My Road to Minimalism

The Lord is my Shepherd. I have everything I need. Psalm 23:1

 

I know that not every person who calls himself a minimalist also identifies himself as Christian. I don’t believe that in order to be a Christian a person must also be a minimalist.  I want to be very clear about those two things before we go further today.  Throughout the month I have shared mostly how-to’s and observations about minimalism that could be applied to most people in most life situations.  Today, I am sharing the more personal story of how my faith and minimalism are bound together.

As I mentioned earlier this month, we came to Georgia from Florida unexpectedly.  This move is what finally spurred us down the road to minimalism.  But even before that, we made two decisions that would forever change the way we handled money and possessions.  In the spring of 1998, I became pregnant with my second child. My oldest child was two months old.  We joke now that we prayed for God to make it possible for me to stay home one day,  but we didn’t enunciate and God thought we said MONday. At the time I was a high school teacher. We crunched the numbers a thousand ways, but there was no way to arrange them that made returning to work after the birth of our second child a wise financial option. Honestly, I never wanted to return to work after our first child was born, so I was ecstatic that the math only proved what I already knew: it was time to come home.  Our family of four soon grew to a family of five living on one income.  We lived more simply than many we knew, but we still hung on to the American ideal, and lived well beyond our means.  Leaving the workforce was a step, but a tiny one, and we still had far to go.

About three years after the birth of our youngest daughter, my Hunky made the decision to leave his position as head athletic trainer at the same high school I left three years earlier.  That year we entered ministry for better and for worse.  We were part of a very mission minded congregation, which slowly began to change our thinking.  Over our six years there, we began to look at the world and our place in it quite differently.  However we still tried to reconcile what we knew of a world in need with what we wanted from the American Dream.  We overextended in buying our first home while attempting to live generously in other ways.  I certainly don’t think it is wrong to own a home, but I know for us, it was not one of our wisest choices.  Yet, I believe it was all part of God’s plan to teach us what lifestyle He intended for us.  I do not regret the time we spent in that house, in fact I have many wonderful memories of our time there and even today would love to live in a smaller space as that house was.

When it was time for us to leave Florida, the decision was sudden and shocking. We had not prepared for a drastic life change nor had we expected to leave the state. Our little house which we bought at the very top of the real estate bubble was next to impossible to sell from the market basement, add some catastrophic flooding to the area three months prior, and we were stuck.  The house foreclosed and the financial consequences were beyond our ability to absorb.  From a cultural standpoint, we were ruined. From God’s viewpoint, we were finally ready to get started.  When you’re standing in the rubble of a life, about the only thing you can do is reevaluate everything.  You know there is going to be rebuilding, but it’s time to decide if the same blueprint is what you want any more.  For us, it wasn’t, and it still isn’t.  As we packed…and packed….and packed….and packed our possessions in preparation to move, I began to question the contents of every box.  As we considered places to live from the viewpoint of everything being temporary, we found our needs had drastically changed.  The family that came to Georgia four years ago, bears little resemblance to the family that resides here today.  Every thing we thought we wanted, every marker of success, every physical possession we have retained has been through a refining fire.  We have new eyes and new hearts to go with our new lives.

We lost everything, but it wasn’t until we willingly let it go that we were truly free.
We have gone from financial devastation to being more fiscally stable than we have ever been.
We no longer view possessions with permanence but place our priorities in eternal pursuits.
We’re living more prosperously with less than when we let culture define prosperity for us.
The road to get here is one I would never have embarked on voluntarily, but I am grateful to have been set on it all the same.

Eight Lessons being a Minimalist has Taught Me

1. If you don’t know where every penny of your money goes, you are wasting it. Probably  a lot of it.  We’re still imperfect budgeters at best, but becoming minimalists has taught us to look at every dollar and determine if where it goes is really where we want to spend our money.  This behavior has led to cutting cable, stopping magazine subscriptions and eliminating nearly all fast food splurges ( we still hit sonic at happy hour on occasion. Mmmmmm cherry limeade.).  We’ve found money that we want to divert to other places and become able to be generous in ways that bring a return of joy which is beyond money value.

