Minimalist Dilemma (or Blessing?)

It is 10:55pm here, I’m working on our tax return, and the ONE pencil we own has run out of lead.

Instead of staying up to the wee hours mired in the fascinating intricacies of the US tax code, I’m going to finish my glass of wine and go to bed.

Who says minimalism doesn’t have its perks? ;-)

The Minimalist Linen Closet

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably noticed that my subject matter drifts from the profound to the mundane, from the philosophical to the practical. In exploring (and celebrating) a minimalist lifestyle, some days I feel like pondering the meaning of life, and others just pondering how many shoes I own.

Today, I’ll tackle a matter of great significance: the sheets and towels in our linen closet. ;-) (Actually, we don’t really have a linen closet, but rather a container for such items in our coat closet; but “linen closet” sounds more elegant, and those of you blessed with more storage space may actually have one!)

When we decluttered before our big move, we found that we had somehow accumulated way too many sheets and towels for a household of two adults. We’re not sure exactly how it happened, but we ended up with quite a collection: “everyday” linens, “good” linens, “guest” linens, “emergency” (ie. shabby) linens, etc. I have to confess, sometimes I’d buy a new set just because it was pretty, or I was in the mood for a change. Then instead of decluttering an older set, I’d hold onto it “just in case.” Embarrassingly enough, one set of sheets was still in its package.

When we started over here in the UK, we were determined to keep a lid on our linen count. To accomplish this, we’re using the following strategies:

1. We only use one size of towel, and dispense with the hand towels, face towels, fingertip towels, and other single function towels.

2. We think of our towels as functional items, not bathroom décor, and don’t feel the need to change them for aesthetic reasons (different colors, designs, etc.).

3. We don’t change sheets with the seasons, as we’ve found simple cotton to suffice just fine. Neither of us likes flannel sheets, so we don’t find it necessary to have separate summer and winter sets.

4. We’ve purchased only what’s absolutely necessary: two towels, and one set of sheets. We used to keep at least a second set of each, for use while laundering the other; but we’ve had no problems washing and drying our single set before putting it back into use.

5. We’re waiting until the last minute to purchase “guest” linens. We’ll purchase an additional set of towels and sheets when the arrival of our first overnight guests is imminent. During the 98% of the year that we’re not providing accommodations for friends and family, that set will serve as our “backup” when we’re laundering the first.

In summary: one set for now, two in the future (if circumstances dictate). It’s just enough to meet our needs, and provide comfort to our guests. Who knows, maybe you can find the meaning of life in that after all. :-)

So what’s in your linen closet? Let us know in the Comments!

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Minimalist Design, Danish Style

This past weekend my husband and I visited Copenhagen, an incredibly beautiful city. It was also incredibly cold, so in order to keep warm, we spent more time than usual going in and out of shops.

We had a wonderful time browsing the local housewares and furnishings stores. We’ve always been drawn to the Danish design aesthetic, as we find its clean lines and simple forms quite appealing. We’ve been using simple glass Bodum coffee mugs for years, and our former sofa (currently in storage back in the States) was made by a small Danish company.

What I particularly like about Danish design is that while it’s minimal, it would never be considered cold or sterile. Danish interiors are often spare, yet still manage to be warm, inviting, and interesting. I thought it’d be a great opportunity to pick up some home décor tips! To that end, I observed how the Danes use the following elements to create beautiful, minimalist spaces:

1. Natural materials. Almost everywhere we went, we noticed the incorporation of wood into the furnishings or room itself. (Even the airport terminal had wood floors, and the train station had a gorgeous beamed ceiling.) Whether it was a sofa, coffee table, or an entire room, a touch of wood gave warmth and texture to the streamlined designs.

2. Light. Window coverings seem to be kept to a minimum, in order to maximize natural light. Cafes and restaurants invariably had simple votive candles flickering on every table, giving the interiors a warm, magical feel with a minimum amount of décor.

3. White. White walls, combined with lots of natural light, made the interior spaces feel light, airy, and spacious. Many of the textiles and ceramics we saw were also ivory or white.

4. Whimsy. Splashes of color, or simple decorative motifs, gave a sense of interest and fun to many of the housewares and interiors we saw. These little touches kept the minimalist aesthetic from being too sterile or serious.

5. Celebration of form. The shape of each vase, bowl, cup, table, or chair seemed to celebrate the item’s function. I imagine that using them would bring a particular mindfulness to the activity in which you’re engaged (be it eating a bowl of soup, drinking a cup of coffee, or arranging flowers in a vase).

