What I’m just now learning that you probably already know

This month has been a quiet month on the blog. It took longer than expected for my material for the second slipcover to arrive. Once I had it, finding the time to sew didn’t come easy. My husband had two weekend trips, and my attention and energy were needed elsewhere. My three-year-old’s potty training kicked up a notch. Yay! But it also meant I’ve been busy reminding her to go to the potty or waiting with her for moral support. You know, life took over. But it’s given me an opportunity to think about why I’m blogging.

At the beginning of 2013 my husband and I decided our New Year’s resolutions were going to be focused around creating and simplifying. We both recognized that we feel most alive when we are actively creating. He’s a fantastic writer. I love twiddling around with house-related projects. We wanted to focus on those passions and see where they might lead us. Or, in my case, learn where the practice of regularly being creative might lead. And we wanted to simplify our schedules, how we spend our money and how we celebrate holidays and birthdays. This is what inspired the idea for my blog. I wanted a way to document both my creative endeavors and what I’m learning about simplifying.

Up until now, my posts have been documenting my creative efforts, but I figure if I’m going to post anything this month, it needs to focus on the simplifying side. Because that is what this month has really been about for me.

Lesson #1: The difference between Active Patience and Fearful Procrastination.
My husband’s bedside table and the lamp that currently sits on it are exhibits A and B. One day last spring I decided to spray-paint our bedside tables to tie into our bedding. His was an antique table that showed several water marks from glasses left without coasters, so it needed sprucing up, and I wanted them to match. I tackled this project on a cold, windy morning, terrible conditions for spray paint. I should have waited, but I was impatient and naive. I had been feeling cooped up through the winter and my kids had been sick a lot, which hadn’t allowed me much of a break. A morning spent doing something creative seemed like just the thing to snap me out of my winter blues.

I was painting the tables a sunny yellow (I intended to go over it with white and sand it down so the yellow just peeked through). My garage was around 30 degrees, but I thought those temperature recommendations were more like guidelines. Turns out, they’re not. Also, I used a really old can of primer spray because I was being cheap and thought I could save money by using what I had on hand. Unfortunately, the old primer and the cold temperatures caused it to glob all over the tables. I didn’t test it first. I kept going. After shaking it, I thought it would be okay after a good sanding. It wasn’t. Later that day, I applied the yellow. You could still see the blotchy primer under the thin coat of sunny yellow. Once the tables dried, I put them back in our room, deciding to wait for a warm sunny day before attempting to fix them.

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That was about a year ago. Lovely, isnt’ it? Pinterest would reject this picture.

I’ve been in Fearful Procrastination mode on the tables ever since. I was afraid I’d ruined them, or that my quick morning project would require a laborious morning stripping off the mistake caused by impulsiveness. I guess I’d rather avoid than know the answer to these questions. So the tables I was so impatient to improve have been a splotchy bright yellow for over a year. How’s that for a daily reminder in patience?

And now for exhibit B. My husband’s bedside lamp is a great lamp that is way too big for the small yellow table it sits on. Its red and black stripes clash with the soft colors in our room, and it is too tall and bright when I’m trying to sleep before it’s out. It’s there because when I finished my bookcase facelift project, I moved our lamps to the dining room.

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I’m being Actively Patient with the lamp. I’ve been waiting to see whether I’d find a great deal on lamps, or a lamp, for the dining room or our bedroom. I think I will know them when I see them. Several other things in that room are in Active Patience mode: switching out the curtains, changing the color of the black mirror on the adjacent wall, adding a few pops of color. Once I know what my lamp or curtains will look like, I’ll move forward with these other changes and I’ll be glad I waited and have the chance to tie it all together.

We’ve had several guests in our home in this time. They don’t know what is in Active Patience mode and what is stuck in Fearful Procrastination. Only I know that. Sometimes I want to explain, tell them this is still in process, that I’m not finished with this room yet. But I know they don’t need or expect me to have everything tied up in a bow.

Just like when getting ready to paint, sew, and—as I’ve just learned—stain, preparation takes 80% of your time. For me, the preparation for projects, the Active Patience stage, is where 80% of the fun happens. It’s where I get to plan without consequence. I can try out an idea in my head and discard it willy-nilly when I get a better one. I can move the priorities of projects around without affecting anything.

Active Patience feels good. It is doing something about a project. I know it’s a valuable part of the process that if I skip, I’ll regret. Because if I find the perfect curtains that don’t match the lamps I rushed, I’ll hate it. And I’ll live with it because I would have already spent the money.

Fearful Procrastination doesn’t feel good. It’s choosing not to act because of fear that I won’t be able to do it, that it’ll be too hard or inconvenient. It’s believing something is too expensive without really knowing it for sure or taking the practical steps to save toward it. Sometimes communicating about where a project is on this spectrum takes the tension out of it. Replacing our downstairs carpet has gone back and forth on this list. But we eventually chose patience, and then a few months later we got a puppy. Whew! I’m so glad we hadn’t pulled the trigger yet on new carpet.

