An Exploration of Envy

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about one of the seven deadly sins:  sloth.  As I said then, I planned to revisit these sins, at least in my blog, if not in actuality.  And then move on to the seven cardinal virtues if I ever found out what those were.  So today’s post explores the sin of envy.

First, it’s rather interesting that the sin is envy rather than jealousy, a state of mind with which envy is often confused.

The Seven Deadly Sins (ca. 1620) - Envy

Envy--Image via Wikipedia

Jealousy is defined as:

1.  resentment against a rival, a person enjoying success or advantage, etc., or against another’s success or advantage itself.
2.  mental uneasiness from suspicion or fear of rivalry, unfaithfulness, etc., as in love or aims.
3.  vigilance in maintaining or guarding something.

Envy is defined as:

1.  a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, possessions, etc.

The first definition of jealousy and that of envy, I think, is where the confusion reigns.  But the basics are clear.  Envy is a feeling of wanting what someone else has, something one does not have oneself, while jealousy is more a fear of losing what one has or resentment about what somebody else has.

So, heavens above, when envy’s very definition is more benign than jealousy’s, why in the world is envy the sin?  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in scripture, God states that he/she/it/them/whatnot is “a jealous God.”  I presume this means in the third sense of the definition of jealousy, that of guarding vigilantly.  So, perhaps it would be kind of difficult to name jealousy a sin if God is proud of being jealous.

But since it’s envy that’s the sin, let’s explore it.  In the first place, aware all my life that envy is a sin, I have worked not to envy other people’s lives or possessions.  This works about as well for me as it probably works for you or anybody who isn’t Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama.  Oh,  come on, of course I envy those people, whether they are my friends or strangers, who much more effortlessly than I maintain a slim figure; or those whose health and fitness leaves mine in the dust (literally, usually); or those with better taste, greater talent, more attention from the world, better publicists, a publisher, an agent, a close friendship with Ridley Scott, prettier things, better clothes, more money, and a greater ability to attract the close, ahem, romantic attention of the gender they prefer.  Or an Oscar.  And when some competitive specific something takes place, such as a writing contest, I envy the winner (which I almost never am).  And these feelings can make me miserable, at least for a while.

What does that mean, then, for me?  That envy is an awareness of what I lack, whether that be a thing, a person, a character trait, an opportunity, or a place in the world.  That I, for the time I feel envious, feel lacking, feel less than.  So it’s an uncomfortable emotion, one I don’t enjoy, one which taints my world.  And one which results in, usually, a sequence of mental and emotional events.  The first event is, of course, a deep desire to wrap myself and a tub of Haagen-Daaz (rum raisin for choice) in my warmest comforter and watch old movies without really seeing them.  Done judicially, this is not the worst possible response to an envy crisis (in my case, I don’t eat sweets, so some gluten-free crackers and hummus usually substitutes for the ice cream and I’m more often likely to read a Georgette Heyer novel than watch an old movie, but the principle is the same).  At least, it’s not the worst response if you unwrap the comforter and stop eating the treat at least about the time the movie ends or you finish the novel.  Cocooning in this fashion for much longer than that unfortunately has a tendency to become the problem, rather than address it.

The second event, in my case, is usually a long out-loud monologue (one of the advantages of living by myself) while taking a hot bath in which I denounce everyone or anyone who has what I wanted, explaining to those who made the choice that left me lacking where they went wrong, and then by the time the bath water cools explaining to myself that things aren’t so bad, that perhaps the achievement or possession or person I’m forced to do without is not that desirable, and finally–and here’s where I get down to the real problem–what I did or did not do that made this misery happen.  There’s also the chance here to inject a small dose of realism, often along the lines of the simple fact that with the possible exception of those miserable souls that get perfect SAT scores and Olympic gold medals, every single one of us knows that somebody out there is better at whatever it is we’re doing that we are.  So between figuring out what I could have done better and facing a certain reality that no matter how much I give something my personal best, there’s still a likelihood that somebody else in a world of seven billion people is going to outshine me, I often manage to pull myself out of the slough of despond, as John Bunyan would have put it (and he put it so well, I’m pretty sure he spent some time there).

