 

Before that, I had been merely waiting in my house, waiting for some fictional "next year" to start my "real" life. But this was my real life, and it was fine. It was better than fine. It was pretty good. 

Suddenly, all that advice to "live in the moment" made a lot more sense. By loaning out my happiness and contentment to a hypothetical future, I was robbing myself of peace and gratitude. I was constantly looking at my surroundings as a vehicle for something better instead of recognizing the good I already had. It wasn't until we made the decision to stay put that I really felt invested in and committed to my space, and once I did, I started making it reflect the appreciation and love that I really do feel for it. What if I had done this years ago? I lost out on a decade of being happy and satisfied with my home, and I have no one to blame but myself.