How do I look?

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Quiz question of the day:

What’s something we all have, which can inspire both joy and loathing in all of us, but which we can’t live without?

Of course, no prizes for guessing: clothes.

A hotch-potch wardrobe

I’ve been mithering a bit about clothes lately.

In the past year, I’ve bought relatively few things to wear. But, if I’m honest, I feel like I’ve ended up with a ‘hotch potch’ of items. Most I have bought second-hand (and very good purchases they were too). Others were bought in a sale or via a clothing discount store such as HighStreetOutlet. As a result, I’ve maintained my frugal ways, but I never feel particularly stylish. Plus, I’d love to be a little more consistent about what I choose to wear and how I look.

How do I look?

It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. So, I was grateful to have been given a copy of Inger D Kenobi’s How Do I Look: The Year I Stopped Shopping.

This entertaining book is a curious mix of memoir and commentary on fast-fashion,  consumerism and the ridiculous stories we tell ourselves about the clothes we wear (or which call to us from the shop window).

Challenged by a friend to join her in a “shop-stop” year, Kenobi resolved to avoid buying any new clothes for a whole 12 months. The book charts her journey from unintentional clothes buyer to chastened, mindful consumer. Along the way, she provides a number of “Emergency Shopping Guidelines.” These provide a ‘set of rules that will prevent us from making the same stupid shopping mistakes again, and again, and again.’

Emergency Shopping Guidelines

I thought it would be interesting to bring Kenobi’s rules together and to consider them in the light of my not-particularly-well-curated but minimal ‘capsule wardrobe’.

Don’t buy anything you can’t wear tomorrow

Well, I’ve failed at the first hurdle here. We all buy stuff to wear for a special occasion, although I try and avoid this.

In my experience, clothes bought for a particular event don’t always translate into ‘real life’. For my friend, Zoe’s, 50th birthday party in September, I bought a lovely pair of black trousers and floaty shirt to wear over a black camisole. To go with said outfit (which cost all of £11 from the charity shop), I purchased some suedette kitten heels from John Lewis. I wore them for 2.5 hours.

I haven’t worn the clothes since and have already sold the shoes….

Don’t buy anything you don’t need

How often have you gone out to buy a particular item, only to come back with something entirely different?

Here’s where ‘heart’ purchases often trump ‘head’ purchases. I do have the loveliest, seldom-worn but beautifully soft faux-fur jacket. It is absolutely gorgeous. I acquired it a long time ago when looking for something else in my local (now defunct) dress agency. I rarely wear it, but I keep it as something really special, knowing that I won’t wear it tomorrow (see above!) but will enjoy it during the holiday season.

These days, I’m much more inclined to think really hard about anything I buy. I keep a ‘wish list’ in Evernote, which helps me consider – slowly – if a want is also a need.

I also do a lot of research online. It’s easy to forget that there are so many (too many) places where you can buy what you need. A clever search can help you find what you need at the best price, so shop around.

You have to be you. Figure out who you are and dress accordingly

Oh, gosh. Who am I when it comes to what I wear?

Style consultants categorise women into a number of ‘boxes’. Are you an Audrey Hepburn ‘ingénue’ or more ‘sporty’ or ‘natural’ when it comes to your signature style?

Well, I’d love to fall into the ‘glamorous’ category – and really admire others who pull of this look – but that’s really not me.

Over the years, I have – with some considerable enthusiasm – declared myself to be an advocate of a particular brand, in an attempt to simplify and narrow down the available choices.

There was my short-lived (but fun while it lasted) Gudren Sjoden phase. My family pointed out that if you’re going to make this work (it’s quite ‘out there’ when it comes to style and colour), you have to go the whole hog.

There has also been my ‘Duchess of Cambridge’ phase. I am, after all, another Catherine Elizabeth. This clothing personality has been, arguably, my most enduring. I once spent the most I have ever spent on clothes (even more than my wedding dress) when I purchased an LK Bennett suit for an interview. I didn’t get the job, but (at least) I got the suit. Many years later, it’s still my ‘high days and holidays’ outfit when I need something super smart. And I wore it for my current job whose interview took place around a year ago.

