Counting Down to Keep Up

My friend Naomi writes a blog about simpler living (named, appropriately enough, Simpler Living.). In fact, it’s how we met, because I find myself drawn to the same sorts of things she discusses in her blog.

Naomi started it as her version of Dave Bruno’s 100 Thing Challenge. It was an appealing idea – at that point, I had moved twice in a little over two years, and I was well aware of the benefits of having less. Tracking intentional pairing down without having a move at the end of it seemed like a good idea, and I was still rather overwhelmed with the general accumulation of detritus that happened when I wasn’t looking. (Or rather, that happened when I started using my parents basement as a storage cellar, and then suddenly had a lot of it to take with me when I moved 3000 miles away.)

A snippet of a summer bounty.

Jams, sauces, and pears - canning is part of my minimalism.

When I started thinking actively about this, thanks to Naomi, the whole minimalism movement was somewhat in it’s infancy. So there were a lot of like-minded people about, interested in how to reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose, and how to cut back and avoid participating in a conspicuously consuming culture. There were people looking to simply declutter their lives, and other people looking to return to a simpler life. What people defined as simpler often revolved around their lifestyle – simpler for one person meant cooking at least one full, from scratch dinner a week, while for another person it meant baking his own bread, and another person started canning and preserving the CSA bounty for winter treats.

It was, in other words, a movement motivated by shared goals applied to individual lives in specific and tailored ways. Which, if you think about it, is really the pinnacle of rejecting a conspicuous consumption culture, where everyone should have the biggest, best, most recent, most expensive – and everyone has and tries for the same cookie cutter things.

Quirky, unique, and custom – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, cut to two years later, and there’s a lot of division in the minimalism communities. Today, Karol Gadja of Ridiculously Extraordinary really solidified the problem: minimalism has become it’s own version of Keeping Up with the Jones’s; the very thing that many of us tried to consciously get away from when we gravitated towards a simpler lifestyle.

Now, instead of whether or not you have the latest and best flatscreen TV or the nicest luxury car on the block, people talk about how minimal you are. And if you don’t meet their particular standards, then be prepared to be judged, called names, told you’re boring and ordinary and part of the problem. (Just for one particularly grating example.) And if you think about it, this kind of one-upmanship is the exact same thing you see when people are comparing their cars, their houses, their purchases. It’s just that instead of measuring against consumption, the marker has become a sort of limbo “how low can you go”.

Is this any more helpful? I don’t think so, because it’s playing on the same sort of competitive drive – it’s just the flip side of the same coin, where you’re still having to struggle to keep up. It’s just a different sort of keeping up. You know how food advocates are always saying “read the labels, read the labels”, so that you don’t get caught up in the hype? This is the same thing – the hype makes it look different, but under the hype, it’s the same exact thing.

There’s nothing wrong with setting goals, or using numbers to make things tangible for yourself. But there’s a lot wrong with having your motivation be external forces and a drive to prove to those external forces that you’re just as good, just as minimal – and that you’re capable of bagging on people who don’t meet your arbitrary goals and ideals. (Which, by the way and for clarity, is not at all what either Naomi or Karol are doing. But if you’re at all involved in minimalism, you certainly know people who do this. Why, just look at the link above that doesn’t belong to Naomi or Karol’s blog. Ahem.)

Naomi recently went through her last two boxes of things, which is actually what inspired Karol to write, and me to join the discussion. And she notes that she’s living lighter, and is happier and more appreciative about the things she does have in her life.

And that’s what this is all about – reevaluating your life and removing yourself from the rat race that makes you unhappy. So if your version of minimalism is all about sewing your own clothing from organic, fair labour clothing, go for it! If your version of minimalism is about fitting two people and five cats in a 400 square foot home, more power to you and your litterbox. If you want a full pantry for the winter, made with the bounty of the summer, join the club.

Just don’t opt out of one rat race to join another. That’s missing the entire point – of doing what makes you happy, rather than using the yardstick of others.

In Moving, as Life, a Matter of Balance

help me find a reason…

I stand in the middle of the bedroom and count boxes. They’re all clearly labeled; I’ve made a point of labeling all sides so that no matter how a box is grabbed, it will be easy to see where to place it on the other side of this move. Box: Bedroom: TShirts + Tops (+sweaters). Box: Bedroom: Tanks, Tees, + Business. Box: Bedroom: Long + Business Skirts.

It goes on. There are, as a matter of fact, eight boxes of clothing. There will probably be another after I do laundry, plus a small backpack of clothing for the day or two after moving, when I am too tired to unpack.

