Between a Rock and a Book

Oh, man. Life is interesting.

Two weeks ago I wrote Sentimental Value about letting go of what no longer serves us, and the next day a friend invited me to go see a couple of guys called The Minimalists at a local bookstore.

I’d read a story about them in the Missoulian, which I immediately forwarded to my friend who lives with his wife in a beautifully minimal way. He then found out they were coming to town and asked me if I wanted to “grab a burrito and meet the guys who live simply.”

And why would I say no?

It was part reading, part presentation, and a lot of Q&A. They told us about their minimalist lifestyle, how they made the switch and how we can too. I didn’t know at the time that I’d set a different ball into motion a few days earlier, but we’ll get to that later.

I was on the verge of tears listening to these fine young men speak about their decisions to give up almost everything. One was speaking about the moment he realized that his high paying job was a trap, and as I thought to myself, “who was I just telling my version of that story to?” I spotted my acupuncturist turned around in his seat winking at me. Aha!

I had a really good job right out of college at an investment bank in San Francisco. We got frequent, generous raises and bonuses. I’d spend $400 at Banana Republic on my lunch break without thinking twice. I treated myself to massages, pedicures and and elegant dinners. I thought I “deserved” all of these things as a “prize” because 1) I went to work at 6:00am and worked long days, and 2) the life I was living was not the life I’d pictured for myself.

(NOTE: Before I got that job my best friend and I were very poor in San Francisco while we worked temp jobs and waited for something “real” to pan out. We’d go out on a friday night with $10 between the two of us to see how much fun we could have. We’d split a burrito then have enough leftover for a couple of cheap beers. (This was 1996. I’m old.) After that we’d hope some guys might buy us drinks (Sorry, guys.) but if that didn’t pan out we’d take a walk, deep condition our hair, have a dance party, or just people watch from our perch on her fire escape.

The apartment was above a fast food double whammy—KFC and Taco Bell under one roof—so the smells from the “balcony” were nauseating but the apartment was located in The Marina Triangle so the sights more than made up for the stink.

In conclusion: We had a helluva lot of fun with $10. We had fun because we were together. Would we have had more fun if we had $100? Honestly—I don’t think so, and actually believe it could be argued that with more money we might have had less fun.)

Anywho….

It turned out I liked the finance job more than I thought I would. The company served coffee and tea on real silver, and walking into our offices felt like walking into a Ritz Carlton. The views of the Bay Area were truly unbelievable and because 101 California Street is cylindrical the views were 360. You could see to Napa and halfway to Tahoe.

I was on the verge of my first real promotion (that would have doubled my salary) when I was out to lunch with some associates a year or two older than me. They were talking about their stuff. One had bought a Pacific Heights condo, one a BMW, and another had bought both. I listened and then finally dropped my fork into my Pad Thai and spoke like a true Master of the Obvious, “Oh my god. Now that you’ve bought all that expensive stuff—that you still have to pay for—you have to keep your job. You would be totally screwed without your job. Oh my god; you are totally stuck.”

I quit the next week.

It’s hard to place a finger on exactly why I teared up listening to Joshua and Ryan talk about how they’d come to a minimalist lifestyle. For Joshua it was when his mother died and he realized that he was planning to move all of her things halfway across the country so they could sit in a storage unit near his house. There was no mindfulness to it, and he was doing it more out of habit or obligation than anything.

The moving truck was on its way when he found sealed boxes from his childhood under his mother’s bed, things she’d kept as a way to hold onto the child he’d been, but that she’d kept sealed and never looked at. He cancelled the moving truck and the storage unit, then sold or donated almost everything. He asked himself, “What are we really holding onto here?”

Ryan’s process was different. He threw a party and his friends came to help him pack up his three-bedroom, two-bath house (that he lived in alone) as if he were moving. He then took items out of the boxes as he needed them. Three weeks later eighty percent of his belongings was still in boxes. As he said in the Missoulian interview, “The minimalist lifestyle is not about pursuing less, it’s about living more deliberately.”

