My friend Marina visited recently and, over lunch on a sunny terrasse, suggested a blog topic: "How much is 'enough'?
I smiled, knowing I'd been writing a post on "simple living". And rewriting, because the notion is curiously complicated.
People aver that they lead "a simple life", though often I think, Do they really? Do I?
Part of the problem is the definition of what, indeed, defines such a life. Wikipedia calls simple living "a voluntary practice...which includes reducing one's possessions or increasing self-sufficiency."
Probably the most-used word in the simple-living blogs and articles I've read is enough as in, What is enough for you? However, controlling quantity is only part of the approach, and, even if you get rid of superfluous possessions, simple living remains elusive.
The antonym of simplicity is not complexity, which takes us into more psychological territory, but bulk. Like the drag coefficient in aerodynamics, bulk cuts into the streamlined, light footprint sought by simple-living devotees.
My formula is: Bulk= Stuff + Habits + Income x Time, or,
Bulk = SHIT.
You learn about all the cool stuff, the trophies and tchotkes you might possibly get; you develop habits of consumption (accepting false obsolescence, buying more than you need, buying for the endorphin hit), you spend big chunks of your income (or more). Time is the multiplier; as years pass, you devote ever more discretionary time to shopping, displaying and maintaining possessions.
We don't get a bulky life because we're greedy or dumb; we get it because at some point we literally bought a cultural message.
When I think of the messages I 'bought' during my early working life, the 1970s, they include:
1. Buying stuff is a reward for working hard. Wrapping a project, weathering a tough week or having my boss tell me he couldn't live without me = new shoes.
2. Buying with one's own money is the sign of a modern, autonomous, professional woman. I did feel powerful compared to my SAHM sister, who had to beg for shopping money from her husband.
Though I worked for a time in the financial services industry, women were considered spenders, not investors, and scant effort was made to include them in financial education.
3. My possesions are "me"; they extend and cosset my identity. And as "me" evolves, all my stuff needs to change.
I had eras in clothing, furniture, all that stuff. Each time I thought it would be forever. Gee, sounds like my dating life, too.
4. Hiring people to perform all kinds of services for you is good for the economy. One of my friends said, "I awoke one morning and realized every dime I'd earn that day would go to someone else: government, dog walker, therapist, gym trainer, cab driver, barista...". She promptly quit everything but paying her taxes and getting her hair cut.
It took a good 15 years to break away from those messages, and at times I can still go there, especially #4. And a lot of retirees are sold an insidious version of #1: "You worked hard, you deserve this."
The simple life sounds responsible, noble, a worthy goal to have achieved by my age. But in truth, I'm only simplish.
A not-quite-earned claim to "simple living" isn't deceptive, just wishful thinking, something I intend to do like using the little gum massager the dentist hands out.
The most common errors in claiming "a simple life" happen when confusing simplicity with
Our apartment looks spare and uncluttered, but it's a bit of a Potemkin village. Look in the bedroom and you'll see my shoes: 85%, regardless of
season, are black, arranged on one short rack. Very pared-down.
Now, open a dresser drawer, and surprise! It's jammed with stuff I'd never miss if burgled:
Occasionally my troves prove useful (a summer visitor specifically requested glycerine soap), but mostly they are forgotten clots of disarray.
2. Low income
I once inferred an inverse relationship between income and
simplicity, but then noticed some of the affluent women I know refuse bulk more consistently than those with modest means.
In my struggling young-20s, I didn't have much stuff, but would have, if I could have afforded it. Somehow as the years passed, I segued from "One day I'm gonna have real bookshelves" to a basement warren jammed with volumes I hadn't opened in decades.
I know people who can build a house, make a harpsicord, dig a well. They are not necessarily living simply. DIY is part of the simple-living canon, but there is such a thing as too many handmade throw pillows.
Hobbies practically guarantee bulking up, especially in the early stage of enthusiasm. Yes, you need the tools and gear, but it's easy to get carried away.
Sewers are a group who laugh at themselves about their pack-ratiness; don't try to tease cooks unless you want to be assaulted with a star-tipped pastry bag.
Older people often look like they've simplified: they downsize homes, purge work wardrobes and give away stuff. But, if grandparents, they can merely displace their consumption. As the manager of the children's department of a bookstore told me, "We love grandparents! They have no self-control."
Over the summer, I dropped some
services, beat back my Amazon habit, and DIY'd various house projects. I'm bartering for painting lessons. Le Duc actually uttered the words "I'm glad I don't own a car"– admittedly, in June.
I requested "no gifts" for my birthday, which was taken by family as "she can't mean this", but their choices were non-bulky, heartfelt, and even handmade. And that Marni necklace from my co-mother-in-law? I'm so glad she ignored me!
I'm considering doing my own hair colour but last time I tried, the bathroom looked like a "Dexter" set thanks to the red dye splatters; we had to paint the entire wall times over.
So, how much is enough? I'm not sure, but find that reducing bulk has connected me far more immediately and profoundly to the beauty of the everyday world.
On Thursday, I'll introduce you to a young couple who have made a bold choice about how they live, but for now, let's hear from you!