Making room for giving back

Ollie

One of the key tenets of minimalism is the elimination of things that no longer add value, in order to make way for the things that do. When you’re not chasing ‘the next thing’ all the time, you have the chance to reflect on how to live your life.

Last year, one question I asked myself was whether or not I could make some space to give back to the community. Could I add value in someone else’s life?

Pets as Therapy

For some time, I had been aware of the charity Pets as Therapy. Established 35 years ago, Pets as Therapy exists to provide joy, comfort and companionship to people who appreciate being able to engage with a friendly and sociable pet. Usually, the visits are to establishments where a pet isn’t normally present, such as a residential home, nursing home, hospice, school or even a prison.

‘PAT’ Dogs

Around once a term, the ‘PAT Dogs’ (as they are known) visit the library of the university where I work. The students love meeting the dogs (who come in all shapes and sizes) and their visit has become a much-anticipated feature in the academic year calendar.

(I must say that when I was at university, we had a library cat. He was named, appropriately, LC.)

Last summer, I popped over to check out the PAT dogs for myself and talked to their owners. I was curious as to whether or not our loving but impish little Cockapoo might have a suitable temperament to be accepted as a ‘PAT dog’ himself. In fact, the only way to find out was to request an assessment, so we arranged this with the local area
co-ordinator, Kate.

Our assessment

Pets as Therapy protocols require the assessment to be completed away from the family home. This is understandable; if you’re going to be visiting an establishment with your pet, you need to be able to demonstrate that your pooch can behave himself in public.

We agreed to meet at Pets at Home. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Pets at Home is the superstore for all things related to pets. From cat food to guinea pigs, Pets at Home has it all.

Kate took us through a series of assessments, ticking off the criteria on the charity’s application form as we went along. Would Ollie walk nicely to heel? How would he respond to a stranger stroking him (including his tail). Would he react badly to Kate dropping a walking stick behind him?

We spent around 40 minutes in the store. Ollie was good as gold, although the sound of the squeaky toys was almost too much to bear. Seated at my feet, he would lean over slightly, ears alert, straining to hear what was going on. It was as though he was saying, “I would like a squeaky toy!!”

The outcome

One application, two references and some time later, we were accepted to be PAT volunteers. As soon as I heard the news, I was back onto area co-ordinator, Kate, to see if there was an establishment we could visit. There were three, one of which was just a 15 minute walk from our house.

Our nursing home establishment

The establishment Kate suggested was a small nursing home whose PAT dog had sadly died. As a result, the home was awaiting a new volunteer.

I went along (without dog) to find out more and met the nursing home’s activities co-ordinator, Joy. Over a cup of coffee and biscuit (thanks, Chef!), we agreed that Ollie and I would visit for an hour, once a fortnight. Joy explained that I should expect to be known as “Ollie’s mom” and that Ollie might – from time-to-time – be invited as VIP to special events.

Our first visit

For our first visit, there was snow on the ground, as we in the midst of the awful weather wrought by ‘the beast from the East’. Joy had wondered if we might cancel, but we were determined to make it, albeit we had to remove wellies and other winter clothing on arrival, leaving a heap of belongings in the hall.

We had top billing as visitors that morning; Joy had even printed a flyer (with a picture of a little black cockapoo that looked very much like Ollie) to remind people that we were coming.

Top of the bill

Our first gathering in the lounge was really lovely. I have to confess to feeling a bit nervous but our visit brought people together, as residents came down from their rooms to see what all the fuss was about.

Some were too frail to come down that morning, notably Hilda (104 years old!). So, instead, for part of our time, we went and had a chat with people wherever they happened to be. It was so lovely to see the delight on people’s faces when they realised that I had brought Ollie to see them. To my great relief, Ollie wasn’t overwhelmed; he rather enjoying all the attention (especially as this included dog treats that I had brought with us).

Getting into a routine

Now that we are ‘regulars’, we continue to have our morning coffee gathering, but we also make time to pop and visit those who aren’t able to come down to the lounge. To my surprise, we occasionally bump into people we know whose parents are staying at the home for a short period of respite.