My latest obsession is Cos. I love the Scandinavian simplicity and clean lines. I have yet to purchase anything.

If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.

Oh, this is so true. You already know that I previously performed ‘plastic surgery’ on my credit card, so there is no risk that I will ever splurge on something I can’t afford. Indeed, I have spent so little on clothes in the last year that this has not been an issue. But I know it is for some of you.

Recently, a work colleague was describing to my husband that she had lots of clothes on which she had spent so much money, she was embarrassed to admit that she cut off the labels of the unworn items before giving them away. Let’s not be like this.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

I’m all for this and it works really well. Project 333 makes sense on so many levels, especially if you mostly shop at thrift stores (another of Kenobi’s Emergency Shopping Guidelines).

Here’s something I have noticed, however (and Kenobi observed this, too). Clothes worn often do actually wear out. This is where it helps to buy quality over quantity. Less but better is the way forward.

Invest in experiences, not possessions

Yes, yes and yes!

This is where we have to put clothes in their rightful place. Clothes can play a part in our experiences. Love to ski? You’ll need some kit. But they shouldn’t be an end in their own right. Clothes as ‘stuff’ have a negative impact, both on the environment and on our finances. So, let’s see them as a part of our overall day-to-day lives but not to the detriment of other things, which are way more important.

Change your hair, not your clothes

For someone who has limited options when it comes to hair (short, blow-dryed, that’s it), I can’t espouse this guideline. However, lots of women (especially) enjoy experimenting with different hair colours or styles (in her book, Kenobi reveals her expertise in plaiting, braiding and in ‘up-dos’). A colleague of mine rocks a wonderful short wig and looks amazing in it. But that’s not for me.

One of my own

Beware the Diderot effect

Remember those black trousers I bought for Zoe’s party? To wear them again, I would need more tops. This is an example of a phenomenon known as the Diderot Effect. This is where the purchase of one beautiful item leads to dissatisfaction with the other things you already own. In my case, I don’t own anything suitable to go with the trousers, so do I invest or let them go? This is something that Juliet Schor mentions in her book, The Overspent American, about which I wrote a post here.

Stop mithering

Since reading Kenobi’s little book, I’m glad to say that I’ve stopped mithering about clothes. But I think I need to be a bit more intentional – as in other areas of my life – when it comes to what I buy to wear.

And whilst Shakespeare wrote that ‘clothes maketh the man (woman)’, there is another truth that’s worth remembering. There are only some occasions in life when this really matters. How do I look? No-one really cares.


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No learning is wasted

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Just over a week ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend a talk given by Emma Kennedy. An all-round high-achiever, Kennedy is arguably best known for her work as a writer, actor and author, but she is also the winner of both Celebrity Masterchef and Mastermind. She is also a self-confessed conkers expert!

Inspiring women

The talk was part of an ‘Inspiring Women’ series, arranged by the Careers & Skills team at the university where I work. Although aimed at female students, Kennedy’s message applies to anyone who has tried, failed and tried again: follow your instinct; explore the things about which you are curious; be prepared to try (and fail); and never give up.

Starting out…

In a number of ways, Kennedy’s journey resonated with me a great deal. Like me, Kennedy left school at 16. Her first job was a washer-upper in a local hotel (later, she was promoted to vegetable peeler). Mine was for a well-known high street Bank where I ultimately worked for 4 years.

…At the bottom

My very first task in the Bank involved sorting what my supervisor called ‘rems’ and ‘giros’ into specific pigeonholes. I didn’t have a clue what a ‘rem’ was. It turns out, a ‘rem’ was a ‘remittance’ – a cheque/check to you and me. A ‘giro’ was a paying in slip. So, I was effectively handling ‘money out’ and ‘money in’ for customers, albeit in proxy (paper) form. These slips of paper, once sorted, would be collected for onward distribution to their respective banks. Exciting, huh?

London life

By the age of 20, I had moved to London where I worked for 8 months prior to embarking on my next life adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and honestly remember London as a city of blue skies and sunshine. My experience was a bit like being at university, but with the bonus of a monthly salary.