While we didn’t purchase anything, we greatly enjoyed the education, and will try to incorporate some of the above principles into our own home. Even though we’re minimalists, we appreciate beautiful design and enjoy creating an environment that’s visually appealing.

If you’re interested in learning more about Danish (and Scandinavian) interiors, I found the following books on Amazon (see if your local library has them!). They’re cheaper than a plane ticket to Denmark. :-)

Does anyone else appreciate Danish/Scandinavian design, or have any other tips for beautifying spare spaces?

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Real Life Minimalists: Heather in Texas

Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. If you’d like to participate, click here for details.

This week, I’m pleased to feature Heather in Texas, who has shared some wonderful simple living advice in her comments to my posts. I hope you enjoy her inspirational story!

Heather in Texas writes:

I am not the type of person who believes that your age, adulthood or job in life dictates a right of passage to acquiring a certain pre-existing list of expected accumulation…whether credit cards (with debt), materials items with the right labels, the right house filled with (insert big box store name here) or even trying to exude a certain lifestyle. I am a visual person that must be comfortable in my surroundings. A mason jar with flowers, my white down comforter, yoga pants with a basic white t-shirt, snuggling with my son or giving my dog a scratch behind the ear. These make me happy and I can always go back over and over, without ever needing to feel that I am not up to snuff with others.  I always liked the saying “Follow you Bliss.” No attachment or want…just lot of laughter and good food.  It has made me choose EXACTLY what I want and to realize I don’t need a specialized this or that for one task or just because it’s the latest greatest.

I grew up in a packrat, image driven family. The keeping up with it all actually made me have a nervous stomach every time I stepped out the door. When I turned 18, I donated what I had to a charity and got on with MY life…which consisted of joining the military and living out of a duffle bag and back pack. My first little barracks room was shared with 2 other females…I had a bed, a stand up locker and the last small drawer in an otherwise tiny bathroom. It was about quality of quantity and I was in shear simplicity heaven!!!

When I moved into my first apartment, I literally spent weeks living with a white love seat, a large wooden box as a coffee table and storage and double bed mattresses on the floor. I added little bits and pieces here and there that I loved. I never wanted something that had to be in a certain order and arrangement just because. I wanted to invite 20 people over and enjoy myself and not worry about how clean is my house or is my “stuff” up to snuff.

I never really actually thought about minimalism, it honestly just comes natural to me. I know when I need to edit or put things away or when a good cleaning will make me feel better. It is also a metamorphous as I get a bit older. It’s the natural progression in finding me. Even now that I am married with a son and have more than I would like, we still live minimally compared to the average family. Our goal is to put away our paychecks to make that jump out of the rat race as soon as possible or when it just feels right. My ultimate goal is to one day, walk away from whatever I have when “THAT” day comes…whether 10, 20 years or tomorrow and hit the beach with a bag of clothes, a margarita and a smile. I want to not be afraid to waste my whole day building a sand castle or just picking up shells.

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Minimalist Living & Spirituality

Wisdom Path, Hong Kong

Wisdom Path, Hong Kong

On my recent trip to Hong Kong, I visited the Wisdom Path on Lantau Island. This outdoor “sculpture” consists of thirty-eight wooden columns inscribed with the Heart Sutra, a text treasured by Confucians, Buddhists, and Taoists.

The columns, each about 10 meters (~30 feet) in height, are arranged in a figure-eight infinity symbol; they stand on a steep hill, in a serene, natural setting overlooking Lantau Peak.

In short, the Heart Sutra espouses the doctrine of “emptiness.” One of its famous lines teaches that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Such emptiness is not to be interpreted in a nihilistic, nothing-exists sense. Rather, it means that nothing is absolute—everything is relative and impermanent, and in a constant state of change. Therefore, there is no point in becoming irrationally attached to things.

I couldn’t help but think how beautifully this coincides with minimalism, and living as non-attached to material things as possible. I feel that embracing “emptiness,” rather than clinging to the material aspects of existence, opens us to a more direct, genuine, and fulfilling experience of life.

Although I haven’t taken any Buddhist vows, I agree with (and live according to) many aspects of Zen philosophy. I don’t know whether my minimalism has led me to embrace Zen Buddhism, or vice versa—but the two seem to complement each other very well.

Does anyone else feel a tie between their spiritual beliefs and minimalist lifestyle?

