Psychological Housekeeping

I recently read a book on my cousin’s recommendation and found it just as profoundly impactful and life-changing as she did, but possibly for different reasons than the author explicitly intended.

I got quite a ways into The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up before I realized that I was reading the same book I’d seen referenced in dozens of Facebook posts, blog entries, and articles, outlining the KonMari method. Just as I wondered, “Is this the book that tells you to get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy?” I turned the page and the question was posed.

It is a great book and a solid method, written in a charming, conversational tone that makes it a pleasure. For better or worse, I didn’t necessarily need the advice about literally tidying up because I had my come-to-Jesus moment when I purged and donated so much of what I owned before moving out of Staten Island. I was very careful in setting up my new apartment, and basically I walk around sparking joy whenever I’m in my home.

What surprised me so much, though, was how directly applicable the tidying-up method was toward my interior life and psychological wellbeing. Marie Kondo discusses our relationship to possessions as a reflection of our relationship to ourselves: we project guilt, conflict, regret, dread, and all kinds of negative, counterproductive emotions onto objects that remind us of our relationships with our past or future self. As someone who has given away more than a few barely-used yoga mats, this idea of disappointing one’s past intentions resonated deeply with me. The items that caused me the most pain to give away were definitely the aspirational ones, but only on hindsight can I see how hanging onto them was making me feel worse every day.

The method urges the reader to be grateful for the purpose things serve in life, even if it was just to give a person joy while buying them and imagining using them. Then once the purpose is served, thank the objects, and release them. It’s a sweet, lovely, if ever-so-slightly cutesy anthropomorphization of clothing, books, kitchen utensils, and all the objects that comprise the domestic sphere. Tucked within the simple messages of gratitude and living in the present is a beautiful philosophy of accepting and being gentle to oneself, using joy as a guide.

I looked in my heart and started to see the way I have been positively hoarding negative memories, past hurts and disappointments, and all kinds of relationships and situations that made me constantly angry or frustrated when I think of them. As much as I thought I had moved past all of them, I realized I was still carrying them around, like a pile of clutter I had to step over every time I wanted to walk into my bedroom.

One boyfriend (who did end up breaking my heart spectacularly) said that sometimes I’d look at him and even when I was smiling, he saw flickers of darkness in my eyes, years of pain and hurt. “You make me feel like I broke your heart already,” he said, “and I thought I was being pretty good to it.” It’s ironic because my official policy is to not bad-mouth my exes or wish them anything but the best in life. Once I decide to end a friendship or romance, I try to look at it with gratitude for the ways it helped me grow and change and move along my path. But I haven’t been letting go of all the psychological clutter, and I see, abundantly and clearly, that I seriously need to.

I thought it would take months or years, and I know I’m nowhere near done, but over a few weeks with the kind of surreally beautiful spring weather that makes anything but singsong optimism seem perverse, I got rid of all kinds of mental stuff. I compartmentalized it by writing down every thought or experience that was making me furious or upset for a while (and for once, not venting it to friends or family), then choosing, actively, to stop dwelling on all of those things. Emotional deaccessioning. And it really was that easy and that straightforward to identify the toxic feelings and decide I didn’t want them to have meaning for me anymore.

I’m still working on it, but I’m delighted at how much lighter and freer I feel when instead of being upset or angry somewhat regularly when I see people I can’t avoid, I am taking a Don Draper approach, “I don’t think about you at all,” and actually meaning it. Taking the clutter off my radar and sweeping it right out the door, it is getting out of my way, and I am finding more and more joy.

That is the true life-changing magic in this pretty book about housekeeping:

“As for you, pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life. I am convinced that putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart. Life truly begins after you have put your house in order.”

Swap out “house” for “mind,” and here we are. I am being nice to myself, and I am only looking forward. I’m reminding myself daily that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, and it’s up to me to find joy every day.

It feels truly amazing.