In those 8 months, I did a lot of growing up. I learned about cultural differences and customer service, improved my mental arithmetic, got a bit drunk at the Long Island Ice Tea Bar in Covent Garden, and developed an idea that meant I might actually resume my academic studies and eventually go to a real Higher Education Institution (as opposed to the university of life).

Moving forward

After a gap year in Switzerland, I returned home where I became the oldest 6th former in town. My pals at college had come straight from GCSEs. I arrived with 5 years’ experience, 7 O Levels (ranging from the very good to the mediocre) and an exceedingly good Swiss-French accent. Most importantly, I was ready to learn.

Loving learning

Like me, Emma Kennedy took a little longer to achieve her ultimate goal of going to university. She had been unwell during her A Level studies and it was through the encouragement and tutoring of her former English teacher that she managed to secure a place at Oxford. In my case, it was through the inspirational teaching of my own wonderful English tutors, which meant that I was finally able to get myself a place at university.

Like Kennedy, along with own sister, I was ‘first in family’ to go to university. Although my parents (and grandparents) had been teachers, their route into this profession had not been via Higher Education. My own parents had gone to teacher training college before embarking upon their careers.

What next?

On completing my degree, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do next. So, I decided to follow in family members’ footsteps and train to be a teacher. For me, teaching wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but it wasn’t going be my life’s work either. Like Kennedy who decided to leave her post-university profession as a lawyer, I worked out quite soon that there were other things I wanted to do.

Listen to your gut

This time, I started to truly follow my instinct and that’s when my career trajectory changed. I was suddenly able to flourish, to develop and to try new things. I wasn’t on an obvious career path, but I started to enjoy myself.

Each job I’ve had post-teaching has enabled me to develop and grow. Like Kennedy, I may not have ‘failed’ at what I tried, but I developed a self-awareness that meant I knew when I was a square peg in a round hole.

Along the way, I have learned an incredible amount from my experience and from the terrific people I have met along the way (many of whom are still good friends). I always say this – especially to those I mentor professionally – no learning is ever wasted.

Living minimally

Now, minimalism is an integral part of my life and I wouldn’t go back to living in a way that was unintentional. That said, my career trajectory could not really be described as ‘intentional’. It was more a series of experiments. Try something? Not sure it works for you? Then, try something else. In some ways, it takes courage and resilience to make these changes, but nothing worth doing was ever easy.

With minimalism and simple living, there are many different ways you can adopt a more intentional approach to life. Take a look at my previous post on the types of minimalism you might consider. The point is that you can take some time to experiment; to learn; to follow your instinct; to explore the things about which you are curious; be prepared to try (and fail); and never give up.


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Make your stuff work for you

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I’ve just finished reading Jojo Moyes’ novel, Still Me. I was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, putting aside the other two books I am also reading to immerse myself in this wonderfully-crafted story.

The third in the Me Before You trilogy, this novel takes Moyes’ heroine, Louisa Clark, on a New York adventure (I can see another movie emanating from this one!).

As both minimalist and avid reader, I’m always on the alert for references to clutter in fiction. How do people handle it? What does it symbolise to them? Can they let go of stuff to live a life of more but with less? Is the stuff they’re holding onto serving a particular purpose?

Margot De Witt

One of Moyes’ fabulous American characters, introduced to the reader in this book, is Margot De Witt. The former editor of a fashion magazine, De Witt’s Manhattan apartment is a veritable treasure trove of immaculately preserved and cared-for clothing.

With an incredible, vast collection of vintage fashion including haute couture items, this “style queen, fashion editor extraordinaire” has held onto everything she has ever owned. As a result, her home has become a rainbow-filled walk-in wardrobe, housing a collection including even the smallest of items such as elaborate brooches, pill-box hats and boxes of buttons and braids (in case anything needs repairing).

For vintage-loving Louisa Clark – the novel’s main character – the Fifth Avenue apartment is a little bit of retro-fashion heaven.

Holding on

But why do we hold onto things that no longer fit or which seemingly have no practical purpose?