The third event in this marathon comes when I start to think about what I have to do to fix this, which pretty much boils down to how I can change what I’m doing in order to obtain this whatever it is I want and feel cheated out of, or, alternatively, how I can stop wanting it.  There is a third option, too, which comes under the heading of acceptance of reality.  This kind of takes care of all possibilities, after all.  But let’s look at them with a little more focus.  If what I’m envying is an achievement someone else has made; then thought, action, some change in behavior might possibly get me that something.  And so I will start to think of what it will take, and if it will take more than I am willing to expend.  If what I’m envying is a thing that can be bought or made, my thoughts will turn to whether I can afford it (a log house, uh, no; a pair of red jeans, yes), whether I need it (an iPad, no, a new set of tires, yes), whether I want it and how desperately (an iPad, YES, a new set of tires, no).  And so forth.  If what I’m envying is a state of being (serenity anyone?) or a person who either I will never meet or who has demonstrated that he’s just not that into me (Russell Crowe, anyone?), then I must determine if anything I can do can change that situation.  So, in other words, my job after identifying the enviable thing, person or whatnot, is to determine why I don’t have it, if I can achieve the desirable thing/person/situation through my own efforts, if the achievement is worth the effort it would take to obtain it, and, finally, if the enviable thing, person or whatnot is unobtainable by me through any means I can devise, if I can let it go or, at the least, accept that I won’t be able to get it (at least not right now or through anything but sheerest luck) and find some way to live with that.  This last has to do with learning to live in the real world, in which there are much fewer enviable things than there are people who want them and so, even were I to do my absolute best, to do everything possible, to be completely and always exceptional, luck will indeed play a part.  My getting an Oscar, in other words, does not depend on my abilities and efforts alone.  Meryl Streep got her third Oscar for best performance by an actress last night.  It was her 17th nomination.  I rest my case.

An Enviable Thing

Whew, that’s a lot of mental work to go through just because I want an iPad.  But after all it depends on how much something is wanted, needed, and thus how deep the lack, the hole in the soul.  I can live without an iPad (well, I suppose, if bamboo shoots were stuck under my fingernails, I’d have to admit that).  And, besides, and this is not a rationalization, the longer I wait, the cheaper they’ll become.  Selling my novel has to do with effort, expertise and possibly talent, so I can create a plan and follow it that will get me closer than I am now.  (Obviously, finishing the darned thing is completely up to me and step one to selling it.)  Russell Crowe?  Or any such heart’s desire that is not a thing or an achievement, but another person?  Well, not so much.  It’s not a reasonable thing (person, forgive me) to want some person as a possession and assume that will mean they love us as we wish to be loved.  The slave owners of the old South spent a lot of time justifying their position and insisting that the slaves loved their masters and wouldn’t have it any other way.  We know how that turned out.  We want another person to love us unconditionally, but we don’t take into account the wishes, the tastes, the desires, the PERSONHOOD, of that other person.  Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Colin Firth–any or all of these wonderful actors may enchant me, but I have no way of knowing whether that enchantment comes from their own selves or their incredible (and true) talent in creating a character.  Perhaps, indeed probably, it is the character or even body of work that I have fallen for.  These men have lives, tastes, problems, personalities, that I know nothing about and may or may not like.  It’s like assuming I know exactly what the afterlife will be.  I’m virtually certain that whatever my assumptions, the afterlife will be something else that I cannot even imagine.  So as long as I don’t take up stalking as my next hobby, so long as I recognize that this is a person, no matter how desirable, no matter how enviable, I’m not going to get, AT ALL, I can still enjoy watching a movie starring one of the three with warm feelings in my breast.  Or somewhere.

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

But does this, short of stalking, theft or murder, rise to sin?  I’m not at all sure.  Looking up at those definitions at the top of this blog, jealousy sounds more like a deadly sin to me.  So, as we did with sloth, let’s look at the advantages to the establishments (both religious and civil) of defining envy as a sin.  There is an old prayer in centuries-past England that goes something like “God bless the squire and his relations, and keep us all in our proper stations.”  That can argue anything from active oppression to mere complacency, but I can tell you this, the squire and his relations telling the lower orders that envy is a sin are reinforcing this pleasant (to the squire and his relations) state of affairs.  It is much easier to have a lovely life if the laborers underneath are tugging their forelocks and bending their knees in between scrubbing the floors and plowing the fields.  Now this makes me sound much more radical than I am, but then again I lived most of my life in an America where us forelock-tuggers have not just the opportunity, but practically the mandate to quit that, get an education, find a job that doesn’t require forelock-tugging and move up in the world.  It doesn’t seem to be as easy to do that now as it used to be, but then, it probably never was as easy as it seemed.  It’s just that here in this country it was not only possible, it was something each of us was supposed to do.  As opposed to other countries in which whatever slice of heaven or hell you got born into, there you were, stuck for the rest of your life with only eternity to look forward to.  Another quote that has informed my thinking on this, this time from Emile Zola and translated (badly) from the French:  “The French authorities have, in their infinite wisdom, declared that it is as illegal for a prince to sleep under a bridge as it is for a peasant.”  I believe this is from “L’Assimoir,” but I’m not sure.  So envy, like sloth, is a sin that is very useful for those who are defining sin, and a lot more troublesome for those who have to live under that definition.

