Travelling Light

Zoë Sharp

I wasn’t going to do a post about New Year, resolutions or plans or anything else this week. Once it’s over, for me it’s over, and there’s no use clinging to it. I hate that people leave Christmas lights up on buildings all through January. (Probably even more than I hate Christmas lights going up in October, but that’s another story.)

We took down our tree, our lights, our cards and decorations on Monday, the last Bank Holiday day. I enjoyed the holidays, but it’s time to focus forwards for me. I have a couple of deadlines coming up, and a tour to plan for the US launch of FOURTH DAY in March. Not to mention the new UK Charlie Fox, FIFTH VICTIM, at the same time.

Plus I have a load of email to catch up on. I managed to drop a particularly sharp carving knife through the side of my index finger between Christmas and New Year, which bled profusely and stopped me being able to operate a keyboard or mouse with any kind of ease. Thank goodness for SteriStrips!

We used some of the time on the run-up to the holidays getting some finishing-off jobs done on the house. You know, the kind of things you think you’ll get around to when you’re building, but actually get left and left and left. It feels good to finally have some order.

We’ve even used up some scrap lengths of 4x1in timber to make some outside planters for the garden, thus not having to either get rid of the wood, or buy expensive planters. That’s my kind of recycling.

This early spring cleaning has inspired us to have a thorough de-clutter, going through piles of paperwork that have been gathering dust bunnies to rival a German Giant in corners of the office. And for those of you who’ve never seen a German Giant Rabbit, here is one: 

I suppose I’m just at the stage where travelling light is starting to look very attractive. I don’t want any more STUFF. In fact, getting rid of a lot of stuff seems like a good idea. Actually, I’ll qualify that. I only want useful stuff – and by that I mean stuff that I have a regular need for. Thus the cast iron sizzling plates somebody bought us as a gift about seven or eight years ago, and which we’ve never actually used, can go. Over the next few weeks and months, we aim to shed clutter, mental and physical, a little bit at a time.

Wait a minute, this is sounding dangerously like a resolution, isn’t it?

I hope not, because I read a news report that said the average New Year’s Resolution lasts about a week. Today’s the 6th. That means by this weekend the vast majority of good intentions will have tottered their last few steps and collapsed in a pool of apathy. Which is rather sad. I suppose the best time to talk about NYRs is the end of January, to see which ones have survived a month at least. But in fact we just tend to look back at the end of the year and mourn the ones that didn’t make it through.

And all that does is create dissatisfaction and discontentment.

I’m not a religious person, but ever since I discovered Max Ehrmann’s remarkable poem, Desiderata, many years ago, it has struck me as a good guide to life. If I can try and follow it some some extent this year, I’ll be a happy bunny.


Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble, it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. Let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.


This week’s Word of the Week (for no other reason than I like the sound of it) is stumer, which is a Scots slang term for a counterfeit coin or note; a forged or worthless cheque; a sham; a dud; a failure; bankruptcy; a horse sure to lose; a stupid mistake; a clanger; a stupid person.


46 thoughts on “Travelling Light

  1. Rose Judson

    I nodded in agreement (figuratively speaking) quite a bit while reading this post, but this part is the only bit I have a coherent response at hand for:

    "I hate that people leave Christmas lights up on buildings all through January. (Probably even more than I hate Christmas lights going up in October, but that’s another story.)"

    This also baffles me. I know we like to refer to "the Christmas season", but it isn't meant to last an entire, you know, season.

    I was lucky enough to have enlightened parents who knew that children who lived in a home where Christmas wasn't built up and up and up over a period of months were less likely to be disappointed on Christmas morning, and possibly more likely to focus on things other than presents– than "stuff". So they observed St. Nicholas Day – 6 December – for starting Christmas cards and having us submit gift lists. After that, nothing.

    It was sort of nice to come home from the outside world in the early part of December and have it be a relatively Christmas-free zone. Then, on Christmas Eve, the tree and lights and whatever else went up, and came down promptly twelve days later, on the morning of January 6th.

    I practice this myself now. Keeping it out of the house until the last minute makes it more special; you're not completely sick of it by November 30th, and you're not quite so blue when it's over.

  2. billie

    I think of our tree/lights as more of a solstice tradition with more to do with "lighting the dark winter" than anything else, so we keep ours up until the mood shifts toward at least thinking about spring. I love the little white lights though and have at various times used strands of them in various places all year long.

    Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful passage. I used to keep copies of it in my office for clients, so saw it regularly, but now that my office is at home, I haven't done that – I have it in a book, but the book must be hiding on a shelf b/c I haven't seen it in a long while!

  3. Debbie

    A principal gave Desiderata to my friend in grade school and told her to hold onto it until she could understand the poem. She pulled it out many times when she suffered pain in her dysfunctional family, each year understanding a little more. She shared it with me in high school and my characters shared it with each other, laying the foundation for the characters interactions, in a thematic way.

    My mom used to leave the decorations up until the Orthodox Christmas, but this year my own undecorating was completed and packed into storage before New Year's Eve rolled around.