Help me find a reason
Before my judgment day
To make some big, big money
So’s I can run away

Is eight boxes of clothing too much? I don’t know. I know that some people in the simple living community would consider anything beyond a backpack of possessions (so, I’d have to ditch the cats, too) as too much, and not true to the spirit of simple living.

I know that on the other side of the equation are people like Michael S. Rosenwald of the Washington Post, hoarders with piles and some degree of awareness of the problem.

And then there’s me – the between. Are eight boxes of clothes too much? If you want to pick up and move on a moment’s notice, probably (I’m doing this in less than a week of packing, but that’s going to be too long for people who live out of a backpack). But it’s also a concession to reality. Taking a closer look at the boxes, I see that they begin to break down into neat categories: business formal, business casual, my own casual (still rather unabashedly goth). My living choice – of wearing clothing that I am comfortable with when I am not in a professional environment, that captures what I see as the external manifestations of my own quirky personality – means that I, by necessity, have to have more clothing than if I were happy to wear business casual clothing all the time. I haven’t actually been in an environment where I’ve had to wear business clothing of any type for two-odd years; however, I have always been aware of the fact that I will move back into that world, and in fact this upcoming move is another step back into that environment. Business clothing of any type is expensive, and I couldn’t justify getting rid of clothing that I genuinely liked, knowing that if I did it would just need to be replaced in a relatively short period of time. That falls too much on the side of conspicuous consumption – getting rid of something that is fine just because you don’t need it now and can replace it later.

But there’s certainly a balance between acknowledging the reality of a life in transition (as I have been these last few years) and verging over into hoarding every small thing. Will I really darn those socks with the hole in the toe? Is that top really going to be bleached back to white? Will I use that skirt the moths got to for a pattern, ever?

In a room full of mirrors
I want to do that again
Good god what’s the reason
For this killing game
I only want everything

So far, the balance seems to be held between extremes, for which I’m grateful. I’m sure that those who advocate a stark minimalist lifestyle (mistaking it for a simple lifestyle, when in fact they are not at all the same thing) find my life one of excess. I’m sure that most people, happily in the middle with me, trying to balance their consumption with their ideals, their desire to live simply with the necessity of managing difficult public faces, merely and simply relate. And I’m sure that those who have drifted away from the balance into hoarding, and are aware of it, look at my life with some grateful envy – I have not become consumed by my possessions.

Then I look at the stacks of bankers boxes full of books neatly lined up against my living room wall – 15 or so, the last time I counted – and sigh, and the mental debate begins again.

Help me get that again
Hey hey hey
Before my judgment day

difficult decluttering

There’s something I’ve been putting off doing for a while now, for no real good reason: cleaning out my bookmarks in Firefox. I had links in there from as far back as early 2007; links for tracking flights for my last boss, blog post data and background research, cover ideas for the journal I was working on at the time.

Being a relatively normal web user, who still finds links worth keeping, I had created a situation where every time I needed to find a link, I had to scroll past the detritus of the past three-odd years. And a lot of that detritus was – is – a painful reminder of all the ways my life went so badly off the rails since late 2006. I often ended up looking away as I scrolled to the bottom of a long list of links, knowing that what I wanted had to be in those last five or ten links. Out of sight, out of mind, literally implemented.

I knew that I had to clean the bookmarks out. I’ve known it for months. I’ve known it for years. But doing that meant having to look at the links; it meant having to evaluate links, having to look at things I haven’t looked at in years. Things that still sting. Reminders of when I glowed so brightly, before it all fell apart.

Intellectually, I can acknowledge that much of what’s happened was outside of my control, but people have separated emotion and intellect for a long time, and for good reason.

The thing is, by not facing the past, accepting the changes, and clearing out the detritus from that time frame, I was keeping it around. Even if I looked away from the bookmarks menu as I scrolled down in an effort to find whatever it was I was looking for, I still saw it – I still knew what I was looking away from. And in some ways, I guess that meant I was letting it control me.

I sat down earlier today, shortly after changing the title of this blog, and I cleared out my bookmarks. I created folders for themes, deleted most of the old folders and links that were there, and put other things away in categories I won’t use right now, but maybe I’ll use again some day. Was it the easiest thing in the world? No. But neither was it as hard, or as tedious, as I thought it would be. Many of the links were dead, and those that weren’t just… were. Yes, they had memories attached, but that’s all they were: memories.

It’s just the first step in the digital cleanup I need to do, both on this blog and on my computer as a whole. And even though it’s data, and the literal weight of the computer doesn’t change, I feel lighter already.