Living Lightly

Susan Vogt on living more simply but abundantly

Browsing Posts published by Susan Vogt

Arise! Happy Easter

Arise! Happy Easter

It’s Easter. Hurrah, I can spend money freely again. So.… did my Lenten commitment to not spend any money increase my solidarity with the poor? Yes, but imperfectly. It certainly raised my consciousness of my own privilege. Even though I might choose not to spend money on something or to delay an expenditure, I knew I had a choice and I could change my self-imposed rules if I wanted to. In fact, in addition to only spending money on food, shelter, and transportation, I did make additional exceptions for donations, medical expenses, and bills that came due. The bottom line was that I spent:

$160 Donations (including parish fish fries that counted as both food and a donation)
$132 Medical
$  21 Unallowed but justified payments (see scale, postage, whoopee cushion)

But, more importantly here’s what I learned about myself and understanding the cost of poverty.

7 INSIGHTS ABOUT BEING IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE POOR:

Days 365+90 mouse1. Waiting can be inconvenient and costly.
I delayed buying new things such as gloves, shoes, a magazine subscription, Easter treats etc.  and made do with what I had. Each time I was tempted to just buy my favorite Papas chocolate Easter eggs or order some blush on Amazon, I reminded myself that if I were really poor I’d have to wait. I spent a lot of mental effort, however,  trying to figure out alternative ways to get what I wanted without spending money. For example, I traded volunteer time for dance fees. I imposed on friends to borrow a mouse. I wore mismatching mittens until the end of Lent. None of these were serious losses, but I realized that poor people often can’t take advantage of sales. Their neighbors may not have enough to lend. Waiting for a welfare check may not come in time to buy a necessity.

2. Walk don’t drive.
I like to walk. I normally do it for exercise not necessity. Since I made a commitment to walk instead of drive if my destination was under a mile, this wasn’t a big problem, EXCEPT, this Lent had some of the coldest days on record. As I was walking back from our neighborhood pharmacy one cold day, I saw people waiting at the bus stop. They didn’t have a choice and their “Lent” would not be over in six weeks.

3. Just because it’s sold in a grocery store doesn’t mean it’s food.
Since my husband usually does the grocery shopping I didn’t think much about how many household things he buys that are not actually food. Of course he bought toilet paper, soap, deodorant, OTC medicines, laundry detergent, etc. None of these things could be purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps). I was tempted to ask him to buy me some gloves at the grocery but I thought that would break the spirit of my commitment.

4. I got a little help from my friends.
I counted 19 meals that others provided for me. Some were people who hosted me while I was out of town, some were parish Soup Suppers, some were just friends who invited us over or paid a restaurant bill. I didn’t ask for this, it’s just what friends do. Of course we also provided hospitality to out of town visitors but I didn’t need to count that. I was lucky to have friends with the resources to host me. I also had a friend with an extra mouse which meant I didn’t have to buy one. Poor people have friends too and I know countless stories of how generous they are with little means. But “little means” means that they probably don’t have a van we could borrow to pick up some used furniture.

Days 365+93 contra dance5. The cost of fun
No one would call Jim or me spendthrifts. Our usual form of recreation is to play cards or board games, to walk or bike, and to dance. Only the dancing costs money and even that is pretty minimal ($4 for an evening dance with live music). Still, dancing didn’t fit my food, shelter, or transportation criteria. It made me think of what forms of recreation are free for poor people. Not much. Walking/biking are usually meant to get somewhere, not for fun. At home entertainment usually requires a TV, technology, and/or an internet connection. Concerts and sports cost money – sometimes big money.

6. I am lucky.
My lifestyle didn’t change much during these six weeks, although I frequently became aware of the advantages I have in life. Some would call it privilege. I have a good education, a job with connections, friends with resources, a home office, a paid for home and car, and general good health. My daily expenses are few. If I were living beneath the poverty level and without these advantages, I would have a much harder life. Some of my advantages I worked for (good grades in school, hard worker at my jobs) but many were just the luck of having good genes, growing up in a middle class family, living in the USA instead of a developing country, being white, etc.

7. Having a supportive spouse helps.
Because Jim chose not to participate in this Lenten commitment, I was shielded from some potential expenses. He pays most of the household bills, so I didn’t notice some of what was being spent that benefitted me. I was tempted several times to just have him pay for something rather than buy it myself. He called me to accountability as I wrestled with juggling a worthy Lenten practice vs. making this just a temporary game.

I know that this was an imperfect Lenten practice. I did forego several meals, but in general I didn’t have to sacrifice anything significant other than time and pride (like when I asked for discounts or to borrow stuff). My biggest learning was an increased sensitivity to the hardships that truly poor people experience everyday. Much of it is invisible suffering since I am not in daily contact with “have nots.”

Days 365+95 pingpong clean Days 365+95 pingpong messyPS: For those who remember, I also planned to prune 23 file cabinet drawers during Lent. Well, it didn’t happen. The closest I got was cleaning off the Ping-Pong table that serves as my extended desk. The file cabinet project is still ahead of me. It would have been good to do, but much harder than not spending money because it would have taken mega time. My excuse is that this was an unusual Lent in that I was out of town 10 days and had company on 22 other days. I may not have spent much money but I did spend a lot of time hosting people. It was good and more important than my files.

Did I spend any money that did not comply with my Lenten resolution  (only food, housing, and gas) during the last two weeks? I’m not sure.

  1. $5 – Fish Fry: I justified this as both simple food (which is allowed) and a donation since it supports an inner city school
  2. $10 – Donation: Since construction prevented my usual donation to the sidewalk panhandler, I gambled the money at the Fish Fry’s “Split the Pot.” If I had won, I planned to donate the winnings back to the school.
  3. $50 – Donation to my professional association which needed extra money
  4. $250 – Professional expense: Registration for World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September. I would lose the early bird discount if I had waited.
  5. $65 – Professional expense: Dues to another professional organization.
  6. $15 – 3 Fish Fry meals. (See #1. We had 2 guests that I treated.)
  7. $4 – Contra dance admission: I could have stayed late and cleaned up thus getting a free admission but Jim didn’t go this week and I knew he would appreciate me coming home earlier. Does marital harmony count as a justification?
  8. $10 – Postage: An out-of-town friend left some belongings here. I mailed them back. He said he would reimburse me. Does that make it a non-payment? If I were really poor, waiting for reimbursement may be a bigger deal.
  9. Days 365+94 Whoopie cushion$6.81 – Whoopee Cushion: Now don’t laugh. A friend is in the hospital with a bowel obstruction. Without going into the gory details, suffice it to say that she needs to poop or fart before she will be released from the hospital. In addition to prayer I thought a little humor might lighten her spirit. It makes me feel good to be thoughtful like this but would a really poor person feel that a gag gift was too much of a luxury.