As promised, we (Ollie) were special VIP guests at the Easter fair when “Ollie” helped with the raffle and “Ollie’s mom” enjoyed meeting family members who had come to visit residents.

Mission accomplished

Now that I have time to step back and muse on the subject, I ask myself if we are making a difference and achieving our intended aim. I suppose only the residents at the nursing home can answer that. But there’s something else: I always come away feeling that we did the right thing. Being kind to others is one of the best things we can do. It’s said that when you do good, you’ll feel good. I really agree with that.


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How to avoid decluttering going too far

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In my most recent Community newsletter, I described an interesting article in the New Zealand Herald which had recently caught my eye.

In anticipation of The Minimalists‘ ‘Less is Now’ tour dates, journalist Chris Schulz had decided to explore if espousing a minimalist lifestyle might make a difference in his life. Did he need stuff that had been lying around in cupboards untouched for years? Of course not. But Schulz’ article does sound a cautionary tale: it is possible to go too far.

Schulz realises that you might get so carried away with decluttering that you potentially let go of items that might be of value in future years. So, here are a few ideas on how to avoid taking your enthusiasm for decluttering going a step too far.

Take it slowly

You’re less likely to relinquish a valued treasure if you take things slowly. Always start with the non-contentious, non-emotive stuff: the easy to declutter. As you peel away the layers, you’ll become increasingly intentional and deliberate about what you keep and what you get rid of. Take your time to decide on the things that may have sentimental value.

Don’t unclutter other people’s stuff

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Don’t unclutter other people’s stuff. You can model decluttering behaviours and will – undoubtedly – inspire those around you. But don’t make decisions about belongings that aren’t yours. For shared items, you can certainly moot the idea of letting go, but this has to be a joint decision.

Create a treasures box

For years, I dragged around a plastic trunk with my so-called treasures inside. Shaped like a treasure chest and in bright primary colours, this storage container was so heavy that we had to heave it into our loft when we move into our current home. I seldom looked inside it.

As part of my final decluttering, I got to grips with exactly what was in that container. What remains is a very small (shoe-box sized) collection of some lovely sentimental items that I will never part with. Our daughter keeps a similar box; again, this is very small.

Become your own curator

Adopt the mindset of a curator. Your home isn’t a museum, but imagine you have the role of the creative lead on a fabulous project. What selected items would mean the most to you? Which items would form a part of an artistic or historical collection were you to create a display about your own life? What has meaning and adds value in your home? What is frankly just a collection of miscellaneous tat? Keep and enjoy the former; declutter the latter.

Consider your loved ones

We all know that grown-up children don’t want their baby boomer parents’ stuff. But is there a particular item you’d like to keep to pass onto your daughter or granddaughter in future years? On my mother’s side of the family, we love a pretty ring. Keeping a ring (or another small piece of jewellery) may be a lovely thing to do; it might give someone pleasure in the future.

Store and save virtually

An image of something will spark a conversation or trigger a memory that you may enjoy in the future. As I’ve said previously, your treasured possessions aren’t memories. But images of items you once owned may suffice if you want to recall a piece of art you created as a teenager or remember something crafted by a loved one.

Bring some of your personality into the workplace

I’ve recently joined a new department to take up a new post within the organisation where I work. I am privileged to have my own office, so this provides an opportunity to display one or two decorative items that wouldn’t otherwise have a place at home.

My maternal grandmother was a prolific craftswoman. Among her creations are a number of small pictures, intricate and beautifully crafted with embroidery. I have had 3 of these little pictures hung on my office wall; they are a talking point for people who come to see me and they provide a little visual reminder of family, as I work at my desk.

Another friend uses her grandmother’s favourite china cup and saucer as a scented candle, which she keeps on her kitchen table.