Our old wood trim just came off the Fearful Procrastination list and was placed on the Active Patience list. It feels good. I know I can change it, I’ve estimated how much it’ll cost. I’ve researched how to mortise a door hinge, for when I get to that stage, and what tools I’ll buy and for how much. For a long time, I was afraid of it. It involves lots of cutting, painting, a nail gun. Precise measurements. A garage full of painting horses and sawdust. Maybe living in the awkward limbo stage where the trim is done and we are saving for the doors. But when the time is right, I am going to jump in anyway, and I know I’ll be able to figure it out. When the weather warms, I’ll sand down my tables and paint them again. But until then, when I need to, I remind myself that patience is action, and I can mentally check it off my daily to do lists on the days that’s important.

Lesson #2: The difference between frugality as a smart lifestyle choice and frugality as self-enforced martyrdom.
I’m frugal to my core. I’d be fugal even if I didn’t have to be. But I have to be, so most of the time it’s a perfect situation. I don’t enjoy spending more than I have to on something. I love feeling like I can somehow “beat the system” by finding bargains and second-hand treasures. This is often a myth, and sometimes I’m bewildered by believing it, but it’s a fun game a lot of the time. So often being frugal feels shrewd and empowering. It allows me to do things I otherwise couldn’t afford. Sometimes it inspires me to problem solve and find creative solutions that are better for us than rushing a purchase would be.

But sometimes frugality can be constricting. I have days when it limits what I’m able to imagine, and I only see solutions I know I can afford right now. Or I get so used to looking for the diamond in the rough, I lose track of the fact I’m hunting for diamonds and any shiny rock I find in the rubble begins to look pretty good. This often happens when thrift store shopping. Sometimes I have trouble seeing the true value of things beyond the price tag, like whether it will it hold up over time, if it is handmade, if it’s something I will still love several years down the road. Or I’ll lose track of the fact that my original goal was to do something beautifully, not cross an item off my house list as cheaply as I can complete it. Going this route tends to make me want to share how inexpensively I completed my task—“I was able to change all this for just $XX”—when I’d intended to come up with something that could stand on its own.

Last week I bought a cheap vase at a thrift store and then returned it because it seemed too expensive. I know I’ve crossed the line into self-enforced martyrdom—feeling like everything is expensive, that I shouldn’t even spend budgeted money, and I can’t afford nice things (cue back of the hand to the forehead)—when the thrift stores seem too expensive. This usually means I need to return to the Active Patience phase and keep saving until I really know what I want to do. Often it means I thought I could find a quick, inexpensive shortcut to my goal, but then I realize I’m overpaying for a vase someone couldn’t unload at a garage sale because, if I look at it in the right light, it sort of reminds me of something I saw at Anthropologie, but not really. Not that there aren’t great deals to be had at thrift stores. I have a post in the works on this that I hope to have up in April, but this particular item wasn’t a good deal.

I know fellow frugal shoppers will ask themselves, “Would I pay full price for this item?” to help them separate the deals that are truly good for them from whatever bargain they happened upon that day. I know that if I’m asking myself any form of the question “They want that much for that thing?” then I don’t love it. Brilliant, right? But when I do find items I love at great prices, I go back to feeling like my frugality is my superpower that is helping us to make our lives work, to pay down debt, and to avoid accumulating more than we need.

Lesson #3: Like temperature recommendations on spray paint, temperature recommendations on stain aren’t just guidelines.
This is basically a lesson I’ve learned twice that you probably already know, or would know if you ever read the directions on a can of stain. This month I took down our golden oak banisters, stripped them, sanded them, and tried to stain them a beautiful espresso color. But it’s been cold, especially on the weekends when I’ve had time to stain. And re-staining previously stained oak is a tricky business. One in which a beginner like me needs every advantage to succeed. And low temperatures take away every advantage. The banisters came out a little blotchy after the first two coats. So they’re back up on the walls. They’re slightly blotchy and don’t match the one attached banister I couldn’t remove. But I am being Actively Patient until the weather warms and I can sand and then tackle them under better conditions.

Lesson #4: Any new pursuit can be an opportunity to learn about yourself.
Fear and guilt can hide in the most unlikely of places, and confronting them can happen in the most unlikely of ways. Any creative pursuit—however small—requires some measurement of risk and courage. And taking on risks and finding courage requires you to confront the things that hold you back, namely yourself and your beliefs about what you can do, what’s possible, and what you’re good at. Maybe your significance is tied up in there too. Your relationship to material things. Your belief about what’s necessary and why you’re drawn to more than just what’s necessary, and whether that’s good or bad. And the importance of contentment in all of it. And gratefulness. And also what design can do for your mind and spirit, when done well or when overdone or done poorly, and how you know where you fit in that spectrum.

This will be an expanded post of its own someday, but for now I’m figuring out that this whole seemingly fluffy pursuit of bringing beauty to my home is turning out to be a lot less fluffy than I thought.

All these lessons will help me to simplify my life. Knowing what phase projects are in gets their clutter out of my head. Following directions on paint cans omits the stage of fixing the problems that crop up when you ignore them. Gaining a few insights into my spending habits will help me even when shopping for clothes and groceries for my family, regular tasks where questions about frugality, value, and patience are ever-present.

If you’re still with me, thanks for reading. I promise my next post will include more pictures.

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