Portage

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They say portage comes from the Native American practice of carrying a canoe and all of your belongings over a body of water. Everything that you own travels from one side of the river to the other. While the most freeing moments in life have been those that I was able to carry everything I owned in a backpack or duffle bag, they were also the most challenging. There is something comforting and stable about the notion of home.

In the same manner, turtles carry their home on their backs. With the contraction of some muscles, they can put all their extremities inside their shell. If a turtle looses his shell is he naked or homeless? Turtles have freedom to go where they please, and home is always with them.

When I attempted to move back to Boston a few years ago, I started by taking everything out of my storage unit and putting it into my house. If I was going to complete an interstate move, then I needed to pack everything up and take it with me. In retrospect, I am glad that my plans fell through. Downsizing and minimizing has shown me that I would have been lugging a whole bunch of unnecessary items across state lines. This is a hardship that I do not need to endure. As I have gone through my belongings, I have not only learned what is important, but have come to realize that the timing of that “move” was completely wrong. I was not ready in any sense of the word. Sometimes, answers come in the form of not getting what you want.

In the past three years since my move fell through, I have taken the opportunity to pare down. I opened every box that was in storage. If you have things in storage that you are not using every day, do you really need them? Are you keeping things “just in case?” Has that “just in case” event happened in the last 3, 5, 10 years that you have paid to have that item in storage? As I went through everything I had in storage, I did pull out a few items that are now in use. Those items are the exception. I saw that many of the items in storage were unneeded or redundant. I am glad I have had this time to shed those items and did not lug them through a few states. Moving is expensive enough without hauling things you don’t need.

Going through the process of downsizing and minimizing has been very freeing these past few years. It has helped me to realize what is important and what is not. I have realized that the accumulation of stuff is sometimes a defense mechanism – a sense of false security – after having nothing for so long – to accumulate items in an effort to feel accomplished. These items are not comforting at all. I have been weighed down by baggage both physically and metaphorically.

While I doubt that I will ever return to the days of having everything I own fit into one backpack, it is freeing to have less. I am not one of those minimalists who count my belongings and strive for a certain number. Rather, my goal is to have enough; enough to be able to experience my life in a way that brings me joy and no more.

As I pare down my house, I try to keep in mind that the next time I plan an interstate move, I want it to actually happen, not fall through. I am trying to prepare myself to be able to pick up and go if the chance arises. If that opportunity never knocks, then I want to be able to enjoy my life where I am while living lightly.

Going through and getting rid of the items in storage was relatively easy. Now everything I own in this world is inside of my house. I am free of the monthly payment to store stuff I did not need – the ultimate definition of pissing your money away.

The hard part now comes of being able to establish the limit of what constitutes enough. The hard questions now need to be asked: Is this item useful? Does it bring joy to my life? How do you know how much you need?

I have tried to set limits on certain items to ensure that I am only surrounded by that which I love and get rid of the excess. All books must fit on the shelf. If I want to keep a novel, and the shelf is full, then one book must go to make room for the one I want to keep. I have been trying to engage in the practice of joy without ownership. My library card has been getting quite the workout, as I check out books, DVDs, and even CDs to enjoy media without the responsibility of possession or ownership of the item. My barometer has been if I check an item out of the library two or three times, then that is an item I probably need to look at owning. If I only check it out once and then forget about it after, it was an item that I did not need to have in my house long-term, and I was better off borrowing than owning.

It is a delicate balancing act trying to figure out one’s comfort zone. I still look around and think that I have too much stuff, especially when contemplating a(n imaginary) move. Yet now it is more challenging to be able to figure out what is necessary and what is not.

Some of it is fear. Where I am now is the longest I have lived in one place in my life. I feel stifled by complacency. There is the fear that how I am living now is too good to be true and that it will all fall apart someone how. There is the fear of returning to the world of my 20s in which my living situation was precarious, and a car is simply a house on 4 wheels.

Yet overriding the fear is hope. There is hope that I am not done yet in this journey called life. There is hope that the best is yet to come, and that I must be prepared to answer its calling. If I am asked to cross the torrents of the river, then I am readying my canoe to be portaged across that river. While most of my life has been a struggle to survive, I am now at a point where I am ready to live. I do not want to be weighed down by stuff that may stifle opportunity to experience some of the best moments of my life.

Like the turtle, I have finally come to realize that the notion of home is something that you always carry with you. It is in the journey, not the destination that life’s greatest moments occur.

Are you ready for portage? If someone offered you your dream job tomorrow in a city that was 5 states away, would you be able to pick up and go? Are you tied down by your stuff? Would you run around frantic trying to figure out how to pack and move the house? Many times, opportunity only knocks once. Letting go of what holds you down will enable you to live the life of your dreams. You do not need to have a certain number of possessions. What you need to have is enough to make you happy, without having too much that tips the canoe.

Gratitude

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There is a Buddhist saying that to live in the future creates anxiety, to live in the past creates depression, and to live in the present creates peace. While I agree with this wholeheartedly, I also think that to live in the present is a form of privilege.

