Home Sweet House: Voluntary Simplicity and Home Ownership

One of my favorite movies of all time is “House of Sand and Fog.”   To give credit to the author of the book upon which it was based, Andre Dubus III, I’m sure it’s a wonderful book, but I was introduced to this story through the movie, which starred Jennifer Connolly and Ben Kingsley.  Jennifer Connolly plays an alcoholic young woman, who, because she was simply irresponsible and not paying attention, lost her home to the bank.  Her father, whom she adored, had built that house, and it was all she had.  She had no family, no career, no relationships.

The person who bought her house was a military official who was ousted from Iran.   He was hoping to rebuild a life for himself, wife and teenage son.  The house appealed to him because, with the crow’s-nest type of deck he built on the roof of the house, he could see the ocean, which reminded him of the home he left behind on the Persian Gulf.

The meaning that this little wooden-framed home gave these two people was incredibly intense, and the drama and the plot of the story is driven by the memories and hopes of both the American girl and the displaced Iranian family.   It’s an incredible story.

It made me think of how important our homes are.  Not just the idea of “home” (where the heart is, so to speak), but the actual, physical, structure that serves as the setting of our life drama.  Most people want their own home.  The home might be a big one, a small one, a mobile one, or a multi-family one, but there’s something about the feeling that your home is YOUR castle.   It is an emblem of what you can do for your family in a very deeply-rooted sense.

While there are some simple-living people who abjur ownership of any kind, and who are happy to pay rent for the freedom it brings,  most have that primal yearning for a home of one’s own (which calls to mind another great movie with a similar theme:  A Home of Our Own with Kathy Bates).  Doesn’t  matter where you might be on the simplicity bandwagon.

I have been reading the works of Dorothy Day, that great American Catholic convert who is veering on beautification I believe.  She started out a socialist, thinking that politics were the way to class and socio-economic equality.  She came around to a belief in the power of the individual powered by Christian faith.  But even this one-time socialist and Christian activist took a windfall she got from the sale of a novel and bought a little cottage on the beach in Staten Island.

What is it that drives this need for the fistful of dirt that Scarlett O’Hara held up to the gods with a vow to “never be hungry again,” while her childhood home, Tara, glowed in the background?   The American Dream is built on the notion that each of us has the right to drive our stake in the ground, and protect it, with arms if necessary.

Yet, the property we own is really an illusion, in many ways.   Many families are certainly learning that now.  As they become upside down in their mortgages they  realize that they are still in their homes by the grace of Bank of America and their faith in their ability to continue paying the mortgage.   The Jews in Germany during the thirties and the bourgeoisie in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution learned that home ownership can be an illusion. There, the political climate shifted radically, and property deeds were suddenly not worth the paper they were written on.   And speaking of climate, just let a tornado rip through your town, or a a hurricane rip through the levees, and the home in which you may have lived your whole life will be a memory in a moment.

Home=security to most, and maybe that’s the draw to home ownership–even though it might be a false sense of security. Could you emotionally detach from your home if you had to?  If you were forced to leave, how would you react?  How hard would you fight for whatever it is that your home has come to mean?  At what cost?

Or maybe through a turn of events, or winds of change,  lies the lesson that the security we have built inside the four walls–the nest we call our own–is not what we think.   Maybe those walls–whether made of straw, wood, or brick–are as transient as sand and fog.  If we knew that to be true, how might we live our lives differently?

Letting Go of Relationships

camwill poster credit:  Britt Boyd

camwill poster credit: Britt Boyd

Well, I’m sure not going to cover this topic in one post.   But when we talk of attachments, relationships play a big part, because unfortunately, we often view our relationships as personal possessions.    So, when it comes time to declutter our social lives, especially if it’s the ONE in our lives, it really hurts.  Or, if our “possessions” act up in ways that we object to, we get angry.   Just like when we have an urge to kick the TV when the channel changer gets stuck, we expect our relationships to fulfill all of its functions as if it were our TV or computer–exactly to our expectations.    And that’s where the hurt is bound to come into play, because no one person can fulfill all of our expectations.   No one person is here on this planet to serve us, despite what Renee Zelwegger says to Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts says to Hugh Grant.   We honor each other’s dignity by allowing them to be who they are.

On March 10, Cameron William is playing at Arlene’s Grocery in New York.   My favorite song of his is a song called “Rope Burn”–about the pain of letting go of a relationship.   I love this metaphor–it’s so rich.  It’s about the freefall into a solitary place.  And the song tells us that it is only the desire to stay where you are that hurts you and gives you “rope burn.”