2. The American Dream has become a slave driver.  I do believe that at one time, what people were looking for out of life was an ideal worth striving for.  But lately, the American Dream has become a never ending chant of BIGGER BIGGER BIGGER and MORE MORE MORE.  This really hit home with me a few years ago when someone asked my thirteen year old what colleges she was looking at.  Thirteen. When I expressed my shock I was assured that the only way she was going to get anywhere was to be ahead of the pack in her college options.  Seriously? We’re told we need bigger homes, newer cars and to never stop climbing the corporate ladder.  Please don’t buy the hype. Life is so much more than these pathetic talismans.

3. People will take offense at your life choices, no matter what you choose.  I certainly don’t think that this is limited to people who choose a minimalist lifestyle.  There are always people who are threatened by those who have chosen  an alternate lifestyle as though choosing a different path than theirs threatens the superiority of their choice.  I do think minimalism is a better life choice than what culture is selling, but no one has to choose it if they don’t desire.  I’m not going to argue or justify my choices. They are my choices. We each get to make our own.

4. Life will always have troubles and take unexpected turns. Minimalism isn’t a magic bubble of perfection.  Bad days and difficulties come to everyone.  Minimalism does make it easier for me to focus attention where it most needs to be rather than being distracted by many less important details.

5. Routines matter.  Routines are what keep things flowing, especially when you are working through the minimizing process. I used to tell myself that I didn’t have to make progress every day but I could not go backwards on any day. Routines are what keep my mind from wondering what hasn’t been done and allow me to make order quickly when life disrupts the routine. The balance is in allowing routines to be your tools, but not strait jackets from which you cannot escape.

6. A minimalist lifestyle means you have more time for many new things, but you still cannot do all the things.  One of the most important components of the minimalist lifestyle is not only making space, but keeping space. We’ve done no real good if we clear out our possessions but cram our life full of obligations instead. Slowing down, pacing your activities, even doing nothing for periods of time are all part of the minimalist lifestyle.  Don’t let your freedom get rebogged down in new ways.  Keep some space in your life.

7.  You will never agree with every single thing that another minimalist says about his/ her lifestyle. We all choose for ourselves how our lives will be lived. Fortunately, I haven’t yet met an adamant minimalist. However, across the board we are all very passionate. Don’t mistake passion for judgement and don’t let someone “guilt” you into change you aren’t comfortable with. Not even me.

8.  Boundaries matter. Sometimes boundaries are upsetting. This can happen when we limit the number of Christmas gifts we allow for our children, or when we turn down bringing home Great Aunt Ruth’s bottle cap collection.  Remember to be gentle when people don’t understand, but also be firm in your decisions.  We cannot please all of the people all of the time, nor should they expect to be pleased always.

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Divided

I do not have a multi-tasking personality.  In fact,  I don’t actually believe that multi-tasking is an effective way to accomplish anything since we aren’t being fully mindful of any one thing at a time while we do multiple things.  However, there are people who can juggle multiple tasks and ideas well, whether or not this is a healthy way of handling life. I am not one of those people. I do best with one task at a time, one person speaking at a time – which means I often feel verbally overwhelmed in a house with three teenage girls – one area of focus at a time.  This is one reason that participating in the 31 Days project makes writing easier for me. It allows me to focus on one thing to write on at a time for a set period of time. I’m not distracted by a million shiny ideas in my own head and on other people’s blogs.

On the other hand, writing for thirty one days straight has taxed me far beyond what I anticipated.  Stretching is good; I am enjoying it. I hope to continue to write with as much enthusiasm and momentum once this project is complete.  What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of time writing and organizing my blog would take once I began.  Some days I have spent hours on the work, which again isn’t a bad thing.  But, before this project began I wrote a post about something that is weighing heavily on me still: Creating Space.  Three weeks into October I must confess that I have failed miserably at reducing my unproductive online time. Perhaps even abysmally.   Instead of creating space for creativity by limiting online time, I have allowed my online time to increase proportionally to my creativity at the expense of things I am not willing to trade. I have justified it, obviously, by directing my attention to how well this project is progressing and how much I am enjoying it.