Stop when you’re not sure what to unclutter next

Unless you are staging your home for sale (when home life takes on an artificial impression of familial perfection), it’s fine to take some time out or to stop altogether. You might take a pause or cease decluttering completely. Good for you. After all, it’s worth harking back to the reasons we started this in the first place – our ‘why’ or purpose. Living with less allows us to be so much more. So, get out there and enjoy! That’s why we do it in the first place.


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Why we should declutter our ‘to do’ lists

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For someone (like me) who is extremely task driven, ticking items off my ‘to do’ list delivers a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Be they work tasks or household chores, that literal or virtual “tick” against each item infers productivity, usefulness and a sense of moving forward. Right?

In today’s society, being goal-oriented is usually something to be admired. If we have goals and targets, we know where we’re heading. Even better, breaking down larger projects into manageable chunks makes a larger or audacious goal more attainable.

We’ve all heard the old joke:

How to you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…..

Productivity addicts

What happens, though, if we allows this ‘productivity mindset’ to seep into every aspect of our lives? What if every day becomes a 24/7 ‘to do’ list?

I’m currently reading Tiffany Dufu’s Drop the Ball. It’s a book I’d resisted for a while, as I felt uncomfortable with its key tenet: that women were shouldering more of the domestic burden than men and that, to redress the balance, women needed to ‘drop the ball’. Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Plus, Warwickshire libraries delivered the e-book version to me in the click of a button so here we are. I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t tell me how it ends!

Jot it all down

In Chapter 5, Dufu addresses the issue of the never-ending ‘to do’ list. She describes a coaching exercise she leads in which she asks women to jot down every single thing they expect to achieve in the coming 24 hour period. That includes every achievement, no matter how small, such as making breakfast or scheduling an appointment.

Before you read on, you may like to try this.

Participants are then invited to do the maths to calculate how long they think all of these achievements will really take.

Tried it?

Dufu’s declaration that she has never encountered anyone who could realistically complete all of her tasks in less than 24 hours is unsurprising. As she writes, “The point of the exercise is to show that just making lists and trying to get everything on them completed is not a winning strategy. Trying to do it all guarantees only one result: burnout.”

The endless ‘to do’ list

Are you, like me, a sucker for a nice ‘to do’ list? In a professional setting, it’s natural and desirable to use a variety of tools to help keep all the plates spinning. Indeed, my highly-productive and efficient colleague, Cheryl, even has the following mantra on her office mug: Get Stuff Done.

But do we need to adopt this sort of mindset at home, particularly at weekends?

For sure, there are times when you absolutely need a list. Imagine you’re organising a family gathering or planning something significant like a wedding. You’re going to need to need to approach it like you’re about to embark upon a military operation in a theatre of war! Especially where family is involved…

What’s a Weekend?

/wiːkˈɛnd,ˈwiːkɛnd/
noun
Saturday and Sunday, especially regarded as a time for leisure

In the wonderful Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess, delivers one of her classic lines, “What is a weekend?”

Although the concept of ‘weekend’ has been part of our culture for many decades, full time workers may still ask themselves, “What weekend?” when they return to the workplace after a busy two days at home.

Setting yourself (or others) a set of tasks, or weekend jobs, runs counter to the idea that a weekend is supposed to be for doing what you enjoy; recharging your batteries; having a slow start; or – dare I suggest it – doing nothing at all?

I was always a woman on a mission when it came to weekend planning. I’d have my iPad at the bedside with the notes app primed to receive my usual set of household chores. I’d sometimes ring the changes and jot tasks down on pen and paper. Either way, there’d always be a list.

Letting go

Just lately, I’ve decided to let go. And whilst each weekend day follows more of a meandering path, jobs still get done. Meals get cooked. Washing is washed, dried, ironed and put away. The recycling is put out. The dog is walked twice a day. And I no longer feel the urge to go about my day in an energy-driven frenzy of activity, no matter how rewarding this might feel.

Reading the message behind Tiffany Dufu’s exercise reminded me that I’m on the right track. There’ll never be enough hours in the day, so why beat yourself up if you haven’t ticked off everything on the list you created for yourself?