In her case, De Witt’s quasi-hoarding of decades’ worth of clothes is a way of blocking out the pain of having been separated from her son – her only child – over many years. Moyes addresses this very directly as she reveals that the character “…had built a wall, a lovely, gaudy, multi-coloured wall, to tell herself that it had all been for something.”

Making sure your stuff works for you

Your stuff really needs to work for you. That is, it needs to work on a number of levels: aesthetically, practically or even monetarily.

Remember, everything you see around you right now used to be money. When you look at it that way, you’re going to want to get the most bang for your buck. So, if your belongings are literally stuffed into a drawer and not serving any useful purpose, why hold onto them?

Letting go

In spite of having decluttered so much of my own stuff, there are still some items in my house for me to let go. My ice-cream maker, seldom used, even in summer, now needs to find a new home.

Of course, a kitchen gadget is a small item, but if you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll know that I decided to let go of my car back in the winter. Going without a car has been incredibly liberating, has saved me money each month and has set me free from the burden of vehicle ownership. This reminds me of the adage that is well-rehearsed in minimalist circles: “What you own owns you.”

Investment items

Of course, there are some items you’ll keep because you may genuinely only use them once in a while. They might be investment items, such as a lovely winter coat that you’d wear over many years. Still, much of what we retain in our homes may be stuff for which we no longer have any useful purpose.

Putting your stuff to work

In Louisa Clark’s case, she is able to make Margot De Witt’s collection work for her in a professional sense. At the suggestion of the old lady, Clark is encouraged to start an enterprise hiring out her amazing outfits.

What’s interesting is that, as soon as her son reappears, De Witt walks away from her collection without so much as a backward glance. When it no longer serves a meaningful purpose, it’s so much easier to walk away.

Ask the right questions

So, take a long hard look at your stuff and ask, “Does this work for me? Could I let go of it or even monetise what I currently own?”

These questions are especially useful if you’re working to get out of debt and building your emergency fund.

You may love what you own, in which case simply enjoy it. Even minimalists have to have some belongings. So, take the advice of Margot De Witt and see your stuff for what it is: “Do with [them] what you want – keep some, sell some, whatever. But….. take pleasure in them.”

Note

Still Me is Jojo Moyes’ latest novel, published in 2018 by Penguin Random House UK. Find out more here.


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Roots and wings

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Friday saw a milestone in the life of our little family, as we attended our daughter’s Year 11 Thanksgiving Service at the senior school she has attended for the past 5 years.

On the day after the final GCSE exam, this occasion brought students, parents and staff together to acknowledge the hard work and dedication that had gone into the last few years. We also looked ahead to the future.

Marking transitions

As you can imagine, this was a pretty emotional time. Our girl is leaving a community that she has been a part of since was just 2 years, 8 months old. Starting in nursery, she went all the way through primary school and onto the senior school, still with many of the friends she has had since she was a little tot.

Focussing on the important things

What I loved about the celebration was its focus not on material success but on leading a values-driven life, full of family, laughter, good times and friendship. It wasn’t about the accumulation of possessions, which might seemingly denote success these days. Instead, it was about giving thanks for what had been given to our young people in abundance.

Of course, there was a scripture reading from The Bible (The parable of the hidden treasure and the costly pearl – Matt 13: 4-46). But we also heard three readings that I felt chimed as much with the parents as they did with the students. So, I thought I’d share them with you.

Desiderata

If you haven’t taken a moment to read this wonderful poem before, do take a look (it is repeated in full here).

Written by American writer, Max Ehrmann, in 1927 but not published until 1948, Desiderata (Latin: “desired things”) is an incredible code for life.

Even when things seem pretty bleak (and we continue to see “bleak” in the media every single day), Desiderata‘s timeless message provides a sage but simple way to look at the world, concluding with: Be Cheerful. Strive to be Happy.

Anyway

Another reading, which particularly struck me, was Anyway, which St Teresa of Calcutta reportedly had written on the wall of her home for children in Calcutta.

