Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What Is a Simple Life?

It's been quiet around here for a few weeks because I've been stumped.

A friend of mine recently posted a question on Facebook: "What is simple living?"

Well, don't I feel like a bonehead for not asking that question of myself in the first place.

Seven other people responded to her question. Some said simple living with kids was not possible. Some described what was essentially a peaceful afternoon. One said, no, who cares about a simple life? Embrace its craziness!

My response to her post went like this: For me it's a matter of making only the choices that are important to my quality of life, including commitments and belongings. It's not having to spend time taking care of things and having more time and mental space to do, think, create, and share.

I thought about her question a bit more and added: I think a simplified life requires constant vigilance because of the difficulty of saying no.

But now that I've had three weeks to stew about the question, and look around at different ways that people have tried to answer that question, I think I have at least something to throw out there. As a start. And I reserve the right to change my mind or expand on the ideas I'm kicking out here today.

The original impetus for simplifying came during a time when I felt totally overwhelmed with my life and unable to make time to do the things that were important to me.  I've already recounted how I discovered The Zero Waste Home and the impact Bea Johnson had on me. Johnson actually has two simultaneous endeavors going on at once in her household: zero waste living and also "simplifying," which when you read what she's actually doing sounds more like minimalism.

In one of her posts Bea Johnson said that Little House on the Prairie was her favorite TV show because of the simplicity of life that it portrayed. Ignoring the many anachronisms from that show (my personal favorite being how people drove their gigantic wagons pulled by gigantic horses around just like they were driving a station wagon... but I suppose I can laugh about that another time), I want to point out that if you actually look at the sets they are chock full of stuff, including lots of multiples -- something Johnson finds offensive in her own home life. Moreover, I don't know what's "simple" about, for example, rousing all your children, aged 5 and up, out of their warm beds at two or three in the morning to save the corn crop from an unseasonable snap freeze, as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts in Farmer Boy. Or in eating the same meal over and over and over again for weeks at a time because there is absolutely no other food available. It's not simplified living if you can't choose where you simplify.

But I digress.

So what is simple living? I think it's focused living. I have some goals and some values.

  • To live in a way that hurts as few people as possible
  • To never stop learning or changing my mind about what I thought I knew
  • To be kind and supportive of other people
  • To be healthy for my entire adult life so that when I'm old I don't die infirm
  • To be as good a writer as I can possibly be
  • To be pretty (I know it's vain, but it's true)
  • To make all the choices that reflect how rich and varied life can be that are consistent with the path I have set for myself

For my children, I want:

  • Good health and an excellent sense of themselves
  • Diligence in the presence of failure or uncertainty
  • Habits that will make it easier for them to make the choices that will make them happy
  • The time and leisure to do childish things
  • The opportunity to find out what they love and what they are good at
For our entire family:
  • Gratitude for all that blesses us

Anything that distracts me from these goals and values for myself or my family is complicating my life. This doesn't mean that the life I have laid out for myself is simple in itself; in many ways it's a lot more complicated than living unconsciously. Just the goal of being healthy, for instance, requires a lot of effort. I have to determine what kind of diet will best further that goal; I have to be conscious of what is actually going into the foods I bring home and prepare, or what I choose when we eat out. I have to make the effort to make exercise a part of my schedule, and figure out how to make it part of my kids' schedule as well, so that they will learn it as an ordinary and necessary part of life, like sleep. When I fall off the wagon (as I do regularly) I have to pay attention to what I let distract me from my goals and make the effort to rebuild in a way that won't set me up for failure again.

No, this kind of life is not simple, but it's a lot simpler than relying on (and paying for) ten prescriptions with all the complications (read: side effects) they bring. It's simpler than being miserable for being fat and not fitting my favorite clothes and thereby violating my goal of being pretty. It's simpler than trying to undo the consequences of not making the effort -- and that I know for sure, because I'm doing it now. It's simpler than wondering what life could have been if I had lived it according to my own desires.

Owning too much stuff also distracts from my goals and values. I can't be grateful for my blessings if I'm drowning in them. Not being able to find things is my biggest, biggest peeve ever. I resent and loathe the waste of every minute spent looking for things that are buried under things I don't care about. Downsizing from the Big House has been a great improvement on this problem -- there are only so many places any given thing can be in this little house -- but it still happens occasionally. I do not want to spend my life looking for things. That is so not simple.