So why was I dabbing the corners of my eyes? I was crying because of all the things I can fairly easily part with, photos, letters, cards, and books are not on the list. It appears I’m attached to paper.

I’ll happily spend hours sitting on my grandmother’s living room floor with pictures all around me asking her, “who is this?” and “where was this?” and “when was this?” and “Oh my! Look at this!” I will never remember all of her answers, but I will never forget the conversations.

Some people don’t value photos, but I am clearly not one of those people. Joshua suggested scanning fifty or so photos and putting them in a digital photo album. His opinion is that people don’t like photo albums, but I disagree. We now follow friends’ milestones and adventures in play-by-play fashion on Facebook. We see births, weddings, post-divorce jaunting in re-time. You don’t even have to talk to a friend to know what they’re doing, what they’re eating, and if they’re happy or sad. It’s great. I think.

But I sure do miss bringing home half a dozen rolls of film from a trip not knowing if you captured what you hoped to, then waiting for them to get developed, hoping you didn’t double-expose. They’d get sorted and occasionally torn up (but there were the negatives….), and the winners would make it into albums. Instead of clicking “share,” you’d actually have your friends over to look at your pictures.

I’m six or seven years older than Joshua and wonder if it’s a personality/preference thing, or if there’s just enough difference in our ages that he doesn’t really remember non-digital cameras. Or maybe he just doesn’t care about a record of history the way I do. It doesn’t make him insensitive, and it doesn’t make me clingy about the past. (Right?)

I choked back tears that night not because Joshua and I place different values on family photos—that would be weird—though it does make me sad that creating and sharing albums is a thing of the past, it’s not exactly tear worthy.

Here’s the thing: I’m sad that we even have to have this conversation. It’s sad that so many people don’t realize that their things will never make them happy. Some people will skim right over a newspaper article about Minimalism, dismissing it as “for other people.”

I’m sad that we have to have this conversation and that some people don’t even want to listen. There are people who will continue to buy crap that doesn’t last because it’s cheap, people who don’t understand free-range or humanely-raised, people who don’t understand the hazards of single use plastic and the benefits of recycling. some people will never get it. I cried for the collective with the realization that I’m part of the problem too.

I was going away for the weekend so I knew the next stage of my sorting out process would be delayed, but I started looking around at some of the things I’ve held onto that don’t have great associations or that I don’t find particularly useful. Here a short list of some of the things I got rid of:

Tibetan chimes: The man who gave them to me cheated on his wife (a lovely woman and good friend of mine) with a Thai hooker and I just can’t stand behind that. Sorry.

Japanese monkey teapot: Given to me as a housewarming gift for one of the most distressing places I ever lived in. I can’t tell you much except that the daughter of the owner harassed me while I lived there and for years after I moved out. Among other things, she accused me of being a government spy then told me I was the worst Independent Contractor ever hired by the United States. It was so weird, my feelings were actually hurt to be told I was terrible at something I wasn’t even doing. How bizarre. But seriously, that’s all I feel comfortable saying about that right now.

Black lab peppershaker: Previously part of a set with a yellow lab saltshaker. (Obviously there’s more to the story…)

Three Wise Monkeys: I tried but I just couldn’t get rid of Mizaru (see no evil), Kikazaru (hear no evil), or Iwazaru (speak no evil). No way. I love those guys!

As I gathered knickknacks to donate or keep, I kept bumping into pieces of my heart rock collection. A half dozen of them grace my windowsills and shelves, and to be honest they sometimes get in the way.

They topple into the kitchen sink, they make opening windows more complicated than necessary, and they threaten to blacken toenails when they jump, but I have a thing for them. I remember the joy of finding them on a trails and beaches. But what to do? What do you do with your heart rock collection?