Recipe: Baked Eggs with Kale, Tomatoes, and Cannellini Beans

The other day I was cleaning out my work email and came across this recipe that I’d sent to one of my coworkers. She said she liked the idea of eating more kale, but couldn’t get excited about eating a salad for dinner. I laughed and said I eat kale all the time, but I hate it raw so I only ever eat it cooked. “What do you just like, steam it?” she asked, and I felt obliged to share.

As one of my favorite and most regularly cooked dishes, it seemed only fair that I should post it here too. It’s easy and fast enough to prepare on a weeknight after work, but delicious and satisfying enough that it works well if you’re having people over for brunch. You can even get fancy and divide it into individual bowls before baking, if you’re into that sort of thing (I am).

Baked Eggs with Kale, Tomatoes, and Cannellini Beans

Ingredients:

  • 4 eggs
  • 2 bunches of kale, cut or torn into manageable pieces, with inner spine removed, or 1 pound of the pre-packaged kind
  • 14.5 oz. can of diced tomatoes + liquid, or 3-4 plum tomatoes, diced
  • 15.5 oz. can of cannellini beans, rinsed of goo, or about 1 cup fresh beans
  • 1 onion or about 5 shallots
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1-2 tsp. olive oil
  • drizzle of balsamic vinegar to taste (about ⅛-¼ cup)
  • basil, salt, and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Chop the garlic and onion / shallots and heat them in olive oil in a large pan until softened and slightly caramelized.

Add tomatoes, beans, vinegar, seasoning, and kale. Stir everything together, and cover the pan for a few minutes to cook the kale down to about half its original volume. Allow yourself a moment to be amazed at how much kale reduces.

Transfer everything to an 8″x8″ baking dish and level it out, then using the back of a spoon make four slight indentations. Crack eggs into these indentations and bake for about 17-20 minutes or until the eggs look done. If you want the yolks to be slightly runny (which is delicious) you can cook them until the whites are just solid. If you want the whole egg to take on the texture of a hard-boiled egg, you can bake for another 4-5 min.

Perhaps even better, I put the ingredients into a fitness app, and it estimated 514 calories for half the dish or 257 calories per quadrant. The app was pretty happy with me for this one, compared with my favorite quiche and lasagna recipes.

You can of course adjust it with whatever is seasonal or around. I suspect sautéed mushrooms would make a splendid addition. And if you are like my mother and hate balsamic vinegar, you can add a drizzle of lemon juice for some acidity, or omit it entirely.

Mangia!

Monetizing

Years ago, when people started talking about monetizing their websites, I had a tendency to read the word as Monet-izing, and I enjoyed imagining clean graphic layouts replaced by thick daubs of paint, idiosyncratic brushwork, and the beautiful colors and subjects of Impressionist painting.

Claude Monet, Île aux Fleurs near Vétheuil, 1880, oil on canvas, seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I mean, that’s honestly so much more interesting to think about than money, isn’t it?

I’ve been blogging in some form and managing multiple websites for going on 15 years now, and as I renewed my hosting and domain registrations again recently, I started to think about how much those fees have added up over time. I am experimenting with adding some advertising to this blog and my knitting site to try to pay for the hosting. I felt really weird about setting it up, but it’s 2015, and I don’t think people are as sensitive to advertising as they were when monetizing was a whispered, sort of dirty word.

I’m also setting up some other projects that I’m hoping to get rolling in earnest this summer. In grad school I got so bizarrely indoctrinated to this idea that art is only for the people independently wealthy enough that they don’t need to support themselves as artists (“trust fund babies,” as one professor called them) that I felt strange and self-conscious about trying to sell art through any means other than a solo show at the Whitney. I’ve gotten over that cynical delusion and decided there is no shame in making an honest living, especially since I don’t have oil tycoons in the family to buy me a gallery show anyway.

I wrote up a business plan and goals, I made a checklist of things I need to do, and I applied for a Certificate of Authority for a business of sole proprietorship again. I have a daunting amount of work ahead, but working for oneself is always rewarding. I am a demanding but kind boss, and I occasionally reward myself with Nutella and Diet Coke, so I can’t complain. I don’t want to let any more time go by where I’m not investing in myself and working toward something personal, even if it’s a total flop. I will never know if I don’t try.