Total non-allowed expenditures for 2 weeks: $415. 81.  ($80 could be justified as donations and $315 as professional expenses. BUT $4 for marital harmony?  $6.81 to humor a friend? I keep measuring myself against what a very low income person would be able to do. My decisions these 2 weeks show that I have a choice. They might not.  What do you think is justifiable? Fair?

In addition to my expenditures I noticed that I received the equivalent of 5 free meals because of eating with others who provided the food. I wasn’t going to a soup kitchen, but I was the beneficiary of other’s cooking.

How do you feel about taking charity? About being able to treat other people?

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Not counting donations, during this fourth week I spent $7. It was invisible money because my husband paid for something that included both of us and I didn’t notice – till later. That’s what happened when we went to a local contra dance last Saturday. He paid my admission of $7 and only later did I wonder if I should have stayed home. Well, I actually would not have stayed home, but I could have offered to help with clean-up which would earn me one free admission. The next week, I did do clean up. Now there are two more Monday dance nights till Easter. This has prompted me to reflect again on what I’m learning from this experience and whether it’s really bringing me more solidarity with the poor or is just a game.

5 INSIGHTS ABOUT SPENDING, NOT SPENDING, AND DONATING:
1. How do people on a limited income recreate?
Our weekly Monday contra dance only costs $4. Many years ago I used to do clean-up – partly for the free admission and partly to be a responsible dance community member. Weekend dances cost a lot more even after taking advantage of lodging in other dancer’s homes. Recreation and exercise are good for the body and spirit. Certainly there are free kinds of recreation like walking, running, biking (assuming you have a bike), swimming in a public body of water, basketball and tennis (if you have a public court near you), BUT most sports require some kind of payment for equipment or time. Should recreation only be for those who can afford it?
2. Waiting to buy something can be costly.
This week I became aware of several spring and Easter sales. One was at my favorite clothing store. Another was at the DSW where I plan to buy my next pair of all purpose shoes when Lent is over. (See last week’s post.) BUT, both sales end before Easter which means the price will be more. I’ll just Days 365+93 Papas eggssuck it up this time, but if I were really poor, I’d be tempted to put it on a credit card (if I had one) and pay for it later even if it meant debt. On a more serious level, delayed health care can mean more costly care later. I’m also afraid that my favorite Papas chocolate eggs will be all gone by Easter. Can I justify buying them under the “food” category?
3. Some payments are invisible.
The cable TV statement came. It’s $17/month for basic service, BUT, we have it on auto pay so I didn’t  really feel like I was paying out money. If I were poor, would I have cable? Probably. We can’t get even the local stations reliably on our basement TV so we need cable. If I were poor would I have a second TV? Or, would I watch anything I really wanted on the computer like I currently do? Should I assume I would have a home computer with internet service?
Then I was about to renew a magazine subscription to US Catholic. As I was about to write the check I realized that this was a payment. It didn’t feel like it since it wasn’t cash. I decided to wait till Easter since magazine subscriptions usually come way early. I could possible justify this as a work or educational expense but, hey, you can get most of this info online these days anyway – if you have a computer and internet!
4. Is this just a game?
I admit that I have found myself trying to justify expenditures for medical, work, education, etc. that didn’t fit my barebones criteria of food, shelter, and transportation. Likewise, if Jim paid for it, did it count? If I was out of town, I had no choice but to eat in restaurants. It would be unfair or rude not to pay my bills that had been incurred earlier. Preventive house maintenance is better than fixing something after it breaks. Often I’m just delaying payments not choosing to do without. It can be a challenge, but it can also just be an amusing experiment. The whole reason behind it, however, is not just to have fun and feed my compulsive side, but to raise my consciousness and to enter into deeper solidarity with those who don’t have a choice.
5. Donating is habit forming.
I passed my “donating corner” twice this week and thus gave $20 to sign holders. I was planning on a third donation but Jim took a different route to our parish. I was ready and surprised that I felt a little disappointed to miss the opportunity.

dollar signThis past week I spent $335 on bills from prior commitments. (I didn’t think it was fair to make merchants wait for payment because of my Lenten resolution.)
$145  Professional services to self-publish my out-of-print book (Money in the Kingdom of God) on Amazon
$125  Rx renewal for 3 months
$  65  Pig Town Fling registration

I spent $14.51 on discretionary items since they were time sensitive.
$11.65 a scale for son visiting from Singapore
$  2.86 postage to mail forgotten ear muffs to granddaughter

I also donated $20 to men on the street asking for money per the decision I made last week.

What I thought of buying but didn’t was the more instructive part of my money management this week. Some were:
FRIVOLOUS (Am I just making this into a game?)

  • Days 365+90 mouseAvoiding parking fees. I waited in the airport cell phone lot rather than pay for parking.
  • Borrowing a computer mouse. My computer mouse died so I borrowed one from a neighbor rather than buy a new one. (I promised I’d return it when Lent was over. It did, however, get me thinking about how caring for property so it will last is connected to not spending money unnecessarily. Also, even with the best of care, things break. If I were living close to the margin, I might buy cheaper things to begin with. They would break sooner. I might not have a neighbor with an extra mouse, etc. I’m privileged to have the money to buy quality and neighbors who are well enough off to have extras. )

THOUGHT PROVOKING as I experienced what it felt like to go without something I would normally buy like:

  • Days 365+90 shoes gloveShoes. My everyday, all purpose black shoes started to get a hole in the sole. I could still wear them but this was the week the temperature dipped below 0, a record snow fall, and then daylong rains. I could have justified buying new shoes but I figured I would continue to wear them until my socks got wet.
  • Gloves. I lost one of my favorite everyday gloves. Remarkably, I found a similar pair on the sidewalk as the snow was melting. They weren’t in great shape but I decided to wash them and make them do until the end of Lent. I realized that I had some backup older gloves around the house too. I thought of the men on the street asking for donations. They didn’t have any gloves and it was really cold.
  • Laundry detergent. With an extra person staying at our home for several weeks, I forgot to replenish my laundry detergent and today I’m doing laundry. I might not be able to finish it. Is laundry detergent food? I buy it in the grocery store, so it must be. If it’s food, my self-made rule would allow me to buy it. But. alas, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aka “Food Stamps,” does not cover laundry detergent, toilet paper, tooth paste, soap, diapers, tampons, deodorant, shampoo, cleaning supplies, etc. I thought of cheating and asking my husband to buy the detergent since he usually does the grocery shopping, but he had already done this week’s shopping and wasn’t willing to go out again for my little game. The bigger issue is that I consider these items necessities not luxuries. We may criticize the poor for poor hygiene but it doesn’t rise to the gospel level of “feeding the hungry.”