And then the books. Sorting through my books is a whole different trip down memory lane. But I decided to take Ryan’s advice and go through the titles as if I was moving. I knew I’d be able to part with a couple dozen books.

A friend had a great idea, “How about you go through all your books and gift each of your friends 10-15 books for Christmas?” It was such a good idea and would be a phenomenal, thoughtful present, but…I’m just not into it.

Toward the end of college I got in the habit of writing the date and place where I read a book. Just seeing Geneva, Hood River, Petersburg, or Andover on an inside cover will take me back to where I was when I bought the book, who I was when I read it, and how it transformed me as a person and writer. There are books on my shelf that I’d never part with except in the case of a house fire, and I’d really like to have this in my house some day:

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I did find a couple dozen books that aren’t that important to me, and as I was loading one into a giveaway box a packet of seeds fell out. Not just any seed packet: a packet of cosmos seeds. In the summer of 2000 I bought an Andrew Wyeth print called “Around the Corner” of a beachy cottage that has cosmos growing prolifically all around it. I fell in love with the flower at first sight, before I even knew what to call them, and have planted cosmos at several houses in several states—sometimes they grow, sometimes not a thing happens, and sometimes I just like to use seed packets as bookmarks.

For awhile I felt like maybe that print was holding me back, and in September 2011 I shot several rounds into that print which I wrote about HERE.

Despite the fact that I destroyed my print, I still think it’s a beauty and would most likely buy it again.
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I’ve lived in a frightening number of places in the past twelve years. There were eleven just in Missoula, and six in other places. This is not counting interim situations or couch surfing; these are places where something was in my name. (I bet you’re asking yourself how it’s even possible for such a gypsy to accumulate much of anything, and believe me, I’ve asked myself the same.)

In most of them I’ve had all of my books, and in some of them just a few. One thing is for sure: I have never lived in a house without books.

As I sorted through the books I couldn’t help but think about all of the different shelves they’ve stood on. There was the one under the stairs, the ones under windows and in kitchens, and then there was the one behind my bed.

I was on a midnight alley walk with Lucky when I scored the bookshelf headboard in an alley about three blocks from where we lived. I propped it over my shoulder and carried that thing all the way home, but in the light of my kitchen I was disappointed. It was dingy and there was residue leftover from some kid’s sticker decorations. I was repurposing a child’s headboard that she’d pimped out with stickers? Had I lost it?

I wavered for a moment, maybe the bookshelf headboard was a tad bit juvenile for my (then) thirty-year-old self, but the next day I painted it a cornflower blue, stuck in behind my bed, and filled it with books that were the perfect size to fill the space.

The titles weren’t intentional—it was mostly about size and a little bit about color—but because there really aren’t any coincidences, a friend pointed out the titles that anchored my bed and read them to me in in story format: The Boys of My Youth, Cowboys Are My weakness, Great Expectations, Small is Beautiful, The Serpents of Paradise, Lucky.

The list of things I discover tucked inside books is endless, but the spines tell me stories too. This time around I turned up a 1997 letter from a college boyfriend from back when we thought that maybe our dreams were the same. I found birthday cards from coast to coast friends and a program from one of the most interesting weddings I’ve attended at a haunted hot springs “resort.” I also found a Western Montana State Fair non-refundable beer ticket hidden inside a Wallace Stegner book.

The font made the ticket look fifty years old, but I’d approximate it was from 2001. AKA the year I wore a brand new white hat with a plaid dress to the rodeo and was repeatedly mistaken for a country singer who was popular at the time. It’s nothing, right? Just a beer ticket that has spent the last decade as a bookmark? Hardly.

That page doesn’t even need to be marked any more, but I left it in there. Maybe someday when I’m not in Missoula that ticket will fall out, the font even more dated, and I’ll shed a tear for this place I love but sometimes choose to leave.

