January 2020

Teaching is frustrating and often chaotic, but I loved the fact that every year I got to clean the blackboards, clear my desk and look forward to a fresh start in September. January holds a similar promise at home. After the usually joyful chaos and clutter of the holidays, it’s time to put away the lights and ornaments, re-calculate my journey, and maybe pack a bit lighter for the next part of the adventure.

Early in 2019, I started to organize Coffee Talk, an eccentric and eclectic collection of random writing, into a magazine format, mainly so that I would have some goals and deadlines to keep me on the path. Everyone should pause to smell the flowers along the path, but after I retired, I found myself pausing most of the time!

Coffee Talk is still very much a work in progress, but I have been encouraged by knowing that I have a few readers, and your comments and questions have lifted my spirit and my motivation.

I am moving to a more blog-like production schedule, posting on a selected theme throughout each month instead of the once-a-month magazine style which felt familiar to my last-century mind and so was a good way for me to start.

The theme for January is “A Fresh Start.” I want to wish you a Happy 2020!

This Month in Coffee Talk

Why Not Go Shopping

What Is An Organized Space?

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Nana Didn't Know the Word Minimalist, but She Was One

Nana was one of the most contented, generous, and positive people I have ever known. She didn’t have much, but if she wanted more, she didn’t talk about it. She didn’t talk about the past. She lived in the present and the near future, keeping her little house in order, buying groceries, visiting relatives, going to church, reading the paper, making quilts.

Bessie Griner Rice, whom we called Nana, was Mama’s mother. She lived on Bonham Street in Nocona, Texas, in a white clapboard house with a built-on bedroom that she had shared with my grandfather, William Marion Rice, until he died. It was an almost-tiny house, and it contained all her worldly goods, which would qualify as “minimal” by any standard.

An alcove off the living room had been turned into a bathroom with a second-hand commode and clawfoot bathtub. A couch facing the front door folded out to make a bed. In a narrow passage that led to the kitchen, a tiny closet held Nana’s wardrobe, three or four flower- or check-print dresses, a hat, a pair of Sunday shoes. A curtained sink in the kitchen doubled as the lavatory. A recessed cabinet on the wall held a few dishes and maybe a box of cereal, some rice, beans, salt, pepper, flour, and not much more. There was a small gas stove, a table and chairs, and a wooden ice-box. The added-on room with windows on all sides had just enough space for a double bed and matching dresser and a foot-pedal sewing machine where Nana worked on patchwork quilts made of our discarded clothes and scraps from Aunt Dorothy’s sewing projects.

Without pattern book or drawing, she arranged the random scraps into symmetrical patterns. For my babies she made beautiful little quilts from old party dresses, velvet, taffeta, satin, and lace. Nana’s quilts had something of herself in the careful arrangement of the patterns and the meticulous stitches, and they bound up memories of how we were and the things we had done when we wore the clothes that the patches had come from.

The house was cheerful and cozy, furnished mostly with used things that Nana’s grown-up children had given her. New things were birthday or Christmas presents: a light-colored cedar chest, bed and matching dresser, and whatnot shelves displaying porcelain dolls, perfume bottles, and pictures of her grandchildren.

In winter a little gas heater warmed the house up in a few minutes. Snuggled deep under the quilts and blankets in the cold room, I could hear Nana up and about early muttering about the cold. She would light the stove with a “Varrrroooom” as the gas, which she turned on long before she lit the match, sucked in the flame. “A wonder she hasn’t blown us all to kingdom come,” my mother would say. Then Nana would go back to bed, and we would all wait under the covers until the house was warm and we could get up and drink boiled coffee.

Behind the house, sunflowers and daisies grew wild; in the front, two big shade trees were just right for climbing. Nana tended her irises and canna lilies carefully, but she didn’t mind when I tried for several years to dig my way to China with a teaspoon in the soft dirt next to the flower beds. In summer, the adults would sit in metal chairs on the front porch to eat cantaloupe or watermelon and catch up on gossip, while the children sat on the steps, made mudpies, or worked on the China Project.