What did I learn about solidarity with the poor?
1.  Search for alternatives
Not immediately buying something I wanted (a mouse, parking, shoes, laundry detergent) pushed me to look for other ways to meet my wants.
2. Humility
It was humbling to ask to borrow something that I could just go out and buy. (One son made fun of me for being a nitpicker.)
3. Stewardship
Knowing that I won’t just replace an item (like my glove) if I lose it, prompts me to be more careful about how I take care of my stuff.
4. Medical care is not a luxury.
I didn’t hesitate to pay for the Rx that ran out. If I didn’t have good health insurance, I might have waited.
5. Laundry detergent is not a food.
Laundry detergent is not covered by food stamps. So…am I willing to wear dirty clothes?

The above examples are pretty typical of a normal week but this Lent has been anything but typical.
My mother died a month ago and we had a Memorial Mass for her in my home town last Saturday. This meant travel and lodging not only for myself but also for our children in Singapore and Kenya. It also meant starting to deal with inheriting household items, memorabilia, and money. The family decided to take funeral expenses, including travel and lodging out of the estate. So, although I paid out almost $3,000, technically it wasn’t my money, but part of her estate. In addition to the emotional and spiritual aspects of death, there are a lot of financial things to consider. I’ll start to address these in a post-Lenten post on Inheriting Stuff.

As I reflect on my Lenten commitment to buy nothing (other than food, shelter, and gas) in order to grow in solidarity with the poor, it has raised my consciousness of what it means to be poor. Yesterday I wrote about my experiences at the Home & Garden Show and converting a film movie to a DVD format. Both of these “would be expenditures” were magically given to me free. I was happy to stay close to my Lenten resolve, but that can degenerate simply into a miser’s game. Now I am prompted to look at my experience through the eyes of a person earning minimum wage or on welfare.

Days 133 Extra - house-movingHOME & GARDEN SHOW:
House: If one doesn’t own a house, would a low-income person even have interest in going to a Home & Garden Show? The housing materials, hot tubs, deck supplies, etc. would be only a curiosity for them since buying any of the items would be beyond their income. We were going to do research on replacement windows in order to lower our energy costs and be more environmentally responsible. Surely these are admirable goals, but a luxury for someone just making ends meet.
Age 50+ with an AARP membership card: In order to qualify for the “buy one, get one free” entry ticket we had to be at least 50 years old and have paid the annual $16 AARP membership fee. Even if a poor person is over 50 it is unlikely they would have bought a membership.
Car: The fact that we saved money on parking assumes we have a car to drive. It was a cold day. Most people would not live close enough to the venue to walk.

Days 365+90 DVD LentFREE CONVERSION OF FILM TO DVD:
Privileged upbringing: This all started because some 60 years ago my father, a dentist, had the income to buy a movie camera and take movies of our family while we were growing up. This was new technology in those days and most families didn’t do it. So, the fact that I had movies to convert was a result of a privileged upbringing.
Computer & internet access: Our son, who lives in DC came up with the idea to convert the film to DVD so we could use it at my mother’s funeral. He did online research to determine the most cost effective place to do the conversion. This required access to the internet and knowledge of how to do research. Libraries provide internet access but it requires going to the library and sometimes waiting your turn.
Cell phone: He called us long distance to have us find the original 16 mm film and ask if we had a membership to one of the large discount shopping stores since that was the cheapest place to do the conversion.
Friends with resources: We didn’t have a membership but we had a network of friends that did. In the end, we didn’t need to use this, but being connected with people who can help assumes that our social network is made up of people who are not desperately poor themselves.

FREE LODGING:
Job that comes with perks: The nature of my work takes me to different cities to lead workshops. The host organization usually puts me up in a hotel or a member’s home. Most poor people don’t have work that covers those expenses.
Education: It takes a certain amount of professional education to get the kind of jobs that come with perks. The education of course costs money.

BOTTOM LINE:
Why I’m not poor is that even though I got some free things recently, it presumed having a certain level of previous advantage. Advantages such as education, knowledge, assets such as a house, tools, time to research, and beneficial relationships put me in the position to claim a freebie. It costs money to get something for free.

Strange things have happened to me during the past 4 days – 2 merchants gave me free service.

  • There was a Home & Garden show at the Cincinnati Convention Center. Jim thought we should go to research replacement windows for our 100 year old house. I agreed and assumed this would be free since the exhibitors were trying to sell their services. I was wrong. On the way he told me admission was $13/person. Since this was an optional expenditure. I toyed with the idea of asking for a scholarship or discount. I knew this would probably be futile plus embarrassing to Jim, but I have little pride in such matters and figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. When at the ticket counter, however, the clerk looked at us and asked if we had an AARP card because if so, one of us could get in free! We did have to pay for parking but I figured that was a transportation expense and we parked at a meter rather than the $10 lot thus cutting our cost in half (my half 🙂 ).
  • Days 365+90 DVD LentToday I went to pick up a DVD that I had ordered just before Lent. We wanted to transfer movie footage from a 16mm camera that my parents had taken 60 years ago to a DVD format to show at my mother’s funeral next weekend. It was to cost $75. When I went into the store the clerk gave me the DVD but also read a message that said the film was so old, mildewed, and torn that the DVD was not up to their usual standards and I would not be charged anything for it. Wow! Again I hadn’t mentioned my Lenten commitment or that it was for a funeral.

Days 357 Extra - Near DeathThese two incidents may be coincidental but their proximity to my mother’s recent death and another incident that happened today is uncanny if not miraculous.

  • The other incident happened on my way to church today. As I’ve been reflecting about my somewhat artificial commitment to not buy anything during Lent unless it is absolutely essential, I thought that probably I should also increase my almsgiving. (If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I am basically a very frugal person.) I rarely give money to panhandlers. But I was reading one of Bishop Untener’s “Little Black Book” meditations this morning about the “poor poor.” I decided that I needed to not just give to charitable organizations but to also loosen up and give money to a “street person.” The route I usually take to church passes the Cinti. Reds baseball stadium. Every time I drive by I see a different man with a sign next to the curb asking for help. I usually uncomfortably avoid eye contact and ignore the “man of the day.” I decided that during Lent I would give some cash to whomever was there when I drove by. I was ready. I had my bill. I looked for a man with a sign. It was cold and beginning to rain. No man. There was construction on the usual corner. Then I looked across the street and saw a man on another corner with a sign. I drove around the block and handed him the bill. I’m now committing to do this each time I go to the parish during Lent. Ironic that this happens on my way to church, isn’t it.

