Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book Purge: The Whiches and Wheres

There are books in the office.

There are books in the guest room.

There are books in the kitchen.

There are books on the ottoman.

There are books in my desk.

There are books on my bedside table.

There are books on his bedside table.

There are books on the dresser.

There are books in the garage. 

There's even a book on the back of the toilet.

My obsession with books started years ago. In light of the long why, lots had to go.

The purge started with this pile of paperbacks way back when we lived in South Carolina.

Unfortunately that was a false start, seeing as I continued to buy more to replace them.

When we moved in 2011, there were so many book boxes, I resolved to shed again once we got settled in Georgia.

The result was this big pile and a trip to the closest Better World Books drop box. Wasn't easy letting them go, but they were mostly duplicates and school books anyway.

Time passed, and I did the same thing all over again. Giving things up comes in waves.

At that point, I was finally rid of the books I didn't care that much about anyway. All that remained were books I did care about. They took more consideration. They needed to go to someone I knew instead of the big green box. So this last wave has been slow, deliberate, and researched. It's taken a few months, but I've now gone through shelf after shelf, kept those I love or can sell, and given away the rest.

The rejections were many and fell into these categories: classic paperbacks, old and interesting but not worth much in cash or in my heart, duplicates, and love 'em but can live without 'em.

There was almost an entire box of Shakespeare alone. But anything I could get for free online seemed a silly thing to carry around, so off they went to three loving homes--first, those of my sisters: the thoughtful and creative openminded hippie and the beautiful warrior who kicked cancer's ass. The other awesome woman in this picture is my niece. She stands up for people no one else will stand up for. We are all book lovers.

The third loving home was that of my lovely, funny, supermom sister-in-law Deborah. She brightens every room she enters.

Books off to good homes. That's a happy ending.


Some beauties I kept

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Purge 2014: The Why

Sometimes a single path will split and go in different directions for a while before merging again down the road. That's how it's been in a couple ways with Jonathan and me. The difference between us and some other couples is that the path has led to us getting rid of a bunch of books. I'll post the whiches and wheres and hows later. But first, and most importantly, the why.

When Jonathan and I tied the knot in my brother's backyard over a decade ago, I said it was stupid for people to fall in love, get married, then spend most of their lives apart to instead live in office cubicles surrounded by strangers. Therefore he wasn't allowed to do that.

But here we are in 2014, and Jonathan left this morning to work at an office in a cubicle, surrounded by mostly strangers for the tenth year in a row. And I'm okay with it for three reasons:

1. A couple years into marriage, I learned you don't allow and disallow your partner to do things. It doesn't work like that. Besides, he likes working, and so do I.
2. A couple more years into marriage, I learned that being together every second is impossible and not terribly healthy.
3. A few years later still, I learned that, unless you're very lucky, you may have to work hard in an office for a little while to be free of it forever.

But I didn't figure out that third point for a long time, and that's where our paths diverged.

It was around Christmas about five years ago that Jonathan felt a sudden, urgent need to make a big life change. We needed to get out of debt, get on a budget, and get investing, he said. Our money should work for us, not us for it.

I'm not a numbers person. I'm not a planning person. Which way is the wind blowing? Let's go that way. No money to support the journey? Thumb our way there. Why? Because we can. Why not just stay where we are? Because I've suddenly got a funny feeling about it.

That was my way in those days. I'd like to say there was a method to my madness, but there wasn't. It was just how I was used to maneuvering in the world. It's all there was.

Jonathan, on the other hand, is a numbers person. He's a planner. He researches everything from coffee filters to cars before making a purchase. Make a plan, consider all possibilities and alternatives, and optimize life. That's Jonathan. He does what makes logical sense.

So we simply differ in personality.

To make a long story short, we got out of debt and started budgeting like mad, which is good.

But the budget became a prison for me. Never in my life had I chosen which bag of chips to get according to which was the cheapest, or how many times to go to the movies in a month depending on what a number on a spreadsheet told me I could do. Never had I not done something my heart was pulling me toward because it didn't fit the plan. In fact, it was my practice to defy the plan. I lived for the moment. I acted on the faith that if my heart said go, everything would work out.

For Jonathan, on the other hand, the budget was just the opposite. It was freedom. Prison for him was not knowing. Prison for him was chaos. Taking control of things, as opposed to blindly hoping they worked out, gave him power over his life. Control meant big dreams instead of lots of little ones, but it also meant having patience.

And so we disagreed about this issue often.

Meanwhile, Jonathan was working a lot. His work was far away, and we lived a secluded country life. I was home most of the time alone, without kids, trying to finish school, trying to find myself, reaching for any purpose I could find but not landing on one, and taking too long to get where I was going. Having moved from the only family and friends and places I'd known, I lost who I was as he continued to define himself more clearly. So we diverged even more.

Don't misunderstand. These things were only a part of life. Yes, we were and are different people with different ways of going about things. But most days we laughed, we loved, and we had sweet times. We sincerely cared about each other, wanted the best for each other, and wished we could agree, and all of that went a long way in maintaining a sense of hope, peace, and mutual respect.

