Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Review: More Than Enough

Do you guys follow Miranda at Live Free Creative Co? I've followed her for a while now, and I really, really like her. I like how deeply she thinks about things, I like the way she lives her life just going for her dreams and doing what makes her happy, and I like a lot of things about her style (even though it is very opposite of mine). So when she wrote a book and announced an open invitation to join her launch team for the release of said book this summer, I thought, why not? I want to read the book anyway, and it'll be summer! I'll have plenty of time to read and review it!

Well, the original release date was June 25th, which then got pushed back to July 9th, which is when I was supposed to be telling you all about this book. But my summer has been just a little bit busier than I anticipated, and clearly I'm behind. But, better late than never, right? Right!

Okay, here's the backstory on this book. Miranda, her lawyer husband (maybe another reason I like her, she's married to a lawyer too), and three kids are living their normal modern lives in a nice big beautiful home in Austin, Texas (oh yes, another Texas ex-pat!), basically living out the American dream, when at the beginning of 2017 she has this big epiphany/idea. She was looking around at their big beautiful home, and especially at all the stuff they had filled it up with, and thought, "We seriously have everything we need. We have more than enough. We should stop buying stuff!" So they did. For an entire year, her family stopped buying non-consumable items completely. No new clothes. No home decor items. No new technology. No new toys. To complicate the "Challenge" (as she refers to it), they moved half-way through the year to Virginia (or North Carolina? somewhere over there, I forget), and ended up downsizing drastically. So what started as a practice in not adding to their stuff also became a process of getting rid of as much of their stuff as they possibly could.

So after their year of no spending, she decides to write a book about their experience, which I have now read, called More Than Enough: How One Family Cultivated a More Abundant Life Through a Year of Practical Minimalism. Let's talk about this book, because I have a lot of thoughts about it. I followed her blog throughout the year of her big "Challenge," so I wondered how much I would actually get out of the book, and while much of the story was familiar to me, there was still quite a bit of reflection/lesson-drawing that gave me plenty to chew on. So, in no particular order, here are some of my thoughts about the book.

I spent the first part of the book wondering if I was the target audience for her message. First off, I absolutely do not identify at all with the type of retail therapy or impulse shopper she seems to be speaking to as a universal audience. Spending money actually makes me feel anxious, I'm not generally the type of person to stray off my intended list (and I always have a list), and I never go to stores "just for fun." I'm not sure I've set foot in a Target since moving to Kansas (there was a Target across the street from us in Houston, which made it more convenient, but now that I actually have to drive to any store I go to, I stick to the generally cheaper and closer Walmart). Maybe I'm different than most people this way, but I generally do not enjoy shopping, so her insights about the time and money she was saving by not doing all this impulse/therapy shopping didn't really resonate with me.

Second, I also found her general class privilege (and lack of awareness about it) a little off-putting. She never talks about her family's income (although it's clear that they have a very comfortable upper-middle-class income), and only spends one short chapter on money (in which it became glaringly obvious that our attitudes and opinions about money are extremely different), and at points it felt to me like she was only speaking to people who have the privilege of choosing between buying more cute Anthropology plates or going on fabulous European vacations (choose less stuff, more adventure!) without really acknowledging that for many people, the actual choice is between less stuff and more debt.

So I kept thinking, am I the target audience for this? Is she really only speaking to people with so much financial security they don't have to worry about money, only about the philosophical costs of materialism? And here's where I had my epiphany: Just because I am not buying things because of budget constraints and she is not buying things because of philosophy doesn't meant I can't use her philosophy to feel better about my own position and heal my own relationship to stuff! Maybe I should've seen this from the beginning, but really, maybe I can benefit even more from her insights than someone who is not so worried about their budget! I think the mindset shift for me can be summed up like this, "I don't buy all the things right now because of my budget, but even if I had all the money in the world, I would still choose to limit what I spend money on because less stuff really does make me happier" or something like that.

