NOT Keeping Up With The Joneses

“I am putting up the electric fence on the border between our properties today,” announces the sms from my new neighbour.

I imagine Mrs Jones balancing on a ladder, tool belt around her gym-bunny-slim waist, wire looped around her shoulder. Uhhhm… No. What she meant was, “My husband is paying someone to follow my orders to put up an electric fence”. But that’s a technicality. One of many for the Joneses, I dare say…

Yes, folks, the Jones family is finally moving in next door. Their instant garden is established, their surveillance cameras are checking out the road. And, judging by the trade vehicles parked in the street, their brand new antique kitchen cabinets are being completed, as well as the “green” plumbing, the in-wall vacuum system, the modern blinds and the designer pots with designer plants. These are just the finishing touches.

The neighbourhood is actually pretty quiet these days, after almost a year of shouting builders, banging, grinding – every single weekday, Saturday and even public holidays. I’ve grown so used to the cacophony that I can hardly function in the silent vacuum left in its wake.

You’ve seen the house on my corner if you live in my town. Perhaps the word “house” is not the best choice for this particular building. My friend Eva calls it The Office Block, which is indeed more accurate. On the up side, it has become a useful landmark when giving people directions to my house. And our rooms should be a few degrees cooler in summer, because the sun will rise significantly later in the mornings. On the down side, winters may be a bit more problematic – the words “mould” and “damp” come to mind. And privacy is a thing of the past.

The view from our front yard

Our dwelling stands modestly in the shade of the new office block. Built over sixty years ago, the house has seen its share of families, dramas and pets. Its succession of tenants (and I fully include myself here) have not kept up their end as they should have. The garden is a partially-tamed jungle filled with a variety of partially-domesticated children, animals, plants and toys. There are two trampolines – one functional and one just a skeleton (any takers?). There is an old persimmon tree right in the middle of the lawn, with a red bucket hanging from one of the branches. (No, I don’t know why it’s there, I just work here.) Some rusty garden furniture sprouted some years ago alongside a few very tall and hardy weeds (my only gardening success to date). All we need to complete the picture is half a car and some chickens.

The view from our back yard

In stark contrast, the Jones dwelling is manicured to within an inch of its new life. It is pristine: every line is perfect and straight. Except one. Just below one of the many balconies hangs a little piece of wood that must have been used to measure or prop up something and was forgotten there. I have considered calling the Joneses and telling them that it is very unpleasant to have to look at that crooked piece of wood every single day, and that they really should see to it. But I restrain myself.

While the Joneses are having all their possessions carefully carried in one by one (their beautiful furniture, their state-of-the-art gadgets, their art-of-the-state, their TV’s with built-in fridges, hot and cold sliding doors in every en-suite), I am carefully dragging black bags one by one to Hospice. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not envious of the Joneses. I don’t want their beautiful possessions, their house, their cars, their children or their lifestyle. I have never aspired to wealth. I have never dreamt of living in a huge house. I’ve never longed for fancy cars, or for displaying the newest, biggest and best of everything.

I have nothing against the Joneses as a family. I’m sure they are normal, decent folk, in spite of being so very rich. Most people, like the Joneses, are forever increasing their possessions, or at least striving towards that. People want new things: bigger and better, new and improved, and more of them. People study catalogues and websites, compare prices, save up, organise loans and then go out on Saturday mornings, looking for cars, houses, decorations, appliances, furniture, shoes, handbags, gadgets.

For some reason, my drive to have more has faded dramatically over the past few years, replaced by a drive to have less. Having been of modest income for the last two decades has certainly helped to keep rampant consumerism at bay. While some people love going out on shopping sprees, I will think of any excuse not to go shopping. It’s too early, too late, too close to the end of the week/month/year, I’m too hungry, too full, too tired, too sad, too happy, or it’s too hot or too cold for shopping. Whether it is for food or clothes or just stuff. Of course, I have no choice: I have to shop sometimes, but shopping just for fun or for therapy is quite an alien concept to me. I go in, grab what I need and rush out.

This desire to have less really started in earnest when I hit 40. I have several examples in my life of what having too much stuff can do to a person, and I am determined to avoid it. As I approached my 40th birthday, I considered getting a few boxes of stuff-to-donate together and asking my friends to take them away for me, in stead of bringing gifts. But in the end I got impatient and took the boxes to Hospice myself, a week before my birthday.

My new life philosophy is this: go ahead and accumulate things until you reach 40. Then, start giving things away, so that, by the time you reach 80, you can float off this planet as light and free as a butterfly, leaving behind as little as possible.

I do experience a psychological dilemma, though: I am a squirrel by nature. In leaner years, I’ve had to squirrel away every cent, and ended up squirrelling away every little thing too. That’s how I ended up with too much stuff in the first place. Fear of the future fuels this very natural urge to hoard. So while I will let myself squirrel money, I will no longer squirrel stuff. The emotional motivation is the same, but the results are very different. Compound interest in the bank is great. Compound interest in a cupboard full of stuff is not.

Let’s face it: we can’t take our stuff with us when we go. Our children and grandchildren probably won’t want it. We won’t get round to sorting and selling it before we croak. I believe it’s best to be proactive and prepared. A mantra repeats in my brain: reduce, re-use, recycle… gee weg, gooi weg.*

Back to the Joneses. I’ve checked out the progress on electric fence and I am now contemplating the implications. If someone sneaks into our yard, they won’t easily escape into the Jones yard. If someone manages to get into the Jones yard, they may well escape into our yard. Perhaps they’ll drop the TV with built-in fridge on our lawn, when our killer sausage dog catches them. Which gets me thinking about another benefit of having less: there is less to steal, less to lose, less to worry about, less to fear.

The electric fence will neither increase nor decrease security in our yard, all things considered. Then I recall a poem we did at school: Mending Wall by Robert Frost.  “Good fences make good neighbours!”

* Give away, throw away.

PS: Wouldn’t it be funny if Mrs J was also blogging away, posting pictures of MY back yard and lamenting the fact that she can’t use her huge entertaining deck because she would be mortified if her friends saw her neighbour’s back yard – shame, poor Mrs J…after all that expense…

Erica Neser (c) 2011

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Christa B-R
    Dec 06, 2011 @ 10:59:58

    Briljant!!!

    Reply

  2. Amy
    Dec 06, 2011 @ 15:52:08

    Great post – I am laughing at Mrs. J blogging about your back yard! But in all seriousness, I am with you on the reducing front. 40 is about when that hit me too, and now going on 50, I have very little…. this is a brilliant life philosophy:

    ‘… go ahead and accumulate things until you reach 40. Then, start giving things away, so that, by the time you reach 80, you can float off this planet as light and free as a butterfly, leaving behind as little as possible.”

    Thank you for that lovely imagery!

    Reply

    • ericanexpress
      Dec 06, 2011 @ 20:49:54

      Hi Amy!
      Thanks for the positive feedback! Striving towards being where you are in a few more years – to “have very little”. Still some way to go, but will get there!
      Keep well,
      Erica

      Reply

  3. ericanexpress
    Dec 06, 2011 @ 20:36:04

    Dankie Christa!xx

    Reply

  4. meladjusted
    Dec 06, 2011 @ 21:13:19

    considering how hot it gets in that Dorp I would be grateful for shade cast by that Block Of Flats! Can’t wait to see it in real life!

    Reply

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