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Minimalist Food: One Bowl Eating

I’m intrigued by the idea of eating all of my meals out of a single bowl. Not only would it reduce the tableware in my cabinets; I think it would make me more mindful, and more appreciative, of what I put in my body.

My ideal one bowl menu would look something like the following:

Breakfast: oatmeal. I don’t think there’s a more perfect minimalist food than oatmeal (or porridge, as they say here in the UK). It’s simple, it’s satisfying, and best of all, it has so much potential. Oatmeal is like a blank slate: simply add what you like according to the season or your mood. Some of my favorite “embellishments” include brown sugar, cinnamon, honey, blueberries, and cranberries (not all at once, of course!).

Lunch: hiyayakko. I discovered this simple, delicious dish a few years ago in Tokyo. It consists of a cold block of tofu, topped with green onions, dried tuna flakes (optional if vegetarian) and soy sauce. See this site for some (mouth-watering) photos and more details.

Snack: yogurt. I eat this every afternoon to keep healthy bacteria in my digestive system. I’ve been buying it at the store, but would someday like to make my own.

Dinner: steamed vegetables over rice. I’m happy to eat this perfectly plain, as I love to savor the individual taste of each vegetable. DH, however, has a more sophisticated palette than I do—so we usually add a sauce like Thai green curry, or ginger and garlic. Other dinner options would be a hearty soup, or a bowl of pasta.

I don’t think one bowl eating would be too difficult, and am hard-pressed to think of any favorite meals that require a plate. I also like the connection to Zen philosophy; itinerant monks used to carry one bowl to satisfy their need for sustenance while pursuing their spiritual path.

I imagine that eating from a single bowl would focus my attention on the contents—to contemplate it, celebrate it, and be thankful for it (instead of taking it for granted).

I would also have to wash it directly after each use, so that it would be ready for the next meal. No more dirty dishes piling up in the sink! :-)

I’d love to hear about your favorite minimalist meals, and your thoughts on one bowl eating!

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Real Life Minimalists: simple in france

Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. (I’ve changed the name from Minimalist Spotlight to Real Life Minimalists, as I think it more accurately conveys the spirit of the project.) If you’d like to participate, click here for details.

Today, simple in france reminds us of the importance of how we use our time. I hope you’ll be inspired to learn more, and visit her blog at The Simple Life in France.

simple in france writes:

“If I have to juggle one more thing, it’s all going to come crashing down.” That’s how I felt most of the time during my former life as a teacher in California. I kept waiting for the last little shove that would send me reeling into chaos. Since DH and I started over in California with only a trunk-full of possessions after meeting in France, we didn’t face a cluttered home so much as a cluttered and overburdened schedule.

We collected activities the way some people hoard trinkets and old junk. I worked nearly 70 hours a week. After work, I’d hurry to the gym for an intense spinning class. DH and I kept a rather rigorous social calendar full of dinners out with friends and ski weekends. I drank coffee all day, which only fueled the fire. I eventually became sickly, forgetful, spacey and terminally stressed out. We didn’t know when to stop. If storage facilities existed for an overflow of time-sucking activities, we would have rented one.

Busy, but not stupid, DH and I quickly realized we’d become miserable. We remembered the days when we’d first met back in France when I didn’t have a full time job even and we slept on a pile of blankets on the floor and cooked our food on a single electric range. We didn’t make nearly the money, but we had time to hike the French countryside, travel, sing in a chorus and just sit around chatting and doing nothing. I’m not saying everyone needs to change continents to solve their problems—but we did.

It took some time to unlearn our crazy lifestyle, to stop filling our lives to the breaking point with work, shopping and mindless entertainment. For a while, life felt strange, even frightening. All that spare time spread out in front of us like a void and we stumbled around like two people in a house recently emptied of all its furniture.

Now we see the extra time as a space to breath. DH is still a teacher in France (currently off work after an accident). I am taking my time figuring out my next career step, but without work, I’m able to remove the burden of running the household entirely from DH’s shoulders. After several months with no career, I can safely say I’ve kicked by workaholic ways. Whatever career path I take in France, I know work will not consume my life.

Our needs for entertainment, shopping and vacations have shriveled away to nothing. We don’t have a TV; we don’t go to the movies or out to dinner. We still have a few passions: hiking, biking, spending time with family, cooking good food at home and wine-tasting on occasion—but we know when to stop. With everything we’ve removed from our lives, we’re left with the one luxury you can’t buy back or trade: time.

