The not so great book review

I am so full of such big plans at the beginning of every summer.

I’m going to clean!

I’m going to paint!

I’m going to organize!

I’m going to exercise!

I’m going to read!

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And then reality (often in the form of the 3 kids we are raising) sets in. I’m happy to report that I’ve actually done a fair amount of painting and exercising. Reading? Not so much.

But back in June I promised a review of Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big Life, first on a list of books I’ve wanted to read for some time.

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Several of you joined me on this one, and I can’t wait to hear what you thought of it. Because I don’t have a whole lot to say about it.

The main reason is that I didn’t finish it–which I know is a kind of review itself.

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Unfortunately, I fell asleep soon after this shot was taken.

My first challenge in this book is that it contains exercises. One is supposed to have a notebook in which to do the exercises. I wanted to do a good job of reading this book–since I’d gone all public with my intentions and all–and it seemed to me that one couldn’t really comment on this book if one didn’t read it as the author intended.

So I got hung up very early in July, waiting for a time when I could fully do the exercises. I lost a good two weeks this way. I did do the first exercise, finally. It was OK. No clouds parted for me or anything, though.

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I decided to take the advice of some of you and just keep reading and not worry about doing the exercises. Or, to simply think about the questions even if I didn’t write the answers to them down. Doing that got me going through a  next little part, until I hit  the exercise in chapter 3, which was to help me understand my relationship to time. There were a full 7 pages of questions! With, like, one question on each line of the page!

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The irony of not wanting to take the time to answer questions about my relationship to time was not lost on me.

I skipped it. I mean, I did skim the questions, but I didn’t answer them.

I was OK with the next chapter (“Removing the Clutter”), but she really lost me in chapter 5, “Listening to Your Dreams.” I stuck with it part-way through Chapter 6, “Learning to See Through the Obstacles,” but that’s as far as I got. (I’ll still write what I thought about the book, but please be aware of a big caveat:  I didn’t actually finish the book.)

So, what was the problem?

The biggest problem for me is one that’s particular to me, so it might not be relevant to many other readers. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve read all this before.

I did really enjoy and appreciate the house renovation metaphor that runs through the book. It’s the same one that runs through this blog, and I was interested to see how Susanka developed the metaphor. But in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of how to renovate a life, I didn’t learn anything new.

And, frankly, I was irritated by what feels like glib platitudes. Such as this:

“By making the time and place to listen to your inner longings, you’ll start to live them. You’ll find that you are capable of a lot more creativity than you had thought, and you’ll find opportunities falling into your lap that allow you to do what you’ve always wanted to do–not by your seeking them out but simply because you are ready to engage and able to be present in what you do.” (14)

I mean, yes:  There is truth in this. I know this from my own experience–to some extent.

But making this happen is not easy, and making the time and place to listen to your inner longings not some magic bullet to a smaller, fulfilling, meaningful life.

I guess my main issue with this book is that it feels as if it is written from a perspective of privilege that many don’t have. There seems to be an assumption that all the activities we all engage in are a matter of choice, and we can simply choose a smaller, more meaningful life. We just need to know what to choose and make a commitment to choosing it.

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I’m glad for the shift in perspective that’s made me slow down to appreciate the simple beauty and pleasure to be found in a bowl of berries. But even this is an image of privilege.

Reading this book, I felt the same irritation I felt when reading this article about reinventing our careers in mid-life. Each person profiled in the article already had a successful, professional career–as well as an affluent spouse who could provide a financial cushion during the transition period from the old successful career to the new one. Nice work if you can get it.

Susanka posits that we are all addicted to “nut accumulation” (56) and our real problem is that we don’t realize when we have enough nuts. She makes a connection between the (often unquestioned) idea that a bigger home means a better life lived in it and the idea that a “bigger” life is better:

“There’s a perfect parallel between our attempts to find home by building bigger and our attempts to find satisfaction by buying stuff and staying busy… . A bigger, busier, flashier life isn’t necessarily a better life. But we’re taught from an early age that that’s what we should aspire to, and we rarely stop to wonder whether this is really the case. We can’t we tell ourselves–we don’t have time!” (42)

I think there’s a lot of truth in that for many of us, too, but I couldn’t help thinking of the years in my very recent past when I truly did not have enough nuts–and of the many, many people in the world who still don’t. For many of us, our lives are “big” with doing all the things we need to do to take care of our families’ basic needs.

I couldn’t help thinking about how, through my own efforts at simplification and much more mindful consumption, I’ve greatly reduced the amount of “nuts” I earn and bring into my life–but it’s still a challenge to live “small.”

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Because Cane and I joined our households (simplifying!), we bought this house–which is bigger than the one I lived in when it was just my kids and me. And yet, I can’t imagine fitting our blended family dynamics into a smaller space. We use every inch of this place.

Here’s the thing:

Yes, a few years ago, I did make some changes to create a “smaller” life. I moved closer to work and to my significant other. I sold a house I could no longer maintain myself. I began working less (not by choice, but I am now glad that choice was made for me). I consolidated my home with that of another family (Cane and his daughter).

These changes all brought “small life” benefits, but they have all come with costs, too.

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While my life grew smaller in some ways, it grew larger in others. I have a much, much greater knowledge of what my “inner longings” are–and I also have (at times) greater frustration because I have not yet figured out how to fulfill them in ways I would like.

I’ve got two teen-agers that I am raising apart from their father. While my combined household does provide more help with that at times, the combined household at other times creates more complications. I’ve got to have a job that provides for their needs and financial agreements I’ve made about meeting them. I truly can’t ditch the job that gives me migraines to follow some other kinds of dreams I have–at least, I can’t do that for a few more years. Getting to small is no simple thing when the non-negotiables of your life are complicated.

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Right now, her dreams are more important than mine. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All of that said, I think Susanka’s book is a great introduction to the idea of living a more meaningful, mindful, simpler life. I probably would have benefited greatly from it earlier on my journey, and I really do love the house/life metaphor. I think her basic plan (the parts of it I read) is sound:

  • Notice what inspires you
  • Identify what isn’t working
  • Remove the clutter from your life
  • Listen to your dreams
  • Learn to see through obstacles
  • Improve the quality of what you have

I would just have liked to see more of what these steps look like in the context of a life that looks more like mine.

The last few chapters of the book might actually provide the thing I’m looking for–a more concrete set of how-to’s for getting to that smaller life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past some frustration and irritation to get there.

Enough about me:  What about you?

If you read Susanka’s book, I’d love to know what you thought of it. I know from some of you that you had a much different experience from mine. I really wanted to like this book, so I hope you help me do that!

Please share your thoughts in the comments, or if you’ve written your own post about the book, I’d love for you to share a link here.

And a little PS:

Thank you so much for your kind wishes last week. It was a hard one. Nearly two weeks ago, Cane developed Bell’s palsy. In addition to paralysis on one side of his face, he also experienced vertigo, ear ringing, terrible headache, and severe fatigue. These symptoms are not typically part of Bell’s palsy–at least, not to the degree Cane was affected–which had us worried that the problem might be bigger.

A late-night visit to the ER led to further tests, which was scary but ruled out the possibility of much bigger problems. He’s still got some vertigo and fatigue, but things are much better. The prognosis is a long recovery (months, not weeks), but most people do fully recover.

As you can see below, nothing slows this guy down completely for long:

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He needs to wear an eye patch some of the time. Because of the paralysis on his right side, his eye lid doesn’t fully close and his eye can become irritated. Sexy pirate jokes are allowed. :-)