(*I also just want to stress here that we are in no way in real financial difficulties, my husband makes a great salary and we are probably considered upper-middle-class as well. We never lack for basics, we own a nice house with very nice things that fill it up, and we occasionally take those fabulous European vacations too, just with a lot more budgeting and saving and financial number crunching in the meantime. I don't want to pretend we are in any way super constrained, I just generally approach all of my shopping from a place of budget-awareness, while Miranda on the other hand doesn't seem to have or need a budget, or at least doesn't seem worried about one as she literally has a chapter titled "It's Not About the Money.")

After having this epiphany, I began enjoying the book quite a bit more and began to see the ways all of her insights were very useful for me. So here are some of my biggest take-aways:

What Does It Mean To Have Enough?

This was a question I mulled over quite a bit while reading. Miranda began her "Challenge" because of her realization that she had more than enough. She had a craft room bursting with supplies and storage bins with all sorts of extras and was sure that should any materialistic need arise, they could craft what they needed. She tells stories of all the things they did end up making, clay toys and make-shift Pokemon card binders among other things, using and re-using stuff they already had.

I, however, do not have a bursting collection of craft supplies (not a crafter, don't own a sewing machine, etc.), and went through my Marie Kondo phase pretty seriously a few years ago, so really don't have a lot of "extra" stuff. When we upgraded from our two bedroom apartment to our four bedroom house two years ago, we had several rooms that remained embarrassingly bare for quite a while, and I still feel like there is a never ending list of house projects I would love to spend money on. But I did give some serious thought to the question of, were I to do some version of this challenge myself, would we have "enough" to survive without buying any non-consumable goods? ...

And the answer, I think, is yes. I mean, it would require some creative work arounds. There are a few things we know we plan to purchase in the next few months: a bed for our toddler (she's still in the crib, and I guess she could continue sleeping in the crib indefinitely, but really, there comes a point, and I think by her third birthday it's reasonable to get her a real bed, right?), and a suit for my oldest son (he's getting baptized in December, and maybe a suit isn't entirely necessary, but some sort of new winter-appropriate Sunday clothing situation will probably be necessary given his growth this summer). There will probably be some other clothing and shoe purchases for the kids that will feel urgent. But in the end, we could find a way around each one of these purchases. Not indefinitely, but for a year, we really could probably manage it.

Does that mean we have enough?

One thing that Miranda wrote that really stuck with me is that "Enough wasn't an amount. It was a decision." So I think the answer to the question above is yes. If we decided it, then we have enough. We have enough so that we could mostly comfortably live for a year without buying a single new non-consumable.

And that was a really, really nice thing to realize. We have enough. It also made me feel incredibly grateful to realize that, which brings me to my next take-away...

Gratitude Really is Soooooo Important

Miranda spends a chapter talking about gratitude and it's importance. She was actually playing a Pollyanna-ish gratitude game with her children during a trip to Costco, in which she reminded them of all the great toys and things they already had to be grateful for (like an iPad and trampoline), and I remember thinking, "Well, my kids don't even have any of that stuff, but I'm actually grateful that we don't!"

But really, a focus on gratitude for what you already have makes you feel less covetous for you don't have. I know I have an actual physical list of all the things I know I want to buy for our house once we save up the money for it (starting with the new dresser to finish off our bedroom make-over, to a grill for the deck, to new kitchen counter-tops, and a whole bunch of other things), and focusing on that list just makes me feel the sense of lack. But I also feel incredibly grateful for all the beautiful things we do have, and focusing on those feelings of gratitude will lead to more overall peace and contentment in life. Miranda offers great practical tips at the end of every chapter, but I think the gratitude practice suggestions at the end of this chapter were my favorite.

Other Random Tid-bits

-I loved her suggestion to build community through borrowing. I've been the recipient of lots of good hand-me-downs when it comes to baby and kid clothes, which I love beyond anything, but there are lots of other things that can be shared too (books, tools, fancy dishes, etc.) and I'd love to tap into that kind of community borrowing more than I do.

-I loved her thoughts about creativity in minimalism. I still feel some conflicts here (what if you are creating products/content meant to be consumed by others, how do we balance that with respect for our consumers need for minimalism?), but I still whole-heartedly agree that the best way to really suck the marrow out of life is to create stuff (my stuff usually involves creating with words, but occasionally involves refinishing a chair!).