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A Little Travel Talk

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, at night

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, at night

Since I mentioned my recent trip to Southeast Asia in my last post, I’ve received several requests for more details about the experience. Although the topic of travel is only tangentially related to minimalism (in so far as keeping a minimal itinerary and luggage), it’s near and dear to my heart—and as such, I never turn down an invitation to talk about it. :-)

I do realize, however, that most of you come here to read about minimalism, not travel, so I will do my best to keep it short and sweet. Instead of writing a full travelogue, I’ll simply touch on the highlights of our trip:

Hong Kong:

* Wandering through the Mong Kok district, and experiencing its vibrant street life and traditional markets (selling everything from food to clothing to electronics to jade)

* Taking a breathtaking cable car ride to Lantau Island (photo)

* Climbing up the 268 steps to the Tian Tan Buddha (photo), and having a delicious vegetarian lunch at the adjacent Po Lin Monastery

* Spending an afternoon riding the Mid-Levels escalators (a giant outdoor escalator system on the steep slope of Hong Kong Island), and jumping on and off to explore the neighborhoods through which it passed

* Enjoying vegetarian dim sum in a traditional Hong Kong tea house

* Having a picnic dinner along the Victoria Harbour waterfront, while admiring the brilliantly-lit Hong Kong skyline (photo)


* Awakening to the sound of tropical birds every morning, even though we stayed in the heart of the city

* Sampling the amazing array of cuisine (Singapore is a food lover’s dream). We ate everything from Peranakan (a blend of Chinese and Malay) to Indonesian to Japanese

* Discovering old Colonial buildings among the skyscrapers (photo)

* Spending a warm and lazy afternoon strolling through the lush Singapore Botanic Gardens (including the gorgeous National Orchid Garden)

* Stumbling upon a crowded and colorful Chinese New Year market late one night on an after-dinner walk

Kuala Lumpur:

* Sharing a bottle of wine (literally—we had no glasses) with my husband in our incredibly-small and somewhat-grimy sleeping compartment on the overnight train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (an adventure in itself!)

* Seeing forests of palm trees en route across Malaysia (photo)

* Staying at the very posh Shangri-La hotel (Luxury hotels are surprisingly affordable in KL, and it was a welcome treat after our train accommodations!)

* Marveling at the contrast between old and new, traditional and modern, gritty and clean while wandering the streets

* Eating wonderful Malaysian food!

* Going to the top of the KL tower for magnificent views of the city (photo)

Several of you also asked how we could possibly travel with just carry-on bags, given the restrictions on hand luggage. To be honest, we find it very easy! We bring whatever liquids we need in small bottles, and generally have enough to cover the trip; if we run out, we simply buy more at a local store. I don’t even bother to bring soap, shampoo, conditioner, or lotion as the hotels we stay in usually provide nicer products than I have at home. :-) To minimize the amount of clothes needed, we take a few travel packets of laundry detergent and wash our stuff once or twice (in our hotel sink) during the trip. If you’d like a peek inside my carry-on, please see my previous post Minimalist Travel: What’s in My Suitcase. I can’t emphasize how wonderful it is to travel with the lightest load possible!

Well, I hope today’s post answers some questions, and doesn’t upset anyone with its off-topic nature. I promise next week to return to our usual minimalist programming!

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To Drift Like Clouds and Flow Like Water

Tian Tan Buddha, Hong Kong

Tian Tan Buddha, Hong Kong

My husband and I spent the last ten days traveling through Southeast Asia, spending a few nights each in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. As usual, we packed only our small carry-on bags, giving us the freedom to wander between and throughout these places without the burden of heavy luggage.

It was a wonderful trip. Our friends tend to view our vacations as something between exhausting and crazy (particularly as they are often planned less than two weeks in advance). To us, however, being “in motion” seems perfectly natural. We feel at peace, and at home, when we are on the road.

The best way I can describe it is with a line from an old Chinese poem: “To drift like clouds and flow like water.”

Except for flights, and a short list of “can’t miss” sights, my husband and I travel without schedules or planned activities. We enjoy plunking ourselves down in the middle of an unfamiliar city, and simply being absorbed by the life and activity on its streets. We ride the subways, browse the local markets, hang out in the parks, and wander through back streets and alleys. We try to get a feel for the culture, and imagine what it would be like to live in the places we visit.

