Stuff comes with stress attached. The more stuff, the more stress. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the American Dream. Our garages and basements are full of stress, the overflow of our lives of excess.
But the antidote is fairly simple: Downsize. Reduce stress by reducing stuff.
When I was young and newly married and just starting my career, I didn’t even think about whether I might like my life to be any different than my friends. I just automatically started in on the dream, buying a large property and starting on a house that was way too big for two newlyweds. I struggled to keep up with it for most of my adult life while raising a family and starting several businesses.
Fortunately, Kaye and I were able to reverse the process later and achieve the freedom to travel and relax.
A few years ago, Denmark was named the happiest country in the world. Somebody asked why, and the researcher pointed to “low expectations” as the main reason. So when the American said, “maybe I should move to Denmark,” the Dane replied, “You probably wouldn’t like it.”
And there it is. Low expectations.
But that’s not how most Americans think. We are programmed by life and the ad agencies to believe that more happiness comes with more stuff. “Go Big or Go Home!”
I think a life of balance is the best. I don’t tell people to downsize to a point of feeling starved for comfort or convenience. The ideal is to get rid of the unnecessary – and the stress that goes with it – and be left with the basic essentials for a measured life that is fun and relatively hassle-free. In all things, moderation.
It may not be the American Way, but it could deliver greater contentment.
Just ask the Danes.
Anyway, you are never going to hit the road with all that stuff holding you back.
When I was 16 years old and expected to choose a direction for my life, I was a bit nervous about making a bad choice and ruining my life. By high school graduation day everyone is supposed to have made up their minds and be heading off to college, the military, or “entering the workforce” – which meant going and getting a job right away.
Young people are expected to make most of their epic life-directing decisions between 16 and 21 years old: Picking a career, choosing a life-mate, finding the right home, etc. It’s down-right frightening. No wonder many choose to put off those decisions as long as possible.
I chose to get a four-year education degree and headed off for college. Four years later, right on schedule, I married my college sweetheart and we both applied for teaching positions in her home town and were both hired on the spot.
I went into teaching not even knowing if I liked kids. Fortunately, my long-term worries – about going the wrong direction and ruining my life – were resolved: I loved my new career (Kaye says I am just a big kid anyway, so working with students was a lot like playing with my friends) and stuck with it for 27 years until I could take an early buy-out and switch careers.
That was when I started a log home construction company, hired a crew of carpenters, and started building log homes all around the state of Michigan. I was now self-employed and working with my hands as opposed to sitting in a classroom every weekday.
And the change was wonderful. I found that I loved the flexible schedule and working outdoors much of the time. I was the boss.
My approach to the journey of life has relaxed over time. Looking back, I realize that if during my first teaching assignment I had discovered that I hated working with children, my life would not have been ruined. I would have changed directions and tried something else.
And as a youth mentor for most of my adult life, I have often shared this sage advice: How will you really know who you are and what you like to do unless you try stuff out? If something doesn’t work for you, you simply chalk it up to experience, make a shift and head somewhere else.
Really, the biggest hindrance to this philosophy is when you become embedded in a job and a routine that you grow to hate and you are so much in debt that you can’t afford to make a change.
Okay, maybe your life is miserable for now, but you are not really stuck there. It may seem like it takes forever, but you can dig yourself out and move on.
When Kaye and I got the travel bug, we owned too much property and owed too much money to even consider a change. Debt is like a ball-and-chain that anchors you to one spot. But with careful and determined effort we were able to shed our burdens and free ourselves. We sold some acreage, put renters in the house and hit the road. Two years later we sold the place and went full time in the RV. Our former fetters shrank and vanished in the rearview mirror.
Then we applied the same principles to our gypsy life: How to decide where to go? Try stuff out. Don’t like the big cities? Take the backroads. Don’t like driving? Take the plane. Don’t like air travel? Take the train. Don’t like the over-populated RV parks? Try the state and national forest campgrounds. And so on and so on.
And finally, don’t like being away from the grandkids for so long? Head back home and park in their backyard!
And what’s the end product? In the middle of a lifetime of trying things out, you end up knowing what you like and mostly doing what you want. And that’s the best way to live.
In our wanderings over 43 of the 50 states and several foreign countries, Kaye and I have not found the perfect place to live. But we have happened upon some pretty wonderful settings. In fact, after returning from our winter sojourn in the south, we have set up habitation at a remarkable campground in Ortonville, Michigan, where the nearly perfect balance exists between rural rest and city convenience.
Only 12 miles from our grandkids, we live in a park with a beautiful lake with a trail around it fringed by protected wetlands and mature forests of oak, maple, beech and pines and frequented by wild geese and whitetail deer. McDonalds is right across the street and A&W – the old fashioned kind with the car hops – is a 15-minute walk up the street, and there are shopping malls a few miles away at the outer fringe of the Detroit metropolitan urban sprawl.
The perfect home doesn’t exist anywhere. But when we lived in the rural Michigan farm community where we raised our kids and owned a 30-acre Christmas tree farm, we often reveled in the changes of the seasons right outside the windows of our 10-room house in the woods. We felt that we were enjoying the almost perfect location for our family at the time.
Except that I couldn’t keep the car clean because the gravel roads turned to mud with every rain storm. I watched the rocker panels and the fenders rust out in slow motion right before my eyes. And it was a half-hour drive to Walmart and more than an hour to the nearest shopping mall.
It seemed there was a trade-off in everything. Being a school teacher, my kids would ride to and from school with me rather than riding the bus to our small town district of less than 800 students. The students seemed more laid-back than their suburban counterparts and didn’t seem to have anything to prove. Our kids thrived. But they eventually grew up, went to college and then were too educated to find professional jobs in the country. They left the area and pursued their own lives, leaving us alone on our mini-paradise.
And the mowing got tiring in the summer – and there was a lot of it. And the firewood processing and snow removal, though good for the physique, became wearisome in the winter. The elements were relentless. Winter became life-threatening as we got older. The place was no longer ideal for us in the mature stages of life.
We talked about where we would like to live as we started to downsize and list the property for sale. It might be outside the edge of a city where we could live in the relaxed atmosphere of the country, while being within a few minutes of the conveniences of the metropolis.
And here we are. At least for the summer. We like it well enough to already be talking about returning here every summer for the next few years. We love the beauty and comfortable climate of Michigan in the summer and fall, but not during the harsh winter.
I have concluded that the ideal home is a somewhat elusive concept that changes with the seasons of the year – and with the seasons of life. What is perfect at one phase of life may become less than ideal later on.
Having sold our labor-intensive property last year after a four-year downsizing, we are now in discovery mode, exploring every part of the United States (and outside the borders if we want to) in search of adventure and new experiences. An aside from our quest to see new places is the underlying search for the next perfect home. That greener grass on the other side (except that I don’t own a lawnmower anymore).
And apparently, It is rather like aiming at a moving target for us at this point in our lives. Michigan in the summer and fall, points farther south in the winter. On the move right after Christmas with the rabid cold nipping at our heels as we leave the state and scurry south for warmer comforts.
Right now we are in a nearly ideal spot (except it’s a campground and there’s no privacy) and there is a swimming beach here and a playground for the grandkids. And there are five pizza joints in this town – we have started sampling them. Because part of finding the elusive perfect place to live in the world is also the important quest of locating the best pizza.
I am thinking that the perfect spot in life may be less about greener grass and more about perfect pizza.
Anyway, Kaye says that though there is no perfect home in all the world, there is a place that is just right for us for here and now. And that is a truer quest, as the perfect place does not exist, we are in that place that is just right at this point in our lives. And loving it.