Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Quite Bearable Lightness of Being

by Zinta Aistars

I can see the floor of my closet. Hardwood. Nice. An extra blanket for those deliciously chilly winter nights is folded in the corner, and side by side, my slippers.

All that space. Space. Not a void, but a space, which is entirely two different types of empty. One nothing is not equal to just any other nothing. Full now ... is the recycling bin, the trash can, and a large plastic bag of discarded clothing awaiting its trip to a shelter.

I've long been curious about the phenomena of space, of a physical emptiness. Does it have an effect on us? Does physical clutter equal clutter of the mind? Does a spirit choke up and sputter for air when our closets fill with unused stuff? How does STUFF infringe on our lives?

For as long as I can remember, the American society in which I live has worshipped STUFF. We have competed with others for more stuff. We have spent our lives pursuing more and more stuff. The one with the most stuff dies .... well, let's see, not taking stuff along, but presumably unloading it on offfspring and pals, who no doubt have more than enough stuff already.

I often think of comedian George Carlin--now moved on to what I would guess is either an unstuffy heaven or hell or perhaps even a true emptiness, a nothing, or simply become other stuff, food stuff for worms and eventually an earthy compost (with all due respect, Mr. Carlin)--when I think about stuff and how it multiplies. He had a memorable skit that was all about stuff. How we live in houses and move into bigger houses, not so much because the houses are shelter for us, as much as warehouses for all our stuff which somehow ends up breeding and producing more stuff. I think of that often, because his comedy resonated with a slightly uncomfortable truth. We, our lives, tend to get bogged down with stuff.

So are we happy folk for all that stuff? Apparently not. Rich with stuff, super-sizing everything in our lives from houses to cars to television sets to our bellies, we stood in the middle of all that big stuff and still felt empty. Huh. Now and then a study pops up in the media citing who where is happiest. Go figure, but it is not the guy with the most stuff. Americans have steadily been falling in the ranks of the world's happiest nations, while those who live in collaborative communities, with moderate stuff, just enough stuff, have been rising. What has been rising in this stuffy world is obesity, addictions and obsessions, use of anti-depressants, domestic violence, foreclosures of houses, and the list goes on and on and on... and it's an ever darker list.

I'm not going to throw myself into that cliche about money not buying happiness. As someone who for too many years lived as a single mom working two to three jobs at a time, on occasion without health insurance, in various housing that was in various stages of falling apart, staring into an empty pantry and wondering what mish mush I was going to feed the kids tonight and if I was going to make it to the next paycheck ... I can tell you, money can buy happiness. It can buy security. It can buy health care for my family. It can buy a new roof to replace the leaky one on my house. It can feed an empty belly and feed it with better quality food. It can finance a vacation so I can finally take a breather from all those work hours. The heck money doesn't buy happiness. It does. Poverty is a ball and chain, and money is a key to freedom to make choices about how one lives.

Having enough, however, doesn't mean we have to keep chasing more. Happiness is having enough and knowing it. There's a movement toward simplicity of late, and it is, I think, a pendulum swing toward enlightenment.

If a little is good, and enough is wonderful, more is not always a luxury. More and more and more is a very slippery slope, and it doesn't slide up.

I stood in front of that overfull closet and said, Enough. I need space. I need room to breathe. This is too much. This is more than I need.

There is no doubt in my mind that the current state of our economy has everything to do with people missing the enough mark. The word is greed. Perhaps there are other words, too, such as insecurity, leading to the need to impress, to prove oneself to others in a neverending cycle. It is when we get into more, more, more, that happiness begins to fade and that clang of empty space inside refuses to be filled. Addiction to anything means losing the ability to recognize enough and begin that dangerous spiral of self-destruction until a life lies in ruins.

There is nothing like that moment of revelation when one has spent one's life, spent it all, chasing more, more better, more bigger, more beautiful, more perfect, more thrilling, more more more ... to suddenly realize you have lost it all. Ever more and ever better is ever more meaningless.

We live in a time of ruin because we have lost the ability to recognize enough.

I brought out the bags and opened them next to my closet. As good a place to begin as any. Fortunately, I have never fallen into the trap of chasing more. There was a time that I lived a life of plenty, walked away from it, and now, at last, have regained it on my own steam. I am richly blessed. I have known joy in times of being poor. That taught me a valuable lesson about not needing stuff to be happy. The best blessing is always hope, and I had enough. It was only when I lost hope that I felt empty. I've lived a materially wealthy life, and I have a lived a life of poverty. I have lived in a big and beautiful house with maid service, and I have lived a life being homeless but for a canvas roof over my head at night. The first wasn't bad, but the second wasn't that much worse. I haven't forgotten that.