So, I don’t know if Mom is lobbying merchants from beyond, or if the panhandler is Jesus in disguise and sending extra grace my way. Still I’m choosing to think of my windfalls as meant for others and as the mysterious presence of God around me during this holy season.

What’s this got to do with being in solidarity with the poor? Read my next blog post, “Why I’m not poor” for more.

dollar signThis is Day 10 of trying to spend no money and prune my file cabinet drawers (I decided to do both.) It’s been an unusual stretch of time because I’ve been out of town for 6 of the days and had company for 3 other days. Jim and I spent several hundred dollars on a weekend contradance (hotel, meals, and gas) but it didn’t count. I had decided that money spent on food, housing, or transportation would be exempt. I then traveled to lead a 3-day workshop. My workshop hosts provided free housing and meals. Once home, house guests arrived and took us out to dinner one night. Our parish provided Soup Suppers on two Wednesdays. Tonight’s Lenten Fish Fry will cost some money but I’ll count that as a donation.

Days 365+29 CaduceusDid I spend money on any non-allowed items? Sort of.
$10.00 Donation to foreign missions on Ash Wednesday collection
$  7.50 My toe was hurting so I bought a pad. I justified this as a medical expense
$  5.00 Lenten Parish Fish Fry. I consider this a donation
$22.50 Total

With my newly revised criteria (now allowing donations and medical expenses) I’m still at 0.

What did I learn?

BENEFITS:

  • I benefitted from other people’s generosity (free housing and meals) Yes, I also provided free housing and meals to our house guests but I probably gained more than I gave. People who are genuinely poor generally don’t have friends who have much more than they do. Social service agencies are their “friends.”
  • I am privileged to do ministry in which offering hospitality is a common expectation. I have friends who are happy to treat me. I don’t have to ask for it. It can be humbling to have to ask for friendship or hospitality.
  • Yes, I donated to our parish, but I also didn’t have to pay for the Soup Suppers.

SACRIFICES:

  • Since I’m fasting on Fridays, I chose not to eat anything at the restaurant Jim and I went to when we were out of town.
  • Learning to wait. There were several things I would have normally bought without a second thought, but this Lent I forced myself to wait. This helped me understand the plight of people on a limited income more personally. My voluntary waiting is a small token of being in solidarity with them. For example:
    • When I was in the drug store to get my toe pads, I noticed a cream blush cosmetic that I had been looking for. Fortunately, they didn’t have it in the color I wanted so I didn’t buy it. Besides, I figured I could probably order it online when I got home. Then I realized that part of what it means to be poor is that I can’t just buy something when I want it. To be true to my Lenten commitment, I will need to wait 5 more weeks till I order it online. Fortunately, I have internet access and a credit card to do this with when my waiting is over.
    • A second similar experience happened today when I was at a pharmacy that happened to be selling my favorite Papas Easter eggs. I figured I’d just buy them now since they were on sale and often stores are out of stock by Easter. I was about to pay when I remembered my “Don’t spend money” commitment.
    • I also realized that if I were really poor, I probably would just put up with the sore toe until it got worse and by then I might need to see a doctor. It’s much cheaper to prevent a medical problem than to pay to rectify it later.
  • Walking to the Post Office, pharmacy, and bank with Jim. It was cold! This was partly for exercise and to give Jim companionship, but I noticed people along the way who were waiting for the bus or walking because of necessity, not a Lenten resolution.

The file cabinets
Since I was only home with discretionary time for 2 days, I didn’t get to prune any file cabinet drawers. Hopefully next week. There are 23 file drawers waiting for me.

Lent is about to start again and I’ve got two ideas for Lenten practices. Help me decide.
Buy nothing graphic1.  Don’t buy anything during Lent.
I wonder if this discipline would bring me into greater solidarity with those who may not have money for the basics much less any extras. Of course there would need to be exceptions like:

  • Groceries don’t count as long as the food is not extravagant or treats
  • Eating out would be a no-no unless I am out of town and don’t have a choice. (The school fish fry would be an exception since it’s a fund-raiser.)
  • Gas for the car wouldn’t count but I would try to walk or bike anyplace under a mile.
  • Our house is paid for but I would have to pay utilities.

I’m sure emergencies will come up, but I’ll have to decide that on a case by case basis. Each time I make an exception I will ponder the reality that many people don’t have the luxury of a back-up fund for emergencies. I also will need Jim’s cooperation lest he just buy things for me. Of course how do I take a picture of things that I don’t buy?

Days 329 Extra - recycling paper 0022.  Prune the information in my home.
Of course knowledge is good and I don’t want to get rid of important information but I have:

  • 11 file cabinet drawers of work related papers dating back at least 30 years.
  • 12 file cabinet drawers of household and family files.
  • Mega file folders on my desk and more in a temporary holding pattern on our Ping-Pong table
  • 4 crates of old photo albums waiting for one of our kids to offer to digitalize all of them
  • Computer files that could use pruning

Basically, I have Too Much Information – much of it obsolete. I don’t relish the task of going through all of it. This will probably be more time consuming and harder than not spending money. But it will make my life feel less crowded if I don’t have to rummage through crammed files to find stuff.
The Process: If I do this, I can already see that I will need to put boundaries around the time I spend sorting paper and files lest I not get my day job done. I’m thinking I will limit myself to no more than:

  • 1 file cabinet drawer a day
  • 1 hour a day

I’m not sure how this will be a spiritual endeavor except maybe to put into perspective how much stuff I thought was important to save and how fleeting and transitory most information is. I’ll be blogging more frequently during the next six weeks as I execute these plans.

If you had the choice which Lenten sacrifice would you choose and why? I wonder if I should do both?

Jim and I have had the opportunity to travel to a number of foreign countries. Sometimes it has been to visit our children who were doing international work and sometimes it was for international organizations we belong to. In the course of our travels we’ve collected quite a few interesting artifacts and mementos. It has been a joy and may sound rather impressive but it also means that we have artifacts from 3 African countries, 5 Asian countries, 2 Latin American countries, and 7 European countries. Some of them we display but we don’t want our house to look like a museum. So what does one do with items that are not really useful for every day life?

Days 365+85 jembe drum w leaves SFDS croppedBlack History month provided me with a partial solution.

Djembe drum – Our parish has a nice racial mix and I love drums. I decided to donate our Malian djembe drum to the Church choir – a win/win situation. I don’t really lose it. I get to enjoy the oomph it adds to our liturgical music.

Kenyan cloth – Since the grade school connected with our parish is close to 100% African American students, Black History Month is a time to celebrate their African heritage. It seemed like the perfect time to donate a cloth that had Kenya written all over it.

Days 365+88 goat bagGoat hide bag – As our daughter, Heidi, said when she brought this bag home as a Christmas present, “Every well-dressed Malian boy has to have a goat skin backpack.” I added that to the Black History Month decorations.