It’s our own kind of minimalist travel, just going with the flow and letting the experiences happen as they may.

I want to live my “real life” the same way. Sometimes I think there’s much too emphasis on setting goals and planning futures and reaching milestones. Why not simply enjoy life, instead of creating additional stress? I’m not against having aspirations; but to be honest, I don’t want to schedule my life on my iPod, download productivity apps, or attend virtual workshops on how to be successful at x, y, or z. And I certainly don’t want to create a five-year plan and mark my progress each step along the way.

Instead, I’d like to approach life the same way I approach travel—simply taking each day as it comes. I want to be surprised and delighted by what transpires, rather than ticking off a series of planned events. Mostly, however, I want the freedom to “wander” without the burden of possessions and responsibilities. That’s primarily my motivation for living a minimalist lifestyle; by keeping my “baggage” and “itinerary” as light as possible, I hope “to drift like clouds and flow like water” each day of my life.

Real Life Minimalists: Jesse

Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. If you’d like to participate, click here for details.

Today, Jesse tells us about the motivations behind his minimalist journey. If you’d like to learn more about him, surf on over to his blog, A Life Reinvented.

Jesse writes:

My minimalist journey didn’t start where you’d imagine…it started in a Reflexologist treatment room.

Let me explain:

I had spent several years battling an on-again-off-again nerve problem in my right hand. After a 1 hour session she had completely eradicated the problem. Turns out a nerve was being pinched in my shoulder…and that in turn was leading to my hand problems. After the session she looked at my shoes and said, “you know, you should really think about switching to looser, less structured footwear. That way your feet can do the job they were designed for.” This fascinated me. Having been a trained boot fitter at REI for several years I had been wearing stiff boots with orthotics and Chacos for nearly a decade. But I figured, if she could fix my hand that quick, I shouldn’t dismiss this suggestion out of hand.

Don’t worry, I’m getting to the minimalism part…

So I start doing my research and come to the conclusion that she’s right. Our feet were designed the way they are for a reason, to support and propel us through our day. I started looking into minimalist shoes (told you we’d get there!) and found a growing segment of our society that eschew shoes altogether. Along side this segment was another that was going with shoes like the Vibram fivefingers, Vivo Barefoot, and Sanuk Sidewalk Surfers (all of which I use and wholeheartedly endorse!). These shoes allow your feet to function as intended, while still protecting your soles from rough or littered city hardscapes and looking acceptable for work.

From here, I ventured off into the greater world of minimalism and started seeing very distinct parallels between my journey into barefooting, minimalism, and even the tiny house movement. So with all that in mind I set out to purge my life of all the STUFF I had accumulated. I was living in a basement, ~200 sq ft of personal space + a bathroom and shared laundry room. In addition to that space, I had a long storage closet, shop space, and the garage – all stuffed full of my crap. Daunting to say the least. I decided to jump in, or rather dip my toe in the shallow end, by clearing one section of shelving. I took a length about 3 feet long and put everything on the floor. I got myself two boxes (actually one box and one garbage bag) and as I picked up each item it either went into the garbage bag, the box to go to charity, or back on the shelf. Once I got honest about what I really wanted and needed in my life that first section of shelf ended up completely empty.

Talk about a pivotal moment! I was hooked and over the next 6 months or so I took an estimated 12 carloads to Goodwill, another 12 or so to the dump, and had in the area of 150 ads on craigslist selling the good stuff. By the time I was packing up for my move overseas (shameless teaser!), I was down to approximately 100 cubic feet of stuff. When the shipper came out to survey my STUFF, his reaction was, “is that it?!?!” – which needless to say felt great!

Now I’m hard pressed to list what I got rid of. That speaks volumes to me as to the value of minimalism.

I’m living overseas until March when I’m returning to Seattle to work long enough to save up to head to a new city…I’m thinking Denver…and I’ll move with all of my belongings in the back of a Subaru. Minimalism is what you make it. I know others who live out of a backpack. More power to them! I could never do that. Mostly because my dog would never fit. And I know others who consider it a major victory when they make room to dust the bookshelves. That is a victory. Every little bit counts folks, don’t become one of those Minimalists (cap added intentionally) who look down their noses at the cluttered masses. We each need to learn what our ideal is. As long as you don’t cross the line between owning your STUFF and your STUFF owning you, it’s all good.

I still get asked how I can handle living with nothing. Minimalism isn’t living with nothing – that’s asceticism – it’s living better with what matters most to you.