   People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

            If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

            If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

           If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

            What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

            If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

            The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

         Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

         In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

Roots and Wings

This final poem was A poem to parents…. from their teenage child:

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Prom beckons

Tomorrow sees the occasion of the year, as the young people head to Warwick Castle for their Year 11 Prom. It’s a jamboree of prom dresses, tuxedos, hired stretch limousines and borrowed sports cars (not forgetting the spray tans, hair-dos and make-up).

It’s my hope that, when all the festivities are over and life returns to normal, the kids remember some of the key messages they heard in Chapel on Friday. We’ll certainly place the order of service in our daughter’s treasures box; she may not look at it immediately but maybe in the future she’ll look back, remember and smile.


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Authenticity over perfectionism

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As regular readers will know, I am keen to frequent my local library. So, when I found a brand new copy of Dominque Loreau’s L’art de la Simplicité there, it was a chance to discover a new take on minimalism.

French by birth, Loreau has imbibed oriental philosophies, having lived in Japan for many years. I was very interested to see what she had to say about a topic that’s been close to my heart for a long time, but I have mixed feelings about this book.

What I liked about it

As you would expect, Loreau promotes the idea that less is more. Outer order, she argues, equals inner calm. In the early part of the book, she rehearses the key tenets of minimalism: your stuff owns you; say no to clutter and embrace simplicity with style.

Loreau does a really comprehensive job, as she covers not only the outwardly visible elements of one’s life, but also the inner, personal aspects of mind, body and spirit (including one’s diet). I admire this approach, as it provides a holistic, well-rounded manifesto for someone looking to make changes.

Where she lost me

Where Loreau lost me was in her highly prescriptive approach to what we should – or shouldn’t – own.

For me, the joy of minimalism is that it’s entirely up to you as to how you approach it: what works for you may not work for me, but we can still share a minimalist mindset.

A set of rules

In particular, I was bemused when I realised how rule-driven Loreau’s philosophy was. For example, one’s bag had to have certain characteristics and should contain – amongst other things – a personalised monogrammed handkerchief! With a 16-bullet-point ‘handbag checklist’, I was left feeling a little overwhelmed and glad that my second-hand tiny cross-body bag and backpack serve me just nicely, thank you very much.

Echoes of another best-seller

The author’s didactic tone had echoes of Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat, so if you read that and liked it, you may enjoy this little book.

Even better, if you are able to enjoy this work in its original form, I suspect it may be a better read. The translation into English created a great many short sentences, which read like a series of disconnected soundbites.

Authenticity over perfectionism

What I felt most strongly was that Loreau was promoting an almost unreachable ideal. Instead of encouraging the reader to enjoy minimalism in its many different forms, she promotes her own perfectionist ideals.

This reminded me of Brené Brown’s: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Personally, I’d much rather strive towards letting go of others’ ideals than to go after the perfectionism that Brown calls an “emotional shield.”

Minimalism is what ever you want it to be

During her visit to the UK, I was delighted to spend some time with the lovely Cait Flanders. Cait and I were discussing different approaches to minimalism and simple living. We resolved that, since everyone’s circumstances are unique, there simply cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

For example, scanning and letting go of physical photographs (aka The Minimalists) may be right up your street. But if you’re like me and you have around a dozen carefully-made albums (with sticky pages onto which your precious only copies sit), you’re unlikely to want to risk peeling them off the page.

My take on simple living

As you may have read in my previous post, I’ve discovered a number of ways to simplify my life. But what I found helpful may not be right for you. I would argue that, whilst we can take inspiration from those who espouse a particular philosophy, it’s always good to take a step back before we rush wholeheartedly into a new way of living.

Trying to emulate how someone else lives their minimalist lifestyle could end up becoming some form of reverse ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Someone else’s  bid for perfection may end up being a straight-jacket for you.

Write your own prescription

Going back to Loreau’s prescription for the ideal bag, I was listening to the Happier podcast yesterday. Presenter, Liz Craft, had been on a quest to find her own ‘perfect black purse’ as part of her “18 for 2018” personal ‘to-do list.’ Listeners had helpfully sent in lots of lovely suggestions, but none of them felt right. It was only when she realised that what she had been looking at wasn’t really “her” that she fell upon exactly the right bag.

