Our Alaskan sun begins shining through the windows again in February and stirs desires for planting and prettiness that the still-deep snow squelches. Because I get a little burned out this time of year, I purchase Shiny Things for the children to plug into the television, then send them off on inspired, educational rabbit trails. This is not because I want to lock them in the den and do my own thing; quite the contrary. I watch with them. They love that part. It is because I’m tired of last August’s perfect plans. After math –I never renege on math– here are a few things I’ve purchased recently and some of the activities that sprang from them:
Fantasia 2000 spurred an idea to separate the kids into different corners with a sketch pad and colored pencils. While a piece of classical music played (not one from the film), I told them to draw anything that came to mind (not one from the film). Some drew designs, some drew scenes, and some drew monsters.
Reading Rainbow DVD on music got the kids creating their own version of Stomp. Loud but lovely. Also, the conductor from the orchestra segment said something profound about each musician holding back a bit of breakout talent for the ordered beauty of the orchestra. It made me think about reigning in a bit for the good of the family.
Liberty’s Kids spawned writing assignments and role-playing and hilarious British, German, and Scottish accents. Whom did you like the best ~ John Paul Jones? Van Steuben? Dr. Warren? Why? What was he like?
Schoolhouse Rock gets them singing all the songs. It’s awesome and it’s enough.
Beatrix Potter short films bring to life her little books. They are sweet, proper, mischievous, but never crass. I had the children do some nature journaling every day for a week in the same spot, hoping to foster some observation. Some drew bugs, some drew our farm animals, some made up stuff, and one cried that he didn’t see anything.
National Geographic VHS tapes to play on a 23 year old TV bomb with a VHS player. If you have a newer model, I guess you’ll have to stream! Find the place on maps and globes, draw the outline of the land and animal, and write three facts you learned.
Animated Hero Classics by Nest Entertainment are thirty minute sketches of heroes from across time and place that incorporate clear examples of a defining virtue, as well as important facts. The set includes downloadable activity books with crossword puzzles, secret codes, coloring pages, etc. Just too easy. *Now these are expensive. We homeschool under our state’s umbrella and are reimbursed for educational expenses.
So the boob tube helps me homeschool through May, when the snow melts and things turn green up here. Then I let the earth do its teaching throughout the summer.
You all know the drill–every December, stuff starts to find its way into your house. You throw a Christmas party and people bring you hostess gifts. You do a gift exchange at work and bring home more kitsch. Then there’s Christmas morning, plus the rounds to the relatives’ houses where you collect more stuff to bring home. And don’t forget the decorations…and cookie plates…and Christmas cards with pictures of your nieces and nephews that you feel compelled to display.
By the New Year, you’re irritable and overwhelmed. And it’s not just the lack of sunlight or the extra 10 pounds you’ve put on from all the cookies, but a culprit that too often goes unnoticed–STUFF. Also known as clutter, junk, or (my favorite) trappings. It’s the STUFF that’s making you crazy, sisters…the endless amount of soul-sucking stuff that you’ve so insidiously gained over the past few months (and years).
Four years ago, I got a crash course in embracing a simpler life when my husband got a job in Alaska. His employer would only pay to transport 15,000 pounds of household goods (plus two cars) and anything over that would be at our expense. And since it is exorbitantly expensive to ship to Alaska, I began to daunting task of purging our then 4,000-square foot house of everything but the bare necessities.
The first to go was the trash. Yes, trash. I had a huge dumpster delivered that I filled with broken-beyond-repair furniture, broken toys, rusted outdoor patio furniture, and clothes that were too decrepit even for Goodwill. (I suspect most of us have a lot of “trash” like this around the house.) I was ruthless when deciding what to toss, especially with paperwork; I purged a four-drawer filing cabinet and got necessary papers down into a single, portable accordion file. We also had four large boxes of DVDs, many of which we had not watched in years. I ordered a CD wallet and trashed the cases. I also donated nearly three boxes of movies to the library. If we were just dying to watch one of those movies in the future, we could rent it from Netflix or Amazon.
One of our biggest hurdles was what to do with the thousands of books we had accumulated over the past 20 years. (What’s your collection?) I was an English major in college and my husband and children are also avid readers. I hauled nearly 20 enormous boxes of books to our local library, which happened to be having a fundraising sale the next month. I kept the ones I would likely need in the next three years to homeschool—and even then, I only kept ones I imagined would be difficult to get from a rural library. We went from 30 shelves of books down to three.
Clothing was another sore spot. With four children, including three girls I had stockpiled clothing for season after season, I had walk-in closets and dressers bursting at the seams. I hoped we’d have more children, but realized that if God sends more, He will also send the means to care for them (and He did, as you can read here). So I donated seven years’ worth of boys’ clothing to a friend pregnant with her first son, as well as countless boxes of girls’ clothing to Goodwill and friends with daughters. Each of my children were allowed to keep only the immediate season’s clothing, and then only what would fit into a medium-sized suitcase. I allowed them to keep just two pairs of shoes—snowboots and everyday shoes. I did the same for me and my husband, both with clothing and shoes. If we could not carry it to Alaska in a suitcase, it didn’t come.