So fingers crossed, we’ll see what happens.

Gratitude

The first draft of my last post was from August 2013, and at the time I didn’t publish it because it seemed (and still seems) a bit of a whine-fest of largely self-made first world problems. I tried to bring it back up to 2015 and underscore how people in my financial situation aren’t buying houses, which affects other people’s ability in turn to sell their houses, retire etc., but the day after I published it the terrible earthquake devastated Nepal (please give if you can) and I realized how single-minded and self-absorbed I’ve been.

What was missing when I summarily said “I have to must” is the thing I should have the most of: Gratitude.

I am deeply and truly grateful that I am alive and safe, that I have not just shelter, but a home, that I have a loving family and friends who are also safe and alive, and on and on.

I am grateful that I have a job that I love most of the time and a boss so generous that he pays for everyone’s lunch every day. I am grateful to have health insurance and a 401k, and even if I feel like I never have any money in my pocket because so much of it goes to student loan payments, I am lucky to be employed in this economy and able to support myself. There was a time not long ago when this reality was a pipe dream, and I am thrilled to be on the other side of that.

Beyond material comfort, I am grateful to have a life full of light, love, passionate interests, fascinating and beautiful people, and so much art that at times it’s overwhelming. I was blessed with a family who not only supported me pursuing an education in art, but insisted I follow my dreams because they value it so much. That is a gift, and I need to remember how special it is.

I am also grateful for a basically clear conscience. I wish I made more time to volunteer and to be with friends, but in general, I’m happy that I treat people well, I’m honest, and I go about the world in a gentle, mostly positive way. I succumb to moments of weakness and frustration, like everyone, but I am trying really hard to replace bitterness, pettiness, and impatience with gratitude.


And what I realize, in all this gratitude, is that I may not have riches, but I have richness and profound beauty in my life that money can’t buy. I earned the ability to support myself, and I did it with integrity. I can hold my head up high and know I am doing the best I can. In the grand scheme of things, that feeling is worth so much more.

Dovere, debere, to must

When I was first learning Italian in Venice, I was charmed by my tutor’s translation of the verb dovere as “to have to, to must.” Chuckling, I explained that “to must” isn’t a gerund in the typical sense in English, even though we do say “I must…” or “It must be…” in comparative grammatical structures. It reminded me of a similar translation of the Spanish verb deber which includes the sense of having an obligation, owing, and being required to do something. Etymologically, the word “debt” goes to this common route (the Latin debere by way of the French dette) which paradoxically started with the verb for “to have.” As in, I have to do something, or I have an obligation.

In 21st-century America, I think we are strangely distanced from what debt means, but at a more rooted, personal level, we are more aware than ever. I remember being horrified when I first learned about the national deficit in math class, of all places, as my teacher tried to explain the difference between debt and deficit. I was aghast, as she hashed out this seemingly inconsequential difference, speaking so casually about how our country was insolvent. Did everyone else know about this? What were we going to do about it? Why weren’t we panicking??

That moment was also when money became abstract to me. Up to that point, my concept of money was that a person went to work, earned a certain amount of money in exchange for their efforts, used some to pay for daily expenses like food and utilities, and put the rest in savings for vacation or big purchases. Concepts of credit, stock investments, and especially interest, made absolutely no sense to me, and if I’m being perfectly honest, still don’t.

When I was a little girl, I remember a New Year’s themed radio commercial for used cars celebrating the dealership’s particularly generous financing policies. It was (to my thinking iconoclastically) set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, singing how they forgave everything, “like re-posession, foreclosures, eeee-ven bankruptcyyyyy.” (I still fill in these absurd lyrics every time I hear Auld Lang Syne.) After walking around with the song stuck in my head for weeks, I asked my mother all about the terms in the song, especially the idea of bankruptcy, and we got into a lengthy discussion of personal finance and how debt could be negotiated, consolidated etc. After patiently going through the whole structure of credit and debt, we settled on the analogy that it’s like how sometimes stores set an item at a certain price, but whenever they want they can put it on sale. “Some money is better than none,” she said, and I tried to wrap my proto-Marxist child mind around goods and services having no intrinsic value.