As convenient as these solutions were, we still have plenty of foreign artifacts. Some of them deserve to be displayed with honor as a remembrance, but there’s only so much room for wall decorations before it looks cluttered. It’s hard to find an appropriate place to give primitive sculptures and masks.

What do you do when mementos multiply and become more clutter than cherished? Think schools, scouts, churches, and children.

PS: Interested in doing something as a family for Black History Month or to address racism; see Erasing Racism.

Like most families, we received some nice Christmas gifts. Two weeks later, I also received a call from the Lupus organization that picks up household items to sell. The proceeds go to the Lupus Foundation. I noticed some happy coincidences. Even though I didn’t make a conscious effort to have the gifts coming in equal my outgoing donations, it seems like it’s been happening naturally. Maybe it’s the habit of trying to live a “one in-one out” lifestyle. Maybe it’s good karma. Maybe it’s just dumb luck.

Anyway, as I looked around at what was left in my Give-Away bin, it became apparent that many of the items were there because we had gotten a replacement as a gift. For example:

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Sweater
This was Jim’s contribution. I had gotten him a flannel shirt for Christmas so he was willing to get rid of the red sweater. The catch was that the sweater had a hole. I sucked it up and mended the hole. Not a perfect job, but good enough to give it away without undue guilt.
Skirt & Top
I had decided to give these away awhile ago but never got around to it. Letting go of these helps to justify the nice dress our daughter gave me.
Long Underwear
I hadn’t planned to give this away but when I put my new wool base layer top in a drawer, it was too crowded. Solution: get rid of the former long underwear that was a little too snug anyway.
Wok
Jim does most of the cooking in our family so I gave Jim a new wok for his birthday which is right after Christmas. Our old wok was still usable but the bottom didn’t sit nicely on our new stove surface. (It works fine on a gas or electric coil burners.)
Tea Kettle
I also gave Jim a new tea Kettle. I know, it sounds boring, but he asked for it. More on this in a later blog because disposing of the old one is a story in itself.
Gloves
I had bought new gloves a little before Christmas because my others had stretched out. I found them in the Give-Away bin.

Working the equation with children:
A variation of this process is what some families with young children do. Either before or after Christmas, a parent suggests that the child donate one toy to a needy family to teach generosity and to keep the net gain of toys under control. We only discovered this idea after our children were grown. I wonder how they would have taken to it.

Days 365+86 Misc water filtersThere were a number of other miscellaneous items that didn’t fit the “one in–one out” formula but were ready to leave home. We also let go of: a cutting board, shoes, cap, purse, necklace, welcome sign, table runner, and 5 unused water filters left over from a long term guest who didn’t like the taste of our city water. Does this mean we can justify bringing 12 new items into our home? I don’t think so. This is not a zero sum game. Don’t forget the spirit is to not accumulate more than we need.

Question: How do you keep control of creature comfort creep?

It’s the end of 2014. Over the past year when I noticed things I no longer needed, I’ve put them in a plastic bin that I keep for giveaways. These items don’t really fit into any neat category and didn’t merit a trip to St. Vincent DePaul just for a few miscellaneous items. I was waiting to decide what to do with them.

Days 365+85 Misc - jacketsThen, a miracle happened. A Facebook post coincided with Christmas and my miscellaneous stuff. A friend who works at a Respite Center posted a need for items that the residents could use. I checked through my miscellaneous giveaway container and noticed that jackets, gloves, and hangers were needed. Jim had just placed 2 of his older jackets in the giveaway bin. I had 2 pairs of extra gloves and a bunch of hangers. Match.

I read that the Center could also use toiletries and buckets. That prompted me to look through my medicine closet and basement. Aha! I found:

  • Days 365+85 buckets17 small travel shampoos and reconditioning tubes – you know the kind that hotels provide. I usually take them figuring that I will use them on trips to places that don’t provide shampoo. But, I really don’t need 17. This is a better use for them.
  • 1 Chapstick
  • 16 hangers that had nothing to hang on them – a testimony to giving away unnecessary clothes. (I held back some hangers for guests. Full disclosure, I just went back to count how many empty hangers we still have and there are 57. No way do we need that many extras. Aarrgh! Now I feel guilty. Perhaps I can give them to a thrift store.)
  • 2 buckets. Actually our household had 4 large buckets in the basement but I figured saving 2 would be plenty.
  • Days 365+85 Rx & shampooIn the process I also found 9 outdated prescriptions (over 10 years past the expiration date). I don’t know how they eluded my earlier purge of expired Rx but maybe they were just under my generous 10 year criteria.

LESSON: If I keep my eyes watchful and my ears attentive, giveaways and places to take them will reveal themselves. This habit of giving away has attuned me to opportunities that I previously missed.

PS (5 days later): To assuage my guilt, I have now taken 42 more orphan hangers to a new home. However, it was more complicated than I anticipated.
Mediation needed:

My husband said he preferred the simple wire hangers to the sturdier plastic ones I wanted to keep for guests. We called in a mediator and negotiated.
Where to take the hangers:
I didn’t intend for this to be a research project, but to save you the work, here’s what I found out. (Local situations may vary.)

• Vincent de Paul only takes plastic hangers (most of mine were wire ones). They give the wire ones to a metal recycler.
Goodwill doesn’t take any hangers at all.
• Salvation Army was happy to take them to replenish the ones that their visitors take.
• Dry cleaners: Some will take them; some will not. The one close to our home does not.
• Misc. sources: Thrift shops, Craig’s list, retirement homes, hospitals, women’s shelter. Some people will take the hangers and even pay the shipping. Click here for additional ideas.
• Other uses: crafts, use to retrieve things from underneath furniture. Click here for other sources and craft ideas.

I just dropped mine off at the Salvation Army Center since it was nearest and least hassle.
I’m done with hangers for awhile.

Giving and receiving gifts is nice. It’s even joyful when you find the right gift for a person you love. Some people love the challenge of the hunt. I don’t. For me finding a suitable gift is often a burden, especially around Christmas time. Although I have a reputation for being frugal, it’s not just about the money. It’s often a matter of deciding whether to buy a piece of clothing, a book, a gadget, or a toy, for someone who already has plenty.

Days 365+85 Thank you cardI was faced with such a dilemma several months ago when I was asked to get:

  • a thank you gift for two people whose terms in our organization were concluding
  • a commissioning gift for the two newly elected people taking their place

It’s a small, faith based community and I realized that neither of the outgoing leaders needed a gold watch, plaque, or personalized pen. What they probably would appreciate more was recognition and humor. So, I asked the 20 some people who would be at the transition retreat to write one sentence on a common card describing a talent or quality they saw in the honoree.

