Living With Grace

I’m in the middle of trying to prepare for the university semester, but I’m also in the middle of trying to arrange my life after a very busy summer. I spent part of it in Eugene, Oregon doing research, and part of it in Brunswick, Maine teaching, and part of it in Budapest, Hungary with my daughter. I returned home from Budapest and went through the usual week of jetlag. It always hits me particularly hard coming back from Budapest, I’m not sure why. It’s more than the time difference: I think my body is adjusting to less sunlight and higher humidity, which is a difficult physical adjustment. And of course now I need to prepare for teaching, so my unregimented days need to become quite regimented again. I need to get used to being places on schedule, producing work on schedule — and to fitting the rest of my life in where I can. That is also a difficult adjustment.

I always find that when I need to adjust something mentally, the best way is to adjust my physical world, so I’ve been cleaning and arranging, with the goal of making my life graceful — that is, easy, pleasant, intuitive. I want to be able to move around my life as though I were dancing. I may need to move within a schedule or regiment, but at least I can dance through it, with as few stumbles as possible.

How do you do that, exactly? It occurred to me that there were three rules or principles I could give myself. Here they are:

1. Have what you need.
2. Have only what you need.
3. Put what you have in its place.

So how do these rules or principles work?

1. Have what you need.

One of the things I realized, traveling this summer, was that I needed very little to be happy. A place to live, where I could eat and sleep, whether that was a cottage I was renting, a hotel room, or my grandparents’ apartment. As long as it was clean, quiet, and had a place for me to work, I was fine. An environment for me to explore and walk or bike around in, whether that was Eugene, Brunswick, or Budapest. Healthy food I could buy or make for myself. Enough clothes to get me through a week, and a way to wash them. Things to read (I never travel without books, sometimes too many), things to write with and on. My laptop, my phone, and an internet connection — because with those three things, I have resources that would be unimaginable to people just thirty years ago. I mean, if I wanted to, I could spend an entire day doing research on my phone! That is still a miracle to me. And finally, people to see and spend time with. With just those things around me, plus an insurance card in case I get sick and a connection to my bank account in case I need money (let’s be realistic about the conditions that allow me to travel), I’m set.

I have a lot more than that here, back in Boston! Even in this small apartment, I have more than most people had a hundred years ago — shelves filled with books, a closet filled with clothes, cabinets filled with plates, bowls, far too many teacups . . . Art and music, and more art and music when I venture out into the city. I’m rich in things.

I do think that in order to live gracefully, it’s important to have what you need — both the basic necessities of life, and what you psychologically need. Under basic necessities I would put food and clothes. Under psychological needs, I would put books, art, music. If you have what you need, then you can go on to the second rule or principle . . .

2. Have only what you need.

Having too much is like eating a very large dinner, getting to the place where you’re satisfied and happy, and then continuing to eat. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? Americans are probably most familiar with it from Thanksgiving. You’ve eaten enough, you feel full, and yet there’s so much more — apple pie! pumpkin pie! pecan pie! You have a slice of each, with ice cream, and by that time you’re starting to feel uncomfortable and a little sick. (The pecan pie does it for me. I can’t even eat it anymore. No matter how little I have, it’s always too rich.)

My problem, here in Boston, isn’t that I need more — I have everything I need. But I also have too much. So I’ve been going through the closets and shelves systematically. Which are the clothes I haven’t worn in a year? They can go to Goodwill. Maybe they’ll fit someone else, make that person’s life easier — and raise money for a charity at the same time. Which are the books I have because I thought I would like them, and then I didn’t? They can go to Goodwill as well. Do I have old documents I don’t need anymore — that perhaps I don’t even remember having? Old electronics that I’ve since replaced? Anything that is no longer contributing to my life and could be passed on?

I am by no means a minimalist. Books and television shows about paring down to the minimum, of living with bare walls and two soup bowls, hold no interest for me. I have too many teacups — I really should have a tea party — but I would never, ever get rid of them. Those teacups make me happy, even when they’re sitting in a kitchen cabinet. I believe in having a little extra just in case, and in having things that make your soul happy. So, I have extra rolls of toilet paper and a lot more teacups than I need.

But when you have the sort of excess that makes you feel a little sick and anxious, that’s when you need to put things in a large bag and take them to the Goodwill store. In a way, it’s the opposite of Marie Kondo. Kondo says, keep only what you love, and I agree with that — it’s an emotional way of deciding what belongs in your life, which I think is a good, solid way to make decisions. But you can also feel when something doesn’t belong in your life any longer, when it no longer fits. If it gives you a sense of stress and anxiety, that’s when it should go.

3. Put what you have in its place.

Of course this is the hardest part! Organize, organize, organize. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, bit by bit, step by step. Today’s step, if I can get to it, is to mend some clothes that have been sitting in my closet, waiting for a stitch here or there — a hem sewn up, a button replaced. I want to go through my books and make sure they’re in more or less the right places. In the last few days, I’ve been going through the closets — fall is a good time for that. I’ve been trying to make sure that everything is where it should be so I can find it easily, so I’m not stressed about where things are. That’s what will allow me to live gracefully in this particular space.

Do you have what you need? If so, what is its place? Decide where it should go, where it fits best, where you can access it easily. And then make sure it’s there — when you’re done with it, put it back. That’s part of the process I’m going through now.

If my apartment is organized, I can move through it easily, fluidly, as though I were dancing. Sure, I’ll stumble and fall sometimes. Don’t we all? But I have a lot to do — the rest of the year is going to be very busy! I may as well live it as gracefully as possible.

I thought about what sort of image to include with this post, and decided that the most graceful being I know is this lovely lady: Cordelia the cat. Sure, she stumbles sometimes. Sometimes she chews on a houseplant and throws up on the rug, which is not a very graceful thing to do. But in her motions, her stillness, her general attitude toward life, she is the embodiment of grace.

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4 Responses to Living With Grace

  1. Martin says:

    I hope you were able to depart from Eugene prior to the onset of the late summer wildfires we are experiencing here in Oregon – where I live (in the southwestern corner of the state) we’ve been under the pall for a month with no sign of relief anytime soon. Also, I’d recommend St. Vincent de Paul rather than Goodwill.

    It’s good to have you back.

  2. Zareh says:

    As a writer / educator / someone who just moved into a new apartment, I can relate to this post. Moving has helped me to determine exactly what I truly need and want to surround myself with. I am carefully choosing those items that are essential — either for their practical use or because of how they resonate with my soul.

  3. maerykrose says:

    Great post! I so need to follow your three steps and clear out my writing space!

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