Eventually, compromises had to be made. We both had to be less extreme, but we both needed to feel we had a say in where our lives were going. I needed to be spontaneous, to take wild adventures, so a budget category was set up just for that. It may sound silly to budget for spontaneity, but it's actually like having an envelope of money with which frivolity is funded. I've had the privilege of traveling a little bit of the world thanks to that envelope, and I've been to many a conference and retreat, and gained a degree that helped me eventually find my purpose. As for Jonathan, he needed peace and stability in a plan. He needed to know he would reach a point early in life where he could decide whether he wanted to sit in a cubicle or not. So I agreed to keep up with what I spend, make informed choices, and learn to see the value in minimalism. I learned that taking a trip to Poland means giving up a lot of other things. In the end, there's a certain amount of money: you decide what's most important, make choices, and shift funds. And you start being a grownup.

Slowly, we made a plan that suited both of us. I have to admit, I've learned (quite in spite of myself) that it is freeing to have no debt, to not worry about tomorrow, to know exactly where you are, what you have, and what you need to do to get to where you want to be.

But we still weren't on the same path. He was working a ton. I was finishing up my MFA, assuming the plan was to become a successful writer. Or maybe open a B&B. Or a bookshop. Or a cafe. Or all three in one. Or maybe go get a graduate degree in religion. Or…something meaningful to fill the endless hours, when Jonathan came home saying he was finally ready for a big adventure. He'd gotten a job offer. "Adventure!" I said. "Where's the job?"

"Atlanta," he answered. And "No," was my response. It was the one place I'd always said I never wanted to go.

But he'd be working less, he said. And there'd be more job options for me if I wanted to teach, which I had halfway been planning, in order to supplement my surely-soon-to-be-amazing-and-bustling writing career. We came and checked the place out. His job offer sounded good. The town was north of the city, so we wouldn't have the traffic. We found a little house I loved. There were neighbors! I got a job offer. And before you know it, we're walking our dog around our new neighborhood, making friends, and I'm teaching twice a week at a university and, huge surprise to me, doing a pretty good job of it. Without knowing it was happening, I found my purpose in a place I thought I'd hate. Life is so stupid sometimes. So did I learn to let life happen and remain calm and enjoy the day?

Not so much.

Have you ever spent a long time, I mean years, without anything much to do? Things get skewed. Meaning becomes relative and highly individual. Boredom and loneliness rot the mind. You begin to depend on others for your happiness and blame them when they don't provide it. You may become deeply depressed. You may sincerely wish everything would blink out of existence.

Even though I was in a new place with new possibilities, I had to slowly shake off a longstanding depression and unhappiness that was firmly hooked into my brain. After doing rewarding work for a year or so, after making some friends, after getting out and exercising and seeing new places: life got a million times better. Just took time.

That's about the time I started hearing something Jonathan had been saying for years (it's hard to hear things when you're sad): "I want to be free."

And that's where our paths finally became one and the same again. (I really am getting to the book purge thing, just give me a second to explain.)

What Jonathan meant was that he wanted us to be self-sufficient as soon as possible. Some people call this early retirement, but the term doesn't quite fit. Early retirement doesn't mean settling in to your recliner to watch Wheel of Fortune for the next forty years. It means not having to work. It means your investments make enough money to pay for your standard of living, so whatever you make working is extra. That also means that if you find yourself, as I have done, wanting to teach English abroad, you can support yourself without making much money in whatever country you land.

In order for this to be possible, you have to save and invest a lot of what you make. It also means living wisely and modestly. Our standard of living won't involve a mansion on a hill, and certainly not a butler. That said, when I say live modestly, I mean by American Dream standards--you know, those cardboard set pieces we're taught to want, and taught to require in order to feel successful. Modestly for us means no car payments or house payments, no credit card debt, buying groceries in bulk, not eating out often, etc. The life we plan to live is not one of an independently wealthy couple in a fancy house and fancy cars and having fancy meals and wearing fancy clothes. It's one where we get up in the morning and say, "Where do we want to go next?"

That's the freedom Jonathan needs, and the spontaneity I need. Your early retirement could have a more white-picket-fence look, and that's okay. So long as your money is making enough money to cover your cost of living, you're free.

Now about that book purge. Over the last few months, I've been working toward a certificate in TESOL that will, along with my other studies and teaching experience, allow me to teach English most anywhere in the world. Eventually, we hope to spend large chunks of time traveling, teaching, and living. That means we need to shed some living weight. If you've ever moved books, you know how heavy they are.

First of all, books are wonderful.

They're amazing! It's possible that they house all the meaning there is to be found in this existence. But I don't need to own hard copies of all of them, only the ones I cherish most. And this is probably the hardest part of living the life we're heading toward--there's a shedding that has to happen. Shedding of expectations, of what you've been taught to believe happiness looks like, and of the physical things that can come to define us. I don't mean to get rid of treasures. I mean to get rid of everything else.

The surprising thing is that living this way, or at least starting to try to live this way, pushes us toward healthier, happier lives. It's stepping outside the expectations of modern life and deciding what we want for ourselves. Eating out less, walking more, not having the stress of debt over our heads, not having the stress of carrying a house full of stuff on your back, and walking steadily toward a goal of freedom: That gives an amazing sense of calm, control, and peace.

What do you want? I want to meet new people, see new places, teach, and write. So I'm getting rid of a bunch of books in preparation. And that, my friends, is the long why.

"I call people rich when they're able to meet the requirements of their imagination."
Henry James