When I was working on my social work degree, we participated in this project called “Walk A Mile,” in which we spent the afternoon attempting to live out a scenario given to us that was supposed to emulate the day in the life of a person in poverty. We were given toys dolls for children, told when the work hours were, had to juggle childcare, paying for bills, and emergencies like trying to get to food pantries and avoid utilities from being shut off. Little did the administrators know that when I was participating in this simulation, I was homeless myself, and have a history of homelessness from the time I was very young. At the end of the day, my classmates were able to return to their plush condos and lives in which every need was met, while I spent the night on the street, trying to find a safe place to sleep.

This exercise was designed not only to give insight to the future social worker into the lives of those with whom we would work, but also to establish a feeling of gratitude. There are many different forms of privilege in this world. Being able to remain present is a byproduct of economic privilege. During the simulation and in my personal real life experiences, when you are living paycheck to paycheck unsure of where your next meal is coming from, it is hard to stay present. You are always looking to the future for the next best thing that is going to help you escape the cycle of poverty, or you are simply reacting to what happens around you because you are too overwhelmed to handle anything else. It creates a lot of anxiety.

In my slowdown, I have come to realize that being present is a point of privilege. It is a privilege borne out of economic prosperity. When you do not have to worry about where you are sleeping for the night or how you are getting to work in the morning, you have the leisure to enjoy the moment you are experiencing.

Given this, I have also come to realize that it was in those times when my life was most challenging that I was also the most grateful for the smallest things. I recently came across a gratitude journal that I had kept during my early college years. There were days when I listed being happy that the paper I had written came off the printer warm because it was so cold outside and my hands were frozen from being inadequately dressed for the weather.

I have also seen posts online during the holiday season where people will do a “gratitude challenge.” Post everyday why you are grateful! Don’t just celebrate Thanksgiving for one day; celebrate for the entire season! What happens in the spring and summer when the holidays are over, the living is easy, and the weather is warm? Do we forget to be grateful?

We need to be grateful every day.

Let me say that again. We need to be grateful. Every. Day.

Just as I was able to be thankful for warm printer paper during some of the more challenging times in my life, I need to be just as thankful in the good times in my life.

The way my life is right now, I have never had it this good.

Expressing gratitude allows us to be present because it causes you to pause and reflect on the now. To really slow down, we must look at where we are and appreciate how far we have come. If you are constantly looking in the rearview mirror or wondering what is around the next curve, you are missing the most beautiful things that are right in front of your face. When the Buddhists say that to be present brings peace, they aren’t kidding.

I need to get back in the habit of keeping a gratitude journal in which I am able to identify at least one thing per day for which I am thankful. Even if you are having a “bad” day, there is always something for which to be thankful, no matter how small. Even the days when I was simply thankful that I had enough fare to ride the bus instead of walk in the cold.

To start, I have many things to be grateful for right now:

  • Health. Without health, we are nothing. Literally. If you do not have health, you are dead, and that is the absence of life. After many potentially fatal experiences in my life, including lymphoma, multiple anaphylactic food allergies, and other accidents, I can genuinely say that I am happy to be alive. Celebrate your health and the ability to grow old; it is a privilege denied to many.
  • Housing. After many years with precarious housing (including growing up – a time when I had even less control of my life), I am thankful that I have had stable housing for the past 6-8 years.
  • Food. Do you know what it is like to be able to go to the grocery store and be able to get everything on your list? Let me rephrase that: do you know what it is like to go to the grocery store and have to make difficult choices picking and choosing what is on your list because you have a very limited amount of funds and have to chose between groceries and paying the light bill? I am thankful that the past few months, I can go to the grocery store and get everything on my list without having to choose between, say bread or cereal.
  • Friends. I have good people in my life. When the Wonderful Life movie says that no man is poor who has friends, they are right. I am privileged to now have time that I have not had before to be able to cultivate the friendships in my life.
  • Family. My family may be small, but without it, I would be nothing. Having family has forced me to find stability in my life as an adult that I did not have as a child. It has forced me to grow up and to evaluate what is really important in life.
  • Education. My education has enabled me to escape the cycle of poverty. It has given me the tools to be able to find employment that allows me to meet all my basic needs.
  • Opportunity. I am so thankful that I have finally found employment that I not only enjoy, but that treats me well, and gives me the opportunity to slow my life down and enjoy the moment in which I find myself. I have never felt so alive. Having the opportunity at this point in my life to be happy – truly happy – is such a gift.

To be grateful is to take the time to pause and be in the present. To be in the present means to find and be at peace. If you are finding yourself hurried and wondering, “where did the summer go?” on this first day of August, then it may be time to slow down and identify your points of gratitude.

That anxiety you feel is what happens when you are so focused on the future that you do not enjoy the now. That depression you are feeling is when you are so trapped in the past that you are unable to move forward. Be thankful. Get out of the rut and be present here and now.

For what are you grateful?