We went to visit Nana often. My mother, attuned to some inner calendar, would announce, “I’ve got to go see Mama.” Nana came to our house too. She would cook and embroider and watch TV with us for a few days. Then, one hand on an ample hip, she would say, “I’ve got to get back.” And we would take her back to her little house in Nocona, my mother wondering out loud what it was that she had to “get back” to.

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  • Do you regularly spend extra time looking for things like your keys or your phone?
  • Are you often stressed and overwhelmed by tasks like getting dressed in the morning, making a snack, or cooking a meal?
  • Do you find yourself too often in need of totally re-organizing your desk, refrigerator, pantry, closet, or other space that you use a lot?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you would probably benefit from some work on your personal organization. If you are productive and efficient at work and contented and effective at home, you may already be organized, even if your house and workplace don’t look like photos on Pinterest or staged houses on HGTV. A house or workplace with real people living and working in them will not look like that. It will probably not even look like your crafty stay-at-home grandma’s house, but if it works for you, it works. Some people are more relaxed in the middle of organized clutter; others work better in zen-like surroundings. Few people, though, can do their best in the middle of unorganized surroundings and with unorganized minds and spirits.

We hear of famously unorganized, bad-tempered, abusive, and perpetually stressed-out geniuses. Some of them have famously died early and unhappily. We hear of them, but, although I have met a few unorganized narcissists who fancied that they were geniuses, I can’t recall ever actually knowing an authentic productive genius with those unfortunate characteristics.

There is no single standard for good organization, but all of us can benefit from observing and listening to people who are good at getting things done while they remain healthy and free of unnecessary stress.

Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Why Not Go Shopping?

It is a novel idea and a liberating one. Stop shopping, or rather stop going shopping. Decide what you are going to buy, where you are going to buy it, how you are going to pay for it, and where you are going to keep it before you ever leave your house. It’s that simple, but it’s not always easy!

The goal of advertising is to make us unhappy. Ecstatic joy over a brand new iPhone or Lexus is interrupted by the announcement that the NEW iPhone with MORE features is available and that there is a car that is better than your brand new Lexus for showing the world how successful you are at being whatever it is that you want to be.

Coveting is big business in the United States of America. Far from being considered a sin, it is sanctified as The American Dream. It is woven tightly into every waking hour and creeps into our dreams.

I have never been what you would call well off. Daddy was a blue-collar wage earner, and Mama stayed home cleaning and cooking. We had a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood, but I knew that there were much grander houses with a lot of stuff that we didn’t have. I knew because my grandma lived in one of those houses, and so did the McCalls where my mother had baby sat when she was younger and whose daughters gave me their hand-me-downs with Neiman-Marcus labels.

Neither Daddy nor Mama had a clue about how to manage a family budget, so they could never seem to “get ahead,” as Daddy used to say. They passed their cluelessness on to me, and I followed their footsteps into my own adult life, always thinking that everyone else must be making more money than my family did because many of them did seem to “get ahead.”

One reason my family could never get ahead was that Mama’s favorite form of entertainment was “going shopping,” and I learned to love it almost as much as she did.

Shopping and trading have been human activities for milennia, but “going shopping” has been around for fewer than two hundred years. Even in the early twentieth century, people decided what they needed or wanted, and then went to specialized shops where those needs could be met.

“Going shopping” consists of going out to see what is for sale and buying for the joy of buying, being tempted as at a fair, by the many things for sale at department stores, supermarkets, malls, and one-stop big box stores like Wal-Mart. We are thoroughly prepared for the experience by a constant stream of advertising, encouraging us to covet not only our neighbors’ possessions but also the possessions of the rich and famous and the possessions and lifestyles of paid models who don’t even own the things or live the lifestyles that they so artfully tempt us to covet.

We meet our needs, of course, but we also acquire an enormous number of things that we don’t really need or even want. Then we spend inordinate amounts of time shuffling those things around, dusting them, storing them, maybe eventually selling them in garage sales or becoming hoarders.

Since I stopped going shopping, I not only save time, money, and storage space, but I really enjoy the things I buy because I have identified a need or desire, planned for it, and set aside the money to pay for it.

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