So, parsing what we’ve put together about envy so far, I believe it can be two things, separately or at once.  Envy can be debilitating, a way of hiding in your room because you’ll never have what you want and everybody else does and the world sucks.  Or, envy can be a spur to action.  That person has what I want, so I’ll figure out a way to get it.  Put in that sense, envy is a root cause of all achievement in the world, goading the hired hand who envies the farmer into saving his pitiful earnings until he, too, can own a piece of land of his own.  Of course, envy can cause us to do very inappropriate things to get what we want, starting with lies and moving right up through every kind of crime, including murder.  But kept in bounds, envy is at least one of the reasons why people get college degrees, lose weight, dye their hair, wear attractive clothes instead of sweats, work when they don’t feel like it, and actually create.  It might not be the best reason, and it undoubtedly will not be the reason given in the bios, but it’s there, working away all the time.

When it is debilitating, envy is then something to rise above or work through.  There is an old aphorism that states that if each person in the world put their own dirty laundry out in a square and then could choose to take anybody else’s, we’d all take back our own.  Because that’s another thing about envy.  We often envy without knowledge, thinking that what somebody else has is worth any amount of worry and care and misery to get, when if we only knew, we’re  better off without it.  This has never been said better than in a poem called “Richard Cory,” by Edward Arlington Robinson:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Rules for Living and Writing

English: we don't like to make rules but...

A very appropriate sign from an English Cafe--Image via Wikipedia

I’ll hopefully revisit this every once in a while, but please don’t think I’m the genius who thought up these rules.  These are the ones that filtered through to me over the years.  I’m not a very good rule follower, but if I work at these, things seem to mostly go better, sometimes.  A ringing endorsement, right?

I call them Life 101

1.  There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.  (Not even my wording, it’s a quote from Robert Heinlein.)

2.  There is only now.  (I think Buddha put this one better.  Or the Dalai Lama.  Or Alec Baldwin.  Somebody smarter than me.)

3.  Say thank you and please and you’re welcome (NOT “no problem”) and MEAN it.  (My mother.  Everybody’s mother.)

4.  Find something you love and do it.  (Every magazine and self-help book written in the last ten years.  Mothers and guidance counselors don’t say this, by the way.  They say “find something that pays a lot of money and do it.”)

5.  Let go.  You can’t make something happen just because you want it to.  (Most recent absolute truth in this vein to hit the zeitgeist:  “He’s just not that into you.”)

6.  Do it anyway.  (The best writing advice I ever got.  The best advice about any kind of performance or productivity I ever got.)

7.  You can’t change anybody else, you can only change yourself.  (And that’s hard enough!)

8.  Be kind.  Everybody else has feelings just like you do.  (Uh, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, the Dalai Lama and probably not Alec Baldwin have all put this better:  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  The Golden Rule.  The only guide you actually need for living among other living creatures.)

9.  Say “no” more often.  (You can move from “no” to “yes”, but the other way around makes you unreliable.  Not a good thing.)

10:  No-one can impose on you without your consent.  (This one is from Eleanor Roosevelt.  It’s a very good thing to remember when somebody is trying to get you to bake eight dozen cookies for the high school on the same day you’re presenting your project findings to your boss and you have a dental appointment.  And it’s your anniversary.)

That’s enough for now.  I would love to hear from others who have good advice for living.

Pondering History–Egypt

العربية: Deutsch: Alle Pyramiden von Gizeh auf...

The Great Pyramids--Image via Wikipedia

Consider this.  As far away in time as Ancient Greece seems to us, that’s how far away in time Egypt seemed to them.  The pyramids looked much the same to the Greeks as they look to us, the limestone already stripped away to reuse, the tombs looted, the purpose, so clear to the Egyptians they didn’t actually write it down, as mysterious to the Greeks as it is to us.

And, unlike Babylon or Mohenjo-Daro, the Egyptian culture survived to and through Alexander’s conquest and flowered anew, recognizably Egyptian, with the Ptolemaic kings, only being crushed, finally, under Rome’s sandals.

