The economy has dealt a downturn, though not a death blow, to my business. I've gained more leisure time than I've had since I was fifteen.
At 60, I see that at some point I might not have the health to enjoy free time, now I do. I feel like a visitor to a far-away country: so this is what it's like there. What do I notice?
1. My house is a lot grottier than I ever saw, despite our regular cleaning lady. Four adults can put grime in places a routine once-over can't reach.
2. I had too many clothes. Gave three trash bags to Goodwill, with more to come. I hadn't had time to maintain all that stuff anyway.
3. Too much food, too. Last night I threw away two pounds of moldy green beans we forgot to eat; don't think I even knew they were there. We've excavated prehistoric remains from the chest freezer.
Despite this new consciousness about consuming, I am not celebrating how lucky we are, now that we can learn to be frugal again as the self-satisfied Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote recently. One doesn't feel so lucky when, as many people have had to do, you tell your kids they must drop out of college, or inform relatives who depend on your contributions that you can no longer help.
I don't think frugality confers wisdom, kindness, or any moral brownie points. It's just how you run your life, either by choice or (mostly) by necessity.
We've latched on to frugality as our salvation, but sometimes frivolity offers something too.
I once read an anecdote that's stayed in my mind. A woman was recalling her childhood in England during WWII. One evening, after a plain meal, she sat with her grandmother by a scant fire in a cold house. Her grandmother sent her to fetch the sugar bowl, and the girl carefully carried the precious contents to the woman.
Her grandmother took a heaping cup of sugar and threw it on the fire, for the effect, a brilliant display of coloured flames. (My parents called this "fairy fuel".) The extravagance convinced them that joy and beauty were still relevant to their lives, that they were able to do something for the pure pleasure of it.
Frugality, from Wente to Oprah (and therefore to the planet) is presented as "the new normal", as at least a full generation brushes up on home economics. But taken too far, frugality squashes the juice out of life like a psychic tourniquet.
Frivolous is not the enemy of frugal, and need not involve spending. In the midst of a late night thunderstorm, when the whole house is awake anyway, get the kids up for a popcorn picnic and their favourite music, sensible bedtime be hanged.
Stage a kazoo parade for a friend's happy occasion.
Instead of a computer-printed birthday card (or even worse, e-card), haul out a stack of old photos and magazines and create a silly and sentimental collage.
And sometimes it does involve spending. The other week I gave $20 to a busker playing a soaring "Suzanne" in the subway, and it felt great. A dear friend turns 60 in May and I know what she yearns for... and I'm not saying more right now. Today we're buying a pair of great tickets to see Ricky Jay (appearing in my city this May), a steep price, but it will be special.
We need bright moments of levity to lighten the load and remind us that life is a gift, and not one wrapped in plain brown paper, either.