So, write your own simplicity prescription and maybe you’ll be an inspiration to others without imposing unattainable ideals. After all, being authentic is so much better than aiming for perfection.


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Thoughts on friendship

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When I began this blog almost two years ago, I didn’t know that blogging would enable me to make friends in real life, as well as bring me closer to a worldwide community of like-minded people.

Since you’re reading this, let me tell you this: I appreciate you!

The nature of friendship

I have been reflecting on the nature of friendship over the last few weeks. That may be because our teenager is about to do her GSCEs and move on to a new school for Sixth Form in September.

I know she has been thinking about the friends she’ll leave behind at her old school, as well as the ones who’ll move on with her. Of course, there’ll be new pals for her to make and we all know that strangers are friends you just haven’t met yet.

But how has the nature of friendship changed since we were at school?

When you are young

As a child you imagine that you’ll have the same friends your whole life. Some people do still keep in touch with friends they had at primary school, but I expect that’s fairly rare in today’s upwardly mobile world. Sometimes, childhood friends are re-united when they find one another on social media, or they manage to keep in touch through their parents who continue to live in the home where they grew up.

Make new friends and keep the old: one is silver, the other gold

My oldest and dearest friend is godmother to our daughter. We have been friends for almost 30 years. We met when we both lived in a hall of residence owned by the the high street bank for which we worked in London. This was a subsidised ‘staff perk’ to attract young workers to spend time in the capital. In 1990, this was like being at university but with pay!

I was interested in joining the drama group to which my would-be friend belonged, so I looked her up. We became instant pals and have remained close ever since, even though we haven’t lived in the same place for much of that time.

Circumstantial friends?

I am very lucky to still have contact with friends I made during my undergraduate and postgraduate years at university. I also still have good friends I made in the early years of living in Warwickshire and later as a mum.

Happily, some of these friendships have persisted beyond those specific circumstances. Although I originally met my friend, Lynne, at a local parent/toddler group, we have since enjoyed many years singing together. These days, we meet monthly at a bread-making group, which I wrote about here.

Some connections that you make through work or hobbies also continue via social media (especially via Facebook which is the only reason I don’t delete my account). It’s lovely to keep in touch with people who mean a lot to you and there’s the added bonus that we do meet up (either regularly or from time-to-time).

Minimalism and friendship

I have been really fortunate to make new friends through the contacts I’ve made with those connected to the world of minimalism and simple living.

My lovely friend, Rae, hosted the London leg of Courtney Carver’s Tiny Wardrobe Tour two years ago. I realised, after the event, that were both Warwickshire-based and it’s been an absolute delight to get to know her.

Lindsey and I met, as part of my quarterly meet-ups. She’s been a great friend with whom it’s fabulous to compare simple living notes, as we compare and discuss our minimalism journey.

I’ve also begun to make friends around the globe (some in person and others virtually). What’s heart-warming and encouraging is how virtual friends can become real friends when you reach out to one another.

New ways to make friends

Connection is so important. It’s one of the four ingredients of Robert Lustig’s book that I wrote about here.

Listening to Liz Craft and Sarah Fain on Happier in Hollywood this weekend, I was reminded of the challenge of making new friends in a new location. In this ‘Listener Questions’ episode, one of the questions discussed was how to make friends when you move to a new area.

You may not want to be alone or even in that particular situation but this may still be a time when you can make connections. In his book, Resurrection Year, Sheridan Voysey calls this “ministering to others.” You may not relish being alone in a new place, but if you’re willing to put yourself out to serve others, you’ll no doubt reap the personal benefits of so doing.

That said, as the hosts of Happier in Hollywood suggested, “Put yourself out there but choose people who want to be with you.” As the pair remind us, you want, “volunteers not recruits” when it comes to friendship.

Special interest groups

If you do put yourself out there, it’s worth noting that natural friendships can take time to emerge. It may take a while to become established in a new group, especially if you join a longstanding community of people who’ve know each other a long time.