-I also really appreciated her chapter on time and energy as resources. I feel like in a lot of time management literature, energy levels don't get talked about enough as a crucial part of productivity. I love the way Miranda brought up how much time and energy it takes to earn the money you are spending on stuff. Is the stuff really worth the energy you put into making that money? Does the stuff just sap more of your energy? Good questions.

-And finally, I just appreciated in general how this was a minimalism book that focused on controlling what you bring into the home, as opposed to most minimalism books that focus on getting rid of what you already have. I think this is an important part of minimalism, not bringing the junk home in the first place.

In summary, I really appreciated all of the thoughtful insights and suggestions Miranda presented in her book, and I'm also just really happy for her that she wrote it and made this book happen (she really is living her dreams). After analyzing our spending tracking for the first two quarters of 2019, my husband and I need to do a little belt tightening to meet our savings goals for this year, and I think this book gave me just the motivation I needed to feel grateful for that instead of frustrated. It's true that for me it's far more encouraging to think about budgeting in terms of not bringing excess clutter into our lives than in thinking of it as restriction.

Here's to minimalism! Here's to deciding that we have enough! Here's to gratitude for a beautiful and wonderful life!

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Books I Read in June

Guys, I'm just so discouraged. I already typed up this whole post a week or so ago, and then when I went to publish it, my internet or something failed me and the whole post got deleted. Between summer schedules, holidays, some fun travel (a weekend in San Francisco, hopefully more on that later), and the fact that I've been trying to buckle down and get to work preparing for my exams (or comps, or orals, or whatever those intimidating things are called) which I have take this next semester, I just haven't had as much time as I've wanted to spend over here on this old blog. But, I've got plenty of things I want to say! So much I want to write about! So many good books I've been reading lately that I need to talk about, so hopefully I'll be able to squeeze a little more time out of my summer to spend here in this space.

But first, let me just quickly (for the sake of record keeping, or whatever) re-type up all the mini-reviews of the books I read in June. Yes, yes, we're halfway through July, but these round-up posts are the one thing I feel committed to on this blog. I don't know why (does anyone besides myself find them useful?), but here we go nonetheless.

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin

I saw this one highly recommended on someone's Best Summer Beach Reads list somewhere, saw that it was about a big law lawyer in New York, and decided to check it out (being married to a lawyer who worked in big law for a while, I love seeing how the lifestyle gets portrayed in books/tv/media, sometimes they make it seem so glamorous). Basically, this was the stupidest book, probably one of the trashiest books I've ever finished (still not sure why I did finish it). I'm surprised how long it took me to recognize how toxic and immature all the characters were (yes, even the main ones). Definitely skip this one, I don't recommend it at all.

Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce

If you remember, I read the first three books in this series in May, and have conflicted feelings about it. On the one hand, I think the world is fun and the characters and plot intriguing. On the other hand, I found the romantic entanglements, while not graphic, to be far more mature than appropriate for the target middle-grade audience. I generally recommend this for older audiences who like fantasy and can handle middle-grade pacing (rather complex problems and plot points that feel huge tend to get solved relatively simply and quickly, something I didn't mind), but wouldn't necessarily give any but the first book to an actual middle-grade kid. But that's just me. Overall I quite enjoyed it and will probably read more by this author some day.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

If you also recall from my May reading list, this was the book I meant to read but confused it with another title. Once I figured out the real title it was easy to get this one on hold, and I was not disappointed. This is a heart-breaking book. I've never spent much time thinking about Alzheimer's or dementia, but this story of a relatively young, brilliant, successful woman grappling with the early symptoms and slowly losing her memory and mind was incredibly poignant. It was beautifully written, and raised all sorts of interesting questions for me (Just how much of our identity/worth is tied up in our ability to remember our lives? How do you define "self"? How do you treat someone with respect or dignity who can't remember their own name? What awful strain care-givers must grapple with!). All in all, this is a strong recommend, but fair warning, you will find yourself questioning your own mind and sanity as you read.