  4. judy wirzberger

    Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

    What a magnificent post to enlighten. Thanks, Zoeeee. And may a cut finger be the worst that happens to you this year. Wouildn't that be loverly.

  5. toni mcgee causey

    I love this poem – I've had it, seems like, for forever. One of the sentences which struck me in high school was this one:

    "Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story."

    It's not just tolerance, not just acceptance; those words imply some sort of superiority over others. It's embracing–listening to people who are not like me, who have different opinions, who have walked different walks in life, and understanding their stories. I love that.

  6. Eika

    "You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."

    That's the line that got me, that sang at me, the first time. I've read it through every time I've been in difficulty, and sometimes just for fun. Every time? That line.

    As for Christmas lights, I like them, because I work odd hours at a fast food place. They make it easier to see the road on storm cloud nights; there are a lot of people around here with outdoor cats to be paranoid about. I also just like looking at them; it's a tradition to drive around looking at them all on Christmas Eve, here. Half the town does it.

    And then there's the 'leaving them up' and 'leaving them on' argument. My parents are trying to figure out if they can leave the three strings of lights in the outdoor tree without hurting the spring leaves, since they were such a pain to put up. As long as they're not on, they're hard to see, so…

  7. Kim C

    Just pre-ordered Fifth Victim from Amazon. =)

    "I suppose I’m just at the stage where traveling light is starting to look very attractive. I don’t want any more STUFF." — I'm right there with you on this one. I'm also on a de-clutter mission. I haven't made as much progress as I'd like, but every time I take a box into the donation center, I feel a little lighter.

  8. Allison Davis

    Today is Twelfth Night…and the start of Mardi Gras Season. Toni and others familiar with that custom will nod, that today you take down the Christmas lights and put up the Mardi Gras decorations and watch for the Phorty Phunny Phellows riding the street car….so that's when my lights come down.

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rose

    I love your family's idea of Christmas. It's become such a time of commercial gluttony that you're right – you're already starting to get overloaded by the end of November.

    I'm very tempted to adopt putting up the tree on Christmas Eve, although we never do that until quite well into December. I do like to get cards sorted early, though, particularly the ones going overseas. We had another arrive this morning, which seems a shame after all the others have come down.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Billie

    Ah, having strings of decorative lights wrapped around something is not necessarily Christmassy to me. We used to go skiing in North Conway, NH every March and they still had lights up on all the store fronts and the trees then, but they didn't have Christmas trees and neon Santas and the like, which are the things that start looking forlorn after Twelfth Night, I feel. But lighting is one of the most important features of a home for me. We spent a long time designing the lighting when we built our house.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Debbie

    I can't remember when I first heard Desiderata, but it's always stuck with me. In fact, when I went into the Poems and Quotations folder on my desktop to grab it for this blog, I discovered that it was in a file there created ten years ago. (And no, that wasn't the last time I upgraded my computer – I just tend to copy the files across.) I think before then I was using a different program and had to re-type it.

    All the decs packed away by New Year's Eve? Hmm, that's a bit quick even for me ;-] It's a good time to get the last of the Christmas indulgence food finished, but once the tree comes down, it's time to get back on track. Mind you, someone gave me some Marmite-flavoured chocolate this year. Sounds disgusting, but tastes wonderful! I still have half a bar of it left in the fridge for special occasions.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Judy

    Actually, the 'gracefully surrendering things of youth' bit is possibly the only thing I'm not keen on. Getting old is a state of mind. I've known people who were old in their 30s – their 20s, come to that – who seemed to think that shedding a childlike sense of fun was part of being a grown-up. That's not for me. I was riding the empty shopping trolley back to the stack at the supermarket only yesterday ;-]

    Yes, if I can get away with not injuring myself too much this year, I'll be happy. Car photography can sometimes turn into a full-contact sport, though …

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eve

    Stumer is a lovely one, isn't it? I'm always getting sidetracked whenever I venture into the dictionary, but since I started blogging here I can simply claim that I'm researching my future Words of the Week. Any excuse to graze through interesting words.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Kim

    Bless you for the preorder, and I hope you enjoy FIFTH VICTIM when it arrives. Charlie's very good at improvising self-defence, but this is the first book where she actually throws a horse at someone ;-]

    I agree that taking boxes of stuff and donating them is very theraputic. We have a local British Heart Foundation charity shop in the nearest town and they will be seeing a lot of us in the weeks to come. That and our local small supermarket has just introduced a clothing bank.

    I have visions of someone in a Third World Nation running around in a T-shirt from the International Auto Sound Challenge Association World Finals 1992…

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Debbie

    I agree – LED lights are the way to go as far as the environment is concerned. We were forced by the building regs to install long-life bulbs, but it turns out they're filled with mercury and although they last for an average of 9 years, disposing of them after that time is not a happy proposition.

  16. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I suspect "Eliminate clutter" and "Live by the Desiderata" may be all the resolutions anyone ever needs.

