It was the Saturday before Easter, as I recall. I had rolled out of bed to work on my honors project, and I was putting the coffee into the coffeemaker when it struck me that it was VERY STRANGE that someone was having a cookout at 8 (or was it 7? or 9?) in the morning.

I opened my apartment door to a wall of smoke.

What happened next is a blur in my memory, but it seemed to happen in slow motion, even as my non-athletic self set some serious records for speed.

I called 9-1-1. And then I went to my bedroom, grabbed my bookbag with my new text books, honors project paperwork, and wallet, put on my shoes, and walked to the window. Nope. Second story and no way I was breaking a limb. No one else was awake in our neighborhood (and I wouldn’t have been either, had it not been for that dratted honors project).

I took a deep breath, said goodbye to all of my belongings (and those of my roommates’), and left, not knowing what was coming next.

It turns out one of my sorority sisters was home and I ended up bunking with her for almost a week. We got off easy: only smoke damage, and I still have a few books that bear the marks of that apartment building fire.

I threw away a LOT of stuff after that adventure. And I learned a lesson I’ve never forgotten: it’s just STUFF.

When my roommates came back, there were tears and discussions of how much it HURT to lose stuff. Me, I was grateful to be alive at a time in my life when I didn’t really believe in anything except my own intellect and the superiority of science. I knew that the stuff didn’t matter. I was alive. (And it hurt, when I look back, that my one roommate in particular could not seem to see that I was alive and her stuff was just stuff.)

Not so long ago (in the last five years), I was inspired by a few wise women’s blogging efforts (Elizabeth Foss among them). They were talking about simplifying and de-cluttering. They were talking about how much your stuff can weigh you down. They were sharing ideas for how much is enough and ways to make do with less and less and less.

I have a lot of stuff, despite my efforts not to. And I let myself off the hook, because I know my kids don’t have as many toys as the Joneses and our house isn’t anything fancy next to the Watkinses and we don’t spend money like the Finches. Even so, the idea of not having more than you need has been something I’ve been trying to live for quite some time.

So the idea behind More or Less: Choosing a Life of Excessive Generosity, by Jeff Shinabarger, appealed to me.


That is, until I started reading it.

Last week, in my weekly reading update, I wrote, “This book is another life-changer and game-changer for me. (I’m not exactly thrilled about that, because I wasn’t necessarily LOOKING to have things go all changey-changey on me!)”

Yeah. That times ten.

I was struck, first, by the challenge that we have enough food. I think I’ll be attacking my cupboards soon. And my freezer. But meal-planning did cure me of a lot of that, to be honest.

And the clothes thing is something that I’ve been on top of. I need to do some more weeding through, true enough, but not something that made me do more than think more deeply about my other excess.

And then, then, there was the chapter on time.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the polite answer to the question “How are you?” was, “Fine.” It seems that busy is the new fine. We look at one another with that shake of the head, sideways smirk, and glossy eyes, proclaiming our busyness. This shared response succinctly identifies a recent cultural shift: we now determine the significance of a person by how busy they are. Somehow, busy has become better than fine. It seems especially highlighted since the economic downturn. Busy shows that we still have a job and things to do, which is a positive answer amidst the endlessly looping, negative news cycle.

The problem is this: busy is not better than fine. Just because I’m busy does not mean I’m fine. And when it comes right down to it, often busy means that I’m not fine at all. What we’re really saying with one simple word is, “I can’t keep up with everything in my life. I actually can’t keep up with any of the things in my life. But that makes me important, doesn’t it?”

Oh. Wow. But there’s more…

Often the first ball we drop is our relationships. Being “busy” quickly becomes a barrier or excuse in the way of true community. I am busy, and many of my friends know that I am busy. When the only answer I ever give them in response to the question “How are you?” is, “Busy,” this communicates that I don’t have time for them. When I constantly say, “I’m busy,” I communicate to others that “I don’t need you right now.” Most of our friends pick up this subtle message and stay away.

What we often realize too late is that our “busy” answer is actually a choice not to engage in our community. We choose to do other stuff over hanging out with our friends. If I continue to tell myself the lie that busy is good, I slowly enter into more of an isolated and a self-centered existence.

And here’s the kicker:

…if we are too busy to engage in relationships, we face a larger problem. When I respond and tell you I am too busy, too often I actually need your help. Often in those times when we most need a deep relationship, instead of pursuing that relationship, we embrace our task list and avoid the comfort and support that true friendship can offer. And the result of being extra busy, ironically, is loneliness and depression.

Time is worth more than money to so many people I know, and yes, even to me. I’ve been working hard over the last five years especially to hone in my “here’s what can be done” approach to my life. And yet…and yet I feel like I fail.

Why does there have to be so much to do?

Part of it’s having kids, part of it’s having a lot of small project work, part of it’s that I have to be at a certain level of busy to function well.

But what Shinabarger is outlining in this chapter so well is a different approach to time, one that I’ve been flirting with and haven’t yet been able to articulate. In fact, just a few paragraphs later, he talks about something that has been on my heart since the smartphone explosion all around me (nope, I’m NOT getting one) and since my kids have gotten older: presence.

Presence is not fast, big, or cheap. You cannot replace presence with someone or something else. Presence is an essential element that we all need and desire in our deepest relationships. It’s unspoken. It’s true. It’s the greatest encouragement anyone can ever receive or give. Presence is a physical expression of love in the midst of a culture that never stops—it is to stop and be with someone that matters.

He goes on to define and outline some time indicators and that may help you, as they helped me, to further consider how my time spent reflects on what my priorities truly are.

There are 14 chapters in More or Less, covering virtually everything in your life, from your kitchen pantry to your closet to your time, from your transportation to your presents to your access. I didn’t find it a fast read, though it’s a VERY good read. I found I could only manage so much before my brain sort of stopped. I needed to noodle a bit before I could read more.

It’s practical and applicable and it doesn’t just leave you with a good idea. Shinaberger outlines a general plan of action after he shares how he or others approached what he calls Enough Experiments. In fact, he went so far as to build a pretty rockin website that has links to the videos mentioned in the book, a discussion guide, and a worksheet to help you with your closet.

What makes this an incredible book isn’t just that it’s tightly written, that it has a thread of story running through the whole thing, that Jeff sounds like the kind of guy you would probably like. What makes this a remarkable read is the challenge it leaves in your heart, the way it forces you to acknowledge your role in the world at large, whether you choose to engage or not. It reminds me, in fact, of how I felt and continue to feel after reading Refuse to Do Nothing.

Read this book. And then share it with someone close to you.

~ ~ ~

I read this book as part of the Patheos Book Club blogger roundtable. And it got me to thinking, on a bit of a different topic, about one of the things I really appreciate about the Patheos Book Club. It’s forcing me to read things I might skip out on, because of the high comfort level I have with the echo chamber known as the books I tend to like and have on my review shelf. It’s making my brain stretch, even when I don’t feel like I can commit to a class or higher ed of other kinds due to the season of life I’m in.