For many years, from the time of the Greeks to now, Egypt was thought of as a culture of death, with the pyramids its most important symbol.  But in reality Egypt was a culture of life, life made possible by the yearly gift of the Nile.  Prosperous and healthy, protected by the nearly impassable deserts from marauding tribes, Egyptians enjoyed their world fully, savoring the pleasures of life and wanting them to continue into eternity.  For most of its history, with a few exceptions, Egypt was a wealthy, sophisticated, remarkably free society, filled with good food, dance, sport, entertainment and gorgeous clothes.

The gift of the Nile, predictable every year, was fertile soil, making it possible for the people who settled on its banks to grow plenty to eat with enough left over to support people not directly attached to the soil.  The gift of the Nile allowed for the first (it is posited by those studying such things) actual civilization, with kings and priests and soldiers and bureaucrats; with infrastructure like roads and taxes (yes, they’ve always been with us), international trade, even postal services; medicine and dentistry, entertainment, shops and businesses.  And it allowed for luxuries like turquoise and gold, ivory and leopard skins, pets (the first recognizable cat and dog breeds started in Egypt), cedars from Lebanon (Egypt had very few trees of its own), marble, copper and limestone.  And stability.  While there were interim periods when the pharaohs were weak or died too quickly or lasted too long, when invasions upset the world of the Nile, for the most part, the serial dynasties of Egypt lasted not for tens but for hundreds of years.

English: The Nile River in Egypt.

The Nile--Image via Wikipedia

It is difficult to see in what has been left behind such a span of years because much of what we can find looks so similar over time.  According to Egyptologists, this was deliberate, not at all a failure of imagination.  The Egyptian way of looking at the world, of governing it, describing it, or picturing it seemed to be “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”  They liked the way their people looked incised on a plinth; there seemed no reason to change the perspective.  Besides a pharaoh of Egypt recognized he (or much less often, she) was for the ages.  Best to look so, best to look, after all, Egyptian.   Akhenaton, a Middle Kingdom pharaoh who tried to change everything, even the way he was pictured for eternity, was after his death suppressed in all the king lists and historical records as much for his trying to change things as for what he tried to change things to.

But the society did, of course evolve, and even those parts of it that didn’t, that remained timelessly the same on the serene banks of the Nile, was a society more pleasant (for Egyptians at least) than all the others existing.  Recent research even shows how far down into the ranks of ordinary people the prosperity went.  There are hieroglyphs recording sessions of courts of law that sound remarkably similar to small claims court in the modern world.  This mat weaver gets a short count on a delivery of flax and sues the middleman.  That farmer disputes a boundary with a growing township.  A courier complains of being delayed by bad maintenance on a boat.  Archaeologists have now put forward evidence from the hieroglyphs that women owned property and ran businesses and made their own decisions.  There is at least one text unearthed indicating what seems almost identical to a modern restraining order keeping the shopkeeper’s husband off the premises.  And divorce could be–and was–instituted by either party to a marriage.  The world of Egypt, so exotic to us, must have been a busy, bustling, ordinary place to live.  And one which the Egyptians themselves enjoyed so much, they didn’t want to leave.  Or at least, knowing they would have to, they believed with all their spirit that a place as wonderful as their own living Egypt awaited them out in the West, on the other side of the great divide.

The scenes incised or painted into tomb walls of the great do not celebrate death, they celebrate life, showing the tomb’s noble inhabitant (which isn’t precisely the word I am looking for) hunting, fishing, boating on the Nile, feasting with entertainers, ladies and gentlemen together, showing off their wigs and linen outfits and jewels.  And displaying the makeup that gives them such a modern look to us.  They were lean and athletic for the most part, healthier than their counterparts in virtually all other ‘civilized’ societies, finding much the same kind of facial and bodily structure attractive that we do now.  The bust of Nefertiti, now in the Berlin Museum, seems gaspingly, astonishingly modern to us, showing to us easily the most beautiful woman we have ever seen.

Object in the Ägyptisches Museum Berlin (Egypt...

Bust of Nefertiti--Image via Wikipedia

It is now considered self-evident that, Biblical anecdote to the contrary, pharaohs used paid labor, not slaves, to build their monuments, and the choice to do so was as much one of shrewd political economics–to enable full employment during the yearly inundation–as it was to glorify pharaoh.

Egyptian civilization waxed and waned and lasted in its essence for well over 3,000 years.  In comparison, Greece managed only a few hundred years, Rome itself less than a thousand.  Only China had nearly as long a run and was almost as sophisticated and cultured a society.  And we, who pronounce on Egypt’s value as a civilization?  The United States is less than 250 years old.  Just consider.