Fortunately my friend, Angela reminded me that I can (not) do all (the) things.  I don’t know why we need permission to turn off all the voices demanding our attention, but sometimes we do.  I’ve been caught up in a whirlwind of excitement about this project and let many other things, important things, fall off the wagon making it unbalanced, and making me ill-prepared to handle my days.  In short, I’ve been multi-tasking and doing none of the many things as well as I would like, as well as I know I can when I give the proper focus.

I’m confessing this here for two reasons. First of all, I read back over these posts, and it seems like they are written by someone who has it all together.  I don’t.  But I do have a vision of where and who I want to be and how I plan to get there.  It looks good on paper, but I am far from perfect in the execution.  It’s a learning and experiencing process. You may need to know that. Secondly, confession lends accountability.  There’s a finality to words on paper (or the internet, I suppose).  People ask me about what I write. They want to see if the things I spend so much time writing about really are producing the life changes I believe in.  Another friend reminded me that I said, “I only have one today in my whole life.”   Lately I’ve done very well with talking about living a focused life, and not so well with actually living it. I want to change that now, today.

I’m not stopping the 31 Days project.  In fact, I’m hoping that re-narrowing my focus will allow me to continue to produce articles about change, intentional living and hope far more consistently just as I have for the first three weeks of the month.  I just wanted you to know that I haven’t forgotten my intentions, I just got divided in my focus for awhile. Now, back to the business of enjoying life.31 days button

Kid Stuff

**This is the third in a series of articles discussing general guidelines for minimizing in your home. You can read about bathrooms HERE and general living spaces HERE**

Kid stuff gets an article all its own.  For about fifteen years it sprawls itself throughout our homes, and then for the last three to five years it withdraws and festers under the beds in the child’s room.  Where ever it’s found it’s trying to tell us something:

OUR KIDS HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF

Are you hearing me in this? Unfortunately for them we start the problem by believing we need to have every modern convenience ever invented for babies if our child is going to grow into a productive citizen with brilliant social skills and a Harvard law degree: the right toys, the right seats, the right beds, the right entertainment, the right bottles, the right toys. It never ends. It fills our rooms, our cupboards and our life.

I believed it, and you can imagine that with three children under three in a 960 sq ft home, we more than filled every nook and cranny.   We bought it; we cared for it; we cleaned it; we put it away. They didn’t appreciate our efforts even once. You know why?  Because they were babies and what babies want are present parents who aren’t so busy taking care of stuff that stuff is the only thing left to care for the baby.

This continues as they grow. They see it; they want it. They get it; they break it or they get it and they want fifty more just like it but with different colors, skills, arms, faces, attachments, smells or outfits.  Even now there are probably more than one hundred webkinz upstairs in my girls’ closet.  They wanted them; we indulged them and now they simply can’t stand to let them go.

We let this happen because it’s just part of being a kid
All their other friends have it
We don’t want to be those parents
My kids deserve the best

…I’ve made all the excuses too.

When it comes to babies, they need more of only a few things: clothes, blankets/sheets/ burp clothes and diapers. Everything else they need far less of than what we are offering.  Babies don’t get tired of the same toys and stories. They aren’t bored with their environment, and they sure can’t get enough of being cuddled.  I know we spend a great deal of time worrying they will be spoiled by attention so we “unspoil” them by buying them things to occupy their time. Maybe we should turn that equation around and spend more time with  them and less time buying and caring for things they don’t actually want. Stop worrying. No child goes to high school still hiding behind mom’s leg.

Have you ever noticed how toddlers and even grade school kids will play intensely for hours with their favorite things? Blocks, cars, trains, dolls, even webkinz can be a child’s entire created world for weeks on end. When they get bored is because there are so many things, they don’t know where to focus.  If a child loves legos, let them play legos. Let them play lots of legos.  Don’t worry that they lead an imbalanced life and compensate for legos with fifty other toy options they don’t want or need.  If the problem is that your child keeps seeing new things they want, stop letting them watch commercials.  They won’t know what they don’t have, and they won’t miss it.