I toss a shirt I haven't worn in at least a couple years into one of the bags.

I have had an adventurous life, traveled many places, lived many places, and I have taken many risks, some fruitful and some not. I have loved with all my heart and have been richly loved. What more? I think back to when I was a girl. I was a daydreaming child, the kind that could sit in the treetops, swinging my legs over an oak tree limb, singing at the top of my lungs, letting my mind wander wherever it pleased. I had one dream back then. One dream. Someday, I told myself, someday, I would live in a little log cabin in the woods, far far up north, and I would write myself silly all day long. Taking just enough time to occasionally climb a big oak tree, sit in its branches, and sing at the top of my lungs.

Funny. That girl dreaming was nearly half a century ago. Today, all those many adventures later, I find I still have one dream: to live in a little log cabin in the woods, far far up north, and write mysef silly all day long. Taking just enough time to occasionally climb a big oak tree, sit in its branches, and sing at the top of my lungs. Preferably with no neighbors anywhere in the vicinity to hear me bellow and trill.

I toss an old sweater that has seen its best day into the bag.

More, much, not enough, I've tasted them all. I've tried each on for size. I am blessed to know, today, as I did when I was a girl, my personal mark of Enough. A few days ago, I sat down and opened a notebook and wrote out a plan. I listed all the debt I still owe. I did some math to figure out how long it would take me to pay off the house, wipe out the last of the car loan, and why is this tuition loan still here? I did a bit more math for savings. I calculated what would be enough for me to live a comfortable life, day to day, and how much I could afford to save for that day of realizing an old dream. That one dream that has outlasted everything. I thought about what that dream would look like, and where I could give it root. How long? I sat and wrote and figured and calculated. Then I sat back and took a deep breath. Hey. Not bad. I can do this. Stop chasing more, pin down enough, and I can do this. And I won't have to wait to turn 93 to realize it.

I wiped the dust off a pair of shoes I rarely wore anymore and placed them in the bag.

I sat down on the floor by my closet and started to sort through the papers, printed off e-mails, files, boxes of photographs, publications in which something I had long ago written had appeared, old letters. The clothing was easy. Skimming old correspondence was a trip. Over the day, I traveled over time. I was, now and then, surprised at what I had forgotten. Thoughtful at how the perspective of today had tainted the memory of yesterday. It's not a bad thing to now and then look a little closer at the evidence of our past to remind us that yesterday we were doing all we could, as much as we could, the best that we could.

As I ripped up one page after another and put the many torn pages into recycling, I sometimes felt like I was ripping up pieces of my past and setting them to rest. Some unexpected emotions stirred. I let them go. I read and remembered, my eyes at moments got a little damp, my heart squeezed and trembled, and I folded, tore up, put in the bag, and let go. I paged through magazines and newspapers where I had a byline, marked the past achievement, sometimes set a copy aside, but more often than not, placed those too in the bag. No one was going to read them anymore. Publication was a nice thing, a moment that felt good, but it was never my motivation to write. Toss.

By day's end, and it did take the entire day and late into evening, I had five bags of ripped up paper in recycling and two bags in the trash bin and one large plastic bag of clothing for the shelter. I saw the closet floor. My heart wasn't entirely light. It was a little travel weary. But I liked the look of that floor, that space, that open place. I folded up my winter blanket and set it in the corner. I put my slippers side by side in the other corner. Done. More closets await, more cupboards, more hidden nooks and crannies that have absorbed years, and memories, and the detritus of a life lived best I've known how. Achieving lightness of being takes time, as all good things do. But I have a plan now, one I check back to on a regular basis, to check my list, do a bit of math, subtract one line and add to the other, and watch my progress.

There's a dream a little girl once had, and this woman would like to someday give it to her. It will be just enough. It will be everything.


  1. I started to clean out my own closet yesterday, became overwhelmed and sidetracked then I just gave up. I awake this morning, still overwhelmed and run to my addictive outlet... the internet. After reading your post, I realized I'm not alone and it gave me some motivation. I will clean out that closet today, for this woman also has a dream to gift a little girl. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  2. Very, very poignant. The older I get the more stuff just clutters my life...Simplify, simplify, simplify! ... Simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. Right you are, Mr Thoreau.

  3. Oh, Zintina, mana mila Nisina, how that resonated with me!!!!! I've been talking for years about de-cluttering and simplifying my life, but something always kept me from putting action behind the words. Your story truly inspired me. Thank you so much!