A Winter Poem

Duggleby in the Winter

Image via Wikipedia


Snow has a smell.  Cold, clear, clean.

Snow has a sound.  Deep, dragging crunch.

Snow has a touch.  Shocking, dry then wet.

Snow has a look.  White, thick, surgical.

Snow has a taste.  Chew, melt, refresh.

Snow has a feeling.  Rest, slow, sleep.

Snow has a purpose.  Softening, hiding, scrubbing.

The Things That Got Away

On a prior post, I wrote about trying to edit all my stuff and lighten my Marley’s Ghost style load just a little bit.  Be that as it may, there are possessions, things I owned, that I have, over the years, lost, tossed, given away, sold, or even destroyed that I still miss.  Some of them “got away” because I believed that I no longer wanted them (big mistake!); others because of misfortune; still others are a mystery–I have no idea how they disappeared.  But I still think of them.

One such possession came back to my mind yesterday when I went to a writing group’s member’s house for a lovely lunch she was having for our group (she is an extraordinary cook and we all like to talk, so the whole thing was a delicious treat).  I noticed in her office/study an actual typewriter, a big IBM, I think.  I used to have an IBM proportionally spaced Selectric typewriter, one of the really massive ones, with the whirling typeball and the world’s best keyboard touch.  I can’t remember the exact name of the model, but it was designed to make typewriting look like print, using mylar/carbon ribbons and that wonderful strike.  You could change the typeballs quite easily to change fonts, it had incremental spacing both horizontally and vertically, and it was just the best typewriter ever invented.  I loved that thing and still miss it.  It was, however, huge, and at that time in my life, space was at a premium.  It did not seem sensible to keep a typewriter after I had found the money and the space for a computer and a printer.  It still doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop me missing my beautiful IBM typewriter.  And, of course, at that time, such machines were not dinosaurs, they were still useful.  I got quite a bit of money for it, and that came in handy, too.

English: IBM Selectric II dual Latin/Hebrew Ha...

IBM Selectric Typeball--Image via Wikipedia

When I lived in my California house, I had three genuine Stickley oak rockers.  They had been reupholstered during their lifetimes in a really horrible and prickly green plush (instead of their original leather), but the wood was beautiful and they were comfortable and sturdy.  The Stickley logo, which was actually a brand, was on all three pieces of furniture.  I reupholstered them again, but not in leather, which I could not afford, but in a kind of William Morris-y woven damask that I liked at the time.  When I decided to sell my house and go on my next adventure, for some reason that still passes any possibility of understanding, I not only sold my oak rolltop computer desk (what was I thinking?), but sold at auction those three Stickley rockers (really!  what WAS I thinking???).  I don’t even remember what amount of money I realized from that sale, but it can’t even remotely be equivalent to what they were worth, even reupholstered, let alone what they were worth in intangibles to me, for I had inherited them to start with.   They cannot be replaced, even though there is a Stickley store in Denver, because while the modern stuff is nice, it’s just not the same.  What was I THINKING?

During the clean sweep begun by my decision to sell that house, I disposed of several things that I still think I was right to get rid of, and the money really helped.  But there are still some regrets, such as selling my Fiestaware.  For those that don’t know, Fiestaware is a kind of pottery that is very simple and gets a good deal of its appeal because of the brilliant colors the manufacturers use for the glaze.  I bought my set when Fiestaware came back into prominence in the nineties, and I decided to sell it because the set was in four pastel colors and it was simply too, well, tentative, sort of Fiestaware-lite.  The traditional Fiestaware came in brilliant, deep colors whose very names were delicious, like cobalt, tangerine, maroon, forest and many others.  I don’t regret too much selling the pastels, but I find that I wish I’d bought antique Fiestaware or the new versions of the brilliant and deep colors.  The design is classic and the dishes are functional, sturdy and go with the kind of decor I’m moving toward–mission-y, a little rustic, with touches of older stuff.  My everyday dishes now are white, with a set of red for accent, and I have a small set of Johnson Bros.  Old English Castles.  I’m very fond of this and don’t wish to change, but I still wish I’d stuck with Fiestaware and just gotten more of the deep and bright colors over time.

English: Fiestaware Photo credit: Eric B. Norm...