I went through all linens in our home and anything that was frayed, torn, or stained got trashed or donated. I even got rid of a beautiful set of Christmas china. My wedding china is plain white and I can easily dress it up with a festive tablecloth and accessories.
Furniture-wise, I gave away the farm. Our new home was about half the size of our Virginia home, so I donated two bedroom suites, a rolltop computer desk and chair, a filing cabinet, a piano keyboard, a sectional sofa, and two sets of dining room tables and chairs. I realized that all the extra space did was encourage me to fill it up with stuff; I’d created endless specialized areas in the house, such as a guest room that was used just twice a year (if that), a basement “den” that was really just a second family room, and a sewing area that had bled into two rooms. I went through my fabrics and gave away all the projects I had lost interest in and was realistically never going to finish. Which basically ended my quilting hobby.
I also purged the countless things relatives had given me that was simply not “me.” Like the handmade lace from France or llama-hair blanket they’d purchased for us on one of their many international trips. Regardless of how expensive it was, it was donated to a friend, to Goodwill, or got put into the yardsale I had that fall unless I just loved it.
My criteria for keep something was:
Does this have strong sentimental value? I had two folders that contained many pictures of people no longer in my life. Do I really need that picture of an old boyfriend? Or the card given to me by a co-worker I haven’t talked to in 15 years? Do I need 25 extra pictures of that Sears photo session of my daughter’s first birthday?
Can I purchase this in Alaska if I need it down the road? Do I really need a tarp or can I buy a new one if the need even arises?
When was the last time I used this? If I didn’t use an item at least four times a year, I got rid of it. This meant I purged lots of kitchen unitaskers like the electric knife, pasta rollers, and jello molds.
Do I have more than one of these? If I did, I got rid of all but one. Things like hair accessories, medicines, makeup, and kitchen accessories went by the wayside once I realized I did not need three different items in three different colors, each for a separate occasion. One hairbrush is more than enough!
Does the thing remind me of someone or an event I don’t wish to remember? I was amazed by how many framed pictures, pieces of jewelry, and knickknacks went in the donation pile once I decided to keep only what had happy associations.
Do I want to watch this or read this again? Many items had just stuck around because I had enjoyed them once. But I’m not a person who enjoys repeat performances. That freed me to donate countless book and movies.
Is this something someone else would enjoy more than me? If I felt lukewarm about something, I took a picture of it and put it on my Facebook as a freebie. Countless friends grabbed items that they just adored and I got rid of things I had never really wanted in the first place.
Is there an organization or person who would benefit from the money I could earn by selling this? I donated china, a piano, and countless other items to a grief bereavement organization. The leaders sold them at a flea market and earned hundreds of dollars to continue their ministry. Likewise with the library.
What was interesting to me was the spiritual evolution that occurred in my heart as we unloaded the extra stuff. When I began to purge for the move to Alaska, I realized the pantry was the one room where I had gone overboard. I was a major packrat in just one room. In addition to the pantry, I had a full-sized fridge and a full-sized freezer in the garage stuffed with food, too.
When we’d built our Virginia house five years earlier, I had insisted on a huge, walk-in pantry the size of most folks’ living rooms. Over time, I had filled nearly 20 shelves with extra food and household goods. I would often buy in bulk when things were on sale and reasoned that I was serving my family by doing so. We enjoyed good food and had what we needed all the time because I caught good sales. Or so I told myself.
I thought a lot about these areas…why did I accumulate so much food but hated clutter everywhere else? After much prayer and soul searching, however, I realized that the pantry symbolized security for me. I had grown up in a severely impoverished family and we often went hungry. The scared, hungry little girl in me hoarded food as a way to feel safe. And I had to face the ugly truth that my food hoarding was a sign that I did not trust the Lord to provide all my needs in the future.
So I purged the pantry too. I gave away everything but what we could eat in the two months before we left the state. It was scary to walk in there and see it so bare and I had some white-knuckled grocery trips for perishables where I had to face down the urge to buy more, but I did it. Our current home has a closet-sized pantry and I now limit our food to what can fit in there. I no longer have a crammed, full-sized freezer in the garage. I buy meats when on sale, but I don’t buy six months’ worth…I simply trust that God will provide another sale on hamburger before we all starve.
This was a major turning point for me and it would not have happened if we had not moved to Alaska, which forced me to examine all my stuff, including consumables.
When I was done, I had made 20 trips to the library, 9 trips to Goodwill, had an enormous yardsale, gave away tons of furniture to charities, donated to at least 15 friends, and filled 4 huge dumpsters with trash. The best part was when I did the walk-through with the moving company a week before we left—they estimated we only had 10,000 pounds worth of household goods to move!