My concept of the commodity of debt and its value as a purely theoretical concept remains as fluid and tenuous as when I was young, and the past decade’s national events have done little to change the impression that it’s all just an elaborate fiction. Its counterpart is probably speculation on the stock market, or maybe derivatives. At some point, it’s so much abstraction that it seems to mean nothing. Through crafty math and strategic deregulation, big piles of money get bigger, debts with interest accelerate to asymptotic exponential growth, the rich get mega-rich and the poor lose their homes.

I have had a number of startling and disturbing conversations with fellow college graduates lately, who by all the traditional concepts of the American dream should be establishing themselves in their careers, getting married and having kids (if that’s the chosen path), and beginning to own property. Every single one of us, however, has agreed that we can’t possibly get married with the amount of student loan debt we have because marriage is just an invitation to creditors to go after someone else’s salary. We feel like we can never afford children or homes or really anything beyond our current lifestyles of renting apartments (often with 3-5 roommates), lengthy commutes, no travel or costly hobbies, and more or less stagnation of our ability to contribute to society beyond giving all our time and energy to our jobs. And if we get brave and think maybe we can do it anyway, our credit is wrecked in colorful, elaborate ways.

I spend a lot of time trying to think of ways to turn my art and hobbies into money, but even if I manage to double my salary, I’m not sure the margin will be enough because my loan payments increase proportionately with my income. It’s like the government has worked out the exact amount of blood they can leave in my body so I’ll survive to make another payment, but sucking every drop until that point. I feel really lucky on the weeks when what’s left over after loans, rent, and bills doesn’t cut too badly into my pretty paltry food budget, but there are a lot of eggs and English muffins for dinner. In months when I’m sick, I have to decide between doctor’s office and prescription copays or my loans, and then the loans get higher and my credit gets worse.

Who benefits from me working a super demanding office job and constantly stressing about money? What might I have contributed if I could have finished my degree in chemistry, or been able to afford to live as an artist? How does society flourish or grow from Sallie Mae increasing interest rates to turn a profit this quarter, at the spiritual and financial expense of a generation?

I work more than 40 hours a week and pay substantial taxes. I know that my taxes went up to bail out a banking industry that traded on mortgage debt with arbitrarily inflated interest rates and an automotive industry that dropped all its workers but kept corporate bonuses. I have more student loan debt than anyone I know, but it is a complete abstraction to me. And yet, it is one that weighs on my every thought and decision, constraining even my most basic pursuits of love and family. I earn what should be a solid salary, but most of it evaporates into loan payments.

I think about the decisions I made to get from a very good public high school to where I am now. I worked my ass off to get into the best college I could, and I chose the one that offered me a full-tuition merit grant over half-tuition, but room and board and other expenses were still a fortune. Maybe I could have gone to a state school or studied something more vocationally-oriented, but without a liberal arts education and serious studio work, I would never have gotten into Pratt or had the background and experiences I needed to succeed at my current job. If the purpose of education is to improve one’s lot in life and become able to contribute more, I think it was worth it. But I know that if I had been able to pay cash, it would have cost me a fraction of what it did, and that seems really wrong somehow.

As candidates start campaigning for the 2016 presidential election, I find myself more concerned with the economy and student loans than many other issues. I’m also starting to see how it’s not just my own personal cross to bear, but that my generation’s debt is affecting everyone else and jeopardizing the nation’s future.

I don’t have a solution or even the beginning of one. I don’t have a way out of my own debt, let alone the entire nation’s student lending crisis. I am watching most of my money disappear into interest and ever-changing principles when it’s compounded and thinking about what I could be putting that money toward instead. I feel like I don’t have anything but debt and obligation. I have to must.