When our children are little, the blame for excess in their lives is us.   We allow their stuff to get out of control, and they are overwhelmed. Once their rooms and closets have exploded, it’s more than we can handle.  Yet we send them in their rooms to “clean up the mess they made” and wonder why everyone ends up frustrated and crying.  We reached a turning point in my children’s lives when they demolished their room one morning and spent the next seven hours shut inside doing everything but picking up.  My solution was to go in and remove everything.  Every toy, most clothes, extra bedding. Everything.  Over the next two weeks they were allowed to ask for two things per child (or group of things like bag of blocks or set of whatever) each day. After seven days, they couldn’t remember what was still missing. After ten days they stopped caring and asking. The rest of the toys made their way to Goodwill and life has been more simple since.   My suggestion is to do this in a way that isn’t punitive, sooner rather than later. It will change your life and your children’s lives for the better.

When I really began pursuing minimalism, my girls were 11, 12 and 13.  It’s not as easy to “take their things” nor do I think you should.  When I began the process, I had plenty to tackle without ever entering their space. Several months passed of me taking care of other rooms in the house, where they were asked to help decide what items we use and love, and what items needed new homes.  They were involved in the process without it being their things directly. When we did get around to their rooms, they were always involved. I have not gone into their space and disposed of anything without their permission.  It’s also been easier to work in “layers.” Every few months we reconsider what they have, they have use and what they have kept, but really no longer enjoy.  My oldest, has taken on minimalism for herself.  She’s enjoying always having a neat space, clean clothes that fit and are easy to find, and lots of time to do things that aren’t cleaning her room.  The younger two go along with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  We’ve worked hard to strike a balance where their desires and feelings are heard and respected, and our expectations are established and obeyed.  Just like anything else in a family, it’s a constant reassessment of where we are and who we are becoming.

I’ve hesitated to give specific guidelines here because every family is so very unique, as are their needs and the space they inhabit.  What you need to know is your children will not suffer with less, in fact they will thrive.  Your older children are unique individual with a voice, opinions and preferences that should be taken into account as you work together to live more simply.  Some parts of changing a lifestyle will always be a little uncomfortable and maybe even a bit unpleasant. That also will not harm your children in the long run.  I believe, and have seen unfold in my own family, that they will be more intentional, considerate people for having lived a simple life.

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Living Spaces: 5 ways to regain control

Several rooms qualify as living space, rather than get into semantics I’ll define my meaning here: living space is space that is not kitchen or dining room and  not used for sleeping or showering. So whether you call it the living room, the office, the den, or the great room, it qualifies as living space. These are the rooms where we spend the most time during our day, generally. Personally, I am a fan of simple, uncrowded, multi-use space. Our home now has several rooms that are “living spaces” The good news is that we also have what I call disposable furniture so when we downsize, we won’t be crowded. Let’s get to it.

1. A flat surface does not mean you have to put something on it.  Walls, tops of furniture, tables, these were not made to be filled with stuff. In fact, the less we have on them the cleaner our home looks all the time. Do not fall into the greenery, knick-knacky, quaintly cluttery trap. A clear surface is a thing of beauty.

2. If you love a coffee table, you may need to take a deep breath. I’m about to get all up your space business.  I feel about coffee tables like I feel about closets. They are crap collectors and space wasters. Most of our rooms are not big enough to accommodate them comfortably. We use them as, “we’ll take care of this later” storage spots, allowing the piles grow and spawn.  The most use they get is to hold food while we sit at them to eat and watch television. I challenge you to say good bye to the coffee table. Just put in the garage for a few weeks and see how it goes.

3. Books are a touchy subject. No one is really middle of the line when it comes to them. Either this whole paragraph doesn’t affect you at all or your jaw is set and you are already kicking and screaming, ready to throw your protests out to the world.  Take some deep breaths and go read this post about books (click here). I’m won’t repeat what has already been well written. We are down to one and a half bookcases from six full bookcases and stacks of books everywhere.  Both pieces of furniture with books are ones Hunky and I have agreed are not disposable; one of them houses school books which are, of course, not optional.  I am a lover of books. I love everything about them, the entire book experience. They were one of the last things I was able to begin letting go. But since we continue to live a gypsy lifestyle, my desire to be unburdened won out over my love for books.  Honestly, I was never going to read or reread them all anyway. I have no one to impress with my collection.