Going a step further

Courtney Carver’s Soulful Simplicity introduced me to the Italian notion of dolce far niente: the sweetness of doing nothing. I haven’t mastered that particular art just yet, but my virtual ‘to do’ list can take a hike.


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More

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What drives us to yearn for ‘more’ or ‘better’ when we know that the more we consume, the more we deplete both our own, and the earth’s, precious resources?

As I have considered before, there are a variety of reasons we buy more than we actually need. They include:

  • Wanting to make a certain impression
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • Fear of missing out (especially on a ‘bargain’)
  • Having something ‘just in case’
  • Believing that ownership will make a real difference to our lives or even our happiness

The ownership myth

Ownership is a privilege but with it comes responsibility. You not only have to pay for the thing, but you have to maintain, upgrade, insure, clean and take care of it.

Worse, as Courtney Carver warns in her book, Soulful Simplicity, “If you use a credit card, the item might not even be yours. It’s possible that you are literally walking around in someone else’s shoes because you’re still paying them off…”

We own stuff for so many reasons. As Carver advises, “Once you acknowledge why you buy and what you think your stuff is doing for you, you will be more intentional about what comes into your home and life, and you will have more clarity about what needs to go.”

When can ‘more’ actually make a difference?

In her terrific book, America the Anxious: Why our Search for Happiness is Driving us Crazy and How to Find it for Real, Ruth Whippman cites a much-misquoted study about the relationship between happiness and income.

Whippman explains that the study, by Daniel Kahneman, is reported as showing that money makes no difference to happiness above an income of $75k per year.

In fact, Whippman explains that money over and above this level still makes a difference to a person’s overall satisfaction. And, of course, a person’s overall financial picture has a huge bearing on one’s life. As Whippman shrewdly observes, “Unsurprisingly, the further down the income scale you go, the more important it is.” That said, most of us in the western world already have more than enough.

Cultivating a sufficiency mindset

No matter what your income level, living on less than you earn brings enormous benefits. As Dave Ramsey repeats each time his radio show airs: “Live like no-one else so that, later, you can live (and give) like no-one else.”

Bestselling author of The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist, reminds us that when we let go of chasing what we don’t really need, it frees up energy to enable us to make a difference with what we already have. Having recently heard Twist in discussion with Oprah Winfrey in Supersoul Conversations, I am particularly struck by her philosophy that a sufficiency mindset is so much greater than a scarcity mindset. We already have enough. We are enough.

When more is more

When you adopt a minimalist lifestyle, it’s possible to pursue the things that really add value and that make a difference, not only to your own life but (hopefully) to the lives of others. Here, I come back to the ideas of connection and community, which I touched upon in my last post.

When it comes to connection and contribution, I’m about to embark upon a new adventure. Along with our Cockapoo, Ollie, I’ve recently been accepted as a volunteer with Pets as Therapy. This UK charity aims to foster connections with people through pet visits to establishments where pets are otherwise not available. I’m hoping to visit a local retirement or care home where the regular visit from me and my waggy-tailed chum might bring a ray of sunshine into someone’s day. Here’s when more is definitely more!

It’s not about stuff

No amount of ‘stuff’ is going to make a positive difference to our lives. Just as food should be about nourishing the body rather than feeding the emotions, so the stuff we own should serve a genuine need rather than fill a psychological hole.

As Whippman concludes in her book, “…if we focus on living a connected, fulfilling and meaningful life, then if we’re lucky, happiness might just hitch a ride.” And there’s no mention of stuff there.


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Enough

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If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed me mentioning a monthly bread-making group that I now attend.

My friend, Lynne, introduced me to this. So far, I’ve baked Apple and Rosemary Bread, soft rolls and a quick-to-make type of breakfast bread, courtesy of The Hairy Bikers. To my surprise, I found that the Banbury Guardian has the recipe and method on its website, in case you’re interested.

Bread group protocols

We meet around the kitchen table of our host, Caroline on the 2nd Tuesday of the month.