Here are some of the lyrics:

You think you lost your love

But what do you expect when you push and shove pieces back into place

They’re not meant to be rearranged

But I’ll hang on and I will start to learn

That there’s no shame in getting a little rope burn

When you hang on so tight…

Just let it go…


This wind has a bitter chill

But you don’t even mind standing out in the cold

Cuz it’s the easiest way for you to keep what you hold

But I’ll hang on and I’ll start to learn

That my hands will hurt until I get rope burn


And things have changed

And you’ve got to take it day by day

It has to happen this way

But it’s the start of something great

With a new timeline!

And it’s OK

You will learn to deal with what comes next

It’s the start of something great with a brand new day.

Go see Cameron William at Arlene’s Grocery in New York next Wednesday, March 10.

05 Rope Burn

Lent of Letting Go: Goodbye 401k

“Money: it’s just a means of exchange,” my great uncle used to tell my great aunt, when she was worried about family financies.  But then again, he was a judge in Connecticut’s Supreme Court and lived in a very stately home on Wolcott Hill Road in Wethersfield.  Many others might have a different idea.

I remember when my college philosophy of crisis teacher, during a lecture on global poverty, referenced Lennon’s iconic “Imagine” when she said, “Imagine no possessions…. It’s easy if you’re rich.” 

In other words, money is not just money.  Possessions are not just possessions.  Money is not just a means of exchange.   But I still find comfort in repeating Uncle Edwin’s philosophy about money to myself when there’s not enough of it. 

Starting off this Letting Go Lent with a Bang

Today was the letting go of my 401k balance.  I won’t go into the details of why I had to withdraw all my funds because I’m also trying to let go of self-indulgence, but I can assure you, it was not a gesture or a statement or simply a good topic for this blog.  I have found myself in a situation in which this is the best option for me right now.

In making that call to Fidelity, I had to really detach myself from a lot of negative feelings:

  • I had to let go of fear of lack;
  • I had to let go of grief for all the hard work that went into saving that money;
  • I had to let go of insecure feelings about my own identity and value system;
  • I had to let go of sadness that I may not be able to help my family as much as I would like;
  • I had to let go of anger; and
  • I had to let go of the feeling that I had done something bad or stupid or imprudent that put me in this place.

But those negative feelings are not helpful–especially when the feelings are born of fear, ego identification, and shifting of blame. On the phone with Fidelity, I made some kind of a self-pitying statement to the rep along the lines of, “$25,000 doesn’t go very far these days. “ To which he replied, “Well, that’s more than a lot of people make in a year.”  He shut my mouth.

I love the following quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The way to misuse our possessions is to use them as an insurance against the morrow.  Anxiety is always directed to the morrow, whereas goods are in the strictest sense meant to be used only for today.  By trying to ensure for the next day we are only creating uncertainty today.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.  The only way to win assurance is by leaving tomorrow entirely in the hands of God and by receiving from him all we need for today.  If instead of receiving God’s gifts for today we worry about tomorrow we find ourselves helpless victims of infinite anxiety.    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.  “The Simplicity of the Carefree Life”

I love it because it’s a radical thought.  The idea of not saving for tomorrow flies in the face of wisdom all the way down to Aesop.   But I think he is saying, not that we should not save, but that we should not concern ourselves, nor or be obsessed with worrying about money and hoarding it for the future. 

There is a wonderful article by Peter Singer that was published in the New York Times September 5, 1999 which poses a lot of moral and ethical questions about how much we should save or spend vs. use to better the lives of others.  I won’t get into that discussion here, but here is the link.  The point that is relevant to this issue is, how much do we each think is enough in our banks, in our 401k’s, in our Money Market Funds?  Investment brokers will scare us with calculators that make us feel like if we’re not millionaires by the time we’re 65 we better start saving refrigerator boxes and scout locations under the nearest bridge.  But how much do we need?  And how much should we worry about it?  And how much should we simply put those thoughts away, and go out and enjoy the abundance of God’s blessings in our lives?


So, now that I am back at the starting gate with 0 balance in my 401k, I can detach from fear of tomorrow and replace those feelings with gratitude instead:

I am grateful I have this money to begin with.  It’s really God’s anyway.

I am grateful that I have talents and skills that will allow me to rebuild a retirement savings plan, if that is what I choose to do.

I am grateful that now that the retirement fund horserace is over for the season, when it starts up again I can choose to be more charitable with future earnings.

I am grateful that I can constantly remind myself how blessed I am in, not only bodily needs, but in having the ability to share love with my family and friends. 

If I start feeling ungrateful, or resentful, or fearful, it is up to me to recall how much I really have, and I have the power to detach myself from those feelings of lack and want.

Detachment is so important because it allows us to live in the moment, in which there are always great blessings to be reaped.