4. Anything with doors and drawers needs to be severely assessed. I’m not opposed to cupboards and drawers. I am opposed to the fact that we employ ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality regarding them. Just because you shut the drawer, doesn’t mean the stuff goes away.  If your furniture has drawers, doors or shelves, I suggest having a specific purpose for each one (for instance we have a cabinet with the school pens, pencils, calculators and protractors in one drawer and bound playing cards in the other. Nothing else goes in the drawer but those items that belong there).  DO NOT HAVE A JUNK DRAWER. I’m planning to talk about this when we hit the kitchen, but just don’t. It never ends well.  When you go through your drawers and cabinets get rid of duplicates, pens that don’t work, any pen if you have over twenty – don’t be that guy, trash, scraps of anything, anything  that you can’t immediately identify, old keys,  stray coins, marbles, bouncy balls…just toss it. No one misses these things. I’m not going to tell you to run out and buy organizers for your drawers because if you are diligent, you won’t even need them.

5. All the other odds and ends really fast:

  • Paper Clutter. Unclutterer has two great posts: HERE and HERE
  • Old magazines. If it’s been sitting untouched for six months, you don’t need it. Recycle or donate. Most magazines now offer digital service with superior search engines, and it’s friendlier to the environment. At least consider it.
  • There should be nothing under any furniture. Period. (Those of you with littles get a small pass because those toys are tricky. We’ll be talking about that tomorrow)
  • If  you have too much furniture for an area, stop stubbornly hanging on to it. Why not give it to someone who needs it and can use it.
  • Exercise equipment.  This is not a clean clothes shelf or a mail box. Clear it off and use it. Putting stuff on it is just another excuse.
  • Anything that doesn’t have a home needs to be removed from the room. Remember when I talked about having some boxes to keep things in while you transition? Determine quickly if it’s keep, donate or trash and put it in the right box. Random stuff sitting around is discouraging. Put it where you have a plan to deal with it. DO NOT JUST STICK IT IN A CLOSET OR DRAWER. That would be counter productive, now wouldn’t it?

Do you have any questions about your living space? I’d love to help out or point you in the direction of someone who can. Speak up in the comments!

Closets: An American Horror Story

( This is part 1 of a 2 part series. Part 2 is linked at the end of the post)

Personally, I think closets are the place where stuff goes to die and where evil is born.

We cram them full of as much stuff as we can manage, and then promptly forget it is there.  Two houses ago I had a large walk in closet. One of my children could have used it as a bedroom. It looked like a war zone, and I rarely used one-third of the contents. Currently, I have no closet. Everything is neatly put away, and I use what I have.  Yes, it’s taken  adjustment mentally and physically. It also takes time to pare down to this point, but I no longer spend twenty minutes deciding what to wear in the morning since everything fits and looks good. I dont waste time searching for items, either. I don’t get frustrated hunting through closets for lost or misremembered stuff, only to buy a replacement just in time to find the missing item.  I don’t have to shove doors closed and hope no one opens them again. I can see everything at a glance.  I don’t lose weekends to sorting  through and organizing closets. Here are some guidelines I have used in my own closets:

1. Closets are not primarily for long term storage. We use them to keep items we regularly use such as clothes, games, and linens.  We may have one or two storage items per closet, but since we are not keeping things we do not use or love, we use what is in our closet.

2. We do not cram, stack or stuff. Face it, if it’s difficult to put away or difficult to get out, we just stop using whatever it is.  When you clean out your closets only put back what fits reasonably. If it wasn’t one of the first things back in the space, you aren’t that attached to it. Go ahead and try this method. You will make sure the things you truly want are put in before anything else and in prominent positions. Assess what’s left. You can probably get rid of most of it.