Click to enlarge

Click to read words

I then tried to think of an item that would symbolize a quality that the newly elected officers would need. I chose a lion poster for the new leader (for courage and humor) and toy binoculars for the person who mentors new members (for being able to see the needs of others). All these items were already around my home. It took time to be mindful of the people involved and some creative thinking.

Fast forward to Christmas. Now that our kids are grown, we draw names for the gift exchange. Grandchildren are an exception to this. We decided to get “dress up” costumes for the 2 grandchildren. For the pirate we will have to buy some items from a store, but for the doctor outfit, I called a doctor friend and asked if he had any scrubs, an old stethoscope, facemask, eye patch (which could double for the pirate) etc. We will then create living room plays where the doctor heals the pirate who goes on risky adventures to help people.

A few years ago, our family agreed to do a “Nothing New Christmas” in which we would not buy anything new. (For those in a hurry, who don’t want to read the email negotiations, just cut to the chase on page 4 – Results) It was crazy and fun, but it also strained our creativity genes. We decided not to do it every year. Something I will still do this year, however, is a “strength message” for each of our godchildren. I used to send them a trinket for St. Nick’s day but I’m too late for December 6 and they’re too old for trinkets now anyway. I plan to send each of them a short email with a talent that I’ve observed in them over the past year.

None of these ideas may fit your family but I encourage you to think outside the gift box to experiences that will bring joy and laughter. Sometimes that’s something you buy in a store; sometimes it’s not. The result can be priceless.

PS: For additional ideas, see:
 My list of Frugal Gifts for Family and Friends that I compiled from numerous ideas readers have sent me over the years.
 Extra Fun or Christmas Tag

PPS: What’s the most creative, meaningful, silly, or interesting gift that you’ve received?

Days 365+82 refugee donations cropped

My stuff

An email came from a friend about contributing household goods to a local refugee resettlement program. Most of the people currently being served are from Nepal. Lita invited our faith community to bring extra household items for the refugees to our next meeting. I thought I wouldn’t have much to contribute since I’ve been limiting purchases for several years now. But, this was a friend calling who had a personal connection with the Nepalese refugees. It was worth looking around. It still amazes me that I have useful things tucked away in closets that I seldom use. I was both surprised and pleased that I found a spread, a number of towels, and various kitchen utensils to contribute. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

The miracle happened in the multiplication of items as other families added to my modest pile.

Insight #1: Finding the right place to give makes it so much easier to let go. It’s much more satisfying to let go of extra stuff to a person than to an institution. Sure Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul are worthy distribution centers, but having a specific recipient in mind helped me stretch beyond the “I might use these extra towels some day” mentality. That’s the attitude that helped me let go of many of the baby items I thought my yet to be born grandchildren might want. I knew a pregnant mom who had few resources. It helped me let go.

Days 365+82 refugee donations + Anawim cropped

My stuff multiplied

Insight #2: But, you say, “I don’t know any refugees or needy pregnant women.” These people didn’t just come knocking at my door one night. Part of the challenge of giving stuff away is putting oneself in situations where coming into contact with potential recipients is likely. It may take a call to a local Catholic Charities, a maternity home, or checking out the social service agencies in your community. It might mean volunteering in a place where you meet face to face with people who have less. It might be being the one who asks friends to join in the miracle of multiplication.

Question: How do YOU find people to give stuff to?

Click to englarge

Click to enlarge

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, we take advantage of it – Community Sponsored Hazardous Waste collection. Once or twice a year my county provides a place to take items like pesticides, paint, medications, old electronics, etc. Jim and I save these items throughout the year and take them to the collection place on the appointed date. It takes a bit of organization to have a holding place in the house for the respective items, to notice the date, and then to remember to do it (if we are in town). Ideally, communities would have a collection site open every day or at least on a weekly basis (perhaps every weekend). Still, it is good that this happens at all.

We contributed:

  • 56 batteries
  • 2 printer cartridges
  • 2 garden pesticides
  • 13 light bulbs
  • 2 printers
  • 1 computer tower
  • 1 projector

The need is great and the people are willing. This is evidenced by the long line of cars waiting to drop off their hazardous waste. The actual drop off was very efficient (about 5 minutes with lots of helpful volunteers) but we waited in traffic for about 30 minutes to get to the drop off point. You’d think with this many people eager to do the right thing that the sponsors would do it more frequently. Although local communities differ in what they collect and when, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gives an overview of what constitutes hazardous waste with links to local resources.

How does your community handle hazardous waste?

THE HAMSTER SYNDROMEdays-36581-hamster-my-photo
Do you ever feel like you’re a hamster running a never ending wheel of activity and never quite getting caught up. I do. People ask how I am and I’m tempted to say “Busy.” I’ve been trying to eliminate that answer as an automatic response because I realize that it’s usually just a variation of “Look how important I am. I have lots to do.” When I pause enough to consider the “I’m busy” comment, I realize that most people I know are busy and it doesn’t really mean that what fills my time is any more important than my neighbor’s time. Instead of wearing “busyness” as a badge of honor, I’ve started to reframe it as a weakness. It is a myth that I will ever get completely caught up – forever.

5 Busyness Myths that keep me stuck racing on the hamster wheel
1. I must do it all.

The weakness is the inability to prioritize.
Time - person2. My value depends on how much I do.
The erroneous idea that the more I accomplish the more valuable I am and people will like me
3. Society respects busyness.
Honoring busyness is really a smug version of “Look how important I am!”
4. I will eventually get caught up.
The assumption that I can conquer today’s “To Do” list and actually get caught up defies all historical evidence. I know that I will soon just add more tasks onto my list and soon be behind again.
5. Being responsible means doing lots of things and doing them fast.
Being responsible means following through on my commitments but also not biting off more than I can chew.

