“The trouble with simple living is that, though it can be joyful, rich, and creative, it isn’t simple.”
-Doris Janzen Longacre
We just took our annual family holiday trip. We spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day unplugging and escaping the craziness of life. We relax and reconnect as a family. We find a cozy cabin somewhere and settle in with books and family favorite meals. This year we especially needed it.
As we booked our trip, I looked at the tiny map on the cabin’s website. I had no idea where it was located other than the fact that it was near a lake in Virginia. I had no context and did not recognize any of the roads or landmarks. I was lost. A few clicks zoomed me out to a bird’s eye view. Suddenly, I could see familiar markers, Interstate 85, state lines, parks and landmarks. I found my bearings. I was not lost anymore.
This broad perspective is exactly what I needed in my life as 2016 came to a close. I was swirling around lost in details, bogged down in tiny, winding roads and menial tasks overloading my motherboard. My life was cluttered and suffocating me. But our week away allowed me time and space to zoom out and focus on the important things. My healthy kids, my husband, friendships, good books and peace in nature were there all along, but I was blinded by the so-called urgent needs and over-stimulation of the season.
While I am extremely grateful for our family respite, the question now becomes how can I maintain this balanced perspective into the new year? Once I return to our usual routine, running a business, school, work, and daily obligations, can I keep my mind focused on what is most important? We have decided to set our intentions for 2017 to be a year of simplicity. By removing some of the clutter and material objects in our lives, we hope to maintain our footing of living in the present and staying focused on the priorities of our choosing.
My husband and I recently watched “Minimalism,” a documentary about Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, known as “The Minimalists.” The film shows the liberating power that can come from simplifying and releasing all the stuff we think we need. We create complications and obligations for ourselves by attaching our happiness to material things. This concept struck a chord with me. Over the holidays as I scrolled through social media, my brain was inundated with stuff - wrapping paper, plastic, bags and discarded boxes. There was just so much excess. A quick stroll through my house made me nauseous. Every closet, drawer and shelf seemed to be bursting with objects. As I looked more closely, I realized I had absolutely no connection to most of these things. There were toys, old notebooks, games, trinkets and papers that we had not needed or used in years. How do we live this way? Why are we saving all this stuff?
At this point, you might be wondering if we are hoarders. We are not, at least not to the naked eye. If you visit our home, you will find that things are pretty tidy. Countertops stay cleared and wiped down each night. Our kids are required to keep their stuff in their rooms. Our family areas remain clutter-free and open for communal use. But it does not take much excavation to find drawers and closets hiding our mounting collection of junk. I advocate spending our money on experiences not things, but clearly my home would tell a different story. I can't even talk about the garage or attic.
After watching the documentary, I cleaned out three junk drawers and filled five trash bags in my son’s room. It was exhilarating. “Jude, aren’t you excited? Look at all the room you have now! Don’t you feel free?” He was not impressed, but I have to believe he now has more room for mental clarity. Outer order contributes to inner calm. He will understand this with age. Rob Bell says, ‘You are always teaching your kids. And sometimes you use words.” I believe I gave him a gift with this lesson.
Back in 1920, Elise Boulding prophetically put my struggle into words. “The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.” Unfortunately, through 15 years of marriage we have been accumulating stuff that does not bring or teach happiness. We started out in a 600 square foot NYC apartment. We didn't have a car, dishwasher or washer and dryer. There was one tiny closet. We ate every meal on TV trays. With each move, our residence and possessions have increased. But why? There are only four of us now. We have entire rooms in our home that we do not use. This excess is another buffer distracting me from where I really want to invest my heart and time.
We are not naive. We certainly do not anticipate moving our family into a trendy tiny house any time soon. Yet we have been toying with this idea of tapering for several years now. We have traded Christmas gifts for our trip and essentials we can enjoy during our time together (books, games, cozy clothes or special snacks). Whenever possible, we have sought opportunities for experience over materials. However, now we are discussing a complete overhaul in favor of simplicity. This will be a tough sell to our kids, but hopefully they can realize the freedom that comes from releasing their desire for material objects. We want them to long for meaningful relationships and human experience, not stuff that will break and gather dust in their closets, or worse, end up in the floorboard of the back seat of our car - the land of lost socks, shoes, hats and snack wrappers.
It is no small task to escape the materialism that surrounds us. I am guilty myself. I frequently find comfort in shopping. New workout clothes, kitchen gadgets and online purchases offer a momentary sense of happiness, but drawers that are bursting and closets that require a parting of the Red Sea to enter leave me feeling heavy-hearted and burdened. Ultimately, most material objects leave me longing for a fresh start, free from the albatross about my neck. Our attempts to apply a minimalist approach to my family will quite certainly begin with my husband and I modeling this behavior. Glennon Melton Doyle brilliantly explains, “I quit trying to become a better parent and decided to become a better person.” We have to be the minimalists we want to see in our home. I do not want to get bogged down and lost in the map of my life ever again. Perspective and simplicity will be my intention for a new year of growth and unbecoming.