Normally, in the style of Blue Peter’s, “Here’s one I made earlier,” Caroline has already prepared a batch of the dough whose recipe we are to make. This is so that we can knead it before it goes into the oven. This is especially useful if it’s a dough that requires a long time to prove. While this bakes, we get on with making another batch of dough to take home.

Towards the end of our measuring, mixing and kneading (and chatting), the first batch becomes ready for us to enjoy with lashings of butter (straight from the oven).

More than simply yeast-based recipes

At this gathering of like-minded women, we exchange stories and develop friendships as we enjoy fellowship and fun together. This invariably involves sharing news of our children or reporting updates on ageing parents, but our discussions are also wide-ranging.

What would 2018 hold?

This week, we shared Christmas and New Year’s stories and repudiated the idea of ‘dry January’ in favour of ‘damp January’, as we sampled a bottle of prosecco that my mum had given me at Christmas. Thanks, mum!

During the evening, our thoughts turned to the year ahead. None of us had made a New Year’s Resolution but one of our friends, Ruth, had chosen a word for the year. This is an idea I’m seeing increasingly: the selection of a word or phrase that might epitomise – or help shape – the coming 12 months.

Ruth’s word was simple, but incredibly powerful. It was ‘enough.’

Enough

This really struck me. What an inspiring choice!

There are so many ways we could apply ‘enough’ to our lives, which would ensure we lived a more intentional life.

We think of ‘enough’ when we talk about:

  • enough to eat
  • enough to wear
  • enough to live on
  • enough to get by
  • having done enough to pass
  • ‘enough is enough’
  • doing enough

No doubt you can think of many more examples.

Intentionality around ‘enough’

I got thinking about this and realised that Enough is the title of Patrick Rhone’s book. Have you read it? I haven’t yet, but maybe I should.

I took a look on Amazon. In the foreword to Rhone’s book, James Shelly explains how Rhone finds the middle ground between the absolutes of ‘unbridled consumption’ and ‘monastic luddism’.

Do I already have enough?

Asking, “What do I really need?” or “Do I already have enough?” is a very good way to check our natural impulses, especially when we are considering a purchase (particularly if it means bringing additional stuff into our homes).

If you shop online for food, checking if you already have enough of a particular item in the cupboard is a sure-fire way of helping stick to your budget, whilst ensuring you have what you need to make this week’s recipes. You’ll also avoid unnecessary food waste.

Hankering after the latest gadget? Ask what you really need. So many appliances or electronic devices have far more functionality than any of us actually require. It may be more cost-effective in the long term to buy a better quality appliance with fewer functions (like our Miele washing machine) than a fancy piece of kit with lots of features you’ll never use.

When simplicity is ‘enough’

In The Lord’s Prayer, one of the best-loved and most frequently spoken prayers in the whole world, the only thing we specifically ask to be given is:

Our daily bread

Whilst ‘bread’ may be a proxy for our most fundamental basic needs, the simplicity of this is beautiful. The ‘staff of life’ is all we need to sustain ourselves. Anything beyond that may be a luxury, even excessive. Through this prayer, we don’t ask for riches. We ask for enough.

Minimalism is about removing the excess from our lives and paring down to a more simple, fundamental way of life. Anything that no longer adds value can be eliminated, enabling us to focus on what really matters (spoiler alert: that’s not stuff).

How lovely that it was at a bread-making group that ‘enough’ was the word for the year. It’s certainly something I’ll contemplate as the first month of the year unfolds.


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Why setting intentions might be better than making New Year’s Resolutions

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Even before Christmas, social media channels were alive with thoughts of New Year’s Resolutions.

Review of the Year

Certainly, the period between Christmas and New Year is often a good point to kick back, reflect on the past 12 months and anticipate the year to come. And many of us consider the start of a new calendar year a good point to establish new habits, change old ones or strengthen our resolve to achieve particular goals.

Types of New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s Resolutions tend to fall into a number of discrete categories. Some are about improving physical wellbeing (e.g. to eat more healthily, lose weight, take more exercise or quit smoking). Others are more career-oriented or are about relationships, spirituality or experiences. It’s no accident that post-Christmas advertising space is filled with advertisements for slimming programmes, diet foods or nicotine replacements. We’ve all seen them.