As I realize the folly of figuring out how to do things faster, more efficiently, and just do more, I’ve found:

5 Ways to get off the hamster wheel
1. One In – One Out

Apply this principle of pruning household goods to my commitments. Before I say yes to a new commitment, committee, or volunteer activity – Am I willing to let go of a current involvement?
2. Cut myself down to size
No matter how talented I am, I can’t save the world. I can do somethings, but not everything. Sometimes I take on more than I should because I’m flattered to be asked or I think I can do it better than another, or I’m afraid if I don’t do it nobody will. This is faulty thinking that suggests I’m the only one who can do a task. Sometimes, leaving a task undone, permits a hole that another person will eventually fill, once the need is evident. It’s a good mentoring and parenting principle.
3. Not all things are equally important or urgent
I may want to organize my spice rack, check my email, or finish off a task but the person in front of me takes priority. Be it a child who needs attention or a spouse who feels neglected, relationships come first. After loving the people around me, then the difficult task of prioritizing the essential over the “would be nice to do” kicks in. We Type A personalities tend to think we should be able to do it all. That’s what makes us feel important. The real wisdom, however, is having the guts to prioritize and skip the non-urgent.
4. Divide and Conquer
Today I have 17 things that I need to do before I leave for Rome in 9 days (and that doesn’t count calling my mother!) I feel overwhelmed since many of the tasks depend on getting information from other people. This morning I realized if I could do at least 2 tasks a day I’d be OK. I may not have time to frost my hair but I’ll get the important stuff done.
5. Take Time Out First
It may seem like quiet time alone is non-productive time. For us work-a-holics it may seem like taking time to rest, to play, to pray is a waste of time. The human spirit needs time and space, however, to rejuvenate and ponder the meaning of it all. My own practice has been to take time to pray as soon as I awake in the morning. Occasionally, I delay it thinking I’ll get dressed first or check email, or whatever seems so urgent that I have to do it first. Inevitably the day slips away and I’m back on the hamster wheel. Starting with some quiet open space reminds me of why I am here and what’s really important. It also helps me with point #3 – prioritizing what really must get done this day.

Some people are naturally laid back and need to procrastinate less. That’s another problem for another day although I think some of the same principles may apply. Let’s face it, we humans will probably never be fully caught up. To chase after that goal will just make us weary. Downsizing our expectation of finally getting caught up may be a healthier way to live. What works for you?

PS: One tip that will both save you and your FaceBook friends time is to commit to not posting more than 1 thing a day. (This is a somewhat unrelated pet peeve of mine but as much as I enjoy catching up on friends’ lives and getting inspirational messages, it can be a time hog. TV used to play this role in many of our lives. I think Facebook has taken its place. No more than One-A-Day seems to be a good rule of thumb to me.)

Days 112 Extra - Question markA few days ago our daughter emailed us saying that she was in Liberia. With the Ebola crisis emanating from that region of Africa, our parental worry antenna shot up. She assured us that she was being extremely careful and was super sanitized but Ebola stories have been endemic on the news. Of course that’s why she was there – to report on Ebola  for the Wall Street Journal. We are proud of her but also worried for her.

This got me thinking about being a parent. No matter what the age of our children, I vacillate between pride and worry. Are they doing well enough in school? How is their health? Will they make good friends and find loving relationships? Will they make good decisions about life and morality? Will they be safe? Will they be able to support themselves financially? Will they keep faith?

While my children lived at home, my job was to lay the foundation – to teach them the basics and try to provide a safe, nutritional, educational, moral environment. Now that they are grown, I can only continue to love them and trust that that foundation will carry them through the tough times.

No one escapes childhood without some hurts, be they physical falls or emotional heartbreaks. Still, as a parent, it’s hard not to worry. No matter how old one’s child is we can’t guarantee his or her well-being. So how can a caring parent stay sane?

WORRY-LESS PARENTING:
1. Lay a Foundation, But Let Go of the Outcome.
Do the best you can during the active parenting years and then repeat this mantra: “I are responsible for the process I use in raising my children – not the outcome.”
2. Let Go of Guilt and Start.
In hindsight, parents sometimes feel guilty that their “best” was flawed. Maybe from lack of money, time, or knowing healthy parenting practices, you made mistakes or did things you regret. Learn from the past but let go of the guilt. You can’t change history. Start now to be the best parent you can.
3. Let Go of Pride.
We put so much energy into our children it’s tempting to see their successes as our successes. Of course the corollary is to feel that our child’s failure is our failure.

BEYOND PARENTING WORRIES:
Worrying is not restricted to parents. I can worry about money, my job (or lack thereof), health, politics, the environment, human relationships gone awry, or my hair. I have found the following principles help keep me balanced:
1. Take Action.
One of the best remedies for worry is to do something proactive. I can’t single handedly stop climate change, but I can reduce how much energy I use and recycle more.
2. Think Beyond Myself.
Increasing my love for others and decreasing my judgment of those I disagree with can lift my spirit beyond “woe is me.” Being in community with others can multiply positive actions and bring support in times of discouragement.
3. Turn it over.
For people of faith this typically means prayer or meditation. Even if one has no specific religious belief, the attitude of letting go can put problems in perspective and bring some peace.

Bonus: Laugh More – at ones foibles, the temporariness of this life, myself. Sometimes I just have to laugh at my uncontrollable hair.

So, wise readers – What has helped you deal with the inevitable worries of life?

dollar signOf course this question is a minefield. How much is enough depends on family size, stage of life, where you live, etc. Still, as a follow-up to our recent observations about poverty in Kenya and the growing awareness of income inequality in the USA, I wanted to know – Are Jim and I doing OK in the Living Lightly realm? Are we in the middle – or a little less (as we like to think of ourselves)? Or could we live on less income?

Historical note: I remember when we first got married in 1971 and our income was about $7,000, I made the rash judgment that making over $50,000 was probably sinful. I quickly revised my opinion to, it’s not the income that’s a problem but rather how one uses the excess after meeting modest needs of daily life. This assumes of course that  one comes by income honestly and not at the expense of others or the environment. Adjusted for inflation, our 1971 income would now be about $41,000. The “sinful” $50,000 income would be about $294,000 in 2014 dollars. Our income has increased in real dollars since 1971. So do we have enough or too much? It got me thinking about what I buy with our increased income.

One of our sons challenged me the other day about several things I considered buying, borrowing, or looking for a sale. The first was a projector for PowerPoint presentations – a genuine but occasional need. The second was a Bengals baseball cap – hardly comparable in cost. He said, “Hey, just buy it! You have enough money. Your house and car are paid for; your kids are all out of college, and you have Medicare. You don’t always need to save money.”

Hmmm. He’s right, but frugal habits die hard. Maybe that’s not so bad in that it keeps me from being a spendthrift, but it also can keep me from being generous. When I look back on what might be “sinful” about an income, I now think the biggest fault is being judgmental of others. Yes, we need to work for fair government policies that decrease the income gap between the wealthy and the poor, but we also need to look at the sin of smugness in ourselves.

In my book, Blessed By Less, I propose the following 7 basic needs for a decent human life:

  1. Enough food to stay healthy and the means to cook it
  2. Enough clothing to stay warm and that is appropriate for my work
  3. Housing that is safe and clean with enough space for some privacy
  4. Enough education for the kind of work I want to do and the tools with which to do it.
  5. Access to affordable health care
  6. Some discretionary money for treats or recreation
  7. A job to pay for the above necessities (Ideally, each of us should have meaningful activity, whether paid or unpaid, which contributes to the common good.)