I’ve worked hard since the move to ensure that the soul-sucking stuff doesn’t find its way back into our lives. I now know that if I get to the end of a day and I’ve neglected my prayer life, it’s usually because I’ve spent too much time maintaining extra clothes or toys or books. Sometimes, less (stuff) really is more (grace).
As we approach Advent and Christmas, let’s work to clear the clutter of our homes so that our minds can be at peace. Then, we’ll have the space in our homes and hearts to ponder the incomparable gift of God becoming a man to save us from our sins. To that end, sisters, what’s your best tip for living the simple life, not just during the Christmas season but all year long?
I live in interior Alaska and today was fairly brisk at 20 degrees below zero. So naturally, my daughter’s preschool teacher decided this was a good day for me to help chaperone 30 preschoolers at the nearby “Christmas in Ice” park, which is a showcase of ice sculptures, mazes, and slides carved by local artists.
As I ran around trying to keep up with the handful of kids assigned to me (and thinking it would be easier to herd feral cats), I started thinking about the endless opportunities we humans must provide God and his angels for amusement. I could just see Jesus up there in heaven, face-palming us for risking our lives in arctic temperatures just to show a bunch of preschoolers an ice sculpture of the Holy Family.
Surely, most of the hilarity we provide God and our heavenly patrons comes from our foolish pride. We’ll have our common sense and conscience screaming at us that This is SO going to end badly, dude! but we still proceed in a futile attempt to prove we’re right. Like that time three years ago, when a friend from church invited me to join her on an outdoor run in the middle of winter. So what if I hadn’t exercised in nearly a decade? This was my chance to prove I was a real Alaskan!
Driving to my friend’s house the next morning, I checked the temperature: 15 below. I was still acclimating to the cold back then, so I swallowed hard. I thought about turning back, but I’d already bragged on Facebook about how tough I was to be running in Alaska in winter, so I had to keep going. I consoled myself with the fact that I’d met two others from Fairbanks who regularly ran in the winter. One in temps as low as 40 below. How hard could it really be?
When I arrived, my friend, Heidi, was wearing typical runner’s spandex and looking as if she was about to go out for a leisurely summer jog. I, on the other hand, was bundled up like a tick about to pop. We put springs over our shoes for traction and then started out. The plan was to run the two-mile loop surrounding her neighborhood, which Heidi assured me was “super easy.”
We hadn’t even been running a full five minutes when I had to admit I was suffering. And I mean, “Doing penance for killing a busload of nuns and orphans” kind of suffering. You imagine serious cold and you think, “numbing,” right? And it will…eventually. But not before it feels like a cloud of wasps are stinging every exposed inch of your flesh.
We hit the main road and started jogging in earnest. Running, as it turns out, is rather difficult if you can’t breathe. And since the air was so cold it felt like a knife being plunged into my lungs with each inhale, I wasn’t getting a lot of it anyway. But none of that seem to bother Heidi. She’d brought her dog along and the two of them jauntily trotted a few feet ahead of me. She chattered lightly the whole time, but I couldn’t hear a thing over the sound of my own ragged breath and hammering heart.
We crossed a road and got onto a bike trail. This was where it got scary. Beach runners know the give of the sand forces you to exert more effort to push off each step. It’s the same with snow. We’d gotten a few inches of the white stuff the night before, so the path was slushy and uneven. I lived in terror of taking a very public spill while cars sped past us. I fleetingly wondered if there was a patron saint for idiots and then realized I would probably qualify if I died right now.
I was no longer cold, but I could feel my energy pouring out like a sieve. We hadn’t even covered the first mile and I was on the verge of my heart valves just blowing into a dozen pieces right there in my chest. By now, I was silently berating myself for not bringing holy oil so Heidi could anoint me when I collapsed on the side of the road.
I began to feel sick, so I slowed down. But then the cold began to creep in again. My choice became clear: I could freeze to death or die from a heart attack. I began to panic because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone to confession. Even worse than imminent death was the nagging feeling I was holding back a serious runner. Heidi hardly filled out a size 1 and breezily talked about running “five or six miles a day.” I kept giving her permission to run ahead to get in a real workout (and so I could hide my misery), but she insisted on staying with me the whole time. (I think she just wanted to be close in case I needed CPR.)
We turned around about a mile from her house. I stoically tried to keep up the show, but was privately nursing fears about how my husband was going to raise four kids on his own. Does he know where the wills are? Can he afford a live-in nanny on our Knights of Columbus life insurance payout? Would running in Alaska in December be considered suicide and void the policy? (I did brighten a little when I realized I’d probably get to skip purgatory if I ended it all in the midst of such intense suffering.)
Finally, we made it back to the house. My clothes were sweat-soaked and I couldn’t feel my toes. My stomach was churning and I was pretty sure I had done permanent damage to my heart and lungs. But I had made it; I had survived running in the interior Alaska winter. Heidi asked if I wanted to join her again later that week for another run. And this time, I used the common sense God gave me and declined. I knew if He’d spared my life that day, it could only be for one reason: so I could confess to being a prideful idiot.