The Dry by Jane Harper

I can't remember if I mentioned it here, or only over on Instagram, but we took a nice long road trip in June out to Idaho. My husband and I like to listen to audio books together while we drive, and so I spend some time picking out titles that will appeal to both of us. On previous trips we've had a lot of fun listening to a few murder mysteries from the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series (it's fun to talk about the clues leading up to the reveal and make guesses about who the culprit is), so I thought we'd try this highly rated mystery out. The Dry, centering around investigator Aaron Falk in a small farming community in Australia, was quite a bit grittier and less "cozy" than Three Pines, but as far as mysteries go it was quite good. Neither my husband nor I guessed the twist, and it was a satisfying reveal (just want you to know that it still feels weird to me to describe a book about murder as "good" and "satisfying"). We'll very likely listen to more of this series on future trips.

Legion by Brandon Sanderson

This was another audio book I listened to with my husband on our trip. We are both huge Sanderson fans, but this one was a little different from his usual high fantasy stuff. This is a book combining three novellas about Stephen Leeds, a man with multiple brilliant personalities, or mind projections, who help him solve complex cases. I thought the first novella was spectacularly good, the second one so-so, and the third one a satisfying conclusion. The whole book offers an interesting look into the psyche of Sanderson himself as an author, which I found most intriguing, and I think which also offers an interesting explanation for why I find most of his characters so one-dimensional (basically, because any dimensional depth gets flattened out into a new character). Generally a strong recommend.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

This was the last audio book I listened to with my husband, and it was a bit of a risky choice. I've never read anything by Stephen King before because I am adamantly not a fan of horror, but I'd read that this one was different than his other fare, more historical fiction, and I had a hunch my husband would like it. I was right, we both loved it, but it was not what I expected. I was prepared for this to be some kind of retelling of the JFK assassination, and it was that in part, but it was also a sci-fi time-travel novel with years of intricate plot and world-building that had absolutely nothing to do with JFK. Stephen King is definitely a brilliant writer, not necessarily at the sentence-level like I usually prefer (the man uses so many cliches), but he is a master at intricate plots and creating extremely evocative settings and moods. A few caveats: this thing is long. It was thirty hours of audio book time, and even at double speed we didn't finish it on our trip (but for a few days after the trip, we'd put our kids to bed, then get ready for bed ourselves and just lie there listening for a few hours). Also, while it is not strictly a horror story, there are definitely some dark and disturbing and violent parts. And King is rather fond of swearing. But even still, I recommend this to anyone who likes intricate, well-crafted plots with sci-fi historical fiction elements. You won't be disappointed.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I finally got my hands on this hot best-seller, and I've got to say, I loved it! It's worth all the praise it's been getting. I found Michelle's voice and story to be so relatable. I don't know if it was the fact that we lived in South Side Chicago for three years so many of the place names were familiar (we actually lived on the very same street as the Obamas' house, and our road would get blockaded every time they came to visit), or the fact that I'm also married to a busy lawyer and have had to deal with some of the same struggles (although, thankfully, my husband has never had a whiff of interest in political office), or the fact that her conflicts about being a working mom made me say, "Yes! Me too!" but I found so much more common ground than I expected. I found her to be real and inspiring. I liked her so much. I had lots of thoughts while reading that I think I'll save for their own post, but generally, I highly recommend this book. It was fantastic.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

This book. I have so much to say about this book it's definitely going to need its own post. Honestly, this book is part of the reason I haven't made as much time to write around here, and that I took an unintentional hiatus over on Instagram. At first I didn't really think this book was for me, since I pride myself on not being the attached-at-the-hip phone-addict he describes as characteristic of the Millennial generation. But this book made me question so much what I'm even doing on social media and what my priorities in life are and all sorts of things. So I have lots of thoughts that I want to talk/write about as soon as I can get around to it. But basically, I want to hand this book out to every Freshman who walks into my classroom and strongly recommend to everyone else besides. Also recommend his other book, Deep Work. Both are amazing.

And that was it for June. Just eight books, a slow month for me. But, I still managed to pass the 50 book milestone for the year, which means, if I keep up my current pace, I'm well on my way to surpassing my goal of 75 books for the year and on track to hit 100 books again. Which is kind of crazy to me. That's a lot of books. What fun!

As always, if you've read any of these books I'd love to hear your thoughts on them! Please share!