    I have this part up on my wall: "Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."

  17. toni mcgee causey

    I love receiving Christmas cards, especially from overseas. 😀 And every single year, I think, "This is the year I get the cards addressed and mailed." Every year, I buy beautiful cards and every year, I end up finding said beautiful cards as I put away the Christmas stuff and then I realize, duh, did it again. So I put the box in a good place where I know I'll have them ahead of time next year and will get them done. And by next year, I will no longer have a clue where that safe place was.

    Somewhere, over here, there are about 23 boxes of cards, mocking me. They are probably next to the missing socks and the remote control.

  18. Reine

    Hi Zöe,

    Pretty much ditto for me.

    We put up several of those 9-year light bulbs. Not one lasted 9 months. They weren't exactly cheap.

    My clutter is going. Steve's is another issue. He better get used to not having a maid.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    I try to be a good listener – writing articles for many years demanded it. I was there to listen and grasp the essence of someone else's story, not my own.

    However, it's sometimes hard to be a good listener if the person you're in conversation with has not read Desiderata and doesn't realise that even if they obviously think YOU'RE dull and ignorant, sometimes it would be nice if you were allowed to get a word in edgeways nevertheless ;-]

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eika

    The whole of Desiderata does it for me, but certain lines have more significance at times than others.

    I think because we live in a rural area where there is no streetlighting, I enjoy being able to see the stars. Lots of lights at ground level make that harder. And back when I used to sail, coming into shore at night was fraught enough without a barrage of additional lights to make identifying navigation lights even harder!

    But some Christmas lights are incredibly pretty. We were in Lancaster last week, and they'd put nets of blue lights in a lot of the trees, which was just magical. Mind you, there are some people who coat their houses in so many lights you practically need a welding mask to look at them.

    Moderation in all things ;-]

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Eliminating clutter and living by Desiderata would be good maxims, wouldn't they?

    Andy bought me a book on Buddhism for Christmas, as I'm fascinated by the philosphy. Maybe I'm turning a bit more spiritual in my old age!

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi again Toni

    Sorry for the muddled-up replies to the comments. My computer decided to play silly sods and start falling over every time I tried to post a comment, so I wasn't sure what I'd responded to and what I hadn't.

    I like sending cards to distant places, and always worry they're not going to turn up until mid-Jan, so I do try to get them away early. And I have one place in the stationery cupboard where the cards live, so I can usually find them again. Doesn't stop me forgetting how many we have left and buying more, though.

    We have the opposite problem with remote controls. Ones for unknown pieces of equipment appear as if from nowhere. I think they're breeding under the coffee table at night…

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    The 9yr bulbs have been up about 5yrs so far without a problem – touch wood. And we have some of the halogen spots as well, as you can't put a dimmer on the low-voltage ones. In the past, I've found that halogens tend to blow a lot, but it seems that having on a dimmer makes them last a lot longer. So far, anyway.

    It's a sad piece of trivia that on Jan 1st, California banned 100-watt incandescent light bulbs and GE has closed its last manufacturing plant, almost 100 years after Edison invented the thing.

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Spencer

    "I used to keep Christmas lights up year round in my dorm room in college, but only to help heighten the effects of the…"

    Erm, late-night studying?

  25. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Beautiful poem, I'm printing it out and will read it aloud to the wife and kids.
    And, Zoe, you didn't like the cast iron sizzling plates I bought you?

  26. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Damn, I forgot you might read this…

    Erm, we love them, we're just, um, on a no-fried-food-on-cast-iron diet.

    (Hmm, might have got away with that. On the other hand, maybe not…)

  27. Alafair Burke

    Wise not to comment 🙂

    You have me thinking I should clean my office when I get back from vacation. Did I mention I'm on vacation? In Arizona? So snow, coats, or boots? I am feeling very much like a child of the universe with a chance to be here. Desire to clean is now gone. 🙂

    (Thanks for the cute bunny pic)

  28. Catherine

    Zoë, my daughter was horrified to see Easter eggs in the supermarket today…and I noticed today that the city post office has not taken down Christmas decorations…yet.

    Thanks also for posting the Desiderata.It's is good to revisit and has more resonance than my usual Kenny Rodger's inspiration of, ' you gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know to walk away, know when to run…'

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    Hope you're having a lovely time and that Arizona heat has seeped into your winter bones. You need a bit of that at this time of year, don't you? I can't wait to go to Tucson in March, when it should be pleasantly warm rather than furnace-like.

    I have a thing about German Giant rabbits – I think they're just wonderful. I'd love to have one as a house pet, because if a stranger visited and this enormous rabbit loped across the living room floor in front of them, you could pretend you couldn't see it. It would be a very Harvey-esque moment ;-]

  30. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    Yup, we saw chocolate eggs in the supermarket this week. Mind you, I recall that all we expected or received at Easter was the odd choccy egg. Now, I'm told, it's the biggest gift-buying time of year after Christmas. Eeh, kids today …

    I hadn't heard the Kenny Rogers quote – very cool!

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