Of course the lists above are only partial, but it probably would help me a lot to make a more thorough, personal list for my own use to keep me on track. As my children get older I'd like to distill it into a family motto that we could post in our home, something they have had a say in so that they have a stake in living it. I'm also finding that over-simplifying is not a good idea. Living in a little rental house in a walkable neighborhood is nice in many ways, but it precludes the vegetable garden I enjoyed, and the decorating possibilities that make me feel creative and capable. That's not simple, it's unnecessarily ascetic and unsustainable. Finding and maintaining a simple life is, I think, a constant work in progress.

If you want to explore all kinds of ways of adopting a simple life, here are some of the resources I looked at while I was stewing over this post:

Since I'm a Wikipedia junky I'll share the definition for simple living found there:
Simple living encompasses a number of different voluntary practices to simplify one's lifestyle. These may include reducing one's possessions or increasing self-sufficiency, for example. Simple living may be characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they need rather than want. Although asceticism generally promotes living simply and refraining from luxury and indulgence, not all proponents of simple living are ascetics. Simple living is distinct from those living in forced poverty, as it is a voluntary lifestyle choice.  
Adherents may choose simple living for a variety of personal reasons, such as spirituality, health, increase in "quality time" for family and friends, work–life balance, personal taste, frugality, or reducing personal ecological footprint and stress. Simple living can also be a reaction to materialism and conspicuous consumption. Some cite socio-political goals aligned with the anti-consumerist or anti-war movements, including conservation, degrowth, social justice, ethnic diversity, tax resistance and sustainable development.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Paper Clutter

Today is Saturday.  I'm sitting in the living room, cleaning out some paper clutter that has been weighing on me since... Oh, I don't know, I've had paper clutter weighing on me since I encountered adulthood.

This seems like a good moment to give a shout out to my friends from college.  In the early 1990's, not everyone had a computer to themselves, and I was one of the fortunate few who did.  It was an enormous "portable" computer with a six-inch green-and-black screen and two floppy disk drives (the luxury!) and it weighed about as much as an overpacked suitcase.  I had my own printer too, an utterly aggravating dot matrix that invariably failed to function on the date that any paper was due.  If I had a paper to turn in I always turned up about halfway through the class. (Probably I should have started my three page papers more than thirty minutes before they were due; putting words on a page has never been a problem for me).

Anyway, I was generous with my electronic access -- my friends could use my computer whenever they needed, and in thanks they tidied my dorm room up for me.  Thanks, Alene, Heather, Tiara, and anyone else unlucky enough to need me!  You guys rocked!!

As a resident advisor I had piles and piles and piles of paper coming through my inbox every day. I was expected to hang it on the floor bulletin boards.  Sometimes I did, usually I missed the dates.  I had no system for managing it and nobody ever suggested the idea of a routine to me.  I just made random choices moment to moment, based on what I "felt like" and what was most urgent at the time.  When I graduated from college most of the paper problem evaporated, but now that I have three kids in school it has returned with a vengeance (home ownership has an impact as well, though I haven't not been one long enough to see the improvement).

I'm a grown up and it's summer vacation.  I can take the time to create a process that will keep me from having to bring in help in dealing with all this paper.  I'd like to also model a rather better strategy for dealing with my paper for my kids, as well, so they find themselves less overwhelmed as they grow into their own paper problems.

So today I am clearing the decks.  I've got a stack of recipes that have been collecting wine spots on my counters and a stack of magazines to cull.  I found one this morning from 2002 -- YIKES. I'm pleased to see how much useful information I'm encountering, though, so I'll share a few strategies I'm working on to deal with all this crap these responsibilities.

1.  File folders.  Bonehead!  Yes, it has taken me nine years to figure out that I need file folders.  I'm sorry, but I'm a slow learner.  No, actually I'm not a slow learner; I've just been slow to appreciate that what I'm doing is important enough to merit file folders. In my former life as a CPA/corporate tax preparer, file folders, red and blue pencils, and my computer were the primary tools of my trade.  Somehow, when I stopped working in that profession, I devalued myself.  Only people with "real careers" need file folders, right? The rest of us are just indulging in org porn.  WRONG! I need file folders! I need to know where I've kept all the home maintenance receipts and the kids' school papers, the directories for church and school, the medical stuff... I need a lot of file folders. And it only took me ten years to value home management as a valid activity worth investing a few supplies... that I already have around the house. Aries is certainly a bone-headed sign...