3. Don’t fill empty space. I’m uncertain where we latched on to the idea that empty space is wasted. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave room for….nothing. I challenge you to leave space empty. An empty drawer, cabinet, or closest are not bad things.  We don’t always have to pack every crevice because we can.

4. Stop keeping clothes you might wear one day.  There are a million psychological reasons why we do this which I am not dissecting here. Aside from the fact that too-small clothes are discouraging and send guilt messages, they suck space, joy, and creativity out of homes. Get rid of them. Today. Keep things that fit, look good ON you, and that you actually wear. Stop worrying that tomorrow you will need something you don’t have.

5. Organizing is not minimalizing. I used to be an organization junkie, but now I am decidedly not. Organization says, “I can keep all my stuff if I can make it look neat while I store it.”  Minimalism says, “I don’t have to keep what I don’t love just because I loved it at one time or I spent money on it. I can get rid of it if I want to.”  Buying the lastest greatest closet organizer is a temporary solution at best. Eventually it too will become overcrowded and disorganized. The root of our problem is stuff gluttony. The way to kill a weed is to pull the root, not trim the leaves so they look pretty.  Don’t organize. Minimize.

Stay tuned: Tomorrow we are taking a tour of my closets. Unedited. (You can see inside my closets HERE)

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Gypsy Life

There is an old Yiddish saying, “Man plans; God laughs”

Four years ago my family became gypsies. Before that time we lived in one town for sixteen years. It was Hunky’s home town so he had many years invested there before we met in college in my own home town. Four years prior to becoming gypsies, we bought our first home.

Did I mention it was in Florida? Did I mention we lived three miles from the ocean?
Yes, we’d have stayed.

Man plans; God laughs.

A series of life altering surprises for which we could never have prepared, led to a sudden out of state move and eventually to our losing the house in Florida. We were the unfortunate victims of buying at the top of the real estate bubble and needing to unload after the collapse. Long story short – foreclosure, bankruptcy and two people generally burned on the idea of home ownership.

We’ve rented three different homes since that time. All of them have been larger by far than the home we owned. One of them was so large, over three thousand square feet, that I began to question my own sanity. Before our move to Georgia, we’d never really questioned our pursuit of the American dream. Own a home, sell it to buy a larger home. Bigger is better; newer is best. Let the bank provide the means if we didn’t have it. But banks no longer like the looks of us, and our foray into home ownership had been stressful and expensive beyond our imagining.  It was also a mark of permanency, a kind of permanency I haven’t regained.

Life in the largest dwelling I ever intend to inhabit led to a new perspective on space and stuff, and the time and responsibility the two require. After taking care of my family and educating my girls, I spent far too much of my time maintaining my home and yard.  I began to resent the house and the time I had to spend taking care of it, but I dreaded the thought of packing everything in boxes again.  Sure we’d thrown things away when we’d left Florida, but we’d also lived in our first Georgia home for two years with a storage room filled with unpacked boxes.  We’d changed locations but we hadn’t yet changed our mindset about our stuff.

Two years after moving to Georgia we moved again, to a slightly smaller home with the most incredible view imaginable. The picture that I am using through out my 31 Days theme was taken on the boat dock of that home.  Our generous friends offered us a beautiful, temporary  place to live. From the beginning we knew time was short until we would be packing our things again.  I began in earnest looking at each item we owned and weighing the reasons why we kept it.  I discovered that my desire to keep things was directly proportional to my desire to pack and unpack it again. From clothes we never wore to books we’d never read, even after owning them for a decade or more, I was losing my desire to hang on to things for ‘just in case’. If we weren’t using it this week, it began to seem silly to keep hauling it around. Only our Christmas tree and one box of lights and ornaments are allowed to sit around in boxes.
Our most recent move at the end of May this year, was our easiest yet, and I’m still sorting and resorting with another move in mind.

I don’t love the process of packing and moving everything we own, but I don’t dread it any more either.  I have loved living in the vastly different houses have since we began living more like gypsies and less like all our faith was in the American Dream.  We’ll probably move again next year. I’ll be ready.

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