According to the USA Department of Health & Human Services the 2014 poverty level for 2 people (like us) averages about $17,000 depending on where you live. By this measure, we are rich. But watching ads and our contemporaries, however, sometimes we feel poor. Could you afford these basic needs on $17,000?

What do you consider to be enough income? What are your criteria for a decent lifestyle? How do you guard against the “Smug factor?”

Days 365+78 typical walking hike w guides croppedI recently returned from a trip to visit our daughter in Nairobi, Kenya. International travel like this always prompts reflections on life and how we humans are alike and different, I’d like to share 2 things I learned – one humorous and one humbling.

Humor:
Our daughter, Jim, and I went on a walking safari through the savannah region north of Nairobi. We had two Massai as guides (a spotter, aka the “gun guy” and an “explainer”). We saw dik diks, zebra, geremuks, giraffes, jackals, elephants, ostriches, impalas, waterbucks, and other exotic animals and birds.

Elephant track

elephant track

I was in awe of the guides’ ability to spot animals from afar that often just looked like rocks to me – until they moved. The explainer would often point out the tracks of the various animals and background about their habits. Eventually, I wanted to contribute to our group’s knowledge but was pitifully ignorant of tracks, until…I saw the tire track of a truck. Click on images to enlarge.

tire track

tire track

In the style of the guide, I explained that this track was probably made by a Toyota jeep.  It eats gas and oil and comes in many colors, but mostly black, white, and earth tones. Its “poop” comes in the form of smoke and fumes. Its predators are bumpy roads, bigger trucks, and drunk drivers. Did it impress the guides? No, but we had a chuckle and I had fun thinking up parallels.

Humility:
Days 365+78 elephants in river croppedPeriodically I took time to quietly sit, reflect, and pray about the experience I was having in Africa – both the safari and life in the city of Nairobi. My custom is to end my meditation time with calling to mind something I am grateful for. (It helps balance out my worries and stress.) One morning, as I was aware of the safari staff busily preparing food and supplies for the days walk, while I leisurely gazed at the sunrise, I found myself saying, “Thank you, God, that I do not have the life of a safari worker, a maid, a guard, a driver, or any of the many local people who spend their time serving us.” OH, NO! I caught myself in the middle of this “Gratitude Prayer” and realized how close it was to Luke 18:11 “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” I didn’t know what to do with this awareness of myself as a proud Pharisee. I felt humbled and resolved to do some kind of service for the staff that day.

Points to Ponder:

  • Does humor come easily to you?
  • How do you deal with undue pride?
  • What has contact with another culture (either at home or in another country) taught you about life?

Days 365+78 Pig paraphalia croppedExtra – Speaking of Animals:
I’ve been saving this post for awhile since it didn’t really fit any category other than Getting rid of stuff that’s been stored at our house for way too long. Jim and I belong to a contradance community that hosts an annual weekend dance called “Pig Town Fling” in honor of Cincinnati’s slogan as “Pig Town.” Over the years we’ve collected a lot of pig paraphernalia with which we decorate the dance hall. Finally, I’ve passed these “treasures” on to next year’s King Pig organizer.

dollar signI was fantasizing the other day about winning the lottery. Actually, I never buy lottery tickets since the odds are against me and thus it seems like a waste of money. Still, I started thinking of all the non-profit organizations I belong to and volunteer activities that I’m involved with. All of them could use an infusion of money. I could do a lot of good if I came into some sudden cash.

BUT, then I started thinking about the effort I’ve put into writing some grants for those organizations and how I hate to do fundraising. I started to think of how a conscientious person with excess income can carry quite a burden. I wouldn’t turn down a monetary windfall but following are 9 advantages that occurred to me from living on an adequate but modest income:

  1. Assuming that you already set aside funds (perhaps 10%) to support causes you are committed to, declining all those sincere but inconvenient telephone solicitors who call – mostly at dinner time – can be done guilt free.
  2. It makes signing online petitions easier since the inevitable request for a donation which accompanies them can be ignored.
  3. It inoculates against the temptation to buy trendy or status clothes or gadgets which will probably go out of style soon anyway.
  4. The bar for a treat is low, so simple pleasures (a meal out, a bubble bath, a special desert) can delight.
  5. Taxes are relatively easy.
  6. Friendships are not likely to be contaminated by one-up-man ship or the ability to give favors.
  7. Getting a bargain can bring great pleasure.
  8. Life is less complicated since there is less to protect, clutter, and clean.
  9. One doesn’t have to carry the burden of being a conscientious philanthropist weighing the relative merits of many good causes seeking your donation. (Although I’m glad that some people are willing to do this.)

Of course all of this is predicated on having enough, but not too much. This is a thorny and complicated decision for a person or family to make. Some people don’t have a choice. Circumstances can change and income can be lost. Genuine needs can increase so what once was enough no longer covers medical bills or a crisis. Assuming, however, that one is living at that squishy level of “enough but not too much” there is still another challenge – how to live with moral humility and avoid the smug factor?

How do you stay balanced? How much is enough?

Time - personIt was a bad day! It started with an unnecessarily long conference call which meant I had to scurry to make my eye doctor appointment. This meant I didn’t have time to recheck my directions, made some wrong turns, and was 16 minutes late. The office informed me that they didn’t honor appointments later than 15 minutes. I would have to come back another day. Since I was already out I decided to use the time to pick up some supplies at a nearby fabric store. When I got to the store, a sign said they had moved – not close. I decided to give up and return home. On the way I got stuck in a traffic jam. I felt pretty grumpy, but I did have time while sitting in the traffic jam to think – or maybe it was prayer. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. My reflections led me to the concept: “These are First World problems”

While I write this I’m nearing the end of a visit to our daughter who lives in Kenya. It’s a beautiful and corrupt country. Most people would consider it Second or Third World. Although my time here has been pleasant enough (partially because I am white, have enough money to travel, and a daughter to provide necessities) I see the poverty around me. Roads are in terrible disrepair. Numerous people are selling trinkets along the roadsides or begging. Those who can afford it have drivers, maids, and security guards. These are considered good jobs because they are jobs. I watch people doing backbreaking work to serve the pleasure of those who have more wealth. Wait, this isn’t all that different than many places in the USA!

Either way, I’m reminded of the burdens that other people carry – most are much bigger than being stuck in traffic or having to reschedule an eye appointment. Being mindful of these realities reduces my stress and helps put life in perspective.

A few times in my life I have faced serious problems – sickness, job loss, emotional distress – but mostly my problems pale when compared to people who are really suffering in my world or any world.

What have I learned?

  1. Be mindful. It will probably lead to gratitude.
  2. Stay close enough to those who have less, to be reminded of my privilege.
  3. Do something to respond to the needs of those who suffer. This might be by donations of time or money, or through political action.

How do you cope?