2.  Binders.  My mother-in-law started me with my first binder when my husband and I were engaged.  She gave me a gigantic three-inch binder filled with magazine tear sheets in sheet protectors. It was all home decorating information: pictures of beautiful rooms filled all three inches (do you know how many pictures that was???)  That binder was a godsend when we bought our fixer-upper, when I was expecting babies and creating nurseries for them, and especially when we remodeled.  I added more binders over the years: a gardening binder, one for the holidays, and a recipe binder.  When my husband was doing more DIY projects I created one for him as well, though at the moment all but the decorating and recipe binders are currently disbanded.  I'm going to create two new ones that reflect my current interests and abilities -- no point in fantasizing about elaborate garden and holiday projects I can't indulge: articles about writing, and fashion inspirations.

3.  Evernote. The binder system works beautifully for image-heavy content; it's like the pre-Pinterest Pinterest, but not so great for more detailed information.  (reasons I'm not using Pinterest anymore here)  Sheet protectors prevent organizing tabs from being visible and I generally want a whole menu, rather than a single recipe, when I am coming up with meals.  I'm trying to be sort of low-carb and would love ideas for breakfasts that start me off successfully.  My kids love traditional breakfasts any time of day and I want to know how to make treats that are more nutritious for them. I have family recipes I don't want to lose track of, but that I also don't want to make more than once a year. My usual method for getting recipes is to pull them off internet searches, especially, and then I have a stack of cooking-stained scrap papers with ingredient proportions, no instructions; fifty-fifty if they have a recipe name attached to them.  The longer they hang around the more successful I consider them, but either way I have to read the ingredient proportions to know what it is.  I've been using Evernote for my novel planning, but it took my husband pointing out its usefulness for recipe organization.  Using this system will make it easier for me to prepare weekly menus and shopping lists, as well.

4.  Bins.  Every organizing article and book I've ever read (no small number) asks: What the hell do I do with all the kid output? In my attic I have a 30-gallon tote full of all the stuff my mom saved from my childhood. I know what's in it because it was my childhood, but otherwise it is of almost no interest to me. My husband has a 3.0 cubic foot moving box from his childhood. I might have looked in it when we were newly married, but I couldn't tell you today what is in it. We don't care a whole lot about that stuff, but we also recognize that when our children are older they might find it interesting. So I have designated a 17-gallon bin for each of my children to last the entire time they are under my roof.

When we moved to California from Virginia I learned that the further I get from the time the artwork was created, the easier it is to discard it. When I had been away from the children for a little over a week to empty the house and see to the boxing up and shipping, I couldn't bear to toss all their little drawings and projects.  A year after the move-in, I could not understand why I had trucked all that stuff three thousand miles. (Sure am glad I didn't pay to ship it!) I kept one piece. But with the bins, I have a place to store the stuff till I have enough perspective to choose my favorites, to see how they develop so I can choose the piece that is most representative of what kind of people they were, and to have new darlings that I need to make room for.

*   *   *

I've been silent for a week or more, as I struggle to put together a post that I should probably have done first.  I want to come up with a definition for simple living, a question that was posed by a friend on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. It has been harder than I thought (and not helped by losing half an entry from some kind of Blogger glitch), so I'm asking for some help.  What is Simple Living to you? What are you looking for when you read these posts?  What changes are you looking to make in your own lifestyle?

And in the meantime: Don't be afraid to invest in your own needs.  Take your role as Home CEO seriously enough to have a planned home for the documents that are generated in this not-simple world we are navigating and make your life a little simpler. Recognize when things that used to work don't, and be willing to adjust.  And most importantly, think about what works for you, your personality, your household, and your activities.

And if you're blogging, please be sure to use pictures and text that you have permission to use. Simple generally precludes being involved in a legal action.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


After hearing several stories of bloggers being sued for use of photographs found on the internet, I've decided to take down the ones that put me at risk.  I will leave the posts up without pictures until I can re-illustrate them, so please be patient with me as I trawl through this process.

For one post with a lot of information about fair use, etc., that can lead to other sites with similar information, follow this link and read the comments as well, which include input from photographers.

I guess I'll also be learning photography, so please bear with me as I work my way through this learning curve!