Oh, man. Why all this crying? (I’m on day 6 of the Master Cleanse and the physical and emotional detox is deep. And intense. More about that in the next post…)

I found lots of photos including one of me popping out of a sleeping bag when I was on a Green Tortoise bus trip to Yosemite. It reminded me of the adventurous girl I’d been who backpacked her gear to the fancy job in the high-rise and stashed it in the corner of her cube. At the end of the day she changed into her traveling clothes, and hung her business suit behind her chair, abandoned her heels under her desk. After two full days in Yosemite, the bus drove through the night (that what the Green Tortoise does) and pulled back into San Francisco around 5:00 am, just in time for her to go back to the office, wash her face and hands, change into her clothes from Friday and hope that nobody noticed the campfire smell on her dirty up do.

I’m smitten with that adventurous girl who doesn’t worry so much. Fifteen years can take a toll on a person, but seriously, does it have to?

Most of my discoveries were tucked back into their places between the pages, like they live there, because they kinda do. They’re not taking up any extra space on my book shelves, and even though a few tears were sprung in the process, they’re happy tears. I find an extraordinary amount of joy bringing to light things that might otherwise be forgotten.

The Minimalists do not value photos and books so those are not the things they prioritize keeping, but they also don’t act like authorities. They don’t tell anyone what to keep or not keep, they just suggest you ask yourself, “Is this adding any value to my life?”

So what’s this all about? Cleaning and discovery? Adventure? Minimizing baggage? Yes and no to all of the above. On September 6th I wrote about Second-Guessing and pondered whether I should be content with (and appreciative of) the nice life I have in Missoula or if it was time to head off on another adventure. Because I’m single, thirty-eight, childless, and…why wouldn’t you?

I have a serious love-hate relationship with rootedness. In September I was the runner-up for a house sitting gig in Creede, Colorado, population just over four hundred, and though I didn’t get the position it got my wheels turning. I want some time dedicated to writing, but do I need to housesit in the middle of nowhere to get that?

I skipped over Colorado at that point and went straight to researching New Mexico. It’s a big, beautiful, diverse state, and there were a lot of options. I love New Mexico, and though it’s been about ten years since I’ve been there, I’ve wanted to get back there for most of that time.

It was love at first sight when I found the cabin on a Goji Berry farm in San Cristobal, New Mexico, about eleven miles outside of Taos. I forwarded the listing to my good friend who replied, simply: “SHUT!!!! UP!!!!”

She was right; I couldn’t have mocked up a better writing retreat. But I don’t remember what happened next. I think I contacted the owner and didn’t hear back, but it’s possible I never even got the ball into the air. Regardless, nothing happened with the cabin. I stayed put and was happy about it. I kept working and writing. I swept my wanderlust under the rug. Sort of.

But a lot has happened in that time, and because I believe in serendipity and things happening for a reason that cabin came on my radar again.

A few days before I went to meet The Minimalists I wished a childhood friend a happy birthday on his Facebook wall, and when I returned from my girls’ weekend away I had a private message from him saying thanks and inquiring about how I was doing.

I was pretty grouchy when I read his message. I’d been sick in both October and November, and the Montana winter ahead of me seemed endless, dark, dreary, and more than a little dismal. I wanted to tell him, “I’m great! Life is grand!” but felt more comfortable being authentic. I bucked up and told the unvarnished truth: “Although I love living in Missoula, occasionally I ache for new vistas for my eyes and heart. This is one of those times.”

Ugh. Right? I said that? To a grade school friend who I’ve chatted with a couple of times on Facebook, but who I had not had real communication with in close to twenty years. Oh, Jaime…

I was honest—my intention—but seriously wished I could retract my statement and transform it into something a little more user-friendly. I reread and reread and reread my words with ache and remorse, but then his response popped up: “I’m living in Taos this winter so if you need some inspiration come visit.”

Shut. The. Front. Door. If I need some inspiration. I told him not to mess with a girl who’s always ready for an adventure.