Fiestaware--Image via Wikipedia

But some losses do not bring minor regret.  Losing my Daddy’s Bibles, well, the experience of that loss is something I will never get over.  I called them Daddy’s Bibles, but one of the small books was a King James Bible and the other was a Treasury of the Sacred Heart, which is, I believe, a Roman Catholic prayer book.  He bought them in Jerusalem during a leave from his work as an Army Major in what was then Persia during World War II.  The books were leather bound, and each had a cover applied to them made of olive wood, incised with a cross.  He was told that the olive wood came from the olive groves on Golgotha, but of course he had no way of knowing if that was so.  The endpapers of both books were inscribed by friends he had met either in Persia or in Jerusalem.  I can remember parts of only one inscription, which was set on the front endpaper of the small prayer book, across from the engraved picture of Jesus Christ showing his Sacred Heart (which is a heart with a perpetual flame on the top of it).  To the best of my memory, it states (partially, I’m afraid):  “Just as this book brought together a Catholic priest, a Protestant man and an Arab boy in _________ [I can’t remember this part, but I think he wrote something like “conversation and understanding”], so may this War bring together all the people of the Earth in a new beginning [I’m also not sure of the “beginning” part, but that was the effect the words had on me].”  It was signed with the appellation “Father”, but I can’t now remember the name of the person signing (or perhaps it was not a very legible signature, as so many aren’t).  Obviously, the person writing the inscription was the Catholic priest, my father was the Protestant man, and who the Arab boy was it is impossible for me to know, but oh I wish I could have heard the conversations the inscription discusses. I would love to (and never will) know what happened and why, and what part that very small book played.  I’m glad to have written down my best memory of the inscription because this is a memory I do not want ever to lose, as I lost those treasured books.

English: Olive Blossoms outside Jerusalem.

Olive Blossoms Outside Jerusalem--Image via Wikipedia

I lost them because I left my husband.  I put them in the duffel bag that held some clothes and the things that I could not part with, even for a little while, that I took with me when I left.  Since I was more or less staying with different friends each night (when I say I left my husband, I mean I walked out the door, with absolutely no plan for the next five minutes, let alone the future), I kept the duffel bag in my car.  Unfortunately it was in the back seat on the one and only time in my life I was robbed.  I didn’t mind losing the clothes or anything else, but losing those books was more than I could bear.  Coming so quickly after the devastation of ending a marriage, the loss of Daddy’s Bibles flattened me and seemed to symbolize all the losses I’d ever had and all the foolish things I’d done to help those losses happen.  It still does.

But let’s end this essay on a somewhat lighter note.  In everybody’s life, there seems to be a kind of black hole, down which household items simply disappear, never to be seen again.  Most of us who have an automatic washer and dryer have one of these black holes, which eats socks (only one of a pair, of course, otherwise we would never know), or the only pillowcase that actually fits that odd but really comfortable pillow.  I have one of those, but I also have a black hole into which books or magazines or notebooks or documents disappear.  For example, I bought, from Dover Publications, a book of houseplans which had originally been commissioned by one of those “shelter” magazines in the 1930s.  The main portion of the book detailed four houses, quite imaginary, commissioned from then-current architects and decorators, to fit certain imaginary pieces of land set theoretically in various places in the country.  I loved reading the descriptions of a bygone era in home architecture and decoration; what the architects and decorators found important and what they didn’t even address; and the four plans were beautiful.  And that book, which I would never have given away, lent, sold or tossed, is simply gone.  When sorting through all my books last spring, I specifically looked for that one and it is just not there.  I have searched through the Dover website, and I can’t find a replacement.  Perhaps I made up the whole thing, but I don’t think so.  I still miss that book.  I’ve also lost, down that same black hole, the only copies of several research papers I was rather proud of, papers I wrote before computers during a student time when I didn’t have the money to get the papers copied (Xerox copies used to cost a lot of money per sheet, like faxes still do) and of course I didn’t use a carbon.  I would like to have those papers again, perhaps because I’d like to revisit that student, that girl, I used to be.  I once created an entire rhetorical system for a class in modern rhetoric I took at CSU.  I cannot remember at all what that system consisted of and I’d like to.  It earned me an A+, so it couldn’t have been really silly.  And I have no memory of what I said in that paper.  None.  Oh well, it’s not like what I wrote was the secret to cold fusion or anything.  At least I don’t think so.

So, even while I attempt to find satisfaction with fewer possessions, there will always be “the stuff that got away.”  Whether because of happenstance, black hole, bad decision or an unforeseen devastating loss, all of us, I believe, have things that were more than things that live now only in memory and the loss of which we mourn.