However, the majority of us who set New Year’s Resolutions find it difficult to keep them and, instead of sustaining success, we find that our ‘get up and go’ has soon got up and gone.

When New Year’s Resolutions don’t work

So, what’s to be done?

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while and I reckon there might be a different way. Instead of going all out on a concrete ‘all or nothing’ resolution, I wonder if setting an intention might be a gentler, kinder way to move towards a desired state?

For me, an intention suggests something fluid, dynamic and ongoing, whereas a resolution seems, to me, all or nothing.

Setting an intention

Setting an intention is deliberate, but rather than being a rigid absolute, it’s about moving towards a goal (continually and repeatedly). So, if you falter, you get right back onto whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

To reduce sugar

For me, I have a sweet tooth and, in theory, love the idea of quitting sugar as a New Year’s Resolution. The trouble is, this can be a very difficult thing to do when social situations throughout the year often revolve around food in the form of sweet treats (mince pie, anyone?).

Instead, I like the idea of setting an intention to reduce my overall sugar intake, rather than eliminating sugar as an absolute goal. So, yesterday, I experimented a little.

It was Boxing Day morning and we had stayed over at my parents’ home, following a lovely day together for Christmas Day. Mum offered croissants for breakfast but, instead of slathering mine with jam, I had a little butter on my pastry along with my decaff’ latte and enjoyed the naturally sweet taste and texture of this holiday treat.

Likewise, following our return home some hours later, we enjoyed a late lunch at The Almanack, one of Kenilworth’s best-loved and much-frequented gastropubs. Normally, I would have ordered dessert after my main course (I normally eschew a starter because they are too filling) but, instead, opted for an espresso macchiato as the ‘full stop’ to a very enjoyable meal. As you can tell, I’m not giving up coffee any time soon!

To get more exercise

Similarly, you might want to take more exercise, but would baulk at resolving to run 10 miles per week by the end of the month. Instead, set an intention to put on your trainers and step outside the door. You don’t have to wait until 1 January either. What happens after that is up to you, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Some people find it easier and more empowering to embark upon a new activity with someone who can act as an accountability partner. For others, thinking about their future self might be enough to motivate themselves towards a healthier, fitter self. Consider – honestly – what might work for you and set an intention to move towards this new goal.

Resolutions come with a health warning

Whatever we decide, we do need to be careful about the goals we pursue.

In the introduction to her book America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It For Real, Ruth Whippman cites a University of California, Berkeley study in which participants were asked to rate how highly they valued happiness as an explicit goal and also how happy they were with their lives.

As Whippman writes, the ones who rated happiness as a distinct personal ambition were less happy in their lives in general and were more likely to experience symptoms of dissatisfaction and even depression.

This reminds me of Robert Lustig’s most recent book, which I wrote about here. Don’t confuse pleasure with happiness, says Lustig. It’s easy to conflate the two.

My intentions for 2018

So, I’m going to set my intentions around moving towards a small number of achievable goals, rather than proclaiming a New Year’s Resolution on 1 January 2018. Indeed, I like the idea of experimenting and I might well enjoy a few simple living experiments in the coming year.

But don’t forget, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Keep it simple. As Leo Babauta says, “Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” That might help us stay focussed on what’s important.

Happy New Year!


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Christmas commitments

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This Christmas, I will…

Mend a quarrel
Dismiss suspicion
Seek out an old friend
Share good news
Encourage someone
Listen
Apologise if I’ve been wrong
Be patient and understanding
Re-examine my demands on others
Think first of others
Show appreciation
Be kind
Be gentle
Laugh more
Express gratitude
Welcome a stranger
Gladden the heart of a child

(Author Unknown)

Happy Christmas!

Thank you for being a part of my minimalism journey and for all your support and comments during the year. A very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year 2018. See you on the other side!

Catherine x