I couldn’t stop thinking about New Mexico and spending the winter there, and I tore like a crazy person through my emails to find the one I’d sent to my friend back in September about the cabin. My suspicion was correct: Taos.

All it took was the mention of the word and my wheels began to crank. I perked up the mere thought of an adventure. I remembered that in New Mexico they have sun in the winter. I started thinking about the food, the smells, the change of scenery.

{My subconscious was clearly looking for a sign.}

Taos’ history of being a welcoming and supportive community for artists dates back over a hundred years, but as I began to communicate with the owners of the farm I learned that famous writers and thinkers like D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross had all lived and wrote on the property where the cabin is located. On. The. Property. On it. Right there where I could go. Not just in the town; on the friggin’ property.

There were a lot of signs and they poured in faster than I could absorb them, but I’ll just cut to the chase here—I rented a cabin on the goji berry farm. From January 10-April 10 Lucky and I will post up in the cabin where Huxley lived and wrote.

Yesterday I signed the new lease and made it official, then gave notice on my current home and job. It wasn’t easy to officially make the decision—to leave my good life full of wonderful people in Missoula— but once I finally got off the fence I knew I’d made the right choice. And I couldn’t be happier.

And then I wasn’t just pretending to pack for a move; I was actually doing it. Friends came over to pre-shop the clothes I pulled out for consigning and more bags went out the door. I took down my bookshelves, and instead of just getting sorted, the books started going into boxes.

I try to find the right size books to go in the right size boxes, but there are always gaps where the books on top might be a little shorter than the books below, or maybe there’s no more room for a stack of books, but a few can slide in sideways. But there are gaps.

And then all of a sudden it became very clear what I’m supposed to with my heart rock collection. I’m supposed to use them to fill in the spaces between the books in the boxes. Of course. Of course that’s exactly what you do with your heart shaped rock collection.

THIS STORY IS FAR FROM OVER….

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8 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Book

    • Mariah! Thank you! I struggled with this one and when I posted it I still wasn’t sure if it made a lick of sense. Thanks for the affirmation and confirmation! Seriously, I started out to write about The Minimalists ten days ago, but then things started happening so fast I couldn’t keep up! I’m going to try to stay off the interstates as much as possible on my trip down there, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate I’ll be on I-25 and will pop in to say hello. I am SO excited for you to come visit!!!!!!!!!!

  1. Taos will be a lot more isolated than it may appear, as lovely as it is on those cool dark winter nights. While I love New Mexico myself and will be there in a few days, I’m liable to only pass through on my way to visit friends lower in the state. Then too, with enough water, there is a wonderful hidden ribbon waterfall on that mountain. So as I read your posting here, I imagined your astrology chart must easily have a rather strong Uranus in there kicking you along from time to time. Have you managed to read any of the work by Ellen Meloy? She wrote alot about those western lands starting off years ago, most notably with work in Northern Lights from Missoula. There’s a writer’s grant now in her name available from year to year for non-fiction western writers.

    • Hi! Thanks for the introduction to Ellen Meloy! I looking into her grant and it’s for desert writers, and I’m not exactly one of those yet. Maybe next year.

      I wonder if Taos will feel isolated to me. I’ve lived in some pretty isolated places, including an island thirty miles off the coast of Honduras. That was isolated, and I often felt very trapped on that island.

      I had my chart read on 11/2/12 and uranus was sitting on top of venus and moving into aries. not sure how much uranus i have in my chart, though I’ll look into it.

      I love Southern NM too! I was lucky enough to be in the bar in Hillsboro the night they changed the music in the jukebox for the first time in seven years! What a party!

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Note this: “We encourage all writers in the field of non-fiction to apply”. The advantage one has in New Mexico compared to other locations in the lower 48 is that with traditional native dances and rituals the landscape is kept alive in a relationship that is perceptible, sustaining and vibrant for people.

  2. I am happy for you, Jaime! Happy you listened to yourself. And happy that serendipity is alive and well in your life.

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