On Monday, my friend Ann and I went to the valley (see my earlier post on the way we Estes people talk) to shop.  Boulder and Longmont, actually.  I had been wondering why, if I had lost (as I have lost), over 55 pounds (at last count) I still looked so, well, bulky?  So, I turned sideways to a mirror after dressing in my best uniform of black knit pants and tunic-length T-shirt and noticed that everything was so loose that I kind of swam inside it.  I looked not only not much thinner but really sloppy.  Hmmmnh.  Although it has been years since I’ve enjoyed shopping (unlike the Wicked Queen‘s, my mirrors have seldom said to me that I’m the fairest of them all), it seemed indicated.  So, off Ann and I trekked, talking all the way about everything and anything from Estes Park politics (always a source of wonderment) to my new more minimal living room (Ann is not yet a fan, and I’m still not sure–see my last post).

English: Daffodils at Longdon Daffodils in the...

Lots of Daffodils--Image via Wikipedia

We had lunch first, and then went to a big and old-fashioned hardware store called, I think, McGuckin’s.  This is a great store, the kind of store where you can find, say, funnels or kitchen tongs just a few aisles away from pretty pots in which to put plants.  It’s not a lumber yard hardware combination, just a real hardware store.  Great fun!

Then, we found that the Macy’s in Boulder is perhaps the only one in the country that doesn’t have a plus-size department.  (I may have lost a lot of weight, but there’s still a lot to go.  Sigh.)  Colorado has the distinction of being statistically the healthiest state in the union, which is probably accounted for by all those residents and visitors in inadequate snow gear hiking up very pointed and steep bits of scenery.  Although I don’t know this for sure (my idea of a hike is from the sofa to the refrigerator), this state apparently has bike races in which the idea is to point the bicycle up the steepest road and/or trail possible and have at it.  In the winter.  Shudder.  Anyway, after that, we went to the upscale mall and a shop called Coldwater Creek.  Which has plus size clothing (at least some).  Of course, this mall in Boulder is not just upscale, but UPSCALE, and has an Anthropologie, a Moosejaw, whatever that is, a Chico’s , a Black/White and, be still my heart, an Apple store.  Ann had to practically physically restrain me from going to the Apple store, because I want an iPad so bad, I’m like a kid at Christmas wanting a Flexible Flyer.  I have no need for an iPad; in fact, I haven’t figured out all the bells and whistles on my iPhone yet; but Steve Jobs got it right, and I simply want it.

But Coldwater Creek distracted me, because I was getting into pants and jeans (jeans!) four sizes below what I had come to think of, with resignation, as “my” size.  FOUR sizes down.  Woo Hoo!  I have to admit, I haven’t felt that kind of joy shopping for clothes for a lot of years.  And the pants I tried on weren’t even “plus” sized, but a regular women’s size.  Quite a rush!  Ann was terrific, finding smaller sizes of everything, and searching for what I wanted.  I finally settled on a pair of red jeans (jeans! me!), a pair of black jeans (ditto!) and a pair of more dressy black knit trousers.  All of which have to be altered because while they fit beautifully, they were all four inches too long.  A very small caveat, and I’ll find someone to hem the trouser legs very quickly.  What a success!

So was our next stop, Whole Foods, which is a store I love.  Blood oranges, Meyer lemons, balsamic roasted beets, quinoa salad, all sorts of yummy, healthy foods, and we were done.  The store was filled with big bouquets of daffodils, such cheerful flowers, and they make me feel happy.  So that’s where I’m going to end today.  The very strange moment we endured later at a Sears store that was closing forever will be for another day’s blog.

I hope all your shopping trips are wonderful ones, filled with funnels and daffodils and the next smaller size!

Yellow daffodils

Daffodils--Image via Wikipedia


Marley's ghost, from Charles Dickens: A Christ...

Marley's Ghost - Image via Wikipedia

No-one could possibly accuse me of minimalism.  For a good part of my life, my idea of beautiful home decoration has been shabby chic combined with heavy doses of Victoriana sprinkled over with the contents of a thrift shop.  A very cluttered thrift shop.  Of course the fact that I more or less accumulated my possessions from thrift shops and hand-me-downs, and had little money and probably not much talent to spare for home decoration probably contributed to the general effect.  The last time I was able to move from one house to another with everything I owned in my car (including an ironing board, one of which I no longer possess) was when I left Wyoming and that was so long ago, the main economic problem the United States had was runaway inflation.  I won’t even tell you which president was presiding over that political disaster.  Except he was a Republican.  Just saying . . . .