One possible way in is to join a sub-group. Last year, I wrote about my decision to join the WI. My ‘way in’, in terms of getting to know people, has been to join the WI Reading Group. We meet monthly at someone’s house over wine and nibbles, often followed by cake (of course!) and tea or coffee. Whilst we do spend a good amount of time discussing the book for that month, we also connect in ways that aren’t possible when you’re in a monthly WI meeting of 50+ members.

So, find your ‘tribe’ and you may make some unexpected friends.

And remember, it’s said that a dog is ‘(wo)man’s best friend’. You always have a friend when you have a dog.


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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 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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The 10/10 material possessions exercise

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Have you tried The Minimalists’ 10/10 material possessions exercise? In a recent article for The Times, Barbara McMahon explains how it works.

Write down those ‘big ticket’ items

Write down the ten most expensive material possessions you have collected in the past decade such as a car, a house or other “big-ticket” items.

Then consider what adds most value to your life

Then, make another list of the ten things that have added the most value to your life. This will include experiences such as watching your children play, enjoying a family meal or watching a sunset with a loved one.

McMahon quotes Joshua Fields Millburn who says, “Quite often you find that zero things overlap on those two lists. The things that people thought were important may not actually be that important.”

I beg to differ on some of these.

My ten most expensive ‘possessions’ in the last decade

House

I don’t really class this as a material ‘possession’. It’s our home. It’s an investment. Is it something we possess? I suppose we own it, but we also live in it. Can you live in a possession? Yes, it requires maintenance and upkeep but I would argue that something you inhabit is more than a mere possession. I’d also say that the house is an enabler; it facilitates social and familial connections, in particular.

Car

OK, you’ve got me on this one. Money expert Dave Ramsay says that our car is the single biggest purchase we make, which also depreciates in value. In fact, I’m planning on going car free next year, using public transport or pedal power for a while. We’ll still share a single family car, but this will be one less material ‘possession’ I’ll own.

Nonetheless, owning a car is – in my mind – a significant enabler. Holidays by the sea, for example, are made possible by virtue of the car we choose to pay for. Likewise, it would be hard to sustain family connections if we didn’t own a vehicle. Local hobbies are also more readily accessible through being able to jump into a car.

Perhaps if you live in a city where transport links are good, you might disagree with this. Here in woody Warwickshire, access to a car is still important (and I’m not yet in the habit of calling up an ‘Uber’).

Dining room furniture

Our 19th Century French dining set was our first decent purchase in our current home. In fact, this table and 6 chairs is probably one of the most expensive single item we have ever bought. It came from a local antique dealer/restorer, who takes regular trips to the continent to acquire beautiful items of furniture to restore and sell. Ours is cherry wood, elegant and beautiful. I love it.

But, does it add value? Well, actually, it does. In the introduction to Nigella Lawson’s current television series, At My Table, Nigella points out that, “A table is not just a piece of furniture, just as food is more than mere fuel.” She continues that the table she first bought was not just to “eat at, but to live around.”

That’s the point. Time with friends and family often occurs round that dining table. In truth, gatherings of this nature don’t happen as frequently as I’d like, but that’s not the point. This weekend, we welcome two house-guests, who are homestay visiting students from China. Around our table, we will get to know our visitors in a way that wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t sit down together to ‘break bread’.

Dog

Is a pet a material possession? Like anything you need to maintain (back to the car analogy), you have to feed it, look after it and exercise it. And owning a dog isn’t without cost.

Yet, any dog owner will tell you how much joy dog ownership brings into your life. Indeed, this has been the subject of academic research including a recent work by Nickie Charles at The University of Warwick looking at animal-human interactions, notably how pets become ‘kin’.

I thought you said it was 10?

Well, this is supposed to be ten items, but I am struggling to think of any other significant material possessions we have bought in the last decade that fall into this category.

So, I’m curious. Can you think of 10 ‘big ticket’ material items? Or even just a few? What are they? And do they cross over with the things, people or experiences that add value to your life?

In my case, it seems they do. What about you? I’d love to know your thoughts – let me know by replying to this post in the comments box, below.


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