Since those (obviously not) halcyon days, my household possessions have accumulated to a point that whenever I now move from one house to the next, I feel rather like a domestic version of Marley’s Ghost, dragging sofas and bedsteads and antiques and tchatchkes and pots and pans and paintings and books and books and books behind me.  Or like a snail whose shell is never big enough, requiring a trail of shells stuffed with, well, stuff, behind me.  And each time I move, there is more.  More stuff, more aggravation, more feelings of dragging the world behind me.

I have moved, child and woman, 21 times, not including going back and forth to college, and each time I had more possessions to wrangle.  (A weird tangential connection to this fact occurred to me when I realized that in terms of continuous residence, the place I inhabited longest was an apartment I never really liked in Los Angeles where I lived for eight years.  Even when I was growing up in Estes Park, I lived with my folks for six years and then began college residence, jobs, returning home when the jobs disappeared, and whatnot.)  When I was little, of course, all the family’s possessions were not my problem, although dealing with them seemed to exhilarate my dad and drive my mother into a frenzy.   And wherever we ended up, the decanting of those possessions from the moving truck, the finding of a place for them all to fit (as I recall, we had the largest sofa ever made, although possibly my own size relative to it may be influencing my memory), the hanging of pictures and shelving of books, the filling of the refrigerator, all combined to make what was a strange new box with a roof into our much loved home.  I still feel that way, realizing a great satisfaction when some piece of furniture looks just right in a new alcove in a new house.

I feel now that the process we used when I was a child of making a new space into our home by arranging our things in it was reinforced when my father died and the centerpiece of a loving family became not a person but the things he’d left behind.  I have spent my adulthood dragging things with me because they represented the people I had lost.  It has taken me a long, long time to realize that and to tentatively move toward a sense that the those people are still with me even though things are lost (and some of them have been) or given away (ditto).

Since right now I’m happily ensconced in my pretty house in Estes Park, with no plans or worries about moving, this topic may seem a bit superfluous.  And some, even many, of my things I deeply love.  I am fortunate to have have some real antique furniture (an inherited Eastlake secretary is one of my great treasures, as is a quarter-sawn oak trestle table with hand-carved dolphin legs found at an auction), some gifts given to me over the years that are priceless (a wedding gift of 200-year-old Limoges china is the standout here), and books old and new that are precious to me.  But this year and last, spring or the promise of spring has found me wanting to sort through and discard some pieces out of this huge amount of stuff.  This surprised the heck out of me, but I did it.  I donated over 20 boxes of books to our local library, at least eight huge trash bags stuffed with clothing, linens and other cloth goods to the hospital thrift shop, and furniture, china, silver, glassware, and objets d’art (actually, most of them were more objets than d’art) to the other charity thrift shop in town.  The work was spread over weeks, but it was still quite a process, in which a professional de-clutterer and I dug through cupboards and sorted through books.  After it was done, I no longer had any bookshelves with books double-shelved, my bedroom closet had nothing on the floor except a laundry basket, I could close all the drawers in my house without stuffing the contents back down to get the drawer to fit properly, and I knew where every single one of my possessions was.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough for me.  Yesterday, the same de-clutterer helped me to weed all the pretty things (some of them not so pretty, when I really looked at them) that festooned every flat surface in my home.  Some, not really a lot, went to the thrift shop, but others are packed away until I can sever the (sometimes deep) emotional connection I have with them.  Or, alternatively, discover that I miss them too much and want them back.  But to give an example, the double pie-crust table in my living room used to hold at least 20 objects, to a point where there was no place to set down a cup of coffee or even see the surface of the wood.  Now, it has a small stack of pretty books, a candy dish, and a coaster.  I’m not used to it yet and it looks quite bare to me, but serene.  I did the same thing with the library table, which now shows off my treasured lily lamp, a bronze sculpture of the clasped hands of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and two Lladro figurines, souvenirs of a long-ago Caribbean cruise.  I can see each one of them.  And so can you, as I’ve just discovered how to take pictures on my iPhone (I’m a Luddite about these things) and have uploaded a picture of the piecrust table and the library table for you.  See below.

We filled two big boxes with stuff (and not so incidentally found several Christmas ornaments I’d completely stopped seeing and put them away for next year).

Do I love it yet?  I’m not sure.  Bare counters and tabletops and shelves are not really my style, never have been.  No, I’m not a minimalist.  But the house feels more light and airy, there seem to be places to put things, and I can really see the pretty things I’ve got out.  Of course, with fewer things hiding the surfaces or fooling the eye, my old chairs and sofa look a lot more shabby chic than I actually intended, but after all there’s always a snake in paradise.